Archive for category Mitt Romney

Remembering Obama vs. McCain

Four years ago McCain was the only Presidential candidate with gray hair

I started this blog “World in Motion” back in May 2008, with my first blog post about comparing cyclone Nargis with hurricane Katrina.   That meant I was blogging through fall election campaign so I decided to look back at how I was describing the last days of that campaign.

Some posts were light.   The world series was going on, and it reminded me that in 1980 I was rooting for the Phillies and put a big “Tug McGraw for President” sign on my door (he was the relief pitching ace for the Phillies, if you never heard of him).   2008 felt a lot like 1980, Americans were ready for a change.

Tug McGraw and the Phillies defeated the Kansas City Royals in 1980

I didn’t keep track of all the polls, but exactly 11 days before the election I wrote about the polls which showed a clear lead by Obama over McCain, usually by 4 to 6 points.  A few polls had a double digit lead, and IBD/TIPP showed Obama up only one.   The state polls had comfortable leads for Obama, though one (Strategic Vision) had McCain up in a couple swing states and in striking distance of others.   That company still exists, but focuses on marketing.   It was one of those partisan polls that tried to make the race seem closer than it was.

On October 27th I wrote about “Democratic Gloom and Angst,” about how Democrats were convinced that negative tactics and dirty tricks in the waning days of the campaign might give the election to McCain, here’s part:

“Moreover, many are convinced that the negativity will be ratcheted 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.”

Although Obama cruised to an easy victory in 2008, supporters were nervous up until the end

In hindsight that election looks like it was an easy victory for Obama – a country in economic turmoil with a young candidate promising hope and chance alongside an old out of touch McCain.   At the time, it didn’t feel like a sure thing to most people.    I also had a post about early voting and the ground game, which hit on some of the same themes I wrote about yesterday.

I’d forgotten one post “Desperation Breeds Stupidity,” bemoaning the fact Elizabeth Dole, a woman I’ve always admired, had an ad attacking her opponent Kay Hagan, an elder in the Presbyterian church and a Sunday School teacher:

“In the ad a tough narrator notes that Kay Hagan held a fundraiser that was ‘hosted by the Godless Americans PAC,’ showing clips of people from that group calling for God to be removed from the pledge of allegiance and from money, and in general dissing religion.  ‘What did she promise them’ in exchange for the fundraising, the ad asks.  It ends with a close up of Kay Hagan and a voice saying ‘There is no God!'”

Kay Hagen sworn in as North Carolina’s Junior Senator

It didn’t work, North Carolina’s junior Senator is now Kay Hagan.

On the weekend before the election I had a post “Is McCain Surging?”  The Drudge Report and right leaning media tried to create the sense that the race was tightening and McCain might pull it off:

“To look at the Drudge Report, you’d think McCain has been steadily inching closer to Barack Obama, and is within striking distance of taking the popular vote lead and running the sweep of toss up states necessary to come from behind and win the election.  Last week it was a “shock Gallup poll” which showed the two within two points using the ‘traditional model’ for likely voters.  By Sunday it was a ten point race in that group again.  But no matter, Rasmussen showed it narrow to three points, so that was cited — well within the margin of error!  Alas, it expanded back to five points, and Rasmussen declares the race “remarkably stable” with Obama at about an 85% chance for victory.

Then it was the IBD/TIPP poll which has always showed a tighter race.  And finally on early Saturday morning Drudge screamed out that ‘McCain leads in overnight polling!’  Wow!  He must be zooming back.  For the Obama fans, this is their worst case scenario, another defeat snatched from the jaws of victory, an unexpected comeback.  For the McCain faithful this plus slightly tightening polls in Pennsylvania and Ohio shows that their come back scenario is on track — they can do it!”

Watching the current race, which is much much closer, I’m reminded how hindsight has 2020 vision.   Now it appears as if after September 15th when McCain suspended his campaign and then seemed to flail around helplessly in trying to respond to the economic crisis, Obama was a sure thing.   Nobody is talking about the “Bradley” effect this year.   That was a big deal in 2008, a belief that people tell pollsters they’ll vote for Obama because they don’t want to appear racist.  That led many on the right to discount Obama’s lead, sort of like the  “skewed polls” this year.

This year is much different.   The election is closer, the dynamic is uncertain.   Yet a lot remains the same – polls give information but can be used to mislead.  The Drudge Report often seems to be occupying an alternate universe.   And it’ll be an intense final days with rumors, hopes and fears on all sides causing partisans to experience a full range of emotions.   Get ready for the ride!

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The Ground Game!

A different kind of ground game, but without Adrian Peterson the Vikes wouldn’t be 5-2

One wild card in this unique and exciting election campaign is the Obama ground game.    As Huffington Post columnist Paul Blumenthal notes, Obama’s ground game effort is unprecedented.   They are spending four times as much money in swing states than the Romney camp, with that many more offices and paid staff.   Already in states like North Carolina this is yielding high vote totals — levels which might not register in polls that screen likely voters.

In the swing states alone Obama and the Democrats are spending as much on the ground game as entire campaigns used to cost thirty years ago.  Will it work?

If it does, this could change the way politics operate.   Rather than focusing primarily on ads and big picture messaging, campaigns will delve more into social media, GOTV and the building of local grass roots networks to try to enhance voter turnout.

There is reason for Democrats to feel optimistic.   A study in 2009 showed that the Obama ground game flipped three states in 2008:  Florida, Indiana and North Carolina.    They made a difference everywhere, but in other states Obama’s lead was great enough that the ground game wasn’t the cause of victory.   The study tries to control for Obama’s overall popularity, an increase in minority voting, and other things that were happening even without the ground game.

Beyond that, Obama’s efforts have intensified even as reported Democratic enthusiasm has waned — very little can match the emotion of the 2008 campaign.    In 2008 the ground game ultimately got under emphasized because Obama’s win was decisive.   This year the ground game could decide the race.

It’s hard to make sense of early and incomplete data, but the Democrats seem to be doing well in early voting in Ohio (this graph through 10-24)

Ohio, Florida, and North Carolina, states that Romney needs to win, all have early voting systems that benefit Obama’s ground game.   In Ohio and Florida early voting has been limited compared to 2008, though not as much as the GOP Governors and legislatures sought.    The reason, of course, was to try to blunt this Democratic advantage.  In Ohio there were efforts to cut the hours of early voting in Democratic districts while expanding them in Republican ones, as well as to limit early voting on the last weekend to the military only.    The US Supreme Court denied the latter effort, and the Secretary of State was shamed into abandoning the former.

Florida decreased the number of days for early voting and eliminated voting the Sunday before election day.   Black churches tended to bus people to the polls that day, enhancing minority turnout.    Florida’s changes led to court challenges and ultimately a deal was reached.

Five counties governed by the Voting Rights Act have been told they must have the maximum of 96 hours over eight consecutive days.   Other counties have chosen between 62 total hours the maximum of 96.   Early voting will take place from Saturday October 27 to Saturday November 3rd.    Florida also allows for mail in early voting, and there has been a lot of activity on that front.

Florida Governor Rick Scott tried to reduce early voting in order to counter Obama’s ground game – the Courts limited the impact of those efforts.

States like Colorado, Iowa and Nevada will be good tests of the ground game.   All three states have early voting for anyone who desires it.  In Colorado it starts 15 days before the election and ends on election day.   In Nevada and Iowa days and times vary by county, but in each state well over half the votes are cast early.

All of this makes the ground game potentially an enormous factor in the outcome.   There is more time to contact people, and those less enthused or likely to vote on election day may yield to the pressure (or embrace the convenience) of early voting.

The air war – in football the passing game, in politics the TV ads – get most of the attention and generate the most excitement. But without a ground game, the impact may be limited.

No one is sure if this will be worth all the money and effort.   Perhaps spending four times as much as the GOP will yield only modest returns.   So going into the election I pose three hypotheses:

1)   Obama’s ground game will be decisive in all close states, even those without early voting.   If Obama wins in states without no excuse early voting, including Pennsylvania, Virginia, Michigan and New Hamsphire, this hypothesis is supported.   I’ll compare polls near the election with actual results; if Obama out performs the polls, that’s a sign that early voting made a difference.

2)  Obama’s ground game will be very effective in states with early voting.   If Obama is successful in states like Florida, Ohio, North Carolina, Colorado, Nevada and even Arizona, that will be a sign that a strong GOTV effort has a real impact on early voting.    If polls in states like North Carolina and Colorado show Obama behind but he pulls it out, that’ll be very strong evidence.    If he pulls off a surprise in a state like Arizona or others expected to go red but have extensive early voting, that will be very strong evidence for the efficacy of the ground game in states with early voting.

3)  Obama’s ground game will make no difference.   If voter turn out is down, especially among Democrats and demographics targeted by Obama’s GOTV efforts, his ground game will have failed.

If Obama ends up winning decisively and carrying states that people expect to go red like North Carolina, expect the Democrats to make an intensive ground came a core part of their strategy.  After all their voters are historically less dependable than are Republicans, a mix of early voting and a strong ground game might shift electoral dynamics.    The GOP may have less to gain, but if they’re beaten on the ground expect them to not make the same mistake again.



A Romney Romp?

Romney’s team is claiming he has a sustainable permanent lead and that his horrible debate performance actually helped him!

Go to the right side of the blogosphere and you’ll find Romney supporters convinced that they are not only clearly on their way to victory, but expect a blowout.   Despite the conventional wisdom that the race is neck and neck and the next two weeks will be exciting, they say it’s all but over.   The claim is straight forward:  the first debate changed the fundamental dynamics of the race and once Romney was deemed “acceptable,” he’s moved into a slight lead.   Since late deciders almost always go to the challenger, he’s going to pad that lead going into the election and have a surprisingly easy victory.

It’s tempting to do just dismiss such talk as bravado or wishful thinking.   After all, Obama supporters like myself got fooled in September into thinking that Obama was cruising to a crushing defeat of a candidate who couldn’t do anything right.  Moreover the level of bluster has increased dramatically in the wake of the third debate, one which saw President Obama pretty soundly defeat Mitt Romney according to all post-debate polls.   Indeed, the margin of victory was such that it seemed an inverse of the first debate, with Mitt Romney subdued and lethargic while Obama was energetic and on target.    This looks like a brave attempt to try to push back against a backlash favoring Obama after that debate.

Yet their theory is plausible.  Is it likely to be accurate?

Assumptions:  The argument and assumptions they make are straight forward:  1)  Mitt Romney now has both the momentum and the lead; 2) late deciders will break overwhelmingly for the challenger; and 3) it is too late for anything to upset the dynamic of the race.

Does Mitt Romney have a clear lead and momentum?:  If you look at state and national polls the answer is no.    Since the second debate polls have been rather stagnate, with Romney slightly ahead in an average of national polls, but still behind in most of the swing states.    It appears the race has tightened with no one clearly ahead.  Remember, when there is a margin of error of 3.5%, polls showing a one point lead or a candidate one point down are essentially tied.

Despite all the hype, the most sophisticated forecasts still show Obama as the favorite

Still, if one cherry picks a couple of polls (like Gallup and the recent movement in Rasmussen to put Romney up four), and adds to that the fact that more polls show a slight Romney lead than before, one can’t dismiss the possibility that Romney has momentum, though it certainly isn’t strong.   So for assumption one: unlikely, but possible.

2) Late deciders will overwhelmingly break for Romney:   There are two problems with this assumption.  First, it’s not clear how many late deciders exist!   Still, there are 3 to 5% who aren’t for either candidate in most polls, and if those broke overwhelmingly for Romney that could be enough to push him over the top in the popular vote, as well as in important swing states like Ohio, Iowa and Wisconsin.

The second problem is more esoteric.   Political junkies like to deal in generalities.   Late deciders go to the challenger, no  President since Roosevelt has won re-election with unemployment over 7.4%, and debates don’t change the trajectory of a race.   Yet there are so few Presidential races in modern history that it’s hard to read too much into any generalization.  Maybe late deciders usually break for the challenger, but in a race as tight and hard fought as this, it’s not clear they will.  Just as the debates did seem to change the trajectory of the campaign, heuristics may be poor guides in predicting what will happen.

Assumption two:  possibly true, but this election is unique, we don’t know.

3)  It is too late for the President to recapture the momentum.   This is the weakest assumption.   The debate that just concluded Monday has a real chance to move the numbers.   After debate one soft Obama support shifted to Romney.   Much of that is now soft Romney support.  If some shifts back to Obama it could make a big difference and essentially assure Obama of a winning electoral map.

Obama could still get a real bounce from his third debate performance

Beyond that is the impact of early voting and the Obama ground game.   Obama’s network is more extensive than in 2008.   This has to be what worries Republicans the most.   The goal of get out the vote (GOTV) efforts is to get unlikely voters to the polls (as well as assuring likely voters do vote).   The Democrats have always been dogged by the fact that their supporters don’t vote with the same regularity as do Republicans.   That’s why registered voter polls tend to show a decent Obama lead.  If team Obama can execute a winning ground game that could push the election further in their favor, especially in the swing states.

Moreover, in two weeks there can be small and large things that create slight shifts.   There are a number of “soft supporters” for Romney, the idea they can’t break back for Obama is simply wrong.   So while time is short, assumption three is weak.

The Romney campaign has always tried to create a sense of inevitability that they’d win — in the summer they worked hard to try to define Obama as a “failed President.”  It didn’t take.   Yet this has been part and parcel of their strategy since the primaries – exuding confidence that they’re cruising and the other side is choking.   It’s not surprising this is the spin coming out of debate three, especially after Romney fared so poorly.

How effective will Obama’s ground game be?

Many Romney supporters truly believe this.   What they’ve done is take a plausible scenario and in their mind make it likely, even near certain.   I can sympathize.   I did the same last month when it appeared Obama was cruising to victory. Obama supporters were wrong then, Romney supporters might be wrong now.

After all, most objective analyses show the polls tight and give Obama a slight edge in the swing states.  Add that to a commanding debate performance and it’s hard to conclude that the race is anywhere close to over.   Two weeks is a life time in politics, anything can happen.

If in the next few days the polls shift more to Romney, or Obama gets no bump from the debate, the “Romney romps” scenario becomes more likely.    Note that the tracking polls will take awhile to register an Obama bump — especially the seven day ones like Gallup.    RAND is an interesting poll to watch for trends.   The state polls will be key, especially Ohio, Wisconsin, Iowa, Colorado, Nevada and Florida.    Also watch for news on early voting and the Obama ground game.  It’s hard to judge what’s happening, but there might be hints.

To be sure, Romney’s supporters may be right, and by November 6th the polls could have swung decisively in his favor, even in the swing states.   In two weeks instead of celebrating, Democrats might be planning the fight for 2014 with a renewed urgency.    But the effort to exude Romney inevitability is bravado and bluster, it’s still too early to know for sure.  We still have a long way to go.

UPDATE:  An added tidbit – Ezra Klein of the Washington Posts note that traders have been putting massive Romney bets in intrade to try to manipulate the market and make it appear Romney is rising.   Usually those upswings are short term as real investors recognize the chance for some ‘easy money’ off the manipulators.


Who’s Ahead?

Secretariat races to victory in the 1973 Kentucky Derby

So how’s is the Presidential campaign going?    Is Romney like Secretariat, coming up fast from the back to race past and leave Obama in the dust, or is Obama like a pennant winning baseball team recovering from a nine game losing streak and holding ground.   I know some readers HATE sports metaphors about a decision so important to the lives of real people.   I apologize, but campaigns are contests, and the strategies and dynamics behind them can be fascinating.

The race for the Presidency has gotten hyper-confusing for those who watch polls and try to make sense of the shifting trends.   Supporters of Governor Romney look at narrow  leads in national polls and very close state polls to conclude that their man has the momentum and the race has turned in their favor.    Some hope that this continues and Romney wins in a romp.

Obama supporters, who last month saw polls that made the race seem all but over, are clearly spooked.   Having the lead and losing it is emotionally more draining than being behind and catching up.    They take solace in the fact that Obama still tends to lead swing state polls and his path to victory seems wider than Romney’s.

The best news for Romney’s people comes from Gallup, whose tracking poll has shown Mitt holding a six or seven point lead for half a week.   Obama backers take solace in the numbers at   Long a favorite of free market conservatives, it’s a market where people bet on who will win.  Right now the  money is on Obama, giving him a 60% chance of victory – and intrade has a strong track record.

At some level the chaos of the current state of the race is a function of being right in the middle of it, with new polls every day and debates every week.   Stepping back, the race can be seen as actually rather stable.

The two spent the summer where they are now – virtually tied.   President Obama then had a very good September as the Democratic convention’s optimism and excitement combined with the infamous “47% tape” from Romney to give Obama a clear lead by late September.

Yet Obama’s lead was fragile.  It depended on the public having an extremely low opinion of Mitt Romney.   This actually worked in Romney’s favor in the first debate.   He shifted to the center and appeared not at all like the man in the 47% video.   Moreover, the election was being recast about the economy and the future, the 47% thing looked like a petty “gotcha” moment.   The race returned to where it had been – the two neck and neck.

So where are we now?

Rasmussen’s chart shows that despite twists and turns, the race has remained essentially very close

National polls show Romney with a slight lead.   Today most polling shows Romney up 2 or 3 points.   In an election this close those numbers need to be taken with a grain of salt.   Shifts of four or five points are common simply due to the nature of polling.     After all, if Gallup is kind to Romney, IBD/TIPP is being kind to Obama.    Swing state polls still seem to lean slightly towards Obama.

So far Obama looks to be holding a slight lead in the toss up states needed by each side for victory

Polls give limited information.    Not only are they “snapshots,” but methodology matters, especially in a race this close.   Pollsters try to discern likely voters from registered voters.   Each polling company has a screen, some (like Gallup) are more intense than others.    If the questions and data used to determine who is likely to vote are off base, then the poll results will be off.     Moreover, the full impact of the get out the vote (GOTV) efforts and early voting are unclear.

Consider:  President Obama’s campaign has massively invested in building a get out of the vote effort that dwarfs even their 2008 ground game.   Republicans haven’t gone beyond their usual efforts.  Does that matter?  That’s a big if in this election.   If it turns out that the polls understate Obama’s share of the vote, that will be strong evidence that Obama’s ground game worked.  If not, then one has to question how effective intensive get out the vote efforts might be.

What about claims that Rasmussen and other Republican leaning pollsters are creating an illusion of a Romney resurgence?   That is only partially borne out by the evidence.   Here is the swing state (major) polling since October 14th.  The first column does not include Rasmussen, Gravis or We ask America.   The second does.    In Colorado, Virginia and Florida the additional polls do cause swing towards Romney.   I have two listings for Florida, the second removes a Zogby poll that had Obama + 6.

State – W/o GOP polls, all polls
Pennsylvania:  Obama + 5, Obama + 5
Ohio:  Obama + 2.3, Obama + 2.1
Wisconsin:  Obama + 3.5, Obama + 3
Colorado:  Obama + 3, tie
Nevada:  Obama + 3, Obama + 3
Virginia:  Obama + 1, Romney + 1
Florida:  Obama + 1.2, tie (slight edge to Romney)
Florida without Zogby:  Romney +0.5, Romney +1.2
Iowa:  Obama + 2, Obama + 1.8
New Hampshire:  tie, tie*

* One after I posted this, a New Hampshire poll from WMUR came out with Obama up 9.  The polls are all over the place.  I keep track of the polls I follow here.

However, the national polls have been trending towards Romney in recent days, including the ones that show Obama with a lead.   Since trends affect all states, this could indicate that the swing states will tighten up more or shift to Romney.   Moreover, when races are within a few points of each other, all poll numbers have to be seen as fallible.

So, who’s ahead?

1.  Obama is clinging to a narrow lead, especially in the important swing states;
2.  Romney seems to still have some momentum, though the race has stabilized;
3.  Get out the vote efforts and turnout will make a difference in very close states; and
4.  The next two weeks will be really intense!


Vote Early?

I like to vote on election day.   Here in rural Maine not only is there never a line, but local candidates are outside the polling center to shake hands and chat (but not campaign), and there is real community spirit.

Voting, after all, is not a rational act.   Rational action means one calculates the expected utility (positive outcome) of a choice.   In the case of voting the time lost, gas used, and effort undertaken is almost certain to be more than the very unlikely possibility that ones’ vote will determine the outcome of an election.   In terms of pure rationality, you’re better off not voting.

Voting instead should be seen as a duty, a moral obligation to our democratic community.  It is a collective good – it may not be in any one person’s rational self-interest to go vote, but it’s in our collective interest to have everyone vote.    People who feel connected to a community are more likely to vote as they recognize it as a task we undertake in order to enjoy the benefits of democracy.

The problem is compounded in cities and urban areas where voter can stand in line for hours.   Not only does this make voting seem completely irrational, but not everyone has hours to sacrifice – a single mom who works and then has to take care of small children may be unable to take the time, for example.

Thus the rise of early voting.   States have always had absentee ballots for those who couldn’t vote on election day.   That later evolved into “no excuse” absentee ballots and in person early voting.   This has grown rapidly since the 2004 election.  That year Ohio decided the election for President Bush, and the state was dogged by long voting lines which arguably dissuaded some people from voting.

The states in blue allow no-excuse early voting either by mail in or in person ballot.  The purple states are in person only, while the green ones are mail in only.   The grey states have no ‘no excuse’ early voting.   Is this a good thing?

Here in Maine early voting may have determined an election in 2010.   In a three way race for governor, early polls showed Democrat Libby Mitchell in a tough campaign against Paul LePage, a tea party Republican who narrowly won a plurality in a field of six Republican primary candidates.    Independent Elliot Cutler was third when early voting started.  Mitchell’s campaign plummeted after that and the result was:  Le Page 218,065, Cutler 208,270 and Mitchell 109,387.

The Democrats had an extensive get out the vote effort and many are convinced that Mitchell had at least 10,000 ‘early votes’ that would have gone to Cutler if people had waited and seen Mitchell’s campaign collapse.   Some vowed never to vote early again!

Some claim that early voting helped bring tea party favorite Paul LePage to the Governor’s mansion in Maine

That is probably an exception, and may not even have determined the result.   10,000 is a lot of votes, about a quarter of the total early votes.

Some dislike early voting because they believe people should pay attention to the campaign and be willing to change their minds up until the end.   That is idealistic, but most of the early voters are not going to change their mind.   Indeed, probably over 90% of voters are still where they were in their preferences half a year ago.   The Maine case noted above wasn’t so much a change in preference but of strategy – they wanted to stop Le Page.

Others note that early voting benefits the campaign with the best get out the vote effort.   GOTV efforts used to focus on election day, now campaigns can cajole voters to fill out absentees or go in to vote early.   This is especially important in swing states like Florida, Ohio, North Carolina, Iowa, Nevada and Colorado.    This year it appears Obama’s GOTV operation is stronger than Romney’s, but it’s hard to tell.

The fact is that this year about a third of voters are expected to vote early, and in states like Colorado and Nevada it can be well over half the voters.    Republicans have tried to limit early voting out of a belief that it is more likely to increase the turn out of groups that traditionally don’t vote in high numbers like blacks, Latinos or the poor.   Since these groups are also more likely to vote Democratic, they believe that early voting helps Democrats.

Efforts to demand voter ID and limit early voting are seen by critics as Republican efforts to block the vote of those more likely to vote Democratic

While I prefer to vote on election day, I support early voting.   I support it because of the fact it just might bring out poor and minority voters who traditionally don’t vote.

Someone who votes is more likely to take responsibility and work to build a better community.    If you care about an election, you may become more likely to care about your neighborhood.  If you care about your community, you might be more likely to make extra efforts to improve your life situation, help your children achieve more, and move out of poverty.

Idealistic?  Perhaps.   But critics of social welfare programs argue that they create psychological dependency, whereby a chunk of those on welfare find it easier to feel like victims and just live off others.   Not 47% by any means, but there are some.   Still others may not be that far gone but yet feel alienated and powerless.   These are curable conditions.   They may result from poverty, but they also increase the likelihood poverty will become permanent.

There could be much more done to address this issue.   Social welfare programs should be less the mailing out of checks and more in the realm of community action.   Community organizers should be the key line of defense against poverty, not bureaucracies in Washington.   Real reform could help make the safety net also a ladder out of poverty.

Voting can’t do all that, but perhaps it’s like a gateway drug, creating a connection between the individual and the community.   That can be built upon.   So if early voting brings out more voters, especially people who have felt alienated and outside the community, then it is a good thing.

Still, I’ll be at the community center on November 6th (not the 7th – thanks Sarah, for catching that!), enjoying the ritual of voting in person on election day!


A Clarifying Debate

The two shake hands before their second debate, moderated by Candy Crowley of CNN

It was a spirited debate, it was a pointed debate.   By all accounts President Obama won, but it was neither a game changer nor a an overwhelming victory.    Moreover, the debate clarified the core issues at stake in the race, which is precisely what these debates are supposed to do.

In the first debate, I claimed Romney won not so much because Obama was listless and uninspired, but because Romney shifted dramatically to the center, jettisoning positions and rhetoric from the primary campaign.    Surprisingly, he did little of that last night.   In retrospect, that’s probably good — he has already shed the image of being an uncaring plutocrat, too much shape shifting would make him less credible to all sides.

Both men made strong arguments but left work undone.

Governor Romney powerfully argued that Obama’s job performance doesn’t deserve having him re-election.   He went through a litany of promises Obama made four years ago to show that the President hasn’t done what he set out to do.  Yet Romney hasn’t sold people on thinking he would do better.   The “I know how to make an economy work” line is vague and hollow.     He remains vulnerable on his lack of specifics and the ease in which the President can claim he’ll return to the “policies that brought us here.”

President Obama made a strong case for his plan moving forward, and in raising questions about whether we can trust Romney to do what he claims he will.  However, he needs to convince people that given the depth of the global economic crisis what he’s achieved reflects success rather than failure.   He also needs to clarify why and how his plans will work moving forward.

There was plenty of finger pointing last night as the two went after each other!

The “gotcha” issues are actually hurting the one who makes the gotcha argument.   Obama’s bit about Romney’s 47% seemed hollow.   That’s old news, and any damage done has been registered.   Ironically it gives Romney a chance to reaffirm his commitment to all Americans in a manner good enough for most voters.   The Democrats should drop the 47% as an explicit campaign theme and make it more subtle.

Similarly Republican efforts to create a scandal around unclear story lines in the 9-11 Libya attacks gave Obama his best moment in the debate.   He could look Presidential, scold Romney for trying to score cheap partisan points and in the process, well, score partisan points!   The President took responsibility, talked about the emotion behind losing a diplomat in such an attack, and came off very well.

As with the 47%, the Republicans should drop Libya — it makes them look petty.   And if you don’t believe me, watch the CNN grid that measured audience reaction to the two.   Obama got his highest level of positive reaction when discussing Libya while Romney tanked.   Romney got high levels of positive reactions when he talked of how he cares for all Americans, Obama’s level went down when he brought up the 47%.

CNN’s bottom grid reporting reactions of a select group of undecided voters (green = men, yellow = women) is intriguing.

Simply, this is not a race about gotcha games any more.   The voters are turning to fundamental questions about what direction the country should take in the future.

Despite the noise and theatrics that have dominated discussion over the last few weeks, the debate brought the core issues into focus.   Despite the scripting of messages, the two men responded to each other and weren’t afraid to mix it up.   They spared on Obamacare.   Romney was weakest when talking about women’s issues — giving a woman flexibility so she can “go home and make dinner” sounds like the old insensitive Romney (and ‘women in binders’ is going viral).

Not a gaffe, but it could feed into his reputation as being out of touch

There was a lot that went unsaid.   The climate change folk are furious that an issue they think the most important to human kind isn’t getting mentioned.   Many other issues will dominate the airwaves over the next few weeks.  But the debate set up a clear choice for the voters.     That made it a good debate.


Why the Debate Changed the Race

Romney’s family revolted against the old campaign strategy in order to unleash the moderate Mitt

Most of the discussion about the October 3rd Presidential debate surrounds how well Mitt Romney did against a listless and uninspired Barack Obama.    Gallup polling shows that Romney won the debate by the largest margin ever in a Presidential debate.   But the real reason Romney won and is back in the race is that he underwent a metamorphosis:   President Obama is no longer running against a conservative Republican.   Governor Romney has become a pragmatic centrist.

So where does the race stand?   Nearly a week out, what was the impact of the debate?   PEW, a reputable and fair polling organization, suggests that the debate shifted opinion by twelve points from a 51 – 43 lead for Obama on September 17 to a four point 49 – 45 lead for Romney on October 8th. Never in history has one debate or event shifted opinion so radically.

If the poll is accurate the story line is clear:  Mitt Romney used the debate to shed rhetoric that still seemed defined by the themes of the GOP primary in order to run as a moderate Massachusetts Republican.   He praised his state’s health care reform, stressed his capacity to work with Democrats, and vowed not to follow through on many of his campaign promises.  His across the board tax cut?  Well, if it really costs $5 trillion he won’t do it!

Politico reports this make over comes thanks to a revolt by Mitt’s family against the scripted focus on the economy and right wing themes that the campaign had engaged in up until this point.   The argument is that Romney’s campaign guru Stuart Stevens failed to accept that his strategy wasn’t working and thus risked an embarrassing defeat.   Now Stevens’ role has been reduced and the new Mitt unleashed.

Taking all the polls together there is a clear shift towards Romney since the debate

But is PEW accurate?   Some on the left decry the fact it “oversampled” Republicans.   But that’s the same “skewed” argument the right gave when polls seemed to be “oversampling” Democrats.    Party identity is fluid and if people shift support to Romney, they’ll be likely to identify themselves as Republicans.   To be sure, even good polling is, on average, outside the margin of error 5% of the time.   But Democrats dismiss PEW at their own peril.

PEW may have an aggressive likely voter screen that exaggerates the lead of the candidate with the most enthusiasm.   PEW’s 8 point lead for Obama was far greater than the lead other polls showed in mid-September (it was released before the 47% video came out).    Perhaps there is a similar exaggeration working in favor of Governor Romney here.   Also, PEW did most of its interviews right after the debate, when all polling showed a large bump for Romney — if not the 12 point change PEW registered, at least 5 points.   Since then the tracking polls suggest that the bump is receding to one of about 3 points, an argument made by Nate Silver.

Silver’s argument rests in part on how Gallup’s polling showed Obama’s lead jumping from 3 points to 5 yesterday.   Yet today Gallup’s tracking poll has Romney up by two points.   The five point lead was registered voters rather than likely voters, among likely voters it was tied yesterday.     Yet something dramatic could be happening in this race, the debate may have broken it open and shifted the momentum forcefully on the side of Governor Romney.   If that momentum is shifting it’s hard to turn things around; the situation for President Obama may be much worse than most analysts believe.

In just 90 minutes the entire Presidential campaign narrative has been turned upside down

Amy Fried has argued that debates seldom change voter preferences over the long term.    There is strong empirical evidence for that position.     Yet in an era of social media and a situation where a sitting President seemed completely unprepared for the debate (we know he can do better because he did so in 2008), this could be an exception.   The “n” of past debates is small, after all.    State polls also show very good news for Romney.   States about to be written off like Michigan, Pennsylvania and Ohio appear close again.    Romney’s regained leads in North Carolina and Colorado.

This is all wonderful news for Governor Romney and his supporters.   And with Andrew Sullivan writing that Obama may have thrown the election away and Michael Tomasky wondering if Obama even wants to keep his job, there is understandable glee in a group had been dourly watching an election slip away. Victory tastes best when snatched from the jaws of defeat!  The only bad news for the GOP is that Romney doesn’t seem to have coattails.   The Senate still looks to be solidly Democratic, with unexpected strength in what had been thought to be Republican sure things like North Dakota and Arizona.

Yet as demoralized as Obama supporters may be, all is not lost, at least not yet.   He won September and got a $180 million haul assuring no shortage of money in the final weeks of the campaign.  There are also more debates and numerous opportunities for Obama to bounce back.   President George W. Bush performed poorly in his first debate against John Kerry but still won.  Team Obama believed that most voters had made their minds up already and Romney had no feasible path to the Presidency.   Better to have that misconception demolished five weeks before an election rather than five days out.

This should bring more focus and urgency to the Obama campaign.   Romney has changed the narrative but hasn’t made the sale.   If Obama can take this hit and recover, he could rebuild a lead.  Obama’s job approval numbers are better too – now at or above 50%.   Gallup gave him 53% approval today, as high as just before the debate.   With unemployment dipping and campaign coffers full, the President still has much going his way.

Still, Obama now faces a new Mitt Romney – a centrist who eschews the rhetoric of the right and is willing to ditch positions that hurt his chances.  Expect him to call for immigration reform and embrace a clear moderate agenda.    Romney has shaken the edge-a-sketch and it seems to have worked.

The President’s campaign has been premised on opposing a conservative Republican and suddenly Romney’s a Massachusetts moderate again.  That metamorphosis  makes Obama’s job tougher — it’s harder to run against a pragmatic centrist — but has dangers for Romney.   The idea he has no core and will say anything to win still haunts him.   But if the reaction to the debate Wednesday is to be believed, most voters are willing to take him on his word.   In this case it appears that one Presidential debate may have turned the entire race around.

UPDATE:  There has been some confusion with this post.  An earlier draft had me amazed at a seven point one day change in Gallup’s Tracking poll from Obama + 5 to Romney + 2.  I then realized that it was due to the former being registered voters and the latter likely voters.   I’ve amended my post and softened my next statement from saying that the race has had a dramatic shift to it may be having a dramatic shift.    This confusion comes from Gallup’s shift on reporting likely voters:

(Check out my poll updates page:  ‘2012 polls updated constantly‘)


Unemployment Rate Drops to 7.8%

When Obama took office the country was bleeding jobs. We’ve now had positive job growth for 31 straight months

Great news, the unemployment rate is down to 7.8%, finally below the 8.0% barrier.  Not only were 114,000 jobs added last month, but revisions to the two previous months suggest the job market is stronger than had been thought.   Most people look at this as a good bit of positive news for the President, boosting his argument that we’ve turned the economy around even though there is more to do.

But wait, Republicans say, this isn’t as good as it seems.   We’ll dismiss the conspiracy theorists who say the numbers are cooked (just like the polls are skewed *eyes rolling*), and look instead at legitimate reasons not to see this as being as good as it appears.

1.  Recoveries are usually faster.    Consider the following graph:

Clearly this recovery has been slower than past recoveries.   But this doesn’t mean Obama has failed.   Back in 2009 I labeled what we’re going through the equivalent of “Great Depression II” and predicted it would take a long time for the global economy to restructure and recover.     The economy is now global, and no industrialized state has burst out like we did from past recessions.

Simply, this is not a typical recession caused by over production and the business cycle.   Rather, this is a structural crisis caused by a massive increase in debt (both public and private) and a severe financial crisis.   Moreover, due to high debt the traditional tool to get out of a recession — stimulate the economy — is no longer as useful.   Currencies are also under stress due to large increases in money supply, creating a risk of inflation.   This is more like the Great Depression, a structural adjustment to the global economy which probably will take the better part of a decade – or more.

This crisis could also be compared to other examples of a financial crisis induced recession – in those terms we’re still early in the process!

To be sure, Obama and his economists predicted that they could get out of the recession more quickly, and it’s fair to criticize him for not understanding the depth of the crisis.    Still, the prospects that any President can fix this even in the next four years are dim.

2.   Unemployment numbers are skewed due to increased part time work, a decline in work force participation and under counting the unemployed.   Here are a few charts to consider:

Labor force participation rates are down from a high of 67% at the height of the last boom to 63.6% this month (it’s been under 64% all year).      This means that a lot of people have left the work force.  There are probably more single income households now, as well as people going back to earn degrees.     Fewer people in the work force does lower the unemployment rate.   Also:

All recessions show people moving to part time work due to the recession.  This recession saw the steepest increase in absolute terms, but  those numbers rarely go down until well after the recession ends.    Higher levels of part time employment may be a fact of the new economy for some time.   Consider as well longer term unemployment:

This is usually a lagging indicator of a recovery, but the numbers have already been declining – though the growth was steep during the recession.   The decline could be seen as a good sign.  Finally, there is the issue of the “real” unemployment number:

To say that real unemployment is about 16% makes the situation sound horrid, though by that measure real unemployment is always high – over 10% during the 2004 election campaign.     Moreover real unemployment tends to mirror official unemployment in trend lines, meaning that improvement is still improvement, even if the total is higher.

So what to make from these four issuess – part time workers, lower labor participation rates, long term unemployment and the real unemployment rate?   None of these statistics point to a robust recovery.   That is in line with my conclusion in point one – we’re in a global economic crisis from which there will be no quick and easy escape.

Yet the decline in the unemployment rate and 31 months of increasing job numbers are good things.   This recovery is probably as good as we can hope for given the structural imbalances in the global economy.    And, while Governor Romney is right in saying this isn’t like past recoveries, there is no reason to distrust or dismiss the steady if slow improvements in the US economy.

UPDATE:  It occurs to me there is one other thing to consider – seasonal adjustments.   Both September and October see seasonal adjustments that generally lead to lower unemployment rates.  Clearly that was part of the 0.3% drop in unemployment, though there have also been months where jobs were added and seasonal adjustments led to an increase in unemployment.  Overall, they’re a wash.


Sitting on a Lead

Mitt Romney betters Barack Obama in the first Presidential debate

Sports metaphors are overdone in politics, but the first Presidential debate was like watching a team trying to sit on a lead and thus allowing the opposition to take risks and score points.    Governor Romney pulled no punches and went out hungry to win.   Obama played prevent, didn’t go on the attack with the themes from his campaign, and tried to simply make sure he didn’t do anything stupid.

If you’re a football fan, you know that sitting on a lead is dangerous.  It takes you off your game and risks giving the other side the momentum.   By the time you realize you’re in danger the dynamic that gave you the lead is gone.    When he’s at his best President Obama is crisp and direct.   He displayed that in his debates with Senator McCain in 2008.   In the first 2012 Presidential debate he seemed to be going through the motions, giving well rehearsed lines, ever so careful not to veer off course.

John Madden once quipped that “the only thing the prevent defense does is prevent you from winning.”

One got the sense Romney wanted to be there for a debate, and Obama wanted to run down the clock.   The result: a consensus that Romney won the debate and thus his candidacy is not in the dire straights it would have been had Obama crushed him.

Will this turn the race around?   I suspect polls will give Romney a bounce and within a week we’ll be describing the race again as neck and neck, perhaps with an ever so slight lead for Obama.   If that doesn’t happen – if Obama stays up in the polls by 3 to 5% with decent leads in battleground states, that would be bad news for Romney.    If it does happen, and I suspect it will, this is the best possible result for Governor Romney.

Simply, it puts him back in the game.   However, he won the debate on style, not substance.   Obama was so careful he came off as listless.  He didn’t make any errors, but didn’t take any chances.    He preferred statistics to zingers.   He stressed points of agreement with Governor Romney as much as he stressed differences.    Romney did best when he talked in broad terms about the role of government, Obama did best in pointing out that Romney’s vague and unable to say exactly what he’ll do.

There was little real acrimony in the debate, one could imagine the two going out for a beer afterwards

I still believe that to really turn this around Romney needs to do more than be energetic and articulate in a debate.   He has to convince people he has a plan, and lay out details that show it’ll be more than the same Republican policies of the past.   He’s not yet done that, so he has not turned this race around.   The smart money is still on Obama.

To go back to the sports metaphor:  Obama led 24-10 a few minutes into the 4th quarter.   They decided to run the ball and an aggressive Romney defense stopped them twice.   After the first stop they scored a field goal, after the second they went for a touchdown.   Now it’s 24-20 going into the second half of the fourth quarter.    Team Obama knows that if they don’t do something they’ll create an opening for a last minute comeback victory for Team Romney.

What Obama needs to do:

1.   Come out more aggressively in the second debate and prove he wants it.   Leave wonky Obama at home and go for the argument of principles and the human cost of policies.

2.   Shift advertising away from the 47% tape (that’s run its course) and move towards making Romney’s vagueness in the debates an issue.   Advertising about Romney’s failure to be specific about his plans will highlight Obama’s strong points and create a sense that the debates were not an unambiguous success for Romney.

Ultimately, the best news in this for Obama is that none of his supporters can think they’ve got this in the bag — Romney’s still got a chance.

I like this

What Romney needs to do:

1.  Make a specific argument about what he’ll do in the future.   I suspect many in his camp still think that unnecessary – after all, he won a debate  by being vague, and debates are judged on style, not substance.   But winning debates doesn’t win the election.   He has to still convince voters he has a vision and a plan for the future.   Romney needs to show why you should vote for him, not just against Obama.

2.  Shift advertising to the 47%!   That sounds crazy, but bear with me.   The 47% tape has done all the damage it can do.  But can the damage be undone?   Sure – by turning a problem into a benefit.   Romney should use this as an excuse to emphasize how much concern he has for all Americans and to repudiate the ideas he seemed to show with that tape.

3.   The $5 trillion dollar ad.   Romney should also emphasize the debate and Obama’s claim Romney wants $5 trillion in tax cuts by juxtaposing Obama’s claim with Romney’s denial that he wants such massive tax cuts.   He can use that to make a strong case that the claims Obama makes about what Romney wants to do are not what Romney really wants to do.   That will cause people to doubt all the negative ads from the Obama campaign, undercuting their influence.

Bottom line: we have a real contest here.   As an Obama supporter I’d prefer it to be otherwise.  But as someone who enjoys watching an exciting political battle I know the next 34 days will be fun!


The importance of the Presidential Debate

The first Presidential debate in 1960 is credited with having helped Kennedy win a narrow election against Richard Nixon

The first Presidential debate on October 3rd is important.   Even if it comes off bland and boring, it will have been important.     Here’s why.

Mitt Romney is down, but not out.   He finished September with a crawl, having two very bad weeks after the month started with the Democratic convention outshining the Republican show from Tampa Bay.   If this had been an election held in normal economic times, Romney would be in Mondale territory, a sure loser.

But it’s not a normal election.  The global economy remains stagnate, unemployment is over 8% and Obama hasn’t lived up to the hope people had for him in 2008.  It may be that no human could have met those expectations, but people are willing to vote the President out – if they think the other guy would be better.

Mitt Romney has yet to provide a compelling reason to think he should be entrusted with the Presidency.   Yes, he’s a successful business man, but we have oodles of those in the US in both parties; that alone isn’t enough to think he should lead the country.   Romney needs to use the first debate to shift the conversation and give people a reason to vote for him, not just against Obama.   If the Republican insiders decide Romney is an almost certain loser, money will start flowing down ticket and the Presidential campaign will become secondary to GOP efforts to win the Senate and keep the House.

But that hasn’t happened yet.    If he is to avoid that fate he needs to start the turn around on October 3rd.   The headlines the next day must indicate that Romney had a strong debate performance, the President didn’t seem quite up to the task, and that the defining moment(s) of the debate (the sound bites those tens of millions who don’t care to sit through 90 minutes of political banter will hear) broke for Romney.

Ronald Reagan’s late October debate with President Carter helped turn a narrow Reagan lead into a blowout.

If he can pull that off, he’s back in this thing and the poor polling weeks of September will not have been a death knell, but a trial by fire that the candidate overcame.

This makes it an especially difficult debate for both men.    Romney will go after the President with everything he has, and will do his best to surprise and maybe bother a President that can show irritation.   If the race were close, both candidates would play it safer.   That would mean it would be better scripted, but also that neither would be hit by something completely unexpected.   But with Romney needing to go for a big win, he can’t play it safe — and that makes it more dangerous for the President as well.

The 1976 debates between Ford and Carter started the current tradition of Presidential debate. Those early debates were less scripted and rehearsed.

What to look for?

1)   Body language.   If President Obama becomes stiff and more distant, it will show that Romney’s getting under his skin and pushing him off his game.    The President has to look at ease and comfortable.  Romney on the other hand has to appear genuine.  If his smiles look forced or he moves nervously, it’ll be a sign he’s struggling.   Both need to look in control and Presidential.  If one of them doesn’t, then that may do more to influence perceptions than anything they say.

2)  New Ground.   Both candidates might stake out new ground in the debate.   Governor Romney almost has to – he needs to give people a reason to believe he won’t simply go back to the policies of the GOP before 2008.   President Obama may offer some tantalizing new specifics too — choosing to introduce them here rather than at the convention.  New ground can force the other candidate off script because it provides something unexpected (though, of course, both try to anticipate what the other might do).    If Governor Romney can provide something new that is exciting – a headline of the debate – and Obama is unable to respond effectively, it could be break through moment.

When Bush glanced at his watch in the 1992 debate with Perot and Clinton, his apparent disinterest helped fuel Clinton’s rise

3)  Foreign Policy.   With all due respect to neo-conservatives and other hawks, Governor Romney does not want to come off sounding like he’s ready to channel President Bush’s tough unilateralism.   This is a country still gripped by an “Iraq syndrome,” leaning isolationist and concerned more about home than abroad.    If Romney attacks Obama with a hawkish claim that Obama’s not being tough enough, Obama will say “Ask Bin Laden if I’m tough enough,” and then point out where tough talk and careless use of power led the country under the previous administration.   Romney should avoid foreign policy or trying to turn Libya into a scandal – that’s meat for the GOP base, but it won’t help him overall.

4)  Social issues.   Governor Romney has a dilemma.  If he could come off as an open minded moderate many independents would find him more appealing and he might alter the “gender gap.”    The trouble is that if he opens up on something like birth control, abortion or gay rights he might turn off a base that he needs out in force come November.  If he can create the impression he’s not a “severe conservative” on these issues without turning off his base, it’ll help him.

Reagan’s charm and delivery – such has his promise not to use the ‘you and inexperience of his opponent for political advantage’ in response to concerns about the 73 year old’s age – helped him use debates to his advantage.

5)  Zingers and one liners.   No doubt Governor Romney is practicing many of these, and President Obama may be focusing more on the response than trying to land a zinger.   It sounds like a good idea, and writers can come up with loads of possibilities.   The key is timing and delivery.  An ill timed zinger can seem weird, telegraphing that someone gave him this line and he wanted to use it.   It has to be delivered in a believable manner.   President Reagan is known for saying “there you go again, Mr. President” to Jimmy Carter in a way that made it seem Carter was exaggerating and Reagan was trustworthy.

But that line, if delivered with irritation or too understated might have seemed whiney or irrelevant.  Reagan delivered it masterfully and it is remembered to this day.   Walter Mondale did the same in his primary debate when he dismissed Gary Hart’s new ideas with “where’s the beef.”

6)  President Obama’s focus.  The President should focus on communicating to the people, almost as if Mitt Romney was not in the room.  If he can avoid letting himself get sucked into a one on one against Romney, he can play on his own turf, not Romney’s.   He needs to answer the questions, not get sucked into, well, a debate!

What not to look for:  a real glimpse at what either of them will actually do when elected.   Right now for both candidates the debate is about the horse race and focus groups.   That may sound cynical, but it’s true.   If either of them can convince people he is speaking with true substance and honesty, that candidate will do very well.   It’s the first rule of politics: “sincerity is key, and once you learn to fake it, then you’re home free.”  (Styx – “Fallen Angel”)