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Trust Me: We All Liked President Carter Then Too But…

By now, most of you have likely heard of Jimmy Carter’s recent announcement that he has cancer which has spread to his liver and to his brain. Carter, who is 90 years old, is undergoing radiation and other therapy, and faces an uncertain prognosis. However, he wryly noted in this press conference, hosted at the Carter Center six days ago, that this might be a “propitious time” to cut down on his busy schedule.

If you watched Carter discuss his illness during the press conference, you could not help but admire the courage and sense of humor he exhibited. When asked about the outpouring of affection that has come his way since his illness was revealed, Carter mentioned that he had received well wishes from all the former presidents, as well as President Obama and the Secretary of State, adding slyly that they hadn’t been calling him recently until his illness. He seemed, as much as anyone can be when facing a potentially terminal illness, completely at peace with whatever the outcome might be.

During the question-and-answer portion of the press conference, he was asked if in light of his illness he might reflect on his accomplishments. While he acknowledged that winning the presidency was important, not least because it gave him the platform for his post-presidency work with the Carter Center, it was the latter experience that was the most gratifying aspects of his life (with the important exception of marrying his wife Rosalynn!) Carter won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002 for his work through the Carter Center.

Perhaps inevitably, he was asked if there was anything he would have done differently in his life. He acknowledged that he wished he had sent one more helicopter on the Iran hostage rescue attempt. As you will recall, that mission failed due to mechanical failures and accidents involving the helicopters sent to ferry the hostages back home. In his response, Carter suggested, to much laughter, that if the rescue operation had succeeded, he would have won a second term as president!

We should not be surprised that Carter is showing such grace in the face of such a terrible disease. I have remarked in previous posts that his is maybe the most successful ex-presidency we have seen, with perhaps the exception of John Quincy Adams’ post-presidential years in Congress.* Carter’s work through the Carter Center and his other philanthropic endeavors has touched lives across the globe, and he has set a precedent that other ex-presidents have sought to emulate. No wonder Carter often makes the list of most admired people.

But, given his defeat in the 1980 presidential election after serving only one term, it is easy to forget that even while serving as president he was held in relatively high esteem by the public for his personal qualities. As I’ve noted in previous posts, political scientists Morris Fiorina, Samuel Abrams and Jeremy Pope used responses to American National Election surveys in which Americans were asked about their views of presidential candidates to create two broad categories describing respondents’ overall views of the candidates’ personal attributes. As this chart from Fiorina’s New York Times op-ed piece discussing the research shows, Carter had the highest net positive evaluation of any of the two major party presidential candidates in 1952-2000 time period the authors studied. At the same time, his opponent Ronald Reagan had the second lowest rating, “bested” only by Bill Clinton’s dismal personal ratings in 1996. Even while president, then, voters praised Carter’s personal characteristics, if not his performance as president.

The lesson, as I discussed in a previous post that attracted not a little attention among pundits, is that in presidential elections, voters’ evaluations of national conditions and the experience and issue stances of candidates typically matters much more than do considerations of personal qualities, including honesty and trustworthiness. Indeed, running in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal, candidate Carter vowed that he “would not lie to the American people.” Sometimes he might have taken that promise too far, as when acknowledging in a Playboy interview that he “looked on a lot of women with lust. I’ve committed adultery in my heart many times. This is something that God recognizes I will do–and I have done it–and God forgives me for it.” Of course, Carter beat Gerald Ford in 1976, which one might attribute to voters’ rewarding him for his candor.  However, the gap between Ford and Carter on personal qualities, as measured by Fiorina et al, was smaller than that between Carter and Reagan in 1980.  In the 1980 election, Carter’s perceived honesty was not enough to overcome dismal economic conditions and prevent his defeat by a candidate who wasn’t held in nearly such high personal regard.

And that’s worth remembering in the face of the almost daily barrage of stories trumpeting Hillary Clinton’s evident lack of trustworthiness. Clinton may yet lose this race. But if so it’s likely that perceptions of her trustworthiness won’t be the primary reason why.

*Several readers have suggested that William Howard Taft, who served as the 10th Chief Justice of the Supreme Court after leaving the presidency, might be included on this list.  I would also add Herbert Hoover, who chaired two important commissions studying the reorganization of the executive branch during his post-presidential years.

The State of the Race: Trump the Wonk, Carly’s Scrutiny, Biden’s Pledge and Lameducks and Nude Beaches

There are a variety of different political stories that caught my eye these last few days. Since I can’t tackle them all in the depth they deserve – at least not in a timely fashion – I thought I’d briefly comment on some of the most important. Here, in no particular order, are my thoughts about:

The Donald’s Debate Performance: In the media’s focus on reporting how Trump’s polling support is holding steady in the aftermath of the Fox-hosted political debate, perhaps the most important take-away from that event has been underplayed. Since the debate Trump has been making the media rounds, using a series of one-on-one interviews and policy pronouncements to showcase his policy credentials. Yes, his policies still contain their share of bombast and pleasing sound bites, but they are also more fleshed out than Trump’s previous pronouncements, which were typically all sizzle and no steak. Trump’s effort to fill in some of the details of his policy views, I suspect, is prompted by his realization that when standing on the debate stage next to his Republican competitors, the sound-bite pronouncements that work so well in staged settings orchestrated by his campaign to attract media coverage – “I will build a yuuuge wall, paid for by Mexico!” –  are much less effective in debates when compared to the more detailed policy pronouncements put forth by his rivals. Contrary to the media stereotype, Trump is a smart man (albeit one prone to bluster). He surely realizes that at this point his polling, with about a quarter of likely Republican voters supporting him nationally, is at best in Howard Dean territory, and that as the Republican field begins to get pared down it is quite possible Republican support will coalesce around one of his rivals, such as Bush or Rubio. In short, the Donald is making a concerted effort to step up his game. It will be interesting to see how this plays out in the next debate.

The Biden One-term Pledge. Reportedly Vice President Joe Biden will pledge, if he decides to run for president in 2016, that if elected he will only serve one term as president. He’s not alone. Lawrence Lessig, who is running a quixotic campaign for the Democratic nomination, has promised to do Biden one better – he will resign the presidency if he gets his policy initiative dealing with campaign finance reform passed.  In an earlier post I discussed the pros and cons of term limits and why I think limiting presidents to one term (formally or informally) is a very bad idea (although I don’t oppose term limits after two terms, at least not in principle), but candidates continue to trot this idea out, presumably because it gives them an aura of being above politics; they are concerned only with the public interest, and not with doing what will insure their reelection. It’s worth remembering that the Framers spent considerable time debating this idea, part of a larger debate on how to choose the president, only to reject it in favor of unlimited terms. That choice, of course, has since been superseded by the 22nd amendment. I happen to think there’s some virtue in making presidents remain sensitive to the political implications of their decisions, which is what occurs when presidents are free to seek a second term in office. In my view, it helps prevents the type of fiascos that I discuss in my previous post that have regularly afflicted recent presidents’ second terms.  In short, it is probably a helpful check on presidential actions to make them consider how the public might react to what they are proposing to do.

Carly Fiorina Has Been Discovered – and Now She Undergoes Scrutiny. I’ve referenced the Sides/Vavreck argument, coming out of their wonderful study of the 2012 presidential campaign, that relatively unknown presidential candidates who burst onto the scene often undergo a process of “discovery, scrutiny and decline”. This pattern accurately describes the candidacies of Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, Rick Perry and even Newt Gingrich (twice!) in 2012. So far, however, The Donald seems to be avoiding this pattern – his polling support has survived the extended scrutiny for a longer period than did any of the quartet from 2012. Now it’s Carly Fiorina’s turn. In light of her widely-praised performance in the “happy hour” version of the Fox debate, she instantly became the darling of the pundits. But with that favorable coverage she has also begun to receive more scrutiny, particularly of her tumultuous tenure as CEO at Hewlett Packard.  Of course, this scrutiny doesn’t come only from the media – rivals are only too happy to chime in.  In this vein, The Donald recently said this about Fiorina in an interview: “She’s a very nice woman, she got fired, she did a terrible job at Hewlett-Packard, she lost in a landslide — other than that, she’s a very nice woman.”

Did You Know the Obamas Are On Vacation? If one needs any more proof that Obama is a lame-duck president, it is this: almost no one is criticizing his vacation plans. The most critical media coverage I’ve heard centers on his choice of reading material while spending some down time at Martha’s Vineyard. Several years back I wrote this post analyzing why presidents continue to take vacations, and why they are constantly belittled for doing so. I noted that the President’s political opponents typically treat a vacationing president, no matter which party he represents, as the modern equivalent of Nero fiddling while Rome burns. For example, in a not atypical review, one critic wrote this about the Obama’s 2011 vacation on the Island: “Which begs the question – why did the president go ahead with his vacation despite the worst approval ratings of his presidency, plunging stock markets, falling consumer confidence, and overwhelming public disillusion with his handling of the economy? I think the answer lies in Obama’s professorial-style arrogance, and a condescending approach towards ordinary Americans.”  Yikes! Pardon me for wanting to soak up some rays!  I concluded my post by advising the President to get some rest and relaxation, but to avoid the nude beaches. (Denizens of Martha’s Vineyard will confirm that some of the best beaches there are clothing optional.) This time around, however, and in contrast to previous years, criticism of the president’s vacation plans seems largely muted which I can only believe reflects a more general sense that his presidency is nearing its end. For what it’s worth, I think it’s nice that the President and his family can finally enjoy a relaxing (the term is relative, of course, for a sitting president) two weeks in a picturesque island setting.

Nonetheless, I’d still be cautious about the whole nude beach thing… .

How Much Should BlackLivesMatter to Bernie?

By now, most of you have heard of the recent effort by members of the BlackLivesMatter (BLM) movement to disrupt a Bernie Sanders’ campaign event in Seattle. For those of you still caught up in Deflategate, here’s a video of the interruption – jump ahead to the 2:40 minute mark to see the point at which the protesters walk on stage which, eventually, prompts Bernie to leave.

This disruption follows on the heels of last month’s confrontation at Netroots Nation between the BLM activists and the more economically-oriented progressives that are the core constituency in the Sanders camp. The ongoing disruptions have attracted more than their fair share of media coverage as journalists try to gauge the implications of this apparent split in the progressive wing of the Democratic party for the Sanders presidential campaign. In responding to journalists who have asked me about this, I have tried to make two points. First, to a certain extent Sanders is a victim of his own success, a point Clare Foran addresses in her National Journal piece on Bernie. The decision by the participants in the BLM movement to target Bernie’s campaign events are surely influenced by the tremendous crowds he has been attracting in recent days – crowds that are predominantly composed of Bernie’s core constituency: educated, affluent white liberals whose views the BLM movement is targeting. As Bernie gains more media attention, the payoffs to the BLM crowd for disrupting these events becomes proportional bigger.

My second point is that we should not be surprised that Bernie and his supporters are, to a certain extent, somewhat miffed about the BLM disruptions and, in part because of this, were somewhat slow to react in a positive manner. As Colin Daileda notes in this Mashable piece, members of the BLM movement aren’t necessarily Bernie’s natural allies – something that I suspect initially puzzled Sanders, particularly given his civil rights record. From Bernie’s perspective, the types of issues that he has championed, from repealing Citizens United to raising the minimum wage to pushing for single-payer health care system are precisely the issues that, if implemented, would disproportionally help lower-income voters, particular African-Americans who are suffering from among the highest unemployment rates of any voting bloc. How useful can it be to disrupt the campaign events of the one candidate who is doing the most to advocate on your behalf?

For those in the BLM movement, however, Bernie’s focus on economic issues does not address the racial justice concerns that are of particular importance to the leading activists in this movement.  As Van Jones, a former White House adviser to President Obama, argues in a particularly scathing criticism of the Sanders’ campaign, “Our economic problems include an unemployment rate that is double that of whites, racially biased policing and court systems, predatory lenders who deliberately target black neighborhoods and public schools that expel black children at staggering rates for minor offenses.” For the BLM movement, these issues of racial justice are different from and transcend what they see as the Sanders’ campaign more narrow focus on economic inequality.

To his credit, after walking off the stage in Seattle, Bernie has made a pointed effort to find common ground with the BLM activists, with issues of racial justice now figuring prominently in his speeches, and on his social media sites. But, as this Charles Blow opinion piece indicates, there likely are limits to how far either side is willing to go to accommodate the concerns of the other. This should not surprise us. Movements like Bernie’s economic populism and BLM tend to attract ideologues who are convinced they are advocating for the most important issue facing the country right now. While it might seem practical for activists in the economic and racial justice camps to join forces in a broader progressive movement, that is anathema to the true believers in each movement who are wedded to the sanctity of their particular cause. With apologies to Barry Goldwater, purists on both sides of the divide believe that “Moderation in the recognition of the other guys’ issue is no virtue; extremism in the defense of our issue is no vice.”

So where does this leave Bernie? The Sanders’ campaign is struggling to broaden its appeal beyond the aging hipsters, college students and left-wing professors to attract support from more moderate and conservative Democratic voters that right now are supporting Clinton and who typically constitute about half the Democratic nomination electorate. It’s not clear how having to respond to disruptions from BLM movement is going to help Sanders accomplish this goal if the effect is to highlight views not shared by those more moderate Democrats. On the other hand, as I have noted repeatedly, Sanders is going to need to attract some support from minority voters if he hopes to compete with Clinton outside of Iowa and New Hampshire. To date, however, Clinton continues to hold a commanding lead in the polls among nonwhite likely Democratic voters. The key for Sanders, then, is to effectively fuse his message of economic justice with the BLM’s concern for racial justice in a manner that appeals to more moderate Democrats as well as racial minorities. But this is easier said than done, particularly when issue activists in both camps express reluctance to subsume their own views on behalf of a broader cause. In this vein, it’s worth remembering that those $50 campaign contributions the Sanders’ camp is proud of citing aren’t coming from Joe and Jane Sixpack – they are flowing in from ideological purists who expect Bernie to spread the gospel of economic progressivism. And they want to get what they paid for.

Meanwhile, I expect Sanders to continue to “shamelessly pander to voters who want to hear the truth”, as “political strategist” Harland Dorrinson reminds us (hat tip to Shelly Sloan for sending this piece by humorist Andy Borowitz* along!):

“Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders is gaining legions of new admirers by shamelessly pandering to voters who want to hear the truth, critics of the Vermont senator say.

According to those critics, Sanders has cynically targeted so-called ‘truth-based voters’ to build support for his Presidential bid.

‘People come to Sanders’s rallies expecting to hear the truth, and he serves it up to them on a silver platter,’ the political strategist Harland Dorrinson said. ‘It’s a very calculated gimmick.’

But while Sanders’s practice of relentlessly telling the truth might play well in states that are rich in truth-based voters, like the early primary states of Iowa and New Hampshire, critics say that his campaign could stall in states where the truth has historically been less important, like Florida.

‘At some point in this campaign, voters are going to get truth fatigue,’ Dorrinson said. ‘Right now, the novelty of a politician who doesn’t constantly spew lies is grabbing headlines. But after months of Bernie Sanders telling the truth, voters are going to start wondering, Is that all he’s got?’

Dorrinson is just one of many critics who is eagerly waiting for the Sanders phenomenon to come down to Earth. ‘Telling the truth may be working for Bernie Sanders, but it shows a serious lack of respect for the American political system,’ he said.”

Because, as we all know:

*My apologies for not linking to the Borowitz piece in my original post, and thanks to those who pointed this out.

Bernie Leads In New Hampshire! (Or Does He?)

Bernie Sanders may be getting trounced in the national polls by Hillary Clinton, but you wouldn’t know it judging by his followers’ media presence. I was up yesterday on Los Angeles radio station KPCC’s AirTalk with host Larry Mantle (shortly before their segment on best dive bars in L.A.!) to discuss still another well-attended Bernie event, this one taking place in L.A. the night before, when about 25,000 people attended either in person or watched outside the LA Sports arena in which Bernie spoke. Every caller to the radio show was a Bernie supporter, and almost all raved about Bernie’s “electric” presentation to his passionate supporters.  I have written and talked previously about the fact that Bernie’s support among Latinos and African-Americans still lags relative to Hillary’s. Here’s a chart put together by Philip Bump based on Gallup polling that shows the relative favorable/unfavorable numbers of the various candidates among African-Americans.

Bernie has attracted large crowds before, of course, but they were in places like Portland, Oregon; Seattle, Washington; and Madison, Wisconsin – bastions of white liberalism that are not exactly cross-sections of the more diverse Democratic electorate. However, several of the callers to Mantle’s show took pains to point out the racially diverse composition of Bernie’s Los Angeles’ audience. This may be the hopeful among the #FeeltheBern crowd looking at the audience through rose-tinted glasses, of course, but it is clear that Bernie is making a concerted effort to reach out to non-whites in anticipation of competing in the contests beyond Iowa and New Hampshire. It is important to remember that although Bernie has lower favorable ratings than Clinton among African-Americans and Latinos, it is also the case that 60% or more of these groups don’t really know who he is. When you look only at those who express a favorable or unfavorable view toward Bernie, his percentage of favorable support comes closer to matching Clinton’s.


It will be interesting to see how much ground Bernie can gain among these voters in the months to come.

Meanwhile, in a reminder that no good deed goes unpunished, my last post cautioning readers to be wary of drawing conclusions based on one poll has been drawing its fair share of criticism in light of a more recent Boston Herald/Franklin Pierce poll that has Bernie leading Clinton 44%-37% in New Hampshire among 442 randomly selected likely Democratic presidential primary voters. The survey was in the field August 7-10, and has a margin of error of +/-4%.  Since I received a few emails after my last post asking me to clarify the difference between a “statistical tie” and what the New York Times mistakenly (in my view) called a “dead heat”, I thought it might be useful to present the latest poll results visually, using a nifty app developed by Nicholas Neuteufel that graphs the polls results, including the margin of error.

sanders tied

Once again, as the graph suggests, we can’t discount the possibility, given the margin of error, that Clinton and Bernie are tied, or that Clinton might even be slightly ahead. At the same time, however, based on this one poll, the odds are greater that Bernie is now ahead of Clinton in New Hampshire.  But, of course, as I reminded readers in my last poll, we shouldn’t rely on only one poll.  Not surprisingly – and my caution notwithstanding – Bernie supporters seem convinced that this latest poll is an accurate barometer of the current state of the Democratic primary race New Hampshire. Note, however, that both the RealClearPolitics and Pollster.com aggregate polls continue to have Hillary holding a slim lead over Bernie in the Granite state. Here’s the Pollster.com aggregate polling chart:

Nonetheless, the latest poll result ought to give Sanders’ supporters an additional reason to flood the airwaves, not to mention castigating wayward bloggers who have the temerity to focus on the data, as opposed to #FeelingtheBern. So, at the risk of inciting more ire, let me raise two more cautionary flags for Bernie supporters. The Boston Herald poll also indicates that the race in NH remains very fluid with fully 60% of respondents saying they could change their mind, and only 30% saying they are following the race very closely. As I found out in my stint on Mantle’s show, Bernie supporters are out in force this early in the race.   It remains to be seen how support plays out as more people begin paying attention to the race an attitudes begin to firm.  It may be that questions of viability will loom larger in the polling. Most of the respondents – 65%, to be precise – to the Herald poll still believe Clinton is going to win the Democratic nomination. Remember, Bernie’s big electoral test of viability is not going to be New Hampshire or Iowa – it’s going to be South Carolina, Nevada and the more racially diverse states that come later in the nominating process. In that vein, I was on the phone with a reporter today discussing why Bernie has yet to gain traction with the #BlackLivesMatter crowd. I’ll have more to say about that in a later post. For now, keep those critical comments coming but, please, don’t shoot the messenger!  And for Bernie supporters, I leave you with this image:

 

Are Bernie and Hillary in a Dead Heat in New Hampshire?

As the political pundits parse last night’s Republican debate – a topic I will tackle later – I want to return to a story that attracted quite a bit of media play earlier this week. Three days ago New Hampshire television station WMUR in conjunction with CNN released a poll that showed Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders in a “statistical tie” in New Hampshire. Not surprisingly, the poll generated quite a bit of media coverage, with The New York Times headline for its story on the poll proclaiming that Clinton and Sanders were in a “dead heat.”  Other news outlets, citing the same poll, made similar claims.  In fact, the survey, which was in the field during the last week of July, showed 42% percent of likely Democratic primary voters saying they will vote for Clinton, with 36% saying they are backing Sanders. How can the New Hampshire race be a “tied” when the poll shows Clinton with a 6% lead? The answer is that because the two candidates’ numbers fall within the poll’s sampling margin of error (a measure of how confident pollsters are in their results), one can’t discount the possibility that Sanders is actually tied, or perhaps even ahead, of Clinton. Remember, surveys are simply estimates of the sentiments of an underlying population – in this instance, likely Democratic primary voters in New Hampshire – and one’s confidence in the results depends in part on how many people are surveyed and what confidence level we are willing to accept in evaluating the results. In this case, the WMUR poll’s margin of error at the 95% confidence level for the Democratic nominating race is +/-5.9%. In describing the race as a “statistical tie”, then, the WMUR pollsters are acknowledging the possibility that despite Clinton’s 6% lead, Sanders’ actual support might be at the upper end of the margin of error, and Clinton’s at the lower end. (Of course, it’s possible their support lies outside the margin of error, but this is even more unlikely.) Hence, WMUR’s decision to label the race a “statistical tie.”

At the risk of nitpicking, however, I would argue that a “statistical tie” is not the equivalent of a “dead heat”, The Times’ headline notwithstanding. To understand why, one should also ask: what is the probability that a purely random sample of 274 likely Democratic voters (the size of the WMUR poll on the Democratic side) would show Clinton ahead by 6% if in fact there is no difference in polling support between Clinton and Sanders in the underlying population – that is, that they really are tied? It turns out that it is not very likely – in fact, a simple test of the difference in survey sample results suggests there is a less than 10% probability that the race is actually tied, given the survey findings showing Clinton ahead by 6% (and making certain other assumptions about how the WMUR poll was conducted.) So, it is true that we can’t be sure that Clinton is ahead, at least not using the conventional 95% uncertainty level. But it is much more likely, given these poll’s parameters, that she is leading Sanders than that they are in a true dead heat. My quibble with most of the media stories reporting the WMUR poll is that they don’t make the difference between a “statistical tie” and an actual tie very clear.

“Fine,” you respond. “At least I can take comfort in knowing that Bernie is closing the gap with Hillary.” And, in fact, the first line of The Times story notes that “Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont continues to tighten the race with Hillary Rodham Clinton in New Hampshire, according to a poll released on Tuesday.” As evidence, the author notes that a previous WMUR/CNN poll of likely Democratic voters that was in the field from June 18 to 24 found Clinton leading Sanders by 43%-35% (with a margin of error of +/- 5.2%).  Based on these two polls, then, it appears that Sanders has gained 2% on Clinton – evidence that, according to the Times, “Mr. Sanders continues to gain momentum after months of negative publicity about Mrs. Clinton’s use of a private email server as secretary of state.”

Well, maybe. Again, it is useful to put this claim in proper context too. If you parse the polling numbers, the one-month change from a 43%-35% Clinton lead in early July to 42%-36% margin this week comes out to approximately a handful of respondents expressing a preference for Sanders rather than Clinton this month compared to last month. Now, this might reflect an actual change in the sentiments of the underlying population. Or, it might just be the result of picking up a couple more Bernie supporters in the random sampling process, even though there’s been no actual change in voter preferences. The bottom line is that we should be cautious about extrapolating that Sanders is gaining on Clinton based solely on a 2% change in the WMUR polling results across a one-month period.

This doesn’t mean Bernie hasn’t gained ground on Hillary in New Hampshire. As this Pollster.com poll aggregation shows, if we widen our time horizon it’s clear that Bernie has closed the polling gap, particularly when Elizabeth Warren’s name was dropped from the survey options.


But there hasn’t been a lot of recent polls in New Hampshire. A NBC poll in late July had Clinton up by a larger margin, at 47%-34%, while a recently-released Gravis poll has it 43%-39% in Clinton’s favor. (I haven’t looked closely at the internals of either poll.) Right now the aggregate Pollster polling has Clinton up 43.3%-38.8%. RealClearPolitics, which uses a slightly different aggregating algorithm, has Clinton with a more substantial lead over Bernie, at 44.8%-31.6%.

The bottom line is that rather than a “dead heat”, Clinton is probably leading Bernie in New Hampshire, and that it is not even clear, despite an abundance of recent negative news coverage for Clinton and Bernie’s well-attended campaign events, that he has gained all that much ground over the last month. Alas, for a media with a vested interest in seeing a competitive race for the Democratic nomination, that narrative is probably a lot less interesting, even if it is likely to be a bit more accurate.