Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Technically, I was Right

Last week I sagely predicted that the Republican field for the 2012 Senate race here in Iowa would take longer to sort out.  Some rubbish explanation about the personalities involved would leading to a more protracted process.  So today comes the announcement from Rep. Tom Latham that he's declining to challenge Rep. Steve King; and technically speaking, a week is a more protracted process.  I don't completely buy Latham's explanation offered for not running in this report, but I'm guessing he just wasn't in the mood to fight a bloody primary battle that could have brought his Congressional career to a close.  While this doesn't clear the field entirely for King, his nomination sure looks a lot more likely.

I for one was hoping that we'd see something of an invisible primary winnow both the fields down over a period of several months, offering us an opportunity to see party machinations as they triangulated on a preferred candidate.  Given King's penchant for saying rather controversial things, like his comparing legal immigrants to dogs, I didn't think the Republican field wouldn't collapse so quickly.  Rove's group weighing in certainly suggested they wouldn't.  While the quick winnowing of both party fields was probably not the result of a series of high stake games of rock, paper, scissors, my guess is the Iowa sized invisible primary never really took shape.  I still think it was a nifty theory, but unless some reporting teases out invisible primary-ish goings on behind the scenes, it never really came to pass.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Update on the Iowa Senate Race

Though this is hardly breaking news, Secretary of Agriculture (and popular former governor) Tom Vilsack has indicated that he has no interest in running for Senator Harkin's seat.  This despite a serious advantage he had in very low negatives amongst Iowa voters.  Bruce Braley, the only announced candidate, is seemingly standing alone.  The two other Democrats that were in the best position to make a run, Rep. Dave Loebsack and former Rep. Leonard Boswell, have quickly endorsed Braley's candidacy, which in all likelihood will forestall a real nomination contest.  As for other buzzed about folks: Sec. Vilsack's wife, Christie, who gave Steve King his toughest reelection bid to date, has also removed herself from the offing; and former governor Chet Culver has made no indication, but his failed reelection bid (just shy of 10 points) would probably give him serious pause to run.

It would seem then that the Democrat's invisible primary may have sorted itself out in a matter of a couple weeks.  The quick response from the NRSC claims that the choice was the most ideologically extreme between Braley and Loebsack; a laughable accusation considering the dw-nomiate scores of -.36 and -.357 respectively.  But, who'd expect the NRSC would be a reliable source for such things?  If quick triangulation is an indication of a strong party organization, Iowa Democrats would seem have themselves a healthy party network right now.

Now we'll play the waiting game for the Republicans.  Given the personalities involved, I don't think they'll sort themselves out quite as quickly...

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Enough Already!

As of late, the interwebs and popular media have been awash with talk of the civil war within the Republican party.  Evidence offered: the early machinations of the invisible primary, particularly those I discussed earlier in the Iowa Senate race.  Silly as this is, along comes this gem, that takes the chatter to a new level of absurdity - the actual extinction of the Republican party.  We've seen talk like this before in the punditry, most recently the declarations of a Democratic realignment shortly after the 2008 election.  Pundits, it would seem, are a brilliant lot.  They've foretold at least ten of last zero Republican party collapses.  Quite frankly, one doesn't need a PhD in political science to see this as the rubbish it is.

The key from my perspective is that both political parties are doing well institutionally.  While their successes in past several election cycles have certainly had ebbs and flows, there is deep consensus amongst academics that parties are on as solid of institutional ground as they've had in decades.  Granted, the Republicans are doing some soul searching after the 2012 election, as losing parties are wont to do, but they are far from down and out.  Despite the discord, they remain strong in critical regards.

First, the simple fact that the GOP kept control the House of Representatives should should have dispelled this fatuous speculation.  While it is patent that underlying demography (namely dense settlement patterns of Democrats) and the fact we use single member districts, currently gives Republicans a bit of a structural advantage (see Oppenheimer and Abramowitz's separate works on this), gerrymandering was not responsible for them keeping their majority in 2012.  Simply put, Republicans remain electorally viable across the country despite their troubles at the top of the ticket.  Unless the fundamentals take an unexpected turn, they're in sound position to build on that majority and to come within striking distance of taking the Senate in 2014.  Moreover, Republicans continue to maintain a high degree of ideological cohesion, both within Congress and the electorate.  Though I will post more on this in coming weeks, the ideological space that we see these conflicts occurring in is rather small.  Given those slight differences, reaching an accord between the competing camps should prove to be easier than the pundits would have you believe.

Which brings us back to the invisible primary.  Be it for presidential or congressional candidates, there's no rule that says the invisible primary must be a civil conversation at all times.  You'd expect some heated discussion given the stakes and circumstances.  But to claim that this is a sign of inherent weakness or a harbinger of party collapse is ludicrous.  If anything, it's a sign that the party is alive, well, and engaged in a serious conversation about its future.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Becoming More Visible...

The CPAC schedule is out! Let the Invisible Primary become a wee bit more visible...
For those who don't know: CPAC is the Conservative Political Action Conference which is held every year in DC. It's where the elites on the right meet up with the under-21 presidents of the Young Americans For Freedom chapters and where conservatives of all ages get a front row seat to hear from the new wave of heroes.

CPAC has long been a stomping ground for those who want to be president, and if given a pole position for the festivities, there is an indication that a speaker is a worthy candidate to monitor. Hence, the Invisible Primary in action! Let's hope there is enough water on hand for Marco Rubio.

OK. I actually do research on satire and so I must (must!) link to Letterman's Top 10 Marco Rubio post-SoTU speech catastrophe and to Colbert's send up as well. Was it that bad? Maybe not.... but I maintain that if the zeitgeist says it sucked, then it did, and nothing says "suck" more than easily-sent-and-forwarded mockery. When you made a mistake, did every late-night comedian make fun of you in a way that Google ranks it first? OK then.

But back to business. CPAC is in DC March 14-16 and the town is going to be over-run by white guys in red ties looking for economic liberty and camera time. Not necessarily in that order. Who is on the super-duper "look at ME!" guest list? Well, we have the expected: Marco (Where's My Water?) Rubio, Rand (Kill the Fed but Note My Jaw) Paul, Paul (It's the Budget, Stupid!) Ryan, plus Sens. Pat Toomey, Mike Lee, and former Sen. Rick Santorum who are all super-duper proud to be Americans, where at least they know they're free. Also joining the crowd is former Gov. Jeb (change the narrative!) Bush and Sen. Ron (No Hillary!) Johnson. See what I mean? The place is running amok with wannabees. Makes me want to cue the Spice Girls music.

But 'tis the season for the I.P.  This will give them the platform to pontificate and the mechanism to recruit volunteers. Obama proved it's all in the ground game: Here goes the team selection!

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Invisible Primary: SoTU Edition!

It’s the biggest night in Washington, if you exclude Election Night, the Radio/ TV Correspondents’ Dinner, the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, the National Christmas Tree lighting, the Gridiron Dinner, a White House State Dinner, and the annual meeting of the Alfalfa Club. Yes, it’s the (seventh or eighth) biggest night in the city: State of the Union! Or, if you are into acronyms: SoTU.

Tonight President Obama addresses a joint session of congress, plus the Supreme Court, plus the Joint Chiefs, plus the Cabinet (minus one player-to-be-named-later), plus Ted Nugent to lay out his agenda for the coming year. The leaked parts suggest a speech about the middle class, jobs, and troop withdrawal from Afghanistan. The drinking games have begun that guess who sits next to FLOTUS, whether Rep. Eliot Engle (D-NY) will get to shake Obama’s hand, and how long the speech will last. The Invisible Primary games have begun to focus on the reaction to the speech.

The Iowa mini-Invisible Primary dynamic that my smart friend Dave blogged about a few postings below comes to the big screen tonight: The GOP-- Tea Party rumble that threatens to divide the party. What does the SoTU have to do with this? The official speech rejoinders! From the right, Florida senator Marco Rubio will deliver the Republican Response to the president’s SoTU speech and from further right, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul will deliver the Tea Party response. This is not unprecedented (Michelle Bachmann and Herman Cain have done the Tea Party response before) but it does speak to the Invisible Primary because we all know that Rubio and Paul have their eyes locked on 2016. What better way to position yourself for The Show than by giving a nationalized one-way refutation of your ideological opponent? In this case, the rebuff hits Obama and also goes intra-party, which gets to the interesting part.

Partisan squabbling is, of course, one point of the Invisible Primary, as Dave points out so well below. As we watch the possible contenders jockey for position and attention and (perhaps most important) money, it helps to shape the upcoming field. This highlights the nationalization of elections and the nature of modern American politics as much as it highlights the factions within the GOP. One terrific book on the Tea Party comes from Theda Skocpol and Vanessa Williamson who warn against underestimating their strength and lasting power. Paul’s stage tonight proves their point.

These two responses also underscore the various mechanisms in place to work the Invisible Primary system – that Sens. Rubio and Paul can capture the national attention on such a big night indicates their strength as 2016 contenders. They will seem serious and hard-hitting, arguing that they are the men who can lead the country into a new era, one presumably better than the one we’re in right now. The reaction (both in the press and from the public) to both men will be interesting and predictive to watch.

To end on a funny note: Andy Borowitz had a clever post about Paul’s Tea Party rebuttal, and Ted Nugent’s SoTU appearance is just plain hilarious on its own merits, thanks to his NRA interview last April where he said: “[I]f Barack Obama becomes the president in November, again, I will either be dead or in jail by this time next year.” Or attending the president’s State of the Union.  

I know. I know.

Friday, February 8, 2013

It begins.

So, the best thing about being a college professor has to be the terrific students who love this poli-sci-rrific stuff as much as we do. And into the fold comes Nicholas, who brought his WaPo article to my attention today: The Invisible Primary begins in earnest. And thank you, Nicholas, who just earned extra credit points towards his final grade.

Now, anyone who knows me know that I loath the term "earnest" for reasons too personal to address here (you know what you did, Ernie!) but in this case I will give the word a pass, because it fits so well. We have begun the Invisible Primary in earnest. Who says so? Apparently... the pollsters, and "The Fix" of the Washington Post who felt fealty towards the horse race strong enough to go ahead and lay down some odds so freakin' early on in the game. Hence the love of the I.P. Please allow me to nugget it down for you, so you can skip your daily dose of Cillizza and get to the good stuff - catching up on "House of Cards.":

1) Most notably, the Fix skipped the Dems all together for now, making the passive-aggressive argument that Hillary was the one to beat (has he been reading this blog? Was he the one who asked what I was wearing? Oh Chris. You flatter.) and so it was a top 10 list of GOPers on the hunt.

2) The Boring Were Named for Intellectual Street Cred: You have your Thune, Kasich, Pence, and Portmans (Portmen? And why so many from Ohio?) who bring the brains to the operation and portend weighty conversations about budgets and balances that the rest of the electorate finds tedious. Yet important. but mostly boring.

3) The Rock Stars Were Named for Readability: We have our Ryans (again!), the Bushes (again!) and the Christies (again!) who are kicking ass and taking names. Oh, Paul Ryan - we loved your abs so much in the 2012 Veep-Stakes, maybe we will see you in 2016? Our Twitter feeds hope so. Jeb - everyone knew you were the smart one. Maybe our Bush fatigue has lessened - no wait. No, it hasn't. We still hate your family for destroying the world. Sorry! And good luck with that e-mail hacking thing, because that just stinks and you guys don't deserve that. Yeesh. And Chris - love, love, love the way you take command. So go ahead and make our day: Change the conversation about you, please. And thanks.

4) Bobby Jindall - if I may steal a line from a mediocre political move: You are the future of the Republican Party, And you always will be.

5) And finally: My man Marco. Giving the response to the SOTU on Tuesday! How freakin' COOL is THAT! Oh - but ask Bobby about the perils of that limelight. Sometimes it burns. You can do it, Marco Rubio! Everyone says you can! But the problems with the Invisible Primary? Sometimes "everyone" is wrong.

So, ladies & gentlemen, we have our all-male Republican review. Now that the top ten slate has been posted, let's watch how these men use the actual Invisible Primary mechanisms to advance their campaign and earn the positive media attention they are so obsessive about. Of course, it is still so incredibly early to cancel any other possible contenders, just as it is too early to lay odds at the horse race. But such is the joy of the Invisible Primary: So much time, so little to do.

Wait. Reverse that.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

What's So Funny About Peace, Love, and Gerrymandering?

If there was one consistent talking point in the GOP assessment of the 2012 election, it was that voters did not give Obama a mandate and voted instead for divided government--a preference for retaining the GOP majority in the House.  In fact, Speaker John Boehner's first presser following the election, he said that the American people "...have re-elected President Obama and they've again re-elected a Republican majority in the House of Representatives."  In fact, Nancy Pelosi predicted that Democrats would re-take the House, needing a net of 25 seats, but fell short of that goal. So is the GOP talking point correct? Did Americans vote for divided government in order to provide a check on the excesses of Obama's first two years in office? Not so if you look at turnout.

In the aftermath of the 2012 election, Democrats received 1.4 million more votes than Republicans in the House races, yet the GOP came away with a clear majority.  The culprit? Gerrymandering.

Gerrymandering is that time honored process whereby every state must adjust its congressional districts based on population shifts following the census every 10 years.  With the advent of statistical software, drawing up precise districts has gone from art to science.  In the aftermath of the 2010 elections, Democrats lost control of many of the important institutions involved in the gerrymandering process (governor seats, state legislature, etc), giving the GOP the opportunity to maximize their control over the House and to buttress any "wave" election in the Democrats favor.

An important investigative report by the non-profit "Pro Publica" found that GOP strategists began to hone their attention on the state races following the losses in 2006 and 2008 to the Democrats, and the Democrats have allowed them this opportunity without challenge.  According to the study, Ed Gillespie, who we all remember from the two Bush victories in 2000 and 2004, took over management of a group called the Republican State Leadership Committee.  This group had existed since 2002, but had mostly focused on how to make the states more business friendly.  When Gillespie took over in 2010, the mission became redistricting.  He would raise the money necessary to win these critical state-wide elections in battleground states that were either up for grabs or leaning Democratic.  States such as Ohio, Virginia, North Carolina, and Florida. The group raised $10 million, which netted them "675 legislative seats" and "control of 12 state legislatures". The reward was control of 4 times more redistricting plans than the Democrats.  The Pro Publica study is an interesting read in machinations that seem more Orwellian than American, and I encourage you to read it.  But what is clear is that the GOP has stymied any effort by the Democrats to regain control of the House regardless of the wishes of the voters.  But what about the presidency? How does this potentially factor in to presidential elections?

Republicans in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Michigan are introducing legislation to revise the manner in which electoral votes are awarded. As you know from your civics classes, the winner of an election in a state is awarded all the electors (total number of House representatives + two senators), even if that person won the election by one vote.  Some states have changed their system to award electors based on who won state wide (the two senators) and who won in the districts, meaning two candidates could come away from a state with electors.  Proponents of this system argue that this is the best way to make more states competitive, such as Texas or California. But this study by the group PR Watch argues that only Republicans in blue states--states where Obama won--are advocating a change. So, according to the study, if Wisconsin had this new system in place, Obama and Romney would have split the electoral votes evenly five to five.  In Michigan, Romney would have won nine of the 14 districts and in Pennsylvania, Romney would have come away with 12 of the 18 electoral votes.  Thus in a close election, as 2012 was, this new gerrymandered system not only would have given Republicans control of the House despite their net loss of votes, but it also may have given the election to Romney and not Obama. Certainly this is a way to potentially rig future elections in the GOP's favor, and something that deserves a closer look, hopefully by the press.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

The Party Strikes Back

Though the focus of this blog is ostensibly on Presidential politics I can't help but comment on what's been brewing in the Republican party over the past few days.  Steven Law (and presumably Karl Rove) made something of a splash this weekend when he made it clear that American Crossroads and the Conservative Victory Project would be putting financial force to the "Buckley Rule."  The rule dates back to a 1967 interview with William F. Buckley where he threw down with Richard Nixon over Barry Goldwater for the purely pragmatic reason of Nixon's electability.  The Tea Party, in it's various incarnations, have clearly abandoned that advice in recent years with predictable consequences.  My point here is not to debate the propriety of Rove's actions, but place those actions within the framework of current political science.  In a word, it is predictable.  And it just so happens, my own backyard is ground zero.

Two of the many reasons I really dig this book is that Cohen and company broaden our understanding of what a political party is and that they are part of a growing group of researchers who are showing that parties are indeed viable organizations that can still play a defining role in choosing a presidential nominee.  While Cohen et al confine themselves to presidential nominations, there's no reason why we can't apply their basic framework to certain Congressional races.  Though it almost goes without saying, your average nomination fight for a US House or Senate seat is a snorer.  However, open seats are an entirely different animal.  Iowa is by every account a politically competitive state, with evenly divided House and Senate delegations and a habit of vacillating in Presidential elections.  Surprisingly enough, we're also rather representative of the nation at large on a wide variety factors (race excluded).  All this points to a competitive (and by that I mean fun) 2014 Senatorial election, now that Senator Tom Harkin has announced his retirement.  As Harkin called it quits with nearly the entire election cycle in front of us (thanks for that!), we've essentially kicked off our own little version of the invisible primary in which both parties will begin triangulating on candidates.  Within hours of Sen. Harkin's announcement Iowa's chattering class was abuzz with speculation on who'd take up the race.  And of course, we get some polling results to boot a few days later.  Surely every experienced politico that has either won a statewide constituency or has statewide name recognition immediately began running scenarios through their minds on a possible shot at this seat.

One such candidate is Rep. Steve King whose fourth district stretches from his home turf (and mine) in northwest Iowa to the central part of the state.  It's a new district created in the last apportionment.  King did an admirable job in adapting to the new ground in 2012; no easy task as there was a LOT of it.  The underlying partisan structure was quite different from his old district with a far greater proportion of Democrats brought in, albeit with slight Republican advantage.  Simply put, he had a real race on his hands, and he made a number of deft strategic maneuvers to deal with the new realities.  Though he won by over 8 points, the results probably understate his perceived vulnerability.  With a dw-nominate first dimension score of .752, it's safe to conclude he's about as conservative as they come.  King is also no stranger to controversy seen here expanding on Todd Akin's rape comments, which brought several WTF reactions nationwide, but were taken in stride back here in the district.  Truth be told, that's King's shtick, and he relishes the spotlight.

Enter Karl Rove.  Call Rove's group what you will (establishment, moderate, sell out, etc), it should come as no surprise that a number of voices will attempt to name (or pull) candidates into closer proximity to the median Republican voter than a more ideologically extreme candidate like King.  It's just that all the attention in the last two cycles has been paid to a group pulling the GOP to the right.  King is also a factional leader; and just as factional leaders rarely get the Presidential nomination (much less make for good general election candidates), King will face the same limitations statewide should he pursue the seat.  While his brand of religious nationalism is a clear boon in the northwest of the state and may well win him the nomination in the primary, it will likely marginalize him as he attempts to build statewide support in a general election.  This is no Democratic slam dunk however, and the PPP polling should be taken with several proverbial grains of salt.  But from Rove's perspective, a King candidacy is not worth the risk.  Rove and others would like to avoid a Sharon Angle or Christine O'Donnell situation playing out in a very winnable state.  This is largely the same dynamic we see at play as the national parties attempt to coordinate on nominees in the invisible primary, only it's scaled down to an Iowa sized conversation.  The twist is that the Iowa conversation is taking part with national players trying to influence the outcome.  I say that not to go nativist on you, but to highlight the dynamics at play: intense policy demanders actively conversing with one another about a pool of nominees with a variety of interests at stake.  

So from my perspective as a political scientist with an interest in political parties I say, "Have at it!"  Not that my normative baggage is in any one camp here, but both professionally and politically I rather like dynamic political parties as they increase responsiveness and responsibility of elected officials.  What I'm really eager to see is whether or not this mini-invisible primary will be successful in winnowing the field of both Republican and Democratic candidates.  If it does, we can surely say that the party has struck back.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Nothing visible. Or even invisible!

Ah, Sundays.
For the Punditocracy, it's the chat-show circuit, for those in fly-over country it's football. Today is the Super Bowl and the third day to watch "House of Cards," and seemingly few exciting I.P. folks felt the need to compete with such fun to make a go at the "Look at ME!" games afoot. Ostensibly the chattering class is tres busy with frivolity to contemplate an election three years away.

And thus... a quiet weekend for the Invisible Primary. The Sunday Morning Newsmakers featured... a whole bunch of people whose job titles included the word "former,"  none of whom is seriously contemplating a run at anything more exciting than a book contact. Trust me, in the perilous publishing period a book contract is nothing to sneeze at, but when the line-ups include former DC School Chief Michelle Rhee and former Labor Sec. Elaine Chao, the only thing for an IP fan to do is watch game-tape of Hillary's farewell address to the Staties.


So because we can, let's move beyond the scope of this blog to something rogue: "House of Cards!" Seriously, if this gets my blogger's license revoked it is worth it if only to INSIST that you immediately subscribe to Netflix and download the series as soon as is possible. I am not given to hyperbole (and if you knew me, you'd know that was as far from the truth as anything. I hyperbole more than any other girl on the face of the planet. HA!) but this show is a real game changer. First: It's brilliantly written and masterfully acted, which is sort of commonplace these days when "Downton Abby" captures the attention of the very, very mainstream general public. But also -  it's produced by Netflix (which is a new thing on its own) and ... wait for it... the whole season is released immediately. This is going to change the very nature of "television" (or whatever we will call it) because it rejects the standard TV cycle and the need for "Last week on Blah Blah" updates. So, it's a game changer in its format. But perhaps most importantly and more to the point of this blog, the show is revolutionary in its wink-and-nod reality of the workings and machinations of DC. If you work or ever worked in DC, you know these people. You dated these people. You ARE these people. And for that, it is fabulous. Clutch-the-pearls, swoon on your toes fabulous.

So in the in-between-times of the Invisible Primary, don't rest on your laurels and hope for greatness. Just stream it from Netflix and thank me later.