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2016 Could Mark Telephone Poll’s Last Stand

By Shawn Zeller, CQ-Roll Call (TNS)

WASHINGTON — Ask any pollster how confident they are that voters will really choose Donald Trump, the demagogic businessman, as the Republican presidential nominee, and they’ll say, “Not very.”

Then again, Trump is so far ahead, how could the polls be wrong? The lack of confidence is striking, but it’s because the traditional telephone poll has become a creaky, expensive and outdated system for gauging Americans’ preferences.

With cheaper, more flexible Internet polling gaining precision, this could be the phone poll’s last stand — especially if the pollsters mess it up. And there’s a good chance they will. The problem, simply put, is that people just don’t answer their phones for pollsters anymore. The decline of landlines, prohibitions on autodialing cellphones and the proliferation of caller identification systems all contribute to the weaker response, as does a general suspicion of solicitations from strangers.

Like a broad swath of industries before it, polling is on the verge of succumbing to the Internet’s transformative force. “I think the Internet poll is where we are going,” says Cliff Zukin, a professor of public policy and political science at the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University. “Four years from now, maybe we won’t have telephone polls.”

That’s a bold statement coming from a past president of the American Association for Public Opinion Research, the polling industry’s professional society and upholder of its standards. When The New York Times decided to work with the Internet polling firm YouGov during the 2014 campaign, the association issued a scathing critique of its abandonment of scientific rigor.

But efforts to forestall the inevitable haven’t helped the music, newspaper or book retailing industries. Each has had to adapt, and the polling industry will too.

The conventional wisdom has it that the phone poll’s gravest problem is that people no longer pick up for callers they don’t know. And that is a big problem. When pollsters call nowadays, less than 10 percent of their calls reach someone willing to answer their questions. As recently as 20 years ago, they were successful a third of the time.

But the more serious threat is actually the Internet’s power as a communications tool, specifically its ability to reach many more people than a telephone at a fraction of the cost.

“The restrictions are getting more and more severe” for phone polls, says Douglas Rivers, the chief scientist for YouGov, which has also worked with CBS News and CQ Roll Call’s parent company, The Economist Group. “The phone poll is disappearing. How long it will take isn’t clear.”

Polling has always been one part information gathering and one part analysis of that information. When people answered their phones, polling was more science (information gathering) than art (analysis). Now it’s the other way around.

Rivers’ title aside, Internet polling lacks the scientific rigor of the traditional phone poll. The best phone polls take a random sample of all phone numbers and call them. The typical Internet poll lures respondents with Web ads. The results are not a random sample.

But that distinction, once considered a critical differentiator between a good poll and a bad one, is fuzzier now that so few people answer their phones.

“If you have a random sample and combine that with a 90 percent nonresponse rate, you now have a nonrandom sample,” says Andrew Gelman, director of the Applied Statistics Center at Columbia University and an advocate of Internet polling.

Adds Rivers: “The claim that it’s random is ludicrous.”

Campaigns are already experimenting with Internet polls, if not to gauge their standing in the race, then to test advertising messages. And the political parties are looking at them as well: “I don’t care where we get our data as long as it’s the most accurate data collection possible,” says Daniel Huey, a senior adviser at the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

Of course, Internet pollsters must analyze their data and make projections about voter turnout, just like phone pollsters. But they have a big advantage: They can collect vastly more data and do it cheaply.

With all the problems of phone polling, and the cost incentives that favor the Web, it will be tough for candidates and parties to resist the urge to switch, especially when the results are equivalent or better for the Web pollsters. And they are getting there: When polling analyst Nate Silver issued his report card for pollsters following the 2012 campaign, Internet polls held their own, filling four of the top seven spots in the rankings. Gallup, long the gold standard in phone polling, finished last, having predicted a narrow victory for Republican candidate Mitt Romney.

©2016 CQ-Roll Call, Inc., All Rights Reserved. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: Who wants to answer a pollster’s calls? Maria Teresa Ambrosi via Flickr 

 

State Of The Union: Five Things That Might Happen, Five That Won’t

By Shawn Zeller, CQ-Roll Call (TNS)

WASHINGTON — Not much is expected in the final year of a presidential administration, especially one marked by partisan gridlock.

But President Barack Obama in his annual State of the Union address Tuesday night said that he and the Republican Congress “just might surprise the cynics again” in 2016 just as they did in 2015 — one of the most productive years of Obama’s tenure.

In briefings with reporters earlier in the day, Senate leaders of both parties said they would aim for the same. Still, as Obama went through his list of policy proposals during his 59-minute speech, there were far more obvious non-starters than easy wins. In fact, of the proposals around which there is bipartisan agreement, plenty of uncertainty remains.

Here are the five most likely to get done — if everything went Obama’s way — followed by five that likely never will, so long as Obama is president and Republicans control the House and Senate:

FIVE MAYBES

New climate change regulations: Obama pledged to continue working toward “solving urgent challenges like climate change.” He’s not going to get any help from Congress. Indeed, many Republican lawmakers deny the phenomenon is even happening. But the outlook for solving climate change depends most on Obama’s executive actions, especially his regulations targeting carbon emissions from power plants. States, trade groups and some utilities are trying to block them in court, but if they pass muster there, Obama will leave office with a substantial environmental legacy. Republican lawmakers have tried to scuttle Obama’s regulatory agenda, but the president and Democrats in Congress blocked riders in the year-end omnibus spending bill. Obama vetoed resolutions passed under the Congressional Review Act that would have nullified carbon emission restrictions on new and existing power plants.

Curing cancer: Obama challenged lawmakers to “make America the country that cures cancer once and for all.” That’s a high bar, but he’ll at least have Congress’ support. In a strong bipartisan vote, the House passed the so-called 21st Century Cures bill last summer to spur the development of new drugs and revitalize research at the National Institutes of Health, with the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee expected to release its version this year. Then, last month, Congress provided the NIH with a $2 billion boost in funding in the fiscal 2016 omnibus.

Fighting heroin abuse: Obama mentioned “helping people who are battling prescription drug abuse and heroin abuse” as one of the bipartisan issues on which he expects progress in 2016. And, indeed, lawmakers of both parties are concerned about rising heroin abuse rates. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., sponsored a measure — which was signed into law last year after it was advanced unanimously by both chambers — to help treat infants who are exposed to opioids in the womb. Republican Rob Portman of Ohio and Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island have teamed up on a wide-ranging package that would expand educational and prevention efforts and increase access to drugs that can reverse the effects of overdose. And the omnibus provided $25 million to expand services that address prescription drug abuse and heroin use in high-risk communities.

Overhaul of criminal sentencing: Obama called “criminal justice reform” a bipartisan priority and he’s right. Lawmakers of both parties have coalesced around legislation that would provide more leniency for non-violent drug offenders serving long sentences. A key lawmaker on the issue, House Judiciary Chairman Robert W. Goodlatte, R-Va., expressed optimism Tuesday before Obama’s address, for instance: “I believe that this has support in our leadership,” he said. Sen. Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, has used his considerable power as Senate Judiciary chairman to shape a compromise bill that has the support of many of the most powerful senators.

Raising fees to use federal land: Businesses that extract oil and coal on federal land should watch out. Fees are going up. Obama said he wants the rates to “better reflect the costs they impose on taxpayers and our planet.” Republicans in Congress will object, but they probably can’t stop him. The Interior Department last year took comment in advance of a formal rulemaking to raise prices for oil and natural gas and held forums on how it should “modernize” its coal program to ensure taxpayers are getting a fair return.

FIVE NO WAYS

Authorize force against the Islamic State: McConnell began his pre-State of the Union briefing saying he wanted to know what Obama planned to do about the Islamic State, the terrorist group that’s overrun parts of Iraq and inspired attacks inside the United States and in Europe. But the prospects of Congress approving the use of force against the group, as Obama requested in his State of the Union, are nil. A wide chasm separates the parties, with Republicans favoring an open-ended authorization and Democrats calling for one that limits the deployment of U.S. ground forces. Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tenn., says he’d rather not do an authorization that passes on party lines and, for his part, McConnell — who controls the Senate floor — last month said he did not want an authorization of force until the next president takes office.

Lifting the Cuba embargo: Congressional Republicans said Obama overstepped when he restored diplomatic ties with Cuba, so they aren’t going to take up his call, in the State of the Union, to lift the trade embargo that Congress codified in 1996. It’s true that the business wing of the party favors economic engagement with the Cuban regime but it is up against a deep well of animosity in the party toward dictator Fidel Castro and his brother Raul, who’s now running the country, as well as Cuban-American lawmakers for whom the preservation of the embargo is of vital importance.

Overhauling campaign finance rules: Obama tried to appeal to lawmakers’ self-interest, arguing that none enjoys raising campaign money. But Congress is unlikely to advance campaign finance legislation to make it more difficult for the wealthy and corporations to spend money on politics. That’s because Republicans like the system the way it is and have, in fact, pushed for more deregulation. They view the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision allowing the wealthy to set up loosely regulated political action committees as a boon to them, while most Democrats say they want to get rid of the super PACs.

Closing Guantanamo: Obama, in his 2008 campaign, said he wanted to close the terrorist prison camp at the U.S. military base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. It’s proven an impossible promise to keep. That will remain so in 2016. A provision in the fiscal 2016 omnibus prohibits funds from being used to close the Guantanamo prison or to construct or renovate a facility in the U.S. to take detainees currently held at Guantanamo. That follows myriad congressional restrictions on detainee transfers since 2010.

Education funding: Obama restated some goals from past State of the Unions when he proposed universal pre-K and free community college for all. The result will be the same: No dice. Republicans gave Democrats a compromise on pre-K funding in the Elementary and Secondary Education Act reauthorization late last year, including a $250 million authorization for federal pre-K programs. However, Republicans are hesitant to add another year to the K-12 enterprise, which they say isn’t serving the children it has well enough. Republicans favor targeted funding approaches, such as competitive grants, that give state and local education authorities flexibility over how to use the money. Republicans say the same goes for community college: Let the states decide how to spend their federal education funds.

(Ed Felker, Melanie Zanona, Todd Ruger, Kate Ackley, Sarah Chacko, Ryan Lucas and Rachel Oswald contributed to this report.)

©2016 CQ-Roll Call, Inc., All Rights Reserved. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: U.S. President Barack Obama waves at the conclusion of his final State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress in Washington January 12, 2016. REUTERS/Evan Vucci/Pool 

 

A Cybersecurity Turf War At Home And Abroad

By Shawn Zeller, CQ-Roll Call (TNS)

WASHINGTON — The House passed not one, but two, bills last week to provide immunity from consumer lawsuits to companies that share with each other, and with the government, information about cyberthreats and attacks on their networks.

It’s clear that majorities of both parties believe greater cooperation between business and government is needed to fight the hackers who have stolen data from some of America’s biggest companies.

What’s less clear is how the process is going to work. In passing two bills, instead of one, House leaders gave an ambiguous answer.

The differences between the bills are significant. The first bill, a product of the Intelligence Committee, would allow companies to share data with any federal agency, except the Defense Department, and receive liability protection.

The second bill, drafted by Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul of Texas, would require that companies go to the National Cybersecurity and Communications Integration Center, a new division within the Homeland Security Department, if they want immunity.

Both McCaul and Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes of California, who sponsored his committee’s bill, had only praise for each other last week. But normally committee chairmen who both have a stake in an issue and want to produce the best possible bill work together to reconcile differences in advance of a vote. In this case, they didn’t.

It’s no surprise that McCaul wants the new Homeland Security Department cybersecurity center to play a critical role. He sponsored the bill that created it last year and he was annoyed earlier this year when President Barack Obama announced the creation of a new agency, under the Director of National Intelligence, to coordinate the government’s cybersecurity response. McCaul wrote to Obama in protest. He said the two centers appeared to be duplicative.

But the Intelligence Committee bill passed last week would give the new White House cybersecurity center, known as the Cyber Threat Intelligence Integration Center, Congress’ blessing by authorizing it.

“Because there seems to be some kind of turf war between the Intelligence Committee and the Homeland Security Committee, we’re actually voting on two overlapping bills that in several respects contradict one another,” Democratic Representative Jared Polis of Colorado said during the floor debate last week.

The measures differ in another significant way. McCaul’s bill would allow the Homeland Security Department to share cyberthreat information it receives from companies with other government agencies, but they’d be barred from doing anything with it except fight hackers.

The Intelligence Committee bill would allow the government to use the data to respond to, prosecute, or prevent “threats of death or serious bodily harm,” as well as “serious threats to minors, including sexual exploitation and threats to physical safety.”

Polis, whose view was clearly in the minority, argued that might allow the feds to go after him for failing to babyproof his house.

The bills have other differences. Their definitions of what qualifies as cyberthreat information varies, as do their definitions of the “defensive measures” the bill authorizes companies to take to combat hackers.

Both bills aim to ensure that personal information about consumers that’s irrelevant to a cybersecurity threat isn’t distributed. They do that by requiring both the companies sharing data and the government agencies receiving it to erase it.

But McCaul’s bill would task the Homeland Security Department’s chief privacy officer and its officer for civil rights and civil liberties, in consultation with an independent federal agency known as the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, with ensuring that happens. The Nunes bill, by contrast, would place responsibility for writing privacy guidelines in the hands of the attorney general.

House leaders will get to decide what happens next. A House leadership aide said Nunes will get his way on at least one of the big issues: Companies will be able to provide cyberthreat information to any non-Defense Department agency and receive liability protection. It’s not yet clear how the leaders will come down on the other differences.

It is clear that privacy advocates, as well as House members, prefer McCaul’s bill. It passed with 355 yeas compared to 307 for Nunes’ bill. But if only one of them is to become law, it’s more likely to be the Nunes bill.

The Senate’s companion measure is an Intelligence Committee bill sponsored by Republican Richard M. Burr of North Carolina, who’s well-known for stressing security over privacy. Burr last week introduced a bill to extend the authorization for the National Security Agency’s controversial phone record collection program to 2020. His cybersecurity bill hews more closely to the Nunes version than McCaul’s.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky hasn’t set a date for considering Burr’s bill, but it is expected to pass easily. The Intelligence Committee approved it in March on a fourteen-one vote. Only civil liberties advocate Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, objected.

Photo: Michael McCaul via Facebook

Conservatives Push For Changes To Patriot Act Data Provisions As Expiration Draws Near

By Shawn Zeller, CQ-Roll Call (TNS)

WASHINGTON — With key provisions of the Patriot Act set to expire on June first, conservative advocacy groups are telling Republican lawmakers they should make significant changes to the government’s authority to collect data about Americans.

The groups feel emboldened because of a vote the House took last June on an amendment to the annual Defense Department appropriations bill. It would have barred the National Security Agency from sweeping up Americans’ emails, Web browsing data and online chats without a warrant. The amendment was adopted 293-123 with a majority of members from both parties in support.

Former NSA contractor Edward Snowden sparked concerns among conservatives two years ago, when he revealed the agency’s broad collection of Americans’ call records, which are then searched for links to known terrorists.

The difficulty in convincing Congress to make changes to the program is getting party leaders to go along. Leaders ultimately removed the amendment, sponsored by Kentucky Republican Thomas Massie and California Democrat Zoe Lofgren, when the defense bill was wrapped into omnibus spending legislation in December.

“They’re going to say, ‘Pass this or people are going to die,’ ” Patrick Eddington, a policy analyst at the libertarian Cato Institute, said at a recent briefing for congressional staffers, referring to party leaders opposed to overhauling the law. Eddington urged the aides to go to their bosses and advise them to begin making the case to leaders for limits on the surveillance programs.

Conservative advocates at the briefing said they want Congress to ban mass surveillance of Americans without a warrant, destroy previously collected data about them, and subject the government’s surveillance programs to regular audits. They said if Congress reauthorizes the expiring Patriot Act (PL 107-56) provisions, it also should bar the government from mandating that technology companies add “back doors” to their encryption products that allow the government access. Lawmakers also should increase protections for whistleblowers to avert future incidents such as that involving Snowden, they said.

The expiring Patriot Act provisions allow the government to collect personal information on people it says are the subject of a terrorism investigation and to track their communications, the underpinnings for the NSA surveillance program.

To make their case, they went beyond the typical civil liberties arguments against warrantless surveillance. Most prominent was the claim that the government’s surveillance programs hurt the American economy by prompting companies seeking to protect their data to store it with European data storage providers.

“It’s driving business away from us in a way that hurts the economy,” said Wayne Brough, chief economist of FreedomWorks, a conservative advocacy group.

Second was the case that the surveillance programs are not effective. Eddington, a former CIA agent and aide to former Democratic Representative Rush D. Holt of New Jersey, said he would never ask any lawmaker “to support a solution to the problem we are discussing here today that would increase the risk to the lives of people here at home or our deployed troops abroad.”

Eddington said lawmakers should seek to review classified inspector general reports evaluating the success of the NSA surveillance. “We’re spending a huge amount of money to store data that’s totally worthless,” he said.

Indeed, the advocates also argued that storing the data was expensive — they pointed to the NSA’s construction of a massive new data center in Utah — and said it might also weaken U.S. spy agencies by focusing time and attention on surveillance that hasn’t led them to terrorists.

Eddington even made the case that the surveillance should worry gun owners, since the government can now theoretically pick up information about people who own guns in its sweeps of calls and emails. He noted the National Rifle Association in 2013 filed a brief supporting an American Civil Liberties Union suit challenging the NSA’s collection of Americans’ phone records.

House Republicans are the key to making any changes in the surveillance authorities, not only because they control the chamber, but because they voted overwhelmingly in favor of reauthorizing the provisions when they last came up for renewal, in 2011. Then, 196 Republicans voted in favor of reauthorization, compared to 56 opposed. House Democrats, by contrast, were overwhelmingly opposed.

Senators historically have been more willing to give the executive branch broad surveillance authority. In 2011, 41 of 45 Republicans voted yes. Thirty of 48 Democrats who voted also backed the extension.

Congress will likely have to make a decision by May 21 on reauthorization, when lawmakers plan to depart for a Memorial Day recess.

Photo: NSA via Facebook