Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Known unknowns.

The latest Rasmussen poll this week puts Mitt Romney up by two points in Ohio 50-48, calling attention to the tightening of the race. A brief scan of Real Clear Politics averages for twelve battleground states shows Mitt Romney leading in two, Florida and North Carolina, Virginia and Colorado tied, and President Obama leading in eight states.

Most notable, however, is that only in Minnesota is the President above 50%. In Michigan and Pennsylvania the President's lead is four points or more, but his number remains below 50%.

50% matters to an incumbent, because every election is first and foremost a referendum on the performance of the incumbent. It might have been Mitt Romney's strategy to make the race a referendum on Barack Obama, but it was not a new concept. And 50% matters to an incumbent because historical data suggests that voters who remain undecided voters through a campaign are not likely to support an incumbent in the end. This seems to be a fairly rational result when one thinks about it. If the incumbent had been able to close the sale, or if the challenger had made a persuasive case, a voter would not be undecided.

This historical tendency is important in assessing the state of the presidential race, and it suggests not only that the President's lead in swing states may be ephemeral, but that other states where the President is not at or over 50%, such as Pennsylvania or Michigan, may in fact be up in the air.

Faced with evidence of a tightening race, Democrat polster Stan Greenberg suggested in a blast email the same day as the Rasmussen Ohio poll that the polls are not accurately reflecting the electorate, as cellphone users are underrepresented. Obama advisor David Axelrod jumped on the poll-denier bandwagon a day earlier, suggesting that polling turnout models are flawed and fail to capture the Obama edge in the get-out-the-vote "ground game."

The unknowns as we head down to the wire are significant. If the ground game is not accurately taken into account, as Axelrod suggests, no doubt polling firms are struggling to account for the air war as well. The magnitude of media spending over the last weeks of the campaign is unprecedented, as we never seen the volume of spending and the magnitude of end game media that is underway in swing states.

A week ago, both campaigns turned up the heat on the abortion issue. Data from a recent Gallup survey   illustrated why, as it indicated that women in swing states list abortion as their most important voting issue, at double the importance of jobs or the economy. Clearly the Obama and Romney campaigns are seeing similar results in their data, as unlike any campaign in memory, presidential campaign ads are making their case specifically on the abortion issue.

Abortion is an interesting and historically asymmetrical issue in political campaigns. Over the past two decades, support for a woman's right to choose has split the electorate, with slightly more than half of those polled in support, and slightly less than half opposed. Yet historically, while abortion has been a highly partisan issue, Pew Research data indicates that as much as 73% of pro-life voters rank abortion as a very important voting issue, compared to 22% of pro-choice voters. That is to say that anti-choice voters are more than three times as likely to have that issue drive their vote.

This is not news for Republican activists, who have build the modern Republican strategy as a coalition of single issue voting groups, including anti-abortion, pro-gun, anti-tax, pro-faith, anti-gay voters. The power of this coalition, conceived and driven by Grover Norquist, is demonstrated by the effective excommunication of the pro-choice wing of the Republican Party. Norquist has built effective control of the Republican Party over the past two decades by understanding that what people say they care about matters far less in the political world than understanding those things that will predictably and reliably move peoples vote.

For those undecided women voters, both campaigns are making their final pitch on the basis of the economy vs. women's reproductive rights. Notwithstanding the Gallup data, the Obama campaign is fighting two historical trends when undecided women enter the voting both. They are hoping that more than 22% of pro-choice, undecided voters will vote on that issue, and they are hoping that undecided voters will not trend away from the incumbent.

Somehow, through an opaque alchemy of Monte Carlo simulations, New York Times polling guru Nate Silver considers all of this. He considers the ground game and the air war, factors in the incidence of cellphone usage, and the voting trends of undecided voters, when he projects that Obama has a 73% chance of winning. Yet all of the data suggests that each of the battleground states are within the margin of error, and in a year with significant unknowns--with the normal uncertainties that we know about combined with new uncertainties that we have never measured before--it is easy to conclude that we might know far less than we think we do.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

The road to Damascus.

According to recent polling data, barely 2% of Americans list foreign policy or matters beyond our shores as material to their vote, so one could reasonably ask why we have presidential debates on foreign policy at all. If presidential debates elevate style over substance as a rule, foreign policy debates elevate the form to kabuki theatre. Unlike the domestic policy arena, where there is some expectation that candidates will adhere to the positions they espouse, not only are candidates not expected to tell us what they would necessarily do in international negotiations, we do not really want them to. International relations and strategy are themselves built on deception, the last thing we want in our leaders is for them to show their cards in public, much less tell us how they would play them. Instead, we judge the candidates on toughness, clarity of purpose, and other such ephemeral notions of what it takes to be Commander-in-Chief.

In the final presidential debate, on foreign policy, one can expect Mitt Romney to come down hard on the Obama administration for its failure to project American power in the Middle East. This has been an encapsulating critique, particularly with respect to the President's failure to rein in the Iranian nuclear program. Pressing for tougher action on Iran--without actually suggesting what that action would be--has been a trifecta of sorts for Romney. First and formost, Iran's continued enrichment of uranium in the face of American opposition had provided the prima facie case of the fecklessness of administration policy. Second, tough rhetoric on the Iranian threat to the survival of Israel ties in to Romney's courting of Jewish and evangelical support. And finally, Iranian aggressiveness within the region frames Romney's perspective on the Syrian conflict, wherein we not only have failed to arm the rebels, but we have done nothing to impede Iranian material support to the Assad government.

The challenge for Romney is that even as he advocates for a more muscular projection of American power in the world, he cannot beat the drums too loudly. Iran, in particular, has always held risks for Romney, lest his aggressive rhetoric leave the electorate with the sense that his team--populated as it is by former W. neocon hands--would lead us once again down the path to war. There is little appetite for a new war across the American electorate, as Republicans and Democrats alike have come to doubt the effectiveness of our war policies of the past decade. Romney's attack must parse the question of what he would do differently, even as he avoids rhetoric that might imply moving down the slippery slope toward putting American boots once again on the ground in a hostile Muslim land.

The civil war in Syria presents a far more complex situation, and one that will als be a front-burner issue for the next president. But unlike Iran, the Syrian conflict is one in which the strategic American interest remains unclear, even as the calls for more substantive American action grows. It is a conflict of multiple dimensions, with myriad parties, each with their own strategic interests. At this point, at least four distinct dimensions to the conflict have emerged.

First, there is the Syrian civil war, where a coalition of secular and Islamist groups have embraced their own version of the Arab Spring, seeking to wrest control of their country from Bashar al-Assad and his regime. The Obama administration has stepped very gingerly into that conflict--much to the chagrine of some administration opponents. We have put down our marker by demanding that Assad go, but we have stopped short of providing arms to the rebels. The rebel coalition has no defined political agenda upon which they agree, and accordingly we have declined to arm the collective rebel movement, concerned that the Sunni insurgency we arm today may well become the adversary we fight tomorrow.

At the next level, the Syrian conflict has morphed into a regional Shia-Sunni conflict. Our Arab allies, primarily the Sunni regimes in Saudi Arabia and Qatar, are arming the rebels in our stead. But those arms are largely flowing to Sunni Islamist groups within the rebel coalition. Other support for the rebel coalition is coming from Turkey--long a dominant Sunni power--as well as al Qaeda and Iraqi Sunni militant groups. On the other side, support for the Syrian Alawite regime is coming from Shia state and non-state actors including Iran, Lebanon's Hezbollah and elements of the Iraqi Shia-led government.

On the regional level, the Syrian conflict has become the first context for the re-emergence of the three-way battle for regional power among the historically dominant countries within the region: Turkey, Iran and Egypt. Those three countries have each had their historical millenia of regional dominance, and each take great pride in their rightful roles as regional powers. With the new emergence of Egypt under Muhammed Morsi, and Turkey's turn away from Europe back to the Middle East, we are beginning to see those three countries asserting themselves in the region--and against each other.

And finally there is the level of super-power politics. Russia--long sidelined as a global power--has made clear that it is not prepared to give up on its historical ally in Damascus. A decade ago, Vladimir Putin sought western recognition of Russia's role as a regional hegemon over the states of the old Soviet Union. But we rebuffed Putin's overture, and instead pushed the expansion of NATO to Russia's doorstep. And now, if for nothing other than pride and a bit of payback, Russia is going to make every effort not to be subsumed to America's dictates in the region.

So far, while Mitt Romney has criticized the Obama administration for "leading from behind" in Syria, neither he nor the President have articulated what strategic interest is at stake for the United States in that conflict--beyond our interest in avoiding a regional conflagration. Arguably, it is our lack of expressed strategic interest that has allowed all of the other parties to step into the conflict, believing that they can pursue their own interests there without provoking a response from us. Yet it is exactly that escalation, and the ensuing chaos, that could well trigger American involvement on the ground.

After a decade of wars in the region, with thousands dead and a trillion dollars spent, we need a good debate on foreign policy. As the dynamics in Syria indicated, foreign policy is becoming increasingly complex, and the projection of power alone may no longer suffice to bend nations to our will. The candidates may not have clear answers to the challenges we face, but at least we need to understand how they think about the questions. And if we are doomed to become more deeply involved in the conflict in Syria, we need to hear from the candidates how they define our strategic interest in the region, and what they imagine a successful outcome might be that would warrant our involvement on the ground. We have seen this movie before, and need to know why we should expect a different ending next time.