Category Archives: Media

The Washington Post’s Lurch Toward Developers

According to The Washington Post’s editorial board, “balance…has eluded” Marc Elrich, the Democratic nominee for county executive in Montgomery County, Maryland whose campaign I managed during the primary. This allegation is based largely on Elrich’s written commitment, if elected, to “invite the [president of the county’s major labor union] to the interview and selection processes for all of [the county’s] department heads,” which the Post calls “an extraordinary promise, even for a pro-labor politician — and one without precedent in any area jurisdiction, as far as we can ascertain.”

It is true that local officials do not typically give labor a voice in government decision-making. But it is strange to say the promise to do so is less “balanced” than the more common practice of giving employees no input whatsoever on the managers who will be overseeing their work. In fact, giving workers substantially more control over private companies’ operations by allowing them to elect a portion of a company’s board of directors may be “among the most broadly popular ideas in American politics” right now. That practice, called co-determination, is already widespread in Germany and Western Europe. Elrich’s proposal, like co-determination, would help ensure that employees are assigned productive work that advances the mission that both managers and workers share.

Perhaps the Post’s confusion about the meaning of the word “balance” stems from the complete absence of it in their coverage of the Montgomery County executive race. “Marc Elrich’s lurch toward labor” was not the first, not the second, not the third, but the fourth explicitly anti-Elrich piece the editorial board published. They even wrote a fifth piece about ranked-choice voting (a policy that Elrich strongly supports) that subtly attempted to delegitimize Elrich’s primary victory before the votes were officially counted. While the Post’s editorial board is of course welcome to support or oppose whomever they please, the sheer volume of negative copy they’ve devoted to Elrich appears to be without precedent in their commentary on previous Montgomery County executive candidates (not to mention executive candidates in other area jurisdictions) – at least, as far as I can ascertain. The editorial board also violated some basic journalistic principles in their anti-Elrich advocacy.

Even more concerning, the Post’s anti-Elrich bias and journalistic malpractice weren’t confined to the editorial pages. The paper’s news coverage also suffered from a serious slant, casting a misleading narrative pushed by a few powerful developers and their allies as objective reporting.

Between when I started as Elrich’s campaign manager in October of 2017 and early February of 2018, the Post reported on pretty much every major event in the executive race and did so more or less neutrally. They covered county executive forums in October, November, and December, the decisions of former Rockville mayor Rose Krasnow and Potomac businessman David Blair to enter the field, the first major campaign finance filing in January, and the organizational endorsements of CASA in Action (Elrich), SEIU Local 32BJ (Elrich), the Metropolitan Washington Council of the AFL-CIO (Elrich), the Montgomery County Sierra Club (Roger Berliner), and Progressive Maryland (Elrich). In stories about important county issues like the government’s budget shortfall, the minimum wage bill Elrich co-sponsored, and the departure of one of the county’s major businesses, the Post also quoted Elrich and the other sitting members of the county council who were running for county executive while mentioning their candidacies.

In February, a new reporter took over the Post’s Montgomery County beat. And as major endorsements for Elrich continued to roll in, the Post stopped covering them. They did report on a racial justice forum on February 25, their piece on the crowded field in the county council race a few days later mentioned the county executive candidates in passing, and their article about whether to prioritize funding for the school system’s proposed capital budget or for road projects noted the candidacies of Elrich and Berliner, who were on opposite sides of that debate. But the Post mostly went silent on the executive race for a while, not carrying another news story about it until April 19.

That story, entitled “In Maryland’s largest jurisdiction, contest for county executive seen as anybody’s race,” quoted two “experts,” both of whom – Keith Haller and Steve Silverman – sat on the four-person candidate interview committee for a group called Empower Montgomery. Purporting to “effectively represent all Montgomery County residents – and avoid having political decisions influenced by narrow special interests,” Empower Montgomery actually represents the county’s most powerful special interest group: wealthy developers. Blair has been listed among the organization’s co-founders (Silverman has, too, though neither man currently appears on the Empower Montgomery website) and Elrich was the only county executive candidate who refused to take developers’ campaign contributions, insisting he would hold them accountable for paying for the school construction and transportation infrastructure necessary to support new development. So it wasn’t too surprising when Empower Montgomery launched a series of attack mailers against Elrich right before the election.

While calling Haller and Silverman election experts, the Post’s April 19 article did not mention either of their affiliations with Empower Montgomery or the county’s developers. The article did, however, give Silverman space to downplay the significance of Elrich’s endorsements and characterize his candidacy as occupying “the far-left, pro-union, anti-development lane.”

Then, on April 27, for the first time in two months, the Post finally covered another candidate forum. This forum – the last the paper would cover before the primary election on June 26 – was co-hosted by none other than Empower Montgomery. Referencing the report Empower Montgomery commissioned to be unveiled and discussed at the forum, the Post’s title warned that the “Montgomery Co. economy is stagnant, and leaders are ignoring job creation.” Among the solutions Empower Montgomery recommended to this ostensibly dire situation? As the Post summarized: attracting Amazon’s second headquarters (that “would help to solve pretty much every many [sic] of the economic problems the county faces,” the Post gushed); “reduce energy taxes and impact fees on new development; and increase economic development resources” (emphasis mine). The article referred to Empower Montgomery as a “nonprofit advocacy formed by business leaders,” making no mention of Blair being listed as a co-founder or the very narrow business interests – developers – that the organization actually represents.

When the Post’s editorial board endorsed Blair on May 12, they linked to this April 27 news article as justification, calling the Empower Montgomery-commissioned report “the unsettling backdrop for the June 26 Democratic primary…The central question is which of the candidates for county executive is most capable of juicing a sluggish commercial environment — the only way to broaden the local tax base so it can sustain the county’s excellent schools and progressive services.” In addition to endorsing Blair, the editorial board made sure to note that four of the other candidates would be acceptable. The only exception was Elrich, “whose popularity owes much to his reflexive opposition to innumerable local projects — including the Fillmore, a beloved live music venue in Silver Spring. Mr. Elrich would be the wrong person to broaden the county’s tax base and revive its prospects.”

This editorial prompted a flurry of angry letters to the editor from Montgomery County residents, one of whom reminded the editorial board of something they should have already known: “Mr. Elrich was not opposed to the ‘beloved’ Fillmore music venue but to the $11 million in public funds given to Ticketmaster.”

In an apparent attempt to justify their pro-Blair, anti-Elrich position, the Post’s editorial board doubled down with a follow-up piece on June 5. This second editorial inaccurately accused Elrich of “declar[ing] he’d rather divert jobs to neighboring Frederick County than attract them to Montgomery,” relying on a dishonest claim from a developer-funded blog that proudly asserts: “[d]evelopers are part of the solution and we welcome their support.” Elrich wrote a letter to the editor to correct the record, and the Post published it on June 10. But less than a week later, the Post highlighted the allegation again in a feature on Elrich that they published as part of a series on all six of the Democratic candidates. The feature linked the inaccurate blog post and – until I emailed the author and the piece was edited post-publication – failed to include a link to Elrich’s response.

Unlike the features on the other candidates, which focused on why those candidates were running and what they wanted to accomplish, the Elrich feature centered around criticisms and Elrich’s responses to those criticisms. “Marc Elrich is tired of being called a socialist,” it began, following up with “rumors about a Che Guevara poster on his office wall” and claiming that “business leaders” felt “unease” at the prospect of an Elrich-led county government. Whereas other candidates’ endorsements were all described positively, Elrich’s much more extensive and diverse endorsements list was mentioned briefly and then qualified with a less overt version of the critique in the Post’s most recent anti-Elrich editorial (see below). Prior to my email to the author, the feature didn’t even mention that Elrich would appear on the teachers union’s “apple ballot,” which is quite possibly the county’s most coveted endorsement prize.

Endorsement Paragraphs - Post Features

Though it’s hard to fully appreciate how much of an outlier the Elrich feature was without reading them all (those interested can do so here), the graph below provides a quick illustration. Each bar represents the percentage of paragraphs in the feature that paint the candidate in a positive light minus the percentage of paragraphs that portray the candidate negatively. As the image shows, Elrich is the only candidate who received a net negative portrayal. (The categorization scheme is somewhat subjective, of course, but I tried to categorize conservatively; anybody interested can download and play with the categorizations here).

Positivity - Post Features

To be fair to the Post, they did cover the teachers union’s endorsement on June 6. They also covered candidates’ and progressive groups’ attacks on Blair for trying “to buy the election” in two separate pieces. Yet even there, the paper was less credulous about attacks on Blair than it was when evaluating attacks on Elrich. For example, the paper asserted that the Progressive Maryland Liberation Alliance super PAC “does not offer any proof that its accusations [about Blair’s business record] are true.” Not once did a Post news article put a similar note after “business leaders’” unfounded critiques of Elrich.

The combination of the bias in the Post’s main feature, their elevation of developers’ narrative without proper citation, and the editorial board’s blatant mischaracterization of Elrich’s positions surely influenced the primary vote. While Elrich won anyway and we’ll never be able to quantify the impact the Post’s misinformation had, it’s hard to imagine Elrich wouldn’t have won by a larger margin if residents had received more accurate information.

Moving forward, Montgomery County residents can feel confident that they’ll continue to get balance from Elrich. It would be nice if they could also expect balance from the paper of record.

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Filed under 2018 Elections, Media

Amen for Alternative Media

Media Establishment.pngThe May/June issue of Politico Magazine contains an article entitled “The Media Bubble Is Worse Than You Think.”  Its central argument is that media concentration in affluent “blue” areas (those that typically vote for Democrats) has led to ideological uniformity in newsrooms, and it cites the increased geographic concentration of writers who work for Internet media sources as evidence that this problem is threatening to get even worse.

Part of the article’s thesis, that “the national media just doesn’t get the nation it purportedly covers,” is undoubtedly true.  But the article is wrong to imply that an underrepresentation of Republicans is the problem.  The actual problem is the mainstream media’s overrepresentation of Establishment viewpoints – from both major political parties – and its marginalization of economic- and social-justice viewpoints.  And the age of Internet media, for all its flaws, is an improvement on what came before.

A quick look at the most ostensibly liberal mainstream media outlets is instructive in this regard.  In the world of newspapers, that’s The New York Times.  While they certainly do commission social-justice-minded op-eds, and while their editorial board often advocates on behalf of less-advantaged Americans, the paper gives more voice overall to privilege-defending viewpoints of those in power than to power-balancing ideas from those who seek to challenge the status quo.  The Times recently hired Bret Stephens, for example, who has previously written anti-Arab screeds and called the idea that racism and campus rape are systemic problems “imaginary” in the Wall Street Journal.  In his first Times column, Stephens revisited some of the climate-change skepticism he’s been peddling for years.

Stephens joined a cast of ten other Times columnists, several of whom appear to believe it’s a major problem that members of what they call the “speech-policing, debate-squelching, illiberal P.C. left” care more about “war victims in South Sudan” than the “scarcity of conservatives” in academia.  The only self-proclaimed liberal among this particular group of columnists seems to think that people are poor, at least in large part, because of their moral failings, and he once argued that “the central challenge in the poorest countries is not that sweatshops exploit too many people, but that they don’t exploit enough.”  And the most ostensibly progressive columnist at the paper spent a great deal of time taking illiberal and/or inaccurate potshots at Bernie Sanders and his supporters during the 2016 Democratic primary.  There isn’t a single Times columnist who “represent[s] the millions [of people] who hate war, support single-payer [health care,] or oppose capitalism,” as Sean McElwee recently noted.

The problem is perhaps even worse when it comes to cable news.  The most ostensibly liberal mainstream station, MSNBC, just hired a senior adviser from 2008’s McCain-Palin presidential campaign and may also bring on a Right-wing talking head who thinks there’s been “a lot to celebrate” from Donald Trump’s first 100 days in office.  One of the station’s longtime anchors voted for and vigorously defended George W. Bush during the mid-2000s, and MSNBC features several leading personalities and commentators who consistently attack the social-justice-minded wing of the Democratic Party, often with misleading reporting.  Even the network’s more social-justice-inclined broadcasters seem wary of straying too far from Democratic Party orthodoxy (note that those who do sometimes lose their jobs), and one of them, the station’s most-watched host, has focused more on conspiracy theories about Russia than on all other issues combined over the last couple of months.

Again, that’s the “liberal” media.  Other major media outlets occupy a space in which fomenting bigotry against a marginalized group of people is okay but tweeting opposition to refugee restrictions is grounds for suspension.  Politicians are encouraged to discuss terrorism and foreign enemies but allowed to ignore poverty, campaign finance reform, and existential threats to the planet.  The most-watched cable network (Fox News) and the editorial pages at the arguably most-circulated newspaper (The Wall Street Journal) are a repository for privilege-defending ideology and alternative facts.

It is for this reason that Politico’s analysis is off base.  The mainstream media’s ideological uniformity is less liberal and more Establishment, likely driven less by geographic clustering and more by corporate capture.  A small handful of companies own the vast majority of the media Americans consume.  If corporate America doesn’t find something acceptable – if it’s threatening to those in power – it often isn’t published or aired.

It is no surprise, then, that a study of media coverage of the 2016 election found that five different Republican candidates “each had more news coverage than Bernie Sanders during the invisible primary” in 2015 – despite the fact that “Sanders had [already] emerged as [Hillary] Clinton’s leading competitor” by that time.  The only vehemently anti-corporate candidate in the race was, according to another analysis that compared Google searches about candidates to the press they received, “being ignored by the mainstream media to a shocking degree.”  When mainstream media sources finally did begin to acknowledge Sanders’ existence, their coverage was often dismissive of his candidacy and/or misleading, and rarely issues-focused.

The liberalization of the news and editorial landscape that the Internet has helped usher in is thus a welcome development.  Some alternative media sources are terrible, of course, and social media, which has some real issues, surely sometimes facilitates the spread of falsehoods.  But what you’ll get from a Breitbart, Drudge Report, or Infowars isn’t all that far afield from what you’re likely to see on Fox, whereas the Internet also exposes people to some of the great alternative sources out there.  Democracy Now!, The Intercept, FAIR, Jacobin, The Young Turks, and The Benjamin Dixon Show, for example, provide a perspective that is very different from those commonly aired on MSNBC or given space in The New York Times.

Exposure to these alternative sources is greatest among young people, who are far more likely to use the Internet as a primary news source than are older individuals.  Interestingly, young people are also least likely to have voted for Donald Trump in the 2016 election and most likely to have backed Sanders in the Democratic primary.  Young Republicans are less likely than their older counterparts to hold extreme and inaccurate views.

This matchup between social-justice-oriented voting patterns by age and media access by age may very well be a coincidence, or it may just reflect the general tendency of younger people to be more progressive than older people.  But it may also reflect that younger people no longer must rely on corporate-owned media for our information.  Instead of being subjected to a steady diet of the Establishment’s point of view, we can identify alternative sources we like, follow them, and engage in fact-checking ourselves.  Rather than being cause for consternation, that’s a development we should celebrate.

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Filed under 2016 Presidential Election, Media

There’s a Reason People Think the Democratic Primary Was Unfair and Undemocratic: It Was

Journalists have been cautioning Bernie Sanders against “suggesting the entire political process is unfair,” insisting that doing so could have “negative and destabilizing consequences.”  They contend that he must “argue to his supporters that the outcome of the [Democratic primary] process was legitimate” so that he can convince them to vote for Hillary Clinton.  According to several recent articles, this argument should be easy to make because “The Democratic Primary Wasn’t Rigged” and “Bernie Sanders lost this thing fair and square.”

The problem, however, is that the Democratic primary was anything but “fair and square.”  It may not have been “rigged” in the narrow sense in which some of these writers have interpreted that word (to mean that there were illegal efforts to mess with vote counts), but it certainly wasn’t democratic. That’s why only 31 percent of Democrats express “a great deal of confidence” that the Democratic primary process is fair and is likely why the election conspiracy theories these journalists decry have gained traction.

Defenders of the Democratic primary results make several legitimate points.  Clinton secured more votes and more pledged delegates than Sanders.  When voting rules were less restrictive, she still won a greater number of open primaries than he did.  Caucuses, which are very undemocratic, likely benefited Sanders.  There isn’t evidence that the Clinton campaign coordinated efforts to purge voters from the rolls, inaccurately tabulate votes, or mislead Sanders’ California supporters into registering for the American Independent Party.  While “the American election system is a disaster” and “should be reformed,” it’s not clear that the numerous and alarming voting rights issues that surfaced during the primary (from Arizona to New York to Puerto Rico) systematically disadvantaged Sanders.  And discrepancies between exit polls and final voting results can happen for a number of reasons; they aren’t necessarily indicative of foul play.

Yet at the same time, these points skirt the very real ways in which the primary process was “rigged;” as Matt Yglesias and Jeff Stein have acknowledged, “the media, the party, and other elected officials [were] virtually uniformly…loaded against” Sanders from the get-go.  The thumbs on the scale from these groups mattered a lot, more even than Yglesias and Stein surmise.

To quickly recap what those thumbs looked like, the Democratic party threw so much institutional support behind Clinton so long before she even declared her candidacy that political scientist David Karol asserted, in December of 2014, that “Hillary has basically almost been nominated.”  The Democratic National Committee’s debate schedule was “obviously intended” to insulate Clinton from challengers and scrutiny. The DNC, in response to inappropriate behavior from a Sanders staffer who DNC staff had recommended and the campaign had already fired, suspended Sanders’ access to important voter data in violation of its contract with his campaign.  While Clinton was dinging Sanders on his ostensible disregard for party fundraising, the “so-called joint fundraising committee comprised of Clinton’s presidential campaign, the Democratic National Committee and 32 state party committees” was exploiting loopholes in campaign finance laws to funnel the bulk of its resources to Clinton and Clinton alone.  Even into late May, DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz was leaning heavily into biased, anti-Sanders messaging, and leaked emails confirm that she and other DNC leaders actively sought to undermine the Sanders campaign.  In addition, leaders of numerous groups traditionally affiliated with the Democratic party – unions and organizations generally more aligned with Sanders than Clinton on campaign issues – endorsed Clinton without polling their members (the groups that did open the endorsement process up to members typically endorsed Sanders).

Mainstream pundits and analysts were hardly any better than the Democratic party.  From the moment Sanders entered the race, the media insisted – when they covered him at all, which was not very often – that he had “no chance of winning.”  They continued to write off the possibility of a Sanders victory even as his popularity skyrocketed and he took an early lead in the popular vote, inappropriately including superdelegates in their reporting to make it look like Clinton was winning big.  They asserted that the hundreds of policy wonks in support of Sanders’ ideas didn’t exist, subjecting Sanders’ proposals to far more scrutiny than Clinton’s, getting their analysis of some of Sanders’ plans flat-out wrong, and attempting to “boot anyone not preaching from the incrementalist gospel out of the serious club.”  They began to pressure Sanders to drop out well before even half of all primaries and caucuses had been completed.  They helped advance the false narrative that angry, sexist, illiberal White men fueled Sanders’ rise when his supporters were typically more power-balancing than Clinton’s and he was actually most popular among young women, young people of color, and poor Americans.  They also helped the Clinton campaign propagate numerous misleading and/or untrue attacks on Sanders.

In general, as often happens when political and media establishments are threatened, they progressed from “polite condescension” towards the Sanders campaign to “innuendos” to “right-wing attacks” to “grave and hysterical warnings” to something close to a “[f]ull-scale and unrestrained meltdown.”  It’s not clear exactly how much of that progression was coordinated, but it takes minimal effort to dismantle the claim that the Democratic party and mainstream media outlets were mostly neutral.  Whether Clinton surrogates were praising her on TV without disclosing their ties to her campaign or technically unaffiliated newspaper outlets were blasting Sanders in headlines and post-publication edits to their articles, media sources consistently parroted misleading Clinton campaign talking points.  Evidence indicates that the DNC was along for the ride.

It is true that Clinton faced a large amount of negative media coverage herself – much of it in the summer of 2015 and by some metrics the most out of any presidential candidate – and it is also true that the Sanders campaign had its issues, especially when it came to reaching out to and addressing the concerns of older Black voters.  But that doesn’t change the fact that Clinton got way more coverage at a critical juncture of the race, a huge asset because “[n]ame recognition is a key asset in the early going [and,] even as late as August of 2015, two in five registered Democrats nationally said they’d never heard of Sanders or had heard so little they didn’t have an opinion.”  It also doesn’t change the fact that Clinton was considered the de facto nominee even when media coverage was otherwise unfavorable, a dynamic that surely benefited her among Democrats who prioritize uniting the party in the general election above all else.  Though Sanders’ popularity increased as voters became more familiar with him, the initial lack of media coverage of his campaign, Democratic party opposition to his candidacy, and the idea that a Clinton win was inevitable all hamstrung him greatly.  If the media coverage he received had been more equitable and accurate, it is easy to show that he might have been the Democratic nominee.

That’s why, when writers argue that superdelegates did not “decide the nomination for Clinton,” they’re only half-right.  Clinton certainly won the popular vote under Democratic primary rules, but the superdelegates’ early allegiances and the media’s reporting on those allegiances also certainly influenced that popular vote.  Roadblocks from Democratic party elites and misleading or downright untrue attacks from the Clinton campaign, its many high-profile surrogates, and the mainstream media were ubiquitous throughout the primary process and certainly influenced the vote as well.

As Glenn Greenwald summarized, premature media reports that Clinton had won the election on June 6, besides depressing turnout in the next day’s primaries, constituted “the perfect symbolic ending to the Democratic Party primary: The nomination [was] consecrated by a media organization, on a day when nobody voted, based on secret discussions with anonymous establishment insiders and donors…[T]he party’s governing rules are deliberately undemocratic; unfair and even corrupt decisions were repeatedly made by party officials to benefit Clinton; and the ostensibly neutral Democratic National Committee…constantly put not just its thumb but its entire body on the scale to ensure she won.”  Combine many Democrats’ staunch denial of these problems with undemocratic voting practices that have favored Clinton and that her supporters have too often downplayed, and it’s little wonder that some people believe the election was a sham.

Journalists who disagree should absolutely make their case.  They should also, however, more seriously consider where voters’ concerns come from and stop insisting the system isn’t “rigged.”  People think “the entire political process is unfair” because it is.  And many doubt that “the outcome of the [Democratic primary] process was legitimate” for good reason.

It’s not Sanders’ responsibility to convince people that the primary was something it wasn’t.  It’s our collective responsibility to fix our democracy in the months and years ahead.

Sanders has some ideas for how to go about doing that, and they’re a good start, but there’s still much more to offer in this area.  Stay tuned.

Update (7/23/16): The following sentence fragment was added to this piece after a Wikileaks release of DNC emails: “and leaked emails confirm that she and other DNC leaders actively sought to undermine the Sanders campaign.”  In addition, an earlier version of this piece contained a sentence that read “New evidence suggests that the DNC was along for the ride,” but that sentence was updated to read “Evidence indicates that the DNC was along for the ride” due to corroborating evidence in the Wikileaks release.

Update (10/8/16): Another email leak provides further confirmation that the DNC “anointed [Clinton] the presumed nominee even before the campaign formally began,” as Michael Tracey notes.

Update (10/16/16): Thomas Frank, in a qualitative analysis of Washington Post coverage of Sanders during the primary, finds that clearly negative stories about Sanders outnumbered clearly positive ones by a “roughly five to one” margin, whereas the ratio for Clinton coverage “came much closer to a fifty-fifty split.”

Update (11/2/17): Donna Brazile, who was Vice-Chair of the DNC during the primary, publishes a piece describing how the Clinton campaign “rigged the nomination process” in 2016.  Brazile wrote that the joint fundraising agreement between the Clinton camp and the DNC allowed the Clinton team to “control the party’s finances, strategy, and all the money raised. Her campaign had the right of refusal of who would be the party communications director, and it would make final decisions on all the other staff. The DNC also was required to consult with the campaign about all other staffing, budgeting, data, analytics, and mailings.”

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Filed under 2016 Presidential Election, Media, US Political System

Bernie Sanders Is Correct: He Polls Better than Hillary Clinton Against the Republicans

PolitiFact just issued a completely incorrect ruling on one of their “fact checks.”  Here is the correct ruling on the following statement from Bernie Sanders:

34justice Truth Ruling

PolitiFact called it “false” because they found a few polls in which Clinton does better.  Their “fact checking” was grossly negligent, however.  While the meaning of “Almost all of” can be debated and I would have rather Sanders said “In general,” the worst anyone who has actually done their homework could rule this statement is “mostly true.”

RealClearPolitics compiles results from every poll and reports averages in many matchups.  The chart below shows how Clinton and Sanders fare on average against each of the top five Republican candidates (shown in order of the candidates’ average ranking in Republican primary polls).  As is obvious from looking at the graph, Sanders polls better on average than Clinton against each of the candidates, and significantly better than Clinton against Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, the two leading candidates in the Republican field (for example, while Sanders beats Cruz by 3.3 percentage points in the average poll, Clinton loses to Cruz by an average of 1.3 percentage points).

RCP Polling Averages

People can have reasonable debates about how to interpret the poll results.  Should Democrats be most worried about Marco Rubio?  Maybe.  Do the results mean much, given that all the matchups are hypothetical at this point and the general election is still a long way away?  Maybe not.  But the evidence we do have is clear: the polls absolutely, as Bernie Sanders said, “suggest that [he is] a much stronger candidate against the Republicans than is Hillary Clinton”

That may not have been PolitiFact’s ruling, but it is the truth.  How’s that for a fact check?

Update (2/26/16): As the chart below shows, newer RealClearPolitics data shows that Sanders is now doing even better relative to Clinton against the leading Republican candidates than he was doing a month ago.

RCPPolls2

HuffPost Pollster also aggregates polling data.  Democrats will be comforted by their results, which are much more favorable to both Sanders and Clinton than the results from RealClearPolitics.

HPPPolls

What is also abundantly clear from both sites’ models is that, as time goes on, Sanders’ standing against the top Republican candidates improves and Clinton’s gets worse.  These polls still certainly aren’t the be-all and end-all of electability evidence, but especially given the trends and Sanders’ superior popularity among millennials and Independents, the argument that these polls tell us nothing is getting harder and harder to justify.  I recommend basing your vote on your values, not on perceived electability, but if electability really is your primary concern, the data very obviously indicates that Sanders is the better pick.

Update (3/19/16): Hillary Clinton is now polling much closer to (though still not) as well as Sanders against Donald Trump, but is getting destroyed relative to Sanders against Ted Cruz and John Kasich.

RCP 3-19-16

HuffPostPollster 3-19-16

Update (4/12/16): Sanders is still outperforming Clinton in head-to-head general election matchups.

RCPPolls

HuffPoPolls

Update (5/17/16): Sanders still has a large head-to-head polling advantage over Clinton when matched up against Trump, who will be the Republican nominee.

H2H Polls 5-17-16

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Filed under 2016 Presidential Election, Media

Money and Power Matter. Family Structure, Not So Much.

50 years ago, Assistant Secretary of Labor Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote a report called The Negro Family: The Case For National Action. The central argument in what has come to be called the Moynihan Report was that “The Breakdown of the Negro Family Has Led to a Startling Increase in Welfare Dependency,” and that “a national effort towards the problems of Negro Americans must be directed towards the question of family structure.”

The Moynihan Report, published in March of 1965.

The Moynihan Report, published in March of 1965.

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof thinks “Liberals Blew It” by excoriating this report. His conclusion, however, is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the document’s critiques. The Moynihan Report’s faults lie not with its assertion that family stability is desirable, nor with its documentation of an increase in single-parent households, but with its insistence that family structure and Black “pathology” are primary drivers of poverty and inequality. This privilege-defending and inaccurate cultural narrative, however it was intended, implies that poor people of color are to blame for the effects of institutional racism and classism and diverts attention away from the real causes of inequity.

Those who denounced the Moynihan Report for that reason didn’t “blow it;” in fact, they presciently predicted how the report would be used to justify the false claim that “lifestyle issues” are the root cause of poverty. The real mistake is made not by people who recognize that connecting all types of families to money, basic necessities, and power is the best way to help them overcome hardship, but by those who continue to lend credence to the idea that the decline of traditional families has drastic consequences.

The lone piece of evidence Kristof cites in support of his claim that single-parent households lead to poor outcomes for low-income children is “an essay by Sara McLanahan of Princeton and Christopher Jencks of Harvard” in the March issue of EducationNext. While Kristof correctly notes that McLanahan and Jencks suggest that “growing up with just one biological parent reduces the chance that a child will graduate from high school by 40 percent,” he fails to discuss the broader context that calls his thesis into question.

First, the review McLanahan and Jencks cite (a review published by McLanahan and two colleagues in 2013, though the fact that McLanahan authored it is not mentioned in her and Jencks’s essay) found smaller associations or no relationship between family structure and other outcomes for children. As McLanahan and Jencks note about the review’s other findings regarding education, for example:

The absence of one’s biological father has not been shown to affect a child’s verbal and math test scores…The evidence for other indicators of educational performance, such as high school grades, skipping school, and college aspirations, is mixed, with some studies finding that father absence lowers school attendance and aspirations and others finding no effect.

Second, McLanahan et al themselves acknowledge that the relationships they do find may not be causal; the researchers write that “family disruption is not a random event…[T]he characteristics that cause father absence are likely to affect child well-being through other pathways.” Shawn Fremstad and Melissa Boteach explain in a comprehensive report published in January that while other studies that look at this issue find similar associations, most researchers are much more wary than McLanahan and colleagues of suggesting a causal link between family structure and indicators of children’s well-being.*

In fact, Kristof’s suggestion that the rise in single-parent households is a major driver of poverty and inequality is incompatible with some key details. For instance, while poverty levels in the United States remain far too high, they have fallen significantly over the past 50 years, in large part due to the safety net. If family structure were, as Moynihan contended, “the principal source of most of the aberrant, inadequate, or antisocial behavior that did not establish, but now serves to perpetuate the cycle of poverty and deprivation” (a contention that highlights the absurdity of Kristof’s argument that “liberal denunciations of Moynihan were terribly unfair”), this reduction in poverty would not have happened, as the number of “nontraditional” families has exploded during this time period.

Third, and most significantly, little research explores more plausible causal explanations for the relationship between economic and social disadvantage and family structure. It may very well be the case that the hardships associated with poverty make traditional families less likely, or that many of the factors that contribute to poverty and inequality also disrupt family stability.

Survey data suggests that these alternate interpretations are more likely to be accurate than Kristof’s; if nontraditional households were a cause rather than an effect or merely a correlate of disadvantage, we’d expect more support for traditional family structure among more advantaged individuals. The reverse is true, however; a study of survey results in 2012 noted that, “relative to higher income respondents, low-income respondents held more traditional values toward marriage, had similar romantic standards for marriage, and experienced similar skills-based relationship problems.” That study is consistent with Fremstad and Boteach’s summary of earlier research: “If anything, working-class people seem to value the cultural and religious aspects of marriage as much or more highly than more-educated adults.”

Relatedly, as Jared Bernstein pointed out last year, “policy interventions to encourage marriage have been shown to be quite ineffective” (and costly; as Bernstein also noted, “[t]wo pilot programs introduced in the George W. Bush years cost $10,000 per couple”). Wanting children to grow up in stable households is of course a laudable goal, but the evidence indicates that achieving household stability is not about culture, preferences, or a particular type of family structure. Instead, it is about a broad social justice agenda that addresses economic and social barriers to equality.

On some level, Kristof recognizes that direct means of addressing economic and social disadvantage should be the focus of anyone interested in “helping American kids.” He correctly decries how our racially- and economically-biased system of mass incarceration has torn families apart, and he also appropriately advocates that we “support programs to boost the economic prospects for poorer families.” Criminal justice reforms, safety net programs like SNAP (food stamps), the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), and Medicaid, and pretax income-boosting policies like the minimum wage and elements of the full employment agenda will likely promote family stability, and, more importantly, they are a sampling of some of the best methods we have to reduce poverty and inequality directly. To the extent that Kristof is advocating for this set of ideas, he is absolutely right to do so.

But the general thrust of Kristof’s piece, like the narrative in the Moynihan Report before it, undermines the fights for racial and class equality. In the future, the report’s defenders would do better to stop castigating the activists who disagree with them and start listening to and reflecting on advocates’ legitimate concerns.

*Fremstad and Boteach also note that “McClanahan’s review and much of the existing research do not clearly distinguish between the effect of family structure per se and the effect of family instability,” a clarification consistent with Kristof’s correct observation that children raised by loving gay parents do very well.

Note: A version of this post appeared on The Huffington Post on March 20.

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