Tag Archives: 2012 election

Looking Back at the 2012 Election: Relief, not Triumph

On the whole, my feeling coming out of the election was less a sense of triumph than of disaster averted. At various points in the process, the Republican electorate appeared ready to unite behind a charming dunce (Rick Perry), a lunatic (Michele Bachmann), a huckster (Herman Cain), a race-baiter and Islamophobe (Newt Gingrich), or a Christian supremacist (Rick Santorum) before actually nominating a guy no one actually believed in. Mitt Romney united the party around a pure drive to take power away from the Socialist Black Guy, a drive unsullied by any genuine principles or plans beyond repealing everything the SBG has done.

Again and again, my reaction was not so much “I hope we win this argument” as “I can’t believe we’re talking about this”. We argued about contraception, about whether anti-abortion laws should have a rape exception, and about how best to cut rich people’s taxes in the face of trillion-dollar deficits. The Republican candidates did not debate global warming, because they all agreed that it either isn’t happening or (if it maybe-sorta is) the government shouldn’t do anything to slow it down. Americans who have begun drawing money out of the programs they’ve been contributing to for decades were denounced as “takers” and Romney despaired that “I’ll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.” Republicans tried to build their convention around an Obama “gaffe”: his recognition of the obvious fact that private enterprise is only possible in the context of a healthy public sector. (Imagine if they’d been running against Ben Franklin, who “gaffed” like this in 1789: “Private Property therefore is a Creature of Society, and is subject to the Calls of that Society, whenever its Necessities shall require it, even to its last Farthing; its Contributions therefore to the public Exigencies are not to be considered as conferring a Benefit on the Publick, entitling the Contributors to the Distinctions of Honour and Power, but as the Return of an Obligation previously received, or the Payment of a just Debt.”)

So: rape-minimizing senate candidates lost, a vast quantity of dark money failed in its mission, and an unprecedented level of cynicism and brazen lying did not sway the public. As a result, we won’t go back to Bush economic policies. We might manage to keep our actual Constitution rather than let an ultra-conservative Supreme Court replace it with a charter of corporate rights. The safety net might be saved. Abortion might continue to be legal. And we might avoid the next unnecessary war. Maybe.

Feel triumphant?

So how did the Sift do covering the election? Looking back, I’m pleased. (OK, I’m embarrassed by my early 2011 predictions that “Mitt Romney will not be nominated” and “At some point it’s going to come down to Bachmann against one or two other Republican candidates,” but we’re just talking about 2012, right?) April’s The Narratives of November was a reasonable preview of the fall campaign, and the Sift was an early and consistent proponent of the view that somebody eventually summed up as “keep calm and trust Nate Silver”. As in 2008, my hour-by-hour projection of election night was imperfect but pretty good — concluding (correctly) with “Obama wins by midnight.”

Ryan. The Sift’s most noteworthy election coverage was my Paul Ryan trilogy:  In the avalanche of coverage that followed Ryan’s selection of Mitt Romney’s vice presidential candidate, I sifted out the ten points that seemed most important in I Read Everything About Paul Ryan So You Don’t Have To. I didn’t want Ryan to get away with the trick the Tea Party pulled in 2010 — focusing everybody’s attention on budget deficits and hiding an extreme culture-war agenda until after the election — so I followed the next week with Paul Ryan: Veteran of the War on Women. And finally, I used my own history as an Ayn Rand follower to illuminate Ryan’s worldview in Ayn, Paul, and Me.

Truthiness. Political scientist Norman Ornstein says that “the great unreported big story of American politics” this year was the Romney campaign’s unprecedented level of cynicism and contempt for truth — the culmination of a trend David Roberts labeled “post-truth politics” and summed up like this:

Political campaigns have always lied and stretched the truth, but when caught in a lie, would typically defend themselves (claim it was actually true), retract, or at the very least stop repeating the lie. Either way, the presumption was that truth-telling had some moral force; one ought to tell the truth, even if that commandment was often honored in the breach.

What’s creepy about the Romney crew is that they don’t do any of those things. They don’t deny, they don’t stop, they just don’t care at all.

But instead of covering this story, the mainstream media’s worship of “balance” led them to devalue accuracy; writing both-sides-do-it articles was much easier and safer than pointing out what was really happening. That’s why Jay Rosen called this “a story too big to tell”.

I was already on that story last year: The Sift’s Theme of 2011 was Escape from Bizarro World, and I spelled out the nuts-and-bolts of how it works in Liberal Media, Conservative Manipulation. A regular subject of my campaign coverage this year was the media meta-discussion about how to cover lies.

In addition, I did my usual periodic debunking: Four Fantasy Issues of the RightBarack X, the fictional presidentThe Return of Death PanelsFive Pretty Lies and the Ugly Truths They Hide; followed by the post-election Repainting the Bubble.

And while it didn’t take a great genius to see in April that the fall campaign would be about negative ads and bogus gaffes rather than the real challenges that face this country, I’m still proud of the agenda I laid out for the candidates in Seven Issues the Election Should Be About. Politics should still be focused on those seven issues, and rarely is. After the conventions, I laid out Obama’s Positive Case, which wasn’t too far off the case he eventually made.

On the other hand, I totally didn’t foresee that Obama would screw up the first debate and give Romney a chance to catch up.

The Weekly Sift is a liberal blog — I’ve never pretended otherwise — so in October I campaigned for Obama in articles like Convincing Friends to Vote for Obama and Sorry Jill, I’m not voting Green.

Post-election, I’ve been resisting the spin that the Republican House has a mandate to resist Obama’s agenda by pointing out that they got fewer votes than Democratic House candidates and owe their majority to gerrymandering.

2013? So what will politics bring us in 2013? In spite of the post-election optimism that Republicans will stop obstructing everything Obama tries to do (since he’s already been re-elected and can’t run again), I’m not seeing it.

The “alternative knowledge system” (i.e., fantasy world) that David Frum pointed to is still in the driver’s seat in the GOP. 2012 was not a big enough disaster to kill it. One of my primary predictive principles is: Trends that can only end one way will end that way. The GOP won’t stand up to its extreme right wing until it is facing total destruction. So it will face total destruction. Just yesterday:

Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, said that holding the line against raising taxes on high-income households while fighting for cuts to Social Security was “not a winning hand.”

Ya think? What kind of party needs an elder statesman to point that out?

So I predict this will be the story of politics in 2013: How destructive will the Tea Party faction in Congress have to get before mainstream Republicans realize their party faces extinction?

How Gerrymandering Painted the House Red

The same electorate that re-elected President Obama by more than 3 million votes and chose Democrats or Democratic-leaning Independents in 25 out of 33 Senate races also re-affirmed the Republican majority in the House 234-201. That’s not much different from the 242-193 advantage the Republicans got in 2010, which was considered a Republican wave election.

So how did that happen? Do voters “prefer divided government”, as Wisconsin columnist Tom Still concludes? Did they send a mixed message that gives a mandate to neither party’s agenda, as Paul Ryan claims? Or was a Democratic-leaning electorate thwarted in its will to have a Democratic Congress?

Consider this: More people voted for Democratic congressional candidates than Republican ones. As of November 9, the WaPo’s Dan Keating calculated the Democratic advantage at 48.8%-48.47%, or 49.55%-48.54% in races where both parties ran a candidate.

So how did the People vote (narrowly) for a Democratic Congress but get a Republican one instead? That’s certainly not what the Founders intended: The reason there are more House districts than Senate seats and all congressmen have to go back to the voters every two years is that the House is supposed to closely reflect the will of the People.

Why didn’t that work? Why didn’t the House come out with a slight edge for the Democrats, or something closer to a 50-50 split reflecting a close popular vote?

Gerry’s salamander, currently the I-95 and I-495 corridors near Boston


Every ten years (after the census), the states redraw the boundaries of their congressional districts. 2010 was a census year, but it also was a year when Republicans swept the legislatures of several big swing states like Ohio and Florida, and even states like Wisconsin and Pennsylvania that ordinarily lean blue. So Republicans got to redraw the districts in those states to favor their own candidates.

There’s nothing illegal about that. It’s been going on forever. (The name comes from this 1812 cartoon, in which an oddly-shaped district is portrayed as Gov. Gerry’s salamander.) And both parties do it. (Though in recent years Republicans have been more aggressive about it, as when Texas redrew its districts without a new census in 2003.)

But it’s one thing to wave your hands and say “gerrymandering” and another to see how it actually works. The basic idea is simple: You load up a few districts with as many of your opponent’s voters as possible, leaving yourself smaller (but still comfortable) advantages in the other districts.

For example, suppose your state got 3 House seats and had 300,000 voters split equally between the Purple party and the Yellow party. If the Yellows control the state legislature, they can lock in a 2-1 House majority by drawing district boundaries that divide the voters like this:

District Yellow Purple
1 0 100,000
2 75,000 25,000
3 75,000 25,000
Total 150,000 150,000

That’s the ideal case, but now look at Wisconsin. Tom Still reports:

State voters sent a Democrat back to the White House, but maintained the Republican Party’s 5-3 edge in Wisconsin’s House delegation, very much in line with the national decision to keep the House in Republican hands, which will make Obama’s second term even tougher.

Look at the vote totals in those 8 districts. (Numbers retrieved from CNN on November 14.)

District Democrat Republican margin
1 157,721 199,715 41,994 R
2 264,790 124,465 140,325 D
3 217,328 121,536 95,792 D
4 234,823 80,637 154,186 D
5 117,972 249,267 131,295 R
6 136,146 223,514 87,368 R
7 157,340 201,318 43,978 R
8 156,371 198,464 42,093 R
Total 1,442,491 1,398,916 43,575 D

So a Democratic advantage of over 40,000 votes, or 50.8%-49.2%, turns into a 5-3 Republican majority. It happens just like in the ideal Purple/Yellow example: All three Democratic wins are by at least 95,000 votes, but only one Republican victory is that big. Districts 1, 7, and 8 all provide comfortable 40,000-vote margins for the Republicans, but put together those margins don’t add up to the 140,000+ Democratic landslides in either District 2 or District 4. (BTW, District 1 is Paul Ryan’s seat.)

The bigger the state, the more room for this kind of mischief. A chart listing the 18 congressional districts of Pennsylvania would be too big to be instructive, but I’ve added up the numbers: Democrats got 2.72 million total votes compared to 2.65 million for the Republicans — yielding a 13-5 Republican advantage in House seats.

Why Didn’t Money Talk?

When a series of Supreme Court decisions dismantled campaign finance laws, many of us viewed the future with a glum certainty: Vast amounts of anonymous money were going to pour into political campaigns, most of it was going to pool up behind Republican candidates, and the dams that had so imperfectly preserved democracy until now would finally break altogether, sweeping in a more-or-less permanent Republican majority.

Some of that happened. The Republican presidential primaries, for example, often seemed more like a struggle between billionaire backers than between candidates. Sheldon Adelson kept Newt Gingrich in the race more-or-less single-handedly. Foster Friess did the same for Rick Santorum. Mitt Romney may not have relied on a single billionaire, but his campaign purse seemed bottomless as he overwhelmed one challenger after another with negative ads.

Vast amounts were spent in the general election, and Romney did have the advantage, but the totals weren’t lopsided. Open Secrets estimated that (as of October 17), largely unaccountable outside pro-Romney groups had spent three times as much as comparable pro-Obama groups, but that Obama’s campaign had raised almost enough in the old-fashioned way to make up the difference.

Source of Funds Obama Romney
Candidate $540,812,931 $336,399,297
Party $263,223,785 $284,156,290
Outside groups $128,056,615 $409,597,799
Total $932,093,331 $1,030,153,386

(It’s possible that Romney’s edge increased in the last 3 weeks of the campaign, but — speaking as a swing-state voter — I didn’t notice it.) What’s more, since networks sell airtime to candidates at a lower rate than they charge outside groups, and because the Obama campaign got bargains by committing money early, Obama may actually have been able to air more commercials than Romney did. Ad Age concludes: “Obama’s campaign ultimately won the air war.”

Similar things happened in the Senate races. Outside groups spent $15 million in Ohio attacking Sherrod Brown, but the Brown campaign managed to raise enough to maintain a rough parity. The truly crazy election was Jon Tester’s win in Montana, where outside groups spent $25 million and the campaigns themselves another $20 million, totaling about $100 per vote. But again, Tester stayed competitive.

In general, the Democrats had an advantage in small contributions, but they also raised some big money. (Who knows what price we’ll pay for that in the long run?) And they won even when they were outspent, as long as they weren’t outspent by much.

So it’s tempting to say that the whole money issue was overblown. My conclusion is a little less optimistic: I think the Republicans haven’t figured out what to do with their advantage yet. Karl Rove took his $400 million and did the same things he used to do with $40 million, just ten times more of it. That didn’t work.

And despite Romney’s image as a great salesman and a business genius, he just got outplayed. Obama’s early-summer ads had a clear goal: Make Bain Capital a negative for Romney. Probably that was the most effective advertising of the whole campaign. By contrast Romney’s ads lacked strategy. What product was he selling? Moderate Massachusetts Mitt? Severely conservative Mitt? Big business Mitt? The Great White Hope? Even his negative ads lacked coherence. He seemed to be throwing everything at Obama to see what would stick.

So at one level, the campaign just reinforces what any marketing professor will tell you: A big advertising budget isn’t enough. You need a product and a message that sells the product. You need to know who you’re selling to and why they should want to buy.

But Romney’s failure, like the Edsel and New Coke, doesn’t imply that advertising doesn’t work. Money in politics is like height in basketball. Sure, occasionally you run into a 7-foot stiff and a Spud Webb who can run rings around him. Height isn’t decisive that way, but it matters. You can’t ignore height and imagine that you’re going to assemble a championship basketball team.

Similarly, the fact that big money couldn’t buy Republicans the White House or the Senate in 2012 doesn’t mean that they can’t be bought. The fact that the corporations and the billionaires didn’t get everything they wanted this time doesn’t mean that they won’t next time.

In politics, money talks in stages. The first stage is just to get your name known. The second gets your name identified with some issue or slogan or proposal. Third, you can attach some negative image to your opponent and fend off the image he tries to attach to you. In all of those stages, there’s a ceiling — after you spend a certain amount, the message has been delivered, and the advantage in delivering it over and over diminishes.

But I suspect there are stages we have not yet dreamed of, in which large amounts of money, creatively spent, can change the public’s perception of reality.

The 2012 billion-dollar campaigns were horseless carriages. But by 2016, someone may have designed a genuine roadster. Then we’ll be in trouble.

W(h)ither the Republicans?

Aron Nimzowitch, the greatest chess master of his era, once ungraciously berated himself: “That I should lose to this idiot!”

I’m guessing that’s how Republicans felt Wednesday morning. They’ve never respected Barack Obama, and many never admitted that he’s really president. To them, he’s a Kenyan usurper, a vacuous celebrity, the “affirmative action president” for whom whites voted just “to prove that they weren’t racists“, a puppet reading from a teleprompter, the “food stamp president“, a “racist” who “has a deep-seated hatred for white people”, and an “anti-American leftist” who needs to “learn how to be an American” because was mentored by Communists and had been “palling around with terrorists” most of his life.

As for Obama’s policies since usurping the presidency, conservatives were convinced (falsely) that the stimulus was an enormous waste of money. ObamaCare is a “government takeover” that will soon put “death panels” in charge of grandma’s treatment plan. Obama raised taxes and spent wildly, but slashed defense. He threw Israel under the bus, and let Iran get “four years closer to a bomb“. (Picture how imminent the Iranian bomb must be: Hawks like Michael Eisenstadt were telling us in 2005 that “within a few years at most, Iran will be a de facto nuclear weapons state”. Those “few years” had passed already when Obama took office. And now the Iranian bomb is even four years closer than that.)

Now Republicans are supposed to accept that the un-American socialist failure just kicked their butts. And you know who else did? Girls. Elizabeth Warren, Tammy Baldwin, Heidi Heitkamp, and Mazie Hirono didn’t just keep the Senate Democratic, they increased Harry Reid’s majority.

The bubble popped. The Right totally didn’t see it coming. All year and right up to the end, Dick Morris had been assuring them that a Romney landslide was brewing. The polls said otherwise, but pollsters belonged to the lamestream media that was in the bag for Obama, like that “effeminate” Nate Silver. If you used the internal data to “unskew” the Democratic sampling bias, then the polls also predicted a Romney landslide! With a week to go, Newt Gingrich foresaw more than 300 electoral votes for Romney, plus a Republican Senate. The Romney campaign claimed it could take Pennsylvania! George Will saw them capturing Minnesota!

Even Mitt Romney believed it.

I’m belaboring this point for a reason: Sure, we liberals had our own how-could-they-re-elect-that-guy moment in 2004. But most of us had been dreading that outcome for a long time. Even in 2008, when all the signs pointed in our favor, we kept looking up to see if the sky had started falling yet.

Conservatives aren’t like that. They believe (and constantly tell each other) that they are the majority. They are the People. They are the real Americans. In 2008, some kind of affirmative-action Hollywood smoke-and-mirrors made Obama president (if he really is president), but by 2012 America had seen the horrible consequences of his Marxist ideas, and they were ready for a real alpha male like Mitt Romney and his iron-pumping VP.

That fantasy world came crashing down Tuesday night in just a few hours. They lost the White House and the Senate. They lost congressional heroes like Alan West. Joe Walsh got whipped by a girl with no legs. (Check that: an Army helicopter pilot with no legs.) Michele Bachmann barely escaped. Gay marriage won in four states. Marijuana in two.

Not just a bad day. Worse, Republicans lost for an obvious reason that’s only going to get worse: demographics. Only 72% of the electorate was white this year — compared to 74% in 2008 and 77% in 2004. If you lose 93% of blacks, 72% of Hispanics, and 73% of Asians, even 59% of the white vote won’t save you any more.

Only 78% of voters are Protestant or Catholic, and that number is also going down. If you lose 70% of everybody else, that’s a big hill to climb.

If you depend so totally on white Christians, and if they’re less than 60% of the electorate, then you can’t afford to write off any subgroup of them, like single women (67% for Obama altogether — some of them had to be white Christians) or the young (60% of the under-30 vote) or low-to-middling-income workers (60% of those making under $50K).

Ruy Teixeira saw this coming ten years ago. Jon Chait said this was the watershed year in his February article “2012 or Never“:

The modern GOP—the party of Nixon, Reagan, and both Bushes—is staring down its own demographic extinction. Right-wing warnings of impending tyranny express, in hyperbolic form, well-grounded dread: that conservative America will soon come to be dominated, in a semi-permanent fashion, by an ascendant Democratic coalition hostile to its outlook and interests.

Republican responses. Several people have observed the resemblance between Republican responses and the Kubler-Ross stages of grief. To me it has sounded more like stuff I remember from the playground.

They cheated. Thank God no major voice in the Republican Party is pushing this line, but it shows up often in comment threads: Nate Silver predicted the election so well because he must have figured in the Democratic vote fraud. There’s zero evidence for this, especially compared to the unmistakeable Republican voter-suppression effort, but no matter.

Fox News’ line has been similar, but less extreme: Obama was mean; he ran a negative campaign. (Ignore the fact that Romney’s campaign was more negative and lied constantly.)

Or the media cheated: The fact-checkers were biased when they correctly reported that Romney was lying about Jeep moving American jobs to China or Obama gutting the welfare work requirement. The “liberal” media wouldn’t help Republicans spin “you didn’t build that” into a gaffe, but they did cover Romney’s 47% tape as the disaster it very definitely was.

Yes, the mainstream media presented a different world than the conservative media. That’s because the conservative media was delusional, as Tuesday demonstrated.

It was luck. Both Haley Barbour and Karl Rove blamed Hurricane Sandy. A related theory is that Chris Christie pulled a dolchstoss, stabbing Romney in the back by embracing Obama after the storm.

But how did Sandy help Democrats win senate races in hurricane-free Montana and North Dakota? And what about the gay marriage initiatives? Seriously, did Maryland voters see Christie embrace Obama and think, “They should get married”? Is that what happened?

It doesn’t count. At least it doesn’t count against conservatism, because Romney wasn’t a true conservative.

Yeah, like Rick Santorum or Herman Cain would have done better. Exit polls say 35% of the electorate calls itself conservative, compared to 25% liberal. But moderates preferred Obama 56%-41%. How many moderates would have voted for Michele Bachmann?

On election night, conservatives argued that Romney’s moderation hurt their turnout, and claimed that Romney got 3 million fewer votes than McCain did in 2008. However, that argument is fading as the absentee ballots and other late reports get tabulated. As of this morning, the McCain-Romney gap was down to 1 million and will probably go away completely in the final totals.

Romney tacked to the center in October because he was losing as a conservative. True conservatives lost senate seats in red states like Missouri and Indiana, and got soundly thwacked in swing states like Ohio and Florida. Obama would have beaten a true conservative in a landslide, but Romney’s “tax cut? what tax cut?” act in the first debate made things competitive for a while.

It’s not fair. Non-whites shouldn’t have voted against Republicans, because Republicans have trophy non-whites. Listen to Rush Limbaugh:

Why doesn’t the Republican Party get credit for Condoleezza Rice? Why doesn’t the Republican Party get credit for Marco Rubio? Why doesn’t the Republican Party get credit for Suzanne Martinez? … The Allen Wests … Clarence Thomas. Herman Cain. None of it counts.

Even Republicans who notice the demographics still misdiagnose the problem as identity politics. But Marco Rubio won’t get them the Hispanic vote any more than Sarah Palin or Linda McMahon or Carly Fiorina captured the women’s vote. The problem is policy. As one Hispanic activist put it: “The face of who delivers bad news does not change bad news.”

Rush sort of gets this, but he doesn’t like it:

But what are we supposed to do now?  In order to get the Hispanic or Latino vote, does that mean open the borders and embrace the illegals? … If we’re not getting the female vote, do we become pro-choice?  Do we start passing out birth control pills? Is that what we have to do?

Here’s a start: The next Republican nominee needs to tell Rush to go to Hell when he calls Sandra Fluke a “slut” or says Cubans aren’t like other Hispanics because “they’re oriented toward work“. As long as the Party tolerates racism and sexism, it’s going to have trouble with non-whites and women, no matter who’s on the podium.

Your loss, America. Listen to Ann Coulter:

If Mitt Romney cannot win in this economy, then the tipping point has been reached. We have more takers than makers, and it’s over. … [America is] no longer interested in conservative ideas. It’s interested in handouts.

The “tipping point” — when lazy people who want government handouts become the majority — is something conservatives have been talking about for a long time. And how did we get there? Bill O’Reilly explained.

It’s a changing country, the demographics are changing. It’s not a traditional America anymore, and there are 50 percent of the voting public who want stuff. They want things. And who is going to give them things? President Obama. … The white establishment is now the minority.

So: Democracy has failed in America because we’ve let in too many lazy brown people and let the lazy black people reproduce faster than the hard-working white people. Maybe that message will sound more inclusive when Marco Rubio or Bobby Jindal says it, but the Economist’s Lexington column thinks it’s a problem:

Put simply, it is hard for a party to win national elections in a country that it seems to dislike.

I’m going home now. Citizens of 15 states have posted online petitions calling for their states to secede.

You wanna fight me? I’ll fight you. Watch this video from Heritage Action.

I know, they appear to mean “We are in a war to save this nation” and “We will take the fight for freedom to the halls of Congress” and “This is the last stand on Earth” metaphorically. But not everybody in their audience will see it that way.

What’s a sensible response? When defeated, we all fantasize vindication and revenge. But you can’t let yourself carry out the ideas you generate just to make yourself feel better. Eventually you need to look objectively at why you lost and what you can do about it.

I agree with Charles Krauthammer and Rush Limbaugh this far: The problem is not conservatism per se. America needs a sound conservative party.

One of the major parties should be skeptical of government, and should look for market-based and private-sector ways to solve problems. Much of Obama’s “socialist” agenda originated with the kind of problem-solving conservatives used to do: Cap-and-trade was a conservative idea for controlling pollution through markets. ObamaCare came from RomneyCare, a conservative plan for achieving universal coverage without nationalizing the insurance companies. Whether you like those ideas or not, they (and more like them) should be part of the discussion.

But America doesn’t need an arrogant delusional conservative party.

When the new Tea Party congressmen took office in 2011, they had a mandate to push for spending cuts, but not to take the United States to the edge of bankruptcy, as they did in the debt-ceiling fiasco. Religious-right politicians may get a mandate to make abortion laws stricter, but not to humiliate abortion-seeking women, or force raped women to carry their rapists’ children.

Conservatives need to recognize that they are only about 1/3 of the country. To stay in office, they need to please someone other than themselves — to compromise, in other words. That requires a humility that at the moment seems alien to them. But if they force a series of absolutist us-against-them decisions on the voters, they will keep losing.

Conservatives need to grapple with the real problems of America, and stop shadow-boxing with imaginary problems. Fifty million Americans without health insurance is a real problem. Income inequality is a real problem. So are global warming, gun violence, and an election system where people have to wait five hours to vote. Feel free to start offering market-based, private-sector solutions at any time.

But voter fraud is not a real problem. Sharia law is not a real problem. Obama’s birth certificate is not a real problem. See the difference?

Come back to reality: Tax cuts do not increase revenue. Spending cuts don’t create jobs. Rape causes pregnancy. People die for lack of health insurance. Foreigners don’t want us to bomb or invade them. There’s no reasonable way to deport 12 million Hispanics.

Stop pretending otherwise.

Be as conservative as you want. But face reality, offer solutions, and give a little to get a little.

Don’t go back into the bubble. It may not feel like it now, but the American people did conservatives a favor last Tuesday.  For just a few hours the bubble popped, and it became painfully clear that the conservative media had been lying to its viewers and readers about the election.

What else have they been lying about?

Here’s my best, most honest advice to conservatives: Go cold turkey on propaganda. It kills the pain temporarily, but in the long run it makes your problems worse. Fox News, the Weekly Standard, talk radio, the Washington Times — they haven’t been serving you, they’ve been pandering to you and taking you for a ride.

America needs a conservative party. But it needs a conservative party that faces reality.

Election Night Hour By Hour

Election night in a presidential year is the greatest show politics offers. Countless characters have been spinning their individual stories for months or even years, and now all their separate yarns meet here to end in victory or defeat.

Even if you think your candidate is going to win, you worry like a fan watching the football arc downfield towards a wide-open receiver in the end zone. Just yesterday, you overheard strangers having the most bizarre conversation about the election, full of misinformation and craziness. Your aunt thinks like that, but you believed she was the only one. What if people everywhere are changing their minds in some insane way, at the last minute, too late for the polls to pick up?

Information comes in little by little through the evening, as each state closes its polls and then the precincts report whenever they get done counting. I’ve already given you my best guesses about how the presidency and the Senate are going to go, and it makes no difference if you spend Tuesday night at the movies and then pull the bedcovers over your head until it’s all decided Wednesday morning. But that’s like skipping to the last page of a suspense novel. How is it going to play out?

Before the polls close. The most accurate polls are exit polls, put together by interviewing folks right after they vote. Exit pollsters don’t have to make guesses about who’s going to vote, there are no undecideds, and intensity no longer matters. They voted, and a vote is a vote.

Exit poll results start coming in around noon, but news organizations have pledged not to release them until poll-closing time. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t get some information out of them.

First, turnout. There’s no embargo against reporting turnout, and a big vote is good for the Democrats — especially big turnout of non-white voters, who often are more erratic in their voting habits. (That’s why Republicans have tried so hard to make voting difficult in swing states like Florida and Ohio.) The two big demographic questions in the election are whether blacks are as motivated to vote for Obama as they were in 2008, and whether the Hispanic vote is going to keep increasing.

All day, reporters will be saying whether turnout is light or heavy and maybe a little about who’s voting. Those are your first clues about what kind of night it will be.

Second, maybe the TV talking heads can’t tell you the exit poll results, but they’ve seen them, and they’re not obliged to make fools of themselves. So if conservative or liberal pundits start laying the groundwork for the what-went-wrong spin they’ll want to elaborate later, you can guess they know something.

7 p.m. The first real results come in, as polls close in Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, South Carolina, Vermont,  and Virginia. Obama is immediately projected as the winner in Vermont (3), and Romney quickly grabs Georgia (16), Indiana (11), Kentucky (8), and South Carolina (9).

But Virginia is the one to watch, because it’s Obama’s first chance at a knock-out punch. Romney can’t win without Virginia, and polling guru Nate Silver gives Obama a 73% chance of taking it. Mostly likely, Virginia won’t be called for a few hours, but if it is called for Romney quickly, that’s a very good sign for him.

Also watch for more detailed information about the turnout in these states and the race/gender composition of the electorate. Exit polls of Indiana in particular will assess what price Richard Mourdock paid for his outrageous statements about rape. That could signal whether the Democratic war-on-women message is working nationally.

Other than Indiana’s Donnelly/Mourdock Senate race, also watch Kaine/Allen in Virginia, which is supposed to be close, but Nate Silver expects Kaine to win. Sanders should win easily in Vermont.

Likely running total: Romney 44, Obama 3 with Virginia still out. This is a pattern that will continue for several hours: Obama is counting on west-coast states like California to put him over the top, so his electoral vote totals will run behind Romney’s most of the night even if he’s doing well. For example, Obama has essentially won already if Virginia gets called for him, but at this point he’d still be behind 44-16.

7:30. Polls close in North Carolina (15), Ohio (18), and West Virginia (5). Romney takes West Virginia. North Carolina is another possible Obama knock-out punch, but probably it’s a bridge too far. Ohio is the state everything hangs on, so I’d be amazed if it were called early.

The Senate races in Ohio and West Virginia should go to the Democrats, probably fairly quickly

Running total: Romney 49, Obama 3 with Virginia, North Carolina, and Ohio still out.

8:00. Major results start coming in. (You might even want to save yourself some aggravation by eating dinner peacefully and not turning on the TV until 8.) Alabama (9), Connecticut (7), Delaware (3), District of Columbia (3), Florida (29), Illinois (20), Maine (4), Maryland (10), Massachusetts (11), Mississippi (6), Missouri (10), New Hampshire (4), New Jersey (14), Oklahoma (7), Pennsylvania (20), Rhode Island (4), and Tennessee (11) start reporting results.

Easy wins for Romney in Alabama, Mississippi, Missouri, Oklahoma, and Tennessee, and for Obama in Connecticut, Delaware, D.C., Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Rhode Island.

Pennsylvania is Romney’s first shot at a knock-out; it’s hard to see Obama winning without it. But probably Obama carries it in another hour. New Jersey might have some vote-counting delays due to the storm. New Hampshire and Florida are honest-to-God toss-ups that should take a while to call. Florida is another potential knock-out; Romney can’t win without it.

The first clear sign of a good night for the Democrats in the Senate will come when Warren beats Brown in Massachusetts. It will take a little longer for Murphy to beat McMahon in Connecticut, but that will happen too.

Running total: Romney 92, Obama 82 with Virginia, North Carolina, Ohio, Florida, New Hampshire, and Pennsylvania out.

8:30. Arkansas (6) goes to Romney. 98-79.

9:00. Another big moment. First results from Arizona (11), Colorado (9), Louisiana (8), Michigan (16), Minnesota (10), Nebraska (5), New Mexico (5), New York (29), South Dakota (3), Texas (38), Wisconsin (10), and Wyoming (3).

Romney quickly takes Arizona, Louisiana, Nebraska, South Dakota, Texas, and Wyoming. Obama gets Michigan, Minnesota, New Mexico, and New York.

Also, Pennsylvania comes in for Obama and North Carolina for Romney. It might also be time to call Virginia or New Hampshire, probably for Obama, but I’m not counting on them.

The interesting Senate race is Baldwin/Thompson in Wisconsin. Democrats want to believe that Kerry in Nebraska and Carmona in Arizona have a chance, but they really don’t.

Running total: Romney 181, Obama 159. Ohio, Florida, Colorado, and Wisconsin out. New Hampshire and Virginia in, but unpredictable.

10:00. New results in Iowa (6), Kansas (6), Montana (3), Nevada (6), and Utah (6). Of all Romney’s home states, Utah is the only one that likes him. He also picks up Kansas and Montana.

Between 10 and 11 is when it will become clear that the Obama firewall is holding. Ohio will turn blue, and they’ll call Nevada and Wisconsin by the end of the hour. Florida might come in, but who knows?

The Montana Senate race is a real cliff-hanger.

Running total: Romney 196, Obama 193. Florida, Colorado, and Iowa out. New Hampshire and Virginia in, but unpredictable.

11:00. California (55), Hawaii (4), Idaho (4), North Dakota (3), Oregon (7), and Washington (12) are all called immediately. Obama takes all of them but Idaho and North Dakota. Iowa also comes in for Obama. Florida is definitely in, but I can’t predict for who.

Running total: Obama 277, Romney 203. New Hampshire, Virginia, Florida in but unpredictable. Colorado still out. Obama is over the top.

1:00. Alaska (3) goes for Romney and they call Colorado, but no one cares. Obama 277, Romney 206. Unpredictable: 55.

So Obama wins by midnight.

Who Wins the Senate?

The presidential race isn’t the only thing happening tomorrow. We’re also electing 33 senators and the entire House of Representatives. Conventional wisdom says that the Democrats might gain a few seats in the House, but not enough to win a majority. I don’t have anything to add to that; 435 races are too many for me to get a handle on.

The Senate is another story. There are only 100 senators, and we only elect 1/3 of them at a time. This year 67 senators are not up for election — 30 Democrats and 37 Republicans.

Sure wins. Some of those 33 races aren’t very competitive. Nate Silver’s polling aggregation model gives a better than 95% chance of victory to 13 Democrats (Hirono in Hawaii, Cantwell in Washington, Feinstein in California, Klobuchar in Minnesota, Stabenow in Michigan, Brown in Ohio, Casey in Pennsylvania, Gillibrand in New York, Whitehouse in Rhode Island, Menendez in New Jersey, Cardin in Maryland, Carper in Delaware, and Nelson in Florida), 6 Republicans (Hatch in Utah, Barrasso in Wyoming, Fischer in Nebraska, Cruz in Texas, Wicker in Mississippi, and Corker in Tennessee), and 1 independent (Sanders in Vermont).

Sanders caucuses with the Democrats, so if all those races turn out as expected we’re up to 44 Democrats and 43 Republicans.

Now let’s do the same thing we did in the electoral college analysis and put the remaining 13 races in order, starting with the one that has the greatest likelihood of a Democratic win, and ending with the least likely Democratic win.

93.6% Warren/Brown in Massachusetts

93.0% Heinrich/Wilson in New Mexico

92.2% King/Dill/Summers (King is an independent expect to caucus with the Democrats)

92.2% Murphy/McMahon in Connecticut

89.7% Manchin/Raese in West Virginia

88.3% McCaskill/Akin in Missouri

85.0% Kaine/Allen in Virginia

77.2% Baldwin/Thompson in Wisconsin

67.7% Donnelly/Mourdock in Indiana

31% Tester/Rehberg in Montana

23.% Berkley/Heller in Nevada

19.6% Cremona/Flake in Arizona

10.5% Heitkamp/Berg in North Dakota

If you assume all the favorites win, that gives the Democrat a 53-47 advantage, the same as they have now. If President Obama is re-elected, the Democrats will need only 50 votes to control the Senate (because the vice president casts the tie-breaking vote). So they will hold the majority even if they only win the top six races on this list.

Obama or Romney: Who Wins Tomorrow?

Four years ago, the polls were clear, and the only question was whether a last gasp of racism would change voters’ minds in the booth. This year it’s all a lot less clear, but we can still see the general shape of how the election will play out.

Let’s start with the basics: The presidential election happens state-by-state. Each state has a certain number of electoral votes (equal to the number of its congressmen plus two for its senators). So in general, more populous states count for more, but the less populous states’ votes are still disproportionate to their population. Every state, no matter how small, gets at least 3 votes. The District of Columbia also gets 3 votes.

The total number of electoral votes is 538, which means a candidate needs 270 to get a majority (or two candidates could tie at 269-269). Almost every state awards its electoral votes on a winner-take-all basis, to the candidate who gets the most votes in that state. (Maine and Nebraska are exceptions, but probably that won’t come up this year and both states will end up giving all their votes to one candidate.)

The analysis I’m giving below is largely based on the work of NYT blogger Nate Silver, a polling geek who has a method for combining all the polls into a probability-of-victory percentage for each state. You don’t need to understand how the model works to recognize that Nate is good at this. In 2008, his predictions were uncanny. (The percentages below come from the early Monday morning run of Nate’s model.)

The fuhgeddabowdit states. In most states, the election won’t be close, and we might as well chalk them up now. Nate’s model gives at least a 99.5% chance that the following states will go to a particular candidate. Probably most of them will be called as soon as the polls close.

Obama: California (55), Connecticut (7), Delaware (3), D.C. (3), Hawaii (4), Illinois (20), Maine (3 out of 4), Maryland (10), Massachusetts (11), Minnesota (10), New Jersey (14), New York (29), Rhode Island (4), Vermont (3), Washington (12) — total 188

Romney: Alabama (9), Alaska (3), Arkansas (6), Georgia (16), Idaho (4), Indiana (11), Kansas (6), Kentucky (8), Louisiana (8), Mississippi (6), Missouri (10), Nebraska (4 of 5), North Dakota (3), Oklahoma (7), South Carolina (9), South Dakota (3), Tennessee (11), Texas (38), Utah (6), West Virginia (5), Wyoming (3) — total 176

Stranger-things-have-happened-but states. These are the 95% states. Occasionally somebody from the underdog’s camp will claim they’re going to pull an upset, and if you have too much money to spend you might even advertise (like Romney in Pennsylvania). But don’t hold your breath. The only way the underdog wins these states is with such a national landslide that the state won’t matter.

Obama: Michigan (16), New Mexico (5), Oregon (7), Pennsylvania (20) — subtotal 48; running total 236.

Romney: Arizona (11), Montana (3) — subtotal 14; running total 190.

Battleground Row. Now it starts to get interesting: Obama at 236 is approaching the magic 270. Romney at 190 has very little room for failure.

This is where Nate makes an astute observation: Each state may have its own independent election, but the state elections are not independent in a statistical sense. If, say, Obama takes North Carolina (where Nate gives him only a 22.8% chance), that probably means a national wave is building that will easily give him Wisconsin (94.5% chance). It would be a very strange world indeed if Obama took North Carolina and lost Wisconsin.

So it makes sense to line up all the states by their Obama-win-probability and see how far down the list he needs to go to get to 270.

Obama win probability state electoral votes Obama running total Romney running total
94.5% Wisconsin 10 246 292
90.7% Maine 1 of 4 247 291
90.0% Nevada 6 253 285
86.8% Ohio 18 271 269
81.2% Iowa 6 277 261
80.2% New Hampshire 4 281 257
72.6% Virginia 13 294 244
69.7% Colorado 9 303 235
44.5% Florida 29 332 206
22.8% North Carolina 15 347 191
12.3% Nebraska 1 of 5 348 190

So if you start at the top with Wisconsin (Obama’s most likely battleground state victory) and move towards the bottom, Obama crosses 270 at Ohio. Conversely, if we award Romney states from the bottom of the list up, he crosses 270 (reaching 285) if he wins Ohio. That makes Ohio the tipping point state, and explains why everybody is campaigning so hard there. So the minimal Obama-win map looks like this:

The minimal Obama-win map. (Not a prediction.)

And the minimal Romney-win map looks the same with Ohio red.

If Obama were to lose Ohio, he’d have to go three states further down his list (Iowa, New Hampshire, Virginia) to get to 270. If Romney loses Ohio, he’ll need either Nevada or Wisconsin to win. (In almost every reasonable scenario, Maine and Nebraska’s final votes don’t really matter.)

This is why you’ll hear Wisconsin, Nevada, Ohio, and sometimes Iowa described as “Obama’s firewall”. If he takes those states, he’s going to win even if he loses battleground states like Florida, Virginia, and Colorado.

What to Watch For. So Romney’s path to victory is narrow and depends heavily on the east-coast states Florida and Virginia. Those are the ones to watch early. If Romney loses either one, he’s done. If either one is too close to call hours after the polls close, probably that means the national trend is not enough in Romney’s favor to crack Obama’s firewall. An easy Obama win in New Hampshire, on the other hand, is only 4 votes, but it might be an early indication of an Obama victory nationally.

But if Florida and Virginia fall easily to Romney and New Hampshire is too close to call, we’re going to be studying specific Ohio counties far into the wee hours of the morning.

I’ll analyze Election Night hour-by-hour in a later post.

Convincing Friends to Vote for Obama

I don’t think anybody knows precisely how many voters make up their minds in the last week of a campaign, or how influenced they are by friends or relatives who steer them right. My guess is that the number is considerable. You might only influence one or two of them, but if a million people like you each influence one or two, that turns a close election into a landslide.

It’s worth trying, in other words.

These persuadable voters might be co-workers or classmates who are bored by politics, but feel vaguely guilty about not participating in democracy. Maybe they’re grandparents who have mostly lost interest in the larger world, or who only know what Bill O’Reilly chooses to tell them. Or they’re your grown children, who haven’t yet caught on to the idea that voting is part of their duty as an adult. Maybe they are friends who generally share your ideals, but aren’t in the habit of voting.

My two most important pieces of advice are:

  • Don’t waste your time arguing with committed Romney voters unless you enjoy it or you’re really performing for silent onlookers. Life is too short. If they pick an argument, you can put them off with a flip remark like “I’m not rich enough to vote for Romney.”
  • Don’t be a jerk. People who admire jerks are already voting for Romney, because Rush Limbaugh told them to. Liberalism is attractive because it is both serious and compassionate. Try to embody that; Obama does.

Some people don’t vote for really simple reasons that are easily dealt with.

  • I don’t know where to vote. The League of Women Voters knows. Go to their Vote411 web site and enter your address. It will locate your polling place and also tell you whether it’s still possible to register to vote in time for the election. (That’s worth checking. Some states allow at-the-polling-place registration.) The Obama campaign site gottavote.com is a good resource for early-voting info and for listing what you need to bring with you.
  • I can’t get to the polls. The best answer is “I’ll take you”, but that may not be practical if you’re talking to someone who retired to Florida. One of the things people can do at barackobama.com is identify themselves as Obama voters. If you do that, I guarantee someone will call you on election day to see if you need help getting to the polls. (I’ve been hanging out at the house of my recently deceased father, who was a 90-year-old registered Democrat. I’ve already gotten a call from the Obama campaign asking if he needed a ride.)

Closing arguments against Romney. The thing that makes you more effective than a TV commercial is that you know who you’re talking to and they know you. So some people will want to see why Romney’s budget numbers don’t add up and others will frost over immediately if you start making them do math. Some will be impressed by the depth of Romney’s duplicity, and others will shrug and say that all politicians lie. Still, seeing is believing.

One of the problems the Obama campaign uncovered early in its focus groups was that moderate voters simply refused to believe that Romney had taken the radical positions he ran on in the primaries, or that he lied as boldly as he did. But it’s true: He said he would cut taxes on “the top 1%” and later denied it. He said he would ban all abortions, without exceptions for rape or incest, and later denied it, at one point championing an exception for the “health of the mother” before denying that too. He said his health plan would cover pre-existing conditions, and later denied it. He says he loves teachers, but also wants to muzzle their unions and slash their retirement programs, and he opposes Obama’s plan to hire more of them in math and science.

Other than simple lying, Romney has taken advantage of vagueness. So he promises to balance the budget, but the only plans he has specified cut taxes and raise spending. (In Virginia, his ads cast him as the candidate who will create jobs by increasing spending, precisely what he denounces everywhere else in the country.) He says he can balance that out (plus the deficit we have now) with by cutting other spending and closing tax loopholes, but since he won’t specify those parts of his program, he can deny anything specific. So, is he planning to slash spending on education? On roads and bridges? On healthcare for the poor or food stamps for the hungry? Is he going to eliminate the mortgage interest deduction or deductions for contributions to charity? He has no plan to do that, he says. But he has to cut or tax somewhere to make his numbers work, and he won’t tell us where.

If the people you’re trying to convince say they’re leaning towards Romney or think he looked good at the debate or find him attractive in some other way, the right question to ask is: “Which Romney do you like?” Romney has literally had every position on every issue. But if he’s elected, which Mitt do you expect to take office in January? In order to support Romney, you need to believe that he was honest in what he promised you, but lying to all those other people.

If someone likes the “severely conservative” Romney of the primaries, there’s not much you can say. Whatever he does is likely to be more conservative than what Obama would do. But if they liked the “moderate Mitt” of the debates, probably they should be voting for Obama, who is the real moderate in the race. Jonathan Alter says it best:

Romney as president would be a man with a strange crick in the neck, constantly looking over his right shoulder to see which pickup truck full of movement conservatives was about to run him over.

Beyond the policy issues, there are character issues. Young Mitt was a bully, and his sons’ attempts to tell heart-warming stories about him only emphasize that he is still a bully. Women who came to him in his role as a Mormon bishop telling horrifying stories of his insensitivity. And of course there’s always the dog-on-the-roof story.

If you read between the lines in the stories of Romney’s friends, you see the larger pattern: He’s a great guy as long as he’s in control and you’re doing what he wants. James Lipton has him nailed:

He is that boss who tells lame jokes and waits for everyone else to laugh (or else), and keeps us forever off balance, uncertain and anxious.

Closing arguments for Obama. Two false charge against Obama are that he isn’t running on his record (or can’t because his record is terrible) or that his campaign is entirely negative. I’ve already devoted an article to Obama’s positive case, but it’s time to boil that down to a few paragraphs.

Here’s the best way to frame Obama’s economic record: Thanks to Obama (and his unfairly maligned stimulus), the next president won’t have to deal with anything like the multiple crises that Obama faced on Inauguration Day. The month Obama took office, the economy lost more than 800,000 jobs. Now it’s gaining at least 100,000 jobs a month. That’s not robust growth, but we are muddling ever upward. Those bad jobs numbers the Romney people throw around always include the massive job losses in the first few months of 2009, before Obama’s policies had taken effect.

When Obama became president, our banks were insolvent and the auto industry was about to collapse. We were fighting two expensive wars. Serious people were speculating about a Second Great Depression. It’s easy to brush that off now, but the fact that it didn’t happen is a major accomplishment.

Crises that deep take time to overcome. (In the First Great Depression, unemployment was still over 10% at the end of FDR’s second term.) Romney likes to compare the current recovery to the Reagan recovery of the early 80s, but that followed an ordinary interest-rate recession, not the popping of a bubble. Bubble recoveries are slower, because the previous peak wasn’t real.

There are a number of reasons to believe that the economy is about to accelerate. Consumer confidence is up. The jobless rate is finally below 8%. And people are starting to build houses again.

On foreign policy, Obama has been the steady hand we needed. He ended the Iraq War, wound down the Afghan War, attacked the people who really attacked us on 9-11 (including Bin Laden), and — best of all — didn’t get our troops involved in any new wars, despite numerous opportunities.

Myths. Many people — especially low-information voters — think they are against Obama because they’ve bought some crazy story about him: He’s Muslim, he’s Kenyan, he quadrupled the deficit, whatever. It’s impossible to list them all, but snopes.com is your best place to start debunking.

Greens are a special case. Some of the undecided are actually very well-informed liberal voters, but they can’t decide whether to vote idealistically for Green candidate Jill Stein or pragmatically for President Obama. If they live in a foregone-conclusion state like Texas or Vermont their Green vote isn’t going to affect the outcome anyway, so don’t bother trying to convince them. But in swing states people need to remember Bush/Gore in 2000. If the Nader voters in Florida or New Hampshire had voted for Gore, we wouldn’t have had an Iraq War.

I’ve made a longer pitch to Greens here, and Leftcandid has done it here.

In short. Across the board, Obama has done a good job in a bad situation. And on issue after issue, Romney has either offered no alternative or has offered every alternative, (when he wasn’t agreeing with what Obama has done). No matter what you think the country’s most important problem is — the economy, the deficit, women’s rights, war, terrorism, inequality, the environment, whatever — Obama is the best bet for progress.

What do we know about Romney’s tax and budget plans?

The first Obama/Romney debate on Wednesday had a playground quality to it: One contestant would say “You did X”, the other would say “No I didn’t”, and then either Obama would let it drop or Romney would repeat “Yes you did!”. Jim Lehrer refused to play teacher, so it was left to fact-checkers and other pundits to determine the truth afterwards.

On no subject was the truth less obvious than on Romney’s budget plans. President Obama laid it out like this:

Governor Romney’s central economic plan calls for a $5 trillion tax cut — on top of the extension of the Bush tax cuts — that’s another trillion dollars — and $2 trillion in additional military spending that the military hasn’t asked for. That’s $8 trillion. How we pay for that, reduce the deficit, and make the investments that we need to make, without dumping those costs onto middle-class Americans, I think is one of the central questions of this campaign.

And Governor Romney flatly denied it:

I don’t have a $5 trillion tax cut. I don’t have a tax cut of a scale that you’re talking about. My view is that we ought to provide tax relief to people in the middle class. But I’m not going to reduce the share of taxes paid by high-income people.

Fact-checkers tried to apply their usual categories — true, false, misleading — but often they just added to the confusion. CNN, for example, said Obama’s charge was false, but graded Romney’s denial as “incomplete”, whatever that means.

Here’s what’s going on: The press is afraid of bias accusations, so it hides behind rules of objectivity that have gotten increasingly technical. Campaigns have gotten good at manipulating those rules, so the objective press has a hard time announcing simple judgments. Judgments, then, are left to the partisan voices, who just increase the noise.

The Weekly Sift makes a lesser claim: I’m not objective, I just try to be honest and give you enough links to check my accuracy. So let’s see if some common sense can cut through the confusion.

The $5 trillion tax cut. Mitt Romney has proposed a tax plan, sort of. On his web site, the full plan to “create 12 million new jobs” has four “economic pillars”, one of which is:

Reform The Nation’s Tax Code To Increase Growth And Job Creation.

o Reduce individual marginal income tax rates across-the-board by 20 percent, while keeping current low tax rates on dividends and capital gains. Reduce the corporate income tax rate – the highest in the world – to 25 percent.
o Broaden the tax base to ensure that tax reform is revenue-neutral.

The idea is that people pay a lower tax rate, but that more income gets taxed (“broaden the tax base”), so the government winds up with the same amount of money (“revenue neutral”).

There’s no reason that can’t work in theory, but notice that the marginal-tax-rate cut (the attractive part of the plan) is specified at 20%, while “broaden the tax base” (the unattractive part) is left vague. Elsewhere, Romney promises to eliminate the alternate minimum tax (which falls almost entirely on the wealthy) and the federal estate tax (which only applies to multi-million-dollar estates).

So if you evaluate Romney’s plan by what he has specified — the tax cuts — it’s a $5 trillion tax cut over the next ten years. Now, that’s not entirely fair, because whatever plan he eventually proposes to Congress would also specify the base-broadening part. The rate-cut is part of a “revenue neutral” tax plan in the same way that Cocoa Puffs are “part of this complete breakfast”.

So Romney is technically correct in saying “I don’t have a $5 trillion tax cut.” But let me flesh that out by putting true words in Romney’s mouth: “I don’t have a plan to cut government revenue by $5 trillion. I have a revenue-neutral plan, but the only part of it I’m willing to spell out before the election cuts federal revenue by $5 trillion.”

So he still needs to specify what currently untaxed income will be taxed in order to raise the $5 trillion that his plan needs to fulfill his revenue-neutral pledge.

Growth or funny money? If you read the details on the web site, a big chunk of that previously untaxed income is money that just wouldn’t exist otherwise. Romney’s plan estimates that the economy will grow at a 2.5% rate with the current tax system, but that under his plan (including his similarly vague plan to de-regulate business and other plans he considers growth-inducing) the economy will grow at a 4% rate.

When you compound that over ten years, the difference is huge. Current GDP is around $15 trillion per year. Ten years of 2.5% growth get you to $19 trillion, but ten years of 4% growth get you to $22 trillion, which is almost 16% bigger. So in the tenth year, the 20% rate cut is almost balanced by the growth alone. The extra income you need to broaden the tax base is almost entirely manna that fell from Heaven.

The question is whether you believe any of that. The idea that tax cuts create growth is dogma among conservatives, but recent history doesn’t bear them out. We were promised the cornucopia of growth when Bush cut taxes in 2001 and 2003, but it didn’t arrive. Even with a bubble-based illusion of growth, median household income declined. Atlantic’s Ronald Brownstein reports:

When Bill Clinton left office after 2000, the median income — the income line around which half of households come in above, and half fall below — stood at $52,500 (measured in inflation-adjusted 2008 dollars). When Bush left office after 2008, the median income had fallen to $50,303. That’s a decline of 4.2 per cent. That leaves Bush with the dubious distinction of becoming the only president in recent history to preside over an income decline through two presidential terms, notes Lawrence Mishel, president of the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute.

In the debate, Romney refused any historical comparison. (“My plan is not like anything that’s been tried before.”) But his web site justifies the growth assumptions by looking at the recovery from the 1981-82 recession during the Reagan administration. The problem is that this recession (like the one before it) looks nothing like the 1981-82 recession. The Reagan recession was brought on by the high interest rates (over 20%!) that the Fed imposed to kill off the inflation plague of the 1970s. As the Fed cut rates back to more normal levels, the economy could resume a normal growth pattern, plus make up for lost time.

The last two recessions were set off by popping bubbles: the dot-com bubble of the late 90s and the housing bubble of the Bush years. Recoveries from bubbles are slower, because the previous level was illusory. Let me repeat that: The Obama Recovery is slower than Reagan’s because the level we are trying to recover to was a mirage.

Even if we grant Romney’s 4% growth assumption, the difference in the first year would be small, while the tax-cut hit would be as large as ever. Would the Tea Party types in Congress really accept a budget where the deficit continued to climb for several years while we waited for growth to catch up?

I personally have no confidence in Romney’s growth assumptions. If he’s really going to broaden the tax base, he’s going to have to extend taxes to real income, not imaginary income from the growth fairy.

Deductions. The one real base-broadening idea Romney has floated is to cap deductions. In the debate he said:

But in order for us not to lose revenue, have the government run out of money, I also lower deductions and credits and exemptions, so that we keep taking in the same money when you also account for growth.

One trial balloon suggested that deductions be capped at $17,000, though in the debate Romney refused to be pinned down to any specific number:

what are the various ways we could bring down deductions, for instance? One way, for instance, would be to have a single number. Make up a number, $25,000, $50,000. Anybody can have deductions up to that amount. And then that number disappears for high-income people.

That approach has a problem: If you don’t accept Romney’s growth assumption, eliminating all deductions for upper-income people doesn’t replace the $5 trillion in revenue. So he’s forced to break his pledge not to raise taxes on middle-income people — not all middle-income people, but quite a few. When you add up mortgage interest, state and local taxes, medical expenses, and so on, it’s not hard for a household of slightly-above-average income to hit a $17,000 cap, and even easier to hit some much-lower cap that would really raise $5 trillion.

I know because I did my parents’ taxes last year. In 2011, my parents were in “the 47%” of people who paid no federal income tax. My mother died that year, and both parents spent time in nursing homes, so their medical expenses wiped out their $50,000 of income. Under the Romney plan, with a $17K deduction cap, they’d have owed thousands.

So Al Sharpton is right: “This election isn’t about Obama, it’s about your momma.”

Tax fairness. Romney’s pledge not to favor the rich in his tax plan is very carefully worded: “I’m not going to reduce the share of taxes paid by high-income people.”

This echoes a common conservative framing of taxes. Over the last 30 years, the share of the national income that has gone to the very rich has skyrocketed. Under Romney’s policies, it would presumably continue to skyrocket, because of de-regulation, non-enforcement of antitrust laws, and so on. But all he pledges is to keep their share of taxes the same.

Think about it this way: Imagine a two-person economy that makes $10, with $6 going to the richer guy and $4 to the poorer guy. Imagine their government collects $2 in taxes; let’s say $1.50 from the richer guy and 50 cents from the poorer guy, so that their after-tax incomes are $5.50 and $4.50.

Now imagine that inequality increases, so that the rich guy makes $8 and the poor guy $2. But suppose the government keeps their taxes the same: The rich guy still pays $1.50 and the poor guy 50 cents, so that their after-tax incomes are $6.50 and $1.50.

That system would fulfill Romney’s tax-fairness pledge: the rich guy still pays 75% of the taxes.  But it isn’t fair at all. The rich guy’s tax rate goes down from 25% to 18.75%. The poor guy’s goes up from 12.5% to 25%.

In short: When the rich make more of the money, their share of the taxes should increase, not stay the same.

Spending cuts. The situation on the spending side of Romney’s plan is similar: He has spelled out his spending increasesdefense, mostly. And he has pledged not to cut Medicare of Social Security benefits for anyone currently over 55. In other words, even if he serves eight years, he will never submit a budget that shows a spending cut in either of those two giant entitlements.

But he also pledges to get federal spending down to 20% of GDP by 2016, which (even with his optimistic 4% growth assumption) means $500 billion of annual cuts. The only sizable cut he identifies on his web site is $95 billion by repealing ObamaCare. But repealing ObamaCare also repeals the cost savings and tax increases it contains, and so increases the deficit rather than decreasing it. And “I want to take that $716 billion you’ve cut and put it back into Medicare.” not use it to decrease the deficit. And he was open to retaining the improved drug benefits ObamaCare adds to Medicare.

So the ObamaCare cut is illusion. It won’t cut the deficit.

Romney’s other specified cuts are Amtrak; the national endowments for art, humanities, and public broadcasting (bye-bye, Big Bird); the Legal Services Corporation; family planning; and foreign aid. By Romney’s own account, the total savings (other than ObamaCare) is only $2.6 billion of the $500 billion he says he needs.

So he has specified about half a percent of the cuts his budget needs under his optimistic assumptions. And the biggest parts of the budget — defense, Social Security, Medicare — are off limits. The non-ObamaCare cuts he has specified are insufficient even to cover the increase he wants in defense spending.

That’s why Obama accused him of “gutting our investments in schools and education”, and how Romney was able to deny it: “I reject the idea that I don’t believe in great teachers or more teachers. … I’m not going to cut education funding. I don’t have any plan to cut education funding and — and grants that go to people going to college.”

“I don’t have any plan to cut …” is a universal dodge for Romney. Because he doesn’t have any plan to cut spending, Romney can deny any specific thing you imagine must be cut to plug the huge hole in his budget. The Ryan budget is a little more specific about cuts, but Romney disclaims that as well. His campaign says “as president he will be putting together his own plan.” And Romney has emphasized that he, not Ryan, is “the guy running for president.”

In short, what Romney has given us is a lot of specifics that cut taxes and raise spending, coupled with vague promises to make it all come out right somehow. So electing Romney is sort of like hiring a trainer who promises you can eat more and lose weight. He has pictures of the lavish meals his plan will let you eat, and a graph of how your weight will go down.

How does it work? “Exercise” he says. What exercise? When? How much? “We can work all that out later.”

The Romney Pre-mortems

Post-mortems on the Romney campaign are like Christmas catalogs. It’s way too early, but here they are. Waiting for a guy to actually lose before you explain why he lost is so old-fashioned.

Remember those articles about where the 2007-2008 Patriots rank among the all-time great teams? (Somewhere behind the 2007-2008 Giants, apparently.) I don’t know what makes this kind of premature speculation so irresistible, but it is.

Republicans thought this was the year they couldn’t lose. Unemployment was high, the deficit was high, ObamaCare was unpopular, and the same wave of public discontent that had given Republicans a sweep in 2010 would win them the White House in 2012. As a bonus, their new House majority that could keep Obama from getting anything done, and — even better! — shoot the economy in the foot by provoking a debt-ceiling standoff. See what a lousy president Obama is? The country’s credit rating went south on his watch!

So the dialog during the Republican primaries went like this. Tea Party types would say, “We don’t like Romney. He’s not really one of us.” And saner Republicans would answer: “Don’t screw this up by nominating somebody scary like Bachmann or Santorum. Just play it cool and we’ve got this in the bag.”

Suddenly it’s out of the bag. Obama’s approval rating is positive again. He leads Romney in every major poll, and Nate Silver’s polling model puts the odds of an Obama victory over 85% (98% if the election were held today). Now it’s starting to look like Democrats could hold the Senate and may even recapture the House.

Somebody’s got to take the blame for that, even if it hasn’t happened yet.

So the race is on to establish the definitive why-Romney-will-have-lost scenario. (If I remember my grammar, that’s the future perfect tense.)

Some have been quick to jump on the Romney’s-a-bad-candidate explanation. And indeed, he has failed to articulate any message more positive than “I’m not Obama.” (It was sad this weekend when even Fox News pressed Paul Ryan for details on the Romney tax plan, only to be told, “It would take me too long to go through all the math.”) The 47% video has turned out to be hugely damaging, not because it was that much worse than a lot of other things Romney has done, but because it so precisely confirmed what voters were already afraid of: Romney isn’t just rich, he holds the rest of us in contempt.

David Brooks has compared Romney to Thurston Howell, the out-of-touch millionaire from Gilligan’s Island. Peggy Noonan called his campaign a “rolling calamity“. All of which annoys RedState.com’s Erick Erickson to no end, because he blames the Brooks/Noonan Republicans for foisting Romney on the Party to begin with:

The staggering irony is that those of us who did not want Romney are now the ones defending him to the hilt while the elitist jerks are distancing themselves from Romney as quickly as possible — both upset at what their media friends tell them is to come and upset that Mitt Romney might not actually listen to their sweet whispers as much as they originally presumed.

But that leads to the question: Who should have been the nominee? Santorum? Herman Cain? Kevin Drum lays it on the line:

Romney was the best they had. The very best. Let that sink in for a bit.

Or maybe the problem is Paul Ryan. With Obama’s lead among younger voters, Romney had to carry the elderly. Ryan’s Medicare-voucher plan scared them.

Other observers blame the Republican base, (i.e., people like Erickson) for creating an environment where no Republican could win: To get through the primaries, any candidate would have to take positions that would make them unelectable in the general election. Robert Reich put it best:

Romney’s failing isn’t that he’s a bad candidate. To the contrary, he’s giving this GOP exactly what it wants in a candidate. And that’s exactly the problem for Romney — as it is for every other Republican candidate — because what the GOP wants is not at all what the rest of America wants.

National Review takes a longer, more philosophical perspective: The problem is “the shadow of the George W. Bush years.” As frustrating as it is to Republicans that people still blame Bush more than Obama for the bad economy, the party still hasn’t figured out what it should learn from the Bush era.

Romney’s silence about the errors of the Bush years is, on the other hand, understandable, since many Republicans continue to hold Bush in high esteem as a good man who tried to do a lot of good things. Since most Americans consider Bush a failure, Romney cannot embrace him either. So Bush has been an awkward non-presence in the campaign: the man who was not there.

Democrats kept running against Herbert Hoover until the generation that remembered him died off. W will suffer the same fate until Republicans come up with a definitive critique of Bush and some new non-Bush policies.

With the base still not willing to deal with their Bush mistake, Mitt had only two choices, says Steve Kornacki:

He can run on the House’s far-right agenda, which is a product of conservatives’ mistaken conviction that Bush failed because he wasn’t enough of an ideologue; or, recognizing how politically poisonous the House GOP’s vision is with general election voters, he can try to steer clear of it and hope voters are just blindly angry at Obama, like they were in ’10.

Romney has mostly chosen the second option, and while the evidence is mounting that it’s not working, you can hardly blame him for trying. The alternative is much worse.

As I indicated at the beginning, why-Romney-will-have-lost is a ridiculous game to be playing. Early voting has just started. Everyone who cares should just go all-out for their candidate and see what happens. It’s not like the why-Mitt-lost argument will be over by Election Day.

But … it’s so irresistible for any political junkie. I have to play. So here’s my thinking: At its root these days, the conservative movement is based on myths rather than facts. And the biggest myth of all is: conservatism is popular.

In conservative mythology, all real Americans are conservatives — unless they’ve been bamboozled by the liberal media or cowed by false accusations of racism or corrupted into dependency on government programs.

So if conservatives lose elections, there can only be a few explanations: voter fraud or the personal failings of a candidate or the media being “in the tank” for liberals. Otherwise, the problem was that the candidate just wasn’t conservative enough. He wasn’t a true believer. He didn’t put forward the full force of conservatism’s case.

The real explanation for Romney’s troubles is that conservatism just isn’t popular. He looked electable when he looked fuzzy — maybe he was a conservative, maybe he was a moderate. Remember his governorship in Massachusetts?

But the base couldn’t stand that fuzziness and Romney couldn’t win without them, so he was forced to define himself more and more as a conservative. Paul Ryan sealed the deal.

Republicans need to get their moderates back. They can continue to hold conservative ideals, but they need to reassure the country that they can compromise and be part of a governing coalition, as Reagan was. Right now that’s not true. Until it is, their national candidates will be in trouble.