Sunday, October 31, 2010

What's the deal about State Legislator elections?

Elections are coming up and we all (at least I do) get excited about watching election night coverage. We have been hearing alot about the upcoming election. Television campaigns, radio spots, and print ads make us think the election is a life or death struggle.

When you go out and vote, I encourage everyone to pay careful attention to some of Election Day's wallflowers who are the most important candidates on the ballot. Governors along with U.S. House and Senate races are the flashy candidates with slick ads and numerous television spots. These races are the prom queens of the election season all deck out in their party's finest attire. The importance of these races pales when compared to the state legislature races.

Do you know anything about the candidates running for election in your state legislature? If you don't, it's okay... most people have no clue who represents them or even their positions on issues.

State legislative candidates are overwhelmed by the glamour of their cousins running for offices in the national legislative branch. I urge everyone to check out these forlorn state legislative elections which often get shoved into the background on Election Day. The truth of the matter is these elections are the key to your state's political future.

If you don't believe me, answer this one questions: "Who is in charge for redistricting for your state?" Answer: state legislatures.

The party that controls your state legislature controls how the U.S. House seats will be redrawn for the next ten years until the next census. Some states like Florida, Texas, Arizona, and California will likely gain seats. Others such as Pennsylvania, Illinois, New York and Ohio are poised to lose seats in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Whether your state is a winner or a loser, their state legislature will divide the state into districts to represent their new allocation. The shape and configuration of these new districts will be heavily influenced by the partisan composition of the state legislature.

Think of it this way... Texas is likely going to gain 3-4 new House seats. Since the state legislature is controlled by the Republican Party, who do you think those new seats are going to favor in the next election cycle?

There is serious swan potential in these ugly duckling state legislature races. No matter which party you root for, take some time and check out your candidates. They have the most powerful jobs on the entire ballot. The U.S. House races may have their glamour, but the state legislative races control jobs and party futures in your state.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

NPR and Juan Williams, Part 2

The story of the firing of Juan Williams by NPR has stirred more controversy than I had imagined when I first wrote about it last Thursday. Several questions have been raised during this controversy, such as:
  • Was Williams fired because he appears on Fox News?
  • Was this incident evidence of an out-of-touch elite in this country?
  • Was this incident evidence that NPR has a liberal bias?
  • Should NPR no longer receive government funds?
These four questions that are intertwined in many ways. The Williams firing provides us with an opportunity to look at some of these issues.

NPR's original announcement of Williams' firing said it was due to the incident on The O'Reilly Factor. After the firing became more controversial, however, NPR explained that it was not for one single incident, but a pattern of behavior that led to the firing. According to NPR CEO Vivian Schiller, Williams is a “news analyst” and, as such, “may not take personal public positions on controversial issues; doing so undermines their credibility as analysts, and that’s what’s happened in this situation.” If that is the case, NPR certainly had cause to terminate Williams' contract. Williams engages in opinion journalism often on Fox News and takes personal public positions on controversial issues, and has been doing so for a long time. NPR should expect certain standards from its journalists even when they don't appear on NPR. And, it is appropriate to distinguish between analysis and opinion journalism.

What makes Schiller's claim dubious, however, is the inconsistency and selectivity with which she is applying this standard. NPR noted in its original announcement of the firing that Williams' position was “shifted from staff correspondent to analyst after he took clear-cut positions about public policy on television and in newspaper opinion pieces.” This sounds like analysts are allowed, and expected, to engage in opinion journalism. Additionally, there are other journalists that take positions on controversial issues on other news programs, and even on NPR programs. Nina Totenberg, for instance, appears on other talk show programs where she engages in opinion journalism, and she is not even considered a news analyst. Totenberg's title is “correspondent,” the same as Williams before he started engaging opinion journalism. (You can listen to what Totenberg has to say, and not say, about the Williams' firing on the October 24, 2010 episode of Inside Washington.) Also, the late “News Analyst” Daniel Shore, used to have an opinion commentary on NPR about once a week. So, why hasn't NPR fired Totenberg, and why was Shore considered a News Analyst if that title is bestowed upon those who are only to analyze the news without giving their personal opinion?

The reason provided for Williams firing does not appear, therefore, to be the real reason. In several interviews after the incident, Williams, and others, have claimed that the real reason was that Williams appears on Fox News. In a blog post on the incident, NPR Ombudsman Alicia Shepard repeatedly points to Williams' appearances on Fox News when describing the reason for the firing. She said, for instance,

Williams’ appearances on Fox News, especially O’Reilly’s show, have caused heartburn repeatedly for NPR over the last few years. Management said he’s been warned several times that O’Reilly is a professional provocateur and to be careful.

And, “NPR's values emphasizing fact-based, objective journalism versus the tendency in some parts of the news media, notably Fox News, to promote only one side of the ideological spectrum” [emphasis in original]. Shepard is not involved in programming or personnel decisions, but she did note that she gleaned this information from discussions with management at NPR. So, Williams' appearances on Fox News appear to be the most likely explanation for his firing.

Some outside of NPR management have also suggested that Williams should not have been appearing on both Fox News and NPR. Liberal columnist E.J. Dionne, appearing on Meet the Press, said,

What [NPR management] should've said is sat Juan Williams down, he's done a lot of good work for them, and say, "Look, you have a choice here. Look at the context you were on with O'Reilly. You could barely get your points out in the middle of the propaganda. Do you want to work for Fox, that's OK, but--or you want to work for us, that's OK. But you've got to decide," if I may use Fox's slogan.

What is the reasoning, I wonder, that one should not appear on both Fox News and NPR? Dionne was not asked to explain his statement, but it seems to me a strange position for a liberal to take. He is not the only liberal to take this position. For the last few years, some liberal bloggers and groups have criticized Williams and Mara Liasson for appearing on Fox News. Also, during the 2008 presidential primaries, the Democratic candidates were asked by some liberal groups to boycott Fox News by not appearing on any of their shows. All of the front-runners obliged, but the boycott was quickly forgotten when Obama was running in the general election and needed to reach a broader audience.

Liberals value free and open debates, and diversity. Boycotting Fox News is an illiberal position for a liberal to take. Plus, if you want to advance a liberal point of view, why would you avoid an opportunity to speak to the unconverted? Liberals should be encouraging more liberals to appear on Fox News, rather than boycotting, or suggesting they must choose between Fox News and NPR.

Additionally, if you are a Democrat, you should want Democrats, like Williams, to appear on Fox News. Next Tuesday, Democrats are likely to lose a lot of seats in Congress. The seats they are losing are the conservative districts that likely contain many Fox News viewers. Fox News is the most popular news channel and The O'Reilly Factor is the most popular news program. Why would you pass on an opportunity to speak to the voters who watch these shows?

Do we want a situation in this country where only conservatives watch and appear on conservative programs and only liberals watch and appear on liberal programs? (We're not far from this situation already.) Debate is healthy for a democracy. Let us not discourage it by suggesting that liberal commentators must choose between Fox News and NPR.

One of the reasons this story has gained so much traction is that it fit into the storyline, mostly heard from the Tea Party Movement, that influential institutions (government, Wall Street, and the media, for example) are controlled by elites who are out of touch with the rest of America. Schiller helped perpetuate this storyline when she fired Williams for describing feelings that many Americans would have, namely, a moment of anxiety if they were to see someone wearing a Burqa at an airport. Schiller further inflamed the situation by suggesting that Williams should see a psychiatrist for having those feelings (a comment for which she later apologized). 

The management at NPR seemed out of touch with most of the country for their firing of Williams and the insensitivity with which the firing was handled. This is not evidence, however, of an overall polarization of the country, with elites on one side and non-elites on the other, because NPR received much criticism from both elites and non-elites, conservatives and liberals. If this country is controlled by a bunch out out-of-touch elites, this incident certainly doesn't prove it.

The other two questions raised by this issue are whether NPR has a liberal bias and whether NPR should be receiving government funds. I'll leave those issues for another post. Stay tuned. 

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Guest Post: Where do Florida Senate Candidates Stand on Senate Filibusters?

The following is a guest post from Michael Martinez, Professor of Political Science and department chair at the University of Florida. He studies elections, voting behavior, and public opinion.  


Florida media outlets have done a reasonable job informing voters about the issues in the U.S. Senate race. But voters also should know whether Charlie Crist, Kendrick Meek, and Marco Rubio support reforming the Senate itself. Currently, a minority of 41 Senators can block votes on most legislation and nominations. Several of President Bush's judicial nominations were delayed for years by a minority of Senate Democrats who refused to allow the nominations to come to a vote, and a minority of Senate Republicans has stalled consideration of many of President Obama's initiatives.

Several proposed reforms would weaken the minority’s power to obstruct votes. One would reduce the votes needed to break a filibuster, and another would require the 41 Senators objecting to a vote to actually be present on the Senate floor.

Before we know which party will have a majority in the Senate as a result of this election, we should ask each candidate whether he favors reform of the Senate itself.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Oh, Florida: The Senate Race Calculus

If the election for the U.S. Senate in Florida were held today, two things likely would happen. First, Republican Former House Speaker Marco Rubio would win easily. Second, a majority of Floridians would vote for someone other than Rubio.

This apparent contradiction is the product of a three-way race between Rubio, Democratic Congressman Kendrick Meek and Governor Charlie Crist, who is running as an independent. In most polls, Rubio leads the race, with Crist in second and Meek trailing by a substantial margin. Together, the vote for Meek and Crist surpasses Rubio, but in our democracy, electoral addition generally is frowned upon.

The race presents an interesting quandary for Democrats. Meek clearly is the most consistent — and technically only — Democrat in the race. He has been a loyal Democrat during his career in the House and would in all likelihood be a predictably consistent vote for the Obama administration in the Senate. Yet, barring an unlikely surge of truly epic proportions, Meek is not going to win the race.

That leaves Democrats to consider Governor Crist. The Republican-turned-independent also trails in the race, but by smaller margins, making his victory unlikely, but certainly possible. Crist successfully has championed Democratic issues, including the environment, reproductive choice and education. While not as predictable a pro-Democratic voter as Meek, he presents a far more palatable choice for Democrats than Tea Party favorite Rubio.

Hence, the choice: Do Democrats rally behind Meek in a show of party unity, with the likely outcome of sending Rubio to the Senate for the next six years? Or, do they abandon the loyal Democrat Meek for Governor Crist in an attempt to block the Republican and Tea Party surge in the Senate?

Some leading Democrats have endorsed Governor Crist, including former Congressman and liberal icon Robert Wexler and Palm Beach County Commissioner Burt Aaronson. National Democrats like former President Bill Clinton and Vice President Joe Biden have rallied behind Meek. In the meantime, Rubio has held steady, benefitting from divisions in the opposition, and continues to march toward victory.

Strangely, in the year of the Republican surge, this race rests almost entirely in the hands of the Democrats. It is the Democrats who can push Crist to victory and block Rubio. Politics often is about making choices, not between what you desire versus what you don’t desire, but between options that are far from ideal. Democrats will have to choose between what they want, or what they can actually get.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Was NPR Correct to Fire Juan Williams?

National Public Radio fired Juan Williams, its political analyst of many years, this morning for statements he made about Muslims on The O'Reilly Factor. Williams remarked,
I'm not a bigot. You know the kind of books I've written about the civil rights movement in this country. But when I get on the plane, I got to tell you, if I see people who are in Muslim garb and I think, you know, they are identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried. I get nervous. Now, I remember also that when the Times Square bomber was at court, I think this was just last week. He said the war with Muslims, America's war is just beginning, first drop of blood. I don't think there's any way to get away from these facts.
First of all, I've been a long time admirer of Juan Williams. He often speaks with a degree of honesty that is refreshing among reporters. Also, he is a true professional in his craft. He is careful to keep his reporting of the news and his opinion journalism (he does both) separate--not an easy task. When he appears on Fox News Sunday to present his liberal viewpoint, he does so by being combative without being uncivil--also not an easy task. So, I was shocked to hear that he was fired.

Having said that, let's get to the question I posed in the title. Upon closer inspection, it appears that NPR has rushed to judgment in its firing of Williams. Bloggers and pundits from the left and right have already taken a look at the full context of Williams' comments (see links below) and concluded that they were taken out of context. The quote you read above was a setup for a larger point he was trying to make. Williams was saying, in effect, we all have certain prejudices, even I have prejudices, such as my reaction when I see someone in Muslim garb, but (and this is the larger point that got cut) we need to recognize those prejudices so we can move past them.

Some have already pointed to the similarities between this incident and the Shirley Sherrod incident. Sherrod, you may recall, was also telling a personal story about her own prejudice, but that story was told to convey her message that we need to recognize our prejudices so we can confront and correct them. The admission of her personal prejudice was shown across the Internet with the second part of her message left out. Sherrod was quickly dismissed from her position at the Department of Agriculture by those who did not bother to view her words in the context of the entire speech. Apologies came later as the mistake was discovered. I wonder if NPR will end up apologizing to Williams and offering him his job back as the Agriculture Department did with Sherrod?

I'm concerned that another lesson may be learned from these two incidents coming so close together, however. Namely, public figures should never admit to having personal prejudices. This would be a horrible. As Williams and Sherrod were both trying to point out, we all have prejudices, and hiding that fact is not the answer to overcoming them. NPR and the Department of Agriculture have done us all a great disservice in their rash judgment. Because of their actions, fewer public figures will say what needs to be said.

Also see:

"Shirley Not Again: The left is doing to Juan Williams what the right did to Shirley Sherrod."

Doug Mataconis, "What Juan Williams Has In Common With Shirley Sherrod." 

Update: The NPR contact page has been shut down due to user volume. NPR encourages the use its Twitter and Facebook pages to let your thoughts known.

Williams appeared on Fox News to discuss his firing. You can watch that here.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Top 5: Websites for Undecided Voters, 2010

The election is less than three weeks away (November 2). Do you know who you are voting for? These websites can help.
  1. Your Local Newspaper: While most of the news you're hearing is about the congressional elections, you will most likely also have several state and local elections on the ballot. Ironically, these races will likely have more impact on your day to day life than the national races, but you know less about them. Your local newspaper will probably be your best source to learn more about these races. 
  2. Find out who is donating to the candidate's campaigns.
  3. and Find out if what the candidates are saying is true. 
  4. The New York Times politics page: There is a ton of useful information here. You can find out who the candidates are in each House, Senate, or Governor's race complete with campaign contributions, polling data, and district demographics, just to name a few. 
  5. CNN Election Center: Learn about the top issues and what is at stake in this election. Click on "My Election" near the top, enter your zip code, and you will find a lot of information directly related to your state and congressional district. 
Related Posts:
Top 5: Websites for Undecided Voters, 2008

    Tuesday, October 12, 2010

    Guest Post: Learning from Burning: A Social Science Perspective on Fire Protection

    The following is a guest post from Jeremy Castle. Jeremy is a graduate student in political science at the University of Notre Dame. His research interests include the political behavior of religious Americans and partisan change. Castle can be contacted via email at
    A recent news story reported that Tennessee firefighters stood by as a Gene and Paulette Cranick's home burned because they had not paid the $75 fire protection fee that the town requires of those who live outside its limits. The firefighters prevented the fire from spreading to the neighbors' dwelling, but did not attempt to put it out completely. Much has been written about the absurdity of the situation (see the story).

    What does social science have to say about this case? Fire protection can come in two forms: public good or toll good. In economic terms, a public good is nonexcludable (meaning owned in common) and nonrival (meaning once you have used it, others can still enjoy it). To prevent the problem of free riding, or people taking advantage of the good without paying, the organizations that provide public goods use a form of coercion to ensure payment. Most people in the United States pay taxes that are used to support local fire departments. Thus, for most people in America, fire protection is a public good.

    However, in the case of the Cranick family, fire protection was a toll good. Toll goods are excludable (owned by one or a few) and nonrival. The owners of toll goods can charge a fee for non-owners to use their service. The problem is that some people will not pay the fee, either because they forget or because they choose not to. Would a phone company allow a nonsubscriber to use its service if it was an emergency? Certainly not. It the phone company did allow nonsubscribers to use their service in emergencies, fewer people would pay for their service and the company might become unprofitable or even go bankrupt. The same logic applies to the fire department in question. While not putting out the fire may seem unethical, the fire department was simply responding to the incentives of its business model.

    The case of the Cranicks shows what many policy makers and social scientists realize: fire protection is best provided as a public good. By taxing everyone enough to support a fire department, communities can make sure that no one's home will burn while firefighters stand by because of unpaid bills.