Saturday, November 3, 2012

Perilously Putting on My Prognosticator's Hat

Tis the season for political prognostication, and while I consider myself a fairly decent handicapper, I must admit that, in all my years of following politics, this is the most difficult political season to handicap.

So, I have been reluctant to make predictions given the volatility we’ve seen in the presidential race, and with the four contentious ballot questions Marylanders will be voting on next Tuesday.

Still, as Rocky Balboa said, “I gotta go out the way I gotta go out.” It is in that spirit that I’m going to take a stab at predicting the outcomes of some of the key races. I’m perfectly aware I may be eating a plateful of crow come Wednesday morning, but why not have a little fun in the meantime?

In a nutshell, I think Mitt Romney wins, the makeup of Maryland’s congressional delegation remains unchanged except for the fact that John Delaney will defeat Roscoe Bartlett, and the three laws and the Prince George’s County casino expansion proposal which are at the heart of the four ballot initiatives are all defeated. Here is my rationale for each call.


In dissecting the presidential campaign, the core question to ask oneself is, “Is this election going to be another 2004, or another 1980?”

For much of the year I tended to see it as the former: A lackluster president narrowly elected over a lackluster challenger. But with Romney revitalizing his image, and the economy again taking center stage, I can now see a 1980 scenario unfolding.

During the first half of the year, I had President Obama at about an 80 percent favorite for reelection based on three factors: 1) the sense that, despite lingering high unemployment, there was a sense of sustained positive momentum in the economy; 2) the Republican candidates competing for the nomination were universally underwhelming; and 3) the defeat of an incumbent president – which has only occurred three times in the past 80 years – is a relative rarity in American politics.

During the second half of the year, two of these factors changed. Job growth slowed to a crawl, and while there is evidence that it has resumed, legitimate questions about the sustainability of the recovery endure. Further, Mitt Romney – who stumbled to the GOP nomination amid a field of deeply-flawed candidates, and missed an opportunity to define himself at the party convention last August – finally got his breakthrough opportunity during the presidential debates in October. Reasonable people can disagree over which candidate won which debate (with the exception of the first one), but it is clear that Romney emerged from the series of debates looking credibly presidential.

Obama retains the advantages inherent in incumbency, as well as his personal likability. Still, it should be mentioned that only one Democratic president since FDR has been reelected, and that was with a plurality and not a majority vote because of the presence of a third party candidate. Further, no president (with the exception of FDR) has been reelected with unemployment at or above 7.9 percent. So if Obama is reelected, he will, in that sense, be defying historical winds yet again.

When I look at the messages which the Obama campaign has been emphasizing during the campaign, I see evidence of weakness. When the economy dipped in the middle of the year, Obama was deprived of his “sustained positive momentum” case for reelection, and was forced to go with a “Mitt is a bad guy” approach, instead. That was the core message in many of the ads which saturated the airwaves in battleground states through much of the summer and into the fall. Romney retroactively inoculated himself from many of these attacks after the debates, effectively reshuffling the campaign deck in the process.

Then,the Obama campaign began employing more distractive tactics, emphasizing Romney’s alleged social conservatism (wheeling out women’s health and gay rights for their wedge issue value), elevating micro issues such as PBS funding and Romney's 47 percent comment (which did not prove to be the silver bullet some of the left clearly thought it would be), and manufacturing gaffes like Romney’s “binders full of women” comment in order to steer the campaign debate away from the economy. As far as I can tell, these attempts to change the subject have not worked, and the persistently bad economy is sticking to Obama the same way it has previous presidents seeking reelection.

As for Romney, his fundamental weakness as a candidate is also his biggest strength. People see him as a chameleon-like figure who ran for U. S. Senate as a liberal in 1994, for governor of Massachusetts as a moderate in 2002, for president as a conservative in 2008, and for president as a hybrid of each this year. This may explain why he took longer to capture the GOP nomination that was clearly going to be his, and some of his difficulties connecting with voters. But it also explains why the Obama campaign's attempts to paint him as a closet ring wing fanatic have failed, too. 

Of course, a presidential election consists of 51 separate elections, and many respected prognosticators have concluded that Obama is a near lock for reelection when one looks at the Electoral College math and battleground states in which polling allegedly shows Obama leading. But I question the veracity of some of these polls for three reasons.

First, many polls assume a turnout model which oversamples Democrats. For example, a recent Quinnipiac poll showed Obama leading in Florida and Ohio. In Florida, the poll showed Obama with a 1 point lead using a D+7 sample. In 2008, turnout was only D+3. In Ohio, the Quinnipiac poll showed Obama with a five point lead with a D+8 sample. Most observers predict an even split among partisans voting in Ohio this year. Overall, polling generally shows GOP voters are far more motivated to vote this year than in 2008, causing me to conclude that some of these estimates of Democratic turnout in 2012 are questionable at best.

Second, Romney is showing strength in a voting bloc that Obama carried in 2008: early voters. Politico reports that Obama seems to be leading, but not by the margin he did in 2008, when John McCain actually won the majority of voters who cast ballots on Election Day. A Gallup poll found Romney up 52 – 46 percent among early voters.

Third, in the vast majority of polls, Obama is polling in the mid- to high-forties, and seems unable to break the 50.1 percent threshold. Experience dictates that undecideds tend to break for challengers rather than incumbents, giving Romney more potential for upward mobility than Obama. 

So, the bottom line is, if you believe much of the state polling, Obama appears poised to win. If you do not and are looking at history and some of the intangibles in this race – for example, 30,000 people attending a rally for Romney in Ohio – you see Romney’s path to victory. I find myself in the latter camp.

Congress, Sixth District

This one is a real snoozer. I think Bartlett would have had a better chance if State Senator Rob Garagiola had been his opponent, because Bartlett could have waged a campaign by proxy against Martin O’Malley, Mike Miller, and the establishmentarians in Annapolis. But Bartlett drew the short straw when his opponent turned out to be soft-spoken, moderate, self-financing financier John Delaney. The Bartlett campaign is citing polls showing both candidates in the low 40s as evidence that the campaign is a toss-up. Everyone knows that undecided voters tend to break for challengers, so for Congressman Bartlett to be mired in the low 40s is a sign of weakness, not competitiveness.

Question 4: Tuition breaks for illegal immigrants

I blogged previously about this measure, and the reasons why I thought it would, and should, ultimately go down. 

The Sun’s Annie Linskey reported during the petition’s signature gathering phase at one point that 30 percent of the signers were Democrats, including 56 percent in Baltimore City, 39 percent in Baltimore County, and 38 percent in Prince George’s County.

Based on this experience, there seems an opportunity for a coalition of Republicans, conservative Democrats, and African Americans to come together to defeat the measure. However, recent Sun polling found support for the DREAM Act narrowly leading 47 – 45 percent statewide. I still think Question 4 is defeated, albeit by a narrow margin, because of greater passion among the bill’s opponents than its supporters (evident during the signature gathering phase), and because there may be a “Bradley Effect” at work here. 

Working in Question 4’s favor is the actual wording which appears on the ballot, which references helping veterans and children and never uses the phrase “illegal immigrant.”

If the DREAM Act survives, then blame rests with the state’s Republican Party, which worked aggressively to collect signatures to get the measure on the ballot, then largely abandoned it once it got there. Republicans have generally treated the Maryland Petitions signature gathering tool like a child’s new tricycle. It’s fun to take it up and down the driveway, but you’re going to need a bigger vehicle if you really want to get somewhere.

Question 5: Redistricting Map

The state’s congressional redistricting map is an example of muscle politics in action, a naked attempt by the state’s ruling Democrats to bump off a GOP congressman and protect its own incumbents into perpetuity. 

Still, I wonder if anyone really cares.

Again, the state GOP deserves some fault here for dropping the ball once they succeeded in unexpectedly getting the map onto the ballot. If this measure has any life at all, it is because Comptroller Peter Franchot and other reformist Montgomery County Democrats have seized the mantle.

You would figure that a redistricting map crafted by Democrats in a two-to-one majority Democratic state would glide to victory. Still, I think voters fall into two categories: People who hate this map, and people who don’t care. I think it passes because the people who hate the map will support its repeal, and those who don’t care may be inclined to undervote.

Question 6: Marriage Equality

I blogged previously about the reasons why I support the state’s marriage equality law, and why I think it will likely be defeated, as 32 similar measures were previously in other states

California’s gay marriage law was defeated in 2008 due to heavy opposition among religious black and Hispanic voters. Black voters comprise 40 percent of the state’s Democratic electorate, and while President Obama’s support for gay marriage caused a spike in support among blacks according to earlier polls, the recent Sun poll finds that blacks now oppose it by a 50 – 42 percent margin.

I think this is another issue where the Bradley Effect may be a factor in some of the polling data. I also think this may be an issue in which religious black voters may be more inclined to listen to their pastors than the president.

Question 7: Expanded Gambling

The Sun poll has the proposal to create a new casino in Prince George’s County and bring table games to the state’s other gambling centers losing resoundingly by a 54 – 39 percent margin. I think that poll is accurate. Despite the oceans of money which have been spent on this issue, I believe neither side in this war of the casino owners has succeeded in getting its message out. All voters have heard is a confusing din. If gambling loses, I think it will have less to do with the substance of the proposal as much as the fact that the two sides have effectively cancelled each other out, and voters are voting no as a default to preserve the status quo.

So, those are my picks. If I am wrong on any of these – especially the first one – I know I will be hearing from some of you. But that’s fair. In the meantime, don’t forget to vote. Your vote always matters…even in deep blue Maryland.

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