Thursday, November 29, 2012

When is spending "obscene"?

Yesterday at the Monkey Cage, Josh Tucker complained that analogizing $6 billion in campaign advertising to $6 billion spent on potato chips is improper. Jonathan Bernstein defended the analogy, arguing that it promotes numeracy by helping people understand large quantities. I'm going to take Bernstein's side here, but not just for the reasons he articulates.

The real problem here is that large amounts of campaign spending, regardless of what exactly they go towards and how many voters are involved, are routinely labeled as excessive and "obscene." A Google search of "campaign" "spending" and "obscene" yields more than 3 million hits! Examples:
  • Colbert King: "The total cost of the 2012 presidential and congressional races [was] an estimated $6 billion. That makes this the most obscene display of campaign spending in history."
  • Robert Oak: "The spending was obscene."
  • Former Florida Gov. Reubin Askew: "The system we have for financing campaigns is obscene."
There are plenty more.

Now, needless to say, our campaign finance system doesn't come close to the legal definition of "obscene." But let's just say that the critics mean something along the lines of "morally repugnant." Why? Coca Cola spent roughly $11 billion this year on advertising, yet we rarely hear this described in such terms. After all, that's just commerce. But compare the two for a moment. Campaign advertising involves wealthy people giving money to media consultants and local television stations to run ads that provide information about public officials and encourage people to vote. Coca Cola advertising involves a similar transfer of money to encourage people to purchase and ingest a particular sugar drink (not the competitor's sugar drink, of course) that will probably shorten the consumer's life. Why is the former obscene but the latter just part of commerce? Yes, campaign advertising probably involves some deception or spin. Whereas soft drink advertising is completely honest?

Now, when I discussed this topic on a talk show with former Colorado state senator Ken Gordon a few months ago, he portrayed campaign spending as bribery. Yes, if campaign spending is bribery, then by God, $6 billion is too much! $100 is too much! But it's not bribery. What exactly are the people who donated over $600 million to Barack Obama this year getting in return, other than a Democratic president who continues to advance and protect a mainstream Democratic agenda? How exactly would Obama's millions of donors cash in? What influence has been purchased? And what do Romney's donors have to show for their investment today?

It escapes me why campaign spending, which is essentially a short term civics education program funded voluntarily by the nation's wealthiest people, is considered obscene. But as long as it is, it is helpful to have comparisons to similar levels of spending on things like potato chips, frozen yogurt, soft drink advertisements, or Halloween candy -- things for which we see a considerably lower return.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Democrats and Republicans belong to different groups

Why do people of different parties seem to have such a hard time understanding each other and reaching agreements? It may be, in part, because they belong to completely different organizations. This is one suggestion of a new article, "The Organizational Affiliations of National Party Convention Delegates," written by Michael Heaney, Dara Strolovitch, Joanne Miller, and me.

We surveyed hundreds of convention delegates at the 2008 national party conventions, asking them, among other things, what organizations they were members of. The response patterns differed significantly across party lines; Democrats belong to a wide range of groups, with no one organization proving dominant, while Republicans tend to belong to just a few key organizations. The network diagram below demonstrates this, with each point indicating a named group and the ties between them indicating that they share a common delegate. Larger groups are those named by more delegates. As can be seen below, the National Federation of Republican Women dominates among Republican delegates, while Democratic delegates are split between a number of different liberal organizations.


What the data also suggest is a real lack of common ground. Less than two percent of all co-memberships crossed party lines. There are a handful of groups that boast delegate members of both parties (notably, the NRA, the Sierra Club, and the NAACP), but those groups could hardly be labeled bipartisan, and typically they were named by a very lopsided party contingent.

The paper was recently published by American Behavioral Scientist. An ungated PDF version is available here.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

No need to defend a flawed system

In an editorial Monday, the Denver Post defended the Electoral College, writing,
Until such time as candidates regularly start landing in the Oval Office despite having lost the popular vote, there is little reason to change course on the Electoral College.
I suppose this all depends on what we mean by "regularly," but in four instances -- 1824, 1876, 1888, and 2000 -- the Electoral College chose a president despite the plurality of voters having preferred someone else. This represents roughly seven percent of all the presidential elections held in this country. It is difficult to imagine us designing a voting system today in which the plurality winner was denied the office roughly one out of every 14 times a vote was held. If a blackjack table awarded the pot to the player with the lower hand seven percent of the time, we would complain that the system was rigged. And yet this is the system we are asked to uphold every four years, all in the name of providing extra political power to states with fewer residents.

Sorry. Not a fan. I'll concede that no voting system is perfect, but there's a large gap between "imperfect" and "occasionally producing wildly perverse results."

Friday, November 16, 2012

Voter turnout in the states

Nate Silver helpfully compiles voter turnout figures (so far) by state in last week's presidential election. I've used those figures to chart the change in turnout since 2008, plotted against the state's partisan vote in the election:
Turnout was down in most states since 2008, but the one area where we saw slight increases in turnout was in the states that voted right around 50 percent for Obama. In other words, the swing states. Yes, this is an effect of the Electoral College (or at least the winner-take-all allocation of electoral votes), which encourages the campaigns to concentrate all their resources in a few pivotal states.

A few states saw pretty dramatic drops in turnout. We can chalk up New Jersey and New York to Sandy. Alaska and Arizona probably saw turnout drops relative to 2008 since that year featured prominent home state politicians on a national ticket. Alaska also had a closely contested Senate race that year. No such drama this year. I really don't know why California saw such comparatively low turnout this year, although Silver suggests that we'll see big improvements in those numbers as more ballots are tabulated over the next few weeks.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

The socially networked campaign

I have not yet read Sasha Issenberg's book (it's on my holiday wish list!), although I imagine there are still several books to be written about the use of social networking software by the presidential campaigns this year. This subject came up quite a bit at last week's post-election panel here at the University of Denver. Sunshine Hillygus explained how the Obama campaign had hundreds of different search algorithms in their on-line advertising that combed through your computer's browsing history and geographic information to assess what kind of message might resonate with you, and then selected one of hundreds of pop-up messages deemed most likely to affect your vote. In general, while both parties are making advances in this area, right now it seems like the Obama folks are simply more technologically advanced (and borrowing heavily from the social sciences), although whether this actually explains their recent victories remains to be proven.

One recent advance that caught my eye is the Obama app (seen at left), which is a lot more sophisticated than their 2008 version. Click on the "canvass" button and it shows you a map of your immediate neighborhood and unites it with the VAN (Voter Activation Network) database developed by Democrats that lists the voting history and party registration of the people in the area. You can then knock on their doors using a suggested script, and enter information about their likelihood of voting and support for a candidate into the database, where it is instantly accessible by other activists. This strikes me as a very powerful tool, potentially untethering volunteers from their local campaign offices and allowing them to canvass wherever and whenever is most convenient for them. Judging from the campaign's success this year, I'm going to guess that the technology wasn't built on top of Apple Maps.

Another advance that amused me was the Obama campaign's use of social pressure in its e-mail contacts. Here's a message I received about a week before the election, when mail-in voting was available in Colorado:
7,604 Seths have already voted! How can I not be one of them? Surely I am not worthy of the name if I do not vote.

Hey, anything to break through the clutter.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

The most diverse caucus in history, if you ignore history

Nancy Pelosi, describing the incoming Democratic House caucus, of which white males make up a minority:
[O]ur House Democratic Caucus [will be] the first caucus in the history of civilized government to have a majority of women and minorities.
The only way this statement is true is if we define "civilized" as meaning "American." This helpful Wikipedia entry offers a number of examples of ethnic parties that have formed in democracies since the 1800s. For instance, there are a number of Jewish parties that have formed in nations where Jews were distinctly outnumbered (and endangered) minorities, and the parties of modern Bosnia-Herzegovina are almost entirely based on ethnicity. Sweden's parliament is nearly half female today, and its Liberal Party is divided evenly between men and women. More than half of Rwanda's parliament is female.

The gender and racial diversity of the incoming Democratic caucus in the U.S. House is an impressive milestone, and one can crow about it without making stuff up. There's no need for Pelosi to join the long, sad list of American leaders who insist that anything Americans do has never been done anywhere else in the world. To quote Paul Waldman's wonderful piece from last spring:
Why is it necessary to assert that every good thing about America can only be found in America? We should continue to be enormously proud of the fact that we were the first democracy, but sometimes we act as though America is the only place in the world that isn't still ruled by a king. Are we so insecure about ourselves and our nation that we have to be constantly told that we're the most terrific country that ever was or ever will be, and there's nobody else even remotely like us?

(h/t Rob Salmond, via Facebook)

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Moderation in progress

Just to follow up on Greg's post (and some important earlier posts by David Karol and Jonathan Bernstein), the wake of a lost presidential campaign is an excellent opportunity to observe a party "learning" from the experience. Party activists are pretty hard-headed folks, but they don't like to lose repeatedly, so they'll update their beliefs about what sorts of tactics to use and what sorts of issue stances American voters like or don't like. Of course, they don't always learn the right lesson (as David points out, Democrats "learned" that Walter Mondale was too liberal to win in 1984 and they needed to start nominating centrists, although it's far from obvious that that was true), but they do take losses seriously.

This is how we end up with the famous Figure 4-1 from Cohen, Karol, Noel, and Zaller's book The Party Decides. As the plot below shows, the longer a party is deprived control of the White House, the more moderate its presidential nominees become. One term out of office may be a fluke, but two terms is serious, and three is catastrophic. Parties take this seriously and tend to nominate considerably more centrist people, sacrificing a significant chunk of their governing agenda for a chance of actually governing.
But just how does this "learning" occur? Sometimes it's pretty brutal, and right now we're at the beginning stages of what is likely to be a difficult struggle within the GOP. The Tea Party groups and other conservative activists are quite strong in primary nominations right now, helping to drive the party sharply right in recent years. They are not going to relinquish power easily. But they are being challenged by some significant people, and not just at the national level.

For an interesting case study, please read this op/ed in Sunday's Denver Post by former Colorado state legislators Josh Penry and Rob Witwer. These are both serious people who are highly regarded in Colorado Republican politics. Witwer is a former state representative who has actively researched and written on Democratic political tactics. Penry is a former state senator and gubernatorial candidate who would quite likely be governor today if not for a Tea Party insurgency that produced the Great McInnis/Maes/Tancredo Meltdown of 2010. They've noticed that while Colorado used to be a reliably Republican state and is now considered purple, the GOP hasn't won a major statewide race there since 2004. As they write,
We live in a diverse state that is roughly divided between Republicans, Democrats and unaffiliated voters. Yet since the mid-1990s, our party has been barely distinguishable from the TV show "Survivor." 
Every year, we kick somebody else off the island. We make it easy for Democrats to say that we don't want the support of women, Hispanics, teachers, gays and lesbians, African-Americans, conservationists, Muslims and union members. Pretty soon there won't be anybody left to vote for us. [...]
Even the Almighty won't help us if we can't do better than a crusty old white guy with a penchant for running up the debt versus another crusty old white guy incapable of conveying empathy for victims of rape. 
There is nothing inevitable about the Republican Party. If we continue to offer voters poor choices cycle after cycle, they will decide that they can do just fine without us, thank you very much. Just ask the Federalists or the Whigs.
Expect those making these arguments to butt heads with those urging ideological purity in the 2014 primary elections. Long before the 2016 presidential field is set, we'll see plenty of debates in primaries for congressional and state legislative seats, starting roughly a year from now. That's when we'll get to see just how powerful the calls for moderation and openness are and how much Republicans are willing to sacrifice for a chance to lead.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Wednesday Morning Quarterbacking

To me, one of the most interesting phases of an election is the postmortem debate over what the elections mean. Those on the winning side claim credit for providing the decisive edge; those on the losing side cite unfairness--either by the winning side or an imbalanced political process--or blame their intra-party rivals for the loss.

On the winning side, there are two dominant narratives: (1) the Democrats have solidified a coalition of the future, and (2) the Obama campaign did an extraordinary job of turning out voters. President Obama himself was on the forefront of narrative #1 with his premortem analysis to the Des Moines Register:
Should I win a second term, a big reason I will win a second term is because the Republican nominee and the Republican Party have so alienated the fastest-growing demographic group in the country, the Latino community.
And our own Seth Masket was on the cutting edge of narrative #2 by highlighting the Obama advantages in field offices. Mischief of Factions 1, everyone else 0.

A third narrative: Democrats have a long-term Electoral College advantage.

The other side of the coin is the GOP blame game. To some of my schadenfreude-indulging friends, some of this has been a bit cathartic: "I don't ordinarily watch Fox News, but when I do I like to see them discuss Obama's reelection." But the GOP discussion is also critical to the future of the party. If the 2008 and 2012 losses point to a long-term challenge for the party, then the GOP needs to radically retool its message, positions, and candidates. If, on the other hand, the GOP has just had two cycles of bad luck and poor candidates, then it's business as usual. With that in mind, here's a quick round-up of the GOP responses.

1) America sucks. Well, America is the best country ever anywhere anytime, but a majority of Americans are fundamentally greedy, selfish, and unpatriotic. As Federalist party politicians will tell you, however, it is hard to win elections with the message, "We despise you and desperately wish we didn't have to ask for your vote, but go ahead and vote for us anyway."

2) Obama and the Democrats had an unfair advantage. They were supported by labor unions instead of billionaires. The Obama campaign said mean things about Mitt Romney, complains Karl Rove [sic].

3) The Romney campaign was incompetent.  (But see: Romney outperformed several GOP Senate candidates.)

4) The GOP needs to revamp its party infrastructure, e.g. improving its voter turnout efforts and social media presence.

The common theme of the conservative base is that the message was fine, but the messenger, media, or campaign apparatus was insufficient. The GOP just needs to do a better job of turning out all those conservative voters out there!

On the other hand, there is a bit of circular fire-squadding:


"In this reassuring conservative pocket universe, Rasmussen polls are gospel, the Benghazi controversy is worse than Watergate, “Fair and Balanced” isn’t just marketing and Dick Morris is a political seer."
As the election drew near I had more than one conversation with Republicans who were certain that new Benghazi documents were going to swing the election. Not so much. Nor Solyndra. Nor "Fast and Furious."

Finally, there is the option of actually amending policy positions.

  • Bill Kristol suggests raising taxes
  • John Boehner, Sean Hannity, and Charles Krauthammer recommend comprehensive immigration reform (New York Magazine's recap by Jonathan Chait).
[Readers: feel free to add to this recap of GOP/conservative reaction to the election]

From a MoF perspective, there are two aspects of this conversation that are especially interesting. 

First, as Jonathan Martin discusses, a significant segment of the conservative establishment consists of radio and TV talk show hosts who have a financial interest in their own market share and no direct interest in the political success of their party. Indeed, one might even suggest that business is better when the GOP is not in office, since then a Democratic President and Congress provide ample material for discussion, the hosts have no reason to go easy on office holders, and there is probably a significant segment of the population who feel alienated and are amenable to strident criticism of the status quo (see also Olbermann, Keith).

Second, it is not always clear how a party network changes its overall strategy. On one hand, if the GOP changed its policy positions this would be most evident in the agenda of the U.S. House of Representatives, which is both centrally coordinated by the party leadership and completely transparent. Also, a more moderate GOP tone might be evident in its choice of Congressional leadership and RNC chair (but see Steele, Michael). On the other hand, shifts in the tone of conservative debate, in campaign tactics and technology, and candidate recruitment are more decentralized and thus harder for any central actor to enforce or coordinate. In particular, a party's current coalition can be a strong constraint on efforts to expand the coalition to new demographic or interest groups. During George W. Bush's 2000 campaign there were media reports that the Bush campaign was carefully polling every day to make sure they were striking a balance between maintaining their base of white voters and reaching out to (especially) Latino voters. The GOP now faces a similar task, but with the extra burden of the last six years of debate over immigration and without the benefit of regular polling to guide them.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Improving election night one graph at a time

I watched the election last night mostly on CNN. We flipped around a bit, but we mostly watched John King in front of his magic wall, zooming in and out of election maps.

King did a good job. He clearly knows the political geography of the United States, especially in the swing states. As he showed the results in one or another county, he would toggle the map from 2012 to 2008 or 2004, so as to put the current results in context. And as returns were reported in Ohio, Florida and Virginia, he would note where the votes yet to be counted were coming from, and how those counties tended to vote. It was informative stuff.

It could have been better.

Maps are a nice visual. But they are not meant to make comparisons over time. Counties can be toggled from red to blue, but that washes away all the information about how red, or how blue. And anyway, winning a county doesn't matter. Winning states does.

The natural way to make comparisons is with a scatterplot. Like this one:



The figure shows county-level vote in Florida in 2012 and 2008. Current data was taken from CNN's website. They are not official, but CNN reports 97% of the state's vote has been counted. Last cycle's data from the Precinct-Level Election Data Project. The diagonal line shows the scenario in which the vote shares in 2012 are the same as in 2008. This is not generally the case. Romney did better than McCain against Obama, as we would have expected him to. This was a closer race. 

But not everywhere. 

Obama actually appears to have done better in Miami-Dade in 2012. That's important. As the vote was coming in, Miami-Dade (and Broward) were counties where the vote was not completely in. Projections that Obama would do well were based in part on the fact that we would expect this area to favor Obama. And yet, if Romney had done as well there as he had in other counties (relative to 2008), he might well have won Florida. Meanwhile, it's interesting to ask why Romney didn't have a similar improvement vs 2008 in Miami-Dade.

The other problem with maps is that they show territory, not voters. But land does not vote for the president, people do. We can distort maps to be representative of the population, but you can also represent size on a scatterplot. Here, the dots are weighted by the total votes cast in 2012:


And you can see why Obama wins, even though so many counties would have been colored in red on the map. The larger counties are where Democrats do better. Several times last night, John King had to remind viewers that the vast areas of red had far fewer voters in them than the small pockets of blue.

Maybe I'm being overly optimistic about how well a television audience could understand a scatterplot. We're starting to see better data presentation in print and online, but television might be a studio too far. Still, most of election night, especially early on, is spent filling airtime, waiting for news to report. Surely some pretty scatterplots could add some variety. 

So, OK networks, you have two years to try to pull this off. I'm pretty sure John King could handle this. So could newscasters at other networks. I think he was trying to tell us things that scatterplots would have made easier. Next time, maybe give him better tools to work with. 


I spent $6 billion and all I got was this lousy economic retrospection election

Economic growth and the vote for president, based on the most recent numbers:
So, after all that money was spent, all those ads were run, all those voters were contacted by all those field offices, we get... an election outcome that you could have predicted back in July or earlier. So was this all a waste of everyone's time and money?

No, not really. A large part of the reason the results are so close to the line is that the campaigns were pretty well matched. Spending, if you include independent expenditures, was remarkably similar across party lines. The campaigns largely identified the same states and the same demographic groups as persuadable and they threw everything at them. And they were both quite effective in turning out their bases.

And if the amount of money that went into this irks you, keep in mind that this is what it takes to inform and mobilize a large electorate. We can't force people to read newspapers or watch the news, we can't isolate them in a spin-free chamber to watch the debates, and we can't have all of them meet the candidates one on one. To actually get some messages about the candidates' relative virtues and vices to the tens of millions who largely don't follow politics and have them use that information to cast a vote, it takes a labor- and money-intensive effort by the campaigns. They did this well.

And by the way, while Democrats certainly have many reasons to celebrate today, Republicans should be proud of the job they did on the presidential race. Incumbent presidents usually win reelection. They almost always win during a time of (even tepid) economic growth. Romney was trying to do something at which very few people succeed. That he came within a few percentage points of succeeding, and that he performed basically as the forecast models predicted, is the mark of a solid candidate and a strong campaign.

Pundits, conversely, have far less about which to be proud, but I'll let Hans handle that one.

In defense of Dick Morris.


The results are in:

Quant geek number-crunchers 1; Narrative-mongering campaign whisperers, 0.

And so at least for a little while, those who predicted big wins for Mitt Romney are getting their deserved share of ridicule. Let's indulge in that a little, shall we?

Dick Morris: Romney 325, Obama 213. “It will be the biggest surprise in recent American political history. It will rekindle the whole question as to why the media played this race as a nailbiter where in fact I think Romney’s going to win by quite a bit.” 
George Will: Romney 321, Obama 217. “The wild card in what I’ve projected is I’m projecting Minnesota to go for Romney.”
Dean Chambers (Unskewed Polls): Romney 311, Obama 227. “Despite the pattern of skewed polls, most of them commissioned by the mainstream media, the overall electoral landscape is looking more and more favorable for Romney.” 
Rush Limbaugh: “All of my thinking says Romney big. All of my feeling is where my concern is. But my thoughts, my intellectual analysis of this — factoring everything I see plus the polling data — it’s not even close. Three hundred-plus electoral votes for Romney.”

OK. That was fun. A mountain of polling evidence was predicting for weeks, almost perfectly, the outcome last night, but this is what these supposed experts thought. Ha ha ha.

But wait a minute. The truth is, it's not fair to Dick Morris and all the other loyal REPUBLICAN PARTISANS to expect them to make accurate predictions. That's not their job. Their job is to motivate their team, tell them that, sure, they're behind and there are seconds on the clock, but I believe in you, so go out there and win one for the Gipper! (By which in this case we mean quite specifically this Gipper.)

Just as it would be unfair to have gone up to Mitt Romney, in late October, and said, but really, Mitt, you're toast, right? Just as it would be unfair to mock Nancy Pelosi, a loyal DEMOCRATIC PARTISANS, to not dream a comically unrealistic goal for her party in the House.

So cut Dick Morris some slack. But also ... cut him loose from Politico. Partisan cheerleading is fine. But it's not analysis. Last night, as Karl Rove was pleading with Fox News to take back their call of Ohio for Obama (as if a networks' call is the thing that matters), Chris Wallace said that "we know that Karl Rove has a rooting interest, but at this point, I think he's just telling us the facts." In fact, no. Rove was showing exactly what it means to have a rooting interest. And hey, I've been there. When my HoyasWildcats or Bruins are down by 7 in the last minute of a basketball game, I start thinking through scenarios. If they can draw the foul quickly, or even better, get fouled shooting a three, or ... or ...

There's nothing wrong with that. Frankly, it's entertaining to watch partisans bask in the thrill of victory, and also to writhe in the agony of defeat. It's part of what makes politics a spectacle. So let them do it.

But it's not analysis.


The irony is that number crunchers like Nate Silver get called ideological hacks, while the real hacks get treated like analysts. And that's the state of political commentary in America.

UPDATE: I included Dean Chambers of "Unskewed Polls" among those to be laughed at. But Chambers deserves incredible credit for stepping up and admitting that he was wrong. I think it's safe to say that Chambers is a partisan, but he also appears to be able to separate his rooting interest from his desire to do analysis. Good for him. I am sure that George Will, Rush Limbaugh and Dick Morris will follow his lead and make similar pronouncements shortly.


Was the 2012 Election Bought?

While there are many ways to cut the campaign finance data, I wanted to update my previous post on this topic, for a comparison to the data that was available as of Election Day.  The candidate/independent expenditure breakdown looks like this:



 These totals represent a nearly equal game between the candidates.  However, this may not be a fair comparison.  The totals for the individual candidates are money raised, not spent (as of Election Day), and the IE total includes money from the Republican primaries.  Also, money spent by the parties on behalf of their standard bearers are not included here.

Some evidence suggests that the Obama team slightly outspent the Romney team.  But for now, it is safe to conclude that the election was not "bought."  Both candidates and their supporters spent a lot of money.  You have to have money to compete, but it's not clear that there is a direct causal connection between raising/spending more than your opponent, and winning.

We should continue to expect very expensive elections in future years, with lots of "investment" from both sides.  The idea that a bunch of billionaires regret their investment in Romney this morning and wouldn't "misspend" their funds again, is misguided.  Even good investors know that sometimes you take a loss.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Hating on Numbers

In the latest effort by pundits to grab Nate Silver's hands and hit him in the face with them while asking "Why are you hitting yourself?", we see Michael Gerson's column that begins with a dismissal of Silver and morphs into an attack on political science. There are a few points in here on which I feel compelled to comment, so I'll take them one by one. Here's Gerson:
Silver’s prediction is not an innovation; it is trend taken to its absurd extreme. He is doing little more than weighting and aggregating state polls and combining them with various historical assumptions to project a future outcome with exaggerated, attention-grabbing exactitude. His work is better summarized as an 86.3 percent confidence that the state polls are correct.
Well, yes, that's more or less accurate. Why pundits get so offended by this is beyond me. Silver is hardly making the argument that everything important in politics can be captured by polling models. What he is doing is trying to combine current polling and historical trends into the most accurate prediction of the election results we can come up with. Political journalists are often criticized for focusing too much on the horse race. We regularly observe a media approach in which any new poll becomes a news story, and in which Sunday talk shows focus on who's ahead and who's behind, and what the person in second place needs to do to get into first place. So suddenly some guy comes along and says, "Well, if you're going to talk about the horse race, we might as well at least know which horse is ahead and by how much." And then he gets slammed for making it all about the numbers? Poll-watcher, heal thyself.

More Gerson:
An election is not a mathematical equation; it is a nation making a decision. People are weighing the priorities of their society and the quality of their leaders. Those views, at any given moment, can be roughly measured. But spreadsheets don’t add up to a political community.
No one's arguing that they do, least of all Silver. Sure, there's plenty more to understanding an election than just following the polls. Just how would the candidates govern should they win? Who would form their administration? How much slack will they be granted by the ideological activists who backed them in the primaries? How much power do the candidates have to follow through on the things they have promised? Could they work with Congress? These and lots of other questions are terribly important, but they don't get a lot of attention in the thick of a presidential campaign. Blaming this on Nate Silver is like blaming the guy who built the scoreboard at Dodger Stadium for society's ignoring the poetry of modern baseball.

Yet more Gerson:
The current mania for measurement is a pale reflection of modern political science. Crack open most political science journals and you’ll find a profusion of numbers and formulas more suited to the study of physics.
Uh oh, here it comes.
Politics can be studied by methods informed by science. But it remains a division of the humanities. It is mainly the realm of ethics — the study of justice, human nature, moral philosophy and the common good. Those who emphasize “objective” political facts at the expense of “subjective” values have strained out the soul and significance of politics.
And there it is. Okay, let me see if I can lay this out for Gerson. Obviously, the study of justice and the common good has an important role to play within political science. Indeed, we have a whole subfield that deals with such issues. We call it political theory. But there's a lot more to study! What forms of government produce the greatest equality and economic advancement? How productive are divided governments? To what extent are democratic governments accountable to and representative of their citizens? What explains the outcomes of elections? What are the costs and benefits of partisan versus nonpartisan elections? Why do people vote, or choose not to? These and many, many other questions are not only important, but also empirically answerable! We can find data and derive answers, sometimes using the "profusion of numbers and formulas" Gerson derides. This does not strain the soul and significance from politics; indeed, it provides answers to some of the questions that have vexed us ever since two people started making decisions on behalf of a community.

Now, Gerson took a serious detour from polling to political science. Silver is not a political scientist and, as far as I know, has never claimed to be one. His focus for right now is forecasting elections, and he's taken a pretty thoughtful and data-driven approach to the task. If you don't want elections to be about the horse race, don't talk about them that way. But I'll take Silver's numbers over all the media references to "momentum," "narrative," and "relatability" eight days a week and twice on Sundays.

Update: See also John Sides.

Further update: Peggy Noonan calls the election for Romney because "all the vibrations are right." Seriously. I wish she'd be more transparent about the frequency and amplitude data.

What's going to happen in state legislative races?

A political observer could be forgiven for not noticing that there are more than 6,000 state legislative elections occurring tomorrow -- the presidential race tends to suck up most of the available oxygen. But these elections will occur nonetheless, and they may profoundly affect public policy where you live. (For example, but for one state legislative seat, there would likely be a civil unions law in effect in Colorado right now.)

So, can we make any guesses about what's likely to happen? I looked at Carl Klarner's data on state legislative partisan composition and compared it to growth in real disposable income from the fourth quarter last year to the third quarter this year and produced the following graph:
It's a pretty strong relationship, with an R-squared of .526. And by the way, by this economic measure, economic growth this cycle is at 1.3% -- that translates to 21 state legislative seats flipping from Democratic to Republican. This is not a lot of movement historically. State legislative seat gains also track presidential vote shares pretty well, and given that Obama is likely to get somewhere very close to 50% of the two-party vote, that translates to just about no change at all in legislative seat shares.

Of course, that's just the broad national picture. There may be some interesting movements within states. As NCSL notes,
11 Senates are within three seats of changing majorities and nine houses are within five seats. However, election handicapper Lou Jacobson says a lack of a strong partisan tide from either party means less likelihood of the major control swings of 2010.
It looks like the state to watch right now is Arkansas, which is the last southern state to have a Democratic-controlled legislature and where both chambers are considered to be in play this year.


Update: So it turns out Princeton grad student Steve Rogers has written on this topic and has a nice paper showing how people's evaluation of their state legislators is strongly driven by their evaluation of the president and the national economy. This, of course, kind of undermines the whole idea that elections are useful accountability tools for most public officials. Rogers' graph below, showing how closely congressional and state legislative seat shares track each other, suggests that voters aren't drawing great distinctions among elected officials and are rather relying heavily on party cues and evaluations of national politics.

Vote for the D or the R

Tomorrow is Election Day. I have three last minute messages for you.

First, vote. If you haven't voted already, go vote. It's probably not rational, but how many of the things that you do really are?

Second, vote for a major party candidate. Vote for the Democrat or vote for the Republican. Don't vote for any third party candidate, or an independent. 

We try to be nonpartisan at Mischiefs, but I have to take a stand here. The policies of the Green Party or the Libertarian Party might be great, but you're not helping realize them by voting Jill Stein or Gary Johnson.

Why not? For one, even if they were elected, a third party candidate would have to deal with a Congress filled with Democrats and Republicans. The president doesn't get to just repeal Obamacare or implement single-payer health care. That's the job of the legislature. By definition, anyone running for president as a third-party candidate has decided that coordinating with members of the two major parties is too hard. If it's too hard in the nomination stage, why would it suddenly become easy at the legislating stage?

And of course, no third party candidate is going to win. So your vote doesn't help. Meanwhile, there are real differences between Obama and Romney. Very big ones, in fact. Voting for anyone else means you give up your chance to voice your opinion on the divisions that are actually at stake in this election. 

Third, vote for your major party candidate. Don't vote for the guy you like better, or for whom you would want to have a beer with. If you look deep down, you are probably closer to one of the two parties. Even if you are independent, research suggests you have your leanings. And the parties are clearly not hard to distinguish. One is probably better for people like you.

You are not just selecting a president. You are also selecting which party that president will draw his cabinet from, and which party he will find most amenable to his agenda. You are selecting the leader of a team. The rest of the team will matter a great deal over the next four years.

Fortunately, most voters don't need these warnings. Most voters do vote for their party's candidate. Maybe most voters are on to something.