Sunday, November 27, 2016

Touching the Wet Paint

"Tell people there's an invisible man in the sky who created the universe, and the vast majority will believe you. Tell them the paint is wet, and they have to touch it to be sure."

George Carlin

Yesterday was my birthday.

I spent the afternoon and evening at my father's house, doing what I prefer to do on my birthday — watch football on TV.

But I started the day with an early trip to the nearby clinic. The folks there needed to take a blood sample to make sure that the right dosage is prescribed for a medicine I have been taking for several years. It should come as no surprise to anyone reading this that one's body changes with the passage of time. People who wear glasses need to have their prescriptions adjusted for changes in their vision. And, if you take a medicine on a daily basis, as many people do, sometimes the dosage needs to be adjusted.

Anyway, with my work schedule and the necessary commute time, it simply isn't possible for me to plan to go in during the week. Fortunately, the clinic is open for abbreviated hours on Saturdays, and no appointment is necessary for blood work. You just need to get there before everyone else does if you want to avoid the wait.

The clinic opens at 8 a.m. so I got up early on a Saturday morning and got there right at 8 a.m. (OK, it was really 8:07, but that's close enough.) I walked in, told the receptionist I was there to do blood work and was whisked right in to the room where they do that stuff.

I had to wait there for a little while, then a young man walked in to take my blood. I told him that, in the past, people who have taken blood samples have found it easier to get it from the veins in my hands than the veins in my arms. I'm like my father in that regard. For some reason (genetic, I suppose) the veins in our arms are not conducive to the procedure for taking blood samples.

Now, I have been me all my life so I know things about me that people who have never met me before — like this young man — do not know. In the case of having blood drawn, I always try to save us all a little time, and I tell whoever is taking my blood that it tends to work best when it is taken from my hands.

But they always remind me of that George Carlin quote at the top of this post. They may take many things on faith, but they always have to touch the paint to make sure it is wet.

So I have learned to let 'em touch the paint. I tend to feel like a pin cushion by the time they are finished because, once they have failed to find a vein they can use in one arm, they always want to try the other, but — with rare exceptions, and there have been one or two — they are forced to conclude that I was right, and they proceed to my hands.

That is how it was yesterday. When the young man finally had to concede — after about half an hour of probing my arms for veins — that he would be successful using my hands instead, I watched as vial after vial filled up. It was like he had hit a gusher. And I pointed out that I had tried to save us some time.

But he had to touch the wet paint. They always do.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

How Could Hillary Lose?

I don't know how many times I have heard that question in recent days, but I know it has been a lot. I can understand some people's bewilderment. The polls showed Hillary Clinton leading from wire to wire. How could she possibly have lost?

If anyone is interested, I have a few thoughts on that.

The best place to start is with the declaration of a simple fact: History has always fascinated me. Whenever I have written about this election this year, my writing has almost always been grounded in the lessons that history can teach us.

In the last couple of years, many people have told me I was wrong, that just because Americans did something in the past did not mean they would do the same thing again (which was contradictory to the belief that states that had voted for Democrats for several elections would continue to do so).

For example ...

I frequently pointed out that Americans have only voted for the same party in three consecutive national elections once since the end of World War II. That was in the 1980s, when Ronald Reagan was elected twice and George H.W. Bush was elected to succeed Reagan when he was term–limited out of office in 1988.

Post–WWII Americans have changed the party in the White House every eight years since 1945 like clockwork. Well, one time they changed parties after four years. That was in 1980, when Reagan defeated President Jimmy Carter.

But aside from those two exceptions — both of which came during the post–Vietnam/post–Watergate period — post–World War II Americans have given a party two four–year terms in the White House, then they have been in the mood for change.

Historically, 2016 was destined to be a "change" election from the night in 2012 when Barack Obama was re–elected.

Is it really that simple? No, there is more to it than that, but it is an appropriate starting point.

Americans were predisposed this year to turn to the party that was out of power. Sometimes they have been reluctant to do so, and it has resulted in close elections, but that inclination for change runs strong in the American electorate. True, many (perhaps most) Americans found Donald Trump objectionable, but they still voted for him. Narrowly, yes, but still they voted for him, and it didn't surprise or shock me.

For a long time, I have known of an incredible sense of anxiety among Americans. I have seen election years when Americans were anxious but never to this extent before. They were frightened by terrorism and an immigration policy that seemed to encourage terrorists to come here. They were stressed economically by continually rising health care premiums that they were required by law to carry and incomes that didn't cover the necessities, let alone a luxury or two.

My main thought on election night was that a less flawed Republican would have crushed Clinton.

After all, Clinton was a deeply flawed candidate, too. The polls in which her supporters placed so much faith consistently showed that both she and Trump were unpopular. I started calling it an unpopularity contest when it became clear who the nominees would be, and I regarded their unpopularity as offsetting penalties (to use a football metaphor), canceling each other out.

Again, I believe a less flawed Republican candidate would have cruised to victory — even Ted Cruz.

I have also written in the last year of the Bradley effect, named for Tom Bradley, a black man who ran for California governor in 1982. Polls consistently showed him leading his Republican opponent — but on Election Day Bradley lost. Political scientists determined that, in pre–election polls, many respondents said they would vote for Bradley because they feared being labeled racist — even though it was extremely unlikely that the pollsters and the people being polled knew each other or that a pollster would give a second thought to anyone's responses five minutes after the conversation ended.

On Election Day, though, the voters were alone in the privacy of the voting booth, and Bradley's opponent won the election.

I wrote nearly a year ago that I thought we could be seeing the same thing in this campaign, and I never changed my mind about that. I don't have any evidence to back up my conclusion that the Bradley effect played a role in this year's election, and I suppose it will require some research before a verdict can be rendered, but I sincerely believe there may have been Trump supporters who told pollsters they would vote for Clinton because they didn't want to be labeled racist or sexist or homophobic.

I could be wrong about that, but I have read articles that point to that as a possibility, and I have heard people speak of something like that taking place. It wouldn't surprise me to learn there was an element of that in Trump's silent victory.

But I continue to believe that historical voting patterns offered significantly more clues to people that something like this was going to happen.

A couple of months ago, I wrote a post on this blog about states that I saw as up for grabs based on whether they gave Barack Obama or Mitt Romney 53% or less of the popular vote. Those states, I wrote, were candidates for flipping party allegiance in the general election — even if they had voted for one party for several election cycles.

For example, I wrote that Pennsylvania's 20 electoral votes were at risk for Democrats, who hadn't lost the state since 1988. I didn't have to hear stories about how blue–collar workers there were suffering under adverse trade agreements. I looked at recent election returns. In 2008, Obama carried the state with more than 54% of the vote, a popular vote margin of more than 600,000. Four years later, he carried Pennsylvania again in his successful re–election campaign, but the margin was cut in half and his share of the vote was just over 51%.

Even with an incumbent on the ballot Democrats were losing altitude in 2012, and the results of the midterm elections of 2014 indicated that they were still losing altitude in spite of Obama's personal popularity. On election night, Trump beat Clinton in Pennsylvania by more than 65,000 votes.

The Democrats' strategy in 2016 was predicated on the belief that all the states that had voted for Obama in either or both of the last two elections — and many that had been voting for Democrats for decades — would continue to do so. It was called the "Blue Wall," and it was largely taken for granted.

That wall crumbled on election night.

Many people probably thought I was crazy when I wrote in September that Illinois appeared to be about the only sure thing for the Democrats in the Industrial Midwest.

It was well known that Ohio would be a swing state so when it swung to Trump, that may not have surprised too many people. Nor, I suppose, did Indiana's support for Trump surprise many people. Indiana did support Obama when he ran in 2008, but it voted against him in 2012, returning to its Republican roots, and this time Indiana's governor was on the Republican ticket.

But the defection of Michigan, which also had not voted for a Republican since 1988, did surprise a lot of people. At the time I acknowledged that Michigan's vote for Obama in 2012 (54%) exceeded the limit I imposed, but that was a drop of more than three percentage points compared to 2008. Surveys that indicated how much people there were suffering economically convinced me this fall that Michigan might very well flip.

I pointed out that Obama's support declined in Wisconsin between 2008 and 2012, making it a prime candidate to flip as well. Wisconsin had not supported a Republican since voting for the re–election of Ronald Reagan in 1984. It voted for Trump by about 25,000 votes.

I also observed that Iowa was a prime candidate for flipping. The only Republicans Iowa had supported since 1968 were Republicans who were already president and were seeking re–election (Richard Nixon in 1972, Ronald Reagan in 1984, George W. Bush in 2004), but the returns from 2008 and 2012 clearly showed that Democrats were losing altitude in Iowa, too. It only offered half a dozen electoral votes, but it was one of the bricks in that Blue Wall.

Was the collapse of the Clinton campaign inevitable? I suppose opinions on that will vary. There are indications that the Clinton campaign, by virtue of its own hubris, contributed to its demise in the Industrial Midwest. It assumed that, because those states had been voting for Democrats for so long, they would continue to do so.

I went online early on election night and looked in at Facebook. A friend of mine from my graduate school days, a dyed–in–the–wool Democrat, was encouraging his friends to forecast Clinton's total in the Electoral College. He predicted she would receive 332 votes, overshooting the actual total by, oh, about 100 votes. All through the campaign, he kept saying he wasn't worried about Trump. The polls showed him safely behind.

He's been keeping a low profile since the election. Hubris.

But Michigan Democrat Debbie Dingell, who succeeded her retiring husband in the House in January 2015, wrote in the Washington Post recently that she warned that the Clinton campaign was in trouble in Michigan back in the spring before the Democrats' presidential primary, which was won by Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont.

Clinton's campaign was too slow to recognize its problem with Sanders in Michigan, Dingell wrote. "They never stopped on a campus; never went to a union hall; never talked to the Arab American community. Sanders was in my district 10 times during the primary. How would any sane person not predict how this one would go? It was fixable for the general election."

But, clearly, it wasn't fixed. Repeatedly I read and heard that the Clinton campaign would reassemble Obama's winning coalition of blacks, Hispanics and young voters, and that would propel her to victory. But Clinton couldn't duplicate the enthusiasm that surrounded the Obama campaigns. Her share of the black vote was lower, as was her share of the young vote, a group that has never been known for showing up at the polls in great numbers. Hispanics voted for Trump at about the same rate they voted for Romney four years ago.

In the closing days of the campaign, Clinton repeatedly urged her supporters to vote early. But neither Michigan nor Pennsylvania allow early voting. There are procedures in place for old–fashioned absentee voting, but most voters in those states cast their ballots on Election Day.

Those voters went to the polls knowing about Trump's secretly recorded locker–room conversation, the reopening of the email investigation, the looming hike in health insurance premiums and the warning about possible terrorism activity the day before the election. People who cast their votes early knew little if anything about those events. Might they have changed those votes? We will never know.

The outcomes in those states that do not allow early voting can be said to be reflections of voter sentiment about events that hadn't happened when many voters went to the polls.

Ultimately, it may turn out that the voters made the wrong choice. Wouldn't be the first time.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

If I Should Die Tomorrow ...

Late last week reports suggested possible terrorist attacks in New York, Virginia and here in Texas tomorrow, the day before the 2016 election.

No specific locations were mentioned, and Texas is a really big place. The prospects for terrorist attacks here — and in those other states, too, for that matter — are practically endless.

ISIS isn't the culprit in these reports. Al Qaeda (a familiar name from the past) is. But if a terrorist attack occurs, will it really matter which one is behind it? Isn't terrorism terrorism, no matter who carries it out?

In the now–infamous words of Hillary Clinton, what difference would it make? Except, I suppose, to be sure which one is held responsible.

But we're already pursuing both, aren't we? I mean, that is what I thought. Maybe I was wrong.

Still when the state in which one lives is mentioned in such a context, it is only natural to wonder if something could happen where you live. I spend close to two hours commuting back and forth to work each weekday. It isn't hard for me to imagine something happening along my commute route.

That has forced me to contemplate something I don't like to contemplate — my own death — mainly because when I do, I generally tend to focus on my regrets, all the things I wanted to do but won't get to do.

Oddly, though, as Monday approaches, I find myself at peace. I haven't been thinking about the things that I didn't do. I've been thinking of the things for which I am grateful.

If I should die tomorrow, I am thankful for so many things.

I had loving parents who gave me a wonderful childhood. We weren't rich. I didn't have everything I wanted, but I had everything I needed to be happy and healthy.

My father was a religion professor at a private college. Sometimes he took continuing education courses in the summers, but some years he had summers entirely off. When he did, my parents took my brother and me on road trips. We saw so many historic sites and monuments when I was growing up. I wish everyone could have that experience. It gave me an in–depth education of my country's history — and a perspective on the subject most of my friends did not have.

I had great mentors in my life — teachers, co–workers, ministers. I'm grateful for all the things they taught me, and I try to put those lessons into action whenever I can. And I am thankful for the encouragement they gave me. I have tried to return the favor to those who have come after me.

I've had good friends in my life. Some are deceased now, and if there is an afterlife I look forward to seeing them soon. I have good friends who still exist in this life. Some have left my life, for one reason or another, and some are still in my life. We disagree about things from time to time, but the true friends don't let that stand in the way. For long, anyway. And I have many true friends.

I could have chosen a more lucrative profession, I suppose, but it sure has been fun. In fact, in hindsight, the only truly bad thing about working for newspapers was the pay. I got to meet some interesting folks, both in and out of the newsroom but always because of my newspaper jobs. Oh, sure, there were things about my newspaper jobs that I didn't like — but isn't it that way with every job?

My field has also given me an opportunity, as a journalism professor, to work with young aspiring journalists, and that has been a rewarding experience. In recent years I have served as an adjunct advising a community college newspaper that was recently named the best college newspaper by the Associated College Press. The other nine finalists were four–year schools.

My job has given me the opportunity to do the things I always wanted to do when I was growing up. I wanted to write, and I have done that. As this blog clearly shows, I am writing today. I hope that, whenever I do die, I will have written something that day.

I can't be sure of that, of course. Sometimes people are unconscious for days, weeks, months, even years before they die. So I can't be absolutely certain that I will write something in the hours just before I die.

But if a terrorist attack occurs here tomorrow — and I become a victim of that attack — then this post will be testimony to the fact that I did write something in the hours before I died. I died with my boots on, you might say.

Now, just because I am at peace with the idea of dying does not mean it is what I want to happen. I want to live to see tomorrow's sunset and Tuesday's sunrise.

I'd like to see who wins the presidency after the nastiest campaign in my memory — and probably in the history of the United States. I've been studying American presidential history nearly all my life, and I know there have been some nasty campaigns in the past so I won't go so far as to claim this has been the worst ever, but it has certainly been the worst in my lifetime.

Just to satisfy my own curiosity, I would like to know who the American voters choose to lead them for the next four years. To not be able to see that would be like watching all but the last 10 minutes of a movie.

It would have to go on my list of unfinished business. Some people might call that a "bucket list." I don't really have a bucket list. (Sometimes I feel like comedian John Pinette, who said he had a list, but it wasn't a bucket list — although, he added, it did rhyme with bucket.) It's just a list of things I would like to finish before I die.

But I guess we all die leaving something incomplete. So if I die tomorrow, there will be things that are unfinished. That's the way it is.

And now, let tomorrow come — and bring whatever it brings.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

A Quiet Realignment

As these things go, the presidential election of 1896, which was held 120 years ago today, was a quiet realigning election.

Political scientists will tell you that a realigning election is a dramatic shift within a political system.

In a democracy such as the one in the United States, that tends to mean the ascendance of a new coalition that eclipses one that has been dominant.

My original major in college was political science. Later I shifted to journalism but not before I had been introduced to many of the concepts in our political system that continue to be seen in politics in America — one of which is the concept of realigning elections.

One of the things I learned in my brief career as a political science scholar, though, was there is no absolute agreement among political scientists about realigning elections — which elections are realigning elections, the definition of a realigning election, even whether realigning elections really do occur.

However, it is safe to say that a majority of political scientists would conclude that realigning elections do happen, roughly every three to four decades, and they are evident more in terms of voting patterns than in sudden power shifts from one party to another — although they are frequently characterized by landslides.

More specifically, political scientists say, realigning elections represent a transition from one "political system" to another.

That three– to four–decade window held true in the 19th century, but shifts seemed to come more frequently in the 20th century — although perhaps history needs a little more perspective before rendering such judgments.

A realigning election is usually — but not always — characterized by a shift from dominance by one party to dominance by another. The election of 1800, for example, is seen as the beginning of the "First Party System" in the United States, a period when George Washington's Federalists and Thomas Jefferson's Democrat–Republicans competed for control of the presidency, the chambers of Congress and the state governments, until the next phase in America's political evolution.

That was in 1828. Andrew Jackson and the emerging Democrat Party seized power and remained mostly in control of the federal and state governments for the next 30 years, establishing the "Second Party System," which eventually yielded to the "Third Party System" in 1860. That was on the brink of the outbreak of the Civil War and the inauguration of Republican Abraham Lincoln.

With only a few exceptions, Republicans held the White House for the next 70 years. That did not prevent another realigning election, though. In fact, the realigning election that heralded the start of the "Fourth Party System" was held on this day in 1896. As I say, it was relatively quiet in the outcome and didn't usher in a period when a different party prevailed. The same party kept winning; what changed was the set of issues. Republicans proved more in sync with the voters on those issues than the Democrats. It was just as simple as that. The Republicans also assembled a new electoral coalition consisting of businessmen, professional men, labor and farmers. Perhaps overshadowing everything else was the "Panic of 1893," an economic depression that was still being felt nearly four years later.

Grover Cleveland, one of only two Democrats to win a national election between 1860 and 1932, presided over that, and it contributed to a general impression of Democrat incompetence. In 1896, unemployment was high, and money became a key factor in presidential politics for the first time. William McKinley and the Republicans outspent the Democrats and William Jennings Bryan by 10 to 1. It has been estimated that the Republicans' 1896 war chest would be worth $3 billion in today's dollars.

The 1896 election was the first national realigning election in which there wasn't a dramatic shift in the balance of power from one party to another. It wasn't even close to a landslide. McKinley received 51.02% of the popular vote and 60.6% of the electoral vote. His numbers were only marginally higher when he sought re–election four years later — in spite of triumph in the Spanish–American War abroad and a booming economy at home.

But the 1896 election gave ammunition to political scientists who contended that realigning elections are not always seen in single elections but sometimes over a period of time. The conditions that ultimately led to the emergence of the "Fourth Party System" actually began with the economic "Panic of 1893." Republicans seized control of both chambers of Congress in the midterm elections of 1894; in fact, the G.O.P. won so many House seats in the midterm (120) that there were relatively few seats left that were plausible takeover targets in 1896 — and many of the seats Republicans had captured represented districts that were more evenly balanced than the election returns of 1894 indicated. Thus, even as McKinley was winning the White House in 1896, his party lost 30 House seats.

Republicans continued winning in the Senate, though. By 1906, Republicans held 61 Senate seats. Even though the number of senators has increased by 12 since then, Republicans have not held more than 55 Senate seats since the Stock Market Crash of 1929.

Still, with the exception of the Wilson years, Republicans controlled both chambers of Congress until the Crash.

On the presidential level, voting patterns in several states show how the electorate realigned in Republicans' favor in 1896.

New York was the largest state in the nation at the time. Its support was critical for anyone who wished to be president but especially so for Democrats. Between the end of the Civil War and 1896, Republicans Ulysses S. Grant (1868) and Rutherford B. Hayes (1876) won the presidency without winning New York, but the only Democrat to be elected president during that time, Grover Cleveland, desperately needed New York's electoral votes the first time he won the office.

New York is regarded as reliably Democrat today, but in the late 19th century it was a swing state. In fact, only once had any presidential candidate ever received more than 53% of the state's popular vote. The Republican share of the vote tended to be much healthier in the elections that followed 1896.

You can find similar stories throughout the United States from that time. Things almost certainly became a lot more relaxed for Republican candidates — and a lot more stressful for Democrats.

In fact, there is a strong argument to be made that the only Democrat to be elected president between the "Panic of 1893" and the Stock Market Crash, a period of more than 35 years, did so only because there were two Republicans running — the incumbent president and his predecessor, who ran as a third–party alternative — and they split the Republican vote.

The United States became a much more Republican country on this day 120 years ago.

Does the election of 1896 have anything in common with the election of 2016?

You be the judge.

Historians have long regarded it as one of the most dramatic and complex campaigns in American history.

McKinley did not pursue the nomination in the usual way, which was to appease eastern party bosses. Instead, he relied on the efficiency of his political organization, run by his friend and campaign manager Mark Hanna, an Ohio businessman. He then did most of the campaigning from the front porch of his home in Canton. His remarks reached the voters through newspapers.

Bryan ran as the champion of the working man against the rich, and he blamed the prosperous for the economic conditions the country faced. The root of the problem, Bryan said, was a gold–based money supply, and he promised to switch to silver, which was plentiful, would restore prosperity and would break the grip the wealthy had on the money supply. He conducted his campaign primarily by rail.

Turnout was almost certainly higher than it will be next Tuesday. It has been estimated that more than 90% of eligible voters cast ballots in the 1896 election.