Archive for the ‘Punditry’ Category

We get more speculation on the effectiveness of the red phone ad.

Did it work, the way pundits assume it worked in Texas and Ohio?
There’s no way to know. Ever. There are too many other variables. That’s a classic problem of causal explanation — and at the very least “analysis,” even political analysis, should try to rule out other possible causes.

It can’t, because even a poll that’s positive for Obama about who would make a better commander in chief doesn’t rule out the effectiveness of the ad. It could have been a significant factor in Obama’s meager support among whites, for instance. And race or candidate likability could have been the predominant factors, and the red phone ad entirely irrelevant in all states. Pre-established voter loyalty or their choice of candidate based on other factors will skew any answers about readiness to be commander in chief or even specific questions about the ad itself. Even if the red phone had been asked about explicitly, are respondents really good evaluators of whether they were affected by this or other factors? Nope. Again, they would be likely to claim the ad was effective or even “changed their mind” simply because they already leaned toward Hillary or had preconceived doubts about Obama as commander in chief anyway. It’s a foregone conclusion that he will win that poll in any state that he wins, and lose it in any state that he loses. If there is a disparity between the margin of victory and the commander in chief percentage, can we assign a cause to that? No.
There’s no way to control other variables barring running and not running the ad in separate Texas’s, Ohios, and Mississippi’s in alternate universes respectively. (Even then we can’t be completely sure, because it’s possible that other factors derived from elements of pure chance (chaos theory) have screwed up the control). Whatever the case, there’s no way to establish causality via statistical methods.

Not only does polling about the ad produce meaningless results, but it assumes that voters are dumb sheep, marketing victims, easily manipulated. That may be true, but if it is we ought to spend our energy on elevating public discourse rather than cynically reinforcing its stupidity.

The sham science of polling should be put out of its misery. It won’t only because charlatans make money off it, because it gives politicians something a little better than astrology with which to soothe their anxieties, and because it gives pundits something to make meaningless pronouncements about.


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Here’s the New York Times, an “analysis”:

After Tuesday’s primary victories for Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, her focus is momentum; for her Democratic rival, Senator Barack Obama, it is math.

Math vs. Momentum: it’s a simple opposition, and it alliterates. That’s why it’s been the conventional wisdom of the TV and the Web for more than 24 hours. And so the New York Times jumps on this idea like it’s an analysis. It’s an article that fails to mention that it is virtually impossible for Clinton to catch up on pledged delegates. Rather, it regurgitates the Clinton spin that neither candidate can win without superdelegates–a truth that misses the point.

More conventional wisdom from the New York Times: Obama is a “chastened candidate in search of a lost moment.” Despite the fact that Obama closed huge gaps in the expected vote and never expected to win these states. After 12 victories to 3 (not to mention his Texas caucus win), and a 150 pledged delegate lead which is impossible to catch, Obama is “chastened.” More:

Mr. Obama once again failed to administer an electoral coup de grâce, and so allowed a tenacious rival to elude his grasp. Now, after appearing nearly invincible just last week, he faces questions about his toughness and vulnerabilities

Never mind that if Obama had won all four states, it would not have been an “electoral coup de grace”–that this is impossible for either candidate at this point. Despite the fact that polls never showed Obama winning these states–“appearing nearly invincible.” Now he “faces questions”–but we don’t learn from whom; the classic journalist’s passive formulation to express and disavow opinions at the same time.

The final idea of this article is this: that Obama must conform. That he must finally play by the rules of the game. He must “absorb the lessons” and “counterpunch forcefully.” Despite the fact that Clinton can only win by having party officials overturn the decision of the pledged delegates. There is a palpable hope that he will go negative, that he will reveal his flaws in all their fullness, that he is just as conniving and unprincipled as Clinton–one of the fundamental arguments of her campaign.

I’m not claiming that the press is motivated by a pro-Clinton bias: they are motivated, as I’ve mentioned before, by the dramatic turn. But they are also motivated by the more fundamental instinct to worship and then sacrifice: to kill the God. Obama’s positivity transcended us, they once claimed; but now he has been brought down to earth. It’s not just dramatic reversal, it’s the ultimate reversal. Where there was the thrill of elevation and submission, there is now the thrill of incorporation and destruction.

And so it’s an allegiance to superstition over thoughtfulness. It’s a pathetic failure on the part of the press–an insult to the notion of “analysis.” It’s nonsense that flatters the importance of the narrative–and so the importance of the narrators; self-important to the end, and so basically stupid.

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Momentum: the idea is that if a candidate wins in one state, he or she will win in others. It is premised on the idea that voters are lemmings.

It is a really dumb idea, and one that the press keeps resurrecting after rumors of its death: Obama had momentum after Iowa; it went away in New Hampshire; he had it in his 11 straight win; last night it went away. No matter that each turn of events is more proof that the concept of momentum is empty.

Interestingly, the Obama campaign put out a memo before the primaries began, predicting every state he’d win or lose except for Maine (they thought he’d lose there). It’s all entirely predictable. And it was Obama campaign people looking at practical exigencies who predicted it; not pundits caught up in their own hysterics, pretending that the campaign is an unknowable flux when it is a known quantity.

Strategic campaign analysis is really irrelevant. But while the press pretends to be devoted to it, what they are really devoted to is taking an entirely predictable process and inserting a Apotreptic moment into it–the dramatic reversal of classical poetics. The news must be shocking and titillating–and where there is nothing salacious the political pornography must be manufactured, so that an entire class of mal-educated politicos can beat off in unison to their own political fantasies.

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I just heard Bill Kristol use the phrase “you can’t just suddenly use force”, talking about Iran and the recent Bush administration rhetoric trying to lay the foundation for a bombing campaign.

He said it of course, with that usual smugness: a voice so relaxed into the back of his throuat that it sounds almost like the churning of gears. It’s not a smuggness that comes from being right, as the anonymous liberal and Glenn Reynolds point out. Here’s Kristol before the war:

 We are tempted to comment, in these last days before the war, on the U.N., and the French, and the Democrats. But the war itself will clarify who was right and who was wrong about weapons of mass destruction. It will reveal the aspirations of the people of Iraq, and expose the truth about Saddam’s regime. It will produce whatever effects it will produce on neighboring countries and on the broader war on terror. We would note now that even the threat of war against Saddam seems to be encouraging stirrings toward political reform in Iran and Saudi Arabia, and a measure of cooperation in the war against al Qaeda from other governments in the region. It turns out it really is better to be respected and feared than to be thought to share, with exquisite sensitivity, other people’s pain. History and reality are about to weigh in, and we are inclined simply to let them render their verdicts.

Lesson learned: you can’t just suddenly use force.

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