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Nate Silver’s Probabilities vs Peggy Noonan’s Feelings

November 8, 2012 Leave a comment

Nate SIlver and Peggy Noonan


As part of the introspection that conservative partisans like Peggy Noonan are engaged in after the resounding reelection victory for President Obama Tuesday, surely one of the aspects of this exercise will be coming to the acceptance of the primacy of facts and research over emotion.

As conservatives started aiming their ire at New York Times numbers-cruncher, Nate Silver, in the closing weeks of the campaign, it is now apparent that all the froth was about what Silver was saying not the way he went about coming to his conclusions.  They were shooting the messenger.  And with every broadside, it seemed Silver would just keep upping Obama’s victory probabilities until by the final day, they had crested above 90%.   And for the second Presidential election in a row, he was spot on, accurately predicting 50 out of 50 states (presuming Florida finishes where it is now).

Over at the Wall Street Journal, former Ronald Reagan speechwriter, Peggy Noonan, seemed to be mocking Silver’s nerdy numbers approach by predicting a Mitt Romney victory based on, among other things,  the size of the Republican candidate’s closing crowds, their decibel levels, even her perception of how Romney lawn signs were outnumbering Obama’s.

There is no denying the Republicans have the passion now, the enthusiasm. The Democrats do not. Independents are breaking for Romney. And there’s the thing about the yard signs. In Florida a few weeks ago I saw Romney signs, not Obama ones. From Ohio I hear the same. From tony Northwest Washington, D.C., I hear the same.

She even magically entered the heads of the candidates at the annual Al Smith dinner in New York where she interpreted what she saw as an uncomfortable and distracted Barack Obama as someone who looked like they had just read disturbing data.

But sitting there listening to the jokes and speeches, the archbishop of New York sitting between them, Obama looked like a young challenger—flinty, not so comfortable. He was distracted, and his smiles seemed forced. He looked like a man who’d just seen some bad internal polling. Romney? Expansive, hilarious, self-spoofing, with a few jokes of finely calibrated meanness that were just perfect for the crowd. He looked like a president. He looked like someone who’d just seen good internals.

The remarkable thing about Noonan’s approach to political prognosticating, is that you’d think she’d know better by now.  She’s had her hand in the political game for nearly half a century.  Not that she’s alone in couching her hopes on imaginary factors she thinks she sees, like massive, noisy, huge campaign crowds at Republican rallies, advantages in political lawn signs, or someone’s demeanor sitting at a dais.   It’s natural- it’s human  to hope against hope.

Granted I was all of 16 at the time, but I remember feeling such hope for George McGovern in 1972.  Surely, polls can be wrong.  I mean, wow, 20 thousand people came out for him at one event or another.  How could a decorated World War II Air Force veteran with such strength of character be losing to Richard Nixon, for Christ’s sake.

Not too dissimilar, I suppose, from a conservative partisan thinking how such a good, religious, responsible family guy like Romney could possibly be losing to the likes of Barack Hussein Obama, for Christ’s sake.

Well, McGovern, of course, would go on to win  only Massachusetts and Washington, D.C. and Mitt Romney would go on to lose every single swing state in the election except for North Carolina (and again, we await Florida).

The lessons here are obvious.  Not that it really matters, of course, if pundits get their predictions right or horribly wrong- they are paid to bloviate no matter what.  But if one wants to be accurate and be taken seriously again someday- it would be wise to keep emotions out of it.

It would be essential, I think, to not let your observations be colored by your tribal leanings.  It might make sense to understand that 21st century polling, for example, is actually a science and that the study of statistical probability actually has an anchor in reality.

The trick for those who want to be in the business of predicting things, is learning to accept that the facts you see may not be what you wish they were.  It’s human, even endearing to think that wishing can make things happen.  But it’s not very professional.

 

Eastwooding: Gigantic Oops

August 31, 2012 2 comments

One of hundreds of “Eastwooding” images in which various dogs, cats, and humans interact with empty chairs

I’m trying to think who I would most like not to be in the Romney campaign today.  The guy who told Clint Eastwood: “Nah, go ahead, wing it.”   Or the campaign aid who cornered Eastwood in the green room.  “I know this sounds nuts, Clint, but what if we put you on stage with an empty chair?”

Most human beings with a computer and an internet connection are aware by now that beloved actor, Clint Eastwood, laid a bit of an egg on the closing night of the Republican convention with a sometimes incoherent, rambling, unscripted monologue-type-thing with an empty chair as a prop that contained an invisible Barack Obama.

Certainly a unique event in the annals of political convention history, it may well go down as one of the greatest blunders in modern political stagecraft.  In his introduction to Mitt Romney, Marco Rubio delivered a strong speech that added greatly to his rising-star status.  Romney gave what many say was the best speech he’d ever delivered.

But all anybody is talking about is the back-fire of Eastwood’s bizarre appearance.  The explosion in social media has been massive and mocking.  It is truly the stuff of cultural legend, likely to become as lasting an image as Ted Kennedy turning his back on Jimmy Carter in 1980.  An unfortunate iconic image.

The convention planners must have been completely horrified.  The event lasted just over 14 minutes, but they had to have started getting worried about 4 minutes in.  The crowd seemed to like it but the staging of conventions is not meant for the few thousand in attendance.  It’s the television, radio, and digital audience that matters, as well as the consensus media coverage that follows.  On those screens and speakers, it came off awkward and weird and it created a firestorm of instant, universal opinion- from CBS News to the New York Daily News to Entertainment Tonight- the Mother of All Distractions- obscuring the nominee’s moment in the spotlight.

Even worse, Eastwood’s appearance supplanted a moving, well-produced film biography of the nominee that ended up not being shown by the television networks to the prime-time audience.   Those films are important.  Many credit the one produced for Bill Clinton at the 1992 Democratic convention, “A Place Called Hope,” as an important factor in the eventual turn-around that elected him to the White House.

Mitt Romney deserved better than the events that transpired on closing night.  Somebody screwed up big time.

Supreme Court Throws Health Care Forecasters a Curve Ball

Intertrade had rejection of the individual mandate of the health care law a 70% certainty. Most people had followed CNN’s Jeffrey Toobin’s take on the arguments that seemed to have gone so terribly wrong for the White House back in March. And they were all wrong.

President Obama has Chief Justice John Roberts to thank for saving the Affordable Care Act. Astoundingly, Roberts, who has voted 90% of the time with the other four Republican appointees, joined the court’s four liberal justices.

What many apparently discounted, was the extent that Roberts cares about political appearances. It took some intellectual gymnastics, but, in the end, it seems the Chief Justice wanted, at all costs, to preserve the integrity of the court against perceptions it had become a blatantly political body. Or, in the true meaning of the word “conservative,” he’s the kind of judge who believes it should be very difficult to alter existing law. Or both.

The gymnastics involved was the majority of the court labeling the “fee” that would be imposed on Americans who do not get health insurance a “tax,” a word that was never actually written in the legislation and a characterization which the President vehemently denied. But basically the court’s majority was saying, if the politicians were obviously afraid to call a tax what it really is- as NPR’s Nina Totenberg put it in her analysis of the court’s action, regardless, “If it looks like a tax and acts like tax, it’s a tax.”

And that’s key because there were five justices, including Roberts, who were of the opinion that a universally charged “fee” would have been a violation of the commerce clause of the constitution; they would argue you can’t force people from all 50 different states to pay a fee if they don’t get insurance. But a tax is different. The notion that the Federal government has the right to levy a tax has long been established.

The other part of the gymnastics that seems pretty conflicted is that there’s a law Congress passed that says courts don’t rule on the constitutionality of taxes until they are actually levied and this part of the health care law has not gone into effect yet. In this aspect of the case though, Roberts deferred to Congress’ assertion in the law that it is a fee, they instituted, not a tax. To justify this decision, Roberts had to kind of have it both ways.

So where to now? President Obama gets to explain to the American public what it is that the high court saved today- because his previous communication efforts with the nation in regard to the benefits of the health care law have been widely regarded as abysmal.

And, of course, what many have called his singular accomplishment as President remains intact. Mitt Romney said earlier in the week that rejection of the health care law by the high court would have meant Obama had wasted his first three years in office. That one’s out the window.

But Republicans will likely be all fired up by what they see as a slap in the face by the court. There will be symbolic but ineffective efforts in the House to repeal the law (the Democratic-controlled Senate will never go along). Mitt Romney will make it a mantra in every speech from now until November. Republicans will now be able to use “tax increase” against the President, and overall, it seems the court’s decision will further the stark nature of the choices voters face in November- namely- the role of government in our lives.

Finally, there was a lot of ridiculous speculation and forecasting about how this ruling would go. And you know which one ended up being 100% accurate? There’s a company that makes a business out of analyzing facial expressions. According to their analysis of the way the justices reacted on the bench during the arguments- there were five justices who smiled the most. The four liberals and Chief Justice John Roberts.

For whatever reasons he took the path he did, it would appear it is John Roberts who gets the last laugh.

Democrats Way Angrier With Hilary Rosen than Republicans


I don’t doubt a lot of the G.O.P. anger at the Democratic strategist’s comments that Ann Romney “has never worked a day in her life,” is totally genuine. But it would also be political malpractice if they didn’t take tactical advantage of the gift handed them by Hilary Rosen.

With the President enjoying an 18% advantage with women voters, Democrats were beside themselves today at Rosen’s clumsy words which she continued to double and triple and quadruple down on as night turned to morning. In an article on Huffington Post she further accused Mitt Romney of hiding behind his wife’s skirt. Within a couple of hours, that particular sentence had been magically scrubbed clean.

Apoplectic Democrats including the President, the Vice President, the First Lady, the Obama team’s campaign manager, his top advisors, and for all we know, Bo, the First Family’s dog, were falling all over themselves distancing themselves as far as possible from Rosen.

Republicans are now trying to paint her as a close advisor, an Obama intimate- the President’s brain. She is, in fact, the ultimate Washington insider. The PR firm she works for advises the Democratic National Committee and she gets invited to White House state dinners, but that’s about the extent of it. Certainly, whatever minor political influence she may have had is pretty much now dust in the wind.

The point Rosen was trying to make is that Mitt Romney’s efforts to close the gender gap by saying his wife is a key advisor on the economic plight facing the nation’s women provides a narrow view because Ann Romney has had distinct economic advantages through her life.

But as a breast cancer survivor, a victim of Multiple Sclerosis, and as a woman who raised five boys, Ann Romney is also an incredibly sympathetic figure who most political observers agree connects with voters way more effectively than her husband. So on top of that, Rosen’s perceived additional attack on “stay-at-home” moms, was possibly not the smartest move for a political “strategist.” One wonders, while she was at it, why Rosen didn’t go on and assault apple pie as well.

As the Ozzie Guillen of politics (the Miami Marlins Manager who set off a firestorm by telling Time magazine he loved Fidel Castro), Ms. Rosen is not very popular right now in Democratic circles. I think she’s been invited to her last White House dinner and if I were her, I would not be looking for an invitation to the Democratic convention either.

Is this a lasting issue? I think so. The Romney’s will shortly be giving an interview to ABC’s Dianne Sawyer. It wouldn’t surprise me in the least to hear Mitt Romney make reference to the matter in his convention speech. Ann Romney has been made a heroine and her value to the campaign, in general, is now enormous.

As more than a few conservative bloggers have pointed out today, who would have thought it would be a Democratic “strategist” who would finally unite the Republican Party behind their presumed nominee?

Wow- What a Romney Win- America: Hold on to Your Hats


That’s the headline Matt Drudge and some guy named Keith Koffler would like all mainstream media to write this morning following last night’s Super Tuesday primaries.

A suddenly developing theme today among the establishment representatives of the conservative media is that there’s clearly bias if we don’t all report what a wonderful night Mitt Romney had.

Well, he didn’t. It was an o.k. night, a night that tells us what we’ve known all along- that the guy with the only professional political operation among the remaining field of candidates is probably going to end up getting the nomination. But, jeez, he’s doing it in such a painfully slow manner, it may yet be months before we are all finally able to declare the inevitable.

Drudge, hilariously, has a one-word headline under a picture of Mitt Romney holding an Olympic torch, standing with hand over his heart and the caption is FINALLY. Finally, what? Finally, Super Tuesday is over? Finally, all four remaining candidates move on to the next excruciating round of inconclusive primaries? Finally, the Drudge Report makes it inescapably clear that it is supporting the candidacy of Mitt Romney?

Drudge links to this fellow Koffler who outlines the conspiratorial thinking of the mainstream media in denying Romney his due for having vanquished all opposition last night. Except he didn’t. Rick Santorum took three states and nearly defeated Romney in Ohio having been outspent by the Romney Super Pac machine there by more than 10 to 1. The Romney people thought they were going to win their first truly contested southern state- Tennessee. They had internal polling showing Romney closing in fast. Santorum ended up winning by 9%. Romney finished 22% behind Newt Gingrich in Georgia. Exit surveys find Romney unable to make a dent in the evangelical or Tea Party vote, his negatives are sky-high, and poll after poll finds he is not connecting with blue-collar voters.

But Romney did take the lion’s share of the delegates available last night. His opponents are so well organized that except for Ron Paul, they couldn’t even manage to get themselves on the ballot in Virginia. And Rick Santorum’s operation is so amateur hour that even in counties he won big last night in Ohio, the campaign failed to field slates of delegates.

So here’s the real story and the accurate headline: Romney Stumbles Toward Finish Line. I didn’t copy it from the Washington Post or the New York Times or Politico.com. I used my very own brain which has been professionally observing American politics for over 35 years now as a news anchor, a reporter, a producer and a broadcast news executive.

And the mainstream media at large, whose headlines closely resemble the one I wrote in the paragraph above, are not involved in some massive anti-Romney conspiracy. If so many people are writing the same thing- sometimes- every now and again- it’s not because they’re reading over each others shoulders or attending a massive mainstream media conspiracy conference call every morning- it’s because we all pretty much saw the same thing unfold before our very own eyes.

The Perils of Political Forecasting

February 14, 2012 Leave a comment


Seems obvious, of course, but it’s all about the unknown. Things that seem logical on paper have a way of being ripped apart by unexpected events.

It seemed an absolute given, for example, that a President drowning in 9% unemployment figures would make an easy target. Entire political campaigns- like Mitt Romney’s- have been built on that assumption. Enter the “turnaround specialist” strategy. Touting his business and private sector credentials, Romney built a logical model for the foundation of a political strategy. Except what happens to this course if the economy starts recovering and unemployment starts dropping significantly?

In this case, many pundits are making the argument that an improving economy is one of the reasons Rich Santorum has surged. Widely seen as a candidate more focused on championing the conservative position on social issues from abortion and gay marriage to birth control and women’s role in the military, the theory goes that conservative voters will gravitate to politicians with strong social views absent alarm over the state of the economy.

Except what happens if all hell breaks loose in the world and, say, Israel decides to bomb Iran in a preemptive attempt to delay or kill off their nuclear capability? With the world on full alert in the case of such military action, Iran under attack and closing the Strait of Hormuz, and tensions escalating throughout the Middle East- it kind of makes birth control a bit of a back-seat issue, doesn’t it?

And what of the recently embraced assumptions that the American economy is on the mend and that with the President’s approval ratings on the rise, he is looking much more secure in his reelection efforts?

Looks good- except what happens if Italy, Spain and Greece go into default and world stock markets panic and the business climate suddenly becomes toxic out of fear and uncertainty? This would be the double-dip recession scenario.

But it doesn’t take cataclysmic events like war or the collapse of the European economy to change the political calculus. Today, for example, there are reports that retail sales were really sluggish in January. Maybe the jobless drop last month was just a positive blip in a still rocky road to recovery.

There’s concern that with gas prices already at $3.50 a gallon in the U.S., unusually high for this early in the year, that there could easily be $5 a gallon gas by election day. That’s a squeeze on consumers that could make for some pretty angry voters.

Taken to its extreme, the argument about the effects of unforeseen events on politics can get silly. What happens if a large meteorite strikes the Earth. What happens if a sudden burst of radiation from the Sun melts our electrical grid and modern society collapses. You could go on and on.

But here’s the thing: Our own Secretary of Defense says there’s a chance Israel really will launch an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities, possibly as early as the spring. Moody’s really did downgrade the economies of Spain, Italy, and Portugal this week and warns the same may be in store for France and England. Gasoline prices really are already high- even without a Middle East war.

The problem with those who make political predictions for a living- the punditry class- is they can only base their assumptions on the present and guess a little on what else might happen.

But anybody who’s willing to venture a prediction about who will win the next election in November is full of it. Remember that if turns out, say Jeb Bush, is standing on the west front of the Capitol building taking the oath of office next January.

How’d that happen? We don’t know now. But we’ll know then after a zillion words will have been written about how reality is stranger than fiction and how weird it was that the incredibly implausible scenario came to pass.

Mitt Just Can’t Close the Deal

February 8, 2012 Leave a comment

Notice how every time Mitt Romney starts looking inevitable, something seems to happen that delays the coronation? Last night, it was Rick Santorum that happened. And what a strategic blunder by the Romney campaign.

None of these elections Tuesday were supposed to matter. No real delegates at stake, mostly beauty contests/caucuses. There was hardly any pre-election polling. Most of the media didn’t even bother to travel to Tuesday’s election states. The Romney folks didn’t even try, short of offering up some last minute criticisms about Santorum being a fan of ear marks, making him out to be some sort of secret free spender or something.

Note to Romney campaign team: if you’re not going to actively compete why even enter the race? Wouldn’t it be a lot easier to say, “Well, what do you expect? He wasn’t on the ballot.”

The rest of the month is pretty sparse by way of primaries or caucuses. Rick Santorum now gets a few weeks of limelight and the Romney folks get a few weeks of doubt. Doubt created by coming in a distant 3rd in Minnesota, a state he had no problem with against John McCain four years ago. Doubt created by the prospect, having lost Iowa and Missouri, of a Republican Party that nominates a candidate with little appeal in the heartland. And he lost Colorado too- a huge, key swing state.

And Newt Gingrich is still around and likely to do pretty well in a lot of southern states. He’ll get his share of votes too on Super Tuesday next month. Let’s not forget Ron Paul who actually beat Romney last night in Minnesota.

On paper, Mitt Romney and his Super Pacs and organization look unbeatable. But how long will it take? How much more negative carpet bombing can the party endure as the candidates keep sniping at each other and continue to write Obama’s campaign ads for him?

The Romney strategy so far seems to be going nuclear on whoever else starts tip-toeing close to him. Five million bucks against Newt in Iowa. Nine million bucks against Newt in Florida. No doubt, the anti-Santorum attack ads are being produced as we speak.

Ninety percent of it so far has been negative advertising that does a good job eviscerating your opponent but also drives up your own negatives. And to avoid blunders, Romney has now stopped doing town hall meetings and, my guess is, very few media interviews in the days ahead; not exactly a formula for connecting with the voters.

Romney may well win a battle of attrition. Republicans will end up gathering around him, united in their virulent opposition to the Obama presidency. But he may also end up a wounded nominee going up against a well-funded incumbent with the backdrop of a suddenly improving economy- and that’s a daunting task.