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By Jay Cost

HorseRaceBlog Home Page --> May 2009

More on the RNC's Troubles

I have written several times on this blog that comparing the RNC to the DNC is a bad way to evaluate Michael Steele. The RNC Chairman has enjoyed some political cover in the last few months because pundits are inclined to make this comparison. Even as his outfit's fundraising is near the bottom of its 10-year trend, he's still out-raising his rival Tim Kaine over at the DNC - so he appears to be strong.

But, for many reasons, I do not think this comparison is valid. Obama's recent fundraiser in L.A. is one very good reason why. This is from the Hill:

Even as he conceded there is still much hard work to do, President Obama was in a boastful mood Wednesday night, telling a star-studded crowd at a fundraising dinner that he "would put these first four months up against any prior administration since FDR."

The president, speaking to a dinner that included Hollywood A-listers like Kiefer Sutherland, Marisa Tomei, Jamie Foxx, Ron Howard and Steven Spielberg, lauded the legislation he has signed since taking office but added that he is "not satisfied." [snip]

The celebrity dinner, which cost couples $30,400 to attend, was followed by a larger, lower-dollar concert that all told raised between $3 million and $4 million for the Democratic National Committee (DNC).

A single dinner, and the President pulls in $3 to $4 million for the DNC. Support for the President is so deep in some (deep-pocketed) corners of this country, I'd reckon the President can do this again and again and again. I'm sure he will - and those praising Steele's fundraising "success" to date should keep this mind. Two such dinners, and Obama will have handed the DNC more money than the RNC raised through the entire month of April.

This is why I expect that, unless Michael Steele really turns up the juice on the fundraising, the DNC is going to out-raise the RNC by the time the 2010 midterm cycle is finished. That would be a first. It's still early, and Steele could pick up the pace - but the fact remains that his organization is behind the historical curve right now. The party cannot afford an RNC that is not pulling in its usual, enormous take. To stay competitive with the DNC, my guess is that it will have to have a record haul for a midterm.

PS: For those of you who, like me, think a party chairman has better things to do than host a radio show - you'll be interested to know that Steele is still doing that. He again guest-hosted Bill Bennett's radio show this morning. And while he didn't bash Romney and the evangelical Christians who voted against him - he did manage to box the party in on its response to the Sotomayor nomination:

In what seemed like an effort to distance the party from claims that Sotomayor is "racist" and an "Affirmative Action" pick, Steele repeatedly said that Republicans should be hailing the historic nature of Obama's pick.

"I'm excited that a Hispanic woman is in this position," Steele said. He added that instead of "slammin' and rammin'" on Sotomayor, Republicans should "acknowledge" the "historic aspect" of the pick and make a "cogent, articulate argument" against her for purely substantive reasons.

Steele warned that because of the attacks, "we get painted as a party that's against the first Hispanic woman" picked for the Supreme Court.

Mr. Chairman - crazy suggestion for you. Instead of spending your Friday morning fielding calls on a talk show, why don't you pick up your phone and try to find the RNC the cash it'll need to compete next year? Or call up that marginal, would-be candidate one more time to talk him into running - perhaps by promising him the support from all the donors you're about to call. This task might also be referred to as...your job description, which does not include posturing against your party for the satisfaction of your own vanity/ego while guest-hosting a talk show and serving as the party's chief media whore pundit.

Get it together, dude.

-Jay Cost

First Thoughts on Specter v. Sestak

Joe Sestak is going to challenge Arlen Specter next year in Pennsylvania's Democratic primary. Here are my opening thoughts on the race.

(1) Kyle has the word on an early Quinnipiac poll that has Specter up 50-21. I would not put much stock into this. Sestak is just in his second term in the House, which means he is virtually unknown in the state. He probably is not even terribly well known in his own district. The lack of familiarity can explain this deficit - and familiarity is something that can be purchased with television advertising.

(2) What Sestak is going to need is money. And then more money. And then some more after that. In fact, my sense is that a strategic pol like Sestak would only get into the race if he thought he could raise the needed cash. Money is how Sestak can make up for the familiarity that Specter has in the state. Toomey raised $4.5 million for his challenge in 2004. Sestak is going to have to do better. He surely will, already having about $3.3 million on hand as of April 1st.

(3) This is bad news for Specter. His departure from the GOP came at about the time that the media was talking about how small and narrow the party is. I don't think this was coincidental - I think it was timed to give Specter cover: the media would put the spotlight on the GOP rather than him. If they had looked closely at him, I think they would have found that he is a very weak candidate. Lots of moderates win Republican primaries in plenty of states. That Specter would surely fail to do this says more about Specter than the PA GOP. And that Quinnipiac poll shows Specter under 50% in a head-to-head against Toomey. Specter is weak; Sestak can win.

(4) We should not assume that the Democratic Party is any more natural a home for Specter than the Republican Party was. I'd suggest that it isn't. In fact, Specter is going to need to win the support of voters who have consistently voted against him for 30 years, whereas Pennsylvania Republicans would at least back him in the general. Switching parties to save one's skin in a primary battle is just not done - and it is an inferential jump of enormous proportions to conclude that Pennsylvania Democrats will back Specter simply because he has switched the "R" to a "D." The fact that Specter is one of (if not the) first to try this maneuver suggests just how tricky it will be. It's also a testimony to just how much water he had drained out of the pool with the Republican electorate.

(5) Suppose Sestak raises the cash. What's his angle? I think Specter has provided him with a great valence issue - i.e. one that divides the electorate by 90-10 or even 99-1 rather than 50-50 or 60-40. That is: "Why shouldn't Pennsylvania Democrats demand a real Democrat?" If the considerations in point (4) are indeed on target, this would be a great way for Sestak to exploit the opening.

(6) This is good news for Toomey. If Specter loses the primary, the race becomes an open seat, which improves his chances. If Specter wins, but Sestak puts up a spirited fight, the negativity of the final weeks should knock Specter down a peg. Plus, Specter would have had to spend a good deal of his cash.

(7) If it turns out that Sestak defeats - or nearly defeats - Specter in the Democratic primary next year, I do not expect us to hear the line we heard about the PA GOP. We won't hear how the PA Democratic party is too narrow or ideological to support a sensible moderate, etc. etc. etc. For the Beltway punditocracy, all analysis must flow from the broader meme. No exceptions, which is why Specter's departure was interpreted in reference to the "GOP is shrinking, narrow, and gross" narrative. The meme on Pennsylvania is that it is trending blue (inaccurate; it hasn't budged in 50+ years), so a Sestak victory will be interpreted as a sign that Pennsylvania just wants a more liberal Democrat. When you think about this, it makes little sense: how can the GOP reject Specter because of decline and the Democrats reject him because of expansion? But that's how the kind of conclusion you draw when you're afflicted with the Swamp Fever.

-Jay Cost

More on the Recent Changes in Party Identification

Recently, Pew published an interesting graphic on historical party identification that enables us to continue our discussion of partisan affiliation through time. This is the picture that Pew presents.

Pew Partisanship.gif

It's important to note that prior to 1989, the party identification data is from Gallup. After 1989, it is from Pew. This is an interesting picture - and it generally squares with what we know about the partisan battles over the last 75 years. Importantly, it does not track ideology, which makes a huge difference. In particular, 1946 to 1964 is a period of Democratic dominance, but not necessarily liberal dominance - certainly not in the Congress, where a coalition of Republicans and conservative Southern Democrats was often able to thwart northern liberals. I've discussed this before, and my general sense of the post-war period is that it is best understood as one of ideological balance, with discrete, short-lived periods of liberal "breakthroughs," like 1964-1966.

Now, let's compare this data to the exit poll data we reviewed last week. We'll also include Gallup's partisanship data from 1989 forward. All of this is contained in the following chart:

Gallup, Pew and Exit Party ID, 1972-2008.jpg

There are three salient points about this graph:

Changes in Gallup and Pew Generally Track Exit Poll Changes. All three tick upwards during fat times for the Republican Party, most notably around Reagan's reelection in 1984. Lean times show a tick back downwards. This is as should be expected.

Gallup and Pew "Over-Dramatize" The Exit Poll. Slight changes in the exit polls tend to be more dramatic in the Gallup and Pew samples. This is especially apparent if we look at 1984-2004. The exit polls show only modest changes - with Republican self-identifiers ticking down to 35% from 36%, then up to 37% in 2004. Meanwhile, Gallup and Pew show a great deal more variability, each moving about 5% over the period. This is consistent with a point I made last week. GOP self-identification might have dropped 10+ point in recent media polls, but only 5 points in the last exit poll. This is not necessarily good news for the GOP, as fewer changes in exit poll party identification indicate that the actual electorate has a more stable partisan orientation. This means that ground lost might not easily be ground regained.

Gallup and Pew Consistently Underestimate Republican Identifiers Relative to the Exit Poll. Pew tends to be more pessimistic about the GOP's standing than Gallup, but both always show fewer Republicans than the exit polls. The difference is typically 5 to 7 points. What could account for this? I can think of two explanations.

(a) The exit polls are a snapshot of party identification on a single day, while the Gallup and Pew numbers are an average of the whole year. In 2008, both Gallup and Pew showed the GOP at its strongest point shortly before Election Day. Gallup generally showed the GOP stronger in the fall of 2004 than in the Spring or Summer of that year. [Unfortunately, I was unable to locate monthly or quarterly party identification numbers for prior presidential election years.] Why might this be? Some subset of "natural" Republican partisans might only return to their political home when the campaign begins in earnest, around Labor Day. If so, an annual average of party identification - or one that looks at out-years - might systematically underestimate GOP strength relative to where it is on Election Day.

(b) Non-voters are less likely to identify themselves as Republicans than voters, and they are included in the Gallup and Pew numbers. In fact, recent turnout - which is at its highest in some time - is still less than 60% of the voting age population, which means that about 40% of the Gallup and Pew samples in recent years should be non-voters. In a year like 1996, non-voters will constitute more than half of these samples. According to the National Election Study, non-voters are not as inclined to see themselves as Republicans as voters (on a five point partisanship scale: strong Democrat, weak Democrat, Independent, weak Republican, strong Republican). In fact, from 1972 to 2004, the average difference in Republican identification between non-voters and voters was fourteen points. This trend is muted on the Democratic side, as a good portion of non-voters are inclined to see themselves as "weak" Democrats.

I think the take home point from all of this is fairly clear. The Gallup, Pew, and other media pollsters tracking party identification offer data that is of real value - but it has to be interpreted with care. There are big, consistent differences between media polling data on partisanship throughout the year versus the Exit Poll, which is a better metric for partisanship on the day that it matters, Election Day.

Just as Gallup, Pew, and others "over-dramatize" changes in party identification - I think the recent meme on the decline and fall of the contemporary GOP has been "oversold." That's not to say that the party is not in a rough spot at the moment, but just that the analysis by many pundits is like a good steak that's been cooked just a bit too long.

-Jay Cost

Obama Needs a New Speechwriter

There has been a tension in the rhetoric of President Obama since he was inaugurated. He wants to be a post-partisan President, assuming that the opposition is well-intentioned and in honest disagreement with him. Yet he frequently implies that they are motivated by political calculation of narrow interests. Either of these is a perfectly serviceable rhetorical strategy - the problem is that he often takes both tacks in the same speech.

If we take a closer look at his speech yesterday, we'll see that it manifested itself once again. This is from early on:

Unfortunately, faced with an uncertain threat, our government made a series of hasty decisions. And I believe that those decisions were motivated by a sincere desire to protect the American people. But I also believe that - too often - our government made decisions based upon fear rather than foresight, and all too often trimmed facts and evidence to fit ideological predispositions. Instead of strategically applying our power and our principles, we too often set those principles aside as luxuries that we could no longer afford. And in this season of fear, too many of us - Democrats and Republicans; politicians, journalists and citizens - fell silent.

It's not impossible to reconcile these two statements, but it is pretty damn hard. The fact that they come in the same paragraph is just plain sloppy.

He says later on:

And even under President Bush, there was recognition among members of his Administration - including a Secretary of State, other senior officials, and many in the military and intelligence community - that those who argued for these tactics were on the wrong side of the debate, and the wrong side of history. We must leave these methods where they belong - in the past. They are not who we are. They are not America.
The President is skirting the shoals of ad hominem here. I suppose that you could say that those who advocated these policies were simply delusional or fundamentally misguided about what is and what is not appropriate in this country - that way, you don't have to suggest that they are, in some sense, un-American. But that certainly weakens his initial declaration of good faith: they meant well, they just don't understand what America is all about? Talk about your back-handed compliment!

This tension increases dramatically by the end:

And we will be ill-served by some of the fear-mongering that emerges whenever we discuss this issue. Listening to the recent debate, I've heard words that are calculated to scare people rather than educate them; words that have more to do with politics than protecting our country. So I want to take this opportunity to lay out what we are doing, and how we intend to resolve these outstanding issues. I will explain how each action that we are taking will help build a framework that protects both the American people and the values that we hold dear. And I will focus on two broad areas: first, issues relating to Guantanamo and our detention policy; second, issues relating to security and transparency.

How can he reconcile this with the assumption of good faith? If you're fear-mongering for calculated, political reasons - how can you be "motivated by a sincere desire to protect the American people?" In theory, he could separate the implementers of the policies from those who defend them now - but those are the same people. Was Dick Cheney motivated by good faith then, but political calculation now? How does that work, considering that he was shortly to stand for reelection then, but not now? This all seems like an enormous stretch - which makes it a stretch upon a stretch upon a stretch...

If he hasn't already by now, he pushes the good faith assumption past the breaking point by offering another straw-man attack, which regrettably is becoming one of his stand-bys.

We see that, above all, in how the recent debate has been obscured by two opposite and absolutist ends. On one side of the spectrum, there are those who make little allowance for the unique challenges posed by terrorism, and who would almost never put national security over transparency. On the other end of the spectrum, there are those who embrace a view that can be summarized in two words: "anything goes." Their arguments suggest that the ends of fighting terrorism can be used to justify any means, and that the President should have blanket authority to do whatever he wants - provided that it is a President with whom they agree.

Tom Maguire pwns this claim:

Obama characterizes the national debate as having divided us into two poles - the left believes that almost no national security issue takes precedence over transparency and the right has a view that can be summed as "Anything Goes".

Really? "Anything goes"? Did he actually read the OLC enhanced interrogation memos, which made it clear that lots of things wouldn't go?

This pretty well obliterates any notion that the President is treating his interlocutors with the presumption of good faith. He says he is, but the rest of his speech doesn't follow through - which makes the initial assertion sound like haughty, hypocritical moralizing.

He pulled a similar trick during the stimulus debate, which makes me think that it's time the President get a new speechwriter, or at least an editor - especially for topics where public debate is intense. Having it both ways like this just seems intellectually lazy, and it makes for a weaker argument. Either treat your opponents with the good faith assumption, or don't. You can't do both, especially in the same paragraph! No number of baroque flourishes about keeping the faith during the Revolution can change that.

And those flights of fancy are sure getting old, aren't they? They were great and all on the night of the Iowa Caucus, but it's been years of the same tune again and again. The Beatles had a string of big hits from 1963-65 that all sounded the same - but by '66 George was playing the sitar and bitching about taxes. That was a change for the better, and a lesson for the President.

How many more times in the next four years do we have to hear this kind of shopworn sermonizing:

I stand here today as someone whose own life was made possible by these documents. My father came to our shores in search of the promise that they offered. My mother made me rise before dawn to learn of their truth when I lived as a child in a foreign land. My own American journey was paved by generations of citizens who gave meaning to those simple words - "to form a more perfect union." I have studied the Constitution as a student; I have taught it as a teacher; I have been bound by it as a lawyer and legislator. I took an oath to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution as Commander-in-Chief, and as a citizen, I know that we must never - ever - turn our back on its enduring principles for expedience sake.

I make this claim not simply as a matter of idealism. We uphold our most cherished values not only because doing so is right, but because it strengthens our country and keeps us safe. Time and again, our values have been our best national security asset - in war and peace; in times of ease and in eras of upheaval.

Fidelity to our values is the reason why the United States of America grew from a small string of colonies under the writ of an empire to the strongest nation in the world.

It is the reason why enemy soldiers have surrendered to us in battle, knowing they'd receive better treatment from America's armed forces than from their own government.

It is the reason why America has benefited from strong alliances that amplified our power, and drawn a sharp and moral contrast with our adversaries.

It is the reason why we've been able to overpower the iron fist of fascism, outlast the iron curtain of communism, and enlist free nations and free people everywhere in common cause and common effort.

Yada yada yada. I've heard all this before - many times, in fact. He goes over his biography, connects it in "dramatic" fashion to the American story, then links it to whatever policy he's pushing. This was powerful stuff...two years ago. Now, it's the paint by numbers version of the Obama Speech.

The Beatles were inspired to change their schtick after they met Bob Dylan, which prompts the following thought. The irrepressible Mr. Zimmerman is on tour this summer, as per usual. Maybe the President should swing by his Baltimore show at the end of July to see if His Bobness can inspire him, too.

-Jay Cost

Quote of the Year

If you want to see the Pittsburgh Steelers, invite us when we don't win the Super Bowl...Maybe in the next four or five years, maybe year six when we don't win it, I guess. But we're probably gonna try to run it up maybe four or five years. Get ten, eleven rings.
-James Harrison, on when President Obama should invite the Steelers to the White House.

Ten, eleven rings? Awesome.

steelers-logo1.jpg

-Jay Cost

On the Bouncing Party ID Numbers

Gallup put out its latest numbers on party identification, and the results might have surprised some.

Gallup Partisanship.gif

Check out how bouncy partisan identification is in the Gallup numbers - not just in the picture, but in the entire history going back through 2004. Next, compare these numbers to the exit polls on Republican identifiers since 1972.

Republican Voters By Year.jpg

The GOP suffered a decline in self-identified Republicans in 1976, as Watergate and the recession pushed people to Jimmy Carter and the Democrats. They came back some in 1980, but it was not until 1984 that the GOP rebounded to the level it enjoyed in 1972, when Nixon was re-elected. From 1984 to 2004, it was pretty stable, during good years and bad for the party - but in 2008 there was a five point drop-off. This is less than what the party suffered in 1972-1976, but it is still the biggest decline in party identification for the GOP in more than thirty years.

So, the movement you'll see in 25 years of exit polling can be found in just 25 days of Gallup polling. What are the implications of this contrast?

First, I think it's a sign that the conventional wisdom that the GOP has shrunk dramatically since Election Day has been oversold. Of course, I thought that before I saw these numbers. Pundits pushing that story line were inclined to cite the AP, Pew, or CBS/NYT poll - even though Rasmussen, Survey USA and Fox News had shown insubstantial drop-offs in party identification relative to the 2008 exit poll.

Second, I do not think the party's recent improvement in Gallup is a sign that the GOP is "on the mend." Return to the exit polling, and note how little it bounces around. This implies that the 5-point drop the party suffered between 2004 and 2008 - while small compared to the media polling - cannot easily be overcome. It took Reagan's 1984 landslide to undo the damage done to Republican self-identification by Watergate. Five points in a May Gallup survey of adults might be easy to win back, but who cares? Elections are held in November and are decided by voters. They swing much less, implying that any drops a party suffers with them could be lasting.

Third, I think this highlights the difference between voters and non-voters. It wasn't too long ago that the Democrats had an eye-poppingly large lead in party identification. Now, Gallup has another eye-popping result, this time showing the two at parity. To connect the two divergent results, there's been a radical "correction" in the party ID numbers even though very little has happened in the political world.

A lot of this could be chalked up to the presence of non-voters in the Gallup surveys. The latter are excluded from the exit polls, but they should make up about 40% of the Gallup samples. Non-voters have a lot of important differences with voters. They are less likely to express much interest in politics, watch political programs, read newspapers frequently, pay much attention in general, and so on. Additionally, non-voters are more likely to place themselves in the middle of an ideological scale whereas you're likely to find voters clustering around the conservative and liberal poles.

Consider the following graphs. They depict the "feeling thermometers" for George W. Bush among voters and non-voters, according to the 2004 National Election Study. This was conducted in 2004, so obviously feelings for President Bush have changed quite a bit since then. The intent here is simply to illustrate a point about the differences between voters and non-voters. The feeling thermometer is basically a question that asks respondents to rate a person, organization, or idea on a 0-100 scale, with 0 being negative and 100 being positive.

Feelings for Bush.jpg

As you can see, voters in 2004 had highly polarized views of George W. Bush. However, non-voters inhabited the middle range, with a slight tilt toward the positive. You'll note also that fewer non-voters were willing to give an opinion on the matter. This graph does not show it - but individual voters who placed Bush high on the thermometer were likely to place Kerry low (and vice-versa) while many non-voters were inclined to put both in the middle.

All in all, non-voters often lack strong feelings on political subjects (be they ideological or personality-based), and they are also less likely to pay close attention to politics. This might make a difference in the polls on party identification. Recall the generally positive coverage of the President's first hundred days, according to the Center for Media and Public Affairs:

Fifty-eight percent of the Obama evaluations were positive on the ABC, CBS and NBC broadcasts, compared with 33 percent positive in the comparable period of Bush's tenure and 44 percent positive for Clinton. (Evaluations by officials from the administration or political parties were not counted.)

On Fox News, by contrast, only 13 percent of the assessments of Obama were positive on the first half of Bret Baier's "Special Report," which most resembles a newscast. The president got far better treatment in the New York Times, where 73 percent of the assessments in front-page pieces were positive.

A striking contrast: Obama's personal qualities drew more favorable coverage than his policies, with 32 percent of the sound bites positive on CBS, 31 percent positive on NBC and 8 percent positive on Fox.

So, the little information non-voters acquire about politics has thus been quite partial to the Democratic party in recent months. Combine this with their their lack of strong feelings about many political subjects - then toss in the GOP's inability to control the agenda in Washington - and this could take us a long way to explaining the drop-off for the GOP among non-voters in some previous surveys. Meanwhile, as the new car smell of Obama's presidency has faded, perhaps those otherwise inclined to the GOP have returned to calling themselves Republican (although I'd note that the recent Fox poll, of registered voters, shows no change from the previous one).

Before I get angry emails accusing me of irrational GOP bullishness, let me repeat: I think the electoral implications of these trends are basically nil. I have virtually no interest in the week-to-week movement of party identification - be they good for the Democrats, the Republicans, the Communists, or the Martians. I'm only discussing it today because other people have been talking about it.

There is academic or scholarly benefit in understanding how non-voters view themselves on the partisanship scale - but the electoral consequences are, by definition, zero. Ditto for actual voters, so long as we're some 19 months from the next election. I don't think it matters much what they call themselves now. It matters in November of an election year - after the two parties have spent hundreds of millions of dollars on lavish conventions and television ads to dominate the political discourse and bring their wayward partisans back to the fold. Until then, you have to expect partisanship to bounce up, then bounce down, then up, then down. Is it really a shock that during a Democratic President's honeymoon period, the numbers for the GOP would bounce especially low? Before any dramatic conclusions are drawn from one particular bounce, it is vital to remember that, in the last 25 years, the exit poll numbers on Election Day have always landed within a very narrow band of results.

The real problem for the GOP now is not that the previous AP poll shows it at less than 20% of respondents - although that extreme result makes for good copy for members of the D.C. punditocracy. The real problem is that the last exit poll showed it at 32%, down 5 points from 2004. That puts its party identification at the low end of the historical range, and previous years indicate that it might take several cycles to overcome such a drop-off.

-Jay Cost

Another Average (At Best) Month for the RNC

On Friday, Chris Cillizza had the early scoop on the national committees' fundraising hauls:

The Republican National Committee raised almost $5.8 million in April and ended the month with $24.4 million on hand, a rare bright spot for a committee whose chairman -- Michael Steele -- has struggled badly in his first few months on the job. Through the first four months of 2009, the RNC has raised $23.4...When Steele was first elected RNC Chairman in January, one of the major concerns in the professional political class was whether he could raise the sort of money to keep the RNC competitive. Interestingly, fundraising has been Steele's strength to date while his skills as a spokesman -- thought to be his strong suit -- have betrayed him time and again.

I don't agree with Cillizza's conclusion. Instead, this month seems to me to be quite below average for the RNC. Consider the following graph:

RNC Graph.jpg

[Note that this graph excludes soft money, which was permitted prior to 2003. Additionally, Cillizza's figure probably excludes the $7 million or so that John McCain transferred to the RNC earlier this year. That actually improves the comparison from year-to-year, as no previous transfer in the above chart has ever exceeded $1 million.]

As you can see, there was a jump in the RNC's fundraising hauls around the beginning of this decade - and a big slide for the most recent data point. Clearly, 2009 is the worst performance to date the RNC has had since 1999 - and even then the party had access to soft money dollars. Importantly, the RNC is well off the mark established in 2005, the last year that was the beginning of a midterm election cycle.

We cannot be critical of Michael Steele for these numbers...at least not yet. There are too many factors that could be weighing down the RNC's fundraising that are outside his control: the weak economy, the tough election last cycle, the inability of the party to introduce its agenda in Congress, and so on. Any of these might be keeping the RNC from raising what it otherwise would. That being said, we cannot draw the conclusion that Cillizza does. If Steele cannot be blamed for these below average numbers - he can't be praised, either. Indeed, it might be partially his fault that the numbers have been so weak. It's too soon to say, and Republicans should continue to watch the committee closely.

Politicos like to compare the two national committees head-to-head, as Cillizza does in the above column. Moving forward, I'd suggest that this is the wrong way to judge the RNC. There are a couple of reasons for this. First, the DNC had a horrible couple of fundraising cycles under Howard Dean. It might take it a while to rebuild its fundraising base. Second, Tim Kaine is serving as governor of Virginia until next year. This limits his ability to raise money. Third, the Democratic congressional campaign committees were stronger than their counterparts on the Republican side in the last cycle. Indeed, through March of this year the Democratic congressional committees had already outraised the GOP committees by $10 million. The GOP has relied on the RNC to make up the money gap - which implies that matching the DNC is not enough. Fourth, the DNC can make use of this guy:

Obama.jpg

His capacity to fundraise for the Democratic Party will be impressive. When he decides it's time, the DNC will raise plenty.

Bottom line: the RNC's subpar fundraising haul might be reducible to factors outside of Steele's control. But they might not be. It's too soon to say, which means Republicans should keep a close eye on future RNC receipts. In the meantime, it's best to avoid making comparisons to the DNC.

-Jay Cost

It's Time for Michael Steele To Resign

On Friday, Michael Steele guest hosted Bill Bennett's radio show - and he got into a conversation with a caller on the subject of Mitt Romney's presidential candidacy. This caller - "Jay" (not me!) - had suggested that Mitt Romney could have won the general election, but that liberals had co-opted the Republican nomination by backing John McCain.

This is how Michael Steele responded (h/t Think Progress):

Yeah, but let me ask you. Ok, Jay, I'm there with you. But remember, it was the base that rejected Mitt because of his switch on pro-life, from pro-choice to pro-life. It was the base that rejected Mitt because it had issues with Mormonism. It was the base that rejected Mitch, Mitt, because they thought he was back and forth and waffling on those very economic issues you're talking about. So, I mean, I hear what you're saying, but before we even got to a primary vote, the base had made very clear they had issues with Mitt because if they didn't, he would have defeated John McCain in those primaries in which he lost.

This is a very unfortunate comment, and I think it demonstrates Steele's key weakness as party chairman.

But first, let's be clear. On the merits, I think that Michael Steele has some valid points here. I discussed both issues at length when I was blogging on the Republican nomination campaign last year.

However, none of these comments should be coming from the Chairman of the Republican National Committee.

On the issue of flip-flopping - all signs point to Mitt Romney having an interest in a future presidential candidacy. He might very well succeed where he failed last cycle, becoming the 2012 Republican nominee. That would make these comments quite unfortunate. One could imagine the DNC working this into a general election campaign ad. The kicker is pretty obvious: "Mitt Romney's own boss doesn't think he's honest. Why should you?"

Second, the RNC Chairman has no business talking about a tension that exists within his party, unless the goal is to minimize it. American political parties are broad-based coalitions that seek to unify diverse groups under one banner. The views of Mormons and evangelical Christians have a lot of overlaps, which makes them political allies. However, they disagree on matters of importance to both groups. Typically, these disagreements are rarely discussed in political venues, so their tensions are usually irrelevant for the GOP. It follows that the GOP has no interest in bringing these disagreements forward. It's only going to annoy Mormons and evangelicals, and potentially pit them against one another.

Additionally, it's bad for the party's image. If you're trying to woo marginal voters, you don't want to emphasize the fact that groups within the party have conflicts. Think Progress headlined its clip of Steele as this: "Steele Calls GOP Base Bigoted, Says They 'Rejected' Romney Because They Have 'Issues With Mormonism.'" Republicans should hope that the mainstream press does not run with Steele's comments, as it will only forward the "GOP is shrinking and narrow" meme, which he has actually helped along in the past.

I doubt very much that the party will suffer any long run damage from his most recent comments. The problem is: if he will say something this now, what's to stop him from flapping his gums when it could do the party real harm? What if, for instance, he mouths off one night backstage at the 2012 convention in front of a Politico reporter? That'd be a great story for the party during it's crucial week of self-promotion!

Newt Gingrich recently defended Steele against those RNC members who are challenging him:

Steele is a huge shock because he's different. He's not just different because he's African American. He's different because he's a free spirit. He's used to saying what he thinks. He's controversial. He has enormous energy. He has great self-confidence.

For a pundit or radio personality, being a "free spirit" and "saying what he thinks" are assets. However, they are liabilities in an RNC Chairman. Ideally speaking, the chairman of a national committee should be boring, bland, and say only what will maximize contributions. There is a reason why your average party chairman is a lousy television guest who rarely strays from the talking points: that is what's good for the party.

Comments like Steele's do not help the Republican Party in any way, shape, manner, or form. The only effect they can possibly have is negative. And if said in the wrong place at the wrong time, they will have a negative effect. I think it is a great thing for a political party to have somebody who calls it like he sees it, even if those opinions don't sit well with his own side. My favorite political book of all time is John Stuart Mill's On Liberty, so I'm well versed in the value of freewheeling, open debate. However, it's no good for the party chairman to be a controversialist. Considering that he said what he said on Friday after all the controversy he has generated - it's pretty clear that he can't help himself.

The party cannot afford to have its national committee chairman doubling as a controversial pundit. It's time for Michael Steele to resign.

-Jay Cost

Obama's $17 Billion: Important or Really Important?

It was interesting to watch the President insist that $17 billion in spending cuts is significant. The press was not really buying the spin:

[T]he news that the cuts totaled $17 billion "landed with a bit of a thud" in the media. Reporters stressed that the cuts made up "a tiny fraction" of the total budget and that they would be hard to push through; USA Today noted that the "proposed cuts are about one-fiftieth the size of this year's $787 billion economic stimulus package -- all of which was added to the deficit."

I don't blame them. I was reminded of the Presidents first debate with Senator McCain. After the latter once again spoke about earmarks, then-Senator Obama was breezily dismissive, saying:

Well, Senator McCain is absolutely right that the earmarks process has been abused, which is why I suspended any requests for my home state, whether it was for senior centers or what have you, until we cleaned it up.

And he's also right that oftentimes lobbyists and special interests are the ones that are introducing these kinds of requests, although that wasn't the case with me.

But let's be clear: Earmarks account for $18 billion in last year's budget. Senator McCain is proposing -- and this is a fundamental difference between us -- $300 billion in tax cuts to some of the wealthiest corporations and individuals in the country, $300 billion.

Now, $18 billion is important; $300 billion is really important.

And in his tax plan, you would have CEOs of Fortune 500 companies getting an average of $700,000 in reduced taxes, while leaving 100 million Americans out.

So my attitude is, we've got to grow the economy from the bottom up. What I've called for is a tax cut for 95 percent of working families, 95 percent.

And that means that the ordinary American out there who's collecting a paycheck every day, they've got a little extra money to be able to buy a computer for their kid, to fill up on this gas that is killing them.

And over time, that, I think, is going to be a better recipe for economic growth than the -- the policies of President Bush that John McCain wants to -- wants to follow. [Emphasis Mine]

Obama would take basically the same posture in the next two debates - that McCain is talking about something that is not really as important as he makes it out to be.

Today, you could say to the President what he said to Senator McCain last fall: sure, your spending cuts are "important" - but your spending increases are "really important." It's not surprising that journalists weren't buying it.

From the looks of it, Congress is not going to be receptive to these cuts:

President Obama's modest proposal to slice $17 billion from 121 government programs quickly ran into a buzz saw of opposition on Capitol Hill yesterday, as an array of Democratic lawmakers vowed to fight White House efforts to deprive their favorite initiatives of federal funds.

One member objects here. Another objects there. Next thing you know, the cuts start disappearing. That's the big problem with Congress - it's hard to get individual legislators, who are responsible to their particular constituents, to be responsible to the nation as a whole. That's where the President comes in - at least in theory. In practice, it is damned hard to get Congress to behave itself. From the perspective of an individual member, it's hard to be critical. They are responsible to their districts - and if they perceive, as the press seems to, that these spending cuts are just symbolic, why should they go along with them? Symbolic good for the President versus real harm to their states or districts. It'd be tough to side with the White House on that one.

The real question is: will the Obama administration fight to keep these cuts in, or give them up to smooth passage for its bigger initiatives? That will tell us whether it is serious about cutting needless spending, or whether this is just a PR gimmick designed to counter the sticker shock the public will feel for the few days after the budget is released. My guess is that the White House will let most of it go, that this is mostly PR, and that everybody's skepticism about touting $17 billion in cuts amidst a $1.75 trillion deficit is well placed.

-Jay Cost

On Specter and Pennsylvania Republicans

As I have written before, the punditocracy's preferred explanation for Specter's decision to jump is that the Pennsylvania GOP is now such a small, conservative rump that it will not tolerate a moderate such as he. I think that is a bunch of bull - and a recent poll from Public Opinion Strategies backs me up (to an extent).

Their poll of likely Republican voters found Tom Ridge trouncing Pat Toomey, 60% to 23%. It also found that the former Republican governor has an approval rating among Republicans of 80%, compared to Arlen Specter's approval of just 30%.

It's early of course, but the results are still relevant. As I noted Tuesday, Tom Ridge is a moderate Republican. He's not quite as close to the middle as Specter, but he was one of the more moderate members of the Republican caucus when he served. So, why is it that these supposedly intolerant conservatives approve so highly of Ridge? Additionally, though it is still early, it's notable that the moderate Ridge is trouncing the conservative Toomey. And remember: the early numbers were enough to cause Specter to switch.

I'd suggest that the ideological intolerance - or whatever - of the Pennsylvania GOP cannot account for this. Instead, I think this is anti-Specter sentiment. Specter is not particularly well liked, especially among Pennsylvania Republicans outside metro Philadelphia. Is this so difficult to believe? After all, this is the guy who said Jack Kemp would still be alive if Congress had spent more money on cancer research. Nothing.But.Class.

Here's another data point that offers pushback on this meme. Again, the story goes that the hardcore conservatives are the ones who won't tolerate Specter. Ok. Let's test this. The most conservative part of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania is the center of the state - the counties where there is nothing but forests and mountains as far as the eye can see. If Specter's problem is really ideological, we should have expected him to do the worst in those areas when he ran against Toomey in 2004.

But he didn't. The following map is a color coded depiction of the 2004 primary. I've put Specter counties in blue and Toomey counties in red. Deeper shading indicates a wider margin of victory.

Specter v. Toomey 2004.gif

As you can see, Specter held his own in the center of the state. I don't have the exact numbers in front of me, but I'd bet the spicy chicken sandwich I'm eating that he won PA-5 and PA-9, the two most conservative districts in the state. These places are mostly rural, uniformly white, low income, historically Republican - the exact kinds of places media pundits in Washington say are ruining the GOP. Yet they went for Specter in 2004.

As I indicated last week, Specter's problem was his near-ruinous results in metropolitan Pittsburgh, losing every county in the area. He lost heavily Republican Butler county by about 20 points. Butler County is not part of what the pundits would identify as the GOP's trouble. It's dominated by Cranberry Township, a far north suburb of Pittsburgh. The county as a whole grew by about 15% in the 1990s. In the last 10 years, growth has slowed to about 6%. Cranberry is dominated by younger families looking to buy a home without Allegheny County's real estate taxes weighing them down. There has been a big boom in development in the last 25 years, which means plenty of Starbucks around Cranberry, though it still voted for Toomey in 2004. For good measure, the senior Pennsylvania senator also lost York and Lancaster counties - which, because they sit between Philly and Baltimore, are much larger exurban communities. So, you also would have seen a lot of people there who picked up their Starbucks Espresso Double Shots on the way to vote against Snarlin' Arlen a few years back.

Bottom line: Specter's problem in 2004 was not conservatives, especially the "clingy" and "bitter" small town GOPers that the media is pegging as the bane of his existence. As you can see, the most conservative counties in the state actually went for Specter. His problem was the west, which I am guessing is powering Ridge's huge margin over Toomey in that Strategic Vision poll.

If the west prefers Toomey over Specter, but Ridge over Toomey - it can't be ideology driving the results.

Update: Specter can breath a little easier, as Ridge has now said he's not running.

-Jay Cost

Michael Steele: Half a Chairman

I've been following the travails of Michael Steele for a few months now, and I'd say the latest news is pretty gosh darned huge. From the Washington Times:

Capitulating to critics on the Republican National Committee, embattled Republican Party Chairman Michael S. Steele has signed a secret pact agreeing to controls and restraints on how he spends hundreds of millions of dollars in party funds and contracts, The Washington Times has learned.

The "good governance" agreement revives checks and balances Mr. Steele resisted implementing for RNC contracts, fees for legal work and other expenditures that were not renewed after the 2008 presidential nominating contest.

The agreement, proposed by several current and former RNC officials, goes further, making 33-year RNC veteran Jay Banning, who was fired by Mr. Steele along with his deputy last month, an on-call adviser to the RNC treasurer. Mr. Banning was seen as a trusted liaison to RNC members critical of Mr. Steele's tenure and financial management.

From the looks of it, the outlines of the agreement restore some old rules that had expired at the end of last year. Moreoever, Steele's opponents have also managed to put Jay Banning (the RNC's chief financial officer until he was fired by Steele) in a watchdog position over Steele. This is an agreement that Steele initially opposed. According to the Times, he had this to say in an email to RNC members a few weeks ago:

"I have just returned from an overseas trip to learn that the five of you have developed a scheme to transfer the RNC chairman's authority to the treasurer and the executive committee," Mr. Steele wrote in an e-mail he sent to Randy Pullen, the RNC's elected treasurer, and Blake Hall, the committee's general counsel, as well as to three former RNC officers.

In the e-mail, obtained by The Washington Times, Mr. Steele argues that he always has embraced the "transparency, competitive bidding and good governance" that Mr. Pullen and the others said their resolution aims to achieve...

"It is of course not lost on me that each of you worked tirelessly down to the last minute in an effort to stop me from becoming chairman," Mr. Steele wrote.

And yet now he is accepting the agreement. What is this all about?

It's impossible to know for sure what is going on. The party organizations are semi-private, and simply not required to tell us exactly what they're up to. Nevertheless, from the looks of it, Steele's early decision to fire every RNC employee rubbed some RNC members the wrong way; they wanted to get greater controls over the new chairman. Steele - perhaps facing a no-confidence vote later this month if he refused - finally gave them what they wanted.

Is this the end of Steele's trouble? My gut tells me no. Frankly, I think that if the RNC is this worried about Steele - they should just get rid of him. The party's position in government is now extremely tenuous. The 2010 midterm is of critical importance to the GOP, and the RNC is the chief source of party funds. There is little margin for error. Can the party afford a hamstrung chairman whom members have little confidence in? One can't help but wonder if these half-measures will make things worse rather than better.

-Jay Cost

Ridge Could Be Trouble for Specter

Quinnipiac released a poll yesterday showing Tom Ridge running just a few points behind Arlen Specter in a hypothetical match-up. Importantly, the results also showed Specter below 50%. Today, Chris Cillizza reports that Ridge is interested in running (h/t Tom Bevan):

Former Pennsylvania governor Tom Ridge (R) is seriously considering a 2010 bid for the Senate seat held by Republican-turned-Democrat Arlen Specter and will make his decision in the next two weeks, according to several sources familiar with his thinking.

Ridge is perhaps the state's most decorated Republican, having held a House seat for more than a decade, spent eight years as governor and served as the first secretary of homeland security under President George W. Bush. He was also mentioned as a possible vice presidential pick for Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) in 2008.

Don't expect Toomey to back down if Ridge joins the fray. Of course, Ridge is no stranger to contested primaries. In 1994 - he defeated Attorney General Ernie Preate and soon-to-be Attorney General Mike Fisher in the Pennsylvania primary. Ridge is an interesting combination of political qualities. He's Catholic, which is a big asset in Pennsylvania politics. White Catholics made up 20% of the nationwide electorate in 2008, but 30% in Pennsylvania. Unsurprisingly then, Pennsylvania is one of the more pro-life blue states in the country. Yet Ridge is actually pro-choice, and while in Congress he racked up a fairly moderate ideological score of 0.189, compared to Toomey's 0.694 and Specter's 0.06 (where 1.0 is a perfectly conservative record).

Ridge would be a highly formidable general election candidate. Last week, I argued that Specter's electoral problem is not so much his moderation, but his lack of support from Western Pennsylvania. Ridge - whose old congressional district (PA 03) stretches from the far north exurbs of Pittsburgh up along the PA-OH border to Erie - could exploit this. When Ridge ran in the 1994 general, he performed poorest in the southwest, but this was due in part to the fact that his general election opponent, Lieutenant Governor Mark Singel, is from Johnstown (John Murtha's hometown). Ridge swept metro Pittsburgh when he ran for reelection in 1998 - and a white Catholic with a working class background such as Ridge could create huge trouble for Specter in the west. He might also give him heartburn in the northeast. Apropos, the Quinnipiac poll has Ridge running well ahead of Specter in the southwest (outside Allegheny County), drawing even with him in the northeast, and running more than 2:1 ahead in Erie.

Could Ridge defeat Toomey in the primary? He'd certainly be formidable. Ridge defeated the more conservative Mike Fisher back in 1994 - and the fact that he is from the west, while Toomey is from the east, should give the former governor a boost in a state where the GOP electorate has become more western. He's pro-choice, of course, so that could be a problem - though it appears that Toomey was pro-choice at one point, too. Additionally, Ridge has war on terror credentials, having served as President Bush's first Secretary of Homeland Security. That is bound to be appealing to Pennsylvania conservatives.

Bottom line: Specter is weak, and Ridge's interest is an indication that other politicians perceive this weakness. From a purely self-interested perspective, Specter's switch from the Republican to the Democratic parties increased his chance of winning reelection - however, this does not mean he's a lock. I would have pegged his chances of reelection around maybe 20% before he made the jump. It's higher than that now, but with Ridge and Sestak thinking about jumping in, I wouldn't give him any better than even odds. Additionally, as I noted last week, Specter's jump so early in the cycle was another sign of weakness - and it has given prospective opponents time to decide whether they should challenge him. He may have had no choice but to switch so soon - but that is a sign of just how much trouble Arlen Specter was in.

-Jay Cost