Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Is there something in the water in Illinois?

Governor Rod Blagojevich: Really stupid and cocky crook.

What is the deal in Illinois? Putting Barack aside for the moment, here are some of the public officials the voters have elected to various offices in the past:

1. Governor Blagojevich: The target of a corruption probe for the past three years, the FBI arrests him for attempting to sell Obama's Senate seat to the highest bidder.

2. Governor Ryan: In jail over federal corruption charges that included selling licenses and services to the highest bidder in the state.

3. Senator Carol Mosley-Braun: Met with a dictator in Nigeria, and was under investigation by the FEC and charged with several violations (but could do nothing because the FEC's enforcement is a joke).

4. The Daleys: Enough said.

5. Dan Rostenkowski: Indicted in the House post office scandal in 1994.

Here are some others--all governors--courtesy of William Spain, at the Wall Street Journal:

"Otto Kerner, a Democrat who was convicted in 1973 on 17 counts of bribery, conspiracy, perjury and other charges before being sentenced to three years in the pen. The federal prosecutor in that case, James Thompson, later ascended to the governor's chair and wound up getting his law firm to defend Ryan for free.
Dan Walker was convicted in 1987 -- years after leaving office -- of bank fraud. Serving from 1973 to 1977, with a reputation as a reformer, he was the last Democratic governor of the state before Mr. Blagojevich took office in 2003.
Lennington Small, a Republican, served from 1921 to 1929. He was indicted while in office for embezzlement related to actions taken when he was state treasurer. He was later acquitted; several of the jurors in the case ended up with state jobs." The link to the article is here.

This state is nuts. It's like the voters can't help themselves...they have to have corrupt elected officials, otherwise they wouldn't know how to keep themselves entertained.

What a sad, sad, state of affairs.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Nebraska: 4 to 1

The person who wins the most votes in each state during the presidential campaign gets all the electoral votes, right?


That's true for 48 of the states where the electoral college vote is winner take all. Maine and Nebraska, however, do it differently. In each case, the state awards two of its votes to the winner of the state popular vote total. The other votes are apportioned to the winner of the popular vote in each congressional district.

In November, Nebraska for the first time split its electoral college vote. Nebraska is a very Republican state and McCain swamped Obama overall, winning two of state's electoral college votes. He also beat Obama in the Third Congressional District (most of the state west of Lincoln) and the First Congressional District (including the area around Lincoln and roughly the eastern third). Obama, however, beat McCain in the popular vote in the 2nd Congressional District, which is essentially Omaha.

So, Obama gets 1 electoral college vote from Nebraska, and McCain gets 4.

Odds are the Republican-controlled legislature (which is nonpartisan, but not really) will change the law so this doesn't happen again...

I've been recovering from the election. Expect more posts about the election, Obama's administration, and other current events soon.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

What the Election Means to my students

Last night was an historic election to be sure. Rather than give my thoughts about what happened, I thought it best to ask my students to reflect carefully on what November 4th, 2008 meant to them. I asked them to watch both Barack Obama's victory speech in Grant Park, and John McCain's concession in Phoenix, and then carefully reflect upon the last 20 months of campaigning. Attached to this, in comment form, are their thoughts. After they have their say, I'll try to add some of my own reactions.

Now, without further ado, the students who were part of that 18 percent.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Reverse Bradley Effect and Undecided Voters

Charles Franklin, who taught me statistics at the University of Wisconsin, has a great post addressing the so-called Bradley Effect and undecided voters. Read it here.

Franklin uses empirical data to suggest that the Bradley Effect, if it exists at all, will have a marginal effect in the aggregate. Second, he notes that it appears that undecided voters will break evenly for McCain and Obama.

There's been much speculation about both of these issues. Franklin's analysis actually looks at data to answer the question and is a great example of fine social science.

On the question of undecided voters, I've heard the following:

a) Undecided voters are likely to break for McCain, who is the known quantity.
b) Undecided voters are likely to break for Obama, because they want change.
c) Undecided voters are likely to not vote.

So, which is it?

Context matters in figuring out undecided voters. In the case of a presidential election, voters have enormous amounts of information available to them about both candidates. In this instance, it is hard to see--especially given the amount of money the Obama campaign has spent and McCain's long presence on the national scene--that an undecided voter does not have enough information to make a decision about Obama or McCain.

This is different from your run of the mill congressional election. For example, a congressional election generally features lots of information about the incumbent and relatively little about the challenger. Undecideds, in this situation, are likely to break for who they know best ABSENT mitigating factors. If, however, national events and the challenger's campaign have raised enough questions sufficient to put doubts in the minds of the voter about the incumbent, it is more likely that undecided voters will break for the challenger to express those doubts and concerns.

Undecided voters in a high information contest without an incumbent such as this year's presidential race are likely cross-pressured voters, to use the classic term from one of the earliest studies on voting behavior (Berelson et al 1954). In short, there are issues that pull them in both directions simultaneously. A good example might be a voter who is concerned about the economy and national security. Economically, perhaps they like Obama's plans better, but McCain's experience on defense matters pulls them in the opposite direction.

Franklin's data suggests that undecided voters will split their vote on Election Day between the two candidates. That is probably the case. But also important to remember is those who are cross-pressured face a difficult decision which is cognitively unpleasant. A portion of those voters are just as likely to stay at home than make the difficult choice.

To summarize, I do not anticipate McCain picking up undecideds by two to one, as his campaign suggests. If he does, then he's got a shot on Tuesday.

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!

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Madam Speaker: Use the Rules!

There's an extensive commentary about whether the bailout is the right thing to do.

And there's also an extensive commentary about why the bailout failed in the House yesterday.

I think the bailout vote failed in part because the majority party didn't make good use of their most powerful ally: creative rules.

Most major legislation is brought to the House floor by using a rule. As I tell my students in my Legislative Process class, when bills emerge from committee they are placed on the House Calendar. However, very often major pieces of legislation need to be acted upon before their place on the calendar. In these instances, the majority party leadership will ask the rules committee for a rule to bring the bill up for debate earlier. And in the case of major legislation that is very carefully crafted, the majority party will ask for a rule to protect the carefully crafted compromise from hostile amendments.

In absence of a rule governing debate on a bill, nearly anything can happen. Anyone might submit an amendment, and debate might drag on for sometime. Instead, rules typically proscribe the length of the debate and the amendments that will be in order. Before taking up a bill with a rule, the rule is debate and voted upon first, and then--once the rule passes (a near-certainty)--debate will be take up under the guidelines of the rule.

For example, a rule might indicate that debate will be for one hour, with time equally divided between proponents and opponents of the bill. No points of order will be allowed, and only two amendments made by the chair of the committee of jurisdiction will be allowed.

The vote on the bailout was a difficult choice for many members, particularly members in the majority party from marginal districts or those running for higher office. Nearly all of them voted no. Had members from marginal districts voted yes, then the Democrats would have had an ample margin to pass the bill.

Why didn't those Democrats vote yes? Because the bill put them in a tough position. Much of the public is opposed to the bailout, and in this instance, those members chose to act as delegates rather than trustees. And who could blame them?

Pelosi, though, could have anticipated this and drafted a rule that would have allayed the concerns of these members. For example, she could have brought the bill up for consideration under a King of the Hill rule. This rule allows votes on several alternative versions of the bill. The bill that is in the final position is the only vote that will count.

So, one could imagine crafting several different versions of the bill to allow those members in tough re-election fights to vote for or against several other versions of the bill and then casting their vote in favor of the final version. Then they could go back to their constituents and say: "I voted against all these harsher versions" or "I voted for all these harsher versions" before I doing the "right" thing and voting for the compromise legislation.

But Pelosi didn't do that. The bill failed, and the stock markets collapsed.

Pay careful attention to what the leadership does next. Stay tuned, and follow the rule and the proposed legislation here.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Using Senate and House Races as predictors

Coattails. Political scientists make a big deal about the ability of presidential candidates to drag Senate and House candidates into the legislature behind them. Frankly, presidential coattails have been getting rather short over the past thirty years. Reagan's electoral victory in 1980 brought him a Republican majority in the Senate and dragged a number of conservatives into the House, but after that, presidential candidates have generally underperformed on the coattail metric. Clinton actually had negative coattails in 1992: a net loss of 9 House seats and no gains in the United States Senate. In 1996, Democrats gained 8 House seats but lost 2 in the Senate. And of course, Republicans lost two and four House and Senate seats, respectively, in 2000 despite a Bush victory.

These "split" results are all the more interesting given the propensity of voters to increasingly vote unified tickets since the 1980s. That is, voters are more likely today to cast straight party tickets than they were nearly thirty years ago. Coattails have diminished for other reasons, most notably due to the decline of competitive House seats (likely do to residential self-selection and increasingly sophisticated gerrymandering by the parties).

Given this tidbit, it is interesting to see what's happening in the Senate and House races across the country right now.

At the moment, according to some estimates, Democrats may pick up as many as seven or eight seats in the Senate. And Democrats might pick up 5 to 10 seats in the House.

What might this tell us about the presidential election?

Here's a look at the Senate seats Democrats are poised to pick up (according to the website electoral-vote.com):

New Mexico
North Carolina
New Hampshire

In 2004, all but Oregon and New Hampshire cast electoral college votes for Bush. Now, Sarah Palin certainly secures Alaska for McCain. But if voters in the other states vote for their Democratic Senate candidates and Obama together, then the election isn't even close. Picking up these states and holding those states that Kerry won in 2004 yields an electoral college vote of 294 for Obama. If only NM and VA flip, Obama is the new president.

I simply do not agree with media assessments that this race will come down to the same battleground states of Ohio, Michigan, Florida, and Pennsylvania. The electoral map has been expanded, and in part, Obama can thank the efforts of both Howard Dean and the Democratic Senatorial Committee. Dean built the Democratic party infrastructure in so-called red states, while Chuck Schumer aggressively courted quality challengers to run for the Senate.

Competitive campaign environments saturate the information environment for voters, making it easier to overcome the costs of voting. This should increase turnout and increasing turnout likely benefits Democrats, given that their natural constituencies are less likely to vote than Republican constituents. Mark Warner will win in November, and if Obama wins Virginia, he very likely will have Mark Warner's campaign to thank. Coattails indeed.

Friday, September 26, 2008

The Debate

Tonight, I watched the Obama-McCain Debate with about 50 Montana State students. It was a treat: I really enjoyed learning from the students and sharing our thoughts about the debate. I can't wait until the VP debate next week.

A couple of quick thoughts:

I thought this was one of the best presidential debates I've watched. Both candidates were serious, both candidates were articulate, and both candidates demonstrated a deep understanding the issues. Gosh, I can't imagine a time when I've been really proud of BOTH candidates.

What shocked me was how the undecided students reacted to the debate. Every single one of them thought Obama had won. I, however, had a harder time figuring out who won. IF we accept that the McCain is better on foreign policy and that Obama demonstrated that he could play effectively on that terrain, then that suggests that Obama won with a "tie".

We watched the debate on CNN and I paid a lot of attention to the lines indicating how voters reacted to the statements of the candidates. I missed the pre-debate discussion that the voters were actually a group of OH voters (32 voters) and not a representative group of voters. Yet, CNN labeled the graph as the audience reaction. We agreed that CNN should have labeled the graph as Focus Group voters.

What was notable in this debate was the lack of pithy sound bites. There was no clear line, in my opinion, from either candidate that will be played over and over.

I asked students about what disappointed them about both candidates. Some were disappointed by the snipping and bickering between the two candidates. Perhaps this is generational, but I really liked them going after each other. What disappointed me was both their answers on the bailout: I wanted more specifics.

Students felt that both candidates should pay attention to how voters reacted to their statements. I found it amazing that McCain did not do as well vis a vis the focus group. There were moments when the self-identified GOP voters gave Obama high marks, and I noticed that more often than not McCain did well with his base but less so with independents and Democrats. McCain has to do better with those independents to win.

We'll do this again next week, so stay tuned!

Monday, September 22, 2008

$700 Billion: Where's the Fireside Chat?

I was reading the Washington Post this evening, as I typically do, and I noted a piece on the front page where folks in Manassas Park, VA were asked what they thought about the government's proposed bailout of banks. Manassas Park is notable because it is apparently a part of Prince William County that's been hit hard by foreclosures. It's one of those exburb type communites--30 miles from DC--where subdivisions have cropped up over the past decade and where gas prices hit commuters hard. Read the piece here.

In any case, despite the desperate straits folks find themselves in, hardly anyone expressed support for the government's bailout plan.

Then it dawned upon me: Where's the Fireside Chat?

If this is the greatest economic crisis since the nation faced the Great Depression, why hasn't the President appeared on national television to explain the crisis in detail so the average person could understand it? If this is so important to the national well being, shouldn't the President at least try to get public opinion behind it?

Let's put this into some historical perspective. Banks were failing all over the country in 1933, right before FDR was inaugurated. The average level of educational attainment was much lower than today-perhaps an 8th or 9th grade education. People did not understand why banks were failing, and why the federal government had called for a Bank Holiday. People were scared about losing their life savings. And so FDR, in the first of his fireside chats, spoke plainly and directly to the nation, putting them at ease, explaining how banks work and why the Bank Holiday was necessary. After the Bank Holiday ended, bank deposits soared. FDR had created a sense of national confidence despite the dire situation.

Listen to the first Fireside Chat here:

The educational attainment of Americans has gone up dramatically over the past 70 plus years. And yet, the crisis facing the mortgage and banking industry is much more complex. The average American simply doesn't understand what's going on--and yet we are expected to pledge more money than the government has spent on Iraq in an apparent bid to save those who lived outside their means. While there might be a very good reason to do this, it is absolutely necessary for the President to exercise leadership on this and to explain, carefully and patiently to the American people, why this is necessary--and necessary fast.

The bailout is no sure thing. Democrats are putting conditions on their support (some of those conditions are reasonable, while others are not) and Republicans in return are calling for their own conditions. If it is truly important to get this through Congress before they recess for the fall elections, and to do so without conditions, then the President must act and act forcefully. Maybe the President does not want to do so for fear that his low approval ratings might actually make the prospects of passage even worse. I'm not sure I agree.

But sitting back, without explaining to the nation why we should trust him, his Secretary of Treasury, his appointee to the Federal Reserve Chairmanship, and Capitol Hill's leadership, is abdicating one of his greatest responsibilities as an executive.

The Presidential Debates: Watch'm

The first presidential debate, on the campus of Ole Miss, will be held this Friday at 6PM MDT. Given that the political conventions this year drew the largest television audience in history, I suspect these events will be well-watched and will help many voters make up their minds.

To put the debates in perspective, here's a link to a great website with resources for all the past presidential debates.

The first televised presidential debate was in 1960 between JFK and Richard Nixon. Interestingly, people who heard the debate on the radio felt Nixon had won and those who watched the debates thought Kennedy had. The television audience was larger, and when you watch footage of the debate, it is easy to see why Kennedy was perceived as the victor: he looked confident, tanned, and attractive. Nixon, with his shifting eyes and four o'clock shadow showing through without the benefit of makeup, confirmed the suspicions many had of him. Fair or not, the image of JFK may have made the difference in one of America's closest presidential elections.

The key goal in a presidential debate is to at least meet expectations and not make any mistakes. Ford's claim that the Soviet Union did not dominate Poland probably hurt him in 1976. Reagan's performance in 1980 demonstrated that he wasn't the reactionary nut the Carter administration tried to paint him as, and George HW Bush's looking at his watch in 1992 during the town hall debate fed into the perception that he didn't understand the average person. And who can forget the first presidential debate in 2000: Al Gore's sighing, and Bush's inability to project confidence and policy knowledge.

Here's what I will be looking for on Friday:

Can McCain project energy to overcome the Obama's youthful image?
How will Obama deal with McCain's attacks?
Will McCain keep his temper in check?
Can Obama actually take the gloves off without coming off as mean (remember his snide remark to Hillary, "You're likeable enough?")
Can Obama articulate a vision of America and project an understanding of the average citizen?
Can McCain blunt Obama's advantage on the economy?

And, most importantly:

How many times will Obama mention the "McCain-Bush" team? And how many times will McCain mention Bush in return?

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Experience and the VP slot

There have been a lot of discussions in presidential campaigns about experience. How much experience is necessary to be a successful president? A successful Vice President? And what experience is relevant?

In this election, the experience question was most dramatically raised in the Democratic primary. Hillary Clinton ran ads suggesting Barack Obama did not have the experience necessary to answer the phone at 3 am. And over the summer, the McCain campaign attacked Obama as a celebrity with no experience. Now that Sarah Palin has been announced as McCain's VP nominee, the question has been raised again: does Palin have enough experience and the right experience to take over for McCain should the unthinkable happen?

First, let me say there is no constitutional mandate outlining the proper mix of experience. The only qualifications concern residency and age. That's it. The entire debate, then, is about the popular perception that experience matters and that some experience is better than other experience.

I was curious. How much experience did Sarah Palin have compared to other VP nominees in the twentieth century? And how does her experience as an executive--which the McCain folks argue is particularly important and useful--match up against other nominees?

I researched the backgrounds of each Republican and Democratic nomineee for Vice President, beginning in 1900. I looked only at elected office experience. Congressional scholars use this to define a quality challeger, so I employ the same definition here. I make no claims about the quality or type of experience in this analysis. That's up for you, the reader, to judge. I simply want to look at one easily quantifiable measure of experience. This chart here compares the Democratic nominee (in blue) to the Republican nominee (in red) in each election cycle:

Note that Palin is on the low end of elected office experience. Lloyd Bentsen is the clear winner here: he had more than 40 years of elected office experience when Mike Dukakis nominated him in 1988. Among Republicans, Hoover's Vice President Charles Curtis had 34 years of elective office experience when he stood for re-election in 1932. Overall, Republican nominees averaged 13 years of experience while Democratic nominees averaged 16. Palin's 12 years of elective office experience is just below the mean for Republicans, but she is certainly not the least experienced nominee in the 20th century. Among Republicans, Charles Dawes and Frank Knox had no elective office experience. FDR's second Vice President, Henry Wallace, was a well-respected agricultural expert and Agriculture Secretary, but similarly had no elected office experience.

Palin does stand out, however, in the amount of executive experience she has as a major party VP nominee. The modal category is zero--meaning most Vice Presidential candidates have zero executive experience. Look at this chart:

Republican and Democratic VP nominees average, collectively, about 2 years of executive experience. Again, we are only looking at elected executive experience, so Cabinet level offices do not count here. Among Republican nominees, only Earl Warren and John Bricker have more executive experience than Palin. Thomas Marshall, after serving a term as Woodrow Wilson's VP, had the same amount of executive experience as Palin does: eight years.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Who's the maverick?

Obama says he will bring change and a new nonpartisanship to Washington. McCain says he's the original maverick, and has the experience to prove it. Biden says McCain voted with President Bush 95% of the time; he's no maverick. The Republicans say Barack has no record of acting bipartisan in Washington.

Who's right?

The problem with cherry-picking data is it feeds into the old adage that students so often like to cite: "You can make statistics say anything."

Biden's statistics are correct: in 2007, John McCain supported President Bush 95% when the president announced a stand on a Senate roll call vote. This is according to the presidential support scores calculated by Congressional Quarterly annually, and used by political scientists who study both institutions. Unfortunately, this does not necessary answer the question of whether McCain is a maverick or not. Some media accounts report that there were a lot of immigration votes that year. It just so happened that Bush and McCain agreed on immigration: the problem was, the rest of the party left them hanging dry. Presidential support scores are problematic because they take a small subset of Senate roll call votes and don't give a good sense of whether someone is willing to buck the party.

Instead, I recommend looking at the party unity score--also calculated by Congressional Quarterly. This score is defined as the percentage of the time the member of Congress voted with their party when 50 percent of the party voted one way and 50 percent of the other party voted the other way (or vice versa).

For example, a party unity vote has to have at least half the Republicans voting nay on an issue and half the Democrats voting yea to be considered in the analysis. This eliminates procedural votes and commemorative legislation that often passes with overwhelming partisan majorities. This gives us a better look at who is willing to buck the party on a number of issues, whether the president takes a stand or not.

Here's a chart of McCain's Party Unity Averages by Congressional session, beginning with the 100th Senate and ending with the 109th. Next to McCain's score, you'll see the Republican Senate average for that session:

Congress McCain GOP Average
100 88 77
101 84 78
102 88 83
103 91 84
104 91 91
105 84 87
106 87 90
107 71 86
108 84 92
109 81 89

Like many members of Congress, McCain voted more often with the party early his career began to become more independent the longer he served. Indeed, we begin to see this drift during the 105th Congress (1997-1998). Three times, McCain's party unity average is almost a full standard deviation below the Republican mean: in the 107th, 108th, and 109th Congresses.

McCain is no Ralph Hall (who exhibited party unity scores in the 20s and 30s as a Democratic Representative from Texas in the House. He later switched parties and became a Republican). But he's clearly NOT the party unity poster boy Biden's comments make him out to be.

Now, what about Obama? Well, I only have data from the 109th Congress available to me. The Democratic party unity average in that session was 89 percent. Senator Obama's average was 96 percent. This suggests there is some truth to McCain's claim that he has the record of a maverick and Obama does not. Even Obama's running mate rated a 90 percent in the 109th Congress.

Now whether you knew McCain was a maverick from last night's speech, that's a different story.

Next time, I hope to do an analysis of pre-VP nomination experience to evaluate the claim that Palin has precious little experience compared to other past nominees.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Sarah Palin: An interesting choice

The reactions to McCain's choice of Sarah Palin as his VP nominee break into two camps:

The Democratic Camp: She's less experienced that Obama, and she's a hard core conservative that won't attract women.

The Republican Camp: She's a solid conservative that excites the base, and has the reformist credentials to out change Obama (and hence, will attract independents). And she'll attract disaffected woman upset with Obama's perceived slight of Hillary because he didn't even vet her for the VP slot.

Today's Washington Post had a number of pundits from both sides weighing in on Palin's nomination. Democratic pollster and author Douglas E. Schoen wrote the following: "An ardently pro-life, anti-gay rights woman is unlikely to appeal to whatever is left of Hillary Clinton's heretofore disaffected constituency after the Democrats' show of unity this week."

Schoen would be right on, but that's not the constituency McCain is trying to reach with Palin. Last year, in the months before the Iowa caucus, I read that Hillary Clinton's campaign was particularly focused on older women--especially those who were over the age of 65. The hope was, as it was expressed in several news outlets, that these women--who do NOT normally participate in the caucus process or vote Democratic in that process--might be convinced with the historic nature of the Clinton campaign to participate in the hopes of seeing the ultimate glass ceiling broken.

Well, those women were activated and many of them were activated for the sole purpose of voting for a woman on the national ticket. These newly activated woman are the ones that McCain hopes to reach with Palin. And these are EXACTLY the types for whom Palin's conservative record matters little. They already express skepticism with Obama, and perhaps the addition of Palin to the GOP ticket might convince them to vote for McCain this fall. I tend to believe that Palin, assuming she doesn't pull a Dan Quayle, can be just the game changer that McCain needs.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Party Conventions Matter

I read a piece the other day that lamented the arrival of 15,000 journalists in Denver to cover the Democratic convention.

Why did 15,000 journalists need to cover an uninteresting event? The nomination was settled, so why report on it at all? And, as a voter, why pay attention when nothing was happening?

I was troubled by this report because it assumed that the only reason conventions exist at all, is to decide the party's general election nominee. This is most certainly not true.

Yes, party conventions today simply ratify the decision made by primary and caucus voters many months ago. The excitement swirling around who might be the nominee, whether a dark horse might emerge, and party bosses pledging their state delegation's vote en masse are long gone. The death knell rang with the arrival of the primary election and the change in Democratic convention nominating rules away from the 2/3rds rule in the 1930s.

But the nomination of presidential candidate is one role of the party convention. There are plenty of other things conventions do and these things are worth observing.

First, conventions serve to bring the party together under one tent and banner, to prepare for the general election canvass in the fall. Old wounds are healed and activists are reinvigorated for the fall. We saw Hillary and Bill Clinton attempt to bring their supporters under the Barack Obama tent in Denver earlier this week.

Second, they allow political parties to stake out their issue agenda for the fall election. Conventions allow them to set the terms of the debate and what the party's stance is going into the election. Parties are responsible: they develop and adhere to a set of principles. Where are those principles articulated? At the convention.

Third, they excite the activist base. Monday night at the Democratic convention was all about getting the activists excited for the hard work ahead. Monday night was about the party's history, and a tribute to its past titans.

Fourth, they allow politicians from different parts of the country to introduce themselves to a national audience. Barack Obama certainly benefited from his speech to the Democratic convention in 2004. And our own Governor Schweitzer might benefit in the future from his rousing convention speech this year.

Finally, they are about defining the opponent. The Democratic Convention said very clearly how they want to define John McCain: More of the same.

In closing, conventions are important to the election campaign even if the nominee isn't in doubt. I urge you to tune in now, if you haven't already.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

National polls: Ignore them

I'm blogging from the great state of Alaska today. I've been doing research on Mike Gravel, one of the case studies for my next book. Very interesting subject about which I will have more to say at a later date.

A couple of national polls came out today showing McCain in the lead. See the story here.

I want to caution you. National polls are not terribly useful in an election contest decided by the electoral college. In other words, it's the state by state polls that really matter, not the popular vote total nationally. More troubling for Obama are not national polls, but the Real Clear Politics State average of state polls that shows McCain inching ahead in the Electoral Vote Count. That's a better indicator of where the race is and the challenges both candidates face.

But, again, it is so very early in the game right now. What really matters is how both candidates perform at the convention, who they choose for running mates, and where the election stands in each state after the Republican Convention. That's when much of the electorate will begin to tune in and pay attention.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Alaska Redux: Stevens, Part Deux

Is this Alaska's new Senator?

As I'm going to Alaska this weekend for a two week research trip, I thought I would comment again on Senator Stevens (R-AK).

I read somewhere, perhaps in the Post or the Times, an account suggesting that scandal or not, Stevens might still pull this thing off come November.


I don't think I'm going out on a limb here when I say that the Republicans will lose the Alaska Senate seat unless they get Ted Stevens off the ticket. Then, they'll need to put him in a box and hide him until long after all the ballots are cast just in case.

The fact of the matter is the bribery scandal is the tip of the iceberg for Stevens. The federal investigation into the corruption of Alaska's public officials began in 2006. Stevens' home was raided by the FBI in 2007. Combined with Stevens' age, the investigation probably prompted popular Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich to seriously consider and ultimately decide to launch his campaign against Stevens in early 2008.

The power of incumbency is the ability, first and foremost, to discourage serious, quality challengers from emerging. Incumbency failed for Stevens because he was unable to do that. The scandal and Stevens' age put questions in the minds of voters and the Alaskan political elite: can Stevens continue to be effective at his job? Once he became an issue, and a quality challenger made the decision to take a run at him, the chances of Stevens winning decreased markedly. It is hard to see how he can win while mounting a serious legal challenge against the federal government's case.

Republicans, and Stevens himself if he is still the nominee, will likely pour money into this campaign. While Alaska is a cheap media market, there are only so many ads one can buy. The question becomes where to spend additional money. And, given that Stevens is so well-known, that money is much less likely to be effective. Begich doesn't have to outspend Stevens to be successful--he merely needs to spend ENOUGH money to get his message out and provide an attractive alternative to Stevens. I think he can do both. Begich can even make the argument that Stevens will be less effective in a Democratic-controlled Senate than he would be.

The last two Rasmussen polls show an 8 (July 17th) and 13 (July 30th) point lead for Begich (see here). I just don't see how Stevens can change the dynamic in the race and remove himself as the issue--unless he can unload on Begich with a devastating negative attack that sticks.

At the end of the day, I don't think the question is whether Alaska will have a new Senator come December. The question is, rather, will that Senator be Begich or some other Republican that the party nominates to fill Stevens' place on the ballot.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Drinking too much of the Kool-Aid

There's been a lot of attention in the last 24 hours to the issue of race in the presidential race. Obama has suggested that Republicans will attack him because he's black, and McCain has angerily rebutted that Barack is the one who is injecting race into this campaign.

I'm not terribly interested in this dialogue. I'm more interested in how McCain and Barack are trying to establish their biographical bonafides, to make the case that they can be the leader America needs.

Obama's campaign has been of the classic outsider variety: Washington is broken, and I am the one who can fix it. At times, his campaign has been inspirational and lofty. Of late, however, one gets the feeling that perhaps Obama is a bit overly impressed with himself.

McCain, on the other hand, began his general election campaign re-introduction with an ad highlighting his experience as a POW in Vietnam. Combined with an Internet ad release showing clips of Churchill and TR, the message was clear: he's a person of strong character and will, and hence, he has the capacity to be a strong leader. But one wonders if this is an advantage in today's political environment.

Both campaigns are centered on the question of leadership, but both are approaching the question from very different angles. Which dialogue will win is anyone's guess, but this election feels very much like 1976. Voters were disgusted with corruption and scandal, and wanted a fresh, honest face. That face, of course, was one-term Governor Jimmy Carter. Obama is this year's Jimmy Carter.

McCain's biography is his weakest and strongest suit. Voters are eager for change, and they've experienced a President who was certain that he was right. As Bush himself put it, "You may not agree with me, but at least you know where I stand." In this sense, McCain's inflexibility (an asset at other times) might actually hurt him come November.

McCain and his staff, of course, are worried that Obama's change argument will win the day. McCain's campaign has chosen to attack Obama's perceived strength--as an agent of change--by suggesting he's not experienced enough to do the changing. This is the classic response to an outsider challenge: sow the seeds of doubt among voters. But McCain's response is different from past attempts. Look here:

The McCain folks are lambasting Obama, ridiculing him. This is a stronger attack than the one Bush Senior made against Bill Clinton (essentially calling him a two-bit Governor of a two-bit state). This ad, along with the celeb ad, make us question Obama's sincerity and whether there is any "there there", so to speak. One might say that McCain is taking from Hillary's playbook: It's 3AM, do you want this guy answering the phone? Or, do we want someone else in the White House who doesn't have any doubts--just like W?

Doubts remain about Obama among voters. They should. He's less known than McCain--and there's a lot of time left to update one's priors and make a more informed decision about him. McCain is hoping that in voting for change, voters vote for experienced change. It's a risky gamble, but to win in November, McCain will have to take some risks in this political atmosphere that's becoming more and more toxic for Republicans.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Senate Stevens is a cooked goose

Today, the DOJ announced that a grand jury has indicted Senate Ted Stevens, the longest serving Republican in the Senate, on charges of lying about gifts and services he received from VECO Corporation in excess of $250,000.

Stevens was already facing an uphill battle as the popular Democratic Mayor of Anchorage, Mark Beigh, is running against him. He's also being challenged in the Republican primary.

In researching my next book, Losing: When Incumbencies Fail, lots of factors explain why incumbents fail to get re-elected: age, perceptions of incompetence, partisan tides, maverick behavior that undermines support within your party, first re-election test, and scandal. Scandal, however, particularly the kind that involves personal ethics and judgement, is generally the kiss of death for an incumbent. It is really, really hard to convince constituents to trust you when you are being charged with corruption and bribe-taking. And it is a very powerful narrative for a challenger to employ.

This spells serious problems for Republicans. Alaska is fairly safe Republican territory and a seat they need to retain in order to have any hope of stemming Democratic gains in the Senate this fall. The prospect of losing this seat is a bad omen for them indeed.

It also continues to tarnish the party's brand name. The last thing Republicans wanted was the Culture of Corruption argument to haunt them in a second election cycle. How can it not when the Dean of their party in the Senate can no longer serve as ranking member because of the Senate's rules preventing those under indictment from doing so?

If your a Democrat, you should be smiling with glee. If you're a Republican, things look pretty grim (a la 1974 grim).

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Democracy is messy

The New York Times had an interesting editorial in yesterday's edition. It concerns county and city ordinances restricting the placement of campaign signs on lawns. See the article here.

I sent a letter to the editor today concerning their editorial. I applaud the New York Times for drawing attention to these noxious ordinances, but perhaps a greater threat to our constitutional freedoms are the condominium and home owners associations we join when we buy property. In many instances, these associations have covenants and bylaws curtailing, and some instances banning, the placement of signs--political and otherwise. While constitutionally permissible (the association is a private association and individuals are not compelled to join them), these sign bans are troubling. Many Americans sign away their rights without knowing it, but worse, it curtails political speech--the type of speech most cherished by the Founders and receiving the most protection from the courts. These restrictions are often defended as a way to protection home owner investment and the value of their home. I know of no empirical evidence or study that suggests that campaign signs undercuts the real estate value of a home. Besides, shouldn't we care more about the freedom to speak our mind and engage in the democratic process than whether we gain or lose $100 off the value of our home?

For example, here's language from my townhouse association documents here in Bozeman:

I urge you to check out the bylaws for your association and consider mounting an effort to protect political speech in our communities. Two years ago, to protest our ridiculous sign restrictions, I put signs for both the Democratic and Republican congressional candidates on my lawn. Strike a blow for freedom: plaster your lawn with campaign signs come this fall.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Flip Flopping: When is a flip a flop?

John McCain, a self-proclaimed Republican maverick, has long been known as a deficit hawk. He has attacked pork barrel spending with glee, in part to emphasize the need to spend carefully and balance the budget.

It was in part a desire to balance the budget that led to his opposition to the Bush tax cuts, as they were not offset with sufficient program cuts.

Now, he's running for president, and he supports extending the tax cuts permanently.

Barack Obama won the primary, in part, on his opposition to the Iraq War. Now, he's willing to weigh his options after travelling to the war zone later this week.

Both have been tagged by the media, and each other, as flip floppers. Certainly, a characteristic that people admire in politicians and leaders is fortitude and a clear sense of purpose. Flip flopping is seen as opportunistic. For example, Hillary Clinton received a lot of flak for calling for a gas holiday--a stance which seemed out of place with her emphasis on green jobs and the environment. And can one forgot John Kerry's "I voted for it before I voted against it?" How come Hillary couldn't get a way with a flop, when others--such as Ronald Reagan (the avowed tax cutter who raised taxes)--can? And when should we judge a flip-flop truly a flop and problematic?

There are no hard and fast rules about flip flopping. Sometimes, the answer lies in the salience of the issue. Flip-flopping is easy when the issue isn't on the radar screen or considered to be very important to voters. Sometimes, politicans can flip flop because their credentials are so solid that they can't be suspect (Ronald Reagan's years of espousing tax cuts and smaller government). It is harder when the issue is important among voters, or if the issue cuts at the core of the politician's individual brand name.

McCain has not flopped on Iraq, but has on taxes and on the environment (see off-shore drilling). Interestingly, his firm stance on Iraq and the surge may have proven correct, but it is also an issue on which the public is firmly against him. In this instance, McCain might be hurt by his unwillingness to flip-flop, especially given Bush's general intransigence is no longer seen as a strength among the public.

Barack's flip-flop, on the other hand, may not hurt him at all. A willingness to reassess the situation on the ground when new facts present themselves is a mini-flip flop, and doesn't really undermine his anti-war credentials.

McCain's flip flops, particularly on taxes, strikes at the core of who he is. It might shore up his support among his political base, but strikes others (independents and Democrats) as the political opportunism that Hillary displayed in support of the gas tax holiday (which McCain also supports). Furthermore, his unwillingess to move on Iraq hurts his maverick brand, as he appears to simply want to continue the Bush administration's policy.

McCain's key strength is his military experience and his willingness to talk straight. Whenever he flip-flops, he undermines that brand. Obama's brand is change. As such, flip flopping is less of a problem--unless Obama's flops make his look less like change and more like the same. In keeping an open mind about Iraq, one might argue Obama's position is consistent with change as the administration and McCain has been less willing to do the same.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

How much for a gallon of milk...gas...OJ?

When I worked on a presidential campaign, one of my duties was to put together a memo for the candidate whenever he came to the state. The memo would include the price of a gallon of milk, bread, and a gallon of gas. Why did my candidate need this information? Because if he didn't know the price of these things when asked by the media, he'd be accused of being "out of touch" with the concerns of average Americans.

Well, it's begun again in this political season:

Symbolism is powerful in politics: Gerald Ford munching into a tamale without taking off the husk, George HW Bush in awe of a grocer scanner, Mike Dukakis in the tank. But, let's be real here: wouldn't you rather have your candidate concerned with knowing what's going in Iraq or Afghanistan than whether they pump their own gas?

Friday, June 27, 2008

Ike and Mac; Korea and Iraq

In 1952, the country was deeply entrenched in an unpopular war across the globe. Opponents of the Korean War called it, "Mr. Truman's War". The country wasn't in the best shape economically, either. Steel strikes threatened production, and Truman took an expansive view of executive powers to seize the mills to keep them in production, fearful that if they shut down, the troops wouldn't have the materials to fight the war.

Does this sound familiar? 2008 is similar--economic troubles, an unpopular war, and an administration that has sunk to near historic lows in Gallup approval ratings. Both in 1952 and in 2008, an unpopular incumbent was leaving the White House, and the party's nominee had to deal with the fallout. The only difference is the unpopular administration in 1952 was Democratic, today it is Republican.

Despite a wide-advantage in party identification, Eisenhower was able to beat Adlai Stevenson in 1952. How? In part, Eisenhower was enormously popular personally, as he lead the Allied forces in defeating the Germans in Europe. And, his background as a general provided him with an advantage over Stevenson: he could credibly claim that he would go to Korea personally and end the war.

If McCain wants to seriously contend in the fall, perhaps it is time for his own Ike moment. Iraq may have receded as a problem in the minds of voters, but Iraq is intimately tied to the economic concerns that are at the forefront of the campaign. Instead of saying we need to stay in Iraq, McCain needs to say he has the experience, the ability, and will to go to Iraq and get us out of the quagmire. At the very least, it might help him neutralize the advantage Obama has on this issue. While Obama can rightly say he was against the whole episode from the start, it is less clear that voters are willing trust that he has the experience necessary to produce a favorable outcome. McCain's claim has the potential--by the dint of his experience--to be viewed credibly by the voters.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Who owns who? Tuesday's Onion Funny.

I went to grad school in Madison, WI and read the Onion every week. Now they have video!

I like this video because, while it makes fun of the notion that lobbyists aren't getting what they want from politicians when they donate money, it gets closer to the truth than the average citizen might think. First, interest group money tends to flow to politicians who are already ideologically aligned with the interest group's goal. Money doesn't "buy" votes per se. Second, politicians also wield an incredible amount of control over the lobbyists themselves. In the 19th century, it was not uncommon for lawmakers to pass legislation designed to blackmail corporations or other interests. The corporations would be forced to donate money to the party in order to have the law, which undermines the corporations interests, repealed. Today, what lobbyist in DC ignores a summons to the fundraiser hosted by the chair of the House Appropriations Committee? Just look at where corporate money has flowed after the 2006 elections: the Democrats. Why? Corporations would certainly prefer a Republican majority as more favorable to their interests, but woe is the corporation and its lobbyist firm that ignores giving donations to the new majority in town.

And that is the true power of money: it may not buy votes, but it most probably buys access and a seat at the legislative table. For all the ink that is split on the power of lobbyists and their money, in fact, we'll never know which bills or amendments are NOT offered because a donation is given.

In The Know: Are Politicians Failing Our Lobbyists?

Friday, June 20, 2008

The Real Ralph Nader of 2008: Bob Barr

Now that the nominees for both the major parties are settled, it's time to talk about another nominee who has largely escaped notice: Bob Barr.

In late May, the Libertarian Party nominated for president former Republican Congressman Bob Barr. Barr's nomination will undoubtedly cause John McCain problems come November, and he may very well play the role of spoiler that Ralph Nader did in 2000.

McCain is viewed warily at best among conservative Republicans, particularly those who are religiously conservative. But he is also viewed with suspicion among Hayek-espousing libertarians who don't support the war in Iraq. These folks, of course, contributed heavily to Ron Paul's campaign and routinely delivered 20 percent of the vote or more in late Republican primary states well after the nomination had been all but delivered to McCain.

The problem for McCain is these Ron Paul supporters are clustered in states where he needs to do well to win in November. Additionally, it is interesting to note the relationship between Ron Paul's support to Ross Perot's support in 1992.

The following table looks at Perot's 10 best states in 1992, lists the percentage of the vote George Bush got in 2004, and Ron Paul's performance in the Republican primaries (or caucuses, as the case may be) this year:

I then added the latest polling in these states on the matchup between Obama and McCain. The highlighted states, four in number, represent those states where Barr might possibly draw enough votes to tip the balance away from McCain in favor of Obama. Voters here have displayed a propensity to support third party candidates in the past, and have indicated a willingess to support a maverick member of the Republican Party this year. You can add Kansas to that list should Obama pick popular Governor Kathleen Sebelius.

The point of all of this is to say that Barr can help Obama in his effort to increase the number of states in play this fall. If McCain can't win Nevada, Alaska, and Montana, not only will he lose, he will likely lose big. Even more troubling from his perspective is Minnesota, a state that Republicans have tried to put into play since 2000. The latest polls indicate that Minnesota is again a swing state, but if Barr can pull even 5 percent of the vote (certainly not inconceivable given Perot's 26 percent in 1992 and Jesse Ventura's surprise gubernatorial victory a few years later), McCain's ability to put more "blue" states in play to force Obama to play defense himself will be severely hampered.

Add to this Obama's decision to opt out of public financing, and suddenly, the hill for McCain to climb becomes even steeper.

I should note that it appears that the Obama campaign has noticed this, too. Their recent ad buy reintroducing Obama to voters covers 18 states. Two of those states, Alaska and Montana, are Ross Perot-Ron Paul friendly states. One of those states, Georgia, is home to Bob Barr's former congressional district.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Tim Russert, RIP

I think this says it all.

I'll miss you on Sunday, and I'm sorry you won't be here for the big dance in November.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Indiana in play?

Last night, Hillary Clinton pulled off a razor thin victory in Indiana, beating Obama by about 2 percentage points. The effect is a toss-up, which damages severely Hillary's chances to continue her bid for the nomination.

On MSNBC last night, Chuck Todd drew a line across IN from about Terre Haute, south of Indianapolis, to just south of Muncie and announced that the line appeared to be Indiana's own "Mason Dixon" line. That is, white voters behaved very differently to the south of that line. In short, Hillary racked up huge margins in the Southern parts of the state (essentially, the 8th and 9th Congressional districts) that appears to be the result of older, white, blue collar workers who couldn't stomach Barack Obama's candidacy. The question is why? Was the issue race or class?

Exit polls indicated that in Indiana, BO did better than in PA on the question of the economy: 53% supported HRC if they thought the economy was the number 1 issue, while 47% supported BO.

What's interesting is voters were also asked whether race mattered in their vote. Overwhelmingly, those who said yes voted for HRC--and here's the interesting part: 70% of those over the age of 65 who said race mattered voted for her.

As someone who has lived a number of years in Indiana, the Mason Dixon line that Chuck Todd "happened" upon last night is nothing new. Anyone familiar with the history of the Civil War knows that Indiana south of Indianapolis was Confederate friendly country and probably would have seceeded if left to their own devices. Martinsville, IN was the home of the KKK's Grand Wizard, and the KKK dominated state politics through much of the 1920s. Surely BO's comments about bitterness and clinging to faith were not helpful. But race has always been an issue in the southern reaches of the state.

Looking at the results a bit differently, however, portends some possible problems for BO come the fall. BO won Tippecanoe (Purdue), Monroe (Indiana University), Marion (Indianapolis), St. Joseph (South Bend and Notre Dame), Allen (Fort Wayne), Lake (Gary), Hamilton (Indy suburb), Boone (another Indy suburb), and Elkhart counties. That's it folks. EVERY other county went to HRC. Jefferson county, a suburb of Louisville, went 66-33 for HRC (which might tell you how Kentucky will go). The margins elsewhere were similar.

Unless BO can change the dynamics of this election once he wraps up the nomination, he will have a tough time changing the electoral map. To win Colorado, Arizona, Nevada, and Virginia, he's going to have to reach out to those rural, white, lower class voters. McCain's biography is compelling to those voters, and BO is going to have a tough time topping him in this area. This means BO will have to beat McCain on the issues. Given the toxic nature of the Republican brand name these days, this should not be hard to do IF he can get off the nomination battle and onto the general election campaign. Last night, he signaled that he was prepared to do that.

HRC, unfortunately, seems less than willing. But given that campaigns are funded by resources (read The Power of Money in Congressional Campaigns, 1880-2006 for my take on this), she's going to have a tough go of it in the next few weeks. Money will begin to dry up and then she'll have little choice but to bow out.

And then BO can begin to repair the wounds of the primary and get his ducks in order for the fall campaign. Will Indiana be in play this fall? I would have to say, given the primary election results, that it is not very likely.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Hoosiers for Obama

Last night, I had the opportunity to see Barack Obama’s campaign rally here in South Bend. Tickets were gone within ten minutes on Tuesday, but because of my longstanding relationships with the local media, I was able to get credentials in return for some live post-event analysis.

As I sit here and begin to form my thoughts, I am reminded of the pitfalls and cautions of the participant-observer method of social science. Political scientist and congressional scholar Dick Fenno spent the bulk of his professional career following politicians around at home and in Washington to better understand their perceptions of representation. In a particularly interesting methodological piece (Watching Politicians: Essays on Participant Observation), Fenno has written how difficult it can be to put your own emotions aside and not become invested in the success of those you spend considerable time observing. Fenno notes that he came to like the senators and congressmen he travelled with, and found himself wanting them to win and to succeed regardless of their particular politics. To do good political analysis, it is important to remember to keep your own emotions and passions in check and not get caught up in the “moment”.

And yet, a political rally is perhaps the hardest place to keep those passions at bay. The very activity is designed to pull you up, to get you excited, to stomp your feet, to clap your hands, to say “Yes, We Can” with the crowd. I saw members of the media wearing Obama stickers and clapping with the crowd. I did my best to remain detached and stick to my main purpose for being there: to understand the sensation that is Barack Obama and why he might come out of the political wilderness and capture the presidential nomination.

In terms of Obama’s speech, I did not hear much that I hadn’t heard or read elsewhere. The speech was his standard spiel, and not particularly tailored to Indiana. Contrast this with Hillary’s speech, which had a laser-like focus on the economy and certainly was meant to stir the union folk in the crowd to action.

No, the speech itself did not tell me much about Obama. Rather, it was his unscripted moments that spoke volumes about the man. Unlike Hillary, Barack did not take questions. The questions allowed Hillary to showcase one of her strengths: the ability to talk policy. What struck me about Barack was his poise and confidence. But do not confuse confidence with arrogance. I’ve read elsewhere that Barack thinks he’s all that and a bag of chips. It will shock no one that politicians have egos; a healthy dose of ego is required put oneself through the gut-wrenching and exhausting daily slog that is a campaign.

Arrogance is not what I sensed. Instead, I sensed that this man knew who he was and was sure of his leadership abilities. And he was human. Barack was funny, engaging, and witty. At one moment, he said that he’s shaken tens of thousands of hands, and kissed hundreds of babies. Then he stopped for a moment and pointed to a baby in the crowd in front of him, saying, “And I’m going to kiss that baby, too. He’s a cutie”. The crowd roared its appreciation, and he chuckled. When he wrapped up his speech, the crowd began to shout, “NO, NO”. Barack just smiled and said, “C’mon guys, it’s late. We need to get some sleep so we can get to work.” Barack was, quite simply, engaging. He passes, I think, the beer buddy factor. I wanted belly up to the bar with him and quaff a brew or two with him.

The difference, though, is I felt I could talk about anything with him at that bar. Sports, religion, politics, faith, problems at the office—you name it. Barack seemed to me more like the close friend you confide in and share your problems with than the buddy you talk sports with while watching the game. Perhaps this explains some of his attraction: his ability, in a short period of time, to develop an attachment with people. Bill Clinton has this—some call it “EQ” or emotional intelligence. Presidential scholar Fred Greenstein has pointed out that EQ is something that is in short supply, but something that is particularly useful for successful leadership. A lack of EQ, on the other hand, can be devastating (witness Nixon).

For those looking for policy details, there were none. But the crowd didn’t seem to care. 3,500 folks turned out in the middle of the week and waited until 10:45 to see Barack. Some probably didn’t get home until after midnight. Yet no one left. The crowd was electric and the cheers for Barack upon his entrance deafening. This crowd didn’t need the details: it had largely made up its mind already. They wanted Barack, and they wanted him now. If the energy in that room translates into volunteering and voting, Barack may very well win Indiana—a state demographically more to Hillary’s favor.

This morning, as I conclude my thoughts on last night’s rally, I think back to Fenno: Did I keep my emotions in check? Could I stop myself from rooting for Barack? And the answer is no. But I rooted for Hillary after her rally, and suspect I would do the same after seeing John McCain. The simple fact of the matter, I am biased, but not in the normal way one might expect. Sure, I have particular policy beliefs and an ideological slant. But as I spend more time observing the political process, I’ve learned that I have another bias, too. I like politicians and I want to see them succeed. It’s too bad that they all can’t win.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Hoosiers for Hillary

As a social scientist, I spend a lot of time immersed in the "science" of politics. Every so often, however, I am reminded that I became a political scientist first and foremost because of my love of politics. I grew up in New Hampshire surrounded by the quadrennial election pageantry, and even spent a year and a half working on campaigns after graduating college.

This presidential election year is one of those moments that reminds me of how much I love politics and the American political system generally.

In May, I'll be moving to Bozeman to start my new position at Montana State. But right now I live in South Bend, IN. And Indiana is now, for the first time in a long time (some say 1968, but I say 1976) that Indiana has received this much attention in a presidential campaign from the major contenders. I've been telling my students to take advantage of this opportunity: go see the candidates, ask them questions, shake their hands. Although I have a number of projects I'd like to get finished sooner rather than later, I remembered that it was an opportunity that I--as a frequent commentator on elections and campaigns--should also not miss. It's one thing to watch the news, read the newspaper, and then form an opinion. It's quite another to take part in the political process personally, front and center.

This week, Bill Clinton attended Dyngus Day events at the Westside Democratic Club in South Bend. And today, Hillary Clinton spoke at Mishawaka High School. I attended both events as an observer of the political process to see if I could glean anything interesting about this election year.

I learned lots of things specific to Bill and Hillary Clinton. But perhaps more importantly, I learned something very special about this election year and the character of our American republic (notice future 206 students that I did not say our American democracy).

During Hillary's speech, she noted that roughly 20 percent of poll respondents indicated they wanted her to drop out of the race, 20 percent wanted Obama to drop from the race, but 60 percent wanted to let the nomination process to play out and to allow voters in other states to have their say. This line drew a positive roar from the crowd, which clearly was pleased to have a voice in deciding this year's election.

Some commentators have indicated that prolonging the nomination process will do harm to the eventual Democratic nominee and benefit McCain's campaign (for example, see Chuck Todd's piece here). Others have cited the Gallup poll that indicates roughly a quarter of Obama and Clinton's support will go to McCain should the other candidate win the Democratic nomination.

I'm not convinced that ending this nomination battle is the best thing for the country or, for that matter, the Democratic Party.

First, I was amazed at the turnout for the Mishawaka event. The location wasn't announced until late in the afternoon on Thursday (after the South Bend school district turned the Clinton campaign's request to visit Washington High School--check out the controversy this has generated here), and yet there were roughly 4,000 folks in the middle of a weekday in attendance. Granted, 1,800 were students, staff, and faculty, but this was impressive. One of the cardinal rules about voting is that people are more likely to vote when they feel their vote counts. Close races create excitement, they generate additional news coverage, and they provide the opportunity for additional political learning. As psychologists term it, close elections decrease the cognitive costs of political participation. How could this be bad for the democratic process?

Second, the focus on the Democratic nomination process has essentially removed McCain from the news cycle. As they say in public relations, all news is good news. A constant discussion and debate about the merits of Obama versus Clinton is not necessarily bad given that the candidates agree on so many of the issues. With Democratic issues and priorities dominating the political discourse, it might be difficult for McCain to shove his agenda onto the table come late summer. And I suspect that Democrats will rally around their nominee in the end, notwithstanding the Gallup poll results.

Third, the interest in politics that this campaign has been nothing short of tremendous. Many of my students have expressed cynical attitudes concerning politics and politicians. One thing I've learned is that a good cure for cynicism is actually visiting and meeting with politicians. Going to hear them give a speech at a rally and getting the opportunity to ask a question humanizes politics and political leaders for people. One of the things I talk about in my Congress class is Fenno's Paradox: the tendency for people to hate Congress but to love their Congressman or Congresswoman. There are many reasons why this is the case, but the obvious reason is people tend to know their individual member of Congress. Politicians are bad and corrupt and they populate Congress, but MY Congressman is a good guy. I know him, I voted for him, he works for us, and comes back to the district all the time.

The more exposure people get to our national leaders, I suspect the less cynical they will become about their leaders and politics more generally. For the first time in a long time, states that were "fly over country" on the way to fundraisers are seeing presidential candidates up close and personal. And this alone has to make them feel like the candidates are their own and not like the other politicians in Washington. The potential to rebuild trust and a personal bond with the next president is a precious and rare gift that can give our next president an incredible leadership opportunity. Nothing should stand in its way.

Let the campaign continue, say I! Enjoy it while you can. Soon, Montana will have its chance. I'm looking forward to seeing Montana matter, much as Indiana matters now.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

All but Ignored: The 2008 Congressional Races

With all the attention given to the presidential race, the race for Congress has been all but ignored by the mainstream media.

To get a feel for how the fall congressional elections are going to play out, political scientists and pundits look to special elections as indicators of future election trends. We had one such special election yesterday in Illinois, where Republican Jim Oberweis lost the race for Illinois' 14th Congressional district to Democrat Bill Foster, 52% to 48%.

What makes this race an interesting bellwether for fall congressional elections is the fact this seat is a heavily Republican district that had been represented by none other than former Republican Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert.

Given the resources that the Republican Party poured into keeping this seat in Republican hands AND the fact that the demographics greatly favored Republican candidates, this does not bode well at all for Republican chances to recapture the House. In fact, I would put their chances of so doing at less than 5 percent at this point. Given that Democrats captured all the competitive seats and some generally Republican seats in 2006, one might have expected that the pendulum would swing back to the GOP in 2008 when a presidential race would invigorate the base and move some of those seats back into the Republican column.

Given the heavy turnout in Democratic primaries around the country and the fact that Republicans can't keep a seat that they had held for 20 plus years, I would anticipate at this point that the Democrats will continue to build their House majority, capturing anywhere from 5 to 10 seats.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Does Experience Matter? What does Skowronek think?

My students don't know it yet, but they will have to read this blog and comment on the post once they read Yale University political scientist Stephen Skowronek's influencial essay in Studies in American Political Development. The March 10th edition of Time Magazine has two fascinating articles on the relationship between experience and presidential success (see here and here). Unfortunately, the fantastic chart outlining the political experience each president had before achieving the Oval Office is not available online (I'm going to try and scan it and post it soon).

To quote from the first article ("Does Experience Matter in a President"): "At the same time, the value that voters place on resume is constantly shifting. James A. Baker III is an authority on this. In 1980, he managed the campaign of his well-credentialed friend George H.W. Bush, under the slogan 'A President we won't have to train.' But the public mood was sour on Washington, and victory went to an outsider, Ronald Reagan, who had never served in Washington."

How does this relate to Skowronek? Skowronek emphasizes that presidential success is less a function of individual skills and more a function of a president's place in historical and political time. In other words, great presidents don't make history but rather history makes great presidents.

The presidents with the most opportunity to transform the political landscape and implement a new governing regime, according to Skowronek, are the reconstructive presidents. Looking at the Time experience chart, what do all but one of the reconstructive presidents share? Very little previous political experience. Skowronek's reconstructive presidents are Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln, FDR, and Reagan. Jefferson had the most governmental experience: 27 years. But the others had only 5, 10, 6, and 8 years respectively. That is to say that in periods of great political transformation, when the public wants to radically alter the path away from a crumbling regime, they turn to political outsiders.

What about the failed presidents, the disjunctive presidents that precede a reconstructive president? They are John Adams, John Quincy Adams, James Buchanan, Herbert Hoover, and Jimmy Carter. The years of public service of each prior to obtaining the presidency was 24, 30, 35, 8, and 8. The election of Jefferson is the only time a reconstructive president had more prior political experience than man leaving office.

Another way to look at this is to look at the candidate rejected during the moment when politics shifted from disjunction to reconstruction. And in every case, less experience won out if we count the time served as president. Compare the following:

Adams' 28 years to Jefferson's 27.
JQA's 34 to Jackson's 5.
Stephen Douglas' 20 odd years to Lincoln's 10.
Hoover's 12 to FDR's 6.
Carter's 12 to Reagan's 8.

Obama's campaign is prefaced on the politics of transformation and change. And he's a fresh face with comparatively little political experience. Should he win election, is possible that we may witness one of those rare moments in political time where great political change is possible and, more importantly, the nature of the political debate shifts in such away that future politicians for a number of years will have to respond to that shift? It would also mark one of the shortest tenures of a dominant political regime (the Reagan conservative regime) in American political history. It would also mean that George W. Bush would become the first two term disjunctive president--a president who was in office while the public roundly rejected the set of ideas upon which the president was elected and upon which a existing regime is predicated.

As a political scientist and a fan of Skowronek's work, I find this election to be absolutely fascinating.

And by the way, if Obama is elected president, that's 10 years of political experience compared to George W. Bush's 14.