Thursday, October 21, 2010

Final Pre-Election Preview, Pt. 4: The Rest

Now that we've completed our final election previews for the Senate the House, and the state governors' contests, we will move to a preview of the "all other" category. We will start with re-visiting the arcane but important question of Congressional redistricting, then move to important ballot referenda, and then to a pre- pre-view of The Main Event, which begins November 3.

Re-mystification of De-districting...or something like that...The 2010 Census, the raw data for which was completed this past spring, provides the Constitutionally-mandated basis for determining the state-by-state apportionment of seats in the House of Representatives. Although the official Census population reports will not come out until December, the outline of what is likely to happen in Congressional reapportionment for the period 2012-2020 is already known and reported.

It is possible this could change, but indications are that eight states will gain seats, six of them to gain one seat, but Florida getting two, and Texas four more. On the other side, ten states are expected to lose seats, with New York and Ohio losing two and the other states one each (there will be no net change in Congressional seats; the soonest that is likely to change is if Puerto Rico becomes a state, or Hell freezes over--the icecaps melting would surely be insufficient).

The states that gain or lose Congressional seats have major work to do to figure out the boundaries of the new Congressional districts. State legislatures are mandated to study and pass bills establishing the new boundaries; governors also have a voice through their veto powers. If there is no change in the number of seats, the states generally can leave district boundaries as they are, or they can choose to tinker with them. The state legislation is subject to challenge in the courts by aggrieved parties, but there is a long tradition of judges reluctant to meddle as long as some respect is given to reasonably similar populations among districts, and to geographical continuity within them.

Within those loose parameters, then, re-districting is a political process, one that the parties take a great interest in fixing for their interest. Let's take a hypothetical, but typical, type of case study to see how it works: assume that the state of Annesota has a 2010 Census population of 3 million, giving it a six-seat Congressional delegation, with some sort of change from the previous ten years--that basically necessitates a substantial revision, so we won't worry about the old boundaries. There are 1.8 million registered voters in Annesota, of which 1 million project to voting for party A and 800,000 party B in a typical Presidential election. These projections can feasibly be broken down at the county, municipality, or even precinct level, so districts can be adjusted to fit the desired distribution, as long as the resulting district maps are not too outrageous.

Re-districting is scientific, but not an exact science. Both parties would like to assure themselves of the maximum number of safe seats for their party (ones with projected votes 60-40, or 2-to-1, in their favor; those are the perennially safe seats), while giving themselves the chance to pick up one or two on the margin. So, a typical re-districting formula for Annesota, one that both parties might agree upon, might look like this:

District Projected Votes Party A Party B
1 200,000 100,000
2 200,000 100,000
3 100,000 200,000
4 200,000 100,000
5 200,000 100,000
6 100,000 200,000

This is the classic sort of incumbent-favoring formula, party A getting four seats and party B two. If party A has a safe majority in the state legislature and the governor from its party, party B might agree to this formula to avoid a battle which could work to its detriment.

If, on the other hand, party A gets greedy and wants a shot at five of the six seats, or if party B has a stronger position in the legislature or governor's mansion, they may want to try to get three of the six seats. In the first case, Districts 1 and 6 might be left as above, but Districts 2 through 5 could be arranged so each is 175,000 for Party A, 125,000 for Party B. This would be less stable, but give party A a real chance at five of the six seats, and party B would be expected to resist it by any and all means.

In the second case, party B could try to ram through something like this:

District Projected Votes Party A Party B
1 225,000 75,000
2 125,000 175,000
3 125,000 175,000
4 125,000 175,000
5 200,000 100,000
6 200,000 100,000

Here, despite being in the (projected) minority, control of the statehouse could allow Party B an extra, reasonably safe, seat in Congress--but there is a risk: their margins are smaller in all cases than those for Party A, so things could turn sour and they could lose one or more of those seats, while having little upside opportunity beyond those three. Again, we should expect Party A to resist such a formula fiercely, and in this case it might go to the courts for the second type of resolution: occasionally, when there is no legislative agreement possible (often when legislative control is split, or the governor is opposed to the party controlling the legislature), the courts have to decide between competing formulas, essentially proposed by the party organizations.

The key battles in re-districting are the ones for control of state legislatures, a subject far too deep and wide for me to tackle satisfactorily. There is a group called the DLCC, the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, which is investing strategically in critical state legislature campaigns--I would encourage a modest contribution there. State governors are more of a firewall for stopping (or possibly facilitating) wild redistricting outcomes from the legislatures.

I hope this illustrates the redistricting battle, which apparently will come up in some 18 states, between now and 2012. Some of these will be settled in a very straightforward manner (some actually have legislation or state constitutional provisions which simplify the issue), while Texas, set to gain four seats, is certain to be a battle royal.

Ballot Initiatives
One story that might get a fair amount of attention on Election night, but which I don't care about at all, are a couple of Republican-leaning states which have ballot initiatives, either making laws or changes to state constitutions, aimed at preventing implementation of the Healthcare reform bill in some part. Generally, these are aimed at the mandate that all people should get health insurance, trying to set the stage for state courts to rule that the mandate may not be enforced.

The reason I don't care is that the concept of states nullifying Federal laws was pretty definitively shot down in the 1830's and, from a constitutional law point of view, is dead and buried. The Nullification battle between President Andrew Johnson and South Carolina Governor John C. Calhoun came when Calhoun tried to exempt his state from a national protective tariff and Johnson threatened military action. The chances that federal courts back such state initiatives and exempt states from the mandate are about the same as those that Calhoun will rise from the dead and begin eating the Capitol and its inhabitants. That is, it's theoretically impossible, but if it does happen, we're all doomed.

The largest number of initiatives relate to states' problems with balancing their budgets in the current economic difficulties. Some of them would make it easier for states to fill in revenue gaps, but many of them would make it harder, by taking away taxes approved by state legislatures or by reducing property taxes in the manner of California's infamous Proposition 19, passed some 25 years ago and still causing immense mischief. California has one addressing one other major impediment to state budgeting done by initiative: it has an initiative which would repeal the requirement that state budgets be approved by a two-thirds majority: This one has produced logjams year after year. Given the fact that most Americans think taxes are too high, and the contrary facts that most states' revenues are too low, their mandated expenses too high, and that they are required to have balanced budgets, the most likely outcome is huge short-term difficulties and, in some cases, locking in longer-term complication. So much for the practicalities confronting the idealistic notion of direct democracy.

Elections and political processes are the subject of several ballot initiatives. Two of the more interesting ones are in Florida and designed to take partisan considerations out of Congressional redistricting--the likely result, despite the good intentions, will be confusion. There's another one of these in California turning over redistricting to a non-partisan commission, but since California doesn't look to have any changes this time around, it probably won't be too keenly contested. There are a couple having to do with campaign finance in state campaigns. Several states have referenda on whether to call state constitutional conventions--I'm looking for a state-level movement to call for conventions to revise the US constitution (the second, never used, method of changing the Constitution), but that hasn't materialized yet. Illinois has one to allow for recall of the governor--a bit too late, this one.

The most significant ballot initiative area, though, is when petitions or legislative decisions give voters the opportunity to determine state laws. One huge one is in California, where voters will be asked if they want to suspend implementation of the state's innovative climate change law until such time as the economy recovers--this one will be a very good bellwether of the chances for any kind of national climate change-related laws while our economy is still suffering, and I would say our climate is not likely to fare too well under the circumstances.

Some of them are almost funny: four very red (-necked) states have proposals to add "the right to hunt and fish" to their state constitutions--as if those states would ever pass a law to prohibit that. Not so funny is a Colorado provision to have the state constitution define "personhood" as beginning at conception--if it happens, it could create some real conflict with the Federally-backed right of women to choose abortion.

There are the usual ones to authorize casinos--those pretty much always pass--and a couple more states authorizing medical marijuana--those usually pass, but the experiences of California and Colorado, where the implementation of those laws has allowed almost anyone to buy weed legally, may have a negative effect on that trend.

Finally, the Big Kahuna of initiatives this year is California's initiative to make marijuana for any adult legal, regulated, and taxed. This one is justifiably being watched everywhere to see if the tide is definitively turning in favor of legalization, not just tolerance in limited situations. There is also the thought that this one will bring out young voters--who generally have a low level of interest in this year's elections--which could be critical in the state's close races for governor, US Senate, and in several House districts.

Polls suggest the outcome of this ballot proposition could go either way. Similarly unclear is what would happen if the bill passes: the Federal government, which insists it wants to enforce national laws against all marijuana, could interfere with the peaceful rollout of this change in the law. This would seem to be a big mistake for the Obama Administration, so I suspect some accommodation will be sought to avoid a slow-motion train-wreck: perhaps something like revenue sharing, in which some of the (predictedly abundant) revenues would go to Federal anti-drug programs or something. The idea would be to try to re-draw the national policy around cutting out the Mexican drug cartels, accepting the notion of harm reduction, and doing more to separate the approach toward "soft" cannabis and hard drugs like meth, coke, and opiates.

Slouching Toward 2012
Like it or not, the 2012 campaign will start within days of November 2. This year's election results are the final piece of data required to get things going for both sides. 2010 will go down in history as the most expensive, ugliest, most wasteful campaign in history, but it is clear that nothing will change in the realm of campaign finance (it's even less likely with the Republican gains coming), so this year's bloat will be nothing compared to the colon blow of dirty money coming in 2012. The lesson for the Democrats will undoubtedly be to get down and dirty earlier, and it is extremely unlikely that the Republicans will see this year's results as anything but an endorsement of their sleaze.

Meteorologically or environmentally speaking, climate change looks like a dead issue, both for this year's lame-duck session after the elections and for the 112th Congress starting in 2011. Changing the political climate, though, will be a big topic in days to come, and, while it could conceivably get even worse, I think it is more likely that there will be some successful attempts to reduce its toxicity.

In the immediate short run, don't expect too much. The lame-duck session will have an attempt, led by some of the many Congressional Democrats about to be pushed out the door, to get a couple things done, but Republican Senators will make a determinative effort to run out the clock on anything that don't like. (There may be a surprisingly quiet accommodation on tax cuts, extending some or most for 2-3 years. ) This will be followed by a sharp, bitter battle in the first days of the new Congress for the Senate to revise its filibuster rules. The narrow Democratic majority will not be able to get its revisions, no matter how sensible and moderate, to the floor and they will quickly find they will have to concede and move on (the reverse would also apply if the Republicans somehow put together a majority).

At this point, I think, the Obama White House will reach out and try to combat dangerous local overheating. Calling in the leaders of both parties' caucuses from both houses of Congress will immediately reverse the Wall Street decline we can expect in early 2011 as the Golden Age of Tea suddenly reveals itself to be an ineffective, transitory fad. The good news will then come forward in a set of consensus-based initiatives to help private businesses feel better about investing in their businesses and get people back to work. (For the record, I expect Big Business to piss away most of their cash hoards in stupid merger and acquisition, rather than truly investing in business expansion, but there will be exceptions.) Some sort of budget compromise--for the short run, mind you--will be achieved. The big report on reducing structural deficits from Federal programs will come out, to less-than-universal acclaim, and the debate on those will start--not to be settled until after 2012. The short-term decision on moving forward in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will be made at end of this year without too much fuss from either side.

I see this relatively favorable political scenario as being much more likely than the one of hard-right Republicans shutting down the Federal government. Tea Party successes in the 2010 election are not going to be so overwhelming that they will control the Republican caucus in either house of Congress, and the "adults" will retain direction over legislative strategy. I give them enough credit to think they will understand how that confrontational strategy backfired in 1995-96, and just as the Left has had to learn to accept some disappointments from President Obama, the Teabaggers will have to accept their representatives' limitations.

The environment, or the related issue of energy politics, could arise as a significant factor by 2012, though I would not expect it to do so until a date more like 2016. I believe that almost any event that would rise to the level of national politics would tend to favor the Democrats and hurt the Republicans: for example, a recurrence of something like the BP spill, or an oil embargo, or serious climatic disturbances, or a sudden technological development facilitating conversion to renewable energy or electric cars.

How does all this play out into the 2012 campaign? I expect the unemployment rate during the summer of 2012 to be somewhere in the 7-8% range (with many new entrants to the job market included)--"way too high", but still a great deal better than the present. Both the President and the Republican Congressional leaders will be ready to both claim credit for the improvement and blame the other side for the continuing problems.

Barring catastrophe, President Obama will be running for re-election, will not have serious competition for his party's nomination, and will have Joe Biden as his running mate. (The talk about Hillary Clinton and Biden switching jobs was interesting, but apparently had no foundation in reality.) So, I will skip any speculation contrary to that notion--with one caveat.

Apart from the general political climate, and the environmental and economic climate questions, then, the key questions which will frame the 2012 campaign are who will be the Republican nominee, and will there be a significant third-party candidate. Those two questions are interrelated, I think it's fair to say. There are three basic scenarios: 1) a Tea Party-type, or other extreme right-wing candidate, wins the Republican nomination and there's a fracture, with a moderate running; 2) an establishment Republican defeats the Teabaggers and right-wingnut candidates, and there is a third-party candidate running on the right; and 3) somehow, the Republicans all stick together around someone more or less in the center of the Republican tent.

The battle for the 2012 Republican nomination and control of the convention will be the determining factor in the struggle for the party: will the establishment co-opt the Tea Party, will the Tea Party complete its hostile takeover, will there be some sort of synthesis, or are they headed to Splitsville?

I would say that scenario 2)--the old-line GOP winning the battle, with some right-wing fragments splitting off--is the most likely one, and scenario 1)--the reverse-- the least likely. Scenario 3) is the most challenging one for Obama and the Democrats to run against; the history of Republican national politics would suggest it is the most likely outcome, but that would require a huge change, either within the insurgent movement or the party establishment.

There will be no shortage of Republican candidates. The candidates from within the party establishment--the likes of former Governor Mitt Romney, Gov. Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota, Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana, Gov. Mitch Daniels of Indiana, Gov. Haley Barbour of Mississippi, and Sen. John Thune of South Dakota (though not all these may end up running)--are furiously working to establish goodwill with the more radical elements working within the party in this year's elections. The self-appointed leaders of the Republican insurgents who are thinking Presidentially are generally former office-holders: former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, former House Majority leader Dick Armey, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, and, of course, former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin (and then there may be some longshots like former Colorado Rep. Tim Tancredo, or commentators Lou Dobbs and Glenn Beck). The only current office-holders I can think of who might run with real Tea Party support are Ron Paul and Michele Bachmann (i.e., sure losers). Of the current crop of TP aspirants, future Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida stands out clearly as the cream from them, but I would suggest that 2012 is too soon for him to be trying for national office (of course, that didn't quite apply to junior Senator Obama).

Present officeholder excepted, the pattern in recent times has been for winning Presidential challengers not to be current office-holders (Carter, Nixon, Reagan being good examples) because it allows them to campaign full-time and separate themselves from current government policies (which are rarely popular). So, we should not think that former- or non-office holders cannot win.

Then, of course, there is the establishment candidate who is not currently in office: Mitt Romney. He will be the initial front-runner for the nomination, but he can easily be knocked off. One problem is that he is an underdog in the first showdown, in Iowa; another is that his signature governmental policy, the Massachusetts state healthcare reform he endorsed, is so similar to the national program approved this year. He will be a target of the insurgent candidates; can he somehow reach out past them to their membership and get their support?

I am thinking that he will not; that Palin or Huckabee will wound him in Iowa, then follow that up in another of the early primary/caucuses (probably not New Hampshire, but in South Carolina, Nevada, or Florida); then the questions will be whether Palin/Huckabee can be stopped? And will the party establishment want to stop him/her, at great cost to party unity?

Whoever the nominee, and whether or not the Republicans come out of it united, President Obama must at this distance be considered a strong favorite to win re-election. Of the 10 incumbent Presidents who have run for re-election since WWII, seven have won. I'd say that 70% is a good estimate of Obama's chances; they would go up if he is not seriously challenged by a Democrat for the nomination nor in the general election. This means that Obama must successfully stay in the middle of his party, something I would argue that he has done reasonably well with so far. Barring that kind of problem, his attitude toward the Republicans should be "Bring him/her/them on!"

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