Saturday, October 22, 2016

How to Rig an Election: 2016 Secretary of State Race Ratings

Donald Trump's claims that the 2016 election will be rigged against him are not only damaging to democracy, but they're completely divorced from reality. Elections are run locally by hundreds of different election authorities totally unconnected at any federal level. At the absolute highest level, elections are overseen in most states by a secretary of state.

The problem for Trump is that Democrats hold just 20 secretary of state offices while Republicans hold 26—including those in important swing states like Iowa, Ohio, and Florida. If these officials wanted to rig the election, most of them would do so to favor the Donald!

But if voters are so concerned about voter fraud and disenfranchisement, they should be more interested in this obscure state office. To a certain extent, secretaries of state do have the power to put a figure on the scale in state elections: choosing early-voting times, cutting the state's voter rolls, and removing the option of straight-ticket voting. So if you did want to rig an election, secretary of state would be a very valuable office to control.

In 35 states, that means winning the job at the ballot box. Currently, 1.5 times as many Republicans have been elected secretary of state as Democrats (21–14). That has the chance to change pretty drastically with the eight secretaries of state up in 2016. Up to six of the offices could conceivably change hands, thanks mostly to a suboptimal distribution of the six Democrats and two Republicans currently in office: four of the Democratic ones serve in red states, and both of the Republican ones are in blue states. This election seems likely to bring a recalibration, with possible Republican pickups in Missouri and Montana and potential Democratic pickups in Washington and New Mexico. And keep your eye on West Virginia, where I think an upset could be brewing.

Below are my race ratings for secretary of state; more in-depth explainers can be found after the jump. To check out all the downballot race ratings I've released so far, click on the 2016 Ratings tab.

  • Missouri: Leans Republican. With Democratic Secretary of State Jason Kander running for U.S. Senate, this is a seat Democrats are at risk of losing. Although both candidates are political rookies, they both have ample name recognition, but one only has it in part of the state: Democrat Robin Smith was a local news anchor in St. Louis for 40 years, and Republican Jay Ashcroft is the son of the former Missouri senator and U.S. attorney general. The two are roughly even in cash on hand, but Ashcroft's family name plus the overall lean of the state are so far pushing him over the edge. Ashcroft has led both times that the Missouri Times weekly tracking poll has polled the race. Of note: Smith, who is black, would be the first minority candidate ever to win an election in Missouri.
  • Montana: Tossup. Incumbent Linda McCulloch is term-limited, but she's still trying her hardest to see Democrats hold onto her seat. Last week, she released the voting history of her would-be successors to claim—possibly incorrectly, it's not clear—that Republican Corey Stapleton had failed to vote in nine elections in the last nine years. It's just the latest to-do in a spirited campaign that has seen more general-election broadcast TV ads by each side than any other secretary of state's race. The Democratic candidate, State Auditor Monica Lindeen, has proven she knows how to win statewide, but both sides are treating it as a competitive race, and we just don't have any other data to go off.
  • New Mexico: Likely Democratic. This wasn't supposed to happen. In 2014, Republican Secretary of State Dianna Duran won a second term, 51.6% to 48.4%, over 38-year-old Democrat Maggie Toulouse Oliver—the most closely watched secretary of state race in the country. Duran's joy was short-lived; in 2015, she was charged with illegally transferring campaign funds into a personal bank account in order to fuel her gambling addiction. Her subsequent resignation triggered a special election for 2016, giving Toulouse Oliver a second chance in the much more favorable presidential electorate. She faces Republican Nora Espinoza in very much a rehashing of the 2014 race (Espinoza is even using Duran's campaign manager). Duran was one of Democrats' least favorite secretaries of state, an activist crusader against liberal voting laws like straight-ticket voting (which she eliminated and Toulouse Oliver has vowed to bring back), so this is perhaps the downballot seat Democrats most want to pick up. Luckily for them, Toulouse Oliver isn't blowing the Trump Tower–sized opportunity she's been handed; she's outraised and outspent Espinoza and has led in every poll of the race by at least seven points, including by a whopping 54–34% in the most recent one.
  • North Carolina: Solid Democratic. North Carolina is one of the few states where the secretary of state isn't in charge of elections, frankly making it a tad less interesting than the others on this list. Also making it less interesting: incumbent Democrat Elaine Marshall, who has held an iron grip on the office for five terms. Marshall has coasted to reelection even in years when most North Carolinians were voting Republican (such as 2004, when she won 57.3% to 42.7%). Despite the state's uber-competitiveness this year, Republican Michael LaPaglia hasn't been able to make much of a race out of this; neither side has aired a TV ad, for instance. Tellingly, Raleigh-based Public Policy Polling hasn't even asked about the race in its North Carolina polls, despite surveying all of the state's other constitutional offices.
  • Oregon: Leans Democratic. Republican Dennis Richardson lost a close 2014 election for Oregon governor, but he may have been playing the long game. This year, he's less ambitiously set his sights on the open secretary of state's office, and it's become the state's closest partisan race. On the Democratic side, Labor Commissioner Brad Avakian is running for a long-sought promotion (he also ran for Congress in 2011) but is relatively underfunded at $168,000 cash on hand. The two most recent polls actually both show Richardson ahead, but with massive numbers of undecideds who are disproportionately Democratic. The state's and year's overall political climate should pull Avakian through, but there's a chance Richardson becomes the first Republican since 2002 to win statewide in Oregon.
  • Vermont: Solid Democratic. Just as he did in 2012 and 2014, Democratic Secretary of State Jim Condos will cruise to reelection with no Republican opposition. The only other candidate is Liberty Union Party candidate Mary Alice Herbert, who—fun fact!—ran for vice president under the banner of the Socialist Party in 2004. How the mighty have fallen.
  • Washington: Tossup. Amazingly for such a blue state, Republicans have held the secretary of state's job in Washington since 1965. Republican Kim Wyman almost broke the streak when she first won by just 0.8 points in 2012, and she's in the fight of her political life here in 2016 against Democrat Tina Podlodowski. In the all-party primary in August—historically a good predictor of the general election in Washington—Wyman led Podlodowski just 47.9% to 46.1% in a race with no other Democrats or Republicans. Podlodowski has gone negative on Wyman for supporting voter ID and not canceling the state's non-binding presidential primary. Notably, the race has also attracted the attention of outside groups: the Republican State Leadership Committee has spent over $67,000, while Planned Parenthood has chipped in almost $2,000.
  • West Virginia: Tossup. Natalie Tennant was an ambitious rising star in West Virginia Democratic politics—until she flopped badly in the 2014 Senate race with just 34.5% of the vote. The question this year, as Tennant seeks reelection as secretary of state, is whether she permanently damaged her brand by allowing it to be associated with national Democrats—the ultimate kiss of death in idiosyncratic West Virginia. There are no polls to even give us a frame of reference on this race, but Tennant doesn't seem too concerned—her campaign only spent $18,738 total through September, most of which was on the primary. A full list of Tennant's expenditures since July 1: $1,800 to NGP VAN (a voter file provider), $832 on palm cards, and $133 in credit-card processing fees. In other words, not even Tennant knows if she's in any danger, since she hasn't done any internal polling. Meanwhile, Republican Mac Warner has invested $83,703 and still had $90,710 to spend as of the beginning of the month. Like West Virginia as a whole did in 2014, I think this one could sneak up on Democrats. If so, it's completely irresponsible of Democrats to be so complacent about control of an entire state's election administration—particularly a state about to implement a groundbreaking automatic voter-registration and voter-ID law.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Election is Nine-Tenths of the Law: 2016 Attorney General Race Ratings

You know NRCC and DCCC and DSCC and NRSC; DGA and RGA and RSLC and DLCC. But do you recall the least famous party committees of all? The Democratic Attorneys General Association (DAGA) and Republican Attorneys General Association (RAGA) are far less glamorous than their higher-office counterparts, but they still funnel millions of dollars in both hard and soft campaign cash into attorney-general elections every cycle. Their donors? People and corporations savvy to the powerful role of state attorneys general.

As the chief legal authority in each state, attorneys general can decide whom to prosecute, what to sue over, even which laws to enforce. Questions swirled around Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi for choosing not to investigate Trump University after Donald Trump donated to her campaign. Red-state attorneys general have banded together to challenge the Affordable Care Act and federal environmental regulations. In West Virginia, as in many other states, the attorney general sets the tone for drug prosecutions and the state's fight against opioid addiction—which is why it caused controversy when pharmaceutical companies that provide those drugs, and are even the subject of state litigation, donated thousands to Attorney General Patrick Morrisey's re-election campaign.

That's just one of the pieces of intrigue in this year's attorney-general races. Pennsylvania will elect its fifth attorney general in four years after a vendetta against a political enemy brought down a rising Democratic star. Missouri and North Carolina will fill open seats left behind by two alums of their AG's offices—Chris Koster and Roy Cooper—who are good bets to become governor. More so even than lieutenant governor, the job is a firm stepping stone to higher office.

Every state has an attorney general, but only 43 elect them. Among these states, Republicans enjoy a 23–20 advantage in top cops (it's 27–22 overall, with one nonpartisan AG). This year, 10 of the seats are up for election across the country, including six Democratic-held seats and four Republican-held ones. The GOP is poised to add to its numbers slightly, with most of the competitive races on Democratic turf and an RAGA with far more cash to burn than the DAGA. A preponderance of open seats—four out of five of which are currently Democratic—in purple and red states may help to sink progressives.

Below are my race ratings for attorney general; more in-depth explainers can be found after the jump. To check out all the downballot race ratings I've released so far, click on the 2016 Ratings tab.

  • Indiana: Likely Republican. Either way, history's going to be made in Indiana. If Democrat Lorenzo Arredondo wins, he'll be the first Latino elected Indiana attorney general. If Republican Curtis Hill wins, he'll be the first African American man elected Indiana attorney general. Both party committees have invested in their man, though the $600,000 Hill received from the RAGA was far more than the $31,000 the DAGA gave Arredondo, a decent sign of how the race is shaping up. Arredondo—the less famous of the two Mexican-American judges from Indiana—has spent a lot of time engaging Latino voters, a curious strategy in the 6.7% Latino state. It's hard to see him running ahead of any of the top-of-the-ticket Democrats: a well-liked governor hopeful, a Senate legend who is the son of another Senate legend, and a presidential candidate running against the imploding Trump train.
  • Missouri: Leans Republican. This is how the parties behave when a seat is truly competitive: the RAGA has dumped $3.1 million into the campaign coffers of law professor Josh Hawley, while the DAGA has invested $500,000 in Teresa Hensley. The 36-year-old Hawley is a favorite of movement conservatives and was propped up by anti-labor donor David Humphreys during a bitter GOP primary; expect him to be groomed for higher office if he wins. With his financial advantage, Hawley has been able to air twice as many television ads as Hensley, and he's running a healthy nine points ahead of Eric Greitens in the race's only poll. If the candidates controlled their own destiny, you'd have to give Hawley the edge, but this one is going to come down to how fiesty the Missouri electorate is feeling on November 8. Until we know that, we're gonna keep hemming and hawing over Hensley and Hawley.
  • Montana: Solid Republican. Attorney General Tim Fox was many Republicans' first choice to run for governor this year, but he demurred and instead is seeking re-election. Democrats, on the other hand, had to cajole their candidate, former State Senator Larry Jent, into the race at the last minute, as no one else was interested in challenging the broadly popular incumbent. With less than $30,000 in the bank as of the beginning of October, it's clear that Jent's heart just isn't in it.
  • North Carolina: Tossup. No state has more tossup races than North Carolina—first lieutenant governor, and now the open attorney general's seat. Republican State Senator Buck Newton is trying to break quite a streak: the GOP hasn't won an election for North Carolina AG in over 100 years. He's getting ample help from the RAGA, which has made its largest single-race ad buy ever in North Carolina this year: $3.8 million. The ads started last week and immediately went negative on Democrat Josh Stein, a former state senator, for relying on his rich family and being an "extreme Harvard radical." However, Stein has an overflowing warchest of his own, and so far he's outspending the GOP on TV, emphasizing Newton's unabashed support for HB 2. A September PPP poll showed Stein in a stronger position than other downballot Democrats, but the race was still statistically tied and had lots of undecideds.
  • Oregon: Solid Democratic. This one's a laugher. Republican Daniel Crowe is a political novice and told reporters "he falls outside the mainstream Republican ideology, though he declined to identify which of his beliefs diverge." Fortunately/unfortunately, we'll never know, as incumbent Democrat Ellen Rosenblum has 45 times as much cash on hand as Crowe in this bright-blue state.
  • Pennsylvania: Tossup. TFW your party's rising star, the first female attorney general of Pennsylvania, gets convicted on felony perjury charges and resigns from office in disgrace. After the epic fall of Kathleen Kane, Republicans were convinced they could take back the Pennsylvania attorney general's office that they had historically dominated. Republican State Senator John Rafferty has tied Democrat Josh Shapiro to the scandals of Kane and other Democratic officeholders, but the attack isn't as potent as it could have been; neither Kane nor her caretaker successor was ever running in this race, and Shapiro, a Montgomery County commissioner, represents a clean break for the party. Shapiro has fired back at Rafferty's vote in the State Senate to cut funding to fight the opioid epidemic, a much more personal hit. Ultimately, if Trump drags down Pennsylvania Republicans as much as he's threatening to, it will be hard for Rafferty to swim against the tide.
  • Utah: Solid Republican. Utah is two years ahead of where Pennsylvania is: in 2013, Utah Attorney General John Swallow resigned amid scandal, and Utah held a briefly exciting special election. This year notwithstanding, Utah is still a deep-red state, and Republican Sean Reyes won that race easily—and he has enjoyed a quiet two years in office thus far. He faces only token third-party opposition after Democrat Jon Harper dropped out of the race for health reasons.
  • Vermont: Likely Democratic. Long-serving attorney general Bill Sorrell is calling it quits this year, leaving the office open for the first time since 1982. The state's brazen ticket-splitting makes it hard to peg downballot races, especially this year, when its electorate will be torn between strongly Democratic in the presidential race and Republican-friendly in the tossup gubernatorial contest. For lieutenant governor, I split the difference at Leans Democratic, but the GOP's candidate is much stronger for LG than for AG. Republican Deborah Bucknam—a private citizen, not a political veteran—has raised only $58,624 in the latter race. By contrast, Chittenden County state's attorney T.J. Donovan, her Democratic opponent, has raked in $405,171.
  • Washington: Solid Democratic. Democratic Attorney General Bob Ferguson lucked out and did not draw any Republican opposition in his bid for a second term. Instead, Libertarian Josh Trumbull advanced with him in the top-two primary to November's election, but Trumbull will be hard-pressed to improve upon the 27% he garnered in the primary. Ferguson is safe as he bides his time for the next open gubernatorial election.
  • West Virginia: Leans Republican. Republican Attorney General Patrick Morrisey edged out a two-point win in 2012, foreshadowing West Virginia's 2014 turn to red from head to toe. The state is only going to move farther right, and Morrisey should have an advantage as the incumbent. But Democratic Delegate Doug Reynolds has run a good race, assailing Morrisey as a carpetbagger in this notoriously tight-knit state. Through the end of September, Reynolds had spent $1.5 million and appeared to have caught Morrisey (who had spent only $328,594) with his pants down: the Democrat's campaign released an internal poll showing Morrisey ahead just 37% to 36%. However, the poll admitted that Reynolds was running 10 points behind Democratic candidate for governor Jim Justice, and the West Virginia Republican Party's own poll around the same time awarded Morrisey, at 46% to Reynolds's 38%, a lot more of the undecided vote. The late-summer ad blitz also left Reynolds with just $117,961 in the bank, and Republicans have outaired him decisively on broadcast TV in October. The RAGA is in the midst of dropping $3.5 million into the race, so while we've got to hand Reynolds a trophy for effort, it doesn't look like he's going to win anything else.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Deputy Disputes: 2016 Lieutenant Governor Race Ratings

Let's say all you want to do on November 8 is go and cast your vote for president. Fine, I respect that. So you go to your polling place and vote, but you find that your local secretary of state has implemented a requirement that only brown-haired people can vote. You and your red curls are disenfranchised. Should you choose to pursue a criminal complaint, your state attorney general is the one who would investigate. And pretend, for the sake of argument, that the conspiracy goes all the way up to the top, and your governor is forced to resign in disgrace. Your lieutenant governor takes over, cleans up the mess, becomes extremely popular, and—coming full circle now—is elected president next cycle as a result.

State constitutional offices are like the minor leagues of politics—where parties develop talent for higher office—but they also fulfill important roles in and of themselves as VIPs in your state capital. Like politics's own prospects guru, I cover these downballot elections closer than most. I maintain this comprehensive chart of which states have which constitutional offices, when they are up for election, and which party currently controls each. And every year, I issue Cook Political Report–esque race ratings for all the constitutional offices on the ballot. Most of these state offices are up in midterm years, but 2016 will still see a healthy number of them elected: 10 attorneys general, nine lieutenant governors (five elected separately from governors), nine treasurers, eight secretaries of state, seven auditors, five state superintendents, five insurance commissioners, two agriculture commissioners, one comptroller, one labor commissioner, and one commissioner of public lands.

This year, I'll be the only poor schmuck on the World Wide Web to handicap them all. My ratings will be published to the new "2016 Ratings" tab in the menu above, and each new set will be accompanied by an explanatory blog post. The ratings are presented in hopefully-easy-to-understand chart form, like the one below. Races are categorized on two axes: its competitiveness rating (rows) and which party currently holds the seat (columns). While columns are binary—a seat is either Democratic-held or Republican-held—rows are a spectrum, going from the most Democratic-favoring race at the top to the most GOP-leaning at the bottom. This allows you to skim down the progressively more competitive races while also seeing, at a glance, which party is playing defense where. Totals in the bottom row and rightmost column give you a summary of the national picture, either currently (bottom row) or projected after the election (rightmost column).

This post announces my debut ratings for 2016: those for lieutenant governor. Of the 50 states, 45 have lieutenant governors. Two are not popularly chosen, however, leaving 43 lieutenant-governor elections. Only nine of them are happening here in 2016, however, and four of those (Indiana, Montana, North Dakota, and Utah) are on a fused ticket with the governor (à la president and vice president). I consider those LG elections as already ranked by other handicappers' gubernatorial ratings, so that leaves five states holding freestanding lieutenant-governor elections in 2016: Delaware, Missouri, North Carolina, Vermont, and Washington.

Three of the five offices are currently held by Republicans, but Democrats have an excellent chance to pick up seats—maybe even go five for five. (It helps that four of the five seats have no incumbent.) However, it's likely to do little to dent Republicans' lieutenant-governor advantage of 30 to 12 (with one formerly Democratic vacancy) overall.

  • Delaware: Solid Democratic. The job of Delaware lieutenant governor is apparently so boring that its last occupant, Democrat Matt Denn, jumped ship in 2014 to run for attorney general. Democratic State Senator Bethany Hall-Long and Republican investment banker La Mar Gunn are therefore competing for an office that's been vacant for two years (though I'm counting it as Democratic-held in the chart above). The campaign has seen virtually no action since the competitive September primary, and Gunn hasn't even raised enough money to trigger a reporting requirement. There hasn't been any polling, but that's not going to cut it in such a blue state.
  • Missouri: Tossup. After friend of strippers Peter Kinder decided 12 years of apprenticing was enough and finally launched a (failed) bid for governor, politicians on both sides scrambled to run for this open seat. State Senator Mike Parson emerged bloodied yet victorious from an expensive Republican primary, leaving him with only $72,334 in the bank. Unfortunately for him, his Democratic opponent is Russ Carnahan, a member of a Missouri political dynasty who has seven times the cash. The Missouri Times's weekly tracking poll of Missouri has surveyed the race twice, giving one lead to each man. More instructive may be the fact that Carnahan consistently runs five points behind Chris Koster for governor, suggesting the result at the top of the ticket could be what tips this one.
  • North Carolina: Tossup. In 2012, Dan Forest defeated Linda Coleman 50.1% to 49.9% to become North Carolina's first Republican lieutenant governor since 1993. Things haven't exactly gotten easier for North Carolina Republicans since then. Hillary Clinton's unexpectedly strong showing in state polls threatens to drag down downballot Republicans, and the anti-transgender House Bill 2 has tarnished the reputations of the state GOP. As president of the State Senate when HB 2 passed, Forest has been a staunch defender of the law, and it has been the main flashpoint in his 2016 rematch with Coleman. As of the July fundraising report, it was Forest who had far more cash to get his message out there, and he led 38% to 35% in the latest poll of the race. Republicans have reason for optimism, but like all other races in North Carolina this year, this one is too close to call.
  • Vermont: Leans Democratic. Welcome to Vermont, where two of the three candidates for lieutenant governor are organic farmers. State Senator (and organic farmer) David Zuckerman is a dyed-in-the-wool progressive and earned the coveted endorsement of Senator Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary for this open seat. He not only won that, but also the nomination of the Progressive Party, Vermont's popular third-party outlet for those who don't think Democrats are far enough to the left. He beat the phenomenally named Boots Wardinski—yep, another organic farmer—for the Progressive nod, but Wardinski remains in the race as the Liberty Union candidate (Bill Lee's party!). Given Vermont's reputation, you'd think that the combined Democrat/Progressive would have this thing locked up, but Republican Phil Scott has won the office in the last three elections and is now arguably the leading candidate for governor. Vermonters are independent-minded and aren't afraid to vote for person over party, so there's plenty of room for Republican Randy Brock to win this seat. The question is whether voters will see lieutenant governor through the lens of the presidential race—where Hillary Clinton will crush Donald Trump in the state—or as more akin to the governorship, with Brock coasting on Scott's coattails. There is a frustrating lack of data in the state (grrr, no polling!), so I can at best guess that the result here will come out somewhere in between the two.
  • Washington: Solid Democratic. Want to feel bad about yourself? Just listen to Cyrus Habib's bio. The son of Iranian immigrants, Habib graduated summa cum laude from Columbia University as a member of Phi Beta Kappa. He is a Rhodes scholar and a Truman scholar and went on to Yale Law School. He has survived cancer three times and has been elected once to the Washington State House and once to the State Senate. And oh yeah, he did all of that having gone blind when he was eight years old. Now, Habib, a Democrat, is running for the open lieutenant governor's office after incumbent Brad Owen—considered, after five terms in office, Washington's "lieutenant governor for life"—decided to call it quits in 2016. Owen has clashed with Habib, claiming that the progressive state senator would take a more partisan approach to the office than is proper, but considering that Habib's opponent is Trump-supporting radio host Marty McClendon, that might sit just fine with Washington voters. Some of the greatest hits from McClendon's radio show come on Wednesdays—a.k.a. "Trump Day"—including one where he wondered if Hillary Clinton was even still alive, à la the movie Dave. As a result, even some prominent Republicans in the state are backing Habib.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Trout/Bryant 2016! And the Rest of My Baseball Ballot Selfie

You know that guy on Facebook who's way too eager to share whom he's voting for? That's me right now, and I have to warn you—I'm heavily biased toward the Sabermetric Party. Last weekend, I filled out my awards ballot for the Internet Baseball Writers Association of America, which votes on all the same end-of-season awards as the big boys. Here's my full ballot and, therefore, my picks for who was the best in baseball in 2016.


American League

1. Mike Trout
2. Mookie Betts
3. Josh Donaldson
4. José Altuve
5. Robinson Canó
6. Manny Machado
7. Kyle Seager
8. Adrian Beltré
9. Justin Verlander
10. David Ortiz

I've heard people say how there isn't a clear AL MVP this year. How maybe even an unorthodox choice like Zach Britton is warranted. I don't understand this talk, and in fact I strongly suspect that this year's American League Most Valuable Player will win his hardware in a landslide. Unlike in past years, Trout stands undeniably alone at the top: first in fWAR by 1.7, first in rWAR by 1.0, first in wRC+ by eight points, ahead of a man in David Ortiz whose job is to do nothing but hit, hit, hit. In terms of win probability, Trout leads the world in making his team more likely to win (6.96 WPA) and increasing the run expectancy of each play he touched (76.42 RE24).

In the battle for second, Donaldson had a higher OBP (.404) and SLG (.549) than Betts, but Betts's 32 Defensive Runs Saved—first in baseball—and 9.7 Baserunning Runs won me over. At the Houston keystone, Altuve was basically Betts without defense (−2 DRS) and shrewd baserunning (he got caught stealing an AL-worst 10 times) and with a lot more luck (he needed a .347 BABIP to beat out Betts's OPS), so he fell to fourth for me. After those four, it's a bit of a jumble. Canó and Machado had very similar raw stats (.298/.350/.533 with 39 home runs and 107 runs for Canó, .294/.343/.533 with 37 home runs and 105 runs for Machado), but Canó did it in a tougher environment and had a greater impact on his team's likelihood of winning. I waffled over whether Beltré or Brian Dozier had a better season, with Dozier flashing more power in a much tougher park as well as running the bases better, yet paling in comparison to Beltré's 15 DRS. And I yielded to homerism by squeezing Ortiz onto my ballot, but in a Troutless world he meets at least one definition of "most valuable": his 61.15 RE24 is second in the league, while his 4.65 WPA is third. I ranked him 10th on the following logic: FanGraphs docks him about 1.5 WAR simply for being a DH. Add that back in, and he's at 6.1 fWAR, just edging out Dozier.

National League

1. Kris Bryant
2. Freddie Freeman
3. Corey Seager
4. Max Scherzer
5. Madison Bumgarner
6. Clayton Kershaw
7. Jon Lester
8. Kyle Hendricks
9. Noah Syndergaard
10. Johnny Cueto

Bryant has, by measures traditional (39 home runs, 121 runs, 102 RBI) and advanced (a .396 wOBA and 8.4 fWAR), been the best player on the best team in baseball this year, so he's a lock for NL MVP. Freeman gets the nod over Seager because of his league-leading 157 OPS+ and nine-to-zero advantage in DRS, despite playing the easier position. He was also the NL's most valuable hitter in context, with a 5.56 WPA/LI and 50.81 RE24.

Then come the pitchers, who as a whole were more valuable than the hitters in the NL this year. See below for a detailed comparison of the NL's many talented hurlers this year, but know that I consider overall impact when ranking them for MVP (their hitting, their fielding, how much of a workhorse they were, how many runs were prevented when they took the field, win probability added) versus more sophisticated considerations for Cy Young (strikeout-to-walk ratios, FIP, luck). Scherzer and Bumgarner lead the way, each taking the ball 34 times and ranking one-two in innings pitched and one-three in strikeouts. Bumgarner also gets credit for the 1.0 fWAR he produced offensively. Kershaw was certainly the most valuable player on a per-inning basis, but his partial season held him back here. Lester and Hendricks, the two Cubs aces, benefit from their excellent ERAs (2.44 and 2.13), which led Lester to an 7.4 RA9-WAR on FanGraphs and Hendricks to a 38.77 RE24, both NL bests. Together they ranked first and second in the NL in all three of those categories. For the final two slots, Cueto may have pitched better than Syndergaard according to rWAR and two of the three flavors of fWAR—thanks in large part to his 36-inning advantage—but Syndergaard gained 0.8 fWAR from hitting and defense, while Cueto lost 0.2. But it was a close enough call that I simply gave Cueto that 10th spot rather than try to make the impossible decision of whether Daniel Murphy or Anthony Rizzo deserved to be left off the ballot less.

Cy Young

American League

1. Justin Verlander
2. Chris Sale
3. Corey Kluber
4. Rick Porcello
5. Masahiro Tanaka

First, a word on Zach Britton. His 0.54 ERA is a thing of beauty. And I'm not opposed to voting for a reliever for Cy Young. But Britton is an imperfect vessel. Other than a phenomenal 80.0% groundball rate, Britton simply wasn't that dominant. Other relievers had better K/BB ratios (see below). He got way lucky with 89.7% of runners left on base. And his FIP—more representative of true skill as a pitcher—is a strong 1.94, but hardly historic compared to how elite relievers normally fare.

Instead, this is a six-man race. Going by fWAR, rWAR, and FanGraphs's RA9-WAR, Sale, Porcello, Kluber, Verlander, Tanaka, and José Quintana are all in the top six in some order, but beyond that they're very hard to tease apart: all have ERAs between 3.04 and 3.34. Peripherals begin to tease apart who was more dominant: Verlander and Sale stand out with the lowest SIERAs, highest K−BB%s, and lowest contact rates on pitches inside the zone. What's more, they were practically identical in these categories—we're talking one bad start's difference. I happen to believe that Chris Sale is the most deserving pitcher never to have won a Cy Young, but happily my vote doesn't count toward the real winner. Verlander has the tiniest of edges.

Sale's White Sox teammate Quintana is my other pick for most criminally underappreciated mound artist, but it's a stretch to call him Cy-worthy. Quintana's K/BB ratio (3.62) and SIERA (4.01—ew) were the worst of the bunch, which proved decisive in dropping him off my ballot. Kluber's K/BB was fifth in this group, his WHIP fourth, his SIERA third, so he fit somewhere in the middle. I wanted to reward Porcello for his minuscule walk rate and 1.01 WHIP, but he simply wasn't as dominant as the others in terms of allowing contact (8.2% swinging-strike percentage).

National League

1. Clayton Kershaw
2. Max Scherzer
3. Noah Syndergaard
4. Johnny Cueto
5. José Fernández

Sorry, kids—if Britton can be the AL Cy Young with his 67 innings, Kershaw can be the NL winner with only 149. Like last year, there are plenty of reasons not to decorate the best pitcher in baseball, but I prefer to dwell on the reasons why we should. Kershaw finished with the best strikeout-to-walk ratio, 15.64, of any starting pitcher ever. He also took the crown for lowest WHIP ever (0.73) for a pitcher with more than 100 innings pitched, beating out Pedro Martínez. He was so dominant in his 149 innings that, in order to match Scherzer, Kershaw would have had to give up 47 earned runs (as it was, he allowed just 28) in his next 79.1 innings pitched—a 5.33 ERA pace. Scherzer had a terrific season too, by the way: a 3.05 SIERA, 0.97 WHIP, and 284 strikeouts to 56 walks in a league-leading 228.1 innings pitched. He and Kershaw were clearly the league's most intimidating pitchers, ranking one and two in swinging-strike percentage as well.

After the top two, it was a decision between an elite fielding-independent pitcher (Syndergaard), the best run preventer (Jon Lester), or someone who split the difference (Cueto). I opted for Syndergaard because he was simply more dominant: a 218-to-43 K/BB ratio and 14.2% swinging-strike percentage. Syndergaard's SIERA of 2.95 was also far better than Lester's 3.61 or Cueto's 3.59, as he achieved his excellent 2.60 ERA even while being unlucky on balls in play—that's the mark of a superior pitcher. In fact, Lester was weak enough on the peripherals that the late Fernandez (2.81 SIERA) rated a better overall pitcher than he did; Lester will just have to settle for what I'm betting will be his best ranking on any IBWAA MVP ballot.

Rookie of the Year

American League

1. Michael Fulmer
2. Gary Sánchez
3. Chris Devenski

Tyler Naquin doesn't make the cut because he was heavily reliant on luck (.411 BABIP) to achieve a wOBA that paled compared to Sánchez's. The young Yankees catcher was simply a phenomenon in the second half, to the point where he edged out Fulmer in fWAR despite only 229 plate appearances. However, Fulmer is penalized by FanGraphs for his high FIP; in the end, the fact that a rookie almost led the AL in ERA is damned impressive. Sánchez simply didn't play enough for me to outweigh Fulmer's sustained excellence, but you can blame the Yankees front office for that: he did everything he could with the time he was given, with a .376 OBP, .657 SLG, and 2.83 WPA/LI. Speaking of WPA/LI, Devenski's actually led all rookies at 3.12, reflecting how utterly valuable he was as a swingman/spot starter/multi-inning reliever. He also had a phenomenal 8.64 K/9, 1.66 BB/9, and 2.34 FIP, all far better than Fulmer's, but in the end he pitched only two-thirds the innings—so he, too, was Sánchezed.

National League

1. Corey Seager
2. Kenta Maeda
3. Trea Turner

It was a great year for rookies in the National League—I couldn't believe Trevor Story and Aledmys Díaz didn't even make my ballot, but Turner really turned on the jets in his final month to pull ahead of them. Even so, it wasn't clear that even Turner deserve to crack the top three. I was surprised to find myself considering both Jon Gray, he of the 4.61 ERA, and Junior Guerra, who ranked seventh in fWAR among just NL rookie pitchers. But Coors Field, of course, obscured Gray's fundamentally sound season: his 9.91 K/9 and 81 FIP− were both first among NL rookies with at least 100 innings pitched. Guerra, on the other hand, boasted a 2.81 ERA and 1.13 WHIP that ranked among the best of even non-rookie pitchers, but he was also incredibly lucky (.250 BABIP and 4.42 SIERA). I just couldn't give him much of the credit for that run prevention, and I couldn't bring myself to honor Gray when he didn't prevent many runs, so I broke the tie in favor of Turner and Maeda. Maeda played a less flawed version of Guerra and Gray, approaching the former's greatness with a 3.48 ERA and a far better SIERA (3.69) while having the latter's ratios (9.17 K/9, 2.56 BB/9) and pitching the most innings of the trio (175.2). Of course, Seager blows them all away with his phenomenal season of 26 home runs and a .372 wOBA behind Maeda at Dodgers shortstop.

Manager of the Year

American League

1. Jeff Banister
2. Terry Francona
3. Buck Showalter

I'm kind of meh on the AL managerial field this year, but I see no reason to change my overall pick from last year: the Rangers' Banister. Banister works well with his front office and is conversant in advanced stats. He had to deal with some very crowded infields and outfields this year but got everyone enough playing time. He was also unafraid to change directions in the bullpen when closers faltered. The Rangers' 36–11 record in one-run games may not be sustainable, but it's to Banister's credit. Francona, meanwhile, is a solid do-no-harm manager who always creates a positive clubhouse environment; that may not mean much, but it certainly didn't hurt the Indians' title quest this year. As for Showalter, I don't like the Orioles' organizational approaches of favoring power over on-base ability and whatever the hell they're doing wrong in pitching development, but Showalter is at least a shrewd bullpen operator.

National League

1. Dave Roberts
2. Joe Maddon
3. Bruce Bochy

What didn't Roberts have to deal with this year? The Dodgers set an all-time major-league record with 28 players on the disabled list. Yasiel Puig became persona non grata to the club, but he still existed in the clubhouse without (known) incident and then came back to contribute semi-usefully in the final stretch. The team's ace was very prickly about his catcher, and even more so when A.J. Ellis got traded away. But Roberts kept it all under control, and he won the division to boot—pretty open and shut. Maddon remains a stat-savvy manager and beloved leader, so he'll always be high on my ballot—but it helps that his Cubs won 103 games, too. And Bochy remains one of the league's most talented talent-deployers and calmest hands on the tiller.

Reliever of the Year

American League

1. Zach Britton
2. Andrew Miller
3. Chris Devenski

This one was easy for reasons you'd think would be hard and hard for reasons you'd think would be easy. There were only three truly elite relievers in the AL this year; Britton, Miller, and Devenski were the only three with ERAs and FIPs both under 2.15 and more than 45 innings pitched. They're also one-two-three among AL relievers in WHIP, RE24, and WPA/LI. But despite all the fawning over Britton this year, he wasn't a lock to finish first here. Miller's insane 13.67 K/BB ratio blew Britton's out of the water, and he pitched more innings with a better SIERA. But, of course, Britton just isn't that kind of pitcher; he's proven that he can reliably get outs via the groundball. His .230 BABIP is more a product of skill than luck, as his 80.0% groundball percentage shows. (Miller also had some luck of his own, with a 95.7 LOB%.) Finally, Britton has a commanding lead in perhaps the definitive relief-pitching stat: win probability added (6.14). So yes, Zach Britton fans, his record-low ERA is award-worthy after all.

National League

1. Kenley Jansen
2. Seung-hwan Oh
3. Addison Reed

We've lucked out in the NL, too; only three pitchers fit the same profile as above, thereby separating themselves from the pack. (Aroldis Chapman gets kinda stiffed here, since he meets the thresholds in both leagues combined but doesn't have enough innings in any one league to qualify—but I don't feel particularly sorry for him.) Jansen is one of the most underrated players in the game; last year, only a low innings total kept him from being the NL's best reliever, and now that he's pitched a full season, it's undeniable. His 9.45 K/BB ratio, 41.4% strikeout rate, and 18.15 RE24 all rank first. His 0.67 WHIP, 1.60 SIERA, and 1.44 FIP do too, by huge margins. Oh and Reed sport very similar numbers, but Oh's higher strikeout rate, lower contact rate, and lower SIERA give him the edge. Honorable mentions go to Héctor Rondón and Shawn Kelley, who have better peripheral stats than the Oh/Reed duo but don't have the numbers in terms of actual run prevention; reverse that for Mark Melancon, whose 24.1% strikeout rate and 2.83 SIERA were just not that dominant despite being the best situational reliever (3.06 WPA) in the NL.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Debate-O-Rama 2016

Today's the day! Tonight, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump face off in probably the most anticipated presidential debate in political history. If you miss it, (a) are you living under a rock? and (b) there will be two more chances to watch those two clash in October (plus a vice-presidential debate).

But true fans of the political soap opera need more than just four fixes every four years. There are thousands of elections taking place this November, from the presidential on down to the state and local level, and most of the people running in them will also pontificate and bicker—on public-access TV, radio shows, League of Women Voters events—at debates of their own.

Unlike with the presidential debates, though, there is no master commission scheduling and regulating these downballot fora. With candidates agreeing to and canceling debate appearances on a case-by-case, TV-station-by-TV-station basis, it's incredibly hard to keep track of when non-presidential candidates are debating, even for prominent offices like U.S. Senate. What's a debate junkie to do?

My solution: crowdsource. I've started this Google spreadsheet with the aim of creating a full schedule of debates for senatorial, gubernatorial, and congressional campaigns nationwide; now all we have to do is compile the data. I've started things out by including all debate information I could readily find online, but I'm sure that plenty of debates are missing. That's where you come in. The document is fully editable by the public, so please, if you see a notice for an upcoming debate that isn't on the list, add it yourself. Then, when the time comes, sit back and marathon them all like Netflix is broken.

For your viewing pleasure, here is the full, ever-evolving list of 2016 political debates:

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Curt Schilling's Political Career Is Doomed

In 2009, after the death of longtime Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy, Curt Schilling publicly toyed with the idea of running for the seat. Despite receiving plenty of encouragement from elites and social-media followers alike, the just-retired hurler declined to seek the Republican nomination, saying "it just did not make sense." Instead, the GOP turned to little-known State Senator Scott Brown to face Attorney General Martha Coakley. The rest is history.

In choosing not to run, Schilling probably made the worst decision of his still-non-existent political career. As Brown proved, conditions were perfect for a Republican upset in blue Massachusetts. The low-turnout environment of a special election allowed the most passionate, anti-Obama voters to have a disproportionate say in the outcome. The GOP was gifted a gaffe-prone opponent in Coakley. And the 2010 election took place before most of Schilling's controversial political statements. Like Barack Obama (to his benefit) and Chris Christie (to his detriment) before him, Schilling should have struck while the iron was hot.

Instead, a full eight years later, he has apparently suddenly decided he does want to run for office after all. After slyly hinting at a potential presidential run on Facebook last week, Schilling has now revealed that he is considering running for Senate in 2018 against Elizabeth Warren—the liberal hero who wrested Kennedy's seat away from Brown in 2012. "I would like to be one of the people responsible for getting Elizabeth Warren out of politics," Schilling said during an interview on WRKO. "She’s a nightmare. The left’s holding her up as the second coming of Hillary Clinton, Lord knows we don’t need the first."

But here's the reality: Schilling, a Republican, would stand no chance in such a campaign. Massachusetts remains a deep blue state; in top-of-the-ticket races since 2008, Democrats have beaten Republicans by an average of 55.6% to 41.7%. While Republicans like Brown and Governor Charlie Baker have beaten the odds and won statewide in recent years, Brown did so in a special election with just 48% turnout, while Baker did it by overperforming in Yankee Republican strongholds like Wellesley and Newton—moderate, affluent towns unlikely to respond to Schilling's brand of bombast.

And while Brown and Baker were running for open seats—and both against the polarizing Coakley—Schilling in 2018 would be facing an incumbent senator with $3.8 million in the bank and a 61/27% approval/disapproval rating. The last time Schilling was polled in Massachusetts, in 2009, he had a 29% favorability rating and a 39% unfavorability rating—again, before his recent controversial statements. To give a sense for where Schilling's popularity might stand today, in Rhode Island in 2013 his numbers were 9% favorable and 74% unfavorable. Of course, Rhode Islanders are probably better acquainted with Schilling's 38 Studios debacle—although, if Schilling does run in Massachusetts, Bay Staters are going to hear about it very quickly as well.

Massachusetts Republicans will probably enjoy favorable tailwinds in 2018, with an unpopular Hillary Clinton likely to be president and a popular Baker likely to be coasting to re-election. But Warren is a perfect fit for liberal Massachusetts, and the Trumpian Schilling decidedly is not. If he runs, Schilling will have no better luck getting elected to the U.S. Senate as he has had getting elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. The deserving Schilling—who remains a phenomenal baseball player even as he is a terrible politician—should focus on getting elected in Cooperstown instead.

Friday, August 5, 2016

Is This Maine Ballot Measure the Solution to Political Polarization?

Imagine choosing our senators, governors, and congressmen the same way they choose who wins Best Picture at the Oscars. Maine thinks it’s worth a shot.

This November, a ballot measure known as Question 5 will ask Maine voters to totally overhaul the way the state decides its elections. If Question 5 passes, Maine would no longer follow the rest of the country in determining a winner by simple plurality; instead, it would be the first state to employ instant-runoff voting to ensure every winner receives a full majority. This alternative method of vote-counting is a favorite of election reformers nationwide, but they’ve never had a prize this big within their grasp. If it delivers as supporters promise, the initiative could swing the outcomes of elections—and even end the trend of political polarization.

Currently, Maine uses the “first-past-the-post” method of vote-counting that we are all familiar with: all a candidate must do to win the election is receive more votes than anybody else. However, in a multi-candidate field, this means that our next leaders can be elected with well short of a majority. (Think Donald Trump winning the Republican primary with 45% of the national popular vote.) As a result, a small niche of voters can carry a fringe candidate to victory even if a majority of the electorate objects—but splits their votes too diffusely to stop him or her.

Supporters of Maine's Question 5 intend to keep that from ever happening. Their solution is instant-runoff voting, which asks voters not simply to check just one name, but to rank the candidates in order of whom they prefer. Ballot-counters total up all the candidates’ first-place votes to see if any candidate has a majority. If not, the candidate with the least first-place votes is eliminated, and his or her votes are redistributed to the candidates ranked second on his or her ballots. This process continues until one candidate receives a majority. Advocates of instant-runoff voting (also known as ranked-choice voting) argue that this method precludes a scenario where two ideologically similar candidates split a majority of the vote and allow a third candidate, who is reviled by most voters, to win by plurality.

In head-to-head elections like Democrat-versus-Republican generals, instant-runoff voting works the same as our current winner-take-all system. Its strength is in handling multi-candidate mêlées, making it a favorite of minor parties and independents. The ballot proposal would allow voters to cast their “first” votes for third-party candidates without fear that they are throwing their vote away or playing spoiler—because they know their vote will safely be redistributed to their second-ranked choice. For example, an environmental activist could safely vote for the Green Party candidate without harming the chances of the Democrat; as long as the Democrat was ranked ahead of the Republican on his or her ballot, his or her vote would eventually count toward the Democrat after the Green candidate is eliminated.

This method is already used to elect legislators in Australia, presidents in India and Ireland, and mayors in San Francisco and in Maine’s largest city, Portland. The Maine legislature has considered and rejected instant-runoff voting in the past, but the ballot box finally gives it a realistic shot at passing. In 2006, a similar referendum in Minneapolis passed with 65% of the vote, and today’s municipal elections there employ instant-runoff voting. The system worked to the extreme, both for good and for bad, in the 2013 mayoral election, when it successfully winnowed down a 35-candidate field to declare City Councilor Betsey Hodges the winner—after 48 hours and 33 rounds of tabulation.

It's no coincidence that this alternative method is now catching on in Maine of all places. The state has a well-known independent streak. Its longtime Republican senators, Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, were liberal mavericks to the rest of their party, and when Snowe retired in 2012, her replacement was an actual independent, Angus King. Overall, independent candidates are more numerous and are taken more seriously in Maine than in most other states.

As a result, election by plurality is a sore subject for many in the Pine Tree State. In Maine’s past 11 elections for governor, nine of the winners failed to win a majority of the vote thanks to the presence of independent candidates. In 2010 and 2014, many observers believe that centrist independent candidate Eliot Cutler drew liberal votes away from the Democratic candidate, leading twice to the election of Tea Party Republican Governor Paul LePage in a state that gave Barack Obama 56% of the vote in 2012.

In the 2010 election, LePage won the governorship with a narrow plurality of the vote (38.1%), defeating Cutler (36.4%) and Democrat Libby Mitchell (19.1%). Under instant-runoff voting, however, Cutler likely would have won. Mitchell would have been eliminated in an instant runoff, and the vast majority of her votes would almost certainly have gone to Cutler, her most ideologically similar candidate. Under a moderate Governor Cutler, the last four years in Maine would have looked very different.

This is a major selling point of the ballot measure to many Mainers—and a major sticking point for the state’s Democratic and Republican elite, who fear instant-runoff voting’s friendliness to independents will dilute their party’s clout. But historically this has not been the case. The system may benefit minor parties by helping them reach thresholds—in Maine, 5%—to gain ballot access and recognition as political parties, but it rarely hands them the election. The mayors of Minneapolis, San Francisco, and Portland are all Democrats, and fringe candidates have still been the first to be eliminated in instant runoffs. (Contrary to Cutler’s example, most independent candidates make their runs from either the far left or the far right.)

In fact, that may be instant-runoff supporters’ best argument: it stops polarizing candidates dead in their tracks. Because the winner has to be acceptable to over 50% of the electorate, instant-runoff voting rewards middle-of-the-road candidates who tack closest to the median voter. In a state where the legislature and governor are almost literally at war, and in a country where Congress and the White House’s inability to agree have ground governance to a halt, the potential of instant-runoff voting to stem political polarization is intriguing.

It has worked in Hollywood, of all places. Two years ago, American Sniper, the Iraq War film by conservative director Clint Eastwood, had many passionate supporters for Best Picture—quite possibly a plurality of Oscar voters in the fragmented eight-film field. But under the Academy’s instant-runoff method of voting, Birdman eventually won the award. Liberal Academy voters who didn’t rank American Sniper first probably listed it toward the bottom of their ballots, preventing it from picking up much support in the instant runoffs.

However, it’s easy to mischaracterize instant-runoff voting as always leading to the election of the consensus choice—the candidate acceptable to the broadest swath of voters. In reality, instant-runoff voting favors a combination of passion and consensus. Take a three-way election between a Democrat, a centrist independent, and a Republican. You would expect all Democratic voters to rank them first, second, and third, respectively, and all Republican voters to rank them third, second, and first, respectively. In that case, the independent candidate is every voter’s second choice—but he or she will be also the first eliminated in the instant runoffs.

This was essentially the scenario of Maine’s 2014 gubernatorial election, in which LePage was reelected with 48.2% of the vote. Democrat Mike Michaud earned 43.4%, and Cutler, despite having the best favorability ratings of the three candidates, pulled only 8.4%. According to exit polls, Cutler’s support would have roughly split evenly between LePage and Michaud in a two-way race. The outcome would not have changed: because more Republicans turned out to vote than Democrats, LePage took the election largely on his own strength.

This is the ugly truth to many Question 5 proponents who are supporting it for tactical reasons: instant-runoff voting does nothing more than reflect the electorate it is given. If one party is excited to vote and another stays home, no election-law change will make a difference. For Maine Democrats, Question 5 should not be considered a panacea, or a crutch to use to avoid the harder and more important work of organizing. In the end, Mainers should vote for Question 5 not for any perceived political side effects; history has shown they are unpredictable and in many cases nonexistent. Instead, Mainers should vote for Question 5 simply because they believe it is a fairer way to conduct elections.