Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Numbers and Notes – Some Inconvenient Truths

Cue the music, run the retrospective of his campaign, Tom Vilsack has left the building. He seemed like a nice fellow, quite pleasant on The Daily Show, but as a former Governor of Iowa, the money just wasn’t there for him. He won’t be the last candidate to leave for that reason, the big dogs in this hunt are taking up all the air.


Speaking of the big dogs, Rasmussen has Hillary’s lead back into double digits this week, which could just be a blip, or could be a sign that the initial excitement over Obama’s announcement has lost its steam. The most interesting part of this is that at 37% and 26%, this is the high point in this poll for both Clinton and Obama. Rasmussen dropped Al Gore from the polling and that may have had some effect. Edwards is holding steady at 13% and he seems optimistic about raising money, which will be key. No one else is over 4% and I can’t take them seriously until they are.


Over on the GOP side, Rudy is steady as a rock, with a 16 point lead over McCain. The bigger numbers are still the head-to-head general election matchups, where he seems to be running much stronger against Clinton than McCain. That is his strongest weapon, as fear of President Hillary could be enough for the GOP faithful to cast aside their social agenda and get in line behind their best candidate. McCain is at 17% in the Rasmussen numbers, his lowest yet. In some sate polls, Rudy leads Hillary 53-37(!) in PA, while McCain has only a four point lead there.


The Zogby Poll had some odd results, with Obama winning against any Republican and Hillary losing to both Giuliani and McCain. The swing is pretty huge, with Obama beating Rudy by 6, while Rudy beats Hillary by 7. Obama beats McCain by 4, while McCain beats Clinton by 8. I am dubious about all of these numbers.


The big campaign news of last week was the David Geffen interview, causing great excitement among the chattering classes, who proceeded to overrate its importance and completely misread the effect, however tiny that might be, on the race. This will be completely forgotten by the time anyone votes, but raising the issue of integrity and philandering when it comes to the Clintons is not going to make for fun for the Hillary camp. They immediately responded by demanding that Obama give back all the money Geffen raised (yeah, right), and Hillary lamented the “politics of personal destruction”. Every time I hear that phrase I want to vomit. The Republicans won’t have any trouble destroying you, so you better get used to it. And remember, you wouldn’t even be here if Bill wasn’t your husband, so he, and his administration, which are your big selling point, are fair game. Obama refused to be lured into this nonsense, saying “why am I being asked to apologize for someone else’s statements?” – two points for Barack, the thought is still out there and he is above the fray.


Big week for Al Gore, even if Rasmussen dropped him from their poll. The Oscars were a wonderful showcase for him and he was charming and was referred to in the most glowing terms possible – “inspiration”, “leadership”, “dedicated” – Hillary would pay to hear those words used in reference to her (and probably will). This prompted the punditocracy to leap into “what if” mode, positing that he is the 800-lb. gorilla of the party (no, not a fat joke) and he is the only one who could enter this late and still win. He has the ability to raise money fast, has the heft (no, not a fat joke), and could avoid the backbiting and general unpleasantness and show up in the Fall. They all agreed it was well within the realm of possibility, but most seem to feel it would be to stop Hillary, which contradicts what Gore’s people said, that he would come in if her campaign faltered. All of this is nonsense. The day when someone could enter late and win the nomination ended a long time ago. People are lining up, and once they commit, it will be hard to show up later and take them away. Psychologically, it is not the kind of thing people do. They are also ignoring the strange polling data on Gore. According to Rasmussen, he has the same unfavorable numbers as Hillary, 47%. That isn’t just Republicans, so the public is not waiting with bated breath for Al’s political reappearance.
Add to that the difficulty in the nature of the field. If Edwards is out of gas by the time he shows up, then it really looks like he is picking up the white guy banner, which won’t go down well in the Democratic party. Whether it is true or not is irrelevant, it just would make people uncomfortable.
Speaking of uncomfortable, I don’t think Al wants to run. He goes around the world talking about the single most important thing you can talk about and I don’t think he wants to trade that in for months of talking about farm subsidies, Yucca Mountain, and whatever the hell matters most in New Hampshire. It is the greatest flaw in our system that we make people beg and pander for the nomination and I doubt that Al wants to deal with that at this point in his life.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Strange Bedfellows

You hear that the Supreme Court reached a 5-4 decision in the case of Philip Morris USA v. Williams you figure you can name the five, right? What if I told you that this decision, written by Justice Breyer was openly mocked by Justice Stevens? What if I told you that Justice Thomas actually wrote the phrase "I join Justice Ginsburg's dissent in full" -- a dissent which was joined by Justice Scalia? I know, you have to go work on your bomb shelter because the Apocalypse is clearly at hand.
The ruling was that in the trial in Oregon where Philip Morris was forced to pay $79.5 million in punitive damages for selling death sticks, the jury could take into account "reprehensible conduct" covering every smoker who died in Oregon in deciding the guilt, but could not in assessing punitive damages. Justice Stevens pointed out, accurately, I believe, that punitive damages are intended to punish for those reprehensible activities and restricting them just to the individual in the case makes little sense. Justice Stevens cited 5 previous decisions which this case effectively overturned, then, referring to Breyer's differention between when the jury can react to "reprehensible behavior" as a "nuance which eludes me." For those not used to reading Supreme Court dissents (at least those not written by Scalia), that language is downright nasty, worthy of two snaps and an "oh no you didn't" from the observers. Just to add to the overall tone of contempt for the majority, Stevens declared the decision an assault on judicial restraint, no less. Take that, Roberts and Alito.
What causes such odd groupings? Well, it can just be a random arrangement of judges seeing different things. On the other hand, there is something that might bind the majority -- Breyer, while liberal on most individual rights issues, is very pro-business. Roberts and Alito certainly could let their pro-business attitudes overcome their "non-activist" attitudes and their legendary (at least in Roberts' case) respect for precedent. As for Scalia and Thomas, say what you want, they have a clear philosophical attitude regarding what is and isn't in the Constitution. In this case Thomas, quoting himself, says "the Constitution does not constrain the size of punitive damage awards."
So, to summarize, once again activist judges (Roberts and Alito) have ignored the law and all precedent while outvoting those who believe in judicial restraint (Stevens and Ginsberg). Somehow, I don't expect Bush and the religious conservatives (who pray for non-activist judges) to attack this decision.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Someone Has to Win, Right?

There is a style of betting on sports which is based not so much on direct evaluation of the relative strengths of the participants, but on the history surrounding the game. In pro football, those in the know will avoid a warm weather or dome team when they head north in December. In the NBA playoffs, the team that wins one game is unlikely to cover the spread in the next. People who bet this way are called technical bettors and those edges are located in every sport. Let’s look at the Presidential races through the technical betting lens and see who is more likely to win based on history.

Democrats to bet against:

Hillary Clinton: No woman has ever been nominated for President by a major party.
Barack Obama: You know why.
John Edwards: No candidate who lost for Vice President the previous election has ever been elected President. Only one person who ever lost for VP was later elected President, and that was FDR, who lost in 1920 and was elected in 1932, 12 years and one Governorship later.
Bill Richardson: No person of color has ever been elected.
Joe Biden: No Democrat over the age of 60 has ever been elected President (not counting the two, Johnson and Truman, who were already President when they ran.)
Chris Dodd: Same as Biden.
Tom Vilsack: No one from Iowa has ever been nominated for President.

Republicans to bet against:

Rudy Giuliani: No one has ever gone directly from being a mayor to being President. Only two Presidents, Cleveland and Coolidge, were ever elected mayor, and they held other offices between that and the Presidency.
John McCain: No one over 70 has ever been elected President. No Republican Senator has been elected President since Harding in 1920.
Mitt Romney: No Mormon has ever been elected and neither has anyone named after a piece of baseball equipment..
Newt Gingrich: Only one Speaker of the House has ever been elected President – James K. Polk. Only two others, James G. Blaine and Henry Clay, got their party’s nomination.

Well, not a lot to look at when trying to find a technical bet. But there are a couple:

Democrats: Al Gore – The last sitting VP to lose the Presidency and then run again was Richard Nixon, who ran and won 8 years later. Like Gore, Nixon lost a tight election, and many historians believe that, like Gore, he won the popular vote.

Republicans: Mike Huckabee - Republicans like to nominate Governors and Arkansas Governors are undefeated in presidential elections – it’s only one, but things are desperate on the GOP side.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Numbers and Notes – Good News For the Frontrunners

This week’s polling data brings good news for the Presidential frontrunners, Clinton and Giuliani.
Based on the Gallup Poll from last weekend, Hillary Clinton’s lead over Barack Obama has grown for 11 in January (29-18) to 19 now (40-21). Since November, Clinton’s margin over Obama was consistently in the 12 point range, this is a significant jump up. Now it’s only one poll and we shouldn’t overreact and the extensive coverage of Obama’s entrance into the race might not have had the major effect that is expected, but it can’t be considered anything but good news for the Clinton camp. The other candidates are going nowhere, with Al Gore the only one gaining more than a point. In a head-to-head matchup among Democrats and those who lean to the Democrats, Clinton beat Obama 62-33, more than double the margin in January (53-39). Again, it’s only one poll and we have to wait until next month to see whether it’s indicative of a shift, but it could indicate a more general acceptance of Hillary as the likely nominee.


Speaking of acceptance, the electability issue has been a key reason why many Democrats have been leery of Hillary. The same Gallup poll shows that 44% of Dems and leaners think Clinton is the most electable and 27% think Edwards is, with only 21% picking Obama.
This brings up the interesting possibility that Hillary is helped by having Obama in the race (and potentially, Obama by having Hillary there) – she ceases to be the “unusual” candidate with Obama there, enabling her (and voters) to be able to focus less on her historic nature and more on her qualifications. I still believe that having Nancy Pelosi as Speaker helps in the general acceptance of a woman in a position of power.

Yes, there’s a long way to go, but even 11 months out, the other Democrats, (or, “the white guys”), are going to have start getting some traction soon. Edwards has declared that he will raise enough money and has decided to pass on matching funds, but people don’t like giving money to losers and politicians don’t like supporting them either. WE may be 11 months from the start of the elections, but we’re less than 12 from the effective end of them and there just won’t be time to build momentum before the major primary states. As I’ve pointed out before, you may be able to raise money quickly via the internet, but you won’t have the time to spend it effectively.

Over on the Republican side, while John McCain has held steady at around 25% of the votes for months, Giuliani has jumped from around 30 up to 40. Rudy led 31-27 in January, that lead is now 40-24. Head-to-head, Giulaini’s lead over McCain has grown from 8 in January (50-42) to 18 now (57-39). The other Republicans haven’t moved at all.
Rasmussen, which polls weekly, has Rudy up by 14, up from 8 just a week ago, so this may be a real trend here.

Mitt Romney will be running some early TV commercials, apparently to let Americans know who he is. For a man whose religious beliefs will be an issue, announcing his candidacy at a museum honoring one of America’s greatest anti-semites, Henry Ford, was not such a good start.

Of course, we look at Rudy’s numbers with suspicion, since we can’t believe the religious right will vote for a pro-choice, pro-gay rights, thrice-married candidate. When will the negative ads begin? Who will pay for them? It starts to become a game of chicken within the GOP primary field and is a very interesting one to watch.

Two fascinating numbers from Public Policy Polling of 448 likely voters in North Carolina. First, 43% want the next President to be a Democrat, 41% want it to be a Republican. This has been a solid red state of late and this indicates a potential shift. Specific candidates will surely change this, but if NC is in play, surely VA will be.
The other interesting result is a health care question: 51% prefer "a universal health insurance program, where everyone is covered under a program like Medicare that is run by the government and financed by taxpayers”, 37% prefer the current system. If only the Democrats had the balls to actually get behind the Kennedy proposal and make this a real core issue. One can only dream...

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Cue The Themes

Last week at the DNC meetings, the potential Democratic nominees tried out their themes for the assembled. The top three could best be described as:
Back To The Future
Time For a Change
Gimme That Old Time Religion

Hillary Clinton – “Back To The Future” is clearly Hillary’s theme. Remember the 90’s when we had the White House and I was there? Good times. I was part of the team that won it, I know how to beat the Republicans, I have a team ready to take them on, so I’m the obvious choice here. Make no mistake, a Clintonian restoration has a strong pull for many Democrats and that is what she is counting on. It’s clear that her “theme” is more about answering the electability question, rather than the “why me?” question. Almost everything she says and does is calculated not just for the primaries but for the general election and her absurd Iraq policy is just the latest attempt to dance around whatever issue she finds out there. She may get the nomination, but there will be an astonishingly large number of Democrats unhappy if it happens.

Barack Obama – “Time For a Change” is his basic theme and no one could represent that more than him. Of course, the elements of this change, less partisanship, charting a course between the parties, bringing people together, and just getting things done without political dogmatism isn’t new at all. In fact, his campaign could be Back To The Future II, since it’s taken directly from Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign – remember the Third Way and the end to the “brain-dead politics of Washington”? His Iraq policy seems to have evolved into the Iraq Study Group’s position of withdrawal plus talk with the neighbors.

John Edwards – “Gimme That Old Time Religion” – if Hillary and Obama harkened back to the ‘90’s, Edwards went back further, to FDR, Truman, and JFK. Or at least Howard Dean’s “Democratic wing of the Democratic Party”. His terrific speech talked about the workers of America, their struggles, the power for good of unions, the need to help the poor and struggling middle-class – and was greeted by repeated standing ovations. His Iraq policy – get the hell out – certainly spoke to the hearts of the faithful in no uncertain terms. If he can galvanize union support (and workers) and raise enough money, he could surprise a lot of people focusing on the top two. Speaking of themes, the use of John Mellencamp’s “Our Country” as his campaign song is the stupidest idea I have ever seen (short of Hillary’s Iraq policy) – don’t pick music people associate with a car commercial and millions hate.

A word about Chris Dodd: he has pretty much been dismissed as a candidate, but he raised more money in the fourth quarter than anyone else and has positions which could be very attractive to many party activists – wants to amend the pernicious Defense of the Family Act to allow for and recognize civil unions, wants to repeal the pro-torture policy, seems to have aligned himself with Russ Feingold on Iraq – and could make more noise than anyone expects. Here’s a quote from his speech:

“Bipartisanship to me does not mean getting Democrats to agree with Republican principles; it means getting Republicans to agree with Democratic principles. That's what bipartisanship is.”

Amen, brother.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Why U.S. Politics Suck

When people talk about “programmed” candidacies and carefully parsed statements designed to offend no one, they forget the reasons for such things. It isn’t cowardice so much as fear of a media machine so desperate for controversy that they will leap at any opening they get. There are two examples from the last week that illustrate this, and illustrate why we get the campaigns and candidates we do.
Let’s start with the Joe Biden - Barack Obama nonsense. In an interview with the New York Observer, Joe Biden made the following (clearly off-the-cuff) remark:
“I mean, you got the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy,” he said. “I mean, that’s a storybook, man.”
Here’s the problem: the quote is not accurate. I heard the actual statement, which a)includes the word “sorta” before mainstream, which reinforces the off-hand nature of the remark and b) there is a pause after “African-American”. Now you say, what’s the big deal about the omission of a pause? By not accounting for it in the written version, it indeed does look like he is saying that previous black candidates were not articulate – as ridiculous a statement as is humanly possible. That is why Obama was able to react the way he did. If you account for the pause, either by (pause) or by inserting a simple comma, it is much clearer that the rest of the description applies to Obama and is not meant to be derogatory to others. By not doing it, you make a compliment to Obama seem like a slam at every other black candidate. Anyone who honestly thinks that Joe Biden thinks that Jesse Jackson, Carol Moseley Braun, and Al Sharpton were not articulate is a fool. What interests me is why Obama would choose that specific word to respond to and why Biden would immediately get down on his knees rather than respond by attacking the writer of the piece and the judgment of anyone who would think he actually said that. Biden may be more careful in the future about talking to reporters, which would be a shame. This is why candidates are very careful in every word they say and it weakens our real view of these people.
Which brings us to Hillary’s joke. I am not the world’s biggest Hillary Clinton fan, but the reaction to her “I know about dealing with bad men” joke is frighteningly unfair. She made a joke, a good, smart joke, delivered with perfect timing. As a former comedy writer, I appreciate that skill, as did the audience, since she got a big laugh with it. Did the press react by praising her sense-of-humor? Did they appreciate her understanding the irony of her own life and career? No – they got their panties in a bunch and leaped into an inquisition about “Hillary is attacking Bill”. I rarely feel sorry for her, but when the most meticulous and programmed candidate ever says something witty, we should be thankful; yet here she was, defending herself for making a joke. Of course, in typical Hillary fashion, she backed off the joke, saying she wasn’t really talking about Bill. I want a President with a sense of humor, who can make a joke which might be reflective of the irony of life. You can do self-deprecating humor, and in front of your own people, you can do some generalized joke about the other party, but real wit is dangerous. We get the campaigns we deserve and the type of unimaginative candidates who can restrict themselves to rehearsed moments.