Down to the Wire

We live now in hard times, not end times.

— Jon Stewart, at the Rally to Restore Sanity, October 30, 2010

In this week’s Sift:

  • An Election-Watcher’s Guide. What should you know before sitting down to watch the returns come in tomorrow?
  • The 2012 Kick-Off. The post-election spin will be the opening salvo of the 2012 presidential campaign.
  • The Private Campaign. Political campaigns used to happen in public. The whole point was to draw undecided voters to your events and convince them, and to get major-media attention for your candidate. Not any more.
  • Short Notes. Matching states with movies. Where the Court is going on church and state. An Arkansas school board member is denied his First-Amendment right to promote student suicides. Al Jazeera is watching our election. And Jon Stewart massively outdraws Glenn Beck.

An Election-Watcher’s Guide

Along with the Super Bowl and the Olympics, Election Night is one of the outstanding glue-yourself-to-the-TV spectacles of American culture. If you’re planning to watch this year, I recommend doing it with friends and away from sharp objects or high windows.

Going in, there are always two things I want to know:

  • What are the polls predicting?
  • What races should I be watching at various points in the evening?

Fortunately Steve Singiser on Daily Kos has done all the hard work for us. His  “Polling and Political Wrap-Up” series (Halloween edition here) collects the latest polls, and his Bellwethers 2010 is an hour-by-hour guide to which states are closing their polls and what races to watch to figure out how the night is going.

As in 2008, the poll-watcher I trust most is Nate Silver. In 2008 his predictions were uncanny. I’ll sum them up by quoting my pre-election Sift from two years ago:

As for Senate races, Nate Silver thinks the only real cliff-hanger is Franken-Coleman in Minnesota, which he thinks tilts in Franken’s direction.

If you remember, that race hung on the cliff until the next summer, when a Minnesota court decided Franken had won. All the others went the way Nate predicted.

As of this morning, Nate was projecting that the Democrats would hold the Senate 52-48 and lose the House 232-203.

That said, don’t expect anybody’s predictions to be all that good this year, because the polls have gone crazy. For example, in general polls are predicting that Republicans win the House, as reflected in Nate’s projections. However, Gallup’s generic-congressional-ballot poll gives the Republicans a 15% edge. Newsweek’s tips towards the Democrats by 3%. You can find a poll with just about any number in between.

That craziness shows up in Nate’s confidence interval. His House projection has the Republicans gaining 53 seats, but all he can say with 95% confidence is that they’ll gain somewhere between 23 and 81 seats.

The uncertainty boils down to two things: (1) Polls are done over the phone, and nobody knows how to get a random sample of cell-phone-only households. (2) Nobody knows who is going to show up to vote. In 2008, Obama got unprecedented numbers of young people, blacks, and Hispanics to vote. Was that a one-time thing, or are they voters now? The polls are especially slippery in states like Wisconsin, where you can register to vote on election day.

Turnout. The projected Republican margin is almost entirely due to the so-called “enthusiasm gap”. When you break the electorate into segments, there’s been only a little bit of slippage in the Democrats’ group-by-group support since 2008. But pollsters expect Republican voters to show up and Democratic voters to stay home. For example, if you look at polls of all registered voters, the generic-ballot polls are almost even, falling in a range of plus-or-minus 6% for either party.

Given the number of close races, that makes a huge difference. Currently, most polls pick Sharron Angle to beat Harry Reid in Nevada. But they arrive at that conclusion by applying a Republican-tilting likely-voter model to raw data in which Reid is ahead. If all registered voters decide to show up, Reid wins.

So that’s the big thing to watch before the polls close. The networks won’t announce what their exit polls are showing in a state until that state’s voting is over. But all through the day they’ll be reporting turnout. If it’s higher than expected, Democrats will be more competitive. They’ll also probably tell you the make-up of the electorate. If voters are overwhelming white and older, it’s a Republican sweep. If not, it will be close.

The Bellwether. Back in 2008, Nate Silver came up with the concept of a “tipping point state” — the states that were likely to make the difference one way or the other. This year, his tipping-point states for control of the Senate are Washington, West Virginia, and California. And that makes West Virginia the bellwether state: a tipping-point state where the polls close early. So your first solid information on control of the Senate will come shortly after the polls close in West Virginia at 7:30 EDT. (California and Washington don’t close their polls until 11 EDT.)

The 2012 Kick-Off

In 1998, the Wednesday-morning narrative was that the Clinton impeachment was backfiring on the GOP, and that come 2000 voters would want an outsider who was no part of that cat-fight. Meanwhile, Bush had been re-elected Governor of Texas with 69% of the vote, and the presidential dynamic was set: Bush had the name, money, and insider support to make sure that the Bush-is-the-answer spin on the election stuck.

I’m not expecting that kind of clear question-and-answer this year, but you never know. The big story of 2010 has been the Tea Party, and it’s looking likely that Wednesday morning Republicans will be saying “We’d have won the Senate if not for those bozos.” Christine O’Donnell is going to lose big in Delaware, and Joe Miller is collapsing in Alaska (though write-in candidate Murkowski is likely to retain the seat for the Republicans). If any of the other Tea Party candidates — Sharron Angle in Nevada, Rand Paul in Kentucky, or Ken Buck in Colorado —  lose what should have been easy Republican races, then that will be the story: Voters don’t like extremists.

On the other hand, if Angle, Paul, and Buck all win comfortably and the Republicans do control the Senate, then the opposite message takes hold: Republicans won because they really stood for something, so their voters were enthusiastic enough to come to the polls while Democrats stayed home.

If the Tea Party story is positive, then 2012 is going to be wild. The momentum is with the people who were Out There, taking the wiggiest positions and being totally unequivocal: Newt Gingrich and Michelle Bachman come to mind. (Palin is a special case; I’ll get to her.) But a negative Tea Party story favors the duller candidates: Mitt Romney most of all, but also relative unknowns like Tim Pawlenty and Mitch Daniels.

I can’t pick a 2012 Republican nominee yet, but I can describe him/her: The winning Republican position in 2012 is to be a stealth tea-partier — somebody the Tenthers and Birthers and water-the-tree-of-liberty types will accept as one of their own, but who won’t be seen that way by the general public. The Republicans will nominate whichever establishment candidate sounds most convincing using vague tea-party rhetoric that doesn’t commit him/her to anything specific. Expect to hear a lot about “the Constitution” and “the Founding Fathers” and “common-sense solutions”.

Palin. Unlike New York Magazine, I don’t expect Palin to run. I expect her to keep people guessing for as long as she can, but to find an excuse to back out.

Here’s why: You can make a career in politics either as a politician or as a pundit/entertainer. If you’re a politician, you need a majority, so you care about your favorable/unfavorable rating. But you can do well as an entertainer with a small-but-enthusiastic following, even if most people don’t like you. So Harry Reid and John Boehner care who they alienate, but Michael Moore and Rush Limbaugh don’t.

Palin is taking the entertainer road. She came out of 2008 with lots of strengths and weaknesses. If she wanted to be a politician, she’d have been shoring up her weaknesses, trying to put together a majority. (Picture McCain courting Jerry Falwell to make himself less toxic to evangelicals.) She’d have served out her term as governor, met with foreign leaders, maybe served on a bipartisan commission, and staked out some signature issue. Imagine if Palin had an energy-independence plan that everyone else had to comment on, or if Paul Ryan’s balance-the-budget plan had come from her. People who thought she was a lightweight would have to take another look.

Instead, she’s been doubling down on her strengths, building the small-but-rabid following an entertainer needs, and going out of her way to annoy everybody else. So she doesn’t have policies and issues — she has tweets. She’s been going for notoriety, not popularity.

And it’s working. She’s in the headlines constantly, and she’s very unpopular. A long and profitable entertainment career awaits.

The Private Campaign

Other than all the anonymously-contributed attack-ad money, the most disturbing trend of 2010 is the growth of what you might call private campaigning. (lawsyl on Daily Kos calls it the Bubble Strategy.)

Traditionally, public attention was the whole point of campaigning. The Depression-era campaigns portrayed in All the King’s Men featured free barbecues with a band — spectacles that would draw folks in off the streets and down from the mountains for miles around so that they would listen to the candidate. There was a risk, of course, that the crowd might eat the free meal, listen to the band, and then heckle the candidate — but that was the chance you had to take.

Ditto for the press. You wanted them to write about you, so you made yourself available. You charmed them, flattered them. John McCain’s “Straight Talk Express” was a throw-back to the days of whistle-stop tours, when the candidate’s train would pull into town, the candidate would speak off the back platform, and reporters-to-be-charmed would get a ride to the next town and a chat with the Great Man Himself. Again, you had to take the chance that reporters would drink your scotch, take up your time, and then write something bad about you.

No more. Already in the 60s, campaigns were becoming more about TV than personal appearances, and more about commercials than interviews. But the Bush 2000 campaign pushed things to a new level, and it’s just gotten worse since then.

Here in New Hampshire, the old-fashioned way you to campaign is to meet people 50-100 at a time in backyards and school gyms. You give a speech, and then you show off your command of the issues and your mental agility by answering whatever questions come up. Unfortunately, Bush didn’t have those virtues, so he campaigned in photo-ops and commercials — and lost the NH primary bigtime. We never got to ask him any questions, so how could we vote for him? But the rest of the country was more modern and didn’t have those qualms, so he became president.

When 2004 rolled around, the real people at Bush’s events were just props for TV. Campaign rallies were all private — you needed a ticket, which only the local Republican Party could give you. If you heckled, you were carried out, because you were crashing a private event. Even the route Bush would take to events would be cleared of anti-Bush signs, though pro-Bush signs could stay.

So while Bush would occasionally answer questions, they were always questions from pre-selected supporters. An undecided voter sizing up a candidate face-to-face was ancient history.

The private campaign took another step in 2008, when the McCain people realized they could not allow Sarah Palin to be interviewed by neutral journalists. The initial Gibson and Couric interviews had been disasters — not because the journalists posed have-you-stopped-beating-your-husband questions, but because Palin couldn’t handle softballs like what newspapers she reads. Fortunately, by 2008 there was an entire parallel world of conservative media filled with people like Sean Hannity, who would only ask her the questions she wanted to answer.

But at least she was only the VP. McCain himself would still answer real questions.

In 2010, some of the Tea Party (i.e. Republican) Senate candidates have run entirely private campaigns. Only friendly audiences see them. Only friendly media has access. And so the candidates don’t even have to spin or obfuscate — they can simply not talk about anything they don’t want to talk about.

Up until now, even the most controlled campaigns have had detailed position-papers on their web sites. Those papers might be full of false facts and fancy phrases that boil down to not much, but at least they were there. Now take a look at the “Issues” page of Sharron Angle’s web site.  It’s 900 words long, with no links to anything more detailed. You want to know her position on national security? Here it is, the whole thing:

Sharron Angle is a staunch supporter of the U.S. military, and will work tirelessly to secure the peace and security of our country. She supports strong sanctions against rogue nations that export, support or harbor terrorism and believes that we must do whatever necessary to protect America from terrorism.

Las Vegas CBS affiliate KLAS has been trying to get Angle to say anything at all about the two wars we’re in — unsuccessfully. And for their trouble they and the NBC affiliate have been banned from election night coverage of Angle. Even the local Fox affiliate can’t get questions answered.

To a lesser extent, Tea Party candidates Joe Miller in Alaska, Rand Paul in Kentucky, and Christine O’Donnell in Delaware have run inside similar bubbles. Angle and Paul may get seats in the Senate this way. And that raises the question: Might we see a totally private presidential campaign in 2012, in which the candidate ignores all but friendly media and takes positions only on the issues s/he wants to take positions on? Can that possibly work?

Short Notes

Here’s a fun party game: Come up with a movie for each state in the union. Some are obvious: Kansas gets “The Wizard of Oz”, Indiana is “Hoosiers”, and the Dakotas get “Fargo” and “Dances With Wolves”. The map Subtonix put together has a few mistakes (it’s got “Fargo” in Minnesota) and a recent-movie bias (“White Christmas” is a better Vermont choice, and how do you miss “The Grapes of Wrath” for Oklahoma or “Nashville” for Tennessee?) — but that makes it an even better conversation-starter.

Dahlia Lithwick examines where the Supreme is going with church-and-state issues. Years ago in one of the Pledge of Allegiance cases (my analysis here), Justice O’Connor wrote about how public mention of God can be “ceremonial deism” — language intended for the secular purpose of solemnizing an event rather than endorsing a specific theological viewpoint. (While I wouldn’t have gone that way, O’Connor’s reasoning is not completely off the wall. It’s similar to when a character in a TV show says, “Thank God.” You assume the character is relieved about something, not that s/he is pushing a religious message.)

Well, in last year’s Salazar v. Buono, Justice Kennedy took this notion a step further and opined that a cross erected on public land may have a similarly secular purpose. LIthwick wonders where that kind of reasoning is headed in the current term’s cases. (Lithwick mentions Justice Scalia’s amazement at the notion that Jewish soldiers might not feel properly memorialized by a cross over their graveyard. A fuller account of that exchange is worth reading.)

She links to a more elaborate analysis on FindLaw. Vikram Amar and Alan Brownstein speculate that the Court is likely to back off of prohibiting any government endorsement of religion, and instead focus on whether anyone is being coerced into participating in a religious exercise. That’s a looser standard, and would allow things (like prayers at non-mandatory public-school events) that an endorsement test would rule out.

It looks like we won’t have Clint McCance to kick around any more. McCance was a school board member in Arkansas when he commented on Facebook about a campaign for people to wear purple to school on Spirit Day (October 20) in sympathy with bullied gay and lesbian students, five of whom had recently committed suicide. His comment:

Seriously they want me to wear purple because five queers killed themselves. The only way im wearin it for them is if they all commit suicide. I cant believe the people of this world have gotten this stupid. We are honoring the fact that they sinned and killed thereselves because of their sin.

It turns out that view is considered extreme even in Arkansas. (Who knew?) So McCance is resigning from the school board, though he doesn’t rule out running again at some point — presumably after the whole gay-kids-shouldn’t-be-hounded-to-death fad has run its course.

Some surprisingly good American political coverage is coming out of Al Jazeera’s English channel. Check out this episode of their show Fault Lines, which covers the Tea Party in Nevada and the grass-roots effort to end racial gerrymandering in Florida. (If you follow that last link, you should probably also look at this one; it explains why the propositions to end gerrymandering in Florida are part of the plot to “usher in a Socialist tyranny.”)

Around 215,000 people came to Jon Stewart’s Rally to Restore Sanity Saturday, compared to about 87,000 for Glenn Beck’s Rally to Restore Honor in August. Both numbers come from AirPhotosLive, which CBS commissioned to estimate the crowds. Watch chunks of the rally on Comedy Central’s website.

The Weekly Sift appears every Monday afternoon. If you would like to receive it by email, write to WeeklySift at Help me figure out what to do with the Sift’s Facebook page.

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  • DavidW in SF  On November 1, 2010 at 3:37 pm

    Trivial correction: “Fargo”, despite its title, is actually a Minnesota movie and not a Dakota movie. The vast majority of it is set in Brainerd MN (where Marge Gunderson is Chief of Police) and Minneapolis MN (Jerry Lundegaard's auto dealership). Fargo is where the assassins get hired.


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