Friday, December 27, 2013

The Year of 2013 In Reflection

2013 was about as substantive a political year as one can have in an odd-numbered year in the United States.  Here is a look back at what, in my opinion, are the 10 biggest news stories of the year from a political standpoint:

10.  The Crazy New York Mayor's Race
Anthony Weiner's weiner was back on display with sexting abounding.  Christine Quinn was handed a gimme and proved to be an absolutely abysmal candidate.  Bill de Blasio, the boring looking white guy with the hip interracial family (I mean, come on, who doesn't love Dante and his afro?) sneaks in to win a resounding victory.

9. Cory Booker Takes the Next Step
There are quite a few of us in the political realm that have been watching Cory Booker for some time and think that he is probably Presidential timber.  Some in the past have questioned his sexual orientation, but I frankly think that is MUCH less of an issue on the national stage than it was 20 years ago and it is one he has handled adeptly.  Booker has moved his political career at a deliberate pace, choosing to stay as Mayor of Newark for over 7 years, when he almost surely could have moved to a larger office sooner than that.  With his election to the Senate by a solid (although less overwhelming than some imagined) 11 point margin, Booker immediately becomes at the top of the 2016 VP candidate list and near the top of the 2020/2024 Presidential prospects.

8. Democrats Win in VA, Republicans in NJ
The results of an actual election would typically top the year's stories, but this year's results were largely affirmations of things that we already knew.  First, in Virginia, when you run a wing nut in a swing state, as the GOP did, you generally lose, even when you are running against a horrible candidate, which Governor-Elect Terry McAuliffe certainly was.  In New Jersey, Chris Christie proved again that center-right pragmatism CAN win in the northeast - maybe a model for a national election?

7. The Death of Nelson Mandela
First, a word of explanation.  Nelson Mandela deserves to be much higher than number 7 on virtually any list that you could conceive.  His story is amazing, from violent revolutionary to prisoner to quiet, forgiving, strong leader that ushered South Africa peacefully and successfully into the post-apartheid era, Mandela is one of the largest figures on the global stage in the past century.  Mandela's story largely happened in prior years, however, with his biggest moments coming after his release from Robbin's Island and his rise to lead the first post-apartheid government and share a Nobel peace prize with apartheid leader F.W. De Clerk.  Mandela was a great man, worth remembering.  His death is a loss to the world.

6. Pope Francis
The first Latin American (although ethnically Italian) pope has made his mark early, casting a strong contrast with his predecessor by urging the church to de-emphasize condemnation of abortion and homosexuality (although he has maintained the existing church doctrine) and focus instead on serving the poor and presenting a more modern, positive image of the church.  This is a huge and badly needed shift for the church and one that will have political impact both in Europe and the US.

5. The Boston Marathon Attacks
For a brief moment, we were all reminded in a most horrific fashion how free nations will always remain vulnerable to terrorists.  This story hit me personally as I was staying in Boston at the time of the attack.  Since September 11 through a combination of good intelligence, smart preventative measures, a weakened Al Qaeda and some good luck, we have had a precious few damaging attacks.  The Tsarnaev brothers unfortunately changed that for reasons which are still not entirely clear.

4. Syria - Airstrikes / No Airstrikes
In one of the most bungled pieces of foreign policy in recent memory, President Obama declared that the US would conduct limited air strikes in Syria and that he didn't need Congress' permission to do so.  He then sought that permission, didn't get it and didn't conduct the air strikes.  Syria then bailed him out by agreeing to dismantle it's nuclear program (we'll see.)  It's an odd world.

3. Gay Marriage Everywhere
My favorite story of the year.  First, Maine, Washington and Maryland brought in the new year by becoming the first three states to legalize gay marriage by public ballot.  Then, Rhode Island, Delaware, Minnesota, Hawaii and Illinois all legalized gay marriage via bills passed by state legislatures and signed by their respective governors.  Then, the SCOTUS struck down a key provision in the Defense of Marriage Act and essentially forced the federal government to recognize gay marriages performed by states where it is legal for federal benefits.  While the ruling stopped short of legalize gay marriage nationally, the reasoning of the fifth vote for the 5-4 decision from Anthony Kennedy made it pretty clear to most of us that SCOTUS inevitably will make such a ruling but was simply buying some time.  On the back of the SCOTUS decision, judges in New Jersey, New Mexico and Utah have forced those states to legalize same-sex marriage.

All told, in December of 2012, there were only 7 states that had legal gay marriage.  There are now 18.  Anyone want to bet whether we make it to 50 in the next 2-3 years?

2. The Shutdown
In the most visible show of disfunction in at least 20 years, the federal government partially shut down as a budget deal seemed elusive.  We learned a few things in the debacle - the Tea Party was willing to push for its agenda even in the face of certain defeat, John Boehner was unable to control his caucus against the Tea Party (he has since lashed out at far right interest groups - I think he has had enough), shutdowns actually cost more than the government running and Democrats ruled the day....that is until our #1 story took place.

1. The Obamacare Mess
Oh what a disaster in the execution.  Democrats and the President have given up untold capital and the Affordable Care Act has given up massive credibility as the federal government failed to be able to design a website with over 3 years warning.  While I don't think that the initial execution is indicative one way or another as to the prudence or long-term success of the law, it will surely cost the President any hope of driving the congressional agenda next year and will undoubtedly cost the Democrats seats next fall.  Any dreams of regaining the House that Democrats may have had after the shutdown are gone and whether they retain the Senate or not is a open question at this point.

Happy New Year, everyone!

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Saturday, December 14, 2013

Why Everyone Punted on the Sequester

In a rare moment of bipartisanship, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) this past week reached a budget compromise that is actually quite moderate in nature.

Conservatives got the two things that were most critical to them - no tax increases (although there were some fee increases, which I feel are defacto tax increases - more on that later) and restoration of some of the sequester budget cuts.

Liberals got two more years without entitlement cuts as the agreement leaves Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid untouched.  They also got higher overall spending caps (by $63 billion) over the next two years than the sequester allowed, although part of that increase will go to defense.

In theory, the package is deficit reducing, but probably not in reality.  The package allowed $63 billion in additional spending over the next two years, offset by $85 billion in cuts (primarily from federal workers and military pension contribution changes) and fee increases (most notably an increase in the fee on airline tickets) over the next 10 years.  So if the world stays utterly static over the next ten years, the deficit will go down, but the reality is that the package increases the deficit by $45 billion over the next two years versus the sequester agreement and it is a near 100% certainty that budgeting over the following 8 years will change.

This is a small-ball bargain that largely preserves the status quo.  It does not touch in any meaningful way the three biggest drivers of the deficit, which are entitlement spending, defense spending and revenues.  But that might actually be okay - the federal budget last year was $680 billion, way down from the recession heights of $1.4 trillion+ and clocks in at only 4.0% of GDP, close to a reasonable level.  In order to keep the debt to GDP ratio constant, the deficit can be as high as the inflation rate plus the rate of economic growth.  If one assumes modest 2% inflation and 2% GDP growth, then a 4% deficit will essentially keep debt flat in real terms.

Unfortunately, the math above only works if you never have a recession.  Recessions cause huge spikes in spending and decreases in revenues that shock the system.  In order to pay for these approximately once per decade shocks, in the good years, governments need to be running deficits of a lot less than 4%, ideally budgets would be balanced or even slightly in surplus.

The brief modern history here is that the US exited World War 2 with major debt from war obligations, with debt to GDP running as high as 120%.  We steadily "paid down" this debt, no so much through absolute reduction but though inflation and economic growth and by the end of the Carter administration, debt had fallen to 35% of GDP.  The next 12 years of Reagan and Bush (although H.W. did eventually agree to tax increases) saw major increases in defense spending, no cuts to social spending and large tax decreases, all of which, combined with the 90-91 recession, spiked debt to almost 70% of GDP.  The Clinton administration saw tax increases (his idea) and large cuts in defense (his idea) and social spending (Newt Gingrich's idea) which combined for budget surpluses and took debt down to 55% of GDP.

Then W. Bush took over as President and immediately slashed taxes, instituted prescription drug benefits for Medicare and ramped up defense spending in the build-up to wars in Afgahnistan and Iraq.  Debt was already up to over 70% of GDP before the recession hit and spiked to over 80% of GDP by the time Bush left office as massive outlays for bank bailouts and social benefits hit the federal coffers as the recession hit.

The first year of the Obama administration saw continued large outlays for the bailouts coupled with a large stimulus bill that spiked the debt by almost 10% in a single year.  Now the debt has stabilized right around 100% of GDP.

We really need to get back to about 50% of GDP to be able to absorb comfortably the next recession, since debt levels over 100% of GDP are reaching towards the saturation point where credit downgrades and loss of investor interest cause a spike in interest rates.  And a 1% interest rate increase on a 100% of GDP debt increases the deficit by 1% of GDP, meaning that we are very susceptible to interest rate risk if rates rise off of their current historic lows.

This deal won't accomplish any of that - it doesn't deal with tax reform, entitlement reform or defense spending reform.  But it does give the markets certainty, prevents another government shutdown in the near term and at least maintains debts and deficit at a stable level.

It is also significant in that conservatives agreed to new sources of revenue.  An increase in the airline ticketing fee is effectively a tax, since it is a direct charge to you as a consumer when you purchase an airline ticket.  Calling it a fee and not a tax is politically expedient, but the effect is the same - airline consumers pay more to the government.

The deal passed overwhelmingly in the conservative-dominated House, by a roll call vote of 332-94 with 73% of Republicans and 84% of Democrats backing passage.  It seems likely to pass the Senate, although, oddly, Republican opposition in the Senate seems a lot stronger than in the House and the vote next week may be much closer than the House vote.

For Republicans, this deal provides political cover to focus the debate on Obamacare, where they perceive themselves to have a big advantage given the struggles with the website and anger over policy cancellations.  For Democrats, they get a higher spending level and clear the legislative agenda to discuss other items that are non-budgetary, such as immigration reform, where they perceive they have a public opinion advantage.

This deal was expedient bipartisanship, but welcome bipartisanship nonetheless.

Obamacare Enrollment Improves Some
Obamacare enrollment increased dramatically in November, with the total now enrolled nationally reaching 365,000 by the end of the month, up from under 30,000 in October.

The basic benchmark of success is 7 million enrollments by the time open enrollment ends on April 1st.  Clearly, enrollment will not happen evenly across the months and will ramp up as the deadline gets closer.  Even so, October was clearly a dramatic failure.  The November numbers are less clear.  On a straightline basis, if every other month (December, January, February, March) only saw the same level of enrollment as November, enrollment would reach less than 2 million.  But, as I said, that is not the likely scenario.  It is still TBD to me if the administration comes close to its goal.

An additional 803,000 people have qualified for expansions in Medicaid and SCHIP, another key element of the law's expanded access.

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Thursday, November 21, 2013

Finally, A Republican Idea That Democrats Can Agree On: The Nuclear Option

This is going to sound like a Washington insider story, but today marked perhaps the most significant change in how the United States Senate operates since Senate Rule XXII was implemented in 1975.  Most people I'm sure are not familiar with Senate Rule XXII, so perhaps a brief history of the Senate filibuster is in order.

The Senate has often been referred to the "world's greatest deliberative body" and the joke that usually follows is "with a heavy emphasis on the deliberative and not so much on the great."  Unlike the House of Representatives, which has, except for its very early history, always operated with great majority power - simple majorities set the rules governing debate on a bill and provide for passage (meaning that the party in power can pass any bill in less than an hour if it chooses to), the Senate has always had a huge respect for the rights of the minority.  The House is the fickle younger child, with its entire membership up for re-election every 2 years, the Senate is the older brother designed to check the pace of change, with only one third of its members changing out every 2 years and much slower rules for moving bills forward.

The early Senate debated for as long as people wanted to debate before voting.  There was an unwritten rule that Senators did not try to cut off debate but that Senators also did not hold up debate simply to delay a bill.

In 1919, the Senate passed the first version of Rule XXII, a rule that allowed two thirds of the Senators present to vote to cut off debate.  The first test of the new rule was in 1919 when the Senate debated the Treaty of Versailles and Woodrow Wilson's plan for the country to join the League of Nations, when an angry group of Senators, mostly of Irish and German descent, opposed the treaty.  Ironically, both passage of the treaty and the rules governing cloture at the time required a two-thirds vote, meaning that ending a filibuster required precisely the number of votes that ultimate passage would require.  While Senate Majority Leader Henry Cabot Lodge attempted several times to broker a compromise to the treaty that added conditions limiting the power of the League to declare war.  Ultimately, Lodge was unable to broker a deal, successfully invoking cloture but failing in the vote on the treaty.

Over the next 56 years, the filibuster was used sparingly.  While the bar was high to cut off debate, with two thirds of the Senators present required to end debate, the rules also required that the opposition continue to debate the bill while the filibuster was going on - in other words, someone had to be on the Senate floor the whole time talking about the bill at hand.  The number of cloture votes during that time period was less than 20 (the exact number, I am not sure of, as several different sources have different numbers, but all are less than 20.)  Its most famous use was in 1964, when a block of Southern Democrats, led by Senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina (Strom was a Democrat before he switched parties in 1966, although he had supported Barry Goldwater over Lyndon Johnson in 1964, largely because of his opposition to civil rights), filibustered the Civil Rights Act of 1964 for over 2 months before cloture was finally invoked in a 71-29 vote, only the second time cloture had been invoked since Rule XXII went into effect.

In 1975, Senate Democrats, who had won a large majority of 62, but still short of the two-thirds (67) votes required to break filibusters, feared that they would face constant filibusters from the Republican minority and sought to lower the bar for breaking a filibuster.  They brokered a deal with Republicans whereby the threshold for ending a filibuster would be reduced to three fifths, but in return, filibustering Senators would not need to actually speak to filibuster, but could simply force a procedural vote.  Also, the threshold of three fifths was three fifths of ALL Senators, not just three fifths of those present, meaning that 60 votes were always required to break a filibuster, regardless of the number in the chamber at the time.

Even with these rule changes, the filibuster was rarely employed.  From 1975 through 1992, there were only a few dozen filibusters and almost never for a Presidential appointee.  Democrats did not filibuster Clarence Thomas' controversial nomination in 1991, approving Thomas with a simple majority vote of 52-48.  While many people think Reagan Supreme Court Nominee Robert Bork was filibustered, he was not - he withdrew from the nominating process when it became clear he was not likely to win approval in the Senate outright.

In the 90s, Republicans began to pick up the pace of filibusters in opposition to proposed Clinton programs such as the pro-Union striker replacement ban.  Filibusters jumped up to 40 or 50 a year, but still, President nominees were almost never filibustered, even controversial picks like Surgeon General Joycelene Elders and Commerce Secretary Ron Brown were allowed through.

In the 2000s, Democrats started making more liberal use of the filibuster and started filibustering judicial nominees and controversial appointees such as UN Ambassador John Bolton.  Filibusters picked up to 60+ per year by the end of the Bush administration.  Republicans then had a bold idea dubbed the nuclear option, to end the allowed use of the filibuster for Presidential appointees.  The plan was that when Democrats filibustered a proposed Bush nominee, Republicans would raise a point of order as to how many votes were required to break a filibuster.  The Senate parlimentarian would correctly rule that 60 votes were required and Republicans would appeal his decision.  The loophole that they would use is that overcoming that ruling would only require a simple majority vote.  51 Republican Senators would then vote that only 51 votes are required to overcome a filibuster and voila!, the filibuster is over for nominees.  The plan can close to happening but was averted when Senator John McCain brokered a deal to end filibusters on some nominees while retaining filibusters on some other, more controversial picks.

Which brings us to the present day.  Republicans have upped the ante exponentially during the Obama administration.  Filibusters routinely number in the hundreds per year now - essentially the GOP filibusters everything that isn't going to already get 60 votes, making the super-majority an everyday requirement rather than a rare requirement for especially controversial bills.

And today, the Democrats stole the Republican idea and invoked the nuclear option on the nomination of Patricia Millett for the US District Court.  In one fell swoop, with a mere 52-48 vote, the filibuster has been ended forever for Presidential appointees.  The decision excludes Supreme Court nominees, which would be subject to a filibuster, although a similar trick could be employed, if desired, for a future controversial nominee.

Expect a land rush of cloture motions on nominations that the GOP has held up.  Also expect even more amped up acrimony in the Senate.  And definitely expect the GOP to up the ante if and when they win the majority back in the Senate.

So is this a good thing or a bad thing?

Unfortunately, I think it is a Sophie's choice.  The filibuster as a tool to protect minority rights and check the power of majority to make sweeping controversial changes strikes me as a prudent tool.  The filibuster as it is presently used has become untenable.  Perhaps noble traditions that require discretion in the exercise of power are too much to trust today's politicians with.  And perhaps the filibuster has done more harm than good - after all, blocking civil rights bills is hardly a great record to run on.

Regardless, the nomination filibuster is gone.  The rest of it may soon follow as I fully expect the GOP to basically refuse not to filibuster anything they can going forward.

Washington just gets more and more dysfunctional.  Is there any doubt that another budget and debt ceiling crisis is just around the corner?

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Friday, November 8, 2013

Assessing the 2013 Actual vs. Expected Results and Exploring Why

Governor's races are so tricky.  Odd year races are even trickier.  Figuring out turnout in elections where there is no national decisions on the ballot is a bit of a guessing game.  Polls from reliable firms are harder to come by.  Hence, historically my margins of error have been greater in these races.  This year is no different.

Here is the rundown of actual versus projected results:
New Jersey Governor
Predicted Outcome: Christie +24.1%
Actual Result (preliminary): Christie +22.3%
Error in Projection: 1.8% bias for Christie

Virginia Governor
Predicted Outcome: McAullife +6.4%
Actual Result (preliminary): McAullife +2.4%
Error in Projection: 4.0% bias for McAullife

New York Mayor
Predicted Outcome: DeBlasio +41.2%
Actual Result (preliminary): DeBlasio +48.8%
Error in Projection: 7.6% bias for Lhota

First, the good news in the projection accuracy:
* All 3 races were called correctly
* The New Jersey race was actually very well called, considering the margin
* I was correct about Libertarian Robert Sarvis - his support did fade substantially versus the late polling, although he clocked in at 6.5%, above my projected 5-6% (but well below 9% or so that he was polling)

Now, the bad news:
* Like most, I dramatically overcalled the margin of Terry McAullife's victory in Virginia.  He simply underperformed virtually all of the polling.  A special call out to the Emerson College poll, which nailed the margin of the race, although it had Sarvis at a whacky 13%.  All of the other polls had McAullife ahead by far more.

So why did McAullife underperform?

Was it the scourge of Obamacare?  Republicans certainly think so and have been amping up the closing of the race as a precursor to a scorched earth campaign on Obamacare in 2014.  And they have some reason to believe.  Cuccinelli campaigned hard late on Obamacare and the news of the early failures of the website and of cancelled policies were happening right during the time when Cuccinelli was closing the gap.

A counterpoint to this would be depressed turnout.  Turnout for the 2013 Virginia Governor's race is estimated at 37%, down from 42% in the 2009 race, which may have formed the basis for a lot of poling models, and as in most elections, lower turnout tends to favor the Republican.  Still, 2009 was a historically high turn out race and 37% is not out of line for a more typical race.

My conclusion?  Voter turnout model error may be responsible for part of the result, but the Obamacare issue does loom large at the moment.  Whether it will work as an effective 2014 strategy for the GOP will depend largely on what happens in the next 12 months.  The story probably won't be about a broken website by then.  But whether it is about people paying more for policies that they don't want or having greater access, choice and value will decide whether Obamacare is an albatross to the Democrats or a boon.  We'll have to wait and see.

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Tuesday, November 5, 2013

McAullife Takes the Lead - I'm Calling It

I wanted to see McAullife cross the zero line before I called it, but I'm very comfortable going out ahead of the networks and declaring McAullife the next Governor of Virginia.

The margin will likely ultimately be in the 1-2% range as his margin has slipped somewhat from the initial returns that showed his numbers more in line with President Obama's performance.

But, I can't see any way back for Cuccinelli with 91% of the vote in, McAullife sitting on the right side of the lead (albeit narrowly) and 29% of the vote still left to count in Fairfax County.

Full analysis later in the week on all the races, but in the end:
(1) Christie cruised to victory easily, as expected.  Looks to be at least a 20 point win.
(2) Bill DeBlasio won in an essential non-race.  He leads by 38 points in the early going, but that could go up or down some as the early results are likely not representative.  Results are in line with expectations.
(3) Terry McAullife wins more narrowly than anticipated.  The big question coming out of this week is - why?

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Down to 19,000 Votes

It usually doesn't fail - when I start to express self-doubt, results immediately start to prove out my initial hypothesis.

The margin in the Virginia Governor's race is down to 19,000 votes or 1.1% with 17% of the vote left to count.  The win, Terry McAullife would need to carry 6.5% more of the remaining vote than Ken Cuccinelli, a seemingly very achievable feat, given that Fairfax County is still only at 55% reporting.

Still looks like a McAullife win, although I doubt he will make the 3-4% margin that I had been professing.

Chris Christie's early margin is 17%, but with only a small percent of the vote in.

Oh, by the way, Bill DeBlasio has won, in the biggest no brainer of the night.

Is That an Egg Flying Towards My Face?

Might Ken Cuccinelli pull off the big upset?  If you are watching the Virginia returns real-time, you know that Cuccinelli seems to have this persistent 40-50K vote lead that doesn't seem to diminish as more returns come in.

With 71% of the vote in, he still leads by 3.1%.

I can still make the counter argument effectively.  Only 36% of the vote is in from Fairfax County.  Only 42% form Loudon County.  In other words, Northern Virginia, the Democratic part of the state still has a lot of votes to count.

But I'm starting to have some self-doubt....

Results Still Tracking to a 3-4% McAullife Win

I've been watching the returns closely and I believe the returns still reflect a likely Terry McAullife win in Virginia by 3 to 4% of the vote, despite Cuccinelli's continued lead by over 3% with 57% of the vote counted.

Looking at some key counties:
McAullife is running slightly ahead of Obama's 2012 numbers in Arlington, Falls Church and Alexandria (big Democratic strongholds)
McAullife is running behind Obama's numbers in Norfolk County, another key Democratic stronghold, but still winning the county by 14%
The other big Northern Virginia county, Fairfax County is falling almost exactly in line with 2012.

Final Exit Poll Data in Virginia Shows a Closer Race

After analyzing and weighting the exit data, McAullife still leads based on the exit polls, but it shows far closer race than either the pre-election polls or the initial exit poll results, with McAullife showing up with a razor-thin margin of 47%-45%-7%.

It might get interesting.  Again, looking at the early returns, it looks more like a 3 to 4% McAullife win, versus the 7% lead Cuccinelli shows in the early-ish returns.

Hey - what's election night without a little drama?

Is Bradley Byrne vs. Dean Young a Republican Bellweather?

In an oddity of election night efficiencies, a special election Republican primary run-off is happening tonight in Alabama.

Mainstream Republican Bradley Byrne, a former educator faces Dean Young, a Tea Party fire-brand.  It is a clear choice of reasonable conservative versus wing nut.  We've seen a lot of wing nuts win these kinds of races in the past.  Is the GOP over the Tea Party?  Are they tired of losing races they should win by running radical candidates?

I'm not sure we will get the answer from this race.

Alabama's 1st District is WAY to the right of the country as a whole.  It went for Mitt Romney by 25 points.  The Cook Political report rates it an R +15 district, meaning it is 15 points more conservative than the nation as a whole (the Romney numbers would place it at closer to R+30.)  A Tea Party candidate winning in an almost can't-lose general election wouldn't be a shocker.

Byrne winning would actually be news, as it would show a rejection of the Tea Party in the depths of the red heartland.  Byrne got more votes in the first wave of the primary, clocking in at 35% versus 23% for Young, although obviously short of the 50% needed to avoid a run-off.

Byrne would figure to be the favorite, starting from the larger base.  But polling is scant and it wouldn't shock me to see another Tea Party darling pull off this race - a result that I don't think has much larger significance.

In the past 6 years, the GOP has given away Senate races in Missouri, Delaware, Nevada and had a write-in save them from giving away one in Alaska.  Will they learn and get their act together?

NJ Governor's Race Called at 8:00:01, VA Early Returns Indicative of McAullife Win

No surprise here - Chris Christie wins easily.  The race was called the second the polls closed.  Exit polling indicated impressive numbers across demographics, winning women by 13 points and holding his own with Latinos, winning a minority, but still impressive 45%.

Don't be deceived by the early vote count with Cuccinelli up 53%-40%.  Early returns in Virginia are very much in line with the 2012 Presidential race, indicating a likely McAullife win.  Returns from counties across the state largely mirror Obama's margins - Obama won Virginia by 4% in 2012.  This would be somewhat closer than the exit polling and my projection, but would still put McAullife in the Governor's mansion.

Early Exit Polls in Virginia Mirror My Projection

The early exit polling shows a 50-43-7 split for McAulife, in line with my projection.  These polls clearly have a margin of error and sometimes suffer from sampling error, but I tend to believe them since they mirror all the pre-election data.  If Sarvis holds on to 7%, that will be impressive for an independent / libertarian candidate, although it probably says more about disgust with the major party choices as anything else.

I'm Back! Let's Get Down to Electing!

First of all, a brief note on my absence from the blogosphere these past couple of months.  My closest friend passed away recently and I have been preoccupied with things that take precedence over discussing the issues of the day.  That is all behind me now (although he will certainly never be forgotten) and it is comforting to come back to a topic that I love: American Politics.

In my absence, I missed most of the budget and debt ceiling fight.  I don't have a lot to add that hasn't already been said - the Republican Party got its head handed to it by having an awful, unachievable strategy.  Their failure in the stand off was about as complete as a failure can be in the political arena.  Having said that, I suspect that the electoral impact of the fight will be far less than most Democrats are hoping.  November 2014 is a LONG time away in political terms and I suspect that this won't be a game-changer with the likely outcome still being Republicans retaining the House and the Democrats narrowly holding the Senate.

I also missed the disaster of an early roll-out of Obamacare.  And it has been a disaster.  0 points for execution.  I will simply make three points around this:
(1) The rollout woes, while important, are not the determination of the success of the program or whether it was a good idea or not.  You can have a great idea poorly executed or an awful idea well executed.  This one is probably more like a mediocre idea poorly executed.
(2) To Republican piling on to the Obamacare solution on premium subsidies, I'm curious - how does Medicare Advantage work?  What about the Paul Ryan budget proposal on Medicaid?  Seems like premium support is pretty much a conservative idea.  A much simpler, liberal idea would have been single-payer.  Single-payer has its own drawbacks, but to bemoan Obamacare's complexity as liberal governance is disingenuous at best and an outright lie at worst.
(3) The "if you like your insurance you can keep it" quote will haunt Obama much more than the poor performance of the website.  There are legitimate reasons under the public-private model advanced in Obamacare to cancel existing policies that don't meet the bill's standard.  But Obama knew this a long time ago.  His promise was an outright lie, and people are likely to remember the lie long after they forget the website hassles.

On to the elections.  Up tonight, we have:
(1) New Jersey Governor - incumbent Republican Chris Christie will absolutely cruise to double digit victory tonight, buoyed by strong support from moderates and independents (including myself.)  The 2016 standard-bearer of sane Republicans (along with possibly Jeb Bush) will have the bully pulpit of the Governor's mansion to speak from.  It will be an epic crushing by a red politican in a blue state.  Take note Republicans - sane candidates like Christie win - wing nuts lose.
Polls close at 8 PM Eastern
Prediction: Christie +24.1% (no, I'm not joking!)

(2) Virginia Governor - Terry McAulife
In what has now become the nation's hottest swing state, one of the ugliest contests between two of the worst candidates for governor in recent memory will draw to a close with former DNC chair Terry McAulife edging out wing nut Republican Ken Cuccinelli (see above about who wins and loses) by solid single digits but failing to win an outright majority as a bunch of fed-up voters dump the two major parties and vote for the Libertarian, Robert Sarvis.  Sarvis is polling in the high single digits, but historically in state races, independents tend to underperform their polling as people break back to the parties late.  It's a non-statistical guess, but I'd wager that Sarvis' election-day support dwindles down to 5-6%.
Polls close at 7 PM Eastern
Prediction: McAulife +6.4%

(3) New York City Mayor
Democrat Bill DeBlasio will cruise to a 30, 40, maybe 45 point victory.  The margin doesn't matter.  The outcome is assured.
Polls close at 9 PM Eastern
Prediction: DeBlasio +41.2%

Lots of other stuff on the ballot including marijuana taxation in Colorado and a minimum wage hike in New Jersey.  I'll keep you posted throughout the night.

20 minutes until the first returns....

Monday, September 23, 2013

Everything You Need to Know About 2016, 3 Years Out

We are a little over 3 years before the 2016 Presidential Election.  Projections 3 years out are, shall we say, speculative.  I got some things right and some things wrong about the 2012 race when I wrote about it in 2009.

I called the status of the states in 7 buckets - dark blue, blue, light blue, toss-up, light red, red and dark red.
I had 245 electoral votes in the dark blue or blue categories (unlikely to be contested by the GOP) and 165 in the dark red or red categories (unlikely to be contested by the Dems.)  Of these states, not a single one was misprojected, although Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin and Nevada were at least nominally contested by the GOP as they attempted to expand the map.  All 4 wound up going for Obama by a larger margin than he won nationally.  No "dark red" or "red" state was seriously contested.

The "light red" states of Montana and Missouri both went for Romney and were not seriously contested.

The "light blue" states of Colorado, New Hampshire, Iowa and Minnesota all went for Obama and all went for him by more than he won nationally, although Romney attempted at various times to go after all 4 states.

The 5 states I categorized as "toss-ups" split as follows: North Carolina and Indiana for Romney and Florida, Ohio and Virginia for Obama and all were seriously contested, although Obama bailed out of Indiana late.  Other than Indiana, the other four represented the 4 closest states in the election.

So, other than miscalling Indiana as a toss-up, I was pretty darn close to the right picture for 2012 more than 3 years out.

For the Democrats, I projected that assuming that he was running, President Obama would easily win renomination.  We professionals call that a "no brainer".

For the Republicans, I listed the early field as Mitt Romney, Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich, Tim Pawlenty and Mike Huckabee, with Romney and Palin as the favorites against that field.  3 of those 5 did run, Palin and Huckabee chose not to and Romney obviously won the nod.  Rick Santorum was suprisingly strong in the actual running and sideshows Herman Cain and Michelle Bachman provided some excitement, although ultimately garnered precious few votes (Cain, in fact, dropped out before the first vote.)

So, in spite of a few minor misses and adds, we actually knew a lot in 2009 about what 2012 would look like.

Which leads us to 2016:
The State of the States
Deep Blue (D +20%+) - 53 electoral votes - District of Columbia, Hawaii, Vermont, New York, Rhode Island and Maryland
Blue (D +10%-20%) - 126 electoral votes - Massachusetts, California, Delaware, New Jersey, Connecticut, Illinois, Maine and Washington
Light Blue (D +5%-10%) - 28 electoral votes - Oregon, New Mexico and Michigan
Toss-Ups (between R +5% and D +5%) - 125 electoral votes - Minnesota, Wisconsin, Nevada, Iowa, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Colorado, Virginia, Ohio and Florida
Light Red (R +5%-10%) - 15 electoral votes - North Carolina
Red (R +10%-20%) - 107 electoral votes - Texas, Alaska, Montana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Indiana, Missouri, Arizona, Georgia
Deep Red (R +20%+) - 84 electoral votes - Utah, Wyoming, Oklahoma, Idaho, West Virginia, Arkansas, Kentucky, Nebraska, Kansas, Alabama, Tennessee, North Dakota, South Dakota, Louisiana

So, assuming both parties hold their shaded states, Republicans stand to start form a base of 206 in a close election, Democrats 207 with 125 up for grabs.

There are a few interesting facts on this list.
The "Deep Red" states of West Virginia, Arkansas, Tennessee and Louisiana were all won by Bill Clinton.

Conversely, Bill Clinton never won in Virginia, which is now a toss-up.

Barack Obama won Indiana in 2008, but it is back to being in the "Red" category - 2008 is an odd outlier as the state has gone Republican in every other election cycle since 1964, usually by very decisive margins.

Taking a closer look at the toss-up states, it is instructive to look at both recent history and trend:

The state would appear to favor Republicans in a close election.  It has been more Republican than the national vote in each of the last 4 elections and that margin has been relatively stable.  Equalized for the national votes Florida's history is:
2000 R +0.5%, 2004 R +2.6%, 2008 R +4.5%, 2012 R +3.0%
In spite of the fact that it has picked the winner in each of the last 4 elections, this is the sort of state that Democrats only contest in elections that they are going to win anyway - as evidenced by this past cycle, where Obama won decisively nationally but only narrowly in Florida.  2000 belied this trend where obviously it was decisive, but that appears unlikely to repeat in 2016.  Florida is unlikely to be the tipping point.

This is a deserved perennial bell weather that tends to closely mirror the national vote.  It seems sure to be closely contested in a close race.  No modern Republican has won the Presidency without it.  It is a must-win for the GOP, but not quite a must-win for Democrats, although losing it cuts down Democratic winning scenarios significantly.  It's history is:
2000 R +4.0%, 2004 D +0.4%, 2008 R +2.7%, 2012 R +0.9%
Expected Ohio to be toughly contested again, win a minor edge to the GOP in a close race.

Virginia didn't used to be a battleground state, but the growth of the DC suburbs has caused it to take a hard turn left.  It is still winnable for the GOP, but things are only going to get harder for them in the state.  It's history is:
2000 R +8.5%, 2004 R +5.7%, 2008 R +1.0%, 2012 D +0.1%
Democrats would certainly seem to hold the edge.  They appear likely to pick up the Governorship this year and the demographic trends that have been driving the electoral shift are continuing.  Republicans would take this state if they win solidly nationally, but I wouldn't expect it to be an easy mark for them in a close race.

This used to be somewhere between a lean Republican and solidly Republican state.  The explosion of the states Hispanic population has shifted its electoral situation dramatically and Republicans look to continue to be in trouble here.  It's history is:
2000 R +8.9%, 2004 R +2.2%, 2008 D +1.7%, 2012 D +1.5%
Colorado could still be won - but not if the Republicans nominate a candidate that doesn't connect with Hispanic voters.

This is the state that Republicans always want to make close, but it hasn't worked out in a long time, with the state not going Republican since 1988.  They managed to narrow the margin in 2012, but it wasn't enough.  They've had success in statewide politics of late, but the fact that the Republicans controlling the legislature wanted to change the electoral award process away from winner-take-all speaks volumes - they don't think they can win there.  It's history is:
2000 D +3.7%, 2004 D +5.0%, 2008 D +3.0%, 2012 D +1.5%
Can the GOP make it a race in Pennsylvania in 2016?  I wouldn't rule it out, but this seems like a perennial sucker's bet to me.

New Hampshire
This small prize - a mere 4 electoral votes, remains the loan East Coast state north of the old confederacy whose outcome remains in doubt each cycle.  Once a "live free or die" libertarian stronghold that bucked the liberal leanings of its New England brothers, it has move further to the left over time, but still remains a stronghold for independent thinking.  It's always competitive, but seldom decisive.  It is a state that favors Democrats in a close race, but not by much.  It's history is:
2000 R +1.8%, 2004 D +3.8%, 2008 D +2.7%, 2012 D +1.7%
While only holding 4 electoral votes, New Hampshire is the tipping point state in a number of plausible close scenarios.  Expect it to be contested again in 2016.

To the politically uninitiated, Iowa would seem like a naturally Republican state.  A heavily white population in a farm-belt state, it's politics should look more like Nebraska than New Hampshire.  But Iowa is more mid-west than farm belt and far more socially progressive than it's neighbors, being one of the first states to legalize gay marriage.  It is a true bell weather, going to winner of the national popular vote in each of the last 4 elections.  It's history is:
2000 R +0.2%, 2004 D +1.8%, 2008 D +2.3%, 2012 D +2.0%
All the candidates will spend a ton of time in Iowa in advance of the Iowa caucuses in early 2016.  Expect them to return a lot in the fall as well.

A truly libertarian state where casinos abound, prostitution is legal and the days of open containers and indoor smoking carry on, Nevada still embodies the spirit of the American west.  Once a solidly Republican state in terms of national elections, it has shifted to fairly heavily favor the Democrats in recent years, helped in no small measure by a growing latino population.  It's history is:
2000 R +4.1%, 2004 R +0.1%, 2008 D +5.2%, 2012 D +2.8%
Similar to Colorado, Republicans have to make a better play for Hispanic voters if they are going to contend here.  They generally win the white vote, but not by enough to win the state.

Wisconsin is a hard state to figure out.  In the early 2000s, it seemed to be turning more Democratic as support for both parties became more heavily regionalized (Democrats in the Northeast, West Coast and Mid-West, Republicans in the South, the farm belt and the mountain states), but local politics has taken a distinct step back to the right as Scott Walker has led a Republican revolution against state employee unions.  It's history is:
2000 R +0.3%, 2004 D +2.8%, 2008 D +6.6%, 2012 D +3.1%
If Republicans are looking to expand the limited map that they have been working with the past two cycles, which essentially required them to run the table in order to win, Wisconsin would be a great target.  A non-radical candidate preaching fiscal responsibility might be the ticket to a GOP surprise here.

Minnesota always seems to be close but not quite close enough to seriously be in doubt.  Republicans haven't won the state since Reagan's 49 state decimation of Walter Mondale in 1984, but all the elections in between have been closer than most people would probably think.  It's history is:
2000 D +1.9%, 2004 D +5.9%, 2008 D +3.0%, 2012 D +3.8%
Minnesota, like Wisconsin sports 10 electoral votes, making it an enticing market.  It also shares some TV markets and a border with Wisconsin, meaning that if that state is in play, there could be spillover campaigning in Minnesota.  But I seriously doubt it will be a primary focal point as I can't see many scenarios where it is the tipping point state that gives a candidate his or her 270th electoral vote.  In a close race, expect it to go narrowly, but reliably Democratic.

The map favors Democrats on face.  If you equalize the national vote from 2012, Democrats would win in all of the toss-up states except for Florida and Ohio, leaving the Democratic candidate with 285 electoral votes.  Even if you flip Virginia, which was only 0.01% more Democratic than the national vote, to the GOP side, the Democrats are still left with a winning 272 votes.

The possible Republican strategies to overcome this deficit are numerous, but the couple that are most promising are:
a. Do better with Hispanics - nominate either a Hispanic candidate or at least a candidate who speaks well to Hispanic issues - Marco Rubio would be a great choice for both causes.  This puts Colorado and Nevada in contention.
b. Put the mid-west swing states in play - target Wisconsin and Iowa aggressively, with some halo in Minnesota.  Having a Scott Walker on your ticket would help a lot here.
c. Thread the needle with New Hampshire - picking up Florida, Ohio, Virginia and New Hampshire squeaks a GOP candidate by with just the 270 electoral votes he or she needs.  Perhaps a libertarian Rand Paul could do the trick?

Which brings us to:
The Candidates
Here are my power rankings on those likely to run in 2016:
a. Democrats
1. Hillary Clinton
It's not a done deal that she is running, but it is more likely than not.  And if she runs, she stands to be a massive favorite.  Many of us would have said the same thing in 2008, only to see her upset by an upstart first term Senator with a gift for emotionally uplifting speeches.  But 2016 is not 2008.  Hillary was still a controversial and divisive figure in 2008 - she is pretty well universally loved by Democrats these days after 4 years of egoless faithful service at the State Department.  Benghazi looms as a general election issue, but Democratic primary voters couldn't care a wit about it and the general public is still wondering what exactly the scandal is (I include myself in that group.)  If Hillary runs, it is hers to lose, plain and simple.

2. Andrew Cuomo
A well known Democratic brand name and a well-spoken, accomplished and well-liked politician, the Governor of New York is a powerful figure in the party.  If (and only if) Hillary bows out, he will be a force to be reckoned with.

3. Martin O'Malley
The popular Governor of Maryland is not well known outside of his home state, but is highly regarded within the party and has a great base of support among Super Delegates to the Democratic convention.  And history would indicate that Democrats generally don't have a problem nominating unknown Governors from small states - think of Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton.

4. Joe Biden
A sitting VP ranked 4th?  Joe has run for President twice already, first in 1988 when he fared poorly and withdrew after a scandal involving copying a British politician's speeches without attribution, then in 2008 when he scarcely registered at around 1% of the vote in early primaries.  Suffice it to say, the Demcoratic party has roundly passed on Joe twice.  He has a proclivity for foot-in-mouth disorder and has a style that can be polarizing.  I wouldn't count him out entirely, particularly if Hillary bows out and Joe gets Obama's backing, but I don't make him a favorite.

5. Deval Patrick
The charismatic two-term governor of Massachusetts figures to be a force to be reckoned with, should he run.  Similar to O'Malley, Patrick is not well known beyond the Democratic party, but the party faithful love him.  A possible headwind is weaker fundraising support than the top 4, but Patrick has to be a consideration in an open (aka no Hillary) race.

6. Kirsten Gillibrand
I keep mentioning her, possibly hoping she will run.  The junior Senator from New York has done amazing things in the Senate, leading the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell, brokering a deal on the 9/11 First Responders bill and now leading a bipartisan charge for reform in the military prosecution process for sexual assaults.  Gillibrand is beloved by her colleagues and her constituents and is a regular on the John Stewart circuit, making her more of a hip candidate than any of those listed above.  She also has fundraising gravitas given her party and Wall Street connections.

7. Cory Booker
Okay, the obvious negatives first - he will be a first-term Senator (he is virtually assured of a win) after two terms as a Newark mayor - hardly a great Presidential resume, but frankly, a better one than Barack Obama had.  His second potential negative is continuous rumors around his sexual orientation, although I wonder if that matters much in the states a Democrat could contend in.  The pluses are that he is probably the best thinker and among the best speakers in the field.  And his bio and reputation as servant and heroic mayor who shoveled the driveways of the elderly and once pulled a woman from a burning building make him a great candidate.  He is more likely to be a Veep choice than a Presidential choice this cycle and he has shown a tendency to be deliberate in his political progression, making a 2020 (if Democrats lose) or 2024 (if they win) run much more likely, but I wouldn't count him out entirely.

Other wildcards:
Mark Warner - the former Governor and current Senator from Virginia has been considered a rising star and is very popular at home, although not well known nationally.
Elizabeth Warren - the Senator from Massachusetts is beloved on the left (and another hip lady) but she is polarizing and is scandal-scarred coming off a tough fight for her Senate seat.
Janet Napolitano - she has expressed interest in potentially running.  But is her work at Homeland Security much of a springboard to the top job?
Brian Schweitzer - maybe he should be on my top 7 - he has a great folksy way, is smart as a whip and popular in Montana, hardly a conservative stronghold.  My sense, however, is that he may be too moderate for Democratic primary voters.

b. Republicans
1. Chris Christie - in spite of conservative disdain for Christie's embrace of Obama in the wake of a coastal hurricane and their general dislike of his Northeastern moderate politics, Christie is an electrifying figure and one of the best nationally known Republicans.  He will easily win re-election in New Jersey this year and is my slight favorite to win the nomination.

2. Jeb Bush - really, another Bush?  Maybe.  Jeb is no W., he is smarter, better spoken and much more popular - I know a lot of Floridians who hated W. but loved Jeb.  He is preaching sense to the GOP and has the best fundraising network of any Republican in the potential field.  The Bush brand is still a little tarnished, but I wouldn't put it past Jeb to pull things out.

3. Marco Rubio - Rubio seems a little bit of a man without natural allies - he is too conservative to win over the Jeb / Christie moderates but too moderate to win over the hard-core tea party members, support *gasp* immigration reform.  But Rubio might find the Goldilocks path with his politics and he figures to be a strong general election figure.

4. Scott Walker - yes, most Americans don't know who he is.  Yes, he doesn't have the network with party faithful or fundraisers that the top 3 do.  But Walker has been out front on a key issue that seems likely to be relevant in 2016 - public pension liabilities and as dry as that sounds, it could put him in the mix.

5. Rand Paul - the libertarians in the GOP want to believe that Rand could do it.  The guy has some serious assets - he knows how to rally a cause and he has managed to balance a consistent philosophy with a pragmatism his father never showed.  I know a ton of conservatives that love Rand.  I know a few liberals who do too.  But mis-steps like he made in his Senate race, when he says he would have opposed the Civil Rights Act on federalist grounds, while true to his ideology, won't play well in a general election.

6. Paul Ryan - many in the GOP love his budgets.  My question is - if he was a weak VP candidate, what makes anyone think he would make a good Presidential candidate?

7. Ted Cruz - does any Republican who actually wants to win think Cruz is a good choice?  Having said that, Sharon Angle, Christine O'Donnell and Ted Akin all won Republican nominations, so sometimes there is more to the calculus than who can win a general.

Other wildcards:
Susana Martinez - a potentially great national candidate, but highly untested on the big stage and not well known outside of her state.
Condi Rice - the GOP would love for her to run, but I don't think she is interested and I'm not sure they would much like her politics if she did.
Bobby Jindal - poor Bobby, how far the once-beloved have fallen.  One bad State of the Union response knocked Jindal and his great back story down a notch.  His rising unpopularity in Louisiana has knocked him down a couple more pegs.
Rob Portman - an effective Senator, but I know of no one in the GOP who is fired up about a Portman candidacy.
Rick Santorum - staged an admirable, improbable fight for the nomination in 2012 and proved his mettle as a great campaigner and a relatable guy, but what has this guy done since he lost his Senate seat?  How is he relevant to 2016?
Mike Huckabee - remember Huck?  I thought he could be a powerhouse opponent for Romney in 2012, but he passed.  I suspect he will pass again.

So there you have it - everything you need to prepare you for a 3 year Presidential campaign.  Now back to the bickering over Obamacare and the debt ceiling.

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Sunday, September 22, 2013

How Much Worse Can It Get?

The Republican party is torn between two factions at the moment.  The first, the traditional mainstream wing of the party, which seeks generally to implement conservative, free-market solutions to major problems and shrink the size and scope of government but recognizes that there is room for accomplishing these legislative goals through compromise and that their survival relies on the public viewing their work as somewhat functional.  This wing is led by the GOP's old guard, principally its Senate members.  John McCain is certainly a member of this wing.  I suspect John Boehner is a member of this wing as well, although he is navigating a minefield with a GOP House that is not mostly of this wing.

The hard-right members that dominate the GOP House caucus now have an entirely different agenda - win on every issue at every time at all costs.  If the goal is to defund Obamacare, there is no government agency that they won't shut down, no debt that they won't default on and no measure of loss to their party that is too great in the pursuit of their goal.

So, here we sit again, on the brink of shutting down the government (October 1st) and potentially defaulting on our debt (sometime in late October, although that date could conceivably push later if the government shuts down, since expenditures will fall quickly.)

All of this poses a number of key questions about the GOP strategy.  I'm not sure how many of these are real and how many are rhetorical, but I'll give it a try:
(1) If Obamacare will be so bad, why not let it happen?
The world won't end if our health insurance system is ineffective for a year.  If Obamacare is the wrecking ball of a disaster that the GOP claims it will be, then the public outrage calling for its repeal will be impossible to ignore, even for Democrats.  It will quickly be repealed, replaced, modified, etc.  The goal will be accomplished.

But that's not what the GOP thinks.  Ted Cruz thinks that if it isn't stopped prior to implementation - he has stated that once the subsidies start, they will be impossible to stop, with an American public addicted to the drug of free money from the government.

This is idiotic on multiple levels.  First of all, it is estimated that only between 4% and 6% of Americans will get the subsidies.  That is because most will continue to receive health care from their employers and those on Medicare and Medicaid (the second largest chunk of the population) will continue to receive benefits as before.

Second, it is a pretty direct insult to the intelligence of the American electorate.  We are so stupid that we will never oppose an entitlement, even a bad one?  Besides being elitist, it is historically false - welfare reform in the 1990s is a prototype for reforming entitlements.  So was raising the Social Security age by 2 years.

Could the real fear be that people will either ultimately like the program or at worst feel neutrally about it?

(2) Do they really think they will win?
I grant you, the President has shown extreme ineptitude at negotiating these sorts of situations in the past.  But does anyone honestly think he will agree to a defunding or a delay of his signature legislative accomplishment?  Particularly when Republicans are poised to be blamed for all the ill effects of a government shutdown or a default?

So if this isn't about winning, what is it about?  Why drive massive uncertainty into our economy over a battle that you will lose?

(3) How can they possibly think this is good strategy?
The GOP is sitting pretty for 2014 at the moment.  President Obama has an approve-disapprove in the -10 to -12 range, which would historically imply a very poor showing for his party in the mid-terms.  Republicans should be plotting their strategy to pad their House majority and to retake the Senate, both very achievable goals against this backdrop.

Instead, the GOP risks alienating the swing voters likely to vote for them out of disapproval of the President.  They risk, once again, giving the Senate away to the Democrats, which makes their positioning harder.

They should be thinking about how to control the House, the Senate and the White House in 2016.  Then they can repeal Obamacare without worry about causes defaults or shutdowns.  Instead, they seem intent on losing ground.

There is plenty to criticize about the President's handling of matters budgetary.  But House Republicans take the cake by a wide margin for irresponsibility.

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Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Is This What the Next 3 Years Will Look Like?, The Myth of the Democratic Dove

If You Ever Want a Case Study in Poor Leadership...
...figure out how to take a military intervention that had public support eight months ago and turn it into two-to-one opposition in your own party.  Claim Presidential authority, then ask for permission but swear that you don't need it, then really need it and beg for it, then probably get denied it.  Or try declaring a red line, then waiting to act on it, then signal the enemy that you are going to act on it, then have the military plans leaked so as to let the enemy blunt the effectiveness of such an attack, if it ever happens.

The Obama Administration's handling of the Syrian conflict is pathetic.  There is an argument to be made for limited military intervention in Syria - it is clear to me from just the unclassified evidence that the Syrian government used chemical weapons against rebels, which is atrocious and demands some sort of international response.  And intervention on humanitarian grounds has both the support of key allies in the Middle East such as Saudi Arabia and the potential to begin to improve our tarnished reputation in that part of the world.  There are also some strong arguments against intervention - the rebels have Al Qaeda ties which could be destabilizing and against American interests were they to gain power.  And nobody seems to have a great answer to the key foreign policy question that should be the first question asked of any proposed military intervention: "and then what?"

On balance, I'm inclined to oppose the intervention as presently proposed.  The terms of victory are unclear as are American interests.  While humanitarian intervention is laudable, it is insufficient, in my mind, to warrant intervention, unless we want to be involved in about a dozen conflicts around the world all the time.  And replacing dictators who are evil but fundamentally rational with unknown leadership that may be less rational may actually be contrary to our security.

But this isn't really about my views on Syrian intervention, an issue which is a close call and over which rational, well-informed people can disagree.

It is about the President's leadership.  While I have been critical of the President basically throughout his administration for not plotting political strategy nearly as well as he plots electoral strategy, his second term has brought about changes for the worse in his approach to leadership.

While many might argue that the President should have gotten more done in his first two years when he had large majorities and that he wasn't involved enough in the details of legislation, he did get some big things done.  One of his first major acts was signing into law by far the largest economic stimulus in American history - Bill Clinton with similar Democratic majorities couldn't get a stimulus 1/60th the size of the ARRA passed.  He also succeeded where every Democratic President since JFK had failed - in passing something close to universal health care - and it is worth noting that all of those Presidents had majorities in both houses of congress for all or part of their terms.  On foreign policy, the President was decisive and consistent - a managed exit from Iraq and a surge, followed by a definitive timeline for withdrawal in Afghanistan.  Sure, he flubbed a few - Gitmo is still open, after all.  Cap and trade was a bust.  The public option was a no go.  But the President fundamentally led and got things done, under very divided circumstances.

I don't know if it is that the players have changed and the B-team is now advising him, but the Syrian conflict is a mess.  A firm majority supported intervention in a poll late last year.  Then the President asserted his unilateral authority to authorize a strike and spent a bunch of time explaining why he had the authority.  This provoked a response from both parties in congress and public support plummeted. Then he abruptly reversed course last week and sought congressional approval, feeling sure no doubt that congress would not ultimately block action.  Today, despite support from prominent mainstream GOP leaders such as John Boehner and John McCain, the resolution appears at real risk of not passing.  That two thirds of Democrats are opposed to action in polling is reflective of Democrats deep suspicion about military intervention following the debacle in Iraq and the long war in Afghanistan.  Many liberals seem sure to oppose the President on this one, particularly in the House.  And while he may pull over some neo-con support, the neo-cons are not as strong in the GOP as they once were - for every John McCain there is a Rand Paul or a Ted Cruz, libertarian non-interventionists that seem almost sure to oppose the resolution.

This all still could end well - congress may authorize the strike.  Our fine military may be able to surgically damage the Syrian governments chemical weapons capabilities.  This could work out like the conflict in the former Yugoslavia did, where our airstrikes allowed a dictator to be deposed and peaceful, democratic governments to take hold.  But if it does, it will be in spite of Obama's approach, not because of it.

Real leadership would have involved one of two things.  First, the President could have gone in alone.  The War Powers Act clearly authorizes 60 days of military intervention in the absence of Congressional approval.  Certainly long enough for a surgical strike.  And if there was a mission beyond that point, Congress may well have agreed to extend a military action that was working.

Or the President could have gone to Congress early.  He could have articulated the need to have some limited authorization of air force in the event that the executive branch could certify chemical weapons use.  It might well have worked last year, when the American people were largely behind such an intervention.

The in-between and about-face approach chosen instead paints the administration and the country in an uncomfortable box and one with more negative possibilities to our standing in the world than positive ones.  It is a shame.  The President has over 3 years left in office - he needs to get his act together.

On a related note, many of you may have noted that I have taken an increasingly critical tone of the President as of late.  This is not a part of some ideological shift on my part.  I'm just calling balls and strikes as I see them.  And of late, there have been a lot more strike outs than anything else.

Democratic Doves?  Who?
A friend of mine repeated a familiar line that the President was bucking a history of military dovishness by proposing military action in Syria.  This is common belief that is completely false.

FDR went into World War II
Truman dropped the atom bomb and got us into Korea
Kennedy stared down nuclear war at the Bay of Pigs
LBJ got us into Vietnam
Clinton went into the former Yugoslavia and bombed weapons factories in Afghanistan

Of all the Democratic Presidents of the modern era, Jimmy Carter is the only one that you could even make a reasonable case as being a dove.  In fact, prior to W. Bush, most of our major wars were started in Democratic administrations.

I'm not saying that's a good thing, just that the popular perception about partisan foreign policies is plainly false.

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Saturday, July 27, 2013

Why Scott Walker is the Sleeper in 2016, A Bipartisan Assault on the Bill of Rights

Detroit's Bankruptcy is the First Domino
It is likely that few people understand the political and national significance of Detroit, Michigan's declaration of Chapter 9 bankruptcy this past week.  It is very easy and convenient to dismiss Detroit as a unique case - a once-proud national city that has lost over half its population over the past decade and is a poster child for what can wrong in a city - middle-class flight to the suburbs, the loss of a once-large industrial base, corrupt politicians and mismanagement of city services.

But that is far too convenient a story.  Detroit is not the first municipal bankruptcy and will not be the last.  The reasons and the numbers associated with them are staggering.

In 1994, Orange County, California went through a municipal bankruptcy process after making very poor borrowing and investment choices.  At the time, this was the largest municipal bankruptcy in American history, with $1.7 billion in debt to be resolved.  Orange County proved to be an outlier and no other major municipal bankruptcy followed for the next 14 years (there were some smaller ones in small towns, but nothing anywhere close to Orange County.)

Over the past few years, three significant but not large California towns have filed for bankruptcy.  Vallejo filed in 2008 followed by Stockton and San Bernadino in 2012.  These three filings all had one thing in company - the cities were awash in funded pension obligations that they could not meet.  Many in political circles and the media attributed this to be a uniquely Californian problem, a by-product of California's uniquely generous public pension scheme, large number of public employees and overall poor financial management.

Detroit's filing, a whooping $20 billion bankruptcy that crushes the size of all previous municipal bankruptcies, follows the same pattern as California.  Detroit has a mere $3.5 billion in bond obligations - the rest of the debt are massive unfunded pension liabilities.  Starting to see a pattern here?

Forbes documented a list of cities in similar situations to Detroit that may ultimately be the next victims of Chapter 9 bankruptcy filings.  Forbes estimates that there are over $1.4 TRILLION in unfunded municipal retiree benefits across the country, with New York City leading the way with $330 billion in liabilities alone.  Chicago has $63 billion in unfunded retiree liabilities.  And so on.  Virtually every northeastern and midwest city has a problem of unfunded retiree liabilities.

All of these funding needs obviously do not come due at once as public sector retirees draw on pension and health care benefits over long periods of time.  So one might mistake this as a very slow moving crisis which will have limited political impact over the next few years.

But Detroit's bankruptcy accelerates things.  Immediately following Detroit's filing, the major credit rating agencies began rapidly downgrading the credit rating of cities with unfunded liabilities.  This means that borrowing costs for major cities will shoot up - after all, post-Detroit and knowing what I just said, would you want to own bond obligations from New York or Chicago?  Municipal bankruptcies will accelerate and the effects will not be good.

A look back at the three cities in California who led the way shows that city services are still horrible, their economies are stagnant and populations are leaving en mass for better opportunities.

Detroit pensioner-receivers appear likely to only receive 15 to 20 cents on the dollar post-bankruptcy on their pension obligations.  Municipal pensions are NOT backstopped by a pension guarantee board like corporate pensions, so those folks are on their own in bankruptcy court.  A 15 to 20% payout would be devastating to retirees.  Imagine you are a retired municipal refuse worker who receives a $40,000 per year pension that you live off of, are 70 years old and have been retired for 10 years.  Suddenly having your income cut to $6,000 per year and your health care benefits cancelled would be destroyed.  Whether you believe that he or she should have received such a generous benefit is irrelevant at that point - the worker would struggle to go back to work and would have no mechanism to pay rent or utilities or buy groceries.

I believe that this will be a meaningful, perhaps defining issue in 2016, and no one has been out in front of the issue like Governor Scott Walker in Wisconsin.  He fought the unions to reduce state-funded pension and health care liabilities.  This fight led to a recall election that Walker narrowly won, as well as tons of insults hurled at Walker, including that he was trying to take away hard-earned benefits from teachers and fire fighters.

But Walker has a great narrative now - a guy who fought powerful unions, almost ending his political career to save the state from financial ruin.  "Is it really better for the state to promise benefits to workers that it cannot provide?" Walker can say, "is it really better for public employees to promise them benefits and then cut them off after they are retired, while devastating government?"

It's a pretty powerful argument.  Walker is one to watch in 2016.

For Shame
The House of Representatives this week voted to continue to allow the government gathering of metadata, such as your personal cell phone records.  This assault on civil liberties is shameful and bipartisan.

An unusual coalition of Neocon Republicans and Obama loyalists garnered 217 votes (134 Republicans and 83 Democrats), overcoming the votes of libertarians and liberals who support civil liberties (94 Republicans and 111 Democrats) to vote to continue to allow the practice.

None of those 217 deserve our support in 2014.

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Friday, July 19, 2013

Reflections from a Camden City Bus

My life can be a little self-contained.  Sure, I'm well traveled, having visited 6 continents and lived in 7 states.  I've lived in the slow-moving small town south, in the hyper aggressive big city northeast, in the laid back west coast and many places in between.

But most of my life follows a particular pattern.  I hang out in upper-middle class neighborhoods.  I eat at nice restaurants.  I work in an office and I live in a neighborhood where I forget to lock my doors a lot of days and it doesn't worry me when I do.

Sometimes, random events in life disrupt your routines in ways that you don't expect.  And sometimes you learn things from that seemingly random disruption that you would have never learned as a part of your routine.

Such was the case on Saturday night.  My wife and I had just had a fun day in New York City and were riding a comfortable evening BoltBus (a very nice Greyhound bus line in the Northeast US that provides direct transit between major cities, for those of you from elsewhere) back to the New Jersey Philadelphia suburbs.  Late in the ride, it became evident that we had accidentally boarded the wrong bus as we whizzed by our stop at the Cherry Hill Mall (if you aren't form New Jersey, Cherry Hill is the famous destination of Harold & Kumar in Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle, despite the fact that there has never been a White Castle in Cherry Hill.)  The driver informed us that we were on the "express" bus and that he wasn't allowed to stop until 30th street station in New Jersey.

With a car at Cherry Hill Mall and a physical presence at 30th street station in Philadelphia, I quickly scoured the internet for a transportation plan to rectify the situation.  What I found was the 406 bus from Philadelphia to Cherry Hill, which was not a direct route but got me back to the car.  Off we went!

The 406 bus route winds through part of Philadelphia, a large portion of Camden and ultimately on to Cherry Hill.  It goes through some pretty rough urban neighborhoods in Camden and basically the entire ridership of the bus on this particular Saturday night consisted of myself, my wife and a group of Camdenites that didn't own cars.  They were mostly working class or unemployed and all African-American.

"They let Zimmerman off!" proclaimed a heavy-set woman on the bus part way into the ride, sharing the news that broke that day.  I could not have been in a better location to gauge and understand the black community's response to the verdict.

What impressed me on bus 406 was how complex and nuanced that response was.  There were no calls for violence and retaliation.  To be sure, it was a more liberal than average crowd and most disagreed with the verdict, but the responses were rational.  One man said, "I get he might not have been guilty of murder, but he had to be guilty of SOMETHING.  I mean, the 911 operator told him to stop following Treyvon and he didn't."  fair enough.  Another man recalled growing up in rural South Carolina and how they "castle law" there allowed his mother to shoot a crack addict that was breaking into their storage shed without fear of retaliation.  "Okay, that makes sense" said another passenger, "but Treyvon wasn't on Zimmerman's property.  It's different if someone comes on your property."  So it is.  "Why does everyone assume that a black boy in a hoodie is a criminal?" asked one woman, "well, I heard a bunch of black kids had broken into homes nearby" said another man on the bus, "that doesn't make it right!" shot back the woman.  No, it doesn't.

The discussion quickly turned into a broader political discussion and talked turned to Chris Christie.  "Chris Christie cost my wife a ton of money", said a man whose wife was a teacher in the Camden Public Schools, "He raised the fares on this bus!" exclaimed another man, referring to the New Jersey Transit fare hikes that Christie pushed through as part of his push to eliminate the budget gap, his first year in office, "couldn't rich people just afford to pay a little bit more in taxes?"  "Yeah" said another man, "but they'd never pay, they'd just move to Pennsylvania" reflecting a frequent talking point of the GOP in the state.  "I like Christie" declared a woman with a young child, "but only because he is pro-life."

Black voters and the black community in general tend to get painted as a monolith.  They are obviously a voting block that has gone heavily (and increasingly) Democratic in the past two election cycles.  What was reconfirmed for me that night in Camden was that such a view is a dramatic oversimplification.  Black voters, like any group, have a complex set of political leanings that run the gambit of electoral politics.  Their views are varied and nuanced.  Some even vote Republican, but almost none are straight-line liberals.

Perhaps rather than choosing political sides in things like the Treyvon Martin case, both parties would be better served by taking a little time to understand the underlying social nuances in a case like this.  And Republicans would certainly be wise to start inviting them to their party.

By the way, I agree with the man on the bus.  Treyvon Martin does not appear from the evidence to have been guilty of murder.  But he was guilty of SOMETHING, most likely criminally negligent homicide, a less severe felony.  Had the prosecutor charged him with this more appropriate crime, perhaps the outcome would have been different.  Or perhaps not.

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Monday, July 1, 2013

The Inevitable March Towards Universal Gay Marriage Continues

A Measured Set of Supreme Court Decisions, Public Opinion Ahead of Law
The supreme court, in a pair of twin rulings last week, came down modestly on the side of gay rights but stopped short of overriding public opinion in two important ways of advancing a political agenda from the bench.

The first ruling, by a 5-4 majority (which seems to be the norm for the last 30 years in decisions of a controversial nature) struck down the provision of the Defense of Marriage Act that defined marriage as between a man and a woman for federal purposes.  This means that legally married gay couples in states that permit gay marriage now have access to federal deductions and benefits associated with being married, rights previous denied to them under DOMA.  The reasoning of the court was two-fold - first, a traditional conservative argument around federalism that essentially stated that definition of marriage has been historically the province of states and that on 10th amendment grounds there was no enumerated power for the federal government to overrule state judgement on that issue.  Interestingly it was 4 liberal judges joined by moderate opinion-writer Anthony Kennedy that overruled 4 conservatives on what would seem to be a judicially conservative view but for the social politics around gay rights.

The tenth amendment text in question is as follows:
The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.

The second reason given by Kennedy's opinion, and perhaps the more intriguing one, was the notion that the clause in question violated the equal protection principle articulated in the 14th amendment.  This is a fascinating argument, as the 14th amendment is clearly targeted at state laws.  Text is below:

No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

The ruling seems contradictory.  The ruling struck down a federal law, and, believe it or not, there is nothing in the constitution that expressly forbids a federal law that does not protect citizens equally.  There are constitutional protections that prohibit voting rights discrimination on the basis of race (15th amendment) and that prohibit slavery (13th amendment) and specifically enumerated rights that cannot be denied by the federal government (articulated in the Bill of Rights, the first 10 amendments), but nothing that prohibits a federal law from unequal treatment.  What would have made far more sense than striking down the federal law under an equal protection argument would have been to strike down state laws prohibiting gay marriage as an equal protection violation imposed by the states.

The 10th amendment violation would have been sufficient to strike down the provision in question.  That Kennedy chose to reference equal protection likely foreshadows a building majority on the court around the equal protection of gay marriage equality itself.  But the court is taking a measured pace - by passing on the opportunity to make a national ruling relative to California prop 8.  The court let stand a lower court ruling striking down the prohibition on gay marriage in California by ruling that the state Republicans making the appeal did not have standing to appeal - an intellectually devoid argument since it chose to rule in the DOMA case under very similar circumstances (the Republicans defended that case as well since the Obama administration chose not to defend the law), but a clever dodge nonetheless.  This leaves the overall question of the constitutionality of gay marriage for another year and another court, but the 14th amendment argument in the DOMA ruling clearly projects a likely outcome when that day comes.  Kennedy simply decided to let the court of public opinion form a little more before the Supreme Court intervenes.

And the court of public opinion is moving.  By a massive majority, the American public now favors gay marriage.  A just-released Gallup poll shows national support at 55% for and 40% opposed, an epic turn in the past 17 years since Gallup first started polling the issue, when support was at less than half that level.  55% is far more support than any Presidential candidate has received since Ronald Reagan in 1984.  In other words, 55%-40% is a landslide.  And the opponents are dying.  The only demographic group (unless you count conservatives or Republicans as their own "demographic group") that still opposes gay marriage are those 65 and over, and only 51% of seniors now oppose it.

It is highly likely that we will see gay marriage in every state outside of the south (where majority opposition still exists) in the next 5 years.

Politicians in both parties had better get on board or history will remember them harshly.  This is not a Republican/Democratic issue, as bipartisan support for gay marriage bills in places like New York State has proved.  It is a right/wrong issue.

The one thing that surprised me about the Supreme Court ruling was that the court elected NOT to strike down the provision of DOMA that permits states to not recognize gay marriages from other states.  This creates a legal and administrative mess, is unprecedented in US marriage law (states recognize marriages of first cousins from other states, of minors from other states and so on) and is black letter unconstitutional, in my opinion.  The relevant section of article 4, section 1 of the constitution is below:

Full Faith and Credit shall be given in each State to the public Acts, Records, and judicial Proceedings of every other State.  And the Congress may by general Laws prescribe the Manner in which such Acts, Records and Proceedings shall be proved, and the Effect thereof.

Perhaps this is more judicial restraint in letting the political process play out.  But it is wrong on the law.

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Sunday, June 16, 2013

Is President Obama the Worst Ever on Civil Liberties?, The Demise of Blue America is Overblown

Liberals Should Stop Defending This Awful Record
I guess that I shouldn't be surprised at some level of reflex partisan defense of the Obama administration.  After all, a big part of politics is supporting your team and liberal Democrats, particularly for Senators from blue states and Representatives from heavily-Democratic areas such as urban centers.

But any basic level of intellectual honesty or ideological consistency should prohibit the defense of President Obama surrounding the combined revelations over the past month that: a. The IRS targeted Tea-Party affiliated groups for extra scrutiny relative to tax-exempt status, b. The Justice Department has been snooping very broadly around the records of journalists relative to investigations surrounding leaks and c. That the NSA has been reviewing phone records of just about every American (as well as possibly search engine results and other meta-data) as part of terrorism investigations.

Taken on their own, there are arguments that could be made for each individual action.  Tea Party groups ARE more likely to be political in nature than, say, a charity aimed at helping homeless children and perhaps deserves more individual scrutiny as to whether they are truly political organizations (which would not be tax exempt) or civic and charitable organizations (which would be.)  Leaks surrounding national security ARE a crime and the Justice department had warrants for all of the records it examined.  The government (supposedly) looked only at phone records not phone calls themselves and had warrants to do so - and by the way that program was started during the Bush administration.

But taken collectively, they paint a chilling picture of an administration with no respect for individual liberties.  The past almost 12 years since the awful events of 9/11 have been a scary one for civil libertarians like myself.  The flag-waving banner of "national security" has been used to trump all kinds of basic American rights in the name of security.  This has led to an erosion of basic search and seizure rights, rights that should be every bit as sacred to us as the other rights enumerated in the Bill of Rights.

"I don't have anything to hide, why should I care" said a friend of mine at dinner the other day, a common sentiment among those defending the government.  And if you assume that the government is acting nobly in the interest of national security and will always do so, perhaps you would be fine with that.  I am not a terrorist, have no terrorist ties and would never be flagged in a terrorism investigation, right?

But what if, today, 5 years from now, 10 years from now, the governments intentions were less benevolent?   Do you want the government to know that a cheating spouse has been calling his lover and be able to use that information for blackmail?  Do you want the government to know that you are looking for a new job on and be able to tell your present employer?  How would you like your mother to know about the porn site that you accessed a year ago?

Maybe other people are saints and would be fine with every American knowing everything that they had done.  Maybe they've never cheated on their spouse, looked at porn, looked for another job or any of the many other legal activities that people don't necessarily want publicized.  I'm personally not at all comfortable with the government knowing my every action and having that kind of power over me.

Ben Franklin once famously said, "Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety."

Could Ben Franklin have anticipated Al Qaeda terrorists?  Of course not.  But he lived in a pretty dangerous time too.  And he understood a little bit about doing things that you don't necessarily want to make public.

So President Obama, who ran on a pro-civil liberties platform, has been an utter disappointment in both continuing and expanding the reach of government into people's private lives.  Is the worst ever on civil liberties?  Probably not.  Pro-slavery President's such as Washington and Jefferson would have to rank lower (actually enslaving people is a lot worse than looking at their phone records.)  FDR and Truman would have to rank below too (internment camps are a lot more intrusive than snooping.)  But certainly W. and Obama rank near the bottom in the modern era.

What a shame.  And a shame that liberals should start speaking up against.

Some of My Exes Live in New York
A popular view among economic conservatives of late has been that blue America is collapsing.  Old liberal states and cities (those in the mid-west, Northeast and west coast, essentially) are failing, with population fleeing the crushing burden of taxes, regulation and runaway pension costs to seek greener pastures in the new powerhouses of red America (basically the Southeast and Texas.)

While it is an undeniable fact that no state has grown as fast as Texas in the past decade, I wanted to examine the premise that the old cities and states are dying.

Let's look at the facts.

First, my tip of the hat to conservatives...recent population growth has definitely been weighted towards bluer areas.  Here are the top 10 states by population growth, along with their political alliances, over the past couple of years:
(1) North Dakota (red state)
(2) Texas (red state)
(3) Utah (red state)
(4) Colorado (swing state)
(5) Alaska (red state)
(6) Florida (swing state)

(7) Washington (blue state)
(8) Virginia (swing state)
(9) Georgia (red state)
(10) South Dakota (red state)

So, of the top 10, only 1 blue state makes the list and 3 swing states with 6 red states being among the fastest growing.

However, if I look at longer-term trends, the picture is less clear.  Looking at the era since the current modern political divide basically started, basically since Reagan-Republicanism dawned, we can look at the long term trends.  Using census data from 1970 to 2010, we can examine how electoral votes (which relate to proportion of population) have shifted.

From the 1970 census, the largest states and their share of the electoral vote were as follows:
(1) California - 45 votes
(2) New York - 41 votes
(3) Pennsylvania - 27 votes
(4/5) Illinois - 26 votes
     Texas - 26 votes

Regionalizing things more, votes broke down like this:
New England (CT, RI, NH, VT, ME, MA) - 37 votes
Northeast Corridor (MD, PA, MD, NJ, NY, DE, DC) - 101 votes
Southeast (VA, WV, NC, SC, GA, TN, KY, FL) - 87 votes
Deep South (AL, MS, AR, LA, OK) - 40 votes
Mid-West (OH, MI, IL, IN, MO, WI, MN, IA) - 126 votes
Southwest (TX, AZ, NM, CO, UT, NV) - 50 votes
"Flyover" States (ND, SD, MT, WY, KS, NE, ID) - 30 votes
West Coast (WA, OR, CA) - 60 votes
Non-continental states (AK, HI) - 7 votes

In the 2010 census, 40 years later, here are the largest states:
(1) California - 55 votes
(2) Texas - 39 votes
(3) Florida - 29 votes
     New York - 29 votes
(5) Pennsylvania - 20 votes
     Illinois - 20 votes

The same regionalization produces the following split:
New England - 33 votes
Northeast Corridor - 79 votes
Southeast - 106 votes
Deep South - 36 votes
Mid-West - 101 votes
Southwest - 75 votes
"Flyover" States - 27 votes
West Coast - 74 votes
Non-continental states - 7 votes

The big gainers over that 40 year period were the Southeast (increasing from 87 to 106 votes), the Southwest (increasing from 50 to 75 electoral votes) and the West Coast (increasing from 60 to 74 votes), whereas the biggest losers were the Mid-west (from 126 to 101 votes) and the Northeast (from 101 to 79 votes.)

In aggregate, this would at least partially bear out the Republican theory of shift to more conservative states.  But if that is the case, why did the most liberal region of the country actual rank among the biggest gainers, driven by California?  Why did the deep south, the most conservative area, actually lose ground?  And why did the Southwest post gains across the board, with more liberal states like Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico, gaining as much as conservative places like Utah and Texas?

The answer is that demographics shifts are more complex to explain than basic political theory would explain.

Texas has grown for a couple of basic reasons - the oil boom in Texas has created economic growth and a huge influx of illegal immigrants from Mexico has driven up its population.  In fact, the illegal immigrant driver is primary in the population growth of most of the southwestern and west coast states. Texas and California share nothing in common politically or economically, except for a large influx of Mexican immigrants.  Similarly, immigration from Cuba (legal in this case), is the primary driver of Florida's massive rise in population.

Other state's growth is more driven by local immigration, that is, people moving from other states.  The Dakotas have been beneficiaries to the fracking boom and have drawn large populations from the rest of the country (well, large, compared to the base population for the Dakotas.)

While the Northeast and Mid-west have seen their populations rise in every census (Michigan being the exception, largely because of the fading jobs from the auto industry in Detroit), they have not been rising as fast as these other states because there has been no industry or immigration catalyst in these states (they don't share a border and their economies are more developed already and their cities more populated already.)

So while it is true that places outside of the Northeast and Mid-west are growing faster than those areas, their demise is highly overrated.  New York is still the financial center of the world, home to the world's largest companies and far and away the largest city in the US.

One final point on those hoping for a political sea-change based on population growth - as populations in these states are growing, they are becoming more liberal.  Virginia is now a swing-state, as are North Carolina and Florida.  Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico appear to be largely in Democratic hands now.  And I firmly believe that Texas will become a swing state in our lifetimes, unless Republicans massively shift their appeal to the immigrant population there.

The country always changes.  In 1850, the largest US cities were New York, Baltimore, Boston, Philadelphia and New Orleans.  These days, only New York and Philadelphia remain on that list, with Chicago, Los Angeles and Dallas filling in the roster - Chicago a product of growth in the 1900s, Los Angeles a product of growth in the latter half of the 20th century and Dallas a product of growth over the past 20 years.  Where the largest cities in 2050 or 2100 will be is anyone's guess, but I wouldn't bet against New York being on that list.

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