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By Jay Cost

HorseRaceBlog Home Page --> July 2007

On Thompson's $3 million

I was intrigued by yesterday's story in the Politico about Fred Thompson's fundraising figure. It was not the figure that intrigued me. Rather, it was the reaction to it that flagged my attention. Mike Allen writes:

Fred Thompson plans to announce Tuesday that his committee to test the waters for a Republican presidential campaign raised slightly more than $3 million in June, substantially less than some backers had hoped, according to Republican sources.

The $3 mil is clearly a disappointment, if the Politico story is to be believed.

But should it be?

I don't have the answer to the preceding question - which is exactly the point. There are several problems with these reactions of disappointment.

1. Fred Thompson is not a declared candidate. There are many implications to this fact, but a big one is that he does not have a robust fundraising organization just yet. Mike Allen's Politico article quotes anonymous sources essentially saying that, with all of the buzz about Thompson, he should have been collecting money hand over fist. This is nonsensical. Support in a poll does not necessarily translate into financial support. The candidate must help with the translation. Thompson does not have the infrastructure to do that just yet, nor does anybody expect him to. If they do not expect him to have the infrastructure necessary for fundraising, why do they expect him to have the funds raised?

2. $3 million a month since June works out to about $23.5 million before the Iowa caucus. Thompson will have less cash than Romney or Giuliani if he keeps this pace (which, importantly, he won't - he'll improve). But who is to say that this is not enough to get him some wins in early states? The expectations for Thompson differ from the expectations for Giuliani or Romney. If he wins an early state, that might be enough for him to catapult to the nomination. Thompson might not need the cash. Importantly, this is the first time we have experienced a primary fight such as this cycle's. We do not know how much cash will actually be needed. You might be able to do it on the cheap (fiscal conservatives should love to see that - wasted money is still wasted money, regardless of who spends it!)

So, I think these expectations might be too high.

On the other hand, whether or not expectations are proper - they are what they are. This, I think, is one of the negative consequences of starting late in the cycle. If Thompson had raised $3 million last December via his exploratory committee, people would not have raised an eyebrow. The trouble for Thompson is that December '06 was not his committee's first month. June '07 was. Political elites are going to infer incorrectly that Thompson should be raising as much as the rest of the candidates simply because that's what elites do. We can blame them for having faulty expectations - but that misses half the story because, whether they are right or whether they are wrong, elites are major players in our politics. That's why we call them elites!

I think there is great potential for Thompson here. I like the idea of running a presidential campaign that violates many of the elites' assumptions about what you need to do to win. I think many of them can be violated, and victory can be achieved. In fact, I think that violating some of these assumptions can give you an advantage at the ballot box. Violating assumptions excites and entices people. It is an easy way to generate attention and support - even from the elites who hold the assumptions. For instance, I think it is possible to win a nomination having declared after Labor Day - which is what Thompson intends to do. What's more, I think that a late declaration could generate enthusiasm and momentum precisely when it is useful. I think it is smart to be the only major candidate to declare after Labor Day.

However, one thing Thompson will have to do very well is manage the expectations of these elites. If he is going to be a non-traditional candidate, that means he will be doing things contrary to the way elites currently think things should be done. If he also appears weak to elites, they will connect the non-traditional campaign to the weakness, and he will begin to see stories like yesterday's. In other words, the non-traditional campaign - while there is a lot of promise to it - has the potential for peril. It offers elites an easy "meta-frame" to characterize and understand his various failures. This is why Thompson needs to manage the perceptions of these failures so intently - because elites will waste no time fitting any mistake, real or imagined, into a broader, and broadly negative, story that hinges upon the fact that he is running a different kind of campaign.

Unfortunately, Thompson has not managed elite perceptions of his campaign on these smaller matters effectively. And they are beginning to add up. Personally, I do not think any of the "problems" that have arisen are much more than problems of perception. For instance, I can forgive a few internecine battles in a new campaign organization. Heck, they make perfect sense to me. However, the media spun these as "Thompson's control-freak wife is impossible to deal with, and his non-traditional campaign is spinning out of control." This is where the non-traditional nature of the campaign actually damages Thompson - it is a fast-and-easy way, one that does damage to Thompson's image, for elites to understand these "problems."

And, of course, two observations enables one to draw a trend line. There were staff troubles and now there are money troubles. That's enables a trend line - with a downward slope - to be drawn.

Don't think that Mike Allen did not pick up on the trend. He continues:

Thompson plans to make the disclosure in a filing with the Internal Revenue Service, as he continues to operate his prospective campaign as a political organization that does not require disclosure to the Federal Election Commission.

Many Republicans had seen the "Law & Order" actor and former U.S. senator from Tennessee as a potential savior in a tough election cycle.

He attracted support from such top-shelf party figures as Mary Matalin, Liz Cheney, George P. Bush and other GOP stalwarts who saw him as a potential Hillary Clinton slayer.

But many Republicans have turned queasy as Thompson has ousted part of his original brain trust and repeatedly delayed his official announcement, which is now planned for shortly after Labor Day, in the first two weeks of September.

Allen even finds a third observation for the trend line - the "repeated delays" of Thompson's official announcement.

As I indicated, I think this is underdetermined. All of the evidence is explicable by causes that are unrelated to one another, and that are not signs of worry for Thompson supporters. However, this is is not going to discourage political elites, especially those in the press. They formulate all kinds of underdetermined hypotheses. They put together stories even if there are no stories to be put together. They draw inferences not because they are necessary but because they are interesting. They see change where there is stasis. They characterize candidates in unfair ways because those ways are titillating. And so on. It's what they do.

Thompson needs to work hard to manage these elites because, by being non-traditional, he already has raised their eyebrows. He's doing what they think he should not do. This puts a greater burden on him than, say, Giuliani to manage his image. Giuliani is basically following all of their rules of campaigning, so his individual "mistakes" are not so easily fitted into this kind of narrative. But Thompson's are.

As I said, there is potential here - all of us like to see the rules thwarted successfully. On the other hand, mistakes, real or perceived, will be connected, rightly or wrongly, to his against-the-grain strategy. So, while the potential benefits are great, so also are the potential costs.

Thompson needs to work harder to minimize these costs. What he needs to do is cultivate the impression that his campaign is non-traditional and effective. This essentially boils down to better image management - not of himself, but of his campaign.

-Jay Cost

The Media and Polls

I have commented on this phenomena several times at this blog - but it is worth another mention. It amazes me how poll-driven the analysis of the 2008 presidential race has been. Despite their current lack of value, polls remain a staple of almost all media analysis of the race.

A case in point is an otherwise excellent article from the Boston Globe today about Mitt Romney's rise in New Hampshire. The Globe goes into detail to cover how Romney has been paying attention to the state - by visiting, by advertising, by courting political elites. It's a good story - that is completely junked up by the introduction:

MANCHESTER, N.H. -- Mitt Romney boasted an enviable advantage in the first-in-the-nation primary state when he launched his campaign for president: A governor of Massachusetts, he also owned a house on the shores of Lake Winnipesaukee. But as recently as February, Granite Staters appeared to harbor little interest in the boy next door. Polls had him lagging far behind John McCain and Rudy Giuliani.

In the last few months, however, Romney has steadily pushed to the head of the Republican pack in New Hampshire, while his major rivals have lost ground. A mid-July poll had him opening up a 15-point lead.

Romney has benefited from larger forces shaping the race, notably, McCain's difficulties. But he has also run a campaign that might have been lifted straight out of "The Official Guide to Winning the New Hampshire Primary," if there were such a guide to the conventional wisdom. The formula: win over influential activists, advertise early, and lavish New Hampshire with attention.

Romney is leading in New Hampshire. Why? The polls say so. But why do the polls say that?

Perhaps most significantly, at least as far as early polls are concerned, Romney has spent nearly $725,000 since February on television ads highlighting his biography and fiscal conservatism on WMUR-TV, New Hampshire's only network-affiliated commercial station, as well as additional ads on cable stations. Neither McCain nor Giuliani has aired a single television commercial.

"You can't underestimate the importance of having ads right now," said Andrew Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center, who has been tracking the race. "It doesn't mean they're going to vote for him necessarily, but he's fresh in their minds."

So, Romney's lead in the polls is due to the fact that he is the only one advertising on television in the state. As of July 1, Rudy Giuliani had $18 million in the bank. Just how much longer will Romney be the only candidate on the air in New Hampshire?

Thus, we should ask: are these polls worthwhile?

Early opinion polls are notoriously poor predictors of primary victors. In July 2000, George W. Bush was well ahead of McCain, who later won the primary by 19 points; Howard Dean towered over his rivals in the summer 2004. And in New Hampshire, Romney has had the luxury of being the only candidate on television for months.

I guess not! So, why does the Globe insist upon framing its story as "Romney has a lead because of all his smart work." This lead might very well be ephemeral. Would it not have been a better story to reference his lead, immediately argue how it is ephemeral, then go into how the lead right now is a consequence of Romney laying down a foundation to win New Hampshire in the winter? Reading the article, it seems clear that this is Andrew Smith's point. Why not turn that into the thesis of the article?

It was the same story over at Meet the Press this week. [Incidentally, this week was one of those weeks that MTP had nobody actually M'ingTP. It was all just journalists and pundits. I'm always struck by weeks like that. It's a sign of the authority of the media's pundit class. Why bring an Obama spokesman on to the show when journalists will come to talk about Obama?] The consensus was that Hillary is the frontrunner. Why? She is leading in the polls.


As of July 1, Barack Obama had $36 million in the bank. To argue that Hillary is the frontrunner in a way that is relevant is to argue that she will remain the frontrunner when Obama deploys this $36 million. Can anybody claim this? I sure can't. $36 mil can change a lot of minds. Hillary, meanwhile, has $45 million. Both are bound to collect more cash, too. And I honestly have no idea what will happen after the two top Democratic candidates spend $100 million (or more!) between the two of them to pick up the nomination. Anybody who claims they do is just tilting at windmills.

-Jay Cost

Obama and The Media Culture

I have watched with interest this Obama-Clinton dust up. On the merits, I do not find it a very interesting disagreement (full disclosure: I agree with Clinton on this). However, it was valuable to me because it confirmed my belief that Barack Obama is not running for the vice presidency. I was about 90% sure of this, thanks to his financial successes. No candidate running for the veep spots needs to raise so much. But I have wondered, in the back of my mind, whether Obama's strategy was to see if he could catapult to the top - and, barring that, finish well, not alienate the nominee, and get the veep spot. I guess not. He's stuck right now in second place, but he obviously intends to push to the top, even if that means attacking Hillary Clinton.

I have further enjoyed this disagreement because it makes explicit the media's ever-so-subtle, and self-interested, role in our politics. The whole disagreement involves whether or not the President should agree to meet with the leaders of nations we currently don't get along with. Obama said yes. Clinton said no. Both answers were given during the CNN/YouTube debate - so there was not a lot of time for subtlety. A sound bite was all they got. They had to make it good.

Since it turned into the dust up that it has turned into, both candidates have had an opportunity to amplify their positions. But does the media treat their latter statements as amplifications of views given during a ridiculously constricted format in which the next leader of the free world must share time with Mike Gravel (who, of course, took time out of his busy schedule of building fires in the woods and throwing rocks into ponds)?

Not really!

This is how E.J. Dionne characterized Obama's amplification:

In fact, Obama clearly sensed his own potential vulnerability and quickly tried to cauterize it. He was careful to say repeatedly that in talking with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and other Muslim leaders, he would send them "a strong message that Israel is our friend."

He also pulled back ever so slightly, insisting that "the notion that I was somehow going to be inviting them over for tea next week without having initial envoys meet is ridiculous."

To Mr. Dionne, it is not amplification - it is a backtracking for the sake of political expediency!

This is patently ridiculous. For Mr. Dionne to infer all of this about Obama's intentions simply because he could not say his peace in the time constraints imposed upon him by YouTube(!) is insulting to Mr. Obama.

Our politics is governed by the culture of the sound bite. Why is that the case? Is it simply because the sound bite is the way that the media prefers to operate? Not at all. After all, the sound bite is not in the interests of politicians - most politicians (hell, most everybody) cannot speak fluent soundbitese. Some of them can't speak it at all.

So, why do they go along with it? It is because there are penalties to those who refuse to participate. All cultures have within them such penalties for non-compliance - even if they are as simple as, "If you do not comply with our rules, you do not get our benefits." So also does the media's sound bite culture, and Mr. Dionne just delivered one of the penalties. Any time a politician tries to get around the regulations of the sound bite, he is simply cut off. Any time a politician tries to clarify his position later on, his intentions are questioned. The latter is what happened to Mr. Obama, who sadly could not convey his point in 60 seconds. He needed time later on to amplify it. And so, he is castigated as a back-tracker who is changing his tune to maximize his share of the vote.

What's the message to Obama here? The message is: learn how to do the sound bite thing better. Comply or face penalty.

Media elites like to kvetch about how our politicians are not doing what they should be doing. Here's a question for them. My intuition is that Barack Obama is going to spend extra time in debate prep so he can learn how to give a sound bite better. That way, he does not have media elites telling voters in so many words that he is a crassly self-interested backtracker. In other words, he does not want to face further criticism, so he is going to try to comply with this culture. How is learning to follow the media's narrowly self-interested rules on sound bites a good use of the time of Barack Obama, a senator to 13 million people and potentially the 44th President?

If media elites are so chagrined by how politicians do not focus on the "people's business," maybe they should think about the role they have played in their own disappointments.

-Jay Cost

The Politics of Impeachment

I read with rapt attention Dan Gerstein's column in this week's Politico. It discussed the politics of impeachment. Specifically, it reviewed the desire of the left to impeach President Bush as a way to end the war. Gerstein notes the anger of the Democratic base at the congressional caucus' inability to end the war, and then explains:

That helps explain how impeachment--the true nuclear option--rather suddenly made the quantum leap from the mutterings of the Mother Jones set to the latest rallying cry of the party's increasingly powerful Netroots bloc. The progressive community increasingly does not trust the national party leadership to take on the president, so more and more of them are coming to believe that the only option is to take him out.

Gerstein clearly thinks it is a bad idea, and he intends in his next column to review the case against it, which should not be hard. The biggest problem with impeachment is that the Democrats will never land a conviction. There is no way they could acquire the 2/3rds majority in the Senate. So, impeachment will not end the war. Another major problem - I know that it looks to many Democrats that the President has committed "high crimes and misdemeanors," but many Americans would see the case against Bush as being quite weak. The last impeachment looked to many voters to be a partisan side-show, and it did according damage to the Republican Party. This might do the same to the Democrats. Finally, the fact that impeachment would move from "off the table" to "on the table" without any good reasons would make it look all the more like a political stunt, and therefore an attempted coup (because, after all, to end the war - Cheney would have to be impeached, too).

To be frank, I think the Democratic base is acting irrationally. Before my Democratic readers get up-in-arms over this comment, let me say that I mean it in a narrow sense of the word. Impeachment is an irrational strategy. "Irrational" can apply to people, and therefore whether they are endowed with reason - but it can also apply to strategies, and therefore whether they will achieve the goals the strategist wishes them to achieve. I mean "irrational" in the latter sense of the word. As in, impeachment is a manifestly irrational strategy in pursuit of the goal of ending the war. It will not accomplish the goals the Democratic base wishes to accomplish. Indeed, it would set those goals further back.

The anger of the Democratic base is neither surprising nor all that unique. They are not the first, nor the last, passionate group of active citizens to have had their desires quashed by what amounts to the super-majority requirement of our system. Unfortunately for the left, the Iraq War is the status quo - and our system's status quo bias is very, very great. This is why the Democrats have not been successful in stopping the war. They need about 30% of the Republican caucus to support them - and they simply do not have it.

How, then, did the base come to believe that the Democrats could end the war? The answer is obvious - this is what the Democrats told them! This is why the anger is neither surprising nor unique. Strategic politicians looking for votes promised them more than they could deliver. This seems to be an endemic feature of our politics: politicians over-sell, voters are left disappointed and frustrated. Next week, I will investigate it in more detail.

-Jay Cost

On the GOP's Congressional Targets

Many of you probably read the Washington Post story from Tuesday regarding political briefings given to Administration officials. One of the recent briefing included a list of Democrat-held House districts that the White House thinks might make for good targets next year.

WaPo reported:

White House aides have conducted at least half a dozen political briefings for the Bush administration's top diplomats, including a PowerPoint presentation for ambassadors with senior adviser Karl Rove that named Democratic incumbents targeted for defeat in 2008 and a "general political briefing" at the Peace Corps headquarters after the 2002 midterm elections.

The briefings, mostly run by Rove's deputies at the White House political affairs office, began in early 2001 and included detailed analyses for senior officials of the political landscape surrounding critical congressional and gubernatorial races, according to documents obtained by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Over at the RCP Blog, Reid Wilson does a great job of categorizing the races. I have no amendment to make to it, but I imagine many readers are left wondering why the Administration would brief political officials about its prospect list. What is the value of this? Might it not be better to keep it quiet?

The answer is: not at all. You might think that the answer is "yes" because it is tipping off those House members that they will have competitive races next year - but in all likelihood, those members are gearing up for competitive races, anyway (or, at least they should be).

The publication of a list like this is, I think, a good thing for Republicans. The reason is that these races are not yet competitive. In all likelihood, they will become competitive only if the Republicans manage to recruit quality candidates for them. This is why it is worth communicating to political elites what districts are on the White House's watch list. If the White House gets the word out that certain districts are on the agendas of the highest officials in the party, political elites who can make for quality candidates will be more likely to run in those districts. After all, they may then assess that they can count upon resources from the party in support of their bids.

The list, then, is a cue to political elites that, should they make credible runs for those districts - the party will be there to assist them. This includes not just providing them campaign cash, but also candidate training, helping them hire quality campaign consultants, giving them access to the party's extensive network of donors, providing them with on-demand strategic assistance, selling them campaign services at cost, and so on. The party does not do that for every candidate in every race. It picks and chooses the races that are the most promising. This list signals to political elites that, should they jump into these races, the party will consider their runs promising.

In fact, it is especially good news for the Republicans that these memos were made public when they were. After all, there has been a whole spate of stories lately about how Democrats are out-raising Republicans nationwide. This is a symptom of Republican malaise, I think. But it might also become a cause: if potential candidates assess that 2008 will be a bad year for the GOP, and poor fundraising figures might very well signal to them that it will be, those elites might refrain from running for office. And without good candidates, races usually do not become competitive. This is one way that the national political environment comes to affect local congressional elections - the responses of strategic elites to that environment determines which races have, and which races do not have, good candidates.

At this point, both party committees are working to recruit good candidates and to keep incumbents from retiring. My intuition is that both of these tasks are right now much easier for the Democrats. It is unlikely that many Democratic incumbents will retire - after all, they have just acquired the majority status for the first time in 12 years. What is more, it is likely that Democratic elites intuit that 2008 will also be a good year for the party. With Bush's continued low job approval numbers, and a general sense that the Democrats stand to do well next year, expect a lot of quality Democratic candidates to jump into the race. On the Republican side of the aisle, I expect both tasks to be problematic for exactly the opposite reasons. Elder Republicans in the House, who see little chance of the party reacquiring the majority, might be inclined to retire - thus creating vulnerable open seats. Meanwhile, quality would-be candidates will also assess that this might not be the year for them to run. So, they opt out.

Recent stories about Democratic fundraising edges probably exacerbate these differences - and so a memo about "White House targets" was probably of benefit to the GOP.

-Jay Cost

Can Rudy Giuliani Win the Republican Nomination?

[This is the sixth essay on the major contenders for the presidential nominations. See the earlier ones on Clinton, Edwards, Obama, McCain (Parts 1 and 2) - and my introduction to the series.]

When Rudy Giuliani declared himself a candidate for the Republican nomination, many pundits were skeptical. I think that, deep down, many of them remain skeptical. They have backed off their predictions because Giuliani has been able to hold a lead - though, of course, the lead has diminished. However, I think that most of them have ceded the nomination question simply because the data is forcing them to do so - not because they have found any intuitively compelling reasons.

My intention here is to offer such a reason - which is not to say that this essay amounts to a prediction that Giuliani will win the nomination. I am going to offer a model, i.e. a simplified version of reality, whose purpose is to demonstrate my point that Giuliani is genuinely competitive, not that he will necessarily win.

In my essay last week on John McCain, I argued that several pundits had misunderstood his decline because they were working from a naïve understanding of the median voter theorem. The theorem predicts that a candidate can win an election by adopting the issue position of the median voter; however, it also makes a number of assumptions to arrive at that prediction. One such assumption is that there are only two candidates in the race. When we alter that assumption, we allow for the possibility that a moderate Republican might win the nomination not having secured the median Republican voter - i.e. a conservative. This is how a seeming moderate, like McCain, might nevertheless win the nomination.

I think that most pundits are rejecting, or at least were rejecting, the viability of the Giuliani candidacy based upon a similarly naïve view of the median voter theorem. I think that they have in their minds a notion that to win the Republican nomination, you mast tack to the median voter, something that Giuliani simply cannot do. He is a social liberal, after all. And social liberals do not win the GOP nomination.

I think this use of the median voter theorem is naïve. The problem for its application to Giuliani is not just that the number of candidates nullifies the equilibrium position - though this is surely a problem in using the model to predict Giuliani's fate. Like McCain, a moderate like Giuliani benefits from a multi-candidate field. So, what I argued in Part 1 of my essay on McCain can also be applied to Giuliani. But the theorem has further problems when it is applied to Giuliani. The two candidate assumption is not the only problematic one; I would argue that, should the race narrow to two candidates - say, Romney v. Giuliani or Thompson v. Giuliani - Giuliani could still win.

Why? Recall from my discussion of the theorem that one of its assumptions is that there is only a single "issue dimension." What does that mean? It means, simply, that voters are voting for a candidate for a single reason. It could be a reason as broadly defined as ideology. As an example, think of the American Conservative Union's legislative score. A voter positions himself as, say, an 85 on the ACU scorecard. He then chooses the candidate who is closest to that position. In this way, his vote choice is predicated upon a single dimension.

If we assume that there is a single issue (like ideology) in a three voter election, and we accept the rest of the theorem's assumptions, the median voter theorem produces the following result:
Median Voter 1.GIF
Both candidates (in a general election like this) will flock to the median voter.

Must an election be fought along a single dimension? No. Theoretically, an election could be fought on any number of dimensions. Practically speaking, the addition or subtraction of issue dimensions from the public forum is an act of political power, one that is strategically employed to maximize the likelihood of electoral victory. A good example is the cultivation of the "personal vote" in congressional campaigns. When incumbents try to get voters to vote for them based upon personal/biographical reasons like experience, and not based upon issue positions, they are adding another dimension to the electoral contest.

To appreciate exactly what I mean here, consider a hypothetical example. You and your friends are voting on what movie to go to. This is an election based on a single dimension. However, you soon realize that there is disagreement about what restaurant to go to afterwards. So, you decide to vote on both questions at the same time - with several of your friends making proposals for restaurants and movies. Then, each of you votes upon the proposals. For instance, Robbie proposes Die Hard and Applebee's, Richard proposes Transformers and Chili's, Levon proposes Harry Potter and P.F. Chang's - and the group decides between Robbie and Richard and Levon's proposals.

Of course, you are probably thinking that it is much more efficient to distinguish the movies from the restaurants - have a separate vote on the movie and a separate one on the restaurant. But we cannot do this in a representative democracy. We do not vote for issue positions, we vote for persons who represent a cluster of issue positions. And so, elections are fought upon multiple issue dimensions.

When we factor in a second issue dimension, we lose the equilibrium position of the median voter. In other words, no longer is it the case that the candidate who adopts the median position will beat the candidate who chooses any other position. To see what I mean, consider the following example. Suppose that an election decided by three voters - A, B, and C - is fought over foreign policy and domestic policy.

Two Issue Dimensions.GIF

The dots with the letters indicate each voter's ideal points - that is, if a given voter was in charge of selecting the "mix" of foreign and domestic policy, he would choose his ideal point. The circles around the dots indicate what we might call "indifference zones." A given voter prefers points on his circle equally - i.e. he is indifferent between them. He also prefers points within his circle to points outside his circle.

Importantly, there are no points that are equilibria like the median voter is in the single dimension. In other words, there is no place where candidates are in a "best response" to one another. This means that there is no way to predict where candidates will ultimately position themselves. Therefore, there is no way to predict who will win. [Of course, it is possible for voter preferences to be distributed in a way such that there is at least one equilibrium. However, the requirements are fairly stringent.]

This is not to say that there are not positions that benefit society more than other positions. The triangle with the dashed line represents such an efficiency zone. If a candidate takes a set of issue positions that places him within this zone - there is no way that he can alter his policy positions to satisfy the group's aggregate preferences more efficiently. Any movement within the triangle will move him closer to some voters, but at the expense of others.

In the median voter theorem, there is only one point that is efficient in this way - the median voter! So, this is what happens when we assume that an election is fought over two issues rather than one. We move from a single point to a zone of points that are efficient. The consequence is that candidates potentially have more leeway to position themselves. They can place themselves anywhere in that triangle and be efficient. Importantly, in a two-dimensional race between two candidates - simply being at the median on one of the dimensions is not sufficient for electoral victory. The other candidate might be able to split your voting coalition by making clever use of the other dimension.

This is why I would claim that Giuliani is viable - even in a two candidate contest. There is more distance between the median voter and him on the domestic ideology dimension than there is between the median voter and, say, Mitt Romney. However, Giuliani is closest to the median voter on the foreign policy dimension. This places him well within the efficiency zone of the electorate. It does not mean that he will win the nomination. But it does mean that he is a viable candidate whose policy positions are an efficient expression of the sentiments of the Republican Party.

This, then, is the basic intuition. It is why I have taken the trouble to draw up a graph with all of these symbols and what not. It is to demonstrate that, with in a race over multiple issue dimensions with two candidates, voting coalitions in one dimension may be split by the other dimension, and so tacking to the median of one dimension is not sufficient for electoral victory.

In most presidential primary contests, I would argue, you do not really have two salient issue dimensions. Republicans and Democrats usually select their nominees on a single dimension - namely, domestic ideology. Foreign policy is rarely an issue.

However, I would argue that it is an issue in this campaign. Specifically, I would argue that Republicans are looking for a candidate who can credibly warrant that he will be a competent leader in the fight against terror. Thus, theirs is an election that is being fought on two distinct dimensions. And it is on this second dimension that Giuliani appears to have a distinct advantage over his opponents. No candidate, with the possible exception of John McCain, can make warranties on the fight against terrorism as credibly as Giuliani can. No candidate maximizes the ideal point of the median Republican primary voter as well as Giuliani does. As I said, this buys him latitude in the domestic ideological dimension. This is the way that a social liberal might win the nomination of a socially conservative party.

Importantly, this is not reducible to strategic primary voters compromising their issue positions to vote for a candidate they believe will win. Giuliani voters are voting their preferences.

Does this mean that Giuliani will win the nomination? No. As I said, in a two-dimensional election, there is probably no equilibrium position. So, in theory, a candidate could take the issue position of Denny Kucinich and still win the Republican nomination (it all depends upon what the alternatives are). The point is that Giuliani is a viable candidate whose mix of foreign and domestic policy are efficient aggregations of party sentiment. Even though he is a poor match on one dimension, he is an excellent match on another.

Of course, there are problems with this model - as with any model. After all, it is a highly simplified version of reality that we have used to give us some purchase on what is going to happen. We have learned from it - but we should not tie ourselves to it slavishly because, after all, the real world is more complex than a triangle, two lines, some circles, and a few dots!

One major problem with this is that we have assumed that voters have perfect information. I mentioned last week that this is one reason why McCain is in such trouble. In reality, voters have imperfect information about him, and so are going to avoid him because he is far too risky. This could cause trouble for Giuliani as well. I made the general point last week that voters use "heuristics" - or informational shortcuts - to make decisions despite imperfect information. One such heuristic is the political party. Another heuristic would be, I'd wager, cues from elites whom voters respect. Rush Limbaugh is a great example of such a heuristic for conservative voters. It is not that people who listen to Limbaugh do not think for themselves. It is, rather, that Limbaugh is an informational elite who shares his listeners' views. Thus, if Limbaugh is opposed to a certain proposal, listeners can safely assume that, if they knew as much about the specifics as Rush knows, they would oppose it, too.

This is a function that people like Pat Robertson and James Dobson also serve. They act as informational cues to their constituents. This could be trouble for Giuliani. Many of these religious leaders seem to be opposed to Giuliani's candidacy - and this might have the effect of signaling their constituents that Giuliani is, for them, an inefficient selection. The effect of this might be to place Giuliani, in the minds of these voters, further from their ideal points than he might actually be. This, I would wager, is why Giuliani is taking such pains to certify himself on the question of judges. He is trying to signal to voters that he is not too far from their ideals on the domestic ideology dimension.

I'll close with a final question, one that - like the informational cue that Focus on the Family offers - cannot really be captured by the model I have delineated. It's just a question. I am not sure what the answer is.

How many Republicans can actually vote against Giuliani when given the chance? I mean this regardless of the purely rational calculations I outlined above. I am talking about emotions and sympathy - i.e. voting against your rational interests because of your emotional response to a particular idea or person. Rational choice theory fails to capture this in a way that is not reducible to ad hoc modifications of its basic principles. This is a major drawback to the theory because emotions run high in politics - and they can be of great use to candidates. I wonder if they will not help Giuliani.

In the minds of, minimally, conservative Republican voters - 9/11 initially produced two political heroes. George W. Bush managed the nation's response to the attack, but Rudy Giuliani managed the city's response. For a whole host of reasons, Bush's status as a hero has since been compromised - even in (I would wager) the minds of many Republican voters who continue to offer support of him to pollsters. Giuliani's status, on the other hand, has not been compromised. My intuition is that for Republican voters, he is the last untarnished hero of 9/11. Can they actually vote against him?

I am reminded of the politics of the post-bellum era - in which average-to-below-average Republicans in the North could be elected by "waving the bloody shirt," i.e. referencing their (seemingly) prominent roles in the Civil War to win the support of Northerners. In many respects, Giuliani's candidacy is similar (though I think there is a great difference in talent between Giuliani and the Gilded Age presidents). He is, in a certain sense, waving the bloody shirt of 9/11. Can the Republican Party refuse it?

-Jay Cost

A Great Point from a Reader

In response to today's column, Robert made this very insightful point:

You neglected to mention another reason that the debates benefit the media in their current format. Each time any candidate opens his or her mouth, it's another opportunity for one of those Herculean gaffes like the one you displayed by Dan Quayle. This is a HUGE payoff for the media, even if it happens to a lower-tier candidate, because it gives them a juicy story in a long and mostly boring race. In fact, having to respond to complex questions in thirty-second sound bites may actually increase the likelihood of one of those gaffes-for-the-ages.

-Jay Cost

On The Irrationality of The Presidential Debates

Yesterday, CNN and YouTube hosted yet another Democratic presidential debate. This go-round elicited stories from the newspapers about debate "fatigue." In particular, there were indications that the candidates might be a little fatigued.

Why would they be fatigued by these debates? I think the answer is reducible to a simple calculation of costs versus benefits.

First, some basic principles. I assume candidates are rational utility maximizers - just like financial actors. However, they are not looking to maximize profit. Rather, they are looking to maximize electoral support. They are willing to deploy their resources to win this support. And, so it follows, they wish to deploy those resources as efficiently as possible.

The debates are quite inefficient. This is why they are getting fatigued.

The nice thing about these debates is that it is relatively easy to "do well" in them. I'd say that for the top-tier candidates, there is at least a 95% chance that they will not damage their prospects. Accordingly, there is no more than a 5% chance that they will damage their prospects. So, that is good.

However, consider the costs that the candidates must invest for the debate. They must study up. This costs time. They must take their campaign organizations to the debate. This costs time and money. They cannot conduct other activities they might otherwise have conducted. These are opportunity costs.

And what are their payoffs if they do well? In point of fact, they are slight. They get a declaration of victory-of-a-kind on the bottom half of the fold of the newspaper (so to speak) saying, at best, that they "won" the debate, or more likely they "did everything they had to do." This is not worth much to them - at least not to the top-tier candidates. They do not get any noticeable bump in the polls - most people are not watching. Those who are do not see enough of the top-tier candidates during the debate to begin supporting them; with 10 or so candidates, nobody gets to speak very long. Furthermore, I am sure that no candidate has enjoyed a bump in contributions based upon debate performance. In reality, all they get is the temporary estimation of the political elites. This is not worth all that much.

Meanwhile, what happens if they "lose" the debate and damage their electoral prospects? Well - we all know the answer to that. Electoral prospects that are damaged by a debate are usually damaged in a dramatic way. Recall:


The chance of this happening in any given debate to any given candidate is, of course, really small. I indicated 5%. It is probably smaller than that. However, consider the costs inherent to such loses. They are incalculably large. There is no way to recover from a gaffe like this.

Thus, we might say that the payoffs from the debate are asymmetric. A win is a high-probability event that carries little benefit. A loss is a low-probability event that carries a great cost.

Now, of course, the benefits calculus changes greatly after Labor Day in the general election campaign. At that point, voters are paying attention. So, the potential rewards from doing well increase. Now, however, the potential rewards are low. And, while I imagine the damage done by such gaffes would not be as bad now as they would be in mid-October of the actual year of the election - they can still be quite significant. After all, gaffes can be replayed again and again on, ironically enough, YouTube. And what you say now is potential ammunition against you when you face the opposing party in the general campaign. Michael Dukakis probably would not have been punished as badly if he had flubbed that death penalty question in July, 1987 - but he still could have been quite damaged.

So, all in all, there is probably no net benefit from these debates, at least for the top-tier candidates. "Winning" the debate carries with it no net benefit - the meager benefits are probably outweighed by the costs in time, money, and opportunity. Meanwhile, the chance of defeat - and the major costs it entails - further diminishes a candidate's expected net benefit.

Why, then, are the top-tier candidates doing all of these debates?

The answer, I believe, is that there is no coordination between them. What the top-tier candidates have on their hands is a collective action problem. If all of the top-tier candidates coordinated their actions, and collectively reduced the number of debates, all of them would be well off. However, there are no formal institutions in place to facilitate this kind of coordination. Thus, each candidate must choose on his own to debate or not to debate. This changes their strategic calculations dramatically. They are placed within an interaction that can be modeled by the classic prisoners' dilemma game.

Assume two candidates who must choose, on their own, whether to debate or not to debate:

Debate Collective Action.GIF

What happens to a candidate if he does not debate and the other candidate does not debate? They both do well (i.e. their payoffs are "good"). They do not do very well, (i.e. their payoffs are not "great"); but they probably do not do badly, either (i.e. their payofs are not "bad"). There is some scorn placed upon them by the press - but it is diffuse and short-lasting. Meanwhile, they save all the costs they must pay to debate - and they avoid the risk. So, all in all, we'd say their payoffs are good.

What happens if both candidates debate? They do OK. The chances are they will not embarass themselves, but they do not really get anywhere electorally, they have to pay a lot to get nowhere, and they run the risk of a major setback.

What happens to a candidate if he debates and the other does not debate? He does really well and the other guy does badly. After all, he can go to the debate and be a hero of "participatory democracy" (or whatever plaudits the press will offer). His opponent looks like the jerk who "refuses to face the people's questions!"

If he does not debate and the other guy does - the payoffs are reversed.

Without any coordination, each candidate is left making his own choice. And look carefully at the choices - even though the collective benefit is greatest with both candidates not debating, both candidates always are individually better off by debating. In other words, the choice to debate "dominates" the choice not to debate.

What is the way around this? One way is, as I said, coordination. If the candidates set up some kind of (formal or informal) contract with one another so that they agree to limit the numbers of debates, and the contract includes penalties for breaking it - they might be able to avoid this collective action dilemma.

Hmmm...an informal contract? Well:

This is not a conversation about cutting the number of debates, but it is a conversation about altering the payoff structure. With fewer candidates, the top-tier candidates will have more time, and thus, if they do a good job, their participation will be of more value to them.

So, why did the Democrats individually decide to bail on the Fox News debate? Well, hey - they're Democrats and its Fox News. They could bail on it without looking bad. Heck, bailing on it made them look good. In other words, the fact that it is FNC alters the payoff structure. A given Democratic candidate can individually choose to avoid Fox without reaping the penalties that would accrue to he if he avoids CNN/YouTube and the rest of the candidates participated.

We'll see if the Democratic candidates do something about these debates. The best way for them to do this would be through the Democratic National Committee - which could be the organization that can bring about some coordination among the candidates. It might also take the heat that the party would feel for cutting back.

Incidentally - who is best off because of these debates? It's not the candidates (at least the top-tier ones). It's not the voters (who are not really watching). It's...the media! It's a perfect setup for the media. Having 10 or so debaters means that each candidate only gets 30 seconds or so to respond to any given question, which is perfect for the media's sound byte methodology. They can also put it on their cable networks, where the average viewership for these summer debates is a boost for their ratings. It's perfect for the media.

-Jay Cost

No More Memos!

There is a strange new tactic that has become surprisingly popular in recent months - the "campaign memo to interested parties." So far, Clinton, Obama, McCain, and now Romney have offered one up. This is what Romney had to say, via the Washington Post:

"Rudy Giuliani continues to lead the Republican field as he has since polling on the race began last year," writes (Romney campaign senior strategist Alex) Gage in a document dated July 20. "However, Giuliani's support began to ebb in February and has slipped 2-3 points per month since then."

As evidence, Gage points to a compilation of national polls done by Charles Franklin, a professor at the University of Wisconsin, that seems to show similar negative trend lines in national polls for both Giuliani and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) (For what it's worth, the Giuliani operation pushed back hard on Franklin's comparison; "The Giuliani campaign is in a very strong position at this point and is clearly best-positioned to win the primary," director of strategy Brent Seaborn wrote in a direct rebuttal to Franklin's argument.) Even if you grant that Giuliani's slippage in national surveys has stabilized, Gage says, there is ample evidence in polling conducted in early voting states that it is Romney, not Hizzoner, who is in the best position.

Giuliani "is now trailing in four of the five key states that fall before Feb. 5," Gage writes. The memo goes on to note that the average of public polls conducted in June and July show Romney leading comfortably in Iowa and New Hampshire and more narrowly in Nevada. Former senator Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.) leads the way in South Carolina, while Giuliani is a strong first choice only in Florida.

Here's the problem with these memos. They are politicking disguised as analysis. The polls are not nearly meaningful enough to support the conclusions they draw. The race is fluid, and it is too early to make anything approaching such claims. Why? It is because voters - unlike political elites - are not yet paying enough attention to the political campaign. Their opinions are not really as stable and well-informed as so many pundits mistakenly take them to be. So, the answers they provide in polls are of little value for inferring what the election results will be.

In a strange way, though, I actually appreciate the Romney memo - for it gives me an opportunity to review an intuition I have had about him for a while.

Why is Romney gaining in the polls? Is it real strength, or is it something less than that? I think it could very well be the latter. I think it could be because he and he alone is flooding the airwaves with advertisements. Again, as I said, voters are not actively thinking about the election right now. They see all these Romney ads (at least in Iowa and New Hampshire) and he is placed in their minds. So - when they offer a response to a pollster, they answer "Romney." But this does not mean that they are true Romney supporters. After all, the other candidates have not yet begun the television advertising blitzes. This is not coincidental - if Giuliani et al. thought that the voters Romney "wins" in July will stay Romney voters through January, they would be on the airwaves as much, too!

I suspect that Romney knows that this support is not per se real. I think he has spent all of this money so that he can gain access to the media's "top tier." He's low nationwide (and he is not gaining; no real movement since April) - but he's leading in Iowa and New Hampshire. So the media treats him like a top-tier candidate. The strategy is to earn the support or estimation of the political elites who pay attention to presidential elections so early (but who fail to appreciate fully how a lead now means very little). This memo speaks exactly to this strategy.

On the one hand, I find it infuriating because Romney is simply trading off the general ignorance of political elites about average voters (the former think the latter are exactly like they - they know as much about politics, they pay as much attention, etc). When campaigns talk about presidential polls from Nevada in mid-July, 2007, they legitimize a form of political analysis that really is not legitimate.

On the other hand, there is a dash of brilliance to it that I cannot help but admire. Here's a question. Why is Romney the only top-tier candidate between the two parties who was not a legitimate celebrity before the campaign began? Of the seven top-tier candidates - Clinton, Obama, Edwards, McCain, Giuliani, Thompson, and Romney - the former Massachusetts governor is the only one who was not a bona fide star to begin with. How is it that Romney - and only Romney - is the non-celebrity to have broken into the top? A big reason has to do with his very well-conceived, well-executed campaign strategy, which - as I said - includes running up his numbers in Iowa and New Hampshire. This memo is the latest action in keeping with that strategy: he is looking to cultivate elite support as a prelude to his mass campaign (not to mention build name recognition, which is another function of this advertising). He seems to be doing a damned fine job of it.

-Jay Cost

On Gerson and Hitchens

I read with bemusement the back-and-forth between Michael Gerson and Christopher Hitchens in the Washington Post last Friday and Saturday. It is disappointing to me that this is what counts for theological discussion in the popular press. Between the two of them, not a single point of value or interest was made.

On Friday, Gerson offered a rather lame defense of religious belief. He began by asking:

Proving God's existence in 750 words or fewer would daunt even Thomas Aquinas. And I suspect that a certain kind of skeptic would remain skeptical even after a squadron of angels landed on his front lawn. So I merely want to pose a question: If the atheists are right, what would be the effect on human morality?
This question, of course, is a non-sequitur. There is no way to demonstrate that "the atheists are right." The veil can never be lifted. Atheists can never be found to be right. And, if they are objectively right, we shall never know. The question therefore has no answer.

Gerson seems to me to frame his argument in this strange way so that he can vacillate between two points, both of which are weak. On the one hand, he seems to want to argue that morality itself is proof of God's existence. He goes out of his way (oddly, twice) to note that morality is not proof of God's existence - but he essentially argues that it is when he asserts that atheists cannot explain morality without recourse to cruel irony, nor can they offer any reason why morality is binding. Of course, this is a highly problematic proposition - the whole thrust of modern moral theory implies that God's existence is not a necessary condition for moral maxims to have influence and value.

This is why I think he seems also to argue a related point - which is that belief in God's existence has a salutary effect on morals. But this proposition is much more problematic than Gerson seems to realize. Belief in God is neither a necessary nor sufficient condition for moral living, as Gerson admits. If Gerson wishes to offer a generalized empirical claim that certain religious beliefs have a salutary effect on morals - I would be interested in the argument. However, consider the massive size and problematic scope required for the task. He would have to (a) operationalize and then catalog the diverse religious beliefs across cultures, (b) operationalize and then catalog the diverse moral behaviors across those cultures, and (c) determine whether the two correlate with one another, i.e. whether certain religious beliefs imply more salutary morals.

At any rate, this argument is also subtly condescending to the Judeo-Christian tradition. The God of the Old and New Testaments has not involved Himself in the world solely so that we might all be nice to one another. Rather, He has done so to redeem humanity and restore it to its intended position in creation. Niceness enters into it, but there is much more going on, as Gerson of course knows. However, defending religion by discussing the salutary effect it has on morals misses - and diminishes - many of both Testament's central points, which are eschatological in nature.

And so, in shifting a discussion of Judeo-Christian theology from its central themes to an ancillary consideration - Gerson gives the indefatigable Christopher Hitchens an opportunity to do what he never fails to do: condemn religious belief by attacking a convenient mischaracterization of it. Hitchens reminds me of the sophists against whom Plato so often railed. It does not matter how mellifluous your adverbs and adjectives sound when they roll off your droll English tongue - attacking a straw man is still attacking a straw man.

This is precisely what Hitchens does in all of his many, repetitive polemics against religious belief. As a believer, I find him so completely unpersuasive because he always mischaracterizes my positions as a prelude to his snide attacks upon them.

I have long inferred that Hitchens holds firm to that tired pretension that naturalists are the only rationalists and "free thinkers." Indeed, he seems convinced that non-believers are the only ones who have thought seriously about issues like the theodicy problem, or the role that God plays in His church on Earth, or exactly what Christ accomplished on the cross, or what posture we should have toward those whose beliefs diverge from our own, and so on. What else to make of his laundry list of religion's sins? The implication is that nobody on the other side has a compelling explanation for them. Well, of course they do. Those of us who hold to considered beliefs are happy to stipulate his facts (as well as the instances - oddly short-shrifted by Hitchens! - where belief has had a benevolent effect) so that we may have a discussion of how we should understand them. We are more than ready for this debate - as the understanding of his laundry list is one of the purposes of theology.

It might come as a surprise to Mr. Hitchens that those of us who believe can do so without rejecting facts or logic. His ignorance notwithstanding, I am glad to report that we can. He'd know this if he'd just exercise a little care when considering the arguments of those who dare to disagree with him. He reads as a man who does not do this, as a man who is so infuriated by the very idea of theism that he cannot sit still until the end of a work by Augustine - who was far more clever than he. If he took a deep breath, ceded the possibility that his own judgments might be in error, and thoughtfully read those who disagree - he would see that, while it might still be the case that he is right and they are wrong, it certainly is not the "slam dunk" that he thinks it is. He would see that, as it turns out, those who dare to disagree actually have some decent points to make.

In that instance, he might say something of value on the question of religion. But, so long as he refuses to show his opponents any respect, his arguments will be what they were last Saturday - adroit non-sequiturs that titillate rather than edify. Attacks against straw men appeal to the party base, but they do nothing to advance the cause.

-Jay Cost

McCain's Dilemma, Part 2

Yesterday, I began an analysis of John McCain's presidential prospects. In my attempts to explain why these prospects have dimmed in recent weeks, I argued that we cannot understand his troubles simply by recourse to his relatively moderate issue positions. In a multi-candidate race such as the Republican nomination, reflecting the ideological preference of the median voter - in this case, a conservative Republican - is not necessarily the winning position. A moderate Republican could, in theory, win the GOP nomination.

So, why has he had so much trouble? The following is an attempt to answer this question. I don't think this is the only answer - but I do think it explains much of McCain's dilemma.

My intuition about McCain's problem is that it is due, in part, to his cultivation of the maverick label. A moderate Republican is different from a maverick Republican. If I say to you that I am a "moderate Republican," you can probably estimate my views with some precision - you take the conservative positions and dilute them by a little bit. But a "maverick Republican" implies a kind of irregularity that the moderate label does not. McCain's status as a "maverick" means not that he always acts like a moderate Republican, but that his actions are unpredictable based upon his partisan identification. Sometimes he acts like a staunch Republican, sometimes like a Democrat. In other words, the "maverick" adjective qualifies the noun "Republican" so much that the latter offers relatively little information about McCain's issue positions.

Think about the function that partisan identification serves for the average voter. If a candidate tells a voter, "I'm a Republican" - what does that mean to the voter? It offers the voter what might be called a cognitive shortcut for understanding exactly what that candidate would do once he assumes office. Thus, that voter can get a sense of whether he can support that candidate - even if, unlike political elites who possess a great deal of information, he has neither the time nor the inclination to review and parse that candidate's issue positions to determine whether they cohere with his own ideals. He knows that he is a Republican - so he can estimate his position on taxes, abortion, government regulation, etc.

And so, partisan identification is a way to acquire information at a low cost. When it comes to making decisions, information of this kind is an unqualified good. In other words, no matter how well off a political actor is, he will be better off if he knows more about the environment. Why? It is because information diminishes uncertainty, which in turn diminishes risk. And all of us are risk averse to one extent or another. We would all like to be able to minimize it as much as we are able. While it is true that, in some instances, actors have an interest in keeping information from other actors, in no instance is an actor less well off if he knows less.

On that note, return to the median voter theorem, which I discussed yesterday. Implicit in the theorem is the assumption that voters have perfect information. That is, if a candidate takes a certain issue position, we have implicitly assumed that all of the voters know that he has taken this position. And so, the risks involved in voting for one candidate over another are zero. You know exactly what you will get if you vote for that candidate.

What happens when we assume that voters have imperfect information? Their desire is to vote for the candidate who will mirror their issue positions as closely as possible upon election - but they do not know enough about every candidate's issue positions to determine with perfect certainty whether they will. That is the risk that they face - they might support somebody who, as it turns out, does not agree with them. In the face of such risk, a candidate's partisan identification is a useful tool. It can help to reduce this risk. It is a low-cost way for voters to get a sense of exactly what the candidate will do in office.

This means that a candidate who does not offer clear partisan identification may be harmed, especially when there are many candidates in the race who do offer such clarity. In an environment filled with uncertainty - what is the rational decision for an information-starved voter? Should he support a candidate about whom he has no information regarding partisanship - or should he support a candidate whose partisanship is, by the voter's estimate, roughly close to his ideal? Clearly, the latter is the better selection. The candidate about whom nothing is known is too risky. The voter cannot be sure exactly what he will do when the candidate enters office - his best move is thus to vote for the person who is a known quantity. Importantly, this is the case even if it turns out that the unknown candidate is closer to his ideal than the known candidate. Because the voter does not know this in advance, he cannot rationally support the unknown candidate. This would be like justifying the irrational purchase of a lottery ticket with the fact that you won the lottery. Sure, you won the lottery - but this event could not have been predicted before you bought the ticket, so the purchase is still irrational!

I think that this is part of McCain's problem. Of course, partisanship is not as much help in primaries - because everybody, after all, is of the same party. However, McCain has intentionally cultivated this "maverick" adjective - so that, he is not "a Republican," but "a maverick Republican." This has earned him kudos with the national press, which does not like partisanship (more on that next week), but what it does is signal to voters who lack information that he is not as firmly affixed to the party - and all of the issue positions which that affixation implies - as other candidates. In other words, in a primary where all candidates swear equal fealty to the party - the party label is not much help as an information shortcut. But when there are differences in partisan loyalties - e.g. when one has a reputation as a "maverick" - the party label becomes more helpful to voters, and problematic for the "maverick."

This is what I think has turned Republican voters from John McCain. They know that he is a "maverick Republican" - and therefore they cannot use their knowledge of what it means to be a "Republican" to estimate what he will do. The word "maverick" qualifies "Republican" so much that the latter ceases to offer much of a cue. They have trouble estimating what kind of president he would make - and so, even if objectively speaking his presidency would satisfy their policy preferences, they do not know this, and are thus now finding another candidate.

This logic applies to elites as well - and so it might also explain McCain's fundraising woes. Elites - who are characterized by the fact that they possess a large amount of relevant information - know enough about politics that they can estimate many of a candidate's positions without relying upon party labels. McCain has undermined the utility of the label for estimating his opinions, but elites do not need the label as much because they have other sources of information that they may use. However, the label can still be valuable to elites. Because McCain is a "maverick" Republican, it is difficult for anybody, elites or average voters, to estimate exactly what he will do on issues about which he has not made some kind of public pronouncement. On issues that are already in the public forum, political elites can do what average voters cannot do - draw upon their knowledge of his stated issue positions to estimate confidently what they can expect of him in office. But what about issues that are not yet salient enough for McCain to have stated his opinion, but that might become salient during a McCain presidency? If McCain was not a "maverick" Republican, informational elites could estimate what McCain would do by imagining what the average Republican would do. However, because he has eschewed the party label, none of us, not even political elites, can estimate what McCain's response would be to a surprising issue development. He might do what a Republican would do; he might do what a Democrat would do; he might do what neither would do. One might say that, even for political elites, a vote for McCain carries with it no warranty. They thus face enhanced risk in support him.

The average voter has this problem on both the salient and not-yet-salient issues of the day - because of his informational deficiency, he is not sure exactly what McCain thinks about policy matters. What is the rational response of the risk averse voter in this instance? It is to avoid McCain. He should select the candidate closest to his ideal about whom he has sufficient information. This is the best decision even if, objectively speaking, McCain would be closer to the voter than the other candidate.

Thus, McCain's problem is not simply that he is too far to the left on the ideological scale. My intuition is that, thanks to his cultivation of this "maverick" qualifier, voters cannot place him on that scale. Risk averse voters thus support the candidate closest to their ideal ideology and about whom they know more.

As I indicated yesterday, I am sure that this does not explain all of the reasons that the McCain campaign has faltered. However, I think this explanation gives us some purchase on understanding McCain's decline. To put it intuitively, I would say that voting for McCain is like buying a used car "as is" without taking it to a mechanic for inspection. You have no idea whether the car is what you are looking for until after it is already yours. It is thus a highly risky purchase - too risky for most of us.

-Jay Cost

McCain's Dilemma, Part 1

This essay is the fifth in my series on the presidential candidates (see my introductory comments about methodology, and then my essays on Clinton, Edwards, and Obama). Because it concerns John McCain - the central question that it must answer is why his candidacy has had so much trouble acquiring traction.

In recent days, many answers have been offered in response to this question. I think many of them have validity. My task here will not be to give a definitive answer that wholly explains McCain's collapse. I think that no single answer can do that. Rather, my agenda here shall be twofold. First, I shall argue why one typical answer - McCain is too moderate for the Republican Party - is based upon faulty intuitions and, while not necessarily wrong, is oversimple. Second, I shall offer an alternative explanation that, while I do not think explains McCain's decline entirely, is an intuitive and compelling account that helps illuminate a good deal.

It is part of the conventional wisdom in Washington that presidential candidates have to "run to the base" in the primary, and then "run to the middle" in the general election. This conventional wisdom is partially accurate, and it is a simplified version of what is known as the median voter theorem.

I do not wish to bore you with the details of the theorem. I will just say that the median voter theorem is a solution to what has come to be known as the problem of social choice - or how we may develop reasonable and morally satisfactory rules to aggregate the preferences of individuals in society. The median voter theorem argues that, under certain conditions, the voter whose preferences are in the ideological middle of the electorate will be the winner in a simple majority rule procedure. In the case of the Republican Party primary, the median voter is a staunch conservative - hence the intuition that Republican contenders must move to the right.

To obtain the result of the theorem, we first assume that voters have "single-peaked preferences," i.e. we assume that every voter prefers one ideological position to all other positions. We also assume that there are only two candidates in the race, that candidates are free to change their stated issue positions as they like, that voters possess perfect information about these positionings, and that voters make their choices based upon one issue "dimension" (like ideology). With these assumptions, we obtain the result of the median voter theorem: the ideological position of the voter who has half of the electorate on one side and half on the other side can beat any other position in a two-way contest. Accordingly, both candidates will adopt this issue position, and thus "run to the center" of the electorate.

Graphically, it would predict the result of a general election campaign in the following way.

Median Voter 1.GIF

The line represents the issue positions one can take - as you move from the right to the left, your issue positions become more liberal. The three letters - A, B, and C - represent the ideological positions of the voters (in this simplification, our electorate consists of only three people). D and R represent the issue positions taken by the Democratic and Republican candidates. The equilibrium position of the campaign is for both candidates to take issue positions consistent with Voter B. What do I mean by equilibrium? I mean that it is the best response of the Democrat to the Republican's decision to take the median position, and vice-versa. It is a Nash equilibrium.

The median voter theorem is quite intuitive, and most people who are not trained political scientists have some notion of it that is of utility in analyzing politics. Many pundits are relying upon their intuitions of the theorem to explain McCain's troubles. In the Republican primary election, the median voter is a conservative Republican - to whom McCain refuses to "pander." One might point to the most recent Republican debate where McCain was the only candidate on stage who expressed support for immigration reform. This is a sign, they argue, that McCain is not appealing to the median Republican, and this is why he is in so much trouble.

This, however, makes use of a notion of the median voter theorem that is naïve. The median voter's position is only an equilibrium in a two candidate race. There are many more than two candidates in the race for the Republican nomination. What happens when there are more than two voters? The ideological position of the median voter ceases to be a candidate's best response to the decision of the other candidates to adopt the median voter's position. Thus, it is no longer a Nash equilibrium.

Imagine a race with three major candidates - R, G, and M - all of whom are trying to espouse an ideological position that will win them the election. We continue to assume that they are free to espouse any position they like, that there is only one issue dimension, and that voters have single-peaked preferences and perfect information. This time, let us also imagine more than three voters (any odd-numbered will do) who are spread out evenly along the left-right continuum (between the arrows, which are retained to indicate that candidates may take any issue position they like).

The goal of each candidate is to take an issue position that wins them the election. So, let them all start around the median:

Median Voter 2.GIF

Obviously, G's position is a loser. The median is not a "best response" for G, based upon what R and M have chosen. G will increase his vote share if he does the following:

Median Voter 3.GIF

But now R is sandwiched in between G and M, and can expect to lose. So R responds:

Median Voter 4.GIF

This, in turn, forces M to change his position because the median is no longer his "best response."

Median Voter 5.GIF

And G responds:

Median Voter 6.GIF

And so on - this is a cycle that would end only because the election ends the campaign.

Notice how we are slowly moving from the median voter. The median is not an equilibrium position in a three-way race. If all three candidates are at the median, all three candidates can increase their expected vote shares by moving either to the left or to the right. We therefore cannot say that those who refuse to espouse the median position are doomed to lose the election. It is simply not true. In a three-way race, a candidate could win with an ideological position that is quite far from the median. What matters is what issue positions his opponents espouse immediately before the election, and what the exact distribution of voter preferences is.

And so, theoretically speaking, it is possible for a candidate to win the Republican nomination in a multi-candidate race by taking moderate issue positions. For instance, if multiple candidates are spread from the center to the right and voters are again evenly distributed, a Republican nominee could win the GOP nomination by taking an ideological position that is more liberal than the others. Consider:

Median Voter 7.GIF

If this was the last iteration of ideological positioning before the actual election, candidate M would win with a centrist ideology! He would take all of the voters to the left of his position, and half of the voters between G and him. This would be greater than either the voters that G would win or that R would win. And so, one need not necessarily pander to the party base (i.e. appeal to the median voter in the party) to win the nomination. In this example, candidate M wins the nomination despite being more liberal than the rest of the party.

McCain's problem, therefore, is not simply that the Republican electorate will not select a moderate Republican. Depending upon the issue positions of the other candidates and the distribution of voter preferences, there are some instances in which we should expect it to. Of course, under certain circumstances, we should also expect the party not to select a moderate. Again, it depends upon how voter preferences are distributed, and how candidates position themselves. The point is that the argument that McCain's moderation is the source of his problem is oversimple and is based upon a false understanding of the median voter theorem. Tomorrow, I will offer an alternative explanation that I think is more compelling.

-Jay Cost

The Democratic Candidates in Comparative Perspective, Part II

Yesterday, I began sketching a few comparative points about the major Democratic candidates. Today, I continue this project.

Let me start by clarifying my argument about Obama from yesterday. More than a few readers wrote to object to my criticism of Obama. However, I did not feel I was being critical. I think the confusion stems from the distinction between "self-conceit" and "conceited." A few readers interpreted my essay to imply the latter, but I intended it to imply the former.

"Self-conceit" is defined principally as: "One's opinion or estimate of oneself; esp. high or exaggerated opinion of oneself, one's talents, attainments, etc." Meanwhile, "conceited" can be defined as: "Having an overweening opinion of oneself, or one's own qualities, etc.; vain." The latter implies that a person's opinion of self is inaccurately high. This is what "vain" and "overweening" indicate. "Self-conceit" can imply this, but not necessarily so. It can be used in a more neutral manner, i.e. "high" rather than "exaggerated." I intended this neutral use. I was not commenting on whether Obama has an overly high opinion of himself. My point was simply that he has a high opinion. Nevertheless, I should have been more careful to indicate the neutrality I wished to convey. "Self-conceit" can be defined as something approaching "vanity," "overweening," and "conceited" - and I should have been more careful to distinguish the use I was intending.

3. I'd like to return to Clinton's public style, which - as I argued - I think is frequently ineffective. I think that, for Clinton, her lack of natural ease and grace is not the only factor that makes her public style ineffective. I think that explains most of it - certainly I think that is why the average voter is less-than-enamored of her.

However, I wonder if - at least with political elites - there is something else to it. After all, her public style is not very good, but many politicians have cultivated an effective public style even though they are obviously unnatural and graceless in many political situations. George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush both come instantly to mind. I wonder if one of Hillary's problems is that she has retained the Clinton strategic "machine." You know - the cast of political operatives who helped win Bill Clinton two terms in the White House. Never has such a machine been so celebrated as the Clinton machine: Billy Bob Thornton never played Lee Atwater! This crew is still around - either working formally for Hillary Clinton's organization, or operating informally. I wonder if this is part of her problem.

Political campaigns are a lot like theater. Everything you see is, technically speaking, artificial. But effective campaigns - like effective theater shows - induce you to suspend your disbelief. They influence you to forget that what you are seeing is artificial, so that you can grasp - not in spite of, but because of the artifice - ideas that are real and true. They say that art tells the truth with lies. Political campaigns can be similar.

Bill Clinton's artifice was so effective that members of his stage crew became celebrities in their own rights. James Carville, Paul Begala, Mandy Grunwald, Ann Lewis, and so on. Hillary Clinton has retained many of these people. Beyond the actual individuals is the sense that Hillary Clinton has cultivated a top-rate stage crew that is on par with her husband's. Last February, Ryan Lizza referred to it as "HillaryLand." I wonder if this is a problem for her - if, at least with political elites who know who is working for her, this induces people not to suspend their disbelief. They are so aware of the stage crew and its presence in the play that they cannot but think of it. I would wager that most political elites, at least those whose political opposition to Hillary Clinton is not their overarching concern, probably look upon the stage crew quite favorably. However, the act of looking at the stage crew so intently spoils the intention of the crew's production. You are watching for their effects, rather than letting them affect you.

The simplest metaphor I can think of for this idea is the problem that the Wizard of Oz had when the curtain was drawn back. He ceased to be menacing when it was discovered that the menace was simply an artifice, a cleverly-designed stage trick. I wonder if Hillary Clinton has a similar problem. I am not comparing her normatively to the Wizard of Oz. I am simply commenting that because her artifice is so well known, it ceases to be as effective as it could be. In other words, the themes that she wishes to convey in her public style are not being conveyed because the work of the stage crew is so obvious.

Perhaps this is why her debate performances are always celebrated. After all, it is in the debates that she, and not her stage crew, produce the effects.

4. In my recent review of Edwards, I stated that I was confident that he would not receive his party's nomination. I still think this. However, I think that I failed to factor a real advantage that Edwards possesses.

I had been aware of this for a while, at least on some level. But it was only after I received more than a few emails from Edwards' supporters in passionate defense of their candidate that I began to acknowledge an intuition that had been lingering in the back of my mind for a while. I think that Edwards support base is certainly not as broad as Clinton or Obama's. However, I also think that those who count themselves as supporters of Edwards offer much more intense support. No candidate on the Democratic side has such a deep base of support.

Ultimately, this is simply not enough to win an election. Our elections do not register depth of support. If half plus one of an electorate supports a candidate only mildly, and half minus one would sacrifice all they have to see another candidate win - the candidate with the devotees is going to lose. However, I do think that the depth of support that Edwards enjoys will be enough to keep him vital longer than I initially thought.

What is interesting to me is that people who love and people who hate Edwards agree on the basic facts of him. The difference is that they infer from these qualities diametrically opposed conclusions. Those who love him believe that he is earnest; those who hate him believe that he is not.

My intuition is that most Democrats do not love Edwards, though they do not hate him. They are the ones who will decide whether he would be a viable general election candidate - and I believe they will determine that those who hate him could turn the public to their way of thinking. What I have called his political ineptitude is, I believe, hurting him with Democratic elites for this reason. Ultimately, his mistakes are fodder for those who hate him - and strategic Democrats will view him as too risky.

-Jay Cost

The Democratic Candidates in Comparative Perspective

Last week, I completed my analysis of the top three Democratic candidates with a review of Barack Obama (and see my earlier reviews of Hillary Clinton and John Edwards). Today, I would like to take an opportunity to make some comparative points on them. These points do not admit of a unifying hypothesis to connect them. They are, rather, a few unrelated insights. As per usual, they are speculative in nature - and not to be taken as demonstrated empirical inferences. These are my suspicions and my intuitions.

Because these thoughts together sum to a very large number of words, I am going to spread them over two days.

1. I think it is evident that the political environment strongly favors the Democrats going into the next election. I have read many who are arguing from recent polling data that independents are now no longer independents - they are now Democrats. I think this hypothesis is underdetermined - for the same reasons that I reject the idea that we can argue today that 2006 was a realignment. Nevertheless, it is clear that - at least for now - independents favor the Democrats over the Republicans. I am not sure how long this will last, but for now it is a major advantage to the party.

However, I think that the two major Democratic candidates - Clinton and Obama - have weaknesses that could undermine the party's strength. On the one hand, the country wants change. This is what I think favors the Democrats so much. There is not necessarily some grand ideological shift going on in middle America. Minimally, middle America is sick and tired of the current administration - and they want to change it. This always favors the party not in the White House. Unfortunately for the Democrats, I am not sure that Hillary Clinton, their front-running candidate, will really satisfy the public's appetite for change. She is not a change to the new. She is, rather, a change to the old. Will this satisfy the public? I honestly do not know. On the one hand, voters really liked Bill Clinton and were generally satisfied with his administration when he left office. On the other hand, this might not be what they mean when they say they want "change." My intuition is that this may give the Republican Party an opening to argue that it the party of change.

Obviously, no single candidate implies change the way that Barack Obama does. However, I think Obama - unlike Clinton - will be vulnerable on the issue of terrorism. Voters wants change, but they also want to feel safe from terrorist attacks. Will Obama make them feel safe? I am not sure. I am sure that, if he wins the nomination, we can expect him to select a foreign policy heavyweight as his running mate. Obama's major challenge, should he win the Democratic nomination, will be to convince the nation that he will continue to protect it.

2. There are a set of qualities that most candidates possess that the public really does not like, or at least does not like to be made aware of. I am thinking of ambition, self-conceit, desire for public acclaim, and so on. These qualities always turn the public off - I think one reason is that many elective offices carry with them private benefits even though they are designed for public purposes. And I believe that candidates for office who evince those qualities appear to be seeking the office not to fulfill those public purposes, but to acquire the private benefits.

Like I said, most candidates possess at least a measure of these qualities - and they possess them in degrees usually greater than individuals of equal socioeconomic status who are not involved in politics. Political office carries with it a cache that simply attracts a certain type of person. There is nothing wrong with this - political office does not pay very well in terms of cash. The payment is made in part through the power officials may exercise. It is also made through the estimation that they receive. Members of the House could be making seven figures in private life. Many of them stay in the lower chamber because everybody calls them "the Honorable..." What, then, are ambitious politicians to do? They possess these qualities - that are, effectively speaking, prerequisites for the job - that the public does not wish to see. One response is to develop an effective political style. The way that one presents oneself to the public can mask many of these qualities.

I mention this to observe the following irony. Among the Democratic frontrunners, the person who seems to me to possess the largest quotient of these qualities is also the person who appears to most everybody else to possess the smallest. I am talking, of course, about Barack Obama.

I think that this man - whom, as I said, I happen to like - possesses a very great self-conceit. We may talk of the fact that men less qualified than he have held the office - and indeed this is true. But it has not been true since Franklin Roosevelt transformed the presidency into the modern, powerful institution that it now is. Barack Obama began his campaign for this office with roughly two years of experience in high governmental office. If he were to win the nomination, I am pretty sure he would hold the record (in at least the modern era) for a nominee with the least experience. This implies to me a very healthy self-conceit. Any serious candidate for the presidency runs, at least in part, because he thinks that nobody in the nation can govern the country any better than he. I am sure that Obama thinks this as well - and so, he must have an extremely high opinion of himself. After all, he could not think that he is the best for the position because of what he has done. He must think that he is the best for it because of who he is.

And yet, he seems to be the least conceited of the three top tier candidates. Why? I think that it is because Obama has the best political style of the three. Ironically, I would argue that Hillary Clinton, who is seen to be the most conceited, is actually the least conceited of the group (which is not to say that she does not have a very high regard for herself!). It is striking to me that a woman of her stature - she was, after all the First Lady - is not so full of herself as to believe that she need not campaign. She recognizes that she is not entitled to the office she seeks, that she must slog through country fair after country fair in the Hawkeye state. This is a sign that, as politicians go, she may not be as conceited as many take her to be.

So how is it that questions about Obama's ambition and self-conceit are not under consideration, but questions about Clinton's are? I think one answer is that the former's political style is effective, and the latter's is not. Obama has a natural grace and ease that Clinton lacks. This, I think, renders moot the question that we would ask of Obama if he were not a natural: why do you presume to run for this office? His style is so effective that it seems as though he should be nowhere else. Thus, questions of conceit and presumption and ambition are put aside. Clinton, on the other hand, does not have an effective style. And so, those questions are at the forefront of our minds when we watch her perform.

I'll have more on this theme tomorrow.

-Jay Cost

Campaign Finance Reform and the Political Party, Part 3

In Tuesday's installment of this essay, I argued that the involvement of the political party in our electoral process is a potentially beneficial feature of our politics - and that, because our campaign finance laws treat the party as an enemy, rather than an ally, of good government, they fail to make use of them. In Wednesday's installment, I argued that the involvement of the political party in our election process is inevitable, and because our campaign finance laws ignore this fact and foolishly try to squelch the involvement of the party, they end up producing unwanted and inefficient results. I went on to sketch a brief four-point campaign finance law that I would support over the Federal Elections Campaign Act (FECA) or the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA).

Today, I would like to explain why I have no soft money contributions to the political party in my scheme. First off, let me specify exactly what I mean. As Mr. Smith rightly notes, soft money is simply money not limited by the "hard" law of the FECA. And so, when I say that I would have no soft money to the party or the candidate, what I mean is that I would limit the amount that any group or individual could give to a party. It is my preference for this limitation that induces me to oppose the kind of soft money giving to the party that characterized the end of the FECA regime - in which individuals, unions, and corporations would give six-to-seven figure amounts to party units.

On Tuesday I argued that the involvement of the party in elections is potentially beneficial. And yesterday I argued that it was inevitable. The implication from these two points is that the party is not necessarily going to act in a way to induce what I have been calling responsible party government. The party does not have a compelling interest in responsible party government. Rather, it has a compelling interest in electoral victory - and it is this interest that can be molded, by institutions like campaign finance laws, into a foundation for responsible party government.

Only once - so far as I know - has a successful reform movement made conscious and explicit use of the democratizing power of the political party, and this was the Democratic reform of Andrew Jackson and Martin van Buren. [N.B. You can always identify a professional student of the political parties by where he places Martin van Buren - the founder of the first mass American political party - in his ordering of American presidents. He's in my top ten!]

For long stretches of our nation's history, this natural inclination of the party to be involved yielded bad results. In the age of the political machine - which can be dated broadly from 1865 to 1932 - the government failed to induce parties to act responsibly. Instead, party involvement meant patronage, plutocratic control over nominations, local elections that only rarely concerned the major problems of the day, and uninspiring and unworthy political leaders.

So, we cannot be Pollyannaish about the role of the party. The party is a potential ally of good democratic governance - but we must remember that this is not because the party shares our interest in it. It is, rather, because the interest of the party - to win elections - can be used for our interest of good governance. Accordingly, we must be mindful of the laws that govern party behavior because bad laws might, just like the FECA and the BCRA, thwart our objective of obtaining democratic accountability.

Thus, I would limit contributions to the party. It is one such rule in a package of reforms to induce the party to compete responsibly. My logic for that position is as follows.

The party's principal goal is electoral victory. In the political economy of today's electoral campaign, victory at the ballot box requires television advertising, which in turn requires money. And so, in pursuit of its quest for electoral victory, the political party is in pursuit of money.

I argued on Tuesday that one of the powers of the party is to set the political agenda, to frame the debate of the campaign. This is the lynchpin of responsible party government - the party establishes this agenda in a way that is salient, relevant, and unambiguous such that voters have clear choices over vital issues on Election Day. I have argued here that we should not expect the party to do this spontaneously. The party's interest is not in democratic accountability, it is in electoral victory.

Meanwhile, empirical evidence - which I referenced in my original article - has shown that contributions to politicians do not buy votes. Rather, they buy time - that is, they help set the agenda: politicians receive money from PACs, and in response they think a little longer and a little harder about the issues the PACs want them thinking about.

Thus, the concern with unlimited contributions to the party is that they might induce it to set the agenda in a way that is irresponsible. In other words, the party's need for money might influence it to accept large contributions and, in return, alter its campaign agenda to satisfy the donor at the expense of the electorate's interest in clear contrasts on vital issues. So, for instance, I would have a problem with a large contribution to a party from a telecommunications firm. As a highly dissatisfied, nay disgruntled, cell phone user, I think that telecommunications reform is badly needed. Americans as a whole might very well feel similarly. The only way our democratic institutions could induce our governmental institutions to take action is if the party places telecommunications reform on the electoral agenda. A large contribution from a telecommunications firm could very well induce it to keep it off the agenda. Might the party do this? Absolutely. Remember, its interest is in electoral victory - not maximum democratic accountability. If it wagered that the money from the firm was worth more to its electoral goal than the issue of telecommunications reform being party of its campaign pitch, it would be rational for the party to accept the money and take the issue off the agenda.

This is why I am particularly concerned about large contributions by entities to both the Republicans and the Democrats. A contribution to one induces one to keep it from its agenda. The other might still be induced to place it on its agenda - indeed, it may be more induced, as it can now make an issue out of the contribution. However, a contribution to both could induce both to keep an issue off the agenda of both - thus effectively silencing the public on the matter.

This is the point that I was trying to make in my original essay. Democratic government is simply unthinkable without the political party. The party places, or does not place, items on the agenda of the public, whose response is limited to a simple "Yes" or a simple "No." If the party is influenced not to place a certain item on the agenda, then the public will necessarily have no say on what the government does on that matter. We might think of the party as the translator of the public. Its voice is unintelligible to governmental officials without the help of the party. What happens to a foreign speaker if his translator has been paid by a third party not to translate his opinion regarding certain matters? He loses the ability to communicate on those matters. He has lost his voice to the third party, who has "bought" his translator.

So, I think we must limit party contributions. These contributions could buy for an individual or a group what no private person or group has a right to buy - namely, the ability to set the national agenda. We need to make contribution allowance limits large enough to reduce the pressure on the party to find the resources that are necessary to compete. However, we need to limit them so that individuals and groups who contribute to a party are doing so because they agree with that party's issue proposals, not because they want to direct what the party places before the public for consideration. If private groups wish to place an item before the public - or to take an item off the public agenda - let them engage in electioneering, let them participate in the marketplace of ideas that is the political campaign. I would place no limits on that, provided that consumers of their ideas can clearly identify the source behind them. It is only the party that I would prevent from being able to take unlimited funds from a single entity.

Philosophically, this distinction between the party and other political actors rests upon the recognition that the political party plays a unique role in our society. No other entity is in a position to set the political agenda as the party is. The party is not merely another political action committee. We need to recognize that the political party is a private and public institution. It is a private institution in many respects (Pat Leahy would be little-girl-giddy if the FOIA applied to internal RNC communications!), but, in its control over the national agenda, it nevertheless serves a vital public function. We must recognize that it does, and we must work to encourage it to serve this function as well as it is able.

What else might induce responsible agenda-setting? One way to influence the party to set the agenda responsibly is to engender robust competition for as many elections as possible. This will activate and energize the voters, making them think more closely and carefully about politics. An activated and energized electorate means one that is thinking about its problems, and how political solutions might ameliorate them. This induces the party to craft relevant issue positions. My intuition is that ending the limits to party contributions to candidates would have this effect. Currently, the party is only able to contribute without limits if the expenditures are "independent," which essentially implies television advertising. This, in turn, means that candidates are on their own in developing the organizational sophistication sufficient to make them competitive. It is only when a candidate has made himself competitive that the party will begin to participate in the campaign. It can do only a small amount to help the candidate become competitive. It cannot, for instance, give the candidate the cash to hire a fundraising specialist. If we eliminate the caps on party contributions to candidates - my intuition is that the party will use its newly found freedom to "seed" more competitive candidates by helping them acquire the kinds of capacities that a winning candidate needs. This, in turn, will probably influence more dynamic and better-qualified individuals to campaign for office.

Overall, this would make for better-run campaigns and thus more competitive electoral contests. Who doesn't want that? Incumbents, of course! The legislators who have imposed these "reforms" upon us don't want that. As a matter of fact, they are just about the only losers in a more competitive electoral system. This, incidentally, is another, not-so-coincidental failure of the FECA and the BCRA - by limiting the role of the party in the campaign, they have made our elections generally less competitive. They thus benefit current officeholders. Bear that in mind next time you hear a sitting member of Congress smugly and condescendingly preach to you about "fixing" the system!

Another way to induce this kind of responsibility is an active and robust party base. If an activated and energized electorate is forcing a party to be relevant, an active and robust party base will prevent the party from taking issue positions that are identical to the competing party's position. That is, a robust base prevents both sides from tacking to the median voter, where there are no clear issue distinctions. Accordingly, I am strongly in favor of reforming the party organization from top-to-bottom. Unfortunately, party organizations today are either antiquated (like the party "clubs" that became popular in the 1950s and 1960s) or elites-only (like the national party units). The party can and should reconstitute itself to be a place for political activists to achieve not just what Edward Banfield and James Q. Wilson call purposive benefits like policy reform, but the solidary benefits that come from being around like-minded folk. In other words, the party base today, for as vital as it is to the electoral prospects of the party, is not-at-all socially integrated into the party organization itself. Staunch Republicans feel a stronger sense of identity by listening to Rush Limbaugh than by going to a local party meeting. Staunch Democrats feel that sense more by participating at DailyKos than by working with the party. It was not always this way; for many years, the party was a social entity. However, the party organization failed to update its organizational structure, and it has since stopped being a social meeting place for the politically active. Restoring the social basis of the party will keep the party honest to its base - it would also probably enliven and invigorate the currently torpid campaign for local and state offices, which would make for better governance from the top of the government to the bottom.

These are just a few examples I have in mind - I mention them to underscore the following point. Inducing the party to set the agenda responsibly requires a whole set of political institutions, none of which constrict the party or party activists, but rather guide their natural tendencies toward a socially beneficial result. Limiting or capping contributions to the party would be part of an overall scheme. The problem with unlimited contributions is that the electoral-driven party might be induced to set the agenda irresponsibly. And, as a responsible setting of the agenda is a public good, we should prevent this from happening. But we should also work generally to revitalize the political party - by doing things like inducing serious competition from the top to the bottom of the ballot, and restoring the party's social function in American political life. These kinds of actions will, I think, move us closer to the ideal of responsible party government - and therefore to an electoral system that does a good job of keeping government officials accountable.

-Jay Cost

Campaign Finance Reform and the Political Party, Part 2

Yesterday, I began my response to Bradley Smith's recent article at the website of his Center for Competitive Politics. My trajectory in this endeavor has been to offer a thorough justification for why I would not allow unlimited "soft" money contributions to the political party. In response to Smith's well-reasoned criticisms of my initial thoughts on the matter, I decided it was only appropriate for me to outline exactly what I would want in a campaign finance regime.

This, in turn, led me yesterday to outline why the role of the political party in the electoral campaign is potentially beneficial. Today, I have two objectives. First, I am going to outline why I think the role of the party is inevitable, and how - because recent campaign finance laws have failed to recognize this fact - we are saddled with so many unintentional and inefficient side-effects. Second, I am going to bring both of these observations - the party is a potentially beneficial and inevitable agent in our electoral process - to bear in the development of a modest set of campaign finance reform proposals. This will pave the way to tomorrow's discussion of why unlimited party contributions are not part of my proposal scheme.

So, I shall begin with a look at the inevitability of the party's role in our elections. My argument here is that, unless you outlaw the party altogether, it is going to search endlessly for ways to maximize its involvement. Eventually, it is going to find ways to be highly involved. And so, campaign reform laws that presume that party involvement can be kept to a minimum are simply foolish.

Why is the party's role inevitable? It is because the party's fortune is wholly and intimately connected to the fortunes of its candidates. E.E. Schattschneider defined the political party as a team whose purpose is to win elections. Thus, the party and its candidates for office are inseparable, which means that the party will always work to find ways to be more and more involved in the campaign of its candidates. The party has an existential stake in American elections. If all party candidates lose, the party itself ceases to exist. Thus, we can and should expect the party not only to participate, but to participate as much as it possibly can. In this way, it is unlike any other political entity - if we allowed the party to do so, it would take complete control over every campaign for political office. In point of fact, this is what it essentially did in the 19th century!

This is why what I have called responsible party government is possible. The party wants to be involved - and it is going to try to involve itself! If we manage the way in which it is involved, rather than try to constrict it, we can achieve an electoral process in which the public is given clear, contrasting positions on the vital issues of the day. Responsible party government is practical because it recognizes and makes use of the natural inclinations of the party.

Unfortunately, because reformers have consistently failed to appreciate fully the inevitability of party activity, their efforts to regulate the party have always produced unintended, and undesirably inefficient, effects. Any scheme to maximize democratic accountability is doomed to fail unless it accounts for, and makes full use of, the political party. In other words, responsible party government is, in my opinion, the only way to achieve democratic accountability in a system that includes political parties. If you try to achieve accountability in a party system without using the party to achieve this result, the party is going to thwart your efforts.

Why? It is because, so long as the party exists, it is going to stick its nose into every election it can. This means that if a law tries to limit its role, the party is going to start searching for "loopholes" in it. Don't think for a moment that it won't find them, either! All laws have loopholes because language is necessarily vague and because lawmakers cannot envision every possible scenario, let alone indicate in the law what should happen in all of them. Barring the use of loopholes, the party can still rely upon that pesky First Amendment to involve itself - freedom of association is an unqualified right that is highly useful for the party. The party can, and has, appealed to the courts, which have accordingly gutted reforms by striking from them elements essential to their central purposes. The result has been, and will always be, that the party thwarts schemes for non-partisan democratic accountability, which proceed to devolve into ridiculously irrational compilations of rules that do nothing except induce inefficiencies that nobody wants.

Thus, you must either eliminate the party (which would require an amendment to the Constitution to rescind the right of free association), or recognize and use the role that it has. The current campaign finance regime does neither - hence the absurdity of the spectacle that it creates every even-numbered year (Including, but not limited to, the liberal bloc on the Supreme Court siding with the government against a small, grass-roots organization like Wisconsin Right to Life! What, pray tell, would Earl Warren think of that?). Our current regime is so ridiculous because its innovators wrongly assumed that the role of the party could be kept to a minimum. It cannot be. Accordingly, the intentions of the whole regime have been completely undermined by the fact that the party has, inevitably, found and made use of loopholes in the law. The result is a system that is entirely inefficient in terms of protecting either principle that we would like an electoral scheme to embody, namely free speech and democratic accountability.

"Independent expenditures" are a perfect illustration of the way in which the current regime - because it fails to recognize, let alone make use of, the reality of the party - takes us further from an ideally accountable system. I can't stand "independent expenditures" - they are an offense to both good sense and democracy. First, the concept of "independence" between a political party and its candidate for the office it wishes to win is nonsensical. The fact that we conceive of the party and its candidates as being independent of each other is a sign that we still - after 200 years - have not grasped exactly what the party is! Second, "independent expenditures" are horribly inefficient if our goal is to maximize democratic accountability. They are an example of maximized speech rights, but minimized accountability. The party is going to spend as much as it can because - like its candidates - it has a compelling, existential interest in electoral victory. The First Amendment guarantees its right to spend this money. Thus, the party can spend money, and we know that it will spend money. Would society not be better off - both from a speech perspective and from an accountability perspective - if we allowed the candidates and the party to coordinate their activities? After all, the party is going to do everything it can to be involved, and party involvement is a good thing because it can yield a contest that maximizes coherence in campaign messages, and therefore democratic accountability. Why should we allow the party to participate as much as it wants, but refuse it the ability to coordinate its efforts with the candidate?

There are all kinds of ridiculous inefficiencies in our system that stem from the fact that reformers have failed to regard the party properly. My favorite is an example discovered by California State University professor Diana Dwyre. Dwyre found that, under the FECA regime, national party organizations experimented with what she called "spinning soft money straw into hard money gold." That is, they began to contribute large sums of soft money to state party units in exchange for hard money contributions to and expenditures for federal candidates. Did state party units keep up their end of the bargain? Oh sure, but not on a 1:1 basis! The state party units would contribute a sum of hard money to candidates, but not the same amount that the national party gave in soft money. They pocketed a not insignificant fee. Thus, our FECA regime turned our state party units into usurers of their own national party!

This is the result of the FECA and the BCRA. The party is left to "exploit loopholes" to do what it is naturally compelled to do. The loopholes are inefficient, and thus the party is not in a position to do what it could and would do in a responsible party government model. In so doing, it undermines the intention of the misconceived laws that were supposed to fix the system. We are left with an electoral system that does not protect political speech as much as it should, and does not maximize the public's ability to exercise democratic control.

Who is the big winner in today's campaign finance scheme? Incumbents! In a system where the party's role is stultified, and the party responds by thwarting the intentions of the system - responsible party government does not exist, and thus clear positioning on relevant issues does not happen. The result is that the public never has an opportunity to evaluate coherently the actions of governmental agents. And so, incumbents can make use of the "personal vote" in their districts - and thus not fret too much over whether they actually do anything in government. They would be the losers in a responsible party government model because that model embodies the purpose of elections: to evaluate and pass judgment upon the actions of governmental agents.

In frankness, I think that there is no single area of American political life in which there has been such a backslide than in the accountability that the ballot box yields. In far too many respects, the voting public enjoyed a more democratic system in 1832 than it does in 2007. The unexpected (but not unpredictable!) results of "progressive reforms" to our system have conspired again and again to reduce greatly the quality of our democratic process. In many ways, we had it better immediately after the "Jacksonian Revolution" than we do today. It is ironic and sad that, as America has brought more and more of its people into the voting process, it has made that process less and less effective at holding government to account. What I find so frustrating is that the ignorance of "good government" reformers for how our system actually works has been matched only by their smugness for those who dare to disagree. It is as if they think that water can be made to flow uphill, and anybody who disagrees is either compromised by the pernicious influence of corporate "Big Water" or is just plain foolish.

So, what law would I support? Generally speaking, I would support any law that recognizes the inevitability and utility of party involvement, and that tries to use this involvement to maximize electoral accountability without minimizing free speech. I would heartily support the following against either the BCRA or the FECA:

(1) For all entities except the political party and its candidates, there are no limitations on any resources raised or spent on electioneering. All private citizens, or groups of private citizens, are free to spend as they wish in whatever quantity they wish if their purpose is to persuade the public. They may spend freely to endorse the election or defeat of a candidate, or to encourage or discourage the public from holding any issue position.
(2) The political party and its candidates are not limited in how much they can spend, either. However, they are not allowed to raise unlimited sums from any single source. Nevertheless, the contribution limits imposed by the BCRA are raised significantly.
(3) The direct contribution and coordinated expenditure limits of the BCRA are abolished. There are no barriers to the extent to which the party may coordinate its activities with its candidates.
(4) The BCRA "stand by your ad" provisions are retained.
This is a system that, I think, recognizes the importance of the two goals I referenced at the beginning of the essay. Speech rights are protected here, I think. What is more, we achieve some sort of coherence in political messages to the voters, which is a prerequisite for maximizing democratic accountability. We recognize not only that the more voices that are heard (and clearly heard, hence point (4)), the more accountability our process can engender.

We also recognize that the party plays a unique role in this process, and that its natural tendency should be neither denied nor constrained, but guided to maximize accountability. These proposals would, I think, involve the party more intimately in its candidates' campaigns - thus helping the party impose a more coherent, more unified campaign message every election season. No longer would we see so many candidates so easily campaign on whatever will get them elected - rather, the party may now exercise a centripetal force on the 470 or so campaigns for the Congress. The nation would thus move closer to the ideal of responsible party government, in which it reviews and selects its preferred party platform.

This is why I would limit the sources of party revenue, i.e. the party would still not be allowed to acquire unlimited dollars from any one source. I think that it hampers the possibility of responsible party government. I will discuss this tomorrow.

Let me conclude this segment of the discussion with the following considerations. In my opinion, the recent history of campaign finance reform has been part and parcel of our nation's mixed, and misplaced, feelings about the political party - which date back to the Founders. The actions of the party today might be part of the problem, but the party itself is nevertheless the solution. The trick is not to limit the scope of party activity, but to encourage and guide it to a positive result.

Americans, for whatever reason, have always had trouble understanding this. Deep down, I think most of us are sympathetic to Hamilton's position that there should be no party because we should all see eye-to-eye on the "true" "national" interest. After more than two centuries of sectionalism and factionalism, I think we should dispense with this concept - we should recognize that there are going to be fundamental differences that separate us, that these differences can only be resolved by elections, that we need to frame electoral contests as clearly and as relevantly as we can, and that we need the party for this task. The role of the government should be to induce the party to frame our elections in socially relevant and responsible ways - e.g. we need to avoid the "small," patronage-minded politics of the political machines in the Gilded Age - while nevertheless promoting the role of the party.

Unfortunately, the FECA and the BCRA implicitly endorse this wrong-headed, albeit it very old, attitude about the party being an impediment to democratic accountability. Rather than treat the party as a potential ally of good governance, the FECA and the BCRA treat it as an enemy. And when the party does what it naturally does - try to involve itself in the campaign by "exploiting loopholes" (note the language used by reformers - the party does not "make use of the silence of the law," it "exploits loopholes!") - campaign finance reformers offer that as proof of their thesis that the party is part of the problem. This circular way of thinking leads to a stultification of all reform efforts, and an inefficient electoral process. The way out of the cycle is for us to "get over" our abhorrence of the party system, admit that it is inevitable, recognize that it can be of great benefit, and design a campaign finance system that helps the party achieve this benefit.

-Jay Cost

Did I Read This Correctly?

Did Jay Carney argue today that McCain's campaign for the Republican nomination is in trouble because the national Washington press corps does not like his stand on the Iraq War?

There's a word I'm looking for. What is it...what is it? Ahhh...yes. Here it is:

solipsism, n: the theory holding that the self can know nothing but its own modifications and that the self is the only existent thing

-Jay Cost

Campaign Finance Reform and the Political Party: A Response to Bradley Smith, Part 1

This week, Bradley Smith of the Center for Competitive Politics offered an interesting and thoughtful response to a recent essay I wrote on the role of soft money in politics. Regular readers will recall that Mr. Smith - who is the former chairman of the Federal Election Commission - wrote an article for City Journal to which my essay was a response. The source of our disagreement is the role that soft money should play in national politics - I have a more restrictive vision for its role than Mr. Smith. His most recent essay is a response to my explication of my position.

I'd like to continue the discussion with the following considerations.

I am going to try to avoid the kind of format - where I quote him at length and then respond - that I imagine will bore readers who have neither the time nor the interest to follow in that kind of detail. I do have some back-and-forth comments to make. I have attached these as an appendix to this essay. My hope is that, even if you have not read (nor plan to read) my original essay or Mr. Smith's response to it, you will still derive some value from the following amplification of my position.

A much needed one at that. In the wake of Mr. Smith's article, I carefully reviewed my original essay - and I must say that it does not do a very good job of reflecting my views. And so, I think that Mr. Smith's criticisms are - in many instances - quite valid. I should have been more precise. Mr. Smith calls upon me to state a "detailed position." This is an entirely reasonable request - and that I did not provide a position was my principal failing in my original article - and so I am happy to oblige here. The issue that divides us is the role that "soft money" should play in politics - while the role I have in mind is more expansive than the role he seems to think I have in mind (for that, see the appendix!), my preference is that political parties not have access to what came to be known as "soft money." To justify this fully will require, I think, a careful statement of my opinions on campaign finance - which I have been able to develop with some thoroughness over the years thanks to my study of the parties.

I am going to spread my response over three days. Today and tomorrow, I shall offer a philosophical sketch of what I would like to see from a campaign finance regime. Friday I shall explain why I object to the role of soft money in the political party.

A final note to readers: I apologize for my absence from blogging on Tuesday. A power outage thwarted my attempts to work on this piece on Monday. Work on this piece took up most of my Tuesday - hence, no time for blogging. I thought it best to make this my priority. After all, when the former chair of the FEC asks you to clarify your opinion, you best put that at the top of your agenda!


Fundamentally, I think that we must remember that campaign finance is not, strictly speaking, an issue solely regarding speech rights, although this is important. It is also about: how do we design an electoral system that maximizes democratic accountability, i.e. enables the public to use the franchise to influence the actions of the government as much as possible? Now, you are not going to hear old, tired arguments from me that we have to make choices between the two. As far as I am concerned, speech is a necessary condition of accountability. The more we limit speech, the more we prevent voices from being heard, the less accountability our democratic process will create.

However, we must be careful here. We must recognize that speech rights - even though they are a necessary condition of democratic accountability - are not a sufficient condition. In other words, if we fail to maximize speech rights, we will not have an accountable electoral system. On the other hand, we might maximize speech rights and still not have an accountable system.

I think that the two laws that have governed the last thirty odd years of federal elections - the Federal Elections Campaign Act (FECA) and the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA) - are miserable failures in protecting either principle, and that modifying the BCRA to protect speech is insufficient for protecting accountability.

In other words, my position is that the FECA (as amended in 1974) is a bad law that has wrought a bad result. The major problem with adjustments to it - be they FECA amendments, Court rulings, or the BCRA - is that they have only been tinkering at the margins with this misguided and wholly unsuccessful law that not only stultifies our attempts to achieve accountability, but also misunderstands a basic fact of American political life. If I had my way, the FECA would be scrapped altogether - and we would start from scratch with a sober understanding of how politics in our country actually works.

What do the FECA and its successors misunderstand? The inevitable, and potentially beneficial, role of the political party in our electoral process. Let us examine the potential benefits before we look at the inevitability.

E.E. Schattschneider, in his seminal Party Government, argues that the role of the public in our process is necessary, but limited. The public has a vocabulary of only two words - "yes" and "no" - and it can only speak when spoken to. We maximize the effectiveness of the public's voice - and therefore maximize the extent to which public officials are held accountable by it - when we ask the public tightly-defined and socially-relevant questions. That is, the public exercises maximum control over governmental officials when, (a) there are clear, relevant issues at stake in an election, and (b) one candidate clearly represents one set of issues and another candidate clearly represents another set. In such an election, the public choice indicates a clear preference among policy alternatives - and thus a governmental mandate.

What Schattschneider is implying is that the public does not have the capacity to frame the election or to set the agenda. It cannot establish a contest over clearly-espoused and relevant issue positions. Who has that capacity? Historically, that role has fallen upon the political party - without which, Schattschneider rightly argues, American democracy would be unthinkable. Indeed, the party is so important to our system that our Founders began their civic careers as anti-party men, but eventually came to found the first parties!

It is strange to think of elections being framed - however, they are. Ask yourself why American elections hinge on certain issues and not others. The answer is that a set of individuals has chosen the particular frame. Theoretically speaking, the divisions between candidates in a campaign could be over almost any issue. The issues over which a campaign is actually waged have been determined by some entity or entities other than the electorate. Traditionally, this entity has been the party. The party has chosen the scope of political conflict.

Even though party control over the debate has sometimes limited democratic accountability, the party remains our best chance to maximize this accountability. Why? It is because, when the party frames an election coherently and relevantly, we can achieve something akin to responsible party government, which is a set of maxims that describe a normative ideal:

1. The political party takes clear issue positions for the purpose of the electoral campaign. Candidates who hold a certain party label are known to hold these issue positions by virtue of their association with that party.
2. The party - upon attaining control of the government - endeavors to enact its policy program.
3. In the subsequent election, the party is evaluated by (a) the extent to which it was successful in its enactment, and (b) the extent to which the enactment was beneficial.
The value of this is that it can offer governmental officials clear mandates from the public. If we define very plainly the set of positions the Democrats hold and the set of positions the Republicans hold, and both parties campaign explicitly on those issues - the winning party can head into office with a mandate to act. In other words, the more clearly we frame the issues, the more intelligible the public response will be, and the more influential that response becomes. On the other hand, when issues are not clearly defined - when candidates "run to the center," they run on issues that will not be of importance in the next government, or they run on personal qualities that have little bearing on the course of government - the vote of the public has very little influence over what happens in the next governing session. After all, they are being asked to weigh in on irrelevant or obscure matters - how can such judgments affect the course of future policy?

It should be clear that the political party is the only agent in our country with the capacity to accomplish any semblance of this coherence. What is required for the responsible party government model is for candidates of the same party to take uniform issue positions. Because elections in our system are geographically diverse, and the election of one candidate does not necessarily imply the election of another, we should not expect candidates to evidence this kind of coordination spontaneously. Thus, we are in need of some kind of centralized force that influences them to coordinate. We need an agent to coordinate and manage, at least to an extent, elections all across the country. Hence, the centrality of the political party to democratic accountability: the party is the only agent with the resources for and the interests in such a task.

Unfortunately, the FECA - and, because it retained the FECA's basic philosophical orientation, the BCRA as well - moved us further from this ideal. Both laws are anti-party. Both treat the party as part of the problem - whereas in the responsible party government model, they are the solution. The FECA and the BCRA tightly, even punitively, constrict the party's ability to coordinate campaign messages among its candidates in different electoral contests. Specifically, the contribution and coordinated expenditure limits placed upon the party prevent it from undertaking the task asked of it in the responsible party government model.

What do we have instead? We have a system in which local candidates are in control of local elections. The party plays only a modest role in inducing a national campaign from the 470 or so congressional campaigns waged every two years. Beyond this small nationalizing influence, the congressional election is quite local. This may sound all well and good - but consider the result. Party candidates run campaigns not based upon a unified, coherent political message that binds one party candidate to another, and that - if accepted by the public - would be justification for governmental action. Instead, they run campaigns designed simply to maximize the chances of individual victory. Thus, without clear and relevant contrasts between the parties - the electorate is not able to render a coherent judgment about either the recent actions of government, or about what should happen next. Party candidates win (or lose) not because of a discrete set of issues of national scope and salience, but rather based upon whether they can frame the local debate in a way that benefits them the most. Accordingly, they develop moderate issue positions, exploit issues that are of little salience to the nation, exploit the "personal vote" to achieve election, or make excessive use of the pork barrel, etc. The result is a government that has no mandate from the public - and, conversely, a public that exercises only little control over the government.

Many factors in what I like to call the political economy of the electoral campaign have induced this outcome. However, a major factor has been the FECA followed by the BCRA - both of them have, as I said, punitively limited the extent to which the party can influence party candidates. The campaign finance regimes of the last thirty years have prevented the party from producing from its diverse candidates a unified, coherent, and clear political message that the public may evaluate and select if it so chooses. In so doing, this regime has diminished the influence of the public in whatever actions the government decides to adopt or not adopt. A weakened party means weakened democratic accountability.

As I said, an engaged party is not only potentially beneficial - it is inevitable. What do I mean by this? I mean that the party is naturally inclined to be involved in the campaign for office. An understanding of the natural inclination of the party helps us to understand the failures of our current campaign finance regime, and points us toward a regime that more closely resembles the ideal of responsible party government. I shall thus continue the discussion tomorrow with this point.

The appendix follows.



As I indicated, I need to engage Mr. Smith on a few points that might not be of relevance to all readers. I believe that the best place to do this is in an appendix such as this.

First, I must correct a mischaracterization that Mr. Smith has (unintentionally, I am sure) made of my original essay. The original was, sadly, ambiguous, but it was not completely ambiguous. And Mr. Smith does not offer an entirely accurate summation of my views as I had expressed them.

He writes:

Cost's expressed concern...is with "soft money," which Cost believes should be regulated. What was disappointing to us was not so much Cost's view on regulating soft money as his justification for these views.
In point of fact, my position regarded soft money contributions to the political party. I wrote:
I count soft money contributions to the political parties as one such instance where the government should be involved.
I see a major distinction between the different uses of soft money. I have no objection to the kind of soft money issue advocacy that, say, Wisconsin Right to Life was conducting. This distinction will be relevant as we progress. It is also relevant to Mr. Smith's essay, which sometimes reads as though he is attacking a straw man. Indeed, I did a poor job of explaining why I would regulate soft money to the political party - and he is right to criticize me. However, he seems to criticize me for positions on which he and I agree - namely, the use of soft money for programs like those conducted by Wisconsin Right to Life.

Mr. Smith also implies that my thinking on this matter has been sloppy. Given the ambiguities of my initial piece, I can appreciate his opinion on that! However, in support of this view, he makes an argument that is not, I think, entirely fair to yours truly. Mr. Smith argues the following:

Cost writes, "If AT&T and Coca-Cola could write $50 million checks and pay for each party's political conventions - as they could before the BCRA (the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, a.k.a. McCain-Feingold) - it seems to me that the overall effect is one that thwarts 'political freedom.'" Whoa! In the entire soft money era, there was not a single corporation or union that made $50 million in soft money contributions - not just in any election, but over the entire 23 year period.
I would agree with Mr. Smith that I was indeed engaging in what he goes on to call "hyperbole." However, I do not think that this is necessarily a bad thing. The Oxford English Dictionary defines "hyperbole" thusly:
A figure of speech consisting in exaggerated or extravagant statement, used to express strong feeling or produce a strong impression, and not intended to be understood literally.
I was indeed being hyperbolic, i.e. offering an intentionally, obviously exaggerated figure to make a rhetorical point (this is why I chose such a large figure). The problem with hyperbole is when it is not, strictly speaking, hyperbolic - when exaggerated claims are not obviously exaggerated, and thus used for a purpose other than making a rhetorical point. My statement was hyperbolic, it was an obvious and intentional overstatement, which is why Mr. Smith should not have called it "sloppy" or "misleading" - which is what he goes on to do.

-Jay Cost

Power Outage

A power outage has knocked Jay offline and unable to post. The HorseRaceBlog should return sometime tomorrow (hopefully).

Obama: Promise and Peril

Over the past few weeks, I have been examining the major presidential candidates (see my earlier essays on Hillary Clinton and John Edwards). Today, I continue this project with an analysis of Barack Obama's candidacy, which I initially reviewed in January.

I like Obama. He seems to recognize that most of our political problems do not admit of obvious answers, and that the people who disagree with his particular answers are neither evil nor ignorant. Even though our answers mostly diverge, he displays the kind of intelligence, perceptiveness, and empathy that I appreciate in a Chief Executive.

Furthermore, Obama has run a top-rate political organization to date. I think that he is well positioned to capture the nomination. He has established himself as the liberal - or, perhaps better put, the "authentically Democratic" - alternative to Hillary Clinton. But, he has not risked his general election viability to signal this. This is what John Edwards is busy sacrificing to keep himself in the primary race. Edwards is signaling to Democratic voters that he would be a liberal president. However, in so doing, he is making it less likely that general election swing voters will find him appealing. Obama has managed to communicate this to the left without alienating the center.

Nevertheless, if I were a Democrat, I would still be nervous about Obama's prospects in the general election. I argued in January that the premise of Obama's candidacy is that he intends to change the tone of politics in Washington - and that the evidence that he can do this is the force of his personality. I see this as Obama's angle - and his major problem is that it is potentially exploitable.

A presidential election is immediately a choice between two individuals. Of course, it is also a choice between competing ideas, but this choice is mediated by the persons in the race. The words printed on the ballot are proper names - they are not governing proposals. They are "George W. Bush" and "Al Gore," not "tax cut" and "lock box."

Recently, Republicans have been able to make more use of this insight. There have been two instances where, I think, the Republican victory was at least partially predicated upon its portraying its opponent in a negative light. These were 1988 and 2004. In both years, the GOP was able to cast opponents as somehow beneath the office - thus deflecting, at least to a degree, any debate over issues that favor Democrats. If you can convince the public that your opponent will be a bad steward, it does not matter what your opponent promises to do. The public believes that he cannot do what he promises.

I think that, should Obama win the Democratic nomination next year, 2008 could be remembered as the third notch on the GOP's belt. Obama could be cast in a light similar to the light the Republicans cast John Kerry and Michael Dukakis in. There are four reasons I think this.

First, Obama is still new to the national political scene. I am not sure that he fully appreciates that this is an abiding, and occasionally dominating, feature of presidential campaigns. I am guessing that his advisors do - but, explaining this to him might be like explaining baseball to somebody who has never seen the game. He might not be ready for the kind of attacks that he will suffer. And, if the candidate is not ready for them, the campaign is not ready for them.

Second, if the Republicans manage to recast Obama - his candidacy would be severely damaged. The reason is that its entire premise is based upon voters having a certain image of who he is as a person. So far, the Obama campaign has done an excellent job developing and maintaining that image. However, nobody right now is trying to destroy it. If the GOP manages to destroy it - he has no fallback concept to recommend him for the top job. The reason is that he has no record of any relevance. A stint in the Illinois state senate from one of the most liberal neighborhoods in the country, and a half-finished term as a U.S. senator? There is not much there to inspire confidence. The confidence comes from the public's perception of who he is. If the GOP alters that perception, he is left with Hyde Park and three years in the Senate.

Third, Obama's image might be quite susceptible to this kind of destruction. The reason is that it is grounded in very little. Obama literally has no record to run on - and therefore no governmental foundation for the personal profile that he is trying to create. We have the image of him that we do largely because he has suggested that we should. What happens when the GOP suggests an alternative? Remember that Kerry was in the Senate for twenty years prior to his run for the White House - and Bush-Cheney '04 were able to reinvent him for the purpose of the campaign. Kerry's problem was that he was a low-profile senator. This is what enabled the GOP to portray him in the way it did: Kerry hadn't done enough in office to anchor the public image he wanted to create. Obama, literally, has not done anything. He is, in many respects, a blank canvas - which gives the Republicans great leeway in painting a compelling, less-than-flattering portrait of him.

Fourth, Obama's message inherently limits his candidacy. His message is, "I will elevate the tone." The implication here is that he is going to be nice. This will diminish his capacity to recast his Republican opponent. So, it limits his ability to do what successful candidates do. It will continue the streak of Democrats "being unable to play hardball." This is why I took his quick and complete backing down on that mild jab at Hillary - that "D-Punjab" bit - as a bad sign. That was nothing compared to the kind of attacks he'll need to launch against the Republicans.

What is more - "nice" can transform into "whiny." When the other side attempts to recast you, you really need to respond twice as hard. Kerry and Dukakis did not do that. The former, as most of us will recall, simply complained about how mean-spirited the Republicans were, which turned the voters off. Obama seems to me to be warranting through his campaign message that he will not hit back hard. That might leave him sounding whiny, and therefore unsympathetic.

Still, I think Obama has a decent chance to be the 44th President - even though the same problems in lesser quantities thwarted the dreams of other men. After all, he is more charming than Kerry or Dukakis - perhaps he could nullify the GOP's negative characterizations, though I doubt that his charms could nullify well-crafted attacks (especially those that used his charm against him). More important to my mind is that the political environment favors Democrats so much right now that his weaknesses may not even matter. There is a chance - something between 0% and 100% - that the nation will treat the GOP as Pennsylvania treated Rick Santorum last cycle. It did not matter how much money Santorum spent, how clever his ads were, or how incisive his campaign message was; the good people of the Commonwealth had had enough of him, and were ready to accept whatever alternative the Democrats provided. If the public feels similarly about the GOP come next November - it might not matter how excellent the Republican campaign against Obama is.

This is what makes Obama a promising choice. He could be elected next year despite his limitations. And, as I said, I think he would provide Democrats with the liberal kind of administration that Clinton probably will not offer. But there is peril here. Even today's anti-GOP climate might not immunize Obama from "the Republican attack machine." What is more, the climate might change - and I doubt very seriously that a greenhorn like Obama could be elected in the kind of 49/49 environment that characterized 1996-2004.

On the other hand, Clinton is more prepared for the kind of political battle that has characterized recent presidential elections. She is ready for the GOP. But Democrats sense, rightly I think, that Hillary Clinton's administration would be like Bill Clinton's administration - taking issue positions for the purpose of retaining the goodwill of the public. It could quickly shift from center-left to center-right.

Thus, both of the major Democratic candidates are risky choices for Democrats. Clinton could probably weather a full-blown GOP attack, but she might abandon her party when she gets to the White House. Obama will probably not abandon the Democrats after he arrives, but he might not be able to get there.

This is why, if I were betting on who will win the Democratic nomination, I'd spread my money around. I honestly have no idea what the Democrats will do. I don't think they do, either. I certainly don't envy their dilemma. After all, Obama's qualities and Clinton's qualities are not mutually exclusive. Franklin Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson, and Ronald Reagan prove that point. Democrats would be much better off if their hard-nosed candidate was a liberal, and their liberal candidate was hard-nosed.

-Jay Cost

On The Warm Bucket...

Several readers have chimed in to note that Vice President Garner did not, in all likelihood, say "warm bucket of spit." It was likely a more...ahem...colorful metaphor he made use of.

Indeed. However, my mother visits this site every day. So, I choose to keep this a strictly PG-rated blog - even at the expense of literalism. The only curse words used here are "damn," "hell," and - of course - "Semprini."

-Jay Cost

The Futility of the Campaign?

Mike Murphy and Mark Mellman offered an interesting take on the early 2008 presidential campaign in yesterday's LA Times.

They gave some much-needed pushback to all this polling data that has been overtaking us. They wrote:

Although the political and media elites may think the campaign is in full swing, with the fortunes of each candidate rising and falling with every new poll, the truth is that voters -- the ones who are really going to decide this race -- don't start the campaign until much later.

Because voters are not required to make a decision until election day, they remain open at this stage in the race to new information, alternative perspectives and late-breaking developments -- all of which render today's poll results, to one degree or another, meaningless.

Consider this: More than two-thirds of the Democrats who voted in the 2004 Iowa caucuses didn't decide who to vote for until a month before the caucuses. Four in 10 decided in the last week. In 2004, 54% of New Hampshire Democrats decided within a week of the primary. It's no surprise, then, that in the 2004 election, John Kerry was lagging in third place until only a few weeks before the Iowa caucuses. Kerry then more than doubled his vote in Iowa and nearly quadrupled it in New Hampshire -- all in less than 20 days.

Iowa's Republican caucus-goers are no different. In 1996, nearly a quarter chose their candidate on caucus night or in the preceding two days; fully 42% decided in the last 10 days. And in New Hampshire, only 12% of Republicans decided in 2000 who they would support in the primary before Jan. 1 of election year.

Ahhh...music to my ears!

Unfortunately, this is a note that is not sustained so perfectly. To my chagrin, Murphy and Mellman join the ranks of those who have abused the Heisenberg uncertainty principle to make a rhetorical point. As anybody who has undergone the graduate school experience in the social science or humanities will attest, this is the bane of every introductory data analysis course. It is inevitable. Some newbie grad student - working from 90% enthusiasm and 10% learning - is all flushed with excitement after having read his first postmodern treatise on the power-relations inherent to "knowledge"
(probably Foucault's Discipline and Punish) and - not realizing how it nullifies his entire purpose for being in graduate school - trots out good old Werner Heisenberg to obliterate the whole project of studying. Whoops. I guess it's off to business school (although he never seems to go)!

Anyway, Murphy and Mellman write:

Meanwhile, the press ignores Heisenberg's principle -- that the measurements themselves, printed in bold type on Page 1, create their own distorted results, inaccurately advantaging some while disadvantaging others. By creating a potentially illusory sense of momentum or of failure, these pseudo-measures affect the extent of media coverage, fundraising, endorsements and the willingness of volunteers to engage.

I am not so sure that I agree with this. My intuition is that the polls are simply reflecting the elite dialogue in the nation. Average voters hear that Hillary or Rudy is "up" amidst the dribs-and-drabs of news analysis they acquire, and they toss their support to one of them when queried by a pollster. The source of the response is real - it is just not from the respondent. It is a "sampling" of the elite dialogue. So, I don't think that the poll results are "illusory." They are just something other than what they appear to be at first blush. They do not reflect the views of the electorate per se. Rather, they reflect the elite dialogue on the candidates.

I would agree with Murphy and Mellman if they argued that the elites systematically create a fictitious, actively-engaged, Jeffersonian public so that they can think that they are analyzing the average voter - rather than analyzing themselves. What is more, I'd like to see this process end. Minimally, it hampers the elite dialogue. It creates what is essentially an echo chamber effect. The polls are an echo of the elite conservation, but elites falsely take them as fresh voices joining the discussion. This makes elites less susceptible to alter their views when new, valid data presents itself.

Nevertheless, elite analysis is not idle. It has real value. Political elites of all stripes are trying to gauge these candidates to see who will be the most competitive in both the primary and the general elections. In so doing, they are narrowing the choices down for the voters. This is a needed and valuable civic service.

Thus, I think that Murphy and Mellman's basic hypothesis is close to accurate, but a little off. They argue:

Don't get us wrong -- an awful gaffe at this stage could be deadly, and there's no question that early money is crucial. But let's be honest. The absurdly early start of this primary season has a lot more to do with entertaining bored political elites than with persuading actual primary voters.

I don't think that the early contest is for the sake of entertaining the elites. Rather, I think it is a campaign designed specifically for their consumption because they serve an important function in this - and any - presidential election. They decide who is, and who is not, politically viable. They set the agenda. This is not to say that I think this uniquely early start date is an efficient way for elites to accomplish this civic task. They do not need so much time to make up their minds. However, I think it is appropriate and inevitable for the campaign season to begin at least a few months before the average voter starts to give a damn. Elites have a role to play - and their role comes before the average voter's role.

As I have indicated in prior posts, I think that this agenda-setting power of the elites is actually inevitable in a democratic system such as ours. Political elites have almost always set the agenda in our elections. Take elections to Congress. The party convention system for nominating candidates was replaced by the primaries in the hopes that it would "open up" the process and give the people a greater say in who would be a candidate for office. What happened? The parties turned from the conventions to candidate recruitment so that, once again, they still retain power over who does and who does not make a viable run for Congress. Why is it that some congressional elections are contested and others, while there is a nominal opponent, are uncontested? Much of it has to do with the actions of the Washington-based congressional committees, who set the agenda.

There is something similar going on right now with the presidential election system. The difference is the breadth of elite participation in the presidential election, which is at an all-time high. Elites of all stripes - journalists, pundits, Washington power brokers, donors, and even the well-informed who chime in via the blogosphere - are actively engaged in determining the agenda for the 2008 election, i.e. who shall and who shall not be a candidate worthy of the average voter's consideration.

I do think that Murphy and Mellman are accurately intuiting that political elites are engaged in what amounts to a fairly robust lie to themselves about exactly what they are doing. They consider themselves to be analyzing when in fact they are judging. But this process is not without value.

So why has this contest to woo the elites started so early? My guess is that the candidates themselves are to blame. Nobody wanted to be last to the campaign. It's similar to the strange social process I see every time I fly Southwest (which is ridiculously cheap to Pittsburgh from Chicago). Southwest does not have assigned seating. In advance of the boarding, everybody is seated in the lounge. Inevitably, when an attendant goes to the booth, everybody starts to form a queue - even though there is obviously 10 minutes to go until boarding starts. Why the queue? Somebody misread the actions of the flight attendant, and got in line. As none of us wants to be last in line (remember: no assigned seats!), we all start to queue up. Thus, we are left standing in line for 10 minutes with all of those comfy lounge seats going unoccupied. So inefficient, and yet so predictable! Similarly, my intuition with this campaign season is that most candidates felt that being last to start would be political suicide. So, when the first ones jumped into the race, the rest felt compelled to do likewise.

My feeling is that the campaign is just like the Southwest queue. It is not futile. The queue serves a necessary purpose because there are no assigned seats on the plane. However, its timing is inefficiently early. We could all have been seated for a bit longer.

-Jay Cost

On The Irrationality of the Veep Selection Process

Michael Barone made an interesting observation on his blog last Friday that I wanted to note (and, of course, toss in my two cents).

He writes:

Gerard Baker in the Times of London makes a point that I have made myself on occasion: The way we pick vice presidents is crazy. We spend lots of time and money and psychic energy on picking our presidents, with millions of people in one way or the other involved. But we let one man (or, quite possibly this time, one woman) select the vice presidential nominee. And this is considered by just about everyone as the way it should be. Yet, as Baker points out, vice presidents have a tremendous advantage when it comes to running for president. So the decision of Ronald Reagan at something like 3 in the morning in a Detroit hotel room to pick George H.W. Bush as his running mate leads directly to Bush's election as president in 1988 and his son's election as president in 2000 and 2004. Had Reagan picked someone else, it is extremely unlikely that either Bush would have been president.

This is a great point.

Why might this be the case? I can't help but think that it is due to the fact that we really do not have a maximally efficient scheme for electing vice presidents. Simply stated - the scheme is an 19th century scheme, but the office is now a 21st century office.

The 12th amendment governs the election of presidents and vice presidents. It was enacted to avoid a repetition of the election of 1800. Originally, the Constitution required electors to vote for two persons for president. The person with the greatest number of votes would become president. The person with the second greatest would be vice president. In the election of 1800, Aaron Burr - who was Thomas Jefferson's vice presidential candidate - received as many votes as Jefferson. It was up to the lame duck (and Federalist controlled) House of Representatives to settle the contest. With the institution of the 12th Amendment, electors came to cast one vote for president and one vote for vice president.

One can appreciate the intention of the original design, even though it was obviously flawed from the get-go. The candidate with the second most electoral votes would be the nation's second choice, and it stands to reason that - should the nation's first choice no longer be able to serve - the second choice should be there to fill in. However, this scheme never fulfilled this intention. In the first presidential election, in 1788, some electors voted for somebody other than John Adams so that he would not get as many votes as George Washington. So, having the unanimously preferred person become president required some strategic maneuvering on the part of the electors - already a bad sign!

By the time of the first contested presidential election - in 1796 - political parties had begun to emerge. And parties, of course, offer slates of candidates. This is what made 1800 so problematic. Republican electors voted for Jefferson and Burr. The latter, who was not even running for the office, nevertheless received as many votes as the top-of-the-ticket candidate. And the election had to be decided by Congress.

The 12th Amendment solved this problem by effectively making the vice presidency an unelected position. Electors still vote for vice president, and in theory they could vote for whomever they prefer. But in practice, the 12th Amendment has meant that whichever party wins the presidency also wins the vice presidency. So, it is effectively a nominated position.

What is interesting is that Messrs Barone and Baker are absolutely correct. It is a purely nominated position that nevertheless carries with it a great deal of importance. But this has been the case only in the age of television. The vice presidency was useless (a "bucket of warm spit" as FDR's first veep, James Garner, called it) until Richard Nixon was selected as Ike's nominee in 1952. Prior to that, the vice presidency was little more than a way for a party to mollify a regional faction relatively unhappy with the nominee for president. Television changed all of this. In the age of television, a vice president has at least four years to make himself known, and loved, by the public. Thanks to television, the office is now a great way to develop name recognition and positive feelings from the public.

Many vice presidential candidates have used the opportunity to great effect, which has increased the importance of the position. It is now much more important than it was when the Constitution and the 12th Amendment were written. The strange disconnection between the importance of the position and the manner in which it is filled is a sign that our Constitution is a document from an era long-since gone.

We have all kinds of strange, antiquated practices in this country for essentially the same reason. It is a price we pay for having a written and stable document as the basis of our government. If our goal is to write things down and make it really hard for future, crass politicians to erase them - we are going to retain some provisions that will eventually become outdated.

The selection of the vice president, then, is certainly an inefficiency. But it is not one borne for no reason. After all, if we could easily rewrite the Constitution when it comes to selecting the veep, we might also, under the spell of the kinds of bewitchments to which we as a public have occasionally fallen prey, rewrite more precious parts of our founding document!

-Jay Cost

On the Libby Commutation

The presidential power to pardon or commute is a feature of our system that rarely receives media coverage. It is now in the news, thanks to the Libby commutation. It seems to me that more than a few commentators are unaware of the function that it was intended to serve, and I think that some of their rhetoric has been a bit careless. Accordingly, I thought it might be worthwhile to outline why the Founders saw fit to include it in Article II of the Constitution.

In The Federalist #74, Alexander Hamilton writes:

[The President is] to be authorized to grant "reprieves and pardons for offenses against the United States, EXCEPT IN CASES OF IMPEACHMENT." Humanity and good policy conspire to dictate, that the benign prerogative of pardoning should be as little as possible fettered or embarrassed. The criminal code of every country partakes so much of necessary severity, that without an easy access to exceptions in favor of unfortunate guilt, justice would wear a countenance too sanguinary and cruel. As the sense of responsibility is always strongest, in proportion as it is undivided, it may be inferred that a single man would be most ready to attend to the force of those motives which might plead for a mitigation of the rigor of the law, and least apt to yield to considerations which were calculated to shelter a fit object of its vengeance. The reflection that the fate of a fellow-creature depended on his sole fiat, would naturally inspire scrupulousness and caution; the dread of being accused of weakness or connivance, would beget equal circumspection, though of a different kind. On the other hand, as men generally derive confidence from their numbers, they might often encourage each other in an act of obduracy, and might be less sensible to the apprehension of suspicion or censure for an injudicious or affected clemency. On these accounts, one man appears to be a more eligible dispenser of the mercy of government, than a body of men.

What is Hamilton on about here? His argument is that some entity should have the power to carve out exceptions to the rulings of the judiciary. Otherwise "justice would wear a countenance too sanguinary and cruel." The best entity for this, argues Hamilton, is a single person. A single person will be more attuned to the sympathetic concerns that the Framers want to inject into the judicial process. Furthermore, a single person will be solely responsible, and thus feel compelled to be as judicious as possible.

This is a theme that the great American jurist, Justice Joseph Story, expands upon in his Commentaries on the Constitution. He writes:

The common argument is, that where punishments are mild, they ought to be certain; and that the clemency of the chief magistrate is a tacit disapprobation of the laws. But surely no man in his senses will contend, that any system of laws can provide for every possible shade of guilt, a proportionate degree of punishment. The most, that ever has been, and ever can be done, is to provide for the punishment of crimes by some general rules, and within some general limitations. The total exclusion of all power of pardon would necessarily introduce a very dangerous power in judges and juries, of following the spirit, rather than the letter of the laws; or, out of humanity, of suffering real offenders wholly to escape punishment; or else, it must be holden, (what no man will seriously avow,) that the situation and circumstances of the offender, though they alter not the essence of the offence, ought to make no distinction in the punishment. There are...various gradations of guilt in the commission of the same crime, which are not susceptible of any previous enumeration and definition.
Story, like Hamilton, identifies an inherent limitation to the rule of law. It is necessarily a set of general maxims - but life admits of subtleties and "gradations" that the law itself cannot capture. Thus, his fear is that judges and juries will either be too harsh or too lenient. The power of the pardon is therefore necessary. Indeed, it allows the rule of law to be of maximum benefit to society.

Note the exception that the Framers inserted into the provision: "except in cases of impeachment." (The ever-so-subtle Hamilton wants you to note this - which is why he saw fit to emphasize it with capital letters) This is a sign that they were conscious of questions about the breadth of the power's scope. They intentionally chose to limit it to this extent, but no further. Indeed, in The Federalist #74, Hamilton considers, and rejects, the argument that the President should not have the power to pardon in cases of treason. In drafting the Constitution, the Framers considered, and rejected, a provision to have pardons for treasons reviewed by the Senate. [Interestingly, George Washington, on his way out of office, actually pardoned the perpetrators of the Whiskey Rebellion.] Clearly, this was not a haphazard and careless grant of executive power. They chose one - but only one - exception to it.

Without commenting on whether the Libby commutation should or should not have happened (Prior to the commutation, I had only argued that it would be bad politics, an opinion I still hold) - I will say that more than a few commentators have been a little careless with their rhetoric. A lot of people seem to me to be offering objections that, if taken to their logical conclusions, are actually objections to the power of the pardon itself.

For instance, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer opined:

President Bush's commutation of a pal's prison sentence counts as a most shocking act of disrespect for the U.S. justice system. It's the latest sign of the huge repairs to American concepts of the rule of law that await the next president.

Well - technically, all pardons could be counted as "disrespect for the U.S. justice system" and (obviously) "the rule of law." A pardon is an exception; the justice system does not allow for exceptions. The Framers thought exceptions were appropriate, and so they included the pardon provision.

Similarly, the Chicago Tribune made the following argument:

[I]n nixing the prison term, Bush sent a terrible message to citizens and to government officials who are expected to serve the public with integrity. The way for a president to discourage the breaking of federal laws is by letting fairly rendered consequences play out, however uncomfortably for everyone involved. The message to a Scooter Libby ought to be the same as it is for other convicts: You do the crime, you do the time.

This objection is an objection to the power itself. By this logic, the President should only pardon when there has been a miscarriage of justice. Note that the Framers did not carve out an exception to the power that limits its use to instances where justice has been misapplied. No - it is a wide-ranging power that allows the President to make any exception (other than impeachment) he likes, not just exceptions that involve the miscarriage of justice. The Framers thought it wise to soften the hard edges of the judicial system by giving a single human being the power to free another in almost any circumstance.

Personally, I think that Hamilton's logic is sound and his intuitions are accurate. Critics of this commutation should, I think, be more careful to distinguish between the constitutional power and this particular use of it.

Without commenting upon the validity of its critique, I think that the New York Times hits what may be called the "Hamiltonian note:"

[The demands of Bush's conservative base] put immense pressure on the president to do something before Mr. Libby went to jail. But none of it was justification for the baldly political act of commuting his sentence...

Presidents have the power to grant clemency and pardons. But in this case, Mr. Bush did not sound like a leader making tough decisions about justice. He sounded like a man worried about what a former loyalist might say when actually staring into a prison cell.

This critique is one that differentiates between the power and the act. It is surprising to me that so many other commentators have not been able to make the distinction. After all, part of Hamilton's rationale for putting the power in the hands of the President is that objectionable pardons can be directly linked to a single man. The pardoner is an easy target in our system. So, why can't the rest of the critics do as the Times has done: go after Bush, and leave the power itself alone?

-Jay Cost

Why the Fascination with Bloomberg?

Why is the media so fascinated with the potential candidacy of NYC Mayor Mike Bloomberg? Jonathan Alter argued the following over the weekend:

Mike Bloomberg is a long shot to be the next president. Even a trillion dollars couldn't change that. But Bloomberg's vast fortune and reputation for competent management may yet make him vice president.

Alter suggests that he would be a good fit on the Democratic ticket, which makes absolutely no sense to me. First off, as he notes, the 12th Amendment bars Hillary Clinton from picking him because they are both from New York state. So, he'd only be the veep if Obama selected him. And what of Obama? Alter writes:

And while an Obama-Bloomberg ticket would be Archie Bunker's worst nightmare, the presence of a highly successful manager as the chief operating officer of the United States would prove a big asset for Obama, Edwards or anyone else at the top of the ticket.

This seems to me to be a very bad fit. Regarding what Alter might call the "Archie Bunker Factor" - we can write it off, if we like, but that does not mean it would not be a factor. So, does it not strike you as a little risky for Obama? What's more, would this pick not alienate the left? How disappointed would the left - whose hard work in the field will be a requisite for a Democratic victory next November - be? Would this not alienate everybody in the Democratic Party - if Obama went outside the party to find a veep? And, more generally, are there no Democrats who have reputations as "highly successful managers?"

Here's a question I can't help but ask: who the hell cares about this guy Bloomberg? Is there anybody with a zip code that does not begin with "10" or "20"? I'm out here in 60614, and I gotta tell ya: I don't feel it. The fascination with him seems to me to be entirely with the media.

Why are they so nuts about this guy? I think that it comes from their perception that he has been successful in New York City, and their expectation that he could perhaps come to Washington and get things done. Return to the Alter quotation: "a highly successful manager." That is what they think Bloomberg brings to the table. He can manage the federal government and get things done, just as he did the NYC government.

I think this is a naive view. Washington is "not working" not because it lacks strong and effective managers. Washington is "not working" because it was designed not to work when there is an absence of political consensus, which there is right now. Washington "fails to work" more often than not because ours is a diverse nation with many competing interests, and our Founders feared the possibility that one interest might railroad another. They thought that the best way to preserve our republican form of government would be to make political change next-to-impossible without a political consensus.

Mike Bloomberg is not going to "fix" any of this. He would probably make the government less capable of "doing things" because he is not affiliated with either of the country's best chances for consensus building: a political party. Journalists and DC pundits, for as much as they love having stuff get done in Washington, ironically seem to despise the parties - which serve as the centripetal forces in our centrifugal system. If our Constitution disperses power across different branches of government, a major purpose of our parties is to organize and cultivate a caucus of similarly minded people so that coordination across branches might be possible. The parties offer, without question, our best chance at the kind of coherent, responsible government that journalists and pundits claim to love. Their purpose is precisely to build consensus - first among like-minded officials across branches, second among the voters in an electoral campaign, and third among a majority in government. By making a third party candidate president of the United States, you put a temporary end to the possibility of this kind of coherence. After all, everybody in Congress would want President Bloomberg defeated in the next election. Just how much does anybody think he would get done?

This whole Bloomberg fuss honestly does not surprise me. I have long thought that journalists and pundits systematically overemphasize the role of individuals in our system, and systematically underemphasize the role of impersonal forces like our federal structure. If our system is "broken" (which, incidentally, is an ideological point of view), it must be because the men and women currently running it are incapable; thus, we must find a new person to run it. What about all of the impersonal forces that have induced this "brokenness?" Why do we never see journalistic accounts of these?

And, more broadly, have journalists not thought that maybe Bloomberg has been as successful as he has because these forces, which are in plentiful supply on a national level, are not present on a city level? Our national politics is much more diverse than local politics, even the local politics of a diverse metropolis like New York. I know New York is diverse - but only the Congress is a place where a representative from San Fransisco, CA and Provo, UT come to work out their differences! What is more, the objectives of government at the local level are essentially agreed upon. Largely gone are the days when big cities like New York endeavored to be agents of social justice. Now, the goal of most governing officials is to run the city efficiently. On a national level, there are differences of opinion about basic governmental goals, let alone how to achieve them.

-Jay Cost

Campaign Finance Reform and Political Power

Former Federal Election Commission Chair Bradley A. Smith had an interesting article in City Journal, which makes a libertarian-esque case against campaign finance reform. In it, he makes the following argument:

Reformers...claim that reform gets rid of the political corruption that supposedly follows from large campaign contributions. Yet study after study shows that contributions play little or no role in how politicians vote. One of the most comprehensive, conducted by a group of MIT scholars in 2004, concluded that "indicators of party, ideology and district preferences account for most of the systematic variation in legislators' roll call voting behavior." The studies comport with common sense. Most politicians enter the public arena because they hold strong beliefs on public policy. Truly corrupt pols--the Duke Cunninghams of the world--want illegal bribes, not campaign donations.

As far as I know, all of the facts in this quotation are absolutely true. I have never seen any systematic evidence to indicate that contributions influence "roll call votes." However, is this the only way influence can be acquired?

Absolutely not!

In fact, if we look away from the congressional floor, and look instead to the committee level - we see something quite different. What we see are moneyed interests buying involvement, not votes. Moneyed interests spend resources to induce legislators to think positively about the issues they want them thinking positively about. In other words, moneyed interests exercise what I have, on this site, called the second mode of power. They help set the agenda. This is the argument of Richard Hall and Frank Wayman in their seminal article in The American Political Science Review called, "Buying Time: Moneyed Interests and the Mobilization of Bias in Congressional Committees." After testing their hypothesis, they conclude:

[W]e found solid support for our principal hypothesis: moneyed interests are able to mobilize legislators already predisposed to support the group's position. Conversely, money that a group contributions to its likely opponent has either a negligible or negative effect on their participation. While previous research on these same issues provided little evidence that PAC money purchased members' votes, it apparently did buy marginal time, energy, and legislative resources that committee participation requires. Moreoever, we found evidence that (organized) producer interests figured more prominently than (unorganized) consumer interests in the participation decisions of House committee members - both for a case in which the issue at stake evoked high district salience and one where it did not.

We should expect something akin to this. After all, if special interest money does not acquire special interests anything at all - why would they contribute so much? In other words, a rational view of interests groups induces us to expect that they get something from their contributions.

This is why the issue of campaign finance reform is not purely a First Amendment issue. Smith calls campaign finance reform a "war on political freedom." In some instances, I would agree with that. But, one such area in which you will find me in staunch disagreement is the issue of soft money. If AT&T and Coca-Cola could write $50 million checks and pay for each party's political conventions - as they could before the BCRA (the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, a.k.a. McCain-Feingold) - it seems to me that the overall effect is one that thwarts "political freedom." If these entities are "buying time," to what extent is the government not conducting the people's business, and thus to what extent do the people actually control the actions of the government?

Money dedicated to the purpose of electioneering is money that, if restricted, limits political freedom. On this, I do not think Smith and I would disagree. However, these large soft money checks were not dedicated to electioneering. These large corporations did not give this money so that the public could hear their views, or their favored politicians' views, in the public forum. Rather, they gave large quantities of money to both parties so as to avoid their issues being considered in the public forum. This undermines the very nature of our democratic process.

And so we see the bottom line. Smith offers several anecdotal examples of the outrages of campaign finance reform. And, believe you me, I am sympathetic to all of them. Quite frankly, I think the basic premises of the Federal Elections Campaign Act (the FECA, which the BCRA replaced in 2004) are philosophically misguided and socially detrimental. It is a bad law, and - by accepting the FECA's basic view of how campaign finance should be regulated - BCRA made things worse. [Personally, I think campaign finance reform should - though it never has - promote what scholars have called responsible party government.] Nevertheless, it is just true that there are some campaign financing activities that can and do undermine our political process. In those instances, the government can and should regulate it.

I count soft money contributions to the political parties as one such instance where the government should be involved.

-Jay Cost

Over-Interpreting Polls

I receive emails every so often from readers who ask me which polls I think are suspicious. Readers like these are near and dear to my heart, for theirs is a way of looking at politics that is similar to mine. Inherent to the question is the recognition that - with so much polling data out there, some of it is probably not good. We cannot just blithely use as evidence every bit of data we can get our hands on. Not all data is evidence.

My answer to the readers' question is usually, "few of them, and too many of them." My intuition is that few if any of the major polls make use of invalid methodology. Certainly, some skew in one direction, and some skew in the other direction. This problem can be ameliorated by averaging them, which is precisely what we do here at RealClearPolitics. At the same time, too many polls are over-interpreted by either the pollster who has created the poll, or the analyst who is using the data to make an argument.

What do I mean by "over-interpret?" This is what happens when you fall prey to the fallacy that all respondents in a poll know as much about politics as you do. If you are reading this essay, you are likely what I call an "informational elite," which means that there are major differences between you and the average poll respondent. It is not simply the case that he knows fewer facts about politics than you do, though this is most likely true; I'd wager that you could name at least half of the Supreme Court, while the average respondent will be lucky to get two. It is also that he does not think about politics in the same way that you do. He knows so much less than you that he must organize his political information in a way that, to you, would seem strange and inefficient.

For instance, we like to think of ourselves as an ideologically polarized nation. 33% of America is liberal, 33% conservative, 34% moderate. Not exactly! I would agree that these might be the percentages of people who identify themselves by way of these terms (when they are asked to). However, the percentage of people who make good and full use of the political ideologies we call "conservative" and "liberal" is much, much lower. I am not up-to-date on the latest research, but I have never seen a figure higher than 30%. That is, 30% of the whole public makes at least effective use of these ideologies to organize their political information (so, 30% ideological vs. 70% non-ideological).

This is what political ideologies do. They do many things, of course, but one thing they do is organize the information that we receive. Conservatives who are not experts on education policy "know" not to listen to Ted Kennedy when he argues for whatever education policy he favors. How do they, as non-experts, know that? Their ideology sets up for them a framework for looking at the political environment, and helps them make their way through uncertain situations. So, even if they are not experts in education policy, they know (a) their general philosophical position on the role of the government in something like education, (b) Ted Kennedy's philosophical position, (c) that Ted Kennedy's and their positions diverge. Thus, they can "filter" whatever Ted Kennedy is saying. Liberals can do the same with somebody like George W. Bush. Ideologies are not just a set of normative beliefs, they are also a way to structure and organize the political world.

The implication here is that because a large portion of the public is "innocent" of ideology, it therefore organizes the political world in a different manner. There are a multitude of organizational schema that you, as an informational elite, use that an average poll respondent - who has much less information than you do - cannot make use of. Ideology is one example of such a schema, but it is not the only one.

Thus, when you, as an informational elite, over-interpret a poll, you are falsely applying your organizational schema to the respondent. You interpret a question as you interpret it, and then you assume that every other person who was asked the question interprets it similarly. The consequence of over-interpreting a poll is that you improperly infer the implications of the poll's answer.

One such instance is Hillary Clinton's high negative ratings. This is once again in the news, thanks to Mason-Dixon. It recently found that 52% of respondents would not vote for Clinton. This is an instance where informational elites often fall prey to over-reading polling results.

What does this number mean for Clinton? I would agree that it means something. Obviously, she would be better off if her negatives were not as high. However, I think it is far too easy to over-read these results, i.e. to infer that this implies that she is not electable. If you inferred this from that poll, you were probably over-reading it. I counted at least four different ways to over-read the poll.

First, an informational elite knows all about the other candidates in the race. So, when asked if he would not vote for somebody, he can run a quick mental comparison between that candidate and the rest of the candidates in the race - and offer what approaches a definitive answer. The average respondent, on the other hand, is not capable of that kind of estimation. He generally lacks information about the other candidates in the race. A general election in this country is a choice between two individuals. An average respondent might be willing to say that he is not going to support Clinton, but he might not know enough about the other candidates right now to be able to warrant that his opinion will not change when given a choice between her and somebody else. Maybe he would in fact vote for Clinton if a candidate that he really does not like gets the Republican nomination.

Second, the answer given by an informational elite is probably not conditions-based. In other words, an informational elite usually has a very well-defined political ideology, and therefore has a party preference regardless of what is going on in the country. If the country is at war, a liberal wants a Democrat. If it is at peace, he wants a Democrat. If the economy is strong, Democrat. Weak, Democrat. And so on. The average respondent (at least the one who swings presidential elections) tends to lack this kind of ideological grounding, and so he might change his mind depending upon the conditions in the nation. There might be situations in which a voter who is innocent of ideology could feel that Clinton is the best choice, even if today he claims that he would never think that.

Third, an informational elite might understand the question differently than an average respondent. An informational elite hears that question, and he probably envisions a mental picture akin to the voting booth - in which he is looking at Clinton's name against any other Republican name, and asks what he would do. The average respondent might not see it in those terms. What terms might he see it in? I don't know - but consider the sharp definitions to the mental image that this question creates in the mind of the informational elite. In the mind of the average voter, the question might not evoke such clear boundaries to the mental picture, and thus the answer might not be as precise.

Fourth, an informational elite probably has a fully formed opinion about Hillary Clinton, whereas the average respondent probably does not. This means that it does not matter how much Clinton spends, she is not going to change the mind of an informational elite who does not like her. What about the average voter? Is he susceptible to a change of heart on Clinton? I would wager that the answer is yes - at least for enough of them. Granted, an average respondent knows a lot more about Clinton than he does any other candidate - so obviously, some elements of his opinion are fixed. However, his opinion of her is probably susceptible to some pro-Clinton alterations. After all, he still does not know all that much about her. He might be persuadable - especially by the hundred million or so Clinton would spend on the election. And so, his opinion now - before that hundred mil is deployed - is not nearly as fixed as the informational elite's opinion.

To fail to take these considerations to heart is to fall prey to a false analogy between you and the average respondent. This makes it much more likely that you will over-read the poll - that you will take the answer of the average respondent to be as fully-formed and clearly-defined as your own answer. Accordingly, you will be inclined to overrate the danger that these numbers pose to Clinton.

Obviously, this poll is not great news for her. It means she has some hurdles to jump. She has to change people's minds - and, as the Republican Party will be working very hard to keep minds as they currently are, she might not be successful. However, it is easy to read too much into this, to infer that this polling data is anywhere near decisive evidence against the viability of her candidacy.

-Jay Cost