Freedom Writing

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Scattershooting on the Night of the New Hampshire Primary

I've been watching the results from the New Hampshire primary tonight.

Although there was much talk about how many New Hampshire voters don't make up their minds until the last days before the vote, I can't say the results surprised me. I knew what the outcome would be. I guess everyone knew what the outcome would be. Donald Trump won the Republican primary. Bernie Sanders from neighboring Vermont won the Democratic primary.

For me, the entertaining part was hearing their speeches. That's when the show really began. I heard several of them — and darned if they didn't all sound like they won, even though only two, Trump and Sanders, actually did.

First I saw Hillary Clinton give her basic stump speech, and she sounded like she had won — although she got Berned by more than 20 percentage points. I guess she was getting in some practice for a couple of weeks from now, when she is likely to win by as much — or more — in South Carolina as she lost by in New Hampshire.

I heard John Kasich's speech, in which he sounded like he, too, won, although he lost to Trump by better than two to one.

I had an odd feeling when I watched Marco Rubio.

See, I was a big fan of The West Wing when it was on the air, and I especially enjoyed the last two seasons that chronicled the rise of a Latino from Texas to the presidential nomination — and, eventually, election as president.

There were several things about Rubio that just reminded me of Jimmy Smits, who played the longshot candidate, a virtual unknown. The character Smits played was more left of center whereas Rubio is more right of center, but it wasn't most of the things Rubio said that reminded me of Smits as it was gestures, mannerisms, even pronunciations.

I have heard it said that when Smits' character was written, it was partly modeled after Barack Obama, who was a state senator in Illinois at the time but whose ambition for higher office was already well known. And Smits' character certainly had a lot in common with Obama philosophically.

But I never had the same feeling with Obama that I have with Rubio concerning their similarities to Smits' character — and, as a writer, I guess I am always looking for those examples when life imitates art.

Could that be what is happening on the Republican side this year?

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Does Iowa Matter?

I remember when Iowa first became a player in the presidential nominating process.

As I understand it, Iowa has been holding caucuses since the 1840s, but the caucuses weren't the first–in–the–nation political events they have become in presidential politics until 1972. Nothing much happened in the caucuses that year.

It was outsider Jimmy Carter, the former governor of Georgia, who put Iowa on the political map with a strong showing in the 1976 Iowa caucuses. He didn't win. "Uncommitted" did, as it had in 1972. But Carter received more than 27% of the vote in the Democrats' caucuses, more than doubling the total of his nearest rival, and he got a lot of positive press that gave him the momentum he needed to win the nomination and, eventually, the presidency.

In the 40 years since that time, catching lightning in a bottle the way Carter did has become the holy grail for every candidate who has come into Iowa trailing significantly in the polls. Ironically, I suppose, that seldom happens, especially on the Democrats' side. Former Vice President Walter Mondale (in 1984), Vice President Al Gore (2000) and Sen. John Kerry (2004) won the Iowa caucuses as front runners and went on to win the nomination as expected — but not the general election.

Eventual nominee Michael Dukakis finished third in Iowa in 1988, and Bill Clinton polled less than 3% in the 1992 caucuses, which were won by favorite son Tom Harkin in a landslide. Sixteen years later, Clinton's wife Hillary was the front runner going into Iowa — but came in third behind Barack Obama and John Edwards.

The rest, as they say, is history, but I don't think that history repeated itself in that campaign. History, as Mark Twain said, doesn't repeat itself, but it does rhyme.

It is tempting to suggest that Obama duplicated Carter's accomplishment in 2008, but I would argue that Carter was much more of an unknown nationally than Obama. Carter also changed American politics by putting his name on every primary ballot; up to that time, candidates picked which primaries to contest. Most states picked their delegates in state conventions.

In fact, that is actually how delegates from Iowa will be chosen. The caucuses are simply the first step of a fairly lengthy process.

Carter had never held a national office when he won his party's nomination; Obama had been a U.S. senator for four years.

Plus, Obama delivered the keynote address at the 2004 Democratic convention that nominated Kerry. That speech, which was given less than four months before Obama won the Senate seat from Illinois, is credited by many historians with launching Obama's national political career. Carter, to my knowledge, never appeared before a convention until he accepted the 1976 nomination.

Both, of course, went on to win the presidency, which was something Mondale, Gore and Kerry never did. But, from the perspective of becoming the party's nominee, Iowa Democrats have a fairly long history of supporting their eventual nomineess in the caucuses.

Thus, from an historical standpoint, Iowa certainly does matter for Democrats, particularly since the dawn of the 21st century. No Democrat has won the presidential nomination in the last two decades without winning the Iowa caucuses.

That makes Iowa incredibly important for Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders' presidential aspirations. It is generally conceded that the Vermont senator will win New Hampshire a week from Tuesday, but to be a plausible threat to the supposedly inevitable Hillary Clinton, it is generally accepted by most political observers that Sanders must win in Iowa tomorrow.

Polls show Clinton with a lead of varying amounts. The latest Des Moines Register/Bloomberg poll has Clinton leading by three percentage points, 45% to 42%. The poll's margin of error is 4%.

Clinton's lead is outside the margins of error in the latest Public Policy Polling survey, where Clinton has 48% to Sanders' 40%, and the latest Gravis Marketing poll, where Clinton is exceeding 50%.

Before that, the NBC News/WSJ/Marist Poll found Clinton leading by 48% to 45%, which is within that poll's margin of error, and a Monmouth University poll found Clinton leading 47% to 42%, which is outside that poll's margin of error (but only by about half a percentage point).

Clearly, anything could happen, and observers say a high turnout could make the race even tighter. That may depend on whether snow strikes Iowa during tomorrow night's caucuses. Currently, there is a less than 50% chance of snow in most of Iowa's major cities tomorrow night with the greatest chance for snow coming after midnight. So caucus goers may dodge the bullet, and turnout may be high. We'll see if that is good news for Sanders.

Yes, Iowa Democrats clearly have a history of endorsing their party's eventual nominee. Republicans? Not so much.

On the Republican side, victory in Iowa has meant little in the overall scheme of things. Since 1980, only two winners of the Republican nomination have won in Iowa's GOP caucuses — Bob Dole in 1996 and George W. Bush in 2000. Rick Santorum won Iowa in 2012. Mike Huckabee won Iowa in 2008. Dole beat George H.W. Bush in Iowa in 1988, and George H.W. Bush beat Ronald Reagan in Iowa in 1980.

When a party has an incumbent running for re–election, that party usually doesn't hold caucuses> The Democrats of 1980 were an exception to that rule. Then–President Carter defeated Edward Kennedy, 59% to 31%, in the Iowa caucuses that year. Since then, Presidents Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and both Bushes were not challenged in Iowa.

According to recent polls, it could be just about anyone's caucus on the GOP side. Donald Trump was trailing Texas Sen. Ted Cruz in Iowa at one point, but he seems to have pulled ahead following former vice–presidential nominee Sarah Palin's endorsement. The Des Moines Register/Bloomberg poll showed Trump with a five–point lead over Cruz — just outside its margin of error. The latest Gravis Marketing poll reported that Trump has a four–point lead, right on that poll's margin of error.

Trump enjoys leads of seven and eight points in the NBC News/WSJ/Marist Poll and Public Policy Polling survey.

Now because of the history of Iowa's Republican presidential caucuses, it seems that anyone who really wants to win the nomination would not want to finish first in Iowa. Historically Republicans who won the battle in Iowa wound up losing the war for the nomination.

Finishing in the top four has been best — Reagan came in second in Iowa in 1980, George H.W. Bush was third in 1988, and John McCain was fourth in 2008. No, you certainly don't have to win in Iowa to win the nomination, but apparently it is necessary to finish in double digits in Iowa if you want to be the standard bearer. If your share of the Iowa caucus vote is less than 10%, you probably won't be the nominee.

So that is my bottom line on the caucuses. Who won on the Democrats' side? That probably will be the party's nominee. Who won on the Republican side? That probably will not be the party's nominee.

Well, that is what history says. But students of political history never would have believed that someone with no political experience would be running so far ahead of his rivals for the Republican nomination. Donald Trump is an enigma — and even if he wins tomorrow night, that does not mean he will be denied the nomination.

At this point, the only thing of which I am certain is that, if not this week, then certainly next week (after the New Hampshire primary), we will start to see candidates dropping out of the races. Sanders may last to Super Tuesday or beyond if he can win Iowa. If not, he may be a casualty; former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley is almost sure to be finished after New Hampshire.

On the Republican side, Jeb Bush is likely to remain in the race no matter what happens. He still has more than enough money to finance a run through the spring primaries. But those who finish in single digits in Iowa or New Hampshire or both will be re–evaluating their situations, and my guess is that, by the middle of February, the Republican race will be down to a more manageable five or six candidates. That group is likely to include Trump, Cruz, Bush, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, possibly Chris Christie and maybe someone else.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Two Weeks to Go Until Iowa Caucuses

I have mentioned here before that I have little faith in polls except for the ones in which actual voters participate on Election Day.

And the first such actual vote will take place two weeks from today in Iowa — where it won't be an actual vote, as in a primary. It will be a caucus, and results from caucuses are less precise than those from primaries.

Until that happens, though, we really won't know if the polls are right or wrong. For now, the polls are all we have, whether the findings turn out to be accurate or not.

Another point about caucuses: Participating in one require more — much more — of a commitment of one's time than merely walking into a voting booth and selecting the candidates for whom one wishes to vote so caucuses are notorious for attracting the diehards, the extremists. Consequently, it would not surprise me if the extreme element among Iowa's Democrats hand a victory to Bernie Sanders.

Earlier in 2015, Sanders was far behind Hillary Clinton in Iowa polls. But that was months before the caucus — and Hillary has had some setbacks — and the latest polls show the race tightening. Just in time for the caucus.

Hillary still leads in the Des Moines Register/Bloomberg poll, but only by two points, 42% to 40% — and that falls within the poll's margin of error.

Sanders leads in the latest Quinnipiac University poll, 49% to 44%.

I guess Hillary can take some solace in the fact that she leads in the latest CBS/New York Times poll, 48% to 41%, although that lead shows some slippage.

For Hillary backers who are nostalgic for the days of summer, Gravis Marketing finds Hillary leading, 57% to 36%.

I wouldn't count on anything that lopsided, though.

On the Republican side, the Des Moines Register/Bloomberg poll finds Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas leading Donald Trump by three points, 25% to 22%.

But as much as Trump has appeared to be preparing his followers for a defeat, I think he may actually be trying to lower expectations so the victory he anticipates will be that much more meaningful. Gravis Marketing has Trump in front by six points, 34% to 28%. Public Policy Polling says Trump is ahead but by a narrower margin, 28% to 26%.

I'm thinking we could be in for a couple of cliffhangers two weeks from tonight.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

The Rubber Hits the Road

The past, as they say, is prologue, and the changing of the calendar to the official start of a presidential election year brings a new seriousness to the pursuits of the parties' presidential nominations.

All that went before was little more than strutting and posturing. The party campaigns were popularity contests last year, entertaining but, once the holidays are over and the primaries loom on the horizon, the rhetoric becomes strangely irrelevant.

Participation is what is relevant, and that is a whole other thing.

The people who participate in the voting that will matter — the contests that will assign the actual delegates who will be voting at this summer's conventions — will be highly motivated, especially the ones who participate in the caucuses. They are very different from primaries.

If you live in a caucus state, you must get organized with like–minded folks so you can make an effective case for your candidate at the caucus. Caucus goers often have to devote several hours to their caucus — as opposed to those who vote in primaries, in which you may have to stand in line for awhile but, eventually, you will only spend a brief period in the polling booth — and you will do so alone. With the extended voting periods in so many states, if you plan it well, you can walk right in, vote and walk back out in a matter of minutes. I know. I've done it.

Taking part in either a primary or a caucus does require a level of commitment that not everyone is willing to make. Those are the only poll results I want to see. It doesn't really mean anything until people start voting in primaries or caucuses.

The people who attend political rallies may be registered to vote, but registered voters and likely voters are two different breeds altogether.

It doesn't take much commitment to attend a political rally. Donald Trump has been drawing thousands to his rallies, but many in the crowds are those who, while they may be registered to vote, do not tend to make a habit of voting. Thus, they are not likely voters.

Of course, the same could be said of many who attended Ross Perot's rallies in 1992, but in the end Perot brought nearly 20 million Americans into the electoral process. It remains to be seen if Trump's supporters can match Perot's in terms of commitment.

And we'll start finding out in three weeks, when Iowa holds its caucuses.

The closer we get to actual voting, the more pollsters seem to be moving in the direction of differentiating between merely registered voters and likely voters.

Reach Communications' most recent survey ahead of the Feb. 9 New Hampshire primary was conducted with Republicans and independents who said they would be voting in the primary. Donald Trump led by 20 percentage points. Fox News' most recent poll was with likely voters, who are determined through a series of screening questions. That survey showed Trump with an 18–point lead.

Public Policy Polling's latest survey — also conducted among likely voters — shows Trump with a 14–point lead.

The Trump–Ted Cruz battle in the Feb. 1 Iowa caucuses could be fierce. The most recent Gravis Marketing survey in Iowa was conducted in December, but it, too, emphasized those who were likely to participate. It found Trump and Cruz tied at 31% apiece.

"Many more people say they will vote than actually do," observes the Gallup Organization at its website, "so it is not sufficient to simply ask people whether they will vote."

Gallup's screening questions are:
Thought given to election (quite a lot, some)
Know where people in neighborhood go to vote (yes)
Voted in election precinct before (yes)
How often vote (always, nearly always)
Plan to vote in 2016 election (yes)
Likelihood of voting on a 10-point scale (7-10)
Voted in last presidential election (yes)

Each pollster uses its own screening questions, but the process is essentially the same from one to another.

My guess is that, as we get closer to each primary or caucus, the polls from each state will be conducted with likely voters.

And that is when we will start to get an idea whether a candidate's support has any real depth to it.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

R.I.P., Dale Bumpers

Dale Bumpers must be a patron saint for anyone who dreams of coming from nowhere and winning whatever the greatest prize in that person's chosen profession happens to be. Bumpers' profession — his calling, if you choose to call it that — was in politics.

He may not be the patron saint of all such people, though. Jimmy Carter, who overcame low name recognition to win the presidency, must hold that title for presidential aspirants. But for those with low name recognition who seek lesser offices, well, they couldn't do better than to have Bumpers on their side.

I spent most of the first 30 years of my life in Arkansas, and it often seemed as if Bumpers, who died Friday at the age of 90, had always been a part of the state's political scene, but the truth was that he spent the first 18 years of his career, after serving in World War II and then studying law at Northwestern, in virtual obscurity as a mostly unknown city attorney in the town where he was born — Charleston, a village in Northwest Arkansas.

He entered state politics in 1970 as a Democratic candidate for governor. The incumbent was a Republican so the Democratic primary was crowded. Bumpers was polling at 1% when he entered the race, but he elbowed his way into a runoff with former Gov. Orval Faubus and won it easily. Then, in the general election, he handily defeated the incumbent, Winthrop Rockefeller, in the process earning the reputation of political giant killer.

That wasn't the last giant he toppled, either. In 1974, after serving two two–year terms as governor, Bumpers challenged five–term Sen. Bill Fulbright in the primary and won by a 2–to–1 margin. He went on to serve four terms in the U.S. Senate.

His most memorable moment in the Senate most likely came a few weeks after his retirement from it in 1999, when he was asked to deliver a closing argument in Bill Clinton's Senate impeachment trial. "H.L. Mencken said one time, 'When you hear somebody say, 'This is not about the money,' it's about the money," Bumpers said. "And when you hear somebody say, 'This is not about sex,' it's about sex."

I always love it when someone works in a quote from Mencken.

Bumpers was frequently mentioned as a possible presidential candidate, and I always thought he would have been a good one. He did whatever he thought was right, not what he thought would win him votes. It's my understanding that, even after serving as governor and senator over a period of nearly 30 years, the accomplishment of which he was most proud was playing an important role in the integration of the school district in his hometown — the first in the old Confederacy.

He always had a sunny disposition, whether he actually believed what he said or not. The thing was that he could make others believe it.

I recall when I was on the faculty of the University of Oklahoma, and I attended a lecture being given by former Sen. George McGovern, the Democratic presidential nominee in 1972, the year Bumpers was re–elected governor in a landslide. After the lecture, I went up to McGovern to introduce myself and shake his hand. I told him I had seen him once, late in that '72 campaign when he made a brief stop at the Little Rock airport, and a crowd of both the curious and the committed gathered in a hangar to see him.

McGovern told me he remembered that stop because Bumpers had assured him he would carry Arkansas when the votes were counted about a week later. It didn't work out that way. Richard Nixon carried 69% of the vote, the first time in precisely one century that Arkansas voted for a Republican for president. It has now done so in all but three of the 10 presidential elections that have been held since — and native son Clinton was the Democrats' nominee in two of those elections.

But through that transition, Bumpers continued to win elections. When he was elected governor, observers speculated that he would be one of a new breed of Southern governors — a group that, at the time, included the likes of Jimmy Carter of Georgia. Carter, as I have pointed out, enjoyed his own meteoric rise when he came from nowhere in 1976 to win the presidency. Bumpers later said he had long believed that 1976 was his best opportunity to be elected president.

Bumpers was often mentioned as a possible presidential candidate, but the talk seemed to be loudest in 1980 and 1984. He declined to enter the race both times. I always thought he would have been successful because he had qualities that served Ronald Reagan so well — that sunny disposition I mentioned and remarkable oratorical skills. On a few occasions as a reporter, I covered Bumpers speaking at Labor Day Fish Fries and Chamber of Commerce luncheons in Arkansas, and I always marveled at his speaking style. It was so engaging, so folksy.

He had a real knack for connecting with people, regardless of their political philosophies. It is why in these last couple of days since his death, both Democrats and Republicans in Arkansas have been speaking highly of Bumpers and his ability to reach across the aisle.

Of course, the political landscape in Arkansas has changed considerably since Bumpers was governor. In those days, reaching across the aisle wasn't really the issue. Democrats held nearly every seat in the state legislature, but Bumpers still had to build a consensus on most issues. The legislature had conservative Democrats, liberal Democrats and moderate Democrats. It was the same challenge that Bumpers' Democratic successors, David Pryor (who followed Bumpers to the Senate four years later) and Bill Clinton, faced as governor.

All three understood that it is necessary for each side to give a little, to compromise if great things are to be accomplished. They may not be quite as great as each side envisioned, but they will be better than doing nothing.

Arkansas was fortunate to be governed by such men in times of tremendous change — and doing nothing was not an option.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Jeb's Hail Mary

There was a time when Jeb Bush was regarded as the Republican Party's front–runner for the 2016 nomination — a prospect that elicited groans across the political spectrum. No one, it seemed, relished the idea of another Bush–Clinton campaign — even though, to be old enough merely to remember the first one, never mind the issues of the campaign, I imagine one would have to be at least 30 years old.

Nor, for that matter, did many people seem to be enthusiastic about the prospect of a third Bush presidency.

But that was before Donald Trump came along, seized the lead and held on to it for months, defying gravity in a political environment that has long been accustomed to seeing a front–runner of the week in races for the Republican nomination.

Meanwhile Jeb has been sinking like a stone in a pond. The former front–runner has been mired in single digits in the polls for weeks now.

I continue to believe, as I always have, that polls conducted in the early stages of presidential nominating contests mean little. I have seen too many front–runners falter. Most of the time, the front–runner winds up winning ... but not always. That is why early polls mean little to me. They're usually about name recognition and little else (which makes it telling, I suppose, that so many Democrats choose someone other than Hillary Clinton, who was first lady for eight years, senator for another eight and secretary of state for four, or continue to say they are undecided when asked their preference in 2016).

It's what people do when they are in the privacy of the voting booth that matters.

So I prefer to wait until people actually start voting before I begin the process of deciding for whom I will vote. And, being an independent, I don't tend to vote in primaries, anyway. So I can wait until the parties have made their decisions before I choose a candidate to support — if I do.

But I'm in the minority on that one, I suppose. It never fails to amaze me — the faith that people place in polls conducted more than a year before an election is to be held and how so many things — chiefly financial and popular support — ride on something that can be as imprecise as public opinion polling.

Bush's latest move should come as no surprise. He is redeploying his resources away from ad buys and boots on the ground in Iowa and South Carolina and focusing on New Hampshire (where recent polls conducted by American Research Group and CBS News/YouGov show Bush in single digits) and some other early primaries.

(That's another thing about presidential politics that I have always found troubling — how something as important as a major party's nomination for the presidency of the greatest nation on earth can hinge on the electoral whims of the voters in a state — New Hampshire — with a total population that is only slightly larger and much less diverse than the city in which I live — Dallas. But that is another subject for another day.)

Bush's decision is a desperation move. You can call it that, or you can use other names for it — a "Hail Mary" or a by–the–seat–of–your–pants strategy. Whatever you call it, the Bush campaign is struggling and needs something to give it some juice. That will be easier said than done.

"The decision will keep Bush from paying for roughly $3 million of reserved TV time in January," explains Ed O'Keefe in the Washington Post, "a little more than $1 million in Iowa, just under $2 million in South Carolina."

See? It's a dollars–and–cents thing, pure and simple.

But South Carolina will be the second primary on the Republican calendar. New Hampshire votes in its first–in–the–nation primary on Feb. 9 a week after the caucuses in Iowa (where a Gravis Marketing poll shows Bush with only 4%); South Carolina (where the most recent CBS News/YouGov poll has Bush at 7%, far behind Trump and Ted Cruz) votes two weeks later. I presume that, if Bush rallies and wins in New Hampshire, he will re–redeploy resources to South Carolina.

That is the essence of the "Hail Mary" strategy. You do it, and, if it succeeds, you will probably have to do it again — and perhaps again. Football teams that have to go to the "Hail Mary" often need to make up more than one score. The romanticized vision of the "Hail Mary" is a single long pass, like the one Roger Staubach threw in the playoffs 40 years ago, but the realistic one is that it is more like the "domino theory" of presidential politics

That will be Bush's last chance to establish some momentum before the March 1 "Super Tuesday" primaries in 10 states — Alabama, Alaska, Arkansas, Georgia, Massachusetts, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont and Virginia. That is the big day, and my guess is that several campaigns will come to an end within days of Super Tuesday — unless each state votes for someone different, and that doesn't seem likely to happen.

But that suggests faith that the polls are right, and they may not be. They may be overstating Donald Trump's support (which may be made apparent as we move into the post–holiday phase when, per the conventional wisdom, voters start paying closer attention to the candidates), or they may be, as I wrote recently, understating it.

Even if Bush survives until Super Tuesday, he has other problems that he has to hope stronger–than–expected showings in New Hampshire and South Carolina will help to resolve. Polls in Super Tuesday states don't have good news for the Bush campaign — if they voted today. In Massachusetts, a Boston Globe/Suffolk poll has Bush in fourth place with 7%, 25 points behind Trump. In Oklahoma, the most recent Sooner Poll has Bush at 2%.

There are, of course, still three states that have not chosen dates for their primaries — Maine, North Dakota and Wyoming — but even if they schedule their primaries on one of the other days when multiple primaries will be held, there still will be no other day when as many states vote as Super Tuesday.

That will be the real Hail Mary for those who win — as well as those who survive — in New Hampshire and South Carolina.

Friday, December 25, 2015

Over the Line

"I have to admit yesterday when I saw that cartoon — not much ticks me off but making fun of my girls, that'll do it."

Sen. Ted Cruz (R–Texas)

I have always been an advocate of the First Amendment.

Now, I was brought up to believe in all of the freedoms outlined in the Bill of Rights and the Constitution, but the First Amendment has always been my thing. That is no surprise, I guess, given my background; ordinarily, I will come down on the side of freedom of speech and freedom of the press over just about anything else.

When I was in college, I took what amounted to an exception–free stance. I saw no circumstances in which freedom of the press or freedom of speech could justifiably be abridged. To do so, I felt, was contrary to the concept of true liberty.

As time has passed, though, my positions have modified, and I have come to believe that there are limits. Freedom of speech does not give one the right to yell "Fire!" in a crowded theater — to actively encourage public hysteria. There is the greater good to be considered.

And freedom of the press does not give anyone the right to publish anything. People who are in the public eye are one thing. Most of them chose to be where they are — there are exceptions, of course, but I'm not talking about people who are thrust into the spotlight through no choice of their own. I'm talking about politicians, movie stars, professional athletes. They knew — or should have known — what to expect. But usually their families are off limits.

The Washington Post crossed that line with its cartoon of Ted Cruz and his two young daughters this week.

Now, it is important to remember that there is no law that prevents a publication from running a cartoon on any topic the editor and/or the editorial board desire. There is no legal obligation for any newspaper or magazine or TV program to avoid mentioning a politician's children, but there is a moral one. It is the guideline of good taste and sound judgment, and it is a line that most news outlets, regardless of their editorial leanings, will not cross. This week the Washington Post went over the line.

One can debate, I suppose, Cruz's judgment in using his children in one of his television commercials, but the truth is that he is far from the first politician to do so. In fact, I can't recall a truly serious candidate for the presidency in my lifetime, whether he was his party's nominee or not, who did not use his family in his campaign. And I can't recall a single candidate for a lesser office, from my developmental years in Arkansas through my adult years in Oklahoma and Texas, who didn't bring forth the family during the campaign. Photo ops, TV commercials, rallies, the spouse and kids were everywhere — especially if they were photogenic.

This is the first time in my memory, however, that a candidate's children were attacked editorially for participating in that candidate's campaign advertising.

The editor of the Post tried to wriggle out of it by observing that, because Cruz had used his family in a Christmas–themed political commercial, he could understand why cartoonist Ann Telnaes thought the Post's prohibition on such depictions of a prominent politician's children had been lifted, at least in this case. He admitted failing to review the cartoon before it was published and said he disagreed with Telnaes' assessment.

"When a politician uses his children as political props, as Ted Cruz recently did in his Christmas parody video in which his eldest daughter read (with her father's dramatic flourish) a passage of an edited Christmas classic, then I figure they are fair game."

Ann Telnaes
Washington Post cartoonist

But the damage has been done, and the Post now acknowledges that the episode was a "gift" to the Cruz campaign, which has criticized the media for its double standard in its coverage of Democrats and Republicans. It gives him lots of ammunition to whip up the faithful in the weeks and months ahead. It may give Cruz added momentum heading into the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary.

I can only imagine the outcry if Barack Obama's daughters were portrayed in an editorial cartoon as monkeys.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

The Return of the Bradley Effect

I have written here before of the "Bradley effect," but that was in the context of the 2008 presidential election, a time when voters were deciding whether to elect the first black president. That wasn't as inconsequential a decision as you might think now, more than seven years after the fact. After all, Barack Obama has been elected president twice now. Voters face a different kind of decision in 2016.

Simply put, the Bradley effect refers to the 1982 California gubernatorial campaign of Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley. Bradley was black, and polls prior to the election showed him leading the race. But he lost — narrowly — to Republican George Deukmejian (who won by less than 100,000 votes out of more than 7.5 million).

I suppose it goes without saying that the outcome of that election prompted a lot of soul searching, and the general conclusion that most people seemed to reach was that Bradley fared better in the polls because those who were polled did not wish to appear racist — so even if they were undecided or leaning toward the Republican, they told the pollsters that they would vote for Bradley, thus creating an artificial lead for him.

When they went into the voting booths, though, the voters did not have to concern themselves with what others would think of them, and they pulled the lever for the Republican — regardless of what they may have told the pollsters.

I bring this up because I think we could be seeing a new — and fascinating — twist on that theme in the campaign of Donald Trump. It isn't necessary to say much about Trump. So much has already been said about him, including the seemingly daily assertions that the Trump campaign has peaked, which always seem to be followed by a new poll showing Trump with even more support than he had before. Clearly, this guy is tapping into something, with his rhetoric about Muslims and immigration, but it's something a lot of people don't seem to want to acknowledge.

It's all about perceptions. Thirty–three years ago, a lot of Californians didn't want to appear to be racist. Today, perhaps a lot of people don't want to appear to be supporting a racist. Well, a perceived racist.

In case you haven't heard, a Quinnipiac University poll that was released today suggests that half of Americans would be embarrassed if Trump became the president. Could the same dynamic be at work here?

It reminds me in a way of a congressional campaign in my district in central Arkansas a couple of years after the Bradley election. There was a rather flamboyant sheriff in Pulaski County at the time named Tommy Robinson, who had apparently been angling for higher office with some publicity stunts.

Now, that district was represented for decades by Democrat Wilbur Mills, and he was succeeded by a Democrat when he stepped down, but that Democrat chose to run for the U.S. Senate after serving a single term, and a Republican was elected to the seat. The Republican held the seat for six years, then he, too, chose to run for the Senate, and Tommy Robinson announced he was running for the House seat as a Democrat. Historically, it was the right choice. Until the Republican incumbent was elected, the district hadn't been represented by a Republican since Reconstruction.

I don't remember much about the advertising in the Democratic primary (which Robinson won in a runoff) or the general election, but I do remember one of Robinson's ads. I think he used it in both the primary and the general election. It showed a series of vignettes in which friends were talking and one would say, "Who are you voting for for Congress?" and the other would say something like, "Well, you'll probably be surprised, but I'm voting for Tommy Robinson."

And that opened the door to confront all the negative stories that had been circulating about Robinson for years.

Now, as it turned out, Robinson was a crook who got caught up in the House banking scandal. But that was still several years in the future when Robinson first ran for the House.

And my memory of that campaign is that pollsters were quite certain that Robinson's Republican opponent, Judy Petty (who lost to Mills 10 years earlier), would win. Polls were showing her leading, which wasn't really hard to imagine. Petty was running as a Ronald Reagan Republican in a year when Reagan carried three–fifths of the vote in that district.

But the Gipper's popularity didn't trickle down enough for Petty to prevail. Or perhaps those people who told the pollsters they would vote for Petty actually voted for Robinson instead.

And perhaps Donald Trump, like George Deukmejian and Tommy Robinson, will have the last laugh.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Going in the Wrong Direction?

A couple of months ago, I wrote about the "Six–Year Itch" — the clear tendency since the end of World War II for American voters to turn on the party in power by the time of the administration's sixth year in office. We saw ample evidence of that happening in last year's midterms.

I wrote that with presidential approval ratings in mind, but I have been studying the results of the elections a little more closely since I wrote that, and I have concluded that you really can't grasp the situation unless you consider another question that pollsters usually ask.

It concerns the direction of the country, and the question that Gallup tends to ask is this: "In general are you satisfied or dissatisfied with the way things are going in the United States?"

Pollsters haven't been asking that question very long at least when compared to other basic polling questions. But it's kind of like another question that tries to gauge the country's mood — the one that asks whether people approve or disapprove of the job Congress is doing. The answer in both cases is almost always negative, resoundingly so. That is why presidential nominees' coattails are so important down the ballot in Senate and House races.

It's the trickle–down theory applied to politics, but it still just a theory. Some presidential candidates have been more successful than others in transferring their political popularity to other candidates in their parties.

Folks who are in government service — and those who want to be — are wise to watch the results closely. Just how negative is the response? How did the out–of–power party fare when disapproval of the direction of the country was similar to the level we have today?

Obviously, the lower the better for the incumbent party, but that is seldom the case. The country consistently falls short of most people's expectations — even though, if you study your history, it is clear that this nation has always been a work in progress. To expect it to become a utopia in a single presidency is naive and unrealistic.

Well, there's a lot of that going around.

It's been more than 10 years since the question about the direction of the country got a positive response — and that probably had more to do with the residual effect of the rally–'round–the–flag atmosphere following the 9–11 attacks. Usually, more than 50% of respondents — typically far more than 50% — are negative. Dissatisfaction with the direction of the country has been over 70% most of the time for years.

Satisfaction with the direction of the country rose into the 30s in the early months of the Obama presidency, but it slipped below 30% by his first Labor Day. It went above 30% in the months before Obama's re–election but quickly fell below 30% again, then briefly returned to the 30s last winter.

Dissatisfaction with the direction of the country isn't always fatal to a president's hope of being re–elected, but it is almost always impossible for a candidate of a term–limited president's party to win if both satisfaction with the direction of the country and approval of a president's job performance are in negative territory.

Barack Obama's most recent approval figure was at 42%, his lowest level in at least a year. Combined with 71% of respondents who currently say the country is going in the wrong direction, that makes Hillary Clinton's task of becoming Obama's successor considerably more daunting.

Does that mean Donald Trump will be the next president of the United States? Possibly, but the selection of the nominee for the out–of–power party is a different subject — not entirely removed from the topics of presidential approval and satisfaction with the direction of the country but not unrelated, either. It's just that there are other factors to consider — and, while Trump's campaign has been defying political wisdom, it is important to remember that no one has voted yet. Republicans won't officially begin the process of choosing their nominee until after the holidays.

We're still nearly 10 months from Election Day, and that is an eternity in politics. Much can happen, and those numbers could turn around. The window won't stay open indefinitely.

Realistically, voter attitudes tend to harden by the May before an election, so there isn't as much time as Democrats probably would like to think.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Terrorism and Politics

"Lawmakers burst into debate over gun control, philosophers analyzed the nature of violence, and the nation was described as grieving.

"Yet 'grief' suddenly seemed like a faintly obsolete word. Nor would 'shock,' 'rage,' 'dismay' do, either. Such anthropomorphic words have been, for generations, the most convenient shorthand of political observation, inviting writers to describe millions of people as if their emotions were fused by a single spasm of 'agony,' 'despair,' 'vengeance' or 'sorrow' — as if, indeed, they were one community. But it is impossible ever to describe a great nation as if it were a community — and, in 1968, the essence of the matter was that the old faith of Americans in themselves, as a community of communities, seemed to be dissolving."

Theodore H. White, 'The Making of the President 1968'

Donald Trump's meteoric rise in the polls — in defiance of all conventional wisdom — is clearly baffling to many people (although the latest poll from Iowa hints that Trump may finally have peaked). They don't know what it means. Is it racism? Is it fascism? Should we pass more laws that would have been totally ineffective in preventing the latest massacre?

I think it is fairly easy to see what is happening in this country today — in large part because I can remember what happened in this country many yesterdays ago — and I have formed a theory about it and the 2016 presidential campaign.

I am speaking of a time when the United States really appeared to be coming apart at the seams — 1968 — when political assassinations and violence in city streets were commonplace.

I was only a child at the time, and I didn't fully understand everything that I saw and heard, but I could comprehend a lot of it. I saw TV reports of riots in the streets of big cities. I saw protesters being beaten by police, and I saw protesters throwing rocks and bottles at the police in response. I saw reports of prominent Americans being assassinated.

I knew fear and chaos when I saw it, and I see the same thing happening now.

Don't get me wrong. There was unrest all over the world. There always is — somewhere. But not usually everywhere — and that is what seemed to be happening in 1968. I'm not saying that actually is what was happening. But it sure seemed like it.

And it was frightening.

You had a pretty good idea in those days which places were best to avoid. In the summer of '68, for example, you didn't want to be near the Democrats' convention hall in Chicago.

You could avoid the obvious places for protests — but those places aren't so obvious anymore. We've seen riots recently that occurred in unpredictable places. That kind of thing tends to make people feel unsafe, you know?

So do seemingly random attacks like the one in San Bernardino, Calif., less than two weeks ago.

Now, we all know that bad things can happen to any one of us at any time. That's life. And, eventually, life is going to end for us all. We may get sick or injured and never recover, or we may be in a fatal accident of some kind. Or any of 10,000 or so other potential causes of death. (The list is virtually endless.) I think most of us have accepted that. So we continue to drive our cars to restaurants and concerts and work, always with that reality tucked away in the backs of our minds.

We know that we will never get out of this world alive. We don't like to be reminded of it on a daily basis. And we don't expect death to come when we're shopping or eating — or participating in an office holiday party.

I think it was Woody Allen who said, "I'm not afraid to die. I just don't want to be there when it happens." If we're honest with ourselves, no matter what we think happens or doesn't happen when we stop breathing, that's how we feel, too.

Of course, the kind of spiritual leaders that we have historically had here in the West — ministers, priests, rabbis — remind us that we will die, but they do so as part of a long–term campaign for souls, not to encourage listeners to hasten the day when others' souls will be won or lost — for good. That image, fairly or not, is what many Americans see in their mind's eye when they think of mosques and Muslims.

I think Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are probably correct when they say that most Muslims are peaceful, but you can't ignore the fact that most of the recents terrorist acts, both here and overseas, have been committed by Muslims — and that causes fear. And when refugees are streaming across the border, it isn't possible to tell which ones can be trusted and which ones cannot.

I see 1968 and 2016 as being comparable. Then, as now, people felt unsafe, and they looked for a leader who would take a firm stand against what scared them. President Johnson left a vacuum in this regard, much as Barack Obama has left a vacuum; Hubert Humphrey was left holding the bag for the administration in '68, and he lost a close race to Richard Nixon — the only man in modern American history to win the presidency after having lost a previous presidential election — because the administration had repeatedly demonstrated that it didn't have a clue what to do.

And Nixon won with a third–party firebrand named George Wallace running. Wallace received more than 13% of the vote, with most of those votes coming from the South, and he carried five Southern states that almost certainly would have voted for Nixon if Wallace had not been in the race.

History tells us that the Republicans won five of the next six presidential elections — in large part because they won the battle for the hearts and minds of the voters on the issue of law and order.

I hear many Republicans fretting about Trump running as an independent if denied the GOP nomination. If that happens, the logic says, Hillary Clinton will be the beneficiary just as they allege that her husband was elected because Ross Perot got one–fifth of the popular vote in 1992. I don't think that is true. History shows that third–party candidacies, when they are most appealing to voters, tend to be a problem for whichever party is in power.

Exit–poll surveys in 1992 indicated that, if Perot had not run, Clinton and George H.W. Bush each would have picked up about 40% of his supporters, and the remaining 20% would not have voted at all. The numbers would fluctuate by state, of course, and it is fair to suggest that states where the race between Clinton and Bush was close could have swung the other way if Perot had not been on the ballot. But in the states where Clinton or Bush had decisive leads, it is unlikely that Perot's absence from the race would have meant much.

If the '92 exit polls are correct — and I have neither heard nor seen any evidence that would lead me to believe they are not — I suppose many Republicans believe Bush could have won that 20%, but I'm inclined to think those voters wouldn't have chosen from the major parties' nominees. They were drawn in to the process by Perot and most likely would have receded into the shadows from which they came if he had not been on the ballot. They weren't responsive to Bush or Clinton.

A dozen years before that, in 1980, there was talk right up until Election Day that Rep. John Anderson would siphon off enough votes from both President Jimmy Carter and former Gov. Ronald Reagan to force their race into the House of Representatives. Anderson had run against Reagan in the Republican primaries before deciding to mount a third–party campaign, and he was widely praised as an alternative to the major nominees. But the experts overestimated his influence on the campaign. Anderson won no states and received only 6.6% of the vote.

Perhaps Carter would have won most of Anderson's votes if Anderson had not run as a third–party candidate, but, outside the South, where Carter lost nearly every state but held Reagan under 50% in most, it hardly seems it would have mattered. Reagan won in a landslide.

The issue right now is not whether Trump would fracture the party and allow Hillary Clinton to win next year. The issue for voters is who makes them feel safe. Trump has been successful at that. If his Republican challengers want to be relevant in the 2016 campaign, they will need to address it, too.

Because 2016, like 1968, is going to be about an increasingly insecure nation and how it deals with its greatest fear.