Kevin Drum - September 2012

The Generic Congressional Ballot: Take 2

| Fri Sep. 21, 2012 2:53 PM EDT

Yesterday I asked whether the results of generic congressional polling were a good predictor of the actual national House vote. I was skeptical because conventional wisdom says that Republicans usually outperform the generic ballot. Today, Sam Wang produces the following historical numbers from Real Clear Politics:

2010 Polling average, R+9.4%. Outcome: R+6.6%. [R delta = -2.8%]
2008 Polling average, D+9.0%. Outcome: D+10.9%. [R delta = -1.9%]
2006 Polling average, D+11.5%. Outcome: D+7.9%. [R delta = 3.6%]
2004 Polling average, tie. Outcome: R+2.6%. [R delta = 2.6%]
2002 Polling average, R+1.7%. Outcome: R+4.6%. [R delta = 2.9%]

"R delta" represents whether Republicans did better or worse than the generic ballot results, and it turns out that sometimes they do better and sometimes they do worse. I'll toss out two comments. First, this shows that I may have been out of date. My belief that Republicans outperform the generic ballot was based on data through 2006, and in fact, Republicans did outperform the generic ballot in 2002-06. However, they've underperformed in the two most recent elections. So I need to update my priors.

Second, these results are for the final week of polling. It makes sense that the generic ballot would converge toward the actual national vote a few days before the election. But how about earlier? This is a little quick and dirty, but here are the average generic ballot results for the few days around September 1:

2010 Polling average, R+4.8%. Outcome: R+6.6%. [R delta = 1.8%]
2008 Polling average, D+8.4%. Outcome: D+10.9%. [R delta = -2.5%]
2006 Polling average, D+11.3%. Outcome: D+7.9%. [R delta = 3.4%]
2004 Polling average, D+0.7%. Outcome: R+2.6%. [R delta = 3.3%]
2002 Polling average, R+2.0%. Outcome: R+4.6%. [R delta = 2.6%]

It looks to me that a couple of months out, the generic ballot really does underweight how well Republicans will do. The only exception is 2008, which turned into a Democratic landslide. So I'd probably subtract two or three points from the current RCP generic poll average, which has Democrats ahead by 2.2%. In reality, this probably suggests that Republicans will win the national vote by a point or a bit less, and given their incumbency advantage, that might translate into a one or two-point lead in actual number of seats won.

This is very, very rough. Consider it extremely tentative. I'd be pretty interested in a more rigorous look at this if anyone wants to do it.

UPDATE: Why did I choose September 1? Because I'm an idiot and forgot what month it is. October 1 would have been better, or even September 21 if I wanted to use today's results. In any case, my interest in a more rigorous analysis stands. Mid or late-September would probably be a better comparison point, though.

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Chart of the Day: Turning the Entire Planet Into a Tropical Zone Might Be Bad for Economic Output

| Fri Sep. 21, 2012 12:37 PM EDT

People in hot climates don't work as hard as people in more temperate climates. It's hot! You get tired more quickly. You need to take more breaks. You don't get as much done.

This is hardly a new insight. But it turns out you can measure how much less people work when the temperature goes up. And the answer is: about 2% less for every extra degree Celsius (see chart below). A recent natural experiment confirmed this, when the Japanese government asked businesses to use less air conditioning after the Fukushima earthquake and tsunami. Productivity decreased at just about the predicted rate.

But earthquakes and equatorial latitudes aren't the only things that raise temperatures. Global warming does it too. So what does that mean for worker productivity in the future? Solomon Hsiang, a sustainable development post-doc at Princeton, explains:

In my 2010 PNAS paper, I found that labor-intensive sectors of national economies decreased output by roughly 2.4% per degree C and argued that this looked suspiously like it came from reductions in worker output.

[From a later post] Reductions in worker output have never been included in economic models of future warming [] despite the fact that experiments fifty years ago showed that temperature has a strong impact on worker output []. In my dissertation I did some back-of-the-envelope estimates using the above numbers and found that productivity impacts alone might reduce per capita output by ~9% in 2080-2099 (in the absence of strong adaptation). This cost exceeds the combined cost of all other projected economic losses combined.

Of course, maybe robots will be doing all our work for us by then. But maybe not. It's yet another reason — in addition to famines, drought, drowned cities, and the death of millions — to think that turning the entire world into a tropical zone might not be such a great idea.

Via Andrew Gelman at The Monkey Cage.

Why Congress Won't Pass Popular, Bipartisan Bills

| Fri Sep. 21, 2012 11:16 AM EDT

Matt Yglesias remarks today that increasing the number of visas for high-skill workers is a popular, bipartisan idea. And yet, it hasn't happened. Matt says this is because legislators don't really want to pass a bill, they simply want to score partisan points:

So Texas Republican Lamar Smith's challenge was to write a bill that did what the tech companies wanted (more visas for skilled foreigners) but that wouldn't actually pass the House of Representatives. He took a two-step approach to this. One was to ensure that each new visa for a skilled foreigner would be offset by one fewer visa allocated under the current system. That helped gin up Democratic opposition. Then the House leadership ensured the bill would be introduced under rules that required a two-thirds vote for passage. The combination of the ruleset and the poison pill was sufficient to achieve Rep Smith's objective—overwhelming GOP support for a bill tech companies love and that failed in the House.

Conversely, the way Democrats like to play this issue when they have the majority is by linking increased immigration of high-skill foreigners to a broader comprehensive immigration reform package that creates a path to citizenship for current undocumented residents. That way it's Republicans who block what the tech companies want.

It's true that in-caucus scheming plays a role here, but overall I have a more transactional take on this. Whenever there's a contentious bill on the table, at least a few pundits will start to suggest that instead of something big, Congress should "go small." Why not just pass the two or three things that everyone agrees on and leave the hard stuff for later?

But the reason is obvious, and it's not wholly down to partisan cynicism: it's those easy parts that help grease the skids for the bigger, harder-to-pass bill. If you pass all the popular stuff on its own, you're left solely with a bunch of controversial and/or unpopular bits, and what chance does that have to pass? About zero. Passing the small, popular bits on their own basically dooms your chances of ever sweetening up a comprehensive bill enough to get a majority of Congress to swallow it in the face of all the sour bits they're going to have to swallow alongside it. So you save those bits for later. That's politics.

How the Tea Party Killed Mitt Romney

| Fri Sep. 21, 2012 10:26 AM EDT

Via Ed Kilgore, Ron Brownstein tells us today that Mitt Romney's problems aren't due to an incompetent campaign. They're due to decisions he made a long time ago:

Of all Romney’s primary-season decisions, the most damaging was his choice to repel the challenges from Perry and Gingrich by attacking them from the right—and using immigration as his cudgel. That process led Romney to embrace a succession of edgy, conservative positions anathema to many Hispanics, including denouncing Texas for providing in-state tuition to the children of illegal immigrants; praising Arizona’s immigration-enforcement law; and, above all, promising to make life so difficult for the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants that they would “self-deport.”

....Romney’s inability to dent Obama’s support among Hispanics (or other minorities) means the GOP nominee probably can’t win without attracting at least 61 percent of white voters. Yet a second early decision has greatly compounded that challenge. Through the primaries, Romney embraced an unreservedly conservative social agenda (such as defunding Planned Parenthood and allowing employers to deny contraception coverage in health insurance plans), especially after Santorum emerged as his principal rival. That positioning helps explain why polls consistently show Obama drawing a majority of college-educated white women—not only the most socially liberal sector of the white electorate but also the fastest-growing. If Obama can hold a majority of those women and match his 80 percent with all minorities in 2008, Romney would have to carry two-thirds of all other whites to win—as much as Ronald Reagan won among those remaining voters in his 1984 landslide.

Sure. This is just another way of saying that the Tea Party has been Romney's downfall. They forced Romney too far to the right and didn't give him the room (or the trust) to move back toward the center during the general election.

My basic take on this election has been pretty much the same since the first day: incumbent parties don't lose the presidency after a single term unless the economy really sucks. (It's only happened once in the past century — though in 2004 Bush came close to making it twice in a century.) But although the economy right now is in poor shape, it's not in terrible shape, and this means Obama is the likely winner of a close election. But the key word here is close. The economy for the past year has been weak enough that a good challenger had a real chance to win.

In other words, the fundamentals predicted a fairly close election, which means that the candidate and the campaign really mattered this year. All that horserace stuff played a real role. But the tea party made it impossible to play that role smartly. They've moved so far outside the mainstream that they make demands on politicians that doom them in a general election.

We saw this dynamic play out already in 2010. In congressional elections, the tea party probably helped Republicans win more conservative districts than they otherwise would have. But when you move up to the Senate, where you need to have a broader appeal, the tea party foisted several terrible candidates on the GOP, causing them to lose at least three winnable races. And now, in a presidential election, which requires the broadest appeal of all, Mitt Romney's subjugation to the tea party has all but ruined him. Sic transit etc.

Another Conservative Conspiracy Theory Bites the Dust

| Fri Sep. 21, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

This week the modern conservative id took center stage when Mitt Romney was caught on video telling a bunch of wealthy donors what they wanted to hear: that the poor are a bunch of lazy parasites who refuse to take personal responsibility for themselves. Coincidentally, the same week another bit of the conservative id reached the end of its road. I'm talking about their obsession with Fast and Furious, the gun-walking operation in Arizona that Republicans have been in a lather about for the past two years.

There's not much question that Fast and Furious was a cockup. ATF agents wanted to track guns that were being sold to Mexican drug cartels, but poor planning, idiotic infighting, and a tangle of laws that got in the way of arresting obvious gunrunners produced little but chaos. Thousands of guns ended up in Mexican hands, one of which was eventually used to kill ATF agent Brian Terry. Katherine Eban wrote the best take on the whole sorry affair three months ago in a long piece for Fortune called "The truth about the Fast and Furious scandal."

But this was never enough for Republicans. Rep. Darrell Issa, the Republican attack dog who was the point man for congressional hearings into the affair, insisted that Barack Obama was using Fast and Furious to "somehow take away or limit people's Second Amendment rights." This was pretty much the party line in the fever swamps of the right: It wasn't just a local mess, it was a carefully planned operation from Eric Holder on down to set the stage for a massive new effort to take away people's guns. As Ann Coulter explained things, Fast and Furious put guns in the hands of Mexican drug cartels "to strengthen liberals' argument for gun control…Innocent people dying was the objective of Fast and Furious, not collateral damage."

On Wednesday that all came crashing down when Michael Horowitz, the Department of Justice inspector general, finally released his lengthy report on the operation. Horowitz is no Democratic hack. As Time's Massimo Calabresi reminds us, "Horowitz managed to impress the House GOP in briefings over the past week, and the report itself was met with support from all quarters…Issa himself called Horowitz and his report 'courageous.'" But there's more:

What none on the right are admitting is that Horowitz's report systematically reveals how irresponsible and speculative the accusations from their side have been. The report criticizes Holder's Criminal Division chief Lanny Breuer for failing to inform Holder or his deputy that "gun walking" had taken place in the Bush administration in another case in Arizona called "Wide Receiver." But the report shows that Breuer knew nothing about gun walking in Fast and Furious, and that therefore the scandal existed three levels below Holder (let alone the White House)…As for the source of the false statements to Congress, Horowitz finds they were the result of inaccurate reassurances given to Breuer’s deputy Jason Weinstein, by the U.S. attorney in Arizona, Dennis Burke. 

…Horowitz destroys the conspiracy theories on both sides of the aisle over 471-pages, but it’s the right wing screamers who come out looking worst. Horowitz shows definitively that the Arizona ATF agents and prosecutors in the U.S. Attorney’s office there were responsible for the operation, not the White House or the Justice Department in Washington and that the primary source of the inaccurate testimony given to Congress was the U.S. Attorney for Arizona, Dennis Burke.

For over a year, it's been an article of faith on the right that Fast and Furious was a carefully constructed scheme directed by the White House to trash the Second Amendment and build support for more gun control laws. It wasn't. Neither the White House nor Eric Holder had any idea what was going on. It was just a local operation that was badly botched. This makes Fast and Furious offically yet another lunatic conservative conspiracy theory that has bitten the dust in the cold light of reality.

Mitt Romney: The GOP's Very Best

| Fri Sep. 21, 2012 12:55 AM EDT

I would like to take this chance to remind everyone that earlier this year Mitt Romney was pretty unanimously considered the strongest candidate in the Republican field — by a large margin. He was, without much question, the most electable of the primary bunch and the toughest opponent for Barack Obama. He was disciplined, well-funded, and had a moderate background that appealed to independents. He was, in short, the very best the Republicans had to offer in the year 2012.

This was not a fantasy, either. It was an accurate assessment. Romney was the best they had. The very best.

Let that sink in for a bit.

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Be More Cynical!

| Thu Sep. 20, 2012 8:21 PM EDT

Keying off Mitt Romney's complaint that 47% of Americans pay no federal income tax, David Gregory asked Tim Kaine today whether everyone in Virginia should pay at least something. Kaine, for some unfathomable reason, didn't respond that he's not in favor of raising taxes on the middle class, full stop. Instead, he said:

I would be open to a proposal that would have some minimum tax level for everyone.

Why would he say that? Dave Weigel, after noting that Kaine is trying hard to portray himself as a pragmatist after his stint as chair of the DNC, takes a stab at explaining what happened:

So: David Gregory asks the tax question again and again. Kaine's been programmed to never rule out anything bipartisan. He gives his dumb answer. But I don't think the dumb answer appreciates how cynical you need to be to win elections in 2012. Look: The House and Senate passed mandatory defense and discretionary spending cuts because Republicans demanded them in exchange for a debt limit hike. A year later, the existence of these cuts are being used against Democrats.

It doesn't matter if Republicans are talking up the need to decrease the number of lucky duckies. Be more cynical! Telling a skeptic that the "47%" don't need to pay income taxes may sound partisan, but it's one of the party's winningest stances.

This is probably sound advice, politically speaking. Stick to the script. Don't feel like you have to respond to momentary uproars. Don't worry if you sound like a hack. Just smile and repeat your talking points. It's maddening for all of us who write about politics, but it seems to be the path to victory.

Why I Remain Skeptical That Democrats Will Take Back the House

| Thu Sep. 20, 2012 5:40 PM EDT

The chart on the right shows the current state of polling for the generic congressional ballot. By "generic," we're talking about polling questions that don't ask about specific candidates, but just ask which party you plan to vote for. For example: "If the election for the U.S. House of Representatives in November were being held today, would you vote for the Democratic candidate or the Republican candidate in your congressional district?"

At of today, Democrats lead the generic ballot by a little over four points. My initial reaction when I saw this was a shrug. My longtime understanding is that Democrats almost always do well in these polls, but on election day Republicans typically outperform the generic ballot by four or five points. So this result suggests that Republicans might lose some House seats but retain their majority.

That's why I'm skeptical of Sam Wang's most recent projection that Democrats have a 74% chance of retaking control of the House. In a post that's gotten a lot of attention today, Sam basically says two things:

  1. The generic ballot predicts the eventual national House vote.
  2. The national House vote predicts the margin of House seats.

I'm sold on #2: the national vote really does correspond pretty closely to the actual number of seats won. But I'm not sold on #1 unless I see more evidence. It's possible that my rule of thumb (Republicans outperform the generic ballot by four or five points) is only true for early polling, and by September that systematic edge goes away. Or maybe it goes away once the pollsters start consistently applying their likely voter screens. Or something. But one way or another, I'd like to see some evidence that generic ballots do a good job of predicting the eventual House vote. Until then, I remain skeptical that Democrats are really in the lead.

Cell Phones: Maybe It's Just Me

| Thu Sep. 20, 2012 2:09 PM EDT

Oddly enough, a lot of commenters on my previous cell phone post seem to think I'm bashing young people, or that I don't understand that portability is the reason people like cell phones, or that there are now lots of other communications options that make voice calls less necessary than in the past. But there was no bashing of the younger generation in that post, portability is pretty obvious, and I myself am a big user of email, Twitter, blogging, and so forth. (Though not texting much. I am that much of an old fogey.) So believe it or not, I already knew all that stuff!

However, another reader just flatly takes issue with my contention that the audio quality of cell phones is lousy:

Your comments on wireless voice quality are...inexplicable to me. I got rid of my landline as a redundant expense six or seven years ago and have never once regretted it. My experience with wireless voice quality is very different from yours — even with some fairly significant hearing loss, I find my ability to hear and understand other people is much greater on the cell phone than it ever was on the POTS. And for the last few years, using a stereo bluetooth headset the quality is amazing, you can hear a whisper as the active noise cancellation cuts out the background clutter. I do use GChat for a lot of my more "recreational" calls, but that's because it's completely free and the option to just kind of slouch in front of a tabletop microphone and a pair of stereo speakers is irresistible. But I would only use the wireless for important/business calls.

Part of it might be my carrier — Verizon has always kind of owned Silicon Valley — I became a customer in '93 when they were still GTE Mobilnet — and the coverage and capacity at least SEEMS unlimited....

This is more interesting to me. I happen to use Verizon too (on an iPhone these days), though the people I talk to are on a variety of different carriers. But I still don't much like talking on my cell phone, and even when I'm on a landline I usually find it pretty frustrating to talk to other people who are on cell phones. This is true even under good conditions. Under not-so-good conditions, which is pretty common, it's even worse. But maybe this is just me. I've always had an unusually hard time following conversations when there's a lot of ambient noise (just turning on the bathroom faucet makes it hard for me to hear the TV), so maybe I'm ultra-sensitive to this. I guess that most of you don't really have any problem with the overall voice quality on cell phones. Yes? No?

Chart of the Day: One-Third of Americans No Longer Have Decent Phone Service

| Thu Sep. 20, 2012 12:36 PM EDT

Via Nate Silver, who's making a point about political polling, I came across the CDC's latest estimate of the number of homes that rely solely on wireless phones. There's no real surprise here, it's just that I haven't been paying attention to this for the past several years. So my vague memory is that about 20% of homes have no landline phones, but that number has continued to rise and is now just a bit under 40%. The chart below, with my own extrapolation to September 2012, shows the trend.

I've now owned a cell phone for 14 years, and I have yet to hold a conversation with either party on a cell phone that didn't suck. The sound quality is bad, the delay is bad, the voice activation that continually cuts off tiny bits of conversation is bad, and the general level of background static is bad. And that's on basically solid connections. When you're on a weak connection, you might as well be talking on tin cans. It doesn't surprise me in the least that young people, who have grown up with this, don't like to talk on phones much. I hate talking to people on cell phones too.