Friday, September 7, 2012

Small Bounce for Romney?

In the wake of the Republican convention, very few polls have been released. This appears to be due to the close proximity of the Democratic convention; pollsters may be reluctant to poll until after both conventions are over, rather than conducting polls that could be obsoleted by a Democratic convention bounce. However, the polls that have been taken have suggested Mitt Romney got a small bounce from his convention. Please see the Polls page for a list of all recent national polls.

Only three pollsters have polled since the Republican convention: Rasmussen and Gallup, which do daily tracking polls, and CNN/Opinion Research. In judging whether a bounce has been achieved, it might be tempted to simply take one poll immediately before the convention and compare it to a poll afterward. But this runs into the standard problem of polls having a margin of error. Averaging polls is always necessary for accuracy. The following are polls taken after the convention:

09/06 R+0 Obama 48, Romney 45 (Gallup*)
09/06 R+1 Obama 45, Romney 46 (Rasmussen)
09/03 R+0 Obama 48, Romney 48 (CNN/Opinion Research)

With the adjustment made for Gallup using registered voters instead of likely voters, the average is a Romney lead of 0.3 points. Now we will look at polls taken just prior to the convention, from the same pollsters.

08/25 R+3 Obama 46, Romney 46 (Gallup*)
08/25 D+2 Obama 47, Romney 45 (Rasmussen)
08/23 D+2 Obama 49, Romney 47 (CNN/Opinion Research)

The average before the convention was an Obama advantage of 0.3 points. Comparing the two, Romney's bounce was 0.6 points--a very small bounce. Though it's better than nothing, the Romney campaign should be disappointed by seeing so little movement in the polls, even though part of the Rasmussen and Gallup polls were taken during the Democratic convention.

Still, the best polling will be taken out of the shadow of both conventions, during the week of September 17th, when both bounces will have subsided and the standing of both candidates will be more clear.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

2012 Election in Review: August 2012

Each month, Elephant Watcher recaps the activity that occurred in the general election during the previous month. Follow these links to read recaps from the Republican primary and general election: May 2011, June, July, August, September, October, November, December, January 2012, February, March, April June, July.

August continued the lazy summer trend of inactivity in the presidential race until about midway through, when Mitt Romney selected Paul Ryan for vice president on August 11th. The choice inspired a mix of reactions from seasoned political observers; Ryan carried serious baggage in the form of his unpopular "Ryan Plan", while not having a natural constituency that he would bring with him, as other "risky" picks would have.

But in the wake of the Ryan selection, Barack Obama's campaign utterly failed to inflict damage upon the Republican ticket. Instead, the Romney/Ryan campaign launched a preemptive counter-attack on Medicare, accusing Obamacare of raiding hundreds of billions of dollars from the program.

Heading toward the convention at the end of the month, the Republican ticket appeared to be energized. However, the national election polls showed that the race continued to be a dead-heat, essentially unchanged all summer.

The Republican National Convention was held in the final week of August. By all accounts, the convention appeared to be a success. It's unlikely Romney could have delivered a better speech than the one he gave, and there were no mishaps. Nevertheless, the true test of a convention's success is whether and to what degree a candidate receives a bounce in the polls. With no post-convention polling available until next week, the outcome is an open question.

Friday, August 31, 2012

Republican Convention Held: What Next?

Previously we wrote about Mitt Romney's opportunities to present a positive image of himself. Since most voters had little familiarity with Romney, it was very important for Romney to have a positive campaign that gave voters reasons to vote for him, as opposed to merely voting against Barack Obama. In addition to positive ads, Romney's major opportunities were the Republican Convention and the debates in October, should he do well at those.

Now that the Republican Convention is over, how can we determine its impact? By all accounts, the participants (particularly Ann Romney and Mitt himself) gave good performances. They were able to humanize Romney and introduce him as a personality to voters who didn't know who he was. For most voters, Romney's convention speech was the first time they had seen a Romney speech, and it was probably the best he had ever given. But did it make a difference?

At last, polling will begin to provide very valuable information about the candidates' respective chances of winning the election. If Romney's convention achieved its goals, Romney should see his numbers go up in the polls. Obama does not have an equivalent opportunity to get a "bounce" from his own convention, since voters are already familiar with him. They may even have difficulty watching the speeches if they are the cool, sarcastic attacks on Romney that most observers expect.

It's likely that there will be a battery of polls being released early next week, just as the Democrats' convention is being held. If Romney does not register a bounce in those polls, his battle to win the White House will be more uphill than expected. Then, the week after the Democratic convention, polls should indicate whether the Democrats succeeded in wiping out Romney's bounce. And the week after that, with both potential "bounces" having a chance to subside, we should get a clearer picture as to where the candidates stand, going into the debates.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Obama Campagin Drops the Ball on Medicare

After Mitt Romney selected Paul Ryan as his vice-presidential running mate, Barack Obama's campaign strategy was clear: Demonize Ryan by publicizing the unpopular elements of the Ryan Plan and accuse
Romney/Ryan of attempting to cut Medicare. Obama's campaign was aware of the importance of this strategy ever since the possibility of a Ryan VP selection first arose, some months ago.

However, Obama has so far failed to effectively execute it. Instead, the Romney campaign opened up with a preemptive counter-attack, criticizing Obamacare for cutting some $700 billion from Medicare. The technical details of how Obamacare shuffles money around (including from Medicare) to pay for various additional and replacement programs are obscure. Do voters truly fear a Democratic president (one attacked as a liberal, no less) will cut Medicare? No. But the advantages of Ryan's preemptive attack are significant: Obamacare is unpopular, and it's much easier to articulate "Obamacare cuts $700 billion from Medicare" than to articulate the explanation for why this isn't the case.

More importantly, the Romney campaign does not need to convince voters that Obama wants to cut Medicare; they only need to fight Obama to a draw on the issue. If "Mediscare" is a draw between the Republican and the Democrat, it is the same as a victory for the Republican, since Medicare is a Ryan weakness and traditionally a Democratic strength. As an analogy, imagine if Obama were able to fight Romney to a draw on the issue of the economy. Certainly that "draw" would be a victory for Obama.

Why did the Obama campaign find itself so flat-footed on an obvious issue? Part of the explanation must be that they did not see Ryan as a serious VP possibility. They may have already begun opposition research and negative ads centered around more likely picks, such as Rob Portman, Tim Pawlenty, or even Marco Rubio. When Ryan was chosen, it came as a surprise, and they were caught unprepared.

Even so, the element of surprise cannot entirely account for how badly Obama fumbled. The Obama campaign, relative to the Romney/Ryan campaign, is less capable than it first appeared. Elephant Watcher has recalculated the odds and determined that Obama's odds of winning the presidency have diminished slightly.

Should Romney be celebrating a victory? Not yet. Even when a line of attack is botched or effectively countered, it can still reappear later on, when the stakes are higher. For example, the attacks against Bain Capital appeared ineffective when they were first launched earlier this summer, but they returned. The Ryan Plan and "Mediscare" are bound to return later in the campaign.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Romney Chooses Paul Ryan for VP

Ryan
Mitt Romney announced today that he had chosen his vice presidential running mate: Paul Ryan, the U.S. House member from Wisconsin and current chairman of the House Budget Committee. The selection of Ryan came as a surprise to most observers. While Ryan had some supporters, most viewed Tim Pawlenty or Rob Portman as more likely choices. Recall that just yesterday, Intrade gave Ryan a less than 15% chance of being picked, while Portman was at 34.9% and Pawlenty was at 20%. After Intrade confidently, wrongly predicted that Obamacare's individual mandate would be overruled by the Supreme Court, one must continue to be skeptical about Intrade's ability to predict "secret" decisions.

In previous examinations of the VP decision-making process, we noted two popular theories: The first was the "first do no harm" theory that a "safe" choice should be made because a VP can hurt but not really help a ticket. The second theory is that a VP can help by broadening the appeal of the ticket.

The Ryan decision is perplexing in some ways, because he seems to be the worst of both worlds. On the one hand, he was widely regarded as a "risky" pick because of the big negative he carries: Ryan is associated with a very unpopular budget plan that involved privatizing Medicare. Indeed, "associated" may be an understatement, since it was known as the "Ryan Plan." Thus, Ryan fails the "do no harm" test. But on the other hand, he doesn't seem to have many qualities that would broaden the appeal of the ticket. Unlike Marco Rubio, who would have appealed to many independents (particularly Hispanics), Ryan would tend, if anything, to alienate independents.

It might also be noted that Ryan is young and looks young, and that his highest elected office is that of a U.S. House member--which does not require winning a state-wide election. However, since Ryan has held that office since 1999, he is less vulnerable to criticisms of being inexperienced, despite being about the same age as Rubio.

So why was Ryan chosen? There are a number of factors that likely weighed heavily in Romney's mind. First, the trial balloons on Romney and Portman earlier this summer fell flat. Second, polls have suggested that Barack Obama has held a slight lead over Romney throughout the race. Such polls are of registered voters rather than likely voters, but perhaps Romney's campaign is as led by the RealClearPolitics average as Intrade is. Also, some very recent polls show Obama with a bigger lead. Putting these two things together, Romney may have been persuaded that he needs a "game changing" VP, just as John McCain concluded four years ago.

Then there are the attributes that favor Ryan. Among Tea Partiers and hardcore conservatives, Ryan is considered a genuine conservative, not a "RINO." No doubt Romney chose Ryan in part to balance the ticket and energize his base. Unlike many on the far right, Ryan is not considered a "kook," but an intelligent and articulate, hard-working legislator. Ryan's youth and energy would also be seen as qualities that help balance the ticket. Though it's unlikely to make much difference, Ryan provides geographic balance as well: He's from Wisconsin, a Midwestern swing state. Finally, Ryan would probably have little difficulty beating Joe Biden in a debate.

The irony of the Ryan selection is that during the Republican primary, Romney went out of his way to avoid appearing too aggressively conservative on fiscal issues. Recall that for a long time, Romney avoided endorsing tax cuts for the rich; he only changed his mind when his campaign appeared vulnerable later on, when he needed to appeal to conservatives. The selection of Ryan is a full embrace of fiscal conservatism, including its most unpopular elements. Yet Romney may have felt that since he already spoke favorably of the Ryan Plan, he was stuck anyway.

Putting it all together, how will Ryan's selection impact the dynamic of the race? On balance, it will hurt Romney. By choosing Ryan, Romney has played directly into Obama's current strategy of class warfare. The Obama campaign can go on the offensive, claiming that a Romney/Ryan victory would result in the end of Medicare. By contrast, Ryan doesn't carry any constituency of his own to counter his downside. Arguably he could help energize the base, but there is historical evidence to suggest that the base turns out anyway, and candidates win the presidency by winning independents. On the surface, it appears Ryan will hurt rather than help with independents.

It will be some time before we can fully determine how a Ryan VP candidacy will play, and how Americans respond to him. For the moment, it is Elephant Watcher's determination that Romney's odds of winning the presidency have declined modestly.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Intrade: Obama Up, Portman Up

Barack Obama has improved slightly on his lead in the Intrade market on the 2012 race since our last review in mid-July. The market gives Obama a 58.8% chance of victory, with Mitt Romney at 41%, for a margin of 17.8 points. Once more, we can see the Intrade market is strongly correlated with the RealClearPolitics average of national polls.

As was the case in our last review, the RCP average gave the Intrade market an odd result, due to the quirks of RCP's methodology. Because RCP puts a big emphasis on using multiple pollsters, as opposed to multiple polls, it is forced to use older polls. For example, as of this writing, the RCP average includes a CBS/NYT poll that ran from July 11th to 16th; some of that data is nearly a month old. Other polls have data from as much as three weeks ago.

In mid-July, Romney was doing worse in the then-current polls, but was doing better on Intrade, because the RCP average at the time didn't have a chance to catch up. By contrast, the Elephant Watcher average of polls puts a greater emphasis on current polling data, even if this means using multiple polls by Gallup and Rasmussen, which are the only firms polling with frequency. Remember, polls are intended to be a "snapshot" of the race as it stands today, not how it stands partly today and partly a month ago.

Meanwhile, as the announcement day approaches, the Intrade market on Romney's VP remains split. But Rob Portman has improved on his lead, to 34.9%. Tim Pawlenty is in second at 20%, while Paul Ryan has jumped to 14.6% and Marco Rubio is stuck at 12%. A lower-tier of potential veeps is clustered in mid-single-digits: John Thune at 5.2% and Bob McDonnell, Chris Christie, and Bobby Jindal all at about 4%.

It's curious: Rob Portman is known to have a key weakness in his ties to the George W. Bush administration, and there has been little in the way of "buzz" or trial balloons about him in the media. Yet Portman is consistently at the top of the Intrade VP market. It could be a case of wishful thinking on the part of liberal investors who see Portman as an easy target. But the consistency of Portman's lead must make one wonder whether there is something to it.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

2012 Election in Review: July 2012

Each month, Elephant Watcher recaps the activity that occurred in the general election during the previous month. Follow these links to read recaps from the Republican primary and general election: May 2011, June, July, August, September, October, November, December, January 2012, February, March, April June.

July was another quiet month for the 2012 election. There were no major revelations, scandals, campaign events, debates, etc. There was some speculation that Mitt Romney might name his vice presidential nominee early, perhaps late in July. Instead, Romney remained silent, and the speculation about the identity of Romney's VP will continue into August. As in June, most voters slept through the month of July, paying little attention to the race.

As July opened, Barack Obama enjoyed his best polling numbers thus far. After a slight lead had been held by Romney in late June, the numbers shifted toward Obama. But afterward, the numbers shifted back slightly, stabilizing into a dead heat between the candidates.

Obama renewed his attacks against Bain Capital, focusing on the non-issue of when Romney left the firm--which invited Romney to make some unforced errors. But as with any election news during the summer doldrums, the media soon lost interest; the story was drowned out by coverage of a shooting spree at a movie theater, and the 2012 Olympics.

Combining the unresolved Bain issue and the deadlocked poll numbers, one gets the impression that the race has become a stalemate. However, the race has not yet really begun--and it won't, until the Romney VP announcement and Republican National Convention in August.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Mitt Romney's Tax Returns, Part II

In Part I, we discussed how the issue of Mitt Romney's tax returns affected Romney's campaign during the Republican primary. Though there were no "bombshells" in the returns Romney eventually released during the primary, his prior refusal to release any returns created a cloud of suspicion that (temporarily) hurt his campaign. After Romney released some returns, the issue disappeared from the Republican primary. It would have remained a dead issue, but Barack Obama's campaign has been calling on Romney to release additional returns; Obama himself has released his tax returns dating back to the year 2000. For now, Romney refuses to release tax returns earlier than 2010.

How might this issue play out during the general election? An issue like this requires a "driver"--something to keep it in the news or bring it back into the news once it fades. Until Romney releases more returns, there is no "hook" for a story; there's no new information to report on. The Obama campaign can attempt to keep it in the news by repeatedly calling on Romney to release his returns, but that's all. Unless this causes a big change in public opinion, the issue will fade from the headlines, because the repeated calls for disclosure will grow stale in their repetition. For the moment, public opinion is unlikely to change very much because most voters are not yet paying attention to the race.

However, the tax return issue can harm Romney even if it is not kept in the spotlight for a long period of time. Recall the way it played out during the Republican primary: No one mentioned Romney's returns during 2011, and the subject wasn't brought up until January 2012. When the matter was raised by Romney's opponents, it had immediate impact. Romney lost South Carolina by a wide margin and polls showed Romney well behind in Florida. This loss of support wasn't reversed until Romney released some returns. Thus, it's possible for the Obama campaign to set the issue aside for now and still raise it again, closer to the election--in October, for instance.

Rival campaigns aren't the only potential "drivers" for a story like this. Once again, the Republican primary is instructive. It wasn't merely the calls from Romney's opponents that put the issue in the spotlight. Rather, the most serious heat Romney took was when the issue was raised during a Republican primary debate. The debate moderator acted as the driver. The moderator reminded Romney of the fact that Romney's own father, Michigan governor George Romney, was a loud proponent of candidates releasing many years of tax returns. The moderator then asked Romney if he would follow his father's example, and Romney gave a painfully evasive answer.

While it would be awkward for Obama himself to inject "Well Mitt, why don't you release more tax returns?" into a debate, it's easy for a debate moderator to do so. If the moderator is a particularly ardent supporter of Obama's, he might ask repeated follow-up questions to pin down exactly what Romney feels needs to be kept secret. Romney is unlikely to give an answer as weak as the one he gave when this question was raised during the primary debate, but it's difficult for him to give even a well-prepared answer without appearing evasive.

Later in the campaign season, when more people are paying attention, it will be easier for Obama to push the mystery of Romney's tax returns into the spotlight. As we saw with the "birther" controversy, something can remain dormant for awhile and suddenly, unpredictably flare up later if it's unresolved.

In summary, it will be very difficult for Romney to make it to November without releasing his tax returns. The issue can temporarily disappear or grow stale, but reappear more harmfully closer to Election Day. Even if the Obama campaign fails to get voters excited about the issue, an Obama-friendly debate moderator can bring the matter to center stage during one of the crucial debates.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Mitt Romney's Tax Returns, Part I

In keeping with the class warfare strategy that sparked an additional round of Bain attacks, Barack Obama's campaign has been calling on Mitt Romney to release his tax returns for the last ten years. So far, Romney has refused, releasing returns for the last two years only. Romney argues that he has released all of the information that's legally required, and that Obama would merely use any additional disclosure as the subject of distortions, distractions, and attacks. However, even some prominent Republicans (albeit including Republicans who arguably never supported Romney in the first place) have called on Romney to release the returns now so that the matter can be put to rest.

Those who followed the Republican primary will recall that Romney's tax returns became an issue back in January of this year. Just prior to the South Carolina primary, some of Romney's rivals demanded that Romney release his tax returns. At the time, Romney had not released any returns; he also had not released any during his run for governor of Massachusetts. Romney's answer was that he was not planning to release any tax returns, but that he might consider doing so later.

The tax return issue hurt Romney badly in South Carolina. Romney appeared evasive, and voters wondered what he was hiding. Granted, such issues are more important in a primary than a general election. In a primary, voters are chiefly concerned with electability--the ability of a candidate to compete in a general election. They don't want any hidden skeletons that will knock their party's nominee out of the race. In a general election, electability is no longer a campaign issue, because voters are choosing a president rather than a candidate. In other words, voters are choosing someone to run the country, not someone to win future votes. Character issues play a role, but they are weighed according to their substance rather than their appearance.

The Romney tax return issue was resolved before the Florida primary. Romney understood his image of electability had taken a beating, so he quickly and quietly released two years of tax returns--the same as other candidates were doing. Contrary to expectation, there were no bombshells. Romney could be criticized for paying a low rate and for using tax shelters, but there was no evidence of anything illegal. The matter was dropped, and Romney went on to win Florida, knocking rival Newt Gingrich out of the race.

Why did anyone care about Romney's tax returns in the first place? Because voters were curious why Romney wasn't releasing them, and their imaginations took flight. The tax return issue is reminiscent of the "birther" controversy that came to a head in the spring of 2011. For more than two years, Obama refused to release his long-form birth certificate. Because the birther issue existed in the realm of conspiracy "kooks," few paid it much attention. It's likely that Obama's refusal to release his birth certificate was a political ploy intended to string along the kooks and trap any unwary Republicans who allowed themselves to be dragged in.

But in 2011, Donald Trump began openly questioning Obama's status as a natural-born citizen. The issue found its way into the mainstream. Obama persisted in his refusal to release his birth certificate, and Obama supporters struggled to explain why. Voters also became curious, because they couldn't think of any logical reason why it shouldn't be released. Their imaginations ran wild, and polls began to show a large percentage of Americans unsure about Obama's birthplace. Obama was therefore forced to release his birth certificate--leaving observers wondering what the big deal was.

Now that Obama has resurrected the tax return issue, how will it affect the general election? We will discuss that in Part II.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Mitt Romney's Positive Campaign?

Romney
Since Elephant Watcher switched over to general election coverage, we have written numerous posts about potential campaign strategies for both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. Obama's campaign strategy--both his optimal one and the ones he's tried out so far--revolve around being negative. Since voters are dissatisfied with Obama's presidency, and since it's not possible to make them become satisfied with his presidency by November, Obama's only hope is to destroy Romney and leave voters with no alternative. Obama's potential strategies, therefore, differ only in the methods by which he attacks Romney.

Romney's situation is almost the mirror opposite. Because voters have already decided they disapprove of Obama's handling of the economy, Romney doesn't want to change voters' minds about Obama--and he probably couldn't if he tried. And since Obama is already president, the baseline questions of what kind of president he would be are moot, leaving Romney little incentive to attack Obama's character. Voters are unlikely to shift their opinions about Obama too much in either direction. They have already decided they want change; they just need a credible alternative.

If Romney's task is to present himself as a credible alternative to Obama, how should he go about doing it? First, Romney needs to avoid pitfalls and unforced errors that would disqualify him. Second, Romney needs a positive campaign about himself.

Every campaign involves both positive ads and negative ads. Negative ads are the mudslinging attack ads that can become famous or infamous each election year. Positive ads are the "feel good" ads that a candidate runs about himself to advertise his credentials and positive qualities. It should be no surprise that Obama will focus on creating negative ads about Romney. Romney will to use negative ads too, but he'll also need to put a focus on positive ads.

At present, most voters know little about Romney. His national profile consists of his 2008 and 2012 runs in the Republican presidential primary. But not too many voters actually pay much attention to primary campaigns. They'll note the results of the contests, perhaps, but unless they're in the political party of the primary and their state is hotly contested, they won't see much of the primary campaign itself. For example, only a small percentage of the general election voters casting ballots this November will have watched Romney's performances in the Republican primary debates.

If voters don't know much about Romney, how can they see him as a credible alternative to Obama? They can't. That's what positive ads are for. Note that the big-spending SuperPACs tend to run negative ads rather than positive ones. This means Romney's campaign itself will need to flood the airwaves with positive ads; they can't rely on outside sources. So far they haven't done this. By contrast, both the Obama campaign and his SuperPACs will be able to make an impact with negative ads against Romney. This disparity may be one of the reasons Romney has not achieved a real breakthrough in the national polls thus far.

But there's some good news for Romney. Voters begin paying close attention to the general election campaign beginning with the parties' national conventions, which will start in late August. The Republican national convention will be, in essence, a very big, expensive, highly-watched positive ad for Mitt Romney (and his VP nominee). At the national convention, the opponent will come under some attack, but the conventions tend to be positive. They tell the life story of the candidate and showcase the reasons why he should be president.

Thus, only after the Republican convention will we be able to say that most voters are familiar with Romney. That's when poll numbers will become more telling. In addition, the presidential debates held in October have the potential to serve as positive ads of a sort for the challenger. (If a candidate does poorly, they become like very effective negative ads.) If the challenger is put on the same stage as the incumbent president and he does well, the challenger is basically given free, positive advertising that says "this man is a credible alternative."

It's ironic that an incumbent president would need to go on the offensive, while the challenger is on the defensive in the sense that he needs to build himself up. This isn't always the case, but when the economy is in unusually bad shape and voters want change, that's the position they're in. With the convention and the debates, Romney has two big opportunities to make gains. Since Obama lacks equivalent opportunities, Romney is in better shape than the polls will suggest--until the conventions.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Intrade's Obama vs. Romney, Holding Steady

Despite the heat taken by Mitt Romney from all the Bain Capital attacks, the Intrade market on the 2012 race is holding steady, almost unchanged over the last two weeks. The market gives Barack Obama a 56.2% chance of winning reelection, with Romney at 43% to win. This margin of 13.2 points is actually narrower than the 14.9 point lead enjoyed by Obama when we last checked in, at the beginning of July.

How can we explain the Intrade investors' behavior? The numbers appear to confirm the hypothesis that this particular Intrade market reacts almost exclusively to the polls, specifically, the RealClearPolitics average of national polls. The RCP average is similar to what it was earlier this month--perhaps even showing a slightly closer race. This shouldn't imply that the Bain narratives will have no effect, however: Little polling has been done since the latest Bain attacks captured the headlines.

The power of the RCP average rests in the fact that it is widely read and very simple: It's just an average of the most recent national polls. RCP does nothing to account for the difference between registered voter and likely voter polls, though it does limit its use of daily tracking polls.

If the RCP hypothesis is correct, we can expect that big campaign stories will have minimal impact until they are reflected in the poll average--and poll averages necessarily lag behind events. Only a truly obvious shift in the campaign should be able to overcome this, such as a clear win in the debates or a massive scandal.

Meanwhile, the Intrade market on the Republican VP nominee has changed in the past two weeks. Rob Portman still has the lead at 29.1%, but Tim Pawlenty has made a comeback to 23.8%. Pawlenty's comeback appears to have been triggered in part by an item on The Drudge Report about Romney having already made his VP decision; the headline linked to a story about Pawlenty.

Minor players in the VP market have also shifted. Marco Rubio is down to 9.1%, while Bobby Jindal and Paul Ryan are up to 7.2% and 6.9%. Condoleezza Rice has jumped from almost nothing up to 6.0%. It's likely that Rubio's fall was the result of the gain by the latter three contenders, who may be viewed as sort of "risky" picks, like Rubio.

As with Pawlenty, the Rice gain was driven by an unsourced item in Drudge suggesting that Rice was a surprise frontrunner among the potential VPs. The Rice market went to 15% before the storm died down. The Intrade market remains skeptical about Rice because she has so many weaknesses: She is associated with the George W. Bush administration, especially its most unpopular policies (the war in Iraq, torture, etc.).

Chris Christie, who once had been one of the frontrunners on the Intrade VP market, has completely collapsed to 1.8%. In part, that may be due to the fact that others have been speculated about in the media more than Christie has of late. The most recent crash was probably also precipitated by yet another item in Drudge, which showed Christie in an angry altercation with a random passerby on the New Jersey boardwalk. Christie's chief weakness, particularly from a "Romney perspective" has always been his perceived volatility.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Return of the Bain Attacks

Last month, Barack Obama's campaign essentially abandoned its attack line against Bain Capital, the private equity firm founded by Mitt Romney. The attacks against Bain had fizzled because they were delivered as attacks against private equity firms in general. Prominent Democrats rejected the idea of attacking private equity and, as in the Republican primary, Romney was able to defend himself by trumpeting Bain's successes.

Now the attacks against Bain have returned in a new, more complicated form. The new attacks turned out to be part clever, part foolish, and partially accelerated by an unforced error on Romney's part. Obama's new angle of attack focuses on when precisely Romney "left" Bain. The basic facts are not in dispute; independent fact-checkers and Bain leaders present at the time (including some current Obama supporters) all confirm Romney's timeline: In early 1999, Romney stopped working at Bain and started working full-time to organize the 2002 Olympics. Although Romney's responsibilities at Bain were transferred to other managers, Romney maintained his ownership of the company for a few more years--including the title of CEO. Thus, while Romney was no longer physically present or making managerial decisions, his name continued to appear on SEC filings for the company.

On its own, this timeline has little relevance to anything--and that is where the "clever" portion of the Obama campaign's attacks comes in. Romney's political opponents have always attacked Bain by focusing on Bain's failures, and Romney defended himself by pointing to its greater successes. But Romney has also occasionally defended himself by absolving himself from any bad decisions made by Bain after his departure in early 1999. Now, the Obama campaign points out that Romney was still owner and CEO of the company, and was thus responsible for everything that occurred there.

It is difficult for voters to relate to the idea that someone owns a company but is no longer present. As Obama pointed out, voters think that an owner-CEO must still be responsible for the decisions made by the company. When Romney says he "left" Bain in early 1999, voters expect a more complete break.

The "foolish" part of Obama's attacks came in the form of an overreach: They suggested that if Romney was not the owner and CEO of the company as reported in SEC filings, it would be a felony to falsely report such. No one, including Romney himself, ever disputed that he held onto his ownership interest in Bain for a few years after he went to work for the Olympics in early 1999. Therefore, no one actually believes Romney committed a felony. The charge is extreme to the point of absurdity, and were the Romney campaign ever to suggest that Obama is a felon, they would undoubtedly be accused of racism.

If the Romney campaign released a cogent, convincing written statement explaining this, perhaps the new Bain attacks would have fizzled as well. This is where the "unforced error" portion comes into play. With the facts on their side, the Romney campaign sensed that Obama overreached. They probably felt it was important to hit back hard to show that they are tough--and Romney himself was probably quite offended by the accusations made against him. On Friday, Romney responded by participating in as many TV news interviews as he could, to address the situation.

By jumping directly into the fray, Romney made the new Bain attacks even more prominent in the media than they were before. Since he had not previously participated in many interviews this campaign season, he also appeared to endorse the idea that the timing of his Bain departure is important in some way. The forum was also wrong: By participating in interviews with Obama-supporting journalists, rather than releasing a written statement (or simply appearing for a public statement), he allowed the dynamic to shift: Instead of Romney attacking Obama for his overreach, he allowed the journalists to put him on the defensive as they cross-examined him about Bain.

While the Bain timeline is occasionally used by Romney as a defense to bad Bain decisions made after early 1999, Romney's primary interest in defending the timeline is that it's the truth. However, in the context of Obama's attacks, defending the timeline appears to observers as a way to disassociate himself from Bain. That reinforces Obama's premise that Bain is a weakness rather than an asset. In the past, Romney would defend Bain with a counter-punch focusing on Bain's successes. Defense of a timeline can't involve such a counter-punch; instead, it can only involve the facts about Romney leaving a company but still owning it and having the title of CEO. Again, these are facts to which voters will have great difficulty relating.

Given the lack of controversy about the facts surrounding Romney's timeline, Obama's attacks had little substance. Obama erred by overreaching, but Romney played into Obama's hand through the unforced error of lending weight to the attacks' importance. This may be considered the first time Romney's campaign has made a serious blunder during the general election campaign.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Is the 2012 Race a Stalemate?

Several days ago, Barack Obama took the lead in the polls. The trend was in Obama's favor, but after a brief time, the national general election polls swung back in Mitt Romney's favor. The two candidates are virtually tied; even when the numbers were at their best for either Romney or Obama, the polls showed a dead heat.

Both candidates can promote spin about how the closeness of the race suggests weakness on the part of the other candidate. Considering how poor the state of the economy is, and considering how unpopular Obama's legislation has been (e.g. Obamacare), one might say the closeness of the race proves Romney is weak. After all, when voters disapprove of the economy, it should make things easy for the challenger.

On the other hand, Obama is an incumbent. His challenger went through a bruising primary campaign in which the Republican Party eagerly sought an "Anti-Romney" wherever they could find one. Romney lacks charisma, his own party doesn't like him much, he hasn't chosen a vice presidential nominee yet, and he has been subject to attacks by the media and his opponents in both parties. By that measure, the closeness of the polls suggests weakness on Obama's part.

As is usually the case, the spin on both sides contains elements of truth: The economy is weak and voters are ambivalent at best about Obama; Romney is a weak challenger and has so far been unable to unite or excite his party. Perhaps the reason why the polls continue to gravitate toward a tie is that the two candidates' weaknesses cancel each other out.

But is the race destined to be a stalemate? Not necessarily. As we wrote earlier, the general election won't really begin for awhile. Voters will begin to pay some attention when Romney selects his VP, and they'll tune in once the parties' conventions take place beginning August 27th. Until then, the race won't fully take shape. Voters' attitudes toward Romney will be particularly difficult to register, since they won't see him in action or even know much about him before the Republican convention.

After both conventions finish in early September, polling data will become more useful. The race may still be deadlocked, but it may not. If voters continue to be unhappy with Obama, and if they are convinced that Romney is a decent alternative, the polls could swing in Romney's favor. Even after the race takes shape in early September, the October debates between the candidates will have the potential to swing the race in either direction; we have seen that historically, the debates matter. Even so, the "starting point" also matters. Each candidate's starting point won't become clear until the conventions.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Obama Takes the Lead in Poll Average

On July 1st, Barack Obama took the lead for the first time in the Elephant Watcher average of national general election polls. The average is comprised of the ten most recent polls, adjusted for the difference between registered and likely voter polls, and with daily tracking polls added once every three days instead of daily. The polling data and (including the older polls) used to create the chart below may be found on the Polls page.


The poll average chart enables us to track the movement of the race at a glance, beginning from the end of May 2012. Note that the race has remained very tight: The poll average has always been within a range of about three points, from half a point in Obama's favor to a little over two and a half points in Mitt Romney's favor.

Romney began with a slight lead, which slowly built up to a peak of 2.7 points on June 22nd. During the ten days after that, his lead fell fairly swiftly. Obama now holds a lead of half a point. It's the first time Romney has lost the lead, though the two candidates were tied briefly in early June. For much of June, Romney appeared to have the momentum. What accounts for the shift? Let's start by ruling out some possible explanations.

The most salient political event that occurred recently was the Supreme Court's ruling on Obamacare, which upheld the law. However, it's unlikely that the ruling helped Obama in the polls--at least, not yet. Romney's peak was June 22nd, and the numbers started moving in Obama's favor before the ruling, which was announced on June 28th. Obama's best polls were conducted just prior to the 28th, or finished on the 28th. The three polls released after the ruling suggest a tied race; they're similar to those just prior to the ruling, or are slightly better for Romney. Obama has only just taken the lead in the average because, as with all moving averages, it takes a few days for the older polls (which were better for Romney) to fall out of the "ten most recent" list and be replaced by newer polls.

Another possible explanation that can be ruled out is the influence of different pollsters. When pollsters are compared to each other, some tend to show more favorable results for Obama and some more favorable for Romney. This unintentional, but persistent, bias is known as a "house effect." A house effect only refers to the bias of a poll compared with other polls; until the election, one cannot know which is the "correct" number. Some poll analysts suggest that Rasmussen and Gallup, which release daily tracking polls, have tended to have a right-leaning house effect this cycle (or to put it another way, other pollsters have a left-leaning house effect). If so, it suggests that a poll average may be tilted if other pollsters aren't releasing enough polls.

While it's true that non-Rasmussen/Gallup pollsters released more polls toward the end of June, which could have been to Obama's advantage, that can't be the full explanation: Obama started doing better even when comparing Gallup polls to earlier Gallup polls, and Rasmussen to Rasmussen. Adjusting for the fact that it's a registered voter poll, Gallup in mid-June showed Romney leading by 4, 5, and 3 points (June 16th, 19th, and 22nd). The two most recent Gallup polls had Obama leading by 2 points (June 28th and July 1st). The Rasmussen polls for the same days have R+3, R+2, and R+5 in mid-June and D+1 and R+2 most recently. Thus, Gallup had a 6-point shift toward Obama, and Rasmussen had a shift of two and a third points. Indeed, the change in these tracking polls accounts for much of the movement.

So if the pro-Obama shift can't be explained by the type of poll or by the Obamacare ruling, what can explain it? Unfortunately, in this case, there isn't any obvious explanation. One possibility is "statistical noise," which refers to the natural up-and-down blips that can be found in any set of data. Using an average of many polls helps reduce the effect of "noise," but it can still be present, particularly in a close, three-point race such as this one. The only way to be certain is to continue following the polls to see if the trend continues or reverses itself.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Intrade Odds: Barack Obama Rebounds

The Intrade market for the presidential election gives Barack Obama a 57.2% chance of winning reelection, while Mitt Romney has a 42.3% chance of victory. This suggests a relatively close race at the moment, but Obama's edge in the Intrade odds has widened since our last review a few weeks ago. Obama now has a lead of 14.9 points; that's almost double the 8.1 point lead he enjoyed in mid-June. Obama's lead had been narrowing until recently.

The shift likely reflects the attitude that the Obamacare ruling will affect the election, and that Obama benefits from his signature program being upheld. Before the ruling, most Intrade investors had assumed the individual mandate would be ruled unconstitutional.

In addition, there has been some slight movement toward Obama in the national polls. That shift is more apparent in the Elephant Watcher average of general election polls, which takes into account the difference between registered voter and likely voter polls. The poll average had shown Romney with a nearly 3-point lead in late June; Obama now has a slight lead for the first time.

The Republican VP Intrade market has also seen some movement since the aftermath of the rumors about Tim Pawlenty for VP. Rob Portman is back on top at 25.3%. Pawlenty is still in second, but has dropped to 14.5%, just ahead of Marco Rubio at 13.7%. Some new players have risen: John Thune, a U.S. Senator from South Dakota is at 7.5%, and Paul Ryan, a U.S. Representative from Wisconsin is at 6.2%. Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal is tied with Chris Christie at 5.0%.

The VP shuffle suggests Intrade investors have soured a bit on the Pawlenty rumors. Apparently, they perceive that the news about Pawlenty was not met with much enthusiasm, so Romney's campaign is looking for another "safe white guy" to pick. Like Pawlenty, John Thune could fit the bill. Paul Ryan is less "safe," but Pawlenty's loss is presumably Ryan's gain. The same could be said for Bobby Jindal, another of the "young guns" of the party. Rubio has recovered somewhat from the news report that he wasn't being vetted for the position, but it's unlikely he'll rise to his former heights without assistance from another news report.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

2012 Election in Review: June 2012

Each month, Elephant Watcher recaps the activity that occurred in the general election during the previous month. Follow these links to read recaps from the Republican primary: May 2011, June, July, August, September, October, November, December, January 2012, February, March, April.

Generally speaking, the presidential campaign was quiet during the month of June. Each candidate toured the country, raised money, and plotted out his strategy. Mitt Romney's strategy, essentially unchanged since the Republican primary, was to attack Barack Obama's handling of the economy. Throughout the month, Romney gave few hints that he would pursue a different direction. With no economic news indicating a robust recovery in the works, Romney had little incentive to abandon his original plan.

In the absence of real campaign news, much speculation swirled about concerning Romney's choice of vice presidential running-mate. U.S. Senators Rob Portman and Marco Rubio remained favorites on Intrade, but Tim Pawlenty stepped into focus amidst rumors that Rubio was not even being vetted. Romney later denied the report, claiming Rubio was, in fact, being vetted for the position. But at the end of the month, the identity of the VP was either securely under wraps or still undetermined.

Obama, for his part, skirmished with Romney by criticizing Romney's actions while head of Bain Capital. These attacks backfired after prominent Democrats--including an Obama surrogate--defended private equity firms in general. Though Obama experimented with accusing Romney of wanting to return to Bush-era policies, he tended to favor the "class warfare" line. By June's end, the Obama team's strategy did not yet appear to be fixed.

On June 28th, the Supreme Court ruled Obamacare constitutional--by declaring it a tax. Romney responded by attacking Obamacare, repeating his calls for "repeal and replace." For the first time, Romney was able to say that only by voting Romney could America avoid Obamacare. In the days following the decision, it became apparent that the country could become engaged in a lengthy debate over Obamacare for a second time. Polls suggested that the healthcare plan had not become any more popular since it was passed in 2010.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

How Will the Obamacare Ruling Affect the Election?

The Supreme Court issued its ruling on the matter of Obamacare's constitutionality today, upholding essentially the entire law (part of the law was limited, but not in a way that matters for our purposes). The main focus of the debate was the individual mandate, a requirement that all Americans either purchase health insurance or pay a penalty. The Court upheld the mandate on the basis that the penalty is really a tax, and the federal government has the power to impose such taxes. Legal issues had arisen in part because the law was designed to give the impression that it was not a tax; one of Barack Obama's most important campaign promises was that he would not raise taxes on families making less than $250,000 a year.

The Supreme Court's announcement came as a surprise to many political observers; most believed that if the individual mandate were upheld, it would be upheld as a valid use of the Commerce Clause of the Constitution, which allows the federal government to regulate interstate commerce. By specifically characterizing the individual mandate as a tax, the political implications become more murky.

If Obamacare had been ruled unconstitutional, it would have been a bad result for Obama. It would have made Obama look foolish for spending so much time on something that was overturned, and it would have made him appear to have overreached. It would have also assisted Mitt Romney in claiming an important distinction between Obamacare and Romneycare; the individual mandate in Romneycare was never threatened, because it is a state law.

The ruling is not all good news for Obama, however. By keeping Obamacare in place, the Court has allowed Romney to keep his longstanding campaign promise to "repeal Obamacare on day one" alive. By characterizing the law as a tax, the Court seems to deliberately twist the knife: The Court implies that Obama raised taxes, broke his promise, and tried to disguise it by not calling it a tax.

That sounds like an unhelpful result for Obama. But the waters are muddied by Romneycare. If the main complaint about Obamacare is that it is a tax increase in sheep's clothing, Romney may be pulled into a bit of hypocrisy that can be counterattacked. While governor of Massachusetts, Romney defended Romneycare by saying the individual mandate was not a tax increase. Therefore, if Romney criticizes Obama for raising taxes, Obama can counter that Romney previously agreed that it wasn't a tax increase. The net result would be a victory for Obama.

Romney can avoid this pitfall, of course, by declining to make that specific attack. But other Republicans, and Romney-supporting SuperPACs, certainly will make the attack. Thus Obama can raise the issue himself--perhaps during a debate--challenging Romney to deny that his allies are wrong. This places Romney in an uncomfortable position.

During the Republican primary, Romney was able to defend himself by listing a number of distinctions between Romneycare and Obamacare. He did so skillfully in the debates, and it took his rivals several months to think of ways to properly attack Romneycare. Romney could have used similar methods if the issue came up during the general election. But with the Supreme Court's emphasis on the idea that the individual mandate is a tax, the debate may narrow its focus in a way that does not benefit Romney--by making the debate about whether Obamacare raised taxes.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Mitt Romney's Pitfalls

Romney
Over the last month, we have written numerous posts about potential victory scenarios for the candidates, as well as strategies that Barack Obama might employ to defeat Mitt Romney. As the challenger, Romney's position in the race is different from Obama's in a fundamental way. For better or worse, Obama is tied to his performance as president over the last four years. This leaves Obama fewer options as he plans his campaign strategy. Romney, on the other hand, has a greater degree of choice. That flexibility is both a blessing and a curse. Obama's decisions over the next few months will do little to help or hurt himself. By contrast, Romney can hurt himself by making "unforced errors" while exercising his freedom. Avoiding pitfalls needs to be a high priority for the Romney campaign.

Pitfall #1: Bush's Third Term. One of the worst things a candidate can do is to make his opponent's job easier. Elephant Watcher determined that Obama's chances of victory are highest if he is able to convince voters that Romney would merely return the country to the economic policies of George W. Bush. Therefore, Romney must convincingly present his campaign as a new direction. This means when Romney is challenged to provide specific examples of ways he would be different from Bush, he needs a ready answer. Elephant Watcher believes that eventually the Obama campaign will come to realize its optimal strategy, and that Obama is likely to make such a challenge directly to Romney during one of their debates. Romney would do well to spend time practicing a strong answer.

Pitfall #2: Saber-Rattling. Voters view Obama as weak on the economy, but strong on foreign policy. They are also unwilling to engage in another war. During the Republican primary, Romney was occasionally tempted into burnishing his conservative credentials with hawkish language, particularly on the subject of Iran's nuclear program. Obama would be delighted to see Romney give the impression that a Romney presidency means war. Romney ought to avoid allowing the campaign to drift into a focus on foreign policy.

Pitfall #3: Social Issues. As always, voters are split on various social issues, even within the major political parties. Consequently, it's not possible to expect a clear-cut victory when wading into social issues. If the campaign drifts into a focus on social issues, it will become a quagmire. Romney would do well to maintain message discipline: His best chance of winning is keeping his focus on the economy.

Pitfall #4: Lack of Specifics. One of the difficulties in being an advocate of reduced government is being picking and choosing what should be cut from the budget. The process of cutting the budget involves deal-making by Congress. When a candidate proposes cuts to something popular, it's a lose-lose situation: As a candidate, he's not making the deal--and it's hypothetical since he hasn't been elected yet--so he gets the disadvantages of proposing the cuts without getting the advantages of actually fixing the budget. That may imply a candidate should be vague, but not entirely. A candidate should offer specific proposals to cut useless, unpopular programs or give specific examples of waste. Likewise, Romney should offer specific ways that he will create jobs, as he did when he announced his support of the Keystone Pipeline.

Usually these specific examples will be too small to have a major impact on the budget or economy. But this doesn't actually matter. Voters form general impressions of the candidates, even--perhaps especially--from small, specific, concrete examples. The left-leaning media would respond by pointing out the limited impact of the examples. But Romney could reply that the examples are used to illustrate the principles by which he will make decisions. Most voters would understand (if it's explained) that a candidate cannot secure a deal before he has the chance to actually work with Congress on implementing it. Thus, after the exchange with the media, voters would only be left with the general impression that Romney is in favor of some things they like, and would cut some things in a reasonable fashion.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Class Warfare: The Other Strategy

Earlier this month, we examined the economy's effect on the presidential race and were able to draw some conclusions about proper candidate strategy. Barack Obama's optimal strategy is to convince voters that Mitt Romney would be nothing more than a repeat of George W. Bush, whom voters give a lot of the blame for the economic crisis of 2008-09. Because voters are also dissatisfied with Obama's handling of the economy, they are hopeful for something new. Therefore, the best way to defeat Romney would be to persuade voters that Romney would not actually offer anything new (i.e. he would be "Bush's Third Term").

Although the Obama campaign has occasionally sampled this line of attack, they have not yet committed to it. Instead, they have tended to gravitate toward an alternative strategy, painting Romney as a participant in class warfare who will seek to help the rich at the expense of the poor. It's obvious why this strategy is attractive to the Obama campaign: It exploits some of Mitt Romney's weaknesses (being rich, out of touch, etc.), and is a traditional attack made by Democrats.

The class warfare strategy was highlighted by the Obama campaign's unsuccessful attacks against Bain Capital earlier this season. Romney was able to defend his tenure at Bain by pointing to the company's success in saving business and creating jobs. Attacks on Bain aren't the only angle that would appear in the class warfare strategy, however. The strategy would largely depend on creating the general impression that Romney "isn't one of us," and that he only wants to serve the interests of "the wealthiest one percent."

The attacks on Bain also fizzled during the Republican primary. One area where a similar concept did hurt Romney during the primary was his serious gaffe suggesting he wasn't concerned about the poor. When he made the gaffe, Romney was attempting to explain why he was primarily concerned with helping the middle class: The rich are rich, and the poor already have safety net programs designed for them. But the implication Romney didn't care about the poor touched a nerve. It's likely that the gaffe helped weaken Romney in early February, when Rick Santorum won some (temporary) victories against him.

Elephant Watcher's analysis concluded that the class warfare strategy is useful in doing additional damage to Romney, but that the "Bush's Third Term" line would be a better central theme. Why? Though Romney is intrinsically vulnerable to the class warfare strategy, the timing isn't as good as it normally would be. Because Obama is the incumbent in a bad economy, it is Romney who will seek to empathize with those who are suffering. Romney will tend to play up the economic difficulties, and Obama will downplay them. As the challenger, Romney also has the ability to choose what economic policies he will propose. If the middle class believes they would benefit from those policies, it will become even more difficult to see Romney as their enemy. And Romney can also point to the ways in which Bain's investment in companies benefited ordinary workers by creating jobs.

Unless Obama's campaign simply does a better job than Romney's, the result will be ambiguous or even favorable to Romney. Voters want to believe things can get better, and they think it's only possible by going in a new direction--they are unconvinced that a continuation of Obama's policies would lead to improvement in the economy. That's why an ambiguous result to the attacks would be more beneficial to Romney. As long as Romney represents something new (and not obviously dangerous), voters will lean toward him. In other words, Romney wins a draw. Voters don't want to be told they are stuck with the status quo, so they will err on the side of optimism.

Therefore, it makes more sense to undermine the idea that Romney represents anything new at all. If Romney is a return to something that voters already dismissed (i.e. Bush's policies), then the optimistic option is cut off from the beginning. That must be the main goal of the Obama campaign, because if "new" is on the table, voters will probably go with it.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

When Does the General Election Really Begin?

For several weeks now, Mitt Romney has held enough delegates to ensure that he will be the Republican Party's presidential nominee. The Democratic Party, of course, has had its own nominee's name set in stone for much longer. There's no doubt that the 2012 race has shifted from the primary season to the general election season. So why does it seem like nothing is happening?

A year ago, the Republican primary season was experiencing its own lazy summer phase. For the past few elections, candidates have made efforts to extend the calendar, seeking an edge on their rivals. Like participants in an arms race, they attempted to raise and spend more money earlier and earlier in advance of voting day. This was particularly true in the parties' primaries. Twenty-four hour cable news networks with lots of time to fill also had a stake in extending the campaign seasons, and they scheduled as many televised debates as the candidates would allow. But the truth is that only the voters themselves decide how long the campaigns really last, because campaigns don't truly begin until the voters are paying attention. If voters aren't watching, then spending money on TV ads and campaign events is a waste.

The rule of thumb is that in a general election, voters begin paying attention in early September, about two months prior to election day. Interest ramps up in October, when the debates take place. By the end of October, the whole world is watching the election.

There's only one thing that forces the voters to pay attention earlier: The party conventions. At the conventions, the parties' nominees give their first big speeches of the campaign. The non-incumbent candidates can make additional headlines when they choose their vice presidential nominees. This is usually done shortly before the party convention.

But the political parties both recognize that although the conventions could be used to grab voters' attention earlier in the season, it's best to schedule them as late as possible. By holding the conventions later, they maximize the number of people inclined to pay attention. Candidates usually get a bounce in the polls from their conventions, and there's a perception that "he who bounces last bounces best." In 2008, the Republican Party held its convention beginning September 1st, the latest a convention had ever been scheduled.

The backloading of the party conventions shortens the active campaign season. In 2012, it's the Democrats' turn to hold their convention last, beginning on September 3rd. The Republican convention won't be held much earlier--it's scheduled for the week of August 27th. That sets the stage for a long summer during which voters will likely remain asleep, so not much can happen.

Romney has the option of selecting his VP well in advance of the convention. In 2004, for instance, John Kerry announced John Edwards as his VP nearly three weeks before the convention. By contrast, Sarah Palin was announced only a few days before John McCain's convention in 2008. There's a perception that choosing the VP earlier could be beneficial, because the VP can hold campaign events, make media appearances, and raise money. If the VP is truly beneficial to the ticket, it's never to early to begin helping. On the other hand, the earlier the VP is chosen, the less time the candidate has to make the choice--and vet the potential VP.

Most likely, Romney will not announce his VP choice until the beginning of August. He could wait, as McCain and others have done, until just prior to the convention. But given how early the Romney campaign began the selection process, it seems they will probably make the announcement on a schedule similar to the one used by Kerry in 2004. That would suggest an announcement around August 6th, three weeks prior to the convention.

Could they do it even earlier? Yes, if they are comfortable with their VP choice. If the rumors about Tim Pawlenty being chosen for vice president are true, he will have been fully vetted and ready to launch in July. But vetting isn't the only consideration: Romney's campaign will also need to consider how the Republican Party will react to the choice. If news of the possibility of Pawlenty on the ticket was met with an underwhelming response, Romney's campaign is second-guessing itself and exploring alternatives. In that case, an early August announcement remains likely.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

What Will the 2012 Election Mean?

As the 2012 presidential election campaign continues its slow summer phase, it's worth stopping for a moment to consider its broader historical context. If Barack Obama wins reelection, or if Mitt Romney successfully captures the White House, what will it say about the state of affairs between the two political parties? What implications will the voters' decision in 2012 have for the future of politics?

Although it may be an unsatisfying one, the correct answer is probably that the election will say little about the future of the Republican and Democratic parties. However, it's likely that either party, having won the presidency in 2012, will draw inordinately sweeping conclusions from it. In examining whether Obama or Romney is more likely to win in 2012, we saw how Democrats historically have a strong tendency to overestimate their candidates' chances of winning. But the temptation to find long-term trends in a few recent data points--usually selectively chosen--applies to both parties.

After George W. Bush won reelection in 2004, the Republican Party was very optimistic about its future. It had scored three victories in a row, prevailing in 2000, the 2002 midterms, and 2004. Republicans had won most of the recent presidential elections: 5 of the last 7 (from 1980-2004) or 7 of the last 10 (1968-2004). Some Republican commentators penned editorials giving Democrats thoughtful advice on how the Democratic Party might fix itself, for the sake of the two-party system.

Only four years later, after Barack Obama won in 2008, the Democrats had a similar attitude. Without either party being aware of the irony, some Democrats wrote similar editorials warning that the Republican Party was in danger of becoming a regional party or entering the political wilderness for an extended period. The most optimistic Democrats opined that demographic changes (i.e. an increased Hispanic population) would lead to an inevitable, permanent Democratic majority. As before, the victorious party was chastened by a crushing mid-term defeat two years later.

Regardless of who wins in 2012, the triumphant party will find ample data to support their optimistic projections. First, let's consider what the "data" will show if Romney wins. The Republican Party will have won 8 out of the last 12 presidential elections. The record will be even worse for liberal Democrats during the same period; with Bill Clinton classified as a moderate, liberals will have won only 2 out of the last 12 elections--both being repudiated after a single term.

If Obama wins reelection, Democrats will be able to paint the past in equally rosy terms: They will have won the popular vote in 5 of the last 6 presidential elections. It will also have been nearly a quarter-century since a Republican presidential candidate last won by 5 points or more (1988). Meanwhile, political scientists will also begin touting the advantages of incumbency, since 4 of the last 5 presidents will have been two-termers.

The reason why observers should be skeptical in both cases is that the conclusions--"Republicans always win" or "Democrats always win"--will hinge on one data point: The winner of the 2012 election. Clearly, if one party can claim supremacy, it shouldn't be possible for the other party to claim supremacy by winning one election.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Will Tim Pawlenty Be Romney's VP?

Pawlenty
Though it may be several weeks before Mitt Romney officially announces his selection for vice president, rumors abound that Tim Pawlenty will be chosen. The increased buzz about Pawlenty has been driven by a new report from ABC News that the Romney campaign is not putting Marco Rubio through the vetting process. According to the report, Rubio has not been asked to complete questionnaires or provide basic information to the Romney campaign. If Romney's campaign were even considering Rubio, these would be the first steps they would take; since they aren't taking these steps, the conclusion being drawn is that Rubio is not in the running for VP.

The Intrade market on the VP choice has reacted swiftly to the news. Only a few days ago, we reviewed the latest Intrade odds for president and VP: Rob Portman was at 23% for VP, with Rubio at 19%, and Pawlenty at 8.2%. Now, Portman is trading at 24% (little change), but Pawlenty has skyrocketed to 19.9% and Rubio has crashed to 6.8%.

But why is it Pawlenty in particular who would benefit from a Rubio crash? During our review of the Intrade markets last week, Elephant Watcher detected some slight upward movement in the Pawlenty for VP Intrade market and offered an explanation: Pawlenty may be viewed as an even "safer" version of Portman, given that Pawlenty doesn't have ties to the George W. Bush administration.

This month, we thoroughly examined the reasoning behind the "do no harm" theory for VP, the same theory that had brought Portman to the top of the Intrade market. Pawlenty is the epitome of the "do no harm" candidate, as he has no offensive qualities and (presumably) no skeletons in the closet. During the 2012 Republican primary, he had the opportunity to become the consensus candidate, exciting no one but alienating no one, either. But Pawlenty ran a terrible campaign, and he senselessly dropped out of the race early.

The basic problem with the "do no harm" theory is that choosing a VP is a trade-off. If Candidate A helps the ticket, Candidate B hurts the ticket, and Candidate C does neither, both Candidates B and C do harm, because they represent a missed opportunity to help the ticket by choosing Candidate A. Thus, choosing Pawlenty would harm Romney's ticket even if Pawlenty doesn't offend anyone, if Romney loses the opportunity to help the ticket by choosing someone better able to attract votes.

Another way to judge the impact of a Pawlenty VP selection is to consider the reaction of Democrats. If Pawlenty were chosen, how would Democrats feel when they heard the news? Most likely, they would be delighted. Democrats do not fear Pawlenty because they know he will not energize Republicans or broaden the appeal of Romney's ticket.

Is there anything positive about a Pawlenty vice presidential nomination? To the extent that the "do no harm" path should be followed, he fills the role well. It's unlikely that anyone will have real misgivings about Pawlenty or question whether he is qualified for the job. Pawlenty's selection would not help Barack Obama attack Romney as "Bush's Third Term." Pawlenty is not a conservative firebrand, but he will not be seen as a RINO except to the most extreme elements of the right. Nor is Pawlenty too old.

Even so, the selection of Pawlenty would leave many conservatives cold. Pawlenty may not be a RINO, but he will not inspire anyone. Conservatives' lack of enthusiasm for Romney is a problem, one that the VP slot is needed to fix. Pawlenty would not fix the problem. A cautious approach is not always the safest one.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

2012 Presidential Debate Preview, Part II

In Part I of the preview for the presidential debates between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama, we took a look at the history of presidential debates. The debates tend to have a major impact on the race, and very often end up being decisive. Rarely does a candidate win the election after losing the debates. And so far, no challenger has defeated an incumbent president without first winning the debates. What else can history tell us about how the 2012 presidential debates may play out?

In Part I, we listed each of the elections in which televised presidential debates took place, and noted some patterns that emerged over the decades. Upon looking at the list of winners and losers, another pattern reveals itself, one which may have implications for 2012: Incumbent presidents tend to debate poorly.

There have been 6 different elections in which incumbent presidents participated in debates. In only one case--Bill Clinton in 1996--did an incumbent president manage to win the debates. Gerald Ford lost to Jimmy Carter (1976), Jimmy Carter lost to Ronald Reagan (1980), Ronald Reagan lost to Walter Mondale (1984), George H.W. Bush lost to Bill Clinton (1992), and George W. Bush lost to John Kerry (2004).

Is this pattern significant, or is it just a coincidence? There's good reason to take the pattern seriously: Often, the incumbents who lost the debates were not poor debaters. In fact, most of the time, the incumbent had won the presidency after defeating someone else in the debates:

Carter lost his debate with Reagan, but Carter had been skilled enough to beat Ford in their debates four years earlier. Having won the presidency in large part due to his debate performance, Reagan nonetheless went on to lose his debates with Mondale. Bush Sr. didn't necessarily lose his debates in 1988 (arguably Michael Dukakis' gaffe about the death penalty left Bush Sr. the winner by default), but he was clearly worse against Clinton in 1992. Bush Jr. would never have beaten Al Gore in 2000 without his debate victories, but he then lost to Kerry.

Clinton is the lone exception. All the other incumbent presidents saw their debate performances deteriorate significantly when they ran for reelection. This shouldn't be unexpected. Presidents are famously run ragged by the demands of the job. They have less time to prepare for the debates, since they must continue performing the job's duties (to some extent), while the challenger is running for president full-time. Presidents are likely to be overconfident, having spent nearly four years in the nation's highest office. It's also likely that most challengers, having not yet achieved their ambition of becoming president, want victory more.

There's another reason why incumbents might be at a disadvantage: Presidential primaries include a lot of debates. Particularly in the last few election cycles, debates have proliferated in the primary schedules. Romney participated in no less than eighteen major debates in the last twelve months, while running for the Republican nomination. By contrast, when the debates start in October, Obama will have gone nearly four years without having participated in a single debate. Both candidate will do debate preparation, but it's not hard to see why the challenger would be at an advantage.

Though Obama defeated John McCain their debates in 2008, we should assume Romney will have the edge, particularly in the first debate, when Obama will be most out of practice. Practice is important, particularly for candidates who are not very skilled at debate. Obama improved much over the course of the 2008 Democratic primaries, which included a soul-crushing twenty-five separate debates. In the beginning, Obama was fairly poor at the debates; he gained skill by the time it mattered. If going four years without debating returns Obama closer to his ordinary skill level, he will be in danger.

Romney, meanwhile, seems to understand the importance of preparing for debates. He was much better in the 2012 Republican primary debates than in 2008. Putting more focus on debates seems to have been one of the lessons Romney learned from 2008. Judging by Romney's recent past, his "challenger's ambition," and the historical pattern, it's likely that Romney will win the 2012 presidential debates.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

2012 Presidential Debate Preview, Part I

In October, three presidential debates will be held between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama, along with one vice presidential debate between Joe Biden and the Republican VP nominee. The three and a half months elapsing before the first debate represent an eternity in political time. The state of the race in October, and the intervening current events, are unknowable. As stated, even the identity of one of the participants in the vice presidential debate is currently unknown. But what, if anything, can one reasonably say about the presidential debates this far in advance?

First, the outcome of the debates will be important. Historically, presidential debates almost always demonstrated their potential to shift the race in a big way. In many cases, the outcomes of close or somewhat close races were determined by what occurred during the debates--in the sense that the losing candidate probably would have won the election had he won, instead of lost, the debate(s).

The modern era of presidential debates began in 1976. The first televised debates occurred in 1960, but no debates took place in 1964, 1968, or 1972. Starting with 1976, every presidential election has included debates, and it would be inconceivable for debates not to occur in every election for the foreseeable future. To demonstrate the power of the debates, consider the following list of elections, the winner of the debates (by conventional wisdom, prior to election day), and the election outcome:

1960. John F. Kennedy defeated Richard Nixon in the debates, and won the election by only 0.2 points. Given the closeness of the race's outcome, the debates were decisive.

1976. Jimmy Carter defeated incumbent Gerald Ford in the debates, and won the election by two points. Again, considering the small margin of victory, the debates were decisive.

1980. Ronald Reagan defeated incumbent Jimmy Carter in the debate, and won the election by more than 9 points. Before the debate, Carter was leading; the debate had a huge impact and was decisive.

1984. Walter Mondale defeated incumbent Ronald Reagan in the debates, but lost the election by 18 points. The debates apparently had no impact.

1988. George H.W. Bush and Michael Dukakis debated perhaps to a draw, though Dukakis made a serious gaffe. Bush won the election by more than 7 points. The debates may have extended Bush's victory.

1992. Bill Clinton defeated incumbent George H.W. Bush in the debates, though third party candidate Ross Perot also did well. Clinton won the election by 5.5 points. Perot managed to get nearly 19% of the vote despite having no chance to win. The debates had a huge impact, and likely handed Clinton victory.

1996. Bill Clinton defeated challenger Bob Dole in the debates, and won the election by 8.5 points. The debates probably had little impact beyond extending Clinton's victory.

2000. George W. Bush defeated Al Gore in the debates (particularly the "town hall" debate, in which Gore exhibited some bizarre behavior), and won the election despite losing the popular vote by half a point. Before the debates, Gore was ahead; after them, Bush was ahead. Obviously the debates were decisive.

2004. John Kerry defeated incumbent George W. Bush in the debates, but lost the election by about 3.5 points. Kerry was trailing by around 10 points prior the first debate, and narrowed the gap almost to a tie; Bush recovered in the second and third debate, which gave him some breathing room. Thus, the debates had a huge impact, but were not enough to swing the election.

2008. Barack Obama defeated John McCain in the debates, and won the election by 7 points. The debates served to extend Obama's lead.

Therefore, of the 10 elections with debates, 5 elections would have easily had different outcomes if the losing candidate had won the debates. In one other instance (2004), the debates came close to changing the outcome. We can also see that the winner of the debates lost the election in only 2 out of 10 cases--both times losing to an incumbent president.

In 2012, the debates between Romney and Obama will probably have a large impact on the result, and if the race is reasonably close, the debates will determine the outcome. It's very likely that the winner of the debates will also win the election. But who is more likely to win the debates--or can we even speculate this early? We will discuss those questions in Part II.