Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Presidential Campaign Update: One Week Remaining. (Thank God!)

A week from now, the presidential campaigns will be trying to drag the last few recalcitrant voters to the polls before collapsing in exhaustion as they await the final result. (The polls close at 8 pm here in Michigan. Results begin to flow by 9 pm.)  Usually campaign workers themselves are the most tired people in all the land by the end of Election Day, since most of them finish the last four days in a doughnut-and-caffeine driven sleepless frenzy.  Honestly, I've known campaign workers who were so tired by the time the polls closed that they went home, fell asleep, and didn't even find out the result until the next morning.

But this time around, I'm pretty sure all of America is equally tired of this campaign.  And why not? Thanks to an entrenched opposition in Congress and broadcast platforms dominated by Fox News and the various right-wing radio commentators it has lasted for all four years of Obama's presidency. As a Democrat I would've greatly appreciated it if Obama had begun campaigning himself in response, since he left the field open for the GOP electoral wave of 2010.  But after two years or so of his re-election campaign, I must confess that I've now had more than my fill of fundraising pleas and viral videos from the home team, too.

Worse yet, since I decided in an act of sheer masochism to pay attention to the GOP primary and write a few blog posts about it, I've been paying far too much attention to the whole thing myself for nearly a year.

Believe me, I'm as ready as anybody for 8 pm on Nov. 6 to arrive!

So what I can I write as it all comes down to the end that you haven't already read a hundred times on a hundred other blog posts?  What have I learned in the last year that's worth passing along?

Well, let's see.  Since the last post I wrote was back in mid-September when Obama had gained a lead in the polls while Romney was still in mid-implosion from his intemperate remarks around Libya and the 47% tape, a quick recap of events since then might be in order.

The biggest development since then was the debates, especially Romney's decisive victory in the first debate in Denver.  Going into that night Obama had opened enough of a lead that an excellent chance had developed that some of the GOP SuperPACs would pull much of their funding from the presidential race and redirect it into the Congressional races.  Romney's victory didn't just close the gap in the polls. It rescued his campaign's ability to muster the resources they would need to compete down the stretch. Obama flubbed the one real opportunity either campaign has had to deliver a knockout blow.

Fortunately for the Dems after a couple of weeks of full-panic mode, Obama bounced back with better performances in the final two debates to right the ship and return the race to what it has pretty much been all along ... a really close national race with a slight edge for Obama in a few Midwestern swing states, most notably Ohio, Wisconsin, and Michigan.  (As always, I recommend Nate Silver's Fivethirtyeight.com blog for a good look at the overall state of the polls.)

So, what do Ohio, Wisconsin, and Michigan have in common?

Yup, it's the auto industry.  Barrels of virtual ink have already been spilled online about how this race may ultimately come down to 2009 and what Romney wrote ("Let Detroit Go Bankrupt") versus what Obama did to rescue the auto industry when it faced bankruptcy and dissolution.  I'll simply add that I think there's a lot of justice if this election comes down to that one issue.  It's a good distillation of their core beliefs, and in retrospect it's quite apparent that Obama made the right call.

I expected the debates to be the last newsworthy event in the campaign.  Then Hurricane Sandy slammed into the East Coast last night and caused widespread damage.  It's too early to tell whether there will be any impact on the final voting numbers, but it seems likely to be a good test of Obama's efforts to revamp FEMA and to improve the nation's disaster response. The chance to act Presidential during the last week of the campaign has to be good news for Obama, especially given the contrast with Romney's remarks during a primary debate in favor of eliminating or privatizing federal disaster relief.  A few kind remarks from New Jersey Governor and GOP keynoter Chris Christie probably don't hurt, either.

(In saner times Christie's remarks would go under the heading of "common courtesy during a disaster".  But one week before Election Day is not a sane time, so Christie's comments seem to have caused quite a stir among the punditocracy today.)

However, the truth is that there are very, very few undecided voters left at this point.  The vast majority of the electorate will watch this crisis play out with partisan eyes, especially since they will generally watch the disaster response play out this week through media channels that will reinforce their preconceived notions.  I have a sneaky suspicion that Fox News won't discuss climate change much this week, but MSNBC will invoke Hurricane Katrina more than a thousand times 'twixt now and Nov. 6. Righteous indignation will rise on both sides, but few minds will be changed.

In nitty-gritty electoral details, the states that suffered the most damage weren't particularly in play this year, though Virginia, Ohio, and New Hampshire did all receive a bit of damage from the storm.  I'd guess that nothing that comes out of the Sandy aftermath is likely to change many minds in Ohio or to motivate a sporadic voter in Virginia to show up on Nov. 6.  But I do predict that pundits will cite Sandy and its aftermath as a key turning point, no matter who wins when the votes are counted.

What else have we learned from this election? Well, I did recently finish off a really interesting book called The Victory Lab by Sasha Issenberg. It had a lot to say about how genuine campaign experimentation has taken hold in a lot of corners of the campaign biz, and how the results are changing the ways that campaigns try to reach voters to change minds and push them to the polls.  But if you want to know more about it, rather than drag you through the details let me send you to this recent Slate article written by Issenberg: Obama Does It Better: When it comes to targeting and persuading voters, the Democrats have a bigger advantage over the GOP than either party has ever had in the modern campaign era.  I'm not sure I entirely agree with the conclusion in the article's title, but it's an interesting read and you'll learn a ton about modern campaigning.

And that's about it.  The 2012 campaign has been one of the strangest electoral sagas I can recall, especially on the GOP side where that unbelievably loopy assortment tried and failed to knock Romney out of his seemingly inevitable front-runner spot: Sarah Palin, Donald Trump, Herman Cain, Michele Bachmann, Thaddeus McCotter (Good God, that's right! Thaddeus McCotter was in this thing before resigning his office in disgrace!), Rick Santorum, Ron Paul, Gary Johnson, Buddy Roemer, Rick Perry (Ooops!), Ron Pawlenty (more dull than loopy, really), Jon Hunstman, and probably another dozen too obscure to even mention with this gang.

And let us never forget that even Jimmy McMillan, the founder of The Rent Is Too Damn High Party also declared at one point that he would enter this year's Republican field.  Though he never qualified for a ballot, in retrospect we can all agree that he would've been a better selection than Donald Trump.

And yet here we are with what everybody pretty much predicted at least a couple of years ago: a close election between Obama and Romney that'll probably come down to what a hundred-thousand or so Buckeye fans decide to do on Election Day.

So with all that, what's my own prediction for the outcome one week from today?

Well, Nate Silver is my guiding star, so I reckon I'll go with a 294-244 electoral victory and a 50%-49% popular vote edge for Obama.  We shall see.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Random pre-storm Hurricane Sandy commentary...

... from my Facebook account today:

John Magee 
We're already seeing cloud bands and wind from Hurricane Sandy in Detroit. I sincerely hope all of my friends and family on the East Coast have battened down the hatches and gotten themselves out of flood zones. I have a feeling this is going to be a bad one.

Phil Gaven 
I haven't any hatches to batten. I'm hatchless.

John Magee 
Phil, strap down the beehives and put little teeny weeny life jackets on all the bees!

Jeffrey Kofsky 
I just wish I had a wheelbarrow full of booze!

John Magee 
Jeff, It's not enough to just have a wheelbarrow full of booze when Frankenstorm hits. I had to do important pre-storm preparations ... like making sure I had a cooler full of mixers on hand and ready to go.

Jeffrey Kofsky 
And most of those are sold at stores that actually require you to wear pants in order to be served, I suppose. Tough life!

John Magee 
In these trying times we need to pull together as a nation and stop worrying about the arbitrary issues that politicians use to divide us, like who is and who isn't wearing pants at the store.

Monday, October 1, 2012

How Gerrymandering Is Destroying Our Democracy

Okay, so that headline sounds a bit grandiose, but if you asked me to name the most corrosive element in our democracy right now, it wouldn't be campaign finance, media outrage machines, lobbying gone wild, or any of a dozen other very real problems that we have.

I would nominate the widespread practice of gerrymandering: drawing voting districts along partisan lines either to give one party or the other an advantage in a legislature, or to give both parties safe seats that leave incumbents more accountable to challenges from the far wing of their own party than from opponents from the other party or from the middle of the electorate.  A lot of voters are unaware that this activity even happens, much less how it has become a rigged system to choose your lawmaker for you.

Before I go much farther down this path, I'm going to recommend to you an article on gerrymandering in this month's Atlantic magazine: The League of Dangerous Mapmakers by Robert Draper.  Go give it a read ... I'll be here when you get back.

[Brief interlude of whistling while I wait.]

Okay, you're back?  Fascinating, isn't it?!

That's pretty much the article that I would have liked to have written on this topic, if I had more time and actual journalism skills.  The only difference is that I probably would've used some local Michigan examples that appear on my own ballot: the Thaddeus McCotter saga in Michigan's 11th U.S. House District, the bizarre and brutal story of the redistricting re-legislation for the Oakland County Board of Commissioners, and a half-dozen other good examples from the Republican-controlled redistricting process in Michigan.  Rest assured, they're all as good as anything in that article.  A couple of them are even more colorful and egregious.

But rather than depress you with a long saga of political malfeasance and skulduggery, let me just state the problem as I see it, and talk about how we can fix it.

When I look at the U.S. Congress and our state legislature in Michigan these days, I wonder how these institutions became so broken.  The biggest problem that I see is that moderate lawmakers from either party are nearly extinct. There will always be a certain number of safe districts, but the systematic push to ensure that the vast majority of our legislatures will only be chosen in a primary means that moderate and independent voters -- by far the biggest bloc of voters in America -- are almost entirely unrepresented by their lawmakers.

Is it any wonder that our state and federal legislatures look broken and gridlocked most of the time?  We take the people most stridently opposed to one another, leave them unaccountable to the voters, and then ask them all to work it out nicely.  Good luck with that!

The good news is that this is one thing that is broken in our system that I think we can fix.  As mentioned in the Atlantic article, several states have adopted non-partisan redistricting commissions. And although partisan shenanigans were often involved in their adoption, it still strikes me as a very big step in the right direction.

After this year's election, I plan to follow up with a look at the results.  My theory is that the states with nonpartisan redistricting boards will have much closer general election results than the states whose boundaries were drawn by boards dominated by a single party or boards drawn by bipartisan commissions.  Meanwhile the average margin of victory in the other states will have grown even larger as everybody settles into their new and comfy safe districts.  Believe it or not, my general expectation is that the next Congress will be even more intransigent than the current disaster.

Comfy, safe districts are the problem here, folks.  We have an awful lot of lawmakers who are far too comfortable in their position and far too unwilling to compromise with one another to get things done.  It needs to stop, and we need to be the ones to put a stop to it.