Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Where the Polls Stand in Massachusetts

Doing some research this week, I noticed that the usual suspects—FiveThirtyEight, RealClearPolitics, etc.—weren't aggregating polls for the upcoming special Senate election in Massachusetts. Doing the research myself wasn't hard (there have been only a handful of polls), but I also don't want anyone else to duplicate the work. Therefore, without further ado...

Here are the results of all polls I could find of the Democratic primary for the special election for John Kerry's Senate seat, to be held on Tuesday, April 30:

Poll Dates Markey Lynch Undecided
PPP 1/29–1/30 52% 19% 29%
MassInc/WBUR 2/11–2/13 38% 31% 26%
PPP/LCV 2/13–2/14 43% 28% 29%
Garin-Hart-Yang/LCV 2/26–2/27 42% 28% 30%
UML/Boston Herald 3/2–3/5 50% 20.5% 23%
MassInc/WBUR 3/19–3/21 35% 24% 41%
PPP/LCV 3/26–3/27 49% 32% 19%
WNE/MassLive 4/11–4/18 44% 34% 21%
Lynch for Senate 4/20–4/21 44.5% 38.9% 16.5%
PPP/LCV 4/23–4/25 50% 36% 14%

Thursday, April 18, 2013

History Shows It's Game Over for Sanford and Weiner

Political comebacks have been in vogue lately. First Mark Sanford, the former South Carolina governor who was the laughingstock of the nation after an extramarital affair in 2009, won the recent Republican primary in the special election for the South Carolina First District. Then, in last week's New York Times Magazine, erstwhile congressman and sexter Anthony Weiner revealed his interest in the New York City mayoralty.

There seems to be a consensus that, not only are Sanford's and Weiner's comebacks possible, but also that they wouldn't be unusual. This couldn't be further from the truth. In fact, if you look at the history of politicians attempting to come back from scandal, Weiner faces extremely long odds, and Sanford is extremely lucky to have gotten as far as he has.

We at Baseballot dipped into the archives and identified 82 federal and statewide elected officials over the past 20 years who have faced scandal—sex or otherwise—while in office. Only 10 can be said to have definitively survived the charges leveled at them. Four more (Bill Clinton, Kathy Augustine, Scott DesJarlais, and John Swallow) remain inconclusive. That means 68 of the 82 (83%) at some point fell from power as a result of their sins—whether via resignation (38), removal (5), retirement (14), or repudiation by the voters (11). This is the population we're really interested in, as it includes Weiner and Sanford.

Out of those 68, 66 never held elected office again. That's an abysmal 97% attrition rate. The two success stories include only one who successfully returned to his previous position: Alabama Supreme Court Justice Roy Moore, who was removed in 2003 following a politically popular decision to defy a court order to remove the Ten Commandments from public property. (The second, former Michigan congresswoman Barbara-Rose Collins, managed to win a couple local elections to the Detroit City Council.)

This doesn't even include people who weren't holding office at the time of their scandal, such as former vice-presidential candidate John Edwards, who it's safe to say would've been run out of town on a rail if he were still a senator. The 66, however, do include Newt Gingrich, who has arguably made a comeback by doing as well as he did in the 2012 GOP primaries, as well as Sanford and Weiner themselves, whose fates are yet to be determined. It also includes 58 disgraced ex-pols who never even attempted comebacks, although this fact in and of itself is instructive, in my opinion. Still, peel away these quibbles, and politicians who left office in disgrace still have a poor .286 batting average (2 out of 7) when they try to come back from obscurity and regain public office.

My findings conspicuously clash with a prominent recent study that found that most scandal-plagued politicians actually pull through just fine. Political scientist Scott Basinger compiled a database of 237 naughty congressmen and found that, while they have a lower political survival rate than their unblemished colleagues, they still returned to Congress more often than not. Specifically, 73% of embattled congressmen stuck it out and contested another general election (versus 91% in the control group); 81% of those went on to win, making for a total survival rate of 60%.

Without Basinger's full data set, I can't say for certain why his findings are so divergent from mine. I'd probably point to three key differences in our methodology. First, I looked at all federal and statewide elected officials, while Basinger limited himself to US congressmen. Second, and perhaps more importantly, Basinger went all the way back to 1973, while I stopped at 1993. I tend to believe that more recent data are more reliable—even cases from 20 years ago are of limited value in the age of social media, if you ask me—but Basinger's doubly large sample size could certainly account for our disagreement.

Third, while I don't know how Basinger conducted his research, mine consisted mainly of a heck of a lot of Googling. I'm almost certain that I missed out on a few scandals, especially going back to the 1990s when the archives of the World Wide Web grow thin. Still, because of the nature of internet research, I'm fairly confident that I documented all of the most high-profile scandals of the past 20 years. Basinger, in contrast, doubtlessly included even the most obscure misconduct in his database. Again, while more data points are usually good, in this case it might be more instructive to look solely at the high-profile cases. They are the ones most closely relatable to Sanford and Weiner, and they predictably prove more damaging to politicians' public personas. It's probably not helpful to skew our predictions for two notorious adulterers with politicians who coasted to reelection after abusing the franking privilege, for instance.

Indeed, I completely trust Basinger's methodology and his findings, and I'm perfectly willing to believe that 60% of overall offenders tough it out and go on to live completely normal and healthy political lives. Indeed, a decent slice of my dataset did that very thing. I'm even willing to admit that my dataset is flawed in that it probably undercounts the number of politicians who defied calls to resign and weathered the storm (again, it's easier to find internet archives of big news events like "SENATOR X RESIGNS"). My research may very well be inconclusive about this cadre.

But it doesn't matter, because we're talking about politicians who didn't survive—who, like Weiner and Sanford, fell to the deepest depths of shame and ignominy—and then climbed back to a position of prominence, power, and popularity. About them, there can be little doubt that full-blown comebacks from rock bottom do not happen. Basinger does not address this specific type of case in his study, leaving my data—66 out of 68, remember—as our only guide.

The reason that the media's examples of political comebacks—meant to convince us that Sanford and Weiner really can do it—actually bear no resemblance or relationship to Sanford's and Weiner's utter implosions is that there almost literally are no political phoenix stories. All of the most famous "comeback" stories—Barney Frank, Ted Kennedy, Wilbur Mills, David Vitter—are of politicians who never resigned in the first place. They recognized that their best strategy was to deny, defer, or deflect guilt as quickly as possible and move on. By the time they faced the voters again, their transgressions were either forgotten or overshadowed.

But for those who admit fault—or, perhaps more accurately, admit that they ought to be punished for it by resigning or otherwise leaving office—the path to public forgiveness is much less clear. If you're a scandalized politician, at least you still have your office and a platform from which to build yourself back up (including the significant electoral advantage of incumbency). Step down, and you're nothing but a broken man. Leaving office in disgrace has been a black mark from which there has almost never been any coming back. The media and 24-hour news networks may love comeback stories, but there's little evidence the public does.

We've taken our time to come back around to the bottom line for Weiner and Sanford, so here it is: they're probably finished, even if they don't know it yet. For Weiner, going from disrepute to the extremely powerful position of New York City mayor in the space of two years is just too big of a jump. Even the one ex-representative who returned to local government did so to city council, and she endured an ethics investigation, not Weiner's sensationalist sex scandal and its attendant national humiliation. A comeback by Weiner would be unprecedented in modern American politics.

Sanford, while still an unlikely candidate, may have slightly better odds. For one thing, he has already won one election—the GOP primary—which is half the hurdle. For another, he holds a key advantage over Weiner: he never resigned. Despite the equal amount of ridicule and embarrassment he faced with his "Appalachian Trail" saga, Sanford actually served out the remaining two years of his term as governor and was effective at fading out of the spotlight rather than going out with a bang. However, polls indicate Sanford is still badly underperforming a generic Republican, and, after this week's revelations of further family troubles resulted in his abandonment by the NRCC, the former governor is now looking decidedly like an underdog. All in all, I would be surprised to see him buck history here.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

A Few Words on Boston

On March 22, at 5:45pm, I had dinner with my mother at Max Brenner at 745 Boylston Street in Boston. Twenty-four days later, the sidewalk out in front of the restaurant would go up in a ball of fire. To get there, I climbed out of the now-closed Copley T station and walked down the north side of Boylston Street. Not one to make eye contact on the street, I stared at those square gray tiles underfoot now immortalized in red. Before sitting down to dinner, I crossed the street to meet up briefly with my girlfriend and her sister in front of the Pru. Their arms overflowed with shopping bags as we chatted in the same spot where innocent eyes would, 24 days later, be witness to this.

Yesterday, this was what affected me the most. I'm sad for the victims, of course. But no more than I was for Newtown, or Oklahoma City, or Iraq, or Israel. It turns out there's something else at play when your turf is the one being attacked. Instead of being sad, I find that my dominant emotion is anger. I am pissed, furious that someone would think to do this to my home, enraged that they could succeed in altering it.

No people I knew were harmed yesterday, but a place I knew was. I don't mean to say the two are equivalent; I know I'm lucky that this is the closest a tragedy has ever hit for me. But, at 25 years together, Boston has been my oldest and dearest friend. We went to school together; we went through puberty together. We shopped at the same stores (Jordan Marsh) and liked the same food (Santarpio's). Neither one of us really liked staying up past 1am, except when the Red Sox were on the West Coast.

So when Boston was attacked, I felt attacked, even though I was 500 miles away at the time. While I didn't lose a friend like too many others did, mine was defiled. To those who love Boston, the feeling was of a violation of something that was ours, shared among millions but strictly off limits to those who would do it harm. It was the theft of the Make Way for Ducklings statue, the Gardner Museum heist, and the Harvard dorm shooting combined—then amplified by about a thousand. It was a desecration of all the psychic imprints we've left behind on those blood-stained sidewalks.

Places don't die. They do something much worse. They mutate. I'll never be able to walk down Boylston Street again without stepping over spots where people died. Patriots' Day in Boston will live on, and I have no doubt it will very soon return to a festive and joyous occasion. But people on their way to watch the marathon will always remember this attack in the back of their minds. I'm not talking about some nebulous sense of security being gone; I personally don't place a lot of stock in that. Just the knowledge that it happened, and that it's now as inseparable a part of Patriots' Day as reenactments and a morning baseball game. I hate that we have to face that truth now. I hate the people who introduced terror to this joy.

Boston is a city of history—history of 200 years ago and the personal history of two decades. That history is imbued into every cobblestone, brownstone, and corner. Now an act of evil is one of them, on a holiday when only happy memories have ever been deposited. That's it, isn't it? They attacked our memories. Memories, which we are supposed to be able to keep preserved forever, which are supposed to be untakeable from us. Memories of happy marathons past, of every sunny day on that stretch of Boylston Street, are tainted. That's why it feels different to Bostonians. Tragedies ruin victims' futures. Now I see that they also ruin ordinary people's pasts.

On April 1, I moved away from Boston for good. My memories were casualties of the Boston Marathon bombings, but those memories are all I have now. That's probably why, when I heard initial reports of an explosion, my first instinct was to get on a plane and head back home. Not only did my city need me, but I needed it—to leave me with more than the pieces of my broken memories. To give me the embrace of home, and all that was still the same about it.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Apparently It's Not Self-Evident: No, Voters Don't Like Adulterers

Lately there's been a bit of a media obsession over Mark Sanford and Anthony Weiner, both of whom are walking the long road of political rehabilitation from sex scandals. Stories of redemption and resurgence are—forgive the wording—sexy, so the media understandably eats them up. But the press may have gone a little too far this week, as usually respectable news sources have been buzzing about political comebacks as if they are a thing—a well-documented, laudable phenomenon. They're not. They almost never happen. Maybe that's why all the articles I've seen this week inexplicably trying to argue that they do are at best stretches and at worst misleading and inapplicable.

One of the fallacies I've seen the most often is that, as the Washington Post's The Fix put it, "the public loves comeback stories and second chances." Perhaps nowhere was that view so baselessly and brazenly put forth than in a Simon van Zuylen–Wood piece in Philadelphia Magazine today:
"Having fooled around and abandoned two ailing wives not only didn’t hurt Gingrich, but it may have helped him. For without sin, there is no chance at redemption. And what kind of a moving political narrative is that?"
Oh good. Narrative. As we've learned from baseball, that never gets in the way of accurate, data-driven analysis.

The only evidence that either The Fix or Philly Mag gives for their view that past sex scandals actually help candidates is anecdotal. The Fix cites Mark Sanford's so-far triumphant electoral comeback, and Van Zuylen–Wood quotes a Newt Gingrich voter about the virtues of forgiveness. The problem is that the overall data don't support these isolated incidents. Van Zuylen–Wood himself cites two political-science studies that directly contradict his thesis. One, despite Van Zuylen–Wood's claim that it "suggest[s] that time heals all wounds after scandal," concludes that voters still penalize candidates for sex scandals that occurred as long ago as 20 years. The other, by Scott Basinger, finds that past scandals cost candidates an average of five percentage points at the ballot box.

I'd argue that this was certainly the case for star witness for the defense Mark Sanford. Far from embracing him and eating up his story of absolution, as the claim goes, South Carolina voters have appeared quite tepid toward him. For a guy with a large fundraising lead and an even larger lead in name recognition, Sanford could corral only 37% of the vote in the initial GOP primary, and, in the runoff, a full 39% of Republicans could not bring themselves to vote for him. Now, in an R+11 district, he is trailing in the polls. Without his sex scandal, is there really any question he would crush any taker on this deep-red turf? As for Newt Gingrich, let's not forget that he ultimately failed to win the presidency the year of his supposed comeback, taking only 14% of the national popular vote in the GOP presidential primaries. It's pretty clear that these comeback kids have only earned votes despite their tawdry pasts, not because of some inspiring tale of redemption and remorse.

Sanford and Gingrich were two of the six supposed political comebacks highlighted by another The Fix posting this week that attempted to show that such second acts were possible. We've already shown that Gingrich's comeback was a failed one and that the jury is still very much out on Sanford's; neither example really proves anything. What about the other four?

Well, three were not actual comebacks: neither Bill Clinton, Eliot Spitzer, nor Anthony Weiner has faced voters since their improprieties. While Clinton probably could win election to any office he wanted if he ran for something today, that's a huge unknown for Weiner—The Fix's Sean Sullivan freely admits that this is a "TBD comeback." Spitzer's, meanwhile, was literally only a comeback as far as the media was concerned—consisting of his own TV show, and nothing more. (Dollars to doughnuts he's not winning any popularity contests anytime soon.)

The sixth example was Senator David Vitter, who has indeed survived electorally despite owning up to a prostitution scandal back in 2007. This is an OK example that does indeed show how it is possible to weather a scandal and come out on the other side. But it is not instructive to the Sanford and Weiner cases—which, after all, are why we're interested in this topic in the first place—because Vitter did not take the fall, resign, fade from public view, and then try to return to elected office. In other words, he technically didn't "come back" from anything, because he never left in the first place.

The Basinger study—which found that, while scandals do hurt politicians, they are rarely fatal—has the same flaw. While it is accurate in finding that many scandals fail to topple their transgressors, it doesn't address what happens when they do fall and then try to rise from the ashes years later. Again, political comebacks—emphasis on the "come back" origins of that word—are what we're concerned with here. In fact, history suggests that politicians who left office in disgrace are almost never able to return to their old line of work. Those long odds for Sanford and Weiner will be the topic of the next post here on Baseballot.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Robin Kelly's Anti-Gun. Deal With It.

Today Robin Kelly will become the congresswoman-elect from the Illinois Second District. So blue is Jesse Jackson Jr.'s old district that Kelly would be a mortal lock even if she had cheated on her husband with a Green Bay Packers fan. So it's not likely that she'll be hurt much by the desperate whining of conservative news outlets about a comment she made last week:
"In the movie [theater in Aurora, CO, in July 2012], they have conceal and carry, but nobody pulled out their guns to kill the gentleman that did all the damage that he did."
While the comment was interpreted in some circles as blaming the Aurora shooting victims for not doing anything to help themselves, it was generally ignored by the mainstream press. This is because, well, Kelly's comments just weren't that newsworthy.

First of all, she wasn't blaming the victims of the tragedy. Even if you accept that her statement was about dishing out blame (and her tone in the video makes it pretty clear it wasn't), if anything she was referring to the entire audience and staff of the theater, not just the victims.

Second, Kelly's point—that concealed-carry laws don't work—is a staple of Democratic rhetoric and, indeed, is the main argument standing in the way of everyone supporting concealed carry. (Those on the right are free to make their points, but they shouldn't do so in a way that makes it impossible to disagree. The same goes with the left, by the way.) Mother Jones and others have frequently made the point in the past that the odds of a "good guy" with a concealed weapon being in the right place at the right time to stop a shooting are extremely small. The late, great Roger Ebert even made the exact same point about Aurora in a New York Times op-ed. Conservatives doubtlessly disagree with all these arguments and the people making them. But they are widely held views among the progressive community, and that makes them hardly scandalous or unacceptable to hold—and it makes them about as newsworthy as Dog Bites Man.

The other issue is conservatives' inconsistent logic in attacking Robin Kelly here. In essence, they are blaming her for believing that a successful concealed-carry law would have stopped the shooting. (Again, when you recognize that the word "blame" doesn't belong within three miles of Robin Kelly's remarks, this is all the quote boils down to.) Yet that's exactly what pro-gun advocates contend when trying to pass these laws. In fact, it's more plausible to imagine Rush Limbaugh declaring that the Aurora victims should have defended themselves by packing more heat than a liberal Democrat doing so, don't you think?

I'm far from sold on Robin Kelly. I just think that her fairly typical liberal views on concealed carry are a tad less concerning than alleged timekeeping violations while she was working in the Illinois treasurer's office. That kind of disregard for best practices and following a very specific set of rules to protect the people's money is what brought down Jesse Jackson Jr. in the first place. While another politician-toppling scandal in notoriously corrupt Illinois would hardly be a surprise, Robin Kelly won't be brought down by her views on guns. Republicans should take a deep breath, realize this district will always stand opposed to them on firearms policy, and focus on the many more districts across the country that are friendlier to them. Robin Kelly's inevitable victory tonight does not threaten Republicans in the slightest on the one issue that they should actually care about—control of the US House.