Monday, October 31, 2016

James Comey and the "mini-max regret rule"

It will be a couple of days before we get a real sense in the polling data of the fallout from the re-opened FBI investigation, so let's talk a bit about James Comey.  He is taking some heat, some of it justifiable, and some of it not, but there is some social science here, and that's vaguely, kinda what I do.

First, though, this Hatch Act stuff is bullshit.  The Hatch Act prohibits executive branch employees from engaging in partisan political activism.  Just because an action has partisan implications, though, doesn't mean it violates the Hatch Act.  Comey was informing Congress about an investigation.  Yes, it has partisan implications.  Hatch Act, though?  Bullshit.  Comey did violate Department of Justice practices, though, by issuing a statement within 60 days of an election, which was particularly odd since he had no information to reveal.  Why did he violate that practice?  That brings me to the "mini-max regret rule."

The mini-max regret rule is the practice of... buckle up... minimizing the maximum amount of regret that you might possibly feel.  It's like choosing the path in which the worst case scenario is the least bad worst case scenario possible, but not quite.  It's weird.  Its most infamous use in political science is in voter turnout.  Voting is irrational.  Your vote doesn't matter.  Yet, voting costs you a bit of time and energy.  Spending that time and energy isn't worth it.  If you vote, you are a chump.  This is where you, the reader, object by telling me that if everybody thought that way, nobody would vote.  That's irrelevant since you aren't everybody.  You are one person.  You control only your own action.  And it is irrational for you to vote since your one vote won't make a difference.

Enter the mini-max regret rule.  Imagine you didn't vote, and it came down to a tie.  They decided to flip a coin, and your candidate lost.  Had you voted, it would have turned out the other way.  How shitty would you feel?  Sure, the probability of that is basically zero, which is why it is irrational to vote, but you would feel so bad if that did happen that maybe you should act to minimize the maximum amount of regret.  Get it?  Minimize the maximum amount of regret you could feel.  Vote, not because it is rational, but to minimize the maximum amount of regret you could feel.  If you do vote, and it doesn't matter, your regret is tiny.  But, if you don't vote, and it would have mattered, your regret is 'yuge.'  Minimize the maximum amount of regret.

The problem is that voting is still irrational.  Get over it.

But let's get back to Comey.  He did violate DoJ standard practices by making an announcement, with no information, 11 days before an election.  Why?  Mini-max regret rule.  Will the Abedin/Weiner computer have any information that leads to charges against Clinton?  No.  We basically know that.  But, what if it did?  And Comey hadn't said anything before the election?  That's the maximum amount of regret, and Comey minimizes it by violating DoJ practices.

Comey was applying the mini-max regret rule.  That's why he issued the statement.  See?  You learned a fancy term for semi-rational behavior.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Self-fulfilling prophesies, the media and electoral politics

As we consider whether or not James Comey has handed the presidency to Donald Trump (probably not), let's ask the broader question about political processes and the media's role in them.  We know nothing today about Clinton's email mess that we didn't know on Thursday.  She used a private email server rather than the State Department's server.  She mis-handled classified information.  The FBI compared her case to, for example Petraeus's, and decided that his was worse because he knowingly gave classified information to his mistress, but he got away with a misdemeanor charge, therefore Clinton shouldn't be prosecuted, even though she screwed up pretty badly.  We can add nothing new to that summary today, except that there is a slim chance that a new email from Huma Abedin to Hillary Clinton will change the picture.  Given how the FBI arrived at their assessment, though, the probability is low.

Yet, remember that period of time after the conventions, but before the first debate?  The poll numbers started to even out.  Trump faded into the background somewhat, while Clinton's emails, pneumonia, etc. took center stage in the media world.  So let's pose a question:  can the media help Trump's campaign by asserting that the reopened FBI investigation will help Trump's campaign?

The question rests on the observation that a great deal of media attention focuses, not on policy substance because, well, who gives a shit about that?  Instead, most attention, particularly towards the end of the campaign, focuses on the horse race aspect of the campaign.  Who is ahead, and who is behind?  Of course, that is precisely what I do, but then, I'm an elections-focused political scientist.  I'm not a journalist, and I do not accept any responsibility to inform anybody about anything beyond my own narrow interests.  Besides, if you are reading this, you have probably at least met me anyway.

The general press, however, find themselves in a different position.  With a presidential election that has gone on for just under four years (yes, Clinton started campaigning right around Obama's second inauguration), they have pretty much done the policy thing already.  The extended campaign makes it virtually impossible for the media to stay focused on policy.  Eventually, they just shift to the horse race.

At that point, though, they are left asking questions like whether or not Comey has helped Trump and hurt Clinton.  In fact, they can do little else in this case since they have no information about what was on the Abedin/Weiner computer (aside from what we really don't want to know).  The question itself, though, has the potential to create a self-fulfilling prophesy.  It is intrinsically negative coverage for Clinton to focus on such questions.  Whether it is enough to give the presidency to Trump or not is another matter, but the fact that we are stuck in the horse race coverage phase of the campaign puts us in self-fulfilling prophesy territory.

By the way, I'm getting my theoretical material from a mostly outdated book by Tom Patterson called Out of Order.  It would be really nice if he would write an updated version for the new media environment since his basic theoretical framework for the media is still the right one.  And, outdated or not, his old book is still worth a read.

Sunday music: If you don't love bluegrass, you hate America

Saturday, October 29, 2016

It's still October. Surprise! How big is the FBI thing?

So, Anthony Weiner is back and causing trouble for Hillary Clinton.  Yeah.  Nobody needs to make any jokes here.  I promise I won't.  I will restrain myself.

I've been saying for a while that Clinton will win without something like a terrorist attack, and a few days ago, I suggested that even that might not save Trump.  Is the reopening of the FBI investigation big enough to get Trump back into the fight?

This gives Trump a bit of a chance.  Not a good one, but a chance.  Let's take this one step at a time.

The basic reason that this is probably a small thing is that there is no new information here.  We know nothing about Clinton that we didn't know before.  She did something massively stupid by using a private email server, paradoxically putting national security at risk out of a privacy fetish.  The FBI just found yet another computer that may have had confidential information.  But, that wasn't actually Clinton's.  It was Abedin's.  (Note to those worried about the security of classified information:  there are always softer targets anyway.  Damn, did I just break my promise?).  Regardless, with no new revelations, the only real effect is the length of time this stays in the news, and it is difficult to keep the story in the news without, ya' know, news.  And this is where Anthony Weiner helps Clinton.  If he becomes the story, then Clinton isn't the story.  Since there is nothing new about her, though, what is there to say?

And here we will see a tension among journalists.  Do they cover the salaciousness of Anthony Weiner, and the dissolution of his marriage with Huma Abedin?  There is little of national public policy interest there, but there is a story.  A really, really disgusting one.  Or, do they continue to talk about the Clinton email issues, even though there is no actual news, and we know nothing whatsoever about what was in Abedin's emails to Clinton.  And Comey didn't say.  How much do journalists require actual news for their news stories rather than raw speculation?  This is always a problem with breaking news.

Regardless, among voters, who is going to be persuaded by a story with no revelations?  Had Comey said that Clinton had mishandled some specific piece of classified information that hadn't been addressed in the initial investigation, and that there were more serious issues with that piece of classified information, some voters might reassess, but as is, this is about media cycles.

We are ten days out from the election.  Clinton does not want to be talking about this.  Again.  However, from a mathematical standpoint, can this eat away at a four-to-five point lead in the national polls in ten days?  Can it take away Clinton's 5 point lead in New Hampshire?  In ten days?  With no actual revelation of specific, new wrongdoing?  Prrrrrobably not.

Then again, this year is just nuts, and we always have to leave open the possibility of something even crazier happening.  And I might as well end with this...

Saturday music: If you don't love country, you hate 'mer'ca

Friday, October 28, 2016

Friday music: If you don't love jazz, you hate America

And now for something not quite completely different.  Like our election, Sun Ra was batshit crazy.  He claimed to be an alien.  Space alien, not wall alien.  He may have even believed it.  At least this is a different type of listening experience than following political news.

A quick check on the electoral college

For all of my Nate Silver-bashing, it is still worth the occasional check on the status of the electoral college.  Remember, the structure of the electoral college system is such that it exaggerates popular vote leads, so unless the popular vote is divided narrowly, you can pretty much focus on whoever is leading nationally.  That's Clinton.

Still, the map has gotten interesting.  At RCP, Clinton has enough states leaning Democratic to get her over the 270 electoral vote threshold, except for that weirdness in Pennsylvania.  Her polling lead is down to just five points there, but the Democrats consistently pull out victories at the presidential level there.  It is worth noting that Clinton's five point lead in Pennsylvania is larger than Trump's 4.7 point lead in Texas.  Yes, you read that right.  Clinton's lead in Pennsylvania is larger, on average, than Trump's lead in Texas.  Trump will win Texas, Clinton will win Pennsylvania, and that pulls her over the 270 electoral vote threshold.  Unless something very, very strange is going on.

Yes, the electoral college still magnifies popular vote leads, and Clinton has one.  With 11 days to go, it gets ever harder to see how Trump wins, unless we are looking at the greatest polling failure ever.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

2016: The year without a presidential election

We aren't having a presidential election this year.  There are only congressional elections this year.  Keep reading.  If you want to understand anything happening this year, you just need to understand the history of congressional elections.  Most years, the incumbent wins.  Or, the incumbent is weakened by scandal, partisan tides, etc., and the out-party wins.  Then, very, very occasionally, the weakened party holds onto a seat that they have no business holding onto because the party that is supposed to win nominates a fuckwit who can't possibly win.  In congressional elections.  This has no implications for presidential politics.

Let's take a stroll down memory lane.  In 2010, the Delaware Senate seat vacated by Joe Biden was supposed to be won by Mike Castle, former member of the House of Representatives and Governor.  He was a moderate Republican, not well-suited to the rise of the "Tea Party," but well-suited to the Delaware electorate.  We was set to face Chris Coons as the Democrats' sacrificial lamb.  However, the Republican primary electorate was not satisfied with Castle.  Instead, they chose to nominate a tv personality by the name of Christine O'Donnell.  Here's the thing about tv personalities.  When you make a living saying provocatively stupid shit on tv, you don't necessarily make a good candidate.  On an old Bill Maher show, she once said that she "dabbled into [sic] witchcraft," which became her catchphrase, so to speak, leading to this ad.

When you have to start an ad by saying that you are not a witch, what you are not is a viable candidate.  Obviously, this has no implications for presidential elections.  The concept of a reality tv personality making it past legislators and governors to a nomination and having to disavow a record of saying stupid and vile shit?  That only happens in legislative elections.  We are not having a presidential election this year.  We are only having legislative elections this year.

Next, let's talk about another classic from 2010.  Harry Reid.  He is retiring this year, but he was supposed to face forced retirement in 2010.  As the wildly unpopular incumbent in Nevada, he was supposed to lose back then.  But, fortune smiled upon him.  Or, at least, the Republican primary electorate did, when they nominated Sharron Angle.  Unlike O'Donnell, Angle had some experience in the Nevada State Senate.  That, however, didn't stop her from saying vile shit like this:

Wow.  Yeah, that happened.  When Sharron Angle got the Republican nomination to challenge Harry Reid, that was Reid's lifeline, and hey, look, Reid is just now retiring.  Can you imagine how batshit crazy it would be if a presidential candidate talked that way?  Obviously, that's pure fantasy.  Nobody like Sharron Angle could ever get a presidential nomination, so the implications of this story don't extend to presidential politics.  If we were to hear stories of candidates making references to the second amendment as a political solution, it would only be in the context of legislative elections.  We have no presidential elections this year.  We are only observing legislative elections in 2016.

Does anyone remember Ken Buck?  This guy ran for the Senate in Colorado in 2010.  What a banner year that was.

Ken Buck is not a Senator.  No presidential candidate would ever talk this way.  Obviously.  So, in keeping with the theme of the post, we are not observing any presidential elections this year.

And how can we skip some of the greatest ick moments of 'em all?  Here's a true not-ready-for-prime-time-player, Todd Akin!  Back in 2012, Claire McCaskill was supposed to lose her Missouri Senate seat.  So, she ran ads "against" Todd Akin while he was still running in the Republican primary.  Those ads criticized him for being too conservative.  Thanks to the assist, Akin won.  Then, um, this happened.

Wow.  Candidates stepping in it on rape.  This could never happen at a presidential level.  Oh, and how could we forget?!  The grand-daddy of 'em all!  George Allen!  While campaigning in 2006, he was being followed around with a camera by a campaign staffer from his opponent, Jim Webb.  That staffer was of South Asian decent.  At one point, Allen did this:

Macaca?  What the hell is that?  It's a macaque monkey.  Yeah, get it now?  It's a French slur for North Africans.  Allen spends a lot of time in France and speaks fluent French.  Before this moment, Allen was expected to be the Republican presidential nominee in 2008.  Say hello to Senator Webb instead.  Obviously, this kind of blatant racism could never be seen at a presidential level.

Reality tv stars at the presidential level?  Direct appeals to the second amendment as a solution to political disagreement?  Blatant misogyny?  Blowing it on rape?  Open racism?  This isn't the kind of thing we see in presidential politics.  Rather, in legislative elections, what we see is that occasionally, some nitwit blows an election that their party has no business losing by engaging in this kind of thing.

Obviously, this has no implications for presidential politics.  We simply aren't watching any presidential elections this year.  We only have legislative elections this year.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Even a terrorist attack might not save Trump's campaign if it is too close to the election

I have been saying for a while now that Trump's campaign is dependent on either massive polling error, or some intervening event, like a terrorist attack.  However, with less than two weeks until election day, we need to start reconsidering that latter possibility.  It isn't simply that each passing day reduces the likelihood of an event occurring before the election, although that is true.  Rather, if an attack occurs too close to the election and Trump is too crass about trying to exploit it while Clinton is somber and responsible, Trump can't benefit.

And, if you hadn't noticed, Trump can be crass.

Remember how the terrorist attack works, politically.  The concept of issue ownership goes back to John Petrocik.  There are certain issues, according to Petrocik, that voters simply think that one party is better able to handle.  National security is "owned" by the Republican Party, and Trump's tough guy act is an attempt to emphasize that advantage.  A terrorist attack could shift the issues that voters think about prior to the election to those that advantage Republicans in general, and Trump specifically.

The problem is that it doesn't work if Trump just comes across as too much of an asshole in the process.  Given a month or so, everyone could do the immediate, somber reaction, mourn the dead, and then Trump could go on a tirade about the weakness of the Obama administration and the need for toughness.  With only 13 days to go, or less, he wouldn't have the time for any mourning period.  He would have to jump right into crass exploitation.

Does anyone remember Orlando?  Trump's immediate reaction was to say thanks for congratulating me for being right.  Imagine doing that in the face of a 9/11 scale event, less than two weeks before an election.

We may now be too close to the election for even a terrorist attack to save Trump's campaign, Petrocik be damned.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Let's take a moment to revel in the irrelevance of Ohio

CBS stopped by yesterday to talk about the supposedly ever-important bellwether state of Ohio.  Ohio is always right.  Ohio picks the winner.  You can't win without Ohio.

Nonsense.  One electoral vote is equal to every other electoral vote.  The reason Ohio gets attention is that it is larger than most other states with roughly even partisan balances.  And this year, Donald Trump has a decent chance of winning Ohio.  He does not have a decent chance of winning the presidency.  So much for Ohio's bellwether status.

Let's take a moment to check in on the electoral map.  RealClearPolitics currently has Clinton at 262 electoral votes, although that is because they leave Minnesota in the tossup category.  Why?  Nobody has bothered to poll MN, with the last poll being that weird, month-old Gravis poll putting the candidates at a tie.  Clinton will win MN.  History says so, and even that hack, Nate Silver puts the chances at 87%.  Add in those ten electoral votes, and that puts Clinton at 272, which puts her over the edge.  And that is without Ohio.

So, Trump can win Florida, Iowa, North Carolina... and Ohio and still lose.  Lesson:  Ohio isn't a bellwether.  No state is a bellwether.  The concept of a bellwether is a lazy con.  Over a period of elections, due to random chance, one state will tend to go with the winner.  That doesn't make the state magic.  Ohio's record isn't random.  Ohio's partisan balance is closer to the country's than, say, Idaho, so it tends to go with the winner for nonrandom reasons, but the point remains.  Just because Ohio has tended to go with the winner doesn't mean one needs to win Ohio to get 270 electoral votes.  Trump has a 0.6 point lead here as of now.  If that holds, Ohio's record will be broken, and we should be just ever so slightly surprised.  No more than that.

The real question is why everyone wants a bellwether.  If you can find an indicator that will tell you whether the stock market will go up or down in the future, that's useful.  But, an indicator to tell you whether it did the previous day?  Um, that's useless.  A stock that always goes the direction of the S&P?  Who cares?

From the candidates' standpoint, Ohio is a swing state, and there is a strategic incentive to campaign in the swing states, particularly the larger ones, but one electoral vote is equal to every other electoral vote.  Ohio's votes aren't magic.  Ohio has only three more electoral votes than North Carolina, and 11 fewer than Florida.  And Clinton can lose all three and still win.

Enough of this bellwether garbage.  How many times must I link to this?

Monday, October 24, 2016

Trump TV and November 9 problems

Discussion among Trump observers has now shifted to Trump TV as Trump's possible post-election plan.  His prospects of winning, contrary to Nate Silver's bullshit assessment of a 1 in 7 chance (I'll get back that nonsense soon), are abysmal, and whining about a media conspiracy won't get the courts to decertify election results.

But, let's get a few specifics on the board for Trump TV.  Glenn Beck broke away from Fox News and tried to go solo.  He has had a hard time of things.  However, Trump will start with more resources.  Still, starting a tv network requires a lot.  Here are some questions Trump will have to answer.

1.  Who works for Trump TV if shots are fired on November 9?
2.  Which carriers offer Trump TV if shots are fired on November 9?
3.  Who advertises on Trump TV if shots are fired on November 9?

What happens on November 9 could have real implications for the potential for Trump TV.  A few fistfights can be written off easily as random, isolated incidents.  The more violence there is, the more businesses will want to avoid association with Trump.  Plenty have already sought to distance themselves from his name.  Yes, Trump will have core supporters, and that would be a potential audience, but that isn't enough to get Trump TV up and running.

Trump TV needs this thing to be peaceful.  I wonder if Trump realizes that.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Trump vs. Brexit

I gave a talk yesterday, and confidently asserted that Trump's chances were minimal, so of course, Brexit came up.  Yes, the polls were wrong on Brexit.  So, couldn't they be wrong on Trump?  Yes, but...

1)  We have far more polls over a longer period of time on Trump.  The more polls there are, the lower the likelihood that they are all wrong.

2)  The Brexit vote was nationwide, rather than broken down by geographic region for an electoral college-like scheme.  Because we conduct the presidential election on a statewide basis, we poll at the state-level, and polling is against Trump across states.

3)  The degree to which a state leans for or against Trump in the polls is consistent with the partisanship of the state.  For example, Georgia, as a Republican state with an increasingly urban and large African-American population, only has a 4 point Trump advantage.  Contrast that with a 14 point Trump advantage in Louisiana.  So, when we see a 4 point Clinton advantage in Florida, which Obama has won in the last two elections, combined with Trump's weakness as a candidate, we do not need to discount that as a Brexit-type polling error because our polling across states is consistent with overall partisan patterns.  Add that to Clinton locking down New Hampshire and Colorado, and she has probably won.

4)  A Brexit vote and a candidate vote are different.  This should go without saying, but there really hadn't been many precedents for a vote to leave the EU.  That isn't so much a polling issue as a voter response issue.  Voters simply didn't know how to respond because they hadn't cast votes on the issue before.  It wasn't necessarily lying, then, so much as inability to predict their own behavior.  Presidential elections happen every four years.  And, they are mostly partisan affairs.  The difference is that this year, one candidate is the worst nominee ever, and his polling numbers reflect that.

The polls could be wrong.  If so, though, it would be a polling error of a magnitude that would make the Brexit failure look like a minor glitch.

Sunday music: If you don't love bluegrass, you hate America

One of the greatest musical geniuses of our era, Chris Thile, has just taken over A Prairie Home Companion.  As the hipster says, I was listening to him way before you were, so here he was as a wee tot of 16, playing an instrumental with a title that just sounds really, really wrong in today's political scene...

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Rebuilding a party is easier than rebuilding diffuse support

Back in the Zero-sum politics series, in which I addressed the implications of Trump's rigged election talk (before everyone else, of course), I focused heavily on a concept that David Easton called "diffuse support," which is the extent to which citizens support, not those in power specifically, but the basic constitutional framework of government itself.

Empirically, measuring diffuse support has always been somewhat challenging because asking people what they think about the political system will always tap into their attitudes towards those in power at the time.  Still, the fact that we don't have revolutions is a demonstration of the fact that we do have high levels of diffuse support, compared to other countries.

I'll pose several observations today, then.

First, while the strength of support for any one party can wax and wane, as the title of the post suggests, diffuse support is very hard to build.  The Republican Party had, let's just say, a hard time of things after Watergate.  Then, 1980 came along.  While Ronald Reagan the legend is rather different from Ronald Reagan the actual human being, the fact that Republicans took control of the Senate for the first time in decades in the 1980 election just a few scant years after Watergate tells you something about how comparatively easy it is for parties to rebuild themselves.

How bad is Trump, compared to Watergate?  I don't know.  But, parties can rebuild themselves.  Diffuse support?  That's hard to build, and if that gets torn down by batshit crazy allegations of the election being rigged, we don't know how to get it back.

Second, the fact that we haven't had revolutions is an indication of the level of diffuse support throughout the country.  Make no mistake-- there are real dangers of violence on November 9.  Trump is highly likely to lose, and he is spreading and magnifying batshit crazy conspiracy theories about why he is losing.  That could lead to violence.  Not an organized revolt, but it doesn't take organization to have one nutjob take a shot at another.  However, 2016 is a sort of empirical test of our level of diffuse support.  How much do Trump Republicans really believe in our constitutional system?  We'll find out starting on November 9 if we see a peaceful transfer of power.

Finally, can a party break apart for non-policy reasons?  Empirically, the last major party to break apart was the Whigs.  That was over slavery.  Every time a political scientist is asked about the potential for a party collapse, we go back to the Whigs and talk about the necessity for a cross-cutting issue that divides the party.  While trade and immigration divide the Republican Party, and Trump is associated with those issues, that wouldn't be the thing that could break the party apart.  If there is a risk of Trump breaking apart the Republican Party, it would be this:  Trump loses, and blames the party establishment for not backing him.  His voters decide they have been betrayed, and everyone takes sides in a war of personalities that dissolves the party.  Can that happen?  Probably not.  But, right now, we can't rule anything out, and that brings me back to the title of the post.  Parties can be rebuilt.

At this point, we should default to the prediction of Clinton winning, some sort of mess after the election, and the Republican Party eventually rebuilding itself.  How bad will the mess be?  Will there be violence?  At this point, I have no idea.  I don't rule anything out.

Saturday music: If you don't love country, you hate 'mer'ca

Friday, October 21, 2016

Friday music: If you don't love jazz, you hate America

Have we finally reached peak crazy?

Trump versus the Republican Party on November 9

Unless either the polls are dramatically off or a terrorist attack occurs, Trump is toast.  At that point, Trump's incentives diverge dramatically from those of the Republican Party.  He won't care about its continued existence.

During the primary season, speculation ran rampant that the party establishment would block Trump at the convention.  I knocked that down at every turn because the Republican Party is a power structure.  Those capable of the maneuver were those who had power within that power structure, and the maneuver would risk tearing down the power structure.  If you have power within a power structure, you don't risk tearing it down.

Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell and the rest need to take some actions very soon regarding Trump, or they risk losing their power structure.  Then again, they don't have the best record of unifying against Trump in time to save their own hides.  Maybe if they had moved in the summer of 2015, they wouldn't be stuck with Trump now.

Back in the Zero-sum politics series, I concluded that there was little likelihood of a real uprising in response to Trump's inevitable whining about the election being rigged.  Let's revisit that.  Trump will lose.  He will whine.  Epically.  He will have no legal recourse.  Random violence?  Quite possibly.  Organized movements?  Not likely, for the precise reasons I gave in the Zero-sum politics series.  In particular, Dennis Chong's Collective Action and the Civil Rights Movement.  A post-election Trump movement will have no ground-level leaders in the way that the civil rights movement did to solve the collective action problem (see the discussion in the Zero-sum politics series for elaboration, or far better yet, read Chong's book).

So, uprising?  No.  Violence, though?  Disorganized violence, by definition, requires no leadership.  And Trump's rhetoric is stirring up a lot of shit.  So, trouble may be coming.  Violence after the election is bad news for the Republican Party.  They need Trump to shut up and go away on November 9.  They need peaceful transition to Hillary Clinton with no embarrassments so that they can have a proper midterm swing against her in 2018.  They should have a massive seat swing, giving them big gains in Congress.  Then, with three Democratic wins in 2008, 12 and 16, the Republicans should really win in 2020, unless they nominate David Duke, or someone like that...

Unless Trump just stirs up so much shit that the Republican Party itself dissolves into civil war.  He has no reason not to.  And that's the problem.  The more post-election mess Trump creates, the more risk there is for the Republican Party.  The more skepticism Trump creates about the electoral process, the worse that is for the political system, and the worse that is for everyone, including the Republican Party.  The messier elections become in general, the worse that is for the Republican Party.

Everyone, including the Republican Party, benefits from an orderly electoral system with peaceful transitions of power in which voters collectively accept the results of a vote tally and decline to rise up in violence.

November 9, though, is too late for Republican leaders to tell Donald Trump to shut the fuck up and go away.  Mike Pence, and other campaign surrogates are telling journalists that the campaign will accept the election results, but that doesn't work when Trump says the opposite.

And here is the other collective action problem.  What would really work is for basically the entire House and Senate Republican delegations to tell Trump to accept the election results and show some honor.  If it is Trump standing alone, truly alone, then he can be marginalized.  The more allies he has, the more trouble he causes.  However, any one Republican will have incentives to stand with Trump as a fuck-you to the leadership, just as they have on budget compromise votes.

Yeah, this could keep getting uglier.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Is Nate Silver still full of shit?

So, you may have noticed that I'm not a fan of Nate Silver.  I wrote a series of posts about it.

Given that series, I've been checking 538 periodically to see how he's doing.  Concern for his health, and all.  And today, I see this.  You may notice that it reads very similarly to how I've been talking about the election in the "Nate Silver is full of shit" series.  Trump has two chances:  massive, systematic polling error, or an intervening event.  So, um, what's the deal?

Here's the deal.  Silver's method of computing the chances of Trump's victory is still hopelessly flawed.  His polls only forecast currently puts Trump's chances at around 14%, which is where it was when I started the "Nate Silver is full of shit" series.  That still describes a quantum-mechanical multiverse in which one out of seven universes branching out from this moment include President Trumps.  And it does so because Silver's method plays combinatorical games with the electoral college, ignoring the near impossibility of an electoral college-popular vote split when a candidate is as far ahead as Clinton is now nationally.  Hence, there is actually a discrepancy between how Silver describes the race in the piece linked above and his normal method, if one recognizes the point I kept beating into the ground in the "Nate Silver is full of shit series" on the relationship between the popular vote and the electoral college when one candidate is as far ahead as Clinton is.

The problem, then, is Silver's failure to connect the substantive political observation to the math.  Combinatorics games of the kind Silver employs with the electoral college are not informative unless the popular vote is close enough to make an electoral college-popular vote split plausible.  Hence, the right question remains as follows:  what is the probability of Trump closing the gap nationally to a level at which 270 electoral votes are within reach for him?  Silver's method doesn't address that question.  What is the probability?  I don't know, but one of of seven?  I call bullshit.

And in his linked piece above?  So does Silver.  On himself.

Two more quick debate observations

1)  When asked about why he thought the election was rigged, Trump's first observation was about media bias, which is... different from Bush v. Gore, regardless of the merits of either argument in that case.  Even if one were to accept the premise that media coverage had been dishonest, imagine the legal brief in which Trump challenges the certification of an election result on that basis.  Is it possible for a judge to respond to a filing simply with "ROTFLMFAO"?

2)  After the VP debate, I gave VOX some grief about jumping to conclusions about sexism in patterns of interruptions.  This time, they were more careful in their analysis, and less prone to jump to the PC conclusion of sexism!sexism!sexism!  They acknowledged the basic observation that Trump is also just an asshole who interrupts everyone, distinguishable from the fact that he is a misogynistic rapist (I'm not sure what a non-misogynistic rapist would be, but, whatever).  Good on them.

The debate confirms that Trump has lost

The obvious critical moment from the debate was when Chris Wallace asked if Trump would concede the day after the election, and Trump refused to say.  The thing is, this isn't news.  Trump is a conspiracy-minded, narcissistic whiner.  Also, kittens are cute, 2+2=4, and Bob Dylan doesn't deserve a Nobel (zing!).

Rather, let's talk about the fact that Wallace kept pressing the point.  Nothing emphasizes the fact that Trump is toast like the fact that the moderator had to keep asking him what he will do, sorry, would do if he loses.  If.  The question itself, repeated, takes away Trump's "I'm a winner" schtick.  It demonstrates, plainly for the audience, that the continuation of the campaign is little more than going through the motions at this point.

This is a waiting game.  The vote will be held in 19 days, except for the absentee ballots and early voting, which actually is a significant portion, and we shouldn't ignore that.  It is difficult to estimate the precise proportion since we don't know election day turnout, but the fact that Trump is as down in the polls as he is now, with ballots being mailed in today, makes Trump's hurdle that much more insurmountable.

And the moderator basically called him out on it by asking what he will do when, I mean if, if he loses.

Yes, a major terrorist attack could still occur.  Something could happen.  But, the window is closing. And, not only is Clinton's national lead holding at 6.4 points, her lead in New Hampshire has shot up to 6.8 points with some big new polling leads.  That plus having Colorado locked down, and she's got a pretty solid (almost granite solid- get it?) 270 electoral votes, so yes, Nate Silver is still full of shit, for those who want to go back through that series of posts.

Lesson?  When the moderator is pressing you on how you will react to a loss, you're toast.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Pre-debate thoughts

Trump is losing.  Badly.  The election is mostly out of his hands, as I've been saying.  In order to win, he needs either a) the polls to be just wrong, or b) an intervening event.  However, tonight's debate is the last major event, so this is his last chance to try something.  Anything.  What will he try?  I have no clue.

But, when you have nothing, you have nothing to lose, so there is no such thing as risk.  That is why Trump has gone so far in his rhetoric lately.  Global conspiracies of bankers, and such.  Yeah...  Vaguely familiar ring to it?  From a strategic perspective, though, he has no reason to act conventionally.  In contrast, Clinton wants to play it safe and sit on her lead for the next 20 days.  The likelihood of any of Trump's last-ditch stunts working is minimal, but he might as well try.  I have no idea what he will try, but if I were advising him, I'd advise him to go wild here.

The real question:  Do we go full Godwin here?  Does Clinton make reference to the similarities between Trump's recent rhetoric and the Munich 1922 speech?  That would be pretty risky.  Clinton has no reason to risk the backlash.  But, that would be a spectacle.

Anyway, I got a little off topic with Sunday's bluegrass post, so here's this.

Something obscurely interesting in the Clinton/Podesta email leaks

This will take a bit to explain, but the gist is as follows: Lawrence Lessig is a moron, and plenty of insiders know it.

Who, you may ask, is Lawrence Lessig?  Lessig is a Harvard law professor.  And a moron.  The two are not incompatible.  Lessig is what we call, in political science, a "goo-goo."  That is a derogatory term for someone who believes that all political ills can be cured by some snake oil "good government" reform.  Of course, true believers don't know it's snake oil, but you get the point.  "Goo-goo," obviously infantilizes them, and that's the idea.

Lessig is a law professor, which means he can't do math.  That means he is incapable of interpreting the quantitative political science literature which says that campaign contributions have little if any influence on policy decisions.  Rather, when we observe campaign contributions associated with policy choices, that is because groups tend to contribute to their ideological allies.  To believe otherwise is to assume, implicitly, that without corporate money, Ted Cruz would be sitting around a drum circle at an "occupy" rally, taking bong hits, and Elizabeth Warren would be wearing tricornered hats with teabags dangling from them if she weren't sullied by union money.

If it sounds idiotic when I put it that way, that's because the notion of widespread corruption is actually kind of idiotic.  Congress, particularly now, is filled with hardcore ideologues.  They don't need to be bought off to do what they do.  They are believers.  If they could be bought off, maybe we'd see more compromise...

Anyway, if you want some real political science on the topic, I keep assigning John R. Wright's Interest Groups and Congress.  It's old, but still right.  The thing is, analyzing how the social science works requires being at least somewhat numerate.  Lessig is a lawyer.

Which brings me to goo-gooism.  Lessig ran a laughably stupid campaign for president this time around.  Did'ya notice?  Probably not.  The premise of his campaign was a one-issue deal.  Pass campaign finance reform, then call it done!  'Cuz, then, see, everything would be, like, this total utopia (as in: nowhere).  And, if he won, it would totally happen!  Constitutional amendment and all!

Yeah, fuckin' right.

What was really amazing, though, was that Lessig deluded himself into thinking that his campaign was anything other than a total joke.

And even more amazing was that the Clinton campaign noticed him!  Which brings me to this WikiLeak.  So, apparently, Podesta and Neera Tanden didn't like him, or take him all that seriously.  They just knew they couldn't go too far.

Points for them, as far as I'm concerned.  Clinton may have recklessly put national security at risk with her email handling, but at least this email stuff shows us that those around her had the proper level of disdain for that idiot goo-goo, Lawrence Lessig.  I'd say he should read Wright's book, but it has some numbers in it, which means it's probably over his head.  I'd also say he should read something about how primaries work, but apparently none of us know anything about that, so, well...

Anyway, any candidate who thinks that campaign finance reform fixes everything has no right to be taken seriously.  So, let's all have a good laugh at Lawrence Lessig, and remember that he thought he was running for president!  On the other hand, if you want to learn something about the problem of trying to measure influence, go read Wright's book.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Trump, rigged-election talk, and what we aren't seeing: unskewed polls

Back in late July/early August, before the rest of the crowd caught onto the fact that Trump was going to whine about the election being rigged, I started a series called "Zero-sum politics," about how Trump's view of everything as a zero-sum game would lead to him complaining about the election being rigged.  So, I did some analysis of the political science behind how such rantings would play out.  Here is a link to the summary post.  Yes, I see this stuff coming before other people do.

Anyway, what I want to address today is what I addressed in Part VI of the series.  In that post (dated August 1, you may note), I said that what really mattered for Trump's likely whining about rigged elections was what the Republican establishment did.  Specifically, whether or not they embraced talk of "unskewed polls."  In 2012, polls indicated that Obama was beating Romney, just as political science models predicted, but many Republicans wanted to live in denial.  So, they did.  One enterprising, Romney-supporting hack decided that all of the polls were biased in favor of Obama.  Or, "skewed."  So, he would "unskew" them by adding some number of voters back in for Romney.  Where did he get the number?  Like the drunkard looking for his keys under the lamp post because it was convenient, he got the number where his head already was-- up his own ass.  He pulled the number out of his ass.  He added that number to Romney's total, called the result an "unskewed poll," which favored Romney, put up a web page called "unskewed polls," and the entire Republican establishment in 2012 decided those were the right numbers.  Hence, they were all shocked when Obama won.

Imagine the horror show that would result if we combined Trump's rigged election talk with unskewed polls?  That was why, in my August 1 post, I put the onus on the Republican establishment to avoid the temptation to embrace unskewed polls this time around.  Trump is too stupid to come up with anything as sophisticated as unskewed polls (simplistic though it was).  This is on the establishment.

Amazingly enough, I haven't seen a replay.  Feel free to mention it here if you have, and I'm sure that somewhere in the dark corners of Breitbart comment threads, such statements have been made, but I have seen nothing like 2012.  Note the anger that Trump has directed at Republican leaders for their failure to back him as fully as he expects on the rigged election talk.  Yes, they continue to make unfounded claims about widespread voter fraud that Justin Levitt, thorough scholar that he is, just keeps debunking, but what they aren't doing (except for Trump surrogates like Giuliani) is just towing the Trump line.  And we aren't seeing a revival of unskewed polls (at least that I have seen), which would turn the rigged election talk into something truly explosive.

This won't necessarily be peaceful.  But, Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, and the rest of the establishment types seem to recognize their incentives here.  Anyone actually in office needs the Republican Party to, ya' know, keep existing, which requires not burning down the whole system, which Trump might actually do if he gets enough support for this crap.  The key difference worth noting, then, is the absence of "unskewed polls" rhetoric.  Everyone actually in office (i.e., not like Giuliani) will do their best to tell Trump that he lost, and to go the fuck away after election day.  Will he?  That's a different question.  But I'll pose this:  what will Trump have to gain after election day by continuing to whine?  Something to ponder.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Nate Silver is full of shit, Part V: Silver's methods can't ask the right questions

For all of my rants here about Nate Silver's methods, the real problem with what he is doing now is that his method cannot ask the right questions.

What Nate Silver is doing now is taking state-by-state polls and playing combinatorics games to try to count up the ways that Trump can get to 270 electoral votes, and ascribing probabilities to each to figure out an estimate of Trump's chances on that basis.  Right now, 538 puts Trump's chances at about 1 in 7, so in the multiverse model of quantum mechanics, one out of seven universes branching out from this moment have President Trumps in them.

The problem, as I keep saying, is that Clinton's lead in the national polls is too big to play that kind of combinatorics game, so the only real question to ask is this:  what would it take for Clinton to not have that lead?  Notice how I phrased that question.  I could have asked, what would it take for Clinton to lose her lead, but I didn't.

Factoring in the crappy LA Times poll, RealClearPolitics currently puts Clinton's lead at around 5.5 points, on average.  If her lead stays that big, the electoral college doesn't matter, and Silver's silly, little games are pointless.  So, what if her lead isn't that big now?  There are two ways that could be true.  Sampling bias, or measurement error.  Sampling bias means that everyone is getting a bad sample because we don't know how to reach the voters.  This is distinguished from randomly generated sampling error in that there is something systematically wrong with everything.  That could be true.  Maybe this year is just so screwy that every poll has a lousy sample.  If so, Silver's method doesn't help because it is all about the combinatorics, but we need to keep that in mind.

Second, measurement error.  Ever hear of the "Bradley effect?"  It is sort of a legend in political terms.  When Tom Bradley ran for Governor of California, there was supposedly a discrepancy between his polling numbers and his vote total.  Why?  Well, maybe it was because he was African-American, and nobody wanted to appear racist.  So, people told pollsters that they were going to vote for him, even if they had no intention of doing so.  The evidence was never that strong for the Bradley effect, but the legend lives on.  The concept, though, is that when people tell pollsters about their voting intentions, that isn't their real intention.  That would be measurement error.  Maybe Trump supporters don't want to admit that they are going to vote for the rapecist (TM-pending).  Can Silver's combinatorics game help with that?  Nope.  The problem with that is that Trump is actually polling OK, all things considered.  Clinton has a clear lead, but this isn't a blowout.

And then, the real trouble, which Silver can't address.  Intervening events.  What would it take for Clinton to lose a real lead?  What are the chances of a major terrorist attack, or something like it?  Silver can't tell you.  This is a really hard question.  Want a good book?  I recommend this one all the time. Philip Tetlock's Expert Political Judgment.  Certain cognitive styles are better at making that kind of forecast than others, but regardless, nothing in Silver's combinatorics game is even intended to capture it.  Tetlock draws on the old distinction between foxes and hedgehogs.  Foxes know a little about a lot of different stuff, and hedgehogs know a lot about one thing.  Foxes make better predictions.  The combinatorics game that Silver is playing?  Straight-up hedgehog thinking.

What is the real probability of Trump winning?  I don't know.  Silver's method, though, is garbage right now.  When one candidate is this far ahead in the national polls, the electoral college is not where you should focus.  It absolutely is where the candidates should focus, but not us.

In order for Trump to win, either the polls need to be systematically wrong, or something needs to change, and Silver's method isn't capturing that, and can't capture that.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Nate Silver is full of shit, Part IV: The history of popular vote-electoral college splits

Let's just call this a series.  In what I am now retconning to be Part I in the "Nate Silver is full of shit" series, I pointed out how absurd it is that 538 wildly overestimates Trump's chances of victory. Currently, Silver's "polls only" forecast gives Trump nearly a 15% chance of winning, and in Part I, I ridiculed that by pointing out that it is the equivalent of saying that we live in a quantum mechanical multiverse in which one out of seven universes branching out from this moment have President Trumps, even though plausible scenarios leading to his victory are vanishingly few.  In what I'll now call Part II, I pointed out that if you overestimate his probability of victory by 70%, then even if the percentage point difference is small, then your betting strategy will cost you a lot of money.  In Part III, I focused on the electoral college, and the statistical problems of focusing on state-level versus national level effects.

Here, let's really explore than in an historical context.  Remember,  Hillary Clinton is ahead. Her lead in the RealClearPolitics average is 5.5 points as of this morning.  There are two ways that Trump can win:  take a national lead such that the popular vote and electoral college come into alignment, or create a popular vote-electoral college split.  The former is becoming absurdly unlikely.  Not impossible, but absurdly unlikely.  It would take one of two things:  either all of the polls would have to be wrong, in which case Silver's simulation method is bullshit anyway because of the garbage in-garbage-out problem, or an intervening event would have to occur.  Silver isn't really addressing either.  No, Silver's method is really all about calculating a Trump victory probability based on the potential for a popular vote-electoral college split in an elaborate combinatorics game.  And 15% should be a great, big, red warning flag that he's doing something wrong.

How common are popular vote-electoral college splits?  We have had four.  Sort of.  Three real ones, one fake one.  There's 1824, but that isn't informative at all.  It was a multicandidate race, so nobody got a majority in the electoral college, and it went to the House of Representatives, according to the Constitution.  There's 2000, but as I pointed out yesterday, that was a) an absurdly close election, which this is not, and b) thrown off by the butterfly ballot in Florida.

Gore won the nationwide popular vote, but sort of lost Florida by 537 votes.  However, Palm Beach County in Florida used a weirdly structured ballot.  Candidate names ran down the left and right hand sides of the ballots, with holes down the middle.  Voters had to punch out a hole that lined up with the name of the candidate for whom they wanted to vote.  The second name on the left was Gore's name, but the second hole on the ballot wasn't for Gore.  It was for Pat Buchanan, whose name was on the right.  It was a grotesquely stupid design that cost Gore the state of Florida, and the Presidency because a lot of people voted for Buchanan thinking they were voting for Gore.  Also, the ballot was designed by a Democrat named Theresa LePore.

So, the 2000 election gets a big, fat asterisk next to it as a popular vote-electoral college split.  And it was absurdly close anyway.  Gore and Bush were separated by half a point at the national level.  This one is not close.  Clinton is ahead by 5.5 points in the RCP average, and that's factoring in the crappy LA Times poll, which is being thrown off by one African-American teenager in Illinois who says he's voting for Trump.

So, how far back do we have to go in history for another popular vote/electoral college split?  1888, with another in 1876, and those are the only other two.  And both were close elections.

There are national forces at work here, and state-level simulations have a really hard time capturing them.  That's where Silver goes wrong with his overly optimistic projections for Trump.  He is too focused on the electoral college, ignoring how absurdly rare true electoral college-popular vote splits are.  Even if you count 2000, we've had four in our entire history.  So, focus on the national level, and nothing there gives Trump much hope.

PredictWise currently puts Trump's chances at 9%.  That still seems high to me, but more realistic than Silver.

What will it take for me to change my mind?  Changes in the national numbers.  The latest ABC News poll had Clinton's lead down to only 4 points.  That pulls her average down.  How much do I make of that?  At this point, not much, but I factor it in, via the RCP average.  What I don't do is play Silver's combinatorics game until the national numbers get close enough for a popular vote-electoral college split to be plausible.  We aren't there and are unlikely to get there.

Sunday music: If you don't love bluegrass, you hate America

Yes, I'm still going on about this Dylan thing.  But, what happens when my favorite singer of all time covers Dylan?  I'd listen to Tim O'Brien sing the phone book (if anyone remembers those things), and he actually did an entire album of Dylan covers.  Well...

Damn, that was good.  But, you know, with the right musicians, anything can sound good.  Hell, I'll bet Richard Thompson can make even a god-awful teenybopper song sound almost listenable.  Trigger-warning, or something.  If you click on this, you can't un-hear it.  (And there is a long story behind this, for those who care to research it).

And now, for those who need to scrub their brains and remember that there is a long tradition of serious musicians taking unserious music way too seriously, here's a cleanser...

Well, that strayed rather far from both bluegrass and Dylan, didn't it?

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Nate Silver, the electoral college, and you

Yup, I'm still doing this.

Let's get some basic facts about the electoral college out of the way.  Here's how it works, in very brief form.  For each state, the parties create a slate of electors, numbered according to the total number of House members and Senators allocated to the state.  If a candidate gets a plurality of the vote in the state, that candidate's electors get to be members of the electoral college.  After the election, the electoral college votes, and whoever gets a majority of the electoral college wins.   Yes, there's more, but that's the executive summary.

It's a very screwy system, and it has the potential to give a majority of the electoral college to someone who didn't have a plurality in the popular vote.  How often does that happen?  Not often.  It happened in 2000.  Sort of.  It happened in 2000 because of the official tally in Florida. Here are the officially certified results, according to the FEC.  Of course, the butterfly ballot had a lot to do with that.  (Truth in advertising: Henry Brady was one of my grad school professors).  Regardless, look at how close those numbers were in 2000.  The popular vote-electoral college split doesn't happen without the candidates being nearly tied at the national level.

What happens when they aren't that close?  Well, take a look at the current RealClearPolitics map, when you just go with the current polls.  That puts the electoral college vote at 340-198 Clinton, even though her polling lead is only 6.7 points in the two-way contests and 5.3 points in the four-way contests.  What's the deal?

Here's the deal.  While the electoral college can create a split in a tied race, the normal effect is to exaggerate an advantage.  Clinton has a lead, and the electoral college is exaggerating it, making a 6.7 point lead, or possibly a 5.3 point lead look like an electoral college blowout.  Why?  Because winning Florida, even if it is only by 2 points, translates into all 29 electoral votes.  Winner-take-all systems magnify small advantages.

Clinton is leading, and the electoral college magnifies that lead.

Now, what does any of this have to do with Nate Silver?  He is looking at the electoral college to the exclusion of all else.  Forest, trees, or something.  Why?  Well, he's a sports statistics guy.  Me?  I hate sports.  All sports.  Every last one of 'em.  Election night is fun.  I love watching the returns come in, and they do so by state.  So, hey, let's run simulations by state!  Silver turns it into a combinatorics problem.  Combinatorics is the branch of mathematics associated with counting methods because there are multiple methods to count to 270 (538 electoral votes total, and 270 is a majority), so he runs simulations of ways for each candidate to get to 270.  This ain't fantasy sports, though.  In statistical terms, all of the data are hierarchical.  That means everything is subject to some combination of local and national forces, and separating them, along with separating the over-time effects is brutally difficult, making the simulation approach unwieldy at best.  But, when the national effects are overwhelmingly large, there is no need.

Remember, the electoral college magnifies national leads.  To ignore that effect and focus on state-level simulations is to miss the forest, or, in statistical terms, miss the hierarchical effect that causes winner-take-all systems to magnify national leads.  A popular vote-electoral college split can happen.  But not when one candidate is as far ahead as Clinton is now.  It happened (sort of) in 2000, but that was when Bush and Gore were separated by about half a percentage point in the popular vote at the national level.  That's just not the case now.

Yes, this year is crazy, but really, there is a forest here, not just some pretty trees.

Can Trump win?  Yes, but something needs to change at the national level, unless all the polls are wrong, in which case Silver's combinatorics game is misguided anyway because no statistical approach can work with data that far off.

Saturday music: If you don't love country, you hate 'mer'ca

I was originally planning to go with the Drive-By Truckers' "The President's Penis Is Missing" in honor of Trump bringing back the Clinton sex scandals, but a) I overuse them, b) the new allegations against Trump are bigger news, and c) the Dylan thing.  So...

Here's Gillian Welch and David Rawlings.  They're better writers than Dylan, Gillian's voice is obviously amazing, David's guitar playing is fantastic, and this song is a great fuck-you to Donald Trump.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Friday music: If you don't love jazz, you hate America

I put up some Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong with this morning's post, so I'm going back to Dylan-bashing with something different.  This isn't really jazz, but it's jazz-adjacent.

Back in the '70s, Randall Bramblett played saxophone for a jazz-rock fusion offshoot from the Allman Brothers called Sea Level.  He also has a raspy voice that works, unlike Dylan's, and, in my opinion, is a better writer.  Here he is, doing a sort of modern beatnik thing, complete with some of his jazzy saxophone playing.  The album is a great piece of work, musing on growing up as a white boy in the South, listening to blues, R&B, and other stuff that he wasn't supposed to, combined with other stuff about regional identity, and, well, it's a great album.  And he's better than Dylan.

How full of shit is Nate Silver?

As long as I'm doing this, I might as well do this.  In my morning post, I was not kind to Nate Silver.  Those who have spoken with me about the topic know that this is not a new thing.  I have just never been impressed with his work.  Yes, he correctly called just about every race last time.  So did everyone who looked at simple polling averages.  Fuck Dylan, but you don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.  (And yes, I know what that line was really about, but I'm still not impressed with Dylan either).

Anyway, I said Nate Silver was full of shit, but let's ask an updated question.  How full of shit is Nate Silver?  As of typing, the 538 "polls only" forecast gives Trump a 15.3% chance.  PredictWise gives Trump a 9% chance.  Let's say PredictWise is right, and 538 is wrong because, on average, the prediction markets beat the polls.  So what?  Both put the odds heavily against Trump.  It is only a 6.3 percentage point difference.

Well, 6.3/9=.7.  If PredictWise is right and 538's "polls only" forecast is wrong, then 538 overestimates Trump's chance of victory by 70%.  If you are betting, sorry, "investing," that costs you big.  You will buy and sell at the wrong prices if you follow Silver's advice.

Do not let yourself get crucified on a cross of Silver.

And to repeat:  if a major terrorist attack occurs, or something like that to give Trump the presidency, that is not a vindication of Silver's calculation method, nor is it a vindication if the polls are all just wrong across the board.  His method is based on assumptions about independence and interdependence between state contests that cannot be justified.  Unforeseen and unforeseeable events would simply be a demonstration of the intrinsically unpredictable nature of this year.

Settle down, monkeys.

Nate Silver is full of shit

OK, I admit that the title of the post is a little provocative, but I only use it because his models mislead more than they educate.  That's all.

So, I'm a math guy.  I love me some statistics.  But, you may notice that I never link to Silver, who did not, in fact, invent the field of statistics.  (Also, Kenny G. did not invent jazz and Zack Snyder did not invent superheroes).  For my numbers, I just look at the polling averages at RealClearPolitics, and of course, the betting markets.  Right now, Clinton is way ahead.  And, she's a-gonna win unless there's another October surprise.  What's Silver sayin' these days?  Well, let's take a look.  I don't check in with him often because, well, see title.  Trump has a 14.4% chance?  What the fuck?!

And that was just the "polls only" forecast.  Click on "polls plus" and Mr. Silver will tell you that Trump has an 18% chance of winning.  But fuck that.  Let's go with 14.4% just to give Silver a fighting chance.

Let's talk quantum mechanics for a moment.  Subatomic particles behave in ways that appear random.  Instead of following Newtonian laws, they randomly go either left or right at certain points, and we can find no apparent cause for why they do one or the other.  One common explanation for how that crazy shit works is that the multiverse is constantly branching off new universes, so it isn't that a particle randomly decides which way to go-- it is that two superimposed universes break apart and the particle going one way and the particle going the other were actually different particles all along.  Crazy, right?

For the sake of argument, let's accept this model of the multiverse.  14.4% is about 1 in 7.  So, in Nate Silver's model of the current superimposed multiverse, one out of 7 universes branching out from this moment lead to President Trumps.

Bull.  Fucking.  Shit.

How does Silver go so wrong?  The short version is that his method is based on state-by-state polling analysis to construct simulations of the electoral college.  But, isn't that the right thing to do?  We elect presidents through the electoral college, not the nationwide popular vote, right?  Yes, but...


A popular vote-electoral college split requires a close election.  That can happen.  See:  2000.  (Sort of.  After all, there was that whole ballot counting issue in Florida).  This thing isn't close.  And when it isn't close, the not-really-swing states swing together.  And this is what is really hard to capture.  What is the right degree of interconnectedness and separateness between the states?  As I've commented before, that's really hard to capture.

What isn't hard to capture is who is way ahead.  That's Clinton.  She is too far ahead nationally to worry about the messiness of state-by-state polls, which is what Silver's method attempts to do, and where Silver's method goes wrong in giving us a multiverse in which 1 out of 7 universes branching out from here have President Trumps.  Coming soon:  the right way to look at things:  the simple way.  The good, old Central Limit Theorem.

Now, Trump could still win, in which case there are universes branching out from here with President Trumps, where I revisit this post.  What will I say in those universes?  Perhaps something like this:  "OWWW!  It really hurt when those monkeys came flying out of my ass!"

Or, more realistically, "wow, that was some crazy shit when they perp-walked Clinton," or a more somber comment on a terrorist attack, because that's probably what it would take at this point to save Trump's candidacy.

Other than that, the polls would have to be completely wrong, even at the national level.  In any case, none of that would save Silver's method.  Trump's chances aren't zero, but they aren't 14.4%.

Trump could win.  But, he needs either a major intervening event, or for all of the polls to be completely wrong.  None of that would save Silver's method of simulating state-by-state contests with no theoretically driven method of dealing with state interconnectedness and independence given how swing states swing together.

And here's some Friday jazz, a bit early.  I'll post something different later, to keep picking on that Dylan nonsense.  Yes, I'll even do that in the jazz series, because really, fuck Dylan too.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

A short musical rant: Bob Dylan gets a Nobel? Really?

I usually save the music stuff for the weekends, but seriously?  Bob Dylan?  This is more ridiculous than when they gave the Nobel Peace Prize to Barack Obama for not being George W. Bush.  I'm not him either.  Can I have one?  I... don't like Dylan.  He did a lot of damage to the musical world by teaching people that it's OK to have a terrible voice and to sing stuff that has no meaning and pretend it's art because it sounds poetic.  The answer is blowing in the wind?  No, it isn't.  That's just you, blowing smoke, Bob.

What's the difference between a singer-songwriter and a puppy?  Eventually, the puppy will stop whining.

Anyway, here's a true genius, Richard Thompson.  He's a great singer, he knows how to tell a story, and his guitar playing is phenomenal.  Oh, and even though he's a Brit, they worship him at the Americana Awards show.

Want another one?  Here he is, singing perhaps the most insightful piece written in the aftermath of 9/11 on religious extremism in general.  His electric guitar work is as masterful as his acoustic work.

So, um, what's so great about Dylan?

The Republican Party probably won't split apart, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't ask about it

A party on its way to victory doesn't form a circular firing squad a month before election day.  Trump's candidacy has Republicans doing just that, with Trump and party leaders sniping at each other.  At least they haven't pulled out their real guns yet.  This... isn't healthy for democracy.  So, what causes parties to break apart for real?

Um, almost nothing in this country.  It hasn't happened since the Whigs.  That's W-h-i-g-s, but the irony is fitting.  That was over the party's inability to grapple with slavery, which was centrally a policy schism.  This... isn't policy.  While the Republicans are divided over trade and immigration, that isn't why Trump is feuding with Paul Ryan, John Thune and the other party leaders.  The Republican Party is in a state of civil war because they nominated the worst candidate ever.

But, that creates a different problem.  Once Trump loses, and he will lose unless something big happens in the next 26 days, the problem will be the conflict between Republican leaders and Trump's voters.  Back in August, I posted this about how the question going forward will be what happens with Trump's voters after he loses.  I was pretty dismissive of claims that the Republican Party might collapse.  I'm only slightly less dismissive now.

Here's the problem.  Trump, for all his business bluster, isn't what I call a "Chamber of Commerce" Republican.  Chamber of Commerce Republicans want low taxes, minimal regulation and stability.  Trump has no coherent policy beliefs because he has never thought coherently about policy before.  His newfound belief in tax cuts is what he adopted after Republicans flocked to him for his leadership of the birther movement, and beyond that, Trump's inherent instability makes Chamber of Commerce Republicans look at him like a ticking time bomb.  Combine that with Trump's nativist and isolationist platform, adopted out of convenience to go along with birtherism, and Trump wound up putting not just himself, but his voters directly at odds with the Chamber of Commerce.

And that's the real problem.  He exposes a fissure that has been suppressed for a long time.  The real problem once he loses isn't really that he whines about the election being rigged.  I've tackled that one before.  The biggest problem for the Republican Party is that he keeps his supporters agitated against their own leadership, and now that the feud is going full steam ahead, that is almost certain.

Remember, for all Trump's sinking chances, he's still popular with a big chunk of the Republican electorate.  And he can command press attention, even after he loses, to a degree that most losers cannot.  Think of Mitt Romney.  Remember that guy?  Once he lost, his ability to draw media attention dwindled.  Do you think that will be the case with Trump?  Nope.  So, what happens if Trump decides not to stir up violence and try to lead a revolution, but instead to extract vengeance on Republican Party leadership for betraying him on the premise that if they had stuck with him, he would have won?  Trump, unlike normal losing candidates, will get press attention, and Trump, unlike other losers, will have a following.  What happens to the Republican Party if he keeps whining about how Ryan and others stabbed him in the back?

I don't know.  Parties are remarkably stable and solid.  They have survived a long time, and endured a lot.  Can Donald Trump bring down the Republican Party?  Probably not.

Then again, this year is nuts.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Are there really any plausible Trump victory scenarios left?

There is no such thing as "statistically impossible," and this year is nuts.  But let's get real.  The polls have gotten everything right this year.  Trump got the nomination after leading the Republican primary polls throughout the entire contest.  Clinton beat Sanders after leading him in the polls the entire time.

And aside from that narrow window between the conventions, Clinton has led Trump all along.  And Trump is sinking fast, with little time left.  Here's where they stand now.

The polls could all be wrong, except for those screwy LA Times polls that have shown Trump ahead, and even they now put it at a tie.  That looks less likely with each new poll, though.  Trump is just losing.  Badly.

I've been saying for a while that it would take a major economic collapse or a terrorist attack for Trump to win, occasionally appended with a reference to Putin trying to intervene, like with the DNC hacks.  We are getting to the point, though, that we need to take an economic collapse off the table.  The 2008 collapse didn't happen over night.  There was a build-up that began with a recession starting in December of 2007.  Unless major banks are cooking the books, like the Greek government was when it collapsed, or something like that, there just isn't enough time for a total collapse.  Even a major stock market crash probably couldn't do it.

Terrorism?  Let's be clear.  It would have to be 9/11 scale, not some dumbass with a homemade bomb or AR15 who pledged allegiance to ISIS on facebook because his girlfriend left him.  Possible?  Sure, but it's been 15 years, and we have less than a month to go.  Probability?  Low, and not the 11% that PredictWise currently gives Trump.

On the topic, though, it is worth pointing out that normally, national security crises are associated with a "rally round the flag" effect, in which the president's approval rating goes up.  See, in particular, the work of Richard Brody.  However, the effect relies on "elite consensus," and, um, that wouldn't happen.  The Republican Party wouldn't rally around Obama.  They'd do the opposite.  It is worth noting, though, that this would be a deviation from historical norms.

So what's left?  More Putin hacks?  It would have to be a doozy.  A real scandal, like a demonstrable quid pro quo, but Clinton would never be stupid enough to admit that in an email.  And even with a quid pro quo corruption thing, it would probably have to be big, given the extent of Trump's troubles.  If it were as simple as agreeing to make a phone call as Sec. State to help out a Clinton Foundation donor with some minor dispute, then quid pro quo or not, it would be too minor to overshadow Trump's mess.

And that's the point here.  I'm having trouble constructing plausible scenarios of Trump winning.  Am I willing to rule it out?  No.  This year is too crazy to rule anything out.  But let's be clear here.  Trump winning?  That would be crazy at this point.  Like, major party nominee caught on tape bragging about sexual assault, crazy.  Oh, wait...

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

A warning on polls

Trump is basically toast.  His chances of winning aren't absolutely zero.  By definition, nothing is statistically impossible, and we cannot completely rule out a total economic collapse or 9/11-style attack, which might overwhelm even Trump's status as the worst presidential nominee ever.  But, let's not read too much into the immediate polls.

Take a look at RealClearPolitics.  Yikes.  A 14 point lead in the NBC poll for Clinton.  Will that hold?  Probably not.  Things will probably level out.  Probably.  In order for a lead that big to hold, we need major defections or big abstentions on the Republican side.  Possible?  Sure.  Likely?  No.

Then again, we could also see far more stuff come out.  With Trump, there's always the chance that there will be more.  Then again, that could be said for Clinton.

My point is simple.  This year is crazy.  Apparently, there are even people running around doing scary clown stuff.  Here's one of my all-time favorite musicians.  He's a better guitarist than anyone you've ever heard of, and often writes about creepy clowns.

A pretentious and aspirationally Carlinesque digression on linguistics and pussygate

                                               (My cats, Drusilla and Spike)

Yesterday in class, a student noted that I use the term, "pussygate," on this blog.  By formal, legal decree, we must append the suffix, -gate, to every political scandal, thus, "pussygate."  Yet I didn't say it in the classroom.  Hypocrisy?  No.  Cowardice.  Or, self-interest.  Same diff.  Yet, I'll say most of the words on George Carlin's list of seven dirty words in the classroom.  Which won't I say?  Figure it out.  Here's the list:  "shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker, tits."  There's a word there that I won't even type except when directly quoting/hiding behind Carlin.

I'll repeat what I've been saying here.  What is actually disgusting about the tape is not the fact that Trump says "pussy."  It is that he brags about sexual assault.  Consider what we call, in social science (see? social science and pussy!) the "counterfactual."  What if the world had been otherwise?  What if Donald Trump had bragged about being able to grab women "by their quims?"  Too archaic?  Fine.  How about just this:  "grab them between their legs."  Linguistically clean, right?  Would the reaction be as harsh?

Obviously, we can't rewind time and run the experiment.  In social science, we call that "the fundamental problem of causal inference."  We can't know the effect of the word, "pussy," on Trump's trials and tribulations without an impossible time travel experiment.  But, as a cynic who has no respect for the intelligence of the unwashed masses, I suspect that the reaction wouldn't be as harsh.  AND THAT WOULD BE A MAJOR FUCKING PROBLEM!  I contend that the "between their legs" version is precisely as vile, even if it wouldn't incur the ire of tv censors.

And it gets worse.  The rule that we can't say "pussy" actually winds up giving Trump less harsh news coverage than he deserves.  Let's consider the absurdity of news coverage.  Trump's comments are never directly quoted by network news, nor on the pages of outlets that attempt to follow the standards that Carlin worshippers like me do not respect.  Consider "The Old, Gray Lady."  Somehow, that sounds wrong right now, doesn't it?  It is actually the real nickname of The New York Times.  Anyway, they won't quote Trump directly, in full.  Why?  Cuz' "pussy" is a naughty word!  Instead, do a quick Google search for the words, "Trump lewd."  I get over 10 million hits, with The New York Times in the first set, and I say that's fucking bullshit.  Those comments weren't lewd.  They were fucking violent.  But, austere and respectable types fall back on words like "lewd" to avoid quoting Trump and saying "pussy."  In doing so, they gloss over exactly what was so vile in what he said, giving cover to him.

See how that shit works?  And this critique couldn't even be discussed in polite company, whatever the fuck that is, because I'm saying "pussy," along with "fuck" and "shit."  Of course, "pussy" doesn't even make Saint Carlin's blessed list.  Why?  The point of Carlin's list is that they are the words that could never be uttered.  "Pussy" has a context in which it can be used.  See that picture up there of my geek-named cats?  What, you thought I was just being obnoxious?  Of course I am, but with a point.

We all know exactly what Trump said.  The dance that journalists have to do to avoid saying it out of respect for the arbitrary distinction between polite and vulgar is just ludicrous, and we cannot ignore the likelihood that the reaction would be at least slightly less severe had Trump just said "crotch."

Now, imagine if Trump hadn't said "pussy," but instead said a word I'm too much of a fucking coward to even type outside a direct quote from Carlin.  The one that starts with a "c."  Would it be worse?  Could it get worse?  Should it be worse?

NO!!!!!!!!  Socially, we treat "the c word" as worse than "pussy," but the problem was that Trump bragged about sexual assault.  There is no polite way to commit rape or brag about it.  Trying to be polite about it might even make it more creepy, like the villain who tries to soothe you while murdering you.

And yet I won't even type the "c" word unless quoting Carlin.  Why?  I'm a fucking coward.  Also, I'm a professor.  Who is a coward.

Can we derive, from first principles, an argument against that word?  No.  Not in the way we can for racial slurs.  Why won't I ever use the n-word?  Because its use entails a threat, based on history.  Pretty simple.  Is there similar history for that word I'm not using?  Nope.  Nothing else comes close to the n-word in that sense.  Is there some threat?  Arguably.  The fact that you don't hear that word except from people like, well, Trump, arguably means there is a threat, but that doesn't carry the historical weight of the n-word.  It's just the fact that even Carlin didn't do a lot of extended riffs on the c-word means there is implicit weight.

So, maybe that's what comes next.  A tape of Trump using the c-word.  And people get offended by the word, as though it is worse than bragging about sexual assault.  And my point is that it would be fucking bullshit.  The problem isn't, or shouldn't be, that he said "pussy," and it shouldn't be a problem that I call this scandal "pussygate."  The problem is that Trump brags about sexual assault.  And damn it, stop calling his comments "lewd."  They were violent.

Fuck it.  I need some George Carlin to cheer me up.

Monday, October 10, 2016

A strange debate and finite space

Excuse me, but I spent six years at Berkeley working on my Ph.D., and never got around to taking any illicit drugs.  Seriously.  I've never even taken a puff from a regular, old cigarette, much less whatever makes the kids want to vote for Bernie Sanders or Gary Johnson.  So, um, is this what it feels like to be on drugs?

Yeah, that was weird.  There are so many things that we could discuss.  A nominee is at odds with his running mate on Syria and Russia, and he says they don't talk.  He appears no more informed about Aleppo than Gary Johnson.  He promised to lock up his opponent if he wins.  The other nominee, faced with a question about two-facedness, defended herself with Lincoln, giving the line of the night to a guy who brags about sexual assault and invites Howard Stern to lust after his 17 year old daughter.  And that didn't come up, because nobody wants to talk about how creepy that is.

But really, does this matter?  No.  Why not?  Because Donald Trump said "pussy."  How much of the reaction to the tape is the violent content, and how much is the salaciousness of the word?  More of the latter than most would care to admit, but that isn't my point today.  My point today is that the tape is just too central to everyone's attention.  Nothing that happened last night was big enough to dislodge it from its central position in our political dialog.  Without the tape, could any of last night's events be major news?  Absolutely, but remember, this year, the normal rules don't apply.

Once that tape came out, it became the story.  Nothing else can replace it as the main story because everyone, even me, has a finite amount of time that can be devoted to politics.  Every second spent reading or watching something about the tape is time not spent reading or watching something about another topic.  Media outlets are similarly constrained.  Any space devoted to the tape is space not devoted to something else.  Resources, same.

This explains the nature of the Trump strategy now.  He has to find tactics so big that they can supplant the tape.  Call Clinton the devil.  Accuse Bill of rape.  Demand Clinton's arrest.  The point here is the extremity because only an extreme tactic can possibly make for a bigger story than pussygate.  Will it work?  Probably not, but it doesn't matter to Trump because if he doesn't try, he's toast anyway.

What's amusing here is that the normal, old rules of newspapers still apply, even in the internet era.  Just as newspapers are/were constrained by how much they could print, even in "cyberspace" (do the kids still say that?), there is an effective limit to how much of anything can get attention, even if there is no practical limit to how much can be out there somewhere.  Notice, for example, that Trump can't be bothered to know anything about Aleppo.  Just like Gary Johnson!  Why?  In Trump's case, laziness in incuriousness, but in the case of others, there are too many competing issues.  And as long as pussygate dominates the political landscape, last night's other spectacles are of minimal relevance.  The tape will remain the big thing until supplanted by something more interesting.  And Trump will try to make something else more interesting, which was what we saw last night.

Regardless, what we saw was a bizarre spectacle, leaving me to wonder-- do I finally know what it feels like to be on drugs?