Sunday, November 14, 2010

Thoughts on the Bowles-Simpson Debt Commission Report

Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson, the two chairman of President Obama's National Commission on Responsibility and Reform, released a report this week outlining what they thing should be done to get our governments finances in order. Here are some of the highlights of their suggestions:
  • Cut $200 billion in discretionary spending by 2015.
  • Half of which, $100 billion, will be from the Department of Defense's budget.
  • Raise the retirement age for Social Security.
  • Reduce the growth in Social Security payments. (It is currently indexed to wages.)
  • Simplify the tax code by doing away with many deductions, such as the home-mortgage interest deduction and employer provided health care.
  • Abolish many farm subsidies.
  • Cut Medicare spending.
  • Increase the gas tax by 15 cents per gallon.
The rest of the commission will vote on the proposal next week and the full report is due December 1.

The report does a great service by showing what it would actually take to get our fiscal house in order. During the election campaign, many politicians paid lip service to fiscal responsibility, but few would provide details on how they would do that. When you read this report, you can see why. Most of us could find at least one thing in the report that we would find upsetting, and if you're running for office the last thing you want to do is upset voters.

Criticisms of the report have come from both the right and left of the political spectrum. Conservatives don't like the tax increases and cuts to the military; liberals don't like the cuts to Social Security and Medicare. Here are some things to keep in mind, however, as you follow this story:

The biggest parts of the federal budget are Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and Defense. We can't make big cuts in spending without cuts in the areas where we spend the most. If we say that any one these are off the table, then we would have to make even more dramatic cuts in the other areas.

Everyone likes the idea of simplifying the tax code in principle, but not in practice. “Simplify the tax code, Congress, just don't touch the part that benefits me!” This is the message members of Congress get from their voters, and is the reason the tax code has not been simplified already.

Most of these deductions in the tax code simply distort the market and give preferences to certain people over others. Let us use the most popular deduction as an example—the home mortgage interest deduction. This deduction gives a preference to those who have a home mortgage over those who rent or own their home. Why should those with a mortgage be favored over those without? By including this deduction, home renters and those who owe nothing on their home have to pay higher taxes to make up for the $1 trillion per year in lost revenue. On top of that, the home mortgage interest deduction contributed to the housing bubble that was at the heart of our current economic crisis. It encouraged people to buy homes that they couldn't afford and led to inflated costs in housing. Any savings in taxes from the deduction were wiped out by the higher costs of the home itself.

Both conservatives and liberals have reason to oppose the home mortgage interest deduction. Conservatives should oppose it because they are in favor of a free-market capitalist system, and the deduction distorts the marketplace. Also, since most of the benefit of the home mortgage interest deduction goes to the wealthy, liberals should oppose it because they are in favor of progressive taxation (those who are most able to pay should pay the most in taxes). As it stands, however, the deduction would be difficult to do away with because many benefit from it.

The report is able to reduce the overall tax rates because it raises revenue by getting rid of deductions. This makes a lot more sense than raising tax rates and leaving the deductions in place. Most of those who pay income taxes (about 40% of wage earners pay nothing), do not itemize deductions. All of them would actually be paying less in taxes. Taxes would go up for those who currently take advantage of a lot of deductions.

We have dug ourselves into a big financial mess. To dig out, we will all need to make sacrifices. If all our politicians insist, however, on only supporting a plan that contains all of their priorities and none of the other party's priorities, we have no chance to address our growing debt problem. Ultimately, however, it would not be the politicians fault, it would be yours--the voters. Politicians respond to what the voters want, as they should in a democracy. So, if you look at this plan, or any similar plan, to deal with our debt crisis and reject it because of the sacrifices it demands of you, you have become part of the problem, rather than part of the solution.

For more views on this topic, see:

Friday, November 12, 2010

Exit Polls: What are they good for?

On election night last week we heard a great deal about the results from various exit polls that showed independents were breaking for the Republican Party and that people were frustrated with the lack of economic growth over the last two years. If you watched the election night coverage on any of the major cable news stations I’m sure you noticed the various people whose job it was simply to breakdown the exit poll results. Of course reporting the results of the exit polls isn’t exciting enough so many times there would be some enhanced 3D graphic or futuristic computer screen to jazz-up these results. However, many first-time or casual viewers of politics were probably left wondering what an exit poll even is.

At the most basic level, an exit poll is no different than any other poll except that it is taken immediately after voters leave their polling station. The intent of the exit poll is to determine who is turning out to vote on Election Day and whether the vote is breaking in favor of a particular candidate or political party. Just as in pre-election polls, researchers attempt to ensure they are getting a representative sample of voters, but no sample is ever perfect so there will always be a margin of error. Additionally, there has been a trend in recent years that many exit polls systematically “tilt” in one direction in which the polls will inaccurately favor either the Republican or Democratic candidate. The way in which the media utilizes the results from the exit polls often creates an even larger problem, which will be the topic of a future blog post.

Despite some of the issues with exit polls they are a fascinating source of data for those of us who try to figure out what happened on election night and why it happened. What I wanted to do for the remainder of this post is to breakdown a couple of interesting results from the national exit polls that were not covered too extensively in the media.

- White people like to vote: Much is made of the increasing political significance of racial and ethnic minorities in American politics. However, a quick glance of the exit polls confirmed that White-Caucasians consisted of 78% of the electorate on election night. That is an overwhelming percentage when you realize that White-Caucasians only consist of 64% of the overall population. Additionally, White-Caucasians voted at a 60-40 clip in favor of the Republican Party.

- Latinos continue to stay at home: On the opposite side of the spectrum Latinos had a very poor night in terms of voter turnout. According to the exit polls, Latinos consisted of 8% of the electorate on election night, despite consisting of around 16% of the overall population. Amongst the Latinos that did turn out to vote, they favored the Democratic Party at a nearly 2-to-1 rate. If Democrats seek to hold onto the presidency in 2012 they will have to do a better job at mobilizing Latinos since they are a substantial portion of the population in large Electoral College states such as Texas, California, New York, and Florida. Latinos are also a critical portion of the electorate in swing states such as Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Pennsylvania.

- Catholics like to swing: In 2008, White Catholics split nearly 50-50 between Obama and McCain (with a slight edge to McCain), but in this election White Catholics came out hard in favor of Republican candidates at nearly a 60-40 rate. Catholics have proven to be consistent swing-voters from one election to another since they are often torn between the foreign affairs policies of the Democratic Party and the pro-life abortion policy of the Republican Party. Getting Catholics to swing back toward the Democratic Party is going to be critical in 2012 if Obama wants to keep states like Pennsylvania, Minnesota, and Wisconsin in the “blue” column.

- Gay people can be Republicans too: It is important to note that sexual orientation is a tricky subject in exit polls since there are many cases where people may not feel comfortable admitting their sexuality in a face-to-face setting. However, amongst those individuals who admitted to being GLB (gay, lesbian, bisexual), 30% of them voted Republican. This statistic surprised some people because of the very public anti-gay marriage stance that many Republican lawmakers have taken over the past decade, but it shouldn’t surprise us at all. When it comes to politics, Gay-Americans are not constantly thinking about their sexuality. They are subject to the same economic pressures as everyone else in society and believing in small government is not something that is influenced by sexual orientation. This statistic should remind us not to paint various groups with too broad of a brush stroke when it comes to electoral politics.

- Voting for your enemy: One of the themes that emerged on election night was the fact that the public did not have a very high opinion of either political party. Over 50% of the voting public had an unfavorable view toward both the Republican and Democratic parties. However, the Republican Party was able to emerge victorious on election night because of the number of people who still voted for them despite having an unfavorable view of their party. Of the 53% of the public who said they had an unfavorable view of the Republican Party, nearly one-quarter of them still casted a ballot supporting the GOP.

These were just some of the interesting exit poll numbers that really stuck out to me. I hope you enjoyed taking a deeper look at the exit polls and I encourage you to share other results that may have jumped out at you.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Did Congress Really Become More Partisan?

If you've been watching the post-election coverage, one of the main storylines you've heard is that Congress has become more partisan. Conservative Democrats lost their seats to more conservative Republicans, thus the remaining congressional Democrats are more liberal, while Republicans remained strongly conservative, or so the story goes. Let us take a closer look at this hypothesis.

First, in the Senate, Republicans picked up six seats-AR (Boozman), IL (Kirk), IN (Coats), ND (Hoeven), PA (Toomey), and WI (Johnson). In addition to these, there are seven new Republicans in the Senate—Ayotte (NH), Blunt (MO), Lee (UT), Moran (KS), Paul (KY), Portman (OH), and Rubio (FL). (Alaska is yet to be decided, but will either be Murkowski, the incumbent, or Miller, the Tea Party backed candidate. Both are Republican.)

A typical media story on the growing partisanship of Republicans in the Senate will usually start with Rand Paul. The story will point out that, though Paul is the son of longtime congressman and presidential candidate Ron Paul, he had never run for office before. Like his father, his ideology tends toward libertarianism. He favors a much smaller federal government and would prefer to do away with many social service programs. At one point in the campaign, he suggested that parts of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was unconstitutional. A position he later backed away from. Some are concerned that Paul will use his position in the Senate, where every senator has the power to obstruct Senate business, to prevent Congress from raising its debt ceiling.

Paul appears to fit well with the story line that Senate Republicans have become more partisan, and will seek more radical policies. After discussing Rand Paul, the typical media story will then discuss....uh...well...Rand Paul some more, because, out of the 13 new Senate Republicans, only one fits the story line! (Miller could be another, but Murkowski is currently favored to win that race.) The rest of the less experienced, and more partisan, Republican candidates all lost—Angle in Nevada, Buck in Colorado, and O'Donnell in Delaware. (Based upon the amount of news coverage, you may have thought that O'Donnell was in the lead in her race, but she was always behind by double-digits and lost by 16 points.)

The rest of the new Senate Republican line up are establishment Republicans. They have previous government experience and are aware of the necessity of compromise to democratic governance. Here are some examples. Toomey has served in the US House. Blunt has served as Majority Leader and Majority Whip in the US House. Portman served in the US House and was head of the Office of Management and Budget under President George W. Bush. Rubio was Speaker of the Florida House of Representatives. These swing state Republicans will make the Senate Repulican caucus more moderate, not less.

What about the Democratic caucus in the Senate. Have they become more liberal? Democrats gained their current majority status by winning races in 2006 and 2008. Some of these were won by conservative Democrats in red states. Since they have six year terms, none of these Democrats were even up for election this year so are still in the Senate. These conservative Democratic Senators include Casey (PA), Conrad (ND), McCaskill (MO), Nelson (NE), Nelson (FL), Tester (MT), Webb (VA), Baucus (MT), Begich (AK), Hagan (NC), Johnson (SD), Landrieu (LA), Pryor (AR), and Warner (VA). So, conservative Democrats in the Senate remain a hearty bunch, while Senate Republicans have become more moderate. We have the recipe for a more moderate, not less moderate Senate. So, what about the House? Does it fit the story line?

With Republican gains in the House, we see a similar story as the Senate. Almost any time a party expands its numbers, it becomes more moderate simply by becoming more diverse. With more voices in the party it must seek positions that will temper the various coalitions in the party. Plus, even with all the talk of new Tea Party backed candidates, most of the new Republican House candidates came with political experience in state or local government.

The House Democratic caucus, on the other hand, does fit the story line well. House Democrats became more moderate with its gains in 2006 and 2008. As pointed out by Matthew DeSantis in a previous post, these gains came from Rahm Emanuel's conservative Democrat recruits running in Republican districts. Most of the GOP gains in 2010 came from retaking those districts. Thus, by losing many of its more conservative members, the House Democratic caucus has become more liberal.

Thus, of the four congressional party caucuses (House Republican, House Democrat, Senate Republican, Senate Democrat), only one, the House Democrats, has become more partisan. Whether this will make the next House more or less partisan, we should wait and see. My best guess is that there won't be much difference between the two. This is a period where the parties are more united and the gap between them is large compared to other periods in US history. One election will not do much to change that fact.

So, why does the media perpetuate the storyline of a more partisan Congress? Talking about characters like Paul, O'Donnell, and Angle, is certainly more interesting than talking about someone like the relatively boring Senator-elect John Boozman, and interesting stories sell more ad space. There also seems to be a herd mentality with the media. When a particular storyline gains steam, most of the media tend to follow what everyone else is saying and the storyline becomes self perpetuating. The truth, however, isn't best determined by the loudest or most frequent voices.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

The State of the State Legislature Elections

In my last post, I was cheerleading about the importance of state legislature elections. I decided to continue the theme and provide some analysis on the November 2 election.
The state legislatures elected on Tuesday night will be the ones responsible for redistricting when the 2010 Census numbers are released. The party controlling the legislature will have a hand in shaping the House of Representatives districts for the next 10 years.

I used this link as the guide for the states that are poised to gain and lose seats following the release of the census data.

Which state legislatures retained Republican control following the November 2, 2010 election?AZ FL GA ID KS MO ND OK SC SD TN TX UT WY

Which state legislatures shifted control from at least a partial Democratic Party controlled state legislature to full Republican Party control? AL IN IA ME MI MN MT NH NC OH PA WI

Which state legislatures are under Democratic Party control after the November 2 election? AR CA CT DE HI MD MA NV NM RI VT WA WV (plus NJ and LA but they didn't have elections on Nov 2)

Who's controlling what?

The Republican Party will control eleven state legislatures (AZ FL GA IA MI MN OH PA SC TX UT) that will probably gain (the ones indicated in bold) or lose seats during redistricting.

The Democratic Party will control six state legislatures (IL LA MA NJ NV WA) that will probably gain (the ones indicated in bold) or lose seats during redistricting.

By counting the seats, the Republican Party controlled state legislatures are set to gain power of redistricting 9 new House seats in Arizona, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, Texas and Utah. The remaining states are likely going to lose a total of six seats to redistricting.

What about the Democratic Party controlled state legislatures? They are going to gain redistricting over two new House seats in Nevada and Washington. They are likely to lose four seats to redistricting in the remaining states.

Presidential Swing States

If you are still awake and haven't nodded off from the large lists of states yet, the last interesting tidbit of information I was to add is about the 2008 presidential swing states. A swing state is one that was won or lost with 5% or less of the overall total vote.

Which of these states set to redistrict their U.S. House seats were swing states in 2008? FL IN MO MT NC OH (I'm using this link to determine these states)

Were any of these swing states carried by Obama in 2008? Yep. FL IN NC OH

Here's where this gets interesting. Of these four swing states, they are now all under full Republican Party control in their state legislatures. Before November 2, only Florida was under full Republican control. The other three had at least one of their chambers controlled by the Democratic Party.

How many of the 2008 swing states have Democratic Party controlled state legislatures? Zero.


The Republican Party was a big winner on Tuesday. They solidified control in many state legislatures as well as gained it in many others. They won the majority of state legislatures that will control states adding to their U.S. House delegations when the census is released next year. In addition, they won control in swing states where they can work to build party support through state party connections.

I'll likely leave the U.S. House and U.S. Senate analysis to my other colleagues on this board. However, by looking at the state legislatures, I'd bet on the Republican Party using redistricting to reinforce Republican control over U.S. House seats to help extend their majority control over the chamber for the next several years at least.

Analysis of the 2010 Midterm Elections

Below you'll find my first contribution to this blog. I try to explain what we saw on election night and what it means moving forward for the GOP and the Tea Party. I hope you enjoy!!


Tuesday, November 2, 2010

What Election Day Should Look Like

If it were up to me, elections would be more like this:

There would be no early voting, except for those who absolutely need it. Candidates would have a full election season to convince voters to vote for them.

Election day would be a national holiday. It would fall on a Monday or Friday instead of the middle of the week. Most of us would have the day off. Those who would have to work, such as fireman and service industry workers, would be provided time in the middle of the day to go vote.

The day would be marked not only by voting, but with celebration. The festivities would begin around 11am with a parade. The parade would end at the town or city square, where the voting booths would also be located. The opening of the polls would be marked in some significant way, such as fireworks or a starter's pistol. An important member of the community would be provided the honor of first in line to vote.

The usual vendors and community groups would have their tables and tents set up. Political parties, groups, and candidates could also have booths (with space distributed equitably) and one last opportunity to convince voters. These groups would also be allowed to give away free food (or booze in honor of an earlier tradition started by George Washington), with a $5 per plate limit. There would be live music, games, and fireworks in the evening.

So what's the point of all this sentimental, civil-religious gobbledygook? To answer this question, I must first point to the work of political scientist Robert Putnam. Putnam has spent most of his career trying understand “social capital.” He wrote a New York Times bestseller on the topic in 2000 called Bowling Alone. Before that, he co-authored one of the most influential books among political scientists—Making Democracy Work. This text examined twenty different regional governments in Italy and found that the democratic institutions that were the most effective and responsive were in communities with strong social ties. The political institutions of communities that engaged in non-political activities together were more effective at responding to the needs of those communities than the political institutions in communities with fewer social ties, or less social capital. In Bowling Alone, Putnam is concerned about diminishing social capital in the US.

If election days were celebrations, consider what that might mean to our young future voters. In some homes, future voters are unaware that an election is taking place. In others, the day is marked by pessimism, cynicism, and negativity, with copious complaints about the process, or choosing between “the lesser of two evils.” Fewer homes, I suspect, mark the day by celebrating the act that most significantly distinguishes democracies from other forms of government.

If future voters were to grow up celebrating election day, on the other hand, they would look forward to the day and view it favorably. In anticipation of the day, they would be more likely to pay attention to the candidates. And, by building social and community ties, our government would be more responsive to voter concerns.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Election 2010 Predictions

  • Number of seats gained by Republicans in the US House of Representatives:
    • Kevin- 58
    • Napp- 62
  • Partisan makeup of the US Senate:
    • Kevin- 51 Democrats, 49 Republicans
    • Napp- 50 Democrats, 50 Republicans
  • Florida Governor:
    • Kevin-Sink (D)
    • Napp-Scott (R)
  • Florida Senate:
    • Kevin- Rubio (R)
    • Napp- Rubio (R)
  • Ohio Governor:
    • Kevin- Kasich (R)
    • Napp- Kasich (R)
  • Ohio Senate:
    • Kevin- Portman (R)
    • Napp- Portman (R)
  • California Governor
    • Kevin- Brown (D)
    • Napp-Whitman (R)
  • California Senate
    • Kevin- Boxer (D)
    • Napp- Boxer (D)
  • Illinois Senate
    • Kevin- Giannoulias (D)
    • Napp- Kirk (R)
  • PA Senate
    • Kevin- Toomey (R)
    • Napp- Toomey (R)
  • Will we know which party will control the Senate by Wednesday? 
    • Kevin- Yes
    • Napp- No