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By Jay Cost

HorseRaceBlog Home Page --> January 2009

Here We Go Steelers, Here We Go!

In just a few days, the Pittsburgh Steelers will take on the Arizona Cardinals in Super Bowl XLIII. The Steelers, who are favored to win, were the first franchise to have won four Super Bowls. If they win on Sunday, they will be the first and only to have won six.

I have been following the Steelers since the beginning of the Cowher era, and impressionistically this is the best Steelers defense I have ever seen. Numerically, this impression has merit. The '08 defense allowed on average 237.2 yards per game and 13.9 points per game. That yards per game stat is better than any defense from the Cowher era (though the '01 Steelers allowed slightly fewer points per game). In fact, the only Steelers defense since the merger to allow fewer yards per game was the '74 defense.

So, as all-time great Steelers defenses go, this one has to rank up there with the very best of them. Unfortunately for Steelers Nation, this is not a guarantee of victory. Ask lifelong Pittsburghers about great Steelers teams of yore, and you should get an answer that might surprise you. Though the '74, '75, '78, and '79 teams won Super Bowls, many think the '76 team was the best ever. That team led the league in rushing behind the dual attack of Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier, both of whom ran for over 1,000 yards. Meanwhile, the defense was preternaturally good. It led the league in total defense and rush defense, and allowed just 9.9 points per game. The '76 team started out 1-4, then went on a 9-game winning streak, posting four shutouts along the way. They didn't allow a touchdown in 22 consecutive quarters, or in eight of those nine games. In the postseason, the Steelers crushed the Colts at Baltimore, 40-14, but Harris and Bleier were injured in the game. The next week, Oakland defeated the Steelers handily, 24-7.

Football is a cruel sport in that way - the team that posts the best numbers doesn't always win the championship. Just ask the '07 Patriots.

This '08 team has a troubled offense, which posted just 21.7 points per game and 311.9 yards per game. This is the worst showing by a Steelers offense since the '03 season, when they went 6-10 under Tommy Maddox. Ben Roethlisberger might look great on Sports Center highlights, but the fact is that his play this season has been average at best. His completion and efficiency ratings are down, his touchdown passes are way down, his interceptions are up, and he is still getting sacked as many times as ever. Big Ben has to shoulder much of the blame, but a lot of it falls on the offensive line, which has missed Alan Faneca this year. Plus, thanks to injury, Willie Parker has had his worst season to date.

Of course, when you have a defense that is this good, a weak offense isn't necessarily a deal-breaker. Compare, for instance, the championship '74 Steelers against the '08 Steelers. They look almost identical on both sides of the ball:

Steelers - 1974 vs. 2008.jpg

Changes in the game make it tricky to do direct comparisons, but the '74 Steelers were a relatively unbalanced team: fantastic on defense, but limited on offense (passing was the problem that season). If the '08 Steelers win, they would fall into the same category.

Frankly, I didn't think my beloved Steelers would make it this far. Like everybody else in town, I was peeved last summer to learn that they had the hardest schedule in football. They fell to the Eagles, the Giants, the Colts, and the Titans in the regular season. But their postseason schedule has been as easy as the regular season was hard. Amazingly, they didn't have to play any of these four squads in the playoffs, though all four made it into the playoffs. Instead, they got a game against the 8-8 Chargers, and then the Ravens. The latter is a fantastic team, but historically the Steelers have dominated their division rivals in the playoffs.

Now, the Steelers play a 9-7 team from the NFC West that nobody thought anything of until a few weeks ago. They're in the playoffs because somebody from the NFC West gets to go every year, and they were the only team with a winning record. They've had a good run in the playoffs, and now face the Steelers in the franchise's first Super Bowl appearance.

Actually, the Steelers have faced such a foe before. In the 1980 Super Bowl they played the L.A. Rams. The Rams were 9-7, the only team in the NFC West with a winning record. They beat Dallas and Tampa Bay on the road, then went on to Super Bowl XIV. The Steelers won by 12 points, but trailed as late as the fourth quarter before Terry Bradshaw connected with John Stallworth on a 73-yard touchdown pass, and then again on a 45-yard pass that set up a 1-yard TD run by Harris.

So, as playoff runs go, this year's has been about as easy as the Steelers have ever had it. No Vikings or Cowboys in the Super Bowl, no Raiders or Oilers or Colts or Patriots on the way to it. This is a game they should win.

Go cage those birdies, Black 'n' Gold, and bring home the one for the other thumb!

-Jay Cost

Gallup on Nationwide Partisanship

Over the course of 2008, Gallup conducted an enormous number of interviews with voters nationwide. Such a large dataset could be used for more than just tracking the horse race, and Gallup has begun to deploy it for a broader purpose. Today, they have published an article on partisanship in the 50 states based on all of their public polling conducted through 2008.

First off, thanks to Gallup for using this data for something more than tracking changes in Obama-McCain in June. Hopefully, we'll see more publications like this.

So, what's the upshot of Gallup's findings? Unsurprisingly, they find that the country has moved left. Below is a reproduction of their partisanship results from 2002, 2006, and 2008.

Gallup Partisanship 2002-2008.jpg

Clearly, the shift is uniform and not insignificant. Gallup spends a good deal of time discussing this, and I won't repeat their key findings. I encourage you to read their write-up carefully.

Instead, I want to focus on two points.

First, this should serve as a cautionary note for those with a habit of finding new, permanent majorities in recent election results. As these maps make clear, it does not take long for partisan identification to shift one way then back again.

That's not to say that any given election isn't the starting point of a permanent shift - it's just that it takes time to differentiate it from movement generated by the mood of the country. For instance, back in 1953, one could have examined the elections of 1948 and 1952 and determined that the GOP was reestablishing permanent majority status in the Northeast, and breaking up the Democrats' permanent majority in the South. Only one of those statements would have turned out to be correct - and you wouldn't know one way or the other until you had several more elections go by.

The bottom line is that there is an underlying stability to partisanship that can shift over time - as we have seen, for instance, in Connecticut and Mississippi in the last 80 years. However, partisanship is a more complicated concept. People can shift their partisan orientation because of the national mood - so that when that mood changes again, so also does the partisanship. These pictures make that clear.

Second point. These pictures offer a warning about interpreting public opinion polling. Relative to election results, there appears to be a bias in their partisanship data. I don't think it's sufficient to say that it's a pro-Democratic bias, as one might infer from just examining the 2008 results. Instead, it might be better to say that it's a pro-majority party bias. In other words, this data overstates the electoral power of the majority party.

For its part, Gallup sees this problem, too. They have a sensible explanation that is worth breaking down into smaller pieces:

There are several reasons for possible disparities between the party affiliation data and the voting outcomes in a given state. First, turnout has typically been an equalizer in U.S. electoral politics because Democrats almost always have an advantage in identification, but Republicans have been competitive in national and state elections over the last three decades because Republicans are usually more likely than Democrats to vote.

This is a good point, but it wouldn't account for some of their 2002 findings. After all, Gallup has persistently Democratic states like Michigan and Vermont (!) leaning to the GOP that year. They have the Democratic advantage at less than 5% in states like Pennsylvania and New Jersey. We can't explain these by virtue of a Democratic bias. That's why I would suggest a majority party bias in the results.

Second, one's partisan leaning is not a perfect predictor of voting in a presidential election, in which candidate-specific characteristics can influence a voter's choice.

This is true, but we need to expand on it. Partisan defections are not uniform, and this points to a fundamental point about our two-party system.

Look at the states in what the Census Bureau calls the South Central divisions (Oklahoma, Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana, Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi, and Alabama). They are not the most Republican-leaning states on the map when it comes to partisanship, but in the last few cycles they have been when it comes to votes. Why? White Democrats in these states have been highly prone to defection in recent cycles, as Sean Trende and I argue here. In the South Central divisions, McCain won 33% of white Democrats - including a whopping 60% in Louisiana.

This indicates an underlying reality about the Democratic Party. It is a very broad political party. I personally doubt that it has been smaller than the GOP at any point since 1932 (regardless of what polling data might say for 2002-2004). That enables it to compete in congressional elections in most districts. In most places, there is a solid core of people who are amenable to the Party of Jackson. This is why Maxine Waters and Travis Childers are in the same caucus.

However, breadth carries with it political problems in a diverse Republic such as ours. Namely, it is difficult for the national party to craft issue positions and emphases that appeal to all Democrats. The same goes for national candidates. Take Barack Obama for instance. He won a smashing nationwide victory, the largest we have seen in 20 years. Yet he could not hold all quadrants of his party's voters, losing large portions of self-identified Democrats in the South.

It's a big party that is difficult to unite - which in turn enables the GOP to win handily states that Gallup identifies as solidly Democratic. This is why Arkansas, Kentucky, and West Virginia have, in recent years, voted strongly Republican, but still exhibit strong partisan ties to the Democratic Party.

Third, the party affiliation data reported here cover all of 2008, while presidential election voting was limited to Nov. 4 or the weeks leading up to it.

The idea behind this argument is that partisanship shifts through the course of the campaign, as many political opinions might. Respondents at the beginning of the cycle are more partial to one party, but become less so as the campaign goes on - so that ultimately there is a difference between June polls and November votes.

I wholeheartedly agree, and I have consistently argued against using polling data from the spring or summer. Polls done significantly before an election have precious little value, and I think polling analysts have a bad habit of overemphasizing them. Gallup shoulders a good share of this blame, for they have contributed to this overuse. What is the need for a daily tracking poll in June, for goodness sake? What possible value can it have? I can think of no reason except that political junkies demand it, and they drive web traffic and thus advertising dollars.

I can appreciate taking periodic tests of public opinion so we can get a general sense of the national mood, but that daily tracking poll gave the wrong impression about the value of those data points. The implication is that there is a reason to track day-to-day changes when there simply isn't. This had the effect of spoiling political analysis in the summer, I think, as analysts were too dependent on the numbers.

So, when the next cycle rolls around, and you find yourself obsessively checking Gallup's new daily tracking poll at 1 PM in the middle of the summer - just remember what Gallup told you today: polls taken in June don't necessarily mean much for elections held in November!

-Jay Cost

Obama and the Celebrity Culture

A few people around the blogosphere have noted this, but I thought I would toss in my two cents. This is from People magazine's online site, dated Sunday:

Imitation may be the highest form of flattery, but Michelle Obama is none too happy about a toy-maker ripping off the likenesses of her young daughters for profit.

Ty Inc., the company that makes Beanie Babies, has released a pair of new dolls named Sweet Sasha and Marvelous Malia, both with brown skin and brown eyes, according to the New York Times.

But what seems like a sound business decision - the president's daughters, Malia, 10, and Sasha, 7, nearly stole the show at the Inaugural celebrations - has clearly miffed the Mom-in-Chief.

"We feel it is inappropriate to use young, private citizens for marketing purposes," Mrs. Obama's press secretary, Katie McCormick Lelyveld, said in a statement.

The Obama girls are in good company: dolls in the TyGirlz Collection include Jammin' Jenna, Happy Hillary, Precious Paris and Bubbly Britney, according to the Times.

Here's a picture of the toys.

Sasha and Malia Dolls.jpg

I could see why Mrs. Obama would be miffed, although I am not terribly surprised by these toys. Obama enjoys a celebrity status that no president in my lifetime - not even BIll Clinton - has ever enjoyed. The Obamas are in those celebrity mags - like People and InTouch - all the time, with glossy photos and happy headlines like, "He's a normal dad!" or "His new house is soooo different!"

I think his campaign has cultivated this celebrity image as part of a broader political strategy. A smart one. Afterall, Obama first had to go up against Hillary Clinton, who is a larger-than-life celebrity figure. Obama needed some sparkle to match hers. But as so many other celebrities have found, it is often taken too far - this time by a private firm cashing in on the insatiable market for all things Obama.

This points to the unique transition President Obama is making. He is going from the celebrity candidate to the President. The two are not compatible. Every President has to leave his old life behind, but no previous President has had a pre-presidential life that InTouch weekly was keeping close track of. It's good that the White House spoke out against these toys, and it would be good politics, I think, if the President ditched his celebrity image altogether. The people should see him as the person in whom the power of state resides - not as a celebrity to be oogled like Brad Pitt. The celebrity image served his campaign's purpose, but it's time to set it aside. I suspect he'll do exactly that.

-Jay Cost

Sarah Palin Starts a PAC

It's called "SarahPac." There is not much detail up on the web yet. The only description is some boilerplate GOP rhetoric about energy independence and building an economy that recognizes hard work.

Candidate PACs such as these were not really around 15 years ago, but today they are commonplace. I've noted on this blog that our campaign finance system has many rules that facilitate legal money laundering. The parties do this, and so also do high-profile politicians via candidate PACs. Those in safe seats often raise money through their network of contributors to give it to worthy candidates facing tough races. This is one of the many wonderful loopholes in our campaign financing system - maximizing dollar contributions to those who need it while keeping accountability to a minimum. [Gee - you'd think it was developed by candidates themselves. Oh wait...it was!]

Why might Palin be setting up a PAC? Think of it this way. She gives a candidate a nice contribution in 2010 and the candidate responds with support, appreciation, gratitude, consideration for her future ambitions. This matters a lot when you are running for President. Both parties, but especially the GOP, have something called the "invisible primary." This is the time before the actual primaries when candidates run around the country looking for establishment support, which brings money, early endorsements, and hopefully crowds out competitors in time for the actual contest. As a frame of reference, think of Tom Vilsack's aborted campaign for the presidency. We'll never know exactly what happened, but it stands to reason that Vilsack had problems in the invisible primary, i.e. he wasn't getting support and/or money. So, he dropped out and endorsed Hillary Clinton. Mitt Romney was a master of the invisible primary, pulling in endorsements, outraising his competitors and even driving Giuliani and McCain out of Iowa. Of course, that just goes to show that the invisible primary is not determinative.

An important caveat: a future presidential candidate will inevitably set up a candidate PAC like this, but everybody who sets up a candidate PAC isn't going to run for president. So, Palin might not be running - though this is certainly an indication that she intends to have some role in national party politics.

If Palin does run, we'll probably get a pretty good read on it. Most every presidential candidate comes out to Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina to meet local party officials prior to a declaration of candidacy. That's part of the "testing the waters" phase. Presumably, Palin would do the same. Unlike other candidates, though, she wouldn't be able to do it casually. If she's laying down the cash to fly to Manchester or Charleston or Davenport - she's seriously considering a run.

-Jay Cost

Clyburn on health care

This story from the Hill is noteworthy:

A prominent House Democrat said he doesn't expect a comprehensive healthcare reform bill to pass Congress in 2009, saying an incremental approach to covering the uninsured would be better "than to go out and just bite something you can't chew."

House Majority Whip James Clyburn's (D-S.C.) timeline on tackling healthcare is at odds with the timetable proposed by Senate Democrats and could represent a major shift in the House Democrats' strategy of dealing with the uninsured.

During an interview on C-SPAN's "Newsmakers" program that aired on Sunday, Clyburn said he doesn't anticipate that comprehensive healthcare legislation will be approved in 2009.

The early Clinton administration tried comprehensive health care reform after a tough battle on its deficit reduction package, and it lost. Perhaps there is concern that the Obama administration might have similar trouble? That wouldn't be a huge surprise. Health care was not a top issue in the recent election, so it is hard to argue that President Obama has a public mandate on comprehensive reform. That means that the public debate on the issue would have to be held - and the opposition would surely be mobilized. I'd be on that opposition being stiff - comprehensive reform is going to change the way a lot of different types of people do business - and all of those who see themselves as losers (be it doctors, nurses, drug manufacturers, patient advocacy groups, whatever) would try to stop it.

Clyburn suggests a different way forward for Democrats on the issue:

While noting he does not know exactly when President Obama want to move forward with a universal healthcare measure, Clyburn said, "If you take what we've done with [the State Children's Health Insurance Program bill] and then you follow with [more spending] on community health centers, you would have gone a long way to building a foundation upon which to build a universal access healthcare program.

That's incrementalism, which doesn't have the sex appeal of "comprehensive" reform but seems to me to be a much sounder political strategy. If you go step-by-step, rather than taking it all in one giant leap, you run a lower risk of arousing opposition.

-Jay Cost

Obama versus Limbaugh

I've been intrigued by this story. Ed Morrissey over at Hot Air had some good thoughts on it.

One doesn't make points at all about bipartisanship by explicitly attacking another partisan voice, no matter how much one disagrees with it. By naming Rush and attempting to sideline him, Obama lifted Rush's profile and practically anointed him his opposition. It demonstrates that Obama still has no sense of his office, nor of "post-partisanship", regardless of his endlessly empty rhetoric on the subject.

George Bush never attacked Keith Olbermann, Chris Matthews, or other voices of the rabid Left by name. If he ever went on the attack against the left-wing media, he kept the attack general and broad, rather than specific. Bush may not have been the most media-savvy of our modern presidents -- in fact, he may have been the worst at it since Nixon -- but he knew enough about his office to understand that part of its strength would keep him somewhat above the partisan-pundit fray. Obama hasn't figured that much out yet.

If your stature is greater than your opponent's, it's never a good strategy to mention him by name. This is why incumbents call challengers "my opponent," and challengers mention incumbents by name. It's not in the President's interest to single out a radio host/pundit for criticism like this. I'd wager that this is a lesson learned for Obama and his administration.

After the Oklahoma City bombing, Bill Clinton said this in Ames, Iowa:

If people are encouraging conduct that will undermine the fabric of this country, it should be spoken against whether it comes from the left or the right, whether it comes on radio, television or the movies, whether it comes in the schoolyard, or, yes, even on the college campus. The answer to hateful speech is to speak out against it in the American spirit, to speak up for freedom and responsibility.

Talk radio hosts around the nation took this personally. By this point in his presidency, the opposition to the Clinton presidency had already exerted itself, taking over the House and Senate, but this further inflamed it. Coming from an average citizen, or even a congressman or senator, these words would have carried little weight - but coming from the President, they created a firestorm.

I think this was probably little more than an unfortunate slip-up by the new President, who is still learning just how special the office is. Nevertheless, it was politically unfortunate, given that he has been trying to demobilize the opposition. He had inserted some conservative remarks into his inauguration address, he attended that dinner with conservative intellectuals, and so on. Additionally, the ceremony of the inauguration - wherein the President is presented as the leader of the entire country - can demobilize the opposition, especially when they lose by seven points. A knock on Limbaugh is counter-productive. Republicans have seemed to me to have been particularly dispirited in the last few weeks, and this might give them some pep.

This little episode points to a broader issue that I've been wondering about for some time - how long Obama will be able to sustain this post-partisan idea? George W. Bush tried unsuccessfully to cultivate that notion. It's always seemed to me like a short-sighted political gambit. It sounds nice during a campaign, but the political divisions in this country are real - and when it comes time to govern, they're bound to manifest themselves. In fact, it seems to me that the post-partisan pitch could actually arouse greater partisanship in the opposition. If a candidate promises to change the tone, doesn't this give the opposition control over whether he keeps his promise, and therefore an incentive to be disagreeable? I've long thought that Bush fell into this trap, and Obama - by virtue of his post-partisan campaign rhetoric - runs the risk of doing the same.

Of course, what could explode this post-partisan idea is a party line vote on the stimulus bill, which might be the direction we're headed in.

-Jay Cost

Return to blogging

Just a quick note to readers that I've returned to regular blogging after a few months doing research on the election results. In case you missed them, the first results of that research can be found in my four-part election review (here, here, here, and here), co-authored with Sean Trende. I have other plans for the research I've conducted on the election, and when the time is right hopefully we'll get an opportunity to review these fascinating results in more depth.

-Jay Cost