Friday, October 31, 2008

Election Night: What I will be looking to see

Election night is right around the corner. One more weekend push and then we vote. Whew! When Barack Obama says he's been campaigning for 20 months, it is hard to believe it. It seems like yesterday when I predicted that Hillary Clinton would be facing Mitt Romney in November. Boy, was I wrong!

Back in 1980, the networks controversially called the election for Jimmy Carter quite early. If I recall, CBS made the call at 8 or 8:30 Eastern Time. Stories of voters abandoning the polls in the Western states have become legend, and may have affected the outcome in several House and Senate races to the detriment of Democrats. Most notably, Frank Church in Idaho might have lost his seat due to discouraged Democrats that either did not turn out or left the polls when it was announced that Carter had lost. It may also have adversely affected Bill Schulz's bid to knock off Barry Goldwater in Arizona.

That said, please, please, please vote even if news breaks early in the day about the shape of the contest. It is your constitutional right, and there are other important races on the ballot.

Now, on election night, what will I be paying attention to?

1. Polls close first in six states at 7 PM Eastern. This includes Indiana, Kentucky, and Virginia. Kentucky features an important Senate race. If Mitch McConnell loses, we'll know very early whether the Democrats have a chance to pick up 60 seats in the Senate.

2. My old home state of Indiana. I will be paying close attention to Putnam County (in fact, I'll be calling the county clerk's office to get vote totals directly that night). If Obama wins Putnam County or keeps it very close, it is a good sign that Indiana will fall to Obama. Why Putnam County? Because it is the type of county that he lost to Hillary in May: blue collar, culturally conservative, and white. I can't think of any scenario that has McCain winning the White House without Indiana, which has gone for Republicans in every election since 1964.

3. North Carolina and Georgia: these are states that if African-American voter turnout is exceptionally high, could switch strong red states to the blue column. If they fall to Obama, it will look to be a landslide in the making early. It will also likely impact two other Senate races. If Saxby Chambliss loses in Georgia, the Democrats will almost certainly reach 59 or 60 seats in the Senate.

4. Connecticut. Will Chris Shays, the lone Republican in the six New England states, survive to fight another day?

5. PA. Did John Murtha's comments about his constituents being racist turn a reliably blue House seat into one of only a handful of Republican pick ups for the evening? More importantly, McCain has staked his campaign on carrying PA. Polls recently have shown the race closing fast. If McCain can win here, he just might--might--pull off the election.

6. Nebraska. The state will go for McCain. But Nebraska apportions its electoral college votes thusly: 2 to the winner of the state vote, and 1 electoral vote to the winner of each congressional district. Omaha is quite familiar with Obama from the Iowa caucus and recent polls show the race in the district as competitive. It would be the first time since Nebraska has split its electoral college vote that they would cast a split total should Obama win in the district.

7. Washington State. The governor's race is a repeat of 2004, and this is one place where Republican prospects look bright.

8. Minnesota. Lots of fun stuff here. A Senate race where the independent candidate might play a spoiler (and undermine Franken's bid to take the seat and get the Democrats 60 votes in the Senate). Two really close House races, one that is close only because of some stupid comments by the incumbent (read Bachmann) that will tell us how big the Democratic tidal wave might be.

9. Alaska. Oh Alaska, how do I love thee? Let me count the ways: Young, Stevens, and Palin. Will Don Young, elected in the early 1970s and an institution in Alaska survive a competitive challenge from Ethan Berkowitz? And can a convicted felon (Ted Stevens) get re-elected to the Senate or will Uncle Ted go down to popular Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich?

There are other of things I will be paying attention to, but this is the short, short version.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

You're not voting for McCain or Obama, technically

A few weeks ago, I was sitting in my office doing some work and I got a phone call from what I thought was a reporter. The person on the other end of the line asked me if it's true that we don't really vote for the candidates listed on the ballot. I replied that was correct. Technically, when we cast our ballots in the presidential election, we vote for electors that are pledged to that candidate.

The voice on the other end of the line asked me, "Well, then how do we know that they will vote for the person they are pledged to?"

My response: you don't, and that's the point. The Electoral College was set up as one last check against majority tyranny by the Founding Fathers. When we cast our ballots, we actually cast our ballots for a slate of electors who then cast their ballots for their presidential choice. And they can choose to express themselves however they wish, regardless of their individual pledge to a candidate. Each elector represents one of the state's electoral college votes. In Montana, then, we have three electors that will cast their ballots in December for president. Who wins the popular vote in the state will have the three electors pledged to them cast Montana's electoral votes. This vote total is received by the Secretary of the Senate and that becomes the official election tally.

In case you were wondering, here are the electors pledged to McCain and Obama:

1. Thelma Baker
2. Errol Gault
3. John Brenden

1. Chas Jankier
2. Ann Milbrooke
3. Greg Jerguson

The likelihood of an elector NOT casting their ballot for the candidate to whom they are pledged is quite rare. First, the electors are generally good party members and friends of the candidate. Second, some states have laws that require electors to cast their ballots for the candidate who wins the popular vote in the state (of course, I think these laws are constitutionally dubious but, to my knowledge, they've never been challenged). Montana is one of these states. This suggests, of course, that the check on majority tyranny is no longer a check but a simply constitutional formality ratifying the will of the people.

The last time an elector did not cast their ballot as pledged was in 1976 when one of Gerald Ford's electors cast his ballot for Ronald Reagan.

By the way, the person who called me was not a journalist but a chef. He and his colleagues were simply discussing this while preparing for the lunch crowd, and wanted to know who Montana's electors were.

Monday, October 13, 2008

A Push Call?

I received an interesting phone call this evening concerning my state legislative race. I live in House District 63, which was decided in 2006 by 47 votes. JP Pomnichowski won that race and is running against her 2006 opponent, Tom Burnett. This is one of the most hotly contested races in the state and might well decide who controls the legislature this spring.

Given that all politics are local in Montana and we are a lightly populated state, I took the opportunity to meet both candidates. I enjoyed meeting both and felt either would do a good job. I made a tentative decision concerning who I liked best, but was open to being persuaded by either side before making my final choice in November.

Tonight, I received what I can only term as a push call. On the caller ID, the identifier came up as "Name Not Found". In fact, these folks have been calling us all day trying to reach us. The phone number was listed as: "1-140-600-0000." The caller did not identify themselves, but merely said that one of the two candidates was bad for Bozeman for this and that. They then asked me if I would promise not to vote for candidate X on Election Day. I simply said, "Fascinating" and then the caller hung up.

I have no problem with negative advertising. I want to know all the information--good and bad--before deciding for whom I vote. In fact, one of the reasons I refuse to vote early is because I want to make sure I don't miss any information that might sway my vote.

But this phone call irritated me. The group did not identify itself, did not have a phone number where I might call them back, and ducked cowardly behind the caller ID of "Name Not Found". If you are going to attack a candidate, a person who is running for office and trying to serve their state/country, then that candidate and the voters have the right to know who is broadcasting the negative messages. How can I evaluate this information fairly and justly as a voter if I can't figure out who sponsored the message in the first place? Television advertisements require the sponsor to identify themselves. Phone callers should be required to do the same, and I think the state legislature should seriously consider sponsoring legislation to require just that.

Negative Ads as a Positive to Democratic Discourse?

John Greer, a political scientist at Vanderbilt, wrote the following piece about the virtues of campaign negativity in Sunday's Washington Post. Read it here.

Greer makes many of the same points I've made to students in lectures over the past five years, and in op-ed pieces. Negative ads are more memorable, contain more accurate information, and focus more on issues than positive ads. Campaigns are about disagreements, so advertisements should highlight the differences between candidates. In fact, we should expect it.

There is also some evidence that more money and more advertisements increases turnout and voter learning. The rationale is simple: the richer and denser the information environment, the lower the barriers to voting. In absence of information, voters are less likely to participate and it is harder for them to make a decision.

Want proof? Try making an informed decision between local school board candidates this fall and you'll see what I mean. Given the dearth of information produced by these low information campaigns and the lack of attention paid to them by the media, you'll probably become frustrated long before you find out anything meaningful about the candidates. And, in the end, you'll probably not vote for either candidate.

But you will vote for the presidential candidates, because you will have all the information you need at your fingertips, courtesy of the press and all those negative ads.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Presidential Debate, Part Deux

No debate party tonight, unfortunately. Here are some quick thoughts about the debate from my notes:

1. Obama had answers which elicited, more consistently, positive responses from the CNN focus group. In particular, he seemed to do well among women in the focus group.

2. McCain is much better at navigating the Town Hall format, physically. But Obama did a better job directly answering the questions.

3. Not much new. McCain's home mortgage policy plan was interesting, and might get him a bit back in the economic game. I do find it interesting, though, that everyone is so surprised that there ISN'T much new. To some extent, there shouldn't be. Messages should be well honed and repeated for people to get it. The reason why candidates buy SO many TV ads is it takes repeating a message several times before it sinks in. Teachers and advertisers know this. Journalists should, too.

4. The question I was most interested in was the sacrifice question. Good leaders steer Americans in a particular direction, and the best presidents ask for sacrifices in time of need. Obama's answer was better in this regard, while McCain went to his standard earmark answer. Obama talked about creating an ability to serve in a variety of capacities. He noted that young people hunger to make this country better, and he would provide the opportunities for them to do that. McCain, the person who found himself in service to his country, should have nailed this question. How each answered this question, I felt, said a lot about what they will expect of us. Obama got it right, McCain missed an opportunity.

5. McCain's answer on Russia was great. Balanced, carefully crafted, and smart.

6. Obama attacked McCain's healthcare plan by suggesting that insurance companies will move to the state with the fewest regulations and restrictions. This is the old race to the bottom versus the race to the top argument I talk about when we discuss federalism in my introductory classes. The problem is there is evidence for a race to the top and the bottom. California, in establishing state emissions standards, has effectively created higher national standards because it isn't cost effective for Detroit to make cars only to meet California's standards. So, I didn't buy Obama's argument here.

7.Obama's answer on healthcare, being a right, was great because it told the personal story of his mother--and it strikes a chord with other Americans who had to battle insurance companies instead of battling their illnesses.

8. Can I just say that I really don't like town hall style debates?

Who won? Obama did well in the town hall format, which is McCain's domain. I think both did well, but the edge goes to Obama.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Biden v. Palin: Who won?

Spent another fun evening watching the debate with Montana State students. A couple of points:

1. Students thought, overwhelmingly, that Biden did a better job and won.
2. Of the three undecided voters in the room, two thought Palin had won and one called the debate a tie.
3. I asked students to write tomorrow's headline and consensus was "Palin holds her own in the debate."
4. I then asked if this was the headline, didn't Palin win?

Tonight on MSNBC I see a story that says, "Analysis: Palin tops debate expectations".

Perceptions matter, and if Palin held her own and that's the story, then perhaps she "won" the debate--if not on points--then on general perceptions.

Nevertheless, the students felt--and I agree--that the debate was not a game changer. And given that Obama is moving ahead at this point, this hurts McCain.

One thing I didn't mention during our conversation was the whole exchange concerning Cheney's conception of the Vice Presidency--as an Article I office and not an Article II office. Essentially, Palin--while not directly answering the question--suggested that she wants the Vice Presidency to have even more power. Biden indicated that Cheney was the worst Vice President in history and Cheney's conception of the office as an Article I office is patently wrong.

I thought Palin's answer curious. Certainly, it spoke to the base. But I'm not too sure it was a good answer for independents or wavering Democrats.

I must admit, I'm not too excited listening to partisans on TV "analyzing" who won or lost the debate. We KNOW what they are going to say...(Chris Matthews to Bill Richardson, "Who do you think won the debate". Bill Richardson: "Joe Biden". DUH! Big surprise).

Again, I was very impressed with the care and thought the students put into analyzing and thinking about the debate. Bravo! You will all become social scientists yet!