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By Jay Cost

HorseRaceBlog Home Page --> July 2010

Obama's Vanity is a Liability for Democrats

When Barack Obama burst onto the national scene in early 2007, I was fascinated by his public relations strategy. As a candidate, his facility with the arts of public communication vastly outstripped John McCain's (and Hillary Clinton's, for that matter), and frankly has few rivals in the history of electioneering.

Yet my fascination turned to consternation some time after Mr. Obama's inauguration. I had expected him to modify substantially his strategy in light of the august office he now inhabits. As early as February, 2009 - I fretted about the President's continued courting of celebrity. Since those early days, it has become frustratingly apparent that his Administration's way of dealing with the public is largely an extension of his campaign's.

Neither of them is wholly "rational." You cannot explain how Obama the candidate or Obama the President communicates with the public by assuming that it is all a product of strategic thinking. A strategy implies a goal and a credible explanation as to why a particular action will help accomplish that goal. Too many of his activities are inexplicable by this language of strategic rationality. Recall the Summer of 2008 when candidate Obama seemed particularly weightless: the "Seal of Obama," his European tour, his grandiose convention stage. There was something more to each of these than the simple determination that they were the best ways to spread his message to the masses.

Ditto his choice to appear on The View. Celebrities go on The View. Movie stars and rock stars. Not sitting Presidents of the United States. You cannot explain his decision to appear there without acknowledging that it was, at least in part, about the thrill he gets from being treated like a movie star. This is not merely about public communication. This is also about vanity.

Presidents occasionally make appearances on airy shows - George W. Bush, for instance, had a brief video spot on Deal or No Deal during which he thanked a contestant for his service as a soldier in Iraq. And of course candidates for the Presidency often make appearances on lighter programs like Oprah or The Tonight Show. Yet there are obviously big differences between President Obama and his predecessors, and it cannot be chalked up entirely to getting the message out.

Excessive vanity is common among Presidents. You must be vain to presume that you, and nobody else, should be the next President of the United States. Some Presidents are able to manage their vanity so that it is an asset. For other Presidents, vanity is a severe political handicap. Obama is falling into the latter category, which is somewhat of a surprise. His vanity surely helped generate the "audacity" he needed to snatch the Democratic party nomination from Hillary Clinton. Yet since he accomplished that amazing feat, his vanity has gone from a plus to a minus, creating two political problems for him that can be seen in the above clip.

First, it induces him to do silly things like appear on The View. Such behavior does not help advance his message at all. The audience for this trite program is far too small to induce opinion changes in the mass public. And more importantly, it diminishes the President's stature. His office is so important that he should not be appearing on programs such as this.

Second, it strips him of a sense of self-awareness. This President, who was recently ranked as the eighth most intelligent President of all time (just behind of John Adams, co-author of the Declaration of Independence, and four spots ahead of George Washington, who successfully repelled an invasion by the greatest military power the world had ever seen to that point), seems unaware of the concept of irony. There is no other way to explain why he would say this after having become the first President to engage in a permanent electoral campaign:

We shouldn't be campaigning all the time. There is a time to campaign and there is a time to govern. What we've tried to do over the last 20 months is to govern. On health care or financial reform, right now we have a big debate about how to get small businesses more credit because they generate the jobs. When you feel as if every single initiative that we're doing is subject to Washington politics instead of is this good for the country, that can be frustrating.

The fact that he uttered these words on The View, a show politicians only frequent when they are desperately trolling for votes, makes it all the more remarkable.

President Obama's vanity is fast becoming a problem for the Democratic Party. Messages cannot be delivered without messengers. Ideas require expounders. Even if the former are sound, the latter can make them sound foolish. Obama ran for and won that party's nomination based upon the claim that he could sell the party's ideas to Americans who regularly hesitate to pull the lever for Democrats. He is failing to do that, and his vanity is one reason why.

Democrats have reasons for great anxiety as we approach the 112th Congress and the next presidential campaign. The Republicans, sent packing after the 2006 and 2008 elections, are set to return to the District of Columbia in force next January. On top of that, unemployment is supposed to remain stubborningly high and the deficit will surely remain at unsustainable levels. All of this will make for difficult waters for Democratic party leaders to navigate. The party is going to need crafty, deft leadership if it hopes to avoid ceding further ground to the Republicans. I have my doubts that this President - overcome as he seems to be with self-adoration - can supply it. I'm guessing that many Democrats are starting to have similar worries.

A Note on Gallup's Party Identification Map

Today, Gallup released its results of partisan identification in the 50 states. The results are, as usual, interesting.

Gallup Party Identification July 2010.jpg

This map does not correspond with the national presidential map terribly well, in that it underestimates Republican electoral strength. Why is this?

Part of the issue probably has to do with the evolution of American partisanship. You'll note that most of the "Republican" states are in the Great Plains: Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, and Utah. These states have historically been Republican since they were brought into the Union. Actually, many of them were brought into the Union in 1889. The Republicans had control of the presidency and both chambers of Congress, and quickly added these states, which they believed would vote staunchly Republican.

They voted for Bryan in 1896 and Wilson in 1912 and 1916, but otherwise they were staunchly Republican up through the Great Depression. Kansas, Nebraska, and the Dakotas were the first Roosevelt states to peel away from FDR's coalition, voting Republican as early as 1940. And while Harry Truman did well in this part of the country in 1948, they have been pretty reliably Republican since 1952.

These states are thus but a handful that have moved very little in over 100 years in terms of party alignment. Most other states have moved from one side to the other - Vermont used to be the most Republican state and South Carolina used to be the most Democratic. Now, as Gallup finds, it is basically reversed. Even within states we often find major changes: Democrats used to do well in Western Pennsylvania and Southern Illinois while Republicans were strong in Eastern Pennsylvania and Northern Illinois, but now both intra-state trends are reversed.

Party loyalties can survive for many years on a state and local level even if voters have moved on the congressional and presidential level. So, it's fairly common for districts to be reliably Republican for national offices, but more amenable to the Democrats at lower levels. And vice-versa. For instance, Kentucky has been voting staunchly Republican on the presidential level since 2000, but Democrats outnumber Republicans in the lower state house by almost 2-to-1. New York is now a highly Democratic state on the presidential level, but it has a long history of Republicanism, which shows up in the Democrats' very narrow control of the state senate.

If you look carefully, you can find such vestiges of the old party alignments all over the country. They also show up in the Gallup map. States like Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas have become increasingly Republican on the presidential and congressional level in the last 30 years, but Gallup has them listed as "competitive" in no small part, I'm sure, because many functional Republicans called themselves Democrats when Gallup inquired about their preferences.

Interestingly, the reverse does not seem to hold true on the Gallup map. Old Republican states like California or Vermont show up as solidly Democratic. Why might that be? It might have to do with the divisiveness of the Bush presidency, which might have pushed a lot of "liberal Republicans" into the Democratic fold.

It might have to do with the depth of commitment that the South once had to the Democratic party, which vastly outstripped any region's Republicanism. Franklin Roosevelt won every state except Maine and Vermont in 1936. Yet if he had been a Republican, he would surely have lost the old Confederacy, whose loyalty to the Democratic party was put in jeopardy only when the Democrats ran Al Smith, a Catholic, for President in 1928. That's how committed the South once was to the Democratic party. Republicanism in the South is still a fairly new development, just 50 years old or thereabouts, and so perhaps a lot of nationally Republican states still have commitments to the Democratic party that manifest themselves on the Gallup map.

It might also have to do with the fact that the Gallup poll is of "national adults," which can favor the Democratic party. We see indications of this in polls of national adults on Obama's job approval, which tend to be friendlier to the President than polls of registered voters or especially of likely voters; ditto generic ballot tests. The Gallup poll's numbers on un-leaned partisanship tend to track the exit poll results on base party preference fairly well, but Democratic advantages can show up when Gallup asks Independents to which party they "lean." For all of 2004, for instance, Gallup found that, when leaners were counted, the Democrats had a 3 point advantage in party identification. But on Election Day, Republicans outnumbered Democrats and un-leaned Independents basically split between Kerry and Bush. In 2006, Gallup found an average Democratic advantage of 10 points when Independent leaners were included, while the Democrats won the House by 8 points. In 2008, the Democratic advantage when leaned Independents were included was 10 points (again) while Obama defeated McCain by 7.

These factors - the stickiness of old party alignments, the effect of the Bush presidency on the Republican brand in Democratic areas, the deep loyalty of the South to the Democratic party, and the Democratic tilt of a "national adults" sample - probably explain why the Gallup map bears very little resemblance to the red-blue divide we take for granted today. So, Gallup's results are interesting from a sociological/political science perspective, but I think they bear only little relevance to voting preferences in presidential elections or the "nationalized" congressional election we're set to hold in November.

-Jay Cost

What's So Bad about the JournoList?

Tucker Carlson has this to say about the title question:

We're not contesting the right of anyone, journalist or not, to have political opinions. (I, for one, have made a pretty good living expressing mine.) What we object to is partisanship, which is by its nature dishonest, a species of intellectual corruption. Again and again, we discovered members of Journolist working to coordinate talking points on behalf of Democratic politicians, principally Barack Obama. That is not journalism, and those who engage in it are not journalists. They should stop pretending to be. The news organizations they work for should stop pretending, too.

I disagree with part of this. Partisanship is not "by its nature dishonest, a species of intellectual corruption." Partisanship for the sake of partisanship is indeed corrupt - e.g. Tammany-style patronage politics - but partisanship that comes about because of big, important differences on issues that matter is not. American democracy is unthinkable without the two political parties, so partisanship can't be all bad.

What it can be, however, is conspiratorial and secretive. Our system of government provides for an open process in which free-wheeling debate is encouraged. That's what happens when you combine freedom of speech with regularly scheduled elections. But certain partisan practices can take the most vital parts of the debate behind closed doors, as allies meet in secret to work out disagreements among themselves before they offer a public message to the country.

That's pretty much how the first party system developed in the 1790s. The country split over big issues like whether to align with France or Britain, the Bank of the United States, and the federal assumption of state debts. Political alliances formed that were quite unlike what the Framers of the Constitution had envisioned. They weren't a matter of the big states coordinating against the little ones, or representatives from a single state working together. Instead, alliances were trans-sectional and ideological in nature: the Pinckney's of South Carolina allied with Alexander Hamilton of New York, and Thomas Jefferson of Virginia in cahoots with Thomas McKean of Pennsylvania.

This is what gave birth to the party caucus - the closed-door meeting of like-minded partisans to work out differences without the public nosing in. On the presidential level, we can see its machinations as early as 1792, when the developing Republican party backed George Clinton of New York to replace John Adams as Vice-President. Clinton received 50 Electoral Votes, which was only possible if the electors coordinated with each other, in private, before they voted. The fact that the Clinton electors almost entirely came from four states - Georgia, New York, North Carolina, and Virginia - delineates further the nature of the "secret plot" to unseat Adams.

Secret caucuses turn Americans off. They long have. This is why the Democratic party in 1828 instituted the practice of the party convention, a broad, open public meeting of the party's members to work out differences in the light of day. Over time, the convention degenerated from an open and inclusive process into the "smoke filled" room that nominated Warren Harding. After the riots in Chicago in 1968, it was all but done away with. Today, the people, acting through primary elections, make the most important partisan decisions.

Ultimately, such secrecy is not good for discourse in an open society of free and equal citizens. While the issues between the Federalists and Republicans were pretty wonkish and technical - War with France or Britain? A federal debt? A national bank? - the accusations that they traded in public were extreme. Adams was portrayed as a monarchist who was secretly coordinating with his perfidious allies, Hamilton and the Arch-Federalists, to impose uniform religious practices upon the country and install a Federalist King, all backed by a standing army that had been justified by ginning up war fever. Jefferson, on the other hand, was tagged as an amoral atheist and Jacobin leveler whose radical ideas would bring the violence and anarchy of the French Revolution to the United States. And sure, both sides swore that their intentions were not so treacherous, but really how could anybody know? The parties were too much like secret societies back then. Nobody was really sure why they made the pronouncements they did.

All of this was nonsense, of course. Adams was a moderate, and Jefferson ended up retaining much of the Federalist program. They were friends before the political battles of the 1790s, and became friends once again in retirement. But there was something about the secret practice of party politics back then that transformed straightforward policy disagreements into something much more virulent, and turned dear friends into mortal enemies.

JournoList has too much in common with the old party caucus. First of all, it was secretive. Members only! "NO GIRLZ!" As Ezra Klein notes today, Carlson asked for admission, but was denied it by the list - much as John Adams would have been denied invitation to a meeting of the congressional Anti-Federalists. And, much like the party caucus, the reasons for the denial were ideological: he disagreed with them too much in public to have access to their private thoughts.

Was it used as a private forum to coordinate public activities? Klein and other JournoListers swear up one end and down the other that it was not, but the stories from the Daily Caller suggest that it was on occasion a place for ideologues to plan in secret. Honestly, we'll never know - and this is a chief problem with such a caucus. It inherently breeds suspicion, distrust, and ultimately conspiracy theories - thereby distorting and perverting the public discourse. JournoList was a years-long secret caucus that discussed...who knows what?...in private prior to public statements. Semi-knowledge of its existence and practices can only worsen ideological tensions, promote bad blood, and further sour an already acerbic public discourse.

Conservatives have long sensed that the mainstream media is tilted against them. Relatively few have suggested that it is a hard bias, i.e. an actual conspiracy by media types to present the news in a certain fashion. Instead, the inference has long been that political opinions reflect contested values - and our values are pervasive, influencing how we interpret and present the world to others in all sorts of subtle ways. And because journalists overwhelmingly support Democratic candidates, as a group they strongly favor one set of values, which means their reporting inescapably does as well.

Somehow, Ezra Klein has managed to drain a little more water out of the already shallow pool of media objectivity. He's introduced the notion that, in some instances, it may not have been a soft bias, but instead a hard one. That's exactly the kind of suspicion and mutual distrust that a party caucus breeds. And, unless the full JournoList is opened to the public, nobody will ever know for sure.

JournoList looks to me to be yet another mile-marker on this country's return to a partisan press. This does not upset me very much at all. I think American democracy is unthinkable without the political parties, so I do not think that a partisan press is all that bad. And it might finally stop journalists and academics from acquiring the inherently political authority that comes with monikers like "objective news" or "social science" when they are in fact promoting subjective values. That would be a good thing. All in all, a partisan press is, weirdly enough, a very honest one in that you know fully where everybody is coming from, and nobody can claim for him- or herself the epistemologically ridiculous "God's eye view."

-Jay Cost

A Primer on the 2010 House Midterm

What I'd like to do in this piece is offer you a sense of how voters will come to their congressional vote choices in November, and in so doing give you an impression of how various factors will affect the outcome.

This is not necessarily the best way to look at midterm elections, and it is certainly not the only way. But I'll say this: I've spent the last few years soaking up as much popular and scholarly commentary on congressional midterms as I could, and this is the framework I've put together for myself.

Here's the basic system. While the Framers of the Constitution figured that Congress would be the center of American political life, practically speaking the President has been the focal point of attention. So, we have to frame a voter's decision as whether or not to support the candidate of the President's party or the candidate of the opposition party.

I like to think of the vote choice as the product of four ordered questions. Every time a voter answers "Yes," the more likely he or she is to vote for the opposition. Also, I'm not directly factoring partisanship into this equation, but it does matter. Partisanship influences every answer given, and its influence has grown in recent cycles

Question 1. Am I upset with the current state of the country?

The first question is pretty straightforward, and the current results are not good for the 44th President.


Less than one out of three Americans sees the country as heading in the right direction. And even on this first question, partisanship has a great deal of influence. Rasmussen recently found that 54% of Democrats and just 11% of Republicans thought the country was heading in the right direction. On the other hand, back in October 2007, when he found roughly similar aggregate opinion (24% said the country was heading in the right track, versus 31% now) - he found 43% of Republicans saying the country was on the right track versus just 6% of Democrats.

Question 2. Do I blame the President for the bad times?

Most Americans think times are bad, and right now there is about an equal split on this second question.


Gallup can give some historical perspective on what a marginally negative answer to this question means. In the last sixty years, five Presidents have gone into a midterm congressional election with their net approval at or below sea level: George W. Bush in 2006, Bill Clinton in 1994, Ronald Reagan in 1982, Lyndon Johnson in 1966, and Harry Truman in 1946. All five midterms were "wave" elections in which the opposition party picked up a large enough number of House seats to affect substantially the policymaking process in Washington, D.C.

House elections really turn on how the President is viewed in 435 diverse districts. So, it is not simply President Obama's national job approval that matters, but also how it is distributed.

Of course, nobody is polling each of the 435 House districts, but we can still get a sense of where he stands. For instance, the RCP average currently shows the President at a net job approval of -0.8 points. By comparison, he beat John McCain by 7.3 points on Election Day. So, we can derive a rough estimate of the President's current job approval by subtracting 8.1 points off his victory margin in each House district.

When we do that, we find President Obama at or near net negative approval in about 70 Democratic-controlled House districts. This estimate seems fairly reasonable. As my colleague Sean Trende has noted, the median partisan voting index score for the House is Republican +2. With Obama at sea level in his nationwide job approval, we should expect that more than half of the 435 districts disapprove of him.

The actual number might even be higher than 70. This analysis assumes a uniform drop-off in net approval among all 435 districts, but this is unlikely. Obama's decline among soft partisans is probably greater than among strongly partisan Republicans, who never really supported him at all. This means that his decline relative to 2008 is probably tilted toward districts that went more strongly for him.

In fact, comparing Gallup's recent 50-state report on Obama's job approval to his 2008 election results shows little drop-off in almost all of the deep red states - Alabama, Idaho, Nebraska, South Carolina, etc. The only heavily Republican state to show a big Obama decline is West Virginia, but on a sub-presidential level the Mountain State remains heavily Democratic. Most of his big declines were in either solidly Democratic bastions where the 2008 vote went heavily Democratic (e.g. Vermont, which gave him 67% of the vote but just 54% job approval today) or swing states that went heavily for the President (e.g. Wisconsin, which gave him 56% of the vote but just 48% job approval).

On a district level, it stands to reason that Obama's approval ratings have moved similarly. I expect that he has declined relatively little in very conservative districts, where he wasn't very popular to begin with. Also, I'd expect very little drop-off in majority-minority districts, as his African-American support has remained fairly constant. Most of his drop-off is probably concentrated in majority white Democratic districts, where he should still be comfortably above 50%, and in politically balanced districts that swung his way in 2008, where is probably now below 50%.

So, all in all, we can figure that a plurality of voters in 60 to 80 Democratic-held districts now answer Question #2 in the affirmative.

Question 3. Is my incumbent party candidate indistinguishable from the President?

If you think the state of the country is not good, and you've identified the President as a cause of that, your next question is whether the local incumbent party candidate should be lumped in with the Commander-in-Chief. This is the context in which congressional races are waged. The national mood and evaluations of the President set the general outline, then ultimately it is up to local candidates to angle for the best possible position in light of the broader framework.

In a year when Questions 1 and 2 are answered in the negative, many factors matter when it comes to evaluating the local incumbent party candidate:

a. Is he/she already a member of Congress? If not, and it's an open seat race, it'll be a tougher election for the incumbent party, as the race typically reflects national dynamics. Challengers are never as well known as incumbents, and so voters inevitably rely more on the party labels to make a decision. In a bad year for the incumbent party, that can be a decisive factor.

This is where the Democratic party's relatively few open seats will be an asset.

b. Does the incumbent have a history of independent thinking? Swing voters everywhere tend to prize independent thinking. They are the ideological descendants of George Washington, who generally hated factionalism. Even if they are upset with Obama this year, they are going to be at least somewhat partial to Democrats who have shown a willingness to defy their party leadership. This can make a difference for Democrats in at least a few districts, although the returning members will more often than not be the kind that the Daily Kos crowd hates, the reviled "ConservaDems."

Regardless of how outsized the GOP "wave" is this year, it is highly unlikely that it will overwhelm Gene Taylor in Mississippi's Fourth Congressional District. Based solely on structural factors, this comes as quite a surprise. The counties that make up his district were some of the first in the Deep South to swing to the GOP. They elected Trent Lott to the House in 1972, and they have consistently voted for Republican Presidents since 1980. Despite all this, Taylor is likely going to be a member in the upcoming Congress because nobody doubts that he is independent of his party's leadership. A similar effect helped Delaware's Mike Castle, a Republican, pull 61% of the vote in 2008 even as McCain won only 37% statewide. Polling suggests that Delaware remains generally supportive of President Obama, yet Castle is the odds-on favor to win Joe Biden's old Senate seat, in part because of his solid statewide reputation for independence.

Still, Taylor and Castle are outliers in a Congress that, in recent sessions, has seen an uptick in party line voting. Most Democrats in districts that are now tipped against the President are going to have a somewhat uphill battle in convincing their constituents that they should not be lumped in with Obama. Ultimately, it will depend on how they voted on key items like cap-and-trade and especially health care. Guys like Gene Taylor, an iconoclast with a reputation of defying his leadership when the district asks him to, are going to be much better positioned than guys like Tom Perriello (D-VA), a freshman from a Republican-leaning district who took a high-profile vote in favor of health care. The GOP is not going to take down every "Tom Perriello," but it is going to defeat quite a number of them.

Unfortunately for the Democrats, they have a large number of freshman and sophomore members who do not have much of a reputation for anything. This is a big reason why they have so few open seats to defend - freshmen and sophomores are unlikely to retire! - and it is a real liability for them.

c. Is the incumbent well liked? Some incumbents just never click with their constituents, and sometimes what was once a passionate love affair flames out. In a bad year for the incumbent party, these types tend to get cleaned out. Several such candidates went down to defeat in 2006 - most notable among them being Curt Weldon of PA-7, John Hostettler of IN-8 and Charles Taylor of NC-11. In 2004, they underperformed George W. Bush's share of the vote. Unsurprisingly, they lost by wide margins in 2006. Wave elections have a habit of taking down the weakest links in the party chain, which is bad news this year for Paul Kanjorski of PA-11.

Question 4. Is my district's opposition party candidate a marginally better alternative?

This question and the previous one are essentially answered simultaneously, and they blend together in many respects: a better opposition candidate means more money, which means a sharper criticism of the incumbent party in the district. But this is still a somewhat distinct query. You can't beat something with nothing, at least not most of the time.

This is where Harry Reid's strategy for victory becomes interesting. If public opinion polling is to believed, Nevadans have answered the first three questions in this way: Yes, Yes, and Oh Hell Yes. So, Reid's sole hope of electoral victory is to make Sharron Angle completely and totally unelectable. This also explains why the President has sharpened his already-sharp criticism of Republicans, and Democrats are apparently trolling around for dirt on the GOP in an unprecedented manner.

Will this work? In a few races here and there, it will probably save the hide of some Democratic incumbents. One of the consequences of party primaries is that occasionally they can produce candidates who are simply too far outside the mainstream. But, on balance, this is only going to mitigate what will be serious losses. There are two big reasons:

a. Mainstream Democrats see mainstream Republicans as extremists, and vice-versa. The problem that the Democrats have this year, however, is that the battle for the House is largely going to be fought in Republican-leaning neighborhoods. After all, George W. Bush - that neo-con arch-extremist! - still managed to beat John Kerry in 255 congressional districts. So, Democrats are going to label some Republicans as extremists who are not so in the eyes of their conservative-leaning electorates.

b. It can be difficult to tag challengers as extremists. How do you find the smoking gun? Barring some ridiculous comment, it's hard. The best Republican challengers will usually be state legislators or leaders in the local business community. State government usually does not deal with issues that force true extremists to out themselves as such, and extremism is just plain bad for private business.

This is why Barack Obama was able to skate past the kind of treatment that John Kerry received. Though they are both probably equally liberal, Kerry had a twenty-year congressional record that the GOP could comb through to find evidence that he was outside the mainstream. Obama, on the other hand, had a four-year record, two of which he was actively campaigning for the White House and the other two he was preparing to. There was very little there. In 2008, vagueness was the ally of the Democrats. In 2010, it will be the ally of the Republicans.

Beyond the issue of extremism, what will matter above all else is how much money these Republican challengers raise. Money raised is probably the best metric of candidate quality, and we can put down the following marker: Democratic incumbents in conservative leaning districts with challengers who raise close to or more than $1 million will have an enormous challenge on their hands. I would not be surprised to see some Republicans who raise quite a bit less than $1 million still manage to defeat their Democratic opponents.


Right now, we can conclude that most voters in most House districts have answered Questions 1 and 2 in the affirmative. That's what most of the polls - national and statewide - have indicated pretty clearly, so it is not hard to extend that to House districts.

But the campaign for the House has not yet begun in earnest, which means that Questions 3 and 4 have yet to be answered, and we probably will not have a solid grasp of the public's answers until the leaves are falling from the trees.

If history is any guide, voters in at least two-dozen districts will agree that their local Democratic candidate is "part of the problem" and that the Republicans have fielded at least a slightly better alternative. But the Republicans need at least 40 districts to make a change. Will that happen?

That remains to be seen, and that's not a trite equivocation. Congressional elections are a strange brew of national and local forces, which means that each is a unique world unto itself. The national forces have sorted themselves out pretty well, but strong Democratic performances on the local level could very well result in the party holding its House majority, albeit it by a slim margin.

The best case scenario for Democrats at this point is a nominal majority where the median member is not a terribly reliable ally of the party's liberal leadership. Something similar is set to occur in the Senate, where a Republican gain of at least five seats will push the filibuster to more conservative ground, from Brown/Collins/Snowe to Alexander/Cochran/Murkowski. Barack Obama ran for and won the Presidency in 2008 based upon a pledge to pursue bipartisanship, and the results in 2010 are effectively going to force him to do just that, at long last.

-Jay Cost

Gallup's Bouncing Ball

This week, Gallup's "generic ballot" number - which asks people if they plan to support a generic Republican or Democrat in the upcoming congressional elections - found a big boost for the Democrats, who bounced out to a 6-point lead.

Dems Lead Generic by 6.gif

The jump was sufficient to merit comment from Allahpundit as well as other conservatives. And I'd like to toss my two cents in.

Polls tend to have house effects, and most of us tend to notice these effects when they result in a pollster falling on one side of an average or the other. Rasmussen, for instance, tends to have Obama's job approval on the low side while ABC News/Washington Post usually puts the President on the high side. But there are other types of house effects, and Gallup has an interesting one: it is kinda bouncy.

For instance, look again at that above graph. Over the course of the last two months, Gallup has shown as much as R+6 on the generic ballot and as much as D+6. In a small poll, that might be attributable to sampling error, but the Gallup sample is over 1,500 registered voters, which produces a margin of error of less than 3 points.

Is it really the case that there has been a 12 point swing in the last two months? I doubt it. Looking at the RCP generic ballot average, the only two pollsters who have done multiple generic ballot questions during this time are Fox News and Rasmussen, and neither found such substantial swings.

This is not the only example of Gallup's bounciness. If you are anything like me, you wind your way over to Gallup.com at 1 PM Eastern Standard Time, as that is when it releases it's latest numbers on the President's job approvals. Those numbers move around more than any others out there. On Sunday, for instance, the President's job approval number rose 3 points, and his job disapproval fell 3 points. That made for quite a swing, which is noteworthy because the poll is based on 1,500 total respondents over a three-day track. That means about 500 respondents every day. For his net approval to fall 6 points by cycling out one day and adding another must have meant a very substantial one day movement. If you watch Gallup every day like I do - you'll note that such swings are fairly common, much more so than Rasmussen, the other daily tracking poll.

This is not a recent phenomena with Gallup, either. Check out its trial heats for the later stages of the 2000 presidential election campaign. Note October 2000 in particular:

2000 Bush v Gore.gif

Holy cow! At the beginning of the month, Gore had a 12 point lead, but at the end of the month it was Bush who had an equally large lead. That's some bounciness. And I would note that ABC News poll had a much more stable track through the month of October, and none of the other pollsters showed such outsized movement.

As for the generic ballot itself, it is historically a difficult metric. For instance, in 1998 the Republicans won a solid if uninspiring 2-point victory in the House popular vote, but Gallup's November generic ballot showed the Democrats up 7. In 2002, the October generic ballot had the Democrats up by 6 points, but the GOP went on to win the House popular vote by nearly 5 points. In 2006, Gallup's post-Labor Day generic ballot was tied among likely voters, but a month later the Democrats were out to a 13-point lead. Its post-Labor Day poll found something similar in 2008, leading Gallup to declare that "The Battle for Congress Suddenly Looks Competitive." It wasn't. In both 2006 and 2008, Republicans had a rough month of September, and in both cases the party's trouble really began after the Gallup polls. Still, in historical retrospect, I do not think that the "actual" generic ballot numbers were ever as tight as Gallup found, or as far apart as it found just a few weeks later.

Now, don't get me wrong. The problems with the generic ballot question are due to the limitations of the question itself, not how Gallup handles it. Democrats have a generic edge in nationwide party identification, which often does not materialize on Election Day, so historically the generic ballot favors the Democrats. There's nothing that Gallup can do about that. Plus, there is nothing wrong with having a house effect. I'd be suspicious of a poll that had none. Gallup is a great, reliable pollster that has been doing good work since before most of us were born. It would not be in business today if it wasn't. And kudos to Gallup for offering up more and more of its historical data, which is not only interesting but also a real public service.

My point here is fairly modest: it's incumbent upon us, the consumers of polling data, to digest it properly - which means generally that we have to be aware of house effects, and specifically in the case of Gallup we should not get hung up on every little inflection point. Gallup bounces around quite a bit, and it has exhibited this quality for some time. The best approach in handling this is to average its results across a few weeks.

When we do that for the Gallup 2000 numbers on Bush v. Gore, we find Bush holding a modest 4 point lead, 47 to 43, which should make intuitive sense given the dynamics of that race in its final stages. Similarly, the average generic ballot since Memorial Day 2010 shows the two parties essentially tied, which sounds about right to me for a measure of registered voters several months before Election Day.

-Jay Cost

Michael Steele Makes the Case for Party Reform

Abraham Lincoln's assassination was a national tragedy, and it was also a partisan calamity of the first degree. The Republicans had transformed themselves into the "Union Party" during the Civil War; to hold together their broad pro-war coalition, they nominated Andrew Johnson - Democrat from Tennessee and the only Senator from the Confederacy not to leave Congress - for vice-president in 1864. With Lincoln gone, Johnson became President; this precipitated a split in the Republican party that eventually wound its way through the party organization. As President, Johnson took control of the Republican National Committee (RNC), and congressional Republicans - the "Radicals" - were worried that he would use it to undermine their position in Congress. Thus was born what we know today as the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) - a partisan organization designed exclusively to help congressional Republicans.

I've been thinking about this anecdote lately because of Michael Steele, as of this writing still the Chairman of the RNC. His tenure has been an unmitigated disaster, and an embarrassment for a Republican party that stands a decent shot of returning to power in Congress come November. Apparently, the RNC is not going to force Steele out of power - it's just too difficult - and instead unhappy Republicans will redirect money to other outlets, like the Republican Governors Association.

So, 2010 is a bit like 1866 in that the Republican party apparatus is disorganized and divided. Although unlike 1866, the disorganization of today is not because of deep divisions within the party on an issue of monumental importance, but because of a man who has managed to capture the chairmanship in an apparent attempt to - as the Daily Show wryly commented last night - run a "ponzi scheme on stupid."

Republicans should be troubled by all this - not simply by the fact that Steele has been able to acquire the power of the chairmanship, but also by the fact that apparently he cannot be gotten rid of.

This raises the question: is it time to reorganize the Republican party?

The national Republican party organizations - the RNC, NRCC, and the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) - are all old organizations that were created many, many decades ago. In the intervening years, the nature of the electoral campaign has changed, but these organizations remain intact.

Here is how the members of the Republican National Committee are chosen:

RULE NO. 1 Organization of the Republican National Committee

(a) The Republican National Committee shall have the general management of the Republican Party, based upon the rules adopted by the Republican National Convention. The members of the Republican National Committee shall consist of one (1) national committeeman and one (1) national committeewoman from, and the chairman of the state Republican Party of, each state.

(b) For the purposes of this rule and all other rules, "state" or "states" shall be taken to include American Samoa, the District of Columbia, Guam, Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands, except in Rule No. 13 and unless the context in which the word "state" or "states" is used clearly makes such inclusion inappropriate...

RULE NO. 2 Method of Election for National Committeeman and National Committeewoman

(a) Where the rules adopted by a state Republican Party provide a method of election of the national committeeman and the national committeewoman, they shall be elected pursuant to such method.

(b) Where the rules adopted by a state Republican Party do not provide a method of election of the national committeeman and the national committeewoman, and where state laws do provide such a method of election, they shall be elected pursuant to such method provided by state laws. (c) Where neither the rules adopted by a state Republican Party nor state laws provide a method of election of the national committeeman and the national committeewoman, the national convention delegation from such state shall elect them.

In other words, it is a federated organization whose membership is largely determined by the state parties. Also, in a nod to the "New Jersey Plan," each state (and remember that includes American Samoa, D.C., Guam, and so on) gets exactly the same number of members, regardless of how populous they are or whether they ever actually vote Republican.

The unrepresentativeness of the Republican organization has been a problem in the past. Teddy Roosevelt was likely the choice of Republican voters nationwide, but he lost the Republican nomination in 1912 to William Howard Taft, who controlled the RNC as well as the Southern delegates. These southern delegates did not represent the interests of voting Republicans in the South because, well, there really weren't any voting Southern Republicans back then! Instead, they were more like the "Rotten Boroughs" of old British Parliaments, loyal to Taft because he as President had secured them patronage.

So how is it that Michael Steele has been able to wreak all this havoc upon a party that won the support of nearly 60 million Americans in 2008? It goes like this: the state Republican parties elected their RNC members, who elected Michael Steele, who has embarrassed his party.

What's wrong with this? For starters, the role of the state parties should be of concern. Picture this: you're a young, idealistic Republican who just moved into a new state. You want to help the cause, so you pick up the phone intent to find a political organization or outlet for which you can volunteer. Do you call your state Republican party? No, didn't think so.

The reality is that the state party organizations used to be powerful entities that dispensed patronage to keep an iron grip on political power. Think Matthew Quay in Pennsylvania or Roscoe Conkling in New York. But the Teddy Roosevelt's of the world got their way, and there is basically no more patronage for these organizations to control, which means that they are merely shells of their former selves. Really, what they do today is help state candidates launder money to exploit the legal loopholes in federal and state campaign finance laws. They are not really open organizations, as Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren envisioned when they created the first modern political party in the 1820s. The Republican base does not participate in them, which means in turn that they do not really represent their interests. Additionally, they are only tangentially related to Republicans in Congress, who - because they have to win primary battles - can at least claim to represent the millions of people who call themselves Republicans. And yet these members of Congress are powerless to do anything about Michael Steele.

So these state parties - even though most Republicans in most states have nothing to do with them - are empowered to elect the RNC. And the RNC has two jobs of significance. The first is to wield the imagery of Republicanism - "the Elephant" - to attract donations, which are then distributed strategically to state parties and candidates, again to exploit campaign finance law loopholes. They are also in charge of putting on the Republican National Convention, although for practical purposes the party's nominee gets to make all the important choices about the speakers, the message, the platform, and so on.

The question I would ask is this: is the organization of the RNC designed for the task of money laundering in a maximally effective way? I would say no. The big problem is the state party organizations, which are anachronistic holdovers from days long gone by. They lack broad popular mandates, in that Republican voters tend not to participate in their activities. They also are not directly involved in setting the national party agenda, which comes out of Congress and the White House. So why should their organization be entrusted with control of the party imagery and the job of raising tens of millions of dollars?

Make no mistake, this organizational structure generates inefficiencies. I noted this recent story with interest:

The RNC is sending staffers to Guam to train party operatives, an RNC spokesperson confirms to Hotline OnCall, in advance of this year's open GOV race. State and local development dir. Shannon Reeves and Director of Political Strategies for New Media George Alafoginis, 2 RNC officials, are in Guam this week as part of Steele's commitment to provide more party resources to U.S. territories, they told the Pacific Daily News. It is Reeves' second trip, after visiting last year. The 2 top staffers will also attend the party's Lincoln Day Dinner at a local resort.

"The visit is a part of party building activities the committee undertakes everyday to ensure the Republican Party is competitive in every state and territory, which is an important priority for Chairman Steele. To do otherwise -- and not make critical investments in our state and local parties -- would be political malpractice," said RNC communications director Doug Heye.

It is the RNC's second foray into Pacific Rim politics. Earlier this year, Hotline OnCall reported Steele had directed $20K to the Northern Mariana Islands for a GOV race, which the GOP lost.

The territories of the Pacific Rim have literally no role to play in United States politics, but they are receiving Republican resources. Why? Because they have votes in the RNC. If John Boehner and Eric Cantor were in charge of directing party dollars, would $20,000 be sent to the Northern Mariana Islands? No, of course not.

The worst part of this setup is that the party feels its negative effects at exactly the worst time: when it is out of power. Steele's unique brand of nonsense would not have been tolerated when George W. Bush was President because the Commander in Chief also becomes the commander of the party. He essentially captures the RNC and integrates it into his own political organization - just as Barack Obama effectively named Tim Kaine, an early supporter, chair of the DNC. But when the party is out of power, a character like Michael Steele has a shot at gaming this inefficient, outdated organization for the purposes of self-promotion.

I think it is time for Republicans to evaluate their organization seriously and carefully. The RNC should not be allowed to be a cause of mischief and embarrassment when the GOP is out of power. I'm not sure what the best setup is, but I do think Republicans need to make a choice about how it is structured in the years when it does not control the White House. They either should work to make their existing organizations more inclusive, so that the tens of millions of self-identified Republicans not only vote for candidates but vote for party leaders. Or, they should entrust it with congressional Republicans (and other elite party stakeholders) for safekeeping until the White House returns to Republican control.

-Jay Cost