Kevin Drum - November 2012

Election Forecasting Update - 1 November 2012

| Fri Nov. 2, 2012 1:23 AM EDT

Here's another update on the status of the most popular presidential forecasting models. I've mixed it up a bit since the previous one. On the top are Nate Silver and Andrew Tanenbaum; on the bottom are Sam Wang and Josh Putnam. Obama continues to widen his lead, and the average of the models now gives Obama 312 electoral votes.

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Drudge: "Obama Left Them Behind"

| Thu Nov. 1, 2012 7:51 PM EDT

On Monday a friend emailed me about the likelihood of conservatives going all out to make Sandy look like Obama's Katrina. "I'd watch Drudge for the cues," he said. "He should have a picture of a stranded black person up at some point tomorrow." Today he emails to claim victory:

He was a couple of days off, and the picture also includes some white people, but not bad! Here's another of his predictions: "If Obama wins, you'll soon start hearing the impeachment drumbeat building from Fox News types over Benghazi. They'll go through the usual period of finger-pointing and disappointment, but it will quickly shift to a full-throated movement to re-focus their rage on Obama, and Benghazi will be the rallying cry. Trust me. I know these people. It's not going to take that long."

Hmmm. I hope he doesn't know them quite as well as he thinks. We'll see.

Bloomberg: It's No Time for a Climate Skeptic in the White House

| Thu Nov. 1, 2012 5:58 PM EDT

Here is our updated aphorism for the day:

Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows a climate skeptic might be elected in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.

This wasn't true last week for New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, but apparently Hurricane Sandy has brought him down from Mount Olympus. Now his mind is concentrated quite wonderfully indeed, and today he endorsed Barack Obama for president:

Our climate is changing. And while the increase in extreme weather we have experienced in New York City and around the world may or may not be the result of it, the risk that it might be — given this week's devastation — should compel all elected leaders to take immediate action.

....But we can't do it alone. We need leadership from the White House — and over the past four years, President Barack Obama has taken major steps to reduce our carbon consumption, including setting higher fuel-efficiency standards for cars and trucks.

....Mitt Romney, too, has a history of tackling climate change. As governor of Massachusetts, he signed on to a regional cap-and-trade plan designed to reduce carbon emissions 10 percent below 1990 levels....But since then, he has reversed course, abandoning the very cap-and-trade program he once supported. This issue is too important. We need determined leadership at the national level to move the nation and the world forward.

While we're on the subject, Scientific American's Mark Fischetti has an interesting post on the subject of scary climate change stories, something that I've been writing about recently. My problem with the scary story genre is that it's woefully insufficient when you're dealing with a problem that's essentially invisible and won't seriously affect most of us for decades. Stories about imperceptible menaces just don't pack enough of an emotional wallop. One solution, of course, is to write scary stories about events that are extremely concrete and very visible indeed. Like, say, Hurricane Sandy. The problem is that scientists tend to be pretty circumspect about blaming any individual hurricane on global warming. But Fischetti says that might be changing:

Hurricane Sandy has emboldened more scientists to directly link climate change and storms, without the hedge. On Monday, as Sandy came ashore in New Jersey, Jonathan Foley, director of the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota, tweeted: “Would this kind of storm happen without climate change? Yes. Fueled by many factors. Is [the] storm stronger because of climate change? Yes.”

Raymond Bradley, director of the Climate Systems Research Center at the University of Massachusetts, was quoted in the Vancouver Sun saying: “When storms develop, when they do hit the coast, they are going to be bigger and I think that’s a fair statement that most people could sign onto.”

....Greg Laden, an anthropologist who blogs about culture and science, wrote this week in an online piece: “There is always going to be variation in temperature or some other weather related factor, but global warming raises the baseline. That’s true. But the corollary to that is NOT that you can’t link climate change to a given storm. All storms are weather, all weather is the immediate manifestation of climate, climate change is about climate.”

OK, this isn't quite "climate change caused Hurricane Sandy." But perhaps we're moving in that direction. If we do, it could mark a sea change (if you'll pardon the pun) in how the public views climate change. The more they see scientists linking it to concrete events—droughts in the Midwest, hurricanes in the Atlantic, wildfires in the West, icecaps disappearing in the Arctic—and the more they see scientists willing to make those links without caveating them to death, the more real climate change will become. Who knows? Maybe the scary story genre is in for a revival just at the moment I declared it dead.

The Economist's Weird Centrist Lament About President Obama's Economic Policy

| Thu Nov. 1, 2012 3:24 PM EDT

I understand bashing Barack Obama because you don't like his social views. I understand bashing him because you don't like his national security policy. I understand bashing him if you're just flatly opposed to any expansion of government. But I continue to be puzzled by complaints from the center about his economic policy. Here's the Economist:

Previous Democrats, notably Bill Clinton, raised taxes, but still understood capitalism. Bashing business seems second nature to many of the people around Mr Obama. If he has appointed some decent people to his cabinet—Hillary Clinton at the State Department, Arne Duncan at education and Tim Geithner at the Treasury—the White House itself has too often seemed insular and left-leaning.

This is crazy. As the Economist points out, Obama appointed Tim Geithner at Treasury. He reappointed Ben Bernanke at the Fed. His top White House advisor was Larry Summers, a protege of Robert Rubin and an alumnus of the Clinton White House. He appointed Peter Orszag as director of OMB. He hired Wall Street financier Steven Rattner to manage the Detroit rescue. He appointed Paul Volcker, the man who saved us from stagflation, as chair of his Economic Recovery Advisory Board. And he appointed Christina Romer as chair of the CEA—a lefty, perhaps, but certainly not a business basher. Every progressive pundit I know, from Paul Krugman on down, has mostly complained that Obama's economic team was too centrist, too mainstream, and too Clintonian. The idea that these folks are somehow unenlightened about capitalism is laughable.

The Economist also has a weird complaint that Obama "surrendered too much control to left-wing Democrats" over Obamacare—in reality, he didn't surrender to them, he was forced to deal with them because Republicans refused to offer any of their votes in return for centrist compromises—but I'll let that go. Instead, I'll just turn the floor over to Matt Yglesias, who has the right critique of the Economist's wrongheadedness:

This idea that sound economic policy derives from palling around with job creators is one of the most pernicious myths out there today. And when you think about it, it undermines the whole logic of capitalism. The Soviet Union desperately needed politicians who understood agriculture, industry, and commerce because Soviet politicians were running the whole economy. In America we don't do that. What the president has to do well is the things that he's in charge of—being the single strongest voice in public policy disputes.

I think the best example of this is the first term of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Businessmen really didn't like the guy. But the economy grew like crazy during his first four or five years in office. Why was there such strong growth? Primarily because FDR took the United States off the gold standard. That was a great idea, though it was much-criticized by business elites at the time. Tellingly, even when the policies were clearly working and the economy was growing again after years of collapse, businessmen didn't change their mind about FDR. Which doesn't show that they're bad people or bad businessmen, simply that they were really bad at public policy analysis. Which is fine, because just as we wisely don't have politicians running businesses we also wisely don't have businessmen running the government.

The fact that you may have brilliant ideas about running a large retail chain or marketing sneakers or selling medical supplies doesn't mean you know how to make economic policy, and making economic policy doesn't require you to make friends with the guy who runs the large retail chain.

Could Obama have used a few more CEOs in his economic team? Maybe—although I doubt that it would have mollified the business community or changed the political realities of Capitol Hill much. But look. Geithner's job was to support higher capital standards for banks whether banks liked it or not. Summers' role was to help pass new financial regulations whether financiers liked it or not. Obama's role was to pass healthcare reform whether the CEO of Walmart liked it or not. All of these things might have turned out better if Republicans had shown any interest in working together on them, but they didn't. That was the hand Obama was dealt.

Republicans Finally Riding to Todd Akin's Rescue

| Thu Nov. 1, 2012 1:44 PM EDT

Let us turn our attention to the Missouri Senate race being waged by Todd "legitimate rape" Akin. How am I doing with my prediction that once Akin was firmly in the race for good, Republicans would abandon their principled stand against him and start sending money his way? Well, the rehabilitation project started a month ago, and now it's in full swing:

Rep. Todd Akin and the Missouri Republican Party are launching a nearly $700,000 TV ad blitz in the closing days of his challenge to Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill, but the source of the funds for the effort is unclear....The National Republican Senatorial Committee declined repeatedly to comment on whether it is the source of the funds being used by the Missouri GOP on Akin’s behalf. Previously, the committee has insisted it would stay out of the race. However, only national committees — the NRSC or the Republican National Committee — or individual campaign committees that raise money in compliance with federal limits are permitted to shift funds to a state party for a coordinated ad buy.

So....yeah, it's probably the NRSC, even though they promised never to give Akin a dime. I don't really blame them for this, though. It's just garden-variety politics. The next question, though, is: will it be enough? The latest polls still have Claire McCaskill up by a few points, and she's outspent Akin heavily. So maybe not. I guess it all depends on just what $700,000 buys you in Missouri.

Mitt Romney Going for the Gold in Absurd Mudslinging Competition

| Thu Nov. 1, 2012 12:07 PM EDT

Here is the Romney campaign's latest effort to mobilize the Hispanic vote in Florida with an uplifting, inspirational message:

NARRATOR: Who supports Barack Obama?

HUGO CHAVEZ: "If I were American, I'd vote for Obama."

NARRATOR: Raúl Castro's daughter, Mariela Castro, would vote for Obama.

MARIELA CASTRO: "I would vote for President Obama."

NARRATOR: And to top it off, Obama's Environmental Protection Agency sent emails for Hispanic Heritage month with a photo of Che Guevara.

CHAVEZ: "If Obama were from Barlovento (a Venezuelan town), he'd vote for Chávez."

ROMNEY: I'm Mitt Romney, and I approve this message.

Is it wrong to admit that this made me laugh more than it actually outraged me? Probably. But this is so ridiculously negative that it's almost as if Romney is competing in some kind of Monty Python-esque mudslinging competition. Apparently Romney knows it, too: he refused repeated requests from the Miami Herald to make the ad available, so they had to make their own iPhone recording of it straight off the TV.

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Here's Why All the Polling Models Are Probably Right

| Thu Nov. 1, 2012 10:58 AM EDT

Paul Waldman describes the Bizarro-world war on polling guru Nate Silver that's gained steam over the past week:

In the last few days, we've seen a couple of different Silver narratives emerge as attention to him has increased. First, you have stories about how liberals are obsessing over Silver, "clinging" to him like a raft in a roiling sea of ambiguous poll data. Then you have the backlash, with conservatives criticizing him not because they have a specific critique of the techniques he uses, but basically because they disagree with his conclusions....Then you've got the reporter backlash. At Politico, Dylan Byers raised the possibility that Silver would be completely discredited if Mitt Romney won, because "it's difficult to see how people can continue to put faith in the predictions of someone who has never given that candidate anything higher than a 41 percent chance of winning."

This whole thing is deeply weird. Could Nate be wrong? Sure. Ditto for Sam Wang and Drew Linzer and all the rest of the poll modelers out there. But if they're wrong, it probably won't be because of their models. After all, with minor differences they all do the same thing: average the publicly available state polls, figure out who's ahead in each state, and then add up the electoral votes they get for each candidate. Sure, they all toss in a little bit of mathematical secret sauce, but not really all that much. You could do the same thing if you felt like it. Want to know who's ahead in Ohio? Go add up the five latest polls and then divide by five. Voila. You are now your own Nate Silver.

Needless to say, though, the poll modelers are only as good as the polls they use. If the pollsters are systematically wrong, then the models will be wrong. And while there are a few small sources of potentially systematic bias (not calling cell phones, demographic weighting, etc.), by far the biggest is the pollsters' likely voter screens. But even here, with one or two exceptions, this is pretty simple stuff. Most pollsters just ask a question or two that go something like this:

  • Are you planning to vote?
  • How sure are you that you'll vote?
  • Really? Honest and truly?

That's about it. If you tell them you're highly likely to vote, they mark you down as a likely voter. If not, they don't. There's no rocket science here.

So if the modelers are wrong, it will probably be because the pollsters were systematically wrong. And if the pollsters are systematically wrong, it will probably be because this year, for some reason, people started lying about their likelihood of voting. And while anything's possible, I sure can't think of any reason why this year there would be a sudden change in how truthful people are about their intention to vote.

That's what this whole controversy comes down to. Conservatives seem to be convinced that Democrats simply won't turn out in high enough numbers to reelect Obama. A fair number of liberals fear the same thing. But there's no analytic reason to believe this. The Obama campaign's ground game seems to be as good as any in the business, and Obama voters are telling pollsters that they're likely to vote in big enough numbers to give him the key swing states he needs to win. That's the current state of our knowledge. It might be wrong, but if it is, the question isn't going to be why Nate Silver went astray. The question is going to be, why was 2012 the year when people suddenly started lying to telephone pollsters?

UPDATE: Asawin Suebsaeng has a roundup of all the prognosticators here. It's a nice, Cliff Notes version of who's who and what they're saying.
 

Scary Climate Change Stories Aren't Working. What's Next?

| Thu Nov. 1, 2012 2:23 AM EDT

In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, which he calls "a window into the way ahead," Nick Kristof chides the media and our political class alike for paying too little attention to climate change:

Politicians have dropped the ball, but so have those of us in the news business. The number of articles about climate change fell by 41 percent from 2009 to 2011, according to DailyClimate.org.

HThere are no easy solutions, but we may need to invest in cleaner energy, impose a carbon tax or other curbs on greenhouse gases, and, above all, rethink how we can reduce the toll of a changing climate. For example, we may not want to rebuild in some coastal areas that have been hammered by Sandy.

....Democrats have been AWOL on climate change, but Republicans have been even more recalcitrant. Their failure is odd, because in other areas of national security Republicans pride themselves on their vigilance. Romney doesn’t want to wait until he sees an Iranian nuclear weapon before acting, so why the passivity about climate change?

Let's do something useful here. Yesterday I wrote a discouraged post suggesting that the world was unlikely to seriously respond to climate change in time to prevent catastrophe, so maybe we should spend more time instead thinking about adaptation and geoengineering, the latter as a last-resort option. I got a lot of pushback on this, which I probably deserved, since it sounded like I was giving up entirely on the idea of fighting greenhouse gas emissions. I wasn't, but I was talking out loud about the likelihood that even if we keep up the fight, it probably won't be enough. There are just too many big forces pushing in the opposite direction.

One emailer who pushed back suggested we just needed to keep fighting relentlessly. It worked for Republicans on tax cuts, after all, so it could work for us on climate change. I told him I didn't buy that. Republicans are working with self-interest in the case of taxes. Everyone likes low taxes, so it's easy to convince them that low taxes are worth fighting for because they're also good for the economy. But in the case of climate change, we're working against self-interest. Way against. We have an invisible, far-future bogeyman we want to stop, but to do so requires considerable personal sacrifice right now today. It will cost us money in higher energy prices, force us to do things we don't want (eat less meat, stop using plastic bags, give up our SUVs, etc.), and make us change our habits. Sure, there's low-hanging fruit that's an easier sell, but it's nowhere near enough. There's just no getting around the hard stuff. So I don't think that merely fighting relentlessly will be enough.

But my real gripe, I said, was that the liberal strategy basically amounts to writing scary stories—something I've done my share of. And there's good reason for that: climate change is scary stuff, so merely writing about it accurately is inherently scary. Still, we've been writing these scary stories for more than two decades now, and I think that's long enough to conclude that they don't work very well. So while I agree with Nick Kristof that the press should write more about climate change, that mostly amounts to writing more scary stories. And I just don't think that's going to do the job.

So here's the something useful: if you agree with me that the scary story strategy has proven insufficient, what should we be doing instead? The answer can be either substantive (concentrate more on green R&D, for example) or rhetorical (use something other than scary stories to convince people they should endure a considerable amount of inconvenience in order to fight climate change). In either case, you should assume that Republicans and the fossil fuel industry will continue to fight us tooth and nail. No ponies allowed.

So that's the question: what's next? If scary stories aren't doing the job, what will?