The Palin choice-9: McCain’s recklessness

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

When I first heard that John McCain had selected Sarah Palin, my initial hypothesis was that this was a desperation move, a sign that the campaign’s internal analyses were suggesting that the seemingly close national polls were misleading and they were going to lose unless they did something to break out of the rut. It seems like that initial impression was right.

The Palin choice is being portrayed by media analysts as a sign that the McCain campaign felt they needed to solidify the campaign’s right wing, evangelical base. Perhaps that is true. It is undoubtedly the case that that group seems very excited by the choice.
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The Palin choice-8: The vetting process

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

John McCain’s campaign people surely must have been aware of the dangers of suddenly springing an unknown like Sarah Palin onto the national stage. If you are determined to do so, the way to minimize the chance of unpleasant surprises is to have a very long, exhaustive, and fairly open vetting process. But the trade-off for doing so is that you then cannot keep the process secret because too many people are involved and being questioned.
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The Palin choice-7: Her background and positions on issues

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

What do we really know about Sarah Palin, apart from her family life? Here is a synopsis of some of her views.

The news website Alternet gives some background on Palin’s political positions and history. We learn that:

  • Palin doesn’t believe global warming is man-made.
  • Palin is the candidate of a powerful far right-wing cabal; her nomination seals their support for the little-wanted McCain.
  • Palin staunchly opposes abortion, even in cases of rape and incest.
  • Palin supports failed abstinence-only sex education programs.
  • Palin is under investigation for allegedly abusing her power as governor to help her sister in a messy divorce.
  • Palin has big money ties to Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens, who has been indicted for political corruption.
  • During her time as mayor, Palin drove the town of Wasilla deep into debt.

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The Palin choice-6: McCain and women

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

The reason that is bandied about the most for the Palin choice is that it was aimed at attracting women voters to the Republican cause, especially those Democrats who are allegedly so furious that Hillary Clinton did not get their party’s nomination that they were looking for reasons to vote for McCain.

The good thing about McCain’s choice of a woman as a running mate is that it reveals that he does not harbor any absurd beliefs that women are not capable of running the country. Thanks to his choice, whichever ticket wins in November will result in either a black president or a female vice-president and this, other things being equal, is a good thing.

On the other hand, the fact that Palin was a hometown beauty queen (Ms. Wasilla, pop: 7,000) and Miss Alaska runner-up (1984) does raise some disturbing questions, though about McCain and not her. There is nothing wrong in being physically attractive and looks and governing abilities are not mutually exclusive.
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The Palin choice-5: To close the age and health gap?

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

Another possibility for the Palin choice is that perhaps she was selected to close the age and health gap between the McCain and Obama tickets.

There is no question that the Obama campaign just oozes energy (despite Joe Biden), while John McCain does not. McCain was born even before Obama’s mother was, and it shows. Whenever Obama and McCain are shown together, McCain comes out looking the worse.

Obama projects the kind of youthful vigor that Americans like to see in public figures ever since TV started playing a big role in the 1960 election and kept their presidents constantly in the public eye. John Kennedy is the model for this (he carefully hid his serious health problems from the public) and it is no accident that George W. Bush spends a lot of time being seen hacking away at brush and riding bikes. These are deliberate image creating events, to show people that their leaders are fit and energetic.
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The Palin choice-4: Shameless double standards

(Although it may look on the surface as if this blog has become obsessed with Sarah Palin, it really is a chance for me to express some thoughts about politics in general, using her story as a hook. So I hope those who are sick of hearing about Palin will bear with me. For previous posts in this series, see here.)

By now, there cannot be a single person in the country who is not aware of the intimate details of the Palin family. We now know about Palin’s unwed daughter’s pregnancy, that this news was released by the McCain campaign to counter the rumor that this same daughter is the real mother of Palin’s youngest child who was born in April with Down’s syndrome, her husband’s DUI conviction a long time ago, the messiness of her sister’s divorce and their involvement with it, and other problems with the law. It has become a tabloid-style soap opera, putting things that should be private into the full glare of the national media spotlight, with promises of more lurid details to come.
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The Palin choice-3: The danger of picking an unknown

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

One factor that the McCain camp may have used in selecting Palin may have been the sense that she was a fresh face that would generate interest in a way that a more familiar figure would not. The announcement of Palin certainly did that. It immediately shifted the discussion on Friday away from the hugely successful Democratic convention and Obama’s excellent speech on Thursday to the topic of Palin. If that was a tactical goal of the McCain campaign, it succeeded.
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The Palin choice-2: The experience question

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

While the choice of Sarah Palin as John McCain’s running mate is a poor one, I don’t think the problem is Palin the person or her knowledge and experience. For all I know about her, Palin may well make an excellent vice-president (and president, if necessary).

I have never understood why people and the media are so obsessed with the experience argument. If there is any job for which relevant experience is unobtainable, it is the presidency of a country simply because the job is unique. What you are called upon to do in that job is unlike any other job you will ever have. The only kind of experience that is directly relevant, but which you can never get, is first being the president of some other country.
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The Palin choice-1: Why?

Like almost everyone, I was stunned by John McCain’s choice of Sarah Palin as his running mate. And like them, I am wondering which of the two extreme views of her nomination is true: that she is a bold choice that will give McCain victory in November or that she is terrible pick that will end up being a millstone around his neck and send him spiraling down to a defeat of historic proportions.

There has, of course, been enormous attention to this story. While I don’t usually pay too much attention to the personalities of politics, preferring to focus on a few issues that are important to me, the exceptional nature of the choice has sucked me into the discussion along with everyone else, mainly to try and figure out what this pick reveals about McCain.
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Understanding polls

Before he moved over to his new home at Mother Jones, Kevin Drum revisited a topic at his old Washington Monthly blog that I too have raised before, to criticize reporters who say that there is “statistical dead heat” whenever the polls show the difference between voters preferences for two candidates fall within the margin of error.

In other words, if the polls show 46% for Obama and 43% for McCain with a 3% margin of error, then the race is reported as a “statistical tie” or some such thing, giving the impression that it is a toss-up as to who is ahead. This is simply not true.

Drum has consulted with two professors pf mathematics and statistics at California State University, Chico and they have provided the formulas that enabled him to prepare a handy little chart to tell you the actual chance that some one is ahead, even though the preferences fall within the margin of error.

Percentage Lead
Margin of Error 1% 2% 3% 4% 5% 6%
2% 69% 84% 93% 98% 99% 100%
3% 63% 74% 84% 90% 95% 98%
4% 60% 69% 77% 84% 89% 93%
5% 58% 65% 72% 78% 84% 88%

So if a candidate has a 3% lead with a 3% margin of error, far from being a dead heat, it is highly likely (84% chance) that the candidate is actually ahead. Even if the candidate has only a slim 1% lead and the margin of error is a whopping 5%, it is still not a ‘dead heat’. The candidate still has a 58% chance of winning.

Like Drum, I do not have much hope that reporters will ever change their misleading reporting because they have a vested interest in continuing to talk this way. Races that are close generate more interest and thus more viewers and readers, so reporters will always try to make them seem closer than they are.

Talking of polls, there seems to have been an explosion in the number of polling organizations out there, and their results differ. This can cause some confusion in the public mind. When one polls gives one result one day and the next day the media report another poll with quite different results, this might give people the impression that the race is highly volatile or that some polling organizations are biased in favor of one or another candidate.

But that need not be true. There is something called the ‘house effect’ that can skew the results in particular ways without any intention of misleading. Charles Franklin over at explains what is going on:

Who does the poll affects the results. Some. These are called “house effects” because they are systematic effects due to survey “house” or polling organization. It is perhaps easy to think of these effects as “bias” but that is misleading. The differences are due to a variety of factors that represent reasonable differences in practice from one organization to another.

For example, how you phrase a question can affect the results, and an organization usually asks the question the same way in all their surveys. This creates a house effect. Another source is how the organization treats “don’t know” or “undecided” responses. Some push hard for a position even if the respondent is reluctant to give one. Other pollsters take “undecided” at face value and don’t push. The latter get higher rates of undecided, but more important they get lower levels of support for both candidates as a result of not pushing for how respondents lean. And organizations differ in whether they typically interview adults, registered voters or likely voters. The differences across those three groups produce differences in results. Which is right? It depends on what you are trying to estimate – opinion of the population, of people who can easily vote if the choose to do so or of the probable electorate. Not to mention the vagaries of identifying who is really likely to vote. Finally, survey mode may matter. Is the survey conducted by random digit dialing (RDD) with live interviewers, by RDD with recorded interviews (“interactive voice response” or IVR), or by internet using panels of volunteers who are statistically adjusted in some way to make inferences about the population.

Given all these and many other possible sources of house effects, it is perhaps surprising the net effects are as small as they are. They are often statistically significant, but rarely are they notably large.

One way to avoid mistaking inter-poll variability for voter volatility is to track the results of just one poll. In other words, only compare the results of one poll with the earlier results of the same poll conducted using the same methods and questions.

Another way is to do what the outfit Real Clear Politics does. It tries to take some of the inter-poll variability out by giving the averages of the major polls as a function of time.

To paraphrase Jon Stewart, elections are god’s way of teaching Americans statistics.

POST SCRIPT: Mike Huckabee on Colbert Report

It was refreshing to listen to Mike Huckabee being interviewed on the Colbert Report about his reaction (after just the first two days) to the Democratic Convention. Huckabee was one of the most interesting primary candidates on the Republican side but the attacks on him from the Republican Party establishment were quite vicious.

Although I disagree with many of his views, there was something engaging and honest about him that I found likeable. He also has a sense of humor. All these positive characteristics are reflected in the interview. His closing comments on Obama and the role of race in America seemed genuine and heartfelt.