April 23, 2010
April 23, 2010
Scott Brown’s victory over Martha Coakley in the January 2010 Massachusetts special election sent shock waves through the electoral landscape. Democrats in the Senate lost the 60th seat, imperiling their carefully crafted deal on health insurance reform and requiring serious reflection on what went wrong and how to correct it.
On the heels of Republican wins in the Virginia and New Jersey gubernatorial races, the Massachusetts outcome has been widely taken to portend a difficult midterm election for the Democratic Party in November. Republican commentators have spun Brown’s victory as popular repudiation of President Obama’s policy agenda, especially the health bill. Meanwhile, Democratic commentators have blamed Coakley’s lackluster campaign effort, and hope to avert disaster by energizing ethnic-minority communities and organized labor.
Which explanation is right? A large swing toward Republicans (with Obama voters supporting Brown), or a low turnout among Democrats? How different is the electoral environment in 2010 from that of 2008, and what does that tell us about prospects for November and 2012?
In Massachusetts no statewide exit poll was conducted, and most public opinion polls focused on the horse race, not the final results. Aggregate election returns, then, broken down by municipalities and precincts, provide the best perspective from which to judge the outcome. They provide ample evidence that both views are right.
Scott Brown’s candidacy was buoyed by a surge across the board—in every town. There was also a disproportionate drop in turnout in core Democratic areas—those with larger minority populations, those where support for 2008 Republican presidential nominee John McCain was low, and those with lower average income.
The Massachusetts election, along with those in Virginia and New Jersey, does point to rising Republican electoral fortunes. But the electoral patterns in Massachusetts cities and towns indicate that this can be offset if Democratic campaigns can energize their base and maintain relatively high minority-turnout rates.
The best evidence that Brown’s election represents a “game changer” comes from the magnitude and near-uniformity of his statewide support when compared to the most recent Republican candidates for statewide election. Brown won 52 percent of the votes cast on January 19. McCain received 36 percent of the vote in 2008, and Kerry Healey, the Republican nominee for governor in 2006, received 35 percent. This represents a sixteen-point shift statewide in the Republicans’ favor.
Not only did Brown significantly outperform recent top-of-the-ticket Republicans in the statewide vote share, he did better on a town-by-town basis, too. Brown’s percentage of the vote exceeded McCain’s in every one of the 351 cities and towns in Massachusetts, including liberal enclaves such as Cambridge, Provincetown, Amherst, and Northampton, each of which gave Brown 4-6 percent more of the vote than it did McCain. Every precinct in the city of Boston saw a net shift toward the Republican candidate, compared to 2008.
April 23, 2010
Ten years ago the 170,000 residents of Zinder were barely connected to the 21st century. This mid-sized town in the eastern half of Niger had sporadic access to water and electricity, a handful of basic hotels, and very few landlines. The twelve-hour, 900 km drive to Niamey, the capital of Niger, was a communications blackout, with the exception of the few cabines téléphoniques along the way.
Then, in 2003 a Celtel mobile-phone tower appeared in town, and life rapidly changed. “I can get information quickly and without moving,” a wholesaler in the local market told me. Before the tower was built, he had to travel several hours to the nearest markets via a communal taxi to buy millet or meet potential customers, and he never knew whether the person he wanted to see would be there. Now he uses his mobile phone to find the best price, communicate with buyers, and place orders.
Zinder, which has since grown to some 200,000 residents, still has no ATMs or supermarkets, and many roads to surrounding villages are made of sand or compressed dirt. But it is filled with small kiosks freshly painted in the colors of the prepaid mobile phone cards they sell.
Despite anemic economic growth rates, limited agricultural progress, and overwhelming poverty (85 percent of the population lives on less than $2 per day), Nigeriens are now more connected than ever. More than 60 percent of them have mobile phone services—no small feat in a country three times the size of California, with bad roads, unreliable postal services, and two landlines per thousand people.
Niger’s telecommunications revolution is being repeated all over Africa, where people are using mobile phones at rates that far exceed the industry’s early expectations. In 1999 the Kenya-based service provider Safaricom projected that the mobile phone market in Kenya would reach three million subscribers by 2020. Safaricom currently has over thirteen million.
And mobile phone use is booming despite high costs. The cheapest mobile phone in Kenya costs half the average monthly income. In Niger the price of the cheapest mobile phone could buy 12.5 kg of millet, enough to feed a household of five for five days. Yet mobile phone subscriptions in Africa have risen from 16 million in 2000 to 376 million in 2008—or one-third of sub-Saharan Africa’s population. This does not mean that 376 million people have mobile phones in sub-Saharan Africa—some people may own several handsets or subscriber identity module (SIM) cards, suggesting that official figures might overestimate the number of actual users. On the other hand, sharing mobile phones is a common practice in Africa, so usership could be even higher than subscriber totals suggest. There is, in either case, no question that Africans are using mobile phones in high numbers.
As the numbers have grown, the demographics have also changed dramatically. Between 2005 and 2009, the percentage of the Kenyan population living in areas with mobile phone coverage remained largely constant, but the number of subscriptions tripled, reaching 17 million by 2009. The first adopters were primarily male, educated, young, wealthy, and urban. But with prices dropping, usage has extended to a much broader population…
There are some good reasons to believe that mobile phones could be the gateway to better lives and livelihoods for poor people. While some of the most fundamental ideas in economics about the virtues of markets assume that information is costless and equally available to all, low-income countries in sub-Saharan Africa are very far from that idealization. Prior to the introduction of mobile phones, farmers, traders, and consumers had to travel long distances to markets, often over very poor roads, simply to obtain price (and other) information. Such travel imposed significant costs in time and money.
Mobile phones, by contrast, reduce the cost of information. When mobile phones were introduced in Niger, search costs fell by half. Farmers, consumers, and firms can now obtain more and in many cases “better” information—in other words, information that meets their needs. People can then use this information to take advantage of arbitrage opportunities by selling in different markets at different times of year, migrating to new areas, or offering new products. This should, in theory, lead to more efficient markets and improve welfare.