Watch And Worry

Mainstream media have been obsessed with polling of the presidential race for the past nine months or so, and, at least on this last Sunday before the election, the polls they tout look good for the good guy.

I have mostly ignored the polling out of the belief that in the end, no matter what the polls showed in August or September, the race would be too close for comfort, at least for my comfort.

Nate Silver, the stats man from The New York Times, today estimated that Mr. Obama has an 85% chance of winning, taking 307 electoral votes. He explains:

Friday’s polling should make it easy to discern why Mr. Obama has the Electoral College advantage. There were 22 polls of swing states published Friday. Of these, Mr. Obama led in 19 polls, and two showed a tie. Mitt Romney led in just one of the surveys, a Mason-Dixon poll of Florida.

The pollmeisters at Huffington Post show the popular vote race at a virtual tie, Obama 47.7% and Romney 47.1%.  However, they published this portrait of the most recent polling in the battleground states:

HuffPo Pollster says:

Given the torrent of incoming data, the model now reports nearly complete certainty about Obama’s narrow leads in the most crucial tipping-point states of Iowa and Ohio, but that statistical confidence assumes that the final polls are collectively accurate and unbiased. When we factor in the historical potential for polling error, the probability of an Obama win falls to roughly 90 percent in Ohio and Iowa. An Obama win in those states is thus still very likely, but a 1-in-10 possibility still exists, given the typical historical pattern, that the polls could be wrong enough for Romney to win.

Four more states — New Hampshire, Colorado, Virginia and Florida — continue to show closer margins, with Obama holding a slight advantage in New Hampshire, Colorado and Virginia, while Romney has a slight edge in Florida. If the polling leaders were to carry each state where they currently lead by any margin, Obama would reach 303 electoral votes to 235 for Romney.

All of that is close to what Nate Silver has said and it sounds good for the President, but it is that fragment of doubt—10% to 15%—that will keep some of us from sleeping between now and Wednesday.

What obviously matters more than all the polling is the voting. And early voting—which some Republicans have been trying to slow down or stop—favors President Obama, but not as much as it did four years ago. According to the Associated Press, 27 million people have already voted across 34 states, and Democratic early voters are ahead of Republican ones in most battleground states.

Again, early voting represents some good news for Democrats, but not anywhere near decisive. Perhaps a clearer—or muddier—picture will emerge on Monday, as the final national polls are released by big-time news organizations.

But it is likely that those of us who care a great deal about this presidential election will find some reason to worry over what those final polls show, no matter what it is. I know I am one who would find reason to fret even if the much-trusted Nate Silver came out tomorrow night and said Obama had a 99% chance of winning.

Worry, worry, worry from now until the agonizing end is all there is left to do.

Divided Loyalties

Ninety-seven percent of House Republicans and all but seven Republicans in the Senate have essentially taken two oaths, which I present below in both chronological order of execution and in order of primacy:

1.  To support and defend Grover Norquist in his effort to reduce government sufficiently so that he can “drown it in the bathtub.”

2.  To “support and defend the Constitution,” which includes the pledge to “faithfully discharge the duties of the office” on which they enter.

It is increasingly clear that Republicans, at least in the House, are not willing to discharge the duties of their office, faithfully or otherwise, but are willing to flush the country down the toilet in a spasm of misplaced loyalty to a life-long, wealthy right-wing activist, who stupidly said in 2009:

When I became 21, I decided that nobody learned anything about politics after the age of 21.

That’s the mental state of a man who is the most powerful Republican in the country.

Norquist’s ongoing claim to fame is his Americans for Tax Reform, which self-claims that it “was founded in 1985…at the request of President Reagan,” and which is responsible for the worst American domestic mischief of the past 30 years, outside of the 9/11 attacks.*

Here is the mission statement of this quasi-religious group:

Americans for Tax Reform (ATR) opposes all tax increases as a matter of principle.

We believe in a system in which taxes are simpler, flatter, more visible, and lower than they are today.  The government’s power to control one’s life derives from its power to tax.  We believe that power should be minimized.

Now the sentiments expressed in that mission statement are supposedly the same sentiments that voters held as they swept into power the Norquistas in the Tea Party movement who now control the Republican Party.

Or are they the same sentiments?

Nate Silver, now with The New York Times, analyzed just-released Gallup poll data and came up with the following, in terms of people’s preferences for the proper mix of taxes and budget cuts as part of the deal to reduce the deficit: 

Silver also noted, incredibly, that “there is a larger ideological gap between House Republicans and Republican voters than there is between Republican voters and Democratic ones.”  He illustrated that ideological gap this way:

As you can see, House Republicans, with their anti-tax oath, have positioned themselves on the extreme, right where Grover Norquist, himself an extremist, wants them.

Unfortunately for Democrats, as Silver points out,

the mix of spending cuts and tax increases that Mr. Obama is offering is quite close to, or perhaps even a little to the right of, what the average Republican voter wants, let alone the average American.

And still that’s not good enough.

Mr. Obama has reportedly offered, under one ($2 trillion) scenario, a mix of 83% spending cuts to 17% tax increases.  The other scenario ($4 trillion)involves somewhere between 75 and 80% spending cuts.

Hopefully, this exceedingly generous and base-vexing offer is far as Obama will go.  But it appears fairly obvious that unless he is prepared to meet Republicans on the extreme, nothing he offers will cause House Republicans to get up off their collective knees, bent in loyalty to an anti-government fanatic, and fulfil their oath to do the right thing for their country.

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* Interestingly, Norquist, who is married to a Muslim, has been viciously attacked by conservatives like Frank Gaffney and Pamela Geller and David Horowitz for his supposed connection to unseemly Muslim leaders, possibly including the Muslim Brotherhood. Don’t you just love these crazy folks?  Never mind that Norquist was in fact associated with a true criminal, former lobbyist and convicted felon Jack Abramoff, something that doesn’t seem to bother right-wingers.

A Word About Polling

Nate Silver, now with the New York Times, published an article yesterday on FiveThirtyEight analyzing the accuracy of pollsters over the final three weeks of the election. Not surprisingly, Rasmussen performed the worst.  Rasmussen, through its subsidiary, Pulse Opinion Research, does some polling for the Republican “News” Channel, formerly Fox “News.” 

Not only was Rasmussen the worst in terms of accuracy—the average error in their polling was almost 6 points—its polls were biased toward Republican candidates by almost 4 points. And as the following chart demonstrates, the number of polls Rasmussen did far outweighed the number done by other polling organizations, and, thus, the obvious inaccuracy and bias more statistically significant.

Silver explains some possible reasons for the inaccuracies, which essentially amount to polling on the cheap. But Silver only mentions in passing the affection for conservative ideas held by Rasmussen Reports founder, Scott Rasmussen, which he has somewhat denied by saying,

I would not consider myself a political conservative — that implies an alignment with Washington politics that I don’t think I have.

The problem with that statement is his record.  The most obvious evidence that Rasmussen is not only a man of the right but a man of the far right is the fact that he once wrote columns for one of the most extremist conservative websites in existence, WorldNetDaily.

Rasmussen wrote at least one column for WND that advocated for what he called “Social Security choice,” which, of course, is nothing more than the privatization of at least part of the program.  In fact, Rasmussen wrote a whole book on the subject, endorsed by conservative folks like Steve Moore, Lawrence Kudlow, Michael Barone—and apparently George Bush.

You may remember that Mr. Bush intimated to the Chicago Tribune that his greatest failure was not passing Social Security reform, the kind Rasmussen was selling in 2000 and 2001, just before Bush took office.

Dave Weigel explored last year the real danger of polling firms like Rasmussen, before we knew just how inaccurate and biased its election polling was this year. Weigel said that,

Rasmussen is influential because its carefully crafted questions that produce answers that conservatives like…are bolstered by highly accurate campaign polling. The result is that polls with extremely favorable numbers for Republican stances leap into the public arena every week, quickly becoming accepted wisdom.

Conservative pundits and Republican politicians (it’s hard to tell the difference sometimes) in the various media use those results to push public opinion in their direction:

…where Rasmussen Reports really distinguishes itself, and the reason it’s so often cited by conservatives, is in its issue polling. Before the stimulus debate began, Rasmussen asked voters whether they’d favor stimulus plans that consisted entirely of tax cuts or entirely of spending. Tax cuts won every time, and Republicans began citing this when they argued for a tax-cut-only stimulus package.

Weigel points out that Rasmussen polled weekly during the debate over the stimulus bill and his results were not in line with other pollsters:

While other pollsters, such as Gallup and CBS News, found stimulus support rising as high as 60 percent, Rasmussen never saw it rise above 45 percent. It was the only pollster to find support for the plan falling below opposition, in a poll conducted on February 2 and 3. Not only did Bill Kristol [of The Weekly Standard and Fox "News"] get an early look at the data and use it to make the case against the plan, Republicans such as Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) cited Rasmussen to argue that support for the Democratic version of the stimulus was tumbling.

Here’s how Phil Kerpen, policy director at Americans for Prosperity and frequent guest of Glenn Beck, saw Rasmussen’s role in the stimulus debate:

I think it was helpful to us when it looked like there was a big shift in public opinion against the stimulus. We definitely used it to give our activists some more encouragement.

Although the conservative push to kill the stimulus was ultimately unsuccessful, Scott Rasmussen himself pointed to some success on another issue:

…there have been times that our polling had an impact. During the immigration debate, I think our polling — which showed the public heavily against the Senate compromise — was part of the reason that the compromise fell apart. The Senate acceded to public opinion. We’re simply reporting on what the public wants.

Apparently it doesn’t matter to Rasmussen that his selective polling is not necessarily in the public interest. The immigration issue has torn the country apart, and Rasmussen’s efforts—during a time when a bipartisan solution had a very good chance of becoming law—has left us without much hope that we can solve the problem anytime soon.

So, the next time you hear a conservative politician or pundit cite a Rasmussen poll, keep in mind the source.

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*I noticed just a short time ago that Media Matters picked up the Rasmussen issue and reported, among other things, this:

On November 3, [Scott Rasmussen] was quoted in a report on Fox News’ Special Report stating, “Quite frankly, if the Republican House doesn’t repeal the [health care] law early in the tenure, they will disappoint an awful lot of voters.” Rasmussen also appeared in a report aired during the September 7 edition of Fox News’ Special Report, stating of the health care law, “Every week since it became law, every single week a majority of voters have said yes, we want it repealed.”

I’ve Got Good News And Bad News

The Bad News:

  • Public polling suggests Republicans will gain a net of 5 to 9 governorships today, which matters because of 2010 Census redistricting.  Nate Silver’s forecast: 30 Republican governors on Wednesday.
  • More important in terms of redistricting, there are 99 state legislative chambers in the United States (Nebraska has only one chamber).  Currently, Democrats control 60 of those chambers, Republicans 36, and two are tied. Democrats control both legislative chambers in 27 states, Republicans control both in 14 states (Missouri is, unfortunately, one of those), and 8 states are split between the two.  Some pollsters suggest that Republicans could pick up control of 15 legislative chambers, for a total of 51 out of 99.
  • Phony 7th District Democratic primary candidate, Tim Davis, has endorsed Billy Long for Congress.
  • According to HuffPo, there is a 77% chance Republicans will take control of the House of Representatives.  Nate Silver has this forecast for next year’s House makeup: 233 Republicans, 202 Democrats.  Senate: 52 Democrats, 48 Republicans.

 The Good News:

  • According to HuffPo there is only a 17% chance Republicans will take control of the United States Senate.  Nate Silver puts the chances of Democrats retaining control of Senate at 93%.
  • Barack Obama is more popular in Alaska than Sarah Palin.
  • Sarah Palin—who I still contend will never—ever—run for president—has taken to using the word “bastard” lately, a sign that some of her candidates (Joe Miller and Christine O’Donnell, particularly) are in trouble, and a sign that she has a more attractive, seedier side.
  • Some Democrats who have blatantly run against Obama and Pelosi—can you believe it?—will lose their asses.
  • If Republicans take control of both houses of congress, they will have to become responsible for governing, and it will at least be fun to watch teapartiers kick against the pricks* in the coming months, as they try to turn their 20-month ranting into real legislation.

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*To borrow a biblical phrase.

Authoritarians And Other Conservatives

FiveThirtyEight.com, Nate Silver’s website, posted a piece on Monday by Tom Schaller that briefly examines a new book by Marc Hetherington and Jonathan Weiler, Authoritarianism & Polarization in American Politics.

Schaller says:

The first point Hetherington and Weiler make is that authoritarianism is really about order–achieving it, maintaining it, and affirming it–and especially when citizens are uncertain or fearful. This, they say, is why authoritarians seek out and elevate, well, authorities–because authorities impose order on an otherwise disordered world. They provide a useful review of the existing literature on authoritarian traits, which have been connected to negative racist stereotyping, a belief in biblical inerrancy, a preference for simple rather than complex problem-solving, and low levels of political information.

The controversial point that Schaller makes about the book is that it reveals just what authoritarians in America tend to look like: “rural, southern, under-educated, evangelical Protestant churchgoers.”

And he says,

… although there is a strong connection between authoritarianism and conservatism (and thus Republicanism), as Hetherington and Weiler caution, authoritarianism is not bounded by party: Among 2008 Democratic primary voters there were significant splits on issues of race and immigration, smacking of authoritarian impulses, that played a role in support for either Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama.

In this vein, Schaller also mentions Glenn Greenwald’s book, A Tragic Legacy:

Greenwald’s book is a character study of Bush43 and the Bush White House, its Manichean worldview, and what that meant for public policy. But an us-v-them, good-v-evil governing mentality is only possible in a democracy where authoritarian currents run deep enough to sustain (and re-elect) such leadership.

All of this may have some relationship to linguist George Lakoff’s “family” metaphor, which he uses to explain the differences between conservatives and liberals. Highly simplified, if one holds—consciously or unconsciously—to a “strict father morality” then one tends to be a conservative. Liberals tend to hold to a “nurturant parent morality.”

As one quick example, the “strict father” model views “justice” in terms of people getting what they deserve, and that hard times in life function to separate those who deserve good things from those who don’t. The “nurturant parent” concept understands justice in this world as unfinished business, because some people are not treated fairly and we need to work hard to ensure they are.

My own suspicions about the authoritarian nature of conservatism were first confirmed while reading Conservatives Without Conscience, by John Dean, of Watergate fame. In evaluating contemporary conservatism, he wrote:

Both social conservatives and neoconservatism have overwhelmed the conservative movement and the Republican Party, and to gauge their influence, and its consequences, it is essential to understand authoritarian thinking and behavior. Social conservatism and neoconservatism have revived authoritarian conservatism, and not for the better of conservatism or American democracy. True conservatism is cautious and prudent. Authoritarianism is rash and radical. American democracy has benefited from true conservatism, but authoritarianism offers potentially serious trouble for any democracy.

So, the next time you hear a T.V. or radio conservative waxing nasty about liberals or Democrats or Obama, now you know what may be behind their bluster.

[Note: For those seriously interested in a deeper understanding of what makes people choose sides in politics, here is a lecture by George Lakoff in which he discusses the family metaphor. Lakoff is a self-described liberal, but the quality of his analysis is first-class and tends to transcend his politics.]

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