Chambliss Gives the Tea Party an Opening…Can they take it?

By most accounts, Senator Saxby Chambliss is being driven from office by the tea party, a dysfunctional congress and a hyper-partisan President Obama. This triangle of frustration leads the senator to prefer sipping whiskey on the back porch to six to eight more years of Washington politics. One can sympathize.

It also clears the decks for a host of ambitious Georgians to seek higher office. An open U.S. Senate seat is like an unexpected gift dropped in one’s lap. It wasn’t expected. It also gives the tea party forces in Georgia an opportunity to put their money where their mouth is. Can they do it? Can they seize the opportunity and elect one of their own, or will they slip into irrelevance by 2014/2016?

And there are a ton of Georgia Republicans considering their futures today. Congressman Tom Price was considering a run already – this could make the decision much easier for him. Unless he decides, as Newt Gingrich did 21 years ago, that the House leadership provides him a better path to national influence. Then there are several other congressional Republicans thinking of making the leap: Westmoreland, Gingrey, Graves, Broun, Kingston, etc.

Each elected official who becomes a candidate for Chambliss’ seat opens the path for others to run for those positions – thus setting off a chain reaction. All the political campaign consultants in the state and region are probably spending at least part of the morning pricing new luxury cars and boats.

As for the tea party, their best bet is Congressman Tom Graves. Yes, he’s fairly new to Congress, but he’s smart, tough, and loved by the tea party. And unlike his colleague from Athens, Congressman Paul Broun (also a tea party fav), he won’t remind people of 2012 GOP senate candidate Todd Akin and he won’t sound like Heinrich Himmler’s grandson.

Other Republicans to watch in the coming days: Secretary of State Sam Olens, former Guv Sonny Perdue and Lt. Guv Casey Cagle. If Tom Price goes for it, my betting is that Karen Handel is a sure candidate for his U.S. House seat.

The Democrats’ best hope? Their best chance is that the Republicans nominate a tea party candidate unacceptable to general election voters. No, Kasim Reed will not take the leap just yet – he’s likely gunning for the governor’s mansion in 2018 or a U.S. House seat. That leaves Congressman John Barrow or State Sen. Jason Carter.

At least it has given us politicos something to talk about.


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President Obama’s America

Well, the electoral vote wasn’t as close as some of the final polls indicated. The President won over 300 electoral votes and Mitt Romney’s narrow path to 270 never materialized. Evidently, most Americans were not ready to give up on the Barack Obama they elected in 2008.

By most objective standards, his performance in office has not been great, but it has been “good enough.” His approval rating of 49 percent is about where George W. Bush’s was in 2004 and is about 10 points higher than the rating of previous incumbents who lost reelection – Carter in 1980 and George HW Bush in 1992. A majority of American voters apparently do not hold him responsible for the sluggish economy.

Equally true is that a majority of Americans are not particularly concerned with high unemployment, the prospect of higher taxes, and the money that went to the stimulus package and the auto bailouts. And oh yeah, Obama Care. The Supreme Court has validated it, and now the voters have. It will be the law of the land.

Mitt Romney and his campaign will come under criticism. He was not a terrific candidate, and his campaign made a number of mistakes. But the truth is, incumbents are hard to beat. And the country wasn’t through yet with this incumbent.

The President and his supporters will see this as a major victory, and a validation of his policies, notably Obama Care. Republicans will be forced to regroup. The country is changing. The U.S. is becoming more ethnically diverse and more reliant on government. Perhaps the old Republican formula no longer works in national elections. Coming out of 2012 the Republican Party is going to be divided. But if it is going to survive, indeed thrive, it is going to have to adapt and come out of this stronger and in better position to win over those who voted for the President this year.

But in the short term, the President will have to work with a Republican-controlled House. Congressional Republicans may be chastened after Obama’s win, but they won’t retreat. Both sides will have to compromise on major issues, such as spending, taxes, and immigration. The President will be thinking about his legacy and Republicans will be looking ahead to 2014.


Somebody’s Gonna be Wrong

We have very foggy election forecasts heading into next Tuesday’s voting, and unless something changes in the next several days, one or more of the nation’s top polling organizations is going to be flat wrong. According to Rasmussen and Gallup, Mitt Romney is winning. According to Quinnipiac/CBS/NY Times, President Obama is winning. They can’t both be right.

Those findings are based on national tracking polls. But even at the state level the polls differ sharply. Rasmussen finds that Romney has a two-point lead in the critical state of Ohio, while Quinnipiac finds that Obama has a five-point lead there. And when it comes to measures such as early voting the polls are again divided. Gallup shows an edge for Romney in swing states with early voting, while CBS/NY Times surveys show Obama up in the states that matter.

What’s happening here is that they are using different models for predicting who is actually going to show up and vote next Tuesday, and in what numbers. Quinnipiac, CBS, and other such as Time magazine and Survey USA, are using turnout models that mirror closely to 2008 and predict that young voters, minorities, and union voters will combine with enough elderly voters and urban/suburban voters to carry Obama over the top in key states such as Ohio, Virginia, Nevada, and Colorado.

Ramussen and Gallup see it differently. Their predictions forecast a turnout more like 2004 when Bush defeated Kerry, and their preliminary survey findings lead them to weight Republican turnout higher than Quinnipiac does. For example, Rasmussen and Gallup find that Romney leads among Independents, and leads significantly on economic, finance, and tax-related survey questions. Their model also disagrees with Quinnipiac on the numbers of young voters, low-income voters, and minority voters that will actually turn out to vote on Tuesday.

By contrast, the other major respected polling group, Pew Research has it tied, at 47 – 47. In that model, independent and late-deciding voters will determine everything.

It’s unusual for the major polling firms to be this divergent so close to an actual presidential election. You have to go back to at least 2000 and probably 1980 or 1976 to find the polls this far apart. But it provides someone with a real opportunity to be right; and of course it also means someone is going to look really bad next Tuesday night.


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Debate Reform

The big issue with regard to the presidential debates in 2012, and one that will engender a fair amount of discussion from the two political parties and from the Commission on Presidential Debates, is the role of the “moderators.”

Debates are always contentious of course, with very high stakes. That’s why the parties agreed to form a Commission in the first place. The bipartisan Commission has strived to create a system of organized debates that will allow the candidates to have maximum flexibility and allow the voters to judge for themselves who is best qualified to be President. That includes a variety of formats and the use of journalists as moderators.

However, the moderators in this year’s debates – Jim Lehrer of PBS, Martha Raddatz of ABC News, and Candy Crowley of CNN – have each had significant criticism for their handling of the debates. That’s nothing new, moderators are routinely criticized, usually by the losing candidate’s supporters. But the criticism this year is unusually intense. And to be honest, the moderators have earned some of that criticism.

Not many people realized that debate moderators did not have to sign an agreement abiding to the rules of engagement worked out by the Commission and signed by both presidential campaigns. It seems to me that would be a prerequisite to being a moderator. That is one reform the Commission could make, and probably will make, between now and the next presidential election year 2016.

Candy Crowley of CNN is a very nice person and a terrific journalist. But she saw her role as moderator in the second presidential debate far differently than did the Obama and Romney campaigns and the Commission staff who organized the debates. And in a moment that will now forever be in future election year “debate highlight” clips, she took it upon herself to “fact check” the presidential candidates and correct Governor Romney at a crucial point in the debate, on a crucial question – the Obama Administration’s handling of the aftermath of the Benghazi embassy attack.

The effect was to momentarily stop Romney in his tracks. Even though she later admitted that Romney’s criticism of the President was right “in the main,” it was too late – the damage was done.

It simply isn’t fair to the American people, who value these debates as their only opportunities to see the candidates together and close up in an unmediated format, for a moderator to, intentionally or not, influence the outcome of a presidential debate. Most assuredly, Mitt Romney flubbed his lines and was weak in his attack, but that weakness was aided and abetted by the debate moderator, which isn’t what anyone wants to have happen.

Come to think of it, why have a moderator at all? Lincoln and Douglas didn’t have a moderator, and those are considered the greatest debates since the Roman Republic. The Commission on Presidential Debates should consider at least one moderator-less debate, with automatic timekeeping and microphones that shut off after the candidate’s two-minute response. At least the candidates would know they were on equal footing.


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Local Control?

The debate over the Charter School Amendment on the GA election ballot next month is heating up, as supporters and opponents of the measure are on the march. GA schools superintendent John Barge, who announced his opposition to the amendment, has been warned by the Attorney General not to use public resources to campaign against it, and has been now threatened with legal action by the attorney representing the GA Charter Schools association.

Republican legislators are almost uniformly in support of the amendment. They believe public schools in GA are failing and that parents and students deserve alternatives. Practically everyone agrees that students need alternatives. The question is, who has the authority to approve charter schools? Remember, charter schools are also public schools. Right now that authority lies with local elected school boards, an interpretation upheld recently by the GA courts.

When I have talked to Republican officials over the years and read official statements by GOP candidates, one thing I’ve heard a lot is the phrase “local control,” especially when it comes to education in GA. Their position has been that local officials and leaders know best when it comes to the education of their children – better than some unelected bureaucrat in Atlanta or in Washington, D.C.

Now, however, it seems that “local control” is a mere inconvenience. If approved, the Charter School amendment would give the state government the authority to approve charter schools at the school district level over the objections of the local school board. Is that really a precedent Republicans want to establish?

Is the drive to establish as many charter schools as possible really worth abandoning conservative principles? And will dramatically increasing the number of charter schools significantly improve education for most students in GA? Are we sure about that?


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Self-Fulfilling Prophecies

This presidential election was destined to be close. It will be. We have an incumbent with shaky approval ratings, though not terrible as in 1980 or 1992, and a nervous electorate. The economy is not currently in recession, but is experiencing one of the weakest post-recession recoveries since WWII. And President Obama’s foreign policy is showing signs of completely unraveling.

But practically everyone in the political world – especially political journalists, even many of those on the right – is saying Mitt Romney will lose.

So, in that environment, he will.

In a close presidential election – as in 1976, 2000, and 2004 – voter turnout is key. Earlier this year the Republicans had an advantage in voter enthusiasm, as the weak economy and Obama Care convinced many Republicans that this was their year. And the Democratic base was depressed, for many of the same reasons.

Now the reverse is true – Republicans are depressed and Democrats are energized. The main reason for this turnaround in the last few weeks is the polls. If you average the national polls, President Obama’s lead is not huge, it averages around 3.5 points currently. But the dominant interpretation of that lead by the major media and by political pundits is that the election is basically over.

Republicans complain abut the methodology of most of the polling organizations – they say most pollsters are using voter turnout models that mirror turnout in 2008, which would give President Obama an edge in the polling sample before any survey questions are even asked. The GOP prefers Rasmussen’s polls, which use a turnout model that averages the turnout from 2008 and 2004. In those surveys, the race is either even or has the President ahead by one point.

And yet, Nate Silver, a political stats guru who writes for the New York Times, points out that some of the surveys that have the President ahead by larger margins have cell phone numbers included in their samples, which he argues makes them more credible. Silver rates the race a 3 to 1 likelihood the President is reelected.

The net effect of all of this is that the Republicans’ enthusiasm edge over the Democrats is wiped out. The “storyline” of the national media the last two weeks that the election is over could turn out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy – helping to dampen turnout among Republicans, and convincing the few undecided voters out there that Romney just can’t win.

Republicans, of course, accuse the media of hyping the “election is over” story because they are all Democrats and want to help reelect Obama. Undoubtedly, some of them are. But Republicans, such as Peggy Noonan, who writes a popular column for the Wall Street Journal, and Irving Kristol’s kid over at the conservative Weekly Standard, also seem to have jumped on the “Romney is dead” bandwagon.

Romney is clearly behind, though by how much is open to debate. But it’s still September. There are three presidential debates still to come. There are millions of dollars of TV advertising yet to hit. Romney may well lose – if nothing changes over the next few weeks he certainly will. But he is within striking distance, unlike McCain in 2008 or Bob Dole in 1996.

But if Republicans in Ohio, Virginia, and Florida are too depressed to get out of bed and go vote on November 6 then it will turn out that the opportunity was wasted. What will Peggy Noonan and Irving Kristol’s kid say then?


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Barack Obama: I’m Not Jimmy Carter, I’m Bill Clinton

This is one of those presidential election years in which the incumbent, by most objective standards, should not win reelection. The sluggish growth in the economy is disappointing to virtually everyone, unemployment is unacceptably high, the U.S. credit rating is headed in the wrong direction, and gas prices are significantly higher than four years ago. When the economy looks and feels like this, the incumbent generally loses (Carter 1980, Bush 1992). In fact, I’m surprised there hasn’t been more media focus on the President’s statement in February 2009 that if the economy didn’t recover in three years, his presidency would be a “one term proposition.”

Then there is the current foreign policy crisis in the Arab world, which has the potential over the next several weeks to pose a serious challenge to President Obama’s approval numbers. Whether or not one agrees with Mitt Romney’s comments this past week, events in the Middle East do not inspire confidence. Republicans are jumping all over the Jimmy Carter 1979 analogies.

But if the polls are accurate, President Obama leads the race with six weeks to go. The most crucial numbers of course are the state polls in Ohio, Florida, and Virginia. There is an amazing lack of confidence in Mitt Romney, even among Republicans. Judging from comments in a large variety of media sources in the last 10 days, no one thinks he can win.

Their complaints are familiar: he doesn’t relate well to people, he can’t criticize Obama Care because he has to defend his Massachusetts health program, he is too vague on policy details. I believe many Republicans are disappointed that he and Paul Ryan haven’t taken the Medicare/Entitlements fight more directly to the President. The Ryan VP pick was met with initial excitement, but that has waned somewhat as Romney/Ryan seems to have shrunk from that fight. The simple act of selecting Paul Ryan as his running mate made winning the fight over Medicare crucial to his chances of unseating President Obama.

And right on cue, the president is embracing the Bill Clinton legacy, hoping some of it rubs off.

It’s not over. The upcoming presidential debates represent Mitt Romney’s last chance to change the outcome. The opportunity is there. For one thing, expectations for President Obama’s performance are sky high. Everyone expects him to win. If he doesn’t, or if it’s a draw, Romney could gain ground. On occasion, the debates are game changers. After all, the presidential debates are where Ronald Reagan won the 1980 election and where George W. Bush won the 2000 election.

But if Romney is going to achieve that he will have to give the performance(s) of his life.


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The Pollsters are Just Guessing

Depending on which presidential campaign poll you look at, President Obama either has a 9 point lead nationally over Mitt Romney, a 7 point lead, a 4 point lead, a 1 point lead, or its tied, or Romney has a 1 point lead over the President, or a 2 point lead. Huh?

Welcome to campaign polls. It’s not quite an exact science. In fact, some would argue it is as much an art as it is a science. Consider the national polls represented in the Real Clear Politics average, which is updated daily. In their latest polls, Fox News has Obama up by 9, CNN has him up by 7, while Rasmussen and Gallup have Romney leading by 2 points. They can’t all be right. And they’re not.

Part of the reason for the discrepancy is the voter samples they are using to perform their surveys. For example, most media polls derive their samples from lists of all registered voters. While others, notably Rasmussen, derive their samples from lists of “likely” voters. Likely voters are those voters with a demonstrated track record of voting in previous elections, compared to registered voters, which is simply everyone who is registered to vote in a given state.

An identical set of survey questions given to these two different samples will yield different results. On average, that difference ranges from 2 to 4 points, but in some cases can be as much as 5 to 8 points. Likely voters tend to have higher incomes, therefore polls built on likely voter samples will lean Republican (since higher income voters tend to vote Republican). By contrast, polls built on registered voter samples will normally lean Democrat.

So you have two alternate realities based on different data sets and a different set of assumptions. So who is right? It depends completely on turnout – who actually shows up at the polls this Nov. 6. That is a factor that is unknown, because it hasn’t happened yet. (Duh) So pollsters have to guess. That’s not quite fair, it is an educated guess, based on past elections and a mountain of data. But it is still a guess.

It’s very hard to accurately predict who will actually show up on election day, and in what percentages they will show up. Most polling organizations have a mixed record at best. And turnout can be effected by events, sometime late in the campaign – economic news, debate performances, attack ads, etc. Turnout was likely effected in 2000 when the Bush DUI story broke just before election day. Karl Rove and GOP activists very likely altered the 2004 election day turnout in key swing states by pushing for amendments on ballots in those states supporting the defense of marriage act.

I suspect that one of the reasons Mitt Romney selected Paul Ryan as his VP is a hope that it would spur conservative Republican turnout this November in crucial states, such as VA, NC, OH, and FL.

If the election were held today, President Obama would likely win a very close election. But the election is not being held today. If presidential elections were held in August, then Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush would both have been two term presidents, and John Kerry would be completing his second term this year.

There is a lot of campaigning yet to be done and the polls will bounce around until October. Only then will we be able to get a good read on who is likely to win in November.

What’s the old saying? Voters really don’t start paying attention in significant numbers until after the World Series anyway.


Endangered Species

U.S. Rep. John Barrow, from GA’s 12th congressional district, is a vanishing breed: the lone remaining white Democratic congressman from the deep south, according to Politico.

He has walked a tightrope for several years now – still a Democrat, but a conservative one on many issues, with an independent streak. It worked for him in 2010 when he was last reelected. But that was before redistricting. He now sits in a district tailor-made to elect a Republican.

Can he survive again? If so, he should probably go on the CBS reality program “Survivor.” Or at least write books and hold seminars on winning elections when you are not supposed to.

Barrow has voted with Republicans on some key business and tax bills since he has been in the House. This year he was even endorsed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, who is advertising on his behalf. He also voted against President Obama’s Affordable Health Care Act, one of the few Democrats to do so, earning the wrath of many in his own party.

Barrow’s latest gambit is his refusal to attend the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte. So he has laid down the gauntlet: he is against the President’s signature piece of legislation and he will not attend his re-coronation party in September.

I don’t know if Rep. Barrow’s independent, tough guy, go-it-alone strategy will work. But you have to give him credit for trying.


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Talk About Being On The Wrong Side Of History…

I’m sorry to say that my home state of Georgia ranks near the bottom of the country when it comes to ethics laws. But it ranks near the top in lobbyist influence.

A report by the Center for Public Integrity ranked Georgia dead last in the country on a set of 330 “corruption risk indicators” including open records law, campaign finance rules, and auditing and budgeting procedures. Georgia received an overall grade of 49 out of 100, an F, according to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

So, as one can imagine, most Georgians find it pretty galling that the state legislature not only refuses to pass a simple limit on lobbyist gifts to legislators of $100, but many of them, including its officers, openly mock it and call it some kind of “liberal” plot. They take this position in spite of the fact that virtually every state in the country, including Georgia’s southern neighbors – all of them governed by Republicans – has similar or even more stringent limits on lobbyist spending.

The ringleader in this crass act of civic malfeasance is the speaker of the Georgia House, David Ralston. He has made it clear to every member of the Republican leadership in the House that they are not to go near this proposal.

There are two salient facts here:

One is that Mr. Ralston’s predecessor was ruined and run out of town due to an affair with a lobbyist that led to a crisis of confidence in the legislature itself and in its leadership. There were promises of greater openness and better codes of ethics. The day Mr. Ralston took the oath as House Speaker in January 2010 he swore to “restore Georgians’ confidence in their elected officials” and said “renewal is born from adversity.” Okay.

Second, less than a year later Mr. Ralston accepted a $17,000 lobbyist-funded trip to Germany for him, his family, and his staff to study high-speed rail. It represented the largest single expenditure by a lobbyist on a legislator in six years. The lobbyist was not from Georgia and was not a registered lobbyist in Georgia. Ouch.

And since then he and his fellow House leaders have laughably argued that Georgia has some of the toughest ethics laws in the country, and that passing a limit on lobbyist gifts would actually make Georgia less ethical.

But Georgians are in no laughing mood. In the upcoming statewide primary, both the Republicans and the Democrats will feature a ballot item asking voters if they favor such a limit on lobbyist spending. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say voters will favor it. Polls show Georgians, by a convincing majority, want and expect such reasonable limits for their public servants.

Maybe it is arrogance that leads politicians to so openly defy the public will. Maybe it is a misreading of public interest and public sentiment. Or it could be a belief, however misguided, that legislators really do deserve special treatment. More than one legislator has said something to the effect of “well the voters keep reelecting me, so it must not be that big a deal.” Sigh.

I challenge any Georgia legislator, in any part of the state, to make that their official slogan during their reelection campaign.

But members of the Georgia state senate are starting to come around. A number of key senators have signed a pledge to support the bill to cap lobbyist gifts. This may be due, at least in part, to an ethics investigation into the senate’s third highest-ranking member and chair of the powerful Rules Committee.

So there’s hope. After all, every Georgian’s real fear should be that the state of Alabama has stronger ethics laws than the Peach State.


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