Friday, September 28, 2012

The first debate: What to expect

The University of Denver is hosting the first of this year's presidential debates this coming Wednesday. It's a thrilling, if rather disorienting, time on campus right now, but I thought I'd take a few moments to sum up what we might expect to see.

First of all, some quick obligatory notes. Debates rarely make much of a difference in election outcomes, although given that this is a pretty close election, a two-point bump in one direction or the other could be important. Debates can do other things, though, like increase people's knowledge of or interest in particular issues, or help set an agenda for the rest of the campaign cycle. Also, while it's probably not the case that JFK beat Nixon on TV but lost on radio, the medium is itself important in affecting people's perceptions of the debate.

Okay, with that out of the way, what can we expect to see Wednesday night? On that point, I'd strongly recommend reading James Fallows' analysis of Romney's and Obama's debating styles. He suggests that Romney may be the stronger debater (and has a lot more recent experience), but that he has a key weakness -- he falls apart on topics for which he's unprepared. So Obama's whole approach will be trying to find the issue or approach for which Romney isn't ready, trying to get him to make one of his "$10,000"-style gaffes.

My impression is that the debate is a higher-stakes event for Romney. He is trailing pretty significantly in the recent polls, and given how few people are still available to convert and that voting has already begun in some states, he doesn't have a lot of time to change things around. And if he's going to change things around, the first debate -- which will likely have the largest audience of any political event this fall -- is the time to do it. Obama, conversely, can win by not losing. So while both men are pretty careful and cautious debaters and not given to particularly rash outbursts, I'd guess that Romney will take a few chances on Wednesday and generally be the aggressor.

This first debate will deal exclusively with domestic politics, which largely means the economy. This is the issue that's supposed to be Obama's weak spot, although interestingly, it hasn't proven fatal to his reelection campaign -- a fact that's been somewhat disorienting for Romney. Of course, that doesn't mean Obama isn't vulnerable on the topic, and Romney will have plenty of ammunition for making a case that the economy has been underperforming on Obama's watch.

While Romney is trying to tear the president down, he will also likely be trying to rehabilitate his own image. There's some reasonable evidence accruing that Romney's "47%" comments are a big part of the reason that he's been losing ground to Obama recently. So Romney's approach in the debate will likely be in part to show that he's more compassionate toward poorer people than he sounded at that fundraiser, and in part to argue that, regardless of who's more compassionate, his plan will do more to help them.

Again, these two are pretty skilled and cautious people. I'm not expecting any sort of "You're no Jack Kennedy" moment from them. But given how much ground Romney still has to make up, I'd expect him to throw the most punches.

I make some of these points in an interview I did recently with Lance Gould of the Huffington Post. You can see this below.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Scare tactics from Dr. Koger

It's just a lot of fear-mongering and demagoguery.

The bacon "shortage" that Greg posted about yesterday turns out to be at best a bunch of interest group hype. It's a non-problem in search of a solution. There's nothing to be afraid of.

Kind of like government mind-control, autism-causing vaccines, or rampant voter fraud.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Swing Voter For Sale: Bacon Edition

The worst news of the week: Britain's National Pig Association, "the voice of the British pig industry," issued a report predicting a shrinking supply of bacon and increasing prices over the next year. This report has been out for over 24 hours, but I have not either Presidential candidate spell out a plan for dealing with this crisis. How are we going to close the global bacon gap?

Take a long last look...

In an effort to force politicians to deal with the looming porcine cliff, I am hereby renouncing any prior decisions I had made to vote for a Presidential candidate. I am now a single-issue uncommitted voter living in the most important state in the union: Florida. The candidate with the best bacon policy wins my vote. Let the bidding begin.

Readers, feel free to offer suggested policy remedies for the candidates. Bonus points if your solution corresponds to the opposing campaign's caricature of a candidate.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

The person is not more important than the party.

This week, Michael Charney, a moderate Republican, floated the idea that Romney's attitude toward the 47% who pay no federal income tax perhaps indicates that the Republican nominee is not up to the task of running the country. And so Charney now says he is rethinking his vote in 2012:

Just to be clear: That doesn’t mean I’m not a Republican anymore. But, for me, the person asking for my vote is just as important as the party demanding it.

From the MOF point of view, I want to say, no Michael, don't give in. You want a Republican administration, so vote for the Republican. The person is not even close to as important as the party. Not even close.

Why? Whoever is at the top of the ticket matters a lot, sure, but you can be sure that the rest of the administration will be filled with people from the same party. A party is a coalition. Just as finding the "real Romney" is a fool's errand, so is insisting that the personality at the top of the ticket be the most importand thing you care about. You have a choice in November between two broad coalitions. One is left-leaning and will pay some attention to progressives but will also bring in moderates of various stripes. The other is right-leaning and will be responsive to the Tea Party and to moderate Republicans. That's your choice in November. It's so true that if some wizard blinked and Obama was the Republican candidate and Romney the Democratic candidate, I would switch my vote to stay with my party.

Now, Charney and others may respond, reasonably, that they think the orientation of the parties around their current ideologies is too messed up, and so fighting that orientation is job number one. Charney likes the term "consiberal," which I think is a muddy concept, but I guess what he's getting at is that he doesn't want a Republican Party that is orientated around "conservatism" as an ideology, but something else. Which is simply to say that he (and many others) want a Republican Party that is a coalition with slightly different members, or with a different balance of power among those members.

And if you want that, there are two things you can do:

First, you can try to shape your party's coalition, most prominently in the choice of its presidential candidates (but also all the way down the ladder). Because pace what I said three paragraphs up, if the top of the ticket is important. It's even worth fighting over, because it defines the direction of the national administration, if nothing more. But the time for fighting that fight has passed. The choice in November is not about the balance of power within the party, it's about which party you want.

Second, you can rethink whether the coalition you have long considered yourself a part of is not the coalition you want to stick with. That's harder. But if the problem is that a candidate who thinks people who pay no federal income tax are moochers just doesn't represent what you want, then maybe the Republican Party is not for you. After all, it's not that Romney had an extreme record before running for office. It's the party that is pulling him to this position. 

So I take it back. Maybe Charney should change his vote, precisely because the party is more important than the person.

Friday, September 21, 2012

The hunt for the "real" Romney

A while back I posted about the futile search for the "real" Barack Obama, and I suggested that his true identity wasn't a secret. We see him governing every day, and he's not about to change his behavior after getting reelected/the 2014 midterms/becoming a lame duck, etc.

I feel quite similarly about efforts to divine the "true" Mitt Romney. Is he the centrist he was when he governed Massachusetts, just acting conservative to keep favor with Republican activists? Did his "47%" comments reveal his true colors, showing him to be a hardcore Ayn Randian who was just faking it back in the Bay State?

To me, these pursuits are a bit silly. Mitt Romney is a politician. (Note: That is a line of work, not an insult.) That means he attempts to manage coalitions, and the coalition he dealt with in Massachusetts is very different from the one he's dealing with today. He is currently trying to keep together people who want lower taxes for CEOs, people who want abortion providers jailed, and people who wear tricorn hats with Lipton bags hanging from them. These people do not all see eye to eye. But Romney is trying to keep them in his tent while winning over some more moderate senior citizens, suburban homemakers, and others.

As for his 47% comments, yes, that was a closed-door event, but that doesn't mean he was revealing his "true" preferences to that group while deceiving everyone outside. That was a campaign appearance like any other. While it was, in my opinion, foolish for him to believe that no one outside the event would ever hear his words, we don't really know whether that's the key to knowing how he would govern as president.

As president, Romney's decisions would be molded by the exact same forces that are molding his campaign. Yes, there would be pressure on him to moderate his policies to remain popular, but there are pressures on him now to do the same thing, and he's largely resisting them. He appears more concerned about offending the right than he does about offending the center, and there's no reason to believe he'd behave differently as president. This is not a criticism of him or a claim about who he truly is at his core; it is just an acknowledgment that Romney is, like any politician, a product of party and circumstance.

Now, understanding the psychology of a presidential candidate can certainly be an interesting and enjoyable pursuit. Mitt Romney, according to Nate Silver, has about a 1 in 4 chance of being elected president in November; that puts his chances way ahead of those of everyone else in the world, save Obama. That in itself makes Romney an interesting person. Beyond that, he's had a pretty interesting life. Learning what makes him tick is potentially worthwhile. But it won't help us understand his policy or political decisions, and it won't lead us to discover who is truly is. We can see who he truly is every day.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Party polarization as seen through two Romney gaffes

In the past week, Mitt Romney has committed two fairly substantial gaffes with strikingly different responses by his campaign. (Yes, I recognize the word "gaffe" means different things to different people. For these purposes, let's just say that a gaffe is an unnecessary utterance that forced the campaign off message for some considerable time period.)
  1. Last Sunday, Romney suggested that he'd maintain certain aspects of ACA, including the guarantee that insurance companies can't deny people coverage for preexisting conditions.
  2. On Tuesday, Romney used an attack on U.S. embassies in Egypt and Libya as an opportunity to criticize Obama and suggest that the president was sympathizing with the attackers and apologizing for American values.
Now, needless to say, any presidential candidate is going to make mistakes. Anyone who spends that much time in front of a microphone with so much disorienting travel and so little real sleep is just bound to mess up once in a while. But what I found striking was the different reaction to these two statements by the Romney campaign.

On the ACA issue, the campaign walked back Romney's statement within a few hours, trying to reassure people that his stance on health care since the primaries (Repeal Obamacare -- full stop) hadn't changed. The campaign calculated that the candidate moderating his stance on a major campaign issue would be more damaging than making him look wishy-washy for a day.

The campaign's approach to the embassy attack comments, however, has been the complete opposite. Romney re-stated and even ramped up his rhetoric on the topic the next day. Then a staffer further suggested that the attacks in Cairo and Benghazi wouldn't even have happened if a strong leader like Mitt Romney were in the White House. All this happened even while some prominent Republicans were publicly calling Romney's utterances a serious mistake.

Why the different responses? Why did Romney's campaign rapidly correct him in the first case but rally to reinforce him in the second? I believe it has something to do with the fact that, in the first case, Romney moved to the left, while in the second, Romney moved to the right. The first is seen as a problem; the second not so much.

This would seem to defy the median voter theorem, but then so much of modern American politics regularly does that. The calculation on Romney's part may be that the people in the middle of the ideological spectrum are not paying close attention to events in North Africa right now; they're still obsessed with the economy and probably won't notice if Romney has grown too hawkish for them. The people on the right, however, are much more attentive to political news (as ideologically extreme people tend to be), and while he won't alienate many of them for being to hawkish, he could really lose them if he goes squishy on health care, especially given his past with this issue. Even if Romney's campaign is somewhat less a group of party people than other recent presidential campaigns, the fear of offending the right, and the relative lack of fear of offending the middle, nonetheless remains the norm.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Party links

Too much material and too little time for a respectable blog post. Some links will have to do.

  • Jonathan Bernstein wants the lesson of Romney's missing bounce to be that you shouldn't base a convention around an out-of-context quote or have one of your nominees lie repeatedly. Oh, and a nice description of most of the the GOP convention speeches: "Their main complaint about Obama wasn't that he ruined their businesses; it was that he didn't properly respect their success."
  • John Sides says debates usually don't matter. Except, of course, the one that DU will be hosting on October 3rd.
  • A great app for real-time polling on the presidential debates in the classroom.
  • Good reminder from Jamelle Bouie: John Kerry out-performed the fundamentals in 2004. We tend to recall him as a crappy candidate because that's how we usually rationalize electoral loses. In fact, he was quite strong, particularly in the first debate. (Also, kudos to Kerry for mentioning Rocky IV in his DNC address this year.)
  • Really, really interesting interview with Michael Grunwald about the stimulus. Obama, he argues, fulfilled a very large number of campaign promises through that one piece of legislation.
  • Sasha Issenberg on why campaign reporters have such a hard time covering campaign strategists.
  • My favorite photo of the campaign thus far.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Did Dirty Harry kill Romney's bounce?

There's some sort of emerging consensus that Romney got either a very small bounce out of the Republican convention or no bounce at all, underperforming his predicted 3.6% bounce. People seem to be explaining this result by saying that the Republican convention just wasn't that good -- the speeches were lackluster, the policy claims were vague, Ryan lied, etc. That may be true, but here's another thought: it's Clint Eastwood's fault.

Here's my thinking: the audiences for the conventions, while much larger than we've seen for any other event thus far in the election cycle, are still dominated by partisans. That is, the viewers are very unlikely to change their vote preferences because of rhetoric or performance. In order for a bounce to occur, the message of what happened at the convention has to get out to people who didn't watch the event live. This transmission occurs via TV and newspaper coverage, but also via water cooler talk the next day.

So what was everyone talking about the day after Romney's nomination acceptance speech? Not his speech, to be sure. They were talking about Eastwood's bit of performance art. The final day of a convention is typically all about the presidential nominee. While Romney's speech may have not been the strongest speech ever delivered by a nominee, it certainly portrayed him in a flattering light, and some discussion of that the next day might have done him some good. Instead, it left him bounceless.

"I'll bet you had a nice view of the convention
from behind your desk, Chief."

Thursday, September 6, 2012

The Value of a Platform

As the two major parties’ conventions get wrapped up this week, there has been some attention in the media to the parties’ platforms. Political parties use their conventions to adopt platforms, or manifestos, that outline the major policy positions and priorities of their organizations.  The 2012 Democratic platform is here, and the Republicans’ is here. If Americans spend some time wondering why we still have party conventions, when the nomination of the major candidates’ is accomplished through localized primary contests, they are likely even more bewildered about the purpose of party platforms.

In some other countries, platforms serve as a mechanism by which voters learn about candidates.  Candidates are actually beholden to their parties’ platforms, and voters have confidence that candidates will adopt policy positions consistent with their parties’ platforms. But in the U.S. candidates have no such responsibility. Candidates run candidate-centered campaigns, where the candidate is free to mold policy positions to the shape (s)he believe is consistent with constituents’ preferences. Political parties in the U.S. have incentives to allow candidates to do their own thing, because more than anything, the party wants its candidates to get (re)elected.

So, if candidates are not beholden to the parties’ platforms, what purpose do they serve? Hundreds of organized interests groups spend incredible resources to try to influence the content of the platforms, but why? It can’t be because they think it will affect candidates’ policy positions. Rather, if an interest group successfully can influence the content of a party platform, it’s a national victory that the group can point to. It may not be a policy victory. But it’s an organizational victory for the group. The group can claim a victory to its membership. In a political world where policy victories are few, far between, and diluted, groups need victories of other sorts to demonstrate their efficacy, leadership, and worth to their membership. Victories that aid in group organization and maintenance are not unimportant victories.

So it makes sense that groups would fight hard to get “their” language in a platform. And while party leaders understand that the platform is not really about candidates, or winning over voters, they have a great responsibility in crafting the platform. Since the audience of platforms is the organized groups that associate with the parties (think unions and social rights organizations for Democrats, and business and civil liberties advocates for Republicans), rather than the average voter, we expect that platforms tend to be more ideologically extreme  than the median of the party.

As groups jostle with each other for a plank on a platform, the party leaders are in charge of drafting the language. When should we expect a group to successfully get its language on a platform?  Gina Reinhardt and I conducted research to answer this question. You can find the paper here. We look at the Democratic platforms of 1996, 2000, and 2004 and conduct content analysis on the transcripts of the testimony that interest groups gave to the platform writing committee.  By comparing what groups asked for to what they got (i.e., the final platform), we can determine the conditions under which groups are able to successfully influence the platform. At the outset we hypothesize that group with more resources, with greater party loyalty, and that are ideologically closer to the party will be more likely to influence the platform. Our results show that loyal and ideologically similar groups can influence platform language, but that groups’ resources have no effect. Groups are not “buying” their way into the Democrats’ platforms, and Democrats are not using their platforms to “pander” to big groups. We attempted to conduct this research on Republican platforms as well, but we were unable to get the testimony and transcripts.

Party platforms are insider politics. But that doesn’t make them an unimportant part of the political process.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

The asymmetric ground game

[See update below]

A few years ago I did a study looking at the use of field offices by the Obama and McCain campaigns in 2008. One of the findings was that Obama was absolutely overwhelming McCain in the establishment of field offices. (The Obama folks established over 700 offices nationwide, compared to fewer than 400 for the McCain team.) I had assumed that this difference was the result of Obama having so much more money to spend.

But look at what's happening this year. I went through the campaign websites (here and here) to tally up the number of field offices in the 11 swing states I examined for my paper. Romney has no shortage of money, but Obama's field offices outnumber Romney's in each state.*  

I had figured earlier that these differences were a result of the fact that Obama just had an early head start while Romney was still slugging it out in the primaries, but by this late date, I'm not so sure. It seems more like the campaigns have different philosophies when it comes to deploying campaign resources, with the Romney folks believing they can win in the air and the Obama folks believing this will be won on the ground.

It may also be that field offices are a better investment for Democrats than for Republicans. (Notably, my paper found that Obama's 2008 field offices helped him win in a few states, while McCain's didn't help him nearly as much.) Democrats traditionally turn out at lower rates than Republicans; perhaps the field offices can help Democrats mitigate that. Also, field offices may be vital for Democrats in overcoming new voter ID laws by communicating voting requirement information directly to voters.

*I'm not sure what's going on with Indiana. I find it unlikely that Romney's team actually has no offices there at all. This could be a record-keeping problem.

Update on 9/4/12: I'm not sure what happened since last week, but I now can't confirm that either campaign has a presence in Indiana. I've updated the chart above to reflect that.