Stories by Andrew Gelman

Andrew Gelman is a professor of political science and statistics at Columbia University and the lead author of the recent book, Red State, Blue State, Rich State, Poor State:  Why Americans Vote the Way They Do.  He blogs at Statistical Modeling, Causal Inference, and Social Science.

Rich State Vs. Poor State

March 30th, 2011 at 9:07 am 36 Comments

In a recent blogpost at The Atlantic Online, Richard Florida notes the increasing political conservatism of people in America’s poorer states.  He writes:

The current economic crisis only appears to have deepened conservatism’s hold on America’s states. This trend stands in sharp contrast to the Great Depression, when America embraced FDR and the New Deal.

Liberalism, which is stronger in richer, better-educated, more-diverse, and, especially, more prosperous places, is shrinking across the board and has fallen behind conservatism even in its biggest strongholds. This obviously poses big challenges for liberals, the Obama administration, and the Democratic Party moving forward.

But the much bigger, long-term danger is economic rather than political. This ideological state of affairs advantages the policy preferences of poorer, less innovative states over wealthier, more innovative, and productive ones. American politics is increasingly disconnected from its economic engine. And this deepening political divide has become perhaps the biggest bottleneck on the road to long-run prosperity.

What are my thoughts on this?

First, I think Obama would be a lot more popular had he been elected in 1932, rather than 1930.

Second, transfers from the richer, more economically successful states to the poorer, less developed states are not new. See, for example, this map from 1924 titled “Good Roads Everywhere” that shows a proposed system of highways spanning the country, “to be built and forever maintained by the United States Government.”


The map, made by the National Highways Association, also includes the following explanation for the proposed funding system:

Such a system of National Highways will be paid for out of general taxation. The 9 rich densely populated northeastern States will pay over 50 per cent of the cost. They can afford to, as they will gain the most. Over 40 per cent will be paid for by the great wealthy cities of the Nation. . . . The farming regions of the West, Mississippi Valley, Southwest and South will pay less than 10 per cent of the cost and get 90 per cent of the mileage. [emphasis added]

Beyond its quaint slogans (“A paved United States in our day”) and ideas that time has passed by (“Highway airports”), the map gives a sense of the potential for federal taxing and spending to transfer money between states and regions.

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Washington’s Shutdown Double Dare

March 2nd, 2011 at 8:24 am 2 Comments

If you’re a Democrat, you think shutting down the government could crash the economy.  If this happens and there’s no time for a recovery by 2012, Obama’s reelection campaign is doomed.  He can blame Congress all he wants, but if the past is any guide, it’s the president’s party that will be punished at the ballot box. This time it really will be 1932, only with the conservatives in charge.  Not a pretty scenario, and it suggests the Democrats should want to do just about anything to avoid a shutdown.

If you’re a Republican, you think shutting down the government is no big deal; the private economy should cruise along just fine by itself.  In this case, the economy’s on track to bounce back in 2012, Obama’s heading for reelection, and a government shutdown will just make congressional Republicans look like fools.  So a shutdown is the last thing the Republicans want.

If you buy the above analysis, you have two sides that (a) don’t want a shutdown, but (b) know the other side doesn’t want it either, which means they can try to threaten a shutdown and extract concessions.

Overall, I think our politics would be healthier if such a doomsday weapon were off the table entirely.  But given it’s out there, it’s interesting to think about how different perceptions of the shutdown’s effects can induce a non-zero-sum flavor to the game.

Why wasn’t it the same story in 1995?  Two reasons.  First, in 1995 we were not in recession, so it wasn’t so natural to believe that a government shutdown would have much short-term economic effect.  Second the idea that the economy determines presidential elections wasn’t so generally accepted back then.  Also, I suspect that Gingrich et al. deluded themselves regarding Bill Clinton’s popularity.  Nowadays we tend to think of Clinton as a political whiz, but if you take yourself back to 1995, you see a guy who snuck into the presidency with 43% of the vote in a three-way race, then proceeded to fail on health care and fight with his own party on NAFTA, and then got killed in the midterms.  So congressional Republicans at that time could be excused for thinking that Clinton was a sitting duck.

Finally, why does Newt Gingrich apparently still support a government shutdown even now?  I think it’s quite possible that Gingrich personally believes that a government shutdown would be bad for the economy and thus good for the Republicans in 2012. True-believer fiscal conservatives would presumably think the economy would do just fine without the government mucking things up, but I’ve never seen any evidence that Gingrich is a true-believer fiscal conservative.

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How Do the Rich Vote? Follow the Money

February 27th, 2011 at 10:39 am 11 Comments

In response to my recent blogpost arguing that the rich really are more Republican, FrumForum reader Ken writes that the truly wealthy “vote Democrat by a margin of two to one.” Ken cites a Wall Street Journal article from 2008 to support this claim. Unfortunately, the statistics in that article are unsourced. Robert Frank, the author of this article, cites a survey by Prince & Associates. Back when that article came out, I tried to track down the data and the claim and got nowhere. Here’s what I wrote back in 2008:

Do I believe [the claim that voters worth $30 million or more were favoring Barack Obama]? Not really. My problem here is that I don’t know where the survey is coming from. How did Prince & Associates sample people making $30 million or more? Without knowing at least something about the sampling, it’s hard to say anything at all about these claims. For example, a graph accompanying the article linked above gives estimates of about 0.1 million households with over $25 million and 9 million households with over $1 million. This ratio is about 1%; thus, in a simple random sample of 493 people worth over $1 million, you’d expect to see about a whopping 5 people in the survey worth over $30 million. Or maybe there were 6 such people in the sample; that would explain why the percentages of the super-rich cited in the linked article are 16% (1 in 6) and 67% (4 in 6). The survey might have more than 6 super-rich people in it; I don’t know since no details are given. (I searched on the web for the survey but all I could find were links to the Robert Frank article discussed here.) How do you take a sample of super-rich people? Prince & Associates is a Connecticut-based consulting company that describes itself as “the foremost empirical research firm in the realm of private wealth. . . Using purposive sampling methodologies, Prince & Associates, Inc. has created statistically valid single-study and panel samples providing detailed insights into the hard-to-reach and exceptionally private universe of the affluent.” I respect that this sort of sampling is difficult but it’s hard for me to evaluate it when no description is provided of the sample. I’ll email Russ Alan Prince to see if he can enlighten me on this, but really I’d think it would be the responsibility of a Wall Street Journal reporter to ask some questions here. (I guess it’s possible that Frank did ask some questions but for proprietary reasons did not want to describe the sampling methodology, but if so I would’ve appreciated just a sentence or two on it, to give me a little more confidence in the results.)

The substantive reason I’m skeptical about these findings (as well as a similar report by Daniel Gross in 2004) is the following passage from page 144 of our Red State, Blue State book:

Probably the best evidence [about the political views of the richest Americans] comes from studies of political contributions. Political scientist Thomas Ferguson has tracked political donations of top corporate executives and the Forbes 400 richest Americans (or their equivalents, in earlier periods). The data presented in his 1995 book, Golden Rule, indicate that America’s superrich have generally learned Republican, but with some notable exceptions that have changed over time. Certain industries have persistently higher rates of contributions to the Democrats. In the New Deal, these included industries with a strong interest in free trade. Since the Reagan years, finance, and high technology firms have been much friendlier to Democratic presidential candidates than most of the rest of American business. For 2004, Ferguson consolidated the lists of top executives and richest families into a lot of 674 firms and investors. Out of this list, 53% contributed to George W. Bush’s reelection campaign and 16% donated to Kerry, with Bush doing better among the oil and pharmaceutical industries and Kerry getting more from investment banks and hedge funds.

Given that this 53%-16% gap in contributions in 2004, I’m skeptical of the claim that, in 2004, “the haute millionaires, those worth more than $10 million, favored Kerry 59-41.” Which leaves me skeptical of the 2008 survey as well. Perhaps Prince & Associates is oversampling hedge-funders in Connecticut? I emailed Prince back in 2008 but received no response. That’s fine–I’m sure he’s a busy guy with better things to do that answer emails from statistics professors. But the bottom line is the data I’ve seen shows upper income Americans supporting Republicans (with exceptions in some states, some years, and some sectors of the economy). And the claims I’ve seen to the contrary do not seem supported by high-quality data.

Are the Rich More Republican?

February 26th, 2011 at 2:29 pm 15 Comments

I don’t want to spend my whole life on this red state/blue state thing, but I recently follow this Instapundit link and came across the following comment from lawyer and conservative blogger John Hinderaker:

Most rich people who are politically active are liberals, and the Democratic Party gets much more of its support from the wealthy than the GOP.

I’m like, huh? Do people really believe this? Let me take this in three parts.

1. Data. From the 2010 exit polls:

2010exits.png (I was thinking of making a graph but I like the direct feel of a screencap.)

And it’s not just 2010. You can see this in decades of pre-election and exit polls. And it’s not just voting. Political contributions from the richest Americans are generally more likely to go to Republicans than Democrats. In particular, the probability of being a conservative Republican goes up sharply with income.

Just to break this down more carefully: the claim that “most rich people who are politically active are liberals” might possibly be true–after all, the term “politically active” isn’t clearly defined–but I don’t see any evidence of it. Looking at wealthier Americans, rich campaign contributors, whatever, we see much stronger support for Republicans and conservative causes than for Democrats and liberals.

There are some exceptions (as in 2008 when Obama beat McCain in the vote and much more so in funding) and on some particular issues such as gay rights, but overall the pattern is clear.

2. Common sense (or, as we call it in political science, “theory”). Wealthier people tend to be more economically conservative; lower-income people are more likely to support taxes on the rich. This is no surprise: of course it makes sense that if you have more money you’ll have more sympathy with the argument that people should keep what they earn, and if you have less you’ll be more likely to favor redistribution. The correlation between income level and economic ideology is weak (we have graphs in Red State, Blue State making this point), but it’s not zero. Nor would you expect it to be.

3. Demonizing the rich. The above quote is from a conservative blog. At first sight, the view that politically active rich people are mostly Democrats could be comforting: the idea, perhaps, is conservative rich people are busy with their jobs, their families, being productive and enjoying life, while liberal rich people are discontented and can’t resist trying to use the political process to get their way. But the data don’t support this story. So why take that position at all? Why not say that richer people tend to have economically conservative views for good reasons? And that if you’re rich, it might make sense to participate a bit in politics to stop the government from doing things you don’t like?

That is, why can’t Hinderaker take the same reasoning that he uses for the Koch brothers and apply it more generally to rich people? This would have the virtue of being coherent with an economically conservative ideology and also consistent with survey data from campaign contribution records.

I’m not trying to suggest that Hinderaker is trying to mislead, merely that he is confused. It’s an instructive confusion, however, in that it points (to me) to a confusion in ideology.

The Left’s Next Target: NFL Overtime?

February 10th, 2011 at 2:05 pm 13 Comments

Jonathan Chait characterizes researchers Steven Brams and James Jorash’s suggestion for reducing the overtime advantage from winning the coin toss in overtime “as some kind of parody of liberal technocracy failing to take culture into account.”

Huh?  I don’t see what’s particularly “liberal” about a football rule change.  Chait writes:

Do I have to explain what would happen if they actually tried to implement a system like this? Okay: About half the coaches would be unable to understand the concept . . . Fans would revolt

Seems like typical liberal condescension to me!

To be serious for a moment . . . I actually think that Brams and Jorash’s idea is interesting (although it could be improved; see comments at the second link above), but maybe Chait is right that the idea would be unpopular.  I have no idea if Chait is correct.  But I don’t think there’s any particular liberalness or conservativeness to these ideas.

P.S. My favorite soccer overtime suggestion remains to add a ball after each 15 minutes of overtime until somebody scores.  Once enough balls are on the field, it’s certain to happen, no?  This seems a lot better than a penalty-kick shootout.

Mr. Smith Goes to K Street

February 2nd, 2011 at 8:22 am 7 Comments

Jonathan Chait mocks former senator Evan Bayh for taking a job as a D.C. lobbyist.  The mockery seems fair enough, but I don’t know that I agree with the commenters who characterize this as corruption, hypocrisy, sleaze, etc.

But think of this from Bayh’s point of view.  After being one of 100 U.S. senators (and near the median, at that), it’s natural to want to stay near the action and have some effect on policy.  Lobbying is a natural way to do this.  From this perspective, it’s a direct extension of what he’s been doing before.  And if it pays well, so be it.  I’m not one to turn down free money and I don’t expect that others will do so either.

I’m not being sarcastic here nor am I commenting on the specifics.  Perhaps Bayh is a corrupt so-and-so and perhaps he’s sincere and bipartisan (and perhaps, like most of us, he’s a mixture of many things).  And I certainly agree with the critics that D.C. lobbying is a mess and is in many ways inherently corrupt (but not overwhelmingly so, I hope).  I have not looked at the specifics of the business dealings of Evan Bayh and his wife or the law firm he’s joining.  My only point is that if you’ve been a senator, and you want to influence policy, that being a lobbyist would seem like a natural and reasonable step.  Not the only possibility, but a reasonable one and not necessarily inconsistent with higher goals.

All Politics are Local (If You’re Lucky)

December 20th, 2010 at 7:31 am 2 Comments

Mickey Kaus does a public service by trashing Tip O’Neill’s famous dictum that “all politics are local.”  As Kaus point out, all the congressional elections in recent decades have been nationalized.

I’d go one step further and say that, sure, all politics are local — if you’re Tip O’Neill and represent an ironclad Democratic seat in Congress.  It’s easy to be smug about your political skills if you’re in a safe seat and have enough pull in state politics to avoid your district getting gerrymandered.  Then you can sit there and sagely attribute your success to your continuing mastery of local politics rather than to whatever it took to get the seat in the first place.

Redefining the Rich

December 5th, 2010 at 8:25 pm 18 Comments

It used to be that a millionaire was someone with a million dollars.  Nowadays, though, the term is often used to refer to people who make a million dollars a year.  (See here, for example, in a discussion of the so-called millionaire’s tax break.)  I guess it makes sense — lots of Americans have a million dollars in assets, and so for “millionaire” to keep its traditional meaning of “really rich,” it had to shift somehow.  It still seems funny to me, that this change in definition has occurred without it being formally acknowledged.

Also, could people please try to be clear on what it means when a bill “failed by a vote of 53-36″ in the Senate?  I first read this as: the bill received 53 “no” votes and 36 “yes” votes.  But, looking carefully, I think what they meant was that it received 53 “yes” votes but was filibustered.

Don’t Overhype Voters’ Deficit Fears

November 9th, 2010 at 4:40 pm 8 Comments

A spate of recent exit polls are claiming that voters believe tackling the deficit is a top priority. But blogger Ben Somberg took a closer look at the polls and suggests that this might not be the case.

Somberg notes:

the official exit poll found that the deficit is a bigger priority than jobs or the economy generally. Sure enough, it’s nonsense. … in fact a wave of polls just days earlier showed the usual — that deficits aren’t a top public priority.

How is Somberg so sure?  He explains:

The polling has bopped around a bit here or there over the last year, but no matter how the pollsters ask the question — and no matter how much deficit hyping there is in the press — people rank the economy and jobs as higher concerns than the deficit. There was actually a new wave of polling on this just before the election, in fact, asking people for their top priorities:

*USA Today / Gallup: “passing new stimulus bill” (38%), “cutting federal spending” (24%), “repealing health care law” (23%), “extending all income tax cuts (8%)

*Reuters / Ipsos: 72% say jobs are “crucial” focus, 25% say they are “important”; 57% say the budget deficit is “crucial” focus, 38% say “important”

*CNN / Opinion Research: “economy” (58%), “the federal budget deficit” (8%), “education” (8%), “health care” (8%), the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (8%), “illegal immigration” (8%) — and other topics get smaller amounts

*Pew: “the job situation” (39%), “health care” (25%), “the deficit” (17%), and it drops off to 6% and below after that

But now in the past day and a half there’s been some attention to a stunning outlier on the question, from the national exit polling data from Tuesday. The exit poll seems to say that 39% see the deficit as the top priority for the new Congress, while only 37% said spending to create jobs is most important.

It’s gotten some attention. See, for example: Liz Sidoti of AP, Jackie Calmes and Megan Thee-Brenan of the NYT, Kyle Dropp of the Washington Post, Gerald Seid of WSJ, Elizabeth Williamson of the WSJ,, Jill Lawrence of Politics Daily, Judy Woodruff on the PBS Newshour and John Dickerson of Slate.

But what did the exit poll actually ask? I mean, did public opinion on the importance of deficit vs. jobs and the economy really make a huge, historic shift in a matter of days?

The national exit polling asked two ‘priorities’ questions.

“Most Important Issue Facing Country Today” got: Economy (62%) Health Care (18%) War in Afghanistan (8%) Illegal Immigration (8%) It appears those were the only options, which makes it not very useful.

Then there was the “Highest Priority for Next Congress” question, which got: Reducing Deficit (39%) Spending to Create Jobs (37%) Cutting Taxes (19%) This time, only three choices!

It seems the “Jobs” option was saddled with “spending to create.” Yet “Reducing Deficit” was not saddled with “by increasing taxes to raise money” or “by cutting spending on government programs.”

I see I’m not the first to note the questionable setup of this question. The WSJ’s David Wessel explains: “One inelegantly phrased exit poll Tuesday found 45% favored tax cuts or spending increases to help the economy while 39% made reducing the deficit a higher priority (which, except to some economic alchemists, means tax increases and spending cuts.)”

Also, Ed Kilgore at TNR notes the “rather limited choice” presented in the question and Andrew Sullivan of the Atlantic seems to be tweaking the setup a bit as well.

In sum, it’s rather doubtful that a massive shift — in under a week– of public opinion occurred on the importance of the deficit. But that’s what any news organization that hyped the national exit poll’s 39% figure implicitly conveys.

These news organization should go back and look at the wording of the questions, do some hard thinking about how appropriate the setup was, and tell their audiences about the findings of the four polls in the week before the election that weren’t saddled with a non-nonsensical option list.

What Obama Forgot: It’s All About the Economy

November 5th, 2010 at 11:15 am 36 Comments

A lot of people are asking, How could the voters have swung so much in two years? And, why didn’t Obama give Americans a better sense of his long-term economic plan in 2009, back when he still had a political mandate?

As an academic statistician and political scientist, I have no insight into the administration’s internal deliberations, but I have some thoughts based on my interpretation of political science research.

The baseline:

As Doug Hibbs and others have pointed out, given the Democrats’ existing large majority in both houses of Congress and the continuing economic depression, we’d expect a big Republican swing in the vote. And this has been echoed for a long time in the polls.  As early as September, 2009–over a year before the election–political scientists were forecasting that the Democrats were going to lose big in the midterms. (The polls have made it clear that most voters do not believe the Republican Party has the answer either. But, as I’ve emphasized before, given that the Democrats control the presidency and are still (at the time of this writing) likely to keep the Senate, it’s perfectly reasonable for swing voters to swing Republican in congressional voting.)

The Tea Party:

What about those new Republican candidates? Radical or merely conservative? How much did they stir up the base and how much did they turn off moderate voters? Based on some of my research with Caltech political scientist Jonathan Katz, I estimate moderation to be worth about 2 percentage points in congressional elections. There’s a lot of variation here, but overall people are voting primarily the party and secondarily the candidate. Ideology is a distant third. Sure, it’s a good plan to run moderate candidates if you can, but the choice of ideology is really much more of a battle within the party than a concern in the general election. 2010 was not a good year to be a Democrat in any case.

But where did that bad economy come from?

The unemployment rate increased from 6.6% in October 2008 to 8.6% in March 2009: a huge jump before the new administration had a chance to do much at all. So the Democrats were starting in a deep hole.

Thus, one story of the election, as expressed, for example, by journalist Jonathan Chait, is that Obama and congressional Democrats shouldn’t be blamed for their 2010 election failure: after all, they did about as well as forecasted. To be fair, Chait is not a pure determinist; he’s just using the forecast as a baseline. Still, he’s missing a key piece of the picture, which is that economic performance is not fixed. According to Paul Krugman, for example, the economy would’ve been doing much worse right now had there been no stimulus plan and would be doing much better had a larger stimulus been enacted in 2009. Economists on the right have a different view, but even those who think the government can’t do much to repair the economy tend to feel that the government has the ability to make things worse.

To put it another way, nobody’s claiming that the correct economic policies (whatever they may have been) would cause the economy to be booming right now, but perhaps the difference between a mild depression, a severe depression, or complete free fall would have some impact on whether the Republicans achieved small gains, large gains, or a landslide in 2010.

Why didn’t the Democrats do more?

The next natural question is: Why, in early 2009, seeing the economy sink, did Obama and congressional Democrats not do more? Why didn’t they follow the advice of Krugman and others and (a) vigorously blame the outgoing administration for their problems and (b) act more decisively to get Americans spending again?

I offer a few thoughts, but bear in mind that I know nothing about the people involved in these deliberations, so these are all just speculations or, at best, rational reconstructions:

One answer is that Obama wanted to do more but was limited by the preferences of the 60th-most-liberal senator. I buy this argument a bit but not completely. For one thing, all the Democratic senators, even the conservative ones, have an interest in their party remaining in the majority. OK, maybe Joe Lieberman is ready to switch at any time, but most of them are locked in. So they don’t gain from a Republican landslide, More to the point, the 55 or so Democratic senators who certainly wanted their party to remain in power could’ve done more, if they’d really felt it was a good idea.

Now we’re getting closer. Several Democratic senators did not favor the big stimulus. Part of this can be attributed to ideology (or, to put it in a more positive way, conservative or free-market economic convictions) or maybe even to lobbyists etc. Beyond this, there was the feeling, somewhere around mid-2009, that government intervention wasn’t so popular–that, between TARP, the stimulus, and the auto bailout, voters were getting a bit wary of big government taking over the economy.

Now, from the standpoint of November, 2010, if you’re a Democratic senator and can go back in time to mid-2009, you might want to forget about looking like a moderate and go for a stronger, Krugman-approved plan to juice up the economy. Being a compromiser might have seemed like a good idea at the time, but in retrospect it appears that voters care about results, not about what happens to be popular at the time of the vote.

On the other hand, most of the Senate’s moderate-to-conservative Democrats were not up for reelection in 2010. Thus they had little personal reason to support policies with immediate effects on the economy and had more motivation to favor a go-slow approach.

On not wanting to repeat the mistakes of the past:

OK, so why didn’t Obama do a better job of leveling with the American people? In his first months in office, why didn’t he anticipate the example of the incoming British government and warn people of economic blood, sweat, and tears? Why did his economic team release overly-optimistic graphs such as shown here? Wouldn’t it have been better to have set low expectations and then exceed them, rather than the reverse?

I don’t know, but here’s my theory. When Obama came into office, I imagine one of his major goals was to avoid repeating the experiences of Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter in their first two years.

Clinton, you may recall, was elected with less then 50% of the vote, was never given the respect of a “mandate” by congressional Republicans, wasted political capital on peripheral issues such as gays in the military, spent much of his first two years on centrist, “responsible” politics (budgetary reform and NAFTA) which didn’t thrill his base, and then got rewarded with a smackdown on heathcare and a Republican takeover of Congress. Clinton may have personally weathered the storm but he never had a chance to implement the liberal program.

Carter, of course, was the original Gloomy Gus, and his term saw the resurgence of the conservative movement in this country, with big tax revolts in 1978 and the Reagan landslide two years after that. It wasn’t all economics, of course: there were also the Russians, Iran, and Jerry Falwell pitching in.

Following Plan Reagan:

From a political (but not a policy) perspective, my impression was that Obama’s model was not Bill Clinton or Jimmy Carter but Ronald Reagan. Like Obama in 2008, Reagan came into office in 1980 in a bad economy and inheriting a discredited foreign policy. The economy got steadily worse in the next two years, the opposition party gained seats in the midterm election, but Reagan weathered the storm and came out better than ever.

If the goal was to imitate Reagan, what might Obama have done?

- Stick with the optimism and leave the gloom-and-doom to the other party. Check.
– Stand fast in the face of a recession. Take the hit in the midterms with the goal of bouncing back in year 4. Check.
– Keep ideological purity. Maintain a contrast with the opposition party and pass whatever you can in Congress. Check.

The Democrats got hit harder in 2010 than the Republicans in 1982, but the Democrats had further to fall. Obama and his party in Congress can still hope to bounce back in two years.

Avoiding the curse of Bartels:

Political scientist Larry Bartels wrote an influential paper, later incorporated into his book, Unequal Democracy, presenting evidence that for the past several decades, the economy generally has done better under Democratic than Republican presidents. Why then, Bartels asked, have Republicans done so well in presidential elections? Bartels gives several answers, including different patterns at the low and high end of the income spectrum, but a key part of his story is timing: Democratic presidents tend to boost the economy when they enter office and then are stuck watching it rebound against them in year four (think Jimmy Carter), whereas Republicans come into office with contract-the-economy policies which hurt at first but tend to yield positive trends in time for reelection (again, think Ronald Reagan).

Overall, according to Bartels, the economy does better under Democratic administrations, but at election time, Republicans are better situated. And there’s general agreement among political scientists that voters respond to recent economic conditions, not to the entire previous four years. Bartels and others argue that the systematic differences between the two parties connect naturally to their key constituencies, with new Democratic administrations being under pressure to heat up the economy and improve conditions for wage-earners and incoming Republicans wanting to keep inflation down.

Some people agree with Bartels’s analysis, some don’t. But, from the point of Obama’s strategy, all that matters is that he and his advisers were familiar with the argument that previous Democrats had failed by being too aggressive with economic expansion. Again, it’s the Carter/Reagan example. Under this story, Obama didn’t want to peak too early. So, sure, he wanted a stimulus–he didn’t want the economy to collapse, but he didn’t want to turn the stove on too high and spark an unsustainable bubble of a recovery. In saying this, I’m not attributing any malign motives (any more than I’m casting aspersions of conservatives’ skepticism of unsustainable government-financed recovery). Rather, I’m putting the economic arguments in a political context to give a possible answer to the question of why Obama and congressional Democrats didn’t do things differently in 2009.