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By Jay Cost

HorseRaceBlog Home Page --> October 2007

A Junkie's Debate...And Nothing More

I would really like to see some cross-tabs on the ratings of last night's debate. I wonder, who exactly is watching them? The ratings are always so low [the debates have ranged from just under 1 million viewers to just under 3 million viewers, or about 4% of the first Bush-Kerry debate in 2004] that my intuition is that it is just a niche audience. And my theory about the niche is that it is mostly political junkies whose enthusiasm for politics belies their relatively small sway at the ballot box.

The reason I think this is because the debate seemed structured to further the storyline that the media has developed in the last few weeks, a storyline that only political junkies know much about or have any interest in: A Hillary has been spotted off the port bow. Attack!

Let me quantify my impressions. In the first two segments, I counted thirty-three questions. Twenty-two of them were designed to facilitate either another candidate attacking Hillary Clinton, or Clinton responding to attacks (either from another candidate or from Russert). Indeed, all of the major subjects were structured around attacks on Clinton.

Segment 1: How do Clinton, Edwards, and Obama Differ?
Segment 2: What Shall We Do About Iran? This segment could have been geared toward a more substantive policy discussion to tease out differences between the seven candidates. However, Russert and Williams framed the questions around Kyl-Lieberman, thus encouraging the six Democrats who opposed the resolution to go after Clinton, who supported it.
Segment 3: What Is Clinton's Real Position on Iraq?
Segment 4: What are Clinton's Qualifications?
Segment 5: Is Clinton Credible on Social Security?

I'd add that the non-attack questions did not seem to be crafted with much care. Russert asked whether candidates would "pledge" that Iran will not develop a nuclear weapon. How the hell do you pledge a result, Tim? What kind of dumb question is that? And, of course, when it came time to talk about something that regular folks are interested, like education, Bill Richardson had to be shushed because of the time "rule." He should have figured out how to blast Hillary Clinton in his answer - they would have given him more time.

Afterwards, I could only stomach so much post-debate "analysis." Before I had to walk away from the TV to find the Tums, I watched in amazement as Chris Matthews interviewed Joe Biden and Chris Dodd - and talked about nothing more than Hillary Clinton (well - I suppose there were a few UFO-related questions in there).

There was clearly some intentionality here on the part of the debate producers. I think the intention was to get the candidates fighting one another. This is the kind of spectacle that political junkies like, but that those with a good-old-fashioned American disregard for politics find annoying and alienating. My intuition is that they would only design the debate this way if they believed a broader audience would probably not be watching. I don't know much about television program planners beyond what I learned watching Monty Python's Flying Circus ("I wanted to be in television programming, but unfortunately I have a degree.") - but I am sure a rule of thumb is not to alienate your audience.

This is why it is strange for me to watch insiders estimate how the preferences of the broader public will be swayed. This is what under girds all "winners and losers" talk - the goal of candidates is electoral victory. So, the winners must have taken a step forward, and the losers a step back. Unless we are talking about whether potential donors or elite supporters, i.e. the agenda setters, changed their minds because of the debate (which we never are - we are always talking about the mass public when we talk about winners and losers) - this seems to me to rest on a false premise regarding the breadth of the audience. My guess is that it is quite narrow, that it is not a representative cross-section of American life, that it is comprised of the people in this country who are differentiated from the rest by dint of their unusually strong interest in politics.

The only way there could be a breakthrough with the larger public is if there is a sound bite from the debate that sinks into the popular consciousness due to repetition - but I did not really see one in that debate. And anyway we always have to wait to see if something sinks in before we start judging who is better or worse off from the sinking in!

Update, 4 PM EST. Maybe a broader base of Iowa and New Hampshire was watching. Steven Stark makes that point over at his Tote Board Blog. A regular reader of mine, Willis, made the same point. He writes:

Certainly the debate plays mainly to a niche audience, but I wonder if some of that niche extends to viewers in Iowa and New Hampshire. They may not be political junkies, but they seem to take their responsibility to scrutinize the candidates seriously.

I don't pretend to know the answer, but if Iowa and New Hampshire were disproportionately represented among the viewers, the fall debates could have a larger effect than we think.

This might very well be the case. Of course, from those voters' perspective, it is a shame because surely the balance of the audience is the junkie class that wants to see some bloodletting. They were the ones who the producers seemed to me to be out to satisfy last night - so I doubt that the undecideds would have learned much of probative value.

And, another thought: if you are an undecided voter who is, as most undecided voters are, sick of the way Washington works (and all that), would you have been able to sit through even the first segment, let alone the whole thing? I barely could - and it's my job to analyze events like this! [Watching some of these debates makes me understand what Roger Ebert must feel like having to watch the Deuce Bigelow movies.]

Unfortunately for the undecided voters who thought last night might help them decide, there is a minority in this country that enjoys the sport that is "politics as usual" - and they assuredly made up most of the audience.

-Jay Cost

Giuliani, New Hampshire, and the Real Campaign

Perhaps I am running the risk of sounding like a broken record on this blog - but I think that there are some points that can still be teased out from continuing on the same subject. I have been talking for a few days now about the difference between the perpetual campaign and the real campaign.

One of my difficulties with popular media analysis of the presidential campaign is that it fails to distinguish between the two. This, I think, is a major obstacle in coming to an understanding of our electoral process. Namely, journalists and pundits fail to appreciate fully that, while candidates were busy doing stuff in the summer, there is a difference between the summer stuff and the fall stuff. In the fall, you begin to make your broad-based appeals to the voters.

The reason is quite simple: voters aren't paying attention in the summer, and so your (very expensive) advertisements will fall upon deaf ears. Oh sure - they might respond to your message in the short term. But, suppose you spend all of your advertising money in the summer, and your opponent spends all of his advertising money in the fall. Who are the voters going to vote for? Your opponent. So, you wait until the fall.

This has generally been the rule - with the exception of Mitt Romney. He spent in the summer - I believe - not because he thought he could win voters over for good. He spent because he knew media outlets would be conducting polls in the summer. If they saw him in first place in those states, they would put him in the top tier of candidates, which would guarantee him a viable spot in the fall.

Other candidates have not done this because they either did not have the money (Huckabee, for instance) - or they did not have to get their names out there (Giuliani and Clinton, for instance). These two candidates could, and should, wait until the fall.

The same goes with campaign visits. You do more visits in the fall than in the summer because - all together now! - that is when voters are paying attention.

This is precisely what Giuliani has done. And yet, we saw this article in the Politico yesterday:

Rudy Giuliani, whose presidential campaign strategy originally downplayed New Hampshire, is now making a major bid to win the Granite State primary.

The new push includes spending four days in the state this week, the culmination of an effort which had him more in New Hampshire in October than in any other traditional early state. [Snip]

Now, though, Giuliani is seeing some encouraging signs in New Hampshire and is responding with new commitments of time and money.

The fact that Giuliani is now advertising in New Hampshire, whereas in the summer he was not, is taken not as a sign that his campaign team recognizes that October is the time to advertise. It is, instead, taken as a sign that his team switched its strategy. Ditto the increased number of visits. This speaks to the point I am trying to make. You only draw this conclusion about Giuliani if you fail to see a difference between advertising in July and advertising in October, between visiting when the Yankees are still playing baseball and visiting after they have been eliminated.*

There are multiple problems with the Politico's thesis, beside the fact that it does not comport with Campaigns and Elections 101.

First, let us not forget this Giuliani radio ad, which debuted in September in New Hampshire:

MoveOn.org is the most powerful left-wing group in the country. They spent millions electing anti-war liberals. And publicly brag how the Democratic Party is theirs -- bought and paid for.

Why is MoveOn attacking Rudy Giuliani? Because he's their worst nightmare. They know Rudy is a Republican who can beat the Democrats. And they know, no matter what they say -- Rudy will never, ever back down.

This ad started airing while that CNN/WMUR poll - which showed Rudy down just 1 point - was being taken. Why is that important? This is the poll the Politico references as an explanation for Giuliani's shifting strategy! So, the advertisements caused the good poll numbers, which caused the advertisements.

Furthermore, from June 1 through August 31, Giuliani made eighteen campaign appearances in New Hampshire, twenty-six in Iowa, and six in South Carolina. By comparison, he made ten appearances in Florida, nine appearances in California, two in New York and one in New Jersey. His summer strategy emphasized the small, early states over the big, later ones by about 2:1. So, I guess the Politico's thesis is that Rudy had three campaign strategies in a single month. Around Labor Day, he still planned to play in small places like Iowa and New Hampshire. Then in early September, he shifted to the big state strategy - only to shift back in mid-September with his ad on the New Hampshire and Iowa radio waves.

Finally, just so we're clear about this up-tick in Rudy's numbers, the RCP average on June 11 had him at 17.7% in New Hampshire. Today he is at 21%. So, the Politico wants to argue that a 3.3% shift in his numbers induced a shift in the Giuliani campaign's whole primary strategy.

Oh, and it has one other problem - an explicit denial from Team Rudy:

While Giuliani aides say the moves do not reveal a major shift, his staff and supporters plainly have a new optimism about their prospects in the Granite State.

"I think you're on to something," quipped Mike DuHaime, Giuliani's campaign manager, acknowledging a "more aggressive" effort in the state since the end of the summer. [Snip]

"Everybody has mistakenly called our strategy a 'Feb. 5 strategy,' DuHaime said.

"We do have a long-term approach, but that doesn't mean it's all about Feb. 5."

He called the Giuliani plan a "mixture of both" the traditional early states and those on Feb. 5.

OK - so we have the logic of the political campaign dictating that a candidate like Giuliani amp up his pitch in the fall. We have an alternative explanation - the changed strategy theory - that makes no internal sense, that does not fit the facts, and paints the picture of a campaign team that is inconsistent (this is the same campaign team that has been run professionally and well for eight or so months). AND we have Giuliani's people telling us that the strategy has been that they were always going to amp up in the fall.

And yet the thesis of the story is: Giuliani changes strategy.

* - My wife was at NYU when Rudy was mayor, and so she knows a good deal about the way Hizzoner works. She has wondered whether Rudy can continue to campaign next fall if the Yankees make the World Series. I think she might be on to something there. What happens if Rudy skips out on campaign visits to swing states for the sake of Game Seven? What happens if the Yankees play an NL team from a swing state - like the Cardinals or the Pirates (hey...it could happen...the law of large numbers demands that the Bucs are gonna turn it around eventually)? A snarky baseball comment from Rudy could turn the whole election. Perhaps Republicans should get Rudy to sign a "No Yankees Pledge" instead of a "No Taxes Pledge."

-Jay Cost

...Without the Band

On Friday, I offered the first of a two-part column on Fred Thompson. In it, I was quite positive about Thompson's campaign. I think he is taking some calculated risks by refusing to campaign as the press presumes he "must." My point was that the "must" might not be a real must, that the rules of the perpetual campaign are fake, and that Thompson could get ahead by violating those fake rules.

As strange as it is to use a metaphor in politics that is neither war- nor sports-related (nor a mix thereof), I nevertheless forged ahead, outflanking my way around this rhetorical blockade and into the red zone of analytical insight. [The Democratic Strategist could not resist that temptation, and noted that I was "launching a stout campaign for the Most Unlikely Metaphor of the Year."] I argued on Friday that Thompson's candidacy reminds me a bit of Bob Dylan's first electric tour. Both assessed that there are fake rules in the world. That is, there are regulations that everybody thinks they have to follow - but that, in fact, can be violated without punishment.

However, I also see something that does not line up so well - and the difference does not favor Thompson. When Dylan went on tour, he found for himself the best, as-yet-undiscovered band in North America, Levon and the Hawks (soon to be known as the Band). Full of world-class musicians, they were perfect for Dylan's project. They ensured that, whatever music was played, it would be played well. There is a lesson in this, one that I do not think Thompson has learned. One of the reasons Dylan's tour was successful, at least in retrospect, was because he had the Band with him. If he had gone out on the road with a lesser band that did not play as superbly - the critics could have claimed that the lousy sound just proved the point that these rules cannot be broken.

So, if you are going to break the fake rules in music (or in politics), whatever you do instead of following them had better be damned near flawless. Otherwise, people will conflate your rule breaking with your mistakes, condemn the whole project, and conclude that those rules cannot be broken.

It comes down to execution. If you break the rules, break them well. Thompson is not breaking them very well. A case in point came last Saturday - when his speech before the Florida Republican Party was about a third of the time that the other candidates' speeches were. This was a mistake - pure and simple. If Thompson deemed the event important enough to participate, he should have participated as fully as the other candidates. He looked really bad because of that five minute speech (some reports actually offered the length down to the second...yikes). Now - personally, I think the fact that he is doing fewer events is just fine. I think he is on to something. The public is sick of this endless campaign. A candidate who rejects it could find some sympathy and support from the voters. So, it is all right for Thompson to do fewer events. However, if he does fewer, he has to make sure that the ones he does are done with vigor and verve. That Florida speech lacked both - and it was not the first time that a Thompson speech has fallen flat. We have been hearing that for much of the year - since he gave what Robert Novak called his "ordinary" debut in May.

There have been other problems with execution. For instance, his early staff changes - the ones back in the summer - are forgivable. But staff changes have continued. The most recent one was Dan Hughes, a Thompson advisor in New Hampshire who switched to McCain last week. You should not be losing supporters to McCain this late in the campaign season. Hughes told Fox News that he did not think Thompson is building a "real" campaign in New Hampshire. If Hughes is correct, this is another problem. It is one matter not to participate in an innumerable quantity of New Hampshire campaign events because you want to campaign in your own way. But if your way includes building a behind-the-scenes campaign organization, then you need to make sure it is well built.

This poor execution spoils the effect of his rule breaking. Far from courting sympathy and support from voters - you can kind of sense that he might be courting a little enmity. The critics are taking the rule breaking, combining it with the mistakes, and drawing a conclusion that is quickly becoming ubiquitous:

Thompson is lazy.

Let's just be clear. This is a patently ridiculous thing to say about any human being you do not know well. It is the kind of over-simple conclusion that is only permissible in politics or junior high gossip. But it is especially dumb to argue about Thompson, given his biography. He might not be a workaholic, "A Type" personality like some other candidates, but that is still a far cry from lazy. Nevertheless, this is how the Washington chattering classes work. They put together disparate pieces of data into an over-simple narrative (the only kind that works in sound bite format) - and they repeat it, and they repeat it, and they repeat it. Eventually, it takes upon a life of its own, as the conclusion of the chatterers becomes a fact that all and sundry have "observed." They are doing exactly this to Thompson. They have fit his rule breaking with his mistakes, combined it with a few odd comments from the mid-90s about his "lazy" Senate days, and (of all the things!) the quote in his high school yearbook.

So, this is how I see things. The intention of Thompson's campaign strategy was as I described it on Friday. The idea is for Fred to shun the modus operandi of this inane campaign process, and inject some clarity into the Republican race. However, because he has made mistakes like that Florida speech, the impression that he gives is that of a lazy man hoping to win the nomination on the cheap.

Good strategy. Bad execution. Intended effect spoiled.

But not necessarily for good. It is still early enough. And, as I observed on Friday, he is getting some traction out there. What Fred needs to do is start showing some vigor. This does not mean that he needs to make fifty billion campaign appearances in Iowa next week. I like Thompson's overarching strategy of refusing to participate in things he finds unworthy of his time. But what he needs to do is inject some vim into the things that he does deem to be worthwhile. So, for instance, the next time he chooses to speak to the Florida Republican Party - he needs to make them feel that, though he does not think every possible campaign stop is valuable, he did deem this one to be so, and his speech showed it.

-Jay Cost

Thompson Goes Electric...

Residents of the Windy City, and football enthusiasts generally, are probably quite familiar with the phrase "Good Rex, Bad Rex." The phrase really captured the essence of the 2006 Chicago Bears. Their quarterback, Rex Grossman, would occassionally show signs of absolute football brilliance. Other times? Eh...not so much. The consensus in Chicago this year is that Good Rex is gone. Bad Rex has been replaced with Brian Griese. But the "Good Rex, Bad Rex" phrase has been on my mind lately. I usually think of it whenever I think about Fred Thompson.

For the longest time, I have been of two minds when it comes to Fred Thompson's campaign. Collectively, I think the political world is, too. Compare John Dickerson's analysis of Thompson with Michael Crowley's. Both are looking at the same characteristics - and yet they come out with different conclusions.

I think that the confusion over the Thompson campaign is that what works about it is very similar to what does not work. So, at first inspection, the lines are blurry - and you can't quite tell if this campaign is genius or disastrous. Upon closer inspection, I think that there are some lines to distinguish - and we can make some sense about this very peculiar presidential campaign.

So, today's column will review what I think works about the Thompson campaign. Monday's will review what is not working. Today's column is entitled "Thompson Goes Electric..." Monday's is entitled "...Without The Band."


Fred Thompson's candidacy has been widely panned by the press, but recent reports indicate that the candidate has acquired a little traction.

The first item comes from the Politico, which reported last Saturday:

Fred Thompson may have failed to impress Beltway insiders when he finally launched his run for the White House last month, but he is winning over a critical segment of the Republican coalition, new polling suggests.

Conservative Christians favor Thompson by a 10-point margin over his closest rival, Rudy Giuliani.

It's a sharp reversal for Giuliani. The putative GOP front-runner had been winning social conservative backing despite his history of support for abortion rights and gay rights.

Thompson has changed that.

Giuliani leads Thompson 29 percent to 21 percent among Republicans generally, the new national CBS News poll suggests.

But weekly Republican churchgoers back Thompson by a margin of 29 percent to 19 percent for Giuliani -- roughly tying John McCain.

Next, Bloomberg reported last Friday:

Fred Thompson hasn't dazzled many political professionals with his early stump appearances, yet when it comes to building a base of small campaign donors he's showing the potential to keep pace with better-funded rivals.

Thompson, 65, a former Tennessee senator who's running for the Republican nomination as a Ronald Reagan-style populist, tapped 74,217 individuals for an average gift of $125 between July 1 and Sept. 30, the first fundraising quarter of his presidential bid.

That's more than double the contributors Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani signed up during their first reporting periods. If Thompson keeps adding donors at this clip, he may be competitive in early primaries even though he trails Giuliani and Romney in cash raised.

Both of these stories beg the question: how is Fred Thompson doing well, given that he has not impressed "political professionals" and "Beltway insiders?"

I think that the answer has to do with a subject I have been discussing for the last few weeks. I have argued that there are two campaigns. On the one hand, there is the perpetual campaign - which is reducible to each party's attempts to win the daily news cycle. On the other hand, there is what I have been calling the real campaign. This is the quest for votes during the few weeks before Election Day.

The value of the perpetual campagin is that it sets the agenda for the real campaign. It is a show put on by candidates for the benefit of leaders of political constituencies, donors, and media personalities. Doing well in the perpetual campaign gets you noticed, and therefore gets you a spot in the real thing. The trouble with the press is that it treats the perpetual campaign as an end. It is not. Instead, it is a means to an end - namely, a shot to win the voters over. Candidates who excel in the perpetual campaign get the money and the attention that is necessary to make appeals to the voters during the real campaign.

The media is the arbiter of the perpetual campaign. This is for good reason. Candidates like to keep the cost of the perpetual campaign low. The media offers advertisement to them - through news coverage, talk shows, debates, and so forth - that costs candidates no money. But, as nothing in life is free, the candidates pay a price. Everything they say and do is analyzed and categorized by the talking heads. So, the heads set the rules of the perpetual campaign. They tell us who does well and who does poorly, and why.

According to the heads, Thompson has done poorly because he is not doing what he is supposed to be doing. He is breaking too many of the rules. A case in point is Dick Morris's rant from last month about all of the problems with Fred Thompson.

•He skipped and is skipping the first two debates of his presidential candidacy and said he was looking forward to attending the Oct. 14 New Hampshire debate -- the one that was cancelled weeks ago;

•He is taking this week off from presidential campaigning;

•He does not know enough about the details of the Terry Schiavo case to comment.;

•He is also unfamiliar with the proposal to lower soaring insurance premiums Floridians must pay for home storm coverage since the hurricanes

These are the sorts of sins that leave the media arbiters cold. These are their rules. And he is breaking them. In the perpetual campaign - you are supposed to campaign non-stop. You are supposed to remember all of the minutiae of your campaign schedule. You are supposed to know the details of symbolic events that happened over a year ago. You are supposed to know the specifics of local political issues so you can pander to the residents. Those are the rules. Thompson isn't following them.

And yet, he seems to have some real signs of viability. How is that possible?

Let's approach this indirectly. Consider the Thompson organization. It has some top notch people either directly or indirectly affiliated with it. Meanwhile, Thompson himself is a good actor. He does not have much range - but, so long as the character is within his range, he plays it convincingly. And a presidential candidate is definitely within his range.

So, he has the talent. And he has the brain trust. But he is still not dazzling the arbiters. In light of this, I would suggest that Thompson's missteps might be intentional. His rule breaking has been purposive because he thinks it can get him the traction he seems to be getting.

But that does not make any sense. There are rules. The rules need to be followed. If they are not followed - punishments will be doled out and you will be sorry. You'll end up like John McCain - whose ticket to the real campaign was invalidated back in July due to his anemic fundraising and poor money management.

Well - maybe. But maybe not.

There are two types of rules in the world. On the one hand, there are real rules. These are the rules that you need to follow, or you will be in big trouble. Stay in school is one of them. You can't do much without a high school diploma - so that is a real rule. On the other hand, there are fake rules. These are rules that most people follow because they think there are negative consequences for disobedience, but actually there are not. In fact, the ones who break the fake rules are often celebrated as trail blazers.

Bob Dylan comes to my mind when I think of those who break the fake rules. In the mid-60s, there was this rule that songs could only be three minutes long, and they had to have three verses and a chorus. But Dylan did these six minute songs that had five plus verses and no chorus. And whose ears don't perk up today when they hear the first bars of "Subterranean Homesick Blues?" Another rule said that folkies could not play rock. That just did not happen. But Dylan hired Levon and the Hawks, and went electric. At first, he was booed everywhere he went (except in the South). Eight years later he went on tour with the exact same group - now called the Band - and received 6 million ticket requests for 600,000 seats.

If you have the intelligence to see which rules are real and which are fake, the respectfulness to follow the real rules, and the guts to break the fake rules - you can get ahead in this world. In fact, people will love you for breaking the fake rules.

I think Thompson might be breaking what really are fake rules. As I mentioned above - the perpetual campaign is only a means to the real campaign. You play the game by the rules of the media to earn your way into the real contest. But there may be other ways to get to the real campaign. If there are, the media's rules are indeed fake. There are no consequences to breaking them. If you find another way into the real campaign, you can break them all you like.

This is what Thompson seems to be doing. In fact, I think Thompson and his campaign have assessed that breaking these media rules will actually help him get to the real campaign. They might be right. Two benefits seem to be accruing to Thompson.

First, breaking the rules has earned him notice. This is ironic, as most candidates follow the rules of the perpetual campaign for precisely this reason. They do a lot of stump speeches to get on the evening news. They do the Sunday morning show circuit. They take any opportunity to appear on Hardball that they can get. And so on. But not Thompson. So, is the media ignoring him? Hardly! Instead, his rule breaking has earned him more attention. My favorite example of this so far was Thompson's declaration of his candidacy. The fact that he announced his candidacy on Jay Leno was taken as rule breaking. But consider the net result. Thompson announced on Leno - and got the Leno audience. And then the next day, all the talking heads did was talk about Thompson! Far from being punished, Thompson was rewarded for his defiance.

But much more importantl, I think Thompson has assessed that breaking these rules could win him support. People outside the Beltway, whose daily lives are not regimented by the news cycle, appreciate that the perpetual campaign has reached a point of asininity. Accordingly, a candidate could win supporters over in the real campaign by claiming that he ignored all of these rules, which essentially mandate twenty-two months of nonstop campaigning. This is a twist on running against Washington. It is running against the Washington press corps. A Republican candidate can do this all the more. After all, the perpetual campaign is mediated by the press, which conservatives loathe. Instead of saying that he broke the media's rules, a candidate instead can say that he broke the Drive By Media's rules. That is a great way to win conservatives over: run against the Drive By's.

I think that Thompson is taking a calculated risk here. As somebody who thinks that the rules of the media's prepetual campaign are inefficient and irresponsible (how much time are we going to spend talking about a damned haircut?), it is one that I admire. He is betting that all of the rules of the perpetual campaign, and the praise one earns from the talking heads for following those rules, is just one way to get to the real campaign. He is betting that there is another way - instead of following all of those rules, he can thumb his nose at them.

-Jay Cost

More on Clinton v. Obama

I received an interesting email yesterday from a reader named George, who wrote in response to my column on Gallup's analysis of the Democratic primary race. George had obviously read my column with great care and attention - and so I was struck when he wrote the following: "In my opinion there are some strong arguments for the notion that you appear to be underestimating Clinton's current advantage, that indeed Gallup is closer to the true picture on this."

I have been dissatisfied for a while about the end result of my writings on Clinton v. Obama. I have been concerned that I might be giving a wrong impression. It seems that I am. Smart readers like George seem to be inferring something about my position that I do intend.

I think that one of my problems has been that I have not approached the issue with the correct vocabulary. For instance, yesterday I led off my column with the following statement: "Regular readers of mine know that I am not at all inclined to write off Barack Obama. This is not to say that I think he is the likely nominee of the Democratic Party. My point has simply been that people are underestimating his chances." This is a true statement. However, it is not worded nearly as precisely as it should be. In particular, I meant the word "estimate" in a way that differed from the way I think that George meant it. This is, of course, my fault - and I intend to clarify my position today.

Here is how I would characterize my feeling about the Democratic primary. I am not in disagreement with pundits or analysts who argue that Clinton is expected to be the nominee. I would estimate that as well. But estimates such as these have two relevant features. There is the expected value. Namely, exactly what do you think will happen? That is your expected value. But there is also the variance - which is not really discussed much by pundits. The variance is a measure of your confidence that the real value will match your expected value.

The higher the variance, the less confident that you are the real value will match your expected value. Take a simple example. A person who says that the Bengals will score just six points against the Steelers next Sunday is expecting, obviously, just six points to be scored. But he also sees no potential for variation around this prediction. In other words, he sees no variance. On the other hand, a person who predicts that the Bengals will score between three and nine points against the Steelers is also predicting that six points will be scored. However, he sees some potential variation around this estimate. The expected values are the same. The difference is in the variances.

So - my point is that I agree with pundits on the expected value of the Democratic primary. I expect Clinton to win the nomination. The point where I disagree has to do with the variance. My argument is that it should be higher than pundits have been making it out to be. That was my intended point in yesterday's column. Gallup's arbitrary cutoff point obscured a problematic data point, 2003/04. It therefore made the variance seem lower than it actually is. Gallup was therefore committing Type I error. That is, they were identifying something as being true that might not be true.

Hopefully, you'll appreciate the conundrum that I have been facing in working through this issue in my own head. I have not seen anybody explicitly discuss the variance of their estimate. This is not something that pundits do. But the variance does get mentioned - but it is usually in a sideways fashion. You'll see it come through in the word choices that pundits use - specifically in the adverbs or adjectives. Is Barack Obama "trailing" or is he "trailing badly?" The latter is a statement that inclines one to lower the variance - i.e. not only is Obama trailing now, but this trailing makes it extremely unlikely that he will be able to catch up. Is Hillary Clinton "leading" or is she "unstoppable?" Again, the choice of word implies a different variance - the former allows for some variance, the latter obviously does not. This is what has sparked a kind of visceral reaction from me over the last weeks and months. I have been searching for the right way to articulate it - and until today, I have been left unsatisfied with my various attempts.

Let me just briefly review why I am inclined to a higher variance, even though I expect the same result:

(1) Public opinion is often susceptible to instability. On the national level, voter preferences for candidates have not really been formed by any kind of electoral campaign. Instead, they have been formed by the media dialogue on the campaign - of which average voters are only marginally aware. That is, most voters don't watch Meet the Press, the debates, read the Horse Race Blog ;-), etc. They only pick up the dialogue in dribs-and-drabs. They are capable of "regurgitating" this dialogue back to the press - thus giving the latter the impression that these positions are more well-formed and stable than they actually are. So, as events change, we might expect public opinion to change as well. Generally, we need to be wary of putting too much stock in the stability and foundation of public opinion. You can call this my "John Zaller Hang Up."

(2) We saw something like this happen in 2004. A candidate who was at about 10% for many months suddenly and dramatically jumped to 50%. He went from fourth to first overnight. This is a sign that public opinion before the first primaries can indeed be susceptible to change.

(3) Even if public opinion is less susceptible to modification this time around - it seems sufficiently susceptible to alter the dynamics of the race. This is what yesterday's thought experiment was intended to demonstrate. That is, a win in Iowa and/or New Hampshire would probably not give Obama a 40% boost. However, it could give him a 20% boost, some of which would come at Clinton's expense.

(4) Obama is a good candidate and could very well win Iowa. He has lots of money, a strong organization, and a message that I think could sell. It will be interesting to me whether his media blitzes in New Hamphsire have any effect - because I think he could play there, too.

(5) We have very few previous observations to draw inferences about this year. It is a mathematical fact that as the number of observations decreases, the variance increases. The fact that we only have seven data points - all of which have great differences from one another - makes it more difficult for us to infer what will happen in January based upon what the October polls are saying.

So, the bottom line: there is a difference between what we believe will happen (expected value) and how confident we are that we will find what we believe will happen (variance). My disagreement is over the variance, not the expected value. Put another way, I do not disagree with the conclusion of pundits and analysts. My disagreement is more with the confidence with which they offer these conclusions.

-Jay Cost

Clinton v. Obama, Gallup, and Historical Precedent

Regular readers of mine know that I am not at all inclined to write off Barack Obama. This is not to say that I think he is the likely nominee of the Democratic Party. My point has simply been that people are underestimating his chances.

The reason I think this is three-fold:

(a) The guy has a real message that he has honed over the last few months. It could resonate with Democrats, who presumably are the most desirous of a national course correction. As evidence of this, we cannot overlook the fact that he has had donations from more than 300,000 individuals.
(b) He has raised $80 million to date. He will be able to compete as well as any presidential candidate ever has.
(c) He is fully staffed in Iowa and New Hampshire. He'll be blitzing both states with advertisements. He could win one or both states and turn those national numbers upside down.

Most pundits who are favoring Hillary Clinton so heavily (and remember - I am not saying that she is not favored; my objection is that people are favoring her too heavily) are using the polls - most often the national polls - to support their point. I have argued that this line of analysis is problematic because the national polls are too volatile.

The Gallup organization offered a rejoinder to this argument this week. Their basic assertion is that Democratic candidates with leads greater than 20% at this point (or later) in the election cycle have never lost the nomination. This gives them a modicum of stability in the national numbers, which therefore enables them to conclude:

By now, it is obvious that Clinton is extremely well-positioned to win the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination. Her status as the front-runner seems to be strengthening at an opportune time with the Iowa Caucuses less than three months away. It is not beyond the realm of possibility that she could stumble and not win the nomination as did Kennedy and Hart, but those cases occurred under rather extreme circumstances. Also, those candidates held their large leads long before any votes were cast.

I have a lot of respect for Gallup as a polling organization. Furthermore, I have a lot of respect for the analysts they have over there - Frank Newport and Lydia Saad in particular. However, I have to say that this line of analysis is misleading (though I am sure unintentionally so). This is one of those instances where the strength of the conclusion is driven by the cutoff point, which is largely arbitrary.

What do I mean by that? I mean that Gallup has based its analysis on a cutoff point of 20% or more. In other words, they look at candidates who had leads of 20 points or greater at this stage in the campaign. And from this they can argue (correctly) that no candidate has lost if they had that size of a lead at this point in the cycle.

Methodologically, though, this is not as straightforward as it seems. We are in what a salty statistical guy such as myself would call "small n territory." In other words, we do not have very many observations of Democratic primaries - especially open ones. By my count, this is just the eighth open primary since 1972 (when the primary system was implemented more widely). When we have just seven observations to draw inferences about this eighth - we have to be very conscious of observations that do not fit our hypothesis. They factor in a lot. Accordingly, we cannot impose a priori cutoffs that obscure problematic data points.

So - I'll just ask the question: what happens if we switch the margin in the polls to, say, 16%? In that case - we find that Howard Dean did have such a lead in mid-December, 2003 - over Joe Lieberman , the second place candidate at the time! His lead over Kerry was 19%. Kerry, at that point, was in fourth place - behind (in order) Dean, Lieberman, and Wesley Clark. John Edwards, who ultimately finished second, was actually in sixth place - behind every major national candidate. He was just a point above Al Sharpton.

This indicates that anybody who wishes to use the national polls to infer what will happen must advertise loudly and clearly just how wrong they turned out to be in 2003/04. Between mid-October and the end of January, we actually saw three distinct trends in the Democratic contest. At this point in 2003, Clark and Dean were essentially tied for first place. Dean overtook Clark in early December - and surged ahead through Christmas. His lead began to taper off after New Year's. And Kerry surged after the Iowa Caucus.

The problem with Gallup's analysis is that it misses all of this because of the standard that it sets. The problematic nature of 2003/2004 is never brought to bear on its analysis of 2007/08.

So, does this mean that Clinton's lead is as tenuous as Dean's? No. In fact - and here is one reason why I regard Gallup as generally great not only at polling but also at polling analysis - they rightly note that Democratic primary voters this year claim to be much more stable in their candidate preferences than they were in 2003 and early 2004. In the latest Gallup poll, 57% of Democratic primary voters with a preference say they are "certain" to vote for their candidate. This number is at 67% among Clinton supporters. By contrast, only 35% of respondents said they were certain back in early January, 2004.

This favors Clinton. There is no doubt about it. It is one of the reasons I do not think this race is a toss-up. I think that she has an edge in this contest. But I do not yet see this edge as being decisive - or as being great enough to enable us to call the race right now. Return again to that swing to Kerry. At the beginning of January, he was at about 10% in the polls. At the end of January, he was at about 50%. Edwards, for his part, doubled his support from about 7% to about 13%. Where did this support come from?

First, let's make some simplifying assumptions, none of which contradict common sense. Assume that (a) Kerry or Edwards supporters at the beginning of the month were Kerry or Edwards supporters at the end of the month; (b) Voters who initially supported candidates who dropped out, or undecided voters who decided, went to Kerry or Edwards; (c) A candidate's "uncertain" voters will stop supporting a candidate before his "certain" voters; (d) The "certain" supporters of Clark and Dean followed the national trend, i.e. 35% of their respective supporters claimed certitude.

From these assumptions, we can claim the following. First, Kerry or Edwards picked up the support of the Gephardt, Lieberman, and Braun supporters. Second, about two-thirds of the undecided voters decided for Kerry or Edwards. Third, they picked up about 70% of Dean and Clark's "uncertain" supporters. Again, these are all based upon my assumptions. I cannot be certain because the data I have is aggregate, and therefore I run afoul of the ecological fallacy if I claim certitude. But some process akin to the one outlined here most certainly happened. After all, at least 50% of the Democratic electorate switched their preference from the beginning of January to the end. The specifics might have been a little different (my intuition is that Dean and Clark kept more of their "uncertain" voters but lost some of their "certain" voters) - but it would basically have been a process like this.

Now - let's flash-forward to 2008 and run a scenario similar to the one that occurred in 2004. Let's assume that Obama scores a huge win in Iowa that begins a shift akin to the one in 2004. It knocks out all of the candidates except Clinton, Edwards, Kucinich, and Gravel. Let's again assume that Edwards does well enough to benefit, too. But again, like 2004, he is not the prime beneficiary. Further, let's assume that Clinton's "certain" voters are indeed certain - but that she loses 70% of her "uncertain" voters. This gives Obama and Edwards a chance to split amongst themselves 24% of the Democratic electorate - 11.5% of which had previously supported Clinton in an "uncertain" fashion.

In 2004, the split among the new supporters between Kerry and Edwards was such that Kerry accrued 85% of the benefit. Let's assume that this happens again. Obama gets about 85% of this new vote up for grabs, Edwards gets about 15%. This means Obama increases his share of the vote by about 20% to go to 41%. Edwards increases his share by about 5% to go to 17%. Clinton loses her 70% of her "uncertain" supporters - 11.5% of her total support - and thus falls from 50% to 38.5%.

So, we have at the end of January 2008: Obama 41%, Clinton 38.5%, Edwards 17%, Undecided/Other 3.5%. This would be an electoral pivot that is, by my estimate, about as dramatic as the one that occurred in 2004. The difference - an important one - is that Clinton would obviously not be knocked out. Instead, the contest would continue on to Super Tuesday, with Obama being the leader in the national polls.

Do I think that this is what will happen? No. Not really. The point is simply the following. Something like this did happen once, out of just seven trials. This makes it highly problematic to draw inferences about what will happen in January based upon October polling. That "falsifying" observation diminishes our level of certitude to a great degree. This would not be the case if we had, say, 40 or so primary cycles to review. But we don't. We have seven. And one of them was just plain nutty. This limits our ability to infer what will happen.

And remember the initial cause of Kerry's 2004 turnaround. It was essentially because Kerry won the Iowa caucus by 6%. Think about that. That is amazing in retrospect. The actions of 6% of caucus-going Iowa Democrats induced about 50% of the entire nation's Democrats to begin to support John Kerry or John Edwards. That is incredible.

I'll put it another way: the reason that all of these states are jockeying for an early position is exactly the reason why none of us should be putting anything but the most rudimentary of odds on either party's nominating contests. These states are tripping over each other to break party rules because they think these early contests could be pivot points. The reason that we are all following these state actions is because we agree with them. We know that these early contests can be pivot points. So why are we implicitly claiming that the Democratic contest will necessarily not have one?

Like I said - rudimentary analysis is really all that is valid right now. So, here is mine. Clinton and Obama both have a ton of cash. They both have good messages that could appeal to the Democratic primary electorate. Both of them stand a chance at victory. I would estimate that Clinton has an advantage over Obama that is probably due to her greater name recognition as well the fact that she is a known quantity from a family of proven electoral winners.

If you want to argue that Clinton has an advantage because of the size of her national lead - you are simply on unsolid ground. Recent history has demonstrated quite clearly that these national poll numbers are far from stable. They are subject to sudden, dramatic, and decisive changes because of tiny shifts in the early contests.

-Jay Cost

Giuliani's Primary Strategy

There was a very strange article that appeared in the Washington Times on Saturday. It had to do with Giuliani's primary strategy. Joseph Curl wrote:

Republican presidential contender Rudolph W. Giuliani is counting on surviving the four early primary states and then implementing a national primary strategy that starts in Florida and explodes across the country, from New York to California, campaign analysts and consultants say.

While Iowa and New Hampshire are almost always the bellwether contests, and often the kingmakers, the former New York City mayor is "turning upside down the laws of political gravity," one strategist said.

"It looks like they're going to try to survive early, and he's got 16 million bucks in the bank, more than anybody else but [Mitt] Romney, and they'll try to roll through this thing, get to the big states on January 29 and Super Tuesday," said Scott Reed, a former Bob Dole campaign strategist who is not working for any presidential campaign this year.

Well - this starts off sensibly enough. We all know by now that Giuliani is planning to take the nomination by doing well on February 5. Unfortunately, the author takes things a bit too far - and uses comments from strategists in place of some simple fact checking.

"His strategy is centered around Florida plus February 5th and having enough money to do advertising campaigns in those big states," said Charlie Black, a Republican strategist close to the Bush administration who this campaign is working for Sen. John McCain. [Snip]

Mr. Reed said that tracking the movements and media-time purchases of Mr. Giuliani gives a window into his strategy.

"Look at where he's spending his time; look at where he's spending his money -- they're not camping in Iowa and New Hampshire; they're not spending a lot on advertising in Iowa and New Hampshire."

He, too, expressed doubt about the strategy.

"I just think it's difficult for Giuliani to lose the first four main events and think everybody in Florida is still going to be hanging on. ... I wouldn't say it's a losing strategy, but it's never been done," Mr. Reed said.

I, too, would express doubt about this strategy. The trick is - it does not seem to be what the Giuliani campaign is doing. The Washington Post has a handy-dandy website that keeps track of candidate visits - we can use it to verify the claims made in this article. Since the beginning of the year, Giuliani has visited New Hampshire more than any other state. Iowa comes second. Florida, California, and South Carolina round out the top five.

Now - maybe Giuliani has altered his campaign strategy. Indeed, we might expect any candidate to do this as his position in various states shifts, and he must deal with the problem of resource constraints. To check this, I examined his campaign trips since October 1, 2007 through yesterday. I excluded the debates. The results I found were inconsistent with the claims of the article. Giuliani has made eight campaign appearances in New Hampshire, four in Florida, four in South Carolina, three in Iowa. He has made six appearances in states that will come on Super Tuesday.

Not only has Giuliani spent the most time in New Hampshire - he camped out there for two complete working days. October 3rd and October 14th were dedicated exclusively to New Hampshire.

I think it is certainly true that Giuliaini is banking on doing well on the fifth of February. I also think that he may not be trying to win any of the early states. Instead, he may be trying to retain his viability until Florida. But it is just wrong to claim that Giuliani is not spending his time in the early states.

Relatedly, we can debate whether he is thinking about writing off Iowa. He may be. After all, his trip last week was his first in about two months - and his position in the Iowa polls has been weakening. But it is just ridiculous to argue that he is writing off all the early states. He clearly is not. He has been spending a good bit of time in both New Hampshire and South Carolina - and he has visited both states at least one time every month since July. What's more, his poll positions in New Hampshire and South Carolina are both fairly strong. Our average shows him in second place in New Hampshire, and tied for first place in South Carolina. Giuliani's frequent trips to both states reflect those positions.

-Jay Cost

On Brownback, the Orlando Debate, and the State of the GOP Race

As we all know by now, Sam Brownback exited the presidential contest late last week. And I guess I am behind the news cycle here, but I thought I'd offer some thoughts on his departure.

There is not much to say about Brownback's candidacy. Like a lot of presidential contenders - he thought he had an angle at the nomination. This is what induces the serious ones to get into the race. They see a way they can potentially win the nomination. But it is always an open question as to whether the angle ever materializes. Oftentimes it does not.

Brownback's angle was fairly obvious. He'd emphasize his cultural conservatism and his Midwestern roots, emphasize the family, do well in Iowa - and springboard from there. Unfortunately for him, it did not work out that way. Mike Huckabee's candidacy seemed to have robbed him of that angle. Huckabee always bested Brownback at the debates. And, of course, he came out ahead of Brownback at Ames, even though Brownback outspent him.

As of last week - Brownback was averaging about 4% in the polls in Iowa. And he is a non-entity in the New Hampshire polls. His angle was never going to materialize. He was right to leave.

So, here's the question I guess we're all asking: who benefits? David Yepsen had this to say:

A 27 percent front-runner [Mitt Romney] isn't much of a heavyweight. And last week's departure of Sam Brownback from the GOP race helps Mike Huckabee consolidate the votes of the GOP's social conservatives.

So do a little math. Add the 4 points Brownback had in that poll to the 12 percent Huckabee got, and the Arkansan is suddenly a 16-point contender in second place, ahead of Giuliani at 13 and only 9 points behind the stalled-out Romney.

I tend not to agree with this. Here's the problem. Right now, there are three viable contenders for the mantle of the social conservative: Romney, Thompson, and Huckabee. These four points are going to be spread among these three candidates - and of course some of these voters will find their way over to Giuliani and McCain. This means that, in all likelihood, nobody benefits to any appreciable degree. And that makes sense. After all, if the Brownback vote was of any significant size - he would not be bowing out of the race!

The same goes for Brownback's fundraising totals. They were equally anemic. Now that he is out of the race - those donors are probably going to be divided up among the three social conservative candidates - though a lot of those donors might be Brownback-specific. More than 20% of his donations came from Kansas, and might therefore be part of Brownback's political network rather than from at-large Republican activists who are now going to contribute to another candidate.

I will say that it was time for Brownback to leave the race. I do not begrudge him for taking his shot. But it has been clear for a while that the angle he thought he would have was never going to emerge. Thus, the only thing he was doing was interrupting the flow of the debates (Note to Hunter and Tancredo: You are, too. Please leave!). As it stands right now, the race largely appears to be Giuliani versus three alternatives, each of whom wants to argue that he is the best bet for social conservatives: Thompson, Romney, and Huckabee. Meanwhile, McCain is hanging around in New Hampshire. He might be able to play spoiler, or take the whole thing for himself with a surprise win.

So where does that leave the state of the race? Who has the best shot? I have no stinkin' idea! The impression that the polls give me is the same impression I received from last night's debate: this thing is wide open. I think most people who watched the debate would conclude that the five major candidates - Giuliani, Thompson, McCain, Romney, and Huckabee - all performed reasonably well. What is more, they all conveyed different personas. Each of them thinks that what they are conveying might be what the public is looking for - and each of them might very well be right. In other words - like Brownback, each of these five candidates enters with an angle on the race. Unlike Brownback, their angles still may materialize.

Look at the current Real Clear Politics average. It tells the same story as last night's debate.

Giuliani: 27.6%
Thompson: 18.7%
Romney: 12.7%
McCain: 13.4%
Huckabee: 5.4%

Both Iowa and New Hampshire have numbers that are roughly similar - the only difference is in the order of the candidates. The bottom line: five candidates have non-negligible amounts of support, and no candidate has a commanding lead over any other candidate. Two other factors are of relevance. First, most voters still maintain that their minds may change. Second, the real campaign is just now beginning - as the campaigns are unloading the war chests they have been building.

This leads me to conclude that these numbers are unsustainable. What we are going to see - and we are going to see it relatively soon - is this field breaking in one or more directions. The question that we can't answer: to whom is it going to break?

This is why I think horse race analysis at this point is an exercise in futility. It is like trying to predict what a specific molecule in a volatile system will do at an given moment. There are simply too many factors to account for. I could see any one of these five candidates being the one at the top when the race is over. So, I would be wary of people who are willing to tell me what to expect. The fact of the matter is that the GOP primary battle has a lot in common with any highly complicated, multi-variable system. It is impossible to anticipate what will happen.

What that means is that we should stop trying to extrapolate from every little micro-event that only a handful of political junkies ever take notice of. Those tiny day-to-day happenings probably are not going to matter much because this thing is going to shift at some point - and the day after it shifts simply will not resemble the day before it shifts.

Right now, I see Giuliani, Thompson, and Romney as quite viable. I also see Huckabee able to shake things up with a big surprise in Iowa, or McCain able to do the same in New Hampshire. It is, I think, completely futile to try to assign probabilities to any specific outcome.

So, I think we should all sit tight - and see how this thing breaks.

We shouldn't have much longer to wait.

-Jay Cost

A Few More Considerations

A reader of mine named Sean, who runs the very excellent MyElectionAnalysis.com, sent along the following email in regards to today's column.

I generally agree with everything that Sean says below, and I post it without comment because it stands on its own. I'll just say that any metric of an election that is 13 months away is going to have efficiency problems, which is what we are really discussing. The difference between "politics nerds" like myself and Sean (i.e. people who spent way too much time studying politics at the university-level) and others, I think, is that we like to list all of our caveats right up front. The two metrics that other analysts have been making use of - the money race and retirements - probably have as many caveats as recruitment.

That said, I'll leave it to Sean to fill out my list of caveats.


I hope all is well. Allow me to suggest two further caveats to your "candidate quality" metric.

First, I believe it excludes a number of quality candidates who might not have run for Congress before. Two immediate examples spring to mind: Admiral Joe Sestak in PA-07 and the Republican Four-Star General who is challenging Jim Marshall in GA-08 this time around. I understand that the beauty of the "previous elective office" rule is that it is a very bright line, and that candidates who have never won elected office before tend to be of the Carol Shea Porter variety, so I don't consider this an important one (BTW, do you happen to know off the top of your head the name of the guy who developed the measurement system from 1-4 of measuring candidate quality? Can't remember it, but it was a good one).

[Jay: David Cannon is, I believe, the creator of that scale. I think the work is Actors, Athletes, and Astronauts: Political Amateurs in the United States Congress (1990). I believe that the four-point scale gives different scores to previous office holders, candidates with a prior political job like an appointment, ambitious amateurs who have run before, and then all other candidates. The binary variable I used in today's column is one used by Gary Jacobson and Alan Abramowitz, though of course they use actual general election challengers. It is therefore much more precise.]

Carol Shea-Porter, though, leads me to a second, more important caveat, which questions the efficacy of the measurment. By my count, fifteen of the twenty-three Democrats who defeated GOP incumbents in 2006 held no prior elected office (McNerney, Donnelly, Loebsack, Boyda, Yarmuth, Walz, Shea-Porter, Hall, Gillibrand, Shuler, Altmire, Sestak, Murphy, Carney, and Kagen) (I'm not sure if Brad Ellsworth was an elected sheriff). That's about 65%!!!

There are three possible conclusions to draw from this to build an additional caveat. The first is that prior elected experience isn't such a great metric. I don't think this is correct, if only because the parties would have noticed this and spent a lot less time recruiting state reps and a lot more time recruiting one-hit-wonder 70s pop starts who posed shirtless on their album covers.

The second two possibilities concede that prior elected office is a good metric, but only in "normal" years. Possibility number two would be that in "wave" years, incumbents who see they have a "weak" challenger let their guard down and get swept out. This strikes me as very likely. As I recall, similar dynamics manifested in 1994 (think Hostettler, Souder, Tiahrt, etc) and in 1974 (Thomas Downey) (okay, I don't recall 1974, but I've read lots about it).

The third possibility is slightly broader, which is that in years where voters are mad at Washington (whether at a particular party or in general), they are more favorably inclined toward candidates who have not held prior elective office. This would explain Ogonowski's recent showing in an environment that is fairly toxic to Republicans (Tsongas had never held elective office either, but she was definitely associated with it).

My guess is that there should be a caveat of some sort that includes some variant of the second and third possibilities. And to the extent that it favors the third possibility, in the current environment, it could be advantageous to Republicans.

Best Regards,


-Jay Cost

Measuring Congressional Competition

Lots of pundits and bloggers have been trying to get an early read on the 2008 House elections. I think that much of this analysis has been good because it has been relying on two solid metrics - retirements and party money.

Analysts have been looking at congressional retirements, which gives us a sense not only of how many districts will be open (obviously), but also the expectations that both sides have for the next election. The party with more retirements is more likely to be the party that expects a tough year. Its incumbents retire rather than face a hard challenge. Another valuable metric is Hill committee fundraising receipts. This probably speaks to the enthusiasm of both party's donor bases - which gives us another bit of insight on how the parties think they are doing.

I'd like to introduce another metric for analyzing the 2008 election. Again, it is early. But if we are careful in our use of measuring sticks, we can still get some purchase on what to expect next year.

Scholars have found that a good measure for congressional elections is the state of party recruitment. Namely, have the parties been able to attract "qualified" candidates to challenge the opposing side? This is a good metric for two reasons. First, if a party has had success with getting qualified candidates - it is a sign that the party is bullish about its prospects. Qualified candidates are usually serious candidates. Serious candidates run to win, and so they will only throw their hats into the ring if they think they can succeed. Second, qualified candidates tend to be better campaigners, which is very important. Congressional elections are not simply a consequence of the president's job approval, or the general feeling in the country. These play an important part - however, very often it is the case that the party favored by the public mood has to translate these feelings into political action. They must signal to the public that a vote for them is an expression of their current sentiment - and either an endorsement of the status quo or a vote for change.

Next question - how do we measure qualification? There is no way to measure it perfectly. Any measure we use will almost undoubtedly identify some unqualified candidates as qualified, and some qualified candidates as unqualified. That is not to say that some measurements are not better than others. Whatever measurement we choose, we have to make sure that we apply it evenly and objectively. Furthermore, we would need it to have good predictive power. Because we expect qualified candidates to do better than unqualified candidates, we should find that the candidates our yardstick identifies as qualified win more often than the candidates our yardstick identifies as unqualified.

One common metric that you'll see in academic literature is whether the candidate has won a previous elective office. If he has, he is labeled qualified. This metric satisfies both of the standards I listed in the previous paragraph. We can apply it fairly across the parties, and we also know that previous officeholders win more often than those who have not previously held office. Like any estimate of real qualification, it probably includes some truly unqualified candidates and exclusdes some truly qualified candidates. But it is still a reasonably good measuring stick.

At this point, every state except Illinois is far from its candidate filing deadline. So, to get an estimate of candidate qualifications, we would have to discover how many qualified candidates have either declared or have expressed an interest in declaring. This is not quite as precise as we might like because lots of those potential candidates will turn out not to run. We'll have a much better read on candidate qualifications next June when most filing deadlines have past and we know who is running and who is not. But this just means our metric becomes less precise - it does not become useless. We'll just have to factor in our imprecision when we analyze the data that we find.

The trick is how to collect this data. This would be incredibly labor intensive - but not for us, thanks to Ron Gunzberger and the indispensible Politics1.com. I absolutely love this site. If I could only visit three websites every day - it would probably be Politics1.com, TheGreenPapers.com, and (of course!) RealClearPolitics.com.

Just why is Politics1 so great? There are many reasons - but today's reason is that Mr. Gunzberger is actually keeping track of who is thinking about running and what those potential candidates did for a living before they decided they might want to be called "The Honorable." I don't know how he gets that data together. Quite frankly, I don't want to know. But Gunzberger has an impressive dataset that covers all 435 House contests - so we can indeed get a sense of how many qualified candidates are either running or thinking about running for Congress.

We can use this data to answer the following question: how many Democratic seats have or might have qualified Republican challengers, and how many Republican seats have or might have qualified Democratic challengers?

I came out with 33 Democratic seats and 54 Republican seats. So, the Democrats seem to be more ambitious in their attempts to challenge Republicans. Democrats are either challenging or might be challenging about 26% of Republican-held seats. Republicans are either challenging or might be challenging about 14% of Democratic-held seats.

Now remember that this is just one metric. It is important not to overinterpret the data - so before I do interpret things, I am going to list all of my caveats. First, many important metrics have not yet become available to us - so our ability to draw inferences about the 2008 House contest remains limited. Second, we canl get a better picture of things when we start to use multiple metrics at once - which I have not done. For instance - how many qualified Democratic challengers are there in Republican-held districts that lean to the left? This can make a difference. There are three qualified Democratic challengers in Nebraska - but the single qualified challenger in Delaware is probably worth more to the DCCC. Relatedly, while the GOP has fewer qualified challengers - 75% of their qualified challengers are trying to win back seats the Democrats won in 2006. This means that they are running against freshman, who tend to be more vulnerable than more senior members of the House.

Third, remember that this metric itself has limitations. Above all, it is probably an overestimate of the final number of competitive seats - as some of these candidates who might run end up not running, we should see these numbers fall. Fourth, in many instances - qualified challengers are facing unqualified challengers in party primaries. Just as happened in NH 01 last year, the candidate with prior electoral experience can lose to the candidate without such experience. As that happens, these numbers would change, too.

With my caveats - or as my dad would say, my "CYA" clauses - now in place, here is how I would interpret these numbers. Like contributions to the Hill committees and retirements, I think this metric has real analytical value even though it is still early. Above all, it is an indication that Democratic "elites" - those who actually run for Congress - are feeling more bullish about 2008 than their Republican counterparts. And this bullishness - if it holds - might translate into a real horse race advantage for the Democrats, as they are able to offer real challenges to more seats next year. A party is better able to take advantage of the public mood if it has candidates who know how to win elections. Right now, the Democrats are on track to have more such candidates.

Update: At 4:30 PM EST today, I added an addendum to this column - thanks to a very intelligent email I received from a reader named Sean, who runs myelectionanalysis.com. Read it here.

-Jay Cost

Should We Expect a Third Party Candidate?

Steven Stark had an interesting column today on third party candidacies. As per usual with him, it was quite good - and it gives me an opportunity to offer some additional thoughts I have had on the prospects of such a candidacy.

Stark writes:

Every 12 years or so, a new independent or third-party candidate gains momentum during an election cycle. Almost always, when these candidacies arise, it's the incumbent party that loses the election. In 2000 with Ralph Nader, in 1992 with H. Ross Perot, in 1980 with John Anderson, in 1968 with George Wallace, and on back through modern-American political history, the lesson of third parties is twofold: they never win and, because their ire is often directed at the status quo -- thus the party holding power -- they damage the candidate of the incumbent party.

First off, I have a mild methodological quibble. I object to the implication of a third party cycle. Third party candidacies are not like Haley's Comet. Generally, I do not think cycles should be referenced when discussing politics. The reason is that there are two potential explanations for a cycle. It is either caused by some set of factors, or it is the product of random variation. Take this proposed third party cycle. There is either a reason why third parties emerge every "12 years or so," or there is not. If there is no reason, then we should not expect a third party candidate next year based solely upon the date. If there is a reason, what really matters is the reason itself. That is what we should discuss - because it may or may not be in play this cycle. After all, politics is not Newtonian physics. The political environment is stohcastic. Causal processes can be and often are interrupted by random variation - and so, even if there is a third party cycle that is caused by something, the cause may very well be "off" this year.

That aside, I think the column is quite good - and it brings to my mind a few additional historical lessons that can further shape our expectations for this cycle.

First, third party challengers have historically tended to be one of two types. On the one hand, they have been representatives of people with sectional grievances that the two major parties have failed to satisfy. Think of the Populist Party of the 1890s, the Dixiecrats in 1948, and the American Independents in 1968. These are concentrated groups of people who feel that neither party has something to offer them, and therefore are susceptible to a third party challenge. On the other hand, if they have not been sectional in nature, they usually tend to spring up momentarily around a relatively famous personality. Ross Perot comes instantly to mind. John Anderson does, too. Head back a few decades and you'll see that the best third party challengers who were non-sectional were TR in 1912 and "Fighting Bob" LaFollette in 1924.

This pattern makes intuitive sense. A third party can sustain itself if it has a geographical base to work with because our elections are geographically based. So, it can win some states and develop some viability in that way. Barring that, it needs some kind of big personality to drive the campaign, to use media attention to reach its group of potential supporters, who are dispersed across the country. Without such a personality, the party lacks the resources to communicate its message - and it goes nowhere.

Second, Stark notes correctly that third parties have always lost. I think this has some wide-ranging implications for the possibility of such a challenge. If we assume that voters are generally rational, and therefore prefer not to waste their votes, how do we explain support for third party candidates? I think that you tend to see such support when a significant bloc of voters sees no difference between the two major parties - at least as far as their interests are concerned. A vote for a third party is therefore like a vote of no confidence in the two party system. Some voters who vote for third party candidates are probably irrational - they would be better off supporting a candidate in one of the major parties. But the rest of them are indicating that, as far as their interests are concerned, the two major parties offer no differences. I do not see any other way to explain the Nader vote in 2000. Nader voters of course knew that he stood no chance. So, why did they support him? It was because they saw Bush and Gore - to quote Nader himself - as "Tweedledee and Tweedledum." Their votes were statements about the two party system.

Occassionally, third party candidates can become electorally viable. It is true that they have always lost, but it is not true that in every year everybody expected them to lose. Think of Perot in 1992. One could have possibly made an argument that he would win on election day. Ditto TR in 1912. These years the logic of supporting a third party candidate changes. One might be pulling the lever expecting that the guy might go to the White House.

Having teased out these additional observations, let's continue with Stark's column.

It certainly won't help matters for the GOP that this year's splinter candidates will probably come from nominally Republican ranks. The media has focused on New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, but he's actually the unlikeliest of the three to make a third-party bid. The likeliest is current GOP candidate Ron Paul, who already has one independent general-election run under his belt as a Libertarian (in 1988, when he garnered just 0.5 percent of the vote) and would have no trouble making another. As this year's version of Perot, Paul's already shown unexpected grassroots appeal and fundraising ability. And he's so far refused to say he would support the party's nominee, which is always a telling sign.

Then there's the Religious Right, some of whose adherents have put the GOP on notice that, if Giuliani -- the party's strongest general-election candidate -- receives the nomination, they, too, would consider going the independent route. (Some later backed off the threat, but it's still there.)

Given what we observed above, I think we can say that it is more likely that Ron Paul would be a significant third party threat than a Christian right candidate. Paul and his supporters fit both of the observations that we made. He is certainly a media personality at this point - and he has garnered a very loyal and devoted following. This can serve as a substitute for the fact that he does not represent a sectional interest. What is more, even though he is campaigning as a Republican right now - his arguments could translate to a third party candidacy. What is the difference between the GOP and the Democrats, from the perspective of a Paulite? Very little.

Compare this to the situation on the Christian right. At present, there is no personality who has expressed interest in a political campaign. And, as the Christian right is a diffused interest group, a no-name cannot rely upon a strong geographical basis for support. The story would be different if James Dobson himself were thinking of running - rather than thinking of backing a third party candidate. But, at present, there is nobody of his notoriety pondering a run to the GOP's right. Furthermore, while Christian conservatives might be unsatisfied with Rudy Giuliani as their presidential candidate, they nevertheless would perceive a difference between him and the eventual Democratic nominee. This perception of difference would increase should the Democratic nominee turn out to be Hillary Clinton. This makes a vote for a third party candidate much more difficult. It is one thing to argue that there is not a dime's worth of difference between the major party candidates. It is quite another thing to argue that we should effectively support the opposition to punish our side for not listening to us.

That leads me to think that Paul is more likely to be viable. But there are complications with such a candidacy. While it is certainly possible that Paul could command a non-negligible share of the general election vote - that remains to be seen. It all depends on how great his "not a dime's worth of difference" pitch would be. And bear in mind that primary voters for Paul would not necessarily translate to general election voters. A lot of those people might very well support Paul today, but in the general election could see a difference between Giuliani and Clinton. Relatedly, Paul is running for reelection as a Republican in TX-14. This might make it difficult for him to develop a broader base of support - as it begs the question, "If the parties are so similar, why are you a Republican?"

Now - don't get me wrong. I am not predicting that there will be no significant third party candidate emerging. My argument is simply that, at this point, several useful metrics are not indicating that such a candidate will come forth. I say that while at the same time ceding that there is potential for a third party candidate. A lot of people, especially on the right, are disgruntled by both major parties. The catch with this disgruntlement is that it has to be translated into political action. That requires the work of political leaders. And, at this point, nobody seems to be positioning themselves to translate this aggravation into support.

I would certainly agree, though, that an eye should be kept on Ron Paul. There would be difficulties for him to establish himself as a third party contender - but the problems I see with the challenge might be surmountable. He may be able to translate his primary support into general election support, and the fact that he is running for reelection as a Republican might not bother the kinds of voters who would support him.

-Jay Cost

The Primary System and Party Responsibility

On Monday I sounded off about the relationship between Ron Paul and the Republican Party. My argument was that the fact that such a "bad" Republican like Ron Paul could maintain his position in the party is a sign that the party itself lacks mechanisms to manage its brand identity.

I received a lot of email from Paul supporters. Most of them argued some variant of the proposition that Paul is the only true Republican - and George Bush and the "neocons" are the cheaters. This is all well and good - but this is not what I was on about. I was not speaking in normative terms - hence the consistent use of scare quotes. You can argue that the Republican Party has become corrupted, and Paul is the only pure one left - but all you are doing is changing the adjectives around. What matters is that Paul diverges greatly from the caucus average, and that the caucus lacks the power to keep Paul in line - thus, it has trouble establishing a brand. So, I was not assigning moral blame.

Furthermore, I was not arguing that Paul is the major contributor to the problem of establishing a GOP brand. I used him only as an example because he is in the news a lot. Personally, I think that more damage has been done to the Republican Party brand by George W. Bush.

This brings me to my final point of clarification. Paul's supporters also argued that George W. Bush and the Republican caucus are the ones who have strayed from what they promised they would do, and that they are the ones to blame. I agree - so much so that on Monday I made this exact argument! The caucus lacks the power to induce members to enact what the party promised during the last campaign. Hence, it has trouble maintaining a brand.

With that digression now ended, I want to continue working through the ideas I began on Monday. I'd like to offer some tentative thoughts on how we can induce more responsibility from our governing party. How can we get the party to make coherent campaign promises on the vital issues of the day, and then actually deliver on those promises if electoral victory is obtained.

Ultimately, the Constitution itself prevents the full realization of responsible party government. One of the most obvious impediments is staggered elections. This has created a problem for Democrats - in the person of George W. Bush. He was elected in 2004 when the public had a very different view of matters - and that old view has thwarted the Democrats' attempts to translate the new view into policy. Old electoral returns are "sticky" in our system. A single election will not necessarily undue an old governing majority. That is what happens when a House seat is up every two years, a Senate seat is up every six years, and the presidency is up every four years.

Another impediment to responsibility is the geographical basis of representation. A Democratic legislator from Georgia may be acting according to the state party's wishes and against the national party's wishes at the same time - in which case, it becomes difficult to identify whether he is being responsible or not. So, when we talk about responsibility, we are talking about increasing party responsibility given the nature of our system of government. The goal should be a system that is responsible relative to the current one. So, with this in mind, how to we increase party responsibility?

There are, as best I can tell, two general ways to do this. On the one hand, you could increase the power that the legislative caucus leadership has over rank-and-file party legislators. On the other hand, you could increase the power that the party organization - defined however you'd like - has over the legislators. You could also do both. I think that empowering the party organization is more viable and more desirable. It also happens to be within my domain of professional knowledge (at least more so than the organization of Congress). So, that is what I am going to discuss today. Let's modifiy the question. How do we empower the party organization to induce legislators to be responsible to the electorate?

Obviously, this question is more of a concern for Democrats than Republicans these days. The Democrats are the ones who now have to govern. Unsurprisingly, you'll find Democratic activists in the blogosophere struggling with the question.

Matt Stoller comes instantly to mind. He has been advocating that the netroots begin to tend to wayward Democratic legislators. He wants to monitor a set of congressmen whom he calls "Bush Dog Democrats," and he wants to make more use of the primary - to take the Ned Lamont prototype and mass produce it. This is basically a way to induce partisan responsibility. The underlying logic of his thesis - which is encapsulated here and here - is that if Democrats face a significant threat from the party base, they will be much more likely to be "good" Democrats when they are in office. Thus, the party as a whole will be better able to make clear promises in the electoral campaign, and it will be more likely to fulfill those promises once control of government has been acquired.

Over on another corner of this site, Kevin Sullivan has labeled this kind of activity "purging." I disagree with Kevin's word choice here - or at least with what his choice of words implies, which is something unjust and undemocratic. I view the activity of monitoring and potentially punishing wayward Democratic legislators as something perfectly just and highly democratic. The only way that the Democrats are going to do what they promised as a party they would do is if they have control over their wayward members.

Now - Stoller is a partisan Democrat. And regular readers of mine know that I am far from that. But I would argue that both Republican and Democratic activists have an interest in increasing party responsibility. So, I think there is some common ground to be found here. We can disagree on substance, but agree on process.

I certainly think we can all agree that this is a tricky problem, and that it probably contributed to the end of the GOP majority. I talked about this earlier in the week. The Republicans never changed any of our democratic institutions - and so, incumbents were left free to do as they wished. Unsurprisingly, most of the promises they made in 1994 were eventually sacrificed for the sake of electoral expediency. Indeed, it was never my impression that GOP activists put much thought into institutional reforms - at least after they stopped talking about term limits. Today, the laments of GOP activists often seem to me to be reducible to the "great man" theory of politics: "Why oh why did a new Reagan not emerge to maintain the revolution? When oh when will our next Reagan come to restart the revolution?" Republicans would have been much better off had they instead taken Madison's view of things: "Reagan blazed a trail for us. But we can't always depend upon a Reagan. How do we move forward on this trail, assuming that we have leaders who are distinctly less estimable than Reagan?"

Democrats like Stoller seem to be a step ahead - recognizing that our democratic institutions, being utilized as they are today, are not going to help achieve responsibility. Perhaps this is because the left does not at present have a folklore hero the way the right has Reagan. I do not know. I do think that the left is putting more thought into these types of questions than the right did during its time in control.

So, far from a purging, I see this essay by Stoller as an attempt to answer the type of questions that a new majority needs to answer if it wishes to be responsible.

Stoller suggests that Democrats reinvigorate the primary system. He identifies four positive consequences that a reinvigoratzed Democratic primary process would engender:

(1) It makes it easier for Democratic activists to be involved in party affairs.
(2) It gets more people involved in politics.
(3) It gives Democratic voters a voice in party affairs.
(4) It is a "check on calcification and corruption within the party."

I see all four of these being related to the concept of responsibility that I have been discussing on this blog. Stoller wants Democratic legislators to be responsive to the priorities of voters in their districts, to run for election promising to solve these problems, and then to solve those problems once victory has been obtained. His vision of the primary process is one that would engender mass participation among Democratic voters, and great responsiveness from Democratic candidates.

The problem with this, at least as I see it, is that it does not account fully for a necessary operating assumption about electoral politics: serious candidates for office are rational goal-seekers, and their goal is electoral victory.

If the strategy is to increase party responsibility by offering intra-party electoral challenges, you are going to need quality challengers. There is no other way around it. Only good candidates can invigorate elections. Stoller seems to agree with this point - but it seems that we disagree about whether quality challengers can emerge in a nominating process dominated by primaries. I do not think they can - at least in any kind of systemic fashion.

The reason I think this is reducible to a simple cost-benefit calculation that every quality challenger will conduct for himself. Quality challengers run because they are ambitious. They run to win, and they know that incumbents bring major advantages to any electoral contest, especially the primaries. They know that these advantages are so great that it is not worth the trouble. The costs outweigh the benefits.

In the primary, not only do incumbents have great financial benefits - they can also expect to have the party establishment behind them. The establishment will always prefer a partisan legislator who does not toe the party line to somebody from the opposition - just as it prefers an irresponsible majority to the minority. What is more, the establishment knows that incumbents, all things being equal, are more likely to win. So, the party establishment will almost never support the challenger. More than this - it may also attempt to quash serious opposition. Indeed, I have seen it happen. I have talked to "insurgent" candidates in state legislative races, party regulars who decided to take a shot at "jumping the line" and who, as a consequence of their insolence, were deprived of resources that they once had access to as members of the local party.

All of this has the effect of discouraging serious primary challengers. They want to win, they expect that they will not, so they do not run. It is a simple matter of costs versus benefits. You'll find exceptions here and there - but the cost-benefit calculation that a serious potential candidate conducts will almost invariably come out in the negative. Stoller identifies the cultural context of the primary as a principal barrier to a more robust set of challengers. I would agree that there is such a cultural context - that a primary challenge is just an "untoward" thing to do in our political culture - but even if these barriers are mitigated, the economics remain decisive.

Accordingly, I would encourage party reformers on both sides - Republicans who lament the irresponsibility of the GOP in the most recent Congresses, and Democrats who fear the same fate will befall them - to be more adventurous in their thinking, and not presume that the democratic mechanisms currently at their disposal will help them achieve responsibility. I don't think they will. Reformers should also be skeptical of the hidden assumption that the primary is the only truly democratic way to nominate party candidates - and all other mechanisms are less democratic. The primary system was not handed down to Moses by God on Mount Zion. It was a solution established at a particular point in time to deal with a particular set of problems. It may have outlived its usefulness.

Indeed, I think it has. One of the purposes of the primary system was to obliterate the power of the irresponsible machine parties. These were organizations that did indeed possess power, but used them not for the public good, but to provide supporters with personal benefits. The primary system undermined these old parties - and it certainly did us all a favor in that regard. But, it never created a responsible party. Instead, we have candidate controlled - or should I say incumbent controlled - electoral politics where hardly any incumbent gets a serious general election challenge, let alone a primary challenge.

What is needed is some kind of electoral mechanism that lowers the costs to both quality candidates and the party establishment. What we need is a situation in which serious candidates are more likely to think that a challenge of a "bad" incumbent is worth the effort, and a party establishment that does not believe that a successful primary challenge means a loss in November. Simply stated, we need to get the top tier candidates and the party leaders comfortable with challenging the louses in Congress.

At this point, I have not settled upon a solution to this problem - but the more I think about it, the more attracted I am to a return to the convention system. Now - if you are younger than 40, your idea of a convention is probably the silly, staged media event that the parties throw every year. If you are older than 40, you idea is probably something akin to Chicago '68. The former viewpoint is a consequence of public disgust with the latter viewpoint. Conventions were largely done away with because they had become the domain of plutocratic party leaders who imposed their will on the mass public.

But they were not meant to be that way. They were not the creation of plutocrats. They were co-opted by plutocrats. They were originally a product of the "revolution" led and inspired by one of America's greatest democrats (and first Democrat), Andrew Jackson. Their initial intention was to democratize the nomination of candidates, which was previously done by legislative caucuses. Personally, I think that the convention process could be revitalized, and it could move us toward responsibility. With an eye to the errors of the past - reformers could redesign the system to serve as a check against "calcified" incumbents.

What I would like to see is a convention system where party leaders, party workers, and party activists come together to nominate party candidates for state offices. A convention system could drastically reduce the cost of getting rid of a legislator who "cheats" the party. The cheater simply loses the floor vote, which is cast by the people who are most knowledgeable about party affairs, most interested in party success, and most dedicated to the principles of the party. This would change the incentive structure of legislators all over the country. If they knew that, before they had the privilege of facing the voters in the general election, they must stand before the people who make up the party whose label they carry - they might begin to behave much more responsibly, i.e. to do in government what they said they would do during the campaign.

A major concern would be representativeness within the convention. Does the convention reflect the wishes of the broader partisan public, or has it been "captured" by elites with their own agenda? In this regard, the findings and suggestions of the McGovern-Fraser commission could be quite useful - at least as a guide to keeping the process open. It would be important, I think, to have a mix of professionals and activists. They tend to have different goals. Professional party members prefer electoral victory first and foremost because it is in their professional interests. Activists, on the other hand, are much more interested in policy. This could create a good mix of pragmatism and idealism at a party convention.

But isn't this less democratic than the primary system? Stoller argues that the primary system is a core Democratic value. Again, I'm not a Democrat - but I can't help but wonder about that. My feeling is that - so long as participation in the convention process is left relatively open - measuring the "democraticness" of the primary and the convention is somewhat like comparing apples to oranges. Ideally speaking, the primary process is open to everybody. So, it maximizes participation. But, on the other hand, the primary itself does not induce deliberation among the voters. A convention would. Delegates at a convention would have to argue with one another, and hammer out an agreement. This would probably be more in line with the ideal of deliberative democracy. So, there is a tradeoff between the two.

But I think that more can be said in favor of the convention idea. Back in the 1950s, V.O. Key found that the primary system seemed to have the effect of atrophying party organizations. This makes intuitive sense. In districts where the party is split 60/40, there is no reason for the "40" party to maintain a robust organization. After all, it will almost always lose. But, if the party in that district gets to participate in the state convention - there is a reason for the party to maintain itself. It has the job of selecting members for the state convention. This, Key speculated, had the effect of making 60/40 districts more competitive. After all, in some years 60/40 districts can become 50/50 or even 40/60. And, in years like that, the out party is only going to be able to take advantage of the shift in voter opinion if it is organizationally ready. The convention process therefore had the effect of keeping the party organizations prepared for their once-in-a-decade opportunity. And what is the net result? Better choices for the electorate and more competitive elections.

As you might have inferred, these suggestions are still somewhat tentative. Through the course of my research, I have become well aware of the problems that I discussed on Monday. However, I have not yet fully settled upon any ideas as to how to solve it - I have more research to do. I would encourage party reformers on both sides to take a long, hard look at the reforms of the first party system that Andrew Jackson and Martin van Buren instituted. I think there is a great deal of promise there. It is something that I intend to look more closely at as I "wrap up" other projects which I am currently involved in. Their system was corrupted and coopted by plutocrats - but that is not to say that their initial vision cannot be reworked into a viable program for party responsibility.

-Jay Cost

The Real Campaign Begins

We're finally starting to get some news about the real campaign. What? Haven't we had plenty of news about this campaign so far? Aren't we overwhelmed with news? Well - yes and no. We've been overwhelmed with campaign news, but very little of it has concerned the real campaign. See, there are basically two campaigns that are run by candidates and parties these days. There is the perpetual campaign in which both sides constantly endeavor to win the news cycle and attract positive media attention. Then there is what I am calling - for lack of a better term - the "real" campaign. This is the campaign in which candidates make pitches to the broader electorate. The latter is just now starting to begin.

Now - of course - the perpetual campaign is not without value. If it was valueless, candidates would not engage in it. The problem for observers like you and me is that the media tends to overestimate the value that the perpetual campaign has - so consumers of the news tend to get a biased, i.e. systematically skewed, view of exactly what is happening. This is not surprising, as the perpetual campaign is largely geared to the media. If I could slip into Bush 41 speak for a moment, I would say that it is, "Target: Tim Russert." You impress Russert. Impress Balz. Impress Nagourney. You get yourself some good campaign coverage. You build your donor base. Donors are the types of people who will "shush" the kids when the campaign coverage comes on in August.

The problem is that there are limits to the value of the perpetual campaign. Most obviously, the average voters who decide who wins and who loses tend not to pay much attention to it. So, it is important not to make too much of it. The bigger problem for the media is that these same voters - like true Americans - do not hestitate to opine about it when queried by a pollster, even though they happen not to know much about it. Not fully realizing this, the media often makes too much of these responses. Hence, Barack Obama can have some $35 million in his back pocket, and his opponent can be declared "inevitable." That is the only way to get from that A to this B.

But the real campaign is just about to begin - and those of us who are serious about our elections can finally get down to the nitty gritty. I observed two relevant data points today about the real Democratic primary campaign.

The first is from Jeanne Cummings at Politico. It concerns the Q3 filiings with the FEC. Cash receipts are not really new points of data in themselves - but the problem is that too few media analysts have drawn the right inferences from them. Cummings writes:

Clinton leads in polls but had yet to best Obama in the money race. She did so in the third quarter, but not nearly as decisively as the campaign had hoped.

In the end, Clinton reported raising $28 million between July 1 and Sept. 30 and having $50 million in cash-on-hand.

Of that, about $34 million can be spent on the primary, while $16 million is for the general election. Clinton also reported carrying $2 million in debts, driving her ready cash figure down to around $32 million.

Obama's report, the last to go public, showed him raising $21 million during the third quarter and ending it with $36 million in cash.

I have argued many times on the site that pundits have wrongly turned the race for dollars into a proxy for the race for votes - and indeed the first paragraph in the above entry indicates that Cummings is doing that, too. But this mode of analysis misses the point. To appreciate the point, all we need to do is imagine all of the campaign "goods" that $68 million can buy (and remember, of course, that the first votes come after Q4, so it is really $68 million plus the fundraising in Q4).

The following story from Mike Dorning of the Chicago Tribune should spark our imaginations. He writes:

Obama, in particular, has invested heavily in a ground campaign in Iowa and other early voting states.

The senator from Illinois has opened 31 field offices across the state, more than any other candidate, establishing local headquarters everywhere from Des Moines to tiny Elkader, population 1,374. Recent campaign filings showed Obama outspending Clinton in Iowa by 20 percent, and by larger margins in the early primary states of New Hampshire and South Carolina.

In an organizational feat that required busing in supporters from across the state, the Obama campaign says it drew 3,000 supporters to rally at Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin's annual steak fry last month, an event that traditionally serves as the informal kickoff to the campaign here. And while the campaign would not disclose the size of its paid staff in Iowa, Democratic activists unaffiliated with any candidate said it is clear Obama has by far the largest number of employees in-state.

Wow. Obama has done all that, and he still has $36 million left. These two articles give us a sense of the real campaign going on. It is about persuading voters - who by their own admission are still quite persuadable - in the early states. So, it's about clever television advertisements, solid organizations that can get out the vote, and the campaign message. That is what the real campaign is. It is just now starting. Unfortunately, if you do not live in any of the early states - your access to it is mediated by the press.

This gets me to my next point. I am interested in hearing from residents of Iowa and New Hampshire. For those of us who live outside of these states, our contact with the real campaign is mediated by the press. This is a shame because journalists are far too wrapped up in the perpetual campaign. Performing the "Ginsberg" seems to mean more to them than building an Iowa organization. I'd like to ameliorate this dilemma by getting some first hand accounts of the state of play in Iowa and New Hampshire. Write to me and tell me what the campaign has been like in the last few weeks. I'm particularly interested in the presence on television of the major candidates, whether you've gone to camapaign rallies (and how the turnout has been), and what your overall sense of the race up there is. My preference is for Democrats to write me about the Democratic race, and Republicans to write me about the Republican race. You don't need to be undecided, but you do need to tell me your preference at the moment, and how persuadable you still are. I'll share the responses. So, write to me: jay at realclearpolitics dot com.

-Jay Cost

Ron Paul and The Party Brand

Last week I wrote a column about how the dust up with Larry Craig reveals some overlooked truths about the American political party. My point was that the contemporary party is not very powerful. It cannot exercise much control over its members in the legislature, and therefore it is difficult for the party to be responsible to the electorate - to do in government what it promised to do during the campaign. Our politics is "candidate controlled," and the party's impotence in dealing with Larry Craig points to the truth of this proposition.

In other words, the party has very little power over candidates - who they are, what positions they take, what issues they emphasize, how they choose to campaign, what they do once they acquire office, and so on. My argument last week was that the idea of a powerful political party is really a trick of the light. It is a consequence of the fact that individual legislators and candidates happen to have relatively uniform issue positions. If a candidate wants to "cheat" on the party, there is very little that the party can do to stop him.

This brings me to Ron Paul. He is perhaps the greatest example today of party impotence. Ron Paul is not a good Republican as far as the GOP caucus is concerned. If you examine Paul's voting record, it appears as though he is a moderate. His average National Journal economic policy rating from 1997 to 2004 is 51.6% conservative. For social policy, it is 53% conservative. For foreign policy, it is 40.5% conservative. One would think, based upon this data, that Paul is ideologically similar to representatives like Chris Shays or Mike Castle - with the exception being that he is a little on the dovish side. But, this would be wrong. Paul's ostensible moderation is really a consequence of the fact that National Journal's ranking system is two-dimensional. Paul is a libertarian - and his ideology cannot be captured by a simple liberal-conservative metric.

I would argue that Paul does indeed "cheat" on the party brand.

The party brand is the mental image that people have of what it means to be a member of a particular party. It is the commonly accepted answer to the question: if that party acquires control of government, what will it do? The brand is something that benefits all party candidates for office because it reduces uncertainty. It is a quick heuristic device for the average voter to use to guide his vote choice. Because it provides voters with low cost information, it makes their actions more predictable, and therefore reduces the uncertainty that office seekers face when they run for election.

The brand is maintained only through the issue positions that those candidates take during the campaign, and the votes they cast in the legislature. If Republican candidates take divergent issue positions in the campaign, there is no coherent sense one can get of what it means to be a Republican. Over the long run, the brand will decay. If the Republican majority does not do in office what it said it would do during the campaign, it again becomes difficult to understand what it means to be a Republican. Again, the brand will decay.

Importantly, note that a strong party brand is closely related to the concept of responsibility that I discussed last week. A responsible party is a party that runs on distinct issue positions in the election, and proceeds to do what it said it would do when it wins. So, a party with a strong brand identity is more likely to be a responsible party. A responsible party is more likely to have a strong brand identity.

Ron Paul "cheats" on the party brand because he does not contribute to its maintenance. His votes in Congress diverge greatly from the party line - and, as anybody who watches these debates knows, his campaign rhetoric is not even close to the party line. Now - before I start getting flamed by Paul's very web-savvy supporters, let me clarify what I mean by "cheats." I do not mean the word in a normative sense. I mean it in the rational choice sense of the term. My referent here is the concept of public goods.

Public goods are susceptible to this kind of cheating because they are non-excludable. Think of national defense. This is something that benefits all of us - but wouldn't you individually be better off if you did not pay for it (assuming, of course, that the IRS did not exist to audit you)? It is not like the government could punish you by not defending you. If they are defending your taxpaying neighbors, they will have to defend you, too! So, you have a rational incentive to "cheat" on a public good like national defense. In that situation, it is in your interests to receive all of the benefits and not pay any of the costs. This is cheating in a rational choice sense of the term (again, it is non-normative - so spare me your wrath, Paulites!)

The party label is a public good like national defense. It is non-excludable. By winning a party nomination, all of the benefits of the party label accrue to you regardless of whether you constrain your issue positions so they fit the broader party message. So, if it is not in your interests to contribute to the provision of the good, we should expect you not to do so.

This is how I see Ron Paul. Like all candidates with an "R" at the end of his name, he uses the label to acquire electoral office. He accrues the benefits that the party label provides. However, because he takes so many divergent issue positions both in the campaign and in Congress - he does not contribute to the maintenance of the brand. To put it intuitively, he's a libertarian who dresses up as a Republican. This is why I chuckle whenever he argues - which he often does in the debates - that he is the only true Republican in the field. If you define a Republican as a libertarian - then that would be the case!

So, why is it that the Republican Party stands beside him every election? It is because there is nothing it can do about him. Return to the national defense metaphor - and ask yourself why a rational person actually pays his taxes. It is because the federal government has established mechanisms to monitor people and punish those who fail to do their part. National defense is a public good - but the federal government has instituted a private bad to make sure that nobody cheats.

Simply stated, the party lacks the ability to impose such private bads. The party has few viable enforcement mechanisms to ensure that its members do their part to maintain the party brand. Paul ran for the seat in 1996 as the "insurgent" candidate against the Democrat-turned-Republican Greg Laughlin, who had the support of the party leadership both in Washington and in Texas. Paul used his network of libertarians and "gold bugs" to raise nearly $2 million and win the seat out from under the party establishment. Since then, the GOP establishment has never challenged him, despite the fact that he is - according to Michael Barone - the least reliable vote in the entire GOP caucus. The reason is that the mechanism for intra-party staff changes, the party primary, is a highly inefficient enforcement mechanism. The expected costs to the party for challenging Paul in the primary greatly outweigh the benefits it could expect to accrue from the challenge. Imagine what would happen if the GOP establishment got behind a serious challenge to Paul. He would probably survive - but could a weakened Paul survive a general election fight against the Democrat who would surely emerge? If Paul did win the general, who knows how he would respond in the next Congress. Maybe he would refuse to caucus with the GOP altogether. And, should Paul not survive, it would take a great deal of resources to take him down, leaving the GOP nominee low on funds, and a Republican electorate badly divided by the contested primary.

What is the lesson in this? It is, as I suggested last week, that the party does not have much control over its members. Ultimately, our system is not at all efficient for the development and maintenance of a strong party brand. If a party candidate decides to run away from the party, and therefore diminish the brand, during the campaign - there is little the rest of the party can do. If a party official decides to vote against the party brand in the legislature - there is little the rest of the party can do. Importantly, it does not take a lot of "cheaters" to stultify the party agenda altogether. At its largest, the GOP majority was never more than twenty seats over a majority. So, less than ten percent of the party caucus could derail it. The Democratic majorities between the 1950s and the 1990s were much larger - but they were so full of southern, conservative Democrats that in many sessions the alliance of the southern conservatives and the Republicans had effective control over the chamber.

The civic consequence of this is irresponsibility. If the party cannot maintain a strong party brand - it lacks the ability to make coherent promises to the electorate during the campaign, or it lacks the ability to deliver on the promises that it makes, or some combination of both. This is the state of today's American political party - it is not responsible to the electorate. It has a hard time making promises during the electoral campaign because many Republicans run as something other than a Republican (ditto the Democrats). It has an even harder time delivering on those promises it manages to make because office holders can vote as they like in the legislature. The reason for both is that the parties lack enforcement mechanisms to "punish" their "cheaters." An office seeker or office holder can "cheat" on the party brand as much as he likes - and there is little that the rest of the party can do about it. The primary is not a viable enforcement mechanism. It virtually guarantees that incumbents will get an opportunity to face the general electorate, regardless of how loyal they have been to the party whose label they carry.

Ron Paul is a great example of this problem. The Republican Party has so little control over its members that the 1992 1988 Libertarian Party candidate for president can run and win as a Republican just four years later - and persist as a Republican as long as he chooses.

I'll continue this post tomorrow - and offer some tentative suggestions about what could be done to enhance party responsibility.

-Jay Cost

A Christian Right Third Party?

There has been a lot of talk lately about Christian conservative leaders - James Dobson, Gary Bauer, and so on - bolting the Republican Party to form a third party. But today The Hill indicates that they may be backing off the threat:

The two conservative leaders said they remain optimistic that a Republican candidate who is strong on their issues can win next year, but they think Giuliani against Clinton in the general election would be a "frustrating option."

What does not appear to be an option next year is a break with the GOP in support of a third-party candidate.

While conservative religious leaders said last week the move is something they would consider, Bauer and Perkins said doing so would ensure a Democratic president. Perkins, however, said it is something they would consider in the long run.

"Everybody realizes that a third-party candidate would not work in this election," Bauer said.

This is not terribly surprising to me. There are two distinct scenarios for such a third party candidate. The best case scenario - which is what most people have been talking about - is that the candidate takes enough of the vote to hand key states over to Hillary Clinton. This is similar to what Ralph Nader is believed to have done in 2000.

However, there is a less-than-best case scenario, which I think is very possible. And that is the candidacy fails to catch fire - and the candidate winds up being a non-factor in the election. And, if the GOP wins despite the challenge, the candidate is left in the cold in the next administration. Think Pat Buchanan in 2000. He only received 0.43% of the national popular vote - and Buchanan had the advantage of having been on the ballot in all 50 states. This Christian third party candidate would have to expend resources to get himself on the ballot, and then start trying to persuade voters. This would be a very difficult task - and the chances of doing much worse than Nader 2000 are, I think, pretty good.

My intuition is that it would therefore be quite hard for these conservatives to recruit somebody to run. The worst case scenario is that you are a non-factor. The best case scenario is that you are a pariah among your fellow partisans. Who would be interested in that? If they cannot find a fairly well known person to carry the new party's flag into battle - their chances of being a non-factor would be all the greater.

This is why my suspicion is that Dobson, Bauer and the rest may not be playing to the general election. I think they may have another goal in mind. It's just a hypothesis, but I think it makes some sense. It certainly explains the seeming irrationality of this kind of third party threat.

Let's work backwards. The declaration that these Christian right leaders might leave the party has generated a lot of free publicity. This has given them an opportunity to explain why they might leave - namely, Giuliani is pro-choice. They have taken every advantage to do so. This, in turn, has enabled them to attend to what they think is the reason that Giuliani has the lead: Christian conservative voters do not yet know that he is pro-choice. That, I think, is what might be motivating them. They are trying to communicate to sympathetic, unknowledgable voters.

This is also from the Hill:

But the conservative leaders acknowledged that there is a divide currently among social conservatives as to what is more important to their base, social issues or projected national security strength.

Bauer said the divide is "puzzling" to Washington-based evangelical leaders, but Perkins maintained that once social conservatives know more about Giuliani's position on abortion, his support would weaken.

"I think it's a stretch for Mayor Giuliani to get a majority of the social conservative vote once it's all said and done," Perkins said.

I think this approaches why these leaders are making the noises they are making. I think that perhaps they are trying to signal to their constituency that Giuliani does not stand with them. Do not underestimate the monetary expense of this kind of mass communication. The rank and file Christian evangelical voter is not yet paying full attention (remember that most of them are not members of the interest groups that these people lead) - and to communicate a message to them could be very expensive because they are diffused across the country. They do not all live in one or two media markets. They are in every media market. Accordingly, they might need to do something drastic, like get Giuliani's pro-choice stance in all the papers and television shows by threatening a bolt from the GOP.

Like I said, this is just a hypothesis. I'd be interested to hear some thoughts from people on it.

-Jay Cost

How Fred Did

As I indicated this morning, I thought it would be more useful to solicit the opinions of on-the-fence Republicans about how Fred Thompson did than just to tell you what I thought. I received a large response - and I am grateful to all of those who took the time to write.

So - here is how the respondents thought Fred did.

A strong majority of responses were generally positive. Those respondents tended to say things like like "solid," "good but can do better," "kept me interested." The most common criticism among those that gave him good marks was that he started out slow - though those people frequently noted that he got better as the night wore on.

This response from Chris O. struck me as an average response:

Overall, I thought Thompson did what he needed to do, which was to look like he belonged on the stage. He didn't blow anybody out of the water, but he looked Presidential, didn't appear nervous, and sounded like he knew what he was talking about.
As with anything of this nature, there was variation around this average. But it was skewed toward the negative. That is, very few people thought that Thompson was a smashing success. And while they were a distinct minority, there were a good number of people who thought Thompson did horribly.

The following email from Cary C. pretty incorporates many of the negative comments I received.

Generally, I was unimpressed with Fred's performance yesterday. I thought he looked old and glum. He did seem to do a little better as the debate went on, but his answers seemed to be pretty generic, even given the limits of these kinds of debates. His potential selling point to me has been that he is a regular conservative that could have a likable public persona similar to Reagan, and who would connect with people on a personal level. I did not see this in the debate. Also, he seemed rather negative and grumpy in his answers, which only compounded his glum looking demeanor.
Michael O. compared Thompson to Larry Johnson: "Thompson looked like he just joined the team after sitting out the preseason. He looked a step slow. He looked only moderately prepared." Again, this is a minority opinion - but it seems to be a minority of some size.

A few miscellaneous notes. This email from Michael D intrigued me.

How did Fred do? I think OK. There were too many "um's" I thought, but the format is something new for the actor who is used to memorizing his lines. What I'm more interested are today's perceptions that I'll see throughout the media. And the first thing I saw when I opened up my Yahoo page this morning, one of the featured articles said "Thompson jokes wins laughs at debate." then the subtitle, "The actor-turned-presidential candidate made a crisp GOP debate debut, avoiding gaffes and poking fun at his competitors." I wasn't expecting something this positive from what I saw, so that's good.
One of my big analytical interest on this blog is the power that media elites exercise, and the limits to that power. This is a good example of the collective power of the punditocracy. People are often as interested in what the elites think as what they themselves think.

This was my favorite comment - from Bill W:

What can be done to get Chris Mathews out of the political debates? He cheapens the discourse with his inanity. His question to Romney about investment banking was beyond stupid - "where does all this money come from - where does it all go?" What a twit!

I love the way Bill chose to frame this question. Something needs to be "done" about Chris Matthews. As Matthews would say: "Ha!" As relates to Fred, many people commented positively on how he responded to Matthews' wiseacre remarks.

Finally - for what it's worth - my opinion. Once again, I thought Duncan Hunter was the big time winner.

Remember of course that this was a non-random sample - and I will say that I received more responses from men than from women. This is not to say that we cannot draw inferences from it - but it is to say that the inference we draw have to be labeled "impressionistic."

Again, thanks to all of those who took the time to write. The response was so great - I think this is something I'll try again in the future.

-Jay Cost

How'd Fred Do?

Yesterday I argued that I thought yesterday's debate was very important for Fred Thompson because of the "hook" of his campaign. This debate was not make or break, of course, but he does generally need to use the debates to convince people that he can effectively make the conservative pitch.

I am hesitant to offer my thoughts on how Fred did simply because it is just one man's impression - and I am much more interested in the impressions of many men and women. What matters is not what I thought, but what Republican viewers thought. And I do not want to infer that because I thought x, y, and z about how Fred did - Republican viewers inferred the same.

So - let's do this. If you are a Republican voter who is uncommitted - I'd like to hear from you about how Fred did. Tell me your general impression of his performance - and then tell me if his performance left you more inclined, less inclined, or as inclined to vote for him. If you are just leaning to one candidate or another, I'd consider you uncommitted, but I'd like to know how you're leaning. Also, let me know if you are an active participant in Republican politics. Do you contribute? Do you volunteer?

Let's keep the response to about 200 words or less. I'll collate the responses and have a summary/highlights by the Afternoon Update. This is assuming, of course, that I get responses from people. I'll look like an idiot if nobody writes - so do the Horse Race Blogger a favor and please write!!!!


-Jay Cost

Thompson's Task

As regular readers of mine know, I am not usually one to make much of presidential debates. I have two major problems with analyzing them. First, it is quite easy to overestimate the importance of any given debate. The constructed context of the debate - the theme music, the stage design, the fact that the nominee is definitely standing on stage - inclines one to think that this event is more important than it actually is. Second, debate analysis too often is about personal taste, and therefore may be more of an indication of which candidate you like (and dislike) than who did well and who did not.

That being said, I think this debate is quite important for Fred Thompson. Republican elites everywhere will - I'll wager - be watching this debate. So will many rank-and-file Republican voters. And Thompson needs to impress them. He raised decent cash in Quarter 3. Now he needs to have a good debate performance.

The reason for this boils down to his "hook." Presidential campaigns have a bit in common with pop songs. Pop songs have hooks that try to attract listeners to tap their feet, sing along, and buy the single. Presidential campaigns have hooks, too. It is the basic pitch that will either attract or not attract the voters to vote for the candidate. Giuliani's hook is bringing his leadership of New York City to Washington. Romney's is bringing his business mindset and his ability to appeal to Democrats to Washington. McCain's is the demonstration in the last few years that his brand of "maverick Republicanism" has been the correct course of action. And so on.

Thompson's hook is different from those of the other three frontrunners. Thompson may be sufficiently qualified to be president - but he is not running on his qualifications. He's running on his principles and his personality. That is his hook. And it could very well play in the GOP primary. Conservative Republicans think that the GOP has fallen from favor because it has failed to govern conservatively. So, they are looking for a true conservative because they believe that, when the public hears conservative ideas in a clear and forthright manner, Republicans win. Thompson entered the race because he is the "only true conservative" frontrunner and because - so it is thought - he could communicate these principles clearly and convincingly to the public. Thompson's hook is thus that he believes and he can make others believe, too.

This is why the debate is more important to Thompson than the other major Republican candidates. His campaign hook is really the only one (among Republicans) that depends so much upon the capacity to communicate. He is running because he can talk to people - or so it is thought. Now he has to prove that he can. He has to convince Republicans that their initial, favorable impressions of him were accurate, that he can take the conservative message to the broader electorate.

-Jay Cost

The Larry Craig Problem

It appears as though Larry Craig has decided to remain in the United States Senate. I imagine that many people - among whom I count myself - are not entirely bothered by this. It seems to me that Craig's crime did not fit the punishment of effective expulsion. What does bother me is his behavior since the story broke. It is very clear that Craig has been quite irresponsible to his party since the news of his bathroom indiscretion became public.

I would grant that Craig's party was irresponsible to him first. Five terms in the House and three terms in the Senate apparently count for very little in a Republican caucus that seems unable to handle its fears of further electoral losses. The Senate GOP's treatment of Craig had the stink of desperation from moment one. So, maybe they had this coming.

I think that there is a larger lesson to learn from what I'm calling the "Larry Craig Problem." The problem is just a species of a general problem that plagues both major parties. I hinted at it around the time that the story broke. There are real limits to the power of the American political party. We talk about the political party as though it is indeed quite powerful. Media elites tend to do this as much as any of us. But it is actually not that powerful.

Who has the real power in American politics? Individual office holders do. The Larry Craig Problem is a case in point. What, in reality, could the Republican Party actually do to Larry Craig? The answer: very little! The caucus leadership could take his committee posts away - but that is about it. Anything else they do amounts to shaming him in public - but the effect of this is obviously quite limited (could Craig be shamed any more?), and shaming Larry Craig means shaming the Republican Party, too.

This is why I choose to use the word "irresponsible." Our party system is irresponsible for the simple reason that individual office holders are simply not responsible to the broader party - either to the party leadership itself, the ideological philosophy around which the party is organized, or the voters who are regular supporters of the party. A stubborn legislator like Larry Craig can thumb his nose at his party all he wants. Ultimately, the consequences for his insolence will be small.

There are a number of reasons for this fact. I will not bore you with a laundry list. But I will say that the first reason is the Constitution itself. Our Constitution is what Richard Hofstadter once called a Constitution against parties. Our Framers were all anti-party men when they wrote the Constitution - and this fact continues to limit the power that the party can exercise in American politics. And so, while the power of the party has ebbed and flowed over the years - only in a few moments and in constrained ways could the major American party be called powerful.

In light of this, we can tease out a larger insight from the Larry Craig Problem. Larry Craig is not responsible to the Republican Party. He can essentially do what he wants - and the GOP has very few ways to control his behavior. So it goes with all legislators. Accordingly, is it any surprise that conservatives would eventually find that the Republican Party is behaving irresponsibly toward them? The party cannot control the behavior of its members - so how can it make members adhere to conservative principles? What can the "Congressional GOP" do? Ultimately, it is at the mercy of its own members and their electoral ambitions. The "Congressional GOP" is little more than a heuristic device for the 250 or so individuals in Congress who have chosen to stick an "R" at the end of their names.

Ultimately, we see here the shortsightedness of the electoral strategy of today's office seekers. Office seekers have a short term electoral interest in making it seem like they are in some sense responsible to a broader entity like "the party." Not all voters like this idea, of course. But some voters do. So, the legislative strategy that the professional office seeker chooses is to tell the voters who like the idea of the office seeker being responsible to the party that he will be responsible to the party, and to tell those who do not like the idea that he will not be.

To those who like the idea of responsibility, the sales pitch "The Republican Party stands for tax cuts and limited government!" has a great deal of meaning. The implication behind it is that if you vote for individual members of that party, you are empowering the party itself. But in fact you are not really doing that at all. To think that you are is to commit the fallacy of composition. You are falsely infering that the party is something more than the aggregation of individuals elected to Congress who happen to carry this party label. So, in the long run party leaders cannot enforce members to adhere to any kind of party platform. Those members "cheat" on that platform whenever it is in their electoral interests to do so. And, sooner or later, the platform becomes a dead letter, having been overwhelmed by the number of times the members of the party played a hand in defeating their own platform. And, you the voter who believed the initial campaign pitch are left disappointed.

The way people look at the Republican Party today is fundamentally different than the way I look at it. Others see it as a party that has failed to live up to the spirit of the Contract with America. The 2007 party failed the 1994 party. I think that misses the point. I think the 1994 party made promises that it could never possibly have delivered - and so the party of 2007 was in some sense inevitable. I see the Contract with America as little more than a rhetorical device that promised something it could not possibly deliver - responsible party government. Why? Because the document, and the "revolution" it represented, did nothing to alter the relationship between the party leadership and the individual candidates for office. And so it was a revolution that was always predicated upon whether the electoral interests of individual Republican office seekers aligned with the organizing principles of the revolution.

As anybody who has studied American government for a day knows, this is a thin premise upon which to found a revolution. The revolution succeeds or fails based upon whether it will help candidates get elected - so my money is on it failing sooner or later!

Ultimately, this is a problem that plagues both parties. Ambitious office seekers have an interest in promoting the fiction of responsibility - regardless of the party to which they belong. Democratic office seekers have an interest in communicating to (certain) voters that if you vote for your local Democrat, you will somehow be empowering the Democratic Party to do Democratic things. But really this is not true. A vote for your local Democrat is nothing more than a vote to give your local Democrat the privilege to vote with or against Democrats from other localities once he is in Congress. Democratic things will occur if and only if enough Democrats happen to find the same things in their electoral interests.

And so - you will get responsible party government if and only if enough individual partisans find it to be in their individual electoral interests to enact the party platform. In other words, responsible party government is conditioned upon the uniformity of legislative preferences - and therefore the uniformity of preferences in the electorate. In reality then, responsibility is always and everywhere predicated upon electability.

I think this is why the Republican Congress spent like drunken sailors on shore leave through most of their time in the majority. Of course, they all have anti-spending principles. But most all of them (like most all of us!) value their jobs above their principles. And most all of them recognized that sending money home to the district was a necessity if they wished to keep their jobs. So, they spent. And there was no Republican "ombudsman" to stop them from spending - the fact that the campaign arms of the party make it seem to voters like there is such an ombudsman is just a fiction to keep the true believers on board through the end of the current electoral cycle.

I take this to be all part and parcel of our original founding document, and the dirty little secret of American government that it embodies: nobody is actually in charge of our country. No one person. No group of persons. Power is dispersed to multiple groups. The parties do some work to organize power so that the mechanics of government can operate - but the function that the parties really serve is far, far different from what they make their hard core supporters think they serve.

-Jay Cost

On Romney's "Mormon Speech"

Bob Novak had an interesting column about Mitt Romney yesterday. The subject concerns his Mormonism. Novak argues:

Although disagreement remains within the Romney camp, the consensus is that he must address the Mormon question with a speech deploring bias. According to campaign sources, a speech has been written, though 90 percent of it could still be changed. It is not yet determined exactly what he will say or at what point he will deliver a speech that could determine the political outcome of 2008.

Romney would seem the near perfect Republican candidate: articulate, handsome, able to raise funds and write his own checks. He has become sufficiently conservative on social issues where he once strayed leftward. He is the only Republican candidate unequivocally opposed to gay marriage and the only one who signed the no tax increase pledge. He is acceptable enough to non-Republicans to have been elected governor of very "blue" Massachusetts and then, unlike three GOP predecessors, actually governed as a Republican.

But last year I began to hear from loyal Republicans that they could never vote for Romney because of his religion. When I asked Romney about this in April 2006, he was in denial. I subsequently wrote on April 27, 2006, that Romney must make "a stronger response than he now envisions" -- a declaration that "the imposition of a religious test on U.S. politics is unfair, unreasonable and un-American." That was disputed by e-mails sent to me by self-professed Republicans who insisted Mormonism is a cult.

I have two concerns with the strategy that Novak outlines here.

First, I think Romney may have waited too long. The "speech defusing the Mormon issue" probably should have been given in the summer. The campaign season is here - and so the speech will take Romney off message at the time when being on message is most important. On the other hand, giving the speech in the summer might have meant that it fell upon deaf ears - as voters were not paying enough attention. So, I can appreciate the Romney campaign's logic for waiting - but they need to give this speech soon. What really concerns me is that that 90% of it is still up in the air. This is a bad sign. Even if they were going to wait to give the speech in, say, November - they should have had it firmed up by now. That is a sign to me that they still just do not know what to do.

Second, and more importantly, I am skeptical of the tone that Romney seems to be planning to take. At least as Novak describes it, it appears as though Romney will say in so many words that anti-Mormon voters are religious bigots, and they should just get over it. I think that this line could work with voters who do not have a problem with Romney's faith - but I can't see how this will do anything but offend those voters who are skeptical of it. It is essentially a moral accusation. Romney seems to be saying: "Be ashamed of yourselves...and vote for me!"

I think this is misguided. Most obviously, it makes for bad politics. Romney needs to woo these skeptical voters - and a response that accuses them of bias is simply not going to woo them.

What should Romney do instead? I think that he needs to recognize that there is, or at least may be, some validity to the concerns of these voters - and that he should address them in a way that is not reducible to accusations. Now, by this I do not mean that Romney needs to defend his religious beliefs. I also am not making any claims about the validity of Mormon beliefs. What I am saying is that Romney needs to recognize that the feelings of these voters may not be reducible to simple intolerance.

The relationship between Mormons and non-Mormons over the years has been difficult. The hostility of the 19th century has given way to a live-and-let-live relationship in the 21st. Today, most non-Mormons do not really know much about Mormon beliefs. Thus, it seems to me unsurprising and understandable that non-Mormons to whom religion is important are skeptical of voting for a Mormon. People are often suspicious of things about which they know little. So, I think Romney needs to be a little bit charitable here - and do something other than rail against religious "bias." I think his speech should recognize that Mormons and non-Mormons have had a complicated relationship that is still evolving - and that a lack of knowledge about each other, rather than simple religious bigotry, may explain some of the skepticism he has encountered.

This is not to say that his speech should be the Cliff Notes for the Book of Mormon. It is not Romney's responsibility to explain his beliefs. Nor is it his job to defend them. The Mormon Church does a fine job of both. What I would like to see Romney do is acknowledge that a divide exists, and that the feelings of doubt and even suspicion on both sides are understandable in light of it. Non-Mormons just do not know much about Mormonism - and so their suspicions might be the product of something other than "bias."

In so doing, I think he can flip the whole thing on its head. He can acknowledge and respect the concerns that non-Mormons have about Mormon theology. He can then go on to argue that, as far as politics goes, these differences simply do not matter. While Mormons and non-Mormons might have different theological beliefs, those different beliefs nevertheless point to identical values, which is what really matters in politics. For instance, religious voters who care about family values might be skeptical about Romney because of his beliefs; in response, Romney can acknowledge their questions about his beliefs, but then go on to argue that he - not in spite of those beliefs, but because of them - is the most pro-family candidate in the country.

Interestingly, this is similar to the strategy that Giuliani is pursuing with abortion. Giuliani continues to avow a pro-choice position. Nevertheless, he has signaled that, as far as politics goes, this does not matter. He does not like a judiciary that has run amok - and he plans to appoint strict constructionists to the court who will work to overturn Roe. So, while there are different moral opinions between social conservatives and Giuliani - as a political matter, those differences are just academic.

If, on the other hand, Romney argues that his poll numbers are so low because the good folks down at the evangelical mega-church are not really good folks, that they are instead bigots - he'll look like a cry baby.

I am going to watch this speech very carefully. For a while, I have had the suspicion that, while Romney understands the nuts and bolts of politics, he misses many of its subtleties. He reminds me of myself back when I used to play the piano. I'd study up on a piece by Mozart - and eventually I could play it with great technical proficiency. However, I never could play it beautifully. All of the notes hit in the right order - but for some strange reason, they never seemed to sound right. That is the impression I have had of Romney for a while. He's doing everything right, but it just is not sounding good to my ears. So, while I do not have a "religion test" (which, incidentally, Novak wrongly argues is "unconstitutional" - it is unconstitutional for the government to have a religious test, but voters can base their votes on whatever damned fool idea they choose!), I do think I have a "religious response test."

-Jay Cost

Sure Enough...

Earlier this week, I wondered whether the punditocracy would turn the race for dollars into a proxy for a race for votes. The Hill obliged:

The story of the money numbers has nothing to do with shortage or want. Rather, it is about domination. Clinton's financial surge, overtaking Obama as the Iowa and New Hampshire contests draw near, is significant because it shows people putting their money on one horse rather than the other.

Donors have seen Obama failing to narrow Clinton's lead despite his charisma and widespread appeal, and they are placing their bets accordingly. A million here, a million there, and you're talking about serious money.

This line of reasoning would be persuasive if the difference between the two was not such a small proportion of their overall hauls for the quarter. There was a $3 million difference between the two in terms of dollars to be used for the primary. But this is a $3 million difference on basically $20 million. This means that Clinton raised 15.8% more than Obama in Q3.

And from this the editors of the The Hill can claim that the difference "shows people putting their money on one horse rather than the other." You have got to be kidding me. This is insanity. This is "Beltway think" completely unmoored by how campaigns are really fought and won.

What entertains me about the editorial is that it rightly notes that Obama's money communicates to all: "I'm still here and strong; you'd be a fool to write me off." But because Clinton raised $3 million more, The Hill's editors essentially decide to write him off, anyway. They go on to state: "Having been put in the shade by Obama's fundraising in the first two quarters, Clinton came out with a crushing number that underscores the perspicacity of the recent punditry." So, I guess it's: Screw you and your $20 mil, Barack. Clinton raised $23! She "dominates"!

Dominates what, I am not exactly sure. But whatever it is, she's dominating the heck out of it!!

-Jay Cost

Clinton Expands Her Lead

In the new ABC News/Washington Post poll, Hillary Clinton has expanded her lead over Barack Obama to 33%. This amounts to a 19% increase in her lead since the beginning of September - 19 points in 21 days.

This is completely unsurprising to me. After all, the last 21 days have been quite decisive in the presidential primary contest. They say that mid-September is huge for determining who will and who will not be a party's nominee. And this year is no exception. It is no wonder that Democratic opinion is coalescing around Clinton. I mean - think of all the major events that have happened that have shaped the race, making it clear that her ideas and her vision are more amenable to the Democratic Party than Obama's:


Hmmm...can't think of any? Me neither. Of course, there have been the innumerable articles in the last three weeks about how she appears to be unbeatable (or, rather the articles cleverly ask whether she is unbeatable, so as to provide their authors with escape clauses). Maybe that has had an effect on her numbers?

Perhaps, then, what we are witnessing today is a perfect example of the next stage of the media echo chamber. Media elites have furiously talked up Clinton for three weeks. Because the voters are not paying much attention, they have picked up on this talking up and regurgitated it back to the media in the form of this poll. The media believes it has found independent evidence that Clinton is unstoppable, so the talking up will be ratcheted up.

How does this process end? Very simply. Starting this month, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton drown out the media with their $150 million. They start in Iowa. Then they move on to Nevada, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and then the entire country. In so doing, they engage the electorate - which then makes a real selection between the candidates.

It's called a campaign. It has not yet begun. The real one, at least, has not yet begun.

Of course, we are in the age of the perpetual campaign. Candidates feel compelled to host campaign events and make appearances for many months prior to the election. But there is a big difference between the perpetual campaign (which we've been in - and which has become insufferably long) and the real campaign (which we are just now entering - and which is relatively short because average voters don't want it to be any longer). The perpetual campaign is more of a necessary condition than a sufficient condition for electoral victory. The perpetual campaign that we have witnessed up until this point is sort of like all of the signs that candidates have up around the debate venues or flanking them any time they walk down Main Street in Anytown, NH. The signs do not actually convince anybody to vote for the candidate. So, why are they up? They're up because if the signs were not up, voters would wonder - "Why does this guy have no signs? Nobody supports him. Something must be wrong with him. I'll vote for the other guy just in case." So it goes with all of the nonsense we have been subjected to lo these many months. Candidates are not doing it to get votes. They're doing it so that they can get votes.

Unfortunately, pundits and media types generally fail to appreciate the difference between the perpetual campaign and the real campaign. The most recent example of this failure comes in the way they treat this campaign money. They know it is very important, but honestly I do not think they know why it is important. If they did, they'd cool it on declaring Clinton the winner a whole quarter before the first votes are cast. Here's a question. If all it took to win an election was high name recognition, pulling a "Ginsberg" in mid-September, and being flawless in the perpetual campaign of July: why would Clinton raise so much money? If the race is all but over except the obligatory, "Well - it's politics so anything can happen," why bother with raising $27 million in the stinking hot of August? Why not just go to the beach? Surely Clinton intends to spend the money. And so, presumably, she recognizes that there is a need to spend it. And so, surely that is a sign that she recognizes that polling in September, before money is spent, is not worth all that much - that there is a difference between what has happened and what will happen.

Again, I will reiterate that I am not laying odds on Obama or Clinton. I am not handicapping this race in any way at all - largely because I think it is to early to do that with any precision. I indicated last week that, at this point, I would spread my money around. I'd do that because ultimately I just do not know which message the Democratic electorate is going to prefer. I have no inside track or key insight to divine who is going to win. None at all. My position here is not a product of any special knowledge, but my lack of it.

So, I am not arguing that Obama is going to win this battle. My point is simply that it is going to be one hell of a battle.

I will cede the following to the media elites now declaring - or should I say "declaring?" - the "inevitability?" of the Clinton victory. She won the pre-campaign battle. No doubt. There is also no doubt that there is some utility to this kind of victory. All else equal, every candidate would like to have Clinton's lead, even if it is not based upon very informed opinions and even if it is only from September. But something else happened during this seemingly interminable preseason. Something more important. Clinton won the battle, for sure - but it looks as though Barack Obama has learned how to fight. Remember early on how many times he seemed to screw up - just made rookie mistake after rookie mistake? Have you noticed that he's not making them any more? I have. His campaign looks mighty professional to me.

And he's learned all this just in time for the real contest.

Like I said, this is going to be one hell of a battle.

-Jay Cost

Let's Just See...

I'll be interested to see if, in the wake of Clinton's strong Q3 fundraising results, the media and the pundits once again use the race for dollars as a proxy for the race for votes.

They did this in the summer, of course. Only then, it was Obama who had the fundraising advantage - and, by the media's analysis, a kind of horse race advantage. I argued against this back in June. I wrote:

Hilary Clinton raised $26 million in the first quarter of 2007 - that is 342% of Bush's total receipts in the same period. The only way that this - "[Can] the junior senator from New York...keep up"? - is the question is if we have misunderstood the role of money. Is it a necessary condition for electoral success? Yes. Is it a sufficient condition? No. It is a necessary, but insufficient condition. If you don't have enough money, you won't win. But it doesn't mean that if you do have enough money, you will win.

Of course, we should be impressed by Mr. Obama's fundraising abilities - and we should take that as a sign that a large quadrant of the Democratic Party's elite support Obama. But to move from that observation to this question is to fall prey to overusing the data.

The problem is that pundits and analysts have turned the race for dollars into a proxy for the race for votes. This is inappropriate, which is why House incumbents who raise more money are more likely to lose. Incumbents who sense danger draw to themselves as many dollars as they can; but, as dollars cannot achieve victory, the danger remains. Money does not win an election. It just gives the opportunity to win.

By turning the race for dollars into a proxy for the race for votes, pundits implicitly turn fundraising into a sufficient condition, not a necessary one. They see that Obama has raised more than Clinton, and assume that Obama somehow has an advantage. In reality, the question that they should ask from the money is: are these candidates on track to raise enough to compete? And the answer is yes, they are! Obama is on track to raise enough, and so also is Clinton.

In my view, the final questions and answers of the last paragraph still hold. We could switch the names, and it would perfectly encapsulate my response to the Q3 numbers.

We must not make them out to be more than what they are. Clinton and Obama are both on track to fund their campaigns as fully as they like. And so, the victor of the battle will be the one whose appeal to the electorate is greater.

These appeals have just begun. It would be foolhardy to use a $7 million difference between Obama and Clinton in Q3 to prejudge the results of these appeals. If the punditocracy does this, anyway...well, let's just say that it is an analytical mistake they have made before, and will almost assuredly make again!

Again, I am not saying that Obama is favored. All I am saying is that this is going to be a real race.

-Jay Cost

A Paradox?

Donald Lambro has an article in the Washington Times that discusses the differences between Romney's national numbers and his numbers in the early states. He writes:

All the polls show that Rudolph W. Giuliani is the clear national front-runner for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination, but Mitt Romney, who lags in fourth place in the same surveys, is leading in the first four party-preference contests of the 2008 campaign.

This is a rarely reported and little-noticed political paradox that is taking shape in the Republican presidential race, and which in a volatile and unpredictable campaign cycle, with a large undecided vote, could end up surprising pollsters and pundits alike.

Is it a paradox? A paradox is "an apparently absurd or self-contradictory statement or proposition, or a strongly counter-intuitive one, which investigation, analysis, or explanation may nevertheless prove to be well-founded or true." I could go along with that. There might be a paradoxical quality to Romney's lead. But the question is exactly what does the "investigation, analysis, or explanation" that resolves the seeming contradiction yield?

Lambro implies that the resolution might come from the fact that Romney has an inside track - that the early victories will "flip" the polls in the later states thus bringing consistency among the polls. I would argue - and indeed I have argued - that the resolution of the paradox comes when we remember that Romney has been the only one on the air in the early states of Iowa and New Hampshire (and his father was governor of Michigan). The numbers in these states might well change when Giuliani and Thompson begin their advertising blitzes - as will the national numbers when it is their time, too.

Also, a technical note. Rasmussen has Thompson up over Giuliani. Relatedly, Reuters/Zogby has Thompson within the margin of error of Guiliani's numbers. So, "all" the polls do not show Giuliani as the "clear" frontrunner.

-Jay Cost

A Reader Comments about the Primaries

This email from a reader named Dennis is in response to my column last week on the presidential nominating process. I thought it was worth sharing, as it gets to the heart of the issue as well as anything I have seen:

Presidential primaries have one purpose: to nominate a presidential candidate who can win the general election. So a concession that the primary process is "broken" requires an admission that what it produces is unacceptable, i.e., the nominee.

An analogy: let us say that GM admits that its process for producing Cadillacs needs to be overhauled. Logically that can only mean one thing: the top brass is not happy with the end product. For if Cadillacs were selling well, no one would question the manner in which they are being made. If I am a Democrat or Republican, my dissatisfaction with the primary system must be tethered to my dissatisfaction with the candidate. Any other position is really sophistry.

So the real question to those who do not like the current system is "has your party ever nominated a candidate for president who was undeserving of the honor because of some defect in the nominating process?" Or, "name one election since 1972 where you believe a fairer or different nominating process would have yielded a different nominee was more qualified to lead your party?" I would understand Sabato's argument a lot better if he said that the system needs to be changed because quality candidates are not running who could have a better chance of winning. But that is not the argument.

This is a great way of framing the issue. The goal of the nominating process is to select a nominee. Accordingly, any argument about reforming the system should implicitly argue that prior nominees were inferior because of the nominating process. A viable form of this argument may be possible. It may not be. Either way, I have seen no attempts at it.

Instead, those who advocate reform make far too much use of generalities - not just metaphors, but also recourse to vague voting rights rhetoric that is historically anachronistic and logically contentious. Historically, this "right" only really came into existence about thirty years ago. Logically, can we really argue with such finality that the right to vote in a presidential primary is indeed a right? Reformers like to treat it as such. Their arguments implicitly assume that citizens have the right to determine who party nominees are. How else can objections based upon "representativeness" carry such sway but for the premise that the "people" have a right to choose the party nominees. Personally, I think no such right exists - and I think we should have that argument before we argue how to provide this so-called right to the public.

My personal feeling is that the party possesses the right to select its nominees. And the party consists not of the people who twenty odd years ago checked "R" or "D" on their voter registration (or who, out of curiosity, wandered over to the red booth instead of the blue booth because John McCain was more intriguing than Al Gore) - but those with an actual stake in the party. These are party leaders, party workers, party officials in government, etc. If those stakeholders prefer to open the process up to the broader partisan base (which they do), that is their prerogative. But simply because they have chosen to do this does not mean that they have ceded to the broader public their right to manage their own process.

This leads to another consideration. Maybe the way to fix the system is to enable the DNC and RNC to bring order to it. After all, they are the entities with the greatest interest in a maximally efficient primary process. If we are interested in reforming and rationalizing the nominating process, perhaps we should - dare I say it? - empower the parties? I know it is a heretical thought. After all, partisan politics is the root of all evil, and the course of governmental "reform" in the last 40 or so years has been geared toward disempowering the parties. But look where that got us. Maybe we should give them a little more leverage over their nomination processes, rather than taking all of it from them.

-Jay Cost

Technical Thoughts on the ARG Poll

I'd like to toss in my two cents about the ARG poll that John discussed this morning.

Polls are ways to estimate population parameters based upon the characteristics of a sample. So, if a poll says that 47% of respondents support Rudy Giuliani - we may be able to estimate that 47% of the public feels the same way.

"We may be able." Why'd I say that? It is because estimates such as those in a poll have two relevant characteristics. The first is efficiency. The second is biasedness. Both of these condition whether we can use a poll to infer the value of a population parameter. In other words, if a poll says 47% of respondents support Giuliani, and we want to know whether we can estimate that 47% of the public does - we have to evaluate whether our estimate is efficient and unbiased.

Efficiency is an important characteristic. It is a way to discuss the extent to which any given poll will diverge from the average result you'd obtain if you conducted the poll a multitude of times. Most public polls give you a snippet of information about efficiency every time they report their results. ARG says: "Margin of Error: ± 4 percentage points, 95% of the time, on questions where opinion is evenly split." What exactly does this mean? Suppose that you ran the ARG poll 1,000 times. The average value you find is 25% support for Rudy. The technical language above means that in 19 of 20 polls, you will find a result between 21% and 29%. This is a measure of efficiency. It indicates to us the extent to which any given poll will vary from the average poll value.

Importantly, in 1 out of 20 polls, we will find a result less than 21% or greater than 29%. This is critically important because, while the chance that any given poll is outside the margin of error is small, the chance that at least 1 poll in 20 is outside the margin of error is 64%! By my count, there have been at least 20 polls taken on the Republican nomination battle in the last two weeks. So, there is a 64% chance that at least one of them was outside the margin of error.

This is a consequence of the fact that there is always some inefficiency when you use a sample to measure a population. Fortunately, the RCP polling average offers a good way to enhance efficiency. Efficiency is partially conditioned by sample size. If you take a poll of 100 people, your result will be much more inefficient than a poll of 10,000 people (all else being equal). Accordingly, averaging the polls together diminishes ineffiency - and therefore the extent to which we can expect variation in the averaged value. In the case of the ARG poll, the results are interesting - but note how they are kind of "smoothed out" when they are factored into the RCP average for South Carolina.

Biasedness is an even more important consideration. Whereas there are statistical procedures to control for inefficiency - biasedness is much more difficult to deal with. It is also much harder to identify. This is the correct way to think about bias. Suppose that Giuliani's actual support among all South Carolina Republicans is 25%. In other words, the population parameter is 25% support. To measure this parameter, you conduct 1 million polls all via the same methodology. Then, you average all of the polls together. If the average value equals 25%, you can conclude that your methodology produces an unbiased estimate. That is, the average of all of your polls equals the population value. If, on the other hand, the average comes out to be 21%, your methodology is producing biased results.

Obviously, bias is a much more difficult thing to estimate. The perennial debate among bloggers about whether pollsters should allow partisanship to vary, or whether they should sample a set number of Republicans and a set number of Democrats is really a debate about minimizing bias. One side thinks that the other side's estimate biases the final results - i.e. the expected value of the poll is not identical to the population value of the characteristic being measured.

Bias, then, can be a product of the methodology that you use to put together your sample. Of course, a truly random sample is expected to be unbiased. But there are a whole host of problems with the idea of a random sample when it comes to preelection polls. After all, pollsters are taking samples of the voting population - this population does not yet exist! People have not yet voted. Registered voter polls might therefore induce bias - the voting population's preferences might differ systematically from the preferences of registered voters. So, pollsters often try to estimate who will and who will not vote. But then, bias is dependent upon whether or not their selection protocols are any good. If a poll screens out likely voters and fails to screen out unlikely voters - then the poll results might be just as biased.

This is one reason why I am so skeptical of all of these nameless and faceless polling firms. I take a very pragmatic approach to the issue of bias. Polling firms of which I know or which I know to be affiliated with a major news outlet are probably less likely to be biased than other polls. So, I like Gallup. I like ABC News/Washington Post. I like NBC/Wall Street Journal. I like Cook/RT, etc. I do not have detailed data on their sampling methodologies - but from my position of limited knowledge, the fact that these outfits are tied to major news figures with a stake in quality results make me more comfortable. Polls like ARG make me uncomfortable simply because I know so little about them. I feel like I have less warranty against bias.

-Jay Cost