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

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?

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.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Intrade Odds: Romney Closing on Obama

The Intrade market on the presidential race shows a tighter contest than it did when we last looked at Mitt Romney and Barack Obama's Intrade odds. Obama currently stands at 53.9%; Romney is at 45.8%. Obama retains the edge, most likely because he retains a small lead in unadjusted registered voter polls (a closer look at the Obama vs. Romney polls suggests a slight Romney edge).

Intrade is basically declaring the race a coin flip today, with neither candidate far from the 50% mark. For the last several weeks, the trend has been in Romney's favor: Two weeks ago Obama's lead was 12.7 points, and now it's down to 8.1 points. Until late May, Intrade had the race stable with Obama enjoying a greater than 20 point lead. The race could continue to narrow on Intrade, but it's difficult to see Obama going below 50% any time soon.

The Intrade market on VP nominee has changed a bit. Rob Portman and Marco Rubio are still in first and second, far above the rest of the pack. But in the last two weeks, they have both fallen. Portman is at 23% and Rubio is at 19%; Portman's fallen by 4.5 points and Rubio by 3.

The second-tier is comprised of Tim Pawlenty at 8.2%, Chris Christie at 6.9%, Mitch Daniels at 6.7%, and Bobby Jindal at 5.8%. Can anything explain these numbers? It's likely based on rumor and speculation, because the Romney campaign has not yet released any hints on the identity of the VP pick. One possibility is that Pawlenty and Daniels are viewed as substitutes for Portman. Earlier, we wrote about the possibility of Rob Portman being chosen as Romney's vice presidential nominee. The reasoning behind a Portman pick is that he is bland, but safe. But given Portman's ties to the George W. Bush administration, he's not necessarily safe, because his presence on the ticket would aid Obama in making the "Romney is Bush's Third Term" attack.

If Romney is looking for a bland, safe pick, he might go with Pawlenty or Daniels as substitutes. He might also prefer them because they are former governors, while Portman is a senator. But this is simply Intrade reasoning; Daniels couldn't run for president because of family issues, so those issues ought to make him "unsafe." Pawlenty is the more logical choice, if one buys into the notion of choosing a a placeholder VP.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Should Romney Attack Obama's Character? Part II

In Part I, we raised the question of whether Barack Obama was fully vetted in 2008 during the Democratic primary and general election. As it happened, fortuitous circumstances enabled Obama to avoid being placed under the level of scrutiny such high-level campaigns normally entail. There are a number of avenues of attack against Obama's character that remain unexplored. But would be it be wise for Mitt Romney's campaign to take advantage of these?

The short answer is no. Obama is largely immune against personal attacks, even if they involve things most voters don't already know about Obama. Why is Obama immune? Because by the time voters go to the polls in November, he will have been president for nearly four years. Voters may not know Obama's history, but they do know about his four years in office, and they will make a judgment about Obama based on his record.

Issues of character and personality speak to the baseline qualifications for being president. In other words, when someone makes personal attacks against a presidential candidate, what they are actually saying is, "he can't be president," or "he is unqualified for the office," or "he would do terrible things as president."

These issues can only be raised when a candidate runs for president the first time, not when he is running for reelection. After all, one can't plausibly claim "he can't be president" if he has already been president for four years. The question of whether the person is qualified for the office has already been litigated.

The same goes for the kinds of personal attacks aimed at stoking fears about what kind of president the candidate would be. For example, opponents of Obama may raise questions about how radical Obama was in his early career, and whether he was dedicated to socialism. Those attacks would have made sense in 2008; they would have made voters wonder whether Obama would govern too far to the left or be more liberal than his campaign suggested. But in 2012, there is no question of how Obama would govern, because he's already done it.

And what about the other side of the coin--is Romney also immune from personal attacks? The answer is no. Romney has not yet been president, so it's an open question whether he's qualified, and what kind of president he would be. The Romney campaign and the Obama campaign will both attempt to answer those questions. Obama's campaign will make personal attacks against Romney, and it will be Romney's job to defend himself.

Is that fair? Not really. It's one of the advantages that an incumbent president has over his challenger. Perhaps it explains, in part, why incumbent presidents are reelected a bit more often than they are defeated. However, while incumbents may be immune to speculative attacks about how they might govern, they are entirely vulnerable to attacks about how they did govern. Obama's record is fully open to attack.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Should Romney Attack Obama's Character? Part I

There exists a perception among many Republicans that in 2008, despite winning the Democratic primary and the presidential election, Barack Obama somehow managed to avoid being vetted. The idea goes that Obama was treated with unusual tenderness by the media, and that John McCain ran an ineffectual campaign, so that the vetting which would ordinarily occur did not occur. Shortly before his death in early 2012, Internet media tycoon Andrew Breitbart spoke to this concept when he declared, "This election, we're going to vet him." What does this mean? Should Mitt Romney make personal attacks against Obama, or would this be ineffective, since voters have already elected Obama?

There is some truth to the idea that Obama was not given as thorough a vetting as one would normally expect of a presidential candidate. There are a number of different reasons why this occurred. First, Obama was very new to the national stage. In 2004, he won a U.S. Senate race in Illinois by default when his Republican opponent was forced to drop out of the race due to a scandal. Obama took office in January 2005 and declared his run for the presidency barely more than two years later. Normally, a serious presidential candidate is in the public spotlight for some time before he can run for president, but Obama was not.

For much of the Democratic primary, all assumed Hillary Clinton would be the party's nominee--as did Hillary herself. Obama was viewed as the obvious choice for vice president. Hillary also knew that if she won the nomination, she would be placed under enormous pressure to choose Obama for VP. Her inevitability, combined with the fact that she planned to have Obama on her ticket, meant that she had very little incentive to attack Obama during the primary. And Obama didn't do much to attack Hillary. It seemed as though he were running for VP. It wasn't until late 2007, shortly before the Iowa Caucus, that Obama caught fire in the polls. As it turned out, he made a serious run for the presidency, and he won Iowa.

In early 2008, as Hillary finally realized the danger she was in, her campaign began to float attacks against Obama. In most cases, these attacks quickly backfired. Often, a campaign will avoid this kind of blowback, because the media will vet the candidates independently. Hillary publicly complained that the media was too soft on Obama. The left-leaning media did show affection for him, but they weren't alone: Much of the right-wing media also viewed Obama as the lesser of two evils, compared to Hillary.

Finally, the Reverend Wright scandal broke, and Obama's campaign did a poor job handling it. But by then it was too late: The delegate math made it virtually impossible for Obama to lose. Continuing to dig into Obama's past would have been self-destructive for the Democratic Party--and for the left-leaning media.

There is also some truth to the idea that McCain's campaign did not fully vet Obama. Generally speaking, McCain's campaign was lackluster. Famously, it failed to vet its own VP nominee, Sarah Palin. But McCain also made the decision to declare most personal attacks against Obama off-limits. The Reverend Wright scandal had done more harm to Obama than anything else during the Democratic primary. But McCain announced that he would fire any member of his campaign who mentioned Reverend Wright or even spoke Obama's middle name (Hussein).

Since the media and McCain's campaign both declined to take a "no-holds barred" approach, attacks on Obama's history and character were left to the right-leaning media, particularly the Internet. But just as Americans began to pay attention to the race, the media oxygen was consumed by the emergence of Sarah Palin (who was vetted by the media) and the economic crisis.

Thus, Obama manged to be elected president without most voters becoming too familiar with his background. After Obama became president, the Internet became the vehicle by which rumors--true and false--circulated about him. The nature of the Internet and Obama's far-right detractors made a credible post-campaign vetting impossible. Questions about Obama's birth, school records, illegal drug use, associations with extremists and socialists, etc. lingered.

Voters may not have known much about Obama's past, but the fact remained that Obama was President of the United States. Obama's near omnipresence in the media (especially toward the beginning of his term) did not give one the impression that he was secretive--far from it. There may be plenty of unused mud to sling at Obama that would normally have been used in 2008, but is there any point in using it in 2012? We will discuss that question in Part II.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Is Romney or Obama More Likely to Win? Part II

In Part I of our post on who is more likely to win the 2012 race, we discussed the reasons why the conventional wisdom, especially in the early days of the campaign, overestimated Barack Obama's reelection chances. In today's post, we will examine how Elephant Watcher analyzed the current state of the race, and why Mitt Romney begins the race with an edge.

The Obama team should certainly be worried about the national presidential election polls, which show a tight race between Romney and Obama. Since Obama enjoys the advantage of incumbency, and since Romney only just recently emerged from a bruising primary battle, Obama should expect to be doing better in the polls.

However, for the time being, the polls won't tell us too much, other than the fact that Obama is vulnerable. Most voters are unfamiliar with Romney, and he has yet to make a (good or bad) VP choice. As with the Republican primary, the polls aren't as useful when they are taken before voters begin paying close attention to the race. We can expect voters to begin paying attention no sooner than August, which is when Romney will announce the selection of his vice presidential nominee (unless the Romney camp decides to announce much earlier than normal). In September, after both parties have held their conventions, the poll data will be even more useful. Finally, polls will become a good predictor of the final result in October, after all of the debates have been finished.

But that's a long way off: The final presidential debate will be held in mid-October, only a few weeks before the election. Instead of relying on polls, Elephant Watcher has analyzed the general election race in the same manner as the Republican primary--starting in reverse, by constructing "victory scenarios" for each candidate. The most plausible paths to victory for each candidate are found on the Candidate Rankings page. Once these have been developed, we have a comparison point; the closer reality resembles the victory scenario, the more likely the candidate is to win.

Unlike Romney, and unlike each candidate in the Republican primary, Obama has more than one plausible victory scenario. Possibly this is because of the advantage of being an incumbent president. But Obama's first scenario, in which he is reelected due to the optimism stemming from economic recovery, does not seem at all likely today. If Obama attempted to run with that message, it would probably irritate more voters than it would convince.

In the second Obama scenario, he becomes the "safe choice" due to his foreign policy successes and Romney's undue hawkishness. While this scenario is still possible and could be made more likely by trouble with Iran over the next few months, there is little concrete support for it. Romney did occasionally make hawkish overtures during the Republican primary. But for the most part, he was focused almost to a fault on his economic message. It's obvious Romney wants the election to be about the economy, not foreign policy. Unless turmoil erupts shortly before the election, Romney will be able to avoid driving into this scenario.

In the third and final Obama scenario, he successfully paints Romney as an unacceptable alternative by tying Romney to the economic policies of George W. Bush. We wrote about this "Bush's Third Term" scenario at length in an earlier post.

Obama's third scenario may be set in contrast with Romney's victory scenario. To win, Romney must sell himself as an intelligent, competent executive who will take steps to improve the economy. Romney has a lot of advantages. Though voters don't know much about him, they already perceive him as knowledgeable. Perhaps more importantly, Americans want to be optimistic about their future. They want to be persuaded Romney can make things work.

By contrast, voters can't really be convinced that Obama will improve things. The economy has remained stagnant, and it's too late for Obama to transform his image. For example, would voters be convinced that Obama can fix the economy in his second term by raising taxes on the wealthy? Not likely, especially since Obama was the one who signed the extension of the Bush tax cuts in the first place. Thus, Obama can only win by persuading voters that Romney would be worse.

Elephant Watcher calculates that Romney's odds of being elected president are currently 65%. But Romney's lead should not obscure the obvious: Obama still has about one chance in three of winning. That means he has a significant opportunity to turn things in his favor.

Obama's campaign has apparently not yet determined its proper course, which is to characterize Romney as a retread of George W. Bush. It's still early, and if the Obama campaign has difficulty with other strategies--as they did with their failed attacks on Bain Capital--they will eventually find something that works. Though Romney is superficially different from Bush in many ways, Romney has not yet done anything to truly distance himself from Bush. It will be some time before we see how skilled Romney is at casting his presidency as a new direction for the economy.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Is Romney or Obama More Likely to Win? Part I

When our coverage of the general election began for the 2012 presidential race, Elephant Watcher conducted an initial assessment of the race and calculated Mitt Romney and Barack Obama's odds of victory. Romney currently has a 65% chance of winning, while Obama has a 35% chance. Most political observers view the race as dead even. Or, like Intrade, they have Obama with a slight edge. The conventional wisdom is that the race will be very close; Democrats are no longer nearly as confident of victory as they were before. What accounts for these perceptions, and why does Elephant Watcher view Romney as more likely to win at this point?

First, let us consider how perceptions of the race have developed over time. In particular, we should consider why many political observers tended to overestimate Obama's chances in the early days of the campaign, and why they see a closer race now. When it comes to politics, the conventional wisdom is developed by political commentators who usually have some connection to Washington, D.C., the center of American government--and the center of American political journalism. (New York City is the center of American journalism in general, and plays a similar, but lesser, role here.) Politically, the population of D.C. happens to lean far to the left of the rest of America. Therefore, it's easy for political commentators in the D.C. environment to have a mistaken impression of voters' attitudes. This is frequently called the "inside the Beltway bubble" or "echo chamber." The effect is amplified by D.C.'s political journalism, which is disseminated across the country (and indeed, the rest of the world).

Generally speaking, Democrats have a tendency to err on the side of optimism when it comes to their candidates' chances of winning. In presidential elections, Democrats historically have been confident of victory in advance of the elections in which their candidates ultimately prevailed. But they also tended to be quite surprised when their candidates lost, even when polls strongly suggested that the Republican would win. On the whole, Democrats were at least somewhat surprised by every recent Republican presidential victory with the exception of 1984, when Ronald Reagan was the overwhelming favorite.

Democrats' optimism can also be seen in other prominent elections. For a recent stark example of this, consider the recall election in Wisconsin, which took place on June 5th of this year. For three solid months leading to the election, every single poll on the race showed the Republican in the lead. The RealClearPolitics average of the Wisconsin polling had the Republican winning by 6.7 points. On election day, he won by 6.8 points. Clearly, this was a case where the outcome should have been no surprise to anyone. Yet Democrats across the country were shocked and appalled by the result, and some Democratic commentators on TV broadcasts covering the election found themselves in utter disbelief that the Democrat could lose.

Republican perceptions tend to vary. One might suppose that in a vacuum (or echo chamber), Republicans would exhibit a similar optimistic bias toward their own candidates' chances. However, Republican political commentators in D.C., always the minority, are influenced by the conventional wisdom. Since the conventional wisdom is driven primarily by Democrats, Republicans can find themselves actually underestimating their own candidates. In 2004, for example, many Republicans were quite pessimistic about George W. Bush's reelection chances, even though the 2004 presidential election polls strongly suggested a narrow Bush victory. Again, Democrats were heartbroken by Democrat John Kerry's loss, and VP nominee John Edwards appeared ready to contest the result.

But early perceptions of the 2012 race were not formed merely by Democrats' perennial overconfidence. Other factors made Romney appear weaker than he actually is. During the Republican primary, the conventional wisdom held that the Republican field was unusually weak. In this case, the conventional wisdom was correct. The Republican field included a number of candidates who had very low chances of winning a general election (Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, Ron Paul) or had serious flaws (Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry, Rick Santorum). And the Republicans did not run even a single candidate who was capable of both uniting and exciting the Party.

However, the weakness of the Republican field as a whole did not mean the eventual Republican nominee would be weak. The "average" of the candidates in a primary does not matter; only the actual nominee matters. Once the Republican Party nominated Romney, the weakness of candidates like Bachmann and Cain became completely irrelevant. But the general impression political commentators had about the field stuck around for awhile--weakness by association.

This even applied to some specific policy areas. In the late stage of the primary, the three top contenders were Gingrich, Romney, and Santorum. Both Gingrich and Santorum had trouble winning over women voters: Gingrich had cheated on two wives, and Santorum spoke openly against all forms of birth control. Romney, on the other hand, had no such difficulty among women voters; in fact, women voters carried him to victory. But even as Romney was wrapping up the nomination, Democratic commentators continued to discuss a Republican "war on women" or disadvantage among women voters. They failed to realize that since Romney was the nominee, the problems other candidates had with women were irrelevant.

Finally, the conventional wisdom on the race changed due to polling. As May turned to June, the polling showed a tight race between Obama and Romney. Obama retains an edge in the polling, due to the fact that most pollsters are still using registered voters rather than likely voters. (When corrected for this issue, polls show Romney with a very slight lead. For an in-depth discussion on this subject, see our post on the difference between registered voter and likely voter polls.)

One shouldn't base one's view of the race entirely on polling, particularly at this early stage. In Part II, we will examine how Elephant Watcher has analyzed the current state of the race, and why Romney holds the advantage--for now.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Obama's Bain Capital Attacks Fizzle

The first attacks rolled out by Barack Obama's campaign this season criticized the business practices of Bain Capital, an investment firm formerly head by Mitt Romney. These attacks should be familiar to those who followed the Republican primary; Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry both painted Romney as a "vulture capitalist" who acquired companies and made a quick profit by firing the employees. Obama's attacks essentially reiterated these claims.

During the Republican primary, the idea of demonizing Bain Capital appealed to some of Romney's rivals because the attacks undermined Romney's central theme: Romney claimed to have economic expertise, and claimed to be the candidate who best knew how to create jobs. But the attacks against Bain fizzled quickly during the primary and were abandoned after only a couple weeks, never to return. The Bain attacks failed for two reasons. First, they were perceived as attacks from the left--attacks against capitalism. Even some of Romney's enemies, like Rush Limbaugh, denounced the attacks. Second, Romney was able to defend himself by pointing out that he was largely successful in saving companies while at Bain. Romney claimed that while some companies failed, overall Bain was able to generate thousands of jobs.

As before, the present attacks against Bain have fizzled--for now. But why? Unlike Romney's Republican rivals, Obama has no need to position himself to the right of Romney, so attacking from the left shouldn't be a problem. Therefore, the answer must be found in the other reason the Bain attacks failed during the primary season: Overall, Romney's business record is one of creating jobs, not destroying them.

The other big problem Obama faced is that attacks against Bain are easily interpreted as attacks against private equity firms--the practice of outside companies buying a failing business and trying to fix it to make a profit. After Obama unveiled the Bain attacks, prominent Democrats like Bill Clinton and Newark mayor Cory Booker (among others) balked, expressing a positive view of private equity firms in general. During an interview, Clinton used the word "sterling" to describe Romney's business experience. These deviations from the official line were deeply embarrassing to the Obama campaign.

Should Obama abandon attacks against Bain? Not quite. While he must avoid broadening the scope of his attacks to encompass all private equity firms, Obama can continue to smear Romney by pointing out each of Bain's failures during Romney's tenure. This, however, is a tactic rather than a strategy. In other words, the Bain attacks should be one clod of dirt among many to throw at Romney.

Elephant Watcher has determined that Obama's chances of winning the election are greatest if voters believe Romney would be a return to the economic policies of George W. Bush. Earlier, we explained this "Old" vs. "Current" vs. "New" dynamic. The Bain attacks are not sufficient to convince voters that Romney is too incompetent, unqualified, or inexperienced to fix the economy. Rather, Obama must persuade voters that Romney simply has the wrong ideas--the same ideas that Bush had.

So far, the Obama campaign has failed to focus its efforts in that direction. This may be because they think the idea of "Bush's third term" was worn out by its use against John McCain in 2008. Despite its status as something of a cliché, and despite the fact that Romney doesn't remind people of Bush, it remains the best strategy available to Obama at the moment. Elephant Watcher believes that the Obama campaign will eventually come to realize this, and will proceed accordingly. In fact, Obama may even benefit from an obvious failure of alternate attack plans, to the extent that they encourage him to pursue the proper one. Still, the burden is on Obama to carry out the attack.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

The Economy and the Presidential Race, Part II

In Part I, we discussed how the economy will affect the 2012 presidential race. If the economy had made a stronger recovery by this point, Barack Obama could credibly run a version of the 1984 "Morning in America" reelection campaign. Given the state of the economy and how little time is left for it to improve, Obama's odds of winning reelection have been harmed. But Mitt Romney cannot defeat the incumbent president merely by pointing to a stagnant economy. Obama can still win if he is able to persuade voters that Romney's handling of the economy would be even worse. Today, we will examine how that argument fits into what will become a fundamental dynamic of the race.

When voters develop the opinions on which they base their vote, they do so by forming general impressions about things. They may study specifics and details, but they usually remember only generalities; specifics primarily serve to help voters develop those general impressions. Thus, we can expect that on election day 2012, voters will not be basing their votes on data and economic theory. Instead, they will vote based on the general impressions they have about how Obama and Romney will handle the economy. The impressions they will form may be called "Old," "Current," and "New."

"Current," is the general impression that voters currently have about the economy and how Obama is handling it. Most voters are dissatisfied with the economy and have little hope that a dramatic improvement will take place in the near future. Voters also believe Obama has done little or nothing to spark a real improvement in the economy. Partly that's because of the choices Obama made during his first term. While the Democrats had control of Congress, they spent much of their time on Obamacare and some legislation that never passed (e.g. cap and trade). From 2010 onward, Republicans have been able to block unpopular Democratic policies, and Democrats have been able to block Republican policies.

Therefore, Obama is stuck with the "Current" impression, one which voters don't particularly like. That's why his reelection bid is in peril. By contrast, voters' impression about the way Romney will handle the economy is not yet set in stone. There are two possibilities for Romney: "Old" and "New."

"Old" is the general impression the voters have about the way the economy functioned prior to Obama's presidency, under George W. Bush. Although voters were somewhat satisfied with the economy during some of Bush's presidency (enough to get him reelected), that impression was altered by the catastrophic events of late 2008 and early 2009. Voters are uncertain of the cause of the economic meltdown, but they know Bush was in charge for nearly eight years before it occurred.

Needless to say, voters do not approve of the "Old" impression because they do not want to relive the economic panic that occurred. Arguably, they view the "Old" as worse than the "Current." At the very least, "Old" is not superior enough to "Current" to overcome the inertia of incumbency.

But is Romney stuck with the "Old" impression? No, not necessarily. Romney can focus his campaign on leading the country's economy in a different direction than those of Obama and Bush. Romney will prevail if he can give voters a "New" impression. Obama will oppose him by telling voters that Romney would simply rehash the Bush policies. According to Obama, Romney represents the "Old" that was rejected in 2008. This will become a main battle--if not the main battle--of the campaign.

The outcome of the 2012 election is uncertain because neither side has engaged in this battle yet. Obama's advantage is that he can put pressure on Romney to disavow Bush's policies, encouraging a split in the Republican Party that remains loyal to Bush. To the extent that Romney actually does intend to rehash Bush's policies, that is also advantageous to Obama.

Romney has some advantages of his own. First, the burden is on Obama to establish that Romney is a retread of Bush. Otherwise, voters may assume Romney is something "New" out of sheer optimism. Superficially, Romney is not similar to Bush. Voters associate Bush with Texas and the South. They saw Bush as genial and comfortable in his own skin, but unintelligent and unable to communicate. Romney is associated with the Northeast. He is viewed as intelligent and well-educated, but also as someone from a wealthier class who has difficulty relating to the average person. All of these superficial differences increase the difficulty of painting a Romney presidency as Bush's third term.

Romney's final advantage is his strongest one: He has control of his own message. He is free to choose the policies he wants to pursue, whether they are echoes of Bush or solutions he develops on his own. Based on what Romney decides to do and say, he can put as much or as little distance between himself and Bush as he wants.

Friday, June 8, 2012

The Economy and the Presidential Race, Part I

Even before the Republican presidential primary campaign began in early 2011, conventional wisdom held that the 2012 presidential race would be about the economy. Mitt Romney focused his primary campaign almost entirely on his economic credentials, hoping it would position him best for the general election. So far, the conventional wisdom appears to be right: Despite the occasional diversion into social issues or foreign policy, the subject has repeatedly turned back to the economy. Voters consistently rate the economy and jobs as their top priorities.

Historically, the incumbent president gets most of the credit and most of the blame for the country's economic state. Barack Obama and his team have long been aware of this, just as they have been aware of the likelihood that the economy would be the 2012 campaign's central issue. For most of Obama's presidency, the conventional wisdom among Democrats has been that the economy was bound to improve by the time the 2012 election rolled around. This belief wasn't necessarily based on confidence in Obama's policies. Instead, it was based in large part on the simple fact that recessions in the American economy tend to be temporary--they rarely last more than a few years.

Originally, the Obama team hoped to run their own version of Ronald Reagan's successful 1984 reelection campaign, which was known by the slogan "Morning in America." Reagan had inherited a bad economy, and it remained bad for much of his first term, but things greatly improved by the time the 1984 campaign began. Republicans generally believe that Reagan's policies (e.g. tax cuts) led to the economic improvement that resulted in Reagan's reelection. The Obama team believes Reagan's policies did not improve the economy; they think the recession ended on its own after a few years, just as they expected the recession to end for Obama.

If America's economy had greatly improved by now, Obama would be well-positioned for reelection. However, the economy did not improve as Obama's team expected. The economy is no longer in the crisis that it faced in 2008-09, but it has remained stagnant. Unemployment continues to be a serious problem. Realizing this, most Democrats no longer believe Obama could successfully run a "Morning in America" reelection campaign. If they acted as cheerleaders for the economy, it could backfire, since dissatisfied voters would perceive this as insensitivity to those who are struggling. At worst, attempting to take credit for an economic recovery under current conditions could inspire laughter and derision.

Ironically, Romney is the candidate who is normally more susceptible to the criticism of being "out of touch," given his wealth and some earlier gaffes. (For more information on candidates' strengths and weaknesses, see the Candidate Profiles page.) In a traditional campaign, one would expect the Democrat to "feel the pain" of the working class and highlight the struggles of common Americans; traditionally, the Republican trumpets the virtues of the capitalist economy.

Here, the roles are reversed: Romney highlights the struggles of common Americans in order to implicitly (or explicitly) criticize Obama's handling of the economy. Obama, meanwhile, is in the position of, if not denying the poor state of the economy, at least claiming things aren't as bad as they could be. This reversal of roles blunts one of Romney's weak points, blocking off one of Obama's lines of attack: It's difficult to cast Romney as out of touch when he's the one busy feeling the pain of the average worker.

The more important impact of the country's economic state is the improbability of the "Morning in America" victory scenario for Obama. (For a description of the victory scenarios for Obama and Romney, see the Candidate Rankings page.) Though it would have been an attractive victory scenario, it is not the only one available to Obama. There is also the possibility of convincing the electorate that Romney would return America to the state of economic crisis that occurred at the end of George W. Bush's presidency. We will examine the possibility of that scenario in Part II.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Reviewing Early General Election Polls

As part of Elephant Watcher's shift from the Republican primary to the general election, we have added a page devoted to national match-up polls between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. The Polls page will be updated frequently, adding national polls as they are released, and averaging the most recent of them. Though polling data during the Republican primary was occasionally sparse, there will always be plenty of polls released on the 2012 presidential election. The trick is in reviewing all of this data in the most intelligent manner possible. In today's post, we will explain how Elephant Watcher will present the polling data during this election season, as well as the reasons behind it.

The Polls page will only include national polls. This is in contrast to many political analysts, who spend their time on examining the polls from swing states. Since the 2000 election, an increasing amount of attention has been paid to state polls, rather than national--because the winner of a presidential election is determined by the electoral college. Earlier, we offered an in-depth explanation of why it's much better to follow national polls rather than state polls. To summarize, state poll analysts are forced to rely on less accurate polling, fewer polls, out-of-date polls, less-reputable pollsters, and must cobble together electoral map projections from multiple, interdependent state outcomes. National polls bypass each of these problems. Unless the election is decided by less than 1% nationally, the winner of the popular vote is virtually guaranteed to win the electoral college anyway.

Having decided to track national rather than state polls, there are still a few things to consider. Some polls are listed as polls of "likely voters," while others are "registered voters" or "adults." Polls of likely voters involve what are called "likely voter screens," which adjust the polls based on which participants are most likely to vote in November. To do this, pollsters ask participants whether they intend to vote, but also ask other questions to determine whether they are likely to turn out (e.g. past voting history, voter enthusiasm, etc.). Polls of registered voters do not.

The difference matters. In presidential elections, Republican voters consistently turn out to vote at a higher rate than their Democratic counterparts. This means that registered voter polls will consistently overestimate the strength of the Democratic candidate. This is not an expected or potential bias--it is a known bias. By the time the election is imminent, nearly all pollsters will switch to polling likely voters rather than registered voters in order to eliminate the bias and increase accuracy.

Early on in the election season, however, many pollsters will not yet employ the likely voter screens. Why not? Because the closer you get to the election, the easier it is to determine whether someone is likely to vote. Often, pollsters will begin the season by polling registered voters, and at some point down the line, they make the switch. Other pollsters will use a likely voter model from the beginning.

If we were to review all of the polling data at face value, likely voter polls would be mixed in with registered voter polls. There would be a consistent gap between the accurate likely voter polls and the inaccurate registered voter polls, which overestimate the Democrat's chances. Later, as the pollsters switch to polling likely voters, the Republican candidate would suddenly increase in the polls, showing momentum where perhaps there is none. Obviously, this is not an ideal situation.

To correct for these problems, Elephant Watcher will adjust the registered voter polls, marked by an asterisk (*), by three points in favor of the Republican candidate. To avoid confusion, the results will be listed the same; only the R+ or D+ number in front of the poll will be changed. (For example, a registered voter poll listed "Obama 45, Romney 46" will be counted as R+4 instead of R+1.) Polls of likely voters will be unaffected. The adjustment is three points, based on the average difference between registered and likely voter polls--diminished somewhat because it assumes a slight Republican bias on the part of Rasmussen polls.

Note that this won't necessarily produce good polling results for Mitt Romney: If Barack Obama is doing well in the polls, he will be ahead of Romney in both likely voter and registered voter polls. Note also that this is a temporary measure, since nearly all pollsters will be switching to likely voter polls in the coming months.

Since it's always better to use multiple polls rather than looking at one poll, the Polls page will include a poll average. This will be a simple average of the ten most recent polls. One final adjustment is that "daily tracking polls," which release polls every day (e.g. Gallup and Rasmussen) will only be added only once every three days. This is done for two reasons. First, the poll average would otherwise be overwhelmed by the large number of polls being released by Gallup and Rasmussen. Second, daily tracking polls include overlapping data. For example, a tracking poll might include polling data from Monday through Wednesday; the next day, from Tuesday through Thursday--reusing the same Tuesday and Wednesday data. Entering daily tracking polls only once every three days solves both problems.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Marco Rubio's Effect on the Hispanic Vote?

In Part III of our series on Mitt Romney's potential choices for vice president, we examined some of Marco Rubio's strengths and weaknesses. The most conspicuous advantage Rubio would bring to the ticket is his appeal to Hispanic voters. But whether and to what degree Rubio would bring in Hispanic voters is open to debate. The Democratic Party's coalition relies on securing a very high percentage of the Hispanic vote. Many Democratic political analysts place their hopes for a future Democratic majority on demographic changes (i.e. a rise in the Hispanic percentage of America's population). The rise of Hispanic Republicans like Rubio would undermine all of that--if they are, in fact, better equipped than white Republicans to attract Hispanic voters. How would Rubio's inclusion on the Republican ticket alter the equation?

It's not hard to understand why many believe Rubio would offer Romney a boost in the Hispanic vote. In the country's entire history, no major party ticket has ever included an Hispanic candidate as the presidential or vice presidential nominee. When Barack Obama defeated John McCain in 2008, McCain got only about 33% of the Hispanic vote; George W. Bush had won about 44% in 2004. Thus, there's plenty of room for improvement--a Romney/Rubio ticket would only need to get back to 44% in order to give Obama a major headache. And Romney himself is not particularly repulsive to Hispanic voters: Romney won the Hispanic vote overwhelmingly during the 2012 Republican primary.

However, there are many skeptics. Among Democratic analysts, the conventional wisdom is that Rubio would have a negligible effect on the Hispanic vote. Their argument is essentially as follows: While Rubio is Hispanic, he is Cuban-American rather than Mexican-American. Mexican-Americans comprise roughly two-thirds of America's Hispanic population, while Cuban-Americans account for about 4%. Rubio would influence the Cuban-American vote, but they already lean Republican. According to Democratic analysts, Mexican-Americans (and presumably other Hispanics) have a negative attitude toward Cuban-Americans and do not consider that group "one of them." They argue further that Hispanics are not monolithic and would not vote based on ethnicity anyway.

The skeptics' analysis, while a source of comfort to many Democrats, contains a number of major flaws. First, there is a basic misunderstanding of what Rubio would need to do in order to help Romney win the election. Rubio would not need to replicate Obama's 2008 feat of capturing more than 90% of his ethnic group's vote. As mentioned, Bush got 44% of the Hispanic vote, which is roughly the point at which Obama's coalition would begin to collapse. Rubio would simply need to peel off a small chunk of Obama's Hispanic vote share--including many who voted Republican in prior elections.

Next is the question of whether non-Cuban Hispanics would be influenced by Rubio's presence on the ticket. An analogy might be drawn to what occurred during the Democratic primary in 2008. Initially, polls showed black voters supporting Hillary Clinton over Obama by a wide margin. Analysts--especially those supporting Clinton--offered many reasons why black voters would prefer Clinton to Obama. They claimed that while Obama was black, he was not considered "black enough." Obama was biracial; he was raised by his white grandparents; he grew up in Hawaii and Indonesia rather than a big city; he had a privileged background; his father was an African immigrant rather than an African-American; he was not descended from slaves, etc. At that time, analysts also remarked upon the fact that the black vote is not monolithic, and that black voters would not vote based solely on ethnicity.

Polls continued to show Obama trailing Hillary Clinton; the Clinton family was always well-received by black voters. But after Obama won Iowa, it became clear that Obama had a real chance to become the first black president. At that point, everything changed. The black vote unified behind Obama, who frequently defeated Clinton among that ethnic group by margins of 10-to-1. The Clintons even found themselves repeatedly accused of racism when they criticized Obama. Evidently, there was no longer a perception that Obama was not "black enough" to attract black voters. Obama may not have been born to African-American parents, but he was the "most" black candidate who had ever made a serious run for the presidency.

Similarly, Rubio would be the "most Hispanic" candidate to appear on a presidential ticket. He would not need to cause a mass defection of Hispanic Democrats the way Obama caused nearly all of the black Clinton supporters to switch sides; Rubio would merely need to regain the Republicans and some Independents who voted for Obama.

While voters may not vote solely on ethnicity, it's difficult to argue that the first Hispanic VP wouldn't draw the attention of Hispanic voters and cause them to consider the Republican ticket on a more serious level. In addition, for those who avoid voting Republican for fear of anti-Hispanic bias in that party, the mere presence of an Hispanic on the ticket would have a real impact.

If Rubio were on the ticket, we might expect a parallel to Obama's experience in the Democratic primary to play out as follows: Rubio is announced as the VP nominee. Threatened, Democrats attack the choice as "cynical." Early polls show little movement toward Romney among Hispanics; Democrats declare that Rubio has failed to have an impact. Democrats then hone in, attacking Rubio's lack of experience. Over time, as the possibility of an Hispanic vice president becomes more real, and as Rubio makes his case, things begin to turn. Hispanic voters slowly shift toward the Republican ticket. Failing to notice this, the Democratic attack machine overreaches--they are unable to resist comparing Rubio to Sarah Palin. This backfires.

Rubio is viewed as intelligent and passionate about the American dream. By claiming Rubio is unintelligent, Hispanic voters feel the Democrats have treated Rubio unfairly. They don't agree with Rubio on everything, but the Palin comparisons are insulting and suspicious. Dangerously, signs of anti-Hispanic prejudice leak among some less-disciplined Democratic surrogates. As the VP debate approaches, expectations for Joe Biden are inexplicably pumped up by optimistic Democrats who temporarily forget his history of gaffes. Rubio crushes Biden in the debate. Biden responds with increasing condescension toward Rubio, and it doesn't have the desired effect. Only after election day do Democrats realize how large a share of the Hispanic vote the Romney/Rubio ticket has managed to get.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Romney's Pick for Vice President? Part III

In Part II, we discussed the possibility of Rob Portman being chosen as Mitt Romney's VP. The conventional wisdom is that Portman would be a "less risky" option, and that Romney hopes to avoid a repeat of the Sarah Palin debacle. But as we explained, none of Romney's choices carry similar risks to Palin--because they will all be fully vetted and have all participated in numerous televised interviews. But what are the potential upsides and downsides to potential VPs like Marco Rubio and Chris Christie, and what other options are available?

According to the Intrade odds on vice presidential nominees, the next most likely option after Portman is U.S. Senator Marco Rubio from Florida. Rubio served in Florida government for a little over a decade, rising to the office of Speaker of the Florida House of Representatives. In 2010, he ran for the U.S. Senate against the Republican governor, Charlie Crist. Rubio was viewed as the Tea Party challenger in the race, and he won overwhelmingly.

There are a number of reasons why Rubio is presumed to be high on Romney's list of potential VPs. First, Rubio would be the first Hispanic ever to be on a major party presidential ticket. The question of what effect this would have on the Hispanic vote in the general election is very controversial (and very important), and will be addressed in a future post. For now it's enough to say that Rubio would help Romney's ticket appeal to the Hispanic vote, a demographic where Romney is currently weak.

Rubio is from Florida, the nation's largest swing state. Unlike Romney, Rubio represents the conservative or Tea Party wing of the Republican Party. At age 41, Rubio belongs to a younger generation of Republicans, while Romney would return the presidency to the first wave of Baby Boomers. And while Romney was raised in a wealthy background, Rubio has working class roots.

In all of these important ways, Rubio would balance the ticket. The downside to Rubio is that he has only been a U.S. Senator for about a year and a half. According to conventional wisdom, Rubio's inexperience will undermine Romney's central theme, which is that Barack Obama had too little understanding of the economy before rising to the presidency. To be sure, this is Rubio's biggest weakness; if Rubio had been elected to his current office a few years ago, he would be guaranteed the VP position.

On the other hand, Rubio was in an important office in Florida prior to his being a U.S. Senator. And Rubio's intelligence, along with his strength in interviews and debates, will greatly--or entirely--offset his lack of experience, even if it doesn't stop Obama's attacks. Indeed, if the Obama campaign overreaches by comparing Rubio to Palin, it may backfire terribly, offending many Hispanic voters. In addition, Rubio's youth helps reinforce the idea that Romney will take the country in a new direction, rather than being a return to the days of George W. Bush.

What about Chris Christie? Christie served as Attorney General for the District of New Jersey during the 2000s, until he was elected New Jersey Governor in 2009. Christie considered running for president in 2012, but he had been governor just a bit too briefly. Though somewhat new to the national scene, Christie would not be vulnerable to claims that he lacks experience; he is several years older than Rubio and has accomplished much during his two and a half years as governor.

On the surface, Christie does not appear well-positioned to balance Romney's ticket. They are both from the Northeast; there is little hope of bringing many Northeastern states into the Republican fold. Though considered more conservative than Romney, Christie does not represent the Tea Party wing of the party in the same way that Rubio or a traditional conservative would. The fact that Christie is from the Northeast tends to amplify conservatives' concerns. And, of course, Christie is another white male.

Upon closer examination, there is a case to be made that Christie would balance the ticket. While Romney exudes wealth and privilege, Christie appeals to the common man. In New Jersey, Christie has been unusually effective in winning over working class voters--essentially the "Reagan Democrats" that Romney had trouble with during the Republican primary. Christie has unique rhetorical gifts. Unlike Romney, he is charismatic and adept at talking tough while sounding reasonable enough to persuade. Christie's aggressiveness on particular issues (taxes, spending, teachers' unions) has gone a long way toward persuading conservatives that he is one of them. Like Rubio, Christie represents a new direction and a genuine effort toward limiting the size of government.

There are a number of other potential VPs Romney could pick. If Romney is inclined to pick someone who is not a white man, it's likely that his options are "preempted" by Rubio. For example, the 2010 midterm saw the election of several women and minorities, but they would be vulnerable to the same criticism about inexperience, while lacking Rubio's strengths. Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal has a bit more experience, but is also young. An Indian-American, Jindal wouldn't appeal to an extra ethnic group with many votes; he is not nearly as effective a communicator as Rubio. (Jindal also endorsed Rick Perry for president.)

Finally, Romney could go with "none of the above," picking someone at the top of nobody's list. But Portman, Rubio, and Christie each make sense from different perspectives. In Elephant Watcher's view, either Rubio or Christie would help boost the Republican ticket in 2012, while Portman would do it some harm.