Facebook’s new API change blocks new apps from accessing friend lists.
It was inevitable. Every step that Facebook has taken to increase its monetization strategy would necessarily undermine many of the ways that grassroots organizing found Facebook to be useful in the first place (and build facebook into the company that it is today).
I doubt that Facebook would be the brand name it is today (like MySpace isn’t) if it hadn’t played a major role in elections and mass mobilizations around the world since 2008.
But ePolitics is reporting that
Facebook’s API change blocks new apps from accessing friend lists, and existing ones are grandfathered in for just a year. After the 2014 election cycle, vendors will have to find new ways to mine the social web for voter contacts. Smart ones will have already done so.
People have already noticed (me included) how difficult it is to reach audiences on Facebook using organic news feed reach. See this for details. So while I get that just because Facebook is free, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s free. But for organizations that use Facebook as a tool to build up audiences of 1000s or 100s of thousands of people who are legitimate, bonafide supporters, is it fair that < 5% of those people get to see your Facebook content unless you drop lots of cash on ads?
About two weeks ago, I wrote about how immigration reform might be impacted as a result of Eric Cantor’s primary loss. In case you missed the blog, here’s the link. Since then, there have been a some developments, initially sparked by Speaker John Boehner informing President Obama that House Republicans would not pass immigration reform this year. On June 30th, President Obama announced that he would instead take executive action to attempt to alleviate the ongoing border crisis. In addition, President Obama requested $3.7 billion from Congress to help with immigration courts to speed up the deportation process.
To gauge what Votifi users thought, on July 8th, we asked users about their reactions to President Obama’s vow to use executive actions to push immigration reform. Well-over half of respondents (70%) agreed that President Obama should act if Congress will not. Thirteen percent of users admitted they’re sick of the gridlock happening in D.C. There were a lot of great comments, too. (You can visit our site and read them here.) One user wrote, “Where in The United States Constitution does it say that the President of The United States can ‘Make Laws’?” while another wrote, “I was beginning to think…Americans have become so cold-hearted that they can’t (or won’t) tell the difference between an immigration issue and a REFUGEE issue.”
One of the greatest problems that the current crisis, immigration or refugee, faces is that most of the children are not coming from Mexico. If the children were from Mexico (and for argument’s sake, Canada), they could be deported without an immigration hearing. Instead, because the minors are from mostly-Central American countries, they must be granted a deportation hearing. Some estimates have placed wait times at almost two years for a hearing.
When you calculate how many children have crossed the border and been taken into custody since October, (over 52,000) it’s no wonder President Obama has asked for such a sum of money to help speed up the courts process. The Rio Grande Valley of Texas alone accounts for most of the apprehensions, with over 37,000 occurring since October.
Texas, where most of the children are crossing, isn’t equipped to handle such an influx of temporary inhabitants. Instead, the U.S Border Patrol is transporting bus-loads of immigrants to places such as Murrieta, California and Fort Sill, Oklahoma. Murrieta was in the limelight just before Independence Day when protesters blocked three buses from completing the transport to a detention facility. Murrieta’s own mayor has stated that he had concerns about the transport.
In light of the press and publicity, on July 9th, we asked Votifi users what their reactions to the protests were.
The comments were certainly interesting. Here are a few excerpts.
“Actually, what I see is hatred. I am personally embarrassed by the people who choose to show hatred over showing empathy toward people who need empathy. As a country we need to be ashamed.”
“This law [the one requiring children have a deportation hearing, we assume] was passed by President Bush…Right now there are not enough venues to [protect and turn over children within 72 hours] so they are living in jail-like cells..”
“What part of ‘ILLEGAL IMMIGRANT’ do you not understand? These people –weather [sic] they be Men, Women AND/OR Children are in the United States illegally.”
“I bet if there was a bus-load of beautiful light-skinned blondes they would be welcomed with open arms…just saying to make a point about racism and hatred.”
It is evident that immigration is certainly in the spotlight right now, but part of me wonders how long it will stay there. Regardless, hopefully President Obama and/or Congress can devise a plan of action for the current crisis.
As the situation in Iraq gets worse, American’s view of the Iraq war is following a similar path into the doldrums.
NBC and the Wall Street Journal released a poll on June 24th that was blunt for once. The majority of Americans believe the Iraq war was not worth the time, resources, and devastation. Seventy-one percent of Americans, up from 59% in January 2013, viewed the Iraq War as a “waste.” The poll results go on to show that half of respondents believe that U.S. doesn’t have a responsibility to help the Iraqi people as ISIS begins to take hold in the region. NBC’s poll gives insight into some recent polls we’ve done here at Votifi.
In March 2013 we asked Votifi users, “Is Iraq better off today than it was before the U.S. invasion?” A year ago only a minority (21%) believed that U.S. presence had helped the Iraqi people. One user wrote in the comments, “The US does not invade countries to improve the lives of that country’s citizens. It does so to improve the lives of americans [sic],” while another user wrote, “I don’t know. Why don’t we ask the people of Iraq this question?” Maybe we will be able to someday, Votifi user.
Even more recently, on June 12th, our Daily Poll asked, “Should the U.S. help Iraq combat militants with air strikes per Iraq’s request?” While the results are below, it was interesting to read the comments from users. One user wrote, “We should never have been in in Iraq destroying their social fabric,” which prompted a second poll on June 16th.
The June 16th question read, “What do you believe is the biggest factor that led to the current unrest in Iraq?” Response rates are below. The plurality (48%) agreed that the U.S. should never have invaded Iraq. (Dick Cheney disagrees.) With the majority (52%) of Americans stating that the U.S. has “mostly failed in Iraq,” it looks like, as a nation, we will have the Iraq War on our conscience for quite some time.
But does that mean we should ignore the current turmoil in Iraq? Most Votifi users (62%) would agree that we should wait it out or eventually help, as long as there are no ground troops. President Obama has promised special-forces advisors, not ground/combat troops, to share intelligence with Iraqi forces among other tasks. Sending special-forces troops might not be the foreign policy everybody agrees with, but it’s better than nothing. According to Lamont Colucci, Politics and Government Chair at Ripon College, there are a number of myths surrounding our foreign policy in Iraq but the “best of myths” is “there are no good options… because it translates into inaction and hope that the problem either goes away or is overshadowed by something else.”
To ignore various turmoils abroad, be they in Iraq, Nigeria, or Ukraine, seems to encourage an isolationist foreign policy. I think many will agree that continuing such a policy will not bring about favorable outcomes for anyone.
Immigration: How Primaries, Cantor's Loss, and Voters' Attitudes Might Play a Role
by Abigail Quackenboss
Immigration is typically a topic that is considered particularly polarizing. However, as Laura Meckler from the Wall Street Journalreported on June 8, 2014, immigration is not having as big of an impact upon primary races as one might suspect. While there certainly are exceptions, as Ms. Meckler cites in her article, the trend is not overly surprising.
Consider the results from a recent poll by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), a nonpartisan group, and Brookings Institution. Currently 62% of Americans “favor a way for immigrants who are currently living in the United States illegally to become citizens provided they meet certain requirements.” This can be considered a great sign of things to come for immigration reform advocates, especially considering the fact that the Senate passed an immigration reform bill last year, but is still waiting on the House to act.
Even more importantly, to tie into Ms. Meckler’s point, 53% of voters surveyed in the PRRI said they would be “less willing to vote for a candidate who opposes immigration reform that includes a path to citizenship for immigrants currently living in the U.S. illegally.” Among Republican voters, respondents saw a similar trend, with 46% saying they would be less likely to vote for a candidate who opposed a reform plan with a citizenship component. Also noteworthy, 21% of Republican respondents said they would support a candidate who opposed an immigration plan with a path to citizenship, while 30% said it would not be a deciding factor in their voting behaviors.
A word of caution: as we saw with Eric Cantor’s primary loss to a Tea Party candidate on June 10, it is important for campaigns to recognize what issues are important to the constituents. Spending too much time away from the district (even if it is only 90 miles from DC) can lead to what some have called a shake-up of the GOP. In light of Cantor’s loss, many have speculated that immigration reform in the House is dead. What is important to remember is that one single man does not make or break an issue.
There is still plenty of opportunity for the Republican-majority House to tackle immigration reform once and for all. Reform may not be the most glamorous or popular topic in Congress, especially considering the number of other scandals and issues such as the Veterans Affairs probe, Bowe Bergdahl’s release by the Taliban, that have happened. However, reform is something the GOP needs to address, espeicailly if they want any chance of gaining Latino support.
Immigration is still very much on voters’ minds. In fact, back in April of this year, we asked our Votifi users, “Do you think we will see comprehensive immigration reform by the time President Obama leaves office?” The results are below. It is interesting to note that the majority of respondents thought that the midterm elections would be pivotal in the immigration reform process. By a bit of a stretch, one might speculate that voters are hopeful that the Democratic Party will gain some seats during the midterm since Democrats are viewed as more competent to handle immigration.
With less than 20 congressional primaries dates remaining, it will be interesting to see what role immigration will play, especially as a) the midterms come and go in November and b) child immigrants become more controversial. Considering Cantor’s loss, one wouldn’t expect immigration to be the hot button issue this fall. Maybe Congress should finally take a step back and take direction from their home districts about what the big topic and campaign platform should be.
On Tuesday, March 18, we asked our Votifi users which of the following they believed is worse for one’s health: alcohol, tobacco, sugar, or marijuana. Want to take a guess which option received the least votes? Hint: it’s not legal for recreational use in 48 states.
We got a lot of great discussion on the question, which is absolutely fantastic. Some comments addressed the idea that marijuana “doesn’t cause enough deaths to even get noticed.” Other comments pointed to the legality of alcohol, tobacco, and sugar. Still others pointed to the deaths as an indirect result of alcohol, sugar, and tobacco.
The inspiration for this question came from a poll a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll that asked the very same question. WSJ/NBC found that 49% of poll respondents said tobacco was most dangerous, followed by alcohol (24%), sugar (15%), and marijuana (8%). Part of me wonders if we had the same sample. (Don’t be throwing my daily polls, please!) <— That’s a joke. Anyway, our results are below.
So what do we make of these results? There are a few ways to address the poll. The first stems from the comments we received in conjunction with follow-up questions by the WSJ/NBC poll. As a nation, we are very aware of the effects tobacco, alcohol, and sugar can have on our health. Tobacco and alcohol aren’t even sold without warning labels!
The second way to examine the data is that marijuana isn’t typically associated with health complications. A study published by Forensic Science International, did, however, link two deaths to marijuana. Note: These men also had underlying health issues. What we are not aware of is how heavy marijuana itself is associated with health problems. (That’s not to say there aren’t associations between marijuana use and increased risk of certain health problems.) A 20-year study by researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, and the University of Alabama at Birmingham suggested that heavy marijuana use might decrease lung function, but does not carry some of the risks tobacco does.
Finally, and I think this is one of the biggest takeaways, marijuana might be losing its social stigma. More states are approving medicinal marijuana. Maryland’s state house delegation passed a bill last week. The Colbert Report even talked about Colorado’s “booming marijuana industry.”
While there are a number of other issues to address, such as UN laws, if marijuana is so lucrative, there might come a time (perhaps in the near future) when marijuana is legalized across the country. For now, we’ll just take our poll results as they are. Votifi users believe there are more harmful substances out there than marijuana.
A Second Look at a "Piping" Hot Issue: What Votifi Users Said
by Abigail Quackenboss
Thanks to our 189 voters on Tuesday, February 18, who responded to our daily poll that asked “Should the President authorize construction of the Keystone XL pipeline?” This was probably one of our higher response rates in the past month. In addition, there was great discussion on the page – something we love to see!
For those of you who are interested in how the cookie crumbled, here are the response percentages from the poll.
These differ quite a bit from the response that Gallup received in March 2012 when 57% of respondents polled believed that the U.S. government should approve the Keystone XL pipeline. In addition, Pew found similar results with its September 2013 poll, with 65% of respondents in favor of building the Keystone XL pipeline.
The real question is why do our results differ so much from what Gallup and Pew say are representative samples of the American population? Well, there could be a number of factors. First, and probably most likely, is that our sample is not necessarily the most representative. We had 189 respondents, which I said was a lot, but when doing public opinion polls, pollsters prefer to get numbers upwards of 1,000. An increased sample size tends to be more representative, but only to a certain extent. (Once you get too large of a sample size you are just wasting time and money.)
Another possible reason, which goes hand in hand with the first, is that our respondents tend to be a bit more liberal with their ideologies than what would be expected in a larger sample. Don’t misinterpret this as me saying ALL of our users are more left on a political spectrum. I am simply saying the nature of the beast (technology, daily use, younger users) suggests we are a bit more left.
A final explanation I would guess might have an impact on the responses is the recent release of the environmental impact statement from the State Department. Although the State Department said there would be no real impact, many individuals and organizations are still skeptical about what sort of irreversible damage we might incur through this 1,180 mile pipeline running from Canada to Texas.
As of right now, the Keystone XL project is stalled again, this time by a lawsuit in Nebraska. Once again, we will have to wait and see how this debacle plays out and whether or not the project will get the go-ahead from a) Nebraska, and eventually b) the President.
Originally proposed in 2008, the Keystone XL Pipeline has been on a long and tumultuous journey to receive approval from the powers that be (the State Department and the President) to go ahead with completion. The current pipeline, known simply as the Keystone Pipeline, runs from Canada through a number of states: North and South Dakota, Nebraska, Illinois, Kansas, Oklahoma, and finally to refineries in Texas. Stretching approximately 2,150 miles, the Keystone Pipeline has the ability to carry nearly 600,000 barrels of oil per day from Alberta, Canada to refineries in the U.S. However, the Keystone Pipeline itself is not the contentious piece of the puzzle.
Rather, there is one leg, a very long leg, of the project (the “XL” in “Keystone XL”), that has stirred a lot of debate. This proposed pipeline would run from Canada through Montana, South Dakota, and to Nebraska. According to Keystone-XL.com, the proposed leg would have a carrying capacity of over 800,000 barrels per day.
But why, if there is already a crude oil pipeline running from Canada to the U.S. are we concerned about this expansion project? Essentially, the Keystone XL pipeline has been a hot button issue since its proposal in 2008. There are a number of reasons for this. First, the number of jobs that this project will create has been disputed from the beginning. Although the project will certainly create jobs, the real question is how many. Reports vary anywhere from 35 permanent jobs (according to the State Department), to 20,000 construction jobs according to proponents of the project.
There are also concerns about the environmental impact of the pipeline. A number of environmental groups, such as the Sierra Club, the World Wildlife Fund are concerned that the expansion project will have a negative impact on the environment. Their concerns range from water pollution across the Great Plains due to construction to the potential for leaks and soil contamination. These could lead to more problems in the long run. However, these views concerns contradict the much-anticipated report from the State Department, released earlier this month, which can be found here, which stated there would be no significant impact on the environment if the expansion project were to be completed. Why did the State Department have to do the analysis? Because the pipeline crosses our border to Canada, this project and its environmental impact statement fell under the Department’s jurisdiction.
In addition to environmental concerns, there are safety concerns stemming from the project. It has been reported that if the U.S. continues to move crude oil by rail rather than by the proposed pipeline, we will be at risk for dangerous accidents, which could threaten the lives of many. The counter-argument (in favor of the pipeline) is that if we no longer have to move crude oil via rail, individuals will be less at risk.
Another argument surrounding the project surrounds what will happen to the oil once it has been refined in Texas. While many supporters of the pipeline have suggested the oil will be kept here in the U.S. to reduce our dependency on foreign oil, others have suggested that it will be sold to other fossil fuel-dependent countries such as China and India. It can then be argued that if President Obama is truly committed to green energy and our oil dependency, he should again delay the project. However, the oil is not coming from the Middle East, (remember, the pipeline runs from Canada to Texas). In addition, if the Keystone XL project is not completed, it is likely that the rail to transport the oil, which Canadian oil companies have stated they will continue with if the project is not approved, will contribute more to greenhouse emissions than just the oil itself if piped to refineries.
What does the public think of the Keystone XL? Well, according to a Pew Research poll from September, 65% of Americans are in favor of the expansion. However, public opinion does not dictate policy and political action. As of right now, the ball is in President Obama’s court. He has stated that he would not make a decision about the pipeline until the environmental impact statements come back. Now that the public knows what is in the reports, we play a waiting game. Hopefully this will finally be a year of action, in one direction or another.
Last month a court ruling went largely unnoticed, especially by the people whom we would expect to care most about it: internet users. What was the ruling? Net neutrality was overturned. Now, I am by no means an expert on Net neutrality. In fact, before being assigned to write this blog, I’d never heard of it. But it’s definitely a concept that has broader implications. Consider this your crash-course in Net neutrality.
What is Net neutrality?
Net neutrality was designed to keep the playing field level for all websites. It required that Internet service providers (ISPs) give all websites the same level of priority when sending information on the Web. For example, when Net neutrality was in effect, an ISP such as Verizon, Comcast, or Cox Cable could not give preferential treatment to websites that they held a stake in.
In layman’s terms, please.
Basically, now that Net neutrality is out the window, ISPs could discriminate against internet companies or internet users. Your ISP can decide how much speed they will award each site. For example, video streaming sites such as YouTube, Hulu, or Netflix are likely to be impacted because they are bandwidth hogs. For example, during primetime, Netflix accounts for about 32% of data being sent to users. You might not be able to watch the next season of House of Cards at the drop of a hat. Instead, because your ISP can now throttle the bandwidth for Netflix data, your binge watching session might take a lot more than the 14 hours of actual programming. It might seem like the days of dial-up, waiting for videos to buffer. The instantaneousness of a site may be lost. In theory this could impact more than just how much you pay for internet. It could also impact what sites you can see. Trying to view a site that doesn’t align with the mission of the ISP? Would it be a coincidence if that site loaded at a snail’s pace? Could this be a way for companies to censor content?
That sounds awful.
It really does. And the greater implications sound even worse. In order to get back to the internet speed that you enjoy, or is at least more tolerable, ISPs may require users to pay. That’s right. If you thought you were paying a lot for Internet already, ISPs could potentially offer tiered packages. Want to watch a funny cat video on YouTube? $.50 per video. Want unlimited access to your favorite shows and movies on Netflix? With the ISPs in control, they could charge whatever they want, especially if you are opting to stream from a site they don’t host. (For example, NBC has stake in Hulu. Theoretically, Comcast, which owns NBC, can give preferential treatment to Hulu over Netflix.) And to throw another wrench into it all, have you considered how ISPs would know which sites to slow down for you personally? (Hint: They’re not the NSA, but they might be watching what you search for and do on the internet.)
So when should I expect my Internet rate to go up?
Well, here’s the sort-of bright side: ISPs have assured us that this court ruling will not impact how they provide internet service.
That’s reassuring. (Sarcasm.)
I know it’s not. Luckily, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is considering a number of other options to this ruling. The FCC could appeal the decision. They could also reclassify what broadband is. (Under the 2010 rules, Broadband wasn’t a tradition service provider like your telephone.) The ruling from a few weeks ago said that under the current (2010) classification, the FCC didn’t have the authority to enforce Net neutrality.
Why are ISPs arguing against Net neutrality?
First, there is the argument that some people just use more than their share of the bandwidth to go on their Netflix binges. Shouldn’t they be charged more if they’re using more than an Internet user who is simply checking their email once a week? There’s also the argument that in order to keep up with technology to keep improving Internet speeds for sites such as YouTube and Netflix, companies have to charge more for the improvement costs. Finally, there is the argument that Net neutrality is limiting competition. If a user can get around having to pay more to watch their Netflix, they will.
Could this have any implications on the 2014 midterm elections?
Could I win the lottery? Of course it could. Will it? I’m not an expert on elections, but I going to guess this will not be the hot button issue of the year. Congress seems to have bigger fish to fry. That’s not to say they are ignoring Net neutrality completely. In fact, Democrats have introduced legislation that will temporarily bar ISPs from breaking old Net neutrality rules until the FCC is able to get it together to create their own rules or re-categorize. It’s not certain whether these bills will pass in both houses, but at least it is a glimmer of hope.
President Obama has also made statements in support of Net neutrality, so consumers have that working for them as well. I think (well, maybe it’s mostly wishful thinking) that we will eventually see Net neutrality return. It will just be a matter of time. Hopefully the ISPs don’t get any big ideas in the meantime.
Last week, President Obama stood before all of Congress and America to deliver his fifth State of the Union address. While there were a number of issues addressed during the 65-minute speech, there was one particular topic that was of interest to me: education.
There are many aspects to education, and as a college student the most important of which is paying for it. In 2010, President Obama signed into law the Student Loan Reform Act, which partly goes into effect this year. The bill is multi-faceted. The bill stopped giving subsidies to third party lenders, and instead the Department of Education would award loans directly. Those who begin borrowing this year will no longer have to pay back up to 15% of each monthly paycheck to their student loans. Rather, the repayment is capped at 10%. Another important piece states that new borrowers in 2014 will have their loans forgiven after 20 years, if payments are made on time. This is down from the previous forgiveness time span on 25 years.
As a college student, I understand how important this funding can be. Many of my friends in school, mostly sophomores and juniors, began taking out loans in their third semester of school. Let me reiterate that: college students are taking out loans before they have completed half their coursework necessary for graduation. In some cases, students are entirely dependent upon these loans. Their ability to repay a loan is riding on if they get a decent paying job after graduation.
That is a big if. According to The Fiscal Times, college graduates are entering the workforce completely unprepared. As a collective group, graduates lack work ethic, critical thinking skills, and interpersonal communication skills. That’s ludicrous. I cannot fathom why students would take out tens of thousands of dollars in loans only to not properly prepare themselves for the work force. Then again, I suppose that I can only hope the work ethic I have developed from being a three-time Dean’s List student who is also involved with NCAA D3 sports and holds two jobs on campus, in addition to the critical thinking skills fostered by my college, will hold up in the real world. Unfortunately, my suspicions won’t be confirmed or refuted until I get to the “real world”. What’s even scarier are some data recently released by The Atlantic. They said that 18.5% of Bachelor’s Degree holders were living back with their parents and in the past five years, 40% of 27-year-olds have spent some time unemployed. That means out of my 16-woman cross country team, nearly 7 of us may spend some time unemployed within five years of graduating. Yikes.
I remember in high school our teachers emphasized science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) a great deal. But according to the National Math and Science Initiative, only 36% of students graduate with a STEM major, while 62% of careers will require some knowledge of these areas. Maybe this is why there are so many unemployed or underemployed college graduates these days?
I consider myself very lucky. I received a generous scholarship that covers most of my tuition, and much of my coursework so far has focused on communication skills and critical thinking – which I think (hope) will help me a lot after graduating. And to be on the safe side, I have declared a math minor, which I will complete in the fall.
My younger brother, bless his soul, does not have the knack for school that I did. He’s very smart, but lacks the interest for books and abstract concepts, much of the things a four year degree would require. But he sure is good with tools and real-world skills. In fact, if I asked him, my little brother could change the oil in my car and my tires while he was at it. That, folks, is impressive. Did I mention he is thirteen? Yet he often feels discouraged. He knows school doesn’t come easily for him, yet he doesn’t want to quit after high school. There must be a solution here.
Maybe it is time that we rethink what it means to be prepared for the workforce. Having a four-year degree isn’t a guaranteed ticket to happiness and success. There are plenty of skilled manufacturing jobs and trades that can bring equal if not more economic prosperity than getting a job with a degree. This is something President Obama realizes. On Thursday, he spoke in Wisconsin about forming partnerships between high schools and apprenticeship programs at manufacturing and trade jobs. My brother, and many other students, would be perfect candidates for these sorts of programs. In addition, President Obama signed an executive order that will evaluate all job training programs across the nation to ensure that workers are being properly trained for good, in-demand jobs. And that is something I think we can all be excited about, regardless of party. Getting people into good paying, skilled jobs will help us all in the long run.
The reality of it is that being prepared for the workforce doesn’t necessarily mean you have to hold a degree, in STEM or even in underwater basket weaving. Instead it means that you are recognizing your strengths, be they in academia or trades, and fostering those skills. We are all entitled to our piece of the American Dream, but that doesn’t mean everyone needs to follow the same path to get there.
We are headed back to SXSW this year. For Votifi - it pretty much all started for us at SXSW in 2012. That year we had a chance to demo our product and meet with folks who have helped us a great deal to build this company.
This year one of our co-founders, Aasil Ahmad, is part of an awesome panel called “What Would Cesar Chavez Tweet”. The panel will discuss some of the most effective social media strategies that have been raising the volume for grassroots movements in the Latino community. Empowering groups through technology was one of the principles that we built Votifi on and we’re excited to share our insights on technology and activism. If you are planning to be at SXSW this year please join us. The panel is open to the public (you don’t need a SXSW badge) and will take place on March 7th at 3:30PM.
Before we head to Austin we want to hear from you! What do you use social media for, and how has it changed your level of civic engagement? Take our survey above and let us know. We’ll release the findings during our panel. And follow along the conversation on Twitter via #SXSW and #WWCCT. Thanks!
New IRS Rules May Curb Outside Spending in Elections
by Matt Sarge
The Obama Administration recently proposed new IRS rules that could begin to reign in campaign spending by tax-exempt outside groups that expanded significantly since the Citizens United case in 2010. The current rules allow for non-profits to engage in political activity and lobbying so long as they are also “improving social welfare.” The new IRS rules would place a limit on the political spending of these non-profit groups, which would either lead to reduced political activity or registering as an explicitly political organization (such as a PAC).
Non-profits are currently exploited as vehicles for political spending because of the anonymity they offer to donors. Political non-profits are not required to disclose donors identities, unlike Super PACs and political parties. The new rules are controversial given both the vested interest that many prominent voices have in allowing for robust campaign expenditures. Additionally, given the recent scandal surrounding IRS treatment of Tea Party affiliated groups, any IRS rule changes that can be seen as limiting political speech are likely to ignite opposition amongst conservatives. Karl Rove’s Crossroads Grassroots Policy Strategies is a tax-exempt group that would be highly affected by the rule changes and is currently a major financing source for Republican candidates and causes, while the League of Conservation Voters would be the largest group impacted on the Democratic side. However, the rule change to the allowed political behavior of non-profits would have a disproportionate impact of conservative groups, as nine of the ten largest political non-profits in the 2012 cycle were Republican-leaning.
Outside Spending by Type - Center for Responsive Politics
Spending by tax-exempt social welfare groups has been a major source of campaign expenditure growth, more so than unions and trade associations. Because finance rules often affect Democratic-leaning unions differently than the political non-profits that Republicans rely on, campaign finance issues can become politically charged. However, given the recent proliferation in spending by political non-profits, curbing the political activities of the 501c (4) tax exempt groups that flourished in the wake of Citizens United is an obvious attempt to limit the influence of anonymous money in politics.
If the rules are approved, corporate spending on elections is not necessarily going to be curtailed. Given the vast array of options that corporations and mega-donors have for getting their money into an election, the only effect that the proposed rule changes may have is forcing more of that money to go through channels that require disclosure. The SEC recently dropped a proposal that would have required public companies to disclose all political donations to their shareholders. So while corporations may not be required to disclose, more may choose to donate their money through political groups that require disclosure due to the proposed new rules governing political activity of non-profits. In a post-Citizens United world, limiting the influence of money in elections is unlikely – but that influence may have to be a little more transparent.
The 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address, one of history’s finest and most succinct pieces of oratory, has brought the character of Abraham Lincoln to the forefront of public discourse. With time having eroded most of the controversies of his presidency, Lincoln is now viewed nearly unanimously in a positive light for having guided the nation through one of its most trying moments, and for ending one of America’s greatest enduring sins – slavery. As such a powerful and well-regarded figure, Lincoln has been claimed by both the Republicans and Democrats as being representative of their ideology.
As the first Republican President, the GOP has a partisan identity to cling to. Additionally, given the general historical trend toward more liberal (in the modern sense) ideology, most of Lincoln’s policy positions would be viewed by today’s standards as conservative or even reactionary, though at the time they may have been quite liberal or revolutionary. Lincoln’s rejection of the status quo provides Democrats a basis for the claim that Lincoln, if alive today, would be a liberal Democrat.
A recent YouGov poll found that only twenty-three percent of Americans thought that if Lincoln were alive today he would remain a Republican, whereas thirty-two percent said he would be a Democrat. The YouGov results echo the findings of Votifi’s poll which had only eighteen percent of respondents answering that Lincoln would be a member of the Republican Party or Tea Party movement. As might be expected, a majority of both Republicans and Democrats claimed Lincoln would be a member of their party in the YouGov poll. Similarly, the political profiles of the Votifi respondents show significantly more conservative political leanings for those that claimed Lincoln as a Republican than those who argued he would be a Democrat.
Trying to objectively view which modern party Lincoln would fit in is a difficult task that requires removing oneself from the modern framing of issues. Dick Morris argues that Lincoln was not really a liberal despite the abolition of slavery that is viewed as the hallmark of his presidency. Morris claims that Lincoln’s real commitment was to entrepreneurial capitalism and the wage system. As someone who “pulled himself up by his bootstraps,” Lincoln recognized the importance of a wage system for upward mobility, and viewed slavery as a barrier to an effective wage system.
Morris argues that Lincoln’s seemingly liberal views on slavery were not rooted in views of equality but rather economic efficacy, and in fact Lincoln continued to harbor racist views. Morris’ argument is somewhat supported by the additional fact that Lincoln did not initially intend to abolish slavery but rather simply contain its westward spread until the conditions of the Civil War made abolition necessary. If Lincoln should indeed be viewed as a free-market capitalist rather than a liberal committed to equality, then perhaps the twenty-three percent are correct that Lincoln would be at home in today’s GOP.
Many have made coherent arguments that Abraham Lincoln would instead be a modern day Democrat. Greg Bailey centers his argument on the grounds that Lincoln supported using government power to invest in the public good and fighting against states’ rights arguments and xenophobic rhetoric.
“A reincarnated Lincoln would relive part of his past life listening to the states’ rights arguments contemporary Republican use against any proposal to help working families. The president who levied an income tax on the wealthy would have been shocked at George W. Bush’s disproportionate tax cut to the wealthiest one percent.”
In the intervening 150 years, major realignment within the two major parties has occurred resulting in a nearly exclusively liberal and exclusively conservative Democratic and Republican Party respectively. However, given the impossibility of fully understanding the motivations behind, and complexities of, Lincoln’s political ideology, it is not necessarily clear which modern party he would fall into. However, so long removed from the controversies of his presidency which left the South to single-party Democratic rule until the 1960s,
Lincoln is now viewed in such a positive light that both parties lay claim to being descendant of his ideology.
Public Support = Legislative Victory? Not Quite...
by Gene Giannotta
A couple weeks ago, the Senate passed the Employment Non-Discrimination Act by a large margin. Sixty-four senators voted for it, including a number of Republicans. But it’s unlikely to make it through the House - Speaker Boehner has said he won’t bring it to the floor, and even if he did, the GOP majority would seem to be a large stumbling block.
But recent research by the Williams Institute finds that majorities in every House district support the legislation, saying this “confirms that ENDA would pass if all members followed their constituents.”
Over at the Monkey Cage blog, Andrew Gelman points to this as evidence that, if brought to a vote, the bill should pass in the House. He also cites an earlier piece showing that support was very strong in every state, which meant that passage in the Senate should be a sure thing, too. If senators all voted based on the overwhelming levels of public support in their states. After all, the lowest level of support was in Mississippi, and that was 63%!
Alas, Mississippi’s two senators voted “nay,” as did a few dozen others. So popular support among constituents, even very high levels of support, is no guarantee of votes in Congress.
Gelman, however, seems to think that high levels of public support in every district means that representatives will be hard-pressed to vote in any way other than for the bill.
Regarding primary elections: Yes, Republican Congress members have to worry about the attitudes of conservative Republican primary election voters. But that’s not the whole story, as they also try not to go counter to vast majorities of the people in their districts. To put it another way, general attitudes in the district are relevant, and with 70-80 percent support overall, I don’t think primary voters can be as opposed as all that.
Regarding the issue of intensity of support: The suggestion is that voters who oppose gay rights feel more strongly about the issue than voters who support gay rights. It is possible, but I have no particular reason to believe it—if anything, given the nature of the issue, I’d be inclined to believe the opposite, that supporters of gay rights feel more strongly about the issue than do opponents. And you’d need a huge huge difference in intensity to overcome the huge disparities in support that we see from the polls.
I especially want to highlight this: “they also try not to go counter to vast majorities of the people in their districts.” That sounds reasonable, but is not the reality. After all, many senators did just that apparently. And, as the Williams Institute itself points out, “When a similar bill was considered in 2007, 183 members of the U.S. House of Representatives voted against it, even though a majority of their constituents supported the policy.”
There are other examples, too. Say, gun control. Large majorities - around 90% - back universal background checks, but that has not helped legislation pass, not even in the wake of a seemingly endless string of mass shootings.
And while Gelman notes that supporters of gay rights are probably quite enthusiastic about achieving policy changes like ENDA, that’s not the real question here. I doubt that even if three-quarters of a particular district supports passing ENDA, three-quarters of that district is ready to mobilize politically to encourage their representatives to vote for it. Perhaps in some cases, but all? No, one can support - even “strongly” support - a particular policy without necessarily being ready to act. And when it comes to effecting political change, what matters is not responses to surveys, but action.
These findings, while interesting and useful in helping us understand attitude trends, don’t really help us understand why particular representatives might act a certain way. There is no conceivable universe in which all 435 representatives vote “aye” for passage of ENDA. The simplest explanation for why is that for many, especially Republicans, there just isn’t any incentive that translates passive support (attitudes reported as favorable) into the possibility of electoral punishment should a given congressperson vote against it.
Hypothetically, a very liberal district and a very conservative district could both see levels of support for passing ENDA in the 70% range, let’s say. But elections don’t occur in policy vacuums. This might place higher in terms of a liberal constituencies’ priorities when judging candidates on Election Day, but even if they support ENDA, it’s doubtful that conservative voters would punish a candidate who otherwise aligns with their preferences on most, if not all, other policy areas just because of this issue.
On November 22, 1963, Dallas was “roiling with racism and McCarthyism,” not exactly a welcoming environment for a young Democratic president who had been trying to negotiate nuclear arms treaties with the Soviets and staking progressively more liberal positions on civil rights.
There’s been some controversy over whether Dallas was really a “city of hate” responsible for Kennedy’s death fifty years ago today. Whether or not the city itself fostered an environment conducive to murdering a president, the Dallas of November 1963 certainly wasn’t a place very friendly to JFK and that was no secret to anyone at that time.
For example, here’s one poster that made the rounds as the president flew to Dallas:
When I visited the Newseum earlier this year to check out their JFK exhibit, I was struck seeing both that and this full-page ad that ran in the Dallas Morning News:
We tend to nostalgize the early 1960s in terms far more optimistic than today, but some things have not changed. The anti-government ideology of the tea party may seem to be out of sync with a country that has long relied on Social Security, Medicare, the interstate highway system, and many other examples of federal initiative. But even in Kennedy’s time and the aftermath of his assassination, there was a sizable portion of the population who saw big government as a threat.
I recently came across some Gallup trend lines for the second half of the twentieth century, and, given how we tend to generalize the era as one of pro-government opinion, I was surprised to see that even back in 1965, the high point of the Great Society and post-war liberalism, a plurality of respondents cited “big government” as “the biggest threat to the country in the future.”
Interestingly, “big business” has never really been a strong challenger for the title of “biggest threat,” save in 1965 and 1969. The spike in the mid-sixties seems to correlate with the reaction to Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society - this was a time when many social policies where passed and/or put forward by the administration in the wake of JFK’s death (civil rights legislation, Medicare and Medicaid, the War on Poverty), but which also led to a strong electoral rebuke in the 1966 midterms and, eventually, LBJ’s decision to decline a run for reelection in 1968.
So in general, rather than an aberration unique to Obama’s presidency, there’s been an increasingly prevalent view that “big government” is the “biggest threat” facing America over the past fifty years. And while today’s media environment can sometimes make it feel like the crazies are uniquely crazy today, it’s clear in the images above that this isn’t quite true either. Kennedy was as much the target of paranoid animosity as any of the men who followed him in the White House.
Political life in the United States has always been defined by a tension between social responsibility and individual liberty. That’s true today and it was true fifty years ago.
Overall approval, according to Gallup for presidents in the 20th quarter of their administrations, stands at 46%. Obama is on par with George W. Bush and Harry Truman, slightly outpacing them. Nixon had plenty of problems to contend with after his landslide reelection, and in 1974, he would resign because of Watergate.
Eisenhower, Reagan, and Clinton all had approval ratings around 60% at this point in their presidencies, but none of those men had to contend with the same kind of polarized information environment that we have today.
Here’s a comparison of average approval ratings for each of the presidents since Gallup started tracking in the 1940s:
Presidents Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton are the only two out of seven previously re-elected post-World War II presidents who augmented their popularity over the course of their second stretch in office. Reagan and Clinton — who had identical 50% first-term approval averages — each entered office during a down economy and presided over muscular economic growth during their second term. As a result, their approval ratings moved upward; Reagan’s average rose to 55%, while Clinton’s soared to 61%.
That’s interesting given that both presidents faced serious scandals in their second terms - Iran-contra for Reagan and impeachment for Clinton.
(As an aside, I just want to note a big caveat for the Johnson numbers - LBJ’s first term lasted about fourteen months and those consisted of the immediate aftermath of John F. Kennedy’s assassination and the election that he would have been running for reelection in, so that 74% average is probably skewed by that.)
One wrinkle in all this is personal popularity. Those numbers above are for job approval. But the public could cut a president some slack if they think he’s done a mediocre job but like the guy personally. This is a story that’s been common for Obama’s presidency - his approval numbers have largely floated right around the middle but his personal popularity has been quite high.
But is it really? Here’s a chart from the Washington Post last month that compares the likability + approval trends:
Except for the spike in job approval with the death of Osama bin Laden, the trend lines largely correlate, albeit with his favorability ratings slightly higher. That difference is pretty small throughout his presidency but seems to be getting even smaller, to the point of dipping into net negative territory.
Rather than just include the headline number for the current polling period, I thought it’d be instructive to look at what their results have shown dating back to 2011. Over 28 polls since January of that year, Obama’s average “very positive” rating was at about 29% of respondents, while the average “very negative” rating was at 27% of respondents. The latest results show him at five percentage points worse than the average in both categories. The margin of error of the current poll is +/- 3.46%, so it’s possible the true values (the actual percent of the population that feels that way) are closer to the averages than the numbers we see here (which are estimates of that actual percent).
In other words, while these numbers certainly aren’t great for Obama and the context in which the most recent polling has been done provides some cause for concern (left a mess, the Affordable Care Act rollout has the potential to undermine his popularity by any measure), they aren’t really shocking. They seem to fit both the broader trends of presidential history and Obama’s own experience.
Another point to make about these poll trends is the role of media coverage. When attention is focused on a particular person, people obviously become more aware of them, more knowledgeable about them, and more able to make judgments. Presidents get a good deal of visibility, period, and when a major policy has come to bear your name it’s no surprise that can make a difference. If the ACA had never been known as “Obamacare” would Obama be saddled with as much of the blame as he has? Or would his response be seen as a popularly-accepted rebuke of government contracting run amok?
It’s impossible to answer those questions, but I can show how attention can help shift opinion. I’ll use two examples of potential presidential candidates and their own favorability ratings from that same NBC News/WSJ poll.
Here’s Hillary Clinton, with data back to 2011:
Like Obama above, she isn’t an unknown quantity - the “don’t know name/not sure” column at the far right has a range of 0-2%. She’s been in the public consciousness for two decades, so people know who she is and can make judgments accordingly. Interestingly, she’s also underperforming her averages despite having been out of the secretary of state job for most of this year. Let’s dig deeper and look at her numbers dating back to her taking office as a senator from New York in 2001:
Just from eyeballing it, what becomes obvious is that her best-performing poll trend was her tenure as secretary of state. Now that she’s mostly a topic of political discussion these days rather than a relatively quiet public servant, maybe opinion of her is defaulting to where it was before 2009. The type of coverage could matter here, and it would be interesting to look at that data to see if there’s a correlation. But for now, I just want to point out the general trends. Like Obama, she’s a well-known public figure. Movement in opinion about her, like that about the president, can be as much a function of factors that are highly-visible (i.e., “salient”) bringing more attention to her and thus “activating” existing biases, as it could be due to actual shifts.
Chris Christie’s favorability ratings offer another example of how greater visibility can make a difference. Back in June 2011, Chris Christie was just over a year into his first term as governor of New Jersey. His “very positive” and “very negative” ratings were about the same as today - 10% and 7% then, 9% and 7% now. But now only about a quarter of respondents said they don’t know who he is, versus 44% two years ago.
The difference there is 18 points. Note that the number who say they have a “somewhat positive” view of him is now 11 percentage points greater than in 2011 and the proportion that says it has a “neutral” view is now 5 points higher. In 2011, almost fifty percent of respondents didn’t know who Christie was; today, almost half of respondents have either a “neutral” or “somewhat positive” view of him. Given the generally positive press attention he’s received over that time span, that’s probably not much of a surprise.
It’s true that Obama’s personal likability, or growing lack thereof, is a story to follow. But what isn’t clear is whether it’s a worrisome trend unique to Obama or a function of two variables he has little control over: historical tendencies of declining second-term popularity and the tone of media coverage.
He has to contend with both. And the debacle over HealthCare.gov and insurance policy cancellations has, for really the first time during his presidency, placed the questions of his managerial competence and honesty front and center in a very bipartisan way. Placed in that context, those declining numbers really aren’t all that surprising.
The marquee races of the off-year election were Chris Christie and Terry McAuliffe’s gubernatorial victories in New Jersey and Virginia respectively, as well as Bill de Blasio’s mayoral win in New York City. Pundits compulsively spend the weeks following the election reading into the results broader conclusions about national trends and hypothesizing about voters’ rationale. In that vein, I want to take a minute to consider what the election results mean for 2014 and 2016.
De Blasio’s win in New York City, while a sharp break from Michael Bloomberg and Rudy Giuliani, should not be extended beyond the city limits. The election of a significantly more liberal mayor is actually a reversion to the mean rather than a trend in a new direction. Liberal Democrats have historically dominated the city’s elections, with the past two mayors being exceptions because of the city’s crime problem in the late 90s and an extraordinarily well-funded Bloomberg. Unlike the outcomes in New Jersey and Virginia, the New York mayoral race does not have broader implications.
Chris Christie’s landslide victory may also be less meaningful than some have argued. There is no denying that the strength of Christie’s personality has helped him win in a liberal state, but his victory came in a low turnout election and Christie had little coattails in the down-ballot races. The Republican win in the New Jersey race should be viewed as the state’s embrace of Christie, not the GOP more broadly. Christie’s deviations from the Republican Party, particularly his battles with Eric Cantor over relief funding for Hurricane Sandy, gave him further credibility with his New Jersey constituency. Maggie Haberman argues in Politico that 2016 is well suited for a Christie candidacy, especially in comparison to a similarly situated Republican contender from past cycles, Rudy Giuliani. However, despite his seeming high with a landslide victory, polls have him significantly trailing Hilary Clinton in a potential 2016 Presidential matchup. Though still years out from 2016, Christie’s popularity in New Jersey does not currently extend to the national electorate.
In opposition to the Christie, McAuliffe’s victory was not the product of his personality, but rather somewhat in spite of it. McAuliffe was not helped by his public perception as too much of a glad-handing politician, and his ideology may be too liberal for the Virginia electorate. However, McAuliffe was able to pull of an unexpectedly-close victory in a rapidly liberalizing state. The Republican, Ken Cuccinelli, was viewed by many as being far too conservative, and suffered significantly from a lack of support from minorities and moderates. The state’s demographics are quickly changing, especially in the northern part of the state which is now a liberal bastion. Virginia is a prime example of traditionally conservative states turning ‘purple’ because of demographic changes, particularly growing Hispanic populations. The Virginia election should serve as another reminder to the RNC that particular attention needs to be paid to these demographic trends to ensure continuing GOP viability. Many have argued that McAuliffe was situated to win in a landslide had it not been for his close association with ObamaCare, which took a public opinion hit prior to the election due to its rough roll-out. While some have argued for the major impacts of the government shutdown and ObamaCare rollout on the campaigns trajectory, McAuliffe’s internal polling shows differently. The campaign showed him consistently up by a small margin, rather than suffering a big hit from the ACA implementation snafus. Once again, the election in Virginia cannot be broadly interpreted as a referendum on ObamaCare or the GOP’s role in the government shutdown given that McAuliffe’s victory margin was not significantly affected by the ACA rollout and the shutdown bump was only temporary.
While political junkies may want to get their fix by pouring over exit poll data from the major off-year elections, it is doubtful that much can be drawn from the results. Too much of variation in results is specific to the localities and candidates and are not part of broader national trends. The truth is, coming out of the 2013 elections, we can’t infer much about Chris Christie’s 2016 Presidential potential. All we know is that, if he runs, he will be doing so as the governor of New Jersey.
Much has been made in the past month over the seemingly declining fortunes of the Republican Party. Polling in light of the shutdown brought little good news in terms of national favorability. Elections last week seemed to show the limits of tea party conservatism.
But reports of the Republican demise might be greatly exaggerated. We’ve been hearing such hyperbole for much of the past seven years, when a Democratic surge in 2006 captured Congress and presaged a dominant showing in 2008. The tea party wave of 2010 saw historic turnover in the House, but seemed more like a speed bump on the way to Obama’s reelection.
And then discontent over the shutdown and the victory for moderates in last week’s elections…the GOP seems in trouble heading into the midterms and then the 2016 presidential election.
But that narrative is built largely on anecdote. The numbers, as Pew’s Andrew Kohut points out, tell a much more nuanced story.
In a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed, Kohut cites a recent Pew Research Center poll showing that while the GOP doesn’t have a high rating on its own, when compared with Democrats things look better. For example, “a plurality regard the Republicans as ‘better able to deal with the economy’ than the Democrats (44%-37%).” He also notes that
a growing number see the GOP as “better able to manage the government.” In December 2012, the Democratic Party held a 45%-36% advantage over the GOP as the party Americans viewed as better able to manage the government. By Oct. 15—in the midst of the shutdown and debt crisis—the Democratic lead on this measure disappeared: 42% said the Republican Party is better able to manage the federal government, compared with 39% who named the Democrats.
This is a really important point to keep in mind when looking at poll numbers. As I’ve said before, we don’t vote nationally. We don’t have a parliamentary system like Britain, where voters cast their ballots for a party and that party’s platform. We vote for individuals, tied to parties, but who have their own platforms and positions that often diverge from the national party’s in order to better match their target constituents.
That’s why, as Kohut says, “tea party candidates will carry a lot of [the shutdown] baggage, but they will mostly run in districts that endorse their point of view.” So it’s unlikely that the negative image many have of the GOP will translate to national electoral trouble.
But Kohut is off when he says that “Chris Christie’s sweeping victory” across various demographics in New Jersey, a “blue state,” is evidence “of the continued viability potential of the Republican brand, its problems notwithstanding.”
That’s partially true, but only because, as I said, voters vote for individuals and not parties. Christie is a unique individual who has personal appeal independent of his party. If voters cast a ballot by party and not person, it’s conceivable results would have been much different. But these personality effects likely have more impact on election outcomes as we go down the ballot and get more local. Whether Christie has the ability to translate his particular appeal in New Jersey to the other 49 states is yet to be seen.
The other thing to keep in mind is that our choices are almost always only between Democrats and Republicans. This is a consequence of the American system, in which the candidate with the most votes wins. Third parties have difficulty gaining traction, and if they ever did, it would likely just result in a new duopoly.
So even if voters are not too thrilled about Republicans in general, they make voting choices in the context of a competition with Democrats. And since we know that the number of truly independent voters is smaller than one might think, the choice for a particular voter is often between the candidate of their party or not voting at all.
All that is to say that while its prospects in any given election might wax and wane as a function of the tea party-moderate divide and how it plays out in a particular area, the Republican Party itself is not going anywhere.
The bottom line is that the numbers present a complex and ever-evolving picture. The key is to be able to dig down into them to understand what they mean at the state and local levels. Then we can put it all together and understand where the trends might take those elections and thus national politics.
Political activists have long been viewed as key intermediaries between political elites and the masses. Activists and political thinkers are at the forefront of issue evolution and ideological formation, setting the direction for political parties, policy makers, and eventually, average voters. In today’s new media age, bloggers and social media pundits play much the same role as traditional political activists and have more impact than most people think.
The intuition behind underestimating the influence of blogs and social media pundits is their relatively low readership. The argument commonly made is that even popular political blogs, like Erick Erickson’s conservative Red State blog, or the liberal Daily Kos, attract an audience that is minuscule compared to the size of the electorate as a whole. However, the flaw in this argument is that the audience of these blogs in a key group of readers. The audience may be small, but it is a critical and influential demographic.
Political bloggers and the people that read them are, for clear reasons, more politically-engaged than the average citizen. They are also the people most likely to vote, volunteer, donate money, and engage others in political discourse. Historically, it has been as important for politicians to have the support of a small, vocal, activist minority as the support of the ‘silent majority.’ While smart campaigns and policymakers do not ignore broad polling data, they also understand the importance of tracking the sentiment of constituents who call the office and paying attention to the demands of protesters because these activists show a willingness to go out of their way to express their politics. In a similar way, bloggers and social media pundits deserve the attention of campaigns because of their ability to influence a politically-active readership and their critical role in forming the infrastructure and financial base of campaigns.
In addition to the direct impact that blogs can have in influencing readers, they can also exert influence through their impact on traditional media. Among the key readership of political blogs are mainstream-media journalists. Because of blogs’ low cost of publishing, they are able to more quickly respond to news than many traditional news outlets. This allows blogs to set the tone for how stories are covered as well as what events are seen as news worthy. Mass attention by the blogosphere can take minor events on the campaign trail and turn them into major gaffes by attracting coverage from traditional news outlets. Bloggers can also draw attention to already available content and bring it to prominence. The blog Mother Jones published the infamous “forty-seven percent” video of Mitt Romney, turning a video that had been online for months into mainstream news that some pundits viewed as the effective end for the Romney campaign.
Though previously alluded to, the role that blogs and social media play in financing campaigns deserves additional attention. Certain blog sites, such as the conservative Red State and liberal Daily Kos become hubs for like-minded thinkers. In addition to the importance of these blogs as hubs of opinion that lead to mob mentality and in driving party ideology, they also serve as major online fundraising sources through large bundles of small contributions. Candidates are therefore incentivized to appeal to these more ideologically extreme groups that are active online because this is the basis of support that they rely on for their campaign infrastructure. As social media and blogs become increasingly ubiquitous, including amongst the older and more politically active generation, they will become increasingly indispensable tools for inexpensively reaching a large number of voters, and perhaps more importantly, a more easily mobilized constituency and group of potential donors and activists. Regardless of how the total readership numbers stack up, the type of people that frequent these political blog sites are critical targets for campaigns.
In order to be politically competitive, campaigns and policymakers are well-advised to focus on the social media strategy and efforts to engage bloggers. In addition to refocusing on their digital operation and microtargeting efforts after 2012, the GOP has also put new emphasis on social media. They hired former Facebook engineer Andy Barkett to be the RNC Chief Technology Officer in an attempt to make inroads amongst the under-thirty electorate, clearly understanding the importance of social media.
Both the party organizations and individual candidates need to understand the increasingly influential role that blogs play in politics. The President recently lashed out at bloggers who had picked apart Healthcare.gov and the glitches that came with the ObamaCare rollout, knowing that what they published would have a measurable impact on the opinions of the most politically-active voters. To cultivate activists who are willing to support their campaign and convince others, political campaigns must focus on engendering the support of bloggers and monitoring the sentiment on social media.
To follow up on Gene’s recent post about declining trust in government Putting “Trust in Government” in Context, I wanted to make a brief comment about the potentially significant implications of such a decline. In addition to making government broadly less efficient and effective, low government trust has a disproportionate impact on the ability to pass progressive policies.
Marc Hetherington’s book, Why Trust Matters, makes a strong case that the decline in government trust since its peak in the early 1960s has led to a decline in policy liberalism. Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society political agenda, with its implementation of large programs to help the poor and racial minorities, has been unmatched in recent decades. The last President to pass significant ‘progressive’ policies was in fact a Republican — Richard Nixon.
Government policies in which the benefit is not immediate or tangible, or where there is perceived risk, require public trust in government. Programs like welfare that only directly benefit a minority of citizens with the presumption that helping this group will benefit the nation overall, is seen as risky — much like programs with future benefits such as climate change legislation. It is therefore no surprise that re-distributive programs like welfare and food stamps have faced declining support in recent decades, while programs like social security (where most Americans will at some point be getting tangible checks in the mail) have remained relatively impervious to declines in favorability.
Declining government trust may explain the major backlash to ObamaCare, which is actually relatively moderate in nature, as well as the failure to push through cap-and-trade legislation. Declining government trust should not just be viewed as an effect of congressional gridlock, but also as a potential obstacle to progressive government policy.
I wrote about some of the criticisms that have been leveled against the sputtering launch of HealthCare.gov, most of which make a problematic comparison to the private sector. Over at the Washington Post’s Wonkblog, Lydia DePillis makes a more apt analogy, showing how the insurance marketplace web site’s development is similar (and different) to that of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.
That famously inept Defense Department boondoggle is a better place to look for lessons on a broken procurement system that extends far beyond building web portals. Some of the issues DePillis cites: limited competition for the contracts, a scale that defies the possibility of “starting over,” and uncertain costs. There are also too many cooks in the kitchen on these projects, and not much in the way of adequate, integrative oversight:
It’s difficult to build a house when the blueprints keep changing. And that’s exactly what happened to both the F-35 and HealthCare.gov.
The F-35, after all, not only had to satisfy three branches of the military — it also had to work for the handful of U.S. allies that would also be placing orders for the planes. Year by year, politicians in countries like Canada, Italy, Japan, Australia and Norway would question aspects of the design, and make noises about buying fewer of them. The endless design changes added tremendous complexity, turning what was supposed to be a lightweight, next-generation fighter into a compromise vehicle with problems like an engine too heavy for the Navy to carry.
The same was true of HealthCare.gov, which was built under the cloud of an election and a Supreme Court decision that would determine whether it even got implemented, not to mention a political air war that delayed specifications until just a few months before the insurance exchange was supposed to launch. Late-stage changes in the specs of a system that’s already monstrously complex make a hard job nearly impossible.
She does point out differences, including costs (the F-35 is a far more expensive product), deadlines (HealthCare.gov had a hard deadline for being ready), and the obvious differences in building a Web site versus a fighter jet. But there’s another difference. The insurance exchange acts as a portal, a place for consumers to access information that ties into the provisions of the Affordable Care Act. It’s a tool, like the F-35, but probably less prone to becoming obsolete any time soon. The Joint Strike Fighter, on the other hand?
This is not the kind of thing one likes to see happening 19 years after the creation of the Joint Strike Fighter program and 11 years after Lockheed Martin beat out Boeing for the U.S. contract. The F-35 looks a lot like the second coming of the B-2 bomber; a high-tech military megaproject on which billions are gambled, and that ends up being a half-obsolete curio by the time all the kinks are worked out. The B-2 was designed for an era of strategic bombing in wars between superpowers; when the Cold War ended and an era of asymmetric warfare began, it was left with little justification, and the fleet has flown few sorties, considering its expense.
Here’s a great graphic from Pew showing the numbers over time (click here for their interactive version):
Let’s dig into some of what this means:
Only once since 1973 - forty years - has more than half the public expressed trust in government: immediately after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, when that number hit 60% but then dropped again pretty quickly.
In that same period, there have only been a couple isolated periods of over 40% of the public trusting the government: 1984-89, 1991, and 2000-03.
The first period, in the Eighties, was Reagan’s second term as president and into George H.W. Bush’s first, which also coincides with the collapse of the Communist East. But the polls that make up Pew’s trend graphic are all over the place, showing trust numbers from the mid-30s to mid-40s during this time.
The second period coincides with the First Gulf War, a good example of the rally-round-the-flag effect, but even this was pretty short-lived and didn’t break 50%.
The third period lines up with the end of the economically-strong 90s and Clinton tenure as well as the government response to the 9/11/01 attacks.
Spun another way, for sixteen of those 40 years, less than 30% of the country trusted the government. And for 31 of those 40 years, or 3/4 of the time since the early 1970s, less than 40% of the country trusted the government!
The Pew trend line only goes back to 1958, which is when the American National Election Study first asked the “trust” question. After the high point of the high 70s in 1964, the trend noticeably declines over the next five decades. In fact, the high points just seem to be isolated spikes in an otherwise clear downward trend. Since we don’t have data before 1958, we don’t really know how people felt about the government before then and it’s not really fair to imply that the 19% figure is a major historical anomaly - or at least, that should be qualified as “historical” meaning just the past five-and-a-half decades. Perhaps the highs in the late ’50s and early ’60s were the anomalies and the decline is a correction? Maybe the actual number of people in the U.S. population who trust the government has been pretty low throughout its history? We don’t really know.
Republican trust in government seems far more volatile, correlated with the partisan identification of the president. Big spikes during GOP presidencies, with big dips during Democratic.
But what about the possibility that this number means a big shakeup in Congress next year?
Government trust reached its high point in 1964, when 53 incumbents lost their seats - the highest number until 2010’s Republican wave cost 69 incumbents their seats at a time when trust in government was about the same as today - 22%. Note that the 1964 election was a landslide for the Democrats, following John F. Kennedy’s assassination the previous year.
But the ‘06, ‘08, and ‘12 House elections saw roughly similar numbers of incumbent losses as 1990, 1996, and the 1970s, when trust was higher.
There does seem to be a correlation since 1980. But it’s all a matter of degree - 2010’s level of trust was similar to 1990, 1992, 1994, 1998, and all of the elections since 2008, but in only three of those did more than 30 lose their seats. In 1990, with 25% trust, only 16 lost their seats, and in 1998 when only 24% of the country trusted the government, there were only 7 incumbent losses! And that was during the unpopular impeachment of Bill Clinton!
In other words, don’t read too much into this one number. It’s not good, but it doesn’t necessarily signal a sea change in how the public views its government. It would be more accurate to say that discontent and distrust are the norms, rather than the newsworthy exceptions.
The Obamacare rollout has been a study in how not to introduce a major web service to the world. From reports of the debacle, there seemed to be a lack of proper coordination as well as adequate testing. For a system so complex, that was obviously a recipe for disaster.
But while much of the rhetorical whirlwind out of Washington has centered around the question of who’s to blame for the mess, the “who” is largely besides the point. The question we should be asking is why. Just like the other October failure of government - the shutdown - the reasons for HealthCare.gov not working are not a simple matter of finding a person or two who screwed up and firing them, as cathartic as that might be for politicians and others looking for symbolism rather than solutions.
Any entity as large as the federal government, with as complicated a system of intertwining bureaucracies and competing interests both within that network as well as outside, in the realm of public opinion and congressional oversight, is probably more likely to end up with some wires crossed when a project as massive and high-profile as HealthCare.gov goes live.
After all, this isn’t the only botched IT project the federal government has presided over. The Post’s Walter Pincus, a longtime observer of the national security complex, pointed to a recent example under the Defense Department’s purview:
In this case, it was the Air Force. In 2005 it began a program designed to integrate into one system about 240 outdated computer networks at 600 locations that didn’t communicate with each other. It was to manage things such as equipment inventories, contracting, financial administration and personnel assignments.
The Air Force first estimated that the Expeditionary Combat Support System would cost $5.2 billion. On Nov. 14, 2012, it said it was canceling ECSS after spending up to $1.03 billion. The system “has not yielded any significant military capability,” according to an Air Force statement e-mailed to reporters. The Air Force estimated it would need $1.1 billion more to complete one-quarter of the originally designed program. Even so, it would not be ready until 2020.
So imagine if the Obama Administration had delayed the opening of the site until it was “ready.” In that alternate reality, we might be seeing hearings full of politicians wondering where the heck it is…in 2016.
Big bureaucratic entities, whether the federal government or private corporations, tend to face many of these kinds of issues. And in the case of the ACA, implementation requires federal, state, and private organizations all working together, with the added scrutiny of hyper-partisan politicians in Congress waiting to pounce on any slip-up as a sign of its fated implosion.
So in many ways, when commentators and critics point out HealthCare.gov’s flaws, they miss the real phenomenon we should be focusing on.
Just like the shutdown, the Obamacare rollout lays bare the simple fact that unlike a lean startup or small businesses that can afford to wait to release their product when it’s “ready,” government is dictated by political forces that can be far less patient or forgiving. To be sure, politics abounds in private industry as well. The business world is as rife with tensions between competing interests and personalities as the world of governments. But the ACA combines those two atmospheres together to create a uniquely problematic mess.
Consider these points, from Ezra Klein, when he addressed Republican demand for someone to point the finger at:
How about Senate Republicans who tried to intimidate Sebelius out of using existing HHS funds to implement Obamacare? “Would you describe the authority under which you believe you have the ability to conduct such transfers?” Sen. Orrin Hatch demanded at one hearing. It’s difficult to imagine the size of the disaster if Sebelius hadn’t moved those funds.
How about congressional Republicans who refuse to permit the packages of technical fixes and tweaks that laws of this size routinely require?
How about Republican governors who told the Obama administration they absolutely had to be left to build their own health-care exchanges — you’ll remember that the House Democrats’ health-care plan included a single, national exchange — and then refused to build, leaving the construction of 34 insurance marketplaces up to HHS?
Now, this isn’t meant to pin the blame on the GOP, but rather to point out that Obamacare’s implementation - including the construction and reliability of the exchange web sites - hinges on the same sort of politicking that has made it impossible to craft long-term budgets and nearly brought the United States to the brink of default on multiple occasions over the past couple years.
But that also isn’t meant as an indictment of government-run projects, either. After all, it didn’t work out too well when the DoD outsourced the “systems integrator” role on several of its own projects.
TechCrunch’s Gregory Ferenstein, meanwhile, has plenty of criticisms, one which gets to the heart of my point about politics:
The company hired to build HealthCare.gov’s failing database, CGI Global, is an established government contractor (established enough to have actually lobbied Congress on the Affordable Care Act). Even though Canada had previously fired the firm for a botched $46.2 million medical registry system in 2011, CGI Global was still contracted to the build the technical keystone of the U.S. healthcare law.
“I think procurement in the federal government is broken. It favors incumbents and the status quo over the lean start-ups in terms of its archaic procurement rules and regulations,” Vivek Kundra, former U.S. chief information officer, told The Washingtonian.
Startups simply don’t have the knowhow to get around the oddly complicated procurement rules—or the congressional ties to curry favor. As a result, a mediocre contractor charged an astounding $93 million for a botched job.
Yes, but how to “fix” the system? Those large contractors, relying so much on government dollars, won’t just let go of their clout without a fight. And if smaller firms and start-ups could gain access to a more competitive procurement system, the results probably won’t be immune to the same logic of the existing reality. The very nature of competition (and rational human behavior) means that once one reaches the goal, they’re likely to try to hang on, preferably with the least amount of effort (i.e., the least costly route).
Evan Burfield, co-founder of DC startup incubator 1776 and formerly in charge of the company tasked with creating Recovery.gov, was also critical of the procurement system, in an op-ed this week. But while he holds up Recovery.gov as an exemplar of how government can work with startups on smart, effective web site projects, it was not without criticisms in its earlydays.
Burfield concludes by saying:
The best result that could come from the attention on HealthCare.gov is if Congress seeks to reform how the government procures IT contracts. Americans of all parties want an effective government that costs taxpayers less. Procurement reform would be a win for all of us.
A few weeks ago, I referred to “collective action problems” when discussing the politics of the shutdown and whether it was a “rational” outcome:
Essentially, it means that individuals, by pursuing their own self-interest, will in turn collectively harm the good the group as a whole. For example, lots of individuals thinking “well, what I do won’t make that big an impact, so what the heck” and going ahead with bad investments or irresponsibly getting rid of waste could end up causing terrible effects on the economy or the environment.
What this means is that individual rationality does not necessarily translate to social, or group, rationality. It might be in my best interest (benefits outweigh the cost, and hence “rational”) to litter, or waste a negligible amount of money (to me) on a bad financial bet. But taken together, all of those bad bets and tossed wrappers pile up.
The same logic can apply to procurement. After all, one man’s “cronyism” is another man’s “sticking up for my constituent.” Or fundraiser, as the case may be. The point is that Congress, as a body of 535 individuals with separate incentives, policy ideas, and interests, probably won’t use this moment as an excuse to streamline a process that probably works pretty well for each individual. Contractors know how to divvy up their processes to align what’s good for them with what is good for multiple members of Congress. The classic examples are in Defense contracting, but they exist everywhere.
In other words, we may agree with one part of the problem but the processes involved are so complex that they defy the kinds of easy solutions those diagnoses imply. But we prefer simplicity, so answers that make things sound easy are far more palatable. Like saying the administration should have relied more on startups, a more competitive contracting system, a more centralized approach, or some combination of these.
Or comparing Obama’s government with Obama’s campaign. My Votifi colleague Matt Sarge touched on this earlier this week, saying, “The consensus seems to be that the ACA website is an undertaking unrivaled by anything attempted on the campaign trail.”
The Post’s Brian Fung also tackled this problematic comparison:
Yet political campaigns are geared to do one thing, and that’s to win. Everybody who’s involved in a campaign shares a common interest, and to the extent that their tasks vary, staffers and volunteers nevertheless operate as a team. As the president’s critics often point out, however, governing is different from politicking. All agencies are supposed to work toward the common goal of providing for the public’s welfare. In reality, it’s a messy landscape of cross-cutting political interests and battles over pride and budgets. That makes coordination a lot more difficult. Even when the agencies themselves have agreed to cooperate, their infrastructure might not.
It’s a good sign that we all agree on the need for a more agile, responsive, and coherent process when it comes to government projects generally and contracting in particular. But that doesn’t mean we’ll agree on how to get there. And so maybe we can get those processes more agile, responsive, and coherent, but in order to do so we’ll have to make peace with the fact that they - and the system they exist within - will continue to be annoyingly imperfect and inherently complex.
The party says it will focus on building the party’s grass roots on a constant basis.
by Matt Sarge
The GOP is turning its strategy toward a year-round operation to engage broad swaths of the electorate. As argued in a previous post on the GOP’s digital disadvantage, successful campaign infrastructure can’t be built in the final months before a campaign, no matter how much money you’ve stockpiled. The GOP and Romney campaigns learned their lesson in 2012, trying to play catch-up with the Obama campaign’s finely tuned digital operation. This long-term approach to building a political base and campaign operation that can be utilized by whoever the party’s nominees are is the necessary approach if the Republicans want to be competitive in the next election cycle and beyond.
Tech Savvy Campaign Obama vs Tech Illiterate Administration
by Matt Sarge
With the recent trials and tribulations of the healthcare.gov website, many have wondered how the same President who revolutionized the use of technology in his 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns could preside over such a technological failure in the ObamaCare roll-out.
In addressing the healthcare.gov’s failures, Obama expressed anger with the bloggers who have been picking apart the website’s problems — many of the same bloggers that were major Obama advocates on the campaign trail and were crucial to the campaign’s digital media strategy.
"The ‘secret’ here is that the problems are not about tech at all. It is about procurement. I can’t fix that with my tech chops or my team."
While it may seem difficult to reconcile the tech savvy Obama campaign with the technological failures on the ObamaCare website, the veterans of the 2012 OFA team do not seem to see any real contradiction The consensus seems to be that the ACA website is an undertaking unrivaled by anything attempted on the campaign trail. As Tim Murphy said of Harper Reed, “Even Reed’s formidable code-wrangling skills can’t solve every problem under the sun.”
The Obama campaign had an advantage in 2008 and 2012 over its GOP opponents on account of its successful investment in its technology strategy. Its utilization of data allowed for innovative micro-targeting and GOTV (Get-Out-The-Vote) field efforts. Though this tech advantage may not have swung the election, as I’ve discussed in an earlier piece on OFA, it certainly helped pad Obama’s victory margin and set off louder alarm bells within the GOP.
In the wake of the 2012 election, Republican elites not only had to concern themselves with an impending demographic barrier to the party’s future national success, but also with a tactical campaign disadvantage as well as far as the GOP’s ability to leverage technology in its campaigns. Though this realization must also have occurred after the success of the Obama team in 2008, the GOP’s performance, and particularly the Romney campaign’s, were reflect a failure to narrow the technology gap. We’ll try to understand what happened.
Micro targeting: not all that new
Micro-targeting has been misunderstood by the media in recent years. While micro-targeting and ‘big data’ have attracted a lot of attention in the political world lately as being the ‘hot new thing,’ they are not actually new, but rather the further evolution of an age-old concept.
Voter targeting has long been central to campaigns. In the 19th century, targeting relied on the institutional knowledge of precinct captains and thereby strengthened the role of political parties, today’s targeting is much the same, only with smaller units of measurement. For much of our history, voter targeting was geographically based, initially at the precinct level with the eventual layering on of census demographic data to allow more precise targeting. While many demographic elements still remain central to voting behavior, ideology, and political motivations, voter’s views have become much more nuanced. Thankfully, our ability to understand these preference nuances and to look beyond basic demographic and geographical data to understand voters has markedly improved. We can now target individuals at a much more individual level. Sites like Votifi have taken to heart this new age of micro-targeting to understand that campaigns and companies can no longer cluster African-Americans living in DC together and assume similar preferences, nor can they assume that a group of people is either strictly liberal or conservative, but is instead likely to have variances issue to issue. Our historical ways of targeting groups are both no longer adequate as Americans’ preferences become less predictable on demographic or geographic bases, and no longer necessary given our enhanced ability to target at a deeper level.
Sasha Issenberg, author of The Victory Lab, provided some strong insights on the recent evolution of micro-targeting and the prospect for the GOP in 2016 in the area of campaign technology. In 2004, the Bush campaign had a big advantage on technology because of the Republican Party’s historical connection with the corporate world. While the level of targeting that Karl Rove and the Bush campaign utilized in that cycle were innovative in the political world, it was child’s play compared to the modeling and micro-targeting that insurance and financial firms had been using for years. These corporate connections to the GOP helped form the basis of their initial data advantage, but campaign technology has advanced to the point that OFA in 2012 was using more advanced targeting than most companies in the private sector, meaning that there is little room for advancement via these corporate avenues. However, Romney’s financial institution background may have been helpful in slightly closing the gap from 2008 to 2012, but not as much as was necessary or expected.
Romney’s Project ORCA, a voter-turnout system, failed on Election Day, further exacerbating the campaign’s technology disadvantage. While the Obama campaign had five years to build their campaign infrastructure and digital operation, the Romney campaign was forced to play catch-up, only beginning their efforts in earnest after the GOP primaries ended.
For both parties, the key to a successful digital operation will be to largely house it within the party infrastructure, rather than individual candidates’ campaigns. This will both allow these resources to be leveraged at the state and local levels and will allow for continuous building of a digital program and not simply piecing something together four months before Election Day.
Heading into 2016, the GOP has a talent problem. Largely, their talent problem is generational as the party has taken stances on issues like immigration, the environment, and gay marriage that are especially unpopular amongst young people. Without support from this generation, they have a decisive lack of support among those in the tech world who are essential to further campaign tech innovation.
Obama tech guru Harper Reed offered a different view in a talk at Tech Cocktail, citing the Obama team’s lack of diversity (Reed:“For the most part, we hired all white dudes”) and the GOP’s acquisition of former Facebook engineer Andy Barkett to serve as Chief Technology Officer as factors that will give Republicans a leg up in 2016. Barkett plans to address the talent gap by recruiting from Wall Street, as well as conservative-leaning organizations at Berkeley and Stanford near Silicon Valley.
Despite Reed’s comments, and the GOP’s signal of increased focus on technology in hiring Barkett, there still seem to be many factors working against them. In that vein, a major area of potential innovation in campaign micro-targeting is a connection with political science and academia. As we saw in some of the ‘experiments’ run by the Obama campaign, there is a lot of potential to fine-tune campaigns by quantifying what tactics actually work and how significant the effects are. However, liberals hold a major advantage amongst this demographic of academics. The GOP must make major inroads amongst these two groups that are likely drivers of campaign micro-targeting innovation if they are going to reverse the Democratic data and technology advantage in 2016.
The GOP has already made major strides since the 2012 election, with a focus on overhauling its data infrastructure. For example, Phil Musser and Alex Skatell of Media Group of America have developed a tool similar to OFA’s Narwhal that can cobble together different data sources about voters and preferences into a single platform. As RNC director Rience Priebus’s direction, they copied Obama’s move of opening a digital field office in San Francisco to capitalize on Silicon Valley technology talent. The RNC is building new technology tools to bridge the digital divide and is focusing on building up its social media presence to improve Republican appeal amongst those under 30.
The problem for the GOP is that their lagging digital operation in 2012 was a symptom of broader issues. While they stand to benefit from putting the same level of focus on micro-targeting and campaign technology that the Obama team did in 2008 and 2012, the fundamentals may still be lacking. As Obama digital strategist Joe Rospars notes, to build a robust internet presence, the GOP “would have to abandon opposition to issues with popular support” like background checks for guns and a pathway to citizenship for immigrants. And while a long-term social media strategy will benefit the party for the next cycle, it is unlikely to be decisive in turning young people into reliable Republicans. The major takeaway for both parties coming out of 2012 should be that you cannot afford to wait until the general election has begun to begin assembling a digital operation – it’s much too important and complex to be left to an afterthought.
With the winners-losers frame firmly established as the default way to tell the shutdown story, it’s no surprise that poll data is releasing almost daily. So of course, as soon as I finished my piece from last week, there was another big poll out.
By a 22-point margin (53 percent to 31 percent), the public blames the Republican Party more for the shutdown than President Barack Obama – a wider margin of blame for the GOP than the party received during the poll during the last shutdown in 1995-96.
Just 24 percent of respondents have a favorable opinion about the GOP, and only 21 percent have a favorable view of the Tea Party, which are both at all-time lows in the history of poll.
But Republican Senator Ted Cruz, who has come under heavy fire from many in his own party for playing a large role in making a shutdown inevitable, is not impressed:
"If you seek out liberal Obama supporters and ask them their views, they’re going to tell you they’re liberal Obama supporters. That’s not reflective of where this country is.”
The problem for Cruz and his GOP colleagues is that, as I pointed out in my post last week, several polls are showing poor numbers for their party that only getting worse. One poll’s methodology aside, the fact that several show similar results means that you can have much more faith in those numbers representing where the population really is.
That said, I’d still be wary of reading too much into these numbers. A month ago, things weren’t as bad for the Republicans. We have no idea what will happen in the next month, much less the next twelve, so the idea that these polls somehow presage midterm election outcomes in November 2014 is a bit much.
I started thinking of things I wanted to say about all of this opinion data and the commentary surrounding it, but then I came across this from Nate Silver. It was published prior to the WSJ/NBC News poll being released, but all of his takeaways are still valid and mirror some of the same points I wanted to make.
The bottom line is that we just don’t know all that much yet:
That’s been my impression of the coverage of the shutdown: The folks you see on TV are much too sure of themselves. They’ve been making too much of thin slices of polling and thinner historical precedents that might not apply this time around.
This is all very interesting information to have, and it certainly tells us something. But what is that something? Just a snapshot of a particular point in time or the beginning of a trend worth watching? It’s hard to really tell. As Silver points out, it’s easy to get stirred up in the immediacy of these sorts of crises, but it’s a good bet that where the public stands in the first half of October 2013 won’t be all that instructive in telling us how votes will break down across the country in November 2014.
Here is one good example of this, where Silver bursts the compare-2013—to-1995-and-1996 bubble:
But what about the pair of government shutdowns in 1995 and 1996? It’s common to find articles asserting, without qualification, that they were a major factor in prompting President Clinton’s reelection.
However, the empirical evidence for this claim is thin. Clinton’s approval ratings were somewhat higher a few months after the shutdown than a few months beforehand — but this was part of a relatively steady, long-term trend toward improved approval ratings for Clinton, probably because of solid economic growth.
Nor was Clinton’s victory over Bob Dole in 1996 anything unexpected. Incumbent presidents generally win reelection even under marginal conditions (as Barack Obama did last year) — and they’re overwhelming favorites during peacetime elections when the economy is robust, as it was during 1996. Furthermore, Clinton did not have much in the way of coattails: Democrats gained just two seats in the House that November, and wouldn’t win back the chamber for another decade.
So don’t put too much stock into any one survey or bombastic headline. But keep paying attention, because over the long term, the data can still help us understand what’s happening.
Obamacare, or, more officially, the Affordable Care Act, reached a major implementation milestone last week when the health insurance exchanges went live. There were lots of stories about technical problems with the roll-out, and of course the government shutdown had a lot to do with continued Republican criticisms of the law. Quite a few reports also showed how the public currently views Obamacare, which is negatively, but how does that stack up over time?
This HuffPost Pollster chart shows averages in poll numbers over time. As you can see, that negative view is the highest it’s been.
This isn’t that surprising. This month’s opening of the health insurance exchanges represents a significant milestone that places it back on the public radar. Given the souring attitudes toward all politicians, President Obama included, that poll respondents have been showing for some time, it makes sense this already controversial law would see an uptick in opposition as it takes a big step toward full implementation.
That may be even more of a factor given some evidence that people respond differently whether asked about “Obamacare” or “the Affordable Care Act.” They’re the same thing, but can elicit wildly different responses. Take this anecdotal evidence from TV funnyman Jimmy Kimmel’s late-night show:
“I think there’s a lot of holes in it, and I think it needs to be revamped,” one woman told the camera crew after being asked what was the better option.
“The Affordable Care Act is better,” she added.
When the law is broken down into its constituent parts, it also draws support, even though respondents don’t always seem to realize it. The LA Times’ Michael Hiltzik makes this point:
The answer, of course, is that most Americans have no idea what’s in the law. In the Kaiser survey, 57% said they didn’t have enough information to know how it would affect them. When they’re asked how they feel about specific provisions, however, they’re almost always thunderously in favor.
Tax credits for small businesses to buy insurance: 88% in favor.
Closing the Medicare drug benefit doughnut hole: 81% in favor.
Extension of dependent coverage to offspring up to age 26: 76% in favor.
Expanding Medicaid: 71% in favor.
Ban on exclusions for preexisting conditions: 66% in favor.
Employer mandate: 57% in favor.
If you agree with those provisions, congratulations: You love Obamacare. Yet when respondents are asked how they feel about “Obamacare,” they’re against it.
The Kaiser Family Foundation just released some updated data on public opinion regarding the ACA, and one striking piece of information is displayed below:
Kaiser’s tracking poll saw favorable-unfavorable numbers in its latest survey at 39-43. That’s tighter than the HuffPost average seen above, but the party identification splits seem to indicate that those aggregate numbers don’t tell the whole story. Support for the ACA has fluctuated among Democrats, independents, and Republicans since it was signed into law in spring 2010. Even among Democrats, support has dipped at various points in the last three-and-a-half years, only to rebound, as Kaiser says, last month. Independent support has been fairly middle-of-the-road, while those who identify as GOP voters have been fairly consistent in their opposition.
But even those numbers have another story. Again, from Kaiser:
There is a clear “intensity gap” between those Republicans who identify with the tea party and those who don’t. Only bare majorities of all other Republicans say they have unfavorable opinions of the ACA and “approve of cutting off funding,” compared to two-thirds of tea partiers.
If tea party enthusiasm is what’s driving the Obamacare opposition, and in turn, much of the recent dysfunction over funding the government, then this gap matters politically. But here’s another recent figure from Gallup, showing public support for the tea party at record lows:
Even more striking, check out the red box below, showing the difference in tea party support among Republicans from the movement’s high point in 2010 when it had the backing of about two-thirds of GOP respondents to last month when it dropped to only 38%.
We don’t vote nationally, as I like to point out, but it would be interesting to see if the “opponent” numbers increase in light of the shutdown and debt ceiling fights. There’s already some anecdotal evidence that the business (read: moderate) wing of the Republican Party is starting to stir itself in opposition to the tea party.
For one thing, the health-care law has become more popular since the shutdown began. Thirty-eight percent see the Affordable Care Act (or “Obamacare”) as a good idea, versus 43 percent who see it as a bad idea – up from 31 percent good idea, 44 percent bad idea last month.
Congressional Politics: Safe Districts and the Shutdown
by Gene Giannotta
Gerrymandering may not have the sizable impact many like to attribute to it, as I discussed earlier, but district design can affect the “wasted vote” problem. Republicans have less of these, as the Economist explains:
The ideal strategy for elections is to make sure your districts have just enough of a partisan tilt to ensure you’ll almost certainly win them, but not so much that you win them overwhelmingly and waste your votes. Meanwhile, you want to cram the opposition’s voters into districts which they win by overwhelming margins and thus waste their votes. Republicans can make sure their seats are both safer and more numerous by achieving lots of districts where they’re likely to win by a safe but not extravagant margin, say 15-30%. If they pursue this strategy, they should wind up with relatively fewer seats that tilt overwhelmingly Republican. Meanwhile for Democrats, whose votes have been “cracked” or “packed” such that they lose more districts, the districts that they do hold would be more likely to be overwhelmingly Democratic than is the case for Republicans.
And this is what the Republicans’ redistricting appear to have achieved. Of members of congress who won their districts with a margin of 60% or more in 2012, 18 were Republicans, while 29 were Democrats. In the crucial safe-but-not-overwhelming zone, with victory margins between 15% and 30%, Republicans won 92 seats while Democrats won 42. The average margin of victory for Republicans was 28.6%; for Democrats, it was 35.7%.
even if a public backlash develops against a shutdown or potential government default, Republican members may be far more insulated against those gales than their counterparts were during the two shutdowns in the winter of 1995 and 1996.
Media & Polarization: Survey Responses vs. Viewership
by Gene Giannotta
Fox News, MSNBC, and other notoriously partisan media outlets are often blamed for the rise in polarization in American politics. But is this accurate?
Political scientist Markus Prior has shown that what seems to have actually happened over the past fifty years is that already polarized partisan individuals have flocked to the new (relatively speaking) polarized outlets. Back in the 1960s, there weren’t many options if you wanted to watch television. At certain times of day, there was news and nothing else. The limited options were also moderate since they were targeted at the population as a whole and not niche markets.
But once cable and the Internet came along, there was an opportunity to reach those niche, far more partisan markets and so we had the rise of niche, partisan media outlets like Fox News. Now, in this media environment, people who do not care about politics can avoid it altogether by switching to ESPN or the Food Network and watch only those channels. But those who were already predisposed to be interested in politics had options themselves.
In other words, the fact of so much choice in our current media means that politics is largely driven by those who are already interested, involved, and politically polarized. Media further separates that polarized segment of the population from the moderates, rather than polarizing anybody on its own.
But beyond that, it’s really hard to accurately assess the role of media in political life. Take for example, the seemingly simple question of how big the audience for outlets like Fox News really is. There is a big disconnect between how people respond on surveys and what they actually do. Here’s a graphic from the Monkey Cage blog that shows this quite clearly:
About a third of respondents told Pew that they “regularly” watched either Fox News, MSNBC, or both, while Nielsen data reported far smaller actual viewership. This raises important points about the accuracy of survey data - we have to be careful about taking self-reporting at face value because people don’t always remember their behavior, among other factors that could cause a gap between what really happened and what somebody says happened.
This is relevant for the current shutdown debate not because these outlets are primary drivers of polarization among the populace as a whole, but because they are not. Rather, they are, if anything, helping to push existing partisans further to the extremes and encouraging them to double down rather than move to the center and compromise. For many of them, they just exist in a far more ideological “bubble” than their counterparts did decades ago.
For more on media and polarization, I encourage you to check out John Sides’ post at the Monkey Cage here and Markus Prior’s research here.
From political scientist Nolan McCarty, more on the connection, or lack thereof, between polarization and gerrymandering:
But our research suggests that the main cause of political division is the behavior of Democratic and Republican legislators representing similar districts, not how the lines are drawn. In other words, polarization has grown because Democrats and Republicans are representing moderate districts in increasingly extreme ways. So even if the number of safe conservative and liberal seats had not risen, the U.S. House and state legislatures would have become nearly as polarized.
Some of the increase in polarization is related to the greater numbers of solidly liberal Democratic and solidly conservative Republican districts. Although this is consistent with the effects of gerrymandering, the evidence suggests that the increase in safe districts reflects many other factors as well. Political scientists date the decline in competitive congressional districts to the 1960s and 1970s, well before the growth of sharp political division. The most prominent explanation focuses on the regional realignments that moved the South solidly into the Republican column and the Northeast into Democratic control. Increasing partisan gaps between urban and rural voters have also exacerbated polarization. Most important, however, is our finding that the increase in the number of safe districts directly associated with redistricting is not much larger than the rise associated with the long-term trends.
One of the recurring themes of commentary on the federal shutdown, and the congressional politics surrounding it, has been the role of “polarization.”
I touched a bit on this when writing about “rationality” in the process - the incentives facing individual congressmen work against the good of the whole. So quite a few individual Republicans have greater incentives to take a hard line supporting tea party positions and oppose “compromise.”
This phenomenon isn’t limited to just some tea party Republicans. Both parties have become far more ideologically coherent than they once were. Each party used to have liberal, moderate, and conservative wings, but since the 1960s Democrats have become more liberal and Republicans more conservative.
Despite this, there isn’t much firm evidence that the public in general has become more polarized along partisan and ideological lines. It’s a bit more accurate to say that people who were already politically-minded have doubled down on existing ideological biases and, thanks to the sorting of the parties, become more identified with one party versus the other.
A lot of people decry gerrymandering as an overriding concern, because of the assumption that the popular practice of redrawing district lines for partisan advantage only reinforces these partisan and ideological leanings. It works against the possibility of moderate candidates winning enough votes to win.
But is this necessarily true?
There’s evidence that gerrymandering doesn’t really have as much of an effect as many like to believe. Two factors seem to have more influence on political outcomes and partisan advantage - geography and incumbency. Democrats and liberal voters tend to live in more urban areas, while conservative and Republican voters in more rural locations. Nate Silver touched on why this makes the idea of reforming the redistricting process a difficult proposition in some cases:
You’d have to go out of your way not to create overwhelmingly minority (and Democratic) districts on the South Side of Chicago, in the Bronx or in parts of Los Angeles or South Texas, violating nonpartisan redistricting principles like compactness and contiguity.
Moreover, especially outside of the South, the white voters in cities with high minority populations tend to be quite liberal, yielding more redundancy for Democrats.
The concept of “wasted votes,” by the way, refers to the fact that American elections are conducted in a “first past the post” system - whichever candidate gains a majority, wins the election. In other words, you just need one vote more than your opponent, so anything above that is irrelevant and “wasted.”
That’s why pointing to large Republican or Democratic advantages in a given district is often less an indicator of a partisan legislature’s intent than it is the geographic realities of that area and the power of incumbency. Those in charge of redistricting may want to draw lines that benefit their party, but they have no idea of knowing how effective they will be. After all, a district could be become more Democratic over time because more liberal voters move into it, among other reasons.
See this graph, for example, which shows partisan advantage in each of the previous three election years and according to who was in charge of redistricting.
The graphic comes from an article by John Sides and Eric McGhee, who delve into the fact that “partisan advantage is a moving target,” regardless of the intent of those in charge of drawing district lines. They explain the above graph by saying
the Republican-drawn plans favor Republicans, the nonpartisan plans also favor Republicans but not as much, and the Democratic-drawn plans are largely fair. But two years earlier, it looks like Democrats had the egregious gerrymander, while Republican plans looked pretty good. Then in 2008 all three sets of plans favored Republicans. Of course, saying that the plans favored Republicans is not the same as saying that 2008 was a good year for them. It was obviously a great year for Democrats, but they didn’t win as many seats as they probably should have given that broader climate.
In short, the answer to the question, “What effect did partisan control have on partisan advantage?” depends on when you’re asking it.
In other words, there are many other variables in play. So what does this all have to do with the shutdown and polarization in the political process?
Those “wasted” votes in large urban areas, where they don’t really make much of a difference in helping elect Democrats, can play a large role in the national polling data you see. While polls involve samples and not actual questioning of millions of people, they are intended to be representative of the population as a whole. But while those millions of voters might influence national public opinion numbers, they are “wasted” in House elections. Hence, minorities in national aggregate opinion can have a substantial amount of influence on the policy-making process.
Meanwhile, a Washington Post-ABC News poll found the greatest level of disapproval is reserved for Republicans in Congress:
And last Friday, we asked who respondents thought would be blamed for the shutdown:
These seem to tell a similar story - more blame being apportioned to the GOP - but they are different. Pew asks directly about who respondents would blame, leaving out congressional Democrats but including a “both” option apparently tying Obama and Republicans together; WaPo-ABC News asks about approval of the actions of specific people, but does not include approval of all federal politicians or otherwise give us a sense of how respondents feel about the general process thus far; our Votifi poll meanwhile asked who would be blamed, with choices similar to the Pew poll.
Our poll results seem to have a heavy liberal bias, with an overwhelming prediction of blame for the GOP. Pew showed a much more modest spread in asking the question directly, with just 8 percentage points between Obama and Republicans. They also provide this bit of historical context:
Polling in the early days of the 1995 government shutdown was much more lopsided: For example, a Nov. 1995 Gallup/CNN/USA TODAY survey found more blaming Republicans in Congress than Bill Clinton by a 22-point margin (47% vs. 25%).
Pew did ask a question similar to the Post-ABC News’ about approval of how each party has handled the situation, and the numbers looked very similar. One key difference is in wording - the Pew poll asked about “negotiations over the government shutdown” while the Post-ABC News poll asked about “negotiations over the federal budget.” This matters in terms of comparison, because explicitly asking about the “shutdown” might induce different responses than the more general “federal budget.”
But in any event, Pew found 69%, 58%, and 50% disapproved of the GOP’s, Democrats’, and Obama’s handling of the negotiations, respectively. That’s statistically identical to the other poll’s 70%, 61%, and 51% numbers (Pew has a margin of error of +/- 3.7%, Post-ABC News +/- 3.5%). There’s a bigger difference in the approval numbers for each group across polls, but Obama does still get the highest marks there whichever you reference.
Since these numbers are pretty consistent across polling firms, I think it’s safe to say that right now the public is generally unhappy with all of their representatives in Washington. How everything will shake out in the end, though, is still anybody’s guess.
Do the American People trust "the American People"?
by Gene Giannotta
“Americans’ trust in ‘the American people’ to make judgments about political issues facing the country has declined each year since 2009…”
No, that isn’t from The Onion. It’s from a Gallup article posted recently that looked at a question the organization has been asking for decades. Given how often politicians have been referencing “the American people” this week amid the federal government shutdown, I thought it would be interesting to highlight.
According to Gallup, Democrats are most trusting of “the American People,” while both independents and Republicans come in under 60%.
On the surface this might sound kind of silly, but it’s probably part of a broader trend of growing distrust in public institutions. Even the public itself - fellow citizens and voters - are not as trusted as they once were:
U.S. political leaders are operating in an era of declining trust in U.S. political institutions, with trust in these at or near record lows. Americans even now have diminished trust in their fellow citizens to make political judgments under the democratic system, though they still trust themselves much more than the elected officeholders who make public policy.
Ted Cruz likes to make comments like this one, recently to Fox News: “what matters is responding to the American people.” But is that a good idea? And with poll numbers showing majorities disapproving of his party’s role in the current shutdown and debt limit fight, one wonders who he’s talking about in any event.
The trick is deciphering where the situation deviates from a traditional bargaining game. In the post, Daniel Diermeier sees the ability for both sides to try to shift public opinion as being critical to the game. However, with the GOP majority in the House fairly safe, and very few Republicans facing tough reelection fights from the left, strong public opposition may be insufficient to affect outcomes.
This may be more than simple negotiation. It may not be about what each side gets, and more about which side wins, as suggested by this quote from Marlin Stutzman (R-Ind.): “We’re not going to be disrespected. We have to get something out of this. And I don’t know what that even is.”
With another showdown over the debt ceiling right on the horizon, the game is further complicated because it is going to be an example of repeated interaction. Both sides have greater incentive to stay tough now and refuse to compromise, so as to strengthen their position for the next go around.
If the game theorists can’t save us from this situation, astrologists might be our next hope.
We all know that America is growing increasingly polarized (or do we?), and that the once objective news media has become fragmented and let slip many of the norms of journalism. The question that then inevitably comes next is: which came first? In some ways, it may be a classic chicken and egg issue, though there is also substantial evidence that could help get the media off the hook.
Whether the American electorate has actually become substantially more polarized could be contested; however, there is no doubt that Congress has become much more partisan, with both parties moving toward the extremes, more votes (even on non-ideological issues) coming along party lines, and more Congressmen unwilling to compromise. Norm Ornstein and Thomas Mann make the argument that this polarization is asymmetrical, and that the Republican Party has moved further to the right than the Democrats have to the left. They add that the media is reluctant to ever make such an argument for fear of appearing biased, and prefer leveling out an issue rather than providing a straight account. In some ways, traditional news media that wishes to maintain its unbiased appearance in an increasingly polarized world is actually forced to distort the truth on occasion to maintain a façade of impartiality.
As the print media industry has struggled financially in recent years, and network news has fallen in popularity relative to its cable counterparts, the quality of actual journalism has diminished. The business models of cable news stations, such as Fox News, have proven remarkably profitable. By providing news content that its overwhelmingly conservative audience wants to hear, the station is able to maintain a substantial audience. Politicians are also given easier avenues to reach their political base and can deliver increasingly partisan messages to this audience. As technology has expanded the sources of news available to the masses, initially through cable and now through the internet, competition has grown substantially, making traditional journalism unprofitable and somewhat unsustainable. Americans can now seek out news sources, whether it be Fox News, MSNBC, or partisan blog sites that confirm their polarized views. The electorate is no longer simply varied in ideology because of differing value judgments, but is now actually making differing value judgments from completely different sets of facts. We have lost the common marketplace of objective facts that once kept ranging opinions grounded.
Media expert, John Ladd, makes the point that the objective, professional news media that we may get nostalgic for was somewhat of a historical anomaly, only strongly existing from the 1930s to 1970s in an era of low media competition and low political polarization. Ladd falls somewhat in the middle on the question of the media’s role in modern polarization. He does not blame polarized media for Americans becoming increasingly polarized and suggests that voters are strong partisans first and then self-select partisan media that fits them. However, he also points out that this contributes to the persistence of biases because polarized voters are decreasingly exposed to opposing points of view and objective sets of facts. The perceived bias in the media is most consequential in its effect on trust in the media, which is at an all-time low, making voters even less likely to glean objective facts from the media to counter their existing prejudices.
Other media experts have stuck to one side or the other, with some making the argument that media biases create polarized voters while others argue that the only people watching partisan news are already strong partisans and would not deviate from their beliefs anyway. Still others, including Daniel Hopkins, have made the case that the media opinion actually lags behind public opinion, and is inconsequential in influence – merely reflecting the trends of the masses rather than directing them.
Regardless, the changes in the media landscape, whether or not they are to blame for our current polarization, have certainly changed how Americans interact with news and how politicians engage with the media. The proliferation of smaller news outlets has led to a more open spigot of information. Stories are reported without filtering for facts and without any interpretation from those in the know. The move to the 24 hour news cycle has led to a more obsessive need for news outlets, whether cable TV or online, to constantly have ‘breaking news,’ and controversy to drive repeat viewership. Politicians and their press personnel now live in fear of POLITICO headlines and avoid giving on the record quotes at all costs.
On the flip side, new technology has brought widespread access to massive amounts of data, holding journalists to a higher standard when the public has access to most of the same sources. Technology has opened up the news sources available to media consumers and potentially providing access to content at both ends of the spectrum. Sites like Votifi provide an avenue for consumers to engage with partisan content if they choose, or they can easily access content that provides an opposing view. The modern fragmented media landscape, and the open access to sources that the internet provides, may be both a blessing and a curse. It allows us to cave to our confirmation bias vice, but it also affords voters an opportunity to counteract their biases in a way they never could before. So even if most in the electorate continue to demand polarized news that reinforces their beliefs, there is something to be said for having choice and competition in media consumption.
There may be little point in debating the merits of the new media landscape as there is little recourse to be taken. However, it seems that, as often is the case, the blame can be spread around. Though there may be a healthy dose of ‘independents’ in the electorate, only about 9% of the electorate truly lacks partisan loyalties (and many in that population do not regularly vote). The masses have grown more partisan, party realignment has eliminated almost all conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans that once limited partisan divide, and other structural factors have led to more ideologically-extreme members of Congress. All of this is to say, as much as we may bemoan the highly partisan news outlets, especially those on the opposite ideological extreme, they can’t bear the whole blame for the gridlock we’ve grown accustomed to.
With a federal government shutdown seeming imminent, an easy line of commentary is questioning the sanity of Republican lawmakers who seem intent on stopping Obamacare, no matter how impossible an outcome that is or harmful to the nation’s economy the consequences of that attempt might be.
After all, who in their right mind would want to threaten the economy, still in a fragile recovery?
Well, some Republicans.
As Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank rightly pointed out, for most of the individual Republicans involved, the potentially devastating effects to the economy should they force a government shutdown take a back seat to the potentially devastating effects to their careers as members of Congress should they vote against the wishes of their constituents.
The tally by political handicapper Stuart Rothenberg says that 211 of the 234 Republican seats in the House are “safe,” leaving only 23 even marginally competitive. Some of those seats are made safe by the incumbents’ skills or bank accounts. But many of them are safe because district lines have been drawn to make them uncompetitive.
The only way these Republican lawmakers would lose their seats is if they were ousted by a challenger in a low-turnout primary dominated by conservative activists and distorted by an explosion of independent expenditures by ideological groups. The surest way to keep their spots, therefore, is to vote against anything and everything President Obama supports — Obamacare above all.
The situation is similar for Republicans in the Senate, where 14 of the 15 GOP seats up in the next election cycle are either safely Republican or favoring the Republicans. To them, as well, the threat comes primarily if not entirely from the right.
This is an important aspect to keep in mind while watching the political drama unfold in Washington and poll results like this, from Pew:
Their most recent poll showed a slight plurality of respondents would blame the Republicans in Congress over the Obama Administration. Numbers like this have convinced many Democrats that the GOP will face a massive political reckoning if they keep up such an “irrational” course on both the spending bill and debt ceiling increase, slated to be on the table later in October.
Many Republicans have publicly warned of the same, and lots of aggregate, macro-level polling shows they may well be right. But the big problem with accepting this kind of national poll data at face value is that we don’t vote nationally.
As Milbank notes, each of these individual Republicans is acting quite rationally in pursuing what is in their best electoral interests. Their districts are heavily Republican, and primary voters, being even more conservative than a more moderate district’s, are sure to punish them for backing down. It’s happened often in the recent past, with the last two elections being noted for tea party assaults on the GOP establishment.
To restate more tidily, the Post’s Ezra Klein a couple weeks ago:
It would be a disaster for the party to shut down the government over Obamacare. But it’s good for every individual Republican politician to support shutting down the government over Obamacare.
This, as Klein points out, is what political scientists (and economists) call “collective-action problems.” Essentially, it means that individuals, by pursuing their own self-interest, will in turn collectively harm the good the group as a whole. For example, lots of individuals thinking “well, what I do won’t make that big an impact, so what the heck” and going ahead with bad investments or irresponsibly getting rid of waste could end up causing terrible effects on the economy or the environment.
What this means is that individual rationality does not necessarily translate to social, or group, rationality. It might be in my best interest (benefits outweigh the cost, and hence “rational”) to litter, or waste a negligible amount of money (to me) on a bad financial bet. But taken together, all of those bad bets and tossed wrappers pile up.
So each of these Republicans oft-derided as “irrational” is actually doing what is in his or her own individual self-interest, the party’s interests be damned.
You might be asking yourself, “But wait a minute, if there are ‘disastrous’ consequences for the party if the government shuts down, wouldn’t that mean bad things for this congressperson? Won’t it be harder to get things done and have any practical, positive effect in reaching his or her policy goals if the party as a whole is hurt politically? So isn’t it really in their self-interest to keep their party strong?”
Good question! And there’s an answer for that, too.
In the same Pew poll cited above, only 39% of self-identified “tea party” Republicans believe there will be a “major effect” on the economy. Conversely, 60% of other Republicans who don’t identify with the tea party think it will. Many tea party-identifiers, the more right wing voters…they just don’t buy that a shutdown will be as horrible as others predict. So for them, the consequences just aren’t as drastic, no matter what their fellow partisans, or opponents, might say.
And guess which group of voters the (try-to-) stop-Obamacare-at-all-costs Republicans are worried about?
There is often talk about how critical the Hispanic vote is, and the impact of this growing demographic really can not be overstated. Not only is the Latino demographic is America growing rapidly via immigration and higher birth rates, but it also has a slightly different average ideology than rest of the Democratic coalition. Though Hispanic voters are overwhelmingly Democratic, helping secure an Obama victory in 2012, they are not (on average) overwhelmingly liberal. Setting aside the immigration issue, Hispanic voters are more religious and therefore, often, more socially conservative. If the GOP can neutralize the immigration issue, there is some potential for better performance amongst this young and growing voting bloc. Regardless, the unique blend of ideology in this demographic group provides a huge opportunity for effective micro-targeting. By delivering the right mix of messages, potentially a very different mix than to other parts of the electorate, either party could stand to benefit from a flood of new voters. Not only is the Hispanic vote big currently, but it is growing rapidly and is underrepresented in turnout. If either party wants to remain viable nationally, paying attention to the complex policy preference set of Hispanic voters, and targeting accordingly, is a must.
I’ve been pointing to data about environmental issues, but while there are plenty of polls gauging public opinion at different points and on various specifics, there isn’t as much in the way of academic research on the politics of this policy area.
Debra Javeline, a political scientist at the University of Notre Dame, touched on this at the Monkey Cage blog earlier this year:
For example, important debates about climate change require understanding the costs of mitigating and adapting to climate change, compared to the costs of not mitigating and adapting. While political scientists may not be equipped to estimate these costs and benefits, they are precisely the scholars to analyze how politicians and constituents perceive costs and benefits and whether those perceived costs and benefits match the economists’ assessments. Political scientists are the scholars who can tell us how political leaders and ordinary citizens behave in response to the perceived costs and benefits of mitigation and adaptation.
For another example, important issues surround voting, which is currently not climate-based. There is no evidence from the voting literature or even journalistic reports that most voters have a climate change litmus test for candidates or even factor climate issues into their voting decisions. On average, citizens have just not perceived a sense of urgency in dealing with climate change. Could it happen? What explains why some citizens do perceive urgency? What explains how a climate change denier comes to accept the climate reality and ultimately elevates the priority of climate change in voting or other political action?
Check out the link in the second quoted paragraph for more on how the lack of public engagement on environmental issues, despite fairly wide acceptance of climate change as a problem.
And if you’re feeling extra ambitious, check out this excellent book by political scientists Frank Baumgartner and Bryan Jones on how policies can eventually get shaken up despite long periods of stability and inaction. Related to our environment theme this week, one of the policy areas they examine is nuclear energy.
I earlier looked at different polls showing support for government aid for disaster relief and general environmental protection policies. But look at this, from last fall’s HuffPo/YouGov poll:
In that same poll, 61% of respondents expressed their belief that global warming is indeed occurring and 51% that it’s “related to more frequent and severe natural disasters.” 64% said the federal government should provide aid to victims of natural disasters.
But that didn’t translate into support for a personal economic sacrifice in the name of fighting climate change.
That’s an important thing to remember when wondering why policies with wide support often fail to be enacted or effective when they are. Supporting an abstract principle - climate change needs to be dealt with - is not the same as being confronted with a more concrete consequence of specific policies that might do something about that principle. Perhaps that’s why politicians are often more adept at voicing platitudes than “getting things done.”
A few days ago, we asked if federal tax dollars should be used to provide relief to victims of the flooding in Colorado. We got over 300 responses, overwhelmingly in favor:
This isn’t surprising, as it falls in line with other polls on similar questions. Earlier this year, after a devastating tornado hit Oklahoma, the state’s Republican Senator Tom Coburn said that any funds should be offset by cutting from somewhere else in the federal budget. But that wasn’t what most respondents said in a Washington Post/Pew Research Center poll around the same time:
The overall picture was 59% saying disaster relief didn’t need to be offset, and only 29% saying it did.
And last year, in the wake of Hurricane Sandy’s assault on the East Coast and just ahead of a presidential election in which the role of government was a central issue, a Huffington Post/YouGov poll also found strong support for federal disaster relief aid - 64% versus only 19% who said it should be left to the state and local governments.
In that poll, the demographic breakdowns are interesting. There isn’t much disparity in terms of gender or ages over 29. But those 18-29 were noticeably less likely to support federal aid - still over half, but the only age group with support under 60% - as were Republicans. In fact, while a plurality of GOP-identifying respondents (48%) did agree that federal aid should be given, that was substantially lower than the percentages of Democrats (80) and independents (62).
Obama Campaign's Data Tools: 'Cool,' But Perhaps Inconsequential
by Matt Sarge
In the months after 2012 election the details of the Obama campaign juggernaut have slowly come to light as some of the team’s insiders begin to share best practices and more detail about what they did.
While these insights tend to captivate those of us who are intrigued by the recent trends toward data use in campaigns for voter targeting, they still ought to be taken with a grain of salt. The ‘data guys’ on the Obama campaign team know that they are hot commodities, but the abundance of news stories about their innovative techniques is no coincidence. Some of campaign’s top minds have hired PR firms to raise their stock in the marketplace and are looking to leverage their success while they are still hot commodities – they are campaign professionals after all. This is all to say that, as fascinating as some of the techniques used by the Obama campaign are, we need to keep things in perspective and not assume that great technology alone is the lynchpin of a winning campaign.
Yale’s Center for Environmental Law & Policy measures “environmental performance,” looking at how close countries come to meeting challenges through their policies. The latest report, from 2012, puts the United States 49th out of 132 countries.
But over the course of the last decade, American policy performance on environmental issues has been in decline. That measure, the Pilot Trend EPI puts the U.S. 77th out of 132 countries. Here’s the summary table:
You can find the summary report for policymakers here.
Last week, I touched on how external entities can influence media outlets in terms of their coverage. I also noted how media organizations can be their own source of influence on policy.
Here’s an example in the world of environmental policy. This isn’t the same as ESPN lobbying to get college football schedules and cable policies favorable to its corporate interests, but rather how media coverage can help create shifts in policy by virtue of focusing public attention on particular issues.
The particular case here is that of bisphenol A (BPA), a chemical that has been cited for numerous possible negative effects - despite “massive uncertainties underlying” those claims. Scholar Simon Kiss questioned why so many regulations exist if the science is so iffy:
The short answer is that media attention to BPA helped initiate and sustain attempts at regulation. Thus, BPA regulation did not follow a traditional path of diffusion—whereby one state’s actions lead other states to act similarly. Instead, local news stories within that state helped to produce a response from state lawmakers.
You can find more from Kiss, including a link to his full paper, at The Monkey Cage.
Environmental policy has been a source of contention in the political world for decades, ever since the first Earth Day was celebrated in 1970. In recent years, the most visible example of this has been in the debate over climate change. Republicans generally find themselves critical of the idea that people have any influence - or any significant influence - on warming trends. Democrats, on the other hand, are usually much more likely to accept the science supporting climate change, and thus more likely to back policies that address it.
With another election year upon us, it’s a good time to look at how the environment might play with the voters as they head to the polls later this fall and in 2014. It certainly doesn’t have the same priority as other items - the economy, first and foremost, and the foreign policy headlines regarding Syria. But it serves as a handy talking point for many candidates, and looking at data might show which get more mileage from it.
Elections can often be seen as a referendum on those currently in office - especially if they’re looking to get rewarded with another term. So, from a national perspective, how did the public see “protecting the environment” as an issue for the current Congress? A Pew poll back in January, which questioned people about their priorities for the president and Congress, found that just over half said it was - but far fewer than the quarter-plus of respondents that cited the economy and economic issues. Even fewer - 28% - said “dealing with global warming” was a priority, which put it at the very bottom of Pew’s list.
Sometimes, economic interests and environmental interests collide. Who wins then? Gallup has answers:
It’s probably not too surprising to see that since the recession began, the environment has been less of a priority relative to economic growth. But when the heady days of the 90s were only just beginning to fade around the turn of the century, a whopping two-thirds of respondents placed the environment as a higher priority.
Pew also has some interesting trends, from its Values Study. You can check out an interactive graphic here that lets you see trends by different demographic groups.
Here’s the party trend - note that back in 1992, when Bill Clinton won his first term as president, there was only a seven-point difference between Democrats and Republicans on the statement ”There needs to be stricter laws and regulations to protect the environment.” 93% of Democrats agreed - not too surprising, right? But back then, fully 86% of those identifying as Republicans also agreed. Twenty years later, less than half of them did.
Overall, 74% of respondents agree with that statement. However, that’s still 16% percentage points from the high of 90% in 1992.
So the macro picture seems to indicate that there is fairly solid support for government efforts at protecting the environment - but that has eroded over the past two decades. That seems to correlate with the rise of the conservative voices on the right that are far more skeptical of both climate change and the efficacy of government. Now that the big picture is set, I’ll delve a bit deeper into the numbers and how they might play into the 2014 races.
So, about a week has passed since I posted here on polling data and Syria. Not much has changed in terms of opinion - there’s still a general wariness-to-outright-opposition when it comes to how the American public views a possible strike against Assad’s regime as punishment for chemical weapons use last month.
The Pew Research Center released results of a follow-up poll, conducted September 4-8, in which opposition to strikes jumped 15 points from the previous survey. Of course, as I pointed out last week, that first poll was conducted around the president’s two-part announcement that he (a) believed strikes were necessary and (b) would go to Congress for authorization.
Since that time, the issue has gained a far more prominent position than it had in terms of being on the public’s radar. It’s salience as an item on the public agenda has increased: now, with more debate and greater media coverage, more people are exposed to news about Syria, and thus more likely to form stronger beliefs.
That first Pew poll included data on how closely respondents had been following Syria as a news item - there was a substantial increase over the previous eighteen months. But the new poll doesn’t include a similar item to show how much of a difference even a week might have made.
A few interesting points about this Pew survey, though:
The numbers on Syria are pretty uniform across demographic cohorts - with the exception of males, who are slightly more approving of military action.
There’s consistency in this sentiment: Obama hasn’t done enough to explain why the United States should get involved militarily. In the Aug.29-Sept. 1 poll, forty-eight percent said he hasn’t been clear enough, while the latest poll saw a clear majority express that view (54%).
There is also clear agreement that “the U.S. has a moral obligation to stop the violence against civilians” (54%) and that “the U.S. must act to show that the use of chemical weapons is unacceptable” (60%).
The last bullet point seems a bit odd, given the opposition to what would apparently be very limited strikes. It also doesn’t seem to comport with Pew’s own claim that “in foreign affairs, Americans are less receptive to moral arguments.” Their polling seems to indicate a trend toward greater acceptance of a “moral responsibility” on the part of the United States: 27% last December, 49% in June, and 54% last week. As it became clearer that Assad had violated Obama’s “red line” and the administration pressed the moral argument, it seems that there is at least a correlation with increased agreement of a moral responsibility.
Agreement on the general statement might not match the disagreement on the specific question of a strike, it might be because there is a pretty strong understanding that no good options exist. Pew also found that 75% of respondents thought strikes would make things worse in the Middle East while 61% agreed that “there are no good options for the U.S. in how it deals with Syria.”
Two stories last month showed how external entities try to influence media coverage. First, the Republican National Committee protested plans by CNN and NBC to develop films about Hillary Clinton, claiming they would be propaganda pieces ahead of the 2016 election. In what may prove to be a largely symbolic vote, the RNC decided to boycott both networks during the primary debate season.
The message was clear: change one aspect of your programming plans over the next few years or we’ll pull another important part of those plans.
CNN and NBC, however, did not back down.
ESPN, on the other hand, allegedly faced pressure from the National Football League over its involvement with a PBS “Frontline” investigation into concussions. Despite denials, reports claimed that it was concern over its image that caused the NFL to press ESPN, and concern over its business relationship that caused the cable sports network to cave.
Two similar cases, two different outcomes.
But the full picture of media and corporate interests isn’t quite as straightforward as those stories might make it seem.
Take ESPN, for example. After backing out of the “Frontline” partnership, The New York Times reported on the pressure from the NFL but didn’t stop there. In two additional, lengthy pieces, the Times detailed the ways in which the network exercises outsized influence in the worlds of college football and television policy. Whether making scheduling decisions or leveraging its position to gain privileged status with cable providers and policymakers, ESPN is no stranger to exerting its own pressure to get its way.
One example: this graphic, from one of the Times’ stories, shows how ESPN’s relationship led to the rise of Boise State as a premiere football program while at the same time contributing to the downfall of Western Athletic Conference football:
So while the RNC tried to leverage its primary debate product to stop the Clinton projects at CNN and NBC, it’s not a one-sided relationship. After all, like ESPN, those media outlets have pretty strong positions themselves when it comes to political coverage. Media is very consolidated these days - CNN and NBC are owned by two of the “Big Six” corporations that control about 90% of American media. So they’re significant gatekeepers when it comes to disseminating political information. Can the GOP really afford to alienate them?
This graphic is a bit outdated (Comcast has since bought NBCUniversal from GE, for example) but it still reflects the media landscape well:
[This is the first in a series of posts on media this week: how groups try to influence coverage, how it relates to public opinion, and what the public thinks about it all]
But the more interesting question is whether the low public support for military action would actually have an effect down the road on either Obama’s ability to govern or the political fortunes of individual legislators. Here I am skeptical – conditional on this being the limited, aerial engagement that is being discussed now and not having some unexpected escalation occur – that Americans will actually not care all that much in the future if Obama launches a limited number of missiles at Syria.
The holiday weekend did not lack for news, with President Obama announcing on Saturday that he believed a military response to Syria’s use of chemical weapons was the right course of action. But, in a surprise twist, he said he would go to Congress for an authorization vote (despite also saying that he didn’t need it).
Several polls have been reported today, providing a look into public opinion following Obama’s announcement.
The Pew Research Center’s survey, conducted August 29-September 1, saw only 29% in favor of airstrikes while 48% opposed. Democrats and independents were, on the whole, more skeptical than Republicans, who were more closely divided.
NBC News is reporting on their own poll, conducted August 28-29, saying “nearly 80 percent of Americans believe President Barack Obama should receive congressional approval before using force in Syria.” The headline reads “Nearly 80 percent want congressional approval on Syria.”
But the poll question was not about whether Congress should approve the strikes, which those two quotes seem to imply, but rather about whether Obama should need to get its approval first. The actual wording: “Do you think that President Obama should or should or should not be required to receive approval from Congress before taking military action in Syria?” (ABC News' reporting of the poll actually describes it correctly, interestingly enough)
Many of the polls that have been conducted (see that ABC News link above) do seem to indicate that support for any action depends on its scope. The Wall Street Journal quoted expert James Lindsay: “The public has a clear case of intervention fatigue after 12 years of engagement overseas, the longest stretch in U.S. history.”
Of course, some caveats have to be noted about the polling thus far. NBC’s poll was conducted prior to Obama’s announcement. And his press conference Saturday was right in the middle of Pew’s polling period, which might have affected responses.
But more importantly is the question of what these numbers mean qualitatively. Does support for or against really matter?
This article discusses the level of engagement as an important factor to keep in mind. A Reuters/Ipsos poll conducted Aug. 19-23 ( a week prior to Obama’s announcement) showed that 64% of the public had either heard only a little or nothing about Syria. Showing how this matters when interpreting results, this is what a previous month’s responses looked like when Reuters/Ipsos did measure strength of opinion:
The latest Pew poll did tackle this question, showing how closely respondents were following the news. Based on trends that are presented in the full report and the graphic below, you can see a clear uptick in the percentage of people following Syria-related news “very closely.”
Political scientist Matthew Baum, who studies public opinion and foreign policy, touched on this dynamic in an interview last week:
I think that the fact that the polls say Americans are wary in Syria does not mean all that much. If the Obama administration is able to do something that has a decisive effect, they will look like heroes. And if they look impotent in their use of military force, it will rebound against them. But the polling numbers showing American reticence, as of right now, doesn’t add up to much, because it’s really not a salient issue. It’s not enough to look at the numbers of people opposing intervention; you have to look at how much people care and at this point it isn’t very high on the list, as of today.
The full interview with Baum is well worth reading for more insight into the relationship between public opinion and foreign policy.
It’s worth reflecting on the progress the United States has made in terms of race relations and the move toward equality in the decades since. The Pew Research Center released an excellent, thorough report last week that did just that, looking at new polls on public opinion as well as demographic and economic data that shows how in many instances disparities present in 1963 remain largely unchanged.
The main takeaway from the Pew report is that while much progress has been made, there’s a lot still to be done. In terms of public opinion, this seemed to be the consensus, although there were interesting splits in terms of race and party identification.
The Washington Post also touched on this, discussing how even with many signs of success - increased buying power as a group, many African Americans in high-ranking positions in business and government - there is still much room for improvement:
Yet, racial economic disparities are mostly unchanged and in some cases are growing. In 1963, blacks families earned 55 cents for every dollar earned by whites. In 2011, blacks earned 66 cents for every dollar earned by whites. The black unemployment rate averaged 11.6 percent between 1963 and 2012, more than double the white jobless rate over that time.
The black poverty rate of 55.1 percent was just over three times the white rate in 1959. It dropped to 32.2 percent in 1972. But since then, progress has been slow. In 2011, 27.6 percent of black households were in poverty — nearly triple the 9.8 percent white rate, according to the Census Bureau.
Pew also found a difference in perceptions of economic equality according to race:
The Census Bureau also has a page dedicated to comparing data on the era in which the original March took place and today. One interesting number they cite is the number of African American elected officials - today there are about 10,500, about seven times the number in 1970.