Small Donors

The media is once again exhibiting its ignorance in reporting the story of the Republicans alleging that Obama’s campaign is not reporting small donors’ identities. They don’t understand the difference between reporting requirements and the data that gets collected about donors.

I have been doing database application programming for a political fundraising organization since 2000, and the fact is that even though they are not required to *report* donors under $200, they still *track* all the donations and have all the information. This means that if someone donates $100 three times, there will be a record for that person with three contributions attached. The campaign will know that this person has donated $300 total even though no single campaign filing will reveal the identity of this donor.

The reason why is that campaigns have to track all donations from all donors to be sure that the donors don’t exceed the contribution limits. In other words, if someone gives $100 and then tries to write a check for $2300, it will have to be rejected (and the campaign would ask for a check for $2200). The campaigns know this because they record the data in that manner precisely because they need to know who is bumping up against the contribution limits.

Now, I guess it’s possible that some campaigns use software that is not as well-written as my client’s (I was brought in to revise an existing application, and the contribution limit checking was already in place, though the sophistication of the process has been vastly improved since I took it over) and that the software they are using makes no attempt to match an incoming contribution to a donor that already exists in their database of contributors. And certainly online credit card contributions certainly make this harder to track.

But, nonetheless, these campaigns don’t *want* to accept contributions that exceed the limits because it just isn’t worth it:

  1. There can be fines and penalties for exceeding contribution limits.
  2. Violations of contribution limits require a lot of administrative work to refund the contributions when they are discovered.
  3. Once the violation is corrected, the campaign then has to create amended filings that reflect the refunds.
  4. If those violations get reported to the public, it can cause a huge political scandal.

When I first started working on this project, I had read a lot about campaign contribution shenanigans and thought the campaigns were really dirty, and trying to game the system. But once I saw it from the inside, and realized exactly how much major campaigns rely on volunteers for help in processing the huge volume of $$$ that can come in during the last few weeks of a campaign, I realized that honest mistakes are a natural consequence of the process. Human error is often the cause — a transposed pair of letters in the data entry of a person’s name can cause a match with a previous donor record to be missed (and don’t think there is no check on loose matches — there’s a whole bunch of code in the lookup process that tries to find the closest record in the event of a non-exact match on name).

In short, what I realized was that these organizations are *never* doing this on purpose, because the cost would just not be worth it at all. And most of the cost is not in the fines or adminstrative costs, but in the political fallout that comes from the publicity when problems are discovered and reported in the media.

So, I really think this is just another example of trumped-up Republican hysteria. And the only reason the Republicans don’t have exactly the same problem is because they are so damned unattractive to voters that they just aren’t getting the myriad small donors that Obama is.

David Brooks Almost Fooled Me

I usually can’t abide David Brooks’s columns, but on the train home tonight, I got around to reading yesterday’s column. I was thinking “Wow! This is one of the best columns of his I’ve ever read! I haven’t gotten pissed off at his stupidity even once!”

Right up until the last paragraph:

Until these and other issues are addressed, the global markets will lack confidence in asset values. Bankers will cower, afraid to lend. America’s role as the global hub will be threatened. Europeans will drift toward nationalization. Neomercantilists will fill the vacuum.

This is the test. This is the problem that will consume the next president. Meanwhile, the two candidates for that office are talking about Bill Ayers and Charles Keating.

Indeed, he had me with him right up through his last sentence, and then he has to go and ruin it. The fact is, comparing Bill Ayres and Charles Keating as Brooks does is a false equivalency. One is a casual acquaintance of the candidate, while the other was the prime mover behind pushing the other candidate onto the national stage.

Worse still, if McCain weren’t talking about Ayers, Obama wouldn’t need to be pointing out McCain’s association with Keating as a way of showing how hypocritcal and dishonest McCain is.

This is what happens all the time among the elite punditocracy — they can’t seem to bring themselves to come out and state the obvious:

One candidate is a disaster, a dishonest and dishonorable man who has taken his campaign into the gutter. And that candidate is John McCain.

Second Presidential Debate

I saw the debate last night but haven’t read any blogosphere reaction. I did watch the PBS and MSNBC post mortems, and talked a bit about it with my roommate (who hasn’t watched the campaign terribly closely, though he’s pretty well-informed as a regular Daily Show/Colbert Report watcher).

  • What was with McCain standing up and wandering around all the time while Obama spoke? There was an enormous contrast between the demeanor of the two while the other party was speaking — Obama was completely relaxed and attentive to what McCain had to say. But while Obama spoke, McCain wandered around, and hardly ever sat down and just listened. I couldn’t help but think that McCain looked like one of the crazy old men you might see wandering about aimlessly in the background at a nursing home. I’m pretty sure I know why he didn’t sit down — he didn’t want to look shorter than Obama — but the end result was that he looked kinda crazy.
  • Obama didn’t take notes even once, so far as I noticed, yet he was completely in command of what he wanted to say and never missed an opportunity to respond to what McCain had said. Obama didn’t *need* notes, yet McCain appeared to.
  • I’m not sure if McCain lied less often or if I’m just getting used to, but I didn’t shout at the TV as often as I have in the first two debates.
  • Could Brokaw’s plan for 1-minute discussion have been any worse? He was asking substantive followups that required more than 1 minute between the candidates (or even 1 minute each), and if they went over, it was Brokaw’s own damned fault for asking what amounted to followup questions that simply required more time than he allowed them. It seemed rather churlish of him to ask such questions and then refuse them the time it took to answer — very seldom did either candidate filibuster in response to Brokaw’s followup questions.
  • Why in the hell would anyone think that Warren Buffet would want to be Secretary of the Treasury?

Otherwise, an uneventful debate. Obama looked more and more presidential and McCain looked more and more out of touch, just repeating the same old stuff.

Incompetent Reporting

Jamison Foser at Media Matters has an editorial about the lack of clarity in the way the media report on “disputes” between the campaigns. An example he doesn’t mention is last night’s ABC News (i.e., Friday, Oct. 3rd), where anchor Charlie Gibson discussed with George Stephanopolous various exchanges in the vice presidential debate. On the topic of “General McClellan” they played Palin’s remark, and they pointed out that it was a mistake in regard to the name of the general. But they said absolutely nothing about the fact that she was completely wrong in characterizing what McKiernan had actually said — Biden was right and Palin was wrong. But all they wanted to talk about was the fact that Biden’s facial expression indicated that *he* knew that she’d gotten the name wrong.

In other words, spend all your time on the simple slip of the tongue (which nobody really cares about at all), and completely ignore a case where the candidate, Palin, utters a bald-faced lie about what was very clearly stated by the general.


Non-Verbal Reactions in Interviews vs. Debates

I wonder if the reason Palin is decent in a debate and so horrible in an interview is that in a debate, she’s not receiving obvious non-verbal feedback from the questioner. In a one-on-one interview, the interviewer will be reacting to what she says, and as she spews her gibberish, if the interviewer’s eyebrows go up, Palin knows she’s been caught out. This in turn makes her conscious that she’s going to get a follow-up, so she has to start thinking on that, or trying to fix her answer as she continues to speak.

Perhaps this is a male/female thing — women are socially trained to be more empathetic (though, of course, any particular woman can be just as boorishly insensitive as any particular man), and women tend to be more sensitive to non-verbal communication. In a debate format, she’s on her own, with virtually no non-verbal reaction to her words. While her debate opponent may provide some non-verbal reactions, that’s her *opponent*, and can be safely ignored (or has already been anticipated in debate prep). The moderator has a job to minimize any non-verbal reactions, by virtue of needing to be fair to all the participants in the debate. Thus, there is no really significant reaction to her remarks in real time to drive her train of thought off the tracks.

I think that more than anything else is why she did so poorly in the interviews while doing pretty decently in the debate — her message was not being non-verbally critiqued in real time, and that allowed her to plow through her prepared talking points unhindered by any need to actually think.

Note: Blink tag on Palin’s name explained here.

Eating Their Young

My debate reactions follow.

  • John McCain has sacrificed one of his own party’s best hopes by pulling Palin into the VP nomination about 3-5 years before she’s actually prepared. She did a reasonably decent job in the debates. In fact, put her in the Republican primary debates and she would have won, as she was far, far better than most of the tripe that was regurgitated by the candidates in the Republican field. But she’s going to lose this election and she’s going to get the blame (though it’s actually McCain who is to blame — see Post Turtle). Now, I could never vote for someone who supports the policies she is for, but I can recognize a genuine political talent, and a truly winning personality (though some of her tics do grate a bit) — she would have been a huge star on the national scene and a formidable opponent had she been allowed to grow into national policy experience and knowledge.
  • Just as I noticed the night of Palin’s speech at the RNC, Republicans sure do like to tell lies.
  • Biden was much better than I expected. He looked relaxed, he clearly had the facts at his disposal and wasn’t delivering prepared speeches. That was clear from the relative pacing of the two’s comments — Biden was measured and varied the pace of his remarks, while Palin raced through everything, as though she wanted to make sure she’d get through all the prepared points before time ran out. While she didn’t crack, she was clearly not a seasoned debater on these issues.

It’s pretty clear to me that Biden won simply by relaxing and being himself. Palin certainly may have repaired her growing reputation for incompetence in speaking, but she still wasn’t in the same league as her opponent. In short, Palin exceeds the extremely low expectations, but Biden still wins.

If Only I Were a Lesbian!

I’m right now listening to Rachel Maddow’s show on Air America, where she’s rebroadcasting her MSNBC show from the night before, and she’s chatting with Ana Marie Cox, who mentions the cringe-worthy Palin/Couric interview when she didn’t answer the question and just responds with silence. Cox refers to it as a “John Cage moment” and suggests it might be fun street theater to let the whole debate be like that.

What other political commentator anywhere on radio or TV would have people on who know who John Cage is?

I HEART RACHEL MADDOW! (and I’m also thinking from her appearances on Maddow’s MSNBC show that I kinda like Ana Marie Cox quite a bit, too — she’s certainly very entertaining and seems to have really good chemistry with Maddow).

Obama Deploys the Shiv When He Needs To

Details of the summit at the White House on Thursday with Bush, McCain, Obama and Senate and House leaders continue to trickle out. For me, a key point from the Washington Post’s illuminating article on the topic is this:

Pelosi said Obama would speak for the Democrats. Though later he would pepper Paulson with questions, according to a Republican in the room, his initial point was brief: “We’ve got to get something done.”

Bush turned to McCain, who joked, “The longer I am around here, the more I respect seniority.” McCain then turned to Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to speak first.

Boehner was blunt. The plan Paulson laid out would not win the support of the vast majority of House Republicans. It had been improved on the edges, with an oversight board and caps on the compensation of participating executives. But it had to be changed at the core. He did not mention the insurance alternative, but Democrats did. Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, pressed Boehner hard, asking him if he really intended to scrap the deal and start again.

No, Boehner replied, he just wanted his members to have a voice. Obama then jumped in to turn the question on his rival: “What do you think of the [insurance] plan, John?” he asked repeatedly. McCain did not answer.

One Republican in the room said it was clear that the Democrats came into the meeting with a “game plan” aimed at forcing McCain to choose between the administration and House Republicans. “They had taken McCain’s request for a meeting and trumped it,” said this source.

This sounds to me as though Obama is a political genius, either because he was well-advised by Pelosi and Reid, or because he knew the right thing to do, but either way, he stuck to McCain and showed him up. That’s impolite, but it’s hard-ball politics, and I’m glad to see that behind closed doors, Obama is not averse to being impolite.

And there was no way he believed it wouldn’t get out, so he’s also sending a message to potential political opponents: you’re not dealing with a timid novice here, but with someone who knows how to capitalize on a political opportunity to skewer his political opponents.

Kudos to Obama!

Worst Fact Check Ever fancies itself the authoritative, objective, non-partisan fact-checking site on the web, but, in fact, it needs to be fact checked itself in many cases. The worst example is its fact-checking of the first Obama-McCain debate.

Example 1: Diplomatic talks with adversaries of the US

Obama said McCain adviser Henry Kissinger backs talks with Iran “without preconditions,” but McCain disputed that. In fact, Kissinger did recently call for “high level” talks with Iran starting at the secretary of state level and said, “I do not believe that we can make conditions.” After the debate the McCain campaign issued a statement quoting Kissinger as saying he didn’t favor presidential talks with Iran.

This is a very mealy-mouthed fact check (and the later detailed analysis doesn’t get any closer to the truth). In fact, there are at least two other very good fact checks of the debate, ThinkProgress’s real-time fact check, and the Washington Post’s next-day effort. The continuing “disagreement” between McCain and Obama over this issue stems from McCain’s change of the terms of the debate. He is mischaracterizing Obama’s original statement, concentrating on the *level* of the talks, whereas Obama is concentrating on whether or not there are preconditions. It is the latter that Obama has consistently criticized the Bush adminstration for using as a way to prevent any diplomatic contact with the US’s foreign adversaries. Kissinger is on record as favoring talks without preconditions at the level of Secretary of State. Obama’s position is clearly that high-level talks are needed without precondition, not that they must be engaged in by the President. In short, none of the three fact checks quite gets this one right, seems to me.

Example 2: The legendary $42K tax increase

Obama denied voting for a bill that called for increased taxes on “people” making as little as $42,000 a year, as McCain accused him of doing. McCain was right, though only for single taxpayers. A married couple would have had to make $83,000 to be affected by the vote, and anyway no such increase is in Obama’s tax plan.

This is so incredibly bad as to be laughable — even the WaPo gets this one right:

John McCain claimed that Obama voted in the Senate to raise taxes on anyone making more than $42,000 a year. This is misleading on several levels. The vote that McCain is talking about was a non-binding resolution on the budget that envisioned letting the Bush tax cuts to expire, as scheduled, in 2011. But these budget resolutions come up every year, and do not represent a vote for higher taxes in future years. In fact, Obama has said that he will continue the Bush tax cuts for middle and low-income taxpayers. He says that he will cut taxes for all but the wealthiest tax-payers.

The detailed analysis is a great example of “burying the lede:”

The resolution actually would not have altered taxes without additional legislation. It called generally for allowing most of the 2001 and 2003 Bush tax cuts to expire. McCain is referring to the provision that would have allowed the 25 percent tax bracket to return to 28 percent. The tax plan Obama now proposes, however, would not raise the rate on that tax bracket.

In other words, the legislation that Obama voted for wouldn’t have raised anyone’s taxes, because only *other* legislation could have done that, and secondly, this is not a part of Obama’s tax plan. *That* should have been the fact check conclusion at the top of the article, not buried here in the “analysis” section, where it is not even clearly drawn out to show that McCain’s use of this old canard is simply another example of McCain’s profound dishonesty.

Example 3: McCain’s $700 billion in “foreign aid”

McCain repeated his overstated claim that the U.S. pays $700 billion a year for oil to hostile nations. Imports are running at about $536 billion this year, and a third of it comes from Canada, Mexico and the U.K.

This is a truly egregious example, in that the “fact check” accepts the McCain campaign’s spin, allowing them to compare apples to oranges, and then does nothing but quibble over whether it’s a McIntosh or a Red Delicious being compared to the orange. A real fact check from the WaPo:

When discussuing what ways he would save money in the federal budget, McCain said, “Look, we’re sending $700 billion a year overseas to countries that don’t like us very much.” This is a line he used in his campaign acceptance speech, but as a matter of context he was not talking about foreign aid. That only amounts to $39 bllion a year, most of which is economic aid. McCain instead is talking about the amount of money that Americans spend on foreign oil, though some experts think that figure is a bit high. It certainly is not part of the federal budget.

And ThinkProgress’s version of the same fact check:

Discussing ways he would save money in the federal budget, McCain said, “Look, we’re sending $700 billion a year overseas to countries that don’t like us very much.” But as the Washington Post’s Glenn Kessler points out, McCain is confusing foreign aid with the amount of money that Americans spend on foreign oil. The U.S. spends only $39 bllion a year in foreign aid.

The only justification for FactCheck’org’s acceptance of McCain’s framing of the issue as oil money is to ignore the context within the debate. From the transcript:

OBAMA: The problem with a spending freeze is you’re using a hatchet where you need a scalpel. There are some programs that are very important that are under funded. I went to increase early childhood education and the notion that we should freeze that when there may be, for example, this Medicare subsidy doesn’t make sense.

Let me tell you another place to look for some savings. We are currently spending $10 billion a month in Iraq when they have a $79 billion surplus. It seems to me that if we’re going to be strong at home as well as strong abroad, that we have to look at bringing that war to a close./p>

MCCAIN: Look, we are sending $700 billion a year overseas to countries that don’t like us very much. Some of that money ends up in the hands of terrorist organizations.

The issue is clearly *government* expenditures, but McCain is talking about the total that the US economy spends on foreign oil. This is a completely non sequiture, and rather Palin-like in its ADD switch from the topic of discussion to one of his debate-prepped talking points. accepts McCain’s context switch (and, not suprisingly, McCain uses inaccurate numbers even in his own private context), and ignores the fact that he’s making a really stupid claim that sounds to the casual listener as though the US spends $700 billion in governmental expenditures for foreign aid. This is either profoundly dishonest on McCain’s part, or just sloppy debating. Either way, no fact checker should be led by the nose this easily.

Amusingly enough, the editors of the article seem surprised at the idea that the context was actually different from what they “fact checked,” since they add this parenthetical comment:

(Note: A few of our readers messaged us, after we first noted McCain’s mistake, with the thought that he was referring to foreign aid and not to oil. If so he’s even farther off than we supposed: The entire budget for the State Department and International Programs works out to just $51.3 million.)

Ya think? Geez. There is no question that in the actual context of the debate (i.e., following Obama’s remarks on Federal spending) McCain’s switch of subject away from government spending to the whole country’s expenditures on foreign oil leads to the implication (intended by McCain or not), that he’s talking about government spending on foreign aid.


Example 4: Percentage who get Obama’s tax cuts

Obama said 95 percent of “the American people” would see a tax cut under his proposal. The actual figure is 81 percent of households.

This is a case of cherry picking Obama’s words. At one point in the debate, what Obama said. From the transcript:

…Now, $18 billion is important; $300 billion is really important.

And in his [McCain's] tax plan, you would have CEOs of Fortune 500 companies getting an average of $700,000 in reduced taxes, while leaving 100 million Americans out.

So my attitude is, we’ve got to grow the economy from the bottom up. What I’ve called for is a tax cut for 95 percent of working families, 95 percent.

And that means that the ordinary American out there who’s collecting a paycheck every day, they’ve got a little extra money to be able to buy a computer for their kid, to fill up on this gas that is killing them.

Obama was *very* clear here on who it applied to, not 95% of taxpayers, but 95% of “working families.” It’s no surprise that this “fact check” is not included in the others, since this is just a made-up error in the version, which bases its “fact check” on another context, in which Obama said this:

My definition — here’s what I can tell the American people: 95 percent of you will get a tax cut. And if you make less than $250,000, less than a quarter-million dollars a year, then you will not see one dime’s worth of tax increase.

Now, to me, the second sentence makes precisely clear what he means, by virtue of citing the cutoff for his tax cuts (i.e., $250K). In the context of the debate, it’s even clearer, since it was the question of “who is rich.” The “fact check” is only true if you ignore the relationship between the two sentences uttered back-to-back by Obama.

Example 5: McCain’s health care “plan”

Obama mischaracterized an aspect of McCain’s health care plan, saying “employers” would be taxed on the value of health benefits provided to workers. Employers wouldn’t, but the workers would. McCain also would grant workers up to a $5,000 tax credit per family to cover health insurance.

This one is close, in that Obama was a bit elliptical in how he worded it (from the transcript):

Just one last point I want to make, since Senator McCain talked about providing a $5,000 health credit. Now, what he doesn’t tell you is that he intends to, for the first time in history, tax health benefits.

So you may end up getting a $5,000 tax credit. Here’s the only problem: Your employer now has to pay taxes on the health care that you’re getting from your employer. And if you end up losing your health care from your employer, you’ve got to go out on the open market and try to buy it.

The fact is, employee withholding will have to go up, which means that an employer’s payments in taxes to the Federal government will go up. But those taxes will be taken out of the employee’s paycheck. The principle behind employee-provided healthcare was that the cost was tax-free, and it allowed the employer to provide non-taxed benefits. If those benefits are taxable, it becomes a good question why the employer should provide them at all, and the assumption among many experts is that employers will simply drop their health plans entirely, leaving the employees to find their own health insurance. So, while it’s technically true that the taxes will be paid with a check from your employer, the employer is just passing through money taken out of the employees’ paychecks.

I’d score this as another of those fact checks that gets the detail right (McIntosh vs. Red Delicious) and misses the main point. You’ll also note that it’s not an issue mentioned on either of the other fact checkers, which tells you something about whether or not it was in need of any comment.

The last really annoying thing about this article is that the summary omits a boatload of the detailed fact checks in the analysis section. Why would that be? Well, perhaps it’s because in the details, it becomes quite clear that most of the factual errors were by McCain — by cherry picking which fact checks to put at the head of the article in summary format, they make it look like there was some kind of parity between the two candidates, with both Obama and McCain saying a few things that were inaccurate. But, once again, here we have the media coddling a Republican for lying by putting the truth beneath the fold: McCain lies a lot and Obama only occasionally shades the truth (and usually because he’s being elliptical, not because he’s misrepresenting basic facts).

Debate Reaction

The pundits I saw last night on the TV machine (as our beloved Rachel Maddow calls it) all seemed to see the thing as a tie. I didn’t. I thought McCain clearly won.


In my mind, McCain went into the debate as a crazily unreliable batshit insane guy who is all over the map on everything. But he was completely coherent in all of his foreign policy-related comments, and not just coherent in a Republican sense, but coherent in a reality-based community sense. I disagree with him, but he was clear and was not struggling at all to make his points. He may very well have been heavily prepped, but the prep just made his answers deeper, rather than bubbling to the surface, Palin-like, in a tumble of non sequiturs.

Yes, he told a string of lies about Obama’s record, but that’s what Republicans do these days.

But for me, he regained a level of respectability that he had lost in the past two weeks of flailing over the economic crisis. Whether or not the undecided voters see it that way, I can’t say.

Obama, on the other hand, seemed to me a lot like Kerry. He had the facts and he had coherent answers, but he just wasn’t direct enough in his answers.

And $deity spare us the awful “talk to each other” format. It may have looked really great on The West Wing, but when your debators are not actors delivering pre-scripted lines, it maybe doesn’t work so well.

What I’d like to see is a debate that is fact checked in real time, maybe with a single moderator and a panel of bloggers with computers researching every claim, so they could provide documentation on the lies to the moderator so he/she could call the candidates on them. In this debate, Obama might have been called on 2 or 3 misrepresentations at most, while McCain would have been called on at least a dozen outright lies and myriad other misrepresentations.

Of course, it will never happen.