Election night 2012 was a good night for California, civility and statheads

Jeff Greenfield

By Jeff Greenfield

Forgive me if I don’t offer thoughts on the impending Republican civil war, the effect of Hurricane Sandy, the demographic nightmare confronting the GOP, or prospects for the 2016 Iowa caucuses now just a short 1,100 days or so away.

There’s plenty of that for your Wednesday pleasure. But Tuesday night produced other news that’s worth your attention.

First, California voters made two decisions that will have a profound impact on the state’s fiscal and political life. They approved Proposition 30, Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposal to increase sales taxes and income taxes on the affluent to ease the state’s perennial budget dilemma. (California’s 34-year-old Prop 13 requires a two-thirds vote in the legislature to increase taxes, an all-but-unreachable level.) Had Prop 30 failed—and most thought it would—the already draconian cuts in California’s schools, public universities and other services would have been just a prelude to further slashes.

In another decision, the state’s voters rejected Proposition 32, which would have banned labor unions and corporations from raising money for state political purposes through paycheck deductions. Because corporations rarely use this tactic, Prop 32’s real impact would have kept tens of millions of dollars from aiding Democratic Party candidates in the state—one reason why business interests contributed some $120 million in a futile effort to pass the proposition.

While Democrats might cheer the result, it also means that labor unions will continue to hold outsize power with the party—meaning that Brown’s efforts to rein in pension benefits for public employees may have gotten a lot harder.

Second, civility in the House of Representatives just took a step forward, as two of the most rhetorically combative members lost re-election. Allen West, a Florida Republican and tea party favorite who once declared that “there’s about 78 to 81 members of the Democrat Party that are members of the Communist Party,” lost his seat. Across the aisle—way, way across the aisle—Pete Stark of California, a 40-year veteran whose temper tantrums are the stuff of legend, was defeated by a fellow Democrat.

On the other hand, Minnesota’s Michele Bachmann narrowly survived re-election, meaning we may be treated to at least two more years of her idiosyncratic approach to history (locating the battle of Lexington and Concord in New Hampshire) and medicine (vaccines cause mental retardation because someone she just met told her so). And Florida’s Alan Grayson, who once said the Republican health care plan was for older people to die quickly, will return to the House. Cable news networks now have their hot-ticket debaters for the coming year.

Third, the ability of the Obama campaign to target supporters and lure them to the polls and the ability of analysts like the New York Times’ Nate Silver to predict the outcome of a race with near precision, means that those of us who got into politics because we were told there’d be no math have got to get a clue.

If you care at all about politics, your two pieces of required reading are Silver’s “The Signal and the Noise” and Sasha Issenberg’s “The Victory Lab.” Silver explains why predictions from the world of sports, finance, science and politics fail, and should offer a permanent rebuke to those pundits who write and speak in gaseous terms of gut instincts, vibes and a mystical ability to detect sweeping forces that will drive elections. Issenberg’s book details precisely how the combination of behavioral psychology and data crunching enables campaigns to find supporters and persuade them to go to the polls.

This just-concluded campaign demonstrated forcefully that if you do not understand this brave new world, you will not understand politics, no matter how well you know the history of the Electoral College.

Finally, let me end with a concession. I plan to spend this day searching the websites of all of those who so confidently asserted why and how Obama was destined to lose. I’m particularly eager to read the wisdom of Dick Morris, the most consistently, hilariously ignorant pollster/strategist, who wrote just a few days ago “Here Comes the Landslide.” His continued employment is an inspiration to all those who believe that a career should in no way be limited by a total lack of competence.