Collective Inaction

It’s now probably too late, but in the summer or even the fall the Republican party might have been able to stop the rise of Donald Trump. Stopping Trump would have required voters, activists, donors, institutional supporters, and party leaders to collectively recognize, engage, and cooperate in solving the problem. There’s still time to “solve” the Trump problem, but now it will simply create other problems at least as damaging to the Republicans’ chance of winning in November. An earlier effort that limited the damage to the party may not have succeeded, but we’ll never know. The party never decided to try. And it shouldn’t surprise anyone they never did.

For a hundred years Republicans have imagined America on the verge of forced collectivization. An abiding constant in GOP politics and policy–maybe the only constant–is a rabid opposition to organized labor. They’ve shunted aside the classic conservative emphasis on  tradition and communal bonds for the libertarian pablum of Ayn Rand, the soundbites and lobbying of Grover Norquist, and the money and campaign prowess of Charles and David Koch. They mocked “It Takes a Village” and “you didn’t build that.” And they respond to government efforts to promote a common good with reactionary resistance to any curbs on their individual autonomy.

So it should surprise no one that a problem requiring a collective response has paralyzed the Republicans with a collective action problem.

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Why Clinton Could Win Tonight, & Why Bernie Probably Will Win Tonight

My kids are eating dinner, and I’m going to have to scramble to put them to bed before the results start rolling in, but I thought I’d quickly lay out a few thoughts before we know who won tonight’s New Hampshire primary.

We’ll start with the most likely: why Bernie Sanders will probably win.

First, Bernie has a home-field advantage. Sure, a lot of people have poo-poohed the notion. But it’s amused me that on Twitter the people who scoff at the notion are those with little or no experience with western New Hampshire, while those of us who know the Monadnock, Cheshire County (Keene), and the upper Connecticut River Valley counties of Sullivan (Claremont) and Grafton (Hanover), chuckle at people who never drive west of Manchester or Amherst declaring that New Hampshire is nothing like Vermont.

About 12-15% of New Hampshire voters (maybe slightly more in a Democratic primary) are in the Burlington VT media market, and have had Bernie on their radios and TV screens for 35 years. Plus, plenty of people who no longer live there but now live elsewhere in New Hampshire still knew of Bernie before his presidential bid. I don’t have time to grab the links, but last April Sanders had about 65% name recognition in New Hampshire. He was only around 35% name recognition in Iowa. It’s not like being from Massachusetts, but there’s some silliness going around that if a candidate’s not from Massachusetts she can’t have a home advantage. If that were true, Howard Dean–after the scream–wouldn’t have beaten John Kerry in almost all of Grafton, Sullivan and Cheshire counties, and lost statewide by only 12 points.

The similarities between New Hampshire and Vermont show up especially in New Hampshire’s Democratic electorate. Like Vermont, the New Hampshire Democrats are almost entirely white. Like Louisiana, Maine and Vermont, the second-most commonly spoken language isn’t Spanish, it’s French. New Hampshire has one of the heaviest concentration of people of English background in the country. And they’re the two most secular states in the country. Assuming Bernie’s strength is in states most like Vermont, there’s no state where he should be stronger than New Hampshire.

There’s another advantage I’ve seen nobody mention: proximity to Bernie’s front door.

In 2006 I managed a Congressional campaign in New Hampshire’s second district. We won, and I had the privilege of working in Congress. In that first year, while planning the first reelection, one of the Democratic party’s number-crunching operations did analyses for all the potentially vulnerable new members elected in that wave. In almost every district, anywhere in the country, over 85% of the population is in 10 or fewer cities and towns. But in our district–essentially the three quarters from Nashua to the VT/MA border, up to Canada, and down half of the Maine border, leaving a carve-out of Durham area, the Seacoast, and the Manchester area–the 20 largest towns had less than half the district’s population. [And that was despite Nashua having about 100,000 people). If a candidate campaigns in Nashua or the other Boston suburbs, about the only people who know she was there are those who were there themselves.

But in the small towns of the rest of the state, when a candidate comes to town, it’s relatively big news, and people talk about it at the local diners, in their supermarkets, their bars. They are not communities of commuters. And they expect to meet and touch the candidates. If a candidate hasn’t given people mani-pedi’s and served them breakfast in bed they’ll say “well, I don’t know, he hasn’t really been here enough for me to get an impression of him.”

Every morning Bernie Sanders wakes up in his bed at home is a day he could get in his car, campaign around New Hampshire, and be back in his bed that night.

None of this is to detract from Sanders’ strong campaign in New Hampshire. But no matter how strong his campaign is, it’s tough to argue that he doesn’t have built-in advantages with a heavily secular, liberal–57% of the primary electorate in 2008–and overwhelmingly white electorate, one that because of proximity he could campaign easier than any other candidate in either field. Sanders has led most of the polls for months, so he should win. He might win by more than 10 points.

But should we assume Sanders actually does have a strong campaign in New Hampshire? I suspect it’s pretty good. But outside of New England, probably no state except maybe Washington should be as favorable to Sanders as Iowa, and Clinton beat him there.

Furthermore, Clinton’s campaign manager Robbie Mook is from Vermont, a few miles from New Hampshire, and he cut his teeth on Dean’s New Hampshire staff (which by all accounts was outstanding, far better than his operation in Iowa) and then he came back in 2008 for the last few months to manage Jeanne Shaheen’s winning Senate campaign. He knows the state. And he may also have help from Michael Wholey, the most respected Democratic field operative of the last thirty years, who ran Kerry’s field operation, keeps involved in New Hampshire, and is based in Boston.

There’s also Clinton’s labor support. It’s possible that in 2008 Clinton would have lost New Hampshire had it not been for targeted voter contact to women by AFSCME, the American Federation of Teachers, and Emily’s List. This time around she also has the endorsements of the SEIU and the National Education Association. There could be a strong member contact program, as well as independent expenditure mail and field contact to women voters. That would be flying under the radar, but could be decisive if the race is otherwise very close.

There’s also the simple fact that overall nationally Clinton does better with women, and 57% of the 2008 electorate was women. Clinton’s national strength with women is in large by because of her massive advantage over Sanders among women of color. But she does better with white women than with white men, so that’s something to keep in mind.

Finally, there’s the undeclared voters. They’re not registered Democrat or Republican, and can pick either primary. In 2008 I heard of quite a bit of anecdotal support for the notion that some undeclared voters who would otherwise have backed Obama thought he would win anyway, so they instead hedged their bets by voting for McCain in the Republican primary. It’s something that’s hard to measure, but so far all the anecdotal stuff coming from reporters has been about undeclared voters are deciding between a Republican and Sanders.

OK, I need to finish up with the kids. But I’m putting this here as a marker for deciphering results tonight and making sense of it all tomorrow.


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Republican Party, Year Zero

For several years, and with increasing vehemence, I’ve doubted the reliability of media polls. I have no reason to think the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll is better or worse than other media polls, but it is notable that the poll of the Republican primary they released this morning has a margin of error of 6.5. In 2012 no major media poll of the Republican nominating contest had a margin of error over 6.0. So, as with all media polls, accept the data warily. With that caveat, look at the NBC/WSJ polls since April, and you can see an astonishing trend toward complete rejection of anyone who has ever held elective office.

A few weeks ago Monmouth asked Republican voters which they favored, someone with government experience, or someone from outside government, 67% favored someone from outside government. That preference shines through in the NBC/WSJ results, with increasing intensity since the spring*:

Sept July June April
Has Held Office 39% 66% 84% 91%
Has Not Held Office 52% 29% 14% 8%

That is an electorate unhappy with it’s party. In fact, if the tea partiers, ultra-conservatives, and generally disaffected and alienated who vote Republican weren’t disproportionately riding scooters at big box stores they might be leading a revolution against their party elites.

But they do appear, for now at least, to be going against the predictions of the political science fundamentalists who pat people on the head and tell them they’re silly for believing campaigns are ever different. This election, they say, will be just like every other election cycle; the parties will sober up from their ideological debaucheries and nominate a responsible figure of the party establishment. Republican primary voters appear bored by responsibility. Since the spring they have tempered their anger, they have further radicalized.

Republican primary voters won’t be denouncing and executing anyone wearing glasses. But they may purge their field of candidates of anyone who has ever served in government or won an election.

*The “has not held office” group is Donald Trump, Ben Carson, and Carly Fiorina. Not all the other Republicans currently hold office, but all have at some point held elective office.

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Iran Strategy Against Democrats So Bad That Trump Uses It for Republicans

Senator Barbara Mikulski’s support for the nuclear deal with Iran ensures enough Senate votes to sustain a presidential veto of a Republican bill to scuttle the deal. The New York Times has a fascinating overview of how skittish Democrats were convinced to support a deal many of them were reluctant to back and that until recently the political press declared in danger of collapsing.

According to the Times, the key figures besides Obama were Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. A White House official called Moniz a “secret weapon” who could explain the details clearly and persuasively. [Unmentioned by the Times is he even traveled to meet Senators in their home states.] Pelosi–probably the most underrated American politician of the last half century or so–ran a war room with a focus and urgency similar to her work in passing the Affordable Care Act. House Democrats helped create a sense of momentum by managing a carefully planned flow of nearly daily announcements of Democrats supporting the bill.

As described in the Times’ article, the administration & early Congressional supporters employed a variety of tactics and resources:

  • Administration officials met personally with about 200 Senate and House Democrats
  • Obama met personally with about 100 Democrats, & called 30 while on vacation
  • The White House arranged meetings between Democrats and diplomats from the other partners to the agreement–Britain, France, Germany, Russia, and China–who made clear there would be no new negotiations, nor continued sanctions
  • Secretary of State John Kerry conveyed support for the deal from former heads of Israeli intelligence and internal security
  • Letters from policy experts addressing concerns and arguments against the deal were passed to Democrats and the news media
  • Pro-deal Democrats pushed back against negative news reports
  • The messaging focused on the policy, and support for the policy was framed not as support for the President, but as agreement with his arguments for the deal

The tactics used by the opponents was much narrower:

  • Opponents ran $20 million in TV ads against the deal
  • Lobbyists & advocacy organizations opposed to the deal threatened retribution against Democrats who supported the deal
  • The key validator put forth against the deal was Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu, whom Republicans had brought to speak before Congress in March
  • The messaging was partisan and intended to cast doubt on the deal and on the administration; according to a spokesman with the America Israel Political Action Committee, “this strong opposition conveys an important message to the world — especially foreign banks, businesses and governments — about the severe doubts in America concerning Iran’s willingness to meet its commitments and the long-term viability of this agreement”

According to the article, one Republican blamed their failure on news media focus on Donald Trump and on Hillary Clinton’s emails.

Let’s look at this from the perspective of the Democrats who were (and in a few remaining  cases still are) making up their minds on this matter. They know Republicans have opposed nearly everything Obama ever proposes. They know that Netanyahu is opposed to the deal but experts whose job was not winning votes, but protecting Israel, are for the deal. Opponents told them that foreign banks, businesses and governments would react negatively if the US ignored Republican opposition, but they also heard foreign officials say the more negative response would come from the US opposing the deal. Democrats were told there would be political costs to supporting the deal, but no broad grassroots opposition ever materialized. And while opponents told Democrats about all the supposed problems with the deal, opponents never offered an alternative. It may not have been the solution Democrats wanted, but it was clear Republicans would not offer any alternative solution.

Eventually, Democrats saw that opposition to the deal was isolated along the Netanyahu-Boehner/McConnell axis, that the world powers were unified behind the policy, and that opponents had no policy. As for Trump undermining the effort, it’s a funny complaint, since Trump denounced the deal. Maybe the opposition failed not because Donald Trump took attention away from the argument, but because it was such a bad argument, that appealed to almost nobody outside the Republican base, that it was adopted by Donald Trump to get primary support from the Republican base.

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“Candidate X went to [local food speciality establishment] and was so out of touch she ordered [local food, probably derived from workman’s lunches at the turn of the century] and asked for it with [condiment or complement that sounds sensible but isn’t the typical local choice.] {Implication that the candidate is a phony, or out of touch with the common people.}”

This week we had one of those stupid stories, about Scott Walker going to a venerable Philadelphia sandwich shop and ordering a cheesesteak with the “wrong” cheese.

Yeah, whatever.

The NPR show The Takeaway–new to the Chicago market, but quickly becoming one of my favorite things on NPR–just did a piece using the Walker story to question if food stories do, or should be expected to, tell us anything about a candidate more than “he’s not from here.” Somewhat cheekily, the guest suggested that rather than worrying about appearing authentic and in touch with all local traditions and mores, Walker could have just been his own man by bringing with him some Wisconsin cheese curds, ordering the cheesesteak without cheese, and dolloping the curds on top.

Sometimes the stupid food story is incidental. A candidate is traveling, stops for lunch, and the press sees her order a salad, or a chicken sandwich without mayo or bun, or an expensive caffeinated drink. Other times, as appears was the case in Philadelphia, the campaign builds an event around going to some local eatery and ordering the local specialty. In that case, the campaign is as much to blame as is the frivolity of shallow journalists; if you have an event with no message other than “the candidate is eating a cheesesteak,” it shouldn’t surprise anyone if we get critiques of the candidate’s performance of eating a cheesesteak.

But candidates still need to eat, and they’ll still stop in the Detroit area for a coney island, or in Chicago for an Italian beef sandwich, in Buffalo for a beef on weck, in the Four Corners area for a Navaho taco, in Maine for crab rolls, or anywhere in the country, where they will order something that originated in, or is unique to, that area. How can candidates prevent the stupid “ordered her food wrong” story?

It’s easy to avoid most of the stupid food stories, and by using an approach candidates should use everywhere and always, and all matters: ask questions, and listen.

If a candidate is really committed to Swiss cheese, then she should have Swiss cheese on her sandwich. If a candidate–like a majority of adults not of northern European background–is lactose-intolerant, she shouldn’t get a cheesesteak, and nobody should make an issue about it. But, if she wants to try a local specialty, she should ask someone for suggestions on how to order it. She should go to the counter, or wait for the server, and when it’s time to order, say “I’d like an Italian beef sandwich; how do you recommend I order it?” [My answer, for what it’s worth, is “hot and wet,” meaning the entire sandwich dipped in the gravy, and topped with spicy relish.] Or say “what’s a popular way of eating it,” or “is there a traditional way, or maybe some recent popular variation?”

Whatever the food, whomever the candidate, a politician will almost never get in trouble for being seen listening to people in public. It’s a great visual. The candidate may learn something. And the citizen will appreciate being heard by a politician pledging to represent her interests and asking for her vote. Even if it was only about which cheese to put on a sandwich.

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This has been a fairly quiet space the last two years. After starting this blog in 2011 I posted fairly regularly, but since June 2013 I’ve only posted just eleven pieces. But while this blog has been quiet my life has been far from quiet. Nearly a year and a half ago my wife and I became parents of twins. For the first several months we both cared for them full time. But last summer my wife returned to teaching and writing her book, and I took over primary care of the kids.

I expected that being a full time parent would take up most of my time. What I didn’t expect was a protracted problem with the adoption that left me no time to write anything longer than quips and snarks on Twitter. But things eventually worked out. We’re happy with the resolution, and relieved to be able to get on with our life free of all but the normal distractions and fears faced by every parent. And i’m eager to get back to writing.

Over the next few months I expect to be writing about politics, how the country is changing, but also how many of our problems are rooted in the past. Conflicts over pluralism, cosmopolitanism, immigration, voting and civil rights, economic development, taxation, internationalism, use of military force, religion, labor, wealth, inequality, individualism and community have always been fought out along the divides of political party, of education, of religion, of North and South, of rural and urban, of white and non-white, and of young and old. But now there is another divide: a tenacious effort to hold on to the fading white-dominated past versus an inevitably more cosmopolitan future. I expect to write about how these conflicts, as well as about the structures and dynamics of campaigns and elections, the politics of Washington and the politics of states, America’s place in the world, and the many things our news media and pundits get wrong, and why.

I may even write a little about baseball.

I intend to use this space to think out loud, but I don’t want to do it alone. I encourage people to comment, and I hope to have discussions.

Finally, I hope this is not the only place where I can be read. I intend to write for publications, so look for my work around the web. And if you’re an editor who thinks I have something interesting to say, please reach out to me about writing for your publication.

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Are Nearly Half of Protestant Voters Unaware They Are Protestant?

According to the 2014 exit polls, 77% of the electorate was Christian. That’s almost identical to the percentage of Protestants in the general population (78%) according to the 2008 Pew U.S. Religious Landscape report. In both the exit polls and the Pew report 24% were Catholic and 2% were Mormon. Pew has Protestants at 51%, and Jehovahs Witnesses, Orthodox and other Christian denominations at less than 2% of the population. However, only 29% of exit poll respondents self-identified as Protestant, while a whopping 22% said some form of Christian other than Protestant, Catholic or Mormon.

I’m going to guess that Jehovah’s Witnesses, Quakers and Mennonites, and Russians, Greeks, Ukrainians, Copts, Keralites and Eritreans and people who’ve converted to those groups’ dominant faiths did not make up 22% of the electorate. Rather, it looks like nearly half of the Protestants who voted in 2014 do not identify as Protestant, or do not realize they are affiliated with a church or denomination that is Protestant.

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