Monday, April 25, 2016

This poll needs an asterisk

You don't have to be a fantasy baseball team manager to understand the role of statistics in baseball. With a quick review of a player's batting average, on base percentage or earned run average, one can determine how effective a player has been over the course of his career. These statistics even provide a way to compare players who never met on the diamond — or even lived at the same time. The exceptions are players who excelled in the steroids era and justifiably many in baseball put an asterisk (*) next to those numbers to note that the statistics may be out of whack because of the players alleged use of performance enhancing drugs.

Statistics — in the form of public opinion polls — are critical in politics too. While I am not asserting that anyone at the esteemed Taubman Center at Brown University is on drugs, their polling data is in dire need of an asterisk because each and every time they conduct a poll, their methodology is so out of whack with accepted industry practices that their results cannot possibly be accurate. They recently released a poll that covered the presidential primary as well as several state political issues ranging from legalization of marijuana to something they called a “toll tax on large trucks.” While I cannot disagree with their results because I have no better data to compare them to, their methodology (i.e. how they go about gathering the data) is so suspect that I can’t put any credence in their findings.

While there are many problems with the most recent Brown poll, the first is that they called “registered voters.” A good political pollster will only call “likely” voters. The difference? People who are “likely” voters have usually voted in at least 2 of the last 4 elections, making them more likely to show up again. A registered voter may or may not have ever voted in his or her life, but he or she has most certainly been to the DMV (where they were registered). When you ask registered voters about how they may vote in an election, your results will not be as accurate because they may never actually participate in the election (note that only 40% of RI’s eligible voters showed up to vote in 2014). When asked if they will vote, many registered voters will say yes even if they do not plan to show up, so asking them directly is not helpful.

The “poll” put Hillary Clinton up 9% over Bernie Sanders with 16% “undecided.” Chances are good that the “undecided” number actually represents people who have no idea that there is a presidential primary this week because people who are likely to vote this week know who they prefer. In fact, Brown could only scrounge up 164 people who said they were going to vote in the Republican primary — creating a huge margin of error in the Republican results. Even worse: Brown put out a statement last week saying that they were delaying the release of their poll because they were struggling to complete enough interviews due to “voter fatigue.” A well-executed poll is like “Fight Club” (there is no fight club) and a good pollster would not poison his or her sample by letting potential interviewees know that they might get a call.

Why does it matter? As a relatively small media market, there are very few public opinion polls released each year, so when one is released, it takes on an outsized significance. Just like hearing “9 out of 10 dentists recommend Crest” on TV, people are influenced by polls. If their candidate is out in front or very far behind, they may choose to stay home on election day. Polls are also used by campaigns to fundraise and build momentum and it truly unfair to have false information floating around in the ether. I do blame the RI news media for promoting it — the poor quality of Brown polls is well-worn topic among reporters, but the results still land on the front page of the Journal, making the state’s paper of record complicit in putting bad information out to the public.

The hard part is that there’s so rarely a “good” poll that runs concurrently for an apples to apples comparison, so political geeks are left to bemoan the methodology while putting an asterisk next to the numbers and reminding people to vote regardless of what they hear. So, * VOTE!

Monday, April 4, 2016

Benching Panda: cooler or warmer?

The 2016 MLB season - and the opportunity for the Red Sox to once again contend for a playoff berth - is finally here. It was a relatively quiet spring - without Manny’s grandmother dying (again), drama around injuries or who is or who isn't the staff ace - the time in Florida passed quickly. The one big exception was that Pablo (Panda) Sandoval, the $95 million third baseman, showed up to camp a little weightier than one would have hoped. While the team's statements optimistic early on, Panda was forced to compete for his job and ultimately lost it to Travis Shaw. While the ramifications of benching gold-plated Panda while league-minimum Shaw covers 3rd remain to be seen, I have to give the Red Sox credit for wanting to field a win-now team regardless of the criticism that might come their way for leaving so much money sitting on the bench. After all, they are wasting millions of dollars keeping Panda on the shelf.

One has to think that similar thoughts were being discussed in state government last week before deciding to put cooler/ warmer back on the shelf and dismiss the person who was managing the project. Like many Rhode Islanders, I am not sure what cooler & warmer meant (which may reflect my uncoolness) but I was certainly willing to see how it would roll out. After all, what do you think people said about "Virginia is for lovers" when it was introduced?

But cooler/ warmer never stood a chance once it was discovered that Reykjavík was proudly featured in Little Rhody’s movie (and surprisingly Reykjavikville is not a village in the Blackstone Valley). Any momentum generated by the campaign was channeled into mocking the website, tag line, logo and everyone associated with the creation of this collateral. While the governor initially defended the design and the plan, too many mistakes soon revealed themselves and by week’s end, cooler/ warmer was dead and the state’s Chief Marketing Officer had resigned.

While many in the advertising and design business have bemoaned the outcry over the logo and the tagline, noting correcting that rebranding almost never goes well, I think it was good for the governor to acknowledge the public outcry. Let’s face it, we know what makes Rhode Island special and if we don’t “get” the campaign that is supposed to draw other people here, it’s probably not that good.

So as we close out the spring, we know two things: Panda is too big to be nimble and cooler/ warmer is too meaningless to be useful. I am glad to see both on the bench so that we won’t waste a season watching him trying to bend over or a summer debating whether cooler/ warmer is about menopause or marketing.

Monday, March 28, 2016

Should we have anticipated Trump?

When people ask me what I think about the presidential campaign and the rise of Donald Trump, I’ll admit I don’t have a lot of smart things to say. Throughout the primary process, I expected one of the moderate governors (Kasich, Bush or Christie) to emerge as the party favorite and take down Trump for kidnapping the party of Lincoln. While plenty of alternate scenarios could still play out, After more than 25 years in and around politics, I had never seen this kind of traction for such an anti-establishment candidate but was reminded last week that maybe I had. While we don’t lead the nation in many ways, voter dissatisfaction in Rhode Island may have foreshadowed the national trend. After all, we had Bob Healey long before Donald Trump ran for president.

Let me be clear: there will be no comparing Mr. Healey to Mr. Trump in this space. By all accounts Bob was a kind and generous man who was passionate about everything he was involved in from pro bono legal work and local business to making state government more effective for those it serves. As a candidate for lieutenant governor in 2010 — even as he was campaigning to abolish said office — he was articulate, funny and obviously made a good case, garnering 40% of the vote. As a candidate for governor in 2014, he stunned most by grabbing 21% of the vote in the governor’s race, winning more than 69,000 votes. While some viewed him as a spoiler, for the tens of thousands of Rhode Islanders who voted for him he was the candidate who personified anything but “politics as usual” in Rhode Island. I met him when he spoke at my daughter’s student government assembly and he connected easily with the children and gave them a great talk about public service. The “Elect Healey Governor - Why not? You’ve done worse” yardstick is a cherished souvenir from his visit and its message remains sadly on point.

While I won’t argue that Bob Healey and Donald Trump have anything in common, I will say that both candidates have a message that appeals to people dissatisfied with their government. Bob’s common sense message and regular guy persona resonated with Rhode Islanders who were tired of Rhode Island-style leadership (“you’ve done worse”) while Trump supporters are the “mad as hell and not taking it anymore” group that has arisen from a fragmented Republican party. What’s interesting — and will continue to be hard to predict — is whether Trump will continue to engage people who have not previously voted, essentially creating a movement with “making America great again” the way Obama was able to bring in voters by saying “hope and change” was on the horizon. My crystal ball is pretty hazy but as I think of Bob Healey and his race for governor, I think I should have seen the Trump train coming down the tracks.

Monday, March 7, 2016

Look out below if Trump is on top

Don’t look now, but Donald Trump is leading the delegate count for the Republican presidential nomination. While there’s still a little time for someone else to win the nomination, time is ticking and Republicans around the country are nervous — not just about losing the White House in a winnable race (again) but about losing seats in the Senate, House and state capitals across the country. If he wins the nomination, Republican candidates up and down every ticket will have to make a very difficult and calculated decision — are they with him or not?  

Normally, aligning oneself with the chosen presidential candidate is a no brainer for most politicians and unite quickly once primary season has ended. In 1966 then-candidate Ronald Reagan said that the 11th commandment was “thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican.” Fifty years later, many Republicans will still cite it when choosing to hold his/ her tongue. Trump presents a different challenge of course because he’s not been a particularly loyal Republican and he certainly does not live by Reagan’s words, calling his fellow candidates everything from “loser” to “wimp” and even something that can’t be printed here. He even said John McCain was “not a war hero.” Wow.

Of course Trump goes far beyond violating the 11th commandment and being “plain spoken” seems to be one of the things that voters are finding appealing about him, so the usual flubs (sexist remarks, racist comments, discussion of his body parts) don’t seem to have an impact on his popularity. Just think: a few years ago, Governor Rick Perry’s presidential campaign came undone because he momentarily forgot the name of a government office he wanted to eliminate. How things are different for the Donald!

While the GOP faithful are breathing into a bag and reminding themselves that “there’s still time,” the truth is that the clock is running out. After March 15th, many GOP primaries turn into “winner take most” allowing Trump to quickly build his lead in delegates. If he goes into the convention and has secured enough delegates to win, it would take a lot of maneuvering — and behind the scenes chicanery — to deny him the nomination.

If you caught Mitt Romney’s speech last week blasting Trump (and detonating the 11th commandment), you’d surmise that traditional Republicans (i.e. not Trumpublicans) were concerned about the future of the party with Trump as the nominee. What Romney knows is that polls show Trump can’t win the White House but his nomination would split the party and cause devastating losses in down-ticket races. For Republicans running for everything from governor to dog catcher, a Trump nomination could be a killer. In all states, candidates will be peppered by the obvious questions about what Trump says and whether or not they agree. Voters who might see Trump support as a litmus test (either way) for local races could make their decisions based solely on where that candidate stands vis-à-vis Trump. In some states — where moderate Republicans rely on ticket-splitting Democrats to win — Trump’s presence at the top of the ticket could mean having to pick between the Republican base and the Democrats that provide a win margin. That’s called a no-win situation and could be the reality for Republicans if Trump comes out on top.

Monday, February 22, 2016

It's too early to panic, right?

It's the most wonderful time of the year! The political junkie in me is thrilled with the nonstop conversations about presidential politics and the baseball fan in me is thrilled that Spring Training has officially opened. Of course this year, both above-mentioned parts of my psyche are in full panic mode. Not only did Red Sox 3rd baseman Pablo Sandoval (known as Panda) report to spring training looking like he gained a whole Dustin Pedroia, it is unclear at this writing exactly where Dustin Pedroia is. While I am quite certain that his slow-to-show is no reflection on his enthusiasm for the season and I want to be clear that I am NOT concerned Panda that ate him, it is worth noting (with anxiety) because Pedroia is usually early-to-show.

All kidding aside, the panic in my political brain is far more serious. Donald Trump has now won two primaries. I will say it again: Donald Trump has won two primaries. On the Democratic side, folks are "feelin' the Bern" and this too angry, too old socialist has not lost momentum. Welcome to the year of the extremes.

People who vote for Trump and Sanders are sending a message by rejecting traditional candidates. Republican primary voters are looking for someone to shake things up and get things done. Sanders supporters are taking a hard left turn with a rallying cry of ending income inequality and adding entitlement programs. While Sanders policies are extreme, his path to the White House still has to go through a Democratic nominating process where Hillary Clinton has a lead and an organizational edge. Democratic voters who are "feelin' the Bern" now may decide "I'm okay with her" when the chips are down. If Sanders wins the nomination, I suspect he loses in the general election: there are simply too many people in this country who believe in lower taxes and less government to vote in a self-described tax-increasing socialist.

Trump. Ugh. Even if I agreed with his politics (and I don't) he acts as if this campaign is just one long episode of "The Apprentice" and the stakes are just a job at a cool office building. To him it may seem like another adventure, but being president of the United States comes with some serious responsibilities and I for one, am concerned that Trump does not possess the temperament or self control to do the job. I don't know what would happen if Trump called Kim Jong-un a "pansy" — and I don't want to risk finding out. What concerns me most about Trump is that he appeals to independent-minded (“swing”) voters and those that don't pay a lot of attention to politics — in other words — he appeals to exactly the kind of people who show up at the polls every four years and vote for the names that they recognize. Double ugh.

There are still many contests to decide - and a brokered convention to get through - so I'm not panicking today. But if Panda doesn't slim down and Trump doesn't tank, it's going to be a rough season all around.

Monday, February 8, 2016

No Shadow for the Independent Man

Even though there’s snow on the ground, there’s the distinct feeling that we’ve lurched ahead into spring and into the maelstrom of a crazy political year. The groundhog was shadow-free. Football fans faced Monday morning bleary-eyed after the big game and the equipment truck rolled out of Yawkey Way this week full of hopes (and equipment) for the 2016 season. Pitchers and catchers report in week, giving us time to learn the many new faces and names in the line up and to consider how they will fit into the Red Sox championship run.

At the State House, the session is in full swing and Governor Raimondo’s budget address last week was chock full of her ideas to get Rhode Island back on track. Critics and fans can agree that she has no shortage of energy and confidence that she can drive a multi-front agenda unlike any predecessor in recent memory. Her RhodeWorks initiative — retooled to take advantage of federal dollars and with language that ensures passenger cars will not be tolled — appears to have enough support in the General Assembly to be voted on this week. She is in a familiar position: leading the charge on something that no really wants to pay for, but we all know we need. At 50th in the country, our roads and bridges are an embarrassment — and getting worse all the time — so kicking the can down the road is not an option. Tolls are part of the cost of doing business for a trucking company and something they pay far more for in other states, so contributing to the maintenance of our roads should not be too much to ask as they pass through our state. After discussing this for nearly a year, it’s time to finalize the plan and get our roads fixed.

It’s time for Providence to move forward too. The city has been teetering on the brink of financial collapse for more than five years and the bill is going to come due. With so many of Providence’s problems tied to lucrative contracts doled out during the Cianci administration, Cianci’s passing will allow for the debate of Providence’s future to move in a productive direction. Even after his time in office, Cianci wielded outsized influence on Providence and its citizens over the airwaves, defending his own actions, giving voice to his allies and ripping down anyone who disagreed with him. Without his voice in the debate, one wonders if move Providence away from its past will be an easier lift.

Lastly, after talking about the 2016 race since 2012, we’re just taken the first hill in what will be a rollercoaster of a presidential campaign. Republicans are dropping like flies, allowing for a smaller stage and more oxygen for the frontrunners. Trump is wearing thin, Bernie’s catching fire and the tease of a Michael Bloomberg candidacy made us middle-grounders very excited at the prospect of a presidential candidate with a history of being a consensus builder. While we sit and wait, there’s a truck pulling out of Boston and heading south for Spring Training, paying tolls in most states along the way.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Saying goodbye to THE guy

The sudden passing of Buddy Cianci last week elicited a wide range of reactions from Rhode Island’s political leaders. Mayor Jorge Elorza immediately ordered city flags to half-staff and announced plans to have Cianci lie in state in City Hall. Governor Raimondo - who had previously only lowered the state flag to honor Sergeant Andrew McKenna - hesitated to lower the flag in Cianci's honor, relenting only to honor the office to which he was elected. Her hesitation was understandable - how does a governor convey such an honor - the lowering of the state flags - on a felon who served time in federal prison for corruption?

The truth is that Cianci was complicated - feared, loved and hated - depending on with whom you are speaking and capable of getting things done because of all those traits. I will grant that on his watch, Providence experienced a renaissance. But there was a different set of rules in a Cianci administration with a “by any means necessary” modus operandi. He “convinced” corporations to fund his pet projects and “encouraged” other elected officials to get on board with his plans. The contracts he approved for police and fire are legendary for their generosity and certainly ensured that Buddy could count men in uniform among his best friends.

I’ll be honest: I found Cianci fascinating not because of who he was but because what he represented. He was the embodiment of everything we fear, love and hate about Rhode Island. He was THE guy in our know-a-guy state and thousands of Rhode Islanders have a story about how he got them out of a jam or into a job. The funny thing is that because there was a face, a friendly name and a loyal listenership to go along with the personification of our political culture, change has not come easy to Rhode Island. The tide had started to turn in 2014: while Mayor Elorza did what no one else had ever done before — he beat Cianci in an election.

Since Cianci’s passing, some have wondered “what will the political scene be like without Buddy?” While it’s wrong to speak ill of the dead, I have to say that without a role model for our  warped political culture broadcasting his message to thousands of people every day, we have the opportunity to finally clean up our image. Public service has changed, today attracting more policy wonks and fewer people who are hoping to enrich themselves and their cronies. There will never be another Buddy — for better or worse — and it would be most fitting if we could get rid of our know-a-guy culture as we say goodbye to THE guy.