As in California, there will of course be an effort to amend the state constitution to prohibit gay marriage. In Iowa, however, the hurdle to amending the constitution is fairly high: it will have to be approved by two consecutive sessions of the state legislature and then by a majority of the voters. Most likely, this means that Iowans won't vote on the issue until 2012.
This is good news for defenders of marriage equity, because while you might know it from Proposition 8's victory last year, voter initiatives to ban gay marriage are becoming harder and harder to pass every year.
I looked at the 30 instances in which a state has attempted to pass a constitutional ban on gay marriage by voter initiative. The list includes Arizona twice, which voted on different versions of such an amendment in 2006 and 2008, and excludes Hawaii, which voted to permit the legislature to ban gay marriage but did not actually alter the state's constitution. I then built a regression model that looked at a series of political and demographic variables in each of these states and attempted to predict the percentage of the vote that the marriage ban would receive.
It turns out that you can build a very effective model by including just three variables:
1. The year in which the amendment was voted upon;
2. The percentage of adults in 2008 Gallup tracking surveys who said that religion was an important part of their daily lives;
3. The percentage of white evangelicals in the state.
These variables collectively account for about three-quarters of the variance in the performance of marriage bans in different states. The model predicts, for example, that a marriage ban in California in 2008 would have passed with 52.1 percent of the vote, almost exactly the fraction actually received by Proposition 8.
Unsurprisingly, there is a very strong correspondence between the religiosity of a state and its propensity to ban gay marriage, with a particular "bonus" effect depending on the number of white evangelicals in the state.
Marriage bans, however, are losing ground at a rate of slightly less than 2 points per year. So, for example, we'd project that a state in which a marriage ban passed with 60 percent of the vote last year would only have 58 percent of its voters approve the ban this year.
All of the other variables that I looked at -- race, education levels, party registration, etc. -- either did not appear to matter at all, or became redundant once we accounted for religiosity. Nor does it appear to make a significant difference whether the ban affected marriage only, or both marriage and civil unions.
So what does this mean for Iowa? The state has roughly average levels of religiosity, including a fair number of white evangelicals, and the model predicts that if Iowans voted on a marriage ban today, it would pass with 56.0 percent of the vote. By 2012, however, the model projects a toss-up: 50.4 percent of Iowans voting to approve the ban, and 49.6 percent opposed. In 2013 and all subsequent years, the model thinks the marriage ban would fail.
Below are the dates when the model predicts that each of the 50 states would vote against a marriage ban. Asterisks indicate states which had previously passed amendments to ban gay marriage.
The model predicts that by 2012, almost half of the 50 states would vote against a marriage ban, including several states that had previously voted to ban it. In fact, voters in Oregon, Nevada and Alaska (which Sarah Palin aside, is far more libertarian than culturally conservative) might already have second thoughts about the marriage bans that they'd previously passed.
By 2016, only a handful of states in the Deep South would vote to ban gay marriage, with Mississippi being the last one to come around in 2024.
It is entirely possible, of course, that past trends will not be predictive of future results. There could be a backlash against gay marriage, somewhat as there was a backlash against drug legalization in the 1980s. Alternatively, there could be a paradigmatic shift in favor of permitting gay marriage, which might make these projections too conservative.
Overall, however, marriage bans appear unlikely to be an electoral winner for very much longer, and soon the opposite may prove to be true.
Would Scott Murphy, who incidentally now trails Jim Tedisco by 12 (!) votes, have "buried" him by 6-10 points if the two candidates went head to head on November 4th? This is Rothenberg's assertion. Unfortunately, he does not provide any evidence to support his conclusion, nor is at all intuitively obvious.
[T]hink what this election would have been like for Republicans if it had occurred last November. Murphy would have buried Tedisco by 6, 8 or maybe 10 points.
The absence of George W. Bush as a factor in this race helped Tedisco, and it suggests that while Republicans certainly haven’t turned the page on the past eight years and still have plenty of damage to repair, they have hit the bottom and are starting to bounce back. That is good news for the GOP.
There are three benchmarks that one can conceivably use to infer what Scott Murphy's performance might have been on November 4th.
Option one is to compare it against the Democrat who was actually running that day -- incumbent Kirsten Gillibrand. Gillibrand won her race decisively on November 4th, securing 61.8 percent of the vote against opponent Sandy Treadwell. However, Gillibrand was an incumbent, and for a number of reasons ranging from fundraising muscle to deterring stronger challengers from entering the race, the incumbency advantage is quite powerful in Congressional elections. Even in 1994, a very bad year for incumbent Congressmen, about 90 percent of them were re-elected. So it would be hard to consider this an apples-to-apples comparison. And by the way, if either candidate had incumbent-like advantages in NY-20 on Tuesday, it was not Murphy but Tedisco, who started out with much stronger name recognition as the Minority Leader of the New York State Senate; Murphy had never run for elected office before.
Option two is to compare Murphy's performance against Barack Obama's on November 4th, as Michael Barone does. I don't think there's anything terribly wrong with doing this, although it's a little imprecise; if memory serves, there were something like 50 Congressional Districts in which a Republican won the Congressional Seat while Barack Obama won the Presidential ballot, or vice versa. In any event, Murphy comes out looking reasonably good if you do this; he won 50 percent of the vote on Tuesday (give or take some small fraction) versus Obama's 51 percent on Election Day.
The third method, which I consider to be the most robust, would be to compare the results in NY-20 to that of similar congressional districts. I already did a version of this based on the Cook PVI, and found that a 50:50 split of the vote is almost exactly what you'd expect in this district. Among 58 districts with PVI's of between R+1 and R+4 (NY-20's is either R+2 or R+3, depending on which elections you include in the total), Democrats won 30 seats (including NY-20) on November 4th and Republicans won 28.
A slight variant of this approach would be to look 2008 data only. Barack Obama won 51 percent of the vote in NY-20 on November 4th. How did congressional candidates perform in other districts where he received between, say, 50 and 52 percent of the vote? Again, we see essentially an even split; Republicans won 16 of 30 such districts and Democrats won 14:
Won by Republicans (16): CA-24, CA-25, CA-26, CA-44, CA-45, CA-50, FL-10, FL-18, MI-4, MN-3, NE-2, NJ-7, NY-23, VA-4, WI-1, WI-6
Won by Democrats (14): FL-22, KS-3, MI-1, MI-7, MN-1, NC-2, NJ-3, NY-1, NY-19, NY-20*, NY-24, TX-23, VA-2, WA-3
There may well be a case to be made that Scott Murphy would have won by 6 or more points on Election Day. But the case doesn't make itself, nor does Rothenberg really try to make it. As Markos Moulitsas points out, in fact, Rothenberg had written back in February that he thought NY-20 would be a tough hold for the Democrats!
The more interesting and credible argument, I think, is advanced by Barone:
The more appropriate benchmark is the 2008 presidential election, in which Barack Obama carried the district 51-48 percent. Comparing that to Murphy's current 50.01-49.99 percent lead, we find Murphy running .7 percent behind Obama and Tedisco running 2.3 percent ahead of McCain. We don't see the falloff here from the Obama percentage that we did in the December 2 Georgia Senate runoff, in which Democrat Jim Martin won 43 percent of the vote in a state where Obama won 47 percent of the vote. In that election, in the two special elections for the House in Louisiana in December and for a set of legislative and Fairfax County special elections in Northern Virginia in January and February, Democratic turnout dropped off much more sharply than Republican turnout as compared to the November 2008 results. That's not the case here. Tedisco got 49 percent of the McCain vote; Murphy got 46 percent of the Obama vote—a difference, but not a big one. Obamaenthusiasm is reasonably alive and well in Upstate New York.Barone's argument is that we might indeed expect Democratic performance to decline from November 4th in certain types of congressional districts -- in particular, those districts with large numbers of younger and/or African-American voters, who have historically been inclined to turn out in much greater numbers when there is a Presidential race on the ballot (and were particularly so for Barack Obama) than when there isn't. However, NY-20's constituents are very white and relatively old, so we didn't see much drop-off there.
Or at least in a district in which there are relatively few of the two voting blocs that gave Obama huge majorities. The district's population is only 2 percent black. And although there are many small colleges in the district, there aren't the huge campuses or large university towns or thriving singles neighborhoods that you find in some districts. Black turnout seems to have declined sharply in the special elections mentioned above. There simply wasn't much black turnout to decline in the New York 20th.
I find this case rather persuasive; in fact, it dovetails pretty well with what I recently wrote at Esquire about midterm elections:
The answer to the riddle may be this: While a president’s coattails can be strong at the midterms, they are not as strong as when the president himself is on the ballot. And in fact, the bigger a president’s coattails are when he is elected, the more trouble his party tends to have two years later. Therefore LBJ, who had cruised to election by 23 points in 1964, saw his party shed nearly fifty seats two years later. But George W. Bush, who had in fact lost the popular vote in 2000, was one of the few incumbents to see his party gain ground in the subsequent election.That is, we should expect some decline for Congressmen who come from the same party as the incumbent President, because some of their votes came as a result of Presidential coattails -- coattails they won't have when the President isn't on the ballot. In fact, the larger the sitting President's victory margin upon his last election to the Oval Office, the steeper this decline tends to be.
Many of the voters who went to the polls in 2008 did so because of Barack Obama; almost 90 percent of those voters also happened to vote Democratic for Congress. But many of those voters will not turn out next year without a presidential race to pique their interest. Some of the same Democratic representatives who most benefited from Obama’s coattails in 2008, then, are also the most vulnerable to an upset. Their fate may depend on how much this president can personalize that election — and, of course, how much he can mobilize his powerful voter-turnout operation for them — and how well liked he can remain. Obama’s popularity is the Democrats’ greatest asset heading into the midterm elections in 2010 — but it is also in some sense their greatest liability.
The biggest discrepancy is in Hawaii, which Obama visited a few days before the election to go to his grandmother's funeral. Then there's Nevada--I don't know what was going on there, but probably Nate does. Beyond that, there's a systematic pattern that Obama did better than the polls in Deomocratic states and worse than the polls in Republican states. Does this represent a real pattern of voters--perhaps people reverting to their more predictable positions at the last minute, with Vermonters moving to the Democrats and residents of Wyoming going the other way? Or maybe it's an artifact of the poll aggregation, with the predictions being pushed too close to 50%, on average? I don't know. It would be interesting to do similar aggregations of state polls from 2000 and 2004, and also to look at national polls, to see if this pattern was occurring in earlier years.
The discrepancies had very little impact on the election forecast because most of the problems were in landslide states. If the poll aggregation predicted Obama would get 60% in Delaware and he actually got 62%, it doesn't really matter anyway. But it could be interesting to study such systematic discrepancies with the goal of improving the methods for the future.
Connecticut Sen. Christopher Dodd trails former U.S. Rep. Rob Simmons, a possible Republican challenger, 50 - 34 percent in the 2010 Senate race, according to a Quinnipiac University poll released today, as voters disapprove 58 - 33 percent of the job the Democratic incumbent is doing, his lowest approval rating ever.While we have a long way to go until November 2010, it's fairly startling to see a four-term Democratic incumbent down by 16 points in a deeply blue state. And make no mistake: this is all about Dodd's negatives, rather than anything in particular that former U.S. Rep. Rob Simmons, the declared Republican challenger, is doing. Almost half (47 percent) of Connecticutians have yet to form an opinion about Simmons, and yet, he's leading Dodd among independent voters by better than 2:1, and even picking off 27 percent of Democrats.
Matched against two other possible Republican challengers, Sen. Dodd trails both State Sen. Sam Caligiuri 41 - 37 percent and former ambassador Tom Foley 43 - 35 percent, the independent Quinnipiac (KWIN-uh-pe-ack) University poll finds.
In the Dodd-Simmons matchup, Democrats back Dodd by only 58 - 27 percent while Simmons leads 87 - 6 percent among Republicans and 56 - 25 percent among independent voters.
The incumbent's approval is down from 49 - 44 percent March 10.
It's somewhat likely that this will turn out to be Dodd's low-water mark. The AIG story, for which deservedly or not, Dodd took a lot of lumps, is very fresh in the minds of voters, and the outrage will probably fade some. Even before the AIG bonus story broke, however, Dodd was underperforming, already tied with Simmons in some polls and barely ahead of him in others; the combination of his ties to Countrywide and a presidential campaign that might have seemed pointless to his local constituents was evidently already doing damage. In any event, a seat that would ordinarily be relatively safe for Democrats now appears as likely as not to be picked off by the Republicans.
...Unless, perhaps, their nominee is someone other than Chris Dodd. Dodd has swatted away rumors of retirement (although one wonders whether polling numbers like these could give him second thoughts). But, somewhat as the Republicans seem poised to do in Kentucky with Jim Bunning, the Democrats could also attempt to force Dodd's hand by giving him a primary challenger.
Although wealthy Connecticut is not exactly ground zero for populism -- quite the opposite really -- the ideal challenger would presumably be someone who keeps the financial services industry at arm's-length, which is something easier said than done in the Nutmeg State. Someone like Ned Lamont, for instance, who is extremely wealthy and an heir to the J.P. Morgan fortune, would probably have trouble pivoting against Dodd. The same goes for Jim Himes, a former partner at Goldman Sachs.
On paper, the most compelling alternative is probably Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro, a longtime champion for working class interests. But DeLauro was Dodd's former chief of staff, and it's hard to envision her running against her old boss. Chris Murphy, however, could present a compelling alternative, as could potentially Joe Courtney.
The real question may be whether certain parts of the Democratic nerve center -- and particularly the blogosphere -- might throw their weight behind someone like Murphy. Dodd is quite popular with parts of the left for his vigorous challenge to FISA, and he is relatively liberal on most other issues. Unless the alternative were DeLauro, who is one of the couple dozen most liberal members of the Congress, this would not be a challenge on ideological grounds.
Nevertheless, politics ain't beanbag, and if the Democrats want to have any realistic hopes of picking up a 60-seat majority in 2010, they can't afford to be underdogs in states like Connecticut.
P.S. See here for a discussion of the relevance of this to the decision of whether to vote. An objection sometimes arises about this sort of calculation that one vote never makes a difference, because if the election were decided by one vote, there would be a recount anyway. On page 674 of this article, we discuss why this argument is wrong, even for real elections with disputed votes, recounts, and so forth. This can be shown by setting up a more elaborate model that allows for a gray area in vote counting and then demonstrating that the simpler model of decisive votes is a reasonable approximation.
P.P.S. I noticed there were some questions about my calculation, so very quickly: If the margin is within 100 votes, then there are 201 possibilities: Dem wins by 100, Dem wins by 99, . . ., Rep wins by 99, Rep wins by 100. Of these 201 possibilities, only one is a tie. Thus, Pr(tie) approx= (1/201)*Pr(margin within 100 points). Historical data show that elections are within 100 votes approximately 50 times a century, thus (to extrapolate) approx 200 times every 400 years. Thus, based on this simple calculation, you'd expect an exact tie approximately once every 400 years.
But what does it mean, exactly, for the vote to have been split about evenly in this particular Congressional District?
What this very narrow fragment of evidence suggests -- it may be dangerous to overgeneralize -- is that not much has changed since last November. The PVI of NY-20 based on the 2000 and 2004 elections is R+3; based on the 2004 and 2008 elections, it's more like R+2. That is, NY-20 is between two and three points more Republican than the average Congressional District.
But keep in mind that the average Congressional District, at least in 2006 and 2008, had been highly inclined to vote Democratic. A Republican-leaning district at a Democratic-leaning moment in the political cycle is usually going to translate into being a toss-up -- and indeed, that's exactly what we find if we look at how the two parties performed on November 4th in districts that looked like NY-20:
Of 58 Congressional Districts with PVI's of between R+1 and R+4, the vote was almost an even split; Democrats were elected to the House in 30 of these districts on November 4th, and Republicans in the other 28. So our default expectation is that a district like NY-20 should indeed be a toss-up -- which is exactly what we wound up getting. The contest turned out about the same yesterday as we might have expected it to had it been held on November 4th.
The status quo, in other words, was more or less preserved. But the status quo, of course, is a much happier place if you're a Democrat than if you're a Republican...
10:47 PM: Wonder when Steele will comment. One way or another with the outcome, he probably will claim that his chairmanship = increased competitiveness in these kind of districts.
10:41 PM: So, what is the Big Broad Conclusion now, regardless of who actually takes the seat? When we set the stage tonight, we framed the race as a chance for one side or another to extrapolate from the results. But what do you extrapolate from essentially a dead heat?
From purely a standpoint of ease-on-the-ears from talking-point yakkers, the lack of certain conclusion is somewhat relieving. Eventually, one of Murphy or Tedisco will take this seat, and perhaps the absentees will push this into a more conclusive territory. But certainly nobody will be crowing about "what this says about Obama" on one side or the other because we probably won't know for a few days, by which time it'll be an afterthought, and what will be remembered is how razor-close it was. There won't be any electorate "referendum."
10:39 PM: Final precinct reports, Tedisco closes from 81 to 65 votes. Scott Murphy leads 77,344 to 77,279, or by 0.04%.
10:29 PM: While we wait, the average precinct size in Saratoga is 298 votes.
10:27 PM: Now we get to the part of the evening where subtle shifts in previously "100% reported" counties start to change. In Washington County, which was previously fully reported, added 252 Murphy votes and 220 Tedisco votes, so the overall numbers jumped. Two of the three outstanding Saratoga precincts came in, and Murphy holds an 81-vote lead with one Saratoga precinct outstanding "officially," and possibly some slight toggling of numbers in other counties that are officially in.
10:20 PM: Murphy closes strongly. With only 3 precincts in Saratoga unreported, Scott Murphy now leads Jim Tedisco by 252 votes, or 0.16%. There are roughly 6,000 uncounted absentee ballots.
10:15 PM: Getting ridiculous. Now 30 votes separate the candidates (Tedisco still leads) after 3 more Saratoga precincts report. Those had favored Tedisco strongly, but Murphy just made up 72 votes. Nobody's going to have anything definitive tonight.
10:11 PM: Big move for Murphy after 30 of the 38 outstanding Columbia precincts and all the remaining Delaware precincts report, almost certainly not going to be called tonight with absentees outstanding. With just under 147,000 votes counted, Tedisco leads by 102. Still 8 precincts in Columbia (Murphy edge) and 14 precincts in Saratoga (Tedisco edge) outstanding, and of course results are unofficial. The total lead is 50.03% to 49.97%.
10:07 PM: A few more Saratoga precincts report, and the extrapolation tightens a bit, to an 840-vote lead (pending absentees) for Tedisco. 534 of 610 in, or about 87.5% reporting.
10:04 PM: With 505 of 610 precincts in, there are three counties the AP says haven't fully reported all their precincts: 38 of 58 outstanding Columbia (favors Murphy by 12 points), 24 of 49 outstanding in Delaware county (favors Tedisco by 6 points) and 43 of 188 precincts left in Saratoga (favors Tedisco by 10 points). Updated extrapolation if the county percentages hold: Tedisco would win by 1445 votes.
9:56 PM: With 77% in, Tedisco still has a 809-vote lead. Extrapolating the counties that are out, were the county-wide percentages to hold with the outstanding precincts in each county, Tedisco would win by 1599 votes.
9:43 PM: Another 103 precincts come in; Tedisco has 856-vote lead out of around 102,000 counted, with 68% reporting.
9:36 PM: Murphy briefly pulled ahead, but now Tedisco has pushed it back out to an 803-vote lead, with 312 of 610 precincts reporting.
9:32 PM: Tedisco apparently took a page from Michael Steele's textbook and bused a bunch of minority volunteers to make phone calls today. With a third of the precincts reporting, Tedisco holds a stable 52%-48% lead, with no results from Columbia, Delaware or Washington counties.
9:23 PM: Early trends favoring Tedisco. With 15% overall in, the Republican leads by 720 votes, 52%-48%. Warren County, one of 10 counties wholly or partly in NY-20, is good for Murphy, but 37 of its 70 counties are counted (Murphy has 56%-44% lead there), whereas Saratoga has only 23 of 188 precincts counted and Tedisco holding his 59%-41% edge there.
9:19 PM: Tedisco has early 51%-49% lead, 6,093 to 5,757, with Saratoga County giving a big edge so far to Tedisco, 59%-41%.
At 9:00 eastern, the polls close in upstate New York's 20th Congressional District, where the special election between Democrat Scott Murphy and Republican Jim Tedisco is being held today. We'll update as results come in.
Lots of opinions on this one about its significance; undoubtedly there will be crowing from one side or the other about what the results say about Democrats and Republicans writ large nationally, and about what the country thinks of Obama and the stimulus package. Extrapolation is the name of tonight's game. Who will get to extrapolate?
If Tedisco pulls it out, the story is different now than it was a few weeks ago. Tedisco was better known in the district and Republican registration is well ahead of Democratic registration, the story would have been: "Favorite Wins." Now, after the only independent pollster showed dramatic movement over a series of polls toward the younger Murphy, including a final poll that had Murphy ahead by four, the story if Tedisco wins will be "referendum on Obama," even if those same voters give the president mid-60s approval ratings.
If Murphy wins, the focus will shift to more speculation about Steele, Democrats will do more Republican grave-dancing, and the larger conclusion will be: Republicans are unwise to block Obama.
Who wins a low-turnout special (compared to regular elections) really shouldn't be taken too seriously. But in a political world where perception is often reality and where the inside baseball implications are real, tonight is good theater.
By Renard Sexton, Geneva, Switzerland
I spent January of 2008 in northern India, looking at environment and energy issues, and writing about various roles that Indian NGOs have taken on in rural areas to fill in the power vacuum left by poor national governance. Wherever I visited, however, it was not climate change, alternative energy, or water pollution that the various professors, government officials and NGOs wanted to talk about.
It was Obama. It was Hillary. It was McCain and Romney. It was the incredible influence that US foreign and domestic policy has on the rest of the world.
I had just arrived in Delhi on the eve of the Iowa caucuses. When my colleagues and I awoke the following morning, because of the time difference, the final results were just streaming onto CNN – one of only two channels that were clear enough to watch on the hotel television.
On one channel was a live telecast of an India national team test cricket match – as close to a national religion as there is in India – and on the other was Obama’s victory speech in Des Moines. And no one – including the morning porter, whose understanding of English was frighteningly awful – was watching the test cricket match.
My colleague Jerry, a Californian by birth, Virginian by transplant, turned to me and said, “This is history, my friend.”
[Below: The morning commute in New Delhi, India -- an hour per kilometer is quite typical. Photo by R. Sexton, Jan 2008]
This experience launched a journey of watching US Presidential politics from afar, seeing the intricate, the hilarious, and the unexplainable. I occasionally took it in locally, when spending time in the Washington D.C. area, where I was born, raised, and educated. The rest of the time, I explored from abroad the tale of two fascinating narratives: the ways US politics impact the world, and the way the world impacts US politics.
A word of introduction – I am a young professional, living in Geneva, Switzerland, working for the United Nations Environment Programme, specifically on conflict and peacebuilding issues. I am also a fan, critic, and all around enthusiast of the US political world. My work and wanderlust allow me to travel often, to various parts of the world, and I take with me a critical eye.
This column aims to connect the US political universe to the billions that don’t live in North America. As it turns out, seeing the lives, dreams and prejudices of others teaches you a lot about what those things mean in your home context. I hope to share anecdotes, analysis, news, and ruminations to make FiveThirtyEight’s political coverage even better-rounded then it is already. I plan to do this in a conversational style, in keeping with the accessibility of FiveThirtyEight’s work.
The idea is to cover areas of interest to readers in North America, but also to bring narratives that are often not well known or understood stateside. As we get the ball rolling, I would encourage critical questions and suggestions.
Continuing our narrative of 2008 elections, an important thought to keep in mind is the incredible level of ownership that was felt by many members of the international community in the discourse and outcomes of the US race. It was not simply that there was an interest by decision-makers, who would be directly impacted by a new administration, but instead a palpable recognition that political events in the US make very powerful, international, waves. Indeed, even many regular citizens felt quite a stake in this election. I would be willing to bet that there were as many Obama-Biden stickers and t-shirts in Freetown, Sierra Leone as in Freeport, Maine.
[Below: Obama-Biden bumper sticker in Freetown, Sierra Leone, near the Wilberforce Barracks. Photo by R. Sexton, Feb 2009]
Back in India, there was a keen sense of excitement that a Democratic president would be very positive for the Indian economy, and status in the world. Historically, Republican administrations, as seen in the recent past, have tended to favor Pakistan vis-à-vis India, while Democratic presidencies have often been to India’s advantage. This has no small impact on regional relations, and the strength of each country’s global bargaining positions.
One well-respected university dean in north India put it this way: “I wish that we could vote for President. In fact, really, the world should all vote for US president. It’s really not fair."
A common misconception, however, perpetuated by the images of then Sen. Obama’s summer international tour and its grand reception in several European cities, is that the international community was universally and fanatically supportive of his candidacy. The truth is actually quite different.
Most moderates and liberals (using the American ideology terms) in Europe strongly favored Mdm. Clinton in the Democratic primary, and were sometimes quite slow to warm to Obama. A number of conservatives across Europe, and even some moderates in various countries were actually quite hostile to Obama’s candidacy. They preferred Sen. McCain’s harder stance on Russia, continued trade liberalization, and continued expansion of US/NATO military operations to counter so-called rogue regimes.
As well, many recipients of USAID funding for HIV/AIDS, transparency, and education in Africa and Asia were sad to see Pres. Bush leave office. He was responsible for the robust funding increases in HIV/AIDS work, and on this issue many NGOs, underfunded governments and local people were pleased with Bush’s emphasis. Some people have worried that a Democratic approach might spread funds too thinly in order to finance a larger portfolio of projects. The Bush administration’s more narrowly focused aid approach dealt more vigorously with a fewer number of core issues, which was successful in some areas.
The bottom line is that people in any country, in any region, have a vested interest in the politics of the US. And contrary to what some might think, events, opinions and realities around the world play a key role in the way US politics play out. Whether linked to economics in a globalized world, culture in the internet age, or geopolitical crises that test US military and diplomatic strength, these linkages are intimate and influential. Exploring these outside the sometimes bubble-like American context is quite productive for anyone who wants to better understand the issues at play, and their consequences.
Fast forward ten months to the middle of November - two weeks after the election. I am in Germany on business, working on various UN planning documents with partners in Berlin. Curious about the local reaction to the election that gripped the city just a few months earlier, I asked a few people what they thought about the results. Several people told me – in embarrassingly well-spoken English – that they were indeed pleased with the change in leadership, and impressed with the rapid change in direction that had taken place in the US. Some mentioned critiques on various platform pieces of the two candidates, often citing Iraq or climate change. Many said they had attended the summer rally that had pushed Germany to the edge of “Obamamania”, and said they strongly supported his candidacy.
However, particularly among the young, a certain realism had already set in, the honeymoon quickly over in the midst of a badly struggling German economy.
“I don’t care much about Obama anymore,” one university student told me, “I just want to have a job when I finish studying.” He paused to think, and then solemnly asked, “Are there jobs in America?”
I haven't provided the dates on the chart because they aren't important. The auto business is highly cyclical because consumers are buying expensive assets that last for years at a time. Nobody ever really has to buy a new car (they can buy a used one if their car breaks down), and therefore consumers are willing to hold on to their existing vehicles and wait out economic slumps. You can't do that with, say, a loaf of bread, or even something like a cellphone, which has a much shorter lifespan.
But you knew all of that already. The remarkable thing is that, once you account for the economic cycles, the trend for GM is exceptionally steady -- an exceptionally steady trend downward. There were still bad times thirty years ago -- but they weren't bad enough to threaten GM's survival, and conversely, the good times were much better. These are General Motors' operating margins by decade:
Average Annual Operating Margin, General MotorsIf I were an alien beaming down from Rigel-3 looking at this pattern -- an alien with an MBA degree -- my first guess is that it would reflect some sort of systemic problem, some chronic imbalance that magnified over time. Something, in other words, like the costs of GM's retiree pension and health care programs. It's difficult to get a precise figure on these so-called legacy costs, but they averaged about $7 billion per year between 1993 and 2007 and are probably at least $10 billion per year now. Considering that GM has never made as much as $10 billion in profit in a year and that its entire operating lossses in 2008 were $13.8 billion, you can see why this is a significant problem.
* Excludes one-time $20 billion accounting charge for retiree health benefits in 1992.
Of course, GM benefited by promising its employees access to lucrative retirement programs -- it benefited by being able to pay less to those employees in the form of salary. But whereas the benefits to GM came long ago, the costs come now. This, indeed, is the entire crux of the problem, as is cogently explained by this Washington Post article from 2005:
GM was willing to cut its employees some very attractive deals in the 1950s through the 1980s -- provided that they took them in the form of retirement benefits rather than salary, which wouldn't hit GM's books until much later and which until 1992 weren't even required to be carried on its balance sheets all, making its financial statements (superficially) more appealing to its shareholders. That health care costs have risen so substantially in the United States have made a bad matter worse.
GM began its slide down the slippery slope in 1950, when it began picking up costs for medical insurance, pensions and retiree benefits. There was huge risk to GM in taking on these obligations -- but that didn't show up as a cost or balance-sheet liability. By 1973, the UAW says, GM was paying the entire health insurance bill for its employees, survivors and retirees, and had agreed to "30 and out" early retirement that granted workers full pensions after 30 years on the job, regardless of age.
These problems began to surface about 15 years ago because regulators changed the accounting rules. In 1992, GM says, it took a $20 billion non-cash charge to recognize pension obligations. Evolving rules then put OPEB on the balance sheet. Now, these obligations -- call it a combined $170 billion for U.S. operations -- are fully visible. And out-of-pocket costs for health care are eating GM alive.
This issue is wrongly portrayed by both the liberal and the conservative media as one of management versus labor, when really it is a battle between General Motors past and General Motors present. In the 50s, 60s and 70s, everyone benefited: GM and its shareholders got the benefit of higher profit margins, and meanwhile, its employees benefited from GM's willingness to cut a bad deal -- for every dollar they were giving up in salary, those employees were getting a dollar and change back in retirement benefits. But now, everyone is hurting.
Nor does this provide for much in the way of solutions. The retirees might have benefited from GM's short-sightedness -- but they also worked hard Monday through Friday every week of in expectation of receiving the benefits that GM had promised them. From the standpoint of fairness, it would be much better to require GM to take the hit -- but there isn't much of GM left to punish, as its outstanding retiree obligations exceed its market capitalization many times over, and as the decision-makers who led GM into this position left the company decades ago. Today's employees at GM, and the unions that organize them, likewise don't have anything much to do with the problem -- most of the excess costs it requires to produce a Buick versus a Toyota come in the form of legacy costs, not what those employees are receiving in salary and benefits today. And the taxpayer is bound to to get screwed either way, either picking up the tab to bail out GM, or bearing the costs of the pension programs, which are guaranteed by the government (although the legacy health benefits aren't guaranteed).
Policy-makers, finally, share in the blame too. General Motors might be the latest casualty of the distorted incentives created by our employer-based health care system. Meanwhile, the government would probably improve incentives by providing a more generous Social Security guarantee in lieu of guaranteeing private pension programs. The whole idea of Social Security is that people do an inadequate job of saving when left to their own devices. But companies, even companies as big and proud as General Motors, are overly concerned with the present as well.
The initiative has been passed by four states totaling 50 electoral votes. In five other states totaling 36 electoral votes, there is "live" legislation that has been passed by one of the two state houses but not yet by the other. Finally, there is another tier of seven states, consisting of 112 electoral votes, that have had at least one chamber of their state houses pass the Compact at some point in the past, but not in the current legislative session:
Tier 1: Signed into law (50 electoral votes)
New Jersey (15)
Tier 2: Passed by one house, currently pending before other house (36 electoral votes)
Tier 3: Passed by at least one house in past (112 electoral votes)
California (55, vetoed by governor)
Michigan (17, not voted on by senate)
North Carolina (15, not voted on by house)
Massachusetts (12, not sent to governor)
New Mexico (5, not voted on by senate)
Maine (4, not voted on by house)
Rhode Island (4, vetoed by governor)
What's interesting about the list of states is that have taken some action on the Compact is how blue they are. Red states have been very reluctant to move on the bill; concomitantly, the bill has been vetoed by Republican governors in certain blue states like California and Rhode Island. People, obviously, are going to remember 2000 for a very long time, in which Al Gore was screwed by the Electoral College. But throughout most of 2008, our simulations showed that the Democrats, not the Republicans, had a structural advantage in the Electoral College, something which was also apparent in 2004 when John Kerry nearly won the Electoral College in spite of trailing in the national popular vote by 2.5 points.
There are presently a couple of particularly interesting tests for the Compact, including purple Colorado, where the state house has passed the bill and the state senate is deciding whether to do the same, and red Arkansas, which is in a parallel situation.
For reasons that should be apparent, I'm going to take the fifth on whether I think the Compact is a good idea. But its chances of success, at least in the near-term, appear to me to be relatively slim. The idea of the Compact has been around since 2001, but the states that have had even one of their houses approve the bill at any point in time total 198 electoral votes, a fair bit shy of the 270 threshold. In addition, the Compact, if it gained a toehold, would almost certainly become the subject of a Constitutional challenge (.pdf).
What would it take for there to be a real chance of abolishing (or end-arounding, as the Compact seeks to do) the Electoral College? I think it would take two elections in relatively rapid succession in which there's a popular:electoral split, particularly if these two elections are won by candidates of opposite parties. The memories of 2000 should linger for a few more cycles, and so if there's another such occurrence before, say, 2020 or 2024, things could get very interesting.
Until and unless that occurs, however, my guess is that at least one of the two parties will see the Electoral College as being advantageous to them at any given time, as will most or all of the swing states. This will make it difficult for the Compact to garner a majority.
I have a great deal of love for Chicago, where I've been for the past 13 years, and the Midwest, where I've been essentially my entire life. In the Internet era, one can cover American politics from almost anywhere: some extremely talented writers do it from places like Brazil and Mexico. Nevertheless, as I've watched the number of 212 and 646 area codes proliferate in my Blackberry (see incredibly dorky chart below), and become intimately familiar with the concession stands at LaGuardia Airport (avoid the Wendy's by Terminal D), I've realized that there's an if-you-can't-beat-'em, join-'em quality to New York City -- and I've decided to join 'em.
All right, truth be told, the decision isn't nearly as scientific as all of that. I love cities -- their intrinsic vitality, their polyphony of cultures, their food (!) -- and as a lover of cities, I'd feel stupid if I were lying on my deathbed and hadn't lived in New York for at least a couple of years.
As a result of this, posting volumes are going to be a little bit light over the next few days, although Sean (who sold out and moved to Washington D.C. in January) and Andrew (who already lives in New York) should keep things moving relatively smoothly. In the meantime, Go Green!, and things should be more or less back to normal by the end of the week.