Monday, December 23, 2013

Nate Silvering Jack Morris's Hall of Fame Chances

It's the most ludicrous time of the year—Hall of Fame voting! Every year around this time, we gather around our computer screens with our loved ones [in another room] to rehash the same tired old debate between the new and old schools of baseball thought. I don't pretend to bring any new wisdom to that crusade, but as my contribution instead I want to illuminate some patterns about how the contentious elections have worked in the past. Rather than saying who should make it into the Hall—I'm interested in trying to predict who will.

Last year, I took a look at Hall of Fame "exit polls" and, like Nate Silver's famous political model, attempted to project the 2013 vote totals. I'll be doing that again this year, but right now there aren't enough exit-poll data to run that analysis. Instead, what I'd like to do for now is look at the likeliest resolution for one of the Hall of Fame's most polarizing nominees: Jack Morris.

Jack Morris, as you probably know, is a favorite of the old-school crowd. They love his 254 wins, supposed ability to "pitch to the score," and of course his performance in Game 7 of the 1991 World Series. Despite the opposition of the numbers crowd (numbers like Morris's career 3.90 ERA, higher than any Hall of Famer's), Morris is now on the cusp of induction—but time is running out. This will be Morris's 15th year on the Hall of Fame ballot, and per the rules, he will be eliminated from contention if he can't make it in this year. So our question is a simple one: will he make it?

Morris's proportion of the vote has been in steady incline since he debuted on the ballot in 2000. That year, he garnered just 22.2% of the vote (imagine that today—not too long ago most people actually agreed Jack Morris was not a Hall of Famer) and has increased to 67.7% since. That's an average annual increase of 3.5 percentage points, although there has been a lot of variation in that (he's gained as much as 13.2 points in a year and lost as many as 4.1.) A simple polynomial regression fits the data fairly well:

According to this formula, Morris will receive 75.3% of the vote this year—just enough for induction, although really that indicates that this race is a tossup.

Breaking the tie could be that, by rule, a player's 15th year on the ballot is his last. Jack Morris will not have another chance to make the Hall of Fame after 2014 (at least by conventional means). According to conventional wisdom, this will cause voters to give him extra consideration—and thus he will experience a larger-than-usual increase in his vote totals. This is referred to as the "15-year bump."

Unfortunately for Morris, though, the 15-year bump is a myth. Since 1967, when the modern Hall of Fame voting system went into effect, 35 players have made it to a 15th year on the ballot. They had a median boost of just 2.6 percentage points in their final year; several players, including Morris, regularly get boosts even larger than that in regular years. Tellingly, only one of the 35 was able to clear 75% on their last year on the ballot: Jim Rice. (However, eight more are Hall of Famers anyway thanks to the Veterans Committee. This also makes this whole conversation kind of academic, since this precedent virtually assures that Morris will get in someday.)

However, there is a lot of variance in the size of 15-year bumps. They have historically been as small as a decline of 7.3 points (poor Al Dark in 1980) or as large as Gil Hodges's boost of 14.0 points in 1983. (Morris needs a bump of 7.3 points, something that has occurred six times.) Although the pattern is unclear, there is some reason to think that the bumps are larger when a player is closer to induction. Here is a scattergram of the 35 players' 15-year bumps graphed by their shares of the total vote in the previous election (their 14th year on the ballot):

It's hardly conclusive, but the players with the biggest bumps also had the higher vote totals the year before. This makes sense: there's no need for voters to put extra juice behind the candidacies of no-hope contenders stuck in the 20s, but when a player is within striking distance of 75%, they probably recognize the stakes are higher and throw more votes his way. However, this isn't always the case; at the far right of the chart, Jim Rice got just a 4.2-point boost in 2009, though this was enough to push him over. It remains to be seen where Morris's scatterpoint will fall.

One thing the graph does imply is that, at the very least, Morris can expect not to lose support. However, on the very unusual ballot we are confronted with in 2014, that may not be assured. The presence of up to 20 Hall of Fame–worthy players means that several will be left behind thanks to the BBWAA's limit of 10 votes per ballot. Does the limit mean there will be fewer slots available on voters' ballots for Morris (and other candidates with room to grow) to hitch on?

According to the man himself (Nate Silver, not Jack Morris), the 10-man limit can hurt marginal Hall of Fame candidates. However, while Morris certainly does not enjoy universal admiration, it's not clear that he's "marginal," either. People who support Morris tend to think he's one of the most deserving players on the ballot; people who don't support him wouldn't vote for his 3.90 ERA in a million years—much less make room on their full ballots for him (many of these anti-Morris voters, because they are more empirical thinkers, also support PED users for the Hall and thus have much fuller ballots). Silver found that removing the 10-vote limit really wouldn't help Morris pick up very many votes.

Historically, the crowdedness of the ballot also hasn't really affected whether players receive a 15-year bump. As you can see below, players have received large 15-year bumps in years both when voters have had loaded ballots and when they have had room to spare. And some of the leanest years in Hall of Fame voting history produced no significant bumps:

Statistically, there is no relationship; nor is there a relationship between the size of the bump and the number of new names introduced onto the ballot that year; nor is there a relationship between the size of the bump and the number of votes first-time candidates receive. Luckily for Morris, this doesn't seem like it will hinder his chances. (My theory as to why: even though we think of this ballot as stacked, the conservative BBWAA does not. Even when voters dispense votes like candy, they're still only filling, at most, an average of seven spots on their ballot. The Hall of Fame has not yet truly bumped up against its ceiling.)

So where has this tour through Hall of Fame voting history left us? Will Jack Morris get into the Hall of Fame in 2014? The evidence, naturally, is inconclusive. Morris's personal voting history is on a trajectory to just barely get him in—though there is tons of room for error. No tiebreaker exists to make a decisive call. The prospect of his receiving a 15-year bump is dubious at best, and if he does receive one, it is unlikely to be larger than the automatic boost he's already going to get. And there is no evidence to suggest that the ballot's congestion will meaningfully eat into that boost. Like any good election, we're in for a nailbiter on January 8.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Low Turnout Brings 2014 Hope to... Democrats?

It's not a good time to be a politician; they're hated more than Brussels sprouts at the Thanksgiving table. The troubled launch of Obamacare, of course, is to blame for the latest crisis of confidence—one that has brought Democrats down to the depths of public opinion that Republicans were already wallowing in post-shutdown. As a result, many a pundit is taking an I-told-you-so attitude. Everyone else is now seeing what they saw earlier: that it is unlikely Democrats can make gains in the 2014 election.

I really don't yet know what Democrats will do in 2014, but it's also not quite right to say voters are casting equal blame across both parties. Take a look at this Allstate/National Journal Heartland Monitor poll from last week:
"Just 38 percent of those polled said they approved of Obama's job performance, with 55 percent disapproving. ... Americans are even more dubious about Congress. Just 9 percent of those polled (down from 21 percent last November) approved of its performance. Fully 84 percent disapproved."
It tells what is by now a familiar story: Obama is unpopular, but Congress is even more unpopular. That doesn't necessarily speak well for Democrats. (Here we're treating Obama popularity as a proxy for Democrats and congressional popularity as a proxy for Republicans.) But here's something very interesting about the crosstabs of the poll:
"Almost nine-in-10 of those who disapproved of Obama's performance also gave Congress a thumbs-down; 56 percent of those who disapproved of Congress also flunked Obama."
A lot of people actually disapprove of both—so maybe Obama disapproval isn't a good proxy for Republicans, and congressional disapproval isn't a good proxy for Democrats. There is a sizable bloc of "plague on both your houses" voters—which probably isn't a surprise.

But there's an equally sizable bloc on the other side that continues to believe in government (or at least half of it). Just as many people still approve of exactly one party as hate them both. And, among this group, the people who approve of Obama but disapprove of Congress (i.e., Democrats) are far more numerous. Here's the breakdown of the poll's entire sample by this matrix we've concocted:

Disapprove of both Obama and Congress: 47%
Approve of Congress, disapprove of Obama (Republicans): 8%
Approve of Obama, disapprove of Congress (Democrats): 37%
Approve of both Obama and Congress: 1% (the poor souls)

(Note that it doesn't add up to 100%; the rest weren't sure what to think of our political morass.)

This is pretty remarkable. Now, obviously, there aren't four times as many Democrats as Republicans; plenty of Republicans (i.e., Tea Partiers) are in the "plague on both your houses" group. But most Democrats aren't disillusioned at all; the 37% in the sample above almost exactly matches the 38% of nationwide voters who identified as Democrats in the exit polls of last year's election.

So what does this mean for 2014? I would posit that the 47% who are so cynical may simply not show up to vote at all. Why show up to vote in an election that you don't think will make a difference? The midterm is already a low-turnout environment anyway. If only people who believe in government, with a stake in one of the sides, show up in 2014, the electorate will look like this (removing the 47% from the sample):

Approve of Congress, disapprove of Obama (Republicans): 17%
Approve of Obama, disapprove of Congress (Democrats): 80%
Approve of both Obama and Congress: 2%

Now, obviously it won't break down that way; 80% Democrats is an impossible number. Some of the disenchanted 47% will certainly show up, and their unpredictability is what's casting the 2014 election into such uncertainty. But among voters who aren't likely to throw up their hands and forsake the whole system, Democrats dominate. That built-in advantage is, if nothing else, better than the alternative heading into 2014.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Are We Really a Center-Right Country?

Some random thoughts on a Saturday morning...

A few weeks ago, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush told a dinner audience, "We're a center-right country." Bush was articulating a theme that he has pushed for several months now and that will probably be the message of his 2016 presidential campaign, if he undertakes one. (I'm skeptical.) It's a fairly uncontroversial statement, since it has been taken as conventional wisdom for some time now that the United States is indeed "center-right." But I'm not so sure.

There's some truth to it, of course. Polls show that Americans dislike higher taxes and believe the Second Amendment gives people the right to bear arms. They think the high budget deficit is a problem, and they want government spending cut back (at least in the abstract).

But there's just as much evidence in the other direction—some of it quite surprising. Most Americans believe women have the right to get an abortion. All the evidence suggests that a majority of the country now supports the right of same-sex couples to marry. And a recent poll found that 58% believe marijuana should be legalized.

How to square these inconsistencies? Well, I think it's obvious that America's not a center-right country, but rather a libertarian-leaning country. All of the general attitudes described above lean in the direction of individual liberties and rights; they're actually not inconsistent at all.

The notion that we're actually a libertarian-leaning nation also fits with common sense. The "center-right" theory stems largely from a comparison with ultra-liberal Europe. But the comparison might better be between that continent's nanny states and watchful eyes and America's more individualist spirit. That was what set Americans apart from the very beginning: an emphasis on natural-born rights and the manifest-destiny ideals of building a life for yourself with just your own two hands.

And we might be becoming even more libertarian, with the attitudes of younger voters and my Millennial generation skewing strongly in this direction. Although I hate to conclude on such a trite point, the fact that America is really a libertarian nation may be why so many people feel like the two-party system is failing the country. We may increasingly be becoming a nation that isn't best described on a traditional left-right spectrum. The parties have done a good job historically of adapting to the adjusting attitudes among the American people, and I think they will adapt again if this really is the case. But in the meantime, when you hear politicians debating over whether we are a "center-right" or "center-left" country, I think it may be fair to wonder whether they are missing the point—and thus epitomizing the current disconnect between Washington and the 50 states.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Your Guide to Election Night 2013

Even though it's an odd year, this coming Tuesday, November 5, is Election Day in many states. You are probably familiar with the bigger races—New Jersey and Virginia governor, anyone?—but there's actually a lot more going on to capture a political junkie's attention. Personally, I'll be watching the Boston mayoral race, the Colorado secession movement, and the Washington GMO ballot measure very closely.

To help guide those who haven't been following a lot of the more local campaigns but are interested in following them on election night, I've created this viewer's guide for Tuesday. Sorted by poll-closing times (all times Eastern), it's a state-by-state rundown of what's on the ballot in 2013.

7pm ET

Florida: Municipal elections, including Miami mayor, St. Petersburg mayor, and local ballot measures in Hialeah and Key West.
Georgia: Primary special elections in SD-14, HD-104, and HD-127; municipal elections, including mayor of Atlanta.
South Carolina: Municipal elections in Mt. Pleasant, Spartanburg, and Myrtle Beach.
Virginia: A well-publicized governor's election, but also close lieutenant governor and attorney general races; the entire House of Delegates is also up for grabs.

7:30pm ET

North Carolina: Municipal elections, including a bitter partisan race for Charlotte mayor.
Ohio: Municipal elections, including mayoral races in Cleveland, Cincinnati, and Dayton as well as a school-financing measure in Columbus.

8pm ET

Alabama: The Republican primary runoff in the AL-01 special election.
Connecticut: Municipal elections, including mayor of New Haven.
Maine: Five bond issues; municipal elections in Lewiston.
Maryland: Municipal elections in Annapolis, Bowie, Frederick, Gaithersburg, Rockville, Salisbury, and more.
Massachusetts: Municipal elections, including a close Boston mayoral race; a special election in the Second Hampden and Hampshire Senate District.
Michigan: Municipal elections, including Detroit mayor, an open position of questionable power right now; a special election in HD-49.
Mississippi: Special primary elections in HD-05, HD-55, and HD-110.
Missouri: Scattered local ballot measures.
New Hampshire: Municipal elections, including the race for mayor of Manchester, the state's largest city; a special election in Hillsborough County House District 35.
New Jersey: The night's second-highest-profile gubernatorial election; all 40 State Senate seats; all 80 General Assembly seats; a referendum (Question 1) to dedicate assessments on wages to employee benefits; a referendum (Question 2) on raising the minimum wage to $8.25 per hour; some municipal elections.
Pennsylvania: Municipal elections, including an open-seat mayoral race in Pittsburgh.
Rhode Island: Municipal elections in Woonsocket and Central Falls.
Tennessee: Municipal elections in Humboldt, Knoxville, and Selmer.

9pm ET

Arizona: Municipal elections, including mayorals in Prescott and Yuma.
Colorado: Amendment 66, which would raise taxes $950 million to fund education; Proposition AA, which would institute a 25% tax on recreational marijuana; a nonbinding referendum in 11 counties to secede from Colorado; various municipal elections, including fracking bans in Boulder, Broomfield, Fort Collins, and Lafayette.
Minnesota: Municipal elections, including an open Minneapolis mayor's race that has drawn 35 candidates.
New Mexico: Municipal elections, including in Las Cruces.
New York: Six ballot measures, including Proposal 1 (to authorize new casinos) and Proposal 6 (to increase the judicial retirement age); municipal elections, including New York City mayor; county elections, including closely watched races for county executive in Nassau and Westchester; special legislative elections in AD-02, AD-53, and AD-86.
Texas: Nine ballot questions, including Proposition 6, on water projects; various municipal elections, including the preliminary round of the Houston mayoral and a local referendum on the fate of the Astrodome; a special primary election in HD-50.
Wyoming: Local ballot initiatives in Hot Springs, Laramie, and Sheridan Counties.

10pm ET

Idaho: Municipal elections, including Nampa mayor.
Iowa: Municipal elections, including a local ballot measure in Coralville that has drawn big outside spending.
Montana: Municipal elections, including Billings mayor.
Utah: Municipal elections, including West Valley City mayor and a Jordan School District bond measure.

11pm ET

California: Municipal elections, including the San Bernardino mayor's race and a gun-control ballot measure in Sunnyvale.
Oregon: Local ballot measures, including a Multnomah County bond issue.
Washington: I-517, which would make it easier to qualify ballot measures; I-522, which would mandate the labeling of genetically modified foods; five nonbinding "advisory questions"; municipal elections, including an historic race for Seattle mayor and a minimum-wage ballot measure in SeaTac; special legislative elections in SD-07, SD-08, and SD-26; county elections, including the Whatcom County Council, a priority for national environmental groups.

Did I miss anything? Let me know in the comments or on Twitter!

Friday, October 18, 2013

Graduation Day for the Emerson College Polling Society

In Tuesday's Democratic primary in MA-05, more than just State Senator Katherine Clark emerged with a win. It was also a big night for nascent pollster the Emerson College Polling Society (ECPS). The outfit was the only public pollster to dip its toe into the congressional special election, and its October 2–8 poll correctly predicted Clark's 10-point margin of victory (albeit over the wrong runner-up). The firm has also polled the closely contested Virginia governor's race and June's Massachusetts Senate special.

But while these and other of ECPS's polls have been remarked and reported on, there has also been a fair amount of skepticism toward the pollster in the political sphere. This famously insular community was never going to simply welcome a newcomer like ECPS with open arms, of course; in a town like DC, you get credibility only by earning it. And rightfully so—it's good for people to rigorously question and test unknown commodities, especially when they're playing with live ammo to the degree that pollsters are.

But with ECPS, I question what people are questioning. The doubt that seems to surround ECPS in political circles is not a natural, healthy skepticism, but rather a dismaying bias against it for its unique status as a student organization. I've had debates with other political analysts about ECPS in which my peers were wary of believing its polls simply because they were conducted by students. Then, in the wake of the MA-05 primary, I read this well-meaning yet offensive post on the blog Blue Mass Group:
"This outfit, which appears to be a student-run organization at Emerson College, seems to be the only independent organization to have polled the race (more on that in a sec). I didn’t post on the poll they released last Friday because it’s hard to tell if they’re just a student club having fun, or if they are running real polls. … I still wish I knew more about how they’re set up … like, are any grown-ups involved with them? :)"
To be clear: I don't believe we should accept every new outlet that walks up and calls itself a pollster. But a student group is every bit as capable of producing high-quality, scientifically rigorous work as a professional firm, and it's insulting to say otherwise. ECPS has proven as much with the accuracy of their polls to date, exactly nailing the final margin of the Markey/Gomez Senate election as well as the this week's congressional primary. In the case of MA-05, ECPS especially impressed because of how notoriously difficult it is to poll special House elections (they deserve credit for being the only public pollster to even try).

Just as relevantly, their conduction by students does not imply a sloppier or less precise methodology to ECPS's polls. Even in this day and age, there remains a notion that party-hardy college students can't take things seriously or be responsible members of society. But like the ubiquitous columns that bemoan the laziness and entitlement of the Millennial generation, anyone trafficking in false and ignorant assumptions about students' capabilities is guaranteed to have no understanding or first-hand knowledge of the subject. This is not just a bunch of students playing around with phones and numbers. Just the opposite. Students don't often create polling societies, or stick their necks out into the adult world like this, every day. I can tell you from experience that the students who undertake something like the ECPS do so because they are uncommonly serious about learning—and about their craft. In fact, student organizations founded to compete with the big boys have a thirst to be taken seriously that is unmatched by anyone else.

A slightly more valid complaint would be that the people running ECPS don't even have college degrees—even though the same is true of countless accomplished individuals. But it is also an arbitrary line to draw, since a college graduate doesn't go from uneducated to educated the minute he receives his diploma. In fact, ECPS workers are totally immersed in what is probably the best possible influence on a data cruncher: academia. The pollsters of ECPS may not have that degree in hand yet, but they have more immediacy to the science of polling because they are taking classes and learning about it in the moment. (In fact, in my experience, student organizations are often book-smarter and more rigorous in their standards than professional firms because of this.) These classes, of course, are taught by universally renowned and credentialed experts in the fields of polling, statistics, political science, and more. Any gaps students have in their still-developing knowledge (important caveat: even as a 50-year-old, if your knowledge has stopped developing, you're doing it wrong) are more than made up for by the fact that those gaps can be filled by these unimpeachable authorities. Every student group I've ever heard of has had a faculty adviser, and a quick Google search reveals ECPS is no different. This is not "just a student club having fun." It's a responsible collection of students and their mentors who feel their skills are ready to be tested.

Not every student group should be taken seriously, just like not every company run by "adults" should be taken seriously. But college students founded, and in many cases still run, many businesses that are widely accepted and trusted. Let's Go, the internationally known travel guide on six continents, has been since its founding 53 years ago an entirely student-run organization—one I am proud to have written, edited, and overseen for. The social-media analytics firm Syndio Social started as a student group at Northwestern but now is an industry leader with huge corporate clients like Procter and Gamble. The Statler Hotel, the only luxury hotel in Ithaca, NY, is run by students at Cornell's hospitality school. Countless radio stations, including several that dominate their otherwise-underserved market, are run by students. And now, the Emerson College Polling Society simply seeks to join in the tradition of serious student contributions to the "adult" business world.

At 18, 20, even 22 years old, college students not only have "grown-ups involved with them"; they are grown-ups. Election law treats them this way; the criminal-justice system treats them this way; we should treat them that way. ECPS should be held to the same standards and subjected to the same scrutiny as any other pollster.

I'm no expert on polling, but to me ECPS passes this test. It has a detailed website, including a methodology page disclosing its vendors and laying out a polling procedure that, as far as I know, is accepted and standard in the industry. It releases the full scripts, raw counts, and crosstabs of its polls. If someone with more knowledge of polling wants or needs to see more to be convinced, cool—ask ECPS to show you more and I'm sure they'd oblige. But if what ECPS currently provides isn't enough, that further inquiry should be the default reaction—not a lazy dismissal of its chances as a serious firm without giving it a chance. If a new professional polling company emerged with the same level of public disclosure as ECPS, it would probably get the benefit of the doubt—and if not, it would be administered a proper and fair test to prove its worth. The industry's perception of ECPS should be based off the same.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Tracking the Polls: Boston Mayor

Primary day in the Boston mayoral election is next Tuesday, September 24, and the field is—to put it mildly—fractured. No fewer than 12 candidates are seeking the rarely available job, and Bostonians are splitting their support almost evenly. This has made polling the race extremely difficult, with few candidates even breaking into double digits and the frontrunner always within the margin of error. Still, the polling is useful to look at in aggregate—so aggregate the polls this post shall, since I don't believe there's a website that currently provides all the race's surveys at a glance. The following list of public polls for Boston mayor (note: these are the "with-leaners" versions of the polls) will be updated through Tuesday:

Poll Dates Sample MoE Arroyo Barros Clemons Conley Connolly Consalvo Golar Richie Ross Walczak Walsh Wyatt Yancey
Suffolk/Herald 7/10–7/15 600 4% 4% 1% 1% 9% 12% 8% 5% 5% 2% 11% 1% 3%
Sage Systems 8/21–8/22 821 2.7% 6% 3% N/A 9% 12% 7% 7% 6% 3% 11% N/A N/A
UNH/Globe 9/5–9/12 411 4.8% 6% 6% 2% 10% 15% 6% 10% 5% 4% 10% 0% 3%
MassINC/WBUR 9/14–9/16 487 4.4% 8% 3% 0% 8% 15% 5% 10% 6% 4% 12% 0% 1%
Suffolk/Herald 9/12–9/17 600 4% 6% 3% 1% 12% 16% 8% 10% 5% 6% 12% 0% 1%

For not a lot of data, this paints a reasonably clear picture of the race. City Councilor John Connolly is almost certainly in the best position, coming in first in all five polls. The battle for the second runoff slot behind him is tight, though; State Representative Marty Walsh and Suffolk County District Attorney Dan Conley are strong contenders, while Charlotte Golar Richie (the race's only woman) has clear momentum. Of course, the big picture remains that the results are unpredictable and that no candidate is more than a couple points out. Although the aforementioned four have to be considered the race's "frontrunners" right now (such as they are), four other candidates (Felix Arroyo, John Barros, Rob Consalvo, and Mike Ross) have been within the margin of error for the second slot in at least one poll. It should be a wild ride leading up to Tuesday.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Why Hillary Clinton is NOT Running for President

Those who follow my tweets know that I have strong feelings about a Hillary Clinton presidential run. Not about whether I support or oppose her, mind you—but rather that I am convinced that the former first lady and secretary of state is not going to run. Recently, it's become clear that I am the only person left in the world who thinks this. Any rational person would, of course, take this as a sign that he's wrong and would accept the clear conventional wisdom. So naturally, instead, I've decided to take the time to explain my reasoning in more than 140 characters and argue that Hillarymania has blinded the rest of you to what I continue to see as some pretty obvious realities.

My view boils down to this: there is simply no evidence—not a shred—that Hillary Clinton is even considering running for president—so why assume she is? That seems silly to say, but think about it. Where does your assumption that she'll run in 2016 come from? There can be no answer other than the media. The press can hardly be blamed for seeing a hugely popular public figure in Clinton and pondering whether she might be a fit for the popularity contest that is a US presidential election—but at this point it has become more like groupthink than speculation. It's like a game of telephone: one media outlet begins by reporting that Clinton would be a formidable candidate, another outlet uses that as a springboard for a panel discussion about "will she or won't she?", and then another outlet takes that as license to talk about her in the same breath as more publicly interested candidates like Rand Paul or Martin O'Malley. The media can often be an echo chamber, to the point where a few whispers become accepted as the universal conventional wisdom without ever really being challenged. Then, of course, the media's conventional wisdom becomes the conventional wisdom of the public that watches and reads it.

But it's critical for the public to be smart enough to distinguish between the multitude of "if Hillary runs..." stories and the one thing we have not heard reported: "Clinton Considering Presidential Bid." In fact, the illuminati continue their speculation despite reports to the direct contrary. In 2009, she said three times in one interview that she would not run again, saying "I am looking forward to retirement at some point." In 2010, when asked if she would rule out a 2016 bid, she said, "Oh yes, yes." And as recently as December 2012, she said, "I really don't believe that that’s something I will do again...I think there are lots of ways to serve." People can change their minds, of course, but this can't count as anything less than several strikes against the thought that she's running.

More non-evidence: Clinton hasn't done anything that traditional candidates do to lay the groundwork for a run. While politicians from Bobby Jindal to Joe Biden to Rick Santorum to Ted Cruz flock to Iowa, Hillary is undertaking a Mariano Rivera–esque nostalgia tour, getting airports named after her and receiving lifetime-achievement awards. The "Ready for Hillary" super PAC that has gotten so much attention recently? By definition, it cannot coordinate with her and must legally have nothing to do with a hypothetical Clinton campaign. And instead of branding herself as a voice on the most imminent and meaningful-to-voters issues of the day, Hillary is focusing on obscure niche issues more characteristic of retired politicians.

Some people take as their evidence that she's running the fact that she's run for president before, in 2008. Therefore, she has interest in the job; she must be interested in running again. This is, of course, a massive fallacy. There are hundreds of politicians who have run for president, lost, and then never did it again. Why should Hillary Clinton be any different? There is certainly a tendency to think of her as somehow different, larger than life. Without taking anything away from her, may I just point out that similar things were thought of Mike Huckabee, Al Gore, Ted Kennedy, and others once upon a time; every era thinks that their guy is the guy. The fact that Clinton has run for president once before is no indication whatsoever of her future plans—and I'm much more inclined to believe the Sherman statements right out of her own mouth than some pop psychology about the mindsets of wannabe presidents.

Clinton's behavior since 2008 is also not at all consistent with someone concerned about her public image for a possible presidential bid. To her credit, Clinton has let loose in recent years in a way that politicians simply do not do. Candidates like to down a brew at the local pub on Main Street, USA, to show they're regular people too, but a staged event was obviously not Hillary's intention when she was spotted having a round of beers in Colombia last year. Her moves on the dance floor in South Africa were another glimpse of a public figure who was just glad she didn't have to put on an act anymore. She even caused a minor stir when she dared to venture outside without makeup—then laughed it off. I think it's praiseworthy that she no longer thought it necessary to powder up before doing her job—because it indicated that she no longer cared what anyone else thought or said about her. That's an attitude I'd recommend to just about everyone—except people planning to run for public office.

Speaking of not caring what anyone else thinks, since leaving the State Department, Clinton has also proven unafraid to do things that would be politically unpopular. No, she's never struck me as a panderer to the voters either, but there are certain precautions you take if you're running for president—and certain ones that you don't if you're not. For example, the speaking fees she is running up as possibly the world's most in-demand orator right now are through the roof—as much as $200,000 per speech. That's a significantly higher figure than other paid speakers, like Mitt Romney from 2009 to 2011, accepted when they were more serious about seeking the White House. (She's also giving many more of said speeches than active politicians do; her busy schedule is more reminiscent of retirees like her husband and Condi Rice.) A sum of $200,000 is likely to raise some eyebrows if Clinton does throw her hat in the ring. Then there is the latest report, which has her mulling offers of academic positions at various top colleges. Remind me, again—is being a Harvard professor generally considered a positive or a negative for a presidential candidate?

An easy rebuttal to all this—and one I've heard frequently—is, "Well, if she's not running, how come she's doing nothing to dampen the speculation?" Well, other than the fact that she has (see above), a much more relevant question to ask is this: why would anyone try to dampen speculation that they're going to run for president, even if they're not running? Clinton is making those big bucks on the speaking circuit, and she makes everything she touches high-profile, just by virtue of the possibility that she's running. Kill the presidential buzz, and much of her public influence rapidly diminishes. No one should be surprised that she's basking in the speculation, let alone use it as evidence that she will definitely be a candidate. It's a strategy that has been used numerous times by public figures to maintain their relevance. If you've been paying attention, you've watched Sarah Palin, Donald Trump, and others do it just in the past few months.

Finally, there is Clinton's health. This comes last because, in my opinion, it's the worst reason to think she's not running for president—but it is still a reason. Recall that, not too long ago, Clinton fainted and suffered a concussion, which later led to her hospitalization from a blood clot. It sounds, hopefully, like an isolated incident, but the 65-year-old is not as hale and hearty as she used to be. If she runs and is elected, she'd be 69 years old on Inauguration Day—the second-oldest president behind Ronald Reagan. It's hardly disqualifying—see McCain, John—but it's a consideration. For someone who has been public about her anticipation of retirement, I guarantee that she knows well that a Hillary Clinton presidency would deprive her of a big chunk of it.

Taken together, all of these indications point in one direction for me: Clinton isn't running in 2016. Sure, none of this is conclusive. We on the outside can dissect and probe every seeming sign and non-sign all we want, but we really don't have a clue what's going on inside a would-be candidate's head. I could be wrong—but so could everyone else. Nothing I've presented above is truly rock-solid evidence. But, again, my main point is that there's no evidence she is running either—simply the inventions of a frenzied media and a wishful public.

There's as much reason to think Hillary Clinton is running for president as there is to think I'm running for president—neither of us has given a single public indication that we're interested. For now, I remain convinced that she's a "no"—and I suggest that everyone else at least temper their expectations a bit... Because if she does announce in 2015 that she is definitely, positively not running, don't pretend like there wasn't plenty of warning.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

If New York Can Forgive Weiner and Spitzer, Why Not A-Rod?

New York City may not be the center of the universe, but it's been the center of a lot of news lately in the baseball and political spheres. Three huge figures in the city are in the midst of trying to rehabilitate their careers: former congressman Anthony Weiner and former governor Eliot Spitzer are running for office for the first time since they each resigned due to sexual indiscretions, and Yankees third baseman Alex Rodríguez is trying to return to the major leagues for the first time since the bombshell Biogenesis investigation implicated him in the latest MLB steroids scandal.

Yet they're getting very different receptions in the Big Apple. While Weiner and Spitzer are regarded as frontrunners for mayor and city comptroller respectively, A-Rod remains public enemy number one. To be sure, Weiner and Spitzer have their detractors—Weiner especially, after last week's revelations of previously unknown additional sexting. But the overall narrative surrounding them has been redemptive, even positive. Both of them have depicted themselves as deeply flawed men who are nevertheless trying to face the world again, make good to the voters they let down, and rebuild their lives. For the most part, the media (except, as always, New York tabloids) has accepted this narrative (again, at least until this past week's events with Weiner). Most importantly, though, polls have shown that voters have accepted it. Two polls last week gave Spitzer the lead in the comptroller race, and Weiner was surging ahead, capturing 26% of the vote in a crowded field, before last week's information came to light. Heck, even after the world knew that he fell off the fidelity wagon a second time, a poll found Weiner hanging onto second place—and therefore a slot in the runoff.

This couldn't be more different than A-Rod's situation; everyone—from fans to the media to even his employer, the New York Yankees—is in agreement about disowning the former superstar. Since he was linked to the PED-supplying clinic Biogenesis, reaction has ranged from mere vitriol to calls for him to be banned for life. The Yankees have allegedly explored ways to dump him from the team entirely, and they're not exactly trying to hide their disgust with him. Yet akin to Weiner and Spitzer, everything A-Rod has done since his "scandal" has pointed toward one thing: a desire to get back to playing Major League Baseball to help a team that desperately needs him. His deeds to this end include tweeting about his progressing rehab, seeking out a doctor to ascertain if he is healthy enough to play, and turning down a plea bargain from MLB that probably would have ruined his 2013 but given him a clean slate for the rest of his career. Yet A-Rod has been unanimously lambasted for all three of these actions. It's at the point where A-Rod, who hasn't played an inning for the Yankees this year, is singlehandedly responsible for ruining their season.

This discrepancy is baffling to me. Weiner, Spitzer, and A-Rod all had very real failings. In fact, most people would probably consider Weiner's and Spitzer's sins to be greater than A-Rod's. So why is A-Rod the most villainous of the three? Why are his actions to redeem himself not seen that way, while Weiner's and Spitzer's (which could easily be more cynically spun as attempts to grab back a hold of power) are welcomed? What is so especially heinous about A-Rod?

You can say that we respond differently, more emotionally, to sports than to politics. Baseball players like Alex Rodríguez are seen as heroes. Politicians don't engender the same adoration; in fact, they're boring and often not exactly beloved in the first place. So it makes sense that people would feel more personally betrayed when a hero cheats than when a politician does it; to a certain extent, it's expected when a politician is a letdown. That's a plausible explanation—but it's not a justification. A love for sports can blind people into thinking they're important, but it is, as many a Little Leaguer must be told, only a game. Cheating at a game is not a cause for moral outrage; breaking one's marriage vows and, potentially, destroying one's family are certainly much greater offenses. This perspective should at least cancel out the greater distance a ballplayer must travel than a politician to complete his fall from grace.

You can say that, while New York may hate A-Rod, it's not like they're in love with Weiner and Spitzer either. Even if the city elects them to the jobs they want, it might simply be because they were the best options in two underwhelming fields. Indeed, the most recent NBC 4 New York/Wall Street Journal/Marist Poll found that 55% of New York City Democrats had an unfavorable opinion of Anthony Weiner—which means the city's registered voters probably think even worse of him. But remember—this poll was conducted after the new revelations about Weiner's other sexting. Before last week, Marist found that 52% of New York City Democrats were favorably disposed toward Weiner, and 59% said he deserved a second chance. Even more were willing to forgive Spitzer; 67% said he deserved a second chance, and 62% said his past transgressions wouldn't affect their vote.

My point here is not to say that Weiner and Spitzer don't necessarily deserve second chances, or that New Yorkers who think they do are wrong, foolish, or amoral. Instead, my point is to ask—what percentage of New York voters do you think would say that Alex Rodríguez deserves another chance? While I wait for my friend Tom Jensen over at Public Policy Polling to ask the question for real, I've got to guess for now that the answer is "not many." Yet what these polls prove is that there is a vein of forgiveness among New Yorkers that A-Rod is just not tapping into. Even if voters don't like Anthony Weiner today—and even if they are still somewhat divided over Eliot Spitzer—many more of them were at least at one point willing to have open minds about them. That's already a departure from attitudes about A-Rod.

What I will say is that New Yorkers owe A-Rod a little consistency. It's second-chance season in the city that never sleeps, and it's unfair for Gotham to apply it selectively. If New York wants to be rigid and unmerciful, that's fine—it certainly has the reputation of the world's toughest city in which to get by. But then it must turn away Weiner, Spitzer, and Rodríguez all with the same dismissive wave of the hand. For now, put Biogenesis in perspective and let A-Rod walk the long and difficult comeback trail on his own. Unlike Weiner and Spitzer, you're stuck with him for four more years regardless.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Introducing a New Stat: GPA+

It was a busy week for the Supreme Court. Among the many headlines it made were allowing same-sex marriages to move ahead in California, extending federal benefits to same-sex couples, and declawing the Voting Rights Act. Getting slightly shorter shrift—partly because the decision came earlier, partly because the court's ruling was harder to understand, partly because it was simply less consequential—was another decision, handed down 7–1, on affirmative action.

In a nutshell, the Supreme Court decided not to rule itself but rather to send the case back to a lower court to decide whether the University of Texas at Austin's use of race as a factor in admissions is acceptable. The Supreme Court included instructions to the lower court to take a harder look at the admissions policy to ensure that there was definitely, positively no other way to ensure a diverse student body other than looking at race. In other words, the court made affirmative action harder, but it acknowledged that it is sometimes necessary (and thus constitutional).

I am personally not sure where I stand on affirmative action, but I think I think that the Supreme Court did the best they could with an extremely sticky issue. Don't get me wrong—I certainly understand the gripes that many have had with the decision, namely that the court "punted" their ruling and passed it off as not their problem. But if I were a Supreme Court justice, and I were wrestling with my position on affirmative action, I would do the same thing: leave the option open but let someone else decide how to apply it.

That's because, while I believe there must be some accounting for students' different backgrounds in the admissions process, I have no idea of the best way to do so. That's for someone smarter than me—and smarter even than the nine Supreme Court justices—to decide. Someone like a sabermetrician. Let me explain.

In baseball, like in academic achievement, players do not always play under the same conditions. As a result, statistics that purport to be measured on the same scale—earned run average for pitchers, batting average, home runs, etc. for hitters—don't always tell us who is the better player. For example, how do you compare Jorge De La Rosa's 3.09 ERA so far this year, with half of his games coming at hitter-friendly Coors Field, with Hyun-Jin Ryu's 2.83 for the Dodgers, who play in a much better pitcher's park?

Baseball's answer has been adjusted ERA (better known as ERA+), or adjusted OPS (OPS+) for hitters. These statistics put ERA and OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging percentage) on a universal scale by weighting them for the ballpark (hitter-friendly or pitcher-friendly) that players have achieved them in. A league-average ERA+ or OPS+ is 100, and the number basically equates to a percentage—if you have an OPS+ of 90, you have an OPS that's 10% worse than the league average; if you have an ERA+ of 150, you have an ERA that's 50% better. Jorge De La Rosa's ERA+ is 145; Hyun-Jin Ryu's is 129. These more accurate measures of a player's performance therefore show us that, if De La Rosa and Ryu had pitched every game under identical conditions—much like a controlled experiment, in scientific-method terminology—De La Rosa would have given up fewer runs (despite what has actually occurred in real life).

Affirmative action should take the form of a similar universal statistic—let's call it adjusted grade point average, or GPA+. Colleges should seek to ascertain how all students would have performed relative to each other if they had all been playing on a level field—and then take the X number of students with the highest scores on that universal scale. Where OPS+ is adjusted according to the difficulty of the ballpark, GPA+ can be adjusted according to the quality of the high school where the child was educated, the difficulty of the economic circumstances that the child had to overcome, and other obstacles that might cause a student's true ability not to be reflected in their raw GPA.

Again, I don't know what all those factors would be, much less how to weight them properly. Would race be included? It's hard to see how race can affect or understate a student's ability (rather, race is all too often a proxy for the economic conditions that truly do that), but contributing to the diversity of the student body does carry value, no? For that reason, maybe the University of Texas at Austin would prefer to use a statistic like VORS (Value Over Replacement Student) than GPA+.

What statistic to use, and how to calculate it, would certainly be controversial; I have no illusions about that. But the first step is to get smart statisticians creating these education SABR-equivalents, and then we can have a debate about them (much as Fangraphs and Baseball-Reference have a healthy debate over how to calculate WAR). Great, unbiased data minds—ones whose loyalty is to truth in numbers, not ideology–are out there. It's time to get them on the job for something bigger than baseball.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Link-O-Rama: Some Recent Outside Blog Posts

Baseballot has been relatively quiet this month, but never fear, it's not from a lack of writing. I've had a few pieces published by other outlets that are also worth highlighting here:

In Grantland last week, I shared my musings and recap of the Congressional Baseball Game. In case you missed it, the Democrats won big (22–0) despite some good Republican smack talk before the game. I was able to visit with the players in their clubhouses and on the field and got some good color for the game.

On The Atlas Project blog, Karyn Bruggeman and I preview the Massachusetts Senate special election. Our conclusion? Anyone holding onto the notion that Gabriel Gómez can win is kidding themselves. We dig deeper into the data than just looking at polls to prove it. (This follows on the heels of my Massachusetts Senate primary preview in The Atlantic back in April.)

Please click through and enjoy! I'll get back to posting in this space soon.

Friday, June 7, 2013

LBJ for President in 2016!—But Which One?

Technically, on the calendar 2016 is still three years away. But the campaign for the next president of the United States? Based on the last few cycles, that's likely to be up and running by June 2015—in other words, less than 24 months from today.

When Hillary Clinton inevitably declines to run (more on that in a later post), Democrats will scramble to find a favorite candidate. Since ideology will be (almost) irrelevant, they'll turn to other criteria to choose. Charisma will be important, of course; it's how President Obama was elected. But if every president is a reaction to the previous president, Democrats will look at their outgoing candidate and seek to improve upon him. And if there has been one complaint from the left about President Obama, it's that he has failed in schmoozing and wheeling and dealing with Congress. In other words, he has a great agenda, but he hasn't been effective at pushing it through.

The 2016 primary field will probably feature two candidates for whom effective legislative wrangling is a specialty: New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley. To an electorate of liberals frustrated at the lack of progress on the national stage, these two will be able to say they passed a smorgasbord of liberal dream bills in their respective states. As president, they'll succeed where Obama failed, the narrative will go: they're Obama 2.0, the right ideas now upgraded with the legislative savvy to get them passed.

The similarities between Cuomo and O'Malley are striking—and impressive. Both passed extremely strict gun-control laws, proving adept at turning the post-Newtown mood into results. They've both also legalized gay marriage in their states despite historical opposition. And each has a long list of lower-profile, but equally substantive, other accomplishments.

But 2016 primary voters will be interested in their differences, not their similarities. Which of these two second comings of the Master of the Senate will make a better president? I'm certainly not going to pretend to know the answer to that, but voters might decide one of them is closer to their personal tastes once we pick apart their personal styles of governing.

The son of a former governor, Andrew Cuomo knew what he was getting into when he was elected in 2010; East Coast bias notwithstanding, the New York legislature has an unparalleled reputation for ruthlessness and gridlock. To break through it, Cuomo's preferred style has proven to be brute force. His willingness to wade in and get himself dirty with sausage-making residue paid immediate dividends: his first legislative session, in 2011, was one of the most productive in New York history. The highlight of that session was the vote to legalize gay marriage in New York—a proposition that had failed just two years earlier under largely similar political conditions. As we stand today, Albany has now passed a budget on time for three years in a row—all three years of Cuomo's governorship—for the first time since 1984.

Cuomo accomplished all this with a mastery of backroom deal-brokering. His philosophy is one of consultation and making legislative partners feel invested because they have been a part of the process from the beginning. To aid in this, Cuomo has the old politicians' touch at building relationships—one-on-one meetings, birthday and anniversary wishes, and tons and tons of phone calls. On gay marriage, one senator switched his vote to "yes" after he said Cuomo called him so often that he was sick of hearing from the governor. Indeed, when the going gets tough, Cuomo isn't afraid to hound legislators until he gets what he wants.

And, of course, those legislators are much more likely to listen if the governor hounding them is a strong executive: a Democrat in a Democratic state with the power of the people behind him. Cuomo has proven politically competent at not only maintaining a high approval rating—it's been in the 60s for years now, and the lowest it's ever been measured at is 55%—but also wielding his popularity as political capital. To help grease the wheels for gay marriage, he orchestrated grassroots campaigns in the home districts of the state senators he was trying to sway. His campaign operation succeeded at mobilizing pro-marriage-equality voters to the point where they too were flooding their legislators with calls, letters, and email. He cultivated favors from legislators by campaigning for them, but he also reportedly threatened to personally campaign in the hometowns of anyone who voted against his tax-reform bill.

Indeed, Cuomo has a knack for knowing when to balance the carrot with the stick. His popularity helps him convince fencesitters that his policies are popular too and that they would do well to get on board with them. Even Republicans beg for scraps at his table, thanks to Cuomo's unprecedented (for a Democrat) popularity in reddish Upstate New York. But his popularity also serves as a subtle (or sometimes not-so-subtle) threat. Not only are endangered incumbents motivated to earn his endorsement, but they're also actively afraid of not getting it. His popularity is an insurance policy against Democrats falling out of line, and, to Republicans, it sends a clear signal that they would be unwise to attack him or his policies too directly. Cuomo's got the best combination a politician could ask for: loved by the people, feared by his colleagues.

Another talent of Cuomo's has been the ability to get results fast. According to one political strategist, his MO is to "announce victory, stand with the partners in a room—and then they work out the details later." Nowhere was Cuomo's efficiency at governing on better display than when New York became the first state to pass gun-control legislation in the wake of the Sandy Hook shootings. Using a common emergency procedure known as "message of necessity," Cuomo was able to push the bill to the floor and get it passed without any hearings, testimony, etc., on only the second day of the legislative session. In the State Senate, the bill passed 43–18. Twelve Republicans were among the ayes, allegedly because Cuomo threatened to annul the power-sharing agreement that had given the GOP control of the divided State Senate.

But there is a dark side to these methods by Cuomo. The same arm-twisting that gets results also can leave legislators and colleagues sore. For instance, some conservatives believe that Cuomo's gun-control law is unconstitutional because he used the emergency "message of necessity" procedure in a non-emergency. Despite campaigning on a promise of transparency in government, Cuomo has also presided over one of the most secretive administrations in New York history. It's the flip side of his ability to get things done quickly; he tends to run silent on issues for a while and then emerge with a finished product that's already halfway to being passed. (This is almost the exact opposite of President Obama, who releases proposals far in advance and then gives the public a front-row seat to a protracted negotiation process with congressional Republicans. It's this excruciating sausage-making that has given rise to his reputation as a poor finisher. When Cuomo defends his methods, it's almost a slap to Obama's: "Normally when we release bill language before an agreement, the probability of that bill passing is very, very my experience [it] polarizes the parties.") He's also not eager for the public to glimpse the process even after the fact; his office has been accused of editing and removing public records from Cuomo's tenure as state attorney general. If Cuomo runs for president, the adjective "Nixonian" will almost certainly come up, and while Cuomo's backroom tactics do seem to be the most effective way to get things done, one wonders if they'll trip him up as president.

The longer Cuomo's stay in Albany has stretched on, the more feathers he has appeared to ruffle. He has a poor relationship with arguably the most important politician in his state, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and he recently made headlines for disparaging the possible next mayor, Anthony Weiner. If true, his worst misstep may be working behind the scenes to oust longtime Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver—one of Albany's most powerful politicians. (Needless to say, if a governor tries to engineer a coup against a leader within his own party and fails, he can kiss his legislative agenda goodbye.) And it takes a special kind of confidence—some would say arrogance—to publicly suggest a major overhaul to the way the state legislature is set up. For all his successes, Cuomo doesn't seem—to the naked eye anyway—to be very diplomatic about his professional relationships. As a governor, you might be able to get away with living on the edge like that, but will it fly under the harsher spotlight and higher stakes of the national stage?

For Democratic primary voters, there's also another angle to consider. Cuomo has excelled at getting liberal bills through a divided legislature, yes—but he has also excelled at getting surprisingly conservative policies passed in a very blue state. Among his seemingly impossible accomplishments: he has almost disappeared the New York state deficit (from $10 billion to under $1 billion today) by cutting spending and cutting taxes, and he got a public-employee union to cave and accept a package of wage and benefit cuts just five weeks after rejecting it. Both of these speak to extraordinary negotiating skill, but Democrats could be forgiven for wondering what good that power is if it's used for "evil." If Cuomo does run for president, in a Democratic primary he will doubtlessly pledge to push exclusively for progressive priorities, but he'll face questions over a past that has proven he is emphatically not a party man. In many Democrats' eyes, his biggest sin was praising and even endorsing the 2012 candidacies of two Republican state senators who had been helpful to him—despite Democrats having a very real shot at seizing control of the New York Senate. This has already earned him the enmity of many activists on the left as well as the bitterness of New York Democrats who did not enjoy his support.

But ideology isn't the focus of this compare-and-contrast piece; methods are. And it's entirely possible that Cuomo's moderate streak doesn't represent his true feelings, but rather just his acknowledgment of political reality. Another of Cuomo's secrets to passing a too-liberal-to-be-true agenda is his willingness to horse-trade. Cuomo got his minimum-wage increase in exchange for a tax cut. He got pension reform in exchange for a Republican-friendly redistricting map. And New Yorkers wouldn't have gay marriage today if Cuomo hadn't promised to give electoral cover to Republicans who supported it. The specifics of the final gay-marriage bill were also the result of some intense haggling between Cuomo and the specific Republican legislators he targeted for conversion—that's why it actually includes a religious exemption. This may be none too pleasing to Democratic primary voters, but it shows an uncanny ability to compromise and extract concessions from across the aisle. Clearly, this is something Washington desperately needs right now. Liberals may want to face the possibility that the only way meaningful progressive legislation can pass in DC is the way it passed in Albany: by making a deal with the devil.

Clearly Andrew Cuomo is a complicated and controversial figure; national Democrats can be forgiven for viewing him "with a combination of grudging admiration and cautious suspicion," as one put it. He possesses all the seminal skills of a virtuoso politician and has parlayed them into being one of the best governors in the country. He is driven solely by a desire to get results and make a difference—and will do it by any means necessary. He's pragmatic to the point where he is just as satisfied pushing conservative solutions as liberal ones. He's prone to making enemies and is not afraid to fight below the belt. And if governing opaquely is the only way to get stuff done, then so be it.

But despite what some would call a slightly authoritarian method and style, Cuomo has faced remarkably little backlash. His popularity remains through the roof, suggesting it might just be the medicine voters want or need. Certainly, President Cuomo wouldn't shrink at trying every trick in the book to coax action out of the US Congress. There can be no one more qualified to get the wheels of government moving again despite a hostile environment. And, crucially, he has mastered the art of manipulating a legislature controlled by the opposite party.

That's not something Martin O'Malley can say in Maryland, where Democrats hold supermajorities in both chambers of the legislature. Yet O'Malley has been able to rattle off a list of legislative accomplishments just as long as, and even more liberal than, Cuomo's. O'Malley's approach has been much more like a courtship; first elected governor in 2006, O'Malley made incremental progress in his state for several years, building up relationships and credibility. His most productive legislative session was his seventh—the most recent one, here in 2013. In addition to passing gun control, the 90-day session this winter increased the gas tax, repealed the death penalty, legalized medical marijuana, expanded early voting, instituted same-day voter registration, closed a corporate campaign-finance loophole, gave illegal immigrants driver's licenses, and incentivized the use of renewable energy. No, it's not Liberal Nirvana. It's just Maryland.

Unlike in New York, however, all these initiatives were not noteworthy for how quickly they passed, but rather for how leisurely the path to them was. While these bills all passed during one extraordinary legislative session, in another way they were all seven years in the making. That's reflective of O'Malley's willingness—in contrast to Cuomo—to let the legislative procedure play out. Most of the bills above went through extensive debate and public commenting—and were stronger for it. True, a few bills, such as medical marijuana, were watered down; the State Senate also chose to accept the House of Delegates's minor changes to the gun-control legislation so as not to risk the bill's overall passage. And, just like in New York, the deciding votes on gay marriage were obtained by including a religious exemption. However, O'Malley was able to keep the changes from being so great that progressives would cry foul. As a result, not only did these measures all pass, but most of them did so comfortably and with little controversy. Medical marijuana passed the State Senate 42–4; the voting-reform bill passed it 38–9. By taking the time to listen and respect the process, O'Malley actually decreased the acrimony in government that so many bemoan these days—while still successfully enacting some very progressive laws.

In fact, moving deliberately was a crucial part of O'Malley's strategy on at least one bill, the death penalty. The longer that the issue was in the political spotlight, the more opponents were led to doubt their position on it. O'Malley and his supporters unleashed a slow and steady education campaign that emphasized the lack of evidence that the death penalty acts as a deterrent as well as the risks of executing an innocent person. Where Cuomo buffaloes legislators to get what he wants, O'Malley is content to wear them down—with equally good results.

It's probably unsurprising, then, that O'Malley has stronger, more trusting relationships with legislators than Cuomo is reputed to have. House of Delegates Speaker Michael Busch and Senate President Mike Miller (both Democrats) have both proven helpful allies to the governor, whose charisma has endeared him to many in Annapolis. Comparing O'Malley to Cuomo, "Martin is more instantly likeable," according to former Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell. This fits with his style of persuasion, which is much less adversarial and more positive. O'Malley seems to believe that the most effective vote-whippers are friendly faces, such as he is to most Democrats. This also showed in how he recruited specific other friendly faces, such as the archbishop of Baltimore and the president of the NAACP, to persuade Catholic and black legislators on his death-penalty repeal. Legislators want to help O'Malley too, though. During the 2012 election, the governor built up a lot of political capital by campaigning unusually actively for a handful of liberal ballot measures, including same-sex marriage legalization and the DREAM Act. They all passed, affirming the connection between the governor and popular progressive policies.

As already alluded to, however, the big problem with praising O'Malley's nice-guy methods is that the deck was already stacked in his favor; after all, having Democratic supermajorities in both houses of the assembly isn't exactly a challenging environment for a Democratic governor. In addition, 2010 was actually a good year for Democrats in Maryland, unlike in the rest of the country; most of what O'Malley has been able to accomplish only happened after these new, friendly Democratic legislators entered office, not during the previous four years of O'Malley's governorship. His tactics may very well be too gentle to work in an environment as nasty and polarized as the US Congress.

Still, O'Malley has undeniably made the mechanisms of government budge where they weren't budging before. The gas tax, for instance, hadn't been increased in Maryland since 1992. On the death penalty, O'Malley secured the votes of veteran legislators who had voted against repeal during a previous attempt in 2009. Even gay marriage failed initially in 2011 (which, take note, is after 2010) before passing in 2012. The difference was O'Malley going beyond just giving a bill his blessing to actually attaching his name to it as a sponsor. This reportedly made the difference on gay marriage and other Round Twos by lending them the media attention that follows the governor as well as the time and efforts of the lobbyists on his staff. There may also be a benefit to drawing an issue out over many years, just as there is a benefit to drawing an issue out over many weeks: legislators have time to reflect on their votes and consider the reactions of colleagues and constituents to them. Of course, this slow way of doing business can be far from ideal when you're trying to get important policies passed, and it's the same gear-grinding that many have criticized Washington, DC, for. If O'Malley is elected president, will he face the same impatience that Barack Obama has?

A final point on the Maryland governor: O'Malley has proven effectual without being wildly popular like Cuomo. After winning reelection with 56% of the vote in 2010, he has dropped to a lukewarm approval/disapproval of 49/41. Clearly, O'Malley lacks Cuomo's magic touch with the public that has kept the latter's approval rating in the stratosphere even after passing a controversial agenda. (It is also amazing, and perhaps telling, that O'Malley has done so much national publicity, appearances on morning shows, etc., and yet he is far less widely known than Cuomo, who purposefully avoids national attention.) However, he is popular with the Democratic legislators with whom he campaigned side-by-side in 2010 (when O'Malley's reelection campaign probably helped contribute to the Democratic wave in Maryland). Overall, O'Malley is much more of a party man than Cuomo is, working well with his majorities but subject to being seen by the public as a partisan figure. For 2016 voters, this can be either a plus (he's a loyal Democrat, whereas Cuomo can be seen as wavering) or a minus (he's only equipped to succeed in blue states).

Martin O'Malley can be best described as a happy warrior. When he has a priority, he obviously leans hard to make it a reality, but he's not abrasive or molesting. He has made Maryland's government among the most liberal in the union through old-fashioned deliberate, respectful legislating. He believes in positive reenforcement and the power of a smile. Above all, perhaps, he's a hard worker, unafraid to put his legacy on the line to give good policy a better shot.

But he's also been accused of being too soft. He really has only one weapon in his arsenal—friendly persuasion—and we don't know how well he'd do if that didn't work. His résumé, while impressive, has one big hole: he has no experience working with Republicans. There seems to be little doubt that O'Malley would be an excellent president if Democrats control the House and Senate during his term, but how likely is that? Democratic primary voters will be getting something of an unknown commodity if they nominate him to spar with a divided Congress.

An unknown commodity is what President Obama was at the beginning of his term—and he has seen mixed success in bending Congress to his will. To a left wing that has felt those failures most acutely, you can bet that Andrew Cuomo and Martin O'Malley will talk up their track records as governor—quite possibly raising them above a field with less impressive CVs. But if they really are the two frontrunners in 2016, whom should you vote for?

O'Malley is the liberal you can have faith in; Cuomo is the one with the experience in divided and rough-and-tumble legislatures like Albany and the US Congress. You can have no fear that Cuomo will push his bills through by hook or by crook; you can rest easy knowing O'Malley will go about his job in a way you can be proud of.

But if you choose Cuomo, be aware that he's taken conservative turns before and could be an alienating figure in DC. And if you choose O'Malley, recognize that you're rather idealistically sending a nice guy to tame a not-so-nice city.

If 2016 does shape up to be a cagematch between Cuomo and O'Malley, Democratic voters will be deciding some age-old questions. Is it better to be feared or loved? Do nice guys really finish last? And, ultimately, do you believe civility and respect can still prevail in the US Congress, or is it time to play some hardball? Your answers to these questions do nothing less than reveal your preference for president in 2016.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Leading Los Angeles

Ever met the president? Your US senator? Your congressman? Didn't think so.

What about your mayor or local officials? That's a lot more likely, and that's reassuring. Most of the policy that affects you in your day-to-day life is probably made on the state or municipal level. I've long advocated for a predominantly "local-out" view of politics, and I'd argue that mayoral elections are more important than most others, even on the federal level—possibly second only to the presidential.

If I'm right, we have an extremely important election coming up tomorrow, Tuesday, May 21, when the second-biggest city in the US will choose its first new mayor in eight years. Los Angeles actually had its initial mayoral election on March 5, but like many cities' elections, the race is thrown to a runoff if no candidate reaches 50%. Tuesday will be that runoff, pitting the top two candidates against one another for the big prize. The winner will have some large—and larger-than-life—shoes to fill, as the term-limited, outgoing mayor, Antonio Villaraigosa, is a popular showman and potential candidate for higher office.

Although Los Angeles municipal elections are technically nonpartisan, both qualifying candidates ally themselves with the Democratic Party. Forty-two-year-old Eric Garcetti has served on the LA City Council since 2001 and as president of the council since 2006. The son of a former DA, he is an impressive mishmash of local ethnicities, including being both Mexican-American and Jewish.

Voters' alternative is Wendy Greuel, who has worn many hats in municipal government: city councilor, mayoral aide, and, currently, city controller (meaning she has won a citywide election before). She also has some serious connections—to Bill Clinton, in whose administration she worked, and to Hollywood, having worked as a studio executive at Dreamworks. She has the endorsements of both Clinton and Steven Spielberg. Greuel is white but would break barriers in other ways: she'd be Tinseltown's first female mayor.

In an environment where the two candidates agree on almost all the actual issues, the "issues" the race has been fought over have been rather superficial. Mainly, the campaign has been about who is supposedly in the pocket of which special interest—and, with the amount of independent spending the election has seen, this has resonated with voters. (I highly recommend this excellent graphic from the Los Angeles Times to see exactly which interest groups are spending for whom.) The knock against Garcetti has been that he is a little too close for comfort with big business—but by far the biggest shadow in the race has been cast by unions, who have spent overwhelmingly for Greuel. They have accounted for almost $6 million of the $7.7 million that has been raised by pro-Greuel super PACs. (In contrast, pro-Garcetti outside groups have raised only $2.7 million.) While this has led to a very effective line of attack against Greuel—that she has been bought by union interests—the outside spending has also kept her mayoral chances afloat. Although Garcetti's ($8.1 million) and Greuel's ($7.1 million) campaign committees have raised roughly comparable sums, Greuel's campaign has virtually run out of money here in the final stretch.

Other controversies have flowed out from these union connections. Greuel's union allies have taken fire for distributing flyers and circulating sound trucks in Hispanic neighborhoods that claim Greuel supports a $15 minimum wage. In reality, that wage proposal would only apply to hotel workers, but that was allegedly unclear the way the unions phrased it—perhaps, opponents claim, purposefully trying to mislead LA's Hispanic poor. However, it's not clear if this tactic has backfired on Greuel.

A final manufactured "issue" that is unlikely to make a difference is the still-extant division between Obama Democrats and Hillary Clinton Democrats. Mirroring an internal dynamic that has played itself out in other Democratic primaries, Garcetti supported the president early in the 2008 primaries, while Greuel was behind Clinton. Garcetti has trumpeted his friendship with Obama all campaign long, but with no endorsement and with Greuel obviously now an Obama supporter as well, too much has changed in five years to make that predictive in any way.

So who has come out on top of all this? In the March 5 primary that winnowed the field, Garcetti received 33.1% of the vote, 29.0% went to Greuel, and other, eliminated candidates amassed the remaining 37.9%. Since then, Garcetti has averaged a similar overall lead in polling, although for a period of about two weeks, the candidates were essentially tied (and may still be, depending on how you view a USC Price/LA Times poll released last Friday):

The narrative of the race—which, as we all know, can diverge from the data—has generally been that of a Garcetti campaign on cruise control while Greuel has stumbled. In late March, her bid was seen in chaos when four prominent members of her team left the campaign. More generally, Greuel is seen as the candidate of more dispassionate, moderate voters, while Garcetti is the "Obama-esque candidate" of young activists and Hispanics.

There's a lot more ambiguity when you actually get into it, however. A SurveyUSA poll found that all age groups were split right down the middle in their support. That poll also found that white and Hispanic voters tend to back Garcetti, with African-Americans and Asians behind Greuel—except another poll found that Garcetti's core groups were Asians and Latinos, while Greuel held leads with whites and blacks. That poll, in turn, found a strong gender gap in favor of Greuel—but the most recent poll found Garcetti ahead with the fairer sex. And finally, all three polls showed that it's actually Garcetti, by a comfortable margin, who is the preferred candidate of Angeleno Republicans.

How much do each of these groups matter in assembling a winning coalition, and where are they all concentrated? Let's take a tour of the city to get acquainted with its demographic layout. According to the American Community Survey, the City of Los Angeles is 48.1% Hispanic or Latino, 28.9% white, 11.4% Asian, and 9.6% black or African-American. As the home of almost four million people, Los Angeles has among the most complex political geography you can have in only 469 square miles, so we'll keep our characterizations on the simple side. (For intricate detail on each of LA's diverse neighborhoods, check out the Los Angeles Times's great "Mapping LA" project.)

Look at a map of the Los Angeles area and it's almost never clear what's actually within the City of Los Angeles. Often treated like their own cities, "suburbs" like Hollywood and Pacific Palisades are actually neighborhoods within the LA city limits. Meanwhile, places like Santa Monica, Beverly Hills, and a couple others that appear to be in the heart of Los Angeles are actually their own cities—enclaves completely surrounded by the main city. For greatest ease, let's start in Central LA, which is almost certainly where the big letters reading "LOS ANGELES" are on your aforementioned map. Slightly inland, Central LA is extremely diverse, both ethnically and socioeconomically, but it is also solidly blue. Comfortable members of the creative class make their homes in Hollywood Hills and Silver Lake (home of Eric Garcetti), voting Democrat in keeping with their artsiness; moneyed residents of Fairfax and Hancock Park vote Republican in keeping with their wealth. However, a vast majority of this district's vote is in the areas where poverty reigns without prejudice: between the skyscrapers of Downtown (a sizable black community), below the calligraphied signs of Koreatown (a pocket of Asian immigrants), and amid the smell of ethnic food in Westlake (home of many Latinos, who also make up pluralities in most of Central LA's other neighborhoods). Even glamorous Hollywood is home to a mostly poor population (though it is whiter than its aforementioned eastern neighbors). Like the rest of America's urban poor, these people are reliable Democratic votes. Furthermore, since many of them are Latino and are represented by him on the city council, they probably favor Garcetti—at least they did in March. However, this is one area where Greuel and her union supporters are hoping to make inroads; they are airing negative ads against Garcetti aimed at Latinos, and these poor neighborhoods are the ones where the minimum-wage promises—real or not—could change some minds.

West of Central LA, extending all the way to the Pacific, is what's known as the Westside. In a way, the Westside is an extension of Hancock Park or Silver Lake in its political tastes: well-educated, middle- and upper-class voters who tend to vote for Democrats. Intellectual Westwood, where UCLA is, is in this area; so is Venice Beach, which retains its hippie vibe. The Westside is also home to fiscally conservative but socially liberal voters in affluent communities like Pacific Palisades (usually tips Democrat) and Westchester (usually tips Republican). Garcetti, seen as a pro-business Democrat, is a great fit for this area. Look for him to build upon his already-respectable showing here in the primary.

East of Central LA, on the other hand, is the correspondingly named Eastside, along with Northeast LA to, um, the northeast. Uncorrespondingly, these areas are almost completely Latino—and thus all voted strongly for Garcetti in March. However, the area isn't entirely monolithic. Within this strip of land, from Eagle Rock in the north to Boyle Heights in the south, incomes tend to drop as you go south. This means the Eastside generally might be fertile ground for Greuel to steal away some Garcetti base votes as she's trying to do in Central LA. However, well-off Latinos in Northeast LA probably are lost causes for her—they can relate so strongly to Garcetti.

To the south is the historically African-American district of South Los Angeles. Much of what's left of LA's black population still resides here, especially in western neighborhoods like Baldwin Hills/Crenshaw and Hyde Park, but overall this is another heavily Hispanic area. More relevantly, it is among the most dangerous, poorest, least educated urban areas in the nation—famous to the rest of us as South Central LA (home of the Watts district). Another Democratic stronghold, it's unclear which Democrat it will favor on Tuesday; in March, it sided decisively with its city councilor, Jan Perry, who finished fourth overall. Perry endorsed Garcetti after losing, and certainly it makes sense that the Hispanic vote here will go to him. However, polls agree that African-Americans are in Greuel's corner this time around, and blacks in this area have shown a reluctance to vote for Hispanic candidates in past mayoral elections. South LA should be competitive, and Greuel's people will certainly be looking at their margins here on election night—as should you.

From South LA, a thin strip of land that is still the City of Los Angeles slithers south past Torrance and Compton, all the way to the ocean, where it widens and becomes the Harbor district. This near-exclave is home to the middle class of all races, and it is also more politically diverse than the neighborhoods we've covered so far. For instance, the plurality-Hispanic Wilmington neighborhood is mostly Democratic, but the seaside San Pedro actually boasts a respectable Republican population. This area will probably be a wash; perhaps a slight Garcetti advantage won't matter because the vote share here is the lowest of the six regions we're touring today.

Thus far, it's seemed like most neighborhoods have been all Garcetti, all the time—and that's certainly a testament to his frontrunner status. However, I've saved the biggest region for last. The San Fernando Valley sprawls massively to the north of the Westside and northwest of Central LA; depending on turnout, it probably holds from 40% to 50% of the Los Angeles vote share. The Valley is the suburban purgatory that everyone pictures when they think of LA. With so many people, it also features quite a few political opinions, although on the whole it's the most conservative/moderate area in the city. Like most of suburbia, it is also solidly middle class, although you can certainly find both extremes here too. Garcetti did just OK in the Valley, running strongest in the chain of middle-class Hispanic communities on its east edge (e.g., Pacoima, Sun Valley, North Hollywood, as well as more westerly Reseda) that are the Valley's most consistent sources of Democratic votes. Then, on the Valley's western edge, you'll find LA's well-hidden Republican voters. Rich neighborhoods like Woodland Hills and Porter Ranch were where Republican Kevin James got his 16.3% of the vote in the March election; now those votes are up for grabs. Maybe, as the polls indicate, they'll switch allegiances to Garcetti—but maybe they'll also look to their neighbors for inspiration and go Greuel. Wendy's support was widespread across San Fernando, basically picking up any votes that didn't go James west of the 405 and any votes that didn't go Garcetti east of the 405. She won most of the precincts in the Valley in March and did particularly well near her home in Studio City. She should win them again tomorrow, but, in what is clearly a pretty politically balanced region, by how much? Like in South LA, she'll need to win convincingly here to make up for deficits elsewhere in the city.

So can Wendy Greuel convert enough inner-city votes? Who wins the conservative floaters, especially in the Valley? How decisive will the black vote be? The way you see each of these questions resolving says a lot about how you think the results will shake out tomorrow night.

Personally, I buy into a picture painted by the most recent USC Price/LA Times poll. That survey, which had Garcetti up by seven points, showed that Greuel was weak—even losing to Garcetti—on her supposed home turf in the Valley. The poll's sponsors postulated that Greuel's associations with unions were undermining her support among this relatively conservative bloc—certainly plausible, given how the campaign narrative has harped on those connections. It is certainly true that Greuel has no clear path to victory without the Valley, her most natural source of votes and one of two areas where turnout is likely to be higher. (To make matters worse, the other, the Westside, is solid Garcetti territory.) Fortunately for Greuel, I do see her clinching the black vote, which should make election night more competitive. But I don't think it will be enough for her to get more than 45% of the total vote.

To be clear, though, this election remains a tossup. In a sentence, the result hinges on whether that USC Price/LA Times poll is correct or instead an outlier from a trend that theretofore had the race tied. We'll find out tomorrow night—hopefully.