Wonkbook: The number of presidential elections decided by debates? Zero.

October 3, 2012

Welcome to Wonkbook, Ezra Klein and Evan Soltas's morning policy news primer. To subscribe by e-mail, click here. Send comments, criticism, or ideas to Wonkbook at Gmail dot com. To read more by Ezra and his team, go to Wonkblog.

Wonkbook dashboard

RCP Obama vs. Romney: Obama +3.3%; 7-day change: Obama +0.2%.

RCP Obama approval: 48.8%; 7-day change: -0.8.

Intrade percent chance of Obama win: 73.7%; 7-day change: +4.3%.

Wonkbook's number of the day: 0. That's the number of recent elections that we can confidently say were decided by debates. 

Gallup, for instance, reviewed their polls going back to 1960 and concluded they "reveal few instances in which the debates may have had a substantive impact on election outcomes." Robert Erikson and Christopher Wlezien, in "The Timeline of Presidential Elections," looked at a much broader array of polls and concluded that there was “there is no case where we can trace a substantial shift to the debates.” Political scientist John Sides, summarizing a careful study by James Stimson, writes that there's "little evidence of [debate] game changers in the presidential campaigns between 1960 and 2000.

This graph sets the pre-debate polls against the post-debate polls. As you can see, there's rarely much difference, (Erikson and Wlezien)

That's not to say debates can't matter, or that these debates won't matter. The race reamins close, and there are examples -- 1960, 2000 and 2004, for instance -- where debates made a race more competitive, even if they didn't clearly change the outcome. Simply closing the gap a bit would be a big win for Mitt Romney, if for no other reason than it would keep Republican donors invested in his chances going into the campaign's final weeks. 

One caveat to keep in mind, though: It's not necessarily "the debates" that matter. It's the debates plus the way the debates get spun in the media. There's good evidence, in fact, that the media's spin is actually more important than the debates themselves. For more on that, read this article by Dylan Matthews, which is the best primer you'll find on what we do and don't know about what matters in presidential debates. The graphs are great, too.

Top story: The debate's $17,000 question

The day before the debate, Romney floats idea of single $17,000 cap on deductions. "On the eve of his first debate with President Obama, Mitt Romney indicated that he was considering a uniform deduction for most tax payers – $17,000 was the figure mentioned – as a way to pay for his proposed reform, which includes $5 trillion in across-the-board cuts. On the eve of his first debate with President Obama, Mitt Romney indicated that he was considering a uniform deduction for most tax payers -- $17,000 was the figure mentioned -- as a way to pay for his proposed reform, which includes $5 trillion in across-the-board cuts...'As an option you could say everybody's going to get up to a $17,000 deduction; and you could use your charitable deduction, your home mortgage deduction, or others – your healthcare deduction. And you can fill that bucket, if you will, that $17,000 bucket that way.'" Gregory J. Krieg in ABC News.

@ezraklein: In general, I like the direction Romney is going in here. Capping deductions seems more achievable than picking through them one by one

FELDSTEIN: An analogous proposal. "Let taxpayers keep all of the current tax expenditures, but limit the total amount by which each taxpayer can reduce his or her tax liability in this way. I have explored the idea of 'capping' the benefit that individuals can get as a percentage of their total income (their 'adjusted gross income,' or AGI in US tax parlance). Applying a 2%-of-AGI cap to the total benefit that an individual can receive from tax expenditures would have a very powerful effect. It would not limit the amount of deductions and exclusions to 2% of AGI, but rather would limit the resulting tax reduction -- that is, the tax benefit -- that the individual gets by using all these special features. For someone with a 15% marginal tax rate, a 2%-of-AGI cap would limit total deductions and exclusions to about 13% of AGI. Such a cap would have a significant impact on the fiscal outlook. Even if the cap were applied only to 'itemized deductions' and the health-insurance exclusion, it would raise about $250 billion in the first year and about $3 trillion over the first decade." Martin Feldstein in Project Syndicate.

@petersuderman: Romney, on the other hand, cares only for the details. He doesn't think about good and bad guys, just solutions. He's a pure technocrat.

KLEIN: Tax specifics from Mitt Romney!? "Ah, now we’re getting somewhere...This leaves a lot of unanswered questions. For instance, which deductions are covered in the $17,000 cap? Is it only the deductions he mentioned? Is it all itemized deductions? Is the state and local tax deduction in there? Is it really going to include the exclusion for employer-based health care? Is the cap in addition to, or instead of, the standard deduction? Do individual taxpayers have a lower cap than families? Even if you assume the plan will be maximally stringent, it doesn’t look like this would raise enough money to pay for Romney’s tax cuts...It’s also very difficult to see how Romney achieves his goal to keep the plan distributionally neutral using this policy...But this does give us some insight into how Romney is thinking about tax reform. Rather than picking fights over individual tax breaks, he’s looking to put a cap on total deductions." Ezra Klein in The Washington Post.

@JimPethokoukis: A $17,000 limit on deductions? Stuff just got real!

Wonkblog explains: While we're talking tax reform, here's what people misunderstand about Simpson-Bowles.

BARRO: Mitt Romney's good idea. "Mitt Romney has been talking vaguely, for months, about expanding the federal income tax base, but in an interview yesterday with Denver's local Fox affiliate he got a lot more specific...This is a good idea, and I wish Romney had announced it sooner. Almost every itemized deduction in the income tax code is a bad idea, and this policy would significantly reduce the value of such deductions...Mostly it would operate by raising the taxable income of people near the top of the income scale -- because that's where the money is...There are some details that should be fleshed out. Particularly, many tax preferences do not take the form of deductions, but of credits or exclusions. Tax-exempt interest, health benefits and retirement contributions are excluded from gross income instead of deducted." Josh Barro in Bloomberg.

@jbarro: Dude on FB says he has $50k+ in deductions & Romney plan will kill him. News flash: if you have $50k+ in deductions, you can afford more tax

SALAM: The consequences of the Romney cap. "Romney also suggests that higher-income households might face a lower cap. That is, a household earning, say, $500,000 might face a cap of $15,000 or $10,000. One gets the strong impression that this cap is pretty narrowly targeted at the top 1 percent of earners in any given year...A cap on individual tax expenditure benefits can raise a great deal of revenue without eliminating any specific deductions. A cap would curb total individual tax expenditure benefits without picking and choosing among them. And with a cap as high as Romney’s, no middle-income households would be impacted." Reihan Salam in National Review Online.

@justinwolfers: Hands up if you took more than $17,000 in deductions last year... Well then I'm confused: How is Romney going to pay for his tax giveaways?

Wonkbook's debate-prep coverage

The debate puts Obama and Romney on a single stage. Don't underestimate the effect of that. "A presidential race between an incumbent and a challenger, which has played out for most of the year in biting television commercials and fiery speeches, suddenly narrows to a pair of candidates standing side-by-side starting at 9 p.m. Eastern time. For 90 minutes, the rivals will be essentially equal, creating what Mr. Romney’s advisers believe is a critical opportunity to make a move in the race. The two men may spend considerable time talking and thinking about each other, but they know each other only from afar. They have not appeared on the same stage in nearly eight years...The debate is to focus on domestic issues, with a particular emphasis on the economy. There is no shortage of material, considering the national unemployment rate is at 8.1 percent." Jeff Zeleny in The New York Times.

@AlecMacGillis: Pre-debate news vacuum is becoming life-threatening. Politico, which led w/ Jill Biden last night, now leads with: "Joe Biden: sex symbol?"

Going into debate, Obama holds leads across the board. "President Obama continues to lead Mitt Romney among likely voters, polls show, suggesting that the president has been able to maintain a post-convention bounce as the Republican candidate struggles to regain traction...Such low expectations among voters could give Romney a boost among viewers who see the candidates side by side for the first time...Obama leads Romney on every other issue [besides the deficit], among them health care, national security, the economy and handling an international crises." Nia-Malika Henderson in The Washington Post.

@JohnJHarwood: Pre-debate polls: Rasmussen - Obama 48, Romney 47; Gallup - Obama 50, Romney 44; Quinnipiac - Obama 49, Romney 45

Explainer: The claims likely to surface in tonight's debate and the facts behind them.

What political science has to say about the debates. "History is littered with examples of debate performances that allegedly decided elections...But did any of those actually matter? The best political science says no...Perhaps the most compelling evidence for the irrelevance of debates is that polling in past races hasn’t changed much at all following them...Even if debates do matter, there’s even less evidence suggesting that the actual candidates’ performances do. The media seems to be the far more important player." Dylan Matthews in The Washington Post.

@BrendanNyhan: Journos - why don't we have blind debate coverage? No email/Twitter/spin room - just you & TV. I bet many would reach different conclusions.

Watch: 12 memorable moments from presidential debates.

@bdomenech: Best way to beat Obama in a debate is to know more than he does, and display that knowledge forcefully. Ryan did this at Blair House.

So you think you can moderate?. "It’s enough to make anyone sweat. There’s the pressure to prepare, the pressure to ask the 'right' questions, to be unobtrusive, yet sharp and insistent. There are two would-be presidents hanging on your next utterance and about 60 million people watching your every move. And the whole time, there’s a guy yelling in your earpiece to get to the next question. Jim Lehrer, the PBS newsman who’ll moderate his 12th presidential debate on Wednesday, compares the experience to 'a walk down a knife blade.'" Paul Farhi in The Washington Post.

@ReformedBroker: I feel like I could stand in for Romney or Obama at the debate and make their cases better than they can. Sad.

The New York Times' 'Room for Debate': Why do we even bother with presidential debates, anyway?.

DOUTHAT: Mitt and the message. "Going into Wednesday’s debate, there’s one poll number that Mitt Romney should be most worried about. It’s not the tracking polls, or the RealClearPolitics polling average, or any of the usual measurements. It’s the percentage of Americans who believe that his policies will favor the rich over the poor and the middle class...This assumption -- that the wealthy Republican candidate is inevitably a candidate for the wealthy as well -- is a big part of what’s been killing Romney’s campaign...A smarter Republican campaign would have recognized early that this would be Romney’s biggest problem, and showed a more populist side from the beginning." Ross Douthat in The New York Times.

MINOW: The debates are a moment of respect for the intelligence of voters. "The debates are an institution now, and among the most watched television events in America. They are one place in the modern campaign -- perhaps the only place -- where the voter is treated with respect. They are the one time when the major candidates appear together side by side under conditions they do not control. They are a relief from the nasty commercials that dominate the campaign, fed by donations that are effectively unlimited and anonymous. Broadcasters provide the television time for the debates, without commercials, as a rare public service...The debates are one of the few features of our political campaigns that are still admired throughout the world." Newton N. Minow in The New York Times.

MILBANK: Romney's candidacy already has too much "Zinger" in it. "The Zinger is an unwholesome confection. One serving of this Hostess snack, which is basically a Devil Dog or a Twinkie with icing, has 35 percent of your daily allowance of saturated fat — and some trans fat thrown in for good measure. The first ingredient listed is sugar, followed later by corn syrup, high-fructose corn syrup, artificial flavor, glucose and polypropylene glycol...Probably the Republican nominee has been equipped not with packaged snacks but with that other type of zinger, the one-line putdown commonly used in presidential debates. Unfortunately, the nutritional value of this zinger is the same as its namesake confection. At a time when even his fondest supporters are pleading for more substance, Mitt Romney is giving them the political equivalent of junk food. His has been the Zinger candidacy — all sugary platitudes, no protein." Dana Milbank in The Washington Post.

MEYERSON: 35 questions from the 99%. "I’d like to hear both President Obama’s and Mitt Romney’s take on what’s behind this epochal shift in the U.S. economy. Why have wages gone nowhere while productivity andprofits have increased? Is globalization to blame? If so, does that call for changes in our trade policy with nations such as China? Is the way to increase competitiveness in a global economy to reduce our wage levels to those in the developing world? If so, how low should we go?" Harold Meyerson in The Washington Post.

Top op-eds

WOLF: Is the age of unlimited growth over? "Unlimited growth is a heroic assumption. For most of history, next to no measurable growth in output per person occurred. What growth did occur came from rising population. Then, in the middle of the 18th century, something began to stir. Output per head in the world’s most productive economies – the UK until around 1900 and the US, thereafter – began to accelerate. Growth in productivity reached a peak in the two and a half decades after World War II. Thereafter growth decelerated again, despite an upward blip between 1996 and 2004. In 2011 – according to the Conference Board’s database – US output per hour was a third lower than it would have been if the 1950-72 trend had continued. Prof Gordon goes further. He argues that productivity growth might continue to decelerate over the next century, reaching negligible levels." Martin Wolf in The Financial Times.

CROOK: Mismanaged austerity can be deadly. "The debate about the right pace of fiscal restraint is polarized. At one extreme is the view that severe austerity has to start yesterday...At the other extreme is the idea that public debt will melt away of its own accord once growth picks up...As you might expect, the truth is in between...So the question for highly indebted countries is not whether to control public debt but how to do it without killing the recovery...Fiscal shock and awe is suicidal in these circumstances. Governments need to make their fiscal retrenchment gradual. (Think of the 'fiscal cliff' in the U.S. Do the opposite of that.) Central banks meanwhile -- Europe’s especially -- must keep monetary policy loose." Clive Crook in Bloomberg.

ORSZAG: Age bias in gender benefits. "When looking at [entitlement] programs, [policy makers] would be wise to take into account the widening gap in life expectancy -- a gap defined by education and income. Since better-educated, higher-income Americans are living longer than everyone else and therefore collecting benefits longer, Medicare and Social Security are becoming less progressive on a lifetime basis...For programs such as Social Security and Medicare, the consequences are easy to see. Consider the present value of $1 that a white man turning 65 can expect to receive each year of his remaining life. In 1990, when the best-educated men could expect to live an additional 16 years and the least-educated, 15 years more, the difference in the present value of that $1 amounted to about 5 percent. By 2008, when the men at the top of the scale could expect to live five years longer, the present- value gap was more than 25 percent." Peter Orszag in Bloomberg.

Top long reads

Robert Draper profiles Mitt Romney in an alternative universe in which he runs on, not away from, his MA health care reform: "You almost never hear Romney staff members cast their candidate in such a manner. Maybe it’s because White’s distillation calls to mind a lifelong technocrat who does whatever works rather than a conservative leader who sticks to 'what’s right.' But it’s especially rare to hear the candidate or his operation refer to the period of his life when he actually did wrestle daily with both what works and what’s right on behalf of his constituents — the four years by which we can best judge what kind of president Mitt Romney might be. Drawing conclusions from his single term as Massachusetts’s chief executive is, obviously, a feat of extrapolation, because the issues that he faced as well as the powers that he wielded hardly measure up to those of the Oval Office. Still, those four years are telling, even more than the campaign’s decision not to talk about them."

Just when you think it couldn't get any worse interlude: Organized crime is responsible for up to 90 percent of tropical deforestation, a UN report says.

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

Economy

And you get a car, and you get a car, and... "Autos flew off the lot at the highest sales rate in four years, adjusted for seasonal variations, according to the research firm Autodata. Over all, a total of 1.19 million cars, trucks and S.U.V.’s were sold in the United States during the month -- a 13 percent increase from a year ago.Japanese and German manufacturers led the sales boom, offsetting weaker results at General Motors and Ford. The monthly sales rate equaled about 14.9 million vehicles on an annualized basis, and it was the highest seasonally adjusted rate since February 2008, according to Autodata. Analysts said the robust pace was fed by consumers replacing older vehicles, the wide variety of new fuel-efficient models on the market and the greater availability of credit at low interest rates." Bill Vlasic in The New York Times.

@mattyglesias: Does surging auto sales count as evidence that “long and variable lags” is a myth?

Immigrant entrepreneurship is in decline, threatening a key U.S. resource. "The once steady rise in immigrant entrepreneurship has stalled in the United States, threatening to further slow an already sluggish economic recovery. Over the past six years, the proportion of new companies founded by foreign-born individuals has slipped to 24.3 percent from 25.3 percent, according to a Kauffman Foundation survey published Tuesday. This updated previous studies showing a boom in immigrant entre­pre­neur­ship over previous decades. The group’s researchers now wonder whether 'the period of unprecedented expansion of immigrant-led entrepreneurship that characterized the 1980s and 1990s has come to a close.' The drop is even more pronounced in the nation’s preeminent start-up community, Silicon Valley, where the number of new firms with at least one immigrant founder dropped to 43.9 percent from 52.4 percent in 2005...The growing consensus among economists is that young businesses -- rather than small businesses in general -- represent the most reliable, consistent source of job creation, and foreign-born entrepreneurs have long been at the helm of many of those firms." J.D. Harrison in The Washington Post.

Inflation rising in rich economies. "The annual rate of inflation across developed economies rose for the first time in a year in August, driven by a sharp rise in energy prices, a development that may narrow the scope for leading central banks to shore up faltering growth through additional stimulus measures...Figures released by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development on Tuesday showed consumer prices in its 34 member countries rose by 2% in the 12 months to August, a larger increase than the 1.9% recorded in the 12 months to July." Paul Hannon and Alex Brittain in The Wall Street Journal.

@JimPethokoukis: Concerned about inflation, but far more so about Long Recession. I think Fed can help. We also need supply-side reforms

Extinction interlude: Dino death in dominoes.

Health Care

How health care affects the incomes of the poor. "In July, the Congressional Budget Office -- the nonpartisan arbiter of the costs and consequences of government spending -- decided that we had not been valuing these benefits enough. In a report on how income and taxes are distributed across the population, it decided, for the first time, to value health benefits provided by the government at every penny they cost. The decision stoked a long-simmering debate about how much health care is really worth to poor families who may not have enough to eat. The reclassification of health benefits added $4,600 a year to households in the bottom fifth of income. It shrank the nation’s yawning income gap and muted the increase of inequality over the last three decades. And it changed the picture of what the government does for Americans." Eduardo Porter in The New York Times.

And how to control health cost inflation. "It turns out that we don’t even have to look internationally to find an example of success at holding down health cost inflation: Maryland has been quite successful at this for about four decades now. It is the only state that uses rate-setting for hospitals, meaning that the state government decides what all Maryland hospitals can charge for a given procedure...Rate-setting has a pretty decent track record in holding down health-care inflation but less of a stellar scorecard in American politics. In a way, the success of rate-setting makes pretty simple sense: When the government has the final say on how much a medical procedure costs, it’s pretty easy to hold down the price." Sarah Kliff in The Washington Post.

Domestic Policy

So it turns out individuals living in households making in over $1M can collect unemployment insurance. "Almost 2,400 people who received unemployment insurance in 2009 lived in households with annual incomes of $1 million or more, according to the Congressional Research Service...Eliminating those payments to high earners is one idea being considered as U.S. lawmakers struggle to curb a projected $1.1 trillion deficit for the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30...The 2,362 people in millionaire homes represent 0.02 percent of the 11.3 million U.S. tax filers who reported unemploy- ment insurance income in 2009, according to the August report. Another 954,000 households earning more than $100,000 during the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression also reported receiving unemployment benefits...Eliminating the federal share of unemployment benefits for millionaires would save $20 million in the next decade, the congressional researchers said in their report." Frank Bass in The Washington Post.

Congressional financial disclosures are now online. "Financial disclosures of members of Congress became more readily available Monday as required by the Stock Act...The available disclosure forms of House members and candidates go back to 2008, and only current Senate forms have been posted. Disclosures by House members previously were online, but reports of House candidates, along with all Senate member and candidate reports, had to be viewed on-site on Capitol Hill." Eric Yoder in The Washington Post.

Vocabulary interlude: The words used by Democrats, the words used by Republicans -- relevant to tonight.

Energy

Big transmission line approval marks move towards 'smart grid' energy goal. "The Obama administration gave a green light to the first section of a proposed 146-mile transmission line Tuesday, calling it a critical upgrade to the faltering Northeast power grid and saying it will eventually create 2,000 jobs...Starting in Berwick, Pa., and ending in Roseland, N.J., the high-voltage line, capable of carrying up to 500 kilovolts, will replace an existing one that carries 230 kilovolts." Darryl Fears in The Washington Post.

But don't count on emissions to keep falling. "A report released today by Climate Central asks a provocative question: Can United States carbon emissions keep falling?... The report by Eric D. Larson from the Energy Systems Analysis Group at Princeton shows that American carbon emissions have dropped by nearly 9 percent since 2005. The downward trend comes largely as a result of the recession, increased use of natural gas and solar and wind power, and advancements in energy-saving technologies. But the study suggests that the downward trend won’t continue." Emma Bryce in The New York Times.

Wonkbook is produced with help from Michelle Williams.

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