Kevin Drum - November 2012

Note to the Columbus Dispatch: 84 Percent Is Not a Toss-Up

| Mon Nov. 5, 2012 7:30 PM EST

The Columbus Dispatch's final pre-election poll has Obama leading Romney 50 percent to 48 percent. Their headline calls this a "toss-up," and Robert Wright is unhappy about that:

Presumably the reason the headline writer felt justified in calling the race a toss-up was this paragraph in the story: "The final Dispatch poll shows Obama leading 50 percent to 48 percent in the Buckeye State. However, that 2-point edge is within the survey's margin of sampling error, plus or minus 2.2 percentage points."

That wording suggests that Obama's two-point edge has no meaning. And that's a common way for journalists to interpret results that fall within the "margin of error." For example, in September a conservative columnist in the New York Post asserted that Obama's lead in state polls didn't matter because the "polls separating the two candidates are within the margin of error — meaning that there is no statistical difference in support between Obama and Romney."

Wright is right. The MOE for a single poll represents a 95 percent confidence interval for each individual's percentage, but it doesn't represent a 95 percent confidence for the difference between the two. In fact, a 2 percent difference in a poll with a 2.2 percent MOE suggests that there's about an 84 percent chance that the guy in the lead really and truly is in the lead.

And guess what? Based on averaging lots of polls, and thus reducing the MOE, Nate Silver figures that Obama's chances of winning tomorrow are 86 percent—largely because he thinks those are Obama's chances of winning Ohio. So it turns out that everyone is saying the same thing, but the Columbus Dispatch just doesn't know it. Obama seems to have about an 84 to 86 percent chance of winning Ohio, and therefore an 84-86 percent chance of winning the election.

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Judge Throws Book at S&P Over Shoddy Rating Practices

| Mon Nov. 5, 2012 3:15 PM EST

Good news! Standard & Poor's is finally being held to account for transparently manipulating its own models solely in order to give one of its customers a AAA rating for a rocket-science derivative product. Long story short, they plugged in whatever numbers it took to generate the AAA rating, even though they knew the numbers were bogus. In fact, says Felix Salmon, if they had plugged in reasonable numbers, "the CPDO would almost certainly not even have been investment grade, let alone triple-A."

And the bad news? The ruling came from an Australian judge. And it's 635,500 words long (!). Wouldn't it be nice to get a few rulings like this from American judges too? In the meantime, Felix has a reasonably understandable explanation of the whole thing here. Read it and weep.

The Kafkaesque World of the No-Fly List

| Mon Nov. 5, 2012 2:55 PM EST

Glenn Greenwald recounts the story today of Saadiq Long, an Air Force veteran currently living in Qatar, a close U.S. ally. His mother in Oklahoma is sick, but when Long bought a ticket to visit her, he discovered that he had been put on the no-fly list:

Long has now spent the last six months trying to find out why he was placed on this list and what he can do to get off of it. He has had no success, unable to obtain even the most basic information about what caused his own government to deprive him of this right to travel.

He has no idea when he was put on this list, who decided to put him on it, or the reasons for his inclusion. He has never been convicted of any crime, never been indicted or charged with a crime, and until he was less than 24 hours away from boarding that KLM flight back to his childhood home, had received no notice that his own government prohibited him from flying.

Is there a good reason that Long is on the no-fly list? I have no idea. There might be. But what's outrageous about this, aside from the sheer number of people we've placed on the no-fly list over the past decade, is the lack of judicial oversight. Someone has put you on the list, but you don't know who. There's presumably a reason for being put on the list, but no one will tell you what it is. There's a procedure that provides you with a "redress control number," but it often appears to be meaningless. If you go to court, a judge will tell you it's a national security issue and there's nothing to be done about it. It's a cliche to call this kind of system Kafkaesque, but what other word is there for it?

And as Glenn reports, things were bad under Bush, but have gotten worse over the past four years. "Secret deprivation of core rights, no recourse, no due process, no right even to learn what has been done to you despite zero evidence of wrongdoing: that is the life of many American Muslims in the post-9/11 world. Most significantly, it gets progressively worse, not better, as the temporal distance from 9/11 grows."

Again: maybe there's a good reason that Long is on the no-fly list. But if there is, the government should be required to stand up in court and make its case, and Long should have the chance to fight back. The executive branch should never have the power to do something like this with no oversight and no accountability.

Eggheads: The Secret Source of Democratic Campaign Success

| Mon Nov. 5, 2012 1:45 PM EST

Sasha Issenberg is the author of The Victory Lab, a book about the increasing use of social science experiments to improve the effectiveness of political campaigns. The first big-name politician to really make use of this was Rick Perry, but since then it's been almost exclusively a Democratic phenomenon. Dylan Matthews asks why:

ISSENBERG: The reason Perry developed that partnership is that he made them an unusual offer, which is that they could publish their work. Most campaigns want to keep it proprietary, so the academics who are willing to work with them are often people who are aligned with their political goals, and not necessarily in it for research purposes.

Hmmm. According to Issenberg, Democrats faced a crisis in 2004 that motivated them to figure out how to run their campaigns better. But that's not all. They also found it pretty easy to find plenty of eager help within academia:

The left has been way better than the right at engaging the political scientists and economists who use these techniques to measure real-world cause and effect. You just have dozens of professors and graduate students who want to work with Democratic campaigns, women's groups and labor groups, and very little of that on the right.

....The fact that Republicans lost so overwhelmingly in 2008, I think, delayed an awareness of the technical gap between the two sides....For the sake of innovation on the Republican side, the best thing that could happen to them is that they lose narrowly on Tuesday, that the story becomes how Obama and his allies ran a mechanically superior campaign.

....That's the first step. The second step is finding social scientists who want anything to do with the Republican party in the 21st century, and that probably won't be solved on Tuesday one way or the other. That's a bigger cultural problem.

So there really are advantages to being (a) reality-based and (b) non-troglodytes. This is, truly, the revenge of the nerds.

Would Mitt Romney Be Good For Short-Term Economic Growth?

| Mon Nov. 5, 2012 12:31 PM EST

Matt Yglesias makes the case that Mitt Romney might be better for short-term economic growth than Obama:

Insofar as I have to guess, I think short-term growth will be faster under Romney than Obama for three reasons. First, in the post-1980 era you get bigger budget deficits with Republicans in the White House than with Democrats and that's a good thing in the short-term. Second, the Federal Reserve seems to be biased and delivers looser monetary policy with Republicans in the White House. Third, Republicans are much more likely to promote short-term economic growth at the expense of environmental concerns.

Maybe! However, I don't think his second and third items hold water. The Fed does seem to be biased in favor of Republican administrations, but this is mostly in the last year before an election. What's more, Fed policy is already pretty loose by historical standards; Ben Bernanke doesn't seem to think very highly of the current Republican Congress; and by 2015 the economy is likely to be in pretty good shape no matter who's president. On the environmental front, I think you could make the case that weaker regulations might spur growth a bit in the medium term, but not in the short term. Partly this is because it takes a fair amount of time to turn things around even via executive order, and partly it's because, despite conservative wailing, the Obama EPA really hasn't done very much that, even arguably, is more than marginally harmful to economic growth. Coal plants are in trouble mostly because of competition from cheap natural gas, not because Obama is killing them off.

But that does leave Matt's first reason, and that one is....surprisingly hard to judge. If Romney is elected, the House will immediately vote to restore the Bush tax cuts and possibly cut taxes even further. But can they get enough Democrats in the Senate to peel off and support them? Maybe. Spending is similar. If Obama is president, Republicans will almost certainly be adamant about implementing spending cuts. If Romney is president, they might decide to compromise on some modest cuts and just let it go. Maybe.

So it's no sure thing, but yes: the chances are probably higher of running big deficits under Romney than under Obama. Republicans won't call it stimulus, they'll call it tax cuts on the one side and restoring our military to greatness on the other, but tomayto, tomahto. It's all the same, and it's probably a bit more likely if Romney is elected.

In other words, Republicans will agree to help rescue the economy only if we put their guy in the White House. Capiche?

Poor Early Voting Turnout Apparently a Big Plus for Republicans

| Mon Nov. 5, 2012 11:46 AM EST

I love this headline from Katrina Trinko over at NRO:

RNC: In Key Swing States, More Republicans than Democrats Haven’t Already Voted

Got that? No? Let's allow the RNC to explain:

[Democrats] are cannibalizing their Election Day voters. The great turnout operation they claim to have isn’t turning out enough new or sporadic voters; they’re largely getting their reliable voters to vote early instead of on Election Day.

The Republican strategy has been the reverse of the Democrats’. We have turned out our voters who aren’t as likely to come to the polls on Election Day, securing their votes during early voting. Now, all that remains to do is give our reliable voters the final reminder needed to get them to the polls Tuesday. And we have many more reliable voters left than the Democrats.

Let's translate: Democrats are kicking our butts in early voting, so, um, that means they're losing. We, on the other hand, are cleverly saving up all our votes for Election Day.

Uh huh.

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Voter Suppression Enters the Home Stretch

| Mon Nov. 5, 2012 11:07 AM EST

Mike Tomasky writes today about something that a lot of us have spent the past couple of years deploring: the increasingly naked Republican campaign to suppress the nonwhite vote.

Up to now its measures were local and somewhat haphazard—scare-tactic fliers circulated in black neighborhoods, GOP elections officials "forgetting" to ship the right number of voting machines to minority areas, that sort of thing....Now, though, in these past couple of years, the GOP strategy has been institutionalized. It's come above ground, and the thugs in black outfits distributing handbills in the dead of night before Election Day have been replaced or at least supplemented by thugs in suits and ties trying to put a respectable sheen on this obviously anti-democratic business.

This is why NAACP president Benjamin Jealous calls the current Republican tactics "James Crow Esquire": the tactics may not be as as brutal as they were 50 years ago, but the goal is the same. Ed Kilgore, a son of Georgia, comments:

That's probably fitting. This election does, after all, follow a four-year period in which conservatives have gotten into the habit of publicly proclaiming things they used to keep to themselves: anyone receiving any sort of government assistance is a "looter" or a "taker;" poor and minority people "vote themselves welfare;" voting is a "privilege, not a right;" people who don't pay federal income taxes shouldn't be allowed to vote, etc., etc. The desire to suppress votes to one extent or another has gotten deeply into the DNA of a party that considers itself under siege by demographic change.

And quite predictably, two of the more brazen GOP pols, Florida Gov. Rick Scott and Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted, are making a spectacle of themselves in their zeal to restrict voting opportunities. If one of them showed up outside an early polling place with a bullwhip and police dogs, it wouldn't seem out of place, and many of their "base" supporters would lustily cheer. After all, when Husted defies a judge to require voters to fill out forms establishing their right to vote, or when Scott turns away voters standing in line for hours, that's some more "looters" who won't have the opportunity to take away the good virtuous folks' tax dollars or (earned!) Medicare benefits.

When it comes to photo ID laws, Republicans at least have the outward semblance of an argument: they're trying to prevent voter fraud. There's no evidence of more than a tiny handful of people ever committing the kind of fraud that photo ID would stop, but at least it's an argument. But pair that up with the recent jihad against early voting hours, and even the pretense of an argument goes away. There's nothing these two things have in common except for their unusually negative impact on demographic groups—including blacks, Hispanics, students, and the poor—that tend to vote for Democrats. It's the GOP's last-ditch effort to stave off demographic apocalypse.

Is there any kind of silver lining here? Probably not, but if there is one, it's this: it might backfire. The GOP has been so ravenous in its desire to suppress the vote of groups it doesn't like that it might make them more motivated than ever to vote. We'll see.

In the meantime, the MoJo team is following reports of voter suppression throughout the election tomorrow. Our summary of voter suppression around the country is here. Check out the main site and the political blog to keep up to date.

California Propositions - November 2012

| Mon Nov. 5, 2012 9:43 AM EST

Tomorrow is voting day, so here's a recap of my recommendations on California's 11 ballot initiatives. The original post, which contains a bit more detail, is here.

  1. Temporary tax hike to benefit schools: YES. State general fund spending has been cut significantly over the past few years, and in real per-capita terms is substantially lower than it was a decade ago. There's just no more room to squeeze, and Prop 30 is a pretty good compromise measure that provides the extra funding we need.

  2. Miscellaneous budget and local government reform: NO. This is a hodgepodge of good ideas and bad ideas that doesn't pass a high enough bar to deserve support.

  3. Paycheck protection: NO. This isn't a nonpartisan reform that affects both unions and corporations. It's a zombie initiative—the third of its kind in the past 14 years—that devastates the political power of unions without affecting corporations at all. It's a scam.

  4. Auto insurance: NO. This initiative is good for Mercury Insurance, whose CEO is bankrolling it, but not for the rest of us.

  5. Replace the death penalty with life in prison without possibility of parole: YES. The death penalty simply doesn't work in California. It's time to face up to this and get rid of it.

  6. Human Trafficking: NO. These kinds of laws should be written by legislatures, not carved into stone forever by ballot initiatives.

  7. Three strikes: YES. Prop. 36 modifies our three-strikes law so that 25-to-life sentences are imposed only if the third strike is a serious one. This is just common sense.

  8. GM food labeling: NO. The current scientific consensus doesn't support the notion that GM foods are hazardous to human health. Aside from that, Prop 37 places requirements on supermarkets that are overly burdensome, and also has the usual initiative problem that its rules are written in stone. But this is an evolving subject, and when the science changes the law should be able to change with it. It's an issue that should be left for the legislature. For a different view, check out Tom Philpott's rebuttal here.

  9. Temporary tax hike to benefit schools: NO. Prop. 38 competes with Prop. 30 as a tax measure to benefit public schools. Prop 30 is a better bet.

  10. Tax treatment for multistate businesses: YES. This initiative fixes a dumb tax deal passed several years ago. It produces better incentives for businesses and raises a bit more money too.

  11. Redistricting: YES. This is a referendum, not an initiative. A Yes vote will uphold the state Senate redistricting plan approved by the California Citizens Redistricting Commission.

Election Forecasting Update - 4 November 2012

| Mon Nov. 5, 2012 12:11 AM EST

Here's my penultimate update on the status of the most popular presidential forecasting models. On the top are Nate Silver and Andrew Tanenbaum; on the bottom are Sam Wang and Josh Putnam. Sam's model showed an unnerving single-day decline in Obama's numbers today, but all four models still predict a convincing Democratic victory, with Obama winning an average of 305 electoral votes.

So what are the odds that these models are wrong? The basic polling itself is almost certainly sound, so there are really only two ways that the polls could be significantly off:

  • The few remaining undecided voters could all break for Romney. However, this is unlikely given the polling numbers we're seeing, since they'd have to break something like 80%-20% to overcome Obama's lead in the key swing states. There's no precedent for that.
  • On the great gittin' up day, all those folks who say they support Obama might not get to the polls in the same numbers as all the super-energized Romney supporters. But this is basically just an assertion that the likely voter screens are wrong on virtually all the polls, something that seems unlikely since the screens are little more than questions asking whether you plan to vote. They've worked in the past, and there's no reason to think they won't work this year just as well. For all practical purposes, the "enthusiasm gap"—if it exists—is already accounted for in the polling numbers.

But suppose there is a systematic bias in the polls. How big would it have to be in order for Romney to win? This is what Sam Wang's "meta-margin" tells us, and it currently stands at 2.72%. That's how far off the polls would have to be—either because undecideds break heavily for Romney or because the pollsters' likely voter screens are wrong—in order for Romney to win, and it's a pretty big number. It's unlikely that either of these effects is anywhere near that large.

What else? Conservatives are currently pinning some of their hopes on poll internals, which show independents breaking strongly for Romney. However, Nate Cohn suggests this is just an artifact of the Republican Party's lousy brand image these days: the tea party has driven away lots of centrist Republicans, who now call themselves independents even though they still plan to vote for Romney. This is likely what's driving up Romney's share of the "independent" vote.

For myself, I'm still predicting an Obama win for two reasons. First, models that are based on fundamentals suggest that Obama—an incumbent presiding over a so-so economy—should score a modest win. Second, Obama is leading in nearly all the polls two days before the election, and that also suggests a modest win. There's no magic here. Both of the models that seem like reliable predictors are pointing in the same direction, so that's the direction I'm leaning too. I guess I'd add to that one anecdotal piece of evidence: the Romney campaign is spending a lot of time complaining that the polls are wrong, and that's usually something that only losing campaigns do. In any case, we'll know in 48 hours.

Chart of the Day: The Power of the Right-Wing Echo Chamber

| Sun Nov. 4, 2012 2:54 PM EST

Via John Sides, here's a fascinating little data point about the power of the conservative echo chamber. A couple of days ago Brian Schaffner wrote a post about a UMass poll he conducted across several days in early October. One of the questions was whether unemployment had increased or decreased over the past year. The correct answer, of course, is that it had decreased: at the time the poll was conducted, unemployment over the previous twelve months had declined from 9.1 percent to 8.1 percent.

As you'd expect, liberals were more likely to answer this question correctly since it jibes with their political preferences. Interestingly, though, the poll was taken over the period October 2-8, and right in the middle of that week the unemployment figures for September were released. As you'll recall, unemployment dropped sharply in that report, down to 7.8 percent, and the fact that this was part of a longer-term trend was widely reported.

Everyone saw this news, and polling on October 5 showed a sharp increase in the number of people who knew that unemployment was down. But here's the interesting thing: among liberals and independents, the number getting the answer right stayed higher over the next several days. Apparently the news sunk in. But among conservatives, the number getting the answer right started to decline immediately. Within three days, as the chart below shows, they were answering the question exactly the same as they had before the unemployment report came out. Schaffner comments:

It is important to recall that Republicans immediately started questioning the veracity of the jobs numbers, with some suggesting that the Obama administration had "cooked the books" for political gain....In short, conservative elites provided conservative voters with an argument that allowed those conservative voters to bring the information from the jobs report into line with their pre-existing political preferences. The end result was that liberals updated their beliefs about the unemployment rate based on the jobs report while conservatives ultimately did not.

This is the power of the Drudge/Fox/Limbaugh axis. I don't doubt that liberals do the same thing with news that discomforts them, but I'll bet they don't do it quite as fast or as strongly. We lefties just don't rely on hardcore ideological news sources as much. Too much reality seeps in whether we like it or not. Conservatives don't have this problem.