American Government Lecture Eight

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American Government Lectures - [1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - 5 - 6 - 7 - 8 - 9 - 10 - 11 - 12]

Ron Paul, a Republican congressman and candidate for the Republican nomination for president, explained the election as follows: "If you look at the numbers and if you look at the way pure democracy works, pure democracy is dangerous. The majority dictates against the minority. So, right now the majority are receiving a check [from the government]. So when you get a vote, that is why people were sort of surprised with these conditions that this president can get reelected. That is a bad sign in that there are more on the receiving end."

Analysis of Election

Obama won the presidential election by an electoral college vote of 332 to 206 (totaling 538). The members of the Electoral College will meet and vote in December to make Obama officially the winner. He will then be sworn in on January 20, 2013, in Washington, D.C., the capital of the United States.

Why did Obama win? Ron Paul's analysis of the election may be correct. But there are other explanations. A prior lecture predicted that this election may be like the one in 1948, when a likable Harry S Truman defeated a wealthy and unlikable Republican opponent, Thomas Dewey, despite a weak economy. Mitt Romney, the Republican nominee, had plenty of money to spend on political ads and campaign workers, but had trouble "connecting" with average Americans. Romney won 48% of the vote, but that was not enough to win. Obama barely exceeded 50%, and third party candidates won another two percent, with Libertarian Party candidate (and former Republican) Gary Johnson doing the best among the third party candidates.

Exit polls (the polling of voters as they leave voting booths) provide much data about who voted, and why. For example, many voters felt that the economy is the most important issue, but blamed former President George W. Bush rather than President Obama for the bad economy today!

The most telling data about the election is this: "18-29 year olds made up 19 percent of voters, 6 points higher than Gallup’s estimate"[1] and Obama won by 60-36% among this demographic, even though Kerry won it by only few percentage points over GWB in 2004. The reference in the quotation to "Gallup's estimate" is about the Gallup poll, which predicted on Election Day that Romney would win by 49-48%, when in fact Obama won by 50-48%.

This tipped the election in Obama's favor. In Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia, "if Governor Romney had won half of the youth vote, or if young voters had stayed home entirely, then Romney would have won instead of Obama. Those states represent 80 electoral votes, sufficient to have made Romney the next president."[2]

The puzzle is this: why did a large majority of young voters (age 18-29) vote for Obama, and why in numbers greater than expected? The most plausible explanation can be summed up in two words: "ground game." We learned about that in a prior lecture, and it is worth revisiting now.

Ground Game

The "ground game" in elections is similar to what it is in football: the nitty-gritty moving the ball with a running game down the field, yard-by-yard, person by person, with a lot of difficult effort and teamwork. In politics, the ground game means knocking on doors in the neighborhoods to ask people to vote for your candidate, then calling them until they do vote, and maybe even finding them transportation to get to the polling booth if they don't have any. Where allowed, the ground game can mean making sure mail-in ballots are available to people who are likely to vote as hoped, and then following up to make sure they actually sent it in. Technology like email, smart phones, tweeting, texting, and following up to make sure people did what they said they would do, are what make the difference.

The old term for this was "get out the vote." That meant calling people on Election Day to remind them to vote, and perhaps even driving some people to the polling booths if they lacked transportation. The old term applied when there was one day, called Election Day, when everyone voted.

Today nearly half of Americans vote early, before Election Day. In Ohio there was a full month during which people voted. The term "ground game" is better in describing what the political parties do each day for a full month during early voting to get people likely to vote for their side to cast their vote early.

Millions of people voted by mail during the early voting period, for example, and the "ground game" in many states included getting mail-in ballots to people and making sure they sent them in. In some states, depending on its election rules (which vary from state to state), one person can push hundreds of people to vote during the early voting period. That is what the "ground game" means, and the better the technology and data that a political party has about its supporters, the more effective it can be in increasing its votes during early voting.

The Democrats had a much better ground game than the Republicans did in this election, and that is the likely reason that a larger-than-expected number of 18-29 year-olds voted, and voted for Obama by a large percentage. College students are in this age group, and the ground game works particularly well on college campuses. Democrat workers call and visit college students to get them to mail in their votes, or go to polling booths. The longer the early voting period is, the more this can be done. Obama himself voted early in October to promote this among his supporters. In the key swing state of Ohio, nearly 2 million people voted early, and the vast majority were Democrats. Obama won the state by only 100,000 votes. If Romney had a better ground game, or if there was no early voting, then Romney would have won.

Six billion dollars were spent on this election cycle, which included $2-3 billion spent on the presidential race, so there was plenty of money available to gather data about voters and pay workers to have a good ground game. But it seems that Romney's campaign did not recognize the significance of this. Reports after the election confirmed that Romney's ground game was far weaker than Obama's:[3]

Republicans had tweeted that they knocked on 75,000 doors in Ohio on Sunday. Not to worry, the field director [for the Democrats] replied, 'We knocked on 376,000 doors.'

Indiana, the state just west of Ohio, was not a swing state and it was known that Obama had no chance of winning it. So neither Obama nor Romney spent any money on a ground game there. As a result, Obama's lead among the young people who voted was much less. Romney actually won the vote in the area of Purdue University, which has many young voters.[2]

Mitt Romney's campaign underestimated the significance of the ground game in Ohio, which was the key state. Obama's campaign had nearly 100 more neighborhood offices in Ohio than Romney's campaign did. Before the election, Romney's campaign staffers even dismissed the significance of that imbalance. But afterward it was clear this is what defeated Romney. Turnout by African Americans in 2008 to vote for Obama was very high, totaling 11% of the electorate in Ohio. But with the Democrats' better ground game, they increased that turnout further in 2012, to where African American voters for Obama totaled 15% of all Ohio voters. This illustrated the famous aphorism: "all politics is local." Romney was beaten by Obama's superior ground game in Ohio and other key states.

The bottom line is this: it is no longer enough to win for someone to merely be sure to vote himself. To save our Nation, it is essential that concerned citizens themselves vote AND repeatedly ask many other like-minded people to vote too. If, for example, each pro-lifer repeatedly asked ten other like-minded persons to vote and followed up with them to confirm that they did vote, then a ban on federally-funded abortion would probably be enacted.[4]

Other Reasons for Romney's Loss

There are other reasons, both in campaign tactics and in substance, which might explain Romney's loss. Indeed, most students in this class predicted weeks ago that Romney would lose, even though Romney was ahead in the polls at times in October.

One possible reason for Romney losing was how he handled the important final debate. He intentionally appeared friendlier and more conciliatory in his attempt to win support of more women voters, and indicated that he agreed with Obama on several positions. Obama's approval rating then improved and most people thought he won the debate, because even his sharpest critic (Romney) seemed in agreement with him. The slight improvement in Obama's approval rating, from about 48% to 50%, may have meant the difference between Romney winning or losing. Obama received a vote total of 50%, exactly the same as his approval rating. Had Obama's rating stayed at 48%, then his final vote total may have been only 48%, and he may have lost. This was an illustration of why a political candidate should not agree with the incumbent he is trying to defeat.

Likewise, the effusive praise of Obama by Republican Governor Chris Christie in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, including Christie hugging Obama, had the effect of boosting Obama's approval rating, and his final vote percentage. Indeed, New Jersey is one of the very few states in which Obama's vote total improved in 2012 over what he received in 2008, and the "coattails" of Obama's unusually large victory caused many Republicans to lose in this State. If even a high-ranking Republican thinks Obama is doing a great job, then that may persuade undecided voters to support him also. Perception in politics can become reality. Surely Christie could have found a more politically astute way of communicating with Obama, such as speaking to him privately by phone, or praising him after the election. Christie's mistake illustrates how important is for a politician to think beforehand about the political consequences of everything he does. Ironically, Christie is often abrasive in public when he deals with nearly everyone else!

Hurricane Sandy itself may have helped Obama, regardless of what anyone said about it. Most national crises that result from forces beyond the people's control, like a foreign invasion, will cause the approval rating of politicians in office to improve, regardless of whether they are doing a good job or not.

Others cite some of the positions taken by Romney and Obama during the campaign. Hispanics voted in favor of Obama in large percentages (71-27%), much larger than Democrats received in the past, and some have attributed that to the Republican position against amnesty for illegal aliens who came here from Mexico.

As to how young voters aged 18-29 favored Obama by a 60-36% margin, some point out that a record number of young people have no religion. They do not read the Bible, and they do not attend church. As the numbers of non-religious and even atheists grow among the youth, the support for the Democrats is going to increase. Some observe that the exclusion of Christianity from public schools, which teaches 90% of teenagers, is starting to have a growing negative effect on election outcomes. One solution to that trend is for there to be more evangelism among the younger people in America. Remember that the strongest correlation to how someone votes is how often he goes to church; Romney won by a margin of 59-39% among those who attend church at least once a week.

Others observe that the slick campaign slogan by Democrats, accusing Republicans of a (mythical) "War on Women," may have helped Obama win by a record 55-44% among women voters. Romney won by a substantial percentage among men voters, but more women vote than men do. Many women, however, dislike war, and Romney seemed more hawkish than Obama. Also, women are most concerned by how public schools are failing, and Obama said more about education than Romney did.

Ultimately there is the simple likability issue that many students in this course cited about a month ago. Voters, particularly the youth, Hispanics and women, never liked Romney much. Unlikable candidates usually do lose.

Congressional Races

Several billion dollars were spent on congressional and State races in this election cycle, which was a record. Several congressional races (such as Michele Bachmann's) had spending of well more than $20 million apiece.

The Republicans held their majority in the House of Representatives, despite the coattails of the Democrats winning the presidency and improving their majority in the U.S. Senate to 55-45. (The U.S. Senate has two Independents, but they will likely "caucus" or vote with the Democrats, and thus are usually included in the Democrats' overall tally.)

The House of Representatives (the "House") is historically the most powerful part of government, as it is the starting point for all spending bills, such as the annual budget. By retaining control of the House, Republicans remain on equal footing with the Democrats with respect to any new legislation that will be proposed. This "divided government" may result in "gridlock" (a term for when nothing new becomes law because Democrats control part of government and Republicans control the other part, and they do not agree).

Initiative and Referendum

More than a hundred million dollars was spent on political ads concerning initiatives and referenda, which are when the people vote directly on a proposed law. If a majority of the people vote for it, then it becomes law.[5]

Initiatives and referenda are examples of direct democracy: the people making law by their votes in an election, rather than representatives making law for them.


An "initiative" is when the people put a proposed law directly on the ballot themselves, by obtaining enough signatures beforehand on a petition to do this. South Dakota was the first state to allow this, beginning in 1898 (more than 100 years ago). Now 24 states (not New Jersey) allow the passage of new laws by the initiative process.[6] Sometimes people can even amend their state constitution this way. A map of which states allow initiatives is available on the internet.[7]

The basic characteristic of an "initiative" is that it is initiated by the people, by obtaining thousands of signatures on a petition. There are two types of initiatives: direct and indirect.

In a "direct initiative," once enough signatures for a petition for a new law are obtained, then it goes directly on the ballot after review by a state government official. In an "indirect initiative," the proposal is first submitted to the state legislature to give it a chance to enact the law. If the legislature does not enact it, then the initiative goes on the ballot for the people to decide. But in an indirect initiative, the legislature may put a competing law on the ballot alongside the one proposed by the people. States that use the indirect initiative process are Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Mississippi, Nevada and Ohio. In two states, Utah and Washington, the people may initiate direct or indirect initiatives.

The steps for an initiative, in the states that allow it (New Jersey does not allow this), include first presenting the petition to a state official for his review and authorization to begin collecting signatures on it, along with a title and summary for the new law. Obtaining those signatures is a time-consuming, labor-intensive process, and may take months. Signatures must then be submitted to a state official prior to deadline for him to confirm that enough signatures were obtained in order to qualify for the ballot.


A referendum has two types: a legislative referendum and a popular referendum. (By the way, the plural of referendum, because it is Latin, is "referenda".)

A legislative referendum is a bill placed by the state legislature on the ballot for a vote by the people. A popular referendum is when the people exercise their right to approve or repeal a bill that the legislature has already passed.

New Jersey does have the legislative referendum when the legislature seeks to amend the state constitution, or in circumstances relating to increasing the debt of state government. The legislature cannot amend the state constitution by itself; a legislative referendum is needed in order to change the state constitution. Also, the New Jersey Constitution requires the state to balance the budget each year, so a legislative referendum is needed to approve incurring new long-term debt (as in issuing bonds).

All 50 states have procedures allowing legislative referendum.

The popular referendum is very different. It allows the people to repeal a law recently passed by the legislature. If the people gather enough signatures within a period of time after a legislature passes a new law -- typically 90 days -- then the law is placed on the ballot for a public vote. The law may not go into effect until the people vote on it. Most of the states that allow initiatives also allow the people to veto a law recently passed by the legislature, through this mechanism of the popular referendum. In the past decade, Democrats in Ohio and South Dakota overturned good laws passed by their legislatures by using a popular referendum. In total, 24 states (not New Jersey) allow the popular referendum. Most of these states are in the Midwest and West.


Initiatives and referenda originated in the Progressive Era of the early 20th century. Many students instinctively like this concept. It bypasses the special interest groups and lobbyists, and lets the people make a decision themselves about what is good. And on some issues, what a majority of the people want is a good thing. But often it is not, and the Founders of our Nation opposed a pure democracy. Recall what Ron Paul said at the outset of this lecture: "pure democracy is dangerous."

There are many examples of when the majority view of the people is not what is best for the Nation. When a proposed law to increase the minimum wage is put on the ballot for a vote by the people, it wins nearly every time because most people do not understand economics.[8] They think that laws increasing the minimum wage make people better off, because they then earn more money for doing the same work. Most people do not realize that a higher minimum wage results in more unemployment, because businesses cannot hire as many people at the higher wages. A higher minimum wage also results in fewer young people going to college, because they decide to make more money working instead. Some of those young people would have been better off by going to college and obtaining a better job later.

The States of Colorado and Washington had initiatives on their ballots this recent Election Day to make it legal for people to smoke marijuana. Most people voted for these initiatives, so they became law, but the result will be very harmful for society. There will be more drivers on the road who are on drugs and crash into other people in accidents. There will be more crime resulting from the drug use, and more students will drop out of school or lose their jobs because they became addicted to the drugs. There will be more health problems, as drug use has been associated with increased brain tumors and other serious problems. What the majority of the people approved is not what is best for society, and this illustrates why the Founders opposed a democracy. Elected representatives would not have approved these laws that the people passed.

In New Jersey, the people voted to allow state colleges to go into additional debt in the amount of $750 million, despite already being in enormous debt. Perhaps people voted for it because they thought it would improve education for students, without recognizing how harmful more debt is.


One more type of "citizen democracy" is the "recall" of public officials from office, which enables the people to gather signatures to hold a special election to vote on whether to remove a state official from office before the expiration of his term. At least 29 states, including New Jersey, allow some form of recalling state or local officials.[9]

Earlier this year, unions angry at Wisconsin Republican Governor Scott Walker attempted to recall him from office. They collected enough signatures, but when the special election was held, Governor Walker won a majority of the vote. His reelection was helped by the raising and spending of $63 million in support of him during the campaign leading up to the recall election.

Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger was elected governor of California after the Democrat, Gray Davis, was recalled and removed from office in 2003. Prior to that, the only time a governor was recalled from office was in 1921, in North Dakota.

Many officials other than governor are recalled from office by this procedure of gathering enough signatures to hold a special election. In New Jersey, the governor has never been recalled, but other officials have been. The New Jersey Constitution provides:

The people reserve unto themselves the power to recall, after at least one year of service, any elected official in this State or representing this State in the United States Congress. The Legislature shall enact laws to provide for such recall elections. Any such laws shall include a provision that a recall election shall be held upon petition of at least 25% of the registered voters in the electoral district of the official sought to be recalled.

The process to recall a state official in New Jersey is this:

No sooner than 50 days before the completion of the state official's first year in office, a recall committee of at least three people may form and submit to the state a short petition to recall the petition. The state official must respond within three business days, and also notify the incumbent that there is an effort to recall him. If the petition is approved, then the recall committee must obtain signatures of other registered voters over the next 160 days (320 days to recall the governor). The number of signatures must be at least 25% of the registered voters in the relevant jurisdiction in the last general election. Those signatures are then turned in to the state election official, who must determine within 10 days whether enough signatures were obtained.

In 2010, your instructor argued a case before the New Jersey Supreme Court to establish a right to recall a U.S. Senator by this procedure. Several homeschooled students attended the oral argument in Trenton, and the gallery was overflowing. But by a 4-2 vote, the New Jersey Supreme Court held that the provision in the New Jersey Constitution allowing the recall of federal officials, specifically U.S. Senators, was unconstitutional under the U.S. Constitution.

Lame Duck Congress

There about six weeks left to the current session of Congress, between now and the Christmas break, during which new laws can be enacted by the House and Senate, and the Senate can ratify treaties. This is called the "lame duck" session of Congress, or simply the "lame duck Congress," because nearly 80 congressmen are still in office despite not being re-elected last Tuesday.

It is risky when congressmen hold power without any accountability to the American people, as occurs in a lame duck Congress. Tensions are even higher now because of the "fiscal cliff," which we will explain next.

Fiscal Cliff

The federal government has been broke for years, and neither President Obama nor Congress have been willing to anger the public by cutting spending. The more in debt the United States becomes, the less the Democrats and Republicans have been able to agree on how to solve it.

To postpone the hard economic decisions until after the election, Congress and President Obama agreed to create a "fiscal cliff" whereby automatic spending cuts and tax increases totaling $700 billion (that's billion, not million) occur. Those automatic changes will occur in January if no law is passed to avoid it. Almost immediately after the election politicians began discussions to try to avoid this $700 billion automatic "cliff", which is expected to harm the economy.

But there is no easy agreement: the federal government is losing money at a rate that is even faster than the $700 billion savings. In other words, even if the automatic cuts and tax increases occur, the United States will still be running an annual deficit.

Simply put, the United States government has become like a bankrupt company that continues to spend more money than it makes. In the business world, such companies go out of business, but that is not an option for the United States government.

Filibuster Rule in the U.S. Senate

All legislative chambers, such as the House of Representatives and the Senate, have their own rules governing their procedures. How bills can be introduced, debated, amended and voted upon are determined by the rules adopted by the particular legislative chamber at the beginning of its session.

The House of Representatives procedures are similar to "Roberts' Rules of Order," which is the standard set of rules governing parliamentary procedure in most organizations, public or private, in the United States. Indeed, Roberts' Rules of Order were originally based on the procedures used by the House in the 19th century.

The U.S. Senate has its own set of procedures, which are unique in the world. It is run more like a small club, where merely one member (senator) can delay and block something that a majority wants to do. This is called a "filibuster", when one person blocks a vote on a bill even though a majority wants it to pass. A traditional filibuster was when the person stood up and talked about the bill for hours, simply to delay a vote on it. Nowadays the talking part is not necessary. One senator can block a vote on a bill in the Senate simply by invoking his power to filibuster it.

Under Senate rules that are re-approved at the outset of every session, a filibuster will stop a bill unless 60 out of 100 senators vote for "cloture" to "close" the filibuster and allow a vote to continue.

Democrats have 55-45 majority in the new Senate, which is enough to pass bills but not enough to end filibusters. After the election, Democrats are planning to change the cloture requirement from 60 to 51 votes, so that Republicans would be unable to block votes on the bills. Republicans oppose this change, and say that Senate rules require a 2/3rds vote to approve such a claim.[10]

Defenders of the filibuster rule in the Senate point out that it has worked well for a long time, and it is important for a group of senators to be able to block legislation even if a majority want to pass it. After all, more bad laws are passed than good ones, so anything that enables slowing down or blocking legislation may be good for the Nation. The filibuster can also be used to block the confirmation of controversial judges to the federal courts.


Answer the first five questions, and then two of the remaining three, for a total of seven questions:

1. Explain what it means when people say that the Democrats won the "ground game" in the last election.
2. Explain the difference between an "initiative" and a "referendum".
3. Other than your answer to question 1, why else do you think Obama defeated Romney? Explain.
4. Explain what "divided government" and "gridlock" are, and what your view of them are.
5. Does New Jersey allow an "initiative" and, if not, should it?
6. Do you think it was right for Governor Chris Christie to praise Obama so much so close to Election Day? Discuss, perhaps using a sports analogy where a player on one team gives the ball to a player on the other team at a crucial moment because he wanted to.
7. What is a "recall", and which types of officials are susceptible to it? Would you interpret U.S. Constitution as preventing the people of New Jersey from recalling a U.S. Senator? Discuss.
8. Do you agree with Ron Paul's quote at the beginning of the lecture?

Extra credit (answer two of the following five questions):

9. What is the "fiscal cliff"? Discuss.
10. Do you think Romney could have won if he had taken or emphasized different positions, or handled the third debate differently? Discuss.
11. Explain the two different types of referenda, and whether you like one better than the other.
12. What is your view of the New Jersey college bond referendum that passed, which increased debt by $750 million based on a promise of improving state universities?
13. Discuss any topic in this lecture.

You can post your answers at American Government Homework Eight.


  2. 2.0 2.1
  4. The Hyde Amendment is a only partial ban on federal funding of abortions.
  5. In Florida a super-majority of 60% is required to change the constitution.
  8. A rare exception was in 1996 in Missouri, when a minimum wage referendum in Missouri was defeated "overwhelmingly." [1]