Opinion

The Great Debate

The ‘Yes We Can’ orphans: Obama’s missing constituency

By all accounts, the 2012 presidential election will be a squeaker – probably no more than a point or two in the popular vote will separate the candidates. Such close elections put a special premium on getting one’s base out to vote and targeting the small, yet important, group of “undecided voters”.

We already see both sides doing just this. On the one hand, the undecided voter – about 10 percent of the electorate – is most concerned about “jobs and the economy.” Both Romney and Obama have scrambled over the last month to try to establish credibility on this issue and, in turn, to undermine the credibility of their opponent.

Most analysts define undecideds as self-declared independents or those who have not expressed an opinion at the voting intention question (“unsure”, “refused” or “don’t know” responses). An often overlooked but much more precise way of thinking about this group is to understand them as alienated and disaffected voters – people who voted for one candidate in one election but do not plan to vote for that same candidate next time.

Obama won in 2008 by a healthy seven-point margin (53 to 46) in the popular vote, attracting a large and diverse coalition of voters. According to poll aggregators like Real Clear Politics and Pollster.com, Obama has maintained a small but consistent one-to-two-point lead over Romney for the last few months; 2012 is not shaping up like 2008. So what happened to Obama’s coalition? Or more precisely, where is the missing 6 percent?

To answer these questions, we analyzed 26,005 interviews from our Reuters-Ipsos presidential online tracking polling, conducted between June 3 and Aug. 29, 2012.

Paul Ryan: a VP with a mandate

The New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza rightly called Mitt Romney’s bold selection of Representative Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin) as his running mate, “the most daring decision of his political career.”

Until this weekend, most observers expected Romney to proceed cautiously by selecting a vice-presidential nominee who would neither shake up the race nor introduce new risk into the campaign.

Mitt Romney, we hardly knew ye.

This is the most consequential presidential election in a generation. It deserves a campaign on big ideas and contrasting visions, not petty personal attacks, small ball and obfuscation.

Mitt Romney, the Schrodinger’s Cat of private equity

Mitt Romney is a quantum CEO, the Schrödinger’s Cat of private equity: From 1999 to 2002, he both was and was not the chief executive officer and sole owner of a powerful Bain Capital investment fund. After that period, Romney’s surrogates explain, he “retroactively” retired from this post. But, as Schrödinger’s famous thought experiment reminds us, just because you find a retroactively dead cat doesn’t mean he wasn’t previously simultaneously alive and dead.

While the two presidential campaigns tussle over this paradox, the real shame is how willing Romney and his defenders are to tolerate this bending of the truth, heretofore confined to particle physics. It’s another insight into the increasingly murky culture of American capitalism.

While Romney has claimed at times he was retired from Bain Capital during the period, he also signed documents filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission attesting that he was the “sole stockholder, sole director, Chief Executive Officer, Managing Director and President” of a multimillion-dollar investment fund.

The chief justice’s contribution to tax reform

The surprise resolution of our national healthcare drama – the mandate is a tax! – has a kernel of solace for Republican partisans saddened by the constitutionality of Obamacare: The mandate is a tax! During President Obama’s 2008 campaign, he promised not to boost taxes on anyone who makes less than $250,000. Technically, the healthcare law now defies that promise.

While the political value of that fact is questionable – Obama technically broke this pledge years ago, with a cigarette tax included in the healthcare bill, and has mostly lowered taxes on working Americans – this is a good opportunity for the president and his administration to recognize that sound policy is going to require higher taxes on everyone, even the middle class.

What’s important is that he figure out how to do it in an economically efficient way that might have a chance of attracting support from Republicans. Luckily, the careful opinion of Chief Justice John Roberts may provide a useful model of how to tax intelligently. In it, he echoes conservative intellectuals like Harvard economist Greg Mankiw and American Enterprise Institute tax expert Alan Viard, who argue that taxing consumption rather than income is smart policy, and that taxing energy is one of the best ideas of all.

Mitt Romney’s inflated fearmongering

“I wish I could tell you that the world is a safe place today. It’s not.” With these words, delivered at a Memorial Day commemoration last Monday in San Diego, Mitt Romney perpetuated what is perhaps the greatest single myth in American foreign policy – that we live in a world of lurking danger and rising threats.

Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, the world today is safer than at any point in human history. Wars of all kind, including civil wars, are on the decline; and inter-state war, in particular, is even rarer. According to the Uppsala University Conflict Database, in 1992, there were 53 armed conflicts raging in 39 countries around the world; in 2010, there were 30 armed conflicts in 25 countries.

And when wars do occur, they are for the most part low-intensity conflicts that, on average, kill about 90 percent fewer people than did violent struggles in the 1950s, according to the Human Security Report Project at the School for International Studies at Simon Fraser University. In fact, the first 10 years of this century witnessed fewer deaths from war than any decade in the last century

Why your cell phone is ripe for spam texts in 2012

In the late 1970s, the cutting edge of communications technologies was the autodialer, a machine capable of calling up scores of people in one shot, with little human involvement. It was innovative, and annoying. By the early ’90s, Congress had had enough. “Computerized calls,” railed South Carolina Democrat Fritz Hollings from the Senate floor, “are the scourge of modern civilization.”

And so, Congress legislated. But the focus was on commercial calls. Mindful of the free flow of speech and – let’s be honest – interested in self-preservation, lawmakers exempted political calls from its Telecommunications Consumer Protection Act. But Congress decided that some phones were too sensitive to get even autodialed political calls: those in hospitals, those designated for emergency purposes – and those in our pockets.

But here we are, some two decades later, and voters across the country are getting political text messages they never asked for.

The gay-rights cause Obama can actually do something about

On Wednesday, President Obama declared his evolution complete. In an interview with ABC News he said: “At a certain point I’ve just concluded that for me personally it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same-sex couples should be able to get married.”

Gay-rights groups rejoiced; conservative groups scolded. But what the president thinks about gay marriage is, ultimately, symbolic. There is a different issue on which Obama could achieve real, tangible results for gays and lesbians, and gain electoral advantage over Mitt Romney: employment discrimination.

Obama has already done everything he can on gay marriage. His administration has declared the federal law banning gay marriage, the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), to be discriminatory and declined to defend it in court. He has extended spousal benefits to the domestic partners of federal employees. Marriage laws, on the other hand, are written at the state level. Even a constitutional amendment to define marriage as between a man and a woman, which Romney supports and Obama already opposed, is not actually signed by the president.

The real reason Romney is struggling with women voters

Back in February, things started to look dire for the Romney campaign’s ability to attract female voters. Every day brought another story about Republican attacks on reproductive rights: attacks on insurance coverage for contraception, transvaginal probes, all-male panels called in Congress to discuss contraception, attacks on Planned Parenthood’s funding, and the candidate himself increasingly afraid to say a positive word about contraception when asked directly in the debates. A gender gap opened up between the candidates in the polls, with Obama outpacing Romney with women by 19 points. The Romney campaign responded by trying to change the subject, to jobs and the economy. But if Romney wants to close the gender gap, he should rethink that strategy. After all, the polling data suggests that his stance on economic issues – specifically the size of the safety net and amount of economic support the government provides to citizens – is what’s really hurting him with female voters.

The real war between the sexes may not be over feminism or sex so much as whether or not our tax dollars should go to social spending. Research conducted by Pew in October 2011 showed women support a strong, activist government in much larger numbers than men. On the question of whether the government should offer more services, women said yes by 9 more percentage points than men. The gender gap on social spending remained when pollsters asked about specific interest groups. Women wanted more spending on the elderly than did men by 11 percentage points, more spending on children by 10 percentage points and more spending on the poor by 9 percentage points.

Female voters respond much more strongly than male voters to government providing pragmatic solutions and real-world support for ordinary citizens, which helps explain why women flock to Obama and to the Democrats in general. In fact, with college-educated white voters, the gender differences are nothing short of astounding. In this group, female voters prefer Obama 60 to 40, and male voters prefer Romney 57 to 39.

Larry Summers is playing economic Jeopardy

Editor’s note: This op-ed was originally published at the Financial Times in response to the recent piece by Lawrence Summers for Reuters. It has been republished, verbatim, with the FT‘s permission.

Larry Summers’ considerable intellect suggests that he would be an excellent contestant on the popular game show Jeopardy. Of course, on the show, the question offered by the contestant must match the answer on the board. Summers and I disagree on the answer that matches the question “What is President Obama’s budget?” Let’s see why.

I asked two questions in an op-ed in Wednesday’s Wall Street Journal. (Neither question was addressed by Mr Summers, or in the simultaneous parallel critiques offered on the airwaves by US Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and former Council of Economic Advisers Chairman Austan Goolsbee). The first question was whether the tax increases on high-income individuals proposed by President Obama (the Buffett rule, higher taxes on dividends and capital gains, a higher top marginal rate, and so on) raised enough revenue to materially offset the country’s large budget gap or higher federal spending under President Obama. The answer, using revenue estimates from the Treasury Department and spending estimates from the President’s budget is ‘No’. The second question was what that spending growth implied for future tax rates. That is, if federal spending as a share of gross domestic product was to increase permanently as the president proposes, by how much would taxes need to rise? Answer: a lot and for everyone. This simple thought experiment presumes that we will not ratify permanently larger deficits.

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