Monthly Archives: September 2012

Early Voting, National Polls, Bachmann, Biden and…er….Hard Wood

Here’s what’s happening in the presidential race:

First, within the next two days, half of all states will see residents begin casting their presidential ballot, through some combination of either early or absentee voting provisions. In 32 states and the District of Columbia, any qualified voter may cast a ballot in person during a designated period prior to Election Day. All states offer some form of absentee ballots, with 27 of them, along with D.C., permitting any qualified voter to request an absentee ballot with no explanation needed. In 21 states, an excuse is needed.  Approximately 46 million people, or a bit more than 1/3 of voters, are expected to take advantage of these provisions in this election cycle – up from the 30% who did so in 2008.  Typically, non-Hispanic whites make up a greater proportion of the early vote than they do the election-day turnout (this was the case in the 2010 midterms), so it is crucial that Romney – who is likely to draw more heavily on this voting bloc – already have his get-out-the-vote (GOTV) organization in place.  Note, however, that in 2008, minorities were a greater proportion of the early vote than they were on Election Day – a testament to both the historic nature of Obama’s candidacy and his superior GOTV organization. I expect the Romney camp to do better with the early vote than did McCain four years ago. But it is a reminder that the campaign season is actually shorter than the election calendar indicates, which builds on a point Stuart made in his comments on my last post: among a sizeable chunk of voters, the time for Romney to close the gap is shorter than you might realize

Speaking of gaps – or a lack thereof – Obama campaign manager Jim Messina is downplaying daily tracking polls by Gallup and by Rasmussen that show Obama and Romney in a dead heat.   Messina argues that we should focus instead on the battleground states, most of which see Obama leading in the polls.  Because of Obama’s lead in these key states, Messina believes, “[T]he national polls aren’t relevant to this campaign.”

I would make two points here. First, while it is true that both the Gallup and the Rasmussen national daily tracking polls are showing, as of this morning, that Obama and Romney are tied, most other national polls are still showing Obama leading this race.  As a result, in the RealClearPolitics aggregate poll, Obama still leads by 3.3%, 48.1-44.8%.  In my view, that national number is more telling than the statewide polls in battleground states, mainly because  – as I’ve said several times before – Obama is unlikely to win the Electoral College while losing the national vote. Yes, it can happen – but I wouldn’t want to count on it.  So, national polls matter – if Romney gains nationally, he’s likely to pull closer in the battleground states as well.

Meanwhile, Minnesota Congresswoman Michelle Bachmann continues to raise more campaign dough than anyone else in the House aside from Speaker Boehner himself, and she does it largely through small contributions. I note this because journalists often cite small donors as better representing middle America, as opposed to wealthy fat cat donors who contribute big checks in order to buy political access.  The reality, however, as my colleague Bert Johnson has talked about, is that these small donors are typically drawn not from moderate voters, but instead from the two parties’ extreme partisan wings.  That’s why Bachmann, one of the Republican Party’s more conservative members, does so well raising money in small bills.  Similarly, Obama’s advantage over Romney among small donors – 30% of his contributions last month were in donations of $200 or less last month – probably should not be read as a sign that he is drawing better among moderate voters, or is somehow tapping into “middle” America. Instead, these are the party activists who are representative of the very group that make it so difficult for elected officials to bring change “from the inside”.

Finally, there’s this latest Joe Biden story – another reminder of why part of me secretly hopes Obama wins reelection and we get four more years of Joe on the national stage.  Last week the Vice President made an unscheduled stop at a high school in Newport, New Hampshire – a key battleground state – where he gave a shout-out to the various sports teams – football, soccer, lacrosse, etc.  – dressed in their uniforms.  Joe then asked if any other teams were represented:

“Cheerleaders,’’ a group of girls shouted.

“Guess what, the cheerleaders in college are the best athletes in college.’’ VPOTUS told them. “You think, I’m joking, they’re almost all gymnasts, the stuff they do on hard wood, it blows my mind.’’

“Anyway it’s so great to see you guys.’’

To avoid any trouble, I think I’ll simply stop here, and let Joe have the last word.

Scratch that last line.  Let’s let Jill Biden have the last word (video link courtesy of Kate Hamilton):

Rumors of Mitt’s Death Are Greatly Exaggerated

I know. I know. “Where have you been?!”   I appreciate the email inquiries.  The short answer is I’ve been trapped in my office, fending off an onslaught of students.  Such is the life of a departmental chair at a nationally-ranked liberal arts college.   There’s been other distractions as well associated with the start of the semester (teaching a new election class!), and with giving election-year talks.   So that’s my excuse for the scarcity of posts.  I’ll try to do better now as academic-related activities begin to slow.

Meanwhile, in my blogging absence, the presidential campaign has, apparently, all but ended, with Romney suffering an ignominious defeat.  Or so the pundits tell me.  Evidently, Mitt’s political “death” was precipitated by several causes.  First there was the disastrous Republican convention, lowlighted by Clint Eastwood talking to a chair.   That was followed by the brilliantly orchestrated Democratic Convention, highlighted by the Big Dog’s mesmerizing recitation of his…er….Obama’s accomplishments.  Then Romney dug himself a deeper hole by seeming to politicize Libyan Ambassador Chris Steven’s death through some ill-timed remarks.   Romney dumped the final shovelful on his own political grave by accusing 47% of voters – many of them presumably his own supporters – of suffering from  an “entitlement ethos” that makes them overly dependent on government programs.

That last “devastating” gaffe was enough to convince several pundits  (see here and here) that  Romney had “lost the election.”   Forgive me if I’m not persuaded, and why I think you should not be either.   Not surprisingly, of course, the pundits who are certifying that the campaign is over are all Obama supporters.  More importantly, however, is that the polling data, while indicating that Obama may have gained a couple of percentage points over Romney compared to the pre-convention polls, still show this as a tight race.  The latest Pollster.com aggregate poll has Obama up by 3%, at 48.1%-45.1.%.  On the day before the Republican convention, Obama led by 1.4% in their composite poll.  At RealClearPolitics, Obama leads by 3.9%, 48.6%-44.7%.  He was up by 1.4% there before the conventions.  So there is evidence that the cumulative polling impact of the “devastating” period (for Romney) has cost him about 1.6%-2.5% in the polls.  That’s not insignificant, particularly in a tight race, but I don’t see this as proof of Romney’s demise either.

In assessing the claims that we have just witnessed a turning point in the campaign, I suggest keeping several factors in mind.  First, neither candidate got a huge convention boost as measured  by historical standards although my read of the polls is that the net polling advantage in convention bumps went to Obama.  Already, however, we see signs that some of that initial Democratic convention bump has dissipated.

Second , as John Sides argues, the shelf-life of presidential candidates’ rhetorical gaffes is surprisingly short.   Here’s John’s chart showing just how little previous rhetorical gaffes, such as Obama’s “You didn’t build that” remark, have actually moved the polling needle.  Romney may have gained a percentage point or two due to Obama’s statements, but it’s hard to say that permanently changed the race, particularly since Romney’s support dipped down again shortly after.

As I’ve discussed previously, these remarks tend not to have much impact largely because they are filtered through voters’ preexisting ideological beliefs. For this reason, I doubt Mitt’s 47% comment is the game changer that partisan pundits predict/hope it will be.  Remember, campaigns tend not to change votes so much as they activate latent predispositions among voters.  Yes, it’s possible this time will be different, and that Mitt’s remarks really are a turning point. But in the absence of evidence indicating why this time should be different, forgive me if I don’t take the partisan pundits’ words for it.

Already, the talking heads are debating just how bad a candidate Mitt is.  But, while he may not be the most well-liked guy, it is not clear to me that he is underperforming the economic fundamentals by all that much, if at all, based on current polls.  Much depends, of course, on which forecast model you believe.   As I’ve discussed in several previous posts, more than one forecast model has Obama winning this race by a very close margin.  Taken as a whole, as I’ll discuss in a future post, the forecast models see this race as a toss-up.  And that’s not far from where the aggregate polling has it right now. Remember, whenever a candidate appears to be losing, media pundits invariably point to failures in candidate strategy and/or in the candidates’ perceived personal shortcomings.   But that doesn’t mean that assessment is right.  And I don’t think it is right this time either.

Things That Go Bump In The Race

I’ll be doing much shorter posts for the next several days as I begin a new semester of teaching, as well as taking on additional duties as departmental chair.   Once the new schedule settles down, I’ll try to resume the more in-depth blogging to which you’ve become accustomed.

In that vein, let me note first that my colleague Bert Johnson and I have a new Professor Pundits video up here.  As always, we invite your comments in response.  We will be accelerating the pace of these as the campaign heats up.

Speaking of heating up: the initial post-convention tracking polls are picking up what may be a post-convention polling bounce for Obama.   The seven-day Gallup tracking poll, as of Sept. 7, has Obama up, 49-45%, over Romney, compared to his 47%-46% lead prior to the convention.  Of course, some of Gallup’s tracking survey was in the field during the convention, so conceivably the full bounce is yet to occur.  Rasmussen shows an identical 49%-45% result in its three-day tracking poll, which is the President’s largest lead in the Rasmussen poll since March 17th.  In the RealClearPolitics aggregate poll of polls, Obama has regained the lead by a narrow 1.8% margin, 49%-47.2%, which is almost the mirror opposite of where the RCP polls stood heading into the Democratic convention.  The Pollster.com aggregate poll, which is designed to react a bit more slowly to recent polls, shows Obama’s polling lead at .5% (46.7%-46.2%), virtually unchanged since before the convention.  Keeping in mind that, as I discussed in the video with Bert, it is tricky to separate out the independent impact of a convention-induced bump from other factors that may affect the two candidates’ polls, it doesn’t appear as yet that Obama received much more of a convention bump than did Romney. If so, this is consistent with my prediction in my Economist post that both candidates were likely to get smaller bumps than the 5% average candidates have gained in previous years.

One factor that may affect the size of the Obama bounce is the recent unemployment numbers, which came out on Friday and once again showed an economy that continues to stagnate.  Although unemployment ticked down to 8.1% from 8.3%, that was largely because more Americans have dropped out of the workforce and have given up looking for jobs. Not surprisingly, in his post-convention campaign swing through Florida, Obama sought to change the media narrative from the jobs report to a debate over Medicare. This is where campaign strategies come into play.  When I give my election talks touting the ability of some political science forecast models to predict, as early as Labor Day, the candidates’ share of the two-party popular vote, invariably someone accuses me of suggesting that “campaigns don’t matter.”  But that’s not my claim.  Campaigns do matter.  Candidates use them to construct a narrative about the fundamentals, particularly the state of the economy, that influence how voters decide.  What I found most interesting about Obama’s convention speech is how little of it focused on his administration’s record on jobs or health care.  Instead, he seemed almost to position himself as a challenger, emphasizing the changes he would bring if elected president, and contrasting his values with those of Romney and the Republican Party which he holds responsible for the state of the economy today.  This is the campaign strategy one uses if the fundamentals – in this case the economy – don’t necessarily work in your favor.  You either try to recast those fundamentals in a way that is more favorable to your candidacy – or you try to switch the topic to one where you have a polling advantage over your opponent.  Obama clearly thinks that positioning himself as the protector of entitlement programs – particularly Medicare – is a winning issue, especially in Florida.   The idea here is to get Romney to debate him on ground that Obama feels is more favorable to his case for reelection.  It remains to be seen whether Romney will take the bait.  But it is a reminder that campaigns do matter:  they are a struggle to define which issues are important, and why, and to whom.   Those dueling narratives, however, do not impact all voters equally; typically the less-informed voters are more susceptible to campaign frames – but they are also less likely to tune into the campaign.   Our forecast models are based in part on the premise that candidates choose the “right” strategy given the electoral context.  But what is the right strategy for Obama, and for Romney?  That’s the question both campaigns must answer.  We will see what they decide in the next few weeks.

Live Blogging the President’s Convention Speech

Alright, I’ve been asked to live blog the President’s speech.  Hopefully it will be received better than last night’s blog about Clinton!

As always, join in (that means you, students, who are at loose ends on campus!)

It’s pretty clear that the Obama team thinks that the auto bailout is a winner, particularly in the midwest battleground states.  Almost every speaker has brought this up.

The real irony of Biden praising the President’s decision to go ahead with the Bin Laden raid is that Biden opposed it.

And he’s on!  (By the way, was that George Clooney narrating the Obama film?  Was Clint too busy?)

A shout out to Biden – which is needed, since he didn’t get a prime time speaking slot.

There’s genuine affection for this guy in the convention hall.

Here he’s going to reference the major themes of his campaign: he inherited the economic crisis, one precipitated in part by Romney-like outsourcing….

Here he trumpets his tax cuts for the middle class…

Look for him here to remind voters that this is a difficult path to follow…

Every president – and presidential hopeful – has learned the Reagan/Carter lesson – always, always appear optimistic, and praise the American people…

Here comes the automotive shout-out again…..they really think this is a winning theme against Romney…

He references outsourcing jobs, but he is not going to mention Romney directly by name more than once…

What he doesn’t say is that the reduction in oil imports is almost entirely due to a sluggish economy…..

When it comes to coastal drilling, he’s been burned once – won’t happen again….

The twitterverse is getting antsy – speech is (so far!) lacking the inspirational atmospherics of previous presidents.  I  say wait …. .

Conservative twits are pointing out that increase in oil production is on private lands – not federal.

We ended the war in Iraq?  The fact checkers will have a field day with this – Bush negotiated the withdrawal.

Who, in 2008, would have predicted that Obama would be touting his foreign policy credentials, and dissing his opponent’s?

(By the way, who is his “opponent”?)

For what it is worth, Romney has endorsed an Afghanistan troop draw down.  It’s a sign of the times that the Democrat is running on his foreign policy credentials, while the Republican wants to focus on the economy.

From here on out look for him to emphasize optimism, and to give a shout out to the people….

He ends with a soaring shout out to the people.  but will it sell in a period  of 8.3% unemployment?

Lots of tweeters tweeting that this is a “safe” speech.  It’s not – notice that he’s focusing on the future.  This is a speech you would expect from a challenger.  He’s not running on his record so much as running on the promise that things will get better.

The ending is telling – entirely focused on the future, with the hope of better things to come.  It’s clear that he wants to convince voters that he’s begun to turn this around, but that he needs more time.  Will voters buy this?

Democratic tweeters acknowledging this isn’t his best speech, but certainly shows a change in tone.  More presidential.

Some Obama supporters like Ezra Klein are arguing that this was a “safe” speech because it didn’t mention specifics. I disagree – this was a forward looking speech because he knows “his” record isn’t something to highlight.  His goal here is to persuade voters that he needs more time to fix the mess he inherited.

The other interesting part of this speech is how much time he spent on foreign policy  – what a change from 2008, when he ran against the Bush policy on terrorism.  Now Obama is presenting a much more muscular foreign policy profile designed to highlight his commander in chief credentials.  Note that Romney and his surrogates largely ignored foreign policy, in the belief that this election will turn primarily on the economy.

In the end, Obama played to his base more than to the undecideds…. his speech was strong on rhetoric and looking ahead, but not much here on defending the major policy initiatives of his first term – the stimulus bill, or health care.  And that’s understandable – those are very polarizing issues.   This is a reminder that it’s easy for surrogates to give soaring speeches, but much harder for the President to go on the attack without appearing less presidential.  What a difference four years make.

With the conventions over, we look toward the general campaign. I’ll be on tomorrow addressing the convention bumps, (or lack thereof) but the next major events that have the potential to change the campaign narrative are the three October debates.  In the meantime, it will be interesting to see what impact these two conventions have on the polling.  Romney has made incremental gains starting from before the RNC, and is now tied with Obama (or ahead) in most polls. Will that trend survive the DNC?

Stay tuned.

 

The DNC, True Lies And The Twitterverse

My unscientific sampling of the twitterverse tweets during the Democratic National Convention’s first two nights of speechifying revealed what seemed like a distinctly lower frequency of instant fact-correcting than what I observed during the Republican convention.  That may be because Democrats are an inherently more truthful group of speakers than are Republicans – or it may indicate that my twitterverse feed is dominated by left-leaning pundits.  I’ll let you decide.

Despite the relative lack of prodding from the twits, however, the main stream media fact-checkers such as Factcheck.org  and Politifact.com gamely persisted in informing us about what the former labeled “Democratic Disinformation from Charlotte.”  At the top of their list of misinformation? The claim during the first night by keynote speaker San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro and other speakers that Romney would “raise taxes on the middle class”, followed close behind by a misleading claim of job growth under Obama.  (The list of false assertions is actually longer, but these two will suffice to make my point.)  Factcheck is correct that Romney has made it clear that, contrary to the assertions by the Democratic convention speakers, he will not raise taxes on the middle class.  However, as Greg Sargent points out, Romney has promised across-the-board tax cuts in his budget plan while insisting it will be revenue neutral (that  is, it will not increase the deficit).  It is possible, of course, that he could fulfill both promises, but to do so would probably require an unlikely combination of rapid economic growth and a significant alteration to the tax code that eliminates or changes many current exemptions, deductions and loopholes.  The problem for fact-checkers is that Mitt has yet to specify what those changes to the tax code might be. A study by the independent Tax Policy Center that tried to reconcile the competing claims in the Romney budget plan, while stopping short of endorsing the Democrats’ charge that Romney must raise taxes on the middle class, concluded that the only way for Romney’s budget to include tax cuts for all and not add to the deficit is by eliminating current tax exemptions for the middle class.  That sounds suspiciously like a version of a tax hike.

So, did the Democrats really misstate the facts?  Or did they highlight inconsistencies in Romney’s budget proposal? Or both?

A similar argument can be made regarding the Obama job growth claims. Castro, the keynote speaker on the first night, asserted that since Obama took office, “we’ve seen 4.5 million new jobs.”  That claim, however, uses February 2010 as the starting point – “the low point for private sector jobs” – rather than the date at which Obama took office.  Moreover, as Factcheck.org points out, “if you include all jobs — including the hard-hit government job sector  — there remains a net decrease of 316,000 jobs since the start of Obama’s presidency. Total employment has gained about 4 million since February 2010, not 4.5 million. It’s all in how you slice the data.”

Not surprisingly, Republicans and Democrats slice that data differently. Like Paul Ryan, Castro might not have been “lying”, but clearly he was shading the facts in a way to make Obama’s job creation record look better.  But isn’t that the point of a convention speech?  In defense of Castro’s spin, the economy is creating jobs and has been for many months (albeit more slowly than one might like.)  And one might argue that Obama’s policies prevented an even worse job loss – most economists argue that without the stimulus bill the number of jobs lost would be even greater.  Shouldn’t Obama get some credit for this? Isn’t that the point Castro was trying to make?

Look, I have nothing against the efforts by independent factcheckers at sites like this to police politicians’ statements in order to catch the most egregious errors.  But as I hope I’ve demonstrated in these last few posts, once the factcheckers move beyond simple factchecking and attempt to compensate for partisan-induced “misleading statements”, they enter a deep thicket of half-truths, spin, and rhetorical excess that makes it almost impossible to locate the “truth.”   Moreover, we are naive if we think the partisan bloggers living in the twitterverse will, through the wonders of “crowd sourcing”, hold politicians’ feet to the fire and elevate the accuracy of political discourse.  Instead, the evidence so far suggests that the twits in the twitterverse are largely reinforcing the partisan spin that characterizes political debate today.  They are awfully quick to point out the other sides’ misleading statements, but perhaps a bit slower to hold their own side accountable. It is a reminder of the old adage that there are three sides to every story: yours, mine and the truth.

A final thought: if Factcheck and Politifact really want a challenge, I dare them to enter the twitterverse and try to hold participants there to some standard of “truth” in real time!  As the journalist Herbert Agar reminds us, “The truth that makes men free is for the most part the truth which men prefer not to hear.” The denizens of the twitterverse, it turns out, are particularly hard of hearing.

P.S. Sorry about the last-minute decision to live blog last night, but Clinton is such as charismatic figure that I fell under his spell and couldn’t help myself.   I realize some of you wanted a deeper analysis of the particulars of his speech, but I was trying to view it not as a partisan supporter, but as an undecided voter who might be tuning into the convention for the first time.  First impressions can matter. (Also, I was trying to put together a course syllabus while tweeting and listening to the Big Dog Bark.  There’s a reason I caution my students not to multitask!)  I’ll say more about Clinton’s speech in a later post.