Ari Melber | The Nation

Ari Melber

Ari Melber

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Report: In the Debates, Romney Broke the Rules More Than Obama

According to a comprehensive review of the first two presidential debates, Mitt Romney broke the official debate rules more often than Barack Obama, with few major consequences. As the candidates prepare for their final face-off, it’s an open question whether the debate rules are even working.

During the first two debates, Romney posed more direct questions and ran over his allotted time more often, while Obama broke the rules less frequently.

Overall, according to a review of debate infractions by The Nation:

Romney posed eight direct questions, while Obama posed none;

Both candidates made a single reference to a questioner;

Both candidates entered each other’s designated space on two occasions;

Obama was the only candidate to benefit from prohibited applause, when Michelle Obama cheered his remarks on Libya.

Both candidates also routinely ran over their allotted time.

It was not all fouls and fudging, however. Neither candidate ever broke the blanket bans on using notes, props, diagrams or electronic devices, nor the rule against challenging each other to sign “proposed pledges.”

Romney not only broke the rules more often, he also invoked them more to pursue an edge during the debates. That tic was satirized by Saturday Night Live and lamented by conservatives, such as the Times’s Ross Douthtat, who wrote after the second debate that Romney tends to “argue pointlessly with the moderator and his opponents over the rules of order.” While appealing to the moderator can certainly make a candidate look petty, it turns out that the only penalty for infractions mandated in the debate rules is a moderator interruption.

Under Section 5 of the rules, which were negotiated by the campaigns and the debate commission, the moderator is supposed to interrupt and cite the rules when candidates go over time, reference an audience member or use banned props.

Jim Lehrer rarely took that tack in the first debate. While he was roundly criticized on style points, of course, his approach also abdicated the moderator’s technical duty under the rules. At one point, Lehrer even prompted Romney to pose “a question that you’d like to ask the president directly about something he just said.” Since the rules specifically bar the nominees from asking “each other direct questions,” it was quite odd for the moderator to invite such an infraction. Romney carefully replied without technically posing a direct question—he appeared mindful of the rule in the first debate, and did not break it until the feistier town hall session.

By the second debate, of course, Candy Crowley had telegraphed her plan to scrap the ban on her follow-up questions. While more assertive than Lehrer, she rarely cited the rules and broke other rules for the moderator.

Crowley spared both candidates from chiding on a range of violations, and patroling time violations strictly was implausible, given that 122 total interruptions occurred in ninety minutes. But for Crowley, it is evident that not all rules were created equal. In the significant exchange over the Libya attack, Crowley gave Romney the ultimate political yellow card by fact-checking him with 70 million people watching. But her firm correction on a pivotal point, and repeated at the president’s request, technically violated the rules’ prohibition against a moderator commenting on “the answers of the candidates during the debate.”

According to many journalists and fact-checkers, Crowley was right to address an empirical fact to advance the discussion. If breaking the rules was right, however, then the rules must be wrong.

That would not be surprising from a journalistic perspective. After all, the rules were not written by the press, the public, or even a government body like the FEC. They are a product of secret, self-interested negotiations between the candidates and a private organization run by the two political parties.

The Debate Commission, which the parties established to replace more independent debate organizers, does not even pretend to answer to the public or journalistic management—the reporter-moderators are simply picked, long after the rules are negotiated with the campaigns, by the commission (not the other way around). As a private body, the debate commission is less transparent than the federal government or any public company on the stock market, which are at least subject to disclosure laws.

In the end, the emerging debate over the debate rules is something of a breakthrough. The rules are usually kept secret, but were leaked after the scuffling over Crowley’s plans to press the candidates. Now the twenty-one-page agreement between the campaigns—a lawyerly deluge of minute orchestration designed to limit the range of topics and suffocate any unexpected interaction—has been set free on the Internet. (The commission is so allergic to transparency, however, that there is no indication the rules are available on its own website.)

Going forward, it should be difficult for the commission to keep its rules secret. The leak enhanced the journalistic pressure and public understanding of the debate; the only “damage” caused was to the campaigns’ control over an event that is supposed to help the public judge the candidates—not help the candidates manage their images.

The larger question is whether an old, closed, top-down institution like the commission can maintain legitimacy in an increasingly open, bottom-up world.

With reporting by Stefan Fergus

Peter Van Buren lists six questions"> that probably won't (but should) be asked in tonight's foreign policy debate.

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Why Romney Is Losing the Meme Election

Mitt Romney did not just lose the debate on Tuesday night. He handed the Internet ammunition to memorably mock him for several more news cycles. While candidates have always worried about gaffes, this year’s nominees must navigate the first Meme Election.

Romney is particularly vulnerable because his malapropisms sound more awkward than stupid. Take the instantly infamous binder discussion at the second debate.

Asked about “pay equity for women,” Romney said that women’s groups brought him “binders full of women” to help identify candidates for his cabinet. The Internet went nuts.

People seized on the comment immediately—and it did not simply “go viral.” When 70 million people have already watched something happen live, you can’t just share a clip of the moment. Instead, Romney’s phrasing sparked an explosion of what techies call voter-generated content.

Before the debate even ended, a flurry of humorous and scathing binder websites, Twitter accounts, and Facebook groups cropped up online. On the photo-blogging site Tumblr, an irreverent string of pictures remixed the literal image of women, stuffed into binders, with other pop cultural memes—from Dirty Dancing (“No one puts baby in a binder”) to the cartoon character Dora The Explorer (“Women for Self-Deportation”). The Tumblr site curating the images was created by Veronica De Souza, a self-described “social media pro” in Brooklyn who says she is looking for work.


All that creative, clickable content provides another way for regular people to define the debate’s big moments, competing with a role once reserved to the professional press.

“The Internet doesn’t always choose the same moments to focus on as the political press, but binders full of women has almost unlimited meme potential,” says Ben Smith, a seasoned political journalist who is editor-in-chief of BuzzFeed, a news and social media site that is ground zero for memes. “That’s much less predictable than the old-fashioned gaffe cycle, though,” Smith told The Nation, so “there’s no reason Republicans can’t remix the remixes.”

They are already trying.

Since the social media binder obsession bubbled up to the traditional press—a staggering 15,000 articles cite the “binders full of women” line, according to Google News—Romney’s backers have decided to get in the digital weeds. The RNC circulated its own sarcastic picture on Wednesday, a binder of blank pages labeled “Obama’s Second-Term Agenda.” (BuzzFeed posted the picture, sans commentary, under the headline “RNC Quadruples-Down on Binders.”)

This is not Romney’s first experience on the wrong side of a popular meme, of course.

The last time the Republicans had an unfiltered national television audience, at the convention, the reaction to Clint Eastwood’s empty chair routine overshadowed much of the programming. (Obama’s web aides even capitalized on that incident in real time, tweeting a picture of Obama sitting in a presidential chair with the caption, “This seat’s taken.”)

To take another influential example, consider this punishing Internet statistic for the GOP nominee. The most popular online video featuring Mitt Romney is the clip of his infamous “47 percent” remarks. The footage has drawn over 5.2 million views on YouTube—more than triple the views for the most popular video that the Romney campaign ever made. The political establishment was more interested in the issue, compared to the binder gaffe, but they damaged Romney in part because they took root so easily online.

While many of Romney’s most visible scars this year were undeniably self-inflicted, the social media environment can also be unfairly harsh on certain kinds of mistakes. All the binder glee actually demonstrates that dynamic.

Unlike the “47 percent” comments, which put a cruel gloss on an economic plan that already hurt the most vulnerable citizens, or Clint Eastwood, who used a party platform to denigrate a sitting president in unusual and embarrassing terms, Romney’s “binder” line alluded to a legitimate idea.

He was touting efforts to proactively recruit qualified women candidates. He cited a study concluding that his administration led the country for appointing “women in senior leadership positions.” (True, from data based on his first year in office). Basically, Romney was addressing a pay parity question by touting a type of affirmative action. The binders were not the problem.

The real hypocrisy is that while Romney sought credit for the results, as governor, he actually signed an executive order banning equal opportunity programs for women in 2003. Then, after a backlash, he reverted to the original policies, which helped advance women and minorities throughout state government. This is not simply some state government history, either. Just this month, the Supreme Court heard arguments about banning affirmative action across the country. Romney refuses to state any position on that case, despite repeated press inquiries, while Obama has endorsed affirmative action (and defended it in the court case).

Ultimately, Romney is getting sassed for how he talked about the binders, because it was just too perfect. But his bigger problem is that on this issue, like so many others, Romney will say just about anything as long as it doesn’t involve taking a firm position.

For more on Romney's "binders full of women," read Bryce Covert's latest.

Obama Campaign: Jay-Z Embodies the American Dream


President Barack Obama has touted hip hop endorsements more than any other candidate on the national stage. His campaign doubled down on that strategy Monday, launching a flashy ad touting Jay-Z, the rapper, business mogul and former drug dealer, as the embodiment of the American dream.

“The idea of America is that no matter who you are, what you look like, or where you come from, you can make it if you try,” says Obama, adding, “Jay-Z did.”

The ad shows Jay-Z, clad in a black suit and a tie, talking somberly about how many people’s voices have been “silenced” in the political process, either because they were prevented from voting or because they “didn’t believe their voice mattered.”

“Now people are exercising their right,” Jay-Z continues, “and you are starting to see the power of our vote.”

President Obama’s lines in the ad were from a recording made for “Jay-Z’s Made in America Festival in Philadelphia on September 1st,” an Obama aide told The Nation. While the video is not running as a TV ad, it could draw significant attention online, especially from young voters and African-Americans.

In 2008, the Obama campaign distributed several Jay-Z videos that went viral, including footage of Jay-Z’s poem about the legacy of Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King and Obama himself; a clip of then-Senator Obama using Jay’s signature hand gesture to dismiss political attacks by figuratively brushing them off his shoulders; and a state-level briefing on voter-ID rules for Michigan residents. The Obama campaign has adeptly used YouTube and social networks as a relatively thrifty way to do targeted messaging. TV ads are great for broadcasting, but voter turnout is about narrow-casting. And not all messengers are created equal.

“Jay is an anomaly to an incredible degree,” says Chuck Creekmur, CEO of AllHipHop.com. “He’s a great example of a possibility that is very difficult to attain for most kids from Marcy Projects,” says Creekmur, who has covered Jay and Obama’s outreach to the hip hop community. “I’d like to see more messaging directly referencing the issues that affect the 90 percent of African-Americans who voted for Obama,” he told The Nation.

The Obama campaign is not limiting Jay-Z’s voice to mobilizing the grassroots, of course. He and his wife Beyoncé recently headlined a $4 million fundraiser for Obama in Manhattan.

Obama Campaign: Jay-Z Represents The American Dream

President Barack Obama has touted hip hop endorsements more than any other candidate on the national stage.  His campaign doubled down on that strategy Monday, launching a flashy ad touting Jay-Z, the rapper, business mogul and former drug dealer, as the embodiment of the American dream.


"The idea of America is that no matter who you are, what you look like, or where you come from, you can make it if you try," says Obama, adding, "Jay-Z did." 


The ad shows Jay-Z, clad in a black suit and tie, talking somberly about how many people's voices have been "silenced" in the political process, either because they were prevented from voting or because they "didn't believe their voice mattered." "Now people are exercising their right," he adds, "and you are starting to see the power of our vote."


President Obama's lines in the ad were from a recording made for "Jay-Z's Made in America Festival in Philadelphia on September 1st," an Obama aide told The Nation. While the video is not running as a television advertisement, it could draw significant attention online, especially from young voters and African Americans.  In 2008, the Obama Campaign distributed several Jay-Z videos that went viral, including footage of Jay-Z's poem about the legacy of Rosa Park, MLK and Obama; a clip of then Senator-Obama using Jay's signature hand gesture to dismiss political attacks by figuratively brushing them off his shoulders; and a detailed briefing on voter-ID rules for Michigan voters.  The Michigan video, like this new ad, focused on mobilizing supporters, not persuading swing voters.  The Obama Campaign has adeptly used YouTube and social networks as a relatively thrify way to do targeted messaging. TV ads are great for broadcasting, but voter turnout is about narrow-casting.



Study: Romney Fact-Checked for Falsehoods at Double the Rate of Obama

A tabulation of recent rulings from PolitiFact, a prominent but increasingly controversial website devoted to fact-checking candidates' claims, found that “statements by Mitt Romney and other Republicans” were rated false “twice as often as statements by President Obama and other Democrats.” That's a lot more false statements by Republicans, which makes it harder to cling to the false equivalency that “both sides do it.”

Or maybe not.

A snap poll of conservative reactions shows that the study of Politifact, from George Mason's Center for Media and Public Affairs (CMPA), proves the conservative theory that the fact-checkers are out to get Republicans.

“This discrepancy is not because the Romney campaign is egregiously truth-challenged,” explains The Weekly Standard, “but because the 'fact checking' enterprise is more often than not partisan.” When you're done attacking the messenger, go for the refs! That approach may be welcomed by CMPA, however, which has played up its past studies as proof that life is hard for the GOP. (Press release headlines include “GOP Candidates Were Big Joke to TV Comics in 2011,” “TV News Coverage Helped Sink Santorum…”, and, for good measure, “Arab Media Boost Obama.” Oh that Arab Media—it just loves American presidents.)

In the end, it's true that your view of the findings depends on your view of Politifact, though, because if you think they generally get it right, then cumulative data like this is still bad for the right:

A majority of the Obama campaign's statements (55%) were rated as true or mostly true, compared to one out of four statements (26%) by the Romney campaign.

All the sparring over Politifact's findings and methodology suggests that plenty of political experts think the site matters. From this study to The Weekly Standard to Rachel Maddow, Politifact is scrutinized because people believe a website devoted to fact-checking can impact how the campaign is scored. Add in social media, which has turned fact-checking into a viral race, and these sites can have an outsized impact. As a recent essay argued on Daily Kos, a liberal site that has long been critical of campaign media coverage, this year's coverage is improving because of the interplay of fact-checking and the web:

While those Gang of 500 media guys could ignore the blogs all day long, they all play on Twitter and Facebook. And it's hard to ignore the criticism you get there not just from the grassroots, but from their peers in the industry…[and while] fact checkers…are consistently stupid, particularly when searching for “balance” in their targets…they have provided other media guidance on how to cover campaign claims. So Romney can go around claiming all he wants that Obama went on a world apology tour and tried to end welfare reform; the fact that it's patently false means that no one will cover that nonsense, or if they do, they'll include a line about it not being true. Indeed, the Romney campaign has been so flustered by the media fact checkers that they famously proclaimed that “we’re not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact checkers.”

And the Romney campaign is entitled to that view. To paraphrase Gore Vidal, though, it doesn't matter what he thinks of the facts—what matters is what the facts think of him.

Why Obama Is Right About Change, but Wrong About the Outside Game

The latest miniature controversy in the presidential campaign actually touches on an important idea.

“You can’t change Washington from the inside.”

That’s what Barack Obama said he learned as president, when questioned at a forum on Thursday.

Mitt Romney seized on the remarks, saying Obama has surrendered to the forces of Washington. Romney's aides are eager to cast Obama in his own “YouTube moment,” naturally, and challenge his commitment to “change.”

Obama is correct, of course, that fundamental reform and social change is not usually hatched by Washington insiders. That is not a controversial view. It’s the premise animating grassroots conservative activism from Grover Norquist to the Tea Party, which primaries Republicans who represent the 2-0-2 for too long.

You can’t really understand Obama’s relationship to the inside game, however, without digging into the weeds of his unusual experiment with a grassroots, outside game: the 2009 creation of Organizing for America (OFA), which was designed to extend his massive field army from the last campaign into a governing force.

That unusual effort never got much attention from political and media leaders, because fieldwork is considered boring. And it probably won’t get much attention now, even though Obama’s talk about how the outside game works suggests a key misperception about his first term. So while he was right about change, his follow-up explanation was puzzling. "You can only change it from the outside,” he added, “that’s how the big accomplishments like healthcare got done…because we mobilized the American people to speak out.… So, something that I’d really like to concentrate on in my second term is being in a much more constant conversation with the American people so they can help move some of these issues forward.”

News readers will recall that is simply not how healthcare was enacted. There was no mass mobilization or pressure on swing votes in Congress. The Washington Post's Ezra Klein, who reported on the process at the time, found Obama’s depiction “absurd.” He has a different memory:

The health-care process…was a firmly “inside game” strategy. There were backroom deals with most every major interest group and every swing legislator. There was the “cornhusker kickback” and the “Louisiana purchase.” There was a multi-month period during which the entire process ground to a halt so Senate Finance chair Max Baucus could negotiate with five of his colleagues in a room that no members of the press or public were allowed into.

And what was OFA, and its 13 million grassroots activists, doing at the time? The group did make healthcare reform one of the top priorities of its first year:

There were more OFA communications to supporters about healthcare than any other [policy]; the most significant “asks” for volunteer activity were tied to the healthcare battle in Congress; [and] OFA’s most valuable resource—the President’s time—[was] spent primarily on OFA healthcare events.

This might sound like the very outside game that Obama is now touting. Yet the White House generally avoided asking the Obama activists to actually target wavering Democrats, or potentially nervous Republicans in Congressional districts that Obama won in 2008.

Instead, the strategy was to focus on the inside game. Supporters were asked to back healthcare reform at the broadest level, and thank members of Congress who already supported the president.

As one former Obama campaign staffer told me, when I was researching OFA for this report, it was “literally useless” to ask volunteers to call members of Congress who are “clearly going to support the president’s healthcare proposal.” The staffer explained that by contrast, a strong outside game would mobilize activists to show up in person at public events of moderate Republicans (not unlike the town halls that first sparked Tea Party outrage), but that OFA was probably “just not allowed to do that politically, by the White House, and that’s a shame.”

Why not? Because the outside pressure might “backfire,” and, to be sure, because it’s very hard to run the outside game out of the White House. As another former Obama official explained:

It’s complicated, because OFA is not a campaign—they are an arm of the White House…. The White House, it seems to me, Rahm and whomever else, [they don’t] give a crap about this email list and don’t think it’s a very useful thing. They want to do stuff the delicate way—the horse-trading, backroom talks, one-to-one lobbying. So they see it as more effective to get [Deputy Chief of Staff] Jim Messina on the phone with all these folks; the way to deal with this is to get on the phone. [They say] “unleashing a massive grassroots army is only going to backfire on us.”

That's a strong indictment, especially from someone sympathetic to Obama's goals and methods. My point here is not to rehash old debates about how healthcare—a policy achievement that eluded several other presidents—made it through Congress. But the president brought it up and, typically, the first attacks have mischaracterized the part he got right, that outside pressure is key, while missing the more interesting question, whether Obama really doesn't realize that healthcare was an inside job.

Why YouTube Is Wrong to Censor the Anti-Islam Video

The protests against the now infamous YouTube video disparaging the Prophet Mohammad have thrust YouTube, and its parent company Google, into a tough situation.

While the company says it values free speech and usually only removes videos that violate its policies, it is experimenting with a deliberately inconsistent approach to the crisis surrounding the video, “Innocence of Muslims.”

Google will continue hosting the video in most of the world, since it does not meet the company’s definition of hate speech. But it is now blocking access to the video in Libya and Egypt, where the video has contributed to violent riots over the past several days, as well as India. (The English-version of the video has been viewed the most in Egypt, Canada and Tunisia, according to YouTube data.) The company released an unusual statement explaining its decision:

“This video—which is widely available on the Web—is clearly within our guidelines and so will stay on YouTube…. given the very difficult situation in Libya and Egypt we have temporarily restricted access in both countries.”

Google argues that its geographic relativism is also necessary because what is acceptable “in one country can be offensive elsewhere,” and it expressed sympathy for the people murdered in the attack in Libya.

While few would challenge Google’s motives in this situation, it is easy to see why this is a problematic step for a global publisher. Whether the local pressure is from autocratic governments or violent mobs, the company should not risk the perception that such activity is rewarded with censorship. It’s hard to decide when a video crosses the line from advocacy to hate speech, or from documenting torture to glorifying it—a grisly question raised by videos uploaded from the Syrian crackdown, as The Nation reported at the time—but the answers are binary. Videos found to violate the policy come down. A localized approach is trickier, and it raises the temptation of tamping down controversies by proactively warping free speech in the very places where it is most threatened.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), which is the closest thing to an ACLU for the Internet, said that Google’s decision could mark a step towards YouTube “proactively censoring its content” and supplanting its own “moral policing” of speech instead of applying uniform safeguards. Jillian York, who directs the group’s International Freedom of Expression program, said “Google is in the wrong” for censoring the video. Given the reported pressure from the White House and the absence of any local legal order, she told The Nation, restricting the access only “for Egyptians and Libyans” simply “reeks of paternalism.”

Another expert in the field, author Rebecca MacKinnon, questioned whether the move augurs a new trend, or, as she told the Times, reflects “an extremely exceptional response to an extremely exceptional situation.”

Yet there is nothing exceptional, unfortunately, about religious speech drawing violent reactions, whether it occurs online or off. Companies like YouTube will continue to be tested on their commitment to the mission that made them such popular and profitable websites—providing an open platform to a wide range of ideas from around the world.

Obama Quotes Twitter, Hailing Clinton as 'Secretary of Explaining Stuff'

President Obama has a new speechwriter: Twitter.

In an unusual move at a campaign rally this weekend, Obama quoted a witty tweet that went viral during the Democratic National Convention. Recalling President Clinton’s detailed, wonky speech about economic policy, Obama said, “Somebody sent out a tweet, ‘He needs to be made Secretary of Explaining Stuff.’ I like that!” Obama later joked, “I have to admit, it didn’t say ‘stuff,’ ” drawing laughter and applause.

The original tweet, by New Yorker editor Ben Greenman, did not say “stuff,” but it was not profane, either:

The item immediately went viral during the speech, ultimately drawing over 8,000 retweets, a remarkably high number that reflects both massive interest in Clinton’s address—25 million TV viewers—and interest in the cheeky proposal from Greenman, who has about 10,000 followers on Twitter.

“Obviously a lot of people were thinking something similar,” said Greenman, when reached by phone after the president quoted him. The tweet was shared by everyone from journalists and politicos to Anita Baker and MC Hammer, he said, because it was a “felicitous turn of phrase that captured the thoughts of thousands of other people.”

Obama may be the first president to quote a tweet in a speech, but he did not personally log on to the network to find the phrase.

He first cited it as something he received by “e-mail” after Clinton’s address, telling a Florida rally, “That was pretty good—I like that—secretary of explaining stuff.” Then, a day later, Obama appended the Twitter shout-out.

“He’s very tech-savvy,” says Greenman, so “someone may have reminded him, let’s respect the etiquette of this medium”—crediting sources. (After Obama first used the line, Foreign Policy editor Blake Hounshell tweaked the president for stealing a “Twitter joke.”)

While Greenman has not heard directly from anyone who works for the Obama campaign, he says the rapid spread of the tweet—from widespread attention on Wednesday night to a presidential citation over the weekend—shows how thoughts can filter up from the social network. He likened the online explosion of the quip to watching “an inconsequential stock market.”

Consequential or not, Greenman is standing by his proposal. He hopes the position will be created so Clinton can be appointed the secretary of explaining things. “I’d like to go to the swearing-in ceremony,” he told The Nation. That’s about as likely, he added, as the Dolphins making it to the Super Bowl this year.

Report: Romney Economic Plan Hurts Red States, Helps Wealthy Urbanites, While Obama Boosts Rural Areas

According to a new analysis of tax and census data, Mitt Romney’s economic plan is heavily tilted towards big cities, but tough on the rural areas that comprise the GOP’s base. Barack Obama’s economic proposals lean the other way, offering little to wealthy urbanites, while delivering broad tax savings to the middle- and lower-class Americans spread across the South and Midwest.

The findings, released Thursday by a start-up called Politify, present a novel way to view the diverging economic promises in this recession election. In a race dominated by the rhetoric of deficits and the 99 percent, Politify says it offers unassailable data and objective answers for voters wondering how the candidates’ plans will affect their wallet, their neighborhood, or the whole country.

The most dramatic image—which organizers believe will spread quickly online—provides a geographic model of how the candidates’ plans for taxes and benefits will impact individual households. All the data is from the IRS and a US census survey. Nikita Bier, Politify’s founder, says this is the most granular model of campaign policy impact ever created. After he first ran the numbers, Bier recalls that he was “shocked” to see just how severely the results favored Obama’s plan:

The map clearly shows that Obama’s proposals benefit a larger portion of the electorate, but the visual effect is exaggerated, since the map is not weighted for population density.

Inquiring voters can also zoom in on any neighborhood for more detailed snapshots.

Take the Upper West Side of Manhattan, where the median price of a home is $1.3 million. There, 73 percent of residents do better under Romney’s plan than Obama’s.

The same goes for liberal enclaves in San Francisco: in one tony area on the Bay, 67 percent of residents would take home more under President Romney.

Yet in the heartland, the economic map skews just as strongly towards Obama. It is almost impossible, for example, to find any large areas of Ohio that don’t fare better under Obama’s plan:

Ohio remains a key swing state, of course, precisely because it is not reliable Obama country. Bier believes that could change if his model goes viral.

“If the candidates are clearly favoring your town and your household,” he says, “there’s very little reason you should vote opposite to that.”

Then again, Democrats have spent years asking people to stop “voting against their interests.” In the canonical 2004 book, What’s the Matter with Kansas, journalist Thomas Frank cataloged how Republicans convinced a generation of working-class voters to ignore their material interests in favor of “vague cultural grievances.” Through this “backlash culture,” Frank explains, the GOP campaigned on social issues but governed on “pro-business economics” once in office.

Could maps or data really change that dynamic for a digitally connected electorate?

After reviewing Politify’s model for The Nation, Frank said the new data is intriguing, but probably limited. For starters, he was wary “of placing a lot of faith in these maps” and he questioned whether one can “put a dollar ‘benefits’ value on the future presidency of the two candidates.”

Still, Frank found the national visualization “remarkable,” given its “inversion of the old Red State/Blue State maps of the last decade—apparently showing that people are voting almost entirely against their economic interests.” And while conservatives living in “an electronic world of their own” can brush off the analysis, Frank said the data could prove useful to reporters and open-minded voters alike.

“I can imagine how commentators could easily call up the economic consequences of a Congressional district going this way or that and using it to put a candidate on the spot,” he said. “The map’s seeming objectivity could make it very useful for local journalists, who are often confused by economic issues and unwilling to say what would be a more prosperous course for a given area.”

“When I wrote ‘Kansas,’ back in 2003, the word ‘politics’ was basically thought to be equivalent to the culture wars,” Frank recalled in an e-mail. “Now it looks like we might be headed toward erring in the other direction, concluding that politics is a dollar-value calculation.”

The Obama campaign agrees. It launched an online “tax calculator,” enabling visitors to see the return on their voting investment, which has already drawn over 60,000 likes on Facebook. (Romney’s tax information page is not interactive.)

At their core, however, most presidential campaigns at least aspire to an aspirational message, not pure self-interest.

“People are more than cost-benefit calculators,” said one veteran of Democratic presidential campaigns who assessed Politify’s maps (and is not authorized to talk on the record). Strong candidates connect to voters’ “non-financial instincts,” the operative said, and it is “enormously condescending” for Democrats to object that “working-class whites often vote against their economic interests.” The operative added, “If it’s OK for Warren Buffet to vote against his economic interests and vote his values, why is it wrong when a truck driver does it?”

In that sense, Politify’s personalized tool may be the least persuasive part of the program. It is all me, no we. (Pictured at right.)

One additional issue for the model, which conservatives are sure to stress if this approach gets attention, is its crabbed view of economic benefits.

Politify offers a static breakdown of taxes and government benefits frozen in time—without any modeling of potential economic improvement under the Romney plan.

But Republicans say their tax cuts will spur hiring and recovery, which they’d want factored into any objective assessment. That’s not a minor point. Imagine a Politify-style model for the 1980 race. It might favor Carter in the short term, but Republicans say Americans did better under Reagan’s long-term road from stagflation. Speaking for Politify, Bier says it is a valid point, but beyond the project’s scope. “There are policies,” he acknowledged, “that can impact the economy in ways that Politify doesn’t account for.”

Still, in a season of grand claims about taxes, entitlements, deficits and the largest downturn since the Great Depression, Politify is counting a lot, and inviting voters to inspect the results. It’s a start.

Three Reasons the Internet Backlash Worked Against Progressive Car Insurance

The Progressive car insurance company has found itself on the wrong side of the Internet.

Matt Fisher, the brother of a former Progressive customer killed in a 2010 car accident, recently decided to publicize the company’s fight to avoid paying a $75,000 insurance claim to his family. Adding insult to injury, he wrote in a blog post Monday, “the guy who killed my sister was defended by Progressive’s legal team” during the trial. By Thursday, Fisher’s post sparked a national news story—and a debate over insurance practices—with coverage from the Associated Press, CNN, CNBC, a range of web outlets and an in-depth interview on CBS This Morning. The segment is well worth watching for the history of the case.

But how did this local story catch fire online and draw national attention?

The first key was the type of platform that Fisher used. He wrote his story on Tumblr, the popular blog and photo-sharing website. Unlike most blogs, which openly allow comments by any readers, Tumblr enables people to react to items only if they post a response by resharing the content on their own Tumblr page. It’s a subtle but significant shift in the site’s architecture, making it more of a dynamic network than a passive media platform. By raw numbers, that means Tumblr posts often draw fewer reactions than media websites. Yet when people feel compelled to respond or criticize an item, Tumblr fosters rapid and automatic broadcasts across people’s networks. A popular item at Huffington Post, for example, can draw more than 25,000 shares. Fisher’s Tumblr post, provocatively titled, “My Sister Paid Progressive Insurance to Defend Her Killer in Court,” had only about 11,000 shares by Thursday. But that was more than enough to get people in his network talking to their networks.

Fisher’s particular network was also critical. Plenty of worthwhile arguments and efforts are posted online, of course, and then lost in the web ether. Fisher is a Brooklyn comedian, and while he’s not famous, he already had a small network that follows him and, presumably, trusts him. So they took his story seriously and are probably shared it based on pure outrage and solidarity—without even calculating whether this was an “effective” strategy to change the company’s actions.

Fisher also kept his 2,000 Twitter followers updated as his efforts gained traction. So when Progressive responded in public, with a legalistic rebuttal arguing that it “did not serve as the attorney for the defendant,” Fisher tweeted out his Tumblr response. He also told his followers when he joined Glenn Beck’s radio program to talk about the (presumably bipartisan) outrage over the story. And he shared memories of his sister, Katie Fisher, from posting old pictures of her to recounting how she “slept over in my apartment the night before I got married and got me to stop pacing around.”

Reflecting on all the attention this week, Fisher even joked that he should have replaced his Twitter photo—a goofy headshot with his mouth agape—before becoming an insurance crusader. “Here’s a good idea for a week ago,” he tweeted, “how bout I change my twitter picture to something non-stupid-looking?” Of course, Fisher’s story and efforts moved people because he was a real person, dealing with both an extremely personal loss and a frustrating bureaucratic battle.

In the end, we know Fisher was effective because, after years of fighting, Progressive announced an agreement with the family on Thursday. That shift, however, came after a final bout of counterproductive corporate pushback in the very same week. Progressive had been repeatedly tweeting an automatic message to critics who contacted the company about the case.

“We fully investigated this claim and relevant background, and feel we properly handled the claim within our contractual obligations,” the company wrote, adding, “we’re sorry for everything Mr. Fisher and his family have gone through.” That cold reply, tweeted in a repeating loop, personified the company’s inhumane approach to many critics, drawing more outrage and online scorn. By Thursday, though, Progressive left the tweeting to others.

The company simply retweeted a news post from a CBS journalist, reporting that the Fishers “could receive settlement money” from Progressive “in the next days’ as soon as signed papers are exchanged.”

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