Game Token

Venturing into deep waters, but here goes: I think it’s safe to say that with Sarah Palin on the ticket, Team McCain has all but sewn up the battle for Alaska’s three electoral votes.

Palin’s sudden elevation from obscure environmental menace to No. 2 on the ticket is the most surprising rise to national prominence since Bush II named Harriet Myers to the Supreme Court. It’s reminiscent, too, of the cynicism that led Bush I to nominate Clarence Thomas to the court.

In the Myers case, the choice met with derision: Mr. President, you’re asking us to believe you have searched our great land high and low and that this is the best candidate for our most august tribunal? Of course, under this president, the notion that competence is a prerequisite, or even desirable, for high office has taken a beating. But in the Myers case, the howls were so loud and insistent from all quarters that the president was forced to let his friend withdraw herself from consideration for the court.

McCain’s choice of Palin provokes the Myers reaction all over again. Senator McCain, you’ve combed the ranks of GOP officeholders everywhere–and even a non-GOP one in the repugnant person of Joe Lieberman–and this is the person you want us to believe is the best-qualified to vault into high office?

OK–if you say so.

As even the dimmest pundit can see and as Palin herself made clear in her debut, she’s on the ticket as a magnet for the legions of Hillary Clinton voters so crushed by Obama winning the Democratic nomination that they’re going to vote for McCain. For them, Palin would clinch the deal. Or maybe McCain and his brain trust believe that everyone who voted for Clinton voted for her because she was a woman. Run out a new body in a pantsuit, put some of the same rhetoric on stage, and see whether anyone notices the difference.

We’ll see how that works, I guess. Meantime, from the Republicans, the party that has fought affirmative action at every turn, arguing that it begets tokenism and promotes the unqualified over the qualified, we get another bizarre episode of tokenism to ponder. When civil rights pioneer Thurgood Marshall died, they found a black man bent on reversing his legacy to take his seat on the Supreme Court. When Sandra Day O’Connor retired from the court, they suggested a woman without a scintilla of judicial experience or preparation to replace her. And now, to appeal to the partisans of Clinton–as steadfast an opponent of the GOP right as any Democrat–they put up a right-wing Republican.

Numbers ‘n’ Stuff

The New York Times op-ed page today features a column by Neil deGrasse Tyson, an astrophysicist at the American Museum of Natural History’s Hayden Planetarium. To be honest, what drew my attention was a display quote in the column that says, “The math says that [Hillary] Clinton is quitting while she’s ahead.” Like many others who have watched the Democratic race, I’ve found it perplexing that Clinton won nearly all the biggest states but not the nomination. That’s an interesting and important topic—history will eventually show that despite Clinton’s insistence Barack Obama is some sort of defenseless naïf, he and his campaign just plain outsmarted her and hers—but that’s not what Tyson is writing about.

No—he’s taking a method of analyzing political poll results developed by another astrophysicist, Princeton’s J. Richard Gott III, and torturing it to come up with the claim that “if the general election were held today, Barack Obama would lose to John McCain, while Mr. McCain would lose to Mrs. Clinton.”

That’s a bold declaration, and you’d sure like to see it backed up. But that’s not what happens in the column. Instead, Tyson cites a paper by Gott and another author “that has been accepted for publication in the journal Mathematical and Computer Modelling” (meaning: you and I can’t read it to check the accuracy of Tyson’s summary of it or, feeble-minded as we is, try it out for ourselves). Here’s how Tyson describes what Gott & Co. discovered with their as yet unpublished new tool:

“[I]n swing states, the median result of all the polls conducted in the weeks prior to an election is an especially effective predictor of which candidate will win that election — even in states where the polls consistently fall within the margin of error.”

That’s it: no definition of “swing states,” no useful definition of “the median result of all the polls,” not even a precise statement of the time frame. But those details are dispensable, because this analysis is so powerful, Tyson writes, that Gott was able to correctly predict 49 out of 50 state races in the 2004 contest between Bush II and John Kerry. So Tyson decided to put it to work looking at the 2008 race, with results as mentioned above. Tyson says, with the certainty of Ptolemy describing the sun’s orbit around the Earth, that “this analysis does not predict what will happen in November. But it describes the present better than any other known method does.”

Being generous, one can only say about Tyson’s “analysis” that it reads as if substantial sections of explanation have been edited out to make the piece fit the page. His examples don’t illuminate much about Gott’s method. Beyond that, two flaws seem transparent. Tyson acknowledges one: that public opinion shifts over time. My translation: It’s ridiculous to project the electoral landscape in November based on iffy reading of polls five to six months ahead of time. Ask Michael Dukakis if you don’t believe me.

The other major flaw in Tyson’s “work” is his attempt to use a tool applied to a two-candidate race nearing the finish line in a single election and applying it to a wildly different set of circumstances. Poll respondents asked whether they’d prefer Obama or Clinton over McCain in May were being asked a theoretical question. Yes, it was certain that either Obama or Clinton would oppose McCain. But the very nature of the campaign at that point, as unsettled and increasingly divisive as it was, might skew the result. You wonder if Gott himself would make the predictive claim for his method, as applied here, that Tyson does.

(If Tyson’s piece was heavily edited, the Times would perform a public service by publishing the full piece. It would also help to have a link to Gott’s paper so that readers can judge for themselves whether Tyson is representing it accurately.)

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Exit Polls Again …

Well, the polls are closed in Pennsylvnania and the The New York Times says that Obama and Clinton are “locked in a tight race” and that the result is “too close to call.” Others appear to be on the same page: CNN says it’s a “competitive race.” The Philadelphia Inquirer, on its home page, perhaps tellingly, doesn’t offer a take.

So what do the exit polls say? Well, you never know what you’re really dealing with here, especially given your analyst’s near perfect state of ignorance of what other information is out there.

That said, the exit numbers show a close win for Clinton. If the poll numbers displayed on CNN reflect something close to reality, about 78 percent of those voting in the Pennsylvania Democratic primary are 40 or older; Clinton is winning handily with that group. Some 38 percent of the Democratic poll respondents are 60 and older, and Clinton wins that group 59-41. Obama wins the 39 and under voters decisively, too. Based on the numbers in the age category only, Clinton comes out with something like 52 percent of the vote in the end.

For the vote by race, the CNN exit poll appears to have statistically significant results only for white voters. Among white voters, Clinton got a significantly larger share in every age group except the youngest (18-29), where she has a 50-50 split with Obama. My guess from this category and from others (education, religion, gun ownership, region) where Clinton seems to enjoy large advantages–and considering also that the exit polls show 58 percent of the Democratic voters in Pennsylvania were women–I think Clinton will wind up with something like 55 or 56 percent of the vote. Not as close, probably, as the major news outlets are saying (or hoping, perhaps).

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