Friday, June 12, 2009

Campaign Politics Here and Abroad

It’s Friday, June 12, 2009. Here’s what we’re looking at:

The Service Employees International Union is making a rather strange move to press Sen. David Vitter (R-LA) into supporting the Employee Free Choice Act. Instead of sending their new mailer against him to his constituents in Louisiana, they’ve been sending it to his friends and his part-time neighbors in Alexandria, VA - one former staffer even received it in North Carolina.

Democrats in Wisconsin have some good news and some bad news to talk about at their State Convention tonight. A new DailyKos poll finds that despite the fact that many Democratic politicians aren’t viewed so favorably there – Sen. Russ Feingold being the major exception – the Badger State would still choose them over Republicans in 2010.

Just next door, the Minnesota Senate race from last year takes another interesting turn. A Ramsey County court ruled yesterday that (soon-to-be-former) Sen. Norm Coleman owes (soon-to-be) Sen. Al Franken nearly $95,000 in court fees for continuing to make appeals. The question now is whether this race will ever actually end.

Meanwhile, it’s Election Day in Iran! Some analysts say it’s so close that Iran ’09 could be just like Florida ’00. Let’s hope not. The elections are being extended to make sure everyone has the chance to vote, so it looks like it will stay reasonably clean, although the challenger is very worried about rigging.

Plus journalist and political scientist Stephen Kinzer says this democratic practice could bring America and Iran closer together.

For more coverage of the Iranian election, visit the special Huffington Post page.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Is There a Way to Defend the Electoral College?

Two weeks ago today we did a post on how the Democrats may be falling short in Colorado. One topic of the post was how the Democratically-controlled state Senate approved a bill to join the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact (NPVIC).

Here’s what we said:

“Other issues mentioned above are going to be equally unpopular. The Electoral College issue, for example, is one that probably doesn’t sit well with voters. The state Senate approved a bill to join the [NPVIC], in which a state’s electoral votes would go to the overall national winner of a presidential race. Once enough states join the compact to reach 270 votes, the compact would go into effect. Because Colorado is a smaller state, they would effectively get less say in a presidential contest. Besides, a good communications director can easily argue that the bill is taking the vote away from Coloradans, and make a GOP political gain.”

To our surprise, that paragraph drew a bit of criticism from two comments. One commenter complained that “the current system is that a candidate can win the Presidency without winning the most popular votes nationwide. This has occurred in one of every 14 presidential elections.”

Actually, it’s more like once every 18 presidential elections. From the time George Washington was elected in 1789 there have been 56 presidential elections and the Electoral College winner has lost the popular vote 3 times. These presidents who lost the popular vote were Rutherford B. Hayes in 1876, Benjamin Harrison in 1888, and - most famously - George W. Bush in 2000.

(We should also point out that it is popularly believed that the same happened with John F. Kennedy in 1960. In fact, Kennedy won the popular vote by a mere 115,000 votes nationally. We’re not going to get into the allegations of vote theft here.)

We should make it clear that in our post we were not discussing the merits of the Electoral College or the NPVIC, but rather discussing the political side effects of trying to change the system - i.e., what it would do to the public opinion of Democrats in Colorado.

Nonetheless, the merits of the Electoral College and NPVIC is an interesting topic, so we figured we’d devote a post to the subject.

It is easy for liberals - like ourselves - to criticize the Electoral College (all three presidents that lost the popular vote were Republicans) but we think we should look at it from a more neutral position and give both sides of the argument.

Reasons to Oppose the Electoral College

Let’s see what else our commenters said...

“The major shortcoming of the current system of electing the President is that presidential candidates concentrate their attention on a handful of closely divided "battleground" states. 98% of the 2008 campaign events involving a presidential or vice-presidential candidate occurred in just 15 closely divided "battleground" states. Over half (57%) of the events were in just four states (Ohio, Florida, Pennsylvania and Virginia). Similarly, 98% of ad spending took place in these 15 "battleground" states. Similarly, in 2004, candidates concentrated over two-thirds of their money and campaign visits in five states and over 99% of their money in 16 states.”

We’re not going to fact check this, but from what we would expect this is probably true (or at least reasonably close to being accurate). The fact that many big states like California, Texas, New York, etc. are almost completely ignored during a presidential race is troubling to the average democratically-minded American (note the small “d” in democratic).

This is certainly a reason to draw concern. It seems almost morally wrong for such states to be ignored. In principle, they should receive their due attention from the presidential campaigns.

What else?

“[A] recent Washington Post, Kaiser Family Foundation, and Harvard University poll shows 72% support for direct nationwide election of the President. This national result is similar to recent polls in closely divided battleground states: Colorado-- 68%...”

This is true. The poll the commenter refers to finds that a whopping majority of Americans would support a direct popular vote. And although there was a noticeable partisan divide, even 60% of Republicans support this theoretical election system.

Furthermore, the 68% support for a national direct popular vote in Colorado seems to hinder our argument from the previous post. We’ll return to that point later.


“The reason for this is the winner-take-all rule enacted by 48 states, under which all of a state's electoral votes are awarded to the candidate who gets the most votes in each separate state.”

Absolutely true. Just take the 2008 campaign in Nebraska, for example. For most of the state, very little effort was put in to winning it from either side because McCain was pretty certain to win there. Yet in the 2nd Congressional District - which is pretty much just Omaha - the Obama campaign was determined to win. After putting money and operatives into the city they picked up one electoral vote from Nebraska.

Nebraska is one of the only two states in the union that currently divides its electoral votes - the other being New Hampshire. Of Nebraska’s five electoral votes, two go to the overall state winner, and the other three go to the winner by congressional district. If they did not do this, the Obama campaign would have never put any serious resources or effort into the state because they knew they wouldn’t be able to win outside Omaha. So why would they bother?

Reasons to Support the Electoral College

In response to the argument that candidates don’t focus on enough states under the present system, the first thing an Electoral College advocate would say in rebuttal is that states should simply use their freedom to divide their electoral votes. In fact, many states have done this at different times in American history but have chosen not to today.

The Electoral College advocate might also argue that this method of choosing a president is grounded in the Constitution, thus cannot legally be ignored. Of course, if the NPVIC is adopted by enough states for it to go into effect, approved by Congress, and signed into law, it would be completely legitimate constitutionally.

His or her best argument would probably be that a national election is just too big for a direct popular vote. There actually may be something to this.

Presidential campaigns are divided on a state-by-state basis structurally. You are essentially running a unique campaign in every state, all held together by a relatively small national team. Frankly, nobody in campaign politics knows how to run a campaign bigger than a statewide race in California because no one has ever had to run a race bigger than that - and the Golden State only makes up about 12% of the U.S. population.

A nationally-run race would be a campaign manager’s worst nightmare. The Electoral College helps them keep it at a truly state-by-state basis because winner-take-all would be far too much for a campaign to organize on a national level.

More on that point is the money issue. It is true that presidential campaigns spend virtually all of their money in just 16 (or so) states - but in 2008 the two major presidential campaigns spent approximately a combined billion dollars. That’s not including what was spent by the DNC, RNC, and countless number of issue advocacy groups that spent their own money in support of Obama and McCain. So, theoretically (if the campaigns have to focus resources on all 50 states and not 16) under a popular vote system, the two major campaigns would be spending about $1.5 billion each - if not more - while the parties and advocacy groups would spend an uncountable number of dollars.

It might actually be a big boost to our GDP, but Americans are already concerned that this country spends too much on political campaigns as it is.

Are these the reasons why so many states have not passed the NPVIC?

There are actually more practical political reasons why the NPVIC has only passed in 5 of the 50 states.

First of all, let’s look back to Colorado. If they were to pass the NPVIC they would effectively get less say because they’re a smaller state. The reason is because the number of electoral votes a state gets is equal to the number of U.S. Senators and Representatives in their Congressional delegation. A state like Colorado - with 10 electoral votes - effectively gets more say (proportionally) in a presidential race than California - with 55 electoral votes - because the two votes each get automatically for their Senators has a bigger impact in Colorado per resident. It is likely that the 68% of Coloradans that support the NPVIC don’t realize this, or haven’t really thought about it enough.

The bigger states, conversely, are often dominated by one party in their State Legislatures (Democrats in California and Illinois, Republicans in Texas). These politicians know that more votes are basically guaranteed to go to their own party’s nominee with a winner-take-all Electoral College system than with a popular vote system.

Finally, the battleground states have no real incentive to change the system because they like the special attention they get. This is the same reason why Iowa and New Hampshire are determined to remain the first two states during the presidential primary season.

We hope we’ve given you a good overview of the arguments for and against the Electoral College - especially the arguments defending it, since so few seem to be willing to make them. Ultimately it’s for you to decide whether you agree with the system or not. There are certainly good reasons to support the NPVIC, but as is the case with any debate, there are reasons not to support it too hastily.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Virginia Primary Wraps Up - On to the General for Deeds

Today WAYLA reports on local politics from Virginia.

Yesterday, state Senator R. Creigh Deeds overcame Brian Moran and former DNC Chairman Terry McAuliffe to become the Democratic nominee for governor of Virginia.

It was truly remarkable because Deeds was definitely the dark horse for most of the race. Only recently did he surge ahead of his more well known opponents. In the end he crushed them - he earned about 50% of the vote to McAuliffe’s 26% and Moran’s 24%.

Several factors went into his victory.

1) Moran attacked McAuliffe to death, and took himself down in the process...

Just take this Moran ad attacking McAuliffe for his days as a businessman:

"The press on Terry McAuliffe's insider deals: McAuliffe has made a fortune investing, sometimes in companies that went bust, laid off thousands and drained employee savings. Barack Obama ran against exactly the kind of big-money politics that McAuliffe represents."

That’s a pretty serious attack, and it was definitely going to hurt McAuliffe considering the economic pain Americans are feeling. Yet, it also made Moran look like a pretty hardcore mudslinger - something that most voters are usually turned off to.

It created a void for Deeds to fill.

2) Deeds was able to take votes from Moran and McAuliffe in Northern Virginia...

This was huge. Not only was Deeds able to secure 800 of the 830 votes in his rural home county, but he was able to make huge gains in the DC suburbs - the Moran and McAuliffe turf. The unofficial results from Fairfax County, for example, show Deeds won with about 49.5% of the vote compared to 29.1% for Moran and 21.4% for McAuliffe.

Many in the press attribute this to Deeds’ endorsement from The Washington Post about three weeks ago. It’s the paper they read in the DC suburbs in Virginia and it came out at the perfect time - just as Deeds was picking up momentum.

3) The fact that McAuliffe is a political super-star hurt him in the end...

Make no mistake about it - McAuliffe’s name recognition, fundraising advantage, and relationship with the Clintons were huge benefits at first. With national connections and their donor lists, McAuliffe raised about $7 million over the course of his campaign - compare that to Moran’s $3.8 million and Deeds’ $3.4 million.

Additionally, McAuliffe had no problem getting former President Bill Clinton to stump for him and cut a radio ad. While it all helped McAuliffe initially - see the graph posted on Friday - he could not maintain his lead.

This simple reason is that he never took a real interest in Virginia politics until he saw the governor’s seat open up, and Virginians recognized that. Furthermore, he had the same problem that his ally Hillary Clinton had when he was her presidential campaign chairman - she represented old politics at a time when Americans wanted a fresh face. Virginians did not want a Clinton-era figure in their governor's mansion.

Besides, as many of us know, campaign people like ourselves (and McAuliffe) make terrible politicians. We know the game so well we don’t look like real people to the voters, and they don’t want to vote for a politician like that.

Instead, Virginians chose an “aww, shucks” candidate from rural Virginia. He was more conservative on social issues than McAuliffe and Moran - which should have hurt him in the metropolitan area around Washington - and was generally seen as more folksy and likeable.

All in all, many Virginians believed that Deeds would be more in line with the Warner-Kaine tradition of Democratic governors in the Commonwealth. Warner and Kaine were popular because they were moderates in an extremely purple state - specifically among Democrats because they could rely on these candidates to win against more far-right Republicans. Electability was probably the number one factor in Deeds’ victory.

On to the General Election!

McAuliffe and Moran immediately endorsed Deeds. That’s important because Deeds is going to need to raise money from their donors fast to catch up to the well-financed Republican, Bob McDonnell.

Meanwhile, you can already tell the Deeds and McDonnell campaigns have begun doing their Tully charts, figuring out the best message to use for the general election. In his victory speech last night, Deeds told supporters "we move into the general election, where Virginia either moves forward in the legacy of Mark Warner and Tim Kaine or backward toward the disastrous economic and social agenda of Bob McDonnell and George W. Bush."

The Republicans haven’t really found their argument against Deeds yet, but we can expect to see it develop in the next few days. Over the course of the primary, the Virginia GOP largely attacked McAuliffe, figuring their old foe would sweep up a nomination. It seems that the recent Deeds surge caught them off-guard.

So who do we think will win?

Some are already pointing to another race Deeds and McDonnell fought against each other - the 2005 race for Virginia Attorney General. McDonnell won the election by just 323 votes out of about 2 million - and he had a 2-1 cash advantage over the Democrat.

A recent survey of Democratic primary voters found that 59% will definitely support Deeds in the November election - including 55% of Republicans who crossed-over since McDonnell was unopposed in the Republican primary.

Meanwhile, a SurveyUSA poll last week found that if Deeds was the nominee, he would be tied with McDonnell with 43% each.

So at this point in the campaign it is just about impossible to say who will win in November, but because Virginia has been such a critical state for Democrats in recent years (and the fact that virtually nothing else is happening in campaign politics in 2009) we’ll be keeping a close eye on the Commonwealth in the months to come.

So stay tuned.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Follow WAYLA on Twitter!

You've already seen our page on Facebook, now get ready for WAYLA on Twitter!

Visit our Twitter page and follow us - it's a great way to keep updated on the campaign news of the day!

Why Does Obama Keep Invoking Faith?

According to a fascinating article in Politico today, President Barack Obama invokes the name of Jesus more than his predecessor, George W. Bush.

In his speech in Cairo, commencement address at Notre Dame, and even his defense of the stimulus package, he has made reference to the most important figure in Christianity. Bush, as president, only mentioned Jesus a handful of times over his two terms.

“I don’t recall a single example of Bush as president ever saying, ‘Jesus’ or ‘Christ,’” said Tony Perkins, president of the conservative Christian group Family Research Council. “This is different.”

Actually, it’s very different. For reasons we’ll see later, Obama is specifically mentioning “Jesus” and “Christ” rather than “God” as Bush would. Additionally, he has been much more careful about how he speaks about faith - while Governor of Texas, Bush once famously said “I believe that God wants me to be president.”

Beyond the speeches, Obama has actually given faith a central role in his administration.

…inside his White House, Obama has placed his Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships — run by a 26-year old Pentecostal minister named Josh DuBois — under the White House’s Domestic Policy Council. That was widely seen as an effort to involve a religious perspective in the administration’s policy decisions.

Also, religious leaders meet with White House policymakers on a regular basis — and help to shape decisions on matters large and small. A White House speechwriter working on Obama’s Egypt speech called several faith leaders to get their thoughts. After the White House unveiled its budget in April, officials convened a two-hour conference call with religious leaders to discuss how the spending plan would help the poor.

Additionally, the front-runner for Obama’s nomination to head the National Institutes of Health is Frances Collins - the former Director of the Human Genome Project and a born-again Christian.

But as the article points out, it’s ironic that Obama is placing such an emphasis on faith since his success has largely come on the back of younger, more secular voters.

Yet he’s also been careful to mention non-believers in many of his speeches - including his Inaugural Address - which has typically been uncommon of a president. And despite their growing concern about Obama’s invocation of faith, non-believers are still supporting him.

“The one important thing to recognize,” says athiest author Sam Harris, “is [Obama] is so much better than the last guy in the Oval Office, and everyone is feeling so much relief for the change he has brought, that they are inclined not to gripe too much about all the delusional stuff he may be paying lip service to or holding over from the previous administration.”

The atheist support for Obama is actually significantly more visible than the religious support for the GOP. Before the 2008 Election, Obama led Republican nominee John McCain by 25% among non-religious voters - compare that to just a 5% lead McCain had over Obama among religious voters.

In fact, Obama made some significant improvements among religious voters for a Democrat. He received a 5% boost from born-again Christians relative to John Kerry’s performance among these voters.

Of course, it is still fairly low. The exit polls we observed last year found that McCain led Obama by a staggering 33% of voters who said they were looking for a candidate who “shares my values” - about 30% of the electorate.

If it’s so hard for Obama to win over religious voters, why does he still talk about religion so much?

There actually may be some very clever political strategy behind Obama’s efforts to include the Christian community.

For Obama, Christian rhetoric offers an opportunity to connect with a broader base of supporters in a nation in which 83 percent of Americans believe in God. What’s more, regularly invoking Jesus helps Obama minimize the number of American who believe he is a Muslim — a linkage that can be politically damaging. According to a Pew Research Center study, 11 percent of Americans believe, incorrectly, that Obama is a Muslim; it’s a number that is virtually unchanged from the 2008 presidential campaign…

…For Bush, invoking Jesus publicly was fraught with political risk. He was so closely politically identified with the Christian right that overt talk of Christ from the White House risked alienating mainstream and secular voters. Bush instead quoted passages from scripture or Christian hymns, as he did in his 2003 State of the Union Address when he used the phrase “wonder-working power.” That sort of oblique reference resonated deeply with evangelical Christians but sailed largely unnoticed past secular voters.

Beyond this, there may be a long-term strategy at work.

A Pew survey released May 21 found that even as Americans remain highly religious, there has there been a slow decline in the number of Americans with socially conservative values – especially among young voters. That creates an opening for Obama, especially at a time when some conservative evangelicals are telling pollsters they are frustrated and disillusioned with politics.

“In the long term, this could be huge,” said Stephen Schneck, director of the Life Cycle Institute at The Catholic University of America, who is active in left-leaning political efforts. “There are swing Catholics and swing Protestants even within the evangelicals. To the extent Obama can mobilize those people as part of a new Democratic coalition, that marginalizes Republicans even further.”

Many evangelicals that have become disillusioned with politics are those who saw little change in actual social policy during Bush’s presidency, and are beginning to realize how impractical it is to win those arguments. The young evangelicals of the Millennial generation, in particular, are more supportive of Obama than their older religious counterparts for specifically this reason.

From a November article in the Daily Telegraph:

To [Rick Warren’s] followers, concerns like climate change, genocide in Darfur and torture have risen up the agenda.

"For 30 years abortion and homosexuality have been the mega-issues, but if you shrink the significance of those to be more or less equal with others then that will contribute to a shift in the vote," said David Gushee, professor of Christian ethics at Mercer University in Georgia.

He said Mr Obama broadened his appeal by talking seriously about reducing abortion through better welfare, sex education, birth control and health care. The campaign also contacted ministers, sent them copy of Mr Obama's speeches on faith and arranged meetings with the candidate. It visited a dozen Christian colleges, often holding meeting with Donald Miller, a popular evangelical author. [NOTE: Since this was written, Obama has actually given Miller a voluntary position in the administration].

Prof Gushee added that "young evangelicals were seeking different policies and rejecting George Bush," for sanctioning torture by the US, for playing down global warming and starting a pre-emptive war.

If Mr Obama manages to reduce abortions, he would probably expand his evangelical support and hold on to young voters gained this time.

So it appears that Obama is pursuing a long-term goal of building a new Democratic coalition - one that further erodes the GOP - as well as a way to convince voters he is not a Muslim (a plurality of Americans have an unfavorable view of Islam) without any serious political consequences.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Post Moved...

Sorry to those of you who were anticipating a post today on tomorrow's gubernatorial primary in Virginia.

Due to a schedule change, we'll bring you the results of the race on Wednesday, an analysis of what happened, and what to look for as the winner takes on Republican candidate Bob McDonnell.