Wonkbook: A weirdly stable campaign

July 10, 2012

Here's a data point for you: "Only twice in 13 surveys over more than a year has either candidate held a lead exceeding the poll’s margin of sampling error."

That's from Dan Balz and Jon Cohen's write-up of the latest Washington Post/ABC News poll, which shows the presidential race tied, 47-47. "The stability persists despite the costliest blitz of early campaign advertising the country has ever seen," they note. It's also persisted despite bad jobs numbers, "the private sector is fine," a Supreme Court ruling on the health-care law, substantial media coverage of Romney's record at Bain and his unusually creative tax return, financial panic in Europe, and much more.

At this point, Mitt Romney could outsource Seal Team Six to China and it's not clear even a single voter would change their mind. Barack Obama could peel off his face to reveal he's a space alien and some of his support would firm up — at least he wasn't born in Kenya.

Yes, there's a chance these voters could change their mind. Perhaps Barack Obama will peel off his face to reveal he's a space alien. (Source: Washington Post)

This is a good moment for my typical polling disclaimer: At this point in 1980, Jimmy Carter was ahead in the polls. At this point in 1988, Michael Dukakis was ahead in the polls. At this point in 1992, George H. W. Bush was ahead in the polls. In other words: Who cares what the polls say in July?

But it's not a disclaimer I fully believe. Permanent campaigns, mass media and bitterly divided parties has, I suspect, encouraged many voters to form a preference earlier than was true in past elections. Or, as Balz and Cohen put it, "the lack of movement underscores intense polarization — about nine in 10 Republicans back Romney, and a similar proportion of Democrats support Obama — and a relatively small percentage of voters say there is a 'good chance' that they could change their minds before November."

This race could go either way. But it's not likely to break dramatically in one direction or another. Most voters know what they think about Obama. Most voters know what they think about Romney. It's difficult to imagine the information that would convince a large swath of either group to change their mind.

Wonkbook dashboard

RCP Obama vs. RomneyObama +2.6%; 7-day change: Obama -0.9%.

RCP Obama approval47.0%; 7-day change: -0.7%.

Top story: Healthcare falloutmentum!

Texas' governor became the sixth to say his state wouldn't join the Medicaid expansion. "Gov. Rick Perry of Texas told federal officials on Monday that the state had no intention of expanding Medicaid or establishing a health insurance exchange, two major provisions of President Obama’s health care overhaul. After the United States Supreme Court upheld the federal health care law on June 28, Republican officials in Texas suggested that they would fight the expansion of Medicaid and the exchanges, online marketplaces in which people shop for health insurance. On Monday, Mr. Perry made the state’s position official in a letter to Kathleen Sebelius, the secretary of health and human services, calling both provisions of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act 'brazen intrusions into the sovereignty of our state.'...According to the Texas Medical Association, 25 percent of the state’s population lacks health insurance -- 6.2 million people, including 1.2 million children -- the highest rate of any state." Manny Fernandez in The New York Times.

States are likely to join the expansion eventually -- but it may take time "While the stakes are high for the White House, the territory is by no means uncharted. Washington has twice faced off with states over federal health care expansions, when Medicaid initially launched in 1965 and with the Children’s Health Insurance Program in 1997. In both cases, all 50 states ultimately signed up - but not without some wrangling...Medicaid got a chilly reception when it launched in January 1966. It was up to the states to decide whether to participate and only six initially signed up: Hawaii, Illinois, Minnesota, North Dakota, Oklahoma and Pennsylvania. Twenty-seven followed suit later that year...Over time, however, the lure of federal dollars proved strong enough to win over resistant states. Eleven joined the program in 1967. Another wave of eight, largely Southern states came on board in 1970. Arizona proved the last holdout, not joining Medicaid until 1982." Sarah Kliff in The Washington Post.

The state of the Medicaid expansion in one map: http://wapo.st/LE4bOb.

WellPoint bought Amerigroup in a big bet on Medicaid. "WellPoint Inc.'s $4.46 billion deal to buy Medicaid-focused Amerigroup Corp. underscores the future of health coverage as a business that increasingly intertwines the roles of government and private companies. The acquisition, which will vault the No. 2 health insurer past UnitedHealth Group Inc. and others to become the biggest private Medicaid company by membership, reflects several key drivers. Among them: budget pressures that are prodding state officials to turn to private contractors that may be able to manage Medicaid more efficiently, and the 2014 expansion of Medicaid." Anna Wilde Mathews and Jon Kamp in The Wall Street Journal.

@JeffreyYoung_HC: Looks like WellPoint is bullish about the Medicaid expansion despite resistance from GOP governors.

PONNURU: The Supreme Court's health-care ruling wasn't a win for conservatives. "Some conservatives have convinced themselves that last month’s ruling by the Supreme Court upholding key parts of President Barack Obama’s health-care overhaul contained a great victory in the battle for constitutionally limited government. They are mistaken. The court could in theory use its malleable new precedent to strike mighty blows against federal programs. In practice, it probably won’t. The court hasn't struck down a major federal program since the 1930s — a streak Roberts has just left unbroken." Ramesh Ponnuru in Bloomberg.

Legal challenges to the federal government's authority are coming. "Nothing breeds lawsuits like uncertainty. That being the case, the Supreme Court's landmark health-care ruling is almost certain to open the door to lawsuits challenging the federal government's authority … Congress and federal agencies frequently put strings on the money they give to states. But the high court's health ruling didn't draw a clear line between the types of financial conditions that are okay and those that are unfair to states. 'The way Roberts wrote the opinion, it's a deliberate invitation to litigation,' says Brian Galle, a law professor at Boston College. It's possible that this ruling will have broad implications, because Congress uses the threat of financial penalties to get states to do all kinds of things, such as meeting clean-air requirements and making elementary school children take annual standardized tests. It's also possible that it won't mean much, because Medicaid is such an exceptionally large program." Alan Greenblatt in NPR.

FRIEDMAN: Obamacare is good news for those with mental illness. "Americans with mental illness had good reason to celebrate when the Supreme Court upheld President Obama’s Affordable Care Act. The law promises to give them something they have never had before: near-universal health insurance, not just for their medical problems but for psychiatric disorders as well. Until now, people with mental illness and substance disorders have faced stingy annual and lifetime caps on coverage, higher deductibles or simply no coverage at all." Richard Friedman in The New York Times.

SEBELIUS: The Affordable Care Act has improved the health-care system. "One claim is that the Affordable Care Act is driving up Americans’ health-care costs. The facts tell a different story. In the decade before the law was passed, national health expenditures increased about 7 percent a year. But in the past two years, those increases have dropped to less than 4 percent per year, saving Americans more than $220 billion. And that trend is expected to continue, with health-care costs projected to stay level as a share of gross domestic product from 2009 all the way through 2013. You can see the same trend with premiums. Between 2000 and 2009, the average family premium more than doubled, from $6,438 to $13,375, an annual increase of 8.1 percent. From 2009 to 2011, family premiums still rose — but at a rate 25 percent lower. … That generated savings of more than $1,200 per family, a trend of lower premium increases that independent experts project … will continue." Kathleen Sebelius in The Washington Post.

GRUBER: Obamacare will be good for the economy. "Forget death panels. Lately critics of the Affordable Care Act have been promoting a different claim — that 'Obamacare' is a job-killer. Specifically, they say, it will stifle the economy with regulations and taxes. But the economic literature doesn’t support this claim. If anything, it suggests the opposite: The Affordable Care Act will boost the economy. … In sum, we know that the ACA will increase jobs in the medical sector in the short-run, above and beyond any partial offsets from new excise taxes on that sector. We know that the ACA will improve the functioning of our labor market in the medium-run, by allowing workers to move to the positions in which they are most productive and satisfied. We know that there will be little economic drag from taxes on the wealthy or the small equity payments imposed on employers. And there is a good chance that the ACA will greatly improve the economy in the long-run by controlling the rate of health-care cost increase." Jonathan Gruber in The New Republic.

Top op-eds

1) STEVENSON AND WOLFERS: The Fed is missing its goals and hurting itself. "Ben S. Bernanke has made transparency one of the defining themes of his time at the helm of the Federal Reserve. The virtue of this transparency is that it’s easy to evaluate how well the Fed is conducting monetary policy. And it has become transparently clear that the central bank has failed to take the actions its own principles demand. … The Fed’s latest projections show that it expects inflation to remain below target, and unemployment to stay above target, at least through 2014. …So the Fed expects to fail and to continue failing for the next 2½ years, and there’s a significant risk that it may fail by a lot. … There are real costs to the Fed’s failures. Millions remain unemployed in the service of keeping inflation below its target level. We risk the possibility they may not work again as their skills atrophy and they lose hope. The Fed’s confused communications have undermined its own effectiveness and harmed its institutional prestige." Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers in Bloomberg.

2) NOCERA: Using eminent domain to slow foreclosures is worth a try. "I know. When you first hear this idea, it sounds a little crazy. Eminent domain to take a mortgage? But the more closely you look at it, the more sense it starts to make. … The core issue that Mortgage Resolution Partners is trying to solve is what might be called the securitization problem. Bundling mortgages into securities and selling them to investors was, initially, a wonderful idea because it greatly expanded the amount of capital available for home ownership. But the people who wound up owning the mortgages — investors — were diffuse. …And the securitization contracts never anticipated that people might need to modify. So it has been nearly impossible to modify mortgages stuck in securitizations. It turns out, however, that there is nothing to prevent a government entity from using eminent domain to acquire a mortgage.  …We’re four years into a housing crisis. Nothing has yet worked to stem the terrible tide of foreclosures. It’s time to give eminent domain a try." Joe Nocera in The New York Times.

3) BROOKS: If children are any indication inequality will continue to soar. "While most studies look at inequality of outcomes among adults and help us understand how America is coming apart, Putnam’s group looked at inequality of opportunities among children. They help us understand what the country will look like in the decades ahead. The quick answer? More divided than ever. … A generation ago, working-class parents spent slightly more time with their kids than college-educated parents. Now college-educated parents spend an hour more every day. This attention gap is largest in the first three years of life when it is most important. Affluent parents also invest more money in their children. Over the last 40 years, upper-income parents have increased the amount they spend on their kids’ enrichment activities, like tutoring and extra curriculars, by $5,300 a year. The financially stressed lower classes have only been able to increase their investment by $480, adjusted for inflation." David Brooks in The New York Times.

4) YGLESIAS: The Libor scandal should destroy banks' credibility. "You may not be interested in the Libor — the London Interbank Offered Rate — but the Libor is interested in you. Even though the typical American is never going to seek an interbank loan in London, the number is used as a benchmark for a wide range of other financial instruments. …So growing evidence that Libor numbers have been deliberately manipulated by banks for years means that millions of people have been paying the wrong interest rate on all manner of financial products. Vast sums of money have been wrongly snatched from innocent people and created equally vast undeserved windfalls for others. The basic structure of the world’s financial system has once again been exposed as fundamentally broken. … The lesson of Libor is that regulators need to recognize that bankers have cast aside the clubby values of yore, and they need to respond in kind." Matthew Yglesias in Slate.

@BCAppelbaum: Is there really still something called "trust in banks" ?

Top long reads

John Gravois checks in with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau: "The way Warren tells the story, she first had the idea for the consumer bureau years later, in 2007, at a time when she was having a lot of meetings with credit card executives. She was trying to sell them on the idea of offering what she called a 'clean card' — a credit card that listed all its costs, its fees, and its true, long-run interest rate up front. … But the credit card executives all took a pass. At one meeting, an executive confided in Warren. 'If we had to tell people what these things cost while our competitors play the same old games, no one would use our product,' he told her, as she recalled in a speech in 2011. There was no advantage for anyone in the business to be the first mover, she realized; the government had to get involved and set rules across the entire market. It was around that time, she says, that she began sketching out the idea for what would become the CFPB."

Bluegrass interlude: Ralph Stanley plays "O Death" live at the Old Settlers Music Festival.

Got tips, additions, or comments? E-mail me.

Still to come:Spain gets more time; the FDA bill becomes law; school reform efforts pass with ease; a record year of heat; and cats who protect art.

Economy

Europe eased Spain's deficit targets and sped up its bailout. "With Spain’s borrowing costs climbing again to critical levels, European finance ministers decided early Tuesday to speed up their promised bailout for the country’s troubled banks, while also giving the cash-tight government more time to rein in its budget deficit. After nine hours of debate, ministers from the 17 euro-zone nations reached a tentative agreement on the bailout terms, including a 'first disbursement' of 30 billion euros, or $37 billion, by the end of the month, Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the Eurogroup of finance ministers, said at a news conference. … At the same time, Spain’s targets for cutting its gaping budget deficit will be eased as the country sinks deeper into its second recession in three years, with an unemployment rate of almost 25 percent. But the ministers demanded that Spain squeeze its austerity budget even tighter to meet the new targets." Paul Geitner and Stephen Castle in The New York Times.

@economistmeg: On the bright side, the relaxation of Spain's fiscal targets could bode well for Greece (though this still wouldn't make Greece solvent).

KLEIN: Obama's tax cut push is a bet that the fiscal cliff won't freak out the markets until November. "The Obama administration has faced a difficult choice: Does it put off the fiscal crisis looming at the end of the year by capitulating to Republican demands to extend all the Bush tax cuts until 2013 — a move that would infuriate the Democratic base and muddle the campaign’s message? Or does it stand and fight on fiscal policy, even if that means increasing the chance that markets panic in the most crucial months for the president’s reelection bid? On Monday, President Obama chose door No. 2. … All this is going to make businesses and investors very nervous. If they begin to expect a possible economic crisis in early 2013, they will start pulling back this year in order to cushion themselves. That could mean layoffs rising and investment falling in September and October — the most important months for Obama’s campaign." Ezra Klein in The Washington Post.

Obama's outsourcing record has drawn criticism. "Barack Obama promised voters four years ago that he would work to slow the outflow of American jobs to other countries, proposing to revamp a federal tax code that encourages companies to maintain overseas operations. Obama as president has continued to call for rewriting the rules that allow U.S. corporations to avoid paying taxes for a time on income generated overseas. But the broad tax changes have not happened. While White House officials say they have been waiting on Congress to act, Obama’s critics, primarily on the political left, say he has repeatedly failed in other ways to protect American jobs from being moved overseas. They point to a range of actions they say he should have taken: confronting China, reining in unfettered trade and reworking a U.S. visa program that critics say ends up sending high-tech jobs abroad." Tom Hamburger, Carol Leonnig, and Zachary Goldfarb in The Washington Post.

Regulators are coming under scrutiny for their role in the Libor scandal. "As big banks face the fallout from a global investigation into interest rate manipulation, American and British lawmakers are scrutinizing regulators who failed to take action that might have prevented years of illegal activity. Politicians in both London and Washington are questioning whether regulators allowed banks to report false rates in the run-up to the 2008 financial crisis and afterward. On Monday, Congress stepped into the fray, requesting information about the role of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, according to people close to the matter. The focus on regulators and other financial institutions has intensified in the last two weeks after the British bank Barclays agreed to pay $450 million to resolve its case. British and American authorities accused the bank of improperly influencing key interest rates to deflect concerns about its health and bolster profits." Ben Protess and Mark Scott in The New York Times.

Consumer borrowing is ramping up. "Consumers are increasing their borrowing, possibly a sign that households are willing to spend despite the sluggish economy. Borrowing via credit cards, car loans, student loans and other types of debt jumped at a seasonally adjusted 8 percent annual rate to $2.57 trillion in May from April, the Federal Reserve said Monday. Borrowing figures for April and March were revised upward. Mortgages aren't included in the report. May's jump was twice as big as economists were expecting and the largest since December. The broad-based rise included a surge in credit-card use, which jumped at a seasonally adjusted 11.2 percent annual rate, the highest since late 2007. The Fed's data on borrowing are volatile, but other measures that smooth out monthly volatility also show a bump up in consumer credit in recent months. The figures provide the latest evidence that consumer borrowing is starting to return to normal after diving during the depths of the recession, when people whittled down debt." Neil Shah in The Wall Street Journal.

@TheStalwart: We're not going into a recession with consumer credit jumping like this.

Most earn more money than their parents, but only a third have risen in income class. "The overwhelming majority of Americans still make more money than their parents, but upward mobility is elusive for many, particularly for African Americans and those without a college degree, according to a new study released Monday. While 84 percent of Americans earn more than their parents, about a third moved up between income classes during the past four decades, according to a new study from the Economic Mobility Project at the nonpartisan Pew Charitable Trusts. Sixteen percent of all families surveyed dropped from the income levels of their parents, and blacks were more likely to be downwardly mobile than whites. … Among the most striking findings: The chances of moving from the bottom of the income spectrum to the very top is only 4 percent, a figure that suggests the American 'rags-to-riches' story is 'more often found in Hollywood than in reality,' the survey noted." Annie Gowen in The Washington Post.

The Senate will vote on a small business hiring bill this week. "Senate Democrats will attempt this week to pass a targeted tax relief package aimed primarily at encouraging small businesses to hire new workers. The $28 billion bill, the latest in a series of election-year tax maneuvers by the political parties, would provide a tax credit to all firms that hire new workers or increase pay for existing staff. Companies could earn a maximum credit of $500,000 against their 2012 income tax liability under the bill. … Democrats said an economic analysis of the plan by Regional Economic Models Inc., a consulting firm, concluded it could increase employment by 990,000 jobs, the bulk of those by small business owners. A senior Democratic aide said the party's leaders hoped that Republicans would vote Tuesday in favor of holding a debate on the bill this week. A Republican leadership aide said GOP lawmakers would discuss the plan on Tuesday. " Corey Boles in The Wall Street Journal.

Space history interlude: All 135 NASA space shuttle launches in one video.

Health Care

The FDA user fee bill is now law. "President Obama on Monday signed the bipartisan Food and Drug Administration bill that Congress approved last month. Obama signed the Food and Drug Administration Safety and Innovation Act, which reauthorizes user fees that the FDA collects from the drug and medical-device industries. The fees must be reauthorized every five years. It also creates a new fee for companies that sell generic drugs, and it makes several changes to FDA policy, mostly geared toward speeding the approval of potentially life-savings products and bolstering the agency’s oversight of safety issues. Both the House and Senate moved the FDA legislation quickly and with broad bipartisan support. Lawmakers met their goal of sending the bill to Obama’s desk before the July 4 recess — and before the Supreme Court’s health-care decision, which could have dragged the FDA bill into a morass of symbolic amendments." Sam Baker in The Hill.

Domestic Policy

The CFPB proposed new mortgage disclosures. "The federal consumer watchdog agency on Monday proposed banning several controversial mortgage fees and unveiled new disclosure forms intended to help borrowers better understand the terms of their home loans. The moves come as the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau approaches its first anniversary. During a speech in Las Vegas on Monday, CFPB Director Richard Cordray highlighted abuses in the mortgage market and said restoring trust in the industry was one of the key drivers for creating the agency. … Under the new proposals, all borrowers would receive new disclosures when they apply for a mortgage. … In addition to the new forms, the CFPB is also targeting high-cost mortgages. It released a proposal to expand the the definition of a high-cost mortgage to include those with interest rates that are 6.5 percentage points above the average prime rate or that carry fees exceeding 5 percent of the loan’s value." Ylan Mui in The Washington Post.

@BCAppelbaum: CFPB iniitally proposed 1 page mortgage disclosure. Latest version is 3 pages. So much for simplicity. http://bit.ly/Ng5i3O

Some school reform efforts are moving forward without much controversy. "The Republican governor of Ohio, the Democratic mayor of Cleveland and the local teachers union have united to overhaul how teachers are hired, fired and paid, a rare example of cooperation in education that some critics warn could still face challenges in the implementation. The overhaul, signed into law by Gov. John Kasich this month, will allow the district to link teachers' pay, in part, to student test scores, and to lay off teachers based on performance instead of seniority. It will also let the district fire teachers after two years of poor performance, based in part on test scores. … The Cleveland deal marks a departure from the bitter animosity over school funding and treatment of teachers that has divided many U.S. cities, though the local teachers union found itself facing a united front of the mayor, Cleveland's business community and the governor." Stephanie Banchero in The Wall Street Journal.

Russian cats interlude: The Hermitage Museum uses 65 cats to protect its art from rats and mice.

Energy

The last 12 months were the hottest on record in the U.S.. "The 12-month stretch between July of 2011 and June of 2012 was the warmest year in the contiguous United States since record keeping began in 1895, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). … 'The nationally-averaged temperature of 56.0°F was 3.2°F above the long term average. Every state across the contiguous U.S. had warmer than average temperatures for the period, except Washington, which was near normal,' NOAA said its monthly update. Hot weather in June also helped make the first half of 2012 the warmest first-half of a year on record, according to NOAA. 'Most of the contiguous U.S. was record and near-record warm for the six-month period, except the Pacific Northwest. Twenty-eight states east of the Rockies were record warm and an additional 15 states were top ten warm,' the agency said." Ben Geman in The Hill.

Two rail projects are moving forward. "Supporters of President Obama’s push to build more railways in the United States are hoping that a pair of high-profile approvals will help get the president’s beleaguered rail effort back on track. After a string of setbacks for Obama-backed rail proposals since the 2010 elections, lawmakers in California and local officials in Northern Virginia last week gave the green light to controversial railways identified by the Obama administration as critical transportation projects. The railways — a high-speed line in California and an extension of Metrorail in the Washington suburbs — were approved after months of contentious debate in the jurisdictions where the trains will operate. Both projects have received money from the Obama administration but looked touch-and-go before they were ultimately approved last week. … When President Obama awarded $8 billion from the 2009 stimulus package to states that were proposing to build high-speed railways, California received more than $3 billion, more than any other state." Keith Laing in The Hill.

Wonkbook is compiled and produced with help from Karl Singer and Michelle Williams.

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Sarah Kliff · July 9, 2012