Predicting Bad Data

Politics

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I rarely write a blog post in direct response to another article. But I just couldn’t help myself with a post from a The Week story about Neil Newhouse’s predictions for the 2014 congressional elections.

When the 2012 election approached, I became quite obsessed with the polling data trying to get a clue about who would win. And I mean obsessed. I would hover around 538, Huffington Post, Real Clear Politics and any aggregate pollster site I could find. I had a Gallup app on my phone which I checked hourly. I read stories about polling and how some were more accurate than others. I also paid for a pricey copy of The Signal and the Noise by Nate Silver.

Not surprising, most of the pollsters called it right in the days leading up to the election. The one state that gave people fits was Florida, which was fitting given that Obama won it by a hair and the total vote wasn’t even complete until days after the election.

Contrary to what people think about polling, they are very accurate when it comes to elections. I think this is largely because pollsters are dealing with definitive data. Voters have to choose one or the other or none. Election polling isn’t the same as judging presidential approval, consumer confidence or even television ratings, which are more subjective and fall on a scale.

But pollsters hired by politicians try quite hard to develop some inside data, information that common, news polls won’t have. They look for this nebulous information hoping it will give them some inside track on the outcome.

Newhouse worked for Romney during the campaign and had Mittens believing he would win the election up until the polls closed. When the numbers rolled in and it was obvious Romney had lost, his campaign was dumbfounded. I honestly don’t know why. Had they been reading the aggregate polls, which are available to everyone, they would have known that in the end, Romney never had a chance.

There were all sorts of finger pointing post-election. They blamed higher than expected minority turnout. They blamed the impact of Sandy. They blamed Romney’s campaign strategy.

While those are valid faults in the campaign loss, it still doesn’t explain how they were so caught off guard through their polling. Again, they were wildly off the mark compared to everyone else, save only Gallup. Surely someone who’d spent a little time on political websites had to be standing next to Romney telling him that Newhouse was off his rocker. But apparently there wasn’t.

One of the things Newhouse implemented to gain his inside track on the polling was voter enthusiasm. He developed some formula in his polling to gauge how motivated Romney’s voters were about voting for him versus Obama’s people. He rated voters’ motivation on a 1 to 10 scale. More often than not, he found Mitt’s people to be more dedicated.

Newhouse and other Romney backers kept pointing to this enthusiasm advantage as some sort of proof for momentum and a bellwether for turnout. Some were skeptical, including Nate Silver, who repeatedly said there was no momentum for Romney leading up to Election Day. (Nate, by the way, called all 50 states correctly based on his aggregate poll).

Newhouse is now using a version of his same formula to predict the 2014 elections.

While I love data, I also admit fully that I don’t completely understand the complex mining thereof. I do however, grasp basic logic. While enthusiasm might provide insight about voter motivation, at the end of the day it comes down to whether a voter shows up or not. Despite the disparity in motivation, a voter who rates their motivation at a 7 or 8 may be just as likely to show up as one who rates their motivation at a 9 or a 10. And guess what? Their votes count the same.

That’s really the nature of election polling. It’s this or that. No amount of data massaging will get you a magically accurate, contrary opinion that no one else has. It’s not like processing information on stock pricing.

Now, Newhouse isn’t really going out on a limb here by saying that 2014 doesn’t look good for Democrats. Sixth-year elections for a president’s party have never gone well. Ever. His predictions about the November elections likely will pan out barring some unforeseen disaster like a massive Aikenism or Hurricane Sandy or credit default.

We shouldn’t be surprised if he’s right. But we shouldn’t buy the motivation scale either. It just doesn’t add up.

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Sorry, It’s About Racism

Politics
(I apologize for the political kick I’ve had lately. The D.C. crisis has just been too engrossing for me)

They’re so angry.

Watching the shutdown and debt ceiling fight unfold it seems to me that the hardest of the hardcore Tea Party members are getting white hot, more so than usual. One of two things is about to happen, either they’re not going to get what they want or they’re going to drag us into our first-ever default.

The first scenario will empower them. The second will be the end of them.

As I sit and absorb all of the political maneuvering and posturing, one question keeps sticking out in my mind. Why are these people so damn angry? Many of the Tea Party politicians and their supporters are more than willing to bankrupt this country and drive it into default rather than give an inch to Obama and his health care law. Why? How can setting up these exchanges, establishing a penalty, requiring people to buy health insurance, draw so much ire from these people? When you ask them why they’re against it, they don’t spout economic statistics or alternatives to dealing with rising health care costs. In fact, they don’t really provide an answer that remotely resembles anything to do with health insurance.

Instead you hear things like, “We’re losing our country” or “Obama’s destroying our freedoms” or “Obamacare’s a train wreck of a law.” But there’s never any specifics about what they don’t like or what they don’t want to change. They only offer a visceral repulsion.

The irony of their position about Obamacare ruining the economy is that in their ridiculous gambit to eliminate it, they will obliterate the economy with a credit default. It’s like telling a hostage-taker, “put down the gun or we’ll launch a nuclear weapon on the hostage.”
Their position reveals exactly what the problem is — they’d rather destroy the country than to give Obama something he already has. It’s about hatred of the president. Pure and simple.

I’m a southerner. I remember the days of Bill Clinton and all the rage he created among the conservatives down here. But even when he was in the middle of an impeachment process, that anger never equaled close to what I see now.

And being from the South, I can tell you that the only true explanation is racism. Are all of the Tea Party folk racist? No, I’m not saying that. But you can’t take away the racial underpinnings of their movement. Many of the things they rant about (unbalanced budget, rising deficit, the bailouts) started under George W. Bush, something that gets glossed over at the rallies I’ve been to. I’ve had to fight the urge several times to say out loud that the last president with a balanced budget was Bill Clinton. But I was afraid that I’d get tarred and feathered.

I’m sorry, it’s simply racism. White’s don’t like to hear the charge, but it’s true whether they want to believe it or not.

Obama represents the very thing that frightens many white Americans — if minorities can win the presidency, what’s to stop them from controlling everything? When he was reelected, that fear gave way to the answer — nothing can stop them, especially as time wears on. Minorities are on the winning side of statistics. Their numbers grow at a time when white numbers are dropping.

With all of this vehemence that you see from the Tea Party throughout the country and from the southerners, I’ve come to the conclusion that they’re not going to let things go so easily. As minorities begin to play a bigger role in national politics, white anger is only going to grow and intensify.

Watching the latest budget/default battle is unnerving because it shows how far some are willing to go to rail against the oncoming tide. If they don’t win this fight over the debt ceiling, they’ll pick a battle somewhere else with the same endgame—borderline anarchy. The anger will continue to boil until they finally achieve some sort of explosive victory, whatever that might be. They’re looking for anything. Like that Republican congressman said, “We have to get something out of this and I don’t know what that even is.”

Very telling.

It leaves me wondering who’s going to suffer more when they finally get the destruction they want, the angry whites or the rest of us.

 

Minority Hostage

Politics

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I always like to start off with numbers.

Percentage of voters who opted for President Obama in November – 53 percent

Percentage of voters who identify themselves as Tea Party in January – 8 percent.

And yet, we are on the verge of a government shutdown because conservatives in the House are afraid of that 8 percent. Tea Party people are bullying those representatives by threatening them with a challenger in the upcoming primaries if the reps don’t vote how they like on the looming budget/Obamacare issue.

So the country’s economy and credit rating hangs in the balance because of a very slim sliver of the electorate. Hardly seems right. But don’t blame the Tea Party backers, they’ve figured out the primary process and it has worked, at least when it comes to picking candidates — not in the general election, i.e. Aiken, Mourdoch, etc.

The people who are to blame are the moderate voters. They can make a difference but they are often apathetic in the primaries. Why? Because many of them know they’ll vote Blue or Red in the general election regardless of the candidate. It’s that default setting which the Tea Party has preyed upon. Because they’re fired up and are willing to turn out for the primaries, Tea Partyers have the power.

The specter of a shutdown and credit default is, for the most part, theater. Cruz is going full-tilt boogie for the shutdown knowing damn good and well it won’t happen, or if it does it won’t be for long. He knows too that it if it has negative effects, it won’t come back on him. He gets to be the loud ideologue with no repercussions.

Yes, Obamacare is unpopular. Most people don’t want it. But most people, both moderates and zealots, voted for the President in 2012 knowing that he would never repeal his signature achievement. In other words, they want Congress to work together and stop with the non-productive grandstanding more than they want to get rid of government healthcare.

I’d like to think eventually that voters will get sick of the gridlock and push out some of the incumbents who are making it difficult for Washington to do its business. Sadly, that won’t happen. No president’s party has done well in a sixth-year, mid-term election in the past 100 years. No doubt Republicans will hold the House in 2014 and they have a good shot at winning the Senate.

So no change. We’ll get yet another two years of gridlock and inaction thanks to an obnoxious, obstinate minority who has no moral high ground.

To be fair though, it’s not like politicians have ever really cared what the general public thinks, at least not until November.