Wednesday, July 04, 2012

Special July 4 Election Update

It's been a couple of months since my last general post on this year's election.  So, if a week is eternity in a campaign, that's a good long time indeed.  In spite of which, there is only a moderate number of new developments in that time.  The struggling recovery is up, then down, then back up--as is Europe's problem--but I look at that whole scenario as basically the backdrop of gloom and doldrums in which the entire campaign will be run.  It's a background equally for both parties, as the Republicans haven't proposed any solutions to the jobless recovery, either, but that background is not, for me, the salient issue.  For me, that is campaign finance itself (see below). 

In the meantime, other issues have popped up and then receded.  The latest to do that is healthcare;  both the Obama and Romney campaigns seem willing to let the Supreme Court's ruling stand and not make a big campaign issue out of it.  I thought there might be some mileage out of "Obamacare is a job-killer" for the Republicans because it imposes some additional burden on employers, particularly large ones. (The exit ramp I'd suggest for that issue, if it becomes a significant one, is to encourage part-time employment, with employers inventing some kind of bonus/subsidy for healthcare for those who need to purchase their own.)  It doesn't seem to have occurred to the Republicans to make that an issue, though, and the realization is gradually sinking in to our generally uninformed public that the "Obamacare is a tax" line really doesn't apply to about 95% of us. Meanwhile, of course, Romney/Obamacare is an issue that doesn't work at all for Mitt, though it may do some good  further down the food chain.  In the long run, the current bloom of states rejecting the additional Medicaid assistance to bring up their insured population will be a spectacularly bad issue for the red-state Republicans; it only works for no-hopers, someone like (Fla. governor) Rick Scott who has no electoral future (in any sane world), anyway.

Previously, and since my last election-related post, the issue of the week was the bomb bursting over the Republicans' heads in the form of Obama's executive order establishing key terms of the legislatively unrealized Dream Act.  The order would protect from deportation those youngsters who'd come here with their families and illegally overstayed but had meanwhile followed certain American Dream prescriptions like get a job, get a degree, get enlisted in the military, etc.  This was a huge win for Obama and basically locked down the Hispanic vote for 2012, a major box-checking in the To Do list for the incumbent.  Previous Obama moves have shored up support from some other key constituent groups, like women (the birth control issue from the spring), gays (Obama's opinion in favor of same-sex marriage), and college students (support for increased Federal financing)--blacks were pretty much always on board.  So the battle is being fought on Romney's most favorable turf, the interests of middle-class white men; it's a tough slog, but if Obama can successfully close the gap there, the popular vote in the re-election will essentially be won.

Some Quantitative Easing for the Mind
As we learned in 2000, though, regardless of the national Election day polling numbers, the only sure way to close the deal is in the Electoral College.  The numbers look good right now for Obama, but there are many close states.  A swing of a few percent in a few states could make things look very wrong, and there are huge volumes of money being thrown at those states, in the forms of advertising and grassroots organization, to try to produce some leverage.  By both sides, to be sure.

When it comes to putting the lights out in the EC, Obama's "two-shots-in-the-back-of-the-head" are Florida (29 electoral votes) and Ohio (18).  If he wins both of those, it's over; if he wins one, with the current alignment of state probabilities, it's close to being clinched.  The third potential bullet is Virginia (13), because every indication is that it will be extremely close.  The thing that is amazing to me, though, is that, once all the other close states are allocated according to how they are leaning or likely to go, Obama would get 272 electoral votes without any of the three!

To get to understanding this, we build up the numbers patiently.  Start with the locked-in states for both parties, which number 186 EV for Obama, 181 for Romney.  I won't bore you with the details, but if you went through it, I'm sure you'd see there's not that much doubt:  on the margin, it's states like Washington, Oregon, and New Jersey for the Dems; and Texas, Montana, Arizona, Indiana, Georgia for the Reps. Next, three states that are polling rather decisively in favor of Obama this year:  New Mexico, Minnesota, and, crucially, Pennsylvania.  That takes it to 221-181, which is where Real Clear Politics--the clearinghouse for latest electoral news and polling results--leaves it.  (RCP, I will say, does not seem too much into the race this year--they have a nice do-it-yourself electoral map, but watch out to make sure some of the other maps have been updated for the 2010 census!  One easy check is whether Florida has all its 29 EV shown...)

To complete the picture from this point I draw directly from's current assessment of probabilities in the closely-contested states.  Nate Silver's Nov. 6 forecast utilizes current polling averages, factors inherent state tendencies, and estimates the chances (based on the statistics of how significant the current gap is, and how much these numbers tend to move over the remaining four months) that the current leader will hold the state, as follows:

Leaning Romney (50.1-80% probability of his winning):  Missouri 10 EV (76.3%); North Carolina 15 EV (71.3).
Leaning Obama (50.1-80% for him):  New Hampshire 4 EV (74.5%), Nevada 6 EV (67.6), Colorado 9 EV (67.4), Iowa 6 EV (66.8).  That brings it to 246-206.
Throw in Wisconsin 10 EV (86% Obama probability!) and Michigan 16 EV (80.2%) and you get to 272 electoral votes for Obama, without the three big target swing states:  Florida (53.5% Obama probability), Virginia (60.9% ), and Ohio (64.8%).

A couple more points:  while has the betting on the winner of the election at 55-41 Obama vs. Romney, Silver's probabilities are 68-32; if you're playing Intrade, I'd say Obama is a buy all the way up to the low 60's.  Allocating all the states by the most probable outcome, the electoral vote would end up 332-206, which is also shown as the most probable specific outcome.   The "expected value" number Silver cites--applying the probabilities for each state--is 299-239; the difference reflects the greater number of relatively-low probability states currently in Obama's column.

My conclusion:  it's not over yet, by a long ways.  The conventions look to be pretty non-eventful; the respective party bases already well mobilized, but there are plenty of possible events that could disrupt the current pattern.  I disagree that most of them are negative for the incumbent, but some  clearly are.  One example is the gun-running-to-the-Mexican-cartel scandal that Atty. Gen. Holder is working "fast and furious"-ly to contain; also working against Obama's fortunes will be any mention of the unemployment rate or the number of unemployment benefit claims, and it seems as though there are a couple of those announcements per month.  On the other hand, I don't see the race currently to be quite as close as many would suggest.   In order to win, Romney will either need to achieve a breakthrough in Wisconsin, Michigan, or Pennsylvania, or something close to  a sweep of the swing states in which he's currently trailing along with, in particular, at least two of the big three of FL/OH/VA,.

Today is Independence Day; November 6 is Independents' Day 
As is almost always the case, the prize will go to the party that can get more of the unaffiliated to show up and support it.  A true independent--one who is equidistant from both parties--is hard to find, but the large percentage of potential voters who call themselves independents (a number greater than those who identify with each of the parties) shows great variation from election to election in how many actually vote.  The courting of the independents is the true art of the party's electoral campaigns; it involves going beyond just organizing its own base; it's about drawing out into discussion those not registered for either party, figuring out which way they are leaning, and getting the ones on your side to commit.

What more can we say about this uncommitted, often uninformed, mass of some 35-40% of eligible voters?  One important fact is that Hispanics are disproportionately represented among them; the way this plays out is that, while there is a clear tendency among them to lean Democratic, their turnout is not certain, and a Democrat who ignores their interests--immigration, yes, but also jobs, education, religion, and equal opportunity generally--can be deserted by them, at great cost. 

A second interesting bit comes from a survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation just after the Supreme Court decision on healthcare.  They asked the question whether people want to continue the political battle about the healthcare act, or if it's time to move on to other topics.  The profile of the positions by party and tendency showed a very sharp contrast among the independents:  those who tended Democratic had almost the exact same percentage as party regulars in their preference to move on (some 80%); those who tended Republican, the same tendency in the opposite direction (69% want to continue the battle).  There is a middle group, though--generally estimated at somewhere between 5-10%, though that amount is not shown here--who do not tend clearly toward either party's position, and that group's leanings went 35-51 toward moving on, and that made the difference in the overall survey result.

I would suggest that this group--weary (and bored) of the partisan bickering--is the true swing vote in the electorate, though they may not find a home this time around.  If--and it's a big if--one of the parties could clearly convince these people that they are the reasonable ones, the ones who rise above the pettiness and the special interest corruption, that party would be in a position to gain political dominance.  In the absence of which, I think there's still a big opportunity for some movement, which I will get to momentarily. 

First, though, I need to discuss where the real action is this year--in the battle for the Senate.

The War for Congress
Pay attention to this name:  Angus King.  He could end up being the man of the moment--the unofficial King of the Senate--in January, 2013, when the lame duck session of this Congress is over and voting for control of the Senate and House for the new one will play out. King is the former governor of Maine, an independent, and the heavy favorite to win the Senate seat being given up by Republican Olympia Snowe.  Both parties are running candidates against him, but they expect King to win, and are making their plans accordingly.

To go over the facts very quickly which lie behind the contest for control of the Senate:  the Democrats currently have a 53-47 advantage (counting independents Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who will win re-election easily, and outgoing Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, for whose seat a Democrat is favored).  The Republicans would gain control of the Senate if they get a net gain of four seats, or three seats with the vote of their newly-elected Vice President, if that should happen. Control in the Senate is not the complete stranglehold on the legislative agenda that occurs in the House, but it offers the rights to name the committee chairs, to hold majorities in the committees, and to participate in executive discussions as the leader of the Senate.

The Democrats are mostly in a defensive position in this battle, because the majority of seats up for election this year are currently held by them.   This is true also of the close, competitive races:  increased by retirements of incumbents; there are a whole bundle, and many of them were held by Democrats this year.

To make any sense of the chaos, one has to assume that there will not be a wholesale rejection of incumbents among a number of Democrats who have held office for full terms and are running for re-election in contested races. These people include Bob Casey in Pennsylvania, Bob Menendez in New Jersey, Sherrod Brown in Ohio, Maria Cantwell in Washington, Bill Nelson in Florida, Debbie Stabenow in Michigan, and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota.  A loss by any of them would be a major disaster, crippling to the Democrats' hopes--so all those Senators are busy raising money out there and campaigning with unfeigned urgency. Next, you add to the Democrats' column two part-term Senators favored to win big--Kirsten Gillibrand in New York and (Democrat in little more than name-only) Joe Manchin of West Virginia, along with wins in open, but favored, seats in New Mexico and Hawaii.  All those wins, plus the seats they carry over and a couple more projected as easy wins, only get the Democrats to 47 seats of the needed 50/51. 

After that, the going gets dicey. Democratic retirements in the two red states of North Dakota and Nebraska put those states' seats in serious jeopardy:  the Democrats are running good candidates, but they are definitely underdogs. Indiana, which rejected long-time incumbent Republican Dick Lugar for a right-wing extremist, should be a candidate for a Democratic pick-up (the Dems are running a good candidate, moderate Representative Joe Donnelly), but T.P.'er Mourdock is leading in the polling. If I pencil those in for the Republicans, that brings them to 46, +2 so far, with seven seats remaining in doubt (current party and "I" shown for incumbents):

Missouri (D-I)--Claire McCaskill is running furiously, but independently of Obama. Iin this red-trending state; she will be an underdog to her opponent (who has not yet been named);
Nevada (R-I)--Dean Heller was appointed Senator to replace John Ensign, who resigned in disgrace; Heller is a narrow favorite against Democratic Rep. Shelley Berkley;
Wisconsin (D)--Herb Kohl is leaving a seat he would have been favored to win; Democrat Tammy Baldwin (progressive, self-declared lesbian) will be an underdog if she faces former Gov. Tommy Thompson, a moderate and a strong candidate (his nomination is not yet secured);
Montana (D-I)--Jon Tester has been a moderate Democrat in the Senate, and we know how tough that is, particularly in a red state;
Massachusetts (R-I)--the high-profile race between short-timer and former male model Scott Brown, who has been able to toe a treacherous line in the current Congress to establish himself as a moderate, vs. progressive favorite Elizabeth Warren;
Virginia (D)--the most consistently close race (in the polling) of them all, for the seat being vacated by Jim Webb, between two former Govs.:  former Democratic National Committee head Tim Kaine and "Macaca" George Allen--this one is guaranteed to go down to the wire; and finally, the Maine seat (R) for which King is the favorite. 
There are 2-to-the-sixth ways (64) the first six seats named above could end up; all are definitely possible, though not all equally likely.  If I had to guess, I would give four of them (MO, NV, WI, and MT) to the Republicans and two (MA and VA) to the Democrats, which would make the tally 49-50 in favor of the Republicans.

This is where King becomes Kingmaker. If Obama wins, King's support (with Joe Biden's vote as tiebreaker in the Senate) would give control to the Democrats (and his failure to do that, to the Republicans); if Romney wins, they wouldn't need his support, unless it ends up 50-49 Dems, in which case he's once again in the catbird seat (the side he picks wins).  King has been pressured to say which way he will go; he has not done so, saying only that he might be inclined to give his vote once to a party to establish their control, then to resume an independent stance.  His history is that he was once a Democrat, broke from the party to run for Governor against a Democrat (and win), he supported George W. Bush in 2000 (!), and he has the money, influence, and popularity in his state which allow him to pick his own path.

(I have to give credit to Washington Post blogger Aaron Blake (on Chris Cilizza's "The Fix") for nailing this story- in -the- making, way back in March. )

And the House of Representatives?  There's some doubt about the outcome, but not nearly so much as in the Senate.  The Democrats need to gain 25 seats of the 435 to regain control.  Former Speaker and Minority Leader Pelosi claims to believe it will happen, but the odds are strongly against it.  Like with the electoral votes above, there are something like 175-185 votes locked in to the current parties, districts very heavily skewed to one party or the other.  The Democrats currently have few more than that minimum, the Republicans have close to their potential maximum.  There are clearly some seats that the Republicans won in 2010 that are likely pickups this year, but they are just a handful--some 5-10.  In order to win back the House, the Democrats would have to win almost all the seats considered toss-ups today, and not give up any of the ones leaning their way.  What we're talking about, really, is a landslide victory, with coattails, for President Obama; nothing else will be quite so decisive.

The Opportunity for a Third Force
My honest opinion is that there is room for a third party in the US, one that would be focused on breaking up the partisan gridlock in Congress and fighting the good fight against the special interests and excessive campaign spending. In the Northeast, it would run moderates who would challenge the Democrats (and displace the fatigued and demoralized moderate "RINO" Republicans); in the South it would run slightly right-of-center candidates who would challenge Republican extremism (and displace the fatigued and demoralized right-of-center "Blue Dog" Democrats). 

The national platform would be fairly simple:
  • Reduce partisan extremism, oppose all filibusters, and produce common-sense short-term and long-term solutions to our problems of slow growth and ballooning national debt;
  • Amend the constitution to eliminate the Electoral College and the pernicious effect of the Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling; and
  • Candidates for the parties would only accept direct contributions from individuals within the limits of the campaign laws (explicitly renouncing Super PAC's).
In the meantime, they would need to avoid the typical third-party-killing trap of running candidates for President.  There is no possibility of winning in today's system--even Ross Perot, the most successful national 3rd-party candidate in decades, got zero Electoral votes despite winning 20% of the popular vote in 1992.  To be honest, a third party which could actually win significant numbers of states and electoral votes would create an incredibly messy, possibly insoluble, chaos in the Electoral College and a constitutional crisis of historic dimensions.

Our new third party--working name is the "Fix Congress Party"--would have a few natural supporters in both Houses of Congress, and by electing a few dozen Congresspeople or Senators it could have a crucial influence in breaking the deadlock.  They might also be able to get the support of some influential people not excessively tied into the parties, like Michael Bloomberg, which was not forthcoming for the disastrous attempt to nominate a moderate third-party Presidential candidate this year. This movement would earn the respect, if not the direct support, of reasonable elements across the spectrum--I might even support it!

Curse You, Sheldon Adelson!
In the meantime, we have to deal with the ugly mess which is the clear legacy of the Roberts Supreme Court's Citizens United decision.  I just endured the quarterly deadline deluge of pleading, requests, demands for money from dozens of candidates, party organizations, and the like.  I mostly abstained from all gifts, although I am starting to give a little since July 1 in some strategically significant races (see above for clues).  What I wanted to get across to these party organizations and candidates through my abstention is that we out here in the hinterlands do not give a good expletive whether you meet your funding targets and give off the sweet smell of success to your opponents and the press covering the fund-raising reports.

To the extent our side gets a lot of money, it just encourages the other side to raise more, sort of like the nuclear arms race.  Adelson's money seems to be drawn from a bottomless well; though he has been avid in prosecuting/persecuting those who suggest corrupt motives for him, you have to wonder why it is worth so much money to him to get the outcome he wants/needs.  Let's leave it at that, though I will suggest that his financial interests could be penalized by the free-will choice of those of us who disagree with his objectives, tactics, and methods:

Sands Hotel and Casino, Las Vegas
Sands Expo and Convention Center, Las Vegas
Sands Casino Resort, Bethlehem, PA
The Venetian (Macao)
Sands Macao
Marina Bay Sands, Singapore
Las Vegas Sands Group of Companies
Ha Yom newspaper, Israel
All of these entities have very good alternatives that I would recommend.  In Nevada, his sworn enemy is Rep. Berkley, the Senate candidate I mentioned above.
Finally, if you made it this far, I congratulate you and wish you a happy, healthy Fourth.  Wherever you may be, you have a stake in our elections (even if you can't participate) and deserve to share in our patriotic gore....

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