Would limiting big money in city mayoral races help address low turnout?

An article at Citylab details efforts by some large American cities to limit big money in local mayoral races:

Several localities—including Portland, Denver, and Baltimore—have initiatives in motion to overhaul the system either by driving down the dollar amounts each person can give or solicit, piloting public financing projects that make each donated dollar go further, or both. The overarching goal is to keep big money and its influence out of local politics, and to give all candidates a fair shot.

In Denver, voters will decide on an expansive reform package, including a contribution cap and a generous matching fund. Baltimore’s city council has unanimously passed a charter amendment that would create a similar small-dollar matching system, if Mayor Catherine Pugh approves it and passes it along to the fall ballot. And before Portland, Oregon, phases in its own public financing measure in 2020, voters will decide on a strict local contribution cap this November…

Large political donors recognize that local races have national implications, and are willing to fund mayoral or city council candidates to build party power strategically. “At the state and local level, races historically have been far less expensive than federal races,” said Joanna Zdanys, counsel for the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program. But that also means, she says, “given the low cost of state and local races, a big expenditure by a deep-pocketed, special-interest spender has the potential to really overwhelm a candidate.”

And potential city leaders, in turn, are hiring national media consultants who recommend large budgets and high spending. Local campaigns have become more professional, with sleek campaign mailers and digital or TV ad spots.

I wonder how this goal of making mayoral races more open fits with limited turnout for local elections in many American communities.

The 2015 mayoral election in Denver had a total of 94,525 votes cast. The total population is near 700,000.

The 2016 mayoral election in Portland had a total of 193,083 votes cast. The total population is over 600,000.

The 2016 mayoral election in Baltimore had a total of 222,593 votes cast. In contrast, the 2011 mayoral election had a total of 46,223 votes cast. The total population is over 610,000.

Does big money suppress voter turnout? I could see how a case would be made for this: the introduction of big money behind one candidate makes it appear as if the outcome is a slam dunk.

Or, is the issue of voter turnout one that will continue to linger even if money is more evenly distributed across candidates? For a variety of reasons, many municipal officials are elected to office with a relatively low level of support from all of the voter-eligible citizens. Considering the influence big-city mayors can have, this seems strange, particularly since Americans tend to favor local government.

Cruz campaign using psychological data to reach potential voters

Campaigns not working with big data are behind: Ted Cruz’s campaign is working with unique psychological data as they try to secure the Republican nomination.

To build its data-gathering operation widely, the Cruz campaign hired Cambridge Analytica, a Massachusetts company reportedly owned in part by hedge fund executive Robert Mercer, who has given $11 million to a super PAC supporting Cruz. Cambridge, the U.S. affiliate of London-based behavioral research company SCL Group, has been paid more than $750,000 by the Cruz campaign, according to Federal Election Commission records.

To develop its psychographic models, Cambridge surveyed more than 150,000 households across the country and scored individuals using five basic traits: openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism. A top Cambridge official didn’t respond to a request for comment, but Cruz campaign officials said the company developed its correlations in part by using data from Facebook that included subscribers’ likes. That data helped make the Cambridge data particularly powerful, campaign officials said…

The Cruz campaign modified the Cambridge template, renaming some psychological categories and adding subcategories to the list, such as “stoic traditionalist” and “true believer.” The campaign then did its own field surveys in battleground states to develop a more precise predictive model based on issues preferences.

The Cruz algorithm was then applied to what the campaign calls an “enhanced voter file,” which can contain as many as 50,000 data points gathered from voting records, popular websites and consumer information such as magazine subscriptions, car ownership and preferences for food and clothing.

Building a big data operation behind a major political candidate seems pretty par for the course these days. The success of the Obama campaigns was often attributed to tech whizzes behind the scenes. Since this is fairly normal these days, perhaps we need to move on to other questions: what do voters think about such micro targeting and how do they experience it? Does this contribute to political fragmentation? What is the role of the mass media amid more specific approaches? How valid are the predictions for voters and their behavior (since they are based on certain social science data and theories)? How does this all significantly change political campaigns?

How far are we from just getting ridding of the candidates all together and putting together AI apps/machines/data programs that garner support…


The closer look at how the Obama campaign used big data to wage an intimate and winning campaign

In MIT Technology Review, Sasha Issenberg has a three-part look at how the Obama campaign was effectively able to harness big data. Here are the concluding paragraphs from Part Three:

A few days after the election, as Florida authorities continued to count provisional ballots, a few staff members were directed, as four years before, to remain in Chicago. Their instructions were to produce another post-mortem report summing up the lessons of the past year and a half. The undertaking was called the Legacy Project, a grandiose title inspired by the idea that the innovations of Obama 2012 should be translated not only to the campaign of the next Democratic candidate for president but also to governance. Obama had succeeded in convincing some citizens that a modest adjustment to their behavior would affect, however marginally, the result of an election. Could he make them feel the same way about Congress?

Simas, who had served in the White House before joining the team, marveled at the intimacy of the campaign. Perhaps more than anyone else at headquarters, he appreciated the human aspect of politics. This had been his first presidential election, but before he became a political operative, Simas had been a politician himself, serving on the city council and school board in his hometown of Taunton, Massachusetts. He ran for office by knocking on doors and interacting individually with constituents (or those he hoped would become constituents), trying to track their moods and expectations.

In many respects, analytics had made it possible for the Obama campaign to recapture that style of politics. Though the old guard may have viewed such techniques as a disruptive force in campaigns, they enabled a presidential candidate to view the electorate the way local candidates do: as a collection of people who make up a more perfect union, each of them approachable on his or her terms, their changing levels of support and enthusiasm open to measurement and, thus, to respect. “What that gave us was the ability to run a national presidential campaign the way you’d do a local ward campaign,” Simas says. “You know the people on your block. People have relationships with one another, and you leverage them so you know the way they talk about issues, what they’re discussing at the coffee shop.”

Few events in American life other than a presidential election touch 126 million adults, or even a significant fraction that many, on a single day. Certainly no corporation, no civic institution, and very few government agencies ever do. Obama did so by reducing every American to a series of numbers. Yet those numbers somehow captured the individuality of each voter, and they were not demographic classifications. The scores measured the ability of people to change politics—and to be changed by it.

Combining numbers and a personal appeal made for a winning campaign. Part Two has more on how the Romney campaign watched what the Obama campaign was doing and tried to react and yet couldn’t quite figure it out.

Since this appears to have been the winning formula in 2012, I imagine there will be plenty of others who will try to duplicate it. One way would be to get the Obama campaign database and information and it is not clear who might be able to access that in the future. Another way would be to hire some of the Obama campaign people who made this happen – I imagine they will get some lucrative offers moving forward. A third option would be to try to find another way but this could be tedious, require a lot of resources, and may not come to the same conclusion.

The real question after the 2012 presidential election: who gets Obama’s database?

President Obama has plenty to deal with in his second term but plenty of people want an answer to this question: who will be given access to the campaign’s database?

Democrats are now pressing to expand and redeploy the most sophisticated voter list in American political history, beginning with next year’s gubernatorial races in Virginia and New Jersey and extending to campaigns for years to come. The prospect already has some Republicans worried…

The database consists of voting records and political donation histories bolstered by vast amounts of personal but publicly available consumer data, say campaign officials and others familiar with the operation, which was capable of recording hundreds of fields for each voter.

Campaign workers added far more detail through a broad range of voter contacts — in person, on the phone, over e-mail or through visits to the campaign’s Web site. Those who used its Facebook app, for example, had their files updated with lists of their Facebook friends along with scores measuring the intensity of those relationships and whether they lived in swing states. If their last names seemed Hispanic, a key target group for the campaign, the database recorded that, too…

To maintain their advantage, Democrats say they must guard against the propensity of political data to deteriorate in off years, when funding and attention dwindles, while navigating the inevitable intra-party squabbles over who gets access now that the unifying forces of a billion-dollar presidential campaign are gone.

The Obama campaign spent countless hours developing this database and will not let it go lightly. I imagine this could become a more common legacy for winning politicians than getting things done while in office: passing on valuable data about voters and supporters to other candidates. If a winning candidate had good information, others will want to build on the same information. I don’t see much mention of one way to solve this issue: let political candidates or campaigns pay for the information!

What about the flip side: will anyone use or want the information collected by the Romney campaign? Would new candidates prefer to start over or are there important pieces of data that can be salvaged from a losing campaign?

Political operative discusses which polls he thought were reliable, unreliable while working for Edwards 2008 campaign

Amidst discussions of whether current polls are accurately weighting their samples for Democrats and Republicans, a former political operative for Al Gore and John Edward talks about how the Edwards campaign used polls:

However, under cross-examination by lead prosecutor David Harbach, Hickman acknowledged sending a series of emails in November and December, and even into January, endorsing or promoting polls that made Edwards look good. Asked about what appeared to be a New York Times/CBS poll released in mid-November showing an effective “three-way tie” in Iowa with Hillary Clinton at 25 percent, Edwards at 23 percent and Obama at 22 percent, Hickman acknowledged he circulated it but insisted he didn’t think it was correct.

“The business I’m in is a business any fool can get into, and a lot can happen. I’m sure there was a poll like that,” the folksy Hickman told jurors when first asked about a poll showing the race tied. “I kept up with every poll that was done, including our own, and there may have been a few that showed them a tie, but… that’s not really what my analysis is. Campaigns are about trajectory, and… there could have been a point at which it was a tie in the sense that we were coming down, and Obama was going up, and Clinton was going up.”

Hickman also indicated that senior campaign staffers knew many of the polls were poorly done and of little value. “We didn’t take these dog and cat and baby-sitter polls seriously,” he said.

Hickman acknowledged that on January 2, 2008, a day before the Iowa caucuses, he sent out a summary of nine post-Christmas Iowa polls showing Edwards in contention in the Hawkeye State. However, he testified two-thirds of them were from firms he considered “ones we typically would not put a lot of credence in.” Hickman put Mason-Dixon, Strategic Vision, Insider Advantage, Zogby and Research 2000 in the “less reputable” group. He also told the court that ARG polls “have a miserable track record.”

Hickman said he considered the Des Moines Register polls, CNN and Los Angeles Times polls more accurate.

This seems like typical politics: an operative is supposed to spin the best news they can about their candidate, even if they don’t think this is the whole story. However, it is fascinating to see his opinion of different polling organizations. I wish he went on to describe why some of these polls were better than others: better samples, more reliable and/or predictive results, they lined up with other reputable polls? At the same time, I think the DrudgeReport’s headline for this story, “Under oath, Edwards pollster admits polls were ‘propaganda,'” is a bit misleading.  Hickman wasn’t disparaging all polls; he was admitting to using some polls that he thought were inaccurate to tell a particular political story.

If we got a bunch of current political operatives in a room, here are questions we could ask that would revealing:

1. Are there certain polls that you all consider to be reliable? (I hope the answer is yes. But I would also guess that each political party thinks certain polls tend to lean in their direction.)

2. What information do you all work with regularly that helps give you a better picture of what is going beyond the polls? In other words, the American public doesn’t get much of an inside view while the campaign is happening beyond a stream of polls reported by the media but the campaigns themselves have more information that matters. How much should the public pay attention to these polls or can they pick up clues from what is really going on elsewhere? (The media seems to like polls but there are other ways to get information.)

3. In the long run, who is helped or harmed by having a lot of polling organizations? Hickman suggests some polls aren’t that worthwhile so if this is the case, should they not be reported to the American public? (Americans can look at a variety of polls; should there be that many to choose from?)

Unfortunately, this story feeds a growing mistrust of polls. Generally, it is not good for social science if 42% of Americans think polls are biased for one candidate or another. On one hand, these 42% may simply not like what the polls are reporting, have little idea how polls work, and simply want their candidate to win (and won’t like the polls until this happens). On the other hand, perceptions matter and decisions about polls should be made on scientific grounds, not on ideological or partisan affections. And, surely this has to play into the finding that only 9% of Americans are willing to respond to telephone surveys.

Politicizing copyright use

Various outlets are reporting that former Florida Governor Charlie Crist issued a YouTube apology to Talking Heads’ singer David Byrne for using the song “Road to Nowhere” without permission as part of Crist’s 2008 senatorial campaign.  Quoting from the ABA Journal:

In a written statement [dated 11 April 2011], Byrne said he had been surprised to learn that such unauthorized use of a song isn’t all that unusual, and said that he was "feeling very manly" about having protested rather than simply let the issue go.

"Other artists may actually have the anger but not want to take the time and risk the legal bills. I am lucky that I can do that," he stated. "Anyway, my hope is that by standing up to this practice maybe it can be made to be a less common option, or better yet an option that is never taken in the future." [emphasis added]

Such explicitly political use of artists’ music certainly has a long history.  Just a few weeks ago, the ABA Journal published an article by L.J. Jackson titled “Musicians Chafe at Politicians’ Misappropriations of Their Work” which demonstrates that

Crist’s legal problems are not unique.

In 1984, Bruce Springsteen made headlines when he objected to President Ronald Reagan’s use of his hit "Born in the U.S.A." as an anthem for his re-election campaign. The rock icon accused Reagan of subverting the true meaning of the song and playing it at rallies without his consent.

Those were the good old days, when an artist’s biggest campaign concern was a candidate using their tunes to pump up the crowd (permitted with a blanket performance license). But times, they are a-changing, and the proliferation of viral videos, YouTube, and Facebook has opened a Pandora’s box of copyright problems for politicians seeking pop-culture cred. [emphasis added]

Jackson doesn’t elaborate on the “blanket performance license” point, but it’s a major one that bears unpacking.  If a politician has the relevant blanket performance licenses from the relevant performance rights organizations (PROs), (s)he is allowed to play recording artists’ music at campaign rallies.  It doesn’t matter if the artist dislikes that particular politician any more than if (s)he dislikes a particular local radio DJ:  the politician (and the DJ) still have permission to play.

I think there are solid policy justifications for allowing such blanket licenses (and thus largely foreclosing artists’ ability to object to particular uses).  Aside from the enormous transaction costs that would be involved with case-by-case negotiation and approval, music clearly lies at the center of mainstream American culture.  Given music’s powerful emotional resonances which often extend well beyond the intent and control of the original artists, allowing artists to withhold public performance of their recorded music by particular non-profits, schools, businesses, or political campaigns seems perverse at best.  In extreme cases, such denials may even be tantamount to private censorship.

Whether you agree with my policy justifications or not, however, the fact remains that blanket performance licenses for live events already exist.  Thus, the question really is this:  why is the Internet any different?  What makes “viral videos, YouTube, and Facebook…a Pandora’s box of copyright problems” where none exist in the physical world of live campaign rallies, sporting events, or trade shows?

I submit that there really is no difference.  The same transaction cost and First Amendment justifications for blanket performance licenses apply with equal weight to Internet media.  To me, any policy difference appears to be simply a historical artifact.

A blogger at Clancco asks:

I wonder what the “free culture” lobbyists have to say about fair use, free culture, and the world is our public domain oyster when it comes to a Republican politician using an artist’s song without the artists permission? We certainly know what Byrne thinks…and it’s not good for Republicans.

I don’t know what “the ‘free culture’ lobbyists” would say, but my response is this:  the political affiliation of the music’s user should not matter one iota.  We can certainly have a policy debate, but that doesn’t mean the debate must (or should) be political.