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Scott Walker Faces Higher Hurdles Than Polls

By Jonathan Bernstein, Bloomberg News (TNS)

How can we tell if Scott Walker’s polling surge means anything?

Walker has been doing well for three weeks now — including in a new Iowa survey putting him firmly in the lead (albeit with only 25 percent of the vote) and a national poll on Tuesday showing him just ahead of the rest of the pack.

Here’s the thing: Anyone can get a bubble like this. It happened to Michele Bachmann and Herman Cain (among others) in 2012. Before the current cycle is through, even the most unlikely presidential contender — George Pataki or Carly Fiorina or, for that matter, Joe the Plumber — could surge after rave reviews from a speech or a successful debate.

I wouldn’t spend a lot of time studying the polls to find out how real Walker’s numbers are. We already know that most voters had barely heard of the Wisconsin governor a month or so ago, and that he’s attracted excellent coverage, especially in Republican-aligned media, over the last several weeks.

The first thing to watch for real is whether he receives a flood of endorsements from politicians, interest-group leaders, campaign and governing professionals, and other important party actors.

And a second indication that Walker is gaining ground would be if some possible rivals drop out. In particular, watch four other Republican governors who have started out slowly or appear to be struggling: Chris Christie, Bobby Jindal, John Kasich and Mike Pence. If one or more drop out in the next few weeks, it may be because uncommitted resources are drying up and because the people they are reaching out to are telling them 2016 isn’t going to be their year.

The lack of such signs was key when Mitt Romney made a big splash about running. Even though he was polling well, he quickly gave up. Nor did the party immediately rally around Jeb Bush after he first expressed interest — in contrast to the early acclamation his brother received in the 2000 cycle. Jeb has chosen to fight it out.

Every politician has a personal calculation of what he or she is willing to risk on any particular campaign. Overall, however, if people are still jumping in, it means the race is wide open. If candidates are leaving, this probably indicates that most party factions have committed somewhere, even if they haven’t said so publicly.

Walker appeared to be a formidable contender even before his surge, and he’s in better shape now than he was a month ago. But until the party sends clear signs it is beginning to decide on its nominee, I’m leaving him where I’ve had him for a while: in a top tier with Bush and Florida Senator Marco Rubio. Nothing more.

Add Bernie Sanders, Jim Webb and Martin O’Malley to that list: A polling surge by one of the also-ran Democrats would capture the attention of the press, which would love to have a competitive Democratic nomination fight.

Jonathan Bernstein is a columnist at Bloomberg View. He can be reached by email at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net.

Photo: Gage Skidmore via Flickr

Don’t Blame Liberal Media For Giuliani Gaffe

By Jonathan Bernstein, Bloomberg News (TNS)

We’ve had a terrific demonstration over the last week or so of why the belief in liberal media bias is so strong.

It isn’t because of actual liberal media bias. Academic research finds plenty of ways the press gets things wrong, but an ideological slant isn’t one of them.

Most bias has to do with the industry’s norms (stories involving the president get more play than articles about governors, and so on). In some cases, the self-interest of the media plays a role, whether it’s promoting freedom of the press, for example, or building up anyone who might take on Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination as a way to build interest in that snooze fest.

What sustains the belief in liberal bias? It’s the go-to explanation among conservatives for almost everything that happens, and has been for at least four decades. Repeat something long enough, without strong opposition, and people will accept it.

So the reaction to the Rudy Giuliani story, in which the former New York mayor claimed Barack Obama didn’t “love” America, invoked howls of media bias from conservatives. Some said it wasn’t a story at all — Giuliani hasn’t been in office for years, so who cares what he says? Isn’t there real news out there? Others were upset that Republican candidates were pressed to agree or disagree with Giuliani — look, the liberal media is trying to make conservative politicians look stupid!

But we had an almost perfect parallel in the coverage of Howard Dean’s complaint that Republican Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin shouldn’t be president because he didn’t graduate from college.

Giuliani left office in 2001, ran for president in 2008, has since been out of active politics but shows up on TV all the time. Dean left office a year after Giuliani did, ran for president in 2004, was Democratic National Committee chairman through 2008, has since been out of active politics but shows up on TV all the time.

Republicans were forced to take a stand on whether Obama loves America; Democrats were pressed to say if they thought a college dropout was unqualified to be president.

The Giuliani story was bigger only because attacking the president is a bigger deal than attacking one of many Republican presidential candidates, and New York (where much of the national media is based) trumps Vermont.

Both accusations were pretty much denounced by everyone; both sparked predictable partisan bashing and a few interesting reflections.

But liberals didn’t go crying about conservative media bias in the Dean-Walker case because they don’t see every news story as an example of prejudice against them. Conservatives do.

For example, they screamed that the media ignored the scandal ending the career of Democratic Governor John Kitzhaber of Oregon, but as Philip Bump explained, this too was caused by ordinary press norms, not ideological bias. Kitzhaber’s scandals were undercovered (at least in the national media) compared with those of Republican Chris Christie because Christie is running for president and he’s a governor in the New York area. Think about it. The press hardly ignored scandals costing Democratic Governors Rod Blagojevich or Eliot Spitzer their jobs. It’s just that Democrats never interpreted those firestorms as examples of Republican media bias.

There’s nothing wrong with pointing out when news coverage is wrong or wrong-headed. But ideology isn’t at the root of those mistakes and biases.

Jonathan Bernstein is a columnist for Bloomberg View. Readers may email him at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net.

Photo: Gage Skidmore via Flickr

How The Kochs Wasted A Fortune On Campaigns

By Jonathan Bernstein, Bloomberg News (TNS)

What if the fuss over big money in elections is mostly over nothing?

Political scientist Alan Abramowitz at the Crystal Ball reported Thursday on his analysis of the effects of outside spending on Senate races in 2014, and finds a big, fat zero. (I’m referring to direct spending by groups other than the candidates and other formal party organizations.) Instead, the factors that mattered, he finds, were the balance between the parties in the state, the role of incumbency and the overall tilt toward Republicans in that election year.

Some important caveats are in order. The effects of election spending are notoriously hard to nail down, and it’s possible that a different way of analyzing the numbers might yield a different result. In addition, just one set of elections in one year are included, and something the analysis doesn’t account for could be messing with the results.

As Abramowitz explains further, the hotly contested elections attract big outside money for both sides, so we can’t know whether something would change if only one side was dumping tons of cash into a campaign.

Still, I believe these results, because they fit with what we know about campaign financing in general. Spending is subject to sharply diminishing returns.

As Abramowitz writes:

“After each side had spent $30 million on attack ads in a small state like Iowa, it’s hard to believe that an additional $1 million in spending on attack ads by either side was going to have much impact on the Hawkeye State electorate — except perhaps causing more Iowans to turn off their televisions.”

Money is wasted on those who have already made up their minds.

Overall, campaign spending has the biggest impact when voters have little other information. The most important piece of information for voters is a candidate’s party affiliation, so money is more influential in primaries than in general elections.

In addition, the more media attention a campaign gets, the less money matters because voters learn about the candidates from sources other than ads. So the flood of cash plays less of a role in presidential elections, which draw saturation coverage, than it does in high-profile statewide contests, which receive only a fair amount of news attention. Races out of the limelight might see the largest impact.

Of course, even if campaign money doesn’t sway elections, it might shape how winning candidates govern, or shift influence within the political parties. Still, the findings provide more evidence that the fears on this issue are overstated. And they give us more support for a “floors, not ceilings” approach to campaign-finance reform.

Screenshot/Youtube

Obama Hypocrisy On Gay Marriage Was Ethical

By Jonathan Bernstein, Bloomberg News (TNS)

Surprise! It turns out Barack Obama supported marriage equality the whole time.

Well, not much of a surprise. Close political observers strongly suspected all along that he supported same-sex marriage. But advisers dissuaded him from taking that position in 2008, and he only chose to “evolve” on the issue going into 2012, when polling indicated his support would no longer be a liability.

What’s the sin here? I’m pro-hypocrisy. The ethics of politics don’t require politicians to take positions they “really” believe in. To the contrary: They are representatives, and what they owe their constituents is good representation. This begins (as the political scientist Richard Fenno understands it) with making promises during an initial campaign.

When those politicians govern, they make choices with those promises in mind, and then they explain their actions to constituents in terms of those promises. Eventually, they campaign for office again, and make a new set of promises, constrained and informed by what they said in the previous cycle.

It would have been a problem if Obama claimed to oppose same-sex marriage while intending to support it once he was elected. It wouldn’t have mattered if the broken promise was based on personal beliefs or on political considerations.

I see no evidence (so far) that Obama was guilty of such a violation. Instead, he gave weak support for his position in the 2008 campaign. And, while pure fiction, his subsequent story that his stance on same-sex marriage was “evolving” was nevertheless consistent with the obligation to explain his actions (in this case, his new position) in view of his original promises.

It’s true that Obama’s actions early in his presidency (before he supposedly evolved) had the effect of supporting marriage equality — in particular, selecting two Supreme Court justices likely to rule that way. But this, too, was consistent with the overall thrust of his 2008 promises, which were to be a liberal on social policy. One reason observers assumed Obama would flip his position as the polls changed was because his position on marriage was increasingly at odds with the rest of his stances on social issues.

Anyone looking for an area where Obama’s campaign promises haven’t matched his actions in office should focus on civil liberties. It’s no big deal when politicians conceal their private positions. It’s more serious when they don’t follow through on public promises and fail to explain the change.

Those promises might involve specific policies (such as opposing marriage equality), or they might be more amorphous commitments on how the politician will act in office — as a wonk, as a member of a demographic group, as an ideologue, or whatever else she promises. Note, for example, that Obama’s 2008 rhetoric emphasized his beliefs “as a Christian” while his 2012 public reversal also emphasized his (supposed) moral awakening on the issue, the place of “powerful traditions” and “religious beliefs” in the discussion, and how states moving on marriage had done a “good job in engaging the religious community.”

Photo: President Barack Obama speaks at a press conference in the East Room of the White House on Monday, Feb. 9, 2015 in Washington, D.C. (Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/TNS)