Monthly Archives: November 2009

Every Vote Counts: “Buying” Health Care Legislation in the Senate

In my last post I discussed the politics underlying today’s vote to invoke cloture in order to bring health care to the Senate floor for debate. Because it appears that not a single Republican Senator is likely to support bringing health care to a vote, Democrats must retain all 60 members who caucus with them in today’s vote.

With the margin so small – even one Democratic defection can sink this legislation – individual Senators are in a tremendous position to leverage their vote to extract tangible benefits from the party leadership.  These are the “side payments” I talked about yesterday that can be used buy the votes of wavering Senators who might otherwise be ideologically opposed to health care reform.

And that is precisely what appears to have happened. Media reports suggest the following four Democrats have not yet committed to voting yes today to invoke cloture:

Sen. Ron Wyden, (OR)

Sen. Mary Landrieu (LA)

Sen. Blanche Lincoln(AR)

Sen. Joe Lieberman (CT)

Lincoln is one of the five Senators whose roll call voting record suggests they are located near the pivotal 60th position on the Senate’s ideological spectrum – pivotal because it requires 60 votes to invoke cloture and end a filibuster in that chamber. The other three are ideological moderates within the party, but sit closer to the median voter position within the Senate. All arein a particularly advantageous position to extract some reward for siding with the party leadership. And, (courtesy of ABC’s The Note), it appears that is what has happened.  Landrieu has previously expressed concern that the health care legislation may drive up Medicaid costs in her state. (Medicaid is a joint federal-state program that provides health insurance for low-income families and is a huge budget-buster already for many state budgets, particularly poorer states like Louisiana that have a greater proportion of low-income residents.)

Now turn to page 432 of the health care bill, which, according to The Note, spells out some of the conditions for a state to receive a boost infederal Medicaid subsidies.  The relevant language, tucked in the legislative jargon, is as follows:(2) In this subsection, the term ‘disaster-recovery FMAP adjustment State’ means a State that is one of the 50 States or the District of Columbia, for which, at any time during the preceding 7 fiscal years, the President has declared a major disaster under section 401 of the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act and determined as a result of such disaster that every county or parish in the State warrant individual and public assistance or public assistance from the Federal Government under such Act and for which …”

Hmmm…a state that underwent a major disaster in the past seven years.  Thinking….thinking….could it be Landrieu’s state of Louisiana? Evidently, yes; if the Note is to be believed, Louisiana is the only state that qualifies under this legislative language for a boost in federal Medicaid subsidies.  The cost of implementing this language?According to the Congressional Budget Office: $100 million.

Will that side payment be enough to win Landrieu’s vote?  We’ll know by this evening.

But it is a nice illustration of the power of the moderate middle in a highly polarized Congress to leverage uncertainty over their vote as a means for acquiring side payments.  Note that, even though every Senate Democrat’s  vote is crucial, not every Democrat is equally capable of extracting concessions from the party leadership.  To do so, a Senator’s threat to defect has to be credible, or else the party leadership will simply call the Senator’s bluff. Evidently Landrieu’s threat was deemed credible.

If I get a chance I’ll be on a bit later to discuss the likely voting patterns one more time.  The actual Senate vote doesn’t occur until this evening, but we should know before then how it is likely to play out.

CORRECTION:  I incorrectly listed Blanche Lincoln as representing Nebraska – as Midd Alumn points out, she’s representing Arkansas.  Thanks for the catch – I’ve corrected it above.

Do Democrats Have the Senate Votes to Pass Health Care? Here’s What to Look For

Do Democrats have the votes to pass health care legislation in the Senate?  Political scientists have a somewhat crude but conceptually simple way of analyzing legislative outcomes that may be useful in helping understand the likely Senate voting patterns on health care, beginning with tomorrow’s crucial cloture vote.   It begins with a simple spatial model of voting.

Let us array the 100 Senators from left to right, using the latest roll call-based data to estimate their underlying ideology.   So, on the far Left we have Democrats Durbin(D-IL),  Whitehouse (D-RI) and Harkin (D-IA).  The Far Right, meanwhile, is anchored by Republicans Coburn (R-OK), DeMint (R-SC) and Bunning (R-KY).  Occupying the ideological center is Baucus (D-MT), flanked on either side by Dorgan (D-ND) and Lieberman (D-CT). In a simple spatial voting model, in which senators vote according to their ideology along a single dimension, who wields the most power?  The median voter (or voters) occupying the middle ground, ideologically speaking.  In other words, if health care legislation is to pass the Senate, according to this spatial model it will be legislation that is shaped to attract the support of the moderate middle senators such as Lieberman, Dorgan and Baucus.

The intuition behind this is easy to see:   If health care legislation is introduced that appeals to the Far Right – say a plan based on creating Health Savings accounts and subsidies to states that reduce health care costs – there will be too many Senators on the Left who prefer a more progressive policy, and the conservative policy won’t pass.  Similarly, legislation that is supported by those on the Far Left – a single payer, government-financed system, for example – won’t have the votes to pass because it will lose the support of the more numerous Senators to the Right.

However, the situation in the Senate is a bit more complicated than that.  First, Senators don’t simply decide whether to support health care legislation based on the details of the health care plan alone.  Instead, what they do is compare the proposed legislation to the status quo – the system of fee-for-services, employer-sponsored plans on which most Americans rely.  Each Senator must decide: do I think the proposed Democratic plan is an improvement over doing nothing – that is, maintaining the status quo, or not? In other words, for many senators, given the choice of the Democratic plan or doing nothing – the latter option may be more appealing.

There is a second wrinkle that must be considered as well in forecasting the Senate vote: the existence of the filibuster.  As many of you know, under Senate rules, most legislation is drawn up using unanimous consent agreements.  As the name suggests, these are agreements that stipulate the details under which legislation will be considered: what amendments will be allowed, how long it will be debated, etc., and they require all Senators to sign on if they are to be in play. However, on some contentious issues – and health care is one of them – Senators cannot achieve consensus on the details governing debate.  The majority leadership is then forced to ask for a vote to pass a motion to proceed that, in effect, allows legislation to reach the floor for debate.

Lacking a unanimous consent agreement, that motion to proceed can be opposed through a filibuster. (Contrary to popular perceptions, filibusters rarely consist of a Senator occupying the podium by reading for hours on end from Moby Dick, or the phone book. Instead, it usually means the use of procedural tactics – quorum calls, motions to read the bill in its entirety – designed to delay the vote.) To prevent a filibuster – that is, to invoke cloture – Senate rules require 60 votes, not a simple majority of 51.

On Saturday, the Democrats will try to do just that – to invoke cloture to allow a vote on the motion to proceed to consider the Democratic-sponsored health care legislation. Note that this changes our calculations based on our simple spatial model of voting. The pivotal voter(s) now become(s) the Senator(s) who occupy(ies) roughly the 60th position away from the extreme Left of the Senate ideological spectrum (that is, the 40th position from the Right).  This is because the Senate bill under debate is trying to move health care policy to the Left from the status quo located on the Right – that is, it is trying to make health care more progressive.  (It is actually a bit more complicated – we have to worry about the 60th Senator from the Right as well, but I’ll ignore this permutation of the voting model for the moment.)

Who occupies this 40th position from the Right?   As of today, that would be Nebraskan Democrat Ben Nelson. Our model suggests that he holds the pivotal vote in this debate.  Of course, because our ideological measures are at best approximations, and because we can’t be sure where the current “status quo” health care falls on the ideological spectrum, let me list the four closest Senators on either side of this pivotal filibuster-proof point.

To Nelson’s right, we have four Republicans:

Olympia Snowe (R-Maine)

Susan Collins (R-Maine)

George Voinovich (R-Ohio)

Debra Murkowksi. (R-Arkansas)

To his Left:

Evan Bayh (D-Indiana)

Claire McCaskill (D-Missouri)

Russ Feingold (D-Wisconsin)

Blanche Lincoln (D-Arkansas)

Our spatial model, then, predicts that health care legislation will pass the Senate only if these Senators, (or at least enough of them to reach 60 votes) prefer the Democratic bill to the existing status quo.

What this means is that in fashioning the Democratic alternative to the status quo, Harry Reid had to calibrate the components of the bill in precise fashion.  If he makes the bill too far Left by, for example, including the stronger version of the public option and the more progressive funding mechanism contained in the House bill, he would lose votes, like Nelson’s, from those occupying this strategic 60th position. As it is, even the milder version of the public option contained in the Senate bill, was enough to drive the few moderate Republicans such as Snowe, from supporting this bill.   This suggests any bill farther to the Left had no chance to pass.  In short, given the position of the status quo, and the current ideological makeup of the Senate, it appears Reid got the most liberal bill out of the Senate that he could.

If this simple spatial analysis is correct, it has several important implications for the vote on the Senate bill.

1.  My guess, based on Nelson’s public comments, is that the Democrats have enough votes to invoke cloture tomorrow.  Note, however, this only means the bill will be brought to the Senate floor for debate. It is no guarantee it will pass.  In other words, if he votes to invoke cloture, the bill will proceed to the floor for debate.

2. Whatever comes out of the Senate will be a more conservative bill than what passed the House.  This is because the House votes based on a simple majority, and the median voter is located much closer to the center of the Democratic party, ideologically speaking.

3. It is possible to change the projected Senate voting patterns in one of two ways.  First, by making side payments to the pivotal voters, in effect buying their support by offering some other tangible concession.   If you are the 60th Senator, now is the time to leverage that position for all it is worth. More broadly, if Reid, (or Obama, working through Senate intermediaries) can introduce a second dimension to the voting calculus of individual Senators, then a new voting configuration might arise.  What do I mean by a second dimension?  Suppose a Senator considers the vote not just in terms of how “progressive” health care reform is, but whether it allows taxpayer dollars to cover abortions, or whether illegal immigrants are granted access to the proposed insurance exchanges.  Or, suppose the party leadership pressures moderates to support the bill in order not to damage Obama’s presidency.  In other words, by introducing a second component to the decision calculus, voting patterns can vary from what one might expect looking at a simple one-dimensional model.

4. It is possible to get around the 60-vote requirement using something called “reconciliation” (and Chris Abbot asked me about this some time ago), but for reasons I can address in another post, it is unlikely to be used with health care.

With these caveats in mind, the simple spatial model introduced here suggests that cloture will be invoked if Nelson is in favor.

In my next post, I look at the factors likely to influence the votes of these ten Senators on the final health care legislation. As an incentive to pay attention, however, I’ll give out an “It’s the Fundamentals, Stupid” t-shirt to anyone who can tell me what’s going to happen in the final health care Senate vote (not the conference bill, but the current Senate bill).  Give me the final vote totals and tell me which Democrats, if any, defect from the majority, and which Republicans, if any, cross over and vote with the Democrats.

Hoffman Closing, But Not Fast Enough

After the second day of counting absentee ballots, Doug Hoffman has gained 344 votes on Owens, a pace that is not nearly enough to change the outcome of this race. According to the Watertown Daily Times , this is where things stand with about 43% of the absentee ballots counted:




Clinton 10536 (68) 7530 (58) 686 (23)
Essex 3718 (0) 3175 (0) 432 (0)
Franklin 5,125 (0) 4,589 (0) 247(0)
Fulton 1969 (84) 2489 (179) 676 (62)
Hamilton 888 (60) 1184 (85) 293 (87)
Jefferson 10460 (164) 10884 (165) 1179 (151)
Lewis 2169 (0) 2676 (0) 282 (0)
Madison 8087 (203) 8985 (170) 602 (122)
Oneida 2024 (219) 2779 (446) 362 (97)
Oswego 11000 (276) 12748 (315) 950 (123)
St. Lawrn 12987 (0) 8748 (0) 1,194 (0)
Total 70,037 67,205 7,558
% of vote 48.7 46.4 4.9

There are 4,262 absentee ballots remaining to be counted.  Assuming that Hoffman continues to gain at this incremental pace, and that Scozzafava continues to take close to 20% of the absentee ballots, Owens is still likely to win by some 2,000 votes. That margin is roughly 1.5% of all votes cast, including those going to Scozzafava.  That may not be enough to justify a recount.  Although standards vary from state to state, it is often the case that the margin separating the two candidates has to be 1% or less of all votes cast to trigger an automatic recount (in states that have this provision.)   I spent some time looking through New York’s electoral laws and there does not seem to be a provision for an automatic recount.  I’ll keep checking.

Meanwhile, Owens is settling into life in Congress, with less than a year to solidify his support before facing reelection.  To help him do so, the House Steering and Policy Committee placed Owens on the Armed Services and Homeland Security committees.  Fort Drum is located in Owens’ district which also shares a border with Canada.  And like any incumbent trying to protect his position, Owens pledged to “do everything in my power to maintain and strengthen Fort Drum as a Member of Congress, and as a member of the Armed Services Committee I will fight tirelessly for the base, the surrounding community and for our entire district, all who benefit from Fort Drum’s presence.”  Protecting local military installations is a nonpartisan position that should appeal to both Republicans and Democrats.

Absentee Ballot Counting Begins Today in NY’s 23rd Congressional District

Election officials in New York’s congressional district 23 are beginning their count of the remaining absentee ballots today and the numbers do not look good for Conservative candidate Doug Hoffman.  Although more than 10,000 absentee ballots were mailed out, the Watertown Daily Times notes that only 7,419 were returned. Here are the county figures (source here):

Absentees sent

Absentees returned

Clinton 1,583 980
Essex 795 596
Franklin 885 481
Fulton 413 251
Hamilton 331 241
Jefferson 2,299 1,308
Lewis 565 299
Madison 1,058 785
Oneida 320 209
Oswego 1,765 1,145
St. Lawrence 1,727 1,124
Total 11,741 7,419

Hoffman currently trails the Democratic Bill Owens by 3,176.  Assuming that Republican Dede Scozzafava gets close to  5% of the absentee votes, about what she pulled in the general election, that would give her 370 absentee votes. Hoffman would then need 5,061 votes, or 72% of the remaining absentee vote, to win, by my back of the envelope calculations. That’s almost certainly not going to happen.  Some of Hoffman’s supporters argue that he will benefit from receiving a large proportion of the military vote, particularly since Fort Drum is located in the district.  However, as the Watertown Daily Times points out, according to the county elections commissioner from Jefferson County, in which Fort Drum, is located, only 605 military ballots were requested, and only 51 returned, from that county.   So Hoffman supporters better not be counting on the military to bail their candidate out.

However, as I noted in the earlier post, the key question becomes how much does Hoffman have to cut into Owens’ lead to justify a recount?  Does he need to pull within 100 votes?  500?  In part, the decision may turn on the types of voting machines in use across the 23rd district – some voting processes are inherently more prone to miscount than are others.  I don’t have any idea what is used in most of the congressional district, but that could factor into Hoffman’s decision.

I’ll be on later tonight with updated figures from the 23rd district, posted as an addendum to the blog.

First update (3:17 PM):  According to the Watertown Daily Times, three counties have finished counting, and 20% of Jefferson County (I think the largest in the district) is done. At this point Hoffman has picked up 47.1% of the vote – not nearly enough to close the gap.  Owens is only getting 32.4%, but Scozzafavo is pulling in 20.5%.  Remember, most of these ballots were cast before she dropped out. At this point, with Jefferson County’s partial returns included, Owens’ lead is down to 2,940, but there are only 5,640 absentee ballots left to be counted.

Update (3:35):   It appears that portions of the 23rd district are using new digital voting machines, part of a state-based program to upgrade voting technology to comply with the federal Help America Vote act.  Several counties, however, used the older pull lever system.  I have no idea what the procedure for recounting votes cast in a digital machine is, but you can be sure both sides will be looking at this closely. If it is anything like my computer, the opportunities for mischief are endless.  Cue the conspiracy advocates!

Update 9:45 pm.  It appears that counting/reporting is done for the night.  According to the Watertown Daily Times, three counties – Oneida, Madison and Hamilton – have counted their absentee votes and reported tallies.  This is where things stand as of tonight (absentee ballots in parentheses).

Owens Hoffman Dede
Clinton 10536 (0) 7530 (0) 686 (0)
Essex 3718 (0) 3175 (0) 432 (0)
Franklin 5,125 (0) 4,589 (0) 247(0)
Fulton 1969 (0) 2489 (0) 676 (0)
Hamilton 888 (60) 1184 (85) 293 (87)
Jefferson 10460 (115) 10884 (113) 1179 (132)
Lewis 2169 (0) 2676 (0) 282 (0)
Madison 8087 (203) 8985 (170) 602 (122)
Oneida 2024 (219) 2779 (446) 362 (97)
Oswego 11000 (0) 12748 (0) 950 (0)
St. Lawrn 12987 (0) 8748 (0) 1,194 (0)
Total 69,560 66,601 7,331
% of vote 48.5 46.4 5.1

At this point it looks like Owens will win by roughly 2,000 votes – not close enough, in my view, for Hoffman to ask for a recount.  There are several of the largest counties that still need to report, but one of them – St. Lawrence – went strongly for Owens.   The other big one – Jefferson – is running roughly 50/50 between Owens and Hoffman, with about 27% of absentee ballots counted.   I’ll update with a new post tomorrow.

Going Rouge: Palin, Polling and the 2012 Presidential Race

As Sarah Palin hits the media circuit to plug her new book, Going Rogue (she was just on Oprah this afternoon which will undoubtedly push sales for a book that is already on the NY Times best seller list even higher), three new polls have been released assessing her popularity and perceived qualifications for president. Interestingly, they come to somewhat different conclusions. The reason for the polling disparity is a useful reminder why I constantly urge you to read the fine print in any poll.

To begin, CNN released results indicating that among those surveyed, a significant number of Americans (by 70-28%) don’t believe Palin is qualified to be president.  That puts her behind the two people frequently mentioned as her Republican rivals, Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee.  The CNN survey finds that nearly half of all Americans think Romney is qualified to be president, with 43 percent feeling the same way about Huckabee. (Interestingly, the most qualified among those listed on the survey by far was…Hillary Clinton!)  There is a steep partisan divide regarding Palin, however, with most Republicans (54-44%) thinking she is qualified, while most independents (68%) and Democrats (90%) say she is NOT qualified.

The CNN poll is consistent with the results of an ABC/Washington Post poll conducted at almost the same time.  It also found that a majority of those surveyed, by 60-38%, think Palin is not qualified to be president. When asked whether they would vote for her as president in 2012, 53% said they definitely would not, while only 9% said they definitely would, with another 37% saying they would consider voting for her.   When asked if they had a favorable or unfavorable impression of Palin, only 20% had strongly favorable views toward her, while 34% had strongly unfavorable views.  (23% had somewhat favorable views and 18% had somewhat unfavorable views.)

Based on the latest polling data, then, one would be hard pressed to make the case that Palin is a viable presidential candidate in 2012.  Or would they?  A third poll, taken at the exact time as the CNN and ABC polls, presents a slightly different, more favorable picture of Palin’s chances. Rasmussen finds that 21% of Americans they surveyed had strongly favorable views toward Palin, with another 30% looking at her somewhat favorably.  14% viewed her somewhat unfavorably, and 29% had strongly unfavorable views.

What is the difference between the ABC and CNN polls versus the Rasmussen poll? How can Rasmussen find 51% with favorable or strongly favorable views at the precise time ABC finds only 43% with favorable views toward Palin?  One might be tempted to argue that one or the other polling outfit, for partisan reasons, put their finger on the scale just enough to tilt the results in their preferred direction.  And this is frequently what partisan blogs will claim. One way to do so, of course, is to utilize a biased survey that oversamples from respondents who shares the pollster’s political leanings.

But I don’t think that’s what happened here.  All three polling outfits are quite reputable.  Rather than pollster bias, the difference has to do with their survey methodology. Both CNN and ABC surveyed all Americans, and they used live person to person interviews.  Rasmussen, in contrast, used automated polling, and only surveyed likely voters.  By now, you know from my election year posts that surveys of likely voters tend to favor Republican candidates a bit more, because Republicans tend to turnout in higher numbers than non-Republicans.  Moreover, there is some evidence suggesting that automated surveys, in which respondents press a button to answer an automated polling question, may allow respondents to be a bit more candid in expressing opinions – like saying they like Sarah Palin! – that they may think are socially less acceptable.

In general, which survey approach is to be preferred? It depends on one’s objective. If you want to know how a representative cross section of all Americans feels about Palin, the ABC and CNN method is probably the way to go.  But if you are trying to forecast the 2012 election, Rasmussen’s methodology is probably to be preferred, for reasons that I have discussed at length in several previous posts.  The short explanation is that we know almost half of all Americans aren’t likely to vote in 2012 – and the number of nonvoters is even greater in the primaries.  So Rasmussen is likely providing the more accurate snapshot of the election outcome. (Note that they were the most accurate pollster in last Tuesday’s elections as well).

Of course, a lot can happen in two years. Palin is likely to get a positive boost from her book tour, but even at the height of her popularity during the 2008 campaign she was a very polarizing figure.  As this composite poll of the polls indicates, she is viewed unfavorably by  about half  of Americans, and her unfavorables have climbed more than 5% since she stepped down as Alaskan governor.

On the other hand, she continues to poll very well among those Republicans most likely to participate in the 2012 Republican primary in head to head matchups with Huckabee and Romney.

In the end, and realizing it is too early to come to any definitive judgment, I think Palin is, to date, simply too polarizing to win her party’s nomination.  In this respect, the candidate she most closely resembles is Howard Dean. Like Palin, Dean was a little-known governor from a small, mostly rural and white state, who suddenly achieved national prominence in part due to his “mavericky” ways. As with Palin, Dean’s support was strongest among the more ideological extreme wing of his party, in part because of his stance on the Iraq war. And yet, as my presidency students can attest, I never believed he had a viable shot at the party nomination, even without his celebrated “I have a scream” speech after losing the Iowa caucus.

The reason for my skepticism is that at the height of the Dean “boomlet” beginning in December 2003 through  January 2004, when Dean vaulted to the head of the polls among all Democratic contenders, he still never attracted more than 31% support in any poll.

Palin, at least so far, is the Dean of the Republican party. Without a moderation of her views and a corresponding rise in her favorables, I don’t see how she can break the roughly 40% ceiling of support among Republicans that she consistently attracts now.   Having said that, however, it is clear from viewing the Oprah interview that she has gained media savvy. Moreover, she is doing exactly what she must do to position herself for a run in 2012: increase her favorable ratings, raise heaps of money, and work to soften her edges so as to broaden her political appeal.  My guess is that she doesn’t know yet if she will run and that her decision will turn in large part on her polling and fundraising during the next year.  An early sign that she’s considering a run comes from her willingness to interject herself into the special NY election in the 23rd congressional district.  If she follows this up and begins campaigning in the 2010 midterms on behalf of Republicans, then you’ll be able to answer the question “Is Sarah Running?” in two and a half words: “You betcha!”