Monthly Archives: November 2009

Hoffman Now Says He Shouldn’t Have Conceded

You saw this coming.  In an interview with a local New York television station today (see here), Doug Hoffman is now saying he would not have conceded the race to Democrat Bill Owens if he knew he was trailing his opponent by closer to 3,000 votes rather than the roughly 6,000 his advisers were projecting when he bowed out on election night.  Moreover, Hoffman is suggesting that Nancy Pelosi should have waited for the results to be certified by the New York state election board before giving Democrat Bill Owens the oath of office to serve in Congress.  Hoffman says his next step will depend on the outcome of the count of the absentee ballots, which begins next Tuesday, but he advised supporters to be prepared to make donations to fund a legal challenge to the results.  That money is necessary to pay for the lawyers (and guns) required to win the recount.

According to the New York elections website (see here) the last day to receive regular absentee ballots was Tuesday, November 10, but military and “special federal ballots” can be received as late as next Monday, November 16.  (All ballots must be postmarked by November 2.)  That means the final (assuming no recount!) results probably won’t be known until sometime near the end of next week.  I still think, based on the fact that there are maybe 6,000 votes to be counted, that it is extremely unlikely that Hoffman can pull this out, given that he is behind by more than 3,000 votes.

However, if the result of this race is overturned, it will have next to no impact on Democrats’ control of the House, of course.  But the symbolism will be important because the Democrats’ talking points so far have been that the result of the governors’ races in New Jersey and Virginia are largely irrelevant to national issues – it was the congressional race that really reflected national issues.  Republicans, of course, have been spinning the governors’ results as a referendum on Obama. If Hoffman wins the New York congressional race, it would feed the Republican interpretation.

Stay tuned. This could get ugly.

Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton is scheduled to appear on Meet the Press this weekend.  How long will it take David Gregory to ask whether she will rule herself out of a 2012 presidential run?  She will, of course, categorically deny any intent to run. The interesting issue,  however, is her choice of language.  Does she leave any wiggle room whatsoever?

Send Lawyers, Guns and Money: New York’s 23rd Congressional Race May Not Be Over

On this past election night, I was pleasantly surprised to read that Doug Hoffman, the conservative candidate vying to win the special election in New York’s 23rd congressional district, had quickly and graciously conceded the race when results seem to indicate that he would lose to the Democrat Bill Owens.   Although the race was close, and only 93% or so of the vote was in at the time, Hoffman trailed by some 5,335 votes.  Moreover, it appeared he had underperformed in districts, such as Oswego county, where he hoped to roll up a big margin. Evidently this convinced him to concede the race even though he was within 4% of Owens with several thousand votes yet to be counted.

By not contesting the results, Hoffman allowed Nancy Pelosi to swear Owens into office in time to vote in favor of the Democratic health care plan – a not insignificant event since the vote was relatively close in the House, with the legislation passing by a scant five votes.  Owens took office even though the election results had not yet been certified and with most of the absentee ballots, of which some 10,000 had been mailed out, yet to be counted.

Now, however, it appears (courtesy of that Hoffman’s concession may have been premature.  It turns out that in the flurry of recording incoming results, the vote totals coming in from some of the precincts were incorrectly reported.  After reexamining the totals, election counters discovered a 1,200 vote error in Hoffman’s favor in Oswego County and smaller errors in other precincts.  Owens’ lead has now dropped, with all precincts reporting, to 3,176, according to a Watertown Daily Times article (link courtesy of  However, there are still the bulk of the absentee ballots to be counted.  Under New York law, military and overseas ballots received by November 16th (but postmarked by Nov. 2) are eligible to be counted. (Standard absentee ballots had to be returned by Nov. 8 if I understand the election law correctly).  Interestingly, most of these absentee ballots were likely filled out before Republican Dede Scozzafava dropped out of the race and told her supporters to vote for Owens.  So most experts believe the absentee ballots will favor Hoffman.  However, they don’t think that will be enough to swing the race his way, since the best estimate is that there are “at least 5,400 absentee ballots” left to be counted, a process that begins Tuesday.  That makes it appear almost impossible for Hoffman to make up a 3,176 vote deficit, given the breakdown of the vote so far.  He would have to vastly outperform his results to date to win.

Here are the most up-to-date unofficial results from the state board of elections, as reported in the Watertown Daily Times.




Clinton 10,536 7,530 686
Essex 3,718 3,175 432
Franklin 5,125 4,589 247
Fulton 1,969 2,489 676
Hamilton 888 1,184 293
Jefferson 10,460 10,884 1,179
Lewis 2,169 2,676 282
Madison 8,087 8,985 602
Oneida 2,024 2,779 362
Oswego 11,000 12,748 950
St. Lawrence 12,987 8,748 1,194
Total 68,963 65,787 6,903
Owens leads by 3,176

That’s a hefty deficit in the context of the remaining absentee ballots. But Hoffman may not have to beat Owens when all the votes are in.  Instead, all he needs to do is to come close enough to justify a recount, which – given the heightened national interest in the election – would undoubtedly lead both national parties to bring in the big guns (not to mention lawyers and money) to engage in still another protracted recount.  Remember, this race took on symbolic significance in large part because the media viewed it as a referendum on Obama as well as an indication of the relative power of conservative versus moderate elements in the Republican party.  The Vice President visited the district, and both parties poured money into the race, with the Republican contributions being split between Hoffman and Scozzafava.

But does the race really matter beyond the media hype?  Isn’t this just one seat out of 435?  Consider this: the House presumably has at least one more significant vote on health care coming up, when it debates the final legislation that will come out of the House-Senate conference.  It is not inconceivable that this conference bill will be even more controversial – as would be the case if still contained the antiabortion language and was shorn of the public option. Democrats may see their left wing lining up with Republicans in opposition, in which case every single vote will matter.  If Owens is engaged in a lengthy recount, his election may be invalidated, pending official certification by the New York election officials, costing the Democrats a House vote.  Or – and this is more of a long shot – Hoffman may be declared the winner.  In the event of a close House vote, this could be the difference.

Unlikely?  Yes.  Impossible?  No.

Cue Warren Zevon.

Addendum (2:37 pm)  In response to a couple of student emails: No, I don’t know whether, once having been sworn in,  a Representative’s appointment can be “rescinded” during a recount, but before the results are certified. I suspect not, although it certainly raises some sticky ethical issues.  Nor do I know under what circumstances a recount is triggered under New York state law.  I will try to get answers to both very good questions and post them here, but if any of you are election experts, please post what you know in the comments section…

Hillary to the Rescue! (You Aren’t Surprised, Are You?)

It was inevitable.

The off-year elections, correctly or not, are being spun by much of the national media as a sign of Obama’s weakening political clout, particularly after he invested considerable time in both Virginia and New Jersey in an unsuccessful effort to prevent Republican victories in both states. Consistent with this spin, Obama’s approval ratings in most polls have now dipped below his proportion of the popular vote in 2008, suggesting he is beginning to lose some of his electoral support, particularly among independents. (Pollster’s composite rating has Obama at a 50.7% favorable rate, while RealClearPolitics puts it at  51.3).

Meanwhile, after leveling off in late September, opposition to health care reform has resumed its upward climb, with Pollster’s composite reading showing 49.5% disapproving and only 41.8% in favor.  Despite an 81-seat advantage in the House, Obama’s health care legislation barely mustered majority support in that chamber and already is being described as dead on arrival in the Senate by moderate Democrats and Republicans.  Other legislation, including banking reform and climate control, are mired in legislative debate and the White House is now taking hits for mishandling the Gitmo closing.

To add to Obama’s political woes, the latest economic figures put unemployment at 10.2%, breaking the symbolic double digit mark, with no expectation that this number will go down any time soon, and fueling Republicans’ complaints that the stimulus bill did little except deepen the budget deficit. Historically, the president’s party typically loses seats in the first midterm election, but the bad economic numbers are leading some pundits to predict a reprise of the 1994 typhoon that ended Democratic control of Congress. In the latest Gallup generic ballot for Congress – which typically understates Republican support – Republicans have now inched ahead of Democrats, 48-44%.

The confluence of all these factors suggests to some that Obama’s presidency is on the downward slide to Carterville, who was one and done in 1980.  It also made the following story almost inevitable – the only question was which news outlet would take the lead.  As it turns out, it was a Washington Times columnist Tony Blankley who, in a column titled “Hillary in 2012?” openly speculates that “it is not implausible that by 2012, the Democratic Party will see Hillary Clinton’s nomination as its best chance for keeping the White House.”  Never mind that the Times is a conservative newspaper – if Blankley hadn’t floated this balloon, some other journalist would have.  It is too good a story to ignore, particular in light of several polls that show Clinton is now more popular than the President.

Yes, Clinton has already sought to preempt this story by announcing that she has no intention of running for President in 2012, but what else can she say?  “If unemployment continues to go up, health care stalls, we stumble in Afghanistan and the Republicans take control of Congress, hell yes I’m running!”?  Remember, as Secretary of State, she can’t be blamed for any of the domestic policy failures attributed to the Obama administration.  And she’s already hinted that she supports McChrystal’s call for more troops in Afghanistan, thus contributing to the pressure on Obama not to reduce the U.S. military presence there. More generally, she benefits from the perception, fueled by White House leaks, that she’s a marginal presence on the Obama foreign policy team, so she’s insulated on this score as well.

Here’s Blankley’s take on foreign policy, which he sees as Hillary’s trump card should she decide to run:It isn’t forgotten that foreign affairs were the major policy disputes between Clinton and Obama during the primary. She accused Obama of “being naive” about agreeing to unconditional meetings with leaders of Iran, Venezuela, North Korea, Syria and Cuba. She was — and is — a strong supporter of Israel and, during the campaign, was opposed to forcing Israel to freeze West Bank settlements unconditionally.

In April 2008, she was “deeply disturbed” by Russia’s move to strengthen links to the separatist regions of Georgia — Abkhazia and South Ossetia. At the time, she called on then-President George W. Bush to send a senior representative to Tbilisi to “show our support.” She also condemned Russia for engaging in a “pressure campaign to prevent Ukraine from seeking deeper ties with NATO.”

Regarding Iran, she favored immediate economic sanctions — last year. She threatened military force if necessary to stop Iran from getting nuclear weapons. She threatened Iran with nuclear annihilation if it used nuclear weapons on Israel.

This year, as each of those issues emerged, President Obama took a different approach. He had to reverse himself on the unconditional settlement freeze. He let the Russians invade Georgia and was slow to condemn them for it. Iran is pushing the United States (and the world) into a corner on its nuclear development. Israeli/Palestinian “peace” talks are about 98 percent of the way to complete failure of administration objectives.

The worse things get in foreign affairs — and those dark clouds are getting darker and closer — the better Hillary Clinton’s foreign policy will look compared with President Obama’s.”

Never mind that a case can be made defending Obama on each of the issues Blankley cites.  That’s not my point.  Once this balloon has been released, it becomes fair game for every journalist.  And the story is simply too juicy to ignore. Each time the issue is raised, no matter how often Clinton denies any intention of running, it becomes a bigger distraction for Obama and threatens to resurrect the political rivalry between the two.

How can Obama prevent this from happening?  By experiencing a reversal in political fortune, beginning with the economy. Jimmy Carter and George H. W. Bush are the last two presidents to be seriously challenged within their own party, and both attempts occurred because of bad economic conditions blamed on the president.  Although both Carter and Bush overcame their party challengers, each went down to defeat in the general election.  It is tempting to blame their defeat on the intraparty challenge, but that would be reversing the causal arrow.  In fact, both were opposed for their party’s nomination because they were already weak candidates likely to lose to a strong challenger in the general election.  What this suggests is that Clinton won’t run against Obama unless the climate – particular the economy – offers a reprise of what we saw in 1980 and 1992.

When Ted Kennedy announced, on Nov. 7, 1979, that he was challenging Jimmy Carter for his party’s nomination, unemployment stood a shade under 6%, but the annual inflation rate was hovering above 13%, prompting the creation of the “misery index” as a combined measure of inflation and unemployment. Carter’s approval rating stood at  37%, although it soon jumped up in the aftermath of the Iranian hostage crisis.

Twelve years later, when Pat Buchanan announced in December, 1991, that he was challenging President Bush, unemployment stood at 7.25% and was climbing, although annual inflation was down to 3% and falling. Bush’s approval rating was down to 51% and heading down to a low of 29% midway through 1992.

Today unemployment is 10.2% and is forecast to remain high for the next several years, while inflation is – so far – negligible. Obama’s approval rating, meanwhile, hovers at 50%, and – as yet – shows no indication of bottoming out.  But we are a long way from 2011, which is when any candidate contemplating a challenge to Obama will need to begin organizing.

Will Hillary Clinton challenge Obama in 2012?  It’s far too early to tell, of course, but I think the chances are extremely remote. But that won’t prevent the pundits from speculating.  It’s simply too good a story.

ERROR CORRECTION:  The perils of late night blogging – I wrote that Pat Robertson challenged Bush in 1992 – I meant Pat Buchanan, of course.  The text has been corrected.

Revisiting the Off-Year Elections: Was I Wrong?

An advantage that political science has over journalism is the ability to revisit an issue as new data comes in.  Under the relentless pressure of daily deadlines, journalists rarely if ever have an opportunity to come back to a story unless circumstances are such that it becomes newsworthy again. Political scientists, in contrast, can revisit an issue endlessly until they come to some common understanding regarding its main features.

A case in point is the recent off-year elections for governor in New Jersey and Virginia.  For the most part, journalists are already moving on as new stories – the health care vote, the Ft. Hood attacks – take the headlines.  But political scientists are still crunching the data, trying to determine the causes and significance of the Republicans victories. Toward that end, Charles Franklin published a column yesterday suggesting that rather than diminished turnout, what primarily drove the election results was a shift in voter preferences away from supporting Democrats and toward supporting Republican candidates.

As Franklin wrote, “The shifts in outcomes between the 2008 presidential and 2009 gubernatorial elections in New Jersey and Virginia were driven far more by shifts in voting preferences among groups than by changes in turnout across those groups. Only age groups show consistently substantial changes in relative share of the electorate. Vote preference, in comparison, shows quite large shifts between election years. While one narrative of the 2009 election was changing turnout motivation, this turns out to be substantially false. Instead, changes in candidate preference drove the Republican wins in both New Jersey and Virginia.”

In my posts leading up to and after the election, I made a slightly different claim: without dismissing the impact of changing preferences, I argued that the results were largely due to lower turnout, particularly among the president’s party supporters, that is characteristic of these off year elections in both states going back almost 40 years.  Franklin, however, downplays more than I the impact of lower turnout for a very simple reason:  exit polls in both states indicate the proportion of particular groups who voted last Tuesday did not differ enough from their proportions in the 2008 presidential elections in both states to explain the different results.  Using exit polls from both elections, Franklin looks at nine different ways to categorize voters, including partisan affiliation, race, gender, and age.  His results are captured in this chart.

Note the arrows – the longer the arrow, the bigger the shift in that group’s preferences from 2008 to 2009. (A purple color indicates that the group as a whole shifted support from one party to the other.) Although the details are hard to see, what it shows in a nutshell is a significant shift in voting preferences away from the Democratic candidate in key voting blocs, including 18-29 year olds, those without a college degree, independents, rural voters and males.  The most significant shift, however, is among Independents. In Virginia, 49% of independents supported Obama in 2008, but that dropped to 33% who voted Democrat in the gubernatorial election.  In contrast, the preferences of neither Republican nor Democrat partisans shifted as much across the two elections.  The story is similar in New Jersey, as the following table indicates.

Here 51% of independents supported Obama in 2008, but only 30% supported Corzine (the Democratic candidate) in 2009.  Support among Democrats for the two candidates in 2008 and 2009, in contrast, didn’t change as much, while “Republicans came home to their party a bit, from a 14 percent defection rate for Obama to just 8 percent defection to Corzine.” And, as in Virginia, Franklin found “substantial movement” in voter preference among other key groups, including 30-44 year olds, moderates, whites, Hispanics and males.

How do I respond to Franklin’s argument?  He is a first rate scholar who has presented an interesting (and provocative) argument. In the end I stand by my initial claim: that the results reflect a combination of lower turnout and a change in voter preferences linked to local issues and candidates in both states, rather than any referendum on Obama. As Franklin acknowledges, turnout in the two gubernatorial races decreased by almost half from what it was in 2008.  As the following two tables show (source here), this is not unusual; turnout is always lower in the off-year elections than it is in presidential years in both states.

Franklin argues, however, that the lower turnout is not the primary explanation for the shift in voter preference from Democrat to Republican in 2008 to 2009.  But I think it explains some of it. Note that exit polls show that there is a decline in the share of the electorate who are Democrats, and an increase in the proportion who are Republican. Moreover, the exit poll data show that there is a shift among the various age groups as well. In Virginia, the 18-29 year olds dropped 11 points, from 21 to 10 percent of the electorate, from 2008 to 2009.  Similarly, the 30-44 age group also declined, from 30 to 24 percent.  In contrast, the proportion of 45-64 year olds and those aged 65 and up increased. A similar shift by age occurs in New Jersey, with 18-29 and 30-44 year olds showing a decline as a proportion of the electorate, while those aged 45 and above took an increasing share in 2009 over 2008.  So at least some of the results reflect a shift in the voter pool.  So I remain convinced that different levels of turnout within key subgroups explain some of the shift.

Franklin suggests, however, that these shifts are not the biggest factor in the different results from 2008 to 2009. Instead, he notes that in both states there was a significant shift in support, from Democratic to Republican, among Independents.  In thinking about his argument, I do worry about the “squishiness” of the independent category.  Because the relative proportion of the electorate who calls themselves “independent” did not change much from 2008 to 2009, but their support for Democrats declined significantly, Franklin argues that preference changes primarily drives the results. But we know from other studies that independents include a substantial number of “leaners” who typically prefer one party to the other. My worry is that the depressed turnout in 2009 reflects the absence of a substantial number of “leaners” who are predisposed to vote Democratic.  That is, the pool of independents is weighted more heavily to Republican leaners in 2009 compared to 2008.

Nonetheless, in the end I don’t necessarily disagree with Franklin’s argument that a shift in voter preferences explains a good deal of the decline in support of Democrats across the two elections.   Indeed, I argued as much in my earlier posts – but I suggested the shift in preferences was not because of changing opinions toward Obama, but because local issues overrode national concerns in these off-year elections. And in fairness to Franklin, nowhere does he suggest that the shift in preferences reflects changing attitudes toward Obama – he is only suggesting that voters, particularly independents, were less likely to vote Democrat in 2009 than they were in 2008.  That shift in preferences might be entirely due to local factors, including issues and the candidates on the ballot.

In short, I remained convinced, in the absence of additional evidence, that the two off-year elections in New Jersey and Virginia cannot be viewed as a referendum on Obama or his policies.  I don’t, however, disagree with Franklin’s argument that the results reflect both turnout and a change in voter preferences, although we might disagree on the relative weight to place on both factors.

I hope this gives you a better sense of how political science works.  Believe it or not, we do try to – or at least I try to – base our arguments on the available evidence, rather than on our own political predispositions. When additional data comes out that suggests I am wrong, I will be the first to post it. I hope that’s why you come to this blog.

A Quick Look at the House Vote On Health Care: Who Defected?

Most of you woke up to the news that the Democrat-controlled House passed a health care bill last night on an almost straight party line vote, 220-215.  Only one Republican voted with 219 Democrats to support the bill, while 39 Democrats joined with 176 Republicans to oppose it.  The almost unanimous Republican opposition surprised no one, since they have signaled from the start of the House debate that they could not support the basic framework of the majority party bill.  What was more interesting, however, was the opposition from the Democrats, because it foreshadows the difficulties the bill is likely to face in the Senate.  With that in mind, I took a quick look at who, among the Democrats, opposed their leadership.  The results are a reminder that we are governed by a geographically-based congressional system – not a presidential one, and that members of Congress are acutely responsive to local electoral forces.

Here is a table listing the 39 Democrats who bucked their own leadership to vote against the House bill. In the last column I list whether their vote against the House health care bill could be predicted based on whether their district went for McCain in 2008.  This is a crude measure of district sentiment, but as you’ll see it does provide some analytic leverage.

Representative State -District McCain Vote in 2008 (% of total vote) Obama  Vote Did Representative Vote with district sentiment based on Presidential Vote in 2008?
Adler NJ 3 47 52 NO
Altmire PA 4 55 44 YES
Baird WA 3 46 52 NO
Barrow GA 12 45 54 NO
Boccieri OH 16 50 48 YES
Boren OK 2 66 34 YES
Boucher VA 9 59 40 YES
Boyd FL 2 54 45 YES
Bright AL 2 63 36 YES
Chandler KY 6 55 43 YES
Childers MS 1 62 38 YES
Davis AL 7 27 72 NO
Davis TN 4 64 34 YES
Edwards TX 17 67 32 YES
Gordon TN 6 62 37 YES
Griffith AL 5 61 38 YES
Herseth Sandlin SD (all) 53 45 YES
Holden PA 17 51 48 YES
Kissell NC 8 47 53 NO
Kosmas FL 24 51 49 YES
Kratovil MD 1 58 40 YES
Kucinich OH 10 39 59 NO
Markey CO 4 50 49 YES
Marshall GA 8 56 43 YES
Massa NY 29 51 48 YES
Matheson UT 2 57 39 YES
McIntyre NC 7 52 47 YES
McMahon NY 13 51 49 YES
Melancon LA 3 61 37 YES
Minnick ID 1 62 36 YES
Murphy CT 5 42 56 NO
Nye VA 2 49 51 NO
Peterson MN 7 50 47 YES
Ross AR 4 58 39 YES
Shuler NC 11 52 47 YES
Skelton MO 4 61 38 YES
Tanner TN 8 56 43 YES
Taylor MS 4 68 32 YES
Teague MN 2 50 49 YES

We see that 31 of the 39 Democrats (those in bold-face type) who voted against the health bill represent districts that supported McCain over Obama in the 2008 presidential election.  This includes many first-term Democrats who barely won in districts that historically tend to vote Republican. (Keep in mind that a few of the Democrats opposing the bill did so because they felt it wasn’t progressive enough.)  To put it another way, there were 48 districts, by my count, that split their ticket in 2008 by voting a Democrat in as representative but who supported McCain over Obama in the presidential election.  Only 17 of those Democrats felt comfortable voting for health care reform.

This is why it is so difficult for presidents to exercise any leverage within Congress on key votes like health care reform.  Although congressional races have become increasingly nationalized in recent years, it is still the case that representatives respond largely to district-level factors. Unlike their counterparts in parliamentary systems, presidents cannot call for new elections when they lose a crucial vote, and they must rely on the party leadership to rally votes on their behalf.

To put this in perspective, consider this: the Democrats control the House by an 81-seat majority, 258-177.  And yet on the most critical vote the party leadership is likely to face during the entire congressional session, they lost 39 members and were only able to pass the bill by five votes.  And it is almost certainly the case that this legislation will not survive a conference with the Senate in this form.

I’ll have more to say on the House vote and likely Senate deliberations in a later post, but I wanted to use this vote to remind you, once again, just how limited a president’s power is in our system.

(After painstakingly constructing this table, I see the NY Times has a much more detailed chart here.  That’s what I get for going to the roll call listing first!)