PREMATURE OBITUARIES

Posted in Election 2008, Quick Hits on November 13th, 2008 by Ed

Nick Begich may have won Alaska after all. With early votes now being counted, Stevens' 3200-vote lead over Begich evaporated immediately. Since over 30,000 early votes remain to be counted, I don't like Stevens' odds. Early votes across the country have been overwhelmingly Democratic.

I may be saved from prediction-related embarrassment yet.

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AMERICA'S PASTIME

Posted in Election 2008, Rants on November 13th, 2008 by Ed

I think this deserves its own post.

By now you have probably been introduced to the argument that black voters were responsible for tipping the balance on Prop 8 in California. If not, try this or this. The second link is particularly interesting in the sense that the math works out – provided, as social scientists are wont to say, the assumptions hold.

There are two things that deserve emphasis. First, one of the assumptions is tenuous for reasons that have eluded most commentators thus far. Second, even if the argument is correct, this is lapsing into an exercise in misdirected anger and scapegoating.

The linked author's first assumption is, "that the vote among black people was as reported (69% Yes on 8)." This number, which is now being treated as a scientific fact, is based on a single polling organization's exit polling. Exit polling suffers from social desirability effects to a greater degree than traditional polls. That is, being face-to-face with the poll worker and surrounded by one's peers is likely to influence responses. The classic example in the literature is that the race of the questioner affects the responses people give on race-related questions. White people are less willing to say things that could be perceived as racist when talking to a black person. It makes sense, right?

I am willing to accept that homophobia is a bigger problem in some cultural traditions than others. But why do we immediately assume that these poll numbers mean that more black voters oppose gay marriage or voted "Yes" on 8? That is not a valid assumption. What I see is proof that more black respondents told the exit pollster that they voted for it. It is an empirical fact that people give the answers they think they are supposed to give in surveys. Maybe, especially if asked in a room full of other black voters, respondents conformed to social expectations. Maybe they gave the answer that was less likely to draw attention or grief to themselves. Saying "I'm cool with teh gay marriage," depending on where the speaker happens to be standing in this country, can be greeted with praise, ambivalence, or outright hostility.

Second, let's say that "the math" is right and, in contrast to other racial groups, blacks are really against gay marriage. And the argument is that Obama turned out new and enthusiastic black voters who helped him to a crushing victory in CA but also pushed Prop 8 over the edge. It's well and good for high-income white liberals like Dan Savage to go into histrionics about those damn homophobic colored people sinking California's efforts at marriage equality, but I read this as a simple failure of the campaign. Barack Obama unequivocally took the "no" position on Prop 8, as did Joe Biden. Did these voters, who in this argument were motivated to vote almost solely by Obama, know that? Did the campaign go into "bad" neighborhoods and pitch their argument in a way that would resonate with non-upper-middle-class white people, or did they spend all their time and energy preaching to upper-middle-class white people who already agreed with them?

It seems to me that the No on 8 campaign essentially ignored the black vote and is shocked to learn that they may have done poorly with that demographic. Whether or not the broader argument is valid and black voters did sink the issue, I see this as proof that open-minded left wingers are not immune from taking a few swings in the batting cages of America's favorite pastime: finding a racial or ethnic group to scapegoat. Right now the hand-wringing and campaign post-mortems on the left sound like the embarrassed post-hoc excuses of the sitcom husband upon forgetting his anniversary.

WITHER CHICANERY?

Posted in Election 2008, Rants on November 12th, 2008 by Ed

If I may go all Mr. Smith Goes to Washington for a moment, I believe that the single most important aspect of any election is that, regardless of whether or not my preferred candidate wins, the outcome is widely accepted as legitimate. Elections decided in court are tremendously harmful to the political process. It is very, very important that at the end of Election Day one side says "Hey, we won!" and the other says "Yup, we lost." Our entire system is founded on this simple nod to legitimacy. The losers do not, as so often happens in troubled parts of the world, arm themselves to the teeth and revolt in open warfare because they lost. Our political process needs to work like a boxing match – beat the hell out of one another until the bell rings and then embrace afterwards as a sign of mutual respect.

For all the talk about the potential for voter fraud in 2008, the election largely went off without a hitch. I encourage you to correct me and cite an example if there is a "Diebold Surprise" story that I missed. In my voracious consumption of all things election related over the past week I have come away with the impression that both sides believe that the results accurately reflect the vote. With the exception of the fringe-right (who are going to rant about how ACORN and homeless black illegal immigrant crackheads stole the election no matter what) the outcome is not in dispute.

As an avowed electronic voting machine skeptic, I admit being surprised by this turn of events. Even in Pennsylvania, with its Keystone (see what I did there?) Kops transition from paper to touch screens, what issues arose never escalated beyond the level of inconvenience. Here in Indiana we executed our third straight touch-screen election without a hitch. Many other jurisdictions did likewise. Has electronic voting been vindicated?

Well, yes and no.

After a good deal of reflection I've realized that electronic voting does some things at least as well as paper and even does a few things better. It certainly makes counting easier. Many voters note that there is something "unsatisfying" about just pushing buttons rather than holding something tangible – a product of one's efforts – and dropping it in the lock box. Personally, I can't shake the "Does anything actually happen when I press this button?" feeling. But the more I thought about it, all voting is a black box (pun intended). Just as I have no idea whether or not this electronic machine actually submits a vote when I hit the buttons, I have no idea where my ballot goes when I drop it in the box. For all I know the EVM isn't even connected to anything; for all I know my paper ballot is thrown into a dumpster and burned after I walk away. Maybe it gets lost. Maybe one of the 153 year old poll workers spills coffee and Poli-Dent all over my ballot and it becomes unreadable. I have been operating under lousy logic in believing that electronic voting is any more mysterious than the alternative.

Unfortunately it is very easy to stand in the glow of an election which largely went off without a hitch and say "Hey, EVMs are pretty cool after all!" It's tempting but should be resisted because the fatal flaw in the system is latent. The system either works very well (as in 2008) or, when something inevitably goes wrong one of these years, it is a complete disaster. There isn't much middle ground. When the system fails there is no safety net. Eventually there will be a "whoops, the results got erased somehow" moment and only then will it be apparent – ah, so this is why this was a bad idea all along.

I'm glad that things went smoothly this year, but to use this as impetus to change my feelings about electronic voting would be the Survivor's Bias in action – everything worked out so I guess the system is OK. That is poor logic. Say what you will about paper and punch cards, but such ballots can be re-counted. They can be kept in boxes for posterity. With EVMs, votes which are not properly recorded for whatever reason are simply gone. The criteria for choosing a voting method cannot be how it performs under ideal circumstances; it must be how the system reacts when everything is inexorably fucked up. Paper, for all its flaws, wins because it is more robust under uncertainty. The real danger with EVMs is not insidious hackers altering election results as so many of us have feared – it is the all-or-nothing nature of the system, a flaw that will be all too apparent when random, unpredictable error inevitably strikes.

HALF EMPTY

Posted in Election 2008, Rants on November 11th, 2008 by Ed

I am just going to say this without applying a sucrose coating: the left blew some opportunities in this election. The "Dewey Defeats Truman" pessimism that, no matter what, Obama would find a way to lose passed from prudent to quaint to irritating to counterproductive over the final months. I and everyone else who voted for Obama wasted time and energy fretting on a race that was, for all intents and purposes, over six to eight weeks ago. We saw the numbers, refused to believe them, and kept our focus on a blowout race while marginal seats in Congress and ballot measures could have been pushed past the tipping point with our all-out effort.

It seems odd to say that such an overwhelming Democratic win involved missed opportunities, but they were there. And they stem directly from the fact that Obama supporters stubbornly refused to accept reality – that their candidate had a statistically significant lead in nearly every state required for an Electoral College victory. Just like die-hard McCain supporters but for very different reasons, many Obamans were convinced that all that data was simply wrong. It was not the finest hour for logic. After so many years of losing, winning becomes inconceivable. Of course some degree of skepticism is healthy. It would have been irresponsible for Obama supporters to say "Fuck it, we got this one" or simply take a victory as a given. But there are opportunity costs to the singular focus on the presidential race.

For example.

In California, the presidential race was not competitive. Prop 8 certainly was. It would have made sense for left-wing activists to put Obama and McCain out of mind and devote full attention to state and local races of import. So what was the Bay Area Obama campaign doing? Rounding up busloads of volunteers and driving them to Nevada to campaign for Obama. Was that logical? Well, only if you managed to convince yourself that Obama's 8-to-10-point lead in the Nevada polls was more in need of elbow grease than the uphill battle to push Prop 8 below 50%.

Now, I don't want to suggest that every California Obaman behaved identically, that no one thought of this before the election, or that no one gave Prop 8 their all. But this is anecdote is just one example of the consequences of failing to see the line between prudence and irrationality. Nevada simply wasn't that close – certainly not close enough to import volunteers across state lines. There is always a race right where you live that could benefit from your attention. I can't help but wonder, for instance, if the amazingly tight Senate races in Oregon and Minnesota would have benefitted from the attention of Obama voters in those uncompetitive states. Prop 8 – largely a victim of ignorance and a terrible campaign on the "no" side – could have. Perhaps rather than jumping to Americans' favorite political conclusion ("Let's scapegoat the blacks!" Stay classy, Dan Savage!) the "no" supporters should ask themselves if they did all they could and presented their case effectively or if they wasted a lot of time worrying that McCain would employ some manner of sorcery to forestall the obvious.

Let's take a deep breath and get it through our (apparently) thick skulls – the polling was essentially correct and we can in fact win one every once in a while. Obama led where the data suggested he led. If anything, Rassmussen, Zogby, Strategic Vision, and other right-leaning pollsters caused the aggregate polling to understate Obama's lead. The key in future elections will be to strike a careful balance between overconfidence and neurosis. Lapsing into the latter was costly. Success can never be taken for granted, but we must do a better job of asking ourselves if we are putting our scarce time, energy, and money to the best possible use or if we are hurling them at an uncompetitive race out of paranoia. What did that last $50 million raised by Obama do for his campaign? Nothing. What could it have done for Prop 8? We don't know, but now we have to wonder.

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KLAUS, YOU'RE "A" SQUAD

Posted in Election 2008 on November 10th, 2008 by Ed

Those of you who read regularly know that for a year I have been putting forward the pseudo-conspiracy theory that the GOP tanked this presidential election. The nomination-by-default of John McCain, the failure to pony up money for the campaign, and the almost surreally-bad Palin choice combined to create the impression that the GOP was laughing its collective ass off and daring America to vote for them. But it the mediocrity wasn't limited to the general election.

McCain won the nomination largely because the other candidates were just terrible. Tell me, please, who their nominee would have been if McCain had quit in December when his campaign appeared DOA. Huckabee? Romney? Fred Thompson? Obama might have hit 425 EV against those dipshits. These candidates and others contributed to the GOP primaries' distinctly "B" Squad feel. It was as if all the top candidates said "No way, we'll wait for an election we can actually win" and let the scrubs spend their money getting shellacked.

This all made perfect sense to me until, in light of some of the premature but always entertaining 2012 talk, I thought about who sat this race out on the GOP side. No one did. There is no "A" Squad. There was no strong candidate who decided to bide his or her time rather than run on George W. Bush's coattails. The party didn't just lose the election badly, which is a common enough occurence in our political system. Rather the election was an exhibition of how utterly bare the cupboard is for the GOP. The gaggle of amateurish bozos that competed for the nomination and of whom McCain was clearly the superior choice were the best candidates the party had in 2008. It doesn't matter that they looked less like GOP candidates than satirical caricatures of Republicans – there were no reinforcements ready to join the fray when things got ugly.

In case the party thinks the worst is over, the short-term forecast looks even more bleak.

The GOP is currently a leaderless party. Who are their notables in the Senate? Mostly ancient war horses like Orrin Hatch, Arlen Specter, and Dick Lugar. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell could barely win his seat this year and is wildly unpopular outside of Kentucky. The House offers no potential stars, with Minority Leader John Boehner being the most visible member. Any of the Cabinet figures associated with the Bush administration are, if not lepers, close to it.

Fortunately the best presidential candidates are always popular governors, right? Surely the GOP has plenty of good, youngish Govs waiting to take the next step. Well…..not really. First of all, if the party plans to go this route it failed to use this election to introduce the public to unknowns from these ranks (although perhaps this was the plan with Palin, and good luck with her in 2012). Second, there just aren't that many attractive candidates. Two – Minnesota's Tim Pawlenty and Indiana's Mitch Daniels – are probably the two best candidates the party could run in 2012. Both could appeal well to normal, non-psychotically-religious middle class Americans. Unfortunately, by "best candidates" I mean they would probably only lose by 75 or 100 EV.

No, the question of "Who's next?" does not have an easy answer for the GOP. Of course it doesn't need to be figured out four years in advance, but the traditional pool of candidates – Governors and Senators – does not appear to offer any strong, logical choices. If the new President doesn't completely, utterly blow things in his first term, the GOP isn't going to take down an incumbent Obama with Charlie Crist, Matt Blunt, or Mitch Daniels. If anything, whatever decent candidates do emerge and establish themselves as the "A" Squad will wait until 2016 unless Obama's first term is awful. Whether or not the party finds a decent leader in the next four years, we are likely to see the same parade of retreads, nobodies, and nutjobs we saw in 2008 – without a fallback option of McCain's caliber.

That's not a compliment.

HOW BIG? THIS BIG!

Posted in Election 2008, Quick Hits on November 9th, 2008 by Ed

How convincing was Obama's victory on Tuesday? He could have given his opponent California and New York and still won. Think about that for a second. The Democratic candidate did not need California, New York, or their 86 electoral votes to win. See for yourself.

UPDATE: MERKLEY

Posted in Election 2008, Quick Hits on November 6th, 2008 by Ed

As Lane County rolls in (including Eugene and U. of Oregon) Merkley has opened up a 40,000 vote lead. With that county only ~70% reported, I think this one's over for Gordy Smith.

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GEOGRAPHY AND KNEECAPPING

Posted in Election 2008, Quick Hits on November 6th, 2008 by Ed

I was wrong about waiting two weeks out of politeness; Team McCain's kneecapping of Sarah Palin begins immediately. Catch this video of Carl Cameron on O'Reilly talking about how, during debate prep, Palin didn't know that Africa was a continent as opposed to a country and couldn't name the nations in NAFTA.

I'd suspect this of being well-poisoning disinformation if it wasn't so goddamn plausible.

THE SECRET WISDOM OF THE PATIENT

Posted in Election 2008 on November 6th, 2008 by Ed

Now that all is said and done, I confess that I used to like McCain. Honesty, I think that 2000-era John McCain would have made a half-decent president and he'd be the ideal choice if it was 1952. But it isn't 1952. And 2000 McCain disappeared sometime in mid-January, re-appearing just last evening during his concession speech. The candidate who ran in his stead lost this election (or at the very least turned it into a rout) because he declined to do what he so often touted as a strength: listen to his own judgment. Instead he chose the counsel of hired hacks who urged him to run a Rove-style campaign in the persona of someone who looked like John McCain but clearly wasn't. This election was over the moment he overruled himself and started listening to Rick Davis, Bill Kristol, and other loud-mouthed boors who dole out advice that amounts to, in essence, gambling with other people's money.

Imagine, if you will, a personal trainer. He charges astronomical fees because he is widely recognized to be something of an expert. He's more than happy to regale you with stories of his past success to justify the price tag. For instance, he helped famous athletes X, Y, and Z bring home gold at the Olympics. In fact, hand this trainer any athlete and he will turn him or her into a legend in no time. But let's say some very wealthy people hire him to work his magic on a 60 year old overweight housewife. If he's actually a good trainer he'll say "Hmm, I probably can't put her through the same program that I use on professional athletes." If he's an overpriced moron he'll put her on the Olympic powerlifting plan and call someone to pick up the corpse in a few hours. In other words, there's a crucial difference between a smart trainer and a guy who just happens to do one thing really well.

McCain allowed himself to be convinced that his Expert Advisors knew better, that he couldn't compete by being himself. The hired guns proved their incompetence by failing to recognize what would or would not work with the candidate in question; instead they simply did the only thing they know how to do. The only way to compete, according to the carved-in-stone rules borne of the 2004 Election, was to relentlessly pander to fear and the borderline-crazy right. That McCain could never pull this off was irrelevant. There simply is no other option in their world. Metaphors about ponies who know a limited number of tricks come to mind.

When it became clear that McCain did have a limit – a point beneath which he would not sink – they saw the perfect solution: find a running mate with absolutely no shame. Find some rube, some county fair livestock princess who would say and do anything for the chance to stand under the pretty lights. "Don't worry, John. We'll bring her up to speed on the issues. Trust us. We're professionals. We can turn anyone into Daniel Webster. And this will really help your numbers in the sticks!" Hence the decision, the self-inflicted wound, from which McCain never recovered. His discomfort with his arranged marriage to Palin showed. It was the resigned, simmering anger of a man who realized that he had been sold a ration of horseshit by con artists.

The old saying goes that a doctor who treats himself has a fool for a patient. In the political arena, though, the patient is actually quite wise. Candidates learn from experience what works for them and if McCain had one advantage in this race it was political experience. Only arrogance or ignorance would prompt someone to tell a 72 year-old man to try something brand new after crafting a well-defined persona over three decades in Washington. McCain got a healthy dose of both. The arrogant doled out advice based on their ideological biases irrespective of how it would affect the candidate. It's no skin off Kristol's back when McCain gets routed, so let the far right "wisdom" fly! The ignorant, the people paid collective millions to separate the meat from the fat, looked at the advice of the arrogant and said "This is a prime cut, John. Dig in."

"WASILLA HILLBILLIES LOOTING NEIMAN MARCUS FROM COAST TO COAST"

Posted in Election 2008, Quick Hits on November 5th, 2008 by Ed

And it begins.

McCain is going to be polite about Palin for about a week and then he is going to publicly kneecap her. Newsweek plans to help. Their special election project (which gets excellent insider info by withholding all information until after the election) is reporting that Palin's campaign-funded spending spree on clothing actually spent far, far more than the media-reported $150,000.

One senior aide said that Nicolle Wallace had told Palin to buy three suits for the convention and hire a stylist. But instead, the vice presidential nominee began buying for herself and her family?clothes and accessories from top stores such as Saks Fifth Avenue and Neiman Marcus. According to two knowledgeable sources, a vast majority of the clothes were bought by a wealthy donor, who was shocked when he got the bill. Palin also used low-level staffers to buy some of the clothes on their credit cards. The McCain campaign found out last week when the aides sought reimbursement. One aide estimated that she spent "tens of thousands" more than the reported $150,000, and that $20,000 to $40,000 went to buy clothes for her husband. Some articles of clothing have apparently been lost. An angry aide characterized the shopping spree as "Wasilla hillbillies looting Neiman Marcus from coast to coast," and said the truth will eventually come out when the Republican Party audits its books.

This is gonna be great to watch. (Thanks Mike!)