Burma election round up

After reading reports of voter intimidation in Burma (also called the Union of Myanmar), which has been under Socialist military rule since 1962, I thought a round up of how the election is supposed to work would be in order.

Wikipedia has a page dedicated to the elections which provides background and a lot of comment about how unfair they are, but no information about the procedures.

Here's a useful guide of the seven-step roadmap to "disciplined democracy" which is the basis for the current election.

There are 440 seats in the People's Parliament (Pyithu Hluttaw), of which 330 are elected, one for each township in Burma. The creation of a new capital, Naypyidaw, meant five new townships in Mandalay Division were established.

The Nationalities Parliament (Amyotha Hluttaw) is composed of 224 seats, of which 168 seats are elected, with the 56 remaining being military appointments. Each state and division will have 12 seats equally in the Amyotha Hluttaw.

A comprehensive guide to how the constituencies are spread across the country can be found here.

The outcome of this election is certainly to allow the military to keep control of most of the institutions, including an effective veto on ministerial appointments. The decision of the main opposition movement to boycott the election makes any attempt to gauge the popularity of the government hard to assess. The best indicator in such cases is turnout.

In some respects (guaranteeing four military cabinet ministers) the roadmap looks like the route adopted by Chile under General Augusto Pinochet to move towards democracy. The basic problem for the army is to work out a way of disentangling itself from being in charge (and blamed) for everything, without ending up dangling from trees and streetlamps.

Results can be found here, FWIW.


In the event of a tie in the 2012 Presidential Election...

...the House of Representatives votes, state by state, for the President. This means that if Great Plains were a state with 1 congressperson (Democrat), that person would presumably back the Democrat. If Metropolis were a state with 31 representatives (16 Republicans and 15 Democrats) then assuming party lines hold, that's one vote for the Republicans.

Here's a chart showing how this looked before the 2010 elections:

With a few results pending, the picture has changed:

The upshot of this is that if the Electoral College result (remembering that the distribution by states will change by 2012) produces a dead heat (269-269 for example) then right now it would mean a Republican President and a Democrat Vice President (the Senate gets to vote for the Vice President in this scenario).

2010 Governors' Election Results So Far

At the time of writing, CBS News reckons there are 28 Republican Governors, 15 Democrats, 1 Independent and six results to come. However, Brian Dubie the Republican candidate in Vermont, has reportedly conceded, so I make it:

Republicans 28
Republicans lead in 3 (Connecticut, Maine, Oregon)
Democrats 16
Democrats lead in 2 (Illinois, Minnesota)
Independent 1

N.B. Although the five remaining contests are coloured according to the current lead, I would be surprised if none of these changed, for example Connecticut and/or Illinois, which are virtual dead heats.


"Already voted" polling in New Mexico

RealClearPolitics has a report on polling of people who have already voted in New Mexico, a sort of postal vote exit poll. Current estimate is 60% Republican 36% Democrat. The same sort of polling in the state in 2008, found that although only 10% of voters had cast their ballot early, yet the exit poll disproportionately favoured the eventual winner. RCP speculates that this might be repeated next month.

Two points:

1) I'm opposed to the publication of any exit polling of any kind before the LAST polling station has closed ANYWHERE and the last postal ballot received. This is because this type of polling can be used to manipulate the result: you tell people in the state of Washington that the Republicans have lost nationally, therefore a million Republicans don't vote in Washington, giving a cheap victory to Democrats. The same would happen with Nevada if the exit polls told the opposite story.

2) I think it would be fair to consider the early voting as a sign of two influences - the "enthusiasm gap" between the two parties and the relative strength of local party organisation which may be helping supporters obtain postal ballots by sending reminders etc. Either way, unless a lot of Democrats read this and get fired up, I'm going to assume that the exit poll indicates a Republican victory in the New Mexico Governor's race.


U.S. House importance for 2012

In 2012, the U.S. presidential election will be contested with a new electoral college (538 votes), based on the redistribution of congressional seats (435 of them) according to the 2010 U.S. Census. However, in the event of a tie (269-269) the back-up system for electing the President kicks in.

The current House of Representatives at the time of the 2012 election, that's the people who are elected next month, will have to decide on a state-by-state basis, which candidate they want to win. For example, Delaware, which has one Representative, will have one vote decided by that representative, but California, which has 53 Representatives will have it's one vote decided by a vote of the 53 delegates.

It's worth noting that if the 2012 election were today and the current House of Representatives members were choosing, then the partisan breakdown would be Democrat 32 votes, Republican 16 and a tie for Hawaii and Idaho.

Using Nate Silver's Fivethirtyeight.com most recent forecast of the House elections, I've drawn up a spreadsheet showing how the latest forecasts could tip the state delegation counts.

Assuming the election goes according to the current estimates (which is unlikely, because things are bound to change at least a little in the next couple of weeks), we could see a switch to 29 Republican votes, 18 Democrats and three tied (Idaho again, Mississippi and New Hampshire).

If I were advising the Democrats on where to throw any extra cash lying around for this election, I'd pick the close contests in the following states:

Arizona, Colorado, Mississippi, Nevada, New Hampshire and West Virginia. I wouldn't spend too much, because the odds of a tie in the electoral college are very low. Also, there are too many seats in play to defend adequately, to some extend luck and local resilience is needed.

If you want the specific seats I'd defend, here they are: AZ8 and possibly AZ5; CO3; MS4 (to keep the tie); NV3; NH2 (to keep the tie); and WV1.


Fox News and God

A POLITICO/George Washington Unversity Battleground opinion poll highlights U.S. President Barack Obama's midterm election problems and offers some insights into just how different the U.S. electorate is to the rest of the Western world. Commentators have latched onto the figure that only 38% would welcome the President's re-election.

If the Republicans had a figure with the ability to communicate that Ronald Reagan had, I would suggest that a 1980 catastrophe was awaiting the Democrats in 2012. My gut feeling is that President Obama may decide not to run for a second term. His place in history is assured, he is likely to face an obstructive Congress, like Mikhail Gorbachev, he is likely to be considerably more popular abroad than at home and Pres Obama does not strike me as caring that much about the job. But I stress that this is my gut feeling at the moment, so it has little (more like no) predictive value.

What I was more interested in were the matchups between President Obama and for Vice-Presidential candidate Sarah Palin, which show a 51%-42% split, with other figures suggesting that, like Hillary Clinton, Mrs Palin could be better at mobilizing opponents than supporters. This far ahead of November 2012, 42% is not a bad place to be, but the former Alaska Governor will do well to retain her position as a credible candidate after three years without holding any political office.

The more significant figures in my mind were those concerning media and God.

Rupert Murdoch's niche market: 42% of Americans

Page 8 of the survey carries the following question:
Now, thinking one more time about the elections this fall. I am going to read you several types of media that people use to get news and information. For each one, please tell me if yes, you do use this source or no, you do not use this source to get news about the elections this fall. Here is first one…

The results are only surprising for people who refuse to accept the decline of the mainstream media.

Cable TV news channels like CNN, FOX News, or MSNBC or their websites: Yes 81%, No 19%.
National broadcast TV news channels like ABC, NBC, or CBS or their websites: Yes 71%, No 29%
Local TV news or their websites: Yes 73%, No 26%, Don't Know or No Response 1%
Newspapers or newspaper websites: Yes 72%, No 28%
Other websites or blogs: Yes 39%, No 61%
Conversations with friends and family: Yes 79%, No 21%
Radio programming: Yes 58%, No 41%
Political advertisements: Yes 37%, No 62%, Don't Know or No Response 1%

It gets more interesting...

When those people who said cable (more than four out of every five responses) were asked which channel, the breakdown was as follows:

Mainly CNN.........................................................30%
Mainly Fox News.................................................42%
Mainly MSNBC....................................................12%
Other cable news channel/website.........................9%
UNSURE/REFUSED (DNR)................................7%

That means that Democrat-leaning media and Republican-biased are evenly matched at 42% each. And Rupert Murdoch has no competition for the conservative audience. Some niche market you got there!

For those sad people who obsess about the effect of political commentary, the following figures may be distressing. For the rest of us, they put things in some perspective:

John Stewart and Sean Hannity are about as influential as each other: positive influence on political debate 34% vs 35%, negative 22% vs 25%, "never heard of" 34% for both (heheheh!).

Glenn Beck and Bill O'Reilly clearly earn their pay: positive/negative are 38%/32% and 49%/32% with only 12% not knowing who the O'Reilly Factor host is, compared with 23% for Mr Beck.

I'd fire Rachel Maddow and Ed Schultz if I knew who they were: 55% and 70% of respondents haven't a clue who the MSNBC commentators are, 18%/18% or 11%/11% positive/negative ratings would not get me excited to buy an advertising slot.

Keith Olberman seems to be someone the conservatives should be writing in to keep on air: the liberal pundit scores a negative -2 rating and is unknown by 42% of Americans, or it might be worse!

My take on this is that the Fox News operation is effective and its leading commentators do a good job. Only John Stewart of the liberals (and a decent comedian) seems to carry the American left.

More people go to church at least once a week than don't believe in God
On God, I was puzzled by the survey's lack of an option to respond "a mosque" when people were asked, "What is the church you or your family attends most often?" given that "Jewish" and "synagogue" were listed. I assume that the 3% "other" includes the Islamic community. It seems unnecessarily restrictive to have used the term "church" without offering "place of worship," but I don't know the context so I'll leave it at that.

The 20% who said "None" and 5% who did not respond is incredibly low for European eyes.

Looking at the detail is even more astonishing. How often do you attend church/synagogue etc?
More than once a week.........................................16%
Once a week.........................................................39%
Several times a month...........................................14%
Once a month.........................................................6%
Several times a year..............................................14%
Only on holidays....................................................8%
NEVER/DON'T ATTEND....................................3%

Those figures are badly presented so let me show you:

How often attend place of worship(%)
Never, don't attend or unsure/refused to answer4%
At least once a month75%
At least once a week55%
More than once a week16%

It is FOUR TIMES more likely that a person will go to church more than once a week than that they never go, among the 75% of adults who consider themselves as belonging to a religion. I would not be surprised if there are majority-Moslem countries where such devotion would be considered high.

Let me be clear, I don't equate religion with opposing liberalism/social democracy. My point is that this is not a society where one can take European assumptions about religion's part in democratic debate and transport them to the U.S.A. without adjustment.

Should the government take over healthcare is a different issue when "is my money being used to pay for abortions?" is not simply a question of cost. If there is a plurality of private insurers, some can do business by boasting of how many abortions they provide, while others try (if allowed by law) to refuse them. This is not an issue that most people paying for the National Health Service in the U.K, concern themselves about.


Antoine Clarke podcast on BrianMicklethwait.com

My Tuesday podcast about Massachusetts and what the social media means for elections, with some thoughts about libertarian parties in the UK and the USA can be found here.


Senate election in Massachusetts results

The Commonwealth of Massachusetts has not yet officially declared the results of the January 19th special election for Senator.

It turns out the best web campaign won.

Here are the results as reported in the Boston Globe, which has a neat map and town-by-town table here.

Scott Brown (Republican) 1,168,107 votes (52%)
Martha Coakley (Democrat) 1,058,682 votes (48%)
Joe Kennedy (Libertarian) 22,237 votes (1%)

Turnout was 54%. The swing to the Republicans was 21.75% (that's very big).

This compares with the late Edward Kennedy's two previous victories as the Democratic party candidate in 2006 and 2000.


I like comparing election forecasts from politicians, people who are considering voting but don't watch the political programmes on TV, opinion pollsters, market traders and bookies. The people I never ask, except for entertainment are policy analysts, because they seem to be the only people more clueless than politicians at recognising when they're about to take a good kicking in an election.

One of my funnest moments in politics was sitting cross-legged in a Bayswater flat calling half of Kent's parliamentary constituencies as Labour gains on the evening of May 1, 1997 at the same moment as a buffoon (employed as a special adivsor to a worthless government minister) ostentatiously waved his brick-like mobile phone to ring up someone called "Charles", (he pronounced it "Chaaarlz" in a strangled yet booming Hooray-Henry voice) to wail "Whaaatz haaaapuning?"

I think he wanted to know why the voters weren't magically coming out to keep him in free lunches for another four years. Only a few minutes before, he'd been plotting with other "well-connected, inside-track" political "experts" on how his Tory Party was going to do deals to keep Mr Blair out of Downing Street.

The fact that I won three bets that night, a £75 sweepstake, a £5 where I'd offered 10 to 1 odds against John Major winning 17 months beforehand and a £20 personal bet that Michael Portillo would fall, also made for my only truly successful gambling experience.

The more people were connected to "the centre" of British politics, the less they really believed what actually happened. If they'd had a chat with people like the number one cashier at a high-street bank in Cricklewood about her husband's business, or thought for a minute about how many mini-cab drivers at the time had previously been self-employed, upwardly-mobile supporters of Thatcherism, alarm bells might have rung.

To be fair, the problem was not all on the government side: the opposition Labour did not dare believe the scale of its victory. Five years previously, in April 1992, one life-long Labour supporter with a relative in Parliament was so convinced, as were all her colleagues, that Neil Kinnock would win, especially in the Westminster North constituency, that champagne was being drunk as soon as the polls closed.

The AEI/Brooking study of indicators, titled Partisan Impacts on the Economy: Evidence from Prediction Markets and Close Elections, by Erik Snowberg, Justin Wolfers, Eric Zitzewitz, finds that markets are good at predicting the effects of elections and acting swiftly on information as it emerges.

The Wisdom of Crowds, an excellent little book by James Surowiecki, examined the Iowa Electronic Markets and other indicators of aggregated knowledge and judgement. I recently gave a talk on the subject, an audio recording is available here.

The key message I take from this, is that all the election polling in the world is wrong, because the wrong question is being asked. Instead of trying to find a demographic sample and asking "Who do you WANT to win?" or "Who WILL you vote for?" my impression is that the correct method is to take a random sample, not weighted for demographic representativeness (so it should be quite a bit cheaper).

The question to ask is: "Leaving aside who you WANT to win the next election, who do you think WILL win"?


++Republican win in Massachusetts++

Best places to follow the Massachusetts count? UPDATED

Due to five hour time difference, I'm not liveblogging the Massachusetts special election count for the next few hours.

So here are some good places for readers who live in more favourable timezones or who are prepared for an all-nighter:

Fivethirtyeight Especially because it has a live Twitter feed.

If you're a sadist and the Democrats are losing, much wailing and gnashing of the teeth here. ;-)

N.B. Expect Nate Silver, who runs 538 to get inside news from the Democratic camp.

Drudge Report is updating the count on its main page. Seems pretty quick.

RealClearPolitics (conservative) looks to have a neat live blog going. If you're a Democrat and want to see GOP fans cry, this could be a good place to start if your woman wins.

There doesn't seem to be an official results page on the Commonwealth of Massachsetts website yet, but I think it will be on this page or linked to it.

Intrade appears to have crashed, leaving people who wished to make last minute bets potentially in the lurch. If it comes back on tonight, check to see if the contract moves below 70% for Scott Brown or above 30% for Martha Coakley. That would suggest that the Democrats might pull off an incredible escape. We'll see.

UPDATE: Barring something very odd, I'm calling this a Republican gain.

How to do it

David Axelrod, the Senior Advisor to US President Barack Obama, and who knows a thing or two about elections, told a gathering of reporters before voting ended in Massachusetts yesterday, that "he thought Brown ran a very good campaign, saying that 'as a practitioner, my hat's off to him'." (AP via Breitbart)

Leaving aside the wisdom of making such a statement when your own party's candidate is presumably still fighting for her political life, this endorsement of Scott Brown, the Republican candidate for US Senate in Massachusetts' campaigning skills, is praise indeed.

I've touched on this over at Fivethirtyeight.com in the comments to this article, as well as in two postings yesterday [here and here].

Over at Intrade, if you think there's a chance that Democratic candidate Martha Coakley has in fact won the election, a $50 bet right now will net you $250 (you can buy a contract at 19.9). I admit, if I'd backed the Republican a week ago, I'd be sorely tempted to hedge by taking this up.


More on Twitter

"I've seen it translate into dollars. I've seen it translate into traffic. I've seen it translate into media news stories," he said. "How that translates into votes, I don't think people have figured that out yet."
Justin Hart, director of new media for the Senate campaign of Chuck DeVore (Republican) in California.

Over at RealClearPolitics (which doesn't have a share button for its Politics Nation section yet) a good article with some interesting quotes about how 2010 is shaping up to be the year when election campaigns are fought and lost on Twitter.

Here's a summary:

On December 28, Brown announced what became the signature force behind his campaign, his pledge to be a 41st vote against President Obama's national health care reform legislation. Accompanying that news on his Twitter feed was this notation: #41stvote. Referred to as a hashtag, those nine characters became a mechanism to attract like-minded activists and identify new ones. Reflecting an enthusiasm gap not just in the state but among national politicos, Brown now boasts more than 11,000 Twitter followers, compared to barely 4,000 for Democrat Martha Coakley.

That following paid dividends last Monday when, aided by a strong Twitter campaign from Brown and dozens of his newest online advocates, the Republican smashed a fundraising goal of $500,000 for a one-day "money bomb," generating instead well beyond $1 million. That total from just 24 hours was well beyond what he had raised in the entire previous fundraising period. Where there had been skepticism before about what kind of impact Twitter could have, the Brown campaign is making a convincing case.

There's more:

"When I started, everyone joked that I was the director of shiny objects," said John Randall, director of new media for the National Republican Congressional Committee. "This is not a shiny object. This is industry standard now. It's definitely something that I point out to all the campaigns."


In Virginia's gubernatorial campaign, Republicans credit an effective use of social media by the campaign of Bob McDonnell to respond to potentially damaging claims coming from traditional media sources, most obviously the Washington Post's coverage of "Thesis-gate." The Republican Governors Association found based on its polling that many more voters said they were getting their news about the race online, and among that subset, their won handily - 50-38 in New Jersey, and 62-38 in Virginia.

"We realized there is a changing phenomenon. More folks, particularly young people in that demographic that frankly our party has not done that well in the past, are getting their information there," McDonnell said at an RGA conference after the campaign.

Finally, Jordan Raynor, a Florida-based Republican online strategist [blog, Twitter], said: "It has never been easier to be as influential as you can be today. Information is cheap. Information is easier to produce. And if you have a quality message, it's never been cheaper to get out."


Massachusetts Special Election

Sometimes, one should back a hunch. Always, one should write it down.

A week ago, I took my first look at the election campaigns of the two main party candidates for the Special Election in Massachusetts, USA, to replace the late Senator Edward Kennedy.

My first impression, especially given how the Democrats had steamrollered the Republicans at the 2008 presidential and other federal elections that year, was that Scott Brown was running an effective online campaign. His Democratic party opponent, was not.

Had I backed up my gut feeling that I could see Lt Col Brown (of the Massachusetts National Guard) causing an upset on Intrade, I could have made a 630% profit, even if today's vote went against him (as of writing, the Intrade index puts Brown at 73.5 as a SELL, which given a 10 BUY last week gives a very nice return).

I even had the excuse: I gave a talk here on Monday 11th about the Wisdom of Crowds [audio recording here] and it is astonishing how good prediction markets can be.

The election itself is happening in interesting circumstances. First, the Democrats need to hold all their Senate seats if they wish to prevent the minority Republicans from filibustering proposed legislation. Assuming the voting blocks hold in the US Congress' upper chamber, 60 out of the 100 senators are required to pass a "cloture" vote (what we in the UK call a "guillotine" [heh]).

Second, over a third of the Senate is up for re-election this year. Under normal conditions, every two years 33 or 34 senators are elected in November, but this year the number will be 36, because New York state will have a second vacancy, caused (to cut a long story short) by Hillary Clinton's nomination as the US Secretary of State last year, and Delaware will have one vacancy caused by Joe Biden's elevation to the position of Vice-President.

This would normally be a difficult year for the Republicans in the Senate. Because the class up for election was voted in 2004, the GOP would be defending 19 seats (one defected to the Democrats last year so its 18). The Democrats would be defending 15, and these held off the 2004 tide so they wouldn't be easy to pick off. The GOP, demoralised and short of funds after 2006 and 2008, might have struggled to hold onto gains made six years ago.

The extra Senate contests, all being Democrat seats, offer opportunities for something to go wrong for the governing party, at the very least diluting some of the campaign efforts.

Third, health care legislation. The Massachusetts election has become at least in part, a referendum on President Barack Obama's plans for introducing mandatory health insurance. This is not the place to debate the issue, but it has drawn considerable criticism, from left and right, although often for contrary reasons. Massachusetts has its own statewide health insurance scheme, which to some extent may make some local people ask "why do we need a federal one as well?" Without the 60th Democrat (or Democrat-leaning) senator in place, the health care legislation will probably not be carried without some dubious and unpopular machination (e.g. pretending the legislation is a finance bill, or refusing to let the Republican winner be "certified" until AFTER the vote in the next few weeks).

Coming a year after President Obama's inauguration, in a state he carried by over 25 percentage points, where no Republican Senator has been elected since 1972, it will be hard not to see a defeat for Martha Coakley as a vote against the President. The damage limitation is already underway, with one leftist blogger claiming: "Coakley is arguably a worse candidate than either Jon Corzine or Creigh Deeds [respectively, the losers in the New Jersey and Virginia gubernatorial elections last November], which is quite a feat to pull off."

For an election watcher, who is less interested in the politics, the lesson that looks like being learned is that clever use of online tools can compensate for lack of funds at the start of an election campaign. More than that, the buzz created by online engagement can generate supporters [here and here] and donations, not just for a national figure like Barack Obama.

I think we can look forward soon to the day when both sides in a contest will use Facebook, Twitter, Flickr and YouTube or other as yet untried cheap or free tools as their primary means of engagement. It might not be in the USA, but I'm looking forward to covering it.

A few words about the Libertarian candidate for those of my readers who like to know how the pro-freedom candidate is doing. Joe Kennedy is not to be confused with the former Democrat senator. The main coverage he's got is Democrats desperately trying to make sure no one thinks he's a relative of the departed Ted Kennedy. I've been there twice as a minor party candidate in a contest one has no hope of winning, so I respect the effort.

But there is no excuse for the ropey (that would be "amateur" for non-English readers) website, or basic errors like offering "dave[at]joekennedyforsenate.com" as one's Facebook contact details. I think we can appreciate that the candidate is not going to respond to random emails sent to the campaign, but this is one instance where either "info@campaignname.org" or the full name of the campaign manager "karl.rove@camapaignname.org" would be better. In the case of a third party candidate, I'd also consider whether one couldn't try to answer a decent proportion of the emails coming in, so perhaps it should be "joe[at]joekennedyforsenate.org", with someone filtering out the spam and timewasters.

One tool that's been pretty well used by the Libertarian Party on this occasion is Twitter: http://twitter.com/joek4Senate . From September last year, this online tool was used to gather together supporters, collect nomination paper signatories and raise campaign funding. I think a little effort could have put into personalising the page but it passes.