Wednesday, November 21, 2012

2014 Really is ON!

Last night I got a "marketing poll" that asked a bunch of questions about the upcoming legislative session.

And they asked about the 2014 Senate race, wondering if I would be voting for Max Baucus or....Steve Daines.

Daines clearly has the desire to be a senator. Recall that he announced right after the 2010 elections he was a candidate for the Republican nomination in 2012. And--then he jumped to the House when Rehberg announced he was running for the Senate.

Will Daines run against Baucus? In some ways, he's the most obvious choice for the GOP. But in other ways, it is a risky bet. Daines has a lot to learn about governing, and he won't have time to do that if he has to throw together a Senate campaign. He'll have a voting record that--while short--will still allow Baucus to go after him in a way that Gillan couldn't during this election. Daines can raise a lot of money--but if you think the $10 million plus raised by Tester was a lot, watch out. Baucus, as chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, can command incredible resources. His war chest will be enormous, and I'll bet we will start seeing ads soon.

Daines' best bet would be to lay low, work hard, and wait for an open seat. Baucus is not young, and if he is reelected, this might be his last term.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Voter Fraud in Montana's Senate race? Not so much.

In a recent article published in Explore Big Sky, Gallatin County Vice Chair Tammy Hall made the claim that Tester may have won because of vote fraud. Here’s the part of the article that's relevant:

"Tammy Hall, first vice president for Gallatin County Republican Women, felt the local Republican effort to get out the vote was strong, but said voter fraud in the county was a factor in the outcomes.
“When you’ve got 8,000 people registering to vote on the same day, you’ve lost control,” said Hall, also one of 22 delegates representing Montana at the Republican National Convention in August."

As a political scientist, there’s nothing more annoying than someone who lobs into the body politic claims of voter fraud without a shred of empirical evidence with which to back the claim. Trust is vital in republican government, and without it, our elected officials cannot hope to government. Part of the reason Congress cannot function is the historically low-levels of trust voters have in the institution. Claiming voter fraud when your candidate or party doesn’t win—instead of engaging in a profound retrospection based upon real data—does not help matters. And it certainly doesn’t help your party or candidate plan for the next election if you just put your head in the sand and scream that the other side cheated.

Voter fraud is serious business, but it can be detected using some rather simple statistical tests. Walter Mebane, a political methodologist at the University of Michigan, has written extensively on the matter. Go to his website and see his research. In a chapter in the book Election Fraud (edited by Mike Alvarez, Thad Hall, and Susan Hyde), Mebane proposes the use of a simple statistical test, called the Second Digit Benford’s Law Test for Vote Counts, to detect the likelihood of fraud. Simply put, the digits in a group of numbers are likely to have a particular distribution. Mebane explains:

“Benford’s Law states that in a list of statistical data, such as vote tallies from different precincts, the digits of the numbers that make up those data points follow a specific distribution. In each significant digit position, smaller numerals appear more often than larger numerals. In a set of data that follow Benford’s Law, the first significant digit is the number 1 roughly 30 percent of the time. There is what I call a second-digit Benford’s Law (2BL) distribution when the first digits have no particular pattern but the second digits of the data points do follow the pattern given by Benford’s Law. In this case the second significant digit is 0 (zero) about 12 percent of the time” (Mebane 2008).

Very simply put, if we see variation from the Benford’s law in the distribution of the second digit in precinct level vote returns, we have possible evidence of voter fraud. It is not proof of fraud, but it raises the possibility that monkey business may be at work.

Because I’m not a political methodologist and not as smart as Mebane, I searched the web for a routine that would allow me to examine precinct level data in a statistical software package political scientists, economists, and sociologists use called Stata. I found such a routine called Digdis. I installed the routine, downloaded precinct vote totals for the Senate race from the Montana Secretary of State’s website, and ran a quick analysis on the second significant figure of the precinct totals. Here’s a screen capture of the Stata output:

The data show the number of 1-9 digits in the second significant position, the percent expected value in the distribution according to Benford’s Law, the variation from that expected percentage, and the statistical significance of said variation. In no instance does the difference in the expected value from the actual value rise to conventional levels of statistical significance (p<.05).

In other words, across the 794 voting precincts, the vote totals reported in the Senate race show NO STATISTICALLY DISCERNIBLE EVIDENCE OF VOTE FRAUD.

Before screaming about fraud, it might make some sense to learn a little about the likelihood of it and build a solid empirical case based upon quantitative evidence to demonstrate some proof of those claims. To paraphrase Dan Rather, voter fraud in the Senate race? “That dog just don’t hunt”.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

The 2012 Senate Race is Over. Now here comes 2014!

My readers know that I've spent the past 22 months following the Tester-Rehberg race here in Montana very closely. As things began to heat up and more of my time became taken up by the race, it became clear to me that blogging during the campaign--as much as I wanted to--became too much to undertake both personally and professionally. I felt that what I had to say could wait until the book and many of my observations (profound or not will be for you to judge) about that incredible experience can be found there. I will likely try out some of my thinking about the race as I write in the upcoming months here, but there's so much else to write and talk about!

Now that Senator Tester has been reelected, the other Senate race has begun: Max Baucus' pursuit of a seventh term in office. It is clear that as of November 2012, he has some work to do. PPP conducted its last poll in the Tester-Rehberg race on November 4th.

 Here's what Jon Tester's job approval rating was in that poll:

47% Approve
46% Disapprove

Tester's job approval rating in November of 2010 in PPP's poll was:

50% Approve
40% Disapprove

PPP asked voters about Max Baucus in both those polls. Here's what they thought:

Max Baucus November 2010                                                Max Baucus November 2012
38% Approve                                                                       41% Approve
53% Disapprove                                                                   44% Disapprove

Jon Tester was right side up by ten points in his approval ratings two years prior to his reelection in a brutally competitive race--and he managed to stay right side up in the final days despite an onslaught of negativity over 16 months. Max Baucus is already underwater--and while his job approval numbers have improved over the past two years, it is absolutely clear he's got a tough road ahead. The $64,000 question is whether Republicans will field a strong candidate against him. Stay tuned. Montana politics is never dull.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Outside Spending in the Montana Senate Race and a Mea Culpa

A week and a half ago, I did an interview with the Wall Street Journal about the U.S. Senate race here in Montana. In that interview, I was quoted as saying the outside money in this race has been 2 to 1 in favor of Denny Rehberg. I was quoted accurately, but it would appear that the 2 to 1 ratio I mentioned was exaggerated. I had gathered some data from television stations in mid-June, and when I looked back at that data, it appeared that my memory had failed me. The number is closer to 1.4 to 1. I should also note that those data are spotty—there are some gaps, and they do not include spending that’s taken place on the airwaves since mid-June. I’ve been given access to additional broadcast advertising data from two independent sources. According to that information, I can safely conclude the following:
      1.  Outside spending on broadcast advertising is overwhelming the spending by the candidates. I define outside spending is spending made any organization that is not a political party or one of the candidate’s campaigns. 

       2. Outside spending indeed favors Congressman Rehberg. That is, there have been more money spent attacking Senator Tester or promoting Congressman Rehberg than money spent attacking Congresman Rehberg or promoting Senator Tester.
      3. How much that spending advantage for Rehberg is not obvious. The advantage is somewhere between $350,000 and $1 million as of the end of July and the first week of August. This includes spending going all the way back to spring of 2011, when the first advertisements appeared in this race attacking Congressman Rehberg (on environmental issues) and supporting Senator Tester on the debit-credit issue. I can’t nail the spending gap down more precisely as it is not clear from the numbers that I have access to do not always compare apples to apples, and sometimes it was hard to disentangle broadcast dollars from cable and radio spending.

In short, I was wrong. The 2 to 1 spending gap is just not true. I apologize to my readers for this mistake.

I want to take this opportunity to stress a larger point. It is really, really hard for scholars, journalists, and the public to figure out who is spending what and when in a campaign while it is ongoing. Television stations are required by the FCC to keep records on hand about the advertising of a political nature done on their stations. The files each station keeps, however, differ and not necessarily standardized. Some stations had all the data on spending in 2011 and 2012 available to me—others did not. Some stations had their files up-to-date, other stations did not (and note, sometimes it was for a reason outside of the station’s control—the person responsible for the files was ill or on vacation—and not an obvious attempt to avoid the reporting requirement). The folks who actually know how much is spent—and have up-to-date information—are Kantar Media based in the Washington, DC metro area. These folks use satellite tracking technology to follow all advertisements aired nationally. They do this to make sure that ads which are placed are actually aired. Companies and campaigns can purchase data from this organization to track spending in particular media markets—and most do. The problem, of course, is that the public does not have access to this proprietary data. While Kantar often does provide information to newspaper reporters and their data has been available to scholars in the past, the public—who needs this information the most—doesn’t have ready access to it. This is not a knock on Kantar—it is, however, further evidence that our disclosure laws have to be brought into the 21st century. Whatever your stance on Citizens United, it is essential in our democratic process for citizens to know who is sponsoring what advertisements on television so they can make an informed judgment concerning the value of the message being transmitted. We are not talking about selling pizza or soap here folks, but rather public policy and our democratic ideals. The buyer should beware—and to be properly skeptical, we need to know who is behind the campaign advertisements we see and use to make our decisions at the ballot box.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Montana Senate Race: Fundraising and Outside Spending

I'm back from a trip to Indiana and the great Midwest. While away, the Montana Senate race did not wait for me. Indeed, a lot happened--including new ads, the release of 2nd Quarter Fundraising numbers, and much, much more.

A quick update for now. Last quarter, Congressman Rehberg matched Senator Tester's fundraising totals. This quarter, Senator Tester nearly doubled Congressman Rehberg's haul: $1.9 million versus $1.1 million. Senator Tester won the quarter, but both candidates continue to rack up impressive sums of money. For those of you keeping track at home, here is a quick graph of fundraising to date:

Fundraising in Montana's 2012 Senate Race by Quarter

Data obtained from candidate press releases and the Federal Election Commission.

What is perhaps more interesting is the fact that both Senator Tester and Congressman Rehberg, despite potentially breaking fundraising records here in Montana, will likely get outspent on television by outside interest groups. A couple of weeks ago, I traveled across the state to review the political files at Montana's television stations to try and figure out how much money is being spent on this race (and thanks very much to the staffs at those stations--your courtesy and helpfulness were just wonderful). Guess what? My conservative estimate is that 68% of the money spent on broadcast television advertisements is by interest groups. In other words, of the $6.8 million spent on television broadcast ads, more than $4.6 million was NOT spent by the parties OR the candidates running for the seat.

This is a CONSERVATIVE estimate and only counts money spent between March 2011 and mid-June 2012. Some spending is missed, and because there is some variation based on how each station keeps its records, I had to fill in some gaps with estimates. It also does not include money spent on cable advertisements, internet advertisements, grassroots organization, radio, mail, or phone calls. It only represents advertisements on broadcast television stations in Butte, Bozeman, Great Falls, Helena, Billings, Kalispell, and Missoula.Because there's been so much outside money, the tone of the campaign has been quite negative. The literature and campaign tracking projects like CMAG, the Wisconsin Advertising Project, and the Wesleyan Media Project all show that outside groups almost universally air negative ads when they spend money. The effect of Supreme Court decisions Citizens United and Wisconsin Right to Life have been crystal clear in Montana.

Montana, we ain't seen nothing yet. The fall will bring more ads, more spending, and more attempts to influence our choices at the ballot box. Get ready for a fun ride.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Congressional Travel, Ethics, and the Montana Senate Race

Good afternoon, politics fans. Today is primary day here in Montana, so if you haven't yet, get out and vote. Both parties have contested races, notably the guberatornial race for Republicans and the House race for the Democrats. My wife and I took our daughters this morning to introduce them to this wonderful American ritual, and tonight I'll be providing some commentary on KBZK.

The Washington Post recently had a nice piece on the Montana Senate race, emphasizing a theme I've been stressing all along: Senator Tester wants to make this race about him and his personal connection with Montana voters. Congressman Rehberg wants to emphasize Senator Tester's connection to the Democratic Party nationally and President Obama specifically. More broadly, the race is very much about who is the most like Montana--who is "one of us".

As a part of this meta-narrative, Tester's campaign recently launched a broadside against some of Congressman Rehberg's domestic and international travel in an attempt to paint Congressman Rehberg as rich, elitist, and out of touch. They posted a site, Rehberg Air, documenting 13 "luxurious" trips paid for with special interst dollars. Rehberg is rich, he's connected, and he's "not one of us" is the theme. You can check out the website and all of the voluminous background material for yourself.

Shortly after learning about the new microsite, my inbox had the Rehberg campaign's response. Some of these trips are paid for by an organization, the Montana World Trade Center, that promotes Montana products abroad and on whose board Rehberg sits (as do Senators Baucus and Tester). Montana's other Senator, Max Baucus, also participated in at least one of these trips with Congressman Rehberg and the Rehberg folks played this up repeatedly in their e-mail. Their response is pointed: Congressman Rehberg is doing his job for Montana by going on these trips. Here's a link to the Rehberg campaign response here.

What I'd like to do is to discuss a little bit about congressional travel and to provide some resources to Montana voters about the regulations concerning travel, both travel that is paid for by the federal government and travel that is paid for by outside organizations. It is important to note that both chambers have their own rules for travel, and generally speaking, the House has been at the forefront of Internet-based transparency efforts.

First, every member of Congress and U.S. Senator receives a set of funds to pay for their offices, their franked mail, and travel between Washington and their state/district. These funds are tightly regulated and controlled, and all expenses associated with them are reported to the Clerk of the House or the Secretary of the Senate. I've spent FAR too much time with these various reports for my research (see my article, "Making a Good Impression" with Craig Goodman or "Who Franks", also with Craig Goodman behind subscriber walls here and here. Statements of Disbursement Reports for the House are now available via the web. The Senate followed suit and you can access Senate disbursements here. These documents will tell you how each member apportions their office allowances between salaries, travel home (you can get dates of travel home and the days members visit their states), and mass mailing sent back to the state/district. If you want to access earlier years and Congresses, you can do so via GPO Access, microfilm, and the physical hard copies available at U.S. Government Depositories (such as the University of Montana, which is a full depository, or Montana State University, which is a limited depository).

Second, there is official travel that is paid for and approved by either the House or the Senate both foreign and domestic. This could be travel in conjunction with committee hearings in another state or travel related to fact-finding abroad. This travel must be approved by the House or the Senate and reported. You can find records related to official House-sponsored travel abroad here.Senate travel, unfortunately, does not seem to be compiled by the Senate Office of Public Records online--but reports of officially-sponsored Senate travel abroad is available via the Congressional Record. Just do a search of  "foreign travel" of the Senate portion of the Record and you'll get a bunch of records popping up.

Third, there is travel that is related to the official duties of a member but paid for by private entities. This travel follows strict reporting requirements, must be approved in advance, and must be reported. An overview of the travel regulations concerning privately-paid travel may be found here, here, and here.

To summarize all of this, members of Congress travel frequently to perform their duties, but travel paid for by private organizations has been subject to abuse by some members--and was a key component of the Abramoff scandal which erupted in 2005 and 2006 (In fact, I'm reading Heist right now, a book about Abramoff and his sundry misdeeds). Congress has since tightened up its disclosure rules and largely restricted the ability of lobbyists to pay for the travel of members. It is also difficult, despite efforts on the behalf of transparency, to fully account for all the officially-related travel of members. According to a relatively recent CRS report available here, it is nearly impossible to know completely every trip a member takes in connection with their congressional duties and responsibilities. Perhaps a more streamlined process, similar to campaign finance reporting required of candidates, and one central depository would alleviate transparency concerns and would make it easier for members of the general public to know where and how members of Congress spend their time.

Friday, June 1, 2012

A Constitutional Amendment

In one of the strangest comments ever heard in a presidential campaign Mitt Romney said he would like to change the constitution to:
(H)ave a provision in the Constitution that in addition to the age of the president and the citizenship of the president and the birthplace of the president being set by the Constitution, I’d like it also to say that the president has to spend at least three years working in business before he could become president of the United States.‘”
Of course the blogosphere erupted with commentary on the apparent silliness of the idea that would have disqualified virtually every top ranked president, and rightly so. Romney, like so many politicians, seems willing to say anything that will get him to the magical 50.1%. The most common frame for such a statement is that government should be run like a business and so by extension, businessmen make good public servants. Let’s examine this wrong headed proposition.
Economic theory tells us that rational decisions, the assumptive behavior of profit maximizing individuals like businessmen, are based on three signals that Romney and others who advocate a business approach to government respond to:
1. Individuals practice rational maximizing behavior – they behave in such a way as to do as well as possible for themselves. This suggests they run a business to maximize return on investment.
The reality is that we often act in ways that do not maximize our own private utility and a world in which operated that way would be dismal indeed. A more accurate view of human behavior was described by Robert Trivers in 1971 where he outlined how seemingly non self interested behavior can have long run benefits for the individual performing an altruistic act and by extension, benefit the community. This flies against the face of short-term economic maximizing behavior as advocated by business proponents. The world is not comprised of selfish self-centered individuals looking out for “number one” and in fact, works better when that is not the case. One might wonder where the signals for altruistic behavior would come from if not for the existence of a public regarding class.  The business model frame makes no provision for community beyond a collection of consumers vying for the most product at the least cost. If you think a national health care system is good for the community, the business frame offers nothing in the way of achieving it although it may have something to say about doing so efficiently.
2. Consumer demand – we are willing and able to state what we like and don’t like. As such, entrepreneurs respond with various widgets at various prices so that varying segments of the consuming public can express preferences.
This begs the question of quantifying public demand in the absence of clear market signals. In others words, how do political entrepreneurs know consumer preferences? Answer – they don’t. The current system is so badly broken one could be forgiven for thinking voter preferences reflect the values of Koch brothers or the OWS movement. The hallmark of political leadership is not bending to the will of the vociferous minority. It is having a vision that sometimes goes against the grain and being willing to adopt an unpopular stand. Romney shows no indication of being able to do this, Obama only rarely. In any case, the business model is a poor construct for transformational leadership that expands civil rights, protects the environment, and extends consumer protection.
3. All decisions must account for tradeoffs – in a world of limited resources, we are faced with internalizing the opportunity costs of our choices. Faced with normal budget constraints, we prioritize our purchases in such as way as to satisfy number one above.
Of course, this is an overly simplistic description of the world of business and the public sector. In fact, as consumers, we are often irrational (just think about your last impulsive purchase) and as decision makers, we are often just plain wrong.  We frequently depend on heuristics that rely on intuition or faulty logic. Psychologist Daniel Kahneman, in his new book “Thinking Fast and Slow”, discusses his research on how we think in two ways: consciously (slow) and subconsciously (fast). His conclusions are startling – we are often and unconsciously wrong for all sorts of reasons. These findings are just as true for businessmen as anyone else. Two traits account for this. First, we are, for the most part, lazy in our intuitive thinking. We rely on past experiences to form quick opinions with very little in the way of reflection or critical thinking. Second, we tend to be very risk adverse to counterintuitive findings. Hard decisions are not part of our genetic makeup. Again, those from the world of business enjoy no comparative advantage over nonbusiness types with respect to our ability to weigh risk, costs, or benefits. In fact, they likely have a smaller frame of reference than others given their cultural proclivities toward short term profit. 
The take home message is that the assertion that government should be run like a business is nonsensical. The cues, laws, and considerations of “clientele” suggests there is little overlap at least in the big picture. That said there are clearly lessons from business practices that can apply in the public sector (reform institutional incentives) just as there are public sector practices that are applicable to the world of private business (more transparency of business practices – especially overseas).
The emphasis in this election seems to be on the “job creators” as the solution to our economic doldrums. As we are so often reminded, small business create 65% of jobs in this country. Unfortunately, half will fail within five years. Wouldn’t you think we could find a better model to emulate?

Friday, May 18, 2012

Back to the Good Old Days - Not

Rural states like Montana are rarely at the forefront of public policy. There are exceptions of course. Our approach to the management of wolves is pragmatic and right-minded; our constitutional provision for a right to a clean and healthy environment is shared by only five other states (Hawaii, Illinois, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island). It is a not only an important citizen’s rights issue, it is good for the long run economy of the state. In one other area, Montana is at the cutting edge of policy that is good for its citizenry and the democratic process - campaign finance.

Montana voters adopted the Corrupt Practices Act at a time when national copper mining companies (notably the Anaconda Company) were running roughshod over the state government. “Bribery of public officials,” the Montana Supreme Court explained in its ruling, “and unlimited campaign spending by the mining interests were commonplace and well-known to the public.” As most know, the state was awash in political corruption and was held hostage by the Copper Kings. Sound familiar yet?

As most also know, in 2010 the U.S. Supreme Court reversed a lower court ruling by striking down provisions of the 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (commonly known as the McCain–Feingold Act) that prohibited corporations (including nonprofit corporations) and unions from spending on "electioneering communications". The floodgates of money for mostly negative campaigning were thrown open and now we have billionaires funding candidates from Newt Gingrich to Mitt Romney to Barack Obama with almost no disclosure and virtually no accountability – the so-called Super PACs. Montana’s Corrupt Practices Act, which essentially bans corporate spending in elections, is diametrically opposed to the finding. Unlike the slight majority of the Court, Montana would hold that people are defined as biological entities and, as such, enjoy the rights of political speech. Corporations and unions are not and do not.

This year, the nonprofit American Tradition Partnership, is challenging the Montana law and recently won a motion by U.S. District Court Judge Charles Lovell for summary judgment on several claims including the finding that the state could not prohibit corporate contributions to groups engaging in independent political speech. ATP is clear about its goals “to solicit and anonymously spend the funds of other corporations, individuals and entities to influence the outcome of Montana elections.” They argue that the Montana law is in conflict with Citizens United and so should be overturned. Students of Montana history recognize this as a bad rerun of the Copper King days.

Here is a simple idea. Rather than treat rural states as backwaters of ignorance and limited experience, let’s think about how findings like Citizens United will lead to the Butte, America of 1900. Montana has been there, done that. At one time, Montana government was up for sale to the highest bidder; today the American government resembles a giant IPO. ATP would like to return to the good old days and undermine our constitutional right to environmental protections and sovereignty over our politics. The court should take a lesson from the wild west and overturn Citizens United.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Rehberg camp launches first ad

Congressman Rehberg launched his first ad in the Senate race today. It is a contrast ad, which is interesting. Campaigns often use positive ads to introduce the campaign--but in this case, the Rehberg folks begin their campaign with an ad contrasting the two candidates on the issues.

Meanwhile, Senator Tester introduced another new ad just week. This focuses on the Senator's ethics standards and transparency. This is his campaign's fifth ad to date:

I'll post more a bit later.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Tester's up by 5--no, wait a minute--Rehberg's up by 10, ARGH! Making Sense of Conflicting Polls

Within 48 hours, we have seen two different firms release conflicting polls in the Montana Senate race. On May 1, Public Policy Polling (PPP)--a Democratic polling company--released a poll indicating that Jon Tester maintained a five point lead over Congressman Rehberg, 48-43. The lead was just within the margin of error of 3.2%. Nate Silver at The New York Times has analyzed polling firms and their biases. He actually found that PPP's polls lean slightly toward Republicans.

On May 3, Rasmussen Reports--a polling firm that generally has a pro-Republican tilt in its polling--released another poll with completely different results. This poll shows a ten point lead for Congressman Rehberg--53-43--the largest lead we've seen in this race to date. This lead however is also just inside the margin of error, which was 5 percent in this poll.

How do we make sense of these conflicting polls?

Let's start with a couple of fundamental points. First, the PPP poll was conducted between April 26-29 and included 934 Montana voters. The Rasmussen poll was conducted on May 2 and included only 450 likely Montana voters. That's why we see the different margin of errors--the larger the sample size, the lower the margin of error.

Second, let's talk about the margin of error and what that means. In the PPP poll, Senator Tester's support could range between 51.2 and 44.8. Congressman Rehberg's support could be as high as 46.2 and as low as 39.8 percent. In the second poll by Rasmussen, Senator Tester and Congressman Rehberg could both be tied at 48 percent. In either case, the leads by both are within the margin of error--so the results are not quite as out of line as one might expect just by looking at the head to head matchups reported by the polling firms.

But let's dig a bit deeper. One of the hardest things to figure out in the polling world is who will actually show up to vote. Forecasting turnout is about as hard as forecasting the weather because there are so many variables at work and the instruments we use to measure intent are subject to social desirability biases. If you ask a person if they intend to vote, most likely will give you the socially desirable answer: "Sure, I plan to vote". The problem is about 80 to 85% of voters will answer yes--and we know that turnout generally hovers between 50 and 60 percent. In other words, a bunch of folks who say they will vote simply don't.

Pollsters have lots of ways to measure turnout, and the differences in measuring turnout can have consequences for the final polling results that are reported.

How does Rasmusen and PPP differ in their turnout screeing questions? According to an e-mail exchange I had this morning with Tom Jensen at PPP, his organization calls folks who have voted in one of the last three general elections.Rasmussen, however, polls "likely voters". What's a likely voter? Rasmussen asks several screening questions, including the respondent's voting history, their interest in the election, and their likely voting intentions. This is a much more vigorous screening process designed to weed out folks who may not actually show up on election day.

PPP's process likely yields a "liberal" definition of turnout and Rasmussen's a "conservative". I use those quotes deliberately. PPP process might include folks in the sample who are less committed to voting than the Rasmussen poll. Demographically, Democrats usually have the turnout deck stacked against them relative to Republicans. Folks who are poorer, less educated, and not white are less likely to vote than those who are richer, more educated, and white. In short, those who are more likely to vote for Democrats are also those who are less likely to vote.

In short, the difference in results MIGHT be a factor of how each polling firm choses to define a voter. And there is no one "right" way. A generous interpretation of these conflicting polls is the higher the turnout on election day, the better chance Senator Tester has at getting reelected. Lower turnout, on the other hand, will likely benefit Congressman Rehberg.

Final take away message: Read polls carefully, examine the methodology section thoroughly, and go beyond the first page of the press release if you really want to understand why polls conflict.

Other Important Notes:

Both Senator Tester and Crossroads GPS launched some new ads in the past week. Senator Tester's ad, a nice positive bio spot about is propensity to fly Montana meat to DC with him on the plane, is right below.

The Crossroads GPS ad is below. It covers no new ground, focusing on Tester's votes on healthcare, cap and trade, and the federal budget--again, mentioning that Senator Tester voted 97% of the time with President Obama (see my previous analysis on voting here).

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Newest Poll Showing Tester with the Lead

I'm still in the middle of finals week, and there's so much to post! Senator Tester has a new ad....GPS Crossroads has a new ad...and today, a poll showing Senator Tester with a five point lead. The lead is still just within the margin of error, but this is the first poll in the last--five I think--that shows Senator Tester with a lead. PPP did the poll, and you can read more about it here.

I'll post the ads and more analysis once my grading is done, when I will have more time to really sink my teeth into this race. Stay tuned and be patient, my friends.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The Political Wolf

David Parker has done a commendable job lately of covering the impact of big money in the Tester/Rehberg race. I fully expect a variation of Gresham's law to apply as negative ads funded by outside groups drive away a civil discussion on issues important to Montana and the west. Here is one version of how that will go down.

Politics is all about frames, images, and themes - the simpler the better; think Willie Horton. The most effective frame captures a basket of issues in a single image around which political rhetoric and an emotional storyline is constructed. The frame for this race is Canis lupus  - the grey wolf.

Today, there is not a more divisive issue in the Greater Yellowstone region or most western states than the reintroduction and subsequent management of the grey wolf. It is the quintessential political frame bound up as it is in the economic history of the west, environmental romanticism, private property rights, as well as the science (and politics) of public land management. The wolf stirs reaction from most citizens of the region as well as politicians at every level of government. One’s stance on wolf policy clearly demarcates a cultural divide between the old west and the new west.

Apex predators like grey wolves are large, charismatic, and potentially dangerous. In most parts of the world, they are often the targets of extermination programs, poaching for profit, and perceived to be a threat to private property. At best, many people find them difficult to live with. Others find them intolerable. The reason is that humans, especially those who make a living off the land, share habitat with creatures that can, and do, kill and maim. They damage property, they force us to live differently simply because they exist.

The grey wolf was once widespread across the whole of North America but eradicated in most of the contiguous U.S. by the 1930’s. By 1977, the war on the wolf was officially won. In 1991, after much political maneuvering, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed a recovery plan for the grey wolf to large and remote expanses of public land. When the Clinton administration took office in 1993, the science and more importantly, the people were in place to make reintroduction a reality. Bruce Babbitt, the administration’s Secretary of Interior, Mollie Beattie, director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Renee Askins, a highly motivated and articulate citizen champion of the wolf, formed the core triad that would return the wolf as a “nonessential experimental population” under the ESA. The reintroduction effort was a political as much as an ecological event.

The reintroduction was politically heavy handed and was seen across the west as a federal usurpation of property rights – real and implied. Conservative politicians knew an effective frame when they saw one and immediately, wolves were used as an expedient shortcut to garner support from rural interests and argue against broad based public land management. The most vocal opponents included the agricultural community who run livestock near the park boundary and property right advocates who saw the reintroduction as a way to move publicly subsidized ranchers off public lands. Wolves, they argue, threaten property rights when they cross over onto private land and kill livestock and even pets – sometimes viciously so. Hunters blame the wolves for decreased elk harvests and use them as an excuse to launch political attacks on wolf advocates.

Pro wolf supporters insist reintroduction simply restored the ecosystem to its former condition. They often point to regional and national polls that show respondents favored reintroduction 3 to 1. Those who favor wolves on the landscape present them as a symbol of wild places, ecological harmony, and even as a regional political entity. They depict the wolf as the embodiment of nature in all its forms especially as symbols of wilderness and empty spaces. Their stake in public land management is often for amenity and recreation values.

In reality, the anti-wolf position is the most current form of proxy for the perceived “war on the west” that has raged since the sagebrush rebellion of the 1970s and the wise use movement that followed. The controversy is one grounded in state vs. federal control over public lands and resources and wolf reintroduction efforts are simply the latest incarnation of the struggle to recover the commodity economy of the west. Oddly enough, the position of both candidates is very similar – to remove the wolf from the ESA list and let states manage them. They use the frame differently however.

Denny Rehberg sells himself as a rancher in the tradition of the west and so is an advocate for the commodity economy in all its forms – publicly subsidized mining, timber production, energy exploration, and ranching. In fact, he is a land developer but very effectively uses the “wolf frame” to argue for a public lands policy that favors production over conservation. That position would cut budgets for public land programs and result in smaller government. We can expect those positions to take front and center in the coming months.

Jon Tester is a farmer and teacher. His position on wolves, like his position on government in general, seems to be to pragmatically manage them as one would any other resource without political drama or hyperbole. The language in his plan to remove gray wolves from the ESA list framed the solution as reflecting “Montana values” with  “a responsible, common sense plan.” The tone for his campaign rhetoric will be “let’s live with the wolf as a neighbor – perhaps not one of our choice but one we are faced with”.

The wolf frame will appear explicitly and implicitly in many forms during the campaign - as it should. It is an efficient way to communicate with the constituencies of both parties. It is an effective use of imagery and theme. I would go so far as to say one’s position on wolf management is a predictor of how you will vote. Let’s watch as wolves to make their appearance in Montana politics over the next few months.