November 2008: Nobody asked me, but…

Campaign 2008: five observations, “small wind” power, Cold War espionage redux, and other commentary

With a tip of the cap (for borrowing his catch-phrase) to New York columnist Jimmy Cannon, nobody asked me, but…

HERE ARE FIVE “MONDAY MORNING QUARTERBACK” OBSERVATIONS ABOUT THE 2008 CAMPAIGN:

1. In the end, consider the key to the 2008 presidential election not President-elect Barack Obama’s lofty inspirational rhetoric, nor the inadequacies of the message-challenged McCain campaign, nor the drag of the GOP’s unprepared vice presidential nominee, but something much more elemental: money. The old journalistic imperative of “follow the money” helps explain why Obama will sit behind the Oval Office desk in January. USA Today reports that Obama raised $750 million for his presidential run, shattering records, and his huge advantage in campaign fund-raising translated into a huge advantage in television advertising. In the general election Obama spent $240 million on TV ads versus McCain’s $126 million, according to the Campaign Media Analysis Group. Obama dominated local television advertising (as the Nielsen Media Research numbers show) and his massive war-chest allowed him to underwrite Get Out the Vote efforts in the key swing states of Florida and Ohio and compete (and win) in the historically red states of North Carolina and Virginia.

2. The failure of the American mainstream media in covering campaign 2008 was not, as some on the Right would argue, the open cheerleading for Obama, nor negative reporting about McCain and his running mate Gov. Sarah Palin, but rather what was ignored or received relatively light coverage—in the general election it was Obama’s decision to forgo public campaign financing, breaking the joint pledge he and McCain had made during the primary season. There was very little sustained criticism of Obama’s flip-flop on campaign finance reform, formerly a favorite cause for liberal newspaper editorialists.

The coverage of Obama’s final week 30-minute infomercial—which, it can be argued, happened only because of his unfettered Internet fund-raising—was largely positive. If a conservative candidate had purchased a late-campaign infomercial at great cost after renouncing a pledge to observe federal funding limits, would the media have focused on the message or on the perceived betrayal of good government? To ask the question is to answer it.

In the Democratic primaries it was the free pass the mainstream media gave to Obama in the crucial months of December 2007 and January 2008. Most mainstream newspaper and network reporters repeated the David Axelrod-fashioned narrative that Obama was a bipartisan agent of change and hope without validating any of those claims, or examining Obama’s Chicago past in any detail. That helped Obama to victory in the Iowa caucus and the early primaries.

3. The 2008 election should have, once and for all, demonstrated the unreliability of exit polls. Before being adjusted to match the actual vote totals, these polls  produced flawed results in the Democratic primaries, overstating support for Obama (by some seven percentage points).  Prior to the general election, Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg (in an interview with Huffington Post) acknowledged the shakiness of the measuring stick: “The biggest problem with exit polls is… we do know that young voters are much more likely to do an exit survey and seniors are much less likely to do an exit poll. So exit polls are heavily waited to young people, which normal bias favors Democrats especially this year.”

And a  Rasmussen Reports survey found evidence of the Shy Tory Factor (or Shy Conservative Factor), where Republicans are more reluctant and Democrats more willing and eager to participate in exit polls.

Not surprisingly, then, in the general election exit poll numbers overstated Obama’s support, a fact noted by former Bush strategist Karl Rove in a Wall Street Journal column:

… for the third election in a row the exit polls were trash. The raw numbers forecast an 18-point Obama win, news organizations who underwrote the poll arbitrarily dialed it down to a 10-point Obama edge, and the actual margin was six.

The early exit polls in California also wrongly suggested that Proposition 8, which sought to bar gay marriage, would lose. Again, it’s clear that pro-Prop 8 voters didn’t cooperate with exit pollsters in proportion to their numbers.

The clear flaws in exit polls—in 2000, 2004, 2006, and 2008—should silence the conspiracy theorists of the Angry Left who have argued that any discrepancies between the polls and actual votes in the Bush-Gore and Bush-Kerry elections represented vote fraud by the Republicans.

But don’t hold your breath for Seven Stories Press to recall “Was the 2004 Presidential Election Stolen?: Exit Polls, Election Fraud, and the Official Count” by Steve Freeman and Joel Bleifuss, which stridently made the vote fraud case, or for the authors to acknowledge that they were wrong.

4. The prolonged recount of the Franken-Coleman Senate race in Minnesota has highlighted another truth: voting is an imperfect process. Americans should recognize that human error and mechanical failures mean that all election results have a margin of error. By all accounts Minnesota has a solid election system, with an auditable paper trail, and yet anyone looking at the contested ballots (including a vote for the Lizard People) and the dispute over absentee ballots can see that any recount will involve some subjective judgment.

5. Will the last Republican in New England please turn out the lights? When Connecticut’s Chris Shays lost his Congressional seat, it meant that the GOP cannot point to a single member of the House of Representatives from Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Maine or Connecticut. And how long will Republicans hold onto the U.S. Senate seats in Maine if the national party doesn’t welcome libertarian views on social issues?

WILL THE FUTURE OF WIND POWER BE SMALL, NOT LARGE? There’s a growing trend towards “small wind” —wind turbines for residences, small cities, organizations and businesses, according to an article in the Boston Globe. The Globe reports:  “The future of wind power may be a lot smaller than you think, and the nearest windmill may be right around the corner. The landscape, many believe, is going to be dotted with them.” This grass-roots wind power may indeed prove more effective than the “large wind” vision of massive wind farms on- or off-shore.

COLD WAR ESPIONAGE IS BACK IN THE NEWS. From Europe comes word that an Estonian defense ministry official, recruited by the Russians at the close of the Cold War, may have passed NATO and European Union secrets to his Kremlin handlers. Der Speigel reports that “the case is a disaster for Brussels.”

And from England, the Daily Mail alleges that a leading “peace” advocate and Labor Party member of Parliament, Cynthia Roberts, was a spy for Czech intelligence.

The Sunday Mail ran a surprisingly harsh editorial about the Roberts affair, drawing a broader lesson from her alleged treachery:

In some cases, the connections went far deeper. We may never know how many union officials, front-bench spokesmen, ordinary MPs and others were secret sympathisers of Soviet power, frightened victims of KGB bedroom blackmail, or actually in the pay of Warsaw Pact intelligence services.

The wretched saga of Cynthia Roberts reminds us of just how close the links were between Western socialists and the Communist world. Mrs Roberts sordidly provided her services to the doomed Czech Communist regime, one of the nastiest in all Eastern Europe.

IN REALITY, LINCOLN’S “TEAM OF RIVALS” WAS DYSFUNCTIONAL and President-elect Obama shouldn’t be looking to such an arrangement for success, or so Dickinson College history professor Matthew Pinsker would have us believe, according to his Los Angeles Times essay on the topic. Obama has praised Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln,” which claims Lincoln’s inclusion in his cabinet of three contemporary rivals for the presidency (William H. Seward, Salmon P. Chase, and Edward Bates) proved to be a masterful stroke. Pinsker begs to differ (“Lincoln’s Cabinet was no team. His rivals proved to be uneven as subordinates. Some were capable despite their personal disloyalty, yet others were simply disastrous.”) and his account should give Obama some pause as he brings his primary rivals (Hillary Clinton, Bill Richardson, and Joe Biden) into his administration.

THIS MONTH’S WORDS OF WISDOM FROM HERMAN MELVILLE’S NARRATOR IN “BILLY BUDD”: “Truth uncompromisingly told will always have its ragged edges.”

Copyright © 2008 Jefferson Flanders
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October 2008: Nobody asked me, but…

Five campaign questions, VW’s tasteless ads, a few Nov. 4th predictions, and other observations

With a tip of the fedora to legendary New York columnist Jimmy Cannon, nobody asked me, but…

HERE ARE FIVE QUESTIONS ABOUT THE 2008 CAMPAIGN worth further consideration:

1. What does this past year tell us about American racial attitudes? Whether or not Sen. Barack Obama wins the presidency on Tuesday (and it looks like he will), his meteoric rise proves that Americans want to live in a meritocracy–where candidates are judged on their potential to lead and personal qualities and not on their skin color. Obama’s presence at the top of the Democratic ticket has to be seen as a sign of racial progress. It doesn’t mean America has solved the problem of racism, personal or structural, but it does represent a huge and welcome step forward, no matter the outcome Nov. 4th.

2. Will Obama’s brilliant and well-managed campaign translate not only into victory on Tuesday, but also into effective governance if he reaches the Oval Office? Admirers of the Illinois Senator argue that his management of a multi-million dollar campaign effort demonstrates previously untapped executive ability. This, they argue, will serve Obama well in any putative presidency. Yet it’s not clear that the skills called upon to win an election are the ones needed to make policy decisions, foreign and domestic (see: Karl Rove and George W. Bush).

3. Whatever happened to campaign finance reform? That is a question with an answer: it died a quick and relatively quiet death when Obama decided to forgo federal funding. It has proved to be a masterful strategic decision ($150 million in September fundraising alone!), but problematic for those who fear the corrupting influence of big money. The San Francisco Chronicle quotes Bob Stern of the Center for Governmental Studies: “I think Democrats are going to rue the day (Obama) did this. Republicans are not going to let this happen again.”

4. Will McCain’s selection of Sarah Palin as his vice presidential running mate cost him the election? Conventional wisdom has been that American voters make their decision based solely on the top of the ticket, with the elections of 1968 (Nixon and Agnew), 1976 (Carter and Mondale), and 1988 (Bush and Quayle) proving that a presidential candidate can win with a less-than-stellar vice presidential selection. This campaign may be different. The continuing debate about whether Palin would be ready to assume the presidency hasn’t helped McCain with independents, according to several polls. And McCain’s choice of Palin was cited by a number of prominent moderate Republicans as one of their reason for endorsing Obama. On balance, Palin has to be considered a significant net minus for McCain.

5. Will Saturday Night Live prove to be more important in shaping public opinion about the candidates than any traditional news program? Yes. SNL’s impact on both the Democratic primaries (first raising the issue of the media swoon for Obama) and the general election (with Tina Fey’s defining caricature of Sarah Palin) has been much greater than that of any of the network nightly news. That’s fitting for what the Boston Phoenix’s Steven Stark has dubbed the American Idol Election.

WHAT ON EARTH COULD VOLKSWAGEN BE THINKING WITH ITS BIZARRE “ROUTAN BOOM” commercials, fronted by Brooke Shields? The ads suggest American women are getting pregnant to justify buying VW’s minivan (the Routan) and the tagline of this lame campaign is “Have a Baby for Love, Not German Engineering.” Advertising agencies can make memorable commercials (see Nike Football’s “Fate” for an example), but that requires creativity, not lowest-common-denominator vulgarity.

THE UNBEARABLE DARKNESS OF BETRAYAL? Did the Czech-born novelist Milan Kundera inform on a fellow countryman to the Communist secret police in 1950? He has denied the allegation, and is threatening to sue the Czech weekly that reported the story. Miroslav Dvoracek, the man who Kundera allegedly turned in as a Western spy, served 14 years in prison. His wife commented: “He [Kundera] is a good writer but I am under no illusions about him as a human being.”

JEFFREY GOLDBERG OF THE ATLANTIC MONTHLY HAS A DEVASTATING CRITIQUE OF AMERICAN “AIRPORT SECURITY” entitled “The Things He Carried,” which exposes the sham of “security theater.” Current security practices are designed to reassure travelers and catch “stupid terrorists,” Goldberg concludes, something evident to any frequent flier.

A FEW PREDICTIONS FOR ELECTION DAY: expect lots of delays at the polls, problems with confusing ballots, misleading exit polls, and the broadcast and cable news networks holding off on declaring the winner. For the record, my prediction for the Electoral College outcome: Obama/Biden, 297 electoral votes; McCain/Palin, 247. Obama will win by moving the 2004 red states of Iowa, Virginia, Colorado, Nevada, and New Mexico into the Democratic fold in 2008.

THIS MONTH’S WORDS OF WISDOM FROM AMERICAN HEARTLAND POET CARL SANDBERG (1878-1967): “A politician should have three hats: one for throwing into the ring, one for talking through, and one for pulling rabbits out of if elected.”

Copyright © 2008 Jefferson Flanders
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September 2008: Nobody asked me, but…

Obama: Electoral College winner, popular vote loser?, Why Palin’s policy cram course isn’t working, Ageless athletes, and other observations

With a tip of the hat to Jimmy Cannon, nobody asked me, but…

WILL SEN. BARACK OBAMA WIN THE ELECTORAL COLLEGE VOTE, AND THUS THE AMERICAN PRESIDENCY, but lose the popular vote on Election Day 2008? It’s not an entirely implausible scenario. The Democratic presidential nominee leads Republican candidate John McCain in the national polls (as can be seen in RealClearPolitics’ poll compilation), and has moved ahead, narrowly, in a series of polls in several key battleground states won by George W. Bush in 2004: Colorado, New Mexico, Iowa, Virginia, and North Carolina. Based on the polls, Obama’s Electoral College lead has begun to expand.

But it’s more than likely the national polls will tighten again, and the race will remain very close on a state-by-state basis. McCain’s relative vote-garnering strength in blue states like Michigan, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, and New Jersey suggests that he will keep the contests there closer than George Bush did (and Bush won the 2004 election by some 3 million votes over Democrat John Kerry). Further, if McCain can improve on Bush’s 2004 showing in populous California (where Kerry won by 9.9%) and New York (Kerry by 18.3%), and stay close to the Bush 2004 vote totals in the rest of the country, McCain could very well top Obama nationally when all ballots are tallied, while still losing in the Electoral College because of a few key battleground states switching to the Democrat.

Take New York state, for example: if McCain can increase his vote share to 45% (not an impossible level, considering that Bush reached 40% in 2004), it would represent an additional 300,000-400,000 votes for the Arizona Republican versus Bush’s totals. Prior to the Wall Street bailout crisis, McCain had pulled within 5-8 percentage points of Obama in New York, and it’s likely he can stay within 10 points of the Democrat.

Yes, Obama may win a number of formerly red states, with victories in New Mexico, Colorado, and Iowa, appearing likely, but they will be narrow wins, and his net vote gain won’t offset McCain’s likely improvement over 2004 in the Northeast and industrial Midwest.

If this scenario plays out—where Obama triumphs in the Electoral College, and McCain wins the popular vote—will the Illinois Senator’s legitimacy be challenged (as Bush’s was in 2000)? Will Republicans suddenly decide that it’s time to abandon the Electoral College? If this happens, it wouldn’t be the first role reversal in Campaign 2008.

THERE’S A REASON WHY SARAH PALIN’S FRANTIC CRAM COURSE IN FOREIGN AND DOMESTIC POLICY IS FAILING, as could be seen in her one-on-one interviews with Katie Couric—you can’t cram for context. Gov. Palin’s inability to discuss any Supreme Court rulings she disagreed with other than Roe v. Wade, or to cite any of John McCain’s regulatory achievements, or to provide a coherent defense of her foreign policy bona fides, proves that you can’t manufacture a personal body of knowledge in politics and American government overnight.

It is, of course, possible for a candidate to memorize a list of policy positions, but the problems surface on follow-up questions that go beyond the campaign briefing book. If you haven’t followed the American civic debate closely over the years (and the Alaska governor was vague about what she reads and where she gets her information when questioned about it by Couric), you’re not going to be able to answer in depth.

Palin’s struggles bring to mind the educator E. D. Hirsch’s views on cultural literacy, that students need a common core of knowledge to make sense of what they encounter in the classroom. It is not enough for students to decode the literal words in a text, Hirsch argues, if they don’t understand their meaning and context. It appears that Palin does not have a baseline understanding of constitutional government, or of many of the key issues in American foreign policy, and making up that knowledge deficit during a contested political campaign is problematic, to say the least.

CAMPAIGN 2008 HAS PROVOKED A NUMBER OF “OVER THE TOP” PRONOUNCEMENTS. Two quick examples from the Right: Tony Blankley’s bizarre column “Media Campaigns Hard for Obama,” in which he tries to link mainstream journalists who he claims favor Obama to Nazi propagandists; and Archbishop Raymond Burke’s argument that the Democratic Party risks becoming “the party of death” because of its support of abortion.

TWO SEEMINGLY AGELESS ATHLETES set personal records on the last Sunday of September, proving that peak performances can come late in a career! New York Yankees pitcher Mike Mussina, 39 years old, won his 20th game of the season (a 6-2 win over the Red Sox) for the first time in his long major league career. And New York Jets quarterback Brett Favre, who is about to turn 39, threw six touchdown passes, a personal best, in the Jets’ 56-35 victory over the Arizona Cardinals. Fittingly, Favre was wearing a New York Titans throwback jersey.

THIS MONTH’S WORDS OF WISDOM FROM PHILOSOPHER JOHN STUART MILL (1806-1873): “If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind..”

Copyright © 2008 Jefferson Flanders
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August 2008: Nobody asked me, but…

Palin and the Iron Lady gambit, American voters and racism, Country crossover, and other Campaign 2008 observations

With a wave of the political banner to legendary New York columnist Jimmy Cannon, nobody asked me, but…(campaign version!)

PRESIDENTIAL HOPEFUL JOHN MCCAIN’S CHOICE OF ALASKA GOVERNOR SARAH PALIN AS his running mate is, conventional wisdom holds, a risky move for the Republican standard-bearer because of Palin’s lack of foreign policy experience. But Palin exudes a certain toughness—from her willingness to take on the Alaskan political establishment to her lifelong NRA membership—and McCain may be counting on the “Iron Lady” factor: voters are more likely to vote for a hard-edged, conservative (e.g., Angela Merkel, Margaret Thatcher, Golda Meir) than for a softer, more conciliatory female candidate. The new-found respect for Sen. Hillary Clinton expressed by many on the Right was generated, it can be argued, from Clinton’s perceived “toughness,” especially on foreign policy (she did, after all, threaten Iran with “obliteration” if it attacked Israel with nuclear weapons).

IF BARACK OBAMA LOSES HIS HISTORIC RACE FOR THE PRESIDENCY, WILL WHITE RACISM be the cause? That’s been the theory advanced by some pundits, including Jacob Weisberg of Slate (“Racism is the only reason Obama might lose“) and New York Magazine’s John Heilemann (“The Color-Coded Campaign: Why Barack Obama Isn’t Doing Better in the Polls“).

But as Matt Bai noted in his op-ed, “The Race Isn’t About Race,” in the New York Times:

While it’s entirely possible that Mr. Obama’s race is costing him some support, it’s also true that the electorate that voted in the last two presidential elections was almost symmetrically divided between the two parties. It would defy the laws of politics if, at this early stage of the campaign, moderate Republicans and conservative independents were to reject Mr. McCain (a candidate many of them preferred back in 2000) simply because they don’t like George W. Bush.

Bai has it right, it seems to me. The question boils down to this: would white working-class swing voters cast a ballot for a very liberal Senator named Barry O’Brien with, in Bai’s words, “remarkably little governing experience and almost none in foreign policy…”? Enough of these culturally conservative voters didn’t support the liberal John Kerry nor the (then) centrist Al Gore. Why would yet another Ivy League-educated candidate, whose dispararging comments about working class voters (“They get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”) have been widely publicized expect to automatically pick up the support of Reagan Democrats?

WITH REAGAN DEMOCRATS IN PLAY, SUDDENLY COUNTRY MUSIC IS POLITICALLY CORRECT, as Sen. Obama chose to play Brooks and Dunn’s “Only in America” after his acceptance speech at the close of the Democratic National Convention. Kix Brooks and Ronnie Dunn were George W. Bush supporters (and the song was featured in the 2004 Republican campaign), but Brooks said that they were “flattered” by Obama using the song: “Seems ironic that the same song Bush used at the Republican Convention last election would be used by Obama and the Democrats now. ­Very flattering to know our song crossed parties and potentially inspires all Americans.” (Another Brooks and Dunn song, “That’s What It’s All About,” has been playing at McCain rallies.) In another crossover, “Who Says You Can’t Go Home,” was the country-tinged song played after Sen. McCain announced Sarah Palin as his VP pick, a song Entertainment Weekly noted was “by Bon Jovi (a prominent Democratic supporter) and Sugarland’s Jennifer Nettles (who played a Democratic convention event earlier this week).”

KID ROCK, THE DETROIT SINGER/SONGWRITER, DOESN’T THINK MUCH OF CELEBRITIES ENDORSING POLITICAL CANDIDATES. Kid Rock (AKA Robert James Ritchie) commented: “I truly believe that people like myself, who are in a position of entertainers in the limelight, should keep their mouth shut on politics because at the end of the day, I’m good at writing songs and singing.” He added: “What I’m not educated in is the field of political science. And so for me to be sharing my views and influencing people of who I think they should be voting for … I think would be very irresponsible on my part.”

Meanwhile, former Saturday Night Live comedian Al Franken has picked up momentum in his race against Republican incumbent Norm Coleman for the U.S. Senate seat. The two are now tied in the latest public opinion polls. Should Franken win, will more liberal Democrat celebrities decide to run? Among those mentioned as possible candidates: Alec Baldwin, Jon Bon Jovi, and George Clooney.

THIS MONTH’S WORDS OF WISDOM FROM ARGENTINE FABULIST JORGE LUIS BORGES (1899-1986): “I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library.”

Copyright © 2008 Jefferson Flanders
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Critiquing Campaign 2008’s coverage

When Americans cast their votes for president in November, how well informed will they be about the candidates and the issues? Their level of knowledge will reflect, in some measure, the performance of news organizations and journalists covering the Long Campaign of 2008.

Here, from this observer’s vantage point, is a brief critique of Campaign 2008’s news coverage so far, with the positive, the negative, and yet to be addressed coverage questions.

CAMPAIGN COVERAGE POSITIVES:

Coverage of the issues. Academics, media critics, and public interest groups have long attacked mainstream news organizations for sacrificing coverage of public policy issues (the broccoli of the political process) in favor of horse-race or personality coverage (the sugary, unhealthy dessert). That hasn’t been the case in this campaign. Along with the reporting of candidate gaffes and campaign tactics, the mainstream media has more than adequately covered the positions of the presidential candidates on key issues.

The nation’s elite newspapers (the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal) have explored the candidate’s policy positions in depth, and their websites offer even more detailed comparisons. While the broadcast and cable networks have served up less issues coverage, the websites of CNN and Fox News do carry pertinent information on the candidates’ positions.

And prospective voters who don’t know by now that Senators Obama and Clinton plan a rapid American withdrawal from Iraq and Senator McCain favors staying the course, or that the Democrats endorse greater government intervention in health care and Republicans counter with market-driven solutions, aren’t paying attention.

The reality, however, as Steven Stark of the Boston Phoenix recently pointed out, is that most American presidential elections aren’t “big issue” driven, and that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Those surprisingly informative debates. While it’s true that a skilled debater may or may not make a proficient president (as Daniel Boorstin argued in The Image in 1961 after the Kennedy-Nixon Great Debate), debates can help voters looking for a better sense of a candidate. The numerous 2008 primary season debates, organized and moderated by major news organizations, contributed positively to the winnowing-out process.

Mike Huckabee’s folksy debate performances spurred his surprising rise early in the Republican campaign. The debates highlighted the kookiness of Ron Paul, Mike Gravel, and Alan Keyes (although Keyes’ inclusion by the Des Moines Register in its GOP Iowa debate was questionable.)

The two most interesting debates, both on the Democratic side, were held in Philadelphia. In the first, Hillary Clinton’s waffling on the question of then New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer’s proposal to grant driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants raised questions about her inevitability. In the second, held just before the Pennsylvania primary, Obama looked ill-at-ease as he struggled with tough questions from Charlie Gibson and George Stephanopoulos over Bittergate and his connections with his controversial pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, and Weather Underground figure William Ayers. Obama’s faltering performance caused some wags to ask if the Illinois Senator struggles with the Gibson-Stephanopoulos duo, how he will respond to the Ahmadinejads and Hugo Chavezs of the world? Not surprisingly, Obama ducked any further one-on-one debates with Clinton.

Questions of character and vetting the candidate’s past. Yes, a presidential candidate’s past, including his or her associations, and character, should matter and to the extent their past touches on those questions, it’s journalistic fair game. That John McCain is surrounded by former and current lobbyists while declaring his independence from special interests matters; thanks largely to reporting from the New York Times, voters have learned about this contradiction. That Barack Obama spent 20 years in a church whose pastor espoused black liberation theology and spouted anti-American rhetoric matters; thanks largely to initial reporting from Brian Ross at ABC News, voters know about it.

CAMPAIGN COVERAGE NEGATIVES:

Journalistic Obamania. Campaign 2008 has also featured the unprecedented spectacle of journalists openly favoring a candidate, Sen. Obama, a phenomenon aptly mocked by Saturday Night Live. There’s NBC reporter Lee Cowan who admitted “it’s almost hard to remain objective” and MSNBC’s Chris Matthews confessing to “a thrill up my leg” after an Obama speech. Clinton supporters Lanny Davis and Terry McAuliffe even lauded Fox News, the cable news network detested by the Democratic Left, as the most “fair and balanced” in its primary coverage; McAuliffe claimed the media was “in the tank for Obama”, adding that “every independent study has said that this is the most biased coverage they’ve ever seen in a presidential campaign.”

It actually hasn’t been that bad. A recent survey by Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism and the Joan Shorenstein Center on Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University suggests that “the dominant personal narratives in the media about Obama and Clinton were almost identical in tone, and were both twice as positive as negative, according to the study, which examined the coverage of the candidates’ character, history, leadership and appeal—apart from the electoral results and the tactics of their campaigns.” Of course this study covered the first months of 2008, where much of the most over-the-top Obama media-fawning took place in late 2007 and early 2008. The Pew researchers concede: “The year 2008 started off extremely well for Obama. Positive assertions commanded 77% of the narrative studied about him from January 1 -13.” That, of course, Clinton supporters would note, is when such cheerleading mattered most in the run-up to Iowa and New Hampshire.

Misleading polls. Why news organizations place any credence in opinion polling remains a mystery. This campaign season has exposed the weakness of relying on polling, especially exit polls, as they were consistently wrong in projecting the winner’s margin in the Democratic primaries, most likely because of the Shy Tory Factor (voters refusing to participate in the exit polling). Further, the appeal of Obama for younger and African-American voters, and Clinton for older, working-class women—groups with spotty voter participation histories—has wreaked havoc with turnout models.

Predicting, not reporting. Who hasn’t been annoyed by the “talking heads” need to predict? In the fall of 2007, we were told that Clinton and former New York mayor Rudy Guiliani were the inevitable nominees, that Senators McCain and Obama were long-shots. Then, after pronouncing Clinton dead, conventional media wisdom was proved wrong when the New York Senator ran off a string of primary victories in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Indiana, and Kentucky. NBC’s Tom Brokaw had it right on the night of the New Hampshire primary when he warned: “I think that the people out there are going to begin to make judgments about us if we don’t begin to temper that temptation to constantly try to get ahead of what the voters are deciding….”

UNADDRESSED COVERAGE QUESTIONS:

How will coverage of Campaign 2008 change in the months ahead? The race between Senators Obama and McCain will be hailed as an historic one: the first time an African-American has been a major party’s nominee for the presidency. There is the danger that the mainstream media’s coverage will focus on race (“Will Americans vote for a black candidate? Is America ready for diversity in the White House?”) and that will represent a journalistic failure.

There are sharp distinctions between the candidates on the major issues (foreign policy, Iraq, the economy, health care, judicial philosophy, social issues); voters have plenty of reasons to vote for, or against, the candidates without any reference to race. The question should not be whether Americans are ready to vote for a black presidential candidate, but rather whether they are ready to vote for a charismatic presidential candidate whose philosophy and positions are further to the left than any Democratic standard-bearer since George McGovern. If it is true that the political center has shifted leftward, then they may very well elect the Senator from Illinois.

A wildcard for the remainder of Campaign 2008: the impact of quasi-news coverage from comedians, bloggers, YouTubers, Huffington Puffers, and other alternate media sources. Political historians will have their hands full trying to figure out whether, or how much, voters were swayed by the sudden blooming of a thousand alternative media flowers (and a few media weeds) in this 2008 election season.

Copyright © 2008 Jefferson Flanders
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Exit poll error? It’s the Shy Tory Factor, not the Bradley Effect

While early exit polls showed Sen. Barack Obama leading in the Pennsylvania Democratic presidential primary, and broadcast and cable news networks consequently delayed calling a winner in the election, when the actual ballots were counted Sen. Hillary Clinton had carried the Keystone State by some 9 percentage points.

Some pundits quickly suggested that the gap between the exit polls and the final tally reflected the Bradley Effect—white voters telling pollsters they had voted for the black candidate, when in fact they had not (an effect first identified in California’s 1982 gubernatorial election lost narrowly by Tom Bradley, an African-American—hence the name.) It wasn’t the first time in Campaign 2008 that Obama’s strong unweighted exit poll numbers did not translate into actual votes—the Illinois Senator had “underperformed” in New Hampshire and in several Super Tuesday states, according to a compilation of early exit polls by Brendan Loy. Loy further noted that: “… Obama generally does 7-8 points worse in the actual results than he did in the leaked, unweighted exit polls.”

But it’s unlikely that the color of the candidates caused the exit poll problems. Instead, it appears that the Shy Tory Factor influenced the exit polls in Pennsylvania, a global phenomenon that has surfaced in numerous past elections where race wasn’t a consideration. The Shy Tory Factor is when conservative voters provide misleading answers to pollsters or refuse to participate in exit polls (where it is called “non-response bias” by pollsters). It has been seen in elections in England, France, Italy, Australia and the U.S. More conservative candidates perform better at the ballot box than they do in pre-vote polls and exit polling. (Reuters, for example, noted that “exit polls have not always proved reliable in Italy” in reporting on the recent election of conservative candidate Silvio Berlusconi.)

What’s behind it? The prevailing theory is that these Shy Tory, or Shy Conservative, voters opt out of polling, or offer misleading answers, because they don’t view the elite media, who sponsor the opinion and exit polls, as truly neutral. They realize that their candidate (Berlusconi, Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, John Howard) is not the choice of liberal reporters or mainstream commentators and consequently they are more reluctant to share their preference with intrusive pollsters.

The practical effect of the Shy Tory Factor is to skew poll results. Take Pennsylvania. While Clinton supporters may not be “Tories” in ideological terms, they are older, less-educated, and more likely to resent the media anointment of Obama. Their motives for refusing match the Shy Tory model. If these Clinton voters shied away from exit polls, it means backers of the other candidate (Obama) were oversampled. The Clinton-Obama race had further complications. Refusal rates for exit polls are historically greater among older voters to start with. Most exit poll takers are young (students, etc.), and it would not be surprising if—despite being trained to avoid interviewer-caused selection bias—these temporary workers gravitated to polling younger voters, who have continued to favor Obama.

Vote fraud?

There is, of course, a third possible explanation for the disconnect between the exit polls and the tabulated vote—that of election fraud. After the New Hampshire primary, some on the Left suggested that Sen. Clinton’s victory involved rigged voting machines, and others (such as posters on The Brad Blog and TruthDig ) have questioned the validity of the Pennsylvania primary as well.

A common misunderstanding about the accuracy of exit polls has contributed to these conspiracy theories. (“Mystery Pollster” Mark Blumenthal has researched exit polling’s historical inaccuracy.) They simply aren’t a valid way to audit elections. For starters, exit polls carry a margin of error—supposedly about 3 percent in national elections, when all else goes well, and higher in primaries. And like all polling, exit polls rely on a representative sample of voters that is projected to all voters (which is what the “weighting” process is all about). As can be seen with the Shy Tory Factor, when given voters won’t participate, it skews the sample. (See this interview with Joe Lenski of Edison Media Research for a frank assessment of the problems with exit poll samples). The exit poll refusal rate has been growing in the U.S. It was an average 35% nationwide in the 2004 presidential election and is higher for older voters and in more conservative areas of the country.

These flaws were ignored by Democratic activists and bloggers when, as evidence of fraud, they pointed to those pivotal states where exit polls had projected Sen. John Kerry as the winner but where President Bush triumphed when the actual votes were tallied. In explaining the discrepancy, Edison/Mitofsky Research (the firm that conducted the 2004 exit polls) concluded that Republican voters had refused to participate in exit polling in greater numbers than Democrats, leading to an overestimation of the Kerry vote totals. Further voter sampling problems surfaced in the 2006 Congressional election exit polls.

None of this will, however, convince the conspiracy buffs who believe that the Clinton machine—borrowing alleged Republican tactics—manipulated the primary voting process in states like New Hampshire and Pennsylvania by a conspiracy targeting electronic voting machines. Such a vote fraud enterprise in practice would require the complicity of hundreds of election officials, computer technicians, etc., spread across numerous precincts, and would also demand a breathtaking level of coordination and planning. And everyone involved would be committing numerous felonies as well. But if you believed the Republicans were capable of such crimes in 2004, it’s not as hard to believe that the Clinton campaign would engage in vote fraud as well.

A media creation

There are some ironies in these exit poll problems. Exit polls, after all, are a media creation. They allow network anchors and political commentators to pontificate about voter preferences and beliefs. They allegedly tell us how given groups (whites, blacks, Hispanics, liberals, conservatives, Catholics, Jews) voted, and why they voted the way the way they did (contributing, one could argue, to the public practice of identity politics). If media cheerleading for Obama has increased exit poll refusal rates among Clinton voters, then the lack of balance in the coverage of the Democratic race in 2008 has contributed to the margin of error in these surveys.

The Edison/Mitofsky Research folks don’t like to talk about refusal rates, because they know it raises questions about the validity of their exit polls. A strong argument can be made based on the 2004, 2006, and 2008 results that the accuracy of exit polls has been so compromised that they should be abandoned as an analytical tool in political news coverage. And other than a few media executives and polling firms, who would be sorry to see them go?

Copyright © 2008 Jefferson Flanders

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That tangled Democratic nominating process

The struggle within the Democratic Party between Clinton centrists and left-of-center Obama “progressives” has shifted to the party’s inconsistent, contradictory, and—dare it be said—undemocratic presidential nominating process. It wasn’t supposed to be this way. After the bitter 2000 election, Democrats embraced the principles of “counting every vote” and “insuring election integrity,” but they have now discovered, to their dismay, that electoral fairness is easier to achieve in theory than in practice.

The debate over the role of the so-called superdelegates has highlighted internal tensions in the party. Superdelegates were created in the early 1980s as a way for greater participation by party elders; a more cynical view held that these delegates were meant to block fringe candidates advanced by the left wing of the party (vide: George McGovern). Since they are drawn from the ranks of elected officials and party stalwarts, in theory superdelegates should represent the interests of the Democratic Party writ large at the national convention.

Not surprisingly, Barack Obama’s supporters, including many vocal activists on the left, have rejected the idea of superdelegates exercising any independent judgment. Instead, they have insisted that the some 795 superdelegates should ratify the “will of the people” by awarding the nomination to Obama, the likely leader in the popular vote and pledged delegate count after the final primaries.

A flawed process

Yet the argument for crowning Obama by affirmation is less clear-cut than his adherents make it; his lead over Hillary Clinton is, in part, a reflection of a deeply flawed and inconsistent process. Obama has benefited from the exclusion of the Florida and Michigan primary results, and from proportional rules for the awarding of delegates.

Nor is it clear how the “will of the people” should be defined. For example, should senators who are superdelegates vote for the candidate with the largest national pledged delegate count, or for the winner of the popular vote in their state’s primary? Superdelegates John Kerry and Teddy Kennedy are Obama supporters, and yet Massachusetts voted overwhelmingly for Clinton; in Washington state, Senators Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray are backing Clinton despite their state’s vote breaking for Obama.

And the Obama camp’s enthusiasm for “the will of the people” has been somewhat selective. Obama supporters successfully blocked any re-vote in Florida or Michigan, effectively disenfranchising million of voters, because they knew Clinton would likely prevail in any do-over of those primaries. Hardly an advertisement for electoral fairness.

The Democrats’ proportionality scheme for delegate selection has proved problematic, as well. By awarding pledged delegates based on a candidate’s proportional share of the vote, rather than by winner-take-all, the Democratic National Committee has ensured political gridlock: neither candidate will achieve the magic number of 2,024 delegates before the August convention without help from the superdelegates. Further, the application of proportionality has been inconsistent from state-to-state, with complicated allocation schemes in some precincts and congressional districts in places like Nevada and California.

Proportionality has also encouraged the practice of identity politics. When either of the Democratic candidates has trailed badly in a given state (say, Clinton in Mississippi, or Obama in Ohio), the end-game strategy has been to target specific ethnic and racial voting blocs—exacerbating divisions within the party—in the hopes of winning delegates based on proportional support.

Those undemocratic caucuses

State caucuses, perhaps the most undemocratic part of the process, have greatly benefited Obama and his motivated and well-organized activists (the now famous “latte liberals”). The caucuses have effectively disenfranchised many working class voters without the free time, or patience, to sit through a lengthy political meeting. Even worse, the caucuses operated without secret balloting, the foundation of any free election!

The Clinton campaign has also played electoral games. Clinton kept her name on the Michigan ballot when the other Democratic candidates withdrew, and she changed her position and called for the Florida primary results to be recognized after she won. Further, Clinton supporters have been reduced to arguing that Obama’s red state primary victories shouldn’t count as much as Clinton’s blue state strength in the Northeast, Midwest, and California.

Surveying this tangled mess, Will Rogers’ observation that he didn’t belong to an organized political party because he was a Democrat seems apt. Ironically, the closeness of the race between Obama and Clinton seems tailor-made for intervention by the superdelegates. More than half of registered Democrats will not have expressed their preference in the primaries/caucuses, as former New York governor Mario Cuomo has noted, and it seems reasonable to have a mechanism for their representation. As most superdelegates are elected officials, they are ultimately accountable to the voters, who could—in theory–unseat them in the next election cycle if they were perceived to have betrayed Democratic principles.

Yet, in the end the Democratic superdelegates are likely to take the path of least resistance and award the nomination to Obama. If Obama wins the trifecta of the most pledged delegates, the largest popular vote total, and the most number of states (a probable outcome), no matter how flawed the process may have been, it’s hard to imagine how Obama could be denied the top spot on the Democratic ticket.

Copyright © 2008 Jefferson Flanders

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