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....