Vote for a Future, Not the Odds of a Horserace

I am amazed by the number of pundits that seem to believe only Clinton supporters can add numbers. Today’s New York Times columnist, Paul Krugman, illustrates this in his piece entitled ‘Feel The Math’. Since his ideas repeat a very common argument, it is important to call out the problems with Krugman’s math lessons.

First, even though Krugman criticizes the horserace mentality of the media, his argument is stuck in that horserace mentality. He is such a fish in water than he doesn’t get it. His argument is that Clinton is the odds on favorite, with Sanders facing impossible odds, so get with the program, give up on Sanders, and support Clinton. He makes the odds of the race the principle reason for supporting the Clinton campaign.

The flip side of this first point, is that Krugman and others fail to understand the degree that so many of those who support Senator Sanders, as I do, believe that he has big ideas that merit support. We are registering our support for him and his ideas. Bernie’s tag line of ‘A Future We Can Believe In’ resonates with his supporters. Sanders has run a campaign on policy, and his vision of the directions we need to move on such issues as campaign finance reform, ridiculous inequities in income distribution, treating a college more like we have been treating a high school education for decades, and more. Support for Sanders is a vote in favor of his vision, his big ideas, tied into a coherent framework, versus small ideas only linked by pragmatic incrementalism.

Unknown

Secondly, Krugman and others must know that calling an election before it is over has a major impact on late voting. Television networks cannot call an election until the polls close, but this is essentially what is happening in calling an election during a rolling set of primaries. It is one thing for a candidate to decide to postpone or stop their campaign, but for the media to get behind the Democratic Party establishment and the Clinton campaign to convince Bernie Sanders to stop his campaign, or for his supporters to abandon him, is a huge mistake. In the longterm, it will rebound on trust in the media and the party, but in the short-term, it will undermine the votes for that candidate downstream. What is truly remarkable is the degree that much of Senator Sanders’ support that held up to this onslaught by the supporters of the other side, who think they are the only one’s who can do arithmetic.

Finally, it might be worth noting that Bernie Sanders is not Hillary Clinton. And Hillary Clinton is no Barack Obama. 2016 is not 2008. The math argument always makes these analogies, saying we’ve been here before. This is a repetition of 2008. Not true. These are very different candidates, different bases of support, with very different baggage, and in a very different context. Not surprisingly, the mathematicians are poor historians.

If Hillary’s election is so inevitable – if she has the math race locked up, then what is the panic? Why the urgency in trying to sway late voters to support Hillary by making an argument based on math rather than policy and platforms. Let the primary voters in California vote on the basis of the candidates ideas, not on the odds of the horserace.

Polls Right; Pundits Wrong: The Story of the Sander’s Upset Win in Michigan

The day after Bernie Sanders won an amazing come-from-behind victory in the Michigan primary, what was the story on NPR? Not the political dynamics of this late surge in support for Bernie. No. It was all about why the polls did not get this right!

To me, this is equivalent to punters blaming the bookies for not calling a horse race correctly. Anyone involved the slightest in polling can imagine a wide array of reasons why polls might be off. But poll after poll had Clinton ten to twenty-two percentage points ahead of Sanders. Could they have been correct, and there was a true surge in support for the Sanders’ candidacy? Could the last debate have made a difference? Probably. However, instead of looking closely at the likely shift in voting intentions, the pundits wanted poor polling to be the story. The polls made them – the pundits – look bad, as they debated all evening thinking they knew the outcome of the contest. They did not.

A related observation was the degree that CNN kept failing to call the election, despite the margin for Sanders remaining very steady, around two percent. This was all the way up to nearly 90 percent or more of the actual vote. Why? They kept muttering that the Clinton polls have her winning but possibly by only a small percentage. So not only were the ‘journalists’ believing the polls over the actual vote tallies, but they were hanging on the predictions of one of the candidates’ handlers. We all know that polls can influence the voters, but now we see polls dangerously influencing the reporters.

The Bernie Sanders’ campaign pulled off a major upset in Michigan. It defied all the predictions of pollsters and pundits. His rise in voter support should be the story, and what it might mean for the coming primaries, and not hand-wringing over the accuracy of the pollsters.

Michigan Results for Sanders
Michigan Results for Sanders

America’s Flawed Televised Primary Debates: Three Nonpartisan Explanations

CNBC was the object of heated criticism of the way in which their GOP primary debate was moderated. During and after the debate, moderators were ridiculed for asking ‘gotcha’ questions and not focusing on the issues. CNN presenters suggested that such criticism was unfair, since the CNN and Fox News orchestrated debates had asked similar questions. Indeed, all three media enterprises suffered from very similar problems in the way the debates were managed and moderated. [For instance, see my blog with Tracy Westen, grading of the first Fox News debate.]

US Televised Presidential Primary Debates 2015
US Televised Presidential Primary Debates 2015

The central problem was a focus on questions that might be okay in an interview for television, but not for a debate. Rather than asking questions that enabled the candidates to debate with one another over their policy positions, the questions sought to catch each respective candidate off-guard with a question that challenged them to explain a critical observation surfaced by the interviewer. Many were indeed gotcha questions, but these were the focus of all the debates. Many others were just silly, such as the very first question asked in the CNBC debate that pushed each candidate to identify their major weakness. That is of course a standard interview question for entry-level job candidates, which most job applicants are well coached to avoid, as each presidential candidate did. But even addressing such a silly question belittles the candidates.

This was particularly problematic in the CNBC debate for two reasons. First, the candidates and their handlers had been experiencing this treatment over the course of the previous debates, so they must have begun to realize how the manner of questioning was undermining their credibility and failing to focus on the issues. It is true that candidates themselves are often adverse to clearly taking positions on policy questions. It is one way to lose as well as gain support. But policy differences are what a debate should seek to uncover. Secondly, the candidates and audience was set up to expect this debate to focus on issues in finance and business. Finally, we were told, policy issues would be the center of attention. This was not the case.

Why did the moderators fail to address the issues?

The major reason given by most candidates focused on a partisan, liberal bias of the media, which led them to attack the Republican candidates. I believe this explanation misses the mark. Let me suggest several other more plausible arguments.

First, it is not clear that the moderators really understand how to ask debate questions. Even when challenged on the questions, most of the media commentators defended themselves, saying that they asked ‘tough questions’ of all candidates. They seemed focused on not asking a question that would be easy for a candidate to easily respond with a prepared response. But the serious complaints were not about moderators asking tough questions. The moderators did not even understand the criticism being levelled on them. They seldom defended the style of questions, which seemed oriented to one-on-one personal interviews. The debates became a set of serial personal interviews, occasionally asking more than one candidate to answer or respond. Instead, they should come up with tough questions that will generate a debate among the candidates, such as around the budget, civil rights, or foreign policy. These questions were few and far between. 

Secondly, and related to this propensity for one-on-one interview questions, was an apparently clear effort for interviewers to impress their peers. How did the interviewers look and sound during the debates, was probably more important than how the candidates differentiated themselves on the issues. Note how many reviews of the debates focused on this or that moderator, as opposed to the candidates. This was as much about how many minutes does each moderator garner, as about the time allotted to each candidate. 

Thirdly, and related to this, is the media ratings game. Inadvertently, as the moderators prepared for the debates with their colleagues, you can imagine them rejecting various policy-oriented questions as too complex, or not that interesting to their imagined audience. In contrast, a simple question like ‘What is your major weakness?’ is easily understood and suspenseful. So the questions that would be more likely to engage an audience accustomed to game shows and reality TV get prioritized and those that are too policy oriented get shelved. The outcome was not a debate, but an entertaining three-ring circus, and one that successfully gained a huge viewership, more than the world series games that CNBC imagined itself to be in competition for viewers. This was more about generating ratings, than ensuring that viewers gained an understanding of how candidates stood on the issues.  

 

I’m not sure this is a case of the voters getting the candidates they deserve, as much as the viewers getting the moderators they deserve. This is not so much the outcome of a imagined partisan bias of the media as it is about a lack of professionalism (not even understanding the aim of a ‘debate’ v an interview), appealing to peers, and scoring high in the media ratings.

Stop the Televised Debates and Shift to the Internet

The Republican debates are about to occur on television in ways that will provide an unfair advantage to the chosen ten, and undermine the campaign of at least six other candidates. Exposure of lesser known candidates on televised debates can make a significant difference.* Since there are viable alternatives to television determining the fate of the Republican primaries, they should be considered.

The Internet has no news hole. There is no limit of the number of candidates who could respond simultaneously, and on video, to the same questions. You could even include the Democratic Party candidates – why not? Ask all contenders the same questions. Simultaneously live stream their responses, and let the press and the votes pick and choose which candidates to view, and how to compare and contrast their responses. As they will be saved, some voters could look at all responses to the question of most interest to them, or look at all the responses of the candidates they want to know more about.

This idea was one aspect of The Democracy Network, developed by Tracy Westen, when he was President of the Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles, and of The Democracy Network, during the early years of the Web.** His basic idea was that the issue positions of all candidates for all issues can be available on the Web, while television and the newspapers can only cover a selected set of candidates and issues, since they are limited by time and column inches, respectively.

This is clearly an opportunity to use the Interent to more fairly represent all the candidates in the primaries. Closer to the election, as the list grows shorter, a live televised debate could then be considered and be done in a fair way that does not put the media in the role of kingmaker.

* For example, see this study of Britain’s televised leadership debates: http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1778442

** See: http://www.ifp.illinois.edu/nabhcs/abstracts/westen.html