Ryan J. Suto's Blog

14 November 2012

The Most Interesting Statistics and Points We Learned From Election 2012

This post was written for PolicyMic.com and can be found here.

As the election-related coverage dies down, what are the notable take-aways from election 2012? What trends, whether they be in the electoral process, voter turnout and campaigning, or voting technology and media, should we observe? Many signs point to the fact that more and more, politics is becoming a numbers game.
Here are five facts about the election you might have overlooked amidst all the punditry and politics.

1) The past three presidents (Clinton, Bush, and Obama) have all won two elections each.
The last time this happened were presidents Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe. Is this just an isolated occurrence, or an indication of an increased incumbency advantage for the president? Also noteworthy in this election is that little changed in the House or Senate with respect to balance of power. Does this foreshadow an increased incumbency advantage in Congress, too?
2) This race cost about $6 billion, a $700 million increase from 2008.
Beyond the narrow questions of Citizens United, a broad national discussion must be had regarding possible legal efforts toward capping campaign spending. Despite the exorbitant amounts of money, the candidates only campaigned in 10 states. We can share a sigh of relief that America didn’t experience another Florida circa 2000, but we need to have a serious discussion about our electoral system. It’s a horse-and-buggy system for an internet age.
3) The Obama campaign circa 2008 used innovative tools to identify and target potential voters, as it likely did in 2012.
Speaking of the internet, in 2008 the Obama campaign was able to collect vital information on thousands of potential voters, donors, and volunteers through complex, ground-breaking technology. The campaign was able to accurately identify how different groups of people communicated, being able to literally draw lines on the map and message groups specifically both on the internet and on foot. The campaign knew exactly how much money to spend in any given area and to what end that expenditure would lead. There’s no reason to think this year’s campaign was any less sophisticated.
4) On the prediction side, Nate Silver FiveThirtyEight.com and the New York Times missed only one state in 2008 and predicted each state accurately in 2012.
While I don't mean to suggest that Silver's methods are flawless, I do think that the accuracy with which we has been able to understand the past two elections has been impressive. The prospect that our preferences are predictable given certain inputs is important. Politics has been de-mystifying for decades now, and I think the past decade has seen rapid improvement in understand how we work. Politics is indeed becoming a science, not an art.
5) Our better technology and understanding of elections are wonderful.
They allows us to fundamentally understand how we as humans work in society — what drives us, what motivates us, what makes us change our  minds or dig in our heals. While we must remain humble and understand how much we don’t know, technology is improving our ability to understand humankind as the political animal that we are. What was above the doorway to the Oracle of Delphi? Know Thyself.
But what is occurring is that we are failing to change our laws to stay up to date with current realities and understandings. Our Constitutional system is designed to allow for patchwork problem-solving — lest we act too brashly. But this allows law to lag behind reality, which at times becomes problematic. The U.S. Constitution (and our election laws generally) is not a sacred. It was meant to be changed and altered.
In these endeavors, let us be measured, but let us be bold.

03 November 2012

Election 2012: Top 5 Middle East Challenges the Next President Will Face

I wrote a quick list of the top 5 challenges for the US in the Middle East. You can find my post on PolicyMic.com here.

No matter who wins the presidential election, there will be a whole slew of Middle East challenges for either Obama or Romney to face. Here are the top five challenges facing the President of the United States.
1. Political Islam
Presidents of both parties have spoken of democracy in the Middle East as an important goal of U.S. foreign policy. During the Bush years, the prospect of holding elections in Iraq and Gaza were met eagerly by the White House. However, for some reason the results were surprising to the administration: when a group of people who generally hold religion as very important in their lives and central to their identities vote, their votes are informed by religion. Who would’ve thought?
During the Arab Spring, oppressive leaders such as Hosni Mubarak, Muammar Gaddafi, Ben Ali, and Ali Abdullah Saleh fell, and elections followed suit. The big winners have been groups like Salafists and the Muslim Brotherhood — Islamist parties. While we should not be too optimistic about the prospects of democracy in all of these countries just yet, some news out of places like Tunisia and Egypt show that elected leaders are beginning to behave like democratic politicians by pandering to their constituencies.
Of course, these groups have made U.S. policymakers nervous in the past. But a functioning U.S. foreign policy will have to learn to be tolerant of these groups going forward. If the U.S. truly values the proliferation of democracy throughout the world, our foreign policy must be able to work with those officials who are popularly elected by their people.
2. Public Diplomacy
For more than 10 years now, Americans have been asking with respect to the Middle East , "why do they hate us? Have we listened to any of the answers? 
Public opinion in the Middle East toward the U.S. is important for U.S. interests both with regards to foreign policy and national security. First, terrorist networks such as Al Qaeda still exist in places like Pakistan and Yemen. Ill-informed U.S. foreign policy only adds fuel to the fire of these groups. Improving how the U.S. is viewed in the region is a proactive approach to the problem of terrorism. Second, for the foreseeable future, unfortunately, America will continue to run on fossil fuels. As long as the global price of oil is directly or indirectly controlled by many in the Middle East, we have an interest to have positive views of the U.S. predominate in the Middle East. Lastly, if democracy does take hold in the region, increasingly politicians will not be willing to work with the U.S. if doing so would be used against them in the next election. If the people do not like us, their leaders will not be able to afford to either. 
While many policy choices of the past cannot be undone (read: the war in Iraq), continuing and emerging issues must be handled with care; such as the continued use of drone strikes and the existence of prisoners in Guantanamo Bay.
3. Pull out of Afghanistan
It seems that the candidates agree that U.S. forces should exit Afghanistan as early as 2014. That’s the easy part. The hard part is to do so responsibly and without creating more problems than we solved by going into Afghanistan over a decade ago.
For example, there have been recent reports noting that Afghan security forces are not yet ready for a U.S. withdrawal. Also, remember that the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan is often an artificial line in the mountains for which many have little concern. Osama bin Laden was found in Pakistan, and Al Qaeda elements undoubtedly remain there. With Pakistan heading into elections in the coming months, we must work closely with Pakistan to try and create as stable an Afghanistan and Pakistan as possible before our troops leave the region.
Lessons must be learned from our drawdown from Iraq and U.S. national security and the security of the Afghan people must take priority over political capital. A quick aside: our veterans must be given better care and attention upon returning home — it’s quite literally the least we can do.
4. Iran
Iran’s nuclear ambitions are no secret, and have led the U.S. to impose crushing sanctions on the country. President Ahmadinejad has been heavily criticized within Iran for allowing the economy to slip, causing him to limp to the end of his presidency in June 2013. While the next U.S. president will have a new Iranian president with whom to work, little will likely change as Ayatollah Khamenei holds the real power in Iran. 
While there are important and provocative arguments supporting a nuclear Iran, such a position would be political suicide for an American president. Based on Iranian rhetoric on the matter, a nuclear Iran presents too great a feeling of insecurity for the U.S. and U.S. interests in the region, and the U.S. must stand by principles of nuclear non-proliferation. Of course, Israel’s Netanyahu has not made anything easier, either. Apreemptive strike by Israel would be irresponsible and dangerous for the entire region. 
In sum, the next president must do what is possible to promote dialogue between the two countries. The guiding principles of policy toward Iran should be peace and nuclear non-proliferation.
5. Syria
Syria appears to be the last major armed conflict of the Arab Spring — a conflict in which over 20,000 people have died. On the one hand it is hard to imagine a scenario in which the international community continues to tolerate President Assad as the leader of Syria. On the other, the stubborn Assad has no incentive to step down or flea. If he does, or is overthrown, there lingers the risk of a sectarian struggle in which the minority Alawi (which includes the Assad family) would be in grave danger.
While many across the world have called for some form of humanitarian intervention (perhaps similar to Libya), Russia has continued to block any authorization to act in the Security Council. While most Americans want the U.S. to do something in Syria to stop the violence, few Americans would stomach sending American troops into harm’s way for the cause. Last month Syria and Turkey exchanged shots across the border, possibly relating to the hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees in camps across the Turkish border. While unlikely, if Turkey were to invoke Article V of the NATO charter (used only once: in response to 9/11), the U.S. could get dragged into Syria regardless of the Security Council or U.S. public opinion.
Regardless of how the conflict ends, the real problems for the next president begin once the Assad regime falls. Syria is in possession of chemical and biological weapons, and if the government falls, those weapons could foreseeably fall into the wrong hands. A protracted, unstable Syria will put strain — in the form of refugees and border control — on countries like Lebanon and Iraq, countries that have enough problems of their own right now. Many of the issues discussed above, political Islam, regional stability, and weapons non-proliferation, all come to a head in how the next president must approach the evolving conflict in Syria.

Keep Tuesday, ver. 2

I re-tooled a blog post from earlier for PolicyMic.com about Election Day. You can find it here.

A big question in American electoral administration is to what extent voter turnout is affected by the day of the week on which we vote — Tuesday. As the U.S. faces low voter turnout, any administrative barriers to voting should be reformed. But the important question remains: would voter turnout increase with a move on the calendar? I’m not so sure.
First, it is important to know that Tuesday is not determined as the day for elections by the U.S. Constitution — it is determined by state and federal law, pursuant to (quite confusingly) Article I Section 4 and Article II Section 1 of the Constitution. Second, because voting depends on your state, concepts like ‘early voting,’ ‘advanced voting,’ and ‘absentee voting’ don’t necessarily exist throughout the country, and even so each state may have different requirements. This post is limited to the day on which most of us vote and the day after which the votes are counted: Election Day.
Our good friends at Why Tuesday? advocate changing the day on which we vote to a weekend. Unfortunately weekend voting in the U.S. has been poorly understudied. Recently, South Carolina has attempted to vote on Saturdays out of respect for the Jewish community in their state. That makes sense; while overall turnout may possibly increase, alienating an entire religious group is generally not advisable for democratic populism. Religious sensitivity could, therefore, take Friday, Saturday, and Sunday out of the Election Day race. But the bigger point about weekend voting is that Americans love their weekends. Wework a lot, and perish the thought of adding duties to our weekends. We have children to spend time with, projects to continue, football to watch, and many other things. Using about as much empirical evidence as anyone else on this topic, I would not favor a move of Election Day to the weekend.
However, the huge problem with voting during the work week is that many people, naturally, have to work. Many can’t afford to leave their jobs or children and go and vote. As such, whichever day we vote should be a federal holiday, with as many establishments closed as possible. But even so, which day should we vote on? The first logical answer may be Monday — we already have several holidays observed on Mondays. The problem is that creates a three-day weekend. Who’d want to lose a three-day weekend by staying home and voting, when that’s the perfect opportunity to take a small vacation? That’s what Americans do: the only things we love more than weekends are longer weekends!
I think you get the point. We’ve arrived at where we started. While the reasons for voting on Tuesday are horribly anachronistic, the real evil for voter turnout is that Election Day is not a federal holiday with most public and private establishments (including schools) having the day off. While Wednesday and Thursday are both still on the table, I don’t see an advantage to those days over Tuesday.
Voter turnout initiatives should be primarily concerned with equally increasing the number of people willing and able to vote. I think the best way to do this is to in fact keep elections on Tuesdays, and to make that day a less busy one by allowing working Americans across the board to commit to their civic duty.