How Should Mormons Feel Post-Romney?

This article was written by Matthew Bowman, the author of The Mormon People: The Making of An American Faith. It was originally published on Zócalo Public Square, a project of the New America Foundation.

Now that the votes have been counted, how should Mormons feel about the consummation of the Romney era? To be frank, the emotion many Mormons—and certainly this one—feel is exhaustion. While there have been Mormon moments scattered throughout the 20th century—the whiskey-less 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics, the ascendency of the Osmonds, various raids on various polygamist groups—no Mormon moment has drawn as much attention upon our faith as Romney’s run did. Things even got to a point where one chapel in suburban Washington, D.C. was hosting cameras from multiple news teams during Sunday worship.

The church’s reaction to this Mormon moment has been especially uneasy, and therein, perhaps, lies the exhaustion. During the Winter Olympics, Gordon B. Hinckley, the president of the church, declared that his church would welcome the world and make “no attempt whatever to create a perception that these were the Mormon games.” He hoped simply to prove that the Mormon Church could be warm and hospitable. This fit nicely with one of Hinckley’s priorities during his 13 years as church president (which ended in 2008 with his death): to make his flock better neighbors, more open to the world, less clannish and insular.

On the face of it, Romney handed the church an opportunity to further precisely this goal. Romney’s run was supposed to help erase misconceptions and show that Mormons are worthy American citizens. Instead, Mormons have been distressed to learn how odd the rest of the country seems to believe they are, and the church has faced a delicate dance as it negotiates the politics of one of its own making a credible bid for the presidency.

Read the rest of the article here.

Photo credit: More Good Foundation/ Flickr

Why Election Day In Ohio Depressed the Hell Out of Me

This article was written by Joe Mathews, a fellow for New America's Center for Social Cohesion and was originally published on Zócalo Public Square, a project of the New America Foundation.

I just spent Election Eve and Election Day in the ultimate swing state and the heart of the presidential election: at a hotel in Capitol Square, in the heart of Columbus, in the heart of Ohio, which the state license plates tout as “the heart of it all.”

Even standing this close to the country’s electoral heart, it’s hard to hear much of a democratic heartbeat. The presidential election, experienced in this proximity, is less a living thing than it is a big, loud machine that drowns out other noises.

I wasn’t expecting the campaign to be so machine-like. I came expecting something more human—and more like a party. After all, this is the place where everyone comes. Among my fellow temporary inhabitants of Columbus over these 48 hours were presidential candidates, celebrity endorsers from Springsteen to Jay-Z, the nation’s leading political professionals, its most eager volunteers, its top media people, its most strategic activists, and political enthusiasts of all stripes. I traveled here with a small group of foreign journalists, scholars, election administrators, and activists who were eager to see an American election up close.

Our group was lucky enough, with the help of a brilliant young political strategist, to meet with smart, public-spirited Ohioans of all sorts.

We learned a ton. We saw firsthand that Ohioans take their outsized role in the presidential campaign very seriously. Perhaps too seriously. We saw few smiles. No one seemed to be having fun. The political pros and activists and elected officials seemed beyond exhausted after a long, unrelenting campaign. The poll workers and election administrators were tense and anxious, painfully aware that, in the heart of a presidential election, even an innocent mistake could make one nationally infamous. The voters diagnosed themselves as sufferers of political PTSD—the bombardment of TV and radio ads, of nasty mail, of endless calls from campaigns just wouldn’t stop.

“I got myself on that Do Not Call List,” said the 20-something guy who rented me a van at Hertz. “But the campaign people keep calling me anyway.”

His hope—indeed the most fervent hope we heard—was for the election to be over.

What had gone wrong? Everyone had a different story, but they all sounded the same: the election was an isolating experience. For those working for campaigns and parties, the unrelenting pace had kept them away from spouses and children and friends and high school football games. The election officials couldn’t talk long, they told us, because they would have to go off to consult with lawyers or appear in court for yet another election-related lawsuit. Voters wanted the phone calls and the TV ads to stop, so they could return to a quieter home life and more conversation with their families.

The whole thing felt dehumanizing. An election that was supposed to connect us as a country had made us lonely instead. When we met him, Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted, a Republican who has been caricatured by the left as a partisan devil, turned out to be a warm, reform-minded, and very frank public servant who despaired at what’s happened to American democracy and didn’t spare his own party in apportioning the blame. The problem, he said with passion, is that in elections, “winning has become more important than our country.” He was right obviously—elections should be about debate, the value of democratic participation, and expressing our ideals. But you can’t say this sort thing in today’s America without apologizing for your own naïveté.

My friend and traveling companion Bruno Kaufmann, a journalist and the election commission chairman in the city of Falun, Sweden, remarked that the American election system, viewed up close, resembled nothing so much as the American healthcare system. Americans spend more money than anyone else on our elections, just as we spend more money than anyone else on healthcare. We congratulate ourselves on having the best political and healthcare systems in the world, with the best technology and plenty of choices. But in practice these systems accentuate conflict. They leave individuals to fend for themselves. And all the international surveys show that, for all the resources and time and effort these systems gobble up, America isn’t any healthier, or more democratic, than the rest of developed world.

From the vantage point of Columbus, America looks like one seriously confused country. Just as we confuse doctors and hospitals and insurance with health, we confuse elections with democracy. Democracy is really about culture—civic culture, which is about connection and conversation. An election system that isolates us from one another isn’t democracy at all. It’s the opposite of democracy.

We are election-rich and democracy-poor. The presidential campaigns literally have more money than they know what to do with, but they keep sending emails asking for $5 and $10 donations. (These emails are written to sound as though the campaigns care what you think, but one of my foreign traveling companions replied to Obama campaign emails with suggestions for the campaign—and was disappointed when he didn’t receive any response or acknowledgment. On behalf of my fellow Americans, I patted him on the head).

I kept asking people here: what civic infrastructure, what connections, what civic engagement will this election create that will live on beyond November? I never got much of an answer to that question. Even the much-touted voter contact programs of the Obama campaign are expected to vanish. The political machine sees voters—quite literally in the language of 21st-century campaigns—as “targets” for a single election, not as citizens who should be part of a larger, ongoing conversation.

All this makes the election feel too big, too large in scale for human touch. My lasting image of these days in Ohio is of Mitt Romney’s campaign jet trying to enter an airport hangar where a huge rally was taking place. The jet’s pilot tried once to enter the hangar, but couldn’t. He tried again, but it became clear the jet was just too big. So the jet parked with just its nose inside the hangar, and, as Romney popped out, the loudspeakers blared the campaign’s chosen music for this occasion: Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man.”

The Common Man, trying to participate, was easily frustrated when he or she tried to engage in this election. When we arrived at the Driving Park Recreation Center, in a tough neighborhood south of Columbus’ downtown, Ilene Brooks, a former state worker on disability, was trying to vote and not getting anywhere. Her problem was that she had moved recently—just two blocks down on the same street. And while her address on the voting rolls was accurate, the driver’s license she was required to show as ID still had her old address.

She was given a provisional ballot but didn’t want one because she was unsure it would be counted. She explained herself, very reasonably. Other voters who knew her recognized her. So did one of the election officials. It didn’t matter. She cast a provisional ballot and left, frustrated and angry.

“I’m 45, and I’ve been voting in this neighborhood since I was 18,” she said. “But I’m treated like a stranger.”

It’s not supposed to be this way. American elections are not standardized and don’t meet some international standards, but they have always had a saving grace: they are community affairs. We vote where we live, with neighbors (the poll workers) helping other neighbors (the voters). But now the political machine—and its laws, and the perpetual contest to win our elections—is so big that it reaches into our communities and restricts these most basic of democratic interactions.

It was enough to make me feel like a stranger, too, here in the political heart of my own country. People had been very nice and generous with their time, and I resolved to come back and visit new friends. But I wanted to escape Columbus for someplace, anyplace else. And so, before the sun set on Election Day, I boarded a small bus for Detroit.

Photo credit: Darren Hauck / Reuters


Lies, Damned Lies

If this election has produced one inarguable, bipartisan truth, it’s this: All reporters should be required to take a statistics class -- at least before attempting to interpret political polling results.
The Columbus Dispatch - Ohio's largest newspaper -  is the latest offender. In The Atlantic this week, Future Tense Fellow Robert Wright points to the paper's misleading headline that proclaims the Ohio race between Romney and President Obama to be a “toss–up.”
What’s the rationale behind this interpretation?
The president’s two percentage point polling lead in the state falls “within the survey’s margin of sampling error,” which some journalists believe effectively nullifies the advantage, or renders it devoid of statistical significance.
But that’s not accurate.
“We generally reserve the term "toss-up" for odds in the vicinity of 50-50 -- since the term, after all, refers to a coin toss,” Wright writes. “So when the odds are more like 90-10, it's a bit misleading for the Dispatch to use the term.”

How’d he get from 50-50 to 90-10?

According to Wright,  when pollsters “say there's a margin of error of X, they don't mean there's no chance whatsoever that the poll is off by more than X. Typically, their margin-of-error calculations are based on a confidence level of 95 percent, which means thechances of the poll being off by more than X are 5 percent. In the Columbus Dispatch poll, X was 2.2. So if the poll had found Obama was ahead by 2.21 points, the finding would have been "outside the margin of error" and thus treated with great respect -- but the fact is that there would still have been a 5 percent chance that, in the actual voting population, Romney was ahead. The flip side of this coin is that the Obama lead of 2 points in thepoll, though less than the margin of error of 2.2 points, is by no means devoid of significance. If you did the math -- which, many years after taking quantitative analysis in college, I lack the brain cells to do precisely --you'd find that there's a probability of somewhere in the neighborhood of 90 percent that Obama is ahead in the voting population as a whole. “

Read his entire post here.

Higher Ed Under Romney

This post was written by Education Policy Program Policy Analyst Rachel Fishman. It was originally published on the Education Policy Program's Higher Ed Watch blog.

Last week we highlighted President Barack Obama’s higher education hits and misses during his time in office. With the presidential election fast approaching, we thought it would only be fair to take a look at Mitt Romney’s higher education record during his tenure as governor of Massachusetts.

Even though the candidates mentioned very little about higher education during the debates, Governor Romney’s record in Massachusetts provides some insight into how higher education might fare under a Romney presidency:

  1. Not afraid to cut higher education: When Romney took office Massachusetts was facing a $600 million budget gap in addition to a potential $3 billion dollar deficit.  Within weeks of taking office, Romney instituted a package of emergency budget measures that cut $12 million from the $1 billion higher education budget. And Romney continued to slash the budget during his years in office—between 2001 (when his predecessor was in office) and 2005, Massachusetts saw a reduction of 33 percent in state spending. While Romney has touted throughout the presidential campaign that Massachusetts has the best public k-12 education system in the nation, under his watch, Massachusetts ranked 49th in the nation in higher education spending, spending more money on prisons than on higher education.
  2. No sympathy for DREAMers: A proposal to provide in-state college tuition to undocumented immigrants drew sharp criticism from Romney, even though a study by the Boston Redevelopment Authority showed that the policy would be an economic boon to Massachusetts. Romney argued that it would reward illegal activity and cost the state millions of dollars it would have received from these students via out-of-state tuition and fees.
  3. Strongly supported merit aid: Governor Romney proposed the John and Abigail Adams scholarship to provide free tuition at public colleges and universities for the state’s the top 25 percent of MCAS test-takers. Since fees outpace tuition in Massachusetts, the original proposal also allowed for a $2,000 annual bonus to help cover fees for those scoring in the top 10 percent. The House budget dropped the proposal over fears that the scholarships would overly benefit well-off students. Romney eventually got it to pass by going straight to the Board of Education, and changing the proposal strictly to a tuition waiver. One year later, there was already indication that the scholarship was not well-targeted: Only 3 percent of winners were black compared to 9 percent statewide; only 2 percent Hispanic compared to 8 percent; and only 8 percent qualified for free and reduced price lunch compared to 18 percent. Recently, Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School released a study that showed students who use the scholarship take longer to graduate and are less likely to graduate at all.


Mitt Romney photo via Shutterstock.

The Assurance of Chemists

This article was written by Schwartz Fellow Konstantin Kakaes and was originally published on Zócalo Public Square, a project of the New America Foundation. 

About a month ago, I received a letter from Mitt Romney’s campaign addressing me as “one of America’s most prominent Republicans.” This was news to me. I can assure you that if I were one of America’s most prominent Republicans, I’d be among the first to know.

But even if the Romney campaign’s algorithms were flawed, Romney’s path to the Republican nomination, and his late resurgence in the polls, turned on his ability to determine what people want to be told. Targeting specific voters, even in a country of more than 300 million people, is essential for candidates eager to form the appearance of a personal connection in an impersonal era.

At least they seem to think so. But how much do we really know about how and why victors win elections? These are the questions Sasha Issenberg sets out to answer in his new, thoroughly reported book, The Victory Lab: The Secret Science of Winning Campaigns. They are also questions without wholly satisfactory answers. The trivial answer—by getting the most votes—is the only one that is entirely accurate, and it is not very helpful. Issenberg chronicles the efforts of a small group of political insiders to figure out two things: the most efficient ways to boost their side’s turnout, and the best ways to get swing voters to support their guy. These two goals are pursued through two methodologies that constitute the bread and butter of what Issenberg calls the new empiricism: the use of randomized field experiments to measure efficacy of campaign tactics, and the integration of demographic data from commercial databases with polling information to “microtarget” voters.

“The crucial divide,” Issenberg writes, “is not between Democrats and Republicans, or the establishment and outsiders, but between these new empiricists and the old guard.”

Hal Malchow, a Democratic consultant with a background in direct mail, is a pivotal figure in Issenberg’s story. Malchow is an old-school operative who pioneered empirical techniques before they were in vogue. The old guard, in Issenberg’s characterization, relied on political instinct. The empiricists, of whatever ideological stripe, rely on field experiments to learn what convinces the electorate to turn out for their candidates. The book opens with Malchow, and others, cajoling people into voting by sending them letters reminding them they had voted in the past—an approach Malchow found, via randomized experiment, to be more cost-effective per vote than other types of letters.

Issenberg traces the history of these empirical efforts back to Harold Gosnell, a University of Chicago political scientist who started writing in the 1920s. Issenberg quotes a review of Gosnell’s first book, which asserted that it would soon be possible to “draw conclusions about elections ‘with all the assurance of a chemist proving the quality of a new paint-remover.’” It is the thesis of Issenberg’s book that, though the time was not ripe in 1924, political operatives today have the assurance of chemists.

But this raises two distinct questions. The first is whether the broad class of randomized statistical techniques that Issenberg describes is as effective as its proponents claim. The second is whether aspirants to high political office widely believe them to be effective.

Read the rest of the article here.

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