US Elections Invite External Intervention, As They Well Might

The Robert Mueller indictment of thirteen Russians for ‘interfering’ in the American elections of 2016 confirms the bad news: those elections were ‘influenced’–in some shape or form–by non-Americans. The extent of this ‘influence’ is unclear–whether they decisively swung the election to Donald Trump or not–but be that as it may, one fact remains established: among the various forces aiming to influence American voters minds as they exercised their electoral franchise were non-American ones. It is unclear whether the Russian Internet Agency coordinated with the Kremlin or with the Trump campaign, but they did ‘participate’ in the American electoral process.

One might well ask: why not? The entire world looks on with bated breath as an American president is elected; some wonder whether their country will benefit from US largess, yet others whether they will need to scurry for cover as cruise missiles, drones, and aircraft carriers are sent their way. Russians are not immune to such concern; they, like many of the world’s citizens, are as keen to see their national interests protected by the new US administration. They too have favorites: they would rather see one candidate elected than another. This is as true for American ‘friends’ as it is for ‘foes,’ precisely because those nations too, have varied interests and inclinations, which line up in varied and interesting ways behind different American candidates. Those ‘interests and inclinations’ too, jostle for representation in the American elections.

The US involves and implicates itself in the affairs of many sovereign nations; it places conditions on the aid it sends them; it too, is interested in who gets elected and where (or who comes to power through a coup); the American record of influencing elections and the choice of political leaders and administrations the world over is well known. (Consider just Iraq and Iran as examples.) The US cannot reasonably expect that such involvement and implication will remain unilateral; it especially cannot expect that the rest of the world will not express its interest in American elections by attempting to influence American voters’ choices. For instance, it is not at all unreasonable to expect that leading newspapers like the Guardian or Der Spiegel might write editorials endorsing particular American candidates and expressing sentiments like “We hope the American people will elect X; X‘s polices speak to the establishment of world peace, something that we here in country Y are most eager for.”

American elections have, by virtue of their increased prominence in the American political calendar, also become worldwide entertainment events; they invite punters to lay bets; they drive up television ratings of many television stations and websites–worldwide–on the night of the presidential debates and the election results. Americans are proud of this: look, the whole world is watching as we elect our leaders. Well, those folks want to participate too; they know the folks getting elected could make them lose their jobs, or worse, their lives. American election campaigns are conducted on the Internet; a global platform for communication and information transfer. This invites participation of a kind not possible in yesteryear, when non-Americans could only look on from afar as Americans debated among themselves on who to vote for; now, on Facebook and Twitter and many other internet forums those same folks can converse with Americans and participate in the American electoral process. Americans are used to this kind of participation and influencing on an informal basis: our European and South American and Asian and African friends often exclaim loudly how they hope we will elect X, not Y.

A global player, one as powerful and important as the US, one used to ‘participating’ in the affairs of the world, invites a corresponding participation in its policies; the world has long thought it would be nice if they got a say in electing the American president because of the reach and extent of American power. With American elections now ‘opened’ to the world–thanks to the Internet, that participation has begun.

A Trump Win And The First-Past-The-Post System

Every election cycle, we learn all over again, the bad news about ‘swing states’ and ‘undecided voters’ and ‘independents.’ There are ‘red states’ and ‘blue states’ and then there are ‘states in play’: those electoral precincts in the nation whose demographics make their electoral outcomes uncertain. Every election cycle, the political candidates of the two parties concentrate their campaigns funds and energies on these states and their citizens. But it gets better: within those swing states, there are ‘swing districts’ (the others are reliably ‘red’ or ‘blue’.) And so we get an even finer-grained concentration of campaigning efforts on those districts; they receive the most attention in terms of speeches, door-knocking efforts etc. It turns out, bizarrely enough, that as a result of this nation’s first-past-the-post electoral system, an entire presidential election can be swung by the polling results of these districts–whose number runs to about thirty or forty.

From this rather bizarre fact some conclusions can be drawn:

  1. It does not matter if crucial demographic blocs like Hispanics despise Donald Trump; if they are not present adequate numbers in these swing states, they can huff and puff all they want, but they will not dent his chances. Every single Latino in California–a blue state–could vote for Clinton; it will not increase the number of electoral college votes California will give to her. (The anti-Trump Hispanic vote will, of course, affect the vote in red states like Texas and New Mexico and Arizona, but it is not clear that it will turn the state ‘blue.’)
  2. If red states and blue states retain their electoral color codes, the Trump-Clinton contest will come down to those swing states whose names we hear during most election seasons: Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida etc. Here, Bernie Sanders supporters would do well not to vote for a third-party candidate. In resolutely blue states they may, if they choose, vote for a third-party candidate of their choice. (I did precisely this in 2012, in New York, where a win for Barack Obama was all but guaranteed.) An argument has made the rounds that even in ‘blue’ states Sanders supporters should vote for Clinton to grant her a mandate with adequate and appropriate authority, presumably to ride out the post-election fracas that will ensue with disgruntled Trump supporters, who will remain convinced the election was ‘stolen.’ (As I’ve noted previously, even a Clinton win means a very divided and fractious polity, one riven by the same bitter partisanship that led to many legislative logjams and parliamentary brinksmanship during the Obama years.) I do not know if this claim will have any traction with those Sanders supporters who imagine that such a mandate can only embolden Clinton to pursue precisely those misguided policies they most disagree with.

The dependence of the results of this most momentous election on just a handful of states and consequently, a handful of electoral districts, should make most reasonable folks quite nervous. It should also serve as a reminder that the American electoral system is deeply, deeply flawed. This is not news; but this might just be the year the nation pays its heaviest price yet for the poor design of a vital political institution.

Bernie Sanders’ Campaign And The First-Past-The-Post System

It is a truism in electoral democracies that the electoral system–the particular methodology used to convert the individual choices of voters into a composite social choice–is a key determinant of electoral outcomes. Does the system allow you to rank all candidates by order of preference or does it ask you to only pick one candidate, your favorite? Can you assign numerical weights to the candidates or only a simple rank? And so on. The American first-past-the-post system ensures that the candidates with the most votes–not necessarily a majority of the polled votes–wins. In the presidential elections–thanks to the electoral college–this means that a candidate can be elected president without securing a numerical majority of the so-called popular vote. It also means that particular states and electoral districts–the so-called ‘swing’ or ‘battleground’ states–acquire a disproportionate importance in the presidential elections.  This is why New York, which is expected to resolutely continue voting Democratic in the presidential election is steadfastly ignored on the campaign trail, while Ohio, Florida, and Pennsylvania received dozens of visits.

Thus, the supposed electability or unelectability of a particular candidate is not so much a matter of nationwide determination of that issue as much as it is a question of electability in particular states and particular electoral districts. In the past some analyses have suggested that a US presidential election can be swung, nationwide, by the polling results from as few as less than two dozen districts, scattered over a half a dozen states. In 2008 and 2012, part of the reason for the success of the Barack Obama campaign was a comprehensive statistical analysis of voting patterns and poll results that led to the campaign focusing its effort in precisely those states and those districts whose results would result in large numbers of electoral college votes going Obama’s way. (During the 2008 campaign, I spent a day knocking on doors in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. It was a swing district in a swing state; Obama won there, a crucial factor in his final win in Pennsylvania and his eventual victory.)

All of which is to say that the greatest strength of the Bernie Sanders campaign remains his energetic and enthusiastic supporter base. They are willing and prepared to do the hard yards–in the all-important zones of decision. Though Sanders has been criminally ignored by the media in comparison to the other candidates, a win or two in the primaries will force greater coverage of his campaign and in all probability increase his fundraising revenues. Those monies will play a crucial role in sustaining the passion of those who ‘feel the Bern.’ And the smarts acquired during the Obama campaign are theirs to draw upon as well.  Sanders’ greatest challenge lies in the Democratic primaries, in beating a candidate deemed ‘inevitable’; if he wins, the prospect of a Trump or Cruz presidency will galvanize his support–and its fringes–even more.  There is also the small matter of the fact that Sanders’ so-called ‘socialism’ has its own populist appeal, which will bring some Reagan Democrat-like voters back to the fold.

When the primaries are over, and the Democratic nomination is settled, some states will vote Democratic as they always have; some will vote Republican as they always do. The remaining states and their electoral districts will become the focus of the two parties’ campaigns; and the winner will be the one who has the hardest working campaign workers, concentrating and doubling down on their work in the places that ‘matter.’ Sanders’ campaign has an edge, in this regard, over every other candidate. Even Trump. I do not doubt that Hillary Clinton were she to be nominated, would command an enthusiastic campaign force; it is just that the talk of Sanders unelectability simply do not take the considerations raised above into account while talking about his chances.

Contra Paul Starr, Presidential Elections Are Not Just About Electing Presidents

Paul Starr kicks off the latest production from the ‘Bernie Sanders is not a real candidate, merely a symbolic one’ brigade with the following assertions:

I have a strange idea about presidential primaries and elections: The purpose is to elect a president. And I have a strange thought about primary voters: They have a choice between sending the country a message and sending it a president.

With that opening spoonful of snark out of the way, Starr moves on to full-bore patronizing:

The desire of many Democrats to send a message is understandable. As the co-editor of a liberal magazine, The American Prospect, I know that impulse. There’s a lot of anger and frustration among Democrats about entrenched institutions resistant to change.

So:

When Bernie Sanders calls for mobilizing millions of people to bring about a revolution, a lot of progressives cheer him on.

But:

As appealing as Sanders may be, he is not credible as president.

And then, Starr is off and running with the usual shtick: Sanders’ plans won’t fly; he is too old; he calls himself a socialist. Got it. What would Starr like Bernie and his supporters to do? My guess is: just stop running, retire to the sidelines, make way for the Clinton cavalcade, don’t pee on that parade. Whatever you do, don’t vote for the candidate you would like to see elected, vote for the one ‘political analysts’ have decided–for you–is the ‘best’ candidate.

Starr is, I believe, a sociologist. The view of elections he offers here is curiously attenuated and impoverished for someone who claims the empirical study of society as his vocation. It is balanced, ironically enough, by an over-inflated sense of his ability to perceive the motives of those expressing their preference for Sanders (through the polls that indicate many Democrats prefer him over Hillary Clinton.)  Contra Starr, elections send messages all the time; in particular, by electing a particular candidate, voters inform the nation this is the person they want leading them. The electoral process–especially in its modern incarnation–allows for many signals to be sent as it proceeds: through the various polls that are conducted, voters inform their counterparts in other parts of the nation what their political inclinations are. For instance, voters in Iowa and New Hampshire, if they vote for Sanders, might be informing other Sanders supporters that they have, so to speak, ‘got their back.’  These polls can be understood as a co-ordination mechanism; voters over the nation decide on their electoral strategy by reading the results of the poll and of the early primary votes. (I have, er, written a paper on precisely this topic.) If Sanders loses heavily in Iowa and New Hampshire perhaps support for him will falter, as Sanders supporters elsewhere realize their energies might be misspent.

Precisely because of this dynamic process of information exchange–through polls and primary elections–electoral dynamics can change. Indeed, the elections of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama are proof positive of this phenomenon: they both attracted more supporters as the election season wore on, as voters decided they could back a candidate who seemed to command support in other precincts of the nation. Moreover, the electoral process, as it progresses, may bring–precisely as a result of the enduring contest between two candidates–more information about the candidates to light, thus allowing voters to make a more informed choice.

In light of these considerations, it is bizarre that an academic analyst would suggest that this process be short-circuited because their analytical crystal ball has forecast an inevitable win for one of the candidates. Given what Starr writes, it is entirely plausible he would want to claim that the entire primary process be called off and Clinton be anointed the winning candidate.

Why have polls and elections–information elicitation processes, when oracles can do all the work for you?