Archive for October, 2004

Prediction in the Presidential Race

Sunday, October 31st, 2004

The world is full of political predictions that subsequently only provide clear evidence of how very difficult it is to make such predictions in a diverse culture, that is nearly evenly divided. Political predictions from partisans are almost worthless because they are not so much a dispassionate assessment as an attempt to push the electorate. There is something of a bandwagon effect. Those who are undecided may try to go with the anticipated winner. Supporters of the expected loser may become discouraged and unwilling to endure the inconveniences of voting.

On the Saturday before the 2000 election, the consensus of the national polls had the then Governor George Bush ahead of Vice-President Al Gore by about 3%, very close to the current margins in the national polls between Bush and Senator John Kerry. Given the general relationship between electoral votes and popular vote totals and this points spread, I expected a 3% Bush victory in 2000 with a corresponding 80-point margin in the electoral college. This would have represented a relatively close, but still comfortable victory.

Of course, we remember the actual results. Gore won the popular vote by about 0.5%, 48.38% versus 47.87%. Despite an election controversy that went to the US Supreme Court, Bush won the election in the Electoral College by a tiny five votes, 271 to 266.

Looking back at the contemporaneous polls just before the 2000 election reveals a mixed bag of results. See the table below. Zogby is often credited with picking the last minute movement toward Gore perhaps caused by the eleventh-hour revelation of Bush’s drunk driving arrest decades earlier. Zogby nailed Gore’s popular vote percentage on the head. As of this writing, Zogby now shows a movement for Senator John Kerry who enjoys a small 1% lead, but more importantly Zogby sees momentum for Kerry. Zogby did indeed accurately predict the Gore percentage, but significantly underpredicted Bush’s strength. Zogby expected Bush to only have 46% of the vote, nearly 2% less than his actual total. Zogby overpredicted the final popular vote for Nader. In retrospect, perhaps the CBS and Fox polls really did the best giving Gore a 1% margin and calling the election a dead heat, respectively.

Bush Gore Buchanan Nader
CNN 47% 45% 1% 4%
Zogby 46% 48% 0.5% 5%
ABC 48% 45% 3%
Battleground 50% 45% 3%
Newsweek 45% 43%
CBS 44% 45%
Fox 43% 43% 1% 3%
Wash. Post 48% 45% 1% 3%

This election is so peculiar, in so many ways, that it is almost impossible to generalize from history. However, some factors that argue against a Bush victory are:

  • The stock market has at best been even over the last year. Winning incumbents are usually associated with increasing stock markets.
  • Although there has always been such leftward tilt to the press, there has been nothing like the efforts of the mass media in this election to drive the people to Kerry. Nothing in memory corresponds to the remarkable credulousness of CBS News in allowing themselves to be duped into using forged documents to question President Bush’s National Guard service. Nothing in memory compares to the blinders the national media has put on about the irresponsible sweeping accusations of atrocities that John Kerry made about his fellow soldiers. Nothing in memory compares to the way the national media have not questioned Senator Kerry’s voting record in the Senate.
  • No sitting president since Harry Truman has won an election if during the previous year, he was at sometime losing in the polls. Though he enjoys a small lead in the polls now, in August, Bush was behind in the national polls.
  • The election is close and the conventional wisdom holds that undecideds typically break towards the challenger. This would tend to give the edge to Kerry.
  • More voters have been registered this year. Polls indicate that Kerry chances improve when registered voters rather than likely voters are tallied. One suspects that a significant number of these new registrants will vote and this will help Kerry.

Other factors that weigh on Bush’s behalf are:

  • Americans are loath to switch presidents during war.
  • Unemployment is low by conventional standards and people vote according to their personal circumstances.
  • The economy has been growing at a rapid pace during the past twelve months.
  • Kerry is a Massachusetts Liberal.
  • Political models predict that Bush will gain 53% of the vote. This promising prediction is mitigated by the knowledge that such models also predicted that Gore would win the 2000 election by a comfortable margin.
  • Bush won the Weekly Reader poll among youngsters. Unlike other, more conventional and rationally constructed polls, the Weekly Reader poll has correctly predicted the eventual winner in every election since it began in 1956. That’s twelve in a row, with no mistakes.
  • Betting polls which accurately predicted the recent Australian and California elections pick Bush by a comfortable margin. There is something about betting your own money that forces people to make more dispassionate analysis.

The mean of the polls shows a narrowing lead for Bush. As of this writing, an extrapolation of these polls does not close the gap fast enough to give Kerry an election-day victory. Nonetheless, given the number of newly registered voters, I do not believe that models for likely voters are accurate. They are at the very least untested. Among all registered voters, the polls show a tie, so I suspect that the Kerry will win.

Prediction 1: Kerry by 1.5% in the popular vote and 60 electoral votes. Bush supporters, like myself, should take heart in that my expectation of the popular vote totals was very wrong in 2000.

Prediction 2: Osma Bin Laden and his followers will believe (or at least claim) that the recent tape threatening America, released Friday before the election, was responsible for the Kerry victory. The truth of that assertion will not matter, as much as the perception. Fairly or unfairly, the international perceptions growing out of a Kerry victory would damage the war on terror and that is a very bad thing.

Raising Them Right

Saturday, October 23rd, 2004

Parenting is such a mixed experience, filled generally with equal measures of joy, worry, pride and fear. Some time long ago little lives were entrusted to generally confused, but eager, parents who had to learn how to raise children on the fly. Indeed, it has been remarked by a wit that children are better at making adults out of their parents than parents are in making adults out of their children. It is not yet clear how successful my children have been in this effort .

Although parents play an important part in child rearing, we all learn too soon that too much of children rearing is a competition and struggle between parents and the popular culture for the attention of children.

As much as we would protect our charges, real life often interferes on parenting in unexpected ways. Children are blessed with different talents and parents have to adapt to these needs. Thought children complain about things not being fair, in order to do justice to your children they have to be treated differently. As life further intrudes, we have to guide children through stress, illness, and sometimes tragedy.

Through it all, thoughtful and anxious parents are continually concerned whether they made the right decisions on behalf of their children. Did we send them to the right schools? Did we help them choose their friends properly? Have they received the appropriate spiritual instruction? Have we nurtured the right values? What kind of people have our children become?

Fortunately, everyone now and then, in an unexpected moment and in unexpected ways, we get small reassuring window into our children’s lives. I walked by my daughter’s room while she was typing up an assignment on her computer while watching television. OK. OK. I know perhaps allowing a television and computer in your daughter’s room is irresponsible. Mark me down two points as a parent. I will beat my chest twice chanting, “Mea culpa. Mea culpa. Mea culpa.” But what was she watching? Was it some show on the WWB network designed to convince young girls that they all need to be model-thin and sexually promiscuous? No, she was watching the sixth game of American League Championship Series between the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox.

What more could a father want than a daughter with discerning tastes in television viewing habits and a deep and abiding commitment to root against the New York Yankees? It warms one’s heart to realize that my daughter has grown into such a fine young lady.

Assault on Democracy

Thursday, October 21st, 2004

Election fraud is certainly easier in those precincts that are dominated by one party or another. The Democratic Party in some cities is so dominant that voter fraud in places like Chicago have become legend. One wit has suggested that when he dies he would like to be buried in Chicago. Just because one is dead does not mean one should not be involved in politics.

In this election, the world and conventional wisdom are turned upside down. The greatest claims of voter fraud and voter intimidation are occurring in places where party registration is more evenly divided. Where voter irregularities are the most difficult to perpetrate is precisely where the most complaints will be lodged. Clearly, this is because it is in close elections in evenly divided electorates that a small number of votes can alter an election outcome.

No party is particularly pure about voter fraud, though Democrats have had a greater opportunity for such activity since they are more likely to control mono-party areas. So far, there has been a private group that has been charged with discarding collected Democratic registrations. At the same time, an individual was charged with generating fraudulent registrations on behalf of Democrats in exchange for cocaine.

These sorts of irregularities are bound to happen in a country as large as ours, but they need to be tracked down and the guilty parties appropriately punished. However, what is more worrisome is when the ostensibly responsible Democratic Party appears to be poisoning the upcoming presidential election. Even within an organized party, which with Will Rogers believed the Democratic Party not to be, there are rogue elements. In too many cases, however, irresponsible statements and written materials from Democratic Party operatives have not been repudiated, but accepted and even embraced.

A Democratic National Committee manual written for this election suggests that evidence is not particularly relevant to claims of voting irregularities. Specifically, it enjoined that, “If no signs of [voter] intimidation have emerged yet, launch a pre-emptive strike.” It takes more mental gymnastics then most Americans are limber enough to execute to believe this is not an express exhortation to lodge charges unsupported by evidence. The manual is irresponsible at best and illegal at worst. Indeed, it is against the law to knowingly make such false accusations.

In a television interview, Eric Holder, a senior aide for Senator Kerry’s campaign and a former Justice Department official for the Clinton Administration recently stated if the election is fair, then Kerry will win Ohio. In essence, he is irresponsibly asserting that if President Bush wins Ohio, there has been, by definition, some sort of voter fraud. Paul Krugman the loudest anti-Bush voice in the anti-Bush New York Times has repeated the party line. In a recent column he asserted, “If the election were held today and the votes were counted fairly, Senator John Kerry would probably win. But the votes won’t be counted fairly, and the disenfranchisement of minority voters may determine the outcome.”

These sorts of statements and the eagerness with which the Kerry campaign seems to be poised to contest the legality of upcoming election by unleashing a swarm of locust-like lawyers around the country, based on the election outcome, represent a reckless and deliberate assault on democracy itself. If the vote is within, what has been characterized as the “margin of litigation,” the present default response of the Democratic Party is to charge fraud. This corrosive attitude not only makes it more difficult for the ultimate election winner to govern, but it eats away at the trust in government. Ironically, the more faith in the legitimacy of government is undermined by such behavior, the more difficult it will prove to implement the Liberal agenda that critically depends on the moral stature and acceptance of governmental authority.

The Best Democrat

Thursday, October 14th, 2004

One of the perils of printed punditry is the possibility that words written long ago will serve as definitive evidence of just how little one really knows.   One should always remember the caution of Neils Bohr that, “Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future.”  On the other hand, some predictions are so easy to make that they provide no usefulinformation.  One can predict confidently now, that on the eve of the upcoming presidential elections, the official position of both the campaigns is that both their respective candidates will undoubtedly win the election.  There are other assertions, like the one to be made here, that are safe since they involve a “what if” assessment that can never be tested. Credibility is not at stake.

There are really only two strong passions motivating people in this election and one of them is not the economy.  Despite some important economic issues, the large deficit, good but not great employment numbers, polls show that most people are sufficiently comfortable with their personal economic situations that the election of an incumbent would not be threatened.

The two motivating passions are the War in Iraq, including its aftermath, and the deep-seated irrational hatred of Bush engendered by the bitter results of the 2000 election that some on the Left still (despite independent counts by news organization) have not accepted. Indeed, there is a line of argument that the latter issue is really the only motivating passion and Iraq just provides a convenient political rallying point.  Let us not presume the latter, because that would require people to be so animated by partisan animus that they would be willing to exploit a war to sate their anger.

The thesis here is the Joseph Lieberman would have been a much more formidable candidate against George Bush than John Kerry, despite the current narrowness of the head-on-head Bush-Kerry polls.  Let it be conceded, that given Lieberman’s  pro Iraq War stand, and his unwillingness to abandon his principled position when Governor Howard Dean excited Democratic partisans with an anti-war stance (unlike the unceremonious flight from pre-war positions of John Kerry and John Edwards), he would never garner the Democratic presidential nomination..

Lieberman would have qualified for the “anyone but Bush crowd.”  Without having to explicitly mention the 2000 elections, as Gore’s vice-presidential running mate, Lieberman could have unobtrusively benefited from the support of those who continue to wallow in the pit of election 2000 victim hood.  For those who hate Bush, Lieberman would have been a more than adequate candidate.

On the more important issue of Iraq, Lieberman could convincingly run to the right of George Bush and assuage the doubts of those whose primary concern is security.  When Bush decided on a plan of attack for Iraq, they could have gone in heavy or light, slow or rapid.  The advantages of going in light are:

  • Light forces are more precise, reducing the likelihood of civilian casualties and the creation of large numbers of refugees (500,000 was the erroneous prediction of the United Nations).
  • Light forces are faster, reducing the likelihood that Saddam Huessein’s forces could have engaged in a systematic destruction of critical Iraqi infrastructure.
  • A large force would have required permission to deploy from Turkey. This would have involved Turkish troops in northern Iraq, exacerbating the tensions with the Iraqi Kurds, our strongest natural allies in Iraq.

Going in heavy would have had the key advantage of more systematically destroying Saddam’s forces.  It might have also meant an earlier destruction of insurgencies in places like Fallujah, that have been a constant problem since the end of the war.  Despite a higher level of destruction and civilian casualties on the front end, going in heavy might have decreased problems in the post-war era.  The strategic decision was a difficult one and reasonable people can disagree.  In hindsight, the advantages of going in light are forgotten, as we pay the costs for this course.  The costs in terms of casualties, refugees, and destroyed infrastructure of going in heavy are not tallied.

Lieberman could now make the claim, (especially in hindsight) that he would have gone in heavier and reduced post-war problems.  Lieberman could have reasonably argued that he would not have been so accommodating to insurgent forces in Fallujah, Sadr City or Najaf. Lieberman would make it easy for those whom the fight against terrorism is a priority to vote against Bush, without that apprehension that Democrats tend to be weak on defense matters.  Lieberman would not be so easily categorized as a free taxing Liberal and libertine on social issues, unconcerned about traditional social values.

The counter argument to the thesis that Lieberman would have been a better nominee is that Lieberman and Bush’s Iraq positions are sufficiently similar that people would not be inclined to switch presidents.  As Truman once said, if given a choice between a Democrat running like a Republican, and a Republican, the people would choose the Republican every time.

However, we are at a rather unique war time position. There remains a general unease about how the reconstruction of Iraq is perceived as going.  Lieberman could have provided a credible alternative to Bush without Kerry’s baggage of duplicity.  Unfortunately for the Democrats, they are plainly too angry to nominate a social moderate with a cogent position on Iraq, perhaps, in some respects, to the right of Bush.  If Lieberman were the Democratic nominee, he would be leading Bush now by double digits and might very well have had sufficient coat tails to regain a significant majority in the Senate.  The politics of hate may or may not cost Democrats the presidential election, but it will probably cost them the opportunity to stop and reverse the Republican electoral trends of recent years.

Gore’s Disservice

Thursday, October 14th, 2004

From the standpoint of the popular vote the 1960 presidential election between then Senator John Kennedy and Vice-President Richard Nixonwas far closer than the razor thin 2000 election between Vice-President Al Gore and Governor George W. Bush. Kennedy won the popular vote in 1960 by 119,000 compared to the 545,000 margin for Gore in 2000. In addition, the total vote count was only 69 million in 1960 compared to the 105 million voters in 2000. A change of only a modest number of votes in Illinois and Texas (the home state of the vice-presidential candidate Lyndon Johnson) would have swung the election to Nixon.

Although there were some issues of fraud particularly in John Daly’s Chicago, Nixon conceded rather quickly. The day after the election, Nixon gave a conditional concession that the Kennedy campaign dismissed as insufficient. A little later, Nixon sent a concession telegram. The Kennedy campaign was still upset, considering the modest gesture small and lacking in class. Nonetheless, Nixon conceded and despite some continuing disputes led by the Republican Party, the decision was settled without the same prolonged tension the country suffered in 2000.

It is unclear why Nixon conceded. Was he really concerned about the consequences of tearing the country apart over a disputed election or did he simply believe that his case had little merit? In truth, elections are like calls by referees in the National Football League. The only way a call is overturned is if the instant replay shows conclusive evidence. In such a disputed election, conclusive evidence is needed and such evidence is hard to come by.

If Nixon had managed to compel an election reversal, Democratic partisans would have been even angrier than Republicans because Democrats would have tasted victory and had it confiscated from them.

Much of the current animosity and acrimony in American politics is the result of the decision by Vice-President Al Gore to vigorously contest the results in Florida in 2000. With each day, tension grew as accusations flew. Despite the eventual gracious concession by Gore, many weeks later, Democrats have been grumbling ever since. The effects are still being felt in the deep anger directed against Bush.

Reasonable people can agree and disagree with George Bush’s policies, but certainly his choices fall within the mainstream of choices presidents in the past have made. George Bush instituted tax cuts, but there were smaller in nature and more progressive than those initiated by Ronald Reagan. Bush may have deployed troops without the authorization of the United Nations, but Clinton deployed military forces to Bosnia not only without such authorization, but with nary an argument that US vital interests were involved. Moreover, Bush asked for a received authorization from Congress for his actions in Iraq.

Within the scope of recent presidential decisions, Bush, especially in the context of the attack on US soil by terrorist, Bush actions could even be characterized as moderate. Bush and the US military have shown far more concern about avoiding civilian casualties than previous administrations and certainly more than other countries.

The current sharp divisions in the country, may not be a direct consequence of Gore’s selfish decision to contest the 2000 election, but Gore’s decision certainly pried any gaps wide open. Richard Nixon had many faults, and Watergate revealed many of them. He was forced to leave office in 1974 in disgrace for his mendacity. However, he at least had to good sense to concede a close election, despite personal misgivings. Unfortunately, Gore did not exhibit similar character, and did the country a cruel disservice.

Perils of Debate

Sunday, October 3rd, 2004

Being a moderately successful debater at both the high school and college level, makes presidential debates an ambivalent experience for me. On one hand, the competitive juices are aroused vicariously. How should arguments be marshaled? What constitutes persuasive evidence? How can the weakness in our own arguments be explained or at least hidden? How should time for various arguments be apportioned for effective presentation? On the other hand, we must recognize that presidential debates are not debates in the classic sense. The debating propositions are usually ambiguous and ill-defined. There is little chance for rebuttal and no opportunity for cross examination.

It is, therefore, difficult for me to arrive at a dispassionate assessment of presidential debates. The nature and technical flow of the arguments are confused with the simple ethos and likeability of the candidates. Candidates are not only selling their arguments, but themselves. Voters often make an assessment as to the glibness, passion, and affability of the candidates. It is this mix of selling of the argument and marketing of the candidate, I find difficult to separate. Frankly few would want most technically excellent debaters to be president.

By nearly all accounts, Democratic candidate John Kerry bested George Bush in the recent debate. Not only was Kerry smoother, Bush frowned in such a way as to reduce his likeability. In all likelihood, the polls should show slippage for Bush. Since, people have seen Bush for four years they have a fairly fixed opinion of him so the consequences for him are smaller. A similar performance by Kerry would have been more devastating.

However, the victory may yet prove Pyrrhic for Kerry. Kerry was an academic debater and suffers from an affliction common to ex-debaters: the excessive concern for winning the present argument and the arrogance to believe that they can, if necessary, talk in enough circles around others to obfuscate their positions.

Winning an argument is the essence of academic debate. The truth or falsity of the debate proposition is irrelevant. Indeed, the best debaters typically win regardless of which side of a proposition they are asked to argue on. Everything is contained within the content of a debate. No one is expected or wants to make consistent arguments over the long term. What a debater says in the morning is irrelevant to the argument he makes in the afternoon. Debate is about developing rhetorical skill. Rhetorical skill is uncorrelated to the ability to correctly choose those themes and goals for which those rhetorical skills are deployed.

However, consistency and belief are ultimately measured in a campaign. Kerry’s reputation for flip-floppy is partly the result of the academic debater’s instinctive tendency to please the audience immediately in front of him; to win the present argument irrespective of long term consistency.

Early in the primary campaign, Kerry was hawkish on the war because he felt that would play well in the general election. He quickly switched to a more dovish position, when it appeared that Governor Howard Dean was igniting support among Democrats. That is why it is so easy to find contradictory statements from Kerry.

Not long ago Kerry said that Iraq was the “wrong war, in the wrong place, at the wrong time.” Now he says he will persuade allies to join us in pursuing the war. It is even hard for a clever debater to convince allies to join in what Kerry has already so forcefully and categorically characterized as a mistake.

As a measure of his rhetorical skill, in a single response, Kerry was able to say that both no country would have a veto power in preventing actions to defend the United States and at the same time saying some “global test” would have to be passed. These examples represent contradictions that are difficult to sustain.

As forceful and fluent as Kerry’s words were in the debate, they will come into direct conflict with contrary with equally eloquent words he has already spoken. Campaigns are not a debate, where the arguments in the previous rounds are ignored. Kerry has laid the foundation to sustain the Republican argument that Kerry has no fixed position.