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The Daily Strategist

May 30, 2016

Political Strategy Notes



In "Can Donald Trump Win? These Battleground Regions Will Decide," Jonathan Martin, Alexander Burns, Trip Gabriel and Fernando Santos focus on "the four regions likely to decide the presidency -- Florida, the upper Southeast, the Rust Belt and the interior West."

Ramesh Ponnuru of Bloomberg explains how "Clinton can crush Trump with one message" and notes, "Her most powerful message against Trump might be a non-ideological one: His lack of knowledge, seriousness and impulse control make him too dangerous to put in the presidency...That strategy would have room for many specific criticisms of him that fit within the overall message of his unfitness. Instead of presenting his $11 trillion tax cut as a typical right-wing scheme, for example, she could tie it together with his speculation about defaulting on the debt and suggest that he is far more reckless than normal conservatives. (His encouragement of other countries to get nuclear weapons also illustrates this point.) And she would have to outsource some potential attacks to others. Calling Trump a "fascist," for example, would make her rather than him look wild-eyed."

At Politico David S. Bernstein explores an unlikely scenario, "How Hillary Loses: Donald Trump can actually win if Clinton makes these four mistakes. Spoiler alert: She's already making all of them." In his summation graph, Bernstein says "...Trump survives a Latino surge in the South and West; Clinton fails to bring home young voters in the Southeast and Midwest; Libertarians give Trump a foothold in the Northeast; the Rust Belt puts the nail in the coffin--and with somewhere between 274 and 325 electoral votes..." Lots of stretchwork there, and Bernstein does acknowledge that "it's also possible Clinton wins in a landslide."

"Pennsylvania and Michigan have voted Democratic in every election since 1988. (Ohio is a swing state, of course, so that's a bit more realistic.) Central to Trump's argument is that he'll increase turnout and support from working-class white voters, enough to counteract votes from heavily Democratic (and less-white) parts of each state...On Thursday, Bloomberg Politics released a poll that cast some doubt on that happening. Pollster Purple Strategies surveyed voters in Wisconsin, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Michigan who earn between $30,000 and $75,000 a year -- what they call "middle income." Their choice for president? Hillary Clinton, by 7 points.....the numbers in the Bloomberg survey are not what Trump needs -- by a wide margin -- if he's to sweep the Rust Belt or even pick off a couple of states." - from Philip Bump's "A new poll has bad news for Donald Trump in the Midwest" at The Fix.

And Dan Balz chucks in a sobering reminder at Washington post Politics that "The methodology of all types of polls is under challenge. There is a serious and urgent debate underway among public opinion researchers about the way forward...For the rest of us, the exchanges lead to common points of agreement, all of which might seem obvious but should not be forgotten. Don't put too much emphasis on any single poll. Look closely at averages of groups of polls to determine whether there are real shifts in the race. And don't expect polls to predict the future."

But this kind of poll ought to be instructive: "Only eight percent of Americans say they have a great deal of confidence in the Republican Party, and 15 percent - in the Democratic Party. Similarly, just 29 percent of Democrats and 16 percent of Republicans have any confidence in their own political parties," notes a new poll by the AP-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. Despite the edge Dems have here, when 70 percent of Democratic respondents in a poll say they lack confidence in their party, not doing anything to boost the party's image, instead of just promoting candidates, indicates negligent leadership. Where, for example, are the ads showing Democratic accomplishments?

Yet another example of frustrating and hard to understand Democratic weakness in a state that ought to be trending purple: "Democrats hold a small minority in the Missouri House with 45 members, and in 66 of the chamber's 163 districts no Democrats have filed to run. Republicans, with 117 members, have a supermajority and could maintain it with wins in at least 43 contested races. It needs to win only 16 to maintain a majority." Pathetic.

Kate Stringer reports a little good news from Washington state: "Washington CAN, along with the Washington Environmental Council, recently completed an experiment on how door-to-door canvassing affected voter turnout in south Seattle, which has one of the lowest voter turnout rates in the county--as well as some of the highest diversity...The precincts they canvassed are more than 50 percent people of color. The group found that 82 percent of registered voters who consistently voted over the last three years in these neighborhoods identify as White. The experiment, named Operation Spectra, moved chronic nonvoters--or people who hadn't voted in the eight most recent major elections--to vote in the November 2015 election 13.7 percent higher than other diverse precincts Washington CAN used as a control group...Melissa Michelson, a political science professor at Menlo College, has conducted dozens of studies on canvassing and is co-author of the book Mobilizing Inclusion: Transforming the Electorate through Get-Out-the-Vote Campaigns. Her past experiments failed to sway chronic nonvoters. "If [this trend] repeats, then it's a huge change to what political scientists know about mobilizing nonvoters," Michelson says."

Tobias Konitzer, a Ph.D. candidate in communication at Stanford University and David Rothschild is an economist at Microsoft Research present some intertesting (and wonky) findings at The Monkey Cage in their post, "New polls show that more Americans prefer Democrats' policies." As the authors conclude, "The general population is much more aligned with Democratic rather than Republican positions. For five issues, the Democratic position is much more popular than either the neutral or the Republican position. Those include increased taxes on high earners, legalizing abortion in cases of rape and incest, having anti-discrimination laws for sexual orientation, federally mandating that businesses offer maternity leave and increased gun control measures...For two issues, the Democratic position and the neutral position are equally popular: whether the government should try to reduce income inequality and whether global warming exists...American voters are decidedly neutral on two issues associated with Republicans: reducing Medicare costs by giving vouchers to subscribers and curtailing government regulations...But they agree with the Republicans on two issues: reducing immigration and considering military options to deal with Iran."


May 27, 2016

False Equivalence Back With a Vengeance in HRC Email Coverage



Was your world rocked by the State Department IG's report on Hillary Clinton's email? I didn't think so. But interpretations varied, and not innocently, as I observed at New York yesterday:

For Republicans and other Hillary haters, it was a huge, shocking blow to the already-reeling presumptive Democratic nominee, portending a long slide toward ignominious defeat in November. Indeed, Donald Trump thought it was such a big deal that he started speculating that Democrats would soon dump her for Joe Biden. For most left-leaning observers who aren't Hillary haters, it was, in Josh Marshall's eloquent assessment, a "nothingburger."

But then there are the reactions of supposedly objective major media organizations. The New York Times' Amy Chozick offered this reaction to the IG report:

[A]s the Democratic primary contest comes to a close, any hopes Mrs. Clinton had of running a high-minded, policy-focused campaign have collided with a more visceral problem.

Voters just don't trust her.

The Clinton campaign had hoped to use the coming weeks to do everything they could to shed that image and convince voters that Mrs. Clinton can be trusted. Instead, they must contend with a damaging new report by the State Department's inspector general that Mrs. Clinton had not sought or received approval to use a private email server while she was secretary of state.

Now, as it happens, there is at best limited evidence that voters don't care about Hillary Clinton's policy positions because they are transfixed by her lack of trustworthiness. Voters who don't like a candidate for whatever reason are usually happy to agree with pollsters and reporters who offer negative information about the candidate as an explanation. So what Chozick is doing is arguing that her perception of perceptions about Clinton make every bit of news about the email story highly germane and more important than all the policy issues in the world.

A somewhat different reaction to the IG report came from the Washington Post, which editorially hurled righteous thunderbolts at Clinton:

The department's email technology was archaic. Other staffers also used personal email, as did Secretary Colin Powell (2001-2005), without preserving the records. But there is no excuse for the way Ms. Clinton breezed through all the warnings and notifications. While not illegal behavior, it was disturbingly unmindful of the rules. In the middle of the presidential campaign, we urge the FBI to finish its own investigation soon, so all information about this troubling episode will be before the voters.

This is beneath a headline that reads: "Clinton's inexcusable, willful disregard for the rules."

Words like "inexcusable" suggest that Clinton has all but disqualified herself from the presidency. But if the FBI disagrees, as most everyone expects, then the Post will have done yeoman's service for that other major-party presidential nominee, and his effort to brand Clinton as "Crooked Hillary."

Concerns about Donald Trump rarely if ever descend to the level of digging around in hopes of discovering patterns of "reckless" behavior or "willful disregard for the rules." That's because he's reckless every day, and willfully disregards not only "the rules" but most other previously established standards of civility, honesty, and accountability. Yes, voters don't entirely trust Clinton. But a bigger concern ought to be that Trump fans credit him for "telling it like it is" when the man is constantly repeating malicious gossip, lunatic conspiracy theories, ancient pseudo-scandals, and blatant falsehoods.

Yet we are drifting into a general election where important media sources seem to have decided that Clinton violating State Department email protocols and Trump openly threatening press freedoms, proudly championing war crimes, and cheerfully channeling misogyny and ethnic and racial grievances are of about the same order of magnitude. And that's not to mention the vast differences between the two candidates on all those public-policy issues that Amy Chozick thinks voters have subordinated to questions of "trust."

This is the kind of environment in which it becomes easy for a candidate like Trump to achieve "normalization" even as he continues to do and say abnormal things.


How Clinton Can Respond to a Sanders-Trump Debate



If the Sanders-Trump debate becomes a solid go, Hillary Clinton may want to reconsider her decision not to debate Sanders before the California primary and give the OK to a three-way debate that allows her to take on Trump.

Not participating gives her adversaries a free ad with millions of viewers. Neither Trump nor Sanders will miss the opportunity to attack Clinton. That will be the central focus of the debate, knocking off the front-runner. "If you're not at the table, you're on the menu."

If Clinton just criticizes the Trump-Sanders debate as a bad idea because it breaks precedent, and leaves it at that, she runs the risk of sounding like an ossified traditionalist who can't cope with change. The spin doctors will pin the "sour grapes" and "scardy cat" labels on her, and in this crazy election year, it just might stick.

Clinton participating in the debate would be better, even though it has a downside -- it gives Trump a forum to bash Democrats and perhaps gain some credibility just by being the sole Republican underdog fighting a tag-team. Of course he could likely as not make an even bigger fool of himself.

The upside is Clinton is a strong debater. She will have to debate Trump in the near-future anyway, and she is already well-prepared to win that contest. Sanders will lose some of the stature he would have gotten in a one-on-one debate just by having Clinton on the stage and she has already demonstrated that she can hold her own in debates with him.

The wisest course for Sen. Sanders is to urge that Clinton be included in any debate with Trump. In that way he can look fair-minded and respectful of voters, whether or not she agrees to be in the debate.

It may be that the time is ripening for debates across party lines before the primaries are over. The parties won't like it much, but it would make for a more engaging primary season. It might have been interesting, if for example, there were a series of one-on-one debates between various presidential candidates, such as Kasich-O'Malley, Trump-Clinton or Sanders-Cruz and other combinations. Those debates earlier on could add clarity to the policy differences between the parties. Coming so late, it just looks like a hail-Mary.


May 26, 2016

Political Strategy Notes



At The New York Times Thomas B. Edsall frames a question many are wondering about: "How could a candidate with as much baggage as Trump be neck-and-neck with one of the most admired, best credentialed and most broadly experienced nominees in the history of the Democratic Party?" Edsall elaborates, "The unrelenting assault from the right and the left on her integrity and competence, conducted both by Republicans and by her opponent for the Democratic nomination, appears to have taken a toll. Clinton has been under attack from the right throughout her 25 years in the national arena. The Sanders critique from the left has served to deepen her negative ratings...One alternative for Clinton is to try to elevate the campaign debate to issues of judgment, temperament and experience, as Lyndon Baines Johnson was able to do when he ran against Barry Goldwater in 1964. This is clearly terrain where she holds an advantage. But so far this year no one who has faced Trump has been able to change the conversation."

Paul Krugman has a 'Conscience of a Liberal' post up on "The Truth About the Sanders Movement." Krugman offers a list of categories to pidgeonhole Sanders voters including: Genuine Idealists; Romantics; Purists; "Clinton Derangement Syndrome" Victims; and "Salon des Refuses." Krugman may be too dismissive here of issue-oriented Sanders voters. He should also add a category for "Strategic Lefties" -- those who see support for Sanders as a way to push Clinton to embrace a more progressive policy agenda, which has worked out rather well.

At Sabato's Crystal Ball, Alan I. Abramowitz explains "Why Democratic Unity Could Be Easier to Achieve This Time: Donald Trump and Barack Obama." Among Abramowitz's observations: "...Because of the extraordinarily negative opinions that Democratic voters currently hold toward Trump, even a fairly tepid endorsement by Sanders may be sufficient to convince the vast majority of his supporters to cast their ballot for Clinton in the general election...A somewhat greater concern for Democrats in 2016 may be ensuring that Sanders' youthful supporters actually make it to the polls. A much larger share of Sanders backers than 2008 Clinton backers are under the age of 30, which means they are probably less reliable general election voters. The Clinton campaign clearly will need a strong get-out-the-vote effort and all the help they can get from Sanders in motivating his young supporters to turn out in November."

Dan Roberts of The Guardian sees Sen. Elizabeth Warren as a potent unity advocate for Democrats. "Warren remains a senior party figure," explains Roberts, "perhaps the only one other than Barack Obama who is respected by both halves of a divided Democratic party."

And Warren's message on the essential role of government in facilitating entrepreneurship and private enterprise still resonates:
Warren's Message.jpg

It's time for Democratic candidates and campaigns at every level to start raising holy hell about the need for infrastructure upgrades that will provide millions of needed jobs. Rene Marsh, David Gracey and Ted Severson spotlight the public safety threat [posed by "America's infrastructure: Beams disintegrating under bridges" at CNN Politics. As the authors note, "As former Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood says, "We're like a third-world country when it comes to infrastructure...Nearly 60,000 bridges across the country are in desperate need of repair...According to the American Road and Transportation Builders Association, every state has some degree of bad bridges that need to be repaired. In Los Angeles, CNN found trees growing out of cracks in a bridge. In Chicago, netting is in place to protect drivers from falling concrete....According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, bridge infrastructure investment needs to be increased by $8 billion annually. The society said that increase would address the estimated $76 billion in needs for deficient bridges across the United States."

When your crazy uncle starts ranting about Clinton's emails, refer him to this link.

At The Upshot Josh Katz and Kevin Quealy review historical data since 1980 to provide an answer to the question, "When Should You Start Worrying About the Polls?" With respect to this political moment, the authors note, "At this point - 167 days before the election - a simple polling average has differed from the final result by about nine percentage points. ...But this far out, a simple polling average is not particularly helpful at predicting the final result. (An analysis from the political scientists Robert Erikson and Christopher Wlezien concurs. That analysis focused on the correlation of polls with the final result, instead of the difference in percentage points.)...The day before the voting, an unadjusted polling average has been about 3.5 points off the final result."

Also at The Crystal Ball, Kyle Kondik and Geoffrey Skelley say "Libertarians Should Have Their Best Presidential Election Ever." Kondik and Skelley note that "early polls suggest that the Libertarian ticket is taking about equally from the two major parties." My hunch is that later polls will show the Libertarians doing significantly more damage to the GOP.


May 25, 2016

Bernie's Indies Will Be Hillary's in November



One of the great abiding mysteries of this campaign cycle has been what exactly to make of the self-identified independents who have been giving lopsided margins to Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primaries and caucuses. They don't seem to be the centrist indies of yore, which hasn't kept some analysts from warning they might tilt Republican in November is Sanders isn't on the ballot.

As I noted today at New York, FiveThirtyEight's Harry Enten has lifted the veil on this subject with some analysis of Bernie's indies that should be encouraging for Democrats who worry about Hillary Clinton's general election prospects:

Who are the self-identified independent voters Bernie Sanders is carrying so heavily in primaries and caucuses? Are they swing voters who might well swing to Donald Trump in a general-election contest with Hillary Clinton, or stay home in large numbers?

According to the Gallup data Enten is looking at, no, they're not.

Sanders's real advantage over Clinton is among the 41 percent of independents who lean Democratic, with whom he has a 71 percent approval rating as opposed to HRC's 51 percent. Among the 23 percent who do not lean in either party's direction -- the stone swing voters -- Sanders's approval rating is 35 percent, virtually the same as Clinton's 34 percent (both are much better than Trump's 16 percent).

But aren't a lot of the leaners swing voters, too, particularly if their favored candidate does not win the nomination? Probably not:

In the last three presidential elections, the Democratic candidate received the support of no less than 88 percent of self-identified independents who leaned Democratic, according to the American National Elections Studies survey. These are, in effect, Democratic voters with a different name.

Yes, Clinton may need to work on this category of voters, but the idea that they are unreachable or likely to defect to Trump doesn't make a whole lot of sense. These aren't left-bent voters who have lurked in hiding for years, waiting for a Democrat free of Wall Street ties or militaristic tendencies, and they're not truly unaffiliated voters who will enter the general election as likely to vote for a Republican as a Democrat. They've been around for a while, and in fact they are being affected by partisan polarization more than the self-identified partisans who have almost always put on the party yoke. So while a majority of these Democratic-leaning independents clearly prefer Bernie Sanders as the Democratic nominee, they represent a reservoir of votes that are ultimately Hillary Clinton's to lose.



Dems Set to Win Majorities in Key State Legislatures



At The Fix Amber Phillips has a post, "Why Democrats are set to retake state legislatures in 2016 (and it's not just Trump)," which should offer some encouragement to state Democratic parties. Phillips conducts an interview with Louis Jacobson, PolitiFact's senior correspondent, who sees significant gains for Democrats in state legislatures in November, particularly in rust-belt megastates MI, PA and OH.

Phillips and Jacobsen emphasize that it's not just because Trump may well produce a backlash landslide favoring Democrats; "It's because Democrats have lost so many state legislatures in recent years they may have nowhere to go but up," as Phillips explains. Also, presidential elections turn out pro-Democratic constituencies which can cut into the GOP's disproportionate gains in the 2010 and 2014 mid terms.

Here's a map showing which party currently controls both houses of the state legislature in the 50 states (GOP in red, including unicameral NB legislature; Dems in blue; split control in grey):

state leg map.jpg

Jacobsen sees Democrats picking up majorities in "at least a half-dozen" state legislative chambers, but also emphasizes,

Getting to parity is going to take a couple of cycles. And it could go faster for them if Republicans win the White House. But we're talking changes on the margin here. And some of the chambers that changed Republican in recent years are not going to change back.

Jacobsen also sees potential picks ups in western states like AZ and NV, where "the possibility of a Trump candidacy can energize Latino voters." Jacobsen and Phillips may be understating the potential turnovers favoring Democrats. A strong Latino turnout in the west could also turn NM and CO blue in the map above. NY is also a good bet if Latino and African Americans turn out in impressive numbers. And if the Democratic presidential nominee improves on President Obama's support from women by as little as 3 or 4 percent, the map will change dramatically.

Phillips and Jacobsen are understandably cautious about Democratic prospects. One major concern would be if those Republican donors who are not giving support to Trump decide to invest more in GOP candidates as far down-ballot as the state legislatures.

But Dems have reason to be optimistic, especially if the trend favoring straight ticket-voting in presidential elections continues. As elections analyst David Byler explains at Real Clear Politics,

Democratic Party leaders will almost certainly put increased money and manpower into these elections in 2016, but funding, advertising and campaigning on the local level can only do so much. The national political atmosphere will play an outsized role in determining the outcome of state legislative contests. Specifically, the outcome of the presidential race will likely shape the composition of state legislatures across the country.

In order to show this, we analyzed state-level data from every presidential election from 1956 to today. The data shows a clear, potentially problematic pattern -- that the presidential race has become increasingly important in determining the results of state legislative elections.

And if Trump doubles down on alienating Latinos and women, while the Democratic nominee presents a credible and more appealing alternative in the debates, the map will look considerably different when the new state legislators are sworn in across the U.S.


May 24, 2016

Did Facebook Just Cave to the GOP?



Yesterday J.P. Green noted an article in Campaigns & Elections underscoring the high regard Repubican party political operatives have for Facebook as a media outlet for their ads -- despite the efforts of Sen. John Thune (R-SD) to discredit Facebook as tainted by liberal bias.

But Thune's record suggests more than a little hypocrisy, as Steve Benen noted at Maddowblog:

...John Thune says he's concerned about Facebook's "culture" and the integrity of its mission statement, but again, how in the world is that any of his business? Isn't the Republican model based on the idea that the free market should decide and if online consumers don't like Facebook's "culture," we can take our clicks elsewhere?

But even more striking still is Thune's uniquely weak position. When the South Dakota Republican became Congress' leading opponent of net neutrality, Thune made the case that any political interference in how the Internet operates is inherently unacceptable.

Worse, in 2007, Thune railed against the "Fairness Doctrine," arguing at the time, "I know the hair stands up on the back of my neck when I hear government officials offering to regulate the news media and talk radio to ensure fairness. I think most Americans have the same reaction."

For the sake of argument, so what if Facebook had more "liiberal" content? Fox News, Breitbart and the Drudge Report display relentless conservative bias every day, and no Senators are trying to intimidate them to change their polices to reflect a more liberal point of view. Not all media has to be nonpartisan.

But Facebook has 1.6 billion "users," and dwarfs all other websites in some key metrics that measure influence, which explain Thune's meddling.

In reality, however, the political content of Facebook is mostly determined by the public, as its "users" choose which articles, videos and other content to share with their FB friends. It's different for every user, from moment to moment. Liberals see mostly liberal content, and the same principle applies for both conservatives and moderates. Facebook does provide a powerful forum for peer-to-peer political education. But everyone can choose what to read and view and what to ignore, and that includes content spotlighted by Facebook's administrators and staff.

But Brian Fung's Washington Post article, "Facebook is making some big changes to Trending Topics, responding to conservatives" raises a disturbing possibility that facebook is caving to political pressure. As Fung reports,

Facebook said Monday it will stop relying as much on other news outlets to inform what goes into its Trending Topics section -- a part of Facebook's website that despite its small size has grown into a national political controversy amid accusations that the social network is stifling conservative voices on its platform.

Under the change, Facebook will discontinue the algorithmic analysis of media organizations' websites and digital news feeds that partly determines which stories should be included in Trending Topics. Also being thrown out is a list of 1,000 journalism outlets that currently helps Facebook's curators evaluate and describe the newsworthiness of potential topics, as well as a more exclusive list of 10 news sites that includes BuzzFeed News, the Guardian, the New York Times and The Washington Post.

...Facebook's policy change Monday appears to be aimed at defusing the palpable tension between it and Republicans outraged over reports that Facebook's Trending Topics could be biased against conservatives. Facebook's announcement ending the scraping of news sites and RSS feeds for Trending Topics came in a response to Sen. John Thune (S.D.), the top Republican on the powerful Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee. Thune demanded on May 10 that Facebook answer a series of questions in light of the mounting outcry over the perceived bias.

Facebook has reponded that "Suppressing political content or preventing people from seeing what matters most to them is directly contrary to our mission and our business objectives." But the changes regarding the selection of 'Trending Topics" content suggest otherwise.

Most Facebook users will probably not notice much change in political slant and tone. That will still be largely determined by user posts. But the possibility that Facebook's content policy can be influenced by political intimidation, especially from the politician who leads the opposition to net neurtrality, is disturbing.


May 23, 2016

Political Strategy Notes



In the wake of tensions, both real and over-hyped, between the Clinton and Sanders campaigns, New York Times reporters Jonathan Mahler and Yamiche Alcindor ask and address an important question: "Bernie Sanders Makes a Campaign Mark. Now, Can He Make a Legacy?" The legacy Sanders wants is a come-from-behind upset win of the Democratic presidential nomination. But it would be a shame if his coalition evaporates in the event of a Clinton victory. Alcindor and Mahler cite three core issues of the Sanders campaign -- universal health care, free college tuition and reducing the influence of wealthy donors in politics. There is a concern that these issues will fade into the background without his candidacy or election. The authors discuss some possibilities for future political involvement of Sanders supporters beyond 2016. Win or lose, Sanders can make a significant contribution by mobilizing his supporters to "adopt" the midterm elections and help candidates who support his three core causes.

At Salon.com Michael Bourne makes the case why "Hillary must pick Bernie for VP: She may even need him more than he needs her."

Salon.com's Heather Digby Parton discusses Stan Greenberg's memo, "The GOP Crash and the Historic Moment for Progressives." Parton comments on Greenberg's calculation that about 10 percent of conservatives are willing to vote for Clinton over Trump, "The question is what it will take to get them to vote for Democrats in this election...Where Greenberg sees an opening is in national investment, bank regulation and corporate governance which dovetails nicely with the populist agenda coming from the left wing of the party as well...If Greenberg is right and the Democrats pay attention and all the stars align, we could come out of this with a big progressive win, setting the stage for a fertile time of renewal and progress."

It appears that Hillary Clinton is on solid political ground in calling for stricter gun control. "A New York Times/CBS News poll in January found that 57 percent of respondents wanted stricter laws governing gun sales, and 88 percent favored background checks for all purchases," reports Amy Chozick at The New York Times.

I disagree with most of the points conservative commentator Matt Lewis makes in his rambling Daily Beast rant, "How the GOP Went South." But some of his comments on the affected vernacular of various presidential candidates are on target, specifically his observation that "his father, former President George H. W. Bush, had been mocked as a tax‑raiser and a preppy wimp. George W. Bush did everything possible to be the opposite of that. The adoption of the Texas persona helped, but the younger Bush overswaggered and overtwanged. But hey, he managed to win two elections, and winning is everything, right?" Despite his sheltered preppy background, W did somehow have an ear for 'regular guy' chatter, his malapropisms notwithstanding. Although Gore and Kerry both had more real world life experience than Bush II, it was frequently noted that they both seemed a little on the stiff side. Could it be that a more casual persona is worth some votes?

Here's why now would be a good time for Alabama Democrats to get their shite together. Such opportunities often pop up suddenly, and Dems in red states simply must do a better job of identifying, preparing and funding new candidates to meet the challenge.

Interesting statistical nuggets on the relationship between presidential primary turnouts and winning presidential candidates from Rhodes Cook's "High Primary Turnouts: Any Clues for the Fall?" at Larry J. Sabato's Crystal Ball: "Only in the open election of 2008 was there a clear correlation between the primary turnout and the November outcome. That year, 16 million more votes were cast in the Democratic primaries than the Republican ones, which proved a precursor of Democratic success that fall...In 2016, the Republican edge in the primary vote is much smaller than the Democrats enjoyed in 2008. Coming out of the May 10 primaries in Nebraska and West Virginia, the GOP margin stands at 4 million votes and shrinking. Among the eight states left to hold their presidential primaries are deep blue California and New Jersey. And in 2008, more than 2 million more votes were cast on the Democratic than Republican side of the California ballot."

Quoctrung Bui's Upshot post "Where the Middle Class Is Shrinking" provides some data that might be useful for targeting political messages and political ad expenditures.

Some salient comments from Sean J. Miller's post "Republican Consultants keeping faith with facebook" at Campaigns & Elections: "Donald Trump has more fans on Facebook than any other presidential candidate. And Fox News drives more interactions on its Facebook page than any other news outlet in the world," says Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. GOP digital consultant Phillip Stutts adds "Facebook is the best targeting advertising platform available," he said. "Older men and women vote and they are the largest segment joining Facebook right now. It would be political malpractice to our candidates to not use it." Another GOP digital consultant Ian Patrick Hines echoes Facebook's "data and ad targeting tools are unmatched."


May 20, 2016

Beware of Outlier Polls Arriving on a Wave of Hype



A major source of angst for many Democrats the last couple of weeks has been the advent of several general election polls showing Donald Trump catching up with Hillary Clinton after earlier polls showed him in very bad shape. I addressed the challenge of dealing with such polls at New York today:

Most political junkies realize there are some polling outlets that have what is known as a "house effect" -- a more or less systematic tendency to show results bending one way or another to an extent that makes their surveys consistent outliers. Few Democrats, for example, will panic over an adverse Rasmussen poll. But some "house effects" are the product not of partisan or candidate bias, but of deployment of methodologies that over time tend to produce outlier results. I really don't think Gallup in 2012 was shilling for Mitt Romney, even though its polls regularly and significantly inflated his odds of winning; the venerable organization made transparent and earnest efforts after the election to analyze and correct its errors.

It's also clear that some phenomena -- high cell-phone usage, declining response rates, and the increased expenses of live interviewing -- are making polling more perilous and less scientific than most of us realize. All of this explains why the experts tell consumers of public-opinion research to rely on polling averages, not individual polls, to understand what's going on politically, and to examine trends rather than absolute numbers. When it comes to polls about distant events, like the November general election, significantly more caution is in order. Some would argue that a general-election matchup poll prior to the party conventions is pretty much useless.

So the current hype about Trump more or less catching Clinton in general-election support should be taken with a shaker of salt and perhaps active disdain.

In a New York Times op-ed today, political scientists Norman Ornstein and Alan Abramowitz discuss all of the problems with such general-election polls and the methodologies they deploy, and then add this important observation:

When polling aficionados see results that seem surprising or unusual, the first instinct is to look under the hood at things like demographic and partisan distributions. When cable news hosts and talking heads see these kinds of results, they exult, report and analyze ad nauseam. Caveats or cautions are rarely included.

That's particularly true if these "cable news hosts and talking heads" find validation for their point of view from outlier polls. The fact that Republicans and Bernie Sanders-supporting Democrats have a common interest in showing Clinton doing poorly against Trump adds to the noise, to the point where it's the only thing many people hear.

Maybe these polls will turn out to be accurate, but we just don't know that now. As Ornstein and Abramowitz conclude:

Smart analysts are working to sort out distorting effects of questions and poll design. In the meantime, voters and analysts alike should beware of polls that show implausible, eye-catching results. Look for polling averages and use gold-standard surveys, like Pew. Everyone needs to be better at reading polls -- to first look deeper into the quality and nature of a poll before assessing the results.

Alternatively, just be careful about jumping to conclusions.

There's plenty of time before the general election to look at data with some perspective.


Dems' Message Strategy Must Overcome Trump's Media Manipulation



Julie Pace of Associated Press addresses a critical problem for the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination:

How can the wonkish Clinton counteract Trump's finely tuned ability to command attention? Can she win the White House by letting Trump run on his terms, hoping his unorthodox candidacy wears thin with voters by November?...Or does she need to make a positive case for her own candidacy, something she has struggled to articulate during the Democratic primary?

It's a tough question. Trump's ability to manipulate the media is unprecedented in U.S. presidential politics. Back in March, for example, a New York Times/mediaQquant study found that Trump had received $1.898 billion in free media coverage, compared to $746 million for Clinton and $321 million for Sanders.

As a reality TV star, he has learned that saying outrageous things positions his campaign to dominate headlines and television coverage. He undoubtedly hopes that it creates an unspoken subtext that he is "in control" of the narrative, regardless of how stupid or malevolent are the substance of his comments. Low-information voters, he hopes, will mistake his media domination for authority.

Further, notes Pace,

"He's good at dominating the news cycle and changing the news cycle to fit his purposes," said Rick Tyler, former communications director for Texas Sen. Ted Cruz's failed presidential campaign. "He has this ability to just change the trajectory of where the news is going by using amazing distractions that are just too delicious to pass up."

if Sanders can somehow pull offf an upset and win the Democratic nomination, he is going to have the same problem. Although Clinton has received more popular votes than Trump, and Sanders has received nearly as many, neither one has received anything close to the media coverage Trump now takes for granted. Trump's campaign is the ultimate test of the proposition that even bad media is better than no media.

The danger for the Democratic presidential candidates is that their ability to be pro-active in their messaging gets smothered by Trump's outrage du jour. As Pace writes,

...Clinton has overcome her messaging struggles in the primary and is close to clinching the Democratic nomination. But facing Trump will be another matter, with his capacity to set the tone for the day in the morning through frequent tweets and calls into news shows, catching his rivals off guard and leaving them scrambling to catch up.

It's possible to over-worry about all of this. A lot of Trump's coverage is not just bad; It's horribly negative and that has to hurt some over time. Millions of voters are going to see video collages of his most unflattering moments in the months ahead and it could have a devastating effect on his campaign.

There are a lot of options in between ignoring Trump's daily tirade and blasting him with well-targeted soundbites. But what the Democratic presidential nominee must have is a disciplined, pro-active messaging strategy and a positive political identity that stands in stark contrast to Trump's reckless and obnoxious persona.






Editor's Corner

by Ed Kilgore



May 27: False Equivalence Back With a Vengeance in Clinton Email Coverage

Was your world rocked by the State Department IG's report on Hillary Clinton's email? I didn't think so. But interpretations varied, and not innocently, as I observed at New York yesterday:

For Republicans and other Hillary haters, it was a huge, shocking blow to the already-reeling presumptive Democratic nominee, portending a long slide toward ignominious defeat in November. Indeed, Donald Trump thought it was such a big deal that he started speculating that Democrats would soon dump her for Joe Biden. For most left-leaning observers who aren't Hillary haters, it was, in Josh Marshall's eloquent assessment, a "nothingburger."

But then there are the reactions of supposedly objective major media organizations. The New York Times' Amy Chozick offered this reaction to the IG report:

[A]s the Democratic primary contest comes to a close, any hopes Mrs. Clinton had of running a high-minded, policy-focused campaign have collided with a more visceral problem.

Voters just don't trust her.

The Clinton campaign had hoped to use the coming weeks to do everything they could to shed that image and convince voters that Mrs. Clinton can be trusted. Instead, they must contend with a damaging new report by the State Department's inspector general that Mrs. Clinton had not sought or received approval to use a private email server while she was secretary of state.

Now, as it happens, there is at best limited evidence that voters don't care about Hillary Clinton's policy positions because they are transfixed by her lack of trustworthiness. Voters who don't like a candidate for whatever reason are usually happy to agree with pollsters and reporters who offer negative information about the candidate as an explanation. So what Chozick is doing is arguing that her perception of perceptions about Clinton make every bit of news about the email story highly germane and more important than all the policy issues in the world.

A somewhat different reaction to the IG report came from the Washington Post, which editorially hurled righteous thunderbolts at Clinton:

The department's email technology was archaic. Other staffers also used personal email, as did Secretary Colin Powell (2001-2005), without preserving the records. But there is no excuse for the way Ms. Clinton breezed through all the warnings and notifications. While not illegal behavior, it was disturbingly unmindful of the rules. In the middle of the presidential campaign, we urge the FBI to finish its own investigation soon, so all information about this troubling episode will be before the voters.

This is beneath a headline that reads: "Clinton's inexcusable, willful disregard for the rules."

Words like "inexcusable" suggest that Clinton has all but disqualified herself from the presidency. But if the FBI disagrees, as most everyone expects, then the Post will have done yeoman's service for that other major-party presidential nominee, and his effort to brand Clinton as "Crooked Hillary."

Concerns about Donald Trump rarely if ever descend to the level of digging around in hopes of discovering patterns of "reckless" behavior or "willful disregard for the rules." That's because he's reckless every day, and willfully disregards not only "the rules" but most other previously established standards of civility, honesty, and accountability. Yes, voters don't entirely trust Clinton. But a bigger concern ought to be that Trump fans credit him for "telling it like it is" when the man is constantly repeating malicious gossip, lunatic conspiracy theories, ancient pseudo-scandals, and blatant falsehoods.

Yet we are drifting into a general election where important media sources seem to have decided that Clinton violating State Department email protocols and Trump openly threatening press freedoms, proudly championing war crimes, and cheerfully channeling misogyny and ethnic and racial grievances are of about the same order of magnitude. And that's not to mention the vast differences between the two candidates on all those public-policy issues that Amy Chozick thinks voters have subordinated to questions of "trust."

This is the kind of environment in which it becomes easy for a candidate like Trump to achieve "normalization" even as he continues to do and say abnormal things.


May 25: Bernie's Indies Will Be Hillary's in November

One of the great abiding mysteries of this campaign cycle has been what exactly to make of the self-identified independents who have been giving lopsided margins to Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primaries and caucuses. They don't seem to be the centrist indies of yore, which hasn't kept some analysts from warning they might tilt Republican in November is Sanders isn't on the ballot.

As I noted today at New York, FiveThirtyEight's Harry Enten has lifted the veil on this subject with some analysis of Bernie's indies that should be encouraging for Democrats who worry about Hillary Clinton's general election prospects:

Who are the self-identified independent voters Bernie Sanders is carrying so heavily in primaries and caucuses? Are they swing voters who might well swing to Donald Trump in a general-election contest with Hillary Clinton, or stay home in large numbers?

According to the Gallup data Enten is looking at, no, they're not.

Sanders's real advantage over Clinton is among the 41 percent of independents who lean Democratic, with whom he has a 71 percent approval rating as opposed to HRC's 51 percent. Among the 23 percent who do not lean in either party's direction -- the stone swing voters -- Sanders's approval rating is 35 percent, virtually the same as Clinton's 34 percent (both are much better than Trump's 16 percent).

But aren't a lot of the leaners swing voters, too, particularly if their favored candidate does not win the nomination? Probably not:

In the last three presidential elections, the Democratic candidate received the support of no less than 88 percent of self-identified independents who leaned Democratic, according to the American National Elections Studies survey. These are, in effect, Democratic voters with a different name.

Yes, Clinton may need to work on this category of voters, but the idea that they are unreachable or likely to defect to Trump doesn't make a whole lot of sense. These aren't left-bent voters who have lurked in hiding for years, waiting for a Democrat free of Wall Street ties or militaristic tendencies, and they're not truly unaffiliated voters who will enter the general election as likely to vote for a Republican as a Democrat. They've been around for a while, and in fact they are being affected by partisan polarization more than the self-identified partisans who have almost always put on the party yoke. So while a majority of these Democratic-leaning independents clearly prefer Bernie Sanders as the Democratic nominee, they represent a reservoir of votes that are ultimately Hillary Clinton's to lose.



May 20: Beware of Outlier Polls Arriving on a Wave of Hype


A major source of angst for many Democrats the last couple of weeks has been the advent of several general election polls showing Donald Trump catching up with Hillary Clinton after earlier polls showed him in very bad shape. I addressed the challenge of dealing with such polls at New York today:

Most political junkies realize there are some polling outlets that have what is known as a "house effect" -- a more or less systematic tendency to show results bending one way or another to an extent that makes their surveys consistent outliers. Few Democrats, for example, will panic over an adverse Rasmussen poll. But some "house effects" are the product not of partisan or candidate bias, but of deployment of methodologies that over time tend to produce outlier results. I really don't think Gallup in 2012 was shilling for Mitt Romney, even though its polls regularly and significantly inflated his odds of winning; the venerable organization made transparent and earnest efforts after the election to analyze and correct its errors.

It's also clear that some phenomena -- high cell-phone usage, declining response rates, and the increased expenses of live interviewing -- are making polling more perilous and less scientific than most of us realize. All of this explains why the experts tell consumers of public-opinion research to rely on polling averages, not individual polls, to understand what's going on politically, and to examine trends rather than absolute numbers. When it comes to polls about distant events, like the November general election, significantly more caution is in order. Some would argue that a general-election matchup poll prior to the party conventions is pretty much useless.

So the current hype about Trump more or less catching Clinton in general-election support should be taken with a shaker of salt and perhaps active disdain.

In a New York Times op-ed today, political scientists Norman Ornstein and Alan Abramowitz discuss all of the problems with such general-election polls and the methodologies they deploy, and then add this important observation:

When polling aficionados see results that seem surprising or unusual, the first instinct is to look under the hood at things like demographic and partisan distributions. When cable news hosts and talking heads see these kinds of results, they exult, report and analyze ad nauseam. Caveats or cautions are rarely included.

That's particularly true if these "cable news hosts and talking heads" find validation for their point of view from outlier polls. The fact that Republicans and Bernie Sanders-supporting Democrats have a common interest in showing Clinton doing poorly against Trump adds to the noise, to the point where it's the only thing many people hear.

Maybe these polls will turn out to be accurate, but we just don't know that now. As Ornstein and Abramowitz conclude:

Smart analysts are working to sort out distorting effects of questions and poll design. In the meantime, voters and analysts alike should beware of polls that show implausible, eye-catching results. Look for polling averages and use gold-standard surveys, like Pew. Everyone needs to be better at reading polls -- to first look deeper into the quality and nature of a poll before assessing the results.

Alternatively, just be careful about jumping to conclusions.

There's plenty of time before the general election to look at data with some perspective.


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