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The Return of Local Political Party Organization: Does the 21st Century look like the 19th?

November 12, 2012 9 comments

As the post-election analysis season begins, political scientists, pundits and campaign consultants will offer several explanations for why President Obama won, and Governor Romney lost. One interpretation offered for President Obama’s win in Ohio was that Obama’s campaign had a much more extensive and effective ground operation. Looking at a map of the Obama and Romney field offices in Ohio reveals a possible (but not definitive) explanation of Obama’s relative advantage over Romney. As Politico.com reports,

Obama campaign officials noted Wednesday that they had years to build up a field operation that was often not visible to the other side. The director of Obama outreach to African-Americans in Ohio oversaw a barber-shop and beauty salon program that helped register new voters and distribute literature. A Congregations Captains Program helped the campaign arm supporters in traditionally African-American congregations with what they needed to mobilize other parishioners.

“Obviously there was still room to grow,” said an Obama campaign official. “We didn’t reach 100 percent capacity in 2008.”

Politico’s post cites Molly Ball’s late October article in The Atlantic Monthly where Ball quotes Obama national field director Jeremy Bird about the ground operation:

“Our focus is on having a very decentralized, organized operation as close to the precinct level as possible,” Bird said. In addition to all those offices, the campaign operates out of dozens of “staging locations,” many of them the living rooms of neighborhood leaders who have been working with their volunteer teams for a year or more, fanning out into the communities they know firsthand.

“Community organizing is not a turnkey operation,” Bird says. “You can’t throw up some phone banks in late summer and call that organizing. These are teams that know their turfs — the barber shops, the beauty salons; we’ve got congregation captains in churches. These people know their communities. It’s real, deep community organizing in a way we didn’t have time to do in 2008.”

What is revealing about this analysis (at this point) is how similar Bird’s description of political party organizing is to political party organizing in the late 19th Century. Then, as now, mobilizing voters through decentralized precinct level political party organizations is an effective way of winning elections.  Despite the nationalizing focus of presidential campaigns, the inclusion of global social media, and the extensive use of data mining and micro-targeting of potential voters, electoral politics—in key ways—remains a low-tech, locally based, decentralized activity. As former Speaker of the House Tip O’Neil once reported his father telling him, “all politics is local.”

But is all politics still local? What lessons, if any, does the Obama ground game hold for future elections? On the one hand, many of the problems of politics still confront people at the local level: good paying jobs in the communities where people live, the quality of local schools, affordable housing. Yet, the forces that shape local life (and the solutions to local problems) increasingly appear to come from state, national and global levels. Will decentralized, but nationally affiliated political parties re-emerge as the associations best able to give local citizens meaningful control over local, regional, statewide, and national political processes? Did they ever disappear?

The Popular Vote and the Electoral Vote

I did something like this in 2008, but it’s worth another mention in the context of the 2012 election. The Electoral College exaggerates the support that the winning presidential candidate receives. The graph below shows the percentage of the two-party (Republican and Democratic) popular vote received by the winner and the percentage of the electoral vote received by the winner. The 45-degree line shows what a one-to-one relationship would be between these two measures.

The 2012 election is buried in the bottom, left-hand corner of the graph. President Obama won 51.2% of the two-party popular vote this year. Now that Gov. Romney has conceded Florida, and assuming all the electors remain faithful, President Obama will receive 61.7% of the electoral vote. Both numbers are down from 2008, when Pres. Obama received 51.9% of the two-party popular vote and 64.5% of the electoral vote.

What would a Polkian presidency look like? | FP Passport

September 6, 2012 Leave a comment
English: Picture of James K. Polk

English: Picture of James K. Polk (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What would a Polkian presidency look like? | FP Passport.

Who knew that anyone even remembered President James K. Polk?

Of course, it’s not the mid 19th century anymore and no president can perfectly adopt another administration as a template (See Barack H. Obama and the Team of Rivals template), but the notion that Romney and his people are even aware of President Polk is tremendously interesting. I have long thought that Polk was one of the more consequential presidents. He is, however, mostly forgotten and certainly not included in the pantheon of great presidents. So, I’m basically in favor of more Polk awareness.

But the Obama/Team of Rivals parallel mentioned above points to an essential problem. Historical analogies may be instructive in some ways, but they are inevitably problematic. Let’s hope that the Romney team is reading up on Polk and his time more carefully than they considered Guns, Germs, and Steel. Let me recommend that they look into another old favorite of mine, Neustadt and May’s Thinking in Time. Neustadt and May urge decision makers who look to history to be just as aware of how things now are different as they are of historical similarities.

Fifty-four Forty, anyone?

Republican Exceptionalism? Or What Happened to the Republican Foreign Policy Establishment?

September 3, 2012 14 comments
Seal of the United States Department of State.

Seal of the United States Department of State. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Welcome back! This is the first in our annual series of “Applying Political Science” posts. In a series of weekly posts, University of the Pacific Political Scientists will demonstrate how the tools of political science–concepts, analytical approaches, theories, etc.) can help us explain and understand current affairs. It being campaign season, you can expect a number of posts regarding the 2012 elections. You will also see discussions of a wide range of non-election matters.

My primary interest in political science is International Relations and, specifically, foreign policy. In not particular order, here are a few observations about a particularly interesting aspect of the current presidential campaign.

American Exeptionalism. More years ago than I care to remember I published a book called Consensus and the American Mission. It was an effort to see how various strains of American Exceptionalism had affected U.S. foreign policy during different periods of the Cold War. Back then the phrase “American Exceptionalism” was not used very much in academic discussions and not at all in public rhetoric. But these days, it seems that everybody is an American Exceptionalist. Madeline Albright, a Clinton secretary of state, and President Obama have both called the US the “indispensable nation.”

The Republicans, though, seem to have decided that American Exceptionalism is their foreign policy brand. In a recent interview, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice offered that Governor Romney’s foreign policy advantage over President Obama is that Romney “would understand American Exceptionalism.” In fact, the platform adopted by the Republican National Convention last week simply calls its section of foreign and national security policy “American Exceptionalism.”

We are the party of peace through strength. Professing American exceptionalism – the conviction that our country holds a unique place and role in human history – we proudly associate ourselves with those Americans of all political stripes who, more than three decades ago in a world as dangerous as today’s, came together to advance the cause of freedom. Repudiating the folly of an amateur foreign policy and defying a worldwide Marxist advance, they announced their strategy in the timeless slogan we repeat today: peace through strength – an enduring peace based on freedom and the will to defend it, and American democratic values and the will to promote them. While the twentieth century was undeniably an American century – with strong leadership, adherence to the principles of freedom and democracy our Founders’ enshrined in our nation’s Declaration of Independence and Constitution, and a continued reliance on Divine Providence – the twenty-first century will be one of American greatness as well.

It is never a good thing-on any position of the political spectrum–to allow a slogan to substitute for careful thought. So, here are a few things to think about regarding American Exceptionalism and US foreign policy.

The major analytical approaches in International Relations generally don’t have much use for exceptionalist ideas. Realists like Stephen M. Walt tend to regard American Exceptionalism as a myth and a dangerous, self-deluding one at that. For realists, all states use power to pursue their interests in a competitive world. An ideology like American Exceptionalism–the belief that the US is a uniquely virtuous country with a special mission in the world–is likely to lead to imprudent and probably dangerous behavior in the world. Liberals conclude that it may be necessary for “an indispensable nation” to step up in order to provide critical international public goods. On the other hand, no nation is likely to be THE indispensable nation forever or in every situation. Exceptionalist rhetoric may coincidentally lead the US to step us in crucial situations, but it could also ironically lead the US away from providing the “best shot” to providing international public goods. Indeed, there is a whiff of desperation in the insistence on American Exceptionalism. Assuming that the US cannot maintain its recent hegemonic position in world affairs, crowing about our exceptionalism seems more like denial, and an unfortunate putting off of thinking seriously about US strategy in world where US power is not supreme. 

In addition, like many slogans “American Exceptionalism” conceals a vital debate about what, if anything, is exceptional about the US. Is it the political economy of relatively unregulated capitalism? Is it a stride toward freedom in the working out of democratic political institutions? Is it the rule of law and the realization of equal rights under law? Is it an apocalyptic battle against the forces of evil? Is it the preservation of the essence of Western Civilization? All of these have their roots in the US experience and US culture. But there are obvious tensions among these versions of American exceptionalism. To allow “American Exceptionalism” to be treated as a simple slogan would be to risk instituting the version favored by whoever can shout loudest. That would shut down necessary critical voices.

As is so often true, clear thinking is not the result of simplistic slogans.

For more on the death of the Republican Foreign Policy Establishment, check this space later in the semester.

When Jordan Met Mitt

April 4, 2012 Leave a comment

Pacific Political Science student Jordan Schreiber recently attended a fundraiser for GOP frontrunner MItt Romney. Here’s Jordan’s account of the event.

While I would say on most issues I tend to land on the Democratic side of the political spectrum, first and foremost I consider myself an American political junkie. It was this longstanding addiction that motivated me to attend the Mitt Romney fundraiser here in Stockton. I read in the Record that the former Massachusetts governor would be swinging through town for a $1000-a-plate breakfast at ‘Villa Angelica’, the home of well-known local billionaire Alex G. Spanos. Now as a college student about to graduate, I assume it goes without saying that a grand is more than I plan on spending on any meal anytime soon, but I was determined to get into the event and hear what the candidate had to say. I decided then that I would call the number listed in the article for those wishing to purchase tickets and plead my case: ‘I’m a political science major at the local university and while I may not have the money to attend such a prestigious event, I feel the student voice will play an important role in the upcoming presidential election and I would gladly be in attendance as a representative of that population.’ It took some persistence on my behalf and a background check on theirs, but I was, in the end, successful in my venture.

I must admit I felt like a wolf in sheep’s clothing as I entered the Spanos compound. I was one of the few younger attendees and every time I was told I was the future of the party, I couldn’t help feeling that I probably had more in common (politically and socioeconomically) with the scores of protesters standing outside in the rain. But I took my seat, made small with my fellow table 23ers and eagerly awaited Romney’s speech. He was introduced first by one of the grandchildren of the Spanos’ and then by his wife Ann, who discussed her husband’s adherence to family values and the importance of the upcoming race before turning the microphone over to the candidate.

Pacific Political Science student Jordan Schreiber met GOP frontrunner MItt Romney at a Stockton, CA fundraiser.

The bulk of the governor’s speech focused on the economy and his concerns regarding President Obama’s policies stifling American growth. He told a variety of anecdotes about people he’d met on the campaign trail who have found great success in their entrepreneurial endeavors and explained how each were each a symbol of the spirit of this country’s economic drive. He traced their success to an American culture rooted in the principles of our founding fathers, a commitment to freedom and opportunity. He went on to state the current administration fails to understand this atmosphere of innovation and that they would rather government, not individuals, guide our industry. He cited the controversy surrounding Solyndra, the solar energy company, which filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2011, two years after the Obama administration pledged $535 million as part of a federal program to boost alternative energy growth. Romney stated that it was programs like Solyndra that proved the current president is determined to undermine economic freedom and crush that entrepreneurial spirit that is so much a part of our country’s past. It was clear that he knew he was in a room full of dedicated supporters, for the rhetoric was slightly more heated than I had heard at campaign rallies over the past few months.

The governor spoke for about twenty minutes and allotted the same amount of time for questions from the room. The questions ranged from Romney’s ability to reconcile between his Massachusetts healthcare plan and President Obama’s Affordable Healthcare Act of 2010 to what federal departments he would eliminate once in office. The majority of his time was spent responding to a gentleman’s question regarding a ‘hot mic’ gaffe the president had made while talking to Russian President Dmetry Medvedev in South Korea a few days prior. The microphone overheard Mr. Obama claim that after the election he’ll have much more flexibility in terms of foreign policy. Governor Romney explained that the statement was damning evidence that the president “has an agenda he is not communicating to the American people, not just with regards to Russia, but with regards to many other policies.” He painted the president as a naïve player in world politics, who fails to understand the threats posed by nations like Russia and Iran as well as non-state actors such as “radical violent jihadist”. The governor closed the event thanking his hosts and all those in attendance and was rapidly escorted out of the hall, in a hurry to make it down to Los Angeles for a scheduled appearance on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno.

I must say that leaving the breakfast my opinions on the upcoming election and the issues that America faces hadn’t changed dramatically. But I was very happy to have an opportunity to meet the man I’ve spent the last year reading about. I can now say I’ve seen Mitt Romney’s charm and I’ve shaken his hand. Whether I support him or not, he is clearly a man who cares deeply about this country and I’m fortunate to have gotten to see that. At the very least I can say that I got my political junkie fix for the week.

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