Thursday, October 30, 2008

Can We Trust the Polls?

Which polls do we believe in when there is so much variance in the results? The polls are volatile now because we really don't have a good metric for assessing the elusive category pollsters call "likely voters," a category especially difficult to define in a year with so many new voter registrations are from demographics - youth (71%) and blacks (25%) - who have not typically turned out to vote in significant numbers.

As think-thanks and universities seeking a public profile are jumping on the polling bandwagon, as are new PR companies and media outlets with their own agendas, we are better off over-weighting the results from the gold-standard of the polling establishment, Gallup.

In only one time in the history of polling has a candidate won the election after trailing in the Gallup poll in the week before election. The candidate was Ronald Reagan. The reason why Reagan soared in the final week of October in 1980 was because of his strong debate performance. Without a similar event occuring in 2008, a reversal and repudiation of the polls would be unprecedented and improbable.

Forecasting science is more science than art or ideology. If politicians didn't believe in polls they wouldn't be commissioning them. It is the job of pundits to spin the interpretation of polls, as it is the job of partisans to manipulate the nature of the sample size. But if done well, polls can tell us rather precisely what we think. And since 1/3 of the electorate will vote before Nov 4, these polls are indicating how early voters are voting.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The State of the Presidential Race

1. A new WSJ poll shows Obama up by 10 points. Tucked away on p. 26 (Question 28a) of this report is a significant finding: when asked which two factors most bothered poll respondents about John McCain's candidacy, 34% thought that "his vice presidential running mate is not qualified to be president" and 23% thought that "he would continue George W. Bush's policies." Unbelievably, Palin has turned out to be a heavier mill stone on McCain's neck than George Bush. If Palin Effect > Bradley Effect, McCain shall be hoisted by his own petard.

(Palin is also a comedian's Nirvana. When asked by a third-grader today what the role of the VP was, she said: "They're in charge of the United States Senate." Priceless.)

2. CO + VA = FL or OH

It has come to that. A luxurious electoral map with many avenues to 270 for Obama, and a shrinking map for McCain. It has been a long time that a Democrat candidate has dared comtemplate electoral victory without FL or OH. Even as Obama is slightly ahead in both states, it now appears that he does not need them.

McCain on the other hand is trying to persuade Plumber Joes in PA to stick with him. Things are so dire that McCain is fighting for his political life in a must-win "battleground" state that has Obama up 11 points.

McCain is too focussed on a Karl Rovian state-by-state strategy. Granted the way to the White House is through the electoral college, but this conventional wisdom is really only relevant in close races such as in 2000 and 2004. McCain needs to narrow the national poll numbers so that he can regain competitive status in a a number of states (WV, MN, MT and ND - all of which have Obama up by at least 5 points now). That means move away from the pander-to-Plumber-Joe strategy. McCain is being blind-sighted by a piecemeal state-by-state strategy when Obama has wisely played (and been fortunate enough to be able to play) a 50 state strategy and a national message. Focused on the tree, McCain has lost sight of the forest.

3. If this will turn out to be a landslide electon (at least in terms of the electoral college), it will emerge because of the incredible voter registration effort and the ground turn-out operation of the Obama campaign. In the caucus states, in the West, and in the South, Team Obama is welcoming millions of people into political action. This is how he has established leads in places like NM, CO, and VA - not merely by changing the minds of existing voters, but the big gains are really coming from drawing unregistered or disaffected voters back into the public sphere.

For years scholars have debated the relative importance of high turnout and a maximally participatory democracy, with Bruce Ackerman at Yale arguing that low turnout during routine years are OK, as long as "We the People" turn out in huge numbers in critical moments in American history to fulfill their civic duty and to redefine the direction of national politics. 2008 may be one such year.

(Obama's lead is in the 18-34 age group, where he is outpolling McCain by over 30 points. None of these people were alive during the Vietnam war, when McCain earned his credentials as a patriotic war veteran. The Democratic party, in picking Obama over Clinton, representing the old Democratic parry, has registered its desire to move on from the debilitating debates over Vietnam, race, and labor relations. That is why McCain's war record isn't affecting Obama's lead, it is why the Ayers connection as well as the socialism charge have remained politically stillborn. These are old attacks tangential to the new direction of liberalism in our time.)

Tragically, McCain's best chance of turning all this around is to focus on voter supression.

4. There is also a darker tale to be told if Obama wins. The truth is much that is going on now would not have been possible without the formidable coffers of the Obama campaign and the emerging techniques of fundraising via the internet. If picking Palin was McCain's biggest mis-step this campaign season, watch out for an emerging conventional wisdom in a few weeks that a future presidential candidate who does not opt out of public financing will do so at his/her own peril.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

The Rehabilitation of Liberalism

Whatever happens at the polls in two weeks, the pendulum has swung back in Liberalism's direction. Economically, culturally, and ideologically, liberal answers are regaining legitimacy.

After all, even though the Democratic party nominated a liberal anti-war candidate over a more moderate establishment canditate this year, and the Republicans turned to a maverick with a reputation for bi-partisanship, the Democratic candidate is ahead in practically every battleground state that George Bush won in 2004.

How quickly times have changed. Whereas John Kerry was swiftboated in 2004, Obama (like Reagan) is developing Teflon powers as he continues to ride his surge in the polls despite stories about Jeremiah Wright, Bill Ayers, and ACORN. When terrorism was issue number one, people preferred a Republican president; but when the economy becomes issue number one, people prefer a Democratic president.

This is why Sarah Palin's charge that "'spreading the wealth' sounds a little like socialism" isn't getting much traction. Spreading the wealth sounds like sharing the wealth, and these days such thoughts aren't all that unpopular. After all, the Bush administration's decision to obtain equity stakes in several private banks in return for a liquidity injection isn't exactly laissez faire.

Culturally, the country appears to have moved on from those culture wars we heard so much about just four years ago. Just this year, the California and Connecticut Supreme Courts' decisions to legalize same-sex marriage and the lackluster response from the conservative community indicates the shifting cultural tectonics. Abortion isn't such a hot button issue this year either. Anti-abortion Catholics have endorsed Obama in significant numbers. If anything, McCain's selection of a running mate who will not make an exception to her pro-life position for rape and incest reveals a campaign completely in illusion about where the country is culturally. McCain's contempy for the "health" exception for women will seriously damage his chances with women. (What is the point of picking Sarah Palin to try to attract Hillary Clinton's supporters only to repel them thricefold with a dismissive remark like that?)

We also see the ideological shift in cross-party endorsements for Obama. Breaking a century and a half year old tradition, the Chicago Tribune has endorsed Barack Obama. Christopher Buckley's defection is both substantially and symbolically powerful, as were the endorsements of Chuck Hagel and Richard Lugar. And now Colin Powell has joined the bandwagon, characterizing Obama as a "transformational" leader. The last time we saw such language being used to describe a potential president was during the landslide and realigning elections of 1932 and 1980.

In the following days to come, Republicans will push back to insist that this is still a "center-right" country - as Karl Rove and Charles Krauthhammer have done - and they will try to remind Americans that Democratic control of all branches of government may not be a good idea. But if the result of the White House race is still unclear, no one doubts that the Democrats will strengthen their majorities in both the House and the Senate. Average Joe, the median independent voter has moved to the Left of Plumber Joe, the median Republican voter. It may be time to excavate "liberal" and "liberalism" from the dictionary of political incorrectness.

Friday, October 17, 2008

The Third Debate

John McCain was at his best this third debate. He was fighting tooth and nail to change the game, and so the base loved it. But Obama's momentum is so strong now that pundits are losing their objectivity, and unwilling to concede that Obama really wasn't all that spectacular in this debate. He didn't slip up, but I'm not sure that his performance merited the 20 point victory that polls are assigning him. For better or worse, democracy and public opinion polls institutionalize herd-mentality. The stampede is headed Left.

Joe the Plumber was at the heart of his debate. Not Average Joe, mind you, but Plumber Joe; registered Republican white male voter living in Ohio. Yes, the precise demographic the McCain campaign is scrambling to retain as the Obama machine wages war all over the electoral map. Not content with a ten point lead in Virginia - a state that has not gone Democratic since 1964 - and a tie in North Carolina, now there is talk of the Obama campaign moving resources into West Virginia and back to Georgia. This is a relentless, aggressive, war machine looking not for a victory, but a routing. Forced to defend his base at every turn, Senator McCain has scarcely spent any time addressing or courting independents this election season. Cornered and embattled, the McCain campaign has not many ways left to 270. His fate is akin to threading a needle, as Karl Rove put it in the Wall Street Journal.

Contingency may well be all McCain can hope for now. The fundamentals are in place - an unpopular Republican president, an unpopular war, and an economic crisis - a toxic trifecta that even Karl Rove, Mark Hanna, and Martin Van Buren ("the magician") combined cannot make disappear.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

What McCain is Doing Wrong

This is a Democratic year, so an argument can be made that because John McCain is fortune's knave, he just has no chance this year.

But he's definitely not helping his cause. This is a time when Americans are looking at the plunging Dow Jones, their pocket books and their 401k accounts, and the McCain campaign is talking about Bill Ayers? This is suicide for the campaign, and when all is said and done, the Republican party will have to do some soul-searching about the role and influence of the culturally and obstinately conservative base in the party who have slung a millstone (together with Sarah Palin) around McCain's neck.

Playing to the base worked in 2004 when the culture wars were still alive. Ronald Inglehart showed us a long time ago that post-materialism is a privilege only for those who are not preoccupied with pocket book matters. But this is no time to worry about the rights of the unborn or the rights of the married - Sarah Palin's new tack. This is not even time to worry about Obama's alleged ties to a terrorist (amazingly, because four years ago this would have had maximal traction on an already swiftboated candidate).

Even though the country has unequivocably moved on (to other fears), at every point in this campaign, McCain has played to the culturally conservative base of the Republican party as if we were still in 2000 or 2004 - his performance at the Saddleback Faith Forum, his choice of Sarah Palin, his attacks on Obama's associations with Bill Ayers reveal a candidate petulantly locked in a different era. It is as if he has taken a principled stand not to run ahead of the political curve. This is foolish nostalgia, evidence of an ailing ideological empire refusing to innovate.

Why is McCain turning to the old tricks even as they are no longer effective? Perhaps there is a general (and historically repetitive) puzzle here to unpack: why do politicians turn to bankrupt strategies - there you go again, as Reagan so powerfully put it to Jimmy Carter in 1980 - even when these tactics have aged well past their prime? Because for better or for worse, every democratic politician is bound to an ideology that was once powerful and dominant enough to carry him/her into power but bound also to the fact that even the greatest ideology, like the greatest empire, must obey the law of gravity. Crying wolf usually works particularly well the first couple of times - indeed it creates a habit because it is initially rewarded with positive feedback. So politicians (and their political descendants) will keep crying wolf again and again, right up to and past the point of diminishing returns. A new wolf cry heralds a new era - change, we usually call it - and the cycle starts all over again. There is one constant however: what goes up must come down.

John McCain will do well to remember that the only reason why he emerged victorious in his party's primary contests was because his party calculated that the maverick from the senate was best positioned to cry a different tune in this election other than wolf. Only a maverick can postpone the law of gravity, but maverick McCain has not been. Paradoxically, just when the Republican party really needed a maverick, John McCain is faithfully towing the party line. All he has done so far has been to chant the same tune - we want victory in Iraq, no negotiation with terrorists, we want to lower taxes, we want to control spending, Obama is "that one." There you go again, Senator McCain. Stop crying wolf or you could be crying on November 4.

John McCain needs to be a New Republican, a real maverick if he is to have any chance at all of winning this election. He should think Eisenhower and (yes even) Nixon. Anything but Reagan and Bush.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

The Second Presidential Debate

Town halls meetings under the watchful eye of a moderator are great for one thing - they demand a little bit more substance from candidates than normal because they have been warned before hand that they will not be rewarded by applause but (enforced) silence. So there were a whole lot more frowns than there were any hoots in tonight's debate. Because both candidates were being closely watched, there were relatively less attacks, and more I-feel-your-pains. Both still pandered - neither would admit that the economy was in for it for a while before it would get better.

While Obama moved around less and looked straight into the eye of the questioner more often and for longer, McCain circled and wandered around the audience. Worse still, he seemed to lose his cool when Obama asked for follow-up time, and McCain protested only to testily quip "fine by me, fine by me." He needs to stop using "my friends" at every turn, because he does not pull it off the way Reagan would have or George W Bush does. Instead, McCain often sounded inauthentic and uneasy, even presumptuous. Obama on the other hand was warm, quick on his feet, and was particularly good when pivoting on the final question about what didn't he know to talk about uncertainty and leadership.

This was a must-win night for McCain, but he failed to deliver a breakthrough. He did have a new plan for the Secretary of Treasury to buy out bad mortgages, but it's unlikely to move minds now that the broad thrust of his economic policies are well known. Even Frank Luntz over at Foxnews found that more participants responded to Obama than to McCain, as did Soledad O'Brien over at CNN.

I don't necessarily think that Obama did that much better than McCain. The fact that elite opinions are starting to line up in forecasting an Obama victory suggest a momentum that is now indisputably in full swing. For better or for worse, democracy must live with the fundamentals of mass psychology - everyone wants to be on the winning team and herd mentality reinforces belief systems. Maybe there'll be an October surprise, but I suspect that the current economic crisis constitutes an October tragedy that far overshadows any possible surprise. The Obama campaign will love tomorrow's headlines.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Sarah Palin Will Not Debate

Obama supporters were surprised that Sarah Palin didn't trip up in her debate with Joe Biden; but they nevertheless thought that she was incoherent through most of it. Palin's supporters were thrilled that she came back after multiple setbacks with her interviews with Katie Couric with a slamdunk. We have become so divided as a nation that we can't even agree on which is night and which is day.

The reason, I think, is because Sarah Palin did not answer Gwen Ifill's questions. When a student refuses to take a test, we cannot meaningfully compare her performance with another.

Right at the outset of the debate, Palin announced her contempt for the debate format: "I may not answer the questions that either the moderator or you want to hear, but I'm going to talk straight to the American people and let them know my track record also." Palin's opponents cried foul, but her suppporters applauded her contempt of the media and Washington's rules.

Here was Gwen Ifill's first question: "The House of Representatives this week passed a bill, a big bailout bill ... was this the worst of Washington or the best of Washington that we saw play out?"

This was Palin's first non-answer: "You know, I think a good barometer here, as we try to figure out has this been a good time or a bad time in America's economy, is go to a kid's soccer game on Saturday, and turn to any parent there on the sideline and ask them, "How are you feeling about the economy?"

Biden did a classic debate pivot, but he did try to answer the question, saying "I think it's neither the best or worst of Washington, but it's evidence of the fact that the economic policies of the last eight years have been the worst economic policies we've ever had."

Consider Ifil's third question: "Governor, please if you want to respond to what he (Biden) said about Sen. McCain's comments about health care?" and Palin's putulant non-reply "I would like to respond about the tax increases."

Or Ifill's seventh question: "What promises have you and your campaigns made to the American people that you're not going to be able to keep?" Sarah Palin tried her hand at the pivot trick too: "I want to go back to the energy plan, though, because this is -- this is an important one that Barack Obama, he voted for in '05." By pivot I mean, tangent.

In her closing statement, Palin again made clear where her priorities were. "I like being able to answer these tough questions without the filter, even, of the mainstream media kind of telling viewers what they've just heard. I'd rather be able to just speak to the American people like we just did." Speak to the American people she did, but answer these tough questions she did not.

We should stop pretending that debates really happen in American politics; even the four organized by the Commission on Presidential Debates no longer qualify. Masquerading for debate, all we get are solipsistic televised addresses delivered to us in alternating segments. Last Thursday, Gwen Ifill was little more than a two-minute time keeper with no control of how Biden and especially Palin used their time.

Let us remember why we care for debates. Because meaningful exchanges between alternative voices stand at the heart of democracy. By controlling for question, we can see how candidates measure up to each other substantively. Instead, American politics today is deluged by speeches and not debates, assymetric communications in which politicians talk past each other rather than to each other.

Avoiding the questions and eschewing a debate may be good for a candidate but it is bad for democracy. And we should not allow Sarah Palin or any other candidate to tell us that democracy is only about connecting with people and not also debating the issues. Only demagogues insist on trading directly with the people without the watchful eye - Palin calls it the "filter" - of the media or a dissenting interlocutor. Democracy is best served by reciprocity and deliberation, not one-sided assertions to one's base with no follow-up questions.

While Palin connected last Thursday, she hardly debated. As supporter Michelle Malkin revealingly put it: "She was warm, fresh, funny, confident, energetic, personable, relentless, and on message." Seven ayes for style, an aye for substance, and nay to debate. The nays have it.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Palin Stops the Haemorrhage with her Winks

Sarah Palin succeeded tonight in stemming the haemorrhage she's caused her ticket. She was likeable. Very likeable, according to most conservatives who are heaving a collective sigh of relief. Tentative at first, one could almost hear her thoughts cranking up in each answering sequence when the prepared lines came back to her. At the crest of her thoughts, she was on message. (Though her debate coach apparently didn't care to correct her pronunciation of nu-cu-ler - but then neither did Bush's.) Dick Morris, Karl Rove, and Sean Hannity think Palin delivered a "shock and awe." Liberals will disagree, but they should remember that the meaning of eloquence is defined in partisan terms. (Explain the difference and you should win the nobel prize in American politics.)

Palin's relative success was to be expected to the extent that she didn't have to deal with follow up questions that would force her to deal with specifics, and she was free not to answer the questions Gwen Ifill posed; indeed she was free to stray. It is enough these days to deliver the punchlines, nevermind how you argued yourself there. That said, while Sarah Palin's winks may have trumped Biden's words for her supporters, there are significantly more Americans today who are looking for executive competence than (as was the case in 2000 and 2004) executive congeniality.

Biden was in attack mode tonight. He was probably told that he best direct his fire to McCain, not to the lady standing beside him. So in his restraint, Palin was afforded the space to deliver her homey punchlines. She tried the "there you go ahead line" (dwelling on the past) when Biden attacked Bush, but that didn't go very far because as Biden cleverly put it in reply, the past eight years is prologue.

Was this a game changer? Depends on who you ask, and where they set the goalposts. About 85 % of FOX viewers thought Palin won and about 65% of CNN viewers thought Biden won - surprise, surprise. Republicans sincerely believe it was a game changer, because the bleeding has stopped. Democrats don't think that Palin did anything to hurt Obama, so this debate won't bring a point of inflection. Both sides are right. (But I'll look at whether the now Obama-leaning states that Palin had once yanked away from the Democrats such as MI return to toss-up status in the next few days to see who was more right.) What we can safely say is that with the potential toxin on the McCain ticket now neutralized - because the calls for Palin to bow out from Republican ranks will now cease - the VPs will now recede to the background as they have for almost every other election cycle, as Obama and McCain will return to the foreground. Next stop, Nashville, TN. But let it be said that the concrete is quickly setting on the extant poll numbers.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

VP Debate Stakes

Sarah Palin is in serious danger of Dan Qualying herself. She doesn't know what the Bush doctrine is, she can't explain why her experience as Governor gives her foreign policy credentials other than Alaska's proximity to Russia, and now, we find out that she cannot name another Supreme Court decision other than Roe v. Wade that she disagrees with. Let's stretch ourselves well past the boundary of the benefit of the doubt and assume that Sarah Palin knows the answers, she's just not quick enough to deliver them on a moment's notice - yet I'm not sure whether it is an exoneration or an indictment of her that the only excuse for Palin's ignorance is her dullness.

Whichever it is, even conservatives have publicly questioned the wisdom of the Palin pick. As Charles Krauthammer wrote, "The vice president's only constitutional duty of any significance is to become president at a moment's notice. Palin is not ready. Nor is Obama. But with Palin, the case against Obama evaporates." McCain's repeated attack that Obama "just doesn't understand" in their first debate did not and could not work because it was an argument standing on stilts compared to his vice-presidential nominee.

If there is anything more dangerous in American politics than an intelligent anti-intellectual who insidiously stokes public opinion with the dark arts of demagoguery, it is an ignorant anti-intellectual who inadvertently energizes her base because of her seemingly unreflected positions on core conservative positions. If Palin doesn't resurrect her reputation in tomorrow's debate, McCain will pay dearly for what is increasingly being perceived to be his spectacular lack of judgement in picking her. For as things stand, Palin appears to be little more than a demographic place-mat for potential women and conservative voters, and a shrinking one at that. Hillary Clinton supporters are in asking in agony - THIS is the woman representing us as one of the four candidates fighting for occupancy in the White House? If Hillary Clinton put 18 million cracks in the glass ceiling, Sarah Palin seems intent on welding it back to its originally pristine condition.

If Palin is not to remain the butt of every late night comedian's joke, then she must establish herself as a legitimate national political figure tomorrow night. She's surely going to be likeable, but will she be respected and can she resuscitate her professional reputation? Liberal women should take heed when they mock Palin - justified as they may be - for it says something about our society that it is enough for men like George Bush to be likeable and get elected, but congeniality, at this moment, might not be enough for Palin. The anti-intellectual strategy is a gendered strategy with assymetric payoffs to women and to men.