Election Connection

October 2008 Archives


Desperately Seeking Real America

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In the conversation about what or who defines America - the small towns or the big cities - it clearly depends on who you ask.

After Gov. Sarah Palin's controversial remarks in North Carolina last week about the "real America," Patchwork Nation took a deeper look at what defines America.

"We did something really interesting Monday looking at 'patriotism," Patchwork Nation's Dante Chinni reports.  "We had survey results on a question asking about 'love for country.' It turns out Sarah Palin is right, there are some places that are 'more patriotic' than others -- at least by some measures."

"But looking at the results, the fact is the places where 'patriotism' is the most important are the places that are generally the most solidly Republican. The voters McCain needs, the middle-of-the-roaders, aren't as interested in the topic."


"Also interesting, when you phrase the questions differently and make it about 'how important is it for you to be an American' the numbers change, quite a bit. We think it may be because the first question is about standing by one's country and the second is about the respondent ad the opportunities being an American affords."

Each party has a different view of what the "real America" looks like. Stats blog FiveThirtyEight looked at the racial breakdown of big cities and small towns to find some common ground.

But beyond the statistics, the opportunities of being an American often resonate strongest in immigrant communities across the U.S, where the definition of who is an American has shifted often in our country's history. NewsHour looked at the way ethnic media is changing how people are getting information on the 2008 election and how foreign-language media sources like La Opinion in L.A. and San Francisco's Sing Tao daily are influencing election choices among their respective audiences.

These growing communities are also getting out the vote in new ways. The National Minority Consortia reported on how a walk out inspired Latino youth to organize a campaign in Southern California. And the new film Latinos 08 looks at trends in that community and how voter turnout rates are climbing steadily.


One Week

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Seven days is a long time in the world of presidential politics, so with early voting already underway and still a few days left for an October Surprise, who knows what will actually happen on November 4. Luckily, every blogger, columnist and pundit has come up with his or her own permutation of possible outcomes to keep you busy reading until next Tuesday.

In this week's Newsweek, Jonathan Alter explores the what-if scenario of a Sen. John McCain win in Why McCain Won. Alter falls back on historical truths - the failure of the youth vote that the Democrats are depending on, and the fear of racism affecting the outcome in areas like the Florida panhandle, to envision a McCain win and what that would mean for both parties.

A look back to the 1980 election from American Experience recalls a real-life scenario. When the Iran hostage crisis broke, President Jimmy Carter's consistent lead in the polls all but evaporated on Election Day, leading Ronald Reagan to a landslide win against the incumbent president. As Gallup reminded us this week, Carter's loss was the only time in the last 54 years that a presidential candidate was ahead in the national polls but lost the general election.

The viral "what if" scenario on the Web this week is MoveOn.org's blame campaign, aimed at getting Democrats to the polls. Using psychology to shame people into voting, the site includes your name in a video and accuses you of not showing up to vote, thereby costing Sen. Barack Obama a vote.

Marc Ambinder at The Atlantic ponders an Electoral College/popular vote split. And as we move through the week, NPR's Ron Elving offers some things to watch for beyond the numbers game. But you do also have a week  left to make your own predictions and compare them to the experts on the NPR/NewsHour map.


Ringing Endorsements

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With all the celebrities, politicians, bloggers and even athletes constantly giving their opinions on the presidential race, do newspaper endorsements matter anymore?

The Chicago Tribune's endorsement of Sen. Barack Obama was the first time in the paper's history that it had given its seal of approval to a Democrat. And the Wall Street Journal, which has traditionally not endorsed any political candidates (and hasn't endorsed anyone since Herbert Hoover) is rumored to be readying an editorial.

It is fascinating to look back over the years at newspaper endorsements on a national level. The New York Times, which this week endorsed Obama, published an interactive feature where you can peek back at all of the paper's endorsements. They range from the obvious, like Lyndon Johnson in 1964, to the obscure, like John Palmer, who lost to McKinley in 1896.

But as we get closer and closer to November 4, it's the local endorsements - for school board and state office - where a newspapers' opinion comes in handy. We've all had months and months to think about our choice for president, but many of the local races have been brewing in the presidential race's shadow. And while it's nice to think we're all as informed about our local races as we are about the race for president, somehow I don't think that's always the case.

Features like the L.A. Times' Vote-o-rama and a super easy-to-read endorsement box provide a good run-down of everything from local measures and propositions to national and state candidates.

Columbia, South Carolina paper The State has an endorsement page that address issues like 'why elect coroner' and several local amendments, as well as its presidential endorsement of Sen. John McCain.

In a NewsHour report from the last presidential election, Kathleen Hall Jamieson, dean of the Annenberg School for Communications at the University of Pennsylvania, noted that endorsements are less important to readers than they are for the campaigns, which often use them as proof of their superiority over their rival.

"The effect of the editorials doesn't come out of people reading them, they come out of the ads by the candidates saying 'I've been endorsed,'" she said in 2004.

A more recent Editor&Publisher piece found that while this year Obama is leading McCain in endorsements, historically, the GOP has the edge. E&P is also tracking all of the newspaper endorsement that have come out so far this year.

Do big newspaper endorsements affect your opinion on national races? What do you depend on your local paper for as far as endorsements?


Going Home Again

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People tend to vote similarly to their families and their communities. But over the past twenty years, political parties, suburbs and cities have undergone some dramatic shifts.

Patchwork Nation's Dante Chinni spent part of last week in his hometown of Warren, Michigan, which is representative of the "monied burbs" and is the birthplace of the Reagan Democrats . This year, the area is leaning towards Sen. Barack Obama.

"The place is really getting hammered by the economy. There are commercial properties for rent or boarded up on every nearly every block in Warren and polls in the state show Obama is up by about seven points there. That is huge shift and helps explain why McCain left the state," Chinni wrote.

"Taken together, "Monied 'Burbs" are the most populous county type in Patchwork Nation, with more than 80 million people total. They tend to split their votes between Democrats and Republicans - and Reagan Democrats have fit right in."

But how much money does it take to be 'monied'? Chinni finds that even Joe the Plumber is making well above what the average family in a monied burb makes.  

"A very simple bottom line there... There is NOTHING average about a Joe (or Sam) that makes $250,000 a year, leaving aside the issue about what Samuel Joseph Wurzelbacher actually makes," Chinni writes. "No one, including Mr. Wurzelbacher, is saying he would currently have to pay more under Sen. Barack Obama's tax plan, in which taxes would begin to rise at an income level of $250,000. While Wurzelbacher's 2007 income isn't generally known, the average annual income for plumbers is somewhere between $45,000 and $50,000."

Has your community changed its politics in the time you've lived there? What category would you put your hometown in?


The Numbers Game

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Are you waking up each morning and checking the latest presidential polls? Do they really mean anything? And where is Quinnipiac University, anyway?

This week, MediaShift's Mark Glaser takes an in-depth look at what the polls mean, and the best sites to fill your weekend with the numbers geek version of junk food.

"These sites enable our need to know how elections are trending right now. FiveThirtyEight has its electoral-vote simulation projection map each weekday; Pollster.com has a clickable electoral map and various line graphs with rollover features; and RealClearPolitics includes a daily snapshot of polls along with political news and blog headlines."

One of the most-relied on polls out there is from Quinnipiac University, in Connecticut. Slate's explainer column reveals how this small institution near New Haven (home of a slightly larger  institution), became a leading pollster.

"Quinnipiac started conducting local surveys in 1988 as an outgrowth of a marketing class. In 1994, the university hired a CBS News election-night analyst to expand the relatively casual polling services into a full-time operation. It did this, at least in part, to make a name for itself."

Are you following the polls intently? What web sites do you turn to for your election numbers fix?


Buzz Words

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Every election year there are a few words and phrases that stick. "lockbox" or "fuzzy math," anyone? After the last presidential debate, clearly this year's is Joe the Plumber.

The business owner from Toledo, Ohio who questioned Barack Obama about his proposed tax on small businesses at a rally on Sunday was mentioned 26 times during Wednesday's debate, and made the morning show rounds on Thursday.

LA Times' Top of the Ticket blog has the full conversation with the real Joe the Plumber.

Of course, this guy in Amarillo, Texas, might beg to differ.

But what does "Joe the Plumber" really represent?

He's being pegged as the "perfect representative of everyman," but NPR's Chris Arnold notes in this podcast that Joe is a little above the average citizen's pay grade. Joe the Plumber "maybe isn't the best example if he's supposed to be representative of Joe America," Arnold notes, since he's making over $250,000 per year with his business.

So maybe Joe the Plumber is only a distant cousin of Joe Six-Pack. That said, the Plumbers Union is officially endorsing Obama.


Video Your Vote

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Have you ever wanted to see what it's like to vote everywhere around the country? Each election year, we hear reports about voting problems (long lines, broken machines) and success stories (record turnout, first-time voters) at polling places from small towns to big cities.

This year, PBS is teaming up with YouTube to create the largest library of Election Day content. We're not sure what we'll find out yet - that's up to the successes and failures of our polling system, and you, as videographers, to report what you see.

We'll be featuring some of the best videos on this site, and on NewsHour's Election Day broadcast. You can submit a video at youtube.com/videoyourvote, as well as explore resources on how to vote, learn about what to look for from archival footage in previous election years, and see election-themed content from PBS shows.

Remember that recording at the polls is not something to be taken lightly. There are complex rules about bringing cameras to polling places, so make sure to check the voter guidelines and state rules.

I still cast my vote in the gym at the elementary school I went to many years ago, and have never been able to see what it's like to vote at an inner city polling booth or in a one-room schoolhouse, or on a Native American reservation. What's it like in your neighborhood? Are you voting in the same place as you did in 2004?


Regular or Decaf?

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We all make hundreds of choices every day, but the one we'll make collectively on November 4 is the biggest as a nation that we get to make for the next four years. And everyone from Madison Avenue to Main Street is getting in on the game.

Some of the best election-related marketing gimmicks we've seen are around food.

One restaurant in Washington, D.C. (Good Stuff Eatery, of Top Chef fame), is taking a poll between two burgers, the McCain and the Obama.

(photo credit: Dan Haggerty)

The Obama burger is ahead at the moment, 369 to 143 for McCain at last count. It's actually not too far off the latest projected electoral vote counter on Yahoo's Political Dashboard  which Tuesday predicted 344 votes for Obama and 167 for McCain.

D.C. food blog Metrocurean has a lengthy roundup of the creative candidate foods that Washington establishments have thought up, from sushi rolls to wine flights.

In Los Angeles, a cafe has a pretty one-sided cocktail list going. While a recent USA Today article details how hotels are distinguishing themselves this election season by offering red or blue drinks on arrival, or entire voting-themed packages.

Even Baskin Robbins is featuring seasonal flavors Straight Talk Crunch and Whirl of Change.

One of the largest efforts is from convenience store chain 7-Eleven, which is asking customers to choose their candidate by the cup and having stores tally the results on the 7-Election web site. Nationally, Obama cups have the lead at 59%. The map lets you see who's ahead in your state and provides links to national news sources.

Maybe we will be able to predict the outcome based on what kind of coffee you drink. But I'd like to think PBS viewers take a little deeper look at the candidates and the issues.

Tonight, Frontline premieres The Choice, an in-depth look at both Sen. John McCain and Sen. Barack Obama, tracing their political histories and the rise to be their respective party's candidate. The film, which Frontline has produced for every election since 1988, will also be available to watch online, beginning at 9pm Tuesday.

But don't think PBS can't get in on the fun side of the election, too. For your midnight snack, try the newest flavor from Ben and Jerry's: Chocolate Lehrer Cake, named for NewsHour anchor and moderator of the first debate, Jim Lehrer.


The "E" Word

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The financial crisis seems to have eclipsed talk of anything else - in the campaigns and the news at large. So what happened to the campaigns' focus on experience?

Patchwork Nation
's Dante Chinni reported what's he's hearing from several types of communities across the country this week, and found some surprising results. While it feels like just yesterday that Sen. John McCain chose Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate, and brought the experience question back into the conversation, Chinni says the past four weeks have been tide-changing for the stump language used in both camps.

"Throughout the spring and summer, the "E" word came up a lot in our conversations with voters in person, on the phone, and through e-mail. It was seen as a big advantage for McCain.

But after two presidential debates and with one month left in the campaign, it has all but vanished from the discussion.

That may be a function of several things. The economy, not McCain's strong suit, has come to dominate the race. The arrival of Gov. Sarah Palin on the Republican ticket may have blunted the strength of the argument for McCain. And the major theme of this race - "change" - is not really about experience.

Whatever the reason, now that voters have seen Obama and McCain on stage together twice, it doesn't appear most of them are thinking about or focused on an experience gap."

With such a short amount of time left before the nation heads to the polls, will Obama or McCain develop a new tag line to push the conversation forward?


Crunching Numbers

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The pundits are saying the heated second debate between Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama won't be a game-changer. Will the polls agree?

A new site, FiveThirtyEight.com, shows a "bias free" set of maps and polls, using a system where the pollsters "assign each poll a weighting based on that pollster's historical track record, the poll's sample size, and the recentness of the poll. More reliable polls are weighted more heavily in our averages."

FiveThirtyEight, named for the total number of votes in the electoral college, has Obama significantly ahead in the national polls. To reach its analysis, the site looks at a number of indicators, from a "return on investment" index to  "Senate scorecard" to a compilation averaging all the major polls.

For a more literary look at the debate's impact, take a look at this tag cloud of the most popular terms spoken by each of the candidates, compiled by NewsHour.

Not surprisingly, "senator" "health" and "tax" loomed large.

How much do you rely on polls as indicators of election outcomes? Are there any good sources out there we've missed pointing out?


Tips and Tricks

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Why is this debate different from all other debates? As Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama meet in Nashville, Tenn. for the second presidential debate, we've gathered some resources to help discern the candidates' responses and understand what makes a town hall format unique.

In Debate Watching 101 on the Bill Moyers Journal blog, Kathleen Hall Jamieson tells viewers to make their own opinions about the candidates, rather than watching the talking heads before or after.

Jamieson also recommends being prepared.

"Come to a debate with a list of the issues that matter to you and ask what you learned about each candidate's record and promises on those issues. Where are they similar and how do they differ?"

As for tonight's debate specifically, The New York Times Caucus blog previews what to expect from McCain and Obama, including details on the financial crisis and how each would lead the country in its midst.

"Questions posted on the Internet for the debate show that voters are intensely interested in what the candidates will do to shore up the tanking financial system. They also want to know how the $700 billion bailout for Wall Street will alter their plans for other domestic and foreign programs."

And while it may seem like a more open and exciting way to get to know the candidates, the town hall format can also be the debate kiss of death, as Slate points out

"It might be a snooze-fest, full of earnest questions and foggy bromides. But with the spike in negativity coming just ahead of the meeting, there is a chance that one of the two candidates will have to face a question about the harsh tone."

Who do you think has the advantage tonight? What types of questions do you hope to hear  the undecided voters  in the audience ask?


Is This The Year?

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Every election cycle, pundits and campaigns speculate that this time around it will be young people who decide the election. And every election cycle in the past, despite the best efforts by nonprofit groups like Rock the Vote, the buzz doesn't yield significant results. But research and anecdotal evidence say 2008 could be different.

Rumors that the tide is turning from apathy to excitement among younger voters have been floating around the media for months now. David von Drehle's piece in Time magazine in January proclaimed 2008 the "Year of the Youth Vote" and record registration and turnout numbers for the primaries made it seem like maybe this will be the year that 18-24 year olds show  up at the polls.

If that's the case, then what is the most effective way to reach young people? 

This web video from Declare Yourself, which premiered last week, has a host of Hollywood stars telling people "don't vote." It takes a full two minutes into the video for the likes of Leonardo di Caprio and Halle Berry to get to the point of the film - "don't vote unless you care about..." a variety of issues, from health care to the war in Iraq. It reminded me of the controversial t-shirt campaign from 2004 that touted the slogan "Voting is for Old People".

Does irony work, or should there be a more straightforward message to get young people to the polls?

In a recent interview with NOW on PBS, Ian Rowe from MTV said he's seeing a real difference this year in get out the vote efforts.


"One, it's critical that we reach young voters on a variety of media platforms. From on-air to mobile to hosting forums with presidential candidates on MySpace, Choose or Lose has made it a point to reach young people everywhere they are, online and off."


But it's also how young voters connect with the issues that makes an impact.


"We're also approaching our efforts differently by wrapping ourselves around a core issue that's important to our audience. Recent MTV research found that nearly 70 percent of young people personally know someone who has fought in Iraq or Afghanistan. The war in Iraq and young veterans' issues are extremely important to the younger generation," Rowe told NOW on PBS.


A friendly reminder that voter registration deadlines are upon us. If you live in Ohio, Washington, DC, Virginia, Arkansas, Arizona, Georgia, Hawaii, Colorado, Indiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Montana, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Texas or Utah today is your last day to register to vote.


Just the Facts

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Debates force candidates to think on their feet, and Thursday's sparring between Sen. Joe Biden and Gov. Sarah Palin was no exception. But getting the facts straight has become the real-time task of media outlets, blowing any chance of nuance to the wind.

Live factchecking tools for the debates and the campaigns have taken over the web - with online and broadcast events ranging from the very useful to the incredibly distracting.

Factcheck.org was founded in 2003, but has come into 2008 with the FactCheck Wire, which found fallacies in tonight's debate like Palin's assertion about the troop surge.

"Palin got her numbers wrong on troop levels when she said that troops were now down to "pre-surge" levels. The surge was announced in January 2007, at which point there were 132,000 troops in Iraq according to the Brookings Institute Iraq Index."

The Washington Post's live factchecker followed the debate on a timeline, giving policy updates and statistics to prove or disprove the candidates' claims.

The New York Times followed up immediately after the debate on their Caucus Blog, analyzing questions like Biden's claims on the cost of war.

"Mr. Biden said that "we spend more money in three weeks on combat in Iraq than we spent on the entirety of the last seven years that we have been in Afghanistan building that country." This appears to be exaggerated, although it is not exactly clear what Mr. Biden was including under "building that country.""

Current TV and Twitter's mash up, Hack the Debates, provided live updates from people following the debate and then broadcasted them overlaying the debate on the TV broadcast. The result was overwhelming, but gave an interesting mix of news content, snarky responses, and legitimate commentary.

And at Free Press, a Citizen Media Scorecard let you respond immediately with thoughts on how the candidates were performing in real time.


PBS has its own in-house factchecker to address journalistic integrity and editorial issues. The Ombudsman is an independent critic at PBS, who this week sets the record straight on debate moderator Gwen Ifill, a topic that has spurred its own debate on this blog.

"This is the second time the Commission has asked Ms. Ifill to moderate the Vice Presidential debates; she served in this same role during the 2004 election. When asked about Ms. Ifill's upcoming book, the Commission's Co-Chairman Frank J. Fahrenkopf, Jr. stated, 'She's a woman of impeccable integrity. This won't interfere any way with her being a fair and objective moderator.'"

What untruths did you see in the debate? Where there issues that didn't get covered that you hope to see addressed in the remaining presidential debates?


Showdown in St. Louis

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Before the Saturday Night Live skits, network news interviews, and ever-shifting horserace polls, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin's game-changing speech at the Republican National Convention foreshadowed the buzz we're seeing this week in the lead up to tomorrow night's vice presidential debate in St. Louis, Mo.

In fact, it seems more people are talking about Thursday night's debate between Palin and Sen. Joe Biden than were the first presidential debate last Friday. Interestingly, the largest percentage of viewers for the first debate were in the St. Louis area, the same location as Thursday's meeting. Perhaps Missourians are the most civic-minded people in the country?

But beyond the Arch are communities that are still processing McCain's surprising choice, and pundits who are reiterating the unvarying historical fact that debates - and vice presidential ones in particular - rarely have much to do with predicting the election winner.

Patchwork Nation's Dante Chinni spoke with communities across the U.S. to take their temperature ahead of the vice presidential debate.

             Judging from the reaction in some of Patchwork Nation's most socially conservative communities, the McCain camp might face a massive revolt from the people who were so enthusiastic about Palin's selection.

              "I think a lot of Nixa people would be angry if she were removed from the ticket," wrote John Schmalzbauer, a blogger in Nixa, Mo., in an e-mail. "The McCain/Palin signs are sprouting all over town. At Wal-Mart, I saw a vehicle with a Maverick/Barracuda sticker. The same car had a Christian radio sticker. She is resonating with evangelicals."

              People we contacted in Nixa, our "Evangelical Epicenter" community, uniformly said that such a move would not happen - or if it did, the town would be up in arms. Many also said they expected her to do well in Thursday's vice-presidential debate.

              Up in Sioux Center, Iowa - our agricultural "Tractor Country" community, another Republican stronghold - feelings were similar.

              Donald King, a professor at Dordt College, a Christian school, says people in his community are a bit cautious about Palin and her lack of experience, but she still speaks to many voters there.

Will Thursday's debate have an impact in the long run? Adam Nagourney at The New York Times points out that "In truth, the political potency of this 90-minute debate is questionable... there are so many unusual things about the contest between Ms. Palin and Mr. Biden that the debate could just as possibly be another forgotten burst in a campaign that has been filled with such moments."

But Thursday's moment still requires a huge amount of preparation. Both Biden and Palin have been off the radar most of the week, studying the issues and getting ready. NewsHour's Debating Our Destiny gives an in-depth look at how candidates prepare for the debates. 1984 Vice Presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro gave her insight on the process.

"If you ask me a question, don't tell me what the question is in advance, cause I'd rather not know. I'd rather give you a spontaneous direct response to it. I also lose interest if I have to go over and over and over again because it looks to me if you're practicing it becomes artificial. So I just find the whole process very tedious," she said.

NewsHour senior correspondent Gwen Ifill will be moderating Thursday's debate. Tune in at 9pm ET or watch online. If you have feedback about PBS' coverage, please contact the Ombudsman at ombudsman@pbs.org.

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