Archive for category 2014 Election

Obama, the Republicans and Immigration

Obama addresses the nation on November 20, 2014

Obama addresses the nation on November 20, 2014

The politics behind President Obama’s executive order on immigration are fascinating, so I’ll quickly dispense with the policy stuff.  Yes, what he did is legal.  It probably should have been earlier, and it comes after he tried to work with Congress for six years to get a legislative solution.  No, this doesn’t go as far as comprehensive immigration reform – we’ll still need Congress to do that (and I suspect they will – but only in 2017) – but it definitely gives the US a more humane, compassionate and reasonable approach to immigration.

And the politics, well…as Spock would say, fascinating.

One theory is Obama is purposefully “trolling the Republican party.”  Not so much by the policy – Obama was going to do this anyway – but by not waiting until a bill was passed in December to continue government spending.   The logic goes like this:  the Republicans do not benefit politically when they try to shut down the government.   Most Republicans do not want a government shut down.   Already 2016 looks difficult for them, wounding themselves politically is something they want to avoid.

Moreover, the GOP remains divided.  They want to create the impression they are united and can be responsible, but the divisions are intense.   If those divisions can be brought into the open and be shown to bring chaos into Republican ranks, then the Democrats not only have a better shot to perhaps win back both houses in 2016, but Obama will benefit politically, giving him more leeway.  Already talk radio hosts, tea party activists and many in the House and Senate are calling for a government shut down.

One probable result of these changes in immigration is improved economic growth

One probable result of these changes in immigration is improved economic growth

This would, however, be a major shift of tone from a President who has been criticized for being too nice with Republicans, too unwilling to take unilateral action.  He is by nature a consensus builder and he has tried to use pressure and persuasion with Republican leaders who make ultimatums and refuse to compromise.   It’s not that they don’t want to compromise, but they don’t have their House caucus under control.  To make significant compromises would be to face a rebellion, and Speaker Boehner would prefer to lead a “do-nothing” Congress with at least the illusion of party unity than one gets things done, but further divides and weakens the GOP.

So the White House may believe: a) there is nothing to gain by trying to work with this Congress – it’ll be no different than the last one; b) it’s now or never, we have two years to continue our agenda; and c) if we act now and inspire anger in the GOP base, then the  party will be divided, play with the fire of a government shut down, and ultimately be weakened going into 2016.

On top of that, Latinos will be thankful, will see and get angry at the rhetoric coming from the right, and turn out in record numbers to vote in Democrats in 2016.   The Republicans will claim the Democrats are “bribing Hispanics,” but that will be even more insulting.  The result: a weakened GOP and a revived Democratic party, already recovering from the 2014 election and realizing that overall the direction of the country still favors the Democrats.

To be sure, Obama wouldn’t have done this if he thought it was bad policy.  This could be another aspect of his legacy that one day shines brightly, despite the controversy now.  It could also make it easier for the GOP to actually decide to pass a bi-partisan immigration policy that has more of what they want, realizing they get nothing if they just complain.  If the Republicans did that, they might find it easier to win over Latino voters in the future.

Too harsh a response and Republicans could help push record numbers of Latinos to vote Democratic in 2016

Too harsh a response and Republicans could help push record numbers of Latinos to vote Democratic in 2016

To Boehner and McConnell, they have to somehow satisfy their right wing (Boehner calling Obama ‘the most lawless President in history’ shows at least he’ll use their rhetoric) but chart a path that shows the country that the Republicans aren’t a bunch of angry whackos who can’t be trusted with the steering wheel.  This is a real test of whether or not the GOP can actually use their new majority effectively.

Clearly Obama is still very relevant and willing to use his power.   Senator McConnell said the President is ignoring the will of the voters (the relatively small number of voters who voted in the midterm), but the Majority Leader should be reminded that Obama won elections with significant majorities twice.   That means he has been entrusted to follow his best judgment.

It’s also interesting how fickle politics can be.  Just over two weeks ago Republicans were overjoyed and Democrats demoralized by the 2014 Midterm elections.   Between the defeat of the Keystone pipeline, the China-US climate deal and now bold leadership from the President on immigration, it’s the Republicans feeling angry and upset, and liberals light on their feet.   But that could change just as quickly.

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Liberals – Chillax!

McConnell and Boehner, the leaders of the Senate and House

McConnell and Boehner will lead the Senate and House in the next Congress

Although I held out hope, the result of the election was not a surprise.  The Republicans had a good night – the map was on their side, it’s the six year curse on the President’s party, and the Democrats ran a strategically bad campaign.  Rather than arguing for policy and supporting the President, they ran scared.  The result?  Moderates figured they didn’t stand for anything, and the base was repulsed.  Especially Black and Latino voters stayed home.   Even then so many states stayed very close until the end, it clearly wasn’t a massive GOP wave.

Yet to hear people on the left talk, the election was a disaster.   The Republicans hold the House and Senate!  Scott, Walker and LePage were re-elected as tea party governors!   The country is going the wrong way, people are ignorant, big money is warping our system, and the media is shilling for the right, etc.

My response to that?  Chill people!  The sky isn’t falling, and there are a lot of reasons for optimism.  Don’t make yesterday’s Republican victory out to be more than it is.  Here’s why:

1.  The House has always led Republican obstructionism, with Senate Republicans able to say that they can’t do more because the Democrats were in control.  Now the Senate has no excuse – if they are willing to compromise, real progress can be made.

2.  Obama has no incentive to capitulate.  He’s not running again.  Especially the first year, look for him to be aggressive with the use of executive orders and other unilateral actions.   Obama may do more to make liberals happy this coming year than the last six put together – in part because if he doesn’t do it now, he’ll never have the chance, and in part to pressure the GOP: If you don’t compromise, I’ll act!

3.  In 2016 the Democrats will have the map on their side, unlike this year.   In many ways, the surprise of the election was that the Democrats were able to keep so many states so close.   Of the 34 Senate seats up in 2016, 24 will be Republican, only 10 Democratic.  Of the ten Democratic seats, only Nevada and Colorado are likely to be in danger, and those are both states that voted for Obama in 2012.   Of the Republican seats, nine are in states won by Obama in 2012, and many others could be in play.  In other words, 2016 might be a mirror image of 2014.  Remember: Democrats do much better in Presidential election years.

4.  It’s not outside the realm of possibility that the Democrats could retake the House in 2014.  They’d need to win forty seats, something difficult to do – but if the GOP doesn’t compromise and gets seen as obstructionist, it’ll be possible.

obamaveto

5.  The President has veto power.  He’s a firewall against a Republican agenda.   With the Republicans in control – the onus is on them to prove they can provide a productive legislative branch.  If they don’t, they’ll be that much more likely to have a devastating year in 2016.

6.  The Republicans are moving away from the tea party.  If you look at the candidates they choose, the effort to control the message, and the anger about, say Thad Cochran, it looks like the GOP recognizes that the tea party has no staying power.   I don’t think the GOP is there yet, but they’re in the process of moving away from ideological dogma towards true conservatism.

7.   The country’s culture and demographics still point to a progressive future.  It was virtually a non-story yesterday that a Federal Judge ruled Missouri’s ban on same sex marriages illegal.  The culture has changed that much.   In the grand scheme of things, the trajectory of the country has not changed.

Not convinced?

Try this:  there is nothing you can do to change the election result anyway!   Unless you invent a time machine and can go back and tell Democrats that their timid strategy of ignoring Obama rather than embracing him hurt more than helped, what’s done is done.  Why waste energy by feeling depressed and angry?   It not only doesn’t help, but that energy could better be directed in a positive way.  Practice pragmatism:  Accept what you can’t change, change what you can.  And there is a lot we can do!

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Can Larry Pressler Win?

Former GOP Senator Larry Pressler is running as an independent in South Dakota, claiming to be a "passionate centrist."  Could his candidacy make a difference?

South Dakota’s three way race for the Senate looks like it should be an easy victory for the GOP.   Republican Mike Rounds had 45% in the latest poll, well ahead of Democrat Rick Weiland at 31% and independent Larry Pressler at 21%.

Yet three way races can be tricky, and if any state could produce a stunner Tuesday, independent minded South Dakota would be it.  It’s a small state (population 840,000), much less dependent on advertising than the rest of the country.   Larry Pressler has been dramatically outspent, 58 to 1 against Rounds, and 19 to 1 against Weiland.   Yet that doesn’t matter.

The two largest state newspapers, the Sioux Falls Argus Leader and Rapid City Journal endorsed Pressler this weekend.   South Dakota’s “Walter Cronkite” – 30 year news anchor Steve Hemmingsen did something he never did before – endorse a candidate: Pressler.  All this happened since the last poll came out.   Beyond that, Rounds is in trouble due to an on going FBI investigation on improper work visas while Pressler is touted for being the only Senator to refuse a bribe during the infamous ABSCAM sting in the late seventies.  While many politicians were arrested and convicted, Pressler refused and reported the incident to the FBI.

Pressler made a brief run for the GOP nomination for the Presidency in 1980, highlighting the good press from his honesty after Abscam

Pressler made a brief run for the GOP nomination for the Presidency in 1980, highlighting the good press from his honesty after Abscam

Former FBI investigator John Good came to South Dakota to endorse Pressler, highlighting Round’s FBI troubles.   Pressler has always focused on his relationship with the Lakota Sioux and when in office did better than most Republicans in winning the Indian vote.  He has the largest native American newspaper endorsement as well, the Native Sun News.   Tim Giago, long a leading spokesman for the Sioux, wrote warmly in endorsing Pressler.

My point:  in a small state like South Dakota, full of independent minded voters, willing to change their minds and take a chance, it is not outside the realm of possibility that Pressler could either win, or become a spoiler.

32 year old Vietnam Vet Pressler was first elected to the House in 1974, as a “new broom that would sweep clean” in a capital burdened by the Watergate affair – a year otherwise difficult for Republicans.   In 1978 he successfully won the Senate seat he would keep until 1996.   That year he lost to Democrat Tim Johnson, whose retirement makes his former seat open.

Joining the Senate at age 36, Pressler was a rising start early in his career

Joining the Senate at age 36, Pressler was a rising start early in his career

 

I worked for Pressler as a Senate aide from 1983 to 85 in Washington.   He was a moderate Republican, more along the lines of Olympia Snowe than the conservative wing of the party.   Working briefly on Indian Affairs, I remember talking a few times to Tim Giago, who informed me that while it’s best to use the nation name (Lakota Sioux, for example), ‘native American’ was no better than ‘Indian.”  More importantly, I grew up in South Dakota, and most of my family lives there.

The state’s political culture defies easy labels.  On the one hand, it is one of the most Republican states in the union.   Yet it gave us Senator George McGovern, Senator Tom Daschle and Senator Tim Johnson.   The reason?   South Dakotans vote first for the man (or woman) than party.  To have any interest in politics in South Dakota is to have not only shaken hands with most politicians, but to have chatted with them.

Pressler defies easy labels as well, putting him in sync with his state.  A life long Republican, he endorsed Obama twice and supports Obamacare.  He certainly isn’t liberal, however, and supports the idea of working to build compromise and fix the tone in Washington.

Candidates visit even the smallest towns; the personal touch is of paramount importance.   Again, if there is any state in the country where the polls could be proven so wrong, South Dakota is it.

If you've never been to South Dakota - plan a visit.  Between the surreal beauty of the Badlands, Mt. Rushmore, buffalo herds, the black hills, prairies and Laura Ingalls Wilder sites, the state is an amazing tourist destination!

If you’ve never been to South Dakota – plan a visit. Between the surreal beauty of the Badlands, Mt. Rushmore, buffalo herds, the black hills, prairies and Laura Ingalls Wilder sites, the state is an amazing tourist destination!

Does this mean I think Pressler will win?   No.  But I wouldn’t rule it out.   The nature of South Dakota politics and the volatility of any three way races means large shifts can happen near the end of a campaign.

So don’t expect, but don’t be surprised, if the big story Tuesday night is of the shocking late surge and victory of independent Larry Pressler to reclaim the seat he lost 18 years ago.

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Senate Prediction: Democrats 52 Republicans 48

Michelle Nunn, the Democratic hope in Georgia

Michelle Nunn, the Democratic hope in Georgia

Every election cycle I make predictions right before the election.  In 2008 I predicted Obama would win with 410 electoral votes.  He had 365.  In 2010 I didn’t post predictions, but posted lists of races to watch, and different scenarios.  In 2012 I predicted Obama would win with 347 electoral votes.   He won with 332.

I also predicted the Senate races in 2012.   I predicted the Democrats would come out with a 56 – 44 majority, counting the two independents with the Democrats.   That was seen as wildly optimistic (especially that I picked Heidi Heitkamp and Tammy Baldwin), but I was only one seat off – and I knew my prediction of Richard Carmona in Arizona was iffy.  I did not try to predict the House in any election, though in 2010 I was skeptical that the wave would be as big as it was.

So my track record is: a) my predictions aren’t bad; and b) they are slightly biased in favor of the Democrats.   That makes sense – subconsciously everyone thinks that what they want is more likely.  Yet I do have reasons for my prediction.  So here goes:

First – really safe seats, ones NOT up for election:  34 Democrats (including 2 indies who caucus with the Democrats), 30 Republicans

SAFE REPUBLICAN  (asterix = pickup)

Alabama, Idaho, Maine, Mississippi, Montana*, Nebraska, both Oklahoma races, both South Carolina races, Tennessee, Texas, West Virginia*, Wyoming
(44 either not running or safe)

LIKELY REPUBLICAN

South Dakota* (45 not running, safe, or likely)

SAFE DEMOCRATS

Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island, Virginia
(45 either not running or safe)

First, note how there are few states that are just likely.  South Dakota probably is safe Republican, but three way races are problematic and volatile, so I can’t quite call it safe.  But this leaves us with a 45 – 45 split, and 10 races that will decide it.  Democrats must win five of those ten to keep the Senate, Republicans must win six.  So here are my predictions:

Republican victories

Arkansas – Tom Cotton over Mark Pryor by 4
Kentucky – Mitch McConnell over Alison Grimes by 6
Louisiana – Bill Cassidy over Mary Landrieu by 6 in a run off

Democratic victories

Alaska – Mark Begich over Dan Sullivan by 1
Colorado – Mark Udall over Cory Gardner by 1
Iowa – Bruce Braley over Joni Ernst by 2
Georgia – Michelle Nunn over David Perdue by 0.2% in a run off
Kansas – Greg Orman over Pat Roberts by 6 (indie – likely to caucus with the Democrats)
North Carolina – Kay Hagan over Thom Tillis by 4.5
New Hampshire – Jeanne Shaheen over Scott Brown by 4

Senate result:  Democratic Caucus 52, Republicans 48

Of the Democratic victories, Georgia, Colorado and Alaska are the ones least likely.  If I’m wrong on those three – and current polls suggest I will be, then the Republicans will control the Senate 51-49.

Why did I choose as I did?  Digging into differences in the ground game and its importance in Alaska lead me to think Begich will pull it out.  In Colorado the mail in ballot should help Udall, who also has a good get out the vote machine.   Polls in Colorado have under-counted Democrats in the past.   In Georgia I think the state is shifting purple, and Michelle Nunn is in a position to pull off an upset – she has been up in some recent polls.  Iowa is neck neck in the polls now, but early voting seems to be favoring the Democrats and bringing out more voters that didn’t vote in 2010.  There is an outlier that just came out showing Ernst up 7; five other polls show shifting leads, very small.

To be clear: I know I’m predicting an upset.   I do believe this upset is going to happen.  Last week the 6-1 Dallas Cowboys met the 2-5 Washington Redskins in Dallas.  Very few predicted a Redskins upset, but they beat the Cowboys.   (Aside:  I predict the Vikings will beat the Redskins Sunday – and that is a blatantly partisan wishful thinking prediction!)

If there is a GOP wave, as some speculate, Republicans could take all of these races and have a 55-45 majority.  I’m obviously not expecting a wave, but it’s certainly possible.   Tuesday we’ll know!

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Maine’s Weird Race for Governor

Senator Angus King with Democratic candidate for Congress Emily Cain

Senator Angus King with Democratic candidate for Congress Emily Cain

Supporters of Governor Paul Le Page are livid.   They are mad at Angus King.   They have no reason to be, except that they fear their candidate will have a harder path to victory.  That’s because of the weird twists and turns of Maine’s gubernatorial contest.

Senator Angus King is an independent who caucuses with the Democrats.  King also served two terms as an independent Governor in Maine.   King, who has endorsed Democrat Emily Cain for the second district seat, earlier endorsed independent candidate Elliot Cutler for governor.    He’s also endorsed independent Larry Pressler in South Dakota.

Le Page supporters know that in a two way race between their man and Democratic candidate Mike Michaud, Le Page has no chance.  He is not the typical Maine Republican, he’s a tea party Republican who has made his mark by refusing federal funds to expand medicare, hurting both Maine citizens and hospitals who need the money.  Other Republicans, like Ohio Governor John Kaisich, praise medicare expansion – and have chosen to benefit from it.  That and his embarrassing quotes, bullying and temper tantrums make Le Page an unpopular governor.

Yet he could win the election if the opposition to Le Page splits their vote between Elliot Cutler and Mike Michaud.  The GOP has been pouring money into support for Cutler for the very purpose of undermining Michaud.     The anger against King comes because he changed his endorsement from Cutler to Michaud.

Maine's governor Le Page is a polarizing figure in Maine politics.

Maine’s governor Le Page is a polarizing figure in Maine politics.

Supposedly King was being a “traitor” by changing sides, or showing “no principle.”  That is absurd.   King supported Cutler as an independent.  But in a press conference yesterday Cutler admitted he was a long shot, and said voters should vote their conscience.  King, realizing that he did not want to see a second Le Page term, came out and changed his endorsement to Mike Michaud – following his conscience, as Cutler advised.

That is a principled, rational response to the conditions in this election.   King may have even talked with Cutler about it.  So why the fury against King?   It’s simply an emotional reaction to the sudden realization that the anti-Le Page vote may not be as divided as Le Page supporters hoped.  King’s change is symbolic of the possibility that many Cutler supporters will switch to Michaud, thereby making it much less likely Le Page will win.  The anger isn’t really with King, it’s with the possibility Michaud will be Maine’s next governor.

Mike Michaud, Maines's first openly gay candidate for governor, stands to benefit from King's endorsement.

Mike Michaud, Maines’s first openly gay candidate for governor, stands to benefit from King’s endorsement.

The dynamics of the three way race remain uncertain.  In 2010 Le Page barely bested Cutler, with each getting about 39%.  The Democrat Libby Mitchell was back with 22%.  Cutler almost won – hence he tried again.  Yet Michaud, a popular Congressman, is a much stronger candidate than Mitchell, and Cutler was never able to seriously challenge the two leaders.   The polls show a very tight race at the top – the Huffpost pollster has the race as 50-50, with Le Page and Michaud both averaging 40% in the polls.  Cutler has remained well below 20%, down to 7% in one poll.

It says something profound when one side thinks it can only win if it divides the opposition – Le Page supporters implicitly admit their candidate would not win a two person race.  Yet this also shows a weakness of a plurality vote; a third candidate messes up the works, creating unintended consequences – Le Page’s 2010 victory is an example of that.

The real solution is to ditch the plurality vote and create a run off election of the two top candidates if no one reaches 50%.  They do that in other states, we should do that in Maine.   The odds are good that this move away from Cutler will help Michaud win – but any three way race is hard to predict. Allowing a run off election would help independents because people could truly vote their conscience in the first round, and not need to worry about strategic voting.  Hopefully Maine will move in that direction in the next legislative session.

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Who Will Control the Senate?

Early voting suggests that turn out will be very good in places with close contests

Based on early voting patterns, it’s likely that voter turn out will be very good in places with close contests

The midterm elections of 2014 look tailor made for the GOP.   The President has low approval ratings, the public is in fear mode over ebola and ISIS, Democrats are structurally in an election that would be difficult anyway.   They are defending 21 Senate seats, the Republicans are defending only 15.  The Democrats are defending seats in traditional Republican and “split” states, while the GOP is defending in states that went for Romney in 2012.   Three states the Democrats are defending: South Dakota, Montana and West Virginia look all but certain to go to the Republicans.

Given all this one would expect November 4th to be a huge blow out victory for the GOP.   And it certainly could be just that.  However, the Democrats remain tantalizingly close in the polls, and there are many scenarios in which the GOP makes up on November 5th disappointed.   Instead of a wave, which many Republicans expect, the water could turn out to be still and flat.

Three things should give the Democrats hope:  1) In Senate elections the candidates matter more than the party to swing voters; 2) in close races voter turnout is likely to be higher than usual – Democratic enthusiasm has rebounded, unlike 2010; and 3) the polls are so tight that get out the vote efforts could make a difference.

North Carolina's democratic incumbent Kay Hagan continues to hold a slight but consistent lead in the polls

North Carolina’s democratic incumbent Kay Hagan continues to hold a slight but consistent lead in the polls

Currently the Senate is split 53-45 in favor of the Democrats.  Two independents caucus with the Democrats, so it’s really 55-45.   That means Republicans need to win six seats to gain control (Vice President Biden would be the tiebreakers if they won only 5).    Of the 21 seats they are defending, the Democrats look secure in only 11 of them.   Of the ten remaining, Republicans look like they are coasting to victory in three of them (though with a three way race, South Dakota could surprise).

Currently there are ten seats “in play” – three Republican seats have the potential for a Democratic pick up.    Each of the two parties each can only be reasonably sure of 45 seats at this point.   To gain a majority Republicans need to win 6 of those 10 races, Democrats need to win five.

Assessing the individual races

Alaska:  Republican Dan Sullivan seemed to eek out a slight lead in recent polls, though the most recent poll (with a low sample size) showed Democratic incumbent Mark Begich up by 6.   Given the advantage incumbents have, Begich has a real shot.  Going strictly with the numbers the Huffpost pollster (here after HP) gives Sullivan a 62% chance to win.

Arkansas:  Republican Tom Cotton pulled ahead of incumbent Mark Pryor in recent weeks, but hasn’t been able to sustain a lead.  This is why the GOP isn’t making this a slam dunk, they can’t seem to pull away from the Democrats.  The latest poll has Pryor up by 1 – it’s close.  Again, given the advantage incumbents have, this is winnable for the Democrats.  HP also has this as a 62% likely GOP win.

Colorado:  Another race giving Republicans both hope and headaches.  Cory Gardner appeared to polling solid leads, even up 7% in one poll.  But four of the last five polls show incumbent Mark Udall with a 1% lead.  With Colorado’s mail in voting, this may be one where voter turnout helps the Democrats.  It’s definitely winnable for Udall, though HP gives Gardner a 61% chance.

Georgia:  Two new polls tell starkly different stories.  One has Republican David Perdue up 8%, another (Rasmussen, with twice the sample size) has the race tied.   Polls have shown Democrat Michelle Nunn or Perdue up 2 or 3, no one has had a sustained lead.   Given demographic change in Georgia and high minority voter turnout in early voting, Nunn has a good shot.  HP gives Perdue a 64% to win.

Republican Joni Ernst maintains a small lead in Iowa - but hasn't been able to pull away

Republican Joni Ernst maintains a small lead in Iowa – but hasn’t been able to pull away

Iowa:  Another race that seems to be shifting.  Republican Joni Ernst had a week or so of consistent leads in the polls.  Small, but consistent.  In the last week Democrat Bruce Braley has polled better, the latest poll has him up 4.  It appears Iowa may be shifting towards the Democrats, though HP still gives Ernst a 56% chance of victory.

Kansas:  A deeply red state with an incumbent Republican running, this should be a no-brainer.  Yet right now Greg Orman, running as an independent, looks like he’s holding a small lead over Pat Roberts.   This race is too close to call, even HP has both with a 50% chance of winning.

Kentucky:  Another sign of GOP trouble – that Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell is in trouble!   Lately his well oiled machine has put him ahead in almost all the polls, between 2 and 8%.  This is a longer shoot for Democrat Alison Grimes, but it’s close enough that it can’t be seen as likely Republican.  HP has a 66% chance of a McConnell win.

Louisiana:  Due to the fact that the top two vote getters compete in a run off, it’ll be December before we know who wins, but it is looking increasingly unlikely that Mary Landrieu will save her seat from Republican challenger Bill Cassidy.  However, Landrieu has appeared dead before and the race may shift in tone once they go into run off mood.  At this point, though, it looks good for the GOP, and HP gives Cassidy a 68% chance of victory.

North Carolina:  Kay Hagan has managed to stay ahead of Republican challenger Thom Tillis, but not by much.  HP gives Hagan a 58% chance to keep her seat, but it would not be a shock of Tillis pulled off a victory.

New Hampshire:  Democrat incumbent Jeanne Shaheen has also managed to stay ahead of Republican challenger Scott Brown in most polls, though as with Hagan it remains too close to call.  HP gives Shaheen a 59% chance of victory.

At stake: which of these old white men will run the Senate

At stake: which of these old white men will run the Senate

What do we make of these ten races?   At this point the Democrats only look ahead in two of them, according to the polls.  If Orman won Kansas as well, that would be three of the ten for the Democrats, seven for the GOP, and the Republicans in control of the Senate 52 – 48 (assuming the two independents continue to caucus with the Democrats).    However, the Democrats would only need two of the remaining seven to hold on to their control.  And at least five of the seven look very possible for the Democrats.

In other words – this election is going down to the wire.  If the last week does bring forth a Republican wave, the GOP could win some that look good for the Democrats now, and have up to 55 seats.  If the Democrats manage to pull ahead in these close races, they could end up with a more comfortable majority, maybe as much as 52 or 53 seats.  Neither is a sure thing.

A wave seems unlikely because the economy is good, people give the Democratic party higher approval ratings than the Republican party, and there is no tea party zeal or raw anger like there was in 2010.   But even if there is no wave, it’s an uphill battle for the Democrats to try to hold the Senate.

That the Democrats are this close in so many races should give them heart, even if they end up losing the Senate.  That’s because in 2016 it’ll be the Republicans defending twice the seats as the Democrats!   I will make predictions the day before the election, I want to see if there is any momentum shift in the polls in this last week.  But with so many close races, election night should be exciting!

 

 

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Will the Ground Game Help the Democrats?

voterturnout

As a football fan I believe very much in having a strong ground game.  I’ve always thought games are won or lost by the offensive line.  Yes, Super Bowl champions also need good skill players, the line can’t do it alone.  But the ability to control time of possession and keep the other team’s offense off the field can provide a real advantage late in the game when players tire.

It is with that in mind that I consider a New York Times article which notes that Democrats are spending far more than Republicans on their ground game – early voting, voter registration, absentee voting and of course election day get out the vote efforts.  Republicans are focusing media, especially television ads.

As a social scientist, I find this an interesting test.  The Democrats have always been hurt in the midterms because their voters are less likely to vote than Republicans.   In Presidential elections the turn out is good, but it drops off dramatically in the midterms.

turnoutmidterm

So the Democrats are placing a bet.   They believe that if they invest heavily in their ground game, they’ll alter the election dynamic and fare much better than polls anticipate.  Pollsters show very tight races in at least ten Senate contests.   If the Democratic get out the vote effort changes the usual voting pattern, Democrats might out perform poll expectations.  The polls weight their results based on anticipated voter turnout, after all.  Democrats are trying to change that dynamic.

Consider: young voters tend to vote Democratic.  In 2008 youth turnout (18 and 19 year olds) was 51%.  In 2010 it dropped to 20%.   Voter turnout was back up in 2012.  If you expand the age to 18-29, Obama won with 60% of that vote.  If those voters stay home in 2014, the Republicans will have a very good year.

raceturnout

The same is true when it comes to race; voter turnout among blacks surpassed white turnout in 2012 for the first time.  Youth and black voters were a major reason Obama won handily.  If the voter demographics were the same as they had been in 1980, Romney would have won a landslide victory.   Yet those voters tend not to vote in midterms.  This gives the GOP an advantage, and helps explain the discrepancy between the 2010 and 2012 elections.

voter turnout

So the Democrats are trying to wage a different form of midterm fight.  Rather than trying to win votes (i.e., market share) by advertising heavily and hoping to convince voters (consumers) that their brand is best, they’re putting money into trying to get new customers into the market with more contact on the ground.

Will it work?  It’s probably a better strategy than simply matching the Republican ad blitz.  It’s not clear how persuasive campaign ads are to swing voters, most people have made their minds up.

Consider the South Dakota race.   Despite being outspent by 13 to 1, former Republican Senator Larry Pressler, running now as an independent, has surged to 25% in the polls, becoming a real factor.   While one can attribute this climb to skillful media use, name recognition and dissatisfaction with the gridlock in Washington, clearly media spending is NOT the reason he rose in the polls.

So this is an interesting test.   The GOP is focusing on the air waves, the Democrats on getting out the vote.    If the Democrats out perform polls and do better than expected in key races, that will be strong evidence that emphasis on the ground game pays off.  If not, well, the Democrats need to find a good QB for 2016!

 

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What Cochran’s Victory Means

cochran

On Thad Cochran’s fourth birthday Pearl Harbor was attacked by the Japanese, sending the US into World War II.   Like most Mississippians of that era, Cochran grew up a Democrat.  In those days the south produced very conservative Democrats who eschewed the Republican party because it was the party of Abraham Lincoln.   Cochran was a success at almost everything he undertook: he was an Eagle Scout, majored in Psychology (minored in Poli-Sci), served a stint in the Navy and ultimately graduated from the University of Mississippi Law School.

In the sixties the country was changing and Cochran recognized that the Republican party was increasingly reflecting the view of southern conservatives.   He became one of the early converts to the GOP, winning a seat in the House of Representatives in 1972 in a close race.

After three terms in Congress Cochran successfully ran for the Senate, replacing retiring Democrat James Eastland.  That made Cochran one of the first of the new breed of southern Republicans to get elected.  Given the Democrats’ choice of George McGovern to run in 1972, the next decade would see a massive shift to the Republican party in the south.

South Dakota's George McGovern was seen as way too liberal for southern Democrats, speeding a shift in the south to the GOP

South Dakota’s George McGovern was seen as way too liberal for southern Democrats, speeding a shift in the south to the GOP

Southern Democrats were in something of a civil war then.   The establishment Democratic candidate opposing Cochran was Maurice Dantin.  He was supported by Eastland and part of the good old boy southern Democratic tradition.   Yet the Democrats were also now the party of the civil rights movement, and Charles Evers, a black liberal, ran as an independent.  This split the Democratic vote and allowed Cochran to win with a plurality.

A younger Thad Cochran campaigns with Nancy Reagan

A younger Thad Cochran campaigns with Nancy Reagan

Time once labeled Cochran one of the most effective Senators.  Always a behind the scenes “persuader,” he brought pork to Mississippi (he was a master of the earmark) and earned a strong 88% rating from the American Conservative Union.   He developed considerable influence in both Mississippi and the Senate, and was generally well liked.   In 1990 he ran unopposed, and after his narrow first win his margins were: 61-39, 100-0, 71-27, 85-13, and 61-39.   He was never given a serious challenge in a state Republican primary.

Now as the GOP is engulfed in its own civil war, Cochran faced a surprisingly serious challenge from Tea Party backed State Senator Chris McDaniel.   In the state primary, a candidate must win a majority to gain the nomination.   In the first round, McDaniel won a plurality, defeating Cochran 49.57 – 48.88.   That is enticingly close to a majority, but 50% + 1 vote is needed for a majority.   In the second round, Cochran prevailed 50.9% to 49.1%.

Chris McDaniel - photo from a fascinating Salon article on the tea party.

Chris McDaniel – photo from a fascinating Salon article on the tea party.

This result was not expected.   Most polls showed McDaniel comfortably ahead by 5 or 6%, with national groups questioning giving continued support to Cochran.   McDaniel went into the day the favorite, and came out defeated.   He is supposedly considering legal action against Cochran because Cochran’s team reached out to black voters and Democrats.  In their mind a true conservative Republican was defeated because an old establishment Republican got support from black voters.   It appears they are right – the numbers indicate that black voters probably did give Cochran his margin of victory.  They may not have been Republican, but they didn’t like McDaniel’s views.

So what does Cochran’s victory mean?   Well, coming so soon after Eric Cantor’s loss, it shows that the establishment is not dead, and the tea party has less influence on the Republican party than any time since its 2009 inception.    There is a sense of desperation within the movement that their ideals are under threat from their own party leadership.

Cochran’s victory means that the GOP “civil war” is about to enter it’s final stage.   The tea party/far right sees politics as good vs. evil. They do not want compromise and pragmatic governance, they are driven by ideology and many of them want a kind of political holy war – defeat the liberals completely and bring America back to their image of what should be/once was.   That image is more nostalgic fantasy than reality, but they are convinced they are the only ones with the proper conception of what America should be.

The tea party is starting to recognize that THEY are the RINOs!

The tea party is starting to recognize that THEY are the RINOs!

When they thought they could dominate their party and defeat the Democrats, their disdain for RINOs (Republicans in name only) meant primary challenges and, more often than not, electoral defeat at the hands of the Democrats.   This led the establishment to fight back – they can tolerate the extremists, but they can’t tolerate continual electoral defeat – and now the tea party realizes that they are a minority in their own party, and Eric Cantor notwithstanding, losing clout.

The last act of this civil war will be the tea party going all out to fight against the GOP leadership.   It will either lead to a bitter primary season in 2016 as the Tea Party goes for the big prize – the Presidential nomination.  Or if truly cut out, more radical elements will likely try a third party, convinced they are the future of the conservative movement – that the Grand Old Party is obsolete.   Either way, the Tea Party will lose, and the Republican establishment will reassert control.

Ironically, this would be a Republican version of what helped bring Thad Cochran to Congress in 1972.  The Democrats had been engaged in their own civil war thanks to the anti-war and civil rights movements.   The 1968 Chicago convention started a fight that ended after a tortured 1972 Democratic Convention rejected party moderates and nominated the fiercely anti-war liberal George McGovern.  This created widespread dissent within the party and the Democrats had one of their worst Presidential elections in history.

With eerily fascistic visuals, the tea party's desire to "take back America" increasingly collides with the Republican desire to impact public policy

With eerily fascistic visuals, the tea party’s desire to “take back America” increasingly collides with the Republican desire to impact public policy

The good news for the Republicans is that if history is a guide, the election isn’t a direct threat to their holdings in the House and Senate.   The  House Democrats did lose 13 seats in 1972, but kept their majority.   Senate Democrats actually gained two seats.   People did not automatically take dissent with the Presidential candidate as a reason to distrust their own representative.

Thad Cochran’s career will thus bookend the two biggest internal civil wars the major US parties had in the post-war era:  The Democrats in the late sixties and early seventies, followed by the Republicans since 2010.  And he represents the side that wins those civil wars – the party establishment.

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2014 is not 2010

This my first post on “campaign 2014,’ analyzing the races and following the election cycle.   One thing is certain from the start – 2014 is a lot different than 2010.

Some things are similar.   Right now things are looking good for Republicans to make gains in the House and perhaps win the Senate. It is a midterm election, which usually brings a more conservative demographic to the polls, something also good for the GOP.   President Obama’s job approval rating is below 50%, which usually means that his party is in trouble in any midterm.   But there the similarities end.   The differences are important and offer some optimism about what has been a dysfunctional political system.

Gone is the tea party rage and passion

Gone is the tea party rage and passion

1.  The tea party is a spent force.    In 2010 the tea party was surging!   Anger over the passage of Obamacare was palpable, and rallies were being held across the country for a new movement to “take back America.”   Entertainer Glenn Beck was at the height of his popularity, calling for a movement to fundamentally transform the US to more conservative/traditional values.    Now Beck says he’s sick of politics and wants to produce movies.

Tea party approval is down at around 20%.   More importantly, the anger, rage, and rallies have been replaced by typical political banter.   In 2010 and 2012 the tea party actually hurt the GOP by producing candidates that could not win.   Sharon Angle, Todd Akin, Richard Mourdock, Christine O’Donnell and Ken Buck all lost races a moderate Republican would likely have won.  That would have put the Senate at 50-50 today!

When the tea party downed Senator Lugar in the primary, they handed a certain Republican seat to a Democrat

When the tea party downed Senator Lugar in the primary, they handed a certain Republican seat to a Democrat

The good news for the Republicans is that tea party influence is waning, and it looks like strong establishment candidates have been recruited.  The bad news is that they’ll lose some of the passion the stronger tea party brought to 2010; it isn’t likely to be any kind of massive wave election.   But they now have a real shot at the Senate.

2.   The trend lines are different

In April 2010 President Obama’s job approval was at about 50%.  By election time it was down to 44%.   In general, continued anger at an economy that had not started a real recovery, tea party passion, and a general sense that things were getting worse rather than better caused a backlash against Obama and the Democrats.    Now the economy is poised to increase the rate of job growth in the summer, and President Obama’s approval is recovering from its lows with the rollout problems of Obamacare enrollment.  Obama’s approval went as low as 40%, but has slowly recovered.   As the story line becomes more positive about Obamacare, the Republican hope that the issue will drive the election is fading.   The trend can’t be called good for the Democrats, but unlike 2010 it doesn’t suggest any sort of wave.    It will be a normal election cycle.

3.   Nothing is set in stone

In retrospect, 2010’s wave for the GOP was inevitable.   A poor economy, a President with low approval ratings, anger and passion among the opposition in a midterm election which always sees a higher proportion of Republicans vote was a recipe for a certain GOP win.   This year, events can still drive the election.   Strong summer economic growth and more good Obamacare news might boost Democratic chances.   A White House scandal could harm Democrats, as could new bad news about Obamacare.    So as of April, what we don’t know about the 2014 election cycle far outweighs what we do know.

Will the Senate Go GOP?

senate

Now that conspiracy theories about skewed polls have been demolished, even conservatives recognize the power behind Nate Silver’s prediction methods.   Click the link and read his analysis – it’s the best you’ll find at this point, and he admits that it is very close, and a variety of things could skew the elections either way.    At this point he predicts 50.8 Republicans and 49.2 Democrats.  However, if you don’t want to read his in depth analysis, here is my perspective:

The Democrats hold a 55-45 majority.  That means the Republicans have to pick up six seats.   That is a tall order.   21 Democratic and 15 Republican seats are up for election (that’s more than 33 due to some special elections), which means that the Republicans have real opportunities.   In Montana, South Dakota and West Virginia open seats (or in the case of Montana, recently filled by someone appointed by the Governor) are seen as almost certain to shift to the Republicans as these are strong red states.   Two other open seats, Iowa and Georgia, will probably stay Democratic and Republican respectively.

That would put the Republicans at 48 states, three short of a majority.    So far, only one Republican incumbent looks to be in real danger, that is ironically Mitch McConnell.  Five Democratic Senators are in trouble, and one Democratic open seat (Michigan) has no clear favorite.   So among those seven races, Republicans have to win four seats to gain a majority.   That’s do-able, but not easy, especially in a normal election cycle.

Former GOP Senator Larry Pressler is running as an independent in South Dakota, claiming to be a "passionate centrist."  Could his candidacy make a difference?

Former GOP Senator Larry Pressler (1979-97) is running as an independent in South Dakota, claiming to be a “passionate centrist.” Could his candidacy make a difference?

First proviso:  In 2012 North Dakota was considered certain Republican for most of the year until Democrat Heidi Heitkamp ran a surprisingly strong campaign and squeaked out a victory.  So nothing is certain.

Second proviso:  There may be surprises.   Here in Maine Susan Collins is considered by most to be a very safe Republican hold.  However, she’s receiving strong opposition from Democrat Sheena Bellows, who has shown surprising fundraising prowess and organizing skills.   In Maine there is a lot of emotion against the incumbent Governor, meaning there is likely to be strong Democratic turnout.   It’s not likely (Collins had 61% in 2008), but is possible, that Bellows could be a real threat to Collins.   These are the kinds of “what ifs” that could benefit either party.

One can't discount surprises, like Democrat Sheena Bellows running a surprisingly strong campaign in Maine - a blue state - against Susan Collins.

One can’t discount surprises, like Democrat Sheena Bellows running a surprisingly strong campaign in Maine – a blue state – against Susan Collins.

The polling now shows Democrats Kay Hagan (NC), Mary Landrieu (LA) and Mark Pryor (AR) in the most trouble – but all are very close.   Mitch McConnell looks to be in trouble in Kentucky.  Democrats Begich (AK) and Udall (CO) have close races, but look better positioned.

Here’s the problem for the Republicans:  Incumbents do have a tendency to pull out close elections.  Mary Landrieu was endangered back in 2008 but ended up with a comfortable 7 point victory.  To be sure, that was a Presidential election year and she benefited from the higher turnout, but it’s always dangerous to underestimate an incumbent.

So, given that this is a ‘normal election cycle’ I suspect that the Republicans will fall short of gaining a majority – though they are likely to gain seats.  A 50-50 Senate is a real possibility.   Joe Biden, as President of the Senate (an official role of the Vice President) would have the deciding vote, but if the Democrats held on to that slim of a majority they’d be susceptible to losing it should a member die or resign.   At this point, though, the battle for the Senate looks to be the biggest 2014 election story.

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The Last Shutdown

The 1996 Clinton vs. Dole election may have been decided by the 1995 government shutdown

The 1996 Clinton vs. Dole election may have been decided by the 1995 government shutdown

In 1995 and into 1996 the government shut down after President Clinton vetoed budgets sent to him from the Republican House and Senate.  The first shut down was from November 14-19, 1995,  followed by a second from December 16, 1995 to January 6, 1996.  The Republicans suffered politically from that shutdown, and their case was better then than it is now.

So in 1995 both houses of Congress were united in sending the President a budget to fund the government.  The President vetoed the budget.   The President does have veto power, but the Republicans then could make a strong case that they represented the will of the people in both houses.   Moreover, the reason the shutdown didn’t start until November 14th was because a continuing resolution was passed to extend spending from October 1 to November 13th to give them time to settle differences before the shut down.

At that time it was appropriate for Clinton to negotiate.   Congress was united on a budget and his veto prevented it from becoming law.  In that since his veto was as much to blame for the shutdown as the GOP budget — It was a real conflict over the scope of spending, and the inability of the two sides to agree led to an impasse that shut down the government.   Today’s shutdown is nothing like that, it is a small group of House Republicans trying to use it to force the President to delay Obamacare.   Already it’s clear that cooler heads in the GOP have recognized that such a demand was over the top – but it’s hard to stand down from a battle once its started.

But while it may be clear why the GOP is being hurt by this shutdown, why were Republicans blamed in 1995?   That shut down looks triggered by a Presidential veto, not a refusal to vote!   The reason is that the GOP appeared too eager for confrontation, with Speaker Gingrich infamously saying “Which of the two of us do you think worries more about the government not showing up?”   That played well to Republican stalwarts, but seemed bizarre to most people who simply wanted things to get back to normal.   There was also a sense that the Republicans, and in particular speaker Gingrich, had personal motives:

The shutdown was probably the biggest reason Gingrich's political career went downhill.

The shutdown was probably the biggest reason Gingrich’s political career went downhill.

While the shutdown was underway, President Clinton did not talk to Gingrich on the flight to the funeral of Yitzak Rabin.  That irked Gingrich who complained that the President didn’t allow a meeting, and in fact made him exit from the back, separate from the President.   This almost assuredly was not the cause of the shutdown, but it fed into the idea that it wasn’t serious – that the Republicans were just trying to get Clinton.   Compare that with quotes coming from the GOP this shutdown, and if anything their reputation is worse than it was in 1996; the only good news for the GOP is that Speaker Boehner is more careful in his sound bites than Newt was.

elephant

Back in 1995 after six days of government shutdown they passed a temporary spending measure that reopened government but didn’t resolve the dispute.   That led to the second shutdown, which lasted 22 days.  It was settled by a balanced budget agreement that included a mix of spending cuts and tax increases (yes, the Republicans agreed to tax increases).   In comparison to today’s tea party wing of the GOP, Newt Gingrich appears as a reasoned moderate.

The impact on President Clinton was clear – his approval rating dropped from 51% to 42%, even as the country blamed Republicans for the shutdown by a margin of 46% blaming the GOP to 27% blaming Clinton.    During the shutdown most Americans were disgusted with both sides, especially as the shutdown occurred over Christmas.

At the 1996 State of the Union address, President Clinton used the recently ended shutdown to his advantage

At the 1996 State of the Union address, President Clinton used the recently ended shutdown to his advantage

But after the shutdown, President Clinton emerged a clear winner.   He had been seen as a likely one term President in mid-1995, but after the shutdown he looked stronger and ended up gliding to an easy victory in the 1996 election.   The Republican House of Representatives did not suffer much, losing only three seats.

Still, the mood of the country shifted, and Clinton emerged as a very popular President.

But think about it – that shutdown happened after both sides passed measures designed to give them more time to settle legitimate differences on the budget.   It happened because the President has veto power.   And the public blamed and punished the side whose message was mixed and hostile, ultimately rewarding the President.    The GOP was left blaming the media.

Senator Ted Cruz may have already peaked in relevance

Senator Ted Cruz may have already peaked in relevance

That scenario is playing out again.   The good news:  Americans don’t like confrontation of a sort that disrupts our routine and is embarrassing for our political system.   They’re smart enough to realize that pushing the country into shutdown mode (or default mode) is absurd.    I suspect neither party will want to travel down this path again any time soon, and the extremists who pushed for this may find themselves losing political clout after all is said and done.

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