Tag Archives: Eric Davis

Sausage Party II: I think We’re All Dicks on This Bus

Aw, fer the love of Mike. There goes the eyelid again.

The Vermont media corps followed up their reliance on a teeny-tiny (and entirely male) pool of pundits with a rousing encore this morning.

First, I come across an article by VTDigger’s Mike Polhamus* about the wind energy issue in the gubernatorial race. And there’s our man in Middlebury:

Eric Davis, a retired Middlebury College political science professor, said the voters most fired up on the wind turbine issue are people in rural areas who live near existing wind projects.

Now, that’s the kind of unfiltered conventional wisdom that money just can’t buy.

And then, just when my eyelid was settling down, I open up VPR’s webpage and find a piece by Bob Kinzel that not only quotes Davis at length, but throws in a healthy dose of Garrison Nelson for good measure.

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The Punditry Sausage Party

Friday afternoon I was reading a report on vpr.net about young people entering politics after being inspired by Bernie Sanders. It was a perfectly cromulent time-filler, not particularly long on insight or depth  (quotes from only two candidates, no attempt to identify a larger trend).

Near the end came this passage:

Eric Davis, a professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College, says it’s too soon to tell:

“In this year’s presidential cycle, Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign has certainly inspired many young people to get involved in politics,” Davis said. “The question I have, and I believe it’s too early to provide an answer to this question, is whether these impacts of the Sanders’ campaign are going to continue beyond the end of 2016.”

… and my left eyelid started twitching.

I’ve got no beef with Davis, a reliable source for a useful bit of conventional wisdom. But what suddenly struck me and my eyelid is the absolute ubiquity of the same handful of pundits quoted endlessly by Vermont media.

Davis is far and away number one. If someone decides there’s been a little too much Davis, they might make a call to Garrison Nelson. Or Chris “Undiscolsed Conflict” Graff. Or, in the case of Channel 3, Mike Smith and Steve Terry.

(Not to mention VTDigger’s political columnist, Jon Margolis.)

It’s a small punditical pool. And there’s a distinct ball smell about it.

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For Bernie, the clock continues to run

The Bernie Sanders campaign had a great night, winning one-sided victories in the Idaho and Utah caucuses.

The Hillary Clinton campaign had a great night, winning the Arizona primary by a substantial margin.

The overall result: a strong positive for Clinton.

In spite of Bernie’s yoooge leads in the caucuses, Clinton comes out of Tuesday night with a slight net gain in delegates*. And that’s the only thing that matters. As good an outcome as it was for Bernie, he needs to do a lot better — and he can’t afford any Arizona-style setbacks.

*True when I wrote this. No longer the case; Bernie picked up a few delegates overall. My point remains the same: Bernie’s running out of time.

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Here’s a man who thinks he can govern

Howard Coffin is an eminent historian, a learned scholar, and a real Vermont treasure.

And he said something really stupid.

The subject was Peter Galbraith’s bid for governor. Coffin was commenting on Galbraith’s, shall we say, checkered record as a state senator.  (Everybody hated him, to put it briefly.)

“I’m not sure that he was put on earth to be a legislator,” Coffin says. “I think he was put on earth to be a leader.”

Yyyyyyyeah. Just like Marco Rubio can’t stand being a U.S. Senator, so let’s make him President.

Here’s the thing. Being a “leader” involves a hell of a lot of negotiating, compromising, dealing with other folks — and particularly trying to make friends and influence people in the frickin’ Legislature.

Peter Galbraith was a heavy-handed, arrogant lawmaker who offended a lot of people and frequently roadblocked the Senate for the sake of some principle detectable only to himself. Those traits are going to be just as unfortunate in a governor — but they’ll be even more impactful. And not in a good way.

Now, if you’re talking about “being a leader” in the Donald Trump sense, then Coffin is dead on.  Otherwise, no.

Enough about that. Let’s move on to Galbraith’s candidacy itself.

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Shumlin’s numbers are down. In other news, Sun Rises In East.

That’s not a Gatorade bath, Governor: it’s a big ol’ bucket of cold water.

For the first time in Gov. Peter Shumlin’s tenure, more Vermonters disapprove of his job performance than approve of it.

A new VTDigger/Castleton Polling Institute survey shows that 47 percent of those surveyed disapprove of the job Shumlin, a Democrat, is doing as governor and 41 percent approve.

You know, the fact that his numbers are down is completely unsurprising. Indeed, when you consider that he only got 46% of the vote last November, the bigger surprise is that 41% of us still got Shumlin’s back.

Look at what’s happened since that disastrous November vote: Shumlin abandoned his signature proposal, single-payer health care; the state’s budget deficit continued to grow; the Democratic legislature rejected much of his third-term agenda; the government faces major challenges on school funding, Lake Champlain, and that darn budget.  It’s not exactly shocking that he’s down to 41%.

Still, the Governor is underwater for the first time in his tenure. That’s not good.

The VTDigger/Castleton poll is very thorough, and offers a wealth of subsidiary numbers. The one that ought to worry Shumlin the most: only 62% of Democrats view him positively. That means he’s lost nearly 40% of the loyalists.

His 37% support among independents looks worse — and indeed, that’s how it’s interpreted by Vermont Pundit Laureate Eric Davis. He notes that neither party can win without the independent voters, who form a majority of our electorate. But when President Obama’s approval hit a low of 40% shortly before the midterm elections, he had 33% support among independents. Shumlin does better than that. But even at his lowest point, the President still enjoyed broad support among Democrats. That’s no longer true for Shumlin.

And that’s why you hear a lot of speculation around Montpelier about a possible Democratic primary. There’s a great deal of disaffection on the left, and definitely room in the Democratic Party for a challenge to the incumbent. It still seems unlikely; Vermont politicos show a great deal of deference to incumbents, and Shumlin would remain a formidable figure in a primary.

What’s more likely, if the numbers keep getting worse, is that Shumlin himself might think better of another campaign. “More likely” but not likely; it’s hard to imagine Peter Shumlin retreating into a hidey-hole without a fight.

It is interesting, though, that House Speaker Shap Smith appears to be laying the groundwork for a statewide run. On his own initiative, he has assembled two high-powered, and heavily centrist-leaning, committees to tackle tough issues: education and economic growth. That’s a sign of someone who’s looking to (a) craft new approaches to those issues while also building consensus, and (b) establish connections and build credibility with the business community and others who might prove useful in a run for Governor.

The Vermont Republican Party certainly sees him as a threat, given their endless series of (largely ignored) press releases about the alleged failures of the “Shumlin-Shap Smith economy.”

On the other hand, we are less than five months past the 2014 election and 19 months away from the next one. A lot could happen. There are definite signs of progress in the legislature; not on the budget so far, but on a range of other issues, from education to energy to child protection to the environment.

If the legislature has a productive session and manages to close the budget gap in a reasonable way, the Governor will get at least some of the credit. If things start to look brighter in Vermont by this time next year, so will Shumlin’s approval numbers. He could still get his mojo back. And betting against him is never a good investment.

The boy in the bubble

Scott Milne is honestly convinced he’s got a chance to beat Governor Shumlin.

He thinks, in spite of all available evidence, that all he needs is for voters to believe, and the Evil Pirates of the media to stop insisting his candidacy is dead.

He do believe in fairies. He do. He do. 

He do believe in fairies. He do. He do.

So, how did a successful businessman, who must be keenly aware of the hard knocks of the real world, become so self-deluded?

Well, he’s living in a bubble. And he’s mistaken that bubble for reality.

He spends his time on the stump, interacting with people who hate Governor Shumlin and yearn for deliverance. They welcome his presence and cheer his words.

Everybody else, he never sees. He’s living among a small, self-selected, and heavily skewed sample of Vermonters.

This is his experience everywhere he goes. It’s intoxicating stuff for someone who’s never played at this level before.

On the other hand, he never holds news conferences, so he hasn’t experienced that ego-deflating fandango. From the looks of things, he has little contact with fellow Republicans who are now regretting the day they ceded their precious nomination to him. (Has he ever, even once, made a joint appearance with Phil Scott since the launch of his candidacy?) He’s got a small campaign staff who also have little experience, and are presumably loyal to their man.

Inside the Milne Bubble, there’s a broad groundswell across the state that will carry him to the governorship. Surely, he believes, stuffy old Eric Davis must be wrong; after all, our Pundit Laureate is up in his ivory tower all day, while Scott Milne travels among the Real People of Vermont. Surely Milne’s experiences are more significant than Davis’ private musings.

And when the fairy dies on Election Night, Scott Milne will know who to blame. Not himself, and not the people of Vermont. The real killers will be Eric Davis, Mark Johnson, Anne Galloway, Paul Heintz, and the rest of those damn pirates.

Mahatma’s meltdown

Scott Milne, the man who famously called himself “Gandhi-like,” is finding that it’s awfully hard being a pacifist when the bullets are flying. He made an unplanned call to WDEV’s Mark Johnson Show on Friday morning and… well… spent about 20 minutes ranting about the media’s unfair treatment of the Milne campaign. And specifically impugning the good name of Our State Pundit Laureate, Eric Davis. That will never do, Mr. Milne.

Davis had been a guest during the first hour of the program. He and Johnson discussed the gubernatorial race. The consensus was that Governor Shumlin had left himself vulnerable because of various scandals and issues. And that it’s too bad the Republicans didn’t have a better candidate, because Scott Milne had made a mess of things.

Apparently it was enough to make even a Gandhi-like person’s blood boil. A little while later in the show, Milne called in to rebut Davis’ analysis. Or to slap it around, anyway. At great length and in pretty extreme terms: at one point, he accused Davis of “laughing at me.” Sorry, Mahatma, I don’t think I’ve ever heard Eric Davis laugh at anyone. If he’s anything, he’s a straight arrow, cautious to a fault.

Here’s a sample of Mahatma’s Meltdown:

When you’re bringing people on the air that influence people with, ah, you know, tenured professorships from elite institutions, you need to ask the tough questions and bring out the contradictions in what they said. If you look back on Mr. Davis’ track record of picking things in Vermont over the last few elections, it’s not stellar. And I think it’s a form of, uh, you know, uh, you know, journalistic malpractice. You just let him get away with saying some of those things.

I’m sure the folks at Middlebury College are happy to be considered an “elite institution,” but otherwise, good God. Eric Davis’ track record hasn’t been perfect, but it’s been awfully good. That’s why he’s the go-to political analyst for Vermont media. He knows his stuff, he’s conscientious, he doesn’t take chances, and he certainly doesn’t engage in gratuitous attacks. He has earned the respect he is given by the media and by news consumers.

Milne railed against the notion that his campaign lacks ideas. Which isn’t accurate; what we say is that he lacks policy positions and proposals. Milne’s definition of “idea” includes such things as “Peter Shumlin spends too much time out of state” and “the economy isn’t growing quickly enough.” What Milne is criticized for is his real, true, honest-to-God lack of proposals. He tries to make this a virtue by saying, on issue after issue, that he’s going to get all parties together and work out the best solution.

That’s awfully thin gruel. And besides, his current definition of ideas is at odds with what he was saying earlier on: that he would spend August attacking Shumlin, and start rolling out his own proposals in September. He hasn’t delivered on Part 2. “Give me 30 days,” he said on July 25. It’s been 50 days since then.

Milne also repeated one of the more extraordinary statements he’s made during the campaign:

I am uncomfortable about calling people and asking them for money to support a public policy campaign, and feeling 100% like I don’t owe them something afterwards.

I guess you could say that has a certain freakish nobility. But it’s a fantasy: Politicians have to raise money. Yes, there’s too much money in politics. But Milne has raised a laughably small amount — and virtually all of it from his family, friends, and his own back pocket.

Now we know why. He doesn’t want to ask for money, and he doesn’t want to be obligated.

Somebody should. tell Phil Scott about this. He’s been raising money right and left from contractors and gas companies and rich Vermonters and his vast network of cronies, and insisting that it doesn’t make any difference in his politics. Scott Milne would beg to differ.

Somebody should also tell the Scott Milne of midsummer about this. At the time, he said he planned to raise and spend about $200,000, which would be enough to wage an “unconventional campaign.” As of early September, he’d raised about 20% of that total. And since then, his full-time professional campaign manager has resigned. And we haven’t seen any TV ads or mailings or yard signs or any other tangible measures of an adequately resourced organization.

Milne was upset Eric Davis’ characterization of his campaign as “running on fumes.” He said, “If [Davis] hasn’t talked to my bank, he has no way of saying that.” And he pointed to his paid staff of five people as evidence he had money.

And then he contradicted himself.

We’ve got a strategy. Granted, it’s not perfect. I’m going to make mistakes. But I think our strategy is, you know, we’re running an insurgent campaign. We’re going to use our lack of money as best we can as an asset.

“Our lack of money.” Yep, he said it.

And about this “insurgent campaign” stuff. Yes, Milne is running an unconventional campaign. And yes, Eric Davis and Mark Johnson and me and all the rest of the punditocracy are basing our judgments on political convention: you have to take time to build name recognition, you have to generate news coverage, you have to have a robust infrastructure from the central office to the grassroots, you have to have a decent amount of money to run advertisements and do mailings and staff phone banks and print signs and all that other stuff of retail politics. You have to have ideas and positions that give people positive reasons to vote for you. You need a certain capacity for public speaking and pressing the flesh and handling the media.

And, preferably, you need a track record of accomplishment in the public sector.

Scott Milne has none of that. And he’s made a bunch of obvious blunders.

And so, when measured against every available standard for judging a campaign, Milne comes up short.

Now, if his “insurgent campaign” taps into a vast unseen reservoir of support, then all us conventional thinkers will get our asses kicked on November 4.

And I, for one, will be more than willing to admit I was wrong.

But I am extremely confident that I’m not wrong.

Of course, if Milne loses it’ll be Eric Davis’ fault.

What I need are people who want change and balance in Montpelier, to be naive enough to believe that they can make a difference by voting. And having people like Eric Davis that don’t think that, there’s a  lot of that, but somebody like you giving him a microphone week after week, when he’s got a track record he has of saying things that are factually inaccurate, I believe he purports an awful lot of opinions like they’re facts and you let him get away with it, and I don’t think that’s fair.

He went off the rails in mid-sentence there, but his point was that Eric Davis’ negativity was going to keep him from building momentum, and cause him to lose the election.

Sigh.

Like I’ve said before, pundits and reporters and even little old partisan bloggers like me simply don’t have that kind of influence. The vast majority of voters have already made up their minds. And the rest of ’em won’t spend the next seven weeks poring over media coverage of the campaign. The crowd of political junkies who pay a lot of attention to this stuff is a very small crowd indeed.

No, Mahatma, Eric Davis won’t kill your insurgency by the power of his punditry. Peter Shumlin will kill it with his superior organization, warchest, and advantages of incumbency. The Vermont Republican Party will kill it with its nonexistent grassroots organization, lack of resources, and internal divisions. The voters will kill it because a solid majority of them are liberal or progressive, and the Democrats have a built-in advantage.

And Scott Milne will kill it with his lack of political experience and smarts, and his poor performance on the public stage.

By all conventional measures, Scott Milne has run a terrible campaign. And I’m a guy who, when Milne first came on the scene, had some hope that he’d turn out to be a solid representative of moderate Republicanism. If he were doing a good job, I’d be reporting as such. But he’s not.

Shumlin’s strategy is focused on 2015

The Shumlin Administration’s decision to shut down the Vermont Health Connect website drew the predictable response from his opponents.  “Catastrophic failure,” said Scott Milne. “I still think it’s going to be a disaster,” said Dan Feliciano. And VTGOP chair “Super Dave” Sunderland floated a conspiracy theory: VHC “will be shut down for repairs until after the election” (Italics mine), implying that Shumlin is trying to run out the clock and put off his Day of Reckoning until after he is safely re-elected.

Sorry, not buying it. The timing appears convenient, and Sunderland is well within his rights to make as much hay about it as he can. But the timing makes perfect sense in a non-conspiratorial way: Harry Chen came on board as Human Services Secretary a month ago. His top priorities were (1) trouble in the Department of Children and Families, and (2) review of VHC implementation. He’s had a month, and now he’s got a plan.

But even more importantly, the mid-November relaunch has far less to do with the election than with the open enrollment period. The VHC website has to be back online by November 15.  Repairs have to happen either before then, or after the enrollment period closes in February. It’s a lot easier to do repairs during a shutdown.

Besides, the truth is, Republican (and Libertarian) attacks are irrelevant. The Governor knows he’s going to win the election, and he doesn’t care what they say. His goal is the 2015 legislative session, when he will (finally) roll out his single-payer health care plan.

And in order to do that, he needs to have a functional VHC website. He can’t wait until February to start the repairs because that’s when he’ll be trying to convince lawmakers to vote for single-payer — and he can’t expect them to take that step if VHC is still dysfunctional.

The Governor does, to be sure, have a goal for the campaign: he has to activate the Dem/Prog base. He needs a decent margin of victory and, more crucially, he needs as many Dems and Progs in the Legislature as possible. As Vermont Pundit Emeritus Eric Davis points out, his worst enemy is an enthusiasm gap.

A fully-functional VHC website before Election Day would be the best thing for his base. But failing that, a robust response to its problems and an action plan with a completion date is second best. That’s what Shumlin has delivered. And, Republican snark notwithstanding, I’ll bet you dollars to donuts that the Administration will have very good news to report before Election Day. In fact, I expect to see a VHC relaunch on or about November 1.

That requires solid progress on the IT front, of course. But I’m sure that’s the plan.

Thanks to the organizational decrepitude of the VTGOP, the ineptitude of Scott Milne, and the fundamentally fringey nature of Dan Feliciano’s appeal, Shumlin doesn’t have to worry about re-election. He can’t say so, of course; but his goal is to activate his base and set the stage for the single-payer debate next year.

By that standard, the VHC shutdown is a short-term tactical setback, but it makes all the strategic sense in the world.

The oddsmakers have spoken; bet the under

Leaders of the Vermont Republican Party have done their best to set expectations for this year’s elections at an achievably low level: a gain of perhaps three Senate seats plus something close to ten pickups in the House. Well, now comes VTDigger’s Anne Galloway with an outlook on the legislative races; she quotes Vermont Pundit Laureate Eric Davis as projecting two or fewer gains in the Senate and two to four in the House.

And I say, “Bet the under.”

For those unfamiliar with sports gambling, the bookmakers set a “point spread,” which is basically the expected margin of victory. (Technically, it’s the bookmakers’ estimate of where bettors will lay their money; the bookies’ goal is to get half the money on each side of the proposition.) Say, the Patriots are favored by 8 points over the Jets. In order for you to win a bet on the Pats, they have to win by more than 8. If you bet on the Jets and they lose by 7 or fewer points, you win.

That’s called “betting the under.” Davis has basically made the Republicans a two-point favorite in the Senate and two-to-four in the House.

And if I were a (ramblin’) gamblin’ man, I’d bet the under. The Republicans will not even manage to meet Davis’ projection.

The Dems have a huge disadvantage, in that they are defending a large quantity of seats, including (presumably) a number of marginal constituencies that could easily swing Republican. On the other hand, the Dems have many advantages:

Davis says the Vermont GOP’s inability to recruit statewide candidates for state treasurer, secretary of state, auditor and attorney general indicates the party has organizational and financial difficulties that weaken its chances for regaining seats in the state Legislature. The Republicans have one full-time staffer and $36,430 in cash on hand as of the end of May.

The Vermont Democrats have candidates for all but 16 districts, and most are incumbents, which gives the party a huge boost out of the gate. The party also has strong infrastructure, $119,429 in cash as of May 31 and four full-time staffers.

Jinkies, whatever happened to that Republican windfall from last December’s Chris Christie fundraiser? You know, the one projected by party officials to take in perhaps a quarter million dollars? Methinks the take was a hell of a lot smaller than that, based on (1) their current bottom line, (2) the fact that, as far as I can tell, the VTGOP never released a dollar figure after the event, and (3) a cursory look at VTGOP financial reports doesn’t reveal any influx of cash in the six figures, let alone $250K.

Anyway, that’s a daunting list of challenges for Vermont Republicans.

But it doesn’t even include the Democrats’ biggest advantage: the in-depth, state of the art operation they can generate with their financial and organizational edge. You might recall a post-election report by Andrew Stein, then of VTDigger, entitled “Got Ground Game? How Data Drive Vermont’s 2012 Elections.” It detailed how the Democrats exceeded expectations through the use of newfangled voter identification, tracking, and persuasion techniques based on a firm foundation of “robust voter data.” These techniques are actually much more effective than the traditional methods of mass mailings and advertising.

Stein reported that the Dems were much more attuned to these methods than Republicans, who were still reliant on the stuff of traditional campaigns. And while the Republicans came out of 2012 well aware of their deficiencies, they are still drastically under-resourced, while the Dems maintained a sizable full-time staff between 2012 and now. Including John Faas, then a newcomer to Vermont who ‘creatd a database that shows Vermonters’ voting hsitory, contact information, any previous contact with the party, the districts voters live in and party-specific modeling information.”

Well, Faas has remained on the job ever since. You think the Dems’ data has gotten even better in the last two years?

If you are in inveterate politics nerd, I recommend a lengthy article from late April in the New Republic, “How the Democrats Can Avoid Going Down This November.” Reporter Sasha Issenberg goes through the history of campaign strategy and tactics, leading to the data-heavy 21st Century iteration which has fueled Barack Obama’s two successful campaigns and benefited Democrats across the country.

There’s a whole lot of information in the story, but I’ll pull out a couple of key points.

There are two kinds of voters in America, and I don’t mean conservatives and liberals. I mean “reflex voters,” who vote in just about every election, and “unreliable voters,” who tend to vote only in Presidential years. Lately, the Republicans have had an edge in Reflex voters while the Dems have a lot of Unreliables.

The Reflex voters will show up no matter what. The traditional stuff of campaigns — advertising, mailings, phone banks, etc. — doesn’t make any difference for them. The key to successful Democxratic electioneering is getting Unreliables to the polls. And the traditional stuff of campaigns won’t do the trick. Of political ads on TV, Issenberg starkly observes that there’s no proof that they work. Which perhaps explains the faceplant of Vermonters First, the ad-heavy conservative SuperPAC that seemed to have no effect at all on the 2012 race.

What does work is personal contact. Which is extremely time-consuming. But modern campaign research has identified ways to get the benefit of personal contact through printed or emailed material, and to professionalize formerly volunteer-driven field operations. But for all this to work, you have to know which voters to target. And the Dems have built a vast database of their Unreliable voters, which has allowed them to invest their resources in closely targeted, proven effective techniques. In 2012, this resulted in larger-than-expected Unreliable turnouts both nationally and in Vermont. And larger-than-expected Democratic success.

By itself, these methods don’t win elections. But they make a measurable difference, and can mean the difference between defeat and victory in close campaigns.

Vermont Democrats sail into the 2014 campaign season with these advantages fully on their side. And that’s why I’m betting the under: the Dems will limit their losses and might even pull off a gain or two.

In Galloway’s article, Davis identifies several legislative races that could result in Republican pickups. It’s safe to assume the Democrats are well aware of that list, and will concentrate their organizational efforts on the closest of races. That’s a lot of firepower focused on a relative handful of contests, and is almost certain to result in Democratic surprises come November 4. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Dems actually manage to extend their majorities.

It’s almost enough to make you feel sorry for Jeff Bartley, the VTGOP’s “Victory Director.” He’s fighting a steeply uphill battle against far superior forces, and he’ll be lucky to claim even a few victories on Election Night.