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Eric Ferguson

Thugs and messaging fail

by Eric Ferguson on May 4, 2015 · 1 comment

The DFL of the my senate district recently started a book club with the intention of focusing on messaging and explaining Democratic values (no, you need not live in the district to attend). The first meeting discussed one of the preeminent books on the subject, Don’t Think of an Elephant by George Lakoff. Always a worthwhile subject, made more timely by the riots in Baltimore and a huge messaging fail that’s a prime example of the biggest way Democrats screw this up. Well, we said at the end of the book club we should think of some examples to add to what Lakoff provided. Might have been nice if subsequent events hadn’t made it so easy.
 
Let me put it his way: President Obama spoke for about 15 minutes on the Baltimore riots and the context in which they occurred, but he used the word “thug”, and nobody heard a single other word he said. Seriously, without digging up the video, name anything else he said. The president violated one of the rules of messaging, and the mayor of Baltimore committed the exact same violation. Never use your opponent’s words. If you do want to dig up the video, I dug it up for you.
 
It’s OK if you don’t get “framing” and “messaging” to such an extent that you could explain them to someone else. It’s enough for most of us to learn some dos and don’ts, so you can at least recognize it when you hear it and avoid some mistakes. One of those don’ts is don’t use your opponent’s words because your opponent has likely chosen those words to build or activate the audiences’ frames in a way that favor your opponent. You play into that by using the opponent’s words. You don’t have to get just what frame is being activated to be aware that when we hear the same word or phrase being used by Fox News, conservative talk radio, Republican politicians, and our conservative friends, it’s on purpose. In this case, the word used over and over again is “thug”. Even if you didn’t get that “thug” was being used as a racial code word to make you think “black” when you hear “thug”, the fact that it was repeated frequently should have told you it’s a word to avoid. So what harm did the president and the mayor of Baltimore do?
 
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baseball and cash in baseball gloveDemocrats rely on a ground game more than Republicans. Or maybe we do more on the ground because we’re better at it. I suspect ground game tactics are appealing because their cost is lower than advertising and we usually don’t have as much money to throw around as our opponents. Maybe we knock on doors more because our urban and suburban base live in houses closer together and walkable. My doorknocking where houses were spread out certainly made me think about that. Whatever the case, this much I’m sure about: our reliance on a ground game makes it important that we do it efficiently. Since we know that the most effective tactic for increasing turnout is the face to face conversation at the door, and that dropping campaign literature without talking to anyone gets us almost nothing, we should be valuing the proportion of doors where we get conversations, and we should be unimpressed by the raw number of contacts.
 
Yet that’s not what we’re doing.
 
This is a follow-up to Applying Moneyball to political campaigns, which I posted roughly a week and a half ago. I explained the concept of moneyball in politics at length there, so if you happened to read that, feel free to skip these next couple paragraphs. For everyone else, here’s the concept.
 
Moneyball is a book by Michael Lewis that could be about politics — though it’s actually about baseball. Broadly though, it’s about a contest where money is important, and the contestants have greatly varying amounts of it. That means the party with less money either loses, or finds the inefficiencies everyone else is missing. In baseball, that’s what the Oakland Athletics did while Lewis followed them during the 2002 season. They were willing to ask if they were measuring and valuing the right things. They challenged their experience and conventional wisdom with data. They used what statistics said were the best strategies. In the running argument between baseball insiders on one side, and outsiders who happened to be huge fans of both baseball and statistics of which baseball has many, Oakland was the first team to let the statisticians win the debates, and they found good players who were undervalued enough to be affordable. To see Democrats’ problem, replace “baseball” with “politics”, “Oakland A’s” with “Democrats”, and “New York Yankees” with “Republicans”. Basically, Republicans have a collection of crank billionaires who can engage in unlimited spending, and we don’t. They can throw money at problems and we can’t. So we need to find the inefficiencies.
 
So Democrats need to ask the same questions. Are we measuring and valuing the right things? Are we putting data ahead of experience and conventional wisdom? Are we acting on assumptions rather than knowledge and thereby pursing suboptimal strategies? To answer those questions, I asked what we value, and what we could value instead. The answers were coming on two levels, a macro level like taking back Congress, and a micro level, meaning the ground game where I spend much of my volunteer time. The first post was plenty long explaining the concepts without diving into the weeds of details, so I’m making separate macro and micro posts for detailed weediness. This is the micro post.
 
Though I said in the first paragraph that our campaigns our valuing the wrong thing by touting the total number of contacts, it’s not a useless number. It’s just that it’s useful only in terms of working out the proportion of doors we knocked on that turned into conversations. Since we have the research to tell us that conversations at the door are easily the most effective tactic at increasing turnout, we should be trying to figure out how to doorknock in such a way as to maximize the conversations and minimize the unanswered doors. Instead, by valuing the sheer number of doors, we’re actually pushing canvassers to do a poor job. That especially matters if we’re paying canvassers. If they’re evaluated on their performance by the number of doors they knocked on or the blocks they covered, then we’re actually providing an incentive to avoid conversations. Even volunteers will pick up on this notion that they’re doing a good job by walking more sheer blocks. Really though, if we don’t talk to anyone at the door, but leave some campaign literature and move on, then we’re getting no more impact than a lit drop, which is campaign jargon for leaving some literature at a door and moving on without trying to contact anyone inside, which is a tactic with a negligible increase in turnout.
 
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daudtThe state House Republicans have something new they want to try, and it sounds exciting. To solve the problem of what to do with the projected $1.9 billion surplus, they propose a $2 billion tax cut, mostly for people with lots of money already. I understand no one has tried this before. Apparently fiscal conservatives have always been too concerned about deficits from the loss of revenue to give it a try. The theory is that if we give more money to people who already have lots of money, they invest it in ways that help everybody, and the growing economy means the government actually gets back more than the taxes were cut.
 
I can’t conceive of what could be wrong with the theory or how it could go wrong!
 
CORRECTION: After further research, I want to address an error in the first paragraph. Specifically, it turns out there’s a slight problem in that everything is wrong. This isn’t a new idea after all, but actually the policy Republicans always advocate when there’s a budget surplus. Or a budget deficit. Or when the economy is strong. Or when the economy is weak. Or when the wind changes. Moreover it has been tried, repeatedly, with consistent results, namely the government runs short of revenue and the wealthy recipients tend to just pocket the cash instead of investing it. Turns out they have so much money already that if there were good investment available, they’d already be investing. I asked how that squared with the “Reagan recovery” of the 1980’s, and turns out he raised taxes. A bunch. Because the deficit blew up. He just didn’t raise them on the same people who got the tax cuts. Oops. Also turns out there are these places called “red states” suffering slow economies and chronic budget shortfalls. Wow. I wonder if these states are as red as my face is right now!
 
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 photo 15B1_zps2qt2qcqs.jpgWhat, there isn’t a literal “biggest jerk in the legislature contest”? I guess I just assumed there was such a prize from the way some legislators seem to be trying to win it. Here’s a strong entry from Rep. Jim Newberger, R-15B, via The Uptake. Trying to make some point about North Star rail, he mentioned that the prison in St. Cloud is near railroad tracks and said, “Boy, wouldn’t that be convenient, to have that rail line going from the prison to North Minneapolis.” No, North Minneapolis was not part of the discussion. He brought that up all on his own. He excused himself by saying North Minneapolis was just what he happened to think of. Yep, purely at random, he mentioned a prison, and then mentioned a racially mixed area. He said he could have mentioned any part of the state, so I’m sure International Falls had an equal shot at a cheap shot.
 
Then he decided to dig deeper by saying, “But if you’re going to connect a large metro to a prison there’s going to be some concerns. I would be lying if I said there wasn’t.” Well, who knew the prison at St. Cloud was on an island in the ocean? Sure, a land connection could only be dangerous. I’d be lying if I said Newberger didn’t have concerns, and lying if I said Newberger had any idea what those concerns were. That’s maybe the saddest or funniest thing: you have to listen twice to get past his prejudice and realize there isn’t even a coherent point in there. Please 15B, next election, show that Newberger doesn’t really represent you. Maybe elect a smart person next time.

 

 

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Macro Moneyball: countering GOP gerrymandering

by Eric Ferguson on April 20, 2015 · 2 comments

baseball and cash in baseball gloveGerrymandering isn’t the only thing giving Republicans a guaranteed majority in the US House and a bunch of state legislatures, but it is most of it. Clearly, what Democrats have been doing to counter that isn’t working. Time for a rethink, and here’s what I thought: we don’t need to win seats gerrymandered to be unwinnable, nor do we need to win complete control of state governments so we can do the gerrymandering (many Democrats have an ethical problem with gerrymandering anyway, so there’s a bonus). We just need enough control in the right states to block Republicans from gerrymandering.
 
This is a follow-up to Applying Moneyball to political campaigns, which I posted a few days ago. I explained the concept of moneyball in politics at length there, but since it’s unreasonable to require anyone to read that other post before continuing with this one, pardon the recap. I suppose if you read the prior post, you get to skip the next couple paragraphs.
 
Moneyball is a book by Michael Lewis that could be about politics — though it’s actually about baseball. Broadly though, it’s about a contest where money is important, and the contestants have greatly varying amounts of it. That means the party with less money either loses, or finds the inefficiencies everyone else is missing. In baseball, that’s what the Oakland Athletics did while Lewis followed them during the 2002 season. They were willing to ask if they were measuring and valuing the right things. They challenged their experience and conventional wisdom with data. They used what statistics said were the best strategies. In the running argument between baseball insiders on one side, and outsiders who happened to be huge fans of both baseball and statistics of which baseball has many, Oakland was the first team to let the statisticians win the debates, and they found good players who were undervalued enough to be affordable. To see Democrats’ problem, replace “baseball” with “politics”, “Oakland A’s” with “Democrats”, and “New York Yankees” with “Republicans”. Basically, Republicans have a collection of crank billionaires who can engage in unlimited spending, and we don’t. They can throw money at problems and we can’t. So we need to find the inefficiencies.
 
So Democrats need to ask the same questions. Are we measuring and valuing the right things? Are we putting data ahead of experience and conventional wisdom? Are we acting on assumptions rather than knowledge and thereby pursing suboptimal strategies? To answer those questions, I asked what we value, and what we could value instead. The answers were coming on two levels, a macro level like taking back Congress, and a micro level, meaning the groundgame where I spend much of my volunteer time. The first post was plenty long explaining the concepts without diving into the weeds of details, so I’m making separate macro and micro posts for detailed weediness. This is the macro post.
 
What have we been valuing? Votes. Seems obvious enough when trying to win elections. Somehow though, there are times when getting the most votes isn’t getting us the most seats. Apparently, instead of valuing votes, we should be valuing seats. Seats are the real goal. Votes are just the main way of getting them, but not the only way. The other factors I mentioned were gerrymandering, voter suppression, partisan election officials, partisan judges, and election rules. Don’t take the following focus on gerrymandering to mean I’m blowing off the rest. Of course they’re important, or else we can’t understand Florida 2000 where Al Gore won the election but George Bush become president. I’m focusing on gerrymandering because we’re not making progress on that, which I suspect is partly because we have the wrong strategy, while Democrats generally understand the other problems. We don’t always have the solutions, but at least we seem to be going in the right direction. I can think of opposing arguments to that last statement, but I’ve written about them before, and maybe again in a future post.
 
So when we comfort ourselves with having gotten the most votes, we’re overvaluing votes, and undervaluing seats. What are these strategies for countering Republican gerrymandering that aren’t working? Essentially there are three: 1. Rack up all the votes we can wherever we get them and hope they result in the most seats; 2. Make a big effort to win in districts gerrymandered to be safely Republican; 3. Try to win control of state governments so we can do our own gerrymandering. Strategy one turns out to have too inefficient a distribution of votes to work. Strategy two is very costly because of the money we have to pour in to move these districts the opposite of the way they’re made to go, and maybe no amount of money would be enough, assuming we even have enough money to move enough districts, which is a questionable assumption. Strategy three is also expensive, and the Republicans need thwart us in only one house of the legislature, or just the governor in many states, to block a Democratic gerrymander.
 
Thus why I said at the top that we don’t need to gain the ability to control redistricting, nor do we need to pound our heads against the wall of unwinnable seats. We just need to block the Republicans from being able to gerrymander, thereby forcing a non-partisan redistricting. That alone would make a whole bunch of seats winnable. Moreover, we don’t need to do this in all states, but just enough big states.
 
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Applying Moneyball to political campaigns

by Eric Ferguson on April 17, 2015 · 4 comments

baseball and cash in baseball gloveI recently read Moneyball, the Michael Lewis book that is ostensibly about baseball, but really is about politics. OK, it’s really about baseball, specifically about the Oakland Athletics during the 2002 season. Broadly speaking however, it’s about a contest where money is important, and the different parties in this contest have drastically different amounts to work with, forcing the side with much less money to either lose badly, or find the inefficiencies everyone else is missing. Oakland did the latter. If you’re uninterested in baseball, I still suggest reading the beginning, and in your head replace “baseball” with “politics”, “Oakland A’s” with “Democrats”, and “New York Yankees” with “Republicans”, and some questions should come up. In a matchup of unequal financial resources, where the other side can just throw money at things and we can’t, are we using our resources efficiently? Democrats actually tend to match Republicans in spending by party units, by candidates, and even by independent groups who have to report their spending and donations. The difference is in dark money, though we can’t know by how much, which is the point of dark money. We simply don’t have the Republicans’ ample supply of crank billionaires willing to spend unlimited funds on their favored candidates and ideological crusades. They throw money at campaigns. We can’t afford to.
 
Lewis said he started out looking into how a team that was consistently near the bottom in payroll was consistently contending. He coined the term “moneyball” to describe Oakland’s approach to competing by finding players they could afford who were still good enough, and doing that required finding what other teams were missing. After the 2001 season, they were pushed hard when three star players signed big contracts with other teams including, of course, the Yankees. The Athletics’ management did this by being willing to question what they believed, differentiate between knowledge and assumptions, trust data over experience, and ask if they were measuring and valuing the right things. If you think I’m leading up to a suggestion that our political campaigns are measuring and valuing the wrong things, yes. Though at least on Team Blue, it seems we value and use research more than baseball did. Just my impression, which is ironic since I’m suggesting less reliance on impressions. Anyway, we can do better, and it’s not like I, and probably most readers, are unable to cite instances of people in campaigns stubbornly refusing to reconsider conventional wisdom and change established habits.
 

So yes, I’m thinking of ways we campaign where I suspect we value and measure the wrong things, so sometimes we lack data and sometimes use less than optimal strategies.
 
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clowncarI never thought we’d get to use this again when Mitt Romney dropped out of the 2016 presidential race:

Turns out we can, as long as we solve the problem of which 2016 candidate deserves it more. Rand Paul and Scott Walker are in a tight competition for the Romney Prize for Bizarre Position Changing. I doubt either can match Romney’s ability to change positions on consecutive days, but they’re making a valiant effort.

To start with Paul, he was asked to explain some position changes in an interview with Sean Hannity on Fox News, and Paul really thought this was a valid reason for saying something different in the past than he’s saying now: “I also wasn’t campaigning for myself, I was campaigning to help my father at the time.” Later on a similar question, “Once again, before I was involved in politics for myself.” I guess somehow that makes sense to Paul. Hannity let it slide.
 
That interview was obscured by the controversy over his interview on NBC’s The Today Show, where he was a jerk towards interviewer Savannah Guthrie. He’s been similarly boorish towards other female interviewers, but Paul excused himself on the grounds that he acts like that to male interviewers too. Um, I hate to you Mr. Sort-of-Doctor Sen Paul, but that’s not better. “Complete jerk” is different than “patronizing chauvinist”, but not actually better.
 
Scott Walker has been making flip-flops that seem like the old-fashioned practice of changing your politics to please the audience in front of you, which worked more often before the internet. Hat tip to Laura Clawson, who picked up on this Politico article from JR Ross of WisPolitics.com. Ross showed Walker switching positions on sales taxes, immigration, abortion access, and he suddenly sounded friendly to ethanol subsidies in Iowa in contradiction to his prior opposition. He likewise changed positions on the need for stronger gun laws, being fine with them when representing a suburban district in the state legislature, but now that he want the votes of the gun nuts in the GOP base, not so much.
 
If you don’t like Walker’s position on something, just wait until you’re in the audience, and he’ll change it.
 
So which gets the Mittster? I decided “Romney Prize for Bizarre Position Changing” is a bit long to write over and over again.
 
Twitter users, remember the hashtag #ThisGuyWantsToBePresident

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MPR Poligraph needs a fact check

by Eric Ferguson on April 9, 2015 · 3 comments

In the latest “This guy wants to be president“, I railed a bit at fact checkers and the twisting they use to get weird results. MPR’s Poligraph is doing the same thing. The Poligraph writer, Catharine Richert, used to work for Politifact, which is so frequently terrible at fact checking that I don’t link to it, even when I agree with their conclusion. I fear they taught her their methods.
 

In this case, Poligraph said a statement of Gov. Dayton’s was accurate, but judged it misleading for lacking some context. Generally, complaining about a lack of context is something done when the context would change the meaning, whereas in this case, the context leaves the statement still accurate — unless “misleading” and “leaving out detail” have come to mean the same thing.
 

“The Legislature and the Governor did that 15 years ago: they returned the expected surpluses to the taxpayers,” Dayton said. “Within two years, those surpluses disappeared. It’s taken us over a decade to recover from those mistakes.”
 
It’s time for a history lesson.

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clowncarJust so we’re clear, the “troubles with the truth” in the headline aren’t necessarily lies. There can be more subtle forms of obfuscation, denialism, and even inadvertent honesty.
 
Or just plain old refusing to check facts that are just too convenient to not use. I’m referring here to Marco Rubio, who claimed Obama refused to comment on the fraudulent election in Iran 2009 that ignited street protests in Tehran. Obama did comment. Rubio is just flat out wrong. My guess is he wasn’t lying, but just repeating a talking point that was so good, it was best to not fact check it. Rubio is hardly the first. The Washington Post’s fact checker has Rubio’s statement and tracked the statements Obama made at the time, though he also did that thing that drives me nuts about fact-checking columns and sites, some of them anyway. They have to do their own twisting to find some way a false statement isn’t completely false, or a true statement isn’t completely true. In this case, Glenn Kessler gave Rubio just three Pinocchios instead of four (and why do fact checkers need the cutesy rating systems?) because Obama could have been stronger sooner, and Rubio would have had a point if he’d said something else. Fact checkers keep doing this. “The president didn’t say that but looking only at part of what he said, the misquoting would have been close to what he was accused of saying, and the person making it up would have been close if he had said X instead of what he actually said, so it’s therefore not completely false.” Why is this so hard for not just Kessler, but other fact checkers too? Rubio said Obama said X. Obama didn’t say X, so Rubio’s statement is false. Rubio’s staff tried to support their boss’s claim by referring to something Obama said that was related to the topic but not what they claimed he said. They should get extra cutesy icons for bogusity.
 
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Sen. Bob Menendez, indicted yesterday on bribery charges, has just been removed from the foreign relations committee. I have a guess at the next conspiracy theory to come out of conservative Obama Derangement Syndrome. My guess is they’re going to claim the Justice Department is going after Menendez because of his opposition to Obama’s negotiations with Iran and Cuba.
 

I can’t pretend to be broken up about the prospect of losing Menendez, but the notion should be seen as silly on its face. First, the indictment seems pretty substantial. The text is after the jump. I don’t claim to know if there really is a quid pro quo as the indictment charges, or just two buddies doing favors for each other, and these buddies happen to be rich in one case and a senator in the other, but it’s clear these aren’t baseless allegations. Second, Menedez’s replacement will be appointed by a Republican governor, so losing Menendez, much as he’s no prize, does mean flipping the seat. If the DOJ was going to make up corruption charges to remove Obama’s opponents, I assume they’d go after Republicans first, especially Republican senators whose replacements would be appointed by Democratic governors. Instead, they indicted a Democrat with a Republican appointing the replacement. So no, it makes no sense that Democrats would seek some bogus grounds to remove him.
 
One of our senators, Amy Klobuchar, is the “senator 1″ in the indictment. She received a donation from co-defendant Salomon Melgen that Menendez apparently asked him to make, allegedly as a favor to Menendez. She’s not accused of wrongdoing, but getting your colleague even mentioned in an indictment is a lousy way to endear yourself. Klobuchar returned the donation from Melgen, and a donation from Menendez. Returning someone’s donation is an monetary way of saying, “keep away from me you useless *&^%$”.
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