The Myth of “4 Million Conservative Voters Stayed Home in 2012”

RS: The Myth of “4 Million Conservative Voters Stayed Home in 2012”

I have frequently criticized liberal and Democratic commentators for relying on the Static Electorate Fallacy, the idea that the 2016 electorate and results will not stray far from the demographic, geographic and ideological contours of 2012, despite longstanding American electoral history showing that elections following the re-election of an incumbent have always featured shifts in the map to the detriment of the party in power. Candidates make their own turnout, and removing a successfully re-elected incumbent always puts more voters and potential voters up for grabs.

But conservative and Republican commentators need to avoid believing our own comforting myths, and one of those has managed remarkable durability even though it should have gone away within a month of the 2012 elections: that something like 4 million usually reliable conservative voters – voters who showed up at the polls even in the down year of 2008 to support John McCain – stayed home in 2012 because Mitt Romney was too moderate. This theory keeps getting offered as proof that all the GOP needs to do is nominate a real conservative and this cavalry, 4 million strong, will come charging over the hilltop and save the day. In fact, poor a candidate as he was, Romney actually got more votes than McCain did; the belief that he got less is based entirely on incomplete numbers reported in the first 24-48 hours after Election Day, before all the votes had finally been counted.

Continue reading The Myth of “4 Million Conservative Voters Stayed Home in 2012”

Fear of the Missing White Voters

RealClearPolitics election analyst Sean Trende has come under coordinated red-hot rhetorical fire from the Left for his thesis that one of the major causes of Mitt Romney’s loss in 2012 was that a disproportionate number of white voters – mostly downscale whites outside the South – stayed home. Much of the criticism of Trende’s thesis is based on deliberately misreading his policy prescriptions – but it’s also based on a simpler failure to grasp the basic math behind his calculations. Like any exercise in reading exit polls and census data, Trende’s assumptions (which he lays out explicitly) can be critiqued by people who are serious about understanding the issue; there are no definitive answers in this area other than final vote counts. But the vehemence directed at Trende’s number-crunching suggests a Democratic establishment that fears honest debate intruding in its narrative of an inevitable, permanent Democratic majority built on a permanently racially polarized electorate.

Trende’s Theses

Given the intense and growing racial polarization of the Obama-era electorate, it is sadly necessary to look at the race of voters to make sense of what happened in 2012 and what it says about the two parties’ coalitions going forward; on this, analysts on all sides agree. Indeed, those who argue for a long-term Democratic majority do so primarily on the basis of maintenance of current levels of racial division. It is also agreed among all analysts that turnout was down in 2012 from 2008; the raw numbers show that about 2.2 million fewer people voted, while the population grew. The issue is how to measure the rates of turnout among each racial group.

Who The Missing Voters Were

Trende’s original thesis was based on the initial exit polls released immediately after the election as compared to Census Bureau population estimates, and developed in a four part series beginning last month. Naturally, given the nature of the data sets involved, his numbers changed as more precise sources of data became available. He conducted a simple five-step exercise:

1. Look at voter turnout – total and by race – in the 2008 election;

2. Look at Census data to determine the growth of eligible voters in each racial category;

3. Project what the 2012 electorate would have looked like if each category turned out at the same rates as in 2008, but adjusted for the 2012 population;

4. Look at voter turnout – total and by race – in the 2012 election;

5. Compare Step 3 to Step 4 to determine how each group’s rates of turnout changed from 2008 to 2012.

This is not a controversial methodology; total population growth and total election turnout are hard data, and the only real issues are which of various Census reports you use to compute population growth by racial category, and which of various election sources you use to compute turnout by racial group. With a little cutting and pasting to combine his two charts, here is what Trende’s June analysis concluded:

In other words, compared to 2008 levels of turnout, white voter turnout was down far more than non-white voter turnout (6.2% vs 3.8% for black voters and 1.6% for Hispanic voters), and there were approximately 6 million “missing white voters,” as compared to about 871,000 black and Hispanic voters. Trende also finds about 1.3 million missing “other” voters (“other” being mainly mixed-race voters, as well as Native American, South Asian, and other groups – not necessarily a bloc as heavily Democratic as black or Hispanic voters). The “other” group is a statistically significant part of the analysis, but, as Trende’s later analysis shows, that last figure may be an anomaly due largely to mathematical rounding issues, without which the number of “missing” non-white voters in total drops in half when you use later, more accurate data – more on that below.
There is one error in Trende’s computation, which brings his total short of the 129.2 million votes cast in 2012, and that’s Asian voters (who have broken heavily Democratic in recent elections after being a GOP voting bloc in the Reagan-HW Bush years). Trende finds about 70,000 Asian voters missing, when in fact Asian turnout was up enough that he should be showing about 575,000 extra Asian voters (I contacted Trende and he confirmed this). Asian voters are an oft-overlooked and growing piece of the puzzle, and they still turn out in very, very low numbers compared to their (still-small) share of the US population, but reaching out to them is an important consideration going forward. In any event, when you adjust for the proper counting of Asian voters, you find that it actually strengthens Trende’s thesis that white voter turnout was down relative to turnout of the major non-white voting blocs.

Where The Missing Voters Were

Trende also produced a map showing where the missing voters were most likely to be found, although the map can’t break them out by race; the areas in blue on the map represent the biggest drops in turnout, red represents growth in turnout compared to population growth.

As you can see from the map, a good number of the “missing” voters were in uncontested states like New York and Oklahoma where they would not have made a difference. And the big chunks of deep blue in New Mexico, Oklahoma and South Dakota (as well as the heavy dropoff in turnout in Alaska, not shown on the map) are consistent with a dramatic decline in Native American voter turnout.

But a significant number of others were in Pennsylvania (Obama by 309,840 votes out of 5.75 million cast), Ohio (Obama by 166,272 votes out of 5.59 million cast), Michigan (Obama by 449,313 votes out of 4.74 million cast), and Minnesota (Obama by 225,942 votes out of 2.94 million cast). This is consistent with Trende’s conclusion that – while these voters were not, in and of themselves, the cause of Romney’s loss – they were a contributing factor large enough to consider, and one that may loom even larger in a closer future contest between a better Republican candidate and a Democrat who has less visceral appeal to non-white voters. (The lower turnout throughout the Northeast also surely reflects the influence of Hurricane Sandy).

The White-Voter Path To GOP Victory

Later in his series, Trende moved on to a second thesis: that it’s possible – not likely, but possible – that depending how turnout develops (eg, if African-American turnout and voting patterns revert to pre-Obama levels), that the GOP could start winning national elections on the basis of winning a growing share of the white vote without eroding the Democrats’ hold on non-white voters. As Trende notes, while this scenario requires some leaps from where we stand today, white voters have been trending gradually more Republican:

Democrats liked to mock the GOP as the “Party of White People” after the 2012 elections. But from a purely electoral perspective, that’s not a terrible thing to be. Even with present population projections, there are likely to be a lot of non-Hispanic whites in this country for a very long time. Relatively slight changes among their voting habits can forestall massive changes among the non-white population for a very long while. The very white baby boom generation is just hitting retirement age, and younger whites, while unsurprisingly more Democratic than the baby boomers (who, you may recall, supported George McGovern), still voted for Romney overall.

Nowhere does Trende argue for the GOP to turn up its nose at Hispanic outreach, or counsel a harder line on immigration; rather, he argues simply that there are enough different variables that it’s unwise to write off the GOP just yet on the basis of mathematical and demographic determinism, even if the GOP does defeat the current iteration of “comprehensive immigration reform.” There is more than one way to build a winning electoral coalition.

Trende’s Critics

The main salvo against Trende can be found in a belligerent ThinkProgress blog post by Ruy Teixeira and Alan Abramowitz entitled, “No, Republicans, ‘Missing’ White Voters Won’t Save You.” Stripping away the rhetorical overkill (“GOP phone home! Your missing white voters have been found, and it turns out they weren’t really missing”), the main point of contention is that Teixeira and Abramowitz simply reject the notion that turnout was down at differential rates:

Trende was using an estimate of around 2.7 million additional eligible whites between 2008 and 2012. That’s wrong: Census data show an increase of only 1.5 million white eligibles….[U]sing Census data on eligible voters plus exit poll data on shares of votes by race, we calculate that turnout went down by about equal amounts among white and minority voters (3.4 and 3.2 percentage points, respectively).

This attack on Trende was predictably amplified by Paul Krugman, who doesn’t seem to have even read Trende’s essays, calling them a “Whiter Shade of Fail”; Krugman concludes on the basis of reading the ThinkProgress blog post that “the missing-white-voter story is a myth.” (Josh Marshall takes a similar line).

But careful reading is your friend. And a careful reading shows why Teixeira and Abramowitz are long on vitriol – because they are short on trustworthy data.
The immediate problem here is that Teixeira and Abramowitz don’t show their work to explain how they come up with these percentages, so a certain amount of deductive detective work is required to figure out what they did (not making your computations transparent is generally not a sign of confidence in your data). From the links in their post, it appears that the main issue is that they and Trende are using different Census Bureau reports for their data. Also, critically, Teixeira and Abramowitz don’t break out turnout among the component elements of “non-white” voters, who they treat as a monolithic mass.

The CPS Bait and Switch

As Trende observes, Teixeira and Abramowitz “look at a different data set — the CPS [Current Population Survey] data,” a monthly survey in which people self-report employment data and (after the election) self-reported voting participation. Trende, by contrast, used Census Bureau population estimates derived from the actual 2010 Census.

If you take it at face value, however, the CPS survey has a serious flaw that should be obvious even to a Nobel Prize winner:

[T]he CPS data conclude that there were 1.4 million more Hispanics who voted in 2012 than in 2008, 547,000 more Asians, 1.7 million more blacks, and 2 million fewer whites. That works out to a total of 1.8 million more votes cast in 2012 than 2008, according to the CPS survey.
But if there is one thing that we absolutely know about 2012, beyond any reasonable doubt, it is that turnout actually dropped from 2008….So, the CPS data say that there were around 4 million more votes cast in 2012 than was actually the case.

In short: the CPS turnout figures cannot possibly be correct. It’s like a preseason baseball prediction where the whole league is over .500. It’s mathematically impossible. Now, it’s certainly possible that CPS is wrong proportionally – that is, that it overreported the turnout of all groups equally. It’s also certainly possible that it’s not proportionate. But there’s no way from looking at CPS alone to know, so relying on it as an authoritative source without caveat or explanation is a very questionable choice.

Teixeira and Abramowitz stake their whole argument on the CPS – but then they use it selectively. As noted above, the actual turnout figures produced by CPS support the idea that white turnout was down in absolute terms, while black, Hispanic and Asian turnout was up. If they broke these groups out individually, as they appear in the CPS data itself, that would destroy their entire argument that turnout was down equally across all groups. So they do two things to cover their tracks. One is to clump these groups together with “other” non-whites; but as Trende notes, “the large mass of missing ‘other’ voters is probably a rounding issue. This isn’t a minor point; those voters represent 60 percent of all the non-whites that Teixeira and Abramowitz are discussing.

Second, as Trende demonstrates, Teixeira and Abramowitz are only able to use the CPS data to their advantage by mixing and matching it with other sources (specifically, exit polls) – if you use only the CPS, “the CPS data actually show a larger decline in the white vote than do the exit polls.” (Trende, because he’s using non-election-related Census data, has to use the exit polls for his turnout figures – but if Teixeira and Abramowitz think CPS is the more reliable source, why do they avoid using it to compute turnout?)

There is no perfect answer to these questions. The Census is the best possible population figure, but the interstitial estimates involve some inherent guesswork. Exit polls may be biased in who answers them, and the CPS is obviously biased to over-report voting and may be biased in who over-reports; we can’t know. (One difference being that exit poll respondents don’t know who won the election when they respond; CPS respondents do, so there may be a possible bias towards overreporting by non-voting supporters of the winner. But that’s speculation.) What we do know is that Trende has put his methodological choices on the table and they are reasonable ones; Teixeira and Abramowitz have not, nor offered any defense for their methods, nor explained how they can square their theory of perfectly proportional decline in turnout across groups with the fact that the very source they use shows the opposite. Under those circumstances, it’s not hard to decide who to trust.

The Wider Universe of Missing Voters

For all the heat over Trende’s computations, it should not be forgotten that the “missing white voters” are only the difference in turnout patterns between 2008 and 2012 – both elections in which uninspiring and poorly-organized GOP campaigns faced off against Barack Obama (a uniquely inspiring figure to non-white voters due to his status as the first non-white President), and the first of which – the baseline – already involved a uniquely bad political environment for Republicans. In fact, voter turnout is a volatile variable that changes from one election to another; while it can be useful to perform an exercise like Trende’s, it requires a serious failure of imagination to regard the 2008 and 2012 turnout environments as the outer boundaries of potential voter turnout.

How many voters are “missing” depends very much what your baseline is – a baseline that never stops moving. It’s debatable exactly how many eligible voters there are at any given time (different sources use different measurements) but consider that Michael McDonald of George Mason University (on whom Teixeira and Abramowitz rely) figures a “voting eligible population” of 221,925,820 in 2012 – which means that compared to the entire universe of eligible voters, there weren’t six or eight million missing voters, there were 92.7 million missing voters, 40% more than the total that voted for Obama. On the other hand, McDonald calculates that, while 58.2% of eligible voters voted in 2012, only 51.7% voted in 1996 when Bill Clinton ran for re-election. If you take McDonald’s figures and use 1996, the last election with an incumbent Democrat on the ballot two years after a GOP rout in the Congressional midterms, as your baseline, suddenly you’re not talking about missing voters at all – you’re asking where 8.4 million extra voters came from.

I do not, of course, mean to suggest that there were 92 million voters that either campaign could reasonably have expected to turn out. My point is, the dropoff of some 6 million eligible white voters and 1.6 million eligible non-white voters as compared to the 2008 baseline is just one segment of a much broader universe of eligible non-voters, some of whom will doubtless be turned out by the winning presidential campaign in 2016 or 2020, just as some of the folks who turned out for Obama, Romney or McCain will surely drop out of the process in the next two elections even if they remain eligible voters. Turnout as a whole can be volatile over time, as McDonald’s estimates show:

Turnout rates dropped as more previously ineligible voters entered the system, particularly after the voting age was reduced; it spiked in 1992 when Ross Perot’s campaign offered an outlet to voters unhappy with both parties, and again in 2004 and 2008 as the Bush and Obama campaigns found distinctly different paths to bring previously disaffected voters to the polls. The increasing volatility of turnout rates in recent years suggests that improvements in technology, combined with changes in voting practices (e.g., early voting) may be improving campaigns’ ability to locate new voters. And there’s a second, equally important piece of the puzzle that I frequently stress: the two parties’ bases, turnout methods and reasons for appealing to voters are asymmetrical. Look at this chart of the vote totals of the Democratic and Republican tickets in presidential races between 1976 and 2012:

The Democrat vote grew steadily year to year throughout this period, consistent with the view (implicit in all of Teixeira’s analyses and those who follow a similar demographics-are-everything approach) that the Democrats are mainly a collection of interest groups that grow with the populations they represent. The Republican vote, by contrast, was much more volatile (and susceptible to being drawn off by dissenters like Perot), reflecting the fact that Republicans are a more ideological party and therefore more dependent on the issue environment (particularly the presence of national security as a major issue) and the quality of the party’s candidate and platform to draw votes. Candidates and campaigns still matter, and matter more to Republicans. It’s entirely plausible to think the GOP will run better candidates and better campaigns in the future – that the McCain and Romney campaigns were not the best of all possible Republican campaigns.
Specifically, we are not so far removed from George W. Bush and his Karl Rove-led political operation figuring out how to increase the GOP vote from 39 million voters in 1992 and 1996 to 50 million in 2000 and 62 million in 2004, a feat that astounded liberal observers at the time and upended conventional wisdom that the GOP could only succeed in a low-turnout environment. The 2004 election came after Ruy Teixeira and John Judis had published their “Emerging Democratic Majority” book in 2002, and Teixeira spent the 2004 election arguing so vociferously that the polls were overestimating Republican turnout that Mickey Kaus acidly remarked the day after the election “Bush 51, Kerry 48: Pollster Ruy Teixeira demands that these raw numbers be weighted to reflect party I.D.!”

Teixeira wasn’t the first or last election analyst to assume that dramatic changes in the turnout environment were implausible; many observers on the right, myself and Trende included, spent a good deal of 2012 questioning how Obama could recreate the dramatic shift away from 2004’s turnout that we saw in 2008. The point here is the danger of assuming that present trends will continue unabated forever.

In short, we’re discussing the current margins – of the 92.7 million eligible voters who passed on the Obama-Romney contest, around 9% of those would have shown up at 2008 levels of turnout; of the 129.2 million who did vote, around 6% of those would have stayed home at 1996 levels of turnout. But until we run the next election, we don’t know how far each side can push those margins, or with which populations of eligible but not certain voters. The history of American politics suggests that we have not seen the last new development that will surprise observers of the political scene.

Ruy Teixeira’s Methods Seem Familiar

Reading through Texiera’s flailing assault on Trende, I felt a strange sense of deja vu – because I had read this before, in Teixeira’s review of Jonathan Last’s excellent book What to Expect When No One’s Expecting. And as with his dismissal of Trende, Teixeira’s review was greeted by the usual head-nodders on the Left as an excuse not to deal with Last’s arguments but rather dismiss them out of hand.

Last’s book develops his argument that birth rates in the United States and around the world are falling to a point that threatens a declining population, that many changes in society, economics and government can flow from such a demographic shift, and that a lot of these could be very, very bad. Last’s book notes that Hispanics (particularly recent arrivals to the U.S.) have been the only major group having enough children to keep the United States from falling below “replacement level” birthrates, but that trends among Hispanics suggest that they may also fall back towards the rest of the U.S. population over time. Finally, he argues that, while immigration has helped the U.S. stave off the more dire declines in population faced by countries like Japan, Russia and Southern Europe, there are downsides to relying too heavily on new immigrants to replace the native-born population, and reasons (especially given Mexican birthrates) to suspect that a steady supply of immigrants may dry up down the road.

Teixeira applies the same rhetorical sledgehammer to Last’s carefully-researched, copiously footnoted and even-handedly argued book that he deployed against Trende: “If Last’s claims sound hysterical and overwrought, that is because they are….If Last’s claims about the impending population crash are fanciful, his claim that fertility decline will lead to economic collapse is completely ridiculous.” But as with his attack on Trende, Teixeira’s assertions don’t stand up well under scrutiny.

To begin with, Teixeira’s review of the book is astoundingly parochial: something like half of the book and scores of its examples (both anecdote and country-level data) look at birthrates around the world and in history, and a good deal of Last’s argument addresses how the U.S. will be impacted by demographic changes in other countries, some of them very dramatically underway. But aside from one hand-waving reference to UN projections (more on which below) and a reference (which Teixeira refuses to engage) to Last’s reliance on slowing Mexican population growth, Teixeira completely ignores everything happening outside the United States and all the book’s discussion of history as an example.

Teixeira accuses Last of being “truly the man with a hammer who sees nails everywhere,” yet the entirety of his critique of Last’s solutions is to ask, “why not support immigration reform, as well as generally higher immigration levels?” and accuse him of being an immigration restrictionist who “just isn’t very interested in seeing more immigrants in the country.” It seems Teixeira is the one who only has a hammer, given that the argument for more immigration and growing political power for Democratic-leaning Hispanics is also the entirety of his attack on Trende, his attack on the 2004 polls and the 2002 book that made his name. As Last noted in response, if you actually read the book, you’d see that Last is not arguing against more immigration, just explaining why it’s not the whole answer to every problem.

As for number-crunching, Teixeira didn’t even bother to grapple with Last’s marshalling and sifting of the demographic data; he just appeals to authority:

The Census Bureau does project that the fertility rate will diminish, but only by a modest .09 over the next 50 years. And while the fertility rate is likely to remain below the replacement rate for the next 50 years, the Census Bureau expects us to add another 100 million people by 2060 due to immigration and “demographic momentum.” (Despite sub-replacement fertility rates, a relatively large proportion of the population will be in prime reproductive years for decades to come.) So much for population collapse.

Last is similarly off base in his projections for the rest of the world. He sees global population decline…The U.N. Population Division begs to differ. According to their 2010 projections, the countries with the lowest fertility rates today – typically, more developed countries – should see fertility rates rise somewhat over the century and converge with rates in less developed countries.

At least this time, Teixeira looked at what the Census Bureau had to say. But he offers no reason why we would expect declining fertility rates to reverse themselves down the road, and while Last explains the implausibility of the UN’s 2010 projection (which represented an abrupt and not credibly explained about-face from its prior stance), Teixeira incuriously accepts it at face value and then asserts these inherently speculative projections as fact. Last himself admits that many of the future projections involve uncertainty – but the past and current trends are hard facts. As Last notes, this is far from the only area in which Teixiera just hand-waves whole detailed sections of the book – unlike Teixeira, Last actually considers the experiences of other countries to see what works and what does not, rather than just blithely assuming that demographic trends will reverse themselves of their own accord.

Liberal pundits and Democratic activists – and the line between the two can be hard to locate – have increasingly overinvested in two excuses for insulating themselves in a bubble: that no data can possibly support any arguments by analysts on the Right, who can be dismissed with an ad hominem, a quick hand-wave and a lot of nodding, and that demographics alone will deliver them a permanent electoral majority without the need for their side to actually win any more arguments. These are hazardous trends, and the imbalance between Teixeira’s rhetoric in dealing with pundits like Trende and Last and the actual substance of his critiques is an illustration of the dangers of the need to sustain this illusion at all costs to a writer’s own credibility.

PPP on the Brown-Warren Senate Race: A Polling Post-Mortem

Polls are back in the news, with the release of four public polls and an internal Gabriel Gomez campaign poll in the June 25 Massachusetts special Senate election to replace John Kerry. 3 of the 4 public polls show Ed Markey with a distinct but still surmountable lead, an average of 6 points; the fourth shows him up by 17 and looks like an outlier, adding 2.7 points by itself to Markey’s lead in the RCP average. The Gomez campaign’s internal poll shows Markey by 3; if you use the general rule of thumb that a campaign conducts multiple internal polls and will only release its most favorable internal, that’s consistent with this currently being a 5-7 point race. Which is not a bad place for a Republican to be in Massachusetts five weeks before the election – it gives Gomez a puncher’s chance in a special election – although you’d clearly still put better than 50/50 odds on Markey.

The closest public poll so far was put out by progressive Democratic pollsters PPP; its first poll of the race has Markey up by 4, 44-40. Let’s take a look at how PPP polled the last Senate race in Massachusetts, the 2012 race between Scott Brown and Elizabeth Warren, which Warren ultimately won 54-46. That race may be less predictive of this one than the 2010 special election between Brown and Martha Coakley (in which PPP was one of the more reliable pollsters), but it’s interesting as an exercise in examining how PPP samples the electorate.

Continue reading PPP on the Brown-Warren Senate Race: A Polling Post-Mortem

Ahead of His Time

Those of us who supported Rick Perry over Mitt Romney in 2012 can take a small measure of vindication in this look at how Perry was ahead of the curve on immigration, education, entitlements and other issues in terms of anticipating where the GOP would be headed next. That’s without even mentioning Perry’s tax plan or his stances on Turkey and Syria.
If Perry had been the nominee in 2012, it’s hard to see what states he loses that Romney won; the worst that happens is that he ends up more or less with the same electoral results as Romney and possibly a worse popular vote margin. But how the race’s dynamics unfold? That’s unknowable. On the upside, we’re finally done with Romney, and can have a Romney-less contested primary for the first time since 2000.
Perry has an outstanding record and resume, but my sense is that he’s best off playing Goldwater to the next nominee’s Reagan rather than trying to run again himself. There’s plenty of younger talent ready to go, and he’d have an uphill battle to unmake his first impression.

Silver Linings in the Fiscal Cliff Deal

I will not try to convince any conservative that the final fiscal cliff deal that passed the Senate with only a few dissenting votes and needed Democratic votes to pass the House with a divided GOP caucus is a good deal, nor that it is the best deal available under the circumstances. It is, however, important to remember that this was a deal negotiated under just about the worst possible conditions: the president freshly re-elected, the largest tax hike in American history set to trigger automatically in the absence of a deal, the GOP leadership divided among itself and estranged from its grassroots/activist base, which itself was divided on how best to proceed. Republicans have illustrated dramatically why poker is not a team sport.
For all of that, there is some good news here for Republicans and conservatives if we know how to use it.
What’s In The Deal?
If you spent the holidays like a normal person and are just catching up, you can find useful explainers on the contents of the deal here, here, here, and here. The short summary:
The tax deals mostly bring a permanent settlement (subject, of course, to new legislative action) to a variety of previously temporary tax policies:
-The 2001 and 2003 Bush tax cuts to income, capital gains and dividend taxes will be made permanent for income up to $400,000 ($450,000 for married joint filers), but will be allowed to expire for income above those levels. Taxes will go up on many small business owners as a result.
-A similar half-a-loaf extension is being done for the estate tax, with the rate rising on estates above $5 million.
-The Alternative Minimum Tax will be indexed permanently to inflation, reducing the number of taxpayers hit with it and ending the annual debate over fixing it.
-The temporary payroll tax cut will be allowed to expire.
-5-year extensions are given to the Child Tax Credit and EITC as well as the college tax credit known as the American Opportunity Tax Credit, all of which can involve tax “credits” that are actually payments to people who pay no income taxes.
-Some exemptions and deductions will be phased out for incomes above $250,000 ($300,000 for joint filers).
-A variety of mischief was included or extended in the corporate tax code.
The good news is that the Bush Tax Cuts are now permanent for some 98% of all taxpayers; the bad news is the 1-2 punch of the expiration of the payroll tax cut and of the top-rate cuts. Even the left-wing Tax Policy Center admits that the net result of all this is higher taxes in 2013 for 77.1% of taxpayers, due in large part to the expiration of the payroll tax cut:

More than 80 percent of households with incomes between $50,000 and $200,000 would pay higher taxes. Among the households facing higher taxes, the average increase would be $1,635, the policy center said….The top 1 percent of taxpayers, or those with incomes over $506,210, would pay an average of $73,633 more in taxes….The top 0.1 percent of taxpayers, those with incomes over about $2.7 million, would pay an average of $443,910 more, reducing their after-tax incomes by 8.4 percent. They would pay 26 percent of the additional taxes imposed by the legislation.
Among households with incomes between $500,000 and $1 million, taxes would go up by an average of $14,812.

That’s increased new federal taxes; it doesn’t take into account the numerous new Obamacare-related federal tax hikes already hitting in 2013 (including big hikes on the same people getting socked in this deal) let alone Democratic efforts to ‘soak the rich’ with state tax hikes in some states. And the tax changes are most of the deal. Matthew Boyle:

According to the Congressional Budget Office, the last-minute fiscal cliff deal reached by congressional leaders and President Barack Obama cuts only $15 billion in spending while increasing tax revenues by $620 billion – a 41:1 ratio of tax increases to spending cuts.

That’s $62 billion a year, when you decode the CBO/JCT math, as unreliable as that is. RB has a chart illustrating exactly how little a dent that makes in the deficit.
On the spending side, little was definitively resolved, although conservatives are rightly concerned that yet another crisis came and went with no real action on spending and entitlements. New spending was authorized for unemployment insurance to be extended yet again, raising the question of whether Democrats think there is any limit to such insurance or any reason to believe the economy under Obama will ever produce a significant number of new jobs. Most of the rest of the automatic cuts in the sequester were put off for two months; the Medicare “doc fix” put off cuts for one year. Nothing was done to Social Security. No agreement was reached to extend the debt ceiling, which looms as the next crisis as early as February and Obama still pledging to refuse to negotiate.
Around The Web
Let’s round up some reactions from around the web and then I’ll offer my own thoughts.
From the Right
Ben Domenech (subscription):

Well, this looks like an insult to fig leaves everywhere….For all the talk of solving deficit problems, grand entitlement bargains, and steps toward dealing with out of control spending, Republicans and Democrats came together in the past 48 hours to endorse a solution which was about as small as it could possibly be. On the spending side, it trades the endorsement of higher taxes for every working American by Republicans for essentially nothing, with the promise of more nothing in the future.

Ben Howe: “I’m hoping that these last few years of constantly debating temporary tax rates will forever close the door on the use of such a negotiating tactic.”
Ramesh Ponnuru:

Democrats have made one major miscalculation. The pro-deal Democrats think that they have set a precedent for getting Republicans to agree to future tax increases — that Grover Norquist’s pledge is dead. This is a fantasy. This tax increase happened only because a bigger one was scheduled to take place. Republicans are not going to vote affirmatively to raise taxes, especially after taxes just rose. The deal makes future tax increases less likely, not more.

Ross Douthat:

[L]iberals have a real reason to be discouraged by the White House’s willingness – and, more importantly, many Senate Democrats’ apparent eagerness – to compromise on tax increases for the near-rich…if I were them I’d be more worried about the longer term, and what it signals about their party’s willingness and ability to raise tax rates for anyone who isn’t super-rich….Is a Democratic Party that shies away from raising taxes on the $250,000-a-year earner (or the $399,999-a-year earner, for that matter) in 2013 – when those increases are happeningly automatically! – really going to find it easier to raise taxes on families making $110,000 in 2017 or 2021? Color me skeptical: The lesson of these negotiations seems to be that Democrats are still skittish about anything that ever-so-remotely resembles a middle class tax increase, let alone the much larger tax increases (which would eventually have to hit people making well below $100,000 as well) that their philosophy of government ultimately demands.

Jim Geraghty:

Maybe the expiration of the payroll tax cut really will amount to a significant economic hit in 2013 [quoting uniquitous liberal economist Mark Zandi]…Perhaps this – along with the rest of the fiscal cliff-hanger – will be a useful lesson about “temporary” tax changes. Congress usually enacts them to provide a spark to the economy, and intends to end them once the economy is in better shape. But the economy is rarely in such great health that taxes can be raised without some sort of deleterious impact; as we may experience, taxes jump back up before there’s a robust recovery and the hikes cause the economy to sputter again. (In this light, the permanency of the Bush tax cuts for those making less than $450,000 per year may be one of the most significant economic reforms in the recent era.)
Either way, as no less an Obama-friendly entity than The New Yorker has declared, President Obama has now raised taxes on all working Americans.

Yuval Levin:

For liberals, this was not a moment of danger to be minimized but by far their best opportunity in a generation for increasing tax rates (which is the only fiscal reform they seem to want) and for robbing Republicans of future leverage for spending and entitlement reforms. And it is likely the best one they will encounter for another generation…some liberals believed [extending most of the rate cuts] could be overcome through much expanded caps on deductions…which would both raise more revenue and make Republican-style tax reform (a broader base with lower rates) much more difficult later. And they believed that the Republicans’ opposition to tax increases would also give Democrats an opportunity to score some other points, like forcing Republicans to sign on to Obamacare-style counterproductive provider cuts in Medicare, so that Republicans couldn’t criticize those anymore.
The White House at first tried to do all of that. They wanted about $1.6 trillion in revenue…They wanted [Medicare] provider cuts …to blunt Republican criticism of Obamacare and to make real (if incremental) structural reform far more difficult. And they wanted control of the debt ceiling, so Republicans would never have that leverage again…
But that hasn’t happened here. This deal is projected to yield $620 billion in revenue over a decade – increasing projected federal revenue by about 1.7 percent over that time. And that’s about it…They did not get to pick and throw away the low-hanging fruit that could be used in future rate-reducing tax reform (in fact, they retained some “extenders” of tax credits and deductions that could better enable such reform, and the new and more honest CBO baseline that results from this deal eases the way for it), they did not get to claim that they have reformed Medicare without touching its structure, and they now have to move immediately into a debt ceiling fight. Right after a tax-only deal, and just as people start to notice higher payroll taxes, they’re not in a great position to demand more rate increases in that fight, or others to come.

From the Left
Greg Sargent:

By any measure, the fiscal deal that finally passed the House yesterday should have been something House Republicans could have enthusiastically supported. After all, as Jonathan Weisman put it, the bill ‘locks in virtually all of the Bush-era tax cuts, exempts almost all estates from taxation, and enshrines the former president’s credo that dividends and capital gains should be taxed equally and gently.”
…The story is being widely reported today as proof the GOP finally broke from decades of anti-tax orthodoxy. And that’s true, at least in the sense that Senate Republicans overwhelmingly supported the final deal. But the more important point is that a majority of House Republicans didn’t break from it – despite the action of their Senate counterparts – signaling that literally any kind of compromise with them may simply be impossible.

Henry Blodget:

To listen to all the moaning out of the House of Representatives yesterday, you could be forgiven for thinking that the Republicans are losing the fiscal battle in Washington.
Actually, they’re winning.
…Ever since the Bush Tax Cuts were first enacted in 2001–temporarily, as a stimulus measure–one goal of the Republican party has been to “make the Bush Tax Cuts permanent.”
For most of the last decade, this goal has seemed like an extremist view: Making the Bush Tax Cuts permanent would drastically reduce the federal government’s revenue. It would also increase inequality and balloon the national debt and deficit–so how could we possibly justify doing that?
And yet now, suddenly, almost all of the Bush Tax Cuts are permanent….when it comes to the broader fiscal battle, the Republicans are winning: The federal government’s tax revenues are at the lowest level as a percent of GDP in the past several decades.
The Republicans, in other words, are well on their way to starving the beast.

Kevin Drum: ” my real preference was for a deal that would have allowed the Bush tax cuts to expire completely…there’s not much question we’re going to need more revenue” to pay for health care entitlements.
The Path Forward
Conservatives these days tend to be gloomy about the road ahead, partly due to lack of faith in the GOP’s leadership and establishment and partly due to lack of faith in the electorate. But this is no time to throw in the towel. There is good news here, too, as a number of those quoted above on both sides have noted, and we should not hesitate to celebrate it.
First, the nonsense idea of “temporary” tax policy has hopefully had a fatal stake driven through it: both parties had lauded their ability to deliver temporary tax relief in the past, and must now swallow voter anger that those tax cuts were allowed to expire. One of the golden rules of Washington is that bad policies rarely end until both parties have suffered a downside from them. The only reason for tax policy to be “temporary” in the first place is to game the broken system of budget scoring.
Second, the Democrats have truly conceded far more ground on taxes than the Republicans. The ATR no-tax-hikes pledge was bent and mutilated badly, but not completely broken, given that Republicans accepted the expiry of temporary cuts and did so only after exhausting numerous efforts to save them. But Democrats who spent a decade blaming deficits, the housing crisis, and weeds in your lawn on the Bush Tax Cuts have now delivered the votes to make nearly all of them permanent – something that was unthinkable any time during Bush’s presidency and even as recently as 2010.
Third, the table is set for Republicans in 2014 and especially 2016 to seize anew the initiative on taxes: on broad-based reforms that simplify the code, make it more pro-family, and cut taxes for everyone (possibly even slashing or abolishing the payroll tax) – variations on a platform that worked in 1980 and 2000 and can work again. After four years of bobbing and weaving, Obama now has signed off on raising taxes on nearly everyone, and that is sure to play into the GOP’s natural strengths.
Fourth, the table is also stacked against the Democrats demanding new tax hikes in the next spending battle. Maybe Boehner and McConnell won’t bring much back home in spending cuts – I never really believed that Obama would ever sign off on significant spending cuts or entitlement reform, and I still don’t – but there really is no case at all to be made for returning so soon to the well of tax hikes.
Fifth, the tone is set for Obama’s second term, and while it is hardly a great tone for Republicans, it also signals that Obama will need to either keep his ambitions small, stop demanding Republicans vote for deal-beakers, or start offering them something real in exchange if he wants to get anything accomplished. It’s unlikely that he will be negotiating from as strong a position again.
Sixth, it will now be much harder for Obama to avoid ownership of the economy, having embraced most of the centerpiece of Bush’s economic agenda while adding his own personal stamp. He’s socked new taxes on investors, on small business owners, and on ordinary working people. Nobody forced him to do any of these things. Politically, that’s a double-edged sword (Republicans have a lot of governors up for re-election in 2013 and 2014 who could be innocent bystanders if their states get blindsided by bad federal tax policy), but it is rarely good news for the party in power in the sixth year of a president’s term.
The temporary-tax-cut trap had stuck Beltway Republicans in an uncomfortable morass that was, to a large extent, one of their own devising. They did not emerge unscathed, but at least they have put it behind them, and that creates a lot more flexibility going forward – an important consideration in a party that is largely united on policy but deeply divided on strategy. That’s an opportunity, and no amount of gloom should cause us to lose sight of that.

CBO Projection Fail

Jim Pethokoukis offers a wonderful example of CBO 10-year projection failure: in 2002, the CBO projected that debt would be 7.4% of GDP by 2012. The actual figure: closer to 74%.
Did a lot of unexpected things happen between 2002 and 2012? Of course they did. They always do. This is precisely why you should never regard 10-year budget forecasts as “facts.” It’s why I apply what I call Crank’s First Law: government budget and financial forecasts are always, always wrong.

Gun Control, Gun Rights, Gun Politics and Newtown: Part I of II

The school shooting atrocity in Newtown, Connecticut has, predictably, touched off another round of the perennial gun-control debate. Especially for parents of young children (my youngest is the same age as most of the victims), the horror of the shootings is almost beyond description, and tends to make rational discussion impossible. And also unseemly, as Jonah Goldberg has explained. More to the point, this is one of those issues where the public demands foolproof solutions that remain elusive: we keep saying “never again” after mass shootings, terrorist attacks, and all sorts of other manmade and supposedly preventable disasters, but there’s never a perfect answer that guarantees that any such thing will never happen again (this is, for example, why anti-terrorism policies are best focused on terrorist organizations rather than lone nuts). We can only and always base public policy proposals on what will reasonably improve the situation without imposing costs we can’t live with.
The reality of no perfect or costless solutions lends both a hysterical quality to the gun debate as well as a one-sided burden of proof. Gun control advocates suggest a goal (the complete non-existence of firearms) that is not politically, legally or practically possible, and argue that opponents of any gun control measure show how their alternative would be 100% effective by comparison to a gun control utopia that doesn’t and never will exist. In a more rational, realistic debate, you would compare the actual proposed gun controls to a world without those proposals – and in that rational world, the first question for gun control advocates after Newtown is why gun control in Connecticut didn’t work after the Brady Campaign hailed the state’s tough gun laws as a model of public safety. Gun control – complete with an “assault weapons ban,” waiting periods, background checks, “gun free school zone” laws and the rest – was already tried in Connecticut, and it failed to make a difference. If Newtown means anything in the gun debate, it’s that gun control doesn’t work.
The trenches are long-since dug on both sides; if you can find clips of Archie Bunker discussing an issue on YouTube, chances are that we have already had a “national conversation” about that issue. Of course, changing the culture can be at least as important as changing the law, so it is certainly helpful to look again at how we handle things like responsible gun ownership and mental illness (besides the shooter himself, his mother bears responsibility for having firearms under the same roof with such a mentally unbalanced young man). If there’s one valuable service the NRA could provide in this debate – and Wayne LaPierre’s ham-handed press conference failed to provide – it is stepping up the cultural battle to engage responsible gun owners outside of government.
But both advocates and opponents of gun control tend to fall too easily into knee-jerk slogans that go too far. It is no less true for being a truism, for example, that guns don’t kill people, people kill people, and that we don’t get nearly as many calls for controlling, say, knives or baseball bats when they are misused. But it is also true that guns are the most efficient, portable, and cost-effective killing tools we have: that’s exactly why they remain the weapon of choice for soldiers, cops, criminals, and hunters all over the world (and why the right to own a gun matters). There’s a strong case that good people with guns can be a more effective answer to armed criminals than gun control; gun control advocates are almost invariably willfully blind to the value of this. But that doesn’t mean that proposals to arm everyone, everywhere are a good idea with no costs or a perfect, foolproof solution. It does no good for defenders of gun rights to overstate their arguments, any more than it helps proponents of gun control to ignore the costs and limitations of gun control or to react with incredulity to the idea that the Constitution means what it says. Frankly, if your approach to the Second Amendment is to laugh and ignore it, I’m not going to trust you to take the rest of the Bill of Rights seriously either.
I am probably a lot less pro-gun, and a lot less interested in guns, than most conservatives; I’ve never owned, fired or even held a gun, and personally I could be perfectly happy keeping it that way. I’d be personally content to live in a world with no guns at all. And I’m open to supporting reasonable gun regulations where there is reason to believe they will have more than just symbolic effects. But I also respect practical reality, the Constitution, and the rights of other people to freedoms that aren’t personally important to me. A few thoughts and observations on guns, Newtown and the way forward:

Continue reading Gun Control, Gun Rights, Gun Politics and Newtown: Part I of II

Republicans: Don’t Get Outbid On Taxes
Unlike some of my RedState colleagues, for reasons I explained on Tuesday, I agree with the basic theory behind John Boehner’s Plan B solution to the tax side of the fiscal cliff standoff: rather than trading Republican blessings on tax hikes for illusory “spending cuts,” let Democrats get the tax hikes they want with no pretense that Republicans support them, pass a bill making permanent those tax cuts both sides can agree on, and take the dispute back to the voters in 2014 and 2016. Then we can have the straight-up spending debate, and hold the line on further demands for even more tax hikes beyond the ones that Obama can get simply by not making a deal.
But Boehner has made what I regard as one significant mistake in this fight: he’s letting the Democrats get to his right on middle class tax cuts. Democrats are complaining that Plan B doesn’t extend some of the tax cuts for middle and lower income taxpayers, such as the “temporary” payroll tax cut, the Alternative Minimum Tax fix and the “American Opportunity Tax Credit” for certain college expenses (you can see the White House’s talking points, driven off yet another study by the left-wing Tax Policy Center, here and here). Some of this is disingenuous, as Democrats characterize the end of temporary government spending on non-taxpayers (including some aspects of the child tax credit and Earned Income Tax Credit) as “tax hikes.” But there are also some legitimate increases in taxes actually paid, mainly the expiration of the payroll tax cut, that will go into effect in the new year if Plan B is the only thing that passes. In other words, Democrats really are pressing for some tax cuts that Republicans are not.
This should never, ever happen to any competent Republican. It’s precisely how Obama outflanked Romney on the tax issue during the summer, and you would think the election results should have taught GOP leadership not to repeat that mistake. If anything, Republicans should up the ante: make the payroll tax cut permanent, and dare Democrats to block it. Any time Republicans get a Democrat to concede the value of tax cuts, that’s a conservative victory and should be taken to the bank while the getting is good. (As to the particulars of tax credits, Republicans uncomfortable with the structure can always devise an alternative of equal size). Make the Democrats be the ones to argue that Obama’s own payroll tax cut is unsustainable or unworkable. As things stand right now, workers – including members of the “47%” who pay no federal income taxes – are enjoying the benefits of being able to spend the money they earn instead of having it taken by the federal government. They are seeing in action the most important conservative fiscal policy argument of all. Republicans should never be the ones standing against that.
I believe it was Conn Carroll who remarked after the election that Ronald Reagan would have looked at 47% of the country paying no federal income tax and called it “a good start.” That philosophy animated Republicans under Reagan’s and George W. Bush’s presidencies and under Newt Gingrich’s Speakership: cut taxes for as many people as possible at every possible opportunity. While GOP tax cuts in those eras often benefitted the wealthy who paid the most taxes in the first place, they frequently offered proportionally equal or greater benefit to taxpayers at every income level. That’s why the party’s tax-cutting brand helped it appeal to middle class and non-wealthy suburban voters. The Romney campaign never understood the importance of never letting Democrats pose as being to the Republicans’ right on taxes, and as a result let Romney and the party get painted as too narrow in its economic appeal. If he wants the GOP to stop being the Stupid Party, Boehner should learn the lesson of Romney’s defeat, and amend Plan B to include, extend or expand every tax cut the Democrats claim to be willing to support. And Republican tax policy going forward should make that a line as stringently defended as the ATR no-tax-hikes pledge.

A Different Shade of Tea

Josh Kraushaar on how the Tea Party has made the Republican Party more diverse.
As of January, Hawaii will have at least one Asian-American Senator, Mazie Hirono, and had two (Daniel Inouye and Daniel Akaka) – all Democrats – before Akaka’s retirement at the end of this term and Inouye’s death yesterday. Governor Neil Abercrombie, a white Democrat, will appoint a replacement to serve until a 2014 special election. And of course, President Obama is a Hawaiian-born African-American. But in the 147 Senate seats and Governorships covering the other 49 states, there are:
Five Hispanics (Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Bob Menendez, Susanna Martinez, and Brian Sandoval): four Republicans, one Democrat.
Two African-Americans (Tim Scott and Deval Patrick): one Republican, one Democrat.
Two South Asians (Bobby Jindal and Nikki Haley): both Republicans.
Moreover, Jindal, Haley, Scott, Rubio, and Cruz – Republicans all – all represent states of the old Confederacy (Scott defeated Strom Thurmond’s son to win a primary in the district that includes Fort Sumter).
If personnel is policy, the GOP can thank Tea Party insurgents for helping give it a leg up in broadening its appeal.

Republicans Must Retreat, Not Surrender, on the Fiscal Cliff

Speaker of the House John Boehner, R-Ohio, talks about the elections and the unfinished business of Congress, at the Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2012. The first post-election test of wills could start next week when Congress returns from its election recess to deal with unfinished business — including a looming “fiscal cliff” of $400 billion in higher taxes and $100 billion in automatic cuts in military and domestic spending to take effect in January if Congress doesn’t head them off. Economists warn that the combination could plunge the nation back into a recession. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

It’s time for John Boehner and the House and Senate Republicans now engaged in the fiscal cliff negotiations to learn a lesson from George Washington: when faced with fighting a losing battle, the wisest course is to retreat rather than surrender.

Washington’s Retreats

George Washington didn’t get to be the Father of His Country by leading his often outnumbered and outgunned troops on suicide missions. Washington fought few pitched battles in the Revolutionary War, usually unsuccessfully (as at Long Island, Brandywine and Germantown). His signal successes involved surprise attacks (at Trenton) or trapping or cornering his foes without a full-scale open-field engagement (at Boston and Yorktown). Facing numerically superior forces, Washington often preferred to retreat to save his army from disaster, even after successful smaller engagements like the fight at Harlem Heights. Often in 1776 and 1777, as his army unsuccessfully sought to defend New York and Philadelphia from the steadily building British army, Washington would have his troops disengage and slip away in the dark, even at the cost of eventually having both cities captured by the enemy. For much of the war, Washington would resist Congressional entreaties to launch more ambitious offensives (such as an impractical invasion of Quebec), and at times would hastily abandon positions (like at Stony Point) that his men captured but could not defend.

Washington’s evasiveness – and his army’s endurance of hard marches in the snow at Trenton in the winter of 1776 and winter quarters in the bitter cold at Valley Forge in the winter of 1777 – enabled him to keep his forces together until they were strong enough to fight the British to a standstill at Monmouth and until the reinforcement of allied troops from France arrived. Washington’s subordinate Nathaniel Greene conducted a similar campaign in the South, harassing Cornwallis while losing most of his battles (as Greene wrote, “[w]e fight, get beat, rise and fight again”) but remaining on the run, avoiding a decisive engagement until Washington and the French could trap Cornwallis at Yorktown in September 1781.

Washington’s approach didn’t just help his army avoid annihilation or capture until it could grow stronger and obtain outside help. It also staved off an ever-threatened collapse in morale, as Washington’s men avoided more of the kind of disastrous routs that would lead to more desertions and fewer recruits. In time, it bonded Washington to his men, who grew to trust his judgment. Of perhaps particular interest to Boehner and McConnell, it also helped Washington avoid being replaced from his command by an antsy Congress. And in the end, it brought him victory.

Washington’s Surrender

The one thing Washington never did in the Revolution was surrender. Only once, at the outset of his military career, did he do that, and it ended in disaster for all involved. In 1754, Washington – then a Colonel in the Virginia militia under the command of the British royal governor – was sent to scout the frontier in what is now Western Pennsylvania, with orders that authorized him to fight anyone obstructing British settlements in the area. Finding the French in possession of a partially constructed British fort, Washington and his Iroquois allies launched an attack (begun under circumstances that are murky to this day) that ended up with the French commander, Joseph Coulon de Villiers de Jumonville, being killed and scalped by the overzealous Iroquois leader, Tanaghrisson, possibly while attempting to negotiate a cease-fire. (“Overzealous” may be putting it mildly – Tanaghrisson split Jumonville’s head open and washed his hands in his brains. Boehner’s and McConnell’s issues controlling their caucus seem mild by comparison.)

The French in the area, under the command of Jumonville’s brother Louis Coulon de Villiers, launched a counterattack along with their own Native American allies, cornering Washington (now abandoned by the Iroquois) at Fort Necessity. Villiers threatened to storm the fort and let the Native Americans scalp Washington and his entire garrison, but since the two countries were not at war, he offered Washington safe passage with his men back to Virginia if he surrendered. The deal also included a prisoner exchange at the conclusion of Washington’s withdrawal from the area. Badly outnumbered, with rain soaking his ammunition and his men breaking into the fort’s liquor supplies, Washington capitulated – and signed terms written in French by a vindictive Villiers that would haunt him:

All Washington had to do was sign the terms of capitulation.
Washington, due to a mistranslation, thought he was confirming that his men killed Jumonville, or so he insisted the rest of his life. The actual French word, “l’assassinate,” was more loaded, meaning murder rather than just kill. To make things worse, the document also mentioned that Jumonville had been on a mission to deliver a communication from the French government to the British government; in other words, a diplomatic mission. Washington might have learned this earlier, had Jumonville’s letter been fully translated before Tanaghrisson acted, and been able to restrain the Indians. Tanaghrisson, who seems to have understood French, probably realized this.

Washington, duped, blamed his translator, Jacob Van Braam, and never spoke to him again. Neither side ended up honoring the remaining terms of an agreement negotiated in bad faith under duress. The succeeding controversy touched off the global war known in the U.S. as the French and Indian War, with dire results for all sides. For Washington, it meant being sent back to confront the French along with a British expeditionary force led by General Braddock. Braddock sought decisive battle and got it, with his expedition ending in a rout that killed its commander and required Washington to shepherd the remaining forces home safely. For the French, the war itself resulted in the loss of all their North American possessions. For the British, Braddock’s defeat convinced the colonials that they could handle battle as well as the British regulars, a discovery that would help trigger the American Revolution 21 years after the surrender at Fort Necessity (a revolution that itself would help contribute to the fiscal crisis that collapsed the French monarchy).

Today’s Field of Battle

The Legislative Terrain

The “fiscal cliff” negotiations, which by design were set for right after the presidential election, have been built around the legislative Doomsday Device constructed by the two parties in 2011 and having its roots all the way back to George W. Bush passing tax cuts in 2001 and 2003 that would expire in 2010 unless extended. The “cliff” refers to a bunch of things that will happen automatically without legislative action – signed by the President – to prevent them:

This cliff is composed of several parts.
1. The [temporary] payroll tax reduction passed in 2010 will end.
2. The temporary tax rates passed under President Bush will lapse.
3. Obamacare’s taxes will come due.
4. The Alternative Minimum Tax will expand to many more taxpayers.
5. Extended unemployment benefits will expire.
6. Some $78 billion in federal spending will be sequestered.
7. Medicare “doc fix” will expire.

By choosing to fight right after the election, Republicans took the risk that Obama would win and negotiate from what is likely to be the high point of his second term popularity. Each side holds hostages: Obama holds the extension of the tax cuts, especially the cuts for the top tax rates, which Republicans want; Republicans hold the extension of the debt limit. On the tax side, Democrats (in a sharp reversal from their position during the Bush years) profess to want to make the Bush tax cuts permanent below a certain income threshold, and have previously passed a bill in the Senate to do so. Obama’s hostages among the top rates include the capital gains rate, which is of particular importance to the economy:

The Senate-passed bill to extend Bush tax cuts for income under $250,000 ($200,000 for a single filer) applies to both the 2001 and 2003 Bush tax cuts, and thus also allows tax rates on capital gains and dividends over $250,000 to return to 20 percent. It would also reinstate separate tax provisions cutting the amount by which high earners can benefit from the personal exemption and itemized deductions.

On the spending side, the sequester cuts include dangerous cuts to defense spending, which Republicans want to avoid and which Obama professed to not want during the election campaign, and a variety of social-program spending the Democrats want to preserve. Items that could potentially be included in a deal range from entitlement cuts to eliminating deductions in the tax code. Different economists project various sorts of doom from “going over the cliff” or for pretty much any other possible solution; your mileage may vary as to how seriously to take these.

The Political Terrain

Republicans and Obama both have immediate political stumbling blocks and goals aside from their long-term policy interests. For Republicans, the top of that list is the Americans for Tax Reform no-tax-hikes pledge, which most have taken. Grover Norquist, the head of ATR, doesn’t wield all that much power by himself, but House and Senate Republicans who have taken the pledge can be in a very bad place with their own constituents (think: “read my lips, no new taxes”) if they break it without a really compelling reason to do so. No GOP-controlled House since the institution of the income tax has ever raised rates. But they also have one possible escape hatch: it’s not a real violation of the pledge for tax hikes to happen automatically without a vote, especially if Republicans have gone repeatedly on record trying to extend them.

Obama’s goal is twofold and related. First, he wants to break Republicans, and divide the party to it’s less able to resist him in his second term. And second, he wants to get the core of his economic agenda – the top-rate tax hikes and “Buffett Rule” tax hikes on investments – passed with GOP support so that he can spread the blame for the consequences. Obama may be slow to learn this lesson, but he understands that the game theory calculus from the 2009 stimulus – that the only safe place for Republicans is to wash their hands of his agenda – requires him to find a way to keep Republicans out of that place. Bipartisan cover is particularly important to Senate Democrats up for re-election in 2014 in Louisiana, Arkansas, West Virginia, South Dakota, and Montana (all states Obama lost twice), as well as states like North Carolina, Virginia, and New Hampshire. Like Villiers at Fort Necessity, Obama wants Republican signatures on a deal that can be used against them.

But that’s if there’s an agreement. If there is none, the political reality is that the media is prepared to blame the GOP for any failure to reach an agreement, pretty much no matter the course of negotiations, and in the immediate honeymoon period following Obama’s re-election, this will probably work. Democrats have internalized this argument, saying the GOP is checkmated. This has emboldened Obama. Treasury Secretary Geithner declared that the Administration would go over the cliff unless a deal included hikes on taxpayers above $250,000. Press Secretary Jay Carney insisted, as Obama had said repeatedly during the campaign, that Social Security would not be on the table. Dick Durbin says the White House told him the Medicare eligibility age is not on the table. And on the debt limit:

President Obama is saying flatly that he will not negotiate under any circumstances over raising the national debt limit….the President says he won’t negotiate under any circumstances. And his top advisors say he’s adamant on the point – not just because of the current impasse but to take hostage taking over the national debt off the table for good.

This is all consistent with Obama’s traditional approach of offering nothing of value to Republicans to get bipartisan deals done. As usual, Obama is attempting – even without control of the House of Representatives – to proceed on what I’ve described before as the annihilation strategy of winning legislative victories.

Learning To Retreat

Nervous Hill Republicans have taken all this as a sign that they must accept a deal, any deal, and that Obama has them over a barrel, even if it means trading tax hikes for the illusion of spending cuts. But that is the wrong approach. The GOP can always retreat – but it must be to more defensible ground.
As I have written before at length, you win battles in politics by picking fights you are willing to lose. As streiff’s analogy to Keyser Soze makes clear, that includes showing a willingness to stand back and let Obama shoot his hostages. But it doesn’t mean the GOP is holding a strong position, either. Some hardliners think “no surrender” means we have the leverage to win all kinds of concessions, and Phil Klein explains why this is madness, and specifically why just walking away completely could leave Republicans in a much worse position come January:

[Consider] the effect on [the GOP’s] low-tax brand from letting everyone’s taxes go up on Jan. 1. At that point, Obama can go on television and demand a $3.7 trillion tax cut for 98 percent of Americans. What happens to the brand if Republicans oppose a tax cut for the middle class because it doesn’t also lower rates on those with the highest incomes?

What happens when Harry Reid holds a vote on a bill that lowers rates on the middle class? Will Republican senators vote against it? If so, their challengers can run ads attacking them for voting against a massive middle-class tax cut. What does that do to the brand? And when, in all likelihood, such a bill passes with near-unanimous support in the Senate, what does it do to the House GOP’s low-tax brand if their members resist, bottle up or vote against the same tax cut?

The time for Republicans to win the tax debate was during the 2012 election. They lost. That doesn’t mean they need to give away the store, but it does mean that they’ll have to make some accommodation for reality.

Even Jim DeMint has argued that it’s more or less inevitable that Obama will get a tax hike, whether Republicans agree to it or not.

I highly recommend reading both Klein’s and streiff’s essays in their entirety, as they frame the two possible approaches to walking away from a deal, along with Drew M’s “Let it Burn” argument. Klein says the GOP should just pass an extension of the Bush tax cuts for everyone below $250,000, dare Obama and Harry Reid to oppose them, and leave town; streiff argues that Republicans should just let the whole cliff go into effect, tax hikes and all, because the cliff includes cuts the GOP couldn’t get at the bargaining table; Drew argues that voters simply need to see the consequences of electing Obama. I think Klein has the better argument, the one that places Republicans in the position George Washington would have appreciated: having retreated to more defensible terrain where they can use their leverage over the remaining hostage (the debt limit) to ransom the defense cuts and perhaps get some additional modest concessions, while making clear that it was the Democrats alone who chose to raise taxes. It now appears that Boehner is pushing a “Plan B” that could do something like that – making the Bush tax cuts permanent for everyone below $1 million.

Of course, a retreat does not mean the end of the fight. And while Republicans do not have great leverage, they still have an advantage that gets undercovered by the media: the Democratic camp itself is divided on what it can and can’t swallow. For example, Obama may be willing to accept letting the payroll tax cut expire, a move that is deeply unpopular with base groups like MoveOn.Org. Senate Democrats are also divided over “Chained CPI,” a method of restraining the growth of Social Security benefits. But the George Washington approach – engage, retreat, maneuver, and make the Democrats show their cards – is a better way to tease out those divisions than either a suicidal last stand or an abject surrender.

Why You Can’t Trade Taxes For Spending

Should Republicans trade tax hikes for spending cuts? Much of the debate over the current fiscal cliff standoff centers around discussions of “ratios”: Republicans will agree to X dollars of tax hikes, Democrats will agree to Y dollars of spending cuts, and so forth.
Much of this discussion is based on numbers that are misleading or worse, because Washington doesn’t calculate taxes and spending the same way. A tax hike will raise real, immediate costs on real taxpayers, whether or not it actually raises any more revenue. The targets of a tax hike are citizens, who do not have a choice whether to obey. By contrast, a “spending cut” may simply involve altering future projections of the rate of increase of spending, and thus agreements to cut spending rarely actually result in less spending. And the targets of such spending cuts are future Congresses, who can disregard them at will; they’re not binding.
The only real equivalents to tax hikes are (1) complete elimination of federal spending programs or (2) changes in the eligibility criteria or benefits formulas for entitlement programs. There are fair arguments about the best GOP strategy in managing the tax debate, but if a negotiated agreement is to be reached that will require Republican votes to pass, Republicans should not even consider agreeing to trade tax hikes in exchange for anything less.

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Sometimes, It Really Is Different This Time – A Polling Post-Mortem (Part III of III)

This is the third and final part of my three-part polling post-mortem. Part I here looks at the national and state polls, and Part II at the likely voter screens and the electorate.
V. Polls vs. Non-Poll Tools
One of my premises in reviewing projections of turnout was that other items of information besides the polls were worth reviewing. Many of these same indicators favoring Romney in 2012 had forecast the rise of Obama in 2008. Why did so many of them prove useless or misleading?
The Bush era saw a modern-historic rise in the partisan component of the electorate, i.e., the percentage of votes that were either Democrats voting Democrat or Republicans voting Republican – and while the partisan component has become more Democratic, the trend has not significantly abated under Obama:
As long as that remains the case, knowing the partisan composition of the electorate remains critical. Yet non-poll data on the topic proved elusive. The data point I stressed that failed most spectacularly was the Rasmussen and Gallup surveys of party ID. I don’t regret looking at those; they had a proven track record in the past of being right, and I like looking at data that has a proven track record in the past of being right. Rasmussen’s surveys had been right in presidential and non-presidential election years, in years before and during/after the rise of Obama, and had never before overstated GOP turnout. And the Rasmussen survey in particular is based on an enormous sample of something like 15,000 interviews a month. But both proved to be way off the mark: Gallup had the electorate at R+1, Rasmussen’s final survey R+6. Despite their record of accuracy before 2012, I will almost certainly put no stock in those surveys again. It really was different this time.
On the other hand, I still stand by my scorn for TPM’s party ID survey average; it was useless slop that failed once again. It got 2010 wrong, and 2012 too: even if you adjust the numbers upward proportionally from the 90.7% of the population it purported to survey, it projects a D+8 electorate of D 36/R 28/I 36, when the exits told us it was D 38/R 32/I 30. The survey assumed significantly more independent voters than Republican voters, but Republicans outnumbered independents at the polls, just as they have every year since 1980.
That said, as in 2008 and unlike in the off-year electorate of 2010, Republicans were at a recent-historically low share of the vote relative to independents, suggesting that their turnout problem was not solely one of high Democratic turnout – this chart computes the GOP share of (Republicans+Independents), and the Democratic share of (Democrats+Independents), so as to avoid letting one party’s turnout cloud estimates of the other’s:
No two ways about it: there were not enough Republicans at the polls. The question for the GOP going forward is how to bring the people who stayed home or left the party back into the fold and the voting booth.
Then there’s voter registrations; I relied on a bunch of studies showing that Democrats were registering new voters at a slower rate than 2008 and suffering a net decline in voter registration in key battleground states, while Republican registrations were up slightly and independent registrations were up dramatically. This hard data told the same story as the national party ID surveys and the voter enthusiasm self-reporting. While Democrats said they could just turn out the voters they’d registered in 2008, I was skeptical on two grounds: voters age 22-25 were likely to have moved since 2008, and voters age 18-21 could not have been registered then.
I may have overrated these problems. It would seem that OFA’s digital outreach must have kept a handle on transient recent college grads. And we have yet to see final voter-registration figures; while 2008 featured yearlong registration drives, it’s still possible that the Obama campaign just registered a whole lot of people in October and/or the day they voted. I’ll be very surprised if we do not see, in the data that comes out after the fact, a surge in last-minute registrations.
There was also early voting and absentee ballot data; I didn’t have systematic data, but lots and lots of the individual hard-data points, especially from Colorado and Ohio, showed that early voting and absentee ballot requests were up in Republican areas or among registered Republicans, and down with Democrats, at least compared to 2008. Many of these data points came from official state records; they were not just the usual vaporous campaign emissions about how many doors they knocked on. Yet again, all this data turned out to be misleading. For example, the Colorado Secretary of State at one point was showing an R+2 electorate in the state after 62% of the state had voted early. Coming from official records, that seemed to me a non-crazy reason to think the electorate would be pretty good for the GOP, given that early voting is more of a Democratic strength in most states. Exit polls showed the Colorado electorate ended up D+4.
Relatedly, one of the realities the GOP has to come to grips with is the extent to which early voting has changed both the process of turning out voters and the process of polling even as compared to a decade ago – early voting makes it easier to turn out less-motivated voters, but also harder to use traditional tools to figure out who will turn out. Many of the polls in October hugely oversampled early voters (you’d get samples that were around 40% early voters when about 20% of the state, according to official records, had voted early) – but of course, with voter turnout overall below 60% of the voting-age population, you probably do need to oversample people who you now know are 100% certain to vote, if your sample is going to reflect final turnout. I suspect that at least in some states, the polls taking a turn towards Obama at the end reflected, not a change in public opinion, but a change in the poll samples as more of Obama’s early vote got locked in. That suggests that past patterns in how the polls moved at the end of a race in the days before early voting may be a poor guide to how they will move in years to come.
Another indicator I factored in, from within the polls, was polls of self-reported voter enthusiasm. Many, many polls reported GOP voters more enthusiastic about voting. Such polls have been indicative of an “enthusiasm gap” borne out on Election Day in the past, including in 2010; they were not this time. Ditto the less scientific indicator of the large, enthusiastic crowds Romney and Ryan drew on the trail. By contrast, one thing I didn’t put a ton of stock in, small-dollar donations, favored Obama, and in retrospect it was probably a sign of the effectiveness of his digital outreach (the much-mocked three-a-day fundraising emails), and a proxy for real base enthusiasm just as it had been for Bush in 2004. Romney never really did particularly well with small donors.
I also failed to consider that Dick Morris predicted a Romney win, which should have set the probability of a Romney win to zero all by itself.
All of which does make me wonder whether, despite my longstanding philosophy of wanting to use external sources as a sanity check on the polls, there are any left we can trust. If relative or in some cases absolute advantages in voter registration, early voting, absentee balloting, party identification, and self-reported voter enthusiasm are not worth anything, we may be stuck trusting the pollsters’ hunches – and may be blindsided the next time they are wrong.
VI. Presidential vs. Off Year Polling
Many of us quite reasonably thought that 2010 proved the GOP had recovered from its 2006 and 2008 wipeouts, and that we should expect an electorate in 2012 that looked at least as much like 2010 as like 2008; at a minimum, a midway point between the two, which would be D+3.5. After all, 2010 was the more recent sample, and both parties had contested it vigorously. But one of the real emerging lessons of 2012 is that we are in an age where turnout in mid-term elections is genuinely not predictive of the electorate that will show up in a presidential election, and vice versa. As with many things in the Age of Obama, it remains to be seen if this effect will persist after Obama is gone – but it is clearly with us now, and suggests both that (1) Democrats on the ballot in 2014 should not count on the 2012 electorate showing up and (2) even a strongly Republican-tilted electorate in 2014, if one resurfaces, will not tell us much about the 2016 electorate. Right now, I would not want to be Mark Warner facing the electorate that voted in Bob McDonnell by 19 points, or Ron Johnson facing the electorate that re-upped Obama by 7.
This chart shows each party’s swing between the off year elections and the prior and subsequent general election:
As you can see, Republican turnout in the era from 1984 to 2000 was extremely steady every two years, in both general and off-year elections, around 35% of the vote. Democrats would go up and down relative to independents, but the GOP share was a constant. But since 2000, that has fluctuated much more wildly, with high GOP turnout in the 2002, 2004 and 2010 elections and low turnout in 2006, 2008 and 2012. That volatility is even higher than the volatility of the Democrats. What it suggests is, more or less, that there are a lot more casual Democratic voters than casual Republican voters – the GOP’s determined base turns out rain or shine every two years except in a real washout like 2006, but the extra people who come out only every four years are (at present) composed more heavily of Democrats. That’s terrible news if you’re a Democratic candidate for Senator or Governor in 2014 (even aside from the usual carnage that attends a president’s sixth-year elections), but it’s also frightening news for Republicans considering the long-term strength of the party.
VII. Models vs. Averages
My criticism, and that of other informed skeptics on the Right, of Nate Silver’s 538 model was on three grounds. First, most of the major controversies in this election cycle centered around how much faith to place in the state polling averages, a debate for now largely resolved in favor of the state polling averages. Since the 538 model runs on those averages, it successfully called the election – but so did the averages themselves, without the assistance of the model.
Second, the model has been oversold. This really has nothing to do with the model itself, and everything to do with making people understand that it was only as good as its inputs. That criticism still stands: as noted in Part II, the polls had to make some very unscientific adjustments to keep up with the electorate this year, and there are significant reasons to question their ability to do so in the future. If the pollsters’ “hunches” are wrong next time, the model contains no mechanism to avoid failing just as it has failed in virtually every past instance where the state polls were wrong. If you view the 538 model as a way of aggregating imperfect inputs – like the RCP average, but with some additional bells and whistles – you can get value from it as an informed consumer. If you view it as an infallible Oracle to be obeyed, you are likely to sooner or later be disappointed.
Third, the most questionable part of the model is its projections of the likelihood of how late-deciding voters will break, which by definition is the part not anchored to the polls. (You can read Nate Silver’s breakdown of past incumbent-challenger races here, and while as he notes it suffers from the usual small-sample-size problems of any presidential poll analysis, you can also see that the challenger has traditionally tended to gain more ground than the incumbent as compared to his standing in the October polls). This is an area where others in this field have done more work than I have, so I won’t repeat the controversies, but one of my prior concerns was Ted Frank’s point that the 538 model was placing heavy emphasis on the 2000 election in projecting that voters were less likely to break against an incumbent party when the Democrats are in office than the Republicans. Ted’s point was that Bush’s DUI story was an unusual end-of-race event not likely to recur here (I had a good deal of confidence that Mitt Romney had never been busted for DUI). But we did, yet again, have an end-of-the-race late-October surprise, in the form of Hurricane Sandy, and we did, yet again, have voters break towards Obama right at the end. Unless you place a lot of value on the ability of the media to spin a late-breaking story in the Democrats’ favor, however (not a factor in Bush’s case, since the story was self-explanatory), it’s hard to see how you build a credible mathematical model that assumes this sort of thing will happen with regularity.
The model’s usefulness in presidential polling is also not necessarily translatable to other races, especially in off-years when the electorate is not as predictable. There was no running 538 forecast this year, at all, for the Democrats’ chances of re-taking the House (which they did not). In 2010, the 538 forecast in August 2010 gave Republicans only around a 60 percent chance of taking the House, and still had Democrats with about a 20% chance of holding their House majority as late as Election Day – a much higher chance than the model gave Romney of winning this year. But of course, the Democrats got shellacked in a landslide, far worse by historic House standards than Romney’s loss by historic presidential standards.
As to the parts of the 538 model that go beyond just plugging in the state poll averages, I continue to take Bill James’ view of expert and expertise:

“[G]etting the answers right” had almost nothing to do with the success of my career. My reputation is based entirely on finding the right questions to ask – that is, in finding questions that have objective answers, but to which no one happens to know what the objective answer is…When I do that, it makes almost no difference whether I get the answer right, or whether I get it a little bit wrong. Of course I do my very best to get the answers right, out of pride and caution, but it doesn’t actually matter.
Because if I don’t get the answer right, somebody else will. It is called “science.”
…[T]he scientific method has been the greatest ally of my career. Basically, what I know about the scientific method would fit onto a bumper sticker, and, that being the case, I might as well read you the bumper sticker. We design tests to see whether an assertion is compatible or incompatible with the evidence. When you do that, someone else will always figure out some way to do another test, and a better test. When that happens, it is my responsibility to acknowledge that the other person’s research is better than mine or is an advancement from mine. What is necessary to the advancement of knowledge, then, is humility – the capacity to recognize that other people have accomplished something that I have not been able to accomplish. That, then, is the bumper sticker: what is necessary to the advancement of knowledge is humility.
When you go to an expert and you say that, “I don’t think that what you are saying is true,” that will be perceived as arrogance. Who are you to challenge the experts? But it is not arrogance, at all; it is grounded in the understanding that we are all floating in a vast sea of ignorance, and that much of what we all believe to be true will later be shown to be nonsense. To recognize this is not arrogance; it is humility.
When I was in Elementary School in the early 1960s, our principal was fond of telling us that, when he was a young man just after World War One, he took a college chemistry class, in which the professor told the students that they were studying science at the ideal time, because all of the important discoveries had been made now. Everything that there was to be known about chemistry or biology or physics, he suggested, was pretty much known now.

I add to that my own prior view of experts:

[T]he expert who learns that the recitation of jargon and the appeal to authority effectively exempts him from moral or social scrutiny has made the most dangerous discovery known to man: the ability to get away with virtually anything. Because if people will let you talk your way into money and influence with good science on the grounds that they do not understand it or have no right to obstruct it, what is to stop the expert from using bad science from accomplishing the same end, if they layman isn’t equipped to tell the difference between the two?

We have not arrived now at the End of History or the End of Science. The polling controversies of past election cycles forced pollsters and poll analysts to learn important lessons. The polling controversies of this election cycle have, in my view, done the same. I wish my conclusions had carried the day this time, but I make no apology for challenging assumptions that were being treated as Holy Writ by liberals merely because, on this occasion, those assumptions proved correct. That’s what I often do in my day job as a lawyer, in which I often encounter two contending experts with irreconcilable conclusions: probe their competing assumptions to expose what each side’s conclusions assume to be true. There will always be a role for a Socrates, asking well-compensated analysts and pundits to explain themselves and put their assumptions on the line to be judged. The day we stop asking those questions is the day we let the “experts” know they can get away with anything just by hanging some numbers on it.
VII. Conclusions
For the reasons explained in Part II, the old model of what kind of voter represents the swinging center of the electorate didn’t work in 2012 – in fact, the center wasn’t the decisive factor at all, but rather the huge margins in one corner of the electorate matched against a party that saw falling turnout among its natural base. Here in a single chart is the winning candidate’s share of the two-party vote among five groups traditionally thought of as swing voters since 1972 – independents, suburbanites, voters age 30 and up, white women, white Catholics:
Mitt Romney’s coalition among these five groups would have been the foundation of a clear national majority throughout the political era that ran from Harry Truman to George W. Bush, and the polling practices that grew up in that era would have captured that majority’s formation. Pollsters have had to unlearn a lot of what they knew about polling in order to stay ahead of those changes in the electorate, and poll analysis does as well. The harder question will be how we can tell, other than after the fact, if the pollsters’ guesses don’t capture future shifts. Merely appealing to the idea that the majority of pollsters will always be right is an unsatisfying answer, especially given the follow-the-herd tendencies in the industry.
So the state poll averages were right, and really nothing that contradicted their narrative was. Does all of this mean that the state poll averages, and the models that run on them, will always be right in the future? Of course not. Anybody who has followed gambling prognosticators or stock pickers knows that winning streaks of couple of cycles do not always equal omniscience, even when backed by facially impressive-looking math. Unquestioning faith in mathematical models still has not been adequately called to account for its role in the 2008 financial crisis, for example. (On the other hand, climate models can only dream of the predictive success record of the state poll averages). Just because somebody gives you a prediction with numbers on it and is right a few times in a row doesn’t mean they always will be. If you look at this as a science, you have to recognize that we don’t have nearly enough data from presidential elections to constitute a meaningful sample size. And the fact that the poll averages were right because the pollsters changed the way they poll – in a world of ongoing technological and demographic change, and via methods that are themselves far from scientific – leaves us with a lot of uncertainties about whether they will make the right guesses again next time. Tom Jensen’s next “hunch” could be wrong. There might be elections in the future in which polls using likely voter screens are more accurate than polls that all but abandon the project. Skeptical examination of the assumptions behind the polls’ turnout forecasts will not go away, and should not go away.
But all that said, we’re conservatives; we learn from experience, and even when the process is questionable, results talk. The case for trusting state poll averages over all other indicators, at least in the stretch run of presidential elections, has been strengthened a good deal by a third consecutive cycle of those averages calling the result right in 48 or 49 states out of 50. The case for treating other indicators as predictive of turnout has been weakened and in some specific cases pretty badly discredited. And while I remain a little less firmly convinced of the value added by modeling of how undecided voters will break at the end – over and above the value of the poll averages themselves – the 538 model had a good election in that regard.
A final word. While I’ve been following elections for a long time, I really cut my teeth reading polls in the 2002 and 2004 elections. I recall well from those races seeing a lot of polls that were registered-voter polls or polls with D-heavy samples very favorable to Democrats, yet the end results were much more favorable to Republicans. In the presidential elections of 2000, 2004 and even 2008 (before the financial crisis), we repeatedly saw the polls shift towards the GOP when we got past Labor Day and most pollsters started using likely voter screens. I learned a lot from that experience, some of which is clearly still true, and some not.
But I also saw a lot about human nature that is eternally true. A lot of Republican pundits and poll-readers looked like geniuses in that period by projecting Republican wins in a lot of the competitive races. The lesson, then as now, is that it is easy to look smart when your own side is winning all the close ones. It doesn’t make you a bad or dishonest advocate for your side if you are better at predicting your side’s victories than its losses. But it means you are still one side’s advocate – and while I work hard to call things as I see them (I genuinely believed every word I wrote in this race), I make no bones about being an advocate.
But you have not really made it as a neutral arbiter of presidential polling – let alone a scientific one – until you have given both sides news they desperately do not want to hear. We will know Nate Silver has really made it as a presidential pollster when people on his own ideological side are screaming in terror at his conclusions, and not before.

Sometimes, It Really Is Different This Time – A Polling Post-Mortem (Part II of III)

The second part of my 3-part post-mortem on the polls and the 2012 election. See yesterday’s Part I here.
IV. Likely vs. Registered Voters
A. Pay No Attention To The Man Behind The Screen
Near the heart of every major polling controversy this year was the issue of sampling and likely-voter screens. Polls traditionally report results among either “all adults” (whether or not registered to vote), “registered voters,” or “likely voters.” Historically, there’s a well-recognized pattern: all-adults and registered-voter polls have tended to skew a couple of points in favor of the Democrats, and in the past this has usually been to the detriment of the accuracy of the polls. The pattern was especially pronounced this year; Bob Krumm noted before the election that Obama’s strength in national polls was directly correlated with how lenient the poll’s likely-voter screen was, and Nate Silver found the same effect in August, concluding:

It’s all a bit of a mess, frankly. I suspect that part of the problem is that polling firms are applying likely voter methods that might have been designed 30 years ago to a modern polling universe of extremely low response rates (even the most thorough polling firms can only get about 10 percent of voters to return their calls), cellphone-only households, and an increasingly diverse and partisan electorate – and that is producing erratic and unpredictable results. There’s always some uncertainty about just who will turn out to vote, but there is more of it than usual this year.

He also noted at the same time that Obama’s support was strongest among those poll screens considered least likely to vote.
Those screens have worked in the past; if they didn’t, the poll averages would have been useless a long time ago. This is why one of the regular rules of thumb in reading polls is that if a campaign is citing polls of registered rather than likely voters, especially late in the campaign, it’s doomed. Yet that’s exactly what Obama supporters were doing in the closing weeks, and more or less what Jim Messina was saying even after the election was over. For once, the registered-voter numbers were more accurate than the polls that put rigorous effort into likely-voter screening. The question is whether the pollsters actually had a good reason to do this, or whether they just got awfully lucky.
Part of what is supposed to make polling valuable is pollsters’ ability to judge which voters are likely to show up to vote. They get to the likely-voter number by first, constructing a sample of registered voters, and second, applying a series of screening questions to determine which of those voters is likely to vote. That’s what Messina was talking about in his argument that “traditional polling” was “broken” – the Obama campaign’s theory throughout the election was that pollsters using the kinds of likely voter screens that have worked in the past (like Gallup and Rasmussen) would be wrong this time. The lesson we learned, at least this year, is that Messina was right and the traditional, professional pollsters were wrong – and that the nature of Obama’s coalition made the application of likely voter screens particularly likely to affect the accuracy of the polls.
But determining which voters are likely to vote is the part of polling that is most inherently subjective and least scientific. Moreover, pollsters are often not very forthcoming about how they make these determinations, so sometimes when they release a poll, the best you can do is compare the number of registered and likely voters in the sample. As a result, a certain amount of deductive work is required to figure out why some polls give different results from others. There’s only so much we can know from the outside, but it appears that pollsters like Gallup and Rasmussen were, for much of the cycle, using likely-voter screens that made traditional assumptions about who would make the effort to vote – and those assumptions just didn’t hold this year, as illustrated by Gallup’s final poll envisioning an electorate that was 78% white (the exits said 72%). By contrast, a number of the polls that were later vindicated were reporting results that defied all historical precedents, classifying as many as 99% of registered voters as likely voters. Their process seemed problematic precisely because it was so different from the things that made polls trustworthy in the past, but they got results.
One of the pollsters that projected a Democrat-friendly electorate and ended up getting high marks in the post-election rankings of final polls was PPP, a Democratic pollster employed by SEIU and Daily Kos, among other clients whose identities are not known. PPP’s overall accuracy throughout election cycles is a longer story, but they did end up having a good record at the very end. Here’s Tom Jensen, the principal of PPP, discussing how his firm determines who is likely to vote:

Jensen conceded that the secret to PPP’s success was what boiled down to a well informed but still not entirely empirical hunch. “We just projected that African-American, Hispanic, and young voter turnout would be as high in 2012 as it was in 2008, and we weighted our polls accordingly,” he explained. “When you look at polls that succeeded and those that failed that was the difference.” Given the methodological challenges currently confronting pollsters, those hunches are only going to prove more important. “The art part of polling, as opposed to the science part,” Jensen said, “is becoming a bigger and bigger part of the equation in having accurate polls.”

In other words, the successful pollsters this cycle were doing exactly the same thing the poll skeptics were doing: making a more-or-less informed guess as to what the electorate would look like and weighting their results to match that. As Neil Stevens notes:

I don’t remember anyone willing to say PPP was actively rigging the polls to reach chosen results, but there it is in black and white. Jensen decided in advance what he wanted the electorate to look like, and so tweaked the numbers until he got what he wanted. This isn’t a whole lot different from what Research 2000 admitted to doing, folks.
In science, it’s not just that you got the answer you wanted. It’s the process that matters.

Research 2000, as you may recall, was PPP’s predecessor as DailyKos pollster, but had to be canned for more or less manipulating its data to get to results it wanted; Kos eventually sued them for fraud, which was settled out of court. Here’s what Nate Silver had to say about R2k at the time:

[I]n practice, a pollster will usually have enough knobs to twist between likely voter screens, weighting and sampling assumptions, etc., that they could back into almost any result they wanted more often than not. But there would usually be some scientific pretense for it.

In fact, Jensen’s hunches changed over the course of the race. Sean Davis calculated the demographic composition of PPP’s Florida polls over the course of the race, yielding the following percentages of white voters:

4/17: 71%…6/5: 70%…7/3: 69%…9/12: 70%…9/23: 69%…10/14: 66%……10/28: 64%…11/5: 66%

From April until September 23, PPP assumed an average white vote of 69.8%. From October 14 through November 5, PPP assumed an average white vote of 65%. What changed? Who knows?
It’s entirely possible, of course, that Jensen has some other source of information he’s not disclosing here, but taking him at his word, the “poll averages are science!” crowd should have just a little more humility about exactly what it is that they are placing their unquestioning faith in – Jensen believed that this year’s electorate would favor the candidate he favored, and he was right, but right in roughly the same way pundits are right when they say their side will win. Nuclear physics, this is not.
Once Jensen set his targets, he abandoned the likely-voter screening that has worked in the past – while firms that clung to it got burned:

How PPP got it right while others, including polling titans Gallup and Rasmussen, got it so wrong goes back to a difference in method for how the firms identify likely voters and how long they conduct a poll.
Rasmussen, for example, conducts most of its polls in one night – a problem, Jensen said, because many of the voters who typically lean Democratic (including African-Americans, Latinos and young voters) are more difficult to reach in a single night. Meanwhile, Gallup uses a complicated screen with numerous questions to determine which voters are likely to turn up at the polls.
Like Rasmussen, PPP uses robocalling to conduct its polls. But its screen is much simpler than either of the other polling firms.
“We have a very simple likely voter screen,” Jensen said, “‘If you don’t plan to vote in this fall’s election, hang up now.’
“What we find is that if you’re someone who’s not willing to take the time to answer a telephone poll, you probably aren’t going to vote. But if you are willing to take the time to answer a telephone poll, you probably are going to vote. So it’s a much less-complicated voter screen than somebody like Gallup or Rasmussen has, but I think that it’s a better barometer of the electorate.”

It also means the likely voter screen – like Jensen’s hunches – is completely opaque to the consumer of the poll. All you see is the opinions of the people Jensen decides should be polled, and who agree to talk to him.
Jensen’s not the only one in his industry who describes a process that is less and less hard-science:

Even pollsters themselves conceded that the combination of demographic and technological changes had made their supposed science more inexact than ever. “We’re in sort of what I would call polling’s dark age,” Jay Leve, who runs the polling firm Survey USA, told me earlier this fall. “We’re coming out of a period of time where everyone agreed about the right way to conduct research, and we’re entering into a time where no one can agree what the right way to conduct research is.”

Jason Zengerle draws the obvious conclusion:

[Nate Silver’s] appeal, of course, is that he’s scientific. And last night, his science worked because the polls themselves worked. But as polls become more art than science, Silver’s approach could become more tenuous. The good thing about pollsters – at least the good ones – is that they’re constantly reassessing and tweaking their approaches. That’s the bad thing, too, at least when it comes to having any certainty that about how they’ll perform in the future.

B. Why The Screen Mattered So Much This Time
Why did these differences in projecting the electorate matter? In an ordinary election, they would not: ordinary winning presidential candidates have a broad enough base of support that you can see it coming pretty clearly without needing the right “hunch.” But Obama was not an ordinary winning presidential candidate. The racially polarized electorate of the Obama era means that every slight shift in demographics can have an outsized effect on outcomes.
Let’s look at what the exit polls tell us. 81% of the electorate was voters age 30 and up; Romney won those by 2 points, 50-48. Drilling into the state-by-state exit polls, here’s a map of what the election would have looked like just among voters age 30 and up – losses with young voters cost Romney six states worth 95 electoral votes, more than enough to flip the election:
Historically, that is game-set-match; the last candidate to win the national popular vote while losing voters age 30 and up was Jimmy Carter in 1976:
Another 11% of the electorate was white voters under 30; Romney won those too, by 7 points, 51-44. These were Paul Ryan’s “faded Obama posters” voters – they swung 17 points from Obama winning them by 10 in 2008. Obama’s pop culture cache with young white voters had worn off by 2012 in the face of his record. That’s 92% of the electorate accounted for, and Romney up 50-48 and with a decisive lead in electoral votes. In other words, the 8% of the electorate consisting of non-white voters too young to have voted in the Bush v. Gore race in 2000 accounted for the entirety of Obama’s national margin of victory.
The “gender gap” was similarly a feature of race and racial turnout patterns. Romney won white women, who made up 38% of the electorate, by 14 points, 56-42; this was the biggest margin of victory among white women since Reagan in 1984. Obama in 2008 was the first winning candidate since Carter in 1976 to lose white women, but Carter lost them by 6, Obama last time by 7. Yet, Romney lost women overall by 11, 55-44. Why? He lost non-white women 85-15, including Hispanic women 76-23 and black women 96-3. Among non-white voters, Obama again maximized the group most favorable to him: black and Hispanic women were 14% of the electorate, compared to 10% black and Hispanic men, both of which Romney lost by less severely lopsided margins (Obama won black men 87-11 and Hispanic men 65-33). In other words, the black and Hispanic segment of the electorate was something on the order of 58% female; black voters were over 60% female. Romney had no similar redoubt of lockstep support – exit polls showed that even among Mormon voters, he didn’t crack 80%. So polls measuring turnout had to match two highly asymmetric campaigns, one winning majority groups with support in the 50s and 60s, the other winning much smaller groups by enormous margins.
You can slice the exit polls a few different ways and see similar results along racial lines (without reference to age or gender). Nate Cohn notes that black turnout in general was key to winning Ohio, as black voters were 15% of the electorate there, up from 11% in 2008. If you look solely at white and black voters and leave out Obama’s margins with Hispanic, Asian, and Native American voters, Romney wins five states he lost – Florida, Colorado, Nevada, Pennsylvania (very narrowly) and New Mexico – enough to swing the race:
Of course, white and black voters together are only 53% of the vote in New Mexico. Neither a campaign nor a poll analysis can safely ignore such segments of the electorate. But my point is that, because Obama’s margin of victory (both nationally and in the critical swing states) was entirely the result of his outsized margins with very narrow but homogenous segments of the electorate, the accuracy of polls was highly sensitive to the relative size of this segment in turnout compared to other voters.
Yet, voters under 30 in particular have rarely been a reliable source of voter turnout; for years and years, it has almost invariably been the case that a campaign losing with the rest of the electorate but placing its entire faith on high turnout from young voters was a losing campaign. Even Obama in 2008 didn’t do that: he won voters over 30, independents, and young white voters handily. His coalition was broader then, before he had a record.
It is true that Carter set a precedent in 1976 for appealing to the under-30 voters. But thanks to the Baby Boomers, the oldest of which were just hitting 30 at the time, voters under 30 were 32% of the electorate in 1976; today, thanks to shrinking birthrates and a graying population, they are just 19% and demographically likely to decline even further:
The last year in which under-30 voters were 20% of the electorate was 1992, not coincidentally the last election less than 20 years after Roe v. Wade. Take away 50 million abortions, and the demographics of the electorate look quite different in a race where the winning candidate will end up around 62 million votes. But while young voters are less numerous and traditionally a below-average turnout group, Obama for the second straight election cycle managed to increase them as a share of the electorate, closing in on their share of the population (Census data from 2000, 2004, 2008 and 2010 show 18-29 year olds as a steady 22% of the voting-age population; by contrast, with the Boomers graying, 30-44 year olds dropped in that time from 31% to 26% of the population, while 45-64 year olds rose from 30% to 35%). Here’s the major age groups’ turnout relative to their share of the general voting-age population:
And while the smallness of the age breakdowns among black and Hispanic voters creates rounding-error issues that make the math a little fuzzy, this chart illustrates rather vividly that the proportion of young voters among non-white voters as a whole was much, much larger than the proportion of young voters among white voters:
Voters under 30 made up somewhere north of a third of all Latino voters, compared to less than 15% of all white voters. Partly that, too, is demographics; the median age of Hispanics is 27 compared to 42 for white non-Hispanics. But it’s also the case that OFA maximized the showing of the few loyal groups that provided its entire margin of victory. Rasmussen came to a similar conclusion in evaluating why his polls were off:

A preliminary review indicates that one reason for this is that we underestimated the minority share of the electorate. In 2008, 26% of voters were non-white. We expected that to remain relatively constant. However, in 2012, 28% of voters were non-white. That was exactly the share projected by the Obama campaign. It is not clear at the moment whether minority turnout increased nationally, white turnout decreased, or if it was a combination of both. The increase in minority turnout has a significant impact on the final projections since Romney won nearly 60% of white votes while Obama won an even larger share of the minority vote.
Another factor may be related to the generation gap. It is interesting to note that the share of seniors who showed up to vote was down slightly from 2008 while the number of young voters was up slightly. Pre-election data suggested that voters over 65 were more enthusiastic about voting than they had been four years earlier so the decline bears further examination.

As Rasmussen notes, the demographic shift from 2008 could be higher non-white turnout, or lower white turnout (or both). Sean Trende has estimated that white voter turnout was down in absolute terms and in particular in proportion to white Americans’ share of the voting-age population:

Had the same number of white voters cast ballots in 2012 as did in 2008, the 2012 electorate would have been about 74 percent white, 12 percent black, and 9 percent Latino (the same result occurs if you build in expectations for population growth among all these groups). In other words, the reason this electorate looked so different from the 2008 electorate is almost entirely attributable to white voters staying home. The other groups increased their vote, but by less than we would have expected simply from population growth.
Put another way: The increased share of the minority vote as a percent of the total vote is not the result of a large increase in minorities in the numerator, it is a function of many fewer whites in the denominator.

The 74% would be in line with Rasmussen’s assumptions, which were more reasonable than Gallup’s projection of a 78% white electorate. Byron York has more on the collapse of white voter turnout in Ohio by about 200,000 voters, which led to Romney getting fewer total votes there than John McCain in 2008.
The actual proportions in the voting-age population depend on how you read the Census data and break it out to exclude the non-voting-age. The Census showed non-Hispanic whites as 63.7% of the overall population (of all age groups) in 2010, compared to 69.7% in 2000, dropping to 63.4% in the 2011 Census estimate. Looking at Pew Hispanic Center data, the nation’s 215 million eligible voters are 72% white, 13% black, 11% Hispanic and 4% Asian; the electorate was 72% white, 13% black, 10% Hispanic and 3% Asian, which when you do the math means that 59% of eligible black voters voted, 58% of white voters, 53% of Hispanic voters and 41% of eligible Asian voters. In other words: high black voter turnout, especially by historic standards; low Hispanic and Asian turnout but rising by historic standards and in particular rising relative to the rest of the electorate:
Geographically, this map shows the distribution of states, with the higher percentages of non-Hispanic whites in darker blue:
Leaving race and age aside, other aspects of the exit polling, like the pre-election national polls and the internals of pre-election state polls, mostly present a picture of an incumbent president doomed to defeat in any ordinary political environment in recent memory. As noted, Romney won independents by 5 points; the last candidate to lose independents by more than 2 points and win the presidency or the popular vote was, again, Carter in 1976, who lost independents by 11 points but took advantage of a depressed, decimated and divided Republican base in the aftermath of Watergate and Reagan’s primary challenge to Ford. With the economy the number one issue throughout the election, voters told exit pollsters they trusted Romney more than Obama, albeit narrowly, 49-48. 77% of exit poll respondents said the economy was in not so good or poor shape, and Romney won those voters by 22 points, 60-38. 59% of the voters cited the economy as the top issue; Romney won them 51-47, plus winning 66-32 among the 15% of voters who cited the budget deficit. And this exit poll question was perhaps the most dramatic of all:
In basically any American election before 2012, I would tell you with great confidence that a candidate, much less an incumbent, is toast if he (1) loses independents; (2) loses voters age 30 and up; (3) loses white women by double digits; (4) loses white voters under 30; (5) is less trusted than his opponent on the economy when 59% of voters cited the economy as the dominant issue in the election; and (6) loses voters who prioritized leadership, strong values or a vision for the future. That has never before been the electoral profile of a winning candidate. As I said before the election, if it that changed, we need to rethink everything we know about elections.
We do – at least, for now, when Obama’s on the ballot. The OFA theory of the electorate was that “really, it’s different this time” – that neither the economic doldrums nor any other factor would dampen the historic levels of enthusiasm for Obama among non-white voters under 30. And as it turned out, OFA was right: they turned out in numbers totally out of step with their historic turnout patterns relative to their share of the voting-age population, and delivered the entirety of Obama’s national margin of victory.
Viewing this, to some extent, I feel like a guy who shorted the NASDAQ in 1998, reasoning that the tech bubble couldn’t last forever, and ended up getting mocked by the guys who watched all their “new economy” stocks rise without an end in sight. History teaches us that those guys, of course, eventually lost their shirts – but they were awfully proud of their “this time, it’s different” reasoning for quite a while. Time will tell if the believers in the new Democratic turnout model go the same way.
If it does, how will we know? Will polls run by partisan Democrats like Tom Jensen readjust their hunches? Or will we have to look outside the polls? I will look at these questions tomorrow in Part III.

Sometimes, It Really Is Different This Time – A Polling Post-Mortem (Part I of III)

As promised, a mea culpa on my pre-election poll analysis: why I was wrong, why the state poll averages were right – and why I’d say most of the same things if I had to do it over. I suppose I have lost a good deal of credibility with a number of people by making the kind of out-on-a-limb prediction I don’t usually make, and being wrong. But my assumptions have always been out in the open. Let’s examine why they led to the wrong answer, and which of those assumptions should be re-evaluated in the future.
I. More Evidence Is Better Than Less
Discussions of polling often lend themselves to more heat than light. A lot of the post-election poll commentary is even dumber than the pre-election poll commentary, as victorious liberals spin a narrative that conservatives were all “poll deniers” or “poll truthers” ignoring the polls. Now, it’s true that there were more than a few people on the Right who made intelligent discussion of the polls harder rather than easier. It’s also true that some of the efforts at “unskewing” the polls were unhelpfully ham-handed; in this pre-election essay I explained why Dean Chambers’ was more alchemy than science. Chambers was projecting a strong Romney lead in the polls back in September, when neither I nor almost anybody I knew believed that Romney was actually ahead. My mantra on Twitter in August and September, like that of many conservatives I respect, was simply that it was a close race, that Obama had problems with independent voters and hadn’t closed the deal yet, and that there was still time for Romney to catch up to him. While a lot of Romney’s problems were baked-in by mid-summer, I don’t think that was an unreasonable view to take at the time; as it turned out, there would be twists in the race throughout October. But those of us who attempted to take the polls seriously, and drew conclusions from the polling evidence itself as well as external evidence, were not denying anything; we were just looking under the hood.
A. Believe The Polls, But Don’t Believe Only The Polls
Let me start by restating my philosophy of polling, and indeed my philosophy of examining most any question. Polls are not reality. They are a tool for measuring reality. They are traditionally the best single tool, and polling averages make them a better tool by evening out the outliers. But they are not perfect tools: public polls have called the outcome of races wrong before, or been off on the margins of victory by a significant amount. There are reasons why campaigns spend a lot of money on their own polls, which – other than for purposes like push-polling or testing messages – they would not do if an average of public polls was as flawless a guide to the electorate as a thermometer. If you think public poll averages are an infallible predictor, then the uniform practice of actual campaigns is totally irrational. Indeed, listen to Jim Messina, the nuts-and-bolts guru of the Obama campaign, on his view of public polling:

Every night, Obama’s analytics team would run the campaign 66,000 times on a computer simulation. “And every morning we would come in and spend our money based on those simulations,” said Messina.
Their models ultimately predicted Florida results within 0.2%, and 0.4% in Ohio. The only state they got wrong, noted Messina, was Colorado, “where we got one more point than we thought we would.”
The Obama campaign was able to do that, he said, because they turned away from mainstream polling from shops like Gallup, which he called “wrong the entire election,” in their prediction that fewer minorities and fewer young people would turn out to vote.
“We spent a whole bunch of time figuring out that American polling is broken,” said Messina. “We never did a national poll. We only did local and state polls.”

Is Messina a “poll truther” or “poll denier” for saying that “American polling is broken” or rejecting “traditional” polls? Was he wasting Obama’s money by running his own state and local polls instead of just reading 538? Or is he reflecting the fact that public polls involve a certain amount of guesswork about voter turnout that can only be definitively tested each new election cycle by the final vote tallies?
The most recent set of publicly available polls are also not the only tool for measuring reality. There are all sorts of metrics – some more hard and quantifiable than others – that have traditionally been useful in assessing the state of play: voter-registration numbers, early voting data and absentee ballot data, trendlines in the polls, what the pollsters themselves are reporting about voter enthusiasm, and hazier indicators like small-dollar donations and the size of crowds on the campaign trail. It’s hardly anti-empirical to examine these additional facts, and allow them to affect your conclusions. The people who correctly predicted that Harry Reid would hang on to beat Sharron Angle when the final polls said otherwise were looking at this kind of information. If all you did was read the RCP average or 538, you would have missed that.
None of these are reasons to disregard the polls; they should still be the primary item of evidence. But neither does it make sense to treat them with blind reverence and ignore all the external evidence – especially when (1) different sets of polls are in conflict with each other and (2) the internal breakdowns of the polls, which can act as a sanity check on the plausibility of the polls’ assumptions, are telling you that the polls in question are predicting something that is historically unlikely to happen.
To go back to one more example from baseball analysis (sabermetrics), this is sort of like the “statheads vs scouts” debate: whether you can better project a player’s future accomplishments by looking at his statistics or by listening to experts analyze his “tools.” I’m in the stathead camp: I believe strongly in quantifiable data, and I place it at the center of just about any baseball analysis I do. In fact, I probably err more often than not on overemphasizing the numbers. But as Bill James, the father of sabermetrics, has often said, sabermetrics (or any other field of hard science, soft science or would-be science) is not the search for statistics, it’s the search for truth, and in searching for the truth, you don’t blind yourself to some of the available evidence simply because it doesn’t fit in a column of your model. Most statheads today will tell you that no matter how good your statistical measurements and how highly you prioritize them, you can learn things from also listening to the scouts that you might not learn anywhere else. The scouts can’t tell you a guy with a terrible stat line is actually a major star – but in a close case, their view can make the difference.
B. Regrets, I Have A Few
If I had it to do over, maybe I’d be less definitive in pronouncing Obama “toast,” but for the most part I’d look at the same evidence, see the same things and draw the same conclusions I drew at the time. I do, however, have two main regrets.
First, which is an unfortunate side effect of doing punditry as a part-time unpaid hobby rather than a full time job, is that I should probably have spent more time breaking down the internals of all the battleground-state polls to see exactly how geographically consistent the national trends were: I had seen those trends confirmed in Ohio and a couple of the other key battleground states, and didn’t do the deep, time-consuming dive into the internals of every single battleground state. As it turned out, Romney did very well with independent voters in a number of the battleground states, but critically underachieved with them in others and lost those states. Romney beat Obama with independents by 5 points or more in Ohio (+10), Virginia (+10), North Carolina (+15), Nevada (+8), and Pennsylvania (+5). In more lightly-contested states, he won them in Missouri (+26), Indiana (+11), New Mexico (+8) and Arizona (+6). But in two other battleground states, his margin with independents was narrow: Colorado (+4), and Michigan (+1). And he actually lost independents in Iowa (-14), New Hampshire (-7), Florida (-3), Wisconsin (-1), and Minnesota (-4). (It says something about Romney that his biggest failure with independent voters, especially in states with lily-white electorates that didn’t present the demographic challenges apparent elsewhere, came in the places where the voters had been exposed at length to his scorched-earth 2008 and 2012 primary campaigns). In non-battleground states where exit polls were taken, independents mostly trended pro-Romney in red states – Alabama (+52), Mississippi (+34), Montana (+7) – and pro-Obama in blue states – California (-12), New York (-4), Illinois (-5), Vermont (-40), Maine (-28), Maryland (-12), Massachusetts (-7), Oregon (-7), Washington (-3), Connecticut (-3). In just two totally non-competitive states did independents buck the state’s partisan tilt: Romney won independents in New Jersey (+1), and Obama tied him in Kansas. If Romney had won all the states where he carried independents, he would have won, but not in all the states I thought he would win:
I might have caught some of this with more time to commit to each state, although in some cases, that weakness came out only in the very late polls. Or not; for example, PPP had Romney up by 2 with independents in New Hampshire on October 28, and up by 7 with independents in Florida the same day.
Second, and far more importantly, I didn’t do enough to re-evaluate my conclusion after declaring it on Twitter on October 19 and laying it out in detail on October 26, eleven days before Election Day – and that week turned out to be Romney’s high water-mark in the national and state polls. Nationally, Romney led in the RCP average all but two days between October 9 and October 31, and Obama was below 48% in the average every day from October 8 to November 5. In four key states, Romney had seized the lead in the RCP average: in Colorado, he led from October 9-29; in New Hampshire, he led from October 19-21; in Virginia, from October 19 to November 2; in Florida, from October 8 to the end of the race. Those leads gave me confidence that Romney’s momentum in the national polls was real and would leave him needing to pick off just one more state to win. Instead, he lost all four, and the state poll averages were predicting three of those four losses by Election Day. When I wrote my initial post, I assumed (given the lateness in the cycle and the evident deterioration of Obama’s position in the national polls and with independent voters by October 26), that there was not time for any new game-changing events. I was wrong.
I try hard to avoid confirmation bias in evaluating the evidence before reaching a conclusion – but it can be a lot harder to avoid it after publicly committing to a conclusion, which of course is the exact same “painted in a corner” problem I suspected Nate Silver of having. I spent the week after my “toast” post without electricity, internet, heat or hot water and only sporadically able to get to my office (I had written most of this essay when the lights went out on October 29), and probably did not spend enough of my remaining time going back over the subsequent polling to reconsider whether the conditions that seemed to show Obama in an untenable position were abating. (By Election Day, for example, the national poll averages were running in Obama’s favor as well). I remain doubtful that Hurricane Sandy had enough impact to swing the election and particularly doubtful that it did much to affect turnout, which decided the election; but its interruption of the dynamic of the endgame probably did do what the final week state and national polls showed happening: cut into Romney’s lead with independents and possibly cost him his chance to win New Hampshire, Virginia, and/or Florida. Exit polls showed that late-deciding voters broke in Obama’s favor, which I had not expected to happen for an incumbent whose approval ratings and favorability with independent voters had been underwater for so much of his term.
II. Poll vs. Poll
The polls, particularly the national and swing-state polls in the third and fourth weeks of October, were telling consistent stories about the opinions of different groups of voters, but contradictory stories about the numbers in which those groups would show up to vote. I looked at internal evidence, and saw that Romney was winning independents handily and Obama was drawing nearly no crossover support from Republicans, which meant Obama needed to win entirely by having enough extra Democrats vote to overcome Romney’s independent advantage. The first premise was borne out by Romney’s win with independents and slight edge with crossovers, although his 5-point margin with independents was at least 3 points smaller than the margin most polls had been showing when I first made my “toast” call. Had Romney carried independents by 8 or 9, as the polls were showing at the time, and not lost them in a few key states, Obama would have needed at minimum a D+4 electorate to win nationally. As it turned out, Obama won by about 2 points with a D+6 electorate compared to 2008’s D+7; Democratic turnout was down a point from 2008, but Republican turnout matched the 32% of 2008. So, my analysis correctly judged what Obama needed to do. The historic turnout conditions of 2008, which I believed were necessary for Obama to win, were effectively repeated.
There were all sorts of reasons, based in history and observable fact, to believe that those turnout conditions were unlikely to repeat themselves. Republican turnout had been unusually low in 2008 – the lowest since before Ronald Reagan started converting a lot of people to the party – following the historic financial crisis and 8 years of Bush, and had bounced back in 2010. While 2010 was a midterm election and involved a distinct electorate, its results underscored that there seemed no obvious reason to believe it would approach that nadir again. History tells us to treat with caution the assumption that elections held in the aftermath of a catastrophic event like the 2008 financial crisis are representative. The harder metrics, which I will discuss in Part III, also suggested GOP turnout was still doing well, if not as well as in the off-year elections of 2010. And the vaunted OFA turnout machine could only count for so much: certainly, no matter how sophisticated Obama’s turnout operation, low GOP turnout was something he could not manufacture through operational efficiency. Obama had polled poorly in areas like job approval for most of his tenure, and campaigns that lose independent voters tend to be losing at least some of the enthusiasm of their base as well. As I will discuss below, virtually all the features of Obama’s profile in the polls – mirrored in the post-election exit polls – were traditionally characteristic of losing candidates, as were the nature of the “this time it’s different, really!” arguments made by his boosters. It had to be different for him to win. The customary laws of political gravity had to be defied. And they were.
As I’ll get to more in Part II, with regard to turnout, what the exit polls show is that Obama really did do something that was very, very historically unusual – and on top of that, and perhaps even more importantly, Romney’s GOTV operation (both the mechanics and his ability to inspire marginal Right-leaning voters to show up) turned out to be far less than projected. This time, it really was different. And the challenging question going forward is whether it will stay that way.

Continue reading Sometimes, It Really Is Different This Time – A Polling Post-Mortem (Part I of III)

The Fall of the House of Romney

Let’s not sugarcoat this: last night was a bitter loss for Republicans and conservatives, all the worse because the presidential race – like a number of the key Senate races – was eminently winnable, and down the stretch a great many of us believed we were going to win it. I’ll return (hopefully this week) to the poll-reading question of why that was wrong, after more of the final numbers are in. But first, a look at Romney’s loss and some initial thoughts on where we go from here.
I Told You So. I Told You So, I Told You So, I Told You So.
I was wrong about the polls the past three weeks. But I was right about Romney the past six years, and as it turned out, vindicated my original view in the primaries that – while Romney could win a landslide race if the bottom dropped out of Obama – he could not win not a close race: “Romney is a terrible general election candidate, who will need a lot of good fortune and outside help to end up winning, and…just about anybody will be able to beat Obama in those circumstances.” (Follow more of the links collected here and here for the full archive of my 2007-08 and 2011-12 columns on Romney’s flaws as a candidate).
That’s exactly what happened. The economy limped to a slightly better state by September, but never did turn up significantly; the headline unemployment rate was no better on Election Day than it had been when Obama took office. Polls never showed Obama with particularly robust job approval, in particular on the economy; his coalition narrowed and he lost independent voters (exit polls say by 5 points nationally, narrower than the spread in nearly all the pre-election polls but wider than any deficit for a winning presidential candidate since Carter in 1976). The foreign policy crisis of the fall in North Africa didn’t end up really affecting the race much, and it’s hard to say whether the other big external event (Hurricane Sandy) did (more on that below). In short, nothing blew the race open. At this writing, Romney’s loss in the national popular vote is narrower than John Kerry’s in 2004, and his losses in several key states were close ones – perhaps a point in Florida (not yet called), 2 points in Ohio, 3 in Virginia, 4 in Colorado, 5 in New Hampshire and Pennsylvania, 6 in Iowa and Nevada, 7 in Wisconsin.
All of which is a way of saying that Obama – even moreso than Bush in 2004 – was still in a position to be taken, by the right candidate. But as I’ve said for years, ideas don’t run for president; people do. Romney wasn’t that candidate, and his loss was due in very significant part to problems particular to Romney. You still can’t beat somebody with nobody.
You can’t really fault the execution. The selection of Paul Ryan as a running mate was Romney’s boldest move, and while Ryan was unable to deliver his home state, there’s not much reason to think he cost Romney anything or that the outcome would have been different with, say, Rob Portman or Bob McDonnell on the ticket. The final six weeks of the campaign were about the best you could expect from Mitt Romney, with one exception (his fumble of a clear line of attack on Benghazi in the second debate): he turned in a strong performance in the first debate and was generally solid through the following two, and his campaign raised a ton of cash and generated a lot of enthusiasm down the stretch run. He was, day in and day out, the best Mitt Romney we’ve seen.
The problems with Romney were, rather, his built-in weaknesses as a candidate and the strategic choices that followed from them. Romney is, as I have consistently noted, an outstanding man – smart, accomplished, tireless, enthusiastic, and of unimpeachable personal character. But his political weaknesses were the same they always were, the same I warned of in the primaries (with one exception: his Mormon faith didn’t seem to hurt him too much with evangelical Christians). He remained a poor political communicator with no political principles, and that meant he was stuck selling himself and his reading of the landscape, rather than selling ideas. He was particularly hamstrung by his inability – unique within the Republican Party – to mount a convincing root-and-branch critique of Obamacare, having signed a nearly identical plan in Massachusetts. He might have benefited from the Supreme Court doing his job for him by striking down the individual mandate, but the Court upheld everything but the overreaching changes to Medicaid, and Romney’s campaign went off the rails from that date (June 28), not really recovering any momentum until the Ryan pick. He was never a convincing social/cultural populist. He continued to be prone to painful gaffes as he’d been for years, the worst being the infamous 47% video.
In other ways, Romney predictably lacked ways to distinguish himself from Obama and connect with voters. His biography marked him as a business success, but also as a guy without any sort of inspiring narrative of overcoming adversity, and Bain Capital turned out to be more of a liability than an asset, especially with the white blue-collar voters in the Midwest who have never really warmed to Obama. His governorship was too short, too hamstrung by a veto-proof Democratic legislative majority and too overshadowed by Romneycare to produce much in the way of governing accomplishments to run on.
As I noted in the primaries, Romney was the first moderate Republican to run without a serious background in national security or foreign policy since Tom Dewey, and that meant he lacked the gravitas to do more than tread water on foreign policy. His foreign trip over the summer – while overstated by his critics – was not a P.R. success. With Obama having one signature national security accomplishment (the death of bin Laden) to his name and uninterested in engaging in the kind of ideological debate on national security that characterized his campaign against McCain, that left Romney confined to the domestic sphere to score all his points.
And the one area where I felt Romney had gone too far to the right in the 2008 and 2012 primaries – immigration, on which he relentlessly attacked Giuliani, McCain, Brownback, Huckabee, Perry, Gingrich and others from the right – burned his bridges with Hispanic voters, requiring him to focus entirely on maximizing his share of white voters not already ideologically wedded to the Democrats, an unnecessary self-inflicted wound. That’s a mistake we as a party cannot afford to repeat in the future; avoiding it was one of my chief reasons for opposing Romney twice.
Unable to run a strong positive campaign on his record, ideas, personality, biography, or identity politics, that left running on a concrete platform. But while Romney rolled out a number of specific policy proposals, he generally preferred to campaign on general frameworks, and depend on the voters trusting him to fill in the blanks in negotiations with Congress. This can, on occasion, be an effective formula for an otherwise-attractive statewide candidate (it’s how Chris Christie got elected) and can work as a governing strategy if you get elected doing it, but it’s generally a poor way to approach a national campaign, especially for a candidate like Romney who didn’t have a lot of the voters’ trust to start with. I detailed before how Romney ended up wasting a lot of the summer getting pounded on the ambiguities in his tax plan. Romney’s unwillingness to run on a more detailed-yet-concisely-summarizable plan was visibly frustrating to Ryan, who made his name in Congress in large part due to his insistence that the GOP had to offer its own policy proposals. You could tell it pained Ryan not to be able to offer up more specific, numbers-based answers to questions.
This flies in the face of what George W. Bush did as a candidate – and while there’s plenty to debate in the Bush legacy, he’s the only Republican to win a presidential election in the past two decades, so he was doing something right. Put simply, Bush had principled positions. Bush was governor of Texas for six years, in which he built a governing record; he then ran nationally on a detailed policy platform nearly identical to his Texas record, got elected and enacted it into law. And even lacking eloquence as a public speaker, Bush effectively communicated the outlines of his proposals through concise description and endless repetition (remember the calculator on Bush’s website that showed how much money you’d save with the Bush tax cuts? You can do that when your tax plan is fully developed and easy to understand and implement). Bush may have grown in office as Commander-in-Chief, but on domestic policy, his principles, record, rhetoric and platform were consistent and enduring. When George W. Bush said what he meant to do, people knew where he stood and believed him. That – and not Romney’s flip-flopping history and strategic ambiguity – is the model for how to become the next Republican president.
Romney and Obama made opposite strategic choices in how and when to spend their money, in part driven by the fact that Romney had to win an expensive primary first. Obama spent a ton of money over the summer doing the big thing you need to do against a non-incumbent: defining Romney in the eyes of voters before Romney could do it himself. Romney, by contrast, held a lot of his money to the end, banking on making a big late surge.
This, too, looks now like a bad strategic choice. One reason is Hurricane Sandy. It’s clear that the superstorm knocked Romney off the campaign trail and the front pages for a few days and let Obama collect a lot of plaudits (totally untethered from the miserable actual performance of the federal government in responding to the storm). Romney never looked as good in the national polls after the storm as he had before. That doesn’t mean the storm actually changed any votes, let alone enough to make a difference (right now, it’s hard to tell one way or the other, although Phil Klein notes that late polling found huge approval numbers for Obama on the storm compared to weak ones on issues like the economy). The more immediate point is that Romney’s strategy of hoarding cash for the final sprint ignored the possibility of a large unexpected event dominating the final few news cycles in the middle of early voting.
Nominating Romney was a bad idea, never defensible on any ground other than the argument that the alternatives were worse. His campaign did nothing to advance the popularity of conservative ideas he didn’t believe in, missed opportunities to attack Obama over things Romney did believe in, and never had a compelling personal story to tell. Mitt Romney will be remembered as a good man, but a bad politician, and we should know better than to nominate his like again.
We Need Better Screeners
The problem of having a poor front man ran deeper yesterday than just Romney. Across the Senate races, Republicans lost for a variety of reasons (not least the turnout effect from the presidential contest) – but high on the list was far fewer good candidates and far more self-destructive ones than in 2010.
The Tea Party has done a good job of purging one kind of Republican, what you might call the Total Squish – the Republican who just offers nothing on any issue to Republican voters. But to my mind, there are three other species of candidate that we need to do a better job of vetting and avoiding in the primaries, both national and statewide:
1) The Clueless Rich Guy: The wealthy or self-funded candidate with little or no political experience, no firm principles and, as a result, often an undue reliance on political consultants. Romney was not the only candidate of this species – Linda MacMahon also failed in Connecticut for a second consecutive cycle. Rookie politicians aren’t all bad (see Ron Johnson, for example), but as a group they make a lot of mistakes, and wealthy ones are often poor messengers for our ideas.
2) The Pulled Hand Grenade So-Con: Social conservatives are a crucial part of the Republican coalition, and I’d be the last person to want to run them out of the party. But it takes a high level of self-delusion to avoid the fact that candidates like Todd Akin simply have no clue how bad their pronouncements sound to voters outside their corner of the base – and in Akin’s case, he won the nomination over two equally plausible alternatives who would have beaten Claire McCaskill. Richard Mourdock, unlike Akin, had won statewide races and didn’t have a real record of saying things that would set off alarm bells – plus he won his primary against an incumbent far past his sell-by date – but one poor answer in a debate finished him. Social conservatives as a group need to accept the fact that communication and tone matter; people will respect your issue stances, but not if you seem to them like a frightening extremist. We need to find better ways of identifying people who just won’t fly with the general electorate before it’s too late.
3) The Retread: Two of the failed Senate candidates (Tommy Thompson and George Allen) were excellent statewide candidates…in the 90s. But much like Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum, they found it hard to adjust to the current political environment. Voters looking for change are a lot less likely to pull the lever for a guy who has been out of the fight that long.
Exit The Fat Man
The 2016 sweepstakes will start painfully early in both parties, but one thing already seems likely: Chris Christie is finished already as a national candidate.
Christie’s a great governor, who richly deserves re-election next year. He’s been a great spokesman for the need for fiscal sanity at the state level. But 2012 was his moment to go national, and he missed it. He endorsed Romney early, and pushed harder (and in a more aggressively negative posture against Romney’s critics) than almost any other elected official in the primaries. His profile as a moderate Northeastern governor will almost surely strike 2016 primary voters as a replay of what didn’t work in 2012, regardless of his dissimilarities from Romney. (Having lost with moderates in 2012, 2008, 1996 and 1992, primary voters will be even more desperate to run someone who can credibly be called a conservative in 2016). And Christie’s embrace of Obama’s response to Hurricane Sandy, right at the crescendo of a bitter, narrowly-lost election, will stick in the craw of partisans for a long time. A successful second term in New Jersey may tempt Christie to run, but I have to think he’ll have prohibitive problems getting through a primary, and Christie’s personality makes him a poor fit for a VP candidate.
Who will be the frontrunners? It’s too early to rule out dark-horse governors like Wisconsin’s Scott Walker, New Mexico’s Susanna Martinez or Indiana’s newly-elected Mike Pence (who considered a run in 2012 before deciding to get out of DC), but besides Christie the A-list remains three names: Ryan, Bobby Jindal and Marco Rubio. The relative closeness of yesterday’s outcome means Ryan doesn’t emerge from Romney’s failure as fatally damaged goods, and he’ll return to the House with an elevated profile. Jindal offers the most distance in a lot of ways from Romney, and is in fact the top option who endorsed one of Romney’s opponents (Rick Perry) and only settled behind Romney when the nomination race was over. And Rubio, of course, offers the prospect of the nation’s first Hispanic president. We’ll have much more to discuss on all of them as the next two years unfold the potential landscape before the 2016 contest begins in earnest this time in 2014.
Whither The Party?
Many commentators will now rush to declare Republicans an endangered species and pin the blame for the party’s woes on conservative ideas. When Ryan was added to the ticket, for example, there was much talk that the Obama campaign would sink Romney by tying him to the unpopular House GOP. But as it turned out, the House GOP fared a lot better than the presidential or Senate tickets, losing seats but easily retaining its majority, and we still have a commanding lead in state Governorships. Obama’s ‘permanent majority’ coalition is actually razor-thin and couldn’t retake the House even with its vaunted voter-turnout operation. And now, Obama enters his second term, which are hardly ever better than the first; Republicans are no more doomed by the prospect of an Obama second term than Democrats were by the Bush and Nixon second terms, or even Republicans after the Clinton and LBJ second terms. I don’t ascribe to the theory that anybody should ever want to lose elections, but just as with his first term, Obama’s second term offers increasing opportunities to frustrate and splinter his coalition, further alienate independent voters and bleed job approval, factors that won’t bode well for Democrats in 2014 and 2016. My concern is not for the future of the party, but the country, as four more years gives Obama a lot more time to place increasing numbers of issues outside the reach of democratic self-government, either through judicial activism or inter-generational entitlement programs that are fiscally nearly impossible to unwind.
That’s not to say Republicans should do nothing to re-evaluate our agenda. I remain convinced, for example, that the party needs to find a moderate middle ground on immigration. But at the end of the day, the 2012 election was a failure of candidates, not of ideas.

My Final Election 2012 Predictions

It’s time to start making final predictions for the 2012 election. I’m also rounding up predictions from others who are out on the limb with me predicting a Romney victory. I still feel fairly confident about my bottom line: Romney will win. But until we see the actual voter turnout, it’s hard to project more than educated guesswork as to the size of that win.
The Electorate and the Popular Vote
The final week of polling has been even more of a mess than usual in a season in which the polls have made less and less sense both internally (their assumptions about turnout and the conflict between the toplines and Romney’s margins with independents) and externally (how the polls’ views of turnout conflict with every other item of evidence outside the polling). Josh Jordan notes the particularly unstable polling of independents in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.
But while some of the more garish double-digit margins are gone, the latest battery of national polls shows Romney’s standing vs Obama with independents most likely somewhere around a 7 point lead: CNN/ORC (+22, but with the smallest of sample sizes), Monmouth/SUSA (+16), Rasmussen (+9), WaPo/ABC (+7), NBC/WSJ (+7), Pew (+4), Gallup (-1).
What will turnout look like? First up, we have Rasmussen’s October 2012 Party ID survey; I’ve revised my chart to look at the historical track record since 2004 of his October survey:
That’s an R+6 electorate. Obama is clearly, in my view, doomed if the electorate is D+3 (the historical average for presidential elections since 1984) or less, and probably needs about D+6, maybe D+5 (the 2000 electorate) to win. We haven’t had an R+ electorate for a presidential election since probably the 1920s (2004 was even); we may not have had an R+6 electorate since Reconstruction ended. If Rasmussen’s survey is even half right, Democrats could be in for a very, very rough night across the board. Even as accurate as Rasmussen has been, I’m hesitant to go out all the way on that limb – but it’s hard to argue with his record on this front. The survey encompasses a huge sample, on the order of 15,000 interviews.
It may be tough to measure the final electorate, because exit polls won’t capture early voters, and in some states that’s a lot of people. (The Denver Post cites Colorado Secretary of State figures showing more than 62% of the state’s registered voters have voted already, with a turnout of R+2). My prediction for the national turnout is a conservative one: D+2, D 37/R 35/I 28. Assuming Romney wins Republicans 94-6, Obama carries Democrats 93-7, and Romney wins independents 53-47 – again, a conservative projection given the polls – that gives us Romney 50.3%, Obama 49.7%.
(If you run those same assumptions in the electorate from Rasmussen’s party ID survey, you get Romney 53.7%, Obama 46.2% – and it gets wider from there if the spread among independents gets into double digits. But I’m being conservative here, as I still expect the more likely outcome to be fairly close).
The Electoral College
I start with this map, with Romney up 235-190:
Obama is still running ads in North Carolina and still contesting Florida; Florida is usually close, but I see no real likelihood that it goes for Obama again.
Then, let’s take off the board the states where Romney is only going to win if it’s really breaking big for him – I’m actually now including Nevada and not Pennsylvania in that category, and to be cautious, Maine’s 2d Congressional District – and the states I’d almost written off in September where I now think Romney is in very solid shape (Virginia, Colorado and New Hampshire):
Romney 261, Obama 223. Iowa becomes irrelevant at this point – Romney wins one of the remaining three, or Obama wins all three, and it’s game over. But I don’t actually see Pennsylvania being the one to get Romney over the line if he loses Ohio and Wisconsin. Playing it safe, I end up with Romney taking just one of those four – Wisconsin – and a narrow electoral college win, 271-267:
If Romney wins, as I project, I strongly suspect that he will win at least one of the other three, maybe all three. But Wisconsin is my pick for the state that puts him over the hump.
The Senate
Here’s RCP’s current map of the Senate races, projecting each side picks up 3 seats, netting no change to the Democrats’ 53-47 advantage:
That’s a very disappointing outcome from where the GOP should have been, but probably not as bad as it has looked most of the past two months. I’m going to be absurdly bullish and say R+2 Senate seats because I can’t look across Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin, Virginia, Massachusetts, Indiana, and Missouri and see the Democrats going better than 5-for-7. There are different reasons in different races – Mourdock and Akin will have strong GOP turnout advantages at their backs, Scott Brown is just a tough campaigner, and Smith, Mandel, Thompson and Allen all have the swing state ground games behind them. Add in Montana and it will take a big set of Romney coattails for the Republicans to win half or more of those eight races – but 3 out of 8 hardly seems unreasonable if the presidential race is going well.
(It’s also impossible to be sure how the Maine Senate race will come out – three-way races are notoriously hard to poll – but I’ll nonetheless be surprised if Angus King doesn’t win and caucus with the Democrats. A 50 D/49 R Senate with Paul Ryan as the VP could put King in position to be a tremendous power broker.).
Like most people, I’m not even bothering with a House prediction, other than to reiterate a point Neil Stevens has made: if the electorate was really going to look like the D+7 Democratic wave of 2008, we’d be talking about a ton of Democratic House pickups (redistricting or no) and a threat of the return of Speaker Pelosi. But at this point, even the DCCC seems to have all but thrown in the towel; Nate Silver doesn’t even seem to be tracking odds for a Democratic House pickup. That suggests that down-ticket Democrats are looking at a much more realistic universe.
Around The Horn
Michael Barone has Romney 315, Obama 223. I’m always in good company agreeing with Barone.
Ben Domenech, who was predicting an Obama win until the past month, has Romney 278, Obama 260, with Wisconsin the deciding state.
Gerry Daly’s map has Romney 296, Obama 242.
Neil Stevens’ map has Romney 279, Obama 190 even with a bunch of states up in the air.
Josh Jordan walks through why he has Romney 295, Obama 243 and Romney by 50.5 to 48.5 in the popular vote.
Bob Krumm walks through 5 scenarios.
Jim Geraghty looks at when pollsters have been wrong.

No, Independents Are Not Just Discouraged Republicans

The centerpiece of my thesis (discussed here and here) that Mitt Romney will win Tuesday’s election is his consistently strong showing among independent voters (ie, voters who identify as neither Republicans nor Democrats) across the majority of national and state polls, pretty much regardless of whether those are polls he’s winning or losing. On that score, I believe the polls; if they’re wrong about the independent vote, my analysis is essentially irrelevant. But if they’re right, I believe I’ll be proven right. If Romney goes on to win independents nationally by 5+ points and carry independents by more than a few points in states like Ohio and Wisconsin, he will win.
Obama can only overcome that kind of deficit among independents by decisively winning the partisan turnout battle – indeed, the polls that show him winning nationally or on a state-by-state basis do so almost uniformly by projecting a decisive advantage in Democratic turnout – but when you look for evidence outside of the polling samples themselves of that Democratic turnout advantage, you won’t find it.
There are two main arguments currently circulating for why Obama will win in spite of these factors. Both are premised upon the notion that the Obama-favoring polls are correctly projecting an electorate on the order of 2008’s D+7 (D 39/R 32/I 29) electorate, in which Obama’s turnout advantage will outweigh his loss of independent voters. I dealt on Wednesday with the first of those: Nate Silver’s polling model, which simply assumes that state-level polls are correctly projecting the turnout, on the theory that state polling averages have historically been trustworthy.
The other main argument comes from Josh Marshall. Marshall’s thesis is that independents are supporting Romney because the ranks of independent voters have been swelled by “an exodus from the GOP to the right”:

In other words, a lot of people left the Republican party, in identification terms. But they didn’t become Democrats. And it doesn’t seem (at least from the politics of the last two years) like they became more moderate of ‘centrist’ in ideological terms. They simply reidentified themselves as independents… I think in a lot of cases they actually re-identified because the GOP wasn’t right-wing enough, call it a Tea Party exodus from the GOP.
…[W]hat does not seem in doubt is that a lot of people who had called themselves Republicans started calling themselves independents, notwithstanding the fact that there’s little evidence they became less conservative.
And if that’s the case, you can see without much problem how Romney could be winning independents: because a lot of those independents are people who used to be Republicans. Or to put it another way, the pool of independents got a lot more conservative without changing the overall composition of the electorate. You just had a zero-sum transfer between Republican and independent.

This is a plausible-sounding theory, if you think independent voters are some sort of strange new phenomenon never before seen on the American electoral landscape, and Marshall backs it up with a colorful line graph showing the results of what he describes as various national party ID surveys. But it does not stand up to scrutiny.
Let’s look at a screenshot of Marshall’s chart; you can go click over to TPM if you want to play around with the various bells and whistles on it:
First of all, as Marshall himself admits, “we keep this data set of ‘adults’ rather than registered or likely voters. That makes it somewhat different from the voting electorate. …These are polls which simply ask people over 18, how do you identify in partisan terms.” As anyone who follows elections even remotely closely knows, polls of “all adults” are completely worthless, and a campaign whose supporters are citing polls of “all adults” rather than registered or likely voters six days before an election is doomed.
Second, notice something about the math here: Marshall is citing a collection of surveys that say the population is 32.5 D/25.2 R/33 I at present – which adds up to 90.7% of the people. What happened to the other 9.3%? As of the line in the middle representing the 2010 election, he shows the population as 34.2 D/30.2 R/28 I – again, 92.4% of the people, with 7.6% unaccounted for. Around Election Day 2008, it shows 39.4 D/30.6 R/25.2 I – 95.2% of the population, with 4.8% unaccounted for. It’s impossible to translate those kinds of large omissions into a useful tool for analyzing the electorate. (In fact, Marshall shows independents outnumbering Democrats – and if that happens, I promise you, Obama is toast).
Third, it doesn’t match up to the actual voter turnout. Exit polls in 2008 show 39% D and 31% R, numbers consistent with the chart, but 29% rather than 25% I. For 2010, it’s way off: Marshall’s chart has the population at 30.2% Republican and a D+4 advantage for Democrats, when in fact we know the exits showed a D 36/R 36/I 28 electorate. Somehow, the 7.6% of the people not accounted for turned out to almost all be Republicans. Marshall makes no effort to test how any of these surveys (or his rolling average of surveys) has matched up historically to the actual electorate, unlike my comparison of the track record of the Gallup and Rasmussen party ID surveys (both of which he mysteriously leaves out of his average) dating back over multiple elections. I will trust the people who have done this before and been proven reliable.
If it was true that success with independent voters was the result of defectors from the party, you would expect recent and longer-term history to show an inverse relationship between success with independents and partisan turnout – that is, you’d expect to see Republicans doing better with independents when GOP turnout is low, and Democrats doing better with independents when Democratic turnout is low. There is, in fact, some evidence that that was true before 1984, when a lot of independents and “Reagan Democrats” started self-identifying as Republicans. But since then, if you look at the presidential election years and the last two off-year Congressional elections (2006 and 2010), what you see in general is more like the opposite relationship: parties tend to do better with independents when they are turning out a lot of their own partisans. This chart shows the percentage of Democrats and Republicans in the electorate each of those years, along with each party’s share of the two-party vote among independents (that is, I dropped out the percentage of independents voting for Ross Perot, John Anderson, etc.):
As you can see, Democrats did well with independents in years like 1996, 2006 and 2008 when Democratic turnout was up, indicating that good partisan environments/candidates drew Democrats to the polls and attracted independent voters. Republicans did better with independents in 2010 when Republican turnout was up. Independents were closely divided in 2000 and 2004. This is what anybody who has spent any time working in the fields of campaigns, polling or election punditry would expect to see – strength with independent voters nearly always goes hand-in-hand with the party-base enthusiasm that drives good voter turnout. A big Democratic turnout year and small Republican turnout year at the same time as a big Republican surge with independent voters is out of whack with history.
I don’t doubt that, anecdotally, a fair number of people left the GOP after 2008 to join the long-time Perotista faction and build a core bloc of Tea Party-friendly independents. Rasmussen’s surveys suggest that a good chunk of those people came home to the GOP by the time of the 2010 election, and if they didn’t, they were replaced by other Republicans, because GOP turnout in 2010 was the best it had been since 2004. Marshall’s theory that Republicans have collapsed to something resembling 25% of the electorate is frankly inexplicable in light of the 2010 elections (and the 2012 recall election, in Wisconsin).
For an example of why this makes no sense, let’s look at one of the latest pieces of evidence outside the polling that supports a more Republican electorate: as Ed Morrissey notes, a recent study shows voter regstration across 8 states that register voters by party (FL, NC, CO, NV, NM, IA, PA & NH; states like OH & VA don’t) shows a net 1.3% increase in Republican registration since 2008 and a net 2.5% decrease in Democratic registration, while independent registration has boomed, up 14.4%. You can read that registration data to show that being an independent is still a lot more popular choice than being a Republican these days; you can’t sensibly read it to show that the growth of independent voters is the result of a decreasing base of Republican voters, and you can’t possibly read it to show that the total share of Republicans and independents is holding steady or declining relative to the Democrats.
I would be very shocked if Republicans are just 25% of the voters in this election. I bet Josh Marshall would too.

On Polling Models, Skewed & Unskewed

There’s a very large gulf between my conclusion, explained on Friday, that Obama is toast on Election Day and confident projections like Nate Silver’s poll-reading model still giving the president (at last check) a 77.4% chance of victory. Let me explain why, and what that says about the difference between my approach and Nate’s.
The Limits of Mathematical Models
“A page of history is worth a volume of logic”
Oliver Wendell Holmes

Mathematical models are all the rage these days, but you need to start with the most basic of facts: a model is only as good as the underlying data, and that data comes in two varieties: (1) actual raw data about the current and recent past, and (2) historical evidence from which the future is projected from the raw data, on the assumption that the future will behave like the past. Consider the models under closest scrutiny right now: weather models such as hurricane models. These are the best kind of model, in the sense that the raw data is derived from intensive real-time observation and the historical data is derived from a huge number of observations and thus not dependent on a tiny and potentially unrepresentative sample.
Yet, as you watch any storm develop, you see its projected path change, sometimes dramatically. Why? Because the models are highly sensitive to changes in raw data, and because storms are dynamic systems: their path follows a certain logic, but does not track a wholly predictable trajectory. The constant adjustments made to weather models ought to give us a little more humility in dealing with models that suffer from greater flaws in raw data observations, smaller sample sizes in their bases of historical data, or that purport to explain even more complex or dynamic systems – models like climate modeling, financial market forecasts, economic and budgetary forecasting, or the behavior of voters. Yet somehow, liberals in particular seem so enamored of such models that they decry any skepticism of their projections as a “War on Objectivity,” in the words of Paul Krugman. Conservatives get labeled “climate deniers” or “poll deniers” (by the likes of Tom Jensen of PPP, Markos Moulitsas, Jonathan Chait and the American Prospect) or, in the case of disagreeing with budgetary forecasts that aren’t really even forecasts, “liars.” But if history teaches us anything, it’s that the more abuse that’s directed towards skeptics, the greater the need for someone to play Socrates.
Consider an argument Michael Lewis makes in his book The Big Short: nearly everybody involved in the mortgage-backed securities market (buy-side, sell-side, ratings agencies, regulators) bought into mathematical models valuing MBS as low-risk based on models whose historical data didn’t go back far enough to capture a collapse in housing prices. And it was precisely such a collapse that destroyed all the assumptions on which the models rested. But the people who saw the collapse coming weren’t people who built better models; they were people who questioned the assumptions in the existing models and figured out how dependent they were on those unquestioned assumptions. Something similar is what I believe is going on today with poll averages and the polling models on which they are based. The 2008 electorate that put Barack Obama in the White House is the 2005 housing market, the Dow 36,000 of politics. And any model that directly or indirectly assumes its continuation in 2012 is – no matter how diligently applied – combining bad raw data with a flawed reading of the historical evidence.
Different sets of polls are, more or less, describing two alternate universes in terms of what the 2012 electorate will look like, one strongly favorable to Obama, one essentially decisive in favor of Romney. The pro-Obama view requires a number of things to happen that are effectively unprecedented in electoral history, but Nate Silver argues that we should trust them because state poll averages have a better track record in other elections than national polls. The pro-Romney view, by contrast, simply assumes that things have gone wrong in a number of the polls’ samples that have gone wrong before. Sean Trende argues that the national pollsters currently in the field are more reliable, and that this (rather than the history of state and national pollsters in the abstract) should be significant:

Among national pollsters, you have a battle-tested group with a long track record performing national polls. Of the 14 pollsters producing national surveys in October, all but three were doing the same in 2004 (although AP used Ipsos as its pollster that year rather than GfK, and I believe a few others may have changed their data-collection companies). Of the 14 pollsters surveying Ohio in October, only four did so in 2004 (five if you count CNN/USAToday/Gallup and CNN/Opinion Research as the same poll).
Pollsters such as ABC/Washington Post, Gallup, Pew, Battleground, and NBC/WSJ are well-funded, well-staffed organizations. It’s not immediately obvious why the Gravises, Purple Strategies and Marists of the world should be trusted as much as them, let alone more. And since virtually none of the present state pollsters were around in 1996 or 2000 (except Rasmussen Reports, which had a terrible year in 2000 and has since overhauled its methodology), it’s even less clear why we should now defer to state poll performance based upon those years.

In my opinion, which view is correct is not one that can be resolved by mathematical models, but rather by an examination of the competing assumptions underlying the two sets of polls and an assessment of their reasonableness in light of history and current political reality.
Where Polls Come From
Polling is “scientific,” in the sense that it attempts to follow well-established mathematical concepts of random sampling, but political polls remain as much art as science, and each polling cycle presents different challenges to pollsters’ ability to accurately capture public sentiment. Quick summary: dating back roughly to George Gallup’s introduction of modern political polling in the 1936 election, a pollster seeks to extrapolate the voting behavior of many millions of people (130 million people voted in the 2008 presidential election) from a poll of several hundred or a few thousand people. In a poll that seeks only the opinion of the public at large, the pollster will seek to use a variety of sampling techniques to ensure that the population called actually matches the population as a whole in terms of age, gender, race, geography and other demographic factors. In some cases, where the raw data doesn’t provide a random sample, the pollster may re-weight the sample to reflect a fair cross-section.
Political polling is a somewhat different animal, however: not all adults are registered voters, and not all registered voters show up to vote every time there’s an election. So, a pollster has to use a variety of different methods – in particular, a “likely voter” screen designed to tease out the poll respondent’s likelihood of voting – to try to figure out whether the pollster’s results have sampled a group of people who correspond to the actual electorate for a given election. This is complicated by the fact that voter turnout isn’t uniform: in some years and some states Republican enthusiasm is higher than others, in some Democratic enthusiasm is higher than others. You can conduct the best poll in the world in terms of accurately ascertaining the views of a population that mirrors your sample – but if your sample doesn’t mirror that season’s electorate, your poll will mislead its readers in the same way that the Literary Digest’s unscientific poll did in 1936, or the RCP averages in the Senate elections in Colorado and Nevada in 2010, or the polls that failed to capture the GOP surge in 2002.
Technology, economics and other factors affect polling. The rise of caller ID in particular has dramatically reduced response rates – that is, pollsters have to call 8 or 9 people for every one who will answer their poll. That raises the level of difficulty in ensuring that the people who actually do answer the questions are a representative sample. Liberals argue that pollsters undersample people who have only cell phones (a disproportionately younger and/or poorer group) and non-English speakers; conservatives counter that Tea Partiers may be less likely to talk to pollsters and that polls in some cases can suffer a “Shy Tory Factor” where voters are less likely to admit to voting Republican. Partisans dispute the relative merits of in-person versus automated polling and the structure of polls that ask a lot of leading questions before asking for voter preferences. And the economics of the polling business itself is under stress, as news organizations have less money to spend on polls and pollsters do public political polling for a variety of business reasons, only some of which have anything to do with a desire to be accurate – some pollsters like PPP make most of their money off serving partisan clients, news organizations do it to drive news, universities do it for name recognition.
2012, even moreso than past elections, is apt to produce another round of reflection and recrimination on all of these issues, as a great many of the individual polls we have seen so far have been largely or wholly irreconcilable, especially in terms of their view of the partisan makeup of the 2012 electorate. If you assume that (1) the various players in national and state polling have essentially random tendencies towards inaccuracy in modeling the electorate in all conceivable environments and (2) each state’s poll average includes a large enough sample of different polls by different pollsters to bear out this assumption – in that case, state polling averages and the models that rest on them should be good predictors of turnout, as they have been in most (but not all) past elections. But when you consider that 2008 was a very unusual environment and that every turnout indicator we have other than the state poll averages is pointing to a different electorate, these become far more questionable assumptions.
Toplines and Internals
Nate Silver’s much-celebrated model is, like other poll averages, based simply on analyzing the toplines of public polls. This, more than any other factor, is where he and I part company.
If you read only the toplines of polls – the single number that says something like “Romney 48, Obama 47” – you would get the impression from a great many polls that this is a very tight race nationally, in which Obama has a steady lead in key swing states. In an ordinary year, the toplines of the polls eventually converge around the final result – but this year, there seems to be some stubborn splits among the poll toplines that reflect the pollsters’ struggles to come to agreement on who is going to vote.
Poll toplines are simply the sum of their internals: that is, different subgroups within the sample. The one poll-watchers track most closely is the partisan breakdowns: how each candidate is doing with Republican voters, Democratic voters and independent voters, two of whom (the Rs & Ds) have relatively predictable voting patterns. Bridging the gap from those internals to the topline is the percentage of each group included in the poll, which of course derives from the likely-voter modeling and other sampling issues described above. And therein lies the controversy.
My thesis, and that of a good many conservative skeptics of the 538 model, is that these internals are telling an entirely different story than some of the toplines: that Obama is getting clobbered with independent voters, traditionally the largest variable in any election and especially in a presidential election, where both sides will usually have sophisticated, well-funded turnout operations in the field. He’s on track to lose independents by double digits nationally, and the last three candidates to do that were Dukakis, Mondale and Carter in 1980. And he’s not balancing that with any particular crossover advantage (i.e., drawing more crossover Republican voters than Romney is drawing crossover Democratic voters). Similar trends are apparent throughout the state-by-state polls, not in every single poll but in enough of them to show a clear trend all over the battleground states.
If you averaged Obama’s standing in all the internals, you’d capture a profile of a candidate that looks an awful lot like a whole lot of people who have gone down to defeat in the past, and nearly nobody who has won. Under such circumstances, Obama can only win if the electorate features a historically decisive turnout advantage for Democrats – an advantage that none of the historically predictive turnout metrics are seeing, with the sole exception of the poll samples used by some (but not all) pollsters. Thus, Obama’s position in the toplines depends entirely on whether those pollsters are correctly sampling the partisan turnout.
That’s where the importance of knowing and understanding electoral history comes in. Because if your model is relying entirely on toplines that don’t make any sense when you look at the internals with a knowledge of the past history of what winning campaigns look like, you need to start playing Socrates.
Moneyball and PECOTA’s World
Let me use an analogy from baseball statistics, which I think is appropriate here because it’s where both I and Nate Silver first learned to read statistics critically and first got an audience on the internet: in terms of their predictive power, poll toplines are like pitcher win-loss records or batter RBI.
At a very general level, the job of a baseball batter is to make runs score, and the job of a baseball pitcher is to win games, so traditionally people looked at W-L records and RBI as evidence of who was good at their jobs. And it’s true that any group of pitchers with really good W-L record will, on average, be better than a group with bad ones; any group of batters with a lot of RBI will, on average, be better than a group with very few RBI. If you built a model around those numbers, you’d be right more often than you’d be wrong.
But wins and RBI are not skills; they are the byproducts of other skills (striking people out, hitting home runs, etc.) combined with opportunities: you can’t drive in runners who aren’t on base, and you can’t win games if your team doesn’t score runs. If you build your team around acquiring guys who get a lot of RBI and wins, you may end up making an awful lot of mistakes. Similarly, you can’t win the votes of people who don’t come to the polls.
Baseball analysis has come a long way in recent decades, because baseball is a closed system: nearly everything is recorded and quantified, so statistical analysis is less likely to founder on hidden, uncounted variables. Yet, even highly sophisticated baseball models can still make mistakes if they rest on mistaken assumptions. Baseball’s PECOTA player projection system – designed by Nate Silver and his colleagues at BP – is one of the best state-of-the-art systems in the business. But one of PECOTA’s more recent, well-known failures presents an object lesson. In 2009, PECOTA projected rookie Orioles catcher Matt Wieters to hit .311/.395/.546 (batting/on base percentage/slugging). As regular consumers of PECOTA know, this is just a probabilistic projection of his most likely performance, and the actual projection provided a range of possible outcomes. But the projection clearly was wrong, and not just unsuccessful. While Wieters has developed into a good player, nothing in his major league performance since has justfied such optimism: Wieters hit .288/.340/.412 as a rookie, and .260/.328/.421 over his first four major league seasons. What went wrong? Wieters had batted .355/.454/.600 between AA and A ball in 2008, and systems like PECOTA are supposed to adjust those numbers downward for the difference in the level of competition between A ball, AA ball and the major leagues. But as Colin Wyers noted at the time, the problem was that the context adjustments used by PECOTA that season used an unusually generous translation, assuming that the two leagues Wieters had played in – the Eastern League and the Carolina League – were much more competitive in 2008 than they had been in previous years. By getting the baseline of the 2008 environment Wieters played in wrong, PECOTA got the projection wrong, a projection that was out of step with what other models were much more realistically projecting at the time. The sophistication of the PECOTA system was no match for two bad inputs in the historical data.
My point is not to beat up on PECOTA, which as I said is a fantastic system and much better than anything I could design. Let’s consider for a further example one of PECOTA’s most notable successes, one where I questioned Nate Silver at the time and was wrong; I think it also illustrates the differing approaches at work here. In 2008, PECOTA projected the Tampa Bay Rays to win 88-89 games, a projection that Nate Silver touted in a widely-read Sports Illustrated article. It was a daring projection, seeing as the Rays had lost 95 or more games three years running and never won more than 70 games in franchise history. As Silver wrote, “[i]t’s in the field…that the Rays will make their biggest gains…the Rays’ defense projects to be 10 runs above average this year, an 82-run improvement.” I wrote at the time: “this is nuts. Last season, Tampa allowed 944 runs (5.83 per game), the highest in the majors by a margin of more than 50 runs. This season, BP is projecting them to allow 713 runs (4.40 per game), the lowest in the AL, third-lowest in the majors…and a 32% reduction from last season…it’s an incredibly ambitious goal.”
PECOTA was right, and if anything was too conservative. The Rays won 97 games and went to the World Series, without any improvement by their offense, almost entirely on the strength of an improved defense. I later calculated that their one-year defensive improvement was the largest since 1878. Looking at history and common sense, I was right that PECOTA was projecting an event nearly unprecedented in the history of the game, and I would raise the same objection again. But the model was right in seeing it coming.
If you looked closely, you could see why: the frontiers of statistical analysis had shifted. Michael Lewis’ book Moneyball, following the 2002 Oakland A’s, captured the era when statistical analysts stressed hitting and de-emphasized fielding on the theory that it was easier to use sophisticated metrics to find better hitters, but harder to quantify the benefits of defense. By 2008, the metrics were creating more opportunities to study defense, and – as captured in Jonah Keri’s book The Extra 2% (about the building of that Rays team) – the Rays took advantage.
But for the Rays, the 2008 environment was not so easily repeated in subsequent years. While still a successful club with a solid defense in a pitcher’s park (and still far better defensively than in 2007) they have led the league in “Defensive Efficiency Rating” only once in the past four years. It’s what Bill James called the Law of Competitive Balance: unsuccessful teams adapt more quickly to imitate the successes of the successful teams, bringing both sides closer to parity. Trende, in his book The Lost Majority, applies the same essential lesson to political coalitions. Assuming that the 2008 turnout models, which depended heavily on unusually low Republican turnout, still apply to Obama’s current campaign ignores the extent to which multiple factors favor a balance swinging back to the Republicans. And the polls that make up the averages – averages upon which Nate Silver’s model rests – are doing just that. Nate’s model might well work in an election where the relationship between the internals and the toplines was unchanged from 2008. But because that assumption is an unreasonable one, yet almost by definition not subject to question in his model, the model is delivering a conclusion at odds with current, observable political reality.
Painted Into A Corner
Poll analysis by campaign professionals often involves a large dollop of conscious partisan hackery: spinning the polls to suggest a result the campaigns know is not realistic, in the hopes of avoiding the bottom-drops-out loss of voter confidence that sets in when a campaign is visibly doomed. For the record, unlike some of my conservative colleagues, I don’t think Nate is a conscious partisan hack. I have a lot of respect for his intelligence and his thoroughness as a baseball analyst and we have mutual friends in the world of baseball analysis, and I think he undoubtedly recognizes that it will not be good for his credibility to be committed to the last ditch to defending Obama as a prohibitive favorite in an election he ends up losing. (It’s true that the 538 model is just probabilities, but as Prof. Jacobson notes, Nate won his reputation as an electoral forecaster with similar probabilistic projections in 2008; if you project a guy to have a 77% chance to win an election he loses, that will inevitably cause people to put less faith in your odds-laying later on).
I do, however, think that – for whatever reasons – Nate has painted himself into a corner from which there is no easy escape. If I’m right about the electorate and the polls are right about the internals, Romney wins – and if Romney wins, the 538 model will require some serious rethinking. There’s a bunch of reasons why he finds himself in this position. One is that his model has been oversold: he made his poll-reading reputation based on a single election cycle, in which he had access to non-public polls to check his work. Nate is, in fact, not the first poll-reader to get 49 states right: RedState’s own Gerry Daly did the same thing in 2004, missing only Wisconsin (which Bush lost by half a point) in his Election Day forecast, and Gerry did this through careful common-sense reading of the state-by-state polls checked against the national polls, not through a model that purported to do his thinking for him. (As it happened, the RCP averages at the end of the cycle did the same thing, as they did in 2008.) I’m inclined to listen to guys like Gerry who have been doing this for years and have not only recounted the numbers from past elections but lived through the reading of polls while they were happening. In 2010, the 538 model fared well – but no better than the poll averages at RCP. And that was only after Nate was much slower to pick up on the coming GOP wave than Scott Rasmussen, who called it a lot earlier in the cycle.
There are a raft of methodological quibbles with the 538 model (some larger than others), many of which reek of confirmation bias (ie, the tendency to question bad news more closely than good). For example, while Nate’s commentaries have included lengthy broadsides against Rasmussen and Gallup, his model tends to give a lot of weight to partisan pollster PPP. Ted Frank noted one example that perfectly captures the value of knowing your history; the 538 model’s assumptions about how late-deciding undecided voters will break are tilted towards Obama by including the 2000 election, when Gore did far better on Election Day than the late-October polls suggested. But Gore wasn’t an incumbent, and there was a major event (the Bush DUI story) that had a major impact on turnout and undecided voters. If you make different assumptions based on a different reading of history, you get different conclusions. The spirit of open scientific inquiry should welcome this kind of scrutiny, even in the heat of election season.
None of this is a reason to conclude that the 538 concept is broken beyond repair. If you regard poll analysis as something like an objective calling, you can learn from your failures as well as your successes. If Obama wins, my own assumptions (and indeed, nearly everything we know about winning campaigns) will have to be re-examined. If Romney wins, the model of simply aggregating the topline state-by-state poll averages will have to be sent back to the drawing board. But there will be no hiding, in that case, from the fact of its failure.
Unskewed Polls
One of the more widely-discussed efforts to fix the problem of topline poll data varying by turnout models is Dean Chambers’, which takes the internals of each poll and re-weights them for a more Romney-friendly turnout model. In concept, what Chambers is doing is on the right track, because it lets us separate how much of the poll toplines is due to the sentiments of different groups and how much is due to assumptions about turnout. But his execution is a methodological hash.
I haven’t pulled apart all the pieces of Chambers’ model, but my main objection to UnskewedPolls is that it re-weights the electorate twice:

The QStarNews poll works with the premise that the partisan makeup of the electorate 34.8 percent Republicans, 35.2 percent Democrats and 30.0 percent independent voters. Additionally, our model is based on the electorate including approximately 41.0 percent conservatives, 20.0 percent moderates and 39.0 percent liberals.
Republicans are 89 percent conservative, 9 percent moderate and 2 percent liberal. Among Democrats, 3 percent are conservative, 23 percent are moderate and 74 percent are liberal. Independents include 33 percent conservatives, 49 percent moderates and 18 percent liberals.
Our polls are doubly-weighted, to doubly insure the results are most accurate and not skewed, by both party identification and self-identified ideology. For instance, no matter how many Republicans answer our survey, they are weighted at 34.8 percent. If conservatives are over-represented among Republicans in the raw sample, they are still weighted at 89 percent of Republicans regardless.

The problem with this method is that neither the raw data (the current polls) nor a lot of the historical data (past years’ exit polls) has crosstabs showing how the votes of each partisan group break out by ideology. That is, for example, we have nearly no separate polling (certainly none on the polls Chambers is “unskewing”) showing how Romney is polling among independents who self-identify as moderates, or how Obama is polling among Democrats who self-identify as conservatives. That’s aside from the question of whether ideological self-ID is nearly as predictive a variable as party ID. Re-weighting the samples twice by these two separate variables, without access to those crosstabs, means you don’t really have any idea whether you are just adding a mutiplier that double-counts your adjustments to the turnout model. It’s more alchemy than science.
We can’t know until Election Day who is right. I stand by my view that Obama is losing independent voters decisively, because the national and state polls both support that thesis. I stand by my view that Republican turnout will be up significantly from recent-historic lows in 2008 in the key swing states (Ohio, Wisconsin, Colorado) and nationally, because the post-2008 elections, the party registration data, the early-voting and absentee-ballot numbers, and the Rasmussen and Gallup national party-ID surveys (both of which have solid track records) all point to this conclusion. I stand by my view that no countervailing evidence outside of poll samples shows a similar surge above 2008 levels in Democratic voter turnout, as would be needed to offset Romney’s advantage with independents and increased GOP voter turnout. And I stand by the view that a mechanical reading of polling averages is an inadequate basis to project an event unprecedented in American history: the re-election of a sitting president without a clear-cut victory in the national popular vote.
Perhaps, despite the paucity of evidence to the contrary, these assumptions are wrong. But if they are correct, no mathematical model can provide a convincing explanation of how Obama is going to win re-election. He remains toast.

The Man Without A Mandate

Barack Obama is trying to do something no president has ever done: get re-elected without winning the national popular vote. If he were to somehow succeed at this, he would be the weakest elected president since Rutherford B. Hayes, and the lamest lame duck in American history.
Since popular vote totals were first recorded in 1824, four presidents have been elected while losing the popular vote (five, if you count John F. Kennedy in 1960). None were incumbents seeking re-election. And three of the four – George W. Bush in 2000, Benjamin Harrison in 1888, and John Quincy Adams in 1824 (as well as JFK) – could legitimately claim a different sort of mandate upon election: while they may not have won the popular vote, their parties won or kept control of the House of Representatives, the House of Congress that – unlike the Senate and the Electoral College – represents the people in roughly equal proportion:
Bush: 47.87% of the popular vote; 221-212 House majority; Republicans won House popular vote 47.3% to 47.0%.
JFK: 49.72% of the popular vote; 262-175 House majority; Democrats won House popular vote 54.4% to 44.8%.
Harrison: 47.8% of the popular vote; 179-152 House majority.
Adams: 30.92% of the popular vote; 109-104 House majority.
Harrison and JFK also brought to office commanding majorities in the Senate (Republicans gained twelve Senate seats in 1888 for a 51-37 majority; Democrats after the 1960 election had a 64-36 majority in the Senate).
Obama, even if elected, would undoubtedly face a re-elected Republican House majority, one that quite likely will have won a majority or at least a plurality of the popular vote and will have a stronger claim to a popular mandate than the president. The only president to lose the popular vote and have his party lose the House vote in the same year was Hayes in 1876, who lost the popular vote by 3 points and faced a 155-136 Democratic majority, but was able to resolve the disputed election by means of a thoroughly corrupt backroom deal to end the post-Civil War Reconstruction of the South and otherwise trade favors to the Democrats in exchange for counting the ‘carpetbagger’ electoral votes of Florida, South Carolina and Louisiana for the Republicans and ignoring Democratic votes on grounds of ‘voter suppression.’ Unsurprisingly, Hayes was a famously ineffective president as a result, best known today for mediating a dispute between Paraguay and Argentina. His domestic agenda of civil service reform and civil rights protections went nowhere, and Congress overrode his veto of a major currency bill and left one of his Supreme Court appointments without a floor vote until after Hayes left office. He did not seek re-election.
Nixon in 1968 would be the closest modern analogue, winning the popular vote by 0.7% (with 43.42% of the vote) in a 3-way race while Democrats held a 243-192 House majority and won the House popular vote 50% to 48.2%. Nixon, of course, followed a resolutely liberal domestic policy the next four years, and his efforts to retain executive powers outside House Democratic control came to ultimate grief.
Turning to presidents seeking re-election, only three have been re-elected by a popular vote margin of less than 6 points: Bush in 2004 (2.46 points), Wilson in 1916 (3.12 points), and Truman in 1948 (4.48 points), and one of those three (Bush) won a majority of the popular vote (besides Truman and Wilson, Bill Clinton in 1996 is the only other president re-elected without a popular vote majority). But Truman saw his party seize majorities in both the House and Senate away from the Republicans. Bush won a popular vote majority, expanded his share of the popular vote, added 12 million votes more than he won in 2000, and saw the GOP expand its House majority to 30 seats. His second term nonetheless ended in political disaster for his party. Only Wilson, of the three, lost partisan control of the House (by one seat), but the Democrats were able to retain their majority by forming a coalition with Socialist and Progressive members. While World War I dominated Wilson’s next two years (elected on the slogan “He Kept Us Out Of War,” Wilson took the country into the war 31 days after the start of his second term), it ended in total political disaster, with Republicans blocking Wilson’s treasured League of Nations plan and the uninspiring Warren G. Harding winning the largest popular majority in American history in 1920 just by promising a “Return to Normalcy.” Democrats would not regain their House majority until 1930, the White House until 1932. None of this bodes well for Obama’s ability to govern or lead his party if he was somehow able to squeeze re-election out of the Electoral College.
Of course, there are reasons – the courts, the administrative agencies – why ideological liberals should want Obama to win, no matter how weakened his condition. But given that Obama would enter a second term as a crippled lame duck with no experience knowing how to cut bipartisan deals, you have to wonder why anyone else – viewing the challenges facing the nation the next four years – would want him to continue in office in such circumstances.

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Why I Think Obama Is Toast

Barack Obama is toast. This is not something I say lightly. I generally try to remain cautious about predictions, because the prediction business is a humbling one. I have never been especially bullish on Mitt Romney, and I spent most of the summer and early fall arguing that this was basically a neck-and-neck race that would go down to the wire. But in the end, two things stand out:
One, Mitt Romney has a consistent, significant lead among independent voters, which increasingly looks like a double-digit lead. This is especially clear in national polls, but can also be seen in the key swing state polls. It’s been a hard enough number for the past few weeks now, even as the last of the debates gets baked into the polls, that there’s little chance that Obama can turn it around in the 11 days remaining in this race. In fact, Obama has been underwater with independents almost continuously since the middle of 2009.
Two, to overcome losing independents by more than a few points, Obama needs to have a decisive advantage in Democratic turnout, roughly on the order of – or in some places exceeding – the advantage he enjoyed in 2008, when Democrats nationally had a 7-point advantage (39-32). Yet nearly every indicator we have of turnout suggests that, relative to Republicans, the Democrats are behind where they were in 2008. Surveys by the two largest professional pollsters, Rasmussen and Gallup, actually suggest that Republicans will have a turnout advantage, which has happened only once (in the 2002 midterms) in the history of exit polling and probably hasn’t happened in a presidential election year since the 1920s.
Those two facts alone caused me to conclude at the end of last week that Obama will lose – perhaps lose a very close race, but lose just the same. That conclusion is only underscored by the fact that, historically, there is little reason to believe that the remaining undecided voters will break for an incumbent in tough economic times. He will lose the national popular vote, and the fact that he has remained competitive to the end in the two key swing states he needs to win (Ohio and Wisconsin) will not save him.

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Barack Obama’s Potemkin Bipartisanship

One of the major reasons why Mitt Romney was able to make such rapid inroads against Barack Obama in their first debate, and why poll after poll shows that independent voters have turned decisively against Obama, is that Romney was able to lay bare the hollowness of Obama’s claims to bipartisanship. And given the Obama record of the past four years, there is no reason to believe he will ever learn his lesson.

For a reminder what real bipartisan leadership looks like, recall Bill Clinton. Clinton’s first two years in office were – aside from championing NAFTA and GATT with Republican support and passage of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act – a series of lurches to the left, some successful (he added to George H.W. Bush’s tax hikes), some unsuccessful (Congress blocked his proposals for universal health care and a BTU tax), and just a few ending in compromise (Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell). Voters responded by running Democrats, in a landslide, out of their 40-year House majority, their Senate majority and a bevy of state governorships to boot.

Clinton, ever the survivor, read the writing on the wall. He and GOP House Speaker Newt Gingrich (and Senate leader Bob Dole) fought each other hammer and tongs with every weapon in the book and some new ones to boot, but they also did business with each other, cutting deals that garnered Republican votes and a Clinton signature. (Just one Republican legislative priority, the Private Securities Litigation Reform Act, passed over Clinton’s veto). The voters, seeing that Clinton was steering a course more in line with the Congress they had elected, rewarded Clinton with a second term.

How did he do it? Partly charm and public pressure, of course, but Clinton also did the two most important things in any negotiation: he gave Republicans things they wanted, and didn’t demand Republicans vote for things they couldn’t support. Let’s review several of the accomplishments, large and small, of the the 104th Congress, 1995-96:

-After the bruising 1995 government shutdown, Clinton and the GOP agreed to budgets that restrained spending enough to balance the budget without further tax increases. The spending cuts would leave many conservatives unimpressed, and gushing tax revenues from the boom in technology and free trade would help the budget reach balance (as would a capital gains tax cut signed in Clinton’s second term), but the point is that Republicans got at least some of what they wanted (restraining spending as a percent of GDP from over 22% in Fiscal Year 1992 to 19.6% – under 20% for the first time since the Nixon years – in Fiscal Year 1997) and didn’t have to violate pledges to resist tax hikes.

The Paperwork Reduction Act of 1995 sought to reduce paperwork requirements in federal regulation, a goal that satisfied pro-market conservatives as well as Vice President Gore’s efforts at the time to streamline government operations.

The Helms-Burton Act extended and expanded sanctions on Cuba, a conservative foreign policy priority championed by Jesse Helms.

-The Telecommunications Act of 1996 included broadcast and cable deregulatory provisions; the Act was complex and would remain controversial, but it was a significant piece of legislation that gave something to everyone.

-The Line Item Veto Act, although later struck down by the Supreme Court, was a longstanding conservative priority and part of the Contract with America. Of course, it gave Clinton something too – more presidential power.

-The Contract with America had proposed a Taking Back Our Streets Act anti-crime agenda, reflecting decades of conservative agitation for stronger law enforcement and longer prison terms. Many of its provisions ended up in subsequent enactments including the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, which among other things placed new restrictions on abuses of the habeas corpus process, strengthened the federal death penalty, and imposed immigration restrictions on various types of offenders.

The Congressional Review Act, signed by Clinton in March 1996, gave Congress greater power to reject overbearing regulations passed by administrative agencies, again a conservative priority.

-The 1996 “Taxpayer Bill of Rights 2” would offer a variety of efforts at procedural protections for targets of the IRS, always a conservative bugaboo.

-The Small Business Job Protection Act of 1996, sponsored by Bill Archer, would – among other things – expand 401(k)s for small businesses and use tax credits to promote adoption. It also included something of value to liberals (an increase in the minimum wage) that conservatives traditionally object to but are willing to treat as a bargaining chip rather than a poison pill.

-The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 accomplished a number of the goals of the failed HillaryCare health insurance proposal, but in more incremental fashion that many Republicans could swallow, such as protecting continuing coverage for people with pre-existing conditions who already have health insurance and then change jobs to an employer with a different plan.

Welfare reform in the form of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act, a conservative priority ever since Ronald Reagan’s reforms to California’s welfare system in the early 1970s and a cornerstone of the Contract with America, was passed and signed by Clinton in late August 1996 (during the week between the Republican and Democratic conventions) following a drawn-out battle that had featured two Clinton vetos. It remains the only major example of a federal entitlement program undergoing significant reform.

-The Domestic Violence Offender Gun Ban, a/k/a the Lautenberg Amendment, incorporated a variety of provisions designed to prevent people convicted of crimes of domestic violence from owning guns. Broad-ranging gun control was out of the question for a GOP Congress elected with major NRA support in revolt over the “assault weapons ban,” but a bill narrowly targeted at a class of criminals was able to attract enough Republican support to pass.

-The Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act of 1996 limited liability for charitable donors of food. A small bill, but one that combined two Republican passions: tort reform and private charity.

-The Defense of Marriage Act, signed into law by Clinton on September 21, 1996 with overwhelming bipartisan support in both Houses of Congress, gave states protection against being compelled to accept out-of-state same-sex marriages in other states; “Section 3 of DOMA codifies the non-recognition of same-sex marriages for all federal purposes, including insurance benefits for government employees, Social Security survivors’ benefits, and the filing of joint tax returns.” DOMA was and is, obviously, a social conservative priority.

-The Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996, signed by Clinton on September 30, 1996, imposed a variety of measures to tighten enforcement of the immigration laws, mainly by strengthening deportation provisions and expanding the ability to deport those convicted of crimes and keep out of the country those already deported. IIRIRA may not have satisfied border hawks, but like a number of Clinton-era initiatives it built bridges between moderates in both parties by targeting a narrow class of criminals.

“The Regulatory Accounting Act, passed in the final weeks of the 104th Congress, requires the executive branch to produce an annual report for Congress estimating the total benefits and costs of all federal regulations.” This, too, was a longstanding conservative reform proposal. Also passing at the end was the Small Business Regulatory Enforcement Fairness Act, a Kit Bond-backed bill to ease regulatory burdens on small business, a perennial Republican priority.
Another Contract with America promise, the $500 per child tax credit, would be signed into law by Clinton in 1997.

Whether conservatives got a good deal out of all this, whether they chose wisely in striking each of these deals, and whether these bills worked in practice as promised is a whole separate issue. The point is, there’s a lot on that list that gave conservatives and Republicans things they wanted and had been agitating for over the prior two decades, and nothing on the list that compelled Republican legislators to go home to their constituents having broken any major promise or violated any core principle.

Continue reading Barack Obama’s Potemkin Bipartisanship

The Debate Dogs That Didn’t Bark
The debates are over. It’s worth taking a look at what they didn’t cover, which is sometimes as telling as what was said. In 2000 – as I noted in my first widely-read blog post a decade ago, and as Romney noted last night – the subject of terrorism was not even raised, although it would come to dominate Bush’s tenure in office. Some things got less play than you might expect; perhaps the single biggest surprise of last night was that nobody mentioned Benjamin Netanyahu by name, but there was plenty of discussion of Israel (if surprisingly little on the “peace process”). Others got downplayed for obvious reasons; there was discussion of Obamacare at the first debate in particular, but little direct controversy on the individual mandate, perhaps unsurprisingly given Romney’s record.
But here’s a list of the issues that didn’t get discussed at all in any of the debates, in no particular order:
1-The Federal Reserve/monetary policy/QE3/the next Fed chairman
2-The EU and the Eurozone crisis, other than the use of Greece as a cautionary tale. Indeed, Europe in general was largely ignored, in marked contrast to the Bush-Kerry debates in 2004.
3-The descent of Mexico into chaos, other than Romney’s brief discussion – cut off by Candy Crowley – of Operation Fast & Furious.
4-Same-sex marriage. The only reference to any gay-rights issue was a brief mention by Obama of repealing Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.
5-Climate change/global warming/cap and trade
6-Racial preferences; Romney discussed affirmative action for women, but the subject didn’t otherwise come up.
7-Welfare reform and Obama’s waivers on the issue
8-The death penalty
9-Campaign finance reform
10-Guantanamo and detainee policy
11-Interrogation policy
12-Surveillance policy
13-The TSA/airport security
14-The War on Drugs
15-Sanctions on Cuba
16-U.S. relations with India
17-No Child Left Behind, although there was quite a lot of discussion of education.
18-Stem cell research
19-The growth of executive power, including Obama’s use of executive orders and “czars”
20-H-1B visas, guest worker programs and the border fence with Mexico.
21-Right-to-work and public employee collective bargaining.
22-The BP oil spill
23-Evolution (yes, I know, this is only asked during GOP debates)

Barack Obama: Corporatist Collectivist (Part I of IV)

Barack Obama is not a socialist. It’s not surprising that people call him one: to the typical voter, “socialist” is often just shorthand for the next step leftward on the political spectrum from being an ordinary liberal, and people need a vocabulary to express their sense that they see in Obama a further left turn from Mondale-Dukakis-Kerry liberalism. To this day, the Democrats’ caucus in the Senate includes one self-described socialist, but the rest of the party flees the description. The fact that Obama’s political supporters react with horror when you call him a socialist is, at least, a concession that everyone – even actual socialists – agrees that the label is political poison with most American voters.
Nor is the label especially unfair: Obama’s own biography is full of close associations and alliances with actual socialists and even Communists (his acknowledged teen mentor, Frank Marshall Davis, was a card-carrying member of the Communist Party USA). In 1996, when he was first elected to public office, he signed an agreement to run on a left-wing third party’s ticket and platform to signal to voters that the Democrats weren’t far left enough for him. In 2000, the newsletter of an organization of actual socialists – the Chicago Democratic Socialists of America – wrote: “When Obama participated in a 1996 UofC YDS Townhall Meeting on Economic Insecurity, much of what he had to say was well within the mainstream of European social democracy.”
A more accurate description of Obama, however – and of the Democratic party under his leadership – is that of collectivist, just as socialists are; but that this collectivism takes the form of corporatism. A review of both rhetoric and policy under Obama illustrates this. To understand why, you must first consider the meaning and history of collectivism and corporatism.

Continue reading Barack Obama: Corporatist Collectivist (Part I of IV)

Barack Obama: Corporatist Collectivist (Part II of IV)

II. Obama and His Democrats: Their Own Words and Ideas
Before we get to Obama’s policies, it’s important to lay the groundwork. Let’s look at his ideas.
Barack Obama is well-known for his polished oratory, his delivery off a TelePrompter of carefully prepared and vetted speeches. Unsurprisingly, these prepared texts generally seek to cast his ideas and programs as consistent with the American traditions of free enterprise, free markets, free people and free institutions. But there is a long history of mostly unscripted statements from Obama and his wife Michelle – which I supplement here with just a few choice examples from the party he commands – that reveal a consistent strain of his thinking that is hostile to private business and the private sector, favorable to redistribution of wealth, and collectivist in worldview. Together, they illustrate the rationalizations behind Obama’s policies.

Continue reading Barack Obama: Corporatist Collectivist (Part II of IV)

Barack Obama: Corporatist Collectivist (Part III of IV)

III. The Stimulus, The Bailouts, and Obamacare
The Obama Administration’s policies, in action, provide copious examples of both a broader inclination towards collectivism and a specific pattern of corporatism. Over and over, Obama has attempted to use federal spending, tax and regulatory powers to coopt institutions and mute competition in pursuit of greater government ability to redistribute wealth. Part III looks at the three main areas in which this has played out in the Administration’s policies: the stimulus, the bailouts, and Obamacare.
A. The Stimulus
The 2009 stimulus bill was Obama’s first major legislative initiative. An economic “stimulus” bill is a cat that can be skinned in a number of different ways, ranging from the free-market approach of permanent cuts in income tax rates to the old-time big-government solution of just laying out taxpayer money to hire a whole lot of people who are out of work (think of FDR’s makework WPA projects).
Obama’s stimulus incorporated some tax rebates, albeit mostly in the form of temporary credits, and a good deal of direct government spending (although Obama would later bemoan that there were fewer “shovel-ready” projects than he expected). But significant portions of the bill were corporatist endeavors: having the government invest in private ventures that cultivated government favor, and distributing funds designed to coopt potential political adversaries. Let’s consider an example of each.
1. Green Jobs
Typically, in a corporatist system, the businesses that get capital, subsidies and contracts are those that have the favor of the government. Obama’s wastes of taxpayer money on “green jobs” companies like Solyndra, Abound Solar, and A123 – many of them, not coincidentally, politically connected – are perfect examples of this. To see how the process works up close, consider, as a specific example, Al Gore:

Fourteen green-tech firms in which Gore invested received or directly benefited from more than $2.5 billion in loans, grants and tax breaks, part of President Obama’s historic push to seed a U.S. renewable-energy industry with public money….
Before the election, Gore launched a public campaign known as “Repower America,” aimed at encouraging the public and the next administration to support government investments in clean energy. His Alliance for Climate Protection was running numerous ads…
At the same time, Gore’s venture partner, Doerr, had been raising money for Democrats to take back the White House, holding big-check receptions with Silicon Valley investors. He and fellow Kleiner partners and spouses donated more than $800,000 to Democrats, much of it for Obama and state efforts to get out the vote.
At GIM, five of Gore’s principals, including co-founder David Blood, wrote $130,000 in checks to aid Obama’s bid, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
As Obama was preparing to take office, it was clear his public agenda supporting clean energy aligned with Gore’s personal agenda. Obama held a highly publicized meeting with Gore at transition headquarters in Chicago to talk about energy policy. Later, Obama closely echoed several of Gore’s talking points and his plan for public investment in clean energy. Obama even adopted Gore’s campaign catchphrase for the effort, “Repower America.”…
Gore’s orbit extended deeply into the administration, with several former aides winning senior clean-energy posts. Among them were Carol Browner, a former Gore political operative who became the president’s climate change czar, and Ron Klain, Gore’s former chief of staff who went to work for Vice President Biden overseeing the stimulus.
Those connections were underscored in October 2009, when Jonathan Silver, under consideration to head the $38 billion ­clean-energy loan program, hosted a party to help Gore raise money for the Alliance for Climate Protection.
Silver invited the Department of Energy’s chief financial officer, days before the official was scheduled to meet Silver to discuss the job.

How valuable was all this influence? Well, “[a]n administration official said more than 80 percent of applicants the first year were turned away,” but “[o]f the 11 companies [Gore] mentioned in his 2008 slide show, nine received or directly benefited from stimulus or clean energy funding” – an 82% success rate.
On the whole, the green jobs agenda was (predictably) a fiasco as far as efficient use of public funds. The Energy Department estimated that, rather than the projected 5 million jobs, it ended up spending $21 billion on projects that employ 28,854 people – a cost of $728,000 per job. But the real point of the endeavor was a combination of Obama’s belief that the government could pick winners in the energy sector of the economy, a misguided hope that investment could be profitably directed to serve a public purpose (environmentalism) and, of course, the familiar desire to reward political allies. A free market system of energy investment would be burdened by no such illusions or designs.
2. Strings Attached
As discussed above, part of the strategy of collectivists in America’s federal system is not just to coopt private institutions, but also to place state and local governments under more nationally uniform management. Where Louis Brandeis once wrote that “[i]t is one of the happy incidents of the federal system that a single courageous state may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory; and try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country,” today’s liberals almost invariably see dissenting states as obstacles to nationally uniform plans, engaged in a “race to the bottom” to reduce taxes and regulation in order to steal business from other states. This leads to ridiculous endeavors like trying to set a national minimum wage.
Many of the provisions of the stimulus bill involved doling out money to states for unemployment benefits, Medicaid, transportation and education. But those funds came with major strings attached – strings that seemed directly designed not just to force a one-size-fits all solution from Washington on the states, but perhaps specifically to prevent any state governor from operating a competing model that could be presented to the voters later on as an example of how to do things better than Obama. The crop of potential presidential challengers among sitting governors at the time included Sarah Palin, Tim Pawlenty, Rick Perry, Mark Sanford, Haley Barbour, Jon Hunstman and Bobby Jindal; it was clear from the outset that the Administration made it a goal to handcuff Obama’s political rivals from campaigning against the strimulus if it failed. (The DNC ran ads against Sanford for turning down stimulus money, and Democrats in other states blasted the other GOP governors on a similar basis). And lest some governors reject those funds, the bill contained unprecedented provisions allowing state legislatures to override their governor and accept the funds.
Perry, for example, complained that the stimulus bill required Texas to change its rules for unemployment eligibility, in ways it wouldn’t be able to change back when the temporary federal money ran out:

Provisions in the federal bill allow Texas to receive $556 million if it broadens its eligibility – for instance, lets part-time workers collect benefits even if they search for less than full-time work, and grants extended benefits to people in retraining programs.
The state also would have to consider recent wages in calculating a laid-off worker’s income, not the current method that can go back nearly 18 months.

Palin similarly rejected funds containing “strings that will bind the state in the future.” Jindal rejected new Medicaid funding on similar grounds, leading Obama to pivot into campaign mode even back in 2009.
In the end, the coercive power of the federal government was hard for even sovereign states to resist, as most of the Republican governors were compelled by state legislatures to scale back their opposition. In the short term, Obama got what he wanted: fewer states that could promote themselves as competing models. Perhaps not coincidentally, he ended up with a general election opponent who’d been out of government since before Obama’s term started.
B. The Auto Bailout and TARP
Corporatism is not solely a Democratic phenomenon, although wherever it exists in our government, the Democrats will press for a wider scope for its activities. A perfect example is the TARP and auto bailouts. Both began under George W. Bush as short-term programs; both were supported at the time by Obama and other Democrats; and both were expanded and prolonged under Obama.
Treasury Secretary Paulson’s initial meetings with the CEOs of the major banks actually provides a fairly perfect example of the corporatist-collectivist approach. Wells Fargo CEO Richard Kovacevich didn’t want to accept TARP funds, believing that his bank didn’t need them and didn’t want the strings that would be attached, the scope of which were not entirely clear at the time. Here’s what happened next:

“As my comments were heading in that direction in the meeting, Hank Paulson turned to Fed Chairman Ben Benanke sitting next to him and said, ‘Your primary regulator is sitting right here. If you refuse to accept these funds, he will declare you ‘capital deficient’ Monday morning,'” Kovacevich recalled. “‘Is this America?’ I asked myself.”
“This was truly a ‘godfather moment.’ They made us an offer we couldn’t refuse,” Kovacevich said, adding that he might have put up more of a fight if the San Francisco bank had not been trying to acquire troubled Wachovia at the time.

Paulson’s logic was that if some banks made it known that they didn’t need TARP money, their success would reflect badly on those who did – a dynamic that repeated itself with the auto bailout. Ford ran ads touting the fact that it hadn’t needed a bailout – but pulled them swiftly after the White House complained that they reflected poorly on Ford’s bailed-out competitors (Ford, needing to stay on the White House’s good side, then denied that the ad had been pulled as a result of political pressure). In an industry that depends so heavily on government favor, none of the major players can speak their mind freely, even at the risk of kneecapping their own willingness to compete with what are supposed to be their competitors.
The auto bailout under Obama was headed by Steve Rattner, who – speaking of corporatism – was later sanctioned by the SEC for a pay-to-play scheme to steer New York state pension business his way. And it – like TARP – undeniably involved the government in picking winners and losers among the various players in the industry based upon whether they were politically favored:

In moving to get Chrysler through bankruptcy and into the hands of Fiat CEO Sergio Marchionne, the president’s auto task force bullied Chrysler bondholders and managed successfully to place the unsecured claims of the UAW ahead of secured creditors.
In moving to get GM back to independence, the Treasury Department sold part of its equity stake in the automaker at an initial public offering. But the shares now trade consistently lower than their offer price, meaning taxpayers stand to lose as much as $15 billion on the government’s remaining 26.5-percent stake in GM, according to Treasury estimates.
In moving to get GM through bankruptcy, the task force and its bosses at Treasury effectively shafted 22,000 salaried retirees of the former Delphi Corp., the long-time GM parts supplier the automaker spun off in 1999. Despite an 85 percent funding level in its pension fund, Treasury urged the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. to seize the Delphi pension plan.
The net effect: Many retirees saw their annual payouts cut by as much as two thirds, even as union members were “topped up” with taxpayer dollars from the Troubled Asset Relief Program; their former colleagues at GM saw comparatively minor cuts to their pensions; and key members of the auto task force still won’t tell congressional investigators who made the call to treat Delphi’s salaried retirees differently than everyone else.
In moving to get both GM and Chrysler through bankruptcy, the task force essentially ordered the automakers to cut thousands of independent dealers from their distribution networks, irrespective of the dealers’ profitability, customer service performance and even location.

The Delphi investigation is continuing, with emails showing political involvement in the relevant decisions. Meanwhile the Administration has been resisting GM’s requests that the Treasury sell its multibillion-dollar stake in the company, out of concern for showing a loss on its investment. GM’s fate remains at the mercy of politics.
A similar dynamic played out in the TARP program, with powerful House Committee chairs like Barney Frank and Maxine Waters intervening to steer TARP funds to favored banks, part of a broader pattern of influence:

U.S. banks that spent more on lobbying were more likely to get government bailout money according to Ran Duchin and Denis Sosyura at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business. Their study reveals a twisted correlation between a bank’s bailout and its proximity to an elected politician.
Banks with an executive who sat on the board of a Federal Reserve Bank were 31 percent more likely to get bailouts through TARP, and those with ties to a finance committee member were 26 percent more likely to get capital purchase program funds.
Members of the House of Representatives were also a good way in — the study showed that more funds went to banks with headquarters in the district of a member who served on a committee or subcommittee related to TARP.

Not content with playing favorites among large banks, Obama then tried to pivot to getting smaller banks on the take, pledging in his 2010 State of the Union to tax the big banks and “take $30 billion of the money Wall Street banks have repaid and use it to help community banks give small businesses the credit they need to stay afloat.” It requires little imagination to picture the precise same process of lobbying and favoritism playing itself out on the community-bank level.
Of course, these and other bailouts reduce the risk in investing in large corporations – and that’s one of the reasons why we see soaring stock markets even as corporate earnings plunge. Financial instruments like stocks, after all, are all about taking risks to earn rewards – and the less the risk involved, the less rewards you require to make it worthwhile.
(For professional reasons, I can’t get further into financial-industry issues, but suffice it to say that not only have there been many more specific complaints lodged against the corporatist tendencies of TARP in action, but of the labrynthian Dodd-Frank bill as well, see here and here).
C. Obamacare
Obamacare, of course, is the granddaddy of all collectivist, corporatist programs under Obama. Just a few examples will show how.
1. The Insurance Mandate
The core, controversial heart of Obamacare is the idea that – in order to give uninsured people health insurance coverage – all Americans would be mandated to buy coverage (the “individual mandate”), and all insurers would be required to take all comers regardless of their insurance risks (“guaranteed issue”) and would be regulated in their ability to price for those risks (“community rating”).
Obama could have chosen just to subsidize the uninsured to buy insurance. But instead, the entire pricing mechanism of the insurance market for everyone is altered by the requirements of guaranteed issue and community rating, the first of which massively increases insurers’ costs, and the second of which prevents them from passing those costs on to high-risk insureds. This ensures that those insureds receive coverage that is worth more than they paid for it. Instead, those costs are imposed on everyone who has insurance, by means of the individual mandate. The Supreme Court explained how the mandate works as a subsidy:

By requiring that individuals purchase health insurance, the mandate prevents cost-shifting by those who would otherwise go without it. In addition, the mandate forces into the insurance risk pool more healthy individuals, whose premiums on average will be higher than their health care expenses. This allows insurers to subsidize the costs of covering the unhealthy individuals the reforms require them to accept.

Here we have the perfect match of collectivism (i.e, raising the cost of insurance across the board to subsidize high-risk insureds) and corporatism (rather than create a “public option” by which government would service those high-risk insureds directly, it forces individuals to buy policies from private companies). Its defenders used explicitly collectivist arguments to justify its constitutionality. And lest the insurers misbehave, the public option or a straight-up single payer plan (which Obama has previously described as his ultimate goal, but for now uses as the bad-cop threat) looms as a threat down the road.
In the meantime, insurers and employers are under an ever-increasing web of regulatory control that will continue to sap their independence. The most controversial example is the HHS contraceptive mandate, which requires employer-provided coverage to include contraception, and fails to exempt many Catholic and other religious institutions that object to being compelled to provide something that violates their religious principles. The number of employees actually affected by the HHS contraceptive mandate, and the amount of money involved, is minuscule in comparison to the health care system as a whole; one would ordinarily think that the issue is far too small for a president facing re-election to justify an open breach with the Catholic Church over it. The heavy emphasis placed on the fight by the Obama campaign, all the way down to having Sandra Fluke speak at its convention, suggests that perhaps this was all just a deliberate campaign strategy, and that’s one possible interpretation. But it also signals something more deeply troubling in this Administration: a determination to impose its will on the Church. The whole fight is nothing if not a test of who has power over one of the terms of employment at Catholic institutions. This effort to bring the Church to heel at the federal government’s command is a textbook example of how corporatist systems inevitably demand that all the major free institutions be reminded that the government calls the tune. Obama’s own defense of the mandate is, again, revealing of his tendency to draw everyone into the web of owing the government:

[W]e did say that big Catholic hospitals or universities who employ a lot of non-Catholics and who receive a lot of federal money, that for them to be in a position to say to a woman who works there you can’t get that from your insurance company even though the institution isn’t paying for it, that that crosses the line where that woman, she suddenly is gonna have to bear the burden and the cost of that. And that’s not fair.

You took the money, whether you originally wanted it or not. And now Uncle Sam has the leverage to make you violate even your religion.
[UPDATE: I neglected to mention here one of the most egregious examples of the corporatist tendencies of the various mandates – the fact that the Administration has been profligate handing out waivers to unions and other favored constituencies, exempting them from Obamacare’s requirements. This is the corruption of the system at its finest: the passing of onerous laws, from which major donors and political allies are exempted]
2. The Backroom Deals
Legislation, especially big, complicated legislation, invariably involves all sorts of backroom wheeling and dealing and favor-trading among legislators and industry and labor or other interest group lobbies (this is one good reason to avoid such legislation whenever possible). There is, of course, nothing inherently wrong with lobbyists getting a hearing when their industry’s ox is potentially about to be gored, but the more a bill hands out rewards and punishments among different economic interest groups, the uglier this process gets. Liberals complained – and not without reason – about the drug companies’ involvement in the Medicare Part D bill in 2003, but Obamacare took that to the next level; not only was the bill written with the substantial involvement of lobbyists for the insurance and drug companies, but the negotiations included a quid pro quo connecting the legislation to the behavior of private businesses, while putting on the sham public appearance of Obama being tough with business:

[D]rug lobbyists, White House officials and aides to Sen. Max Baucus hammered out a deal that formed the backbone of Obamacare. The final bill would subsidize prescription drugs, force states to include drug coverage in Medicaid, and expand private insurance coverage of drugs. Also, the White House pledged to oppose policies that Obama had promised on the campaign trail: allowing reimportation of prescription drugs and empowering Medicare to negotiate for lower prices on the drugs Medicare is paying for. In return, drug companies would offer a discount to some senior citizens, and would spend millions of dollars on ads supporting the bill and the lawmakers who backed it.

Even The Nation was appalled by the way the process was handled. Given this modus operandi, it is not surprising that – as Tim Carney has noted – you can scarcely throw a rock around the Obama Administration without hitting a political appointee who has worked as a lobbyist.
3. Medicaid
Obamacare vastly expanded the Medicaid program, and in an echo of the stimulus program, ran so roughshod over independent state sovereignty that the Supreme Court, by a 7-2 margin – including Justice Breyer and Obama’s own former Solicitor General, Justice Kagan – found it the unconstitutional equivalent of a “gun to the head” of the states.
Medicaid is jointly funded between the federal government and the states, and already consumes an ever-increasing share of state spending. It used to be a voluntary program, and in its early years, some states opted out of some or all of the program. By now, all 50 states are in the program, but at least in theory they are still free to take or leave additional federal expansions.
Obamacare required participating states to enormously increase their Medicaid spending by relaxing eligibility, in part to fund Medicaid recipients’ ability to comply with the individual mandate. The federal government would cover these expenses in the short run, but as with the stimulus, with no promises to continue doing so once states were locked into the new system: “because the new Medicaid enrollees will now be dependent on the government, states won’t be politically or legally able to roll back their programs, leaving state taxpayers with the bill. The Wall Street Journal aptly compares this to ‘a subprime loan with a teaser rate and balloon payment.'”
Some states projected that under the new rules, Medicaid would consume around a quarter of their budgets (the average state’s share is already 20 percent). Many governors, especially Republicans, balked at a huge expansion of their budgets by a program outside their control at a time when state budgets are already deeply stressed, but Congress threatened in the bill that any state refusing to agree to the new eligibility rules would lose every penny of their funding. They complained to the Court that this was a threat to independent state self-government, and the Court agreed. Obama had gone too far.
4. The Regulatory Forest
Even beyond the best-known mandates and the Medicaid expansion, the blizzard of new regulations under Obamacare provides plenty of corporatism’s classic incentives towards bigness and a cozy relationship between government and large, captive private institutions. Ben Domenech explains:

The president’s health care law contains rafts of new regulations, benchmarks, and taxes for providers to deal with. Since these limit profit margins and create new administrative costs, they make it very appealing for health care providers to merge into gigantic, sprawling systems of care…
…Obama’s law …giv[es] these large entities even more incentive to merge through the creation of accountable care organizations (ACOs). These large health care entities will destroy any hope for competition in a marketplace, driving out or buying out independent doctors and extracting as much money as possible from taxpayer-funded entitlements and the privately insured.
We’ve already seen this happen under a system similar to Obama’s, in Massachusetts, where the state’s largest insurer and hospital system collaborated in a secret handshake agreement: The insurer promised to pay the hospital system more money in exchange for an agreement that the hospital would stick all other insurers with the same rate increases. This is classic cartel behavior, and it will only increase under Obama’s law. And thanks to government subsidies and our third-party payer system where patients and providers are insulated from price signals, costs will only continue to increase for the rest of us.

This is the corporatist model: reduce the number of players in the industry to a handful of powerful interest groups that could fit around a table, then have government treat them as its (decidedly junior) partners, leaving individuals and small businesses out in the cold.
See Part I and Part II. In Part IV, the same trends play out in other policy areas.

Barack Obama: Corporatist Collectivist (Part IV of IV)

IV. Obama and the Democrats: Their Policies
See Part I, Part II & Part III. The stimulus, bailouts and Obamacare are the most egregious and well-known examples of the corporatist tendencies in Obama’s policy portfolio. But there numerous others.
A. Entitlement Reform
What is the purpose of Social Security and Medicare? They are neither individualist programs, in which individuals provide for themselves, nor welfare programs, in which the well-off provide for others. Rather, in their design, both programs are undeniably collectivist: they require contributions from all, even those who die before they can collect any benefits, and provide benefits to all pursuant to the same formulas regardless of need and – in the case of Medicare – regardless of contributions.
If the primary purpose of these programs is to provide retirement and medical benefits, then the government should be willing to look at what most private companies have done and what even state-level Democrats are starting to concede (grudgingly, and not uniformly) must be done for more state retirees to keep such programs fiscally sustainable: switch to something more like a defined-contribution plan where your contributions become actual assets you own, rather than a defined-benefits plan. Such a plan can still be supplemented by welfare-style benefits if it leaves the poorest Americans short, but it would free most Americans from being tied into a single, one-size-fits-all plan where their benefits are tied to everyone else’s.
Yet, every time Republicans propose something to move these programs in that direction, even on a limited, optional basis – from Bush’s private Social Security accounts plan to Paul Ryan’s Medicare premium support plan to Health Savings Accounts – Democrats from Obama on down react with shrieking horror at altering the collectivist structure of these programs. Obamacare, for example, targeted HSAs with burdensome new regulations aimed at driving them out of business, and could run most small business employees out of HSA. Obama, in the first debate, defended on explicitly collectivist grounds his main objection to premium support:

Now, in fairness, what Governor Romney has now said is he’ll maintain traditional Medicare alongside it. But there’s still a problem, because what happens is, those insurance companies are pretty clever at figuring out who are the younger and healthier seniors. They recruit them, leaving the older, sicker seniors in Medicare. And every health care economist that looks at it says, over time, what’ll happen is the traditional Medicare system will collapse.

In other words, Obama recognizes that competition could offer some seniors a better deal than they have now – and that’s his problem.
B. Education Policy
Barack Obama has posed, at times, as a reform-minded Democrat on education for supporting charter schools. But his persistent opposition to private school choice, like that of his party, is inseparable from a collectivist view of education. Obama spent years opposing even a small school choice program in DC before relenting briefly during the current election, and while he has been cagey in his own public statements, the reasons given by his allies strike a familiar note:

Opponents of the program, including Mayor Vincent Gray and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), say that it steers attention and resources away from public schools in need and the city’s thriving charter school program.

This is a commonly-made argument, and one that is inherently collectivist: if a student leaving a school helps that student, it should not matter that the school has less funding left, especially if that funding remains the same on a per-student basis. When you strip away the veneer of pragmatic arguments (all of which attack the performance of school choice in the aggregate, rather than arguing that it’s not in the interests of individual students whose parents believe otherwise), the arguments marshalled against school choice, and private education in general (all of which are familiar to regular participants in this area), are all collectivist: that choice drains schools of good students (subtext: the good students must suffer for the benefit of weaker ones), and that public education has general benefits to society, ranging from inculcation of common ‘values’ to forcible racial integration. Not one of these arguments depends upon the idea that the policy prescriptions at issue benefit each and every student individually, or would be chosen by them or their parents voluntarily. This essay arguing for banning private schools, from Gawker’s execrable John Cook, is an extreme articulation of that view, but not an uncommon one:

From a purely strategic and practical standpoint, it would be much easier to resolve the schools crisis if the futures of America’s wealthiest and most powerful children were at stake. Wealthy people tend to lobby effectively for their interests, and if their interests were to include adequate public funding for the schools their children attend, and libraries, and air-conditioning, those goals could likely be achieved without having to resort to unpleasant things like teachers’ strikes.
…[E]ducational benefits are something that we as a nation have long held should be afforded to all children, irrespective of their backgrounds….Our current system of private and public education effectively distributes the best educations to those who were born into the right families, like Rahm Emanuel’s. He shouldn’t be able to buy his kids a better shot at life than his constituents can afford.

There are other more scholarly versions on the Left than Cook’s rant, but it provides a flavor of what regularly comes out of the Democrats when pushed on questions of public education, and what reasoning is required to sustain the Democrats’ stubborn opposition to private choice in education.
C. Labor And Student Loan Policy
Obama’s NLRB has been a nearly endless parade of efforts to bring private companies to kiss the ring of the Obama Administration and its Big Labor political allies, the most notorious of which was its treatment of Boeing last fall. The big airplane manufacturer announced its intention to build a new plant in South Carolina, a right-to-work state, and when unionized workers in Washington complained, Obama’s NRLB brought a case against Boeing for unfair labor practices for planning to open a factory in the United States of America employing American workers. In classic corporatist fashion, of course, the NRLB’s thumb on the scales put Boeing in the position of needing to make a deal with the union, which it did – the company cut a deal to ” to raise wages and expand jet production in Washington,” and the NRLB dropped the case.
Why is it so important for Boeing to stay on the NRLB’s good side? Because it depends on other favors from the federal government, specifically loans from the Export-Import Bank:

Boeing is the behemoth of the export industry and for years has been a top beneficiary of Ex-Im’s programs.
…[B]etween 2000 and 2010, the bank provided more than $52 billion in guarantees to help foreign airlines buy Boeing aircraft, providing the financing for 950 jet planes. In the past few years, about 60 percent of all Ex-Im’s loans have gone to benefit Boeing, while a third of the company’s jets delivered to customers were backed by Ex-Im support.
Other companies also have won business with the help of Ex-Im, including U.S. makers of turbines, solar technology and trains.

That doesn’t sit well with other US companies who are less favored by the government:

Air India got U.S. government support and used it to vanquish the competition. With the help of cheap loans from the U.S. Export-Import Bank backed by American taxpayers, the airline bought Boeing 777s – manufactured in the United States by American workers – and then launched nonstop service between New York City and India’s business capital, Mumbai.
The only problem was that the competition on that route was Delta, which says it was forced to abandon the nonstop daily service it had pioneered two years earlier.

As with many such programs, you can’t blame Boeing for taking advantage of what the government will give it, or appeasing the government when it is in the crosshairs. Private business managers must do what they can to benefit their companies. But you can blame the people who perpetuate this system:

Speaking [in February] at a Boeing plant in Everett, Wash., President Obama pledged “to give American companies a fair shot by matching the unfair export financing that their competitors receive from other countries.”

Note that Obama’s appearance at the Washington Boeing plant was two months after the NLRB case was dropped.
The Obama Administration has also taken a variety of steps to implement Barack and Michelle Obama’s preference for government employment over the private sector. For example, Obama has pressed to structure student loan programs to favor or subsidize public employment; in his 2010 State of the Union speech, he proposed, “let’s tell another one million students that when they graduate, they will be required to pay only 10 percent of their income on student loans, and all of their debt will be forgiven after 20 years – and forgiven after 10 years if they choose a career in public service.” In 2010, Obama’s Labor Department launched a crackdown on – of all things – unpaid internships, but of course the crackdown extended only to private sector employers, incentivizing interns to seek work with the government instead. Taken together, these policies raise the cost of private employment, reduce avenues for young people to learn about working in the private sector, and subsidize public employment.
As for the lending side, remember the point about how the threat of a public option could be held as a gun to insurers’ heads? Well, in 2010, Obama pulled the trigger in an analogous situation of student loans, eliminating the private sector lenders and having the government enter the business directly. Other companies that depend on the government’s favor, this could be you next if you don’t play ball.
D. Housing Policy and the Suburbs
Housing policy during the Obama Administration has necessarily been shaped by the aftermath of the 2006-08 crash in housing prices. Obama’s policies have been redistributionist, in terms of trying to find ways to bail out homeowners who can’t repay their mortgages, and the Administration enlisted the involuntary assistance of banks (with little success) in offering refinancings.
But the full scope of Obama’s inclinations on housing – a subject long near and dear to him, given his close ties to Chicago housing-development figures like Valerie Jarrett, Tony Rezko and Allison Davis – requires consideration of his record as a State Senator and US Senator.
Obama was long a supporter of corporatist housing policies; indeed, one of the major factors in his rise within Illinois politics was his work, launched by a 1997 speech at First Chicago Bank:

Obama described a practical strategy for building on the federal Low Income Housing Tax Credit, or LIHTC, contained in the 1986 Tax Reform Act, plus federal, state and local funds and programs, to create new public-private development partnerships.
The LIHTC encouraged the partnerships needed to unite government officials and progressive nonprofit activists behind the cause of building thousands of new affordable-housing units, first on Chicago’s poor South Side and then, as the movement spread, to similar neighborhoods across the nation.
…Obama’s innovation was to expand the concept beyond simply building affordable apartments and high-rises. It encompassed a cradle-to-grave vision of providing for the material needs of the low-income families residing in the new housing, including their schools, child care, job training, medical coverage, clothing and food.
In turn, the residents would campaign and vote for the officials advocating the partnerships, adding significantly to their political power.
Left unstated was the underlying reality that politically connected developers who built the housing would profit handsomely and could be expected to gratefully give millions of dollars in campaign contributions to politicians like Obama who made it all possible.

Of course, over his time in Chicago, that’s largely what happened: Obama was extensively supported, politically and financially, by the housing developers, ranging from Rezko being his first donor and helping him buy his own house, to Davis giving him his first job, to Obama’s and his wife’s long personal and professional alliance with Jarrett. In Washington, Obama was a major recipient of donations from the GSEs, and supported housing policies congruent with their interests.
Where do Obama’s housing policies go next if he’s re-elected? Stanley Kurtz, in a new book, has been promoting the bracing argument that a major part of Obama’s second-term agenda will be a full-scale attack on suburbia. Here’s the backdrop:

The community organizers who trained [Obama] in the mid-1980s blamed the plight of cities on taxpayer “flight” to suburbia. Beginning in the mid-1990s, Obama’s mentors at the Gamaliel Foundation (a community-organizing network Obama helped found) formally dedicated their efforts to the budding fight against suburban “sprawl.” From his positions on the boards of a couple of left-leaning Chicago foundations, Obama channeled substantial financial support to these efforts. On entering politics, he served as a dedicated ally of his mentors’ anti-suburban activism.
The alliance endures. One of Obama’s original trainers, Mike Kruglik, has hived off a new organization called Building One America, which continues Gamaliel’s anti-suburban crusade under another name.

Kurtz’ thesis is sensitive enough to cause the White House to scrub its website of photos showing the President meeting with Kruglik at the White House. Kurtz cites a variety of urban-planning maneuvers designed to advance these goals through local legislation, and notes that advocates for them have been funded by grants from Obama’s Sustainable Communities Initiative. But what could change is a proposal that appears to be still in the discussion stage: using the lever of federal funding to, yet again, dictate uniform state adoption of collectivist measures:

Obama’s former community-organizing mentors and colleagues want the administration to condition future federal aid on state adherence to the recommendations served up by these anti-suburban planning commissions. That would quickly turn an apparently modest set of regional-planning grants into a lever for sweeping social change.

Kurtz hasn’t connected the last dot to show that the Administration has yet signed off on such a plan, and it’s unsurprising that it would not be advertised at a time when Obama is battling for suburban votes. But given his prior support for Kruglik’s causes, such a move fits comfortably within the pattern of Obama’s politics.
E. The BP Shakedown
Even outside the green jobs boondoggles and the Obama Administration preferring ethanol over other feuls, old-fashioned oil policy provides another example of Big Government/Big Business symbiosis like the Obamacare pharma deal, in which the Obama Administration used a corporation it had over a barrel to cover for its own mistakes. In 2010, the Obama Administration imposed a (totally unjustified) moratorium on offshore drilling in response to the BP oil spill. That left a lot of oil workers out of work – so the Administration pressured BP into setting up a $100 million fund to compensate the oil workers, even though (1) it was the government that had harmed them and (2) this did nothing for the (in some cases smaller) BP competitors whose rigs got shut down. This was simply a shakedown to cover the Adminsitration’s mistakes, and was possible only because BP was a large enough company to absorb the cost and because the Administration had a lot of leverage over BP.
F. The Defense Sequester and the WARN Act
Recent weeks have given us yet another example of coercive corporatism at work, this one from an area – defense contracting – that has been rife with it from both parties dating back to the days when Eisenhower warned of a military-industrial complex. Lockheed and other major defense contractors face the risk of laying off thousands of employees as a result of budget cuts required by the sequestration process. Under the federal WARN Act, the contractors must give their workers advance notice of such anticipated layoffs or be held liable for damages – but because those notices would go out before the election, the Obama Labor Department has told the contractors not to send the notices, and that the government will cover their legal bills with taxpayer money. One hand washes the other: the contractors keep their primary customer happy, and Obama gets to use the taxpayers’ money to buy off a potential electoral problem. The losers? The workers, the taxpayers, and the law.
The “military-industrial complex” provides services too vital to national defense to be rid of it. But that doesn’t mean we can’t find its operation distasteful and something not to be imitated in domestic policy – and here, we have an example of how having leaders who see nothing wrong with this kind of conduct in domestic policy degrades the military contracting relationship as well.
V. Conclusion
As I noted at the outset, corporatist tendencies are on some level unavoidable in modern government, and certainly the Republican party at both the national and state levels has engaged in corporatist excesses at times. A major part of the Tea Party movement has been about combatting that within the GOP. But the Tea Party has a constituency within the GOP because its mission is consistent with the opposition to collectivism and reduction in government interference in the economy that is necessary to pare back corporatism. Democrats may conduct sporadic fights against the surface corruption, but always come back to expanding the underlying system that produces it.
The pattern of behavior laid out above really only scratches the surface of the Administration’s record – I’m not even touching here on complex areas like telecom and tech policy, or the status of other entities trapped either temporarily (like GM) or permanently in semi-public limbo, neither free private companies nor totally public – Amtrak, the Postal Service, AIG, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, etc. That pattern may look, at first glance, inconsistent. How can Obama be hostile to private enterprise, yet in bed with big business? Why is he sometimes operating through private companies, and sometimes through direct government action? But the point of a corporatist system is to retain governmental control, through private entities if possible, through government action if necessary. The more private businesses and semi-private “public private partnerships” are kept off-balance and wondering whose honey pot will be taken away next, the more incentive they have to keep donating, keep playing ball, and keep their objections to themselves. It’s a highly sophisticated system, honed by years of experience in the operation of political machines, and it inevitably, quietly politicizes everything while stifling public dissent as it does so.
The Obama Administration’s embrace of collectivism and corporatism at the expense of individual economic liberty, free markets and free institutions has been on a level unprecedented in the United States since at least the mid-1930s. This is not mere run-of-the-mill liberalism, much less “moderate” Democratic policy; it is a pattern and practice of undermining all the bulwarks we possess against thoroughgoing national politicization of the entire economy. Its defeat is the necessary first step in reclaiming space for free individuals, private enterprise, and the free associations that make up our communities – the American way of life.

Romney vs Obama, Round II

Realistically, very few presidential debates have the kind of clear-cut winner that the first Romney-Obama debate did. It’s more productive to look at what each candidate came looking to accomplish.
Romney: Romney came in tonight with three main goals.
One, he wanted to repeat his strong showing from the first debate. He did that – he was vigorous, authoritative, and came across as the same technocratic moderate that he really is.
Two, he wanted to avoid any major gaffes that would foul up the momentum he has going. He did that, too. He never seemed stymied, never really put his foot in his mouth in a harmful way. Even when he bought into the false left-wing premise of a question on gender pay equity, he came away talking about his own experience hiring women in his cabinet (he might have mentioned his female running mate in Massachusetts as well).
Three, he wanted to go in for the kill. On that, Romney failed. He let Obama get away with some flagrant lies, like claiming that Planned Parenthood performs mammograms. He completely botched an obvious attack on Obama’s disastrous and dishonest response on Libya, to the point where even moderator Candy Crowley – who was mostly running interference for Obama on this and on Fast & Furious – had to step in and remind Romney that Obama’s Administration had been dishonest on Libya. Romney forced a confrontation on the facts on oil drilling – one the fact-checkers have to give him – but like John McCain in 2008, he seemed hesitant to really take the fight to Obama on more divisive issues.
It’s true that Obama is now set up to be completely dismantled on Libya in the third debate, if Romney comes loaded for bear. But I suspect that by the time that debate arrives, nobody will be left undecided.
Obama: Obama also came in with goals, four of them.
First, Obama needed to show that he actually still wants the job. He did that – he was much more vigorous tonight, showing some fight and some indignation and squaring off in some true alpha-dog battles with Romney.
Second, Obama needed to give his partisans something to cheer for. He was late sometimes in doing so (especially waiting for his closing to attack Romney on the 47% tape) but did deliver.
Third, Obama needed to lay out something more like a positive second-term agenda. On this, he failed miserably. He has nothing to offer but a stew of “more of the same.” Closing with the 47% attack really underlines the extent to which this is a campaign bereft of positive promise.
Fourth, and perhaps most important, Obama needed to strip the bark off Romney, convince the voters that he was in no way an acceptable alternative. And outside the choir, Obama really didn’t seem to do that. He didn’t dismantle Romney’s agenda, he just disagreed with it. He basically denied the existence of the problems Romney cited on energy policy. Despite pre-debate preening on Romney’s record in Massachusetts, Obama never attacked that record. And despite his heavy reliance to date on attacking Romney as a tax-hiker, Obama spent far more of the debate bashing tax cuts, leaving little doubt which candidate was the low-tax candidate.
Romney’s strongest moments were two. One, he just buried Obama in response to an African-American man who declared himself a disheartened Obama ’08 voter; Romney responded with a blistering indictment of Obama’s economic record. And two, he offered a great answer on American competitiveness. He also came away with a good answer on immigration, albeit one that won’t please many of his own primary supporters.
One more point: I think Romney did a much better job of remembering, as the debate wore on, that an audience of Long Islanders was not the real audience. Obama’s attack on the NRA in particular is unlikely to play well in key swing states.

Have Obama and Biden Overinvested In The Middle Class Tax Argument?

Every campaign involves strategic choices about where to attack your opponent. One of the major points of attack leveled by the Obama-Biden campaign against Mitt Romney is the Democrats’ claim that the Romney-Ryan tax plan would raise taxes on the middle class. There is evidence that this attack has done a good deal of damage to Romney, but it is beginning to look as if it is now blowing up in the Democrats’ face at just the wrong time. There’s a lesson there – similar to the lesson of the Democrats’ 2004 obsession with George W. Bush’s national guard service – about overplaying your hand in national elections.
The Romney Tax Plan: Rollout
As you may recall, Romney’s original tax proposal called for keeping income tax rates where they were (basically, just making the Bush tax cuts permanent) while cutting taxes on business and investment (the corporate and capital gains taxes). Under fire from conservatives in the primary for not advancing a bolder pro-growth agenda, Romney rolled out a revised plan calling for a 20% reduction in rates across the board, to be offset by eliminating or reducing deductions. The plan’s main emphasis is as much on simplifying the code as it is on cutting taxes – depending how the deductions are restructured, some upper-income taxpayers may see their taxes actually go up – but it is clearly also intended as a tax cut. Consistent with his message of restoring fiscal responsibility and to reassure deficit hawks, Romney simulataneously pledged that the tax plan would be revenue-neutral, that is, it would not reduce the government’s overall revenues as compared to just leaving tax rates where they are.
Romney’s handling of the tax plan, like so many aspects of his campaign, was less than a model of good political communication. Whereas George W. Bush in 2000 rolled out a detailed tax plan and made it the centerpiece of his campaign message, Romney offered only a framework of principles. Where even a bare-bones campaign like Herman Cain’s had made 9-9-9 a household word, Romney spent the bulk of his time talking about the economy, spending, Medicare and regulation. If you followed the Romney campaign, its coverage in the mainstream media and the sympathetic precincts of conservative writers and talkers over the summer, you would not have come away with the conclusion that individual tax rates were a major focus of the campaign.
The Democrats Attack
Liberal pundits and the Obama campaign and saw things differently. The pundits, seeing the world solely through the lens of Joint Committee on Taxation budget scores, saw an opportunity to argue that it was not possible for a tax plan to be revenue-neutral if it cut rates, ever, under any conceivable circumstance. This is an old familiar liberal argument, and it’s one on which the battle lines are extremely entrenched: conservatives argue that tax cuts can produce economic growth that offsets the reduction in nominal tax rates, liberals basically argue that it’s impossible to estimate the amount of growth – or argue that such growth is illusory – and issue budget scores that don’t account for the possibility. (Personally, I’ve long thought that all sides are way too quick to treat future projections as “facts” when in actuality they are just projections, based on easily-gamed assumptions; there are never any consequences for the CBO, the JCT or the think tanks if their projections don’t pan out in the real world). That topic is beyond the scope of one blog post to resolve; the point is that simply arguing that Romney’s tax cuts would add to the deficit would have been the usual and expected line of attack.
But the Obama camp had to go one step further: relying almost entirely on a report from a liberal think tank (the Tax Policy Center), Obama’s campaign argued that because Romney (1) had pledged to keep his plan revenue-neutral and (2) was proposing broad outlines that TPC did not believe would be revenue-neutral, he would need to come up with additional revenue somewhere, and the result would be (3) a hidden, super-secret Romney plan to raise taxes on the middle class. Never mind that Romney had never discussed anything of the sort, or that no Republican Administration would survive proposing such a thing, or that no Republican Congress would ever vote it into law; armed with the fig leaf of the TPC’s study, Obama could claim that Romney really planned to raise taxes by some $2,000 on middle class families.
The attack was rolled out in scores of TV ads across Ohio and other battleground states claiming, as if it were a fact, that Romney planned to raise taxes on the middle class. Here’s Joe Biden angrily asking how Romney could justify such a plan:

To give the Obama campaign credit, this was an incredibly audacious assault, like Hannibal crossing the Alps: Republicans, long accustomed to pressing for tax cuts at every level of government and getting pushback from tax-hiking Democrats, never expected or planned for a counterargument that their candidate was actually more pro-tax-hikes than Barack Obama (an attack that was also coordinated with the attacks on Romney’s own tax returns). It was obvious that the Romney campaign was caught by surprise and blindsided by this attack, and slow to respond to it, with damaging results:

Over the past couple of months, the Obama campaign has unleashed a barrage of TV ads that contain the same specific and potent attack: Mitt Romney will raise taxes on middle class families by $2,000 in order to cut taxes for the rich. The claim is false, but the Romney campaign hasn’t really responded.
And the attacks have been working. As the Wall Street Journal reported on September 17: “At least four polls in recent weeks have found Mr. Obama holding an edge over Mr. Romney on who would best handle the issue of taxes.” The Romney campaign’s pollster Neil Newhouse told reporters last week that Obama’s advantage on the tax issue is simply a function of Obama’s convention bounce. But Romney actually lost his edge on taxes before the conventions. “A Gallup poll in late August found Mr. Obama holding a nine-point lead on the issue of taxes, after Mr. Romney led in July,” the Journal noted.

This was one of the major reasons why Romney looked like he was on the ropes by early September following the Democratic convention. A Republican candidate who doesn’t have the edge on keeping taxes low is no Republican at all; it’s the single most unifying issue in the entire party, running across every ideological and demographic faction and every geographic region. People vote Republican so they can keep more of what they earn.
The Attack Backfires
In politics, as in war, audacity in the attack can produce every general’s dream: the coup de main or “shock and awe” assault that paralyzes, overruns and demoralizes the opposition. The problem is, it can also involve outrunning your supply lines, leaving you overextended, isolated and surrounded. Hannibal, after all, lost the war. And Obama may now be facing a similar problem.
At the policy-wonk level, the TPC study has been shot full of holes, resulting in the need for numerous backtracking revisions. (See here, here, here, here, and here). And it’s also given the Romney campaign the opportunity to point out why Obamacare’s tax hikes plus Obama’s spending record mean that Obama remains the high-taxes candidate.
That battle is obviously still underway, but here’s the thing: voters can listen to the he-said-she-said of dueling economic experts, and are likely to tune them out. But Obama’s side of this argument has five basic problems that run deeper than any think tank study can fix.
One, it depended on voters only hearing one side of the story. Romney has finally started running ads fighting back, and an enormous audience of over 70 million people were confronted with Romney in the debate stating flatly that “[m]y view is that we ought to provide tax relief to people in the middle class…I will not under any circumstances raise taxes on middle-income families. I will lower taxes on middle-income families. “ And far worse for Obama, the President had to explain that he wasn’t talking about something Romney had actually proposed, but was relying on studies interpreting Romney’s plan and assuming what he would do if it didn’t work: “independent studies looking at this said the only way to meet Governor Romney’s pledge of not reducing the deficit or — or — or not adding to the deficit is by burdening middle-class families. The average middle-class family with children would pay about $2,000 more.”
Obama can argue until he’s blue in the face that his magic decoder ring lets him tell you what Romney is really planning to do, but historically, voters tend to assume that while politicians may or may not keep their promises, they are still usually a better guide to their own proposals than their opponents. All Romney has to do is show up at the debates and explain that he has no intention of raising taxes on the middle class, and people are apt to suspect that maybe Obama had been selling them a bill of goods on the issue. And after four years of Obama’s promises and claims, he doesn’t have a ton of remaining credibility with the voters to spend on this.
Two, it’s counterintuitive. It’s easy for Republicans to be sincere about not wanting to raise taxes, because Republicans exist to keep taxes low, and everybody knows that Romney is surrounded by Republicans who have pledged to oppose tax hikes. Even the now-notorious 47% video shows Romney painting the electorate as a contest between taxpayers and non-taxpayers, and taking the side of the taxpayers, while Joe Biden is out there proudly touting how Obama will raise a trillion dollars in new taxes by letting the Bush tax cuts expire. When people stop to listen to the candidates, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the last thing Romney or Ryan would sign off on is a big middle-class tax hike.
Three, it’s the harder argument to make. Romney, having proposed a framework, just has to demonstrate that it’s possible to design a tax plan that could end up being revenue-neutral at lower rates. Obama has the burden of proving that it is not possible under any circumstances, and moreover that Romney actually believes it’s not possible under any circumstances, and that Romney would respond to that problem with a middle-class tax hike rather than by scaling back the tax cuts or accepting at least a short-term revenue shortfall before he can convince anyone that there’s a secret plan to raise taxes on the middle class. If even one part of Obama’s argument is less than 100% certain – or even if voters just think there’s a good-faith disagreement among economists – the whole contraption collapses.
Four, it’s the pessimistic argument, and you never want to be the guy making the pessimistic argument. Obama is stuck making the assertion that Romney’s plan won’t work because it projects economic growth that’s just impossible. But the last place the President wants to be right now is telling the voters to forget about economic growth. Romney is proposing doing something different from what Washington is doing right now, and the more the two sides grapple over the tax plan, the more voters are apt to grasp that fact and wonder if maybe a different approach to the one we have now might help.
Five, it’s out of character for Romney. Romney’s many changes in his positions over the years make him easy to tag as a flip-flopper, yet Obama has tried instead to paint him as a rigid ideological extremist, a transparently false picture. Romney’s proposals are even advertised as, more or less, starting points for negotiation with Congress. He is absolutely the last guy who is going to take on the suicide mission of proposing a massively unpopular middle-class tax hike out of an inflexible refusal to alter his campaign platform. Voters who take the measure of the man will recognize that even if they don’t trust his word.
The lesson here is that good tactics don’t always make good strategy, and campaigns built on a fiction can only survive if they have money and time advantages working against exposure of that fiction. To the extent that Obama’s lead in August and September was built on winning the argument against middle-class tax hikes, it was bound to evaporate if the voters came to realize that Romney was not actually running on a platform of middle-class tax hikes. Obama’s challenge now is to decide whether he is going to spend yet another debate Tuesday night trying to put the Humpty Dumpty of the tax hike argument back together again, or move on to something more plausible. If it turns out that the voters on Election Day don’t believe Romney is trying to jack up their taxes, Obama may look back and wonder if perhaps he spent a whole lot of time and money trying to get an argument off the ground that turned out to be yet another overweight, flightless bird.

Now This Was an MSNBC Debate

Chris Matthews, in his epic post-debate meltdown after the Romney-Obama debate, had the most telling line: “this was not an MSNBC debate.” Matthews and other liberals were particularly upset that Mitt Romney had managed to actually speak uninterrupted, occasionally running over his time and requesting opportunities to respond to things Obama said (although the final tally showed Obama spoke for 4 more minutes than Romney, owing largely to his “umms.”).
Tonight was a different animal. Joe Biden came in with one game plan: don’t let voters hear a word Paul Ryan said. The post-debate count circulated by the RNC showed Biden interrupting Ryan 82 times. He was often loud enough that it was hard to hear Ryan speak, and Ryan was frequently cut off before he could finish his answers. On the rare occasions Ryan spoke without being interrupted, Biden laughed, snorted, grinned (even when discussing serious subjects like war and abortion), or at a minimum immediately declared that everything Ryan said was a lie. Biden even shouted at moderator Martha Raddatz and called her a liar too, telling her she wasn’t “being straight” with him.
It appears from the immediate post-debate reaction that this performance was what liberal supporters of the Administration wanted: use the heckler’s veto, don’t let the other guy finish his sentences. It made Al Gore’s famous eye-rolling and sighing performance look like an Oxford debate. Raddatz did – with one cringe-inducing exception at the end – put in a good set of questions, but she failed at what I regard as Job One of a moderator, which is to prevent interruptions from letting the candidates talk.
It’s hard to evaluate the substance of the debate beyond the constant interruptions (I did think Ryan did a good job of remaining civil, polite and mostly cheerful through the whole spectacle). Ryan got off to a rough start the first question or two, which should have been golden opportunities to fillet the Administration’s dishonesty on Libya; he got in some shots, but let Biden distract him by giving rambling answers that packed in everything from Iraq to Afghanistan to bin Laden. After that, Ryan settled in and was the same Ryan we’ve seen so many times, patiently jousting with hostile questioners on hostile turf.
Biden, of course, told a battery of bald-faced lies, as expected (he pretended not to have voted for the Afghan and Iraq wars and Medicare Part D, and gave an absurdly dishonest rendering of the HHS mandate). That may not hurt him, but he may be more hurt by his complete failure to (1) make any sort of positive case for the Administration’s economic record or (2) offer any solutions to anything besides tax hikes, tax hikes and even more tax hikes.
The debate was again short on social issues. Of note, however, was that even Joe Biden couldn’t and wouldn’t defend the nonsense idea that an unborn child is not a human being.
Biden’s main job tonight was to find a way to change the narrative the past week that followed the last debate. With the broader media and independent voters, I doubt he did. With the liberal base, though, at least his adamant refusal to let Ryan finish a sentence gave them something to cheer for. So, for Joe Biden, a modest win, but perhaps a Pyrrhic one.
Ryan’s job was to look and sound presidential, which of course is hard to do sitting down and also hard to do when you are in the equivalent of an argument with a loud drunk at a bar. And the heavy focus on foreign affairs meant he was mostly not playing on the turf he favors. But I think the average TV viewer at home saw a guy who had plans and answers, and kept his cool, and on one occasion – when he referred to Biden being “under duress” to make up for Obama’s bad debate performance – let the viewers in on what was going on.
The wild card, as always, is undecided voters. On the question of which side has actual solutions and can get things done on a bipartisan basis when needed, though, it should be clear. Romney and Ryan are defending plans and proposals – even those that are not 100% fleshed out – because they have plans and proposals. Ryan scored a particularly big hit with his account of having the CBO tell him they couldn’t score Obama’s plan because it was just a speech (a chronic issue during last year’s debt ceiling negotiations). Bill Clinton got re-elected in large part because he made deals that gave Republicans things of lasting value they actually wanted (welfare reform, DOMA, later a capital gains tax cut). Obama never offers anything of the sort, and that’s why Biden had nothing to sell in terms of a competing narrative on that score. I have to have faith that voters who are not with the GOP down the line noticed that difference.

What To Look For In The VP Debate

Thursday’s VP debate in Louisville – Muhammad Ali’s old home town – promises to be riveting TV, even if the absence of Sarah Palin means that, unlike in 2008, it’s unlikely that the VP debate will outdraw the presidential debates for ratings. On the Republican side, expectations are running high: Paul Ryan is a master of verbal combat, and hopes are high that he can build on Mitt Romney’s TKO of President Obama in the first debate. On the Democratic side, the pressure is on Vice President Biden to break the Romney-Ryan ticket’s recent momentum. Here’s what to watch for.
Who’s Ready For Prime Time? Ryan has a long record of winning debates on the cable networks, disarming hostile interviewers and even dressing down the President face to face; he won’t be shy about going after the VP. But a stand-up one-on-one debate with canned topics and time limits is a new format for him, and may not play to his strengths the way a more free-for-all format does, plus he needs to look presidential. Biden, on the other hand, is a highly experienced debater, a veteran of two presidential runs who came to the Senate during the Nixon years. But he may be rusty (as noted yesterday, Ryan has done 197 interviews since joining the ticket; Biden has done just a lone print interview in that time and hasn’t answered questions on camera since the spring Meet the Press interview where he went off-script and ended up forcing President Obama prematurely to state a position on same-sex marriage). His propensity for gaffes and extravagant fabulism is legendary. And Biden will be 70 next month; he may not be as quick on his feet as he used to be. We’ll get a sense early on of which of them is on their game.
Playing Two Different Games: Jonathan Last aptly describes Biden as “an asymmetric opponent” – i.e., he may not even try to engage Ryan on Ryan’s turf of arguing on a macro level about the budget, taxes, the operation of entitlement programs and economic growth and competitiveness. Look for Biden to counter in two ways: go small, by emoting and telling individual voters’ stories, and change the subject to social issues and foreign affairs (Ryan’s no neophyte on the latter – he’s been in Congress through the Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya wars and the many debates in between – but it’s not his main area of expertise).
Ryan’s district, and even his family, have often leaned Democratic, so he knows how to play on the turf of Biden’s more-blue-collar-than-thou shtick. But he needs to stay on his message and not let Biden throw him completely off the subject of the unsustainable economic and fiscal picture under President Obama.
Bait and Switch? I referred to this in my preview of the first debate – Biden may well leave Ryan himself largely alone and force him to defend against personal and record attacks on Romney over his wealth, taxes, Bain, Romneycare, flip-flopping, etc. Then again, attacking the more conservative Ryan may be too tempting for Biden to pass up, especially if the Obama campaign sticks with its obvious view that this election is a base-turnout contest.
Tall Tale Time: Biden can also confound Ryan’s intense preparedness on the facts by his facility for just plain making stuff up, as streiff has previously detailed. Bill Clinton may be the best liar in politics, but Clinton’s lies – however brazen – were and are usually calculating enough that you could see them coming and try to prepare for them. Biden’s a different animal completely; he gets rolling, and the next thing you know, the Germans have bombed Pearl Harbor. He makes up pure blarney with a free-flowing creativity that defies preparation, like this notorious piece of alternative history from his debate with Palin:

When we kicked — along with France, we kicked Hezbollah out of Lebanon, I said and Barack said, “Move NATO forces in there. Fill the vacuum, because if you don’t know — if you don’t, Hezbollah will control it.”
Now what’s happened? Hezbollah is a legitimate part of the government in the country immediately to the north of Israel.

If you’re wondering when the U.S. and France joined forces to drive Hezbollah out of Lebanon, rest assured that you didn’t miss something – nothing like that ever happened. But Biden’s been in DC so long and says this sort of thing off the top of his head with such bravado, it could be easy for Ryan to miss the opportunity to debunk it if he’s stuck scratching his head trying to figure out what Biden could possibly be talking about.
The Ghost of Biden Past: Biden has his own vulnerabilities, and Ryan may try to exploit them. Just in the past two weeks, we had Biden on the campaign trail saying that the middle class had been “buried” under Obama and that he and Obama were planning a trillion dollars in tax hikes after the election. There’s also an under-exploited one, albeit a line that could be a double-edged sword: when Biden brags about getting Osama bin Laden, Ryan could drill him on the fact that Biden himself reportedly opposed the operation (the downside is that this makes the no-brainer decision sound like Obama actually had a hard choice to make). There’s a much longer record there to work from, and while most of it seems like ancient history (especially since Biden’s not the president), a choice shot or two at things Biden himself has said and done over the years could put him in an unaccustomed defensive posture.
Moderation In Moderation? Democrats were vocal after the first debate about Jim Lehrer’s failure to protect Obama from Romney – and himself – by (1) not cutting off the candidates when their answers ran long and (2) not asking tough followups to Romney. There will be intense pressure on moderator Martha Raddatz to go after Ryan, or at least cut him off. My own view is that the main jobs of a debate moderator are to prevent the candidates from interrupting each other, ask questions pointed enough to get them to disagree with each other, but otherwise “let ’em play.” We’ll see if Raddatz tries to make herself more of a story than the aging Lehrer did.

Gravity Hits The Obama Campaign

This is a must-read Sean Trende column on why Obama’s bandwagon strategy has demanded that he remain in the lead at every point in the campaign. I’ve been saying for months now that Obama’s fundraising in particular – and even moreso, his ability to deter Romney from raising money from business – was hugely dependent on convincing business interests that Obama’s regulators would still be calling the shots after the election and they should not feel safe about going all-in to be rid of him. This is also why Obama’s team has gone nuclear in its attacks on individual polls that show cracks in his armor, moreso even than usual for political campaigns and much, much moreso than usual for campaigns that are ahead in most of the polls. The same goes for Obama’s ability to draw huge turnout from young voters and other traditionally low-turnout groups.
Today’s battery of good polling news for Romney (including a boost from Gallup switching from a registered-voter to likely-voter model) is far from proof that Romney will win the election, but it is a blow to the overwhelming narrative leading into the first debate that the race had already been won by Obama, and that any skepticism of polls assuming an overwhelmingly Democratic electorate was conspiracy-level crackpottery. At last check, the liberal-run TPM polling average had Romney up by 2.8 points, a wider lead than the 2.5 point lead was showing. The state-by-state polling may not be entirely caught up yet, but it usually lags; John McCain was clinging to swing-state polling for weeks after he fell behind for good in the big national trackers.
Republicans have been saying for weeks that this was still a close race. Today, the polls caught up to that. Obama may yet win, but he can no longer do so just by projecting inevitability, running out the clock and letting the media bury any story that threatened to help Romney under horse race coverage. Obama and Biden have been ducking tough questions – Obama does interviews on The View and music and sports radio, while dodging the White House press corps; since joining the ticket, Paul Ryan has done 197 interviews, while Biden in the same time has done 1. You can run like that when you’re way ahead; you can’t if you actually need to get a positive message of your own out.
There are three debates left to go (including the VP debate), which will let a national audience judge the campaigns for themselves, and despite Democratic dissatisfaction with Jim Lehrer’s refusal to act as a gatekeeper running interference against Romney, it’s unlikely that the moderators of the remaining debates can protect Obama and Biden from having to win those debates on their own.

D vs R, Yankees vs Mets

Once every four years, I have a little fun crossing the baseball and politics streams by writing a post noting that the Hated Yankees have prospered far better in the World Series under Democratic than Republican presidents – in fact, they haven’t won a World Series with a Republican in the White House since 1958. Counting since 1921 (their first pennant), the Yankees are 20-3 in the World Series in 42 postseasons of Democratic Administrations, but just 7-10 in the World Series in 48 years of Republican Administrations. On the whole, the Yankees under Democratic presidents have won the World Series (20 times) more often than they’ve missed the postseason (14 times), compared to 7 championships and 26 Octobers at home during Republican presidencies. They’ve gone 0 for the last five GOP Administrations while failing to bring home a championship on the watch of only one Democratic president, Lyndon Johnson.
Here’s a chart – I classified the postseasons by who was President in October (Nixon resigned in August, Harding and FDR died in the spring, JFK was killed in November) and left out 1994, when Buck Showalter’s Yankees had the best record in the American League when the strike hit, and 2012, since the postseason’s just started:

Harding R 2 0 2 2 0
Coolidge R 6 3 1 4 2
Hoover R 4 1 0 1 3
FDR D 12 6 1 7 5
Truman D 8 5 0 5 3
Eisenhower R 8 3 3 6 2
Kennedy D 3 2 1 3 0
Johnson D 5 0 1 1 4
Nixon R 5 0 0 0 0 0 5
Ford R 3 0 1 1 0 1 2
Carter D 4 2 0 2 1 3 1
Reagan R 8 0 1 1 0 1 7
HW Bush R 4 0 0 0 0 0 4
Clinton* D 7 4 0 4 0 4 2 6 1
W Bush R 8 0 2 2 1 3 4 7 1
Obama** D 3 1 0 1 1 2 1 3 0
ALL R 48 7 10 4 1 3 4 22 26
ALL D 42 20 3 7 2 6 3 28 14

The Mets, sadly, have not even appeared in enough postseasons to be worth doing a similar analysis- their total is a World Championship (1969) and a World Series loss (1973) under Nixon, a World Championship (1986) and an LCS loss (1988) under Reagan, a Division Series loss (1999) and a World Series loss (2000) under Clinton, and an LCS loss (2006) under George W. Bush. But if you compare regular season records:

Kennedy D 0.283
Johnson D 0.375
Nixon R 0.525
Ford R 0.508
Carter D 0.401
Reagan R 0.536
HW Bush R 0.505
Clinton D 0.505
W Bush R 0.503
Obama D 0.463
ALL R 0.517
ALL D 0.431

A pretty clear inverse of the Yankees pattern, although much like the GOP, while falling short of the big prize the Mets had a good second half of the Clinton years under Bobby Valentine (the Newt Gingrich of baseball managers), and like the GOP the Mets had terrible months in October 2006 and September 2008.

More Than 67 Million People Watched Last Night’s Debate

How important was last night’s Romney-Obama debate, which nearly everyone agrees was a lopsided win for Romney? Time will tell. But one thing we can know for sure is that it was, by far, the most-watched event of the 2012 campaign.
The importance of debates is itself endlessly debated, and you can’t really tell the role of the debates in a race except with hindsight. We can watch the polls, but of course there will also be other factors at work on those – more debates, ads, external events. Certainly the conventional wisdom that Romney won had the immediate impacts of (1) breaking the media narrative that everything was going against Romney and (2) giving Republicans something to cheer for and cause for optimism, and that alone is worth something in a business where perceptions can become realities. (One of the most consequential debates was the Ford-Carter debate in 1976 that featured Ford’s Poland gaffe; veterans of the Ford campaign believe to this day that the gaffe broke momentum that might have carried a surging Ford to victory in a close race).
But unlike perceptions, the size of the TV audience is a hard fact. More than 58 million people watched last night’s 90-minute debate on the broadcast TV networks and cable news networks, a number that “does not include coverage on PBS, Univision, C-SPAN, the cable business networks or online.” (UPDATED: the final number is actually 67.2 million). That compares to the 130 million people who voted in the 2008 election (120 million in 2004) – an audience roughly half the size of the electorate. That’s way, way more people for more time than any TV ad can reach. And it’s much, much larger than the audience for the conventions: Obama’s convention speech drew 35.7 million viewers, compared to 30.3 million for Romney’s speech, 26.2 million for Michelle Obama, 25.1 million for Bill Clinton, and 21.9 million for Paul Ryan.
The first 2008 debate between Obama and McCain was watched by 52.4 million people, but that debate was on a Friday night; the second debate drew an audience of 63.2 million. The most-watched debate in 2008 was actually the vice presidential debate, owing to the ratings draw of Sarah Palin, 69.9 million viewers, the largest audience since 70 million people watched one of the Clinton-Bush-Perot debates in 1992. While the Kennedy-Nixon debate remains the most-watched by audience share, the single largest debate audience remains the sole Reagan-Carter debate in 1980, which drew 80.6 million viewers. That debate had an enormous impact, if you believe the polls showing that Reagan was all but tied going into the debate and won the race by 8 points; the debate was the only one that year, it was a week before Election Day, and the 80 million viewers compares to 85 million people who voted in that election, meaning that the overwhelming majority of the voters had seen the debate.
A good showing in the debates is important to Romney because October is typically the month when the race tightens, and depending how you read the polls (a whole separate story), this race is already pretty tight by historical standards. Jay Cost looked at this yesterday, using the Gallup polls going back to 1968. (Gallup’s may not be the most accurate polls, but they are rarely way off base and usually good for spotting trends, plus they have the advantage of a much longer historical track record to compare than any other pollster’s). Even with growing polarization and early voting, he noted that exit polls showed anywhere from 22-31% of voters in the last 4 elections made up their minds after October 1, more than enough to swing a competitive race.
If you look at the numbers Cost cites comparing the latest Gallup poll at the start of October to the final result, of the 9 races he examines (7 of which featured an incumbent on the ballot, and two a sitting vice president; his chart excludes 1988 and 2008, neither of which involved an incumbent but one of which involved a sitting VP*), Cost found October swings for the incumbent party (which was trailing in the polls in each case) in 1968, 1976 & 1992, an average swing of 11.7 points. He found October swings against the incumbent party (which was leading in the polls in each case except being tied in 1980) in 1972, 1980, 1984, 1996, 2000, and 2004, an average swing of 8.7 points, and of course two of those (Carter in 1980 and Gore in 2000) lost the election. The five incumbents since 1972 who led or tied in the start-of-October Gallup poll went from an average lead of 17.5 points to an average margin of victory of 8.3 points, dropping 9 points in the polls. Obama has led by 4-6 points in the Gallup polls the first few days of October (it’s four points as of today). If he suffers something on the order of the 9-point average loss that hit other incumbents who led entering October, he loses. This is why it’s whistling past the graveyard for spinning Democrats today to note the bad initial debate showings by Reagan in 1984 and George W. Bush in 2004 – Bush had an 11-point lead and won the election by 2 points, while Reagan had a 26 point lead and even his final landslide victory was a good deal smaller than that. Obama’s margin for error is much, much smaller.
The only incumbents who gained ground in October were George H.W. Bush in 1992 and Ford in 1976 – they made up average of 10 points by Election Day but still lost – and in both cases the voters had already given the somewhat nationally unknown Democratic challenger a big lead (Ford had been more than 30 points back at one point), and were getting a certain amount of buyer’s remorse. But absent that, voters traditionally don’t get more enthused about an incumbent in the last month of the race.
* – Those two races, unlike the other nine, featured a leader with a modest lead who pulled away down the stretch. Bush led Dukakis by 5, 47-42, but ended up winning by 7, 53-46; Obama led McCain by 3 with registered voters, 48-42, but also ended up winning by 7, 53-46.
There are still two more debates to go, plus the vice presidential debate. We don’t know yet how they will play out, but we know that a lot more people watched the first one than anything else that’s happened in this race. Given the historical trends, it’s foolish in the extreme for the Obama camp to take lightly the possibility that a lot of voters can still turn against him before Election Day.

Debate Advice for Romney & Obama

Allow me to remedy the nation’s critical shortage of advice for the participants in the presidential debates that kick off with Wednesday’s Obama-Romney debate. Below, a few suggested do’s and don’ts for each of the two candidates.
Advice for Romney
I’ve watched Romney debate a lot (although this will be the first presidential debate where I’ll be rooting for him rather than against him – it’s kind of like the feeling I had when Tom Glavine joined the Mets, hopefully with a better ending). On the whole, Romney is about average as a debater. On the plus side, he’s smart, aggressive and basically shameless – a little like John Kerry without the pomposity (aggressiveness in debate was one of Kerry’s few positives as a candidate) – and not easily rattled. On the negative side, he’s not very flexible/improvisational (he tends to stick to his game plan, other than the time he offered Rick Perry a $10,000 bet) and he will never be Mr. Empathy. Which leads to…
Get Obama’s Goat: The first rule of presidential debates is that how the candidates come across usually ends up mattering a lot more than what they say (absent a colossal gaffe; the only debate gaffe that may arguably have swung a presidential race was Ford’s Poland gaffe in 1976). The most famous example is JFK winning the televised debate with Nixon when the people who listened on the radio thought Nixon won. But there are many others: Dukakis’ cold-fish affect when answering the death penalty question in 1988, George H.W. Bush looking at his watch in 1992, Al Gore’s audible sighs in 2000.
And one of the first corollaries of that rule is that the first guy to get mad loses. Obama has lived in a bubble most of his political career, and never moreso than the past two years, avoiding any venue where he might be challenged with difficult questions or forced to discuss subjects he doesn’t want to address. And historically, he gets prickly when he’s challenged. Romney should do everything he can to get under Obama’s skin, from communicating subtly and unsubtly his lack of personal respect for Obama to challenging his knowledge and truthfulness. It’s more important to puncture Obama’s cool than for Romney to pull his punches trying to look friendly and agreeable.
Debate Like A Boss: Let’s face it: Romney’s not a particularly likeable, relatable guy, and he’s not going to become one 34 days from Election Day. I’ve long thought that Romney’s closing argument about himself had to be kind of a cross between Hyman Roth’s boast that he always made money for his partners and Danny DeVito’s speech in Other People’s Money (“I’m not your best friend…I’m your only friend…and you might make a few bucks for yourself.”). He’s the guy who knows how business works, who takes charge and makes the tough decisions, and he should send the message that he came to do just that.
Here’s a point from The Transom that Ben Domenech and I had kicked around as a suggestion for a way for Romney to tie together that attitude with an approach that would be guaranteed to get under Obama’s skin:

“In the private sector, one of the things I did was invest in companies. I learned a lot about how jobs are created, but I also learned a lot about leadership. One of the things I had to do when we got involved with a company was evaluate its leadership and see if it needed a change. And let me tell you, if I got involved with a company that was losing money and jobs hand over fist and piling up debt like there was no tomorrow, and I found out the CEO had been in the job four years and still spent most of his time blaming his predecessor and his co-workers, I’d fire him and get somebody in there who could get results.” A response like this, besides being one virtually guaranteed to tick off Obama, makes the whining look petty and small. But it would also do something else, too: workers of all types, but particularly blue-collar workers, resent the idea of the incompetent senior management which survives pain while they bear the brunt of it. Romney should do his utmost to speak for those who demand accountability and turn his negative role as one of the suits into an advantage.

Don’t Get Mad, Get Even: Continuing in this vein, candidates who complain about negative ads come off as losers. But Romney also has an opportunity he needs to take to set the record straight as to some of the more outrageous falsehoods being thrown at him, ranging from the delusional fabulist claim that he intends to raise taxes on the middle class to the ads blaming him for things done at Bain Capital after he’d left to run the Olympics.
Here, too, how you say it matters. The better approach is to acknowledge that he’s a big boy and negative ads come with the territory – but that the voters deserve to be told the truth.
I Question Your Premise: Similarly, conservatives and Republicans – myself included – spend a lot of time beating up the media for bias, but it comes off poorly when the candidates themselves complain about it in general terms. But as Newt Gingrich demonstrated during the primary debates, it’s another story when confronted with an obviously loaded/slanted line of questioning. Romney will never have Newt’s facility for doing this, but he should enter ready to pick on a question or two that strike him as especially outrageous, and use it to force discussion of some issue Obama doesn’t want to get into.
Four More Years? Romney this week has been hitting what I think has to be the core of his closing argument about the election as a whole, which is more about Obama than Romney: the country can’t afford four more years of this. No matter what else Obama throws out there as a distraction, Romney needs to keep bringing it back to the actual record of the past four years and the extreme unlikelihood that anything’s going to improve if we give Obama four more – and communicate a certain incredulity at the idea that anybody could consider the past four years a good record or something they’d want more of. He should not try to steal Reagan’s “there you go again” line, which will look transparent – but he absolutely should ask Reagan’s equally famous and perennially relevant question: are you better off now than you were four years ago? The beauty of the question is, the voters and not the politicians or the media get to have the final answer.
Advice for Obama
Obama’s greatest weakness as a debater is the contrast to his soaring rhetoric on the stump, and of course he’s rusty. That said, his debates with McCain were some of the better debates in recent memory. He may be full of silly ideas, but he’s not stupid. Aside from the obvious need to keep his cool, stay on script and not have another “you didn’t build that”/”spread the wealth around” moment that inadvertently reveals his actual thinking, here are some of the things he’d be wise to consider entering this debate.
Stick to The Issues: Obama has run much of his campaign away from the issues, in particular focusing fire on Romney’s business career, taxes and wealth. But focusing on those points in the debate could be a disastrous error. First, as we saw throughout the Republican debates, Romney is at his weakest when debating public policy; he’s at his strongest and most vigorous when defending his own business career. Second, Obama’s invested a huge amount of money in unanswered negative ads on Romney’s biography; it would be a colossal error to give Romney the chance to rebut those in free airtime in front of an audience of tens of millions of voters.
Tag Team: Romney is well-prepped to defend his business career and he knows what he wants to say about issues like Romneycare and the auto bailout. Paul Ryan will come well-prepared to defend his own plans in Congress. The wise approach is to switch: make Romney defend Ryan’s plans, many of which he’s not nearly as comfortable with or prepared to address, and have Biden make Ryan defend Romneycare, which he obviously loathes, and Mitt’s taxes.
That said, the spectacle of Romney defending Romneycare is one that always puts a drag on GOP base enthusiasm, and is probably too tempting a target to pass up.
Leave The Straw Men Home: Obama has few more unappealing characteristics than his tendency to sneer at straw man caricatures of everyone who disagrees with him. “You didn’t build that” and “bitter clingers” came out of that sort of thing, as have a number of his other gaffes. Romney’s 47% line has given the most divisive partisan occupant of the Oval Office in memory a fig leaf to try to rebuild his tattered reputation as an above-the-fray guy, but the minute he starts painting everyone who criticizes him as racists, extremists, ignoramuses, etc., he’ll remind people why they were so sick of him by 2010.
Forget George Bush: Everybody’s opinions about Bush are cast in concrete by now. The excuse-making is unpresidential and opens up precisely the kind of rejoinder from Romney I noted above. At some point, it’s just counterproductive.
Leave General Motors Alone: The Obama campaign has told a fairly compelling story about General Motors: Romney wanted it to go out of business, but Obama kept it out of bankruptcy and saved the company. The problem is, the narrative doesn’t survive contact with the facts: Romney argued for a bankruptcy restructuring, Obama poured billions into the company and couldn’t avoid a bankruptcy restructuring anyway: on June 1, 2009, the company filed one of the largest bankruptcies in American history. And the GM saga is right in Romney’s wheelhouse – it lets him talk about business as a businessman. He’s the son of a car-company CEO; he knows this stuff inside and out and should be ready to tear the Obama story to ribbons (recall that the bailout was unpopular, not because people wanted GM to fail but because the government picked winners and losers in the bailout and let a lot of other companies go without similar bailouts). Obama may be forced onto this turf, but it is not where he should want to go.

Romney and Obama Sing From The Same Hymnal on Emergency Room Care

A sure sign of political silly season: seeing a whole lot of Obama supporters reflexively pushing the same attacks on Romney with the same overheated rhetoric at the same time on points that don’t stand up to even the most modest logical scrutiny. You’d think, given the clear and obvious points of disagreement between these two tickets on some issues, that would be the focus, but no…
Here’s Romney on 60 Minutes the other night:

[W]e do provide care for people who don’t have insurance … if someone has a heart attack, they don’t sit in their apartment and – and die. We pick them up in an ambulance, and take them to the hospital and give them care. And different states have different ways of providing for that care.

Romney in 2010:

It doesn’t make a lot of sense for us to have millions and millions of people who have no health insurance and yet who can go to the emergency room and get entirely free care for which they have no responsibility

NPR characterizes this as “Romney said almost exactly the opposite,” but it’s exactly the same point: Romney’s been arguing for years that his health care mandate plan in Massachusetts was designed in large part to deal with the issue of hospitals getting stuck with the bill for emergency room care that federal law (EMTALA) requires them to provide, but for which they are often unable to collect payment from the uninsured. Romney in 2007, defending his plan on Glenn Beck’s show:

When they show up at the hospital, they get care; they get free care paid for by you and me…If that’s not a form of socialism, I don’t know what is.

“Socialism” here is typical of Romney trying too hard to pander to his audience; he’s never been a good political communicator, and if anything he was even worse in 2007, one reason why he lost in the primaries that year. (I’ll set aside the issue, which will be the subject of a much longer post in the works, over how we distinguish socialism from other forms of collectivism). Plainly, though, what he’s describing is a form of redistribution, i.e., some people receiving services and others getting the bill.
NPR argues that Romney is wrong because uninsured people do get stuck with large bills for emergency room services, but this completely misses his point, which is that (1) uninsured people do go to emergency rooms for care because they know it has to be given regardless of insurance or ability to pay and (2) hospitals are frequently unable to collect these bills, and end up passing on the costs to other customers and/or taxpayers.
You may agree or disagree with Romney’s preferred solutions to this – which, in Massachusetts, were essentially identical to Obamacare. You may even think he’s unduly concerned about the wrong problems. But what you can’t do is attack him for saying this stuff without mentioning that Obama has been saying the exact same thing for years, and indeed has made it a central theme of his policy and legal arguments for his own health care policies. Here’s Obama in June 2012:

First, when uninsured people who can afford coverage get sick, and show up at the emergency room for care, the rest of us end up paying for their care in the form of higher premiums.

Here’s Obama in July 2012:

And the only people who may have a problem with this law are folks who can afford health care but aren’t buying it, wait until they get sick and then going to the emergency room and expecting everybody else to pick up the tab. That’s not responsibility. That’s not consistent with who we are.

Basically, Obama is calling people who go to the emergency room for care irresponsible and un-American. You have a problem with Romney saying this kind of thing, you also have a problem with Obama. Here’s White House Press Secretary Jay Carney in June 2012:

You have a choice to buy — if you can afford health insurance — and you can, I assume, Jared. So if you don’t buy it, and you can afford it, it is an irresponsible thing to do to ask the rest of America’s taxpayers to pay for your care when you go to the emergency room.

You can find more examples of this with a simple Google search of the White House website.
Now, I wish we had a Republican candidate who was not burdened by the legacy of Romneycare, as its aftermath in Massachusetts illustrates the folly of the Obamacare solution to the EMTALA “free rider” problem; we have to settle for Romney pledging to repeal a law that does things he evidently still believes in. A more robust debate on the issue would benefit everyone. But it’s a sign of the intellectual bankruptcy of Obama’s defenders that they can find nothing better to do than beat up on Romney for making the exact same arguments as Obama in defense of the exact same policy solutions to the exact same problems. If it offends you to see this sort of thing said about people who go to emergency rooms to get EMTALA-mandated care they will not end up paying for, I have one simple answer for you: don’t vote for President Obama.

Mitt Romney, Friend in Need

The Obama campaign has spent months laboring to get this election to be about anything but the president’s record and the candidates’ policy proposals. As often happens in campaigns, this requires painting caricatures with no connection to the facts. The Obama camp has worked hard to make Mitt Romney out as a bad, unfeeling, cold-hearted rich guy who only cares about his own bottom line. Romney himself hasn’t helped the matter by being such a stiff, tin-eared speaker who actually looks and sounds like a walking stereotype; political communication is not among his skills. But the reality is that Romney’s biography shows him to be a real-life Good Samaritan who has walked the walk of caring for his fellow man not only with his own money but with his own time and his own hands. I’ve had my share of political complaints about Romney, but on this score, the critics should be ashamed of themselves: Romney is a genuine role model of what private citizens can do to assist those in need.

Continue reading Mitt Romney, Friend in Need

Barack Obama’s Passivity in Crisis

If there is one common theme about Barack Obama’s leadership style in a crisis that runs throughout his time on the national stage and is evident yet again in his response to the attacks in Cairo and Benghazi, it is passivity. Obama has shown, time and again, that he prefers to sit back, keep his distance and see what other people do first before he says or does anything. This is not an entirely bad trait – smoking out what everyone else at the table is thinking is an effective way to play poker, and there are times when doing nothing or being a follower is the wiser course. It has certainly paid him political dividends in situations where his opponents overextended themselves. But what it also clearly demonstrates is that vigorous public leadership – getting out in front and rallying the public to take some action that was not already widely supported – is above his pay grade.

Continue reading Barack Obama’s Passivity in Crisis

No, President Obama Didn’t Find Osama Bin Laden

RS: No, President Obama Didn’t Find Osama bin Laden
With few other unquestionably popular accomplishments for this president to crow about, we should expect to hear a lot at the Democratic Convention the next two days about how President Obama authorized a Navy SEAL team to kill Osama bin Laden in Pakistan. Vice President Biden, who opposed the mission, has made it a favorite stump speech line: “Bin Laden is dead and General Motors is alive.”
But signing off on killing bin Laden was a no-brainer; as anyone who remembers the past decade knows, the hard part was finding him. The Abbottabad raid was the culmination of many years of intelligence-gathering. And for all the chest-thumping by Obama and Biden, virtually none of that intelligence-gathering resulted from policy decisions that originated with the Obama Administration. To the contrary, several were harshly criticized by Obama and his allies, and some have been discontinued by Obama.

Continue reading No, President Obama Didn’t Find Osama Bin Laden

The Registration Gap

The Boston Globe notices that the Democrats have a problem:

[A] Globe analysis of voter registration data in swing states reveals scant evidence that the massive undertaking [of Democratic voter registration drives] is yielding much fresh support for Obama.
In stark contrast to 2008, when a strong partisan tailwind propelled Democratic voter registration to record levels, this year Republican and independent gains are far outpacing those of Democrats.
In Florida, Iowa, North Carolina, Colorado, and Nevada – tossup states where direct election-year comparisons could be drawn – the numbers are striking. Democratic rolls increased by only 39,580, less than one-tenth the amount at the comparable point in the 2008 election.
At the same time, GOP registration has jumped by 145,085, or more than double for the same time four years ago. Independent registration has shown an even stronger surge, to 229,500, almost three times the number at this point in 2008.
…This week, Third Way, a centrist Democratic think tank, released a study of eight battleground states that illustrated the rise in independent voters since the 2008 election. The report, titled “The I’s Have it,” found that based on recent data, Democratic registration has declined by more than 800,000, or 5.2 percent; Republican enrollments were down about 80,000, or 0.7 percent; and independents were up 486,677, or 6.4 percent, in those states.

Read the whole thing for some of the dramatic results from Iowa and New Hampshire – sites of hotly contested GOP presidential primaries – in particular. The Democrats have an explanation for this, but it doesn’t address one of their core problems.

Continue reading The Registration Gap

The Vice Presidential Stakes

Ten of the last twenty presidents, dating back to 1900, have been forced from office or come close: one was forced to resign (Nixon), one was impeached (Clinton), two were assassinated (Kennedy and McKinley), one was shot (Reagan), one was shot at twice in three weeks (Ford), two died in office of natural causes (FDR and Harding), one was incapacitated by a stroke (Wilson), and one nearly died of a massive heart attack (Eisenhower). If you go back to the 19th century, the record unsurprisingly gets worse. As for vice presidents since 1900, not only have five taken office (Ford, LBJ, Truman, Coolidge and Teddy Roosevelt), but four others have been nominated for the presidency while sitting (George H.W. Bush won, Richard Nixon lost and then won later, and Hubert Humphery and Al Gore lost – with Gore and Nixon losing two of the closest races in history and Humphery losing a tight three-way race), and one other (Walter Mondale) was nominated four years later. Losing vice presidential nominees have mostly not gone on to better things, but a few have – FDR came back to win the presidency 12 years later, Earl Warren became Chief Justice of the Supreme Court five years later, Bob Dole was nominated for the presidency 20 years later, and Lloyd Bentsen moved laterally to become Treasury Secretary five years later. Others, like Sarah Palin and Joe Lieberman, saw their national profiles greatly raised by the experience; Lieberman, Edmund Muskie and John Edwards all ran presidential campaigns four years later, with varying degrees of impact on the race.

All of which is a way of saying that Mitt Romney’s choice of a running mate could have very important repercussions whether or not that choice makes much impact on the outcome of the 2012 election. Romney seems to be a man of unusual health, vigor and personal ethics, and so less likely than most to leave the Oval Office before his term is out if he’s elected, but he’s also 65 years old; things happen. Given that the outcome of the election remains uncertain, we should therefore be rightly concerned with his choice. Let’s take a look at a couple of the considerations on the table, and why I ultimately think Paul Ryan is the best choice under the circumstances.

Continue reading The Vice Presidential Stakes

The Southern Strategy Myth and the Lost Majority

I recently finished reading Sean Trende’s excellent book The Lost Majority, which is a must-read for anyone attempting to intelligently discuss its subject: how winning political coalitions are built, maintained and undone in the modern American two-party system. Trende covers a range of topics. At the level of political science theory, he dismantles the theory of periodic realigning elections. In his historical analysis, he may surprise you by arguing that the most enduring coalition of the past century was assembled not by McKinley, FDR, or Reagan but Dwight Eisenhower. Looking to the recent past and future, he convincingly demonstrates that Obama’s 2008 coalition was always more fragile than Democrats at the time believed, and that there remain obstacles to the John Judis/Ruy Teixeira theory of an Emerging Democratic Majority. Trende’s major point is that all such predictions of enduring partisan majorities (he cites many dating back over the past century and a half) ignore the fact that political coalitions inevitably draw together factions with different interests and ideologies, and frictions within those coalitions inevitably offer opportunities for the other party to regain support.

But one of the historical narratives that Trende covers in depth is of particular interest because it remains a crucial part of partisan mythology today: the enduring myth of the Southern Strategy. On the occasion of Mitt Romney’s address to the NAACP, it is worth revisiting that myth today.

Continue reading The Southern Strategy Myth and the Lost Majority

The Big Decision

You better not pout, you better not cry, you better not shout I’m telling you why. The Commerce Clause is coming to town….
Here’s my writeup on what happened. More to follow on other days, I’m sure.
A few other observations:
-In the long run, I’d rather lose the ones we can fix democratically than the ones we can’t.
-If Congress starts justifying every new regulation as a tax, Grover Norquist is going to be a very busy man.
-Romney has raised a vast amount of money from a lot of new donors today. Even more than energizing and galvanizing the base in the presidential race, focusing on repeal as a political goal should help down-ticket Republicans in Senate races (in states like Missouri, Ohio, Virginia and Florida) who lack Romney’s baggage on the issue.
-Both the Roberts and Scalia opinions are very explicit about the fact that Obamacare puts “massive new costs on insurers” and is essentially collectivist in using the mandate to force young people to subsidize the care of others by buying policies that will deliver them less benefits than the premiums they pay.
-I don’t know that anybody predicted a lineup of 5-4 for the mandate under the taxing power but 7-2 against the withholding of Medicaid funds from states that refuse to join the expansion of the program. It’s remarkable that Obama’s own Solicitor General at the time Obamacare was written joined an opinion calling it “a gun to the head” of the states.
-For all the flap before the decision about Justice Scalia rethinking Wickard v Filburn in his new book, neither his opinion nor Roberts’ actually argues for overturning Wickard or Gonzales v. Raich. That may come another day, but for now the Court simply distinguished them.
-I see in some quarters the notion that Scalia was wrong somehow to refer to Ginsburg’s opinion as “the dissent,” but her opinion is 4 Justices dissenting from the Court’s conclusion that the mandate wasn’t supported by the Commerce power. That is, technically, a dissent on that issue.
-Justice Thomas’ pithy 2-page opinion basically says that Congress is a spoiled child the Court didn’t say no to often enough & now it’s grown into an idiot teenager that does stupid things like try to force people to buy insurance policies. I paraphrase, but not by much.
-Characterizing the mandate as a tax may make it easier for Republicans, procedurally, to justify using the reconciliation process to repeal the bill with 51 votes instead of 60 in the Senate.
-This morning’s result will make Obama look even more ridiculous the next time he frames Citizens United as the work of a runaway right-wing Court.
-A prediction: the centerpiece of Chief Justice Roberts’ legacy on the court will be a case that hasn’t arisen yet.
Other commentary around the web worth reading:
Erick Erickson on why he’s not that down on John Roberts.
Krauthammer explains the institutional reasons that may have motivated Chief Justice Roberts to uphold the law.
Sean Trende compares Roberts’ decision to Marbury v Madison, which was my first thought as well.
Avik Roy looks at how the Medicaid decision could explode the federal deficit.
Tom Scocca looks further down the road at the impact of the Commerce Clause decision.
-In case you missed it, why IPAB is unconstitutional in at least two ways.

Tim Noah’s Sad Parade

The publication of Jonah Goldberg’s new book The Tyranny of Cliches has brought forth a number of responses from liberals and progressives, many of them either essentially proving Goldberg’s point or entirely avoiding grappling with the book’s substance. The latest entrant is Tim Noah, now writing with The New Republic, who seeks to offer a companion to Goldberg’s collection of liberal cliches with his own “conservative cliches.” It is clear from the column that Noah either (1) did not read the book, (2) completely missed its point, or (3) simply could not come up with counter-examples of the same type.
If you haven’t read The Tyranny of Cliches, Goldberg has not set out to gather liberalism’s strongest, weakest, most ideological or most fact-challenged arguments and contest them, but rather to focus on criticizing a particular type of liberal argument, arguments that (1) pretend not to be liberal or (2) pretend not to be arguments at all. He also takes on a variety of the kinds of shopworn slogans that sound like truisms and are often found on bumper stickers, but don’t stand up to even the most minimal scrutiny if taken seriously – the sort of thing Bill James used to do with old saws like “baseball is 75% pitching.” One of his main points is how these cliches allow people posing as something other than political ideologues to spread an explicitly political ideology without seeming to do so. And, as with his prior book Liberal Fascism, he puts a lot of effort into illustrating the intellectual and political history of the cliches he’s discussing, history that is often ignored by the people deploying them. Front and center are his critiques of cliched claims by liberals to be pragmatic, non-ideological, without labels and opposed to dogmas. These are big-picture themes, themes that often suffuse how modern liberal-progressivism is presented in academia and popular culture.
Noah, by contrast, sets his sights mainly on explicitly ideological arguments in the immediate political context of the day, thus missing the point completely.

Continue reading Tim Noah’s Sad Parade


You would think it’s easy enough to get bipartisan agreement that the kind of tactics described here by a recipient of millions of dollars from supposedly respectable left-wing foundations are beyond the pale. But Markos Moulitsas, the man who has never failed in the immediate aftermath of any kind of political violence – even violence by people who turned out to be left-wingers – to jump to place partisan blame, just shrugs:

More here.
Shrug indeed. Or, as he once said: “screw them.”

Horror Show

You have to read this post by the fearless and indefatigable Patterico in its entirety to get the full effect of the campaign of personal harassment waged against him by left-wing activists. I’d also encourage you to follow the links in his post (as well as Erick’s post here) to see the background and how long Patterico has been on this particular beat. One thing I had not realized before was that these goons are the people behind the Raw Story site.
Let me add one thing here. Every belief system – political, religious, philosophical, lifestyle – attracts some nutty people, some stupid people, some evil and dangerous people. You can’t judge those belief systems by their craziest adherents. Liberalism, as understood in the United States over the past half-century or so, involves the belief in a lot of nonsense, but it is basically a peaceable creed.
But increasingly since the late 60s, we have seen the emergence of a particular style of activism – occasionally aped in some corners of the Right, but systematically practiced on the Left – that takes as its creed “the personal is political” and that everything is politics, and follows that to its logical conclusion by such methods as:
-Picketing the homes of political opponents and business executives.
-Boycotts aimed at donors and sponsors of political causes and political commentators.
-Efforts to “out” political opponents, ranging from disclosing the identities and addresses of anonymous or pseudonymous writers to targeting closeted homosexuals among Congressional staffers.
-Googlebombs designed to skew internet searches for information about a targeted person.
-Reporting targeted opponents to ISPs, hosting companies or Twitter as spam.
That’s just a quick list, and of course it ranges from older-style campaigns to things done specifically on the internet. The theoretical and practical justification for this style of political activism as personal war against opponents is, of course, laid out most explicitly in Rules for Radicals and other writings of Saul Alinsky, the father of “community organizing,” the subject of Hillary Clinton’s college thesis, and the specific inspiration for groups like the PIRGs and ACORN that (to simplify a much longer story) trained and worked hand in glove with Barack Obama. We see such campaigns waged regularly online by left-wing activist groups like ThinkProgress and particular in the battles over Proposition 8 (ranging from the targeting of Mormon donors to the reasons why Paul Clement ended up leaving his law firm). The campaign against Patterico merely takes these methods to their logical endpoint. If you think your role in politics is not merely to compete in the world of ideas but to raise the personal cost of opposing your ideas and agenda to the point where people fear speaking out against you, you have gone down this same path, and should think long and hard about what you are encouraging.
PS – If you want to know where this style of activism leads, read Mark Steyn’s bracing introduction to Geert Wilders’ book.

Hey, Big Spender

Following up on yesterday’s post, that Rex Nutting article cited by White House Press Secretary Jay Carney has been debunked so thoroughly by so many sources on the Right – a number of them cited in my post – that even the Washington Post Fact Checker felt compelled to point out how dishonest it was, leaving only the White House and PoliFact standing by it. Note the WaPo’s point about how Nutting distorted the record by ignoring inflation.

The Growth Deficit and Spending Fairy Tales

The United States faces a number of economic and fiscal challenges in the short and long terms. But the single biggest is the Growth Deficit: the problem of government spending and government debt growing faster than the private sector. That deficit needs to be reversed; we are on an unsustainable path unless we start producing a Growth Surplus. And Republicans and conservatives need to put more effort into emphasizing the importance of the Growth Deficit to the public.

The Obama Administration seems to recognize that this is a political vulnerability, as it has lately been spinning the notion that the last few years have not actually grown federal spending. Below the fold, I’ve collected a number of charts that illustrate why this is nonsense. But first, a word on how we should be measuring our solvency.

Continue reading The Growth Deficit and Spending Fairy Tales

Florida Democrats: This Is Why You Fail

One Florida political blog calls this “Maybe the worst political web video ever produced in Florida” and comments that “You watch this video and all of the losses — Jim Davis, Alex Sink, Kendrick Meek, etc. — begin to make sense.” David Freddoso quips that “After watching this, I’m convinced Obama is toast in FL this year.” And it’s not even targeting any of the actual Republican candidates in 2012, but instead going after the popular Marco Rubio. How bad is this web ad produced by the Florida Democratic Party? Watch for yourself.

Democrats Question Republicans’ Patriotism Over Debt Fight

With House Republicans (and their few allies in the Senate) gearing up for another battle over whether to raise the national debt limit without doing anything to cut spending, Democrats (and their many allies in the media) are falling back on their favored tactic of attacking the other side’s motives, this time accusing Republicans of deliberately harming the economy for partisan gain. This is either a sign of Democratic desperation or, perhaps, proof that the Democrats are so far down the rabbit hole they cannot even comprehend why anyone would want to reduce spending when the nation has spent itself so deeply into debt.
The irony, of course, is that Democrats are the first people to shriek and run to the media’s self-appointed civility police when they feel their patriotism is being questioned; it’s always a big applause line for Democrats to claim that they will never question anyone’s patriotism…and also a big applause line when they do just that, as this video juxtaposing remarks by Barack Obama in June and July 2008 illustrates:

Of course, Obama has since done exactly what he once said was unpatriotic (adding $4 trillion to the national debt), and in less than half the time – and now, he and his allies are claiming that it’s unpatriotic to try to solve the problem. Now, here’s Barbara Boxer:

[Y]ou know, it’s interesting that they’re setting up a big fight, McConnell and Boehner, making it a crisis when it isn’t a crisis and demanding more cuts when they didn’t live up to the cuts they agreed to. Because they want to create a crisis so maybe say, oh, my goodness, maybe if we change everything, things will be better. Maybe we need a different president.
[CHUCK] TODD: They’re doing this to try to help Mitt Romney?
SEN. BOXER: I think they’re doing it to hurt the Democrats, to say that the Democrats are in control of the Senate and we’re not doing the right thing when the facts show otherwise.

Chuck Schumer, quoted in an AP article helpfully entitled “Is GOP trying to sabotage economy to hurt Obama?”:

“The last thing the country needs is a rerun of last summer’s debacle that nearly brought down our economy,” Schumer said in a statement. In an interview, Schumer added: “I hope that the speaker is not doing this because he doesn’t want to see the economy improve, because what he said will certainly rattle the markets.”

Josh Marshall of TalkingPointsMemo goes full-on tinfoil hat: “Unfortunately, its pretty much a certainty that republicans are trying to damage the economy to deny Obama reelection.” Other liberal bloggers agree.
This a rerun of the rhetoric deployed from the Obama campaign on down last year:

Schumer and other top Democrats have said for months that GOP lawmakers may be trying to strangle the economic recovery for political reasons.
“Their strategy is to suffocate the economy for the sake of what they think will be a political victory,” Obama’s campaign manager, Jim Messina, wrote in an email to supporters last October, when Congress was debating a jobs bill.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said his Republican counterpart was not cooperating on that legislation “in hopes that he can get my job, perhaps.”
Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, chairman of the Democratic Governors Association, told The Associated Press last year that some GOP lawmakers, “through their intransigence, cleverly set up a situation for America’s economy to fail, either by needlessly driving us to default, or needlessly driving us into massive public-sector layoffs.”

This is not a new rhetorical strategy. In 2008, Joe Biden famously suggested in 2008 that Republicans were unpatriotic for opposing higher taxes. In 2000, we had the Clinton White House charging that Dick Cheney was “talking down the economy”.
Predictable rhetorical hypocrisy aside, what the tone and content of the Democrats’ attacks suggests is that they either can’t or won’t deal with the possibility that the problem at hand is too much debt, not efforts to reduce the debt. At this point, they’re like junkies resisting rehab, denying that they have a problem and insisting loudly that the real problem is those guys trying to stage the intervention. It’s true, of course, that brinksmanship over the debt ceiling is a less than ideal way to handle this situation, but it’s the only thing tried that has accomplished anything at all under Obama. The Democrats who control the Senate have not passed a budget in three years (even though a budget resolution doesn’t require 60 votes), and have stopped even proposing them for a vote. And they won’t vote for the only Democratic budget on the table, as President Obama’s budget got zero votes in the House and zero votes in the Senate, after last year also getting zero votes in the Senate. As Paul Ryan explains, this is because the Democrats simply don’t want the public to see how much they propose to raise taxes and still not fix any of the nation’s fiscal problems. It seems almost quaint to reflect that one of the major controversies of the 2004 presidential campaign was John Kerry’s vote on an $87 billion war appropriations bill; today you can have a $111 billion projected increase in one of Obamacare’s line items and the Administration barely feels the need to explain it, let alone return to Congress for votes. When the party controlling two-thirds of the branches responsible for taxes and spending won’t attempt to fix the problem, the House has little choice but to use the only tools available to it.
We have serious fiscal problems caused by too much spending and not enough private sector growth to pay for it. As we have seen in Europe, the real question regarding our economic future and the federal government’s creditworthiness is not what temporary political tempests arise around plans to fix the problem, but rather the question of whether the government will actually adopt such plans and whether they have a meaningful chance of success. That’s the question the Democrats desperately want to avoid facing.