Release the Polls



Has there ever been a more data-driven general election than the 2012 cycle? After the Obama campaign’s stunning win, story after story have emerged of its number-crunching ground game and an organization driven by the kind of nuanced, granular, what’s-in-your driveway statistics once reserved for Fortune 50 marketing firms. It turns out that where you live and what you wear and watch says more about whom you’ll vote for than anything you actually think.

The depth to which modern campaigns have collected and used information is acknowledged but perhaps not really understood.  Campaign Manager Jim Messina has talked publicly about enabling data-heads to develop models, applications and other means to deliver actionable information to operators and deliver voters to the polls.  Mitt Romney, by contrast, failed to understand his own data, and the collapse of his own data application called Orca contributed to the Republicans’ failure on Election Day.

But only the professionals really understand how much data has been involved in this last election cycle.  The rest of us have been focused on Nate Silver and his fivethirtyeight blog for The New York Times, which for two general election cycles has been able to predict with eerie accuracy the lineup of the Electoral College.

By contrast, here’s Messina dismissing the publicly available data: “Most of the public polls you were seeing were completely ridiculous,” Messina told Politico. “A bunch of polling is broken in the country.” Remember, that’s the information in the public domainthat allowed Nate Silver to predict the outcome of the Electoral College for all 50 states. Imagine what kind of data Messina had at his disposal.

Actually, you don’t have to imagine.  Although Karl Rove hasn’t called a race accurately since 2006, he’s been pretty transparent about how he runs his races. In October 2006, as George W. Bush faced losing the House, Rove sparred with NPR’s Robert Siegel, who asserted that the polls were looking bad for the Republicans. Rove contested that. “I’m looking at the same polls you’re looking at,” Siegel insisted.

“No, you are not,” Rove shot back. “I’m looking at 68 polls a week for candidates for the U.S. House and U.S. Senate and Governor and you may be looking at four-five public polls a week that talk attitudes nationally.”  That’s nearly 70 polls a week, nearly 10 polls a day – during the midterms ­­– which is exponentially more information than was publicly available to NPR.

We’re talking about an entirely different level of data, privately collected and held not just by the presidential campaigns but by the party campaign committees, statewide campaigns for Senate, district-level races for Congress, and state-level races for assembly, and so on. I’ve even heard of data-assembly for races at the county level.  All of that information is proprietary, and the public will never see it.

Why not? Why shouldn’t that information be available, just like the polling published by Gallup, Pew, Rasmussen, Quinnipiac, and the news organizations, and aggregated by such sites as fivethirtyeight and Real Clear Politics? The proprietary information is incredibly dense and rich, interesting and valuable. It would tell us not only about how the campaigns are run and what the campaigns collect on the voters. It would tell us who we are and how we are changing. A lot has been written about how American demographics are tipping dramatically against the Republican party. Public exit polling and the U.S. Census Bureau only tell us so much.

The answer to the question is mostly money.  Collecting information is expensive and data is valuable, and you don’t give it away for free.  And information like that is really only valuable when it’s collected consistently over time.  Data collected properly since before the 2006 race have a shelf-life. Public opinion surveys are the Twinkies of quantitative sociology.

But the campaigns don’t collect this data. The companies the campaigns contract to construct the polls, put them in the field, and deliver the reports do that. To release the information, we’d have to convince or pay them to make the information public. Or we could insist that the publicly funded presidential campaigns – the most recent of which was John McCain’s 2008 race – makes the information a kind of public property.

At the very least, the public, historians and political scientists need to know that this data exists – in vastly larger quantities than they are likely aware – and will not simply vanish with each election cycle.  In the end that information is about the American people and collected for the purposes of electing their leaders. It should be made available to them.


The Subjective Political

Republican supporters console one another on election night in Las Vegas. (David Becker/Getty Images via The Guardian)

While virtually everything to be said about the recent presidential election has been said, it may help rein in the unseemly round of Democratic schadenfreude to suggest it wasn’t too long ago they were in the same position as the Republicans: specifically, that they went into the election convinced they would win and were genuinely shocked when they lost.

It’s not popular, and hardly analogous, to compare George W. Bush to Barack Obama, but the hostile partisan reactions to the incumbent were essentially the same. The policies of their first terms were considered so unpopular by the opposition party that they just had to lose, and all right-thinking, reasonable Americans would recognize this and limit him to one term. It was this sense of despair that the majority of Americans didn’t think the same way that really was palpable among Democrats in 2004 and Republicans this year — not just of real hopes dashed but that either they themselves or the American people had been somehow misled.

In the case of George W. Bush, it was about the war in Iraq. For Barack Obama, take your pick: the economy, the debt, immigration, etc. For those partisans opposing the incumbent, they felt that the question was so obvious — the weakness so clear — that any voter would have to side with them and vote him out of office.  But they didn’t.  Why?

Part of that may have something to do with swiftboating and the Rovian notion that most voters are already aware of the weaknesses of the candidates and vote based on some other interest. Certainly much of it has to do with how the campaigns are run, and how much money is involved. A firm Electoral College strategy helps narrow these issues down as well, too.  Iraq had a lot less of an impact in traditionally “red” states, particularly those with large military bases in 2004, for example, and Gov. Mitt Romney’s early dismissal of the GM rescue was death in Ohio this year.

But it also depends on how much Americans really care about these issues.  This leads me to a new exploration of what I haven’t discussed before about what we mean by “political“. When we use the term political, we’re often talking about the subjective, an ineffable balance of value we place on concerns of moral import. Not everything can be as important to us as others, without dismissing everything else.  This is the reason why we give to the charities we choose, volunteer for the organizations we do, and — ultimately — vote for the candidates we vote for. Not every candidate perfectly meets our checklist of priorities, but he or she is more likely to meet most of them, or get close to most of them, and more likely conforms to our values for the rest. Our political judgment thus rests on a subjectivity of value that is more subtle than simply ticking a box (although that’s what voting demands of us).

In this last election, which saw the quantitative methods in evaluating and assessing voter behavior elevated to a very high profile, it’s important to recognize that even these subjective (one is tempted to say analog) values can be captured with increasing digital detail and granularity. Much of this data is in the public domain, but far more — exponentially more — is captured by private firms and the major campaigns. This information is used to gauge and drive voter behavior. I’m not inclined to find that particularly sinister since marketeers derive billions in sales with essentially the same information, and consumers willingly part with this kind of information online through Facebook and with every Amazon purchase.

And it’s important to know that that subjective information is dynamic, fluid, and constantly changing. No better evidence of that is the fact that the top issue of the 2004 campaign was Iraq, while in 2012 it was the economy.  But, importantly, that’s not to say it necessarily effected the election outcome.

This is a very long and complicated way of saying that that people think differently about different things and hold different values about different things, and feel more strongly about those things than other people do. That’s obvious. But it’s worth repeating.  Because if we didn’t, we’d all be the same, and being different is what makes us human. Specifically to this discussion, we wouldn’t have politics without that difference, and politics is how we mediate those differences. We’ve learned from terrible experience that countries insisting that everyone is or should be the same become apolitical killing fields.


Winning the Long Game – Public Diplomacy, Public Opinion and the U.S. Elections

What winning looks like (MCT/ZUMA via Mother Jones)

Tuesday’s reelection of Barack Obama confirmed few people’s confidence in American democracy – least of which was the utter failure of $3 billion in “outsider” Super PAC money to effect the overall makeup of the federal government. But the election results did confirm the general accuracy of much-maligned public opinion polling which, with appropriate aggregation and correctly applied judgment, could accurately forecast much of the election results.


This brings me to the importance of international public opinion to public diplomacy practice. In many respects, public opinion is public diplomacy, or to be more precise, the entire point of public diplomacy: we engage with the public to change minds and mold opinion. We ask and check and monitor opinion through public opinion polling and surveys, both public and private, in order both to know what people think but also to determine how to change what they think.  It is impossible to think about public diplomacy without understanding and caring about public opinion, polling data and methodology in great detail.

This information does not exist in nearly the kind of depth and sequence that it does for something like a national race or for presidential approval ratings. For a national race, high-quality public tracking data can be produced on a weekly and sometimes daily basis. Information on presidential approval ratings can be produced on a monthly or weekly basis and on a variety of issues. This sort of information, about the United States and a variety of issues, is not available nearly as regularly, nor for as many countries, nor in as much depth.

But they do exist: GallupPew, and (to a lesser extent) the German Marshall Fund all produce regular, multi-national surveys of public opinion on a variety of issues. The data is fascinating and rich and worth spending quite a lot of time reading and absorbing.  Sinking down into the data, as I have, will demonstrate the astonishing diversity and dynamism of public opinion not just around the world, but within demographics, relating to the United States and on a variety of different issues.

But if public diplomacy is about affecting public opinion, then two ready questions come immediately to mind.  Why aren’t those in charge of public diplomacy held to account for the global public esteem of the United States? And, if they are, then why isn’t the public diplomacy apparatus organized and equipped better to change global public opinion?

I found these unanswered questions – or rather, the questions disconnected from solutions – during my time at NATO.  We were interested in public opinion but lacked the resources and tools to understand it in greater depth. We didn’t really know what we wanted people to know or think about us, other than generally to understand and support us.  And we had no real way to gauge how to resource that mission in any event.  I suspect the State Department is in a similar position.

It’s important to note there are imperfect comparisons between public diplomacy and an election campaign. There is no “vote” in public diplomacy, only a continuing series of referenda on U.S. foreign policy and our leaders. And there is little compromising on matters of national interest and prerogative and certainly none when it comes to those whom our people choose as our leaders.

If we told the Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy that her job performance was contingent on public opinion ratings, that would certainly tighten her job description and focus her resources. (There are, for example, about 1,000 qualified public diplomacy officers in the State Department. The Pentagon has probably 10 times that number.)  It certainly argues for an organization within the State Department such as the U.S. Information Agency, whose dedicated mission is entirely focused on foreign publics. Unfortunately, it might also lead to the elimination of some of the more popular (and necessary) programs in the State Department, such as the Fulbright fellowships, that have long-term benefits for the United States but less immediate impact.  It might also lead to the accusation of propaganda, if not its outright activity.  Just as with the “air game” during an election at home, the obsession with public opinion may lead us to find an “easy way” to influence foreign “voters”.  An undue focus on public opinion could force our diplomats to succumb to these temptations, like studying to the test.

Perhaps we need to return to the recent election for another model for public diplomacy. It is becoming clear that the Obama campaign won the election through a gritty application of the ground game – a serious, methodical application of organization that found committed supporters and got them to the polls. There is something to be learned from that example. The ground game is also the best public diplomacy: building rapport, strengthening the organization, mobilizing allies, reaching out to the undecided. In the long game, it’s what wins.


How to understand “Swiftboating”

The Raid, May 2, 2011 (White House Photo by Pete Souza)

A new thread coursing through the U.S. presidential campaign has been an attack on President Obama’s alleged disclosures regarding the raid last year that killed Osama bin Laden.  A 501(c)(4) political action committee called the Special Operations OPSEC [Operational Security] Education Fund has asserted that the Administration’s disclosures regarding the operations — particularly the revelation that SEAL Team Six carried out the May 2, 2011 mission — have seriously compromised the operational security, safety and effectiveness of covert military and paramilitary units like the Navy SEALs, Army Delta Force, and CIA.  They may have a point.  In August later that year, 15 SEALS from the same team were killed when their helicopter was shot down in Afghanistan.  Operational Security in the region, where infiltration and “green on blue” violence is a growing threat, is a vigilent concern.

The President’s supporters view this attack not as a benign public informational campaign on behalf of servicemen but as a hollow-point partisan attack benefiting the campaign of Republican Gov. Mitt Romney. After all, didn’t President George W. Bush land dramatically on the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln to announce in front of a roaring crew that “major combat operations in Iraq are over”? Didn’t Coalition Provisional Authority administrator J. Paul Bremer crow “We got ’em!” after Saddam Hussein was apprehended? Surely there can’t be some sour grapes that after ten years the main target of Tora Bora was killed under a Democratic Administration?

But the President’s campaign immediately pushed back on the group’s 20-minute documentary by referring to it as “swift boat tactics,” a reference to the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, the organization that very effectively derailed the campaign of Democratic Sen. John Kerry in 2004.  Conceptually, Swiftboating is so commonplace now that the campaign spokesman didn’t even have to explain himself, but it’s important to really understand what he’s getting at.  Swiftboating is a modern political tactic but it is not particularly new, nor is it eminently Republican (or American).  When the campaign uses the term, it is shorthand for lying.  But the tactic is more sophisticated than that.

What we know as “swiftboating” is, in modern electoral politics, the tactic of attacking your opponent’s strong point.  This seems counterintuitive, especially since politics is often equated to war or sports, when the frontal assault is usually a quick way to die.  But Karl Rove, the contemporary master of this stroke, once said, “I don’t attack people on their weaknesses.  That usually doesn’t get the job done.  Voters already perceive weaknesses.  You’ve got to go after the other guy’s strengths.” (Emphasis added.)  And the reason is this: with their backbones broken, your opponents can no longer support the weight of their convictions.  In war, attacking a weak point is critical to a breakthrough.  But in politics, if you attack an enemy’s strong point and destroy it, you leave him with nothing at all.

That was Kerry’s critical mistake in 2004.  He held himself up as a war hero against his opponent’s more ambiguous service record.  But his own political history was more complicated than his Naval record in Vietnam — he was outspoken against that war, flip-flopped on Iraq war funding — and left himself vulnerable to an assault on his own, self-selected selling point: “My name is John Kerry, and I am reporting for duty.”  Once doubts were raised, it was hard to claim that he was much better than the alternative.

Again, this is not a uniquely Republican tactic. The “wimp factor” was maliciously applied to George H. W. Bush, a genuine war hero if there ever was one: a volunteer after Pearl Harbor at 19, the youngest naval aviator at 20, shot down over the Pacific and rescued by a submarine after losing his navigator.  And right now, the Obama camp has taken a golden opportunity to attack Romney’s business record.  As with Kerry, all’s fair in politics: Romney is publicly running on his experience as a venture capitalist, and that practically begs for a closer look at what that experience actually was.

If the “swift boat” analogy to the OPSEC challenge is true, the Obama Administration and campaign should simply treat it for what it is, an attack on a strength.  Barack Obama made, in the words of former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, “one of the gutsiest calls I have ever seen a president make,” and ordered the raid that killed Osama bin Laden.  The previous President and a Republican president would have had to made a similar judgment. A well-trained American serviceman pulled the trigger and the intelligence apparatus delivered the right information for him to act on.  But ultimately — and the OPSEC men should know this — given the mission’s fraught political context, only the President could make that call that brought hell’s torment to the world’s most wanted man.

And the President made the right one — unlike, I would add, so many made before him.


The Physicality of Politics

President Barack Obama, on the stump in Maumee, Ohio, July 5. (AP via KATU)

Watching President Obama sweating out on campaign stops across Ohio last week, where temperatures hit the 90s, is a welcome reminder that politics is above all a physical endurance contest. It’s a hot early summer, we haven’t had the party nominating conventions and we haven’t hit Labor Day yet, the traditional beginning of the general campaign season.  But off they go to the hustings.

Politics is often called a “contact sport,” usually as a strained, overused metaphor for the battering politicians’ reputations take. Most commentators who use that old cliche have no idea ofthe sheer physicality of the campaign trail. It is not for nothing that John F. Kennedy holds the world record for handshakes.  “The handshake is the threshold act, the beginning of politics,” writes Anonymous (Joe Klein) in Primary Colors, the roman a clef of the 1992 presidential campaign. And no matter the concern about the “air war” and campaign organization, television advertisements and the Internet’s impact on fundraising, SuperPACS and voter turnout, candidates still need to get out into the country and meet the voters. The primary contests — this was most dramatically demonstrated during the 2008 race — particularly demand it.  In the early primary states especially, such as New Hampshire and Iowa, voters expect to meet all the candidates before casting their ballot.  This is democracy writ small and in the largest sense of the word.

Mitt Romney and his wife, Ann, enjoy an ice cream to cool off during a break from the campaign trail. (AP via ABC News)

But it places incredible physical, intellectual and psychic demands on the candidates.  Bill Clinton famously gained weight during his 1992 race and completely lost his voice in his dash to the finish.  I remember meeting him with a friend on the campaign trail during the summer of 1992.  At one o’clock in the morning at the Peabody Hotel in Memphis, Tennessee, he still stopped to meet every single person in the lobby. Obama, it is perhaps less well-known, lost weight on his spare physique in 2008.  Clinton’s propensity to eat on the campaign trail, and Obama’s commensurate ability to burn calories reminded me of a Senate colleague who, while running for the State Senate in Maryland, lost 40 pounds: politics plays havoc with the human frame.  Obama’s voice in Ohio already sounds raspy.  Even on vacation, you could see Romney’s magnificent coiffeur begin to wilt.  Just wait until he hits North Carolina in August.

The primary and general election campaign you see on television (whether you follow it intently or whether it forces itself on your consciousness occasionally) is mirrored all across the country in towns and cities and villages and counties, in congressional and state legislative districts, in cantons and parishes and townships, as thousands of people stand for office for mayor, city council, school board, county supervisor, state assembly, and dogcatcher. This is the real stuff of republicanism, far from the attention of national media and big money, and it is as physical and grueling and demanding as any national race for the candidates and families involved. For months, they will be running, their own names in contention against others, out in public, meeting people, asking for votes.

This can be great fun.  Local political campaigns are rooted in community, and running for office means working and knowing where you live better than probably any other time in your life.  My mother ran three times for local school board in my hometown in California (she won by expanding margins each time); the year before her first race she ran the campaign for a local referendum. Each race was different, of course, but at the local level they were always the same.  We gathered the same group of friends for the same activities: silk-screening campaign posters, folding and staple-gunning them to stakes which we then drove around the city to  pound with great mallets into willing families’ front yards to advertise the candidate.  We stuffed and licked envelopes for direct mail appeals (no computers necessary, my mother hand-addressed each one).  Sometimes I accompanied my mother to the print shop where she would submit, approve, and pick up her mailers.

Using a huge blueprint map of the city tacked up on our dining room wall, we “walked precincts,” literally and physically meeting people at their homes in neighborhoods all across the city, highlighting each block that we finished.  I watched my mother practice speeches in her bedroom mirror before going out to meet civic groups to win their endorsement and member support.  She attended public events (Fourth of July, Memorial Day, Labor Day), meeting people day after day.  My grandfather, a famously successful cookie salesman, donned a campaign hat and went door to door meeting people to ask them to vote for my mother.

All of this is to say, to reach voters, candidates have to be out and meeting people constantly.  My mother did advertise in the local newspaper, but just to raise the money to buy an advertisement she needed to meet and win over people and that meant getting out to where people are. That activity is tremendously physical and requires a hearty, friendly, outgoing, and generous constitution.

There is very little mention or literature about this aspect of politics.  The physical nature of it, the rootedness in family and community, the sheer fun.  Practically our entire family helped my mother, and an entire legion of my mother’s friends helped her too.  Often journalists on the campaign bus or plane will complain about the unrelenting pace of the trail, but they are only capturing a small aspect of the experience (they have deadlines; in politics the only deadline is election day and for the winner usually even that day restarts the clock).  I admired Primary Colors for its intimate look at the often-ignored aspects of small-time political organizations in the back-of-the-beyond before people are really paying attention, and the latter “West Wing” episodes captured some of this is-anybody-paying-attention feel to the race for the White House in chilly Iowa and New Hampshire.

Because politics is a contact sport. Americans have the right to meet their representatives, to look them in the eye, size them up, ask them questions, hear what they answer.  That’s a fundamental aspect of our representative democracy, and quite unlike many parliamentary systems, where there is very often no direct connection between that meeting and their vote. In America, you get to meet the man and woman in the arena. In fact, we insist on it.


Art and the Pander

Gov. Mitt Romney after winning the Nevada caucuses in January. (Getty Images via USA Today)

National Public Radio’s All Things Considered ran a story last week on “How to Pander: A Guide for the Candidates”. Considering how few Republican candidates are left, and that the general campaign hasn’t really begun, I found this an odd time to run such a story.

For NPR, it was also a strangely cynical, not to say presumptuous, story to run. It suggested that in order to ingratiate the mostly northern candidates with Southern voters in Mississippi and Alabama, they were dropping “g’s,” throwing in “y’all’s” and (in Gov. Romney’s case) botching references to “cheese grits”. NPR phoned up a New York-based comedian of Puerto Rican descent (couldn’t they find a Puerto Rican comic?) to explain local cultural nuance in the upcoming primaries that Romney walked away with.

Then-Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) with Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) (center-right) at Brown A.M.E. Church in Selma, Ala., March 2007.

To balance out this litany of embarrassment for Republicans — they are the ones actively campaigning for the most part — the segment started off alleging President Obama’s pander to a southern African American audience just a month after he announced his candidacy back in 2007. Surely they could have found a more recent allegation? NPR dredged up Obama’s southern stylings before an audience at Brown Chapel in Selma, Alabama, in March 2007, an unfortunate choice. This event has become foundation myth in the narrative arc of Obama’s life, because it was there that he forged the connection between his generation and the Civil Rights generation who made the way for him and other political leaders like him.

The political context of his visit to Selma was much more fraught than a tried-on southern-fried accent could hope to manage and the candidate knew it. Obama had to convince the Civil Rights establishment that a new face of mixed heritage from Chicago, who had not shared their struggles, was worthy of their inheritance. This was hardly pandering: it was a critical moment in American politics and absolutely vital to electing America’s first black president.  Obama’s address was audacious, deferential, profound and masterful. And it worked.

I had always understood the term “pander” in political rather than cultural terms. Pandering had been the candidate talking about ethanol subsidies to farmers to win the Iowa caucuses, or talking about reproductive rights with women’s groups, or preaching pro-life to anti-abortion groups, or collective bargaining with unions, or deregulation with business organizations.  It was singing to the choir. I see no particular shame in this. In politics, individuals of like mind band together, pool resources, and avail themselves to their government. People are stronger together than alone. And political figures in return avail themselves of that strength by going to groups and appealing to them in language that they understand.

The word pander is commonly defined as helping to fulfill someone’s baser instincts. It is perhaps interesting it has an archaic definition as pimp and comes from Panderus, a pimp character from the 18th century Italian play Troilus and Cressida. At least in the older dictionaries that I consult (Oxford American English, Webster’s New Universal Unabridged) it has not taken on a political definition.

But definitions aside, NPR has revealed something inadvertent in its How To Guide: that at the base of the political experience is something aesthetic, artful, pleasureful, even playful.  The cheese grits and cheese steaks, crab feeds and lobster bakes and spaghetti nights are all rooted in local communities. When we talk about a pluralistic political community, this is really what we are talking about. The American politician’s ability to maneuver in, articulate and speak to that plurality demonstrates the breadth and quality of his entire life and character, how much he has assimilated our vast and profound political culture. That lack of “connection” every commentator bemoans about Romney and Al Gore is witnessed and deeply enjoyed in Bill Clinton and (very often) in Obama. When it occurs, it is a politically aesthetic experience bordering on the sublime that too often goes overlooked.

To that end, Obama’s occasional wonky stiffness belies a suppleness of language and voice that Zadie Smith dissected as an essential aspect of his political brilliance: he hears in registers that others don’t, and is able to return those tones in ways that only others hear. The delight in his audiences, when it works, is obvious, and it is an unacknowledged pleasure of our political life.

This is also a political aesthetic experience important to understanding how politics works. We are just as likely to make political — that is to say morally normative — decisions based on aesthetic judgments as on reason, if not more so, and the keenest politicians understand that and are able to harness those judgments in ways political philosophers seem purely incapable of comprehending.