Recess Appointment
It is that time of year again, when New Hampshire schools let out for their annual winter break. So, I will be away from the website next week, and will return on Tuesday, March 2nd with new content for you. See you soon. -Dean
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Republican Teetotalers
I have heard several conservatives (including Sarah Palin) say recently that the Republican Party should work to bring the tea party movement into its fold. This is where grassroots energy in the conservative base has been building (quite visibly) over the past year, and Republican institutional elites would no doubt like to harness it for electoral gain in the midterm elections. They know that the alternative poses a twofold danger for the GOP; tea party regulars could damage party-backed candidates in contested primaries, and/or tea party candidates could launch independent bids which siphon off votes from Republican candidates in the general election.
Progressives don’t see much difference between the two groups, tend to lump them together anyway, and see this primarily as a factional issue within the GOP. Party fragmentation is certainly a concern for Republicans, as the tea party movement is not as monolithic as one might think. Competing groups laying claim to the tea party mantle have real differences over whether to focus the movement solely on fiscal matters, or include social and cultural issues, and over whether to work from within the Republican Party’s infrastructure, or outside it as an independent party. The GOP’s ability to co-opt these relationships will go a long way toward determining its relative success in the current anti-incumbent electoral environment, and institutional elites in the party seem to know it.
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If You Can't Think of Anything Nice to Say...
Like other local political analysts, I followed the race between Republican State Rep. David Boutin and Democratic State Rep. Jeff Goley to fill Manchester Mayor Ted Gatsas’ District 16 senate seat. In a special election held yesterday, Boutin won the traditionally Republican seat quite handily.
I read a wrap-up of the contest in this morning’s Concord Monitor, and was heartened to hear Boutin speak graciously about his opponent. Goley, for his part, had nothing bad to say about Boutin in defeat, but instead noted that his own message hadn’t resonated with voters as he had hoped it would. Both candidates acted as political convention dictates on the morning after a hard-fought electoral contest.
Then I read the full press releases on the special election from the heads of New Hampshire’s state Republican and Democratic parties. Talk about a lack of grace on both sides. State Republican chairman Gov. John H. Sununu, while having nary a kind word for the defeated Goley, instead called out arrogant tax-and-spend Democrats, and their failed leadership and reckless fiscal agenda. State Democratic chairman Ray Buckley countered by not only refusing to congratulate Boutin for his victory, but by talking about Republicans pursuing a reckless, radical right-wing agenda.
We are still almost nine months away from this year’s main electoral event. Both sides should pace themselves lest they run out of fresh insults to hurl at each other. My guess is that this sort of reflexive, repetitive drumbeat of negativity may make partisans feel better, but will ultimately have little effect on most voters, other than to turn them off from politics.
I understand that a lot is at stake for both sides in this election, but it wouldn’t hurt to pause on occasion (like after an electoral victory), however briefly, to recognize the other side’s humanity. To do so is in keeping with our long-held political traditions. It is no wonder that recent polling shows that Americans are fed up with both parties, and are open to the idea of independent challenges to an increasingly dysfunctional two-party system.
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The DLC's Long Good-Bayh
The announcement by Indiana Democratic Senator Evan Bayh that he won’t seek a third term certainly caught me by surprise. It actually serves as a political coda of sorts on the end of a style of legislative leadership that reached its peak during the 1990s, with President Clinton and the moderate Democratic Leadership Council.  Back then, Clinton’s detractors often referred to this strategy as triangulation, but it arguably provided a practical means of building legislative coalitions with members from both parties on issues like welfare reform and the North American Free Trade Agreement.
The Clinton Administration's claim was that these negotiated outcomes were actually pretty close to the centrist ideological preferences of most Americans. Bayh, having been first elected to the Senate in 1998, really came in on the tail end of this phenomenon, but as chairman of the DLC, he was viewed by many as a future leader in this approach to policymaking.
Bayh’s departure continues the decade-long process of moving Congress toward its ideological extremes, both left and right. Progressives argue that if only President Obama would push through his agenda using legislative tools like the reconciliation process, then progress would be achieved. Republicans of course counter that Obama must be stopped so that they can return the country’s policy agenda to a place where it more closely reflects what they believe to be the center-right preferences of the electorate.
While it is true that Bayh isn’t the last moderate left in Congress (some put Senator Jeanne Shaheen in that same category), he certainly is a high-profile loss. Current DLC chairman and former Tennessee Congressman Harold Ford, Jr. is contemplating a primary challenge to Senator Kirsten Gillibrand in New York. Should Ford make it back to Washington, he will find that his style of legislative deal-making is now derided on both sides of the aisle for its lack of purity. Even with Obama’s historic majorities in Congress, we’re still waiting to see what the workable alternative will be.
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Palin and the Wrath of Balz
You may have seen this piece by Dan Balz in The Washington Post over the weekend. It traverses the conventional wisdom on former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, and considers whether she is willing and able to bridge the political distance between her current political celebrity and a future presidential run. The piece doesn’t really break any new ground, but I bring it to your attention because it ends with a nice quote from veteran New Hampshire Republican strategist Tom Rath. In assessing whether Palin has the capacity to be president, Rath notes that "Her challenge is to fill in the substantive blanks in a way that demonstrates that capacity without losing her uniqueness and her role as provocateur,” a task which he concludes is “not easy."
Rath seems to be suggesting that Palin needs to preserve her populist, tea party edge, while simultaneously gaining the policy gravitas necessary for presidential leadership. There is no doubt that Palin relishes her role as provocateur, especially for the wildly popular reaction it generates among her conservative supporters. But I continue to believe that Palin’s remarkably sharp partisan edge is a significant obstacle to her ever assembling a winning electoral coalition, and for the moment at least, she seems to have no interest in toning it down.
As for policy gravitas, I’ve heard political observers say for months now that all Palin needs to do is spend some time schooling herself on the issues. My guess is that won’t happen anytime soon. This is not a statement about Palin’s aptitude. She is shrewd enough to understand (as others have noted) that her popularity is a function of mood, attitude, beliefs and attributes, not policy specifics. As a result, being immersed in the issues is not essential to her notion of leadership, nor is it demanded of her by supporters. This is a bit trickier, as candidate attributes are often stronger drivers of how people interpret the potential for presidential leadership than policy fluency.  Here Palin shares some similarities with George W. Bush, who served for two terms, so it is not necessarily an automatic disqualifier.
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A Romney Reset?
You may have come across a link to this article on Mitt Romney in the Boston Phoenix yesterday. The piece looks at how the former Massachusetts governor may be repositioning himself for the 2012 presidential race. Romney will soon embark on a tour in support of his new book, No Apology, and also deliver several high-profile speeches as he traverses the country. Both activities should provide political observers with some new insight into whether he is indeed attempting to reset his candidacy for the next presidential election cycle.
Of particular interest is the article’s suggestion that Romney may forgo an emphasis on social conservatism this time around, in favor of a renewed focus on the economy and foreign policy. As the piece correctly notes, doing so would further elevate the importance of the New Hampshire Primary for Romney, in its capacity to serve as an electoral counterweight (for generating frontrunner status) to the other early contests in Iowa and South Carolina. Those two are much more likely to be dominated by the preferences of social and religious conservatives. Romney’s attempt to court these groups in the South in the last election cycle was met with a great deal of derision from other Republican candidates in the race.
This idea of Romney retooling with what the article calls a blue state strategy for winning the Republican nomination is actually something I considered in a series of posts beginning last August. You can get a feel for the thread of my argument by reading four of the posts in sequence (here, here, here and here). The Boston Phoenix piece does a nice job of fleshing out the implications of this strategy, both in terms of how Romney might chart a course through the primaries, and in considering what it would mean for intra-party tensions between various groups within the Republican Party.
Note: I will be back on Monday with new content for you.  See you soon. -Dean
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Lynch is Down on the Upside
When the new WMUR/Granite State Poll numbers on Gov. Lynch came out yesterday, various media outlets dutifully reported that the governor’s job approval rating had slipped a bit. Indeed, if you look at the data, you will see that Lynch’s rating has dropped 14% in the past year, not an insignificant drop for any politician. But I think many local political observers (and media) would agree that the real subtext of this story is that despite a difficult economy, well-documented state budget woes, and one of the most partisan political environments in recent memory, a Democratic governor in his third term still has high job approval (60%).
Almost exactly one year ago, when Lynch’s approval rating was still hovering in the mid-70s, I wrote a post about why I thought he seemed immune to bad political mojo. I argued back then (and continue to believe) that much of it has to do with his management style, especially his ability to present policy decisions, even partisan ones, in a decidedly non-partisan way. It is no surprise that Lynch’s approval rating is still at 68% among independent voters, and given the current level of partisan polarization in our political discourse, 42% approval among Republicans isn’t bad either. Should Lynch decide to run for a record fourth term, he will be difficult to unseat.
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Cause and Effect for Granite State Democrats
In the wake of yesterday’s WMUR/Granite State Poll numbers showing New Hampshire Democrats currently trailing in several key statewide races, I have been asked whether I think that the party can turn around its fortunes by Election Day. Keeping in mind that we are still about nine months away from the general election, my answer is a definite maybe.
I should also add the caveat that at this early date, these polls don’t reflect as much knowledge about the candidates as they will in October, which is why almost 80% of respondents say that they are still undecided. So, while I am not ready to predict that Granite State Democrats will get back on track, I can tell you how I will know if they are getting back on track. Some of it will depend on what they say and do as candidates over the next nine months, and some of it is largely out of their control.
What I will be looking for in the coming months is evidence of two specific political  phenomena – campaign effects and national effects. Campaign effects refer to the measurable impact of all that actually happens between candidates on the campaign trail, and we could see these effects in both the primary and general election. So, Democrats could benefit if the Republican primaries for several of these races are so bruising that candidate favorability ratings take a real hit.
Once we are into the general election, it will be up to the Democratic candidates themselves to change the dynamic of the race through their head-to-head match-ups, as manifested in debates, earned media, campaign ads, etc. Their success in achieving positive effects will depend on their ability to find their opponent’s greatest political vulnerabilities, while accurately reading the mood of Granite State voters in the fall.
One problem for New Hampshire Democrats is that the September primary date leaves only weeks for these general election match-ups to play out.  Until then, it will be difficult for Democratic candidates like Paul Hodes and Carol Shea-Porter, who are not facing primary challenges, to get much traction in the face of all the attention currently being paid to the contested Republican races.
National effects refer to the broader social, political, and economic climate in the country. They are essentially a measure of all that has gone right and/or wrong for the Obama Administration during its first two years in office. I often hear other analysts say that for this election cycle, Democrats like Paul Hodes and Carol Shea-Porter will finally have to win on their own. The implication is that in 2006 they were aided by a very unpopular President Bush and in 2008 by a very popular candidate Barack Obama.
I would argue that the fate of local Democrats today is just as inextricably linked to what happens at the national level as it has been in the past. If the economy improves, if health care reform is a success, if national Republicans overplay their improving hand in some way, then the effect of all of this will be to the benefit of Granite State Democrats, and those poll numbers will shift in their favor. If it all goes in the other direction, however, then their chances of winning will be negatively impacted.
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Give the People What They Want
While channel-surfing on Saturday night, I caught some of former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin’s appearance at the first National Tea Party Conference in Nashville.  Palin typically closes her speeches to any media coverage, so seeing her splashed live across multiple cable news outlets caught me completely by surprise. Back in November, I had written that I was starting to feel the onset of Palin fatigue, but on Saturday night I was able to hang in there for a decent chunk of her speech and subsequent Q&A.
Those of you who read my posts regularly know that I am a Palin skeptic, but I have to say that she certainly gave the conference attendees what they wanted, and then some. The big news to come out of the weekend (other than her palm crib sheet), was Palin’s statement to Fox News’ Chris Wallace that she wouldn’t close the door on a future presidential run. While her comment got a lot of play on the web (especially on the left, interestingly enough), it doesn't really change my assessment that for Palin to mount a viable presidential campaign, she would first need to break out of her now well-established comfort zone, in which social conservatives and Fox News serve as her only interlocutors.
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Poll Vaulting
You can catch me this Sunday morning as a guest on WMUR-TV’s Close Up (Ch. 9, 10 a.m.). We will be discussing the political implications of the latest WMUR/Granite State Poll numbers, which show a drop in President Obama’s job approval rating in New Hampshire.
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The Electric Slide
No sooner did I float the argument that New Hampshire’s Congressional Democrats will benefit from the fact that President Obama’s job approval remains a bit higher here than elsewhere, than the UNH Survey Center comes out with new polling data today showing that the president’s job approval has dropped in the Granite State. Obama’s job approval has hovered in the upper 40s nationally in recent weeks, but my sense has been that he was more likely in the low 50s (51 to 53%ish) in the Granite State. Not a big difference, but as anyone who follows elections closely knows, those few points can translate into a bigger impact in terms of relative electoral strength.
The new UNH poll has Obama’s job approval rating dropping from 55% in October to a new low of 48%. The president took a particularly large hit among independents, where his approval rating is now down to 39%, a circumstance that mirrors a similar drop among independents elsewhere, in places like Virginia, New Jersey, and Massachusetts. It is true that this is just one poll, so it will be helpful when other organizations weigh in with new data, as well. But the question may now be whether this represents the bottom of a trough for Obama (before a rebound), or is there further for him to drop? The answer to this question will have electoral repercussions for Democratic candidates in the state.
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The C-SPAN Presidency?
The fact that President Obama found himself in a position at the Nashua town hall meeting yesterday where he felt compelled to apologize for the lack of transparency surrounding some of the health care negotiations leaves me scratching my head. I was under the impression that Obama and his political advisors had carefully studied the legislative lessons of the Clinton Administration’s health care debacle in 1993. Obama certainly campaigned on the issues of transparency and interest group influence as though he had.
Given the way the legislative process typically functions (often referred to as sausage-making), however, one could argue that Obama’s campaign promise was somewhat unrealistic from the outset. But he couched it in a broader argument about the need for transformational change, so there was an expectation that the mistakes of the Clinton health care experience would not be repeated.
It is interesting that both Clinton and Obama hit the proverbial political buzz saw with health care, in particular. If you take a look at the Clinton Administration’s experience with the North American Free Trade Agreement (also in 1993), you’ll find that President Clinton cut deals with a host of individual legislators, left and right, in order to get the treaty. But something about the combination of health care and secrecy has proven to be combustible for both presidents. Once those C-SPAN cameras are finally rolling, I’ll be excited to see what the décor looks like inside that backroom.
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Obama's Return Engagement
Over the past few days, I have been asked frequently about why President Obama chose to kick off the publicity for his new budget proposals by holding a town hall meeting in Nashua. He was just here in Portsmouth over the summer in support of health care reform, and New Hampshire has faired a bit better economically than some other parts of the country, which could no doubt use the presidential attention.
In response, I’ve been able to come up with a variety of possible explanations, although I have no special insight into which one is the prime motivator behind Obama’s visit. We have a well-known and well-regarded tradition of retail politics and grassroots activism in New Hampshire, which offers a good political environment for a president trying to recapture a little campaign mojo going into an important election year. Our state’s focus on small businesses and entrepreneurship provides a suitable context for launching the new job creation incentives contained in the budget.
The president also seems to have a close relationship with Congressman and U.S. Senate hopeful Paul Hodes (note the State of the Union hug), and would no doubt love to see Republican Senator Judd Gregg’s seat flip to the Democrats. By speaking here, Obama can also take a do-over of sorts, only a short distance from the scene of his bearing witness to the Martha Coakley debacle in Massachusetts last month. Finally, we’re a short plane ride away from the White House, and, if nothing else, Obama is still a bit more popular here than in some other parts of the country.
So, it’s your choice. There are lots of reasons for why Obama might return to New Hampshire for town hall meetings again and again. But what actually interests me more is the question of whether it will make any difference. There was a time in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when political scientists were captivated with the idea of presidents going public – that is using technological advances in communications and transportation to take their agenda directly to the people, as a means of exerting greater leverage on an increasingly gridlocked legislative process.
Bill Clinton certainly used the technique to great effect, and George W. Bush made the town hall meeting a key part of his agenda-selling strategy. But President Obama has taken the technique to new heights, with almost daily public speeches and events designed to highlight his policy proposals. The question to ponder therefore is whether a presidential visit can ever lose its potential for impact. We will have new polling data soon enough to help with an answer, and the eyes of many political observers will continue to be trained on Republicans in Congress, in order to see whether any of this makes them budge.
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Total Recall
For a long time now, Republican First Congressional District candidate Bob Bestani has complained about Frank Guinta using his status as the early-anointed frontrunner to essentially ignore Bestani as a primary opponent. Perhaps that will now change with news of Guinta’s anemic (for a frontrunner) fourth quarter fundraising total of just under $61,000, which is barely $10,000 more than Bestani’s take for the same period.
There are typically three ways that you can build a viable primary campaign. You can cultivate and harness grassroots fervor for your candidacy, receive the electoral imprimatur of your party’s institutional elites in Washington, or self-fund using your own personal resources. Thus far in this election cycle, Guinta has relied primarily on the second option, but that may be in jeopardy. The former Manchester mayor can’t keep receiving bad press in D.C., and expect to be viewed favorably by Republican elites there for much longer. My guess is that Guinta has one more chance (at best) to step up his game in the first quarter of 2010, before finding himself facing additional primary opponents. And, maybe Bob Bestani will finally get a chance to have his say, as well.
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