Let's Talk Sense...
Thursday, November 7, 2002 Volume XXVII, No. 4
Roswell, New Mexico
LTS... Gets it Right. Again!
34 for 34 (with one recount pending)
(Reading time: 7 minutes)
In this issue:
1. LTS...Gets it Right. Again! (Reading time: 60 seconds)
2. Voting for dumb reasons (Reading time: 2:30)
3. The Expectation Game (Reading time: 60 seconds)
4. GOP Problems, Polls, Jitteriness (Reading time: 2:30)
LTS...Gets it Right. Again!
(Reading time: 60 seconds)
In our issues of September 13 and November 4 we predicted a GOP takeover of the US Senate. Acknowledging the pending recount in South Dakota, we are 34 of 34 at this point in calling Tuesday night's outcome.
As we stated two years ago in our issue of November 18, 2000:
"Our pre-election issues...were far closer to the actual outcome than any other known projection, forecast, or guess, by any other published site....be it poll, political website, newspaper, pundit or any other known entity. If anyone has any contrary information, please forward it to this address."
The same goes for this election. Everywhere you read, watched, or listened, the comments from talking heads, columnists and the "most respected" pundits were: "status quo ante," or "Democrats net one," or "Democrats gain two"
We know of no one who made an outright prediction of a GOP majority, much less told you why, race-by-race---whether it was the weekend before the election, or 7½ weeks prior to it as we did. Let us know if there is any evidence to the contrary.
Counting Jeffords as a Democrat (because he caucuses with them) our projection was a 52-47 outcome on Tuesday, with Louisiana still to be determined. It is currently 51-47 with Louisiana TBD and a recount scheduled for South Dakota. I suspect massive fraud in South Dakota.
My calculations (which are based on vote trends over the last two presidential-and last three off-year cycles, along with voter turnout models derived from the same data) showed a 4,000-vote likely margin in favor of John Thune. He is said to be 527 votes behind at this point. We shall see.
Voting for Dumb Reasons
(Reading time: 2:30)
Apologies to South Dakotans---we have several among our readers---- who may or may not have been tempted to vote based on arguments we are about to discuss. For the purposes of this discussion we are going to assume that Democrat incumbent Tim Johnson goes ahead and holds his lead and wins in the recount.
We have read that in South Dakota over the last ten days of the campaign the Democrats made the strongest pitch in their media buys to "vote for Tim Johnson so that Tom Daschle can remain Majority Leader." The theme of "maintaining the 'great power' South Dakota has" by not letting the Senate go to the Republicans literally inundated the airwaves, pounding home the message to voters. Vote for Johnson so Daschle can be Leader.
So, never mind which candidate, John Thune or Tim Johnson, is closer to your philosophy, or which one is smarter, more in tune with the state, or all-round better qualified. Never mind what you, the voter, actually believe in. Just vote for Tim Johnson for Tom Daschle's sake.
Right. That is dumb. It also is another example of the great challenges we face as a nation: the steady erosion of critical thinking skills among Americans.
Why weren't voters thinking the following: Let's see now, the Senate is currently organized 50-49 with one (very recent) vacancy as we go to the polls-----that one very simple fact alone could have told thinking voters that there were very high risks in pursuing a "what's-best-for-Daschle" vote-casting rationale. Duh. You don't have to be a statistician to see the risks of assuming an outcome when you are starting with a situation of 50-49.
It should have occurred to them: You know we just might not end up with a Democrat majority at all, even if Tim Johnson wins. So, why don't I vote for the person I actually believe is best for America, the one who is closest to my actual philosophy?
Well whadda ya know? In the end, a minimum of 20,000 South Dakotans voted for someone they really didn't want to----just because they lacked critical thinking skills. And guess what? They got a double whammy. They not only betrayed themselves and their own beliefs, they also ended up with 1) the candidate they did not really want, and 2) they end up with not one, but two senators in the minority party. How's that for helping Tom Daschle keep the great South Dakota clout in Washington!
Know what? Do the right thing first time, every time, and risk the consequences. You will feel better about yourself, and you won't be ashamed the next day for having blown every single play, at every base, all around the horn. Playing it cute, they blew it.
Of course the media had a role in this. (After all, not everyone has access to Let's Talk Sense...) So most people had no information other than the unanimous belief, based solely on polls (see below) that Democrat control was inevitable. This was what they thought, even though statistically they should have known there was a huge risk, even before the analysis of races begins. But then again, innumeracy (total ignorance of numbers and probability) is much more common than illiteracy. And it is downright pandemic among the media.
To some extent the Republican Party has to share some blame. They did not counter the Democrat arguments by pointing out what I have said here---that the people of South Dakota were better off voting for the candidate who really represents their values. They could even have fallen back on the less respectable, but at least pragmatic, argument of needing to hedge their bets---that the Democrats could very well lose the Senate, South Dakota could lose it's "Leader," and they could end up stuck with a senator they don't really want AND no one in the majority party.
Bottom line: vote for the one who represents you and your values. For most South Dakotans that would have been Thune.
The Expectation Game
(Reading time: 60 seconds)
Of course Republicans were stuck in a difficult predicament. If they pushed the idea that the GOP had a great chance of capturing the Senate----and therefore South Dakotans should not be voting for the dumb reason of saving Daschle's job as leader (since he would not have the job of Leader if the GOP won the Senate)---- they would also be doing something no one wants to do in electoral politics: RAISING EXPECTATIONS.
One great thing they had going for them during the entire campaign was the constant drumbeat of the expectation game: Democrats had the upper hand in the Senate. Republicans were much more vulnerable. "Everybody knew this." They knew it because that is what all the pundits said. And they all talk back and forth to each other. And so it goes. It worked well for the GOP.
Now, there is much to be said for playing the expectation game. It would have been only with great, great reluctance and trepidation that they would have parted with that. Why? There is hardly anyway one can lose if one's expectation is to lose. Conversely, the Democrats' defeat is now greatly, if not enormously, exaggerated. Republicans on the other hand could have ended election night still in the minority, or even lost seats, and no one would have blinked an eye. President Bush would not have been seen as a big loser in the process.
Republicans liked that. I don't blame them----it is difficult not to like a situation in which it is all but impossible to be seen as the big loser of the night. And that is what they had going for them.
But failing to be able to talk about reality probably cost them (we won't know for awhile) one more senate seat. That's a point to remember in future.
GOP Problems, Polls, Jitteriness
(Reading time: 2:30)
Another reason of course that the Republicans would probably not have raised expectations about their impending success is that, well, they simply did not know that such success was likely, much less imminent. There is certainly no evidence they did. (And any claims now, are, well, like all claims made after the fact: everyone knows what is likely to happen AFTER it has already happened.)
Why did they not know what was about to happen? Why did the Democrats and the media not know? One of the problems Republicans, Democrats, the media, and everyone else in politics share alike is their exclusive reliance on polls and polling to gauge what is likely to happen in elections. It can lead to the ridiculous.
Polls are important. We do not dispute that. But what we have now in America are both major parties, and every single news organization, relying exclusively on polls to determine every single move, comment, prediction, projection, countermove, et cetera. This is not only both unreliable and inaccurate, it can be downright embarrassing.
More important than polls, and the starting point for electoral analysis, is psephology: the systematic study of elections, especially the detailed analysis of election returns, over time.
Polls are snapshots of an electorate at a given moment. That is all they are. Used correctly they are one of the most important tools of politics and campaigns. Used exclusively, without historical perspective, and with little or no psephological or demographic trend analysis, they can lead to conclusions that simply bear no resemblance to reality.
I will give a number of examples in the next issue when we go through the post mortem, region by region. But three quick examples will suffice for now.
One: There was a steady drumbeat of talk about polls showing the Texas Senatorial race "suddenly closing up." What did we say:
"Lot's of TV chatter about nothing in this one."
Why? It was simply not in the cards. The historical data, the psephological pattern, the demographic trend lines, simply would not allow it. You could have produced a poll showing that Ron Kirk was 10 points ahead of John Cornyn and we simply would have ignored it. It was not psephologically believable that the race was tied, or that it was within five points. But people who rely exclusively on polls have no ability to sort through such information.
Two: Erskine Bowles was on the verge of a major upset of Elizabeth Dole in North Carolina. People from both parties and the media were all over the news like chickens with their heads cut off. What did we say?
"Much late noise by media on this without any substance."
Why? It simply could not be done. The electorate in question could not produce such a result----for many of the same reasons listed in the Texas example.
Three: Mondale becomes candidate. Poll: Mondale leads by 9.
Next day: Mondale leads by 6, but Coleman also leads by 6.
Next day: Coleman and Mondale are tied. Mondale leads by 2.
Chickens with heads cut off. RNC and DNC running around wild on the talk shows. Media in a frenzy. What did we say?
Well you know what we said. The reality is that there was much historical data to draw on. There was much of a year-long campaign model to look at. And there was the cold reality of already-banked votes. What on earth are the Democrat and Republican strategists thinking? What are the media thinking? We don't know. But we do know it doesn't have to be this big of a mystery.
Question: Are you saying that the candidates and the campaigns don't matter?
Answer: No. Of course they matter. But psephology analyzes the candidate and the campaign and places them both into a known turnout model and the known data from at least four previous election cycles. If the candidates commit crimes or somehow "meltdown" in the course of the campaign of course they can lose in an otherwise "safe" modeled electorate. But failing that, by September of each election year, one can project outcomes of elections with reasonable accuracy in all but a mere handful of states.