Saturday, March 26, 2016

Decisions Are Made By Those Who Show Up

I had heard the quote "Decisions are made by those who show up" long before I heard Allison Janney (as C.J. Cregg) say it on The West Wing. I don't know who said it first. Some say it was Woody Allen. Some say it was Harry Truman. I've even heard it suggested that Margaret Mead said it first.

That isn't really important. What is important is that it expresses a truism that is hard, if not impossible, to refute, especially in the world of politics. It is possible, perhaps even probable, that, when all is said and done, no other sentence will better describe the eventual outcome of the 2016 presidential campaign.

I say that because I have been reading a number of columns lately from political observers, most of whom have already demonstrated that their sympathies are with Hillary Clinton — and Bernie Sanders, too (they presume, and probably justifiably, that Hillary will be the nominee so they can afford to be inclusive) — and they insist that the battle between Donald Trump and Ted Cruz will divide the Republican Party, no matter who gets the nomination, and that will guarantee Clinton's election.

It's inevitable, they say.

Let me tell you something. Nothing is inevitable — except, as they say, death and taxes.

We're more than seven months from the election. That is an eternity in politics.

And polls are merely snapshots of opinion at a particular point in time.

I've been a student of history for many years (amateur student of history, mostly, although I was an actual history student when I was in graduate school; it was my minor), and I can appreciate the pundits' use of history in their logic even though I think they tend to misapply its lessons. Still, at a time when most young people can name every member of the Kardashian family but few can tell you who the vice president is, I find any knowledge and application of current events and history refreshing, even encouraging.

The most prevalent theory seems to be that, in the last six elections, Democrats have won nearly enough states regularly to win the whole shootin' match. They lost the electoral vote in two of those elections and the popular vote in one. Therefore, this theory goes, the Democrats already have nearly enough states in the bag to win. They only need to win a couple more to clinch victory.

The Republicans, on the other hand, would have to win all the states they have been winning — mostly Southern and Western states — just about run the table on all the battleground states and perhaps try to peel off one or two of the states that are assumed to be in the Democrats' corner to win the national election — and that, the pundits agree, is a mountain too high.

This ignores the fact that American politics is cyclical.

Yes, it is true that, for example, California, the biggest prize of them all, the state that, all by itself, can deliver precisely one–fifth of the electoral votes a candidate needs to win, has voted for Democrats six straight times. But it voted for Republicans in the six elections prior to that.

And you can find all sorts of other examples like that, states that have been voting for Democrats in every election since 1992, and some for an election before that, but many of those states voted Republican fairly regularly for decades prior. The political landscape is always shifting. The issues are always changing. And the events that affect elections are always different. They may look similar, but they are never identical. It's like Mark Twain said. History doesn't repeat itself, but it does rhyme.

One clear trend has emerged since the end of World War II. A party typically wins two straight national elections, then the other party wins the next two elections. Only once in the last 70 years has a party won three consecutive presidential elections. That was in the 1980, 1984 and 1988 presidential elections. Ronald Reagan won the first two, and his vice president, George H.W. Bush, won the third.

And only once since World War II has a party taken the White House from the other party in a national election and failed to win the next one. That was when Jimmy Carter won in 1976 and lost in 1980.

(By the way, Reagan trailed President Carter by 25 points in the polls that were taken at this stage of the 1980 presidential campaign. He won by 10 percentage points when the votes were counted in November.)

I've been following elections for a long time, and the one great truth is that turnout is what matters. Who shows up? And why?

To a great extent Barack Obama owed his election eight years ago to an unlikely coalition of groups that have seldom been active in politics. In 2008 I think many were motivated by the historic opportunity to participate in the election of the nation's first black president. I also think that the 2016 Clinton campaign was built around the idea that these groups would be similarly motivated by the opportunity to participate in the election of the nation's first female president, but those groups seem to have lost their taste for politics. Maybe they grew complacent with their successes in 2008 and 2012. Whatever the reason (if there is a single reason) turnout in Democratic primaries is way down this year. Across the board.

Turnout in the Republican primaries, on the other hand, is way up. Again, across the board. I think it is safe to assume that most of those voters will be motivated to turn out in November even if their candidate is not the nominee.

The enthusiasm factor is on the Republicans' side this cycle. That can be explained away in the "open" primaries, in which Democrats and independents may vote, but not in the "closed" primaries, in which only registered Republicans are allowed to participate. Enthusiasm is up consistently in all Republican contests, closed or open.

As a party, the Republicans have been crafting an economic message that appears to resonate with blue–collar white voters, especially those in the Rust Belt (who blame trade agreements for the loss of their jobs) but really across the country. That has the potential to put several states in play that have been voting for Democrats for the last couple of decades. The selection of a Midwestern running mate could have some influence on this, too.

(It is a theory of mine that, while the presence of a Midwestern running mate didn't put Mitt Romney over the top in 2012, it may have influenced the outcome in unacknowledged ways. Obama's share of the popular vote dropped nearly 2 percentage points and his electoral vote tally dropped by 33 between his election in 2008 and his re–election in 2012. Mind you, this was with an incumbent president seeking re–election, which is usually an insurmountable headwind for the challenger. Obama was the first incumbent in nearly a century to be re–elected with fewer electoral votes than he received in his initial election.)

The counterargument to this is that Democrats will benefit from the minority vote. It's hard to imagine any Republican ever achieving Dwight Eisenhower's level of support from minority voters, but that was a couple of generations ago. In the last 50 years or so, Republican nominees have seldom managed to win one–tenth of black votes, and that is the largest minority voting bloc in America. In spite of their growing numbers, Hispanics don't exert much electoral influence because so few vote.

Just as it is hard to imagine a Republican duplicating Ike's appeal to the minority community, it is equally difficult to imagine a Republican doing as poorly among black voters as John McCain or Romney did against the first black presidential nominee. It almost seems as if this year's Republican nominee can't help but do better, even marginally, among blacks than they did.

As for the Hispanic vote, even if there is a sudden surge in participation, it is likely to occur mostly in states where Democrats have an advantage (if you subscribe to the theory that those states are already in the bag) — primarily California and New Mexico. Many people will mention Nevada and Colorado as well, and those states do have sizable Hispanic populations, but it's a mistake to label them as dependably Democratic.

Nevada has been more of a bellwether, voting with the winner in every election since 1980 (and every election but two since 1904).

Colorado has been more inclined to support Republicans even when they lose nationally. True, Colorado supported Barack Obama twice, but before that Colorado voted for Democrats twice in the 14 previous elections — for Bill Clinton in 1992 and Lyndon Johnson in 1964. Colorado voted for Bob Dole over Clinton in 1996, for Gerald Ford over Jimmy Carter in 1976 and for Richard Nixon over John F. Kennedy in 1960.

Republicans with an eye to the long term are sure to recognize the fact that their party must be perceived as much more receptive to minority participation in the years ahead, but right now there probably aren't that many minority votes for Republicans to win or lose in states where those voters can make a difference. To win this election, pandering to minority groups won't be necessary.

Some folks point out the sizable Hispanic population in the state where I live — Texas. It's true that Hispanics make up a considerable segment of the Texas population, but Texas hasn't voted for a Democrat for president since narrowly voting for Carter 40 years ago. Obama lost Texas twice, both times by more than 1 million votes.

If Hispanics become more reliable at the polls, they could exert quite a bit of influence on Texas politics, but that is likely to happen incrementally. Neither Hillary Clinton nor Bernie Sanders is going to win Texas this year.

And then there is the emerging issue of terrorism. Even before the attacks in Brussels earlier this week, polls were showing that a majority of Americans supported Trump's proposal of a temporary ban on Muslim immigrants. My guess is that support for that proposal has gone up this week.

Since World War II, when people have been afraid, they have turned to Republicans. Postwar Democrats have (pardon the pun) progressively been perceived as unable to protect Americans when they are faced with a deadly threat. Take the 9/11 attacks, for example. The party that doesn't hold the White House almost always loses ground in Congress in the midterm election, but Republicans bucked the historical trend and gained ground in the 2002 midterms in large part because of the voters' fears of terrorism a year after the Twin Towers came down.

How many more terrorist attacks will there be between now and November? Will any of them be on U.S. soil?

What form will those attacks take? Will they be like the anthrax attacks of 2001 — which, of course, were not related to Islamic terrorism, but the next ones certainly could be — or will they be more digital in nature, attacking our technological vulnerabilities?

What will the situation be in the days and weeks leading up to the election? Will the economy be better or worse?

The answers to those questions and others will give you a good idea who will show up at the polls in November — and who won't.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Cruz's Gambit

We have a Republican presidential primary coming up on Tuesday along with two caucuses (Utah and American Samoa) — then two weeks until the next time voters go to the polls. Time is short — almost two–thirds of the states have been heard from now.

I hear a lot of talk of a contested convention, but there has only been one convention in my lifetime — the 1976 Republican convention — that went down to the wire. I have my doubts that this year's convention will be the second almost–contested convention in my lifetime.

See, the thing is that Donald Trump's candidacy is the kind of phenomenon that political observers have rarely seen. They function in a world of conventional wisdom, but what is happening is spinning conventional wisdom on its ear. In 1976 conventional wisdom eventually won out, and President Gerald Ford defeated challenger (outsider?) Ronald Reagan.

Trump reminds me more of Ross Perot in 1992 — a wealthy man who promised to run government efficiently, like a well–run business. Trump has gone far beyond where Perot ever did, perhaps because he has pursued the presidency through an established party rather than seeking the office as an independent.

Trump also reminds me, in a way, of Barack Obama eight years ago. Trump is not the first outsider businessman to seek the presidency, just as Obama was not the first black man to seek the presidency. But Obama capitalized on and exceeded the achievements of his predecessors, and Trump appears poised to exceed Perot's achievements as well.

It's easy to forget from the perspective of 2016 what Perot achieved in the general election of 1992. He didn't carry any states, but he received nearly 19% of the national popular vote.

On the Republican side it is, essentially, down to two candidates, Trump and Ted Cruz. There is a third candidate, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, but he is already mathematically eliminated from a first–ballot nomination even if he runs the table the rest of the way in this new winner–take–all delegate environment. He is no longer focused on winning the nomination on the first ballot, when most delegates are committed to certain candidates by the voters of their states. He is looking beyond that.

However, with Marco Rubio out of the picture, Cruz appears to believe he has a chance to inflict some damage on Trump and, if not secure enough delegates going into the convention to assure himself of the nomination, have enough delegates committed to him to prevent Trump from winning the nomination on the first ballot.

Cruz has been talking about how well he has performed in closed primaries — primaries held in states where voters are required to declare their party affiliation upon registering and vote in only that party's primaries. And that's true.

But there are two sides to this coin.

Cruz contends he is the best choice to be a standard bearer for Republicans because he has outperformed Trump in primaries in which only registered Republicans can participate.

Trump has performed better in the open primaries where voters can declare in which party's primary they want to participate, and he has been drawing support from Democrats and independents. Some have been motivated by a desire to throw a wrench into the works, but others have been motivated by genuine support for Trump. Consequently, Trump can argue — with at least some validity — that his victories in the open primaries demonstrate his appeal for the broader electorate in the general election.

This phase of the electoral calendar may tell us who is right — or, at least, whose case makes the most sense to Republican voters.

The primary on Tuesday is being held in Arizona; it's a closed primary that will award all 58 of its delegates to whoever finishes first. Based on Cruz's logic, he should do well there, right? Well, the latest Merrill Poll, released just a few days ago, found the winner is likely to be Trump.

Kasich's strategy is different. He knows he can't win the nomination on the first ballot so his objective is to prevent Trump from reaching the magic number and force the Republican nominating process to a second ballot for the first time since 1948. If Cruz can win in the West, Kasich will be trying to win in the East — in places like Pennsylvania and New York.

Call it a triangulation theory. It's also a longshot, at least at this stage of the race. Trump is more than halfway to the number of committed delegates he needs to win the nomination on the first ballot.

The New York primary is a closed primary that will be held on April 19. According to the Emerson Poll that was released Friday, Trump has a decisive lead over Cruz there. Kasich is no help; he barely drew 1% in the poll. New York is a winner–take–most primary, which most likely means Trump will win about 80 or 85 of the state's 95 delegates.

Pennsylvania's winner–take–all primary is a week later — on April 26. The most recent survey I have seen from Pennsylvania was published about a week and a half ago. It was Harper Polling's survey, and it showed Trump with a 2–to–1 lead over Marco Rubio, who suspended his campaign after losing in Florida about a week after Harper's poll results were published. Unless something dramatic happens, Trump seems well on his way to winning Pennsylvania's 71 delegates.

There will be other primaries, too, but the ones I have just mentioned are the ones that are likely to get the most attention in the next five weeks. Anyway, for Cruz and Kasich, the news doesn't get much better in those lesser primaries.

On April 5, Wisconsin holds a winner–take–all primary. It will be an open primary, too, so Democrats and independents can participate if they wish, and Wisconsin is the only state doing anything that day. Whoever finishes first wins 42 delegates. I haven't seen any polls from there so I don't know who is leading, but I can say that Wisconsin was one of those Rust Belt states that was hurt by trade agreements in recent years. That seems to have benefited Trump in Michigan and Illinois.

New York also will have the political spotlight to itself, but Pennsylvania will be one of five states holding primaries on April 26. Those states are mostly in the Northeast, which will be a test for Kasich's appeal to a presumably more centrist electorate.

The other four states to vote on April 26 are Connecticut (26 delegates), Delaware (16 delegates), Maryland (38 delegates) and Rhode Island (19 delegates). All but one of those April 26 primaries will be closed. Rhode Island's primary is "semi–closed" — whatever that means.

And most of the primaries being held that day will be winner–take–all contests. Connecticut is winner–take–most and Rhode Island is proportional. Since most of the primaries that day are closed, that should favor Cruz, based on his own assessment, but the region of the country should be more favorable to a moderate like Kasich. Polls indicate, however, that Trump is leading and may improve on his lead in the weeks ahead.

And, of course, looming out there on the Western horizon is California with its winner–take–all prize of 172 delegates. California Republicans won't vote until June 7, but in the latest poll I have seen 38% of likely voters favored Trump. It is worth noting that the poll results were released the day of the Florida and Ohio primaries. Rubio was still in the race, and Kasich had not yet won his home state, but both were included in the poll with Trump and Cruz. Rubio polled 10%, which by itself would not be enough for Cruz to overtake Trump. Neither would the 9% who said they were undecided.

Together, though, they would be enough — as long as not too many of those voters broke for Trump. That is how sizable Trump's lead is in California.

Clearly, it's a pretty steep mountain Cruz and Kasich must climb if they are to prevent Trump from claiming the nomination in Cleveland this July.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

About Last Night ...

Are you a supporter of freedom of speech?

Are you a supporter of what happened in Chicago last night?

It is not possible to be both. The two are not compatible.

If you support freedom of speech, you cannot support any efforts to prevent others from exercising their rights to free speech — which is what the protesters in Chicago did last night. They created an unsafe environment and forced controversial Republican front–runner Donald Trump to cancel a planned rally.

If you support what happened in Chicago, you cannot be a supporter of freedom of speech — even if you claim otherwise.

No matter what anyone says on any subject, someone will be offended by it, especially in these polarized times. If I didn't know it before, I certainly learned it when I worked for newspapers in less polarized times.

Freedom of speech exists to protect unpopular speech. It doesn't have to be universally unpopular, either. Clearly, Trump's opinions appeal to some voters and not to others.

But that isn't really so unusual in American politics, is it? I can think of no issue in my lifetime — not a single one — on which there has been universal agreement among the voters. I have often told my journalism students that you won't get unanimous agreement on any proposal in a public opinion poll, even something that you would think would be a slam dunk, like the sky is blue and the grass is green.

Thus, the need for freedom of speech, which protects everyone's right to speak.

That includes the freedom to worship — or not — as you see fit. Both freedom of religion and freedom of speech are protected by the First Amendment.

(The First Amendment also guarantees the people the right to peaceably assemble — I'll get back to that shortly — and freedom of the press.)

Many of the protesters in Chicago were there acting on behalf of others. I have heard today that left–wing activists at were behind it, along with supporters of socialist presidential candidate Bernie Sanders — but last night I heard nothing about who might have been behind it.

I just know that I saw several people who declined to give any reason at all why they were so intent upon preventing a presidential candidate from speaking, and that struck me as highly implausible. I mean, if you're going to go to the trouble of participating in a protest rally, you must have some pretty strong feelings about the subject, right? Why would you decline to give your reasons when you had a somewhat captive audience?

For example, I saw one Hispanic female being interviewed briefly on TV. When she was part of the crowd, she was shouting obscenities. When asked by a reporter what her reasons for participating were, she said she didn't want to give her reasons. Why not?

Do you suppose the reason might have been that they were paid to undermine free speech?

Because that is what they did. They undermined free speech — whether they were paid to do so or not.

Americans are free to agree or disagree with political candidates. They are also free to attend rallies and debates and listen to what the candidates have to say. It's part of the decision–making process.

Americans are also allowed to peaceably protest, as I mentioned before. The Bill of Rights is rooted in the experiences the Founding Fathers had had as subjects of a foreign power, and they sought to guarantee the freedoms for which many fought and died.

But when protests turn violent, they will soon become riots if not held in check somehow. In Chicago, the candidate reached the conclusion that best way to do that would be to cancel the rally rather than put people in harm's way.

The Americans who came to the rally to listen to what was said, not to shut it down, were denied their rights by what appeared to be mostly 20–somethings who, like many of their generation, have pretty skewed ideas about what freedom of speech means — and whose concept of free speech involves as many loud obscenities as can be wedged into a sentence, not the use of logic.

As I listened to some of the protesters being interviewed, I heard one recurring theme from those who chose to say something other than that they didn't want to talk about their reasons.

That theme was that they were entitled to the benefits of freedom of speech — but not anyone who disagrees with them.

Sorry, folks, that isn't the way it works.

Freedom belongs to all, not a few.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

The Numbers Games

I've heard a lot of hopeful talk today from supporters of Bernie Sanders and Ted Cruz that the results of yesterday's primaries and caucuses are indicative of a shift in the momentum in the quests for the Democrats' and Republicans' presidential nominations.

On the Republican side, Cruz won the Kansas and Maine caucuses. Donald Trump won the Kentucky caucuses and the Louisiana primary. Cruz's campaign is fixated on the number of wins because it suggests a shift in momentum. And, to be sure, momentum is important in presidential politics. But that was the real value of the early contests — in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina. Although they were small individually, together they created a perception that benefited certain candidates heading into last Tuesday's Super Tuesday contests.

There's a big change coming, one that was designed to avoid a prolonged battle for the GOP nomination like the one in 2012. Up to this point, Republican primaries have been allocating delegates on a proportional basis — all states holding Republican primaries or caucuses after March 14 will award the delegates on a winner–take–all or winner–take–most basis.

Momentum has mostly been established now. Unless Cruz starts winning in bunches, the attention will be on delegate counts. Splitting four contests with Trump is a draw as far as momentum is concerned, and attention remains on delegates. Cruz won that battle, too, but not impressively enough. As I write this, the apparent delegate numbers from yesterday's contests are Cruz with 69 delegates, Trump with 53 delegates, Marco Rubio with 18 delegates and John Kasich with 10.

The current delegate total has Trump with 384 delegates, Cruz with 300, Rubio with 151 and Kasich with 37 — and, as I have established, Cruz gained 16 votes on Trump yesterday. The magic number for nomination is 1,237, and much of the talk is about ways to keep Trump from reaching that number.

Is it possible? Unless the race is down to Trump and a single anti–Trump, I think the answer is no. With three rivals, Trump probably wouldn't need to do as well as he has done in many states just to finish first — and, therefore, wrap up a state's entire delegation.

Rubio's home state of Florida and Kasich's home state of Ohio will vote on March 15. Winning your home state is pretty important in presidential politics. If you can't win your home state, you might as well give it up. There are 99 delegates available in Rubio's home state; while I haven't seen a poll of Florida recently, the latest one that I have seen, from Feb. 27, had Trump leading Rubio by 20 points. If that proves correct, Rubio will lose his home state and, because it is a winner–take–all state, all the delegates.

Kasich is said to be leading in Ohio, although I haven't seen any polls lately. Ohio will have 66 delegates available to whoever finishes first.

Illinois also votes on March 15 and will be awarding 69 delegates on a winner–take–all basis. I haven't seen any polls from Illinois lately, but just think. On March 15, in just those three states, more than 220 delegates will be awarded. If Trump finishes first in all three states, he will be halfway to the nomination.

A win in Ohio probably would keep Kasich's candidacy alive — but not for long unless he wins Michigan on Tuesday — or at least does well enough to grab a portion of the state's 59 delegates.

But the numbers game will be the game in the GOP a week from now with winner–take–all and winner–take–most contests coming in most of the big states — New York (95 delegates) on April 19, Pennsylvania (71 delegates) on April 26, California (172 delegates) on June 7.

It's going to be hard to deny Trump the nomination if something dramatic doesn't happen in the next week or two.

On the Democratic side, the numbers continue to favor Hillary Clinton, even though Sanders won by about a 2–to–1 margin in the Kansas caucuses, and he easily won the Nebraska caucuses. Sanders also won in Maine.

Clinton crushed Sanders in Louisiana — and Louisiana, even with the depleted black population following Hurricane Katrina, is a place where nearly one–third of the population is black. It was the Democrats' biggest single prize of the day.

When all was said and done, Sanders narrowly picked up ground on Clinton with 64 delegates to the former secretary of State's 62 delegates.

But to win the Democrats' nomination a candidate needs 2,383 delegates, and Clinton is already almost halfway there with 1,130 committed to her. Sanders has 499 delegates.

The math gets tougher for the challengers from this point on, and it looks like something really astonishing will have to happen if either Clinton or Trump is going to be denied their parties' nominations.

Something that astonishing seldom happens in American politics, and I'm guessing it won't happen this time.

But who knows? All the political rules are being rewritten this year.