Wednesday, July 30, 2008

What the Veep is Going On?

(Getting some thoughts on the Veepstakes in under the wire as I sense an imminent announcement.)

The Running Mate: Does it Matter or Not?

Generally, the VP selection has no bearing on the race. Studies show that a running mate may move a few points in a few states, and even winning selections like Lloyd Bentsen can’t really give a big boost to the top of the ticket. The Veepstakes is kind of like endorsements in primaries, largely insider-process stories that the press slobbers all over but end up swaying few voters in the end. That said, I think the VP selection is somewhat more significant for the “outsider” candidate, who needs to clear the “is this guy up for the job?” hurdle. Establishment nominees, those who got there by paying their dues like Mondale, GHW Bush, Dole, Gore, Kerry, and now McCain, have too long a record to change their personae by a VP choice alone. Knowing this, these candidates typically pick a candidate from another wing of their own party or patch up a perceived weakness. (My guess is McCain goes with Pawlenty over Romney as the solid, sensible choice.)

Unproven candidates, on the other hand, generally have a thin record of accomplishment. Hence the added scrutiny of the selection of a running mate, which is the nominee’s only tangible major decision that voter can assess before election time. So Bush, seen by many as an affable lightweight, mollified some doubters by picking (what appeared at the time to be) an Old Wise Man, Dick Cheney. Small-time governor Bill Clinton went with wonkish insider Al Gore, who of course also was a youthful Southern moderate that “doubled down” on the ticket’s Southern centrist appeal. And of course, youthful "inexperienced" Kennedy's pick of Lyndon B. Johnson may have been decisive, the only plausible instance of a Veep choice affecting an election's outcome.

Let’s remember that presidential elections are typically decided by low-information swing voters, which leads to other considerations. Though this election overwhelmingly favors the Democrats, the party has ironically chosen as its standard-bearer the riskiest candidate perhaps in the history of presidential politics. Not only is Barack Obama a black guy, he’s a man with a strange name, an exotic background, and just a few scant years on the public scene. (If Obama had been a celebrity senator on his third term, his background would be far less of an issue.) Of course, Obama also happens to be the most talented politician in a couple of generations, which has allowed him to make it this far. But his uncommon profile makes him uniquely vulnerable to smears and character-based attacks that target low-information voters.

So everything’s screwy in 2008. In a year where (1) a generic Democrat creams a generic Republican, (2) where Barack Obama shows himself to be the most charismatic politician in the country running the most impressive campaign apparatus the Democrats have ever seen; and (3) where John McCain shows himself to be a listless, flailing candidate running a pathetic campaign, the race remains tight. Indeed, John McCain can very well beat Barack Obama. No matter how impressive Obama’s candidacy is, how sensible his policy prescriptions are, how much money he raises, how much smarter and more knowledgeable he is compared to John McCain, how much more high-minded his campaign is, and how much better his stagecraft happens to be, Obama remains beatable.

That’s because most low information voters do not pay attention to campaign stories, and so don't register these demonstrated strengths. Instead they focus on other, big picture questions, like the “who is he and what has he done?” One of the classic mistakes by campaigns and among pundits and analysts is to presume that low-information swing voters process political information the same way as highly engaged voters. They don’t. Persuadable voters aren't watching Hardball, reading David Brooks, or view a vote for the 1990 budget deal as a sign of "centrism". Detailed studies of voter cognition and decision-making patterns show that, by and large undecided voters are less partisan and informed. They're mainly leading their lives and tuning in to politics occasionally, obtaining incomplete and often wrong information about candidates. Polls show that pluralities of voters misidentify candidates' positions and generally are misinformed about salient facts.

This leads to the Democrats' greatest problem in 2008, which is that, at the low-information level, they face a severe perception problem: McCain is known as "the cranky old Republican POW who seems to be a straight-shooter", while Obama is the "young inexperienced black guy with a questionable background who is popular with young folks and foreigners." I believe this perception gap explains the closeness of the race. Obama must get enough of these voters to see McCain as an old, Bush-supporting war-monger while making himself acceptable as a mainstream candidate in order to win. He's not quite there yet and probably won't get there for a while.

Essentially, we're stuck with a strange dynamic where Obama should win in a landslide, but doesn’t appear to be opening up a big lead, which results in a lot of pundits and politicos declaring that the election is a referendum on Obama. Under this theory, if Obama crosses some acceptability threshold, he wins. If he falls short, McCain might win a squeaker.

What Obama Needs in a Veep

I generally buy this framework, with the caveat that Obama can win this election even if voters harbor many doubts about him, if he can render McCain toxic. This is one reason why I think his running mate should not be a milquetoast uniter-type, but an aggressive political brawler. A brawler, of course, will damage Obama's above politics "brand" some, but my view is that the vast majority of voters left to be won over aren't going to be swayed reform-of-politics type messages or the arena rallies.

Ideally, the running mate will shore up Obama's liabilities and attack McCain in a way that Obama cannot. Obama’s essentially dilemma is not a choice between “doubling down on 'Change'” or “shoring up the experience gap,” as the chattering class would have it. What’s actually more important for Obama is what I talked about above: mollifying doubts from the less-politically-aware voters about how risky he is. Is he offering too much change? Is this young black guy really ready for the Oval Office? Who is this guy? These are questions often raised in focus groups right now, and it’s clear that this “mysterious stranger” problem remains Obama’s biggest liability. McCain’s strategy has become pretty clear: though they’ll make noises about Obama being a “tax and spend liberal”, they really are going all out to paint Obama as “presumptuous” (read: uppity), an arrogant young whippersnapper with dubious allegiance to the country and who neither has the life experience nor knowledge to be president. What’s left of the GOP echo chamber will continue to push the Obama is unpatriotic meme, while the subterranean elements push e-mail smears.

For the next three months, the Democratic nominee will, ironically, have to run almost a completely different campaign than the one he ran in the primary. The insurgent reformer running a personality and process-based candidacy, which worked so well in the primary, will have to be shelved six days a week (the folks who can be persuaded by political reform messaging are already with him, and the election of a black guy named Obama is already plenty of “change” for most). Meanwhile, Obama will need to emphasize the generic Democratic aspects to his candidacy. Prior to the Barack World Tour, Obama was already doing this, by ratcheting down the rallies and focusing on bread-and-butter Democratic issues at low-key events. He's all but eliminated the up-with-people rhetoric. I expect that will continue, and I’m guessing that they’ll eventually modify the popular slogan “Change You Can Believe In” to a line that connotes something more concrete. The central irony of this election cycle is that the sui generis Obama has to become Just Another Democrat to enough people to win.

So given the strategy, what kind of person should he tab? First, someone not perceived by the voters as risky – someone either very well –known or otherwise appears to be “safe” – will show that Obama’s not some radical hell-bent on destroying the system in order to save it. Second, a politician with demonstrated expertise in either economic issues or military policy will provide a “credentials” boost sorely needed by Obama, who is in this weird position of being able to demonstrate greater mastery of Middle East issues or leveraged-mortgage instruments compared to McCain, but who, being “young and inexperienced,” will likely be given little to no credit by swing voters even after such a demonstration. (My fear is that Obama falls prey to the common Democratic afflicting of believing that undecided voters largely understand the implications of policy prescriptions.) Third, the ticket-mate must have proven campaign skills, being both a disciplined messenger and an eager attack dog. In our vicious 24-hour media cycle, every gaffe is magnified, so message discipline is extremely valuable. “First do no harm,” they say. And since Obama’s generally a far more comfortable counterpuncher, it’s very important to have a strong, aggressive running mate who will capably deliver the hard low blows when called upon. And it goes without saying that these candidates should be carefully vetted so that distractions (see John Edwards) won’t pop up at inopportune times.

With that bit of throat-clearing out of the way, here are my personal preferences, in order.

1. Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton (NY)

No, really. Last month this looked like a pretty bad idea, and she still might be a poor choice, for the reasons that others have expounded on (polarizing, turns off independents, Bill Clinton’s shady dealings, Clinton fatigue). And the arguments typically brought on her behalf are nonsensical. Worse still is that her vicious attacks on Obama (“hasn’t passed the commander-in-chief threshold,” etc.) in the primary will be revived by Republicans and the press constantly. Plus, the often racist and petulant dead-enders still supporting her defunct candidacy are the most contemptible people around. No one wants to cave in to their idiotic demands.

Yet there are a few overwhelming factors in her favor. One, she’s the only potential VP who can truly be said to have voters in her pocket. Polls usually show that anywhere from 10-20% of HRC primary voters resist Obama. While I expect close to half of those voters to eventually come on board even without Clinton on the ticket, HRC’s presence would pretty much guarantee that a majority of these dead-enders will pull the donkey lever. This persuadable dead-ender group, largely older white women, is worth maybe 3%, enough to swing the election. She’s the only Veep who can likely swing an important slightly-lean-McCain state, Florida, to the Dems. And while HRC presence would turn off independents and some persuadable Republicans, that effect is wholly speculative (though she will probably hurt more than help in the unconventional states Obama is really going after in the Mountain West and Virginia.).

Just as importantly, Hillary is as well-known as any politician in America. Even if some folks hate her, non-wingnut voters tend to believe she’s at least competent, experienced, and won’t run the country into the ground. She’s also become an extremely effective campaigner, proving to be a disciplined and on-message candidate who’s grown to be more personable on the trail. With the economy overtaking Iraq as the most important issue in the election cycle, Clinton’s fluency and credibility on economic issues look far more appealing. If Clinton’s on the ticket, Obama will gain the benefit of being associated with the 1990s economy without having to run on a restoration theme. And Clinton’s celebrity means her events will generate far more media coverage (and scrutiny) than a less well-known running mate. The “Dream Ticket” will have a mic four times as loud as McCain’s.

Lastly, she’d make a great attack dog. In the primaries, Clinton showed that she can play whatever the part calls for, from robotic “inevitable nominee” to working class hero to Earth Mother. And like fellow VP-hopeful Mitt Romney, she’s capable of saying anything with a straight face, even if it contradicts something she said two minutes earlier. A presidential candidate that unctuous would surely be in trouble, but a cynical, vicious and disciplined running mate? I'd take it.

And they look good together.

2. Senator Joe Biden (DE)

Biden’s a gaseous blow-hard. He’s also the most obvious of the “sifu” model, being a long-in-the-tooth senator who looks and acts the part. The reason I like Biden here is that he's media-savvy, a good campaigner, and can be an eminently quotable attack dog. His attacks on McCain, especially on foreign policy, will have instant credibility with the press. Biden’s also well-known, to some degree. Well, let me put it another way: with the exception of Clinton, John Edwards (now not a possibility), Colin Powell, and Al Gore, the names mentioned for the Veep spot are not well-known to the average voter, Biden included. However, if Biden is picked, the media’s familiarity with Biden will translate into a “this is an experienced old hand” narrative, which will then be absorbed by voters (“oh, Obama’s picked an old experienced guy.”). So while most voters can't pick Biden out of the lineup, if he's picked, they'll learn that he's that loudmouth who's been around forever.

I suppose Biden’s working class Catholic roots will help, too, but he’s now a pro-corporate Senator with a pompous bearing, so it’s difficult to see him really connecting with those magical white working class voters in the Rust Belt. But hey, at least he used to be one of them. The main problem with Biden is his penchant for gaffes. In a campaign where the slightest misstatement is dissected, Biden’s imprecision may end up dragging the ticket down.

(Still, I'm rooting for this guy, if only because of my InTrade bet.)

3. Governor Brian Schweitzer (MT)

A total unknown, Schweitzer is in my judgment the best of the “doubling down on change” choices. A noted expert of alternative energy (who can speak Arabic), he can talk about this major issue with some authority. His plain-spoken, gun-totin’ rancher persona would nicely balance Obama ‘s exotic rock star thing. Being a burly, doughy faced guy, he also provides a great visual balance to the slim, elegant standard-bearer. And having a guy like Schweitzer campaigning hard in decisive “live and let live” Western swing states like Montana, Colorado, New Mexico, and Nevada can only help. The Montanan is an incredibly appealing politician, and the best demographic complement -- the “find a guy who has personal relatability with the white working class” candidate -- of the plausible nominees.

Downside is that the guy has no foreign policy experience, and so may expose the ticket to the “these guys don’t know what they’re doing” problem. To me, the upside is greater than the downside, but I just think that, with the Veep selection, Obama needs to address the “too risky” problem more than the “cultural alien” issue.

4. Senator Evan Bayh (IN)

A dull, almost generic VP candidate, and useful precisely for that reason. If the Indiana senator is tabbed, the media narrative will likely be positive as in, “Obama picks moderate red state senator and former governor with long track record." And I imagine his white-bread persona may help marginally with some of the suburban Rust Belt independents. Big brownie points for possibly moving a few points to the Dems in Indiana, which is surprisingly close right now, and for being a Clintonite (which will trigger a narrative of unification and contradict the Obama’s too entitled and arrogant meme).

Like Biden, he’s not well-known to the average voter, but I expect his experience and credentials will be loudly trumpeted by the establishment press. As a boring, stolid choice, he’d be a letdown to be sure. But Bayh offers the least downside of anyone. Liberals might object a bit, and picking him might tarnish the “change” brand some, but this is the case with any senator. On the positive side, Bayh’s reputed to be a very disciplined, if uninspired campaigner, which may be all that Obama needs. I’d go with someone more aggressive on the attack myself, but Bayh wouldn't be a bad choice. (Man, I wouldn't have written this two months ago as Evan Bayh does nothing for me.)

5. Gen. Wesley Clark (AK)

Gaffe-prone to be sure, but Clark will fire his shots with the best of them. The stars on Clark’s chest may also inoculate the ticket from the patriotism attacks that will only increase in volume and intensity. Will his ill-advised (if true) statements that McCain’s POW experience is not a qualification for the presidency doom him? Probably. But if Obama takes a chance, having a foreign policy pit-bull like Clark (who very significantly was against the war from the start) as his number two will free up Obama to concentrate on domestic issues. Pretty much a classic gamble pick, but not a bad one, if folks think that Clark can be controlled.

Other candidates:

Obama die-hards are most enthusiastic about the red state govenors, Tim Kaine and Kathleen Sibelius, who are both reportedly on the very short list, favored by supporters who want to "double down on Change". Generally, though, Obama's strengths are so distinctive and powerful that he doesn’t need doubling down. The other argument is that both are appealing to centrists and moderate Republicans. Indeed, Nate Silver offers some data showing that Kaine and Sibelius are extremely popular among voters who know them best, which is a strong data point, but I'm still not convinced the milquetoast political unknown is what Obama needs.

Virginia governor Kaine is the current front-runner, if the buzz is to be believed. But I’m a skeptic. Virginia a pretty important state in Obama's electoral strategy, so I see some advantage electorally. And the decent, deeply religious Catholic guy persona is nice. But if Obama’s most glaring weakness is the lack of tangible accomplishments, why pick a running mate with the exact same problem? Further, I don’t think the red state governor factor is a huge plus (not sure voters really make a huge distinction between "executive" experience and legislative experience) and the Washington outsider thing doesn’t need to be reinforced.

The same problems would dog the selection of Sibelius, the governor of Kansas, who has a longer record of accomplishment compared to Kaine. Obama likes her, as he does Kaine, and they appear to be competent moderate outsiders. She also has Ohio roots. But can either governor withstand the scrutiny on the trail? Will either one make an effective attack dog? Will they help dispel doubts about Obama’s readiness to be president? Sibelius does not seem to fortify Obama's weaknesses nor will her easygoing style aid him in attacking McCain. It's great that they have good rapport, but I don't see the upside.

Sam Nunn seems to me too clearly a “bolster my national security bona fides ” type choice – he doesn’t really bring anything else to the table. I mean, a really old Southern white guy running with Obama might provide too much contrast, and Nunn doesn’t provide any of the campaigning strengths you find with the others. It's a pick that will win huzzahs from pundits and editorial pages, but that's a currency Obama doesn't need.

One interesting aspect to this: if he tabs Bayh or Kaine, it would suggest that the Obama team is very confident of victory, and simply go with someone with low downside and low upside. If he goes with someone like Biden or Nunn, I think it'll show that Obama is more concerned than he lets on. HRC is very unlikely to be chosen, but the media will go bonkers if she is.