April 2008: Nobody asked me, but…

The Moyers-Wright interview, military justice on trial at Gitmo, and other observations

With a tip of the baseball brim to legendary columnist Jimmy Cannon, nobody asked me, but…

SHOULDN’T BILL MOYERS BROADCAST MORE OF HIS JEREMIAH WRIGHT JR. INTERVIEW aired last week on PBS? Based on comments made by Barack Obama’s former pastor in his National Press Club appearance in Washington on Monday, some of Wright’s more controversial comments may have been edited out of the program, Bill Moyers Journal. (Transcript of the Moyers-Wright interview .)

It’s rare that a public figure will complain so repeatedly about an inteview having been edited, but Wright returned to the subject three times when answering questions following his prepared remarks.

First, Wright complained that some of his praise of Louis Farrakhan, the Nation of Islam leader, had been clipped from the PBS interview:

So what I think about him, as I’ve said on Bill Moyers and it got edited out, how many other African-Americans or European-Americans do you know that can get one million people together on the mall? He is one of the most important voices in the 20th and 21st century. That’s what I think about him.

Then, Wright mentioned his criticism of the way “corporate media channels” handled his controversial sermons and suggested that Moyers had truncated his response:

As I said to Bill Moyers — and he also edited this one out — because of my mother’s advice to me. My mother’s advice was being seen all over the corporate media channels, and it’s a paraphrase of the Book of Proverbs, where it is better to be quiet and be thought a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.

Finally, Wright complained about the editing of his explanation of his “God damn America” sermon:

And if you saw the Bill Moyers show, I was talking about — although it got edited out — you know, that’s biblical. God doesn’t bless everything. God condemns something — and d-e-m-n, “demn,” is where we get the word “damn.” God damns some practices.

Moyers took criticism from some media critics for the “softball” nature of his Bill Moyers Journal interview with Wright. Wright’s complaints raise further questions about whether Moyers sought to soften the Chicago pastor’s often divisive rhetoric by editing out controversial answers. The best way for Moyers to address any criticism, and to clear up any doubts about his journalistic practices, is to show these edited segments on Bill Moyers Journal on Friday. Let’s see more.

THE TESTIMONY OF A FORMER DEFENSE DEPARTMENT PROSECUTOR has surfaced disturbing and troubling questions about the way the military commissions system may prosecute terrorism suspects at Guantanamo Bay. Air Force Col. Morris Davis testified under oath that “he felt undue pressure to hurry cases along so that the Bush administration could claim before political elections that the system was working.” Further, Davis said called unethical “a decision by top military officials to allow the use of evidence obtained by coercive interrogation techniques.” The Defense Department has denied Davis’ charges in the past.

What makes Davis’ testimony so devastating is that he was former chief prosecutor for terrorism cases before he resigned last fall. Particularly troubling was Davis quoting Defense Department general counsel William J. Haynes II as saying that there shouldn’t be any acquittals of the terror suspects because “we’ve been holding these guys for years.”

The Defense Department legal establishment is presumably aware of the notion that defendants are innocent until proven guilty. If the Gitmo process isn’t founded on that legal bedrock, then the Bush Administration will prove its harshest critics correct in arguing that the military commissions—created to try terror suspects—offer nothing more than kangaroo justice.

WHAT WAS INDIANA SENATOR EVAN BAYH THINKING WHEN HE PRAISED HIS HOME STATE FOR RACIAL PROGRESS, BUT referred to it as part of the “Old Confederacy”? Bayh’s historical aside came in an interview with Tavis Smiley:

Number two, it does show that our state has made a lot of progress in this regard, and in my lifetime, matter of fact, when I was governor, we became the first state out of the old Confederacy to elect two African Americans to statewide office. Wonderful woman, Pam Carter, became our first female attorney general, and Dwayne Brown became the clerk of the courts.

Indiana remained in the Union during the Civil War, and Indiana’s governor Oliver Perry Morton battled a hostile Democratic majority in the State House to keep troops in the field. While it is claimed that Sugar Creek Township in Shelby County “seceded” from the United States, the Hoosier State played a major role in helping the Union to victory, contributing more than 200,000 troops.

SPEAKING OF HISTORICAL FANTASY, THE TELEVISION SOAP OPERA “DALLAS” DIDN’T WIN THE COLD WAR FOR THE WEST, despite a tongue-in-cheek argument for that theory by Nick Gillespie and Matt Welch in the Washington Post. It was Harry Truman, Winston Churchill, Margaret Thatcher, and Ronald Reagan— not the feuding Ewings of South Fork—who were pivotal in the fall of the Soviet Union.

FROM CRAIG FERGUSON, COMEDIAN AND NEW AMERICAN CITIZEN, COMES THIS month’s closing words of wisdom, from Ferguson’s White House Correspondents’ Association dinner appearance: “Please, never, ever, ever agree with each other. Never stop arguing, never stop fighting. You cranky, magnificent bastards.”

Copyright © 2008 Jefferson Flanders
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Exit poll error? It’s the Shy Tory Factor, not the Bradley Effect

While early exit polls showed Sen. Barack Obama leading in the Pennsylvania Democratic presidential primary, and broadcast and cable news networks consequently delayed calling a winner in the election, when the actual ballots were counted Sen. Hillary Clinton had carried the Keystone State by some 9 percentage points.

Some pundits quickly suggested that the gap between the exit polls and the final tally reflected the Bradley Effect—white voters telling pollsters they had voted for the black candidate, when in fact they had not (an effect first identified in California’s 1982 gubernatorial election lost narrowly by Tom Bradley, an African-American—hence the name.) It wasn’t the first time in Campaign 2008 that Obama’s strong unweighted exit poll numbers did not translate into actual votes—the Illinois Senator had “underperformed” in New Hampshire and in several Super Tuesday states, according to a compilation of early exit polls by Brendan Loy. Loy further noted that: “… Obama generally does 7-8 points worse in the actual results than he did in the leaked, unweighted exit polls.”

But it’s unlikely that the color of the candidates caused the exit poll problems. Instead, it appears that the Shy Tory Factor influenced the exit polls in Pennsylvania, a global phenomenon that has surfaced in numerous past elections where race wasn’t a consideration. The Shy Tory Factor is when conservative voters provide misleading answers to pollsters or refuse to participate in exit polls (where it is called “non-response bias” by pollsters). It has been seen in elections in England, France, Italy, Australia and the U.S. More conservative candidates perform better at the ballot box than they do in pre-vote polls and exit polling. (Reuters, for example, noted that “exit polls have not always proved reliable in Italy” in reporting on the recent election of conservative candidate Silvio Berlusconi.)

What’s behind it? The prevailing theory is that these Shy Tory, or Shy Conservative, voters opt out of polling, or offer misleading answers, because they don’t view the elite media, who sponsor the opinion and exit polls, as truly neutral. They realize that their candidate (Berlusconi, Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, John Howard) is not the choice of liberal reporters or mainstream commentators and consequently they are more reluctant to share their preference with intrusive pollsters.

The practical effect of the Shy Tory Factor is to skew poll results. Take Pennsylvania. While Clinton supporters may not be “Tories” in ideological terms, they are older, less-educated, and more likely to resent the media anointment of Obama. Their motives for refusing match the Shy Tory model. If these Clinton voters shied away from exit polls, it means backers of the other candidate (Obama) were oversampled. The Clinton-Obama race had further complications. Refusal rates for exit polls are historically greater among older voters to start with. Most exit poll takers are young (students, etc.), and it would not be surprising if—despite being trained to avoid interviewer-caused selection bias—these temporary workers gravitated to polling younger voters, who have continued to favor Obama.

Vote fraud?

There is, of course, a third possible explanation for the disconnect between the exit polls and the tabulated vote—that of election fraud. After the New Hampshire primary, some on the Left suggested that Sen. Clinton’s victory involved rigged voting machines, and others (such as posters on The Brad Blog and TruthDig ) have questioned the validity of the Pennsylvania primary as well.

A common misunderstanding about the accuracy of exit polls has contributed to these conspiracy theories. (“Mystery Pollster” Mark Blumenthal has researched exit polling’s historical inaccuracy.) They simply aren’t a valid way to audit elections. For starters, exit polls carry a margin of error—supposedly about 3 percent in national elections, when all else goes well, and higher in primaries. And like all polling, exit polls rely on a representative sample of voters that is projected to all voters (which is what the “weighting” process is all about). As can be seen with the Shy Tory Factor, when given voters won’t participate, it skews the sample. (See this interview with Joe Lenski of Edison Media Research for a frank assessment of the problems with exit poll samples). The exit poll refusal rate has been growing in the U.S. It was an average 35% nationwide in the 2004 presidential election and is higher for older voters and in more conservative areas of the country.

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. Further voter sampling problems surfaced in the 2006 Congressional election exit polls.

None of this will, however, convince the conspiracy buffs who believe that the Clinton machine—borrowing alleged Republican tactics—manipulated the primary voting process in states like New Hampshire and Pennsylvania by a conspiracy targeting electronic voting machines. Such a vote fraud enterprise in practice would require the complicity of hundreds of election officials, computer technicians, etc., spread across numerous precincts, and would also demand a breathtaking level of coordination and planning. And everyone involved would be committing numerous felonies as well. But if you believed the Republicans were capable of such crimes in 2004, it’s not as hard to believe that the Clinton campaign would engage in vote fraud as well.

A media creation

There are some ironies in these exit poll problems. Exit polls, after all, are a media creation. They allow network anchors and political commentators to pontificate about voter preferences and beliefs. They allegedly tell us how given groups (whites, blacks, Hispanics, liberals, conservatives, Catholics, Jews) voted, and why they voted the way the way they did (contributing, one could argue, to the public practice of identity politics). If media cheerleading for Obama has increased exit poll refusal rates among Clinton voters, then the lack of balance in the coverage of the Democratic race in 2008 has contributed to the margin of error in these surveys.

The Edison/Mitofsky Research folks don’t like to talk about refusal rates, because they know it raises questions about the validity of their exit polls. A strong argument can be made based on the 2004, 2006, and 2008 results that the accuracy of exit polls has been so compromised that they should be abandoned as an analytical tool in political news coverage. And other than a few media executives and polling firms, who would be sorry to see them go?

Copyright © 2008 Jefferson Flanders

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That tangled Democratic nominating process

The struggle within the Democratic Party between Clinton centrists and left-of-center Obama “progressives” has shifted to the party’s inconsistent, contradictory, and—dare it be said—undemocratic presidential nominating process. It wasn’t supposed to be this way. After the bitter 2000 election, Democrats embraced the principles of “counting every vote” and “insuring election integrity,” but they have now discovered, to their dismay, that electoral fairness is easier to achieve in theory than in practice.

The debate over the role of the so-called superdelegates has highlighted internal tensions in the party. Superdelegates were created in the early 1980s as a way for greater participation by party elders; a more cynical view held that these delegates were meant to block fringe candidates advanced by the left wing of the party (vide: George McGovern). Since they are drawn from the ranks of elected officials and party stalwarts, in theory superdelegates should represent the interests of the Democratic Party writ large at the national convention.

Not surprisingly, Barack Obama’s supporters, including many vocal activists on the left, have rejected the idea of superdelegates exercising any independent judgment. Instead, they have insisted that the some 795 superdelegates should ratify the “will of the people” by awarding the nomination to Obama, the likely leader in the popular vote and pledged delegate count after the final primaries.

A flawed process

Yet the argument for crowning Obama by affirmation is less clear-cut than his adherents make it; his lead over Hillary Clinton is, in part, a reflection of a deeply flawed and inconsistent process. Obama has benefited from the exclusion of the Florida and Michigan primary results, and from proportional rules for the awarding of delegates.

Nor is it clear how the “will of the people” should be defined. For example, should senators who are superdelegates vote for the candidate with the largest national pledged delegate count, or for the winner of the popular vote in their state’s primary? Superdelegates John Kerry and Teddy Kennedy are Obama supporters, and yet Massachusetts voted overwhelmingly for Clinton; in Washington state, Senators Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray are backing Clinton despite their state’s vote breaking for Obama.

And the Obama camp’s enthusiasm for “the will of the people” has been somewhat selective. Obama supporters successfully blocked any re-vote in Florida or Michigan, effectively disenfranchising million of voters, because they knew Clinton would likely prevail in any do-over of those primaries. Hardly an advertisement for electoral fairness.

The Democrats’ proportionality scheme for delegate selection has proved problematic, as well. By awarding pledged delegates based on a candidate’s proportional share of the vote, rather than by winner-take-all, the Democratic National Committee has ensured political gridlock: neither candidate will achieve the magic number of 2,024 delegates before the August convention without help from the superdelegates. Further, the application of proportionality has been inconsistent from state-to-state, with complicated allocation schemes in some precincts and congressional districts in places like Nevada and California.

Proportionality has also encouraged the practice of identity politics. When either of the Democratic candidates has trailed badly in a given state (say, Clinton in Mississippi, or Obama in Ohio), the end-game strategy has been to target specific ethnic and racial voting blocs—exacerbating divisions within the party—in the hopes of winning delegates based on proportional support.

Those undemocratic caucuses

State caucuses, perhaps the most undemocratic part of the process, have greatly benefited Obama and his motivated and well-organized activists (the now famous “latte liberals”). The caucuses have effectively disenfranchised many working class voters without the free time, or patience, to sit through a lengthy political meeting. Even worse, the caucuses operated without secret balloting, the foundation of any free election!

The Clinton campaign has also played electoral games. Clinton kept her name on the Michigan ballot when the other Democratic candidates withdrew, and she changed her position and called for the Florida primary results to be recognized after she won. Further, Clinton supporters have been reduced to arguing that Obama’s red state primary victories shouldn’t count as much as Clinton’s blue state strength in the Northeast, Midwest, and California.

Surveying this tangled mess, Will Rogers’ observation that he didn’t belong to an organized political party because he was a Democrat seems apt. Ironically, the closeness of the race between Obama and Clinton seems tailor-made for intervention by the superdelegates. More than half of registered Democrats will not have expressed their preference in the primaries/caucuses, as former New York governor Mario Cuomo has noted, and it seems reasonable to have a mechanism for their representation. As most superdelegates are elected officials, they are ultimately accountable to the voters, who could—in theory–unseat them in the next election cycle if they were perceived to have betrayed Democratic principles.

Yet, in the end the Democratic superdelegates are likely to take the path of least resistance and award the nomination to Obama. If Obama wins the trifecta of the most pledged delegates, the largest popular vote total, and the most number of states (a probable outcome), no matter how flawed the process may have been, it’s hard to imagine how Obama could be denied the top spot on the Democratic ticket.

Copyright © 2008 Jefferson Flanders

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