If only all attack ads could be this fun...
In 2009, on April 15 - the day that tax returns are due - a series of protests took place around America. The rallies consisted mainly of people who were angry about the bailouts and at what they perceived as the Obama administration's drive to expand the role of government in American life. Yes, this was the birth of the Tea Party as a significant force in American politics.
How much was the Tea Party's subsequent popularity in conservative areas a product of luck, rather than deep rooted causes? That was the question a group of political scientists recently set out to answer. They found a link between the counties that enjoyed good weather on that day and the size of turnout at those original protests. That wasn't so surprising, but the really fascinating finding is that it was the counties that enjoyed sunshine on that day that went on to have the most active and engaged Tea Party organisations. Not only that, but the random accident of one day's weather seems to have influenced political decisions in those counties in subsequent months and years. This is from a Bloomberg report on the study:
It’s easy to imagine how this works. Showing up at a rally increases the chances of getting more involved, making a donation or bringing a friend to another event. Larger and more successful rallies also boost subsequent media coverage of the movement, further increasing community interest.
What’s more, the Tea Party experiment shows that the activism catalyzed by those sunny days translates into real political influence. Politicians whose districts were sunny on tax day voted in a more reliably conservative fashion throughout 2009 and 2010. Indeed, the absence of rain in a Congressional district on April 15, 2009 made its representative 8.7 percentage points more likely to vote against the Affordable Care Act. Had the weather at those early rallies been sunnier, it’s possible that Obama’s signature legislation wouldn’t have passed.
The researchers found similar effects in congressional elections. It's often said that the best politicians "make the weather". Perhaps we underestimate how much the weather makes our politicians.
Full report here.
In May, the Olympic torch will begin its journey around the British Isles. It's a symbol of all that is noble about sport: its embodiment of human aspiration, its capacity to unite people around the world in peaceful competition.
But here's a thing that, as Michael Caine would say, not many people know: the ritual of the Olympic torch we know today was invented by the Nazis.
The Greeks lit a torch at their games, but it didn't travel anywhere. The idea of it being paraded through different countries and communities was dreamt up by the organiser of the 1936 Berlin Olympics, who wanted to connect the ancient Greek games to the modern event. As the BBC explains:
The idea chimed perfectly with the Nazi belief that classical Greece was an Aryan forerunner of the modern German Reich. And the event blended perfectly the perversion of history with publicity for contemporary German power.
The first torch was lit in Greece with the help of mirrors made by the German company Zeiss. Steel-clad magnesium torches to carry the flame were specially produced by the Ruhr-based industrial giant Krupp.
Media coverage was masterminded by Nazi propaganda chief Josef Goebbels, using the latest techniques and technology. Dramatic regular radio coverage of the torch's progress kept up the excitement, and Leni Riefenstahl filmed it to create powerful images.
So, I've just gone and poisoned a perfectly innocent pleasure for you. Next week I'll be explaining how Thomas the Tank Engine was created by Mussolini to show off his rail system.
Illustration via the New Yorker.
The New Yorker's Louis Menand has written a long and fascinating review of a new Mitt Romney biography. Menand is very good on Romney's successful business career as a management consultant, and how it shaped his outlook on politics. Menand argues that Romney's gaffes - "corporations are people too", "I like to fire people" etc - however unfairly decontextualised, do express something true about the way he sees the world:
That way might be called Darwinian, except that in Romney’s universe the organisms that struggle to adapt, survive, and reproduce are not individuals. They’re firms. General Motors and Toyota are firms, of course. But Massachusetts and Texas are also firms. “When the state of Texas was an economic basket case, the partners in my private-equity firm decided to buy Texas businesses,” Romney writes in “No Apology.” “We knew that Texas had to come back someday.” China and the United States are firms, too, because “countries, like businesses, need strategies to survive and prosper. A nation’s strategy should be designed to propel it beyond its competitors and to increase the security and prosperity of its citizens.” The firm is the basic unit of Romneyan analysis, and it is the fate of firms to grow or die.
Menand closes by suggesting that Romney's prolonged primary struggle may actually do him good:
Today, Democrats are enjoying the spectacle of the well-financed, well-endorsed, sometimes preeningly self-confident Romney getting beat up in primary contests by the ideological equivalents of what prizefighters call tomato cans. But, as is often the case in politics, what doesn’t kill him will make him stronger. Those political palookas are performing the service of identifying the anti-Romney voters as fringe voters—people who have nutty ideas about government, or who are just angry at modern life.
If Romney can dodge and feint his way past all his strange opponents, and discreetly shed some of the culture-war rhetoric he is finding himself obliged to mouth (which may be a challenge), he might arrive in November looking like a plausible candidate of the center, which is the way all Presidential candidates aspire to look.
I think this is astute and a reminder that Romney will probably seem a more formidable candidate in September than he seems now. Especially because Obama's position, despite a recovering economy, is fragile. Recent polls have seen his approval ratings slip again after a recent surge. This seems to be caused by the rise in gasoline prices. To some extent this is inevitable and normal - the president's ratings are always tied to economic indicators - but it's also a sign that Obama has never really formed a bond with the American people. They find it difficult to put faith in him if things aren't going well; he has the narrowest of margins of good will. In November, Obama will be at the mercy of the economy.
The clear and unambiguous message of last night's primaries: Santorum was the victor, but Romney won.
Santorum was victorious in the two biggies, beating Romney and Gingrich (who was hoping to pick up at least one of these) in Alabama and Mississippi. This ensures that he will keep going, in all likelihood until the convention. But it doesn't mean that his chances of being the nominee have increased much. It is virtually impossible for him to catch up with Romney in terms of delegates.
Here's the thing about last night: Romney actually won. By taking the two lesser-noticed contests, in American Samoa and Hawaii, he secured 41 more delegates overall, to Santorum's 35. Thus, Romney's lead over the tank-topped one has actually increased.
The perception is that Santorum was the big winner, and that Romney had a terrible night. Perception matters, of course. But only to the extent that it will change the balance of power in this race in the short run (unlikely) or affect Romney's chances of winning the general in the longer run (also unlikely in my view). Last night's defeats were embarrassing, costly and wearisome for Romney, but they didn't make it less likely he'll be the nominee, or fatally wound him as a potential opponent of Obama.
The one man who can really scare Romney now is Gingrich. Not because he can beat him, but because he might drop out. If the race becomes Romney versus one Not-Romney (Santorum) then it will be squeaky bum time for the Romney camp.
Although even if that happens it's likely that Romney will prevail. And anyway, Newt shows no sign of allowing reality to wake him from his dream:
Gingrich no longer says he can capture the 1,144 delegates required to wrap up the Republican nomination. Instead, he now speaks frankly about a new plan: Keep Romney from getting to 1,144 by the end of the GOP primary season in June, and then start what Gingrich calls a "conversation" about who should be the Republican nominee. That conversation, the plan goes, would lead to a brokered GOP convention at which Gingrich would emerge as the eventual nominee.
So crazy, it might just work. But then again, no.
Meryl Streep reminds us, very eloquently, of the extraordinary work that Hillary Clinton has done on behalf of women and girls around the world:
Apart from anything else this is a masterclass in public speaking: Streep is poised and funny, relaxed yet compelling; she makes it feel as if she's speaking personally to each audience member, rather than declaiming. And oh, that diction. (Keep watching for the appearance of Oscar and Hillary).
President Obama and Mayor Bloomberg just took lunch together. Nothing too unusual about that, except that the White House is letting it be known that the president was very interested in what Bloomberg wants to do next. From the New York Times:
The lunch invitation is striking because Mr. Bloomberg and Mr. Obama are thought not to be particularly close — nor to have an especially warm relationship. But the White House seems intent on courting Mr. Bloomberg.
Jay Carney, the White House spokesman, said the lunch was part of a continuing dialogue that the president very much valued. Over the last two years, Mr. Obama has invited Mr. Bloomberg to play golf on Martha’s Vineyard and has dispatched Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. to Gracie Mansion to seek the mayor’s views on the economy.
Obama could, in theory, move Joe Biden to the State department and ask Bloomberg to join him on the 2012 ticket. But having raised this tantalising possibility I shall now dash it: Bloomberg is, as he says himself, very much a 'doer' rather than an adviser, and, famously, VPs don't get to 'do' very much. Biden has proved useful to the president, as an adviser, and also as the administration's schmoozer-in-chief, the man who does the ego-massaging of senators and congressmen, something that Obama has little taste for. I can't see Bloomberg being interested in either of those roles. No cabinet positions - with the exception of State, which wouldn't be Bloomberg's thing - are big enough. So I can't really see how Bloomberg would fit in. Treasury Secretary? World Bank? Or perhaps this was a conversation about 2016.
There were, basically, three potential scenarios heading into Super Tuesday. One, that Romney really crushed his opponents and swept the board, putting a definitive end to the race. Two, that he eked out a narrow win, increasing his chances of being the nominee but without really strengthening his position as a candidate in the eyes of the media and general election voters, and three, that Santorum or Gingrich surprised everyone knocked Romney off his perch.
What happened yesterday was very much the second scenario. The Just Well Enough candidate did just well enough. And really, only just: Romney's victory over Santorum in Ohio, the biggest prize, was paper-thin (he won by 1%). This is despite massively outspending his rival there, and despite Santorum's seeming determination to make himself unpopular with everyone who isn't white, male and an advocate of public flogging for deviants.
So, 'questions linger' and all that, but I will say this - I think Mitt is slightly underbought at the moment, as they say at Intrade. First of all, he is going to the nominee. There are no white horses on the horizon. Second, the Republican Party, though they are being very grouchy about Romney now, will unite fairly convincingly around him come July, because they really, really want to beat Obama. Third, he is not - of course - the soulless ogre of popular portrayals, and eventually that will out (or at least it will if he allows his campaign to warm him up a bit - I think they should fill his ads with pictures like this). Fourth, it's still true that as the most moderate candidate in the race, he is the one most likely to gain if the recovery slows down or judders to a halt come the fall and the contest becomes a referendum on Obama's economic management.
Romney doesn't need to be loved, to become president. He only needs to do Just Well Enough.
The Times has a great (paywalled) interview with Harvey Weinstein, who is King of Hollywood once more after sweeping the Oscars two years in a row (his company made The King's Speech and The Artist, as well as The Iron Lady). In it he talks about how Saving Private Ryan is one of his favourite movies because it gave him an insight into how his father must have experienced the war. He tried to persuade his friends to see it, but not all of them were keen:
“I told Hillary Clinton how meaningful this movie was to me,” he continues. “She didn’t want to see it because she’d heard about the violence and she’s squeamish about that – I’ve watched movies with her and God forbid you shoot anybody, she’s out of the theatre.” Like the picture of her when they’re killing bin Laden? “Exactly, that’s how she looks. She’s so sensitive about those things."
He also tells a story about President Clinton:
We were in Martha’s Vineyard. He said, ‘Come with me,’ and I asked, ‘What’s going on?’ He said, ‘There’s a Russian financial crisis.’ And I said, ‘What do I know about this?’ and I get in the car and I drive out to our friend’s farm out there and in the barn are the smartest guys... the top economic brains, and I watched them move forward for six hours and make a recommendation that eventually solved this Russian economic situation. The President wasn’t taking any calls from anyone else, he wasn’t checking his BlackBerry, he was in that room and these guys were engaged and he challenged every principle. At the end, Steve Rattner, my friend, said, ‘I have one question: why was Harvey here?’ And the President said, without missing a beat, ‘Comic relief.’ He laughs like a drain. He just wanted someone to drive home with him and make jokes.”
The interview is worth the sub by itself.
Those of you who live in London and are free tomorrow afternoon might be interested in an event at the LSE Literary Festival, in which I'm participating.
It's a panel discussion, and the topic is Rhetoric, Lies and Politicians. The panel includes Lord Hurd, Jonathan Powell, Sam Leith and me. It's chaired by Jenni Russell. I think it's going to be really interesting.
It says it's fully booked but you may well be able to get yourself a seat if you turn up, as there usually people with tickets who don't make it along.
While I'm self-promoting you might be interested to know that there's a new website in town - and it's all about ME.