You snooze you lose?

September 26, 2012

The vast majority of people writing about US politics – any politics, arguably – have little or no clue as to what’s really going on ‘behind the scenes’, but that doesn’t stop them putting pen to paper. And at times of apparently momentous change, for example the recent and seemingly stubborn shift towards the Dems, the bollocks multiplies. Levels of interest rise, insight doesn’t.

A case in point: Arianna Huffington’s blog post last week entitled Is Sleep Deprivation the Reason the Romney Campaign is Blowing It? It’s hard to know where to begin: this isn’t a light, humorous piece, but a fairly detailed analysis of Romney’s mis-steps, arriving at the coup de grace…

So what is behind all these bad decisions? Here’s my theory: not enough sleep. And I have evidence (at least one piece)! While I was at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, a well-sourced journalist told me that senior Romney advisor Eric Fehrnstrom sleeps only three or four hours with his devices beside him, then wakes and checks his email, sends out replies, and then gets another hour of sleep. Or not. If Fehrnstrom’s habits are at all indicative of the Romney campaign operation at large, then voila — mystery solved!

And what, Obama’s senior people are taking regular catnaps? Sleep deprivation and politics go hand-in-hand, and whilst today’s neverending news cycle means things may’ve gotten worse, at some level it was ever thus. In his biography of LBJ Robert Dallek recounts how Johnson would work such long hours on the campaign trail he would have to be literally propped up at parties in the evening, able to barely raise a hand to greet wellwishers.

Little sleep is one thing, no sleep another matter entirely, however. One man with real access to a presidential campaign – unlike Arianna – is Jay Root, who this weekend revealed that Romney’s onetime challenger Governor Rick Perry did, in fact, have lack of sleep at least partially to blame for his botched showing. Following a couple of truly disastrous debates, the medics were called in…

After conducting overnight tests on Perry, they produced a rather startling diagnosis: He had sleep apnea, and it had gone undetected for years, probably decades. The ailment, which affects one in 10 men worldwide and becomes more common as people age, causes loud snoring and temporary lapses in breathing that disrupt normal sleep.

So when truth can be stranger than fiction, the problem we seem to be left with is which bollocks to believe?


Americans say: enough God (in politics)

March 27, 2012

The Republican race has been over since Super Tuesday, really. Santorum’s successes in the South artificially prolonged the sense that somehow he might sneak it.

So now we’re into what The Post’s Chris Cillizza cheerfully calls the ‘walking dead’ phase of the campaign, recalling memories of Hilary’s limp to the finish line in 2008.

Pointing to Santorum’s angry defence of his equally angry ‘Romney is the worst Republican in the country’ speech, Chris says ‘This is how primary campaigns end, not with a bang but with a wimper. Or, more accurately, a whine.’

Standing back from the fray, what deeper trends did the GOP battle reveal? One that caught my eye – reported in the NYT yesterday – centres on the role of religion in politics which ‘regular readers’ (hello mum) will know to be a topic of ongoing (if not eternal, ho ho) fascination to me.

The Times piece – primarily about the fact that Santorum did peculiarly badly amongst Catholics (who, it turns out, probably unsurprisingly on reflection, do not vote as one bloc) – included coverage of a study by the Pew Research Center that suggests a big increase over the last decade in the proportion of US voters who think there’s too much religion in politics.

The nationally representative poll of 1500 Americans found that about two-fifths (38 per cent) felt there was ‘too much’ by way of ‘open expressions of religious faith and prayer by politicians’, more than a threefold increase since the question was first asked by the Pew Center in 2001 (when 12 per cent agreed there was ‘too much’ religion on display amongst politicians).

This would seem to explain why Romney’s Mormonism – which every bugger thought would be a major issue for Republican voters – simply wasn’t a big deal (apart from for loony Evangelicals, of course).

It will be interesting to track whether the changing demographics of the States – I’m thinking in particular here the rapidly increasing size of the Latino population – will have any bearing on the downward trend in Americans’ willingness to tolerate God in politics.

But for now… onto the big race.

Wishful thinking continues as Romney’s businesslike campaign does just enough

March 7, 2012

So: Super Tuesday played out much as expected. Romney snuck Ohio – the biggest prize of the night – and won four other contests easily, Santorum took Tennessee, Oklahoma and North Dakota, and Gingrich was the comfortable Georgia victor.

A number of early comment pieces attempt the tricky balancing act of pretending that Romney might not win the race (no Super Tuesday knockout!) whilst accepting that, er, there’s no way Romney cannot win the race. I have absolutely no idea what BBC North America editor Mark Mardell is actually saying in this, for example.

(Incidentally if you’re not convinced that Romney will be the eventual nominee, then go quickly to the ever-excellent FrontloadingHQ blog written by psephologist Josh Putnam.)

Slightly more interesting is this piece in the New York Times which suggests that Mitt’s campaign has ‘always resembled a detailed, methodical business plan’ and makes an indirect comparison between this race and Obama’s own ‘winding path’ to the White House.

That the Obama campaign was businesslike is an inescapable conclusion of reading campaign manager David Plouffe’s utterly absorbing and even thrilling The Audacity to Win. The memoir works just as well as a management textbook – on effective delegation, strategy vs. tactics, personnel management, risk-taking and lines of command – as an election-winning guide. The Plouffe campaign was consummately businesslike.

But there are few other similarities. Romney has millions in the bank, Obama had to generate his funds largely through grassroots donations. Obama was up against the colossal might of the Clinton machine, Mitt faces a motley crew of half-baked nonRom contenders. Perhaps most pointedly: Obama had a clear and positive mission, which he communicated consistently, so that voters knew what he was for. Romney chops and changes, beats his opponents with wave after wave of negative advertising, and fails to enthuse.

There is, however, one further similarity that will certainly be to the forefront of Mr Plouffe’s mind as he looks to support his boss triumph again (from the safe distance of the White House this time, and as a senior adviser rather than campaign manager). Once the primary tousle was over in 2008, Democrats unified solidly behind their candidate, brought together by the common over-riding goal of getting rid of a hated commander-in-chief.

No-one should pretend that beating Obama won’t have a similar edifying effect on Republicans, whether ultra-conservative, liberal, from the North or from the South. And the GOP on the march is a fearsome prospect.

Super? Tuesday… meh

March 5, 2012

The note of triumphalism in my preceding post may or may not have been misplaced.

On the one hand it seems almost certain that Santorum’s Surge is over, with the nonRom’s numbers having shrivelled in the last week in the biggest Super Tuesday states.

On the other hand, assuming Gingrich (a) gets the massive win he looks set to enjoy in Georgia and (b) is as mad and self-indulgent as he clearly is, Santorum’s plea for the race to narrow to two candidates has no chance of being heeded, and this ragtag bunch will carry on sniping at each other for many weeks yet.

And that, as recent polls confirm, is an increasingly good thing for Mr Obama.

The gift that just keeps giving

February 28, 2012

Democrats can barely contain their glee: there’s a very real chance that Mitt ‘My Wife Has Two Cadillacs‘ Romney will lose the backing of his home state Michigan today. Latest numbers from to-be-trusted Public Policy Polling show it’s too tight to call, but certainly loseable for Mitt. Back yard defeat looms!

In fact Democrats don’t have to contain anything. The Michigan primary isn’t restricted to registered Republicans, so Dems can get out there and vote for Mitt’s most serious contender yet – nonRom of the moment Rick Santorum – thus doing their bit to rent this Republican race wide, wide open and making it seriously difficult for the man most likely to beat Obama to gain the GOP nod.

And as the PPP results suggest, that’s exactly what many Michigan Democrats are planning to do: they’re lining up 47-10 for Rick. The final result will come down to whether Santorum can win by a big enough margin amongst election day voters to counteract Romney’s lead amongst the fifth of the electorate who’ve already voted, and voted 56-29 in his favour.

(Those who’ve seen it will recognise the inverse parallel with George Clooney thriller The Ides Of March, in which the frontrunner in a Democratic primary is threatened by Republican tactical voting. Those who haven’t seen it really shouldn’t bother: it’s a very, very dull film.)

The Michigan contest is fascinating both superficially – tight races are always fun – and substantively, because it’s a symptom of a much deeper shift within the Grand Old Party. The latter point is made eloquently by Christopher Caldwell, senior editor at conservative US magazine The Weekly Standard, in a piece for the FT published last Saturday (behind a paywall).

In it Caldwell argues that there’s zero chance that the populist wing of the GOP will ever reconcile itself to the ‘plutocratic’ wing represented by Romney: the populists see Mitt and his campaign as a fraud and a sham. The argument goes – and I’d love to know if there were data to back this up – that the Republican Party is undergoing a major transformation:

Republicans are in transition between being one kind of party and another. Yesterday’s Republicans were an upper-middle-class party (small-town lawyers, shop-owners, managers) and tomorrow’s are a lower-middle-class one (landscape gardeners, construction workers, truckers).

Santorum, naturally, is the champion of the working class, whereas Romney is – in the words of former Governor of Arkansas Mike Huckabee – ‘the guy who fires you’. The Party is torn between a ‘Rotary Club wing’ and a ‘Burger King wing’. Republicans will lose as a result, thinks Caldwell, and the moderate RINOs will switch to the Democratic Party in 2016 and beyond. Now let’s not get ahead of ourselves here… but isn’t this fun?!

Santorum: another nonRom, or something more?

February 17, 2012

We are in the middle of The February Lull… in the once frenetic and soon-to-be manic once more Republican Party primary campaign, of course.

Until Arizona and Michigan on 28th Feb, and Super Tuesday thereafter, the only excitement for this Wannabe Yank comes from the possibility of changing results past, a la Iowa, and indeed it seems Romney’s narrow win in Maine may – or of course may not – be under threat as a recount takes place.

In the meantime, I enjoyed this opinion piece in the Washington Post today by Michael Gerson, who suggests that whilst Santorum’s surge is in line with that of previous nonRoms, there are good reasons to think it’s a surge that could become a swell. Santorum is Romney’s most serious challenger to date, thinks Gerson, because:

Perry did not possess presidential-level skills. Cain lacked any apparent qualification for high office. Gingrich managed to systematically confirm every doubt about his style and stability.

But not only is Santorum less bad than the other lot, he may actually be pretty good:

Santorum, in contrast, has shown the ability to learn. While his initial debate performances were peevish and unappealing, he has grown more confident and likable over time. He has effectively prosecuted Romney’s public record while avoiding anger or overreach. (He pointedly refused, for example, to attack Romney’s business achievements and personal wealth.)

And of course last but not least, Santorum is a nonRom:

The former Pennsylvania senator possesses strengths that neatly fit some of Romney’s weaknesses. Santorum combines a deeply held social conservatism with an authentic blue-collar appeal. Romney has trouble competing in either category.

But not mad, familiar or chaotic enough to be a threat to the GOP establishment, as Gingrich was:

While Santorum is very conservative, he avoids being a conservative caricature. He was one of the Senate’s main advocates of global health programs and a champion of faith-based anti-poverty efforts.

The conclusion Gerson finishes with is that Romney’s campaign may, as it has with previous nonRoms, pinpoint Santorum’s weak spots and pound him into submission, but this leaves voters without a sense of what Mitt actually stands for. Romney’s campaign ‘remains short on aspiration’ and is ‘…a campaign – but not a cause’.

Hardcore Republicans: not to be underestimated

February 7, 2012

My very dear friend and, until recently, my BlogFather, (I can’t complete this sentence without using the Harry Endfieldism ‘…and I’m happy to say my lover’) Rich Watts is convinced – it seems – that the race to become the Republican Party nominee for the presidency is a foregone conclusion.

I say ‘it seems’ because I’ve yet to have the pleasure of hearing Rich’s arguments in favour of this position (a Mitt Romney win, obviously) laid out in any detail by the man himself – all I’ve seen are knowing mutterings on Twitter. I very much hope I can entice him to use the comment box or, who knows, even pen a post.

If Rich elects to do so, he will have plenty of evidence to choose from. Across-the-board victories for Mitt in Florida and Nevada, for instance, or new national polling data which shows Romney with a substantial lead amongst GOP voters over the ragtag rest. So there’s every reason for thinking Rich is right and it will be Mitt.

One thing I would wish Rich to take account of, however, and one thing which I have a sneaking suspicion he may be underestimating is how batshit crazy very many Republican voters are.

As evidence – compelling evidence, I think you’ll agree – I point you towards the fact that Rick Santorum has a very decent chance of winning two out of the three votes today (in Missouri and Minnesota) and coming second in Colorado. This is based on latest data from Public Policy Polling, an agency with a good track record to date of accurate predictions.

Rick Santorum. Christianist Rick, who would ask that his daughter see a baby conceived as a result of rape as a gift from God, thinks homosexuality can be compared with bestiality, and that climate change and evolution are junk science (you’ll remember The Guardian’s widely retweeted beginner’s guide).

The reason Romney probably will be the nominee is not because there are a sufficient number of sensible Republicans to outweigh the mad ones (moderate rightwingers do exist, so I’m told) but because Santorum is just one of three loony candidates remaining in the race. Should the field narrow further, Rich will be seriously contemplating eating his hat.

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