In search of momentum

Progress 7/12/12

Turning on to watch the new season of comedy series Louie I saw my first presidential election advert. Living in true blue Boston MA I figured the only reason the president must be spending money here is that he wants to annoy his opponent on his home turf. The ad boldly cast President Obama as the in-sourcer and Gov Romney as the out-sourcer. Replete with blue and red colours, pictures of closed mills and Romney’s company Bain Capital flashing ominously across the screen, it fitted nicely into the glut of superhero movies that Hollywood is churning out at the moment.

Having studied at the Kennedy School this year, I have seen my fair share of political ads and this one fitted into the standard compare-and-contrast to demonstrate the negatives of one’s opponent. With the employment figures stubbornly refusing to turn in the president’s favour it is little wonder the campaign chooses this spot above others.

Yet I could not help feeling disappointed that a few days after the president’s signature policy had passed through the Supreme Court in a surprise victory for the administration, the ad ignored it. Rather then seeing the airwaves dominated with the fact that every American can now be insured (regardless of birth defects or pre-conditions) the message did not shift.

The very absence of healthcare from the president’s pitch for his re-election demonstrates the phenomenal messaging job that the GOP has managed since it was tabled in the first two years of the administration. The policy is so radioactive to the public that even the fact that Judge Roberts crossing the aisle to save it will did not make a difference in its popular appeal. And the fact that the Republicans in Congress managed to stop the vast majority of the Affordable Care Act taking affect until 2014, handed them licence to bury it in 2010 and 2012.

Taking the president’s historic policy off the table, the GOP has managed to make this election about the economy alone. Foreign policy is but a distraction with the employment and economic challenges the USA faces, much to the annoyance of embassies and policy analysts around DC.

With little to talk about between the Department of Labor’s monthly job figures, process stories and small issues continue to dominate the political news cycle. One in particular that had me fearing for the Obama campaign was their latest fundraising idea.

June marked a month where Romney out-raised Obama by $20m. Never missing a beat, and recognising that the summer marked the beginning of the wedding season in the US, the Obama campaign emailed its supporters the option to switch out a gift registry for a donation to the Obama campaign. Instead of gifts to a newly wedded couple, give to the president’s reelection bid.

As someone who is getting married to a diehard fan of the president in a month, I can tell you that the best way to demotivate your young, poor, recent graduates is to steal their wedding gifts.

This odd idea is symptomatic of a campaign that assumes that the momentum is still there and all they need to do is ask. Yet as the election comes down to the wire, supporters are going to need to feel inspired again rather then just tapped for donations.

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Will Orthodox Jews go against their economic interests to vote Republican?

Ha’aretz 06/25/12

Much has been made of the differences between Israel and her Diaspora in the U.S. over the past few years. However, the Jewish Community Study of New York 2011 released earlier this month shows a New York Jewish community that has the same demographic trends as its cousin in Israel.

Orthodox Jews make up around 40 percent of the community, with the Russian Jews making up 10 percent. A staggering 70 percent of children are Orthodox, with the hasidim making up 37 percent of the total of Jewish kids in the New York area.

The Orthodox trends in New York track at even greater rates than in Israel. The Metzilah Center projects that by 2028 a third of all Jewish children in Israel will be haredi; the hasidim have already exceeded that in New York.

There are many different lessons one can take from the 2011 community study. Yet in this crazy election season the question to focus on for now is this: Will the Orthodox Jewish vote go against the community’s economic interests and toward Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney due to his social conservatism?

The famous wealthy Jewish vote, with its unbreakable ties to the Democratic base, has always been an outlier when it came to economic voting. Though higher up in the socio-economic scale, the Jewish vote has been solidly Democratic, even if it would at times ask for them to pay more in tax and redistribute more of their wealth to welfare.

Though much has been made about the “Israel” factor in this election, polling of the Jewish vote shows that the majority of Jews in the U.S. still vote on domestic issues rather than on a single piece of foreign policy. The Orthodox world is no different, with many non- or anti-Zionist voices within it.

Though many of the Orthodox communities feel social affiliates with that of the modern day Republican party, their reliance on community programs that need government grants in order to run puts them at odds with the small government agenda. The Orthodox community has risen to make up 42 percent of the Jewish poor. Poverty has risen 86 percent in Jewish households since the last survey was done. Will they vote Republican even though all economic indicators should place them solidly in the Democratic base?

We will have to wait and see the results of the election. But as the Jewish vote is picked apart, remember not to see Israel as the only dominant factor in a community increasingly diverse in its make up.

140 characters does not make an electoral platform

Progress 6/21/12

With the selection of Mitt Romney as the GOP nominee and the implosion of Americans Elect from the process, unable to find a candidate for their ticket, we know the full set up for the election in November. With the clearing of the field the polls have both candidates jockeying for position, each week being either slightly ahead or behind one another in the national polls. Yet, with what should be a big vision election, with all the economic questions America faces, we are seeing a small idea campaign.

Dominating news cycle after news cycle are the little things, a misspoken phrase in a press briefing, weird facts and conspiracies that will not die.  The speed with which something small can spread through social media and into the news networks is frightening. The pace and fury of this campaign is limiting the ability of the candidates to deal with any of the big policy issues as they bounce from gaffe to gaffe.

America needs to make a decision about its economic future and this election offers them an ability to do this; if the candidates can get past the distractions of dressage horses and celebrity fundraisers.

The lack of vision has been truly extraordinary. A big economic debate that has been playing out in Wisconsin has been seen as a surrogate for the national stage, yet the president chose not to get personally involved.

Unlike elections of the recent past, we are not faced with someone who is aloof vs. a man of the people. Both candidates struggle to connect to the everyman in their own way. There will be no ‘I feel your pain’ moments, nor feel good, beer drinking scenes that don’t smack of political theatre. With two intellectuals in the race one would assume that there would be much to discuss.

The GOP will keep on hoping that creating gridlock in DC and hoping for further economic gloom will be their big win in this race. The Democrats believe that Romney might die a death of a thousand embarrassments.  Neither of these strategies offers anything new to a population that is desperate for new ideas.  The lack of enthusiasm for either of these candidates is palpable despite tremendous efforts to make the campaigns movement-like.

Digital seems to be the great distraction from offering grand visions of what a better America could look like. Is this now the level of politics that we will have to expect in an instant news age?

Winning without bouncing

Progress 7/3/2012

As the dust settles from Super Tuesday, there was a clear delegate winner on the night. Mitt Romney took the lines share of delegates on offer with five clear victories and a single point win in Ohio. He now stands 200 delegates above his nearest rival, Rick Santorum. Though there are still delegate-rich races to come, with the proportional allocation that most states now use, Romney looks to go into the nominating conference with the biggest head of steam, though perhaps without the 1,144 target he needs to lock it up. Super delegates, as in 2008 will soon be under a spotlight and could make the difference.

If this primary was only about delegate numbers last night should have left no one in doubt that Romney is on course to be the GOP nominee. Yet with Santorum winning more conservative states and robbing Romney of a big win in Ohio, a key national bellwether state, the race looks to continue ever onwards. Romney again failed to capture the conservative or evangelist vote, did poorly with blue-collar workers, and benefited from the disorganisation of the other campaigns. The inability to work through the ballot access system in Virginia left only a Romney v Paul ticket in that state, a blessing for the Romney camp on a night that they needed to win across the map.

Ron Paul for all the hype could not muster a win anywhere, losing by over 10 points to Santorum in North Dakota, a state that his strategy was meant to work. Newt Gingrich won his home state, Georgia, and won big taking, a huge swath of delegates from the largest contest of the evening.

The Republican primary system in its current form was designed by former RNC chair Michael Steele to make sure the party activists had a voice in the nomination and to try and build up momentum to whoever was going to be the GOP standard bearer. While the primary system is testing the mettle of the various contenders it is also creating the worrisome phenomenon (if you are Republican) of winning without bouncing. Rather then propel Romney’s numbers onward nationally, each win is seen as a disappointment for what should have been, with this field, a coronation.

Over the past six months Romney’s ratings have plummeted nationally, with his unfavorables 16 points higher than his favorables among independents. In every primary one appeals to the base and the balancing act is not to alienate the centre in the process. Not only has Romney not been rewarded with his conservatism by the base, he has also taken a large hit with the national middle. His muddled silence during the current war on contraception, especially during the ongoing Rush Limbaugh scandal, is killing him with mainstream America.

Meanwhile, quietly and effectively the Obama for America team is rebuilding the national organising machine that served them so well in 2008. The National Journal this week covered the fact that while Romney was the only GOP candidate to have a field operation in Virginia (an office in Richmond), Barack Obama already has dozens of events taking place, has run spring training for activists and has groups across the states phone banking. Across the map you can find hundreds of Obama events taking place every day. The campaign is now looking for data crunchers and computer modellers to build the electoral map, state by state.

The rip-and-run nature of the GOP contest is leaving whole states without field operations of any calibre. Obama won 2008 by building a field network the likes of which had never been seen before. This started even before the first votes were cast in Iowa. The GOP’s navel-gazing has caused them to lose sight of the political reality of their opponent. For all the straw men they put up on the stump speech, the eventual GOP nominee is going to face a democratic incumbent with thousands of paid field staff and hundreds of thousands of volunteers in every state of the union.

A long, drawn-out primary may test a candidate, but if momentum is not built in victory the process merely is a drain on resources and political capital – something that the Obama campaign is banking on.

More than nicknames needed

Progress 27/2/12

Though great nicknames abound, the GOP field has failed to ignite any enthusiasm

The twentieth GOP debate this week attempted to give the voters a lasting impression of the candidates. Though their positions were well rehearsed and their talking points recycled, CNN decided to continue the infotainment with a new round of nicknames, these ones the most outlandish of the season.  Here was Mitt ‘the long distance runner’ Romney, Newt ‘the constant challenger’ Gingrich, Rick ‘the late contender’ Santorum and my personal favorite, Ron ‘the delegate hunter’ Paul.

CNN has taken some ribbing for its ridiculously overproduced introductions but it points to the power that these TV debates have had in this forever-changing field. Now down to four contenders the debate cycles have been seen as the major movers of momentum alongside pocket billionaire money bombs in media markets. The GOP field has felt like a reality show, with contestants being voted out week by week.

The turbulent path that has so far been this nomination process demonstrates the inability of any of the field to truly motivate the GOP base, and has further alienated the independents that are necessary for victory.  In a period of such uncertainty within the American national psyche now was a golden opportunity for a ‘change’ message.

There are still some vain hopes that a saviour will be found in the wings, especially as delegate rich states such as California, New York and Texas will not vote for some weeks, yet the issues of ballot access (needing 10,000 signatures to get on the ballot in some states) make the hurdle near impossible at this late stage.

The Punch and Judy show that has so far been the GOP nomination contest has managed to boo a serving gay solider in Iraq and bring access to contraceptives to the forefront of the national debate. When independents will decide the outcome of this election, charging to the social extremes is not a winning strategy.

The move to the social space is partly due to the upturn in the US economy. Barack ‘the president’ Obama has managed to get unemployment to start trending downwards and the Dow is up to pre-crash highs. Yet with the upturn in the economy the president is still to see the significant bump in the polls to put him anywhere in the ‘safe territory’ in this election.

The long nomination battle provides benefits for both parties, however. For the Democrats, seeing their opponents at war with each other allows them to get on with running the country while the GOP flounder. Whoever triumphs will have had severely depleted their resources.  Yet for the GOP, the fight allows them to stay in the national spotlight and give brand recognition to whoever the candidate is. This nomination fight will harden their eventual nominee for the main event and limit the amount of ‘got you’ moments that the president’s team can dig up.

A chance to break tradition in Iowa

Progress 4/1/12

By a mere eight votes Mitt Romney may be the first Republican presidential candidate to win both Iowa and New Hampshire. This is, of course, if he can stop Newt’s kamikaze mission to implode his candidacy.

In a night that was decided by eight votes, Rick Santorum surge came at the exactly right time to be seen as the anti-Romney going forward. Santorum known mainly for his conservative social agenda also stumps on a populist manufacturing economic message that he hopes can broaden his base.

The momentum that Santorum now is feeling is going to be boosted by two vital factors. First, we have Newt Gingrich stating in no uncertain terms that he congratulates Santorum and that he is going after Romney with ‘the truth’. On both Saturday night and Sunday morning the candidates will debate and Newt will be in his favoured position again: an outsider with not very much to lose. He will throw everything he has at Romney and be an effective block for Santorum.

Though Romney has New Hampshire sewn up, Rick Perry’s announcement that he is suspending his campaign means that if he withdraws Santorum may be able to capture Perry’s base evangelical voters in South Carolina which is the third state to vote in the primary season and be the de facto anti-Mitt candidate.

The person who is most enjoying this latest development in the tumultuous GOP field is President Obama who will face a much-bloodied Mitt Romney or, if Romney slips and Santorum succeeds, a social conservative that sits at the extreme right of the Republican party whose Google search results still will not change if he is the candidate.

If Iowa is to tell us anything this year we can see that the Ames Straw Poll means nothing. Bachmann who won a few months ago came in 6th with five per cent of the vote, gaining only a few more then she did at the straw poll itself. The tactics of Tim Pawlenty who dropped out after a disappointing finish in that poll look even more foolish.

Though only by eight votes, Romney did manage to win Iowa ‘on the cheap’. Whereas in 2008 he had 52 members of staff, spent $10 million and 100 days there, this time around he had four members of staff, spent $5 million and only 18 days there. Perry’s campaign went big and lost huge. He spent a huge $6 million on TV spots for 12,604 votes, translating as over $400 per vote.

All eyes now go to the debate on Saturday night to see how bad the attacks on Romney will be though if he survives the long hall to the nomination he can claim to be the first to carry both Iowa and New Hampshire.

Economic doom in Iowa

Progress 15/8/11

With a win for Michele Bachmann in the bizarre Iowa straw poll grabbing headlines, Tim Pawlenty dropping out of the race and Rick Perry entering it, it was a show of hands that gave me shivers this week.

On Thursday night the GOP held its third presidential debate for candidates in Ames, Iowa. The debate saw Pawlenty and Bachmann duke it out and national frontrunner Mitt Romney walk away unscathed. The major winner of the night, it seemed, were the moderators, whose brutal personal questions led Newt Gingrich to attack Fox News itself.

As the segment on the economy came to a close, the moderator asked for a show of hands if any of the candidates would accept a 10-for-1 deal on spending cuts to tax raises – ie 10 dollars cut from spending programmes for every dollar raised in new taxes.

Every candidate raised their hand against the deal; not one would even consider a tax hike, even if they would slash spending programmes at a ten to one ratio. Even Jon Huntsman, who took the brave decision of backing civil unions for gay couples on stage, could not admit to even considering a tax hike. It should also be noted that Huntsman was the only candidate who supported raising the debt ceiling.

When coming out for civil unions is seen as less of a risk in an Iowa Republican primary then raising taxes, the GOP presidential field clearly has not absorbed the lessons of the downgrade by S & P.

On the contrary – Bachmann claimed that the S & P downgrade had proven her right-  if they had not raised the debt ceiling and just enacted massive cuts, then America would still be a AAA country.

This was, as pointed out by Politico, a little rich seeing as S & P saw fit to mention that it was the rhetoric supporting an allowed default by US lawmakers that made it unique in the AAA countries and was a factor in the down grade.

One would have hoped that the economic warning shot that caused such volatility in the world’s finance markets would have created some self-reflection among the political elite, but it seems impending catastrophe has only added more fuel to the fire.

As the media moves on to cover the new dynamics in the Republican field, the economic doom caused by the partisan politics of Washington seems entrenched. Alongside social issues of abortion and gay marriage, refusal on economic compromise is the newest shibboleth of the Republican party, one so strong not even the most moderate of candidates has the guts to challenge.