Happy New Year
I will be away from the website for the (very) long holiday weekend to welcome in 2008. I will be back in action on Wednesday, January 2nd, with new content for you.  In the meantime, you can check out my piece in the Portsmouth Herald's Sunday opinion section.  Happy New Year. -Dean
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Those Five Frenzied Days
I have a piece that will run in the Portsmouth Herald’s Sunday opinion section this weekend. The paper asked me to write about my expectations for the shortened five-day period between the Iowa Caucus and New Hampshire Primary. If you are not within the paper’s circulation area, you may be able to find the piece here. I will also post it in the essays section of the website next week.
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The Romney Expectations Game
I am always interested to see how candidates approach the expectations game, during the closing moments of their campaign. Voter perception of how a candidate should do in a particular caucus or primary, can often mean the difference between whether a campaign surges or falters, heading into subsequent states. So, it was with interest that I read Republican Mitt Romney’s recent statement that he could finish second in both Iowa and New Hampshire and still remain a viable campaign moving on to subsequent contests in South Carolina, Florida, and the many states on February 5th.
While the expectations game is always replete with pitfalls for a long-time frontrunner like Romney, a second place finish in New Hampshire, coming on the heels of a similar result in Iowa, would be particularly damaging to his candidacy. Romney’s strength as a candidate has always rested on his frontrunner status in the early contests, despite his lagging in national polls that typically post Rudy Giuliani, and now Mike Huckabee, as the frontrunner.
In Iowa, where Huckabee has led in the polls for the better part of a month now, Romney could plausibly argue that a close second place finish represents his ongoing struggle with the national (and somewhat untested) frontrunner. But, also finishing second in New Hampshire, where Romney has led comfortably for months and enjoys a variant of home court advantage, would undercut the early state dynamic that has largely propelled his candidacy over the past year. A failure to win any early contest would significantly cloud Romney’s path to the nomination.
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The McCain Boomlet
By some accounts, John McCain is fully back in the political mix. Amidst rising poll numbers in New Hampshire, sufficient to rattle Republican frontrunner, Mitt Romney, McCain is now redoubling his campaign efforts in both Iowa and South Carolina. If strong showings in those two states bookend another New Hampshire victory for McCain, then his candidacy will likely receive the sort of frontrunner’s attention that it has not enjoyed since the early months of the 2008 campaign.
How might McCain reposition himself for the next few weeks of presidential caucuses and primaries? If one looks at the perceived weaknesses of the frontrunners in both political parties, a two-pronged strategy begins to suggest itself. McCain might challenge Democrat Barack Obama and Republican Mike Huckabee on foreign policy experience, while simultaneously returning to the issue of authenticity for Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Mitt Romney. Taken alone, neither of these arguments breaks any new rhetorical ground. But combine them with the presidential race’s current fluidity and his own biography, and McCain may find himself with a newly receptive audience, among both moderates and conservatives, as he makes his case for electability.
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Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays

I will be away from the website for a few days, in order to celebrate the Christmas holiday with family and friends.  I will be back in action on Wednesday, December 26th, with new content for you.  Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays. -Dean

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Wholesale Retail
It is not a particularly well-kept secret that candidates engage in retail politics on the campaign trail, not only to win over undecided voters, but also to collect as much free media coverage as possible, in order to reach the largest pool of potential supporters in a given media market.
As Politico reports today, Fred Thompson’s current bus tour of Iowa puts an interesting twist on this relationship between retail politics and media coverage, by scheduling a series of retail events around the state that seem self-consciously designed to generate free media attention, rather than to organize individual voters for caucus night. Reporter Jonathan Martin notes that Thompson appears to have few other options available, due to a shortage of campaign funds.
Nonetheless, this kind of broad retail strategy strikes me as better suited to a primary state, where it is less labor intensive to encourage individuals to enter the voting booth, than it is to organize them to caucus. A whirlwind bus tour might have actually worked well as an introductory Thompson foray into Iowa, but only if he had entered the presidential race much earlier than he did.
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The Campaign Poll-er Coaster
Last month, I noted that we were fast approaching the point in each primary election cycle, at which the avalanche of campaign advertisements blanketing New Hampshire television and radio combine to produce a kind of political white noise that voters invariably tune out. Now, as our friends at First Read suggest, we are also reaching that same point with the blizzard of polling results being released by various institutions and media outlets on an almost hourly basis.
I have noticed, however, that there is one important difference in how voters respond to the onslaught of polling results, some of which are contradictory in nature. Rather than completely tune out the data like they do ads, voters often self-select polling results that favor their preferred candidate, while downplaying those that do not. While this behavior often represents little more than harmless political wishful thinking, it can also lead voters to read substantive meaning into small changes in polling results, variation due primarily to survey methodology or other exogenous factors, rather than to any real underlying shift in the dynamics of the race. I have seen first-hand how this sort of polling roller coaster ride can affect how voters feel about mobilizing for a particular candidate, so it is not necessarily healthy for the political process.
My suggestion is that you resist the temptation to focus on only the good news for your candidate, or read too much into daily fluctuations. You should look at trends within specific polls over time, as well as at averages across competing polls. Two good places to do this are Pollster.com and RealClearPolitics.com. When reporters and political professionals talk about polling trends and averages, they are often drawing that information from one or both of these sites. This will help to give you a more realistic appraisal of your candidate’s potential for success, even if you enjoy a good roller coaster ride on occasion.
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All in the Family
Last week, I wrote a post arguing that the Clinton campaign’s strategy for fending off the Barack Obama surge in New Hampshire was fundamentally misguided. My claim was that an attempt to out-wonk Obama on issues like health care was a waste of resources in a campaign environment where most voters spend little time focusing on the minutia of policy differences between candidates of the same party. I also made the case that Hillary Clinton’s focus on experience as a campaign theme had already hit its ceiling, in terms of its ability to move uncommitted voters into her camp. My conclusion was that the Clinton campaign was paying insufficient attention to the ways in which voters were increasingly making an emotional connection with Obama on personal themes like hope and change.
Well, somebody was listening. In just the past few days, we have witnessed a remarkable retooling of the Clinton message. The campaign has begun to show its candidate in a much more personal light, with a new emphasis on her family and friends, and with a set of personal stories to help Hillary Clinton make her own emotional connection with voters. Whether this strategy will work quickly enough to reposition Clinton for Iowa and New Hampshire remains to be seen, but one has to be impressed by the speed with which the Clinton campaign pivoted to address the most serious threat to her nomination yet.
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Mitt v2.0
I watched Mitt Romney’s appearance on Meet the Press this weekend. While Romney did a reasonable job of surviving the grueling Tim Russert interrogation, two things jumped out at me, in particular. First, it took Russert most of the interview to catalogue the ways in which Romney’s political thinking has evolved (or flip-flopped, as some argue) on a host of policy issues. This is a phenomenon about which I have written on several occasions. Keep in mind that Romney formed his presidential campaign’s exploratory committee on January 3, 2007. That he is still trying to explain his ideological transformation a year later should be of real concern to Republicans who vividly remember how effective their flip-flopping charge was against John Kerry.
My guess is that, if he becomes the Republican nominee, Romney will still be answering these same questions in November 2008, even though he has argued repeatedly that his experience as governor of Massachusetts fundamentally transformed his view on many social and economic issues. While voters will ultimately decide whether Romney’s explanation is a persuasive one, it was nonetheless a bit sad to watch Russert ask him to promise to the American people that he would not change his positions back again, if elected president. In case you are wondering, Romney answered, “yes.”
Second, it struck me that the earlier version of Romney (v1.0), would have actually made an appealing, centrist Republican candidate, in a general election contest where most voters actually sit somewhere near the middle of the ideological spectrum. But that is not how our presidential selection process works. Instead, potential nominees focus on courting their party’s base, liberals on the left, and conservatives on the right, in an exercise that perpetuates the polarization our national politics. Romney v2.0 may still win his party’s “most conservative” sweepstakes, but another opportunity will have been lost.
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We All Scream for Ice Cream!
A reader, JB, recently sent me an email voicing his frustration over the media’s horse race coverage of the presidential campaign. His concern is that the media’s tendency to anoint frontrunners early in the process makes it difficult for other deserving candidates to break into the coverage as the election cycle progresses.
JB writes:
It is your stereotypical self-licking ice cream cone. The media say they concentrate on Clinton, Obama, et al, because that's who's garnering the most public attention. I humbly suggest they're garnering the most public attention because that's who media hit the most heavily from the beginning of this endless campaign. I watched part of the Iowa debate yesterday. To my non-professional eyes, both Biden and Dodd were by far the most cogent and presidential of the gaggle. Yet, the talking heads AND the "undecideds" virtually ignored them, discussing instead how more comfortable Obama sounded from his new position of semi-leadership and how brittle and defensive Hillary appeared. I am at a loss to understand this, other than the fact that the media has already counted Biden and Dodd out.
I have discussed this same issue with members of the media on a number of occasions. The explanation that I typically hear from them is that an assessment of each campaign’s viability, the need for a compelling story arc that will hold an audience, and their own finite professional resources, combine to produce a dominant political narrative that is often resistant to change, but which can also shift suddenly, in response to new developments on the ground (witness recent coverage of Mike Huckabee).
How do media outlets assess campaign viability? They employ the same metrics used by political analysts – size of campaign organization in a state, amount of money raised, quantity of paid advertising, and position in the polls – in order to gauge where to direct their financial resources and manpower for coverage. Several reporters have suggested to me that the horse race critique is less applicable now, given that the internet provides a wealth of campaign coverage options for dissatisfied mainstream media consumers. So, while I was able to find several good debate notices for both Joe Biden and Chris Dodd on the web, that is probably of little consolation to JB, as he tunes into the evening news.
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Beware the Third Rail
When you are finished shoveling snow tomorrow, you can hear me talk about Social Security as an issue in the 2008 presidential campaign on the Boston-based NPR show Here & Now. You can check the program website for local stations and air times.
I will be discussing why the candidates are talking less about entitlement reform now than in other recent presidential elections (remember the lockbox?), the continued Republican focus on partial privatization, and the Democratic fascination with the cap on payroll taxes. I will give you my sense of where Social Security reform fits into the political discourse of the current presidential campaign.
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Sometimes, the day’s political news offers up an unintentionally interesting juxtaposition of stories. For example, take today’s Associated Press article detailing how the Clinton campaign plans to use New Hampshire as a firewall to slow the momentum that either Barack Obama or John Edwards would get from an Iowa victory, and juxtapose it with the new WMUR/CNN poll, also out this morning, which shows that Hillary Clinton has lost her 20-point lead in the state, and is now essentially tied with Obama.
Given this circumstance, the idea that New Hampshire provides a safety valve for the Clinton campaign is no longer operative; the Democratic race here is now just as competitive as the one in Iowa.  On the Republican side, Mitt Romney can legitimately claim that his 13-point lead over Rudy Giuliani and John McCain serves the same function for a Mike Huckabee win in Iowa, but with Huckabee in fourth place and single digits in New Hampshire, this is perhaps less of a concern for Romney than Obama is for Clinton.
The firewall piece goes on to note how the Clinton campaign plans to build its defenses through an attack on Obama’s healthcare plan, and a renewed focus on Clinton’s toughness and experience. As I have discussed in earlier posts, New Hampshire will not likely be won through a comparison of health care plans (or any policy issue, for that matter), and my sense is that the Clinton pitch on experience has reached its ceiling as a candidate selling point in the state. Instead, the Clinton campaign needs to think hard (and quickly) about how to counteract Obama on the specific dimensions of voter reaction that drove his surge in Iowa, and are now doing the same in New Hampshire.
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I Second That Emotion
Over the past month, I have written several posts dealing with the subject of how voters choose the candidate for whom they will vote. I have argued that, for all the talk about the importance of issue positions, the choice is primarily driven by a gut-level decision that voters make about which candidate seems the most presidential. They do so by constantly updating their personal assessment of candidate traits like moral character, leadership ability, personal experience, and even physical appearance, as these characteristics gradually come into focus over the course of the campaign season. The decision is, in essence, an intuitive and emotional voter response to the manner in which the candidates portray themselves, during endless months on the campaign trail, rather than the outcome of a rational comparison of voter and candidate preferences on various policy issues.
Now, Time has just released the first installment in its How America Decides election-year survey. The results suggest that this voter calculus is at work in Hillary Clinton’s decline in Iowa, despite her continued strength in the polls nationally. Mark Halperin and Amy Sullivan write:
Strikingly, the very advantages that Clinton enjoys elsewhere — being seen as a strong leader with the most electability — dissipate in Iowa. And she trails far behind Obama and John Edwards in perceptions that she has strong moral character, is inspiring and says what she believes. Voters also express emotional reactions to candidates, and on that front, Clinton's numbers in Iowa look different as well. She generates less hope and pride in Iowa than in New Hampshire — or the nation as a whole — and those Iowans who say she makes them feel afraid are far less likely to support her than are their counterparts at the national level.
Most importantly, the Time piece adds an interesting layer to my analysis, which is the idea that the retail politics experience in places like Iowa and New Hampshire exerts a profound influence on how voters update their assessment of candidate traits, in ways that do not necessarily percolate up to the national level. You can see this dynamic clearly at work in the data, using Time’s nifty interactive feature, which allows you to compare survey results across a range of candidate traits and voter emotions in Iowa, New Hampshire, and nationally. Since the results of these early contests will no doubt influence how voters in subsequent primary and caucus states update their own candidate assessments, these gaps in voter reaction should be of genuine concern to the frontrunners in both parties.
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The Oprah Effect
I have been asked frequently over the past few days about whether Oprah Winfrey’s endorsement tour with Barack Obama will have any real impact on the Democratic presidential contest. In general, I subscribe to the notion that endorsements do not have much impact on electoral outcomes, but there are a few ways in which this particular endorsement might pay at least some short-term dividends for Obama.
First, the tour through Iowa, South Carolina, and New Hampshire has generated more free media coverage of Obama and his message than any campaign event in recent memory, dominating the news cycle over a four-day period, and perhaps even longer. As the saying goes, you can’t buy that kind of publicity. Second, the voter information gleaned from the tens of thousands of citizens who attended the various rallies will no doubt be put to extensive grassroots use by the campaign, as it mobilizes core supporters and reaches out to potential first-timers in these key early states. Third, there is a sense among observers that, unlike some other perennial celebrity endorsers, Oprah’s unusual direct involvement in a presidential campaign brings with it a seriousness of purpose that may resonate with voters, particularly women and minorities, two important constituencies for Democratic candidates.
So, while Obama must ultimately close the deal with voters, there is a sense that Oprah’s involvement with his campaign has turned out to be more than your typical celebrity endorsement, one which might help Obama energize likely supporters, while bringing some new ones into the process, as well. If Obama wins the Democratic nomination, it would be fascinating to see Oprah back out on the campaign trail during a general election campaign. I am not sure what venue would be of sufficient size then.
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Saw This One Coming
It appears that Democrats are not the only ones who view Bill Clinton as a potent weapon on the campaign trail. Republican candidate Fred Thompson has a new mailer out in Iowa that compares frontrunner Mike Huckabee to President Clinton on taxes. If you haven’t seen the actual item on the web, it’s worth viewing here, if only to see what a brilliant piece of negative advertising looks like.
Conservative groups have dogged Huckabee on the tax issue from the moment he entered the presidential race, and his recent elevation to first tier status will only serve to intensify the criticism. Given Huckabee’s smooth southern folksiness on the stump, comparisons to that other famous man from Hope were inevitable, and the Thompson campaign seems to have a knack for clever attack ads.
This should also serve as a reminder to Democrats that, although President Clinton is viewed as an unalloyed asset to the Clinton campaign in the primaries, the general election will likely be a much more complex scenario (just ask Al Gore), with the former president serving as a mobilizing force for both supporters and opponents. The Thompson campaign has just provided voters with a little preview.
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Is Huckabee Ready for Primetime?
Only a week has passed since the combination of another strong debate performance and a new Des Moines Register poll officially elevated former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee to frontrunner status in Iowa, and into the first tier of candidates nationally. So, I thought I would take a look at how he is adapting to his newfound status.
As I am sure the Huckabee campaign knows, a higher profile candidate naturally invites greater media scrutiny, and well, let’s just say that the press has been keeping Governor Huckabee busy over the past seven days. No fewer than four separate story lines have developed to trap Huckabee in the classic frontrunner media crossfire, and detracted from his ability to capitalize on his campaign’s momentum.  Allegations over the early release of a rapist, his lack of awareness of the new National Intelligence Estimate on Iran, hometown reporters dishing on his governing style, and his suggestion that God is playing favorites in the Republican contest, have kept Huckabee busy providing a variety of explanations, and raised questions about whether he is ready for the political spotlight.
While Huckabee’s apparent success in coalescing much of the fragmented Evangelical vote behind his candidacy is no small feat, his ability (or lack thereof) to handle the intense demands placed on leading candidates will send an important signal to a broad range of voters about whether he is up to the task. In New Hampshire, where religious conservatives comprise a relatively small portion of the voting public, and where Huckabee is currently running in fourth place in most polls, we are all watching with interest.
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Candidates Make Electability the Issue
An article in the December 10th edition of Newsweek neatly underscores yesterday’s post on electability. Richard Wolffe argues that, although candidates spend a great deal of time talking about issues on the campaign trail, they also understand the bottom-line importance of convincing voters that they can win in November. It is this question of electability that ultimately determines how candidates like Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama engage each other on the stump. Wolffe writes:
But what's a candidate to do if the issues aren't really an issue? That's just the problem Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, locked in verbal combat these last few weeks, are now confronting in the time remaining before the Iowa caucuses…if the campaign for the Democratic nomination were really a contest of who had the best ideas for the country, voters would have a tough time choosing between the two front runners...Instead, Clinton and Obama have tried to differentiate themselves by making the race about something else: which one of them can win. For Democrats still frustrated by presidential losses in 2000 and 2004, that's no small thing.
So, the campaigns attempt to frame the vote choice as one about which candidate has the best chance of beating the other party’s nominee in November. While Clinton claims that she has the toughness (experience) to withstand the inevitable onslaught of Republican attacks in the general election, Obama argues that he can transcend (change) polarized partisan politics in ways that will disarm his opponents. In this debate about electability, we find the seeds of the Democratic race’s predominant political narrative, not about issues, but about the relative merit of presidential candidates bringing change or experience to the governance of our political system. It is not just voters who want to win.
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Voters Take Issue with Electability
A particular result from the new Associated Press/Pew Research Center poll caught my attention yesterday. When asked whether it is more important to choose a candidate based on issue positions or electability, 74% of New Hampshire Democrats (72% of Iowa Democrats) chose issue positions over electability. These findings suggest that voters select a candidate based on compatibility with their own issue preferences, rather than as the result of a strategic calculation about which candidate is most likely to defeat the other party’s nominee in November.
Given my earlier argument for why candidate electability is central to the nomination process, it should be no surprise that this result struck me as rather peculiar. When I look at the current Democratic field, I see seven candidates (excluding Mike Gravel) who basically occupy the same issue space. All of the candidates are pro-choice, want to bring our troops home from Iraq, hope to provide more affordable healthcare, are very concerned about climate change, and seek to protect the future viability of Social Security and Medicare. In comparison to the issue positions of any future Republican nominee, differences between the Democratic candidates are largely trivial, which should drive Democratic voters to focus on electability.
Occasionally, a legitimate candidate will look like an issue outlier among his party’s potential nominees. Dennis Kucinich (especially in 2004) and Ron Paul offer two good examples of this. But, I would be very surprised if voters could identify any meaningful differences between Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, or John Edwards on the issues of Iraq, healthcare, or climate change, especially in comparison to the positions of their Republican counterparts on those same issues.
My sense is that Democratic voters (just like Republicans) do see stark differences between the parties on most issues, and are in reality making strategic calculations about candidate electability, even if they are not willing to admit it to a pollster. It is a central tenet of our retail politics tradition (and Iowa’s) that voters grill candidates on the issues, and these poll results likely speak to a veneration of that role by our citizens.
But I would wager that when many New Hampshire Democrats step into the voting booth on January 8th, they will ultimately go with their gut-level feeling on electability (as will Republicans), even if the selected candidate’s issue compatibility with their own preferences is not ideal. Come on New Hampshire Democrats, you know you want to win.
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Oh Come All Ye Bloggers
I will be participating in a special town hall meeting at Southern New Hampshire University on Thursday, December 6th at 7 PM. The event is entitled, The Unpress: New Gatekeepers of the New Hampshire Primary, and is billed as a conversation between New Hampshire bloggers, journalists, citizens and campaign officials. The objective is a lively discussion of the impact of the internet on our presidential primary. Organized by the New England News Forum, the event is free and open to the public, although seating is limited. You can find more information (and register) here. I hope that you can join us for what promises to be a very exciting evening.
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