October 2009: Fuzzy stimulus math, mixed signals on free speech, Hannity’s sad double standard, and other observations

A tip of a Yankees cap to the late, great New York newspaper columnist Jimmy Cannon for borrowing his signature phrase: nobody asked me, but…

THE WHITE HOUSE ANNOUNCED THAT FEDERAL STIMULUS SPENDING HAS “SAVED OR CREATED” 640,329 JOBS SO FAR. Not 640,328 or 640,330, but 640,329. Of course this is nonsense—there’s no precise way to accurately calculate any job creation or job savings impact and the Obama Administration opens itself up to mockery for its fuzzy math.

The problem for President Obama is managing perceptions: after passage of a $787 billion spending bill the Administration claimed would keep national unemployment at 8 percent, the reality has been jobless figures in the 10 percent range and fears of a jobless recovery or a “W” shaped recession, despite GDP growth of 3.5 percent in the third quarter of 2009.

Has economic stimulus spending worked? The impact of cash-for-clunkers, first-time home buyer tax credits, and other cash injections into the economy clearly impacted the third quarter growth numbers. As to the other stimulus spending: a focus on propping up education and public sector employment, rather than heavy investments in infrastructure projects, may prove misguided in the long-term. If unemployment remains in the 10 percent range, voters will punish Congressional Democrats in the 2010 elections.

THE OBAMA ADMINISTRATION IS SENDING MIXED SIGNALS ON FREE SPEECH ISSUES. In early October, the U.S. delegation to the U.N. Human Rights Council decided to “support Egypt in recognizing limits on free speech for those who insult or denigrate religion,” a move law professor Jonathan Turley and other free speech advocates denounced as ill-advised pandering to Muslim nations. Near the end of the month, however, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton signaled that the U.S. will resist a push for an international convention barring “religious antidefamation.

Are members of the Obama team too comfortable with international legal standards that suppress free expression? Stuart Taylor Jr. of the National Journal Magazine warns that the U.N. resolution concession is representative of an administration “seeded with left-liberal thinkers who have smiled on efforts to punish speech that is offensive to favored racial and religious groups.”

IF SEAN HANNITY OF FOX WANTS TO PROVIDE FAR RIGHT AUTHOR JEROME CORSI with a platform on his cable show, he owes it to his audience to disclose Corsi’s extremist views. Corsi, who turned up on Hannity’s Oct. 13 show to promote his latest book, is a Birther and a Truther—that is, Corsi questions whether President Obama was actually born in Hawaii and consequently his eligibility to hold high office, and he has supported the “9/11 Truth Movement” in claiming that jetliners did not bring down the World Trade Center towers.

Hannity’s double standard is troubling: he challenges those on the left who voice 9/11 conspiracy theories (Sean Penn, Rosie O’Donnell, Mark Cuban) but remains silent when right-wingers like Corsi express similarly noxious views.

IS RUSSIAN PRESIDENT DMITRY MEDVEDEV’S REJECTION OF THE CULT OF STALIN A SINCERE DISTANCING FROM “PUTINISM”? On October 30, the day of remembrance of victims of political repression in Russia, Medvedev “called on Russians to remember the political terror under Soviet leader Josef Stalin, distancing himself from the historical ambivalence of his mentor, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin,” according to Lucian Kim of Bloomberg News.

Will Medvedev’s comments make a difference? The recent arrest of Mikhail Suprun, a Russian historian researching the fate of Germans sent into Stalin’s Gulag during World War II, and the seizure of his personal archives, raises questions about the openness of Russian authorities to confronting the past.

FROM JAY LENO’S ROUTINE (Oct. 26): “Former Vice President Dick Cheney accused the White House of “dithering” over the strategy in Afghanistan. Today the White House said they’re thinking it over, and they should have a response within six to eight weeks.”

THIS MONTH’S WORDS OF WISDOM COME FROM THE BIBLICAL KING SOLOMON (Proverbs 29:23): “A man’s pride shall bring him low: but honor shall uphold the humble in spirit.”

Copyright © 2009 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved

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Confronting reality: Occam’s Razor and the 9/11 “Truth Movement”

When I walked across Cooper Square last Thursday just after dark, I found two columns of bluish light rising into the Manhattan night sky, an illuminated reminder of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. The “Tribute in Light” was a sight that stirred memories of that tragic day in New York seven years ago, and all that has followed.

It is a changed country now: innocence lost; American soldiers and marines in combat in Afghanistan and Iraq; and many Americans deeply conflicted about the “War on Terror” and what focusing on homeland security means for civil liberties in a democratic society. And, after the terrorist bombings in Madrid and London, and numerous foiled plots, there is a deep unease about our continued vulnerability to terrorism.

Others have responded to the danger of Islamic terrorism, however, by minimizing the threat, or blaming the victim, or embracing conspiracy theories that obscure the reality of 9/11. I found evidence of that last week when, along with John Ray, a very bright Carnegie-Mellon student who blogs at Conspiracies R Not Us, I appeared on the Toronto-based show “The Agenda with Steve Paikin” to offer the skeptics’ view of the “evidence” behind 9/11 conspiracy theories. Also on the show: two Canadian academics, Graeme MacQueen and Michael Keefer, who argued that the American government deliberately staged the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon to provide a pretext for war in the Middle East. (You can view the program in its entirety here.)

I was somewhat surprised that MacQueen and Keefer proved to be such fervent members of the 9/11 “Made it Happen on Purpose” (MIHOP) school, because it’s a hard position to defend considering its logical gaps and inconsistencies. For starters, MIHOP advocates won’t concede the obvious: that 19 Arab terrorists hijacked four airplanes on 9/11; that Al Qaeda engineered the attacks; that jetliners loaded with fuel made effective weapons; and that the explanations of structural engineers and fire safety experts for why the World Trade Center towers and nearby buildings collapsed make sense. Instead, most in the MIHOP school contend that the Twin Towers and World Trade Center 7 were brought down by controlled demolition; many think the Pentagon was hit not by a plane but by a missile; and few accept what they call the “official story” about the crash of United 93 in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. MIHOP believers see “an inside job” and/or a “false flag operation” behind the events of 9/11 and blame the “neo-cons” in the Bush Administration (and sometimes, with an anti-Semitic twist, the Israeli intelligence agency, Mossad, as well).

Occam’s Razor and 9/11 conspiracies

As I pointed out on “The Agenda,” these grand conspiracy theories violate Occam’s Razor, the insight of a 14th century Franciscan that the simplest explanation for a phenomenon is the best. These theories also run afoul of basic logic: Why crash airliners into buildings AND bother rigging them beforehand for controlled demolition? Wouldn’t the attacks alone be enough of a provocation? For that matter, why bother with hijacking planes? Wouldn’t a massive truck bomb, or bombs, work just as well and present fewer logistical challenges? Why not replicate the 1993 truck bombing of the World Trade Center (or Oklahoma City)? Why make the conspiracy so elaborate and so complex?

The controlled demolition theory doesn’t make much sense either. To rig a large office building with explosives takes professional demolition firms months to accomplish. How could massive amounts of explosives been placed secretly in three skyscrapers, let alone one, without detection? And as John Ray noted, the larger the conspiracy gets, the greater the number of people involved—to the point where hundreds of thousands must be part of the “cover-up.” Would they all remain silent? Would no one be moved to confess? With all of the media attention following 9/11, wouldn’t the secret have leaked out? Further, there isn’t any evidence of controlled demolition, something that the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) noted in its reports on the collapse of WTC 1, 2 and 7: no witnesses, no seismic record, no demolition equipment in the wreckage.

The “Alice in Wonderland” nature of the MIHOP fantasies makes them relatively easy to debunk. The Let It Happen on Purpose (LIHOP) argument, on the other hand, while also flawed, relies on a more subjective approach to the question of 9/11. LIHOP advocates say 9/11 happened because the Bush Administration had advance knowledge of Al Qaeda’s plans and, eager to fight a war for oil, either turned a blind eye to the plot, or worked to facilitate it. There is no “smoking gun” evidence for LIHOP, and the record suggests incompetence, indifference, and ignorance on the part of the authorities, not collusion, but since LIHOP asks us to assume the worst about the U.S. government, it has gained adherents from the far Left and Right, and will continue to attract support.

Confronting the reality of 9/11

My appearance on “The Agenda” provoked further comment in the days that followed: I received several emails from Canadians (including those from a retired pilot and a firefighter) apologizing for what they saw as the anti-Americanism of MacQueen and Keefer, and assuring me that most Canadians accepted the reality of 9/11. I replied that no apologies were necessary, that Canada had supported the U.S. in its pursuit of Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan, and that the leaders of the 9/11 “Truth Movement” were Americans. I also received some nasty feedback from foot soldiers in that movement, denouncing me as a CIA media plant and hinting darkly of the fate that awaited such “traitors.”

Despite their nastiness, my sense is that that the 9/11 “Truth Movement” is losing ground. The debunking done by Popular Mechanics, the BBC, and independent bloggers and skeptics, and the recent release of the NIST’s WTC 7 report ruling out controlled demolition as a cause of the building’s collapse, has put the 9/11 deniers on the defensive.

At the same time, it seems that many in the U.S. are slipping back into a pre-9/11 complacency on the question of terrorism. A CNN/Opinion Research Corp. poll released last week found only one in 10 Americans who say terrorism is the most important issue in voting for president, and “concerns about an impending terrorist strike are at the lowest point on record” since 9/11.

Also last week the New York Times carried a chilling op-ed piece by Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic (“On Nov. 4, Remember 9/11“) warning of the dangers of nuclear terrorism and noting that “[m]any proliferation experts I have spoken to judge the chance of such a detonation to be as high as 50 percent in the next 10 years. I am an optimist, so I put the chance at 10 percent to 20 percent.” Goldberg doesn’t flinch from confronting the reality of 9/11 seven years later: “The next president must do one thing, and one thing only, if he is to be judged a success: He must prevent Al Qaeda, or a Qaeda imitator, from gaining control of a nuclear device and detonating it in America.” It is advice that we can only hope that Senator Obama or Senator McCain will heed.


Debunking some specific claims made by MacQueen and Keefer on “The Agenda”

John Ray and I tried to refute as many of the outlandish claims made by Professors MacQueen and Keefer during our appearance on “The Agenda.” We didn’t get to deal with all of them, and so, in the interests of setting the record straight, I am offering a more detailed debunking of six of their claims.

1. American air defenses were deliberately weakened by war games on 9/11. FALSE.

While it is true there were a number of military exercises that day, it made no difference in the readiness of the American military to respond to a hijacked jet, and, if anything, might have allowed a quicker response to terror attacks (if there had been more timely communication between civilian air traffic controllers and their military counterparts, which there wasn’t). There were only 14 fighter jets on alert in the contiguous 48 states, none of which were diverted because of the “war games.”

SEE: Popular Mechanics, “Debunking the 9/11 Myths” and the website Debunk 9/11 Myths.

2. The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) has been politicized by the Bush Administration, and therefore cannot be trusted to investigate the WTC collapses. FALSE.

There is no evidence that NIST has been politicized. The WTC reports were reviewed by professional associations of architects, structural engineers, and fire safety experts (for example, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), the Structural Engineers Association of New York (SEONY), and National Fire Protection Association) without anyone questioning NIST’s objectivity, professionalism or adherence to the scientific method. The one dissenter cited by Professor Keefer, fire safety expert James Quintiere, has differed with NIST over its investigative approach but agreed with NIST’s conclusion that controlled demolition was not involved. In Quintere’s comments on NIST’s WTC 7 report, he dismissed demolition claims, according to Newsday:

Quintiere stressed, however, that he never believed explosives played a role. He said NIST wasted time employing outside experts to consider it.

3. At the Zacarias Moussaoui trial, the FBI testified that conservative commentator Barbara Olson could not have called her husband from the doomed flight (AA 77) that crashed into the Pentagon. FALSE.

The FBI identified one interrupted phone call from Olson, and could not determine who was the source for four other calls from the plane. It is likely that some of these unidentified calls were made by Olson, as reported by her husband. The 9/11 Commission reported:

The records available for the phone calls from American 77 do not allow for a determination of which of four “connected calls to unknown numbers” represent the two between Barbara and Ted Olson, although the FBI and DOJ believe that all four represent communications between Barbara Olson and her husband’s office (all family members of the Flight 77 passengers and crew were canvassed to see if they had received any phone calls from the hijacked flight, and only Renee May’s parents and Ted Olson indicated that they had received such calls).The four calls were at 9:15:34 for 1 minute, 42 seconds; 9:20:15 for 4 minutes, 34 seconds; 9:25:48 for 2 minutes, 34 seconds; and 9:30:56 for 4 minutes, 20 seconds. FBI report, “American Airlines Airphone Usage,” Sept. 20, 2001; FBI report of investigation, interview of Theodore Olson, Sept. 11, 2001; FBI report of investigation, interview of Helen Voss, Sept. 14, 2001; AAL response to the Commission’s supplemental document request, Jan. 20, 2004.

SEE: 9/11 Commission Report, Note 57

4. The WTC 7 fires “died down” and couldn’t have caused the thermal expansion described by NIST and the resulting progressive collapse. FALSE.

Fires raged, unchecked, on many floors of WTC 7 for some seven hours. Firefighters reported this at the time, and FEMA and NIST found photographic evidence of this.

SEE: Photos here from the scene.

5. The steel sample taken from WTC 7 had damage suggesting the impact of thermite or some unexplained chemical. FALSE.

Here’s what the BBC has reported about his claim.

In New England the claims of the mysterious melted steel from Tower Seven has been unravelled at the Worcester Polytechnic Institute near Boston.

Professor Richard Sisson says it did not melt, it eroded. The cause was the very hot fires in the debris after 9/11 that cooked the steel over days and weeks.

Professor Sisson determined that the steel was attacked by a liquid slag which contained iron, sulphur and oxygen.

However, rather than coming from thermite, the metallurgist Professor Sisson thinks the sulphur came from masses of gypsum wallboard that was pulverised and burnt in the fires. He says:

“I don’t find it very mysterious at all, that if I have steel in this sort of a high temperature atmosphere that’s rich in oxygen and sulphur this would be the kind of result I would expect.”

SEE: BBC News, “The Conspiracy Files

6. WTC 7 is the only steel-framed skyscraper in the world to have collapsed solely because of fire. TRUE.

WTC 7 is also the only steel-framed skyscraper with vulnerable long-span construction subjected to unchecked fires for seven hours (a sprinkler system was disabled when the water main broke). 9/11 “Truth Movement” advocates point to office tower fires in Madrid and Caracas which didn’t bring those structures down, yet fail to note that these buildings had their steels columns encased in cement (unlike WTC 1, 2 and 7).

SEE: Debunking 9/11 Conspiracy Theories


An extended commentary on the 9/11 “Truth Movement” can be found at “Exposing the 9/11 conspiracy fantasies.”

Copyright © 2008 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved

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WTC 7 report: end of the line for 9/11 conspiracy theories?

The National Institute of Standards and Technology just-released final report on the collapse of World Trade Center 7 in 2001 following the 9/11 terrorist attack concludes that fire, not controlled demolition, was the cause of 47-story building’s destruction.

At an August 21st news conference, Shyam Sunder, the lead investigator for the federal building and fire safety investigation of the WTC disaster, explained: “Our take-home message today is that the reason for the collapse of World Trade Center 7 is no longer a mystery. WTC 7 collapsed because of fires fueled by office furnishings. It did not collapse from explosives or from diesel fuel fires. It collapsed because fires—similar to those experienced in other tall buildings—burned in the absence of water supply to operate the sprinklers, and burned beyond the ability of firefighters to control fires. It fell because thermal expansion, a phenomenon not considered in current building design practice, caused a fire-induced progressive collapse.”

Sunder directly addressed the question of whether controlled demolition had brought down WTC 7, a favorite theory of the “9/11 Truth Movement” and its celebrity hanger-ons, like Jesse Ventura, Charlie Sheen, and Rosie O’Donnell, noting that the investigative team had considered that possibility and rejected it. NIST concluded that “blast events inside the building did not occur” and “found no evidence supporting the existence of a blast event.” A NIST WTC 7 fact sheet summarized the case against controlled demolition:

In addition, no blast sounds were heard on the audio tracks of video recordings during the collapse of WTC 7 or reported by witnesses. According to calculations by the investigation team, the smallest blast capable of failing the building’s critical column would have resulted in a sound level of 130 decibels (dB) to 140 dB at a distance of at least half a mile, if unobstructed by surrounding buildings. This sound level is consistent with a gunshot blast, standing next to a jet plane engine, and more than 10 times louder than being in front of the speakers at a rock concert.

For the building to have been prepared for intentional demolition, walls and/or column enclosures and fireproofing would have to be removed and replaced without being detected. Preparing a column includes steps such as cutting sections with torches, which produces noxious and odorous fumes. Intentional demolition usually requires applying explosive charges to most, if not all, interior columns, not just one or a limited set of columns in a building.

The NIST WTC 7 team also found another popular 9/11 conspiracy theory, that thermite/thermate was used to sever columns was highly unlikely: “To apply thermite to a large steel column, approximately 0.13 lb of thermite would be needed to heat and melt each pound of steel. For a steel column that weighs approximately 1,000 lbs. per foot, at least 100 lbs. of thermite would need to be placed around the column, ignited, and remain in contact with the vertical steel surface as the thermite reaction took place. This is for one column … presumably, more than one column would have been prepared with thermite, if this approach were to be used.” NIST concluded that it was “unlikely that 100 lbs. of thermite, or more, could have been carried into WTC 7 and placed around columns without being detected, either prior to Sept. 11 or during that day.”

A blow to the 9/11 conspiracy theorists

The final NIST WTC 7 report represents a major blow to the promoters of 9/11 conspiracy theories. They began by claiming that the Twin Towers (WTC 1 and 2) had been felled by controlled demolition as part of a government “false flag operation.” Their argument had obvious flaws—it wasn’t hard to imagine that two large airliners loaded with jet fuel smashing into skyscrapers could inflict massive damage—and that was what the first NIST report concluded.

Their focus then turned to WTC 7, with many conspiracy theorists seizing on the fact that the building was not hit directly by the planes and “mysteriously” collapsed hours later. Again, they argued for controlled demolition, forcefully enough that NIST included explosions as a possible cause for the collapse in its investigation.

With the demolition theory for WTC 7 having been considered and rejected, the 9/11 conspiracy theorists are in a bind. The final NIST report offers what Sunder called a “simple and straightforward and elegant” explanation for the collapse of the building. The simplicity of the theory—that unchecked fires led to a chain of failures and then progressive collapse—and the extensive computer modeling of the hypothesis place it squarely in the best traditions of the scientific method.

The alternative theory advanced by the so-called 9/11 Truthers is far-fetched and requires a complete suspension of disbelief. Professional demolition experts have repeatedly explained that it takes weeks of work to prepare a building for a controlled demolition. And how could such a massive conspiracy, involving hundreds if not thousands of people, be kept silent? And what of the lack of any evidence of an explosion, as pointed out by the NIST team?

Despite the “on-the-record” scientific studies now explaining the WTC disaster, it’s unlikely that all members of the “9/11 Truth Movement” will go away quietly. Some make considerable amounts of money hawking 9/11 conspiracy DVDs and books. Others cling to the notion for deep-seated psychological reasons. Some are deluded. Yet the weight of the evidence is clear: the destruction of the World Trade Center buildings was directly caused by the actions of the 9/11 terrorists. To believe otherwise is to not only embrace an alternative theory, but to accept an alternative reality.


An extended commentary on the 9/11 “Truth Movement” can be found at “Exposing the 9/11 conspiracy fantasies.”

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

All rights reserved

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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, BlackBoxVoting.org 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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