Politically, the United States may be a narrowly divided nation – but when it comes to celebrity endorsements, it’s not even close.
With polls showing the presidential race has tightened into a dead heat, the Obama campaign and pro-Obama advocacy groups are playing the star-power card, unleashing a virtual tidal wave of Hollywood celebrities who are cutting ads, making appearances on the trail, and otherwise urging folks to turn out in support of the president.
There’s this week’s overt appeal to women, with Scarlett Johansson, Eva Longoria, and Kerry Washington attacking Mitt Romney’s position on abortion in a MoveOn.org ad (“I want to talk to you about women – and about Mitt Romney”).
There’s America’s own voice-of-God (otherwise known as Morgan Freeman) lending the narration to a new Obama ad airing in swing states.
There’s the video from Rosie Perez, commenting on Mr. Romney’s remark that he’d be better off if only he were Latino (“Actually….”). That one was produced by two pro-Obama "super PACS," one of which also recently turned out a satiric video by Samuel L. Jackson (“Wake the [word that rhymes with duck] up”).
Big-time musicians are out there pitching, too. Jay-Z has released a new video about “the power of our vote,” saying Mr. Obama “made it mean something for the first time for a lot of people.” Bruce Springsteen is campaigning for Obama in Ohio and Iowa, and last week Katy Perry and Jon Bon Jovi performed on behalf of the Obama campaign in Los Angeles.
By contrast, whom does the Romney campaign have in its corner? Let’s see: There’s Kid Rock, who recently appeared with veep nominee Paul Ryan in Michigan. John Elway endorsed Romney not too long ago in Denver. And, of course, there’s Clint Eastwood – but that’s just rubbing it in.
All this Hollywood love for Obama isn’t new, of course. All campaign long we’ve been hearing about presidential fundraisers with the likes of George Clooney and Sarah Jessica Parker. But right now there’s something of a celebrity full court press going on.
Which raises an obvious question: Does any of this really help?
Sure, America is a celebrity-obsessed culture, but that doesn't mean people want those celebrities telling them how to vote. To many, it can seem a bit high-handed, or condescending.
And there's evidence it can backfire: A study by the University of Tennessee found that voters who didn’t like certain celebrities tended to feel less positive about the candidates those celebrities were endorsing. It also found those sentiments can work in the reverse, with a celebrity endorsement causing voters of the opposite political persuasion to conclude they no longer like the celebrity.
Even if it doesn’t wind up turning people off, it’s not clear that it actually drives up turnout. This isn’t the first time Springsteen has hit the trail on behalf of a candidate – he did it for Obama in 2008 (when Obama hardly needed it). But he also made appearances back in 2004 for John Kerry. Senator Kerry wound up coming pretty close in Ohio, where Springsteen campaigned heavily in the final weeks. And who knows, perhaps there was a "Springsteen effect" that drove some votes his way. But we suspect it didn't change too many voters' minds. And in the end, it wasn't enough.
How is President Obama approaching his second debate with GOP rival Mitt Romney? He’s got to try to perform differently than he did in their first clash in Denver, after all. That was widely judged a walk-over for Mr. Romney. At times, Mr. Obama was so reserved it seemed as if he didn’t even want to be there.
Lots of his supporters are calling on the president to be more aggressive in confronting Romney, but “aggressive” isn’t a word his advisers are using to describe what they believe will be Obama’s style in Tuesday’s meeting at Hofstra University on Long Island in New York.
After all, the president could appear desperate and unappealingly angry if he just lunges at Romney, rhetorically speaking. Plus, the debate will feature a town-meeting format, which doesn’t lend itself to mano a mano confrontation.
The word Obama advisers are throwing about is “energetic.” They’re promising that, if nothing else, the president won’t repeat a Denver performance that seemed laid-back at best and somnolent at worst.
Yes, but energy without direction is just sparks. What’s Obama going to try to accomplish with his amped-up vigor?
Most likely he’s going to direct that to an attempt to portray his rival as the “severe conservative” that Romney once said he was. That will probably translate into a strategy that takes specific Romney policies and tries to frame them as stuff independent and swing voters might find unappealing.
In Denver, “we saw Governor Romney sort of serially walk away from his own proposals, and certainly the president is going to be willing to challenge him on it,” said senior adviser to the president David Axelrod on “Fox News Sunday.”
In practice that means you’ll likely hear the pair wrangle again over whether Romney’s tax plan is a $5 trillion tax cut tilted to the rich. A new memo from Obama campaign manager Jim Messina lays out 14 questions that Romney might face from the incumbent in the debate, and the first three all focus on tax specifics.
Question No. 3, for instance, is “So how can you claim your tax cuts won’t result in more taxes for the middle class?” Whether an attendee at the meeting will actually question Romney that way remains to be seen; if someone does, we bet Romney’s answer will be the same as it was the first time around. He’ll just state that he won’t raise middle-class taxes, and that his tax plan is overall tax reform that won’t cost the Treasury any revenue because it will be accompanied by elimination of unspecified loopholes and deductions.
Other subjects Obama may try to raise include abortion, an issue Obama aides believe Romney has danced around, and Romney’s record as governor of Massachusetts. According to the Messina memo, Obama is likely to try to portray Romney’s Bay State tenure as an example of partisan strife.
Back then, Romney’s aides “even erected a velvet rope and cordoned off an elevator in the capitol for his personal use,” claims the memo.
As for Romney, his strategy may well run to smiling and appearing affable while parrying Obama’s jabs. The town-hall-meeting format, in which actual voters are supposed to drive the discussion, may make his job easier. Plus – unlike Obama in the first debate – Romney knows where his opponent is headed. He’ll be prepared to defend himself against the “severe conservative” charge.
Romney “is running on the same platform he has run on through the Republican Party primary,” senior adviser Ed Gillespie told reporter and debate moderator Candy Crowley Sunday on CNN. “The country is a center-right country. They want to have less federal spending. They want to get us on a path to a balanced budget. They want a free-enterprise-driven economy that fosters job creation, not a government-centered economy that fosters economic stagnation.”
Could Vice President Joe Biden’s incessant smiling (or smirking, depending on your point of view) during the debate have been deliberate?
By asking this, we don’t just mean that Mr. Biden had a strategy to be aggressive and try to disqualify his much younger opponent by refusing to appear to take him seriously. That's obvious enough.
No, we’re wondering if something even more calculated could have been going on.
Here’s our thinking: There was much to criticize about President Obama’s performance in last week’s debate – but the biggest failing, in the eyes of many of his supporters, was his lack of animation and firepower. He just seemed disengaged, so flat and feeble that viewers on both sides of the aisle agreed he’d essentially ceded the stage.
Biden’s challenge Thursday night was not only to reenergize dispirited liberals – but, maybe even more important, to set the stage for Mr. Obama’s next debate, which comes in just four days.
This time, Obama clearly will need to raise his energy level and give a more impassioned performance than the one he turned in last week. But he can’t appear too heated, too dramatically different – or the effort could seem artificial and even desperate.
This is the trap that Al Gore fell into back in 2000. Widely criticized for his demeanor in his first presidential debate – particularly those now-infamous sighs – he made an obvious effort to change his approach in the next round. The result? He was panned again, this time for what seemed like a too-transparent attempt to be more likable.
So the challenge for Obama will be to carefully calibrate his next performance, correcting his previous mistakes without making it seem like he’s overcompensating.
And that’s where Biden’s incessant, aggressive smiling comes in. By taking his own animation level right through the roof, Biden may have given Obama a little more room to emote on Tuesday, without seeming like he’s overdoing it.
Because everyone just saw what overdoing it looks like – thanks to Biden.
As MSNBC’s First Read put it Friday morning: “Biden – by turning his volume to 11 last night – takes some … pressure off the president. If you've followed Obama over the past six years, you know it's not his style to be overly aggressive. Well, Biden last night both gave Obama a road map for how to attack Romney-Ryan (on abortion, tax fairness, foreign policy), and he gave him room to do it in the way he feels most comfortable.”
The really interesting question is whether Biden possibly did this on purpose. True, putting in an over-the-top performance may not ultimately help him in his own presidential ambitions. But if Obama loses the election, Biden’s presidential hopes go up in smoke, anyway.
In other words, sometimes you have to take one for the team. And while it may ultimately be too much of a stretch, it doesn't seem entirely impossible, either, that on Thursday night, Biden may have done just that.
The Joe Biden-Paul Ryan debate was pretty combative. The veep and the veep nominee clashed repeatedly on foreign affairs, the economy, social issues, and the correct pronunciation of “Kentucky,” the state in which the wrangle was held.
OK, we made up that last one. But doesn’t it seem possible? Given the extent of their disagreements it’s not hard to envision Congressman Ryan insisting “It’s KEN-tucky,” and Biden replying that his father had told him once “Champ, it’s Kin-TUCKY. Don’t let any slicker tell you otherwise.”
As always in these things, both sides tossed out numbers thick and fast. As we’ve often said, numbers in national politics aren’t as fixed as they appear. They can represent guesses, or old assumptions, or predictions that might come true and might not. So we’ll try and put a context around some of the ones that struck us in an effort to make the debate useful to voters who want more than an analysis of facial expressions.
Given this, did Ryan really propose slashing embassy security spending by $300 million?
The Romney/Ryan ticket has accused the administration of stinting on embassy security prior to these attacks. In reply, Vice President Biden said the charge was “malarkey.”
“This congressman here cut embassy security in his budget by $300 million below what we asked for, No. 1. So much for the embassy security piece,” said Biden.
The nugget of fact behind this charge is that as chairman of the House Budget Committee, Ryan has submitted a budget blueprint that proposes cutting all nondefense discretionary spending by 19 percent in fiscal 2014. This category includes everything Uncle Sam does that is not an entitlement program, like Social Security, or run by the Pentagon, or interest on the debt.
Taking almost 1 of every 5 dollars away from programs in this area means something that many voters think is important is likely to get hit hard. But Ryan’s budget was an overall plan. It didn’t allocate that cut line item by line item. It’s possible that embassy security might have been saved at the expense of something else, like Environmental Protection Agency enforcement.
So Ryan didn’t propose cutting embassy security spending, literally (and we do mean literally, Mr. Vice President) speaking. Appropriations committee staff members would have had the hard task of carving up the budget bit by bit. Or they would have if Ryan’s proposal had become law, which it didn’t.
So to sum up, this charge involves extrapolating otherwise-unprovided details from a larger number that itself doesn’t have the force of law. But its underlying truth is that it is impossible to substantially reduce the federal deficit without cutting out stuff that’s important to the functions of the US government, if entitlements and defense are left untouched.
The two presidential tickets have a lot to say about the funding of entitlements, of course. But that’s a subject for another post.
Politics is frequently compared to a sport, if not a bloodsport. So it makes sense that candidates would think it advantageous to portray themselves as being in “fighting shape.”
But in vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan’s case, that image is now teetering on the edge of caricature.
We suppose some supporters may find the new Time Magazine photos of Congressman Ryan in full “P90X” workout mode flattering. After all, there’s no disputing the fact that the congressman is pretty ripped. Drudge – an outlet that’s clearly sympathetic to the Romney-Ryan ticket – even chose to prominently display one of the shots of Ryan pumping iron Thursday morning.
But we suspect that many others will find the Ryan photo shoot – hmmm, how shall we put this – bordering on hilarious. There’s the backwards baseball cap. The way Ryan locks eyes with the camera as he’s doing his bicep curls. Our personal favorite is the one where he’s reaching an arm out and pouting in a pseudo-homeboyish pose.
Maybe he meant it ironically?
It’s reminiscent, on some level, of the famous photo of Michael Dukakis in the tank. Or those John Kerry windsurfing shots. Those, too, were pictures intended to show off the candidate’s tough, manly side, but they ended up unintentionally reinforcing a very different message.
The photos are especially jarring, in a way, because Ryan is generally regarded, even by many of his opponents, as a serious guy. We wonder: Did he not have any handlers around telling him that this photo shoot might not be such a good idea? Or is the congressman just so enamored with his own physical prowess that he won’t listen to naysayers?
Already, the fitness thing has gotten him into more trouble than almost any other topic. He’s had to correct his own public misstatement about his marathon time (he claimed to have run one in under 3 hours, but later admitted it was more like 4). And questions have been raised about statements he’s made about his body fat percentage (he told Politico he kept it “between 6 and 8 percent,” which, reporters have pointed out, would make him fitter than most Tour de France cyclists), and his mountain-climbing prowess.
Of course, to some extent, exercise and sports shots are a staple of campaign imagery. It’s a way of sending two messages at once: The candidate is strong and healthy, and is a “regular guy.” But sometimes, those pictures can backfire. In 2008, Barack Obama’s campaign was happy to show him playing basketball – but probably wished they hadn’t let the press see him bowl.
Back in 2007, when he was running against the older John McCain, Mitt Romney devoted an entire ad to footage of himself jogging. This time around, however, he hasn’t really emphasized his sporting side as much (other than those also-questionable shots of him riding on the back of Ann Romney’s jet ski).
So Ryan has had the exercise-guru mantle to himself.
Frankly – even putting aside the questions about Ryan’s odd exaggerations – we’re not sure voters really want a candidate who seems too into his own fitness. Most Americans fall more on the sedentary side of the ledger, and while they may not want a couch-potato candidate, they also don’t want to feel bad about themselves by comparison. And they tend not to warm to people who repeatedly boast about how in-shape they are.
But, clearly, Ryan believes his fitness gives him an edge. Who knows, maybe at the debate tonight he'll challenge Vice President Joe Biden to an arm-wrestling contest? Or maybe he’ll drop down and do some one-armed pushups, like Jack Palance at the Oscars?
We'll say this: It would make it a lot more fun than the last one.
Ann Romney served as co-host of ABC’s “Good Morning America” Thursday a.m. At least, she was the focus of several segments, interviewed other guests, and cooked. Whether that makes her a co-host or a super-special normal guest is something network producers may argue about.
In any case, whatever her role, how did she handle it? She’s not as practiced at appearing on TV as is first lady Michelle Obama, after all.
As is normal in these situations, she seemed to do fine. The show staff should do its best to make her look good, after all: Ratings are at stake, as well as future guest spots if her husband wins the presidency. We say “should” because there were a few glitches. The stove in the "GMA" kitchen seemed to be a Democrat, for one thing.
IN PICTURES: Ann Romney – the softer side of Mitt
Mrs. Romney began her appearance standing in the kitchen baking her signature Welsh cakes. When host George Stephanopoulos threw the shot over to her, he asked her to talk about the background of the cookielike goods.
“They’re burning.... I’ve got a cookie emergency. The griddle’s too hot. But I’m here. I’m making Welsh cakes,” were her first words.
She recovered quickly and ran through her spiel: Her Welsh grandmother had taught her how to make them, and now she was teaching her own grandkids. Her grandfather had gone to work in Wales at age 6, while her grandmother ate the cakes every afternoon at 3 p.m.
Her other notable turn was outside in Times Square, where she helped interview a Paralympian equestrienne named Becca Hart. Ms. Hart said her horse Lord Ludger (also present) had helped her maintain health in the face of crippling illness.
Romney, who has multiple sclerosis, agreed that riding has healing powers.
“I’m right at home now. This is my most favorite place to be, with a horse,” said Romney.
OK, then – does all this help her husband’s candidacy? We’d say absolutely. There is nothing like a compelling spouse to humanize otherwise stiff and/or remote politicians. See “Michelle Obama,” above.
And there’s some evidence that Romney is a driving force behind the sudden revival of her husband’s prospects. Prior to last week’s debate, she and son Tagg intervened to push for a new and softer approach, according to a lengthy account in Politico.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t potential pitfalls in some of the things Mrs. Romney is bringing up. Take the Welsh cakes. Her grandparents are a nice story, but what about her parents? Is she avoiding talking about them? Her father was a wealthy industrialist, after all. That didn’t come up on "GMA." Nor did her days at Kingswood, a Bloomfield Hills, Mich., school so lavish it’s used as a background for auto commercials.
The horse might be more problematic. Is it a reminder of Mrs. Romney’s own love for dressage, an expensive riding sport?
Of course, it’s possible the Romney campaign has decided that the dressage thing is a positive. We’re sure they’ve polled about it, and if voters reacted badly to reminders that Mrs. Romney likes to ride, there is no way she would be appearing on morning TV next to a horse whose first name is Lord. It could be that voters see it as revealing a positive aspect to her character. She’s obviously passionate about the subject.
The Obama campaign released an ad Tuesday attacking GOP nominee Mitt Romney for promising to cut Big Bird’s federal funding. The spot engendered a fair bit of controversy, in case you haven’t heard. Was it a mistake? Or do Obama's strategists know what they're doing here?
First let’s look at the ad itself. It’s a 30-second spot that opens with shots of Bernie Madoff and other felon financiers. “Criminals. Gluttons of greed,” intones the ad’s narrator, in faux horror movie style.
“And the evil genius who towered over them? One man has the guts to speak his name,” continues the ad. It then cuts to Mitt Romney, saying “Big Bird.”
The giant feathered fellow himself then appears in a sort of montage of Sesame Street clips. The deep-voice narrator returns.
“Yellow. A menace to our economy,” he says. “Mitt Romney knows it’s not Wall Street you have to worry about. It’s Sesame Street. Mitt Romney, taking on our enemies no matter where they nest.”
Why was this controversial? Big Bird didn’t like it, for one thing. Or rather his creator and copyright owner Sesame Workshop didn’t. They made it clear they hadn’t given permission to use their giant creature for political ends and asked the Obama campaign to pull the spot.
Sesame Workshop CEO Melvin Ming told the Abu Dhabi Media Summit on Wednesday that their request is “being considered.”
Second, conservatives derided the ad as small-bore. The Obama campaign isn’t responding to the larger points Romney made in last week’s debate, writes Mark Hemingway Wednesday in The Weekly Standard. Instead it’s focused on empty ephemera, according to Hemingway.
“As strategic miscalculations go, the ad is pretty devastating,” he writes.
Finally, even some Democrats weren’t enthusiastic. They think Obama is chasing a shiny distraction while letting Romney get away with what they believe are larger distortions about his economic plan.
“It’s a diversion from the much bigger reality that any conceivable Romney/Ryan budget plan is going to hit a lot of accounts that are a lot bigger and more popular than PBS,” writes liberal Ed Kilgore on the Political Animal blog at The Washington Monthly.
Well, we have a couple of points to make. The first is that campaigns know a lot more about their target audiences then they publicly discuss. If the Obama campaign is releasing a Big Bird ad, it’s probably because they have focus group data from the debate that shows voters responded negatively to that point in particular. The idea didn’t just pop into strategists’ heads. It could be part of a larger plan to try and solidify, say, the votes of stay-at-home moms. (Or dads – we’ve seen more Elmo ourselves then we care to remember.)
But right now, does that matter? It’s possible this ad might have been more effective later in the campaign. The reality is that last week’s debate appears to have been a game-changing moment. It has coincided with perhaps the largest poll swings of the entire 2012 campaign. Romney now leads in the RealClearPolitics average of major polls by 0.8 percentage points. Ten days ago Obama led by 4.3.
Throughout this election cycle, at every moment when it appeared Barack Obama’s poll lead would succumb to gravity and Romney would catch up, the Obama team has countered with a major effort, writes RealClearPolitics senior election analyst Sean Trende. In June, for example, the Obama team fought back against a newly-nominated and rising Romney by filling the airwaves with anti-Bain ads.
The current decline in Obama’s ratings is just such a moment. Yet the Obama team has already exploited Romney’s “47 percent” comments about the percentage of Americans who see themselves as victims. The campaign’s Big Bird stuff just isn’t that big, politically-speaking.
“Is there anything else it can use to push back against the natural trajectory of the race?” writes Trende. “We’ll find out, and if we get a few more polls like the Pew poll [which showed a 4-point Romney lead], I suspect that we will find out sooner rather than later.”
Did last Wednesday's presidential debate not have enough fireworks or personal attacks for you? Were you bothered, as some Democrats have been, that President Obama didn't call out Mitt Romney on some of his misleading claims (or vice versa)?
Given the "attack dog" role that most VP candidates assume, it's not surprising that vice-presidential debates are often heavy on aggression, and contain some memorable one-liners. (Think Lloyd Bentsen telling Dan Quayle in 1988, "Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy," or Walter Mondale telling Bob Dole in 1976 that he "has richly earned his reputation as a hatchet man.")
Beyond the entertainment value, of course, they may not mean much. In 2008, a record number of viewers tuned in to watch Sarah Palin debate Mr. Biden, wondering, primarily, whether then-Governor Palin would be in over her head.
Palin's "Can I call you Joe?" intro line was richly parodied afterward – and Tina Fey was surely thanking her for it – but in the end, Palin put in a credible performance and Biden reined in his attacks to avoid appearing like a bully, and the debate had zero effect on the polls.
That's likely to be the case again this time, although Democrats are certainly hoping that Biden can lay the groundwork for Mr. Obama to recover from his poor first debate performance – which did, in fact, seem to have made a big difference in the polls, contrary to what most pundits expected beforehand.
For starters, expect Biden to be much more prepared – and willing – to call out Congressman Ryan on any claims he takes issue with.
The debate will cover both domestic and foreign-policy issues. Look for Medicare to loom large in domestic issues; it was a centerpiece of Ryan's budget proposal, and Mr. Romney's proposal to partly privatize Medicare was based largely on Ryan's ideas. It's also a key area where Obama's team is trying to stoke fears about what the plan will mean for seniors' expenses down the road.
Given Biden's extensive foreign-policy experience, international issues should also make up a good chunk of the debate – and some viewers may be interested to see how Ryan, who has far less exposure on foreign policy, measures up.
In the end, the debate may be much more entertaining than the somewhat dry presidential debate from last week, which seemed heavier on dense numbers and dry explanation rather than zingers and one-liners.
But if you're looking for an event that could have a measurable effect on the race, you may need to wait until the following Tuesday, when Obama and Romney face off for a second time, this time taking questions from undecided voters in a town-hall-style event.
Forget the conventional wisdom that debates don't really make a difference. Last Wednesday's seems to have been a game-changer for Mitt Romney.
At least, that's what the latest poll from the Pew Research Center would have us believe.
The respected poll, which came out Monday, was the best news yet for Mr. Romney. For starters, it now puts him ahead of President Obama by four percentage points among likely voters (49 to 45 percent). In the last Pew poll, taken three weeks earlier, Mr. Obama led among likely voters by eight points.
That's a big shift. And unlike many of the seven-day-average tracking polls that have been published in recent days, all the polling was done in the days after the debate (which respondents also said, about 3 to 1, that Romney won).
The poll contained other good news for Romney. His favorability rating grew five points since September and hit 50 percent for the first time since Pew began polling voters on the question. Obama's favorability rating fell from 55 percent to 49 percent.
Romney's supporters also appear to be more engaged. A full 82 percent say they have given a lot of thought to the election – a sharp rise from September, and considerably more than Obama's supporters, of whom 67 percent say they have given a lot of thought to the election.
In addition, Romney gained ground in nearly every specific category that Pew polled on, including how voters view him as a leader, how willing he is to work with leaders of the other party, and how well he connects with ordinary Americans.
So what's the catch?
For one, some people have criticized the Pew poll for a more heavy makeup of Republican voters. In Pew's September poll, 39 percent of likely voters considered themselves Democrats, compared with 29 percent who considered themselves Republicans. In this latest October poll, that flipped, with 31 percent of likely voters considering themselves Democrats and 36 percent considering themselves Republicans.
The poll's defenders say that the shift is simply a function of voter identification being fluid: After the debate, more people might have decided to call themselves Republican, or more of those Republicans might have been likely to vote. Not adjusting for that helps capture an important dynamic in a shifting electorate.
The timing of the poll – it was conducted in the three days immediately after the debate, with most of the interviews taking place in the first part of that period – also more heavily accounts for any bounce, however short-lived, that Romney might have gotten from the debate. But this doesn't necessarily give a good idea of the longer-term trends or whether that bounce will last.
Also, while respected, Pew is just one of many polls – and some of the other polls released Monday were less favorable to Romney.
Gallup's latest tracking poll, which averages seven days of data, still put Obama five points ahead of Romney among registered voters (a distinct category from "likely" voters; among registered voters, Pew had the two candidates tied). For the three days immediately following the debate, Gallup also showed the candidates tied among registered voters.
Both the Gallup and Rasmussen tracking polls that came out Monday actually showed a slight improvement for Obama from the day before. And they seemed to indicate that Romney's bounce – while real – was fading a bit, perhaps in reaction to Friday's unexpectedly positive jobs report or perhaps as enthusiasm for the debate settled into the background for voters.
The conflicting polls can be understandably confusing for election-watchers: Which to believe? Which pollsters do it best? Should you look at "registered voter" or "likely voter" numbers? Should polls adjust for party identification?
They reflect the fact that polling is, at best, an imperfect science with a lot of disagreement about how to do it right. At this point, the polls also probably reflect voters who are still making up their minds about how they feel about the two candidates and whether the debate really changed their opinion.
At The New York Times's FiveThirtyEight blog, pollster Nate Silver gives a fair amount of validity to the Pew poll – which was significant enough that, by itself, it managed to shift the chances of Romney winning the electoral vote in his model's forecast from 21.6 percent to 25.2 percent. But, he also notes, common sense and a look at the fundamentals of the race right now don't really point to a four-point advantage for Romney.
"The evidence that Mr. Romney’s bounce is receding some is only modestly strong – as opposed to the evidence that he got a significant bounce in the first place, which is very strong," Mr. Silver writes. "Still, the order in which polls are published does not exactly match the order in which they were actually conducted – and at turning points in the race, these details can make a difference."
So whom to believe? At this point, voters may need to wait a few more days to see how the polling settles out – or until the next debate, when there could be yet another bounce for one of the candidates.
The vice-presidential debate is Thursday; the next presidential debate – town-hall style – is Oct. 16. Stay tuned.
IN PICTURES: Campaign photography – the art of standing out
How much money would Washington save if it stopped subsidizing Big Bird?
This question arises, of course, because during the presidential debate that’s what Mitt Romney said he’d do if elected president. Asked what things he’d cut from the federal budget to help curb deficits, Mr. Romney mentioned the tax money that flows into the Public Broadcasting System. Then he got specific with moderator Jim Lehrer, a PBS star.
“I like PBS. I love Big Bird. I actually like you, too,” he said to Mr. Lehrer. “But I’m not going to ... borrow money from China to pay for it.”
OK, then. We’ll focus first on Big Bird, then on public TV and radio in general, and their relationship to deficit spending.
It should come as no surprise that cutting Big Bird off the US dole would save very little money, relatively speaking. In part that’s because Sesame Workshop, the company that produces “Sesame Street,” gets most of its money from sources other than Uncle Sam.
Let’s look at the numbers. According to the latest Internal Revenue Service Form 990 financial disclosure that Sesame Workshop has made public, its total revenue for 2009 was about $130 million. Of that, about $7.9 million came directly from government grants. So, a rounding error in a Pentagon checkbook.
Now, Big Bird gets program fees from stations, too. Sesame Workshop lists $27 million in content distribution revenue. Some of that comes from federal dollars funneled to local PBS entities, though the Form 990 doesn’t break that out.
Let’s figure that 8 percent of Sesame Workshop’s total budget comes from the government. That’s the figure the company has quoted in recent media reports. Given a $130 million overall budget, that comes in at about $10.4 million.
Given that this year’s federal deficit is $1.1 trillion, Big Bird is nothing but speck of dust on a mote on a dandelion that Horton the Elephant is trying to save from being boiled in oil.
Of course, “Sesame Street” is only one program. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting – funding partner of PBS and National Public Radio – got about $445 million in 2012 from the federal budget. Axing that, as Romney promises to do, would save a bit more.
Still, even $445 million wouldn’t pay for a computer system on one of the new ships Romney wants to add to the Navy. So why bother to go after it?
Because – you knew there was going to be a “because” – it’s not just about the absolute dollar value of the money. Conservatives have long decried federal subsidies to public broadcasting because they consider it blatant waste. Today’s broadcasting environment doesn’t lack for high-quality choices, as it did in the 1960s when the Corporation for Public Broadcasting was formed. Plus, much public TV and radio could survive just fine on its own, according to this view.
We’ll go back to Sesame Workshop to illustrate this point. According to a pie chart of the group’s financials, 35 percent of the group’s cash comes from corporate, foundation, and government support. As we’ve seen, the “government” part of that isn’t very big.
Another 33 percent comes from product licensing. That’s all the Elmo dolls and so forth that clutter kids’ bedrooms around America. A final 32 percent comes from distribution fees and royalties.
So, Big Bird would do just fine if he has to leave Washington’s nest. He’d get royalties from the movie “Elmopalooza,” plus grants from corporate and foundation partners.
Also, did you know the president of Sesame Workshop makes more than the president of the United States? We noticed that while combing through the 209 Form 990.
That year, Sesame Workshop president and CEO Gary Knell got $684,144 in reportable compensation from his job. The salary of the US president is fixed by law at $400,000, though the job does come with use of a house, Camp David, and Air Force One.