Friday, October 13, 2006

Absence Makes The Mind Go Foggy

Hello again, friends and readers. I have not forgotten my blogging duties entirely, but have been swamped by my academic duties, Two Mid-term exams are finished, and I am still wrestling my take-home Accounting Exam. “Take-Home” makes it sound all convenient and easy, doesn’t it? Don’t you believe it! My answer page is up to page 13, and I am still not done.

More after I get this monster shoved out the door, but for now I want to remind you that yes, the media is still obsessed with the Foley story. You know, the creep who has already resigned and gone home, while certain other creeps – can you say ‘Harry Reid’? – not only remain in office, but catch the traditional pass from the media. But don’t anyone dare suggest they are biased!

One hint of an upcoming article – am I the only person who worries about a Nuclear Japan?

Read up on your history and think about it. More soon.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

What The Coffee Says

First, sorry for not posting in a couple days. Mid-term exams and term papers have claimed an even greater share of my limited resources. As a result, even this posting is a bit rushed and scattered.

First, a gut-call prediction: The Republican Party will continue to hold on to control of both the House and Senate. I expect this for the following reasons:

1. The Republicans have been admittedly timid about pursuing a truly Conservative slate of legislation, which is the primary reason they are in trouble at all. The Democrats, however, still refuse to submit any sort of concrete and detailed plan for the issues which Americans want addressed;
2. The Democrats have thrown a great deal of effort into making this election about Representative Foley, abandoning other issues to focus on a spectacular bit of slime which they may well have timed to be released just now. This is incredibly stupid, as I will explain in a moment;
3. The Democrats have bought their own hype, thinking that large portions of the voting public can and will be swayed in a short time. In reality, just as there were always people who would never vote for George W. Bush in 2004, there are many people now who will refuse to consider changing their Congressman or Senator. For good or ill, the impetus of incumbency is a real force, and rhetoric does not sway it.

Here’s the deal. Somewhere around 35% of those people who vote are Republicans, and another 35% of those people who vote are Democrats. That’s as in they usually identify with one party on most issues. That leaves 30% of people who do not regularly support one party, and those who do not regularly vote. Now, you won’t find that in any media guides, because when people are polled they are pushed towards picking one party, and remember that more and more, people find polls intrusive and do not answer them. So, for my numbers I prefer to go see how people actually vote. Now that can and does get sticky very fast; a Republican in New York is a whole lot different from a Republican in Georgia or Oklahoma, and the same for Democrats. The thing about a national party is that they operate effectively as coalitions, even though they purportedly have a platform and leadership.

With that in mind, there are really not very many national issues which sell in Congressional races. People tend to think of America, sure, but always in the context of their state and district when they are voting on Congress. So the first blunder by the Donks in playing up the Foley story, is that it has no personal meaning to most people. Sure, no one wants to re-elect a creep, but Foley already resigned and there is no evidence that any of the people running for office this election have that same proclivity for misdemeanor.

The second mistake of the Foley story, is the way the Donks jumped off their original tacks. A reasonable person might wonder why the Donks want to go on about Foley instead of Iraq, Jobs, or Gas Prices. Of course, that would lead to consideration that gas prices are plunging, so is the deficit, the Dow just set a record high, Unemployment is at a level awfully close to that classic definition of “full employment”, and even so more and more jobs are being created. As for Iraq, the antics of North Korea and Iran have reminded Americans that our military stands for something, something important and noble, and the Democrats have not exactly done much to support their claim that they back the troops. In fact, once folks start thinking about it, they could easily decide that the Donks are using the Foley story to avoid having to discuss how well the Bush Administration is doing.

That’s the third mistake. For years now, Democrats have tried to lay every sort of nasty event at the feet of President Bush. And sad to say, it’s worked to some extent, so that the President of the United States is blamed for every failing of any department anywhere, anytime. Responsible for everything, but gets credit for none. I mentioned above that with things as they are now, the Donks want very badly to avoid Bush getting noticed. The key to Dubya is that like Reagan, the Donks fear him. To the point of panic, I kid you not. Why? Think back to 2002. The Donks figured they were about to reclaim control of Congress, but Dubs pitched in and made a few appearances and did some campaigning, and instead of a loss the GOP gained seats. The Donks don’t bring it up, but analysts later determined that the 2002 Mid-term elections were clearly won through the efforts of the President. The Democrats really, really worry about that happening again, so they are doing everything they can to make the President look bad and convince Republican candidates that they would be hurt by close connection to President Bush.

But the Donks overplayed their hand, and ignored what would happen if – as happened – Bush was right and his policies led to success and prosperity. The sudden silence about Bush will lead some people to consider why the Donks don’t want to talk about Dubya. And everyone who gives some thought to how Bush is doing, will lean just a little bit towards his party, an imperfect part to be sure, but the only one that seems to want to do the job properly.

Will this be 2002 again? Probably not, but it won’t be 1994 either. For the Democrats to win on a level that would gain them control of the House or Senate, they need to be charismatic, clear, optimistic about America and honest with the public. And the Donks of this moment simply do not rise to that level.

Something more original later. For now, I have to get back to work, get some more coffee, and figure out how to answer those EBITDA and debt ratio problems.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Poll Integrity

First Tuesday of November, 2004. Months of wrangling, haranguing, pleading and begging all came down to the bottom line. And as always happens in modern elections, the polling groups had their teams out to ask voters how they voted. Knowing how close the 2000 Presidential Election had turned out, everyone was naturally eager to see how the voters responded, and since the polls would not close until evening, the media was hungry for the exit polls.

And what a story they told. Early (and unverified) reports about exit polls not only showed a Kerry lead, they showed large leads in some of the battleground states. Kerry advocates began to openly claim they were headed for a landslide Kerry victory.

The actual vote was significantly different. The paranoid and the bitter voiced baseless claims of Conspiracy, while even more mature minds asked how such a discrepancy could happen between the exit polling and the actual results. This was not due to any cataclysmic collapse of the polling process, nor any sinister conspiracy on anyone’s part. The exit polls have always been unreliable in their raw form, but this time the rush to a story caused invalid conclusions to be drawn from the data.

The Mystery Pollster did a good run-down right after the election on the problems with exit polls. Suffice to say, exit polls are essentially the same as any other opinion poll, but since they are rushed and inconstant on numerous points, to my mind they have a much higher volatility rate – the chance they will be badly wrong – than other polls. In the case of the 2004 exit polls, early clues were present in the demographics; the early polls claimed 59% of the respondents were women, and a heavy under-30 participation was noted. This conflicted with both historical electorate demographics and observed participation in early voting and film footage – what happened was that the polls used a lot of inexperienced field personnel, who found it more appealing to poll women than men, and young people more receptive than the old. The pressure to get quick results corrupted the sample, in short.

The damage from the poor work on the exit polls has led to all sorts of collateral damage, including fueling some incredibly stupid conspiracy theories, muddying up the issue of improving election transparency, and lowering the public trust in polling institutions. Since 2004, an increasing number of people have begun to claim that they deliberately mislead pollsters in the hopes of skewing the results. While this practice cannot be confirmed in fact and is unlikely to reach a threshold of actually invalidating overall trend analysis in opinion polling, it is a salient concern that such an attitude is on the rise. This brings me, at last, to my topic of Poll Integrity.

I have discussed specific polls before, and plan to do so again. For now, it is important to consider the source when a poll is released to the public. I would be repeating myself to state the most important aspects of a valid poll, but then again, the points are important enough to deserve repeating:

- All valid polls which release results to the public will also release internal data
- All valid polls will use a consistent methodology from one occasion to the next, and will report that method in their summary
- All valid polls will weight according to Census norms and known demographic political balances
- All valid polls will make archive data available for comparison to current polls

The astute reader may have realized that in my mind, ‘valid’ and ‘integrity’ are synonymous for polls. “Integrity”, after all, simply means ‘complete’ or ‘whole’. I have been privileged to exchange phone calls and e-mails with some people in a number of polling organizations, and need to say that in the main, even those polls with which I disagree may well be professional, honest, and careful both in their analyses and their reports. That said, there are clear differences in the classes of performance, and some polls simply do not demonstrate the sort of integrity to set themselves apart from the rest.

In this final month before the mid-term elections, there will be a flood of polling reports from both well-known and some almost-unknown polling groups. In the main, polling groups may be private companies which accept contracts to perform polling for clients (Gallup is the best known of these), they may be a partisan group which clearly prefers one side over the other but whose research is released to the public (Lake Snell Perry or Zogby, for example), they may be a university which conducts ongoing research and builds on empirical samples (Quinnipiac and Pew are well-known here), or they may be associated with a news organization, usually as a sponsor (the Princeton Survey Research, for example). There are many other sorts of polling groups, but the key is to begin by noting who is paying for the survey. Most polls will be direct about who sponsored the effort. If a poll hides this information, this is a big red flag.

Demographics are a critical component to polls. All polls weight their results, because no significant sample correctly matches the public as a whole. Demographics include gender ratio as well as race, urban/suburban/exurban/rural breakdown, as well as key professional and political norms. That last piece, political identification, is the most contentious and the most common factor to be manipulated or slanted, because many polling groups insist on their own preference for political identity among voters; despite the clear trend of Republican gains in the past decade, implying strong identification growth of the GOP, many polling groups – especially those sponsored by media outlets – refuse to correct obsolete balances held over from the Clinton era. Keep that fact in mind.

The next element in poll integrity is methodology. This is both a very stable, yet controversial area. Random Digit Dialing, or RDD, is the dominant method of contacting respondents, generally at their home by telephone in the evening and on weekends. The controversy comes from the fact that fewer and fewer and fewer Americans are likely to be at home, use a landline telephone for their primary contact, or be inclined to participate in unsolicited contact from strangers. Also, both sample sizes and the randomness of the respondent poll has come into question – a poll should automatically suspect which does not show at least 1,024 registered voters as a respondent pool, or which cannot confirm that they have a method in place to prevent repeat contacts with respondents – increasingly, polls have been asking respondents if they can contact them again, a practice which can easily lead to unethical manipulation of the poll for future polls.

And any poll which only queries “adults” is garbage.

Also, if a polling group mixes methodology, as Zogby did by adding phone poll responses to online poll responses, treat that poll as you would a child predator – it cannot be trusted, ever.

In conclusion, many polls can be useful, but not all polls are equal – indeed, some should be rejected from the start. It is a critical factor to know what sort of poll is producing the press release.