Friday, September 05, 2008

The Palin Trump Card: TURNOUT

Howard Dean almost made history in 2004. While John Kerry just plain fumbled the opportunity handed to him, Dean’s fund-raising and grassroots registration and turnout drives were spectacularly successful. Over 58 million Americans voted for Kerry-Edwards in the presidential election, an amazing success for the campaign’s workers and planners. President Bush, however, claimed over 62 million votes, on the strength of a similarly epic turnout effort. The 2004 election turned on many points of decision, but in effective terms both parties knew they had to maximize their turnout.

Fast forward to today. Rasmussen Reports (whom I distrust to some degree, because they do not reveal all of their methodology and weighting rationale to the media, bloggers, or academics) released a poll showing Barack Obama leading John McCain by 2 points, 48% to 46%. The race is statistically tied, says Rasmussen. Looking more closely, however, I noticed how Rasmussen has weighted the respondent pool, with 39.7% weighted as Democrats, 32.1% as Republicans, and 28.2% as unaffiliated.

The significance of this weighting is that, as I have warned before, it is not based on any established statistical record or census report. Instead, Rasmussen does what it calls “dynamic weighting”. What they do, by their own admission, is to establish baseline targets” for party affiliation by reviewing “survey interviews with a sample of adults nationwide completed during the preceding three months. When translated into English, Rasmussen is admitting that they use the results from previous polls to weight their new polls, even though this is - by definition – circular logic and is invalid for any poll which is authentically using pure RDD methodology in its respondent contact procedure (that is, a pure random method of contacting people means that you have near-absolute certainty that you are not calling anyone from prior polls, and therefore there is no connection between your present and former respondent pool except that they meet the defined criteria, and therefore conditions of the former do not influence the conditions of the present). Rasmussen has no effective basis for claiming the party affiliation in its polls, as a result of its invalid system. This happens a lot with polling groups, but it is a critical factor in the results they report, and as such I must warn the readers regularly about this practice. While no proven scientific method exists to track and report party affiliation between elections, the reader should at least expect a consistent ratio to be used, and for polling groups to obtain the basis of party weighting using outside and objective sources for their party identification data.

So anyway, using Rasmussen’s made-up affiliation numbers, we see that if Rasmussen’s poll is correct and if 39.7% of the voters are really Democrats, 32.1% of the voters are really Republicans, and 28.2% are really unaffiliated, then Obama-Biden has the support of 46 to 50 percent of the people responding to the poll, while McCain-Palin has the support of 44 to 48 percent of the people responding. But suppose that more than 39.7% of the voters are Democrats? What if more than 32.1% of the voters are Republicans? From my experience, I can say that self-identified Democrats and Republicans are much more likely to vote than people without a party affiliation. And what if some factor or issue makes some voters of a certain party affiliation stay home? That’s happened before you know, it hurt Bush I in 1992 and Humphrey in 1968, and there’s more than a few groups which have said earlier that they would sit at home this fall. Not too many people have talked about it recently, and the ones who did seemed to assume they were not problems anymore, but McCain had to worry about hard-line conservatives, while Obama had to worry about Hillary’s army. McCain needed to assure folks that his age and health were not reasons to doubt his ability, while Obama needed to assure folks that he had the judgment to make good executive decisions, even if his record up to now was empty. McCain needed to show Republicans he stood for the party’s ideals, and to show independents that he was a different man from George Bush. Obama needed to show Democrats he was a man able to accomplish their goals, while proving to the nation his claim to be able to reach across the aisle. There are a lot of folks with reasons to walk away from the election, and to doubt the claims of the nominees from either party. Victory may well come down to which party best retains its existing active support, and beings back its doubters.

That brings us to Sarah Palin. John McCain picked Palin to be his running mate after Barack Obama chose Joe Biden to be his VP nominee. Biden was essentially the “safe” pick, meant to shore up Obama’s clear deficiencies in foreign policy and resume depth. Hillary Clinton was an obvious choice for VP, but the Obama campaign clearly worried about whether Clinton would remain an ally after November, and the campaign could be embarassed if Clinton had publicly declined the post, as some rumored she would do. And because the Obama campaign depended so heavily on Barack Obama’s personal charisma, there was no effective way the VP pick could expect to retrieve those voters that were not already attracted to Obama.

Things were much different for McCain. The threat of mainline Republicans staying home was a serious problem; even the likelihood that they would vote for him but withhold campaign support for registration and GOTV drives could seriously damage McCain in key battleground states. McCain therefore needed a running mate who would strongly appeal to the conservatives, yet not alienate the other key GOP candidates from the primaries. McCain needed someone with the skills to step into the role of President if it became necessary, ideally someone familiar with the executive roles and with energy experience. Also, McCain was clearly chasing Obama in overall support, and needed a VP pick who would energize his supporters and create media interest in his campaign. In terms of strategy, McCain wanted a running mate who would increase the level of turnout his campaign could expect in November, who would be able to retain and protect gains he had made in recent months, and whose skills would complement his own. The selection of Sarah Palin proved a near-perfect response to those needs. Palin’s solid credentials as a conservative went a long way to satisfy demands from conservatives who worried McCain would be less like Ronald Reagan and more like Gerald Ford. Her accomplishments as a woman may not attract great numbers of Clinton supporters away from Obama, but those who had already defected to McCain are now more inclined to stay as his supporters. But more to the point, a huge demographic has opened for McCain-Palin, one which has been largely ignored by Barack Obama. In choosing Palin, McCain has taken advantage of yet another Obama blunder.

Palin’s credentials also directly undercut Obama’s claims to quality judgment and executive qualification. Even as Obama’s supporters tried to ridicule Palin’s experience as a mayor and governor, the scale of her accomplishments demonstrates that Obama and Biden, even put together, have effectively no executive experience of any kind, and worse, were unaware of that fact. Biden has shown that he does not understand the difference between committee experience in the Senate, and executive decisions made by a head of state, while Obama lamely tried to claim that running for President counted as executive experience (rather like saying that applying for a job means you have experience in it!).

This election, like 2004, will be decided by turnout, by which party convinces the most folks not only to like their candidates, but also to register and really, truly, go out and vote when the time comes. Sarah Palin is a trump card for which Obama-Biden simply has no answer.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008


I am amazed sometimes, how well American businesses do. This is because the more I learn, from my career and from my graduate coursework, the more I realize that the average business, American or otherwise, is not planned, not effectively organized, and often seeks goals that make no sense. Yet an amazing number of businesses are successful in spite of all that. It’s because if you have the right idea and work hard at it, you can succeed without having to be perfect. That is the message I want to make regarding the vetting of Sarah Palin. Some mistakes were made although in the main the job was done right, her enemies (including the media being incredibly obvious in its partisan support for Obama) have posed outright lies and smears in their attempts to attack her, and in the end the American people will figure out well enough who she is and what she stands for.

John McCain had a while to decide who he wanted for his running mate, just as Barack Obama had several weeks to make his decision. Both campaigns started with a blank sheet of paper, because the person they’d want for their VP selection would depend at least in part on the issues and conditions of the moment, which could not be foreseen. Let’s begin with how Barack Obama chose Joe Biden for his running mate, The International Herald-Tribune’ who calls themselves the ‘Global Edition of the New York Times’, is about as pro-Obama a media outlet as one could hope to find. They published an account of Biden’s vetting on August 24, in which the paper reports that “his top advisers made a concerted effort not to disclose how he made his choice”, that ”Obama reached the decision … while on a weeklong vacation to Hawaii. That week, Biden's strengths in foreign policy were highlighted by the conflict between Russia and Georgia, giving his prospects a further boost”, showing that current events were a critical factor in the decision. The paper further observes that ”Biden had some powerful patrons in his corner whose opinions Obama respected, like Rendell; Representative Rahm Emanuel of Illinois, the chairman of the House Democratic caucus; and Senator Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts”. So, while Obama’s team made a great noise about Biden’s qualifications, the NYT-styled paper makes clear that Biden was primarily chosen to support an area where Obama saw a potential weak point, that Biden gained the top spot in large part because he had powerful friends in the Democratic Party, and that “what kind of partner I'm getting” was an essential choice. Few details about the actual vetting were released, except that the paper noted that ”the vetting team sorted through Biden's financial statements, political statements and medical records”.

Now, with that in place, the decision to select Sarah Palin may properly be considered and the lies from the Left dispelled through Obama’s own standards. Senator Obama’s campaign has admitted he decided on Biden as his running mate very soon before announcing the choice. That makes sense to me, but it blows apart the claim by some that McCain made a “last-minute” choice on Palin, especially since he made the announcement the week before the GOP convention even began. Lie number one shot down. Obama chose Biden for his foreign policy experience, a logical reason. But that means that choosing a female governor with a high approval rating in her state and a history of fighting against corruption is just as logical for McCain. The idea that McCain was acting emotionally or rashly is just lie number two, and it doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Obama chose Biden because he was politically popular with a lot of Democrats, including the union base Obama needs. That makes sense, but of course that makes it reasonable for McCain to choose a VP nominee who is wildly popular with conservatives, whose life experience and personal character are well-suited to attract women voters and independents. So the lie that Palin is less valid than Biden for what she brings to the campaign also goes quickly down in flames.

Frankly, the Left has gotten pretty desperate in trying to find something to use against Palin. We’re told she’s “under investigation”, but the people who started that slimy rumor leave off that the situation was one in which Palin’s family was threatened, and the investigation has no statutory support for any potential action against Palin – it’s purely political, which makes all the more sense when people find out that Palin fought against corrupt officials in both parties in Alaska, and reformers often make political enemies. We’re told that news people going door to door in Alaska can’t find anyone who was asked about Palin, but that’s because vetting does not work that way. No one asked door-to-door in Delaware to see if Obama’s people chased down Biden’s old teachers or people he went to school with – that’s just another lie because the media knew they were misleading folks in how they portrayed the process. What is happening is what we have seen before, what we have to expect – the MSM has chosen a team, and objectivity be damned. Ironically, that won’t help them, and it could hurt their well-dressed if empty idol, Barack Obama.

If the media treated Sarah Palin the way way that they have treated Joe Biden, then it would be up to Palin to prove she was up to the challenge. Fluff just cannot be mistaken for muscle after a certain amount of time, and facades always fall when the wind blows. But it is a lie, and a stupid one, to pretend that Palin has not been vetted. As Bill Kristol pointed out last night, The McCain campaign vetted Sarah Palin to the satisfaction of John McCain. He nominated her as his running mate. She is the governor of Alaska. She was vetted by the voters of Alaska. Fred Barnes pointed out the lies as well, saying I have been keeping a list of the things that the media has come out with, at least some parts of it that turned out to be wrong, including [the] thing about the Independence party. She wasn't a member there, she was a Republican the whole time. She didn't back Pat Buchanan. She was vetted. When you read how thoroughly she was vetted, I am sorry they missed the House Speaker, but I think they hit everybody else up there. They spent days and days up and interviewed her for a long time.”

Three facts have become obvious in the last few days about Sarah Palin:

1. She was properly vetted.

2. She does change the calculus of the election.

3. Judging from the reaction in the media and the Obama campaign, Joe Biden should be as worried as a moose in season.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Weighting and Other Poll Controversies

I have always found opinion polls to be fascinating, and yet I often mistrust the way in which polls are built and their results reported. It also occurs to me, that most folks do not really understand polling as a science, and so take it as, well, the political version of a horoscope. When I extrapolate that to the election, it explains quite a lot of just how some folks vote, but that’s beside the point for here. What I want to do today, is to explain just how it is that someone can take the opinions of a few to portray the opinion of the many, and what factors are the most influential in how a poll’s results are reported.

Let’s say you want to know how a group of a thousand people are likely to vote on an issue, say shareholders considering a potential merger with another company. If you ask one person, you will get one opinion, and that opinion would obviously represent 1/1000th or 0.1% of the group, so while you might be interested in that person’s opinion, you would not take it as a solid indicator of how the whole group feels. But at the same time, you really don’t want to have to ask all one thousand people, just to get an idea of what they would say now. If you ask a second person, you have still only addressed 0.2% of the whole, but at the same time your respondent pool has doubled in size and therefore increased in accuracy. To put it another way, let’s say that 665 of the 1,000 people would vote in favor of a proposed merger. It’s possible that you might get through all 335 people opposed to the merger before you get to anyone in favor of it, which would falsely indicate strong opposition, but if you make sure your queries are random, you are likely to start approaching a representative sample by the time you get to just ten people. Why? The key is partly how many people you ask – if you do it right, each person who answers your question lowers the statistical probability of error in your result by a relevant factor, a factor determined by the proportion of your respondent pool but also by the category of interest. In the example of the stockholders, for example, regional location, length of experience with the company, and preference for stock price or dividends might be relevant to how they would vote. That is, all of the stockholders who prefer a higher stock value to a higher dividend payment would be likely to vote the same way on the merger decision, and so the opinion of a relative few who have similar characteristics can reasonably represent the opinion of everyone in their group. Therefore, if the respondent pool includes a proportional representation of the whole population concerned, then statistically the small group may be expected to reflect the larger group’s opinion in scale. Over the course of the last seventy years, polling groups have found that once a respondent pool reaches eight hundred or more, the margin of error in a national contest is generally below four percent, meaning that in a two-candidate race the polling results for the candidate is within a four-point radius; if ‘A’ and ‘B’ poll at 42% and 48%, for example, A’s true level of support could actually be anywhere from 38 to 46 percent, while B could be anywhere from 44 percent to 52 percent in support. Frankly, in most elections this margin of error means that no clear message can or should be taken in terms of who is winning or by how much. The poll, however, is a valid tool for measuring development of support, when the questions and methodology used in the poll are consistent, and when the weighting used is consistent with Census norms.

This brings us back to weighting. By now it should be obvious that the weighting of a poll is critical to its determination. For example, let’s say you have a poll with exactly one thousand respondents. However, you have 700 Whites responding, with 150 Asians, 100 Hispanics, and 250 Blacks. The 2000 US Census reports that the racial breakdown is 71.6% White, 12.3% Black, 12.5% Hispanic, and 3.6% Asian. To match these demographic statistics, the polling data would then be weighted in the following manner:

The results from White respondents would be divided by 70.0 then multiplied by 71.6;
The results from Black respondents would be divided by 25.0 then multiplied by 12.3;
The results from Hispanic respondents would be divided by 10.0 then multiplied by 12.5; and
The results from Asian respondents would be divided by 15.0 then multiplied by 3.6.

This, of course, is only the racial weighting. Similar actions would be taken to adjust the statistical values of male and female responses to match Census norms, and responses would also be adjusted to match other relevant demographics, like age, geographic location, education, job category, military experience, and so on. The intent is to create an image aligned as correctly with the national model as much as possible. The problem, of course, is that every national poll is therefore manipulated to some degree.

There are three key problems to weighting polls. First, polls are driven by budget and time constraints, and as a result the weighting is often generalized, and not by the same method in each case. Some political polls, for example, start their age category with a broad “18-34” category, while others use a more narrow “18-24” or even “18-22” category to show college-age support. Worse, the range values sometimes fluctuate even by the same polling group, so that consistent methodology is lost, making the poll significantly less valid. Next, some polls have been known to fudge their weighting to match a different standard than the last Census. CBS and the New York Times, for example, have often ignored Census norms in favor of some arbitrary measure, which also violates the standard used in legitimate polling. And then there are the categories which defy clear definition. Almost no two major polls agree exactly, about what proportions of Republican and Democrat and Independent respondent should be used. Part of this is the fact that many states do not register political affiliation, and therefore the federal Census does not break down the population by party affiliation. So far, that doesn’t really bother me, except that the reader had better be aware that different polling groups will use different proportions in the way they weight political responses, because even though there is no official and firm balance of Republican-to-Democrat-to-Independent-to-Something Else, polls do indeed weight poll responses according to their party affiliation,. What’s worse, some of them will change the proportions from time to time, on no evidence beyond their belief that the mood has changed. This, of course, immediately invalidates the poll as an indicator of growing or lessening strength of support.

A poll is a useful indicator of trends and individual development of support by a candidate, provided the standards, methodology, and weighting remain constant. Otherwise, an opinion is absolutely worthless. Caveat Emptor, and then some.

Monday, September 01, 2008

Obama Says Palin's Family Off-Limits

"Let me be as clear as possible," Obama said. "I think people's families are off-limits, and people's children are especially off-limits. This shouldn't be part of our politics. It has no relevance to Gov. Palin's performance as governor or her potential performance as a vice president."

Obama said reporters should "back off these kinds of stories" and noted that he was born to an 18-year-old mother.

"How a family deals with issues and teenage children, that shouldn't be the topic of our politics, and I hope that anybody who is supporting me understands that's off-limits

Good for Obama. I can't help but wonder how many of his trolls will trash the Palin family anyway, even after their leader has made it clear that they are out of bounds.

How Polls Work – And How They Do Not Work

In an earlier article, a reader noted that he was suspicious of CNN’s “Poll of Polls”. Frankly, he was right to do so. What CNN, Real Clear Politics, and other media outlets do, is to take poll releases from various polling groups in a certain time range, and aggregate them to find a sort of consensus. That is a very bad idea, however, if your intention is to accurately reflect the opinion of the general public. It’s a bit like saying that if you take everyone’s favorite version of spaghetti and mix them all together, you will get a really great-tasting batch of spaghetti. The odds are you will get a mess which won’t be worth the effort, and that’s what happens when you mix poll results. Polls, it should be noted, are the product of the groups and agencies which create them, and reflect a specific methodology which is usually similar to that used by other polling groups, but not exactly. That difference is why the two results cannot be mixed with confidence, and the more polls that are mixed, the less reliable would be the resulting report. Polls are best described as snapshots of opinion on one question at one specific point in time and place, not even movies much less reality. An example of this can be seen by looking at the most reliable of agencies, the Gallup Organization.

On August 24, Gallup showed Obama and McCain tied at 45% support each (with 10% undecided). But three days later, Gallup showed Obama with a six-point lead, 48% to 42%, and today Obama still leads by six points, 49% to 43%. The Gallup people seem to be claiming that Obama has increased his support while McCain has lost some. However, a look at the history of convention “bounces” would warn against making such an assumption. If history holds true, for example, McCain should enjoy a similar “bounce” after the GOP convention, yet this would not be a valid indicator of a stronger campaign, necessarily, but merely the effect of the focus from the convention. Even within the stable methodology of a well-respected poll, therefore, it is not valid to assume that changes in polling are necessarily indicators of a weaker or stronger election position.

With that said, it is important to consider other polling results. An August 30 release from Zogby, for instance, shows McCain at 47% support and Obama at 45%, at the same time that Gallup showed Obama ahead by six and holding steady support. How can two major polls say different things? Well, part of it is the fact that the variance between the polls is only eight points, which is equivalent to a four-point margin of error between them. If either poll had a respondent pool of 500 people or less, that disparity is within the standard deviation for such polling. That’s the mathematical point. What else needs to be considered, is that even where the same polling group takes polls, because of the randomness of the respondent pool, this means by definition that the people in different polls are not the same ones who answered the earlier poll, and even when conditions are the same and the same careful rules are applied, different people will probably produce different results. Also, as I have noted before, there is a clear bias in favor of or against the people in focus of polls by the polling groups. As a result, a composite of poll results cannot, by its character, produce an accurate or trustworthy result. At best, one of the polls might accurately reflect the opinion at that moment, but even if that is the case, mixing the results from all polls would only insure that the aggregate result was wrong to some degree.

Polls are not effective predictors of elections. The losing candidates of many past general and primary campaigns can point to any number of polls which indicated they would win. A candidate who trusts polls to indicate the precise amount and nature of their public support, is following the path of Tom Dewey. That is not to say, however, that polling is worthless. When a poll follows consistent methodology and asks consistent questions, and weights its demographics according to Census norms and the National Council on Public Polls standards (or the AAPOR), the results can be applied to illustrate trends and voter interest in key issues. Also, while the public is familiar with the polls which get published in their newspapers and favorite news sites, it should be noted that both the Obama and McCain campaigns have paid for private polling firms to identify target demographics and battleground states. Obama has spent almost 19 million dollars on private polling, while McCain has spent about 770 thousand dollars. It would fair to assume, I think, that these agencies are far more detailed in their questions and specific in their target demographics. So it may also be assumed from the amount of money spent, that there is significant confidence in the value of effective polling. The real question, as yet uncertain in its answer, is how to know which questions, which method, and which weighting is valid for the real condition.