Monthly Archives: February 2012

What Do “We, The People” Really Believe About the Contraceptive Debate?

Judging by a quick scan of this morning’s political talks shows, the controversy regarding religious-based exemptions from requirements to pay for contraceptives remains a hot topic.  Much of the talk by the various pundits centered on whether the Republican candidates’ stance against forcing religious-based organizations like hospitals to pay for contraception will cost them the votes of women and independents.   Critics of the Republican candidates’ stance, citing multiple polls, argue that Rick Santorum and others running for the Republican nomination who oppose the Obama administration policy are out of touch with mainstream public opinion which overwhelmingly favors requiring private insurance plans to cover birth control.  That view is captured in Margie Omero’s scathing rebuke in this HuffingtonPost column of the Republican position.  Citing this recent New York Times poll, Omero points out that the only group that opposes the Obama regulations is Republican men.  Among Republican women, and among all independents and Democrats, however, substantial pluralities support the requirement.

Her conclusion? “If Republicans think it is politically advantageous to mock women, shut them out of the political process, and deny access to care that 99 percent of them use, then they are in even worse shape headed into November than we thought.”

Omero and others who criticize Republican candidates’ position on this issue certainly can cite polling data that seems to support their claims.  Here, for example, is the Times survey question and responses on which Omero based her HuffingtonPost column and accompanying graph (she was also able to get the crosstabs for this question):

75. And what about for religiously affiliated employers, such as a hospital or university – do you support or oppose a recent federal requirement that their health insurance plans cover the full cost of birth control for their female employees?

Support Oppose DK/NA
61% 31% 8%

By almost 2-1, then, those with an opinion favor requiring religious-based organizations to cover the full cost of birth control.   With polling data like this, the Republicans candidates seem to be on the losing side of this issue.

But are they?  Consider the following results from this Pew poll out in the field at about the same time as the Times survey:

Q.67 Should religiously-affiliated institutions that object to the use of contraceptives be given an exemption from this rule, or should they be required to cover contraceptives like other employers?

Total Respondents Including Those Who Have Heard Nothing About This Issue Only Those Who Have Heard “A Lot” or “A Little” About the Issue  
30% 48% Should Be Given An Exemption
27% 44% Should Be Required to Cover
2% 3% Other
3% 5% Don’t Know/Refused to Answer
38%   Heard Nothing/Don’t Know/Refuse

To begin, a plurality of those surveyed haven’t even heard of the issues.  Of those who have, according to Pew, slim pluralities support granting the religious exemption.  Probing further, Pew finds support for religious exemptions much higher among Republicans, with independents about evenly split on the issue.  Only Democrats strongly oppose religious exemptions.

Not surprisingly, views are more strongly polarized among the more partisan members of each party who have heard more about this issue; moderates and independents are much less likely than strong partisans to be familiar with the debate. Interestingly, younger respondents are also much less likely to have heard about the controversy.   As with the Times‘ poll, Pew does find a gender-based difference in the responses.

Based on the Pew survey, then – and in contrast to Omero’s assertion – it makes perfect political sense for Republican candidates trying to appeal to Republican voters during the nominating process to take a strong stand against the Obama policy.  And, if the Pew results are to be believed,this stance may even prove less costly during the general election than Omero and other critics suggest, particularly since – as the NY Times poll indicates – most voters are more concerned with economic than social issues.  By the time November rolls around it’s not likely that this issue will even matter to most voters.  In the short run, however, it is a likely winner for Republican candidates to oppose the contraception mandate.

Of course, this still doesn’t explain the seeming discrepancy between the Times and the Pew survey results.  Why do they present such different snapshots of public opinion on this issue?  The answer, I think, lies in the way the two polling outfits couch their questions.  To begin, the Times prefaces its question regarding whether one supports religious exemptions with this survey question:

74. Do you support or oppose a recent federal requirement that private health insurance plans cover the full cost of birth control for their female patients?

Support Oppose Don’t Know/No Answer
66% 26% 8%

Note in this  first question on the issue, there’s no mention of religious-based exemptions.  This serves the purpose of priming a respondent when they decide how to answer the next question that introduces the religious exemption; having already stated an opinion regarding where they stand on the basic issue, I suspect it makes many respondents less likely to want to appear to reverse themselves when almost the identical question is asked next.  The Pew survey, in contrast, does not prime respondents in this manner.

Note also that the surveys use slightly different question wording.  The Times gives specific examples of religious-based organizations: hospitals and universities.  Pew refers only to religious institutions, without providing examples.  Most people don’t think of hospitals and universities as primarily religious institutions which may make survey respondents more likely to support requirements that these institutions pay for birth control. Note as well that Pew focuses on exemptions for religious organizations, while the Times’ question centers on compliance with federal regulations – a slightly different emphasis.

My point here is not to indicate a preference for one survey question wording as opposed to the other.  Nor is it to tell you what the public really thinks.  It is instead to remind you that what pundits often cite as evidence of what “the public” is thinking is frequently determined by surveys whose responses are very sensitive to issues of question wording.   This is particularly true of surveys addressing deeply divisive issues and which use words that often have deep-rooted symbolic and often emotionally-charged meanings. Given this, one should be skeptical of any argument that draws on only one poll to divine what “the public” believes when it comes to highly divisive issues.  Instead, one should consult multiple polls that may use slightly different question wording to fully understand the often shifting, inconclusive and not always well-informed views of “We, the People”.

Why This Republican Race Has Been Different

It was about a month ago, just after the New Hampshire primary, that New York Times columnist Nate Silver estimated that Mitt Romney had a 98% chance of winning the 2012 Republican nomination. Today, in light of national polls showing Romney trailing Rick Santorum, and with Santorum also leading Romney in the latter’s “home” state of Michigan heading into the Feb. 28 primary there, I suspect no one would give Romney such favorable odds. (It is questionable whether Romney deserved those odds a month ago, but that is another story.)  To be sure, one might be tempted to dismiss Silver’s estimate on the grounds that he’s no political (as opposed to statistical) expert, but in truth most of my political science colleagues who do specialize in presidential elections were quite bullish on Romney’s prospects even before he won in New Hampshire, although none to my knowledge were so confident as to put the odds quite that high.  (In Silver’s defense, he openly acknowledged that his estimate was based on a very small sample size, and thus was subject to a good deal of [unspecified] uncertainty.)

Today, of course, it would be equally foolish to claim that Romney has no chance to win the nomination – indeed, he is probably still the frontrunner.  However, it is clear that those forecasting a rather easy road to the nomination for Romney were overly optimistic. Instead, analysts are now bracing for a rather extended nomination fight and some are even considering the possibility – however remote – of a brokered convention.

At this point I should probably acknowledge what you already know – that I never bought into the Romney inevitability narrative.  Nor, for that matter, am I as surprised as others that Newt Gingrich is still in the race, and that he may yet be the stronger candidate than Santorum.  Before you anoint me the Pundit King, however, note that I never believed Santorum would also still be in this race.  (Truth be told, I’m not sure he is in the race, but that’s for another post.)  Moreover, as my students will no doubt remind me, I thought Rick Perry was likely a stronger candidate than Mitt.  How’s that for forecasting expertise?

In some respects, of course, all nominating contests are sui generis.  But many pundits are arguing that this nominating race has been exceptionally volatile with Republican voters “shredding the rule book.”  During past Republican nominating contests, they argue, a candidate with a national organization who raised far more money than his opponents, and who received by far the most endorsements from party leaders, and who easily outpaced the field in securing both delegates and votes in the early contests, was destined to win the nomination in convincing fashion.  In fact, history suggests such a candidate would get stronger as the field was winnowed – not weaker.

Why hasn’t this race followed the historical precedent?  Pundits have suggested a couple of factors. One is the increase in the number of debates – 19 by my count – compared to previous years.  I’ve touched on this in a previous post. While I think debates clearly provided a platform that most benefitted Newt Gingrich, some pundits believe they also exposed those Romney qualities – remember the $10,000 bet? – that led many Republican voters to dislike him in 2008. A second factor has been the rise of SuperPacs; some analysts argue that Santorum and Gingrich have survived in large part due to the “sugar daddies” – think Sheldon Adelson and Foster Friess – who have taken advantage of the Citizen United ruling to personally bankroll their favored candidate. Without their financial backing, the argument goes, Romney would have closed this race out.

Without totally discounting these factors, I think there are at least two other reasons why this race has unfolded in somewhat unexpected fashion.  The first are the rules changes to the Republican nominating process.  Most political scientists, following Josh Putnam’s careful analysis, have tended to downplay the impact of the changes in how delegates are apportioned in the primaries held prior to April 1; they argue that a careful reading of the rules suggest that despite provisions designed to increase the number of delegates allocated in proportional fashion, in fact many of these primaries will play out much like winner-take-all states, particularly in a two-person race.  This is because some states still award delegates in a winner-take-all fashion by congressional district, and some also award all the statewide delegates to anyone winning more than 50% of the statewide vote.  In short, there’s no reason to expect the delegates to be split among several candidates, even under the new rules, as long as a front-runner like Romney emerges early.

The problem with this analysis is that it underplays the impact of the rule changes on candidate strategy.  The fact is that under the 2008 rules, it would have been less likely that either Santorum or Gingrich would have gambled that they could survive in an extended race, so they would likely have folded their tents much earlier. Under the revised rules, however, they can envision a scenario by which they will pick up delegates even while suffering losses in many states. By altering candidates’ calculations to make it less likely that some would drop out, then, I would argue that the new rules have mattered.

The final reason why this race has proved so volatile, however, is perhaps the simplest: compared to previous Republican frontrunners, Mitt Romney is not a particularly strong candidate.  And this is a reminder that, when it comes to nominations in the modern era, the Party Establishment does not decide – it ratifies.  We saw this in 2008, when party leaders initially embraced Hillary Clinton’s candidacy, but gradually switched over to backing Barack Obama when it became clear he was the favorite among party activists.  I expect that we will see a similar dynamic in the Republican race if Romney continues to underperform – party leaders will begin pulling back endorsements.

But to what end?  Romney’s one remaining trump card is that unlike with the Democrats in 2008, there is as yet no clear Romney alternative.  Until one arises, he remains the frontrunner in name, if not yet in sentiment among the majority of Republican voters. It may be that either Newt or Rick may yet emerge to be the sole Mitt alternative.  If neither does so, however, does that mean Mitt is destined to be the Republican nominee?  Will party leaders hold their noses and back Mitt? Not necessarily.  There is an alternative scenario by which Republican activists can even at this late date come up with a White Knight candidate. I’ll address that in a future post.

Of Pundits, Pimples, Presidents and Policies: The Real Lessons of the Contraception Debate

In his memoir Present at the Creation, former Secretary of State Dean Acheson wrote: “One fact is clear to anyone with experience in government: the springs of policy bubble up, they do not trickle down.” I was reminded of Acheson’s comment when reading the pundits’ often misleading analyses of the contraception controversy that President Obama found himself enmeshed in this past week.  As most of you know, the President initially embraced an administrative rule issued by the Health and Human Services (HHS) department that required employers – including religious-back organizations such as charities, hospitals, and schools – to offer health insurance that fully covered contraception, even if the use of contraception ran contrary to church doctrine.  Obama did so only after listening to extended debate among his own advisers regarding whether to accept or modify the HHS rule.  In the end he sided with HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, and domestic advisers Valerie Jarrett and Melody Barnes in backing the rule, against the opposition of Vice President Joe Biden and chief of staff Bill Daley and others who sought to broaden the religious exemptions.  (Barnes and Daley have since left the administration).

With hindsight, it was the wrong decision, one that was opposed not just by religious organizations, but by many Democrats serving in Congress as well by left-leaning pundits who are normally the President’s strongest supporters. The subsequent political furor not only overshadowed the President’s effort to focus public attention on the strengthening economy; it also threatened his health care mandate and, potentially, his reelection.   To his credit, the President quickly realized his mistake and pushed his advisers to craft a fallback compromise under which insurance companies, rather than the religious-affiliated institutions, would handle and pay for contraceptive coverage. While this compromise has not entirely quelled the political fires, it does place the administration on stronger political footing.

How did the President find himself in this predicament?  Some, like blogger Andrew Sullivan, are arguing that Obama’s fallback was a clever “bait and switch” maneuver designed to trap the Republican Right into overreaching by appearing to oppose a women’s right to contraception.  Indeed Sullivan says this type of policy retreat is one of the hallmarks of Obama’s presidency: “I’ve found by observing this president closely for years that what often seem like short-term tactical blunders turn out in the long run to be strategically shrewd. And if this was a trap, the religious right walked right into it.”

Sullivan is correct on one point: this was an elaborate trap all right. But it was one set by Obama’s own HHS-led advisers, and at the President’s expense. In suggesting Obama was pulling the policy strings all along, Sullivan falls prey to a common conceit: that presidents are in charge of the executive branch and the policies it produces are the ones he actively solicits.  Alas, as Acheson – a veteran of more than two decades working in the executive branch – understood, the policy process rarely allows the president to engage in the type of “deep game” that Sullivan fantasizes this president has mastered. Instead, the process is more often one in which the president comes in at the tail end, and is forced to choose from a limited menu of options that often carry high risks no matter what he decides. But decide he must – albeit with incomplete information and based on the advice of senior officials who have their own interests at stake in the outcome.  So it was with the contraceptive debacle.

In this case, Sebelius and HHS had first issued a preliminary rule laying out the initial contraceptive insurance policy last August. When an executive branch issues a potential rule or regulation, it is posted in the Federal Register for a comment period.   During this period interested parties can weigh in on the merits of the interim rule.  By most news accounts, Obama’s advisers were deeply divided regarding whether to go ahead with the new regulation. Ultimately Sebelius and her allies won out, but only after pushing the deadline for the rule to go into affect (at least as it affected religious organizations) to after the 2012 presidential election.   When that decision was publicly embraced by the White House, the political firestorm ensued, necessitating Obama’s hasty retreat to the current fallback position.

The President’s tactical retreat will almost certainly not end the controversy, as both sides struggle to reframe the debate in ways that appeal to their political base; for Republicans, this is a question of maintaining a separation of church and state. For Democrats, it is a matter of women’s right to have access to affordable contraception.  Polls indicate, not surprisingly, that the public is divided on the issue, and along predictable lines, although the extent of the division depends in part on how the polling question is worded.  I don’t pretend to know how the debate will play out, but as long as it remains in the public eye, it detracts from other issues on which the President would likely prefer to focus.

For my purposes here, however, the politics of the matter is less important than how the media pundits have sought to portray the debate.  This is not the first time that Obama’s supporters have discerned a deeper purpose in his political maneuvering; many of you will recall that the President was supposedly engaged in a similar chess match with checkers-playing Republicans during the debt default debate, when he was apparently setting the Republicans up for his master stroke: invoking the 14th amendment.  This was nonsense, of course – a point I made at the time more than once. But, judging by Sullivan’s comments, that outcome has not stopped some of his supporters from imputing greater power to the President than he actually possesses; from their besotted perspective, every presidential pimple becomes a beauty mark, and every stumble is a feint designed to mislead a dimwitted opponent.   Alas, sometimes a pimple is an eyesore, and a stumble nothing more. Pretending otherwise, and thus raising expectations regarding what Obama can hope to accomplish to unreasonable heights, does him no favors.  Expectations are hard enough to manage without attributing powers of foresight to the President that he does not possess.

There is a second lesson in the contraceptive debate, one I’ve cited in previous posts. It is this: Presidents are no more in charge of the rulemaking process, or of the executive branch more generally, than they are of legislating in Congress.  Contrary to the claims of some of my colleagues that presidents have a vast reservoir of “unilateral” powers, when it comes to rulemaking and many other administrative procedures with significant policy consequences, presidents often find themselves forced to bargain even within their “own” executive branch – and with their own political appointees.  The reason, of course, is that by virtue of their own constitutional and statutory obligations, a President’s executive branch appointees rarely see policy, and the related rules and regulations, from the President’s vantage point.  More than three years into his presidency, it is a lesson Obama seems not yet to have learned.

Santorum Surges, But Can He Win The Big One?

In the wake of Rick Santorum’s victory in the Minnesota and Colorado caucuses, and in the Missouri beauty pageant primary, the punditocracy has gradually begun to accept an argument you’ve heard me make since August: Mitt Romney is a weak frontrunner who has never demonstrated the capacity to win over the non-Mormon Tea Party-sympathizing conservative faction of the Republican Party. Sarah Palin, in her speech to CPAC yesterday, captured that sentiment quite well I thought.

The danger, however, is that pundits will now overreact by endowing Santorum with electoral strength that to date he has not demonstrated.  Keep in mind that Santorum has not won a single state in which participation rates among eligible voters climbed into double digits.   Indeed, as the following table shows, two of his three caucus victories came in events with participation rates under 2% (figures based on Michael McDonald’s election turnout website).  Turnout in Missouri’s largely meaningless primary, meanwhile, was the lowest of any primary state so far (and keep in mind that Gingrich’s name was not on the ballot there.)  In Iowa, the caucus state with the highest turnout, Santorum essentially spent half a year campaigning there.

Iowa Caucus 122,255 6.5% Santorum
New Hampshire Primary 249,655 31.1% Romney
South Carolina Primary 603,770 17.6% Gingrich
Florida Primary 1,672,352 12.8% Romney
Nevada Caucus 32,894 1.9% Romney
Minnesota* Caucus 47,696 1.2% Santorum
Colorado Caucus 65,535 1.8% Santorum
Missouri Beauty Pageant Primary 251,868 7.4% Santorum
Maine* Caucus 5,524* .5% Romney

*Denotes Estimates Based on Incomplete Results

It is true that Santorum is surging in the national polls. Indeed, the latest PublicPolicyPolling national poll has Santorum trouncing the Republican field with 38% of the vote to Romney’s 23%, Gingrich’s 17% and 13% for Ron Paul. Other polls indicate he has moved ahead of Gingrich nationally into second place. The RealClearPolitic’s composite polling tracker now shows Santorum’s average climbing to 24%, only 6% behind the leader Romney (Mitt=purple, Gingrich=green, Santorum=brown):

But we shouldn’t overreact to these national polls.  Rather than demonstrating deep-rooted support for Santorum, they are more likely reflecting voters’ current read of the race, as indicated by the prevailing media narrative. That is, respondents are answering the poll in terms of who they think is doing well according to the media coverage – not who they will necessarily support in upcoming events.

And it is those upcoming events that will test just how strong and widespread Santorum’s support is. After primaries in Michigan and Arizona on February 28, Republicans hold seven primaries on “Super Tuesday”, March 6.  Of those, three – Georgia, Tennessee and Oklahoma can be considered southern or southern-leaning states with large delegate hauls.  (Neither Santorum nor Gingrich qualified to be on the ballot in a fourth Super Tuesday state – Virginia.)   Why does this matter? Because as Mark Halperin notes, those “southern” states contain a high proportion of evangelicals, and – so far, at least – those southern evangelicals have been supporting Gingrich.  Here’s data compiled by Halperin showing the percent of white evangelical Christians vote, based on  2008 exit polls, in those states that will hold primaries in the next month.  Gingrich can be expected to more than hold his own in most of those states.

Two other Super Tuesday states – Massachusetts and Vermont – promise to go heavily for Romney.  This doesn’t leave much room for Santorum to break out of the pack.  Indeed, if voting trends hold among southern evangelicals, Gingrich, and not Santorum, is likely to come out of Super Tuesday with greater momentum as the Mitt-alternative. This despite the fact that the media has – again – largely written Newt out of this race.

This scenario makes it imperative for Santorum to do well in Michigan and, on Super Tuesday, to at least run competitively in Ohio – two rust-belt states in which Santorum’s more populist conservative message may resonate.  (Keep in mind that Romney runs weaker among social conservatives, not necessarily economic conservatives – at least not the higher income ones.) Gingrich, however, has already been barnstorming Ohio in the hope to win some delegates there.  Unless Santorum’s support begins to broaden as a result of last Tuesday’s victories, I still don’t think he’s well positioned to win the nomination.

This is all a long way of reiterating a point I made after Tuesday’s results:  Mitt Romney remains a very weak frontrunner – one who can be beat, but only if conservative Tea Party-supporting Republicans settle on an alternative. At this point, it’s not obvious to me that Santorum is that person.  To convince me otherwise, he needs to win a big-state primary.  He’s got two weeks to make that happen.

Mitt Wins Over CPAC – But Not Sarah. Can He Win Maine?

6:08 I thought I’d get on a bit early tonight in anticipation of  a rather short night – the Maine results should come in within a half hour –  and in order to talk a bit about the just completed Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) event.   The CPAC event has been held since the mid-1970’s and pundits often cite its straw poll as an indication of conservatives support for various presidential candidates.  In what the CNN talking heads viewed as something of a surprise, Mitt Romney won this year’s straw poll, with 38% of the vote, beating Santorum who received 31%, Newt Gingrich at 15% and Ron Paul who came in last with 12%.  But it’s really not all that surprising – and it’s not particularly significant despite what you will hear the pundits say.  Keep in mind that Romney won this in 2008, easily beating John McCain – and then promptly dropped out.  Indeed, Romney won the straw poll three years running.   The CPAC is often attended by relatively affluent Republicans of the type who have been supporting Romney in this year’s contest.  Only twice has the CPAC straw poll winner actually gone on to win the nomination – in 1980, with Ronald Reagan, and in 2000, with George W. Bush.

Of perhaps greater significance is who didn’t endorse Mitt – former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin.  Everybody’s favorite moosemeister gave the closing speech, and she had the audience devouring the red meat she generously fed them, alternating between conservative themes of god, capitalism and country, and often biting attacks on President Obama.  The crowd gave her numerous standing ovations in what was one of the best stump speeches I’ve heard during this cycle – except she’s not (yet) a candidate.  Pointedly, she urged them to let the nomination process run its course to allow a true conservative to be recognized, rather than settle for someone just to end the nominating contest.  Competition, Palin argued, is good for the party.   While she did not mention names, one did not have to look very hard to see this was not a ringing endorsement of Mitt. Later, in an interview with CNN, she opined that a brokered convention might not be a bad development for the party.

Meanwhile, CNN is really playing up the need for Romney’s to win tonight in Maine in order to change the media narrative, but I’m not sure that a victory in another northeast state is really going to do all that much for him.  However, a loss certainly won’t help the cause.

6:23  Looks like the precinct results are going to be announced.  It is going to be a very short night!  Remember, what will be announced is simply a non-binding preference poll – not the actual delegates selected during caucuses.   Essentially, while attending caucuses, the participants write their names on paper and hand it in, expressing a presidential preference.

And Mitt wins!  39% of the vote (2,190) – Paul 36% of the vote, Santorum at 18%,  and Gingrich with 6% of the vote.   Mitt can exhale out in California, where he’s gone to raise money, while the Paulistas may have just lost their last chance to win a state outright.  It has to be disappointing for him.  Mitt, however, did worse than he did in 2008, when he won 51% of the vote, more evidence that he’s not exactly broadening his support. (Sorry – had to correct my totals there).  Supposedly some caucus meetings were cancelled due to weather in northern Maine, but it’s not clear how many votes were lost – the Republican chair estimated perhaps a couple hundred.  So it looks like perhaps 85% of precincts are reporting in.  Not sure how that affects the results.

Meanwhile, Paul is on, speaking before a clearly disappointed crowd – you can see the energy is down in Paul as he gives his speech, and in those behind him.  Note that Romney understands what was at stake here – he made the decision to actually stay in Maine today to get in some last minute campaigning – a clear sign that wasn’t willing to risk a loss, despite the fact that this was simply a beauty pageant.

CNN doesn’t even bother staying with Ron Paul’s speech, which is covering familiar ground.  Note that they are “estimating” that Mitt will pick up 6 delegates, Paul 5 and Santorum 3.  But Paul just finished betting his audience that the Paulistas would actually take the bulk of Maine’s delegates.  Again, this is a reminder to be careful about delegate totals posted on the various websites – in truth, no actual delegates were awarded tonight and it may very well be true that come May Paul’s forces may be able to flood the county and state meetings to win the bulk of Maine’s delegates.  But this isn’t stopping the pundits from proclaiming this a major victory for Mitt.

By the way, for those of you scoring at home, although I called the victor in Maine to keep my prediction streak going, I vastly overestimated Mitt’s winning total – I gave him 55%, and he came nowhere close to that.  Paul, however, did almost exactly what I expected (but, in truth, I was largely guesstimating.)

And that is it for contests for the next two weeks.  The next set of primaries takes place on February 28th, in Michigan and Arizona.  In the interim, the candidates will be crisscrossing the country, raising funds and visiting those states that fit into their overall campaign strategy.  And I’ll start teaching.

Remember, pitchers and catchers report in less than a week!  That means it’s time for Wally the Green Monster to load the equipment van and head South!