New Hampshire’s recount and the Netroots’ culture of conspiracy

New Hampshire officials yesterday finished a hand recount of some 40% of the votes from the Granite State’s Democratic presidential primary, an election which featured Hillary Clinton’s dramatic victory over Barack Obama. Not surprisingly, the recount of paper ballots produced no significant change in the results. Clinton lost 25 votes and Obama dropped 5; officials said any errors during the primary voting process were human, and not a product of voting machine failure or fraud.

Democratic presidential hopeful Dennis Kucinich, who received a paltry 1.4 percent of the primary vote, had paid $27,000 for the partial recount. The diminutive Ohio Congressman, known for his belief in UFOs and left-of-center politics, had cited “serious and credible reports, allegations and rumors” about the electoral process, “unexplained disparities between hand-counted ballots and machine-counted ballots,” and “the stunning disparities between various ‘independent’ pre-election polls and the actual election results,” when he requested the recount.

But Kucinich’s call for a recount wasn’t, as he claimed, “about the integrity of the election process.” Rather, it reflected a culture of conspiracy that has enveloped the Netroots (the Democratic Party’s angry political activists and left-of-center bloggers who have organized through the Internet) since the disputed 2000 presidential election. In an ominous sign for centrist Democrats, the “allegations and rumors” circulating on “progressive” websites suggested that Clinton’s victory over Obama, the darling of the anti-war Left, had somehow involved fraudulent vote switches.

The Netroots buzzed about rigged Diebold optical scan voting machines (hence Kucinich’s focus on “machine-counted ballots”) and suppressed exit polls that had supposedly projected an Obama win. Diebold machines are a particular fixation of the Netroots, because, it is argued, their vote-tallying software can be easily hacked, and because Diebold’s executives have links to the GOP. New Hampshire simply recounted its optical scan sheets, validating the machine tabulations through this paper trail. (There are valid concerns about computer-based voting, especially touch-screen machines; malfunctions, lack of a paper audit trail, poor user design, and other issues have caused many states and localities to move towards optical scan technology and/or simple paper ballots.)

So who was behind this alleged vote fraud in New Hampshire? One Netroots theory suggested that the “Clinton Machine” or “Clinton Mafia” had rigged the vote for the former First Lady (who, ironically, once railed against the “vast right-wing conspiracy.”) Another sinister possibility, floated by cable television talk show host Bill Maher among others, was that the Republicans had cooked New Hampshire’s results because they feared Obama and preferred to run against Clinton as the Democratic candidate. The airing of these fantasies led Josh Micah Marshall of Talking Points Memo, a self-described leftist, to muse despairingly about the “sullen childishness at work” of claiming “that any election that dramatically doesn’t go your way was stolen.”

The Netroots and vote fraud

Mainstream Democrats bear some culpability for the persistence of this conspiratorial world-view. They failed to distinguish between legitimate concerns about shoddy voting practices in the 2004 presidential election and overwrought claims that the GOP had “stolen the election” by disenfranchising minorities and rigging voting machines in Ohio. For example, Sen. Barbara Boxer joined Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones in formally objecting to the certification of Ohio’s electoral votes, a symbolic—and cynical—move designed to raise questions about the legitimacy of President Bush’s win. While a Democratic National Committee taskforce grudgingly conceded in June 2005 that there was no evidence of fraud in Ohio, the continuing harsh rhetoric of Democratic leaders about Republican electoral tactics encouraged activists on Netroots sites like Democratic Underground and Daily Kos to continue to spin their vote-fraud theories.

A common misunderstanding about the accuracy of exit polls contributed to the 2004 election conspiracy theories. That exit polls carry a margin of error (about 3 percent in national elections, when all else goes well) hasn’t been widely publicized. Exit polls also rely on representative voter samples, and when large numbers of voters refuse to participate (a growing trend in the U.S.), it can skew the sample and distort any resulting projections. They simply aren’t a valid way to audit elections.

These flaws were ignored by Democratic activists and bloggers when, as evidence of fraud, they pointed to those pivotal states where exit polls had projected Sen. John Kerry as the winner but where President Bush triumphed when the actual votes were tallied. In explaining the discrepancy, Edison/Mitofsky Research (the firm that conducted the 2004 exit polls) concluded that Republican voters had refused to participate in exit polling in greater numbers than Democrats, leading to an overestimation of the Kerry vote totals. (Pollsters have dubbed the tendency of more conservative voters to shy away from revealing their voting preference the Shy Tory, or Shy Republican, Factor.) Further voter sampling problems surfaced in the 2006 Congressional elections exit polls.

Those New Hampshire “discrepencies”

Just as in the 2004 and 2006 elections, there are plausible explanations for all of the New Hampshire “discrepancies” cited by Rep. Kucinich and the Netroots. Obama did garner higher totals in rural places where votes were hand counted, and Clinton did better in urban areas with electronic voting machines. But Republicans John McCain and Mike Huckabee also showed more strength in rural areas than in larger cities, while Mitt Romney fared better in urban areas. As Ron Paul, the Republican/libertarian candidate, noted in dismissing suggestions of fraud: “Results almost always vary between urban and rural areas.” Voters in different places may prefer different candidates. Demographics represent a more likely cause for any geographical disparities than any sinister plot to hack voting machine software to shift votes from one candidate to another. (It should be noted that Republican Albert Howard of Michigan, who received 44 votes in the primary, is paying for a recount of the GOP ballots.)

And the gap between opinion polls and final Democratic vote wasn’t as stunning as Kucinich has suggested. While pre-vote polls favored Obama, polling firms apparently stopped surveying too early, missing a late swing to Clinton by women voters. The polls also relied on outdated turnout models. What about those exit polls allegedly favoring Obama? Salon’s Farhad Manjoo reports that it wasn’t so: news network analysts regarded the Clinton-Obama race as too close to call based on the available survey data.

If Kucinich had looked at the New Hampshire results dispassionately he could have saved his struggling campaign the $27,000 it ponied up for the recount. But the Ohio Congressman is pandering to the Netroots. He is now calling for a “complete and accurate recount of all ballots,” justified, he says, by the slightly changed vote totals in the initial recount, to be paid for by New Hampshire. That unwillingness to accept the results isn’t surprising. Even before the recount had commenced, had begun questioning the chain of custody of the ballots. After all, the thinking goes, why wouldn’t the sinister forces that fixed an election, rig the recount to cover their tracks?

Such paranoia stems from eight years of powerlessness, and eight years of assuming the worst about the country’s leadership. This Netroots culture of conspiracy and its “sullen childishness” will prove problematic for the Democrats in the future. If Campaign 2008 features any more narrow primary victories by Clinton over Obama, look for fresh allegations of vote fraud from the angry Left. If this scenario unfolds, and Clinton nevertheless wins the nomination, will her victory be regarded as illegitimate by elements of her own party? And what might that mean in November?

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Copyright © 2008 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved

Campaign 2008’s troubled opinion polls

Can’t say I envy political pollsters during this topsy-turvy Campaign 2008. Who likes to be embarrassed on a national (if not global) stage by getting it wrong?

All of the major pre-vote polls predicted a Barack Obama victory in Tuesday’s Democratic New Hampshire presidential primary. All were wrong, as Sen. Hillary Clinton confounded conventional political wisdom and predictions of pundits and campaign insiders and won, 39% to 37%, over Sen. Obama.

One explanation offered by many in the “political industrial complex”, such as Frank Newport of Gallup and long-time political researcher Peter Hart, is that pollsters stopped surveying too early, and missed a late shift by women voters and independents to Clinton. The historical precedent for this last-minute decision scenario: the presidential election of 1948 (“Dewey Defeats Truman”), when polling shut down prematurely and missed Harry Truman’s late surge.

The truth is that we don’t know for sure what happened. While most of the polls correctly predicted the outcome of the Republican primary (Sen. John McCain over former Gov. Mitt Romney), the predicted margins of victory for Sen. McCain varied widely, and one poll (Suffolk-WHDH) picked Romney as the GOP winner.

The flawed New Hampshire pre-vote polls suggest that Campaign 2008 may challenge the ability of opinion polls to predict trends or electoral outcomes with any certainty.

Here are five factors that will spell trouble in the months ahead for anyone looking to rely on political opinion polls.

1. Traditional turnout models may not be able to predict who will show up to vote in a non-traditional year when the candidacies of a woman and an African-American are drawing new “wildcard” voters to the polls (a point first made by Frank Luntz, pollster for Fox News). Gauging the intentions of prospective voters is very difficult; in the past the methodology has relied on a series of predictors (such as homeownership and voting in the last election) that may no longer be as valid.

2. Round-the-clock news coverage has made for a more volatile political environment, as prospective voters are quickly made aware of any campaign developments, positive or negative. The 24X7 news cycle of the Internet and the cable news networks means that voters can be exposed to potential “decisive moments,” like Sen. Clinton’s emotional Portsmouth cafe cry, in the last days and hours of a race. If the 2008 primaries feature more last-minute voter decisions, it will be hard for polls to reflect his new reality.

3. Perceived media cheer-leading for the Obama and Clinton candidacies because of their historic nature (the first credible female and African-American presidential candidates) may make some voters hesitant to reveal their true intentions. This is a variation of the Shy Tory or Shy Republican Factor, where voters won’t admit to pollsters that they plan to vote for conservative candidates. (Right-of-center politicians, such as Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, John Howard and Silvio Berlusconi, have often performed better in the election than in pre-vote polls.)

4. The growing Do Not Call ethos in many American households—which has led to call screening, unlisted numbers, and a general reluctance to answer phone surveys—makes it harder to assemble a representative sample. (While federal law allows political and survey calling, it doesn’t mean such intrusion are welcomed). And reaching those prospective voters who rely solely on cell phones (often younger voters), an estimated 15% of Americans, is another emerging challenge.

5. A growing It’s None of Your Business backlash may be in play. Response rates for political polls have been dropping. Telephone response rates have dropped from about 70% in the 1970s to 30% today (although pollsters insist survey quality hasn’t declined). Consider the refusal rate for exit polls: it’s much greater in the United States than in other countries (I’ve seen non-participation numbers ranging from 10% to 40% of voters, depending on the election). In the 2004 Presidential election, Republican voters refused to participate in exit polling in greater numbers than Democrats; most likely another manifestation of the Shy Tory effect, as some GOP voters may have regarded the exit polls as an extension of the “liberal media.” In fact, the predictive shakiness of the 2004 and 2006 national exit polls has been linked to problems with voter sampling.

What these factors mean for Campaign 2008: the polls, whether pre-election or exit, should be treated with great caution by citizens, pundits, journalists, and political observers. The Democratic New Hampshire primary results should serve as a warning to anyone relying on what is more muddled art than precise science.


Copyright © 2008 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved

WTC 7 report set for summer 2008 release

UPDATE: The NIST 9/11 WTC 7 report was released Aug. 21, 2008. Read more about it here.

The delayed National Institute of Standards and Technology report on the collapse of the World Trade Center 7 following the 9/11 terrorist attack in 2001 will be released for public comment this July. A final version will be published a month later, in August 2008.

NIST’s investigation of the WTC 7 collapse was supposed to have been completed by the end of 2006, but more complex, and time-consuming, computer simulations, along with a consideration of some additional evidence (mainly architectural and construction documents and plans), has stretched out the process, according to Michael E. Newman of NIST.

The public airing of NIST’s conclusions should bring relative closure to the scientific/engineering investigation of the 9/11 World Trade Center attack. WTC 7, a 47-story office building damaged by debris from the destruction of the Twin Towers, collapsed on the afternoon of September 11, 2001.

Some 9/11 conspiracy theorists maintain that WTC 7 was “pulled down” in a controlled demolition ordered by the government, an allegation that has been advanced by celebrity “9/11 Truthers” Charlie Sheen and Rosie O’Donnell. While there has been no credible evidence produced for these claims, they have been a staple of those arguing that 9/11 was part of a sinister government conspiracy.

NIST’s working hypothesis for the collapse of WTC 7 is that fire and/or debris caused damage to a critical column and triggered a progressive and “disproportionate collapse of the entire structure”—essentially that the wounded building fell in on itself.

In its report, NIST will also review hypothetical blast scenarios (there were fuel storage tanks in WTC 7 and a Con Ed substation) since, as Newman said, “we couldn’t rule it out” as a potential contributor to the collapse.

The NIST investigation of the collapse of the Twin Towers was a model of the scientific process with questions, assumptions, hypotheses, and evidence laid out for public review. Based on the WTC 7 inquiry’s careful and measured approach to date, we are likely to find that the NIST report this summer offers well-founded reasons for the building’s structural failure, and provides them in a transparent way.

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Copyright © 2008 Jefferson Flanders
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December 2007: Nobody asked me, but…

History and forgiveness, Senator Bon Jovi, dirty secrets about those political polls, and other observations…

With a tip of a snowy cap to New York’s legendary man-about-town columnist Jimmy Cannon for borrowing his signature phrase, nobody asked me, but…

SHOULD WE APOLOGIZE TODAY FOR THE INJUSTICES COMMITTED BY OUR ANCESTORS? University of Michigan humanities professor Gordon Beauchamp argues in the Autumn issue of The American Scholar (“Apologies All Around“) that the current wave of apologies being issued by political leaders, churches, corporations, and others for the crimes of history aren’t necessarily a good thing.

Beauchamp sees the modern rush to apologize as driven by “a radical sort of ‘presentism’: the belief, in practice, if not fully articulated, that the actions and actors of the past should be evaluated, and usually condemned, by present-day standards.”

Beauchamp raises an intriguing question: can we be so sure that we will not ourselves one day be judged as guilty of crimes by future generations? If, he asks, an absolutist view of animal rights takes hold in the future, will current practices (eating meat, keeping pets, killing rodents) seem criminal? Too unlikely? Will advances in science show that fetal consciousness comes much sooner than currently thought? Will that cast doubt on the morality of, say, Roe v. Wade?

Beauchamp also maintains that history is “overrife with horrors, crimes, and cruelty” and asks: “Except for reasons of political expediency and publicity, how would we cherry-pick from this long and dismal record which enormities merit apology?”

Beauchamp does concede that exposing the abuses of the past remains important, and that it is legitimate to pass some moral judgments on the past. I don’t think that is enough, however, in some cases. Apologies do serve a purpose.

For example, the Catholic Church’s apology for its historical anti-Semitism and mistreatment of Jews represented a necessary step towards reconciliation. The reluctance of the Japanese and Turkish governments to acknowledge and apologize for historical atrocities against, respectively, the Chinese and Armenians, poisons current relations. And why be troubled by “cherry-picking”? Even selective apologies can have value.

Beauchamp points to Cambodia, Rwanda, and Darfur as examples of how post-Holocaust apologies and promises of “Never Again” have failed; he rightly also notes that slavery still exists in Africa. But he ignores the progress that has been made on human rights and the growing international willingness to intervene in the “internal affairs” of genocidal regimes. (Isn’t Beauchamp guilty of perfectionism, letting the perfect be the enemy of the good?)

MY BET: JON BON JOVI WILL NOT RUN for political office in his home state of New Jersey, despite the rumors that he may become a future Democratic Party candidate. The sad truth: the rock star would represent an improvement if he were to take the place of either of the Garden State’s current U.S. Senators. Senator Bon Jovi?

WHY HAVE THE PRESIDENTIAL POLLS IN IOWA AND NEW HAMPSHIRE BEEN SO VOLATILE? Why have polls taken in the same time period by different organizations produced different results? For example, the Des Moines Register Tribune poll shows Sen. Barack Obama with a seven-percentage point lead over Sen. Hillary Clinton among Iowa caucus voters, but a survey by CNN-Opinion Research Corp. finds Clinton leading Obama by two points (well within the 4.5 percent margin of error). How can this be?

The dirty little secret: all of the primary polls, no matter how prestigious the sponsoring organization may be, suffer from several flaws. Here are a few: Iowa and New Hampshire voters are famous for deciding only at the last moment who they will be voting for; most of the polls have small survey sizes, and large margin of errors; and the methodology employed in determining exactly who will show up and vote/caucus is very subjective. (And pollsters will admit privately that voters who only have cell phones are presenting a daunting challenge to survey.)

All told, don’t bet the house on any of these primary election surveys.

REQUIRED READING: A COLUMN BY LEONARD PITTS JR., “MURDER IS THE GREATEST INJUSTICE,” written after the shooting death of Washington Redskins player Sean Taylor in Miami at the age of 24. Pitts begins his column thusly:

And once again, this is how we die.

Fallen, crumpled, bleeding from a bullet’s hole. Woman and child left to wail, left to mourn. Left.

Pitts goes to cite the horrifying statistics about the murder rate of young African Americans, pointing out that roughly half of the 15,000 Americans murdered in 2006 were black and more than 40 percent of them were 24 years old or younger. Pitts adds:

…No government task force convenes to tell us why this is. No rallying cries ring from podiums and pulpits. Crowds do not march as they did in Jena, demanding justice.

But one could argue that murder is the greatest injustice of all. And life the most fundamental of civil rights.

Pitts is right: the dismaying number of young African-American men who die violently every year, most at the hands of other African-Americans, represents an unaddressed challenge to American political leadership, both black and white.

NOTHING SPARKS DEBATE LIKE A CONTRARIAN VIEWPOINT: consider political philosopher Slavoj Zizek’s New York Times essay “Ode to Joy, Followed by Chaos and Despair” which laments the two Europes (one mainstream and the other, Muslim and marginalized) while questioning the European Union’s use of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” as an official anthem.

While “Ode to Joy” is generally considered Beethoven’s musical tribute to the brotherhood of man, Zizek instead maintains that the fourth movement of Ninth Symphony has become an “empty signifier”— a symbol that can stand for anything. He notes its historical embrace by Adolf Hitler, the white supremacists of Rhodesia, and (bizarrely enough) some Chinese Communists during the Cultural Revolution.

Zizek’s broader point is that despite the signing of the Treaty of Lisbon in December, Europeans are not one big family, with the (not yet admitted to the EU) Turks, and alienated young Muslims in France, Italy and Scandinavia, still on the outside looking in.

FOLK SINGER JAMES TAYLOR CANNOT READ OR WRITE MUSIC! Hard to believe? Taylor’s “limitations” were revealed in an interview of Taylor by PBS host Tavis Smiley, who describes himself as a fanatic for the music of Sweet Baby James. Taylor also said he was surprised how classically-trained musicians (who can read and write music) struggled to improvise, something that is second nature to the North Carolina native now living in Massachusetts.

IF YOU SAW THE GASH IN THE FACE SUFFERED BY WAKE FOREST DEFENDER JULIAN VALENTIN in the NCAA Division One college soccer championship game, you know “the beautiful game” can also be quite violent. Wake Forest defeated Ohio State, 2-1, but Valentin needed 25 stitches to repair the cut caused by an errant kick.

THE FINAL VERSE OF BOB DYLAN’S 1970 SONG “NEW MORNING,” seems a fitting quotation as the year 2008 commences:

So happy just to be alive
Underneath the sky of blue
On this new morning, new morning
On this new morning with you.
New morning . . .

Dylan’s country-influenced albums (“John Wesley Hardin,” “Nashville Skyline,”and “New Morning”) never impressed snobbish music critics, but they represent some of his best work.

Copyright © 2008 Jefferson Flanders
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