The right eloquence needs no bell to call the people together and no constable to keep them. ~ Emerson

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Giving Rasmussen Credit As Due

The Pollster Proved Inaccurate but Unbiased When Predicting the Massachusetts Senate Race

GOP candidate Scott Brown pulled off a truly transformative triumph last night, winning the Senate seat of the late Ted Kennedy and becoming the first Republican Senator from Massachusetts in nearly thirty years. Pundits and politicians alike have gone into overdrive attempting to analyze and explain both what Brown and the Republicans did right as well as what loser Martha Coakley, President Obama, and the Democrats did wrong.

I will leave them to it and instead focus on what another player in all this did right and wrong – the folks at Rasmussen Reports.

Scott Rasmussen and his crew typically receive very differently ratings along partisan lines. Many Republicans/conservatives consider him the most accurate pollster operating today. For their part, many Democrats/liberals dismiss him with accusations ranging from a Republican bias to an outright GOP shill. At heart is the proportion of Republicans, Democrats, and Independents included in Rasmussen polls versus other polling organizations.

Rasmussen himself insists his methods are both unbiased and more accurate because he focuses on likely voters versus registered voters or all adults.

So how did Rasmussen fare in the Massachusetts Senate special election?

Back on January 4, Rasmussen released the first credible poll showing Brown making enormous inroads into Coakley’s lead, formerly assumed insurmountable. Ben Smith at Politico acknowledged this poll as a game changer in how experts viewed the race.

So, with such apparently astute insight into how the election was trending, how did Rasmussen do in predicting the winner and final numbers? The answer, in a nutshell, is that he equivocated and still got it wrong.

Rasmussen relied on his organization own final poll, published on January 11, that showed Brown had pulled within two points of Coakley. On Monday, January 18, Rasmussen wrote an analysis entitled, What Will Happen in Massachusetts on Tuesday. In it, he concluded, “we’re right back where we were a week ago,” meaning, in his mind, it was a dead heat.

In reality, Brown maintained a consistent lead of about five points throughout the night. This was in line with what almost every poll taken on January 14 or later predicted.

What is more, Rasmussen identified the key element to Brown’s success as low turnout. “Brown is leading slightly among those certain to vote . . . If [last minute Democratic efforts] boosts turnout among Democrats, [Coakley] will win.” Such a prediction was consistent with Rasmussen’s emphasis on a likely voter model.

In fact, Democratic turnout was strong but as the Boston Herald reports this morning, “High turnout in Bay State suburbs and among Independent voters who flocked to the polls eclipsed a healthy turnout in staunchly Democratic Boston, fueling Republican Scott Brown's victory yesterday.”

Rasmussen’s less-than-perfect predictions were pulled off the site’s front page this morning (although not off the site altogether) and replaced by a self-congratulatory piece stressing the organization’s early detection of Brown’s surging momentum. Rasmussen showed more integrity and courage in reporting the results of its exit polling.

Rasmussen has trumpeted the unpopularity of the various healthcare reform bills in Congress throughout the past year, legislation that Brown’s forty-first Republican Senate vote very well may now kill. “The health care issue is front and center as the reason Brown has gained traction,” assured Rasmussen in his pre-election analysis.

Today, the site admits that among the fifty-six percent of Massachusetts voters who named healthcare reform as their number one priority, Coakley actually won by a seven point margin. Brown’s support was greatest among voters whose number one priorities were national security or taxes and he won by a narrow margin among those ranking the economy in general as their top concern.

Granted, special elections are notoriously difficult to predict. Still, Rasmussen’s analysis is a blow to Republicans who trumpet his accuracy.

However, it is at least equally as big a kick in the teeth to Democratic charges of partisan bias. Rasmussen’s predictions did indeed prove too “conservative” but in the other sense of this word. While not glossing over his mistakes, they are undeniably at odds with someone attempting to spin results in a Republican direction. What is more, he was forthcoming when his pet issue proved less substantive than assumed.

Rasmussen Reports may occasionally engage in self-promotion but all for-profit media organizations are guilty of this practice from time to time. Its performance in the Massachusetts Senate special election showed timely if imperfect insight and no sign of bias for the Republican candidate, let alone acting as a partisan promoter for the GOP. Scott Rasmussen and his staff deserve recognition for this.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Massachusetts Malefactor

A GOP Win Might Provide Democrats with a Miracle Way Out on Healthcare Reform

The day has come to see whether the GOP can pull off a “Massachusetts Miracle.” Polls show Republican candidate Scott Brown anywhere from a dead heat to a substantial lead over Martha Coakley in a special election to fill the late Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat. Most political watches assumed Coakley a shoe-in but Brown demonstrated meteoric momentum in recent weeks.

Coakley proved a weak candidate, with poor showings in debates and a series of campaign gaffes and missteps. However, part of Brown’s impetus is unquestionably due to the ability of the GOP to make the race into a mandate over President Obama’s push for healthcare reform. Coakley has made it clear that she will support whatever compromise bill emerges from Senate/House negotiations. Brown will certainly vote with other Republican Senators to filibuster and kill the legislation.

Scott Rasmussen, looking only at his own organization’s polls, sees it as a question of voter turnout, with larger crowds favoring Coakley and smaller ones Brown. Mark Blumenthal of, looking at a variety of last-minute polls, finds Brown’s rapid ascendancy “unprecedented” and explains how non-response bias may cause the enthusiasm of Brown supporters to overstate his lead. However, he sadly concludes this is not the case and “Brown is the likely winner.”

If Brown does prevail today, the White House and Democratic Congressional leaders are considering several draconian options to force through healthcare reform before their current supermajority in the Senate is lost.

These include delaying any recounts, certification, and swearing-in of Brown while shifting compromise negotiations into high gear, finding a Republican sixtieth vote (Senator Olympia Snowe of Maine is the most likely end of such aims), and using a budget reconciliation process that requires a simple majority of fifty-one votes to pass.

Most draconian of all would be asking every liberal in the House to vote for the Senate bill exactly as is, something highly unlikely given hostility from the left to what they see as “gutting” of the public option and other important provisions as well as the closeness of the last House vote.

However, there is another draconian option that Obama and other supporters of healthcare reform must at least be tempted to consider. Namely, allow Brown’s swearing-in and then let him and the other Republican Senators kill healthcare reform for good.

It would be a colossal defeat and embarrassment for the President. However, continued growing public sourness among voters about the current bills (56% disapproval according to Rasmussen, 54.8% according to Pollster) might give some Democratic candidates the break they need to survive the 2010 midterm elections. It could even prove helpful to Obama’s re-election chances in 2012 as well.

Moreover, Brown election would change the current Congressional dynamic. Republicans have been vocal, acerbic, and almost unanimous in their opposition to any healthcare bill Democrats produce. In spite of this, countercharges of obstructionism and “do-nothingness” against Republicans have failed to stick precisely because 2008 was a perfect storm giving Democrats every opportunity to pass a bill. Conservative Democratic Blue Dogs in the House and Senate Democratic moderates have watered down the legislation and caused it to proceed at glacial pace, not Republicans.

This would change with Brown as the forty-first vote in a Republican filibuster. Their role would shift suddenly from passive admonition to active termination. Doubtless, they will welcome the ability to place defeat of healthcare reform under their control. Yet with this control would come responsibility and quite possibly culpability as the issue is analyzed and re-debated in cooler hindsight.

Because, with their stifling actions, Republicans will not only be killing these current unpopular bills but also any healthcare reform legislation for the foreseeable future, unless they can sweep to their own supermajorities in 2010 and wish to endure likely equal hostility to that faced today by Dems in response to their own set of proposals. With one vote, Brown can become a malefactor, turning Obama from a big-government monster to a populist, progressive martyr.

I think the chances of Democrats following this scenario are extremely unlikely. Obama, Reid, and Pelosi have repeatedly demonstrated their resolve to pass what they believe is morally mandated legislation, despite its unpopularity and despite its possible negative impact to their individual political careers and the Democratic Party as a whole.

Still, it must be tempting for them to consider letting Brown and the Republicans slay this particular dragon, whose fall voters may subsequently come to view with resentment and regret, versus offering themselves up as a sacrifice to it.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Unpopular and Unpopulist

Obama May Have Just Learned How to be the Kind of President that Americans Want

Republicans are already celebrating what they see as inevitable crushing success in the 2010 midterm elections, based on President Obama’s dismal poll numbers and lack of Democratic accomplishments. The reason for Obama’s woes, they maintain, is a basic disconnect with the American people.

“The people are here and he is there [regarding healthcare reform],” scolds Peggy Noonan in the Wall Street Journal. The Washington Post’s Charles Krauthhammer blames Obama’s triumvirate of progressive reforms in healthcare, energy, and education. “The reason for today's vast discontent,” he harrumphs, “is not that Obama is too cool or compliant but that he's too left.”

I think the critics are half-right on this matter. Krauthhammer, in particular, is correct that Obama aspires to be a transformative President in the manner of FDR or Ronald Reagan. Leaders attempting to bring about sweeping change are bound to generate passionate resistance. In this sense, almost manic hostility to Obama by many conservatives and some Independents over legislation such as Cap & Trade and Healthcare Reform is only natural.

The critical missing piece for Obama these days is sustained enthusiasm from the liberal base and other Independents. Instead, his would-be supporters are exhibiting emotions ranging from apathy at best to disappointment and betrayal at worst. Sadly, Obama has given them little reason to feel otherwise. Resistance to his signature progressive initiatives have resulted in their languishment or gutting by Democratic Senate moderates.

What is more, in other areas, most notably national security and the economy, Obama has proved more like a clone than the antithesis of George W. Bush. This is not especially surprising in the case of security, where unease over Obama’s lack of experience and gravitas was universal during the campaign. The economy, however, has been a genuine surprise.

Obama is no populist. Despite a gift for oratory, he prefers professorial analysis to demagoguery. His mood tends toward cool detachment over fiery resentment. Yet he rode into office last year on a wave of populist revolt against the Bush Administration, whose economic policies rested on a thirty year old philosophy in which moderate-to-conservative Presidents and conservative Congresses favored Wall Street, banks, and corporations – with benefits to “trickle down” to everyday Americans.

One of the changes I most hoped from Obama was a liberal President and moderate-to-liberal Congress turning this tenet around to ask how the powerful of society might bow to and serve the needs of the common people. The policies they championed might not be perfect or even completely fair but would serve to help offset/correct the prevailing emphasis/excesses of the past three decades.

I do not doubt Obama has chosen a dichotomy of approaches as a way to provide the bipartisan governance he promised. However, his efforts to date have seemed random instead of balanced, angering the right but also dispiriting the left.

Unfortunately, Obama’s reputation regarding economic matters suffered greatly when his first legislation in office was a multi-billion dollar bailout of the financial industry.

There was never any allusion that everyday American would benefit from this bailout, except to the extent that allowing several great ships to sink would produce a wake sufficiently large enough to swamp many small boats (i.e. the whole “too big to fail” argument). However, billions spent that left them no better off also left a sour taste in the mouths of many voters.

This sourness turned terminally bitter when banks, even those who received bailout money, began posting huge profits and giving out huge bonuses to executives. Despite public outcry, Obama followed the advice of Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and National Economic Council Director Lawrence Summers to go easy on financial institutions out of fear of harming/slowing the economic recovery.

This approach, as well as Obama’s falling approval ratings, has been the standard until now.

Obama, looking for ways to balance the budget in anticipation of his annual State of the Union address, needed to find a source of new revenues. At last, he removed the gloves of restraint and delivered a solid populist punch at the very institutions he helped to save/stabilize twelve months ago.

His proposed 0.15 percent tax on the liabilities of large financial institutions would apply only to those companies with assets of more than $50 billion – a group estimated at about fifty companies. The legislation is not perfect or even entirely fair. All banks would have to pay, including those that did not accept any taxpayer assistance and those that did but have since repaid their loans.

Obama reasons that despite how much or little their individual institutions suffered, all bankers acted irresponsibility, taking reckless risks for short-term profits and plunging the entire U.S. economy into crisis.

Predictably, both banks and Republican politicians denounced the tax as counterproductive to recovery.

“Politics have overtaken the economics,” said Scott Talbott, the chief lobbyist for the Financial Services Roundtable, a group representing large Wall Street institutions.

Jamie Dimon, CEO of JPMorgan Chase & Co., characterized it as “punitive” and “a bad idea.”

Republican Representative Scott Garrett of New Jersey, a member of the House Financial Services Committee, called the plan a “job-killing initiative that will further cripple the economy by increasing fees passed on to consumers and small businesses, while reducing consumer credit.”

The Obama Administration was accepting none of this.

“It just strains credulity to suggest that banks who are now announcing bonus pools ranging from $10 billion to perhaps even $30 billion can find no other way to meet their responsibility to pay back the American taxpayer other than to suggest that they would pull back on lending,” countered Treasury Department adviser Gene Sperling.

The President was even less forgiving and in starkly populist terms. “We are already hearing a hue and cry from Wall Street, suggesting that this proposed fee is not only unwelcome but unfair, that by some twisted logic it is more appropriate for the American people to bear the cost of the bailout rather than the industry that benefited from it . . . Instead of setting a phalanx of lobbyists to fight this proposal or employing an army of lawyers and accountants to help evade the fee, I'd suggest you might want to consider simply meeting your responsibility.”

Ouch! But Obama was not yet finished. “My determination to achieve this goal is only heightened when I see reports of massive profits and obscene bonuses at some of the very firms who owe their continued existence to the American people, folks who have not been made whole and who continue to face real hardship in this recession.”

This is exactly the type of rhetoric, the type of action, and the type of “change” I have most wanted to hear from Obama. I cannot deny the accusations of his liberal critics that it has been much too long in coming but it is no less welcome despite its tardiness.

Conservative critics, such as Krauthhammer and Noonan, will doubtless oppose it as wrongheaded, even as they dismiss it as purely politically motivated. I invite them to do so at their own peril. As White House Spokesperson Robert Gibbs wryly observed to reporters, “If you want to be on the side of big banks, then you're certainly – this is a great country – you're free to do so.”

Obama did not have to learn how to be President so much as he had to learn how to be the kind of President to which he aspires. His failure about how to do so has made him extremely unpopular with many Americans. He may have just figured out what to do about it.

“Restraint,” “detachment,” and “disconnect” were used far too much in conjunction with Obama in 2009. If the word latched on to him for 2010 is “populist,” the Republicans may be counting votes at the midterm elections as apprehensively as Democrats are counting them today in the special runoff for Ted Kennedy’s old Senate seat.