Thursday, February 27, 2014

Race Ratings for the 86th Academy Awards

Although they don't get a lot of attention in Washington, DC, the Oscars are still an election. I'm attracted to them for a lot of the same reasons I am politics, but I admit they can be inaccessible for the uninitiated. First and foremost, it just isn't any fun to follow elections where you don't know what's going on. In politics, this is a problem fixed by people who handicap elections for us and provide the proper context: the Cook Political Reports of the world. If only someone would do that for the Oscars.

Well, luckily, I've been following this year's Oscars race as closely as if they were a Colorado recall election. Below are my own Cook-esque "ratings" of each of the 24 Oscar races—complete with "leans," "likelies," and "tossups." Now, note that these represent not my personal picks (which in some cases differ), but rather my view on where the conventional wisdom lies for each category. My hope is that, when you tune into the Oscars on Sunday night, these ratings serve as a viewers' guide to how well the night is staying on script.

Best Picture: Leans 12 Years a Slave
On a night that should otherwise feature few surprises, this may very well be the most competitive Best Picture race in years. 12 Years a Slave is seen as favored, but quite a few pundits (myself included) are picking Gravity, and American Hustle was also seen early on as a potential dark horse.

Best Director: Solid Alfonso Cuarón
Cuarón faces no realistic competition. His Gravity was so technically heavy, and reliant on his vision, that no one in Hollywood doesn't think he deserves this.

Best Actor: Solid Matthew McConaughey
The star of Dallas Buyers Club has swept the precursor prizes, although at least one pundit is picking Leonardo DiCaprio in Wolf of Wall Street. But there's no reason to think McConaughey has slipped up or done anything to cough this up.

Best Actress: Solid Cate Blanchett
Not even the controversy surrounding Woody Allen can screw this up for Blanchett.

Best Supporting Actor: Solid Jared Leto
Leto's performance as a transgender AIDS patient in Dallas Buyers Club is the stuff Oscar loves. If Michael Fassbender hadn't refused to campaign for his role in 12 Years a Slave, we might have had a race, but he did and we don't.

Best Supporting Actress: Likely Lupita Nyong'o
The one acting category that's even remotely competitive. This looked safe for Nyong'o for a long time, but Jennifer Lawrence has picked up steam in some observers' eyes, and momentum is important in Academy races.

Best Adapted Screenplay: Solid 12 Years a Slave
An easy win for the Best Picture favorite in a race where it doesn't have to face its two biggest rivals, neither of which qualified in this category.

Best Original Screenplay: Tossup
This is a good old-fashioned horse race between American Hustle and Her—the former the Best Picture juggernaut, the latter the quirky low-budget film this category loves.

Best Animated Feature: Solid Frozen
Or Frozen solid. Ha. Ha. Ha.

Best Foreign Language Film: Likely The Great Beauty

Best Documentary Feature: Leans 20 Feet from Stardom

Best Cinematography: Solid Gravity

Best Costume Design: Leans The Great Gatsby

Best Film Editing: Leans Gravity

Best Makeup and Hairstyling: Solid Dallas Buyers Club

Best Production Design: Likely The Great Gatsby

Best Original Score: Solid Gravity

Best Original Song: Likely "Let It Go"

Best Sound Editing: Solid Gravity

Best Sound Mixing: Solid Gravity

Best Visual Effects: Solid Gravity

Best Documentary Short: Solid The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life

Best Live-Action Short: Leans The Voorman Problem

Best Animated Short: Solid Get a Horse!

Friday, February 21, 2014

How a Rookie Beats America's Sweetheart for Best Supporting Actress

One week from Sunday is the least transparent election of the year: the Academy Awards. Like every year, most of the winners are foregone conclusions—including Best Actor (Matthew McConaughey), Best Actress (Cate Blanchett), and Best Supporting Actor (Jared Leto). One category, however, where there is some suspense is the fourth acting category: Best Supporting Actress.

The category pits 12 Years a Slave's Lupita Nyong'o, in her first film role, against last year's Best Actress champ, Jennifer Lawrence, in American Hustle. To the naked eye, it looks like a mismatch: Lawrence is the most beloved person in Hollywood these days, and her film is the most nominated this year, with 10 nods.

But in a twist, Oscarologists overwhelmingly predict Nyong'o to prevail on awards night—and it's actually not as crazy as it sounds. The merits of their performances aside, the numbers—that is to say, statistics from Academy Award history—are on Nyong'o's side.

Two factors are seen as potential impediments to Nyong'o. The first, of course, is that she's a rookie; why would the Academy honor a performer who hasn't paid her dues? However, Oscar actually has loved debutantes in the past. A full 73 actors and actresses have been nominated for an Oscar in their first film role, and 16 of them ended up taking home the gold. That's a 21.9% success rate—not statistically dissimilar from the straight 20% odds that a nominee carries into a category with five nominees.

The second potential obstacle is, sadly, Nyong'o's race. The Academy is overwhelmingly old, white, and male—in other words, the most conservative demographic group. In the past, they have been perceived to shy away from voting for diversity (think Meryl Streep over Viola Davis in 2011 or Crash over Brokeback Mountain in 2005). But that's not exactly a fair charge. In the acting categories at least, black nominees have also triumphed at just about average rates. In fact, their 22.2% success rate (14 wins in 63 nominations) is even better than the flat one-in-five odds.

One piece of Oscar conventional wisdom is supported by the numbers, however—but it's a point against Lawrence. Academy voters like to spread the wealth and usually avoid granting a performer two Oscars in a row. Lawrence, as a winner last year for her role in Silver Linings Playbook, is thus at a disadvantage here, at least if history is to be trusted. Of the 32 opportunities actors have had to win two Oscars in a row, it's only happened five times over the years; that's a below-average success rate of 15.6%.

Those who aren't following the Oscars closely this year may think Lawrence looks like a lock in theory. But a Nyong'o win is backed up by both anecdotal and empirical evidence. Don't let an uninformed assumption ruin your Oscar pool this year.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

A Tale of Two San Diegos; Which Will Pick the Next Mayor?

It was seven months ago—July 11, 2013—that Bob Filner first faced accusations of sexual harassment that led to his resignation as San Diego mayor. It felt like an eternity, but that six-week scandal pales in comparison to the time it's taken San Diego to pick a new one. That ends today, February 11, 2014, runoff day in the special election to choose the leader of the country's eighth-largest city—a post more powerful, in terms of citizens governed, than governor of Maine.

A November 19 preliminary round narrowed the field to two city councilmen: Democrat David Alvárez and Republican Kevin Faulconer. Alvárez, the race's labor-backed progressive, was a surprise qualifier, taking the Democratic "nomination" most expected to go to moderate Nathan Fletcher. As a result, Alvárez has had a harder time winning over the political middle, which is more important in San Diego than in most urban areas; Democrat Mike Aguirre has endorsed Faulconer, for instance. However, Alvárez is probably better positioned than Fletcher would have been to activate the city's grassroots on the left: organized labor and Latinos in particular. While Faulconer personally has outraised Alvárez personally, Democratic independent expenditures are sitting on much more cash.

Twenty years ago, that progressive coalition could never have won a municipal election in San Diego. Unlike virtually every other big city in the United States, San Diego is not a hotbed of liberalism and a bottomless pit of Democratic votes. Historically, it has actually been quite conservative—electing just one Democratic mayor between 1971 and 2012—thanks in large part to its military heritage. The Coast Guard, Marine Corps, Navy (including the famous Pacific Fleet), and thousands of defense contractors all have a presence in the city to this day. Good defense-related jobs have also created a naturally conservative upper crust in suburbs like La Jolla, which, unlike as in most major cities, are within the city limits (and thus eligible to vote for mayor).

But, like the rest of the country, the City of San Diego is changing. Conservatives are switching their registrations to decline-to-state or moving out to the exurbs, leading to a net loss of 50,000 Republicans since 2000. Meanwhile, minority voters are the city's fastest-growing cohort, pumping up Democratic registration numbers by 9,000 since 2000. The new San Diego has amassed more and more political clout as its numbers have swelled, throwing the city's longtime conservative identity into doubt. Instead, today San Diego is as swingy as Ohio or Washoe County—and it's brought the mayoral election to within the margin of error.

So who's going to win this nail-biter battle for San Diego's soul? It all comes down to which San Diego turns out. We'll be able to see this very starkly as the results start trickling in—because San Diego's cultural divide has sharp geographic boundaries to it. It's surprisingly simple; parts of the city north of Interstate 8—which bisects San Diego just north of downtown—are Republican strongholds, while precincts south of I-8 vote Democratic, as if flipping a lightswitch. A tool by Joe Yerardi at inewsource shows what that looked like in the November 19, 2013, preliminary election (image courtesy of the Liberator blog):

At a single glance even someone who has never been to San Diego (as I have not) can distinguish San Diego's urban precincts from its suburban ones. Physically separated by the interstate as well as the narrow San Diego River, the two San Diegos are equally far apart in their political preferences. A SurveyUSA poll, conducted January 20–23, found that voters who live south of Interstate 8 planned to vote for Alvárez by 20 points (56% to 36%). North of the freeway, voters preferred Faulconer by an even larger 61%-to-34% margin.

What accounts for the polarization? As already mentioned, northerly communes like La Jolla are full of affluent, moderate Republicans; across Interstate 8, though, it feels more like Cambridge or Berkeley. These are the walkable, trendy neighborhoods of the young: Normal Heights, with a median age of 31; North Park, named a premier American hipster haunt. But, mostly, it is about race. The turf north of I-8 is as white as the Padres' home uniforms, while the city's Latinos remain confined on the side closer to the Mexican border. Once San Diego's gentrified urban neighborhoods give way, a transformation takes hold:

That map is courtesy of the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service, whose national Racial Dot Map is quite simply the most important tool on the internet today. The map makes painfully obvious the where and why of the new San Diego. The city is home to hundreds of thousands of Latinos, overlapping almost exactly with its Democratic precincts south of Interstate 8. Once you get south of the Martin Luther King Jr. Freeway (Route 94), there is virtually no one white to be found. It is these precincts—once inconsequential and outshone—that in the new San Diego can be mobilized enough to drive David Alvárez to victory. The race's final SurveyUSA poll found Latinos breaking 61% to 32% for Alvárez; whites preferred Faulconer 58% to 39%. Sound familiar?

Unfortunately for Alvárez, it remains difficult to get these voters to the polls—or at least more difficult than it is for Faulconer to turn out his well-to-do base. The conventional wisdom is that Faulconer has done well among voters who cast their ballots early—as 170,000 people, or about half the expected turnout, already have. According to that most recent poll (which had the race overall at Faulconer +1), Faulconer was up by five points with early voters.

That means we'll have a good idea where the race stands pretty early on in the night. When the early-voting results are released (hopefully right at 8pm PT, when polls close), if Faulconer leads by at least four to eight points, he has built a formidable firewall against Alvárez's Election Day ground game, widely viewed as superior thanks to organized labor and Democratic community organizing. If not, we may well be in for another night like the preliminary election: one where Alvárez gets closer and closer as it gets later and later, until he comes from behind for the win on the very last vote dump.

More is on the line tonight than a simple mayoralty, however. This special election is set up pretty perfectly for the GOP. A Democratic incumbent was caught in a sex scandal, giving them a shot in a low-turnout special election at a seat that is usually only up for grabs during minority-turnout-heavy presidential years. It is a chance for the GOP to recreate something more like the off-year 2005 mayoral race, when 70% of voters lived north of Interstate 8, and less like the 2012 election, when just 57% of voters did.

Yet it's not looking like they'll get there. In this onetime conservative stronghold, the Republican candidate is still fighting for his life—suggesting it's less about the turnout conditions and more about simple, inexorable demographic change. If Faulconer cannot win under these conditions, Republicans may never win City Hall here again—and that, in turn, would signal the passing, once and for all, of the old San Diego.