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By Jay Cost

HorseRaceBlog Home Page --> August 2007

Michigan, Too?

Indeed, it appears that Michigan is going to move its primary foward, too. This is from the Detroit Free Press:

Michigan leaped to the head of the presidential primary lineup Thursday, setting a Jan. 15 election that could become the biggest primary in state history and a key battleground for the Republican and Democratic nominations.

But Michigan's move -- supported by large majorities in the state House and Senate and backed by Gov. Jennifer Granholm -- will almost certainly be countered by other states, especially Iowa and New Hampshire, which are intent on preserving their traditional primacy in the presidential selection process.

Assuming Granholm approves the measure as expected, Michigan -- for now -- would have the first primary and third nominating contest, behind caucuses for Wyoming Republicans on Jan. 5 and for both parties Jan. 14 in Iowa.

Lawmakers supporting the move said it was crucial that Michigan concerns be placed on the national agenda and before the presidential candidates as soon as possible.

"When they're making promises ... we want to make sure they're not just making promises to Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina," said state Senate Minority Leader Mark Schauer, D-Battle Creek.

Senator Schauer's comment is helpful in elucidating exactly what is going on here. I think it should also make clear why I have been so strongly in favor of the parties taking a clear and credible stand against these states.

The interaction between the states on the question of the primary schedule is a pretty straightforward collective action dilemma. Exactly what does that mean? Simply stated, it is a situation in which if all parties coordinated their actions, the group as a whole would do quite well. However, given the coordination of all and sundry, each individual actor has an incentive to "cheat" on the agreement. If everybody cooperates except that one actor, that one actor will do much better. He gets all the benefits of their cooperation without paying the cost of his own cooperation. However, because all actors have such an incentive, coordination is not sustainable.

It can be modeled by a simple prisoner's dilemma game. Imagine a primary contest consisting of two states. The states are deciding when to place their primary. They've worked out a tentative agreement in which they both agree to hold it on February 5th. Each of them must decide whether to cooperate with the agreement or to cheat and hold it on an earlier date. If both of them stick to the agreement, they each get five "utils" (a generic term used to denote benefit). If one of them cheats on the agreement, the cheater gets ten utils because his primary influences the other's. The one who sticks to the agreement therefore gets zero utils. Finally, if they both cheat on the agreement, they still get some benefit - two utils - but it is diminished because the early date has put undue pressure on their party, and also the influence of the contest on the nomination is now diminished because it is now so early.

In that instance, we could model the "game" in the following manner:

State Collective Action.bmp

[State One's choices are denoted by the rows, and its payoffs are the first numbers in the cells. State Two's choices are denoted by the columns, and its payoffs are the second numbers in the cells.]

In this game, the equilibrium position is the one in which both sides cheat. The reason for this is that, regardless of what State Two does, State One will always improve its utility by cheating on the agreement. If State Two cooperates, State One gets ten utils for cheating or five utils for cooperating. It therefore chooses to cheat. If State Two cheats, State One gets two utils for cheating or zero utils for cooperating. Again, it chooses to cheat. The same goes for State Two. Regardless of whether State One places itself, State Two should cheat on the agreement.

This is a collective action dilemma. There is a public good that will benefit all actors. However, it is in the interests of neither actor to provide the good. And so, the good is not provided, and the outcome is socially inefficient.

One of the ways to get around the problem of collective action is via a central authority that places penalties upon those who fail to do their part. This is why the IRS can arrest you. Your tax dollars go to the government, which uses them for the good of all (in theory, at least!). But, it would be in your individual interests not to pay - were it not for the IRS. You have a reasonable expectation that, should you withhold your tax payment, the IRS will come after you. Thus, it is in your individual interests to pay your taxes.

The DNC is serving a similar function regarding the states and the primary calendar. The punishments of the DNC - at least in theory - reconfigure the game into the following interaction.

State Collective Action with DNC.bmp

In this game, the equilibrium position is altered. Now, both states have an incentive to cooperate regardless of what the other side does. Thus, the DNC's role in doling out punishments can help achieve the socially beneficial result.

The question is: can the DNC actually do it? Can it recreate the interaction so that it is modeled by something like the second graph? That depends upon whether its threat is credible, which in turn depends upon it sticking to its word when it comes to punishing Florida (and, so it appears, Michigan).

-Jay Cost

Bill Nelson on Florida

Many of you probably read Bill Nelson's op-ed in today's USA Today regarding the decision of the DNC to "disenfranchise" Florida. He writes:

Four decades ago, our nation belatedly enacted a law to guarantee every U.S. citizen an equal right to vote.

It was said then there is no reason that can excuse the denial of this right.

It was true yesterday. It's true today. It will be true tomorrow.

Yet, the national Democratic Party last weekend decided the votes won't count in Florida's 2008 presidential primary.

It says Florida's earlier primary -- set by the Republican Legislature and governor -- would affect the sequence of contests in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina.

New Hampshire and Iowa likely will skip ahead. But instead of working to move South Carolina ahead about a week, party officials voted to strip Florida of delegates to the national convention. That means the country's fourth largest state will have no say in picking a Democratic presidential nominee.

The issue before us is simple: It's a case of fundamental rights vs. party rules.

Frankly, I find this unbelievable. To couch an argument for Florida's early date in the struggle for voting rights is laughable and insulting.

I received a few emails that went along these lines, so I suppose a response is warranted. Several points are valid here:

(1) Put the nominating process into historical context and you quickly lose any way to make normative arguments that draw upon the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Namely, primaries and caucuses were not major factors in the presidential nominating process until 1976. So, pray tell, how does the Voting Rights Act imply that Florida has some kind of fundamental right to the nomination of presidential candidates? I assume that Mr. Nelson will be filing suit on behalf of disenfranchised Floridians who were denied that right in 1968 and 1972. Or maybe, the use of the Voting Rights Act is simply a cheap rhetorical ploy to frame the argument on the best terms possible for the arguer, regardless of whether the framing is valid. Hmmm...I'm going to select Option B.

(2) Nelson's argument about having its votes "count" would be compelling if:

(a) Florida did not act first. But it did. It consciously and intentionally enacted a bill that it knew was in violation of the rules of both parties. It also knew that it may be punished for the action. It did it anyway. And let's be clear about Nelson's implied Republican railroading of the Democrats. The final vote in the Florida house was 118 to 0. It passed the Florida senate 37 to 2. And, of course, there is this little nugget of information, courtesy of the indispensable Green Papers: "On 10 June 2007, the Florida Democratic Central Committee voted unanimously to support the state's 29 January 2008 primary." The fact of the matter is that Florida politicians miscalculated. They thought the DNC would balk, and it didn't. Whoops. Now, they are trying to mobilize public opinion to make the DNC balk.

(b) This were really about having votes "count." In point of fact, it is not. It is about influencing the votes of others, and not having your votes influenced by others. That is, it is an issue of power - not equality and basic rights. Florida feels that standing at the head of the line gives it maximum effect on, maximum power over, everybody else. That's what the issue is. But, of course, saying, "Why can't Florida's votes influence the votes of other states?" is not full of those tried-and-true buzzwords that you need when you're a politician writing a guest column for USA Today. Arguing instead that it is about fairness is much more effective for this kind of venue.

(c) Its votes would not "count" if it followed the rules. But of course they would. If Florida were to hold its primary on February 5th, its vote would be quite influential. The problem is that it would only influence the 20 or so states that come after it. By moving its primary to the 29th, it gets to influence the voting decisions of about 45 states. In other words, the issue is not even about power versus powerlessness. It is, rather, about more power versus power.

(d) It were not the case that trade-offs must be made. But of course they must. Somebody has to go before everybody else. Why New Hampshire and Iowa? Well, here's a good reason. They've gone first for decades. Long before politicos really gave a damn about primaries, New Hampshire voters were lining up to cast essentially meaningless ballots for Estes Kefauver. If somebody has to go first, it seems to me that's as good a reason as any. The fact that Florida politicians chose to jump the line, and therefore disrupt the whole nominating process, seems to me to be good reason to place the state at the back of the line - which is basically what the DNC did.

(e) Nelson had been this worked about about matters back in May when final passage of the Florida bill occurred, trying to dissuade his state from adopting such a foolish and selfish law and warning them that the risks are too high. As my memory serves, he wasn't.

(f) Any of Nelson's ire was directed at the Florida legislature and Governor Crist - in an attempt to get them to amend the law. It isn't.

What Nelson is trying here is a rhetorical bait-and-switch. He wants to argue that it is a matter of fairness and of making votes count. But, in fact, it is exactly the opposite. It is about unfairness and making votes not count. It's about privilege and power. Nelson wants Florida votes to count at the expense of non-Florida votes, even though the rule makers decided in advance that this should not be the case and clearly publicized that consequences would be forthcoming for states that choose to break the rules.

-Jay Cost

Florida and the DNC, Continued

Yesterday, I discussed the DNC's decision to strip Florida of all its delegates to the 2008 presidential convention. I suggested that one of the reasons the DNC chose to do this was that it needs to mount a credible threat against states. Doing much less than what the DNC did would not have amounted to a punishment for Florida, and therefore a weak signal to other states.

But, one can't help but ask: is this indeed a credible threat? There are reasons to think not. Namely, what happens when Florida sends its delegates to the convention in 12 months, and those delegates demand to be included? What happens when the roll call of delegates votes is being conducted, and Florida is unceremoniously skipped, as though it does not exist? The DNC will look bad - possibly bad enough to change its mind.

The main property of a credible threat is that the person who is threatened must believe that the threatener will actually follow through. There are reasons to think that the DNC will not follow through. Namely, its reputation will be harmed just three or so months before the presidential election.

So, can it actually make good on the threat?

There are reasons that it should. Suppose that the DNC gives in to Florida next year. What happens in 2012 when it threatens states with punitive measures if they violate committee rules? Will states listen? Absolutely not. After all, states will have learned from the Florida fiasco that the DNC does not follow through on its threats, which are therefore not credible. Holding the line through 2008 means not having to hold it in 2012.

However, I wonder if this logic would be very compelling to an organization like the DNC. First, the time horizons of its leaders tend to be narrower than the leaders of other organizations. There will, at least in theory, be a new DNC chairman in 2009. And the 2012 convention will be his problem, not the current leadership's problem. Second, the goal of the national committee is to get a Democratic president elected, not to create an orderly and sustainable primary process. If it thought that excluding Florida would diminish its chances of accomplishing that goal, it would include Florida faster than you can say "flip flop."

Ultimately, I do not know whether the DNC will follow through or not. Fortunately for Democrats nationwide, Howard Dean is the chairman of the organization. Dean has an interest in building the party for the future, so if anybody can resist the temptation of the short run for the sake of long run viability, it is he. Unfortunately, Dean is not known to have a deft political touch - so he seems to have made the right choice, albeit clumsily.

And make no mistake - the DNC made the right choice in terms of its long-term interests. Allowing Florida to cheat this year will create primary chaos in 2012. This cycle is not crazy. It is just early and compressed. Crazy is when states move forward, and forward, and forward in a continual cycle where everybody tries to get to the front of the line. Meanwhile, this perpetual forward motion diminishes the benefit that all parties - states and candidates - derive from the primary. In other words, the issue of states scheduling their primaries is a major collective action dilemma that only the national party has the interest in preventing and the power to prevent. That is what is sitting in the background here. A good way to look at the interests of the states in relation the DNC and presidential candidates is to imagine water that wants to run downhill, but is prevented from doing so by a dam, which stops it from flooding the nearby village.

This is why it was entertaining for me to read columnists taking Florida's side while claiming the moral high-ground. Puh-lease. What silly, puffed-up Sunshine State boosterism. "Florida's important." Important enough to cut to the front of the line? Give me a break! Florida is cheating on the rules - and its decision to cheat could have had major collective consequences for all primary voters, not to mention candidates, unless the DNC stepped in. So, why blame the DNC? Did you ever blame your third grade teacher when he stepped in to discipline that annoying, unruly kid who always disrupted class?

-Jay Cost

Florida and the DNC

Late last week the DNC decided to strip Florida of all of its delegates to the party's 2008 presidential convention if the state goes ahead with its plan to hold its presidential primary on January 29

Roger Simon of the Politico reports

Florida will lose all its delegates to the Democratic National Convention unless the state moves its primary from Jan. 29 to Feb. 5, the Democratic Party decided Saturday.

While the one-week change may seem trivial to outsiders, the decision by the party's powerful Rules and Bylaws Committee was seen as a crucial test of party power and discipline.

As several states continue to elbow each other to go earlier and earlier in the 2008 presidential calendar, the Democratic National Committee decided to draw a line in the sand and say "enough."

Why is the DNC taking such a hard line? Obviously, it has an interest in the delegate selection process proceeding according to its bylaws. This punishment helps in that regard in two ways.

First, this punishment signals to other states that the DNC is serious - i.e. its threat is credible. By coming down so hard upon Florida, it cues to other states that their violations of the bylaws will be dealt with just as severely. If, on the other hand, the DNC decided to be "merciful" to Florida, other states would intuit that the DNC is not serious about enforcing its bylaws, and therefore they would start breaking them. A harsh punishment for Florida sends a clear message that the party is serious.

Second, and relatedly, this punishment may be necessary to sanction a large state like Florida. If the DNC were to do what the RNC did - and simply cut Florida's number of delegates in half - the Sunshine State would be left with a large enough number of delegates to induce candidates to campaign actively in Florida. And, as the intuition of most state leaders seems to be that early victories imply momentum and therefore later victories, this is not much of a punishment. Florida Republicans, for instance, still will have great influence on the Republican primary process. Even though their number of delegates is half of what they would be, there are still enough delegates up for grabs that candidates will come to Florida and compete about as intensely as they would had the RNC taken no action. Accordingly, the winner will get a boost going into February 5th - and therefore a victory in Florida implies later victories on the Republican side. The DNC is hoping that, by reducing the Florida primary to a beauty contest, it diminishes the importance of Florida enough to eliminate its capacity to generate any momentum. If no delegates mean that the candidates ignore Florida - the DNC will succeed in this regard. But leaving Florida with, say, half of its delegates gives candidates an incentive to come to Florida and compete, win, and gain momentum - and thus Florida goes effectively unpunished.

Personally, I think this is a dangerous strategy the DNC is pursuing. Too many pundits wrongly assume that both nominations will be decided by the results of February 5th. I think that is underdetermined. I think there is a fair chance that February 5th will produce a "split decision" - with major candidates from both parties surviving the day with strong bases of support. This could yield contested nominations at one or both conventions. Simply because this has not happened in the last few cycles does not mean that it couldn't happen this cycle.

I think that such an occurrence - a contested convention - is more likely to occur this cycle than in any cycle in recent memory. First, there are so many states that are voting on February 5th that momentum may not be as influential this year as it has been in the past. If those February 5th primaries were to be spread out over the course of two weeks, the later states could use the earlier states as a cue to who is "electable," and therefore converge around a single frontrunner. This will not happen to the same extent this cycle. The states of February 5th can only use Florida, Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, and South Carolina as their cues. If these five states split their support between several candidates, then there will be no real momentum for anybody - and those February 5th states will vote their first choices. This, in turn, might yield more than one candidate per party with enough delegates to keep on fighting after the fifth. Second, both parties are offering candidates with real policy differences between them. So, not only might candidates have earned enough delegates to keep on fighting after February 5th, they will also have issue-related reasons to do so. And, since half of the states will have voted by February 5th, a fight that goes past February 5th might be the type of fight that is only settled at the convention.

This is where the decisions of both parties regarding Florida could be trouble. What happens, for instance, if Obama wins the Florida beauty contest, finishes second at the convention, and the difference between first and second place is roughly the number of Florida delegates that Obama would have netted? What if Obama's second place finish is not as strong, but Edwards is willing to toss his delegates to Obama to avoid giving Hillary the nomination, and that Obama's Delegates + Edwards' Delegates + Obama and Edwards' Excluded Florida Delegates = Clinton's Delegates + 1 Delegate?

There are many different scenarios in which the exclusion of Florida's delegates would be of great consequence - and essentially all of them are negative. I am not saying that any of them are likely. But I am saying that if one of them did happen it would probably be terrible for the Democrats. It could yield a floor battle not fought simply over who is the better person to represent the party in the general election, but also over who has been treated fairly. This kind of fight over policy and process could be really, really messy. And, of course, the Republicans would quickly and gladly chortle that the Democratic nominee is "illegitimate," etc.

Like I said, I do not consider this to be likely - but remember that your expected utility from a given event is calculated by the probability that an event will occur multiplied by the payoff you will yield from the event if it occurs. This kind of "two-dimension" convention battle might be a low-probability event, but if it did occur, the payoff would be highly negative. This is why I think this was a dangerous strategy for the DNC to adopt.

And then, of course, there is the unseemliness of "disenfranchising" a set of voters who genuinely believe that they were disenfranchised in the last open presidential election. Without commenting upon the validity of anybody's impressions about the 2000 election - one cannot help but ask whether this is smart politics. Is Florida the kind of state that a party can afford to alienate? How many times are Florida Democrats willing to be pushed around?

Ultimately, I think that the DNC's answer to the problem that has gripped this cycle is an unnecessarily risky short-term solution to a long-term problem. These fights over delegates and primaries are happening, I think, because the convention system itself is antiquated and out-dated. The conventions were originally designed as the places where those empowered to decide the parties' presidential nominees came together to make a decision. This power has been transferred almost exclusively to the voters back in the states. The convention is now little more than a three-day political advertisement. And yet, the convention has been retained - in large measure because it is an event that the party still actually controls. Unfortunately, control over the convention is an inefficient and unwieldy way to exercise authority over the nomination process. But it is the only power the party really has left. And so, the DNC has been reduced to taking incommensurately punitive measures against a state as important as Florida. There is no other punishment it can actually deliver to Florida to get it to follow the rules.

Personally, I find this troubling. My intuition is that the events of the 2008 primary process could very well yield major reforms in the way presidential nominees are chosen. And, as I think the reforms of our democratic process in the last fifty years have generally done more harm than good, I fear that the reforms of 2009 will be just as bad. Reforms of our democratic process always seem to emanate from those who either hate the parties, hate political competition, or both (usually both). So, my guess is that sooner or later you'll see support for some piece of federal legislation that "solves" this particular problem of democratic process by reducing the role of the parties in that process. And, because the parties are this country's best chance for genuine democratic control over government, the reforms will end up making our system less democratic. That seems to be the way things have gone in the last fifty or so years - so, I don't see much reason to expect anything else.

-Jay Cost

More on Romney

I received an interesting email this afternoon from an reader named Adam, who had this to say about the column we ran yesterday:

The statement "an entire society existed in North America for centuries before and after the birth of Christ, planting crops, worshiping in a Judeo-Christian fashion, using an Egyptian-Hebrew hybrid language, riding chariots and smelting iron" isn't really what sophisticated Mormons who accept the historical reality of the Book of Mormon believe. So, in a sense, Romney's hypothetical about a question relying on a misstated version of transubstantiation is accurate. If Kennedy should not be held responsible for clearing up people's misconceptions about a vulgarized version of what Catholics believe, Romney shouldn't either.

You are wrong to say that Romney is implying that transubstantiation is obviously a false doctrine. I doubt he believes it, but he's making the comparison to the historicity of the Book of Mormon, which he does believe. You may (ignorantly) find belief in the Book of Mormon to be contemptuously stupid, but Romney does not, so he obviously doesn't mean to imply that belief in transubstantiation is contemptuously stupid by comparing it to belief in the Book of Mormon. The comparison he is trying to make is that non-Catholics generally hold the belief that transubstantiation is a contemptuously stupid doctrine, and even in its sophisticated forms its not scientifically demonstrable, yet JFK was not required to answer questions on the doctrine.

This is an interesting point. Though I think the reader unfairly characterizes my own opinions about the empirical validity of certain beliefs - he has done a good job characterizing the intention of Romney's statement. But, in yesterday's column, that was not what I was on about. I was on about the impression that he is making.

I've inferred that this reader is a Mormon - which is why I think he was able to tease out precisely what Romney was on about. Davis, according to this reader, has misrepresented Mormon beliefs. Fair enough, but non-Mormons do not know that. If Romney wishes to draw a parallel between Davis's question about Mormon views on ancient American history and Catholic views on transubstantiation that is predicated upon the premises of both questions being false - that might be a good strategy. But it only becomes effective if he makes it clear that Davis's question has a false premise. Otherwise, it makes it look as though he is not denying the premise of Davis's question, and instead responding by arguing that Catholics have beliefs that are equally invalid.

A better response would have been: "Mark, the premise of your question is off. And that's OK. There are a lot of misconceptions about what Mormons actually believe. But it is not my job to straighten that out for you or for anybody else. Imagine somebody asking John Kennedy in 1960 - "Hasn't transubstantiation been disproved by chemistry?" That's a question based upon a misconception of Catholic thinking on the Eucharist. But it wasn't Kennedy's job to correct the false premise. Look, I understand that people have questions about Mormonism, but I am not the person to ask. I'm not here to evangelize for the Mormon faith. If you want to know more about what contemporary Mormons believe, check out [Insert Author and Book Title Here]. But I'm here to talk about [Insert Campaign Rhetoric Here]."

This response would do exactly what I suggested he needs to do: drop the anger and add some good cheer and subtlety. Ultimately, it is a more respectful response because it recognizes that non-Mormons find Mormonism to be peculiar; they are naturally inclined to ask questions because they know so little; those questions are bound to come off sounding a little ignorant to those who do know much about Mormonism; and even though the questions might be out-of-bounds in our tolerant culture, they are nevertheless understandable and not deserving of an angry rebuke (especially from somebody who is asking for votes). And, importantly, it makes his position more clear - the chance of a false impression decreases dramatically precisely because he has, at least, said a little bit about his faith.

-Jay Cost

Evidence of McCain's Demise

After the wheels came off McCain's campaign back in July, many people declared that his candidacy was finished. For my part, I was less sure. Obviously, what had happened to McCain's campaign was very bad - but, on the other hand, candidates have bounced back from these sorts of problems in the past. What is more, it is still quite early.

I do not think this so much any more. Two pieces of evidence seem to me to be telling.

First, I did a Google Blog search on John McCain for the time period of 8/1/07 to 8/22/07. I came up with about 10,000 hits. Compare that to the 32,000 or so hits for Giuliani, and the 53,000 hits for Hillary Clinton. I ran the same search on McCain for the same time period in April - and came up with 30,000 hits. This is an indication that people are not talking about him nearly as much. And, I wager if one sifted through those 40,000 blog posts on McCain, you'd see a marked difference in tone about his prospects depending on when they were written.

Second, I've noticed that his opponents in the race are starting to praise him. Hillary Clinton went out of her way at the VFW meeting in Kansas City to do so this week. She called McCain "a great American hero." And of course, there was this.

This is not a good sign for McCain. Clinton would only praise McCain like that if she assessed that she would not face him in the general election. Giuliani sure as heck would not tell people that he'd vote for McCain if he thought that McCain was going to be a major contender for votes.

-Jay Cost

Karl Rove and the Partisan Worldview

Last week I wrote an essay analyzing the legacy of Karl Rove. My argument was that one of Rove's biggest problems - and indeed a major failure of this White House - was the failure to do all that could be down to control his and his boss' image.

I received more than a few emails in response to the essay. Many of them echoed the thoughts of this emailer:

I'm in direct disagreement with your attempt to present Karl Rove as a normal guy. Rove has a serious lack of ethics. He doesn't have sense of right or wrong as much as some ideas about the limitations of his power. With Rove the end has always justified the means. Ethically he is a mirror image of Richard Nixon. God help us if he is the common denominator of our society. Do you really believe that we have sunk so low? The best adjectives to describe Rove might be capable, vindictive and mean-spirited. He has screamed at people that he would crush them if they failed to do his bidding, he has boasted of spying on other campaigns, and he has run dirty campaigns such as the one which discredited John McCain. And apparently he has been undone by the nature of his character or he wouldn't be leaving in such a quick manner with little or no explanation.
I quote this at length not for its analytical insight. It is pretty much standard anti-Bush boilerplate. Rather, I quote it as a way to contrast this line of thinking with my own methodology here on the blog.

On this blog, I endeavor to adhere to what I call a "good faith assumption." What I mean by that is the following. It is, I think, impossible to draw inferences about a human being's character based upon his public persona, i.e. the set of data points that come to us through the media. We just cannot do it. We only get a tiny glimpse of a human being via the news. And, what is more, there are good reasons to believe that the person we see on TV or read about in the newspapers is quite different from the person who exists when cameras or tape recorders are not in front of him. And so, we cannot draw conclusions about a person's soul from the data that we glean from press reports.

So, where does that leave us? Well, I think it leaves us with the good faith assumption. I'll describe it this way. Most people with whom I am well acquainted are people who act in good faith most of the time. This is true even of the people that I do not like. Those people may have acted wickedly in an instance that has aroused my anger. They may even have some real moral flaws - but that does not mean that they do not generally try to do right by other people. It's the same for all of us. All of us are indeed capable of genuinely evil deeds from time to time. But, most of the time we act in good faith in our dealings with other people. Because I know this about people whom I know personally, it stands to reason that the same is true of people I do not know personally - in this case, political actors. Political actors might be less likely to act in good faith than, say, nurses. I am not sure - though I do know that the public has an unnecessarily skeptical view of politicians and their attendants. However, even if we were to agree that politicians are less likely to act in good faith than the average non-politician, we would still have to admit that most of the time they - just like everybody else - are acting in good faith.

Combining these two facts - limited data plus a priori knowledge of good faith - gives rise to the good faith assumption. Not only do I have good reasons to believe that politicos, just like almost everybody I know, are acting in good faith most of the time, I also lack a reliable dataset that speaks to their intentions. Thus, I should assume that, in whatever actions I observe (via the media) them do, they have acted in good faith. Surely, sometimes they do not. But, because my knowledge of them is strictly mediated, I have no way to differentiate good faith actions from bad faith actions. And I know a priori that most of their actions are in good faith. Thus, I should assume that all observed actions are in good faith unless I have compelling evidence to the contrary.

This is why the argument I quoted above does not do it for me. There is nothing more than whispers and innuendo masquerading as evidence in the emailer's excerpt. This is not enough. The good faith assumption means that people I do not know get the benefit of my doubt. They get this because I know, a priori, that most people are deserving of this doubt. And so, if my goal is to analyze political actors as accurately as I am able, I should assume that people I do not know are similarly deserving unless there is clear and compelling evidence otherwise. A few pseudo-documentaries occasionally run on the Sundace Channel are insufficient evidence in the face of this assumption.

Don't get me wrong, mind you. I am not being pollyannaish. The good faith assumption does not mean that I go into a situation assuming that all and sundry are angels. Not at all! For my analysis of Karl Rove, the good faith assumption means the following. I assume that Karl Rove is a political operative - nothing more and nothing less. Politics is a messy business - one that Americans inherently dislike. Rove is a partisan political operative who was engaging in the timeless tradition of American politicking. If he was a Democrat, Republicans would be screaming bloody murder about him just as Democrats are now. The reason, ultimately, is that Democrats think that only Republicans politick and Republicans think that only Democrats politick. Both sides are half right. Just like many professional Democrats, Karl Rove has been politicking lo these many years - not, I assume, undermining the very institutions of our republican democracy, etc. This is what one side always says when it observes the other side politicking.

I think that this, ultimately, points to why one needs to dislodge oneself of the psychological hold of political partisanship if one wishes to understand how our system actually works. This is not to say that one needs to stop voting, or that one needs to start splitting one's ticket. Both parties offer us reasonably clear and divergent policy alternatives. If one or the other suits you better, go with it. I do. This is also not to say that there is no such thing as right and wrong in politics. Dislodging oneself of the partisan worldview does not necessitate political nihilism.

Rather, it implies the following. Both political parties offer us a ready-made worldview, a lens through which we can look at our political environment and make sense of it. I take these worldviews to be the creations of electorally ambitious political actors whose goals are to acquire half plus one of the votes in the next election. These partisan worldviews are a means to these ends. Thus, they are explicitly crafted to induce us to political action. One way that we can be induced to political action (especially in a system, such as ours, that is usually "rigged" to prevent any single election from producing significant policy results) is if we believe that our political universe contains heroes and, of course, villains. The demonization of Karl Rove (and, for that matter, Hillary Clinton) is therefore part and parcel of a partisan worldview. Like I said, its purpose is to induce a response from us. It makes us mad. It gives us a sense of righteousness. And so on. That makes us more reliable party voters, or more generous party donors.

The problem with these worldviews is that they are morally and philosophically simplistic. Here, I am not talking about liberalism and conservatism - the two great American political philosophies. Rather, I am talking about "Republicanism" and "Democratism." These are philosophies as well. Both boil down to the idea that, in the great march of American history, our side is in the right and their side is in the wrong. Our side grasps the Truth - and the other side is filled with the ignorant who do not understand It, or the evil who deny It. Like I said, morally and philosophically simplistic. Accepting a partisan woldview gives us a ready-made answer to any and all political questions we might think to ask ourselves. However, it does not mean that those answers have much grounding in the complicated reality that is American political life.

If you're a partisan Democrat (i.e. one who embraces what I call "Democratism") - ask yourself if you know anybody in your personal life who is as evil as you think Karl Rove is. Or, ask yourself whether - when you got to know somebody you thought was that evil - you found out that he wasn't that bad after all. Maybe these are signs that people aren't really that evil, and that you have been offered and have accepted a worldview that really does not square with the world as you know it outside the time you spend consuming political information. Republicans can do the same, as I said, with Hillary Clinton. Really, do they make people that evil?

I would suggest that, when we start to embrace what I have been calling the good faith assumption, we start to see politics differently. Rather than an epic struggle of good versus evil (with our side, of course, being the good guys), it starts to look like a conflict between competing interests that is managed by a federated system that is animated by duly constituted elections that are fought over by political actors who do what political actors do: politick.

In other words, the good faith assumption is a step towards appreciating more fully exactly what Mr. Madison was on about when he wrote the following:

The latent causes of faction are thus sown in the nature of man; and we see them everywhere brought into different degrees of activity, according to the different circumstances of civil society. A zeal for different opinions concerning religion, concerning government, and many other points, as well of speculation as of practice; an attachment to different leaders ambitiously contending for pre-eminence and power; or to persons of other descriptions whose fortunes have been interesting to the human passions, have, in turn, divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to co-operate for their common good. So strong is this propensity of mankind to fall into mutual animosities, that where no substantial occasion presents itself, the most frivolous and fanciful distinctions have been sufficient to kindle their unfriendly passions and excite their most violent conflicts...The regulation of these various and interfering interests forms the principal task of modern legislation, and involves the spirit of party and faction in the necessary and ordinary operations of the government.
What we see as the great moral march of just crusaders led by our fearless party leaders against the evil and/or ignorant opposition, Mr. Madison seems to think of as a faction that, if left unchecked, would lead to the demise of true republican government. We should think about that when we get so frothy-mouthed by our partisan worldviews. Mr. Madison imagined us getting frothy-mouthed, and resolved himself to divide political power six ways from Sunday to stop us from ruining our fragile republican experiment amidst our frothy furor. What does that tell us?

The psychological embrace of a partisan worldview is easy and satisfying. Both partisan narratives are easy to understand. Each helps us make judgments about a whole host of things for which we lack direct referents. Each is psychologically satisfying. Few things in life are more pleasurable than righteous anger. However, neither is all that valid on an empirical level. Embracing one might enable us to identify one actor as good and another as evil. It might allow us to feel good about ourselves. But it will not move us any closer to the reality of our politics. In fact, it will move us further from it.

-Jay Cost

On the GOP's Recruitment Problems

A follow-up to yesterday's piece. If a party's political perils induce marginal members of Congress to step down rather than seek reelection, it also makes it much more difficult for the party to find a quality candidate to replace them.

The following is from Mike Allen's Politico playbook:

'Republicans scrambled to find a candidate for one of the nation's most competitive congressional districts Thursday as Rep. Deborah Pryce, nearly a casualty of the 2006 Democratic surge, announced that she would not seek a ninth term. Also announcing that he will not run for re-election in 2008 was Rep. Chip Pickering, a six-term Republican from Mississippi. Pryce, once the most powerful Republican woman in Congress, beat Mary Jo Kilroy last year by 1,062 votes out of 220,000 cast. Democrats are backing Kilroy, a Franklin County commissioner, in 2008. Republicans could have trouble finding a top-flight candidate for an open seat in the district. Former Attorney General Jim Petro, now a lawyer in private practice, said Thursday that House GOP leader John Boehner and others had approached him about running for the nomination. He said he would decide whether to get back into politics within two weeks. ... State Sen. Steve Stivers, another Republican mentioned as a possible replacement for Pryce, said Wednesday he had no interest in the job. ... Next year's race had already attracted the attention of outside groups, and phone calls targeting Pryce, mainly for her support of President Bush and the Iraq war, hardly took a breather after last November's election. Bush issued a statement Thursday thanking Pryce for her commitment to reducing taxes and strengthening the country's national defense.

Isn't it funny how the top two prospects for the GOP in OH 15 are just so-so about a seat in Congress? I can assure you that their reluctance is not because they don't want one. I am sure they would. So, why are they hesitant? Consider the reaction to the announced retirement of Charles Pickering in MS 03. This is Stuart Rothenberg, writing in Taegan Goddard's Political Wire.

Republicans are likely to retain the Mississippi Congressional District being left open because of the retirement of Rep. Chip Pickering, but that doesn't mean that Mississippi 3rd District voters won't see a competitive campaign.

Contrary to initial reports, Pickering will not resign his seat. Instead, he will serve out his term but not seek reelection. GOP insiders describe the district as overflowing with potential Republican candidates and expect a multi-candidate primary.

Where the GOP is guaranteed a win in the general, the party is going to have to beat back candidates with a stick.

What's the difference? Things are not looking as rosy in OH 15 as they are in MS 03. Thus, top-tier candidates are not interested in running in the former district, but they are in the latter.

Candidate recruitment is thus one of the biggest ways that national political forces affect local House races. Top-tier candidates are strategic. They do not want to run if they think they are going to lose. When the political winds are blowing against their party, they demure. When they are favoring their party, they run. This is what creates an imbalance in quality candidates - as the political winds are usually blowing in one party's direction. So far, we have seen indications that the Democrats are recruiting better candidates than the Republicans - which is an early indication that, at the least, they are well positioned to retain their majority.

This seems to be most true for the GOP in the Senate. Chris Cillizza writes today:

At this still-early point in the '08 cycle, it's hard to overlook the dearth of top-tier Republican candidates in potentially competitive Senate races. The best recruit on the board for Republicans at the moment is Bob Schaffer, a former congressman who is running for the Colorado Senate seat being vacated next year by Wayne Allard (R). Schaffer has a base in the state from his time in Congress and also has a statewide race under his belt.

The GOP cupboard is all-but-bare elsewhere. No serious candidate has emerged in Louisiana, South Dakota, Iowa or Montana -- states carried by President Bush in 2004. Extenuating circumstances are to blame in several instances: In Louisiana, the state's 2007 gubernatorial race is dominating the state's political world, while in South Dakota Sen. Tim Johnson's (D) recovery from emergency brain surgery has put the contest on hold. The national political environment isn't helping either, as President Bush and the war in Iraq continue to drive down Republican numbers.

Even so, the lack of "A" recruits is worrisome for a party that must defend 22 Senate seats in 2008. In order to avoid a landslide next November, Republicans must play offense in a handful of Democratic-held states. There is still time for Republicans to land major recruits, but the early returns are not promising.

This surely is a consequence of the negative political environment that Republicans are anticipating. Top-tier candidates Republican for the Senate are assessing that next year is not a good year for them to try to advance their political careers - and thus are not running.

-Jay Cost

The Peril of the Minority

Being in the majority in Congress provides one with a lot of perquisites. Some of them seem relatively small in the grand scale of things - like larger staff for majority members. However, these benefits can be of great consequence. Taken together, they add up to an advantage at the ballot box - the majority has the power to perpetuate itself.

There are many items that facilitate this power, probably the greatest of which is the capacity to set the agenda. That enables the majority to offer legislation that is politically beneficial to it. For instance, if it offers bills that unite its side and divide the other side, it can position itself well for the next election. This is also the case in the committees - which, of course, are controlled by the majority. On top of these very significant powers, the majority gets more staff, and nicer offices.

Yep - being in the minority stinks, especially when you are used to being in the majority. That's the worst way to be in the minority - to go there having been in the majority for most (if not all) of your congressional career. You get used to the perquisites, and now that they're gone, you're left wondering if this is worth it. Maybe you should retire...

This is what is concerning the Republican leadership these days. Now that the party is in the minority, and it looks as though it will be difficult (to say the least) for them to reclaim the majority next year, they fear that a large number of dispossessed Republicans will retire. Retirements yield open seat elections, which are more likely to be fought over the issues of the day, and which are more likely to have quality Democrats as candidates.

Those probably most likely to retire are minority members of the party with a long tenure in the majority and with the expectation of a tough race in the next election. Why should they run again? They might lose, which would be an awful way to end their congressional careers. And, even more importantly, they do not have all that much to look forward to if they win. They're used to the majority position, after all. For these types of members, there are lots of risks and precious few rewards. These types of retirements are particularly perilous for the minority party - as they almost assuredly give the majority party an advantage in picking up the seat.

This is why it must be disappointing news today for the Republicans to learn that Deborah Pryce is going to retire. Pryce is a fifteen year veteran of the House. And she fought one hell of a race last cycle to hold her seat in the face of a tough challenge from Mary Jo Kilroy. You'd have to put her in the same category as Chris Shays and Jim Gerlach - both of whom survived the Democratic triumph through sheer grit and determination. Ditto for Pryce, who rightly characterized that race (if memory serves) as a "knife fight." Hard, smart work kept her in Congress even as the Democrats were picking up seats as diverse as CT 02 and KS 02.

And now she's retiring. That is unfortunate for the Republicans. They probably would have lost OH 15 without Pryce on the ballot last year. And, the political winds will have to shift at least a little bit to give them a better than 50% chance of holding the seat now.

Pryce's departure indicates that the majority and minority positions are both, in their own ways, self-perpetuating. The minority party often has a hard time inducing members to run for reelection, thus endangering their already too-few share of seats. The retirement of Deborah Pryce is a case in point, and a severe blow to the GOP.

-Jay Cost

On Split Ticket Voting

The Argus Leader had an interesting article about split ticket voting in South Dakota. This is an anomaly I have noticed before. Why does such a staunch Republican state like South Dakota (or North Dakota, for that matter) vote Republican on the presidential level, but Democratic on the congressional level?

This is a species of a general question that has intrigued scholars over the last few decades. The reason is that Republicans, through the postwar era, have won more presidential elections - but by and large the Democrats have dominated Congress.

David Kranz notes the following about South Dakota:

South Dakota voters usually support Republicans for president. Only four times have voters here backed someone from another party. William Jennings Bryan, running as a populist and Democrats Franklin Roosevelt (on two occasions) and Lyndon Johnson defeated Republican nominees here.

So, do Republican Senate candidates running in a presidential election year benefit from the state's lopsided support for the GOP presidential candidate?

Since (1960), South Dakota has chosen a president and elected a Senator in the same year seven more times through 2004. (snip)

So what happened here in those eight years in which presidential and Senate races were on the same ballot?

Republicans were supported all eight times for president. Democrats won the Senate race four times. Republicans won the Senate race four times.

How to explain this?

Larry Sabato offers the following:

Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, tells me that he has seen trending since the early 1970s toward voter independence in such situations.

"Since then, voters have been increasingly willing to split their tickets. An example? None better than South Dakota," he said.

He uses 1972 when Sen. George McGovern of South Dakota was the Democratic Party nominee for president against Republican President Richard Nixon. McGovern was unable to carry his own state, but Democrat Second District U.S. Rep. James Abourezk ran for the Senate and defeated Republican state Sen. Bob Hirsch, filling the seat vacated by Republican Sen. Karl Mundt.

"We frequently see it because voters in America are increasingly independent and don't trust any political party fully. They don't want to give all of the political power to one party," he says.

Sabato calls it "a healthy American instinct" that plays out well here.

I think Sabato is on to something here, but the reality is more complicated than what is implied. First off, we have to distinguish between partisan voters who defect to incumbents (i.e. vote for the incumbent who is in the opposite party of themselves), partisan voters who defect to challengers, and pure independent voters. The latter category has been in decline in recent years - at least in Senate elections. Furthermore, partisan voters are, and have long since been, extremely loyal to incumbents of their party. The difference is in partisan defections to incumbents - these have always tended to be much higher, but even this has generally been in decline in the Senate since the 1990s (though 2006 might have seen a jump in the number). So, split-ticket voting is more complicated than a simple mistrust of the American parties. After all, voters tend to vote their party preference when the incumbent is of their party.

Of course, this is not to say that I disagree that party decline, in some fashion, explains at least part of split-ticket voting. I think it does. My point is simply that it is more complicated than this snippet makes it seem. If we are going to explain split ticketing by reference to party decline, then we will almost assuredly have to bring the unique role that incumbents play into the conversation.

Kranz offers another perspective:

Betty Smith, associate professor of political science at the University of South Dakota, sees this as another indicator that riding presidential coattails doesn't have much impact on voters

"It is a long history of South Dakotans electing Democrats to federal office and Republicans to the state offices," she said.

The state's conservative nature shows up during presidential elections, but voters here have a different criteria in the Senate races, she said.

"Congress and the Senate make decisions where some liberality can be an advantage to the state and to the taxpayers. South Dakotans are pretty smart when they make decisions. It is not a one-size-fits-all choice."

This is an idea that several scholars have advanced over the years. It's the idea of issue ownership. Republicans "own" certain issues that play well on the presidential level. Democrats "own" issues that play well on the congressional level.

Relatedly, others have argued that split ticket voting might be understood as strategic voters looking to create the precise mix of policy output from government. With a Republican president and a Democratic Congress, you yield a government that is moderately conservative - which might be quite appealing to the voters of South Dakota. Of course, this implies that voters have high levels of political information. They'd have to know which party controls Congress, what the likely outcome would be with divided government, whether that policy outcome suits their preferences, the likelihood that their vote will achieve their preferred result, and so on. This is a pretty hefty informational prerequisite. Many voters would not be able to make decisions like this because they do not know enough about politics.

The bottom line is that, while I would like to give a clear cut and simple explanation for split ticket voting, I can't. I don't know what the answer is. There are a lot of theories, none of which work perfectly well, all of which have their problems. I'd guess that split ticket voting is probably due to some combination of the decline of partisanship and the desire for policy balancing/issue ownership.

-Jay Cost

Some Thoughts on Rove

There has been a lot of commentary on the exiting of Karl Rove from the White House. This is not surprising. Over the last six years, he has been a powerful and polarizing figure.

At this point, I do not think it is possible for people to offer comprehensive assessments of him. The reason is that he is a partisan guy who had a partisan vision for the nation - one that he sought to implement. There is nothing wrong with this, but the fact of the matter is that his vision inspires in all of us some kind of emotional response. The thought of a permanent Republican majority akin to 1896-1932 induces some kind of reaction from you. And, my intuition is that analyses of Rove are correlated with those emotional responses. There has, in other words, been far too much praise and far too much condemnation of Karl Rove over the years. I think we're only going to get real about the politics of this White House when the stake that we all feel in the whole thing diminishes - which means, in turn, that analyses of Rove are going to be far from final for quite a while.

Accordingly, I'll just make two impressionistic comments about Rove.

1. Minimally, Karl Rove is going to be remembered as an innovative political campaigner. We all take integration of any kind for granted - but we should not. Bringing two disparate items together for a single purpose is very hard to do. Ultimately, it takes a lot of guts, vision, and (at least if you do it right) talent. Karl Rove was one of the key players in integrating precision marketing methods and computer-enhanced data analysis with the campaign for office. The result was one of the most effective voter mobilizations in the contemporary era.

In the postwar era, there have been an innumerable number of changes in the way that political campaigns have been fought. These have altered the role of the American political party. It used to be a mass party - in large part because it needed lots of average people participating so that the campaign could actually be waged. This mass party induced a great deal of participation in our system. Long before America had a modern government, it had a modern democracy in which the public was highly involved. But the rise of the contemporary campaign, most notably the introduction of television as a medium for communicating campaign messages, changed the focus of the party, which now needs expert consultants rather than a mass of volunteers. Thus, the party's role in voter mobilization declined.

Enter Karl Rove, Ken Mehlman, and the Republican apparatus. They took the technology and the sophisticated knowledge of marketing, statistics, etc - many of the things that swung the party from a mass-based organization to a media-based organization - and applied them to voter mobilization.

The political value of this cannot be underestimated. What is more, it is a good thing for democracy. The party used to be the entity that got people thinking about and participating in politics. We have lost too much of this in the transition to the contemporary campaign. Thanks in part to the efforts of Karl Rove - we've returned to a least a measure of what we once had. He made it a more central focus of the Republican Party to get people out to the ballot box. That is a good thing.

2. If voter mobilization and electoral strategy were Rove's great strengths, I think that one of his weaknesses was poor image management. Indeed, this is a problem from which the entire Bush White House seems to have suffered.

I do not think that Rove is the devil that the left has made him out to be. Again, I think it is simply a matter of conflict displacement. He's a partisan guy with a partisan vision that he is trying to implement. This vision makes some people happy, other people angry.

I think that Rove and the Bush White House have not appreciated just how angry they could make people with their vision for the nation - and just how much political damage those angry people could do to them in return.

Now, this is not a critique of their vision for things. Again, I am avoiding that subject because it is simply too hot right now. The point is that I do not think that they fully anticipated the response of their political opponents, and the possibility that those opponents could thwart them in their implementation of that vision by casting them in a bad light.

This is exactly what has happened to Rove, who is now wrongly a "devil" in the mind of many. This is a sign that Rove and the Bush White House allowed the former's image to be co-opted and used against the administration. They did not take sufficient steps to control and manage that image.

Could it have been controlled? I think the answer is yes. After all, there is no person in politics today about whom people are more hyperbolic. This is a sign of an image problem. Meanwhile, the White House itself is the greatest power source for the construction and maintenance of political images. The only way the president becomes more powerful than the ridiculously slender powers of Article II is through the creation and maintenance of image - and, accordingly, the institution of the presidency has developed an innumerable set of tools to develop such images (look at the White House itself, for goodness sake!). So, Rove had an image problem and the White House has the capacity to manage image problems.

This indicates that the Bush administration chose not to use those tools to manage Rove's image. Karl Rove was always just himself while at the White House. He should not have been. He should have been like a high-profile senator. He was a public figure with a public image that should have been managed. I think that the administration never realized that - as the President's chief political adviser - Rove's image would come under fire, and that this attack could potentially damage the credibility of the White House.

And this hints at what I take to be the central failure of the Bush administration. Its second term has vaguely reminded me of the tenure of England's Charles I, who thought that he possessed a monopoly of political power in the realm. He was wrong, of course. Eventually his government needed more money than his feudal estates could supply, and he had to come crawling back to Parliament, which was not too pleased to have been dismissed for a decade or so.

The problem of the Bush White House is similar. The Bush administration has failed to appreciate that, even though its party enjoyed control over two branches of the federal government from 2003 to 2007, it did not have a monopoly on political power. It failed to understand that the other side had tools in its toolbox that it could use against the administration. That's federalism for you. The minority is always down, but never out. It always has some power.

The vote at the ballot box makes one coalition or another a majority. But it is only through the careful application of political skills that the majority coalition governs effectively. Effective majority coalitions are effective largely because they disarm the other side. They recognize that there is rarely if ever a mandate at the ballot box - and that battles over policy must be won by out-politicking the opposition, even though the opposition is in the minority. For instance, effective governing coalitions use their power to set the agenda to pass bills that unite their side and split the other side. They solve the problems of the other side's constituency to peel away their voters. And so on.

What they should never do is inspire the other side to take up their arms or, relatedly, dishearten their own side. They should not unite the other side or divide their own side. They should be conscious of the fact that the other side is laying traps for them, and that they must be careful in all that they do and say. They must be aware that those on their side do not guarantee unconditional loyalty, let alone affection. Generally, they should recognize that the minority retains some power that can be used against the majority, and that politicking does not end when the votes are counted.

At least since the 2002 midterm, the Bush administration has not politicked very well. Bush's early domestic policy agenda seemed to me to take these basic facts into account. Ditto his early response to 9/11. But after the 2002 midterm I do not think that the administration believed it had to play this kind of politics anymore. It stopped appreciating just how much its actions could inspire its political opponents to come after it, and just how many powers the minority possesses to facilitate the attack. Accordingly, it walked into trap after trap. Time and again - Iraq, Katrina, Harriet Meyers, Dubai, the Attorney General, Social Security, immigration - the White House has displayed a political ineptitude that is explicable only by the fact that it feels as though it need not play politics. The Bush administration is in the weakened position it is in now not just because the voters weakened it in November, 2006. It is weakened also because the opposition, which was in the minority before November, had done a good deal of damage to it before the midterm. The minority managed to turn the White House into a target of the public's ire - at least partially because the White House allowed this to happen by believing that it was somehow above politics.

The failure of the White House to manage Rove's image is part and parcel of this general failure to respect the power of its opponents. The White House allowed the opposition to recast in its own terms both Rove in particular and the administration in general because it did not respect the opposition's ability to do that. Today, the administration is paying the political price for this failure: its only source of power now is that ever-so-slender Article II.

-Jay Cost

(Over)Analyzing Ames

Well - the Ames Straw Poll has once again come and gone. Huzzah! And, as we all know now and as we all expected, Mitt Romney had a big win.

Whatever. I think that the straw poll is largely one of those media-created phenomenon. It is a product of the media's desire to find a story in August when there is just nothing happening. This is not to say that it does not have value, but it is to say that its value has been greatly overestimated.

I hate to be a spoil sport by pointing out the following. In the four previous straw polls, only once has the clear winner of Ames gone on to win the nomination. And, more importantly, only twice has the clear winner gone on to win Iowa. So, I'm not putting very much stock in these results - though I would not deny that this is all great publicity for the Romney campaign.

The coverage of the straw poll is thus more evidence of the press' tendency toward Type I error. Type I error is the error of the false positive, i.e. the error of identifying something that does not really exist as existing. I believe that the incentive structure of the press - namely the demand of the news cycle for "news" every day regardless of whether there is real news to put out - is what systematically induces this bias. The press is always and everywhere compelled to over-report events, to over-estimate the importance of the events it reports on, and to over-think about the implications of those events. They have to. There is time and space that needs to be filled with "news," whether the news is real or not.*

The response to Ames is an excellent case in point of this systematic methodological error.

I'll just make three observations about this exercise in news creation:

(1) My hat is off to the Iowa Republican Party. What a fundraising coup they have managed to put together for themselves!

(2) When John McCain and Rudy Giuliani decided to drop out of the race - nearly every journalist or pundit who saw fit to comment upon their demurrals boldly proclaimed that the straw poll is accordingly rendered meaningless. Interestingly, nearly all of those same journalists and pundits were in Ames over the weekend, or writing afterwards about the meaning of the vote. Do we require further proof of the existence of this Type I error? The Ames contest thus recalls to my mind one of the major problems with mainstream media analysis of politics. Nobody remembers anything they wrote or said previously, nobody is "keeping score," and thus nobody is making good use of their past mistakes to learn how to get things right next time. Karl Popper would be most disappointed.

(3) Too bad for Mike Huckabee. To do better than expected, but not to beat a top-tier guy in so doing.

* - Unfortunately, the press' tendency toward Type I error is matched only by its tendency toward Type II error. Type II error is the error of the false negative - or failing to identify as existing something that does in fact exist. The press makes robust use of this error, too! For the nature of the press' incentive structure means that it systematically fails to appreciate fully any causal factors that have any kind of permanence. Political events of today are overcaused by the events of yesterday and undercaused by the events of the last decade.

-Jay Cost

Why Spend Money Now?

This story from CQ Politics struck me:

Despite frequent statements by President Bush and his political allies that U.S. troops are making progress in the Iraq war, the conflict remains highly unpopular among most Americans. A CBS News-New York Times poll conducted July 20-22 showed 69 percent of respondents disapproved of Bush's handling of the war, and 66 percent said the war was going somewhat to very badly.

And Democratic strategists for the 2008 congressional elections clearly believe Iraq is an issue that works to their party's benefit -- as underscored by radio ads, calling for a "new direction" in Iraq, that the Democrats' national House campaign organization is running during the August congressional recess in 12 districts represented by Republicans who are being targeted for defeat next year.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) on Wednesday began airing radio ads during "drive time" in the 12 districts. These include Connecticut's 4th, where veteran Republican Rep. Christopher Shays narrowly survived tough races in 2004 and 2006 against Democrat Diane Farrell in which the incumbent's support for Bush's Iraq policy was a central issue.

Reid Wilson covered this yesterday at the RCP Blog, noting that the NRCC is spending money as well.

What's going on here? Is this not ridiculously early? Well - yes and no.

Yes insofar as these ads are not going to be what convince people to vote for the party running them.

But the answer is also no. Congressional contests only become competitive when challengers emerge who can make them competitive. They can raise funds, they can put together a quality campaign organization, and they can offer the public a well-crafted message.

Unfortunately - in my opinion - there is only so much the party can do in this regard. The party can offer lots of help to candidates who have reached a certain threshold of competitiveness. However, the limitations of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act make it so that they cannot make a non-competitive candidate competitive.

And so, recruitment is incredibly important. The parties need to find candidates who can do a good bit of the campaign prep stuff on their own. They are both working very hard right now to induce candidates who could make a quality run to run. This is harder than it sounds. Lots of candidates run just for the hell of it, or to promote an issue, or something like that. But quality candidates run because they want to win. And if they think they cannot win, they will not run. This is why the Democrats had many more quality challengers than Republicans did in 2006. Quality Republican challengers decided to refrain because they wanted to win, and they assessed that 2006 was not a year for them to win.

These ads can serve both parties' recruitment interests. What these ads do is soften up these incumbents' approve/disapprove numbers. Both parties can then take private polls and show them to would-be challengers, arguing, "Look at these numbers. And this was just after a few thousand bucks on radio ads. Imagine what we could do to him/her next year!" This will make quality challengers more likely to get into the race because they'll start to think that victory is more likely.

And for the races in which the parties have already recruited a quality candidate - the ads can help in fundraising. The polling taken after the election can be shown to would-be donors as a way to convince them that the party's candidate can win if they just write that nice check.

-Jay Cost

Comment from a Reader

In regards to my column on Wednesday, I received this very thoughtful email from Robert:

Can a candidate inoculate themselves against being known *as* a politician by becoming known *as* something else -- particularly if that something else is an emotionally charged identity? Is that part of the success of say, Ronald Reagan and Arnold Schwarzenegger: that the psychological and emotional box on their identity sheet was already checked off as "actor." I think this is as good an explanation as I've seen for a recurrent theme in recent politics of the already famous non-politician having rapid success.
I think this is an intribuing point. The parties are often interested in recruiting Actors, Atheletes and Astronauts because of their name recognition, and - I would think - the reason Robert outlines here. The public might be more hesitant to identify them as a politician, even though they are running for political office. This can help them in their initial quest for office. It might also help them retain some measure of credibility as the years go by and others in their position would come to be known as politicians.

-Jay Cost

Primary Chaos?

That's the question that a lot of people seem to be asking today. All of this comes in the wake of news that South Carolina is set to respond to Florida's early primary date by moving the Palmetto State's primary forward. This, it is expected, will push New Hampshire forward - and then it will push Iowa forward.

How will this change the primary dynamic?

I have no idea. How could I? To determine how something will be changed, you need two items: (a) a baseline estimate of how things currently are, (b) data of some kind that allows one to reasonably estimate what the change will imply.

Importantly, we have no baseline. Even before this recent spate of events, we were still dealing with an entirely new primary schedule - and thus had no way of knowing exactly what was going to happen. How, then, can we know what will happen if the schedule is changed again?

Of course, this has not stopped people from trying to map out the implications of the change. John DiStaso from the Union Leader writes this morning:

If South Carolina Republican Chairman Katon Dawson sets his party's primary date for Jan. 19, 2008, as UnionLeader.com and news Web sites in South Carolina and Washington reported as a strong possibility yesterday, it will set off a chain reaction that could leave caucus-goers in Iowa voting on New Year's Eve or perhaps even before Christmas this year. If so, that would seriously hurt Iowa's impact on the nominating process. Its "bounce" would pretty much go flat.
Whoa! "Pretty much go flat?" It's a bit early to say that, isn't it? I can think of many scenarios in which an early Iowa is all the more important. Maybe if Iowa offers up a big surprise (e.g. Hillary in third), pundits will be left with no real news over Christmas, so they'll just keep reviewing the results again and again.

This is what the the Washington Post predicts:

But some political consultants who are veterans of national campaigns say that shifting the calendar does not change the basic equation: The winners in Iowa and New Hampshire will gain momentum that could overwhelm their rivals in subsequent primaries.

"Moving the primary calendar three weeks doesn't make this process any more democratic or change the outcome," said Stephanie Cutter, who served as communications director for Democratic candidate John F. Kerry in 2004. "It just means that the front-runners will run the table that much faster."

So, we have two major newspapers making diametrically opposed predictions. Iowa becomes more important or Iowa becomes less important. This is a sign that we simply do not know enough about the landscape to make a judgment - and, accordingly, people who are judging should just keep quiet.

This, I think, is the real story. This is from WaPo:

The calendar changes are infuriating senior strategists for presidential candidates in both parties, who say it is forcing them to plot a path to the nomination through quicksand. The uncertainty is holding up decisions about where to campaign and to devote resources.

Bingo. Information is an unequivocal good for candidates. The more they know about the environment, the more they can develop strategies to maximize their chances of success. Knowledge cuts down on risk. And South Carolina et al. are making all candidate strategies more risky by not setting clear dates well in advance.

This is the sort of stuff that campaign managers think about. Strategy sessions are not like the Meet the Press round tables where everybody just sits around all puffed up on the pretensions of being Washington pundits offering up a bunch of meaningless jibber-jabber. Electoral politics has much in common with the marketplace - and smart strategists know that. It does not surprise me that the best analysis about the shift comes from inside campaigns.

-Jay Cost

On "Hillaryland"

The recent issue of the New York Magazine has a great article, which we featured on the site yesterday, about Hillary Clinton's inner circle - what has come over the years to be known as "Hillaryland." The thrust of the piece is that Clinton's closest advisers have created a highly efficient campaign operation that is ultimately based upon loyalty. Michelle Cottle writes:

In the era of the YouTube election, in which every campaign stumble has the potential to become a "macaca moment," the pressure on candidates to keep an iron grip on their image is extreme. Quirky, let-it-all-hang-out romps like John McCain's straight-talking quest for the Republican nomination in 2000 may be charming, but tight-lipped, brutally disciplined efforts like George W. Bush's 2000 and 2004 runs are the stuff of which legends--and presidents--are made.

Among the 2008 field, no one recognizes this reality more than Hillary Clinton, whose every word, deed, and hairdo of the past fifteen years has sparked bitter national debate. Not coincidentally, she has spent this time assembling a network of advisers who share her views on loyalty and discretion. "Hillaryland," as the members of this mostly female clique call themselves, is less a campaign entity than an extended sisterhood defined by its devotion to its namesake. Even so, the group's protective ethos dominates her presidential campaign, where loyalty is demanded, self-promotion frowned upon, and talking out of school, especially to the press, punishable by death. (Just kidding--though staffers point out that the campaign's Arlington, Virginia, headquarters is in a former INS detention facility that still has cells in the basement.) If any campaign has a shot at Total Message Control in '08, it is Team Hillary.

Organizational excellence is probably not a necessary condition for a winning presidential campaign. I can imagine some circumstances in which a poorly organized candidate still wins the presidency. Nevertheless, it is pretty darned close. And there is no doubt that Clinton's organization is excellent. Cottle raises comparisons to Bush-Cheney '00 and '04. I think these are apt. They are also not coincidental. Strong presidential organizations seem to me to be highly correlated to the personal discipline of the candidate himself (or herself). Hillary Clinton and George W. Bush are two of the most disciplined campaigners ever.

This article comes as no surprise to me. Probably not to you, either. Generally speaking, the press is much more inclined to analyze Clinton from a tactical point of view. Now, of course, they do this for every candidate. Many decisions that each candidate makes are viewed through the framework of electoral maneuvering. "Why did he say this?" asks the moderator. "Because it will help him with this constituency," answers the panelist.

However, I have had a very strong impression over the years that - even though this happens for all candidates - there is an emphasis on the tactical when it comes to analyzing Hillary Clinton. There are, undoubtedly, a lot of reasons that explain this. I think that some of it is explained by the fact that she does not convey a naturalness on the stump, and that this heightens pundits' awareness of the artifice of the campaign.

But most of it I think is due to the fact that we all know Hillary Clinton pretty well. The right has villainized her over the years - but the fact of the matter is that she's really no different than any politician. She's no more cloying, no more crafty, no more tactical (though she may be better at tactics than other pols). She's a left-leaning politician. No more, no less. The real difference is that we know her so well that - unlike most other politicians - we see her as a politician. It's been 15 years since that famous 60 Minutes interview. That's a long relationship. When you've been with somebody for 15 years, it becomes really hard to be surprised. You know all the tricks and all the secrets. Any politician who has been widely known for 15 years is one that the public has probably developed a good read on.

The Clinton candidacy approaches, I think, the center of a very complex and centuries-long relationship that the American public has had with its politicians. The public is generally skeptical of politicians. They see them as crafty, cloying, doing whatever it takes to win, and so on. This is a necessary consequence of representative democracy - which has to find a way to overcome what rational choice theorists call the principal-agent problem. How does a principal, in this case the electorate, get the agent, in this case the elected official, to do what the principal wishes? Well, psychologically speaking, the principal has to be suspicious of the agent. And, over the years, the American public has generally come to understand that, at least at the margins and sometimes altogether, their elected agents don't do the business of the principal, but rather their own business. That's not to say that all politicians are crooks - but it is to say that it is inevitable that politicians inject, in some way, private concerns into a public office. It does not have to be something evil like "pay to play" - it could be something as simple and common as pandering for votes. Even the act of concern for your own reelection is a private concern that non-politicians can easily find alienating. So, Americans are rightly skeptical of all politicians. They have a good read on them as a type of person.

But, it is not always the case that individual politicians are identified in this light - even though they could be. For instance, the right and left lionize their own sets of politicians in ways that obscure the fact that they were politicians who did what all politicians do (and what we non-politicians do not like). That is a sign that there can be a disconnection between our abstract knowledge of politicians as a class and some of the individuals within that class.

This matters a great deal in a presidential election. I think most voters know that any presidential candidate is a politician. In other words, we can connect the dots and logically deduce via an Aristotelian syllogism that any presidential candidate is crafty, etc. "All politicians are looking out for themselves / John Smith is a politician / Therefore, John Smith is looking out for himself." However, just because we can know that the candidate is a politician does not mean that we know the candidate as a politician. There is a difference - one that the ever-burgeoning labor pool of professional campaign advisers is there to exploit.

How else is it that every member of Congress runs against every other member of Congress? "They're all bums...but me!" That line works very well. Why? It is not for logical reasons. Aristotle's methodology is sound. It is for psychological reasons - that is, the syllogism does not always impress itself onto our psyches. That is the only way we can carve out ad hoc exceptions to what we know is a general rule about politicians. It is not logic that induces us to see a particular politician as something other than a politician; it is emotion.

And, because the force of this ad hoc exception is emotion, not logic - it can dissipate. Usually, all it takes is time. Sooner or later, the public will catch on just how "political" the politician is. And so, the longer a politician is in the public eye, the more difficult is it for he or she to sustain the exception. In other words, he stops being seen as "our great leader who is looking out for us," and instead becomes, "just another pol." This is one reason why I think presidents have such trouble in their second terms. We're all on to their shticks by year six or seven. We've known them long enough that we see them as they are.

This is a potential weakness for Hillary Clinton. We have known her for so long that we now know her as a politician. There is no candidate in the race who has been under the kind of public scrutiny that Hillary Clinton has been under. In point of fact, only Richard Nixon, Franklin Roosevelt, and Teddy Roosevelt have received such sustained and intense national attention in the last 100 years. The public knows all about Mrs. Clinton - and we know her to be a politician. There is no emotionally based illusion with her - as there is for most victorious presidential candidates.

So, knowing this, can we still vote for her?

I don't know.

On the one hand, I could see the answer being no. We know that both Clinton and her opponent are politicians. But we know only Clinton as a politician. The other candidate manages to create the impression that he is the hope of the next generation and so on. And so, there is an illogical, psychological pull toward her opponent.

On the other hand, I could see the answer being yes. We know that Clinton and her opponent are both politicians. And, while we know only Clinton as a politician, we come to appreciate her honesty. At least Clinton is clear about being a politician, we think. With Clinton, we know exactly what we shall get. There are no surprises. Ironically enough, she's the honest one.

I do not know how to arbitrate between these scenarios. I do know that anybody who gives you an answer to that question is selling you a cat in a sack. Knowledge only comes from one source - trial and error. And the fact of the matter is that, on a question like this, there has never been a trial. We have never had a candidate like Hillary Clinton run for the presidency - not in the media age in which the public is placed in intimate contact with politicians and can come to learn all kinds of messy details about them.

So, we'll just have to wait and see.

-Jay Cost

Who Benefits from This Early Campaign?

As regular readers know, I have been interested for a while in the novelty of this presidential campaign - particularly, how it blossomed so quickly into a full-fledged contest.

My interest in this has induced me to think about why this has developed. And, as a "rat choice" kind of guy, my intuition is that the early start date is in somebody's interests. But whose?

The weekend's spate of news articles on presidential wives was, I thought, a fairly good answer to the question. There were two in particular that I thought made the point - first was the Washington Post article on Jeri Thompson, second was the New York Times article on Judith Giuliani.

These articles indicate very clearly that the press has an interest in this extended political campaign. August is a slow month for political journalists and pundits. Congress - the center of American political life - is on vacation, after all. So, there is not much to cover. In times like these, a moderately scintillating article about a candidate's attractive wife alienating his closest advisors fits the bill just perfectly. This kind of campaign "news," in other words, is almost entirely manufactured. But what else are press outlets to do? There is little-to-no news going on right now, but the space and time must be filled.

So, the press has an interest in creating a story where there is none - a story like an intense political campaign six months before the first primary. Most of the campaign news we read about is thus manufactured to fill all of the space and time - although it often seems like it is real news. Between the press and the blogosphere that comments upon what the press does, an echo chamber effect is created. When thousands of people are reading and writing about political "events," it is hard to remember that the events are just "events." When people are doing polling in August 2007, and everybody is parsing and analyzing them, it is hard to remember that voters are not paying much attention; and therefore that saying, "the polls can change" is not simply a platitude you say when your guy is losing, but a necessary epistemological orientation.

Of course, the candidates have a say in the timing of the campaign - so it must be in their interests to have such a long campaign, right? I think the answer is yes - though I am sure many candidates felt pressured to start earlier than they had wanted to. Fred Thompson might prove that being the last one to the dance is the best way to arrive - but I think most would agreed that being the penultimate arrival is a lousy way.

However, there is a lot of value that candidates can derive from starting so early. I look at this campaign season as football preseason. Preseason has absolutely no bearing upon the regular season, let alone the playoffs; nevertheless, it is an excellent opportunity for coaches to try out schemes and players to find formulae that work well. It's an opportunity to work the kinks out without any consequences. Anybody who watched the Steelers / Saints game Sunday night would be foolish to think that the latter's tepid performance means anything for the regular season. The Saints are going to get their act together - and that is what the preseason is all about. It gives them an opportunity to discover what they need to tweak without damaging their playoff prospects.

I think this metaphor translates to presidential campaigns quite well. Candidates have an opportunity to refine their messages and organize their staffs. They can work the kinks out. If their operations are not working well, this "precampaign" will expose the flaws - without the negative consequences that would come had the problems been exposed closer to Election Day.

A case in point is the Judith Giuliani story from the Times. A prospective first lady has to play the "proper" role in a presidential campaign - and there is additional pressure upon Judith Giuliani because of her husband's marital history. The Giuliani campaign's first role for her was not very good - and back in the spring she received more than a little bit of bad press. But this was actually great for the Giuliani campaign. It gave them an early indication of what was not working - so, they could adjust in advance of the real campaign. What's more, the adjustment was penalty free; they got some flack in the press at the time, of course - but voters are not paying attention, so they could learn that the old way wasn't working without paying for it with votes. The adjustment seems to be working. While the recent Vanity Fair article was very harsh - the Times piece was much more charitable to her. It sounded a generally positive note on how her role has changed. This is a sign that the Giuliani campaign has adjusted to the earlier criticisms so as to blunt later ones.

The Vanity Fair article, while it is negative and recent, actually reveals another advantage to starting early. As long as she does not make any further missteps, stories about Judith Giuliani that follow the Vanity Fair hit piece might very well become "old news" - five months before the first votes are cast. If you start early, you can "bait" the press - which is desperate for stories now - into publishing all of the unflattering stuff it can find out about you months before the campaign really starts.

The biggest potential beneficiary from this early start could be - as I have said before - Barack Obama. However, his campaign does not seem to me to be learning much from the precampaign. I - like most of us - have noticed flap after flap after flap. From an electoral perspective, I think Obama can still recover from these mistakes. Voters still are not paying all that much attention - and while Clinton's lead in the national polls has increased, it remains to be seen whether she can sustain it in the face of his $50 million primary campaign onslaught. But Obama's campaign seems not to be learning from its mistakes because it keeps making them. I have long thought Obama could really sell in 2008 - but that has always been predicated upon the campaign becoming efficient and...well...mature. I just don't see that yet. If I were an Obama supporter - I'd be very nervous that, after six months on the campaign trail, my candidate still feels that he can go on the record and say, "Scratch that." As if the journalists who are recording his words won't be all the more likely to publish them!

-Jay Cost

On the Presidential Spouse

I read with interest this weekend's Washington Post story that detailed Jeri Thompson's role in her husband's campaign.

One of the premises of this story seems to me to be deeply flawed. This is what the Washington Post had to say about Thompson:

Even before her husband's campaign is official, Jeri Thompson has had her share of publicity. She has had to fend off insinuations about her age and good looks -- including a New York Times reference to her as a "trophy wife." And some advisers inside the Thompson campaign have anonymously criticized the strong hand she has taken in running it.

Campaign sources described Jeri Thompson as firm, straightforward and assured of what she wants to do, but unfamiliar with the nuts and bolts of campaigning. Many decisions have been held up awaiting her approval, they say, from routine matters such as travel schedules and car manifests to weightier ones including direct-mail efforts, personnel choices and the timing of the campaign kickoff.

One person directly familiar with the campaign said Thompson was the architect of the strategy to portray her husband as the true conservative in the race. The source said Thompson works mostly from the couple's home in McLean, "running the campaign from the kitchen table." She frequently calls aides and demands answers quickly. "Everything for her is at Defcon," the source said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the person was not authorized to speak on behalf of the campaign.

We have seen a lot of stories like this - and, generally, presidential spouses tend to receive flack for being too highly involved (unless, of course, the spouse is Bill Clinton - in which case the involvement is celebrated). I think this misunderstands the very important advisory role that spouses can play.

The implication here is that Jeri Thompson is doing a job that is far above her pay grade - and that her misunderstandings are gumming up the works. First off, we should ask, does this not seem likely to be an exaggeration proffered by advisers with their own axes to grind? With all due respect to campaign professionals, what they do is not exactly rocket science. Jeri Thompson has a college degree and more than a few years working for the GOP in Washington. I am sure that she is not creating that many headaches - or, if she is, the headaches are being ameliorated by the genius strokes she has from time to time (like pushing for Thompson as the "true conservative" in the race). This part of the story obviously originated from irked campaign professionals, who therefore are probably...overreacting.

But I'll grant that she is working somewhat above her pay grade. Why is Thompson making such use of her? Why, more generally, do lots of presidential candidates make such use of their spouses? Thompson, really, is not the first. Ronald Reagan made great use of Nancy. John Kerry made great use of Teresa. And of course, Hillary Clinton is claiming to be qualified for the presidency because of the wide and deep use that Bill Clinton made of her counsel. Why has this been common in recent years?

I believe that it is the unique position of the presidency. It is an alienating job. When you are the president of the United States (or a candidate for the office) - nobody but you has your interests at heart. You have scads of advisers - but, when you get right down to it, the advisers and you do not have the same interests. Ultimately, they have an interest in their advice being taken (e.g. they would rather you take their advice and lose rather than fire them for bad advice and win!). When their advice is not in your interests, and eventually it will not be, those advisers are not your allies. And, as you never know whether the advice is ultimately in your interests, you always stand alone in some way.

Ultimately, this is the case in many walks of life. However, with the presidency - the stakes are so much higher. This is what makes the presidency uniquely alienating. We have discussed how the informal powers of the president can be vast, while the formal powers are quite slender. It is only through his own political cunning that a president expands and then retains his informal powers, that he is more than an executive clerk. Taking the wrong advice or making the wrong decisions will result in a diminution of that informal power, which is so hard to reacquire once it has gone away. This is what advisers do not care about - their interests, professional and personal, are not in expanding and retaining the president's power. Their interests, strictly speaking, are in their advice.

The same is essentially true during the candidacy. If a candidate loses an election - that's the end. There's not another run for president for Fred Thompson after 2008. But what about his advisers? Will they find other advisory roles after 2008? Of course they will. In point of fact, "Thompson 2008" will find its way onto their resumes! So, again, we see a subtle but real divergence of interests between the person at the top and his advisers.

This is where a presidential spouse can be of such value. A loyal and loving spouse - unlike an adviser - does have the president's interests at heart. The spouse is interested in precisely the same thing as the president - expanding and retaining the president's power. This, of course, is what a good marriage is all about - the union of interests. Accordingly, a president (or presidential candidate) can trust his spouse's advice. She may not be the most knowledgeable person on a given subject - but she is the only one who is truly on the president's side. If a spouse tells the president that she thinks a move is a bad one, the president knows that she means, "This move is bad for us." No other person has this kind of standing with the president.

Traditionally, spouses have not played this kind of role for the president. But much of this probably has to do with the fact that women have only been integrated into American professional life relatively recently. And so - while a spouse might have had her husband's interests at heart - politics was not a place where she had much of a knowledge base to play an advisory role. All of this has changed. Women go to college now. They follow, participate in, and make a living from politics. Furthermore, the nature of the American marriage has changed such that now it is more appropriate for men to seek the counsel of their wives on professional matters. This makes the presidential spouse an incredible asset for the West Wing.

What is more, the nature of political advising has changed. Advisers are now "hired guns" - campaign professions who go from candidate to candidate like mercenaries. It was not always this way. It used to be that a president did not need so many professionals to counsel him. He could rely on friends and lifelong associates, or party leaders whose interests in victory were as great as his. The changes in advising have created this separation between a president or presidential candidate and his staff. I am not suggesting here that advisers are inherently dishonest or disingenuous or anything like that. All I am saying is that the nature of advising candidates and officeholders has changed. It has become professionalized - which has altered the nature of the interaction. Professionalization makes advisers' input more valuable because it is more informed. But, on the other hand, it makes it less valuable because - at the end of the day - the advisers do not have the stake in the candidate that they used to.

This is why a presidential spouse is so important. In all likelihood, a contemporary presidential spouse is college educated and reasonably familiar with politics. So, she'll never give an ignorant opinion. And, what is more, she - unlike her husband's advisers - has a stake in her husband's candidacy.

Jeri Thompson might not be a professional campaign manager - but she should be involved in the discussions. She has a college degree. She's been around Washington for a while. She might not know as much as the hired guns, but she knows enough. And, more importantly, unlike the hired guns, she has as great a stake in her husband's candidacy as her husband does. This is why Thompson has his wife so involved - he can trust her. It's a smart move.

-Jay Cost

Regional Primary?

David Yepsen wrote an interesting article yesterday praising the regional primary plan proposed by Senators Alexander, Klobuchar, and Leiberman.

He writes:

Three U.S. senators are introducing a bill to sort out the early congestion of presidential primaries and caucuses by requiring most states to participate in rotating regional contests starting in 2012.

It's a good reform. Something's got to be done to improve the way we pick our presidents. This plan would give more Americans a say in who our president is.

I disagree. I think one of the major problems with all of these reforms is that we support them for reasons other than our stated ones. I think that is the case here. There are two related reasons I think this.

First, this reform will not give more Americans a say than the number that has a say in this year's system. As I argued in June, I think this year's system offers a better mix of fairness and representativeness than this proposal. Second, it is amazing to me that we are talking about reforming an electing system other than the obviously unfair and unrepresentative one we have in place to elect House members.

How do we explain our desire to reform the (relatively fair and representative) presidential nominating system and our satisfaction with the (unfair and non-representative) House electing system? It cannot be by recourse to our desire for a more fair and representative system!

My intuition is that Americans just do not like political campaigns all that much. We have what amounts to a national primary day in this cycle, which in turn has induced candidates to begin their campaigns early. And Americans just don't like campaigns in which politicians disagree and call each other names. We're all Hamiltonians at heart. We should all see eye-to-eye. We should stop all of this petty politicking, and just do "the people's business." And so on.

If this is the motivating force behind these reforms, then we should abandon them - and face reality. The only way to stop nasty campaigns is to stop campaigns altogether - which in turn requires one to make the right to vote meaningless. A robust democracy implies many competitive electoral campaigns, therefore parties who manage those campaigns, therefore partisanship, and therefore partisan bickering and all the nasty things that non-engaged voters despise. So, if you want to cut down on the nastiness, the chances are that you are cutting down on the robustness of your democracy.

This, of course, is exactly what has been happening. Time and again, our reforms - which were designed to reduce the nastiness and dirtiness of an inherently nasty and dirty project like democracy - have made our government less democratic. Reforms render our electoral system less competitive, therefore more favorable to current office holders, and therefore less effective at inducing governmental accountability.

This is not coincidental. Unfortunately, much of this has happened because voters have this naive Hamiltonian view that conflicts with their preference for accountability. Politicians are happy to enshrine the former into our electoral laws precisely because it conflicts with the latter. While our views are conflicted - we want lots of democratic accountability without the corresponding nastiness - politicians' views are not. They prefer minimum competition. An absence of competition necessarily favors the current office holder. So, politicians like to satisfy voters' shallow preferences for a nice electoral process by thwarting their more important preference for democratic accountability.

This, of course, is exactly what they have done with the House of Representatives. Chances are good that you did not have a nasty campaign in your House district last year. But that, in turn, means that your incumbent won in a walk. Isn't that amazing? After the unmitigated disaster that was the 109th Congress - your incumbent won in a walk. How'd that happen? It happened because we have ridiculously designed districts that favor incumbents who can afford to travel all through it and who can play one district interest off another. We have campaign finance laws that make it next-to-impossible for challengers to raise funds, thus favoring incumbents. We have prevented the parties from assisting challengers, thus favoring incumbents. We have decimated the state parties, thus favoring incumbents who cultivate personal followings. We choose party nominees by primary elections that nobody participates in, thus favoring incumbents. And so on. Time and again - Americans have asked for reforms that cut down on all the fighting, and they get exactly that. But they come at quite a cost. Namely, a 95% incumbency retention rate. Even for a waste-of-space Congress like the 109th, which dawdled and bickered and wasted our money and tried to seduce former pages and took all kinds of bribes and kickbacks while the war went into the toilet - 95% of the members who wanted to return were allowed to.

This is reason to celebrate this year's presidential nominating system. It is not the product of coordinated machinations by strategic, ambitious politicians. Unlike our gerrymandered-into-stasis House, this year's system is the product of individual states acting independently of one another. The result is a wild, crazy, unruly system that will probably, as a consequence, be quite competitive and therefore representative!

It would be a shame if it were to be eliminated because Americans do not like the idea of political ads being run in July. Politicians will gladly change it based upon such a shallow preference. And, of course, they'll change it to something that favors their interests. One obvious beneficiary of this particular bill would be a high-profile senator. If his region comes up first in the lottery, he will have an advantage. He can use his regional prestige to win the first round of contests, thus creating momentum to win the nomination and making the rest of the competition an afterthought. This bill regulates and restricts competition - guess who benefits?

I'd wager that at least five senators will vote for or against any proposal based upon their assessments of how it helps their chances of becoming president. That's reason enough not to trust Congress to handle this issue.

I say - let's keep the current system. It's messy. It's unpredictable. It's competitive. Politicians hate it. It's just what we need.

-Jay Cost

Giuliani and South Carolina

The Christian Science Monitor had a great article on the role that South Carolina is playing in the Republican nominating contest. It is well worth a read.

I have thought for a while that South Carolina is the key state in the GOP nomination. Depending upon the candidate it picks, it will signal to us that there is not going to be a drawn out primary battle.

One thing that might drag out a primary fight on the GOP side after February fifth is if the super primary produces a split decision - particularly one in which a given candidate wins a given region.

I think this is very possible. Consider the states up on the GOP side on February fifth.

*California Primary
*Illinois Primary
*Minnesota Precinct Caucuses
*New Jersey Primary
*New York Primary
*West Virginia State Presidential Convention
*Alabama Primary
*Arkansas Primary
*Connecticut Primary
*Delaware Party-run Primary
*Georgia Primary
*Montana Caucus
*Missouri Primary
*North Dakota Caucus
*Oklahoma Primary
*Tennessee Primary
*Utah Primary
*Alaska Precinct Caucus
*Arizona Primary

There is a good regional mix of states here. I can see these results favoring more than one candidate. I can even see them favoring up to three candidates. If, for instance, Thompson emerges as the "Southern candidate," Romney as the "Midwestern candidate," and Rudy as the "Northeastern and Western candidate," this primary fight is not going to end on February fifth. It will continue - and it could get ugly as each of the candidates would have a geographical region in his pocket. [This is why, if I were the secretary of state of a state considering moving its primary, I would select February 12. That might present an opportunity to be the tiebreaker.]

Obviously, little old South Carolina will not have the ability to preempt such a fight simply by virtue of its delegates. There are not enough of them to do that. However, the Palmetto State will give us a good sense of whether Fred Thompson will emerge as the Southern candidate, or whether - as I indicated is possible last week - Giuliani's terror fighting credentials will split the cultural conservative coalition in the South. If there is to be major GOP opposition to his candidacy, it will be from the South. So, if Giuliani finishes first in South Carolina, I would take that as a sign that there probably will not be an extended primary battle - that Rudy is good enough for the South.

Might he be? He might. That was the whole point of last week's profile on him. Giuliani has a "second issue dimension" that strongly favors him above everybody else (with the possible exception of McCain). Will he be? I don't know. The CSM trenchantly articulates the question that does not yet have an answer:

A conundrum for some local conservative leaders is Mr. Giuliani's generally high poll numbers, despite his support for abortion rights. Though some say his ratings will drop once Republican voters pay closer attention to the race, others say his celebrity after 9/11 and his perceived electability may be sidelining social issues dear to evangelicals.

"I do think that prolife issues will play very heavy in [evangelicals'] decision," said Katon Dawson, chairman of the state Republican Party. "But I don't see it as the single disqualifier this time."

Ultimately, this is why I think South Carolina is the key to the GOP primary. After Labor Day, I will be watching the polls there carefully. Right now, Giuliani has a modest lead in our average - but I am not inclined to put much stock in that. It is too early to start using these polls to analyze. And, after all, we still do not know what kind of factor Fred Thompson will be.

-Jay Cost

Bush and the Status Quo

Jim VandeHei's article today in the Politico underscored a point I made a few weeks ago about President Bush. In the wake of the immigration bill's defeat, I argued that this was the end of Bush's informal presidential powers. I wrote:

The failure for Bush on the immigration issue is, I think, fairly telling. He failed not because he lacked power [to set the agenda]. He was indeed able to induce Congress to take up an issue that he wanted it to take up. His failure was really due to an inability to induce legislators to alter current policy as he wants it altered. He no longer can put the "squeeze" on legislators and directly induce them to do what they would not otherwise do, at least when it comes to changing the status quo.
I also indicated that I thought that the immigration bill's failure would be Bush's last attempt to exercise this kind of power. He lost something of his presidency in that bill's demise.

However, this does not mean that he is a lame duck. His formal powers are - thanks to today's political circumstances - still vast.

If you look at Article II of the Constitution, you will see that the formal powers of the president are actually quite few in number. The president always has those powers - but what makes him the force in American politics that he can be is his set of informal powers. Richard Neustadt once summarized these as the ability that the president has to influence people to do what they would not otherwise do. It is clear to me that President Bush has not read Neustadt's classic treatise on presidential power - for he has not done any of the tasks Neustadt thinks the modern president must do to protect his informal powers. And so, they're all gone now.

But, the president still has his set of formal powers, thanks to Article II. These essentially amount to his capacity to protect the status quo as regards current public policy, his executive authority over the military, his authority to negotiate treaties, and appoint officers of the executive and judicial branches. In certain times, these powers imply very little influence. If, for instance, the nation is in a time of peace - the president's military authority means very little. If, for instance, the president wishes to change the status quo, his veto pen means very little.

This, then, is how lame ducks are produced. Lame ducks are presidents whose formal authorities give them very little influence in light of the political circumstances of the day.

Even though his informal powers are now essentially gone, Bush is not to be counted among these lame duck presidents. Reports VandeHei:

Yet there are very good reasons to believe the prevailing conventional wisdom on Iraq might turn out to be wrong once again.

The reasons are simple: the power of the presidency, the anguished feelings of many congressional Republicans and math. In short, Bush is in no mood to yield.

House and Senate Republicans still don't appear prepared to force him to. And a loyal group of GOP senators are prepared to back a Bush veto if Democrats ever succeed in limiting or ending the U.S. mission in Iraq.

"At the end of the day, all of this hand-wringing needs to be understood (in the context) of how Congress works: There will always be 33 of us, as long as there is not a complete meltdown, to support a military strategy that is aggressive and is not based on needs of the next election," said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.).

This is why Bush is not to be trifled with - even if nobody outside the White House is taking his calls regarding domestic policy initiatives. As commander in chief, Bush has the power to use whatever tactics he wishes to use in Iraq. Democrats can pass legislation to change those tactics. However, they require his signature, which of course will not be forthcoming. They can then try to override his veto - but it should be clear from VandeHei's piece why legislative vetoes are so hard to override. On any controversial position, the minority-plus-the-president is usually large enough to block the majority. Bush will probably have 33% of at least one chamber on his side from now until the end of his term.

This is why I stop short of calling Bush a lame duck. The political circumstances of the day mean that his formal powers are very influential. The nation is at war, so Bush as commander in chief has final say over how that war is conducted. Meanwhile, he supports the status quo on the war while a majority in the legislature opposes it. His veto pen is what is keeping the status quo in place - it will continue to. The powers of Article II mean a great deal in today's politics - which is why Bush is still a powerful president.

-Jay Cost