Sunday, September 23, 2012

Amending the Minnesota Constitution: Reading the Polls

Public opinion polls are perplexing.  The same is true nationally as in Minnesota and the polling on the state’s two constitutional amendments demonstrate some of the difficulties in doing survey research and public opinion polls these days.
On Sunday the Star Tribune released survey results on the two constitutional amendments.  It found that with the Marriage Amendment (to further ban same-sex marriage even more than it is banned in the state by Court decision and law) support for it was at 49%, opposed at 47%, and 4% undecided.  For the Elections Amendment to require photo ID at the ballot (and with that effectively to sharply limited if not eliminate election day registration), support for it was a 52%, opposition 44%, and undecided at 4%.

What are we to make of these polls?  Are the numbers accurate?  Perhaps, but the Star Tribune poll is in need of some qualifications and corrections.

First, look at the poll.  It has a margin of error of 3.5%.  In itself this margin of error is not bad, but the poll also indicates that for subgroups such as party affiliation the margins of error are larger than that.   Again, no surprise that a poll of only 800 respondents would have more error in tabulating results for subgroups.  But what is more interesting is the partisan breakdown of the poll-- 41 percent Democrat, 28 percent Republican, and 31 percent independent or other–and the landline versus cellphone population–80% versus 20%.  But of these numbers could skew the survey in critical ways.

Consider first partisan affiliation.  The survey may have overpolled Democrats and undepolled Republicans.  After the 2008 elections (a great year for Democrats), my estimate was that the state was about 39% DFL, 33% GOP, 10% IP (Independent Party), and 18% other.  Following the 2010 election (a great year for Republicans), my estimate was 38% DFL, 34% GOP, 12% IP, and 16% other.  It seems hardly likely that DFL affiliation in the state today has risen to a level exceeding the 2008 estimates, even considering disapproval with the Republican legislature and Congress.  Similarly, after 2010, it is unlikely that GOP support has dropped to 28%.  More likely numbers are something along the lines of 38% DFL, 34% GOP, 11% IP, and 15% other. 

Why is the partisan adjustment important?  The poll suggests significant partisan polarization for both amendments, with 73% of DFLers opposing the marriage amendment and 71% of GOPers supporting.  Similar partisan cleavages also exist with the Elections Amendment.  If this is true, take the marriage Amendment support at 49% and opposition at 47%.  If DFLers are overpolled by 3% and GOP underpolled by 6%, and if about 3/4 of each party votes in a partisan way, I would subtract  about 2.25% from opposition (3% x .75) and add 4.5% to support (6% x .75) and the new numbers are 53.5% in support and 44.75% against.  This is beyond margin or error.

If one applies the correction to the Elections Amendment there is about an 80% DFL opposition to it and a similar 80% GOP support for it.  Then the polls suggest approximately 56.8% support it and 41.6% oppose.

Now there is a second adjustment to the poll–landline versus cell phone users.  The poll had 80% landline.  This overpolls this type of user.  Some estimates are that as many as 40% of the population, especially those who are younger, rely exclusively on cell phones.  Older voters are more likely to support the Marriage and Elections Amendment.  Again, there seems to be an age divide with about 60%of older voters supporting the Marriage Amendment and about 60% of younger opposed to it.  This skewing needs to be corrected but there are two complications here.  First, younger people are less likely to vote than older people.  Thus, even if the survey overpolled elderly,  the results also have to consider undervoting by younger voters.  Any serious correction to the skewing by landline and then by failing to correct for younger people not voting leads to concerns about the survey accuracy, even if it claims to have surveyed likely voter.  At the least landline or older voters were oversurveyed by perhaps 10% and younger voters not voting may affect the survey  by several percent.  Nationally, the gap between elderly and younger voters is as high as 10%, in Minnesota it is much less but still significant.  I have no good tool at this time to correct for these two variables, but think they might about cancel one another out.  My intuition though is to contend that younger cellphone users who will actually vote are underpolled by at least an overall 2%.  If that is true, call it 51.5% of the Marriage Amendment and 46.75% against.  For the Elections Amendment, now call it 54.8% in support, 43.6% against.

Two other corrections now need to be made.  Support for anti-gay initiatives is underpolled compare d to final election returns.  Why? People lies to pollsters.  In the 2008 California Prop 8 battle, the last survey revealed 47% supporting repeal, with the final election results being 52.24% This is a difference of 5.24%.  In Maine in 2009 the last poll prior to repealing its gay marriage legislation yielded an underpolling of 4.9% comparted to the final election results. Yes public opinion might shift, but my estimate is that polls underestimate support for anti-gay rights legislation by about 5%.
Thus, 55.5% in favor and about 42.% opposed to the Amendment.  I am assuming that most of the 4% undecided in the poll vote yes.

However, there is also an issue about constitutional amendment voting in Minnesota.  If an individual votes in an election but fails to vote on the amendment then the failure to vote is counted as a no vote.  What percentage of the electorate undervotes on constitutional amendments?  Going back to 1988 and looking at the last 12 amendments, the undervote averages 4.84%.  It ranged from a high of 7.68% to a low of 0%.  Why is this important?  One needs potentially to subtract 5% from  any support for constitutional amendments because some people will vote in the election but not on the amendments.  It is possible that there will be a similar 4.84% average undervote on one or both of the amendments, but it is also possible it will be lower because both are politically salient and controversial.  My guess is an undervote of about 2%.  This means subtract 2% from support and then add 2% to opposition.

So where do we stand after all my corrections?

Marriage Amendment
Yes at 53.5%, with No at 44%.

Elections Amendment
Yes at 52.8%, with No at 45.6%.

My survey corrections do not include the impact of early voting in Minnesota that has already commenced.  This may complicate messaging and moving people who have already voted.  However, my argument is that the current polls over/underestimate real partisan affiliation, underpoll younger people (cell phone users),  fail to calculate undervoting by the young, anti-gay sentiment,  and neglect constitutional amendment undervoting.  My result thus suggest a closer vote on the Elections Amendment than polls suggest and a larger margin on the Marriage Amendment.  Of course, opinion may change and that is why there are elections.  Let us see what happens on November 6.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

The Presidency and Foreign Policy (plus a note on Polls and Wisconsin)

The 2012 presidential race was supposed to be about the economy.  At least that is what Mitt Romney wanted.  His goal was to emphasize this experience as a businessman in contrast to Obama’s failed leadership in an economy with still high unemployment.  If his first message was to steal a page from Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign–“It’s the economy stupid”–his convention speech shifted it to the Reaganesque “Are you better off now than four years ago.”  Run on the economy, as the conventional wisdom would have suggested, and it should be a path to the White House since presidential re-elections are generally referenda on the economy.

Yet things have just not worked out for Romney.  First it was Obama picking up where Newt Gingrich left off, turning Romney’s Bain Capital experience into a liability and symbol of vulture capitalism.  Despite the persistence of a weak jobs economy, Romney has lost his advantage on this issue as the NY Times reports that polls now give Obama a slight nod on this issue.

The it was Paul Ryan.  Ryan diverts attention away from the economy and to budget cuts and Medicare.  Or Atkins in Missouri has pushed the agenda to abortion and social issues.  Or Obama  and the Democrats have made the campaign about gay rights.  Whatever the diversion, though, Romney has not been able to score on the issue that should have been his strength–the economy.

And now the agenda has shifted again–to foreign policy. Until now the presidential race was about domestic policy.  Yes Romney tried in his RNC speech to talk about Afghanistan and the war there, but generally the polls suggested that this is not what is driving the public or the race.  But how recent and potential events are placing foreign policy back perhaps to the center of the race, again taking the presidential contest further away from the economy.

Two events this past week were particularly important.  There is the killing of the US ambassador in Libya along with the anti-American uprisings across the Arab world, and then the demand by Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu for the US to draw a red line for Iran regarding nuclear weapons.  Both of these events thrust foreign policy and events into the middle of the presidential race.

At first blush, Obama is coming our a winner.  He does so because of Romney’s ham-handed criticism of the president regarding Libya that was factually wrong and ill-timed, criticized even by fellow Republicans.  This is not Romney’s first mistake.  He crudely criticized the UK regarding the Olympics and also while visiting Israel his comments about Palestinians was criticized.    His views on Russia too seem antiquated.  The point here is that Romney’s lack of foreign policy experience is showing, and it creates an opportunity for Obama to look presidential and qualified.  Romney’s problem is not unusual for presidential challengers when running against incumbents–the latter always look more experienced and qualified–the big exception being Jimmy Carter and the hostage crisis in 1980.

Generally foreign policy crises work to a president’s political advantage.  It gives them the chance to look, while presidential and in control.  People rally around the flag, especially if presidents act decisively.  So far Romney has damaged himself and Obama has not hurt himself.  But that could change.

Think of worst case scenarios–all October surprises.  Israel bombs Iran.  What does the USA do?  Obama cannot ignore supporting our ally and with the Jewish vote critical to a Florida victory, he may have no choice but to intervene.  How such a war will affect the presidential election overall is unclear.  Conventional wisdom generally says the president should be helped with something like this, but America is war-weary.

A second October surprise-American hostages are taken at some other US embassy or another ambassador is killed.  Images of Carter, Iran, and 1980 are invoked here.  Carter’s impotence with the hostages–and a botched rescue mission–were not good for his image.  Obama probably now needs to take some major foreign policy action to address Libya but what?  In theory it and Egypt are our allies.  Kind of hard to bomb them.

Other October surprises are a continued erosion of stability and civil war in Syria and financial solvency of the Europe.  Overall, these foreign policy events are largely beyond control of Obama and all could dramatically change the presidential race.  They also have domestic implications–look at the price of gas.

Overall foreign policy and international events run risks for both Romney and Obama.  How these events play out are yet to be seen but they have placed foreign policy in the center of the race.  For Obama it also shifts the race again off the economy and that might be good.  For Romney, this may not be good.

Two Final Thoughts: Swing States and Labor Rights Wisconsin

Two other thoughts are in order.

Both the Financial Times and the New York Times have noted critical changes in the presidential race since the DNC.  Obama and the Democrats got a convention bounce that the GOP and Romney did not.  Obama picked up a couple of points in the polls but more importantly, he picked up some approval ratings.  This may be the “sugar high” that Romney speaks of, but it is still significant. 

But the bigger problem for Romney is that two swing states–Pennsylvania and Michigan–are no longer swing.  Romney has effectively given up on them, reducing the number of swing states to eight or nine.  The Financial Times reports nine swing states with Obama leading in eight, including a solid margin in Ohio.  Romney may be close in the national polls but he is not doing well in the critical swing states-although he has a shot in Wisconsin

Finally, on Friday a Dane County circuit judge invalidated the law that abrogated public employee rights in Wisconsin.  He did so on federal constitutional grounds (First Amendment freedom of association and Fourteenth Amendment equal protection grounds) along with state constitutional claims.  Were the decision upheld on appeal it would be a real repudiation of the Walker and perhaps more significant that had he ben recalled.

However hold on with this case.  It was not the best drafted opinion and the chances of it being upheld are iffy at best.  Moreover, Walker will move for the decision to be stayed on appeal.  It is not clear after reading it whether it restores collective bargaining rights and if so, when.  In short, lots of questions remain regarding what the decision really means.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Reviewing the DNC: Obama’s Missed Opportunity and the Road Ahead

The two national conventions for the Republicans and Democrats are over.  Who had the better show and benefited the most form their rival performances?  The simple answer is that Obama came out better, but it was because of him.

The RNC and DNC were theaters in contrast that bore powerful similarities.  The RNC seemed less about Romney and more about its future stars Rubio, Christie, and Ryan.  The best night for the RNC was Wednesday with the VP nominee Ryan speaking.  Romney gave his best speech in a long time but it was still was far from a home run.  He ended his speech with the Reaganesque challenger of asking if we are better off now than four yers ago, forcing Obama and the Democrats to have to respond to it. 

Did Romney get a post-convention bump?  All indications are that there was little bump.  Polls suggested at most a one or so point bump.  Perhaps this was due to the fact that so few watched the convention.  Those who watched were the hardcore, those whose minds were probably already made up.  It is doubtful the undecided watched since there was little news or theater here. In fact, surveys suggest less that 5% of the public is undecided at this point, again showing that there was little potential for much bump.

The DNC had two great nights.  Ms. Obama and Mayor Castro were greater speakers for the president and for why the election mattered.  Ms. Obama did what Ms. Romney failed to do–put a more human face on her husband.  Castro rocked, clearly setting himself up for the future.  It was like watching a young Obama again.

Night two was Bill Clinton.  It was an amazing speech, even if long (as expected).  He made the clearest case again Romney and the Republicans and also seemed to give credit to his wife and perhaps help position here for 2016 should she decide to run.

Obama thus entered the third night after two previous evenings of great performances.  He merely needed to give his usual great speech to follow up and it would have been a hat trick for the DNC.  Obama failed.   The speech, in the words of Tom Brokaw, was “workmanlike.”  It was competently given but uninspiring.  Obama failed to do what he needed to do–to inspire and make the case for four more years.  He and the other Democrats made the case for why the Republicans should not be given a chance, but like the GOP and Romney, the case for electing him was not given.  Biden too was similarly flat.

Obama should thank Clinton, Castro, and his wife. Were it not for their strong performances the convention would not have helped him.  There are some indications of a small post-convention bump and some signs that his approval rating went up.  Whether this is real or merely temporary, and how the Friday unemployment numbers stunt the bump is yet to been seen.

Bottom line–the two conventions really did not change much.  Romney still has a personalty problem and Obama has a problem making the case for four more years.  Neither candidate is as inspiring as their future leaders seem to be, and both will get their bases out but not in an enthusiastic way.  Both candidates need narratives and reasons for their candidacies.  It is unlikely that either much moved swing voters.

Looking to the future, the DNC and RNC need to change to be relevant.  No one watches and they are not interesting.

Looking to the future, the number of swing states is shrinking.  Polls suggest Pennsylvania is out of reach for Romney and he seems to be pulling out his ads from there.  Ohio seems to be solid for now for Obama and this is really the state where the presidential fight is all about.  If we look at the approximately eight or so swing states in play, the two campaigns are looking to move a  few million (maybe five million or less voters).

A Reagan Redux Election?
One thing is clear about this election–it is a tale of two Reagans.  Romney is running Reagan’s 1980 campaign against Jimmy Carter–asking if we are better off now than four years ago.

Conversely, Obama is or needs to run Reagan’s 1984 campaign for re-election-declaring it’s morning in America.  He needs to look to the future and convince the voters that he has turned things around and that the country is moving in the right direction.  Given the cloudy economic news and uncertainty, this may be difficult to do.  However, “Morning in America “ is certainly a better message than “Foreward.”

Monday, September 3, 2012

Four More Years? Obama’s Challenges in Quest of a Second Term

    Presidential re-elections are referendums. They are referendums on the economy, on the state of the country, on the performance of the president.  Voters they look back four years and ask themselves how they judge the performance of the incumbent president.  The same will be true this year with Obama.  But unlike four years ago, President Obama faces daunting challenges running for re-election, including facing this referendum on his first term and convincing Americans he deserves four more years.

    Four years ago Obama had several advantages in his bid for the White House that no longer exist, or at least are muted compared to 2008.  What are they?

Generational Politics
Perhaps the most important advantage Obama had was the generational factor.  By that, Obama wad the choice of a new generation as the baby boomers, Gen Xers, and especially the Millennials come out to support him.  Obama had the cool factor.  He was young and chic, hip, and a rock star.  Voting studies demonstrated that he had overwhelming support and turnout among younger voters, losing only to the aging Silent Generation. But today Obama is no longer cool.  He is older, greyer, and not as chic as he once was. While in 08 he embodied optimism, Romney was correct at the RNC that now for many he is about disappointment and disillusionment.  He had such promise and opportunity so many say in the coffee shops, but he failed to live up to the expectations.

    Obama failed to live up to these expectations because in part about his narrative.  The 2008 campaign was about hope and change, but what change was about was never clear.  It was an empty  bottle which people filled with their own hops.  Obama also created expectations that he would change politics and Washington and solve the pressing problems of the day.  That did not happen.  It did not for many reasons.  Yes the Republicans sabotaged compromise, but the Democrats failed to cooperate too.  Yes the scope of the problems were greater than he and others estimated, especially with the economy, but Obama too had a generational chance to push for bold ideas and instead he squandered away opportunity.  He just never thought bold.  Thus, change did not occur.

    But generational politics works in a different way–demographics.  The Silent angry generation is dying off.  More states are reliably Democratic than Republican and the racial demographics in the swing states favor Obama. 

The Missing Narrative
    Now four years later the narrative of change is impossible to use.  Republicans used it successfully in 2010 and again are using it again–arguing for change in the White House while mocking the hopey changey narrative.  Obama’s problem remains again the issue of narrative.  In 2010 the narrative was “It could have been worse.”  No excitement here.   Obama’s biggest challenge in Charlotte this week will be to try to offer the new narrative.

    Obama is the incumbent.  That also forestalls running on the banner of change. Asking voters whether they are better off now than four years ago was a powerful challenge by Ronald Reagan in 1980 that led to the defeat of Jimmy Carter.  Romney posed this question at the RNC again, and if swing voters make this the question that decides their choice, Obama loses.  As pointed out scores of times, no sitting president besides FDR and Reagan have won re-election with unemployment above 7%.  It should be over for Obama, except for the fact that the Republicans have no plan, no candidate who is likeable, or a demographic that works to their advantage.  There are just not enough aging angry white guys out there to win an election.  Yet given the facts that data suggest the top 1% along with Wall Street  are doing better now than four years ago, why they are not supporting him seems perplexing.

    Incumbency brings advantages but it also means you are held responsible for the status quo.  Obama is responsible rightly or wrongly and he needs to convince people that your record is worthy of four more years.  Obama does have an impressive record–the auto bailout, health care reform, Dodd-Frank, “Don’t ask, don’t tell is gone.  But Obama has not told his story well and he needs to do a better job than he has.

    Obama has a significant political cash advantage four years ago.  Business broke from the Republicans and supported him.  Now Romney and the GOP will have more cash and Wall Street  has turned against him.  Obama runs as an incumbent with a cash disadvantage.

Technology and Grassroots
    Obama lacks the big pockets he had last time but he still has the powerful community organizer grass roots structure that he had four years ago.  Additionally, four years ago Obama became the first Twitter and Facebook president, using the new and social media in unique ways that helped him reach out to a new generation.  Others have caught up here, and Twitter and Facebook are no longer cutting edge.  Yet Obama still has an advantage here.

    Four years ago voters like Obama.  They still do and this is his biggest advantage over Romney who no one really likes or is passionate over.  When push comes to shove likeability is a major factor for candidates.  Romney runs on competence but plumbers seldom win presidential if any elections

The political-economic world of 2012 is very different from the one of 2008 when Obama won.  Obama faces many challenges to a second term.  What he and the Democrats need to do this week in Charlotte is more than simply say the Republicans are bad.  They need to make the case for Obama, convincing voters that despite what appears to be the case four years later, they are better off and should award him with a second term.  A term that as of yet we have to what he wants to accomplish.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

The RNC’s Lost Opportunity: Empty Chairs and Empty Suits

Political conventions are merely media events and infomercials.  With nothing left to chance, they are supposed to be choreographed events that communicate various messages and themes to diverse constituencies and groups with they aim to eventually sell their product and brand to the American public.  The same was supposed to be true with the RNC that recently concluded, yet for all the millions of dollars and planning and preparation that went into it, the RNC was largely a squandered opportunity.  The RNC was an empty suit.

The RNC had to accomplish one major task–rebrand or reintroduce Mitt Romney to the American  public.  This was the Etch-a-Sketch task of humanizing their candidate so that he would connect with the American public.  As it is well known, Americans just do not like Romney as a person.  They do not feel that they kind warm up to him or identify with him and conversely they feel that he does not understand them and their life.  We want to connect and bond with our presidents and Romney mostly fails here.  He is Richie Rich, the out of touch white millionaire.   He is like the first George Bush who was amazed by scantrons at grocery stores, who could not describe how he was personally affected by the recession, and who looked at his watch in the middle of a presidential debate.  Romney is not the second Bush who Americans wanted to have a beer of cup of coffee with. 

Yes Romney is rich and successful.  But he is the guy who bests us $10,000 and bemoans his wife has only two Cadillacs.  He wears pressed and creased blue jeans.  He is robotic and all business and believes corporations are people.   He reminds women of their first husband and workers of the guy from HR who laid them off.   This is why the Bain Capital attack is so devastating. While a majority of the American public does not like the economic direction or policies of Obama, a majority like him and when push comes to shove, the presidential race comes down to personality versus economy-likeability or unlikeability and the former generally wins.  Romney has a personality problem and the RNC was supposed to warm him up or humanize him.

Network television recognizes that the conventions are simply media events–free informercials.  The networks lose money covering them and thus, they gave the RNC (and the DNC next week) one hour of prime time to message.  The GOP squandered their time.  Night one was the appeal to women and  begin to introduce Mitt.  Ann Romney spoke with the effort to get women to like Mitt. She needed to appeal to the suburban women of Eden Prairie , Edina, and Minnetonka, Minnesota and get their to like her husband.  Ms. Romney told us she liked women and  that her husband was a business success but otherwise no insights into why she loved him or why others should.  She needed to be personal, to tell a story about her husband’s human side, but she never did.  Viewers knew no more about Mitt’s personal side after her speech then before.  The speech failed.  Moreover, as I watched Mitt watch his wife speak he looked passionless, reinforcing the robotic image.  Even when the two sat together watching Governor Christie speak seemed detached from the events and one another.

Governor Christie was the other speaker on night one.  He was supposed to rouse the conservative base, made the case against Obama, and make the case for Romney.  He was all New Jersey that night replete with Springsteen references but the speech was not about Romney.  Romney came late  in the speech.  Christie speech was a dog and pony for him.

Night two’s theme again was women, working class, and the case against Obama.  Condoleezza Rice spoke, but she came on five minutes before prime time and part of mer message was muted.  She spoke platitudes of patriotism and the American dream–themes common in the entire convention, but she was also a token to try to show that the mostly aging angry white delegates were diversified.  She tried to paint herself as the American dream and one of us, not of course mentioning she was one of the architects of the Bush wars or that she was a newly minted member of Augusta.

Paul Ryan’s speech was impeccably delivered.  But it too showed this was not Romney’s convention  or party.  Ryan spoke of generational divides and AC/DC v Musak.  He well criticized Obama (an  easy thing to do) but did a poor job in articulating his vision for America. Moreover, his speech failed the truth test on so many counts.  The factory in Janesville closed before Obama was president.  Obama did not go on a apology tour.  Bush started the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and it was Bush who added more to the national debt than any other president.  Ryan was wrong with the facts.  Moreover, he also did little to highlight Romney, again preparing himself for the party mantle in 2016.

The final night was bizarre.  The Clint Eastwood opening eclipsed Romney.  Rubio spoke well but long and again only got to Mitt late even though the purpose of the Florida senator’s speech was to introduce the candidate.  Mitt finally got on at 10:35 EDT, giving him little prime time to sell himself.

Mitt gave his best speech to date.  He needed to humanize himself, articulate his vision for his presidency and the world, and criticize Obama.   Romney was at his best with the critique of Obama and the sense of disappointment many felt.  This was a good but easy task.  Romney’s did finally give some vision of his presidency with his five-point vision, but it was largely devoid on specifics on how he would generate 12 million jobs.  Finally, Mitt gave hints of humanizing himself but about all that really came though was that he is the embodiment of the American dream and that he is an economic success.  Yes some statements about people filling up their gas tanks were poignant but not enough.

Beyond what was seen at the convention there was what was not seen.  John McCain was left out of prime time.  Tim Pawlenty’s miserable and unfunny speech was nasty and badly delivered and showed why his presidential candidacy was for naught and why he never had a chance at VP.  Bachmann and Palin were hidden.  No seen also was the GOP platform banning all abortions or restricting immigration.  It was convention long on nasty and anger and short of what they would do.  It appealed to patriotism, nationalism, and flag waving, but demonstrated little in terms of diversity or tolerance for difference in opinion.  Why, I wondered, is this affluent so angered and threatened by the changing world around them?  It was a crowd composed mostly of the Silent Generation ready to die off and of Gen X Ayn Rand accolades.  Perhaps they seen the generational and demographic clock ticking against them and worry correctly they soon their world will end.

In the end, the metaphor for the RNC was not the empty chair that Eastwood spoke to.  It was the empty suits that the GOP message presented.  It was an opportunity squandered.