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.