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.
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 two-part 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.
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.