American Government Lecture Six

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

As of Monday, October 22, 2012, most polls for the race for president show a virtual tie between Romney and Obama. For example, the latest Wall Street Journal poll shows Romney and Obama tied at 47% each. But one poll, the prestigious Gallup poll, shows Romney with a five or six-point lead. This discrepancy between the Gallup and other polls is puzzling, and some have tried to explain it.

One possible explanation is that the Gallup poll does not call cell phones, but relies primarily on land lines. You may wonder why that would make a difference in the outcome. Republicans, after all, use cell phones just as Democrats do. When someone goes to an Apple store to buy a new iPhone, the sales clerk does not care whether the customer plans to vote for Obama or for Romney.

But ponder this issue further. Older people tend to use cell phones less than younger people do. Younger people tend to support Obama more than older people do. By calling only land lines, a pollster will tend to reach fewer younger people. That approach to polling could be missing some of the Obama supporters, and thereby have a higher percentage of Romney supporters than the general public.

There have been famous errors made by polls done in prior elections. In the 1936 presidential election, a Literary Digest poll predicted that Republican Alf Landon would win, when in fact the incumbent Democrat Franklin Delano Roosevelt won reelection in a landslide. In 1948, many polls predicted that Republican Tom Dewey would win, when in fact the incumbent Democrat Harry Truman won reelection.

We'll know the answer on the night of Election Day, in about two weeks!

Presidential authority

In electing a president, voters should consider what a president does. How would you rank his most important roles? Here is one ranking of presidential powers:

1. Influence the economy.
2. Nominate justices to the U.S. Supreme Court, and judges to the other federal courts.
3. Determine foreign policy and serve as commander-in-chief of the military.
4. Set abortion policy in several ways: through health care regulated by the Department of Health & Human Services, and by the policy of its Food & Drug Administration toward adult versus embryonic stem cell treatments.
5. Nominate the leaders of all the executive departments.
6. Nominate commissioners for the independent agencies.
7. Pardon people who have been unjustly convicted, or commute the sentence of people unjustly punished.
8. Issue executive orders on almost any issue.

Are there any other important powers that should go on this list?

The "foreign policy" job of a president is one of his most important duties. It can be said that an American president has more influence in some foreign nations than he has in the United States. That was true with President George W. Bush and Iraq, for example, and President Harry S Truman and Korea.

On Monday night, October 22, at 9pm, the final presidential debate for 2012 will occur and it will focus on foreign policy. Going into this debate polls show that "likely" voters (Americans who are likely to vote in the election, which is only about half of all Americans eligible to vote) think Obama does a better job with foreign policy than Romney would. Why is that? One reason may be that many Americans are opposed to foreign wars, and view Obama as less "hawkish" (pro-war) than Romney is. In other words, Obama is more of a "dove" (anti-war) than Romney. Nearly all pacifists (people who are opposed to any and all wars) support Obama rather than Romney.

Because the polls show that the candidates are virtually tied, the performance in this final debate may decide the outcome of the election.

Indeed, it appears that debates have had more influence over this presidential race than almost any other in history. There were numerous presidential debates during the Republican primary, and that apparently helped Mitt Romney improve his debating skills because he then defeated Barack Obama by the widest recorded margin (according to public opinion polls) in their first debate in Denver. But Obama recovered and narrowly defeated Romney in their second debate, which used a town hall format that favored Obama's more likable style. This final debate Monday night, in Florida, returns to the more formal format of the first debate, which seemed to favor Romney's style.

In tennis, the surface on which the game is played (grass, clay or concrete) gives an advantage to one player or the other. Likewise in politics: the format of a debate will tend to favor the style of one candidate or his opponent, and who does better in a debate can affect who wins an election. There are, of course, many other factors, such as which powerful "interest groups" endorse a candidate.

Interest groups

By now you may think that politicians do what a majority of the people want. Not true. Politicians care far more about what "interest groups" want than what the general public thinks.

What is an "interest group"? It is a private association dedicated to a particular issue, such union power or abortion. There are interest groups on both sides of the political spectrum. Examples of "interest groups" are:

  • big unions
  • environmental groups
  • gun control groups
  • Second Amendment (gun rights) groups
  • pro-abortion groups
  • pro-life groups
  • homeschooling groups
  • anti-religion groups
  • civil rights groups, such as the NAACP

and many more. Can you add to this list?

Interest groups are important because politics is a team sport. No single person, no matter how talented, can accomplish anything in politics by himself. Libertarians emphasize individuality but they never achieve anything in politics. People who are loners or cannot work with others fail quickly in politics. Just as no one can win the Super Bowl by himself, no one can do anything meaningful in politics without forming, leading, or becoming part of a "team". It takes a group of people, an interest group, to achieve a political goal.

The political parties themselves, Republican and Democrat, were an initial type of interest group. Today they are so big and cover so many issues that they are no longer considered to be an interest group, which has a much narrower focus. Most interest groups focus on one issue, and one issue alone.

One of the most powerful interest groups is the National Rifle Association (NRA), which claims credit for blocking gun control legislation at both the federal and state levels. In the second (town hall) debate between Obama and Romney, Obama accused Romney of turning against gun control legislation in order to gain the support of the NRA. Romney denied it, but Obama's mentioning the NRA showed how most Americans know what it is and what it stands for. Obama expected many voters to believe his claim that Romney changed his position because the NRA wanted him to. Whether true or not in the case of Romney, Obama's statement does illustrate the perception that interest groups like the NRA have enormous power.

Why are interest groups so powerful? There are several reasons. First, they put out "scorecards" about candidates that "grade" them on their position that an interest group cares about. In the close race for U.S. Senate in Missouri, the NRA has given the Democrat candidate Claire McCaskill an "F", and her opponent Republican Todd Akin an "A". Political advertisements can be run on television with McCaskill's picture next to an "F", and Akin's picture next to "A". For thousands of voters in Missouri who care about the right to own a gun, that image will stick in their mind and they will be more likely to vote for Akin.

The NRA also has a mailing list of millions of gun owners, and it will send out information about how the NRA supports Akin to all the NRA members in Missouri. Those members will then tell their friends, and in a close election this could make the difference whether a candidate wins or loses. Several other interest groups may be more likely to support Akin based on how the NRA supports him.

In addition, an interest group like the NRA can raise money to donate to a candidate, or make an independent expenditure to help elect him. More than ten million dollars will be spent on that Senate race in Missouri, and a candidate needs for there to be many political ads in his favor in order to win. Interest groups help elect candidates who support their positions.

As a result of the strong political influence of the NRA and other pro-gun groups, over time fewer Democrats are demanding gun control legislation. When Al Gore ran for president in 2000, there were many more Democrats who demanded passage of gun control. But political activism by the NRA and other groups in that election helped defeat Al Gore, and afterward Democrats felt that Gore lost the key states of Arkansas, Tennessee (his home state) and West Virginia due to how voters in those rural states were opposed to the gun control sought by Democrats. The NRA and other groups helped educate voters about how much Al Gore and his fellow Democrats wanted gun control.

But most interest groups are on the Left (liberal) side of the political spectrum, unlike the NRA. And when there are interest groups on both sides of an issue, as there are for the abortion issue, the liberal side has far more money than the conservative side does. Pro-abortion groups spend tens of millions of dollars in elections to elect pro-abortion politicians, which is more than twenty times the amount of money spent by pro-life groups. One reason for the imbalance is how liberal groups generally receive positive publicity in the liberal media (which helps the groups raise money) and also funding from the government for some of their operations (although not for their political donations). Conservative interest groups have none of these advantages. Planned Parenthood groups, for example, receive hundreds of millions of dollars in government (taxpayer) money each year to support their operations (but not specifically for any political donations), while pro-life groups receive virtually nothing from government for their operations.

There are also powerful interest groups, and even well-known individual political activists, in nearly every State. The interest groups that hold the most power varies from state to state. In New Jersey, the most powerful interest group is the teachers' union, which even owns a building in the state capitol of Trenton that is more magnificent than most of the government buildings. Why is the teachers' union so powerful in New Jersey? Because public schools in New Jersey is structured in a way to maximize the number of teachers and administrators, thereby giving them enormous political power (and causing New Jersey to have the highest property taxes in the Nation).

In Texas, meanwhile, teachers' unions have less power and the most influential interest group is the "Texans for Lawsuit Reform (TLR)," which raises and spends many millions of dollars every election cycle. TLR supported and helped pass legislation and even a constitutional amendment in Texas to vastly reduce the number of lawsuits against businesses, physicians, and others, and this improvement has helped make Texas the fastest growing state in the Nation for businesses and people in the last decade.


There is a multi-billion dollar industry behind the scenes that has enormous influence over our government: "lobbying". It consists of "lobbyists", a name derived from how these people are paid to stand in the lobbies of legislatures in order to speak with legislators as they enter and leave their chambers and offices. The lobbyists are paid by companies to ask legislators to sponsor and vote on bills in a manner that will help the companies. Today, lobbyists speak and meet with legislators in restaurants and elsewhere in addition to the statehouse lobbies. Interest groups hire lobbyists, and many lobbyists or former politicians have worked for, or will work for, an interest group. There is a "revolving door" between industry and government in Washington, D.C., and in many state capitals among interest groups, lobbying firms, congressional staffs, and elected officials themselves.

What does a lobbyist do? A lobbyist for an environmental group will meet with legislators to ask them to impose more regulations in connection with the environment. Conversely, a lobbyist for a trade group of manufacturing companies may ask legislators not to pass laws that limit how much pollution a factory can put into the atmosphere.

There is an art to lobbying, and lobbyists can make enormous amounts of money doing this. Why? Because a new law may cost companies hundreds of millions of dollars, and it is worth it to the companies to pay lobbyists a substantial amount of money to try to stop passage of those laws, or to encourage passage of laws that help the companies.

In 1990, Microsoft did not spend much money on lobbyists. Then it became the target of governmental action against it. Today Microsoft spends many millions of dollars each year on lobbying.

Senator Orrin Hatch, a powerful U.S. Senator who has been in office for decades, said this at a technology conference in 2000:[1]

If you want to get involved in business, you should get involved in politics.

The most expensive lobbying occurs at the federal level, in Washington, D.C., but there is also lobbying that occurs in each of the 50 states too. And there are laws requiring lobbyists to file public reports disclosing for whom they work.

An unpaid citizen who calls or visits a legislator without being hired to do so is not a lobbyist. Lobbyists are people who are paid to meet with legislators. Would you like to be a lobbyist one day?

Some powerful lobbyists become elected officials, such as Haley Barbor, who went from lobbying in Washington, D.C., to become the Governor of Mississippi, where he held power for two terms. More often the career change is in the other direction, as public officials often become lobbyists after they are defeated for reelection or resign. Typically the public officials make more money after they become lobbyists, with many lobbyists receiving compensation packages in excess of a million dollars a year.

While lobbyists do not have a good reputation with the public, there is an art to good lobbying. It requires developing interpersonal skills and a willingness to "show up" and be at places when it matters. "It's not what you know, but who you know" is an aphorism that applies particularly to effective lobbying. Also, a good lobbyist masters how he says something. Rather than saying something abrasive like, "you really hurt us that time," the same message might be articulated as "you could help us more this time than you did last time." Lobbyists learn to recognize the importance of thank you notes, birthday cards, anniversaries, and doing other kind and helpful things that people do remember and appreciate. A job working as a lobbyist, even if only for a summer at a state capitol (Trenton) or in D.C., can help someone develop interpersonal skills that become useful in almost any other line of work.

Third Political Parties

The Wall Street Journal poll mentioned earlier shows a tie between Romney and Obama, at 47% apiece. But that totals only 94%. Where is the other 6%?

Some of that remaining 6% -- perhaps as much as 5 of the 6% -- is still undecided. If so, then Romney is in good shape, because usually the undecideds vote against the incumbent (Obama). The reason is this: if a voter is not supporting Obama at this point, after nearly four years of Obama as president, then the voter is not likely to support him in the next two weeks either.

But some of that remaining 6% -- at least 1%, and maybe more -- will vote "third party." In the last 20 years some third political party candidates have won substantial percentages of the vote (nearly 20% in the case of Ross Perot in 1992). In 2000, Ralph Nader appeared to win enough votes away from Democrat Al Gore in order to swing the outcome in favor of Republican George W. Bush.

Here are several of the third party candidates for president this year:

  • Virgil Goode, former conservative congressman, Constitution Party
  • Gary Johnson, former Governor of New Mexico, Libertarian Party
  • Jill Stein, Green Party
  • Rocky Anderson, Justice Party

Several of them are debating among themselves on Tuesday at 9pm, as hosted by talk show celebrity Larry King. Their debate can be viewed on

The United States is considered to have a "two-party system," which means that a third party has almost never been able to succeed. The rare exception was when the Republican Party developed as a third party in the 1850s in order to oppose slavery. But even then, the Republican Party assumed the anti-slavery part of the Whig Party, which divided over the issue. Abraham Lincoln, who was the Republican Party's successful candidate for president in 1860, was formerly a Whig Party congressman (until he was defeated for reelection for that office).

In Europe, there are many third and fourth and fifth political parties that have influence in the parliamentary systems there. But in the United States, no third party has any meaningful influence today. There are disagreements over whether voting for a third party candidate amounts to "wasting a vote." The third party candidate will not win, and that vote may be better cast for the preferred candidate among the two major parties, Republican and Democrat. But others say that when the top two candidates are both unacceptable, then it is wasting one's vote to support one of them!

In Missouri, Republican Todd Akin is in a close race with Democrat Claire McCaskill, but there is a Libertarian Party candidate who participated in at least one of their debates. He is unlikely to win, but may affect the outcome by receiving votes that might have otherwise gone to the Republican candidate.

What do you think about third parties? Why do you think the United States is a "two-party system," while European nations have more than two significant political parties?

Demographics and politics

Demographics, which refers to the age, gender, wealth and ethnicity of population groups, has a large impact on election outcomes. As discussed above, young people tend to favor Obama more than old people do. But young people also tend to vote in lower percentages than old people do.

One easy-to-remember rule about voting patterns is that age groups tend to vote in the same percentage as their age itself: only about 20% of the people who are 20 years old vote, while about 30% of people aged 30 vote, 40% of people age 40 vote, 50% of those aged 50 vote, 60% of those 60 years old vote, 70% of those aged 70 vote, and so on. The older one becomes, the more time he has to vote, and the more focus he has on voting. Most people who follow politics closely on the Fox News Channel are older than 65 years old!

There are many other correlations between voting patterns and demographics. A very high percentage, perhaps 95%, of African Americans will vote for Obama. So there is a correlation between ethnicity and how one votes. Most ethnic groups other than Western European tend to vote for Democrats. Meanwhile, in religious terms, when evangelicals vote they tend to vote overwhelmingly for Republican candidates. But many evangelicals do not vote at all.

Catholics are split about 50-50 between Democrats and Republicans, and thus are considered a "swing vote." This is why the Democratic Party Convention this year featured Cardinal Timothy Dolan from New York City to speak, even though most Democrat delegates oppose and dislike the position of the Catholic Church on issues like abortion. The political reality is that if Obama does not win a majority of the Catholic vote, then he probably will not win the election.

The single best predictor of how someone will vote is not his age, his wealth, his race or his religion. Instead, the single best predictor is how often the person goes to church. The greater his church attendance, the more likely he is to vote Republican. The less his church attendance, the more likely he is to vote for Democrats or not vote at all. There are, of course, some exceptions to this correlation, but on average this is a better indicator over numerous elections than any other single characteristic.

The Political "Spectrum"

One of the most fascinating aspects of politics is to try to model the different views people have. A simple, accurate model is not easy to construct! In an oversimplification, the media will pretend that politics is on a straight line from left (“liberal”) to right (“conservative”). Under this model, everyone can be placed at some point on the line. In the middle are the “moderates” or “centrists”, which is how many in the media view themselves. Under this model, the two ends are “extremes”, and people there are pejoratively called “extremists”.

Use of this linear model of politics affects the thinking of many. It favors candidates who lack clear positions or principles and who are willing to “go with the flow.” The flow, in turn, is dictated by the media. So this linear model favors greater influence by the media. Also, the term “moderate” has positive connotations, so people who view themselves as moderates prefer this model. The message from this model is this: be a “moderate” like the media, and watch the media every day so you can be instructed by it on what to think!

The linear model also makes it easier to report on politicians. Those who do not take strong positions are simply called “moderate”, while others are painted as “extremist”depending on how clear their positions are. Moderates tend to favor compromise. Presidential moderates, for example, like to sign treaties to resolve disputes. Moderates become obsessed with their own titles and the attention that the public gives them, rather than focusing on which positions are right or wrong.

Is the model accurate? Often it is disproven in elections. Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton were both liberal presidents, but apparently some conservative people voted for them. If politics is liberal-moderate-conservative, then a liberal candidate should never receive votes by conservatives. So how did that happen?

Perhaps politics is not correctly modeled by a straight line. Another way to think of political views would be as a circle. When you go very far to one side, you come out on the other side. The very liberal and the very conservative sometimes agree more with each other than with the middle. For example, liberals and conservatives agree with Ron Paul's proposal to "audit the Fed." It is the moderates and the "Establishment", many of whom are making money off the system, who oppose it. (The "Establishment" are people who have acquired positions of political power or influence over time, and care more about preserving their power than anything else - wealthy liberal Republicans are often in this category, and some of them are in New Jersey.)

“Free trade” is another example that confounds the linear left-center-right model. Liberals and conservatives mostly oppose free trade with other countries, while moderates support it. And war is yet another example. Liberals and some conservatives oppose certain types of foreign wars, while moderates and the media almost always support foreign wars. The two political ends sometimes agree with each other more than with the middle.

Can you think of more examples? How about the power of the federal government in criminal cases? Liberals and many conservatives tend to oppose increased federal prosecutorial power, while moderates support it. Moderates tend to be utilitarians, or people who believe that the end justifies the means. Moderates would rather that an innocent man be convicted than to let guilty criminals free. A moderate may not have been upset by the Crucifixion of Jesus, even though He was innocent, if that prevented a revolution by the people and an overturning of the Establishment at that time.

Whether moderates side with conservatives or liberals depends on the issue. In an election, the outcome depends on which issues are most important to voters, and there is extensive polling to determine that.

On the Supreme Court, cases will sometimes wind up with the liberals and conservatives voting for one side, and the moderates voting for the other. The issue of whether violent video games should be considered First Amendment free speech was not decided by the Left on one side, and the Right on the other. Instead, it was a mixture of conservative and liberals in favor of free speech protection for violent video games, and a mixture of conservatives and liberals against it.

Review: Independent Agencies

Two of the agencies discussed in the homework for week 4 are independent agencies: the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the Federal Election Commission (FEC). Additional examples of an independent agency are the Social Security Administration (SSA) and the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).

So what is an "independent" agency? It is an agency that is outside the direct control of the president, and not part of any Executive Branch Department that reports to the president.

The purpose behind independent agencies that they remain outside the political influence of a president, or a presidential election. Some students pointed out how important that is for the Federal Election Commission. But a counterargument is this: to whom are these agencies accountable, if not to the American people who vote in elections?? Having independent agencies may, unfortunately, mean independence from public accountability. The NLRB, for example, can side with unions more than the American people want, and not even winning a presidential election can necessarily change that. Fortunately, the president does have the power to nominate new members, often called "commissioners", to run these agencies.

The most controversial of all independent agencies is the "Federal Reserve," which is the central bank for the United States. It possesses enormous power over the economy but is accountable to almost no one. Congressman Ron Paul, a presidential candidate in 2008 and again in 2012, has urged passage of a law requiring audits of the financial books of the Federal Reserve (called the "Fed" for short) for the American people to see and scrutinize. Though gaining support on both sides of the political spectrum, it has not passed and the Federal Reserve continues to operate with almost no outside knowledge or scrutiny of what it is really doing.


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

Special option: watch most of Monday night's presidential debate and analyze it with an essay of at least 200 words, which is worth a total of two of questions numbered 6-8 and two of the extra credit questions. Include your view as to which candidate you think the debate helped the most.

1. What do you think are the two most influential powers of a president?
2. What would you advise Romney to say in the final presidential debate Monday night about foreign policy, in order to improve his popularity?
3. Define what a "lobbyist" is.
4. Explain what an "interest group" is, and provide an example.
5. Give two examples of a characteristic or demographic that is correlated to how someone votes. (e.g, an evangelical Christian is more likely to vote for the _____ Party)
6. A question about polling bias: suggest biased presidential poll questions that are slanted to change the results, such as this example to try to boost Obama's poll numbers: "Would you vote against Obama merely because the economy is doing poorly? If the answer is "no", then ask, "so you might vote for Obama, then?"
7. What is your view of third parties? Why do you think the United States has a "two party system," unlike European nations?
8. What is your view of interest groups: good or bad? Explain.

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

9. Do you think Congress could ban interest groups or lobbying? Why not?
10. What is your view of Ron Paul's proposal to "audit the Fed"? Discuss.
11. Are independent agencies a good or bad idea? Give examples of two independent agencies in your answer.
12. Is the "political spectrum" best modeled as a straight line, or as a circle, or as some other shape?
13. Discuss any topic relating to the lecture.

You can post your answers at American Government Homework Six.