Politics 2.0: The Pegasus of Connectivity?

I told a friend last night - via Facebook private message - that email is still the best way to get a hold of me.* I gave him my work email address, which is the one account out of seven I currently monitor to which I will usually give an immediate response. It's also one of two accounts pushing to my smart phone, so I can receive/respond on the go.

The ways in which we send, receive, and store information have been constantly revolutionizing politics for nearly 600 years, since Gutenberg first invented the printing press. Customer relations management (CRM) systems have become increasingly important (indeed useful and necessary) in the political sphere, as candidate and issue campaigns build vast, scalable email lists for purposes of campaign communication. Somewhat curiously, I have all issue and candidate campaign email delivered to my American University address - which also pushes to my smart phone, but which I rarely actually read.

But let's assume just for a second that I consolidate my email accounts into just one, and I take time to read more than I do now - and a political campaign was able to reach me (in theory) 24 hours a day. Why is it, in this world of nearly instantaneous, targeted, scalable communications, that we still rely on direct mail fundraising? When does the 140-character tweet, the Facebook status update, or even the 30-second YouTube video replace a clunky, 5-page typed fundraising ask - double-spaced in 12 pt. Courier New font - and on pink stationary, no less? Does it ever? What about when we move all of our CRM solutions to the cloud, and we're realizing huge cost savings in our campaign budgets because of it (this is speculative, I'll admit)?

I remember from my Leadership Institute training days back in college that conservatives tend to make quite a bit of money on direct mail fundraising campaigns - my own experience tells me that you're doing well to just break even, particularly if you're using consulting services. Maybe my metrics are a little bit off, and I'm not considering how a mail piece to an identified voter/supporter may energize them, arm them with talking points, and ask them to tell 5 of their neighbors about my candidate or issue. Maybe I need better mail pieces.

Not only in my experience are dollar-for-dollar returns on direct mail doing well to break even, but isn't this social tree 1.0? Isn't this what social media was supposed to solve, in terms of reach, velocity, and scale? I posited in my undergraduate thesis - flying in the face of practical, conventional wisdom - that there's some kind of interpersonal transaction that takes place when one voter connects with another that technology can't replace, and I don't mean to waffle on that conclusion - but I do wonder, as our technology evolves and more milennials and digital natives reach voting age, whether or not direct mail is a worthwhile long-term investment. For the meantime, it's probably okay to assume that the average voter views the on-paper direct mail piece as more authentic or genuine an instrument than something that flies across their computer screen or smart phone, and for that reason, direct mail is still useful.

Candidates and causes also have a swath of social media and social networking tools at their disposal, tools that reach millions of end users (if leveraged properly) and which are also dirt cheap to a campaign, if not altogether free. Rob Willington of RebuildTheParty.com demonstrated as much in Scott Brown's bid for Sen. Edward Kennedy's U.S. Senate seat in a special election following Teddy's death (wait a minute, that wasn't Teddy's seat - it's the people's seat). Rob's use of text-messaging, geolocation applications, YouTube, Ning, and Facebook makes a really interesting case study in the use of these tools on the Right in the MyBO era.

Another important long-term consideration for campaigns on the Right is cost. I asked Willington during a Personal Democracy Forum conference call back in March, and I'm paraphrasing here, "Given the availability of free online tools, why should campaigns invest in proprietary enterprise architectures (e.g. www.CandidateName.com)? Will they be useful in the long-term for anything other than an online depository for campaigns?" His answer - and it's a good one, and again, I'm paraphrasing - was that a proprietary enterprise architecture anchors the spectrum of social media tools the campaign uses (each having its own brand recognition) with the candidate's brand, and acts as a vote getter. You can download and listen to the podcast here.

But given this, it shouldn't be long, in theory, before we totally scuttle on-paper direct mail pieces for fundraising purposes (messaging and relationship-building purposes notwithstanding). Additionally, in order to be really successful in the long-run, these tools need to build relationships: voter-to-voter and voter-to-candidate/voter-to-campaign. Melissa Clouthier has an interesting political spin on Mashable's "21 Rules for Social Media Engagement." Clouthier's conclusions assume a high-level of social media adoption across campaign space, and while candidates on the Right are dominating some social media channels, they don't own the Internet anymore:

 

 

In the long-run, the best "technology candidates" on the Right - as is the case with all other technological paradigm shifts - will be the early adopters, like Scott Brown. The candidates who do a great job of building relationships through social media on the campaign trail will have the highest chance of success in using tools while in office, both to foster transparency and to protect incumbency. In the meantime, the Right needs to continue developing an accurate, meaningful set of metrics to measure the success of social media strategies against traditional strategic results to make sure that candidates and causes get the highest ROI and the largest reach per dollar spent.

George Scoville also blogs at Liberty Pundits and his personal site Intelligence, Please... He invites you to follow him on Twitter (@stackiii).

* The double irony of this isn't lost on me. Not only is Facebook not very well known for its privacy at the moment, but I sent a Facebook message to relay an enterprise email address.

Why Earmarks Should Be Banned

Politicians like to confuse congressional spending with earmarks. There is a difference. The Constitution of the United States (Article I, Section 7) vests the power to raise and spend federal revenue solely to the House of Representatives.

I firmly believe that the most important feature of spending the people’s money is complete transparency. Any spending should be debated openly on the floor of the House and voted on in open session, with the American people having a chance to watch and listen.

That is why in 2008 I took the position that I would oppose all earmarks. Earmarks, unlike Article I, Section 7, require no transparency. In fact, it undermines the transparency and debate necessary by allowing individual members of Congress to obligate funds to their districts without giving the body as a whole the chance to weigh them against national priorities.

Earmarks are almost always inserted by a member of Congress without any notice to other members, and without a chance for Congress as a whole to debate a particular earmark as they relate to national priorities. This year the Republican caucus in the House voted to abstain from all earmarks.

I am hopeful that this process will lead to the transparency that the American people want. More importantly, it is my hope that it will lead to a vigorous public discussion of national priorities before appropriating taxpayer funds.

The Tennessean recently published an Op-Ed I wrote that you might find of interest.

Cross Posted at Vote Marsha.com

UT-2: Morgan Philpot vs. Jim Matheson

You should know by now that I'm on the warpath about Democrat-held seats in blood red districts. There are 69 Democrat held seats that have a net positive Republican partisan voting index (PVI). There are only 8 Republican-held seats that are in similar Democratic territory. We could take back all those seats, not capture anything in Democrat territory, and take back the House with 29 seats to spare. 

Over the coming days, I'll outline exactly where I think the "sleeper" seats are, and this past weekend, one more popped on my radar: Utah's 2nd Congressional district. 

You might be asking why Utah, one of the most Republican states in the Union, sends a Democrat to Congress, and it's a good question. In a year when Republicans got massacred, McCain still managed 58% of the vote in the Salt Lake City-based UT-2, making it #5 on my PVI-ordered list of Republican targets for 2010.

The vulnerability for now rests on the Democratic side of the ledger. In a sidenote to Bob Bennett's ouster at the state Republican Convention last weekend, Blue Dog Democrat incumbent Jim Matheson was forced into a primary with pro-HCR liberal Claudia Wright. In a shocker, Matheson only managed 55% among party insiders against an opponent with $9K cash on hand. 

The Republican nomination fight is clearer: Morgan Philpot managed to clear a primary and is the nominee. We need to get behind him with our dollars now.

In a wave year, I'm watching for dozens of mini rogue "waves" to take out incumbents previously thought safe -- think of how Rosty was famously ousted in 1994, or Joseph Cao's shock victory against Dollar Bill Jefferson, or races like Tim Walz vs. Gil Gutknecht or Nancy Boyda vs. Jim Ryun in 2006 that were basically thought safe. 

Philpot is an appealing grassroots candidate who could capitalize on a national wave and take the seat, particularly if Matheson is defeated in the primary. 

One suggestion is for Republicans to re-register to vote for Wright in the Democratic primary, making this seat a lay-up in the fall. After Alan Mollohan's 12-point thumping in West Virginia and Arlen Specter's fade in Pennsylvania, I wouldn't be so sure that Matheson is a shoo-in here. This would mean voters foregoing the Republican primary between Mike Lee and Tim Bridgewater, but let's face it, the UT-2 Congressional race is the only one that will change the color on the map from that state this fall. 

UK Election Aftermath Could Trash the British Political System

So, the Tories did not get their overall majority. The exit poll was correct, by blind luck, as it happens. As the night wore on, you could tell that David Dimbleby and the pundits on the Beeb were genuinely weirded out by how random, and even, American, the results were. Local variations mattered, and people didn't vote as the national polls would have suggested. There were a number of seats with a healthy 8 or 10 percent swing to the Conservatives -- exactly what they needed to take No. 10 outright. But for each one of those, there were marginal seats where the Tories gained a measly 2 to 4 points on Labour, not to mention the Tory vs. Lib Dem marginals where the Tories failed to gain their top targets. 

The British electoral system is not supposed to produce highly localized results like this. Britons are effectively casting a vote for Prime Minister when they vote for their local Member of Parliament. This means that all the factors that prevent huge swings in seats in the US -- primarily, the power of incumbency, are not supposed to be huge factors in the UK. Yet seats with incumbents swung less than open seats, shredding this political theory. 

The result is a hung parliament, with the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats now in negotiations about a coalition government. The price of Lib Dem support for a Conservative Government is likely to be a referendum on the electoral system, i.e. replacing single member seats with some form of proportional representation that would guarantee the Lib Dems the same share of seats as they received votes at the polls. 

For America's closest sibling in the family of Western Democracies to go down the failed path of proportional representation is disturbing. 

A system of single member districts with plurality voting (known as first past the post, FPTP) may not be "fair" in each and every single case, but it produces stable majorities that amplify the message voters send to the politicians at election time. 

Britons may by wringing their hands at the first hung Parliament election in 36 years, but last night's results prove that first-past-the-post worked.

Why keep FPTP? Let us count the ways.

Decisive Outcomes. Okay. This didn't totally pan out, but it almost did. The Tories got a near majority in seats on 37 percent of the vote. A simple bargain with the Liberal Democrats is now needed to form a majority, as opposed to the multi-party haggling that would be the norm under PR -- see Israel, where ultra-religious parties hold inordinate sway in coalition governments under strict PR. 

In the vast majority of elections, this also means the largest party is able to govern without the impossible task of getting to 50%. Labour won nearly two thirds of the seats on 43% of the vote in 1997. It may have been "unfair" to the Tories, but to the winner go the spoils. Like our electoral college, having certain winners with magnified majorities allow them to govern more effectively. 

No Westminster Seats for Fascists. Without a relatively high percentage threshold before a party could win seats, PR would guarantee Parliamentary seats for the racist British National Party -- about a dozen or so. They would then be considered a factor in coalition negotiations after any close election, or any election, since no one is likely to get 50%. 

PR systems regularly feature bargains with separatist, nationalist, extremist, and/or fascist parties to achieve governing majority. It's a good idea to let the voters screen the characters they send into government, and achieving a plurality in a local district seems like as good a filter as any. 

PR is Undemocratic. Under PR, you don't (usually) vote for the individual. Political parties submit rank-ordered lists of candidates, and these determine who gets elected. Voters have no opportunity to pass judgment on the individuals who compose that government. 

Despite Predictions, Third Parties Flourish in the UK. All the things political scientists say can't happen under FPTP -- viable third parties, fringe parties who win Parliamentary seats -- all happened in Britain yesterday. 

Despite Britain's winner-take-all election system, the Liberal Democrats have thrived, gradually increasing their vote share since 1992. 

The unique political culture of the UK has also produced more minor parties. Though they don't often win seats -- independents do tend to win more often than they do in the US and extreme localism in the results is becoming more the norm, especially at this election. 

In Barking, the racist British National Party threatened a strong showing, so the voters swung -- against the national tide -- to the safe incumbent Labour MP to send a message. 

In Brighton Pavilion, the Greens had a serious shot to elect its first MP, and voters flocked to that candidate in the face of Labour's collapse. 

In Buckingham, none of the major parties were on the ballot. The Speaker, who does not run under his or her party affiliation and doesn't vote on bills, is traditionally unchallenged. So you saw strong showings for minor parties and independents. 

In 2005, in Bethnall Green & Bow, the odious George Galloway won the seat having resigned from the Labour Party. This year, he retired, but his political party got 16% of the vote trying to retain the seat. 

FPTP Produces Representative Results, Though in Roundabout Ways. The common misconception is that FPTP only "works" in two-party democracies like the US where third parties don't introduce skewed seat totals. Yet the final seat breakdown in Parliament may represent true popular opinion more than you think. 

Liberal Democrat blogs have cited this chart to demonstrate the "unfairness" of the system. 

And indeed, it does look unfair. 23% of the vote for 8% of the seats. Just 6% fewer votes than Labour and less than a fifth the seats. 

But that result is not in and of itself a product of FPTP but of the unique Labour / Liberal Democrat dynamic. There are plenty of third parties around the world, usually regional ones, that outperform their national vote share in seats under FPTP. It's all about how the votes are distributed. 

In the Lib Dems' case, their electoral bases are not strong enough to provide them with a "representative" number of seats. They are a viable second in about a third of the seats, but have few unassailable bastions, in contrast to Labour, which will probably never go below 200 seats in the Commons thanks to its strongholds up North. 

It goes beyond just bad luck. I'd argue that many people vote for Lib Dems for pragmatic reasons: because Labour aren't strong enough in a seat to compete with the Tories. This is certainly the case in about 190 seats in the south and east of England where Labour have been whittled down to an average 15-20% of the vote. Do the Lib Dems really have 40% support in the South when their support elsewhere is 15%? I'd argue not really -- small regional differences have been magnified over time by tactical voting and jockeying to be the alternative to the Tories. Many of those voters are probably Labour sympathizers. 

Considering the localism of the results, voters in Great Britain seem to vote in pragmatic and often less-than-principled ways. It's less about loyalty to a party and more about grabbing the club in the bag that will produce the desired political result in your constituency. In Barking, it was beating the BNP. In other seats, it's keeping the Tory out. In most seats, it was who would help get rid of Gordon Brown. Support for parties other than the Tories and Labour can and will vary wildly based on local conditions as a result. 

If voters voted their true preferences, as they probably would under strict PR, the overall popular vote result would look a lot different than it does now. (I'd argue that the Lib Dems would be dramatically weaker.) But the overall seat pecking order would look much closer than what you see today than you'd think. 

And I say all this despite the fact that the electoral system is far more skewed in favor of Labour than the Tories. In 2005, Labour won 356 seats on 35.3% of the vote. This year, 36.1% of the vote for the Tories is only good enough for 306 seats. And the Tories beat Labour by 7 points, whereas they lost in 2005 by 3!

To a lay observer, this looks grossly unfair. However, if you consider the Lib Dems are a moderate left party that generally exists to hold the Tories in check in their strongholds, the results make perfect sense. If you allocated Lib Dem votes 2 to 1 Labour to the Tories, the Conservative vs. Labour share of seats over the last few elections would begin to make perfect sense. FPTP works in mysterious ways -- but it works! 

There's no guarantee PR will be the ultimate choice of the Liberal Democrats, and political theorists have devised ways to make it seem more palatable, for instance maintaining single member districts while adding a layer of regional districts that combine to produce deadlocked national results. Other alternatives include the Single Transferable Vote and Instant Runoff Voting which I won't explain here, except to highlight the fact IRV has been immediately repealed in nearly half the jurisdictions where it's been tried in the U.S. because after it was found that voters could cast their ballots in a way that defeated their first choice candidate. Here's an even more commonsensical reason to oppose these convoluted alternatives to FPTP: they require an advanced mathematics degree to fully understand. 

The beauty of the British system is its elegance, and its tradition of representative Parliamentary government informs our own Constitution. It would be a shame to see the basis of the system we use to elect our members of Congress be radically altered to get the Tories out of this mess. 

Tories Likely Headed to Overall Majority Today

The final polls before the British election today have been breaking quite nicely for the Conservatives as the Lib Dem boomlet fades, while Labour has been getting no traction and still may finish third in votes. 

The Real Clear Politics average has the final polling average as: 

Conservatives 36%, Liberal Democrats 27.4%, Labour 27%

Right after the first televised debate, the Tories had been down to a 2-3 point lead with many individual polls showing Nick Clegg's Lib Dems in the lead for the first time in the party's history. Ever since, the Tories have been gradually extending a lead at the expense of the Lib Dems. 

If every seat swung uniformly, the encyclopedic Electoral Calculus would give us the following seat breakdown: 

Conservatives 299, Labour 233, Liberal Democrats 86

The Conservatives need 325 to give them an outright majority, and despite these predicted numbers, I think the Tories will manage to avoid a hung Parliament and (just) clear the bar of being able to form a Government without the support of other parties. 

Behind this assumption is the deep suspicion that all seats won't swing uniformly. Some will swing more than others, and those are more likely to be the critical marginal seats where voters feel the greatest burden of deciding who gets into Number 10 and with what kind of Government. 

Already, polls are showing the marginals with an overall swing to the Conservatives of 1 to 2 points greater than the national average. Meanwhile, the Lib Dems might not be able to siphon off Tory seats despite their momentum and may make most of their gains at the expense of Labour. 

In 1997, Labour were predicted to get in with a 370-seat majority. They won 416. Massive tactical voting by Liberal Democrat supporters in competitive Labour vs. Tory seats juiced their total. 

The Tory-Lib Dem alliance in the electorate isn't quite as strong, but it's still a factor against the flailing Labour government: the Conservatives have been gaining completely at the expense of the Lib Dems in the last two weeks, showing there's some overlap in their base. 

Meanwhile, Cameron has been closing strong and making a strong pitch against a hung Parliament. Judging by his party's rising poll numbers, people seem to be buying it:  

An example from over here would help illustrate the point. 

In 2008, Indiana was competitive in a Presidential election for the first time in decades, eventually going to Obama. Yet a uniform national swing would have had McCain still winning the state by 10 points. Its proximity to Obama's home base of Illinois and its economically distressed status can only explain part of this shift. Take a look at this map showing the county-by-county shift in votes from 2004 compared to other neighboring states: 

Indiana was an outlier. The next counties over in Michigan, Illinois, and Ohio did not swing as strongly for Obama despite their demographic similarities and Great Lakes status. 

The only thing that can explain this single state swing is a competition effect. When a state is competitive when it wasn't before, turnout surges as new voters come to the polls. This effect is particularly strong in the handful of states that are portrayed as neck-and-neck or decisive to the outcome. A certain inertia dictating a too-close-to-call race kicks in to produce a single-state outcome that can't be explained by demographics or regional differences. Case in point: Florida was Ground Zero in the 2000 election and it swung less strongly to Bush than would have otherwise been expected. Ohio was Ground Zero in 2004 and it swung differently than Pennsylvania and Michigan which were similar economically and demographically but weren't quite as competitive. Subconsciously, voters in those states seemed to take seriously their role as the "deciders" of the Presidential election and voted accordingly.  

This effect will be magnified in Britain where the governing unit is a Parliamentary constituency one sixth the size of a typical Congressional district here. There you get swings that are well outside the national norms depending on which party is perceived as having the best shot at throwing the bums out. 

One of my favorite stories of this General Election is the race in Morley and Outwood between the unfortunately named Gordon Brown henchman Ed Balls and Conservative challenger Antony Calvert. 

Labour won this newly created seat by 21% at the last general election, yet the race is portrayed as neck-and-beck, with the betting sites now pegging Calvert as the favorite. Calvert has been running a Scott Brown-style Internet campaign fueled by small donations gunning for a "Were you up for Portillo?" moment -- a last-minute come from behind decapitation (or castration?") of a high-value Cabinet minister and potential Party leader. 

What's happening in Morley and Outwood will likely be repeated up and down Great Britain today as people calibrate their votes to do the greatest possible damage to Gordon Brown and Labour, for whom the infamous "bigoted woman" incident was the last straw. 

My prediction: The Tories wind up with 328 seats and the chance to form a Government outright. 

The Emerging House Republican Majority

In the days since I posted my case for a blowout Republican majority in this fall's elections, a number of people have helpfully sent data and other tips for constructing a comprehensive target list of Democrat-held seats we might be able to pick off without warning in a year like this one. 

One started with a copy-paste of the Cook PVI (Partisan Voting Index) scores from Wikipedia for each district. The PVI is a crude metric -- unlike this Thursday's British elections, incumbency matters a great deal in Congress, keeping a minority party incumbent in office long after his constituents have started voting the other way at the Presidential level. Ask Gene Taylor, Chet Edwards, Joseph Cao and Scott Brown about the predictive value of the Cook PVI. 

Nonetheless, even a cursory glance at the PVI numbers exposes, at a 30,000 foot level, a massive Republican underperformance in the House that was there even when we were in the majority, and indeed, may show vestiges of our weakness from our 40 years in the wilderness. For this analysis, I'm not interested in individual districts, but macro-level trends. Suppose every incumbent resigned tomorrow and we held special elections in every district whose overall results would mirror partisan preferences in each district. In the long-term, after all, we are headed for a total cycling out of current incumbents, to be replaced by representatives more in tune with the views of their districts. What would the results be? 

PVI scores show that it would be a Republican blowout: In 234 districts, Republicans perform above average, compared to just 192 districts for Democrats, and 9 that are tied. Split these evenly, and you've got a 239-196 Republican House. This is a shade above the biggest Republican majority in their 12 years in power -- and that's when Republicans perform as expected.

We talk about the Republicans taking over vestigial Southern Democratic House seats in 1994 as though political cognitive dissonance were a thing of the past, but in reality it persists to this day, and in both chambers. Democrats have been simply better at electing Democrats in Republican-leaning districts than Republicans are at returning the favor. How else to explain that there are 30 or so Republican states -- and so, 60 Republican-leaning Senate seats -- in a tied electoral college but the Senate is 59-41 against us? 

I wondered if there were something wrong with the Cook data, whether it had come to be out of balance since 2008. But in fact, a quick tally of total PVI scores on both sides show that Democrats have more overall strength in Dem PVI seats than Republicans do in their greater number of seats, by a total of 2,744 to 2,393 PVI points. It turns out that Republicans are more evenly distributed, with the hulk of net Democratic votes crammed into a smaller number of urban seats. 

Democratic overperfomance in the House grows more striking in swing districts. Let's take a look at seats within 5 points of the national average, and which party they're represented by:

PVI Dem GOP
D+5 11 0
D+4 7 1
D+3 11 1
D+2 7 1
D+1 7 2
TIE 4 5
R+1 8 2
R+2 2 2
R+3 4 7
R+4 5 5
R+5 8 6

Now, let's group these together into marginally Democrat and Republican seats by PVI: 

PVI Dem GOP
D +1 to +5 43 5
TIE 4 5
R +1 to +5 27 22

These pretty much speak for themselves. We get crushed by a net 38 seats -- 88 to 12 percent in percentage terms -- in seats that lean Democrats. And in lean Republican seats? Democrats beat us there too, by a smaller 27-22 margin. Somehow, we manage to miraculously win the tie seats, giving hope that victories anywhere in political swing districts are attainable. Overall, Democrats hold 74 "swing" districts to Republicans 32, a net of 42 from a quarter of the whole House. 

Sure, you might say this is expected after two good Democratic election cycles. And I can buy that: these numbers show that big changes in the electorate reflect easily in the overall House tally, lending credence to the potential for a big pendulum swing in 2010. 

Yet this doesn't solve the fundamental question that during our high water marks after 1994 and to a lesser extent 2002/04, we weren't able to raid lean Democratic seats to nearly this extent. And it does raise the upside question of whether doing so might be possible in the future by boldly targeting more seats. 

Another way to visualize the upside potential is to consider the fact that while Republicans hold just eight net Dem PVI seats, Democrats hold 69 of "our" seats. (Those eight seats, in case you're wondering, are NJ-2, OH-12, PA-15, WA-8, PA-6, IL-10, DE-AL, and of course, LA-2. Democrats have a serious chance at picking off the last two, even in 2010.) 

Meanwhile, nearly a third of House Democrats hail from districts that were won by Bush and/or McCain. In MS-4 and TX-17, Gene Taylor and Chet Edwards hold the 18th and 19th most demographically Republican seats in the country. The only remotely comparable example is Joseph Cao, in the 28th most Democratic seat. Taylor and Edwards getting re-elected is the direct equivalent of a Republican winning Jan Schakowsky's district on the north side of Chicago. And nor are these two outliers: Democrats routinely get elected in R+10 PVI seats or better. Democratic performance in Republican seats between a +10 and +15 PVI is better than Republican performance in seats between a +1 and +5 Democratic PVI. 

This is why winning back the House alone is not enough. We could get the needed 40 seats by beating every Democrat in an R+5 seat or better. Getting to my outlandish speculation of 70 seats would mean taking out every Democrat in a Republican-leaning seat (that's 69 seats) plus one tie district. And that's before any net takeovers of Democrat PVI seats, which we ought to be winning in spades in a year like this. 

There's a reason why American Congressional elections aren't nice and clean as this analysis would suggest. Old bulls like John Spratt in SC-5 don't go easy. And for the longest time, we didn't challenge these Democrats. For the most part, we are this year. Retirements will also be our best means of forcing change on these districts, and those can come all too slowly.

Still, a few conclusions suggest themselves: 

  • The inexorable tide, all things being equal, is for a more Republican House.
  • Democrats have been able to defy this trend by 1) having more popular Southern holdovers, 2) seeking out and destroying moderate Northeast and Midwest Republicans in a way Republicans haven't been able to do down South, and 3) under Rahm Emanuel's leadership, boldly targeting more takeovers deep in enemy territory, like ID-1 (Walt Minnick) and NC-11 (Heath Shuler). 
  • Picking off the "easy" seats should be a gimme. If we can't beat Chet Edwards this year, we're just going to have to wait till he dies or retires. Guys like him will be hardened targets. Watch those swing Democrat seats as they are the soft underbelly of the Democratic majority. There is no reason they should have a 9-to-1 edge in those seats. Getting to even in those districts would give us half the seats we need for a takeover off of just over 10% of the House.  

 

Why 2010 Won't Be Like 1994. (It'll Be Bigger.)

I might be setting myself for a healthy serving of crow on November 3rd, but I get a distinct feeling that the GOP may be headed toward to a seat gain in the House of epic proportions -- somewhere over 50 seats and well above the historical high point for recent wave elections (the 50-55 seats we experienced in elections like 1946 and 1994). 

All in all, I don't think a 70 seat gain is out of the question.  

I'll admit that a lot of this is prediction is pure gut. I probably sounded crazy when I said Marco Rubio kinda had a shot against Crist a year ago, and that Scott Brown kinda had a shot against Coakley, but if anything I wished I'd been even bolder in those predictions given the roller-coaster volatility of this political environment.

Not all elections are created equal. In most elections, most incumbents have an impregnable advantage and elections are fought between the 40-yard-lines. 

This is not one of those elections. 

It's true that people are pissed, etc. etc. It's true that Republicans benefit from an enthusiasm gap, etc. etc. But when you see numbers like dissatisfied independents lining up 66 to 13 percent behind the Republican candidate for Congress, and Republicans leading by 20 among very enthusiastic voters, all the momentum -- not most of it -- is in one direction. That last bastion of political stability -- incumbent advantage -- is inoperative in this political environment as incumbency has been become tantamount to a four letter word. Just 49 percent would re-elect their Congressman, compared to 40 percent who would throw the bum out. That's significant. Usually, people want to throw Congress over the ledge while toasting their Congressman

There are a number of structural reasons I think things line up in favor a tsunami-like event: 

The-politics-is-just-getting-crazier thesis. Crist-Rubio. Scott Brown. NY-23. How many situations have we been faced in the last 12 months where the side once given less than 10 percent odds has surged to become the favorite, if not the winner? That's a function of political volatility and voter anger, but it's also a reflection of the fact that the stakes are higher. 

Bailouts, stimulus, health care not baked in yet. Voters have not had a chance to render their judgment on the 50% expansion of government power and influence since September 2008. Both candidates for President in 2008 supported the TARP bailout. The stimulus was slipped in after the election, and Obama never campaigned on a package of that magnitude. 

Voters now strongly disapprove of the three great government expansions of the last two years -- TARP, the stimulus, and the health care bill. The political impact of these events has not yet been reflected in the partisan makeup of Congress in any competitive race except one -- the Massachusetts Senate special election.

The case for a tidal wave can be summed up as follows. There have been great changes in the country since the last election that voters resoundingly reject, and combined with still high unemployment and voter anxiety, the conditions are there for a much greater than usual counter-response. (In 1993-94, Bill Clinton was only able to trim marginally around the edges compared to the last months of Bush and then Obama, and the economy was much stronger than it is today.) 

We can safely double Cook and Rothenberg. Charlie Cook and Stu Rothenberg are the deans of House race prognostication. Their current model projects a seat gain somewhere in the low-20s. Election Projection largely mirrors this. But a 20-30 seat projection is based on woefully incomplete information: you're pretty much only factoring in the obvious McCain seats with Democrats elected in 2006 or after, or open seats, and largely guessing based on fundraising numbers because there has been next to no polling done in individual House races yet. 

[UPDATE: A reader writes in to note that Cook has been talking up seat gains of between 30-40 seats for a month or more.]

Cook and Rothenberg also tend to be conservative: if a district is Democratic for any reason, they probably won't move it to toss-up or lean R without a string of polls with the Republican in the lead or some sort of phenomenal candidate recruitment disparity. Scott Brown wasn't projected by anyone to be a lean takeover until the very end. 

The traditional political tip sheets don't reflect newly competitive candidates with a living, breathing Republican candidate against long-term Democratic incumbents in conservative seats for the first time in ages -- candidates like Rick Berg in ND-AL, Sean Duffy in WI-7 (disclaimer: client), Morgan Griffith in VA-9, and the primary winner in MO-4 against Ike Skelton. 

There is a tendency to underestimate waves. This wave has been on the horizon for a while, but those who were around in 1994 will remember how it took everyone by surprise, with even a more mild 40-seat gain needed to take control regarded as a remote possibility in October. The media -- particularly this media -- will always underestimate waves, and doubly so with Republican waves. 

This was also true to an extent with the Democrats in 2006. The Democrats' 30-seat gain was the high end of mainstream projections, but things really turned south for Republicans in late September with the Mark Foley scandal. In September, Republicans were seen as an even bet to keep the House on Intrade, and the bar the Democrats needed to clear then was a piddling 15 seats. Right now, Intrade already has Republicans as close to an even bet to take the 40 seats they need to claim the majority. 

Finally, and this is more of an intangible macro-level effect, does the fact that the 2010 wave has been far more well discussed in advance than the 1994 wave make it more or less likely to exceed expectations? New media has certainly made it possible to organize and move information faster than in 1994, but what about the Democrats ability to get inside this cycle? 

We are coming off two successive, ahistorical Democratic wave elections. Democrats have managed to swing something like 52 House seats in the last two elections. They are at an historic high water mark, as President Obama recently acknowledged. 

The fact that Democrats were able to pad their majority in 2008 would not have happened but for the fact that Obama changed the electorate. As I noted right after the election, Republicans in Congress were killed by the fact that young people voted straight ticket -- for Obama and then for Democrats in Congress. 

One could argue that 2008's political environment wasn't any for crappier for Congressional Republicans nationally than 2006 -- and in some ways it was better since we managed to pick off some seats, yet the surge in youth and minority turnout produced a double Democratic wave. 

I don't think I'm making an Earth-shattering statement when I say that the Obama coalition will not be there in 2010. In fact, one could argue that if one simply returned to the dismal, scandal-ridden 2006 environment with that same electorate, we'd be 10 to 20 seats better off than we are now. Now, start factoring in stuff like Republicans tied or leading in the generic ballot, which they hardly ever were even in years the successfully held the House, like 2002 and 2004. And more tellingly, the bumper crop of good candidates that's stepped forward after the drought of 2006 and 2008. 

I've argued thus far that political whiplash may be greater this year. But in truth, it may not be that much worse than the utter Republican collapse from 2004 to 2006. That collapse produced a loss of 30 House seats. But the starting point was a stable equilibrium established over 5 successive election cycles without a double digit gain in seats by either party. The starting point in 2010 is a very unstable one where Democrats have accumulated more than 50 new seats in four years, over 20 of them somewhat artificially because of the Obama coalition. 

The A-factor. Much of this argument so far has been a paint-by-numbers look at the national environment and the reasons why Republican gains may be underestimated. But what will supercharge our gains -- taking a 40 seat gain and stretching it into a 50, 60, even 70 seat gain -- will be continued voter anger and frustration with Washington which manifests itself in record-low Congressional job approval numbers after two successive elections when Americans voted for "change." 

In this kind of election, we will probably be talking about half a dozen to a dozen takeovers on Election Night that weren't on anyone's target list, that didn't see a dime in national advertising, that it was just assumed Democrats would win 60-40. There will be moments like Dan Rostenkowski or Dollar Bill Jefforson losing their seats completely out of the blue. 

Where? I'd look to any seat where the incumbent Democrat has done something to anger voters locally (flip-flopping on HCR seems to be a common theme) where we've got a strong candidate. In Massachusetts, we seem to have attracted good candidates in the wake of Scott Brown, and I could see Niki Tsongas and Barney Frank getting real races (Brown carried both their districts). Other sleeper districts include NY-1 (Rob Bishop), TN-5 (Jim Cooper), and FL-22 (Allen West vs. Ron Klein), where, oh by the way, we lead.

Even if I'm being optimistic, there is a certain logic (that the netroots have employed in a few election cycles now) of more traditional "smart money" going into the most winnable seats, and the online grassroots playing to expand the map. This year the perfect opportunity to put such a plan in action. If it's true that no Democrat is safe, we need to be looking at the seats that aren't even on the Cook and Rothenberg reports, or at best, on the very edges, for potential pickup opportunities to invest in. In the 30 to 45 days of the cycle, there should be a moneybomb every day to one of these targeted districts designed to drag them into contention and create a "terrorism effect" for every Democrat on the ballot. 

This first starts with good information. Earlier tonight on Twitter, I started a conversation about building a target list that would rank ALL 253 Democrat seats by likelihood of a Republican takeover, similar to what exists in Britain right now. Let's start thinking of where we can knock the Dems off balance and extend what are sure to be considerable gains. 

Good resources for House races: Election Projection and Key House Races.

 

David Cameron and the Big Society

David Cameron seems to have hit something of a rough patch with just two weeks to go till the British General Election, and it has nothing to do with his main opponent, Gordon Brown and Labour. 

It was Cameron who pushed for American-style televised debates between the party leaders, and if ever the old "Careful what you wish for" maxim applied, it's here: the first televised debate led to a ten point jump for Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats, though there's some evidence that's subsiding. Cleggmania not only chopped the Tory lead over Labour by close to half, but has put the Lib Dems in second, though Labour -- because of its strong base in the north, will still more than double them in seats. Nonetheless, the Lib Dem surge makes the odds of an outright Conservative majority remote, meaning they'll have to barter with Clegg and the nationalist parties to get the requisite 325 votes in the Commons to sustain a governing majority. Though there's some scuttlebutt about a devilish combination of factors creating a situation where Labour finishes third but has the most seats, I think that's overblown for reasons that could easily fit into another post. 

The volatile political climate being what it is, the best prediction we can venture right now is that on May 7th David Cameron will be forming a minority government led by the Conservatives. 

With that (partial) victory in hand, conservatives here will be wondering if the lessons of Cameron can be applied to the future of the Republican Party and the battle for the White House in 2012. 

I decided to actually read some pieces on Cameron's agenda, and some of his speeches, to find out. And, fair warning: Cameronism is as clear a break from Thatcherism as you can get and still be in the same party. His entire campaign, and his slogan, "The Big Society," is an implicit rebuke to Thatcher's famous 1987 challenge to the idea of society itself: 

And, you know, there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look to themselves first. It's our duty to look after ourselves and then, also to look after our neighbour.

There is no stirring antigovernment oratory in Cameron's speeches. No "Government is not the solution to our problems. Government is the problem." Or, if he says it, it's from a decidedly non-libertarian angle: he believes big government is actually getting in the way of progressive objectives like fighting inequality. 

I was pointed to this Julian Glover piece in the British Prospect from last fall that seems as good a primer on Cameron's politics as any. My scribbled notes have the essentials of Cameronism down as follows: 

  • Cameron is a communitarian -- more a social conservative (in the British context) than an economic conservative. Throw in rank class warfare but leave out the overt religiosity, and he'd be a British Huckabee. The combination of politician and campaign this most reminds me of is Bill Clinton's 1996 re-election on school uniforms. Cameron is big on the idea of social cohesion; his speeches read like Tocqueville in their attentiveness to civil society. But he believes most of this happens outside of government. 
  • Cameron is a decentralizer. Unlike previous Conservatives who have stood for the unitary British state, Cameron talks about devolving power not to autonomous nationalities like the Scots or big cities like London (as has started to happen under Labour), but directly to community groups and to associations of parents who would set up their own schools within the public system. Burke's idea of "little platoons" and the writings of Michael Oakeshott seem to run deep in his veins. 
  • Cameron is a liberal progressive. He is not a libertarian or an individualist. This can mean inflammatory things in the American context, but his speeches make clear that he believes income inequality is a problem (that, paradoxically, government has made worse). He seems to echo mid-1990s Republican rhetoric on welfare as a threat to the family and society, pitting big government against compassionate social policy. He seems to discount the Reagan-Thatcher celebration of the individual-entrepreneur as moving society forward by making a functioning economy possible. In this way, his thinking is much heavier on social policy than it is on economic policy, the opposite of the position faced by American conservatives.  
  • Cameron is a believer in technology-driven transparency. He traveled to Long Beach to give a TED talk on this. He believes spending transparency is an essential component to the devolutionist project he's pursuing. The Obama guys are also big on this sort of thing, but in America there's no sense that it's anything more than a propaganda tool (Exhibit A: Recovery.gov) or something that gets more than just data geeks excited. 

This is all a lead in to Cameron's idea of a "Big Society" that exists apart from Big Government. His speech on it from November 2009 lays this out in a fair amount of detail. A more boiled down, more political juxtaposition appears in his manifesto launch:

But the alternative to Big Government is not no government. It's good government. Effective government. Focusing on what needs to be done and working with people to achieve it. It's the partner of the Big Society, not its boss.

Labour measure everything by money and how much they spend. How much of your money they spend - though they never remember to put it like that. We've had thirteen years of it. Thirteen years of them going on television and never talking about what's actually happened... or what real people have actually done. All they talk about is what they, the government, have done. How much they, the government, have put in.

But it doesn't work. And it's out of date. It's time to say to Labour: it's not about you, the government. It's about we, the people. 

And it's time to say to those who think it's all about unchecked individualism... no, it's not about me, the individual. It's about we, the people.

In one sense, Cameron is doing something conservatives here should pay attention to: laying out a success metric for the vast majority of the stuff government does day to day that doesn't involve spending more money. 

Conceptually, the Big Society -- a mix of civil society, personal behavior, voluntarism, and community -- is a positive thing that the right can attach itself to. I've argued in the context of health care that conservatives have faced a social policy deficit and thus a compelling rallying cry for what to do about the problems in the health care system. One route would have been to become expert at and be perceived as owning all the positive things that were already happening outside of government -- focusing on prevention, improving health outcomes, and e-health to reduce costs and bring instant peer review to faulty diagnoses. This is a Big Society approach -- positive and upbeat, and without more government. Incidentally, it's a development from the Big Society -- improvements in sonography -- that have changed public policy outcomes on abortion by reducing them dramatically. If you're on the pro-life side of the ledger, this is about the biggest non-legislative, non-judicial victory you could hope for. 

All of this is more my take on what the Big Society could mean in America than Cameron's. In this respect, I think a focus on positive things to talk about outside of taxes could be beneficial. Without taxes, the basic conservative messaging on size of government is austerity -- except even our own folks on the Hill think this is unsustainable, judging by their earmark requests. Republicans should be proactively looking to the private/voluntary sector to highlight social policy success metrics that relieve the pressure to spend money when they need a quick political fix. 

Nonetheless, I suspect that Cameron's goals for a Big Society are different than ours would be. Indeed, this key part of Cameron's Big Society speech from last November shows a decidedly non-libertarian bent that I fear could easily revert back to Nanny Statism at the first sign of resistance: 

This means a new role for the state: actively helping to create the big society; directly agitating for, catalysing and galvanising social renewal.

So yes, in the fight against poverty, inequality, social breakdown and injustice I do want to move from state action to social action. But I see a powerful role for government in helping to engineer that shift. Let me put it more plainly: we must use the state to remake society. 

(That last line is pretty chilling if you're a tea party activist, isn't it?)

While the social engineering explicit in Cameron's thought seems alarming, it's not entirely unknown in the Republican Party in recent years, which is why I don't see the party clamoring for a Cameron-like rebranding anytime soon. Remember "compassionate conservatism"? Or the "opportunity society"? 

Both these concepts were about putting the government on the side of social entrepreneurs and faith-based groups who could better deliver public services. Except the actual initiatives that did this weren't all that scalable (I doubt if faith-based initiatives ever topped the billion-dollar mark) or were politically unattainable (putting individuals in charge of their Social Security accounts). The other projects undertaken in the name of an "opportunity society" involved massive (and we were assured, temporary) rises in government spending in order to "buy" market-friendly policies as in the case of Medicare Part D. 

The recession will limit any new spending by any British government after May 6th. I'm willing to believe that the way the Bush Administration pursued its big society objectives was more ersatz and tolerated new government spending more than Cameron would, but though Cameron is indisputably a better choice than Brown, I worry that his progressive instincts will in the end lead him to a place not far from Labour. 

 

Democrats on Health Care

Nice.

 

Well played, House Republican Conference.

The Republican Health Care Failure

Much ink and many pixels are being expended on writing health care's political postmortems, but the focus should rightly be on the policy front -- in the think tanks and in the legislative priorities of recent Republican administrations and Congresses. In short, the battle was lost before the first shot was even fired because Republicans did not present a compelling alternative story of what was wrong with the health care system, or how they would fix it. 

When it comes to health care policy, conservatives have been seriously outgunned. And I say this in all fairness to the friends I have who work night and day on free market solutions to health care. On economics, you always know what the conservative answer is: tax cuts and generally hands-off regulatory policies to spur economic growth. No matter how good the Democrats' promises sound, we return to these simple, pro-growth touchtones that resonate with a majority of Americans who intuitively get that you can't micromanage your way to a better future. 

On health care, I have no idea what our basic guiding principle is. Seriously, I don't. 

We have tried ineffectively to stretch free market rhetoric to health care without appreciating that health care is already too far removed from a free market for the analogy to make sense. Real markets are sensitive to price. Health care isn't. The insurance companies hide the cost of actual care from the consumer. 

What we have lacked in this debate is a simple clarion call to address an aching need -- bringing free market principles to bear to improve tangible health outcomes.

Instead, we have allowed the left to define the problem as exclusively one of access -- of the nearly 50 million without insurance dying in the streets (of course, we don't talk about that number anymore because nearly a third of that number are illegal immigrants, an issue Obamacare studiously avoids). 

And it's no surprise. The left has had a far greater number of health care analysts devising grand plans for the eventual takeover. And they have invested more political capital in this issue than any other. It should surprise no one that the conservative effort in this space has been paltry in comparison. We just haven't had as many people thinking about health care, and we didn't actively move legislation on it when we were in power. 

Perhaps you might say that's beside the point of the awfulness of this plan, and that our full efforts must go towards repeal. Be that as it may, Republican inattention to health care and the failure to develop a compelling free market narrative on the issue led to the place we are now. By pounding home the notion that the uninsured were the central problem with the health care system, and pointing to the fact that their numbers were growing each and every year, liberals built a sense of urgency that conservatives didn't have and were able to demand action -- even if that action was political suicide. 

At the outset of his Administration, George W. Bush set out to neutralize a key Democratic issue, education, with his No Child Left Behind Act. NCLB was a grab bag and not beloved by conservatives for its massive expansion in Federal spending in education, but it did insist on the vaguely conservative principle of accountability. 

The merits of that legislation can continue to be debated, but one political outcome is clear. We don't talk much about education at the federal level these days. There is a sense that the problem was "solved" by NCLB, which is now nearly a decade old. Likewise, no one will try to move welfare reform legislation because the successful 1996 reform law substantively and politically took the wind out of the sails of that issue. 

Imagine if instead of the Medicare Part D entitlement, the Bush administration had moved a smart, substantive health care bill that addressed cost as the key to unlocking access, making health plans dramatically more affordable, addressing medical liability, and moving away from employer-based plans by giving any group -- whether an employer or not -- the ability to organize their own health insurance pools? 

I was there, and I can attest that the Bush Administration did make good faith efforts to move medical liability and association health plans, but it was never the central, overarching focus. It was clear they would never expend political capital like they did on the prescription drug issue that they let themselves get baited on by Al Gore in the 2000 campaign, or the war, or tax cuts. 

A well-developed Republican health reform effort could have addressed the high cost of health care -- actually the most glaring issue in our system -- in a way that would have served as a kind of tax cut for the already insured. And in lowering costs, we could have covered the people who wanted health care but couldn't afford it -- the nub of the uninsured problem. 

Debate the details of this all you want, but the political upshot of this would have been to render the health care issue, a major Democratic hobbyhorse, politically dead for a generation. A bill less ambitious in scope, designed to address real pain points not a quixotic campaign for 100% insurance, could have forestalled this bill even in the event of a complete Democratic takeover. 

This may be oversimplified. There are certainly many very good conservative health care scholars whose work I should have been reading more closely these last few years. But politics is a battle of perceptions, and the perception -- that became reality -- was that Republicans brought a knife to a gun fight when it came a debate about the scope and reach of health care reform. We may have won the political battle over health care, in that a majority of Americans opposed Obamacare, but sometimes it is the policy battles that set the tone for the future political battleground, moving the entire spectrum on which they are fought further left. 

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