Actually, Election Day is Not “The Only Poll That Matters”

Tim Mak artfully skewers bad political writing at Politico. He nails 7 clichés and makes a sly joke by putting an eighth in his title (“very tired cliches”… are there fresh clichés out there with which the “tired” ones can be contrasted?).

Of the 7 stale horrors Mak critiques, I find particularly irritating “The only poll that matters is the one on election day”. This is usually a smug pundit’s put down to people who debate the meaning of the latest poll. It’s not only a cliché. It’s completely untrue.

As we have seen throughout this primary election cycle, polls drive media coverage, fundraising and candidate strategy. They also affect voters’ judgments about who is electable and who has momentum. The reality is that many, many polls matter, not least because they help determine who is still left standing on general election day to participate in “the only poll that matters”.

Familiarity Breeds Contempt for Romney, Liking for Paul

I noted here that Romney garnered a lower proportion of all votes cast in the 2012 Iowa caucus than he did in 2008 (though only 0.5% fewer votes in absolute number). Alex Seitz-Wald made a parallel observation regarding the Missouri, Colorado and Minnesota contests. In each of these states Romney attracted a dramatically lower absolute number of voters in 2012 than in 2008.

But looking at just one repeat candidate’s performance in consecutive elections can be misleading. The number of votes a candidate attracts in one primary election cycle versus the next could change because one year had unusually good or unusually bad weather or because a state moved its primary to a more versus less exciting spot on the calendar. Further, the same absolute number of votes has a different meaning each election cycle depending on how many other candidates are still in the race and on whether it is a high turnout or low turnout year in general.

There is however a way to roughly control for all these factors in assessing Romney’s performance in 2012 relative to 2008, because Ron Paul is also a repeat candidate. Whatever generic external positive and negative factors have affected Romney’s primary vote totals will also have affected Paul’s: The sun shines — or fails to — on all candidates’ voters equally.

The chart below presents the percent change in number of votes received by Paul and Romney in each of the nine states that have so far voted. The comparison with Paul make Romney’s 2012 run look even less impressive than it does already. Paul’s growth in number of votes from 2008 to 2012 beats Romney’s in all states, and in no case did he decrease his number of votes (his smallest gain was 1.5% in Nevada). In states where a generic factor helped all the candidates net a higher absolute number of votes, for example South Carolina’s 35% higher turnout in 2012 than in 2008, the bump Romney got in relative performance still lagged Paul’s. And Romney’s post-Florida run of decreasing his absolute number of voters from 2008 to 2012 — which he extended today in Maine — can’t be blamed on generic external factors: Ron Paul increased his vote totals in all five of those states.

Note: Maine results imputed at 7pm EST based on 95% of returns. Romney’s Iowa change does not show on the chart because his number of votes in Iowa in 2012 was almost equal to his 2008 total

Weekend Film Recommendation: A Perfect Candidate

As we are in the thick of election season, it’s a great time to recommend R.J. Cutler and David Van Taylor’s revealing 1996 documentary “A Perfect Candidate“. The scene is the 1994 Virginia Senate race between incumbent Chuck Robb and challenger Oliver North, which one voter likens to a choice between “the flu and the mumps”. The principal players in the movie are Washington Post report Don Baker and North’s campaign manager Mark Goodin (a Lee Atwater mentee). Their candor and insight are nothing less than disturbing, as this set of clips with Goodin shows.

As the movie unfolds, both campaigns lurch from the trivial to the ugly, and no one comes out looking very good at the end. The fact that the outcome of the election is known in advance by the audience does nothing to limit the fascination this movie generates as it documents how campaigns operate. There is nothing inspiring here about the electoral process, unless it is to inspire us to change it. But that’s why “A Perfect Candidate” is a great documentary: It shows life unvarnished and in an emotionally compelling way. It’s a raw, remarkable must-see film for political junkies and for anyone who wonders why we get the candidates we do in our elections.

The 2012 Democratic platform

Time to start a discussion on it.

In the GOP, there is, or was, a horse-race for the Presidential nomination: strike that as unfair to horses, and the race has been won by the Vulcan ahead of the circus barker and the various escapees from their carers. We know the platform already: soak the poor and the middle class, [update] screw the world, and stiff the future [/update].

On the Democratic side, we know the candidate – the sitting President, barring acts of God or the Queen’s Republic’s enemies. But what’s the platform? Time to get a discussion going. Don’t let the Broderist insiders write it unconstrained.

The aim and working hypothesis has to be a Democratic congressional majority as well as the White House. Without that, all a re-elected President Obama can do is veto attempts to dismantle his legacy, as well as FDR’s and LBJ’s. So the platform has to be a congressional one too. Progressives have real influence here in differential support. They should use their contributions intelligently, funding like-minded PACS and candidates, and not generic party funds. (I declare a non-interest here: as a foreigner I’m not allowed to make political donations).

A few suggestions.
1. The Bush tax cuts
Above all, no pre-emptive cave-in. The cuts must expire in December, and the Republicans don’t have the votes to stop it. Democrats should campaign on the reintroduction of the middle-class component only.
If the platform is honest about long-term fiscal sustainability the reintroduction should be either temporary (2 or 4 years), offset or both. Which brings us to:

2. Climate change
Make a commitment to a 450 ppm cap on the global CO2-eq concentration as a core national interest, to be kept whatever it takes in domestic and foreign policy. The cap should be defined as a step towards a safer long-term 350 ppm (lower than the present). There is no point compromising with denialists on targets – they won’t – so you might as well have the science on your side.
The clever domestic policy here isn’t to reintroduce cap-and-trade, but to copy the Australian model of a carbon tax refunded as tax cuts. So the new carbon tax would finance the middle-class component of the Bush-Obama tax cut.

3. Campaign finance
The GOP strategy for his year’s election, with a weak candidate, is to buy it. In self-defence, the Democrats must put a lid on plutocrat vote-buying after this election, which will be ruinous. So the platform should include:
– legislation imposing the strongest possible limitations compatible with Citizens United;
– a commitment to reverse the decision as wrongly decided, and as a litmus test for future SCOTUS nominations;
– free air time for party political broadcasts, as in Europe.

4. The War on Terror
Declare success (not victory) in the war with the incapacitation of Al Qaeda. Terrorism should revert to being an ordinary crime and chronic, low-level national security problem. Close GITMO, finally.
Obama won’t buy this, so it’s an issue for selective pressure on Congressional candidates.

5. Appointments
Obama’s failure to appoint staff for his administration has been one of his worst failings. He has dithered on nominations out of misplaced perfectionism, and he has weakly let the GOP Senators turn selective scrutiny into systematic sabotage. So Candidate Obama should declare that on January 1, 2013, he will publish a list of nominations to every single vacancy in his Administration requiring Senate confirmation; set a short deadline for up-or-down votes; and declare his intention to appoint anybody not previously voted down at the first recess of Congress. The only exception will be SCOTUS judges.

6. ACA
Defend it to the death.

7. Debt limit
Declare it to be unconstitutional.

8. Rupert Murdoch
Strip him of his citizenship as a criminal phone tapper and polluter of the airwaves, then break up his empire on antitrust grounds. (Allow me one fantasy.)
* * * * *

Any other ideas, or different ones on these topics?

Overestimating Perry, Underestimating Gingrich

For the past half year I have been on the wrong side of received opinion regarding Rick Perry and Newt Gingrich. The day that Governor Perry declared his candidacy, and the punditocracy was at his feet, I expressed doubt that he had what it takes to survive the inferno of a national campaign. This was only half of my isolation. My nadir came in mid-December, when I opined that Newt’s surge was more sustainable than all those that had gone before in the GOP race. The next day his poll numbers plunged, and I experienced the twin pains of having a commenter mock me with “If only you could have held off on this column for 24 more hours…” and having my “Newt Won’t Wilt” post replaced on the coveted masthead spot of Washington Monthly’s web page with my co-blogger Jonathan Bernstein’s post entitled “Newt in Free Fall“. I donned sackcloth and ashes and wandered alone and ashamed in desolate places of which I will not tell.

Now that Andrew Sullivan is handing out “Von Hoffman” awards to those who were sure of a Perry nomination and Gingrich has romped to victory in South Carolina’s primary, I return from pundit purgatory, like Gandalf the White, to ask why so many intelligent political observers didn’t see all this coming.

Perhaps two lessons of political history that once reliably guided expectations about elections are today more likely to mislead. Continue reading “Overestimating Perry, Underestimating Gingrich”

Romney’s Historic Iowa Win

As predicted over two weeks ago by your fearless correspondent, this was an unprecedented victory. The chart below summarizes the performance of the winning candidate for both parties in every contested Iowa caucus in history. Romney’s 2008 performance is also included for comparison with his 2012 results.

Romney “surpassed” Bob Dole to earn the distinction of having the lowest winning share of the vote in the history of the Iowa caucuses. Never has support in a political party been so tepid for its “favorite”. Romney not only set a record by being the first Iowa winner to convince more than three quarters of voters to choose someone else, but also managed to do even worse than he himself did last time around despite four intervening years of hard, expensive campaigning.

There is an African proverb that runs “When mighty elephants fight, it is the humble grass that suffers”. The situation in Iowa was more just: a bunch of second-rate elephants fought, and they themselves suffered, all looking diminished by the process. To quote John Harris and Alexander Burns, “This big moment on history’s stage is being filled by politicians who so far have looked way too small for the occasion”.

Note: Chart Data available here. The GOP did not release vote proportions prior to 1980.

Mitt Romney: Running to Stand Still

The weak field of GOP candidates is still on track to produce an Iowa winner with the lowest vote share of any winning candidate from either major party in the history of the caucuses. Historical comparisons of Iowa performance are even more unflattering if they are made specifically about Governor Romney.

In 2008, Romney secured 25.2% of the votes in the GOP Iowa Caucuses. He has been running hard for the intervening four years, spending tens of millions of dollars, giving hundreds of speeches and interviews and logging thousands of hours of retail campaigning. The result? The proportion of Iowa caucus-goers who support him today is even lower than it was in 2008.

In trying to explain why, against all evidence, some GOP players keep talking up the possibility of a “savior” candidate entering the race after Iowa, most people have focused on conservative fears that Romney is a closet moderate. But the smartest people in the GOP must surely also be worried for a more prosaic reason: No matter what Romney says (and clearly he will say anything), no matter how much he spends, no matter how hard he campaigns and no matter how many press-the-flesh events he holds, he just can’t get many voters to like him. If Romney were my horse in a race against a politician as skilled as Barack Obama, I’d be fantasizing about a deus ex machina candidate too.

Worth two thousand words

Alan Abramowitz’ proof that there is no such thing as an “anti-incumbent” election that sweeps out incumbents from both parties–in 2000 words and two charts, and the charts are quite literally worth two thousand words.

There’s been recent speculation that 2012 will be a double or even “triple-flip” election. In this scenario control of the Presidency, the House, and the Senate would all (or two out of three) change party hands in opposite directions, giving us President Romney and Speaker Pelosi (and maybe Senate Majority Leader McConnell). The scenario presupposes an anti-incumbent election in which disgust with government and the economy is so acute that voters throw the bums out indiscriminately.

Alan Abramowitz, demolishing the idea, uses almost exactly two thousand words. But in confirmation of the cliché, I’m happy to ignore the words and simply reproduce instead his two perfect scatterplots (data sources left out of the graphics below, but in original).

For the House, here are Democratic and Republican incumbent losses, by year:















And for the Senate:
















We are done here. Time to move on.

(h/t: John Sides at The Monkey Cage)

Is America a Conservative Country?

That’s what pundits would have you believe, that we’re a “center-right” nation, that Reaganism is deep in the electorate’s bones, yadda yadda yadda.  But does the data bear it out?  Well, no.


James A. Stimson is a political scientist at the UNC-Chapel Hill, and one of the most well-respected public opinion researchers in the nation.  For years, he has developed a factor analysis of public opinion, developing a measure of the public’s ideological “mood”: the higher the number, the more liberal the public is.  Here is his most recent plot:

Does This Look Like a Reagan Revolution to You?


Whatever this graph tells us, it certainly belies the notion that Reaganism has had a major impact on US public opinion.  Currently, the public’s “mood” lies somewhere between 57 and 58, slightly above its level in 1972, and far above where it stood in 1981, the apex of the Reagan era.  Indeed, if anything, it shows that as soon as the public got a taste of the Gipper, it turned sharply in the other direction, as it did when George W. Bush was appointed by the Supreme Court.  That doesn’t mean that Reagan came from nowhere: the 70’s represented a sharp rightward shift.  Ditto with Gingrich ascendancy, which essentially caught up with great conservatism in the 1990’s.

Note well, however, that current opinion is not even close to the heights of conservatism, and is closer if anything to the Great Society of the mid-60’s and Nixonian liberalism of the early 70’s.  So this is a period when the public mood is somewhat sympathetic to progressivism.

Why during such a period the Right has been successful at framing and dominating the policy debate is an exercise left to the reader.


Newt Won’t Wilt, Reprise

Last week I wrote that Newt Gringrich was different than the prior GOP surge-and-burn crowd (Bachmann, Cain and Perry) because he has long experience in the national spotlight and would not make the high-profile stumbles that brought down his largely untested opponents. As I expected, Newt indeed hasn’t wilted under the kleig lights. But as I didn’t expect, he’s crashing in the Iowa polls anyway.

Steve Benen also finds Newt’s fate intriguing:

What I find interesting about Gingrich’s precipitous fall is how different it is from the other former frontrunners. Bachmann, Perry, and Cain were each riding high for a short while, but were brought down by self-inflicted wounds — gaffes, awful debate performances, controversial policy positions, and in Cain’s case, sex scandals. Gingrich’s collapse is very different. The former Speaker didn’t do anything in particular to derail his chances…

Maybe nothing in particular about each individual frontrunner is causing this remarkably fast cycle of GOP rise-and-fall candidacies. Whenever any of them gets sustained media attention about who they are and what they believe, a large portion of the electorate learns that they don’t like this latest frontrunner too much either. It’s another indication that we are looking at the weakest field of candidates the GOP has fielded in a generation or more, and the voters in Iowa know it.