Monthly Archives: October 2010

The Midterms and the War in Afghanistan: Where’s the Debate?

Stop me if you’ve read this before: according to this New York Times article, American-led coalition forces have routed Taliban fighters in the key Afghan province of Kandahar in recent weeks.  Taliban supply lines have been cut, their leadership decimated, and Taliban fighters have retreated back in Pakistan.  The results seem to indicate that the troop “surge” approved by President Obama and implemented under David Petraeus, aided by the use of more sophisticated weaponry and better intelligence, is finally beginning to pay dividends.  To be sure, arm-chair strategists like Tom Ricks and Fred Kaplan disagree regarding just why the surge seems finally to be working.  Kaplan suggests that the U.S. has shifted from a counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy designed to shore up Afghan forces while clearing and holding civilian areas to a counter-terrorist approach focused primarily on killing the Taliban.  He hints that the shift is partly a reaction to the impending July 2011 deadline to begin withdrawing U.S. troops from Afghanistan; Petraeus realizes he cannot achieve stability in Afghanistan under the current timetable using the COIN approach, and so has decided to take the gloves off. Ricks (or at least some writing at his blogsite) think the more aggressive military tactics are simply one part of the COIN strategy pioneered by Petraeus in Iraq, and that nothing has really changed.

I will let the armchair strategists debate the finer points of military tactics. However, before declaring “mission accomplished” in Kandahar we would do well to remember recent history in Iraq.  Despite the success of the Petraeus-led troop surge there, that nation remains on the brink of civil war. The Iraqis have been struggling for months to form a government, amid signs that there may be a renewal of the Sunni insurgency that crippled the U.S.-led occupation early in the war.  The latest batch of documents just released by Wikileaks reveal just how deeply Iran is involved in trying to destabilize the nation-building process in Iraq.  All indications are that those opposed to a power-sharing arrangement in Iraq are simply waiting for a complete U.S. withdrawal to renew the offensive. (Despite the much ballyhooed withdrawal of all combat forces from Iraq, the U.S. still has a substantial military presence there.)

All this is a reminder that the outcome of the November 2 midterm election potentially has important consequences for the war in Afghanistan and for our foreign policy more generally, but that you wouldn’t know it by listening to the candidates running for office, or by the media coverage.  The dominant issue driving voter anger is unemployment and the still weak economy, and that has been the focus of media coverage (that and the horse race aspect of the campaigns) despite the fact that the United States is deeply involved in an escalating military conflict in Afghanistan.  Right now, Obama has vowed to begin withdrawing U.S. forces beginning next July.  I  do not know whether Obama’s self-imposed deadline to begin the troop drawdown has contributed to Petraeus’ shift in tactics from counter insurgency to a more militarized counterterrorist approach (if in fact there has been a shift in tactics.)  But voters would do well to reflect on what might happen if Republicans do regain the majority in the House and the Senate.  My guess is that there would be renewed pressure on Obama to slow the pace of troop withdrawals in order to give Petraeus more time to apply the COIN strategy.  I have no doubt that, facing a Republican majority, Petraeus would work behind the scenes to slow the Obama timetable for withdrawal.

Given the significance of a possible change in party control for the direction of U.S. foreign policy, why haven’t we heard more debate about Afghanistan?  I think it’s because neither party sees this as a winning issue.  Conservatives have never been happy with Obama’s choice to impose a withdrawal deadline, and liberals were aghast at his decision to escalate militarily by adding 30,000 soldiers to the conflict. The American public seems divided on the issue – they support efforts to combat terrorism, but aren’t sure Afghanistan is the place to make a stand. Given the public ambivalence, and Obama’s mixed approach, both parties want the issue to go away, at least until after Nov.  2.

In the end, the U.S. ability to “win” the war in Afghanistan, as in Iraq, depends not on military success alone, but on the messy process of statebuilding – something that requires non-military resources and, most importantly, patience – patience that the American people may not have.

Meanwhile, the troops fight on – but to what end?  The dilemma facing the 112th Congress that will take power come January will be: do we stay or do we go?  At this point, it doesn’t look like the midterm outcome will signal an unambiguous answer.

Are Landline-Only Pollsters Systematically Understating Democratic Support?

With less than two weeks remaining before the midterm election, polls continue to indicate that Republicans will make major gains in both the House and Senate.  That has led some Democrat supporters (and others as well) to wonder whether the polls might be overstating Republican support.  One potential source of error is a failure by pollsters to adequately account for cell phone only (CPO) households.  A recent study released by Pew indicates that the CPO households have a distinct partisan bias; as the following table shows, landline-only surveys of likely voters tend to lean Republican by roughly 5% over surveys that include cell phones and landline households.

This has led some people to suggest that polls are overstating Republican support, particularly since some of the most prolific pollsters, such as Rasmussen, rely on automated survey methods that do not survey CPO households at all.  (This is because of restrictions imposed under federal law that prohibit automatic dialing of cell phone numbers.  By automated surveys, I mean surveys conducted by automated voice, rather than a real person conducting the interview.)

While the Democrat bias in CPO households is certainly very real, I don’t think Democrats should pin their hopes on the belief that surveys are systematically understating Democrat support. To begin, pollsters are very much aware of the  CPO problem.  Many major pollsters, such as Gallup, already include CPO households in their sample.  But even those polling outfits such as Rasmussen who do not sample CPO may nonetheless provide accurate survey results.   Consider a Pew study that compared the results of landline only with landline and CPO surveys conducted during the 2008 presidential race.  As the following Pew chart shows (source here), the average error in the landline-only polls was no larger than those that included CPO in their surveys. Although the mean error in landline surveys slightly favored McCain, the difference in errors between combined CPO-landline surveys and landline-only surveys is statistically indistinguishable.

How can this be? The answer lies in how well pollsters conducting landline-only surveys weight their sample demographically.  Simply put, as long as the pollster compensates by choosing landline voters who share the same demographic variables associated with CPO households that have similar political views, landline-only surveys will not be biased.  That is, a properly weighted survey that relies on landline-only households will provide the same results as a survey that includes CPO households.  What are these demographic variables?  They may include income, marriage status,  whether the respondents have children, or education, to name the most prominent.

Of course, with fully 25% of American households CPO, the process of weighting becomes a more difficult task than it was even two years ago.  To achieve the proper weighting pollsters relying on landline-only surveys have to choose the right democraphic weights and they may be forced to over sample from some demographic subgroups in order to achieve a statistically significant subsample.  This oversampling costs extra money, and some companies may be tempted to take shortcuts to avoid spending the money to oversample from the requisite groups.  We won’t know until after the election whether and to what degree landline surveys understate Democratic support.  But keep in mind that many of the most prominent pollsters, such as Gallup, are already including CPO’s households in their survey.

The bottom line?  I think it is highly unlikely that there is an across-the-board systemic bias in the polling so far that is understating the level of support for Democrat candidates for Congress, even among automated pollsters such as Rasmussen.  Democrats are in trouble, and it’s not because pollsters aren’t sampling CPO-only households.

Can We Trust the Gallup Generic Ballot Results?

At this stage in the electoral cycle, the fundamentals that drive the midterm vote – unemployment, real disposable income, attitudes toward Obama – are for the most part fixed, barring a major event. The key question now becomes who will show up at the polls?  As the latest Gallup generic ballot results indicate, turnout is the key to whether on Nov. 2 Democrats lose an average number of seats for the post-World War II era – say about 30 – but retain control of the House, or lose 40 seats or more and are swept out of power in a tidal wave of voter anger.

Let’s look at the latest generic ballot results from Gallup.

If we look only at the generic ballot results of registered voters, we see Republicans ahead by 5%.  That translates into a projected Republican gain of perhaps 40-45 seats (depending on the forecast model), enough to regain the House if everything goes right.  But now look at the results of a survey of likely voters, as opposed to registered voters.  Assuming 40% turnout, which is about par for the course for midterm elections in the post-World War II era, Republicans have a whopping 17% lead on the generic ballot.  That translates into a wave election come Nov. 2, with Republicans picking up 65 or more seats, according to some forecast models. This would be a stunning repudiation of Democratic control of Congress. (Note that Gallup estimates whether one is a “likely voter” based on answers to seven questions that have proved reliable predictors in the past.) If Gallup’s likely voter numbers are correct, it’s 1994 all over again – or worse – for Democrats.  The question is: can we believe Gallup’s numbers? Alan Abramowitz, for one, does not. To begin, Abramowitz believes Gallup’s proportion of Republican to Democrats (55% to 40%, including leaners) in their likely voter, low turnout model, overstates likely Republican turnout. He is equally critical of the predicted proportion of turnout among those age 65 or older (27%) and the proportion of young voters under age 30 (only 7%).  He also questions Gallup’s results for nonwhites: “Among nonwhites other than blacks, a group that comprises about 13% of likely voters, a generic Republican is leading a generic Democrat by 10 points, 52% to 42%. That’s a group that voted Democratic by a 2-1 margin in the 2006 midterm election. Moreover, it’s a group that has never given a majority of its vote to Republican candidates for Congress in any election since the advent of exit polling. According to the 2006 exit poll results, about two-thirds of these “other nonwhite” voters are Latinos. How plausible is it that at a time when the Republican Party is closely associated with stridently anti-immigrant policies that Latino voters are moving in droves toward Republican candidates? Not plausible at all… .”

Abramowitz implies that the only value of putting out these numbers is to change the campaign narrative and, presumably, dampen Democratic turnout – a serious charge.  In his words: “But what is the value of putting out results that defy logic but which can influence perceptions of the current electoral climate among political elites as well as the public?”

What are we to make of Abramowitz’ criticisms?  To begin, Gallup is not suggesting Latinos are moving in droves to Republicans – only that turnout will be heavier among Republican-leaning voters.  More generally, note that political scientists (including myself) are an inherently conservative lot – we tend to believe that future events will unfold largely as past events did.  When they don’t – and 1994 is a case in point – we tend to get caught flat-footed.  No political scientist that I know of predicted the Republican sweep in 1994.  In this vein, Abramowitz discounts Gallup’s results because they are inconsistent with turnout among subgroups in previous elections.  But what if this election is in fact a “wave” election, in which turnout disproportionately favors one group?  Gallup, relying on its likely voter model, is suggesting precisely that – the enthusiasm gap between Republican and Democrats is going to skew turnout in ways that will produce unusual voting patterns.

Note also that the margin of error for Gallup’s results increases when we focus on subgroups within the sample.  If we keep this in mind, Gallup’s likely voter model for subgroups – while historically unusual – is not as outlandish as Abramowitz suggests.  For example, the demographic profile of the 2010 electorate as posited by Gallup is not much different from previous midterm profiles; it is slightly less white, slightly older and slightly more educated than a comparable profile of the 1994 electorate which was the last “wave” election.  The proportion of Republicans, Democrats, and Independents in the 2010 survey is almost identical to 1994’s partisan breakdown.  The big difference is that Gallup sees today’s likely voters as more conservative than in 1994 (54-40%) but also – and Abramowitz doesn’t mention this – more liberal than in 1994 (18% to 12%).  In other words, the big difference between 1994 and today is a drop in the number of likely voters who call themselves “moderates” from 48% to only 27%.

I understand Abramowitz’s concern with Gallup’s number.  But I do not believe they “defy logic” – in fact, they are plausible if we are on the brink of another wave election in which turnout is disproportionately greater among older, better educated and conservative voters (Tea Party anyone?), even accounting for the growth of nonwhites in the electorate as a whole since 1994.  Gallup’s likely voter model could be wrong.  But we need to be careful about jettisoning a methodology that has proved reliable in the past just because this time around it is provided results that seem historically atypical (or because we don’t like the outcome!)

A final thought. Gallup’s generic ballot numbers have been stable for three weeks, but that does not mean they can’t change in the remaining two weeks. Gallup estimates that there is still a block of voters – about 5% – who remain undecided. If we look at previous midterm election cycles dating back to 1994, there have been instances in which the results changed considerably in the last two weeks.  For example, in 2002, Republicans were trailing the Democrats in the Oct. 20 generic ballot results by 3%, but in the final poll they led by 6%, a net pick up of 9% points. They ended up gaining 6 seats in the House that fall.  In 2006, Democrats’ lead in the poll dropped 6%, from 13% to 7%, in the same time period, but they still gained 30 House seats.

In the end, it’s going to come down to turnout.  If Gallup’s likely voter numbers hold, it will be 1994 all over again.

Has Citizens United Caused A Decline in Overall Campaign Spending?

Here’s an interesting question: why is spending on midterm races this cycle down from the previous midterm expenditures in 2006?***

“What’s that?” you ask. Didn’t you just read Politico’s lead story announcing that “Outside organizations – business associations, unions, ideological groups and others – have spent $153 million on political advertising and messaging this midterm election cycle – more than double their total contributions in the 2006 cycle, according to a new study.”

And didn’t the Open Secrets website publish data showing that independent expenditures have “nearly tripled between the 2006 and 2010 cycles” – an increase that, quite predictably, they claim is “attributable to the Supreme Court’s recent Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision”?  How can I suggest spending is down this campaign cycle?

Because it is. As always, one needs to dig beneath the headline to examine the data itself.

In this case, the data cited by Politico and highlighted on the Open Secrets website excludes spending by the political parties themselves. When we include party spending, it turns out that overall spending is, so far, less than what was spent during the 2006 midterms. Here’s the actual data on total campaign spending, including money spent by the parties, as listed at the Open Secrets website.

Cycle Total $ Pct increase from previous election type Ind. Expend. $  without Parties Ind. Expend. $ with Parties
1990 7,272,769 5,658,990 5,710,074
1992 19,758,475 10,946,636 11,068,327
1994 9,565,051 31.5% 5,219,965 5,245,736
1996 29,548,466 10,168,022 21,832,732
1998 16,755,007 75% 10,266,136 11,820,470
2000 54,531,695 33,022,189 36,693,258
2002 30,920,191 84.5% 16,588,100 20,221,814
2004 446,283,002 68,718,830 316,710,285
2006 299,848,443 870% 37,380,748 268,391,469
2008 581,971,573 156,845,524 440,267,438
2010 230,437,494 ? 111,045,828 188,011,964

Of course, there is a bit less than a month to go during the current cycle, so it is quite possible that spending for the 2010 midterms may in the end match or even eclipse spending from previous midterms.  But it appears that the deluge of campaign money that was supposed to appear in the wake of the Citizens United decision has not materialized.  Who could have predicted that?

Why, my colleague Bert Johnson did, in a guest blog at this site shortly after the decision was rendered.  Bert noted that the Court’s decision allowing corporations and labor unions to spend money on independent expenditures might alter the pathway through which money was raised and spent, but that it would likely have little independent impact on the total amount of money that flowed into the system.  It appears that Bert was correct and for reasons that long-time readers have heard me express many times before: money always finds its way to candidates.   Put another way, Citizens United was unlikely to spur an increase in spending because the money from corporations and labor unions was already finding its way to candidates through other means, including political actions committees, 527 groups, and nonprofits.  In the current election cycle, donors have evidently opted to move away from parties and toward contributing to 501(c) non-profit groups, presumably because these types of contributions do not have to be disclosed.  But the total amount of money flowing into the system does not appear to have significantly increased, despite the predictions to the contrary by many pundits.  Similarly, the accelerating rate of increase in spending over the previous midterm seen in the past is not likely to occur this time around.

***ADDENDUM:  A few minutes after posting this article but before sending out the distribution notice, I went back to the Open Secrets website to see whether they had updated their data – and they have.  Rather than rewrite the post’s title and lead sentence  (rewriting seems Orwellian and frankly, I’m hoping the title will get you read the post!) I am simply including this addendum. You can see the latest fundraising data here, but the important point is that in the span of roughly a day, the Center for Responsible Politics has recorded an additional $13 million in overall independent spending.  Combined with additional independent spending by parties, this has finally pushed the overall independent (not total) spending for the 2010 election cycle to $246 million.  That is still less than what was spent in this category in 2006 (see table above) but, according to the website, it is on pace as of Oct. 15 to set a new record for independent spending.   As far as I can tell Open Secrets has not updated their overall campaign spending as yet, but I expect that in the end it too will eclipse the 2006 record, given the number of competitive seats.  But it is surprising (at least  to me) that it has not increased by a greater amount.  One explanation is that with the slow economy,  there simply isn’t as  much money to give. However, we may yet see a surge in spending during the closing days. Stay tuned.

(Note: I have slightly edited the final paragraph to make clear that the record spending is based on a comparison of outside spending by groups and parties as of Oct. 15, 2006 vs Oct. 15, 2010, and not a comparison of overall independent or total spending, both of which as yet remain below their final 2006 amounts).

Which Party is More Extreme? The Mote in Markos’ Eye

The results of a recently released survey commissioned by The Hill (a journal focusing on Congress) of likely voters in 10 “battleground” states are garnering not a little attention among the chattering class. (The poll surveyed voters in congressional districts in Arkansas, Hawaii, Illinois, Michigan, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Washington state, West Virginia and Wisconsin). The survey, conducted by the polling firm Penn, Schoen and Berland between Oct. 2 and Oct. 7, found that 44% of respondents say the Democratic Party is more dominated by its extreme elements.  Thirty-seven percent say it’s the Republican Party that is more dominated by extremists. The margin of error for the overall sample is 1.5 percent.  When the survey is broken down by party, the results grow more interesting still: 22% of Democrats surveyed say “their party was more dominated than the GOP by extreme views. The equivalent figure among Republicans is 11 percent.”  (The margin of error by party is 4.5%)

Perhaps the most crucial finding concerns independents: among this group, 43% say the Democrat Party is “more dominated by its extreme elements, compared to 37 percent who thought the GOP had fallen under the sway of extreme views.”  (Again, the margin of error among the subsample of independents is 4.5%)

I do not have access to the actual poll so, as always, take the results with the requisite dose of salt.  That being said, long-time readers of this blog will likely not be surprised that both parties are viewed by roughly equivalent number of likely independent voters (taking into account the margin of error, the Democrat Party is viewed as more extreme by a very small margin) as being hijacked by extremists, but the results do run against the prevailing media narrative that suggests it is the Republican Party that has been hijacked by extremists in the form of the Tea Party.  Instead, the survey suggests that many independents view both parties as almost equally susceptible to their more extreme elements.

The results are a reminder why Democrats are struggling during the current electoral cycle.  The most prominent public faces of the Democratic Party during the national  debates over the stimulus bill and health care are Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid – both of whom are viewed (especially Pelosi) as particularly liberal Democrats.  In upstate New York (I get to see their television ads) Republican candidates for the House are running ads that link the Democrats to Pelosi.  At the same time, any Democrat who voted for health care reform and the stimulus bill is being tarred and feathered as a liberal extremist.  In the context of a 9.7% unemployment rate that shows no sign of abating, a record budget deficit, uncertainty over health care, and a general feeling that the bank bailout bill benefited Wall St. more than Main St., Democrats in the House and Senate who supported the Democratic leadership on these votes are finding themselves vulnerable in the current electoral cycle.

More interesting to me, however, is how leading progressives have reacted to this poll.  Consider the comments of Markos Moulitsas, the founder and publisher of the liberal website the Daily Kos.

“Democrats haven’t nominated anyone like Sharron Angle or Rand Paul or Christine O’Donnell or Rob Johnson or Joe Miller for Senate seats, much less the myriad of wackos in House races across the country,” Markos said. “We don’t have media figures like Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh calling the shots for our party.

“But they have built their alternate world courtesy of Fox News, thus making them impervious to reality. Is that a problem? Sure. Even more so when Democrats think they can reason with this crowd,” said Moulitsas.

The irony of Markos comments, I hope, is not lost on you – but it clearly is on him!  He is completely oblivious to the fact that for many “extremists” on the Right, he is the Glenn Beck/Rush Limbaugh of the Left – the “extremist” calling the shots for “our party”.  Conservatives are convinced that it is Moulitsas and his supporters, through his website the Daily Kos and sympathetic cable stations like MSNBC, who in fact have created the “alternate reality.”  From the conservative perspective, it is Markos and those who share his views who are out of step with the mainstream.

I make no judgment regarding the validity of these competing claims.  Instead, my point is that Markos does the Democrats – including President Obama – no favor by dismissing the views of those who worry that the Democrat Party has been captured by extremists.  Rather than suggesting that respondents in these battleground states have been brainwashed by Fox News, Kos and Democrats would do far better to address their concerns. They could begin by acknowledging that President Obama, in confronting a Congress more polarized than any previous Congress since the Reconstruction Era, and having inherited an economic recession more severe than any since Reagan’s first two years, cannot afford to mortgage his presidency to the wing of the party that is viewed as extremist by almost half of all voters in key states. Democrats are going to lose seats come November – if Markos’ view that independents have been brainwashed by extremists prevails, that number is likely to be go up.

Note: We are entering the stretch run to the November midterm election, one that is shaping up to be among the most significant in two decades.  I’ll be blogging more frequently (on a daily basis, I hope) between now and Election Day, and I hope to hear from many of you in the comments section.  This is what democracy is all about!  (Plus you get cool t-shirts!)