Is this actually liable to make much difference in the primary fight? I doubt that rank-and-file Pennsylvanians care all that much about whom John Cornyn endorses. Moreover, withholding funds from Toomey is something of an idle threat, mainly because this is something that would probably have happened anyway. The Senate playing field is very broad in 2010, and Toomey would be a heavy underdog against a credible Democratic opponent. If he becomes the nominee, the NRSC will be better off spending its resources in Ohio or Connecticut or Missouri, regardless of any grudge it might or might not have against him.
Nevertheless, the endorsement certainly can't hurt Specter in the primary, and if the NRSC is willing to put some muscle behind its words -- which might mean devoting resources to Specter or arranging for high-profile Republicans like John McCain to campaign on his behalf -- it could be a considerable asset to him.
What's interesting about the endorsement is the contrast it sets up with the RNC Chair Michael Steele's threat (albeit a somewhat obtuse and overreported one) to back primary challengers against moderates like Specter, Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins. This being Michael Steele, I have my doubts about whether he and Cornyn were operating some sort of coordinated strategy; nevertheless, it may have many of the same effects as one. In fact, the message to Specter seems to have been rather clear: support the Employee Free Choice Act, and we're backing Toomey; drop your support for it (as Specter did), and we're backing you. Although Specter is by no means out of the woods in either the primary or the general election (where his flip-flop on EFCA could hurt him), this potentially sets up a win-win for the Republicans: blocking EFCA from passing while getting to keep the seat in Pennsylvania too.
It seems to me, in fact, that there are two things Democrats might consider duplicating from this strategy as they attempt to apply pressure from the left and keep their own party caucus in line. First, the message to Specter included both a carrot and a stick. Democrats, in general, have been guilty of coddling their less-progressive members (offering only carrots but not sticks). But there are also risks in merely providing pressure without offering rewards, especially if members are being asked to lend their support to issues that might make them electorally vulnerable. Secondly, the carrots and sticks seem to have been offered in conjunction with a particular piece of legislation -- EFCA -- which appears to be particularly important for the Republicans. The GOP wasn't asking the world of Specter -- nor should they have been, since if Specter had become a party-liner like Rick Santorum, he would almost certainly have met the same electoral fate. They were really just asking for this one vote.
There are two other elements that are needed to make such a strategy successful. First is the presence of a credible primary challenger -- in this case Toomey. Personally, I think Toomey is a little bit too credible -- the difference between his chances of a defeating a Democrat in November 2010 (perhaps 10 percent) and Specter's (perhaps 75 or 80 percent) are so large that this could not have been a risk worth undertaking deliberately. But clearly, a party should be willing to sacrifice some probability of losing a Senate seat for greater ideological fealty; the goal is to maximize the number of votes on certain key issues, and not the number of seats. A party is in much better position to take such measured risks when it has credible primary opponents available. The second element is that in the long-run, a party must be willing to carry out on both its threats and its rewards. If the NRSC, fearing a backlash from conservatives, conveniently forgets about Specter once the GOP primary comes around, or alternatively (in the world where Specter had supported EFCA) had decided that Toomey was too risky and supported Specter anyway, their tactics will have much less impact the next time around.
The difficulty that a party apparatus faces when dealing with its more moderate members is in deciding which issues are essential and which can be sacrificed. This is especially so because the terms "party" and "party apparatus", as I have been using them, are really just abstractions, consisting of a number of independent actors (the RNC, the NRSC, partisan interest groups, unaffiliated activists, bloggers, talk-radio hosts, influential politicians, etc.) who may disagree about their legislative priorities. That is, I don't think mere tactical coordination is enough; there must also be strategic coordination, by which I mean serious discussions about which pieces of policy are most important to advancing a party's long-run agenda. Different approaches might be applied toward Blanche Lincoln in Arkansas, for instance, depending on whether Democrats want her vote on EFCA or her vote on health care.
There may also be a smaller but more immediate opportunity available to Democrats with regard to Specter and Pennsylvania. Specter gets elected in Pennsylvania in spite of the (R) by his name and not because of it; his popularity far exceeds that of the Republican brand in the state. Democrats, therefore, should consider running commercials that highlight Cornyn's endorsement and portray Specter as selling out Pennsylvania to placate Congressional Republicans. The core of Specter's brand is his purported independence; if his change of heart on EFCA can be characterized as having been motivated in response to a threat, rather than honest (re-)assessment of the issues, it could be doubly damaging to him in the general election.
The lack of traction in Obama's favorability scores defies both conventional wisdom and past history. In November 1718, for example, the capture of Blackbeard on orders from Virigina Colonial Governor Alexander Spotswood increased Spotswood's approval rating from 52 percent to 61 percent, according to polling conducted at that time by the Zogbee Importer of Fine Teas and Polling Companee. Similarly, internal polling conducted by Emperor Charles V, King of Spain, showed his favorability scores increasing from a merely mortal 97 percent to a divine and perfect 100 percent after the killing of the infamous Barbary Pirate Oruç Reis (Barbarrosa) in 1518.
Coleman has already announced that he will appeal to the Minnesota Supreme Court, and has also implied ta he would appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. Because Minnesota will not issue an election certificate until the Minnesota Supreme Court has either ruled on Coleman's appeal or decided not to hear it, and the Republicans will probably filibuster Franken until he has such a certificate in place, this will probably delay his ascension to the Senate for several more weeks.
One interesting question is how much it is costing Coleman to continue to pursue his case. Let's make some quick and dirty guesses: Coleman is paying 5 attorneys, who are billing at a somewhat discounted rate of $500 apiece for 50 hours worth of work per week. That works out to $125,000 per week, or $17,857 per day, in legal fees.
Is this a decent estimate of Coleman's legal bills? I actually think it might be. MinnPost.com reported that in a 37-day period from November 25th through December 31 of last year, Al Franken incurred $650,923 in legal expenses. That works out to $17,593 per day, almost exactly matching our estimate of Coleman's bills. Why, by the way, are we using Franken's legal fees to estimate Coleman's legal expenses and not Coleman's themselves? Because Coleman's most recent FEC filing did not include any fees paid to Tony Trimble, one of his leading attorneys, and the payments disclosed to his other attorneys were even-numbered amounts that appear to reflect some sort of up-front fees rather than the result of hourly billing. In other words, Franken's figures seem much more complete, and are probably a better reflection of the costs that Coleman will eventually be accountable for.
Apart from his legal operations, Coleman incurs certain other expenses in keeping his campaign operational -- for example, hiring consultants, a PR staff, programmers to maintain his website, people to solicit and process contributions, etc. Let's say that this relatively bare-bones operation is equivalent to what a campaign committee might spend in its very early days before it had begun active campaigning. In the three months between July and September 2007, which qualifies as such a period, the Coleman campaign spent $289,540, which is equal to $3,147 per day or $22,030 per week.
So the cost to Coleman of continuing to fighting his legal battle is probably something like this:
Legal Fees $17,593/day = $123,151/weekThat is, about $20,000 per day or $145,000 per week. Let's say the Minnesota Supreme Court will take six weeks to hear the appeal; that would translate into another $871,086 in expenses for him.
Other Fees $ 3,147/day = $ 22,030/week
Total $20,740/day = $145,181/week
There are two benefits to Coleman in continuing to press his case. Firstly, there is a small chance that he will prevail. Secondly, so long as he delays the state from issuing an election certificate, he keeps Al Franken out of the Senate. Given the current contours of the Senate, merely preventing Franken from voting is really every bit as good to Republicans as having Coleman voting in his place.
OpenSecrets.org reports that Coleman spent $21,821,755 in an effort to win a six-year term in the Senate. Al Franken, incidentally, spent almost exactly as much. $21,821,755 for a six-year term works out to $9,957 per day; this is the approximate cost of a Seante seat in Minnesota. If you accept my hypothesis that preventing Franken from being seated is roughly as good an outcome to Coleman as being seated himself, blocking Franken for six additional weeks is worth about $419,649 to Norm Coleman.
However, we estimated that Coleman will incur $871,086 in legal and other bills to continue pressing his case for six more weeks. If we deduct out the $419,649 benefit of blocking Franken's seating, that leaves an additional $451,437 for Coleman to cover.
In order for Coleman to get value for that $451,437, he needs to have some chance of actually prevailing in his election lawsuit. Recall that Coleman was willing to invest $21,821,755 to win a six-year term. If Coleman eventually wins in Minnesota, his term will be slightly less than six years -- more like 5 and 7/12 years if he were somehow actually seated by June 1st. After discounting for the time that has already expired from the term, we estimate that this is worth $20,306,355 to Coleman.
So Coleman is gambling $451,437 for a chance to win $20,306,355. This is a good bet for him, so long as his chances of eventually being seated are at least 2.2%.
Are Coleman's chances in fact that high? In my opinion, they are not. This is because Coleman faces two and probably three hurdles to eventually being seated. The first hurdle is that either the Minnesota Supreme Court or the U.S. Supreme Court must decide to hear the case and then rule in his favor. From reading Hasen and other legal experts, the chances of this appear to be fairly low, although certainly not impossible. The second and more problematic hurdle is that even if Coleman wins some sort of remedy from the courts, it will not necessarily result in his victory. On the contrary, I think it is quite unlikely to result in his victory, because most of Coleman's suggested remedies will involve counting more ballots, and counting more ballots will probably just increase Franken's lead.
The third hurdle is the United States Senate, which is ultimately responsible for adjudicating election contests. Most of the scenarios in which Coleman would ultimately be declared the victor by the courts involve some fairly radical case law, such as the Court deciding that the entire recount and absentee-ballot counting process was illegitimate and reverting to the Election Night result, or authorizing the counting of additional absentee ballots only from Coleman's list but not from Franken's. I don't see how these things are likely to happen, but if they did, the Democratic-controlled Senate would surely be very unhappy about it. The best-case scenario for Coleman, then, might not be being seated immediately, but rather triggering some sort of impasse, at which point the Senate might declare a re-vote. I don't know what Coleman's odds might be of prevailing in a re-vote, but given that his PR operation has lost momentum as Franken has spent more and more days with an ostensible lead, they are probably not greater than 50:50.
My guess is that Coleman's chances of clearing all three hurdles and eventually being seated (probably following a re-vote) are probably not more than 1-in-100, and might be more like 1-in-1,000 or even longer, which would not be enough to warrant his continuing to press his case. Then again, many of the assumptions that I've made here are rather crude; a reasonable man could easily reach a different conclusion.
Also, it's possible that we've overstated the magnitude of Coleman's legal bills. Tony Trimble, Coleman's lead counsel, has donated tens of thousands of dollars to Republican candidates over the years and might be personally vested in the case. Although as I understand federal elections law, he must still charge Coleman an arm's-length rate for his services less they constitute an in-kind contribution, there are a wide variety of billing rates and structures that he could reasonably justify. Another option that might make sense for Coleman is to deliberately do a cheap-o/half-assed job of continuing to press his case, which might further reduce his chances of actually prevailing, but would nevertheless prevent Franken from being seated in the interim.
Finally, Coleman may still be playing with house money; his campaign committee had about $2 million in cash on hand as of December 31 and he has undoubtedly raised a bit more since then. The more salient question may be whether Coleman is making better use of his remaining campaign funds by continuing to press his legal case rather than preserving them for some future election (which is a perfectly legitimate use of such monies).
It's actually very rare for a sitting senator to lose an election and then to mount some sort of a political comeback -- for some reason, losing seems to be more devastating to senators than it is to governors, representatives, or presidential candidates. And Coleman's track record is particularly unimpressive; he's been elected to national office just once, in 2002, in what was an extremely good year for Republicans and then only after his opponent died. Moreover, it's not clear when Coleman might have another opening. Minnesota's other senator, Amy Klobuchar, is not up for re-election until 2012 and is currently rather popular. Tim Pawlenty appears more likely than not to seek a third term and Coleman is surely not going to try and primary him. Nor does Coleman have any realistic chance of appearing on a presidential ticket. His best bet might be to wait until 2014, when Franken would be up for re-election, but six years is a lifetime in politics. Although Coleman's chances of prevailing in his legal case are not very strong, they may be better than his next-best alternatives.
Percent Expressing Great Deal/Fair Amount of Confidence in Ben Bernanke:
Democrats Independents RepublicansNote that the partisan split in perceptions of Bernanke have almost exactly reversed themselves. Last year, 61 percent of Republicans but 40 percent of Democrats had confidence in his performance; this year, those numbers are 64 percent and 36 percent, respectively.
2008 40 43 61
2009 64 44 36
Instead, my criticism of the President is that he promised to be above this. He made that the core pledge of his candidacy, the principal reason he should receive the nomination and ultimately the presidency over the dozen or so other contenders across both parties who had better résumés but had been part of the partisan hackery. It was always going to be damned near impossible to move beyond heated partisanship - given all the structural forces that have been at work since the founding, and the ones that have been increasing in the last half century or so. In my opinion, that excuses President Obama for not moving us beyond it - but it does not excuse candidate Obama from promising that he could. Either he knew better and should not have made that promise (and, by extension, should not have run, given the centrality of this promise) - or he didn't know better and was just naïve. Either way, it is appropriate to hold him to account.What Cost accuses Obama of is acting in bad faith -- he promised "bipartisanship" and hasn't delivered.
Cost is right, undoubtedly, that Obama's rhetoric about "bipartisanship" was partly a campaign tactic. It was, on the one hand, a politically helpful extension of Obama's 2004 DNC keynote speech, which was the only thing that most voters knew him by early in the primary campaign. On the other hand, it was a polite way to draw a contrast with Hillary Clinton, who's core weakness may have been a perception that she would be a polarizing political actor.
It is perhaps worth pausing to note that two key circumstances changed from late 2007, when Obama was most frequently using his "bipartisan" rhetoric. The first circumstance was that John McCain, who himself had a strong reputation for bipartisanship, became the Republican nominee. "Bipartisanship", therefore, became less important as a differentiator for Obama than it might have been against a more unapologetically party-line Republican like a Mitt Romney or a Fred Thompson. The other contingency, of course, was the economic collapse that accelerated throughout 2008 and particularly in September and October of last year. Once the economy fell apart, people weren't so concerned about abstractions like bipartisanship -- they simply wanted the problems solved.
More essentially, however, bipartisanship, as Obama intended the term, should not necessarily be confused for "compromise". Rather, it implied behaving in good-faith -- hearing out opinions from different sides of the aisle and identifying the best ideas regardless of their partisan origin. Bipartisanship, to Obama, was a process rather than an outcome. He could plausibly have been acting in a bipartisan manner, even if he hadn't gotten many Republicans to go along with his agenda.
As Mark Schmitt wrote in his excellent article on the Obama's "theory of change" in December 2007:
Note that, in Schmitt's explication of Obama's "bipartisanship", we are operating somewhat in the conditional tense. We start by assuming that one's opponents are acting in good faith, extending an olive branch to them and therefore pressing the reset button on the ongoing game of tit-for-tat. If the opponent demonstrates that they are not acting in good faith, however, all bets are off and we are back in the partisan game.
What I find most interesting about Obama's approach to bipartisanship is how seriously he takes conservatism. As Michael Tomasky describes it in his review of The Audacity of Hope, "The chapters boil down to a pattern: here's what the right believes about subject X, and here's what the left believes; and while I basically side with the left, I think the right has a point or two that we should consider, and the left can sometimes get a little carried away." What I find fascinating about his language about unity and cross-partisanship is that it is not premised on finding Republicans who agree with him, but on taking in good faith the language and positions of actual conservatism -- people who don't agree with him. That's very different from the longed-for consensus of the Washington Post editorial page.
The reason the conservative power structure has been so dangerous, and is especially dangerous in opposition, is that it can operate almost entirely on bad faith. It thrives on protest, complaint, fear: higher taxes, you won't be able to choose your doctor, liberals coddle terrorists, etc. One way to deal with that kind of bad-faith opposition is to draw the person in, treat them as if they were operating in good faith, and draw them into a conversation about how they actually would solve the problem. If they have nothing, it shows. And that's not a tactic of bipartisan Washington idealists -- it's a hard-nosed tactic of community organizers, who are acutely aware of power and conflict. It's how you deal with people with intractable demands -- put ‘em on a committee. Then define the committee's mission your way.
Perhaps I'm making assumptions about the degree to which Obama is conscious that his pitch is a tactic of change. But his speeches show all the passion of Edwards or Clinton, his history is as a community organizer and aggressive reformer (I first heard his name 10 years ago because he was on the board of the Joyce Foundation in Chicago, which was the leading supporter of real campaign finance reform at the time, and he has shown extraordinary political skill in drawing Senator Clinton into a clumsy overreaction. If we understand Obama's approach as a means, and not the limit of what he understands about American politics, it has great promise as a theory of change, probably greater promise than either "work for it" or "demand it," although we'll need a large dose of hard work and an engaged social movement as well.
Have the Republicans in Congress been behaving in good faith? It is easy to argue that they have not been:
Exhibit A: The Stimulus Package. The stimulus package proposed by the Obama administration contained less public spending, and more tax cuts, than most liberal economists were calling for. And yet, it received zero Republican votes in the House. Nor did any House Republicans vote for the conference report after the bill had passed the Senate, even though it represented tangible movement toward the Republican position.
Exhibit B: TARP. Sixteen Republican Senators -- Bennett, Bond, Burr, Chambliss, Collins, Coburn, Ensign, Graham, Grassley, Hutchison, Isakson, Martinez, McCain, McConnell, Specter and Thune -- voted to withhold the second half of the $700 billion in TARP funds, even though they had voted to authorize the TARP program in October when George W. Bush was still in office. Although one can certainly have changed one's position on TARP based on the facts and circumstances on the ground, it is unlikely that almost half of the remaining Republican delegation would have changed their position within 60 days based on the sanctity of the ideas alone.
Exhibit C: The Budget. One fairly inscrutable characteristic of good faith negotiation is that one is willing to offer an intellectually coherent alternative. This is not something which can be said of the Republican budget, where the numbers, such as they are, don't really add up.
Exhibit D: Nomination Holds. Republican efforts to delay the appointment of two key members of Obama's Council of Economic Advisers, as well as his Labor Secretary, are hard to justify from any position other than partisan gamesmanship.
If there is a credible case to be made that the Republicans -- or at least the House Republicans -- started out with any intentions of compromising, I have yet to see it. Instead, the House Republicans voted as a near-uniform block against issues as trivial as a bill to delay the date of the digital TV changeover. Not only have they not compromised, but they never seemed to have any intention to do so.
If it is easy to demonstrate Republican bad faith, however, it is more difficult to prove that Obama has been behaving in good faith. The White House, certainly, has had at least one moment -- the decision to go nuclear on Rush Limbaugh -- in which it explicitly appeared to be fanning the partisan flames.
What isn't clear to me, however, is what exactly folks like Cost would have liked the Administration to have done differently. Obama pressed hard -- although with some hiccups -- on the stimulus package, but its magnitude was less than what many liberals were hoping for. He is attempting to push forward, through his budget, issues like health care and cap-and-trade, but these things were at the core of his positioning throughout the primaries and general election.
Meanwhile, Obama has angered the left on a number of issues ranging from the decision to have Rick Warren give the invocation at the inaugural, to the bank bailout, to his abortive attempt to name Judd Gregg as his commerce secretary, to his appointment of Larry Summers, to his committing additional troops to Afghanistan, to his position on state secrets. Obama has also come in for some liberal fire for his purported lack of urgency on issues like the Employee Free Choice Act and repealing the ban on openly gay troops in the military.
A more robust interpretation/criticism of Obama's "bipartisan" positioning is that he is playing a game he knows he can't lose. For one thing, the President has the advantage of the bully pulpit, and (particularly when as rhetorically gifted as Obama) can therefore frame the debate in advantageous terms. For another, Obama has public opinion behind him on most of the key items of his agenda, such as health care, the stimulus package, and the reversion of the tax code to its Clinton-era norms. It is easier to appear reasonable when the average voter starts out agreeing with you. Finally, as Schmitt suggested more than a year ago, Obama may have known full well that Republicans weren't about to seek compromise, nor would it necessarily have been politically advantageous for them to do so. If partisan squabbling is inevitable, it is useful to have pre-positioned oneself in advance as its victim rather than its instigator.
The object of the game, moreover, is not really to appeal to Republican voters, whose numbers are too scarce to make them politically relevant. Rather, it is to put on a good show for moderates and independents, in the hopes of placing sufficient pressure on moderate Democrats like Evan Bayh and moderate Republicans like Susan Collins to back the Administration's agenda.
What I don't think Obama can be accused of, however, is breaking any promises. In fact, he basically telegraphed his strategy with the whole Rick Warren thing: make a show of appealing to conservatives here and there, and perhaps avoid issues that are symbolically important to the left but which drain one's political capital, while all the while continuing to push forward the core elements of a conventionally Democratic (but hardly radical) agenda. Very little about the Administration's strategy has been surprising. Whether it will be successful or not, we will have to see.
Are there perhaps however less abstract reasons why Democrats have been calling for a greater response to the recession? Namely, is the economic crisis worse in blue states?
The answer is "perhaps", although it depends on what you mean by "blue state".
Below is a chart, with the 50 states sorted by their present unemployment rate. The unemployment rates are listed alongside six measures of the partisan makeup of the state: its vote for President in 2008, the current makeup of its delegation to the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House, the partisan affiliation of its governor, and the partisan affiliation of the upper and lower chambers of its state house. Instances where there has been a change in partisan control since last November are indicated with an asterisk.
President. States that voted for Barack Obama indeed have higher unemployment rates. On average, 8.2 percent of their citizens are unemployed, an increase of 3.7 percent since the recession began. By contrast, the unemployment rate is 6.9 percent in the average McCain state, an increase of 3.7 percent. It also appears, however, that the depth of the recession in particular states may have been a factor in getting Barack Obama elected. Of the six states that voted for George W. Bush in 2004 and which currently have unemployment rates of 9.4 percent or higher, five -- North Carolina, Nevada, Florida, Indiana and Ohio -- changed their vote to Barack Obama in 2008.
U.S. Senate. There is essentially no relationship between unemployment rate and the makeup of a state's delegation to the U.S. Senate. States with two Democratic senators have an average unemployment rate of 7.7%, whereas states with two Republican senators and states with a split delegation each have an unemployment of 7.5%.
U.S. House. There is, however, a more noticable difference in the makeup of delegations to the lower chamber. States with Democratic-majority delegations have an unemployment rate of 7.9%, versus 7.1% for Republican-majority delegations. It would be more useful, of course, if we could examine this data on a Congressional District basis, but such information is not readily available. Still, this may be a small factor in explaining the differential response between the House and Senate Republicans toward matters like the stimulus.
Governor. Governorships frequently break with the overall partisan trend in a state: note that Rhode Island, Hawaii and California have Republican governors, while Oklahoma, Kentucky and Wyoming have Democratic governors. In any event, there is little relationship between unemployment rate and a state's governorship. States with Republican governors have an unemployment rate of 7.7%, on average, and Democratic governors 7.5%.
State Legislatures. States in which the lower state house is controlled by Democrats have higher unemployment rates -- 8.0% versus 6.7% for the Republican-led states. The difference is smaller when examining the upper chambers (7.8% versus 7.4%), as high-unemployment states like Michigan and Ohio still have Republican-controlled state senates. Interestingly, the eight states where the upper and lower houses are divided (Michigan, Indiana, Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee, Alaska, Pennsylvania, Virgina and Montana) are having a particularly difficult go of things, as their unemployment rates average 8.6% percent.
Conclusions? I'll leave you to draw your own, but the fact that states which have been hit harder by the recession appear to have some greater tendency toward electing Democrats may be a small factor in shaping the contours of the debate.
Likelihood of party switch has increased since last month's rankings.
Likelihood of party switch has decreased since last month.
1. New Hampshire (R-Open)
New Hampshire rotates back into the top spot that it previously occupied in February, as 1st District Congresswoman Carol Shea-Porter now says she won't run for the seat, which leaves her colleague from the 2nd District, Paul Hodes, with an unobstructed path to the Democratic nomination. Meanwhile, an ARG poll (yes, it's ARG) gives Hodes a 6-point lead over former Senator John Sununu, who has yet to declare his interest in the race. This race won't be any cakewalk, but the fundamentals -- open seat in an Obama state where the Democratic nominee has a big head start -- bode well for Team Blue.
2. Pennsylvania (R-Specter)
There's been some contradictory polling in Pennsylvania, with Quinnipiac placing conservative challenger Pat Toomey, who would be a heavy underdog in the general election, 14 points ahead of Arlen Specter. Franklin and Marshall, meanwhile, gives Specter a 15-point lead. I don't know that there's any a priori way to say which poll is correct. Polling primaries is intrinsically pretty difficult, and polling races more than a year in advance is intrinsically pretty difficult, which means that polling primaries a year in advance is really difficult. If you simply average the two numbers, you get the Republican primary being a toss-up. Each of these polls, it should be noted, were taken before Specter's intention to vote against the Employee Free Choice Act became known to voters, a position which will presumably help him the primaries while probably harming him with Pennsylvania's fairly union-friendly general electorate.
Let's do some fuzzy math here. Assume that there is a 80 percent chance that Specter's health is such that he chooses to run for re-election. If Specter runs for re-election, there is a50 percent chance that he survives the primary. If he survives the primary, there is a 80 percent chance that he wins the general election, where the Democratic opposition has been a bit disorganized. If he loses the primary, however, or chooses not to run, the Republican nominee (presumably Toomey) will probably only have about a 10 percent chance of retaining the seat for the Republicans. Run all the numbers, and that yields a 62 percent chance that the Democrats pick up the seat. Granted, it's fairly dubious to imply any sort of precision when we're dealing with guesstimates like these. But my impression is that the Democrats' odds in New Hampshire, with Hodes now having the primary field to himself, are a just a touch better than that. Also, Specter's nay vote on EFCA probably eliminates the chances of the Democrats picking this seat up through a party switch.
3. Missouri (R-Open)
I think we can characterize Robin Carnahan as the slight favorite when even Republican internal polling shows her with a small lead over the two most likely Republican opponents.
4. Kentucky (R-Bunning)
The next two races -- Connecticut and Kentucky -- have many surface similarities, with an extremely unpopular incumbent in what would ordinarily be considered a safe seat for their respective parties. I'm placing Jim Bunning slightly ahead because his senility is a more intractable issue than Dodd's real and alleged misjudgments in the financial sector, which may blow over at least to some extent if the economy improves. Bunning also has a strong opponent in the form of Democratic Attorney General Jack Conway, who just declared for the race; Conway is one of several Democrats with a lead on Bunning in a new set of PPP polling (.pdf). Bunning, meanwhile, is having an awful time trying to raise money, something less likely to be a problem for Dodd, who is generally a superior fundraiser. And although a primary challenge to Bunning is possible, and perhaps even likely, PPP and Research 2000 polling do not show alternative Republican candidates doing particularly better.
5. Connecticut (D-Dodd)
That is not to suggest, however, that Democrats ought to feel much comfort in Connecticut, not when a Quinnipiac poll puts Dodd 16 (!) points behind GOP challenger Rob Simmons. Still, while I don't doubt that Dodd would lose an election held today, he has a lot of time to regain his footing, whereas Bunning's numbers have been bad for years. The other good news for Democrats is that they now have a likely primary challenger in Roger Pearson. Pearson, a former selectman from Greenwich, is a virtual unknown to most Connecticutians, but a generic Democrat is probably all it takes to hold the seat.
6. Ohio (R-Open)
Lieutenant Governor Lee Fisher raised a cool $1 million dollars last quarter, but there are no signs of détente with Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner, his primary primary opponent, whereas Rob Portman should cruise to the Republican nomination.
7. Florida (R-Open)
Florida has been much quieter than the other races, although Kendrick Meek, who is probably the leading Democratic candidate, had a rather strong fundraising quarter. We still need to hedge a bit, however, until we know whether Charlie Crist will enter the race, a contingency that I remain skeptical of, but which would bump this race's ranking well into the double digits.
8. North Carolina (R-Burr)
Recruiting in North Carolina isn't important just for Mike Krzyzewski and Roy Williams; it's important for the Democrats too. A new Civitas poll puts Republican Richard Burr, who might be the least-recognized incumbent in the country, behind Democratic Attorney General Roy Cooper, who is well known for his intervention in the Duke lacrosse scandal. Cooper, however, has yet to declare for the race, and all other prospective Democratic candidates have trailed Burr in the polling.
9. Nevada (D-Reid)
I'm demoting this race slightly on the no-news-is-good-news principle, as Harry Reid has managed to stay somewhat out of the headlines (is Dodd's trauma Reid's gain?), whereas meanwhile the Republicans have gotten no closer to selecting a challenger. Reid is also aided by the fact that Governor Jim Gibbons is at least as unpopular as he is and is already drawing Republican primary heat that could conceivably otherwise have wound up in the Senate contest.
10. Colorado (D-Bennet)
This may sound a bit subjective, but pseudo-incumbent Michael Bennet seems awfully unsure of himself, waffling on EFCA and angering his party base by joining the Blue Dog Congress. Although Colorado is a purple state, it is not a moderate state in the same way that, say, Ohio is. Rather, it contains roughly equal numbers of rather progressive Democrats and rather conservative Republicans. Bennet risks squeezing himself by being too far to the right of the primary electorate, while still being too far to the left to placate religious conservatives in Colorado Springs and Grand Junction. Moreover, as he's never run for public office before, there is no guarantee that he'll prove to be a competent candidate. Colorado is the one state, aside from Connecticut, where Democrats could potentially improve their lot with a primary challenge.
11. Illinois (D-Burris)
Burris seems to have become slightly less radioactive over the past month. Still, the clear and present danger for Democrats is that he emerges victorious with a narrow plurality of the vote in a four- or five-way contested primary. On this front, there are some small nuggets of good news for the Democrats: Alexi Giannoulis had a pretty good fundraising month, possibly giving him a leg up on the field, whereas Lisa Madigan has her sights set on Springfield rather than Washington.
12. Delaware (D-Open)
Possible Republican nominee (and current Congressman) Mike Castle has an 8-point lead over probable Democratic nominee Beau Biden. To this point, there have been no tangible signs that Castle is interested in the race, and Biden's approval ratings in the same poll were solid, but this is nevertheless a bit of a sleeper.
13. Texas (R-Open?)
Kay Bailey Hutchison's probable gubernatorial challenge to Rick Perry, which could make for a quite interesting Senate contest, remains the (ahem!) worst-kept secret in electoral politics today.
14. Louisiana (R-Vitter)
David Vitter won't face a primary challenge from Family Research Council president Tony Perkins, but he'd better hope this doesn't show up on Youtube.
15. Arkansas (D-Lincoln)
A PPP poll has Blanche Lincoln with suddenly very marginal approval ratings. Democrats are fortunate that the Republican bench is rather weak in Arkansas (Mike Huckabee, from what I've been told, is exceptionally unlikely to enter). But if things break badly for Lincoln in this red-trending state, even a generic Republican opponent might become competitive with her.
16. New York (Jr.) (D-Gillibrand)
Kirsten Gillibrand owes David Patterson twice over. Not only did he name her to the Senate, but he made himself so unpopular in the process that most of the serious opposition will probably gravitate toward his race rather than to Gillibrand's. Meanwhile, although Gillibrand's approval ratings are tepid, her fundraising has been hot, hot, hot.
17. Wisconsin (D-Feingold)
18. Iowa (R-Grassley)
19. California (D-Boxer)
The Governator isn't running. Carly Fiornia might, but there's no evidence that she's ever sold particularly well to the public.
20. Arizona (R-McCain)
21. Kansas (R-Open)
22. Oklahoma (R-Coburn)
23. Hawaii (D-Inoyue)
24. Georgia (R-Isakson)
25. Alaska (R-Murkowski)
Sarah Palin and Lisa Murkowski are now BFF, probably ending the Democrats' slim chances of picking up this seat via some sort of mutually-assured destruction.
26. North Dakota (D-Dorgan)
27. Maryland (D-Mikulski)
28. South Carolina (R-DeMint)
29. Washington (D-Murray)
30. South Dakota (R-Thune)
31. Indiana (D-Bayh)
Republicans seem to have no interest whatsoever in challenging Bayh. Hmm, wonder why that is?
32. Vermont (D-Leahy)
33. Oregon (D-Wyden)
34. Alabama (R-Shelby)
35. Utah (R-Bennett)
36. New York (Sr.) (D-Schumer)
37. Idaho (R-Crapo)
That caveat aside, the key to understanding the results of this poll lies in the (subscriber-only) crosstabs. Here is how support for the two economic systems varies by income level:
Among Americans making $20,000 a year or less, capitalism leads socialism by only 8 points, 35-27. Confidence in capitalism then rises steadily with income, such that among the wealthiest Americans, it has a 57-point lead on socialism (68-11).
This is not altogether surprising. Nevertheless, it has some potentially profound political implications. The poor, it seems, are having trouble suspending their disbelief. They're losing faith in the Clintonian restatement of the American Dream, that if they work hard and play by the rules, they can get ahead.
There are pitfalls for both parties given this climate. The Democrats have to worry, on the one hand, about replacing the Republicans in the public's mind as the party of hedge funds and big business. On the other hand, there may also be risks to activists in misinterpreting these results and overplaying their hand. There is a difference between the working class becoming more acutely skeptical of capitalism, and becoming more sympathetic to the abstraction of socialism; what we're seeing now is far more the former than the latter. Progressives will probably find their rhetoric more effective it remains firmly rooted in the commonsensical language of fairness, and less in terms of good versus evil or deeply abstract critiques of The System.
The bigger risks, however, are probably for the Republicans. We're not in What's the Matter With Kansas anymore: the left's economic populism has the potential to be an extremely strong counterweight to the right's cultural populism. The Republicans seem wholly unprepared to deal with it, having put forward a budget that transparently slashes taxes for the rich. If it wants to win elections, the right may need to learn to embrace an authentically compassionate, Huckabeean conservativism, and ditch the Romney-Bush-Boehner variety.
In his address at the Democratic convention, Barack Obama said, “surely we can agree that our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters deserve to visit the person they love in the hospital and to live lives free of discrimination.”
What was he thinking, saying this to the nation? California was on the way to a contentious battle over same-sex marriage and the issue has arisen in other states as well. Isn’t gay rights a wedge issue that Democrats should try to avoid?
Yes, Americans are conflicted about same-sex marriage, but one thing they mostly agree on is support for antidiscrimination laws.
In surveys, 72% of Americans support laws prohibiting employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. An even greater number answer yes when asked, "Do you think homosexuals should have equal rights in terms of job opportunities?" This consensus is remarkably widespread: in all states a majority support antidiscrimination laws protecting gays and lesbians, and in all but 10 states this support is 70% or higher.
But people do not uniformly support gay rights. When asked whether gays should be allowed to work as elementary school teachers, 48% of Americans say no. We could easily understand a consistent pro-gay or anti-gay position. But what explains this seeming contradiction within public opinion so that gays should be legally protected against discrimination but at the same time not be allowed to be teachers?
If anything, we could imagine people holding an opposite constellation of views, saying that gays should not be forbidden to be public school teachers but still allowing private citizens to discriminate against gays. A libertarian, for example, might take that position, but it does not appear to be popular among Americans.
We understand the contradictory attitude on gay rights in terms of framing.
Our hypothesis goes as follows: when survey respondents are asked about antidiscrimination laws, they consider the widely-held American view that discrimination is a bad thing, so there should be a law against it. They are unlikely to put themselves in the position of an employer who might want to discriminate, and so are not likely to oppose an anti-discrimination law. But when asked about gay teachers, they identify with parents and students, and might feel that having a gay teacher is a risk they'd rather not take.
Thus, we hypothesize that survey respondents answering this question, in contrast to the antidiscrimination question, think in terms of values and outcomes rather than rights. When viewed in terms of rights alone, public opinion is incoherent: it's hard to see how it makes sense to allow the government the right to discriminate against gays in hiring teachers while prohibiting private organizations from discriminating. It is coherent if framing matters.
The apparent contradiction in public opinion might suggest why, even though anti-discrimination laws have broad support, only 20 states have adopted such laws. And it might suggest why the national Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), which would protect gays and lesbians from discrimination at work, not been more enthusiastically supported in Congress. (It was passed by the House of Representatives in 2007 but did not come to a vote in the Senate and would have faced a likely veto from President Bush in any case.) The problem is that it would be difficult to write legislation that incorporates these contradictory stances.
This also suggests that the presidential candidates could take any view on ENDA while still claiming to have majority support--by stressing the rights frame or the values frame.
John McCain came out in opposition to ENDA and Barack Obama is on record as supporting it. Although gay issues are often thought of as politically risky, the poll results suggest that support of gay rights can be unequivocally popular in almost every state—as long as it is framed in terms of values such as non-discrimination (which is presumably one reason why the Employment Non-Discrimination Act was given this name in the first place).
One of the great coups of the movement for same-sex marriage has been to plant the premise that it represents the inevitable future. This sense has inhibited even some who know perfectly well that marriage is by nature the union of a man and a woman. They fear that throwing themselves into the cause of opposing it is futile — worse, that it will call down the judgment of history that they were bigots.Emphasis is mine. But the error is the National Review's; both gay marriage and civil unions are becoming more popular with the public, although at a relatively slow rate.
Contrary to common perception, however, the public is not becoming markedly more favorable toward same-sex marriage. Support for same-sex marriage rose during the 1990s but seems to have frozen in place (at least according to Gallup) since the high court of Massachusetts invented a right to same-sex marriage earlier this decade.
Below is a chart comprising polling data from PollingReport.com on the gay marriage and civil unions questions, with trendlines derived via LOESS regression. This chart includes all surveys in the PollingReport.com database, except those where the respondent was given a three-pronged choice between gay marriage, civil unions and nothing.
The National Review is correct that the trend toward greater support for gay marriage and civil unions stalled out some in the wake of the Goodridge v. Dept. of Public Health decision in November, 2003. (In fact, it may have temporarily reversed itself). They are wrong, however, that gay marriage has failed to gain support since that date. Per the LOESS curves, gay marriage has gained about 8 points of support since November 2003, while civil unions have gained about 13 points of ground. Because of sampling variance and vagaries of question wording from survey to survey, the trend isn't always perfectly smooth. But the overall trend is fairly manifest; the rate of increase in support for gay marriage and civil unions has if anything accelerated since the Massachusetts decision.
This does not mean that gay marriage is "inevitable". On some "cultural" issues such as marijuana legalization, there have been periods of years at a time when the "liberal" position was losing ground (although marijuana legalization has since regained support). The public's views on abortion, meanwhile, have been stuck at more or less the same numbers -- with a narrow majority/plurality taking the pro-choice position -- for literally decades.
Support for gay marriage, however, is strongly generational. In a CBS news poll conducted last month, 64 percent of voters aged 18-45 supported either gay marriage or civil unions, but only 45 percent of voters aged 65 and up did. Civil unions have already achieved the support of an outright majority of Americans, and as those older voters are replaced by younger ones, the smart money is that gay marriage will reach majority status too at some point in the 2010's.
Why has it been so clear that Franken is bound for victory? Throughout the process, there have been two types of ballots that are in some measure of dispute:
1) In-person ballots, which had one or more imperfections that led them to being not counted (or miscounted) on Election Day.
2) Absentee ballots, which had one more alleged imperfections, and which may or may not have been rejected in error.
The plurality of each of these types of ballots are likely to have been cast for Al Franken. How come? In the first case, spoiled or imperfect ballots are more likely to have been cast by what I call vulnerable voters: people such as students, lower-income voters, and minority voters who tend to vote less frequently and are therefore more likely to have made a mistake in completing their ballots. These same demographics, however, are also generally more likely to be Democratic voters, and that was especially so this year given Barack Obama's appeal to some of these constituencies.
The second group of ballots -- the absentee ballots -- were also more likely to favor Democrats. This is because, in contrast to years prior when absentee ballots tended to be more Republican, the Democrats made a nationwide push this year for early and absentee voting, particularly in (purported) swing states like Minnesota. Pre-election polls (see here and here) showed Al Franken overperforming among absentee voters, and both the Franken and the Coleman legal teams were operating under the assumption that a plurality of such ballots would in fact be cast for Franken. If more wrongly-rejected absentee ballots have been turning up in blue precincts, that is simply because more absentee ballots period were cast in blue precincts, and the wrongly-rejected absentees constitute some more-or-less random subset of those. (If anything, in fact, the disputed absentee ballots are probably more likely than the nondisputed absentee ballots to have been cast for Franken, because they may be subject to the same "vulnerable voter" principle described above).
Norm Coleman had a perfectly good chance of winning the election so long as he was arguing that as few of these ballots as possible should have been counted. Once he fell behind after the recount, however, and then fell further behind once some previously-rejected absentee ballots were counted, Coleman began arguing for the inclusion of more, rather than fewer, ballots. This was the correct strategy, in the same way that fouling with 20 seconds to go when down by 7 points late in a basketball game is the correct strategy: if you don't stop the clock, your chances of winning are precisely zero. If you do stop the clock, however, your chances of winning under these circumstances are nevertheless almost zero, and on average you'll fall further behind.
It was predictable, therefore, that when Coleman finally succeeded in getting Minnesota to count some additional absentee ballots yesterday, they turned out to increase Franken's lead.
Minneapolis-based attorney Scott Johnson has some parallel thoughts at the National Review, although he places somewhat more blame at the hands of Coleman's legal team, which he calls complacent and inept. I'm not really sure that there is much more that Coleman's team could have done, because I'm not sure that there is ultimately any reasonably self-consistent ballot counting standard by which Coleman would have emerged victorious. Nevertheless, I think Johnson is right that the performance of Coleman's counsel has been haphazard: they never really attempted to articulate such a standard, and as a result always seemed to be about one move behind.
Here, for your context, is Goldfarb:
Emphasis mine. What isn't clear from Goldfarb's statement is what exactly it is that polls well. The anti-gay marriage position itself polls reasonably well, but not nearly as well as it used to. Scrolling through the data at PollingReport.com: A CNN poll in December reported that 44 percent of the public supports marriage rights for gay couples versus 55 percent opposed; a Newsweek poll conducted at around the same time came up with 39 percent in favor, 55 percent opposed, and a Time poll in August actually had the gay marriage question evenly split at 47-47. For the sake of context, the roughly 40%/50%/10% undecided split is about how the pro-life position usually polls; there are now about as many people who favor legalizing gay marriage as do banning abortion.
The District of Columbia's Council voted today to recognize gay marriages performed in other states, setting Republicans on the Hill up for a great opportunity to hit an issue that polls well. As the Washington Post puts it, "The unanimous vote sets the stage for future debate on legalizing same-sex marriage in the District and a clash with Congress, which approves the city's laws under Home Rule. The council is expected to take a final vote on the legislation next month." [...]
On [gay marriage and gun rights], Democrats in the District seem to have near religious faith in the righteousness of their cause and their prospects for victory, but Republicans should take heart: these measures are a gift. Democrats in Congress will be hard pressed to side with the District's Council on gay marriage when such measures have been soundly rejected in solid blue states like California.
Considering that (i) there is some opportunity cost involved to the Republicans in attempting to attack on the gay marriage issue (ii) the issue is the almost literal embodiment of the Rovian politics that the public appeared to have rejected in 2006 and 2008, and that (iii) liberals, following the passage of Proposition 8, may for the first time be at least as energized on the issue as are conservatives, it is less than obvious that a debate over gay marriage is the way back to the promised land for the GOP. The McCain campaign, of which Goldfarb was a part, performed this calculation and largely chose to pass on the issue; perhaps that was yet another in a series of poor decisions (the party base would certainly argue as much), or perhaps it was one of the few things they did right.
In fact, however, gay marriage per se is not the issue. Rather, the issue is whether the Congress, in its role as the guardian of the District of Columbia, ought to have the right to override the judgment of the District's democratic institutions on the issue. Goldfarb obscures this by citing California (and does so disingenuously by characterizing Proposition 8's narrow victory as a "[sound] rejection" of gay marriage). But electorally speaking, California (which gave Barack Obama 61 percent of its vote) is closer to Alabama (39 percent) than it is to the District (92 percent). There is little doubt that a referendum to permit gay marriage would pass in D.C.; more to the point, perhaps, its democratically-elected City Council has already begun to move toward recognizing gay marriage.
What's important for our discussion is that there appears to be a decent fraction of the public that might not want gay marriage in their states, but respects the rights of other states to decide for themselves on the issue, particularly when those decisions are reached via electoral rather than judicial means. There was notably little outcry in conservative circles, certainly, when Vermont's legislature voted yesterday to override a gubernatorial veto and permit gay marriage in the Green Mountain State.
In particular, the Federal Marriage Amendment, which would have banned gay marriage in all states, was actually somewhat unpopular. Going back again to PollingReport.com: a Newsweek poll in December had Americans opposed to such an amendment 52-43, a Time poll had them opposed to it 58-35, and Quinnipiac had them opposed 56-38, although a Gallup poll last May had the numbers closer to 50-50.
The District of Columbia, of course, is not a state. Nevertheless, I'd guess (and this is just a guess -- I can't find any polling on the issue) that most Americans regard it as being more or less like a state, and assume that it ought to have ample discretion to determine its own affairs, instead of having those decisions be overridden by Congressional fiat. Democrats should feel reasonably happy to engage on the issue, particularly if their opponents are conservatives like Goldfarb who seem to think the last four years are some sort of very bad, very gay dream.
He may as well get out ahead of it. The drumbeat from the GOP about Obama’s colossal debt, previewed in the offstage budget skirmishes of the last two weeks, will become a primal Republican scream in the midterm elections. So rather than the divert-and-evade strategy, here’s how I would frame the debt issue if I were the president:I'm not sure that I agree with Miller -- if and when the economy actually recovers, that is when the public would seem to have more patience for a discussion about tax increases. Right now, Obama probably has to conserve his political capital to ensure we can get to that point -- and that means talking about lowering taxes, not raising them.
“Job one, two, and three is economic recovery,” Obama might say. “For the next three years that means unprecedented deficits to help boost this economy. I wish we didn’t have to run up $3 to 4 trillion in new debt to jumpstart growth—but I make no apologies for doing whatever it takes to get the economy out of the hole I found it in. Once we get past this downturn and back on the path to growth and prosperity, however—and we will—we’ll need to examine ways to ratchet this debt down much faster. The debt numbers in my budget for five or eight years from now are in that sense placeholders until we get through this mess. At that time, my view is that everything should be on the table. But first things first.”
Clearly, however, this is a choice among least-bad options for Obama. As it stands, his budget includes rather large deficits (larger still if you use the CBO's figures) and he's taking a lot of flak for that. But, if he purported to balance his budgets but had to increase taxes in order to do so, he'd be taking a lot of flak for that too. So what, we might ask, does the public fear more: the prospect of ballooning deficits or the prospect of higher taxes?
It turns out that the answer is somewhat paradoxical. The public is generally willing to forgo tax cuts in order to balance budgets. An AP-Ipsos poll conducted in November 2004 probably put the question to voters the most directly: "if you had to choose, would you prefer balancing the budget or cutting taxes?" -- 66 percent chose balancing the budget. The public is generally not willing, however, to raise taxes in order to balance budgets. A Pew Poll in October 2005, for example, found that 70 percent opposed increasing taxes to reduce that year's budget deficit, while just 26 percent supported it. Thus, there seems to be a sort of endowment effect in play: if you promise to raise someone's taxes, the public feels as though something is being taken away from them, and they become very squeamish about it. But they are not so concerned about forsaking future tax reductions that they do not yet have.
It doesn't take any great leap of insight, of course, to suggest that it's easier to lower taxes than to raise them. But this is something slightly different: it's easier to not lower taxes than to raise them. In other words, lowering taxes and then having to raise them again will probably entail a substantial net loss of political capital and is something to be avoided (unless, of course, you can pawn the increase off on the next administration).
One relatively smart thing the White House seems to have done is to bundle their middle-class tax relief with their stimulus package. Since stimulative tax cuts are supposed to be temporary and were billed as such, this will create less of an endowment effect going forward as compared with a standalone tax bill.
There is, of course, one other way out of the dilemma. I'd bet that people are more than willing to raise taxes in order to balance budgets -- provided that they aren't the ones paying them. Raising taxes on the rich is currently quite popular, with more than 70 percent of the public supporting a tax increase on people making $250K or more per year. Obama's budget already includes an implicit tax increase on the wealthy in the form of phasing out the Bush tax cuts. But he probably has some wiggle room on top of that in the form of a millionaires tax bracket or something else. Given the alternatives, indeed, it's virtually impossible to imagine taxes on the wealthy not having been increased substantially by the time Obama's four years in office are up.
One thing that seems fairly clear is that there tend to be a relatively higher proportion of absentee ballots returned in counties where Murphy performed well on election night. For example, Columbia County, where Murphy won 56.3 percent of the of the vote last week, accounted for 9.8 percent of ballots on election night, but accounts for 15.3 percent of absentees. Conversely, Saratoga County, which is a Tedisco stronghold, represented 36 percent of ballots on election night but only 27.2 percent of absentees:
If I simply apportion the absentee ballots based on the distribution of the election day vote in each county, I show Murphy gaining a net of 173 ballots during the absentee counting phase. In addition, as Michael Barone has noted, although a plurality of the absentee ballot returns are Republican, they are somewhat less Republican than registration in the district as a whole.
The absentee ballot counting process begins tomorrow. Murphy presently appears to lead by 83 votes, although the numbers have been fluctuating somewhat wildly. While nothing's for sure yet, things are starting to look a bit difficult for Tedisco; he may need some good news from one of the two counties that have yet to finish re-canvassing their results, or a lot of help from military absentee ballots (of which only about 200 were returned).
(n.b. See also Campaign Diaries, which has a similar analysis)
People buy common stock when stock prices are rising. They (notoriously) bought houses during the early 2000s when house prices were rising. Since almost no one can predict the ups and downs of the stock market or the housing market, these purchases must have been motivated, Akerlof and Shiller argue, by something other than a rational investment strategy. But this is not at all obvious, or implied by Keynes's usage. Stocks have generally been a good investment, at least when held for a considerable period. And since no one is able to time market turns, no one knows when the market is overpriced and therefore when one should sell rather than buy. Indeed, the idea of selling at the "top" of the market is incoherent, because if it were known that stock prices had peaked, no one would buy. Buying stock, or buying a house, is at any time a guess about the future, a venture into the unknown. Yet that does not imply irrationality.Stop there. First of all, the notion that "no one is able to time market turns" is not really true. It is notoriously difficult to predict whether the market will go up or down tomorrow. But it is not necessarily all that difficult to predict whether an above-average or below-average return can be anticipated from the market over the medium-to-long term. As Shiller demonstrated in Irrational Exuberance, there has in fact been a fairly strong predictive relationship between the price-to-earnings ratio exhibited by the market at any given time and its long-term average return:
There really are times when stocks are cheap and expensive. When P/E ratios are low, one tends to make a better return in the market; when they are high, one tends to earn a lesser one (though not necessarily to take a loss). The mystery that Shiller is trying to solve is how a pattern like this can manage to sustain itself. It is a mystery precisely because the patterns are relatively obvious -- just as the housing bubble was in fact relatively obvious when one looks at something like price-to-rent ratios.
In the early 2000s, interest rates were very low because of a mistaken decision by Alan Greenspan (but who knew?); and since a house is a product purchased with debt (a mortgage), houses became a more than usually attractive investment. The housing stock expands only slowly because it is so durable, so the increase in demand for houses outran the increase in supply (new housing starts), causing prices to rise. Since very few economists and no government officials warned of a bubble, it was not irrational for people to think that houses were a good investment, even though house prices had risen steeply since the 1990s.Posner's argument seems to be: the "experts" were wrong, so who can blame the common folk for listening to them?
They were wrong. But mistakes and ignorance are not symptoms of irrationality. They usually are the result of limited information. Ben Bernanke, in October 2005, just before the housing bubble began to leak air, denied that the rise in housing prices was a bubble. Was he irrational? That the errors of experts can lead to disaster is hardly a novelty, but it does not follow that only an irrational person would heed the advice of experts.
One immediate problem with this is that quite a lot of experts -- Shiller, Paul Krugman, Nouriel Roubini, Dean Baker, just to cite a few -- were calling the housing bubble well in advance. Many others weren't, of course. So one question is why the optimistic experts tended to be listened to by the markets while the pessimistic ones weren't. And here, I think behavioral and institutional explanations must play a role, including things like optimism bias and status quo bias. It takes a lot of intellectual energy to claim that the collective wisdom of the markets is incorrect, but much less so to rationalize their behavior.
Moreover, even if there were some kind of demonstrable consesnsus among experts that housing prices were A-ok, this does not really rebut Shiller's argument so much as it shifts its burden. Instead of asking why the people were wrong, we instead need to ask why the experts were wrong. Posner's assumption seems to be: these people are experts -- how could they possibly have been wrong (at least given what they knew at the time)? I would suggest that in Posner's question therein lies the answer: it is precisely the tendency of experts to consider themselves infallible that frequently leads them astray.
Finally, Posner makes a big deal about the distinction between "irrationality" and "limited information". This reminds me of the old experiments in which a student is intentionally fed misleading information by his (supposed) peers and winds up providing an incorrect (and perhaps even ridiculous-seeming) response to a question as a result. Is the student in fact being "irrational" when he does this? Or is he merely being naive -- making the best decision he can based on the information provided to him, given that the heuristic "when in doubt, trust the opinions of your peers" is usually fairly useful?
I would argue that it does not actually matter all that much; the point is that he has made an objectively poor decision. Likewise, the ultimate question raised by Shiller is to what extent we can count on markets to efficiently (i.e. correctly) price different types of commodities. If there are market failures, whether we attribute them to "irrationality" or "imperfect information" seems to be a somewhat (although not entirely) semantic discussion.
Where Posner's critique is more successful is in questioning what specific policy prescriptions should follow if Shiller's thesis are correct; this too was something that I found somewhat wanting in Animal Spirits. Ultimately, the implications may be more pedagogical than political: we need to encourage individuals to engage in a certain amount of de-programming, and to question the world around them at every stage of their lives, including both the judgment of experts and their own assumptions and thought processes. But this conclusion may be uncomfortable for a lot of people, possibly including Posner.
I don't quite buy this definition of "socialist" (and like I said, I don't think Chris entirely does either). This is because I tend to see government expenditures as performing two somewhat unrelated functions with respect to the economy. One function is in providing a social safety net; this certainly veers toward the idea/ideal of social democracy (or democratic socialism). The other is in serving as sort of a benevolent monopolist, taking advantage of the its unique amalgamation of wealth and resources to correct for market failures. The Federal Reserve is an example of such a function. Correcting for externalities, such as pollution, is an example of such a function. Arguably something like stimulative spending is too, in which the government creates demand when the private sector is unwilling or unable to do so. Such interventions, it is hoped, can augment near- and long-term growth. They will not necessarily increase equality, however, and in some cases (such as the TARP intervention) may actually do the opposite.
In any event, I thought it was worth looking at whether those countries that tend to have greater levels of government spending also tend to have greater equality, as measured by something like the Gini Coefficient. I have further broken countries down into five quintiles as measured by the UN's Human Development Index:
It turns out that in developed economies, there is a fairly strong relationship between the amount of government spending and the amount of income equity. Western European governments, for example, have generally accounted for a greater fraction of their countries' economies than have the United States, and they also tend to have more equal distributions of wealth. This relationship does not exist, however, in underdeveloped economies, perhaps because excessive levels of corruption render the idea of the "benevolent monopolist" moot (instead, the government is acting like more of a cartel for the wealthy and the privileged).
It also must be pointed out, however, that developed economies in general tend to have more actively involved governments. Government spending accounted for 47 percent of GDP in the most developed economies, versus 34 percent in the least developed. Developed countries also have much greater levels of income equity than do underdeveloped ones, the United States being a partial exception.
The real questions, of course, involve which way the arrows point. Are developed countries wealthier because they have tended to place a greater premium on income equity? Or do they have the luxury to do so because they are wealthier? I'm not going to attempt to answer those questions here (and in fact, I don't have anything more than the vaguest of opinions about them), but I thought this context might be helpful for those of you who might seek to.