Saturday, October 30, 2010

Why Vote. . .and How?

Growing up in New York a wonderful woman next door turned to me on Election Day in the 1960s and advised me: "Don't vote, it only encourages them to run!" This advice, from an 80 year old plus woman, perhaps under the influence of whiskey, expressed dissatisfaction with politicans and candidates whom she saw as narrow-minded and petty.

I am reminded of her as I think about the looming Election Day this Tuesday. Many of us will render our choices based on fear, self-interest, anger, or who knows what. None of those reasons should guide our voting choices. We can do better than that.

Tom Horner, the Independence Party candidate for Minnesota governor, is haunted by the wasted vote syndrome. He should not be. Nor should any other candidate for office who is considered a longshot, such as Jim Meffert in Minnesota or a Charlie Crist in Florida. Individuals should select their first choice–vote your hope nor your fears–as the saying goes, regardless of whether the choice is Horner, Emmer, or Dayton for governor, or another candidate for another office.

But the first choice of whom to vote for should be more than simply casting a ballot out of anger, self-interest, or partisanship. It should be a vote for our collective future, not simply a private preference. Voting is a private act, but it should also promote a public good.

Voting: A Tale of Two Presidents
What do I mean by saying voting should promote a public good? Political scientists write about the strategy and reasons for voting. Some say we vote based on partisan preferences or affiliation. Others contend it is premised on looking backward, or maybe to the future, or based on economics (“It’s the economy, stupid” as James Carville would say). All of these theories have descriptive cogency. But voting should also have a normative or ethical component.

There are good reasons for why to vote a particular way and there are bad reasons. The worst in my opinion was launched 30 years ago with Ronald Reagan who closed out his campaign by asking voters “If they were better off now than four years ago.” This mantra propelled narrow self-interested greed into American politics, asking voters only to consider their own selfishness when they vote. The path from this Reagan quote to Gordon Geckos’ (of the movie Wall Street) “Greed is good” is direct and short.

The best reason or motive to vote? It came from another president in my lifetime–John Kennedy. It was not an election slogan or gimmick but the most famous call to duty from his inaugural address in 1961: “Ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country.” It was a call to what is noble not base, to the public good and not the private interest. It was a call to look beyond partisanship to what is best for all of us.

JFK’s call sounds quaint in the era of self-interested partisanship. But it is precisely the sentiment that needs to guide voters this year.

What is a Wasted Vote?
As you ponder your voting choices prior to Tuesday, think about your choices and reasons to vote.

Vote not as a Democrat, Republican, Independent, or something else. Vote as an American or Minnesotan.

Vote not on the basis of partisanship but on what is in the best interest of the country or the state.

Vote not on the basis of narrow self-interest but what is in the collective public interest of us all.

Vote not on the basis of simplistic attack ads and 10 second sound bites but with a sense of realism. Solutions to our collective problems are not simple and are not rooted in blaming "those people."

Vote not on the basis of promises that seem too good to be true but on what is realistic and seems possible.

Vote not on the basis of whether you are now better off than four years ago but ask how your choice will improve our state or country four years form now.

Vote not because you want to freeze the hands of time in some halcyon mythic time of the past in order to take back your country. Recognize that the country belongs to all of us, but especially to a multi-cultural, multi-racial future where we are all in it together.

Vote for a world that will be better for your children, not just your bank account.

Remember, there are only two types of wasted votes: Those not cast and those where you vote for your second choice. Vote for the candidate of your choice, but make sure your choice is what will promote the best interests of us all.

Political scientists like me make predictions based on patterns we have discovered. Prove me wrong and vote for what is best for us all, and make that your first choice.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Poll Predictions and Calling a Winner (Dayton)

Continued Poll Confusion?
Poll uncertainties continue to dominate Minnesota politics as recent surveys produce vastly divergent results. The MPR poll reveals a 12-point lead for Dayton in the governor’s race, while other surveys yield a narrower lead for Dayton. How do we explain all this?

As I argued in an earlier blog, part of the problem with the surveys is that they are not necessarily capturing the underlying demographic reality of Minnesota. The MPR poll vastly overestimates the percentage of the population which is DFL and it underestimates the percentage who are independent or who have no firm partisan identification.

In addition, many of these polls are done on the cheap, failing to develop good samples that balance appropriately the percentage of the population which is Twin Cities urban, suburban, Iron Range, and greater Minnesota. Other problems are under-sampling by age, caused in part by missing cell phone-only users. There are also issues of who actually picks up a LAN line to answer a call. Some of these survey problems can be solved by increased samples sizes but that means more costly surveys.

But other problems are not solved with money. They are rooted in assumptions about what the state looks like demographically, especially from a partisan perspective. To repeat an earlier blog, here is my approximate assumption of what the state looks like:

35% DFL or leaning DFL
30% GOP or leaning GOP
10% Independence Party (IP) or leaning IP
25% Other or no party identification

Any poll that vastly departs from these approximates, such as the MPR poll, is flawed from the start. My assumptions of these percentages are based on post-2008 election exit polls and they reveal declining support for the DFL and GOP since then. The estimates are also based on talks with party leaders and analysis of voting trends, and efforts to piece together some valid data from the polls.

Finally, let me also say that my estimates are rooted in someone who, in previous a life, worked on or ran about 50 campaigns back in NY, my knowledge gained from teaching campaigns and elections and research methods (I wrote a book on the topic), my knowledge of Minnesota, and finally, some gut intuitions.

Predicting the Governor’s Race
Given the above, my prediction for the governor’s race? Here is how I analyze it.

Each of the three major candidates is doing a pretty good job holding their bases. Thus, I start with Dayton, Emmer, and Horner at 35%, 30%, and 10%. While the polls have been flawed, two initial truths come out: 1) Dayton and Emmer are holding about 80% of the bases and Dayton and Horner are capturing most of the swing or moderate voters. I am going to assume Horner is holding about 90% of his base. Emmer has been less successful in attracting the swings. Dayton is capturing about 50% of the moderates, Horner is about 30%, Emmer 20%.

Thus, here is my first calculation.

Dayton .8 X 35% = 28%. .50 X 25%= 13.75%. Dayton total= 40.5%
Emmer .8 X30% = 24%. .20 X 25%= 5% Emmer total= 29%
Horner .9 X 10%= 9% .30 X 25% =7.5% Horner total = 16.5%

However, this first calculation makes several assumptions. It assumes no undecided voters or that undecideds break in a pattern noted above. Second it assumes support for all of the three candidates is firm and that everyone will come to vote. I do not make this assumption. We know at least three additional things that correct these numbers.

First, turnout this year will be less than in 2008. In 2008 approximately 77% of the eligible population voted. Mark Ritchie estimates 60% turnout this year. I think 55-60% if realistic. This is 17-22 points less than 2008. Many of these not voting will be DFL leaning voters who came out for Obama. This means among likely voters, the smaller electorate this year will be more heavily GOP than two years ago.

Second, national polls and state polls reveal GOP voters more highly motivated than either the DFL or swings. Women (swings and part of the DFL base) are less motivated to vote compared to males. Young are less likely to vote than old (although old seem to favor Dayton). Support for Dayton is less firm, passionate, or motivated to come out and vote for him.

Third, as Election Day looms and it looks less likely that Horner can win, swings plagued by the spoiler fear (A vote for Horner is a vote for my worst or last choice) will abandon him. There is also a polarized electorate problem I have discussed. Some will opt not to vote, some wills shift to Dayton, a few to Emmer.

These three factors will produce a likely electorate more GOP than my initial numbers suggest. This is the issue of the likely voter. Correcting for these three realities is not a science, but an estimate or gut guess. I think Horner fades down to about 10-12% when a final count is done. He may even fade lower. Dayton picks up some Horner votes and the more GOP leaning electorate yields this as my estimate.

The Winner is . . .Dayton!
Dayton 46%
Emmer 43%
Horner 10%
Other 01%

I am guessing Dayton has about a 3% lead in the polls, it may be as high as 5%, depending on whether my initial guesses about the size of the bases, capture of the swings, and shape of the electorate are accurate.

I am not offering science here, but best estimates or guesses. Now let the voters decide.

Monday, October 25, 2010

As Minnesota Goes, So Goes the Nation? Not in 2010

The phrase used to be “As Maine goes, so goes the nation.” The origin and irony of the phrase was in the state’s reputation as a political bellwether for national presidential politics, culminating in 1936 when it supported Alf Landon over FDR for president.

Yet just the opposite seems to be true for Minnesota. It was the only state to go for Mondale in 1984 when the rest of the country boarded the Reagan landslide train. Minnesota has a reputation for third party politics–think of Floyd Olson and Jesse Ventura. It also has a progressive streak that included socialists in the 1920s and 30s, Hubert Humphrey, Walter Mondale, Eugene McCarthy, and Paul Wellstone. Minnesota seems to march to its own drummer. In 2010 that exceptionalism may lead to mark Dayton winning the governorship.

Minnesota: The Fargo Factor v. Lake Wobegon?
Minnesota has the Fargo factor (think the movie) with an endearing sense of traditionalism and Nordic rugged individualism. But there is a Lake Wobegon aspect where we do think all the children are above average. The reality of Minnesota is caught somewhere between these two pop culture images.

Explanations for the state’s political idiosyncrasy are varied. Some locate it in Minnesota’s political culture, but stating that tells us nothing. It is like saying there is something in the drinking water. Others contend that the Scandianian culture is an explanation. Perhaps true, but the state is more German than Nordic and the influx of immigrants from other parts of the world should have a bigger impact on politics than it has if this were true.

I describe Minnesota as a very religious state with a tradition of religious activism that expresses a dislike of corruption and a demand for reform and clean government. It is a liberal state with conservative pulls. It has a populist tradition, a commitment to equality, and a generally positive view of an activist government. Historically is has expressed a fear of accumulation of power in business, with government historically viewed to protect people from business. Some of this may be changing, but this is the core of Minnesota politically.

Explaining Minnesota’s Independent Streak
How do we explain Minnesota’s independent streak? The state has numerous groups and regions that compete and none of them are dominant. This means that the key to winning in Minnesota is by building alliances to forge coalitions. The process of coalition building has resulted in tight party competition, occasional third party support, and high voter turnout.

In addition, Minnesota has a long tradition of non-partisan and partisan elections. This combination of two types of elections produces an electorate that is not historically as committed to party voting as one might see in other states. For example, from 1913 to 1974 the Minnesota Legislature was non-partisan. Local races remain non-partisan, as is true with judicial races. Parties have and remain powerful forces in the state, but their allure is waning. No party–DFL, GOP, or GOP–commands 51% of the population. Today I think it is DFL 35%, GOP 30%, Independence 10%, and no party at 25%. The point here is that politics is competitive and the balance of power is in mobilizing the base but more importantly, in moving the swing voters to your side. Win the swings, win the state.

Minnesota v USA in 2010
Winning over the swings is not Einstein politics. This is real simple Politics 101. But it is often forgotten by many. The DFL for years lost control of the center which is why it has not won the governor’s race since 1986 and why in 1998 it lost the House. It was not until 2004 and 2006 that it learned to recapture the center and was rewarded with control of the House again. The same problem has plagued the national Democrats. Yet in 2008 it captured the center and the result was Obama’s victory along with strong congressional majorities.

Now the national Democrats have lost the center again, with the swings moving to the GOP this year. One can debate the reasons for this loss and whether Obama had alternative options with the progressives. Yet it is clear that in 2010 the Democrats have lost the swing voters, that jobs and opposition to taxes are major policy drivers, and that the GOP has the political narrative this year–it is “Change.” Sound familar?

All this should suggest a great year for the GOP in Minnesota and that Emmer is the next governor. But not necessarily so.

Tons of polls and surveys have been done this year. Many are awful. But some truths emerge. First, large majorities of Minnesotans recognize that taxes need to go up to address services. They have seen schools, roads, and bridges decay and now about 60% or so recognize a need for tax increases. Thus unlike nationally, the anti-tax message has limited appeal beyond a GOP base plus some swings.

Second, polls suggest that Dayton is capturing the bulk of the swing voters. Emmer is not getting many swings. Horner is getting them. Emmer is running base politics. By that, from the day he accepted his party nomination he declared he would run from the right and not from the center. Dumb move! He forgot the battle is from and for the center. He ran as and let the DFL paint him as a right-winger and he is paying the price. He is still in the race because Dayton has run a lackluster campaign and his supporters are not as excited or passionate about him as the Emmer voters are for their candidate. This explains Obama’s pep rally for Dayton over the weekend. Dayton needs his base–plus women and swings–to get excited and vote for him. If they do, Dayton bucks the national trend and wins.

Emmer may still win, but it is a battle. He needs his base to vote–and they will–he needs to pickup more swings–hard to see how–and he needs Dayton’s people to stay home on election day.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

14 Days to Go

Fourteen days to go to election day. Where are we? Some quick random thoughts.

Horner, Star Tribune, and the Governor’s Race
Did Horner get a boost from Star Tribune and other newspaper endorsements? Not really.
There are several reasons for this. First, at least with the Star Tribune, everyone knew they were going to endorse him ever since the non-endorsement endorsement a few weeks ago. Thus, the impact of this new endorsement was muted. Second, readership of papers is down and their impact is less, especially in a multi-media environment. Third, swing voters, those who have not made up their minds, probably will not pay much attention to the endorsement. Liberals will not change their mind by the endorsement and the same is true of conservatives (DFL and GOP). Finally, the endorsement still does not overcome the spoiler issue. As I argued before, third party candidates such as Horner suffer from the “A Vote for Nader is for vote for my worst fear.” Horner still needs to show he can win and to do that he needs to show that one of the other two main candidates, most likely Emmer, cannot win. The endorsement failed to do that.

The biggest winner here of the Star Tribune endorsement is Dayton? Why? Polls already suggest that Dayton has a majority of the moderate or swing voters with Emmer capturing very few of them. Horner needs to pick them up to win (plus peel off partisans). Maybe the collective endorsements of all the papers pull some moderates from Dayton, but I think the real danger is that it pulls what few moderates are voting for Emmer away from him and to Horner. It may also pull more of the moderate GOP away from Emmer. Phrased differently, the endorsements do more to fragment the anti-Dayton vote.

As I see it now? Dayton still has a slight lead of about 5 points. However his base is less passionate about voting. His task is to motivate the base and swings to support him. Thus, Obama might make sense. Dayton has also shifted from talking taxes to jobs and education which plays well with swings and moderates.

Emmer has a smaller base and is behind. He has few swing or moderate voter support. His base is motivated to vote. He needs to deliver them (thus why Gingrich and Romney make sense) but he also needs to bring more moderates to his side. Bringing partisans such as Romney do little for that and thus the reason for new commercials seeking to moderate an image. It may be too late.

Finally, Horner needs to project the winner image and show another candidate cannot win. Paper endorsements and trotting out support from individuals such as Michael Ciresi help, but I do not know if they will be enough. Unfortunate for Horner is that we live in a poll-driven world. Unless he shows real growth or gain in the next poll numbers he may not get the momentum shift he needs for election day. Standing on your record or platform may not be enough to establish win-ability.

Bachmann and Clark: Shocked about Hypocrisy!
News has surfaced that Bachmann requested surplus money while denouncing it? News? Hardly. If hypocrisy were grounds to exclude people from public office the halls of Congress would be empty. No one should be shocked by Bachmann’s position, the voters of the district know her and her views. This is a $20 million race that Democrats could never win and which long ago ceased to be about issues. It is an ugly expense race where truth seems unimportant to who wins.

Sunday, October 17, 2010


Oh yea,
Still don’t know what I am waiting for,
and my time was running wild,
a million dead-end streets and
Every time I’d thought I got it made
it seemed the taste was not so sweet
–Changes, David Bowie

Change. Four years ago voters demanded it and they ousted the Republicans from Congress. Two years ago they demanded it and pushed Obama into office along with huge congressional majorities. Now change may do Democrats in, producing a GOP House and perhaps, but less likely, a Senate.

What is certain is that whatever voters do this fall, change will not be the result. If Democrats retain control of both houses of Congress it will be by the narrowest of margins, guaranteeing gridlock for two more years. The same is true whether the GOP takes both houses or the parties split. The voters will get more of the status quo. The desire for change will produce its opposite. How Orwellian.

But what is change and what do voters want? These two questions have always perplexed me. When I teach my undergraduate Intro to American Politics class I often begin the class with a discourse on change. I point out first that there is a perennial demand for change among the American electorate along with an equally perennial frustration that change did not occur. I then point out that a defining characteristic of American politics was how the constitutional framers designed a political system that was meant to frustrate and slow down political change.

Checks and balances, separation of powers, federalism, bicameralism, and staggered elections were all designed to break up political power and slow down political change. As James Madison pointed out in Federalist 10, the main threat to popular government was the danger of majority faction–the tyranny of the majority for Alexis deTocqueville. The best thing about a popular government is rule by public opinion, the worst is the same. Madison and the framers sought a system to slow down political change to frustrate the ability of the majority to trample on the rights of the minority. For good or bad, change is meant to be slow or incremental. This is the reality of American politics by design. Americans who do not realize this are frustrated because of logic of our political process.

But institutional design has been compounded by other problems. For example, in the Senate the filibuster makes it impossible to get work done, allowing 41 senators who could represent less than 11% of the population to halt change. One of the biggest mistakes Democrats made in 2009 when they had 60 votes was not to abolish the filibuster rule. Instead, they let themselves be held hostage to Ben Nelson, Blanch Lincoln, and other Democrats who are barely in tune with their party. Thus, lack of party discipline also hampered the Democrats during the Obama years.

Additionally, Obama’s lack of leadership–a failure to take control of the agenda and cede it to Congress–was a major problem. Can anyone ever imagine a Lyndon Johnson letting a Ben Nelson toy with his party over whether to vote for health care reform? Conversely, what has really struck me about Obama is the timidity of change. He has done so little with so much promise. Yes a health care bill but mediocre. Yes financial reform, but mediocre. Yes a stimulus, but mediocre. He has delivered on major promises but the scale of change or reform was quite minor.

But finally, the problem of change resides with the voters. What do they really mean or want when they say change? Real change is what happened when in the early 1990s people walked out of their houses in Eastern Europe and brought down the Berlin Wall. Or in South Africa when they ended apartheid. I doubt that is what American voters want.

Change in the last few years might have been "out with George Bush." End the wars, end the squabble in Washington, or something else. I just do not know. Change seems more negative than positive–voters know they do not like the status quo but do not know what they want. They want something to change for the better but seem blind to what it is they want. Moreover, voters are not of one mind. For those who are angry and demand change this year, are they the same ones who wanted it two years ago? Maybe yes, but the American electorate is so fragmented that there is no real consensus on what change is supposed to be.

“Still don’t know what I am waiting for.”

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Eyewitness to History: The Minnesota Gubernatorial Debate at Hamline

On Saturday, October 9, Hamline University hosted a gubernatorial debate on campus in conjunction with Fox 9 news. I attended and observed the debate, giving me an opportunity to assess the candidates up close.

The Context

Coming into the debate, my sense is that Dayton had a slight lead of 3-5 points over Emmer, with Horner a distant third at around 12-15% support. The three candidates had some shared goals–avoid gaffes and motivate their bases–but they also had divergent objectives. Dayton has a lead, but his base is less motivated to vote this November. He especially needs to motivate women and the swing voters to turn out. If they do, he wins.

Emmer is behind slightly but his base–angry white males–are highly motivated to vote. Emmer also needs to win some swing voters to his side since I do not believe he can win simply by motivating his base, even if Dayton’s does not fully mobilize to vote.

Horner needed a knockout punch. He may have plateaued by capturing his base and a few swings, but he cannot rise much further unless he can convince voters that one of the other two candidates cannot win in November. Most probably, this means he needs to convince other GOPers that Emmer cannot win, thereby leading to a rush of voters from Emmer to him in fear that Dayton will win.

My analysis assumes at this point several things. First it assumes both Dayton and Emmer are holding their bases and that Dayton is doing better at capturing the swings than Emmer and Horner. In making this argument I am at odds with Larry Jacobs and what his MPR poll states. On Almanac I made these claims and Larry said his poll suggests that there are large defections from the bases of both Dayton and Horner, that swings are more in play for Horner than I think, and that in general the GOP is worried about holding on to its voters. He cites as evidence of the latter the Horner press conference with over a dozen former GOP state legislators endorsing him and the reaction that Tony Sutton had to this press conference.

With all due respect to Larry, I have already made clear why his poll is really flawed. Steve Schier has made parallel claims. I am unpersuaded that the poll accurately captures what the electorate and party alignment is in Minnesota and that means that the lead of Dayton’s is inflated in his poll. Larry’s poll is at odds with almost every other poll and it comes in conflict with recent Rasmussen polls showing both Dayton and Emmer holding 80% of their bases.

Finally, in many ways I do not think that the current GOP cares about other former legislators endorsing Horner. They represent an older GOP party replaced by a new more conservative one. Yes, they do not want to see them vote for Horner, but that is no longer their base. Sutton criticized their actions, but that is not a sign of panic.

About the only thing I agree with Larry and his poll is that it is difficult to determine who the likely voter is. Stacy Hecht well stated this problem on Almanac, with the other three of us (Schier, Jacobs, and me) concurring.

The Debate

This was the 23rd debate. In too many ways the candidates looked like they were going through the motions. Each had predictable answers to predictable questions, and each responded to one another the way you expected.

Each campaign had its groupies there and they applauded on cue. Fox 9 wanted a more contentious debate and encouraged candidates to cut off one another. They wanted theater. The candidates did not oblige, again seeming to prefer the predictable to the novel.


He seemed flat. He did not answer the questions directly and his style was weak. He did little to excite his base. He could have done more to link Emmer to Pawlenty and Palin to excite his base, but he did not. He also did not criticize the others very much and he did not do much to reach out to female voters or swings. Dayton did discuss education which is important to his base but the passion was not there.

His finest moment? Discussing why we need bullying legislation, he spoke of equality and same sex marriage. He also quoted James Madison on why government is needed here–men are not angels.” The nerd in me liked this.


He seemed on autopilot. The answer to everything was cut taxes, less government, and create more jobs. A variation of this was his constant protest that he was the only candidate who has put forth a balanced budget. No one but his base believes this. His answer to a student question about what he planned to do about the high cost of going to school? Schools needs to restructure and if we had more and better jobs then student debt would not be a problem! Hmm, tell that to anyone with huge students debts. Even a high salary does little to address the burden of high debt load.

His defining moment? He came out against new legislation to crack down on bullying motivated by anti-gay bias. He said we had too much government already and that it was up to parents teaching respect and giving teachers more authority to do what they need to do but cannot because of fear of lawsuits. Clearly Emmer was speaking to the base.


He was clear with answers and specifics. As a communications specialist he knows how to frame answers. He did a good job distinguishing himself and pointing out he was not a DFLer or GOPer.

His finest moments? Two stand out. First, he gave specifics to what he would cut to balance the budget. He noted JOBZ and ethanol subsidies as two cuts. Also, when responding to Emmer, who said no to new anti-bullying laws because it was a private issue, Horner said when others get hurt it is a public matter.

And the Winner Is?

On style and substance (that is how he looked and in answering the questions) Horner won. However, he did not knock anyone out. Emmer was second, Dayton third. Emmer managed to say what his angry base wanted to hear, Dayton did not do much to excite the passion of his supporters.

Horner’s clock is still ticking but he needs major movement soon. Dayton needs to refocus in the last few weeks and appeal to suburban females to vote for him. Pitch commercials to them. He also has started linking Emmer to Pawlenty and needs to do more of that.

Emmer has his base excited but needs to pick up some moderates. Also, everyone is expecting him to do a meltdown like Hatch did in 2006. Maybe Horner, Dayton, or a third party add will do that. Emmer also has a Pawlenty problem in another way. Pawlenty is unpopular and does nothing for him but as governor he could assist in policy or other ways. However, Pawlenty is off on his Don Quixote-esque pursuit of the presidency and seems uninterested either in Emmer or Minnesota. However, that is another story for another blog.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

A Tale of Two People: Tom Emmer and John Yoo

Media depictions of personalities often contrast with reality. While in some cases the camera or microphone (or now YouTube) capture who we are, often there is a contrast between our real being and how we are presented. This dichotomy came home to me recently as I thought about two individuals who I know personally–Tom Emmer and now John Yoo.

I remember in 1992 while teaching in Texas Bill Clinton had won the primaries and would be the Democratic presidential candidate. He had yet to pick a VP. My university president called me one day and asked if I would mind opening up my class to a U.S. senator who was doing a book tour and he wanted to visit a couple of political science classes. I agreed and we combined two or three classes together to create a room of about 65 students.

For the next 90 minutes the senator captivated me and students. He was engaging, funny, witting, and demonstrated a brilliance and grasp of policy issues I seldom see among elected officials. I also shook his hand, had him autograph his book. Overall, he was one of the nicest and most compelling people I had ever met. I went home, told my wife about him and said Clinton should make him VP. Clinton did that. The senator was Al Gore.

But the Gore I saw in class that day was the not same Al Gore I saw on television and as vice-president. As VP, and then presidential candidate, he was wooden, stiff, and generally failed to demonstrate any of the charm I knew he had. I often wondered and asked: “Will the real Al Gore please stand up.” There were two Gores I saw–one up close and personal–the other through the eyes of the media, and reconciling them was difficult.

I tell the Gore story because it reminds me of my personal experiences with two other people in the news.

Tom Emmer
Tom Emmer is the Republican nominee for Minnesota Governor. I will skip all the media depictions of him. Instead me let describe how I know him.

When he first got elected to the Minnesota House of Representatives he called me. I had no idea who he was and he was just starting off his political career. He wanted to meet. He told me he was interested in campaign finance reform and concerned about money in politics. He told me a story. He said he had been at some event where the conservative pro-life Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life (MCCL) had said something to the effect that they had the votes of a whole bunch of legislators because of all of the money that had been raised or channeled to candidates. Emmer told me: “I may vote with the MCCL, but I do not like the idea that they think they can buy me with their money.” Tom was sincere, he wanted to do something about cutting off money in politics. He was told I was a past president for Common Cause and had consistently testified for Senator John Marty and others seeking to limit the role of money in politics.

Emmer asked me if I had any ideas for bills. I gave him my wish list. It included a state version of McCain-Feingold, limits on contributions to political parties, new disclosure laws, and more. Tom introduced all of the legislation. Against the wishes of the Republican majority that controlled the House and the MCCL he pushed for the bills. He fought DFL resistence too. The bills did not pass, but for at least two years he fought hard and I testified for him. His bills got farther on campaign finance than any others in Minnesota since 1994.

I have no idea where Emmer stands today on campaign finance. However, then I never doubted his sincerity on the issue.

Emmer and I stand opposite on other issues. He once supported a bill that would require the public positing of names of state judges who issue judicial bypasses for minors seeking abortions. I testified against the bill arguing that it would damage the judiciary. We also testify on opposite sides of voter photo identification bills. I mention all this because I have come to know Emmer as a person. In all the times we have worked together or opposite one another he has treated me with respect and I see something in him that does not come out in the media.

John Yoo
John Yoo is famous for being the Bush Administration attorney who penned the legal opinions for the War on Terror. He authored the critical opinions that supported presidential power detain prisoners at Gitmo without trial and to torture. In the media, he is attributed with drafting the “torture memos.”

In my own writings, including a paper at Oxford University and two scholarly articles, I criticized Yoo. He has been hammered in the media, subject to demands to prosecute for war crimes, and investigated for legal ethics violations. He is picketed where ever he speaks. He must be a monster!

I met Yoo this past Thursday at the University of St Thomas Law School. We were both invited along with others to speak and give papers at a University of St. Thomas Journal of Law and Public Policy conference on presidential war powers. The journal and conference are student operated and they did a great job on Thursday. I was privileged to be on the panel with great names. The conference was loaded with conservatives and I was the token.

There were demonstrators present in and outside. Collen Rowley, a former FBI agent featured on the 2002 Time magazine, was there to protest. Security was tight.

John and I spoke a lot that day and had lunch together. We did disagree on topics, but we also shared observations. His talk on George Washington and presidential power was terrific even if I disagreed. Finally at the end of the day we talked baseball–he a Philly fan me a Yankee–and we discussed the prospects of a 2010 repeat of the 2009 World Series.

I walked away from the day thinking how nice Yoo as a person was. I cannot explain how or why he came to his conclusions in 2002 about presidential war powers, and I will not discuss why I think his arguments were flawed. I will simply say that for the day I met him I saw someone different than I had previously read about or saw from a distance.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Anger and Passion: The Emotions of Politics

Politics is an emotional sport. Discuss politics with others and surely emotions will flair. Because of that in Minnesota the quip is that one does not discuss politics with others in order to avoid controversy. Skip to safer subjects, such as the weather, family, or sports.

But for those of us who like politics, analyzing it without emotion is trying. My task with the media is to be enthusiastic about what I do (which I am) but not to let me emotions influence or affect my judgments. This is a tough call. Moreover, my work and attempt to be excited but not biased does not mean that I do not think there is no role for emotion in politics. There is, and the two emotions I wish to discuss are passion and anger.

This year anger seems to be the buzzword. Tea Party members claim to be angry, voters claim to be angry, and politicians, sensing voter anger, also want to say they are angry. Anger is important in politics. This year the angry voter–mostly middle class or above white guys–seem more motivated to vote than do others who are affected by a different emotion–disgust, alienation, or disaffection.

The beast evidence is that women fit into the latter category, perhaps, and they will not show up to vote this year. Today’s USA TODAY front page noted a Gallup survey and the impact that anger may have this year. With there being a huge gender gap between men and women and who they support, a strong male turnout coupled with a weak female turnout bodes badly for Democrats.

So yes, the angry voter will turnout. Anger is a big motive, but what good does anger do? When I think of anger this year I think of times when we get frustrated with our computers and we hit it. Hitting it and cursing at it makes us feel better in the short term but what then? The anger has not fixed the computer and perhaps hitting it has only made the problem worse. My point? Anger may be a good motivating force but it is hardly the basis for making good public policy.

After the shouting is done and the public votes for candidates in anger, what will happen? Voters may find the anger has produced even more problems than before. This is exactly where I see the Tea Party folks. They are angry but what will their anger yield? What are their public policies? I do not see anger producing anything of real significant policy value.

Passion is the other major political value. In my ten rules of politics I say Rod Stewart is correct–it is about passion. In my non-profit law class I discuss how non-profits, especially founders of organizations, are full of passion. My job in class is to channel passion into the skills to run a non-profit. In politics, passion is what moves people to engage. Passion about issues and causes and people leads to candidates running, people voting, and to other political activity. Passion excites but can be channeled, unlike anger which seems more a lashing out activity.

The Democrats had passion in 06 and 08 (maybe anger too) but seem devoid of it this year. The lack of passion is disappointment with Obama (criticized for not be angry and passionate but too cerebral or rational) and perhaps more so with the lack of a compelling narrative for 2010 (I blogged on this recently). Lacking passion, and a passionate narrative, Democrats face a tough time this year.

Of course there are other emotions in politics. Resentment seems to loom large anymore, as many anger or what others have received or earned, believing they too deserve their fair share. The Tea party movement seems to have this emotion, as well as a sense of victimization in their hearts. Wether such feelings are deserved or well-founded is another question entirely.

But while emotion is important to politics, I want to end with arguing that we do not have enough reason or rationality in politics. I have academically written about the need to have more social science or fact-based political discourse and policy making. I say to my students in class that unlike elected officials who can drool out any stupid idea or proposal they please without offering evidence to support its merit (emotion is the substitute for facts, I guess), in class you are expected to offer reasoned evidence to support your answers and propositions.

Over the years I have written about stupid public policies and other political myths. There are so many policies we keep adopting yet the evidence is that they fail to work. Why do we keep repeating dumb mistakes. Perhaps it is because we let too much emotion blind our ability to do what makes sense. David Hume, a famous philosopher, was correct when he said they were are more likely to be moved by our emotions than reason. Appeals to hearts are more effective than to minds, but then where are we?

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Demonizing Teachers: Simplistic Solutions for Education Reform (or why most policies for reforming K-12 will not make Johnny read gooder)

Barack Obama did it in a recent speech as did Tom Emmer at the Humphrey Institute. Both of them along with scores of other politicians and think tanks heap all of the failures of American education on the backs of the American teacher.

For all of them, the reason why Johnny and Jane cannot learn and why some schools are failing is that there are too many bad teachers. Variations of this argument are that unions protect bad teachers, we do not hold them accountable enough, that we need pay for performance, or that we need other measures to improve the quality of teaching. If only teachers taught better, it seems, our educational problems would be solved. This is a large part of the logic of Bush’s No Child Left Behind, a policy that Obama has largely left in place, of Minnesota’s Governor Tim Pawlenty, and of Tom Emmer who is running for governor.

Were this the cause of our educational failings it would be nice and simplistic and perhaps the solutions would be obvious. Yet educational reform is far more complex than simply seeking to hold more teachers accountable. This approach really demonizes teachers, and it misses the complex reasons for understanding why American K-12 works and fails.

I write about K-12 today for several reasons, First, education reform is front and center in the Minnesota governor’s race. The three candidates offer contrasting views on education reform with Emmer mostly taking the demonizing approach. Second, instead of talking about the horse race and polls, education policy is something worth examining. Third, I am an educator who sees the product of K-12 in my classroom. I first walked in the classroom at age 20, giving me more than 30 years of experience teaching. Unlike most college professors who have never taken education classes, I have. I originally wanted to teach high school history but changed to college. Yet I regularly visit high schools and talk to students. I have some sense and knowledge about teaching and learning.

My first observation is that demonizing teachers solves nothing except to demoralize them and drive away the best. If the focus is on attacking them, nothing will change.

My second observation is one from one of the first education classes I ever took. My teacher drew a triangle on the board and on one corner wrote school, and then home and community on the other two corners. He then said that students are educated in all three places–school, home, and community–with teachers, parents, and others all working to educate. His point was to drive home that schools and teachers at best are responsible for one-third of all the learning that takes place with students. Teachers cannot teach unless parents and other reinforce what they do and what their children learn in school. Clinton may have caught the idea of this years ago when she wrote It Takes a Village.

How can teachers be so responsible for student learning when students go to school only a few hours a day and for barely 180 days? They are being asked to take full responsibility for the success or failure of their students when they see them so little. We are perhaps asking teachers to do the impossible–to do too much–often without parental support.

My third observation is that public K-12 has to take students as it gets them. Teachers receive students at age five, and in all states of preparedness for school. As Jonathan Kozel has demonstrated in Savage Inequalities (a book everyone in America should read), we have a dual educational system in the US. If you are white, middle class, and affluent, the system works well, if you are Black, Hispanic, Indian, another person of color, or poor, the system is a failure. Child poverty is huge, many students come to school ill-clothed, ill-fed, and ill-housed. The crisis of American education is that for too many students they cannot learn because of the poverty they endure.

When in the 60s school lunch programs and Head Start began, it was recognized that kids cannot learn on empty stomachs or when for the first five years of their lives they endured poverty. One cannot compete in an educational 100-yard dash if everyone else begins the race at the starting line and you are ten yards back initially. No one, including Obama, or the major gubernatorial candidates in Minnesota, seems to recognize the real crisis is the context of race and poverty that encompass K-12. Ken Pentel, one of the minor party gubernatorial candidates, talks about this but no one listens.

My fourth observation is that teachers need to teach. They need discretion to use their skills and work with students. Too much of K-12 is prescribed by accountability tests that lead to teaching to the test and hamper the ability of teachers to do what they know to do. I find it ironic that politicians, few who are teachers, are drooling out ideas about education and why students cannot learn when they have no experience or knowledge about teaching and schooling. Ludwig Wittgenstein, a famous philosophy, once said: “That of which you have no experience you should remain silent about.” Good advise.

Finally, over the years I tell my students that learning is a cooperative venture. I will work hard but they have to do the same. The same is true for K-12. Students have to do their share, requiring parents and the community to provide the resources and encouragement to motivate students.

Thus, where should we start with real education reform?
  • Address the race and poverty issues enveloping schools. Fund quality preschool (as Art Rolnick urges) and quality day care. Fully fund Head Start and address the other social needs of students.
  • Lengthen the school year by considering year round school.
  • Free teachers up to teach.
Finally, get elected officials out of the business of writing curriculum and tests. I grew up in New York with a Board of Regents–experts who did education standards for the schools. I find it nutty that Minnesota legislators write standards. They know little about education and the product of their efforts is a political compromise. Turn education over to those who know something about it–the teachers who you want to demonize instead of wanting to support.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Poll Wars and Horse Races: Why We Need Less Polls and More Policy

(This is my second blog today so please look at this and the other one).
So what’s in a poll? Over the last two weeks four polls on the Minnesota governor’s race have been released, offering different interpretations of who is ahead or behind. The main news story has thus become the horse race, and the results of these polls may impact the fortunes of the different candidates.

As far as I am concerned the polls have become a distraction and we would be better off if we spent less time on them and more time on the substantive public policy proposals the different candidates have broached.

Ok, I will confess to have gotten sucked into the polling frenzy. Several weeks ago I criticized one MPR-Humphrey Poll and in the last week I have also commented on the Rasmussen Fox 9, Star Tribune, and now the most recent MPR poll. Some of my blogs address polling methodology issues and last Tuesday I discussed polling issues on Fox 9 at 6PM.

All of this polling is problematic on several scores. First from a geek point of view (of which I may be one), they may be giving inaccurate pictures of the race because of their basic methodological flaws, differences, or assumptions upon which they are based. My core criticism of the most recent MPR poll–and Steve Schier has said the same thing in a recent e-mail–is that it makes assumptions about what the electorate looks like that are wrong.

I agree that there is no way that the percentage of people who identify themselves as DFLers has grown in the last few weeks, and also would argue that there is no way that the percentage of individuals who identify themselves as DFL is equal to or greater than it was four years ago. Their numbers have shrunk, as have those who consider themselves Republicans.

To state again what I have been arguing for several months, here is my estimate of the partisan alignment in MN.
DFL 35%
GOP 30%
Independence Party 10%
Unaffiliated 25%

These numbers reflect a disenchantment and disaffiliation with the two major parties and an increase in those who are unaligned. Some unaligned are fringe right and left but most are centrists or moderates.

These percentages are my best guess based on previous elections and assumptions about trends this year. They should be treated as approximates. If the polls do not accurately capture these percentages the polls will over, under, or misrepresent candidate strength and support.

Moreover, to be accurate, polls also need to weigh other issues such as clarify who is likely to vote, balance among critical subpopulations such as Iron Rangers, suburbanites, and those in Minneapolis and St. Paul, and then give a better read on who the swings are. Minnpost pieces have done a good job recently discussing some of these issues.

However, beyond these geek issues, there are two other problems with the polls. First, they have come to replace substantive coverage of the three candidates. We no long hear of where candidates stand on jobs, education, or the deficit. This displacement of substantive policy with political strategy has a place, but it should be limited. Voters are not well served with this focus. Second, if voters are simply making their decisions based on polls this is not good. Should Tom Horner be judged as a contender based simply on how he is doing in the polls or should he be judged by the merits of his proposals? The same should be asked of Mark Dayton and Tom Emmer. The question that should be asked is not “Can you win based on the polls?” but “What do you plan to do if elected governor?”

Politicizing Lake Wobegon: The New Target Corporation Mistake?

Gay/lesbian activists and Democrats were outraged by Target Corporation’s political contributions to Minnesota Forward. Now Republicans may have their parallel beef with Garrison Keillor and his use of Lake Wobegon to endorse Tarryl Clark. Both actions demonstrate the stupidity of businesses either using or threatening their marketing brand when entering partisan politics.

First, there are important political differences between what Target and Keillor did. Target is a corporation that was otherwise barred from make independent political expenditures prior to the Citizens United Decision. Garrison Keillor is an individual who always had a right to make political statements and engage in partisan politics. However, after distinguishing Target from Keillor as that of corporation to individual, the parallels outweigh the differences.

Target’s basic mistake was that contributions to Minnesota Forward on behalf of conservative and anti-gay/lesbian rights Minnesota gubernatorial candidate Tom Emmer threatened a marketing brand and image that the company had sought to nurture for years. I wrote about this issue in an earlier blog and will not dwell on this here. But in entering partisan politics it damaged its image as the progressive socially responsible business it had sought to cultivate.

Second, in entering partisan politics it realized that any business–especially a retail one–that does this faces the wrath of perhaps half of its customers. I always thought the natural deterrent to corporate political activity was fear of alienating customers. What we learned from target is how partisan activity fuses with marketing and brand imaging. Engage in partisan activity and you threaten your marketing image. Keillor’s invocation of Lake Wobegon to attack Michelle Bachmann and endorse Tarryl Clark did the same thing.

Lake Wobegon has become Keillor’s and perhaps Minnesota Public Radio’s brand. The career and corporate existence of the two respectively have been built around Prairie Home Companion. For three decades. They have sold tons of books, built a catalog sales, and spun a business around tales from Lake Wobegon. Keillor had his own political views which were clearly Democratic Party leaning, but he kept them separate from his Lake Wobegon brand...until now.

Invoking Lake Wobegon in a partisan race poses the same threats to Keillor and MPR as did Target’s political expenditures. There will be many outraged by Keillor’s use of this brand and soon there will be calls to boycott him, his show, and perhaps MPR. Yes, many other writers and stars from Hollywood have gotten involved in partisan politics but most are smart enough not to invoke their core brand when doing it. Or it they do engage in partisan politics they understand how it affects their brand and they move ahead and act. Think of a Richard Gere as an example.

But Keillor’s endorsement does threaten his core brand. Moreover, it is not clear it will help Clark for two reasons. First, instead of Bachmann becoming the topic for debate it will be Keillor and there may be a backlash against Clark. This is what happened with Target when it and not Emmer became the focus of debate and the expenditure backlashed against him. See the same here in terms of how it leads to even more money from the GOP for Bachmann.

Second, for years Republicans have successfully run a cultural war against Democrats by arguing that decadent Hollywood was supporting their opponents. Republicans can now do this with Keillor. It will be Bachmann versus Keillor, MPR, and the entertainment industry. Bachmann most over this, it fits perfectly into her script.

Last thought: In a race where millions have already been spent and Clark is far behind, this endorsement may be a desperate distraction. Millions more of Democrat dollars will be drawn into this race and out of ones that need the money and the real issues will not be debated but get lost the controversy over the endorsement.