Tuesday, October 19, 2010

How to Mislead Voters Lesson #2: What's in a Name?

With the election only two weeks away, more ads are hitting the airways every day. Needless to say, there is a lot of money changing hands this time of year. People are donating to the campaigns of candidates they support in hope that it will lead to increased ad presence and a greater chance at winning the seat. But people aren't the only ones donating. There are a number of corporations and special interest groups that are also putting money into the races. But at the same time many of these corporations or groups may not want their name publicly aired on the ads that they fund. After all, they still want to maintain their customer base regardless of consumers' political leanings. So what's a corporation to do?

Give money to other groups that will put out the ads in their own names. And boy, what names they are! Every day I turn on the TV I see ads from groups like MN Forward, Minnesota's Future, Alliance for a Better Minnesota, Americans Against Food Taxes, etc. That brings me to the first rule in naming your political organization.

1. Pick a Name That Few Would Disagree With

Who doesn't want to move forward? Who doesn't care about the future? Who doesn't want their state to be better? Who wants all their food taxed? No one! So you've won the first battle in putting forth something people can relate to.

2. Pick a Name That Sounds Far More Optimistic Than Any of Your Ads Will Ever Be

Hopefully people will be so inspired to dream about the future and how we should move forward after seeing your name that they will forget that the entire previous 30 seconds were spent trying to scare the hell out of them. After all, Minnesota's future looks bright as long as we don't elect the drunk driver, the erratic unreliable one, or the Democrat/Republican in Republican/Democrat clothing who will only enact policies that will destroy everything you hold dear.

3. Pick a Name That Sounds Like You're Just a Group of Average Americans Who Bought An Ad

Americans Against Food Taxes is a great example of name that achieves exactly that. Sounds like people are finally standing up to The Man and telling him to leave their food alone! Wait. What? What do you mean the group is primarily comprised of companies that produce/sell unhealthy high sugar content beverages with little nutritional value that would be subject to these proposed taxes? If that's the case, I'm sure they would have disclosed that in the ad. Which brings me to the next rule...

4. Make People Work to Find Out Who You Actually Are

Many people today have the attention span of a gnat. (I'll be shocked if they are still reading this post!) So most will never discover who is funding your group if finding out requires more than three steps. Hide it in a fancy website where they will be too distracted pressing other buttons telling them why you are on their side or looking at beautiful pictures of happy families that look just like theirs to notice anything else. Even better, simply leave it on your IRS disclosure form. Who looks up that? They'll never know that the Republican Governors Association is behind Minnesota's Future. They're too busy telling their neighbor about how erratic Mark Dayton is to bother looking at some stuffy old tax forms.

5. Fill Your Website With Undefined Terms

Rather than have the "about us" section of your website filled with detailed information, I would recommend you bust out your political ad thesaurus. For example, replace "Group of large corporations" with "Group of job creators." "Corporate board" becomes "Families just like yours." "Life long partisan political strategists" can be "Your neighbors and coworkers." I don't know about you, but I'm feeling better already.

6. Take Your Issues Directly From a Single Political Party While Insisting You're Non-Partisan

Feel free to cut and paste the issues section directly from the local Republican or DFL website. That won't matter as long as you don't tell people you did. Also make sure to pepper your site with the terms "non-partisan," "no political affiliation," "values," and "the state's best interest." Those terms will make people feel so good that they'll notice neither the blatant cut and paste nor the fact that all of your ads support only one political party.

7. Mention Things That Make People Feel All Warm and Fuzzy

It's even better if those things mentioned also leave visions of "Leave it to Beaver" era security and morality dancing in people's heads.  Children - Values - Our Community - Small Businesses - Freedom - Families - Prosperity. People love those things. And if they think you love those things, they will love you.

I hope that helps you get well on your way to starting your very own political group. As long you follow these guidelines it's sure to succeed.

This message has been brought to you by Americans For Children With Adorable Rescued Kittens.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Constrasting the 6th District Campaigns

Last night challengers Tarryl Clark (DFL) and Bob Anderson (I) participated in a debate in Stillwater.

Where was Michele Bachmann??

I assume this will become a major talking point in the Clark and Anderson campaigns in these last few weeks leading up to election day.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Education Minnesota's Real Problem

Today's debate on MPR's Midmorning took an interesting turn. For the first time that I can recall in this election cycle, a candidate chose to call out a specific person outside of the elections as the poster child of the problems our schools face. Who was this newly appointed poster child?

Tom Dooher
courtesy Education Minnesota
This morning Tom Emmer decided to name names and in doing so publicly declared that the problem in our educational system is Tom Dooher.

Blaming the union isn't anything new. Especially during elections, pointing to an alleged source of the problem is much easier than finding solutions for extremely complex problems. But this is the first time I've heard a candidate try to pin the state's problems specifically on the president of the state's largest educators' union. Emmer literally said "I think the union boss, Tom Dooher, is the problem."

Dooher sent MPR the following response:

"There is no place in the debate about education for personal attacks. The futures of our students and state are at stake and all Minnesotans deserve better.
Education Minnesota has vowed repeatedly to work together with anyone who is truly interested in improving education in our state. Minnesota’s biggest challenge in education is eliminating the achievement gap. Education Minnesota proposed a detailed plan in the last legislative session that relied on research-proven methods to help struggling students learn. We proposed bringing health, nutrition and dental services directly into the schools. We proposed smaller class sizes, longer school days or longer schools years when appropriate, as well as new methods of evaluating the performance of teachers.
Personal attacks do nothing to solve the broken system of education funding in Minnesota. Our state  is now well below the national average when it comes to per pupil spending. These are the kinds of true education challenges that get masked or ignored when politicians resort to personal attacks instead of policy solutions to deal with our problems.
It is the responsibility of Education Minnesota to stand up for what teachers know will work in the classroom. We will continue to champion research-proven methods that will improve Minnesota’s many excellent public schools. And we’ll continue to speak out against meaningless policy changes and gimmicks that serve political purposes but do nothing to help children learn.”

I don't think that the union is perfect by any means, but I also don't think they are the beast that is standing in the way of improving our state's schools. And Emmer's comments do little to actually address the challenges in our educational system. Tom Dooher is correct that many of the proposed educational reforms have not shown proven results and he does well to point out the types of initiatives they've been supporting. Yet, I do think that Education Minnesota does have one major problem. A PR problem.

In the past few years, many stalemates on educational policy in the legislature have been blamed on Education Minnesota. They've been maligned in political press conferences as the roadblock to real solutions. My issue with the union is that I often don't feel that they do enough to portray the positive work they do to find new solutions to improve education in our classrooms. Their opponents have been winning the PR battle and as such many in the public now believe that the union's primary mission is to ensure that your school has bad teachers who are overpaid and don't care about students at all.

In the interest of full disclosure, I came to this belief due to my experiences growing up in a family that contained a number of public school educators including a few that also worked for Education Minnesota. Because of that, I discovered that Education Minnesota provides a number of grants to teachers in order to explore new solutions in their classrooms. Over the years they have funded 915 projects through grants totaling $2.4 million. You can find more information on these projects here. There's a great story from WCCO this past spring about how a teacher used one of these grants to design a new type of desk to help her students stay focused in the classroom. These desks have gained a lot of attention throughout the world and the story was also featured in the New York Times.

Ironically, the grants cover everything from early education intervention, classroom behavior management, student learning methods, mentoring, better engaging kids in science, and so on. Many of these are the very issues that Emmer himself suggests we need to invest in.

 In my opinion, it may be in the best interest of Education Minnesota to highlight more of these projects publicly and in doing so start to peel the target of their back.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Articles of Interest 10/8/10

MN Governor's Race

It looks like Tom Emmer is being hit with a malpractice lawsuit.

NFIB endorses Tom Emmer.

Mitt Romney is coming to town to headline an Emmer fundraiser.

Tom Emmer released his third TV ad.

KSTP releases a confidential memo about campaign strategy from Tom Emmer's campaign.

Tom Horner picks up endorsements from thirteen former Republican state legislators.

It increasingly looks like Horner and Emmer will be competing for the GOP base.

Mark Dayton is hoping to start airing a new ad featuring his sons soon.

There will be a televised debate on KMSP tomorrow night.

US House

In CD-1, Randy Demmer has released his first TV ad complete with towering images of a monstrous looking Obama, Pelosi, and Reid back lit by flashes of lightning.

CD-5: A group called "Americans Against Hate" is pushing to get Rep. Ellison removed from a committee on anti-Semitism.

CD-6: In case you missed it, you really ought to read the confusing conversation MPR's Annie Baxter has with Rep. Bachmann's  spokesman. She has since confirmed commitments to three debates.

State Races

In the state auditor's race, Pat Anderson's complaint against incumbent Rebecca Otto is tossed out. She's not happy about it.

If you live in the West Central area of the state, Pioneer Public Television has a number of local Senate & House debates available to watch online.


A coalition led by Minnesota Majority will be sending voter surveillance teams to the polls this November. Here is their watch list of what they will be looking for. I'm still not exactly sure how they plan to pull this off considering MN law requires them to keep 100' from polling places. No word on if there are specific polling places they will be targeting.

Politics in Minnesota has a look at the history of redistricting and the mess that comes with it.

The head of the MN GOP should probably make a point to be a little more familiar with the history behind the terms he uses to avoid any future Nazi references. Some of the former GOP legislators that were the subject of his statement (which also said there was a special place in hell for them) are obviously upset with his choice of words.

Three big name medical groups in Minnesota decide to send their health reform suggestions directly to Washington themselves since Pawlenty declined to do so.

The president of the Minnesota Family Council appeared on Anderson Cooper 360 to discuss their stance on LGBT bullying in schools.

Minnesota receives a $1.2 million federal grant to study the costs of tranisitoning from conventional to organic farming.

MN Supreme Court Justice Alan Page will be speaking at the University of Minnesota College of Continue Education's "Witness to History" series on October 21.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

How to Mislead Voters Lesson #1: The Law of Averages

Note: This is the first in what will hopefully be a recurring series of blog posts on tactics that are commonly used to mislead voters during the elections. This isn't about fact checking. These posts are about methods that use facts but present them in a way that is incorrect or deceptive.

There's an important lesson that I've learned when following politics. Whenever you hear anyone say "That's an average of..." you should probably just assume that things aren't as they seem. I rarely take the "fact" that follows that statement at face value. Let me explain why.

Averages are pretty straight forward mathematically speaking. It is simply the sum of all elements divided by the total number of elements. I've often heard it said that "numbers don't lie." It's true that you can't make 2 + 2 suddenly equal 5. But that doesn't mean that numbers can't be presented in a deceptive manner.

Let's take a look at the latest ad from MN Forward that is asking us to look at an average.

Did you catch that? $2,300 per Minnesota family is a pretty big hit for most of us. If taken at face value, it could be pretty scary to people who are barely able to pay their mortgage or rent. But campaign ads should rarely be taken at face value and this one is no exception.

How did they get to that number? Pause the video at 0:09 and 0:14 and look at the citations. They arrived at this number through some simple math. The first number they take is the fact that Mark Dayton will raise taxes by $5 billion. This number is from a June MPR story covering the DFL primary debates. Dayton claimed that he is the only candidate willing to raise $5B in taxes through his tax proposals and closing tax loopholes. The second number in their equation comes from the fact that Minnesota has 2,108,843 households. This number is taken from the State Demographic Center. So they simply took the original $5B estimate and divided it by the total number of households in the state, thus arriving at over $2,300 per family. (It ends up at $2,371 per family.)That math checks out, so what makes it misleading?

After weeding through a number of news stories and tax incidence studies, it's pretty clear that Dayton's plan falls primarily on the top 10% of earners in Minnesota. That means that 90% of Minnesotans would see no income tax increase under his taxation plans. Herein lies the fatal flaw of averages. If I walked into a room of 100 people and decided to give 50 of them $100 each and 50 of them nothing, I could honestly say that I gave everyone in the room an average of $50. I think it's fair to assume that the half who received nothing would argue with that presentation of the situation, but my math would technically be correct.

In this case MN Forward stacks the numbers by arriving at an average after spreading out the tax increases across all Minnesotan families rather than simply applying them to the tax brackets for which they are intended. 90% of the households included this number would actually not see an income tax increase. Those are the people who could afford such an increase least. Presenting the numbers as an overall average affecting all Minnesotan families is most likely intended to scare them into thinking that Dayton will come after what they cannot afford to lose.

This isn't a new strategy. It's been used over the years not only in this negative context but also in a positive light to sell tax cuts to a small percentage of the wealthiest Americans by making it seem like everyone will get a piece of the pie.

The moral of the story: It's pretty easy to stack the outcome when the numbers used to calculate your average include a large portion of zeros.