Part II: Obama optimism: why do they still believe?

Byline: | Category: 2012, Media | Posted at: Saturday, 27 October 2012

Recently I was asked by a friend why Intrade showed more than a 60% chance of re-election in spite of polls giving Romney a lead.  Yesterday I pointed to just a few of the numerous data points and trends that show that Barack Obama is on the way to a popular vote defeat and that such a loss places him in no better than a 50-50 race to win 270 electoral votes.  Today I’m going to discuss why his supporters (and the markets) refuse to believe that he could lose.

It’s not just a river in Egypt

I know all about denial.  I lived it four years ago.  Then, I made a wildly optimistic prediction that John McCain would lose the popular vote, but eke out an electoral college win.  Sure, the polls showed him down nationally, but there were indicators that his ground game in traditional bellwethers Missouri and Ohio was beating the national trend.  And if he could win there, a Republican couldn’t possibly lose reliable red states like Indiana, North Carolina, and Virginia.  I ignored the signals that were flashing–such as when McCain ran a mindless celebrity ad containing a message that resonated only with his hardest core supporters.  I should have seen the sophomoric appeal for what it was: an admission  that the base was seriously unenthused.

From inside the bubble of misplaced self-confidence, Democrats probably don’t recognize the similarity between what I was thinking then and what they believe now.  Complacency is the bitter fruit of victory, while circumpsection is dessert served after a meal of crow.  It likely will take a presidential loss before Democrats confront the reality that Minnesota and Wisconsin have been sliding away from them for years, just as I ignored long-term indicators that Colorado and Nevada were trending left. 

It’s not bias if it’s correct

Democrats have no monopoly on the propensity to blame bias for reporting that is contrary to their world view.  I can’t count the number of times this election cycle that I have heard Republicans claim that polls showing an Obama lead, were media fabrications with the purposeful intent to manipulate the electorate.  However, Democrats do seem to take cries of bias to a whole new level even when there is independent evidence that reports of bias are unfounded. 

Take polling done by Rasmussen as an example. A Fordham University study of 2008 presidential polls found that Rasmussen was tied for first with the most accurate prediction of the final outcome of the 23 polling organizations they analyzed.  In spite of this recent presidential polling success, a number of prominent Democrats contemptuously ignore what Rasmussen currently says.  Electoral-vote.com goes so far as to run two aggregator models: one with, and one without, Rasmussen polls.  Liberal scold Andrew Sullivan agrees, “I generally remove Rasmussen from the poll of polls, because they are so openly biased in their sample.”  It’s one thing to see a poll from Rasmussen and to decry its bias; but it’s something else entirely to remove Rasmussen from your field of view.

All the news that’s fit to print

Is there a more arrogant slogan than that which runs on the masthead of the New York Times?  Nonetheless, many of its readers apparently believe it is true.  Blind faith in the omniscience of a chosen media outlet is far from a recent phenomenon.  More than a century ago, the most famous editorial ever written contained the line from Virginia’s father that, “If you see it in the [New York] Sun, it is so.” 

Today’s New York Times, because of its effect on what other press outlets report, is in an especially influential position when it chooses what isn’t fit to print.  If one wants, one can walk through life purposefully censoring exposure to contrary opinions like might be contained in reports by Rasmussen, Fox News, and the Drudge Report.  However, because the major networks and most newspapers share a liveral basis, it is much more difficult for a conservative to limit oneself only to reports from a conservative press.  So it’s not that conservatives are necessarily more broad-minded that they get greater exposure to contrary points of view, it’s that there is little chance for conservatives to avoid them.  The reverse feat would be difficult to pull off.  As John Stuart Mill reminded us, “He who knows only of his own side of the case, knows little of that.”

Pauline Kael’s oft-misquoted remark that she “only [knew] one person who voted for Nixon,” in spite of the fact that Nixon enjoyed the largest popular vote margin of any presidential candidate in the last 75 years, is an attitude typical of a liberal who has lived a blinkered way of life.  Pauline Kael wasn’t just an ordinary liberal, but was a prominent columnist for New Yorker magazine.  Meanwhile, two blocks away, columnists at the New York Times enjoy even more vaunted positions of isolation.

Krugmania

There is something about a New York Times byline that seems to turn a man of accomplishment into a god–at least in the eyes of many of his readers. 

Paul Krugman is a Nobel laureate.  He left his influential position in Princeton University’s economics department for a loftier perch at the New York Times.  An unabashed Keynesian, he laments that over the last four years the federal government hasn’t spent nearly enough to pull the economy out of recession.  One can attack Krugman’s economic prescriptions (especially as many of them run contrary to the advice he gave when there was a Republican in the White House), even as one acknowledges the gravity of his economic view. 

If a Times writer is not careful, that god-like adulation can go to one’s head.  It can cause one to take shortcuts and to pretend that expertise extends to other areas as well.  When Krugman steps out of the field of economics and into politics, which is more often than not these days, he is especially careless and obtuse.  This widely circulated twopart post by internet satirist “Iowahawk” is probably the best demonstration of how completely wrong Paul Krugman can be.  So wrong, in fact, that it should beg for skepticism in the minds of any who hear Krugman speak.  Nor is it just the occasional Iowa auto body repairman who recognizes that Krugman oft wanders across the line between data and imagination.  Upon the occasion of his retirement from the Times, former ombudsman Daniel Okrent wrote that, “Paul Krugman has the disturbing habit of shaping, slicing and selectively citing numbers in a fashion that pleases his acolytes but leaves him open to substantive assaults.” 

[See update below] Cautions like that don’t stop people who should know better.  Atlantic columnist Clive Crook just this week gushed:

“I don’t know about you, but when confusion arises in disputes of this kind, I always turn to Krugman for dispassionate adjudication. . . Thank heavens we have Krugman to lean against the trend, and go where the evidence takes him without partisan preference.”

Bunk.  What Crook really means, is that Krugman takes him where Crook’s partisan preference already wants to be.  Crook is not alone.  Paul Krugman benefits from having a readership that largely turns to him to confirm what they already believe.  Amplified by the Atlantic and others, Krugmania rolls on.  

Nate Silver is another man of accomplishment now at the Times.  He too has many readers who, willfully or accidentally, are ignorant of other points of view.  So Silver’s confirmational pronouncements pleases his acolytes.  Because his prognostications are buttressed by the supposed authority of the Grey Lady, they are absorbed verbatim by credulous readers who believe that if you read it in the Times, it is so.

People, not pencils

Because I just compared Nate Silver to Paul Krugman (a juxtaposition that is terribly unfair to the sabremetrician), one might get the impression that I don’t like Nate Silver and don’t find his analyses informative.  That would be incorrect.  I’ve read him since before the 2008 election and admire him for his data savvy superior to my own. 

But where I do find fault, is his certitude.  I don’t mean that attitudinally.  As I am sometimes accused of being arrogant myself, it would be unfair for me to hold against others a similar trait.  But I do criticize Silver for the certitude implied in the exactness of his results.  When I read on 538.com that Obama has a 76.6% chance of winning Ohio, I am reminded of the joke about the old docent at the natural history museum.  He points proudly to a fossil and says, “These bones are two-million seven years old.”  The astonished visitor asks the man how he knows the age so precisely.  To which the old man responds, “The exhibit was two-million years old when I started working here seven years ago.”  

AJStrata, a statistician who works with Global Positioning Systems, says it well.  He cautions readers to be wary of “ridiculously precise models using data that has enormous error bars.  Where Keplerian physics is well understood and can be modeled precisely enough that the incertitude of the samples [one] measures makes little difference to the outcome, in politics, “the dynamics of what is being sampled (the electorate) is very poorly understood.”

The progressive is particularly prone to being fooled by the supposed certainty of expertise.  It is an ideology that believes that if the right power can be placed into the hands of experts capable of understanding and controlling the complex, then the world will be a better place.  If one already accepts that the value of currency, the nation’s entire health care network, and even the planet’s climate are not so complicated that a smart expert with good intentions could predict and control outcomes, then certainly Nate Silver, a billiant and well-intentioned man, is capable of solving a minor problem of math down to the tenth of a point.

However, while polling involves math, it is not math.  The math within it bears little resemblance to the certainty of Keplerian physics.  Keep in mind that I am a fan of polling and have done it professionally before.  But having said that, I urge the reader to remember that polling is an educated guess heaped upon conjecture piled atop assumptions filtered through subjectivity and complicated by lies.  To treat it as more certain than that is to regard humanity with disdain.  For polling is nothing more than a gauge of human interactions and humans are complicated things.

Economics is another gauge of human interactions.  One of the best economics essays of the last hundred years is, I, Pencil, a commentary indirectly attacking the arrogance of men who believe that they can predict and control even seemingly simple things.  “Pick me up,” says the pencil.  “Not much meets the eye—there’s some wood, lacquer, the printed labeling, graphite lead, a bit of metal, and an eraser.”  Simple, right? Economist Leonard Read then goes on to describe the complexity of making even the most ordinary object in the world. 

“Now contemplate all the saws and trucks and rope and the countless other gear used in harvesting and carting the cedar logs to the railroad siding. Think of all the persons and the numberless skills that went into their fabrication: the mining of ore, the making of steel and its refinement into saws, axes, motors; the growing of hemp and bringing it through all the stages to heavy and strong rope; the logging camps with their beds and mess halls, the cookery and the raising of all the foods. Why, untold thousands of persons had a hand in every cup of coffee the loggers drink!”

And that describes only the logs.  From there they are shipped and milled, before being filled with graphite and other chemicals, painted, and then given a tiny eraser on top.  Conceivably millions of people have a hand in the making of a pencil.  And yet, without any central control whatsoever, somehow, that old reliable #2 is always available wherever I choose to shop.  

There have been many command economies that have thought that they could control events far more complex than producing pencils.  Most no longer exist.  Unfortunately for the progressive experts, humanity is the greatest source of complexity in the world, and it is humanity itself that the experts wish to predict and to control. 

So what?

Yesterday’s post, along with all of the above from today, helps to explain why I think that Democratic optimism in an Obama re-election is unfounded.  The lack of circumspection that oft follows victory, the easy escape from other views, and the progressive’s obedience to expertise make Barack Obama’s supporters more optimistic than they should be.  Even while Barack Obama is still close enough to win, it should be clear by now that he is in an undesirable position for an incument.  However, this doesn’t address how, if I’m right, Intrade could be so wrong. 

For that, we have to look at Thursday’s ABC/Washington Post poll*.  Even as this poll indicated that Mitt Romney held on to a three-point lead and sat at the magic number of 50%, it also found that among Obama’s supporters, more than 90% of those polled expected Obama to win.  Among Romney’s supporters barely 70% thought that their man would prevail.   It is an incongruous result when a majority expects the winning candidate to be the one with a minority of support.  However, Intrade, like polling, is simply a gauge of human emotions.  And those emotions are influenced by expert opinion.  Far  too many Democrats have faith in their experts’ opinions and enough Republicans fear that those experts are right.

* I have misplaced the link to the internals from that poll.  Rather than expect you to trust me, I’ll provide this corroborating story.  On Friday’s Anderson Cooper show, CNN National Correspondent Gary Tuchman noted that the closing messages from both campaigns is curiouly identical: 

“Romney’s strategists have the concern that the perceived lack of their candidate’s competitiveness could ultimately lead to less enthusiasm, and therefore, lower turnout.  So the message being emphasized to the GOP base is that Romney can win.  And that makes the message from Obama strategists all the more interesting.  In order to increase Democratic enthusiasm and turnout, they have the very same message:  ‘Romney can win this.'”

UPDATE:  Thanks to several readers for pointing out that Clive Crook was being ironic when he gushed over Paul Krugman.  Irony is best when it is believable, but sometimes it can be a little too good.

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15 Responses to “Part II: Obama optimism: why do they still believe?”

  1. Gary Rombold Says:

    So pubic opinion says Rasmussen is right many others are left. Are there any polls that are not considered “leaning” by both sides(wether secretly or publicly)?

    I heard recently that when you tell a conservative that they are behind in the polls that they “want t kill you”. When you tell a liberal the same they “want to kill themselves”. Do you find this to be accurate and if so does this dynamic have a bearing on how we view polls?

    Ed: Except for the companies that do only one-party polling (Public Policy Polling on the left, for example) polls aren’t “right” or “left”. They simply employ different methodologies in sampling and in how the assume the electorate on election day will look. The idea behind the Real Clear Politics average is that it is simple average of poll results and that average should cancel out the bias of polls that lean one way or the other. That’s not a bad rough estimate. However, as I have said in an earlier post, ignore ths spread; look at the incument’s level of support in aggregated polls like RCP average. While this is now a one point race according to RCP, with the president stuck at 47, he is not in good shape.

  2. Psykling Says:

    How do I know I am not acting in the same way as the people you describe by discounting Silver and agreeing with you?

  3. Withywindle Says:

    Clive Crook was being ironic. That column you quoted is part of a polite evisceration of Krugman.

  4. Lorenz Gude Says:

    Thank you for two excellent essays that address in detail most of the concerns I have had with polling this year. I too have read the partisan theories about the polls being biased, but I know from past experience that the RCP average keeps me from being overly reactive to any one poll. Yet I wonder if we wont find that polling has been less reliable this year because there are many new cultural forces at work that are not at all on the surface. Why are over 90% of people, according to one source, called by pollsters refusing to participate? More importantly can anyone say that such a self selected minority is still representative? Has the grip of the MSM on the narrative significantly slipped? (I think it has, but media is my field and I don’t want to down a rat hole here!) How are the hidden currents of race going to play out in the privacy of the polling booth? Will people have to silently resume their ‘white guilt’ to vote for Romney? Will those dyed in the wool Jacksonian Democrats who are so angry at Obama that they even voted for an inmate in the Democratic primaries become the new Joe Sixpacks who begin to vote Republican? I’m not expecting answers, just wanting to point out that this year we are trying to see through a complex of cultural changes with a tried and true technology that got its last service pack in 1948. BTW I managed to nullify any residual white guilt I have by voting for Alan West in Florida – and Mr Romney of course.

  5. Old Slewfoot Says:

    Well that makes sense! If 90% of the Obama 47% are convinced their guy is going win, and only 70% of the Romney 53% believe their guy is going to win, then I guess you would expect an Intrade split of around 60/40 when it came to putting your money where your mouth is.

    Two thoughts though, first, if one believes in the efficient marketplace theory that underpins Intrade (as opposed to the supposed wisdom of experts) wouldn’t you have to conclude that a consideration of all information available points to an Obama victory in November?

    Second, I believe that non-citizen can also make wagers on Intrade, might that not also induce a pro-Obama bias in the Intrade results?(he’s still very popular in France)

    (I also wonder if conservatives as a group just considered Intrade to be a foolish investment.)

  6. Yancey Ward Says:

    When speaking of InTrade, I always like to remind myself of something important, and it is something that is repeatedly missed by those who cite InTrade as support of their own predictions. People bet money on themselves all the time at the casino, even when they know they are going to lose more than they are going to win. Putting up one’s own money is no guarantee that one will make a wise bet.

  7. Bob M Says:

    Krugman is still a professor at Princeton. He never left his perch at Princeton to join the NY Times. He left Slatebto join the NY Times.

  8. james wilson Says:

    Conservatives are constitutionally pessimistic, as they should be. As a man said, optimism is cowardice. Many conservatives understand that the war has been lost, and although Romney will win this election, it is the type of victory that the socialist state absolutely requires to keep functioning. What was Reagan’s legacy? A state of higher functioning followed by two Bushes, a Clinton, and Obama. What was Carter’s legacy? Reagan. We are finishing Carter’s last term only now, and FDR’s legacy. The left is not pessimistic because they can’t see this turning around, and neither can conservatives.

    Intrade is a wonderfully predictive medium, but they too are not above getting schooled. No single group is immune to getting schooled, even clever white guys who put their money where their mouths are. I’m not knocking them, by no means. If everyone had to pay for his opinion, what a different world this would be.

    Anyway, only a small percentage of those boys who held Romney early are going to clean up. They are the ones who always clean up. They may or may not be fans of Romney, and they may even be more inclined than others not to vote at all. Because the way they see it they are not playing a game, we are.

  9. Lavaux Says:

    Polling has many uses, only one of which is accurately measuring how people think, feel, believe regarding some issue.

  10. Antoine Clarke Says:

    One problem of Nate Silver’s move to the NYT: you need to register (give personal details) to leave a comment.

    So someone like me, who tends to spot little mistakes but won’t share my details with the NYT, no longer contacts Nate.

    So nearly all his commenters are NYT fans in a way that wasn’t true before 538.com became an echo chamber.

    Personally, I think we shall see a close race or a blowout, majority over 60 or under 20. But I’m not sure to whom.

  11. JamesMcc Says:

    What motive does Intrade have to be accurate? If it derives it’s profits from the volume of bets, isn’t it’s motive to encourage as many bets as possible?
    I honestly don’t see how Intrade is reflective of the electorate. Intrade is reflective of betting behavior and betting behavior is not always rational.
    A bettor may bet on who’s most likely to win given the available information. Of course, the problems a bettor would have determining the best information are numerous: perception bias, slanted information, a tendency to vote on a preffered outcome, etc.
    Then there’s Intrade itself. Does it manipulate odds to encourage bets? Say that Intrade is has a pro-Obama betting pool (likely) and the real odds of winning are 50%. More would bet on Obama with fewer takers for Romney. To balance the pool, Intrade would have to shift the odds toward Obama.
    I just don’t see the rational for a Europian betting company being good predictor of an American electorate. They never understood us before, why start now?

  12. Obama Is Crumbling, Part 4: One Week to Go | Western Free Press Says:

    […] media have done a successful job of buoying the left’s confidence and tamping down the right&#…. But on Election Day, it is possible—and maybe even probable—that it is they who will be […]

  13. R.C. Says:

    One other thing to consider:

    I suspect that if one were to take the set of all persons who’re aware of Intrade, and the set of all persons who’d be willing to place a bet on who’ll win the Presidential election, and take the intersection of those two sets, you’ll get a set of people who:

    (a.) Get their news predominantly from mainstream media, with a contempt for celebrity news and sensationalist news, but a great respect for the authority of opinion-writers and business news in major papers and newsweeklies;

    (b.) Are not skewed right-of-center in their political views; and, who…

    (c.) Live in more urban, less rural, settings.

    Would a set of people fitting those criteria be likely to think Obama is on the ropes? I don’t think so. They have little exposure to the alternative media that might deliver that message, and are culturally disinclined towards believing it anyway.

    (I guess that’s all a fancy way of saying, “Rural churchgoers don’t typically know about Intrade, and probably wouldn’t bet about the Presidential Election on it if they did know.” But, hey, it sounded more impressive the way I said it the first time.)

  14. Rob Crawford Says:

    “I can’t count the number of times this election cycle that I have heard Republicans claim that polls showing an Obama lead, were media fabrications with the purposeful intent to manipulate the electorate.”

    They’re not? Sure act like it.

    “Except for the companies that do only one-party polling (Public Policy Polling on the left, for example) polls aren’t “right” or “left”.”

    The people paying the polling companies ARE lefties, and “he who pays the piper calls the tune”.

  15. slarrow Says:

    I like what you say about economics and polling. I’ve said a related thing for years, which is that liberals tend to make the mistake that economics is about math. But it’s not. Economics is about people and what they do, and math is the measurement, not the thing measured. That’s why the “arithmetic” crack from Bill Clinton resonated so with the Democrat base and why Obama still stubbornly thinks that Mitt Romney’s “math doesn’t add up”. But the whole idea about these things is that people change their behavior in response to certain events, and that’s the part that these folks can’t get hold of.

    People aren’t math problems and thus cannot be solved accordingly. I think some folks got a little too enamored by Asimov’s Foundation series, forgetting that it was science _fiction_.