About this Blog

RealClearPolitics HorseRaceBlog

By Jay Cost

HorseRaceBlog Home Page --> September 2007

Out of Touch?

This is a subject I have been harping on all week - ostensibly to no avail.

Mainstream journalists are continuing with this "Obama is doomed" storyline. And, in typical journalistic fashion, they offer the hypothesis in a cover-your-ass kind of way. They do not actually argue that he is doomed - they just ask it as their thesis question, which they ultimately leave unanswered. But, of course, by framing the debate, they influence the answers of all and sundry. The argument is "Obama is Dooomed" while the words read "Is Obama Doomed?" It's a good rhetorical trick if you can swing it. It would have earned me a D in Mr. Sample's AP History class back in high school - but it makes for top notch political journalism, I suppose.

The latest in this spate of stories comes from Time's Karen Tumulty. Her story subtly asks, "Out of Reach?" - and this is how it opens:

Barack Obama has just about everything going for him. At a time when the country is cranky and in the mood for a change, his is a fresh, attractive face and an inspirational message. Wherever he goes, the Illinois Senator draws huge, adoring crowds. He is raising money faster than any Democrat ever has--and from more people, including some 75,000 new donors just since June. He is building a top-notch, disciplined campaign organization, right down to the county level. His campaign has 31 offices in Iowa alone and claims this is twice as many as anyone else. What's more, his chief opponent is one of the most polarizing figures in politics. So it seems only fair to ask: Why is Obama's candidacy still idling?

She offers lots of answers for the question that closes the paragraph - but never the correct ones. So, allow me to assist by stating what I thought (at least at the beginning of the week) were obvious points.

KT: Why is Obama's candidacy still idling?

JC: Because the race has not really begun! Because he has wisely not been spending any money on advertising! Because he does not have the advantage (or disadvantage) of being a known quantity like Hillary Clinton! Because voters are not paying all that much attention! Because the polls reflect the media dialogue, and therefore the media's infatuation with the Clinton campaign! And on and on and on.

Bottom line: Obama's Q3 report is probably going to show at least $30 million in cash on hand. Maybe more. Let us pause for a moment and reflect on the significance of that money ( I can't believe we need to take a moment and do that, but apparently we do). Let us not get overwhelmed by a WMUR poll and lose our cool. Let us remember that $30 million can buy a lot of stuff. One of the things it can buy is a shift of frame in a political campaign. Let us remind ourselves, while we are paused here for a moment, that this freshman senator has something like two billion individual donors and has taken no money from political action committees. This guy is the real deal, ok? He's the real deal. And Clinton is going to have a race on her hands.

Look - I'm not saying that I am favoring Obama to win the Democratic nomination. Right now, I would spread my money around. This will be another instance of the Democratic party choosing between an establishment candidate and an insurgent candidate. The party has chosen either type of candidate at different times. Clinton and Obama are the most professional, polished, and highest quality of both types of candidates that have come down the pike in a long while. So, I am expecting a barn burner. And so should you.

So journalists, take a lesson from the Fonz and just be cool. Your storyline this week is the most egregious example of putting the cart before the horse I have seen all campaign season - and that is saying something. I know that your editors are on your backs to write about the campaign, and the chill in the air you felt last week reminded you that elections are coming. But it is SEPTEMBER. The season just got here. It isn't over. It's just started. So chill out.

-Jay Cost

A Constitutional Amendment?

I am a great admirer of Larry Sabato. For starters, he's a professor at my beloved alma mater. On top of that, his Crystal Ball last year predicted the final result of the 2006 congressional election with a precision that was matched only (so far as I know) by Emory's Alan Abramowitz.

However, his recent editorial in USA Today struck me as misguided. It was also surprising to see it coming from the founder of the Center for Politics, whose motto is "Politics Is a Good Thing."

Sabato, writing about the need to reform our primary process, argues that we need fundamental reform - a regional primary system. Lots of people have argued for this - and I have been a staunch opponent of the idea (see here and here).

However, Sabato takes matters one step further. He argues that a bill passed by Congress is not sufficient. Instead:

We need a constitutional amendment rather than congressional legislation because it would guarantee that the system isn't constantly revised by the games that some legislators will play.

The Framers did not consider placing an Article on politics in the Constitution. But the Founders, almost to a man, wanted and expected constitutional revisions to reflect the changing circumstances of America's democracy.

This is not a good idea. There are two reasons why:

(1) Constitutional amendments are very "sticky." That is, they are extremely difficult to repeal. The only way you can do it is with another amendment - and therefore another super majority. This means that they should only be used to solve certain problems - the problem of the primary is just not one of them.

Typically, amendments have accomplished two functions. First, they have enshrined new core values that the amenders expect will be timeless. Think of the Civil War amendments, the progressive era amendments, etc. Second, they have corrected mistakes in the original design of the structure of the government. Think of the 12th amendment, which fixed what was simply a faulty system created by the original document.

A constitutional amendment for the primary system falls under neither category. This makes such an amendment extremely undesirable. Namely, there is no reason to want the process of nominating presidential candidates to be permanent. Instead, there is every reason to want it not to be permanent.

The process of nominating presidential candidates for office has followed, by my count, five different trajectories. Initially, candidates were selected by legislative caucuses. In the 1820s, this system broke down and was replaced by a popular convention where party loyalists selected nominees. Eventually, this fell under plutocratic control - which was finally broken in the 1970s. Between roughly 1972/76 and 2004, we were in a transition period, evolving toward what we are seeing this year, a national primary day with a few states up front to serve as "cues."

There are several reasons why there have been so many changes. A major one is technology. As technology has become more sophisticated, the system has become more open. This is of fundamental importance. You simply could not take the 2008 way of nominating candidates back to 1808 and expect it to work well. There are technological prerequisites that Americans in the early 19th century simply could not have met. Specifically, I am thinking of communciations technology, which has had the effect of easing the acquisition of political knowledge. Today, it is so much easier to educate oneself about politics than it was in the 19th century. This ease of education has expanded the number of political elites. It has also made it easier for any individual to become an elite. All they need is interest, free time and something worthwhile to say on Blogger dot Com. [That's how I got my start!] Today, there are literally millions of people who could be counted as non-scholarly experts on the state of the political nation.

The voting process necessarily reflects the knowledge and interests of the public - and so it is unsurprising that, as citizens have increased their capacity to acquire information, and therefore their capacity to make more complicated political decisions, the system itself has become more easily accessible. Informed citizens who do not have a say have lobbied for a say - and their lobbies have been successful. Information was a prerequisite in all of this lobbying - and levels of information change over time.

A constitutional amendment that enshrines our way of doing things today could therefore have a very negative effect tomorrow. It would ossify our way of participating in politics, which is conditioned by our particular technological tools. In fifty years, technology might induce another major shift in the way politics can be conducted. Look for instance at the amazing things you can do on the internet in terms of hosting meetings. It might very well be the case in the future that the internet enables us to return to the Jacksonian ideal: a nominating convention in which all those who support the party participate not just by voting, but by actually hammering out between themselves who shall represent the party in the general election. This would be an amazing advancement in participatory democracy.

Wouldn't it be a shame if it were illegal?

The point is that we have to recognize that the process of party nominations changes not just because our values have evolved. It also changes because our technology has evolved. So also have the social and economic bases of our politics. These influence our nominating system in ways that I will not get into here. Importantly, all of these features will continue to evolve even if our values are permanent. This makes the process of nominating a president fundamentally different from the right of women to vote or the illegality of slavery. Once we changed our minds on these matters, we knew that the change was permanent. We wanted constitutional amendments to enshrine our new ways of operating. Flexibility was a vice in those instances and an amendment was a good idea. When it comes to matters like the presidential nominating system - which are conditioned by the growth of the country itself - flexibility is a virtue and an amendment is a bad idea.

(2) I still have yet to see a compelling argument about why this year's system is so awful. People complain about this system all the time. But notice that they hardly ever discuss matters directly. Instead, they use metaphors. Look at Professor Sabato's opening paragraph:

The presidential selection process is badly broken and must be fixed. Several good plans have been proposed, but they haven't gone far enough or offered the kind of discipline necessary to prevent future chaos. We need a constitutional amendment that establishes a rational schedule of primaries.

"Broken," "fixed," "discipline," "chaos." These are all metaphors. What is the real world referant to these metaphors? I have yet to see any that compel me. Nobody ever seems to "get real" about the problems.

Here's my challenge to all who would alter the current system. Explain to me, without reference to metaphors, what the costs of the current system are, and how your alternative would reduce those costs without reducing the benefits by a greater factor.

Sabato makes what seems to me to be a limp argument about the costs of the current system. "This frontloaded calendar forces a rush to judgment by voters and probably will reduce voter participation." This is it? These two problems induce all of those metaphors from the opening paragraph? I don't agree.

And anyway, both of these seem to me to be wrong - or at least underdetermined. We have been locked in a perpetual campaign now for some 9 months. By the time the first ballots are cast, it will have been 12 months. How many freakin' debates have there been to date? 80, right? If voters are rushing to judgment in this kind of voting format, they will be rushing to judgment in any format. As for reducing voter participation, should we not expect the February 5 primary to increase voter participation? After all, almost all of us expect at least one party to have at least two viable contenders on that date. Usually, it is a lack of viable alternatives that keeps voter participation low. And, at any rate, should we not at least wait to see whether voter participation will rise or fall before we start declaring the system "broken" and "chaotic?"

I have discussed the issue of fixing the primary process many times on this blog. My concern is that people want to "fix" it simply because they do not like campaign politics, which is far too messy and disagreeable for a nation that still clings to the Hamiltonian hope of national political unity. If I am correct, then no fixes will satisfy the public because, at the end of the day, it is simply dissatisfied with party politics, which is an inevitable feature of democratic government.

I might be wrong. But I don't think I am. If I were wrong, I think that by now I would have seen an argument that deals in real terms about why the current system needs to be fixed. What do we gain by abandoning the current system? What do we lose? We need to have a sober discussion about costs and benefits, free of metaphors, before we start tinkering around with things.

-Jay Cost

The Creation of a Front-Runner

Adam Nagourney of the New York Times makes a good effort this morning to attack the idea that a summer frontrunner is invincible. His major concern, of course, is Hillary Clinton and the Democrats. Thompson, Giuliani, and Romney are so scrunched together according to one metric or another that it is hard to identify any one of the three as the GOP frontrunner.

While I applaud Nagourney's attempt to do some pushback on all this Hillary-Is-Invincible stuff, I think his argument is not as strong as it could be. He writes:

Typically, a candidate is adjudged a front-runner because he -- or she -- leads in the polls, has the most endorsements, is ahead in fund-raising, gets the most media attention, draws the biggest crowds and, well, just comes across as a front-runner.

Mrs. Clinton has been helped considerably by the perception in Democratic circles that she has outpaced her competitors at most of the candidate debates.

Yet Mrs. Clinton may be a good example of why the front-runner designation is so ephemeral. Mr. Obama has arguably outpaced her in fund-raising and crowds. Both Mr. Obama and Mr. Edwards have held their own in winning endorsements.

Mrs. Clinton may have the lead in national polls and polls in New Hampshire. But most polls show a tight three-way race in Iowa, where many Democrats consider Mr. Edwards the, um, front-runner. Anyway, polls in Iowa and New Hampshire in the fall do not tell you very much about what is going to happen in January.

The truth is, there is no evidence that the Democratic primary voters have fallen head-over-heels for Mrs. Clinton. And any event that reminds Democratic voters of the lingering concerns about her could topple her from her perch.

I agree with Nagourney's general argument. However, he does not deploy it as well as he could have. His problem actually comes in the first paragraph. He wrongly puts the polls first in his list of reasons of how a frontrunner is identified. Now, this is a laundry list - and an item's position in it does not necessarily matter. The problem is that, at least with Nagourney's list, the polls are largely caused by the rest of the items on the list. So, while Nagourney is attacking the conclusion that Hillary is inevitable, he allows to go unassailed the false presumption that the summer polls are independent of the media dialogue. This false premise about the polls undergirds all of the arguments about Clinton being inevitable.

This is how I would say that a summer frontrunner is created. We start with the fact that voters right now are paying little attention to the race. Not only that, they do not have very much information about the state of the race. Now, this might sound surprising to you, but the reality is that the ways that most voters acquire political information are quite different from the ways that you acquire it. Right now, their ways are not offering them a lot of information. And, as a consequence, they are not thinking about or paying much attention to the race.

[A case in point. I like to talk politics with people I meet in personal life to get a sense of what others think about things. I had a guy over at my place in Chicago to help me take the apartment down, and when I told him what I do for a living - we started talking politics. He's a Republican who is undecided. He's a smart guy who obviously takes his vote choice very seriously. He told me that he was not so sure about Giuliani because he changes his issue positions so frequently. The fact that a smart, considerate voter such as this one could get his wires crossed between Giuliani and Romney points to something about what the average voter is thinking right now.]

So, voters are not thinking about politics much right now. Out of the blue, they get a call from a pollster. They're asked to indicate a preference that they have not really formed just yet. How do they answer the question? They draw upon the available information that they have on the race - which is culled from, to quote Nagourney, who "has the most endorsements, is ahead in fund-raising, gets the most media attention, draws the biggest crowds and, well, just comes across as a front-runner." In other words, they draw from what little they know of the dialogue among political elites. And what is the elite dialogue at the moment? As Dan Balz notes, elites are asking: Can Hillary Clinton Be Stopped? So, polling respondents select Hillary Clinton.

This points to the methodological flaw of using polling data to analyze the state of the race. Polls are valuable to a point - but they really cannot be taken as independent evidence of the state of the race. This is how the media's echo chamber is created. The media talks up one candidate over another. The polls echo this talking up back to the media. The media believes the polls offer independent evidence that justifies its talking up, and proceeds to talk up the particular candidate all the more.

This is why I refuse to ask the question that Dan Balz asked this week. The manner in which voters make a selection will change - because of all the money that candidates have. That's when the real campaign begins, you know. It begins when the candidates start their advertising blitzes. That has only begun - and so the campaign has only begun. The fact that the media has nothing better to talk about in August than the "campaign" does not mean that there is a campaign to talk about.

The campaign - the real one - could change everything. Barack Obama will have something on the order of $60 million to communicate to primary voters. Clinton, of course, will be equally well-funded. But the point is that, as far as the average voter is concerned, the media dialogue is about to be drowned out by the the actual campaign. Right now, the media and political elites are the ones largely influencing polling numbers. Starting next month, the candidates are going to be the ones influencing those numbers. And so, average voters are going to have an opportunity to hear Clinton and Obama. Both of them will have an opportunity to say their piece, and have their piece heard, prior to Election Day. Accordingly, the way in which the average person's vote choice is informed is quite different than the way in which the average person's selection in a July poll is informed.

And so, we are left with the following question about the Democratic primary. It is, not coincidentally, the one that we began asking back when Obama declared. Clinton offers experience and steady stewardship. Obama offers change. Which will Democratic voters prefer? Despite all of the chatter from the pundit classes - the fact remains that we do not yet have an answer to this question.

Now, this is not to say that we cannot yet evaluate which candidate - Clinton or Obama - is more likely to win the nomination. It is not to say that we cannot yet identify who the frontrunner is. The trick is that we have to approach the question differently than we have been. We cannot just sit and marvel at the results that WMUR found in the Granite State. That's just a roundabout way of looking into the mirror. Instead, we have to arbitrate between (a) the message that Clinton will offer, (b) the message that Obama will offer, (c) our estimate of which message Democratic primary voters will prefer. Unfortunately, the media has made very little progress in this arbitration because they have been so hung up by these poll numbers.

-Jay Cost

More On Newt

In response to yesterday's post about New Gingrich, a regular reader of mine wrote with the following query:

While I'm not aching for Newt to jump in the race, I haven't seen enough polls or other evidence to suggest that Newt is entirely unelectable. I'm writing just to ask if you could do a follow-up post to today's post, where you said that it's obvious that Newt is unelectable.

You very well may be right about Newt. Allow me to suggest that there may be a lot of people like me who would enjoy seeing your line of reasoning.

The lesson here, I think, is never to use the word "obvious." Nothing is ever obvious. Everything is potentially disputable. So, allow me to justify why I think Gingrich does not get elected if he runs.

Clearly, Gingrich is no longer a personality on the main stage of the American political drama. So, our data set will be limited, and we will have to be careful about the inferences that we draw from it. Nevertheless, in August Scott Rasmussen conducted a poll on whether people have a favorable or unfavorable opinion of certain individuals. Gingrich was 37% positive, 54% negative. By comparison, Dick Cheney was 39/58. Rasmussen does note: "Feeling about Gingrich, however, are less intense. While 39% have a Very Unfavorable opinion of Cheney, only 25% say the same about Gingrich."

Another comparison: Hillary Clinton - who many believe has electability problems - recently rated a 52/48 score.

Again, Gingrich is not in the public eye - so his public perception might change if he enters the race. However, he would have to construct a public image quite different from the one he had back when he was Speaker of the House. As evidence of this, I turn to the American National Elections Study. which queries more than 1,500 voters every election year about their opinions about politics. One set of questions asked in every study are known as "feeling thermometer" questions. That is, the ANES asks respondents to identify on a scale of 0 to 100 their feelings for a given individual or institution - with 0 being don't like and 100 being like.

It asked this of Gingrich back in 1996 (access the full data set here) - and his average score was 39.46. By comparision, here are some other results from the same year.

Bill Clinton: 59.34

Bob Dole: 51.78

Ross Perot: 39.58

Al Gore: 58.20

Jack Kemp: 56.88

Hillary Clinton: 52.81

Pat Buchanan: 44.37

Jesse Jackson: 46.96

Colin Powell: 69.92

Pat Robertson: 44.70

Republican Party: 53.31

I highlighted the last one to indicate that, at least in 1996, Gingrich was less popular than the generic party label itself. Clearly, he was not at all popular. Again, he might be able to recraft his public image and make a credible run - but I would put that in the "Heck - anything is possible!" category of things.

This should clarify my justification for asking "Wha?" about a Gingrich run.

-Jay Cost

President Gingrich?


Apparently, Newt thinks this is a possibility worth investigating. This is from the Washington Times

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich will begin next week to seek financial commitments from donors for a presidential-nomination bid, the Georgia Republican told The Washington Times yesterday.

If he can get pledges for $30 million over the next three weeks, he will join the Republican presidential-nomination race -- a prospect he had been downplaying until yesterday.

This was one of those mornings when I really wished my deskchair had a safety belt.

I get more than a few emails from people asking me to predict whether fellas like Gingrich or Gore will get into the race. I always punt on those questions. With only a few exceptions, I think it is impossible to predict whether somebody will run.

You'd think that complete and total unelectability would be a way to predict who will and who will not run. But you'd be wrong. Unelectability has failed to stop a whole host of candidates from tossing their hats into the ring. Case in point: Newt Gingrich is so obviously unelectable that you'd think he wouldn't be considering a run. But nope. You wake up one morning and read a sentence like this:

"Next Monday, Randy Evans, my friend and adviser since 1976, will hold a press briefing and explain how he intends to review whether it is realistic for me to consider running," Mr. Gingrich said.

He needs a friend to review his electability for him. Amazing.

Gingrich, as I said, is not alone. Lots of presidential candidates run despite obviously having no chance. Why is that the case? I've pondered this question for a while, and this is the theory I've come up with. It takes so much self-conceit to run for that office that one's perception of one's relation to others is much more likely to be skewed.

Think of it this way. To run for president, a pol needs to be able to look into the mirror and say with absolute seriousness, "Washington, Lincoln, Roosevelt...me!" A pol with that level of self-conceit is much more likely to have a skewed sense of his own electoral prospects - and therefore much more likely to overestimate the support he could ever receive from the public. He is the kind of person who need friends to undertake a systematic review of his prospects. The rest of us could take one look at the last time we were in office - i.e. when we were run out on a rail - and recognize that there is no chance. But we'd never look in a mirror and say, "Washington, Lincoln, Roosevelt...me!" At least not without laughing.

-Jay Cost

Actually, Florida Dems Dig In...

Looks like the Miami Herald jumped the gun. This is from the New York Times:

The Florida Democratic Party announced Sunday that it would move ahead with its plan to hold its presidential primary on Jan. 29 despite the national party's decision to block the state delegation from the 2008 Democratic convention.

State party leaders said that even if none of the state's delegates were seated at next summer's Democratic presidential convention, the earlier primary would still help determine the nominee.

The Democratic National Committee voted last month to strip Florida of its delegates unless it decided by Sept. 29 to obey party rules and delay its primary until Feb. 5 or later. Then, under pressure from the four states permitted to hold contests in January, the major Democratic candidates pledged not to campaign in Florida if the primary was moved ahead.

Ever since, state party leaders have agonized over whether to accept the sanctions and stand firm on Jan. 29 or to yield and hold a smaller contest, like a caucus or vote-by-mail primary, later in the year. They decided to stick to January, said Karen Thurman, the party chairwoman, to ensure the largest possible turnout and to avoid accusations of disenfranchisement from Democrats still bitter about the 2000 recount.

"We came down on the side of having a fair and open election," Ms. Thurman said at a news conference.

Florida Democratic leaders also noted that many municipal races would be on the ballot on Jan. 29, as will a state referendum that could significantly reduce property taxes.

The property tax ballot measure is indeed quite significant - and my intuition is that this is what largely swayed Florida Democratic leaders to retain the primary. They do not want their voters staying home while Republican voters come out to pick a presidential nominee (while also cutting property taxes!). That would be a huge political defeat. Of course, Florida Democrats might have this problem, anyway. Without the presidential candidates campaigning in Florida, Democratic voters might be less stimulated and therefore might come out to the polls in fewer numbers - which would give the GOP a turnout boost.

At any rate, will Florida Democrats still be influential in the presidential nominating contest? Representative Debbie Wasserman-Schultz seems to think so:

Whether to seat Florida's delegates at the convention would ultimately be up to the presumptive nominee, said Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a Democrat from Broward County. Rather than risk the wrath of Florida voters, Ms. Wasserman Schultz said, the party nominee will undoubtedly seat the delegates.

"We're going to make sure our voices are heard loud and clear on that convention floor," she said, adding that the state's entire Democratic Congressional delegation supported the decision to stick with Jan. 29.

The way the Times presents her response to the question is intriguing. Her answer presumes that the nominee has already been selected and determined - which in turn means that it is quite irrelevant whether Florida's delegates have actually been seated! So long as the nomination is still contested, Florida's delegates will have a hard time being seated. After all, one candidate will have won fewer Florida delegates than another - and the candidate with fewer will naturally oppose the move to seat them. So, Florida's delegates might only be counted when the final count is known.

Florida Democrats, of course, expected this when they chose to defy the DNC. Their thinking was that the publicity from a win in Florida would influence other states. What they apparently did not factor at the time of their defiance was that the early (legal) states might be able to influence Democratic candidates to avoid Florida. They did exactly that.

This could significantly reduce the kind of influence Florida Democrats hoped to acquire. How much stock will opinion makers put in the beauty contest now that none of the candidates are actively competing in it? Will they not all ask themselves who would have really won if the candidates had really engaged Florida voters? The extent to which opinion makers discount the contest because of the non-competition is the extent to which Florida Democrats fail to do what they hoped to do, influence other states.

As I wrote last week, this new situation hinges entirely upon the fact that the early states have leaned upon Democratic candidates. This has not gone unnoticed with Florida Democrats.

State Senator Steven A. Geller, the minority leader, used the news conference to rail against Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire and South Carolina, which he called "rogue states" for putting pressure on the presidential candidates to skip campaigning here for a January primary.

"If they choose not to campaign here and they lose? Not our problem," Mr. Geller said.

Ahhh..irony. A Florida Democratic leader calls the early states "rogue." My dictionary defines rogue as "a dishonest, unprincipled person; a rascal." Mr. Geller, of course, has chosen a word that has no applicability to any state. That's ok. He's a legislator, not a wordsmith. Nevertheless, if we had to apply this word in this situation, to which state would we apply it: Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, South Carolina, or Florida?

-Jay Cost

A Brokered Convention?

A reader of mine emailed this week to ask if I would weigh in on the disagreement between John Judis and Michael Barone over the likelihood of a "brokered" convention. Judis and Barone wrote their respective articles when I was busy packing up dishwear, so they escaped my notice.

In case they escaped yours, here's a brief recap. Judis' piece came first. He wrote:

With former Senator Fred Thompson's entry into the presidential race, the Republicans now have at least three candidates who could have the money and votes to compete, if necessary, all the way to June 2008. And they might have to do so. Indeed, when the Republicans meet in Minneapolis-St. Paul in September 2008 to choose their nominee, they might be looking at a brokered convention.

Of course, the party has had multiple strong candidates before--in 1980, for instance, and 1988 and even in 2000. But the old schedule of primaries and caucuses was designed to winnow down the field. By March, the field was invariably reduced to two candidates, one of whom would eventually gain enough delegates through the primaries and caucuses to win the nomination. But the 2008 schedule concentrates two-thirds of the primary and caucus votes in the first month, which ends February 5. If there is no clear frontrunner by then, the primary and caucus race will probably go down to June, and perhaps to the convention.

Judis goes on to develop what seems to me to be an ad hoc way to estimate how this will come about. Nevertheless, he raises an interesting idea. It is one that I myself have hinted at several times in the past months.

Michael Barone, on the other hand, disagrees. And, in his typical fashion, he makes reference to a vital yet less-than-obvious point about why a brokered convention is unlikely.

The old-time convention was a medium through which men who seldom saw each other and often didn't know each other could communicate, negotiate and reach an agreement. And not always productively. [Snip]

Only when political operators had that information would they negotiate for real, as they did in the "smoke-filled room" in Chicago's Blackstone Hotel where Warren Harding clinched the nomination in 1920. And clever operators could transform the mood of the convention hall, as liberal Republicans did by packing the galleries with young men chanting "We Want Willkie!" in Philadelphia in 1940 and as the city's sewer commissioner did a few weeks later by piping into the loudspeakers people crying "We Want Roosevelt!" a few weeks later in Chicago.

Today the convention as a communications medium has been replaced by other media, such as long-distance telephones, frequent air travel, an abundance of public opinion polls and by the television networks' delegate counts (Martin Plissner conducted the first one for CBS in 1968; in 1976 the networks' counts held up in the very close contest between Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan). Not to mention the Political Hotline (founded by Doug Bailey in the 1980s), the Internet, the blogosphere and Blackberries. The kind of communication that was possible only at the convention in the old days is now going on all around us.

This is why you need to read Michael Barone. No other political commentator of whom I am aware consistently offers this level of analysis.

He is exactly right. Conventions served a communications function that they no longer serve. They were once a venue for party leaders to signal preferences to one another in the absence of all the high-tech stuff we take for granted. It follows from this, as Barone argues, that brokered conventions were more likely then than they are now. Preferences were signaled at the convention, and so compromises had to be found at the convention. In today's age, preferences can be signaled earlier - and so compromises can be found before the convention.

Like I said - you need to read this guy. He's on another level altogether.

Nevertheless, I think that Barone has underestimated the likelihood of a brokered convention - though he offers a much-needed push back to Judis' overestimate.

Barone is correct to argue that preferences must be signaled before a compromise can be brokered - and because communications media have changed, preferences can be signaled earlier, and compromise can be reached before the convention. However, there has also been a change in the party system - one that could increase the chance of a brokered convention. The national conventions used to be the domain of state party leaders. This control has only been broken recently. But it has indeed been broken. The function of choosing delegates has shifted from the state parties to the voters. This has had the effect of giving candidates themselves control over delegates. Delegates who go to the convention are delegates loyal to a particular candidate, rather than a state party and its leaders.

The likelihood of a brokered convention depends not just upon the extent to which preferences can be communicated prior to the convention, but also upon how reconcilable they are. In the past, preferences were essentially reducible to regional interests. The South formed a faction, the North, the Midwest, the Mountain West, and so on. Each region's goal was to ensure that the party ticket represented the region's interests. In some circumstances, reconciling these divergent goals was problematic - but usually, it was not terribly hard to do. Candidates could be found who did not offend the interests of any side. The vice presidential spot could also be used to broker a deal.

What about a convention at which the delegates are controlled by the candidates for the top of the ticket? Compromise could be more difficult. How satisfied would the Romney faction be if Giuliani was named the top candidate and Romney was named the veep? Not very. How satisfied would the Thompson faction be? Not very. In that scenario, one faction wins and two factions lose.

This points to a potential difference between preferences of convention delegates of the past and preferences of convention delegates today. Past delegates were interested in securing regional interests. Compromise was therefore possible - "all" you'd have to do is find a ticket that can satisfy the preferences of multiple regions. Delegates today are interested in securing their respective candidates at the top of the ticket. This reduces the number of possible compromises.

In other words, preferences at this year's convention might be closer to zero-sum than in year's past. One faction's win is another faction's loss. Either Romney is at the top of the ticket, and the Romney faction wins; or he isn't, and the Romney faction loses. The same goes with the Thompson faction and the Giuliani faction. There are fewer possibilities for compromise here because the preferences of delegates are not reducible to protecting regional interests through the ticket, but actually placing specific people at the top of the ticket.

So, while technology has enhanced communications media, and therefore the possibility of reaching a compromise before the convention - the fact that the factions at the convention are "personality cults" decreases the chance that a compromise will be found.

Now, bear in mind that this scenario requires the factions at the convention to be extremely loyal to their respective candidates. Delegates will have to feel as though they have suffered a real loss if their candidate does not win the top spot. It requires a rough equality in the number of delegates between at least two candidates. It also requires that no factions will be altogether happy with the vice presidential nomination. So, I am not saying that a brokered convention is likely. There are far too many "if's" to argue that it is. What I am saying is that, though Judis has overestimated its likelihood, Barone perhaps has underestimated it. Our candidate-centered electoral politics might make compromise over presidential candidates more difficult.

-Jay Cost

Expect More Retirements

There seems to be a constant stream of Republican House member retirements in the last few weeks. We can probably expect news like this to continue for a while.

Back in August, I argued that this is due to the "peril of the minority." Almost all Republican members of Congress are used to being in the majority. They are now in the minority, which is a much less pleasurable position. Fewer staffers, smaller offices, diminished power to set the agenda, and so on. The incentives for members to remain in Congress have decreased. If the GOP had a reasonable expectation of recapturing the majority next year - they would probably be able to retain some of the members who are retiring. However, at this point nobody seems to have that expectation.

Meanwhile, the prospective costs to remain in Congress seems to be increasing. Namely, President Bush's continued low job approval number means that the political climate favors the Democrats. Republican members of Congress can therefore expect a greater chance of a tough race next year - and, accordingly, they can expect a greater chance of a loss, which is the one thing that all members most fear.

What happens when costs go up and benefits go down? People start selling! And so, a good number of GOP retirements were to be expected this cycle. The question for the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) is whether it can keep retirements to a minimum. Another pressing question for the NRCC is whether it can persuade members from marginal districts who can win if they don't retire to stay on board. It's one thing for Rick Renzi or Jerry Weller to retire. Both of them have problems that make them liabilities next cycle. The big task for the committee is whether it can keep members who can win if they stay on board, but whose departure means the seat becomes more competitive. So far, they have lost a few such members. How many more will they lose? That is the big question.

-Jay Cost

More on the Polls

Earlier in the week, I warned readers not to put too much stock into the summer polls. My argument was that voters are not paying much attention yet, and so their answers are not well-formed and possibly unstable. This is such an important feature of polling. It is really critical to bear this in mind. All of these polling numbers can change.

Knowing this fact about public opinion, one cannot help but ask whether Hillary Clinton has such a large lead over Barack Obama because voters have settled upon her, or because the press has annointed her as the frontrunner. If the latter is true, public opinion must be much less well-formed, and therefore susceptible to alteration. What happens when Obama deploys $30 million+ to move it?

The same is true of Romney's support. What happens when Romney's opponents start to spend their resources? In my initial post on the subject, I speculated that the former Massachusetts governor's strong numbers might be due to the fact that he is the only one who is spending real money on advertising. Quantification of this came from Howard Kurtz in today's Washington Post:

Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney has far outpaced the other candidates in ad spending, devoting $6 million to television spots, more than triple the $1.9 million spent by New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson (D). In Iowa, said Evan Tracey, chief operating officer of the Campaign Media Analysis Group, the candidates have "blown past the historic totals of the last election" much earlier.

Among other Democrats, according to Tracey's group, Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) has spent $1.3 million; Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (Conn.), $863,000; Clinton (N.Y.), $475,000; and former senator John Edwards (N.C.), $385,000.

That's right. Romney has spent more than every other candidate combined on campaign advertising. And so, it would be foolish to argue now that any of his leads are stable. Rudy had $18 million in cash on hand as of the last FEC report. That can change a lot of minds.

-Jay Cost

On McCain's Money

The Washington Times reports this morning that John McCain expects to to raise only $3.7 million in the third quarter. By any metric, this is a low number. What happened?

It is important to appreciate that this low fundraising number is not a sign of further troubles. It is, rather, a further sign of troubles we already knew about. McCain's campaign began to get into trouble in July - the first month of the third quarter. This was when we learned about his second quarter fundraising (and spending!), and all of those McCain staffers began to go. The result of this trouble was that McCain was removed from the top tier of Republican candidates.

This is surely what has affected the fundraising numbers the Times reported today. Being out of the top tier, generally being out of the news cycle altogether, assuredly had a strong effect on the Republican donor base's attitude toward McCain. They felt disinclined to "waste" their money on McCain because he seemed doomed to lose. Indeed, the $3.7 million figure seems close to what second tier candidates could raise from their group of core loyalists.

It was only with the debate earlier in the month, followed by his "No Surrender" tour, that he started to make a comeback. But by that point, the third quarter was almost over.

So - can McCain come back? As I indicated last week - a comeback will be hard. Unlike the rest of the candidates in the top tier, McCain needs the media to keep him viable this fall. He simply does not have the money to reach voters the way that Clinton, Giuliani, Obama, and Romney can. This news story will probably damage his standing with the press - as some pressies might see this as a sign of further troubles, rather than a further sign of troubles. Minimally, these numbers will remind people of how much trouble McCain had in the summer, which is bad for his quest to return to relevance.

-Jay Cost

The DNC Holds The Line

Or, perhaps better put: the line is held for the DNC.

This was an interesting conclusion to a storyline that I had spent some time analyzing (here, here, here, and here). This is from the Miami Herald:

Florida Democrats, unable to work out a compromise to avoid harsh sanctions imposed by the Democratic National Committee, appear ready to give in and declare the Jan. 29 presidential primary meaningless.

While state party officials insist no ''consensus'' has been reached on what the party should do, there is a growing recognition that within the next week Democrats will announce a plan that renders the primary vote nonbinding in order to comply with national party rules. Florida Democrats will instead decide some time after Jan. 29 which presidential candidate is the winner of the state's delegates to the national convention.

One suggested plan is to have Democrats vote by mail, although another proposal that may win out calls for Democrats to hold a state convention sometime after Feb. 5.

''The positive thing about this is reality may finally be setting in at the party that delegates will not be selected on the 29th of January and if we want to have delegates we need to have an alternate plan,'' said Allan Katz, a Tallahassee attorney and member of the Democratic National Committee.

This conclusion probably came as a surprise to many people. I myself was somewhat surprised. What happened?

I had noted earlier in the month that what mattered was whether the DNC would be able to supply a "credible threat" against Florida if it broke party rules. That is, would the DNC be able to threaten a punishment that it could actually carry out, and would the punishment damage Florida Democrats enough?

Clearly, the answer is yes. Florida would only have backed down if it sensed a credible threat that was genuinely punitive.

But what was this threat? The national party, as I noted earlier in the month, has very few tools in its toolbox. It is hard for it to control state party units. And, given Bill Nelson's somewhat self-righteous column in USA Today following the DNC's decision - it did not appear as though Florida felt genuinely threatened by the DNC's decision. So, what happened?

The sanction came from a source that I did not anticipate. Namely, the party leaders in states that come early according to party rules induced Democratic candidates not to campaign in the states that broke the rules. Those candidates have an interest in courting party leaders in the (legal) early states, and so were willing to sign a pledge to snub the rule breaking states. Winning the "beauty contest" in Florida is not enough for any of them to upset Iowa and New Hampshire.

I think this is what forced Florida Democrats to back down. They seemed willing to have an influential beauty contest. But with candidates avoiding the state, the beauty contest will have no influence - and so they are left with nothing. Their only recourse is to regroup and find a way to influence the convention by following the party rules. The talk now is of a state convention or a vote-by-mail.

It will be interesting to see if there are any negative consequences that befall Florida Democratic leaders. They clearly miscalculated - and GOP leaders in the state must be tickled pink to have thwarted them. After all, RNC rules mandate that Florida will lose only half of its delegates to the Republican convention - so GOP candidates are still coming to the Sunshine State. Florida Democratic leaders seemed to have been outplayed - and, as a consequence of their missteps, Democratic voters will be left with less of a say than they would have had if the party had followed the rules. Will Democratic leaders be punished for their mistakes?

-Jay Cost

Remember When...

...Giuliani hesitated getting into the race, and pundits started wondering whether he really "wants it?"
...Clinton seemed adrift in Iowa, unable to connect with voters and suffering through rumors that she might withdraw from the first in the nation caucus?
...Obama seemed to be a non-presence on the campaign trail, unable to turn his lofty rhetoric into meat-and-potatoes political speech?
...McCain fired his whole campaign team, and was declared finished?
...Romney admitted driving with his dog on top of his car, but seemed not to have a problem with it?

What's the lesson from this? Presidential campaigns are difficult operations to run, and there is always some clunkiness at the beginning.

So, what's the difference between this clunkiness and the laundry list of grievances Dick Morris has against Fred Thompson's campaign? It is only that all of the above happened in the spring or summer. Thompson started later, so his clunkiness came later. And yet, he's only down 4% in our national average! What does that tell you? Among other things, it indicates that the voters who respond to polls aren't reading Dick Morris!

Before we declare that the Thompson candidacy is finished, we need to take a deep breath and develop a little perspective on matters. Just like all candidates, his opening was a tad clunky. Just like all candidates, he needs to fix the problems. The only difference is when Thompson is doing that. September, not July. Thompson is betting that waiting two months does not matter. Take another look at those polls and ask yourself whether you'd take that bet. I wouldn't.

Now, don't get me wrong. Thompson does indeed need to lock things down. And, if I were running his campaign, I would have strongly preferred a better rollout as well as fewer dramatic incidences in the summer. My point is simply this: there is plenty of time for Thompson to lock it down.

Comparing Dick Morris' column to our polling average is a good lesson in political analysis. Political elites like Dick Morris matter insofar as they help set the political agenda for the broader public. For instance, in choosing which candidates to discuss and who not to discuss, they signal to the public which are viable and which are not. But Thompson is already on the agenda. He's viable. Now that this has happened, we need to reconfigure our view of him because he is now playing to the voters, not to the elites. Elites are hypersensitive to the day-to-day of political news. So, if we wish to gauge Thompson's viability, we have to shift our standards of judgment.

This is what Thompson needs to do: he needs to raise respectable money in the third and fourth quarters, he needs to have some standout debate performances, and he needs to improve his stump speech. None of this other stuff will matter if he does those things.

-Jay Cost

New Hampshire Numbers

I wanted to pick up on John's post about New Hampshire. I was intrigued that Rudy has closed some of the distance between Romney and himself. Romney now has only a 3 point lead. In the RCP average, it is down to 4.7 points.

I have argued in the past that Romney's strategy to get himself into the top tier has included spending lots of money early in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina. Romney's campaign assessed that it had the money to spend early, that spending early would drive his numbers up, and that these numbers would influence the pundit class (and political elites generally) to consider Romney a top tier candidate, effectively making him one.

And so, for a long while, Romney has been the only Republican candidate with a significant presence in these states. This is obviously what has driven his numbers up, but this also means his leads might be ephemeral. They might simply reflect the fact that voters are not spending a great deal of time thinking about these candidates, that when they are queried by a pollster they pick the name that comes to mind first, and that because Romney has been advertising his name comes first.

This is why I would disagree with the argument that Patrick Ruffini made early in the week about Romney:

Mitt Romney's strength in the early states remains a highly salient point. Right now, Romney is the only candidate with a clear, plausible path to the nomination. It's one that basically boils down to Win Iowa, Win New Hampshire, Win Michigan, Win Nevada, and hope that by that point you're running #1 in the national polls and are competitive with Hillary thanks to an injection of positive name ID.

While I certainly think that this is Romney's strategy, I disagree that he is the only one who could pursue this strategy. This argument depends upon the problematic assumption that summer polls sample meaningful voter opinions. If this assumption does not hold, we should see the numbers in Iowa and New Hampshire begin to change as the other candidates begin to dedicate resources to those states. As late as this week, the Giuliani campaign indicated that they were just beginning to focus on swaying voters in New Hampshire. So, we might start seeing even more movement.

-Jay Cost

I'm Back

Dear Readers,

I apologize for my light blogging over the last few days. I was busy helping a buddy of mine get back some sports memorabilia in Las Vegas. It didn't go too well.

Just kidding.

Actually, I have just completed a move from the City of the Big Shoulders to the City of Champions (a.k.a. the most livable city in the country). The missus took a promotion in an industry governed by this committee. So, I shall now be dissertating-from-a-distance, which is not so bad. The dissertation is about the relationship between parties and candidates in congressional elections - and PA 04 is probably a better vantage point than IL 04.

That reminds me. I apologize to those of you who have emailed me expecting a response, only not to receive one. I was finalizing a draft of my dissertation from roughly August 1 to September 1, and after that I was packing up my belongings. Between these activities and the blog, there was not a great deal of time for email.

Jay Cost

On the MoveOn Ad

I am moving out of town on Saturday - and so have not had much of an opportunity to blog, but I did want to comment on the ad that MoveOn.org ran in the New York Times. Politically, it was obviously pretty bad for congressional Democrats. It was something that was foisted upon them, and it was something that they paid a price for. I find it fascinating that an outside group could have such an effect on the Party of Jackson - and I took the whole affair as an example of how our political parties have fallen into decline, and how the consequence of this decline has led to a kind of civic incoherence.

Groups like MoveOn exist largely to serve functions that the political parties used to serve, but no longer serve. They used to be unimaginable - the Democratic Party once did all of the things that MoveOn now does. But over the last sixty years, the nature of our electoral politics have changed. The parties no longer serve so many functions. The functions still need to be served. And so up pop groups like MoveOn.

There are many reasons for this decline in the power of the parties. One reason is that the federal government has sought systematically to weaken them. The parties have been castigated as enemies of true democracy, and hamstrung accordingly. Were it not for the free association clause of the First Amendment, some good-government do-gooder types would have outlawed them years ago.

The consequence of this is, as I said, the out-sourcing of the functions that the parties used to serve. In many respects, this has been a good thing. Multiple points of access to our political system provide us all with a lot of benefits - but there are also a few drawbacks, some of which are quite significant. We saw one of them this week with the MoveOn ad. It was an ad that the Democrats did not endorse and would not have endorsed if given the chance. It was an ad that gave the GOP an opportunity to shift the debate - from talk about the course of the war to talk about the war's opponents. It was entertaining political theater, but it meant that the political conversation of the week was more incoherent than it should have been. Because of the ad, different people were talking about different things. There was far too much cross-talk. This is a shame, considering the importance of the conversation.

And this is a typical consequence of weakened parties replaced by multiple outside groups. All of these groups come to the conversation with slightly different points to make. And so, our political discussion is one in which there is frequently no consistent, coherent agenda. The conversation is quite unmanaged. Instead, everybody says whatever it is they want to say. While an absence of such an agenda gives more people an opportunity to say their peace, it reduces the chances that anything of real value will come from the discussion. Cross-talk rarely produces coherent policy outputs.

E.E. Schattschneider, one of the most insightful students of the political parties, once said that American democracy is unthinkable without them because they set the agenda of our government. Parties that are responsible set the agenda in a way that is relevant and coherent. That is, they make it so that our national political conversation regards issues that are of importance to citizens, and that can result in real solutions to these pressing problems. Weakened parties, like those of today, lack the capacity to set the agenda. One of the consequences of this is incoherence. Without the parties managing what gets said, everybody says whatever they want to say, and we have nothing but crosstalk. Politics reduces to an extended episode of Hardball. And, just like in Hardball, nothing of importance is ever accomplished. Everybody just yells across one another.

-Jay Cost

Why Is the Right Afraid of Hillary?

Howard Fineman's column today brought the title question to mind. It is one that I have asked myself several times.

Fineman leads off:

Iowa Republicans will tell you that the Devil does not wear Prada; she wears a pantsuit, low-heeled shoes and a sunny, I-told-you-so smile. Karl Rove insists that Sen. Hillary Clinton is a "fatally flawed candidate," and many Democrats agree. In a new book, "The Neglected Voter," journalist David Kuhn charts the party's waning appeal among white men--a debilitating trend Clinton seems ill-suited to reverse. But Iowans aren't reassured by Rove or flow charts. They assume Clinton will be the nominee, and, with typical earnestness, are searching for the right Saint George to take on the dragon lady. "We have a healthy appreciation for her and what she would represent, which is a hard turn to the left," says Robert Haus, a local GOP media consultant. "The goal of preventing that is what unites us."

Many people on the right see Hillary (and, of course, Bill) as devils. A Google search of "Hillary Clinton devil" yielded 1.25 million hits. Wow.

This word choice is interesting to me. The "devil" is the great deceiver of humanity, after all. He is the snake in the garden who sweet-talked Adam and Eve into having a bite of that juicy red apple. This is why he is so fearful. He talks us into doing stuff that we know not to do.

The word fits in the right's general orientation to the Clintons. The right does not view them as they view other opponents, e.g. Kerry or Gore. Their attitude toward the Clintons is different. They are afraid of the Clintons - for the same reason one should be afraid of the devil. The devil works a power upon humanity that humanity does not understand, cannot predict, and certainly cannot defend against. The right sees the Clintons similarly, I think. They do not not understand the effect they have had on the nation, and they have never been able to counteract it.

The Clinton "shtick" never worked on the right, which always "saw right through it." It was obvious to the right from all the way back in 1992 that the Clintons were not worthy of the office. And yet, despite the right's best efforts, the Clintons beat the elder Bush. In 1996 (or at least in 1995), the right was convinced they finally had the Clintons' number. They had raised taxes, tried to socialize medicine, and so on. 1994, the right thought, was a harbinger of the Clintons' electoral doom. Nope. Clinton won handily. Finally, in 1998 the right was convinced that they had them. The Lewinsky affair would surely end their reign, they thought. Again, no way. Lewinsky brought down Gingrich, not Clinton!

Every time, the right has been left scratching its head and wondering, "How in the hell did they beat us again?!" They've never had a good answer to the question. Oh sure, the right can look at exit polling data and assess that Clinton did well with white suburban female voters, or whatever. They can see how it all fits on paper. What they can't see is how anybody would be persuaded by them, how the nation never seems to see through the Clintons as the right does. That's the major difference between the Clintons and other political opponents of the right. The right has "seen through" the Clintons for 15 years. Not only has the rest of the country not seen through them, they have not done so despite the right's best efforts to elucidate matters for the public.

The right knows that the Clintons have an effect on the nation, but they do not fully understand the effect, and they sure as heck have not figured out how to deal with it. And so, the Clintons are like the devil for the right. This time, the right thinks, we'll be ready. We know what they did last time, and it won't happen again! But, of course, it happens again...and again...and again. That's what the devil does. He deceives you, even when you think you're ready for his deception. This is what makes him so fearful. He's a mystery.

For the right, so also are the Clintons.

-Jay Cost

Can McCain Come Back?

McCain had a good debate performance last week, and it seems that some are wondering whether he can make a comeback. Dan Finkelstein of the London Times recently argued:

It's a long shot, I grant, but it does make me wonder whether it's really over for McCain. He is ill-suited to being a front runner but makes a brilliant insurgent. Circumstances have forced him back into that role.

When you look at the Republican race and see Rudy Giuliani out in front, you have to calculate that there is at least one shock out there before we get to convention time.

Why not a resurgent McCain?

Marc Ambinder recently reported on the contents of an internal memo from the McCain campaign. It clearly indicates that McCain has a strategy to do precisely what Finkelstein suggests.

Can this happen?

I think that it could, yes. Certainly, the sense in the Republican Party about the success of the surge in Iraq is something that McCain could use. Generally, the points in the memo Ambinder published seemed reasonable enough. So, I think it could indeed happen - especially if McCain sticks to issues that he is strong on and that engage the Republican base, e.g. spending instead of immigration.

What I wonder about is whether the media will "let him in." Right now, there are already three Republican candidates that the media has in the race - and, oddly enough, there have always been three candidates in the race. Ditto the Democrats. The media consistently has thought about and reported on these nomination battles as if they are three-way races. This has had the effect of enhancing the prospects of John Edwards, who is usually included in the top tier. This enhancement is perhaps artificial, as Edwards' level of support in our RCP national average is closer to Bill Richardson's than it is to Barack Obama's. It has also had the effect of diminishing the prospects of John McCain, who is now usually excluded from the top tier. This has perhaps been artificial as well, in light of the fact that McCain's numbers are hardly different from Romney's in our national average.

Maybe this is not coincidental. Maybe it gets much harder for analysts to do their thing with four candidates - and so they all assume a three-way race. Envisioning how one candidate affects the other two, and how the other two affect that candidate in return, is much simpler than envisioning the same interactions between four candidates. Four people is a lot to keep track of - too many?

I think this makes intuitive sense. We simplify all sorts of things so that we can analyze them more precisely. These are what assumptions are all about. Assumptions reduce the number of factors we have to analyze, so they take us further from reality. At the same time, though, assumptions make analysis easier, and therefore make it more accurate. At least with reasonable assumptions, the benefits outweigh the cost. We assume away factors whose effect on reality is minimal so that we can think about matters more clearly.

Personally, I am "naturally" inclined to assume a three-person race over a four-person race, regardless of whether or not the assumption is reasonable. Adding that fourth candidate makes it difficult for me to think about the ways in which the candidates interact with each other and with the electorate. I start to lose track of things in my mind.

If my subtle, psychological inclination for a three-person race is not unique, then McCain might face additional problems in re-entering the top-tier. If the media is inclined to a three-person race, then what would have to happen is Thompson, Giuliani, or Romney would have to stumble in much the same way that McCain did.

-Jay Cost

Thoughts on the Debate

As a rule, I never score debates - at least multi-candidate debates. When the two general election candidates get together, very frequently you can offer some statements about who got the better of the other. But that is not really the case with these multi-candidate affairs. So, instead of a grade, I'll just offer a few thoughts:

(1) I was entertained by the number of recycled lines I heard. You know, the zingers that candidates delivered from the old debates and have reused for this debate. That is an indication that the summer portion of the campaign was not of great consequence. Candidates will only repeat lines if they think that the audience has not heard them yet.

(2) While I was not invited to be part of Frank Luntz's focus group - and therefore might not be all that qualified to judge - I thought Giuliani did a good job.

(3) Ditto McCain. I thought he's stunk in every debate I've seen (which, I must admit, has not been all of them). This time, he looked good.

(4) I thought that the flow of the debate was greatly improved by the absence of T. Thompson and Gilmore. Both of them were lousy orators. It helped that there were fewer bad speakers tonight.

(5) Now...if we could just get Brownback and Tancredo to leave - we could have a real barn burner of a debate. Those two have a tin ear for political speech. Buzz killers.

(6) I was a little dissatisfied with the questioning. I thought there was far too much baiting. Too often were candidates provoked into attacking one another just for the sake of attacking. It annoyed me and it just seemed small.

(7) Romney generally rubs me the wrong way in these debates. In most of the debates I've seen, there's a point at which he is eagerly waving his hand, or talking over somebody else, trying to get into the debate. Every candidate does that from time to time, but Romney strikes me as a tad too eager, a tad too aggressive, a tad too clever. Whatever. This is largely a matter of personal preference, and I wouldn't dare objectify my own subjective reaction. But I think he just seems too much at these events.

(8) I find Huckabee's folksy wisdom thing enjoyable in small doses, but it weighs on me as time goes on. Plus...I can't help but ask: did he steal my line (read the last point)?

(9) More signs of John McCain's troubled state: he keeps being complimented. That's a sure sign these candidates see him as no threat.

(10) The other candidates seem now to think that Ron Paul is good to have on stage. He caught everybody off-balance in the early debates. After Rudy ripped into him in the summer, I think the other candidates got the message. You can go after this guy and look better. Pretty much everybody took a shot at him tonight.

(11) These debates have absolutely no probative value. They are little more than entertainment for the viewer and an artificial news story for the media. This is annoying.

-Jay Cost

On Craig's Change of Heart

I had decided to avoid the Larry Craig story because I found myself appalled - not only by what Craig confessed to doing, but also the way the media covered it. I thought that the story symbolized the impoverished nature of today's political journalism.

But, in the last few days, the story has taken a turn - and there are some interesting insights to tease out of it. Namely, Craig is now considering not resigning:

Just when Republicans thought things could not get much worse for their scandal-stained party, Idaho Sen. Larry Craig leaked word Tuesday night that he is reconsidering his abrupt plan to resign from the Senate in the wake of his arrest in a police sex sting operation.

Top Republican strategists were neither delighted nor amused by the senator's decision to rethink retirement after pleading guilty to disorderly conduct following his arrest in a Minnesota airport men's bathroom.

While I find this surprising, I must say that I am not totally surprised. It makes sense to me that, after a few days to think soberly about his situation, Craig is having a change of mind. I think he's asking himself, "If I stay, what can they really do to me?"

Journalists and pundits usually assume that the political party is a powerful organization with control over members like Craig. This is not really true. In fact, political scientists generally adhere to two theories about today's political party - one theory governs our understanding of the party-in-office, and another theory governs our understanding of the party-in-elections.

The first is known as "conditional party government." The idea is that the party leadership (at least in the House) is powerful because the policy preferences of the members in the caucus are closely aligned. The caucus empowers the leadership to do the caucus will. But this empowerment is limited. Rarely, for instance, do you see the caucus leadership impose punishments on legislators who vote the wrong way. Instead, the caucus leadership exercises power through agenda setting and committee assignments.

The second theory is known as the "party in service." The idea is that, in the contemporary electoral campaign, the party does not exercise power over candidates. Rather, it helps them get elected. This is mostly because candidates - especially incumbents - can acquire the nomination without the blessing of the party leadership, and can raise funds independent of the party leadership. Candidates do not really depend upon the party organization anymore, so the organization has lost the ability to exercise power over them.

How does this relate to Craig? Simply stated, the kind of formal power that the party can exercise over a sitting senator like Craig is pretty minimal. The press painted the picture as if the party was "leaning" on Craig to exit the Senate. However, there is very little leaning the party could actually do beyond threatening to go after his reputation. Case in point: there were reports that the RNC was planning to issue a statement calling on Craig to resign. This is actually a symbol of the RNC's impotence over a guy like Craig. That strategy punishes Craig by attacking his reputation, but it also punishes the RNC to a great degree. After all, the national committee must suffer the ignominy of calling on one of its own to resign for ignominious behavior. Beyond these sorts of Pyrrhic strategies that attack his reputation, the party is left with very little more than taking away his committee assignments and working to defeat him in next year's primary. But, of course, his defeat is a foregone conclusion, regardless of what the party does.

By and large, the party lacks the formal power to force a sitting member of Congress to exit the chamber. Its power is really limited to attacking his reputation - at a cost to itself. And this is why I am less-than-shocked that Craig is thinking about changing his mind. He probably recognizes that, should he stay, there is very little his fellow partisans can do to him other than sully his reputation. Because his reputation is so sullied already, this is not much of a punishment. In fact, from Craig's perspective, his best bet might be to stay in the chamber so that, should he win an appeal, he might use his status as a sitting senator to get more attention paid to his legal victory, and therefore get his good name restored much more fully.

-Jay Cost

Is Thompson Too Late?

Fred Thompson will announce his candidacy this week - but many pundits think that it is over before it started. Thompson missed his "moment" by holding out through the summer.

I could not disagree with this more. Without commenting on the likelihood of Thompson being the GOP nominee, I think it is wrong to argue that his chances to acquire the nomination have decreased because he has waited.

Thompson's problem is not the late announcement. It is, rather, the fact that his campaign has been poorly run. But this poor management may not be what you think. Changing staffers early, giving speeches that fall flat, fundraising that is a little weak - all of these are normal for a candidate who is just starting out, who up until recently never contemplated being president. Holding this against Thompson fails to take into account the learning curve that comes with these sorts of affairs. Instead, Thompson's problem has been that he has allowed the media to interpret all of these events as problems of his campaign, rather than as its natural and expected birth pangs. Thompson has failed to manage the expectations of the media. This is something that a candidate at any stage needs to do - and Thompson has not done it as well as he could have.

Fortunately for Thompson, this perception of mismanagement is not all that consequential. The media analyzes politics as though it suffers from amnesia. Last month's judgments often have no bearing on this month's judgments. This works to Thompson's benefit. He can get "back on track" with a few skilled debate performances and a good third quarter fundraising report: a strong fall implies no consequences for his summer "weakness." I think this is one reason why Thompson feels comfortable entering the race "late." The media is saying that he is late to get in, and that he will have to pay a price - but Thompson is (correctly) betting that it will not hold him to that come November, so long as he performs well.

Importantly, a strong performance in the fall was all that it ever was going to take. Unless you are trying to get into the top tier, you cannot help yourself in the summer. You can only hurt yourself. If you look strong in August, that's all well and good - but it won't buy you any strength in the fall. You'll have to look strong then, too. In point of fact, if you don't look stronger, people will wonder, "What happened to him?" Meanwhile, weakness in August can derail your candidacy altogether. So, why bother in August?

This is why I think Thompson's late entrance, far from being part of his problem, is actually the best part of his candidacy. Thompson is the only one of the major candidates who seems to have seen through the mirage of a summer campaign that the media has created. Not only that, he has put himself in a position where he can turn it to his advantage. A late entrance followed by a strong initial performance creates great buzz at just the right time.

I would not underestimate his candidacy - especially based on flimsy evidence like a "controlling" wife or "weak" Q2 fundraising numbers. If he performs strongly this fall, all will be forgotten and the promise that many once saw in his candidacy will suddenly reappear.

-Jay Cost