Saturday, December 12, 2015

I'll Tell You What

What, my dear friends, could compel me to post after so long?
The Donald.
Doesn't he just shake up the political landscape? To quote the best Eddie Murphy stand up from the 1980s: I gotta story to tell.

So, I'm sitting at my daughter's volleyball practice and, as I am wont to do, I am grading papers. Out of the periphery of my vision I see a man turn to look at me. I raise my head and without any inviting inflection (no smile, no nod - I don't know this guy) he begins to just just talk:

"I'll tell you what. This country is gonna be MUCH better when Donald Trump is president."

Um. What? I must have stared at him blankly because he went on:

"And I'll tell you what. When Obama was elected, I KNEW this country was gonna fail and it did. You know why?"


"Because he's not an American. And he don't even salute the troops!"


"I gotta friend at Letterkenny and he says Obama don't even salute the troops and my friend served in Iraq and he knows that Obama don't even salute the troops and he's not a real American."


"And I'll tell you what. I got nothing against women. I like women. My boss is a woman and she don't take no bullshit from no one and I like women. you know what I'm saying?"


"So I don't got no problem with a woman president. Not Hillary -- she's shady as fuck. But a woman president? I got no problem with that. You know who would make a good woman president?"

Blank stare.

"Sarah Palin."

Okay. I know you think I'm making this up, and I have to admit -- when he threw down the Palin reference I started to look around for the hidden camera to see if Lonce Bailey was taping this for Facebook. I expected Ashton Kutcher to jump out and punk me. I started to think that he was a method actor from NYC who had come into town for a gig and got some extra scratch for messing with me. I didn't believe it was real for one moment because, honestly, I know no one who even thinks about Sarah Palin any more.

But then I realized that our media allows me to not know anyone who thinks about Palin any more. And therein lies the problem. We have stopped talking to each other and have started talking past one another. But I digress.

Most of my close friends who live in cities will think I am making this up for giggles -- but this guy is real as rain and he represents the 35% of the public who likes what Trump is saying. This is honest and raw and awful -- but it ain't no joke.

Remember how we used to chant: "We're here! We're queer! Get used it to and don't fuck with me!" Well guess what? Turn that on it's head and we have the Trump supporters.


My own personal Trump supporter (and apparent Palin aficionado) eventually ran out out steam (I will spare you the truly virulent racist stuff) and took a beat: "You a teacher? That's cool" wherein he went back to his iPhone and I sat in stunned silence. I hadn't ever spoken to him, nor had I had the chance to reply in any form, to correct the missteps or untruths and maybe that was for the best. He wouldn't have believed me anyway, and what's the point when talking to someone who had a
grammatical error on his tee shirt? (I took that photo before it all went down and sent it to my sister with a snort of laughter and cheer in my heart for typos.) Plus the tee shirt was right: I am thinking about him. Bless his heart.

The point here is not that Trump supporters are dumb, but rather they are angry a hell and it doesn't matter how many fact-checkers take him to task for just making shit up. We can dismiss the supporters, call Trump fascist, but in the end The Donald is here to stay and we might just have (cheers to YOU Niel Brasher!) a brokered convention.

He will not win a general (we all know that) but he will change the conversation and I think that change is for the worse. Not to be too blunt about it, but just watch the 2008 language at work: It was hope. It was lovely and it was positive. And it was right.

"Yes we can."

Where are we now, 7 years later? A nation plagued with hatred and anger and bigotry and a hint towards the kind of intolerance that I honestly thought we had moved beyond. As a human it makes me sad. But I listen to the 2008 video linked above and it gives me hope again -- because we are America. "And if we stand together we will begin the next great chapter in the American story with the three words that will bring hope: Yes we can."

We just need to get past this character. Trump. How dare he do this to us? He has a right - the Founders said so and I trust them. But they also created a system where he does not have to take over.

He's here. Get used to it. But don't stand for it.

Yes. We. Can. 

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Once More, Unto the Breach Dear Friends

In the aftermath of the 2012 election, where GOP big shots from Karl Rove down to Mitt Romney sat stunned because they believed that the election was in the bag (and should have been in the bag), the GOP began a round of soul searching, as well as finger pointing (who can forget Mitt's double down comments crediting Obama's re-election to "gifts" to a variety of parasitical citizens)?

In the aftermath of this soul searching, the GOP produced a fairly interesting and revealing introspection about how the party would need to change if it wanted to win presidential elections, starting with the open-seat election in 2016.  The result of this introspection is a 100 page document titled the "Growth and Opportunity Project".  On page 69, the article focuses on the primaries, and especially the debates that took place among the potential nominees.

The authors note that in 1980, there were just six debates. In 2000 there were 13. But then in 2008 and 2012, the number of debates exploded, with 21 and 20 respectively. Furthermore, in 1980, the first debate did not take place until the Iowa Caucuses were about to begin, while in 2012 the first debate took place eight months before Iowa:

 In addition to the large quantity of debates, there was the added problem of two debates held back to back within a 12 hour period--the first in the evening on Saturday January 7, 2012 and the second in the morning on Sunday, January 8, 2012.

The authors argue that it is time for the Party to get control over the timing, sponsorship, and candidate participation of GOP debates because currently the GOP brand, and candidates, are being hurt via a collusion of the liberal media and unelectable candidates who push for more, and not less, debates.  They note:

The media will decide how many debates the party should have instead of the Party making the decision. In order to have a process that respects a candidate's time and one that helps the Party win (71).

 Their recommendations for 2016:
  • Hold between 10-12 debates beginning no earlier than September 2015 and ending somewhere around Super Tuesday in late February or early March.
  • After the last round of debates, if there continues to be a competitive battle between two or more candidates (similar to 2008 for the Democrats), then it should be up to the candidates to decide if they want to accept or decline additional debates
  • The RNC needs to get control of the scheduling process as soon as possible: by announcing the number of debates as well as when they will begin in late 2014 or early 2015, before the field of candidates has had a chance to get set. Further, the RNC should penalize any candidate or state party that defects from the schedule by attending non-sanctioned debates (or hosting non-sanctioned debates) by taking away delegates going into the GOP Convention in the summer of 2016, or more realistically, by barring from sponsored debates the participation of candidates who appear in non-sponsored debates.
The RNC did announce its schedule of "sanctioned" debates: five in 2015 and then five more in 2016, with the first one held in Cleveland (also the home to their summer convention) on August 6, 2015 and the last one in March 2016, location TBD.  And no mystery, the big winner as far as hosts go is "Fox News" (or its subsidiary, the "Fox Business Channel"), which will air four of the debates.  In addition, the conservative Salem Media Group is also a big winner, sponsoring three of the debates.

The paper underscores a long standing tension between political parties, candidates, and the media when it comes to who or what matters during election time.  Back in 1969, the McGovern-Fraser Commission changed the control over the selection of party nominees, removing it from the party leadership and handing it over to the rank and file voter in the 50 states and territories.  As a result, who mattered in presidential elections shifted from Party-Candidate to Candidate-Media.  In fact, we can lay a great deal of the blame at the feet of the Democrats for agreeing to implement the Commission reforms, because it brought with it the need for incredibly enormous sums of money and a near dependence upon political advertising (one going hand in hand with the other). Furthermore, it removed the party from having any influence over the choice of nominees, often getting stuck with the least desirable candidate.  More recently, the political parties have been trying, with some success, to regain control over the selection of candidates and the direction of campaigns (see, for example, Groeling's When Parties Attack: Party Cohesion in the Media. NY: Cambridge University Press. 2010).

Jonathan Martin, writing in yesterday's New York Times, draws attention to the problems the GOP faces as it rushes headlong into the 2016 election cycle with a number of top shelf and bottom shelf candidates, versus the Democrats, who have Hillary Clinton and not much else (with all due respect to that loyal Bernie Sanders contingent).  The article also illustrates a particular problem regarding who gets to decide who appears in those debates sanctioned by the GOP.  From the lede:

Republican leaders, searching for a fair-minded but strategically wise way to conduct the presidential primary debates, are grappling with how to manage White House contenders in a sprawling field that mixes proven politicians with provocateurs and reflects an increasingly fractious party.

 At the moment, there does not seem to be a fair way to decide who appears and who does not.  As Martin argues, relying on polling could preclude current or former GOP politicians from participating because they may not be well known to the public at large.  What is especially ironic, or delicious, depending on your political views, is that public opinion polling is the weapon that the Democrats and Republicans use to keep third party candidates out of the presidential debates, and no one from either Party or from the Commission on Presidential Debates suggest any problems exist from using public opinion polling as a barrier to entry.  The problem for the GOP is relying only on public opinion polling to decide who participates or not is likely to be the very thing that pushes candidates into appearing in non-sanctioned debates.  And if some attend the non-sanctioned debates, you can bet most, if not all, will attend.

The GOP face the additional problem of optics in winnowing the field.  From Martin:

Many Republicans laboring to improve the party’s image recoil from the prospect that whatever debate-eligibility criteria are adopted could result in the barring of the only woman, Carly Fiorina, the former Hewlett-Packard chief executive, or Ben Carson, a retired neurosurgeon who is the only African-American candidate.
But if they decide to allow Fiorina and Carson to attend while cutting other candidates such as my State's Governor John Kasich, the GOP face the additional problem of appearing to embrace affirmative action. 

So how does the GOP leadership see a way to resolve this problem?  As Martin notes, for the first debate in August:
One member of the national committee panel charged with overseeing the debates said its members had discussed ceding the decision entirely to Fox News.

So pass the buck is your answer?

It may just be that the GOP leadership is looking at this in the wrong way.  While I am sympathetic to the problem of over exposure--too many debates--as well as over simplification--too many people on the stage forces each person to boil down complex arguments into bite sized nuggets due to time constraints, the GOP should be asking themselves just what do debates in general accomplish? What impact do they really have on the eventual decisions that American voters make in November?

Martin seems to believe that debates do make a difference.  He argues: " the 2012 primary demonstrated, televised debates can instantaneously reshape presidential races...".

He also suggests that candidates who do get excluded as a result of the criteria that the GOP, in conjunction with the media, develop will take their anger to

...conservative websites and talk radio to foment anger at the so-called Republican establishment — an assault that could undermine the national committee’s hold on the debate process.

If you believe people like John Sides, these pre-primary and primary debates do not matter much in affecting the electoral chances of the eventual nominee.  In fact, the benefit from these debates is two fold (at least):

First, it does act as a kind of training ground for the eventual nominees, who will only get three chances to debate one another in the general election (the list of potential debate sites is currently available at the Commission on Presidential Debates).

Second, these debates can save the party from making a very bad decision on a candidate who may be a media darling, but is nowhere near ready for prime time (think former Texas Governor Rick Perry).

It seems to me that the problem of superficiality, which some critics believe stems from too many candidates in the race, is less a result of the number of debates or the number of participants, and more the result of the media's role in the process, starting with sponsorship of the debates.  Each one of the ten GOP debates is sponsored by a media organization--either cable or broadcast television.  And if you recall the 2012 primary debates, the media coverage, coupled with the questions asked, were down right offensive to the intellect of the audience.  Examples?

In the June 2011 debate that CNN sponsored, the moderator, John King, said this:

All right. I want to -- got to work in one more break before we go. We've got a lot more ground to cover. Believe it or not, our candidates -- we're running out of time here.

Into and out of every break we're having a little experiment called "This or That."

Governor Pawlenty, to you, Coke or Pepsi?


Or worse yet, who could forget the CNN "Tea Party" sponsored debate in September 2011, which had an introduction that was straight out of Monday Night Football or professional wrestling, or this from intellectual powerhouse Wolf Blitzer:

“Tonight, eight candidates, one stage, one chance to take part in a groundbreaking debate. The Tea Party support and the Republican nomination, on the line right now.”
And finally, regarding the worry about the power of the  fringe to take to conservative media and to bring down the Party is giving to much credit to the fringe and to conservative media.  As John Sides and Lynn Vavreck argue in The Gamble, one of the mistakes that Mitt Romney made in the primary back in 2012 was to over-estimate the power and the size of the Tea Party faction within the GOP, forcing him to take conservative stands when he did not need to.  And political talk radio, once a force in American, and Republican, politics has disintegrated as a result of an aging audience and the continual fragmentation of our media into a million little pieces.

It will be something to watch as 2016 comes closer into view to see whether or not the Party, or the candidate, has real pull in the election cycle.  But if the last two election cycles are any guide, having fewer debates is not likely to happen in 2016, or in any other presidential election cycle to come.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Zombie Myths: Invisible Primary Edition

Recently in the political science blogosphere there's been a venting on some of the enduring "zombie" myths. Despite the good work of several political scientists outreach towards journalists, and a warm reception to that outreach by many reporters, some of these myths just tend to stick around, the self-hair pulling and head bashing of the academy notwithstanding. Though I missed the tweet that started the avalanche over at Jon Bernstein's blog, and thus missed my chance to weigh in, I'll take the opportunity to throw out a few of my pet peeves in the coverage and perception of the invisible primary.

1. Money ≠ Success. Political scientists have known this for years. While I'm still not sure about money buying happiness (I'll volunteer to be in the experimental group on that test), we political scientists are quite certain that it cannot buy elections. Granted, much of what we know about money and electoral success comes from general elections, which are far more predictable than primary elections making campaigning and spending less important. Still, presidential primaries are national events, requiring a solid network of volunteers in state after state to be viable. While money can certainly buy some resources necessary for nation-wide network building, it still requires help that cannot be purchased. Support from office holders in the form of endorsements is key. Throw in the fact that it's these office holders that are actively seeking out good candidates in the invisible primary, we're left in a position where, last I checked, these aren't on the auction block.

2. Self-financed candidates are toast. I mean carbonized, burnt to a crisp toast. These folks are usually self-financed for a reason, they just don't have the networks necessary to win over party activists and their financial constituents. Even when they get a degree of funds from other donors, their lack of political experience and allies just leaves them at a systematic disadvantage. While this is something of an apples/oranges comparison, contrast the 2002 gubernatorial campaign of Mitt Romney with the 2010 campaigns of Carly Fiorina and Meg Whiman. Romney, who at that point had only an election loss or two as the sum total of his political career, was actively recruited invisible primary style by a handful of Massachusetts Republican activists. While the organizational ranks of Bay State Republicans is admittedly scant relative to the Democrats, they had a successful string of Republican gubernatorial runs. However, they were dissatisfied with the prospect of incumbent Jane Swift (who assumed office as a result of Paul Cellucci resigning to become ambassador to the Great White North) running in her own right, and unceremoniously dumped her for Romney. Fiorina and Whitman were classic cases of self-financed candidates that hit a ceiling, pushing the bounds of what money can buy you politically. At the state level it may in fact get you a nomination, but it won't get you too far when running for your party's nomination for the presidency. Just ask President Forbes.

3. Super-PACs and sugar daddies ain't everything either. While it's clear that super PACs are changing the dynamics of campaign funding, and they've yet to come into their own in terms of strategies and effectiveness, they're still an improper measurement of success in the invisible primary. Again, the invisible primary is an elite driven affair. Gregory Koger is spot on in his assessment that mega-donors a type of elite whose power is becoming more important at the expense of traditional party players through the ability to buoy poor candidates like Gingrich that would have been weeded out earlier in the process a few cycles ago. But at least for now, their donations are hardly determinative. And as his MoF colleague Richard Skinner points out, there's bound to be counter spending of super PACs and sugar daddies who are more party oriented to match the more candidate centered sugar daddies supporting the fringier personalities.

4. Ignore the polls. Political scientists as a class have been saying this for as long as polls have been taken at this stage of the election. As the invisible primary is largely, well, invisible, preferences of voters in the early stages have little predictive power at this stage. All the things that invisible primary success can bring a candidate (endorsements, party activist/network support, greater news coverage) aren't going to be apparent to the average voter until a few months ahead of Iowa, so there's no use asking them about their preferences that far out. Couple this with the fact that we have a ridiculously crowded Republican field at this moment, you're just not going to get much utility from asking voters their preferences right now. While they are readily available to busy journalists rushing to make a deadline (as opposed to where the real invisible primary action is), it's sour low-hanging fruit.

5. Especially those damned straw polls. Republican nominees Gramm, Bachmann, Robertson, Bauer, and Paul can tell you how prescient these things are, whether they're of CPAC or Iowa flavors. The events that surround them also tend to be terrible indicators of invisible primary success, since the crowds at these events are hardly representative of all the key invisible primary players. While they can be fun to watch, or indeed soul sucking experiences where we lose degrees of faith in democracy itself, they're not going to give you any real sense of who's going to come out on top in the nomination.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

50 Shades of CPAC

50 Shades of CPAC

We’re back! For a variety of personal and professional reasons, the two primary contributors to this blog have been on something of a hiatus since last summer. Speaking for myself, I’ve been as busy as I’ve ever been in my professional life trying to make demonstrable progress on four working papers under a 3-3 teaching load. There are times I truly envy my friends in the private sector who only have to work 40-50 hours over a five day work week…

In an attempt to hit the ground running, I’d thought I’d elaborate a bit upon John Sides’ take on this go around of the annual CPAC conference. In perhaps what is the best commentary I’ve seen on the event yet, @monkeycageblog tweeted out this gem:

Let me preface the discussion with this: within my short life as a political scientist, I’ve seen clear changes, good progress really, in how the media covers the invisible primary. A decade or so ago, if the words “invisible” and “primary” happened to collide together in the same sentence, your average journalist, perhaps political scientist even, wouldn’t have had the foggiest idea of what it was referring to. Compare that to the last couple of presidential election cycles where reporters have routinely begun to refer to the process and report on it in a much more informed fashion. This is clearly a case where political science’s engagement with journalists has had a positive impact on popular media coverage. Despite this wide recognition of the importance of the invisible primary in steering the parties towards nominees on the part of a growing number of journalists, the media tends to focus on invisible primary events that are most conspicuous. And in this instance, it means focusing in on the wrong place.

The problem with the CPAC conference is that this particular piece of low hanging fruit is probably the least useful in getting a grasp on which candidates are in doing best in the ongoing deliberations amongst policy activists within the Republican party network. The history of success at CPAC is far from perfect in predicting the eventual nomination. Let’s face it, the comments of a few fringe candidates make for interesting news items, despite the fact that they test my faith in democracy in general and more narrowly make me wonder how I ever had sympathies with this particular crowd in years past (yes, it can be painful, hence the title). Couple that with the fact that the straw poll gives a nice quantifiable capstone to the event, you can see why journalists pay it a great deal of attention. However, CPAC is at best a snapshot of the opinions of a few of the “fringier” factions within the party. Libertarian-ish types, check; Populist Tea Party-ish types, check; a good showing of Republican office holders, [crickets].

We know from experience, that the support of members of congress, governors, and other elected office holders is absolutely key in winning the invisible primary because of the organizational resources that they bring with them and the cues they give to others in the party. Voters do indeed take heed to the opinions of the "elite". When the key party actors aren’t present in force for the conversation taking place at CPAC, whatever visible cues we get from conference will be a mighty incomplete picture of the party wide deliberation. 

So props Senator Rand Paul for his continued sweep of this series. And, a shout out to Scott Walker for nearly pulling off a dark horse win. But when you’re a dark horse behind Rand Paul, from a crowd that barely resembles the key constituents of the Republican party network, neither of them, nor Republicans, nor the general public, should be taking any of these results to the bank. I dare say we should stick with Prof. Sides, and look elsewhere for clues as to who's really cleaning up in the invisible primary.