USA Archive


Specter switches parties

I haven’t been covering the early movements in the lead-up to the 2010 U.S. mid-term elections on this blog. One of the key contests has been shaping up to be in Pennsylvania, where moderate Republican Senator Arlen Specter was facing a challenge from conservative Republican Pat Toomey.

Toomey had challenged Specter in 2004, when the Republican establishment fell in behind Specter and saw him re-elected. Since 2004, however, much of the moderate Republican voter base has switched to become Independents or Democrats, and polls indicate Toomey was on track to win the primary, before being badly beaten by any old Democrat in the general election.

Well, Specter has now done what appears to have been inevitable in hindsight: he has switched to the Democratic Party, and will run as a Democrat in 2010. It looks likely that Specter will win the Democratic primary, and will likely defeat Toomey in the general election.

This decision also means that, once Senator Al Franken is seated, the Democrats will hold the vaunted 60 seats in the Senate, with prospects of more gains in 2010.

More elsewhere: at Polswatch, at FiveThirtyEight, and much, much more at Daily Kos.


Time itself is pro-gay marriage

In the aftermath of the Iowa Supreme Court ruling that same-sex marriage is protected under the state’s constitution, Nate Silver at has laid out how public opinion in the US is shifting steadily towards gay marriage, and he makes predictions about when each US state will have a pro-gay marriage majority:

Marriage bans, however, are losing ground at a rate of slightly less than 2 points per year. So, for example, we’d project that a state in which a marriage ban passed with 60 percent of the vote last year would only have 58 percent of its voters approve the ban this year.

All of the other variables that I looked at — race, education levels, party registration, etc. — either did not appear to matter at all, or became redundant once we accounted for religiosity. Nor does it appear to make a significant difference whether the ban affected marriage only, or both marriage and civil unions.

So what does this mean for Iowa? The state has roughly average levels of religiosity, including a fair number of white evangelicals, and the model predicts that if Iowans voted on a marriage ban today, it would pass with 56.0 percent of the vote. By 2012, however, the model projects a toss-up: 50.4 percent of Iowans voting to approve the ban, and 49.6 percent opposed. In 2013 and all subsequent years, the model thinks the marriage ban would fail.

Elsewhere, there’s more from Daily Kos and Polswatch.


Abolishing the Electoral College?

Via FiveThirtyEight, there’s an interesting article in the Wall Street Journal outlining efforts to effectively abolish the Electoral College in the US without changing the constitution.

This approach, called the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, would see states pass legislation committing them to a binding agreement that they would cast all of their electoral votes for the winner of the national popular vote. The compact won’t come into effect until states which hold a majority of electoral votes have signed on. The WSJ article continues:

The debate hits full stride now in Colorado, a state that political analysts say presents a key test for the National Popular Vote project. So far, the states most receptive to doing away with the Electoral College have all been solidly Democratic — not the swing states that have been high-profile players in presidential elections.

But Colorado last year joined a small cluster of newly minted swing states that drew a disproportionate share of candidate visits and campaign spending. It will now help answer the question of whether swing states will take the leap.

As Nate Silver points out, only 50 EVs so far have been committed to the compact, and all the states who have passed the legislation or close to passing it have been very Democratic and very safe states when it comes to presidential elections.

Nate Silver further argues that there is a high hurdle to be jumped before any electoral college reform can gather enough steam to be passed:

What would it take for there to be a real chance of abolishing (or end-arounding, as the Compact seeks to do) the Electoral College? I think it would take two elections in relatively rapid succession in which there’s a popular:electoral split, particularly if these two elections are won by candidates of opposite parties. The memories of 2000 should linger for a few more cycles, and so if there’s another such occurrence before, say, 2020 or 2024, things could get very interesting.

Apart from the issues in getting it passed, the biggest barrier to electing the US President by popular vote is the current US system of election administration. Unlike the Australian Electoral Commission, elections are conducted on a very local level in the US, and votes are never counted across state boundaries. Indeed, there is no official record of the popular vote, it is simply tallied by media organisations based on state tallies of the popular vote.

In the case of an extremely close national vote, the issues that popped up in Florida in 2000 would take place on a massively expanded scale. On the other hand, a directly-elected presidency could be just the thing the USA needs to finally bring election administration completely under federal control.


Former US Ambassador running for Texas Governor

Via Daily Kos, former US Ambassador to Canberra Tom Schieffer has announced that he is considering a bid for Governor of Texas as a Democrat. The Texas gubernatorial race is turning into a fierce race on the Republican side between incumbent Rick Perry and Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison. It is believed that Hutchison would win the general election if she wins the primary, while Perry would be vulnerable.

Schieffer is a close friend of former President George W. Bush, although he was previously elected to the Texas House of Representatives. You would have to say, however, that he would have to be considered amongst the most conservative Democrats, which might fit perfectly for a statewide Texas election.

Schieffer was the president of the Texas Rangers baseball club when George W. Bush was general managing partner. Bush as president named Schieffer as ambassador to Australia and then to Japan.

Schieffer admitted that he supported Bush over Gov. Ann Richards in 1994 and that he backed Bush in the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections. But Schieffer said he filled out his application to become an ambassador by listing his political affiliation as Democrat.

“I’m not new to the Democratic Party,” Schieffer said.

He served Fort Worth as a Democratic legislator from 1973-78. He was in the same freshman group of the Texas House as Republican U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, who is planning to challenge Gov. Rick Perry in next year’s GOP primary. Schieffer, 61, is the younger brother of CBS newsman Bob Schieffer.

It’s worth remembering Schieffer’s controversy when he was US Ambassador to Canberra from 2001 to 2004. He attracted criticism for intervening in Australian politics by criticising then-Labor leader Mark Latham in the lead-up to the 2004 election. He criticised Labor’s amendments to the US-Australia Free Trade Agreement in August 2004:

Mr Schieffer warned yesterday that US certification of the deal was no longer certain because of the Opposition amendments.

“The concern we have about the amendment is that … for patent law there’s an attempt to carve out a special exception with regard to pharmaceuticals,” he said.

“The concern we have is that if you were able to do that, then could you then carve out something later on for automotive parts or for this or that sector in the economy?”

The Opposition trade spokesman, Stephen Conroy, said Mr Schieffer had entered the debate without a clear understanding of what the Labor Party’s amendments were about.

“What Tom Schieffer’s comments suggest is that [Prime Minister] John Howard has negotiated a free trade deal that sells out the PBS [pharmaceutical benefits scheme],” Senator Conroy told ABC radio.

In March 2004, he also called on Latham to back down on his promise to withdraw troops from Iraq:

The United States has urged Opposition Leader Mark Latham to reverse his plan to pull Australian troops out of Iraq, calling it short-sighted and an invitation to more terrorist attacks.

US Ambassador Tom Schieffer told The Age that Mr Latham’s comments “could have very serious consequences beyond Australia”. Such a move risked damaging the US alliance and could assist terrorists accomplishing larger goals, he said.

“Just to summarily say we are going to pull Australians out of Iraq I think would be very short-sighted and very troubling,” he said.

Mr Schieffer’s comments indicate the depth of alarm within the Bush Administration, which is struggling to hold the coalition of the willing together in Iraq in the face of Spain’s threatened withdrawal.

Interesting to see if a figure with links to Australia manages to get elected as Governor of one of the USA’s largest states.


Washington DC to gain voting rights?

You might be surprised that the political capital of the United States, Washington, DC., still lacks any representation in the US Congress, while it casts 3electoral votes in Presidential elections and the role of the Mayor and the city council are severely curtailed by close monitoring by Congress.

This primarily is due to the fact that, unlike every other part of the continental United States, the District of Columbia is not a state, and the US Constitution states that only the States of the Union shall elect members of Congress.

The Bill has passed the Senate, and is expected to pass the House soon. Its last attempt at passage, in 2007, fell three votes short of the 60 needed in the Senate, while passing the House comfortably, so it is expected to be passed and signed into law by President Obama. The Bill also increases the number of seats for the 50 states from 435 to 436, which will give an extra seat to Utah for the 2010 election, as Utah was the closest to getting a seat at the 2000 census. However, the upcoming 2010 census will likely see an increase in Utah’s population, meaning an extra seat would’ve been granted to the Mormon-dominated state from 2012 anyway.

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Joe Trippi speaking in Sydney tonight

Some of you might be interested in coming along to this event tonight:

Join GetUp members in Sydney for a talk by US political luminary Joe Trippi on the future of online politics.

When: Thursday 26 February. 7-9pm (please arrive at 6:30)
Where: Teachers Federation Building Auditorium, 1st floor, 23-33 Mary St, Surry Hills 2010

Tickets are a $15 donation – just use the form below and we will put your name on the door list. See you there!


I’ll be there. Should be fun.


Aging in office: inauguration edition

As a special pre-inauguration treat, for all of you staying up through the night, check out AOL’s slide show of “before and after” photos of US presidents at the beginning and end of their terms. In particular, check out Nixon, Reagan and Johnson.

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Transition blues

I’m reading Jonathan Alter’s The Defining Moment, which goes into the first hundred days of Franklin Roosevelt’s administration in 1933. Alter in particular looks at the interregnum between the November election and the inauguration on March 5, the same date as every president was sworn in from 1789 to 1933.

Waiting four months to change administrations after a national election was a leftover from an earlier era, when it took months to communicate election results and make plans for a new administration, but as communications improved, and the need for a long interregnum declined, it became more and more of a problem, as lame duck presidents struggled to continue to serve while the new president-elect slowly took over the levers of power.

This particularly became a crisis following the 1932 election, as the economic crisis continued to worsen, yet disagreements between Hoover and Roosevelt crippled the ability of the government to do anything. It was worsened due to the spilling over of the Hoover-Roosevelt contest in the 1932 election. Despite losing decisively, Hoover was still determined to defeat Roosevelt by humiliating him and managing to tar him with his poor reputation while using Roosevelt’s electoral victory as a shield to achieve bipartisan policies. While the crisis is much worse than the current economic crisis, there are a lot of parallels with the current interregnum. Imagine how much worse it would be if the transition were to continue for two more months. Alter makes it clear, however, that unlike Obama, there were low expectations of FDR’s ability and plans.

The 1932 election was the last to be followed by a March 5 inauguration. A constitutional amendment passed in 1932 was ratified in the next term and implemented in time for the 1936 election, and FDR’s second inauguration was the first to be held on January 20.

Communications have advanced much further since 1932, and the day-to-day responsibilities of the presidency have increased, which must make us consider whether it is really necessary to delay the swearing in of a new president until January 20. After all, Westminster democracies like Australia and the UK tend to have a new government in place within a week of an election result becoming clear.

Of course, there are barriers in the US system to speeding up a peaceful transition of power to allow for an inauguration in, say, mid-December. The biggest problem is the US system of electoral regulation, which gives responsibility to local levels of government and gives lots of room for litigation and recounting. A simpler system of uniform elections conducted by a federal electoral commission exclusively would leave much less room for litigation and a speedier election resolution. For example, the Bush v Gore decision was handed down on December 12, 2000, which would have given Bush practically no time to construct an administration if the inauguration was speeded up. On the other hand, an election such as this is a rare occurrence, and it doesn’t seem necessary to postpone the inauguration in a clearcut case like 2008 because of the rare ultra-close election.

The US federal government also has a very different nature of bureaucracy from the traditional concept of the independent professional civil service in the Westminster system of government. Many more positions in much deeper positions within the federal bureaucracy are considered partisan positions, which would depend on the outcome of the election. Rather than simply appointing a few dozen ministers and parliamentary secretary, the incoming Obama administration is in the process of appointing thousands of Democrats to positions like Assistant Secretary roles and the US Attorneys, who are all members of the President’s party.

In addition, the system of parliamentary democracy has evolved the effective mechanism of the shadow cabinet, meaning that less time is needed to allocate portfolios to members of the cabinet. Obama had a much wider field of potential cabinet secretaries than Prime Minister Rudd had, and he did not have experience with these people in the way that Rudd had with his then-shadow ministers.

While these are all issues, it seems entirely possible that, in this modern age of communication, with improved streamlining of electoral processes and good internal planning, the period between election and inauguration could be dramatically shortened.

Hopefully, if I can be awake, I’ll be liveblogging the Inauguration ceremony. It will begin at 11:30am EST, which is 3:30am Wednesday AEST. President-elect Obama will be sworn in at 4am Wednesday AEST, which will be followed by his inaugural address and a parade through Washington, D.C.


US08 – Vote early, vote often

With six days to go before polls close in the US, levels of early voting are at their highest levels in a US election. As of Tuesday, the Washington Post summarised early voting figures as:

More than twelve million voters have already cast ballots in the presidential contest, according to one estimate, and new data from the Washington Post-ABC News tracking poll shows these voters breaking Democratic by a wide margin.

Among those who said they have already voted at an early voting location or sent in an absentee ballot, Barack Obama picked up 60 percent of the vote in the new poll to John McCain’s 39 percent.

These voters make up 9 percent of “likely” voters in the track.

The senator from Illinois has a similar lead, 58 to 39 percent, among those who plan to vote early but have not yet. (Those who plan to vote on Election Day also go for Obama, but by a narrower, 51 to 45 percent.)

Across key states, levels of early voting are on track to exceed 2004 figures, with as many as 25% of voters casting their ballots before election day. Some states have already exceeded 2004 figures, including states such as Georgia, Louisiana and North Carolina. Daily Kos has laid out the figures in various key states.

So what does this mean? There are clear indications that Barack Obama is favoured, with polls suggesting he holds leads of up to 20% amongst those who have already cast their ballots. has also suggested a clear correlation between massive levels of early voting turnout and large African American populations, which suggests that turnout amongst the African-American population is strongly surging. Considering Obama’s domination of this demographic, it bodes well for the Democrat, particularly in southern states such as Georgia and Mississippi, where there are also close Senate races.

Most recently, Republican Governor of Florida Charlie Crist has announced an extension in voting hours for early voting in the key southern state, while Georgia has refused to follow suit.