Monthly Archives: March 2012

The President To Vermont: Show Me The Money!

President Obama’s campaign tour just completed a stop here in Burlington, Vermont with the President giving a rousing and well received speech before 4,500 of the party faithful on the University of Vermont campus.  (They even cheered when Obama said Vermont had gone the longest of any state without a presidential visit, and again when he mispronounced the Governor’s name.) Why Vermont, you ask? Isn’t this the bluest state in the nation?  Didn’t he win more than 2/3 of the votes here four years ago? Is he afraid that the state is in play this year?

Hardly.  This was a fundraising event.  Patrons coughed up $40 to a $100 to attend the rally on the UVM campus.  Prior to that there was a more intimate event for about 100 of the really big donors, where for a cool $10,000 you could get your picture taken with President.  Money from the tickets sold today alone will likely total $500,000 or more. But that’s not the only revenue source – you can buy hats, shirts, buttons, mugs – all sorts of campaign paraphernalia to help the President’s reelection effort.  Estimates are that the total haul may approach $750,000.  Not bad for what amounts to essentially a two-hour layover.

Remember, the dynamics of the fundraising contest have changed since 2008.  Then, Obama used social networking sites to smash all previous fundraising records enroute to amassing a rather large financial advantage over John McCain.  That’s not likely to happen this year no matter who the Republicans nominate.  Although Obama continues to raise money hand over fist – he had more than $80 million cash on hand at the end of 2011 – the Republican money machine is matching the president dollar for dollar.  This is largely because of the superpacs.  While Mitt Romney only had about $19.9 million in the bank at the end of December, his superpac Restore Our Future was sitting on $23.6 million.  And that’s not the only superpac in play – Karl Rove’s American Crossroads, which will likely play a big role this fall, had $15.6 million banked.

In contrast, Obama-aligned superpacs haven’t been nearly as effective raising money – perhaps because the President has been so strident in opposing their role in campaigns. Priorities USA, an Obama-leaning superpac, had only $1.5 million banked as of December 30.  The Democratic Party’s congressional superpacs, such as House Majority PAC, haven’t done much better.  Although the Democratic National Committee did report $12.6 million on hand, that was less than the Republican National Committee’s $20 million.  When you add it all up – candidate cash, superpacs, party organizations – there is rough parity between Obama’s coalition and Republican groups in terms of cash on hand.   And that’s why the President came to Vermont.  Show me the money!

The speech itself was designed to motivate the faithful to give more – not just in terms of money, but also in commitment to the cause.  The President listed his record of accomplishments, but did so in a way that resonated with Vermont voters. He cited job growth, but also ending Don’t Ask-Don’t Tell. He paired the killing of Bin Laden with withdrawal from Iraq, and from Afghanistan.  He also mentioned some Vermont-centric issues, such as the need to expand internet access, and to invest in renewable energy.   (Internet has been slow to come here, and there’s an ongoing debate regarding whether to shut down the local nuclear power plant.) And, as might be expected given the on-campus location, he cited the need to reduce tuition costs and to lower interest rates on student loans.  Part of Obama’s goal in speaking on a college campus is to reignite the passion among younger voters that was so apparent in 2008, but which was noticeably lacking in the 2010 midterms.

As one might expect, the adoring crowd lapped it up, and the President seemed to feed off that positive energy. (There were the usual suspects protesting outside, but they didn’t get much coverage). And let’s face it – it has to be rewarding to appear before supporters who give you a 30-second ovation just for climbing the stage, and another one for taking off your jacket. Obama was clearly feeling the love.  And let’s not forget the residual spillover to local politicians.  Obama gave a shout-out to Burlington’s newly-elected Mayor and to our Governor Sumlin – er, Shumlin. (Blame the name slipup on the advance team!)  He was accompanied on Air Force One (this was the smaller Boeing, not the big 747) by Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy and his wife, and met at the tarmac by Vermont’s other Senator Bernie Sanders.  It’s always good to get face time with the President.  It’s even better to be seen getting face time.

From here the President flies to Maine – another blue state that likely won’t be in play come November, but which can be counted on to help replenish his coffers.  There’s also an open Senate race there and no doubt the President will try to court independent candidate Angus King.

Another day, another dollar.  And the general campaign is still five months away.  Give early, and give often!  It’s the American way… .



How Will The Supreme Court Rule Regarding Obamacare?

How should the Supreme Court decide regarding the constitutionality of Obamacare?

I have no idea.  But even if I did, my opinion wouldn’t be worth much. After all, I’m a presidency scholar and this is a blog about presidential power, broadly defined.  But I’m confident that I understand how they will decide the case – and it’s not likely to have much to do with the wording of the Constitution, or related case law for that matter.

For those of you living under a rock, the Supreme Court has just concluded the third and final day of hearings regarding the constitutionality of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act – more popularly known as Obamacare – the controversial health care reform legislation passed by a Democratically-controlled Congress and signed into law by Obama in March, 2010. On Monday, the Court’s deliberations centered on whether the suit against Obamacare brought on behalf of attorney-generals and governors from 26 states was justiciable at this time.  (The key issue here is whether the fine for not buying health insurance as mandated under Obamacare is a “tax” or a penalty.  If the former, an argument can be made that the case cannot yet be heard, since no one has actually paid that tax penalty, and won’t until 2014 at the earliest.  However, neither the law’s proponents nor opponents want to delay a Supreme Court decision under this reasoning, and the justices seemed skeptical that the case should not be heard.)  Yesterday the Court heard arguments regarding the constitutionality of the individual mandate – the provision in the law that says everyone must have health insurance, or pay a financial penalty.   Today’s hearing centered on the issue of severability – whether all of Obamacare must fall if the mandate is found unconstitutional, and whether its proposed Medicaid expansion violates the federal-state partnership.

In listening to these hearings,  and reading the abundant commentary, it becomes quite clear that the Constitution or related case law isn’t going to be the determining factors in whether a majority of the Court finds Obamacare constitutional or not.  To be certain, when rendering their verdict, the justices will undoubtedly reference the Constitution as well as previous court cases such as Gonzales v. Raich and Wickard v. Filburn and U.S. v. Comstock. That is, they will ground their opinion explicitly in the meanings they attach to constitutional phrases, such as “necessary and proper” and “interstate commerce.”  And they will buttress their interpretation of these ambiguous phrases by citing these and other court cases.

But if the issues were as clear cut as both opponents and supporters of Obamacare would have us believe, the case probably wouldn’t be before the Supreme Court today.  In truth, as if often the situation with controversial legal cases, there are merits on both sides of the argument.   That’s why the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals (which voted 2-1 to overturn the mandate) and three district federal courts (two of which upheld Obamacare while a third did not) rendered different and not wholly reconcilable legal opinions on the matter. (And I’m sure I’m missing other court opinions on the matter, but you get my point – judges and other legal experts are divided!)

If a reading of the Constitution and legal precedent is not decisive, then how will the nine Supreme Court justices go about deciding the case?  By relying on their own political preferences and attitudes against the backdrop of public opinion.  And, as a political institution, that’s how the Court should arrive at this decision.  Whenever I make this argument, I understand that the legal purists among you recoil in horror, in the belief that politics should play no role in Supreme Court proceedings. Instead, you want the justices to behave like priests in robes, ruling ex cathedra from their legal temple without concern for partisanship or personal preference.

Dream on teen queen!  That view is wholly unrealistic and not even desirable.  For starters, justices are selected through an openly partisan process based in part on their political views; studies show that Democratic presidents overwhelmingly nominate Democratic judges, and Republicans opt for Republican ones.  They do so, presumably, in the belief that judges who share their partisan affiliation will vote in the “correct” way.  (That doesn’t mean they always get it right, of course! See David Souter.) Moreover, because the Court’s power rests primarily on the perceived legitimacy of its rulings, it can’t help but pay attention to public opinion.  This is not to say the Court merely reads the latest polls and rules accordingly.  But it does care about prevailing public sentiments, and most studies suggest that Supreme Court rulings and public opinion are rarely too far out of synch.  This should not surprise us – remember, justices come of age, politically speaking, under the same circumstances that shape the political views of many of their generational cohort. For all these factors, then, we shouldn’t be surprised that when trying to parse the meaning of ambiguous constitutional phrases, such as “necessary and proper”  or “interstate commerce” as applied to complex and novel issues like health care spending and insurance mandates that justices will fall back on their own broad ideological leanings.   How else can they be expected to reach a verdict?

Consider one of the key issues at the heart of this case: whether Obamacare creates a form of commerce and then forces individuals to buy a product, or whether it simply regulates a health care market in which everyone will, sooner or later, participate.  Where one comes down on this, I suspect, turns in large part on one’s broader ideological views regarding the role of government in the economy and in one’s private life.

So, if I am right, what does this suggest regarding how the Court will rule?   I’ll let others peer into the tea leaves of the justices’ questioning, or parse the implications of previous court rulings.   For me, the best evidence is the previous lower court rulings on this case.  If I’m counting correctly, with two exceptions every federal justice appointed by a Republican president has ruled against some aspect of Obamacare, while – with one exception – every justice appointed by a Democratic president has voted in its favor.  This follows on the heels of the congressional vote that saw every Republican vote against the health care bill.  Why should this change in the Supreme Court?  I don’t think it will.  My guess is the four Democratically-nominated justices –  Breyer, Ginsburg, Sotomayor and Kagan – will vote to uphold Obamacare.  The Republican-nominated ones – Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas, Alito and Roberts will vote against the mandate, although I suspect at least some of them will allow the rest of the law to remain in place even without a mandate.  If I am wrong about any of these votes, it is probably Kennedy’s – his questions on Day 2 seemed to suggest he was willing to accept the government’s argument that health care is a distinctly different type of commerce, one in which an individual’s decision not to buy insurance clearly impacts the financial standing of the insurance holders.  I should be clear – I base this prediction not on any deep knowledge of the relevant constitutional law, or after reading the transcripts or listening to the audio of the oral arguments.  So don’t bet the retirement fund on what I write.

What if I am correct and the Court rules against the mandate by a 5-4 vote? Dahlia Lithwick argues at that if a closely divided Court does rule in such a blatantly partisan manner, it risks further undermining its legitimacy which was already damaged due to its decisions in Bush v. Gore and more recently with the Citizens United case.  Lithwick notes that “The court likes to pretend it’s completely above public opinion, inured to the momentary zigs and zags of the polls. But most of us know that nothing could be further from the truth.” Citing a Bloomberg News national poll showing that 75 percent of Americans expect the Supreme Court’s decision regarding Obamacare to be influenced by the justices’ personal politics, Lithwick warns that  “To hand down a 5-4, ideologically divided opinion just before the Republican and Democratic Party conventions, would—simply put—prove that 75 percent correct, and erode further the public esteem for the court.”

The problem with Lithwick’s reasoning is that polling consistently shows that a plurality of Americans opposes Obamacare.  To be sure, some of that opposition is rooted in the belief among liberals that the legislation doesn’t go far enough, and the degree of opposition depends in part on survey question wording.  But it is safe to say that at no point since the legislation passed Congress has it received majority support. Much of that animosity  centers on the individual mandate whose coercive nature – while perhaps economically necessary to make Obamacare feasible – cuts against the grain of many Americans’ deep-seated cultural aversion to what they perceive as government infringement on individual freedom.  So it’s not clear to me that a closely-divided 5-4 decision against Obamacare will do much to impact public opinion toward the Court.

Keep in mind that public approval of the Court has declined a bit recently, but that decline is due to increasing dissatisfaction – but for different reasons – from liberals and conservatives.

About a third of Democrats generally feel the court is too conservative, while half of Republicans hold the opposite view. Independents come down in between although a slight plurality think the court is too liberal as opposed to too conservative.  Most independents, however, think the Court’s ideology is about right.

Given this preexisting partisan divide, it seems that barring a unanimous decision, how the Court rules regarding Obamacare is likely to be viewed by members of one party as primarily a partisan-driven decision.  Those in the other party will view it as correctly decided.  However, it is certainly plausible that many independents who are not sure where to come down on the issue will back the court, no matter what it decides. Put another way, when it comes to Obamacare, at least some of the public may be closely divided, but not necessarily deeply divided.

Looking ahead, the Court is likely to render its decision sometime this summer, near the end of its current session.  That will be just as the nominating process is winding down (I think!) but before the general election heats up.  No matter how the Court rules, Obamacare is likely to be an important issue in the presidential election, just as it was in the 2010 midterms.  But it’s hard to see how the Court’s verdict can make an already divisive issue even more polarizing.

Rick Does OK By the Bayou

9:00 p.m. CNN has just declared Rick Santorum the winner in Louisiana, even without releasing any actual votes.  It’s not a surprise, of course, particularly given the exit polls, which have Santorum winning 45% to Romney’s 30%, with Gingrich trailing badly with about 17%.  These are exit polls, to be sure, and they may be adjusted a bit, but they reveal the same voting patterns we have been seeing during most of the recent Republican contests.   Although the evangelical vote was less than I anticipated at 52%, it nonetheless continued the streak in which Romney loses any state with more than half of voters self-identifying as evangelicals.   And, once again, Romney’s support increases as one goes up the income ladder; but the only income group he won is the 11% earning $200,000 or more.  Santorum beat him among all the other lower income groups.  Romney also does better among the 21% professional class who have some post-graduate education, but Rick beats him across all other education levels.   Although Mitt does better among older voters, he loses all age categories to Rick nonetheless.  Santorum, meanwhile, did equally well among women and men – again, no surprise.  He wins 46% of women voters, 44% of men, beating Mitt among both genders.

Not surprisingly, less than 1 in 5 votes said the “etch-a-sketch” controversy was important to their vote and my guess is those saying it was important were already disinclined to vote for Mitt.  Again, lots of media hype, not much substantive importance.

As for Newt and Ron Paul – no delegates tonight.  This will inevitably raise the question regarding whether Newt can sustain his campaign.  For some reason, pundits don’t seem to bother asking this about Paul, even though he consistently finishes last in most contests (Illinois was a recent exception.)  But it seems clear that Rick, and not Newt, has become the anti-Mitt among conservatives.

Perhaps the biggest story tonight?  None of CNN’s major crew bothered to cover this story on air.  (I miss Wolf!) Indeed, none of the major cable news networks paid it very much attention, particularly with the breaking story regarding former Vice President Dick Cheney’s heart transplant.  Just Rick’s luck – his big win gets overshadowed by an ex-Vice President’s health issues.  Even the Twitterverse is relatively quiet.  This is just not getting very much coverage – which may be significant in itself!  Of course, the lack of coverage may be warranted – this result is hardly going to shake up the delegate race. It’s too early to call, of course, but my earlier projection of a 9-6 delegate split may not be far off.  Keep in mind, however, that exit polls have often understated Rick’s support.  It will be interesting to see if he comes closer to 50%.   But I”m not waiting up to find out.

As of today, the delegate race is only half over!  Yep, you heard it right.   The best is yet to come.  Next stop?  On April 3, there’s Maryland, Wisconsin and the District of Columbia.   Meanwhile, I’ll try to be on tomorrow with a brief update on the race at the midway point.

Addendum (10:32 p.m.):  Updated exit polls now show that the evangelical turnout was 60% in Louisiana, and that includes 56% white evangelicals.  That’s closer to what I anticipated – and it means Rick has a better chance of getting to 50%.  Mitt, meanwhile, may not reach 25%.  If not, he gets no delegates – but that doesn’t mean they go to Rick.  Instead, they become uncommitted.

11:30 – It appears that, with 99% of the vote in, that Mitt will just make the 25% threshold, which means he should pick up at least 5 delegates.  Meanwhile, the updated exit poll data indicated that 61% of the Louisiana vote were self-identified evangelicals, which is about what I expected.  That explains why Rick has approached the 50% vote proportion – once again doing better than polls suggested.   In fact, the last RCP aggregate poll had Santorum winning 41% – he’s going to finish closer to 50%.  It’s interesting that polls consistently underestimate his support in southern primaries. I’m not quite sure why this is the case.

Deep Down Louisiana, Will Romney B. Goode?

In a contest that Mitt Romney will likely lose, voting in the Louisiana Republican primary is now underway. Romney’s loss will come despite a spate of media stories claiming that his convincing  victory in last Tuesday’s Illinois primary, combined with his endorsement by Jeb Bush, signified a potential turning point in this nomination fight.  But that was before the now infamous etch-a-sketch incident which, if pundits are to be believed, has the potential to be a “campaign-defining disaster”.   Pundits think the etch-a-sketch incident matters because, as the Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza opines, “it speaks to a broader storyline already bouncing around the political world: That Romney lacks any core convictions and that he will say and do whatever it takes to win.”

Cillizza is right that many Republicans believe Romney lacks core convictions – and that is precisely why the etch-a-sketch incident will have almost no impact on today’s Louisiana vote, or on the Republican fight more generally.  At this point halfway through the delegate race, candidate impressions are largely fixed among most voters and the etch-a-sketch incident, because it does not provide any new information, will likely be inconsequential.  In forecasting today’s outcome, the far more telling factor is that self-identified evangelicals constitute about 30% of Louisiana’s adult population, and they will likely make up 60% or more of today’s turnout.  Romney has yet to win any primary state in which evangelicals composed more than 50% of those who voted, and I see no reason why that will change today.  If we take the conservative road and project evangelical turnout at about 60%, that would suggest Romney would win about 27% of the popular vote today. Recent polling supports my forecast; the last four polls of likely Republican voters all show Santorum winning the state easily by about 12-15% over Romney:

Date of Poll Santorum Romney Gingrich Paul
ARG 3/20 – 3/22 43% 27% 20% 6%
PPP 3/21 – 3/22 42% 28% 18% 8%
Rasmussen 3/21 – 3/21 43% 31% 16% 5%
Magellan 3/19 – 3/19 37% 24% 21% 3%

Note, however, that only 20 of Louisiana’s 46 delegates to the Republican National Convention are at stake today; another 18 are chosen through caucuses in congressional districts and the remaining 8 attend the convention as unpledged delegates.  Moreover, only candidates who reach the 25% threshold of the statewide popular vote are eligible to win delegates today.   If the polls are correct, then, Romney may be able to meet that threshold, in which case he would pick up a quarter or more of today’s 20 delegates.  So a Santorum win isn’t likely to close the delegate gap with Romney very much.

It is tempting to conclude that Newt Gingrich, who is polling at about 20%, is costing Santorum a potentially bigger delegate haul.  However, according to the latest PPP poll, if Gingrich were not in the race, Santorum’s vote percentage would jump to 51% – but Romney’s would climb as well, to 31%.  So it appears that although Gingrich is drawing more votes from Santorum, Romney still wins almost as many delegates even if Gingrich is not in the race.

In some ways, of course, today’s outcome is more important to Gingrich than to Santorum. Newt finished 4th in the Illinois primary, behind Ron Paul, leading to media speculation that he might soon be forced to drop out of the race.  That speculation will undoubtedly intensify if he can’t win any delegates today, in a southern state.  (He needs to break 25% to pick up delegates.) Keep in mind that polls have tended to underestimate Santorum’s support by about 2% in recent races, and that in Illinois, at least, Gingrich underperformed his pre-contest polling.  So it may be that we will see a late movement toward Santorum today, at Gingrich’s expense.

The bottom line, however, is that barring a Romney win, the results in today’s primary are not likely to change the underlying dynamics driving the Republican race.  However, the primary does give me an opportunity to remind you of the legendary founder of rock and roll – the incomparable Chuck Berry, who sang about another country boy from Louisiana.  Cue the duck walk!

Go, Romney, go!

P.S.  I may be on later with an update, but I’m not likely to be live blogging given the rather predictable outcome.

Addendum 7:55. Just to clarify the Louisiana delegate allocation rules – according to  NBC’s First Read  any candidate who clear the 25% threshold only earns that portion of the 20 delegates up for grabs tonight that is equivalent to their percentage of the vote.  That means not all 20 delegates are necessarily going to be allocated tonight.  Instead, the leftover delegates that those clearing 25% don’t win go into the uncommitted column.  So, based on current polling, Santorum may end up winning only 9 delegates tonight, with Mitt taking in 5 – and the remaining 6 going to no one.

Kvetching About Etch-A-Sketching: What Really Determines Who Will Win This Race

The fallout from Romney spokesman’s Eric Fehrnstrom’s etch-a-sketch comments has dominated media coverage of the Republican nomination fight the last 48 hours, leading pundits to proclaim that Romney’s team has once again stepped on his own campaign message. Rather than building on any momentum generated by his solid victory in the Illinois primary last Tuesday, Team Romney instead has spent the last two days putting out the brush fires ignited by Fehrnstrom’s remarks. For those of you who missed it, here’s what Fehrnstrom actually said:

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For many pundits, Fehrnstrom’s comments are damaging because they refocus media attention on the long-standing skepticism among many Republican voters that Romney is a true-blue conservative. Rather than any fixed set of conservative principles, he’s willing to say or do anything depending on his audience – a theme that found its way into the seemingly endless parade of etch-sketch parodies that dominated the “internets” in the wake of Fehrnstrom’s comments.  Many of those parodies – like this one – were created by groups working for Romney’s opponents.

And both Santorum and Gingrich lost no time in holding press conferences mocking Fehrnstrom’s comments while carrying their own etch-a-sketch devices.  The punditocracy, meanwhile,  used the etch-a-sketch comment as a reason to replay the long line of celebrated Romney’s “gaffes” that have figured so prominently in media coverage of his campaign.

But while the “massive campaign blunder” certainly cost Team Romney a couple of media cycles, it will likely have no long-term impact on the race for the Republican nomination. This is because at this stage the race is all about demographic-based voting blocs rather than media-generated “momentum” – or lack thereof. As many analysts, including myself, have noted before, Romney’s support is centered on higher-income, better educated, more moderate Republican voters.  It drops off, however, as one goes down the income and educational ladder.  In this respect, the Republican race bears a resemblance to the latter stages of the 2008 Democratic nomination fight, when Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama slogged it out through dozens of primaries and caucuses, with each drawing on an increasingly  identifiable set of voting blocs.

As I noted in my post last Tuesday, and as several other analysts have pointed out, a key indicator of how Romney will do in any primary is the proportion of evangelicals who vote. The Washington Post’s Jon Cohen used exit poll data to create a series of tables showing how the Republican candidates did in each state among different classes of voters.  Not surprising, the table based on the evangelical vote proves most revealing; Romney loses every state where evangelical turnout breaks the 50% mark.

Beating me to the punch, the New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza has extrapolated from that insight to make a rough forecast of the 23 remaining nomination contests. Of course, Lizza can’t know what the evangelical turnout will be in the remaining states, but by comparing the 2008 exit poll data with state-level surveys of the current evangelical population, he can make an educated guess.  This table lists the remaining states in descending order of evangelical population.

The key point here is that actual turnout among white evangelicals in Republican primaries is typically higher than the proportion of evangelicals in the overall state population, something Lizza checks by looking at the 2008 exit polls. Thus, although evangelicals are only 34% of the adult population in Texas, they constituted 60% of the Republican primary vote in 2008.  Using a 30% threshold of evangelicals as the dividing line, then, and giving Santorum the two remaining caucus states (Nebraska and Montana), Lizza estimates that Romney and Santorum will divide the remaining 22 state contests evenly, at 11 each.  In the tiebreaker, Romney is forecast to win the District of Columbia. Here are the states as allocated by Lizza:

Romney: Rhode Island, Washington, D.C., Utah, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Maryland, Delaware, California, Wisconsin, New Mexico, South Dakota.

Santorum: Arkansas, Kentucky, North Carolina, West Virginia, Indiana, Texas, Louisiana, Pennsylvania, Nebraska, Montana, Oregon.

Note, of course, that this is only Lizza’s forecast of state winners – not of total delegates, which of course is what is really at stake in the remaining contests.  However, even if we accept Lizza’s forecast, estimating how many delegates each candidate will win is more complicated due to the different state delegate allocation rules and because, as I noted in my previous post, that it matters whether Gingrich stays in the race.  If I get some time free from grading, I’ll try to produce a very rough estimate of how the delegate race may play out.   In the meantime, pay no attention to media kvetching about etch-a-sketching or, for that matter, how Jeb Bush’s endorsement may finally indicate – finally, I tell ya! – that the Republican establishment is ready to fall in line behind Romney.  Beyond the immediate media entertainment value, these aren’t going to influence how this race plays out.  Instead, a better indicator are the increasingly identifiable demographic-based voting blocs.  It’s not the etch-a-sketch Romney should worry about – it’s the evangelicals.