Wednesday, March 06, 2024

The Uncommitted Story, Part II

I've been trying my best to give a dispassionate account of how the "uncommitted" campaign is doing. Obviously, supporters have an incentive to pump up its successes; opponents have a perhaps more mixed set of incentives (you don't want to give the impression that they represent the true majority, but there can be benefit in promoting a scary monster lurking in the woods). 

But for my part, I'd like to think we do ourselves no favors when we delude ourselves about the state of the world. If "uncommitted" is doing exceptionally well and demonstrating a genuine groundswell of opposition to Joe Biden's policies, there's no sense denying that just because one wishes it weren't so. If "uncommitted" is not performing especially impressively and doesn't stand out from always-present grousing at a coronated incumbent, then there's no sense denying that just because one wishes that weren't so.

So to actually figure out how "uncommitted" really is performing, it's important to establish our comparator. JTA put a piece up last night breathlessly comparing "uncommitted's" Super Tuesday support against how "uncommitted" fared in 2020. Framed that way, "uncommitted" had an outstanding night:

The uncommitted percentages barely dented Biden’s overwhelming win in each state, but far outdid 2020 percentages for uncommitted voters. In Minnesota, with 74% of votes counted at 10 p.m. Central Time, uncommitted was getting 20% of the vote; it garnered less than a half percent in 2020.


In Colorado, with 74% of the vote counted at 9 p.m. Mountain Time, uncommitted was getting 7.5% of the vote. It did not register at all in 2020.

In North Carolina,  at 11 p.m. Eastern Time, with 93% of the vote counted, uncommitted voters were 12.5% of those voting in the Democratic primary. In 2020, it was 1.64%.

In Tennessee, at 11 p.m. Eastern Time with 80% of the vote counted, uncommitted garnered 8% of the vote. It got less than a quarter of a percent in 2020.

In Massachusetts, with 51% of the count recorded at 11 p.m. Eastern Time, uncommitted was getting 9% of the vote. It got less than a half percent in 2020.

The problem is that 2020 is obviously not the right year of comparison -- an open Democratic primary with a sprawling field of candidates to choose from is very different from a reigning incumbent running for reelection (virtually) unopposed (if in 2020 you couldn't find a single Democrat of the approximately 531 running for president to "commit" to, I don't what your problem is).

So in terms of trying to give an objective assessment of "uncommitted's" performance, the actual comparison is to the last analogous presidential primary -- Obama 2012, since that was the last time we had an incumbent Democratic president running for re-election. 

In such cases, we would expect that there will always be some baseline number of people dissatisfied with the incumbent and looking to cast a protest vote. The question for "uncommitted" in 2024 is whether it is exceeding that baseline. Generously, we can assume that any overperformance compared to the 2012 figures is attributable to the "uncommitted" campaign vis-a-vis Gaza (though obviously, that might not be true). By contrast, if "uncommitted" isn't performing any differently (or worse!) than it did in 2012, then it seems unlikely that the "uncommitted" campaign is actually making much of a mark. So, for example, in Michigan "uncommitted" got 2.5% more in 2024 than it did in 2012, and then we have to decide what that level of improvement says about the strength of the underlying sentiment -- my conclusion was that this was a modest impact, but ultimately not too impressive save for the fact that Michigan's narrow margin makes anything meaningful.

With that in mind, how did "uncommitted" do compared to baseline expectations on Super Tuesday?

Unfortunately, Colorado and Minnesota didn't hold primaries in 2012, so we can't do a direct comparison. I will nonetheless eyeball agree that the 19% uncommitted took in Minnesota looks relatively impressive (though it actually isn't necessarily an outlier figure, as we'll see below). In the other three states, by contrast, things look very different for "uncommitted":

Massachusetts: 9% (2024) compared to 11% (2012)

Tennessee: 8% (2024) vs. 11.5% (2012)

North Carolina: 12.5% (2024) vs. 21% (2012)

These are all substantial underperformances compared to what we saw in 2012. Again, I understand why "uncommitted" backers are trying to juice them up, but these are not good showings! And these are the highlighted state where uncommitted did best! Except for Minnesota and Oklahoma (which seems to have a disproportionate share of randos on the ballot), Biden's broke 80% in every state he ran in on Super Tuesday. By contrast, back in 2012, Politico was running stories about Obama's primary weaknesses by pointing to states where he wasn't even cracking 60% of the vote (uncommitted got over 40% in Kentucky that year!).

So why is the media making a mountain out of this molehill? Certainly, "uncommitted" can give us some interesting microdata (the frustration among Michigan Arab and Muslim voters seems real, for instance, and notable). And in close states, any type of discontent can make a difference (though that proves too much -- any type can make a difference, meaning that any potential grouse or grumble is equally problematic). But I also think that we're seeing the effects of some relatively online journalists who are attuned to a relatively online campaign and so think there must be a "there" there. That, coupled with a deep-seated desire for anything that makes the horse-race story more interesting, and of course this is a tempting morsel.

But the reality seems to be that Biden actually is doing fine, compared to Democrats in analogous situations, of consolidating support. If anything, we've been seeing pretty persistent underestimation of his electoral appeal (itself perhaps a worthy topic for a post). "Uncommitted" right not seems to be mostly (not entirely, but mostly) sizzle rather than steak.

Tuesday, March 05, 2024

Israel Has a Right To Exist -- After That, It's All in Play, Part II

A few years ago, I flagged a poll of American Jewish attitudes regarding Israel that had some to my mind interesting data. Basically, many of the more strident "criticisms of Israel" -- ones that many mainline organizations had often characterized as antisemitic, like "apartheid" or "genocide" allegations (this was well before October 7) -- were not generally viewed as antisemitic by most Jewish respondents. To be clear, they were not agreed with either. But fewer than half of American Jews characterized such claims as antisemitic, which I found significant.

Yet there was significant outlier to this finding: the statement that Israel has no right to exist. That statement was overwhelmingly rejected and generally thought to be antisemitic. Contrary to what one might have expected, there seemed to be a significant number of Jews who had no problem with (or outright agreed with) statements claiming Israel was genocidal, but who drew a very firm line at denying its right to exist.

I found this a bit of a perplexing finding. It's not that I found the position incoherent, but it didn't seem to track any particular movement or cadre I was familiar with participating in the discourse. For example, the "thought leaders" (if you will) who tended to promote the view of Israel as an apartheid state did not, generally, take pains to affirm Israel's right to exist; in fact, they typically were quite dismissive of that claim as well. Indeed, I'm not sure I can think of any significant organization that occupies that lane of "Israel is an apartheid, genocidal state, and also it's wrong to deny its right to exist", even as statistically it seems that this is a significant quadrant of the political space.

More recent data is confirming this point, and thus deepening my confusion. A recent ADL survey found rising anti-Israel (and antisemitic) sentiments in the American public essentially across the board, some of the more alarmist findings include a third of respondents who wouldn't want to support a "pro-Israel" political candidate, almost 45% thought (at least "somewhat") that Israel was intentionally trying to inflict as much suffering on Palestinians as possible, and nearly a third thought Israel supporters controlled the media. Half of Gen Zers would be fine holding friendships with a Hamas supporter. And yet, here too, "Israel's existence" stands out as an outlier -- almost 90%(!) of all respondents thought that "Jews have the right to an independent country," a statement that may not be identical to "Israel has a right to exist," but probably is substantially overlapping for most people. Again, try to think of a major thought leader or NGO that takes the line "Jews have the right to an independent country" and also "Israel is intentionally trying to inflict as much suffering on Palestinians as possible" -- I don't know who we're talking about here. And yet, this distinction apparently does matter quite a bit.

The apparent distinctiveness of "Israel has the right to exist" or "Jews have the right to a state", which stands apart from even vitriolic criticism of Israeli policies, also can help guide how we interpret some new data on the state of antisemitism on college campuses. Eitan Hersh, who is doing absolutely essential work getting actual hard data to supplement the often "vibes-based" discourse around antisemitism, has released a series of new surveys measuring various components of Jewish (and pro-Israel) experience on campus. The first* of these, exploring the "social costs" of being Jewish as well as being a supporter of Israel on campus, found significant levels of exclusion along all fronts that rose dramatically after October 7. Some questions had nothing to do with Israel ("In order to fit in on my campus, I feel the need to hide that I am Jewish"; "People will judge me negatively if I participate in Jewish activities on campus."). But even the question about Israel -- "On my campus, Jewish students pay a social penalty for supporting the existence of Israel as a Jewish state" -- was tied to this seemingly distinct, outlier position of support Israel's existence, without any comment on particular policies (Hersh wrote that this question was "purposefully worded so that it doesn’t reference support for the current government in Israel or for any particular political view other than the right of a Jewish state to exist in the land"). Given that, the extremely high levels of social marginalization associated with this view -- over 75% say they will experience marginalization just for supporting Israel existing -- is quite alarming.

Hersh also asked a similar question of non-Jewish students: asking whether they "wouldn’t want to be friends with someone who supports the existence of Israel as a Jewish state" (so again, keyed to this seemingly distinct "Israel has a right to exist" position). While there was general uniformity amongst students of all political persuasions, liberal, moderate, and conservative, in how they answered this question (approximately 25% agreeing), the one exception was "very liberal" student for whom almost 50% agreed.

These findings might be worrisome even in taken in isolation. But juxtaposed against the broader polling which suggests that most people (Jews and non-Jews) do seem to view "Israel has no right to exist" as a distinctly problematic, redline position even if they otherwise endorse very strong criticisms of Israeli policy, and they're more worrisome still. It suggests that amongst at least some cohorts of younger Americans, the Israel-related views which trigger social sanction and penalty include even the most bare-bones "Israel has a right to exist position" that is overwhelmingly viewed as problematic not just by stalwart pro-Israel defenders, but even many erstwhile harsh critics. That, to me, is significant evidence that this problem cannot be waved aside as "conflating criticism of Israel with antisemitism" -- we have a more fundamental pathology at work here that needs to be tackled.

* The other two studies Hersh released cover how campus Jewish life and identity has altered since October 7 and how political ideology mediates student attitudes about Jews and Israel. All are very interesting, all include data that will challenge anyone's presuppositions and presumptions about where antisemitism "is" on campus and in what forms it manifests. And again, I want to applaud Hersh for giving us some helpful data in a field that is saturated with anecdote and innuendo. There's a role for narrative and a role for theory (I myself am a theorist, not an empiricist), but we're only helped when we have actual, reliable data upon which to tie our theories and narratives to, and I'm incredibly grateful to Hersh and his research partners for taking this project on.

Monday, March 04, 2024

The Work of Law


The Supreme Court this morning ruled in Trump v. Anderson that states cannot enforce the insurrection provisions of Section 3 of the Fourteenth Amendment against federal office-seekers. This part of the decision was 9-0,* and it rested largely on pragmatic grounds: state-by-state "enforcement" of Section 3 might lead to a patchwork of inconsistent state rulings and procedures, which would "sever the direct link that the Framers found so critical between the National Government and the people of the United States" and "could dramatically change the behavior of voters, parties, and States across the country, in different ways and at different times."

This pragmatic argument has purchase to it. This sort of "patchwork" was raised by many esteemed commentators, from all across the political spectrum. Many worried, for instance, that if Colorado was allowed to unilaterally disqualify Trump from the presidential ballot, then, say, Texas might do the same to Biden in response -- a tit-for-tat escalation that would throw the presidential election system into chaos.

To be sure, there also are certainly pragmatic arguments that push in the other direction. There is the practical need to ensure that Section 3 of the Fourteenth Amendment is actually enforced, for instance. There's also the fact that our federal system already bakes in a patchwork system of state regulation over federal elections that leads to a host of manifest inconsistencies -- that may be a bad idea, but it's one we've long accepted and will continue to accept in other contexts after this decision. And the worry about retaliatory red state action boils down to "if Colorado disqualifies Trump based on a legally plausible rationale, Texas might do so for transparently spurious and bad faith reasons. Given the state of the modern GOP, this possibility cannot be gainsaid entirely, but it is pathetic that we've even come to that point.

In any event, I digress. The main point I wanted to flag is that the Court rests its decision not so much on "originalism" or "textualism" but based on a practical assessment of what is necessary to ensure the workability of our presidential electoral process. As a pragmatist, I cannot complain about that approach -- except that it is an approach the Court only takes when it is convenient. In a year or so when we get our next Dobbs or Bruen, we will again no doubt see the Court solemnly intone that we must interpret the text of the constitution strictly in accord with the original meaning of the framers, consequences be damned (that's "results-oriented judging"!), and it will be revealed (even more than it already was) as a transparent lie. Beyond the merits of formalism versus pragmatism, it is the cheerful oscillation between the two based on the needs of the moment that reveal the fundamental arbitrariness of the governing Supreme Court majority (my fantasy is that just once we get a dissent that opens with, "the majority begins, as it must occasionally deigns to do, with the constitutional text...." and then but see cite all the cases where this Court has blitzed past the text to reach a "practical" result).

"The work of law," Justice O'Connor famously advised, "is to make the law work." I've long liked that approach. But when the work of law is revealed to be a work, not a shoot, there's little reason to trust judicial decisions that purport to rest either on workability or strict formalism.

* The Court also held, 5-4, that only Congress (not the judiciary) can effectuate the enforcement of Section 3 of the Fourteenth Amendment, based on the view that Section 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment renders this exclusively a congressional prerogative. I don't have much to say on this, except to note that I just finished teaching Section 5 doctrine in my Constitutional Law class last week and my notes contain a line about how "one view of the meaning of Section 5 is that only Congress can 'enforce' the Fourteenth Amendment; courts have to stay out. But nobody seems to take that extreme view ...." Certainly, this robust and exclusive understanding of congressional power would be news to the Congress that saw the Voting Rights Act struck down by the Supreme Court because Congress' textual Section 5 authority needed to yield to the judiciary's invented and atextual "equal sovereignty of the states" doctrine.