Monday, January 07, 2008

Butt forward with talking heads--STILL BLOGGING

I am a pundit on television. See how important I am--Two important defeats have gone unmarked in last week's Iowa primary and notice should be taken. It happened again in New Hampshire, although this time it was so bad everyone noticed. The polls picked the right winner in Michigan but got the margin of victory wrong.

With amazement and glee:
  • The polls in all states, with only one exception in Iowa, were absolutely wrong and predictably so.
  • The pundits, with no exceptions, were absolutely wrong in both states and predictably so.

Every poll the night before the Iowa caucuses, except the one in the Des Moines Register, showed a tight race, with Hillary Clinton the most likely winner. As we all know, Barack Obama won by 8 percent, a substantial victory. All the polls in New Hampshire were flat wrong, predicting Obama by double digits. He lost by 2 percent. I said the failures were predictable because it is exceptionally difficult to predict caucuses and not much easier predicting primaries. The key is measuring who is likely to show up.  In both states, more people voted than the pollsters thought would vote. And the two populations differed: In Iowa, women went for Obama; in New Hampshire they went for Clinton. Go figure.

After Iowa, the "experts" were talking about Hillary dropping out. Even her own campaign believed it and the in-fighting and panic in her campaign team was loud and open. They were wrong too.

What happened?

Caucuses require time,  effort and mental energy and not everyone is likely to spend any of the above unless they really, really care. Pollsters have always had problems formulating questions that accurately predict who they will be. In the case of Iowa last week, they failed. Far more people showed up than the pollsters had thought might and they went for Obama. In New Hampshire, the opposite was true: the newcomers went for Clinton.

The exception in Iowa was the Register poll, run by Ann Selzer, who got it right on the mark.

Mark Blumenthal, who runs the indispensable, says it was not blind luck. Selzer had a system in place that worked and she stuck too it. (She runs her own company and works on contract to the newspaper). When her poll showed Obama winning handily, she was attacked by the campaigns of other candidates and by other pollsters. She stuck to her guns. Other polls, Zogby in particular was wildly wrong. It had Clinton winning with a fair margin. Polls were wrong four years ago as well. Makes you wonder why media that are busy laying off reporters for financial reasons will still spend a fortune on polls that are often wrong.

Here's Blumenthal's take on New Hampshire. The best explanation is that the polls stopped too soon--they did not pick up the last-minute arrival of Mrs. Clinton's sisters. He also challenges Zogby to defend his claim he spotted the Clinton trend but had to stop polling too early.

The pundits are another problem, Rant alert!

They live in Washington, which may be the capital of the United States but isn't like the real
America at all, and they assume knowledge they do not have, like what those of us outside the beltway are thinking or live like. They run in herds. It's not just the politicians; the journalists are just as bad. If I owned a newspaper I would not let any of my reporters stay in the Washington bureau for more than five years. After that, they get intellectually corrupted. The press in the case of this campaign has been wrong repeated and infuriatingly, yet they blabber on.

Remember when Hillary Clinton was inevitable? Remember when John McCain was dead? Isn't Huckabee a character in a Twain novel? Nobody can win without having more money than anyone else? Obama was dead. Then Clinton was dead. I could go on. When Selzer's poll in Iowa came out, the chattering class jumped on it as contrary to the common wisdom. It had to be wrong. Even the reporters traveling in the state with the candidates missed an emotional surge that played itself out Thursday in Iowa and then they overestimated the surge in New Hampshire. They are clueless.

New Hampshire should have been another case. Primaries also are difficult to poll, and the talking heads still don't know what they are talking about. Some of them gave up only reluctantly. As the race in New Hampshire continued to be remarkably close and as it looked like Clinton might actually win, the pundits were incredulous. At PBS, David Brooks, the conservative columnist of the New York Times kept saying "the numbers don't add up." This can't be real, he said. Oh really? He finally conceded around midnight.

There is one more factor, perhaps. Obama is black. That did not seem to matter in Iowa but it is possible--and I don't know if it happened--that voters lied to pollsters in New Hampshire about their willingness to vote for a black. The race card. I have no idea if that happened.

And, again, if you want to know what's really going on with the polls, see Blumenthal here.

Several political asides that have nothing to do with science:
  • Obama's victory speech, though it went on too long, was a classic in American political history. He changed my mind. It apparently was less impressive to some in New Hampshire.
  • The Republicans are really in bad shape when all they can produce is John McCain and the Seven Dwarfs.
  • Mitt Romney is evil. Fortunately, the more people know him, the less likely they are to like him. He has already lost twice and keeps going because he has no character, and that's scary.
The picture above, by the way, is pollster John Zogby, probably not explaining why he charges so much money for his polls and gets them wrong.


Nani said...

Hello Joel

I'm embarrassed to admit my first name is Romney-no relation, really-and I'm not evil.

I actually wanted to ask you something in regards to a very old post on your other blog (not at all relevant to your post)-a comment you made about "clapping at sunsets" at Nepenthe restaurant (from a 2005 graduation speech).

I can copy you here or is there an e-mail to drop you a line.

Thanks, Romney (Nani) Steele
(In the interest of disclosure, my family owns Nepenthe and I'm writing a book about growing up there.)

Joel Shurkin said...

I am SO jealous. I'll e-mail.


CW said...

Hello, Joel. Haven't commented here for a long time.

W/R/T New Hampshire -

Having worked for Dem machines in both MD and Chicago, I was immediately suspicious when I heard that polling stations had run out of ballots by late morning. Perhaps the stock of ballots had been previously filled in. Or, perhaps some people were taking advantage of NH's permissive motor-voter law.

Does anyone know whether there are chads on NH ballots?

CW (aka chsw)