Friday, February 29, 2008

Wednesday Morning Questions (and Answers)

1) What's changed in the past 24-hours?

Nothing. And everything.
Yesterday, Obama had a chance to end the fight for the Democratic nomination, and Hillary faced elimination. By winning three out of the four states, Hillary seems to have convinced the punditry that she remains viable, if only barely. We now face a long and increasingly-bitter fight, as Clinton ramps up attacks on Obama. That's a big change from the relatively-civil battle we'd witnessed until the last few days, and if the contest really drags on for another seven weeks, that's also significant.
On the other hand, when the dust settles, it looks as if any changes in the delegate count will be negligible. Just a few weeks ago, the Clinton campaign was talking about narrowing the overall delegate gap to 25, pulling even, or even taking the lead on the strength of the March 4 vote. Depending on the count, the actual lead will remain somewhere around 80 delegates in most leading tallies - or just over 100, using the Obama campaign's count that fully allocates the delegates. Running out the clock is never a good way to win, but every contest that passes with that lead intact is a major blow to Clinton's aspirations.

2) Did Clinton "win back her base" last night in Ohio? Did Obama "cut into Clinton's base" in Vermont?

How to put this? No.
One of the challenges of covering the long series of contests in the Democratic nominating process is assembling a cohesive narrative out of discrete events. Sometimes, that makes a great deal of sense. In 2004, we watched John Kerry's momentum build state-by-state, as his performance in one round boosted his viability in the next. That's one reason pundits like to speak about such elusive things as momentum. The problem is that we're comparing unlike quantities. Obama, for example, has won better than 80% of the black vote in every contest since Georgia. But his share of white male voters has varied widely. There's a temptation to over-interpret those facts - to suggest that when his share surges upward, he holds more appeal for white men, but that Clinton's recent attacks have eroded that support. The difficulty is that we're not talking about the same people. There's every reason to believe that had Wisconsin not held its election until yesterday, it still would have delivered a substantial margin for Obama, even as Ohio went solidly for Hillary. The two states are quite different - driven by different issues, inhabited by populations of different socio-economic statuses, and traditionally supportive of different sorts of candidates. Conversely, had New Jersey decided to take part in the Potomac Primary, geography be damned, it would almost certainly have tipped toward Hillary anyway, even as three other contests went for Barack.
The headlines this morning all speak of Hillary reassembling her coalition or reclaiming her base, but there's no reason to believe that voters in Ohio ever left her, or that they needed to be reclaimed. In fact, the polls taken over the past month tell a different story; that Obama cut into some of her key constituencies, but not enough to win, and saw some of his gains slip away in the final days. Obama's sole triumph of the evening, in Vermont, is a similar case - he didn't have to win voters over, they'd been backing him for as long as pollsters have been asking the question.
There's another way to look at last night's results. It would appear that the Democratic primary electorate is fairly evenly divided along some fairly consistent lines. With the exception of black voters, however, monovariate explanations fall short. In other words, predicting outcomes typically means combining various traits of the electorate. It's not enough to say that Obama is likely to do better among men, even though that may be true; we have to say that Obama tends to take white men in northern states with at least a college education, and that his share of their votes increases as educational attainment and income levels rise, but falls with advancing age. We might add that he does best in this group in states where blacks comprise less than 5% of the population.
Suddenly, momentum all but vanishes. In national polls, Hillary Clinton has garnered astonishingly consistent levels of support for more than a year, almost always falling in the range of 40-45%. Obama's support has steadily risen since Iowa, as he's introduced himself to voters - but almost all of that support has been drawn from those who backed his one-time rivals in the field, and remarkably little from Hillary. (The obvious exception is the mass defection of black voters from Hillary to Obama in February.) In other words, the electorate knows exactly how it feels about the two candidates - and it's split. That's why the Obama campaign was able to make projections all the way at the beginning of February that - although sharply at odds with the polling at the time - were proven remarkably prescient last night.
That's a less exciting narrative than the surges and the improbably comebacks; the gains and the losses; the eroding bases and reassembled coalitions. But it's also more interesting. Each time the traveling circus arrives in a new state, we see a microcosm of this national narrative - the initial numbers, based largely on name-recognition, rapidly shift, until they come into alignment with the state's demographic composition. Then they remain remarkably stubborn. The major variables at play are election-day turnout, crossover voting, and local issues that cut contrary to national trends. And it also allows us to project results forward in time, with a fair degree of accuracy. The upshot is that Obama will likely add around a dozen delegates to his pledged delegate lead before the convention, even if Hillary contests every remaining race. There's margin for error there, but not much - barring a catastrophic scandal, the two rivals will roughly split the remaining pledged delegates.

3) Why is it that reporters continue to tout contests in the largest states as if they will have the greatest impact on the outcome of the race?

Almost every headline I've read, seen, or heard this morning has focused on Pennsylvania, still seven weeks away. But consider that a 60-40% Clinton landslide in that state would yield her (at most) a 32-delegate margin, only about a third of what Clinton needs to close the current gap. Recent polling puts the race closer than that, at somewhere around 55-45%, which would yield (at most) a margin of 17 delegates. In both cases, the outsize clout wielded by heavily-black districts under party rules probably means the margin would be somewhat smaller. And unless Pennsylvania turns out to be dramatically different from the other rust-belt states, Obama will rapidly make up that ground, only to cede some of it back in the final few days (a few polls show that already happening). It wouldn't be the slightest bit surprising if Clinton wins decisively in Pennsylvania, and her pledged delegate gain is somewhere around a dozen. Call it the Ohio scenario, if you will.
Compared to the 158 pledged delegates in the Keystone State, the 33 up for grabs in Mississippi and the 12 in Wyoming do indeed seem like small potatoes. But in 2000, fully 55% of Mississippi primary voters were black. In 2004, that number rose to 56%. Let's be conservative here, and assume that increased interest and higher turnout lower those percentages. We've actually seen an electorate that looks remarkably like the one in Mississippi - in Georgia, where black voters accounted for 51% of those who went to the polls. Obama took that state, 2-1. So I think it's more than reasonable to expect a 22-11 delegate split in Mississippi. Add in an Obama victory in the caucus state of Wyoming (7-5? 8-4?) and suddenly, those two states don't look so small. In fact, the 13-15 delegate margin they're likely to yield is about the same as the optimistic scenarios for Clinton in Pennsylvania.

4) If Clinton's betting her campaign on winning superdelegates to her cause, just how many of them will she have to win over?

By the most transparent count, there are some 284 superdelegates who have yet to publicly announce their endorsements. (That excludes the 76 unpledged add-on delegates, but the best-case Clinton scenario has those delegates evenly split.) Let's assume, for the moment, that the current margin holds - that's actually a remarkably rosy scenario for the Clinton campaign, given the states that have yet to vote, and Obama's built-in advantages in the allocation formulae. The Obama camp claimed 160 more pledged delegates than Hillary going into yesterday's battles - let's whittle that down to 140, in case the Obama camp's "double-digit margin" in the Texas caucuses doesn't actually materialize. Most superdelegate counts give Hillary a margin of 40-45, so we'll knock the total down to 100, because it's a nice, round number. So to grab the nomination, Hillary needs the remaining superdelegates to split somewhat better than 2-1 in her favor.
The trouble is that the current tallies aren't graven in stone. More than a few of Hillary's supporters are under substantial pressure from their own consituencies to reconsider their endorsements; I haven't seen any media accounts of similar pressures being exerted on Obama backers. Hillary also faces an uphill battle in convincing some of her own supporters, and more than a few of the fence-sitters, to vote against the winner of the pledged-delegate tally, a title she no longer even pretends to contest. And, we should mention that Hillary's superdelegate lead has fallen from around 100 to its present total over the past few weeks - the trend is not promising.
So here's a prediction that I'll reiterate: in the next week or so, we're going to see the superdelegates effectively settle this race - ratifying the pledged-delegate results. Next week's elections will see Obama's pledged-delegate lead surge back to 150 or more. With just a few dozen superdelegate endorsements - or fewer, if they include defections - he can entirely erase Hillary's lead in that category. Say he pulls that off - pulling in enough superdelegates to even things out. Hillary would need a virtually impossible margin among the remaining supers to pull out the race. But she faces another problem - the less probable her win, the less likely she is to garner further support. Her current rationale is that the superdelegates will see her as the stronger candidate and come to back her; without a superdelegate lead, that doesn't look too plausible.
We're not going to have to wait for 285 people to make up their minds. A few dozen more decisions will effectively end this thing.

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ObamaCare: American Incrementalism

There's been a great deal of debate this cycle about the relative merits of the candidates' health care plans. The key point seems to be the issue of mandates - Obama would require that all children have health insurance, Hillary would extend that requirement to every American. Whatever the abstract merits of the competing proposals, one thing seems clear - Obama has yet again demonstrated his superior understanding of the American temperament, and that bodes well for the plan advanced by the presumptive nominee.

I would sum it up like this. Hillary may have abandoned the truly-sweeping changes she proposed during her husband's first term, but her plan remains ambitious. It is her aim to enact reforms that would, in one fell swoop, extend coverage to every American (that is, to every citizen and legal resident - she would still exclude millions of those in the country illegally). She and her advisers argue that only truly universal coverage can be economically feasible. Obama is proposing a plan that might, in any other year, seem ambitious - but stacked up against Hillary's seems relatively cautious. He would mandate that every child be covered, but not every adult. If it turns out that the numbers don't add up, he's said, he'll reconsider universal coverage. It's a relatively incremental approach. I'm not qualified to pass judgment on the economic merits of the proposals; smarter folks than I have already written thousands of column-inches on the subject. But I do think that there's another way to gauge the two plans, and that's to consider the visions of change that they embody.

For centuries, Americans have proven resistant to governmental provisions of welfare. The quintessentially American ethos of self-sufficiency and independence leads many voters to recoil from the very notion that the government should take a prominent role in their lives. Many Americans would prefer to shoulder greater risks and maintain their independence, than to surrender their freedom of choice and gain greater security. But there has always been an important exception to this general rule. Americans feel a collective obligation to care for the vulnerable and the defenseless. When proposals are advanced to care for those believed unable to care for themselves, they have almost always enjoyed tremendous support. Moreover, almost every major expansion of the welfare state has followed the same path - reforms initially proposed to benefit the most vulnerable are gradually expanded to benefit all Americans.

Let me offer a few examples. It was in the wake of the Civil War that the federal government first entered the welfare business; an enormous bureaucracy provided benefits for the wounded, and pensions for veterans and their widows and orphans. Governmental regulation of wages and of working hours was first held to be constitutional only insofar as the government acted to protect the vulnerable (women and children), and only much later extended to the workforce as a whole. Modern personal-injury law has its origins in the railroad accidents of the late nineteenth century; the courts initially moved to protect and compensate women, who were seen as dependent and vulnerable, but gradually expanded those protections to men, who were every bit as much at the mercy of machines. Modern product liability and consumer safety protections date to a series of accidents in the mid-1950s, in which poorly designed products led to the maiming or deaths of scores of small children, and were gradually expanded from that narrow base.

In other words, the courts, the legislatures, and the electorate have always been far more supportive of efforts to protect the vulnerable than they have of efforts to expand governmental authority over the able-bodied and the independent. But when those initial efforts have proven effective, they have often cleared the way for more sweeping programs that have followed in their wake.

There's a new NPR Survey out this morning that suggests this holds true for health care, as well. Let me quote Harvard Prof. Robert Blendon, a co-director of the survey:

There was extraordinary support in this poll among all groups — Democrats, Republicans and independents — for the idea of requiring that every child has a
health insurance policy and then provid[ing] help to parents that can't afford
it. And we don't have as wide a consensus for what to do about adults. So it's
the childrens' side of this which offers the possibility of a very quick breakthrough in the next Congress.

That's an important message. Obama has intuited where the American people stand on this issue, for better or for worse. His proposal is consonant with the long history of reform efforts in this nation, which extend help first to the most vulnerable. When the efficacy of those efforts is clear, the rest of the population has often come to support extending the protections. We've already seen this with S-CHIP, which succeeded where HillaryCare failed. It remains immensely popular, and has inexorably expanded in many states to cover increasingly broad segments of the population.

Obama's approach may not please economists, but in some sense, that's immaterial. He can unite the American people in support of his vision, and it's likely to lead to something approaching universal coverage in fairly short order. That ought to cheer critics of the proposal, and even dejected Clinton supports, concerned that her defeat will hamstring efforts at health care reform. If history is any guide, Obama's approach will prove far more politically feasible, and lead us to the same ultimate destination.