Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Teaching the Far Right a Lesson: 2014 Race Ratings for Superintendent

"Education" is the issue voters will tell you they care more about than any other—yet "superintendent of public instruction" is lucky to be the sixth-best reason someone casts a ballot. You should reconsider that, at least this year, if you live in one of the surprisingly many states where that office is up for grabs. This year, the office is on the ballot in seven of the 13 states that elect superintendents, although only six of the elections are partisan. All six are taking place in deeply Republican states, and all six are currently held by Republicans... Yet Democrats are seriously contesting arguably every single seat.

How is this possible in a year when the national mood seems so dour for Democrats? It's easy when the lineup of Republican incumbents is the following all-star team of the most unscrupulous, outlandish, and unhinged politicians in the country. One turned her office into a war zone where people feared for their safety; one exploited special-needs kids for political gain; one had a secret, xenophobic online identity. Even the ones who behaved themselves have often left behind unpopular legacies of funding cuts and lower-quality schools. Although none of the six incumbents is running again (two lost in the primary), their memory lives on in these unexpectedly close races.

In many cases, the candidates to replace them are no peaches themselves. What is it about state superintendent that seems to attract the craziest "wacko birds" to the job? Education has become the newest culture war in America, with debate especially raging around the Common Core standards, which, depending on who you listen to, are either an attempt to make an American education meaningfully similar across geographic and income lines or a conspiracy to indoctrinate kids with a liberal worldview dictated by the federal government. While the Common Core controversy is new, the thought that our kids are our most vulnerable and controllable assets has been around forever. Those drawn to the position of superintendent are often not professional politicians, but activists around this very issue. My personal theory is that the GOP's inattention to these downballot races has allowed the right wing to hijack many of them, which here in 2014 is coming back to hurt the party. (Although, it should be noted, an equal factor in making these races so competitive this year is the inherent strength of many of the Democratic candidates themselves, widening the gulf in candidate quality so much that even staunch partisans have had to take notice.)

Below are my race ratings for the 2014 superintendent races; more in-depth explainers can be found after the jump. For a rundown of my methodology, see my September 26 post; for full downballot race ratings as they become available, surf to my 2014 Ratings page.


In sum, Democrats have an excellent chance to cut into the six-to-three Republican advantage among school chiefs who affiliate with a political party (those in California, North Dakota, Washington, and Wisconsin are elected nonpartisanly).

Arizona: Tossup
The award for worst candidate of the cycle has to go to Arizona Superintendent John Huppenthal (R). During his primary against Common Core opponent Diane Douglas, he claimed he "never" supported the standards—despite speaking on record about the need to implement them two months before. And apparently never didn't mean never, since the following week he insisted he had been misrepresented and actually did support Common Core. Oh, but what really killed him politically was probably making anonymous discriminatory comments on a blog. In a tearful news conference, Huppenthal admitted that he wrote that welfare recipients were "lazy pigs" and lobbied for Spanish-language media outlets to be banned. Douglas swept him away in the primary, but then Republicans faced a new problem: they had a no-name, single-issue crusader as their superintendent candidate. Democrats, meanwhile, nominated well-respected professor David García, who has gained traction even in this red state with establishment Republicans, such as the local Chamber of Commerce and past Republican superintendents. García is well funded, too, with almost $800,000 in independent expenditures (mostly by Stand for Children and Restore Education Funding Now) having been spent to help elect him.

California: Tossup
This unique race doesn't make the table above because it's technically a nonpartisan election. Even if we acknowledged that we all know better, though, this race is actually between two Democrats—a product of California's top-two primary system. Incumbent Tom Torlakson faces a spirited challenge from former charter-schools executive Marshall Tuck in what is, for my money, the most interesting superintendent race in the nation. Rather than focusing on Common Core like most of the races on this page, the election is over the identity of the Democratic Party's education plank: should it protect teachers and unions, or should it support charter schools? Tuck is in the latter camp, but many of the state's old-guard Democrats are fiercely resisting. The state's powerful unions are spending millions to re-elect Torlakson, who has fought the recent Vergara v. California court decision that struck down teacher tenure in California. In the closing days of the campaign, $5.5 million will be spent by independent-expenditure groups on both sides. The last poll taken in the race showed that it was still anyone's game, with Tuck at 31%, Torlakson at 28%, and 41% undecided back in September. Given that both sides have shown that no price is too steep for this seat, it would be crazy to say this race is anywhere near predictable. (However, after this video, it was tempting to say the campaign was over, everyone pack it in, we're done here.)

Georgia: Tossup
According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, "If you want to lay a wager on the Democrat who might be celebrating election to a statewide office on the first Tuesday in November, don’t place your money on Michelle Nunn or Jason Carter"—bet on Valarie Wilson, the Democratic candidate for state superintendent. Wilson checks every box for the Democratic base: she is African American; she has deep community ties across the state as the former president of the Georgia School Boards Association; she has a good relationship with teachers as a former school board member in Decatur. She's even been endorsed by the outgoing Republican superintendent, John Barge. Republican candidate Richard Woods has staked his campaign on opposition to Common Core, but with only $9,094 in the bank, he can't get that message out. Georgia is still Georgia, so Wilson isn't running away with it, but ample polling in the race has shown (a) this is a race people are engaged in, with few undecideds, and (b) the candidates enter the final week statistically tied.

Idaho: Leans Republican
In former deputy Idaho superintendent Jana Jones, Democrats have pretty much their best possible candidate—at least for someone who hasn't waged a winning statewide campaign before. Jones ran for the job before, in 2006, and lost to Republican Tom Luna. If you've heard that name before, maybe it's because of the "Luna laws"—a series of education reforms that Luna shepherded through the legislature in 2011 that basically read like a how-to manual for destroying teachers' unions. Even in this deep red state, voters were outraged at the attack on teachers, and they voted to repeal the laws via popular referendum in 2012. Luna is retiring this year in semi-disgrace, but that hasn't stopped Jones from linking him to GOP candidate Sherri Ybarra. Ybarra wasn't even supposed to be here; just your run-of-the-mill high-school principal, she somehow emerged the winner of a Republican primary that featured three better-known, better-funded candidates. Ybarra has run the kind of rocky campaign you'd expect from a political novice—plagiarizing her website (off her opponent, no less), claiming to have forgotten key details of her past marriages, and admitting she has voted in just two of the last 17 elections. ("My brain doesn't operate in the past," she offered as her excuse.) She normally wouldn't be in the same league as the well-connected Jones, who has raised five times the cash—but this is Idaho, remember. It's difficult for any Republican to blow an election here, although with her lead down to 41–38 in an October PPP poll, Ybarra seems to be doing the best she can.

Oklahoma: Leans Republican
Republican Superintendent Janet Barresi was first elected in 2010 as a supporter of Common Core. Then Oklahoma became one of the first states to banish the standards. Awkward. Although Barresi "evolved" to oppose Common Core, she was vulnerable in 2014, and she finished third in a three-way primary. (Don't feel too bad for her—Barresi allegedly shared the personal information of special-needs students she had gotten scholarships for with her campaign team in an effort to curry political favor with their families.) Instead, Joy Hofmeister, a former member of the state board of education, is carrying the Republican mantle. Hofmeister is the best Republican candidate we've met thus far: though anti–Common Core, she is an accomplished woman—a CEO who raised a solid $771,434 for her campaign. I'd be comfortable listing her as the favorite... if it weren't for actual, honest-to-goodness polls showing her tied with or losing to Democrat John Cox, the superintendent of the Peggs school district. Cox has effectively combined discontent with education cuts with a local-control-is-best approach popular with conservatives. However, I give the nod to Hofmeister as the candidate in better position (and on friendlier turf) to close the deal.

South Carolina: Likely Republican
Finally, a race that behaves like it's supposed to. The election for South Carolina superintendent of education has unfolded pretty typically: Democrat Tom Thompson supports Common Core; Republican Molly Spearman opposes it; the Republican's message resonates better in a state where Newt Gingrich won the presidential primary. However, the race's only poll doesn't foreclose the possibility of an upset—Spearman led by 10, but the pollster claimed her support was soft. However, Thompson still hasn't posted a third-quarter fundraising report on the South Carolina website, suggesting he hasn't raised enough money to trigger a report; if so, you can stick a fork in this one.

Wyoming: Solid Republican
Politics has plenty of eccentric characters, but I'd put Cindy Hill up against anyone. The outgoing superintendent was first elected in 2010 and immediately set about making her office a living hell. Hill struck fear into the hearts of her employees with incidents like waving a knife around as she was cutting an office birthday cake and holding "cultish" loyalty meetings. Employees became so paranoid that she was listening in on them that they began to speak in code words. Baseball bats and bear spray were brought into the office for protection; one veteran said he preferred serving in combat to under Hill. When these allegations went public, Hill was suspended from the department, setting off a constitutional crisis that ended with Hill unsuccessfully primarying Governor Matt Mead. To continue on her legacy at the state education department, Hill endorsed her deputy, Sheryl Lain, in the 2014 election while non-insane Republicans preferred Bill Winney in the primary. Naturally, then, a third candidate, teacher Jillian Balow, won the GOP nomination. She's enough of an outsider that voters appear to trust her to rebuild the department, as she leads 45% to 26% in the race's only poll. However, Democrat Mike Ceballos is a strong candidate who has the support of two popular ex-governors—and who has a bipartisan history of working with the state's Republican government. The former CEO has raised twice as much money for the race as Balow. Still, he doesn't have much time left in which to spend it; his best shot might have come and gone when Lain lost the primary.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Eaten Alive: Why Oregon's and Colorado's GMO Ballot Measures Never Had a Chance

This month, I’m writing a lot about the under-the-radar elections on the ballot in 2014. One group of elections that I wasn’t going to analyze, though, are ballot measures. This isn’t because they’re not special—on the contrary, they’re the most direct form of democracy there is—but because there are just so many. (California, for instance, is voting on six—an unusually low total for the famously plebiscitary state.) But there are two that do provide some interesting food for thought.

Proposition 105 in Colorado and Measure 92 in Oregon both seek to require labeling on foods containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs). At a glance, these don’t sound very interesting—or competitive. Genetically engineered foods may carry higher health risks, and the labels would simply serve to give customers information about what they’re buying. Unsurprisingly, when you first ask people about the idea, it’s hard to have much of a beef against it; initial polls put support for Colorado’s initiative at 75% and Oregon’s at 77%.

Except Proposition 105 and Measure 92 have been tried before. In California in 2012, it was called Proposition 37. In Washington in 2013, it went by the name I-522. And in these crunchy, granola, liberal states, GMO labeling failed: 51.4% to 48.6% in California and 51.1% to 48.9% in Washington. Each time, the campaign followed the same pattern. Support soared. Money poured in. The public was persuaded. Support cratered. And now 2014 is following the same exact template. It’s inevitable: GMO labeling in Colorado and Oregon will fail on November 4.

In California (77% support in September 2012) and Washington (66% support in September 2013), the public seemed to eat up the idea too. But then the food industry revved up its campaign machines. Knowing that labeling would increase their overhead costs, discourage customers from buying their products, or both, giant corporations like DuPont, PepsiCo, and Nestle poured millions of dollars each into the committees opposing Prop 37 and I-522. However, no company was more instrumental to their defeat than Monsanto, the founding father of bioengineering and the ringleader of the pro-GMO coalition. In California, Monsanto donated $8,112,866.55 to the No on 37 campaign; in Washington, it contributed $5,374,483.84 against I-522.

Overall in California, Prop 37’s opposition raised $46 million, more than quadruple the $9.6 million raised by pro-labeling forces. (Something more to chew on: They reached that total with only 316 contributions, versus 3,985 contributions to the pro-labeling coalition.) In Washington, the opposition raised $22 million, while labeling supporters mustered just $8.4 million. In both states, they put every penny to devastating use: a massive TV and advertising campaign saturated the airwaves from September through Election Day, and a robust mail program packed postboxes.

Most of the messaging was negative—aiming to plant seeds of doubt in voters’ minds about GMO labeling. The campaigns contested the claim that genetically modified foods were bad for you, touting competing studies finding no links to ill health. They played up the high costs of labeling and the lawsuits that would be sure to result, leading to higher prices at the grocery store and hurting local farmers. They harped on “loopholes” and “special-interest exemptions” in any part of the initiatives that spelled out exactly what would and would not be labeled. It was just enough to make most voters adopt a wait-and-see attitude: “Well, this is a nice idea in theory, but this just doesn’t sound like the best way to implement it.”

With a fraction of the funding, anti-GMO activists just couldn’t keep up. In California, the Prop 37 campaign recruited plenty of volunteers (almost 10,000) but had only had enough money to pay between four and eight professional field organizers—in a state of 163,695 square miles. In Washington, supporters at least had a door-to-door canvassing operation and a direct-targeting program—both missing in California. In both states, the coalitions did make it up on TV, but it was too little, too late.

Some observers see key differences between California/Washington and Oregon/Colorado. Differences there may be, but they won’t matter as long as one thing stays the same: a well-funded opposition. In Oregon, the money has started flowing in from all the usual players: $870,000 from Kraft Foods, $1.4 million from PepsiCo, $4.1 million from Monsanto—including one lump donation on October 8 of $2.5 million. (The single, giant donations were also their MO in 2012 and 2013—the companies have essentially an infinite amount of money to spend, depending on how much they need to compete with proponents.) Last week, a donation from Coca-Cola pushed opposition fundraising to $10.725 million total—breaking the record for costliest ballot measure in Oregon history. (I-522 was also Washington’s most expensive initiative ever.) In Colorado, Prop 105 opponents had dished out $9.7 million as of October 13, or 29 times as much as proponents ($334,000).

The arguments being made with that money are exactly the same as in California and Washington—as specific as “customers already are given choice, since many foods are already labeled as GMO-free” or “the state will have to add a whole extra layer of bureaucracy to handle labeling,” from “the regulations are too complicated” to “this will invite shakedown lawsuits.” They have a playbook, and everything in it is a proven winner. In Oregon, the latest poll has seen the race narrow to 49% for and 44% against Measure 92—with three weeks left for the campaign to keep hammering.

Those who are hungry for change in the food industry have yet to prove they can respond effectively to such relentless onslaught. No matter your views on the GMO issue, that’s not good for what’s supposed to be, again, the purest form of democracy we have on offer. Measure 92 and Proposition 105, then, aren’t just mundane questions of food policy; they’re the most naked example of corporations-versus-the-individual politics on display these days. The average donation to Prop 37 in California was $145,506.30—almost all of the individuals who gave money in that campaign did so to support the measure. In Washington, I-522 opponents raised exactly $550 from five Washington residents—the rest of their millions all came from out-of-state donors. That’s impossible to compete with.

We’re witnessing nothing less than an epic war between the food industry and the grassroots organic movement—but it’s in danger of becoming a rout. Anti-GMO activists haven’t yet stumbled upon the special sauce to defeating their foes, and two more battles are about to be lost. Even as, two to three weeks out, Prop 105 or Measure 92 look like they still have a chance, don’t be fooled; in the end, with a little help from agribusiness, voters are always going to find GMO labeling measures too hard to swallow.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

AG Order: 2014 Race Ratings for Attorney General

First we looked at lieutenant governors; the other day, it was auditors. Today, in the third part of my 2014 downballot race ratings, we'll look at the nation's 31 attorney-general races.

Why should you care about attorneys general? Well, chances are, they interpret the laws you live by—everything from same-sex marriage to voting rights. The parties you belong to spend millions of dollars to hold these prized seats, through party committees like the Republican Attorneys General Association (RAGA) and Democratic Attorneys General Association (DAGA). They also rather often grow up to be your governors and, sometimes, your presidents.

Every state has an attorney general, but the office is appointed in seven states. In the remaining 43, partisan control couldn't be more balanced; Democrats hold 22 seats, and Republicans hold 21. Because of Republican successes in 2010, though, that party is far more exposed in this election, with 17 of their seats up compared to 14 of Democrats'. I project that Democrats should hold onto their 22 seats and are at least an even proposition to add to their numbers.

Below are my race ratings for the 2014 AG races; more in-depth explainers can be found after the jump. For a rundown of my methodology, see my September 26 post; for full downballot race ratings as they become available, surf to my 2014 Ratings page.


Alabama: Likely Republican
The redness of this state should normally be enough to deliver an easy win for the Republican—and that will probably still be the case. But observers in Alabama believe that, for whatever reason, Attorney General Luther Strange is not as safe as Alabama's other incumbents seeking re-election. Democrat Joe Hubbard is anywhere from five points up (in his own polling) to 15 points down (according to a RAGA survey) and has half a million dollars to spend.

Arizona: Tossup
In 2010, Democrat Felecia Rotellini came within 3.8 points of beating Republican Tom Horne for Arizona attorney general. Four years later, Horne is under investigation for having an extramartial affair with a staffer, trying to cover it up, and then trying to cover up illegal campaign activity in his official office uncovered by the investigation into his affair. Republicans breathed a sigh of relief when Horne lost the 2014 primary to Mark Brnovich, but Rotellini still has a strong platform from which to campaign in her second attempt at the job. Rotellini has raised and spent more money than Brnovich, but the RAGA has dropped over $1 million in independent expenditures against Rotellini—showing this race truly is as close as the polls indicate.

Arkansas: Leans Democratic
It's been a crazy few years for the Arkansas AG's office. Democratic incumbent Dustin McDaniel is limping out of office after destroying his political career with an extramarital affair. That left Democratic State Representative Nate Steel and Republican attorney Leslie Rutledge running for the job, but Rutledge has had a rough go of it herself. She made national news when she was found to be registered to vote in three places—Arkansas, Washington, DC, and Virginia—and was purged from the voter rolls (for a while there was even thought this would disqualify her from the race). A past performance review was also leaked that noted her "gross incompetence" and put her on a "do not hire" list; finally, she starred in a RAGA independent-expenditure ad, which probably breaks campaign-coordination laws. It's unclear how much these are the types of scandals voters care about, but she's slipped into a statistical tie in polls after leading in an August PPP survey. She also doesn't have the money to dig herself out of a hole, having spent most of her already-meager fundraising dollars on a tough primary battle. Meanwhile, Steel has run a smooth campaign, has been endorsed by the NRA, and—oh yeah—has it riding for him that a Democrat has never lost an Arkansas attorney general race.

California: Solid Democratic
Democratic Attorney General Kamala Harris is one of the most unstoppable politicians in the country. ETA on the national stage: circa 2024.

Colorado: Likely Republican
Democrats initially harbored high hopes of flipping this open seat into their column, but Republican Cynthia Coffman may actually be the more likely member of her family to get elected in November. (Her husband, Congressman Mike, is in the fight of his life in CO-06.) The RAGA has dumped $2.6 million into this race, and Democrat Don Quick has emptied almost his whole bank account—$446,159—to try to respond. He's been down 10 and nine points in the race's two polls.

Connecticut: Solid Democratic
Democratic Attorney General George Jepsen was easily elected in 2010, and it shouldn't be too tricky for him in 2014. A just-released PPP poll found him up 15 points on Republican "some dude" Kie Westby.

Delaware: Solid Democratic
Perhaps it's an indictment of the lieutenant-governor job that Delaware's LG, Democrat Matthew Denn, is leaving his job mid-term to seek a "promotion" to attorney general this cycle. Regardless, he's steamrolling his no-name Republican opponent as thoroughly as you'd expect for the state's second-most powerful politician.

Florida: Likely Republican
Republican Attorney General Pam Bondi has gained infamy in liberal circles for her active opposition to the Affordable Care Act and same-sex marriage, but she can get away with it as long as she retains one other skill: fundraising. Bondi has raised $3.1 million for her reelection so far this cycle. Although Democrat George Sheldon is an experienced political hand and a credible challenger, she has had a clear upper hand all cycle. The two most recent polls have given her a 17-point lead (albeit in a Republican poll) and an eight-point lead.

Georgia: Likely Republican
In a year when Democrats are surprisingly strong in Georgia's Senate and gubernatorial races, attorney general may not be far behind. Republican incumbent Sam Olens was pulled into the imbroglio over Governor Nathan Deal's interference in his own ethics investigation after Olens's office squelched the ethics commission's complaint about Deal's involvement. The bad press may be cutting into Olens's polling lead, which is down to seven or eight points, according to WXIA.

Idaho: Solid Republican
Attorney General Lawrence Wasden was first elected in 2002, so Idaho voters are comfortable with him; even if they weren't, Democrat Bruce Bistline isn't even campaigning. He filed to run just in case Wasden's primary challenger, whom Bistline apparently really dislikes, won the race. After Wasden triumphed, Bistline announced he has no problems with the incumbent; "I would probably never have bothered to run against Wasden, because my differences with him are fairly nominal." OK then.

Illinois: Solid Democratic
Perhaps the safest prediction of any contested downballot race is that Attorney General Lisa Madigan will beat her Republican challenger Paul Schimpf. In the latest poll, she took 56%, and she also has $4.8 million cash on hand. For those of you scoring at home, that's 600 times as much as Schimpf.

Iowa: Solid Democratic
Democratic incumbent Tom Miller is seeking election to an unprecedented ninth term as attorney general. Republican Adam Gregg isn't intimidated—he's active enough that he's airing campaign ads—but it's still a serious long shot. PPP has polled the race twice and found Miller up by at least 20 points both times.

Kansas: Solid Republican
The Democratic mini-wave that may be sweeping over Kansas in 2014 doesn't look like it'll touch the attorney general race; in an average of four polls, Republican Attorney General Derek Schmidt is up by an average of 22 points. Schmidt is one of the last AGs still fighting same-sex marriage in his state, and he's backed Secretary of State Kris Kobach's controversial plan for a two-tiered voting system.

Maryland: Solid Democratic
This open-seat race provided brief excitement when State Senator Brian Frosh emerged as the surprise victor in the three-way Democratic primary. Republican Jeffrey Pritzker has attacked Frosh over Maryland's new strict gun-control law, Frosh's brainchild in the legislature, but he has no teeth behind the argument; he raised literally zero dollars in the last reporting period. Even in a recent Republican-friendly poll, Frosh led 49–26.

Massachusetts: Solid Democratic
The old-versus-new primary between Harvard-educated, gay, female Maura Healey and labor-supported, Boston-accented former Beacon Hill powerbroker Warren Tolman was the Bay State's marquee primary fight and the real contest for Massachusetts's next top cop. Republican John B. Miller has money and is up on the airwaves, but Massachusetts is just too blue for primary victor Maura Healey to lose.

Michigan: Leans Republican
An incumbent Michigan attorney general hasn't lost re-election in over 60 years, but Michigan Democrats are doing well across the board this year. Despite a serious fundraising disadvantage, Democrat Mark Totten has been nipping at Repubican Bill Schuette's heels in polls. Totten isn't finding it as easy as Gary Peters or even Mark Schauer, but he's not as well known as them, and he's been airing ads with an anti-crime message to change that.

Minnesota: Solid Democratic
The rare AG race without any polling, Minnesota's looks to favor Democratic incumbent Lori Swanson based off the pure fundamentals. No statewide Republican is mounting a serious campaign in 2014, and Swanson is a popular, well-known figure who coasted to a second term in the unfriendly terrain of 2010.

Nebraska: Likely Republican
This rating may be generous to Democrat Janet Stewart, but there are signs this isn't a typical Nebraska election. The AG seat is open for the first time in 12 years, and the Republican administration has been scandalized after it was revealed Nebraska released violent offenders from jail ahead of schedule. If voters are in a punitive mood, they might pull the lever for Stewart, who is also the only candidate in the race to have run statewide before (in 2010, for secretary of state—but she lost). Make no mistake, though—Doug Peterson still has the biggest advantage in this race: the "R" next to his name.

Nevada: Leans Democratic
Nevada is home to one of the most dramatic attorney-general elections in the country. It's a matchup between two dynasties: Democrat Ross Miller, the outgoing secretary of state, is the son of former Nevada Governor Bob Miller, and Republican Adam Laxalt is the grandson of former Nevada Senator Paul Laxalt and the illegitimate son of former New Mexico Senator Pete Domenici. At ages 38 and 34, respectively, it's also a fight for who will be the future face of Nevada politics. So far, it's a fight Miller is winning. Laxalt made national headlines with the leak of an old law-firm evaluation calling him a "train wreck" who "doesn't even have the basic skill set." Laxalt has also uttered what could charitably be called gaffes and uncharitably called lies in debates. However, Republican interests (like Nevadan Sheldon Adelson) have kept the race competitive by pouring money in to defeat Miller—a sort of Terminator-like insurance policy against a future Governor Ross Miller. Laxalt, the RAGA, and other GOP allies have spent $844,000 on TV commercials already; see, I told you downballot races could be interesting.

New Mexico: Leans Democratic
In the absence of public polling, Governing magazine recently rated the New Mexico AG race a tossup. Well, promptly thereafter, two polls of the race were released, both showing Democrat Hector Balderas in the lead for this open seat. Balderas has way more money behind him than does Republican Susan Riedel; in addition to two TV ads of his own, the super PAC the Committee for Justice and Fairness is putting almost $350,000 behind him.

New York: Solid Democratic
Democratic Attorney General Eric Schneiderman was part of Bud Selig's new sexual-orientation initiative for Major League Baseball. Clearly this is why he leads old Albany hand John Cahill (George Pataki's old chief of staff) in all polls (even Cahill internals).

North Dakota: Solid Republican
This easily wins the title for battle of the coolest names: Republican Wayne Stenehjem and Democrat Kiara Kraus-Parr. Stenehjem has been attorney general since 2001. He's been re-elected with 72.5%, 68.9%, and 74.6% of the vote, and there's no reason to think that'll change this year.

Ohio: Likely Republican
The nastiest AG race in the country can be found in the same state as the nastiest auditor race; in fact, pretty much every downballot race in Ohio this year is a death match. Democrat David Pepper was chosen to go up against Buckeye stalwart Mike DeWine, who over the past 30 years has served as senator, congressman, lieutenant governor, and now attorney general. Unsurprisingly, then, DeWine started with the advantage, but Pepper has hit him furiously. In TV commercials, Pepper has accused DeWine of corruption; DeWine has aired three ads of his own and used the most recent one to hit right back. The super PAC Moving Ohio Forward Network has also contributed to the broadcast bravado. Polling so far has indicated that it's DeWine who is emerging less bloodied; after Ohio Democrats declined to release a poll contradicting a GOP pollster's 29-point DeWine lead—despite having good numbers for other statewide Democrats—many assumed that Pepper knows he is losing. Both have over $2.4 million on hand, so expect to hear a lot more from both candidates for the rest of the season.

Oklahoma: Solid Republican
Given how high-profile the office can be in a state, it's somewhat surprising that attorney general could go uncontested anywhere—but if it's going to be somewhere, it makes sense that it's Oklahoma. Republican Attorney General Scott Pruitt does not face an opponent this cycle and can start planning now for his second term.

Rhode Island: Likely Democratic
Ocean State Republicans have some ammunition in their constitutional elections this year: Republican Dawson Hodgson, for instance, has taken a page out of the gubernatorial playbook in harping on the state's ill-fated 38 Studios deal with Curt Schilling's video-game company. It's made both that race and this race a little closer than you'd expect in this blue state, and Hodgson has the money to make the charges stick. The bet here is that Democratic incumbent Peter Kilmartin wins this one, but only if he stays on his toes. WPRI is releasing the race's first poll today, which should lend us some clarity.

South Carolina: Solid Republican
Oddly, Republican Attorney General Alan Wilson—not the musician—is running against Democrat Parnell Diggs—who is a musician. If you ever meet Diggs, give him a hug; the blind attorney has spent his life overcoming disability, married his high-school sweetheart, and seems like an all-around great guy, but he's woefully overmatched, at just $438 cash on hand. Here's hoping he'll run a campaign his son Jordan can be proud of, despite the predestined 20-point loss.

South Dakota: Solid Republican
Attorney General Marty Jackley faces only Libertarian Chad Haber in the general, raising the question: what exactly would a Libertarian attorney general do? Other than being sucked into the void for being a paradox, I mean. Anyway, with no Democratic opposition, only Scott Pruitt stands between Jackley and being the safest AG in America.

Texas: Solid Republican
State Senator Ken Paxton (R) is a pretty strong candidate, sure, but was he the general who won the Battle of San Jacinto, the only man to be elected governor of two different states, and both the first and third president of the Republic of Texas? Democratic politician Sam Houston was. Too bad it's a different Democratic politician named Sam Houston running for Texas AG this year.

Utah: Solid Republican
The election that shouldn't have happened. Usually, Utah elects its attorneys general in presidential years along with all its other constitutional officers, but the last four times they did that, it turned out they were electing brazenly corrupt criminals. In December 2013, Republican John Swallow resigned as attorney general due to his and his predecessor Mark Shurtleff's pending arrest for receiving and soliciting bribes, accepting gifts that were clearly influencing their official work, and destroying evidence to cover it all up. Utah's governor appointed Republican Sean Reyes to helm the office until a special election could be held. Reyes has managed to completely avoid being tainted with any whiff of the old office's scandal, which makes it odd that some commentators consider this a winnable race for Democrat Charles Stormont. Perhaps because he is a longtime employee in the attorney general's office, Stormont hasn't harped on the scandal very much, despite Democrats' clear position as the party of change. Instead the race has largely been about same-sex marriage, and Utah is still Utah.

Vermont: Solid Democratic
Democrat Bill Sorrell has been elected eight times Vermont's attorney general, and he is the longest-serving AG in state history. Republican Shane McCormack says, "I'm just a guy." He'll also be just that after Election Day.

Wisconsin: Tossup
Many would argue we've saved the best for last. Controversial Attorney General JB Van Hollen is retiring, leaving an open seat smack-dab in the most bitterly contested state in the union. Democrat Susan Happ emerged from a three-way primary to challenge Republican Brad Schimel; the two are district attorneys of adjacent counties. While the TV ads are only just beginning, the candidates have used debates to draw contrasts on issues like the state's same-sex-marriage ban and Wisconsin's on-again-off-again voter-ID law. Schimel's defense of both laws got him into hot water when he also said he would reluctantly defend a ban on interracial marriage. The race has seen multiple polls that are nearly unanimous in showing a statistically tied race. This is about as much of a tossup as it gets.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

2014 Race Ratings: Auditioning for Auditor

All month long, I'll be using this space to rate the state of 2014's underappreciated races down the ballot. The other day I looked at lieutenant governors; in this second installment in the series, I'll look at each party's chances in the 15 races for state auditor. It's juicier than it sounds; in one race, a candidate has been scandalized by the public broadcasting of his salacious emails; in another, the Republican Party's last hold on a northeastern state is at stake; in yet another, a candidate continues her remarkable run of running unopposed for every office she has sought. Overall, 15 state auditor jobs are up for grabs this year, 10 of which are currently held by Republicans (thanks to the 2010 wave) and five of which are held by Democrats, who could take control of a majority of auditorships this year.

Without further ado, here are the race ratings for auditor; more in-depth explainers can be found after the jump. For a rundown of my methodology, see my September 26 post; for full downballot race ratings as they become available, surf to my 2014 Ratings page.


Alabama: Solid Republican
With incumbent Samantha Shaw term-limited, two people without political experience are running for the open seat. With $19,000 cash on hand between them, there won't be much of a race, so this election will default to your generic Republican-wipes-out-Democrat-by-20-points Alabama campaign.

Arkansas: Tossup
An Arkansas legend is retiring in Democratic Auditor Charlie Daniels. Democrat Regina Stewart Hampton is an employee in Daniels's office and presumably has his backing, but Republican State Representative Andrea Lea is running in a good year for the GOP. The race's single poll, from PPP, showed Lea up 35% to 31%, indicating no one but staunch partisans have made up their minds. This race will likely go how the other close Arkansas races go, with the victorious Senate and/or gubernatorial candidates pulling the auditor-to-be across the finish line. Since it's not yet clear who that will be, it's safest to consider this a tossup.

Delaware: Leans Democratic
An old-fashioned Northeast Republican, Auditor R. Thomas Wagner Jr. has been in office since 1989, but that doesn't mean he's necessarily beloved; he won by just seven points in 2006 and only a few hundred votes in 2010. Delaware liberals believe Democrat Brenda Mayrack, the former ED of the state party, is the right person to bring him down. I give the edge to the Democrat because Wagner almost lost in a more Republican year to a possible child pornographer and because, according to campaign-finance records, Wagner hasn't raised any money in 2014.

Indiana: Solid Republican
Auditor Suzanne Crouch is actually running for election for the first time, having been appointed to the job in 2013. She may as well be the incumbent, though, with her six-to-one cash-on-hand advantage over Democrat Michael Claytor. That and Indiana's Republican lean will be enough for her.

Iowa: Leans Republican
Another gubernatorial appointee, Republican Auditor Mary Mosiman is also running in her first election—but Iowa is a much swingier state than Indiana. Mosiman has run a consistent couple of points ahead of Democrat Jon Neiderbach, who has raised almost no money; it was 41% to 35% in the latest survey. Since it currently looks like the GOP will be the ones with coattails in Iowa, all signs seem to be pointing—albeit narrowly—to a Mosiman hold.

Massachusetts: Solid Democratic
While the 2010 Republican wave largely missed Massachusetts, Democrat Suzanne Bump only barely won the auditor's race, 48.6% to 46.2%. Four years later, she faces accusations that she fired a top aide after the aide objected to Bump doing political work on state time. Sounds like a recipe for an upset, right? Nope—Bump is one of the safest incumbents in the country this year. Just one of those things.

Minnesota: Solid Democratic
Republican Randy Gilbert may have had an outside chance at toppling two-term incumbent Rebecca Otto... before his sexually explicit emails got leaked. Turns out Gilbert was meeting up with a Minnesota real-estate agent for romantic trysts inside the homes the agent was showing to prospective buyers. "I may have a special place in my...for that one. :)," an email to Gilbert's account read. "When I think of ALL of the properties we have 'visited'. I shake my head and get...not what I expected when I got my license." The most suggestive bits have been cut short, much like Gilbert's chances of becoming auditor.

Missouri: Solid Republican
This one's easy—Republican Auditor Tom Schweich faces only a Libertarian and a Constitution Party candidate; it is thought to be the only time in the past century no Democrat is on the Missouri ballot.

Nebraska: Likely Republican
Democrat Amanda McGill and Republican Charlie Janssen are quite evenly matched as candidates to take over for the outgoing Mike Foley; both are members of the state legislature, and McGill has actually churned out better fundraising numbers ($143,433 raised in the cycle to Janssen's $79,581). Nebraska's red hue, though, means that McGill will really need to make a name for herself to avoid being yet another generic Democrat who goes down to defeat.

New Mexico: Likely Democratic
Even though Governor Susana Martínez is going to cruise to re-election, there's enough of a stink around her administration that being a Martínez crony—as Republican auditor candidate Robert Aragon is—will probably hurt rather than help. As Aragon is at a $3,551-to-$252,759 cash-on-hand disadvantage, it's likely that the more seasoned State Senator Tim Keller (D) has this one in the bag.

Ohio: Leans Republican
This is the rare auditor race that's a real campaign—forcing voters to pay attention. Republican incumbent Dave Yost and State Representative John Patrick Carney have slammed each other in debates, and Carney is even airing multiple ads (including one baseball-themed one). With the help of organized labor, he has outraised Yost in five of the last seven campaign-finance reports (but still trails in cash on hand, $1.6 million to $1.2 million). Downballot Democrats in Ohio have had to contend with the drag on the ticket that is gubernatorial candidate Ed FitzGerald, but Carney and treasurer candidate Connie Pillich are seen as having the best chances to overcome that. According to PPP, Yost led 42% to 40% in July, and the University of Akron found Yost up 26% to 22% in September. Carney's internals reportedly show him trailing by "only a few points"—a pretty sure sign that he's the underdog if that's the best he can report. Still, it's clear this is a real race.

Oklahoma: Solid Republican
There aren't a lot of Democrats in Oklahoma, so maybe there just weren't enough to run for every available office? None is running for state auditor and inspector, and neither is anyone else, save incumbent Republican Gary Jones. He has a 100% chance of winning.

South Dakota: Solid Republican
No Democrat filed to challenge South Dakota Auditor Steve Barnett (R), either; he faces just token opposition from Libertarian Kurt Evans.

Vermont: Solid Democratic
Despite a close race in 2012 (Vermont elects its constitutional officers every two years), Auditor Doug Hoffer (D/Prog) is unopposed in 2014.

Wyoming: Solid Republican
Capping off our streak of uncontested races is Wyoming Auditor Cynthia Cloud. First elected in 2010 without any opposition, she is also the only candidate running in 2014. That means Cynthia Cloud has never faced an opponent in her entire political career. Ah, to live in Wyoming.

Monday, September 29, 2014

The Real Battle in #MAgov: WBUR vs. the Boston Globe

Look at a graph of Massachusetts governor polls this year and you'd think it's been an extremely volatile race: the last five polls have gone Baker +2, Coakley +10, a tie, Coakley +3, and Coakley +9. Problem is, you'd be wrong. The horse race has actually been remarkably stable; it's the campaign's two premier pollers that have diverged.

Almost all of the polls that have shown a statistically tied race have come from SocialSphere and been sponsored by the Boston Globe. SocialSphere conducts a weekly tracking poll of the race, and its last three results have been Baker +2, Coakley +3, and Baker +1. On the other hand, the MassINC Polling Group runs a weekly tracking poll of its own, sponsored by WBUR, Boston's public-radio station. MassINC's results have consistently given Democratic Attorney General Martha Coakley a solid lead: Coakley +10, Coakley +9, Coakley +5, and Coakley +9 in the same time span as the Globe polls.

So even though the polling average suggests a "Leans Democratic" race, this contest is probably either "Likely Democratic" or an outright "Tossup." But which pollster is right? Let's poke around into each poll to see where their discrepancies might originate. The most recent Globe/SocialSphere poll is here with crosstabs here. The latest WBUR/MassINC polling memo is here, and crosstabs are here.

The differences aren't immediately obvious to find. Both polls use registration-based sampling and called both landlines and cell phones. Both firms conduct live telephone interviews, and the sample sizes were not significantly different (502 likely voters for MassINC, 400 likely voters for SocialSphere). The similar methodologies produced similar samples, too. The MassINC poll breaks down as 36% Democrats, 12% Republicans, and 52% unenrolled. The SocialSphere poll's partisanship is 35% Democratic, 13% Republican, and 52% unenrolled. MassINC's sample was 84% white, and SocialSphere's was 85%.

There were some slight differences. The SocialSphere sample was 55% female, while MassINC's was 52%. And although the age categories did not line up perfectly between the two polls, it looks like SocialSphere surveyed a much older electorate. For MassINC, 38% of respondents were age 44 or younger vs. 29% for SocialSphere. Half of SocialSphere's sample was 55+, while just 29% of MassINC's was 60+. But the biggest difference of all was in level of education. The electorate projected by SocialSphere was 30% postgraduate degrees, while only 16% had some college, but no degree. For MassINC, only 21% had an advanced degree, and a full 29% said the highest education they had reached was some college but no degree.

However, none of these explains the 12-point discrepancy. SocialSphere's bigger pool of female voters should have helped Coakley do better in the Globe poll than the WBUR poll, not worse. (More to blame is the fact that Coakley led women by a whopping 25 points according to MassINC and "just" 15 points according to SocialSphere.) And MassINC found that the candidates were more or less tied among "some college, no degree" voters but that Coakley was way ahead with holders of postgraduate degrees (the SocialSphere poll was too small to provide crosstabs for each specific education category), which, again, should have underestimated her support. Finally, although both polls agreed that Martha Coakley did best with young voters (52% to 28% among 18- to 29-year-olds per MassINC; 57% to 19% among 18- to 34-year-olds per SocialSphere), Coakley won every age group in the MassINC poll, so her lead wasn't just due to millennials. It was more that the polls wildly disagreed on how older voters felt. SocialSphere gave Baker a whopping 51%-to-29% lead among voters ages 55–64.

As you can probably tell by now, the real disagreement between the polls has to do not with their sampling, but with how each candidate is performing with different segments of the electorate—the most confounding and unresolvable way to disagree. Is Baker winning independents 45% to 23%, as SocialSphere says? Or is it basically a tie game, 43% to 38%, as MassINC says? How do women voters genuinely feel—massively pro-Coakley, or does Baker still have a fighting chance with them? And are voters making $150,000 or more really spurning the millionaire Baker to vote for Coakley, 46%–38% (MassINC), or is Baker the one up by 47%–38% among those making $100,000 or more a year (SocialSphere)? We won't truly know until Election Day.

Normally I would defer to the better pollster, but neither firm in this case has really given us a reason to doubt it. MassINC is an extremely reputable firm up in the Bay State, with a long record of excellence and a solid B rating from FiveThirtyEight's newly released Pollster Ratings. SocialSphere, meanwhile, is a newish firm, so it doesn't have a pre-2014 track record to base any judgments off (indeed, FiveThirtyEight doesn't even give it a rating). And if you're looking to outside pollsters to break the tie, you're out of luck; since the beginning of September, two national firms polled the state, and one agreed with MassINC and one agreed with SocialSphere. When it comes to how Massachusetts's key constituencies are feeling in this surprisingly close race, the best any of us non-professionals can do right now is guess.

UPDATE: Maybe we don't have to wait until Election Day after all. A spate of polls Monday all agreed with the Globe results, and then WBUR's tracking poll released on October 1 also moved in line with the SocialSphere numbers.



Friday, September 26, 2014

Introducing a Different Breed of 2014 Race Ratings: Lieutenant Governor

You might've heard there's an election coming up. You probably know it will decide control of the US Senate. If you're lucky, you've heard that a handful of governors are on the ballot too. The US House of Representatives will also be elected, you're told, but those elections don't really matter.

If you listen to professional political handicappers, that's the end of it. In fact, it's not. It may not have the sex appeal of a presidential election, but in this even-numbered midterm, pretty much everything but president is on the ballot: 30 lieutenant governors, 26 secretaries of state, 31 attorneys general, 87 state-legislative chambers, 173 mayors, 144 statewide ballot measures, and even a heck of a lot more. These are the elections that people should truly care about, because these are the elections that truly make the policy that we feel, on the ground, in our daily lives.

Yet these races suffer from a lack of analysis and handicapping. State-based political observers may have a good idea of where the wind is blowing downballot, but they rarely formalize their thoughts into race ratings; meanwhile, big names in forecasting, like Charlie Cook, stick to, well, the big races. It's that gap I want to try to bridge.

I thought about releasing Senate and gubernatorial race ratings this year, as I did in 2012, but I realized anything I put together would just be a reheated take on the conventional wisdom. Leaving the top of the ticket to the true experts, I'm going to try something that I don't think has been done yet for 2014: evaluating this year's state elections below governor and handicap them on the familiar Solid-Likely-Leans scale.

My goal between now and Election Day will be to Cook up (see what I did there?) race ratings for all the state constitutional offices—adjutant general, agriculture commissioner, attorney general, auditor, commissioner of labor, commissioner of state/public lands, comp/controller, insurance commissioner, lieutenant governor, mine inspector, railroad commissioner, secretary of state, superintendent, tax commissioner, and treasurer—that don't get the treatment they deserve and then to classify those races in a language politicos are accustomed to. The ratings will be published to the new "2014 Ratings" tab in the menu above, and each new set will be accompanied by an explanatory blog post. This post announces the debut ratings: those for lieutenant governor.

There are only 11 states to rank for lieutenant governor—a relatively modest lift—so if you'll indulge me for just a bit longer, I'd like to spend more time outlining my methodology for these and future ratings.

First, although I consider quantitative factors, the ratings are qualitative—this is not a model. Unfortunately, with these downballot races, there is scant polling to base a prediction upon, so the ratings are openly subjective. I make the best guess I can based on a combination of factors, including candidate quality (including incumbency), fundraising totals, the overall political climate in the state, and the state's partisan lean. I rank a race as "Solid" if I believe there is simply no evidence that that party can lose that seat. "Likely" means I acknowledge the race is in play, but in my heart of hearts I don't see it going to the other party. "Leans" means I believe a race could reasonably go either way, but I have identified enough of a tilt that I'm comfortable making a call. And, finally, "Tossup" means I simply have no freaking idea.

Each new set of ratings will look like the lieutenant-governor chart below. Each race occupies a row and a column—the row denoting my ranking of the competitiveness of the race, and the column depending on which party currently holds the seat. While columns are binary—a seat is either Democrat-held or Republican-held—rows are a spectrum, going from the most Democrat-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.

With that, finally, here is how lieutenant governor breaks down. Of the 50 states, 45 have lieutenant governors. Two are not popularly chosen, however, leaving 43 lieutenant-governor elections. Twenty-one of these are conducted jointly with gubernatorial elections in both the primary and general, and an additional five LGs run on their own in the primary but fused on a ticket in the general. That leaves 17 states where lieutenant governors are their own, separate elections.

Four of these stand for election only in presidential years, while two more stand in odd years. That leaves 11 states holding lieutenant-governor elections in 2014 that are separate from their states' gubernatorial elections and that thus require their own ratings. (I consider the 19 additional lieutenant governors being elected this fall on tickets as already ranked by other handicappers' gubernatorial ratings.) The states are Alabama, Arkansas, California, Georgia, Idaho, Nevada, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Texas, and Vermont.

Most of these races are snoozers, with no Leans races and only one Tossup. Republicans are heavily favored to win most of the seats, but that has a lot do with the fact that they hold eight of them already. One that maybe they shouldn't hold is Vermont, where Progressive Party candidate Dean Corren is getting $200,000 in public financing (that's a lot for a campaign in Vermont) and where the voters are already among the most liberal in the nation. But incumbent Phil Scott is an old-fashioned New England Republican, and he's beloved in the Green Mountain State; just 4% (!) disapproved of him in a 2012 poll.

Arkansas looked interesting for a time, but ever since Republican Congressman Tim Griffin jumped into the race—and Democrat John Burkhalter faced accusations of workplace violence—the momentum has shifted to the GOP in polls, a microcosm of how Arkansas Democrats have seen their ability to cruise to statewide wins suddenly evaporate in recent cycles. With Griffin's $433,980-to-$42,541 cash-on-hand lead, this one is barely on the fringe of competitiveness now. If we're judging by fundraising, there are actually two red-state races that Democrats have better shots in. In South Carolina, 30-year-old Bakari Sellers (D), the son of a local civil-rights activist, has raised almost as much as Republican Henry McMaster and has 2.8 times his cash on hand. In Texas, State Senator Leticia Van de Putte (D) is as good a candidate as Dan Patrick (R)—who previously called himself Dannie Goeb and hired undocumented immigrants to work at his bar, despite today referring to immigration as an "invasion"—is a bad one. Van de Putte has raised a million dollars and has $1.2 million on hand (outpacing Patrick in both measures) but has struggled to gain traction in polls (she was most recently down 46% to 26%).

In the end, the only truly exciting LG race—and it is quite exciting indeed—is the one in Nevada. Democratic Assemblywoman Lucy Flores and Republican State Senator Mark Hutchison are vying for the open seat; it's universally agreed to be the most important downballot race in the country because a Republican victory could encourage Governor Brian Sandoval to challenge Majority Leader Harry Reid in 2016. There has been no polling in the race since the primary, but the candidates together had raised almost $900,000 through only June 6 (the next campaign-finance report is due October 14). Flores has the benefit of a great story and the backing of Reid's political machine, but Hutchison has Sandoval's coattails. The race is unpredictable right now, and given Nevada's close political divide, it's an obvious candidate for "Tossup" status.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

How Andrew Jackson Convinced America to Wage War on the Islamic State

For the second straight September 10th, Barack Obama faced the bright lights and television cameras and made his case for intervention in Syria. “Our own safety—our own security—depends upon our willingness to do what it takes to defend this nation and uphold the values that we stand for,” the president concluded. “Timeless ideals that will endure long after those who offer only hate and destruction have been vanquished from the Earth.”

As with most things this president does, the predominant sentiment among the chattering classes was skepticism. But there was a remarkable difference from the last time Obama had made a plea to get involved in the Middle East. On September 10th, 2013, a deep reluctance pervaded Capitol Hill—as well as the voting public—following Obama’s speech arguing that America must react with force to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons. His inability to corral support soon led to an abandonment of the more bellicose elements of his plan. But by September 10th, 2014, congressional leaders had made a 180; many were fearful that Obama’s plan to fight the Islamic State in both Iraq and Syria did not go far enough in eradicating the emergent terrorist group.

With fatigue over the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as a heightened urgency surrounding domestic issues (i.e., the economy), American public opinion has made a well-documented turn toward isolationism in the past decade. So what explains the sudden turn toward gung-ho intervention this summer?

Perhaps a 13-year-old book called Special Providence. In this influential international-relations text, political scientist Walter Russell Mead seeks to answer the age-old question of how to characterize and classify the American foreign-policy tradition. He argues that American opinion on foreign policy is a mixture of four schools of thought, each embodied by a different great American: Alexander Hamilton, Woodrow Wilson, Thomas Jefferson, or Andrew Jackson.
  • Hamiltonians believe in a strong federal government with an active foreign policy. Their primary concern is America’s economic empire; they are realists who seek to build a world order that maximizes commercial opportunities and strengthens American business both here and overseas.
  • Wilsonians think that America has a moral responsibility to the rest of the world. The original Wilsonians were Christian missionaries, but today they believe that peace, democracy, and human rights are values all nations must share for a better world—and thus American foreign policy should actively promote these values.
  • Jeffersonians, in contrast, disdain foreign engagements in favor of preserving democracy at home. To achieve their main goal of protecting Americans’ freedoms, they support only deescalating, diplomatic solutions that deflect war. As strict constitutional constructionists, they also put their faith in Congress, not an overstepping executive branch taking unilateral action.
  • Jacksonians want to be left alone, and they believe the best way to do so is to be well armed. They dislike international entanglements, but they care deeply about defending the homeland. Even though they are suspicious of big government, they love a strong military, and, if America is threatened, they do not hesitate to unleash its full force to indiscriminately destroy our enemies.
In short, Hamiltonians and Jacksonians believe American interests are paramount, while Wilsonians and Jeffersonians focus on American values. Yet Hamiltonians and Wilsonians agree that America should take a global outlook to foreign policy, while Jeffersonians and Jacksonians are more insular. The schools convincingly resonate with what we know about how foreign-policy decisions were made in the past—and what motivates people today.

Although one school has frequently been enough to shape an administration’s entire foreign policy, one school is rarely enough to garner the majority support of the public. Such was the case with Syria in 2013. The case for intervention a year ago was a Wilsonian one: acting as the “policeman of the world,” the U.S. felt it had a responsibility to enforce the international norm against chemical-weapons use and to provide humanitarian relief to the Syrian populace. There was no economic incentive to entice Hamiltonians; there was no clear and present danger to convince Jacksonians.

With one quarter of schools to justify it, support for intervention was mired around one quarter of respondents in polls. In a CBS News/New York Times poll conducted September 19–23, 2013, just 26% said “the United States has a responsibility to do something about the fighting in Syria.” An ABC News/Washington Post poll conducted the same month put support for airstrikes at just 30%; Gallup measured support for “military action” at 28%.

But the same polls a year later tell a different story. In an ABC News/Washington Post poll conducted August 13–17, 2014, a full 54% of Americans favored airstrikes against the Islamic State in Iraq, compared to 39% who were opposed. The same month, the Pew Research Center and USA Today found 54% who approved of airstrikes and 31% who disapproved. Pew went on to find a sharp increase in the number of Americans who believe the U.S. does too little to solve world problems. In November 2013, 17% said so and 51% said the U.S. does too much; in August 2014, 31% said too little and 39% said too much.

Last year’s dilemma and this one have important differences that explain Americans’ sudden hawkishness. In 2013, we would have fought Assad; in 2014, we are bombing the Islamic State. In 2013, we would have been inserting ourselves into Syria; in 2014, the question is over a country we got at Pottery Barn. And 2013’s intervention would have been humanitarian, while 2014’s is more about national security.

These differences have won over adherents of multiple schools, explaining the popularity of airstrikes today. Wilsonians still support intervention, since the Islamic State threatens the well-being of non-Sunnis, including the now-famous Yazidis whose confinement on Sinjar Mountain was the original impetus for the strikes. Hamiltonians now have a reason to get involved, since the Islamic State controls copious oil wells. But, with 67% of Americans saying the Islamic State is a “major threat,” the beast that has truly been awakened is the public’s Jacksonian strain. With their one criterion (danger to the homeland) fulfilled, Jacksonians are now more than ready—they are itching—to bring full American military might down on the Islamic State.

Better than any other school, the Jacksonian influence can actually be pinpointed in the polls. Jacksonians tend to be anti-elite populists with a strong sense of honor, self-reliance, and military pride. According to Mead, “Jacksonians are today’s Fox News watchers,” and in their constant hatred of big government they often see conspiracy theories about elites trying to build a world government. In other words, they are Tea Party Republicans!

According to each poll’s crosstabs, Tea Partiers account for most of the shift in public opinion. In the ABC News/Washington Post poll, 63% of “conservative Republicans” supported airstrikes (+9 points from the overall sample). In the Pew poll, the GOP is supportive by a whopping 71% to 14% (+17 points on the overall sample). Tea Party Republicans specifically are nearly unanimous (91%; +24 points) in saying that the Islamic State is a major threat. And on the question over U.S. involvement in the world, the Tea Party completely reversed itself: in November 2013, they said the U.S. does too much global problem-solving 54% to 22%; in August 2014, they said the U.S. does too little 54% to 33%. Democrats and independents also shifted toward interventionism, but by just 10 points each, meaning they still comfortably say the U.S. does too much, even today.

Paradoxically, then, Obama’s newest foreign-policy agenda could be saved by his biggest adversaries. He may very well have drawn it up this way; the president’s words in last Wednesday’s speech were no accident. Before referring to upholding our values and “timeless ideals,” he appealed to “our own safety,” “our own security,” “our willingness to do what it takes to defend this nation.” Perhaps learning from his 2013 failures, he has successfully built a coalition of Wilsonians and Jacksonians who are giving him the political capital he needs to see a mission through in the Middle East. Perhaps the difference in the interim was he read a little Walter Russell Mead.