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By Jay Cost

August 31, 2010


Dear Friends,

This is my final entry for the Horse Race Blog here at RealClearPolitics. Starting later this week, I will begin work at The Weekly Standard.

I'd like to thank John McIntyre and Tom Bevan for the opportunity to contribute to this outstanding site. Five years ago, I was struggling to produce an insignificant proposal for an indifferent dissertation committee at the University of Chicago when I received an enigmatic invitation to meet John for lunch at the Wishbone on Lincoln Avenue in Chicago. Little did I realize at the time that I was being interviewed for a job, let alone one that would alter my professional trajectory forever. And so much for the better! I am forever in the debt of John and Tom for the opportunities they have offered me, for their generosity in always giving prominent placement to my columns, and for the trust they have had in me to write about whatever was on my mind.

Of course, nothing lasts forever. It's time for a change, and I am moving on. I wish everybody at RealClearPolitics all the best. And while I'll no longer be a contributor here, I shall remain a regular and devoted reader. And a friend.

Finally, I would like to thank my readers. It is a rare privilege to write about American politics for a living, and it would not be possible without your continued support. Thanks so much for following me for all these years!

All the best,
Jay Cost

August 31, 2010

Health Care Reform Has Endangered the Democratic Majority

This Politico piece by Jim VandeHei, Alex Isenstadt, and Mike Allen got a lot of play last week:

Top Democrats are growing markedly more pessimistic about holding the House, privately conceding that the summertime economic and political recovery they were banking on will not likely materialize by Election Day.

In conversations with more than two dozen party insiders, most of whom requested anonymity to speak candidly about the state of play, Democrats in and out of Washington say they are increasingly alarmed about the economic and polling data they have seen in recent weeks.

They no longer believe the jobs and housing markets will recover -- or that anything resembling the White House's promise of a "recovery summer" is under way. They are even more concerned by indications that House Democrats once considered safe -- such as Rep. Betty Sutton, who occupies an Ohio seat that President Barack Obama won with 57 percent of the vote in 2008 -- are in real trouble.

There is no mention of health care reform in this piece. The economy is referenced several times. So is the President's inability to control the narrative. Even the Ground Zero Mosque is mentioned as a reason why the House is now in jeopardy. But not health care.

It has become conventional wisdom that the decline of the Democrats has mostly to do with the economy and little - if anything - to do with health care. This is Jonathan Alter from Saturday:

Health-care reform was seen by many cable chatterers as shaping the outcome of the November midterm elections but almost certainly won't. Nor will the flap over the planned mosque and Islamic center near Ground Zero. To make sure, Obama defended the constitutional principle at stake, but backed off on the specific siting. Why get tied down by another hot-button distraction, especially one that keeps the Muslim story alive in ways that help no one but the media? The collapse of the Greek economy, by contrast, is an example of something real, not hyped by cable news, whose reverberations first spoiled Obama's PR plan for a "Recovery Summer" and now could sink the Democrats in the midterms.

So, Greek economy, yes. Health care...no?

This meme is wrong. The Democrats' control of the House did not become tenuous recently. At best, some of the more immediate warning signs - e.g. individual incumbents like Betty Sutton now appear to be in jeopardy - have manifested themselves recently. But there has been a real danger of losing the House for some time, a danger that predates "Recovery Summer" and goes back to the health care debate.

First of all, the fact that the health care bill is no longer the topic du jore does not mean it is no longer an issue. The real questions are whether the health care bill moved voters away from the Democrats, and whether those voters have since moved back now that the debate is over. The answers are yes - the debate moved voters away from the Democrats; and no - the voters have not come back.

Here is the 2009-2010 track of the RCP generic ballot average:

Generic Ballot.jpg

This metric historically has a Democratic tilt, yet it showed the two parties at parity a year ago. That was, you will recall, after Democratic incumbents were excoriated at town hall meetings all summer. Only about 40% of people supported the bill at that point. With the President's late summer speech to Congress, the Democratic generic ballot numbers ticked up, but the GOP pulled back to within even of the Democrats by mid-November, when the House was debating the bill.

All of this happened during the Third and Fourth Quarters of 2009, when GDP finally turned positive then jumped up by 5.0%.

It is very hard to win the House of Representatives when you lose the House popular vote. And the polls have suggested for a year that Democrats were in danger of doing just that.

It is also very hard to win the House of Representatives when Independents bolt to the other side en masse. Republicans and Democrats split Independents in the 2004 House elections. In 2006 they went for the Democrats by 18 points. They went for the Democrats by 8 points in 2008.

In Gallup's most recent polling, President Obama won the approval of just 40% of Independent adults. That's deep in the danger zone, and the President has been in trouble with Independents for some time. Independent adults have given him less than 50% approval in the Gallup poll since November, 2009. Again, that's when the economy was growing and the health care debate was on the front page. And that is among all adults. Among likely voters, Rasmussen found around that time that 60% of Independents disapproved of the President's performance, with 45% strongly disapproving.

We can also point to the 2009 off-year gubernatorial elections in Virginia and New Jersey, which occurred during the health care debate. Democrats suffered massive defections among Independent voters, bringing Republicans to victory in both states. Something similar happened in the Massachusetts Senate election. Republicans do not win New England Senate seats by bringing the conservative base out to the polls! Scott Brown is a United States Senator today because Independents in the Bay State were unhappy with the course the national government had been taking.

Partisans on both sides tell themselves stories about why they're up, why they're down, and why the other side is where it is. These stories usually contain at least a grain of truth, but they also help encourage ideologues in the face of an impending rejection by the electorate. Democrats ignored the political problem of health care in the fall and winter - arguing that Martha Coakley and Creigh Deeds were bad candidates, that voters had been turned off by the health care bill because of the process, and that they would come around once the many benefits kicked in. Now, they're pointing to the economy as the only significant reason why the party is in trouble.

It would be difficult for any strong partisan to admit that such an accomplishment was so deeply unpopular. Yet the polling is pretty unequivocal on the relationship between the Democrats' fortunes and the health care bill. It was during the health care debate that the essential building block of the Democratic majority - Independent voters - began to crumble. It was evident in the generic ballot. It was evident in the President's job approval numbers. It was evident in Virginia, New Jersey, and Massachusetts.

Reconstructing the Democrats' meme, we can fairly say that the economy is a huge problem for the party. Of this, there can be no doubt. We can also say that the stalled recovery denied the Democrats a chance to win back the voters they lost over health care. But the process and passage of health care reform were crucial elements in the story. That's when the party started losing the voters it needs to retain control of the government.

-Jay Cost

August 26, 2010

Will Money Save the Democrats?

Reid Wilson, our former colleague and now the editor-in-chief of the Hotline On Call, had an interesting column today explaining "why Democrats will keep the House."

He offers four reasons.

(1) Democrats have so far raised more money.

(2) Money facilitates turnout.

(3) Money facilitates opposition research.

(4) Democratic voters will come home, as they did in PA-12.

Each of these points has some validity, but in each one Wilson is over-stating his case. Let's take them in turn.

(1) Democrats have more money. Wilson is pointing to an advantage that the Democrats have, but he has mis-framed it. In The Politics of Congressional Elections, Gary Jacobson writes:

Campaign spending is subject to diminishing returns; the more dollars spent, the less gained by each additional dollar. Congressional incumbents usually exploit their official resources for reaching constituents so thoroughly that the additional increment of information about their virtues put forth during the campaign adds comparatively little to what is already known and felt about them...the extent to which voters know and like the incumbents is unrelated to how much is spent on the campaign. The situation is quite different for nonincumbents. Most are largely unknown before the campaign, and the extent to which they penetrate the awareness of voters - which is crucial to winning votes - is directly related to how extensively they campaign. The money spent on nonincumbents' campaigns buys the attention and recognition that incumbents already enjoy at the outset of the campaign

This is a crucially important point, for it suggests that Wilson incorrectly frames the effect of money. What matters is not so much the dollar advantage Democratic incumbents have over Republican challengers, but whether Republican challengers will have raised enough to "penetrate the awareness of voters." That remains to be seen.

Also, expect the Democratic money advantage to be diminished somewhat as business PACs and others primarily concerned about access in the 112th Congress begin shifting dollars to the Republicans. Additionally, expect enthusiastic Republican donors to start identifying the most promising candidates over the next few months. The Democrats enjoyed a similar uptick in their fortunes in 2006. That is inevitable as a party appears headed to transition from minority to majority.

(2) Money facilitates turnout. I think that turnout operations add less value than party insiders like to claim. Mostly, they contact voters who were already going to vote. All that money for turnout might have been useful in New York City in the 1870s when Tammany Hall could get you to vote by offering you a job. But nowadays the parties cannot do anything like that. Ultimately, you vote for purposive reasons, i.e. because you want a better world. The parties can help influence you on that count, but their effectiveness is overstated by insiders and pundits generally, and by Wilson in this instance.

Additionally, we're talking here about the marginal turnout effect of the dollars that the Democrats have raised, but Republicans have not. Is that really going to make a difference between majority and minority status?

Final point: Republicans appear by every metric to be much more enthusiastic than Democrats. Does the GOP really need to spend as much as the Democrats on turnout this cycle? I'd say no, and that instead they can direct their resources to persuading Independent voters - who usually swing elections and who are currently R +11 in the Gallup generic ballot (compared to D+18 on Election Day, 2006). I disagree with the conventional wisdom that midterms are "base elections." Like all elections, they hinge on the unaffiliated vote.

(3) Money facilitates opposition research. Easily the weakest point in the piece, Wilson writes: "If Democrats spend the money early to portray Republicans as unacceptable alternatives, and to frame races as contests they can control, they will be using their monetary advantages to the fullest." Will this sink the occasional Republican candidate? Of course. Will it be sufficient to stem a Republican tide? Of course not.

(4) Democratic voters will come home, as they did in PA-12. If PA-12 was the average congressional district, Republicans would have little chance of taking the House. However, a few salient points about that race:

(a) Democratic registration vastly outpaces Republican registration in the district, meaning that there were more Democrats who could come home.

(b) 255 congressional districts voted for George W. Bush in 2004, but PA-12 was not one of them.

(c) The special election was held on the same day as the Democratic primary battle between Sestak and Specter, meaning that Democrats had a larger draw at the top of the ticket.

(d) The Democrat, Mark Critz, ran an outsider campaign that distanced himself from the controversial votes of the 111th Congress.

Put simply, extrapolation from PA-12 is hard to do.

Wilson's first three points are essentially reducible to the incumbency advantage, which is a real thing that can and will aid the Democratic party in November. But he has overstated or misidentified its importance.

Would these factors be sufficient to stop the Republicans from taking the House in a more evenly divided year? I'd say yes. I think the Democratic incumbency advantage is sufficient to absorb a modest Republican popular vote victory. I'd add that Republicans who do not raise enough money will not win elections, even in a cycle such as this.

But so far this year the Republicans have enjoyed a sizable and sustained lead in the generic ballot, something that has never happened in the history of the poll. Currently, the GOP lead is at 4.5%. If that holds through November, the Democratic money advantage will not be enough to alter the orientation of the electorate sufficiently: if the RCP average has the GOP up 5 points in the generic ballot the day before, the GOP should have around a 5 point advantage on Election Day.

Nor will Democratic money be sufficient to reorganize such a pro-Republican electorate in a way that enough Democrats survive. No party has held a House majority while losing the popular vote by 5 points since before the Civil War. With the "Solid South" - voting overwhelmingly Democratic with exceedingly low turnout - a thing of the past, such a feat is all but impossible. A $20 million cash advantage for the DCCC is not going to change that.

-Jay Cost

August 25, 2010

Democrats, Keep the Filibuster!

Ever since the Democrats failed to get the public option through the Senate, liberals have been advocating the effective elimination of the filibuster.

As I have written before, I am deeply opposed to changes in the filibuster. Its use has increased in the last 30 years, sure, but American politics has become much more divisive. We battle over a whole host of economic and cultural issues that did not divide us in the past. As the country has sorted itself into two distinct, roughly equally sized groups, the filibuster has become an important tool to keep a fleeting majority from running the table on a large minority.

But put aside the question of how to maintain ideological balance in a diverse republic, and eliminating the filibuster is still not such a good idea for Democrats. In fact, it's a really bad idea.

Let me explain.

Two relevant changes have occurred in the world of partisan alignments since 1948: the Mountain West returned to the Republican fold after a half century of on-again, off-again flirtation with Populism/Progressivism, and the South converted to Republicanism.

Start with the Mountain West - Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming. In the first half of the century, Democratic populists and progressives carried the party to victory there. William Jennings Bryan swept the region in 1896. Woodrow Wilson won every Mountain West state except Utah in 1912. He went eight-for-eight in the region in 1916. FDR swept it twice, then went seven-for-eight and six-for-eight. Harry Truman swept the region in 1948.

However, the New Deal realignment transformed the Democrats into a primarily urban party, which has meant that subsequent candidates did more poorly in the Mountain West, even when they have won the White House. Kennedy won just two of eight Mountain West states in 1960. Carter won zero. Despite Ross Perot's siphoning Republican-leaners in the region, Clinton won just four Mountain West states in 1992, then three in 1996. Obama also won just three.

Victorious Republicans, meanwhile, have carried the Mountain West with ease. Ike swept it both times. So did Nixon and Reagan. So did George H.W. Bush in 1988. George W. Bush lost only New Mexico, by a hair's breadth, in 2000; then he swept the region in 2004. All in all, the Mountain West has a Republican tilt to it. Add to this region its neighbors - Kansas, Nebraska, North and South Dakota, all of which have been Republican since they were brought into the Union - and GOP presidential candidates can usually count on something between 9 and 12 states going their way in this part of the country, even when they get shellacked nationwide.

The party also now enjoys a solid haul from the South and Border States. As the Democrats became a party of urban liberals ala Robert Wagner, the South started leaving the party. Franklin Roosevelt was the last Democrat to sweep the old Confederacy. The big change happened in 1972 when Nixon became the first Republican ever to sweep Dixie. Reagan nearly managed that feat in 1980, carrying every state but Georgia. That was a sign of the times: Dixie voted for a Western Republican over a Southern Democrat. In 1996 Bob Dole of Kansas defeated Bill Clinton of Arkansas in 7 of the 11 states of the old Confederacy. George W. Bush swept the South twice. And even though he lost the nationwide popular vote by 7.3 points, McCain still held 8 of the 11 states of the old Confederacy. A similar trend has occurred in the border states of Kentucky, Oklahoma, and West Virginia. All three once leaned Democratic, yet all three voted for John McCain by wide margins in 2008.

Becoming the party of the big cities has been a better than even trade for the Democrats, who now regularly win electoral-rich California, Illinois, Michigan, Pennsylvania (all of which used to lean Republican), and New York (which for more than a century was the quintessential swing state). Combined, these five states have 145 Electoral Votes, compared to just 44 in the Mountain West. The Democrats have also managed to stay competitive in "New South" and "New West" states, notably Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Nevada, North Carolina, and Virginia. In an even year, these states should all vote Republican - but Democrats have strong bases of support that can flip them in years when their national advantage is large enough.

The net effect of these changes leaves the Democrats in a much stronger position to win the Presidency and the House than they were prior to 1932. On balance, FDR did the party a big favor by moving it from the country into the city. Yet it means the Democratic party is relatively weak in the Senate, which is biased in favor of the small, rural states that now typically go Republican.

We can quantify this in a couple of ways. First, we can look at how many states winning Republican candidates carry versus winning Democrats. George W. Bush won 30 states in 2000 (despite losing the popular vote to Al Gore), then 31 states in 2004. Clinton won 32 states in 1992, but his margin of victory that year was three points larger than Bush's in 2004. Clinton's margin of victory over Dole in 1996 was similar to Reagan's margin over Carter in 1980, yet Clinton won 31 states to Reagan's 44. Obama's popular vote share was similar to George H.W. Bush's in 1988, yet the elder Bush carried 40 states while Obama won 28. Generally speaking, when the GOP wins the presidency, it tends to do so with many more states supporting it than do the Democrats. That points to a GOP advantage for control of the Senate.

Second, we can compare the GOP's nationwide performance against its performance in the median state. In the last 40 years, the Republicans have won the nationwide presidential popular vote by an average margin of 3.5%. Meanwhile, they defeated the Democrats in the median state by an average margin of 6.4%. Here's the breakdown by year:

Keep the Filibuster.jpg

Just to be clear, the "median state" is theoretically the state that has half of the states voting more Democratic, and half voting more Republican. Because there are an even number of states, it is actually the average of the 25th and 26th states, which in 2008 were Ohio and Florida. (In 2004, they were Florida and Missouri.)

In every presidential cycle except 1980, the Republican presidential candidate did better in the median state than he did nationwide. This is because of the GOP dominance in the small states - especially those in the Mountain West and the South, which have moved to the right since World War II.

Call this the Republican small state bias. It has two vital implications for the Senate:

(a) To control the Senate in an evenly balanced year, the Democrats must persuade Republican presidential voters to support Democratic candidates for the Senate. In 2004, Democrats won five Senate seats in states that Bush carried: Arkansas, Colorado, Indiana, Nevada, and North Dakota. On average, the winning Democrat in these states carried 29% of the Bush voters.

(b) As cross-over voting has declined in the last 30 years, (a) has become harder to do. So on average we see a Republican-controlled Senate. Over the last thirty years, the Republicans have gone into the new Congress with a Senate majority 8 1/2 times compared to 6 1/2 times for the Democrats (control of the Senate was split in the 107th Congress).

What this suggests is that the Democrats stand - on balance - to make greater use of the filibuster than do Republicans.

Such use might come sooner rather than later. With the unemployment rate likely to remain high, President Obama should be in for a tough reelection battle in two years. If he loses, expect Congress to go fully Republican. Do Democrats really want to ditch the filibuster now? A full Republican government minus the filibuster would give the Republican Party more power in 2013 than it has had at any point since 1930. Not only would ObamaCare be dug up root-and-branch (on the day the 45th President is sworn in), but the Republicans would surely try to limit the power of crucial Democratic interest groups, above all the labor unions. Without the filibuster, what's to stop them?

Democrats, do yourselves a favor: keep the filibuster. You're gonna need it.

-Jay Cost

August 19, 2010

Is the Economy Obama's Only Problem?

There is a theory among some liberal commentators that figures that Obama's political position is due not to his own mistakes, but rather to macropolitical forces that are outside his control. Recently, my colleague Sean Trende argued that the political choices Obama has made have contributed to his poor poll position, and I am partial to this point of view.

Yesterday, Ezra Klein offered the contrary position. Here is Klein:

See if this structure seems familiar to you: Over the past two years, Barack Obama has done X. Now, his poll numbers have slipped to 44 percent. His party is slated to lose a lot of seats in the 2010 midterms. Obama's decision to do X is to blame.

"X" can be a lot of things. Maybe it's the decision to attempt health-care reform. Or his socialist tendencies. Or his cool, professorial demeanor. In Matt Bai's latest article, John Podesta says it's Obama's pursuit of an ambitious legislative agenda. If he'd spent less time passing legislation, he could've spent more time developing and selling popular themes. In John Judis's latest article, it's the absence of populism in Obama's speeches and policies.

The problem with the essays is that they don't consider the counterfactual. What if Obama had done not-X? Would things really be better for him? How do we know they wouldn't be worse?

Klein then goes on to compare President Obama's current standing in the Gallup poll to Presidents Carter, Clinton, and Reagan - arguing that, in fact, Obama is in a slightly better position. Klein chose this trio because they are "the last three presidents who entered office amid a recession and didn't have a country-unifying terrorist attack in their first year."

For starters, a point of clarification. None of these Presidents entered office "amid a recession," at least not if we take the National Bureau of Economic Research as the authority on the beginning and end of recessions. The recession of the mid-70s began in late 1973 and ended in early 1975, during President Ford's administration. The economy was still weak when Carter took office, but the next recession did not begin until January, 1980. It ended in July, 1980, meaning that Ronald Reagan also took office when the economy was in recovery, although it was again weak. The recession of the early 1990s had been over for nearly two years prior to the time that Bill Clinton took office.

These past Presidents at least partially "earned" their poor poll positions by the summer of their second year. Clinton's early term was marred by scandal and highly unpopular legislation. Reagan had pushed for an enormous tax cut that seemed to have the opposite effect of what was promised by the Summer of 1982. And Jimmy Carter was a poor chief executive who did not really have the trust of his party when he was nominated; he had to assure the convention in his nomination speech that he was indeed a bona fide Democrat. He did not have the confidence of the voters when he was elected; he won just 50% of the vote despite all the macro forces in his favor, and even then he had to rely heavily on his native South for most of his electoral power. And he never really enjoyed the confidence of the American public when he was President; by the end of 1977, he was struggling to stay above 50%. When I look at the Carter, Clinton, and Reagan numbers, I see in part a weak economy, but I also see these three suffering the consequences of their political decisions.

Check out Klein's graph of presidential midterm losses over time.


Are there structural things going on here? Yes, of course. But there is also more to it than that. Most of the Presidents who lost substantial numbers of seats - Taft in 1910, Harding in 1922, Hoover in 1930, Truman in 1946, Johnson in 1966, Clinton in 1994 - had not handled their political situations very well. The only exception in the above graph is probably Wilson, who achieved a great deal of success in the 63rd Congress, but whose party suffered big losses because of the return of the Progressives to the Republican fold.

Does the economy matter? Yes, of course. But does political management and facility matter, too? Yes, of course.

Unfortunately, it is hard to capture "facility" quantitatively. If you want to graph the President's job approval against GDP or unemployment, that's easy to do. But what about graphing it against competence or ambition or boldness? That's not as easy, which means that quantitative analysis is usually going to de-emphasize these features, not because they are unimportant but because they can't be measured very well. Another important issue with quantitative analysis of the President's situation is the "small n" problem that confronts anybody who wants to compare different Presidents. Stated in intuitive terms, it basically means that the smaller number of observations you have, the harder it is to control for the different contingencies of each observation to get down to the essential features that connect them all together. There have only been 17 Presidents in the last 100 years. That makes it hard to identify the grand laws of presidential political economy. As I mentioned, Obama's situation vis-à-vis the economy was not really similar to Carter, Clinton, or Reagan. He inherited a recession in a way that these three didn't. In fact, the only two Presidents in the last 80 years who inherited a recession were FDR, who took office just when the Great Depression hit its trough, and Truman, who had to deal with the economic slowdown that came with the end of World War II. Neither offers a very clean comparison to Obama's situation, which means that there really is no great historical comparison for President Obama. This, in turn, implies that a straightforward quantitative analysis is not going to be sufficient, that instead a more "qualitative" or interpretive approach, ala Judis or Bai, has to be in the mix if we want to have the best understanding.

A final point. Even if we cede that it is simply a matter of the gods of the economy smiling or frowning upon a President, we have really just begged the question. After all, President Obama and his Democratic allies in Congress passed a massive stimulus bill that was supposed to get the economy going again. It did not perform up to expectations, which means that the effect of the economy on the President's poll numbers is mediated by his own actions last winter. Could the stimulus have done a better job in jump starting the economy? There is no authoritative answer to that question.

Here's my position on the President's poll numbers. They are in decline partly for forces beyond his control. [You'll see me shed no tears, however, for President Obama or any modern chief executive who is stuck in this situation. Call it karma. The economy is largely outside the President's control, but that did not stop then-candidate Obama from blasting then-President Bush. Said blasting helped get him elected even though it was "unfair." Now that President Obama has the job, he has to suffer the same sort of criticism that his predecessor had to take from him.] Yet these macro trends do not explain the whole of the President's decline. Something else is going on - and analysts like Bai and Judis are trying to figure out what that something else really is. Whatever one might think of their answers, their projects are legitimate. "It's just the economy" is overly reductionist, suggesting that the whole of presidential history should be reduced to a simple line graph comparing job approval to GDP, and leaving us unable to make distinctions between Warren G. Harding and Franklin Roosevelt. As we all know, there is more to the story than that - the difference between those two Presidents is not simply the economic inflection points during their tenures!

-Jay Cost

August 04, 2010

What Went Wrong with Obama?

Robert Reich had a thought-provoking piece in the Wall Street Journal yesterday. Unfortunately, his argument begins to fall apart two thirds of the way through.

Reich argues:

A stimulus too small to significantly reduce unemployment, a TARP that didn't trickle down to Main Street, financial reform that doesn't fundamentally restructure Wall Street, and health-care reforms that don't promise to bring down health-care costs have all created an enthusiasm gap. They've fired up the right, demoralized the left, and generated unease among the general population...

The administration deserves enormous credit. It accomplished as much as it possibly could with a fragile 60 votes in the Senate, a skittish Democratic majority in the House, and a highly-disciplined Republican opposition in both chambers. Yet Bismarck's dictum about politics as the art of the possible is not altogether correct.

The real choice is between achieving what's possible within the limits of politics as given, or changing that politics to extend those limits and thereby more assuredly achieve intended goals. The latter course is riskier but its consequences can be more enduring and its mandate more powerful, as both Lyndon Johnson and Ronald Reagan demonstrated.

So far, Barack Obama has chosen the former course. Despite the remarkable capacities he displayed during the 2008 campaign to inspire and rally Americans behind him, as president he has for the most part opted for an inside game.

Reich's column is in line with other liberal output that has argued that Obama did not go liberal enough. He "opted for an inside game," rather than "extend(ing) those limits" to achieve big, i.e. liberal, goals. If he had done the latter, middle class Americans would have felt the positive benefits already and his poll numbers would not be sliding.

I disagree with this line of thinking. I doubt very much that Obama could have used "the remarkable capacities he displayed during the 2008 campaign" to "inspire and rally Americans," thus "changing that politics." All Presidents face real constraints, and Obama is no different. Acknowledging and identifying them can help us understand where the President has gone wrong.

On the stimulus, he certainly could have gone no bigger than what he did. Reich fails to acknowledge the political fallout from an even larger stimulus package. Deficit spending is a major political issue that has dominated public discussion since the battle between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. Reich and Paul Krugman might fault Obama for not spending more, but their preferred level of deficit spending is politically untenable. It always has been. Even FDR was consistently worried about deficits. Granted that the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act was not enough economic boost for the price tag, but that does not meant that the price tag could have or should have been higher. Not in this country. See: Perot, H. Ross, peculiar appeal of.

As for health care, Obama's goal was an FDR- or LBJ-style comprehensive, systematic reform of the system. It was to be his Social Security, his Medicare. But Obama simply lacked a sufficiently broad mandate to pull off such a feat. If the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act seems less august than Social Security and Medicare, that's because Obama's political position upon assuming the office was not as strong as FDR or LBJ's.

To appreciate what I'm talking about, consider the following picture. It compares Obama's election in 2008 (by county) to previous landslides - Roosevelt in 1932 and 1936, Eisenhower in 1952, Johnson in 1964, and Reagan in 1980. These maps come from an excellent French cartographer named Frédéric Salmon, whose work can be accessed here. They follow a different color scheme than the red-blue divide we are used to. In the following maps, Republican counties are in blue - and they become darker blue as the county votes more heavily Republican. Meanwhile, Democratic counties are in yellow - and they move to brown as the county votes more heavily Democratic.

Presidential Maps 1932-2008.jpg

As should be clear, Obama's victory was geographically narrower than Reagan's, LBJ's, Ike's or FDR's. Substantially so. Obama did much more poorly in rural and small town locales. They have a history of progressive/liberal support, but Obama was unable to place himself in the rural progressive tradition of William Jennings Bryan. This makes his coalition the most one-sided of any on the above maps. Most of his political support comes from the big cities and the inner suburbs. The exurbs, small towns, and rural areas generally voted Republican (with notable exceptions in the Upper Midwest).

In fact, if you look at presidential elections going back 100 years, Obama's is the most geographically narrow of any victors except Carter, Kennedy, and Truman - none of whom had transformative presidencies. Even Bill Clinton in 1996, whose share of the two-party vote was comparable to Obama's, still had a geographically broader voting coalition. Ditto George H.W. Bush in 1988.

Voting input inevitably determines policy output, and these maps hold the key to Reich's disappointment with the President. In our system, it's not just the number of votes that matter, but - thanks to Roger Sherman - how they are distributed across the several states. Obama's urban support base was sufficient for political success in the House, which passed a very liberal health care bill last November. But rural places have greater sway in the Senate - and Obama's weakness in rural America made for a half-dozen skittish Democrats who represent strong McCain states. The evolving thinking on the left - "Obama should have used his campaign-trail magic to change the political dynamic" - is thus totally misguided. The "remarkable capacities he displayed during the 2008 campaign" never persuaded the constituents of the red state Democrats he had to win over. Why should they suddenly start doing so now?

Obama simply lacked the broad appeal to guide the House's liberal proposal through the Senate. So, the result of "going big" was an initially liberal House product that then had to be watered down to win over red state Senators like Landrieu, Lincoln, Nelson, and Pryor. The end result was a compromise bill that, frankly, nobody really liked. Liberals were disappointed, tantalized as they were by the initial House product. Conservatives were wholly turned off, recognizing as they did that the guts of the bill were still liberal. And Independents and soft partisans were disgusted by congressional sausage-making and wary of the bill's provisions.

Was there an alternative approach the President could have taken? I think so. Such a tactic would have acknowledged the sizeable McCain bloc. McCain won 22 states, making his coalition a politically potent minority. Obama should have governed in light of this. I don't mean in hock to it. He didn't have to make Sarah Palin his domestic policy advisor, but he should have ignored the hagiographers who were quick to declare him the next FDR. These flatterers always manifest themselves anytime a new Democrat comes to the White House, and they are of very little help for Democratic Presidents who actually want to be great.

What he should have done instead was disarm his opponents. If he had built initial policy proposals from the middle, he could have wooed the moderate flank of the Republican party, marginalized the conservatives, and alleviated the concerns of those gettable voters in the South and the Midwest. This is precisely what Bill Clinton did between 1995 and 2000, and it is what the President's promises of "post-partisanship" suggested.

Our system of government can only produce policy when geographically broad coalitions favor it. The Senate, more than any other institution, forces such breadth. Obama created breadth the wrong way. He watered down initially liberal legislation to prompt just enough moderate Democrats to sign on. Instead, he should have built policy from the center, then worked to pick up enough votes on either side. The left would have been disappointed, but the right would have been marginalized and, most importantly, Independent voters - who have abandoned the President in droves - might still be on board.

A revolutionary idea in our polarized political climate, I know. Still: ask your average swing voter what he or she thinks of such an approach, and watch them nod in agreement.

-Jay Cost

July 30, 2010

Obama's Vanity is a Liability for Democrats

When Barack Obama burst onto the national scene in early 2007, I was fascinated by his public relations strategy. As a candidate, his facility with the arts of public communication vastly outstripped John McCain's (and Hillary Clinton's, for that matter), and frankly has few rivals in the history of electioneering.

Yet my fascination turned to consternation some time after Mr. Obama's inauguration. I had expected him to modify substantially his strategy in light of the august office he now inhabits. As early as February, 2009 - I fretted about the President's continued courting of celebrity. Since those early days, it has become frustratingly apparent that his Administration's way of dealing with the public is largely an extension of his campaign's.

Neither of them is wholly "rational." You cannot explain how Obama the candidate or Obama the President communicates with the public by assuming that it is all a product of strategic thinking. A strategy implies a goal and a credible explanation as to why a particular action will help accomplish that goal. Too many of his activities are inexplicable by this language of strategic rationality. Recall the Summer of 2008 when candidate Obama seemed particularly weightless: the "Seal of Obama," his European tour, his grandiose convention stage. There was something more to each of these than the simple determination that they were the best ways to spread his message to the masses.

Ditto his choice to appear on The View. Celebrities go on The View. Movie stars and rock stars. Not sitting Presidents of the United States. You cannot explain his decision to appear there without acknowledging that it was, at least in part, about the thrill he gets from being treated like a movie star. This is not merely about public communication. This is also about vanity.

Presidents occasionally make appearances on airy shows - George W. Bush, for instance, had a brief video spot on Deal or No Deal during which he thanked a contestant for his service as a soldier in Iraq. And of course candidates for the Presidency often make appearances on lighter programs like Oprah or The Tonight Show. Yet there are obviously big differences between President Obama and his predecessors, and it cannot be chalked up entirely to getting the message out.

Excessive vanity is common among Presidents. You must be vain to presume that you, and nobody else, should be the next President of the United States. Some Presidents are able to manage their vanity so that it is an asset. For other Presidents, vanity is a severe political handicap. Obama is falling into the latter category, which is somewhat of a surprise. His vanity surely helped generate the "audacity" he needed to snatch the Democratic party nomination from Hillary Clinton. Yet since he accomplished that amazing feat, his vanity has gone from a plus to a minus, creating two political problems for him that can be seen in the above clip.

First, it induces him to do silly things like appear on The View. Such behavior does not help advance his message at all. The audience for this trite program is far too small to induce opinion changes in the mass public. And more importantly, it diminishes the President's stature. His office is so important that he should not be appearing on programs such as this.

Second, it strips him of a sense of self-awareness. This President, who was recently ranked as the eighth most intelligent President of all time (just behind of John Adams, co-author of the Declaration of Independence, and four spots ahead of George Washington, who successfully repelled an invasion by the greatest military power the world had ever seen to that point), seems unaware of the concept of irony. There is no other way to explain why he would say this after having become the first President to engage in a permanent electoral campaign:

We shouldn't be campaigning all the time. There is a time to campaign and there is a time to govern. What we've tried to do over the last 20 months is to govern. On health care or financial reform, right now we have a big debate about how to get small businesses more credit because they generate the jobs. When you feel as if every single initiative that we're doing is subject to Washington politics instead of is this good for the country, that can be frustrating.

The fact that he uttered these words on The View, a show politicians only frequent when they are desperately trolling for votes, makes it all the more remarkable.

President Obama's vanity is fast becoming a problem for the Democratic Party. Messages cannot be delivered without messengers. Ideas require expounders. Even if the former are sound, the latter can make them sound foolish. Obama ran for and won that party's nomination based upon the claim that he could sell the party's ideas to Americans who regularly hesitate to pull the lever for Democrats. He is failing to do that, and his vanity is one reason why.

Democrats have reasons for great anxiety as we approach the 112th Congress and the next presidential campaign. The Republicans, sent packing after the 2006 and 2008 elections, are set to return to the District of Columbia in force next January. On top of that, unemployment is supposed to remain stubborningly high and the deficit will surely remain at unsustainable levels. All of this will make for difficult waters for Democratic party leaders to navigate. The party is going to need crafty, deft leadership if it hopes to avoid ceding further ground to the Republicans. I have my doubts that this President - overcome as he seems to be with self-adoration - can supply it. I'm guessing that many Democrats are starting to have similar worries.

July 26, 2010

A Note on Gallup's Party Identification Map

Today, Gallup released its results of partisan identification in the 50 states. The results are, as usual, interesting.

Gallup Party Identification July 2010.jpg

This map does not correspond with the national presidential map terribly well, in that it underestimates Republican electoral strength. Why is this?

Part of the issue probably has to do with the evolution of American partisanship. You'll note that most of the "Republican" states are in the Great Plains: Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, and Utah. These states have historically been Republican since they were brought into the Union. Actually, many of them were brought into the Union in 1889. The Republicans had control of the presidency and both chambers of Congress, and quickly added these states, which they believed would vote staunchly Republican.

They voted for Bryan in 1896 and Wilson in 1912 and 1916, but otherwise they were staunchly Republican up through the Great Depression. Kansas, Nebraska, and the Dakotas were the first Roosevelt states to peel away from FDR's coalition, voting Republican as early as 1940. And while Harry Truman did well in this part of the country in 1948, they have been pretty reliably Republican since 1952.

These states are thus but a handful that have moved very little in over 100 years in terms of party alignment. Most other states have moved from one side to the other - Vermont used to be the most Republican state and South Carolina used to be the most Democratic. Now, as Gallup finds, it is basically reversed. Even within states we often find major changes: Democrats used to do well in Western Pennsylvania and Southern Illinois while Republicans were strong in Eastern Pennsylvania and Northern Illinois, but now both intra-state trends are reversed.

Party loyalties can survive for many years on a state and local level even if voters have moved on the congressional and presidential level. So, it's fairly common for districts to be reliably Republican for national offices, but more amenable to the Democrats at lower levels. And vice-versa. For instance, Kentucky has been voting staunchly Republican on the presidential level since 2000, but Democrats outnumber Republicans in the lower state house by almost 2-to-1. New York is now a highly Democratic state on the presidential level, but it has a long history of Republicanism, which shows up in the Democrats' very narrow control of the state senate.

If you look carefully, you can find such vestiges of the old party alignments all over the country. They also show up in the Gallup map. States like Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas have become increasingly Republican on the presidential and congressional level in the last 30 years, but Gallup has them listed as "competitive" in no small part, I'm sure, because many functional Republicans called themselves Democrats when Gallup inquired about their preferences.

Interestingly, the reverse does not seem to hold true on the Gallup map. Old Republican states like California or Vermont show up as solidly Democratic. Why might that be? It might have to do with the divisiveness of the Bush presidency, which might have pushed a lot of "liberal Republicans" into the Democratic fold.

It might have to do with the depth of commitment that the South once had to the Democratic party, which vastly outstripped any region's Republicanism. Franklin Roosevelt won every state except Maine and Vermont in 1936. Yet if he had been a Republican, he would surely have lost the old Confederacy, whose loyalty to the Democratic party was put in jeopardy only when the Democrats ran Al Smith, a Catholic, for President in 1928. That's how committed the South once was to the Democratic party. Republicanism in the South is still a fairly new development, just 50 years old or thereabouts, and so perhaps a lot of nationally Republican states still have commitments to the Democratic party that manifest themselves on the Gallup map.

It might also have to do with the fact that the Gallup poll is of "national adults," which can favor the Democratic party. We see indications of this in polls of national adults on Obama's job approval, which tend to be friendlier to the President than polls of registered voters or especially of likely voters; ditto generic ballot tests. The Gallup poll's numbers on un-leaned partisanship tend to track the exit poll results on base party preference fairly well, but Democratic advantages can show up when Gallup asks Independents to which party they "lean." For all of 2004, for instance, Gallup found that, when leaners were counted, the Democrats had a 3 point advantage in party identification. But on Election Day, Republicans outnumbered Democrats and un-leaned Independents basically split between Kerry and Bush. In 2006, Gallup found an average Democratic advantage of 10 points when Independent leaners were included, while the Democrats won the House by 8 points. In 2008, the Democratic advantage when leaned Independents were included was 10 points (again) while Obama defeated McCain by 7.

These factors - the stickiness of old party alignments, the effect of the Bush presidency on the Republican brand in Democratic areas, the deep loyalty of the South to the Democratic party, and the Democratic tilt of a "national adults" sample - probably explain why the Gallup map bears very little resemblance to the red-blue divide we take for granted today. So, Gallup's results are interesting from a sociological/political science perspective, but I think they bear only little relevance to voting preferences in presidential elections or the "nationalized" congressional election we're set to hold in November.

-Jay Cost

July 23, 2010

What's So Bad about the JournoList?

Tucker Carlson has this to say about the title question:

We're not contesting the right of anyone, journalist or not, to have political opinions. (I, for one, have made a pretty good living expressing mine.) What we object to is partisanship, which is by its nature dishonest, a species of intellectual corruption. Again and again, we discovered members of Journolist working to coordinate talking points on behalf of Democratic politicians, principally Barack Obama. That is not journalism, and those who engage in it are not journalists. They should stop pretending to be. The news organizations they work for should stop pretending, too.

I disagree with part of this. Partisanship is not "by its nature dishonest, a species of intellectual corruption." Partisanship for the sake of partisanship is indeed corrupt - e.g. Tammany-style patronage politics - but partisanship that comes about because of big, important differences on issues that matter is not. American democracy is unthinkable without the two political parties, so partisanship can't be all bad.

What it can be, however, is conspiratorial and secretive. Our system of government provides for an open process in which free-wheeling debate is encouraged. That's what happens when you combine freedom of speech with regularly scheduled elections. But certain partisan practices can take the most vital parts of the debate behind closed doors, as allies meet in secret to work out disagreements among themselves before they offer a public message to the country.

That's pretty much how the first party system developed in the 1790s. The country split over big issues like whether to align with France or Britain, the Bank of the United States, and the federal assumption of state debts. Political alliances formed that were quite unlike what the Framers of the Constitution had envisioned. They weren't a matter of the big states coordinating against the little ones, or representatives from a single state working together. Instead, alliances were trans-sectional and ideological in nature: the Pinckney's of South Carolina allied with Alexander Hamilton of New York, and Thomas Jefferson of Virginia in cahoots with Thomas McKean of Pennsylvania.

This is what gave birth to the party caucus - the closed-door meeting of like-minded partisans to work out differences without the public nosing in. On the presidential level, we can see its machinations as early as 1792, when the developing Republican party backed George Clinton of New York to replace John Adams as Vice-President. Clinton received 50 Electoral Votes, which was only possible if the electors coordinated with each other, in private, before they voted. The fact that the Clinton electors almost entirely came from four states - Georgia, New York, North Carolina, and Virginia - delineates further the nature of the "secret plot" to unseat Adams.

Secret caucuses turn Americans off. They long have. This is why the Democratic party in 1828 instituted the practice of the party convention, a broad, open public meeting of the party's members to work out differences in the light of day. Over time, the convention degenerated from an open and inclusive process into the "smoke filled" room that nominated Warren Harding. After the riots in Chicago in 1968, it was all but done away with. Today, the people, acting through primary elections, make the most important partisan decisions.

Ultimately, such secrecy is not good for discourse in an open society of free and equal citizens. While the issues between the Federalists and Republicans were pretty wonkish and technical - War with France or Britain? A federal debt? A national bank? - the accusations that they traded in public were extreme. Adams was portrayed as a monarchist who was secretly coordinating with his perfidious allies, Hamilton and the Arch-Federalists, to impose uniform religious practices upon the country and install a Federalist King, all backed by a standing army that had been justified by ginning up war fever. Jefferson, on the other hand, was tagged as an amoral atheist and Jacobin leveler whose radical ideas would bring the violence and anarchy of the French Revolution to the United States. And sure, both sides swore that their intentions were not so treacherous, but really how could anybody know? The parties were too much like secret societies back then. Nobody was really sure why they made the pronouncements they did.

All of this was nonsense, of course. Adams was a moderate, and Jefferson ended up retaining much of the Federalist program. They were friends before the political battles of the 1790s, and became friends once again in retirement. But there was something about the secret practice of party politics back then that transformed straightforward policy disagreements into something much more virulent, and turned dear friends into mortal enemies.

JournoList has too much in common with the old party caucus. First of all, it was secretive. Members only! "NO GIRLZ!" As Ezra Klein notes today, Carlson asked for admission, but was denied it by the list - much as John Adams would have been denied invitation to a meeting of the congressional Anti-Federalists. And, much like the party caucus, the reasons for the denial were ideological: he disagreed with them too much in public to have access to their private thoughts.

Was it used as a private forum to coordinate public activities? Klein and other JournoListers swear up one end and down the other that it was not, but the stories from the Daily Caller suggest that it was on occasion a place for ideologues to plan in secret. Honestly, we'll never know - and this is a chief problem with such a caucus. It inherently breeds suspicion, distrust, and ultimately conspiracy theories - thereby distorting and perverting the public discourse. JournoList was a years-long secret caucus that discussed...who knows what?...in private prior to public statements. Semi-knowledge of its existence and practices can only worsen ideological tensions, promote bad blood, and further sour an already acerbic public discourse.

Conservatives have long sensed that the mainstream media is tilted against them. Relatively few have suggested that it is a hard bias, i.e. an actual conspiracy by media types to present the news in a certain fashion. Instead, the inference has long been that political opinions reflect contested values - and our values are pervasive, influencing how we interpret and present the world to others in all sorts of subtle ways. And because journalists overwhelmingly support Democratic candidates, as a group they strongly favor one set of values, which means their reporting inescapably does as well.

Somehow, Ezra Klein has managed to drain a little more water out of the already shallow pool of media objectivity. He's introduced the notion that, in some instances, it may not have been a soft bias, but instead a hard one. That's exactly the kind of suspicion and mutual distrust that a party caucus breeds. And, unless the full JournoList is opened to the public, nobody will ever know for sure.

JournoList looks to me to be yet another mile-marker on this country's return to a partisan press. This does not upset me very much at all. I think American democracy is unthinkable without the political parties, so I do not think that a partisan press is all that bad. And it might finally stop journalists and academics from acquiring the inherently political authority that comes with monikers like "objective news" or "social science" when they are in fact promoting subjective values. That would be a good thing. All in all, a partisan press is, weirdly enough, a very honest one in that you know fully where everybody is coming from, and nobody can claim for him- or herself the epistemologically ridiculous "God's eye view."

-Jay Cost

A Primer on the 2010 House Midterm

What I'd like to do in this piece is offer you a sense of how voters will come to their congressional vote choices in November, and in so doing give you an impression of how various factors will affect the outcome.

This is not necessarily the best way to look at midterm elections, and it is certainly not the only way. But I'll say this: I've spent the last few years soaking up as much popular and scholarly commentary on congressional midterms as I could, and this is the framework I've put together for myself.

Here's the basic system. While the Framers of the Constitution figured that Congress would be the center of American political life, practically speaking the President has been the focal point of attention. So, we have to frame a voter's decision as whether or not to support the candidate of the President's party or the candidate of the opposition party.

I like to think of the vote choice as the product of four ordered questions. Every time a voter answers "Yes," the more likely he or she is to vote for the opposition. Also, I'm not directly factoring partisanship into this equation, but it does matter. Partisanship influences every answer given, and its influence has grown in recent cycles

Question 1. Am I upset with the current state of the country?

The first question is pretty straightforward, and the current results are not good for the 44th President.


Less than one out of three Americans sees the country as heading in the right direction. And even on this first question, partisanship has a great deal of influence. Rasmussen recently found that 54% of Democrats and just 11% of Republicans thought the country was heading in the right direction. On the other hand, back in October 2007, when he found roughly similar aggregate opinion (24% said the country was heading in the right track, versus 31% now) - he found 43% of Republicans saying the country was on the right track versus just 6% of Democrats.

Question 2. Do I blame the President for the bad times?

Most Americans think times are bad, and right now there is about an equal split on this second question.


Gallup can give some historical perspective on what a marginally negative answer to this question means. In the last sixty years, five Presidents have gone into a midterm congressional election with their net approval at or below sea level: George W. Bush in 2006, Bill Clinton in 1994, Ronald Reagan in 1982, Lyndon Johnson in 1966, and Harry Truman in 1946. All five midterms were "wave" elections in which the opposition party picked up a large enough number of House seats to affect substantially the policymaking process in Washington, D.C.

House elections really turn on how the President is viewed in 435 diverse districts. So, it is not simply President Obama's national job approval that matters, but also how it is distributed.

Of course, nobody is polling each of the 435 House districts, but we can still get a sense of where he stands. For instance, the RCP average currently shows the President at a net job approval of -0.8 points. By comparison, he beat John McCain by 7.3 points on Election Day. So, we can derive a rough estimate of the President's current job approval by subtracting 8.1 points off his victory margin in each House district.

When we do that, we find President Obama at or near net negative approval in about 70 Democratic-controlled House districts. This estimate seems fairly reasonable. As my colleague Sean Trende has noted, the median partisan voting index score for the House is Republican +2. With Obama at sea level in his nationwide job approval, we should expect that more than half of the 435 districts disapprove of him.

The actual number might even be higher than 70. This analysis assumes a uniform drop-off in net approval among all 435 districts, but this is unlikely. Obama's decline among soft partisans is probably greater than among strongly partisan Republicans, who never really supported him at all. This means that his decline relative to 2008 is probably tilted toward districts that went more strongly for him.

In fact, comparing Gallup's recent 50-state report on Obama's job approval to his 2008 election results shows little drop-off in almost all of the deep red states - Alabama, Idaho, Nebraska, South Carolina, etc. The only heavily Republican state to show a big Obama decline is West Virginia, but on a sub-presidential level the Mountain State remains heavily Democratic. Most of his big declines were in either solidly Democratic bastions where the 2008 vote went heavily Democratic (e.g. Vermont, which gave him 67% of the vote but just 54% job approval today) or swing states that went heavily for the President (e.g. Wisconsin, which gave him 56% of the vote but just 48% job approval).

On a district level, it stands to reason that Obama's approval ratings have moved similarly. I expect that he has declined relatively little in very conservative districts, where he wasn't very popular to begin with. Also, I'd expect very little drop-off in majority-minority districts, as his African-American support has remained fairly constant. Most of his drop-off is probably concentrated in majority white Democratic districts, where he should still be comfortably above 50%, and in politically balanced districts that swung his way in 2008, where is probably now below 50%.

So, all in all, we can figure that a plurality of voters in 60 to 80 Democratic-held districts now answer Question #2 in the affirmative.

Question 3. Is my incumbent party candidate indistinguishable from the President?

If you think the state of the country is not good, and you've identified the President as a cause of that, your next question is whether the local incumbent party candidate should be lumped in with the Commander-in-Chief. This is the context in which congressional races are waged. The national mood and evaluations of the President set the general outline, then ultimately it is up to local candidates to angle for the best possible position in light of the broader framework.

In a year when Questions 1 and 2 are answered in the negative, many factors matter when it comes to evaluating the local incumbent party candidate:

a. Is he/she already a member of Congress? If not, and it's an open seat race, it'll be a tougher election for the incumbent party, as the race typically reflects national dynamics. Challengers are never as well known as incumbents, and so voters inevitably rely more on the party labels to make a decision. In a bad year for the incumbent party, that can be a decisive factor.

This is where the Democratic party's relatively few open seats will be an asset.

b. Does the incumbent have a history of independent thinking? Swing voters everywhere tend to prize independent thinking. They are the ideological descendants of George Washington, who generally hated factionalism. Even if they are upset with Obama this year, they are going to be at least somewhat partial to Democrats who have shown a willingness to defy their party leadership. This can make a difference for Democrats in at least a few districts, although the returning members will more often than not be the kind that the Daily Kos crowd hates, the reviled "ConservaDems."

Regardless of how outsized the GOP "wave" is this year, it is highly unlikely that it will overwhelm Gene Taylor in Mississippi's Fourth Congressional District. Based solely on structural factors, this comes as quite a surprise. The counties that make up his district were some of the first in the Deep South to swing to the GOP. They elected Trent Lott to the House in 1972, and they have consistently voted for Republican Presidents since 1980. Despite all this, Taylor is likely going to be a member in the upcoming Congress because nobody doubts that he is independent of his party's leadership. A similar effect helped Delaware's Mike Castle, a Republican, pull 61% of the vote in 2008 even as McCain won only 37% statewide. Polling suggests that Delaware remains generally supportive of President Obama, yet Castle is the odds-on favor to win Joe Biden's old Senate seat, in part because of his solid statewide reputation for independence.

Still, Taylor and Castle are outliers in a Congress that, in recent sessions, has seen an uptick in party line voting. Most Democrats in districts that are now tipped against the President are going to have a somewhat uphill battle in convincing their constituents that they should not be lumped in with Obama. Ultimately, it will depend on how they voted on key items like cap-and-trade and especially health care. Guys like Gene Taylor, an iconoclast with a reputation of defying his leadership when the district asks him to, are going to be much better positioned than guys like Tom Perriello (D-VA), a freshman from a Republican-leaning district who took a high-profile vote in favor of health care. The GOP is not going to take down every "Tom Perriello," but it is going to defeat quite a number of them.

Unfortunately for the Democrats, they have a large number of freshman and sophomore members who do not have much of a reputation for anything. This is a big reason why they have so few open seats to defend - freshmen and sophomores are unlikely to retire! - and it is a real liability for them.

c. Is the incumbent well liked? Some incumbents just never click with their constituents, and sometimes what was once a passionate love affair flames out. In a bad year for the incumbent party, these types tend to get cleaned out. Several such candidates went down to defeat in 2006 - most notable among them being Curt Weldon of PA-7, John Hostettler of IN-8 and Charles Taylor of NC-11. In 2004, they underperformed George W. Bush's share of the vote. Unsurprisingly, they lost by wide margins in 2006. Wave elections have a habit of taking down the weakest links in the party chain, which is bad news this year for Paul Kanjorski of PA-11.

Question 4. Is my district's opposition party candidate a marginally better alternative?

This question and the previous one are essentially answered simultaneously, and they blend together in many respects: a better opposition candidate means more money, which means a sharper criticism of the incumbent party in the district. But this is still a somewhat distinct query. You can't beat something with nothing, at least not most of the time.

This is where Harry Reid's strategy for victory becomes interesting. If public opinion polling is to believed, Nevadans have answered the first three questions in this way: Yes, Yes, and Oh Hell Yes. So, Reid's sole hope of electoral victory is to make Sharron Angle completely and totally unelectable. This also explains why the President has sharpened his already-sharp criticism of Republicans, and Democrats are apparently trolling around for dirt on the GOP in an unprecedented manner.

Will this work? In a few races here and there, it will probably save the hide of some Democratic incumbents. One of the consequences of party primaries is that occasionally they can produce candidates who are simply too far outside the mainstream. But, on balance, this is only going to mitigate what will be serious losses. There are two big reasons:

a. Mainstream Democrats see mainstream Republicans as extremists, and vice-versa. The problem that the Democrats have this year, however, is that the battle for the House is largely going to be fought in Republican-leaning neighborhoods. After all, George W. Bush - that neo-con arch-extremist! - still managed to beat John Kerry in 255 congressional districts. So, Democrats are going to label some Republicans as extremists who are not so in the eyes of their conservative-leaning electorates.

b. It can be difficult to tag challengers as extremists. How do you find the smoking gun? Barring some ridiculous comment, it's hard. The best Republican challengers will usually be state legislators or leaders in the local business community. State government usually does not deal with issues that force true extremists to out themselves as such, and extremism is just plain bad for private business.

This is why Barack Obama was able to skate past the kind of treatment that John Kerry received. Though they are both probably equally liberal, Kerry had a twenty-year congressional record that the GOP could comb through to find evidence that he was outside the mainstream. Obama, on the other hand, had a four-year record, two of which he was actively campaigning for the White House and the other two he was preparing to. There was very little there. In 2008, vagueness was the ally of the Democrats. In 2010, it will be the ally of the Republicans.

Beyond the issue of extremism, what will matter above all else is how much money these Republican challengers raise. Money raised is probably the best metric of candidate quality, and we can put down the following marker: Democratic incumbents in conservative leaning districts with challengers who raise close to or more than $1 million will have an enormous challenge on their hands. I would not be surprised to see some Republicans who raise quite a bit less than $1 million still manage to defeat their Democratic opponents.


Right now, we can conclude that most voters in most House districts have answered Questions 1 and 2 in the affirmative. That's what most of the polls - national and statewide - have indicated pretty clearly, so it is not hard to extend that to House districts.

But the campaign for the House has not yet begun in earnest, which means that Questions 3 and 4 have yet to be answered, and we probably will not have a solid grasp of the public's answers until the leaves are falling from the trees.

If history is any guide, voters in at least two-dozen districts will agree that their local Democratic candidate is "part of the problem" and that the Republicans have fielded at least a slightly better alternative. But the Republicans need at least 40 districts to make a change. Will that happen?

That remains to be seen, and that's not a trite equivocation. Congressional elections are a strange brew of national and local forces, which means that each is a unique world unto itself. The national forces have sorted themselves out pretty well, but strong Democratic performances on the local level could very well result in the party holding its House majority, albeit it by a slim margin.

The best case scenario for Democrats at this point is a nominal majority where the median member is not a terribly reliable ally of the party's liberal leadership. Something similar is set to occur in the Senate, where a Republican gain of at least five seats will push the filibuster to more conservative ground, from Brown/Collins/Snowe to Alexander/Cochran/Murkowski. Barack Obama ran for and won the Presidency in 2008 based upon a pledge to pursue bipartisanship, and the results in 2010 are effectively going to force him to do just that, at long last.

-Jay Cost

July 21, 2010

Gallup's Bouncing Ball

This week, Gallup's "generic ballot" number - which asks people if they plan to support a generic Republican or Democrat in the upcoming congressional elections - found a big boost for the Democrats, who bounced out to a 6-point lead.

Dems Lead Generic by 6.gif

The jump was sufficient to merit comment from Allahpundit as well as other conservatives. And I'd like to toss my two cents in.

Polls tend to have house effects, and most of us tend to notice these effects when they result in a pollster falling on one side of an average or the other. Rasmussen, for instance, tends to have Obama's job approval on the low side while ABC News/Washington Post usually puts the President on the high side. But there are other types of house effects, and Gallup has an interesting one: it is kinda bouncy.

For instance, look again at that above graph. Over the course of the last two months, Gallup has shown as much as R+6 on the generic ballot and as much as D+6. In a small poll, that might be attributable to sampling error, but the Gallup sample is over 1,500 registered voters, which produces a margin of error of less than 3 points.

Is it really the case that there has been a 12 point swing in the last two months? I doubt it. Looking at the RCP generic ballot average, the only two pollsters who have done multiple generic ballot questions during this time are Fox News and Rasmussen, and neither found such substantial swings.

This is not the only example of Gallup's bounciness. If you are anything like me, you wind your way over to Gallup.com at 1 PM Eastern Standard Time, as that is when it releases it's latest numbers on the President's job approvals. Those numbers move around more than any others out there. On Sunday, for instance, the President's job approval number rose 3 points, and his job disapproval fell 3 points. That made for quite a swing, which is noteworthy because the poll is based on 1,500 total respondents over a three-day track. That means about 500 respondents every day. For his net approval to fall 6 points by cycling out one day and adding another must have meant a very substantial one day movement. If you watch Gallup every day like I do - you'll note that such swings are fairly common, much more so than Rasmussen, the other daily tracking poll.

This is not a recent phenomena with Gallup, either. Check out its trial heats for the later stages of the 2000 presidential election campaign. Note October 2000 in particular:

2000 Bush v Gore.gif

Holy cow! At the beginning of the month, Gore had a 12 point lead, but at the end of the month it was Bush who had an equally large lead. That's some bounciness. And I would note that ABC News poll had a much more stable track through the month of October, and none of the other pollsters showed such outsized movement.

As for the generic ballot itself, it is historically a difficult metric. For instance, in 1998 the Republicans won a solid if uninspiring 2-point victory in the House popular vote, but Gallup's November generic ballot showed the Democrats up 7. In 2002, the October generic ballot had the Democrats up by 6 points, but the GOP went on to win the House popular vote by nearly 5 points. In 2006, Gallup's post-Labor Day generic ballot was tied among likely voters, but a month later the Democrats were out to a 13-point lead. Its post-Labor Day poll found something similar in 2008, leading Gallup to declare that "The Battle for Congress Suddenly Looks Competitive." It wasn't. In both 2006 and 2008, Republicans had a rough month of September, and in both cases the party's trouble really began after the Gallup polls. Still, in historical retrospect, I do not think that the "actual" generic ballot numbers were ever as tight as Gallup found, or as far apart as it found just a few weeks later.

Now, don't get me wrong. The problems with the generic ballot question are due to the limitations of the question itself, not how Gallup handles it. Democrats have a generic edge in nationwide party identification, which often does not materialize on Election Day, so historically the generic ballot favors the Democrats. There's nothing that Gallup can do about that. Plus, there is nothing wrong with having a house effect. I'd be suspicious of a poll that had none. Gallup is a great, reliable pollster that has been doing good work since before most of us were born. It would not be in business today if it wasn't. And kudos to Gallup for offering up more and more of its historical data, which is not only interesting but also a real public service.

My point here is fairly modest: it's incumbent upon us, the consumers of polling data, to digest it properly - which means generally that we have to be aware of house effects, and specifically in the case of Gallup we should not get hung up on every little inflection point. Gallup bounces around quite a bit, and it has exhibited this quality for some time. The best approach in handling this is to average its results across a few weeks.

When we do that for the Gallup 2000 numbers on Bush v. Gore, we find Bush holding a modest 4 point lead, 47 to 43, which should make intuitive sense given the dynamics of that race in its final stages. Similarly, the average generic ballot since Memorial Day 2010 shows the two parties essentially tied, which sounds about right to me for a measure of registered voters several months before Election Day.

-Jay Cost

July 06, 2010

Michael Steele Makes the Case for Party Reform

Abraham Lincoln's assassination was a national tragedy, and it was also a partisan calamity of the first degree. The Republicans had transformed themselves into the "Union Party" during the Civil War; to hold together their broad pro-war coalition, they nominated Andrew Johnson - Democrat from Tennessee and the only Senator from the Confederacy not to leave Congress - for vice-president in 1864. With Lincoln gone, Johnson became President; this precipitated a split in the Republican party that eventually wound its way through the party organization. As President, Johnson took control of the Republican National Committee (RNC), and congressional Republicans - the "Radicals" - were worried that he would use it to undermine their position in Congress. Thus was born what we know today as the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) - a partisan organization designed exclusively to help congressional Republicans.

I've been thinking about this anecdote lately because of Michael Steele, as of this writing still the Chairman of the RNC. His tenure has been an unmitigated disaster, and an embarrassment for a Republican party that stands a decent shot of returning to power in Congress come November. Apparently, the RNC is not going to force Steele out of power - it's just too difficult - and instead unhappy Republicans will redirect money to other outlets, like the Republican Governors Association.

So, 2010 is a bit like 1866 in that the Republican party apparatus is disorganized and divided. Although unlike 1866, the disorganization of today is not because of deep divisions within the party on an issue of monumental importance, but because of a man who has managed to capture the chairmanship in an apparent attempt to - as the Daily Show wryly commented last night - run a "ponzi scheme on stupid."

Republicans should be troubled by all this - not simply by the fact that Steele has been able to acquire the power of the chairmanship, but also by the fact that apparently he cannot be gotten rid of.

This raises the question: is it time to reorganize the Republican party?

The national Republican party organizations - the RNC, NRCC, and the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) - are all old organizations that were created many, many decades ago. In the intervening years, the nature of the electoral campaign has changed, but these organizations remain intact.

Here is how the members of the Republican National Committee are chosen:

RULE NO. 1 Organization of the Republican National Committee

(a) The Republican National Committee shall have the general management of the Republican Party, based upon the rules adopted by the Republican National Convention. The members of the Republican National Committee shall consist of one (1) national committeeman and one (1) national committeewoman from, and the chairman of the state Republican Party of, each state.

(b) For the purposes of this rule and all other rules, "state" or "states" shall be taken to include American Samoa, the District of Columbia, Guam, Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands, except in Rule No. 13 and unless the context in which the word "state" or "states" is used clearly makes such inclusion inappropriate...

RULE NO. 2 Method of Election for National Committeeman and National Committeewoman

(a) Where the rules adopted by a state Republican Party provide a method of election of the national committeeman and the national committeewoman, they shall be elected pursuant to such method.

(b) Where the rules adopted by a state Republican Party do not provide a method of election of the national committeeman and the national committeewoman, and where state laws do provide such a method of election, they shall be elected pursuant to such method provided by state laws. (c) Where neither the rules adopted by a state Republican Party nor state laws provide a method of election of the national committeeman and the national committeewoman, the national convention delegation from such state shall elect them.

In other words, it is a federated organization whose membership is largely determined by the state parties. Also, in a nod to the "New Jersey Plan," each state (and remember that includes American Samoa, D.C., Guam, and so on) gets exactly the same number of members, regardless of how populous they are or whether they ever actually vote Republican.

The unrepresentativeness of the Republican organization has been a problem in the past. Teddy Roosevelt was likely the choice of Republican voters nationwide, but he lost the Republican nomination in 1912 to William Howard Taft, who controlled the RNC as well as the Southern delegates. These southern delegates did not represent the interests of voting Republicans in the South because, well, there really weren't any voting Southern Republicans back then! Instead, they were more like the "Rotten Boroughs" of old British Parliaments, loyal to Taft because he as President had secured them patronage.

So how is it that Michael Steele has been able to wreak all this havoc upon a party that won the support of nearly 60 million Americans in 2008? It goes like this: the state Republican parties elected their RNC members, who elected Michael Steele, who has embarrassed his party.

What's wrong with this? For starters, the role of the state parties should be of concern. Picture this: you're a young, idealistic Republican who just moved into a new state. You want to help the cause, so you pick up the phone intent to find a political organization or outlet for which you can volunteer. Do you call your state Republican party? No, didn't think so.

The reality is that the state party organizations used to be powerful entities that dispensed patronage to keep an iron grip on political power. Think Matthew Quay in Pennsylvania or Roscoe Conkling in New York. But the Teddy Roosevelt's of the world got their way, and there is basically no more patronage for these organizations to control, which means that they are merely shells of their former selves. Really, what they do today is help state candidates launder money to exploit the legal loopholes in federal and state campaign finance laws. They are not really open organizations, as Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren envisioned when they created the first modern political party in the 1820s. The Republican base does not participate in them, which means in turn that they do not really represent their interests. Additionally, they are only tangentially related to Republicans in Congress, who - because they have to win primary battles - can at least claim to represent the millions of people who call themselves Republicans. And yet these members of Congress are powerless to do anything about Michael Steele.

So these state parties - even though most Republicans in most states have nothing to do with them - are empowered to elect the RNC. And the RNC has two jobs of significance. The first is to wield the imagery of Republicanism - "the Elephant" - to attract donations, which are then distributed strategically to state parties and candidates, again to exploit campaign finance law loopholes. They are also in charge of putting on the Republican National Convention, although for practical purposes the party's nominee gets to make all the important choices about the speakers, the message, the platform, and so on.

The question I would ask is this: is the organization of the RNC designed for the task of money laundering in a maximally effective way? I would say no. The big problem is the state party organizations, which are anachronistic holdovers from days long gone by. They lack broad popular mandates, in that Republican voters tend not to participate in their activities. They also are not directly involved in setting the national party agenda, which comes out of Congress and the White House. So why should their organization be entrusted with control of the party imagery and the job of raising tens of millions of dollars?

Make no mistake, this organizational structure generates inefficiencies. I noted this recent story with interest:

The RNC is sending staffers to Guam to train party operatives, an RNC spokesperson confirms to Hotline OnCall, in advance of this year's open GOV race. State and local development dir. Shannon Reeves and Director of Political Strategies for New Media George Alafoginis, 2 RNC officials, are in Guam this week as part of Steele's commitment to provide more party resources to U.S. territories, they told the Pacific Daily News. It is Reeves' second trip, after visiting last year. The 2 top staffers will also attend the party's Lincoln Day Dinner at a local resort.

"The visit is a part of party building activities the committee undertakes everyday to ensure the Republican Party is competitive in every state and territory, which is an important priority for Chairman Steele. To do otherwise -- and not make critical investments in our state and local parties -- would be political malpractice," said RNC communications director Doug Heye.

It is the RNC's second foray into Pacific Rim politics. Earlier this year, Hotline OnCall reported Steele had directed $20K to the Northern Mariana Islands for a GOV race, which the GOP lost.

The territories of the Pacific Rim have literally no role to play in United States politics, but they are receiving Republican resources. Why? Because they have votes in the RNC. If John Boehner and Eric Cantor were in charge of directing party dollars, would $20,000 be sent to the Northern Mariana Islands? No, of course not.

The worst part of this setup is that the party feels its negative effects at exactly the worst time: when it is out of power. Steele's unique brand of nonsense would not have been tolerated when George W. Bush was President because the Commander in Chief also becomes the commander of the party. He essentially captures the RNC and integrates it into his own political organization - just as Barack Obama effectively named Tim Kaine, an early supporter, chair of the DNC. But when the party is out of power, a character like Michael Steele has a shot at gaming this inefficient, outdated organization for the purposes of self-promotion.

I think it is time for Republicans to evaluate their organization seriously and carefully. The RNC should not be allowed to be a cause of mischief and embarrassment when the GOP is out of power. I'm not sure what the best setup is, but I do think Republicans need to make a choice about how it is structured in the years when it does not control the White House. They either should work to make their existing organizations more inclusive, so that the tens of millions of self-identified Republicans not only vote for candidates but vote for party leaders. Or, they should entrust it with congressional Republicans (and other elite party stakeholders) for safekeeping until the White House returns to Republican control.

-Jay Cost

June 16, 2010

The Pulpit of a Bully

Mike Allen broke this astounding bit of news yesterday:

Phil Schiliro, the White House congressional liaison, has told the Senate to aim to take up an energy bill the week of July 12, after the July 4 break (and after the scheduled final passage of Wall Street reform). Kagan confirmation will follow, ahead of the summer break, scheduled to begin Aug. 9. The plan is to conference the new Senate bill with the already-passed House bill IN A LAME-DUCK SESSION AFTER THE ELECTION, so House members don't have to take another tough vote ahead of midterms.

A White House aide has the official word: "President Obama reiterated his call for comprehensive energy and climate legislation to break our dependence on oil and fossil fuels. In the coming weeks he will be reaching out to Senators on both sides of the aisle to chart a path forward. A number of proposals have been put forward from Members on both sides of the aisle. We're open to good ideas from all sources, and will be working with Senators on a comprehensive proposal. The tragedy in the Gulf underscores the need to move quickly, and the President is committed to finding the votes for comprehensive energy legislation this year."

The 51st Congress (1889-91) was tagged as the Billion Dollar Congress, a profligate Republican-run legislature that raided the Treasury in an effort to pay off all its supporters. The 111th should go down in history as the Trillion Dollar Congress. An enormous energy package passed during a lame duck session would be a fitting epilogue for the Trillion Dollar Congress, which has been consistently out of step with the public mood.

The only reason to pass such a major piece of legislation during a lame duck session is because the proposal is unpopular. If Democrats could sell the bill to their constituents, they would pass it before the November elections then campaign on it. Party leaders must also expect that the political will for this bill will not exist in the 112th Congress after the voters have spoken in November. In other words, the new representatives coming in are not going to vote for it - so Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, and Barack Obama had better get the representatives who were just fired to support it before they're forced into early retirement.

This strategy has the same odor that stank up the final stages of health care reform. After the voters of Massachusetts elected Scott Brown to fill Ted Kennedy's seat, the President refused to take the hint. Instead, he employed budgetary reconciliation - a technically legal legislative parlor trick that, had the shoe been on the other foot, would have provoked howls of outrage from the left and especially from our holier-than-thou President - to jam through a bill that the public had expressed sustained and significant opposition to.

For somebody who seems detached from the details of policy and largely uninterested in legislative wrangling, Barack Obama sure does come across sometimes like a political bully. But this is not bullying some obstinate backbench legislator. Instead, this is bullying the American people. With health care reform, he basically told the country that he didn't care what it thought. The fact that people opposed the bill was proof they didn't know what they were talking about. Now, apparently, the evolving strategy on energy is the same. Don't like cap-and-trade? That's your problem, not his. Plan to vote out Democrats in favor of the idea? Like he cares. He'll pass it anyway.

The President had better tread carefully here. There are political issues that divide the parties, then there are "valence" issues that cut across party lines. Bill Clinton's sexual indiscretions became a valence issue in 2000, sufficient to prompt Al Gore to nominate Joe Lieberman for the vice-presidency. It didn't matter what party you belonged to, what Clinton had done was wrong and gross. Ditto Republican chicanery with Jack Abramoff. It didn't matter what your politics were, you thought that had to stop. The Foley scandal went hand-in-glove with Abramoff. It crystalized the sense back in 2006 that there was something deeply dysfunctional about the Republican caucus.

Passing health care reform over howls of popular protest then jamming energy reform through a lame duck Congress might solidify the impression that this President is a bully who doesn't care what the people think. That would hand the Republicans a great valence issue for 2012. Nobody likes a bully, after all. And just as the Democrats worked hard to connect Abramoff and Foley to enhance the impression of a broken GOP, Republicans will try to make these connections for the voters, too.

Instead of passing unpopular bills through questionable methods over the opposition of the people, maybe the President should get behind proposals that can actually sustain popular support. There's a difference between bullying and leading, after all.

-Jay Cost

June 08, 2010

Obama Gives New Meaning to "Big Government"

Barack Obama has been compared to a lot of Presidents. Franklin Roosevelt, John Kennedy, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, even George W. Bush. But no intrepid analyst has ever - so far as I know - dared to compare the 44th President to the 22nd (and 24th), Mr. Grover Cleveland.

And for good reason.

Rotund, stern, and mustachioed when the style was a full beard - the Democrat Cleveland was not well loved, but he was well liked. He won the popular vote for President three times in a row, and is the only man to serve non-continuous terms in the White House. Cleveland was a "Bourbon Democrat." He hated the business trusts and he felt that the nation's protectionist tariff policies had given rise to them. He stood for small and frugal government, lower taxes, and sound money - making him a tough fit with Barack Obama's Democratic Party.

Cleveland and Obama also had different views on the role of the President. In his brief biography of Cleveland, historian Henry Graff writes:

Once, in his first year in office, when the Chicago White Stockings were in town for a game, (Cleveland) invited the team to the White House. He took the occasion to ask Cap Anson, the player-manager: "How's my old friend 'Pud' Galvin [once the star pitcher for the Buffalo Bisons and now a Hall of Famer]? You know he and I were good friends when I was sheriff and mayor of Buffalo." But when Anson invited the president to the ballpark, Cleveland felt he had to say "no thank you." "What do you think the American people would think of me if I wasted my time going to a ball game?"

How times have changed:

President Barack Obama says the blown umpire's call that cost a young Detroit Tigers' pitcher a perfect game dramatizes the need for Major League Baseball to "take a look" at more instant replay.

Obama was asked in an NBC interview to comment on the incident involving umpire Jim Joyce and Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga. Joyce mistakenly called Cleveland's Jason Donald safe at first base on what would've been the final out. While many Tigers argued, Galarraga merely smiled at his misfortune and went back to the mound.

In the interview broadcast Tuesday, Obama said he wouldn't prejudge a review by MLB of the replay policy. And he said he thought Commissioner Bud Selig "made the right call" in not awarding a perfect game after the fact.

Oh good. I for one am glad to know what Mr. Obama thinks about instant replay in baseball. Such executive opinions are not mandated by Article II of the Constitution, but by gum they should be.

By virtue of his omnipresence, this President has given new meaning to the phrase "big government." He is everywhere. Try as you might, you cannot escape him. Mr. Obama has expanded the concept of the bully pulpit in ways we have never before seen. It is worth asking: in a country founded on the idea of limited government, is it good to have a President who appears to see no limits to what he can involve himself in?

Some of this must be political strategy. Barack Obama is the first President in American history who is primarily after the same precious 18-to-35 year olds that Madison Avenue covets. He won about 2/3rds of this age group in the 2008 election, and he needs them to vote Democrat this November. Talking sports and culture and "kicking ass" is a way to stay in touch with them. I half expect him to start driving around in a Scion xB.

But some of this must be narcissism. This is, after all, the President who got up on stage to sing "Hey Jude" with Paul McCartney, Stevie Wonder, and Jerry Seinfeld. There is no electoral utility to this sort of spectacle. Obama clearly enjoys the attention that comes with being a super cool Commander in Chief.

One wonders what Cleveland would have to say about this. Actually, the above anecdote gives a hint. Cleveland declined the invitation to the ball field because he worried what the public would think. According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, the economy was just working its way out of a three-year recession when Cleveland started his first term. Perhaps the 22nd President recognized that the American people did not hire him to make appearances at baseball games - let alone opine on what rulings the commissioner should make. He had much bigger fish to fry.

With two wars, a sagging economy, and the worst enviornmental disaster in American history unfolding in the Gulf - Mr. Obama does, too. If he is not too modest to pontificate publicly on such trivial matters, he should at least be too busy.

And anyway, Mr. Obama is a very young man. He will have years of a post-presidency to enjoy his status as a cultural icon slash pundit-at-large. But I doubt ESPN or Beatle Paul will be as interested in hanging out with him if he's a one termer. So maybe Mr. Obama should learn a lesson from old Grover Cleveland.

-Jay Cost

May 19, 2010

Is PA-12 a Bellwether?

Politico's Jonathan Martin and Charles Mahtesian write this about the special election in PA-12:

All the evidence pointing to monster Republican House gains this fall--the Scott Brown upset win in Massachusetts, the scary polling numbers in once-safely Democratic districts, the ever-rising number of Democratic seats thought to be in jeopardy--was contradicted Tuesday.

In the only House race that really mattered to both parties--the special election to replace the late Democratic Rep. John Murtha in Pennsylvania's 12th District--Republicans failed spectacularly, losing on a level playing field where, in this favorable environment, they should have run roughshod over the opposition.

Martin and Mahtesian make some valid points, but they are massively overstating their case. The details of last night's special election don't support the bellwether argument as these two have constructed it.

Let's begin with the political demography of the district. In 2004, George W. Bush won 255 congressional districts. PA-12 was not one of them. From 1994 to 2006, the Republicans held the United States House of Representatives, controlling as many as 232 seats. PA-12 was never one of them. In fact, the Republican-dominated Pennsylvania legislature created a heavily Democratic 12th district in 2002 by moving conservative voters around to generate the Republican-leaning 18th district (currently held by Republican Tim Murphy).

Like many districts in this region, PA-12 went strongly against Barack Obama in the 2008 Democratic primary. The following chart has the details on Obama's 10 worst Appalachian districts.

Obama Appalachia.jpg

There's PA-12 in the #7 spot. Obama pulled in just 27% of the vote during the primary.

Two features stand out from this chart.

First, PA-12 had the second-highest number of primary participants, behind only OH-6. This is important because the Pennsylvania presidential primary was closed; one had to be a registered Democrat to vote. This means that there are a lot of Democrats in PA-12. These Democrats are pretty well unionized. After all, this is the district that includes a place named Uniontown! Unionized Democrats in a special election are a force to be reckoned with, to say the least.

Second, even though they did not particularly care for Obama when he faced off against Hillary Clinton, the residents of PA-12 swung behind him reasonably well in the general election. Obama did better in the PA-12 general than he did in any of these other districts. This means that these self-identified Democrats still actually vote Democratic there. That's in contrast to states like Kentucky and West Virginia, where people who call themselves Democrats have been behaving like Republicans in the last 15 years.

This is a hugely important point to bear in mind. My back-of-the-envelope calculation of the party turnout in last night's election indicates that a whopping 62% of the voters were Democratic, just 34% Republican, and a measly 4% were Independent or had a third party affiliation. If you give Republican Burns 90% of the Republican vote and 60% of the Independent vote, that means Burns won about one in five Democrats. That's a very decent haul, but it is just not enough in a district where there are so many Democrats coming out to vote.

[Sean Trende had a typically smart piece about the political makeup of PA-12 yesterday. I encourage you to read the whole thing.]

And let's not forget the Pennsylvania Senate primary. As I watched Sestak rise in the polls, and saw the flood of Senate primary advertising here in Western Pennsylvania, I knew that Mark Critz - the Democratic candidate in PA-12 - was being helped. The Sestak-Specter contest was driving up interest, and both candidates were putting out pro-Democratic messages. Both factors were good for Critz. It's difficult to quantify, but this purchased him some votes.

So, we had a political-demographic tilt of this district toward the Democrats that was enhanced by the high-profile Senate race and a presumably substantial union GOTV effort. We also had what amounted to two anti-Obama candidates in the race. If you didn't know that Mark Critz was a Democrat, his advertising would not have clarified matters for you. He ran as a pro-gun, pro-life, anti-health care reform, anti-cap-and-trade Democrat - or, as the lefty blogosphere likes to call them, a reviled "ConservaDem." Basically, he ran as a Truman Democrat, not as an Obama/Pelosi Democrat. What's more, the DCCC spent thousands on advertising that blasted Republican Tim Burns for his "support" of the Fair Tax, an idea that only the Democratic leadership is seriously considering at the moment. Most Democratic incumbents are standing for reelection, which means they will have to defend their voting records. Critz was not so burdened.

I appreciate that Democrats want to breathe a sigh of relief because of last night. And they should, to some extent. The fact that the GOP did not win this special election is evidence that 2010 is not going to be some 1938-style tsunami where the majority party sheds 90 seats. If the Massachusetts Senate race tantalized Republicans with the idea of boundless political opportunities, the PA-12 special election should remind them to keep their imaginations in check. But Martin and Mahtesian need a reality check, too. They are arguing way beyond the facts to suggest that the district had a "level playing field," that it "couldn't have been more primed for a Republican victory," and that "the outcome casts serious doubt on the idea that the Democratic House majority is in jeopardy."

Still, Republicans should be disappointed. I wrote recently that Republicans need to do well in Appalachian and Ohio River Valley districts to win in November. To do that, they must rebrand local Democrats as members of the Obama-Pelosi version of the Democratic Party. They didn't do a very good job of executing this strategy in PA-12, and they need to learn from their mistakes as they go on to compete in districts whose macro features are more favorable to them.

Yet that doesn't change the bottom line, which is this. The political demographics, the effect of the Senate primary, and the anti-Obama/Pelosi tone of the Democratic candidate were all uniquely favorable to the Democrats last night. Control of the House of Representatives is going to turn on districts that are much less Democratic than PA-12, on a day when the net effect of television advertising is not so heavily tilted toward the Democratic Party, and on the fate of incumbent Democrats who cannot so easily hide from their national leaders.

And let's not forget the view from 30,000 feet. Last night we saw two Democratic incumbent senators - Blanche Lincoln and Arlen Specter - mired in the mid-40s in their primaries. In PA-12, we find a candidate who positioned himself as an old time Democrat winning 53% of the vote in a union district where 62% of the voters were registered Democrats. How does this "contradict" "all the evidence" of a very good Republican year?

-Jay Cost