Saturday, July 02, 2005

The Business and Utility of Opinion Polls


I have written about the validity of National Opinion Polls, as they relate to politics, and a key statement summarizing any poll is this; “it should be understood that a poll is nothing more than the combined effect of its components”.

It’s very important to understand the demographic support, especially the base. During the 2004 campaign, I was aware that while George W. Bush had to work to convince Independents and Undecideds, his base was more solid than Kerry’s, which indicated not only a better share of his party support, but also forecast better Republican turnout than the Democrats, which turned out to be the case.

Back in August, I examined the demographics from past Presidential elections, to observe and note the ones which were the most relevant and effective to the outcome. Singularly effective among the opinion polls in this regard are the ones from the Gallup Organization, which I continue to regard as the most reliable and therefore the most influential poll group.

After the election, the poll focused on other questions than the candidates, and I noticed a shift in how the methodologies were used. The most significant changes were the abandonment of using Registered Voters and people known to have voted in the last election (the post-event version of the “Likely Voter”), with simple count of Adults, and a sometimes chaotic fluctuation in Party Identification.

In late May, I published an article which was critical of the weighting used by the poll groups, especially in terms of party identification. At that time, I noted a Pew analysis indicating that Republicans have nationally achieved a rough parity with Democrats in party identification. This led to an exchange of e-mails and a long telephone call, with an executive at one of the major polling groups. I was asked not to reveal the source’s name or position, or certain details provided for background about the group. The source I spoke with considers bloggers a vital resource for polling’s future, but notes that the controlling interests in polling groups are somewhat suspicious of the standards and professionalism of blogs, and further notes that if it were revealed that one blog had a contact with a specific polling group, other blogs would demand equal access, which would disrupt the polling group’s normal work. Also, it can hardly be denied that while some blogs are consistent and scholarly in their diligence, others can hardly be bothered to check their facts and support their contentions with any sort of rational foundation.

This created a conflict for me, however. In the first place, I have always desired to support my information with a source, ideally a link. In the case of direct interview, the link is not possible, and when a source wishes to remain anonymous, the attribution which would establish the fact is also removed from possibility. In such a case, I must ask the reader not to accept my word implicitly, but to weigh the uncited source in terms of his own judgment, qualifying the matter by reminding the reader to always consider multiple claims before believing too wholly in any one.

But I also had to sort out whether what I was told, was accurate in the general application. Even if what my source said was completely in the group for which he worked, it may be that his group was different in the main from other groups. To consider the matter more fully, I contacted two other sources I know in polling groups. From the results of those discussions, I satisfied my own curiosity about the priorities and restrictions under which polling groups work, and confirmed some similarities and differences.

Polls have existed for far longer than most people realize. They were first recorded in the United States during the campaign for the 1824 Presidential Election, which also was the first to allow Popular Votes. Polls were largely unscientific, however, until after the 1936 Election. The Literary Digest blew their prediction of the election so badly, that some scholars believe that’s why the magazine went out of business. But the new Gallup, Roper, and Crossley polls hit the mark rather closely, and this established that even with a small sample, a poll which used relevant data could be effective in reflecting the national mind.

Polls initially were created for the clients who paid for them. In the case of elections, candidates learned that knowing the areas which needed attention and the groups which could most easily be swayed, were critical to their chances for election. And news groups recognized that in the absence of sources, they could print poll results which demonstrated a demand for change or reform.

With the rise of 24-hour news services and the Internet, Polling claimed a much higher profile. No longer did polls only need to be produced in relation to a coming election or in response to a movement already underway; with demand in constant flow, regular polls became part of the news diet and the appetizer for talk shows nationwide. It’s not commonly noted, but one reason Harry Truman’s win in 1948 over Tom Dewey was such a shock, was because polls were sometimes months apart during that campaign. During the 2000 Campaign, most of the major polls published standings only 3 or 4 days apart in the last month, and in the 2004 Campaign, there were daily polls available from Super Tuesday straight through the Election.

That’s the good news for polling groups; they have a hungry and growing audience. The bad news is, with all that interest, the attention also brings questions about their methodology and its consistency. Polling groups generally try to follow the known demographics, most often basing their weights on the last U.S. Census for gender and racial composition. Weighting is taking the raw results and adjusting them to better reflect the actual balance between men and women and the different races. It is more controversial, when weighting is used to change more fluid elements, such as party identification, or when a poll which was based on Likely Voters or Registered Voters, decides to use random adults instead.

This brings us to the war room of a polling group. There are many theories of polls, some based on the mathematical anaylsis of statistical probability, others developed through analysis of historical evidence. The problem with trends and opinion, however, is that trends and opinions change, and it can be very difficult to note the difference between a momentary slowdown and a true shift in direction, much less to sort out the cause and scale. If you work for a polling group, you want to establish consistent, reliable rules for your polling, not only for the immediate results but to make your name in a growing industry. Where there were once less than a half-dozen polling groups of note, there are now more than thirty polling agencies which publish national releases, not touching the private groups which work only for their clients. This creates real pressure for pollsters to not only be accurate, but also find a way to set themselves apart from their competitors. I suspect this is why John Zogby made his boneheaded statement last year, showing himself an advocate of John Kerry in mid-year in a sequence of moves that ended up shredding his credibility; he was losing market share and became desperate. The reader may recall that Zogby followed up his declaration for Kerry, with the decision to mix his online and telephone respondent pools, and so corrupting the analysis and results for both poll methods. Zogby became to polling what Amy Carter was to Foreign Policy.

The debate about using National Adults in place of Registered or Likely Voters appears to have come down to money. It takes longer and costs more to ask people if they are a Registered Voter, or voted in the last election, and so the polling groups have all pretty much reverted back to just taking a somewhat human voice on the line. I understand the cost but cannot agree to the argument; while all three sources said they don’t believe the use of Adults instead of real Voters changes things, I cannot agree to the notion that a respondent who does not vote, is still somehow a reliable barometer to how voters see an issue, but until I get my own polling agency I will have to accept this condition, since it prevails across the board.

The real fireworks start, when one considers the question of political party identification. The first thing I hear when I raise this question, is that many people in polling do not consider party identification to be a true demographic, or even a salient indicator of support. For instance, the overwhelming majority of voters in Oklahoma consider themselves to be Democrats. Yet they are unyieldingly conservative on most of the issues, and have voted consistently for Republican Presidential candidates. If one considered only Oklahoma and New York voters, one would conclude that Democrats were more conservative than Republicans, but also that the population considered itself more heavily Democrat than Republican in party identification. Also, it is a plain fact that people think differently of their National, State, County and Local officials. Here in Houston for example, the city is weighted such that Democrats, especially liberals, usually win the City races, yet the County is predominantly Republican. That said however, it seems reasonable to me that when people know they are speaking to a national poll, they will identify themselves as they see the national parties.

The issue is complicated by the fact that the raw party identification breakdown changes rapidly, enough to raise the question of whether the variance reflects changes in the methodology. During the debate about the erroneous exit polls by Mitofsky which came out late morning of Election Day, it was revealed that the pollsters methods may well have deterred Conservatives and attracted Liberals; a clear breakdown of party identification would have shown the error much earlier than was later revealed. I do sympathize, however, with the difficulty a polling group has in establishing where a party weight should rest. But to me, that makes it all the more important to keep track of raw party weights, to be able to determine where it’s settling.

One difficulty the modern polls face, is a true evolution in political opinion. When Gallup and Roper came into existence, the Democrats enjoyed popular support under FDR, and the nation largely considered itself Democrat in the main through Truman, then Kennedy, Johnson, even through Carter. Eisenhower and Nixon were no more than a change of pace, and Watergate hurt the Republicans in every demographic sector. The Reagan Revolution convinced pollsters that Ronald Reagan was popular, and the Contract With America in 1994 convinced them that the New Deal was finally wearing out its influence. The close count in the 2000 Election misled pollsters into missing the clear signs of Republican growth, but the 2002 Midterm surprises finally snapped attention towards the undeniable trend. The last campaigns merely confirmed the results from the last 25 years; America is becoming far more Conservative, and the Republicans are now far more representative of most Americans’ opinions than the Democrats. Until the polls understand the numbers in that context, they will be fighting the tide.

Friday, July 01, 2005

The Right Pack


John Hawkins at Right wing News has his picks for the most likely candidates to claim the 2008 GOP nomination for the office of the President of the United States.

Here are his candidates, and my thoughts on their viability:

1 – George Allen
2 – Bill Frist
3 - Rudy Giuliani
4 – Bill Owens
5 – John McCain
6 – Tom Tancredo
7 – Mike Huckabee
8 – Mark Sanford
9 – Mitt Romney
10 – Sam Brownback
11 – Tim Pawlenty
12 – Newt Gingrich
13 – Tom Ridge
14 – Ernie Fletcher
15 – Haley Barbour
16 – George Pataki
17 – Rick Santorum
18 – Chuck Hagel

“Not Looking Likely To Run At This Point”

a – Jeb Bush
b – Condi Rice
c – Dick Cheney

Personally, we can start by tossing out the Senators and the Congressmen. The last Senator to get elected was Kennedy, and not only will 2008 be far different than 1960, I really don’t see Allen, Frist, McCain, Brownback, Santorum, or Hagel with the kind of charisma to make Republicans look at a Senator and see a Leader, not after the past few Sessions. Gingrich is simply past his time, and Tancredo isn’t strong enough to win his state, much less the GOP nomination. I figure Allen, Frist, McCain, and Hagel will all run in the beginning, until Reality sucker-punches them to realize that Americans have longer memories and a better commitment to the nation’s ideals than they do.

Ridge, Huckabee, and Pawlenty will not run, for various reasons. Neither will Jeb Bush or Cheney. I still think Rice might reconsider, but only if there is evidence that she can be a force, which remains to be seen.

That leaves us pretty much with Owens, Sanford, Romney, Fletcher, Barbour, Pataki, and Giuliani. I agree with what I’ve read elsewhere – Romney and Fletcher don’t have the base to get the ball rolling. If they run, they’ll be out fast. Of the remaining choices, either Pataki or Giuliani will bow out and support the other New Yorker – they won’t feud, so one of them drops early, and my guess is Giuliani will get the nod to go on. My final three for the GOP:

1. Haley Barbour, Governor of Mississippi (Trent Lott’s revenge)
2. Mark Sanford, Governor of South Carolina
3. Condi Rice, a late entry after a ‘Draft Condi’ push. I expect her to settle for the VP nomination when the winner is clear, unless things blow the race open.

Thursday, June 30, 2005

My Wife Has A Boyfriend


My wife called me this morning on my way to work. We talked about some things which needed to be done today, and then she mentioned that our daughter Jagan, told her, “Mommy, you have a boyfriend.”

“I do?” asked my wife.

“Yes”, said Jagan. “Daddy’s your boyfriend.”

My daughter Jagan is right. I am my wife’s boyfriend, and she is my girlfriend. If that seems silly to you, think back to when you were young, and you had a serious crush on someone. It made you feel good, didn’t it, to know you have someone you really cared about, especially if they cared back? Well, just because people get married and have kids, doesn’t mean they don’t deserve that feeling.

That’s all, no real deep lesson there. But if you are married like me, and maybe it’s been a while since you believed you were lucky to have your guy or your girl, then maybe now would be a good time to think about how much fun it would be, how truly exciting, to be as excited about your partner now as you were when you first met.

I have a cool girlfriend, and a cool princess who reminds us both about that.

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Attention To Detail


I love baseball. All the normal reasons, of course, but also because I am an umpire. Umpires provide a critical function, not in terms of exciting the fans, but in looking out for safety, sportsmanship, and fair application of the rules. It’s not easy to be an umpire, but it’s important to the game that they are there.

One statistic that a lot of people do not understand, is the claim that Major League Umpires make mistakes on approximately 7% of their calls. The first time I heard that, through my Umpire Association as it happens, I wondered who was making that claim, but on further thought I realized that could well be right. First, consider that the Home Plate umpire in a game may have to make almost 300 ball/strike calls in a game, and you can see how hard it would be to maintain a 93% accuracy rate. Also, it’s possible for an umpire to make a mistake but still get the call right, like an umpire who is in the wrong position to see the play, but who still makes the right call (that’s kind of complicated, so I will just say here that this does happen, though it makes the discussion with the unhappy coach a bit more difficult). The reason that umpires can still manage their duties effectively though, is because as each play unfolds, an umpire considers the most likely and most critical possibilities of the play. So, a Field umpire might miss seeing what a baserunner is doing, but he will make sure to get the catch/no catch call right. A Plate umpire will make sure he has the Home Plate covered for a potential scoring play. They might miss a detail, but not the main play. Some would disagree, but those are almost always people who have never spent a moment with the rulebook or working a game in the blue, and in any case they weren’t in position to see the play as well as the ump.

Right about now, I think of President Bush as a good umpire. Not popular at times, and he might make some mistakes, but he knows the calls are his and he makes sure the ones that really count, he gets right.

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

The American Empire


It can be very hard trying to talk with someone interested only in throwing a tantrum. It can be just as hard, when you are addressing someone who thinks they can successfully lie to you, and while you know they are lying, you must still make the attempt to remain civil.

The United States, and in particular the Administration of George W. Bush, has faced and continues to face just such obstacles. This not only happens in confronting a biased media, but also the puerile tactics of the Democratic Party, first in their own minds but in chronic decline in every national venue. And then there’s France.

It’s not just France of course, but Paris comes to represent the friction against the American-led initiative. One could understand this, if any of the major claims made by the Left were true. Yet it has been conclusively shown that this war was never about controlling the price of flow of oil, never about using the war for political leverage (indeed, most polls have concluded repeatedly, that President Bush could have won re-election easily without the Iraq War, but risked his second term to pursue the course he believed was necessary), never about forcing nations to become American vassals or satellites. These were never anything but canards, false claims made to screen attention away from the truth continental Europe feared most of all; only the United States is truly relevant on the global stage.

In my last post, I noted that the People’s Republic of China, while noisome, is in no position to challenge the United States, militarily or economically or in terms of influence. This is in part to a key attribute to America, one which other countries could adopt but most will not; assimilation of immigrants. For all the chatter, the fact is that the overwhelming majority of immigrants entering the United States want to be Americans, and the United States government has a genuine stake in observing the rights and interests of immigrants. As a consequence, the USA ends up effectively inoculated against internal revolt, as it is in everyone’s best interest to work within the system and for the system to be responsive. No, it’s not perfect but it’s functional, a thing beyond the claims of many Old World governments.

The United States annoys its rivals, because they sense an empire but cannot determine its place or nature. So, the French and Russians and Germans all fall back on false claims, because they do not understand the source of our ubiquitous accomplishments. It is this; the American Empire is not what it was in the days of Robber Barons, but has become the empire of ideals and hopes. Anyone can succeed in America, and rise in power and success to match anyone else. Anyone can come here, still hold their culture, yet still fully belong to the American Identity. Our Constitution still works for the most part, and the government even pays some attention to the people they work for. We can be bureaucratic, but we do not have Ministries of State. We have elitist mandarins, but the people at the top work to help common people. We admit our errors and repair them, and them we move ahead. There is not one country on the planet superior in concept or performance of morals and hope. That is also why we are copied, and our Constitution as well. The citizens understand that, even if the French never will.

Monday, June 27, 2005

China The Bogeyman


Some centuries back, an explorer by the name of Marco Polo brought discovery of the “Middle Kingdom” to Europe, and with him came the seeds of many rumors. Among these were the sort that are still around today, including fears of conquest and alien customs. Throughout History, people have had to balance the fear of this foreign power with the lure of rich trade routes. It’s a sad commentary on modern History classes, that many people forget the motivation for Columbus’ expedition was to discover a shorter trade route from West Europe to India. The contact with China has often been founded on equally expeditious hopes.

Throughout the 20th Century, fears of threats from the Orient have long affected U.S. policies. It is not now commonly understood, that during the 1930s Japan was allowed to build its military, in part because China was seen as a greater threat. It is not commonly explained, that while many in the United States were confident that the U.S.S.R. would eventually fall of its own weight and American discipline, most were unsure of how to battle a reinvigorated Chinese dragon. During the Vietnam War, misconceptions about arrangements between Moscow and Peking (as it was then called) prevented the U.S. from acting effectively in the region, for fear that China would flood troops into Vietnam they way it had in Korea.

Fast forward through the 1980s and 1990s. Along the way, through the blur you can see periods of Japan-phobia, a little Taiwan-phobia, even some recent India-phobia, but for some reason the People’s (supposed) Republic of China is only spoken of in terms much like those used in the old PRAVDA dailies. Ooohh, China is an economic powerhouse, didn’t you know? Ooohh, China is about to become equal with the United States in military might, better be nice to them! Ooohh, China has more people than anywhere else on the planet, they deserve our respect! Please. I notice the same stuff gets said about China over and over again, and it never pans out.

The hard facts are not very pretty. China has over a billion people, but no effective system to feed and protect them. In the old days, most people in China never saw the Emperor, nor even one of his mandarins, unless they lived close to one of the provincial capitals. Actual government came down to three things: paying taxes to keep the government pretty much off their backs, taking issues and concerns to the local magistrate, and after the Tangs came to power, civil service exams to provide something not unlike a meritocracy for those who did not wish to stay at home, or who had no prospects there. Things have not really changed much overall in China. A sad example is the recent rains in China, which led to mudslides, killing hundreds but displacing more than a million people. China still has trouble with basic civil performance issues.

It doesn’t get prettier when you consider business. The blunt fact is that well over 80% of Chinese private businesses fail, for two main causes: Either the government fails to provide an environment to allow the business to prosper, or else it tries to turn the business into a money grab. Beijing’s new securities laws very nearly destroyed the Hong Kong stock market after the 1997 takeover, as government agencies imposed draconian restrictions and fees. Worse, Beijing chose not to copy the successful British regulation of the markets, which allowed for extensive fraud and embezzlement. Even now, most analysts view Chinese financial statements with serious skepticism, as there is no effective audit confirmation of claims, especially when a business works with the Chinese government. Since Hong Kong was a choice prize specifically because of its stock market, the powers in Beijing have backed off, but there is no guarantee the HK markets will ever be under China what they were under the UK.

This does not even address the serious questions that must be asked about China’s economic stability. Like the Soviets they modeled their government after, the Chinese government does not release verifiable numbers on Unemployment or Financial Reserves, to say nothing of a Consumer Confidence Index or any measure of Inflation. Imagine any serious company being asked to invest in a venture where there is no effective guarantee that any of the claims they hear are valid, and you will find that China is involved. China has marketed itself well enough to pick some choice plums, but any investor in those companies would do well to question that decision and its consequences.

It is true that China works hard to educate its children, with very high literacy rates and truly impressive math programs. Then again, the Soviet Union covered reading, writing, and arithmetic instruction very well, which resulted in over-qualified people chasing jobs which did not yet exist, and which led to their best and brightest coming to the United States once they realized the situation. We’re starting to see that with China as well. The Committee for State Security is trying to figure out a way to be sure that Chinese kids to come to the U.S. for college, will eventually come back. A rising percentage of Chinese graduates simply don’t move back home.

And that brings us to the happy world of the Chinese dreaded Red Dragon, otherwise known as the Red Army, the People’s Republican Army, or the Paper Tiger. It’s true that China is pursuing the latest weapons. It’s true that China intends to fully modernize its navy, complete with aircraft carriers. It’s true that China intends to be the dominant power, in every respect, in Asian waters. The problems come with figuring out how to do that strategically.

Many people have neither the time nor inclination to seriously study military strategy, especially the mix between geopolitics and the purely military campaign. The PRC suffers in several respects if and when it attempts a military conquest. It’s not commonly observed, yet significant to this consideration, that the Chinese forces found the conquest of Nepal very difficult to accomplish, far slower and bloodier than they have ever admitted. More, during the 1989 Tienanmen Square crackdown, splits and outright revolts among armored units in the Chinese military occurred.

China, for all its bluster, is simply not trained, equipped or in any way prepared for a major war of conquest. Most effective battle doctrines in place today require significant delegation of authority to field and unit commanders, but this is plainly not an option for Communist forces. It is not commonly understood that by the late 1980s, the Soviets generally were considered superior in fighter, bomber, and tank weapon quality, but their doctrine was hopelessly unable to employ those advantages in a battlefield situation. The battlefield lesson of the Boer War, then Vietnam, was rammed home again in the Soviet invasion and abandonment of Afghanistan, and continues in Russia’s futile efforts against Chechnya. In blunt terms, Beijing has the capability to destroy Taiwan, but not to invade and hold it. And with relatively impressive democratic reforms in Taiwan, the troop morale and discipline in Taiwan is improving.

These points must be understood when considering the nature and intent of Chinese ambitions.