Friday, December 14, 2012

US Senate rejects UN Disabilities Treaty

On Tuesday there was a very dramatic tone to the ‘Aye and ‘Nays being given by the Senate for the UN Disabilities Convention Treaty. When people voted, they voted sitting down in their seats out of respect to former Senator Bob Dole, who is in a wheelchair. The UN treaty which presents standards for treating and employing people with disabilities is a treaty being championed by Democrat John Kerry of Massachusetts. Supporters of the treaty are describing this as an opportunity for the United States to demonstrate other nations that as a country it can be held accountable to the internationally accepted, high standards.  The treaty did not pass but it was only five Yes votes away. A significant majority of Republicans did not support the treaty thirty eight voted No while eight voted yes. In order to strike down this proposal there was intense efforts made by interest groups.

One particular and somewhat surprising interest group was C-Fam Catholic Family & Human Rights Institute (C-FAM). It was involved mainly because this treaty ensures people with disabilities access to reproductive health resources. This group staunchly opposes birth control and they believed this clause would make birth control more viable for people. As an interest group CFam is usually working through family related legislation, not disability related issues. when they found one thought that was slightly threatening to their mission, they focused on blocking the entire policy. This is frustrating considering that the policy’s purpose had many more, larger functions such as channeling millions of people towards employment. There will always be debates about which opinion is the nobler or more important opinion to support. Different interest groups rally around common causes all the time, that is how elected officials feel pressured to make decisions that their constituents want, More commonly, advocates are lobbying to change or to protect an existing public policy with diverse effects on a number of constituencies. The sides that get mobilized to protect the status quo or to demand change are rarely homogenous,” (Berry, 22).

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Same-Sex Marriage Reaches the Supreme Court

The Supreme Court last week agreed to hear two landmark lawsuits involving same-sex marriage.

The plaintiffs in United States v. Windsor argue that the Defense of Marriage Act, passed during the Clinton Administration in 1996, violates individual's Fifth Amendment rights to equal protection under the law and the right of states to regulate marriage as they wish. The Defense of Marriage Act denies federal marriage benefits to same-sex spouse, thus arguably violating the principle of equal protection, and defines marriage as being between a man and a woman, thus arguably invading the powers of states.  

The other case, Hollingsworth v. Perry, is a challenge to the constitutionality of Proposition 8, which reversed a California Supreme Court decision granting marriage rights to same-sex couples.  Proposition 8 amends the California Constitution to specify that marriage is between a man and a woman. The plaintiffs in this case argued successfully before a federal appeals court that Prop. 8 violates the 14th Amendment's Equal Protection Doctrine. 

Commentators disagree sharply over what the Supreme Court will do with these two cases, or whether they will decide them at all--there are grounds for argument that neither case is properly before the Court.

But perhaps a more interesting question is whether, in our fractious democracy, the Supreme Court should be taking the lead on this polarizing public policy issue.  Some gay rights supporters worry that even a favorable decision will set the movement for same-sex marriage back rather than advancing it. 

Jonathan Rauch, for example, pointing to the civil rights movement, argues in The New Republic that "real civil rights . . .comes from consensus, not courts," and that the gay rights movement has made substantial progress in recent years in convincing fellow Americans that same-sex marriage is a human right. He fears that a backlash against a favorable Court decision will freeze anti-gay attitudes in place.  Can the Supreme Court resolve the same-sex marriage issue, or is it more likely cause further polarization and so delay resolution?  And what do the examples of Brown v. Board of Education and Roe v. Wade suggest about this very weighty question?

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Trouble for Labor Unions in Michigan

According the Economist, Right to Work (RTW) legislation was passed in the Republican controlled state of Michigan this week. RTW’s enactment in Michigan, the heart of the US car industry and the heart of labor unions themselves, seems to be a direct assault against labor unions at its root. RTW makes it illegal for unions to require union dues of its members as a condition for employment and union representation.

With the increased polarization of political parties the corresponding increase in the level of partisanship in labor unions in general, this may seem like a good idea. Dues paid to unions sometimes go to support certain political agendas, parties, candidates, or ideas in addition to the other purposes that the monies have. Union members being able to opt out of paying dues, especially if their own constituencies do not coincide with those of the union as a whole, may be more socially liberal than the alternative. One would be able to express their personal individualism by choosing whether or not to contribute.

On the other hand, if the requirement of dues is outlawed, unions are bound to lose a steady flow of income from their members. This would definitely reduce their political power and decrease their ability to bargain with the major industries that employ them. Opponents of the bill widely believe that this legislation will eventually drive down wages, while proponents cite that these measures are more fair and would help make Michigan a more business friendly state.

What is interesting about this legislation is its swiftness. According to the New York Times, Governor Snyder had not considered the bill to be on his agenda and usually projected some air of neutrality where labor unions were concerned. On December 6th, during the last days of the Legislature’s meetings, Snyder announced his support of the measures, which he signed into law 6 days later.

Though thousands protested in front of the state house, this very sudden course of action may not have given potential opponents enough time to mobilize to try to maintain the labor union’s status-quo within the state. Also, the abrupt manner in which the RTW legislation was introduced and passed is alleged to have a lot to do with the influence of powerful, wealthy interest groups and donors.  

So what is this really about? There seems to have been some internal lobbying that affected this outcome, perhaps dramatically. With the FTW measure, the bargaining power of labor unions may decrease. Capacity to negotiate contracts and benefits could be undermined, and to what avail? Are the financial security of unions and the business environment of the state a zero-sum issue? That is, an issue where one cannot prevail without the sacrifice of the other. What is this really about? It may have taken some non-arbitrary under-the-scenes lobbying or compromising to have had this measure introduced and enacted so quickly. This is probably more about politics than it is about the workers. As I have pointed out, unions are more aligned with the Democratic Party.  Labor unions may have become a throwing stone for political parties to use as they please. This would be at the risk of the union workers themselves.

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So now what? The Republican Party after the election

After the Republican Party’s defeat this past presidential election how will the Party shift to appeal to a wider voter base? According to New York Times writer Carl Hulse there will be a debate between the party that will centered around weather the Party should continue pursuing a smaller government stance that was cultivated through the party’s opposition to the heath care law or weather they should rather focus on winning votes such as the votes of Hispanics, younger voters, women, and African Americans. These votes that Republicans have failed to obtain have cost the party in major elections. The votes have been lost because the Republican Party has been so focused on pursuing an anti-government stance that grew out of opposition toward the heath care law which have caused them to lose votes in the demographic stated.

Ralph Reed, mentioned in Hulse’s article, explains that there also will be additional debate on how to nominate a candidate that can appeal to the entire Republican Party. Marco Rubio, a senator from Florida, is believed to be able to do just that and is therefore is a possible contender for the 2016 Presidential race. He explains within Hulse’s article that “But we have to remain the movement on behalf of upward mobility, the party people identify with their hopes and dreams. People want to have a chance.” Senator Susan Collins of Maine also belives the party needs to shift explaining, “[Republicans] have to recognize the demographic changes in this country,” and that “Republicans cannot win with just rural, white voters.”

It will be interesting see if and how the Republican Party will change their party stance and how it will affect the 2016 presidential race. One possibility is that if in Obama’s second term he fails to work with Congress and fix the economy voters may build up resentment against the President and may shift to voting for a republican candidate. However for voters to be swayed regardless of the circumstances, the party must make some changes. 

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The Dodd-Frank Battle Goes On

The financial collapse of 2008 convinced the public and Congress that new and stronger regulation of Wall Street was needed. In 2010, Congress passed and President Obama signed the Dodd-Frank law, a package of measures designed to tame the industry and insure that a financial collapse like the one in 2008 never happens again.

But more than two years later, it's still far from clear what Dodd-Frank in practice will actually look like. To give the law real teeth, it has to be turned into rules that federal agencies can enforce, and that process has become an even bigger struggle than the one that transpired in Congress in 2010.

In the summer of 2011 The Daily Show featured a hilarious parody of the cartoon "I'm Just a Bill" that showed what had happened to Dodd-Frank after it became law. From 2010-2011, the financial industry spent more than $200 million lobbying regulators to stop or weaken the rules, and there is no indication that the intensity of the battle is diminishing. (The industry has massively outspent and outlobbied the small number of consumer groups who are active on Dodd-Frank.) As of today, just 133 of the more than 400 mandated rules are in place, and many of them are likely to be challenged by the industry in federal court.

As with the Affordable Care Act ("Obamacare"), the struggle over Dodd-Frank is likely to play out over decades--in federal agencies, in the courts, and probably again in Congress, which will likely be asked to weigh in on the battle over financial regulation it has created.

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Tuesday, December 4, 2012

The Issue of Student Debt

Student debt remains a central issue in throughout the country. The federal lending program allows for substantial borrowing, and with slow economic recovery and the rising costs of education, students have difficulties repaying the loans. With an increase in defaults, U.S student-loan debt rose by $42 billion to $956 billion in the third quarter.  

Because of the mounting debts, Congress will consider overhauling debt collection in the student loan program. Instead, it would be replaced with automatic withdrawals from borrowers’ paycheck tied to their income. This legislation will be introduced by Wisconsin Republican Representative Tom Petri this week. It would require employers to withhold payments from wages, up to 15% of an individual’s paycheck. The bill is meant to replace the current system, which allows private debt-collection companies to provide student loans. Debt- collection agencies, in partnership with the Department of Education, received $1 billion in commission. The bill claims this amount can be redirected to the federal government. These borrowing companies can harass student loaners in their attempt to collect. Even filing bankruptcy rarely allows loans to be cancelled. As a result, the cost of a student’s loan can grow quickly and reach enormous amounts.   The new bill would cap the amount of interest owed to 50%, which could help the interest amounts borrower’s ultimately pay. 

The bill is meant to shift the burden from taxpayers to students. In the past year, there have been 5 million defaults, amounting to $67 billion in loans.  The average debt of U.S students is $23,000; the number is expected to rise. The bill is seen as an opportunity to solve the problem  to overwhelming student debt. There are complaints about this legislation, mainly that it eliminates some low-income subsidies and forgiveness, key components in the current system.   The subsidies currently provided allow forgiveness for loans after an allotted time. Also, a major critique is it eliminates loan forgiveness through public service. If a graduate works in public service, after 10 years their loans can be forgiven. Because of this component, it would be difficult to get approval by Democrats.  The problem of student debt has occupied much of the political debate. This legislation attempts to find and resolution, and place the burden solely on the borrower. 

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Thursday, November 29, 2012

Caught Between a Cliff and a Congress of Republicans

With the fiscal cliff looming over everyone's heads, President Obama has been caught between a rock and a hard place trying to get congress Republicans and Democrats to compromise. 

Both sides have unrealistic demands that make it seem like most Congress members don’t understand the definition of the word “compromise.” The Norquist Tax Pledge especially, signed by 95% of Republican Congressmen and women before the 2012 election, shows that many members aren't willing to try. But President Obama is just as unrealistic. His most recent proposal on Thursday, a detailed plan to address the “fiscal cliff,” contains almost no concessions to Republicans. He also has been “taking it to the people” to get support for his tax increases. However, someone needs to remind him that the fight and the power is not with the people; it’s with Congress members. There are many congress members such as Republican Phil Gingrey who believe that the citizens of their state are not in support of the tax increases. Is it for Congressman Gingrey and others like him to go against what their constituents want for the majority of Americans? Perhaps so, but President Obama needs to be more mindful of these concerns. Also, President Obama seems to have gone back to his old practices. Perhaps instead of spending time complaining to the people who have elected him based on his tax plan and pointing fingers at Congress members, President Obama should be negotiating with them. A couple of Twitter updates and some angry bloggers won’t exact change—that must happen with compromise. 

Even so, there are many Congress members like Republican Representative Tom Cole who are willing to make a compromise. Rep. Cole, though still in opposition to raising taxes on the wealthy, wants to extend the tax-cut rates for people making $250,000 or less this year and come to an agreement about households in the upper income brackets later. In a CNN interview, Cole commented, “If we agree that taxes shouldn't go up on 98% of the people, shouldn't we take that now and get that set aside and make sure that they know they're taxes aren't going up?This position is supported by democrats and seems like a valid argument. Why wouldn’t Congress Republicans want to get at least some of the taxes sorted out while the stalemate about the other 2% of Americans continues? At this point, with the fiscal cliff around the corner, it seems worthless to continue waiting. Still, Rep. Cole received heavy criticism from the GOP and Speaker John Boehner. It’s almost as if some Congress Republicans are refusing to compromise out of stubbornness and they aren't allowing any Congress Republicans to sway from their position without backlash. Have they forgotten that a compromise is the ultimate goal? 

In the end, everyone’s at fault. Congress Republicans need to be more practical with their demands while Obama needs to stop campaigning and work with Congress. There must be other solutions to this problem, and the only way to address this pending fiscal cliff is implementing a combination of government spending cuts, reforms, and revenue increases

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Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Marijuana: Ready, Set, Stop

The results of the 2012 elections in Colorado were envied by pot smokers throughout the country. Amendment 64, an amendment that would legalize recreational use of marijuana for those 21 years of age and older was voted in favor of. Once signed off on by governor Jon Hickenlooper, there is a plan for government regulation and taxation. But don't get too excited yet. During the short period of time since the election, questions have arisen regarding employers and employee marijuana usage. According to Colorado's Lawful Off-Duty Activities Statute, employees cannot be fired for the legal things they do outside of the office, for example, smoking cigarettes. So therefore, one would think that they can't get in trouble for recreationally smoking outside of the work place if it were legal. However, this is not the case.


Presently, there is a case in front of the Colorado Court of Appeals regarding an employee who tested positive for medical marijuana usage, which has been legal for 12 years in Colorado. While this case doesn't have to do with the new legislation passed, it has brought up for discussion the effects of amendment 64 in the workplace. Employers all agree that their main priority is to have a safe work environment, and that with the passage of amendment 64, they are afraid that this is not possible. 


From here we look to the court case in the Colorado Court of Appeals. While it is presently legal to use marijuana in Colorado for recreational and medicinal purposes, the attorney on behalf of the employer believes that the company was acting on the behavior based on federal laws. Based on federal laws, marijuana use or any purpose, medicinal or not, is not deemed to be a lawful activity. Within Colorado, there are more than 100,000 registered medicinal marijuana users. This means that if marijuana usage was ruled to not be lawful and grounds for firing, then many of those 100,000 patients have a chance of being fired. So if you live in Colorado, next time you hit the local dispensary, you may want to think twice.

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Monday, November 19, 2012

Hurricane Sandy Uncovers Persisting Racial Divides in the Heart of New York

The sensation of being in a zoo overwhelms many of the Hurricane Sandy victims who stand in line at relief centers having their picture snapped by flashing iPhones. A sense of distrust between those receiving the donated goods and those donating arose in the aftermath of hurricane Sandy, Sarah Maslin Nir in the recent New York Times article “Helping Hands Also Expose a New York Divide” reports. As the “haves” – those with heat and power, and mostly from the wealthier parts of town venture in to those areas hit hardest by the storm, it’s with a sense of guilt. Many of the parts of New York hit hardest by the storm were parts that already struggled with poverty.  While, as Lucas Kavner in the Huffington Post’s “For Public Housing Residents After Sandy, ‘A Slow-Motion Katrina’ comments, that most of the residents of the $1 million-plus townhouses in the wealthier neighborhoods of New York never lost basic necessities. Many of those helped by volunteers at relief centers feel condescended to by the volunteers, accentuating the dividing lines in a city long fractured by race, class and culture. 

While the efforts of many volunteers are made in good faith, Nir observes that relief efforts are makeshift, thus many volunteers have applied their own rules, enforcing a limit on blankets and food for example, and in some cases applying their own values to those they are helping. Such applications have brought much bitterness to those in areas such as the Rockaway projects. To stand in line for such basic necessities like toiletries is already degrading, but for volunteers like Bethany Yarrow, who after observing the number of poor mothers who do not breastfeed, began talk to about bringing in a lactation consultant, it becomes too much. A woman in line at a relief center in the Arverne projects tells Nir, “To be honest, I pray to God I never see these people again. The only reason these people would be out here again for us is if something like this happens again, or worse.” For Nicole Rivera among others, the face of those giving was mostly white, middle and upper class. The racial divide between those giving and those receiving is hard for many to ignore, sparking animosity and bitterness among those affected most by Sandy. As Rivera states, “The only time you recognize us is when there’s some disaster. Since this happened, it’s: ‘Let’s help the black people. Let’s run to their rescue.’” 

The persisting divide between the “haves” and the “have-nots” is easily observed today. The divides between class and race spur a growing animosity in times when pity and guilt fuel old grudges. Such polarization between race and class makes one wonder what the republican candidate of 2016 will need to do in order to steal some of what many times is the democrats expected constituency.

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Sunday, November 11, 2012

Nate Silver and the Future of Polling

Nate Silver is becoming quite the celebrity. The stats wiz correctly predicted the outcome of all 50 states in the 2012 presidential election, and missed the mark on just two Senate races. In 2008, he correctly predicted the outcome of the presidential race in every state but Indiana, and correctly predicted every outcome in the Senate. The website “Is Nate Silver a Witch?” went up sometime on Wednesday this past week.  

 Silver first grew interested in politics around 2006, while following Congress’ attempt to ban online poker—he was pretty good at that too, and it was “then one of [his] main sources of income,” he explains in his recent book, The Signal and the Noise. It was around that year that he started publishing his political predictions. Silver has a clear, consistent methodology laid out on his blog, explaining the way he simulates various potential outcomes day after day with poll data and draws his predictions from the aggregate results of these simulations. While he’s received a fair amount of criticism, his accuracy, as we saw again Tuesday, is a force to be reckoned with.

 Silver has his own methods of combating different polls’ potential biases, but he’s also acknowledged problems with current polling methods in general. With more people using only cell phones and otherwise screening their calls, samples inevitably wind up skewed. In a recent interview with Reuters, Silver praised Ipsos, a partner of Reuters’ that conducted polls online this election season. It’s becoming increasingly clear to pollsters that they must find a way to reach people, and not just people with landlines who don’t use caller ID; they need a sample that can represent the electorate.

 With Twitter, Facebook, and other social media outlets, blogs like “Five Thirty Eight” spread like wildfire. Silver has proved himself and his methods at this point, so given the accessibility of the information, we should expect to see increased use of similar statistical methods in the future. It will be interesting as well to see how polling on the whole changes and adapts with our lifestyles; at least in the next few years, more online polling seems inevitable.

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Saturday, November 10, 2012

Election Season Finally Brought to a Close in Wisconsin

In an article for The Huffington Post, Dinesh Ramde unpacks details of the political mayhem that has been occurring in Wisconsin since 2010, and what the implications of this political strife are for the state itself, as well as the nation as a whole. Many see the months surrounding the presidential election as an annoyance due to the perpetual advertisements, the non-stop debates with friends and family and the pestering calls and emails from campaigns, begging for donations. While most of the country only has to withstand these annoyances for a few months, residents of Wisconsin have experienced a continuous stream of elections, recalls and recounts since 2010, including one statewide election each month between April and June. 

Back in 2010, Scott Walker defeated Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett in a record-breaking governor’s race that was estimated to cost $37.4 million. After taking office Walker cut spending in public schools and collective bargaining rights for most public employees. This initiated a series of protests in the capital and prompted 14 Democratic state senators to “flee the state in … attempt to block the plan”. Democrats then started collecting signatures in order to recall Walker and several other Republican officeholders. In the summer of 2011, Republicans lost two of their six seats to Democrats. Another 5 more elections occurred this year, then Barrett challenged Walker again in the June recall election. Last Tuesday brought an end to this long-standing election season with the U.S. Senate and presidential decisions. 

So what have this seemingly endless slew of elections meant for Wisconsin? These elections changed the world of advertising for many local businesses. Due to the outrageous amount of money spent by candidates, regular advertisers have been outbid for local TV airtime: great for the television stations, not so great for local businesses. Also, as a whole, political participation increased dramatically in Wisconsin as a direct result of all of the political mayhem of the past 2 years. Whether Democratic or Republican, an increasing number of residents have chosen to get directly involved in many of the campaigns that have occurred over the past 2 years. Lastly, while voter turnout for the presidential election was, nationally, lower than in 2008, “the number of Wisconsin voters who turned out increased by about 80,000”. While this time may have taken a toll on the psyches of Wisconsin residents, overall, the increased political participation and voter turnout show that this Midwestern state does, in-fact hold a monumental role in our nation’s political atmosphere.

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Friday, November 9, 2012

Media Coverage of the Election

Eric Deggans of the Tampa Bay Times makes three main observations in his article about the media's coverage of the presidential election. His first observation that "[s]ocial media smartens up and dumbs down the coverage" ties into the idea that the media has priming power. Although news sources and social media sites highlighted seemingly trivial gaffes and memes, the attention may have led to more serious discussions about issues that weren't fully addressed in the debates.

Many important issues, such as climate change and racial inequality, did not feature in either presidential campaign. Today's media may have exhibited a "limited ability" to set the agenda by failing to press candidates on issues they shied away from. On the other hand, the media tends to focus on issues that are in demand and, according to exit polls, the economy was by far the most important issue to voters.

Deggan's third observation focuses on the media's role as fact- and truth-checkers and supports the view that the media is becoming more active, and less objective. Rather than simply reporting what each candidate said or reviewing the bare factual accuracy of their statements, the media debated whether or not candidates used facts in a way that fairly reflected the truth. The truth is "a more open question" than fact and the greater ambiguity requires the media to make judgments rather than report objectively. By arguing for different, often partisan, interpretations of the truth the media might be inviting more selective attention, with news consumers tending to follow messages that support their candidate. 

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Thursday, November 8, 2012

Could Rule by Women be Upon Us?

What really changed on Tuesday? The President will stay the same, as will the majorities in the House and Senate. There is at least one sure sign progress is happening: the advancement of women in this election.

We now have measurable proof that women are no longer outside of the American political process. On Tuesday, Americans elected a record number of women to the Senate. 20% of the Senate will now be women, still much less than half, but their presence will begin to become less than unusual. The current Senate has 17 women (12 Democrats, 5 Republicans).

One Republican woman will join the senate, while four Democratic women have been elected. The new House will have 21 Republican women (currently 24) and 61 Democrats (currently 50).

We know many voters use heuristics to decide which candidate to choose, that is they choose the candidate with the D or R next to their name. This election, however, there are some notable clear exceptions to this rule. Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock, strong candidates in conservative states, lost their elections after making comments about rape and abortion that the media and much of the public found outrageous and offensive. Massachusetts, a strong blue state, has in the past had difficulty electing women. It now will send its first woman to the Senate, which could be a testament to MA voters circling “D”, or a sign of changing opinions.

There is still a gender gap between the Democratic and Republican Parties, but it was smaller than in 2008. The majority of women voted for President Obama this time around, but this demographic split between single and married women. Single women voted for the President, and married women for Gov. Romney. Women are no longer a disenfranchised demographic that votes as a bloc, but will need to be courted in smaller groups by both parties.

In addition to this record number of female senators, women achieved other historic “firsts” in this election:

  • Rep. Tammy Baldwin, the first openly gay Senator-elect (D-Wisconsin)
  • Rep. Mazie Hirono, the first Asian-American woman, first Buddhist, and first Japanese-born person elected to the Senate (D-Hawaii)
  • Tulsi Gabbard, the first Hindu elected to Congress (D-Hawaii)
  • Kyrsten Sinema (as of now not called but leading), possibly the first openly bisexual person elected to Congress.
The US Congress is starting to look more and more like the US Population (with some obvious discrepancies) and the trend is most definitely toward diversity. 
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Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Election 2012: Exit Polls and the New Party Coalitions

President Exit Polls

Exit Polls: How President Obama Won

Exit Polls: Voters Blame George W. Bush

Exit Polls: Top Issues for Voters

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2012 election: Did Obama win a mandate?

Last night Barack Obama won the presidential race, far exceeding expectations for many political pundits who believed the election would be "razor tight". Not only did President Obama win 50.4% of the popular vote to Romney's 48.1% and secure 303 electoral votes, but Democrats also took control of the Senate, reaching 54 seats (plus expected Democratic voting ally, Independent candidate, Angus King of Maine). Additionally, Obama took the swing states Colorado, Virginia, and Florida.

In reflecting on the election many people will try to answer why Obama won. Could it have been his timely, efficient, and bipartisan handling of Hurricane Sandy? The fact that the economy is finally starting to pick up? Highlights from his Presidency like the bailout of the auto industry and the capture of Osama Bin Laden? The fact that Romney is less at ease in front of an audience or flat out not likable? Or is it that there is a potential shift happening in American politics?

In the 1980s Ronald Reagan's presidency transformed the political make up of the nation. His conservative values and top down approach to fiscal policy eroded ties to the democratic party, particularly among white southerners and moderates. With Obama's post George W. Bush presidency and the Tea Party movement among Republicans, we may be seeing something similar occurring with the rise of Democratic identification thirty years later.

After George W. Bush's presidency, an economy on the brink of a depression and the effects of a disastrous war in Iraq left the nation primed for a change. That change came in the form of President Obama. In 2008 he won with 365 electoral votes, 53% of the popular vote, and took swing states Indiana, Virginia, Ohio, North Carolina, and Florida. It was as close to a mandate as it gets.

This election, however, wasn't expected to pan out quite the same. Romney highlighted the sluggish economic growth under Obama every chance he got, and many constituents felt things actually hadn't gotten any better. The fact that Obama secured 303 electoral votes and managed to carry many of the swing states he had in '08 (all but North Carolina and Indiana) under these conditions indicates that his win is not merely a reflection of a well run campaign or recovering economy, it indicates that something is changing among the American electorate.

This election was marked by extreme conservatism on the part of Republicans, from the tone of the Republican primaries, to the ideologies of Romney and Ryan themselves, to statements made by Republicans running for Senate backed by Tea Party support. Romney was caught saying that 47% of Americans believe they are victims and are dependent on the government for health care, food, and housing, and that his job is not to worry about those people. Republican Senate candidate Todd Akin from Missouri stated that victims of legitimate rape rarely get pregnant because their bodies have ways of preventing it. Republican Senate candidate Richard Mourdock from Indiana said that rape that results in pregnancy is something God intended to happen. Republican Vice Presidential candidate, Paul Ryan, attacked Medicare and Social Security as collectivist welfare systems. These are the types of statements and ideologies that Americans were exposed to from Republicans during this past election. This exposure has likely pushed many moderate Americans (many of whom are minorities, women, beneficiaries of social programs, etc.) away from the Republican party and channeled their support towards a mandate for Obama.

Update* since the creation of this post, results from Florida have been finalized making the electoral vote 332 for Obama and 206 for Romney.

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Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Social Media Spurs the Cancellation of the New York City Marathon

Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced the cancellation of the New York City Marathon late Friday afternoon. For the first time in 42 years, more than 45,000 runners from across the globe will not be crossing the finish line in Central Park on Sunday afternoon. Though Bloomberg originally stated that the marathon would still go on, to show that New York City was not defeated by Hurricane Sandy, vocal protests from his constituents and fellow politicians such as former Mayor Giuliani spurred an eleventh hour change of plans. Social media, in particular, played a huge roll in organizing petitions supporting the cancellation of the marathon. Those who wanted cancellation asked why police –more than 1000 of which were dispatched to help with the 2011 marathon- should be diverted from recovery efforts at a time when many in the five boroughs still had no power, heat, or safe water to drink. Similarly, supporters of cancellation argued that supplies such as generators, food, blankets, and bottled water could be diverted from the marathon and used to help those who had been affected by Hurricane Sandy. Almost 30,000 people signed a petition calling on Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the CEO of the New York Road Runners Association, Mary Wittenberg, to cancel the marathon. Upward of 45,000 people took to Facebook to show their support for cancellation, and people vocalized their opinions on the official pages for both the New York Road Runners and the New York Marathon. Social media is quickly becoming a key way in which we, as a country, integrate classical Greek ideas about democracy into our American political system. Philosophers such as Aristotle, who believed that man is "a political animal" –that we are at our most human when we participate in politics- thought that the ideal democracy would be one in which all citizens gathered to face the challenges presented by living in a collective. In America, what we have most closely resembles a trusteeship vision of democracy, or one in which we elect officials to debate and make political decisions for the collective society. Social media presents the public with a way to easily engage in political causes, and make their opinions known, effectively giving it a greater say in the political process. While it's unclear whether Aristotle would have considered Twitter and Facebook to be legitimate forms of political contribution, there is no doubt that they provide a platform for the public to make its opinions known.

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Monday, November 5, 2012

Will Super PACs Control the Election?

In July 2008, the Supreme Court ruled in the case Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission that the First Amendment prohibits government restrictions on political spending by corporations and unions. Ever since this ruling, political action committees (also known as Super PACs) have been pouring money from donors such as large corporations and unions into political campaigns and advertising. Throughout the 2012 election season and even in late 2010, the airwaves of television and radio stations have been full of attack ads against the Obama administration as well as other incumbents and candidates for Senate and House offices.

This election cycle has involved more spending on advertisements and campaigns than any other election in American history, which is due in part to outside spending from groups such as Super PACs. According to the Wall Street Journal, in the 2012 election cycle, Super PACs have spent over $565 million on campaign ads attacking and supporting various candidates for political offices. Some well-known contributors to Super PACs include the conservative billionaire Koch brothers and liberal pundit Bill Maher. The highest spending PAC is Restore our Future, which supports Mitt Romney. It has spent over $142 million on behalf of the Romney campaign, and even with only one day left until the election, it will continue to spend large amounts of money on ads promoting Romney.

Although some might argue that unlimited spending by Super PACs only helps get candidates’ messages shared with the American public, the ads on TV and radio stations are more often than not used to oppose certain candidates. As of November 5, 2012, over $149 million have been spent on ads opposing President Obama but not necessarily promoting Mitt Romney. According to the Wall Street Journal, over $77 million have been spent “opposing” Mitt Romney’s campaign, which is about half of the spending that Super PACs spend “opposing” Barack Obama.

Even though there are Super PACs supporting and opposing both ends of the political spectrum, the vast majority of the spending comes from conservative-favoring Super PACs rather than liberal-favoring Super PACs. This massive increase in campaign spending will positively affect the Republican candidates running for office, such as Mitt Romney (ironic, since Republicans are known for wanting to cut spending). The negative ads attacking President Obama and his current administration will have a negative impact on the Obama re-election campaign and other Democratic campaigns around the country because Super PACs are not pouring as much money on behalf of Democrats as they are on behalf of Republicans. If a Republican-favoring election occurs tomorrow, we can assume that it is due in part to the large amounts of spending on ads and campaigns from outside sources such as Super PACs.

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Monday, October 29, 2012

Voter ID Laws: Bulwark Against Voter Fraud or Political Disenfranchisement?

The summer of 2012 brought a new political issue into the public eye of the United States.  Voter identification laws have been passing state legislatures at an increasing rate. These laws have the intention of ensuring that only registered voters exercise the right to vote. In many states some form of legal identification will now be needed in order to cast a ballot on Election Day. In other states valid id is requested at polling places, but not needed in order to vote.

It is important to note that this issue of voter id laws and voter fraud is very partisan. The majority of the voter id bills passed were proposed by Republican politicians . To these politicians, and many others, voter id laws seem like a very logical method of securing the voting process against fraudulent votes that may effect elections. Much of the outrage surrounding the topic seems to be coming from the Democratic Party and its affiliates. Critics of the laws harken new voter id bills back to the days of the poll tax, a required government fee which dissuaded citizens (mostly African Americans and other racial minorities) from voting.  They argue that voters with less financial means (the same voters who are more likely to vote for the democratic party) will not be able to afford getting a state issued id, and will therefore be less likely to vote. To these opponents of voter id laws, voter regulation is seen as an effort to disenfranchise the voter bases that typically lean one way.

Currently, many of the laws passed by states are being contested in court. Most recently, a judge in the state of Pennsylvania temporarily blocked a voter id law. The reason for the provisional block is that voters do not have enough time to obtain a state id for the upcoming election. In some instances, because of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, the Department of Justice is being involved. Section 5 mandates that states with a history of racial discrimination, like Texas and South Carolina, obtain a preclearance before attempting to pass voter id laws. As the election season and the year come to an end, we will see if voter id laws remain an issue in American politics.

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Saturday, October 27, 2012

The Female Vote Matters!

The Gallup poll website has posted a table showing issues that women in swing states care about in this election. Abortion, taking up to 39%, was named the most important one. Historically, women used to be a vulnerable group in the political world. Now their influence has grown stronger in election. While President Obama and Governor Romney are working hard to gain the poll from swing states, they too put much attention to women’s concerns in order to get the female vote. (See "in the swing states, the power of women") An article in LA Times points out that “Obama and Romney fight for female vote”. Women have been a key constituency for Obama. This year, the president is in hope of gaining more female vote so that he would have a bigger chance of winning the election.

At the same time, Romney has spent much time on persuading women. According to that article in LA Times, “Even as Romney focused his remarks Wednesday on the economy, his campaign launched a new TV spot that sought to reassure women — especially more moderate women — about his positions on contraception and abortion.” There was a common misunderstanding about Romney’s stance. Indeed, Romney does act inconsistently regarding to contraception, which confuses the public and infuriates the democrats. A lot of women thought Romney was opposed to all abortions as well as contraception because Romney once supported a measure that would allow any employer to refuse to include contraception coverage in their insurance plans. Now that Romney decides to court the female vote, he has made himself more appealing to women. As a result, the poll found out that Women gave Romney a second look. And one of the reasons is probably that women have learned that Romney does not oppose contraception at all and allows for abortion in the cases of rape, incest or to spare the life of the mother. 

Moreover, in order to defend himself, Romney questioned "Why is it that there are 3.6 million more women in poverty today than when the president took office?" during a stop at Tidewater Community College in Chesapeake. "This president has failed America's women. They've suffered." Romney’s question would be a stifling one to the supporters of Obama. Since the public tend to vote based on how the current president is doing, which political scientists define as retrospective voting, Romney’s words remind women that Obama is not doing well and women would be more likely to vote for Romney. However, Robert Durant, a professor of public policy points out a potential problem of the female vote. He worries that "Women with families are especially busy. They arrive at the theater midway through the third act,look around, and decide who the heroes and villains are.” This way of dealing with election also troubles Menand, a professor at Harvard. “The unpolitical animal”, he described those people who use shortcuts to reach judgments about political candidates. Although these shortcuts are as good as the long and winding road of reading party platforms and listening to candidate debates, to value more aspects and to think again before they vote would always be cautious for people, who are emotional and careless in general.

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Friday, October 26, 2012

Religion in Politics: Another form of heuristics?

At the final Senate debate this past Tuesday night, Indiana GOP U.S. Senate candidate Richard Mourdock, on his stance on abortion, stated that, "even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that is something that God intended to happen." This has sent many republicans, including former Massachusetts governor and GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney, into a frenzy in trying to both stand for their own beliefs and at the same time defend their fellow republican's own stance on the topic of abortion. On a segment titled "Mourdock's Mess," hosts Alicia Menendez and Ahmed Shihab-Eldin address the topic of Mourdock's phrasing of his statement as well as the constant dragging of "God" into politics. This then brings up the question as to whether politics is the place for one to bring up "God" and one's religious beliefs. As Ahmed asks, "why bring 'God' into politics?" As Thomas Jefferson states in a letter addressed to the then president of the United States, George Washington, "legislature should 'make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,' thus building a wall of separation between Church & State." His idea comes from the belief that the government should have no right over in one's own religious preferences. However, in our current society,  politics and religion seem to always end up intertwining; especially in terms of social policy issues.

Politicians tend to base their stance on issues such as abortion, contraception, the death penalty and same-sex marriage not necessarily on their party stance, but rather largely on their set of religious values. Therefore, when the media covers news stories in politics, such as Mourdock's, one as a voter makes that connection to the politician, thus creating a heuristic, or mental-shortcut. One can then assume, with the mental shortcuts provided by a what a certain candidate's religious affiliation is, what their stance may be on social issues and then persuade or disuade one to vote for them or not. Although as a country we initially aim to maintain a separation of church and state, the involvement of religion in politics may be helpful for the uninformed or undecided voter.
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Thursday, October 25, 2012

Presidents in the Twitterverse

Most of American culture has been affected by the rising popularity of social media, and politics is no exception. According to research published by Pew Research Center, the share of users who see news on social networking sites on any given day has nearly doubled from 19% to 36% between 2010 and 2012. Looking at this year’s Presidential election, it is evident that social media is playing a significant role in bringing attention to political news, especially during the Presidential debates.

During the last candidate standoff on Monday, that attention was quite negative. And, this seems to be the trend in much of the news that we find online today. Historically, the press has focused on more negative stories to entice the American audience, however new media circulation is more openly critical, and strongly opinionated.

Of all the complex and relevant issues of our day that were discussed in the last two debates, “firing Big Bird” and “binders full of women” were what America chose to talk about. Or, should I say tweet about? Governor Mitt Romney’s statements went viral sparking Twitter accounts like @FiredBigBird, and URLs like, which openly scrutinize the Republican candidates plans to address the budget deficit, and women’s issues. A trend,"#bindersfullofwomen", was one of the most frequently mentioned topics on Twitter Monday night, and the Facebook page "Binders Full of Women" amassed nearly 200,000 "likes" at the time of writing. The public has ignored big topics, like the budget deficit and foreign policy, to capitalize on small mishaps that even uneducated, and politically apathetic voters can understand. In assessing media power, it’s evident that this may have a negative long-term impact on Romney’s campaign. Priming, or closely associating, the “Big Bird” and “Binders Full of Women” comments with the Republican candidate’s economic and social plans may sway some less informed voters. It is difficult to judge the impact of the sudden popularity of Romney’s statement on the election outcome at this point, but the role of social media in this year’s election will surely be scrutinized, whatever the outcome.

Anyone can own a blog, website, twitter account, or Facebook page so it’s difficult for voters to determine whether various publications are true criticisms, or false accusations. The proliferation of websites like Facebook and Twitter has given much more information to those who seek to become more informed. However, it is notable is that voters who are not actively looking for more data are surprisingly less knowledgeable, and are more exposed to false and misleading information. The concept of two-way media may facilitate more direct expression of public opinion, but it’s almost impossible to regulate what news is being shared. The public tends to over-magnify candidates slip-ups and scandals, rather that their successes, so social media is impactful in many political arenas.

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The Impact of Black Voters in 2012

An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll taken at the end of the summer reported that Mitt Romney’s black support was a whopping 0%. This number, while shocking, is not implausible considering the polarization of political parties according to race during the last 20 years. For example, Barack Obama received 96% of the black vote in 2008 and 90% of Republican voters were white. Obama’s historic election led many Americans (I would argue, white Americans) to believe that we live in post-racial society. From the moment president Obama took office it has been clear that partisan politics would be impossible to avoid. Although insignificant in many people's minds, the votes of black Americans (and ALL other votes) will be extremely important in this election.

This polarization of political parties on the basis of race has intensified due to the rise of the Tea Party movement. In May it was reported that 1 in 6 Americans believe that Obama is Muslim. Among Republicans, who are most likely white Americans, this number is even higher, around 30 percent. These factors and ignorance surrounding Obama's background are not gaining the Republican party many black voters. Although it is clear that black voters will disproportionately vote for Barack Obama, it is still not clear whether or not the number of blacks voting will be consistent with 2008.

According to Pew Research black Americans ages 18-29 increased their voter turnout rates by 8.7 percent. The excitement surrounding Obama's among ethnic minorities at the time of the election was great, but it seems as that excitement is not as potent, because the milestone (of the first black president) has already been accomplished. It will be of principal importance that black Americans young and old turnout to vote since 1.4 million black males, who have been convicted of felonies, will be unable to vote.

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Monday, October 22, 2012

Where China Is Concerned

As the candidates prepare for tonight's debate, one of the issues Americans will want to hear about is the United States' relationship with China, especially as it relates significantly to the domestic economy. Both President Obama and Republican candidate Mitt Romney hold strong positions on foreign policy relations with Asia, fronting tough attitudes to crack down Chinese currency manipulation. While this rhetoric may appease the American public, the two candidates are unlikely to follow their words with actions to change U.S.-China relations.

President Obama promised the American people in the 2008 election that he would be tough on China, especially regarding currency manipulation. However his first two years in office, with a majority in both houses of Congress, Obama responded with negotiations that resulted in fairly little change on foreign policy with China. Just as Obama promised four years ago, Romney now promises change for America. In a stump speech in Ohio, he was quoted: "On Day One, I'll declare China a currency manipulator."  Although Romney pledges to "crack down" on China, it is an unlikely promise from someone who invested in China through the private equity firm Bain Capital - a point that Obama has not been shy to point out to the public.

So why do these candidates insist on posing a strong front on U.S.-China relations? Why are their words so strong, yet their actions so weak? Americans know that relationship between the United States and China will play an important role in their economy. And what it comes down to is the candidates appealing to what the American public wants to hear. Keeping China on a tight leash sounds like a sure fire way to help the economy grow - though both candidates know that in reality America can not afford to jeopardize their economic relationship with China. Over the past decade, our economy has become inevitably intertwined with the Chinese economy, creating an unyielding relationship. Sticks and stones may win votes, but this U.S.-China relationship is unlikely to change with the next administration.

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Saturday, May 26, 2012

60 Vote Senate challenge to be heard by 1 vote Judge?

The filibuster has produced controversy and garnered a lot of interest among political scientists. But will it now also bring a lawsuit? Check out recent developments in the Senate and the Courts. Rate this posting:

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Women's Reproductive Health: A Potential Political Strategy?

  A few days ago, Obama kicked off the start of his presidential campaign in Columbus, Ohio by mentioning his opinion on the hot issue of women’s reproductive health that’s been stirring the voters and the press.  In a New York Times article, he is quoted as having said, “I want women to control their own health choices.”  Obama’s comment triggered a flurry of responses, but the more productive among those were an evaluation of how the perception of women’s reproductive health as an issue is influencing recent polls.

  Although women’s reproductive health in it of itself is an interesting enough topic, when viewed under the framework of the presidential elections that are coming up and recent poll trends, it provides interesting insight into voters’ behaviors.

  Recent polls show Obama has no significant gender gap among his supporters while Mitt Romney faces a huge gender gap with “far less support among women than men.”  During the primaries, Romney had to woo the staunch conservatives who were clearly against abortions and contraceptives.  However, once the primaries are over, the gender gap among Romney's supporters are emerging as a problem as it creates tension between getting the conservative vote and the women's vote.  

  Nancy Folbre, an economics professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, explains that it is probably because women have gained more economic independence but are paid less, and with increasing changes in demographics of non-married or divorced females, the cost of abortion and contraceptives impact them directly, creating an incentive to vote.  In fact, female voters have been leaning towards the Democratic Party since the 1980s for the party’s tendency to advocate increased public expenditures to education, Medicare and Social Security.  In this instance, the retrospective voting model seems best to explain women’s voting trends because it’s still about the economy with a female perspective.

  Of course, these are general comments from looking at female voting trends – it is important to acknowledge there are a number of differences within this demographic.  For example, votes between women who are full-time mothers versus mothers who go out and work are split.  Still, it is important to acknowledge that women’s reproductive health issue (or the perception of it) might become more of a political strategy to pay lip service to and gain votes than be taken seriously.
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