Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Painting 2016 By The 2014 Numbers
- Visualizing the Data -

Bolten Painting with numbers graphic

I understand. It's time to start looking forward to the 2016 Presidential Election. After all, it's been three long months since our last national election and the next is less than 650 days away.

I understand. The Democrats are Ready for Hillary.  Ready or not (and really nobody is), I understand we are going to get plenty of Bernie and Liz.  I understand that over the weekend we saw a parade of Republican hopefuls make an appearance at the Iowa Freedom Summit and learned: Everyone hates Christie; Walker was Best In Show; Romney is on a Mission From GodRand Paul is Ron Paul's son; Trump is pretending to run and is upset that nobody believes him; Palin is pretending to pretend that she might run but not really;  Republicans are pretending they won't nominate Jeb Bush; and I understand we're just getting started.

Spoiler Alert: Nobody wants Clinton vs. Bush in 2016.  Doesn't matter. It's going to be Clinton vs. Bush in 2016. They are the two best candidates. Clinton's a lock and Bush is the only Republican with a chance to beat her. The Dividist will be supporting Clinton to preserve divided government and avoid the risk of Republican One Party Rule.  And I expect she will win.

That said, I'm not ready to let go of the 2014 results. We know the numbers. In 2008 the Obama tsunami swept the Democrats into Unified Filibuster-Proof One Party Rule of our federal government. The punditocracy were delivering eulogies for the GOP because of demographic destiny or voting Democratic being genetically wired or... something. Since then the Republicans have rebounded with a vengeance.  In 2010 the Republicans retook majority control of the House. In 2012 Americans resoundingly reelected divided government. In 2014, Republicans took majority control of the Senate with a net gain of nine seats and padded their majority in the House with an additional thirteen seats. They now have the most seats in Congress and their biggest majority in the House of Representatives since the Hoover administration in 1928. But numbers alone don't tell the story.

Randall Bolten literally wrote the book on visualizing data, saying about his work:   “Painting with Numbers is my effort to get people to focus on making numbers understandable." 

I think we all could use some help making these recent election cycles understandable. In a six-part series on his blog, Bolten shows us exactly what he means with a series of visualizations that help us get a deeper appreciation of the shifting partisan political fortunes in Washington D.C.

He kicked off the series by explaining the deficiencies of a  post-election Washington Post graphic that minimized the significance of the Republican electoral resurgence saying "Obama’s party suffered the typical midterm meltdown in the House." Bolten's version:

Bolten Painting With Numbers Graphic
"In a single image, the reader can see the House’s composition over the entire 1952-2014 period (31 election cycles), and at the same time get a sense of scale, trends, and patterns." - RB
His second post on the topic featured a more granular version of the same graphic, explicitly including the results of midterm election. That graph is featured at the top of this post. We're seeing a trend that supasses the normal midterm meltdowns, and should be troubling to Democrats.

Bolten is just getting warmed up. In the third post of the series he recasts the data to better demonstrate the point that the Washington Post was trying to make. To whit - midterms are hard on the President's party:

Bolten Painting With Numbers Graphic
"As before, we show each election from 1954 to 2014 on a timeline. However, this graph focuses on the change in the president’s party’s House membership. So, for example, a Democrat gain of seats (and therefore a Republican loss) is shown as a positive number if the president was a Democrat and a negative number if a Republican, and vice versa...The results are stunningly obvious: mid-term elections are nothing less than poison for the incumbent president’s party."  - RB

Painting With Numbers by Randall BoltenGiven the Dividist's obsession with the dynamics of divided government in the modern era, the Reader can appreciate my fascination with Bolten's creative data visualizations and the insights they offer to the partisans shifts we've seen experienced.

At the risk of pushing the limits of "fair use" I am going to rip Bolten's visualisations from his three subsequent posts on the subject and hope he will find my repeated fawning links to his blog and book to be satisfactory compensation.

In the 4th, 5th and 6th posts, Bolten uses tables to reveal more details of the election results. 

Bolten Painting With Numbers graphic
"... using a table instead of a graph to see how House of Representatives election results correlate with the incumbent president’s party... The “Averages” at the bottom of the table show an average gain for the Republicans of 1.1 seats over the 31 election cycles (from 219 seats in 1952 to 254 seats in 2014). But there are a lot of ups and downs in there: the president’s party averaged a loss of 11 seats over that time. My, but we are a fickle electorate!" - RB 

Bolten Painting With Numbers graphic
"This tiny table tells a powerful story: in the fifteen presidential election years, the incumbent president’s party shows an average gain of 3.1 seats in the House, and a loss of 24.2 in the sixteen mid-term elections... Perhaps the mid-terms are the purest statement about the incumbent president – they’re not muddied up by the electorate’s opinion of the other guy running...  large House losses are the norm in mid-term elections for both Democrat and Republican presidents. So not only are we a fickle electorate, but a grouchy one!" - RB

Bolten Painting With Numbers graphic
"... let’s look at – for want of a better term – “dynasties,” that is, continuous periods where a single party controlled the presidency, and see how that party fared in the U.S. House during that dynasty.. We are certainly a fickle electorate. When the presidency changes hands from one party to another, it’s typically a relatively high-water mark for that party’s representation in Congress. Then, we voters chip away at the president’s party’s congressional delegation, until we finally throw the bums out. Pundits often talk of the dynamics of mid-term elections, but there’s really something more powerful going on here...  the last time the U.S. elected three consecutive presidents from the same party – not counting presidents who succeeded a president who died in office and then got elected in their own right – was the Republicans of 1860-1884. And the only one before that was the Democratic Republican dynasty of Jefferson/Madison/Monroe/Adams of 1800-1828.... But we’re not that fickle. Only three times in our history have we had dynasties lasting just a single four-year term." - RB
Which, if any, of these "fickleness" insights can we apply to 2016?

Democrats have yet to reconcile themselves to the strength of the Republican position in Congress. We are at the high water mark of a continuing long term trend supporting Republican gains in the House of Representatives. This fact, combined with the historic incumbency advantage in the House, means that the Republicans are a virtual lock to keep the House majority in 2016 and probably 2018. So Nancy Pelosi's 2016 prediction will be just as wrong as her 2014, 2012 and 2010 prognostications.

Hillary is not running against the headwind Bolten identifies of a single party winning the White House with three consecutive presidents but she is swimming against a GOP tide. OTOH, she very well may benefit from the fickleness of the electorate and their apparent distrust of single party rule. With no chance of the GOP losing the House and plausibly keeping the Senate, a fickle and dubious electorate will need a Democrat in the White House to offset a Republican controlled Congress and keep the government divided.

And that suits the Dividist just fine. 

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