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By Jay Cost

HorseRaceBlog Home Page --> September 2008

The Politics of the Bailout Bill

The results of Monday's vote on the bailout bill, HR 3997, contain some illuminating patterns. A few people have noted that members of Congress facing competitive elections tended to vote against the bill. This is true, and significant. The roll call yielded some other important tendencies.

The following picture examines how Republican members of Congress voted by state: red indicates a nay vote, green a yay vote, and yellow a split result.

Republicans Vote.jpg

Let's break GOP support down by region.

For what it's worth, the remaining New England Republican, Chris Shays, voted in support of the bill. Support in the mid-Atlantic region was mixed. Pennsylvania and New Jersey Republicans voted against the bill. Opposition in the Keystone State among Republicans was particularly strong. However, New York Republicans were more supportive, with every member except Randy Kuhl voting in favor.

Republicans in the South Central region showed mixed support. GOP caucuses in Arkansas (aka John Boozman), Mississippi (aka Chip Pickering), and Alabama supported it. However, that was balanced by strong opposition in Tennessee, Louisiana, and especially Texas. Only four Republicans from the President's home state supported the bill.

South Atlantic Republicans also exhibited mixed support. Mike Castle of Delaware supported it, the two Republicans in Maryland split, and South Carolina voted in the affirmative. However, the bill was strongly opposed in Georgia, Florida, and North Carolina.

Opposition was very stiff in the Midwest, where ten of ten Republican caucuses voted in the negative. There was unanimous opposition in Iowa, Kansas, and Nebraska. Even in Ohio, home state of Republican leader John Boehner, seven Republicans voted against the bill.

Republican support in the West was split: there was opposition in Arizona, Colorado, and Montana, but more favorable results in California, Idaho, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, and Utah.

What about the Democrats?

Democrats Vote.jpg

The leadership was able to extract a reasonable amount of discipline from Democrats on the east coast - with only Vermont, New Hampshire, and Georgia defecting from the party line.

Meanwhile, the bill again ran into trouble in the Midwest. Midwestern Democrats were more amenable than their Republican counterparts - particularly in the upper midwest. But Indiana Democrats voted nay, and Democrats in Kansas, Missouri, Ohio, and Michigan all split their votes. Mountain West Democrats voted heavily against the bill. And in California, Nancy Pelosi's home state, 15 of 36 Democrats voted against the bill.

The maps don't show it, but of the 19 members of Congress who represent New York City, parts of Long Island, or Westchester, there was just a single defection, José Serrano of the Bronx. The bill also received very strong support from members whose districts are near Washington, D.C. However, support was mixed in Los Angeles and Chicago, where all three South Side members (Jesse Jackson, Jr., Dan Lipinski, and Bobby Rush) voted in the negative.

A final note on the bill. The vote among members of the House Financial Services Committee broke along party lines. 25 of 37 Democrats voted in favor, while just 8 of 33 Republicans supported the bill. If members on the floor rely upon fellow partisans in the relevant committees for voting cues - perhaps it is no surprise that House Democrats followed Financial Service Democrats, and Republicans followed Financial Service Republicans.

This data presents an interesting perspective on the politics of the current financial crisis. Certainly it demonstrates the accuracy of the hackneyed "Main Street versus Wall Street" cliché . While metro Washington and New York members were strongly in support, the bill was hard pressed to find supportive members in the Midwest.

And yet both presidential candidates are running through the heartland advocating its passage. That's somewhat surprising when you think about it. It indicates to me that the politics of this issue do not directly favor one candidate over the other. Certainly, neither candidate is on the "right" side of public opinion. Remember: while the polls show mixed support for the bill, they do not measure intensity - which can matter in situations like this. If 30% is lukewarm in its support, 30% is uncertain, and 30% is dead-set against, as a political matter, the public is opposed.

So why have McCain's numbers been sliding? The mainstream media will tell you it is because of his foolish political gamble. He headed back to Washington and looked bad doing so. I don't think that's it at all, though I agree he did not look good. This argument assumes that average voters poured over every word of press reports (written by mainstream media people!) and carefully meditated upon every keenly insightful utterance on the Sunday talk shows (dominated by the chatter of mainstream media people!) to tease out who made the politically smart move. I don't buy that (self-serving!) explanation for a minute. [N.B. Ever notice how MSM political analysis always seem to place the MSM in the center of the battle?]

I think McCain has suffered a deterioration in his poll position for a simple reason: he's the Republican. George W. Bush is the President of the United States. He is responsible for the state of the nation. He's not held in good esteem right now, and he's a Republican. From a public opinion perspective, it does not matter so much that the Democrats control Congress. The buck stops with Bush; Bush is a Republican; McCain is a Republican; McCain suffers.

A related factor could be that Bush is simply more noticeable than he was a few weeks ago. The President has done a good job hiding himself during the presidential campaign. Presumably, he knows that his presence hurts McCain, so he's taken himself out of the public's view. But now he's back on the television, on the front pages, giving prime time speeches, and so on. I think this has hurt McCain's numbers as much as anything.

Here's a thought experiment to mull. Take 100 undecided voters and expose them to an hour of clips of George W. Bush talking. How many of them will lean Obama at the end of the hour? More than half, I'm guessing, which is why McCain needs this issue, and George W. Bush, off the front pages as soon as possible. McCain's trajectory to victory has always relied upon Bush falling out of public view. Up until this crisis, Bush seemed happy to oblige the Republican nominee. But this has put Bush front-and-center, which inherently helps Barack Obama.

-Jay Cost

On the State of the Race

In this post, I'd like to chart the effect the financial crisis has had on each candidate's standing in the polls. The following graphs the RCP average from 9/7 to yesterday.

RCP Average.jpg

As of this writing, the average of the most recent polls shows McCain at 43.3%, which means he has suffered a 3.4-point slide in the last three weeks. Barack Obama stands at 47.9%, an increase of 2.7-points.

For reference, I've included the key events in the last week in the chart. You'll see that McCain lost ground in the wake of the events of 9/14 through 9/16: Bank of America's purchase of Merrill Lynch, Lehman Brothers filing for bankruptcy, and the rescue of AIG. McCain also suffered after the bailout deal was announced. Obama saw his biggest increase in the middle of the month; his numbers have not changed much since the bailout was announced.

Immediately prior to the start of the Democratic National Convention, Obama led in the RCP average 45.5% to 43.9%. In June, he had an average lead of 47.1% to 42.4%. So, from June to the beginning of the conventions, McCain whittled down Obama's lead from 4.5 points to 1.6 points. The Republican National Convention put him ahead of Obama, but recent events have wiped that lead away. Currently, the race stands roughly where it did in June, though McCain is in a slightly better position.

It stands to reason that the financial situation has been a campaign "moment" that has favored Barack Obama. So far, its effect is similar to him winning the nomination in June or heading to Europe in July.

A additional few points are worth noting.

First, the number of undecided voters has increased in the last three weeks, from a low of 6.3% of the electorate on 9/8 to 8.8% last night.

Second, the polls themselves have been very volatile this month. The Gallup tracking poll had a crazy week last week, and individual pollsters are disagreeing with each other quite a bit. Much of the disagreement has to do with McCain's share of the vote. The standard deviation of McCain's share in the current RCP average is 2.8%. Obama's is 2.0%. [The standard deviation is the average distance between an individual poll's result and the average of all polls.] By comparison, the final RCP average in 2004 had John Kerry's standard deviation at 1.7% and Bush's at 1.3%. This is a sign of volatility in the current race. Pollsters are finding fairly divergent results.

Third, there is a good subset of the electorate that claims to make up its mind in October or November. That might be hard for political junkies who have been following every twist and turn for 18 months to believe - but it's true! In 1996, 30% of respondents claimed to make up their minds a day to a month before the election. In 2000, that number was also 30%. In 2004, 21% of the public made that claim.

These three points indicate that caution is required in projecting the state of the race forward. There seems to be a lot of uncertainty out there. Practically speaking, average voters are probably more focused on the economy than on politics. As noted above, the number of undecideds has ticked back up, there has been a lot of volatility in the September polling, and we know a lot of people will make up their minds next month. The events of the last 20 days could be the break Obama and his supporters have been waiting for - something that induces the remaining undecideds to abandon the status quo and embrace "Change That Works For You." But it might also be the case that this is just another turn on a very windy road - something that, like the trip to Europe, loses much of its effect after it drops from the news.

What really matters is if, when, and how this financial situation resolves itself. It is fair to say that, on a purely political basis, McCain needs a resolution more than Obama. His numbers have taken a hit - and, despite his best efforts, he has not successfully gotten in front of this issue. That's not to say that he needs this particular bill to pass - the fact that members of Congress in the most competitive districts voted against the bill tells us something. Rather, McCain needs this issue to become less immediate, less salient. Nothing else is getting through right now. McCain needs this to drop off the front page as a first step to recover the ground he has lost in the last 20 days.

-Jay Cost

McCain Controlled Agenda In First Debate

Friday's debate was an enjoyable, engaging contest. These candidates have such sharply different styles - there were reasons to expect a good show. I for one was not disappointed.

Barack Obama's initial answers to Jim Lehrer's lead questions were strong. He typically contextualized individual issues into a broader framework. Overall, I think this made him seem knowledgeable, which is how he needed to come across, given that the subject of the debate was foreign policy. However, it also made him seem a bit professorial. Watching the debate sometimes reminded me of a college class, as if I should lean over to my wife to ask, "What was number two in his four-point plan on Afghanistan? I missed it." It would be best for Obama to seem knowledgeable without seeming professorial - but above all he needs to seem knowledgeable.

McCain's initial answers to questions tended to be as strong, though not he did do very well in his response to the opening question about the financial situation. Where McCain had a persistent edge was in controlling the agenda of the debate.

Oftentimes, there's something to be said for not engaging the other side in a discussion. On many issues, one candidate is going to be a loser and one a winner. It's a matter of issue ownership. For instance, on Iraq, if the public decides that the crucial test is the surge, then Obama loses the issue. If it decides that the test is the initial decision to invade, McCain loses. So, rather than try to change voters' minds, each candidate should try to change the topic to more favorable ground. This is one reason partisan talking heads always seem to speak past one another.

Obama did not do this as well as he could have. He often tried to engage McCain on the latter's best subjects, which meant he ran into some trouble. Here's what I noticed:

(1) In the second question of the night, Jim Lehrer asked the candidates an open-ended question about "fundamental differences" between them. Both candidates focused largely upon spending and corruption, which are two of McCain's best subjects. They also spent a lot of time talking about taxes, which meant Obama had to deflect accusations that he'll raise taxes, something that voters might already be suspicious of.

(2) The very next question, about what new spending programs would have to be scaled back in light of the financial situation, also ended up about spending. All in all, while Obama did much better on the opening question, the next 25 minutes were spent on domestic issues that McCain has an advantage on.

(3) On Iraq, McCain opened with a discussion about the surge. Obama opened with a discussion about how it was not wise to go into Iraq in the first place. So, both candidates began saying things about Iraq that favor them. However, in the back-and-forth that followed, the discussion drifted to the surge, which is favorable ground for McCain.

(4) We'd expect Afghanistan to be Obama's best moment in a foreign policy debate. After all, the situation has deteriorated there, making McCain susceptible to the "Republicans took their eye off the central front" claim. However, it turned into a discussion about Pakistan, and whether Obama should have said what he said about inserting soldiers into the hinterlands to track down al Qaeda.

(5) On Iran, the subject turned to whether it is appropriate for the president to meet with "preconditions" or "preparations."

Five of the eight lead questions were fought largely over points that tend to favor McCain. The remaining three - the first question on the financial situation, the question on Russia, and the one on post-9/11 security - were fought on more neutral ground. Obama easily won the question on the fiscal situation, and he turned an impending loss on the Russia question into a tie. McCain tried to shift the conversation to Obama's initial response to the Georgian invasion, but Obama forced it to energy independence, a more neutral topic. Good defensive maneuver there - I would like to have seen more deflections like that. On the final question, both candidates gave similar answers on post-9/11 security, then quickly moved to prior points they had made on Iraq and Afghanistan. Obama was not thrown off base, which was good, but McCain was helped because his prior points had been made more clearly in those preceding questions.

The net effect of this was that McCain's performance resembled an argument - Senator Obama lacks "the knowledge or experience" and has "made the wrong judgments" - backed up by specific examples. Obama's performance did not create such an impression, at least not as strongly.

Why did this happen?

The answer can be found by recalling the last Democratic primary debate. At the time, I suggested that Obama did poorly because he frequently refused to let Senator Clinton have the last word on a subject, even if dropping it was best for him.

Something similar happened on Friday night. For instance, McCain would bring up pork barrel spending. Rather than let McCain have the point and move on to a more favorable subject, Obama would respond to McCain on pork barrel. That meant that McCain controlled the conversation, which therefore wasn't about health care, college tuition, job retraining, falling wages, or another subject that favors Obama.

McCain was also able to hamper Obama's rhetorical delivery. It wasn't just that Obama was debating on McCain's ground, at times he was not debating terribly well. Frequently, he was so eager to "correct the record" that he'd become a little too animated by the end of a McCain monologue. A few times, McCain even induced Obama to waste precious time responding to trivialities, as he did here:

MCCAIN: Senator Obama said the surge could not work, said it would increase sectarian violence, said it was doomed to failure. Recently on a television program, he said it exceed our wildest expectations.

But yet, after conceding that, he still says that he would oppose the surge if he had to decide that again today. Incredibly, incredibly Senator Obama didn't go to Iraq for 900 days and never

LEHRER: Well, let's go at some of these things...

MCCAIN: Senator Obama is the chairperson of a committee that oversights NATO that's in Afghanistan. To this day, he has never had a hearing.

LEHRER: What about that point?

MCCAIN: I mean, it's remarkable.

LEHRER: All right. What about that point?

OBAMA: Which point? He raised a whole bunch of them.

LEHRER: I know, OK, let's go to the latter point and we'll back up. The point about your not having been...

OBAMA: Look, I'm very proud of my vice presidential selection, Joe Biden, who is the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and as he explains, and as John well knows, the issues of Afghanistan, the issues of Iraq, critical issues like that, don't go through my subcommittee because they're done as a committee as a whole.

But that's Senate inside baseball. But let's get back to the core issue here...

McCain is making a broad point that the proper test of judgment is where each candidate stood on the surge. That's a point that could matter for voters. At the end of his answer, he impishly inserts an aside about Obama's subcommittee. Nobody is going to vote on that. Obama is right to note that this is "Senate inside baseball," yet he nevertheless takes the bait. Why bother? Why not allow McCain his snarky comment, and move immediately to discuss the wisdom of the initial invasion?

By contrast, McCain was rarely taken off message by Obama. When he did respond to Obama's points, he would occasionally laugh them off, as he did in this exchange:

OBAMA: He even said the other day that he would not meet potentially with the prime minister of Spain, because he -- you know, he wasn't sure whether they were aligned with us. I mean, Spain? Spain is a NATO ally.

MCCAIN: Of course.

OBAMA: If we can't meet with our friends, I don't know how we're going to lead the world in terms of dealing with critical issues like terrorism.

MCCAIN: I'm not going to set the White House visitors schedule before I'm president of the United States. I don't even have a seal yet.

In other instances, McCain would use Obama's point to pivot instantly to a talking point of his own, as he did here:

OBAMA: I just want to make this point, Jim. John, it's been your president who you said you agreed with 90 percent of the time who presided over this increase in spending. This orgy of spending and enormous deficits you voted for almost all of his budgets. So to stand here and after eight years and say that you're going to lead on controlling spending and, you know, balancing our tax cuts so that they help middle class families when over the last eight years that hasn't happened I think just is, you know, kind of hard to swallow.

LEHRER: Quick response to Senator Obama.

MCCAIN: It's well-known that I have not been elected Miss Congeniality in the United States Senate nor with the administration. I have opposed the president on spending, on climate change, on torture of prisoner, on - on Guantanamo Bay. On a -- on the way that the Iraq War was conducted. I have a long record and the American people know me very well and that is independent and a maverick of the Senate and I'm happy to say that I've got a partner that's a good maverick along with me now.

Finally, McCain would occasionally ignore Obama and make an entirely different point, as was the case here:

MCCAIN: I think we ought to seriously consider with the exceptions the caring of veterans national defense and several other vital issues.

LEHRER: Would you go for that?

OBAMA: The problem with a spending freeze is you're using a hatchet where you need a scalpel. There are some programs that are very important that are under funded. I went to increase early childhood education and the notion that we should freeze that when there may be, for example, this Medicare subsidy doesn't make sense.

Let me tell you another place to look for some savings. We are currently spending $10 billion a month in Iraq when they have a $79 billion surplus. It seems to me that if we're going to be strong at home as well as strong abroad, that we have to look at bringing that war to a close.

MCCAIN: Look, we are sending $700 billion a year overseas to countries that don't like us very much. Some of that money ends up in the hands of terrorist organizations. We have to have wind, tide, solar, natural gas, flex fuel cars and all that but we also have to have offshore drilling and we also have to have nuclear power.

Senator Obama opposes both storing and reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel. You can't get there from here and the fact is that we can create 700,000 jobs by building constructing 45 new nuclear power plants by the year 2030. Nuclear power is not only important as far as eliminating our dependence on foreign oil but it's also responsibility as far as climate change is concerned and the issue I have been involved in for many, many years and I'm proud of the work of the work that I've done there along with President Clinton.

This pattern did not hold all the time - as with Obama's effective maneuvering on the Russian question. However, generally speaking, this is how the debate went. Obama showed up to debate. McCain showed up to say what he wanted. This meant that Obama was left debating on McCain's best topics, but McCain hardly ever debated on Obama's best topics.

Does this mean that McCain won the debate? Not necessarily. If we define "won" as the immediate reaction of the public, the polling evidence is mixed, and not especially helpful. LA Times, Gallup, CBS, and CNN showed Obama winning. Rasmussen, with a tighter Republican-Democrat mix, showed a closer 33-30 Obama victory. SurveyUSA found a clear Obama victory in California, but a one-point McCain victory in Washington State. Interestingly, SurveyUSA found McCain even with Obama on the economy in Washington, and with leads on who "understands" Iran, Iraq and above all Russia. Many of these polls found a strong contingent of people who considered it a draw.

So, putting aside the polls, I think it was politically beneficial for McCain to control the agenda of the debate. I think that meant he advanced his message more effectively than Obama. If McCain can manage the agenda of the next two debates as well (a big if), the final effect could be quite helpful to him. It will keep the conversation on subjects he prefers - especially useful for when we shift to domestic issues, which broadly favor Democrats this year. Also, it might give the impression that McCain is in charge of the discussion. That would enhance his "doer-not-a-talker" image, which would be good for him.

Given that this is similar to the problem Obama had when squaring off against Senator Clinton back in April, I think that this is something he should work on before the next debate. He should learn how to strategically ignore McCain, so that the conversation does not drift into subjects that favor the Republican nominee. In other words, Barack Obama needs to talk less to John McCain, and more to the television audience.

-Jay Cost

McCain Plays It Like McCain

There has been a lot of discussion about McCain's decision to suspend his campaign. I'll toss in my two cents.

I do not think it is a purely political move, a stunt or ploy designed only to advance McCain-Palin's message. The politics of it are too complicated for anybody to predict what will happen - which means that McCain is taking a risk. Few stunts are actually risky; they just appear to be.

I see two serious dangers for McCain. The first is with the images. The second is with the tricky assignment of credit.

First, one reason members of Congress do not typically get elected to the presidency is that, whereas the President seems big, Congress seems small. Congress is not a national body, per se. Rather, it is the meeting place of representatives from the various parts of our nation. Nobody in Congress is responsible to the nation at large. Instead, each is responsible to just a small slice of it. It's a fallacy of composition to believe that because each member of Congress tends a parcel of the nation, the whole Congress tends the whole nation.

This invariably shows through in the images we see of Congress in operation. Contrast your mental pictures of Congress with your pictures of the President, and you'll see what I'm driving at. Congress is not the place you want to put your presidential candidate 40 days before the election. The images might work for McCain if Congress had a prime minister position that McCain could effectively inhabit for the period of this "crisis." But there is no such role. So, by going back to Congress, McCain runs the risk of looking like he belongs there and not in the White House.

Second, an important element to the congressional dynamic is the assignment of credit and the avoidance of blame. Why is it that all of the legislators who have had a hand in this mess can preen about how awful it is? It has to do with the way Congress is organized. Blame is very diffuse - not just in terms of appearances, but also in actual governance. You can never blame just one member of Congress for bad policy. You have to blame dozens, sometimes hundreds, in both chambers and both parties. That means that individual members can avoid taking blame.

The same goes with credit. When Congress does something good, it is often because of a "team effort" across chambers and parties. There is rarely one person who demonstrably makes the difference. The causal chain is quite blurry. This is an important point to understand when teasing out the implications of McCain's situation. Because the assignment of credit is fuzzy and subjective, it is political. So, members of Congress can find themselves in a fight over who gets it. This is not the case all the time. Frequently, there is enough credit to go around. But sometimes there isn't enough - which means that you're likely to see a political fight, with opposing factions looking to take credit for themselves or assign the blame to others.

This is where McCain might run into trouble. By going to Washington, he has injected himself into this process, and thus opened himself up to the rhetorical attacks we are now hearing from Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi. They are setting the stage for denying McCain credit for any deal that is brokered. If they are successful, McCain could be seen as an impediment regardless of whatever real help he might have given. Of course, just as the Democratic leadership will be working to keep McCain from getting credit, the Republican leadership will be doing precisely the opposite.

Accordingly, we should appreciate the risk in McCain's move. It is a benefit to him if and only if he is seen to have been a positive force. So, McCain's fortunes rest in part on the results of the unpredictable partisan back-and-forth over who should have the credit. And even if McCain does accrue some credit, he still runs the risk of seeming like a "small" member of Congress again.

The uncertainty of this situation makes me suspect that this was not done exclusively for strategic campaign considerations. Some have called it a desperate hail Mary - a risky gambit taken because the "bottom is dropping out." But that requires a pretty tendentious look at the polls. Five of the ten polls in the RCP national average show McCain down by three points or less. Gallup has a tie today. That is not consistent with the "bottom dropping out."

Instead, I suspect that, as with the Palin pick, this is McCain being McCain. He didn't like the situation. So, he did something. We've seen him do stuff like this again and again over the years. Lieberman gave the best description of McCain at the Republican convention: he's a restless reformer. I think that McCain being McCain, he felt restless - so he went to Washington to do something.

Regardless of how we might feel about his decision - we can agree that McCain has once again affected the race by his actions. This is the second time he has done this in a month. It's become an ironic feature of this campaign. While most agree that the election will hinge upon public considerations of Barack Obama, so much of the campaign itself has hinged upon the actions of John McCain.

-Jay Cost

Joe Biden Steps In It

I'm not one who typically puts a lot of stock in campaign gaffes, but this one is different.

Is he trying to lose western Pennsylvania?

Somebody please forward this picture to Joe Biden.

Pennsylvania Coal.gif

There are 7,400 people in Pennsylvania who work in coal mining (not including all of the people in industries that depend upon coal). About a quarter of the miners work in Greene County, Pennsylvania. Greene County is in the very southwest corner of the state. Its loyalty to the Democratic Party stretches back to the 19th century. It has voted Republican just twice since 1932: first in 1972, then in 2004 when George W. Bush eked out a 50-49 win.

Hillary Clinton defeated Barack Obama in Greene County by 49 points - 73% to 24%. If it is the Obama campaign's goal to get back in the game in Greene County by talking up economics - this is probably the last thing Biden should say.

Somebody get Ed Rendell some aspirin.

-Jay Cost

Does McCain Have a Rural Problem?

I have covered in some detail Barack Obama's "rural problem," which manifested itself in poor performances in primary battles east of the Mississippi. My sense - based on the poll data, press reports, and people with whom I speak in Western Pennsylvania - is that it is still present.

Does John McCain have a rural problem, too?

What tipped me off to the possibility is McCain's poll position in Indiana. In its most recent report, the University of Wisconsin Advertising Project showed that McCain is not spending money on television in the Hoosier State. But the polls have been tight - which has been contrary to my expectations. I figured that, with the conventions and the realization that this is a close race, the partisanship of Indiana would induce the state to swing McCain's way (an inverse of New Jersey's quadrennial flirtation with the GOP). According to recent polls, this has not happened. McCain retains a lead in the RCP average, but it is much less than what George W. Bush pulled in 2004. Why?

Pundits have often referenced Obama's proximity to the state. That's a positive reason to explain the tight race: Indiana likes Obama because he's the friendly neighbor. But what if part of the answer is negative: Indiana doesn't like McCain so much.

Why would Indiana not like John McCain? After all, he's a Republican who has stood up for party reform and good governance. For example, he has opposed government subsidies for ethanol, and the good Republican folk in Indiana should really respond to that, right?

Maybe not.

Indiana is a major producer of ethanol - number 5 in the nation, capable of producing 1.2 billion gallons of ethanol per year. Indiana also ranks number 5 in corn production, generating 760 million bushels per year. Corn producers love ethanol because it's another use for their crop, which means corn prices go up.

Could this be why McCain is doing poorly relative to George W. Bush's performance in 2004? It might be. Granted, only a small slice of Indiana's workforce is classified as agricultural. Like western Ohio, Indiana's workers are much more focused on manufacturing and tech than agriculture - despite the vast acres dedicated to farming. However, corn production is still a crucial aspect of the state's economy - especially in the productive farmland along Interstate 65 between Indianapolis and...Chicago!

I'd note that McCain is also doing poorly in Iowa, number one with a bullet in both corn and ethanol production. He's also had problems in Minnesota, number four in ethanol and corn.

This ethanol issue might explain this peculiar bit of news that crossed my sight line last week.

OMAHA, Neb. - Reliably Republican, Nebraska has been giving the GOP all its electoral votes in every presidential election since 1964. Democratic candidate Barack Obama is trying to take just one of its five votes this year by focusing on Omaha, the state's biggest, most diverse city.

Why would Obama be angling for Nebraska? It could be in part that it's number 3 in corn and number 2 in ethanol. Of course, Omaha is a large city - not a farm. However, it is tied to the economy of the state, and therefore to corn and ethanol. Maybe the Obama campaign's theory is that disinclination to McCain among ethanol-friendly voters, plus the 10% African American population, plus the 6% Hispanic population, plus the tight geographical boundaries of the district (favorable for organizing) will enable him to eke out a win.

Meanwhile, Illinois ranks second in corn production and third in ethanol. If there is something going on here, it is unsurprising that a candidate like Obama - an urban politician who must appeal to a large rural electorate - would note it. If you want to win statewide in Illinois, you have to know a thing or two about the downstate economy. That might have tipped his team off to the potential of Iowa, Indiana, and even Nebraska.

There are two other states that Obama has angled for that might be explained by McCain's anti-pork stands: North Dakota and Alaska. Again, it is strange to expect to vote against the Republican nominee. But is it strange to expect them to vote against John McCain?

Again, maybe not.

John McCain has a reputation as a pork buster. This year Alaska received the most pork per capita - $555.54 per person. North Dakota ranks third - $207.72 per person. This might even explain why the Obama campaign recently tossed a few bucks in advertising at West Virginia, which received $179.80 per person this year.

Unfortunately, we don't have the kind of polling data that could push this analysis to the next level. We'd need to link individual attitudes about McCain to proximity to ethanol and/or pork barrel spending. We can't do that. All we can do is suggest that McCain might have a problem.

If he does, it would be a lesson in why Congress still rolls the log: it helps members win reelection. People might not like the profligacy of the process, but many of them like getting goodies from the government. Some people in some places more than like it - they actually need the assistance. If you stand in their way, then give them an opportunity to vote you down, they might just do that.

What's this mean electorally? McCain only needs Indiana to go for him by a single vote. He can sacrifice some votes there. More than some, actually. Bush won the state by 20 points in 2004. It's one thing to talk about Obama shaving that lead down. It's another thing entirely to talk about him taking the state. Ditto for Nebraska's second congressional district, which went for Bush by 22 points in 2004. I would be surprised if Obama took either. And recent reports indicate that Obama has bailed on North Dakota and Alaska.

So, outside Iowa, it's unlikely that any Electors are going to be moved. Nevertheless, based on the data available to us in the public, we'd have to peg the likelihood of Obama winning Indiana at some non-zero number. That's pretty unique for a year that probably won't be a Democratic blowout.

I don't know if the McCain campaign needs to do engage Obama in Indiana. After all, it has reams of data that those of us in the public simply do not possess. We have just a handful of public polls. It has so much more than that. Team McCain might be looking at that three-point lead in the Hoosier State and feel pretty good, given how much Obama has spent. We can't know.

Nevertheless, it is fair to suggest that it consider tightening it's message to farmers. A quick Google search betrays McCain's soft underbelly on this front.

Farmers for McCain - Google Search.gif

Compare that to what we find searching "Farmers for Obama." This is not what John McCain should want an undecided Indiana farmer to see when trying to make a decision on whom to support.

-Jay Cost

The State of the Race

There's been a lot of talk about this dynamic race - "game changers" and "moments" and things of that nature. Regular readers of mine know that I don't subscribe to the view of politics inherent to that kind of analysis.

As an alternative to discussing Fannie, Freddie, lipstick on pigs, hacked emails, and patriotic 1040 filers - I thought I would put some simple numbers on the board to give us a sense of exactly what has changed since June 3rd.

I've broken the national polling into two sorting categories. First, we sort by pollster. We group the Gallup polls together, then the Rasmussen polls, then the remaining polls.

Second, we sort by date. We group the polls for June, then for July, then for August prior to the conventions, then for today.

Here are the results.

McCain v. Obama.gif

Let's analyze the data by one pollster category at a time. Rasmussen had fewer undecided/other voters to begin with, and this group has declined in size over time. Since June, the gain has been to McCain - though Obama is currently better positioned than he was in July or August.

We find something similar with the other pollsters (and the "today" category reflects the polls in the current RCP average that are not from Gallup or Rasmussen). Today, Obama is basically where he was in June while McCain is 4 points better off. Perhaps not coincidentally, the number of undecided has dropped by 3.7 points. Combined with Rasmussen, this suggests that McCain's convention helped him solidfy his core electorate. My general rule of thumb is that candidates should receive at least 45% of the vote in an open, two-way race. With the completion of a successful convention, McCain has now reached this floor.

Gallup shows something different. It had Obama performing more weakly at the beginning of the summer - and today it has him up. Meanwhile, McCain has barely improved since June. This implies that Obama, not McCain, has benefited from the drop in undecided voters. Of course, Gallup has moved very dramatically over the last three days. Such movement has not been uncommon for Gallup's daily tracker. It bounced a good bit for Obama's Europe trip, then the Democratic convention, then the Republican convention. Each time it has slowly made its way back toward a tighter race. Obama's recent bump in Gallup might correspond to market jitters, and it will be interesting to see if, as the jitters subside, Gallup finds a tighter race.

Let's analyze the race from a higher altitude. What do we see?

We see remarkable stability. Contrary to what one might think if one's only source for information was the political class - there has not been a lot of movement. The movement we have seen seems to have been pretty orderly - with McCain solidifying his Republican base.

We also see a group of undecided voters who have not yet made a choice. They will probably be decisive. In a race with only two salient candidates - the goal is to hit 50%-plus-one. Both McCain and Obama can still do that via the undecided voters, who are becoming the critical voting block.

I am not surprised by the fact that neither candidate has yet obtained enough support to win. This is an open election with no incumbent to evaluate, nor even a candidate from the incumbent administration. This is a bad year for the Republican Party, but the GOP nominated a guy who has built a reputation opposing his own party. The Democrats nominated a candidate with a background dramatically different from any major party nominee in American history. Between 4% and 8% of the country still does not know what to make of it yet. They were probably part of the 7% to 12% that were undecided in June.

My intuition is that this group is going to sort itself out late. I'd guess that they are the true independents, i.e. those without strong party attachments. [Many people say they are independent but they actually behave like partisans.] I'd also wager that they have not been paying a lot of attention yet. The debates might move them, but I wouldn't be surprised if these folks sort themselves out in late October.

It is not unreasonable to expect a close race. Some perspective is called for here. We have in our collective memory the blowouts of 1984, 1972, and 1964. However, presidential elections in the 19th century were persistently close. Between 1876 and 1896 - all five presidential elections were decided by 5% or less. The country was also closely split in the ante-bellum period. Between 1836 and 1860, only William Henry Harrison was able to pull substantially more than 50% of the vote. Typically, one saw multi-candidate fields, as the two major parties (Democratic and Whig) were unable to organize politics into the binary choice we have today. So, sustained periods of close elections and even splits in public opinion are as much a norm as anything in this country - and we might have recently re-entered such a phase.

-Jay Cost

Reflections on the State of the Race

Walter Shapiro's article on the state of the race in Ohio is interesting and very much worth a read. I want to talk specifically about Ohio later in the week. For now, I'd note that he is right say when he states the following:

Those who live with cable news droning in the background or check out the rolling national poll averages at Real Clear Politics three times a day can easily lose sight of the reality that many voters take a casual interest in the campaign this far from the election.

I agree wholeheartedly. Political junkies must remember that this election will not be decided by fellow junkies, but rather by people whose attention to and interest in politics is quite different.

It's unsurprising to me that the race is so tight, or that such a large portion of the electorate is still undecided. This is an open election, in that the incumbent president is not running. That can make a big difference. When the incumbent is running, people have four years worth of impressions about him to help them make up their minds. They don't have that this year.

This is compounded by the fact that the incumbent party is not running a member of the incumbent administration. Obama argues that there is no real difference between McCain and Bush - and he might convince the country of this. However, McCain makes the opposite argument, asserting that he's the change candidate. This probably enhances the uncertainty in some quarters of the electorate. Does McCain represent incumbency, or doesn't he? For many, the answer is probably not obvious.

It's also compounded by how different a candidate Barack Obama is. His resume does not have much in common with previous nominees. That means that, apart from determining which candidate is offering the desired amont of change, voters also must disentangle which candidate will do a better job actually changing things.

So, there is a lot of uncertainty. When we examine the polls from a higher altitude, we can see it pretty clearly. In the summer, Obama was under 50% with a small lead over McCain. Today, McCain is under 50% with an even smaller lead over Obama. The candidates have been close to each other in terms of support, and neither has crossed that magic halfway point for any extended period of time.

It is reasonable to expect this tightness to persist for several more weeks, with neither candidate moving substantially beyond 50%. The debates might move the electorate - especially if one side does substantially better than the other. However, we might not see a decisive break until right before Election Day.

As I indicated, the key word is uncertainty. For most voters, the choice is obvious. If you're a Republican, you vote Republican. If you're a Democrat, you vote Democrat. Easy enough. This is how about 85% or so of the public generally behaves. However, that leaves about 15% with either no partisan attachments or only weak attachments. They do not make as much use of "partisan cues" to determine their votes. With no decisive link between either candidate and the incumbent administration, they lack another obvious cue in a year like this. The fact that both sides are contesting the idea of "change" makes it even more difficult. Toss in the fact that the Democratic candidate does not have the kind of experience they are used to seeing - and we are looking at a very uncertain group of folks.

My guess is that they will remain this way for a good bit longer.

-Jay Cost

Politics or Paddycake?

Question: In politics, what's the difference between a vicious smear attack and a tough but fair ad?

Answer: Depends on whose side you're on!

Vicious smear, or tough but fair?

Vicious smear, or tough but fair?

Some might say both are vicious smears. They'd follow up that high-minded conclusion with complaints about how this diminishes the debate and the American people deserve better and blah blah blah.


Let's put this nasty, mean-spirited, dishonest, cruel, wicked, grim election of 2008 in context.

The year is 1796. The first contested presidential election in American history pits two authors of the Declaration of Independence against one another. So, it must have been a restrained, erudite discussion about the future of the young Republic. Right?

No way!

Writes historian Paul Boller:

The first real presidential contest in American history turned out to be exuberantly venomous. On both sides handbills, pamphlets, and articles in party newspapers denounced, disparaged, damned, decried, denigrated, and declaimed. There were plenty of issues. For the Federalists there was Jefferson's sympathy for the French Revolution despite the guillotine and the Terror; and there was also his religious heterodoxy. The Republicans had Adams's lack of faith in the people to harp on as well as his preference for high-toned government...

Adams and Jefferson themselves remained on good terms during their contest and neither deigned to take an active part in it. But their followers throughout the land filled the air with charges and counter-charges.

That's right. The campaign of the partisan papers (the original 527s!) was exuberantly venomous.

I can just imagine the television advertisements.

France. Tens of thousands brutally executed in what the Times calls the Reign of Terror.

Jefferson's response? Celebration. He says he'd rather see "half the earth desolated" than watch those fanatical tyrants fail.

Half the earth desolated?

Jefferson. Radical. Dangerous. Wrong.

"I'm John Adams and I approved this message."

The entrance query - vicious smear or tough but fair? - was actually a trick question. There really is no such thing as "fair" in American politics - at least not in the sense that we typically mean it. Fair is simply what you can get away with. Always has been.

Final point. By the end of their days, Adams and Jefferson were once again best buds. That's a lesson to all of us not to take this stuff so seriously.

-Jay Cost

Update on Obama's First Advertising Buy

Back in June, the Obama campaign announced an 18-state advertising strategy. The states in the list were mostly your traditional swing states - but the Obama campaign had about half a dozen surprises on the list, states that George W. Bush carried overwhelmingly in 2004.

At the time, I opined that the ad buys were very indicative of the Obama campaign. It was noteworthy that it thought it could compete in a state like North Dakota, which hardly ever votes Democratic. But it was equally noteworthy that it did not feel that way about Kentucky, which has supported every victorious Democrat except John F. Kennedy.

It's been a while since Obama's initial ad buy, so it might be worthwhile to check in on the status of the horse race in those states. The following chart does that by noting the state where Obama bought advertising time, Bush's margin in 2004, McCain's current margin in the RCP average, and how much money the Obama campaign had spent on television ads as of July 30.

Status of Obama's Initial Target States.gif

If you look at those deep red states, those that Bush won by 10+, you'll see that Obama is currently running closer than John Kerry did in 2004. However, in all of the states except Indiana, he is not running close. Now that we are in the home stretch, and it is time for the Obama campaign to make tough choices about how to allocate scarce resources (money and, just as important, the candidate's time) - some of those deep red states should probably be jettisoned.

Was it worth running advertisements in these states?

That's a difficult question to answer. It appears unlikely that Obama will win any of them - and as of July 30 he had forced McCain to divert just $77,000 (to North Dakota). However, nobody knew for sure back in June. For a state like North Dakota, $150k seems like it was a good investment, even though it has not panned out. On the other hand, it is hard to justify the expenditures on a state like Georgia. The state's closeness in 1996, Bill Clinton's victory in 1992, and Obama's expectation of enhanced African American turnout probably justified some investment. However, $1.8 million is a lot to lay down on a state that's overwhelmingly favored the GOP in the last two cycles. I'd note that this figure doesn't include the costs of more than 100 paid staffers and 30 field offices.

Plus, advertising in places like North Dakota inflated expectations of Obama's electoral prospects. Now that these places seem out of reach, expectations are being corrected - which might be contributing to the unease among many Democrats. If the Obama campaign had done a better job managing expectations back in June, its supporters might not be so nervous today. [My own perspective is that the race is essentially unchanged since June. At the time, mine was a dissenting view.]

It is notable how the map this cycle largely resembles the map from 2004. The only state that clearly appears to have moved to battleground status this cycle is Virginia. Meanwhile, Iowa, Minnesota, and Wisconsin appear less competitive. This should please Democrats, but it doesn't tell the full story. The map favors the Democrats more this year than it did in 2004 - but relative to 1996 (the last year Democrats won), several states seem out of reach. Bill Clinton won six states that year that are not really being contested in 2008: Arizona, Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Tennessee, West Virginia. He also kept the margin under five points in four other states: Georgia, Montana, North Carolina, and South Dakota. So, my judgment is that this is a mixed bag for both parties.

The caveat with this analysis is that a lot of the RCP averages listed above are based on polls conducted prior to either convention. We'll have a much better sense of the state of the map in a few weeks.

-Jay Cost

Obama On His Heels

This campaign has taken a surprising turn since the Democratic convention. Everybody is still talking about the Republican vice-presidential nominee.

Who would have predicted this just two weeks ago?

When I say everybody is talking about Governor Palin, I mean everybody. It's not just that Palin has excited the Republican base and intrigued the press corps. She's also gotten the notice of Barack Obama. The Democratic nominee has singled Palin out for criticism on earmarks in general and the "Bridge To Nowhere" in particular.

This is peculiar. Typically, a presidential nominee does not criticize his opponent's veep. This becomes doubly peculiar when we consider that just a week ago the Obama campaign indicated plans to ignore Palin altogether:

The Obama campaign has no silver bullet to use against the Palin (sic). Instead, Obama has decided to largely avoid directly engaging her and will instead keep his focus largely on John McCain and on linking the Republican ticket to President George W. Bush. The Obama campaign will leave Palin to navigate the same cycle of celebrity that Obama has weathered, and the same peril that her nascent image will be defined by questions and contradictions from her Alaska past.

The reason for the change must be what the ABC News/Washington Post poll found - a huge swing toward McCain-Palin among white women. This is a very important voting bloc, as the following chart makes clear:

1996 to 2004 Demographics.gif

The GOP improved it's showing among white men by 17 points between 1996 and 2004. Among white women it improved by 16 points. This is how an 8.5-point Republican defeat transformed into a 2.4-point Republican victory.

The ABC News poll that set tongues wagging has McCain up 12 among white women - about the same margin as the final result in 2004. I had been inclined to write those results off, as I figured a post-convention poll like that is not indicative of where the race is heading. However, the course correction of the Obama campaign inclines me to believe that there might be something going on here. On September 4th, his campaign said that it was not planning to directly criticize Palin. On September 8th, it released an ad directly criticizing her. You don't do that kind of 180 unless something is up.

The Obama campaign's decision to attack is a risky one. Negative campaigns are always tricky, but this one is especially so. To some degree, Palin has been treated unfairly since her debut as McCain's vice-president. What the McCain campaign wants to do is tie all criticisms of Palin to the unfair ones, and ultimately remind people of how Hillary Clinton was treated. Team McCain is especially eager to do this for anything that comes out of Obama's mouth - hence the "lipstick on a pig" spot, which in turn induced a response from Obama.

We can assign winners and losers in this little skirmish; we can decide who has truth on his side and who does not. But that misses the point. Here we have yet another day when the focus is on the GOP's youthful, smiling, attractive, witty, female vice-presidential nominee. And for yet another day our ears are filled with the sounds of the Democratic nominee decrying how unfair the Republicans are - as if only one side hits below the belt.

Ultimately, I'm not a huge believer in the importance of "winning" news cycles. I do think, however, that the battle for the news cycle is an exhibition of a campaign's ability to move its message. And it has become clear that the McCain campaign is better at this. This "lipstick on a pig" incident will probably not affect a single vote - but it shows that the McCain campaign is ready and able to defend any real gains it might have made among white women. Once again, it's doing a better job getting its message across.

Nobody would have predicted this on June 3rd. That was the day Obama boldly stood in the Xcel Energy Center and proclaimed an exciting new moment in American politics. Meanwhile McCain, sweating profusely, stood in front of a green screen and gave a rambling, disjointed speech. The contrast in messages was stark. Three months later, it's just as stark - but now it's Obama that's sweating and McCain that's exciting. What a turnaround.

-Jay Cost

Thoughts on McCain's Speech

I typically do not engage in exegesis of candidate speeches, but given the reaction to McCain's address from many quarters, I think a dissenting view might be worth hearing. That plus the uniqueness of the speech's substance inclines me to make a more fuller comment than I otherwise would.

On the first viewing of McCain's speech, I was pretty much in line with Tom Bevan's thoughts on it: it was good enough, but far from great.

Later in the evening, though, I felt compelled to go back and review it. I couldn't get a few of the lines out of my head, which made me wonder if I had misjudged it.

I have to say that it grew on me by leaps and bounds. Over two weeks of speechifying and politicking, it was my favorite.

Obviously, McCain is not an eloquent speaker. He's a plain speaker with a blunt, flat delivery. The speech was written for a man with that kind of style, which made it extremely direct. So, everybody got the gist of the McCain candidacy last night. That's a very good thing for any candidate: his message got across.

The speech also had its charming moments. His ad lib in response to the protesters was just great. With that third interruption, I really thought McCain was going to lose the crowd. His "please, please, please" seemed plaintive and desperate for a moment, but then he wowed me: "Please don't be distracted by the ground noise and the static." He then cracked a big, genuine grin, and followed it up with, "I'm gonna talk about it some more, but Americans want us to stop yelling at each other...OK?" And then another ear-to-ear grin. That was pure McCain. Good humored and bipartisan. As moments go, that was the best of either convention.

And we simply have to give McCain credit for this kind of gutsiness.

On an October morning, in the Gulf of Tonkin, I prepared for my 23rd mission over North Vietnam. I hadn't any worry I wouldn't come back safe and sound. I thought I was tougher than anyone. I was pretty independent then, too. I liked to bend a few rules, and pick a few fights for the fun of it. But I did it for my own pleasure; my own pride. I didn't think there was a cause more important than me.

Then I found myself falling toward the middle of a small lake in the city of Hanoi, with two broken arms, a broken leg, and an angry crowd waiting to greet me. I was dumped in a dark cell, and left to die. I didn't feel so tough anymore...

A lot of prisoners had it worse than I did. I'd been mistreated before, but not as badly as others. I always liked to strut a little after I'd been roughed up to show the other guys I was tough enough to take it. But after I turned down their offer, they worked me over harder than they ever had before. For a long time. And they broke me.

Who does this in a nomination speech?

Typically, presidential candidates use their time in combat to reinforce the warrior virtues. Recall, "I'm John Kerry, and I'm reporting for duty!" McCain basically turned that on its head last night. It was not his heroism or leadership in war that shows he's ready to command. Instead, it was the horror of war that made him understand how great our country is, and why it is worth fighting for. He was a cocky jerk prior to his captivity, but the brutality of that experience broke his selfish, independent spirit. It was the idea of America that saved him, and - per the speech - he was reborn her humble, imperfect servant.

Delivered in his blunt style, these passages reinforced the idea of McCain being honest even when it isn't expedient. He's willing to talk straight about anything, including his own frailties.

But this was not confession for its own sake. Last night - McCain did three things: (a) Reminded us that he's a maverick; (b) Told us what the maverick would do if we elect him; (c) Told us why he's a maverick. [So, contrary to some pundits, it was actually a very well-organized speech.] The confession at the end was the "why." He fights for the country, not for a party, because it was in Hanoi that his country saved him. Country first, party second.

This might not resonate with strong partisans who see their party as the protector of the national interest, but there is a huge subset of voters who see politics the way McCain describes it. Get average people talking, and sooner or later you'll hear them say, "Nobody stands for all of us. Everybody stands for their narrow faction."

Ultimately, this speech was very Jacksonian to me. It was Jackson, as much as anybody, who made the president the representative of all the people. This notion can be oversimplified, for sure, but at its root it is accurate. The president should not speak for a mere faction, but should articulate the true public voice. I don't know whether McCain can actually do that, but he clearly sees this task as his top priority, which puts him a notch or two above many previous nominees of both parties.

Final point. Contrary to some critiques I read, McCain's middle "laundry list" section of the speech definitely defied Republican orthodoxy at key points. There might be plenty of reasons not to like this speech, but lines like this are not the things we hear from Republicans:

-I know some of you have been left behind in the changing economy and it often seems your government hasn't even noticed. Government assistance for unemployed workers was designed for the economy of the 1950s. That's going to change on my watch.

-We will prepare them for the jobs of today. We will use our community colleges to help train people for new opportunities in their communities.

-For workers in industries that have been hard hit, we'll help make up part of the difference in wages between their old job and a temporary, lower paid one while they receive retraining that will help them find secure new employment at a decent wage.

That middle one is actually quite noteworthy. Just a few months ago, I heard the exact same policy proposal...during a keynote address of a Democratic think tank! I thought to myself, "Now...that's a good idea! Why doesn't somebody do that?"

-Jay Cost

A Strange Night

Watching the events of last night's GOP convention, I was reminded of an old John Lennon diddy:

Nobody told me there'd be days like these.
Nobody told me there'd be days like these.
Strange days, indeed.
Most peculiar, mama!

Last night Joe Lieberman spoke to a crowd of 15,000 diehard Republicans. Just eight short years ago, he was known to those people as "Loserman" - as in "Sore/Loserman," the nickname given to the Democratic ticket in 2000. Lieberman, whose rating from Americans for Democratic Action was 70% in 2007, must have noted the strangeness to himself. His speech was directed not to the audience, but to Democrats at home. He did not linger afterwards.

Meanwhile, as Jake Tapper wrote last night, Fred Thompson and Lieberman managed to get the crowd to applaud for McCain over the very things that have infuriated Republicans. Immigration reform, campaign finance reform, and even the "Gang of 14" were all mentioned last night - not to boos, but to cheers.

And then there were those placards. They struck me more than anything else. The logo was simple - "Country First" - but the implication was profound. Country first, party second. It was amazing to me to see Republican delegates holding these signs.

Most peculiar, mama!

I'm sure everybody understands what is going on here. The goal of McCain-Palin is to elevate John McCain - his reputation for honor, service, and independence - as a counter to the reputation of the Republican Party. So, Joe Lieberman gets the prime time address, the crowd applauds everything that annoys them, and holds up placards implicitly diminishing their own party.

What will likely not be commented upon is how weak the political party is in this drama. Our political parties are the creations of strategic politicians who use them to pursue electoral victory. The parties serve the ends of office-seeking candidates. And nowhere in America is the supremacy of candidate over party more apparent than in the modern presidential campaign. The national committee becomes little more than an extension of the presidential candidate in an election year. If the candidate wins, he captures the committee, owning it completely for his tenure in office. If he loses, the committee waits four years to be captured once again. Accordingly, the convention is the candidate's. Assuming that there are no other candidates standing in his way, he can do with it what he wishes.

It wasn't always like this. The state parties used to run the show at the national conventions - but due to changes in campaign finance laws, election processes, and the social mores of political activists, the power of the state parties has dissipated. Today, the state parties are little more than legal money-laundering outlets, doling out money and campaign services to statewide candidates, supported by a national committee that is fully responsive to the needs and interests of the presidential candidate.

The party as it was no longer exists. The "party" we saw last night was simply the product of the McCain-Palin marketing campaign. The audacity of that marketing campaign highlights just how servile the contemporary party is to the candidate. John McCain has essentially asked the Republican Party to disavow itself at this quadrennial convention. But has the party revolted? Not at all! It's happy to oblige. Frankly, what could it do even if it wanted to revolt?

The only bit of real party business that occurred this week was the following, noted by Marc Ambinder and Michael Barone (who is quoted here):

As part of the rules it adopted, the convention authorized the party to appoint a commission with authority to change the delegate selection rules. This is a departure from past Republican practice. Up to and including 2004, the Republican National Convention was the final authority on delegate selection rules, and the party had no legal authority to change them over the next four years, as the national Democratic Party has had.

So, the RNC has empowered its version of the BRAC panel to figure out who wins and who loses in the 2012 nomination schedule. There's more from Barone:

Republican National Chairman Mike Duncan has been in touch with Democratic National Chairman Howard Dean on this issue. They understand that changes in party rules can only be effective if state legislatures act, and at this point both Democrats and Republicans control a significant number of legislatures--and in many states governors and one or both houses of the legislature are controlled by different parties. So changes in the calendar need, broadly speaking, to be bipartisan.

This highlights the limits of party power as well as anything. The Republican Party cannot establish its own nomination rules without coordination with The Democratic Party and state governments.

-Jay Cost

What the Heck is McCain Up To?

That seems to be the question this Labor Day. The Palin pick surprised everybody, and the reaction to it has not been moderate. Analysts tend either to be pleased or pissed.

I want to move beyond their back-and-forth. Too much of it seems to depend implicitly upon whether picking Palin makes McCain a hypocrite, given his attacks on Obama. I don't think that is a particularly helpful discussion, as everybody will probably answer it based upon which candidate they had been supporting. So, in an effort to analyze the Palin pick without getting into the scrum, I offer a few considerations.

First, this pick is not a Hail Mary pass, as was Bob Dole's selection of Jack Kemp. Kemp fit on a Dole ticket as well as Ronald Reagan would have fit on Gerald Ford's '76 ticket. Unlike the '96 ticket, there is a natural affinity between McCain and Palin. Both stand athwart the same forces in their party, both do so for the professed sake of the public interest, and so both are insurgents. Palin challenged the powers that be in the Alaska Republican Party. McCain challenged the powers of the national GOP.

In other words, Palin appears to be a younger, female version of John McCain. She embodies his best qualities. This is why the pick cannot be dismissed as mere pandering. There are compelling reasons to pick Palin in addition to her being a woman. Was her gender a factor? Sure, but I don't think it was the principal factor. If it were, he would have gone for Meg Whitman, Carly Fiorina, Kay Bailey Hutchison, or others.

In fact, of all the candidates mentioned at various points in time for McCain, only Bobby Jindal fits the maverick/reformer image as well as Sarah Palin. This is why Jack Kelly - an incisive columnist at my hometown paper and certainly no fan of identity politics - was trumpeting her back in June.

Second, the issue of Palin's qualifications is complicated. The left is enthusiastically attacking her credentials. The right is just as enthusiastic in its defense. There's no clear-cut winner here. If she were clearly unqualified, McCain would not have selected her. If she were clearly qualified, she probably would have been the GOP's presidential nominee.

Here's my take on her qualifications. Historically speaking, she has enough experience to be veep. We can talk about what happens if McCain drops dead on day one, but that sounds tendentious to me - like asking what President Obama would do should Vladimir Putin declare World War III on the day of Obama's inauguration. It sounds smart to people already set upon voting against Obama, but everybody else will probably just roll his or her eyes.

Does this mean her qualifications will be a non-issue? Not necessarily. She has fewer qualifications than most veeps, that's for sure. Her thin resume could hurt her if and only if she performs badly on television. This, and nothing else, is what matters. The people who could vote Republican this year will give her a chance. Jonathan Alter, Andrew Sullivan, and other pro-Obama commentators in the MSM are not going to sway these people, at least not directly. These analysts could frame the persuables' reactions should they decide they don't like her. So, it's up to Palin.

For those who are skeptical that she can pull this off, remember - Obama did! While Obama might be special, he's certainly not singular. Lots of people can give good performances on television, even if they have had little practice. Furthermore, unlike Obama as of a year ago, Palin has already been through a real statewide election. Two, in fact - first against incumbent governor Frank Murkowski, then against former governor Tony Knowles. Obama managed to look so poised without such practice.

The key word for Palin, as it was (and is) for Obama, is poise. She appeared poised at her announcement, which was her most important day. If she appears poised during her nomination acceptance address, poised on the stump, and poised in the debate - her qualifications should be a non-issue, and she'll help McCain deliver his message.

Third, I think many people are surprised to discover that McCain intends to carry a positive message into the fall. Many of us had assumed that this election would be a referendum on Barack Obama, with McCain serving as an inoffensive backup for those too unsure of the junior senator from Illinois. Just a few weeks ago, I used this logic to argue that McCain should select Mitt Romney, as he was the best among the viable picks to go after Obama.

John McCain clearly does not share this view of the race. By picking Palin, he is signaling that he intends to win this election not just by attacking Obama, but by offering an affirmative message of his own.

What is that message? It is that he represents change, too. It's not the "drastic" change that Obama represents, but rather "common sense reform" (scare quotes reflect what we will hear from McCain-Palin, not non-partisan reality). McCain is indicating that he, too, is a candidate whose election would alter the status quo - not as much as Obama's election would, but alter it nonetheless.

Indeed, it is interesting to consider the two tickets. The fresh but inexperienced candidate is at the top of the Democratic ticket; the experienced pol who, even after all these years, "calls it like he sees it" is at the bottom. With the GOP, it's reversed. These tickets are mirror images of one another. The message to voters from McCain? If you're unhappy with the status quo in Washington, but are worried that Obama-Biden would be too drastic a change, vote McCain-Palin.

So, the public gets a pretty sophisticated choice this year. It's not a choice between change versus more of the same. It's a choice between degrees of change. I like this. And while I have no idea how Palin will play, I like that McCain believes he has to offer something positive and new to win.

I still think Obama would have been best served by selecting Hillary Clinton as his nominee. However, given the choice not to select Hillary, I think he made a wise move by picking Joe Biden. As I noted above, Biden is a guy who tells it like it is. So, he adds heft without damaging Obama's core message. The Democrats have a well-balanced ticket. John McCain responded by balancing his ticket well, too.

All things considered, I like these tickets. Together, they give the public a clear choice. Plus, neither offers the public what it certainly does not want, the status quo. People complain all the time about how our two-party system stifles real debate and fails to offer the public a distinct choice. I am optimistic that, when all is said and done, Obama v. McCain will be one that the naysayers won't point to. When they whine about our "failed politics," they'll have to conveniently forget 2008.

-Jay Cost