Friday, January 22, 2010

How Will Yesterday’s Supreme Court Decision Affect 2010 Elections?

Summary: Show me the money! 2010 and the Supreme Court.

As you probably know by now, the Supreme Court yesterday overturned decades of precedent by ruling that a century-old law forbidding corporate (and possibly labor union) funding of political campaigns was unconstitutional. The issue, they claimed, was that the law infringed on free speech as protected by the First Amendment.

We first explained the case, Citizens United v. FEC, in a post last year.

The concept that campaign finance is an issue of free speech dates back to the case Buckley v. Valeo of the mid-1970s, and the concept that corporations are similar to individuals dates back to the mid-to-late 1800s.

Yet, in a 1990 case - Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce - the Court found there was a “compelling government interest in preventing corporations, in particular, from having an inordinate influence in the political process.”

And even if you don’t believe the ruling itself was a sign of judicial activism, the way the Court went about the ruling was totally out of character. The justices actually called for a second round of oral arguments so the two sides could debate the broader constitutional issues surrounding their particular case. In other words, the justices needed more to be said in order to make a more sweeping change to precedent.

Anyone who has studied constitutional law or the Supreme Court knows that such a move would generally be considered within the Court’s limitations, but highly irregular and a sign of improper conduct.

Constitutional issues aside, the practical implications of the decision are not yet certain.

First: do corporations actually want to risk alienating customers by running political ads close to an election? My guess is “no” for the most part. Yet there are definitely exceptions to that, especially with financial regulatory reform now on President Obama’s legislative agenda.

Now firms like JP Morgan, Chase, and other lenders - who are at risk of being broken up under the president’s plan - can target at-risk members of Congress who support Obama’s reform agenda.

Second: do campaigns really want corporations to help them? The SCOTUS decision didn’t say that a corporation could contribute an unlimited amount of money to a campaign - it would be limited, like an individual, to $4,600 per candidate this cycle - but only that corporations could make unlimited independent expenditures running ads supporting or attacking a candidate.

In other words, the 527 ads that liberals came to fear so much would be child’s play compared to the ads that corporations can spend money on.

But that could come with its own set of problems. It is unclear at this point how much coordination a campaign could have with a corporation producing and supporting a political ad. If their coordination is limited - like it is between a campaign, a party, and PACs at the moment - then campaigns would actually fear the ads throwing them off-message.

Explaining why the Obama for America campaign did not take federal funding - largely ceding advertisement expenditures to the DNC - campaign manager David Plouffe writes about this issue in his new book, The Audacity to Win:

“All the decisions would be made without our input. They would invariably be running a negative health care ad in a market where we would have preferred a tax cut comparative. And since tone was so important to our campaign - we did not want traditional low-blow negative ads run on our behalf - this factor took on added weight.”

So it is possible that corporate spending on behalf of a candidate could hurt a campaign more than help it.

Third: will Congress take action to limit the impact of the ruling? Within hours of the decision being released, liberal activists and grassroots organizations started a firestorm of angry criticism. When I emailed the story to co-workers yesterday, the subject line I gave it was “holy sh**, the levees just broke…”. And online petitions have already popped up from Organizing for America - who blasted an email about it - Public Citizen, and others.

What kind of action could they take? One of the comments I read on the post from the blog Campaign Diaries included a good idea.

“…perhaps Congress could address this without violating the Court’s new ruling on censorship. Could Congress require stock holders and union member to explicitly approve of political expenditures before they are made by those individual entities? I know that in a few states, union members must given written permission for their union dues to go political activity. Similar approval rights could be given to stock holders regarding corporate profits, or something even more specific for both groups, such as written permission for political spending per issue or per candidate. That would likely reduce the spending from those entities without the need for government censorship. The people that make up those entities would in effect be censoring themselves.”

In fact, one of my arguments against opening campaign finance to corporations was that executives wouldn’t just be making political speech decisions with their own personal money, but their investors’ money as well. This would be a good way to counter corporate spending that investors might not agree with.

At the end of the day, laws must be passed to counter the implications of more than just Citizens United v. FEC. In an op-ed yesterday, Michael Waldman - executive director of the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law - noted more campaign finance cases to come.

Another big campaign finance case soon likely to reach the high court would test the ban on large "soft money" contributions to political parties, last upheld by the court in 2003. Just days after John McCain's presidential campaign ended, the Republican National Committee sued to overturn the provision that was his proudest legislative accomplishment. That would mark a true plunge into partisan wars. Explaining the case, the RNC's political director was blunt: To have a chance of matching Obama's small donations, "we need to be on an equal footing, and we think that law [McCain-Feingold] keeps us from doing that."

While it is reasonable to fear that the floodgates have been opened, it is still not entirely clear what impact the Court’s decision will have on this year’s elections - especially given the fact that no one has ever seen a corporate-funded political ad. The only way to know the implications for sure will be to live through it in 2010.

In the meantime, however, you can petition Congress through OFA to take action to counter the decision by clicking here.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Editorial: Why Brown’s Victory is Not the End of the World

Summary: Dave and Eric at WAYLA ponder the impact of the special election in Massachusetts.

Tuesday’s election in the Bay State sent a Republican to fill Ted Kennedy’s former seat. Needless to say, it’s been considered a devastating blow to President Obama and the Democratic Party.

To be sure, things would certainly be easier for the Democrats if they had a filibuster-proof Senate, capable of passing critical legislation in spite of an obstructionist minority party. But even with the GOP holding 41 seats, it does not mean the end of the world for Democrats.

In fact, it might prove beneficial for them, and for Obama’s legacy.

Following Scott Brown’s victory, Obama signaled that he would not move on healthcare legislation - a key factor in the Massachusetts race and the primary issue behind the slow pace of Congress - until the senator-elect was seated. The president also said he would meet with Brown to discuss the bill before it reappears in the Senate.

Can such meaningful legislation be passed when Democrats have to work with Republicans?

Skeptics readily say “no” to that question. In a Washington Post op-ed today, columnist E.J. Dionne Jr. claims the election demonstrated an inherent contradiction in what he calls “Obamaism”:

"As a candidate, Obama pledged to change the tone in Washington and restore amicable relations between the parties. But he also promised to accomplish large things, including a substantial reform of the health-care system, major action to ease global warming, and a reshaped and more responsible financial system.

At some point, Obama's ambitions were destined to collide with the views of a Republican Party fundamentally opposed to almost everything he wants to do. Obama could try to get big things done or he could work easily with Republicans, but he could not do both."

During his campaign, Obama often spoke about skeptics, critics, and nay-sayers as well.

In 1982, President Reagan was confronted with big losses in Congress to the Democratic Party. In 1994, President Clinton saw Republicans take control of the House for the first time in a generation. These presidents regrouped, shook it off, and worked with the opposition.

Under Reagan, the country saw a defense build-up that scared the Soviet Union, all the while not neglecting domestic priorities. Under Clinton the country pulled out of record deficits and created record surpluses, all the while keeping the economy strong. Plus they both got re-elected the very next cycle.

These were their legacies, and it could be Obama’s too.

There is no shortage of study on why Americans prefer divided government. They do not like the idea of one party being drunk on power.

Well, 2008 was one hell of a wild party, and on Tuesday Democrats began to sober up.

This is important if the Democrats want to hold on to power. For six years the GOP controlled both chambers of Congress and the White House, passing remarkably poor policy with their dominance. The way they saw it, if voters approved of what you said, they’ll automatically approve of what you’ll do. Karl Rove added the fuel to the fire, claiming the Republican Party would have an unmitigated era of electoral dominance.

Democrats need to steer clear of this sort of arrogance.

Now, we’ll never cheer for a Republican to win. Nor can we be certain that Scott Brown’s place in the Senate will make anything better for anyone. But Brown’s victory is not the worst thing that could happen to the Democratic Party. We should be grateful it happened now, giving us time to learn our lessons before November.

Don’t think of his upset as the end, think of it as a new beginning.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Some Thoughts on the Massachusetts Senate Race

Summary: A lesson for Democrats in 2010 - 3 Reasons Coakley lost in Massachusetts.

As promised, we’ll spend today analyzing some key reasons why a Republican won Ted Kennedy’s seat in the U.S. Senate yesterday. Essentially, there are a variety of things to look at despite the lack of exit polls.

Campaigning Matters

There’s been a lot of back-and-forth bickering among Democrats over who is to blame for the Coakley loss. Yesterday the Coakley campaign released a memo blaming the DNC and DSCC for not putting enough resources into the race despite receiving polling information that showed she was at risk. A top Democrat then told Politico that Coakley also shared some of the blame.

It’s probably true. Coakley took off time from campaigning during December, giving Brown an opportunity to swing in and secure votes. Her campaign also failed to meet the necessary goals with voter contact in key areas of the state.

The Swing State Project released this map demonstrating how well the Coakley campaign needed to do on a city-by-city (or town-by-town) basis in order to win on Tuesday. They based their benchmarks on the relatively close Senate race in 1996 and the relatively close gubernatorial race in 2002.

As we saw last night, Coakley severely underperformed in reaching these benchmarks. Here’s how the commonwealth went yesterday.

Take the town of Upton for example. According to the Swing State Project, she essentially needed to match Brown 50-50 there to reach her goal in that municipality. She lost 64% - 35% there yesterday. That was the situation across much of middle Massachusetts.

Brown, on the other hand, met his goals. His campaign vigorously contacted voters in this critical part of the state and never assumed victory - even when the polls had him ahead. Democrats in Washington and Massachusetts alike (including the Coakley campaign) expected her to be a shoe-in before the start of the New Year.

Like Hillary Clinton in 2008, Coakley learned the hard way that there’s no such thing as a shoe-in in politics. If you don’t put in the work you won’t get the prize.

All Politics is Local

This was not a local referendum on Barack Obama, on healthcare, or on any other national issue. This was about Massachusetts, and Brown understood that far more than Coakley. Just listen to the way he described his opposition to the healthcare bill in Congress this morning.

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See what he did? He agreed that everyone needs universal healthcare, but said that because Massachusetts practically has it already, a federal bill can only hurt the Bay State residents he now represents.

The majority of voters cast their ballots in their own self-interest - they don’t tend to be altruistic in their electoral decisions. Coakley needed to frame her argument for a national health bill better than she did.

Additionally, many state Democrats in Massachusetts - including Governor Devall Patrick - are not popular at the moment.

Enthusiasm is in the GOP’s Court

Turnout was high yesterday - approximately 55% of the electorate (around 2.2 million voters) is estimated to have cast a ballot. Normally this would be good for a Democrat in Massachusetts, where Democrats outnumber Republicans almost 3-to-1.

It was not. Between the unpopularity of local Democratic officials, the slow-pace of the Democrat-controlled Congress, and a lackluster Coakley campaign, a large part of the Democratic base was not moved enough to go to the polls yesterday.

But Republicans and Independents sure were. A huge number of GOP voters showed up to the polls on Tuesday, and Independents supported Brown by almost a 2-to-1 margin.

Independents have a long and decisive history of voting against the party in power - especially in off-year elections. There seems to be an aggregate psyche among them to create checks and balances in the federal government. So to some extent, this was not a big surprise. Republican turnout shouldn’t have been either, as they are fighting the power, and thus more enthusiastic to vote out Democrats.

The extent of these trends, however, was surprising.

This should be the biggest red flag for Democrats in 2010. There is no getting around the fact that high GOP enthusiasm and low Democratic enthusiasm is going to hinder a lot of Democratic campaigns this year. If there is anything to be concerned about, this is it.

That’s not to say that defeat is inevitable. Strong and smart campaigning can limit the losses Democrats will face this year. Hopefully for Democrats, our candidates can learn the important lessons from last night’s results in Massachusetts.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Tough Massachusetts Race Comes to a Close

Welcome back to WAYLA for our coverage of today’s special election in Massachusetts. Polls have closed and our eye is glued to the results as they slowly come.

The Bay State saw huge turnout today - which may be of greater benefit to Republican Scott Brown than Democrat Martha Coakley.

Early returns show Brown ahead 53% to 46%, according to CNN - but that’s only with 13% of the vote in. Obviously many precincts, especially those in central and south Boston (which should be a little more supportive of Coakley) will be coming later in the night.

CNN is also reporting that Democrats are as upset with their party’s slow progress on healthcare as Republicans are upset with how far the bill has come. These are certainly signs that are no surprise to us.

Many pundits across the networks are predicting a Brown win tonight.

One interesting point is how Massachusetts independents have swung for Brown. Public Policy Polling finds that while independents voted 45% - 44% for Obama in 2008, they voted 64% - 32% for Brown today.

They also found that the enthusiasm gap for Brown over Coakley was high.

More to come…

UPDATE 1: It's difficult to say anything for sure at this point, but a notable trend has appeared in the reporting precincts. In the majority of towns and cities that are currently going for Coakley, she leads by less than 3%. Meanwhile, the majority of the towns and cities going for Brown show him ahead by 10% to 20%.

More to come around 8:30pm (CST).

UPDATE 2: It appears to be over, as Coakley conceded to Brown about a half hour ago. With 88% of precincts reporting, Brown holds a steady 52% - 47% lead over Coakley. While she won solid victories in places like Boston, Cambridge, and the surrounding area - as well as western towns like Northhampton and North Adams - she lost by 20 to 30 point margins in about half the state.

Apparently the Coakley campaign is blaming DC Democrats, saying the DNC and DSCC failed to provide sufficient funds (despite the polling information they were provided) until it was too late.

Still, Democrats on the ground in Massachusetts are saying that Coakley had simply expected victory and didn't take her Republican opponent seriously. As a result, she abstained from campaigning during a long period in December and never really tapped in to the populist, anti-incumbent feelings of voters.

Once again, Democratic candidates must remember that campaigning still matters.

With that we'll leave it there and give you our final thoughts tomorrow.

All Political Eyes on Massachusetts

With hours left before polls close in the Bay State, political junkies, insiders, and the press are looking forward to what are expected to be close results.

We’ll be blogging during the returns tonight, but for the meantime, here are some good articles on the race…

“Finger-Pointing Begins for Democratic Insiders” (Politico): Nervous Democrats have already begun to blame one another for putting at risk the Senate seat Ted Kennedy held for 40 years.

“Five Things to Watch for in Massachusetts” (Politico): To make some sense of the early returns, POLITICO put together a guide of five things to watch as the results come in, after polls close at 8 p.m. (EST).

“538 Model Posits Brown as 3:1 Favorite” (FiveThirtyEight): The FiveThirtyEight Senate Forecasting Model, which correctly predicted the outcome of all 35 Senate races in 2008, now regards Republican Scott Brown as a 74 percent favorite to win the Senate seat in Massachusetts on the basis of new polling…which show worsening numbers for Brown's opponent, Martha Coakley.

“Martha Choakley?” (FiveThirtyEight): It's still not entirely clear to [author Tom Schaller] that Martha Coakley will lose today… Still…Even though a short, six-week race in February of an off-year cycle is more than the normally disadvantaged, minority Republicans could hope for, that argument could be turned inside out, too: how much damage can a majority-party standard bearer like Coakley do to herself in such a short time? Quite a bit, apparently.

As of right now, I would agree that this race is not over. Coakley still has a reasonable shot of pulling off a victory. But this will be close, and the odds are surprisingly against her.

We’ll see you back here when polls close tonight.

UPDATE: Here are some more stories coming out of Boston...

• A good Boston Globe article from this morning.

• In what should be good news for Coakley, the Globe reports that voter turnout has been pretty high so far today. However, it appears that the enthusiasm gap is much higher for Brown, which may be why David Axelrod is saying Brown ran an impressive campaign.

The Boston Globe also broke with protocol earlier today and briefly posted the results of the exit polls taken so far. The Boston Phoenix made sure to post the results on their website. They have Coakley winning over Brown 50% to 49%. Usually, however, releasing exit polls early is a burden to the one in the lead.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Happy MLK Day!

We’re taking a day off from the blog to spend some time giving back to the community today. We hope you get a chance to do some service too. MLK Day is a great day to help our country in the most basic of ways.

Even if you can’t today, you will have an opportunity to help the victims of the earthquake in Haiti - so long as you’re in the Milwaukee area tomorrow.

Or if you won’t be in Milwaukee tomorrow, you can always text “HAITI” to 90999 to give $10 to the Red Cross’s relief efforts there.

Happy Martin Luther King Jr. Day!