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“That’s an empirical statement”

By Christopher W. Larimer, University of Northern Iowa Professor of Political Science.

“That’s an empirical statement.” I can still hear one of my advisors in graduate school, Kevin Smith, making this comment as we discussed new research. What Kevin was encouraging us to do was to think about research and our observations of political phenomena from a data analytic point of view. This remains my guiding philosophy when conducting research or commenting on the politics of the day.

At the most recent Democratic presidential debate in South Carolina, the candidates made several statements that are empirical in nature. This blog focuses on one such statement.

At the beginning of the debate, Pete Buttigieg said,

“We’re not going to win these critical, critical House and Senate races if people in those races have to explain why the nominee of the Democratic Party is telling people to look at the bright side of the Castro regime.”

Buttigieg was making an argument about electability, that having Bernie Sanders at the top of the ticket would hurt other Democrats down the ballot, such as those running for the U.S. Senate and U.S. House.

Electability, while difficult to define, can be approached from an empirical point of view by looking to political science.

First, as Kyle Kondix and Miles Coleman report, Joe Biden, a more moderate candidate, is polling better than Sanders in swing states, including those with key Senate races in 2020. Second, as Alan Abramowitz has shown, Democratic candidates for the U.S. House in 2018 who adopted a “Medicare for All” stance did worse than those who did not. Why is this important? Because, additional research by Abramowitz shows that the correlation between the 2016 presidential vote and the 2018 House vote in competitive districts was quite strong (.97).

Voters take their cue from the top of the ticket, and if the policy positions of that person are unpopular, there is the potential for a negative down-ballot effect. To this point, in an interview with Larry Sabato, Director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, former Speaker of the House Paul Ryan indicated as much by describing the ease with which House Republicans would run in 2020 if Sanders is the Democratic nominee (see the 9-minute mark of that conversation).

As you watch future debates, ask yourself whether the candidates are making empirical statements, and then look to see whether there are data to support those statements. That is what Lou Jacobson and the folks at PolitiFact do on a regular basis and it is an invaluable service.

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