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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Congressional Blame

Politics

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I’m going to start with a few numbers.

Here goes.

Congressional approval rating before November 2012 election: 18%

Percentage of Congressional incumbents reelected in 2012: 90%

Congressional approval now: 16%

[Stats according to Gallup and Bloomberg]

When you ask people about our good ‘ole Bicameral insane asylum, the reaction is strong, swift and furious. People really don’t like our Reps and Senators.

Why? Well, the general accusation is that they don’t get anything done. Apparently when you take 600 people from all over the country, stick them in a room and then they don’t bang out legislation like clockwork, their constituents get angry.

Another reason I keep hearing is something along the lines of “they need to stop bickering and just do what’s best for the country.” Yeah, right. Congress doesn’t really work for America. They work for their voters.

John Boehner doesn’t worry about what affects New Yorkers, he works for the 8th District of Ohio. Nancy Pelosi doesn’t cater to Texas, she works for the voters in the 12th District of California. Everything they do, every vote they make is motivated by what the voters in that district will do to them every other November.

So then what do you do? You have roughly 1 in 10 who don’t like their representative and/or senator. And yet 9 in 10 of those incumbents keep getting sent back to Capitol Hill. Talk about a mixed message. People like their own guy, just not the other people their guy has to deal with.

If it’s one thing you got to give to those Tea Party groups, they know how to bring the fear out of representatives in D.C. If a Republican doesn’t toe the Tea Party line, they start looking for a new Capitol tenant.

Conservatives are scared out of their minds that the Tea Party will conjure an opponent in their upcoming primary.

The Tea Party backers have proven a point. A little bit of angst, organization and involvement can generate change. Digging up a primary opponent will make a Congressman think twice about what they vote for and who they side with.

Every Congressman and Congresswoman should have that fear, regardless of their party or their district. But with a 90 percent reelection rating, the disapproval rating will never matter.

So to all of you who complain about Congress, and there are a lot of you, do something about it. If you keep sending the same people back to D.C. over and over again, you’re going to get the same result… over and over.

You get the government you elect.

 

(a version of this post appeared on medium.com)

Treasure Map

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Allow me to be wrong.

Before the election I said the Right was rising. I guess I spoke prematurely.

During my spartan autopsy of the recent election, it has occurred to me that the horizon may not have been as Red as I thought.

In the days leading up to the election, I sifted through the countless possibilities of the electoral map. Even afterwards, I still sit through the map, adding a state here, assuming a state there.

The epiphany? Romney never had a chance. All Obama needed (aside from his dependable states) was Ohio and another swing state. Hell, there was even a scenario whereby if Romney won Ohio, Florida AND Virginia, he still would have lost.

As it turned out, Obama won every single swing state along with Virginia, Ohio and Florida.

Romney never had it. And if I picked up on that before the election, you can sure as hell bet Mitt’s camp and the GOP upper ilk noticed the numbers too.

Some seemed in denial on the surface of it. But they had to know. They stuck to their guns and Right-skewed polls like Rassmussen in order to give the appearance of confidence, hoping it would fool potential voters. Red pundits understand that reality doesn’t matter to most people. It’s all about perception.

But the election sure felt like a painful reality for the Right.

It’s now the aftermath and many conservatives have said they should have had a better candidate, a more conservative candidate. The way I see it, Romney was their best hope.

I say that because of the swing state massacre along with a few additional observations. Gay marriage ballot initiatives passed. Despite federal law, one state legalized marijuana. To state the obvious: the majority, albeit a slim one, didn’t want a conservative president. A more dyed-in-the-wool Neo-con would have lost by a wider margin.

Obama is one of the most liberal presidents we’ve had since LBJ. If voters opted for him over a moderate Republican, a more conservative candidate would not have had a chance. America is more centrist than conservatives want to believe. Clearly with the election results, the majority showed this country they want to keep things left of center. A nation with a growing number of states allowing gay marriage, legalizing marijuana, electing gay senators and voting to keep a Democratic majority is not a conservative nation.

What does this mean for Right ideals like denying global warming, cutting tax rates and helping the rich? Not sure yet. That body is still on ice awaiting autopsy. I’ll leave the slicing and dicing analysis to the Reds.

I do know the backlash has started though. Obama talked about global warming in his victory speech. That’s the first mention of it since 2010.

White Anger

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I think maybe it’s time for conservatives to do a little soul searching. Just a little, because denial kills.

No they weren’t trounced on Tuesday. They were beat. But the fact is they lost to an incumbent president in a sour economy. That says a lot. The president won every single swing state, except one, North Carolina. A state in the south, big shock.

For so long conservatives have expected the middle class to fall in line with their fiscal ideology and fundamentalist social agenda. They figured with a beleaguered, black commander in chief, that whites would pour into the polls by the millions to vote the bum out. Conservatives thought white guilt got the president in and it would take white ire to get him evicted.

At first, it seemed that the plan would work. There was pessimism with the economy; A LOT of pessimism. Unemployment was lowered but in all, remained high. Health insurance reform was somewhat unpopular. There was a tragedy in Libya. There were all the trappings for ousting the man they felt was responsible for so much depression.

And yet, it failed.

Why? Well conservatives didn’t count on the fact that women, Hispanics and a record number of minority voters would turn out in droves to keep Obama in office. Apparently when you only care about whites, it pushes the other potential voters away. You can’t tell Hispanics that you’re going to deport their relatives. You can’t tell women that rape is something “God Intended.” You can’t tell people without health insurance that they’re not entitled to it.

So sift through the ashes, cons, because the clues are there for you. While you only lost by 2 percent of the vote, it might as well have been a rout.

Don’t worry. Angry, self-righteous whites will still cling to your side. But you might want to consider getting rid of the zealots, Rove, Norquist, etc. You probably have to come out into the open with the fact you will do nothing about illegal immigration and you never intended to. Given the rising number of single mothers in this country, it’s imperative to understand that women do, in fact, care about their civil rights.

In short conservatives, you might have to think about being inclusive rather than exclusive. Stop fighting to limit people’s rights and start broadening them.

White anger is no longer enough.

Old Life

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Not long after the election, I decided to sit down and watch All the President’s Men. I couldn’t help myself.

My journalism days are behind me now though I still have ink stains left on my hands. I still come home from night expecting a call from an editor.

A friend once told me that one day I would miss the game.

“For your wife, that day will never come,” he said.

Which is true. She was never happy about the late hours, late pay, constant pressure, missed dinners and on and on.

My life has changed quite a bit since I left news. I now have a child. I have a PR-type job. I’m on the board of a federally-funded health clinic and a volunteer for Reporters Without Borders.

I’m also a student at the college where I work, taking IT classes. At some point I think I will leave public communications entirely and I will probably be the better for it. I’ll become an old washed-up journalist who walks the Earth full of stories no one wants to lisen to.

Watching the returns on election night, which used to be one of my latest nights as a reporter, gave me the sense of nostalgia. I used to love the frenetic pace of news and deadlines. I actually enjoyed the pressure and the stress. I’ve always loved a job with some sort of intense bite.

I am not sure to the degree how much I miss or don’t miss journalism and it’s only been a year.

I do know that I am better off.