Monday, October 27, 2008

Home Stretch

When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist. -- Archbishop Dom Helder Camara
In this week's Sift:
  • The Unlikely Truth About Polls. Those likely-voter models are pretty unlikely.
  • Vote Suppression Update. The latest from Ohio, Indiana, and Georgia.
  • Obama = Armageddon. Calling Obama a "socialist" is starting to look tame. Rhetoric on the right is really going over the top as they realize that they're going to lose.
  • "Not Because They're Racists" Fox News' executive VP is the shameful character in a story that otherwise is just sad: the white female McCain worker who invented a story about being attacked by a big black Obama supporter. She's 20 and probably not wrapped too tight, but what's his excuse?
  • Short Notes. I kind of went wild on Notes this week. My favorite is probably Vlad and Boris singing a Russian love song to Sarah Palin. They can see her house from there.

The Unlikely Truth About Polls
At about this time in every campaign season, failing politicians are saying something like: "I don't believe in the polls. The only poll that count is on Election Day."

This year you have to wonder if that might be the right attitude. Should we believe these polls?

The worrisome thing about them is how scattered their results are. On Thursday, for example, the IBD/TIPP national poll had Obama's lead shrinking to a mere 1.1%, while the CBS/NYT poll had it growing to 13%. Something like that happens almost every day. How is that even possible? If the polls are all measuring the same underlying reality, shouldn't every poll be within the margin-of-error of every other poll?

It turns out that's not what margin-of-error means. A poll's MoE is really only the measure of one kind of error, known as sampling error. That's the easiest kind of error to measure, but it's just the beginning of what might go wrong with a poll. MoE measures what you might think of as the pollster's bad luck. If they do everything else right, but they get unlucky and talk to people who are unrepresentative for no foreseeable reason, the results might be off by as much as the MoE.

But pollsters today do more than just ask people questions and report their answers. They do a lot of number-juggling that brings some of their background knowledge into the results. If they do this right, their polls become more accurate. So, for example, if your sample voters turn out to be 56% male, but you know that the electorate is only 49% male, you might count each male response as only 7/8 of a vote, and so get your gender balance closer to what you know is right. You might also re-balance according to age or party registration or race. Different pollsters balance for different things, and so they might report different results even if they interview the same people and get the same responses.

MoE doesn't account for that.

And that's just if different pollsters are bringing in different background knowledge. It gets crazier if some pollsters bring in background knowledge that turns out to be wrong. What if, say, you re-balance your age distribution according to the results of the 2004 elections -- implicitly assuming that Obama's effort to register more young voters will fail? Or you use 2004 or 2006 to give you the party-distribution balance, ignoring the number of new Democratic registrations this year?

The toughest leap to make is between people who register and people who vote. Pollsters started modeling "likely" voters because the half of the population that actually votes is a little different than the half that doesn't. In general, voters feel more empowered and more identified with society than non-voters. Voters are richer, older, whiter, more educated -- and in most years more Republican -- than non-voters. If you don't account for that in your poll, you'll have a Republican surprise every year.

Every election cycle, some candidate says they're going to get massive numbers of votes from people who usually stay home. They never do. But in the primaries Obama made that prediction stand up. If he can do the same in November, then everybody's likely-voter models are obsolete. Some pollsters have tried to adjust and some haven't. Nate Silver has a great article about this. Another interesting but less readable article is here.

So here's the gist: The polls that say the election is close are the ones that haven't changed their likely-voter models. If they're right -- if Obama's huge registration and get-out-the-vote efforts make no difference -- then the election probably will be close. If, on the other hand, turnout is massive and includes more young and non-white voters than have ever shown up before, then Obama could have a landslide.

Vote Suppression Update
This week brought both good and bad news about the longstanding Republican effort to harrass new voters.

Let's start with Ohio: There are 600,000 new voters registered in Ohio this year. This is a state that Bush carried by a little more than 100,000 votes in 2004 -- after considerable chicanery. About a third of those registrations do not perfectly match other state databases. The vast majority of those mismatches are probably trivial: leaving out a middle initial, listing an address as 17 Pine rather than 17A Pine, a data entry error that has nothing to do with the voter, and so on.

Republicans want the Ohio Secretary of State (Jennifer Brunner, a Democrat -- that's the big difference between this year and 2004; Democrats swept the statewide offices in 2006) to provide those 200,000 names to the local election boards, so that the mismatch voters can be challenged at the polls. Probably they'd be forced to file provisional ballots, which only count if the voters go through a process that the Republicans can turn into a long enough hassle that many voters will give up.

So basically, this is a plot to prevent 200,000 Ohio residents from voting, based on the idea that some undetermined (and probably very small) number of them might have registered fraudulently.

Republicans sued Brunner, but the Supreme Court refused to make a ruling. So far, so good.

Now President Bush has stepped in, and is asking the Justice Department to look into the issue. It's not clear where this goes, but what is clear is that this is exactly what the U. S. Attorneys scandal was about: using the Justice Department in a partisan way to help in a voter suppression effort.

Indiana also has a voter supression case, and here the news is entirely good. Republicans sued to shut down early-voting centers in Democratic parts of Lake County, charging that the centers would increase the likelihood of vote fraud. (As far as I can tell, they provided no evidence vote fraud was actually happening.) Democratic officials offered to open more early-voting centers in Republican parts of the county, but that didn't resolve the issue.

This exchange between Judge Diane Kavadias-Schneider and Republican lawyer R. Lawrence Steele is classic:
Judge: "What of those who have already voted?"
GOP lawyer: "Maybe those votes should be discarded."
We're talking about throwing out votes already cast, the vast majority of them by people whose right to vote is entirely unchallenged. The Judge didn't buy it.

Not clear what's going to happen in Georgia, where 50,000 voters have been purged from the rolls. CNN follows one, a college senior who registered legally, who didn't receive notice of her disenfranchisement until the deadline for contesting the decision had passed.

Obama = Armageddon
Some really amazing science fiction has been coming out of right-wing political types as they anticipate losing this election. The wildest piece is a letter-from-the-future that Focus on the Family has received from "a Christian in 2012".

It turns out that President Obama got to make four quick Supreme Court appointments (Scalia had an unexpected health problem), so the Court suddenly had a 6-3 liberal majority. Then all the Left's anti-Christian plots really came to fruition. Most of these plots had something to do with homosexuality (because, as we all know, if you can't legally implement your bigotry against gays and lesbians, your Christian faith counts for nothing). So
  • the Boy Scouts disbanded rather than allow gay scoutmasters
  • all real Christians quit their public-school teaching jobs because the government said they had to promote homosexuality to their students
  • Christian schools closed for the same reasons
  • Christian adoption agencies closed rather than place children with same-sex married couples
  • businesses had to provide equal benefits to same-sex couples (no word about whether all Christian businesses closed to avoid this)
  • reading the Bible over the airwaves is illegal because the Bible contains "hate speech" against homosexuals
  • Christian doctors are quitting because they can't refuse artificial insemination to lesbians, and Christian lawyers who won't take same-sex couple's adoption cases are losing their licenses
  • Christian marriage counselors are quitting because they have to take same-sex couples as clients
  • homosexuals were given special bonuses to enlist in the military (to make up for past discrimination)
  • military chaplains who denounce homosexuality have been dismissed
  • Christian publishers have gone out of business because their anti-homosexual books were forced off of major-chain shelves.
Let's see, what else happened? Doctors and nurses can't refuse to perform abortions. Pornography is on TV at all hours of night and day. Guns have been banned in eight states. Home schoolers have to agree to use state-approved textbooks and not to teach their kids that homosexuality is wrong or that Jesus is the only way to God. Taxes are high, but we still have a huge deficit because all the productive people moved to other countries.

Al Qaeda took over Iraq. (They poured in from Iran, oddly, given that the Shiite Iranians hate the Sunni Al Qaeda jihadists.) Millions of American sympathizers are being put to death. We stopped wiretapping overseas terrorists without warrants and gave captured foreign terrorists full American-citizen rights, so we haven't been able to stop terrorist attacks at all. Russia re-occupied all the former Soviet republics and satellites in Europe, and Obama did nothing. Israel got nuked by Iran and Obama did nothing. Communist revolutions are happening all over Latin America.

And who's to blame for this endless list of disaster? "Christians didn't take time to find out who Barack Obama was when they voted for him."

While warming up the crowd for Sarah Palin, Iowa Rep. Steve King warned, "When you take a lurch to the Left, you end up in a totalitarian dictatorship.

The rants about California's Proposition 8 (banning same-sex marriage) are perhaps even further off-the-wall. Former Watergate felon (now evangelical minister) Charles Colson describes that vote as "Armageddon". He adds: "If we lose this, we are going to lose ... freedom of religion." (Maybe he also thinks that Christians will have to leave every profession rather than deal with same-sex couples.) And Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council says Prop 8 is "more important than the presidential election. We've had bad presidents before, and we've survived as a nation" -- he should tell that to the Christian from 2012 -- "but we will not survive if we lose the institution of marriage."

I've got to wonder if somebody somewhere is blaming the economic collapse on same-sex marriage. I mean, John Hagee blamed Hurricane Katrina on a gay parade, so why not? And we know that President Bush's economic policies have been totally sound, so what other explanation could there be?

The rhetoric has got to go one way or the other, because same-sex marriage isn't an abstract boogey-man any more. Massachusetts has been doing it since 2004, and unless you make these kinds of supernatural connections, it hasn't caused any problems.

Speaking of Prop 8 (or Proposition Hate, as its opponents call it), I can't figure out who's ahead. But I continue to believe that it's insane for a state to have a system where one simple-majority vote can amend the constitution.

"Not Because They're Racists"
The weirdest event of the week was that young white female McCain worker in Pennsylvania who made up a story about being attacked by a big black Obama supporter. I think the whole event is sad and has little to do with either McCain or Obama, so I'm not going to repeat the woman's name or link to a picture of her. But there is one peson here who deserves to be singled out for shame: John Moody, the executive vice president of Fox News.

Writing on the Fox Forum blog, Moody called the incident a "moment of truth" and a "watershed event" for the presidential race:
If [the woman's] allegations are proven accurate, some voters may revisit their support for Senator Obama, not because they are racists (with due respect to Rep. John Murtha), but because they suddenly feel they do not know enough about the Democratic nominee.

If the incident turns out to be a hoax, Senator McCain's quest for the presidency is over, forever linked to race-baiting.
Both of these assertions are perverse. Taking the second one first: The incident has turned out to be a hoax, but the strange idea that McCain's candidacy is over now has quietly vanished at Fox. Moody has not even done a what-was-I-thinking follow-up post.

Now re-read Moody's first paragraph. If some black man in Pittsburgh really did attack a white woman, that would cause some voters to "revisit their support for Senator Obama."

Other than racism, what could possibly connect those dots?

But explicit racism is not acceptable in America today, so Moody offers his readers a rationalization: If this incident makes you want to vote against Obama, you're not a racist, you just "don't know enough" about him -- as if there were something you could "know" about Obama that would disconnect him from an event that only racism connects him to.

The New York Times provides a more honest look at people struggling with racism in western Pennsylvania.

Short Notes
You shouldn't let desperate politicians distract you this week, but if you're looking for a way to distract yourself, try Neil Gaiman's new novel. Gaiman is a writer of twisted fantasy for all ages -- just not all ages at the same time. He has written for children (The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish), youth (Coraline), and grown-ups (American Gods), and his 1990s series Sandman is legendary among comic-book readers. Well, what would happen if such a writer did a homage to Kipling's The Jungle Book? The Graveyard Book, of course: Nobody Owens is an orphaned toddler who is adopted and raised by the ghosts from an ancient and all-but-abandoned English graveyard. With the help of a protective vampire and werewolf, the dead keep Nobody safe from those truly scary beings, the living.

We're raiding across Iraq's border with Syria and Afghanistan's border with Pakistan.

If Sarah Palin can see Russia, maybe the Russians are watching her too. In "Song for Sarah", Vlad and Boris sing of their unrequited love. And by the way, Palin isn't the Republican front-runner for 2012. You know, there's more Palin stuff to report, but I'm sick of it.

I've told a lot of stories about McCain/Palin supporters behaving badly, so I should point you to at least one where they behave well. And this video is interesting: The sane McCain supporters drive out the hate mongers.

The Chicago Tribune provides a little local perspective on Bill Ayers. Eric Zorn found 60 local-news references to Ayers during the 90s and concludes "the record shows that he just wasn't a very controversial figure." Mike Royko thought he was a jerk, but associating-with-jerks isn't much to smear a guy with.

One of the cutest get-out-the-vote tactics I've ever seen: a customizable video blaming an individual voter for Obama's one-vote loss. Send them to your friends.

Other fun political videos: The guys from the "Wassup" Budweiser ads have been through a rough patch during the Bush administration, but they're feeling hopeful. Ron Howard, Andy Griffith, and Henry Winkler recreate Opie, Andy, Richie, and the Fonz to promote Obama. And here's a satirical Gays for McCain ad.

You how they say that the stock market always goes up in the long run? Well, the Japanese stock market just hit a 26-year low. Imagine: You started investing in 1982 when you were a 39-year-old salaryman from Kyoto. You've regularly bought stocks for your retirement ever since. Today you're 65 and you're behind on every investment you've ever made.

The unitary executive theory is still bearing strange fruit. We've got to hope that the next president rejects it root and branch.

If McCain is elected, the guy overseeing his transition team will be John Lehman -- a former Navy Secretary who participated in the now-infamous Tailhook parties, and complained that Bill Clinton was eroding the military's "macho, tough, warrior culture".

Think about how the Obama-Muslim smear feels if you're really a Muslim.

More unlikely Obama endorsements: Former Republican Governor William Weld, 26 newspapers that backed Bush in 2004, neocon Ken Adelman, the Financial Times, the Anchorage Daily News, and former Bush press secretary Scott McClellan.

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