Monday, April 30, 2012

The Arkansas Rockefeller

Tomorrow would have been Winthrop Rockefeller's 100th birthday.

It may seem inappropriate to refer to him — as my headline does — as "the Arkansas Rockefeller" — although that is the title of a book about Rockefeller that was written by a friend of mine, John Ward (the longtime editor of my hometown newspaper and my early mentor), more than 30 years ago.

Rockefeller was born in New York City, as were most of his siblings, but he put down roots in Arkansas.

Most people probably know the Rockefeller name. John D. Rockefeller Sr., Winthrop's grandfather, founded Standard Oil in 1870. Winthrop's father, John D. Rockefeller Jr., took over the family business and fortune and was well known for his philanthropic activities.

John D. Jr. had five sons, including Winthrop, and one daughter. They were high achievers. Winthrop's sister Abby remained mostly out of the public eye, but his brothers were captains of industry and financial and political leaders.

Compared to his sister and brothers, Winthrop may have been seen by many as the black sheep of the family. He attended Yale, but he didn't complete his degree work there. He was given the boot for misbehavior.

Winthrop was decorated for his service in World War II and achieved the rank of colonel, but perhaps he felt a need to make his mark someplace else, someplace far away from his family.

Arkansas may have met all of his requirements. No other Rockefeller (to my knowledge) ever had any influence on life in Arkansas — other than, perhaps, the original John D. and his petroleum business. Anyway, Winthrop moved there in 1953 and established a cattle operation on Petit Jean Mountain in the central part of the state.

He might have chosen to live out his life in relative obscurity (at least as much as anyone named Rockefeller could), but he decided to try to make his mark in Arkansas politics. He began somewhat tentatively, I guess, supporting Republican candidates against longtime incumbent Orval Faubus in 1960 and 1962 (when Arkansas still elected its governor every two years).

He made his first foray as a candidate in 1964 when he challenged Faubus. Rockefeller lost that race, but he had sown the seeds for growth in the Arkansas Republican Party, which was almost nonexistent before Rockefeller moved to the state. The growth of the party in Arkansas is as much his legacy as anyone else's.

And that strikes me as somewhat ironic because Rockefeller and modern Arkansas Republicans don't seem to have much in common. I have observed Arkansas politics from a distance for the last couple of decades, but it seems to me that Arkansas' 21st–century Republicans have far more in common with the state's Democrats of the mid–20th century than with Rockefeller.

Speaking of which ...

Several weeks ago, I came across an article about Rockefeller's first successful campaign for governor of Arkansas in 1966.

The article, written by John Kirk for Arkansas Times, brought back a lot of memories for me. I was a small child in those days, but the memory of those times is still quite vivid.

Kirk observed — and I think most Arkansans who remember those days would agree — that the 1966 election marked an important turning point for Arkansas — and, by extension, the United States and the world. Rockefeller never won an office with greater prestige than governor of Arkansas, but if he hadn't won that election, it might not have been possible, Kirk wrote, for a young man named Bill Clinton to be elected governor a decade later and go on to be elected president.

"Without Rockefeller's 1966 victory there may well have never been a Clinton presidency," wrote Kirk, chairman of the history department at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.

"At the same time, paradoxically, Rockefeller's victory also paved the way for the emergence of a two–party system in Arkansas and laid the longer–term foundations for the Republican Party to become a force in state politics."

Of the latter, I can truthfully say that I had thought of that myself — that Arkansas became a much more competitive state politically after Rockefeller was elected governor.

That wasn't necessarily good news for the Democrats who had dominated state politics for so long — but it was good news for democrats (lower–case D) and the cause of democracy.

But, frankly, I had never thought of Rockefeller's victory making a Clinton presidency possible. The more I think about it, though, the more I am inclined to think that Kirk might be on to something there.

Rockefeller defeated a man named Justice Jim Johnson, who happened to live a mile or two down the road from my house. I went to school with his twin sons, played with them in the afternoons after school dismissed.

We spent nights at each others' houses. I attended their birthday parties, and they attended mine.

To me, Jim Johnson was a kind and fatherly neighbor, more of a father to me in many ways, really, than my own father. He was the father of my friends and classmates and a great influence on me in my formative years.

I was too young to understand that he was a segregationist, an ardent supporter of the likes of George Wallace, possibly the most notorious Southern politician of that time. He even managed Wallace's 1968 independent presidential campaign in Arkansas.

At the time that Rockefeller was elected, I was sorry that my friend had lost. But I was merely a child at the time, and, in hindsight, I'm inclined to believe it was a good thing that Rockefeller won — for many reasons, not the least of which was Rockefeller's general commitment to improving the quality of life for all Arkansans.

I guess the centennial of Rockefeller's birth is an occasion for a lot of reflecting on his influence in Arkansas. I haven't lived there in awhile, but I have noticed several retrospective articles online about his four years as Arkansas' governor, and it is gratifying to know that he is remembered.

My parents, as I have observed here before, were Democrats, and they were active members of a group called "Democrats for Rockefeller." My mother did a lot of door–to–door canvassing for Rockefeller in '66, even though his opponent was our neighbor.

Rumors circulated at the time that Rockefeller's campaign was bringing in Republican allies from other states to pose as Democrats in order to persuade Arkansas citizens to elect a Republican governor.

Such stories may seem ludicrous today — or, perhaps not, given the adversarial nature of modern American political campaigns — but they seemed plausible then, particularly in the South where it was common knowledge that "outside agitators" had been shipped in to the region to help enforce civil rights and voting rights reforms.

Consequently, many Arkansans were suspicious of anyone claiming to be a Democrat for Rockefeller. "Are you really a Democrat?" my mother was asked countless times, and she always responded the same way: "Yes, I am, and when the Democrats have a candidate I can support, I will vote for him."

Mom and Dad had to keep that promise in 1970, when the Democrats nominated a previously unknown centrist country lawyer named Dale Bumpers. I know it hurt them to vote against Rockefeller. They appreciated all the things he had done — or tried to do — for the state, but Bumpers was a candidate they felt they could support, and they had told many people that they would vote for a Democrat they found acceptable — and their word was their bond.

Bumpers defeated Rockefeller in the general election, and Rockefeller withdrew from the public spotlight. He died of cancer a couple of years later.

His achievements survive him.

Arkansas Times observed recently that, without Rockefeller's support, the Arkansas Arts Center in Little Rock, for which ground was broken 50 years ago last August, "might have taken a much longer time to become reality, if ever."

The article about the Arkansas Arts Center brought back memories of days I had forgotten.

Sometime in the mid–'70s, my mother enrolled my brother and me in summer art classes at the Arkansas Arts Center. We tried all kinds of media that summer. We did some drawing, some painting, some sculpting. The classes met daily during the week for about six weeks. At the end of that time, each student's best work was part of a display at the facility.

It was a fun class. It didn't spark anything like a career in art for my brother or me, but it did enhance our appreciation of art — and we both tend to be rather creative (we really take after our mother in that regard) so maybe we have applied things we learned in that class to our future endeavors.

And that is really what Rockefeller was hoping for, I think. As Leslie Newell Peacock points out in the Arkansas Times article, Rockefeller was approached by a local group from Little Rock to head the effort for the arts center. Rockefeller declined the offer but promised to help find a chairman for the fund–raising drive, insisting that such a facility needed to be "for the whole state of Arkansas."

Mission accomplished.

It really goes without saying that Winthrop Rockefeller left quite a mark on Arkansas — even though his time in office was brief (at least when compared to Faubus or Clinton).

But it's something that is worth remembering on what would have been his 100th birthday.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Forecasting an Incumbent's Chances

We are just about six months away from the 2012 election.

In the early days of my collegiate career, I was a political science major, and one of the things my professors drummed into my head (and the heads of my peers) was the conviction that voters reach their conclusions about an incumbent about six months before the election.

That is a piece of conventional wisdom that has held up rather well, whereas I have found that people who rely on surveys that measure the likability of an incumbent inevitably are misled.

When times are generally good, as they were when George W. Bush ran against Al Gore, voters can afford the luxury of picking the presidential candidate with whom they would rather share a beer. (Of course, the incumbent wasn't on the ballot that year.)

But when times are not good, likability takes a backseat to competence with most voters. In 1972, for example, when Richard Nixon was seeking a second term, the Vietnam War was still unpopular and there was some dissatisfaction with the economy, but voters were influenced more by whether they thought he was doing a good job (and most did) than whether they liked him (and most did not).

Job approval surveys didn't make their debut until Franklin Roosevelt had already won his second term — and FDR has always struck me as being a special case, having been elected president four times. The margins were different each time, and, of course, one of the issues when Roosevelt sought his third and fourth terms was whether any American president should be allowed to serve more than two terms. Some people who had supported him the first two times opposed him the second two times for that very reason.

Those campaigns for the third and fourth terms qualify as unique cases, therefore, and job approval surveys were still evolving, anyway, so the conventional wisdom of which my professors spoke isn't really applicable.

Nor, for that matter, is it applicable to 1948, when Harry Truman defeated Tom Dewey in an "upset."

I don't mean to suggest that Truman's victory wasn't a surprise (it was) or that voters were insincere when they told pollsters they didn't approve of the job he was doing.

I'm just mindful of the fact that Truman was completing FDR's fourth term. He hadn't been elected president. He was elected vice president.

And, while I can't speak for everyone, I can say that I have never based my presidential preference on the identity of the running mate. Those who choose which ticket to support on that basis are all but assuming that the guy at the top of the ticket won't complete the term.

That strikes me as being the same thing as trying to prove a negative, and, at least in my opinion, it is the wrong way to choose a president.

(In 1980, I did know some people who supported Ronald Reagan because George H.W. Bush was his running mate, and they figured that there was no way Reagan could survive the term. They became increasingly frustrated as Reagan simply refused to die — even after he had been shot — and they wound up having to wait eight years until Bush was elected on his own.

(There are sure to be some who have voted on that basis in other elections. I'm confident there were those who voted against some Republican tickets because Sarah Palin or Dan Quayle were on them. But my gut feeling is that their numbers were few.)

Besides, job approval surveys were still evolving, as I say, and the 1948 election would have a significant influence on how such surveys were conducted in the future.

So I don't include Roosevelt or Truman in such comparisons. Approval polling methods were still primitive when they occupied the White House.

But, by 1956, when Dwight Eisenhower sought his second term, a lot had been learned.

For one thing, pollsters kept polling right up until Election Day. They didn't stop polling long before the election, as they had in 1948 because it was a foregone conclusion that Truman would lose.

In early May 1956, Gallup found that 69% of respondents approved of the job Eisenhower had been doing.

A lot of that may have been due to something of a wave of sympathy for Ike. He had suffered a heart attack about eight months earlier. If the May approval rating was influenced by his health, that wave crested well before Election Day 1956, but Eisenhower still carried 41 states and received 57% of the popular vote.

Eisenhower's successor, John F. Kennedy, died before the end of his term, and his vice president, Lyndon Johnson, had been president for less than a year when he won a full term.

Six months before the election, three–fourths of the respondents to a Gallup survey approved of the job that he was doing — but that, too, may have been the result of public sympathy.

Johnson went on to win the 1964 election by a landslide — but, four years later, the increasingly unpopular Vietnam War forced Johnson to drop out of the race, and a month after he did so, the approval ratings appeared to confirm the wisdom of his decision.

In April 1968, Johnson's approval rating, as reported by Gallup, dropped below 50% and never exceeded that number again. It was tumbling by May.

Consequently, Johnson's decision to drop out of the race seems prescient in hindsight. Odds are, he wouldn't have been successful, even if he had been renominated.

Nixon replaced LBJ, and his Gallup approval ratings in May 1972 hinted at what was to come.

Nixon's job approval six months before the election was somewhere between 54% (his rating in late April) and 62% (his rating in late May). On Election Day, more than three–fifths of the voters endorsed his bid for a second term.

One can argue, of course, that Nixon's campaign was tainted by the illegal activities of his staff and his own involvement in efforts to cover up those activities. But the bottom line is that the job approval ratings pretty accurately measured how voters felt about the Nixon presidency in mid–1972.

Nixon's second term was cut short by the Watergate scandal, and his replacement, Gerald Ford, enjoyed high approval ratings in his first month in office, but his ratings declined rapidly after he pardoned Nixon.

In May 1976, he received approval ratings that hinted at what would happen in the election. For members of Barack Obama's staff, it might be instructive to study the Ford campaign because Ford's approval in mid–1976 was close to where Obama's has been lately — just short of 50%.

Ford, of course, went on to lose to Jimmy Carter in a very close election. Some people have been tempted to presume that it was almost entirely because, not having voted for him to begin with, voters felt no real allegiance to Ford — but he lost largely due to his job performance, because he pardoned Nixon, not because voters stopped liking him. He was still affable Jerry Ford in the minds of most.

But voters did not like the decision to pardon Nixon.

The voters definitely soured on Carter by the time he sought a second term in 1980, and the approval ratings six months out did more than hint at that. In May 1980, Gallup found that the share of voters who approved of the job he had been doing was in the upper 30s and lower 40s.

When the voters went to the polls that November, Carter received 41% of the vote and carried six states. Reagan was elected in a landslide.

In 1984, Reagan won a second term in spite of a jobless rate that was higher than it had been for any successful incumbent in nearly 50 years.

It was conceded at the time that Reagan was widely liked by the American people, but their electoral endorsement of his presidency in November was foreshadowed by Gallup polls in May that indicated that (1) a majority approved of the job he was doing, and (2) that majority was growing, not declining.

When the votes were counted in November, Reagan received nearly 59% of the vote and carried 49 states.

Reagan's vice president, George H.W. Bush, was elected in 1988 when Reagan was constitutionally prohibited from running again, and his lightning–like victory in the Gulf War seemed to be propelling him to a second term — but a funny thing happened to Bush on the way. A recession derailed him.

The recession was mild by historical standards — certainly when compared to the one that Americans have been slogging through since late 2007 — but it was bad enough to lower Bush's approval ratings from the 50s in late 1991 to 42% by May 1992, according to Gallup.

Once again, it was a reliable predictor of the incumbent's fate. Bush went on to lose to Bill Clinton in a three–man race.

The economy was better four years later when Clinton sought his second term.

Clinton's Democrats lost control of Congress during the 1994 midterms, but Clinton, through a combination of shrewd political moves and sheer good fortune, was on an upward trajectory in May 1996. Six months before the election, CNN/Time reported that 51% of Americans approved of the job he was doing; Gallup found that 55% approved.

The endorsements were solid, if not resounding — as were November's election returns. Clinton was re–elected with 49% of the vote and the support of 31 states.

In 2000, of course, George W. Bush defeated Gore in the Electoral College but lost the popular vote. Although extremely rare, such an outcome was not unheard of — but, to be old enough to remember the last time it happened, one would have to be at least 130 years old when Bush was elected — and there were no job approval surveys in those days.

That probably made Bush something of an exception to the conventional wisdom concerning the relationship between job approval numbers and eventual electoral verdicts on incumbents — since he hadn't received the support of at least a plurality of the voters the first time, as nearly every duly elected president has.

But the job approval rule still held true when Bush sought his second term in 2004.

The job approval ratings in May 2004 warned Bush that he would face a close race in November. NBC/Wall Street Journal, Gallup and other surveys in early May found about as many Americans who disapproved of his job performance as approved.

And that was borne out in the general election, when Bush received less than 51% of the vote and the support of 31 states. In the Electoral College, he defeated John Kerry by 35, 286 to 251.

What will all this mean in the 2012 election? I guess that remains to be seen.

Next Sunday is precisely six months from Election Day, so any job approval numbers that are announced on or after that date could be said to be potential indicators of what to expect in November.

But Gallup reports that, according to his job approval average for his 13th quarter in office, Obama's ratings are below the average for presidents who went on to win re–election.

They're even below one president — Carter — who was defeated in his campaign for re–election.

J. Robert Smith makes intriguing observations in American Thinker that speak to the relevance of history — even though he doesn't connect the dots between job approval ratings and an incumbent's odds of winning a second term.

"Presidential election history gives us indications," Smith writes, "that Mr. Obama either squeaks back into the White House or gets an undignified boot in the back of his designer trousers. ... [O]nly Jerry Ford lost his re–election bid narrowly. Odds are, if Mr. Obama loses, it will probably be on the order of [Herbert] Hoover (1932) or Carter (1980)."

Monday, April 23, 2012

Nixon's 'Evil Genius' Dies

In the Nixon White House, Charles Colson was known as an "evil genius," a master of "dirty tricks," the guy who (reportedly) said he would walk over his own grandmother to ensure the re–election of Richard Nixon.

He was more than 18 years younger than Nixon so, I suppose, it was appropriate that he should die nearly 18 years to the day after Nixon did.

And, to many, I suppose, his story is an inspiring one, even if Nixon's is not — a man who spent the first half of his life exploiting the weaknesses in the system and the second half of his life trying to repair them.

It is a story, I guess, of one man's quest for redemption, and that is something I can appreciate. Once, when I was filling out a job application, I had to answer the following question — "What is your favorite word and why?"

My answer was that my favorite word was redemption because it suggests that no mistake or bad decision a person makes in his/her life is permanent, that a second chance is always possible.

And, in hindsight, it is clear Colson's life — well, the first half of it, anyway — was loaded with mistakes and bad decisions.

He was involved in the decisions to develop and fund the infamous White House Plumbers unit to gather intelligence on the Democrats, and at least one recording of a conversation he had with Nixon in June 1972 indicates his early involvement in efforts to obstruct justice in the Watergate investigation.

Colson was in prison when Nixon resigned the presidency, and he emerged about five months later with a new purpose in life.

It is understandable, I presume, that those who had been the targets of his wrath were skeptical, but Colson apparently was a changed man. And, on the occasion of his death, that unwillingness to acknowledge that Colson turned over a new leaf offends his defenders.

"Prison opened his eyes not only to God," writes Fr. Johannes Jacobse in The Observer, "but the desperate conditions of other prisoners."

He points out that Colson founded Prison Fellowship, a Christian outreach program for prisoners and ex–prisoners and their families.

"The world has lost a good man," asserts Fr. Jacobse.

In the South Florida Sun–Sentinel, James D. Davis laments the overemphasis in the media on Colson's political career and under–emphasis on his faith–based activities.

"Even in reporting his death, not everyone grasped the spiritual side of Colson," writes Davis, observing that "[o]f the 57 paragraphs in the Washington Post's obituary, only seven or eight dealt with the faith that steered his life for more than 38 years — and three of the paragraphs mentioned the 'skepticism and even hilarity' from many columnists who heard of his conversion."

Personally, I always felt Colson was sincere in his expression of faith. I was still young when he was released from prison, and I was no more certain then than I am today that I shared his beliefs, but the things he said seemed genuine to me.

I was brought up in the buckle of the Bible Belt, so when I say Colson's words and actions seemed plausible to me, you can believe it. I think I know the real article when I see it.

That doesn't mean that it wouldn't be possible for someone to fake the "born again" experience.

And, to be sure, I have seen my share of people who fooled others with some well–chosen words and phrases. Sooner or later, their deceptions were exposed.

But Colson matched the words with deeds for four decades.

If he started out as a phony, a disbeliever, he must have become persuaded at some point. It would take a remarkably skilled hypocrite to pull off such a charade for that long.

Colson was always true to his conservative beliefs, which he reconciled with his religious beliefs. He opposed homosexuality, and, although he never (to my knowledge) contended that Hurricane Katrina was some sort of judgment or punishment from God, he did say it was a "warning" from God and implied that there would be worse to come if it was ignored: "[O]ne lesson I learned from Katrina is that we had better win the war on terror and resolve to prevent another 9–11. Katrina exposed how easy it would be to take a city out."

Ironically, it seems to me, Charles Colson, who spent a significant portion of the first half of his life driving wedges between people went on to spend a significant portion of the second half of his life trying to bring them together.

And Sarah Pulliam Bailey of wishes more of the writers who seem to remember only the first half of that life would move on.

"It's clear that some reporters are stuck in the 1970s," Bailey writes, "apparently unaware of how the state of evangelicalism was shaped by Colson's complex life and legacy."

Maybe that is Colson's real legacy. Perhaps, in Colson's own story of redemption is a cautionary tale for the rest of us about our relationships with each other.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Manchin's Fence Straddling

Most folks shouldn't be overly concerned about West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin's revelation that he hasn't decided whether to vote for Barack Obama or Mitt Romney this fall.

Manchin, 64, was one of the few Democrats who prospered in the 2010 midterms, winning the seat long held by the late Robert Byrd.

His victory really came as no surprise. Electing Democrats is a long tradition in West Virginia. Since the Stock Market Crash of 1929, West Virginia has elected (or appointed) more Republicans to complete unexpired Senate terms than have been elected to full six–year terms — and there haven't been many of either.

And supporting Democratic presidential nominees has been a tradition there, too — at least, until recently.

But Manchin's margin fell short of what was to be expected in 2010.

The campaign in 2010 was only about who would complete Byrd's unexpired term, which still had two years left. Manchin knew that, if he won, he would have to go before the voters again two years later.

And, in 2010, as a popular governor, he was able to win the vacant Senate seat in part because he had insisted he would keep an open mind about whether to support Obama in 2012.

That's a promise he seems to be keeping.

Even if he has made up his mind which candidate to support, Manchin has walked a fine line in his home state, and he will continue to walk it for most of the campaign. Obama has not been very popular in West Virginia, and, although he was a popular governor, Manchin only won election to the Senate by less than 55,000 votes out of more than half a million cast.

There isn't much room for error, and Manchin is probably wise to keep his cards close to his vest. Even if polls show Obama taking an unlikely lead in West Virginia, my guess is that it will be tenuous, at best, and Manchin probably won't reveal his presidential preference publicly.

He's likely to retain the seat in a rematch with 2010 Republican candidate John Raese, reports Larry Sabato's Crystal Ball, but Manchin doesn't want to take any chances of alienating anyone.

West Virginia has voted Republican in the last three presidential elections, and many voters there remain upset with the health care reform law that may be overturned by the Supreme Court.

In October 2010, several months after the law was passed, Manchin told the voters he would have voted against the legislation if he had been in the Senate at the time.

Even then, he was keeping his distance from the administration

As I said earlier, I think that will continue.

What does it mean? I'm inclined to think it doesn't mean as much as a lot of people would like to think. It strikes me as a political move, not a philosophical one.

After all, it isn't as if Manchin's fence straddling represents some kind of defection — or potential defection. Manchin wasn't a member of the Senate when it supported the so–called Obamacare legislation — but he did say early in the year that he supported it (only to reverse himself before the election).

And he drew a distinction between himself and other Democrats by resisting the bill to reduce carbon emissions — a bill that was unpopular in coal country.

Let's keep Manchin's electoral history in mind here. When he was elected governor the first time in 2004, he received 64% of the popular vote. When he sought a second term in 2008, he received 70%.

His 53% showing in the 2010 Senate race must have been a bit of a shock, but it appears to have conditioned him.

If Manchin had received three–fifths of the vote in 2010 — and if polls had shown him enjoying that kind of lead late in the campaign — he might still have spoken favorably of the health care reform legislation.

But Manchin had to fight for it — and he may have to fight for it again.

His main interest in 2010 is his Senate seat — and the absence of support for his party's nominee is not a reflection — either favorable or unfavorable — on the president's performance in office.

Now, if other embattled Democrats begin to defect, that will be another story.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Registered Voters and Likely Voters

There is an important distinction between polls of registered voters and likely voters.

I have to make this point to people in every election cycle, but it seems particularly relevant this time.

It's easy to be a registered voter. Registration drives are so numerous that, in many places, you can register to vote at your local shopping center or campus. (I recall overhearing a snippet of a conversation between some of my students about voting. One student expressed what appeared to be genuine surprise that she was not automatically registered to vote on her 18th birthday.)

It wasn't that simple when I was a child. Most people know, I guess, of the many barriers that were erected by state and local folks (notoriously in the South but elsewhere, too) to prevent minorities from registering, but it wasn't quite as simple then as it is now.

Even those who did not have to pass literacy tests or jump through any of those other hoops had to go to a specific office during office hours to register. That was what I had to do when I registered to vote for the first time.

Anyway, it took a special effort to get registered to vote in those days. You couldn't just walk up to a card table while you were browsing video games or T–shirts. As a result, I presume that being a registered voter carried a little more weight with pollsters then than it does now.

Gradually, pollsters have been inclined to differentiate between garden–variety registered voters and voters who are truly likely to vote — and the definition of a likely voter may well change as the practice of polling evolves.

But, right now, most polling organizations define likely voters as those who have an established history of participating in elections. Obviously, that de–emphasizes the youngest voters, even if participation is minimally defined (say, for instance, voting in at least the last two election cycles).

Frank Newport, editor in chief of the Gallup Poll, has said that Gallup's designation of likely voter depends on several factors — demographics mostly ("[e]verything else being equal, certain types of people are more likely to vote than others"), although he acknowledges the existence of factors that are "idiosyncratic and can reflect one of a hundred characteristics that come into play in any given election."

(Some organizations define likely voters as those who have some kind of record of participating in midterm elections — so if 2012 is going to be the first election in which you will be old enough to vote, such organizations would not consider you a likely voter, no matter how determined you may be.)

There is some logic in differentiating between those who are merely registered to vote and those who are likely to participate.

As I mentioned earlier, it's pretty easy these days to get your name on the voter registration list — even if it doesn't happen automatically. But actually showing up at the polls and voting is another thing entirely.

Just as it is easy to register to vote, it is also easy to answer a pollster's question about which candidate you support. But it is those who show up who get to make the decisions.

More and more, as Election Day draws closer, pollsters will be emphasizing those voters who are likely to show up — as opposed to those won't make the commitment in time or personal resources to the act of voting.

For Barack Obama, that might not be such a bad thing.

Voters who tend to be regarded as registered but not likely to participate include the young, minorities and low–income people — all groups that propelled Obama to the White House in 2008. Obama's support remains high among blacks, but Molly Ball of The Atlantic has wondered if Obama has problems with young voters (those between 18 and 24).

Obama "remains dramatically better liked by young voters than [Mitt] Romney," Ball writes, but "less than half" support his bid for a second term. Emphasizing only approval and not likelihood of participation could be of benefit to the incumbent — but not if one is familiar with young voters's voting history.

Anyway, most of the polls that you will see at this juncture in the general election campaign are surveys of registered voters. There will be more polls of likely voters the closer we get to the election.

There are a few polls of likely voters out there but not many. Rasmussen released a poll today that was a survey of likely voters — and it shows the race as, for all intents and purposes, a dead heat.

That means little — if anything — about 6½ months before the votes are counted. Besides, most of the polls these days are of registered voters, and those surveys show Obama leading, typically by about four or five points.

Some media outlets have tried to make sense of all the conflicting signals coming from the April surveys, and you can take encouragement from whichever poll supports your position today, but I suggest keeping an eye on the polls of likely voters as we get closer to Election Day.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Five Years After Virginia Tech

Over the years, sadly, the American culture has grown accustomed to the reality that, from time to time, somewhere someone will open fire on students at a high school or a college.

It's to be expected, I have heard some people say, in a country where private gun ownership is not only legal but encouraged.

I don't know if that is true or not, but there are a few things I do know.

For one, I know that we seem to have shootings on school grounds every year, at least since the mid–20th century.

Now, even though gun ownership in the United States has been legal — but not absolute — since the nation broke from England in the 18th century, we haven't had school shootings every year.

The first one that I know of occurred in 1966 on the University of Texas campus. There might have been some before that, but if there were, I haven't heard about them.

There were occasional shootings on campuses throughout the 1970s, but not very many, and each was followed by shock and dismay — and then by recrimination. How could such a thing happen? What reason could there have been?

In the last three decades, though, there has been a literal explosion of such incidents. They have not been confined to a single state or region. Sometimes they involve other students; sometimes they involve adults.

I guess the culture adapted to the new reality because it became more difficult to shock people. I suppose people started running out of senseless reasons for senseless acts and just accepted shootings as things that could happen anywhere (not just on school grounds) at any time for any reason.

(Frankly, I have long believed the ultimate in pointless reasons for committing a pointless act was given when a teenage girl gave this as her excuse for shooting at children in a school playground: "I don't like Mondays."

(The gender of the shooter in that case was highly unusual. As the cold and clinical studies of this phenomenon have demonstrated, nearly all school shootings are perpetrated by males.)

Another thing I know is that the body count at Virginia Tech was the greatest of any school shooting with which I am familiar. In nearly all such incidents, the body count can be done with one hand, maybe two. But more than 30 people died on the Virginia Tech campus — and more than two dozen others were injured, some permanently.

I have been a student on three college/university campuses in my life. I've been a journalism instructor on two others, one of which was at the time and in the vicinity of the Oklahoma City bombing.

And I can only imagine what it must have been like on the Virginia Tech campus that day.

Make no mistake about it. The Oklahoma City bombing was a horrific experience for my students, many of whom had grown up in Oklahoma City. That bombing was literally in their own back yards. One of my students lost her father in the explosion.

It doesn't get more personal than that.

But I think it would have been an even more personal event for those students if the bomb had been set off on the OU campus — in the campus food court where just about everyone must have eaten a meal at least once or along the sidewalks the students traversed every day.

That had become their daily lives, and an attack on that setting would have been an even more egregious violation.

It must have been that way for the students of Virginia Tech five years ago today. On that Monday, they were getting up and going about their early morning routines when the first victims were shot. When the other attacks began, of course, classes were under way all over campus.

What started as an ordinary day suddenly went terribly wrong.

And a nation watched in pained — and mostly stunned — silence.

On the first anniversary, Virginia Tech paid tribute to those whose lives were lost on that day and remembered the special talents that brought each to the VT campus.

Many other campuses probably could have (and would have) said similar things about the victims if such a terrible event had happened somewhere else. It would have been proper to do so — as it certainly was for the Virginia Tech community. It was, I suppose, a way of seeking closure.

I've written here before of my skepticism that such a thing as closure is really possible, but even a thing as elusive as closure is easier to achieve than finding answers for why things like this happen. The News & Advocate of Lynchburg, Va., reports there have been few answers for the victims' survivors in the last five years.

It is doubtful that they will find more in the next five years.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

A Great Moment in American Journalism

A great moment in American journalism occurred 100 years ago in the aftermath of the sinking of the Titanic.

Unfortunately, it is probably one of the lesser known stories surrounding the famous shipwreck.

Carr Van Anda, managing editor of the New York Times, scooped the competition largely because he put two and two together and concluded that the reason there had been no more communication from the ship was that it had sunk, and he insisted on publishing that information.

The problem was that the White Star Line, the shipping company that owned Titanic, had reported via wireless transmissions that the ship had, in fact, encountered some problems with ice, but it insisted the ship had not sunk.

But Van Anda had seen the wireless transmissions from the ship and noted the fact that there had been no more transmissions after the early morning hours of April 15. He was convinced that meant the ship had gone down, but, since Van Anda was nearly 1,000 miles away from the scene of the disaster, other newspapers were reluctant to dispute White Star's account. Van Anda, of course, did not have the benefit of modern technology; he went with his gut instincts.

It was a real gamble, a roll of the dice, and if White Star's version of events had been true, and it turned out that the reason there had been no more transmissions from Titanic was due to equipment failure or something like that, we might be commemorating the centennial of "Van Anda's folly" and not the sinking of the Titanic.

It was a few days before he was proven correct. The ship that brought the Titanic's survivors to New York was delayed by various factors (including the same ice that had brought down Titanic) and didn't get there for three more days — and it "was under a virtual news blackout," writes James Barron of the New York Times. "Its telegraph operators were not distributing messages from newspapers seeking information about the Titanic."

But when it finally arrived, the story was told — and Van Anda was vindicated.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

The Tragedy of the Titanic, a Century Later

From time to time, man persuades himself that he has conquered nature.

A century ago tonight, the passengers on the Titanic's maiden voyage probably believed they were safe from any danger. Whether that really was how the people of that time saw it or not, Titanic came to be known in popular lore as unsinkable — even though it had sunk to the bottom of the Atlantic.

But that reputation for being unsinkable, reports Rosie Waites of BBC News Magazine, "is perhaps the biggest myth surrounding the Titanic" — according to Richard Howells of Kings College London, who calls it "a retrospective myth." Sort of like the Camelot characterization of the Kennedy years that arose following the assassination, I suppose.

If the people of 1912 really did believe Titanic was unsinkable, their faith proved to be misplaced as the great ship sank after striking an iceberg in the North Atlantic only minutes before midnight on April 14, 1912.

Everyone knows that story, I guess. It's one of the great "ooops" stories — and certainly one of the great tragedies — of all time. More than 1,500 people lost their lives.

The great tragedy of Titanic, as Chris Berg writes for The Wall Street Journal, is that the "ship of dreams" had a nightmarish flaw that was created by regulations of the time, regulations that were followed to the letter by the White Star Line but which proved to be wholly inadequate.

That flaw was in the number of lifeboats on board, and that number was based on regulations that were "written for a different era and enforced unthinkingly."

It is, asserts Berg, "the most iconic regulatory failure of the 20th century."

As Berg writes, "There were a host of other failures, accidents, and mishaps which led to the enormous loss of life," but the lifeboat capacity is a glaring one reduced to cold, hard numbers: There were more than 2,200 people on board, and the lifeboats, even when filled to capacity, could only accommodate about half.

Unfortunately, many of the lifeboats were allowed to leave the ship with empty seats. Consequently, more than 1,500 people perished.

"From the moment the Titanic scraped the iceberg," Berg writes, "the casualties were going to be unprecedented." But, obviously, more modern appraisals of the needs of seagoing vessels could have limited those casualties.

Titanic was a prescient name, in many ways, I suppose. Surely, the grandiose nature of the name contributed mightily to the ship's image of invulnerability.

And, when it sank, the loss of life, the reporting of the catastrophe and the ramifications were, indeed, titanic.

For a long time, it was thought that Titanic was too far below the surface ever to be found. But, in the mid–1980s, Robert Ballard and his crew re–ignited a wave of Titanic hysteria with their discovery of the ship's remains some 2½ miles down.

But, as Andrew Wilson writes for the Smithsonian magazine, fascination with Titanic's compelling and tragic tale has never really gone away. It has just gone through "waves of Titanic mania."

"The public's appetite for information and details — accounts of suffering, bravery, self–sacrifice and selfishness — seemed insatiable" at the time of the sinking, Wilson observes.

That much was obvious from the first newspaper reports that screamed of the loss of life aboard the allegedly unsinkable ship. It was as if the people of the time refused to believe that they had been wrong about the great ship.

For days — weeks, even — subsequent newspaper headlines reminded readers of the number of casualties. I've seen such an insatiable fascination with such a macabre subject a few times before — for example, when the space shuttle Challenger exploded — but nothing that I know of (short of, perhaps, an act of national aggression, like the attack on Pearl Harbor) has had the staying power of Titanic.

To commemorate the 100th anniversary of the sinking, the movie based on the event, 1997's "Titanic," which won 11 Oscars, has been re–released in 3–D. Even though it has been nearly 15 years since that movie was released — and everyone already knew how the story would end when it came out the first time — it continues to get positive reviews and, as I understand it, pretty good box office numbers, too.

A commemorative cruise, with descendants of Titanic's passengers on board, set sail earlier this week with the intention of following the route Titanic took and being at the crash site for tonight's anniversary.

That's staying power.

Daniel Mendelsohn makes an interesting point in his article in the New Yorker, even if it is a point that was made by another (unnamed) historian: "It may not be true," Mendelsohn writes, "that 'the three most written–about subjects of all time are Jesus, the Civil War and the Titanic,' as one historian has put it, but it's not much of an exaggeration."

Now, in my studies of history, I have had the opportunity to study the story of the Titanic. That's something that many of those who saw that movie 15 years ago likely had not done, given that so many were in their early teens and were smitten with co–star Leonardo DiCaprio and saw the movie countless times simply to drool over him.

(Actually, as the Washington Post recently revealed, there are people out there — not necessarily teenagers, either — who do not know that Titanic struck an iceberg and sank a century ago.)

But I had read accounts of the sinking, and I was impressed with the attention to detail in the movie. The sets, the costumes and the facts were mostly correct. The Grand Staircase, for example, which played a prominent role in the movie, appeared to be precise in its re–creation.

Many of the people who saw the movie back in 1997 probably did not know the name of the man who captained the ship.

For the record, his name was Edward Smith, and it is acknowledged by just about everyone that he died in the disaster, but no one really knows how he perished.

Many historians claim he was seen on the bridge a few minutes before the ship sank beneath the waves. There are tales that he was in the ship's wheelhouse, others that he was in the radio room.

A heroic — although improbable — account holds that he saved a child's life, carrying it to a lifeboat before urging the surviving crew members to "[b]e British" and swimming off to die in the sub–freezing waters.

That, in fact, is probably how many of the Titanic's passengers and crew died that night. There was a popular misconception for a long time that many of the victims drowned when they were pulled below the surface in the wake of the plunging ship or trapped in its bowels, but the film actually helped set the record straight.

The frigid waters of the North Atlantic caused many of the victims to die of hypothermia or cardiac arrest. The upper portions of their bodies remained above the surface, thanks to the lifejackets they wore, but the cold water (reportedly 28° F) took their lives within a few minutes.

To be sure, some did go down in the sinking ship — and almost certainly died from the pressure well before the vessel came to rest on the sea floor.

I don't know if any passengers' remains are still entombed in the ship after a century. I doubt that any would have made it to the bottom in the initial sinking, given the pressure at that depth. But stranger things have happened, I suppose.

And there are all sorts of analogies to be drawn from the 100th anniversary of the Titanic tragedy and the withdrawal of Rick Santorum from the Republican presidential race or the dismissal of Arkansas football coach Bobby Petrino.

But even without those contemporary tales, the Titanic story seems to be alive and well in the 21st century.

"The Titanic has never been bigger," writes Joel Achenbach for the Washington Post.

I suspect that is true.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The Emerging Electoral Map

Thirty weeks from today, America goes to the polls.

With the exception of the farthest corners of the extreme right, it seems that more and more Republicans now are acknowledging that Mitt Romney will be their standard bearer in the fall — and that he will be the only realistic alternative to Barack Obama.

The plausible scenarios in which Romney could be denied the nomination on the first ballot are dwindling.

Thus, attention is shifting to a different kind of math from the delegate math that has obsessed Republican observers to this point — electoral vote math.

Each presidential election is unique, of course. The circumstances are unique, and the candidates, even those who are not running for the first time, are unique.

Incumbents usually have evolving philosophies shaped by their time in the White House. They learn — sometimes early, sometimes late — that things are not as simple from the inside as they appear to be from the outside. Their rhetoric tends to reflect that.

Presidential nominees who lose a general election, even one that is close, almost never get a second chance anymore, but Richard Nixon did, and he was triumphant the second time in part because of a strategy built around the idea that he was a "new Nixon" who had learned from defeat.

Nixon also followed strategies that played on lessons from history. Faced with two rivals in 1968, he devised a "Southern strategy" that exploited racism and used fear as a wedge tactic. Nixon — and, in a more primitive form and with considerably less success, Barry Goldwater four years earlier — laid the foundation for the GOP's steady takeover of the South in the latter 20th century.

Knowledge of electoral history often makes it easier to predict the outcome of a current race — in some states anyway. For example:
The Sure Things

These are states that have regularly favored one party over the other or recent margins have been lopsided — sometimes both.

Both Romney and Obama can expect to win some states like that — and, frankly, little needs to be said about them.

Romney has 14 states in this group: Alabama (9 electoral votes), Alaska (3), Arkansas (6), Idaho (4), Kansas (6), Kentucky (8), Louisiana (8), Mississippi (6), Nebraska (5), Oklahoma (7), Tennessee (11), Texas (38), Utah (6), Wyoming (3). Total = 120 electoral votes.

Obama has 10 states (and D.C.) in this group: California (55 electoral votes), Connecticut (7), D.C. (3), Hawaii (4), Maryland (10), Massachusetts (11), New York (29), Oregon (7), Rhode Island (4), Vermont (3), Washington (12). Total = 145 electoral votes.
The Probables

The outcomes in these states appear likely to favor a particular nominee, but, for one reason or another, there is some residual doubt — and that doubt likely will remain until the election is over.

Romney has nine states meeting this description: Arizona (11), Colorado (9), Georgia (16), Indiana (11), Montana (3), North Dakota (3), South Carolina (9), South Dakota (3), West Virginia (5). Total = 70 electoral votes.
  • Arizona, of course, is John McCain's home state, but it probably would have supported him in 2008 even if he was from a state two time zones away. It has consistently supported Republicans for more than half a century. Since 1952, Arizona has supported only one Democrat, but that exception is noteworthy. It was Bill Clinton when he ran for re–election in 1996.

    Will Arizona vote for another incumbent Democrat seeking a second term? It didn't vote for President Carter in 1980 or President Johnson in 1964.
  • Colorado voted Republican in nine of the previous 10 elections before voting for Obama in 2008. It was reminiscent of 1992, when Clinton snapped a six–election Republican winning streak in the Rocky Mountain State. But Colorado turned against Clinton when he sought re–election, and it is a good bet that the same will happen this time. Colorado hasn't voted for Democrat nominees in consecutive presidential elections since the 1930s.
  • I have a friend who assured me in 2008 that Georgia would vote for Obama. My friend lived in Atlanta at the time, and I think his judgment was clouded somewhat by his enthusiasm for Obama. Anyway, Georgia's black population didn't turn out to have nearly the clout he thought it would, and Georgia voted Republican, as it has in six of the last seven elections.

    Georgia bucked the Republican trend in the South in 1980 when it stood by native son Jimmy Carter and in 1992 when it endorsed Clinton; other than that, it has been in the GOP column for the last three decades.

    I expect Georgia to remain in the Republican column this fall, but it is possible that the progressive element in Georgia could carry the day.
  • When Indiana voted for Obama in 2008, it snapped a streak of 10 consecutive elections in which the Hoosier State voted for the Republican. It seems likely that Indiana will return to its traditional ways this November. Indiana has not voted for Democrats in consecutive elections since the 1930s.
  • Montana's incumbent Democrat senator is facing a tough fight for re–election, and that could mean trouble at the top of the ticket. It isn't as if Democrats have a lot of wiggle room in Montana, anyway. The state has voted Republican in 10 of the last 11 elections. As it is with Colorado, the exception is 1992, when Clinton carried Montana as the challenger.

    But incumbent Democrats usually struggle there. That's not a new development for the senator, who won the seat by less than 4,000 votes, and LBJ was the only incumbent Democrat who was able to cruise to victory there in a presidential race since the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor seven decades ago.
  • North Dakota has only voted for one Democrat since 1936, and Republicans usually poll in the upper 50s or low 60s there, but Obama held McCain below 55% last time.

    I don't know if that will be important or not, but, if the race is as close as many observers seem to think, even three electoral votes can be significant.
  • South Carolina has voted Republican in every election but one since 1960. The exception was Carter's near–sweep of the South in 1976. But the Republican share of the vote declined in 2008, which made me wonder if the times were changing in Strom Thurmond's stomping grounds.

    Such thoughts seem to have been premature. South Carolina voters elected a Republican governor, re–elected a Republican senator and ousted a Democratic incumbent who was a 28–year House veteran.
  • South Dakota has only voted Democrat three times since the dawn of the 20th century, but the GOP share of the vote there declined in 2008.
  • Until George W. Bush won West Virginia in 2000, that state had not supported a non–incumbent Republican since before the Great Depression. It's been nearly a century since West Virginia voted against an incumbent Democrat, but the state has been trending Republican, having gone for the GOP nominee in the last three elections.
Obama has five states meeting this description: Delaware (3), Illinois (20), Maine (4), Minnesota (10), New Jersey (14). Total = 51 electoral votes.
  • One would expect the Democrats to hold on to Delaware. It is the home state of the vice president, and it has voted for the Democratic nominee five straight times. But Delaware is streaky that way. In five of the six elections prior to that, Delaware sided with the Republicans.
  • Illinois is the state Obama represented in the U.S. Senate. He should be expected to win that one, right? He probably will, but Illinois is large enough that, if other states in that part of the country are in play, Illinois will be the target of some spirited campaigning on both sides as well. I think it will be a battleground in 2012.
  • Maine wasn't always the apparently solid Democratic state it is today. Before its current five–election streak, Maine usually supported Republicans. It voted for the Democratic ticket in 1964 and 1968 (when its junior senator was nominated for vice president), but it voted heavily against Jack Kennedy in 1960, and it was one of two states (Vermont was the other) that never supported Franklin D. Roosevelt.

    Recent elections would suggest that Maine will be back in the Democrats' column this fall — but if the GOP nominee is a former governor of neighboring Massachusetts, who knows (especially with an open Senate seat and the leading contender for it being a former governor who is an independent)?
  • Minnesota has the nation's longest active uninterrupted streak of endorsements of Democratic tickets. The last time it voted for a Republican was 40 years ago, in 1972 — and, based on the numbers, it did so reluctantly that year — but no Democrat has received 55% or more of Minnesota's popular vote, other than Lyndon Johnson, in the last 60 years.

    Minnesota probably will be in the Democrats' column in November — but it might be vulnerable if other large midwestern states are competitive.
  • New Jersey, too, appears to be a lock for the Democrats. It has voted Democrat in five straight elections, but it voted Republican in the six elections before that. In fact, in the last half of the 20th century, New Jersey often gave the winners slender margins of victory — even in years when other states were voting heavily for one side or the other.

    That primarily seems to be due to cultural issues. Jersey doesn't seem to be as responsive to conservative positions on social issues as other states are, and its rather large ethnic population (18% Hispanic, 13% black, 8% Asian) tends to favor progressive positions on immigration.

    All that could be rendered irrelevant, though, if New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is chosen to be Romney's running mate.

The Leaners

These states seem likely to vote in a certain way, but history suggests the results may be much closer than expected. Romney has two states in this column: North Carolina (15), Virginia (13). Total = 28 electoral votes. Before 2008, I would have said both of these states would be in the Republican column. North Carolina hadn't voted for a Democrat since 1976, and Virginia hadn't voted for a Democrat since 1964. But Obama won both in 2008. They weren't decisive victories, though, and there is no reason for Democrats to take them for granted in 2012. Obama has two states in this column: Michigan (16), New Mexico (5). Total = 21 electoral votes. "For a moment in history," write "The Almanac of American Politics" authors Michael Barone and Chuck McCutcheon, "Michigan was a bellwether state," explaining that, in the elections of the 1980s, Michigan voted within 1% of the national average. Those were clearly Republican years, though, and, in the elections before and since, Michigan tended to vote a little higher for Democrats than most states. A noteworthy exception was 1976, when Michigan voted for native son Gerald Ford over Jimmy Carter. Thirty–six years later, another Republican with ties to Michigan will be on the ballot. Michigan was hit hard by the recession and struggled with high unemployment. Will it vote for Obama again, or will it support the son of a popular former governor? New Mexico voted for Obama by more than 15 percentage points in 2008, but the vote is usually much closer than that. The 2008 election was the first time a presidential nominee carried New Mexico by a double–digit margin in nearly a quarter of a century. Now, if all those states really do vote as I have indicated, that would mean Romney would carry 25 states with 218 electoral votes and Obama would win 17 states worth 217 electoral votes. Which brings us to ...
Too Close to Call/The Battlegrounds

I believe these eight states (worth a total of 103 electoral votes) are where the election will be won. Florida (29), Iowa (6), Missouri (10), Nevada (6), New Hampshire (4), Ohio (18), Pennsylvania (20), Wisconsin (10). If you look at the results of the last 10 elections (1972–2008), you will find that Republicans have won Florida, Missouri and Nevada seven times and New Hampshire and Ohio six times. On the flip side, although Florida voted against Clinton when he was elected in '92, it supported his bid for a second term. In fact, in its entire existence as a state, Florida has only voted against one incumbent Democrat (Jimmy Carter) seeking another term. New Hampshire, long a sure thing for Republicans, has voted for Democrats in four of the last five elections. Obama's share of the vote there in 2008 was greater than any Democrat's since Lyndon Johnson, but the 2010 vote implied that New Hampshire will probably be close this fall — a Democrat was re–elected governor, a Republican was elected to the U.S. Senate and Republicans seized both of the state's House seats from the Democrats. Ohio and Missouri have been 20th–century bellwethers. Ohio has been on the winning side in every election since 1964, and Missouri was on the winning side in every election from 1960 to 2004. Democrats have won Wisconsin seven times and Pennsylvania six times. Most people would probably concede Wisconsin to the Democrats (they've won the state six straight times), but I'm inclined to wait and see the results of the gubernatorial recall election in June. For more than 30 years (from 1976 to 2004), Pennsylvania was the scene of spirited campaigns on both sides and never voted for either party by more than 10 percentage points. In 2008, Pennsylvanians gave Obama a double–digit victory over John McCain (just barely), and most observers would probably expect the Democrats to win there again, as they have in every presidential election since 1992. But in 2010, Pennsylvania elected a Republican governor and a Republican senator. Seems to me that casts a certain amount of doubt over the eventual outcome there. Iowa has split down the middle, voting for each party five times. It tends to support most incumbents these days, but that was not always the case. Iowa voted against the last two presidents who were denied a second term (Carter and George H.W. Bush), and the outcome there may hold significant implications for the rest of the country. If history is any guide, the last four decades indicate that Republicans are likely to win 67 electoral votes, Democrats are likely to win 30, and Iowa's six will be up for grabs. But that is strictly a look at how states have voted in the last 40 years. Things can always change. If that is, indeed, how things turn out, though, Iowa's vote won't produce a cliffhanger like the one in 2000 when the press camped out in Florida for a month waiting for the historic Supreme Court ruling that determined the winner of its electoral votes. Nevertheless, it certainly isn't as cut and dried as all that. Florida's population differs greatly from other Southern states in nearly every demographic category imaginable and, while other Southern states were giving Republican nominees double–digit margins, the tallies in both Florida and Ohio tended to be much closer — less than 7% in both states in the last five presidential elections and less than 5% in both states in the last three.

Clearly, neither party can consider either state locked up until the votes are counted in November.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Social Darwinism

When Barack Obama lashed out at the Republican budget the other day, calling it "thinly veiled social Darwinism," I must confess that I couldn't help sighing.

It is a blatant example of not just this president's willingness but his eagerness to play the so–called race card whenever he believes it can be used to his benefit (and that is most of the time). The mere mention of the phrase no doubt had his many minions drooling in some kind of mass Pavlovian response.

How many of you who are reading this know what social Darwinism is — beyond the fact that Obama says it is bad and it is the ultimate objective of his political foes? In fact, it is a term that is probably much more familiar to those on college campuses than to the common man in the street.

You might think that you know what it is — but, in fact, there are many often contradictory interpretations of it.

Among the concepts to which it is tied is that of eugenics, which was and is about manipulating genetics, promoting preferred traits and weeding out unfavorable ones — that kind of thing.

Early advocates applied it to the breeding of animals, but some folks have tried to apply it to human reproduction.

Most notably, the Nazis, who were inspired by the eugenics work that had been done in the United States.

Largely in disfavor today, eugenics enjoyed a period of popularity in the United States in the first half of the 20th century. In the 1920s, the Supreme Court upheld a Virginia statute that permitted compulsory sterilization of those who were deemed unfit — the mentally retarded, the "feeble–minded," etc.

That case — Buck v. Bell — wasn't about race.

But it was about negative eugenics, about eliminating the possibility that undesirable traits might be passed from one generation to the next.

Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, known as "The Great Dissenter" because he tended to disagree with the majority so frequently, did not dissent on the Virginia statute.

In fact, Holmes wrote for the majority, arguing that the genetic purity of the state outweighed an individual's bodily integrity.
"Three generations of imbeciles are enough."

Associate Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.
Buck v. Bell

That case, as well as others, inspired the Nazis to pursue a racially pure culture. The practice of Nazi sterilization of, initially, the feeble–minded was addressed in the Academy Award–winning film "Judgment at Nuremberg" — as was Holmes' written opinion.

The Nazis could just as easily have been inspired by the founder of Planned Parenthood, Margaret Sanger, who was said to be a racist. She believed that people with light skin were superior to people with dark skin, and, in 1939, she initiated The Negro Project, which has been described as an effort to systematically eliminate blacks.

Well, at least, that's how the extreme right–wing narrative goes.

The other side will tell you that is not correct. Sanger "recognized that elements within the black community might mistakenly associate the Negro Project with racist sterilization campaigns in the Jim Crow South unless clergy and other community leaders spread the word that the Project had a humanitarian aim." And that aim was not to eradicate blacks but to encourage positive traits in their descendants.

So she enlisted the aid of people like W.E.B. Du Bois, founder of the NAACP, and Martin Luther King Jr., an original recipient of the award honoring Sanger's work, to promote that "humanitarian aim."

But Sanger's organizational offspring — as it were — is a devoted supporter of the Obama presidency, the right wing will say. Who is the social Darwinist now?

Frankly, I don't know what to think — except that it is wrong to introduce this into the political discussion. There's plenty of manipulation of the facts on both sides.

Yes, Sanger founded Planned Parenthood and is reviled by anti–abortion activists for her advocacy of reproductive rights.

And, from all outward appearances, Sanger was, indeed, a racist, but she tolerated no racist policies within Planned Parenthood and, as far as I can tell, pursued no approaches that singled out any race for virtual extermination.

In other words, the Nazis may have been inspired by eugenics, but their objectives and tactics were their own. Sanger's motivation was responsible procreation, not destruction.

It is not responsible, however, to inject the words social Darwinism into the discussion. It re–focuses the debate on an issue that Gallup says is way down the list of priorities for most Americans in 2012.

Perhaps that was the reason for injecting that phrase into the political discussion. It takes attention away from the sluggish job picture and high gas prices.

And incumbents who haven't got much of a record to run on usually accentuate the negative.

For a man with no challenger within his own party, Obama is resorting to negative campaigning pretty early.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

The Art of the Interview

Mike Wallace died yesterday.

He was 93 years old so his death, while sad for his survivors, cannot be considered either unexpected or tragic. But his loss is considerable for anyone who appreciates the art of the interview.

In a career that spanned seven decades, Wallace interviewed just about everybody who was anybody — presidents, kings, newsmakers of all kinds. I suppose most of his interviews were conducted in his work for CBS' 60 Minutes. He did some interviewing as a staffer for the University of Michigan's student newspaper, but a lot of the work he did in his youth would be better classified as entertainment.

He did some announcing, even some acting, on radio in the 1940s and hosted some game shows in the 1950s. The latter is not as unusual as it might seem today. In those days, newscasters, as they were called, did it all. In addition to announcing, they did commercials and hosted game shows.

And that generated most of Wallace's income for awhile.

But it was his interview work in the late 1950s and early 1960s that led to his job with 60 Minutes.

In that capacity, he really did interview just about everyone, all the movers and shakers of the late 20th century, but he did say about six years ago that he regretted the one that got away — former first lady Pat Nixon.

I have conducted many interviews in my life, and I can assure anyone who has never done one that it is much more difficult than it may appear. Most people who get interviewed tend to feel that they are somehow doing the interviewer a huge favor by sitting down and answering a few questions, which really puts the interviewer at a disadvantage.

There are some interview subjects who do not think that they are above the likes of any interviewer, but they are rare (and, my experience is, the bigger they are, the more likely it is that they will feel this way).

I've seen more than one interviewer come away with a poor interview because the subject seized the psychological high ground. It takes someone with confidence in himself and the validity of his questions to walk into an interview setting and treat his subjects as equals — and be treated as an equal in return. That was the amazing thing about Mike Wallace.

I share little tricks with my students, and I hope those tricks will help them conduct better interviews, but I often wonder if being a great interviewer isn't one of those things one is born with, sort of like when Stan Musial was hired to coach batting.

Musial was one of the greatest hitters ever to play baseball, but no one, not even Musial himself, could teach his unorthodox batting stance to others. It worked for him. It didn't work for anyone else.

Similarly, I wouldn't encourage young reporters to emulate Wallace — except, perhaps, to study the kinds of questions he asked. He always tried to develop a rapport with his interviewees, but he was tough, and he got right to the point. Sometimes it got him in trouble. Most of the time, it got him great stories.

Broadcasting isn't what it used to be. Wallace's death is a reminder that the practitioners of high–quality broadcasting are just about gone now.

"There simply hasn't been another broadcast journalist with that much talent," said 60 Minutes' executive producer Jeff Fager. That's pretty high praise coming from the chairman of CBS News, a network news division that has been graced by the presence of Edward R. Murrow, Walter Cronkite and Daniel Schorr — and many, many more.

Rest in peace, Mike Wallace.