November 2012: Romney’s 47% Problem

A tip of the hat to the legendary New York newspaper columnist Jimmy Cannon for borrowing his signature phrase: nobody asked me, but…

Whatever chances former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney had of winning the Presidency died on May 17, 2012 when he addressed a group of wealthy GOP donors in Boca Raton, Florida and talked candidly about the “entitled” 47% of Americans he believed would never vote for him. “I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives,” he claimed.

Romney’s dismissive comments were secretly recorded and they surfaced in the left-of-center magazine Mother Jones in September.

“There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it—that that’s an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what. … These are people who pay no income tax. … [M]y job is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.”

Romney’s remarks were particularly damaging because they re-enforced the narrative that he was a plutocrat who didn’t care for the common man, one cultivated through the spring and summer by the Obama campaign. In fact, President Obama’s chief campaign strategist David Axelrod couldn’t have scripted it better as a way to alienate working-class voters.

The Obama campaign fashioned a television commercial from Romney’s off-the-cuff speech and played it repetitively in Ohio, New Hampshire, and other swing states. The strength of the commercial was its simplicity—the video of Romney in “his own words.”

How much did Romney’s comments help to determine the final outcome of the election?

There are multiple theories floating around that look to explain President Obama’s victory and Romney’s loss. The Obama campaign’s ability to bank early votes and to systematically deliver targeted Democratic voters to the polls has to be seen as one of the most important factors in the 2012 Presidental election. Obama’s total vote total dropped, but the turnout by Hispanics, young voters, and African-Americans proved critical in states like Florida, Colorado, Virginia, and Ohio.

There’s no doubt that Hurricane Sandy interrupted whatever momentum the Romney team had in the last week of the campaign, and praise of the President by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg for his performance during the crisis helped his cause.

Yet it’s also true that Romney’s comments about the 47% made it easier for the Democrats to characterize him as the candidate of Big Business, Wall Street, and the very wealthy. It’s a key reason Romney couldn’t ever close the gap in Ohio, a state Republican candidates need to win if they hope to capture the White House.

Romney lost the key swing states by thin margins in the popular vote (Florida by 1 percent, Ohio by 2, Virginia by 3, and Colorado by 4). If he had not been type-cast as an insensitive “vulture capitalist,” could Romney have won enough working class votes to change the outcome? We’ll never know. What we do know is that Romney won’t be able to shake the 47% meme—it was, ironically, also his national popular vote total.


Copyright © 2012 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved

Purchase the new Cold War thriller by Jefferson Flanders, Herald Square, at Amazon.com.

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September 2012: The inexact art of political polling

A tip of the hat to the legendary New York newspaper columnist Jimmy Cannon for borrowing his signature phrase: nobody asked me, but…

What should we make of the controversy over the presidential election polls? Some conservative pundits are claiming that mainstream media pollsters are overestimating the potential vote for President Obama. Is there a calculated overweighting of Democrats in these polls? Can we rely on any of these polls?

The truth is that polling is a very inexact art (not a science). All public opinion polls should be taken with a mountain (not a grain) of salt.

What very few in the polling business want to admit: a number of subjective decisions (size of sample, weighting methodology, response rate, question phrasing, question order, etc.) that determine what a given poll’s results will look like.

The furor over the presidential polls showing Obama opening up a lead over Governor Romney in several swing states, and well as nationally, does reflect, in part, decisions made by pollsters. But I doubt that there’s any special liberal “home-cooking” going on.

Current political polls are already deeply flawed.

Here are five reasons why the polls should be regarded with great skepticism:

  • Pollsters are reaching fewer and fewer Americans, making it harder to assemble a truly representative random sample. The Pew Research Center admits it gets less than 10 percent of those they contact answering their questions, down from 36 percent in 1997. The other major pollsters have the same problem, and heavy cell phone usage makes it even harder to find the correct demographic mix.
  • Respondents may not be revealing their true views. The “Shy Tory Effect”—where conservatives are less likely to tell pollsters what they really believe&,dash;acts to inflate projected vote totals for more liberal candidates and causes.
  • Questionable survey design&mdeash;where the wording of questions or the ordering of the questions influence response—can skew results.
  • In close political races, the margin of error—which is often one or two percentage points— often makes predicting a winner impossible. A coin toss will have the same level of reliability.
  • In the presidential race, the difficulty in figuring out who will actually vote in November introduces significant subjectivity. It accounts for some polls showing Obama winning a state and others showing Romney winning the same state. If the pollster believes turnout will be like the presidential election of 2008, when minorities and younger voters surged to the polls, an Obama victory is likely. If a pollster believes turnout will be like 2004, with more GOP partisans showing up, then a Romney victory is likely.

In the end, the only poll that matters is the one on Tuesday, November 6th. That’s the one that counts. Debating the validity of public opinion surveys before then may energize partisans, but for the rest of us, it appears to be quite a waste of time. And don’t expect the exit polls to be any better—the flaws in the way they are conducted make them unreliable, to say the least.

In any event, we’ll know the actual winners soon enough.


Copyright © 2012 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved

Purchase the new Cold War thriller by Jefferson Flanders, Herald Square, at Amazon.com.

Read an interview with the author.

March 2012: Do campaign songs matter?

A tip of the hat to the legendary New York newspaper columnist Jimmy Cannon for borrowing his signature phrase: nobody asked me, but…

Campaign songs—songs that candidates play at rallies and other political gathering—attract much more media attention than they deserve.

The reason lies in a combination of the obsession by political consultants in “branding” their candidate in a certain way and selecting music that supports that positioning, and the Boomer-inspired belief that “you are the music you play.” (Today’s equivalent is the foodie’s “you are what you eat.”)

Those who maintain the music selected and played reflects some deeper truth about the candidate are indulging in a form of music snobbery—”cool kids don’t listen to _____________” (fill in the blank with an “unpopular” song or musical genre).

This emphasis on the music saying something about the pol and what he or she stands for has prompted numerous rock bands and singers to demand that candidates they don’t like (usually conservatives or Republicans) to stop playing their songs at campaign appearances. Tom Petty disapproved of George W. Bush adopting “I Won’t Back Down” in the 2000 presidential race and Michele Bachman using “American Girl” in 2011; Heart’s Ann and Nancy Wilson protested Sarah Palin playing “Barracuda”; and there has been a string of aging rockers raging against right-wing candidates borrowing their tunes.

Republicans could avoid the bad PR if they just stuck to country music. Ronald Reagan was well served by Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the U.S.A.” after flirting with Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A” (a curious choice of an anthem for American exceptionalism); George W. Bush turned to Greenwood’s patriotic song and “Only in America” by Brooks and Dunn.

Campaign songs were once about the person running for office. There was “For Jefferson and Liberty” and “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too” (William Henry Harrison) and “Lincoln and Liberty Too” and “Grant, Grant, Grant” and “Keep Cool and Keep Coolidge.” Many of these songs were bespoke—written specifically in support of a given candidate and the lyrics reflected that.

Blame Franklin Delano Roosevelt for the move to borrowing popular songs. His use of “Happy Days are Here Again” was quite effective, and John F. Kennedy borrowed “High Hopes” from Frank Sinatra, but the clincher was the Clinton’s 1992 campaign embrace of Fleetwood Mac’s “Don’t Start.” Political consultants became convinced that coupling music and candidate matters.

The people who run presidential campaigns believe that choice of songs matter. CNN’s documentary on Howard Dean’s 2004 Democratic Presidential campaign includes Joe” Trippi’s dogged efforts to promote LeAnn Rimes’ version of “We Can” as the former Vermont governor’s theme song.

It isn’t too hard to see the hand of political image-makers in Mitt Romney’s February courtship of Kid Rock (a.k.a. Bob Ritchie). Romney appearances had been featuring Kid Rock’s “Born Free” and during the run-up to the Michigan primary Romney went to the singer’s home to talk politics.

As Romney explained (according to the New York Daily News):

“He’d written down some questions for me. He said first of all, he said, ‘Mitt, if you’re elected president, will you help me help the state of Michigan?’ And I said I would.”

Kid Rock then came to a Romney event and played his song in what most observers thought was an awkward episode. (Judge for yourself.)

The more authentic route is a song about the candidate. That’s why will.i.am’s celebrity-studded music video ode of joy to then candidate Barack Obama, “Yes We Can,” has a certain charm despite its creepy Glorious Leader overtone. And county singer John Rich’s “Raisin’ McCain” at least offers up the candidate’s heroic biography in promoting the man. And 2012 already has one truly authentic campaign song entry, “Game On,” a ditty in praise of Rick Santorum from the group First Love, with lead vocals from two home-schooled pastor’s daughters, sisters Camille and Haley Harris.


Copyright © 2012 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved

February 2012: Campaign 2012’s key numbers

There are two very consequential numbers for Campaign 2012: the price of a gallon of gas and the direction of the national unemployment rate.

Where they stand over the summer and early fall will decide the balance of power in Washington.

Conventional wisdom holds that the incumbent President and his or her party face trouble with American voters when there are high levels of unemployment and the trend line is moving in the wrong direction—upwards.

President Barack Obama’s approval rating has swung back toward the 50 percent level as the unemployment rate dropped to 8.3 percent in January, the fifth straight month of decline. As the White House noted, there has been private sector job growth for 23 consecutive months.

If that trend continues, it’s likely the President will win another four years in office and Democrats will retain control of the Senate and perhaps make gains in the House.

But it may be premature to conclude that the economy will help Democrats in November.

Trouble ahead?

Gallup’s mid-February survey of Americans showed unemployment climbing to 9 percent: “Regardless of what the government reports, Gallup’s unemployment and underemployment measures show a sharp deterioration in job market conditions since mid-January.” While Gallup’s survey isn’t seasonally adjusted like the Bureau of Labor Statistic’s figures, eventually an upward trend in unemployment will surface in the government numbers.

Some journalists noted that the January 2012 labor participation rate—how many Americans said they were employed or looking for work as a percentage of the total population—had declined to 63.7 percent from 65.7 percent in January 2009. By some calculations, that means 5 million Americans have given up on looking for work.

Obama’s political advisors must be bracing for a negative jobless rate report in the next few months. The historical record suggests that American voters are more influenced by the trend than by the absolute number. Yet the combination of a worsening jobs picture and a historically high unemployment rate may be too much for even the best-run campaign to overcome.

A complicating factor for Obama and the Democrats: the rising price of gasoline, which was hovering around $3.75 a gallon at the end of February. Gas was $1.85 a gallon when President Obama took office. The concern for Democrats is that the price at the pump could rise to more than $4 as summer nears (and some analysts suggest that even $5 a gallon is possible).

The blame game?

There’s no doubt that Democratic strategists see the potential danger ahead in both the jobless rate and the price of gas. They will no doubt turn to the political blame game, since offense is generally better than defense in politics. It’s why President Obama will focus attention on taxing the profits of large oil companies and will reject GOP arguments that he has blocked domestic production of oil and gas. It’s why the President and his allies will try to pin any slowdown in the economy—and in the labor market—on what they will call an obstructionist Republican House.

But as President George H.W. Bush learned in 1992, even 90 percent job approval ratings evaporate when voters think the economy is headed in the wrong direction. Republicans remember quite well the Clinton campaign slogan of “It’s the economy, stupid.” This time around, they may find it a catch phrase that produces results for the GOP in voting booths on Tuesday, November 6th.


Copyright © 2012 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved

January 2012: The Romney tide rises

A tip of the hat to the legendary New York newspaper columnist Jimmy Cannon for borrowing his signature phrase: nobody asked me, but…

With his commanding victory tonight in Florida’s Republican presidential primary, Mitt Romney now has a clear path to the GOP nomination.

One unanswered question: will former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich remain in the race all the way to the GOP convention in August, as he has promised, or will he eventually drop out? If he does stay in the hunt, will he conduct a scorched-earth campaign, attacking Romney from both the Right and Left as he did throughout January?

What became clear during the roller-coaster month was that Republicans weren’t overjoyed with their choices. Some questioned whether Romney would make the strong conservative case against President Barack Obama.

I attended a Romney rally in Exeter, N.H. on the Sunday before the primary (won by Romney) and saw firsthand what has been giving some on the Right pause. Romney was joined by New Jersey governor Chris Christie, and it was Christie who excited the crowd, first with his abrupt dismissal of some Occupy Wall Street protestors who had heckled him, and then with his hard-edged verbal assault on Obama and his policies. In contrast, when the telegenic Romney spoke, he came across as, well, moderate in his tone and rhetoric. He is the cool, data-driven manager and turn-around specialist, not a partisan warrior. It’s doubtful that he will ever satisfy those in the Republican base who crave “red-meat” attacks on all things Obama.

GOP voters in South Carolina apparently preferred the harder edge displayed by Newt Gingrich in two debates prior to the state’s January 21 primary. The surprisingly-large Gingrich win raised questions about Romney’s inevitability and suggested that evangelical Christian voters and Tea Party advocates weren’t convinced of Romney’s conservative bona fides. (It is also very likely that Romney’s religion hurt him among those evangelicals who regard Mormonism as a cult.)

The Romney recovery

While his critics on the Right deride Romney for his pragmatism, his willingness to change tactics salvaged his campaign. He decided that in Florida he would again invest in negative advertising about Gingrich, repeating a move that had swamped his rival in Iowa. Romney also reached out for help from the well-regarded debate coach Brett O’Donnell.

Romney was also helped by Gingrich’s checkered reputation. Gingrich’s surge spooked many conservative Establishment figures who saw the former Speaker as an undisciplined candidate who, if he captured the nomination, would alienate independents and who carried way too much negative personal baggage. Gingrich’s criticism of the former Massachusetts governor for his role as a venture capitalist was seen as an example of Gingrich’s willingness to employ any tactics—including adopting the rhetoric of the Left—to further his own ends. In response, Party elders and Right-wing pundits began openly criticizing Gingrich and warning that he was unelectable.

Romney boosted his prospects by turning in two strong debate performances in Florida. The barrage of negative ads about Gingrich, including one featuring Tom Brokaw reporting about Gingrich’s ethics violations as Speaker of the House also scored with voters. His campaign stressed the notion that Gingrich was a weak candidate who couldn’t beat Obama in November.

The Florida primary exit polls showed Romney winning all segments of the Republican electorate. His message—that he was the only remaining candidate who can defeat Obama by appealing to independents and suburban voters in key swing states—had apparently reached GOP voters. For now, at least, many hard core conservatives have concluded that ideological purity is less important than removing Obama from the White House. That’s good news for Mitt, bad news for Newt.


Copyright © 2012 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved

August 2011: Our disposable political rhetoric

A tip of the cap to the late, great New York newspaper columnist Jimmy Cannon for borrowing his signature phrase: nobody asked me, but…

It was a long, contentious political summer dominated by the battle over the federal debt in Congress and skirmishes in the states over spending and taxes.

Partisans looked to spin what was happening, and there was some colorful language, none of the slogans or phrases seemed memorable. It seems as our politics grows more petty and small, the rhetoric employed also shrinks as politicians and candidates gravitate to catchy and simplified soundbites.

Take the attempt by Congressional Republicans to “brand” their proposed budget with the slogan: “cut, cap and balance,” which was derided by Democrats as “duck, dodge and dismantle.” The Democrats at least had alliteration going for them, but neither formulation was particularly catchy.

For their part, the Democrats tried to assign blame after Standard & Poor’s dropped the country’s credit rating, dubbing it the “Tea Party downgrade,” but White House officials muddled the message by attacking S&P’s for errors in its analysis and conclusions.

House Majority Leader John Boehner scored some metaphorical points in arguing that negotiating with the White House was “like dealing with Jell-o.”

“Some days it’s firmer than others,” he added. “Sometimes it’s like they’ve left it out over night.”

The most vivid language of the summer came from Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D, Mo.) who tweeted that the debt deal that President Obama struck with Republicans was a “sugar-coated Satan sandwich.” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi agreed, adding that this legislative meal included “some Satan fries on the side.”

What exactly is a Satan sandwich? While the consensus among language mavens and political journalists was that it is the equivalent of a (to put it delicately) “crap sandwich,” it seems Cleaver, a United Methodist pastor, was making a theological statement based on his longer explanation:

If you lift the bun, what you see is antithetical to everything the great religions of the world teach. Which is take care of the poor, take of the aged. I am concerned about this because we don’t know the details. And until we see the details, we’re going to be extremely non-committed, but on the surface it looks like a Satan sandwich.

Cleaver, who is also chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, voted against the deal.

Don’t expect any of the slogans or metaphors of the summer of 2011 to stick. They’re disposable. The professional spinners and wordsmiths are already testing new catchy phrases in focus groups and brainstorming sessions, aware that the public’s attention span is limited.

Candidates and their consultants will keep trying, because finding those elusive buzzwords that strike a nerve with voters (“Close the missile gap,” “Are you better off today than you were four years ago?” “It’s the economy, stupid,” “Hope and change”) can mean the difference between victory and defeat at the polls.


Copyright © 2011 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved

July 2011: Who would have thought?

A tip of the cap to the late, great New York newspaper columnist Jimmy Cannon for borrowing his signature phrase: nobody asked me, but…

Who ever would have thought on the last day of July in the year 2011 that the United States, the world’s superpower, would be two days from default?

Or that Apple would have more cash on hand than the U.S. Treasury?

Or that the debt rating for the U.S. would be in jeopardy of slipping from AAA?

Or that the recovery of the U.S.economy—the world’s largest—would show signs of faltering, with GDP growth estimates continuing to fall?

Or that unemployment (as measured by Gallup in its daily tracking survey) would remain stuck at virtually the same level—roughly 9%—as at the end of July 2010?

The truth: no-one would have predicted the economic and political conditions prevailing today. Conventional wisdom held was that the U.S. would enjoy steady economic growth in 2011 with declining unemployment. That hasn’t happened. Also a surprise: that Washington’s political leadership—especially President Barack Obama—didn’t move more decisively (and quickly) to defuse the debt limit crisis.

What other surprises await?

A “double-dip” W-shaped recession in the U.S. could occur. Some observers, like Douglas McIntyre of 24/7 Wall Street, argue that it has already begun.

It’s not clear that the European Union has resolved its debt crisis with the latest bailout of Greece; there are continued worries about the national finances of Spain, Italy, Ireland and Portugal.

Simply put, the global economic forecast is problematic.

Political implications

It may be that the last-minute debt ceiling deal in Washington will calm markets and help the economy by reducing uncertainty.

Even if that is so, 2012 is an election year and the lagging economy will be the paramount issue of the upcoming campaigns.

Last week’s disturbing report of slower GDP growth represents a significant hurdle for Democrats. It’s hard to envision a surge in private sector hiring based on such slow growth. And if there is no improvement in the dismal unemployment numbers, the odds on the Democratic Party retaining the Presidency or control of the Senate decline dramatically.

The dramatic recent decline in support for President Obama among independent voters is, it can be argued, a direct reflection of their discontent with the economy.

Does this all mean that the die is already cast for Republican victories in 2012? The short answer is: no. More than a year from the election, the picture can change dramatically. Infighting in the Republican Party could leave residual hard feelings and less-than-optimal turnout by “the base.” Independent voters in key swing states may be put off by Tea Party rhetoric. A last-minute crisis—domestic or foreign—might swing undecideds behind President Obama.

So it’s possible that the results on November 6, 2012 will include Democratic victories in close Senate races and the reelection of President Obama, and we’ll ask: “Who would have thought?”

But with current economic trends, I wouldn’t bet on it.


Copyright © 2011 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved