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Preview: RealClearPolitics - Articles - Jay Cost

RealClearPolitics - Articles - Jay Cost

Last Build Date: Sun, 20 Jan 2008 23:30:28 -0600

Copyright: Copyright 2008

On the GOP South Carolina Results

Sun, 20 Jan 2008 23:30:28 -0600

- He put together a coalition of moderate and slightly conservative voters. He won moderates by 30 points in South Carolina, and by 17 points in New Hampshire. He won those who call themselves "somewhat conservative" by 2 points in South Carolina, and by 3 points in New Hampshire. Huckabee won those who are "very conservative" by 22 points in South Carolina; Romney won them by 25 points in New Hampshire.

- He split self-identified Republicans with Huckabee. He won 31%, Huckabee won 32%. In New Hampshire, the results were basically identical. Romney won 35%, McCain won 34%.

- He won self-identified Independents by 17 points in South Carolina. In New Hampshire, he won them by 13 points.

Huckabee's strength was clearly among self-identified evangelicals. They made up 55% of the electorate, and he won them by 16 points. Unfortunately for him, he lost non-evangelicals by 25 points. He actually finished fourth among non-evangelicals, behind Romney and Thompson (though the differences among the three are statistically insignificant). This is a sign that Huckabee's campaign has not successfully expanded beyond the core voters that it first wooed in Iowa. The following was a telling indicator of that. Despite the fact that Huckabee has run on a "populist" message, he and McCain split voters who identify the economy as their biggest concern, 32% to 32%.

Another point. It is hard to argue that a more vigorous campaign by Romney would have stopped McCain. It appears that Huckabee took over the position Romney had in New Hampshire with strong conservatives and Bush administration approvers. As a matter of fact, Huckabee's loss was probably due in part to the fact that Thompson was in the race. Thompson did relatively well among those who support Bush and among the "strong conservatives." Adding another candidate who makes the same appeal probably would have only helped McCain.

What we thus have in the Republican Party is the makings of a plurality coalition in which a prominent portion - namely, strong conservatives - is not fully a part. McCain has managed to win twice even though he has not won over strong conservatives. Can this continue? I am not sure - though I surely think South Carolina's confirmation of the New Hampshire vote strengthens his hand.

It will be interesting to see how high-profile conservative leaders react. I am sure they will not take this victory as the end of the race. They can hang their hats on this: if there had been a single "conservative" candidate in South Carolina, he might have defeated McCain. There was a split between McCain, Huckabee, Romney, and Thompson among "very conservative" voters. If there had been just a single "conservative" candidate to oppose him - McCain might have lost.

Why Did Clinton Overlook Obama?

Thu, 20 Dec 2007 08:30:00 -0600

Why was the Clinton campaign unprepared for this? Unfortunately, we cannot answer this question directly. The only people who know are the higher-ups of the Clinton organization - and they are not going to admit that they were unprepared, let alone explain why. But I have a plausible theory worth sharing. The way to approach the question is first to ask why we should have expected an Obama surge. It stands to reason that the Clinton campaign failed to account for at least one of the factors that make up our answer. These are the three reasons that I argued for over the summer and fall: (1) Obama raised $70 million in nine months from half a million people. This demonstrates two points: (a) He caters to a real demand in the Democratic electorate - intense enough to open wallets. (b) His money can facilitate a more sophisticated campaign strategy. Obama can do more than win Iowa and hope that he magically catches fire. Instead, he can win Iowa and fight Clinton dollar-for-dollar, state-for-state. (2) Obama is the most authentic change candidate among the top three Democrats. Hillary Clinton is not this candidate. Her principal qualification for the job is her role as her husband's advisor - so she was always going to run on the record of the 1990s. John Edwards has positioned himself as a change candidate, but he does not convey the authenticity that Obama does. (3) Obama is organized in Iowa. He recognized that organization was critically important for an Iowa victory - and that an Iowa victory was necessary for his broader strategy. And so, he is organized and ready for the January 3 caucus. Through the summer and the fall, journalists underestimated the importance of these because they used the opinion polls to create a horse race out of whole cloth. In reality - the opinions expressed to pollsters were not stable enough to support the idea that there was an actual race going on. Voter opinions were based on little information and even less interest in the campaign. Obama's activities were never going to register with these uninformed and uninterested voters in the summer; they were always meant to yield dividends in the winter. So, Obama was seen to be a weaker candidate than he really was. Accordingly, Clinton was seen to be stronger than she really was. She was always the frontrunner (she still is), but the overuse of opinion polls made her appear "unstoppable" and "inevitable" to the press. Like the press, the Clinton campaign clearly underestimated Obama - it over-looked the money, the message, or the organizing. Perhaps the Clinton campaign did this for the same reason as the press. Perhaps it relied so heavily on the opinion polls that it could not see that Obama was preparing to launch a viable campaign later on. I think this explanation has some credibility to it. I'm thinking in particular of Mark Penn, Clinton's chief strategist and pollster. His comments over the course of the campaign have struck me as utilizing the same erroneous assumptions that informed the press' summer horse race narrative. Consider this snippet from the Ben Smith's blog. The date of this entry is October 18. 2007: "Republicans are not prepared for the loss of a substantial group of Republican women voters ... even in the South," he said. "I think you're going to see as much as 24% of Republican women defect and make a major difference nationwide in terms of, I think, the emotional element of potentially having the first woman nominee. And that that actually will be a major unexpected factor here that will throw the Republicans for a loop." This is a ridiculously overconfident assertion. First, research has shown that partisanship is a stable and powerful feature of a person's psychology. It has also shown that voters who are conflicted between their partisanship and their evaluations of the candidates often resolve the conflict by simply abstaining, rather than voting for the other party. The idea that one in four Republican women will defy these regularities is poss[...]

On Romney's Speech

Fri, 07 Dec 2007 09:30:49 -0600

As a matter of political theory, I have mixed feelings about it. Romney's basic thrust was the following. There is a common faith in this country, a "great moral inheritance" derived from the shared belief in a divine, benevolent Creator, that translates into universal political ideals: equality, service, and liberty. The American position therefore recognizes that faith is an important aspect of civil society, but that at the same time society must allow for the multiplicity of religious sentiments. This creed is what has fostered a dynamism that "has kept America in the forefront of civilized nations even as others regard religious freedom as something to be destroyed." Accordingly, what is needed is a president who appreciates and shares this basic faith. Furthermore, citizens have a duty to recognize both the importance and the limitations of the role of faith in public life: candidates should be judged on the basis of the fact that they have faith, but not on its particulars. I think Romney has hit upon one of the original premises of American religious toleration. I thought he did the Founders' views justice -- and he also made them relevant to today. On the question of how to integrate religion into the basic structure of civic life, I think Romney's reasoning was sound. But this is the view from 30,000 feet. The purpose of this election is not to design a new constitutional system. Its purpose is to elect a president to govern over a divided nation. Romney offered a rigorous defense of the foundation of American civil society -- but he never addressed the concern that induced him to give this speech in the first place. And what is that concern? It is the same concern that always turns American unity into partisan division -- the transition from questions about how to structure the government to questions about what to do once the government has been structured. Here -- we are confronted with divisions, many of which have their derivations in differing religious opinions. While it is true that religious similarities yield similar political ideals -- it is also true that religious differences yield different political preferences. And herein lies Romney's essential problem. He has taken issue positions that many voters take because of specific religious beliefs. This is not to say that there are not other ways to derive those positions - but it is to say that many people who adopt those positions justify them by their particular theological beliefs. They are not, cannot, be justified by a shared religious creed. If they could, everybody who holds to that creed would be in agreement, and there would be no political issue. You can justify trial by jury or "guilty until proven innocent" by reference to this shared American religious creed. But you cannot justify opposition to embryonic stem cell research, abortion, or homosexual rights by referencing that creed (unless, of course, you want to argue that the creed is not shared by all - in which case you are just begging the question). Romney has taken very clear positions that most who agree derive from their particular religious beliefs. He has also said very clearly that his faith informs his issue positions. However, by not discussing his religion in anything but the broadest terms - he is demurring from explaining to voters why he agrees with them. Reference to the hackneyed proposition that "every person is a child of God" does not suffice. We all think that. That does not connect with the particular campaign that he has chosen to run. I would also note that it is not just the positions he has taken - it is the positions he has chosen to emphasize. If Romney were running a campaign akin to those of John McCain, Fred Thompson, or Rudy Giuliani -- one that does not emphasize the political positions that often stem from particular religious beliefs -- this speech would probably be superfluous. But, by running on the issues that animate Christian conservatives -- Romney is signalin[...]

Mitt's Ham-Handed Campaign

Mon, 03 Dec 2007 09:30:49 -0600

If somebody asked me which candidate on the Republican side has won just a single election (in a year that his party did very well nationwide) -- I would answer Mitt Romney, even knowing nothing about anybody's biography. This kind of transparency is, to me, a sign of political inexperience. He's only won one election, and it shows.

I have written on this blog that political campaigns are a lot like movies. Movies are complete put-ons. They are not real. But movies that are well executed can communicate true themes that resonate with viewers. When they are poorly executed -- when the acting is bad, the script is formulaic, or the technical production is lacking -- the whole effect is ruined. Good moviemakers know that the audience is willing to suspend disbelief, but only to an extent. They need the artifice to be kept hidden.

The same principle applies to political campaigns. Political campaigns are almost completely artificial. At the same time, they speak to something real: what we should do in the next four years. For the real message to be communicated effectively, the artifice must be invisible. Otherwise, voters cannot suspend disbelief. They lose focus of the larger themes that the candidates are promoting, and instead begin to perceive them as manipulative -- saying whatever it takes to get elected. And, of course, elections are competitive marketplaces, which means that there is always an opponent to point out the other side's artifice.

This creates one of the great ironies of American politics. The candidates who are the best at politicking keep it hidden from public view. They thus seem non-political. The candidates who are the worst at it either do not know to or simply cannot keep it hidden, and thus seem hyper-political.

To appreciate this, compare the Kerry-Edwards campaign to the Bush-Cheney and Clinton-Gore campaigns. The perception that many voters had was that Kerry switched his mind as the opinion polls changed. This was due in part to his campaign's political ineptitude -- in particular Kerry's penchant for rambling extemporaneously. And so, a campaign that was lousy at politicking seemed to be hyper-political. The consequence was that the thrust of the campaign message was diminished -- in no small part because his opponent pointed out the "flip-flopping." Meanwhile, the Bush-Cheney and Clinton-Gore campaigns were as political as any other. The difference was that they were less obvious about it -- and, accordingly, seemed more authentic and natural. When Bush and Clinton spoke -- voters who could be persuaded by them (i.e. fellow partisans and independents) rarely apprehended the strategic motivations behind the speeches. And so, they were more responsive to the messages themselves.

Romney's campaign is, I must say, the least authentic seeming of any on the GOP side. Only John Edwards, the other candidate with but one electoral victory under his belt, matches it in this regard. And even Edwards has been doing better lately. Unlike Kerry-Edwards, the Romney campaign knows how to stay on script. That is not its problem. Its problem is that the script changes are obviously induced by its standing in the polls. There is little subtlety to the Romney campaign. Too much of what it does is obviously strategic. The "flip-flopping" on the Mormon speech is just another example of this general tendency.

I wonder if Republican voters -- who are quite worried about Hillary Clinton and her tactical "brilliance" -- will punish Romney for this kind of obvious strategery. Can a one-term governor who makes such rookie mistakes be trusted to handle the Clinton "machine?" Imagine what the Clinton campaign would do in response to such a clumsy maneuver in September, 2008!