Wednesday, July 27, 2016

SENSATIONAL HEADLINE CAUSES OVERREACTION



Yesterday, Nate Silver put out his latest model showing Trump with an official lead in the electoral college predictions in this tweet. According to Nate, it's basically over, Trump has already won. Understandably, this scares many people, and at the same time makes others very happy.

I am neither of those things. What am I? Glad you asked.

I'm skeptical, patient, and calm. Everybody, stay calm. 

“BUT HOW CAN YOU BE CALM! TRUMP IS GOING TO WIN! THAT'S __________ (insert your preferred descriptor here: Great, Terrifying, Amazing, Awful – mad-lib political analysis, truly cutting edge) AND THAT IS A REALLY BIG DEAL! IT'S YUUGE!”

Ok, I hear you. It's just that... well... it doesn't actually matter. At this stage in the game the national polls mean almost nothing. It will be late September before we have a better snapshot of the likely outcome of this election and even then no model can fully predict reality.

WHAT AM I TALKING ABOUT?

What Nate Silver at www.fivethirtyeight.com posted was some good old-fashioned “click bait.” Post a headline that excites people, either in a good way or a bad way, and people are likely to click on it, share it, repost it, (and then they tell two friends...) and suddenly you've earned one million clicks today. Your site sponsors are happy and you justify your role as the interesting prediction guru guy. 

Good for Nate, he's done very well in that role. But, again, what Nate Silver says on July 26th does not an election outcome make.

Let's use some context here, all thanks to www.realclearpolitics.com and their endless fun for those of us that think fun is spotting trends and relationships between historical elections and current elections. It's fun. Trust me. 

CONTEXT CLUES.

On September 6, 2008, John McCain was polling at 44.2%, and Obama was at 46.6% in the national polls. On September 7, 2008, McCain was up 46.7% to 45.7%. McCain would get as high as 48%, and a full 3 point lead over Obama during mid September. On election day, Obama won with 365 electoral votes. Of the last four elections this one in particular evidences my point: July polls are basically useless.

Through a large part of the 2012 election the news media and polling represented that Obama and Romney were basically tied. Every news outlet was talking about 2012 being our first real tied presidential race, in modern time. Then, election day came. Obama won with 332 electoral votes. It was closer than in 2008, but never in question.

In 2004 Kerry spent most of the summer with a slight edge over Bush in the polling data. On election day Bush won with 286 electoral votes, despite the poor summer polling numbers. That was a close election, but Bush still won and fairly easily.

In 2000 the race was tight from the word go. Gore was never that popular but was the clear front runner for the Democrats and Bush was the only GOP candidate to ever poll over 30% in the primary. (Interestingly Elizabeth Dole was the only other GOP candidate to poll over 20% in that cycle.) In July of 2000 Bush was up on Gore 50% to 39% in the polling. It tightened in the fall, but Bush always remained slightly ahead overall.

Of the last four Presidential elections, the 2000 election is the only one where the polling in July was indicative of the final outcome in a meaningful way.

Get it? The polls don't mean as much today as we give them credit for. They can be interesting, they can be used in fundraising, and to whip up the base, but ultimately they are only a snapshot in time. Nate Silver has fantastic models – the best models, you can't believe these models- sorry, but really they are good. They are not perfect. More importantly, they are going to change.

The bigger problem is that a national poll doesn't spell out local feelings and doesn't lay out electoral college standings. Just ask Gore from 2000 which number is more important, the national popular vote or the electoral college? He'd tell you the same thing I will: It's the electoral college.


Add to the lack of nuance the complication created by a viable third party candidate and you've got nothing but garbage to look at with national polls. One thing we know for sure right now is that the polls will change. The pollercoaster is never a smooth ride, and 2016 is no exception.


-Adam Sommer

Friday, July 15, 2016

The Lesser of Two...er...One Evil: The Illusion of Choice


Thomas Jefferson once wrote “The cornerstone of democracy rests on the foundation of an educated electorate.” If an educated electorate is the foundation, then frank, open, and vigorous debate is the building material. Debate, speech, and discussion are the ways we reach a consensus and transform ideas into the laws that guide this nation. 

Typically, the dominant political parties have been distinguished by the opposing stances they adopt on a variety of issues currently under debate by the electorate ranging from relatively mundane topics such as the use of politically correct language, to far more complex issues such as gun rights, abortion rights, and the role of religion. While the extreme examples of disagreement that dominate the news cycle make the parties appear as similar as night and day, in reality, the party platforms have more in common than different, and those differences generally have more to do with how much to spend on particular items and issues than whether or not to spend money at all.

Using the military as an example, both parties favor having a military, supporting the troops, and cheer for America. (Yes, Democrats cheer for America, and support the troops. It's true.) However, Democrats generally believe a smaller military can meet our needs while Republicans (usually) favor spending more money upfront. That's just one example of an item that has “different” stances from each side but is based more on common ground than not. Yet, those are the kinds of debates that dominate campaigns, late night drinks, dinner parties with rude guests that talk politics (like me) and most news cycles. A heated debate about a small difference. It comes down to the framing of the question, or how do we look at it? If the question is: "How much should we spend on our gigantic standing military?" the sides appear split. Change the question to: "Should we have a gigantic standing military?" and suddenly we have general consensus from both sides of the aisle. 

That similarity is important, because it leads to the current climate.

Lately , I’ve started to notice what seems like a growing appetite for something new. Like, really new. I've been struggling to identify and explain this impression, but it's escaped me until it recently hit me like a ton of bricks: The Republican party really is dying. I realize that's a bold statement, but I also know I'm not the first to say it. Before I tell you why, let me clarify something first: I'm not saying I want the Republican party to die, lose, fail, or otherwise cease to exist. I'm saying that it is already happening. We've been watching it for almost 8 years, and like most things that happen over time you don't' notice the change until it's obvious. Like an ever expanding waistline, or a slowly diminishing hairline, you must look back in order to appreciate how far it's gone.


THE BIRTH OF A PARTY.

The Republican Party, oddly named the “Grand Old Party” is not actually that old. It was formed in the mid-1850's, during the lead up to the Civil War. The Whigs and Democrats ( the two original parties and formerly the Democratic-Republicans ) were having an internal struggle over the issue of slavery. Both parties had members opposing the spread of slavery into new states and territories, or that even supporting abolition (though there were more Whig abolitionists than Democrat abolitionists, to be sure). The slave question dominated the day. While the parties made compromises that managed to cool temperatures for a short period of time, ultimately the question could not be avoided, which resulted in fundamental changes to the political landscape.

The Republican Party came into being as a conglomeration of people that were generally opposed to slavery in one way or another. It combined views from Whigs, Democrats, the short lived Know Nothings (yes a real party name), and the Free Soil Party into a surprisingly unified group. I'm glossing over a LOT of very specific history here, but it is important to understand that the original Republican party had two very key stances: Pro-Union (and yes, pro-Federal Government) and anti-slavery expansion/existence. The party’s platform was larger than those two issues, but when Lincoln was selected as the second ever Republican nominee for President (John C. Fremont was first, and from Georgia oddly enough) it became clear that slavery was the dominant concern.

1850 DEMOCRATS.

The remaining Democrats, for the most part, were avid supporters of state's rights. They were weary of federal power and did not view the Republican platform as an attack on policy, but as an attack on their own freedom and on democracy. They strongly believed that slavery was solely an issue of state's rights (and everything else was too really) and that the Republicans were more interested in creating a monolithic centralized government that could overcome the will of the people.

Sound familiar?

BACK TO THE START...

It's the same basic disagreement that characterized our nation's birth, and a theme that still resonates today. Federalists and Anti-Federalists. Federalists argued in favor of ratifying the Constitution and supported a strong central government. The Anti-Federalists, not so much. We're talking classic Hamilton v. Jefferson here. Hamilton (yes the same one as in the Musical) championed a strong central government, including federal treasury, and Jefferson, who supported the will of the people and populist majority rule (at least until he was President), were at odds with each other from day one. Some of the Federalists, including Hamilton, favored a system of government to the more closely resembled the monarchy, which even included a king, while the Anti-Federalists favored a system of government that was directed by the will of the people, or at least by the will of white land owning people .

This debate had continued for almost 100 years when the Civil War broke out. During that time, most Federalists became Whigs, and later, most Whigs became Republicans. However, make no mistake, the Republican platform was not simply a Federalist platform; while it shared a close kinship with the Federalists it was born from the abolitionists and general anti-slavery sentiment. 

THE GIRTH OF A NATION.

You may be saying “But, the Republican party of today is against big government...” and in theory you would be correct, but let’s take a closer look. Since 1860, when the first ever Republican held office, what has happened to the U.S. Government? Need a hint? IT GOT BIGGER. Like, way-super-a-lot-mega-bigger (real word, look it up). Since 1860, 18 Republicans have been elected to the presidency compared to just 11 Democrats, and the Republicans (Reagan to Bush, Sr.) are the last to have back to back presidencies from the same party. Yet, the Government continued to grow. So, what gives?


TWO PARTIES, REALLY?

Perhaps the Republican and Democratic parties, as I suggested at the outset, are more alike than they seem. Eliminate the normal wedge issues like abortions and guns (the Democratic party isn't trying to repeal the 2nd Amendment contrary to many reports of this) and things like minimum wage, etc. and you're left with two very similar parties that have one very important thing in common: strong centralized power. That is the real issue at hand. The parties didn't come about because Hamilton was anti-abortion and Jefferson was down with a woman's right to choose. Hell, in 1787 it's pretty hard to imagine that was even a topic of debate. We know for a fact that Hamilton and Jefferson never debated whether the 2nd Amendment allowed a citizen to carry a 30 round magazine or a weapon capable of shooting a round a second, because those things didn't even exist. Hamilton, like most gunshot victims, was killed by "medical care" (honestly, it seems like whoever was willing to cut into people and see what happens was on the cutting edge of medical research then) related to the misshapen slug of lead that was loaded hours before it was fired.

The reason the Whigs and Democratic-Republicans came about was because they were at odds over the power of the federal government. That debate continues today, in form if not in substance, between Republicans and Democrats; the parties just talk about it in a different way and in a different context. Republicans want power to be with the States. Democrats want power to be with the people. Both are generally full of it on the large scale. Sure, some of them really mean it, but at the end of the day a Democratic Senator and a Republican Senator have one very important thing in common: they both make enough money to put them in the top 5% of U.S. earners and they get that money from the strong central government. Neither party has taken meaningful steps to make the government smaller (not even Reagan, seriously) but BOTH are guilty of adding to its size.

WHAT'S THE POINT?

Ok, I'm no revolutionary here. In fact, after years of studying politics, history, and the presidency, overall I agree more with the Federalists than the Democratic-Republicans. I liked John Adams, but I love Teddy Roosevelt, which is probably why I often seriously consider candidates from both parties for high political office. In 2008 I was an openly strong supporter of Obama, but I also genuinely considered John McCain (right up until he picked Palin as his running mate), because I want to elect good leaders to high office, not because they have a D or an R next to their name. Add to that that McCain cited Teddy Roosevelt as his most likely example of how he would govern, and the true policy differences were small.

In 2016 we've been served up a hefty dose of big Government. Strip away the insanity that is Donald Trump's campaign of seemingly random racism and oddly worded conspiracy theories, and do your best to divorce Hilary from being a breaker of the glass ceiling, and they start to look similar. It's a matter of perspective. Up close, Clinton and Trump are total opposites, but take a step back and you see they are closer than you thought. Step even further back and they start to blend. If you've ever driven to the Rocky Mountains you've seen this first hand - for miles you can see something on the horizon, like a strange low cloud formation. As you drive closer it starts to change and eventually you can tell you're looking at a horizon made from a mountain range. Even closer still and you can make out individual peaks until suddenly there are vast valleys and peaks that are miles apart, yet just that bit of distance was all it took to see them as close together a short time ago.

That’s our current climate; two parties that are vastly different up close, but are basically the same from afar: Federalist.

THE OPENING.

I am 100% confident that I'm not the first person to notice these similarities. For several years, self-described Libertarians have lamented this exact issue, and political commentary has long characterized our choice of candidates as a choice between the “lesser of two evils” rather than a choice of real significance. (Doesn’t logic then dictate that both are evil? The semantics of Democrats and Republicans actually being evil is another topic...) What matters is understanding that they are so similar that, effectively, they are slightly different versions of the same thing. It's a logic proof:

“A” represents Republicans. “B” represents Democrats. “C” represents Federalism.

A = C, B = C. If A = C and B = C, then A = B.

Or, if two things are equal to the same third object, then they are also equal to one another.

Enter a viable “Third Party” candidate. I use that term in quotations because I believe that the 2016 election may be cited as the tipping point, like 1856, when a new party was born from the remnants of the old. The Libertarian Party has been bubbling for years, but until recently has been on the fringe just like the Green Party. I attribute this to a variety incredibly inflexible policy stances of the Libertarians and a total lack of change to the basic platform of the party. However, the party seems to be changing, if ever so slightly. By backing away from pipe dream policies like total isolationism or immediately abolishing the IRS, the Libertarian tent will be able to grow. Independents and undecided voters, who comprise the middle of the vote, tend to share a common core: fiscally conservative but socially liberal. That's one reason the Democrats are so successful in the larger elections than in local elections, never mind the gerrymandering on the local level. That group is substantial and has been growing for the last 30 years as the choice between the two parties becomes less and less of a choice. 

Yes, the progressives on the left have had an impact to pull the Democrats a bit further from the Republicans, likewise with the Tea Party on the right, but remember the mountains. A small shift one way or another doesn't do much to change the underlying similarity. I'm not trying to support the Libertarian party specifically, only to point out that the natural progression of American political debate has created an opening for something new. That initial debate rages on, and the Anti-Federalists are all spread out based on personal wedge issue items while the Federalists take turns ruling.

If you turn on CNN you will likely hear someone paid to talk about politics explain that this is a “hold your nose and close your eyes” election, regardless of which candidate they are talking about at that time. So maybe, if we hold our noses and close our eyes as a country we won't notice that we are choosing between two Federalists. It's amazing what just a couple billion dollars can do.

- Adam Sommer

With editing by Drew Hooper