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District Elections – Green Dragon
Oct 242012

As always happens at the end of a high-profile election cycle, the world is a-Twitter (heh) with polls these days. Those of us who concern ourselves with such things breathlessly watch for each new bloc of data, sifting the crosstabs and sampling characteristics in attempts to read which way the trends are going, both nationally and state-by-state.

This post isn’t really about that. If you want good information on the state of the Presidential election, I commend you to Nate Silver at the New York Times and The Princeton Election Consortium as places for a well-reasoned look.

This is more about the limits of polling as an election predictor. Polls are useful tools, but there are people they can’t reach. They have to make guesses about who will vote and who won’t, and sometimes those guesses are wrong. Disparities between the results of different polls are usually a combination of simple margin error (the luck of the draw relating to the particular people they happened to talk with), plus the differences in those guesses made by the various polling organizations.

Elections can have surprising results when more of one group of people turns out than pollsters anticipated. This can happen because of a unique motivating factor (say, African-Americans turning out for Barack Obama in 2008, or women voting in this election out of concern over reproductive and health care rights), or simply because pollsters guessed incorrectly about the interest level of that voting bloc and the capacity of the campaigns to turn them out to the polls.

In this election, all of these factors devolve to the benefit of Barack Obama. Here’s why:

Pollsters need to decide who they think will vote, and who won’t. They do this by applying what is called a “likely voter” screen to their data, selecting a subset of all the responses they received that represents an accurate representative sample, as they see it, of the larger electorate. The problem with this is that there are people who do not meet the criteria pollsters set to define a “likely voter” based on their past history, but who may very well turn out to vote. And there are others the pollsters simply have a very hard time reaching.

This is a real thing. Barack Obama’s victory in 2008 was characterized by a wave of turnout by people of whom the conventional political wisdom was that they simply don’t vote in significant numbers. Likewise, Harry Reid’s retention of his Senate seat in 2010—the wave year of the Tea Party, in a purple state—was unforeseen by pollsters like Silver, whose track record in that election was otherwise sterling, and reflected Latino turnout none of the pollsters had anticipated.

Now let’s take a look at the Invisible Vote. Who are these people?

  • They’re new registrants: pollsters don’t have their contact information yet.
  • They’re the young, who haven’t been old enough to vote for long enough to be seen as “consistent” or “likely” voters.
  • They’re those who have only a mobile phone, but no land lines—which also tends to be younger voters.
  • They’re minorities who may be under-responsive to polling…and whose turnout is consistently underestimated in this election cycle.

Note that all of these constituencies, if they vote, are much more likely to vote for Barack Obama than for Mitt Romney. Romney’s voters tend to be older, white, male, social conservatives, and the affluent. All those groups have a far stronger history of turning out, and they easily meet the likely voter screen of pollsters. They aren’t off the radar: often, they are treated as the “norm” against which other constituencies are compared.

What this means is that Romney doesn’t have a pile of surprise supporters out there. His supporters are being counted in the polls…if anything, they are being overcounted, as the significance of these constituencies as a slice of the overall vote mix is often exaggerated.

Barack Obama, however, has thick veins of gold just waiting out there for him to mine. He did so in 2008 and his ground game is better this time than last. Yes, some enthusiasm has dropped off, especially among the young who thought he was going to deliver them their every dream. But thanks to Facebook and Twitter, everyone knows who Mitt Romney is now, and even if they’ve soured a bit on the President, they know he is bad news.

The Latino vote will be critical for the President’s chances in Nevada and Colorado, and he is currently polling at 3 to 1 over Romney with Hispanic voters. Special effort is being made both by the Obama campaign and by Latino organizations to register Latino citizens to vote, and to ensure that they do. If, as I believe, Latino turnout is higher than pollsters have projected, it will certainly be to Obama’s benefit.

Thus far, the Obama campaigns efforts to mobilize what pollsters may consider unlikely voters appears to be working. Early voting in places like Ohio and North Carolina show thus far that higher proportions of these constituencies are turning out than projected; higher numbers, in fact, than in 2008…while every pollster has assumed that minority and youth turnout will be lower this year than it was then.

Looking at the landscape today, Obama is still winning. He weathered Romney’s bump, his numbers are rising in the horse-race and, more importantly, extending his margins in most of the battlefield states, while Romney needs to run the table of such states to win. Right-leaning Real Clear Politics (which refuses to acknowledge even Michigan and Pennsylvania as in the President’s pile of safe states, when they certainly are) and the bizarre outlier results of Gallup recently notwithstanding, anyone not directly committed to the Romney campaign acknowledges that Obama is in the driver’s seat now, particularly after Romney’s unPresidential, amateur-hour showing in the foreign policy debate.

There are no grassroots pots of gold for Romney to find to help him win, whereas they are abundant for the President. The Invisible Vote may very well be the factor that tips some states his way, and ushers him to a second term.

On publication, the Dragon was: SEEING VOTERS. THEY’RE EVERYWHERE.

Oct 232012


Here’s what I know about the conspiracy theories that “both candidates are controlled by the same Powers”, or that the elections will be stolen through mysterious machine tampering: to the people who embrace them, they are both pleasurable and comforting.

Pleasurable, because they are self-congratulatory: “I’m too smart to be fooled. I know what’s REALLY going on.” Nice stroke to the old ego.

But more insidiously, they are comforting because they absolve their supporters of any responsibility.

If it’s all determined by corrupt conspiracies beyond our control, well, then, we don’t have to feel responsible for the outcomes, do we? And we don’t have to bother to make an effort to get out the vote…or even bother to vote ourselves.

So convenient. Their hands are clean, you see?

That self-congratulation is misplaced, and the excuse-making scurry from responsibility is cowardice. A lot of people have died to be able to vote, and once they could, things changed. You think we’d have Title IX if women never got the vote? Anti-discrimination laws if black people had never been able to vote? Regulations on polluters, if only the “corporate powers” really had any influence?

That storyline is a weak set of excuses, and it needs to stop.

Our system is far from perfect, but our votes DO determine who serves in office. And those people DO make the decisions about issues like those I listed.

Those who hope for equality, justice, and curbing the excesses of power and private interest in the name of the public interest have always been the underdogs. Honestly, they always will be—though there is a lot we can do to improve the system, starting with getting rid of Citizens United.

Corporate power and the influence of the wealthy is, and always will be.

But the idea that we can’t do anything at all—that elections are a charade, so we shouldn’t bother with anything but empty gestures—is a sorry way for the people of this time to avoid their turn to shoulder the banners of the suffragettes, of John Brown and WEB DuBois and MLK and Joe Hill and Emma Goldman and Eugene Debs, of Rachel Carson and David Brower, of the women who led the garment workers’ strikes in NYC and the miners of Ludlow and Matewan, of Chavez and Milk.

It’s a sorry set of self-congratulating excuses, and I have no patience for it. Too many have died over too many years to bring about too much progress for those who inherited all their advances to throw them away through laziness and self-satisfaction. It’s wrong, and it needs to be called out.

Smugness is the farthest thing from what you should be feeling if you buy into this crap. Quit kidding yourself. Get down from your high horse, stop telling yourself how smart you are for “seeing behind the curtain”, and do the work of being a member of this society.


At publication, the Dragon was FED UP

Oct 102012

One result of the widespread cynicism about public institutions that grew out of the Sixties era—combined with the thirty-year Republican war on government’s capacity to do its job—is a large number of people who state proudly that they do not vote, or who choose to vote for minor-party candidates who have no possibility of reaching office.

Typically, their arguments include one or more of these elements:

Conspiracy theory. “Shadowy Powers really call all the shots in our world, and the elections are just a show.”

Cherry-picking complaint. “My issue is X and the major parties are lousy on that, so if I vote at all, I’m voting for Righteous McFringerton of the Thoroughly Groovy Party.”

Overgeneralized false equivalence. “Both major parties are the same. They’re controlled by the same people, so it doesn’t matter who you vote for.” On the left, the supposed puppeteers are “the rich” and “corporations”; on the right you get “special interests,” which is code for racial and sexual minorities, public interest nonprofits, and unions.

Strategic fantasy. “I vote third party because we have to start somewhere, and the two mainstream parties are lost causes. One day, the Good Stuff Party will be a major force in this country.”

I’ve been asked by several people how I would make a case to such folk that there is good reason for them to vote, and to vote for a candidate with an actual chance of winning. This post is in response to these requests.

To begin with we have to recognize that people who make these arguments do so because at root, they feel powerless. They prefer to believe that they are “in the know”, unlike the “sheeple” that make up most of the public, because it allows them to feel good about themselves in the context of that powerlessness. They have chosen this stance as a preferable alternative to grappling with complex issues and an electoral system in which most of us can only play a tiny role.

So please read the following responses with the caveat that rational argument cannot trump an emotional impulse. Many who express these beliefs simply aren’t persuadable: they need their shelter too much to give it up.

On “they’re all run by the same Powerful Interests”: I don’t think anyone disagrees that there are powerful interests which swing disproportionate weight in this country. But 100 years ago, it was far worse: mining and railroads and heavy industry were completely in charge. They openly bought and sold votes…and politicians.

But somehow, voters managed to do a lot of things those interests didn’t want to see happen. They elected reformers who started regulating those industries. They passed child labor and workplace safety laws, and the 40-hour work week, and guaranteed insurance for our bank deposits, and legal equality for minorities, and air and water quality protections, and invented the national park. Those voters and the people they elected are the reason you don’t have lead pipes delivering your drinking water or arsenic dusted on your food to deter spoilage. They’re the reason we have Social Security and Medicare, which are probably keeping some of your relatives afloat right now.

Powerful interests fought against all of those things, but they lost. Just a couple of years ago, those big interests lost on issues like the health care bill and the Wall Street reform bill, even though they spent millions on lobbyists trying to stop them.

Did we get all of what we wanted? No. But what we got made things a lot better than they were previously, and those interests hated every bit of it. That is what can happen if we put people in office who feel more loyal to us than they do to those interests. And the only way to do that is to vote for them.

A lot of men and women were terrorized, jailed and murdered to get the power you’re saying there’s no point in using. They knew voting mattered. Getting the vote meant the difference between oppression and freedom, between hope and despair, and in many cases between life and death for those people and their kids. The interests who tried to keep them from getting it knew it, too, because sure enough, when those who had been shut out of the election booth finally got the power to vote, things changed.

Think about it: whatever your opinion of him, Barack Obama could never have been President if African Americans had never been allowed to vote or run for office. That proves that voting matters, even when powerful interests are on the other side.

Sure, Exxon and the Koch Brothers have a lot of influence in our politics…but so do millions of ordinary people, if they gather together around what they care about, and back candidates who mostly agree with them and have a chance of winning.

I’m not saying the system can’t be improved. But it could also be a lot worse. To me, the excessive power of the wealthy and powerful business interests is even more reason to work to elect people who will push back against them.

On the major parties (or the President) being wrong on My Pet Issue (usually, pot legalization):  You know, you can’t expect the political system to be like a genie granting you wishes. You have to fight for what you want, and sometimes it can take a long time before you get it. In the meantime, the idea that just because your issue isn’t making much progress right now means that voting isn’t worth bothering with at all doesn’t make much sense, does it?

That’s like saying you’re willing to starve to death because your favorite food isn’t on the menu.

Look at it this way: there are more than 300 million people in this country. In anything even somewhat resembling a real democracy, government has to listen both to you and to people who completely disagree with you. So outcomes are going to be somewhere in the middle. Nobody gets everything they want.

But the only people who get to make those decisions are the ones who are in office. If you help elect someone in the name of an issue you care about, that official has to pay attention to it. Being a part of a winning campaign puts you in a position to make progress on the things you care about.

Incidentally, what about everyone else? If politics are making progress on your top issue progress difficult, don’t you have friends or family who care just as much about other issues? Like a woman’s right to choose, or the environment, or civil equality, or the cost of a college education, or taxes, or war? Why wouldn’t you help elect someone who can help make the difference for them?

On “both major parties are the same.” You know, back in the 1990s this was somewhat true. But now it is completely untrue. The Republican Party has become a raving gang of right-wing extremists. On any major issue you can name, there are huge differences between them and Democrats.

If they’d had a Republican President, Congress would never have ended Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. Republicans are trying to reinstate it right now, and permanently ban gay marriage anywhere in the country with a Constitutional amendment. Republican leaders complain that we ended the war in Iraq. They want to go back to a system that allows health insurance companies to drop your coverage if you use it. Their solution to all problems is to give more money to the rich, even though that’s been proven a disaster for most Americans. Many of them want to eliminate public education, take away any meaningful help for people in their old age, make homosexuality a crime, force women to have babies against their will, even if conceived by rape, and sell off most of our national parks and public lands. They deny that climate change exists. The list goes on, and it is ugly.

There is a difference. There is a tremendous difference, and pretending there isn’t doesn’t make you look smart or knowledgeable.

If nothing else, think about the Supreme Court. Republicans have appointed a narrow, 1-vote majority of hard-right Court Justices which handed the White House to George W. Bush even though Al Gore won the election, which have taken away much of our right to privacy, and which approved unlimited corporate expenditure in political campaigns. They’re getting ready to make important decisions on issues like abortion rights and even access to birth control. The next President will appoint at least one Justice to the Court, and maybe as many as three. That will lock in the direction of the Court—and our rights—for decades. Several of the current Court majority believe that government has every right to police what you’re allowed to do in your bedroom. If for no other reason, don’t you think that’s a good reason to vote for the guy on the other team, who doesn’t agree with that stuff?

On the fantasy of “building a national third party”. At the local level, sometimes third parties can bring new ideas and shake things up. That’s not a bad thing. But at the national level, history says they’re a counterproductive strategy, and a formula for failure.

The United States settled into a two-party system shortly after the Civil War, and the only effect third parties have had since was to split the vote and hand elections to the people the third-party advocates disagreed with most.  Ross Perot and his Reform Party split the Republican Party twice, and gave the White House to Bill Clinton. John Anderson undermined Jimmie Carter, and we got Reagan. The Green Party’s Ralph Nader drew away enough voters from Al Gore in Florida to give the election to George W. Bush, thus providing us the unnecessary Iraq War, a draconian Patriot Act, a smoking crater of an economy, and a shameful reputation on the international stage, all of which wouldn’t have happened if Nader hadn’t been running. Heck, you can go back to Teddy Roosevelt’s Bull Moose Party in 1912, which split the Republicans and handed the White House to Woodrow Wilson.

It doesn’t work. It’s been tried repeatedly. It’s a failing strategy.

Oh, and if you think you’re “making a statement”? You are, but it’s not the one you think. By and large, elected officials write off those who vote for third parties as fringe extremists and cranks who may safely be ignored. Voting for a third party makes you and your issues less influential, not more.

Please: think like an adult. You don’t get to have the ideal government in your mind. It isn’t the political process’ job to hand you your wish list on a platter. This is a complicated world full of shades of grey. It isn’t about “the lesser of two evils,” it’s about choosing the best of the available options.

Third party candidates aren’t real options. They’re castles in the air. The only possible effect of chasing them is to undermine the issues you claim to care about. In other words, to make things worse.

Finally, I find that this tends to make advocates of the conspiracy theory sit up and take notice:

You’re being used. The Republican Party has been encouraging cynicism about government and the political system for more than 40 years, because most of us disagree with their policies, and they can’t win if we turn out and vote for Democrats. And you’re playing right into their plan.

Why do you think they’re pouring so much effort into trying to suppress the vote in areas that vote Democratic? Why would they bother if the outcome isn’t important? C’mon: business guys don’t pour millions of dollars into something that doesn’t really matter.

So wise up: vote, and do it for candidates who 1) have a shot at winning; and 2) you agree with: not on everything, but on most things.

How hard is it, after all? What on Earth can it hurt?

At publication, the Dragon was PASSIONATE

Sep 192012

My column in today’s North Bay Bohemian:

District elections will finally bring democracy to Santa Rosa

All you need to know about the opposition to Measure Q, which would enable each region of Santa Rosa to elect its own city council representative, is “Who?” “Where?” and “Why?”

Who is campaigning against Measure Q, or opposed putting it on the ballot? Here’s a sample: Herb Williams, campaign manager for dozens of developer-backed candidates; Janet Condron, former city councilwoman who earned failing grades on the Sonoma County Conservation Action environmental report card; Doug Bosco, former congressman and behind-the-scenes powerbroker.

Where do they live? In affluent areas of east Santa Rosa.

That’s no coincidence. Since Santa Rosa’s founding, councilmembers have come almost exclusively from wealthy eastside neighborhoods, their campaigns financed by business and development interests.

Why? Because the current system suits Santa Rosa’s power elite just fine. They have controlled a majority of the city council for all but two years in living memory. While advocates for neighborhoods, inclusion and quality of life fought unsuccessfully to be heard, these council majorities cheerfully rubber-stamped proposals ranging from expanding an asphalt plant in the middle of town to ridgetop McMansions in Skyhawk.

Right now, every Santa Rosa City Council election is a pitched battle between bags of business community cash on one side and outspent, grassroots campaigns for neighborhood and environmental advocates on the other. Those loyal to the wishes of ordinary voters are outgunned, and they usually lose.

If that’s democracy, it’s democracy Citizens United–style. The game is rigged to favor candidates funded by interests who hope to profit from city council decisions.

Giving each region of the city its own representative will give people-powered campaigns a fighting chance. City council members will be more accountable to voters, not special interests. And when a neighborhood has a concern, they’ll have an advocate at city hall.

Real democracy in Santa Rosa is long overdue. Vote yes on Measure Q.