Sunday, July 29, 2012

The 100 Day Sprint - Olympic Edition, How is Romney Not 10 Points Ahead?

Who Will Take the Gold?
Days Until the Election: 100
Projected Popular Vote Total: Obama +0.3% (unchanged from last week)
Projected Electoral Vote Total: Obama 332, Romney 206 (unchanged from last week)

For all that those of us who like politics like to make out of supposed gaffes, whether it is Mitt Romney making his first political visit to the UK and insulting their readiness to hose the Olympics or President Obama making remarks which, without proper context, make it sound like he was saying that the government built private businesses, it is obvious from the polling that these are having very little effect on the Presidential race to date.  Nor is the massive amount of money already being spent on both sides to try to sway voters.

The electoral map has been remarkably stable.  The last time my map looked any different in terms of the electoral total was five weeks ago, when Ohio was narrowly in Mitt Romney's column.  As a matter of fact, 47 of the states have been in the same column on every single map this year.  Only Florida, Ohio and Virginia have swung back and forth and as you can see, they are still among the closest of the states.

Looking at the Intrade Odds, which tend to reflect both swings in political fortunes and the stability of the race, the odds of President Obama being re-elected have stayed in a range between 52% and 61% all year (they are very close to the center of that range right now, at 57.4%.)

So we have the odd phenomenon of a very close race that has seen very little change over a long period of time.

If the election were held today, I have no doubt that the President would win re-election.  But, to paraphrase a great political thinker, if the election were held today, we'd all be a bit confused, because it was supposed to happen in November.  100 days is still a lot of runway for Mitt Romney to overcome what is, after all, a very modest lead for the President.

The world and the United States will be paying little attention to politics for the next 16 days as the summer Olympics take place in London.  Sure, there are wall-to-wall RNC ads during the Olympics, but no one is paying attention while they are busy rooting on America's best athletes.

Mitt Romney has clearly made the choice to make a late announcement of his VP pick, as he is almost guaranteed not to make an announcement during the Olympics, meaning the EARLIEST he could announce now is August 13th, which is exactly two weeks before the Republican Convention.

Obama Ahead - How is this Even Possible?
By all historical data, this should be a Republican year.  As has been discussed many times, economic conditions are a huge indicator of Presidential election prospects and the numbers are still dismal for the President.

Since World War II, the following sitting Presidents have run for re-election.

Harry Truman in 1948
Dwight Eisenhower in 1956
Lyndon Johnson in 1964*
Richard Nixon in 1972
Gerald Ford in 1976*
Jimmy Carter in 1980
Ronald Reagan in 1984
George H.W. Bush in 1992
Bill Clinton in 1996
George W. Bush in 2004

* Johnson and Ford where not elected President in their first, partial term.  Johnson became President when John F. Kennedy was killed and Ford became President when Nixon resigned following the Watergate scandal.  Still, they were incumbents running for re-election.

The election year unemployment rates (January through October as the election takes place in early November), the CHANGE in unemployment rates from the same period the prior year and the ultimate percentage of the two-party popular vote are below (I use the two-party popular vote because the presence of major independent candidates, such as John Anderson in 1980 and H. Ross Perot in 1992 and 1996 can distort the results.)
Year - UE, Change, 2-Party Vote %
1948 - 3.7%, -1.7%, 52%
1956 - 4.1%, -0.3%, 58%
1964 - 5.2%, -0.5%, 61%
1972 - 5.7%, -0.2%, 62%
1976 - 7.7%, -0.8%, 49%
1980 - 7.1%, +1.3%, 45%
1984 - 7.6%, -2.2%, 59%
1992 - 7.5%, +0.7%, 47%
1996 - 5.4%, -0.2%, 55%
2004 - 5.6%, -0.4%, 51%

Looking at these data, of the 7 re-election candidates who have received more than 50% of the popular vote, only 1, Ronald Reagan in 1984, was re-elected with an unemployment rate over 6%.  In Reagan's case, the unemployment rate was still high put was coming down quickly, having dropped 2.2% in 12 months.  Of the 3 candidates who did NOT received 50% of the vote, all 3 had unemployment rates over 7%.

Putting these two causal factors, absolute unemployment rate and annual change in unemployment rate into a linear regression model, I was able to develop the following equation for Presidents seeking re-election:
Popular Vote = 59.38% - 1.1 * unemployment rate - 2.5 * change in unemployment rate

With this, we can see who has beat and who has under performed versus the natural course of the election based on the unemployment rate:

Year - Candidate, Predicted Outcome, Actual Outcome, Difference
1948 - Harry Truman, 60%, 52%, 8% Under Perform
1956 - Dwight Eisenhower, 56%, 58%, 2% Outperform
1964 - Lyndon Johnson, 55%, 61%, 5% Outperform
1972 - Richard Nixon, 54%, 62%, 8% Outperform
1976 - Gerald Ford, 53%, 49%, 4% Under Perform
1980 - Jimmy Carter, 48%, 45%, 3% Under Perform
1984 - Ronald Reagan, 57%, 59%, 2% Outperform
1992 - George H.W. Bush, 49%, 47%, 2% Under Perform
1996 - Bill Clinton, 54%, 55%, 1% Outperform
2004 - George W. Bush, 54%, 51%, 3% Under Perform

In every race except 1948, 1964, 1972 and 1976, the sitting President performed within 3% of the results that would be predicted by the unemployment rate and change in unemployment rate.

Harry Truman, who is a surprising biggest loser versus expectations, given that he won, is actually a natural candidate to under perform in 1948, given the vicious divisions in the Democratic party over civil rights that led to a splinter candidacy by Strom Thurmond, who actually won most of the deep south as an Independent.

Lyndon Johnson's poor performance in 1964 followed a similar theme as Johnson put his legacy on the line in order to get the Civil Rights Act passed and faced a stiff primary challenge from George Wallace in the wake of Kennedy's assassination.

Richard Nixon's brilliant performance in 1972 was a result of a very weak candidate in George McGovern and his awful initial choice of Tom Eagleton as VP, a man who had a history of mental problems.

Gerald Ford's under performance in 1976 can be soundly attributed to fallout from the Watergate scandal and Ford's decision to pardon Richard Nixon, an act that has been praised by many historians but was bitterly unpopular at the time.

It is worth noting that while there are some variations int he popular vote, in terms of outcome, the ONLY candidate predicted to win by this equation who actually lost was Gerald Ford and no candidate predicted to lose has won.  And 1976 was truly unique, with the backdrop of Watergate and the odd situation of Ford running for re-election despite never having won a national election (he was appointed VP by Nixon after Spiro Agnew resigned amidst a bribery scandal.)

So what would this equation predict for the 2012 race?

The data set is incomplete, but through 6 months, the unemployment rate this year has averaged 8.2%, a 0.8% decline from  a year prior.

Plugging those numbers into the equation would predict 52% of the two-party vote for President Obama.  One would argue that this is exactly where the race stands or that perhaps Romney is even over performing a bit at this stage (my national numbers has Obama at +0.3%, he should be at +4% with a 52% total.)

So, to all those who say Romney is the worst candidate in generations and is spoiling what should be a huge Republican lead given the poor economy, they are wrong.  The trajectory of the economy is actually far more critical than its absolute state, as shown by Ronald Reagan in 1984, whose resounding victory came despite high unemployment and aligned closely to the model.

The stage is set for a close race.  What happens between now and November with the economy is critical.  And the other circumstances matter a lot when the model predicts a race this close.

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Sunday, July 22, 2012

Romney Keeps Inching Closer, Was It Really an Obama Gaffe?

2012 Presidential Update
Days Until the Election: 107
Projected Popular Vote Total: Obama +0.3% (down 0.7% from last week)
Projected Electoral Vote Total: Obama 332, Romney 206 (unchanged from last week)

For the past 3 weeks, Mitt Romney has edged ever closer to Barack Obama in national polling, but has yet to break through in swinging the electoral projection more in his favor.  What Romney has done as he has pushed closer is to continually broaden the battlefield.  A trend we have been seeing for some time of the Romney states being a lot more secure for Romney than the Obama states are for Obama has continued.

Romney now has more electoral votes (167) in the safe/strong category than Obama (163).  And the battlegrounds are almost all now states that Obama leads in.

We'll see if the Romney trend continues in the next couple of weeks...if it does, he is almost sure to pick-up at least a few more swing states.

Somebody Helped You
Our political discourse has become so toxic that everything gets taken out of context these days.  When, during the primary campaign, Mitt Romney said:

"I want individuals to have their own insurance. That means the insurance company will have an incentive to keep you healthy. It also means that if you don’t like what they do, you could fire them. I like being able to fire people who provide services to me. You know, if someone isn’t giving the good service, I want to say, I’m going to go get someone else to provide this service to."

Instantly, ads were on the air showing the piece of that quote that said "I like being able to fire people".  Clearly, firing employees was not at all what Mitt was talking about, he was talking about the consumer retaining a choice of service providers related to insurance, something we would all want.  But it didn't matter in the gotcha politics of today.

Similarly, President Obama said this about the relationship between our society and business start-ups this week:
"If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help.  There was a great teacher somewhere in your life.  Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive.  Somebody invested in roads and bridges.  If you’ve got a business. you didn’t build that.  Somebody else made that happen.  The Internet didn’t get invented on its own.  Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet.
The point is, is that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together.  There are some things, just like fighting fires, we don’t do on our own.  I mean, imagine if everybody had their own fire service.  That would be a hard way to organize fighting fires."

There is frankly almost nothing in that quote that a reasonable person could disagree with.  Would anyone argue that businesses benefit from the existence of roads, bridges and the internet?  Do any of us who have had success not agree that that was at least in part due to teachers that cared and people that gave us our break?

We can disagree over the size and scope of government, but trying to twist what the President said into a claim that government is responsible for business start-ups is quite a pretzel.

How about we all make a deal to listen to at least a paragraph of a speech rather than pick the 5 words that sound bad when taken out of context?

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Saturday, July 14, 2012

The Big 2012 Electoral Map - The Race Tightens Again, Obama Plays Dirty

2012 Presidential Update
Days Until the Election: 115
Projected Popular Vote Total: Obama +1.0% (Obama down 2.2% from 2 weeks ago)
Projected Electoral Vote Total: Obama 332, Romney 206 (unchanged from 2 weeks ago)

Mitt Romney has made inroads on President Obama's lead over the past two weeks as the economic news has largely been depressing and the President's insistence on trying to make the campaign about Romney's role at Bain Capital (more on that later) appears to be falling flat, at least to this point.

What Romney has not yet been able to do, at least on my map, is swing the electoral map in a significant way.  I have yet to have a single map that has Romney leading in the electoral college and despite picking up 2.2% in the national polls over the past two weeks, Mitt has not gained a single state.

What he has accomplished is to broaden and tighten the battlefield.  There are 95 electoral votes that currently sit in the "Lean Obama" category and all of them are within 2.8% in my projection.  This means that if Mitt makes the kind of inroads over the next 2 weeks that he has over the past two weeks, he is likely to pick up a fair chunk of them.

If we were to assume that movements in the national polls happen evenly across the country (not necessarily true, but a reasonable proxy), we see a couple of things.  First of all, at a dead even popular vote race, Romney would pick up between 35 and 48 electoral votes (he would pick up Florida and Iowa, Virginia would be a dead heat.)  This would put his prospective total at between 241 and 254 electoral votes, still shy of the 270 needed to win (hence my earlier post about the structural electoral college advantage that President Obama owns), but well within striking distance.  If Romney were to reverse the national polls to a 1% lead for himself, he adds Michigan and Ohio (and locks in Virginia), giving himself 288 electoral votes and putting him over the top.  So, Obama's structural advantage really only matters at the margins, that is, if the national race is within 1 point.

In my eyes, given this map, Romney would be wise to limit the electoral field that he fights hard for.  Pennsylvania is an appealing target with its 20 electoral votes and Wisconsin is an appealing target after the recent GOP recall victory there, but they are distractions.  John McCain wasted time and resources in a Pennsylvania fight he couldn't win.  Romney should realize that PA and WI matter only if the race isn't close, which is to say that they don't really matter at all.  Romney should focus on shoring up his two lean states, with Missouri unlikely to be heavily contested in the end but North Carolina likely to be a battleground and focus the bulk of his resources on the Lean Obama states, especially the ones with the big prizes like Florida, Ohio, Michigan and Virginia.  Just those 4 would give him 282 electoral votes and the Presidency.

The Road to the Presidency
There will be possibly as much as $2 billion spent on this Presidential campaign between now and November between the massive war chests that both candidates will amass and the variety of Super PAC's and interest groups that will run independent ads.  The airways will be flooded between now and November, particularly if you happen to live in a TV market that ties to a swing state.

There will be ebbs and flows to the standing of the race and the polling based on the ads, on the news cycle, the state of the economy and gaffes that happen.  But in my mind, there are 7 events that happen before election day that have the possibility of swinging the race in a meaningful fashion.

The first is when Mitt Romney announces his running mate.  Sources have reported that he has narrowed his list to 4: Senator Rob Portman (OH), Representative Paul Ryan (Wisconsin), Former Governor Tim Pawlenty (Minnesota) and Governor Bobby Jindal (Louisiana).  Other reports include a larger field that includes fringe contenders such as Senator Kelly Ayotte (New Hampshire), Governor Susana Martinez (New Mexico), Senator Marco Rubio (Florida) or even former Secretary of State Condeleezza Rice.  Or, Romney could do what McCain did in 2008 and make a late pick that wasn't on anyone's short list.  Once Romney decides who he is running with, he has to decide when to announce the pick.  He could announce it as early as next week or wait until right before the convention.  Red State speculated on Friday that Romney might announce a pick of Rob Portman as soon as Monday, based on a series of closed door meetings that reportedly took place between Romney and Portman over the past week. 

Vice Presidential picks are a lot of fun and tend to generate buzz, but more often than not have little impact on the race.  George H.W. Bush is largely considered to have made a poor pick in selecting Dan Quayle, but it didn't stop him from trouncing Michael Dukakis in 1988.  Bob Dole was considered to have made a great pick in selecting Jack Kemp in 1996, but it didn't help Dole any.  Even John McCain's pick of Sarah Palin in 2008 doesn't appear to have cost him the Presidency - he was behind at the time of the pick and seems highly likely to have lost when the economy collapsed regardless of who his running mate was.  But the pick will be revealing as it is a critical insight into the decision-making of a would-be President.

The conventions hold a high degree of importance.  The high level of success of the Democratic convention in 1992 and the apparent bitterness at the Republican convention that year helped solidify Bill Clinton's victory.  The bland, boring and seemingly contrived Democratic convention in 2004 may have been the missed opportunity that cost John Kerry the White House and re-elected President George W. Bush.  So the two weeks where the conventions take place back-to-back and the polling the second week in September after both are concluded will be highly instructive.

The debates are perhaps the most critical as they are not only closest to the election, but will be widely watched and talked about.  Ronald Reagan obliterated Jimmy Carter in 1980 which helped moved the race from a pick 'em race to a very strong win for Reagan.  Al Gore's struggle to find the right debate approach may have cost him those very few votes at the margin that would have made him victorious in 2000.  The Vice-Presidential debates tend to be less important as they tend to be less-watched and more cordial affairs.  But the three Presidential debates have the potential to be the three biggest game-changers in the race.

Here is the calendar of events.  I'm looking forward to learning Romney's pick for Veep.

Mitt Romney Chooses His Running Mate - Sometime between now and August 26th
Republican National Convention (Tampa, Florida) - August 27th through August 30th
Democratic National Convention (Charlotte, North Carolina) - September 3rd through September 6th
First Presidential Debate (Denver, Colorado) - October 3rd
Vice-Presidential Debate (Danville, Kentucky) - October 11th
Second Presidential Debate (Hempstead, New York) - October 16th
Final Presidential Debate (Boca Raton, Florida) - October 22nd
Election Day- November 6th

Dirty, Low Down Politics
I like President Obama as a person.  I like some, but not all of what he has done in office.  And I had hope, after all his grandiose rhetoric from 2004 through 2008 that he might be a different kind of animal when it comes to politics.  President Obama should be running on his record.  And it is totally appropriate for him to strike contrast with Mitt Romney on issues of policy, be it tax policy, social policy or foreign policy.  In my mind, it is even fair game to challenge Romney's credentials and certainly his record.

But the President and his team's vicious attacks on Mitt Romney over Bain Capital are wrong.  I was in agreement with former President Clinton and Newark Mayor Cory Booker when they said he should stop going after private equity a few months ago.  Now the Obama campaign has kicked it into high gear, going so far as to accuse Mitt Romney of committing a felony by continuing to manage Bain Capital while he was chairing the Olympic Committee.  This is a serious allegation and one for which they lack the facts.  Furthermore, it is a line of attack not worthy of the Presidency.

The President would be well-advised to drop the dirty politics and focus on his message and a contrast on the issues.  Independents aren't going to vote for or against Romney because of his involvement with a private equity firm, which is a legitimate part of our system of capitalism.  They will vote for or against him because of President Obama's job performance and the two candidates' positions on the issues.  The President should talk about that and not play into the stereotype of a Chicago politician.

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Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Happy Birthday, USA

The country that I love turns 236 today.  By the standards of nations, that is quite young.  Most old world countries have been around for far longer than that - England, our father of sorts, became a nation over 1,100 years ago.  China was formed as a nation over 2,200 years ago - sort of an odd twist on it being an "emerging" economy.

Our nation's history, while short by the standard of nation's, is nothing short of extraordinary.

On the fateful day in 1776 where the Continental Congress declared independence from England, there had been no formal census, but there were likely less than 3 million people in the 13 colonies.  We were a farming economy, based on growing tobacco, molasses and cotton to export back to Europe.

We also knew little of how to establish an effective government, spending the first 13 years of our independence with a weak central government with no chief executive under the Articles of Confederation.  It wasn't until 1789 that we set in motion the form of government that is still the envy of the world.

The concepts embraced in the constitution are brilliant both in their simplicity and in the way that they address key issues that have plagued representative democracies.

The separation of powers between the legislative, executive and judicial branches has been a lynchpin in preserving the stability of our policy.  Unlike in most of Europe where the executive and legislative branches change hands in lock-step, leading to huge swings in policy from election-to-election, our split between legislative and executive branches force slow change, compromise and consistency.

The amendment process to the constitution was similarly brilliant.  The bar was high enough that the political whims of the day are usually not sufficient to change the constitution, but low enough that the system can progress and as social progress happens.  In fact, in 223 years with our constitution, only 27 amendments have been passed, only 17 since the Bill of Rights.  And of the 27, arguably only 1 got it wrong, that being the 18th Amendment, ratified in 1919 that constitutionally created prohibition.

The Bill of Rights itself is a uniquely brilliant concept.  The separation of church and state was a largely foreign concept in a world where religious leaders often were the political leaders, but it has served our diverse population extremely well.  Freedom of speech, something that most of us that grew up in the United States take as a basic human right, to this day does not exist even in most of the civilized world.  In Germany, people can be arrested simply for advocating for the Nazi party, something that would be an unthinkable breach of liberty here.  The notion that openness, not restriction, produces truth through debate, is a boldly American concept.

Not that we can claim a perfect history, far from it.

Slavery was an abomination and was not abolished until 1865, 89 years into our nation's history and after a bitter civil war, an event that killed a massive portion of a male generation across the country and a conflict that would be near unthinkable today.  What is not well known was the strong abolitionist streak that existed in the constitutional convention in 1789.  The gruesome sounding "3/5ths" compromise, which counted black slaves as 3/5ths of a person and the ominous text in the constitution that prohibits restrictions on slavery until 1808 is a sign of the deep-seated disagreement between northern and southern delegates that led to a nastily imperfect compromise int he interest of bringing all 13 states along.

It was 1870 before the now-free black population was given the vote nationwide and 1920 before women were given the vote nationally, again, both by constitutional amendment. 

Segregation didn't end until 1954, with the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education decision that ruled that the 14th Amendment (that guarantees equal rights to all citizens) prohibited the so called "separate but equal" (which was always separate, but seldom equal) of blacks and other minorities.

And our nation's system of rights is imperfect still - gay marriage is still available only to a minority of the population, discrimination still exists in our society - one need only look to the whiteness and maleness of the Fortune 500 C-Suite to see things are still not equal today, but we have obviously trended in the right direction.

There is no coincidence that our progression of equality has correlated with our rise economically.  The Post World War II economic boom was fueled by a growing black middle class.  The meteoric rise of the economy in the 1980s and 1990s was driven by a surge of women into the work force.  In short, social equality and economic growth are linked in a way that is obvious if you look at the world and how nations have fared in the past century.

Much has been written about whether the devastating economic conditions of the past 5 years signal the end of the era of American dominance in the world and harken the rise of China as the dominant economic power.  I don't buy it, for all the reasons above and more.  It is quite possible that in absolute terms, China may pass the size of the US economy in the next 20 years.  Their economic is currently about half our size, which means that if we grow at an anemic 2% and they grow at a developing economy 6 to 7% rate, they will catch us by that time.  But that projection, which is already flawed as it assumes the next 20 years will, in an uninterrupted fashion, look exactly like the last 5 (hardly a lock - remember when Japan was going to eat our lunch in the 80s?), the statistic would only mean that China had achieved ONE QUARTER of the standard of living in the US.  In other words, they'd be the largest because of sheer population size, not because of some great economic success.

I'm bullish on American.  We are the home of innovation.  In our short history, we've invented the light bulb, the telephone, the automobile, the airplane, the microchip and computer, the internet, the smart phone (okay - we got an assist from Canada on that one, but honestly - do you want a Blackberry or an iPhone), the space shuttle, the artificial heart, social media and the online auction.

What has China invented?  Gunpowder in the 1400s?  China's economy is built on paying people less to produce things invented elsewhere - hardly a recipe to be the dominant economy in the world.

Our system of property rights, individual freedom and effective finance (yes I know it is much maligned, but where else are there venture capitalists, angel investors and an IPO system that feeds massive capital to scale great ideas?) gives us the edge in this decade and the next.

I bet on the USA.  And I hope to be here for as many of the next 236 years as I can.

Happy Birthday, USA, the greatest nation on earth.