Will Republicans be the Party of Slash-and-Burn or of Ideas?

A few days ago I wrote about the need for the Republican party to choose between the political approaches of Governor Sarah Palin or Congressman Rahm Emanuel How the GOP is grappling with that choice was on display at the Republican Governor’s meeting last week. As reported by Jonathan Martin in Politico, there’s a stark contrast in how Republican governors interpret their thrashing at the polls this year. Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour claimed Senator John McCain could have defeated Senator Barack Obama “by rendering him unacceptable to American voters. ‘And the McCain campaign did not choose to try to make that argument.'”

This is the Rovian view: by destroying the opposition it doesn’t matter what one’s own beliefs are, voters will have no one else to turn to.

Tim Pawlenty, the Governor of Minnesota, expressed the opposite perspective. Until the GOP can again compete in the northeast, Pacific Coast and much of the Great Lakes states, Governor Pawlenty argued it “cannot be a majoirty governing party.” As described by Mr. Martin, Governor Pawlenty “doesn’t advocate for a major ideological shift—few prominent voices in the party are—but rather for aggressively offering solutions on issues such as health care, energy and education that have been viewed as Democratic turf.”

So here’s crux of the Republican dilemma. It can become the party of slash and burn as embodied by Governor Palin and encouraged by Governor Barbour. Or it can become a party of ideas as advocated by Governor Pawlenty.

The choice is simple. Making it may not be.

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McCain Channeling Truman: An American Tradition

As whacky as this presidential campaign has been, it still complies with a few constants in political campaigning. Good thing. There have been so many surprises, twists, turns and reversals in this campaign voters are suffering electoral whiplash. Twin Peaks  was less confusing than this campaign.

So thank the political heavens for the constants. The Republican nominee, Senator John McCain, can be counted on to attack his rival as a “tax-and-spend” liberal (that the McCain campaign has gone further to call him a socialist is mere icing on the traditional tax-and-spend cake.)  Senator Barack Obama, meanwhile, can be counted on to accuse his rival of championing “trickle down” economics that favor the rich.

The vice presidential nominees, Governor Sarah Palin and Senator Joe Biden, are doing their best to keep to maintain historical continuity. They both are expert attack dogs. And both tend to make statements that need clarification. For example, Governor Palin didn’t mean there were parts of the country that are unAmerican, even though that’s what she said. And Senator Biden’s comment that Senator Obama will be tested with a foreign policy crisis didn’t mean Senator McCain wouldn’t be, too. 

Another hallowed tradition is also being played out. As election day draws closer, the candidate most likely to lose begins invoking the spirit of President Harry Truman. Specifically, they claim the mantel of President Truman’s come from behind win over Governor Thomas Dewey.  (This is where I’d insert the famous photo of President Truman holding the Chicago Daily Tribune edition with the headline “Dewey Defeats Truman,” if I knew how to do that).

First, a word of caution. As I’ve written before, I don’t believe the polls are accurate this year. Further, I think there’s a legitimate scenario that leads to a McCain victory. Still, Senator McCain’s road to the White House looks awfully potholed, so it’s fallen upon him to maintain the tradition of the Truman analogy.  And maintain the Truman tradition he has. “My friends,” he said, as he often does, “when I pull this thing off, I have a request for my opponent. I want him to save that manuscript of his inaugural address and donate it to the Smithsonian so they can put it right next to the Chicago paper that said ‘Dewey Defeats Truman.'” (Senator McCain was referring to a New York Times storythat noted how John Podesta, now heading up Senator Obama’s transition team, drafted an inauguration speech earlier this year — when he was a supporter of Senator Hillary Clinton. OK, now back to our original posting.)

There are variances on the Truman tradition, but they all involve the candidate most likely to fail claiming that the only poll that counts is the one on election day and that the media/pundits/opponents/nay sayers/ etc. are going to be surprised. It’s a long tradition. Time magazine in 1996 collected several examples. Among them:

“I don’t care what the polls say. I’m going to take this case to the American people like Truman did.” So said President Geroge H. W Bush before losing to soon-to-be-President Bill Clinton 370 electoral votes to 168.

“Harry Truman was a fighter, and so am I. My friends, this election is up for grabs.” That was then Governor Michael Dukakis before losing, 426-to-111 electoral votes, to President Bush.

No doomed underdog appears to have gone further than Senator Bob Dole, who ended his 1996 presidential campaign in the shadow of the Truman legacy, saying, “We’re approaching the end of a very historic campaign, that for many months I’ve traveled all over this country to spread my message about the future of America, and like all worthy causes, this one was done without its challenges. At times, many wondered whether my voice would be heard….  So it is fitting in the final hours of this campaign that I have come here to Independence, Missouri, the hometown of Harry Truman, a plain-spoken man, who defied the odds and challenged the prevailing wisdom and dared to trust the people.”  Senator Dole lost to President Clinton in the electoral college 479-to-159.

As CNN and other news organizations turn their electoral maps blue, be prepared for Senator McCain to ramp up his argument that he’ll surprise them all and win. He may actually pull it off even if it’s usually a sign of impending disaster. Whatever the outcome, we owe him our thanks for continuing an American tradition, one that has served the country, if not our losing candidates, well.

As Noted: Don’t Believe the Polls

Everyone treats them as pronouncements from on high, but this year pre-election polls are especially questionable. This year, I believe the polls will be especially unrealiable. A quick review of RealClearPolitics.com illustrates the problem. On October 22nd, a CBS News/NY Times polls shows Senator Barack Obama leading Senator John McCain by 13 percentage points. Rasmussen Reports reports the lead is seven percent. Gallup offers two polls: a “traditional” poll showing a four percent lead and an “expanded” one showing a six percent lead. Reuters/C-Span/Zogby has Senator Obama ahead by 12 percent and  Hotline/FD shows him leading by just five percent.

How can six polls released on the same day have such disparite results? It’s one thing for polls to be unreliable predictors of what will happen on election day. It’s another to be all over the map on the same day. What’s going on here?

Alan Fram of the Associated Press provides some answers in an article well worth reading. The all news stations have to talk about something and poll results are a favorite topic. After all, it has numbers. You have one person winning and another losing. It’s a heck of a lot simpler to cover than tax policy.

So, since you’re going to be hearing and reading a lot about polls from now until November 4th, you might as well understand why every poll should be read with vast quantities of salt. It doesn’t make them any more reliable, but it does help them taste better.

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A McCain Razor Thin Win or an Obama Landslide?

A lot has been going Senator Barack Obama’s way of late. The economic turmoil is sweeping independents his way. Second thoughts about the selection of Governor Sarah Palin is pushing Republicans his way. His campaign coffers are full. The Republicans look desperate. And he’s received the endorsement of perhaps the most admired individual in American politics, former Secretary of State Colin Powell. While I’ve made clear my belief that the polls this year are less reliable than usual, based on state-by-state polls, Obama is leading in states totaling more than the 270 electoral votes he needs to win on election day. All of which explains why Senator John McCain could win this election by an extremely narrow margin.

To see why, take a look at the CNN Electoral Map Calculator.  The Calculator applies various polling data to award states’ electoral votes to a candidate ifthe election were held today. (Last I checked, however, the election is not being held today). This is important. Being ahead in politics is like paper profits — or losses — in the stock market. Until you sell the stock, the gain or loss is meaningless. And unless you maintain your lead through election, the early polls don’t matter.

Based on their interpretation of various polls, CNN’s calculator shows Senator Obama leading in states with enough electoral votes to exceed the 270 he needs to win. Specifically, they indicate the Democratic candidate is leading in states with 277 electoral votes, his Republican opponent Senator McCain is ahead in states with 174 and there are six states, totalling 87 electoral votes, which are too close to call.

Let’s look at those six states, moving west to east (all poll referenced below were taken on October 19th or earlier):

  1. Nevada, where Real Clear Politics’ poll of polls shows Senator Obama ahead by just 2.3 percent;
  2. Colorado, where the Real Clear Politics poll average has Senator Obama ahead by 5.4 percent;
  3. Missouri, where RCP poll average shows Senator Obama ahead by 2.7 percent;
  4. Ohio, where Senator Obama’s lead in the RCP poll of polls is 2.8 percent;
  5. North Carolina,where Senator Obama is ahead by only 1.5 percent in the RCP poll average; and
  6. Florida, where Senator Obama leads by 2.0 percent in the RCP poll of polls.

All six of these states went for President George W. Bush in 2004. If these polls are close to being right (a very big if) a shift of just one and one-half percent of voters from Senator Obama to Senator McCain would bring five of the states into the Republican column. A move by just three percent of those supporting the Democrat to Senator McCain would bring along the sixth state. This would be great news for the McCain-Palin ticket, but not great enough. Even with all 87 electoral votes from these toss-up states Senator Obama would still win on November 4th, 277 electoral votes to 261.

Running the board to take all six toss-up states won’t be easy, but it is certainly possible. These are traditionally red states and Senator McCain and the Republican Party have the resources to contest all of them. A gaffe or stumble by Senator Obama or his running mate, Senator Joe Biden, could result in the minor swings required. So could independent campaign committees hammering away on Reverend Jeremiah Wright, William Ayers or other hot button, Swift Boat worthy attacks.

If Senator McCain were to sweep the toss up states, the next president could be decided by Virginia. Currently, Real Clear Politics show Senator Obama ahead there by 8.0 percent (and the most recent poll used in the average shows the Democrat ahead by only six percent. If only four percent of those favoring Senator Obama switch to Senator McCain, the Republican nominee would win the White House with 274 electoral votes.

The last time Virginia went for the Democratic ticket was in 1964. While an influx of more liberal and independent voters in the suburbs of Washington, DC has helped elect Democrats to the Senate and the Governor’s office, down state is still conservative. There’s a large military presence in the state which should also help Senator McCain. Again, it won’t be easy. A gaffe by the Democrats combined with a strong get-out-the-vote effort by the GOP, however, could deliver the state’s electoral vote to Senator McCain.

There’s a lot of ifs in this scenario. But it does show that even two weeks before the election, there’s a chance we’ll be swearing in President McCain and Vice President Palin come January. Significantly, they could achieve their electoral college win while losing the popular vote, but it’s still a win — just ask President Bush.

Of course, it could go the other way. Senator Obama could win all the toss-up states and defeat Senator McCain 364-to-174 in the electoral college. That’s called a landslide. Even the more likely scenario of Senator McCain holding on to Missouri and North Carolina for the Republicans would result in a 338-to-200 win for the Democrats — arguably still a mandate. 

Anything can happen in the next two weeks: an international incident; a botched interview; more bank failures; more brazen political attack (whether true or not); the list goes on and on. Being ahead on October 21st does win elections. It’s what happens on election day that matters. And this election day, November 4th, Senator McCain could win small or Senator Obama might win big.

Any way you look at it, it’s not over yet.

McCain’s Choice: Anger or Dignity

I’ve worked in fair number of campaigns over the years, most — but for the record, not all — losing ones. Some were cliffhangers. My first campaign, back in 1972 when I was a teenage press secretary, nearly elected the first woman to California’s State Senate, Cathy O’Neill. She lost by a percent, less than what the Peace & Freedom Party candidate polled. It wasn’t until nearly 6:00 am the morning after election day we knew for sure we’d lost.

I was also there at the dawn of the Bradley Effect. That was when Joe Trippi, later campaign manager of former Governor Howard Dean and a senior aide to former Senator John Edwards, put down the phone and told then Mayor Tom Bradley that, in spite of the pre-election day polls, he was not going to win the California Governor’s race in 1982.

These are not fond memories.

Neither were the big losses, of which there were more than a few. These are the ones in which the candidate knows in his or her heart that the race is over, but needs to find the strength to keep on campaigning through election day. It’s a test of their character, poise and commitment to something beyond themselves, but it boils down to a simple choice: do they go out flailing or with dignity? 

The former approach involves often ugly attacks at the opponent, the media, and anyone (and everyone) else who comes within reach of the candidate. The candidate and his or her inner-circle just can’t believe they’re going to lose. They assume it’s a trick. That the other side cheated. Or the Fates cheated. The inevitable loss is not their fault and they want the world to know it.

In the dignified version of acknowledging defeat, candidate becomes more introspective. He or she seems to recall why they got into the fray in the first place. Instead of winnin at all costs, they focus on why they should have won. They shift from doing whatever it takes to win, to doing what’s right to preserve their standing and reputation. It’s a campaign that moves from looking for the next headline to being able to look at oneself in the mirror. In many ways, it’s the most honest period of the campaign.

Senator Hillary Clinton veered between both approaches as her campaign against Senator Barack Obama wound down earlier this year. In the end, however, she displayed her best attributes. Losing somehow freed her to speak more from the heart, to present the ideas and positions she’d long delivered from scripts by rote in a more sincere and meaningful way.

Senator McCain is fast approaching his moment of truth. He’s a smart politician. While he sees himself as the ultimate Comeback Kid, he knows winning is a long shot. His campaign has given up on Michigan. The lift from selecting Governor Sarah Palin continues to rally the core, but is becoming a drag when it comes to independents. In the final month of the campaign he’s forced to shore up support in normally safe Republican states like Virginia and North Carolina. Leading voices in his own party are suggesting his campaign is floundering. And now some of the pundits and pollsters are claiming Senator Obama is a single state away from an Electoral College majority. While I’ve written before about why the polls in this campaign should be discounted, the sheer weight of so many polls tracking the Democratic candidate’s accelerating momentum cannot be ignored.

Senator McCain’s can still hope to strike a surprising blow during the last presidential debate at Hofstra University on Wednesday night. But he’s debated Senator Obama twice already and knows the odds of a game changing result are slim.

And that’s when we’ll see the direction in which Senator McCain moves. Last week he gave conflicting clues. He let his campaign, including his running mate, make ugly, personal charges against Senator Obama. The charges went beyond questioning his judgment — they were accusations of treason by someone who fails to see America the way Senator McCain’s supporters do. The charges looked a lot like flailing and Senator McCain seemed to encourage it. His angry side was on display.

Then there was the meeting in Minnesota in which Senator McCain stood up to his own booing followers to declare Senator Obama to be a “decent, family man” and “a person that you do not have to be scared of as president of the United States.” In demanding respect for an opponent he clearly does not like personally, Senator McCain displayed the fairness and character for which he was widely admired prior to this presidential campaign.

And that’s the choice Senator McCain will soon need to face. Shortly after Wednesday’s debate, assuming no surprises there or elsewhere, Senator McCain will sit down with his advisers and face reality: his long-held dream of being President of the United States is unlikely to be realized. Yet, for the sake of his party and for his supporters, he will need to continue to continue a grueling campaign schedule of rallies, town hall meetings and  interviews. He’ll have to decide whether he wants to spend the end game as an angry politician or a dignified statesman. He will need to decide if he wants to tear the country apart or help mend it back together.

When forced to decide, my guess is he’ll take the high road. He’ll continue to insist he’s best qualified to be president. He’ll continue to point out his opponent’s failings. Yet he’s shown he’s capable of doing both in a way that maintains the principles he’s stood for throughout most of his career. In taking this path, he’ll make his points in ways that enhances his stature when he returns to the Senate, much like Senator Clinton did.

And while this approach will disappoint his most ardent supporters, it will be the right thing to do because it puts his country. It might even add to his vote total come election day.

Can Republicans Remain Relevant in U.S. Senate

As Republican hopes of retaining the White House dim in the face of an increasingly desperate campaign by Senator John McCain, the party faces an even greater threat — becoming irrelevant in Congress, and specifically, in the United States Senate. It all comes down to whether the GOP can retain at least 41 seats in the upper house, The odds are with them, but it’s a far from uncertain result. Reducing their chances is Senator McCain’s campaign  consistent attacks on all incumbents in Washington. The worsening economic crisis only makes electoral matters worse for the GOP.

Today the Senateis narrowly divided: 51 Senators caucus with the Democrats; 49 with the Republicans. Two of those siding with the Democrats are actually independents. Senator Bernie Sanders is a self-described democratic socialist, but throughout his long Congressional career has been considered a Democrat when it comes to electing leadership and committee assignments. The other independent is Senator Lieberman, a life-long Democrat who was defeated in his party primary in 2006, but was reelected to the Senate as an independent. He is a strong and vocal supporter of Senator McCain and, while he has been restrained in criticising the Democratic nominee, Senator Barack Obama, he’s let loose with a few salvos.

With 49 Senators, Republicans can exert significant influence on legislation, confirmations and the political landscape as a whole. They need just one vote to prevail on an issue since Vice President Dick Cheney would break a tie. Through the filibuster, any 41 of them can stop the Senate from taking any action on a measure. And they’ve successfully wielded this procedural weapon over 90 times in the past two years. Were the threat of a fillibuster to disappear, Democrats could, if they desire and can remain unified, push any vote through the Senate without restraint.

Consequently, 60 is the magic number and Democrats are getting very close to reaching it. 35 Senate seats are up for election this year. When the dust settles,  Congressional Quarterly predicts at least 56 will be Democrats and only 41 Republicans. Three contests, in North Carolina, Minnesota and Mississippi, are too close to call. This assumes both the independent Senators continue to caucus with the Democrats.

What should make Republicans especially nervous is that four of the seats Congressional Quarterly place in the GOP column are only leaning in that direction. One of those is in Oregon where Senator Gordon Smith is being pressed by the state House Speaker, Jeff Merkley. The polls listed on Real Clear Politics, taken in late-September, show Representative Merkley ahead, although narrowly. The economic downturn and the coattails of Senator Obama could flip this seat to the Democrats. Coupled to a sweep of the toss-up contests and the Democrats would be at 60, just one surprise away from the magic number.

Ironically for Republicans, Senator McCain and his running mate, Governor Sarah Palin, are harming their chances of winning close Senate races. The GOP running mates have incessantly attacked the Washington culture, condemning Republicans for championing change, but failing to do so. To listen to Senator McCain and Governor Palin, there’s no incumbent in Congress who deserves reelection.  Being hammered by your Democratic opponent is bad enough. To have the top of your own ticket pile on is horrific — and can result in a surprise come election day.

Winning in Oregon, sweeping the three seats where there’s no favorite is a big challenge for Democrats, but it’s certainly a possibility. Doing so would make Senator Lieberman especially powerful. Democrats are angry with him for so visibly and vocally supporting Senator McCain’s presidential bid. Many would like to kick him from the caucus, which would result in his losing the chairmanship of the Senate Governmental Affairs committee.

Yet exacting revenge on the Connecticut Independent could deprive Democrats of their super-majority, creating a 59-41 partisan split in the Senate. This would enable a united GOP caucus to retain just enough power to exert influence. Given this situation, the Democrats might be willing to forgive Senator Lieberman his partisan sins. Indeed, being the determinative vote on breaking a filibuster would make Senator Lieberman extremely powerful in Washington.

Senator Lieberman and the Republican Party, however, better hope there’s not two surprises on November 4th. If Democrats reach 60 seats without the help of Senator Lieberman, the independent lawmaker and his friends in the GOP could well become witnesses to history, not participants in it.

Why McCain/Obama Polls Will Be Wrong

The way everyone follows the polls, you might think they actually mean something. Everyone wants to know who’s ahead and who’s behind. The problem is, in 2008, the public opinion polls can’t provide an accurate answer. There’s simply too many new variables this time around.

The pollsters are already trying to account for the Bradley effect. This is the tendency of some voters to claim they’ll vote for a Black candidate, but who, in the privacy of the voting booth, can’t or won’t do so. That’s why the pollsters were wrong in the 1982 California gubernatorial campaign. They showed Tom Bradley beating his Republican opponent, Attorney General George Deukmejian by a decent margin. On election day, however, Mayor Bradley’s thin margin was more than wiped out by the GOP’s groundbreaking absentee ballot campaign. (For the record, I was a Deputy Campaign Director in the Bradley campaign, so I got to experience the “effect” first hand.)

Pollsters have gained some experience in adjusting for voters saying one thing and doing another in state campaigns, but they have no experience in a national election. But the fact that Senator Obama is the first African American nominated by a major party is just one of many variables. Another is the presence of Governor Sarah Palin on the Republican ticket. Just as there are some voters who won’t vote for an African American, there are some who will hesitate to put a woman one heartbeat away from the Oval Office. And still others who will say they’ll vote for a 47 year old or a 72 year old for president, but won’t. These racists, sexists and ageists are fools, but, from a pollsters point of view, many of them are also liars. The question is, how many of these liars are there out there? And how do they balance out? That’s a lot of adjusting required.

Adjusting for fools and liars is tough enough. But the pollsters also have to account for the unprecedented influx of new voters Senator Obama’s campaign is recruiting. According to the Associated Press, in Pennsylvania the Democrats have added 375,000 voters, and Republicans lost over 115,000, since 2006. Democratis added over 165,000 voters in North Carolina, and Republicans lost over 35,000, in the past two years. In the 28 states that report party registration, Democrats have added 2 million voters while the GOP has lost over 340,000 since 2006.

And the voter registration efforts continue. With colleges and universities back in session, the Obama campaign is hard at work recruiting young voters. The pollsters will attempt to adjust their findings for this army of new voters, but the numbers are unprecedented. How many of them will actually turn out on November 4th? Will the Obama campaign pivot to an absentee ballot campaign among their core supporters sometime in the next eight weeks? If so, will the traditional assumptions pollsters use to calculate turnout in certain age groups hold up?

These factors make polling an approximate calculation at best. Throw in the fact that an unexpected incident (a candidate gaffe or health problem, a serious flare-up overseas, a terrorist attack at home) could shift voters dramatically in one direction or another, and the predictive power of polls becomes even more tenuous.

Certainly, the pundits will tout their polls. Sites that report on polls from a variety of sources will remain popular (e.g., Real Clear Politics). And candidates will tout their momentum when they have it. But in the long run, they won’t be any more accurate than they were in predicting Senator Hillary Clinton’s “surprising” win in New Hampshire back in February.

The candidates should ignore the polls and just remain paranoid. Each should assume they’re behind everywhere they need to win and act accordingly. After all, just because the polls say you’re ahead, doesn’t mean you are.