Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Why not evaluate the candidates on their responses to crises?

Frida Ghitis writes an odd column for CNN urging voters not to take Hurricane Sandy and its aftermath into consideration when casting a vote in the presidential election. As evidence for why such voting is wrongheaded, she offers examples of national leaders in Thailand, Japan, Peru, and Chile attracting a great deal of support during crises but then losing or resigning in disgrace later. This is supposed to suggest that the leaders we choose in a crisis are not necessarily those that are best for our country; they're just particularly good at exploiting crises for political gain.

But all Ghitis has described here is a rally effect. Even a particularly corrupt leader can become popular during a crisis by virtue of the opposition declining to criticize him or her for a while. Later, when the country is trying to rebuild after the tragedy, there is usually plenty of fodder for criticism. Bridges are being rebuilt in some places rather than others. Certain construction companies and certain unions are being hired to do the building, and some aren't. Some roads are getting repaired before others are. So criticism returns, and the leader doesn't look as popular anymore. If the tragedy causes the nation's economy to slip, or if it just slips on its own anyway, the leader will look even worse. On top of that, voters may ultimately blame a leader for an "act of God" like a storm or an earthquake. It's not necessarily that the crisis caused voters to be swayed into voting for an incompetent or corrupt fool. It's just that crises can cause short-term benefits and long-term headaches for leaders.

Beyond that, why dissuade voters from evaluating the candidates at a time like this? This is a moment when action by the federal government is (nearly) universally regarded as being necessary. Is it not appropriate to consider how the president is actually administering it? And what would be better to consider? Debate performance? Likability? "Vision"? I'd say that the economy would be important, and voters actually do consider that, but the president has a far greater direct impact on disaster relief than he does on economic growth.

One side point: Ghitis says that "voters must make a superhuman effort to not let the storm carry any more weight than it deserves in their judgment of politicians." Why ask people to do something superhuman?

(via Andrew Waugh)

Update: Ghitis contacted me via Twitter and argued that I mischaracterized her article as urging voters to completely ignore the storm, when she just wanted voters to keep it in perspective. Did I mischaracterize the article? Well, I must observe that the title of the piece, "Don't Let Superstorm Sway Your Vote," really does suggest that voters should ignore the storm when voting, but I don't know that Ghitis wrote that title. (It is perennially unfair that writers have to own the titles that they usually do not write.) She also says in her piece that "much of what we see the candidates doing at this very moment amounts to political theater," which I took as highly dismissive of any statements or actions the candidates are making with regards to the storm.

All that said, Ghitis does write the following, which is important:
The storm and its aftermath do matter. We want a president who is competent and capable, able to guide the country through a crisis. But there is more. A presidency is more than crisis management.
I certainly agree with that statement. In some ways, governing during a crisis is easy -- the world contains only innocent victims and unambiguous evil, and people stop criticizing you for a little while. Presidents should also be judged by the decisions they make during quieter times when the answers are less obvious and the lines not so neatly drawn.

But I didn't take that as the thrust of Ghitis' piece. To me, the argument was that evaluating candidates based on performance in a crisis can lead to highly undesirable results, as was evidenced by the numerous examples she cited. So I may have oversimplified her argument or failed to give adequate acknowledgment of the totality of what she wrote (and if so, I regret that), but I don't think I mischaracterized it as a whole.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Storm links

Best wishes to all who are dealing with Hurricane Sandy and its aftermath. The images coming out of New York and New Jersey are unbelievable, and I hope all are safe and soon able to return to something like normal life. Two of my co-bloggers were in the storm's path, and remarkably neither of them was the guy in Florida. Be safe, everyone.

At any rate, here are a few items that have popped up recently, some related to the storm, some not.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Are you better off now?

Why did the Republicans decide to make the question "Are you better off now than you were four years ago?" a central theme to their national convention this year? Isn't this a bit odd, since the economy was in free-fall four years ago, and clearly isn't today? That may be true, but the voters aren't buying it. As I argue in this YouGov piece, voters' four-year retrospection is harsher than their current assessment of the economy. This is true for Romney supporters, Obama supporters, and independents:
For more details, see here.

Friday, October 26, 2012

The Equilibrium of Campaign Finance

When the Supreme Court announced its decision in Citizens United v. FEC in 2010, the reaction was hyperbolic.  The New York Times lead read:
“The Supreme Court has handed lobbyists a new weapon. A lobbyist can now tell any elected official: if you vote wrong, my company, labor union or interest group will spend unlimited sums explicitly advertising against your re-election.” (NYT, Jan 21, 2010)

In Citizens, the Supreme upheld the longtime ban on direct campaign contributions from corporations or unions, but said that these entities could use First Amendment protections to engage in unlimited speech for or against candidates, as long as it is remained uncoordinated with campaigns.  Shortly after, the Federal Court ruling in v. FEC, in conjunction with the Citizens United ruling, gave rise to what have become known as “superpacs,” or organizations whose sole purpose is to spend money on behalf of a candidate or campaign in an independent and uncoordinated way. What distinguishes a superpac from a regular PAC (political action committee)? Contributions to superpacs are unlimited, whereas contributions to corporate, union, and other organizations’ PACs are limited to $5,000.

Independent expenditures were predicted to explode, and they have.  The graph below shows the change in independent expenditures over the last several election cycles.  Clearly, Citizens United (and SpeechNow) have had an effect.  Note that superpacs account for about half of all independent expenditures.

Given that President Obama raised about $745 million for his 2008 presidential bid (breaking all previous records), the question of the day quickly became: what will be the relative difference in candidate and independent spending in the 2012 elections?

I even went so far as to wonder whether this would be the first election in history where outside money would surpass what the candidate’s themselves spent on the election. [Spoiler Alert: it’s not.]

With a little less than two weeks to go, I thought I’d look at the data.  A quick glance at the data from the Federal Election Commission, nicely summarized by the folks at the Center for Responsive Politics (, shows that spending has been fierce, and it seems like President Obama again has the edge. Independent expenditures have been high, but the candidates are doing quite a bit of individual fundraising.  President Obama has raised over $500,000,000 for his cause.  The graph below shows how much the candidates have spent (as of Oct. 25, 2012) individually, and the independent groups for and against them.  It seems like Obama is getting all the attention here.
However, it strikes me that the coding here is odd.  Shouldn't we count money spent against Obama as money for Romney, and vice-versa (money spent against Romney as being for Obama)?  After all, an anti-Romney add, is really a pro-Obama ad, right?

If we adjust the data for this coding and look at how much money the candidates and outside groups have spent so far, it looks like this:

And there you have it.  There is a near perfect parity between the candidates.  What Romney lacks in individual campaign contributions, he makes up for with pro-Romney/anti-Obama independent group spending.  And for the liberals who worry that the President is under undue attack by the conservative superpacs, it turns out he makes up for it in individual contributions. 

It seems to me the edge here is still for Obama for two reasons.  One is that he has more cash on hand (unspent raised funds) than Romney (about $100 million versus $63 million).  The other is that since more of the Obama money comes from the campaign, the campaign has better control over how it is spent and where.  This allows the campaign to have better control over messaging and strategy.

I should note that these totals include pro- and anti-Romney money spent during the primary, so it’s not quite true that there is perfect parity in the general election financing.  A more detailed analysis of the FEC filings would be needed to parse out the primary spending; presumably this would also show a slight edge for Obama in the general election.

Whatever else is said about the fallout from Citizens and Speechnow, it turns out that in the 2012 presidential race the new rules have resulted in an even fight, from a financing perspective.

**[Author’s Note: I posted this blog entry yesterday, briefly, and then took it down because of a concern about the correct interpretation of the data posted on I have since verified that my interpretation is correct.]