RightOnline Day 1 - "If you can blog...BLOG."

United States Representative and conservative firebrand Rep. Mike Pence (R-IN) addressed conference attendees after lunch today - he made some pretty broad tactical appeals to online activists that have been uncommon to date on the Right, and to that extent, I was pretty impressed with his speech. He also stuck mainly to economic issues, which is what conservative sweethearts will need to do on their end to help coaxing centrist and libertarian voters out of their strongholds, back into the political and policy spheres. I'm not a cameraman, but you can view (well, hear really) Pence's speech in its entirety at my Qik profile. Cross-posted at Liberty Pundits and Intelligence, Please...

RightOnline Day 1 - Building Coalitions

Las Vegas is insane.

Everything I've heard about this Disneyland-for-adults is true: neon, sparkles, bells & whistles, herds (and hordes) of people, STAR WARS slot machines (pictures later)...I will definitely have to come back here one day for purposes other than business. My friend Jon Henke (@JonHenke) and I flew from DC yesterday by way of Newark, NJ and didn't even land in Vegas until 1am PT...it was a long day, and I slept in a bit. It was easy to do in my posh suite at the Venetian, with my sunken living room and remote-controlled drapes! Life is hard.

The first panel I attended today featured Todd Thurman (@toddthurman) of the Heritage Foundation, Brian Faughnan (@brianfaughnan) of Liberty Central, and Alexa Moutevelis (@alexashrugged) of the RNC, all moderated by my Liberty Pundits co-blogger Melissa Clouthier (@melissatweets). The panel focused on connecting grassroots activists in the field to policy shops in DC - like Heritage, Cato, or other think tanks - as well as to communications resources and activism training like those offered by FreedomWorks or the Leadership Institute.

Probably one of the better bits of information passed along during the discussion was the notion that activists in the field shouldn't be shy about engaging DC-based resources. Yes, DC is busy. Yes, DC occasionally has a heightened, over-inflated sense of self. But DC is also sitting on piles of your cash, looking for a way to return value back to you. So don't be shy about sending emails or picking up the phones to ask for help.

But more than just connecting grassroots activists to DC to get talking points and policy papers to support candidates back home, the panel focused on connecting activist to activist using technology - that means Twitter, Facebook, the blogosphere, and other online resources. The RNC announced some nascent, new API and they are transitioning all of their online tools to an open-source platform...the API is apparently already available for developers...more on this later. Despite this move to make RNC resources more available to more people, there was some grumbling in the audience that the RNC fails (on occasion) to return voter vaults back to activists on the ground once they pull out of town following a race. This makes people currently involved with components of the Tea Party movement a bit reticent to cooperate with the RNC in Washington.

After a few questions, and after some dancing around the issue, I asked the panel: is there a sense, going into this November's elections (and subsequently in 2012) that the Right should be worried about the Left exploiting a growing rift between conservatives and libertarians? If so, how can we, or more appropriately, should we be doing anything differently than the suggestions you've all made here today to, strengthen the coalition between these two groups?

The consensus from the panel seemed to be that there's not really any danger this year - libertarians and conservatives agree in principle that the prevailing issue of this election is the economy, stupid. Throwing the bums out is priority #1 in 2010. But the funnel of candidates is currently full, and the new Congressional primary begins, effectively, on November 3 - it is possible that infighting on the Right might get nastier in 2011 and 2012.

Todd Thurman told me after the panel "We just need to make sure we're talking, and that we're sticking together in areas where we agree." I agree in principle with this strategy, but only inasmuch as it's a first step. Because there is potential for infighting to become nastier on the Right as we approach 2012, it's important to talk about areas where we disagree too - libertarians remain (rightly) mistrustful of the Big Government GOP - the same GOP that is trying to ride the Tea Party Tiger into new majorities this fall. Ignoring our differences now can be our foil later.

Cross-posted at Liberty Pundits and Intelligence, Please...

Bad Campaign Ideas 2010

Campaigning does strange things to people.  For instance, it makes some people think videos like these are a good idea....

This video from CAP's Campus Progress is....well, to paraphrase Douglas Adams: 10 out of 10 for trying something unusual. Minus a few million for execution.

 

 

On the other side of the aisle is the recent Mike Weinstein video....which, if you haven't seen it yet, go watch it right now.  And then curse me when you can't get it out of your head for the rest of the day.  They win on choreography, vocal talent and sheer enthusiasm (though, in fairness, it's not hard to out-enthuse zombies).

 

 

I can only assume that the new social media tactic in politics is camp. This may actually be an improvement over some of the previous social media tactics (send press releases about yesterday's news!)

Conservatives, Libertarians, and Purity Tests: Can These Groups Win Without Each Other?

After running across this piece in the Economist today, I was reminded of that timeless adage "You'll attract more flies with honey than with vinegar." That's a woefully good reminder for the Right as Election Day draws nearer.

Plenty of noise has been made in the past few weeks about the abrupt resignation/firing of Dave Weigel from the Washington Post blog "Right Now." I have been a defender of Weigel's, in large part because I think people's expectations of Weigel were too high - and that's not to disparage Weigel at all, whose work I have followed for a couple of years. The problem was, in my view, that lots of activists expected him to counter Ezra Klein's "Wonk Book" with an editorial style, using his platform at the Post to propel the Tea Party to the revery where so many believed it belonged. Another part of the problem is that, as Dan Gainor at the Media Research Center notes, the Post was never clear about why it had hired Weigel in the first place. Reporting? Check. Opinion? Maybe? I still think Weigel does a good job of reporting, and if he's guilty of anything, it's a preoccupation with man-bites-dog narratives. Aside from all that, I don't have much to add to the gallons of punditry sloshing around the Internet about Weigel-gate.

The reason I bring Weigel's short-lived stint at the Post back up for discussion is that the reaction from the activist community to Weigel's resignation - particularly on Twitter - was pretty vicious, with lots of "Good riddance" and "we told you so." Then came the announcement that Weigel would be a paid MSNBC contributor on Countdown with Keith Olbermann - and activists were once again a-Twitter with disgust. Thankfully there was an equivalent outpouring of support for Weigel. I disagree with Keith Olbermann frequently, particularly when it comes to his sneering punditry and progressive worldview. I appreciate that he was the first (and for a long time only) mainstream media personality to cover the devastating flooding in my hometown of Nashville earlier this year, and he and I share in New York Yankees fan-dom. But why the Weigel witch-hunt on the Right?

And then it hit me: the Right and center-right are still obsessed with (plagued by?) litmus tests that, unchecked, can be impossible to pass. And not normal litmus tests either - sure, nobody wants to see another John McCain presidential campaign - I mean the conservative base is so energized right now that it has become bloodthirsty, and it's beginning to feed on itself. Long-time allies to conservatives - the libertarians - have begun to take notice.

I urge everyone to check out this written exchange between Cato Institute's Brink Lindsey, AEI/National Review Online's Jonah Goldberg, and FreedomWorks' Matt Kibbe, a debate on where libertarians belong on the 21st century ideological spectrum, and how they can, should, and might play in the activist/political component of the Tea Party movement. Romantic libertarians like yours truly hope wistfully one day to inform a more rigorous social policy agenda - one that actually gets government out of people's lives, including their marriages and sex lives - to complement existing tenets of economic freedom upon which, for the most part, everyone right-of-center seems to reaching consensus. But because of these purity tests, many libertarians worry that the emergence of centrist rhetoric at Tea Party rallies is nothing more than a ruse to grab handfuls of votes on Election Day 2010 and 2012, and then Big Government conservatism does us all in - again.

I am sympathetic to Brink Lindsey's point in this respect. Libertarians - who often sacrifice opportunities to "get involved" in lieu of safeguarding transcendent philosophical values for the sake of practical virtue - should not compromise their core beliefs just because Sarah Palin said we need less government and more personal responsibility. But I also think Matt Kibbe makes great points - the Tea Party movement is as fascinating a paradigm shift in American politics as I will likely ever see in my lifetime. It has unbundled the Left almost completely, who has tried to use every tool at its disposal - from race-baiting in formal media outlets to unscientific opinion polling - to couch the Tea Party movement as garden-variety Republican, and quintessentially racist, xenophobic, and homophobic. Kibbe insists that many Tea Partiers don't know where to place themselves on an ideological scale, and notes that many have never been involved in political discourse before now. This groundswell provides libertarians with that romantic opportunity to inform the policy debate - especially issues like gay marriage, which Tea Party groups support, and like Kibbe, I think it's hasty to accept Lindsey's premise with open arms. So Lindsey's libertarian protectionism can be just as dangerous and self-defeating as the Gainor conservative witch-hunts.

The Tea Party movement is still today very fragile, despite the noise the movement has made and the support it has drummed up. If libertarians and conservatives can agree about anything, it's opposition to power-drunk Democrats; it's probably best that everyone focus on that for now, instead of running reckless with purity tests, and when Republicans win, it will be up to them to follow through on promises they're making to people getting involved for the first time. Those people don't know where they lie on the ideological spectrum, but they know that the government is screwing them.

 

Another R2K Smoking Gun: Bargain Basement Pricing

In my previous post on Kos and Research 2000 I noted how weird it was that Kos could afford to commission dozens of campaign polls given that by (his own admission) he runs a low seven-figure operation and the polls are likely far from his main traffic driver -- though I'm sure they don't hurt eyeballs-wise.  

I put this question to a pollster, who said R2K's claimed methodology and the likely cost of doing such polls legitimately raised immediate red flags. The pollster pointed me to this massive, 2000-person survey limited to Republicans back from January, commenting thusly: 

Take, for instance, their large January 2010 survey aimed at proving Republicans were all kooks.  They did a sample of about 2000 Republicans - a totally absurd sample size, most pollsters wouldn't in good conscience have a client pursue a survey of that size unless they had microtargeting aims and really needed a lot of subsample detail.  Unless you really, really want a big sample for the smaller cells (say, you want 100 interviews from female Hispanic Republicans age 18-34) there's no reason to do a survey of that size.  1000 interviews will do for a national. Sometimes we go up to 1250 with our bigger clients who really need that level of detail on a few key subsamples.  The difference in margin of error from 1000 (+/- 3.1%) and 2000 (about +/- 2%) is not a huge deal, not worth spending 2x as much on a poll.

Now, even weirder, it is just of Republicans, AND it wasn't done from a listed sample.  When you want to do a survey of, say, primary voters in a statewide, a listed/voter file sample is a totally acceptable practice because the alternative is unbelievably costly.  Think about it - not only did they call 2000 people, but they randomly dialed people, and turned away anyone who didn't identify as a Republican.  This will crush your incidence rate (meaning the number of folks who pick up the phone who are eligible to take the survey) and send costs through the roof.  We're talking at least tripling the costs.  

A survey of the length of that January 2010 survey, about 25 short-ish questions, plus a handful of demographics, is probably about a 10 minute questionnaire (I'm just eyeballing it and assuming an introductory statement and guessing on the # of demos asked, I could be off by a few minutes).  Fielding a 10 minute questionnaire to 1000 registered voters is going to run you in the $25-30 range.  Fielding a 10 minute questionnaire to 2000 voters? Probably 45-55.  But with the crazy drop in incidence caused by the Republican screener?  That survey could not have been done for less than six figures.  Period.  

Remember now that Research 2000 never claimed to be a robo-polling outfit. They claimed they did live interviews. And most polls are of likely voters, not registered voters. More screening means more cost. As far as what R2K claimed was its methodology, we're pretty much talking the Cadillac in terms of what the polls should cost. 

So, the question is did Kos really pay high five-figures, or low-six figures, for a single poll to drive eyeballs to one or two blog posts to prove Republicans are nuts? Huh?

I'm guessing no. I'm guessing R2K sold it to him for far less, say $10,000? And anyone with a rudimentary understanding of polling would have known you can't do a poll like this for that amount of money. So the question now is what this says about what Kos should have known about this. Is he so rich he can drop 100K on a single poll to drive a single day's news cycle -- something not even the major networks would do? Is he simply gullible? Or was he negligent in not checking out what what I can only guess were R2K's absurd price quotes compared to live operator pollsters? 

It wasn't just (relatively) deep-pocketed new media sources like Daily Kos who were spending money on Research 2000 polls. R2K did polling for state-level liberal blogs like Blue Mass Group in the run up to the Massachusetts special election. On January 14, R2K produced a poll showing Coakley with an 8-point lead (while other polls were showing Brown pulling ahead), and in touting the "good" news, Blue Mass Group proudly noted that "Research 2000 does live interviews, unlike robo-pollsters Rasmussen and PPP." My polling source had this response: 

A simple ballot test and a handful of demographics wouldn't be very long.  But even if that was only a 4 minute survey, you're still talking at least at least 6-8 grand for the raw interviewing costs without any additional markup. 

Did a Massachusetts progressive blog pay more than $6,000 for a top-of-the-line survey when maybe a half dozen other pollsters were polling the race by that point? Really? This begs the question of what Blue Mass Group really paid. And what did Kos really pay? And if the numbers are within what seems like their modest budgets (by mainstream media standards), it should have raised red flags if they did any shopping around for other pollsters. 

The Kos-R2K Affair

Daily Kos has sued Research 2000, its former pollster, for fraud. On the surface, the allegations seem a lot like the case Nate Silver made against Strategic Vision. In essence, when you're making up the numbers, odd biases and consistencies tend to creep in. You tend to favor certain numbers over others. The crosstabs, even on ridiculously small sub-samples, look too "clean." The report detailing the allegations is here

The one R2K poll on a race that I was working that now seems to make perfect "sense" in light of this new information is the poll of the California Senate race two and a half weeks before the primary that showed Tom Campbell building a 15 point lead in the GOP primary while polling on adjacent field dates showed Carly Fiorina building a 20 point lead. I recall thinking that if there had genuinely been 35 points of movement in 48 hours (absent some major cataclysmic event, which there hadn't been), that'd be virtually unprecedented in the history of polling. If one were to make up a poll lead, a 15 point Campbell lead made sense if one looked at the past movement in the polls, but not in terms of what was actually happening on the ground at that point. It all makes a lot more sense now. 

A lot of folks are trying to point to the root causes of this seeming debacle (including slamming robo-polls, which I think is off-base given the accuracy of outfits like SurveyUSA and PPP) but it will be interesting to see what the coming lawsuit(s) reveal about the relationship between Daily Kos and R2K. R2K was around prior to Daily Kos, and my vague recollection is that there was nothing out of line about its polling prior to its Kos contract. I could be wrong, but their polls seemed to play it up the middle. When an R2K poll came out in a previous election year, I didn't automatically assume a Democratic skew like I would a CBS/New York Times poll or a Newsweek poll. Yet the moment they signed up with Kos, all their results seemed to skew towards Obama and Congressional Democrats, starting with their 2008 Presidential tracking poll. Their 2010 polling was if anything worse, skewing several points toward Democratic Senate candidates, though their numbers in primaries seemed right, at least until the end when they disintegrated upon close contact with actual results. 

At some point when I raised this previously, it was mentioned that R2K was simply assuming a turnout model closer to Obama 2008. If so, who would be pushing them to do that? R2K? Or Kos?

Did Markos tell R2K to produce fraudulent polls showing Democrats up? Clearly not. Could R2K have simply been too eager to please their client, producing skewed results and making stuff up to boot? That seems more likely. Either way, R2K's newfound pro-Democratic skew had the effect of skewing the polling averages in a way that even Strategic Vision (which performed "better" on 538's Pollster Ratings) didn't. 

Another question to me is the volume of polling that R2K produced for Kos. I have a hard time finding a pollster who was this prolific for an individual client as R2K was for Kos. SurveyUSA has been equally if not more prolific in past cycles -- though not so much this one -- but their clients are different all over the country, usually local TV affiliates. Likewise, pollsters like PPP (D), another highly regarded automated polling operation, will release polling as a promotional vehicle for themselves -- and will potentially pay for it by picking up political clients, or selling questions on a survey otherwise deemed for public release. 

The bottom line is that polling, even automated polling, is expensive, and especially at the volumes R2K and Kos were doing. It's hard for me to believe that Kos's polling bills wouldn't have run into the deep six figures, which seems like an awfully big chunk of his $1 million (give or take) in revenue. I'm not the expert here, but it seems to me that more deep-pocketed media organizations haven't commissioned nearly this much polling (national networks release like, what, once a month?). Perhaps the unit cost was getting to be too low, and R2K's margins were getting squeezed by their arrangement with Kos, so they simply made it up. Either way, the damage to the credibility of the polling industry and the polling's effect on conventional wisdom, was fait accompli. 

UPDATE: Research 2000 claimed they did live interviews, and were not robo-polling. Live interviews are naturally more expensive. Which means they must have pitched Kos on a ridiculously low cost per poll. Was this not in itself a red flag?

What the Malek Flap Says About the 2010 Midterms

 Last week The Washington Post ran a story on veteran Republican operative Fred Malek and his role in one of the Nixon administration's many untoward activities, specifically memos Malek wrote singling out Jews in the Bureau of Labor Statistics.  As one who has always found the Nixon era of particular fascination, I can tell you this is just one of many examples of Richard Nixon's special paranoia toward Jews and other minorities finding its way into administration policy.  Along with Watergate, this aspect of the Nixon administration will always stain its place in history, marring a record that might otherwise have reflected significant accomplishment.

No one, including Malek, condones his actions nearly four decades ago, and he has long since apologized.  His contrition seems genuine, given his presence on the board of the America-Israel Friendship League.  He has been defended by no less a figure than Anti-Defamation League director Abraham Foxman, as well as Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-CA), a close personal friend of Malek's.

However, the Post story was clearly driven by Democrats, ostensibly because of Malek's appointment to Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell's budget reform committee.  Most interesting, though, is the prominent place accorded to Jon Vogel, executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC).  

Why is the DCCC interested in a decades-old sin by a state appointee?  Because Malek also happens to chair the American Action Network, a new 501(c)(4) the DCCC expects to spend $25 million to target Democrats in the fall.  The DCCC apparently hopes to damage the American Action Network's credibility, and probably also hopes that some of this will rub off on GOP House candidates, some of whom weren't even born yet during the Nixon administration, in a classic guilt-by-association ploy.

Some Democrats, including Virginia Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw, don't agree with this strategy, probably because it reeks of desperation.  Facing a national midterm election (i.e. a referendum on the Democrats) in a time of near-double-digit unemployment and record deficits, this is what the DCCC comes up with?  This may tell us more about the 2010 midterms than any poll or pundit ever could.

The Health Care Debate, Tea Party & Libertarian Splits, and the 2010 Elections

Doug Pinkham, president for the Public Affairs Council has a new post up at the Public Affairs Perspective blog (emphasis mine):

Grassroots campaigns to protect rainforests, oppose gun laws or fund AIDS research have become commonplace. So have campaigns to expand U.S. manufacturing, reform immigration laws or rewrite financial industry regulations. These campaigns, and thousands like them, have grown increasingly sophisticated; they go way beyond calls-to-action encouraging supporters to send an email or call a congressional office.

They often involve Facebook sites, blog postings, issue advertising, media outreach, town hall meetings, YouTube videos, online petitions, rallies, issue forums and a host of other tactics. Some are organized by advocacy groups, associations, unions or companies; others are organized purely by volunteers.

In terms of grassroots strategy, the healthcare debate fell into the category marked "all of the above." As the Washington Post noted in February, everyone from the National Right to Life Committee to MoveOn.org to PhRMA to AARP to health insurance companies got into the act. (For those who want a peek inside one such campaign, the Columbia Journalism Review deconstructed WellPoint's sophisticated Health Action Network in its March 22 "Campaign Desk" column.)

It's easy to dismiss these efforts as special interests unfairly exerting their influence on the political process. The reality is that people are joining groups they trust to help them speak with a louder voice.

Pinkham seems to be suggesting that the keys to 21st century advocacy are a) build trust, and b) make noise. But before anyone rushes off to register for 10 new platforms a day, they should check out Jon Henke's post over at the CRAFTdc blog earlier this year on the diversification of a campaign's social media portfolio:

If you don’t have a specific purpose for using Twitter, Facebook, YouTube or a blog...then don’t use them.

Which gets us back to the subject of this post.  CRAFT sells communications strategy, tactics and execution across all channels.  So, when the question, “Should we have a Facebook Fan Page?” came up for discussion, there were two lines of thought:

  • We don’t currently have a strategic or tactical need to create and maintain a Facebook Fan Page for CRAFT.
  • How can CRAFT sell something that we don’t use for CRAFT?  Shouldn’t we eat our own dog food?

My own conclusion was this: If we do not have a strategic or tactical need to create and maintain a Facebook Fan Page, then we should not have one.  When we decide a Facebook presence is justified, we will create one.  Until then, not using a tool we don’t have a specific purpose to use is eating our own dog food.

Henke is right. Campaigns' uses of social media should be context-sensitive, just like approaches to cyber security should be risk-based. How, then, is Pinkham's post instructive? He continues (again, emphasis mine):

Eighty-four percent of those who contacted Congress in the 2008 CMF survey were asked to do so by a third party, such as an interest group. What's more, respondents - whether they had contacted Congress or not - found information from interest groups to be more credible than information from Congress.

Yes, that's surprising, but it says something important about the inability of Washington politicians to cope with the rise in citizen engagement. Many politicians call sympathetic grassroots campaigns "unprecedented outpourings of support" while dismissing campaigns organized by opponents as "Astroturf." They condemn the influence of some special interests, while encouraging other groups to ramp up letter-writing efforts to provide "cover" for controversial votes.

Worst of all, many refuse to acknowledge that high levels of engagement are a good thing in a democracy. The CMF study pointed out that congressional offices are understaffed, under-funded and often lack the technology or training to respond effectively to constituents.

These are pretty staggering precentages that are difficult to ignore, and when taken with resource issues in Congressional offices (which are every bit as stringent on the campaign trail), it's no surprise that both parties rely so heavily on leveraging interest group support. Acknowledging the utility of interest groups could prove catastrophic to the Right, if not altogether suicidal, especially when populism is surging like nothing we've seen in 50 years.

On the other hand, candidates and causes on the Right can try to capture some of the utility provided by interest groups to voters and brand it. Pinkham concludes:

...Congress should assure constituents that their opinions matter and invite them to become more engaged in policy-making.  When members take positions on energy legislation, they can contact citizens who weigh in on climate change issues. People who complain about high taxes should receive updates on efforts to cut federal spending. In short, grassroots communications should signal the need for dialogue, not the need to build a stronger fence around the border.

This is why I haven't (and can't) come out swinging at platforms like YouCut (which Doug Mataconis at Below the Beltway thinks is nothing more than a gimmick) or AmericaSpeakingOut.com (which Jon Henke thinks is crowding the Internet). Party leadership should have branded tools that aren't tied to campaigns. Republicans are poised to take back control of Congress from the Democrats this November. But they will suffer a fate like November 2008 without a policy agenda - without becoming an alternative party rather than being an opposition party.

YouCut and America Speaking Out are fantastic ways for the Right to leverage the utility of interest groups - collecting and collating voter preferences, while empowering them to participate (building trust and making noise) - and they couldn't really be more timely in their advent, coming right at the launch of primary season. These tools might be the first real online method of voter outreach that channels both libertarian policy preferences and Tea Party activism into a substantive national policy platform for Republicans. What once was diffuse, diverse, and disorganized has now become clear, centralized, and convenient - and Republicans shouldn't be shy about reaching out to the little guy.

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