Straight Talk

Matt Yglesias:

One virtue of having a reputation as a straight-talker is that you
can get away with constant lying. For example, in response to a
question about why he twice voted against a commission to investigate
the response to Hurricane Katrina, John McCain says he voted in favor of every investigation. In reality, just as the New Orleans local news reporter said, he twice voted against a commission to investigate the matter.

Now there's probably some crazy strained reading of McCain's remarks
so that his claims are consistent with reality. And since everyone
knows McCain's a straight-talker, the press will read it that way. And
because that's been the press's response each of the dozens of times in
the course of this campaign that McCain's told bald-faced lies, his
reputation for straight-talk never vanishes. A lesser figure who was in
the habit of constantly lying and flip-flopping would develop a
reputation as a kind of madmen, so invested in self-love that he thinks
he has no obligation to political principles or basic factual accuracy.

What is so working in McCain's favor on this is that once the press has a “conventional wisdom” on you, it can be awfully hard to change.  Once the press decided that Al Gore was a hopeless, serial exaggerator in 2000, such was every statement of his.  Once John Kerry was a hopeless flip-flopper, he couldn't decide whether he wanted the windows of his car up or down.  Now, we all know John McCain is a “straight talker” so it doesn't matter whether he a) is completely lying, or b) doesn't have a clue what he's talking about because the press knows he's a straight talker.  I think given all the factors working against him mentioned in today's earlier post, he's still going to lose, but it will definitely be despite the free ride he is largely getting from the political press.

Why to expect President Obama

The other day I was discussing what to expect in the general election with my poltical scientist friend, Kyle Saunders.  While Kyle is quite the skeptic, I expressed faith in what we know as political scientists: in general, campaigns don't really matter all that much.  Rather, factors such as presidential approval, the state of the economy, etc., are quite determinative.  Kyle then pointed me to a recent article by his mentor, political scientist extraordinaire, Alan Abramowitz.  Kyle just assumed I had read this piece by Alan and was channeling its wisdom.  The fact that I had not read it, and that it basically made the case I wanted to make (but much better), made me feel much better about this argument.  So, from Abramowitz, here's why we should expect President Obama:

Polling data seem to support the conclusion that despite the
unpopularity of his party, John McCain has a realistic chance of
keeping the White House in Republican hands. McCain has been running
neck-and-neck with Obama in most recent national polls. In the May 21st
Gallup tracking poll, for example, Obama held a narrow 47 to 44 percent
lead over McCain.

The problem with such early horserace polls, however, is that they are
not very accurate predictors of the actual election results. Polls in
the spring of 1988 showed Michael Dukakis with a comfortable lead over
George H.W. Bush and polls in June of 1992 showed Bill Clinton running
third behind both Bush and H. Ross Perot. So recent polls showing a
close race between McCain and Obama may not tell us much about what to
expect in November…

Three indicators of the national political climate have accurately
predicted the outcomes of presidential elections since the end of World
War II: the incumbent president's approval rating at mid-year, the
growth rate of the economy during the second quarter of the election
year, and the length of time the president's party has held the White

These three factors can be combined to produce an Electoral Barometer
score that measures the overall national political climate. The formula
for computing this score is simply the president's net approval rating
(approval minus disapproval) in the Gallup Poll plus five times the
annual growth rate of real GDP minus 25 if the president's party has
held the White House for two terms or longer. Mathematically, this
formula can be written as:

EB = NAR + (5*GDP) – 25.

In theory, the Electoral Barometer can range from -100 or lower to
+100 or higher with a reading of zero indicating a neutral political

Based on President Bush's net approval rating in the most recent
Gallup Poll (-39), the annual growth rate of the economy during the
first quarter of 2008 (+0.6 percent), and the fact that the Republican
Party has controlled the White House for the past eight years, the
current Electoral Barometer reading is a dismal -63.

An Electoral Barometer reading of -63 would predict a decisive defeat
for the Republican presidential candidate. The only election since
World War II with a score in this range was 1980. In that election
Jimmy Carter suffered the worst defeat for an incumbent president since
Herbert Hoover in 1932. The second lowest score, -50, occurred in 1952.
That was the last election in which neither the incumbent president,
Democrat Harry Truman, nor the incumbent vice-president appeared on the
ballot. Nevertheless, the candidate trying to succeed Truman, Democrat
Adlai Stevenson, lost in a landslide.

It's well worth checking out the original article for the Electoral Baromoter chart over time (and seeing among other things, that Gore really should have done better in 2000).  Anyway, here's the nice take home summary:

The current national political climate is one of the worst for the
party in power since the end of World War II. No candidate running in
such an unfavorable political environment – Republican or Democrat –
has ever been successful. If John McCain manages to overcome the triple
whammy of an unpopular president, a weak economy, and a second term
election, it will be an upset of unprecedented magnitude.

What are they waiting for?

The New York Times has a handy “supedelegate database.”  As of now, there are still 115 superdelegates who have not declared a preference.  What are they waiting for?!  Seriously, what could possibly be the point of not having declared by now?  Are they that indecisive? 

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