Guessing What Wins

Political junkies like to think about who will win the next election and why – who made the big gaffe, who looked good in the debates, who had the most to spend, and who masterfully managed the key structural elements of the district or state, balancing this constituency against that, analyzing the number in each constituency who would actually vote, and why, and who would bag it and stay home. That last part is tricky stuff.

And add to that the business of independents and the undecided. You cannot be too left or too right for those folks, as they are thought to be moderates, occupying some sort of neutral ground between the two parties.

But real political junkies know they’re not moderates, or much of anything else. They just don’t follow politics – politics bores them, or offends them – and if they vote – and they might not – they vote on whim, or on impulse. That’s why they’re independents – they never committed to anything political in their lives to date, because they don’t much care one way or the other. And they are undecided for the same reason – they aren’t carefully weighing the candidates or the issues. They are just getting along with their own lives. So you have to deal with these on-a-whim voters too, and the sharp politician knows that part of getting elected is being a bit of a whimsical chap – some charming eccentricity helps, like a collection of antique motorcycles or a love for onion pie. A fondness for all things French is not recommended – try NASCAR or bowling instead. Just don’t bowl like Obama – that almost sunk him.

And so sharp politicians hire a staff of consultants, who themselves each have a staff of researchers, to get this all straight. Yes, Hillary Clinton should not have hired Mark Penn – he was wrong about what he called microtrends and most everything else – but you don’t go into these things on a wing and a prayer. You staff up. You plan. You make calculations – political calculations.

And this sort of thing drives policy wonks crazy. They’re not political junkies. They have this notion that those who we elect to do the dirty work of keeping the government working, so no one gets screwed and things work and the nation is secure, have to know stuff, and understand it, and be able to work out the appropriate policies, and know how to explain those policies in such a way that they get transformed into law. Yes, the process by which these folks get into office is fascinating, and important, but not the point of the whole business. You don’t want to confuse the road with the destination. It’s not how you get there. It’s what you do when you arrive. Those who determine public policy ought to have their act together. What they do once in office can assure that the nation thrives, or ruin us all. You pay attention to their positions. That’s what really matters.

But both political junkies and policy wonks can agree on one thing – why people vote one way or the other is odd. It used to be that if your parents voted Republican you did too, forever. If your parents – possibly union members or big city arts and literature folks – were Democrats, so are you. You remember that scene in Annie Hall:

Allison: I’m in the midst of doing my thesis.

Alvy Singer: On what?

Allison: Political commitment in twentieth century literature.

Alvy Singer: You, you, you’re like New York, Jewish, left-wing, liberal, intellectual, Central Park West, Brandeis University, the socialist summer camps and the, the father with the Ben Shahn drawings, right, and the really, you know, strike-oriented kind of, red diaper, stop me before I make a complete imbecile of myself.

Allison: No, that was wonderful. I love being reduced to a cultural stereotype.

Alvy Singer: Right, I’m a bigot, I know, but for the left.

We are the product of our environment. But then there were the Reagan Democrats – he got the union blue-collar guys on his side for a bit – and most of the love-peace sixties folks came from Republican families, as the times called out righteous defiance, or its self-righteous evil twin. Either way, from that point forward, those folks would always vote for the Democrat – and that was that. Environment isn’t everything. People decide what their politics are on many things – religious insight or the study of history, the state of the economy and their sense that things might get worse, or better, for them, or on their own insecurities and personality disorders, or on what just feels right – a matter of judging character, whatever that is – or on deciding which candidate is whip-smart or satisfyingly belligerent and sneering, or down to earth, or at least the earth with which that voter is familiar. And thus predicting who will win an election is difficult. Some say they voted for McCain because of what he actually sang about just bombing the snot out of Iran, and some say they voted for Obama because of what he said about sitting down with Iran and hashing things out, so they’d see it was not in their best interest to keep being jerks. But it’s always more complicated than that. And no one knows that much about it.

But as the midterm elections near, Joe Biden says he knows all about it:

Lest there be any doubts about Democrats’ chances of retaining the House majority in November, Vice President Biden confidently strove to put them to rest Monday, saying he guarantees it.

Speaking at a fundraising lunch for Congressional candidate Bryan Lentz in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Mr. Biden said Democrats will need to make their case that their policies are working. “I guarantee you that Pennsylvania is coming back. I guarantee you that America is coming back,” he said.

That confidence was hard to come by just over a week ago when President Obama’s Press Secretary, Robert Gibbs, told NBC’s Meet the Press, “I think there’s no doubt there are enough seats in play that could cause Republicans to gain control. There’s no doubt about that.”

Gibbs and Biden don’t agree? Both seem to be looking at the state of the economy as the key predictor in this matter – things are getting better and by November the Republicans will get skunked once again, or there is no way in hell things could get batter that fast and the Democrats could be doomed. It’s just talk.

But there is data (or there are data, if you want to be formal). See Lydia Saad at Gallup with Democrats Jump Into Six-Point Lead on Generic Ballot – but she also reports Republican enthusiasm for voting in November is surging. Who will win? Who knows?

And of course when you don’t know you throw something new into the mix – and this time you set up a new dialectic – like common decency versus adult and responsible fiscal discipline:

Senate Democrats are poised to break a partisan stalemate on Tuesday over extending unemployment benefits for millions of Americans who have been jobless for six months or more, but the fight seems certain to continue playing out as a defining issue in the midterm elections.

One day before a crucial procedural vote to provide added unemployment assistance through November, President Obama appeared in the Rose Garden on Monday with three out-of-work Americans to hammer Republicans for blocking the extension until now by insisting, over Democratic objections, that the $34 billion costs of the benefits not be added to the deficit.

“The same people who didn’t have any problem spending hundreds of billions of dollars on tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans are now saying we shouldn’t offer relief to middle-class Americans,” Mr. Obama said.

Obama threw down the gauntlet. Do the right thing. The new Democratic senator from West Virginia, Carte P. Goodwin, was to be sworn in to succeed Robert Byrd, who died the month before, putting Democrats in position to overcome any Republican blocking tactics and bring the bill to a final vote, and he set up the Republicans to look like nasty old men, willing to increase the deficit by six hundred billion with the Bush tax cuts in 2001 and 2003, but now playing games that would destroy the lives of maybe four million people. That might impress voters:

Mr. Obama’s tough attack on Monday signaled the White House’s confidence that it has the upper hand, legislatively and politically. Recent public opinion polls show that a majority of Americans favor giving the long-term unemployed more financial help even if it adds to the deficit. “To govern is to choose, and this is a clear choice: You either support extending benefits for people who are out of work or you don’t,” said Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of staff. “There are obvious political ramifications to that difference.”

The Republicans shot back that they really did want to keep these unemployed people from disaster, but only if you cut something else from the budget to pay for it. The Democrats shot back saying look what you guys did for the eight Bush years – you never stopped these sort of emergency extensions before, and you jacked up the deficit for all sorts of crap to be pout on the tab – the tax cuts, the wars, Medicare Part D and so on – and now this? You have to be kidding.

But the answer to that is that the Bush tax cuts paid for themselves, as tax cuts always do – the private economy gets humming because taxes are low, and sooner or later, the money pours into treasury, from many more people paying tiny taxes, as so many are doing well. And the answer to that was the data – even the Bush folks knew that was a joke.

And it got hotter as the day wore on, as the Democratic congressman from Florida, Alan Grayson, spoke on the House floor:

The Republicans are thinking, why don’t they just sell some of their stock? If they’re in really dire straits maybe they can take some of their art collection and send it to the auctioneer. And if they’re in deep, deep trouble maybe the unemployed can sell one of their yachts. That’s what the Republicans are thinking right now. But that’s not the life of ordinary people…

I will say to the Republicans who have blocked this bill for months, to those who have kept food out of the mouths of children, I will say to them now, may God have mercy on your souls.

Why do people vote the way they do? Alan Grayson has some thoughts on that. And it is rather obvious the Republican plan is to make things in America fall apart – oppose anything that helps – as economic collapse – a double-dip recession or a full blown second but deeper Great Depression – will sweep them back to power. People will blame Obama. He was president when it happened, after all. And that too is smart politics – sabotage things and offer to come to the rescue. And the worse things are in the end – death and starvation and what else you can manage – the more voters want you in office. It’s brilliant, actually – as long as people don’t say, hey, you were the guys who sabotaged things. There is the risk of that, even if it’s small. Fox News can help out there, of course.

But then there’s the Tea Party messing things up for the Republicans, as Jonathan Chait explains in Tactical Radicalism and the End of the GOP Establishment:

One interesting sidelight of the current election cycle is that there are several races in which the Republican establishment has either lost control of the race or lost any sense of its own partisan self-interest. The Nevada Senate race is a prime example. Harry Reid, once a dead man walking, is now sitting on a nice lead because Republicans nominated a lunatic to oppose him. “A total fuck up by the state and national Republicans to allow Angle to get nominated,” a source notes to Ben Smith.

But of course there are numerous such fuckups. In Kentucky, Republicans turned a rock-solid safe seat into a toss-up by nominating ultra-radical Rand Paul over party hack Trey Grayson. In Pennsylvania, they turned a relatively safe seat in Arlen Specter, who had been almost completely housebroken by the right since 2004, into another toss-up. (More importantly, they drove Specter from the party and made him the 60th Senate seat, allowing the passage of health care reform.) And in Florida, they turned another safe hold into a toss-up by challenging, and driving from the party, Charlie Crist.

In short, they put four Senate seats at “serious risk” by running right-wing primary challenges, and that led to “one enormous liberal domestic policy accomplishment.”

And they reacted oddly:

In all these instances, conservatives either celebrated the right-wing primary challenge or, at the very least, quietly accepted it. There was very little pushback at the time from the party establishment, other than a feeble effort in Kentucky. I have seen no recriminations whatsoever in hindsight. And yet it seems perfectly clear that the effect of these challenges has been a disaster from the conservative perspective. You don’t have to love Sue Lowden to understand that a 90% chance of Lowden winning is better than a 20% chance of Sharron Angle winning. Nor is there any recognition on the right that conservatives paved the way for health care reform by driving Specter out. In conservative lore, the Pat Toomey primary challenge remains a glorious triumph, when in fact it’s a disaster of historic proportions.

And Chait goes on to argue this all stems from a misunderstanding of why people vote the way they do:

Obviously the conservative movement is intoxicated with hubris right now. Part of this hubris is their belief that the American people are truly and deeply on their side and that the last two elections were either a fluke or the product of a GOP that was too centrist. It’s a tactical radicalism – a belief that ideological purity carries no electoral cost whatsoever.

The American people may vote the way they do for goofy reasons, but it seems they’d rather not elect goofballs. They’re funny that way. And Chait argues the current Republicans cannot seem to avoid goofballs:

In the past, the Republican Party has always managed to hold in check the tactical radicalism of its base. It’s starting to run wild. In past elections, I would have totally discounted the possibility that the party might nominate a figure like Sarah Palin, because the party establishment has always been strong enough to push aside candidates who were not strong electoral vehicles for conservatism. I’m no longer sure they have that power anymore.

Yep, and Mark Halperin argues that Palin is a done deal:

A new TIME poll shows Palin losing to Obama 55% to 34%, a lopsided margin that leads some Republican strategists to predict a wipeout if Palin is eventually chosen as the party’s nominee. But that might not matter… Her candidacy would require almost none of the usual time-sinks that force politicians to jump in early: power-broker schmoozing, schedule-intensive fundraising, competitive recruitment of experienced strategists, careful policy development. She would have immediate access to cash, with even small Internet donations likely bringing in millions.

Dave Weigel comments:

You read that if you’re a liberal who cannot stand this woman (but clicks on every article about her) you wonder what the hell Halperin is talking about. Really, even conservatives think it’s a problem that a Palin 2012 bid would not include “careful policy development.” How long have they been saying she’s in a unique position to talk about energy and offshore drilling? How many unlettered appearances have we seen from her now, discussing that topic?

But he says Halperin is right about Palin and a media that’s really not going to actually cover the 2012 election:

This media is not going to care about her policies. If policies come up during debates, and she gives the same answers she gives on Fox now, and Mitt Romney pounces on her, the story will not be that the GOP’s frontrunner gave a pallid answer. The story will be that Mitt Romney pounced. What does this do to his image? What does Mike Huckabee have to say about it?

And so on. It’s hard to imagine Palin competing at the policy level the press claims she needs to get to, but easy to imagine her competing at the level they actually play on. Quick, cast your mind back to the countless 2007/2008 Democratic debates. Do you remember Hillary’s mastery of policy? No. You remember her fumbling an answer on drivers’ licenses for illegal immigrants, you remember Obama telling her she was “likable enough,” and perhaps you remember Dennis Kucinich talking about aliens.

Andrew Sprung disagrees:

Palin faces the Herculean task of wiping out the impression of feckless ditziness that Tina Fey helped burn into tens of millions of American minds. Maybe she’ll do it. It would not entirely surprise me if someone of her transcendent narcissism and ambition did achieve enough policy fluency to compete in 2012. She was effective in the Alaskan gubernatorial debates in 2006. But she cannot get away forever with clueless stares and helpless repetition of the question when interviewed even by friendly hosts on matters of national policy. Weigel underestimates the rigor remaining in the American Presidential selection process.

He argues voters do not assess the candidates as celebrities, or whatever she is:

What do people remember about Palin’s performance on policy questions in her national media appearances in 2008? Incoherent babble about seeing Russia from Alaska and what happens when Putin rears his head and flies in American airspace. Her obvious cluelessness when Charles Gibson asked for her thoughts about the Bush Doctrine. Her faux-Reagan, target-free “there you go again, Joe” in her debate with Biden.

That is why huge majorities on the eve the election said that she was unqualified to be President. That’s why huge majorities still say that she’s unqualified to be President. At this time, while Palin is playing directly to her base in media of her own choosing, Weigel accords her almost magical powers to fool most of the people enough of the time in 2012 to get herself elected President. She has failed to do so thus far.

And as for the rest of the Republicans, they seem to keep saying that rather than negotiate, we’re going to just oppose everything outright, as the people trying to pass this stuff are basically radical socialists and anyone who compromises with them is a traitor – at least that is the Sprung summary. And not that many voters think that way, so most others tend to give Democrats a shot:

That desperate, ambivalent willingness to give Democrats a shot at addressing long-festering problems was at a high water mark in 2008. You can make a strong case that any Democrat (other than, say, John Edwards) would have won the Presidency in that year. Explaining Obama’s primary victory over Clinton, you could cite his team’s superior strategy (focusing on Iowa, the caucuses after Super Tuesday), fundraising, and structural advantage once African Americans broke en masse in his direction. Yet I think it’s still fair to say that in a real sense Obama won the Presidency by force of argument, by persuading first some critical party elders like Harry Reid and eventually a majority of voters (and donors large and small) when it mattered that “this guy’s smart.” How else could a black freshman senator with a slim resume have won?

So there’s another factor – this guy is smart, so he’ll probably do. There are worse ways to choose someone to establish and implement public policy – but you’re mileage may vary. But you see how this is shaping up – on one side you have common decency and smarts, and on the other side, folks saying no, over and over, no matter who gets hurt and how badly they get hurt, because there are certain principles that cannot be questioned.

And in the middle are the voters. We’ll see what they decide. But we’ll never know why they decide what they do.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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