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Category: Dave Brockington

There’s a Reason We No Longer Live in the Fucking Medieval Age.

[ 217 ] December 15, 2012 |

It took less than 24 hours, but the NRA-sponsored argument to “arm the teachers!” is being field-tested, as noted by Erik, and as illustrated in a charming graphic, circulating on facebook, extolling the virtues of a “staff heavily armed and trained . . . any attempt to harm the children will be met with deadly force”.

Ultimately, such an asinine, idiotic argument serves to defend a mythic mis-interpretation of our 2nd Amendment rights.  So let’s talk about the rights that we do have, or should have, in a modern society.

Sorry, assholes, but my six year old daughter has more of a right to attend her fucking elementary school without fear. Her teacher has the right to concentrate on excellence in pedagogy and not in SWAT tactics. I have the right as a university professor to assume that when the door to my lecture hall opens, as it does five times per hour, it’s another late student, and not my long awaited chance to unholster the Glock I’m packing in order to pop off a couple untrained rounds in playing hero.

When I go to a shopping mall in Clackamas County, where I live while in Oregon (I’m there now, indeed I arrived at PDX just a couple hours after the now forgotten Clackamas Town Center shooting on Tuesday), I have the right to not worry about not only some over-armed deranged soul taking out his frustrations and insecurities and self-perceived failures on the general population, but likewise I shouldn’t have to wonder how many of my fellow shoppers are armed, untrained, yet itching for the chance for a righteous firefight, especially after three post work beers.  Because nothing makes me feel safer than eight or ten well meaning “good guys” trying to take out the one lunatic against the backdrop of 10,000 holiday shoppers.

Our response, as a society, should be to examine the multitude of reasons why these events kick off.  One thing should be perfectly fucking clear, however.  Introduce readily available firearms, especially those that no recreational pursuit requires, the efficiency of the slaughter increases tremendously.  As we all know, on the same day as Sandy Hook, CT, a similar rampage happened in China.  The lunatic in China was armed with only a knife, not two side arms and an AR4 .223.

And holy crap!  No children in China died.  22 wounded.  Nine went to hospital, two in serious condition.

Did I mention that no children died in China?

The response of a significant component of our population in the United States is to arm the teachers, not question the underlying conditions and assumptions that brought us here.  I’m not at all sorry when I say this: that’s fucking ridiculous.

I don’t mind guns, I’ve liked hunting, I’ve been known to be a pretty decent shot, but the asinine line “guns don’t kill people, people kill people” is bullshit.

Guns make the killing a hell of a lot more efficient.

And I’m thankful that my six year old daughter goes to school in England, because if “arm the teachers!” is the best that we can do here, we’ve blown right past the Gilded Age and are plowing head on to a return to medieval times.


2014 House Prospects

[ 21 ] December 4, 2012 |

I was somewhat surprised that a majority of the handful of comments responding to my post debunking the “six year itch” were far more interested in the general prospects for the Democrats in the 2014 House elections, and of those, most were upbeat.  In general, the hopeful comments, as well as the sheer delusional optimism of the TDS post that I linked, rely not on evidence or data, but predominantly faith.  To wit, from the TDS post:

Democrats ought to be able to pick up 17 Republican seats with a combination of better candidates, state-of-the-art micro-targeting and a more focused and energetic GOTV program targeting pro-Democratic constituencies in those districts – small though they may be. There should be an equally vigorous ‘front porch’ campaign to sway persuadable voters. Further, if Democrats can do as well as we have with 7.9 percent unemployment, an improving economy should boost our chances in ’14.

Ignoring both history and the turnout effect for the moment, there are a range of potential positives.  The Democrats currently have a considerable edge in GOTV and micro-targeting, and unlike following 2008, this organization might remain active for 2010.  Furthermore, the Republicans are unlikely to catch up in time for 2014.  Assuming a satisfactory negotiation to the fiscal cliff, structural conditions should benefit the Democrats in 2014.  Combine this with the bedding in of the PPACA and other domestic initiatives, Democrats can run on a positive platform of accomplishment and a growing economy, thus resulting in the possibility of a strong tailwind.  Finally, as with the Democrats in the House following 2006 and 2008, the Republicans might be at their high water mark in terms of viability in House seats with the 113th Congress.

However, let’s examine some of the negatives.  First, while “Too much focus on historical precedent is debilitating. History is never made by entertaining defeatist memes or those who are daunted by precedent.” is a nice sentiment, that’s precisely what it is — sentiment. A Democratic gain of 17 seats would nearly double the existing record of the past 20 midterms, which remains the nine seats gained by Democrats in 1934.  Even gaining seats, however few, is rare.  The historical reality is that of the 20 midterm elections dating back to 1934, the incumbent party has only gained seats in three: 1934, 1998, and 2002.  I’m sympathetic to the counter argument that each election is at least partially influenced by its unique historical context, but each of the three incumbent positive elections are notable precisely for such reasons: 1934 has been characterised as a referendum on FDR’s New Deal, 1998 a backlash against the possible impeachment of Clinton, and 2002 a ‘rally around the flag’ effect.  While it’s not unimaginable for 2014 to have such an atypical historical context of its own, I don’t think that a growing economy and a sudden appreciation for Obama’s 2009-10 domestic accomplishments measure up to the events of 1934, 98, or 2002.

Then there’s turnout.  Following 2010, I argued in public lectures and other forums that this wasn’t the repudiation of the Obama agenda nor did it doom Obama’s re-election, as the British media strongly suggested, but that it was because of turnout.  It was simply a different electorate who participated.  Turnout always declines in mid term elections.  When turnout declines, it effects different socioeconomic categories at different rates.  Those categories that get hit the most are categories that strongly supported Obama in 2008 (and 2012).  Indeed, I argued this very point here on LGM following a handful of special elections in 2009:

It wasn’t a newly energized base that swung the races; rather it was a combination of independents breaking R and a good chunk of the “Obama coalition” staying home.  Which we knew they would all along. Minorities, the young, the less wealthy, new voters do tend to stay home in odd years (and while I anticipate an uptick in turnout amongst these groups in 2010, it won’t come near the level of 2008). These were the demographic categories that largely put Obama (way) over the top in 2008.

Limited to the two-party vote, national turnout in 2010 House elections was 71.4% of turnout in 2008 House elections.  (Some ballot drop-off does occur: in 2008, 129,391,711 votes were cast for either Obama or McCain, while only 116,841,071 for D or R House candidates; I use the latter figure when calculating the difference in House election turnout between 2008 and 2010; expanded to all votes, roughly two million votes were cast for third-party presidential candidates, while 3.5 million were cast for third-party House candidates.)  As turnout decline has systematic effects that work against Democratic candidates at present, it would take a considerable GOTV operation, coupled with ideal structural conditions, tail winds approaching a jet stream, to create conditions where Democrats can gain seats in 2014.  A historical electoral context in league with 1934, 1998, or 2002 wouldn’t hurt.

However, this is all hoping borderline assuming that each of these attributes of the 2014 election will break the Democrats’ way.  It’s possible that the structural conditions of the election do not improve from 2012 or 2010 for a variety of reasons.; indeed, there’s evidence today to suggest a growth rate in the 4th quarter of only 0.8%, with one estimate as low as 0.2% for the entire year.   A settlement to the fiscal cliff should shield the Republicans (at present a Pew poll indicates 53% would blame Republicans, only 27% the Administration, for a failure of negotiations) but any deal will involve large spending cuts which are more than less likely to hurt the economy at the margins in the short term.  Finally, an atypical historical context can go in either direction.

Then there’s the gerrymandering.  The Republicans did an outstanding job of that following the 2010 census.  The table below lists the national results as well as four states: Pennsylvania, Texas, California, and Ohio, comparing the vote percentages and seat percentages in each, from the 2012 House elections:

Nationally, the Republicans received a boost of 4 points in translating votes into seats.  At the state level, they gained over 20 points in both Pennsylvania and Ohio, a surprisingly restrained eight points in Texas, and of course lost 11 points in California.  Out of curiosity, these are the only four I’ve looked at so far, so I’m wondering if there are others worth mentioning?

Even if structural conditions are solid and a tailwind is at the back of the Democratic Party in 2014, lower turnout, the historical penalty suffered by the incumbent party, and the Repbulicans’ built-in advantage of redistricting for the next ten years makes aspirations of gaining seats, let alone reclaiming the majority, a wildly optimistic expectation.  Simply engaging a GOTV operation of similar size and efficacy to 2012 would stretch the budget for a mid term election, and even then the return on investment probably won’t be as impressive considering that it’s more difficult to persuade casual voters to get motivated for a mere Congressional election.

In other words, while I hope I’m very wrong, I’m not optimistic.

The Six Year Itch? Whatever.

[ 23 ] November 28, 2012 |

Not too soon, the campaign season will commence again, with a focus on the Congressional elections of 2014.  In the smattering of stories that I’ve read in the past two weeks about this upcoming festival of joy, a term that I was only vaguely aware of keeps popping up, the six year itch.  However loosely defined, six years removed from his (or, presumably someday her) first election, the incumbent President’s party is apparently doomed to suffer atypically huge defeats in these mid term House elections.  On paper, this does not inspire confidence for the Democrats come 2014.  To quote from the Politico article linked above:

The party controlling the White House during a president’s sixth year in office has lost seats in every midterm election but one since 1918, when Woodrow Wilson occupied the Oval Office. And the setbacks typically aren’t small: The average loss in these elections was 30 seats.

Incumbent Presidents tend to suffer losses in damn near every mid term election for whatever reason (see the figure below), so this sentence could be restated as “the party controlling the White House has lost seats in every midterm election but three since 1918 . . .”.  Given the relatively small sample size, this really doesn’t tell us anything.  A better way of looking at the question involves comparing the mean seat loss for the incumbent party in bog standard boring midterm years, and the hypothesized qualitatively different six-year itch years.  During such years, apparently “Anger, exhaustion and frustration tend to set in among voters as presidents approach the last leg of their final term. It happened to Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1938 when voters recoiled at his New Deal reforms. ”  Of course, FDR would be re-elected in 1940, so that anger must have dissipated quickly.



In comparing the means between these two types of midterm elections, we have to settle on a measure of what is, and is not, a six-year itch election.  In terms of consistency, wikipedia lets us down; the brief entry on this topic includes 1974, by which time Ford had replaced Nixon, yet inexplicably overlooks 1998, possibly because it doesn’t fit the model.  In my analysis, I’ve settled on not settling on defining a clear measure.  Instead, I’ve chosen to start with a strict definition, and then progressively loosen the parameters of this six-year itch.  The above figure distinguishes such elections with a solid black border, and additional candidates have a thin border.


The table below compares the average seat loss for an incumbent party in standard (non-SYI) and SYI elections using five different measures.  A strict measure of SYI does what it says on the tin: a President must be in office at the time of the election six years from his first election.  From 1932 (20 total midterm elections), this limits us to five elections: 1938, 1958, 1986, 1998, and 2006.



Using a strict definition, there is no appreciable difference in average seat loss by the incumbent Presidential party in such elections.  The second column adds 1950 to the mix; one might argue that while Truman was not elected President in 1944, he did assume the office less than three months following the January 1945 inauguration thus giving Truman close to a full term in office prior to the 1948 election, but adding 1950 makes little difference.  The third column adds 1974.  Here, one has to argue that the voters either explicitly associated Ford with Nixon’s sins, considered Ford a mere extension of the Nixon years, or simply hadn’t noticed that Nixon was no longer president.  Given the pounding that Republicans experienced in 1974, this moves the means slightly, but still not convincingly.


Not satisfied?  The fourth column measures the SYI by including both 1942 and 1966.  In the case of the former, theoretically, why should FDR suffer from this phenomenon in 1938, but not even worse four years later?  If there is anything to this, then the itch really must have been festering in the minds of the voters in 1942 (as evidenced by the Democrats having lost 45 seats in that election).  1966 can be included for reasons similar to 1974 — LBJ, at least during 1964, was committed to continuing Kennedy policies in most domestic areas, hence his first “term” can be construed as a simple continuation of the Kennedy administration (which, in terms of names and  faces, it largely was).  Democrats suffered 1942 and 1966, so this does push the means even further apart.  Finally, the fifth column merges all this suspect logic by adding 1946.  Only now, do we see real daylight between the average seat loss of ordinary midterm elections and the special SYI elections.  Incidentally, this is also the only version of the five measures of SYI where the difference of the two means approach statistical significance (p=.086), but a) this assumes a one-tailed t-test, the use of which requires solid a-priori theory to suggest both the presence of a relationship and the direction of the estimate, b) these data are not random probability samples, and c) who cares?


Long story short: it doesn’t appear to exist.  There’s nothing really special about a President’s second midterm election that can not be explained by all the reasons why Presidents generally lose seats in any midterm election.  Visually, the only real pattern in the data illustrated by the figure above that is suggestive of the phenomenon is the period between 1952 and 1978, but for this to work one would have to loosen the definition of the measure such that both 1966 and 1974 merit inclusion.  1958, 66, and 74 do look different, but only one (1958) fits a rigorous definition.


What does this mean for 2014?  Nothing.  The Democrats will probably lose seats in 2014, but we don’t need a manufactured non-phenomenon to tell us that.  Alternatively, we can participate in some hard core wishful thinking and ignore oppressive historical precedent and choose to believe that the Democrats can retake the House in 2014 . . .

Classic George Will. Seriously.

[ 22 ] November 6, 2012 |

Looking through my 1976 copy of The Changing American Voter today, what should I find inside?  This vintage 1976 clipping of a George Will column, warning us sternly about the dangers of allowing voter registration by . . . mail.  Because it would mean a “substantial increase in bureaucracy, and a substantial increase in the opportunity for fraudulent voting.”



A Rambling Prediction of Sorts

[ 12 ] November 6, 2012 |

303-235.  Figure Obama’s PV around 50.5%.  I expect him to have slightly over a 2% win in the PV.  No clue nor care about his margin in MA.  Obama loses IN, NE-2, NC, and possibly / probably FL from 2008.

Democrats keep the Senate with 53 or 54.  We all know the House is out of the question, but I’d anticipate a fuzzily modest Democrat pick up, 5-10 seats.

I woke here to excellent numbers nationally, and specifically, movement towards Obama in FL (and a PPP poll showing a tie in NC).  However, yesterday’s (5 November in the US) FL numbers were from PPP, which has had a slight D lean all cycle.  The over night numbers in FL are from Gravis, Angus Reid, and IPSOS, the latter two having strong R leans.  Notable, those two suggest a swing towards Obama from +3% to +5% based on their own previous releases.  I know Silver models trend into his model, which is why he’s showing Obama as a very, very slight favorite in FL.  I’m going to discount that a bit, especially in light of the vote suppression efforts we’ve been hearing out of FL the past couple of days.

FL won’t be called for a while.  If it is called early in either direction, that’s a clear signal.  Plus, the recount procedure in OH is arduous.  If OH is within the “margin of litigation”, it could be a nightmare.  I loved reading that line in the linked NYT article while seated in the BBC Radio Devon studio this morning waiting to go on, and was able to use it.  Excellent line.

What if this is all wrong?  As most here read Wang and  Silver, we know that the polling, specifically the state level polling but latterly the national polling as well, has to be systematically and comprehensively biased in Obama’s favor.  There are reasons why this could be the case.  From the right, Ted Frank has a comprehensive, wishful thinking list of all the reasons the current polling data might be biased, and systematically so in one of the two possible directions, but to Frank’s credit, he’s looking at evidence, not relying on Morris-esque faith.

Regardless, something other than an Obama victory in this election would require a systematic polling error of significant magnitude.  Electoral Vote has around 900 state level polls in its database from this cycle last I checked a few days ago.  It would represent a large pile of error in one direction for this election to be incorrectly called at this point.

But it has happened before, UK 1992, when the polls underestimated the Conservative vote by a not middling 9%.

I catch the midnight (GMT) train to London tonight, as I’m flying to the west coast tomorrow to present a paper this weekend.  I’ll be looking at NH first — it’s a small state that will compile its numbers quickly.  That should be a strong signal as to how valid the overall polling numbers have been this year.

UPDATE: as I was writing this, Wang at Princeton reports that his modal estimation has Obama with 332.

Elected Police Commissioners — Why?

[ 28 ] October 31, 2012 |

In filling out my ballot yesterday and posting it off to Oregon, one of the decisions I had to make was for Clackamas County Sheriff.  This decision was nearly as easy as President, seeing as how the incumbent sheriff is running unopposed.

On November 15th, English and Welsh voters get their first chance to vote for such a position, which they’re calling the Police and Crime Commissioner.  This has generated criticism from most points on the political spectrum, and both regarding the fundamental need to its botched implementation.  The criticisms include a violation of the separation of powers, the politicisation of the police, that it will be a low information election both in terms of the office and the date the government chose to hold it, and that turnout will be perilously low to the point where the election itself will be illegitimate.

The Electoral Reform Society are particularly critical of the implementation and, according to their analysis, 18.5% predicted turnout.  I agree with much of what they have to say.  However, they’re rather fuzzy on how they arrived at the 18.5% estimate, and even then, judging the legitimacy of an election based on turnout is an ultimately arbitrary game.

I’ve been doing the usual bit of local media for the BBC during an American election cycle.  This year has brought something new — a seven day run on BBC Radio Devon called ‘pause for thought’.  Instead of the normal back and forth of an interview, it’s a set piece of about two minutes where I have clear air time.  The hardest part of it has been waking every morning to be in the studio around 6am.  Otherwise, it’s like writing blog posts, but pitched to an entirely different sort of audience, and read live on air.

I addressed a couple of the critiques mentioned above in this morning’s piece.  Specifically, while it’s a low information election, the partisan label of the candidates (those not running as independents) does serve as a voting cue and communicates some information.  Furthermore, local media have a role to play.  Radio Devon is trying to raise awareness on the Devon & Cornwall Constabulary election, and pieces like this in the Seattle Times (on the current election for King County Sheriff) are not uncommon in US media.

Second, using turnout as a metric for legitimacy is never going to fly due to its inherent arbitrary nature.  I get the normative problem: public policy in a democracy should represent the general will of the population (however measured and defined), but ultimately, and rationally, instead represents those who vote.  When the composition of the electorate is systematically different from that of the general population, policy will likewise deviate.

However, again, where to draw the line and claim an election illegitimate?  In 2005, Tony Blair was re-elected with 35.5% of the vote on a turnout of around 62%, resulting in a durable parliamentary majority that governed for five years.  Yet, when examined closer, 78% of the population either explicitly voted for someone else or failed to participate.  Labour’s re-election in 2005 was predicated on the support of 22% of the population.

Furthermore, while the position here is laudable for devolving accountability and some policy to a more local setting, it remains largely bereft of policy responsibility, so I’m not sure how far one can take the turnout critique.  Indeed, if the Seattle Times piece linked above is any measure, the election for King County Sheriff is about administrative and personality qualities, not policy.

I’m not terribly sure how to address the critique that these offices somehow violate a separation of powers.  The entire concept is, at best, muddy in the British constitution.  This isn’t a violation in the US context.  We might legitimately argue whether or not these positions should be selected by vote or on pure merit (as we might likewise debate voting for judicial positions), but I don’t see this as a separation of powers issue, much to the chagrin of an ex-student of mine.

This leaves the politicisation question.  On one level, this is a trade-off — adding the partisan label, useful as a cue for voters, by definition politicises the office.  However, claiming non partisan offices to be de-politicised is laughable.  Poring over the list of non partisan offices in Clackamas County and the State of Oregon yesterday, one cue I used to make decisions were endorsements.  Every candidate for “non partisan” positions have endorsements that cluster in readily identifiable, partisan clusters.  While removing an office from the electoral purview would seem to aid in its de-politicisation, that itself is superficial.

The theme of my piece this morning was that expanding democracy is a normative good, especially in the UK.  While extending democracy in England and Wales to the office of Police and Crime commissioners is open to criticism, the most damning are about implementation.  While spreading democracy is good, a much better place to start expanding democracy might have been giving local government real policy power (additionally, with few exceptions, there is virtually no relationship between local government as its understood in the UK and policing).  At present, only about 25% of the local council budget comes from local taxation, and the council’s ability to vary this is tightly restricted by central government.  These positions don’t really matter much at all, and, unsurprisingly, turnout to local elections is unsurprisingly modest.

Notes on a Couple of Polls: Pew and RAND

[ 74 ] October 9, 2012 |

First, let’s discuss the new Pew release, and attempt to do so without freaking out.  It presents grim reading for at least two reasons: the four point Romney lead, and that Pew has had a consistent Democratic lean, relative to the aggregate averages, this entire cycle.  Indeed, Silver notes

The Pew poll, however, may well be the single best polling result that Mr. Romney has seen all year. It comes from a strong polling firm, and had a reasonably large sample size. Just as important is the trendline. Pew’s polls have been Democratic-leaning relative to the consensus this year; its last poll, for instance, had Mr. Obama 8 points ahead among likely voters. So this represents a very sharp reversal.

As it’s important to not fall into the trap of focusing on confirmatory evidence to the exclusion of equally valid contrary evidence, it’s likewise not healthy to overly concentrate on one negative national poll to the exclusion of the weight of extant evidence.  In other words, I didn’t start doing back flips following the September Pew release showing an eight point Obama lead, and I’m not marching to the liquor store to buy out their stock of whisky because of this one.

There are legitimate, and less legitimate reasons to be weary of this one poll; John Sides does a solid job of pointing out some examples of both.  One reason attracting attention is the underlying partisan identification of the sample.  The most recent, October Pew sample had 31% Democrats to 36% Republicans.  Therefore, at best, Republicans were over-sampled accidentally; at worse, purposefully, or so goes the narrative.

A comparison to the September (12-16) Pew release is illustrative here.  The underlying partisan composition of that sample was 39% D to 29% R.  Does this mean that there has been a swing of 15 points in the underlying partisan composition of the American electorate from a ten point Democratic lead to a five point Republican lead in three weeks?  Of course not.  There are (at least) two dynamics at work here.  First, partisan identification is not a static attribute.  It’s a dynamic attitudinal measure that can be affected by context, and following the debate, it’s possible to conceive that claiming a Republican allegiance is marginally more attractive than it was prior to the debate.  Second, polls vary, even from the same polling houses, for random reasons.  Again, Sides: “Poll results vary for random reasons—that is, because of sampling error.”  Indeed, considering both the extreme (in comparison to other polls) top lines, and equally extreme shift in both the top line and underlying partisan composition of the sample, I’d suspect that both samples were unlucky.  In other words, while October is possibly an over-statement of Romney’s support in October, likewise September was possibly an over statement of Obama’s support.

There’s a second comparison to make: the LV N of the September sample was 2,192.  October, 1,112.  This does not make the former automatically better than the latter, but assuming everything else in their sampling methodology remained the same, the error bands in October are larger.  Meaning, we can be less confident in the validity of the four point lead in October than we could in the eight point lead for Obama in September.  The MoE of October for the LV figures is +/- 3.4%, meaning that there is a 95% chance that the “true” figure for Romney’s support lies within a band of 45.6% to 52.4%.  While this simplifies matters, and I feel that MoE can be overstated, it is illustrative of the random error that naturally exists even in a perfectly drawn probability sample.

An intriguing alternative to the Pew release is the ongoing panel survey at RAND.  Wang discussed this survey yesterday, suggesting that the data show that the Romney debate bounce resulted from inspiring the base and not from converting undecideds or siphoning directly off of Obama’s support.  This is notable because of empirical evidence that suggests viewers largely watch the debate to cheer their team and have their own underlying decision confirmed, yet is surprising because Romney gave a very non-base performance highlighted by a rapid shift to the center.

Before looking at this a little closer, there are some strengths, and weaknesses, to the RAND methodology to discuss.  The notable strength of this survey is that it is drawn on a panel, not a cross section.  They’re “interviewing” the same 3500 respondents every week (500 each day so the daily result is a composite rolling average).  In terms of research design, this puts us in a much stronger position to make causal inferences.  If we consider the debate performance a temporal “treatment”, we’re on safer ground suggesting that “the debate caused X” than we would be comparing a bunch of cross sections.

There are several weaknesses specific to using a panel, however, but in my estimation these weaknesses pale in comparison to the inherent strength of the design.  First, any initial errors in drawing the sample are locked in.  This can be, and is, partially offset through weighting, but it is something to consider.  Second, there’s the issue of sample attrition.  Finally, something I just considered today, it’s possible that respondents might feel internalised pressure to stick with their initial decisions.  An example might be a hypothetical respondent consistently answering with “Obama” from early September to the present, but internally is starting to lean Romney, yet doesn’t want to publicly admit this, as he or she does not want to appear fickle or superficial or inconsistent (or choose any of a number of possible awkward adjectives here).

There’s also a minor weakness, in my assessment, of their LV model.  This said, there are at minimum minor weaknesses in any LV model, so this should not be interpreted as a critique of this instrument in isolation.  One of the three items this survey asks is “What is the percent chance that you will vote in the Presidential election?”.  This is self reported, which suffers from questions of both validity and reliability.  Social desirability gets to the theoretical heart of the matter in both.  People will tend to over-estimate the chances that they will vote, because it’s the socially desirable thing to do, and before an election a respondent will feel this both externally and internally.  The former, they’ll feel that whoever is reading and coding their responses will look down upon them for claiming only a 50% chance of voting, so will inflate the number.  The latter, sure, they believe that they’re going to vote, it’s the right thing to do after all.

Thus, these figures are going to be inflated.  However, in terms of reliability, social desirability effects different groups of people differently, in systematically predictable ways.  Individually, those of socio-economic categories more predisposed to participate to begin with will be more influenced by their own perceptions of the socially desirable response (both internally and externally).  Basically, Romney supporters should be more susceptible to this phenomenon than Obama supporters.  This should present a silver lining to most of us here: we should discount the self reported figures for Romney supporters more than for Obama supporters.  Likewise, electoral context with higher levels of turnout over time will likewise be more susceptible to social desirability bias.

That said, they weight for this as well based on national participation figures from 2008, which might explain why the current estimates show only a 1.6% gap between Romney and Obama supporters probability of voting.  I’d expect this estimate to be larger.

Below are the rather precise daily estimates from RAND since the October 3 debate.  Inferring from these numbers, Romney’s bounce was in the neighborhood of 1.15% in his own support, 2% in the spread, and this has rather quickly stabilized.  Of course, this is out of line with what most are reporting.  That said, the October 8 rolling average only represents the updating of 2500 out of the 3500 overall sample, so it’s possible that Obama’s numbers could still deteriorate further.  Additionally, the debate doesn’t appear to have had a big impact on the number of undecided respondents: on October 4 undecideds were 6.15%, yesterday 5.69%.

Obama Romney Obama +
October 4 49.87 43.98 5.89
October 5 49.18 44.75 4.43
October 6 48.95 45.10 3.85
October 7 48.93 45.19 3.74
October 8 49.07 45.24 3.83


Examining these daily numbers present a picture different from the Pew estimates, and indeed from most of what we’ve been seeing in the past 72 hours.  RAND estimate a 3.83% Obama lead.  RCP’s aggregator: Obama 0.5%.  Pollster’s aggregator: Obama 2%.  Gallup’s daily tracking: Obama 5% (RV, it should be noted).  Rasmussen today: a tie.  Sam Wang’s meta-margin is Obama +2.3%.  This tells us two things: Pew’s an outlier, and RAND is at the high end the other way.

I’m Not Concerned

[ 229 ] October 4, 2012 |

In keeping with the spirit of LGM on this Fourth day of October 2012, I have a few observations about yesterday’s debacle debate.

As Scott suggested moments ago, and as Silver wrote yesterday, challengers typically do well in the first debate.  However, in this case, while it might make it more of a ballgame, it should not make a real difference.  Silver offers a lot of sound evidence-based points, as he does, and three are especially pertinent here:

The challenger’s gains have come mainly from undecided voters rather than from the incumbent himself.

No candidate who trailed by as much Romney did heading into the first debate went on to win the election.

There has not been any tendency for the challenger to gain over the remaining weeks of the election.

The average gain by a challenger after the first debate, between 1976 and 2008,  has been 2.3% according to Silver.  If we narrow the historical range to between 1996 and 2008, the average shift has been 1.4%.  Furthermore, if current polling data are to be believed, there are relatively fewer undecideds remaining at this point in the campaign than in previous years.  Hence, while the CBS poll of undecided voters has Romney “winning” 46%, Obama 22%, and 32% reckoning it was a draw, I’m relatively sanguine.  Assuming a) that this event was the crucial decision rule for this population, and b) the 32% break 50/50, 62% of undecideds were swayed to Romney, while 38% to Obama.  Even rounding up to a conservative 2:1 break between Romney and Obama amongst the undecideds, it’s not enough to shift the outcome.

The current RCP national average has Obama 49.1%, Romney 46%.  That’s a 3.1% Obama lead (which is one of the more conservative esitmates available).  This average suggests 4.9% remain uncedided.  If they break 2 to 1 for Romney, (3.3% to Romney, 1.6% to Obama) that leaves a final result of Obama 50.7% to Romney 49.3%.  Romney narrows his gap from 3.1% overall to 1.4%: a shift of 1.7%.  This is within the averages above: an average shift of 1.4% from 1996 to 2008, to average of 2.3% from 1976-2008.

The third point is also telling: this was Romney’s last chance.  Yes, Obama’s conservative strategy basically gave him this game, but at the same time, Obama did not screw up beyond his passivity.  While ideally the Democrats use Romney’s ill-conceived line about money and hearts against him early and often, I don’t think that the Romney campaign took anything away from this that they can use against Obama.

But let’s get even more conservative about this.  The current (October 4) map at ElectoralVote has four “battleground” states where Obama has a 1% to 5% lead (again based on the most recent poll, so the usual caveats about any single poll apply).  These are CO (9), IA (6), VA (13), and FL (29).  Let’s assume Obama retains the others where his lead is > 5%, but loses these four on the basis of last night.  This assumes a shift of at least 2% in FL and VA, over 3% in CO, and over 4% in IA.  Obama still wins the EC 275-263.  The current EC map at RCP, not including toss-up states, has Obama on 269 votes in the bag (toss ups include CO, IA, VA and FL I list above, as well as NV, MO, and NC).  We can safely assume that Obama will not win MO, but under a worst case scenario, he’ll still pull out one of the remaining states.

Hence, I don’t share the breathless overreaction noted by Scott’s insta-outsourcing of  Kuttner last night: “Tonight’s debate did serious damage. There are two more to come. If Obama does not pick up his game, he is a one-term president.”  Dude.  Chill.  A more realistic, sober appraisal is offered by Sargent:

What remains to be seen is whether he conveyed convincingly and affirmatively enough that his plan would engineer a faster rebound and would strengthen the middle class, at a time when voters are already concluding the groundwork has been laid for recovery. That’s what he really needed to do to alter the basic trajectory of a contest that Obama is currently winning. It was unquestionably a good night for Romney, but it’s unclear whether it will produce the big change he needed.

Frankly, I’m far more concerned that my wife just took three of five ‘words with friends’ games from me (following a ten game undefeated run) than I am about the debate last night.  The difference is, as I start the next five games, I have a better chance of reversing this tally than Romney does of winning the election based on the debates.

Determinants of State Level Support for the ACA, Enhanced Edition

[ 9 ] October 3, 2012 |

Three months ago I mashed together a little data set in order to examine variance in state level public support for the ACA, and wrote about it here.  This thing has magically morphed into a conference paper, so I’ve been kicking it around when time allows.  As I present this as of yet unwritten gem in a little over a month, it’s time to lock the model in and move on to the writing bit.

I’ll shamelessly quote from July’s post on variable description:

The two key variables in the data set are state level support for the ACA and the percentage uninsured in the state.  My source for the former is from a paper written by Richard Gonzales, a doctoral candidate at Harvard’s Department of Health Care Policy, which was discussed here at The Incidental Economist.  Gonzales estimates state level support from national Gallup data over a six month period (September 2009 to March 2010).  As this is an estimate, it does introduce an additional layer of uncertainty into the model, but it’s the best data I could find.  The point estimates and error bands appear sound in terms of face validity; the highest levels of support are found in New York, Hawaii, and Vermont, with the lowest in Oklahoma and Wyoming.  The public opinion data are old, but Monkey Cage suggests (and we all pretty much agree on) public opinion on the ACA has been relatively stable.  Percentage uninsured by state level is courtesy of Gallup, which are available here.

A bi-variate relationship was the exact opposite of what we would expect: as percentage uninsured increased, support for the ACA declined.  Believing that wasn’t an accurate story, I added percentage point change in uninsured from 2008-10, hypothesizing that a greater increase in uninsured is associated with an increase in support.  I also added both the PVI of the state and the percentage voting for Obama in 2008.  As the latter two are highly correlated (.98), I ran discrete models with each in turn.  Discussion on these variables can be found in July’s post linked at the top.

Since then, I sourced and included a bunch of variables that I had hoped would be revelatory, including per-capita GDP, average unemployment from 2008-10, the rate of Medicaid recipients expressed as a percentage, the poverty rate (again, %), and the percentages black and Latino.  Furthermore, on September 17 I added the ‘average poll rating’ from Silver’s 538 at the NYT.  Again, that is highly correlated with both the PVI and the percentage Obama vote in 2008, requiring three separate models.

Some brief explanation first: Partisan X is the respective partisan lean variable for each of the three models in turn (1. 538 polling average; 2. PVI; 3. Obama % in 2008).  Significance levels are sparsely needed; for the uninitiated, three stars represents a significance level < .001, + represents a significance level at or below .10.  Effectively what this means in these cases is that the odds of finding that estimate by random chance (as opposed to observing a real relationship) is less than one in a thousand (***), or one in ten (+).  One might argue that as I have the universe of data at hand, as these are not probability samples, significance levels are largely meaningless.  I’d argue this very point if it didn’t go off on some irrelevant tangent, so we’ll stick with convention for the time being.

Apologies for the table formatting; my staff of interns have the day off today.

M1 (538 poll avg) M2 (PVI) M3 (Dem % 2008)
Partisan X .73*** .82*** .77***
GDP per capita -0.02 -0.02 -0.001
Average uninsured 08-10 -0.28+ -0.14 -0.18
%change uninsured 08-10 -0.29 -0.19 -0.38
Average unemp. 08-10 0.41+ .17 .34+
Medicaid Rate (%) -1.59 -2.77 2.53
Poverty Rate (%) .04 -0.02 .14
% Black .22*** .25*** .25***
% Latino .08 .09+ .05
R2 .89 .90 .93


So, what do we have here?  The model fit is strong across the board: between 89 and 93 percent of the variance in public opinion support for the ACA is explained.  The model including the % vote for Obama in 2008 is the strongest, but it’s such a marginal difference I don’t want to read too much into this.

Only two variables are consistently significant: the partisan measure, and percentage black.  Before discussing the others, a further comment needs to be made regarding conventional significance levels.  The industry standard, however arbitrary, is .05; meaning, if there’s a 5% or less chance that the observed relationship is a product of random chance, then we accept the relationship as being significant.  It is permissible to stretch this to .10 but only in cases where we have an a priori theoretical reason to not only expect a relationship, but also to expect the direction of the relationship.  While I have average uninsured in bold and with a significance marker, I have a difficult time imagining a theoretical expectation that would predict the direction of this estimate: higher levels of uninsured people being associated with lower levels of support for the ACA, so I’m going to overlook this one for now (along with overlooking the bivariate figure I posted in July).  As an aside, it is possible that predominantly red states have atypically huge pockets of poverty and uninsured citizens, but the model should account for this through the other variables.  So what we have remaining is higher levels of unemployment being related with higher levels of support for the ACA, as well as a relatively stable estimate for Latino support, yet only significant in one model, both of which make sense.

I tried several methods of isolating the swing states (of which I included NV, NM, CO, OH, WI, IA, NH, VA, NC and FL).  I ran models with those states only, which was a universal dud, but then an N of nine isn’t going to afford any real statistical power.  I also ran interactive terms in the model isolating whether or not these states as a group had a unique estimate for uninsured %, unemployment, Medicaid and poverty rate, and generated nothing.

What lessons can we take away from this little exercise?  I have several ideas.  Politically, it’s evident why health care has not been a major issue in the campaign.  First, obviously, Romney would find it difficult to run against something that he supported in Massachusetts (but, of course, this is Mitt Romney we’re discussing.  He can be anything to anybody at any time).  Second, less obvious, it’s not going to make a difference.  Romney states are largely predisposed to oppose, while Obama states are in favor.  The ten swing states identified above have a much tighter distribution (45%-53%) than the nation writ large (32%-63%), but adopting a strident anti-ACA strategy has risks.  Iowa and Florida show 45% support in this dataset, so these would be good targets to attack the ACA, but you risk losing support in Nevada and New Mexico (both 53%), and the other six (all at 49% or 50% in favor).  It appears to me that there’s more to lose than there is to gain by going after the ACA in the swing states.

Academically, this paper might have something to add to the literature, which is pretty barren on public opinion and health care reform.  Tesler (2011) finds that race is a factor in determining support; given that President Obama is regarded as an African American, support for the ACA is mediated by racial attitudes amongst the white population. Relying on data no more current than 2004, Gelman, Lee, and Ghitza (2010) find opposition to be concentrated among those with higher incomes, and those over the age of 65.

That aside, I’m more convinced now than I was in July that judgment of the ACA as policy is mediated by both a pre-existing partisan lens as well as by race.  Obama was never going to win Republicans over to it, regardless of how hard he tried and how much he gave away at the beginning, because they were never going to support it anyway.  Electorally, it can be used to rally the base, but that’s it.

Of course, one must also suspend any concern that they might have with the ecological fallacy to make some of the inferences I make above . . .

Election Prediction

[ 27 ] October 3, 2012 |

This is the time of the season where many if not most of us pore over the various state level election tracking sites available.  Electoral Vote was a big one in 2004, and remains my favorite for daily poll releases; 538 in 2008 and again now under the New York Times in 2012.  One I wasn’t familiar with, inexplicably, until yesterday is Princeton Election Consortium.  I’m assessing the distinctiveness of this one when I have time, which means I haven’t accomplished more than a superficial perusal.  Their current analysis is similar to Silver’s: there appears to be a slight erosion in support for Obama in national polls that is not replicated in state level polls.  The model itself seems far less sophisticated in terms of variables, but this is not necessarily a bad thing in a purely predictive exercise.

It’s worth a look.

h/t Jeffrey Dudas

UPDATE: link fixed.  I hope.

George Galloway and Libel Law in the US and UK

[ 56 ] October 2, 2012 |

George Galloway, former Labour (he was kicked out of the party in 2003) current “Respect Party” MP for Bradford West, and global lefty gadfly, is suing the National Union of Students for libel.  Yes, he fights what he and others consider to be “the good fight”, but his fight is one that I disagree with as often as I agree, his methods can be interpreted as inflammatory, and arguably he is a discredit to the progressive cause at least as often as he helps.

I have three thoughts on this.  First, suing the umbrella organisation for British university students is short sighted at best.  These people should be a source of support for his various causes for a variety of reasons (e.g. having come of university age under the Tory – Lib Dem coalition, English and Welsh students paying £9000 per year simply to hear people like me talk).  In one move, he is alienating an entire support base.  But then, alienating his support, or the population in general, has not been a barrier to action for Galloway.

At issue is the NUS has banned him for being a “rape denier”, a description that Galloway finds as a defamatory characterisation of his widely known critique that the Swedish allegations against Julian Assange “don’t constitute rape” and were at worst “bad sexual etiquette.”  It’s not only the NUS who have a problem with this bizarre defense of Assange.  His party leader denounced them (and then was sacked or stepped down, I don’t recall), he lost his gig as a columnist for a Scottish publication devoted to politics, and Rape Crisis found them to be “offensive and deeply concerning”.

Taking the NUS to court over libel is bonkers, especially after his office desperately attempted to convince the NUS to not take the step of banning him.  Defending Assange on rape allegations when all the facts of the two cases are not in the public domain is reactionary, short sighted, and ludicrous.  Taking the national body that represents seven million British university students to court is not politically adept, but again ludicrous.

My second thought concerns a comparison of libel law in both the United States and the United Kingdom.  I preface this with the obvious: I’m not a lawyer, although I’ve had the occasion to employ several on two continents in the recent past, the present, and into the future.  The key difference between the two is the default status of the allegedly libellous statement, and the onus of argument.  In the United Kingdom (technically here England and Wales), the statement is regarded as false unless those making the statement can prove it to be true.  In this case, the NUS as defendant would have to prove that George Galloway is a “rape denier”.

In England and Wales, a private individual need only establish negligence on the part of the defendant to be rewarded compensatory damages.  Galloway, one of the more unprivate of individuals, needs to show that the defendant knew that the statement was false, resulting from actual malice.  In order to be rewarded punitive damages, both private and public individuals need to demonstrate actual malice.

The United States is far more forgiving on defamation law, for which we in part have current interpretation of the First Amendment to thank.  The burden of proof is (largely) on the plaintiff, and both constitutional and state level statutory law allow for many “outs” for a defendant in a libel case.  By my understanding, this dates back to New York v Sullivan (1964).  To use an example, the infamous parody of Jerry Falwell published in Hustler magazine is not protected in the United Kingdom, and I’d guess damages would have been rewarded to the point where said publication ceased to exist.  In the United States, of course, this resulted in Hustler Magazine v Falwell (1988), which protects parody and the publication of the obviously ludicrous.

My third thought regards, well, me specifically and LGM in general.  Which law holds should, say, Mr. Galloway object to my referring to him as a gadfly and decide to take me to court for libel?  My guess is that English and Welsh law would hold, as I’m making this claim against a British subject, on my laptop located in my house in England.  This will be tweeted to the University of Plymouth’s feed (it was my dean’s idea to tweet my academic / comparative stuff to the university feed, not to refer to Galloway as a gadfly).  However, the “publication” of LGM is based in the United States.  I know that the SPEECH Act (2010) would protect me in American courts as referring to Galloway as a gadfly is protected speech, and British libel law is not consistent with the protections afforded under the First Amendment.

One might imagine that my amateur understanding of variance in libel law has a permanent address in the back of my mind considering that I work, and live most of the year, in Britain, though I would be stunned if anything published in LGM would be considered of a high enough profile to warrant action.  At least I feel pretty safe in my characterisation of Galloway as an “unprivate” individual, considering the clip above from Celebrity Big Brother in 2006.

Voter Fraud, Sincere Edition: Holy Crap, it Exists

[ 45 ] October 1, 2012 |

When I wrote about this a couple of weeks ago, I argued that voter fraud “simply doesn’t exist”.  Mea maxima culpa.  Unsurprisingly, the right has, yet again, beat the opposition to the punch, and have done so quite cleverly.  They have framed the issue of Voter ID legislation in easily digestible language that is difficult to refute with equal parsimony, knowing full well that the impact will be distributed asymmetrically across SES categories.  Furthermore, by deploying an army of “volunteers”, organisations such as True the Vote, motivated solely by a concern for the crumbling integrity of American elections, have succeeded in harassing legitimate voters predominantly in precincts that vote Democratic.

Simultaneous to playing defense, the right is also playing offense.  The RNC and various state Republican parties had hired Strategic Allied Consulting to lead a registration drive in Florida, Colorado, North Carolina, Nevada, and Virginia. Over the past week or so, allegations of fraud in these registration efforts have surfaced in 10 Florida counties and in Colorado, leading the RNC to sack the firm from its registration drive.

The numbers are small; adding the instances discussed in the NYT article amount to little more than 100.  As I argued before, the incentives required to induce somebody to vote once, let alone often, is high enough on an individual basis that to swing even a relatively minor election requires considerable investment.  However, this article also lists two occasions where those registering voters on behalf of SAC dispose of Democratic registrations.  This might be a larger problem.  One notably dim witted employee of SAC lacked the presence of mind required to forgo honesty about the process:

In Colorado, a young woman employed by Strategic Allied was shown on a video outside a store in Colorado Springs recently telling a potential voter that she wanted to register only Republicans and that she worked for the county clerk’s office.

The owner of Strategic Allied Consulting, a Nathan Sproul, has been suspected of systematic fraud in the past.  In 2004, he was investigated by the Justice Department and the Attorneys General of Oregon, Arizona, and Nevada for “widespread” voter fraud.  He was previously Executive Director of the Arizona Republican Party.  It is inconceivable that neither the RNC nor the various state parties were unaware of his history when they hired him to do the very job that triggered investigations in the past.  SAC tops the Florida State Republican Party expenditure list for 2012.  They had to know what they were buying.

Balloon Juice sums it up rather nicely, complete with puppies and kittens:

I’ll admit my first thought was that animal shelters and rescues groups keep carefully updated “Do Not Adopt” lists of individuals known to be hoarders, abusers, and/or generally unfit to have pets. You’d think political organizations would have an equivalent “Do Not Hire” list for people previously convicted of voter fraud and other chicanery… unless, of course, that’s exactly the kind of behavior the GOP/RNC/Romney campaign is hiring Sproul to commit?

Righteous defender of Democratic integrity Sproul was also hired by the Romney campaign in June as a consultant.

The story here isn’t that there’s voter fraud in Florida or other places, which requires the perfect storm to have an effect on an electoral outcome beyond insignificant.  Nor is it the ongoing destruction of Democratic registration forms, which if systematic and methodical, could have a larger impact, but still negligible.  The story, of course, is that while the right are deeply suspicious that the left will stop at nothing to “win” an election, including fraud, to the point that they’ve passed voter ID legislation in several states and are out in some force harassing voters in Democratic precincts, no evidence of systematic conspiratorial fraud has surfaced tied to the left, organisations affiliated with the left, Democratic campaigns, or the Democratic Party.  The closest the right has come to identifying anything remotely systematic was ACORN, which, as Brad Friedman notes early and often, is not comparable:

ACORN, the non-partisan, four-decade old community organizing group (which has since been forced into bankruptcy as a result of the years-long GOP effort to mischaracterize them and their work) there is no evidence, to our knowledge, that any of its tens of thousands of registration workers ever screened out potential registrants from one party or another before allowing them to register, as seen in CO.

Neither is there evidence that any of their workers ever changed party affiliations on registration forms, as is being alleged tonight in Palm Beach County, or destroyed Democratic forms, as has been alleged over the years, as noted by Republican Rep. Cannon.

. . .

Of course, there is no real comparison to ACORN. Unlike Sproul’s outfits, the non-partisan community organizing group was never hired by the Democratic Party to do voter registration work. Moreover, it was ACORN themselves who discovered fraud by a handful of its more than ten thousand workers and notified officials of the fraud and the names of those who had defrauded them.

As perhaps best described by former Republican Rep. Chris Cannon of Utah, during a 2009 voter suppression hearing: “The difference between ACORN and Sproul is that ACORN doesn’t throw away or change registration documents after they have been filled out.”

Sproul’s proclivities were noted by a Republican during a Congressional hearing, yet he was still hired by the Romney campaign, the RNC, and several state parties to continue his questionable practices all the while decrying voter fraud as an evil that could very well undermine the republic itself.

Man, you just gotta love these guys.

UPDATE: in response to a couple commenters, a distinction should be made between voter fraud, and voter registration fraud.  TPM have an article here.  That said, I wonder if this distinction isn’t borderline semantic, and invite discussion.  It could be argued that the end effect is what matters; a fraudulent registration leads to the possibility of a fraudulent vote, and more critically, the suppression of Democratic registration forms eliminates those votes from the electorate, the impact, while unmeasurable, is certainly more significant than fraudlent voting in the first place.  However, ultimately, the result is the same in the aggregate: a fraudlent vote adds one illegitimate vote to the tally of a candidate, a fraudulent (non) registration subtracts one legitimate vote from the tally of a candidate.


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