November 2008: Nobody asked me, but…

Campaign 2008: five observations, “small wind” power, Cold War espionage redux, and other commentary

With a tip of the cap (for borrowing his catch-phrase) to New York columnist Jimmy Cannon, nobody asked me, but…


1. In the end, consider the key to the 2008 presidential election not President-elect Barack Obama’s lofty inspirational rhetoric, nor the inadequacies of the message-challenged McCain campaign, nor the drag of the GOP’s unprepared vice presidential nominee, but something much more elemental: money. The old journalistic imperative of “follow the money” helps explain why Obama will sit behind the Oval Office desk in January. USA Today reports that Obama raised $750 million for his presidential run, shattering records, and his huge advantage in campaign fund-raising translated into a huge advantage in television advertising. In the general election Obama spent $240 million on TV ads versus McCain’s $126 million, according to the Campaign Media Analysis Group. Obama dominated local television advertising (as the Nielsen Media Research numbers show) and his massive war-chest allowed him to underwrite Get Out the Vote efforts in the key swing states of Florida and Ohio and compete (and win) in the historically red states of North Carolina and Virginia.

2. The failure of the American mainstream media in covering campaign 2008 was not, as some on the Right would argue, the open cheerleading for Obama, nor negative reporting about McCain and his running mate Gov. Sarah Palin, but rather what was ignored or received relatively light coverage—in the general election it was Obama’s decision to forgo public campaign financing, breaking the joint pledge he and McCain had made during the primary season. There was very little sustained criticism of Obama’s flip-flop on campaign finance reform, formerly a favorite cause for liberal newspaper editorialists.

The coverage of Obama’s final week 30-minute infomercial—which, it can be argued, happened only because of his unfettered Internet fund-raising—was largely positive. If a conservative candidate had purchased a late-campaign infomercial at great cost after renouncing a pledge to observe federal funding limits, would the media have focused on the message or on the perceived betrayal of good government? To ask the question is to answer it.

In the Democratic primaries it was the free pass the mainstream media gave to Obama in the crucial months of December 2007 and January 2008. Most mainstream newspaper and network reporters repeated the David Axelrod-fashioned narrative that Obama was a bipartisan agent of change and hope without validating any of those claims, or examining Obama’s Chicago past in any detail. That helped Obama to victory in the Iowa caucus and the early primaries.

3. The 2008 election should have, once and for all, demonstrated the unreliability of exit polls. Before being adjusted to match the actual vote totals, these polls  produced flawed results in the Democratic primaries, overstating support for Obama (by some seven percentage points).  Prior to the general election, Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg (in an interview with Huffington Post) acknowledged the shakiness of the measuring stick: “The biggest problem with exit polls is… we do know that young voters are much more likely to do an exit survey and seniors are much less likely to do an exit poll. So exit polls are heavily waited to young people, which normal bias favors Democrats especially this year.”

And a  Rasmussen Reports survey found evidence of the Shy Tory Factor (or Shy Conservative Factor), where Republicans are more reluctant and Democrats more willing and eager to participate in exit polls.

Not surprisingly, then, in the general election exit poll numbers overstated Obama’s support, a fact noted by former Bush strategist Karl Rove in a Wall Street Journal column:

… for the third election in a row the exit polls were trash. The raw numbers forecast an 18-point Obama win, news organizations who underwrote the poll arbitrarily dialed it down to a 10-point Obama edge, and the actual margin was six.

The early exit polls in California also wrongly suggested that Proposition 8, which sought to bar gay marriage, would lose. Again, it’s clear that pro-Prop 8 voters didn’t cooperate with exit pollsters in proportion to their numbers.

The clear flaws in exit polls—in 2000, 2004, 2006, and 2008—should silence the conspiracy theorists of the Angry Left who have argued that any discrepancies between the polls and actual votes in the Bush-Gore and Bush-Kerry elections represented vote fraud by the Republicans.

But don’t hold your breath for Seven Stories Press to recall “Was the 2004 Presidential Election Stolen?: Exit Polls, Election Fraud, and the Official Count” by Steve Freeman and Joel Bleifuss, which stridently made the vote fraud case, or for the authors to acknowledge that they were wrong.

4. The prolonged recount of the Franken-Coleman Senate race in Minnesota has highlighted another truth: voting is an imperfect process. Americans should recognize that human error and mechanical failures mean that all election results have a margin of error. By all accounts Minnesota has a solid election system, with an auditable paper trail, and yet anyone looking at the contested ballots (including a vote for the Lizard People) and the dispute over absentee ballots can see that any recount will involve some subjective judgment.

5. Will the last Republican in New England please turn out the lights? When Connecticut’s Chris Shays lost his Congressional seat, it meant that the GOP cannot point to a single member of the House of Representatives from Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Maine or Connecticut. And how long will Republicans hold onto the U.S. Senate seats in Maine if the national party doesn’t welcome libertarian views on social issues?

WILL THE FUTURE OF WIND POWER BE SMALL, NOT LARGE? There’s a growing trend towards “small wind” —wind turbines for residences, small cities, organizations and businesses, according to an article in the Boston Globe. The Globe reports:  “The future of wind power may be a lot smaller than you think, and the nearest windmill may be right around the corner. The landscape, many believe, is going to be dotted with them.” This grass-roots wind power may indeed prove more effective than the “large wind” vision of massive wind farms on- or off-shore.

COLD WAR ESPIONAGE IS BACK IN THE NEWS. From Europe comes word that an Estonian defense ministry official, recruited by the Russians at the close of the Cold War, may have passed NATO and European Union secrets to his Kremlin handlers. Der Speigel reports that “the case is a disaster for Brussels.”

And from England, the Daily Mail alleges that a leading “peace” advocate and Labor Party member of Parliament, Cynthia Roberts, was a spy for Czech intelligence.

The Sunday Mail ran a surprisingly harsh editorial about the Roberts affair, drawing a broader lesson from her alleged treachery:

In some cases, the connections went far deeper. We may never know how many union officials, front-bench spokesmen, ordinary MPs and others were secret sympathisers of Soviet power, frightened victims of KGB bedroom blackmail, or actually in the pay of Warsaw Pact intelligence services.

The wretched saga of Cynthia Roberts reminds us of just how close the links were between Western socialists and the Communist world. Mrs Roberts sordidly provided her services to the doomed Czech Communist regime, one of the nastiest in all Eastern Europe.

IN REALITY, LINCOLN’S “TEAM OF RIVALS” WAS DYSFUNCTIONAL and President-elect Obama shouldn’t be looking to such an arrangement for success, or so Dickinson College history professor Matthew Pinsker would have us believe, according to his Los Angeles Times essay on the topic. Obama has praised Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln,” which claims Lincoln’s inclusion in his cabinet of three contemporary rivals for the presidency (William H. Seward, Salmon P. Chase, and Edward Bates) proved to be a masterful stroke. Pinsker begs to differ (“Lincoln’s Cabinet was no team. His rivals proved to be uneven as subordinates. Some were capable despite their personal disloyalty, yet others were simply disastrous.”) and his account should give Obama some pause as he brings his primary rivals (Hillary Clinton, Bill Richardson, and Joe Biden) into his administration.

THIS MONTH’S WORDS OF WISDOM FROM HERMAN MELVILLE’S NARRATOR IN “BILLY BUDD”: “Truth uncompromisingly told will always have its ragged edges.”

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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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