Archive for October, 2008

Tug McGraw for President

“Tug McGraw for President,” was the sign on my dorm room door back in 1980, the last time the Philadelphia Phillies won the World Series.  McGraw was a hero in that series, with relief pitching that helped the Phillies defeat the Kansas City Royals 4 games to 2.

1980 was also the last year an election felt quite like this one.   The election looked very close, but there was a sense that the Republican Ronald Reagan had momentum on his side as he seemed hopeful, optimistic and positive about the future, compared to Jimmy Carter, the incumbent.  Carter had won in 1976 as an outsider, riding a wave of anti-Washington feelings.  Yet, despite some accomplishments like the Camp David Accords, he had to deal with major crises towards the end of his term, especially the Iranian hostage crisis and a recession that included stagflation — inflation during a recession.

Still, Carter was pleased that Reagan bested George Bush in the 1980 primary.  Reagan was seen as too far to the right, and too inexperienced.  Given the more liberal mode of the country in the 70s, many Democrats thought that simply painting Reagan as “too conservative” and “on the right wing of his party” would be enough to get Americans to avoid voting for the California ex-Governor.  Up until the two debated in late October the polls were close.  Yet Reagan performed well in the debate and ultimately won the election, which took place on November 4, 1980, in a landslide.  The electoral vote count was a stunning 489-49.  He won the popular vote by 50 – 41.

Moreover, he had coattails.  The Republicans shocked the Democrats by winning 12 seats and taking control of the Senate 53-46.   The Democrats lost 35 seats in the House and, though retaining control, a coalition of Republicans and southern Democrats gave Reagan a working majority in the House.  Later those southern Democrats would disappear, replaced by southern Republicans.  The country, in a word, was realigned.  The liberal era of the 70s gave way to a new conservatism.

Could 2008 be another realigning election year?   (And if so I have another working hypothesis: every time the Phillies win a world series in a year where Presidential elections take place on November 4…).   The signs point that way.    In almost all state polls Obama holds a consistent lead, save for states that are solidly GOP.  He certainly won’t hit 489 electoral votes, but 400 could be within his reach.  A nine point popular vote victory is possible.  And the Democrats, though already in control in the House and Senate, could pick up significant numbers of seats.   We could be on the verge of the second realignment of my lifetime.  If so, I’ve been on the right side of both.

This year I find myself connecting to Barack Obama and his message.  We’re about the same age, and have the same pragmatic view that we need to stop all the name calling and take a “cooperate and compromise” approach to solving real problems.   I find John McCain’s campaign to be mean spirited and devoid of real ideas.

In 1980 I was in Detroit, Michigan, at the Republican National Convention that nominated Ronald Reagan.  I was part of a “youth for Reagan” group, seven of us who came from South Dakota in a van to Ypsilanti, Michigan.   We stayed at the dorms of Eastern Michigan University, bussed into the convention every day.  I saw Reagan, Bush, and Dole close up.   I met Tod Koppel.  Then when Reagan got nominated we were on the floor of the convention.  We didn’t have security clearance, but the Reagan campaign had us “snuck” down there to show a young crowd celebrating Reagan’s nomination.  I was down below the podium with the words “Together a New Beginning” touting Reagan’s message of hope.

It was an amazing experience.  In the dorms at EMU, I met some really pretty girls from Maine.  I don’t recall their names or where they were from, but I traded them a big “South Dakotans for Reagan” button for a little Maine Lobster that I stuck to my camera case.   That camera case with a “Maine” sticker went all over Europe and the US with me over the next 15 years, even though I wouldn’t visit Maine until my job interview at UMF in 1995.   The night of the election I was thrilled by the result, coloring in the map red (even though the red/blue labels were not yet in place — it was by coincidence I chose red) as the results came in, and it was clear that it was an historic, landmark election.

Yet that election was also one where I felt my own political views shifting.  I was excited about Reagan, but I did something odd on election day.  First, I refused to volunteer to help get people to the polls, annoying my very active Republican roommate.  I’d been working a lot that summer on the election for the Abdnor campaign for Senate, but now distanced myself.  I got in the voting booth, and voted not for Abdnor, but for Senator McGovern, who would lose that day.

Over the next decades my political views would shift.  Living for awhile in Italy and learning about the world outside of South Dakota convinced me that I’d been a bit naive in thinking we didn’t need government programs and that everyone could succeed if they just worked hard.  I came to understand the power of structural barriers, and the complexity of the issues.   Yet I couldn’t be comfortable with the Democrats, who seemed too wedded to big government solutions and deficit spending.  Ralph Nader became my favorite politician, he at least seemed to stand on principles.

Principles.  That’s why drew people to Ronald Reagan in 1980.  The country was in a bad place, and needed a change.  Reagan seemed to have something that appealed to people.  The Democrats dismissed it as learned lines by an actor.  Carter had experience and substance, Reagan was simply a ‘great communicator.’

Now, in 2008, we seem on the verge of another realigning election.  The Obama candidacy feels to me a lot like how the Reagan campaign felt in 2008.   The Republicans are throwing everything they can at Obama: Wright, Ayres, too liberal, etc.  But just as Reagan was the “teflon President,” these attacks seem to slide off Obama.  He’s enunciated some core principles and proposals and sticks to his message.  People sense in Obama the same thing they sensed in Reagan in 1980: a candidate who looks able to deliver a change the country needs.  They sense optimism, pragmatism, and hope.

Of course, I may be wrong.   The Republicans say McCain still has a chance to come back, and the polls are close enough that things could change.   But just four days before the election this has the feel of something big.  I have no idea where Tug McGraw ended up — relief pitchers fade away.  But when I heard the Phillies won the series I had a flashback to 1980.  Somehow, it feels like we’re in for a big change next Tuesday.

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Early Voting and Obama’s Ground Game

On October 29th Democratic National Chairman Howard Dean came here to UMF to talk to a packed room of students (not just a room, but the largest lecture hall on campus — and many couldn’t enter because the room was filled to capacity) about the importance of getting out the vote.   It was a really inspiring talk, I like Howard Dean.  The fact that Dean would come here — and was earlier in Orono — shows the importance they place on getting young people not only to vote, but to be enthusiastic.  It also shows that they are not taking the second district of Maine for granted — Maine is one of two states that split it’s electoral vote by district, and our district is more conservative than southern Maine.  Dean’s visit highlights what I think is Obama’s secret weapon: his ground game.

As a football fan I’ve always thought that a strong ground game wins championships.  In politics, it’s absolutely essential.   While some people vote all the time as a matter of course, many decide it’s not worth it.  If lines are two or three hours long, like they often are, one can make a strong argument that it’s not rational to spend so much time in line when one vote isn’t really going to make or break the election.    But if a lot of people make that decision, which is rational at the individual level (one person not voting doesn’t mean others won’t vote too), then low turnout can swing an election.   This is known as the ‘collective action’ problem — actions that have negative collective consequences might be rational at the individual level.  I get NPR on my radio, it’s not rational for me to pay, the service will be there anyway.  But if a lot of people choose not to become members, programming will suffer.

There are two ways out of this bind for voting.  First, though, one has to avoid trying to make the argument that it actually is rational at the individual level.  Those arguments fail.  “What if everyone does that”  Answer: My actions don’t affect what others do.  “If you don’t vote, you can’t complain.”  Answer: the First Amendment says I can complain whenever I want.  “If you don’t vote, you can’t be part of the decision making progress.”  Answer: what is the probability anything I vote on will be decided by one vote?  The bottom line: at the level of individual choice, voting is irrational.

The first way out is to emphasize one’s duty.  Yes, you’re sacrificing time, but it’s part of being an American.  It is how this great country works.  This builds a sense of community, ethics, and belonging.   If you don’t vote, you’re not really doing what Americans need to do to preserve this great democracy over time.  The second way out is to focus on making voting an event.  Bus a group to the polls, go with friends, enjoy talking to the people there, have voting be fun.  I voted early, but for many of my friends or colleagues, going and voting is a joy.

Both of these methods have traditionally worked better for Republican voters than Democrats, and for older voters rather than younger.   There is a huge chunk of the population — rural poor minorities, inner city minorities especially — who feel alienated from the country and its culture.  They don’t see a lot of hope in their lives, so standing in long lines to vote makes no sense.  They don’t feel that duty, they don’t feel America has earned it from them.  Younger voters tend to focus on personal gratification over duty anyway, and generally make the “rational” (in an individual sense) choice.  They also aren’t as connected to the ritual and community aspect of voting, so that doesn’t draw them.  Pollsters know this, and thus limit their likely voter sample by weighting for age, ethnicity, and voting history.

Back in early September when the polls were suggesting a slight lead for McCain, my view was that Obama was likely to outperform the polls, thanks to his ground game.   Although some of the national polls show signs of a slight tightening, the state polls seem to suggest real Obama strength.  Given that the contest is really about the states, not overall popular vote, that’s good news for Obama.  Yet state polls are far less reliable than national polls, and have shown real fluctuation.  For instance, New Hampshire had within a week a poll that showed a 4% Obama lead and a 25% lead (others showed 11% and 18%).    So if the national polls tighten more, one can’t take the state polls for granted.   How will Obama’s ground game impact the result?

Obama’s ground game looks amazing on paper.  He has offices all over the country, an army of volunteers mounting an effort that has Democratic insiders saying they’ve never seen or even imagined anything like this before.  He has taken the skills and methods of community organizing and built a national campaign.  The long primary fight helped him do it, as it brought him to states where he organized and built alliances while McCain was sitting back and watching Clinton and Obama duke it out.  He also has the money due to his record setting fundraising to build a real infrastructure for the get out the vote (GOTV) effort.  It has not been tested.    But neither was Karl Rove’s targeted and well structured GOTV plan in 2000, and ultimately that’s what won it for George W. Bush — both in 2000 and especially in 2004.  This goes far beyond what Rove built, and McCain seems to have a less solid organization that what Rove gave Bush in 2004.

Add to that early voting.  Early voting allows your GOTV effort to span weeks rather than to focus it in one day.   That creates an advantage for the team with the best GOTV plan.  Places like Florida, Ohio, North Carolina and Georgia are seeing surges of early voters, and these are states McCain must win to have a chance.   Georgia, which had over 3 million voters in 2004, about a quarter of them black, have seen as of the morning of October 29th over 1.4 million early voters, 35% of them black.  They are likely to hit a mark that is 2/3 of their total 2004 vote even before election day, meaning lines will be shorter for those who wait.  In Florida Republican governor Crist has expanded early voting due to long lines to continue on Sunday, and go from 7 to 7.  One Republican grumbled that this kills McCain — a sign that that GOP knows that early voting creates a structural advantage for Obama.

What is striking too is how many voters are waiting hours to vote early.  Voting early was designed as a way to reduce election day congestion, but large masses of people are going out and standing in line in a way that completely defies the “individual rationality” point made above.  The reason seems to be that voters have a strong sense of enthusiasm to vote.  It appears there are a lot more early Democratic voters than Republican, suggesting that Obama has succeeded in making this election feel like an historic event people want to be part of.  That means they will be more likely than not to stand in line, and take the time to vote.  That means that voter turnout may break records.  Moreover, if McCain voters are not as enthused, they might not be as willing to stand in long lines — especially if they feel McCain is going to lose anyway.

This gets me to believe that despite my warnings in the last week that McCain could still pull it off (and he could!), I’d place my bets on an Obama landslide.  Gallup has an interesting poll which measures the “traditional likely voter” and an “expanded likely voter.”  The traditional likely voter model shows a pretty tight race (Obama up three as of October 29).  But given all the early voting and youth voting likely to take place (young people like to be part of something historic), I would bet that the expanded likely voter (Obama up by seven) might actually itself be under representing Obama’s support.

This is only an hypothesis.  A race where McCain outperforms the polls will disprove my hypothesis.  If Obama performs about as the polls expect (especially the expanded likely voter model from Gallup), then I’ll need to look at whether or not the Democrats picked up a surprising number of Congressional seats to see if voter turn out was a major factor.  The Georgia Senate race, for instance, could be telling.   I’ve always believed that if the Democrats could find a way to get especially young and minority voters to go to the polls at the same rate or near the same as other demographic groups, it would render major electoral shifts.  Obama has done about all anyone can do to try to make it a reality.   That makes this election fascinating — it’s the first real test of an hypothesis I’ve held for over 20 years.

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Obama a Socialist?

…or a friend of terrorists, or a Muslim, or a believer in radical black theology, or a killer of babies…

Whew.  Those are just some of the attacks being made by either John McCain or groups supporting John McCain in the last week of the election.  It is the kitchen sink of fear, trying to do all they can to assure that when voters go into the voting booth they decide, “you know, I’m just not sure about Obama…I don’t really like McCain, but he’s safer.”  Will it work?  We’ll know in less than a week.

First, though, the “socialist” attack is obviously fatally flawed.  Socialism as an ideology is for the government to control the means of production, and plan how the economy operates.  No candidate advocates that, and even so-called Social Democrats in Europe have abandoned that approach.    McCain’s argument seems to be that any government involvement in the economy is socialism.  Yet, of course, he’s voted himself for large budgets and a bailout of the US financial system, a piece of legislation that directly gives government ownership and the ability to control to some extent banks and financial institutions.

Both McCain and Obama are fundamentally “liberal” in economics — believers in capitalism, markets, and individual rights.   They do differ on what amount of government involvement is necessary to make the system work in a way that provides real opportunity to all Americans, and what kind of governmental programs should exist.   That difference is minor; the fight is over about to allocate a relatively small percentage of US government spending.

In some cases, both candidates are extremely free market.  Both health care proposals are far more “capitalist” then most of the rest of the industrialized world.  Hard core conservatives in Europe almost always support their “socialized” medical systems, seeing it as a part of what should be socialized.  In America we’ve socialized protection (police), education (public schools), emergency relief (FEMA), protection of the homeland (military spending), transportation (roads and interstates), and a large variety of other things that the public thinks needs to be provided to all.   Europeans, left and right, tend to put health care in that list, Americans resist.  But this does not make the system socialist.

Socialism is NOT about government spending, it’s about the way in which the economy functions. If goods are allocated and prices set primarily by markets, then you have a market economy.   Go to a local shopping mall and it’s clear markets dominate.   Government involvement in fundamental economic activity is rare, and usually involves things like health regulations (e.g., the market is pretty bad at protecting people from unsafe products or dangerous foodstuffs), the environment, and other areas where the market is not considered able to achieve the public good.

One can argue for or against the level and type of regulation on some market activities.  Should food have labels disclosing its nutritional content?  Many believe that regulation helps the market function better, because it increases consumer information, and one of the reasons free markets don’t work on their own is that information is not only imperfect, but often pretty bad.  It’s not just that people don’t take the work to know, but on many factors they can’t know, the information isn’t out there.   The level and sort of regulation is a political issue.  But regulations are not socialist, they simply set ground rules for how markets operate.

But, of course, this is an election year, and the McCain campaign is losing.  They also see that they are not outside striking distance, if they can only find a way to move the polls a few points.  At this point, it’s too late to make a positive case for McCain and Palin.  Palin has dragged the ticket, and news within the GOP is a story of division and disagreement.  Therefore, there is only one strategy possible: go negative hard.

The robo-calls make claims like “Obama has a domestic terrorist as an associate” or follow scripts so bad that people working at telemarketers (in states that don’t allow recorded calls) making these calls often walk off the job.  Also, many sabotage the calls by talking in a way that is hardly understandable and clearly without enthusiasm.   In states where recorded versions are allowed, they sound nasty and scary.  Almost everyone says they don’t like these calls, but they are used because the goal is not to create a message where someone says “gee, that call is right, I’ll vote McCain.”  Rather, they want to plant a seed of doubt in peoples’ mind that might push them away from Obama once they get in the voting booth.

Nothing is off limits.  A 2001 interview about the civil rights movement is twisted to make it sound like Obama wanted the Supreme Court to “redistribute the wealth.”  That’s absurd, the McCain camp knows it, but the lawyer speak Obama used in that interview can be framed in a way that McCain can interpret it as he wants.   A quip about “spread the wealth” gets grabbed to create the narrative that Obama wants to “redistribute” to “spread the wealth” and is thus “socialist.”

All of this is trash.  It’s dishonest.  It ties into subthemes of race and questions about how “American” Obama really is.  It competes with viral e-mails accusing Obama of ties to Hamas and other radical groups.  But that’s American politics these days.  Whether Obama wins or loses, the McCain campaign will be remembered as one of the most nasty and negative of all campaigns in recent history.  That is a bit unfair, in that Obama has vastly outspent McCain, meaning he could mix a positive and negative message.  But McCain’s recent robo-calls and scare ads slip into the gutter.  And it may work.

I tend to think, though, McCain may end up doing the GOP more harm than good.  Not only does negative campaigning usually not work unless combined with a strong positive message, but given the distrust Americans have in the Republican ability to run the economy, charging “socialism” may not sound so bad to a lot of people.  The Cold War is in the distant past, and the idea that there are “communists” out there wanting to take over the country is a fear from an earlier age.  That was a mid-20th century fear, one that doesn’t resonate well today.  Also, the time to effectively define an opponent is early in the campaign; it’s a bit late to change a lot of minds.

But we really don’t know.    For the next six days we’ll see a steady assault on Obama with one goal: ignite fear that Obama is a risky choice.   It could backfire on McCain by looking his campaign look desperate and shrill.  It could win enough votes to get McCain to 270 electoral votes.  It will be a very ugly week.  If Obama wins as expected, he will have to work quickly to convince those who oppose him and believe the attacks that they have nothing to fear from an Obama administration.  If McCain wins, he’ll have to work hard for reconciliation because Democrats and Obama supporters will have a hard time forgiving such tactics and, to be blunt, campaign dishonesty.   In each case, the next President will face severe challenges.  Not only will he have to deal with Iraq, Afghanistan and the world’s financial crisis, but also with the fallout from an historic, but intensely emotional, campaign.

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Election Addiction

My purpose for blogging is to write about politics, culture and society, with an emphasis on international affairs.  However, lately I’ve drifted into the realm of American electoral politics, and for the next week I’m just going to go with it.  I’m addicted to reading polls, playing with scenarios, and following fervently the horserace side of this campaign.

I can’t work, I find myself heading over to politico.com (Ben Smith and Jonathan Martin have must-read blogs) or realclearpolitics.com (especially their poll page) to get the latest.  I’ll look at the left side from the Huffington Post and Rawstory, while the right is represented by Drudge and Q&O. And if I want a “crazy anarchist” take, I’ll go to 2-4.   And, of course, there’s the mainstream media reports…the latest gaffe, rumor or prediction, I’m there!  This is truly addictive behavior, and my solace is after November 4th I will no longer be able to feed my addiction, and thus will have to return to a more balanced focus on the world and its situation.

I’m also not at all into the issues.  I’m about the horserace now.   After the election I’ll look at the issues and grapple again with problems like, oh, how do we avoid a world wide depression that could ignite wars and cause misery.  But being a true addict, those big issues seem trivial compared to the latest poll from Missouri.

Lest this sound like I’m treating this like a sporting event, this addiction is driven by how much the horse race says about our culture, and about the nature of American politics in an era of “crisis and transformation.”  From a political science stand point, it’s full of new variables and uncertainties, meaning that regardless who wins, there is going to be a lot to observe and interpret after the election.  All of this combines to make me an addict.

First, the political science: never before has a candidate for President so outspent another major candidate.  The amount of money being spent by Obama is mind boggling.   That means he should be a shoo-in if the hypothesis that money works in politics is true.  On the other hand, never before has a black male with a name like ‘Barack Hussein Obama’ run for President.  That, along with the fear mongering of the GOP (Ayres, Wright, socialist labels, etc.) should make McCain a shoo-in.    And if Obama wins, how much of it is the money, how much is the message, or the possibility that in 21st century America people are getting beyond the kind of Atwater style attacks that have served the GOP well in past.

I have always been a believer that the ground game is where elections are won.  While Kerry was attacked in 2004 by motley groups like the “swiftboaters,” he could have still won if not for the way that Karl Rove built the strongest ground game ever seen in terms of getting out the vote, and targetting where to put resources to get out the vote.  Now Obama has a ground game that looks even more formidble, and could bring to the polls demographics that usually vote Democratic, but often don’t vote — the youth, minorities, etc.  Will it work?  If so, the Democrats could ride a Tsunami of greater electoral gains down the ballot than anyone could have dreamed of even a few months ago.  If not, it will join John Kerry’s much vaunted GOTV effort as more proof that the youth and minorities won’t show up, no matter how hard one tries.

I’ll be right back.  I need to get my “fix.”…OK, I’m back…no new polls, but I did go read that Obama is within five of McCain in Arizona, though his favorability rating there is 49 and unfavorable rating is 50.   That is an example of how odd this race is.  McCain has a 59% favorability rating, and in his home state should be much farther ahead.  And, since the same people answered each question that means that a lot of people who like McCain are still voting Obama…or perhaps it means Obama has softer support and McCain has more of possibility to move up…see this race is full of little tidbits like that!

Societally, this race could potentially be more of the same — a narrow GOP victory disappointing Democrats who thought they’d win this time — or it could be a major realignment, much like Ronald Reagan’s 1980 victory.  When Jimmy Carter won in 1976 it was cool to be liberal, being conservative was looked down on, and in general the Republicans were seen as out of touch.  Then after 1980 conservatism took hold, liberal became ‘the L word,’ talk radio took off, and by the 90s some Republicans were talking about a permanent majority in Congress.  If Obama pulls off a huge victory, the pendulum could swing back, and conservatism and ‘free markets’ will be seen as dangerous, having brought us a decade of war and financial turmoil.  Given that even President Bush has embraced nationalizing parts of the financial market in at least the short term, people may be more ready than ever for an activist government.  If that’s the case, McCain’s message is way out of touch for this election.

Of course, if the re-alignment talk is wrong, McCain has the best strategy available.  How big the margin is on Tuesday, should Obama win, will give a huge indication of where the country is at.  If the Democrats pull massive gains in the Senate and House, the world will be turned up side down in Washington.  It’ll be a completely different ball game in 2009 (and a lot of staffers and personnel with political jobs will move in or out of the city).  If, however, people still stick to opposing taxes, fearing ‘big government,’ and worry about the Pelosi-Reid-Obama combination that defines McCain’s late campaign warning, then the race will tighten considerably.  If McCain wins, that’s a sign that the world isn’t so different after all.  If Obama wins, but the Republicans do better than currently expected in the Senate and House races, that’s a sign that McCain’s message still resonates, people aren’t ready to embrace change across the board.

As the election nears I’ll be posting some ‘election tools’: Senate races to watch, a state by state guide (with poll closing times), and a list of ‘early signs’ of whether it’ll be a late night, or if we’ll know early who will win.  Of course for those of us interested in the bigger questions about what the election means, it’ll be a late night anyway — I need to have a sense of where the House and Senate will be before I’ll be able to fall asleep without getting up and running back to the TV or the computer.

So this election horse race is a focal point for a lot of interesting questions about American politics and American society.  I don’t think it’s wrong to enjoy and be fascinated by it.  But any addict would say that, wouldn’t they?

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Democratic Gloom and Angst

Even as the news appears as good as it could possibly be for the Democrats and Barack Obama, every Democrat I talk to is nervous and afraid that this one will slip away.   They point to 2000 and 2004, noting that a mixture of negative attacks and a tried and tested get out of the vote effort have been enough to motivate voters in red states to reach, even if barely, the magic number of 270 electoral votes.

Moreover, many are convinced that the negativity will be racheted up, perhaps with new video from Rev. Wright, or some false but yet believable rumor that will be pushed out at the end of the campaign, without Obama having time to effectively respond.  It doesn’t have to change the whole dynamic, just win enough votes to win the “red” states they need on November 4th.  Indeed, some are convinced that the faked attack on a McCain worker, who claimed a black man attacked her and carved a “B” in her face, was part of some kind of dirty trick.  She’s from Pennsylvania, the state McCain hopes to flip by scaring those in the western part of the state to think Obama is too strange and risky.  Even if they don’t like McCain, perhaps they can be persuaded not to vote for Obama.

McCain could pull it off.  Enough states are close, and enough time is left that anything can happen.   Should gloom and angst pervade the Democratic soul in the wake of all the good news that’s been coming?  No.  But that doesn’t mean they can count on a win.  The GOP turn out the vote machine is tried and true, Obama’s is not, despite the early voting turnout.  It’s good reason to be optimistic that it will perform on E-day, but not proof.

Moreover, as progressives write stories about how the country has changed — that conservatives don’t understand the sweeping change in both American demographics and political culture — deep down they wonder if it might not be wishful thinking.  Has the country really moved beyond the ability of Willie Horton ads or race bating to swing an election?   Is the country truly beyond being worried about the more radical statements by someone’s minister — statements which are normal and in fact quite understandable within the context of the black movement?   I think yes, though it’s still not sure how far we’ve come on that path.  In many ways the Wright-Obama comparison shows the difference a generation can make.

The generation of Reverend Wright was fighting against oppressive and exploitive inequities.  It needed anger to give its movement power, to convince a population to overcome numbing oppression and fight a system that appeared invulnerable.   It worked, their anger and drive led them to heroic acts that destroyed the foundations of the old America.  Obama’s generation recognizes the debt they owe people like Wright, even as they reject the radicalism.  That’s true of the Obama generation overall — the children of the sixties were radicals like William Ayres or the hippies.  They were breaking through an old culture that needed to be pushed aside, and as usually happens in such cases, went far to extreme in the opposite direction.

They won.  The sixties generation changed the world forever.  Their radical agenda was not fulfilled; it was never realistic.  But it gave them courage to fight on.  Now the second step beyond breaking down the old “Leave it to Beaver” world before 1968 is to create a pragmatic, inclusive, and problem-solving approach to achieving the goals that motivated the previous generation.  The generation of the seventies — those who came of political age at the end of or just after the Vietnam war — don’t read from the sayings of Mao, or really get into protests.   Obama is a completely different kind of person than those “associations” that McCain talks about.  Indeed, McCain’s obsession about being compared to George Wallace — a politician most Americans under age 45 have hardly heard of — speaks to his age, and how his mind is still a product of that sixties era.

In other words, stepping back from the intensity of this campaign one sees a country in a long term transition.  From the embedded racism, class division, and cultural homogeniety of the fifties to a modern, diverse, progressive and expressive country of the early 21st century.  Just twenty years ago someone like Barack Obama would not have had a chance to be at this level.  Now he’s raised more money than any candidate in history, has an army of supporters, and could well become the 44th President of the United States.  This campaign, win or lose, is a symbol of the fact that the United States is not the country it was a generation ago.   This campaign is historically significant in any event.

But if in nine days John McCain comes back, Obama supporters should not give in to rage about the system, or the ignorant/bigotted voters (and there are many — though most McCain supporters don’t fit into those categories), or McCain’s dirty tricks.  Yeah, complain about them, build counter arguments, prepare for the next fight.  But American democracy has always had such tactics, and that comes with the territory.  Life is to full of friends, family and every day events to let large political battles lead to anger or bitterness.  If McCain wins, put his feet to the fire to undue the damage of a divisive campaign, and push him on policy.  But life goes on, and in two years we go to the polls again.

Ultimately, the progressives are winning the struggle to remake American political culture.   Conservatives who don’t understand how the country has changed are shocked and amazed that someone they consider so utterly flawed could have made it this far — they believe it must be a media conspiracy or some kind of con job whereby Obama has hypnotised the masses with his images and words so they don’t see him for what he really is.  Win or lose, this election cycle shows that the country continues to move in a progressive direction.  Note how absent issues like gay marriage or abortion are from being even close to the top of peoples’ list of top issues — social conservatism is increasingly on the outs.

Other conservatives, recognizing the changing nature of the world and American thinking realize that their is a place for conservatism, especially to resist changes too sudden, or out of touch with the culture as it exists today.   The worst forms of progressive thinking took the form of ideological certainty: the French revolution or various forms of Communism.  Conservatives can keep progressives from putting their ideology ahead of America’s cultural norms, and keep a focus on keeping the government from becoming too powerful.  Progressives without a conservative counter balance will go too far too fast.  The two sides need each other.   Many on the right get that — I notice that my old boss, former Republican Senator Larry Pressler, actually voted for and contributed to Obama.

A last reason Obama supporters should not give in to gloom and angst is pragmatic.  If it is to go wrong, then I say enjoy how it feels for the next nine days to imagine that kind of historic victory.  J.K. Galbraith wrote once that perhaps the crash of 1929 was worth it to give people at least a short period of believing they were truly wealthy.  If this illusion is to crash, one may as well enjoy it before it does.  That’s why I always reject the idea of “expect the worst, hope for the best.”  I want to expect the best, and accept whatever comes.  Gloom and angst are never fun, and there is reason now to have some fun.  We live in the present, not in the past or the future.

And, of course, all the optimistic news may be right and Obama might zoom to an historic victory.  Of course, looking at the state of the economy and the world today, that might end up creating a different kind of gloom and angst!

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Why I Endorse Obama

I’ve felt out of place with American politics for a long time.   I find the nationalism, militarism, and religious attitudes of the Republican party out of touch with my own ideals.  Don’t get me wrong — I have the highest respect for religious folk — my thinking is closer to theirs on a variety of personal and spiritual issues than the dominant thought in our secular, materialist culture.  I also believe that the United States represents ideals that are great and worthy — freedom, individual rights, and optimism.  I have respect for those who serve in the military with the desire to defend their country from attack.  But in my opinion too many in the Republican party have embraced a narrow view of religion, an ease in using military power without regard to its human impact, and a view of America that is less patriotism than nationalism.

On the Democratic side, I find too much faith in large bureaucracy and serving special interest groups.  The result has been large government programs which have been mostly ineffective and expensive, financed by high budget deficits which have rendered our country almost helpless in the current financial mess.  A lack of fiscal responsibility and a lack of trust in local and regional governance has been evident with the Democrats.

And to make matters worse, while the Democrats talk a good game on foreign policy and social issues, they’ve often supported the Republicans, as they did in granting President Bush the power to go to war, and continuing to fund the wars.   While the Republicans talk a good game on individual responsibility and fiscal conservatism, they spend like wildmen when they are in power — look at how deficits and debt skyrocketed in the terms of Reagan and Bush the Younger.

Though I am known for my optimism, in politics I’ve had a strong cynical thread.   Only Ralph Nader has really seemed worthy of my vote in recent years.

Yet now I endorse Barack Obama for the Presidency.  I do so noting first his faults:  his campaign is spending massive amounts of money, treating the campaign as being less about politics than marketing.   Second, he is relatively inexperienced — though, to be sure, no more so than George W. Bush.  Yes, Bush was Governor of Texas, but the Texas governor is one of the least powerful governors in the Republic in terms of how much power that institution has.  Indeed, in terms of ‘resume’ qualifications, Obama shares company with people like Reagan, Carter, Clinton and Bush the Younger whose experiences were generally outside the realm of what we look for in Presidents.

I also recognize that a lot of what the Democrats are talking about now seems to sound like more government spending and more centralization.   How can that really be “change,” and how can we afford that given our massive debt and the current credit crisis?   Given that, how can I support Obama?

First, I do not believe John McCain is up for the job.  He seems intellectually lazy, a gambler, and prone to anger.   He’s also over 70 and I’m sorry, but as a voter I can engage in age discrimination!  Second, I do not believe Sarah Palin is at all ready to be President.  Today I’ve been reading about how the McCain campaign considers her to be “looking out only for herself,” untrusted by the McCain people.  That sounds at the very least like a dysfunctional ticket.  Finally, I don’t think McCain is ready to do what needs to be done to change our country and its foreign policy.   That leads me to the positive reasons to vote for Barack Obama.

1.  Obama’s inspired a lot of people, particularly young people and minorities who previously have been outside the political realm.  To solve America’s problems, we need a national effort based on real people making contributions to the good of the country, not just bureaucrats in Washington throwing money at problems.  Perhaps Obama can parlay this national movement into something positive for dealing with the nation’s problems, not just electing Barack Obama.  He’s hinted at this, and frankly — no one else has come close to this kind of possibility in unifying the country and inspiring us not to look to government to change things, but to work on it ourselves.  He’s said he’ll call for sacrifice and service.  Perhaps that’s exactly what the country needs.

2.  Barack Hussein Obama can fundamentally refocus our foreign policy.  I like mentioning his middle name because if we elect someone with a name like that, we in one bold stroke prove to the world that Americans are not a bunch of red neck yokels who love war.   By electing an urbane black man with such a name, we’d be showing that we can think, and we are willing to embrace people who don’t fit the cowboy stereotype.  That would help us in shifting our policy from one based on simply trying to get others to do things our way, to working with others to develop a common approach.  We’ll still of course have a strong voice and a lot of influence, but through compromise and the use of soft power, we can lead without appearing arrogant.   Ironically, President Bush has moved in that direction since 2005, apparently having learned the hard way that “with us or against us” doesn’t work in a globalized world.  Given our economic crisis and the military fiascos of recent years, we need friends, and we need to work well with others.

3.  Health care.  The American health care system is irrational, and while many are without insurance, those who do often have insurance are covered by profit hungry HMOs and similar plans that try to deny people basic coverage, or seek excuses to reject claims (unreported pre-existing conditions, etc.)  McCain’s idea of taxing health care benefits and giving $5000 of tax credit is a scam.  Most families pay far, far more than that, and his plan, in essence, benefits primarily the HMOs and insurance companies, who won’t be challenged a bit.  I’m not sure if Obama’s plan is right; I’d prefer something more focused on helping states develop their own approach.   But I think Obama and the Democrats are more likely to try to fix a broken system, and to do so in a way that does not focus on the profit motive, but rather sees health care as a fundamental right for people in such a wealthy society.

4.  A change is needed.  McCain and the advisors around him are from the ‘old school,’ politics as has been practiced for the last 50 years.  That doesn’t work in an era of globalization, or in an America that has become a fundamentally different country culturally and sociallly than it was even 30 years ago.  Our economy is extremely vulnerable, and this crisis will get worse before it gets better — it may take over a decade to correct the imbalances of the last 30 years.   Terrorism remains a threat, yet “war” as a solution has failed.  We need to come together, focus on our values, work with others, and take a very different approach to the future.

Barack Obama is the first candidate I’ve seen in a long time that inspires hope that we can accomplish what it will take to deal with these difficult challenges.

I know many friends, fellow bloggers, and students at UMF who are very strongly either in favor of McCain or against Obama.  I respect that, and am thankful that in Maine we can disagree on politics without it becoming something angry or hateful.   The biggest compliment students pay me is when they disagree with me in class or in papers, showing they trust that I’ll respect their opinion and not punish them by grading their work down because they don’t share my opinion.   It is good that people disagree, our system couldn’t work without disagreement.

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How to read State Polls

The election of the President is not really a national election, but fifty separate state elections, awarding ‘electoral votes’. A state’s electoral vote equals the number of Senators plus the number of Representatives. Florida has two Senators and 25 Representatives, so they have 27 electoral votes. In most cases it’s winner take all, though in both Nebraska and Maine they award them based on legislative district. So to guess on who will actually win the electoral college, where 270 votes are necessary to become President, one has to look at state contests.  As seen in 2000, one can lose the popular vote but win the election.

To look at the state polls the best tool is the polling page on the website Realclearpolitics, which allows one to click a state and see the polling history of that state during this election cycle. That’s important because state polls are usually built on a smaller sample size, a larger margin of error, and done less frequently – especially for small states. Only Pennsylvania has a tracking poll, the rest are polls done by various polling organizations. Since some people really get into trying to figure out the state of the race with detail (like me), I’ll go into the ‘complex’ way to read state polls by the end of this post. First, though, the basics for people who want to get the most information with the least effort.

Some states have a large number of polls published. On October 23rd, three different polls were published for the state of Minnesota, showing Obama leads of 19, 15 and 10%. That’s quite a range, and each poll had a margin of error of 4, 4.5 and 4.9% respectively (every time I write margin of error I mean plus or minus). Thus eyeballing it one can be reasonably confident that Minnesota is a state where Obama has a double digit lead. Most of the important states can be ‘eyeballed’ and a large number of polls can be compared. That should give a sense of where the state appears to be headed. To be sure, all the provisos about methods, assumptions, and variation discussed yesterday for national polls apply to state polls, which are almost always less exact than the national ones.

Some wonder about the “Bradley effect” as a systemic error, in which it is claimed people lie to pollsters if a candidate is black, suggesting that the black candidate will lose 5% between a poll and the result. I don’t believe the Bradley effect exists — there are other reasons for late swings (in that case a large quantity of absentee ballots returned with a GOP edge).  Moreover, that election was in 1982.

Now let’s get a bit more complex. A poll came out for Georgia from Rasmussen on October 23rd showing McCain with only a five point lead. Given the heavy early voting in Georgia, this could be a sign of an election night surprise – no one expects Georgia to go for Obama! Rasmussen interviewed 500 people, and it has a margin of error of 4.9%. Comparing with more recent polls, and it shows an improvement for McCain, but nothing dramatic.  On the 24th Inside Advantage showed Georgia with a one point Obama lead.  It was a one night poll with over 600 interviews, a margin of error of 3.8%, and shows the Republican with a two point lead in the Senate race (consistent with other polls).  This still could be an outlier, but the signs point to Georgia as a potential early indicator if Obama is going to have a blowout. 

A couple days ago a South Dakota poll showed McCain ahead 48-41. Another thing to note: anything under 50 shows that it isn’t ‘wrapped up.’ The poll was done by Mason Dixon, a reputable firm, and interviewed 800 voters with a 3.5% margin of error. Interestingly, they polled them on Oct. 13-15, before the latest upsurge in support for Obama. There are fewer polls to compare, and Bush won the state with 20% margins the last two elections, but in the case of an Obama landslide, South Dakota could be another surprise. Montana, also a GOP state, shows a poll with Obama leading by 5. But it’s done with a margin of error of 5%, with students in an upper level political science class doing the interviewing. This gives me a modicum of skepticism, especially given how young people are supporting Obama. Did they conduct all the interviews fairly? Montana is interesting, but I’ve got some skepticism of that poll.

Big Ten Battleground polls, also by universities, show large Obama leads for all the Big Ten states, including a 10 point Obama edge in Republican Indiana. The margin of error is 4%, 586 people interviewed, but it’s very different from polls earlier in the month showing 7 and 5 point leads for McCain. This suggests Indiana is in play, but a ten point Obama advantage? I’m skeptical – this could also be one of those outliers.

On the 24th a few polls arrived which one has to be cynical about.  ETV shows Obama with only one point leads in Virginia and North Carolina, suggesting movement towards McCain.  Yet the polling data was gathered in a period of over a month, since last September.  Given the volatility of the electorate, it may not catch the recent break for Obama.  On the other hand, it might show that McCain’s “hard” support is stronger than Obama’s, suggesting that McCain has a chance to win back those who have moved to the Democrat.  Another group of contrarian polls comes from Strategic Vision, showing McCain up 3 in Ohio, up 2 in Florida, up 6 in Georgia and down only 7 in Pennsylvania.  If true, this very good news for McCain.   However, this pollster is a partisan Republican pollster (on “Realclearpolitics” a partisan pollster is denoted with an “R” or a “D”).  That doesn’t mean it’s wrong, but the partisan pollsters on both sides tend to have a bias towards their party.   They could be looking at particular scenarios in their methodology, or perhaps, say, Democrats talking to a Democratic pollster don’t want to admit if they’re voting for the other party.   Still, I tend to expect a three or four point bias, and even with that built in, the states remain in tight races.

OK, let’s say you’ve got a map in front of you and you want to make predictions based on the polls (RPC also has an interactive map where you can play with awarding states to the candidates and make your own scenario).  I have two scenarios I use state polls to test.

Scenario 1: Can McCain win?  I’ve noted before, his strategy seems to be to flip Pennsylvania and then sweep the battleground “red” states that Republicans have won in the last two elections — Ohio, Indiana, Virginia, North Carolina, and Florida.  He’d also need six more votes, with possibilities coming from North Dakota 3, Montana 3 (likely) or Nevada 5 and Missouri 11 (less likely) Looking at the polls now, all of these contests look close enough that one can’t call the election for Obama yet.  Again, the national polls are meaningless at this level.  If McCain can run the table on these states he can win.  Yet Obama has leads by  6 in Ohio, 7 in Virginia, 10 in Pennsylvania, 2 in NC, 2 in Florida, and is dead even in Indiana (according to an average of recent polls).  This means McCain needs a significant uptick in support to pull it off.  How significant is unclear — state polls are generally not as accurate as national ones, and it could be that there is a systemic bias towards Obama (not due to political views, but in the methodological assumptions).   Still, this makes the job easy for Obama — it just takes a state (or in some scenarios 2) to derail any chance McCain has.

Scenario 2: an Obama landslide.  This would occur if Obama picks off states thought to be safe Republican.   NC and VA seem the most likely to flip, but for a true landslide the indicators would be Georgia early, Indiana later, and ultimately states like Montana and the Dakotas going blue.  State polls in each of these states make an Obama landslide possible as well.   In fact, the odds of Obama pulling of an almost unthinkable 400 electoral vote landslide (Republicans have done this, but it’s seemed out of reach for Democrats) seem even a bit better than the odds of a McCain victory.

So in reading the state polls now, an Obama victory seems likely, a McCain victory remains possible, and an Obama landslide is possible.  Even if McCain pulls off his Pennsylvania strategy, he could still stumble by losing the Omaha district in Nebraska and fall a vote short (which would yield a tie).  So, in watching the state polls, look to see trends.  If the polls are, on average, within 5 points, I’d say anything can happen.

For those of us who unabashedly follow and are fascinated by the ‘horserace’ aspect of elections, following this is addictively fun.  This is truly one of the most exciting electoral cycles of my lifetime, there are more new variables and uncertainties than in any contest I recall.  Right before the election I’ll blog about the states I’m going to be most interested in, and how one can tell early whether we’ll be looking at a McCain comeback, an Obama blowout, or a closer win for Obama.

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