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  • To Beat Obamacare, Opponents Resurrect an Old Birther Argument
    Obamacare protests
    Obamacare opponents outside the Supreme Court in March, 2014 Jay Mallin/ZUMA

    The Supreme Court today is considering whether to hear a challenge to Obamacare that could deprive 8 million people of their newly acquired health insurance. If the court does decide to take the case, though, it will be buying into a legal argument that is frequently deployed by a different group of anti-Obama litigants—those who are trying to challenge the president's citizenship.

    The case, King v. Burwell, is one of a pair of lawsuits (the other is Halbig v. Burwell) seeking to strike a blow to the heart of the Affordable Care Act. As I explained last year:

    The argument goes something like this: When Congress wrote the ACA, it said that premium subsidies would be available for certain qualifying citizens who were "enrolled through an Exchange established by the State." (Emphasis added.) The law doesn't say that those subsidies are available to people in the 34 states that declined to set up exchanges, where residents must utilize the now-infamously buggy, the federal exchange.

    That's where Obamacare opponents see a fatal flaw in the law. The plaintiffs in Halbig claim that they won't be eligible for tax credits because their states didn't start an exchange, so they won't be able to afford insurance. As a result, they argue that they'll be subject to the fine for not buying insurance, or to avoid the fine, they'll have to pay a lot for insurance they don't want. They want the court to block the IRS from implementing the law.

    It's a pretty audacious claim from a bunch of people who are, in fact, being helped quite a bit by Obamacare. One of the plaintiffs in Halbig is actually complaining about being forced to buy insurance that, with the subsidy, costs him $21 a year.

    Putting those issues aside, though, the question for the Supreme Court today is whether to take up the King case. Obamacare opponents lost this case in July after it was argued before the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va. The court found that the issues raised by the plaintiffs were indeed serious, and that the statute is vague because of what is essentially a drafting error in the text. But Supreme Court precedent, the judges said, requires them to give deference to regulatory agencies' interpretation of laws passed by Congress. Those agencies, namely the IRS, have taken the view that Congress intended for everyone to be able to access subsidies, regardless of which exchange they use to buy insurance. (Most of the law's drafters have endorsed that argument in amicus briefs.)

    The Halbig case, however, was heard by a three-judge panel from a different appellate court, in Washington, DC. That panel, which included two conservative GOP appointees, rejected the IRS's interpretation of the law by and ruled, in a 2-1 vote, that Congress' screw-up makes the federal health care subsidies unlawful. Generally speaking, when appellate courts disagree in similar cases like this, it's up to the US Supreme Court to resolve the conflict, and that's exactly what the King plaintiffs have asked the Supreme Court to do.

    But not long after the decision in Halbig, the full DC Circuit set aside the panel decision and agreed to hear the case en banc—meaning that every judge on the circuit will will have a vote. The case is set to be argued in December, and many observers believe the full court, which now includes several Obama appointees, will overturn the lower court ruling and agree with the 4th Circuit that the subsidies are permissible. So technically, there is no circuit split at the moment for the high court to resolve—an argument the government has made in its briefs to the court opposing a high court review.

    But the King plaintiffs are arguing that the Supreme Court should take up the case now anyway—because, well, they think it's really, really important to stop health care reform from moving forward in case it eventually turns out to be illegal. (They're also arguing that the original DC Circuit panel decision creates a circuit split, but plenty of lawyers disagree with them.)


    In their petition to the Supreme Court, the King plaintiffs write, "Given the self-evident enormous importance of the IRS Rule to the ongoing implementation of the ACA, to the immediate economic decisions of millions of Americans and thousands of businesses, and to the currently flowing billions of dollars in expenditures that the D.C. Circuit ruled illegal, the need for this Court's review is plainly and uniquely urgent."

    That dire language, though, bears some resemblance to the legal rhetoric frequently employed by some of the nation's most dogged litigators: the birthers—those people who've spent the past six years filing lawsuits trying to prove that President Obama is not an American citizen. In years of legal filings, they've repeatedly begged the court to rule on Obama's "legitimacy"—even though every lower court has rejected their claims—because, you know, if it turns out that he's not really a citizen, that's a problem the court should fix right away.

    Here's just one example, from the Supreme Court petition in Charles Kerchner v. Barack Hussein Obama II:

    If the President and Commander in Chief is ineligible for those offices, both our civilian and military sector need to know that as soon as possible. The President is the Commander in Chief of our military forces. Whether he is legitimate is also vital in maintaining the proper chain of command in our military and in giving legality to all military orders that emanate from him.

    Since the President signs all acts passed by Congress into law, it is vitally important that the President be legitimately in power so as to give those laws domestic and international legality.

    Ian Millhiser, a constitutional policy analyst at the Center for American Progress, says this sort of argument is common among not just birthers, but also tax protesters and other fringe litigants looking to kill off government programs. The Halbig and King plaintiffs, he says, are essentially saying, "Because we have created this crisis whereby filing this lawsuit we have raised the possibility that all of this disruption has happened, it is therefore imperative that you, Supreme Court, take this case to end all this disruption we have created."

    The problem with this line of argument, of course, is that it could be applied to any lawsuit, no matter how frivolous. That's why Millhiser doesn't think the Supreme Court is likely to take up the case, at least not until the full DC Circuit delivers its own ruling. A case doesn't become worthy of Supreme Court review, he says, simply because the plaintiffs have cooked up a legal attack strategy that, if successful, "could lead to catastrophic consequences." He'll likely find out if he's right on Monday, when the court could announce whether it's taking the case.

  • Republicans Tried to Suppress the Black Vote in North Carolina. It's Not Working.

    "The first question I ask my customers is: Are you registered?" Jolanda Smith says.

    Smith runs a hair salon on the outskirts of Fayetteville, North Carolina. Her hair is dyed lavender and her arms are covered in heart and shooting-star tattoos. In the lead-up to the midterms, she's lending her storefront to Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan's reelection campaign. Smith passes out sample ballots and flyers and tells customers how to register and where their polling location is. Last Saturday morning, she was talking God and voting as she straightened a customer's hair.

    "It's: Are you gonna vote, yes or no?" she says, sectioning off a lock of hair and pulling it through the iron. "God gave us a choice, and the choices are always yes or no. It's not maybe. It's not, 'Let me think about it,' 'cause those are excuses…On down from choosing Christ to voting. You gonna vote? Yes or no?"

    IN 2013, North Carolina Republicans, led by Hagan's opponent, state house speaker Thom Tillis, passed a far-reaching voting law that curtails early voting and eliminates same-day registration. The Justice Department sued North Carolina over the law, charging it was discriminatory and would depress minority turnout.

    Hagan's campaign knows that black voter turnout could decide her fate—and, by extension, determine which party controls the Senate for the final two years of President Barack Obama's term. If African-Americans manage to turn out at presidential-year levels—if they're at least 21 percent of the electorate—Hagan will probably win, says Tom Jensen, director of the North Carolina-based polling firm Public Policy Polling.

    That's why the Hagan campaign, and its coordinated get-out-the-vote organization Forward North Carolina—along with the NAACP, state Democrats, and get-out-the-vote outfits—launched unprecedented efforts this year to mobilize black voters.

    Those efforts are paying off. On the first day of early voting last week, 76-year-old Ruben Betts was sitting on the curb in a shopping center parking lot wearing an "I just voted" sticker on his sweater. The president reminded him to vote this year, he says: "Obama sent me a letter." As of Thursday, 24 percent of early voters in North Carolina were African-American, according to records from the state board of elections. That's up from just 17 percent at the same point during the last midterm elections in 2010.

    The Hagan field operation, which has 40 offices, 100 staffers, and 10,000 volunteers, is the largest that North Carolina has ever seen in a Senate race. By comparison, the get-out-the-vote campaign for North Carolina Secretary of State Elaine Marshall's failed Senate bid in 2010 was almost entirely run by volunteers. "We had no money, I mean no money," says Thomas Mills, a Democratic political consultant who helped coordinate Marshall's field operation. "And maybe five paid staffers. The difference in what they've got now—it's just not even same thing. There's no comparison."

    Democrats have spent $1 million on ads aired on black radio stations. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee partnered with the Congressional Black Caucus this month to send black lawmakers on a bus tour through North Carolina and five other battleground states. And Hagan's campaign is collaborating extensively with black clergy across the state and roughly 150 black small business owners like Smith who are helping turn out voters this year.

    Smith says the main issue that convinces her customers to go to the polls is health insurance. (North Carolina didn't expand Medicaid, so about 500,000 poor North Carolinians are still without insurance.) Jobs top the list, too. Smith's shop sits on Murchison Road, one of the main drags leading out of Fayetteville. The further you drive from the town center, the less money there is—the storefronts become more faded, the sidewalks get weedier, the landscape grayer. "It's hard to get a job even if you have a degree," she says.

    Smith adds that anger over the August shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, will also bring people in her community out on Tuesday. "It was more than just him," she notes, referring to the police brutality she witnesses regularly in her community. "You have some in the system that say, 'I'm gonna hide behind this badge and use it for injustice instead of justice'…To us it feels like it's racist."

    T-omnis Cox says he feels like a potential Michael Brown. A 23-year-old who works at a chicken plant in eastern North Carolina, he was hanging out in front of a corner liquor store in Goldsboro last Thursday evening. "It's hard out here in the world," he says. "Every day, we're ducking from cops, we're ducking from law." Cox says he's going to vote for Hagan because "Republicans don't care about the poor."

    Hagan's campaign has also reached out to African-American churches as a key component of its voter mobilization effort, urging pastors around the state to help with voter education and registration.

    The Rev. Dumas Alexander Harshaw Jr. says his church in downtown Raleigh, First Baptist—which was founded by freed slaves—has always been political. This election cycle, the church has been helping voters register, and handing out sample ballots as well as guidelines on how and where to vote. Last Sunday, Harshaw invited Dr. Everett Ward, the president of St. Augustine's University, a historically black college in the city, to speak to the members of First Baptist about voting.

    "We've seen this movie before," Ward tells the congregation, referring to the slew of policies Tillis and his fellow Republicans in the state Legislature have enacted since 2012 that disproportionately harm minorities. "It had the same title in 1895, in 1958, in 1968: 'The South Shall Rise Again.'" A few amens rise from the pews. If North Carolina sends Tillis to Washington, Ward continues, "we will lose more opportunity for upward mobility, access to healthcare will disappear, access to higher education will disappear."

    So go vote, he says. "Throughout history…When our people faced discrimination and injustice, we answered the call."

    "Will you go?" Ward asks the congregation, and the chapel fills with "Yes." "Will you go?" "Yes."

    Not everyone needs to be convinced to exercise their civic duty. "People died so I might have the right to vote," says Mary Bethel, who is lending her Fayetteville storefront to Hagan's ground campaign. Last Friday afternoon, she sat at her desk among stacks of papers, envelopes, Post-its and grandchild photos in her small tax shop on Murchison Road, wearing bright red lipstick and lightly smudged glasses. "My parents voted til the day they died," she adds. "I grew up in segregation. I vote every election."

    Tillis' record as A leader of the unpopular state Legislature has made it easier for people like Smith and Ward to get black voters to the polls. "Kay Hagan, to me she's wishy-washy, she's two-faced. But Tillis is an out-out crook," says Michael Curtis, a 65-year-old unemployed former construction worker who lives in Raleigh. Democrats haven't done much for Curtis—he's been out of a job since Obama was elected, and says he doesn't have health care—but he's still voting Hagan. Last year, Tillis voted against expanding Medicaid in North Carolina, which would have provided coverage to a half million uninsured North Carolinians. Tillis led a GOP push to cut funding for substance abuse treatment centers by 12 percent. In 2013, he and his fellow Republicans slashed unemployment benefits for 170,000 North Carolinians and eliminated the state's Earned Income Tax Credit, while cutting taxes for rich people. And Tillis backed the harsh voter suppression law, too.

    These bills and others Tillis and fellow Republicans forced through after they took control of both the legislature and the governorship in 2012 led the NAACP's Rev. William Barber to launch the Moral Mondays movement in April 2013. For 74 straight weeks now, protesters have held demonstrations near the state capitol demanding a retreat from the state's sharp right turn.

    Now the NAACP is harnessing that anger to get voters to the polls in the most massive mobilization effort the group has ever made in a non-presidential year. Last Thursday, the first day of early voting in the state, the NAACP led 32 marches to the polls—more than in any previous midterm year. Barber's organization is also calling all of the 286,000 African-Americans who voted in 2012 and 2008 but didn't vote in 2010, helping register thousands of new voters, buying radio ads, and reaching out to churches. "African-Americans need to vote because we're the ones who know the most about voter suppression," Barber told Mother Jones.

    If Hagan loses, though, it won't be African-Americans' fault. It will be because too many centrist Democrats voted Republican, Barber says. There are 800,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans in North Carolina, many of whom are white. "You don't lay the blame of this election on black people."

  • Court Rules Maine Can't Quarantine Ebola Nurse

    After a days-long battle with Maine governor Paul LePage, Kaci Hickox, a nurse who recently returned from treating Ebola patients in Sierra Leone, has officially won the right to go outside.

    Earlier this week, LePage announced he would seek legal authority to forcibly quarantine Hickox—who has not exhibited symptoms of Ebola—in her home. LePage, a Republican, dispatched state police to "monitor" her house. However, in a series of orders issued Thursday and Friday, a state judge ruled that Hickox could leave her home and could not be barred from any public places.

    Hickox, who had been working with Doctors Without Borders in Sierra Leone, was quarantined in a New Jersey hospital last weekend after a forehead scanner at the Newark airport indicated she had a temperature of 101 degrees. Fever is an early symptom of Ebola. But by the time she arrived at the hospital, doctors took another temperature reading and told Hickox she no longer had a fever, according to her own account. Since then, Hickox has been tested twice for Ebola. Both times, she tested negative for the virus. Since Ebola can only be transmitted by patients who are currently experiencing symptoms (and, of course, only if they actually have the virus), experts say Hickox presents little risk to others.

    On Monday, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) released Hickox, allowing her to return to her Fort Kent, Maine, home. But in Maine, Hickox became the center of a political battle, as LePage—who is in a tight reelection fight—attempted to quarantine Hickox for the remainder of the 21-day Ebola incubation period. Maine's director of Health and Human Services said that the state government would seek a court order to keep Hickox from leaving her home. 

    LePage's proposed quarantine ran contrary to even the more stringent guidelines issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Wednesday. According to those guidelines, health care workers who had treated Ebola-infected patients for prolonged periods while wearing protective gear but who do not exhibit symptoms should have their temperature monitored frequently—but they do not need to be forcibly quarantined. While local health authorities may consider barring returned health care workers from crowded public places, such as shopping malls and movie theaters, the guidelines say that movement in open areas outside their homes "may be permitted."

    Hickox had stated explicitly that she did not intend to observe the quarantine. On Thursday, she was seen biking around her neighborhood.

    Members of Maine's medical community strongly criticized the attempted quarantine. The Maine Medical Association issued a letter arguing that indiscriminate quarantines of returned health care workers "may be well intended" but that the policy "is not supported by the science or experience."

    "Unnecessarily quarantining these returning health care workers can have a devastating impact on the efforts to stop Ebola at its source and ultimately here," the letter said.

    The American Civil Liberties Union also opposed the quarantine. "There are legal standards that must be met before the state can hold Kaci Hickox or anyone else in custody," Alison Beyea, executive director of the ACLU's Maine office, said in a statement Wednesday. "In this case, we don't believe the standard has been met. This is a rapidly changing situation. That makes it all the more important that the government remain transparent and even-handed, and make decisions based on medically sound science, not on fear."

    LePage's Democratic challenger, Rep. Mike Michaud, initially appeared to endorse the governor's actions. Queried about the issue on Wednesday, Michaud told reporters that "it's the state's responsibility to make sure people are protected here in the state of Maine for the public safety, and I support the 21-day quarantine." He added that he believed that the government should rely on the guidance of health professionals to determine the duration of the quarantine.

    Today, however, Michaud's campaign told Mother Jones that he "supports a voluntary quarantine" and that it should be in line with CDC guidelines.

    Medical experts aside, advocates of quarantines seem to have public opinion on their side. A CBS News poll released Wednesday found that 80 percent of Americans believe US citizens returning from West Africa should be "quarantined upon arrival" until authorities can be certain they do not have Ebola.

  • How the Christian Right Is Using Hobby Lobby and "Duck Dynasty" to Take Back America

    Pundits may be declaring the culture wars over, but conservative Christians are donning their battle gear and rushing back to the front lines. In recent months, a coalition of conservative evangelical organizations has been pursuing an aggressive voter mobilization campaign that involves a combination of high-tech tools, briefings for pastors, and rallies simulcast to mega-churches around the country.

    The goal of these gatherings is to drum up outrage over recent political skirmishes, including the Hobby Lobby lawsuit, and to persuade believers that their religious freedoms are under attack by ungodly forces. During one recent event, which was shown in churches across the nation, speakers likened the situation of US churchgoers to Christians beheaded by ISIS in Syria. "We see the struggle between good and evil, light and darkness, truth and lies," said David Benham, whose planned HGTV reality show was canceled after his fiercely anti-gay remarks came to light. "What's happening with swords over in the Middle East is happening with silence over here in America."

    The campaign dates back to March, when United in Purpose, a nonprofit funded by wealthy evangelical Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, convened a Voter Mobilization Strategy Summit near Dallas. At the event, churches and conservative Christian political organizations forged a strategy to mobilize voters for the 2014 midterms. United in Purpose, a behind-the-scenes technology and communications group with deep dominionist ties, also shared a variety of tools including videos and voter mobilization apps. (One app allows pastors to compare their membership rosters with voter rolls, so they can better guide their flock to the polls.) The Family Research Council and Texas-based Vision America, which played a key role in the summit, then began hosting policy briefings for pastors and staging lavishly produced voter mobilization events that were broadcast live to churches and groups across the country.

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  • How Science Explains #Gamergate

    By now you're probably heard of #Gamergate, the internet lynch mob masquerading as a movement for ethics in video game journalism. Though #Gamergaters, as they're known, have repeatedly targeted their critics with rape and death threats, drawing rebukes from the broader gaming community, surprisingly few observers have asked whether violent video games themselves may have triggered this sort of abhorrent behavior.

    Debate about video games and violence has, of course, been around almost as long as video games have. In 1976, the now-defunct game company Exidy introduced Death Race, a driving game based around mowing down what appeared to be pedestrians. "I'm sure most people playing this game do not jump in their car and drive at pedestrians," the behavioral psychologist Gerald Driessen told the New York Times. "But one in a thousand? One in a million? And I shudder to think what will come next if this is encouraged. It'll be pretty gory."

    Driessen's fears seem almost quaint these days. Traffic fatalities and violent crime are at their lowest rates in decades, despite the advent of drastically more realistic and morally depraved games such as Grand Theft Auto. "Facts, common sense, and numerous studies all debunk the myth that there is a link between video games and violence," the Entertainment Software Association, the trade group that represents the $65 billion video game industry, writes on its web page. "In fact, numerous authorities, including the US Supreme Court, US Surgeon General, Federal Trade Commission, and Federal Communications Commission examined the scientific record and found that it does not establish any causal link between violent programming and violent behavior."

    Yet the ESA's defense of violent games masks a deeper reality: An emerging body of scientific research shows that the games may not be as harmless as many people think.

    "Just because you don't necessarily go out and stab someone" after playing a violent game "doesn't mean you won't have a more adversarial mindset," says Susan Greenfield, an Oxford-trained neurologist and author of the forthcoming book, Mind Change: How Digital Technologies Are Leaving Their Mark on Our Brains. "Your thermostat will change so that you will be more easily angered, more hostile than polite. And that, in fact, is what we're seeing with this #Gamergate thing."

    Many studies, in fact, show a strong connection between gaming and the types of behaviors exhibited by the #Gamergate mob. A 2010 meta-analysis of 136 papers detailing 381 tests involving 130,296 research participants found that violent gameplay led to a significant desensitization to violence, increases in aggression, and decreases in empathy. "Concerning public policy, we believe the debates can and should finally move beyond the general question of whether violent video game play is a causal risk factor for aggressive behavior," the authors wrote. "The scientific literature has effectively and clearly shown the answer to be 'yes.'"

    But this meta-analysis hasn't laid the debate to rest. As Erik Kain pointed out in Mother Jones last year, "another metastudy showed that most studies of violent video games over the years suffered from publication biases that tilted the results towards foregone correlative conclusions."

    What's clear is that more than half of the 50 top-selling video games contain violent content labels.* And some evidence suggests that the effects of playing them go beyond the effects of just watching violence on a screen. Researchers from the Netherlands' Utrecht University, for instance, found that students who played a violent video game later exhibited more aggressive behavior than a group of spectators who had watched the others play.

    The aggressive behavior resulting from gaming isn't just theoretical; it can spill out into the real world. For example, a study of long-term effects in American and Japanese schoolchildren showed that as little as three months of intense gaming increased their frequency of violent behavior such as punching or kicking or getting into fights. Several studies have involved telling experimental subjects competing in a nonviolent video game that they could administer a sonic blast through their opponents' headphones, but warned that it would be loud enough to cause permanent hearing damage. Those most willing to administer the (nonexistent) sound blasts, as it turned out, had recently played violent games.

    Other evidence suggests that people who play violent video games are less likely than others to act as Good Samaritans. Participants in an Iowa State University study played either a violent or nonviolent video game before a fake fight was staged outside the laboratory. Players of the violent game were less likely than other participants to report hearing the fight, judged the fight as less serious, and took longer to help the injured party.

    In a 2012 study whose outcome relates more directly to #Gamergate, French college students played either a violent game or a nonviolent game before reading ambiguous story plots about potential interpersonal conflicts. The researchers then had them list what they thought the main characters would do, say, or feel as the story continued. The players of the violent games expected more aggressive responses from the characters in the story—a result that mirrors how the gaming community, but hardly anyone else, has consistently imputed evil motives to video game journalists and female game developers when reading about developments in the emerging "scandal."

    Taken together, these studies may help explain why some participants in #Gamergate felt justified in sending rape and death threats to their critics while other gamers, instead of calling them out, looked the other way.

    In her book, which is not without its critics, Greenfield lays out a neurological explanation for the video game/violence connection. While the well-known plasticity of the human brain allows it to adapt to a wide range of environments, Greenfield argues that it also exposes us to dangerous changes in brain chemistry when we immerse ourselves in violent video games for extended periods:

    Investigators recorded the brain activity of experienced gamers, who normally played an average of fourteen hours per week, while they played a first-person shooter game…Results showed that areas of the brain linked with emotion and empathy (the cingulate cortex and the amygdala) were less active during violent video gaming. The authors suggest that these areas must be suppressed during violent video gaming, just as they would be in real life, in order to act violently without hesitation.

    What's more, the thrill that we experience while playing video games results from a release of dopamine, the same brain stimulant that accounts for the addictive appeal of drugs, gambling, and porn.

    When dopamine accesses the prefrontal cortex, it inhibits the activity of the neurons there, and so recapitulates in some ways the immature brain state of the child, or indeed of the reckless gambler, schizophrenic or the food junkie. Just as children are highly emotional and excitable, adults in this condition are also more reactive to sensations rather than calmly proactive.

    "How might his apply to video games?" Greenfield goes on to ask. "You can afford to be reckless in a way that would have dire results in the three-dimensional world. The consequence-free nature of video gaming is a basic part of its ethos."

    And, so it seems, of the ethos of #Gamergate. Harassing and threatening people might seem like fun to some people—until, at least, somebody dies in the real world.

    Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that 60 percent of videogames are violent. It should have stated that more than half of top-selling video games are violent. The sentence has since been fixed.

  • Facebook Wants You to Vote on Tuesday. Here's How It Messed With Your Feed in 2012.

    On Election Day, political campaigns, candidates, consultants, and pollsters pay close attention to who votes and why—and so does Facebook. For the past six years, on every national Election Day, the social-networking behemoth has pushed out a tool—a high-profile button that proclaims "I'm Voting" or "I'm a Voter"—designed to encourage Facebook users to vote. Now, Facebook says it has finished fine-tuning the tool, and if all goes according to plan, on Tuesday many of its more than 150 million American users will feel a gentle but effective nudge to vote, courtesy of Mark Zuckerberg & Co. If past research is any guide, up to a few million more people will head to the polls partly because their Facebook friends encouraged them.

    Yet the process by which Facebook has developed this tool—what the firm calls the "voter megaphone"—has not been very transparent, raising questions about its use and Facebook's ability to influence elections. Moreover, while Facebook has been developing and promoting this tool, it has also been quietly conducting experiments on how the company's actions can affect the voting behavior of its users.

    In particular, Facebook has studied how changes in the news feed seen by its users—the constant drip-drip-drip of information shared by friends that is heart of their Facebook experience—can affect their level of interest in politics and their likelihood of voting. For one such experiment, conducted in the three months prior to Election Day in 2012, Facebook increased the amount of hard news stories at the top of the feeds of 1.9 million users. According to one Facebook data scientist, that change—which users were not alerted to—measurably increased civic engagement and voter turnout.

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  • What Can the Developer of the Polio Vaccine Teach Us About Ebola?

    This story was originally published on

    Had he lived, Dr. Jonas Salk would have turned 100 this week. Salk was a young man when in the spring of 1955 he announced his discovery of a vaccine that could prevent polio. He was hailed as a modern miracle worker. He went on to lead scientists from from around the world in studies of cancer, heredity, the brain, the immune system and AIDS at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California.

    In this age of Ebola, it's enlightening and inspiring to hear Salk talk about the lessons he learned in developing the polio vaccine, and how they might be applicable to the AIDS crisis, which was raging at the time of this interview with Bill Moyers recorded in 1990.

    Salk died five years after this interview was broadcast. His memorial at the Salk Institute reads: "Hope lies in dreams, in imagination and in the courage of those who dare to make dreams into reality."


    SALK: What we're doing now is trying to think like nature, in the sense that we are aware that species that have gone before us have disappeared from the face of the Earth. We'd like to use our intelligence and our creative capacity to prolong our presence on the face of the Earth as long as possible. It requires, therefore, that we develop the kinds of tactics and strategies amongst ourselves so as to assure that this can occur, to assure that we will not destroy ourselves or the planet, to make it uninhabitable and to allow the fullness of the potential of the individual to be expressed, to flower. That is—

    MOYERS: What is—

    SALK: —awfully ideal. The question now is how can we translate this, how can we make this operative? If you want me to give you an example—

    MOYERS: Yeah.

    SALK: —of how people can solve problems for themselves? When the problem of polio confronted this nation, confronted the world, there was an organization that formed in this country called the March of Dimes. Volunteers. They were not government-directed or -led. They didn't ask the government to do anything. They did it themselves. That's just a small illustration of what has happened in the past and can happen again and is happening continuously now here and, I think, in other parts of the world.

    MOYERS: I read the other day, coming out here, in fact, that by the year 2000, which is not very far from now, there will be some 20 million people in the world carrying the AIDS virus. Is that a comparable challenge to what you faced with polio 50 years ago?

    SALK: Well, it's an even more difficult challenge, but that's what evokes a response on the part of those who want to solve the problem, who are addressing themselves to just that question and philosophically, in approaching it. The virus, if it prevails, then we will lose. But if we are able to reduce the damage caused by the virus and, at the same time, try to enhance the immune response to the virus and establish a more favorable balance between the two, then we will be doing in relation to that problem what we want to do in relation to the world and that is to reduce the negative and enhance the positive at one and the same time.

    MOYERS: The good news would be that there is a vaccine that protects us and immunizes us, against the AIDS virus. Are we going to have that good news, do you think, in your time and mine?

    SALK: My expectation is that we will solve the problem. It's just a matter of time and just a matter of strategy. Now, why do I say that this is the case? It's because I think solutions come through evolution. It comes through asking the right question, because the answer pre-exists. But it's the question that we have to define and discover, to discover and to define.

    MOYERS: You mean, when you asked the question about how to defeat polio, the answer was already there?

    SALK: Mm-hmm, in a way. If you think of David and Michelangelo, it was in the stone, but it had to be unveiled and revealed. You don't invent the answer. You reveal the answer.

    MOYERS: From nature.

    SALK: From nature.

    MOYERS: From the life process.

    SALK: Yes.

  • 32 Countries Where Global Warming Could Make Violence Worse

    Recently, the Pentagon released a disturbing report. Climate change, it warned, will exacerbate problems like terrorism and disease outbreaks, drain military resources, and create new enemies. The report said that the military's basic operations—everything from training to its supply chains and infrastructure—are now threatened by rising temperatures and shifting weather patterns. It all points to one conclusion: Global warming is a national security issue.

    Now a new analysis, released Wednesday, is naming 32 countries in which conflict and civil unrest could be worsened by the changing climate. The findings are part of the seventh annual "Climate Change and Environmental Risk Atlas" from Maplecroft—a firm that studies how vulnerable countries are to various risks. It concludes that climate change is already impacting "food production, poverty, migration and social stability—factors that significantly increase the risk of conflicts and instability in fragile and emerging states."

    Those pressures could also "lead to disenfranchisement and drive support for radical groups."


    Maplecroft analyzed how exposed populations in these are countries are to climate impacts and assessed how well their governments will be able to adapt over the next 30 years. According to the report, the five countries most vulnerable to climate-related conflict and food insecurity are Bangladesh, Sierra Leone, South Sudan, Nigeria, and Chad.

    The 10 countries that Maplecroft found were most vulnerable to food insecurity and climate change. Maplecroft

    The report's authors highlight Nigeria (tied for third the list), where "widespread drought and food insecurity helped create the socio-economic conditions that led to the emergence of Boko Haram and the violent insurgency in the North East of the country."

    Boko Haram is a militant Islamist group that the US Justice Department says has been responsible for 600 attacks on government, churches, mosques and schools. It has killed about 5,000 people since 2009 and displaced over 650,000. The group kidnapped more than 200 girls and young women in April. (The Nigerian government says it has reached a ceasefire with the militants that would include the release of the girls, but according to the BBC the talks are still ongoing.)

    After visiting Nigeria earlier this year, my Mother Jones colleague Erika Eichelberger found that drought, population explosion, environmental degradation, and poverty are all aggravating the country's armed conflicts. There are now more clashes between farmers and nomadic herders over ever-dwindling agricultural land, and economic hardships in the country are boosting Boko Haram's recruitment efforts. Eichelberger quoted Oluwakemi Okenyodo, the executive director of CLEEN Foundation, a Nigerian security-focused nonprofit, as saying that when "young people are pushed to the wall," there's a greater chance that they will be sucked into the growing Boko Haram insurgency. Eichelberger reported that "there's not enough hard evidence yet to implicate human-caused climate change in the bulk of the ecological disaster" in Nigeria—but that could change in the future as rising temperatures increasingly threaten agriculture in the region.

    In a 2011 report, the United States Institute of Peace outlined a "basic causal mechanism" linking global warming to future conflict in Nigeria: Water and agricultural land shortages are followed by sickness, hunger, and joblessness. Governmental inaction on these issues in turn opens the door to conflict. "In the increasingly parched, violent northeast," writes the report's lead author Aaron Sayn, "members of groups like Boko Haram explain their acts by voicing disgust with government."

    Lake Chad supports vast swathes of Nigerian farming and grazing land, but it has lost more than 90 percent of its original size. Jacques Descloitres/NASA GSFC

    Maplecroft's rankings lend even more weight to the growing body of research tying climate change to the potential for more violence. Prior to the unrest that eventually exploded into revolution and armed conflict, Syria had experienced an unprecedented drought that led to the internal displacement of thousands of people who had lost their livelihoods.

    Natural resources were also at the heart of the Darfur crisis. "It is no accident that the violence in Darfur erupted during the drought," UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon wrote in a 2007 Washington Post op-ed. "Amid the diverse social and political causes, the Darfur conflict began as an ecological crisis, arising at least in part from climate change."

  • 7 Big Gun Fights to Watch on Election Day

    No election cycle in recent memory has seen the guns issue heat up the way this year's has. The National Rifle Association, continuing a long-running strategy of campaign spending, earmarked over $11 million for this year's elections—but for the first time in decades the nation's leading gun lobby is facing some truly formidable opposition. Americans for Responsible Solutions, launched by former congresswoman and mass shooting survivor Gabby Giffords, and Everytown for Gun Safety, bankrolled by former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, have spent millions of their own to try to vanquish the NRA's influence. How will it play out? Here are key races to watch on Tuesday:


    Spending by the NRA: $485,000

    Spending by gun control groups: Everytown/Bloomberg, $2.6 million; Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, $1 million. [Update: A new press release from Everytown lists their total Washington spending at $4 million.]

    The showdown: In perhaps the most-watched race on guns, voters will decide on two competing ballot measures on the issue of background checks. Initiative 594 would expand background checks for gun purchases online, at gun shows, or through private transactions, closing the so-called loophole in federal law.  The Washington Alliance for Gun Responsibility, which is leading the campaign for I-594, has received financial support totaling more than $2.5 million from both Everytown for Gun Safety and from Bloomberg personally. Bill and Melinda Gates also gave more than $1 million.

    The gun lobby counterattacked with Initiative 591, sponsored by Alan Gottlieb, president of the Washington-based Second Amendment Foundation. I-591 would prohibit the state from requiring background checks unless a "uniform national standard" for those checks is created. If passed, I-591 could create several confusing legal scenarios: This sort of state-level prohibition could contradict federal law, which already allows states to mandate additional background checks. And if both I-591 and I-594 pass, they may negate each other and lead to a protracted legal battle.

    Ricochet: Speaking out against I-594 in July, the NRA's chief lobbyist in Washington state, Brian Judy, raised the specter of, what else, Nazi Germany. Referring to venture capitalist Nick Hanauer, who pledged $500,000 to back I-594 and who is Jewish, Judy said: "Now, he has put half-a-million dollars toward this policy, the same policy that led to his family getting run out of Germany by the Nazis...It’s like any Jewish people that I meet who are anti-gun, I think, 'Are you serious? Do you not remember what happened?'"

    North Carolina

    Spending by the NRA: $5.1 million

    Spending by gun control groups: Americans for Responsible Solutions, $944,000

    The showdown: The NRA has spent millions on Thom Tillis, speaker of the North Carolina house and GOP candidate for US Senate. That's the case despite the fact that Tillis' opponent, incumbent Sen. Kay Hagan, has been a strong supporter of gun rights, having voted against bans on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines. She did, however, vote for the Manchin-Toomey amendment to expand background checks. The two candidates are in a tight race that could decide control of the Senate. In September, the NRA made a $1.4 million TV ad buy highlighting Tillis' record on Second Amendment issues.

    Ricochet: Tillis has an A+ rating from the NRA, not least because he supports the NRA's agenda of legalizing guns all over the place. During his tenure in the North Carolina house, Tillis helped pass a bill expanding concealed carry in North Carolina to school parking lots, public parks, and restaurants serving alcohol.


    Spending by the NRA: $4.7 million

    Spending by gun control groups: Americans for Responsible Solutions, $272,000

     Bill Gold/ Warner Bros./ Wikipedia

    The showdown: The NRA has worked vigorously against incumbent Democratic Sen. Mark Udall in another of this year's key senate battlegrounds. A week after the Sandy Hook massacre in December 2012, Udall came out in favor of stricter gun control legislation, and he voted for the Manchin-Toomey bill the following April. His opponent, Republican Rep. Cory Gardner, is decidely pro-gun rights; the NRA spent $1.3 million on a TV ad supporting Gardner. For its part, Americans for Responsible Solutions has targeted voters with digital and direct mail ads in support of Udall.

    Ricochet: So-called "Make My Day" protections seek to allow Colorado homeowners to use deadly force if they feel threatened—and as a state representative, Gardner introduced a "Make My Day Better" law (a term he coined) no less than four times. Had it passed, it would have extended these self-defense protections to business-owners and employees.


    Spending by the NRA: $2.9 million

    Spending by gun control groups: $0

    The showdown: The NRA has spent big on this key Senate race, investing in Republican Rep. Tom Cotton, with $1.4 million going towards TV ads. In 2013, Cotton co-sponsored "The National Right to Carry Reciprocity Act," which would have allowed concealed carry license holders to pack heat in all states that permit concealed carry.

    Ricochet:  In 2013, the NRA ran radio ads praising Cotton's opponent, incumbent Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor, after he voted against the Manchin-Toomey bill, which Pryor did in spite of direct pleas from family members of Sandy Hook victims. But gun control groups generally have not targeted Pryor for that vote, given his vulnerability in a deep-red state. (Everytown ran a TV ad in Arkansas criticizing Pryor shortly after his vote against Manchin-Toomey, but an Everytown spokesperson told Mother Jones that the group hasn't taken any action against Pryor this election season.)


    Spending by the NRA: $663,000 (House) + $3.4 million (Senate)

    Spending by gun control groups: Americans for Responsible Solutions, $269,000 (House) + $470,700 (Senate)

    The showdown: The third congressional district race in Iowa is one of the most heated with respect to guns, with both Americans for Responsible Solutions and the NRA making six-figure buys for TV attack ads. The Republican candidate, David Young, helped block the Manchin-Toomey bill while working as Sen. Chuck Grassley's (R-Iowa) chief of staff. An ARS ad focuses on how that makes it easier for domestic abusers to get guns:

    Young's challenger, former state Sen. Staci Appel, by contrast, voted for a law prohibiting gun possession by perpetrators of domestic violence in 2010. The NRA's ad goes after her by linking her with former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

    In the state's tight Senate race, the NRA has so far spent more money against Democratic Rep. Bruce Braley than on any other candidate this year, throwing its support behind Republican state Sen. Joni Ernst. Ernst has consistently voted for pro-gun policies. The NRA recently aired a provocative ad in her support: A mom is putting her kids to bed and texting with her spouse, who is on his way home from the airport. Suddenly a man breaks in, and the clip cuts to yellow caution tape, while a narrator intones, "Bruce Braley voted to take away your gun rights."

    Americans for Responsible Solutions fired back a few days ago with its own ad, which features a county sheriff and highlights Ernst's opposition to universal background checks.

    Ricochet: The NRA has used versions of its Ernst ad in several other states, including Louisiana, Georgia, and West Virginia.


    Spending by the NRA: $14,000

    Spending by gun control groups: Americans for Responsible Solutions, $1.8 million

    The showdown: Gabby Giffords represented Arizona's 2nd congressional district before she was shot in the head during a community event in Tucson in January 2011. Now, in what is shaping up to be one of the nation's tightest House races, Giffords' Americans for Responsible Solutions has spent more money opposing Republican Martha McSally than it has spent on any other candidate. Incumbent Democratic Rep. Ron Barber beat McSally in the 2012 House race. Barber had served as Giffords' district director, and was also wounded in the 2011 mass shooting.

    ARS aired two commercials in September highlighting McSally's opposition to closing the loophole on background checks at gun shows and online. The group debuted another ad this week.

    Ricochet: In September, ARS ran a controversial ad criticizing McSally's stance on laws that would have made it harder for convicted stalkers to get a gun. ARS yanked the ad after McSally announced that she had been a stalking victim and would support laws that would make it illegal for misdemeanant stalkers to buy guns.

    New Hampshire

    Spending by the NRA: $89,000

    Spending by gun control groups: Americans for Responsible Solutions, $1.1 million

    The showdown: In the first and second congressional districts, ARS has spent big on TV ads that highlight former Republican Rep. Frank Guinta and state Rep. Marilinda Garcia’s opposition to universal background checks. While in Congress, Guinta cosponsored a bill for reciprocity of conceal carry permits across state lines.

    Ricochet: In 2011, Republican congressmen read the Constitution aloud in its entirety on the House floor for the first time. Guinta read the Second Amendment, to the envy of some colleagues.

    All spending totals as of October 29, 2014

  • Joni Ernst Is the Tea Party's Endgame
    Joni Ernst Tea Party
    Louis Brems/ZUMA

    Early last Thursday morning, Joni Ernst, the Republican candidate for Senate in Iowa, swung by the Des Moines Rotary Club to speak at the group's monthly lunch meeting. Mostly white and mostly male, the club counts much of the state's political elite among its members. The day Ernst visited, I spotted the current Republican secretary of state, the GOP's nominee to succeed him, a Republican state senator and former congressional nominee, and a former state GOP chair in the crowd. Republican Gov. Terry Branstad, who is about to win his sixth term in office, wasn't there, but his son Eric was sworn into the club before Ernst spoke.

    Ernst is one of the surprise successes of the 2014 midterms. Thanks to a campaign predicated on playing up the state's growing urban-rural divide and tarring her Democratic opponent, Rep. Bruce Braley, as an out-of-touch urbanite, the one-term state senator has narrowly led most recent polls and holds a two-point advantage in Real Clear Politics' polling average ahead of next Tuesday's election.

    Ernst is often described as the harbinger of a tea party revival. She supports a "personhood" amendment that could make all abortions illegal and endanger birth control and in vitro fertilization. She has called for President Barack Obama's impeachment and thinks states should be free to nullify federal laws. She has vowed to vote for a federal constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage, and she buys into the conspiracy theory that the United Nations' "Agenda 21" is a secret plan to usurp democracy.

    If elected, Ernst would almost certainly be among the most conservative senators in the country. Yet she owes her rise to prominence not to the tea party, but to the Rotary Club types—the GOP establishment, which urged her to run and bet that her biography and folksy political charm would matter far more than her extreme policy positions. She is somehow both the handpicked champion of the mainline business-minded wing of the Republican Party and a hard-right conservative reactionary—the logical end-result of the ongoing merger of the tea party and the rest of the GOP. And if she wins on Tuesday, she'll set an example that Republican candidates will emulate for years to come.


    Ernst's life story is at the heart of her appeal, and she knows it. "I didn't have a lot as a kid, but I didn't know any different," she told the Rotary crowd, regaling the room with tales of her childhood on a small family farm in southwest Iowa. She explained how, in 1989, she was one of 18 Iowa State undergrads sent on an agricultural exchange to a collective farm in Ukraine, which was then still a part of the Soviet Union. Ernst was shocked by the lack of modern amenities—the farm had no telephone, no running water, no car, no refrigerator. "They didn't have those freedoms, and you could tell they hungered for that," she said. The experience pushed her to join ROTC when she returned to campus.

    Ernst built a career in the armed forces. She deployed to Kuwait in 2003 at the start of the second Iraq War, and serves as a lieutenant colonel in the Iowa Army National Guard to this day, leading the largest battalion in the state. In 2004, she ran for county auditor in her home county. She won, and was reelected in 2008. Then, in 2010, Branstad tapped Kim Reynolds, the state senator in Ernst's district, as his lieutenant governor. Reynolds and local Republicans recruited Ernst to run for Reynolds' seat, which she won with 67.4 percent of the vote.

    Ernst's biography—and her record of electoral success—helped rally establishment Republicans to her cause, says Steve Roberts, a former chairman of the state party.

    When Sen. Tom Harkin, the five-term Democratic incumbent, announced his retirement in 2013, the mainline GOP crowd knew Ernst was their woman. "She was a different kind of candidate, which was the only way we were going to maybe have a chance to beat Braley," Roberts says.

    Soon after Harkin announced he would retire, Roberts and a gaggle of other establishment GOPers encouraged Ernst to run for the soon-to-be-open seat. That group included David Oman—a former chief of staff to Branstad who ran unsuccessfully for governor in 1998 and was co-chair of Mitt Romney's Iowa campaign—and David Kochel, Romney's lead political strategist in the state. In July 2013, Ernst announced she would run for Harkin's seat. Reynolds, the lieutenant governor, endorsed Ernst a few months later, and Kochel and Oman joined Ernst's campaign. Romney, Kochel's former boss, endorsed Ernst this March. As the state's top Republican, Branstad didn't endorse a candidate in the primary, but his preference was no secret. "Pretty much everybody in the state knew that Ernst was Branstad's pick, even if he wasn't going to say so publicly," says Tim Hagle, a political scientist at the University of Iowa.


    Four other Republicans ran for the GOP nomination to replace Harkin. Like Ernst, they lacked statewide name recognition. But with the help of her friends in party leadership and a well-timed viral ad in which she promised to apply her pig-castrating skills to the federal budget, Ernst sailed to an easy victory in the June 3 primary. She finished with 56 percent of the vote—an outright majority that ensured she would not have to win over delegates at a potentially unpredictable nominating convention.

    Since June, Ernst has tried to tack to the center, and Democrats have pointed to her comments during the primary to paint her as extreme. "That kind of stuff can come back to haunt you," Hagle says. But Ernst has brushed off her past positions, often by simply denying she ever held them.

    As a result, Ernst's stump speech is light on policy specifics. She rolls through her bio, attacks Braley for being out of touch with farmers, complains about the Environmental Protection Agency, and touts Iowa's economic fortunes over the past several years of Republican rule. "We are at that critical juncture," she'll say. "We have to set America moving in the right direction, just as we have done here in Iowa. I believe our Iowa way, our Iowa values is exactly what we need to see in the federal government." How, exactly, those Iowa values would translate into federal policy is left unstated.

    What Ernst lacks in policy substance, though, she makes up for with folksy charm and panache. She knows how to work a room, and she's an expert in the sort of retail politics expected in Iowa, where presidential hopefuls come every four years to prostrate themselves before caucus voters.

    After the event at the Des Moines Rotary Club, Ernst's bus—"Honk if you think Washington is broken!" is printed in large letters on the back—cruised west on I-80 to the Guthrie County Courthouse for a small meet-and-greet with about 15 supporters. After a stump speech that include fart jokes about climate change regulation—"How do you regulate methane coming out of a cow? I haven't figured that out, I don't know how the EPA's going to figure that out"—Ernst pressed the flesh with the small group, greeting people with hugs as if they were old friends, and readily agreeing with the conservative take on any position they asked her about. The crowd ate it up. "We're Joni Ernst country. And it just don't get any better," Myrna Beeber, a retired nurse, told me. Beeber says she plans to vote for Ernst so that her "son in the military has an advocate in Congress," but others at the event couldn't offer much else for why they plan to vote for her. "I like her personality," another retiree, Benny Woodard, told me. "She's been in Iraq."

    Braley peppers his stump speeches with numbers and policy specifics. But he doesn't have Ernst's easy charm. Last week, I watched him mingle amidst a group of old union hands at a United Steel Workers chili cook-off in the industrial outskirts of Des Moines. As one middle-aged union couple quietly enjoyed their meal, Braley walked up and awkwardly attempted small talk. "I'm just like you, I enjoy a lot of crackers in my chili," he said. The couple stared at their food with disinterest.

    Braley was more at ease when he addressed the full room. He complained about tax breaks given to companies that ship jobs overseas. He put forth a simple pitch on how raising the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour would boost everyone's fortunes, as 20 percent of the state's workforce makes below that level. "180,000 of those Iowans are women, half of them are over the age of 30, and almost a third of them have children," he said at the front of the room as several people lined up to fill up their cup at the keg behind him. "And if you're working full-time in Iowa and only earning $15,000 a year at a minimum wage job and living in poverty, that's just not right."


    Last Sunday, I drove to Red Oak, the small town in Iowa's remote southwest where Ernst grew up. Red Oak is more than 30 miles from any interstate—let alone anything that could begin to qualify as a city—along two-lane highways that wind through cornfields and past grain silos. Downtown consists of one square block with a small park in the middle. The town's lone coffee shop is closed for renovations.

    I had come to Red Oak to talk to Troy Price, the executive director of the Iowa Democratic Party, who had planned to meet some of the few Democrats in this heavily Republican area and make a few calls from a phone bank at the town's Latino cultural center. But when we pulled up in separate cars at 7 p.m., the door to the Latino Center was shut and the lights were off. Price wasn't ready to immediately call it quits, so the two of us opened the unlocked door (this is small town Iowa, after all) and we walked around a few empty rooms to make certain there wasn't a secret backroom where the Democrats had sequestered themselves. After determining that the building was empty, we wandered back out to the street.

    Price, mystified by the case of the missing phone bank, was in the middle of a panicked call to make sure Democrats actually exist on Ernst’s home turf when Jason Frerichs, the 37-year-old chair of the Montgomery County Democrats, ambled up and said hello. Frerichs said his handful of volunteers had already packed up for the day. But he was happy to chat, and suggested we walk the half-mile to a nearby Subway sandwich shop. Montgomery is the third unhealthiest county in the state, Frerichs explained, but he has dropped more than 100 pounds in the past year by eating better and exercising.

    Frerichs, who moved to Red Oak from Iowa City three years ago, is the sort of Democrat who casually describes the GOP as a "party of white supremacists," refers to the Republican governor as "Terry Braindead" and says he wants to go across town and stick a Bruce Braley yard sign on Joni Ernst's lawn. (He hasn't, but he's convinced her neighbor to put one up next door.) "I'm not very well liked by the Montgomery County Republican Party," he explained. Price winced.

    When we got to Subway, where he's clearly a regular, Frerichs went into politicking mode, asking the women behind the counter if they've voted yet and telling them that they should be troubled by Ernst's support for the personhood measure. They told him they are strongly opposed to abortion, and didn't seem convinced when he noted that the personhood bill could endanger access to birth control.

    Midway through our meal, four Ernst staffers walked into the restaurant. They stood out—no one else in Red Oak was dressed business casual—and they carried themselves with the preternatural confidence of youth, like high-school quarterbacks before the big game, or Capitol Hill interns. The Ernst bus was refueling at the gas station next door. Price scrunched in his seat and immediately lowered his voice to barely above a whisper.

    When Branstad and Romney's allies and the GOP establishment tapped Ernst, they "were looking at her resume," he said. "But her positions"—her extreme views on everything from privatizing Social Security to the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq—"weren't great." The party suits made a bet that her positions wouldn't matter when paired with a stirring bio. On Tuesday, they'll find out if they bet right.