Last updateThu, 19 Nov 2015 8pm


Can a primary be bought?

    It’s a question that gets asked from time to time.  Is it really possible to “buy” an election?  
    There is plenty of evidence that money, whether it’s the result of good fundraising, or tapping a personal fortune, can do wonders for a candidate’s political prospects.  But can it really change the outcome of an election?  Right now, in Virginia’s Democratic gubernatorial primary, that question is being put to the test.  Terry McAuliffe, until just a few months ago, was a complete outsider to Virginia politics.  But starting just after the 2008 election he has unleashed a daunting national fundraising effort and has launched an ambitious campaign for the Democratic nomination for Governor.  Its scale, in a primary campaign, is almost unprecedented in Virginia politics.  According to the most recent financial disclosures, his fundraising prowess leaves his opponents in the dust.  During the first three months of this year McAuliffe raised a staggering $5.2 million while former Delegate Brian Moran raised $800,000 and State Senator Creigh Deeds (Deeds wasn’t allowed to raise money while the legislature was in session) $600,000.   That’s better than a five-to-one advantage over his nearest opponent.  This primary looks like it will be the ultimate test of whether or not an election can be bought.
     McAuliffe was, at least until recently, an outsider when it comes to Virginia politics.  He took almost no interest in the goings on of the Commonwealth.  He has never held elective office in Virginia, and for that matter, has never been actively involved in Virginia politics.  He has lived in Virginia for years, but his focus, with his residence in McLean, was always on the goings on of political Washington, not Richmond.  McAuliffe served as Chairman of the Democratic National Committee, and most notably, was a longtime friend and fundraiser for President and Mrs. Clinton.  He is also a highly successful businessman with a considerable fortune of his own.  He may not have ties in Virginia, and he has been an easy target for the label of carpetbagger, but he is also no slouch.  Even with his liabilities he is a formidable contender.
     Just what propelled McAuliffe to run for Governor still isn’t entirely clear, but it almost doesn’t matter.  He is clearly giving it everything he’s got.  However, for all the money he can bring to bear, and this includes 10 campaign offices statewide, and nearly 100 staffers, the question remains.  At this late stage in the campaign can he pull together enough Democratic support to win the primary?  Both of McAuliffe’s opponents have been traveling Virginia for years now.  They have gone to coffees, have helped local candidates for everything from Sheriff to Delegate and have gotten to know the rank and file.  In the process they have piled up lots of IOU’s.  Moran and Deeds both have been just a phone call away for Democratic chairs and campaign managers who wanted a statewide figure at an event.  And until recently, if they knew him at all, to most Democrats McAuliffe was a distant national figure.
     But it would be a mistake to consider McAuliffe as having been completely disinterested in Virginia politics.  In 2005 he played a decisive role in making sure that Tim Kaine, then in a tight race with Mark Early, got an extra $5 million from the National Party.  Make no mistake it made a big difference.  Kaine is staying neutral, but a lot of people, no matter what they think of this race, or McAuliffe, are still grateful for the help.
     The Primary is just a little over two months away and according to the most recent poll it’s still an extremely fluid election.  Brian Moran, for most of the campaign viewed as the frontrunner, has 22% of the vote.  McAuliffe has 18% and Deeds 15%.  The rest of the voters, a staggering 45% haven’t made up their minds yet.  This means it’s wide open and for McAuliffe offers some possibilities.  Because he has the ability through paid phone banking, TV ads, and sophisticated internet (borrowing on President Obama’s efforts) to reach the parties liberal base (the ones most likely to turn out in a primary) his fundraising advantage might make a big difference.
     There is also a school of thought that whoever wins will face the well funded Republican nominee former Attorney General Bob McDonnell in the fall.  McAuliffe’s almost unlimited treasury would be an advantage.  However, there are some sobering points to make in countering this argument.  McAuliffe, though personally likeable and energetic, has absolutely no experience in elective office or large scale government management.  Bob McDonnell will almost certainly make this a major campaign theme.
    However, at the moment, the contest isn’t about November.  It’s about who can motivate the Democratic Primary voters in June.  Right now, McAuliffe’s money is a definite advantage, and though it might not buy him an election, it might be enough for a primary.
You may reach David Kerr at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Redistricting: Nothing democratic about it!

   I’ve got news for you.  Elections for the House of Delegates, State Senate, and yes, even our members of Congress, aren’t as democratic or representative as you might think. 
   A good example is the 2007 elections for the House of Delegates and State Senate.  In the House of Delegates only 20 of the 100 seats up for election were considered truly competitive.  That meant, for all practical purposes, that when it came to the other 80 seats it didn’t matter whether the voters showed up or not.  In the State Senate, out of 40 seats, only 8 were deemed competitive.  The rest were sure things.
   While this arrangement, made possible by districts carefully drawn to guarantee a specific outcome, suits incumbents and the parties, it’s not representative politics.  The fault, sadly, lies in a time worn system that leaves drawing the district lines, both for the General Assembly and the Congress to the Legislature.
It’s been this way for years and the results haven’t been impressive.  Depending on who was in power one party or the other, most recently the Republicans, have used this tool with all the finesse of a club to reduce voter participation and guarantee that incumbents face as little opposition as possible.
   A good example was back in 1990.  The Democrats, the dominant party for years, were losing ground in the General Assembly and redistricting offered the chance to do something about it.  With control of the Assembly and a Democrat in the Governor’s mansion, that was all they needed to redraw the districts to their liking.  With a meticulous attention to detail they siphoned off friendly voters from several Republican held seats, redistricted some members out of their seats altogether, and in one case put two Republicans in the same district. 
It may sound crass, but this is standard practice in the business of gerrymandering.  Most importantly it had the desired effect.  The Republicans lost several seats in the next election.
   However, that setback was overcome by the GOP’s rise during the 1990’s and by 2001 the Republicans had a narrow margin in the General Assembly.  Now it was their turn to use redistricting to bolster their majorities.  However, this time, they had a tool the Democrats didn’t have ten years earlier:  sophisticated redistricting software.  Using precise demographic and voting data, thanks to this application, districts could be shuffled and aligned right down to the street and neighborhood level.  In other words, for the most part, the outcome of an election could be guaranteed.
   The redistricting also included Congressional districts.  Once again, the goal was to keep the number of swing districts to a minimum.  In our case, in the First, the district has been drawn with such meticulous care that a Democrat simply has no chance.  This is also the case with the seventh and the tenth districts, which are drawn to so solidly Republican that it could argued that there really isn’t any value to voting.  The same can be said for the two guaranteed Democratic seats the third and the eighth.  Only three seats could be said to be marginal or competitive. 
   However, while this brand of winner-take-all district alignment has been the norm for decades not everyone thinks the status quo is a good idea.  For the past seven years Senator Creigh Deeds (D-Bath) has introduced a bill to create a bipartisan redistricting commission.  The structure would be simple.  A bipartisan commission with an equal number of members from each party and one independent would draw the districts.  The goal would be to keep them contiguous, representative and competitive.  Unfortunately, the bill has always gone down to defeat.  But this year, while the bill failed, it did pick up more momentum than usual. 
   The idea of bipartisan redistricting has support from each of the candidates seeking the Democratic nomination for Governor.  Creigh Deeds, Brian Moran, and Terry McAuliffe, all say they’re for it.  As for the Republican candidate, Attorney General Bob McDonnell, he hasn’t said one way or the other what his position is on a bipartisan commission.
   Depending on the results of this year’s election, redistricting in 2011 could be extremely difficult.  The Senate is held by the Democrats and the House of Delegates by the Republicans.  Neither body is likely to change hands.  This sets up a potentially protracted disagreement between the two chambers that could put the new Governor in a tough position trying to sort it out.  Before it’s through it could be a painful and embarrassing mess.  At which point, those who voted against a bi-partisan commission might well wish they hadn’t.

You may reach David Kerr at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Will the Democratic Primary be “too” civil?

Virginia Democrats haven’t had a contested nomination for Governor since 1985.  That year Jerry Baliles and Dick Davis fought it out in a convention.  Baliles went on to win the election.  The last time they had a contested primary was in 1977 when Henry Howell beat Andy Miller.  Howell was defeated by Republican John Dalton in the fall.  
This year, riding a crest of success, Virginia Democrats will be choosing between three candidates who want the Democratic nod to run for Governor.  While primaries are sometimes considered good party building tools, often giving prospective nominees a chance to organize, raise money, and test their skills on the campaign trail, they have a downside as well.  Primaries can get ugly, they are expensive, and most of all, if the campaign becomes particularly intense, there can be hurt feelings and bad blood.  Given that the primary is in June, and the election in November, that’s not a lot of time to bind up the wounds and pull the party back together.
The Republicans, though not saying so publicly, are pinning some of their hopes on a divisive Democratic primary campaign.  However, the Democratic leadership and in particular Tim Kaine, Mark Warner, and Jim Webb are actively committed to keeping the tone of the campaign civil.  “Civil” seems to be the operative word at the moment.  
Governor Kaine, in particular, now the Chairman of the National Democratic Party, wants to see a Democrat elected governor of Virginia and he doesn’t want to see this prospect dashed in a bitter intra-party contest.
Until recently the presumption was that the Democratic nomination was between two candidates, Senator Creigh Deeds of Bath and former Delegate Brian Moran.  Moran, it was generally presumed, had the edge, but Deeds, having just barely lost the race for Attorney General in 2007, was nonetheless considered a strong candidate.  He is a likable, moderate, down home Democrat.  
However, late in 2008 there was a surprise entrant.  Terry McAuliffe, a former Chairman of the Democratic Party and a close political ally of the Clintons, threw his hat into the ring.  At first, no one knew quite what to make of his decision to run for Governor.  McAuliffe’s ties to the state aren’t that strong.  He has lived in McLean for years, but for the most part is identified with political Washington.  However, he has put together an impressive campaign.  With his personal fortune and his national connections, he is by far the best funded.  His ads have already started running and he is aggressively touting ideas for economic growth and job creation.  
While generalizations are always difficult to make it appears that McAuliffe and Moran are the leading contenders and are also fighting for the same voters.  Deeds with his ties to Southwest Virginia, is strongly favored in rural Virginia, while his opponents on the other hand are focusing their efforts on the Commonwealth’s two largest urban and suburban regions, Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads.  
These days that’s where most of the Democratic voters live.  Moran has a long list of endorsements, from party chairs, to members of the House of Delegates and the State Senate.  This gives him a powerful edge.  McAuliffe, on the other hand, is trying to reach out directly to the party’s liberal base.  To some degree, if activity in the blogosphere, and his campaign’s energy level, the “buzz” if you will, is any measure, he is making some inroads.
Deeds, something of the odd man out in this contest is hoping that as “everyone’s second choice,” he might, just maybe, benefit from that fact in a three way contest.  With three candidates he no longer has to win a majority, he just needs to win a fraction more than the other guys.  
So far the race has been surprisingly civil.  The candidates shake hands when they at events, nod their heads when the other is speaking, and have kept their attacks surprisingly tame.  Some of this is enlightened self interest.  They all see themselves as prospective nominees and they know that a slash and burn approach could make pulling together a winning campaign in November nearly impossible.
The Democrats are working hard to have a civil campaign.  However, there is a worry in a campaign that’s so peaceful. Namely, is all this civility because of good manners or is it because none the candidates is generating all that much passion?  
 Democrats have their preferences, but the intensity of the fight isn’t like, say, the campaign between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.  The divisions just aren’t that deep.  That may be an important ingredient for a peaceful primary, but come November the party is going to need a candidate who generates a little energy.  Perhaps the Democrats would be better off if their primary isn’t too civil.  

You may reach David Kerr at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.


The Possum on the Porch and other tales

   Even though I live in the suburbs I am always surprised by just how many wild creatures manage to make their lives in the scant bits of habitat that still remain.  Somehow they manage to forge an existence in between the tract housing, the asphalt driveways, and the manicured lawns of modern day suburbia.  
   Some people may consider them a nuisance, but my reaction is entirely different.  I enjoy them immensely, whether it’s their occasional, at least in our eyes, quirky behavior, or whether it’s just watching them be themselves.
   It was just before Christmas when I had my first ever interaction, up close that is, with an opossum.  Opossums, as a rule, aren’t that sociable and I can’t deny that I find them a little scary looking.  With their long snout and skinny tail they have a have something of a primeval appearance to them.  At the very least they look like they would be more at home in Australia than they are in the Northern Neck.  
   But this was an experience that changed my view of possums.  I came home from a Christmas party one evening and found an opossum sitting in the rocking chair on my front porch.  I assumed he would run off as soon as I approached, but he didn’t.  He just wouldn’t move.  This wasn’t normal animal behavior and I wondered if he might have rabies.  I called the police, who along with a remarkably cheerful animal control warden became the core of a late night possum watch.  
   It was an unusual sight – three grown men, debating at length, what this possum, sitting in a rocking chair on my front porch, was up to. The animal control warden doubted it was rabies since opossums have a body temperature which makes it hard for the virus to take hold.  He figured the opossum had been frightened, perhaps by a car, or maybe by a dog and was just scared.  
We all seemed to empathize with him and we agreed that the best thing to do was to let him spend the night in the rocking chair.  He apparently left sometime during the night.
   Then there is the rabbit.  Rabbits, as a rule, like to go out during the day.  They want to be able to easily spot predators and get away from them as quickly as possible.  At night they prefer to be tucked up safe and sound in their hutches.  
   But, not Clyde.  
   Yes, we’ve named this particular suburban critter and he is our local brown rabbit.  Clyde, unlike most rabbits prefers to roam during the night.  I guess he likes to live dangerously.  I have seen him several times around midnight and on occasion, when I have had to leave for work especially early, just before sunrise.  He is the first night owl bunny I have ever met.
   Some of the other animals in the neighborhood aren’t all that unusual.  We have a fox who like most foxes prefers as little human contact as possible. To his human neighbors he is a passing reddish brown blur.  
   However, not all foxes are quite so standoffish.  A friend of mine was a part of the elite detail that guards the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.  He recalled that during his tour there was a fox that took up residence in the ground just beyond the tomb.  The fox usually showed up around three in the morning and with rapt attention would sit and watch the men do their slow and solemn back and forth march.  The fox, which the soldiers in their straight ahead gaze could only catch out of the corner of their eyes, became a special nighttime visitor.
   Unfortunately, some of the animals that used to visit my house don’t anymore.  New development, the clear cutting of some nearby forested land, and the resulting loss of habitat have taken their toll.  Many, I think simply weren’t intended to be suburban critters.  The owl that used to drop by from time to time is a good example.  I have always heard that an owl “hoots,” but not mine.  This owl reminded me of the way my grandfather used to cough.  But, for whatever reason, he has moved on and no other owl has come to take his place.  He may have had an annoying hoot, but I still miss him.
   Animals and the suburbs don’t always mix and from time to time, whether it’s a flower bed that was there one night and gone the next morning or a tree that gets gnawed on by a beaver, they can be trying.  But I also get a lot of enjoyment out of them, whether it’s the rabbit that doesn’t know when to go to bed or the slightly demented opossum.  It’s a feeling that as homogenized as life can be in the suburbs that there is still some room for the animals that make their homes alongside ours.

When does a recession become a depression?

   In the after work get togethers on Capitol Hill, or in the serious Washington briefings on the economy, there is a term that is occasionally alluded to but almost never said out loud.  Sometimes it’s simply referred to as the “d word.”  It sounds better that way.  That’s because no one wants to say or even hint at the prospect that America may be headed for an economic depression.  And who can blame them.
   However, there is one problem with this discussion.  When it comes to economics and studying the American economy, no one is quite sure where a recession ends and a depression begins.  
Before World War II we didn’t even use the word recession.  Instead, any economic downturn, no matter how modest, was called a depression.  With that definition, we had lots of depressions well in advance of the big one in 1929.  
   There was a serious economic downturn in the 1890’s, another in 1909, and another just after World War I.  Economic data in those periods wasn’t as closely tracked as it is today.  Unemployment data, for example, was a best guess estimate and there was no such thing as a consumer confidence index.  However, most of these downturns, using modern day definitions would probably be called recessions.
   The accepted definition of a recession is two quarters, back to back, when the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) contracts.  In the U.S. we have been in one for a year now with the most recent GDP downturn reaching 6.2%.  However, economists don’t necessarily like this definition because it covers too much time.  Our economy can be in a severe downturn long before it’s officially labeled a recession.
   Secondly, it’s a definition that’s too dependent on just one indicator.  Many think that unemployment and consumer confidence should factor in as well.  Right now, both indicators, with unemployment at 7.6% and growing, and consumer confidence at its lowest since the survey began, are strong indicators of just what kind of downturn we’re facing.
   But, what about a depression?  When does a recession become a depression?  
One definition, and though not universally accepted is nonetheless a good rule of thumb, is that if the GDP dips by more than 10% we’re in a depression.  Under that definition, thank goodness, we have a ways to go.  
   The United States hasn’t seen this kind of decline since the 1930’s, but other countries, in modern times, have.  Japan, one of the world’s largest economies, saw its fourth quarter 2008 GDP decline at an annualized rate of 12.7%.  That’s a staggering drop and if it keeps up Japan will soon be in a full fledged economic depression.
   Russia, in the 1990’s easily met this definition.  Just after the fall of communism Russian GDP fell by over 50%.  By 1993 unemployment was at nearly a third of the workforce and government receipts in taxes were so low that the new federal government couldn’t pay its bills.     To deal with the situation they printed currency which forced the value of the ruble so low that a barter economy rose to take its place.  That’s a real economic collapse.
   However, perhaps the best benchmark is our own Great Depression.  But even then this example isn’t as straightforward as some people recall.  The Depression was actually two big declines.  Not just one.  In 1929, with the stock market crash representing the opening act of an economic meltdown, the GDP began a decline that lasted almost four years.  
   By 1932 output was slightly more than half of what it had been in 1929.  Unemployment is estimated to have been 25%, but was probably more.  However, the economy, mostly thanks to the New Deal began a recovery in 1933.  That helped get FDR reelected in a landslide in 1936.  
   But in 1937 Roosevelt backed away from the heavy pump priming of his first term and this started another economic downturn.  This represented what some have labeled a “second” depression that lasted from 1937 to 1938.  
Unemployment surged and the GDP fell by more than 10%.  It was only spending for armament purchases by the Allies, Lend-Lease and our eventual entry into World War II that truly ended the depression.
   Any definition of a depression, particularly in a highly complex economy like ours, needs to be qualified.  It also needs to include an analysis of the fundamental strength of key institutions.  This is where comparisons between the 1930’s and today start to become uncomfortable.  
   During the Great Depression there was more than a decline in demand.  There was also, and it can be argued that we’re teetering on the brink of this today, a collapse in the credit markets.  Banks failed on a massive scale.  Lines of credit, loans, and what limited mortgage market there was in those days, completely dried up.
Another factor in deciding whether we’re in a depression is just how long it lasts.  A downturn can be sharp, but if it’s short, it will probably avoid the moniker of being labeled a depression.  
   That’s some of the thinking behind the stimulus bill.  Historically government spending has been useful in stemming economic downturns.  But this is a big economy, much bigger and more complex than it was in 1933, and whether or not the spending contained in the $780 billion stimulus bill is large enough and contains the right components to revive a $14 trillion economy is still a big question.  
   However, hopefully, the economy will revive, or at least not dip too low and the term depression will be one that doesn’t become the official label for the current economic crises.
   You may contact David Kerr at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Calculating America’s unemployment rate: The rest of the story

   When times are good almost no one pays attention to economic indicators.  But when times are bad, it’s an entirely different story.  
   All at once, people who could have cared less about Gross Domestic Product, the Consumer Confidence Index, or such arcane statistics as new orders for durable goods, start hanging on every economic announcement.  They’re looking for signs that things are improving, but more often than not in the current environment, are bracing for more bad news.
 However, perhaps the most watched indicator, and the one that can spawn optimism or by itself bring even greater anxiety, is unemployment.  This is the statistic that hits home and according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in February, reached 8.1%.  Looking at it historically that’s not as bad as it sounds.  In the early 1980’s unemployment was hovering around 9% and the economy managed a very rapid turnaround.  But, if you’ve lost your job and can’t find another, that comment isn’t very helpful.
    Many people would be surprised to know just how much trouble the government goes to in order to calculate the unemployment rate.  While the unemployment statistic is derived by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, a part of the Department of Labor, the survey data itself is collected by the Census Bureau.  They’re under the Department of Commerce.  What can I say?   It’s a surprisingly collaborative undertaking.
    Each month the government surveys some 60,000 households to develop what’s called the “current population survey.”  This data is collected by mail, by phone, and even in one-on-one interviews.  The Census Bureau, and we know they’re a nosey bunch to begin with, ask a lot of questions in this survey and among them are questions about who has a job and who doesn’t.  
   There are also follow on questions about how recently a member of the household was laid off from work; was their decision to leave work voluntary; are they actively looking for work; are they receiving unemployment insurance; and on the less optimistic side, are they discouraged and not actively seeking employment.  
   This gives the Bureau of Labor Statistics a lot to work with in calculating their monthly summaries.  The basic unemployment statistic we’re used to hearing is a simple calculation.  It’s the number of unemployed, defined by what’s called the U3 statistic, which represents those who are unemployed but willing to work, divided by the total labor force.  Easy enough, but nothing is ever quite that simple in economics.  The details get a bit more complicated.  For instance, out of the roughly 200 million who make up our prospective workforce, the number includes the military.  It also includes people in prison.  Before the 1980’s neither one of these groups was used in the calculation.  It’s been said that the only reason these two groups are included is to make the unemployment rate seem lower.
   However, the number that probably warrants more attention is simply in the definition of who is unemployed and who isn’t.  The Bureau of Labor Statistics identifies several levels of unemployed.  From those who are voluntarily out of work, to those actively looking for work, those who are part-timers, and those who have become discouraged and don’t bother anymore.  However, only those actively looking for work are included in the monthly statistic.   
   It’s also been argued, and the data from this era isn’t as thorough as it is today, that the great depression’s 25% unemployment rate is well short of what it actually was.  Some economists think that if itinerant workers (there were roughly 1 million Americans in this category during the depths of the depression), part-timers, and discouraged workers are factored in, the number reached almost a third of the workforce.  For many people who lived through this era that doesn’t sound unreasonable, but it’s unlikely that anyone will ever have a firm grip on the data or the actual statistic.
    The current calculation, while more precise than those available 80 years ago, still doesn’t represent a resolution of that debate.  While this month’s number is 8.1% (high when you consider that it was 4.4% a year ago), when other types of unemployment data collected in the government’s survey are factored in, the number increases considerably.  This data, given the ominous references of U4, U5, and U6 – the unemployment statistic we hear on the news is called U3 – includes part time workers, discouraged workers, and the rather sad sounding reference, marginally attached workers.  When these numbers are included, the number gets closer to 13%.
    However, data, and what it means, can be debated by economists for hours on end.  In fact, this discussion on how to calculate the national unemployment rate has been raging for years.  But what make the unemployment rate so unique is that unlike all the other economic indicators it’s=2 0personal.
    Everyone, even those who have never been unemployed, feels a touch of anxiety every time they wait for the announcement of the monthly unemployment report.  Hopefully though, it won’t be long, before the rate, instead of increasing, levels off, and begins what we all hope will be a steady decline.

You may reach David Kerr at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.








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