Monthly Archives: December 2011

Is Mitt It? The Pundits Say Yes, the Polls Say No

We are witnessing a fascinating struggle between the polling data in Iowa, and how Republican Party leaders and pundits are interpreting that data.  Yesterday, the National Journal ran this story under the headline “Romney: The New Frontrunner in Iowa”.   It linked to a number of print and online articles that collectively indicated Romney was poised to win the Jan. 3 caucus and position himself to close out the nomination contest shortly thereafter. Thus, Politico proclaimed that “Romney was in striking distance of Iowa Win.”    The Washington Post proclaimed  that Romney’s “stealth campaign” gave him a “real shot at winning Iowa.”   This Huffington Post piece  ran under the headline “Romney poised to do well in Iowa.”  The Hill opined that Romney “could lock up GOP nod with win at Iowa.”   The Los Angeles Times went so far as to claim that Romney could “win” Iowa even if he didn’t win there!  Josh Krashauer concludes his National Journal piece with this confident assertion:  “Make no mistake: If Romney wins the Iowa caucuses, he’s on a glide path to the Republican nomination.  And with newfound scrutiny over Paul’s racial record, Gingrich losing momentum and the evangelical base vote split between Bachmann, Perry and Santorum, it’s looking awfully likely that Romney will come away as the big winner on Jan. 3.”

Big Winner?  You might think this assessment and the accompanying flurry of news story touting Romney’s prospects are driven by recent polling data indicating that Romney was pulling ahead in Iowa, or at least that his poll numbers were on the rise there.  But you would be wrong.  The reality is that there are no signs of a Romney surge in Iowa.  At best one might argue that he’s climbed a couple of percentage points back to where he was a month ago, but even that’s uncertain, given the probabilistic nature of survey sampling.

Consider the latest Iowa poll released late yesterday by Insider Advantage.  It shows Romney at 17.2%, in a dead heat with Paul (17.3%) and Gingrich (16.7%).   (The bigger news in the poll is that Santorum has climbed to 4th, at 13.4%, which is consistent with yesterday’s CNN/ORC poll that had him third, with 16% of the polling support. More on that in a later post.) One week ago Insider Advantage had Romney at…. 18%.  Well, that’s one poll you say – surely he’s climbing in all the others?  Nope. PPP’s latest had Romney at 20% – exactly where he was a week before in the previous PPP poll.  Rasmussen?  The last two polls, again a week apart, have him at 23% and 25%.  Really the only poll that suggests any growth in Romney’s support is yesterday’s CNN poll, which has him at 25%, which is 5% more than its previous poll. That previous poll, however, dates back three weeks.

Indeed, right now Romney is at 21.8% in the RealClearPolitics composite polling tracker – which is almost exactly where he was a month ago and, in fact, about where he was last July!   Indeed, he’s on track to finish below the 25% he received in Iowa four years ago!   For all intents, despite several millions dollars of paid advertising, countless visits, endorsements by party leaders, and even a change in clothing (Mitt’s ditched the prep look and is now dressing down) Romney’s been treading water for four years in Iowa.  That’s the real story.

Look, Romney could very well finish first come Jan. 3 – but if current trends hold it won’t be because of a surge of support in the last two weeks of the race. Iowan voters show no signs of coming around to Mitt.  It will be because unlike in 2008, the Tea Party/evangelical voters who comprise more than 50% of the likely caucus voters didn’t coalesce behind a single alternative candidate.   Their failure to do so make it possible that Romney’s support will go down from 2008 – and yet he will finish first.

If that happens, it will be very interesting to see how the media spins the results.  For reasons that I think must be based on evaluations of candidate electability, the Republican party establishment  – by which I mean party leaders (see his endorsers) and their media counterparts (think Will, Brooks, and Krauthammer) – are completely in the tank for Romney, despite the fact that he has yet to demonstrate deep or broad support among hard-core Republican partisans.  There’s a dispute in the political science literature regarding whether the winning candidate gets a boost from Iowa.  (I’ll address this in a separate post.)  But it partly depends on media reactions and the expectations game.  If Mitt can’t increase his support in Iowa from four years ago, that suggests he’s not gaining strength as a candidate.  But that may not be how the media interprets the results.

By the way, the Insider Advantage poll released late yesterday showing a three-way tie in Iowa included 69% Republicans, 27% independents, and 3% Democrats – that’s a relatively low number of Republicans, which suggests the poll may be slightly understating Santorum’s support although it’s hard to be sure without an ideological breakdown as well.  The other interesting finding is what appears to be a gender gap in both Paul’s and Romney’s support;  Paul leads among men with 23% of the vote, but he gets only 12% among women.  Romney’s support is reversed; he receives the highest support among women, with 23%, but only gets 11% from men.  Gingrich, in contrast, polls equally well with both genders (17%).  Indeed, of the three front-runners, Gingrich shows the most consistent support across party, gender and age lines.   He comes in second among Republicans, second among Democrats and third among independents.  And while Paul draws disproportionally from those 44 years old and younger, and Romney’s core support is from the 45 and older crowd, Gingrich draws about evenly from all age groups.  Maybe Gingrich, and not Romney, is most electable?

Will It Be Santorum? In Iowa, Timing is Everything – the latest Poll

In politics, as in life, timing is often everything.  A second Iowa poll has just been released, and it suggests that conservatives in Iowa may be  – I stress may be, since this is one poll – coalescing behind Rick Santorum.  This poll, conducted by ORC on behalf of CNN, is based on telephone interviews with 452 likely Republican caucus participants, and was in the field from December 21-24 and December 26-27.  (The sampling error +/-4.5 percentage points.)  As the following table shows, it has Romney leading with 25%, followed by Paul at 22%.  The big surprise is that Santorum has climbed into third with 16%, which statistically ties him with Gingrich.

Romney 25%
Paul 22%

Santorum 16%
Gingrich 14%
Perry 11%
Bachmann 9%
Huntsman 1%
Someone else (vol.) *
None/ No one (vol.) *
No opinion 2%

Santorum’s rise in this poll seems to be fueled by the anti-Mitt and anti-Paul groups I discussed in my previous post – that is, social conservatives and Tea Party activists. Among those who self-identify as “born again” Santorum leads all candidates with 24% support. Among “conservatives” he is in a statistical tie with Romney (22% to Santorum’s 21%) at the top.  Note, however, that in contrast to the PPP poll, this survey does not appear to include self-identified moderates or Democrats, although it’s hard to tell for sure because explicit breakdowns by party or ideology are not provided.  Still, it is the first evidence we have that conservatives may have decided that Santorum is this year’s Huckabee.

If so, it would be only fitting; Santorum is the only Republican competing in Iowa who has not experienced a surge in support.  If, in fact, conservatives have now decided to coalesce behind him, his timing is impeccable, since a surge at this late date will not provide time for candidates or their shadow SuperPacs to reorient their negative message machine against him.

In terms of issues, perhaps the most interesting finding coming out of the poll is the number (60%) citing the deficit as the most important economic issue, trumping both jobs (20%) and taxes (13%).  These are not Romney conservatives, for the most part.

What is most startling about this poll, however, is that with just six days to go, fully 43% of those polled say they may still change their mind!  At the same time, however, there are significant blocs of voters who say they won’t support specific candidates under any circumstances; 35% say they won’t vote for Romney, 36% say they won’t vote for Bachmann, 39% won’t support Newt and 41% won’t support Paul.  Interestingly, however, only 25% say they won’t vote for Perry. (Unfortunately, for some reason Santorum wasn’t included in this question!)

So, where do things stand?  It appears that caucus goers may be sorting themselves into three voting blocs: “establishment” Republicans who back Romney, libertarians who support Paul, and social conservatives who are the biggest bloc, but who are still working on that coordination problem.  I think it’s pretty clear that despite the drumbeat of support by the party establishment, Romney has come close to maxing out in Iowa – indeed, it’s not clear he’ll even match his total from four years ago.  (I’ll have another post on how the pundits are missing the story with him in a bit.)  It also appears that Paul may have hit his ceiling. With six days to go,who wins Iowa may depend on just how quickly and thoroughly social conservatives move toward a single candidate.  Is it Santorum? If so, that may finally change his google, er, issue!

P.S. 6:14 p.m. I hope everyone appreciates that I’ve avoided stooping so low as to engage in the obvious Santorum word play regarding his polling move from behind….how he’s come from the rear of the pack …. ok, never mind.

P.S.S.  As I look through the internals of the CNN/ORC poll, it does seem they don’t include any non-Republicans in their survey, in contrast to the PPP poll.  That explains why Santorum can be third in one poll, but trailing the field in the other one. Just another reminder that who turns out next Tuesday makes all the difference in the world.



All Iowa, All The Time: Who Will Finish Second?

With less than a week to go before the Jan. 3 Iowa caucus, the latest PPP Iowa poll continues to show Ron Paul in a slight lead over Mitt Romney, with Newt Gingrich in third.  None of the numbers have changed very much since the last PPP poll from a week ago.   As I noted then, Paul’s lead is predicated on the assumption that independents and Democrats will show up in considerably greater numbers in the Republican caucus than they did in 2008 – a not unreasonable forecast given that there is no Democratic caucus this time around. In the PPP poll, fully 16% of those polled voted in the Democratic caucus in 2008 – not the Republican.  Whether Democrats will actually turn out in those numbers is the key to evaluating these polls.

As Mark Blumental notes at, most recent Iowa polling tells a similar story to the latest PPP results: Paul holding a slight lead over Romney, with Gingrich trailing both by about 4-5%. Here’s Pollster’s listing of the six previous Iowa polls, and the trends.

As I’ve repeatedly cautioned, however, these polls are based on assumptions regarding the level and composition of the Republican caucus come Jan 3 – assumptions that involve not a little guesswork. Remember, only about 5% of Iowa’s roughly 2 million registered voters will actually attend the caucuses.  In this vein, Blumenthal looks at past polling the week before the Republican Iowa caucus to see how reliable it was.  As this chart shows, in general the final week polls do a good job forecasting the winner.

When they have been off, however, it usually has been in underestimating the support for the second-place candidate.  (The exception was Romney in 2008 who slightly underperformed his final polling numbers.)  Why might this be?  Note that each of the three instances in which the Iowa polls underestimated the second place finisher’s vote involved a social conservative.  To me that suggests that conservative voters, who tend to turn out disproportionately in caucus events, essentially solved their “coordination” problem in the final week and decided to support a single candidate who came closest to embodying their values. Now look at the Republican candidates in 1996, 2000 and 2004.  In each of these races there were potentially two or more candidates who could appeal to the social conservatives. And in the end these voters tend to move in large numbers to the candidate who came closest to their social conservative views. So, in 1988 conservatives really had to select from among Pete DuPont, Jack Kemp and Pat Robertson.  Most of the undecideds went to Robertson. Eight years later conservatives could choose from among Phil Gramm, Alan Keyes, Steve Forbes and Pat Buchanan.  They broke late for Buchanan. Finally, in 2000 Gary Bauer, Keyes, Forbes and Orrin Hatch battled for the conservative vote, with Forbes getting most of the late deciders. What about 2008?  Here Huckabee really faced no opposition for the conservative vote, and he won their support early.

So what does this say for 2012? Here’s where things get tricky.  Paul’s libertarian values are not fully compatible with a true social conservative’s world view; most of his polling support comes from independents, Democrats, ideological moderates and young voters.  That’s not the profile of the voting bloc that pushed Huckabee to the top four years ago or that coalesced behind conservative candidates in the past. If I’m right, this suggests that Paul may have reached his ceiling at about 22%. Nor do I see these voters flocking to Romney – his support in the polls this time around hasn’t even consistently reached the 25% he won in 2008.

So where will the true conservatives go? Note that evangelical Christians constitute about 47% of the projected caucus turnout. Fully 52% of those surveyed get their news primarily from Fox.  Right now, the four other candidates – Gingrich, Perry, Santorum and Bachmann – are winning a combined 44% of the polling vote.  If any of the four could win over this vote, they would take the caucus easily over Paul or Romney.  But is anyone primed to do so?

At this point, the barrage of negative ads targeting Gingrich these last two weeks may have fatally wounded his support among conservatives. In the PPP poll, his unfavorability rating is the highest of all six candidates. He is counting on a last minute advertising campaign launched by a SuperPac to turn those numbers around, but it may be too late.

That leaves Perry, Santorum and Bachmann.  Of these Santorum has the highest favorability/unfavorability rating in the PPP poll, at 56/29 (with 15%) unsure, and he is the second choice of 14% of those polled, which is the strongest support in this category. But these figures are only slightly better than Bachmann’s, who’s the second choice of 12% of those polled, (tied with Gingrich for second in this category), and who has a 53/37/10 favorable/unfavorable/don’t know rating. Perry is the second choice of 10%, with 48/40 favorable/unfavorable ratings. But he has the strongest media presence in the state, vastly outspending Bachmann and Santorum on paid advertising. I tend to think that Santorum may have stronger upside  than Bachmann, primarily because of his higher stature as a former Senator which may give him a bit more credibility; Bachmann is still fighting the perception that she’s less seasoned.

However, keep in mind that social issues are cited as the most important problem by only 12% of those surveyed, and illegal immigration by only 3%. In contrast to past years Iowan caucus goers are focused primarily on jobs and the economy which could play more to Perry’s strengths than to Santorum’s or Bachmann’s.

Finally, 28% of those surveyed say they may yet switch to another candidate, and 5% say they are unsure of who to support.

In considering all these factors, it seems to me that there’s a high likelihood that social conservatives won’t coalesce behind any single candidate this time around.  If they don’t solve their “coordination” problem and split the vote, that benefits Paul and Romney.  And here’s where the media expectation game becomes important – even though neither of the two frontrunners will have commanded anywhere near a strong plurality of the Iowa vote (never mind a majority), the media will invariably suggest that one of these will have the “momentum” coming out of Iowa and heading into New Hampshire.  That won’t be true, strictly speaking, but that will hardly matter to the media coverage.

Before we get to that point, however, there’s still six days to go in Iowa and the race remains very fluid – much more so than in past years. Conservatives may yet decide to rally behind a single person – if they do, that candidate will be the perceived winner coming out of Iowa, and they may be the actual winner as well.

In the meantime, if anyone tells you they know what is going to happen, they are lying. Unless it’s me.

Stay tuned.

Are Obama’s Approval Ratings On The Rise?

An apparent uptick in President Obama’s Gallup Poll approval ratings triggered a flurry of stories these past two days speculating what might have caused the change and what it portends for the future.  Politico’s story was headlined Obama job approval surges, while the Hill was a bit more restrained noting only a “jump” in Obama’s approval ratings.  Many other pundits weighed in as well, with several attributing Obama’s polling rise to his “victory” in the payroll tax cut extension debate with House Republicans.

But were the headlines warranted? Did Obama really experience a significant uptick in his popular support?  You decide. Here are the Gallup numbers from the past two weeks that were driving many of these stories. The second column are his approval numbers, and the third his disapproval.





























All told since mid-December, his approval ratings have gone up about 4-5%, and his disapproval ratings have dropped by about 3%.  When we consider the random variation inherent in the sampling that produces these polls (the tracking poll has a margin of error of +/-3%), it appears that Obama’s approval ratings may have ticked up a hair – but it is hardly enough to warrant headlines heralding a polling surge or jump.  So why the sudden focus on what appears to be a slight uptick at best?  It’s primarily due to that one-day result in Gallup’s three-day tracking poll indicating that, for the first time since July, his approval ratings were – barely – higher than his disapproval ratings, at 47-45.  Substantively, that number was really no different from what came the day before, and what followed the next day.  But psychologically, the fact that his approval was higher than his disapproval – even if for only one day! – was a big boost to the President’s backers, and it prompted a flurry of news stories speculating that Obama may have received a significant and enduring boost in support due to the recent “victory” over House Republicans.

Of course, we’ve been through this before. Remember this TPM headline from this past January? That was after the extension of the Bush tax cuts and Obama’s post-Gifford’s shooting speech had progressives in a tizzy that we were witnessing a game-changing upswing in Obama’s poll numbers.   It never happened. Nor did Bin Laden’s killing produce more than a momentary spike in the President’s approval ratings.  So what has caused this latest upturn – if we can even call it that? My guess – and it’s primarily a guess – is that the slight uptick in his Gallup numbers are driven primarily by the better unemployment figures that came out earlier this month and have little to do with the payroll tax cut extension.

However, this good news notwithstanding, without a major and sustained uptick in the economic numbers, Obama’s approval  ratings aren’t going to change much from where they have been for the past several months – mired in the mid-to-low 40’s range.  And this is not a good place to be. Historically, Obama’s November polling average was among the lowest ever recorded for a president at this point in his term, and his December poll numbers are not, at this stage, looking much better unless the latest numbers are in fact a harbinger of things to come.

Indeed, at this juncture Obama is on track to have the lowest December, third-year approval ratings of any president since Gallup began public approval surveys.

The bottom line is this: don’t be fooled by the Beltway spin regarding purported winners and losers based on pundits’ scorecards that judge one high-profile event.  For Joe Sixpack and his wife Jane, it’s still the economy, stupid.

An Imperial Presidency? Obama, Signing Statements and the Unwritten Constitution

Last Friday Barack Obama signed into law H.R. 2055, the “Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2012,” which is an omnibus year-end spending bill. While signing the bill into law, however, he issued a statement that declared several provisions within the bill as either unconstitutional or as infringing on his executive powers. These include provisions limiting his flexibility in dealing with enemy combatants now held at Guantanamo Bay prison, and others that forced him to consult with congressional committees before authorizing military exercises costing above a specified dollar amount or that required congressional approval before allowing U.S. forces to operate under U.N. command.   In the signing statement posted on the White House website, Obama notes, “My Administration has repeatedly communicated my objections to these provisions, including my view that they could, under certain circumstances, violate constitutional separation of powers principles. In approving this bill, I reiterate the objections my Administration has raised regarding these provisions, my intent to interpret and apply them in a manner that avoids constitutional conflicts, and the promise that my Administration will continue to work towards their repeal.”

As the name suggests, a signing statement is simply a declaration by the president explaining how he interprets the legislation that he has signed into law.  Sometimes those statements merely clarify language, but often they declare a president’s intent to, in effect, disregard those portions of the law that he deems unconstitutional.  Although presidents dating back to Monroe have made use of signing statements, they became controversial during the Bush presidency, in part because of a highly-publicized Boston Globe article by Charlie Savage in 2006 that claimed “President Bush has quietly claimed the authority to disobey more than 750 laws enacted since he took office.”  More accurately, as the Globe later acknowledged, Bush had in fact challenged about 750 provisions contained in about 125 bills during his first six years in office, although this correction was often overlooked by Bush’s critics. The distinction is not inconsequential; for example, using Savage’s original method of counting, Obama would have challenged 20 “laws” alone in this one signing statement.  So we need to be careful how we define a “law.”

Savage, who later won a Pulitzer Prize for his work on this topic, linked Bush’s seemingly extraordinary use of signing statements  (in fact, Bush issued far fewer than did his predecessor Bill Clinton) to  Bush’s broader claim of enhanced executive power rooted in the theory of the “unitary executive”.  That controversy was not lost on candidate Obama who, in running for the Presidency, made it clear he would not follow Bush’s precedent. Signing statements, Obama proclaimed in 2008, are “not part of his power, but this is part of the whole theory of George Bush that he can make laws as he goes along. I disagree with that. I taught the Constitution for 10 years. I believe in the Constitution and I will obey the Constitution of the United States. We’re not going to use signing statements as a way of doing an end-run around Congress.”

The reality, however, is that President Obama has been quite willing to utilize signing statements, albeit at a slightly reduced rate compared to recent presidents.  By one count he has issued almost 20 such statements to date.  For comparison purposes, Bill Clinton issued some 92 signing statements in his first three years in office – almost as many as Bush did in six years – and close to 400 during his two terms.   However, as this Congressional Research Service report suggests, a focus on the number of signing statements alone can be misleading.  Indeed, constitutional scholars on both the Left and the Right are in basic agreement that signing statements themselves are not the issue – it is the president’s intent when issuing the statement that is of concern.   In particular, beginning with the Reagan administration there has been a marked increase in the number of signing statements issued by presidents that raise constitutional objections to laws.  According to the CRS report issued in 2007, “President Reagan issued 250 signing statements, 86 of which (34%) contained provisions objecting to one or more of the statutory provisions signed into law. President George H. W. Bush continued this practice, issuing 228 signing statements, 107 of which (47%) raised objections. President Clinton’s conception of presidential power proved to be largely consonant with that of the preceding two administrations. In turn, President Clinton made aggressive use of the signing statement, issuing 381 statements, 70 of which (18%) raised constitutional or legal objections. President George W. Bush has continued this practice, issuing 152 signing statements, 118 of which (78%) contain some type of challenge or objection.” To date, based on a quick read of his statements, I estimate loosely that about half of Obama’s signing statements contain constitutional objections but, until I do a more systematic analysis, this should be viewed as a very rough estimate.

It appears, then, that Obama has had a significant change of heart when it comes to signing statements during the transition from candidate to President and instead has adopted the view of every president going back to Reagan that their use is not only acceptable but necessary.    But why?  The answer, I think, is that Obama – as he did with other precedents centered on the War on Terror – has realized that signing statements serve a useful purpose in the modern lawmaking process. Rather than a grab for power, signing statements instead illustrate what Don K. Price called the unwritten constitution: adaptations in how the President and Congress interact that, by filling in interstices in the written Constitution, helped adapt that document to the exigencies of governing in the modern age. In this case, the signing statements serves as a means through which presidents can influence the legislative process.

However, doesn’t the Constitution’s veto provision specify what a president should do if he finds a bill constitutionally objectionable? The problem from a president’s perspective with the veto is that it  is often an all-or-nothing alternative.  Because presidents cannot selectively excise those portions of a bill they find objectionable, a veto means rejecting the entire piece of legislation, even though it may contain many provisions the president supports. Congress, of course, realizes this, and in the modern era has become adept at larding bills with extraneous provisions to which they know the President may object. This is particularly the case with appropriations bill, which now frequently contain non-budgetary policy-relevant provisions that presidents – as Obama did with the 2012 omnibus appropriation bill – cannot accept on constitutional grounds.  But if they include enough legislative sweeteners, or attach the provisions to bills that must pass every year, they calculate the president will be forced to accept the entire dose of legislative medicine.   Faced with this strategy, presidents have adapted by signing these bills into law while publicly stating which provisions they accept, and which they find objectionable on constitutional grounds. Note that Congress can and does grumble about this, and more than once members have threatened legislative retaliation. But these bills have gone nowhere – an implicit acknowledgement, I think, that legislators view signing statements as consistent with the system of shared powers rather than a repudiation of it. They recognize why presidents’ issue these statements, and as long as the dispute in interpretation stays at the level of rhetoric, both sides are willing to look the other way.

And, of course, this is the crucial question: are these mere rhetorical disputes, or have presidents’ signing statements had a measurable impact on how legislation has been implemented?  Alas, it is difficult to answer this question. For one such effort, see this GAO study which looked at the implementation of 10 provisions in laws signed by George Bush but which included a signing statement.  The bottom line? The GAO found no evidence that the signing statements hindered implementation; in their words “Although we found that three provisions have not yet been implemented, we cannot conclude that agency noncompliance was the result of the President’s signing statements.”

The lack of systematic evidence that signing statements have altered the balance of power has not stopped critics from viewing their use as evidence of the rise of an imperial president.  Of course, who makes these charges depends on whose ox is being gored; under Bush, the charges emanated from the Left.  Today, they come from the Right.  Rather than an imperial presidency, however, I think signing statements are better viewed as the latest manifestation of how the President and Congress adapt the lawmaking process within a system of shared powers.  The increase in the use of signing statements for constitutional reasons really starts with Reagan, not Bush, and it does so because this is when an increasingly polarized Congress begins to make greater use of the budget process to push broader policy goals. Obama has followed in Reagan’s – and Bush’s – footsteps not because he embraces an imperial presidency.  It’s because in the current governing context their use follows logically from the Constitutional-based incentives that give him a stake in the legislative process.

6:30 Addendum: I just noticed that Andy Rudalevige has a related piece up here at the Monkey Cage site.