Hospital Food for the Mind

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Gallup didn’t call me for their USAToday poll on the Debt Ceiling bill.  The results indicated Democrats and progressives were more positive about the final product than Republicans and Tea Party members, a fact I find incredulous.  I would have been ready to give the pollster a detailed account of my thorough displeasure over the mess this bill just created.  And that’s my take being firmly on the progressive side of the opinion scale.

Let the Backfiring Begin!

One group is stumped over what happened.  Tea Party members report being dissatisfied by the bill by 80%. Despite the fact their faction acted as a curdling agent in the legislation, rendering it both unpalatible and inedible but still force-fed into law, they don’t like it.  Granted, the bill did not force the virtual dismantling of the federal government or wipe out their most despised social programs. Nevertheless, I have this sneaking suspicion that they really believed that once they had hijacked the bill, they could force their will onto the rest of the Congress Backfire #1.

Backfire #2 appears to be that the global stock markets were already weakened and skittish from the Great Recession. Near panic from the debt ceiling fight, they took one look at the junk attached to an otherwise one-page piece of legislation and that anxiety blossomed into a full-blown state of apoplexy and, among other things wiped out $ billions in the Tea Party adherents’ investments and pensions.  And, of course that crash pulled in the rest of us thanks to their gross inability to understand Macroeconomics 101.

Numerous backfires will continue to create havoc in our politics. The final one I’ll mention in this post is the credibility of conservative agenda. Magnified and distorted a thousand times by the Tea Party’s first, and we can only pray, last congressional disaster visited upon the Union, their believability has been reduced to next to nothing.  They won’t get it, of course. In fact I expect them to be noisier at least through the 2012 general election. But as the backfires continue to damage the country at home and abroad, their chance to be a sustained political voice will be muted more and more.

The tragedy for the rest of us is the consequnces we will be forced to endure. The Tea Party won’t get that either.

Hey NBC & WSJ–What’s With Your Poll Report?

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Today NBC and the Wall Street Journal released a new survey conducted by the polling company Hart/McInturff.  MSNBC.com’s deputy political director, Mark Murray writes,

The GOP’s ‘likely’ advantage

In the survey, 50 percent of likely voters say they prefer a Republican-controlled Congress, versus 43 percent who want Democrats in charge.

Last month, Republicans held a 46 percent to 43 percent advantage among likely voters on this question.

The GOP’s current seven-point lead, McInturff observes, is on pace — historically — to result in a shift of power in Congress. “The Democrats, with two weeks left, are facing very, very difficult arithmetic.”

Yet among the wider universe of registered voters, Democrats hold a two-point edge, 46 to 44 percent, which is up from the 44 percent to 44 percent tie in September.

But Hart calls that lead “hollow,” because not all registered voters will participate, especially in a midterm election.

Indeed, among those expressing a high interest in voting this midterm season, Republicans hold a 13-point advantage on the generic ballot, 53 percent to 40 percent.

So, as I often do, I clicked on the link to the published survey results and read it through looking for the results described in the article.  First time through I thought I missed this 50% to 43% advantage of the Republicans over the Democrats.  So I read it again, now looking line by line where that percentage comparison came up.  I couldn’t find it.  Okay, so one more time, very deliberately reading through the survey.  Nada.  What I did discover were two very interesting questions that belie a different mood in the electorate.

Keep in mind this was a survey of 1000 registered voters, which, as I have explained in previous posts, I hold to the theory that registered voters provide a more reliable sample and predictor of which way the election is more likely to go.  In two weeks we’ll know.

Let’s look first at question Q11a:

Q11a:   What is your preference for the outcome of this year’s congressional elections — (ROTATE:) a Congress controlled by Republicans or a Congress controlled by Democrats?

The result favors the Democrats 46% to Republicans 44%. That is mentioned in the quote above.  It’s also within the published margin of error of +/- 3.10%.  One could say, therefore, it’s a wash, but there is some interesting info in the trends.  The median (the midpoint of the 11 surveys NBC/WSJ has conducted since January 2010 for the Republicans is 44% and the Democrats, 43%.  Now that is tight!  The slope of those eleven surveys for this question is also small, 0.21% for the GOP and 0.25% for the Dems.  Not what you might write home about.  But still, when you apply those numbers to tens of millions of voters, small changes can make the difference.  It also shows that the Democrats are perhaps not in quite as bad a shape as the pundits have been droning on about month after month.

But there is more.  Question Q12A reads:

Q12a: If you had the choice in your congressional district, would you be more likely to vote for a (ROTATE:) Republican, Democratic, Libertarian, or  Green Party candidate for Congress?

Since the smaller party candidates are at best wild cards, we can’t make a prediction if those who claim affiliation will actually vote for them.  But here, we find the responses again favor the Democrats over the Republicans, 44% to 41%.  Unfortunately, the survey does not provide the historical results of this question.

If you have looked at the published survey results, you might have noticed a number of questions are missing.  So, we can perhaps infer that NBC and the WSJ decided the most interesting information in the survey they wanted to keep to themselves, which is their prerogative since they paid for it.  And perhaps that 50% Republican advantage is among those survey items that were, shall we say, redacted.  But if the Democrats are in such dire shape going into the election and the survey shows that is very clear, why bother with cutting questions out of the published report?  Wouldn’t a reasonable person, or especially a partisan one, such as the Wall Street Journal’s clear editorial preference for Conservatives, want that information right there for everyone to see?  I can’t answer that question, but I do find it perplexing.

Nevertheless, there is enough information to ponder the strength of the GOP’s “surge” as reported.  My updated graph with the trend lines still shows the Democrats in a stronger growth curve:



Registered Voters Surveys 18 Oct 10. Data Courtesy HuffPost Pollster

I will be eagerly looking forward to the next batch of polls to be released.  Each data point provides a world of information about might or can happen on November 2nd.

Where the Wild Things Are–Reading the Polls

Tuesday night, September 14, 2010: The final day of the big primaries prior to the general election in November.  I’m sitting watching the results come in.  My network of choice tonight is MSNBC.  It’s just so much fun watching Rachel Maddow narrate the primary like it was a Super Bowl.

Statistics during the election season are thrown around like cheap bead necklaces at a Mardi Gras parade.  Polls are quoted like they mean something and are perfect predictors of the future.

Well, I’m going to tell you something the politicians and pollsters and pundits would prefer you don’t know:

Polls Results Can Be Stretched Like Bungee-Jumping.

Yep, its true.  And I can give some simple examples.

You can follow along.  But open a new window in your browser so you can click back and forth more easily.

First click here on Pollster.com.  This should take you to the 2010 National Congressional Ballot. This is for the House of Representatives only.  What we’re interested in is the polling chart.  It should look like this:

2010 National Congressional Ballot. Image: Pollster.com

So, how do you read this mess of dots and lines?  The dots are called a scatter plot and each one represents a poll taken on a certain day or period of days (usually 2-3).  The date of the poll is on the horizontal line and the percentage Republican (red) and Democratic (blue) is on the vertical line.  The squiggly lines in the middle are called a trend line and represents the mid-point of the dots for that day.  For those of you who may have taken statistics some time in the past, this is also called a linear regression. The colors represent the same political parties as the dots.  Correction: Dr. John Bogen, an Extreme Thinkover contributor, corrected my error in labeling the trend line as a “linear regression.”  Although the trend lines are based on regression formulas, I should have labeled it as Pollster.com calls it, a “trend estimate.”  For more info on Pollster’s statistical methods for trend estimates, click here.

Now take a moment to go to the Pollster.com site and look at their “live” chart.  Each dot will open a fly-by box telling you the pollster, date and the results.  Pretty nifty, huh.  There is also an expand box in the upper right hand corner if you want to open the chart to fill your screen.  The features still all work.

What, then, does this chart, as presented, convey?  Notice the date begins in November 2008, at the time of the Presidential election and covers the time since then.  Here the trend line is easier to read because you can see the ups and downs of the popularity of each of the two major parties over the past two years.

If this chart was the only one you looked at you would conclude that the Republicans have made huge gains beginning about May 2010 and now hold a 47.1% to 40.6% lead over the Democrats.  And you would be wrong.  Something is missing.  First of all what about the undecided voters?  Where are they?  How many of them are there? What is their trend?  For that answer, click here.

A new set of black dots with a trendline appears on the chart representing those voters who answered “undecided” on who they plan to vote for.  You can also see that as this year has progressed, the line has trended just slightly upward, and only since August have more of the people made up their minds.  As of today though, the undecideds are still 10.4% of the total, which is larger than the gap between the Republicans and the Democrats.  This is where it gets interesting.

I submit that in this gap is where the wild things are, to reframe the title of Maurice Sendak’s beloved children’s book.

Reading the gaps is where the information about the most dynamic trends in the electorate are.  Follow me on this.  Go back to the original chart.  You should already have the Red, Blue and Black trends open.  On the footer is a button titled “Tools.” Click on it and it will open another footer just above with six different choices on it.  Click on “Filter.”  This will open a small window with three check boxes: Live phone interviews, automated phone (i.e. robocall) interviews, and internet.  Place your cursor on each one and you will get a list of “filter options.”  Notice on the first option, Live phone interviews, there is an arrow in the top right hand corner.  This option has three pages and we’ll use them.

We want to narrow our polling data to the most relevant and the highest chance for honest answers.  To do that, based on my criteria (you are free to choose your own), I say let’s eliminate the internet surveys, first.  They are very hard to get a true random sample and very easy to lie on.  Next, let’s eliminate the robocalls, too.  Even though the calls go out to a random sample (supposedly) it is very easy to lie to a machine.  That leaves us with the live interviews.  These surveyors, you will notice are familiar big name pollsters, who have a reputation to uphold, and nearly all of them publish their survey questions and results online for free access for anyone interested in reading them (which would include geeks like me).   We want to cull some of these, still.  They are the pollsters for both political parties because there is a greater chance they will ask weighted questions that favor their side.

So, uncheck the internet, robocalls, and on the live call pages every pollster ID’d with either a R or a D.  Now we have a select set of pollsters who are as neutral as possible and use real people to talk to voters to decrease the chance for lying or misrepresentation.

One more thing.  We really only want to look at the results for the current primary season.  So again, click on tools and then on “Date Range.”  On the left date, click on the month and set it to “01”, the day, “01” and the year, “10” and then click on the blue “Set Range” button.

Look at your results on the chart now.  The polling results have changed.  The Republicans sit at 47.7%, the Democrats at 41.1% and the undecided at a whopping 17.1%!  This, I would suggest is a much clearer picture of the state of the electorate regarding the races in the House of Representatives.  By eliminating those polls that introduce bias into the big picture, either by the way they are administered, or by the way they are designed to benefit their candidates, we can see that the November election is far less certain than most pundits and politicians are leading us to believe.

The fact that apparently over 17% of the electorate is still vacillating about who they will vote for in the general election means the predicted gains by the Republicans has to be called into question, the predicted losses by the Democrats has to be called into question, and the outcomes across the country will very possibly be different than is now being predicted.  It may also mean that the gains or losses may be greater than predicted and one party or the other end up with a significant lop-sided outcome.

But one principle in polling must not be forgotten.  Each poll is a snap-shot in time and by itself can be either an accurate or inaccurate reflection of the voters’ will. It is also important to remember the truism that all politics is local and as Dr. Bogen also points out, the undecided percentage is likely to be smaller on the local scene.  He also rightly suggests this local phenomenon, all things being equal, favors the challenger.   This same principle applies to groups of polls as well because they are aggregates of local polls.  Political trending, although becoming more sophisticated all the time still cannot reliably predict the outcome on election day every time.  We have far to go to reach the algorithmic precision of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation “psychohistory.”  In the mean time we  have to search for the data where the wild things are.

The Black Poll Wars: Bowling for Votes, Part II

The Black Poll Wars: The Coming Defeat of the Survey Polling Industry

In my previous post, I made the following rash assertion:

To be clear, here is my thesis statement for this post:  The polling data being collected and published today will in all likelihood be wrong in November when the election takes place.  Why?  The pollsters and the public believe the polls.  Right now, if you go to a website such as Polster.com, you will find an up-to-date list of all the major political surveyors and pollsters, professional and academic, party-affiliated and independent.  The people who publish the results of their surveys, for the most part, are highly trained professionals and are working very hard to mine the opinions of the American public.  They use the accepted methodologies for their survey research, collection and analysis.

Survey polling has a huge flaw.  The “black poll war” is going to produce an across-the-board defeat of the field.  The flaw is that survey polling is based on separating the majority and minority, and reporting it as if it were real.  It is their philosophical “theory of everything.”  The issue, from their perspective, is settled.  Yes, methodologies can be refined and trend analysis can be made more robust by the addition of ever-more-precise demographics.  Increasingly sophisticated software run on supercomputers can crunch data at mind-boggling speeds.  All of those things however are no more than a paper mache’ disk painted to look like a man-hole cover.  You don’t want to step on it.

The flaw is this: Survey polling is still operating in the classical world of majority research.  It is by analogy the same difference between the classical world of Newtonian physics and the Planckian world of Quantum Mechanics.  Survey polling has no equivalent of the Uncertainty Principle, and that is going to make all the difference.

I pick up my argument from here…

Waiter, there’s a quark in my soup bowl.

Think of it this way.  Suppose I invite an experienced pollster to lunch for soup.  I place two identical bowls in front her.  One is filled with a steamy hot, delicious soup with a wonderful aroma.  The other contains water filled to the same level.  Then I ask her, as a pollster, to describe the characteristics of each bowl.  Playing along, hoping that she will get the bowl with soup and not the water, she adeptly describes the contents of each bowl.  Next, I ask her, “If each bowl represented a bloc of voters, which one will win?”  Since both bowls are filled to the identical level, she correctly says, “I can’t tell.  I can only make a decision which has the majority.”  I take away the bowl with the water and replace it with an empty bowl.  I repeat my question, and she quite accurately answers, “If the amount of soup is the equivalent to the number of votes cast, then the bowl with the soup wins.”  I ask my final question.  “The votes are based on the number of quarks (a subatomic particle that is part of every atom) in each bowl.  Which bowl has the most quarks?”

How would you answer?

The question is not theoretical.  Quarks are real subatomic particles. Every atom contains quarks and there just happen to be six kinds of quarks and each quark has “flavor” (appropriate to soup, as well) so to come up with an answer, that multiplicity has to be factored in.  My pollster, growing hungrier by the minute, now has to solve a multidimensional model, for which she presumably has no statistical formula to work (cross-tabs won’t work here because she does not know which of the six types of quarks represent a yes vote or no vote).

To avoid my researcher becoming peckish and storming out, I bring her a fresh bowl of the soup so she can eat and think about the two bowls in front of her.

Classical statistical reasoning would look at the two bowls, one filled and one empty and conclude that the one with the soup, since the soup is made up of atoms, would therefore have all the quarks, so the empty bowl could be eliminated and the researcher could concentrate on determining which of the six kind of soup quarks represent which kind of vote.  And that would be wrong.

Quantum statistical reasoning would look at both bowls being full.  One with soup and the other with air.  Gaseous atoms have quarks just like soup atoms do.  Now my survey researcher asks for a second bowl of soup because this will take a while to figure out.  In fact, she has a bigger problem than simply counting quarks.  Since the soup is a fluid (we’ll ignore the atoms being steamed off) the number of quarks will remain reasonably stable.  The air in the other bowl is in constant motion, however, so the number of quarks moving in and out of the bowl is in constant flux.  And since placing a lid or layer of plastic wrap over the bowl to trap the air creates an artificial constraint, she just has to come up with a way to solve the problem as it is.

Her conundrum is that she can’t.  She’s not a failure, rather, Classical Statistics in polling has no models or formulas to account for the quarks, or should I say the core basis for decision making by the American public.  Probability and regression theory in statistics is quite sophisticated, and there are numerous models that are attempting to, some with a fairly high degree of success, that can predict the basis of decision making in the voting booth (or envelope in the case of my state, Oregon) within a narrow margin of error.  But since these models continue to look for the majority, they are not measuring what I believe will be the cause of the Black Poll War.

It’s not that they are looking at the wrong data; it is they have failed to make the paradigm shift to be able to analyze the process out of which that data is born.  It does not exist as a majority factor.  It exists as a subpersonal factor.  In quantum statistical reasoning, the function of democratic processes is not one person, one vote.  Using the quark analysis analogy, the democratic process is one person, six isovotes (I know I’ve coined a new term here, but it has parallels in the quantum behavior of quarks that is called “isospin” which is a critical component keeping quarks in a state of symmetry).  Depending on the way each voter processes the information stream to make those decisions those isovotes may or may not be stable through even one election cycle.

The solution is to create a quantum statistical equivalent of the Uncertainty Principle.

Any number of you are saying, “Now wait just a cotton-pickin’ minute here, fella.  You promised no more formulas.”  Indeed, I did.  But I am trying to develop a concept that voting in America has undergone a shift of such a dramatic change, it has evolved into virtually a new species of behavior.  It is the equivalent of the transformation from circumnavigating the earth in 80 days into orbiting the planet in 80 minutes.  We made that scientific and technological shift in transportation, from surface vehicles to the International Space Station.  We are in the middle of its evolutionary transformation in our voting behavior.  That is the metamorphosis of our political behavior from voting to isovoting.

Bowling for Votes: Not Your Grandmother’s Bowling Pins

Isovoting, unlike voting, is dynamic and has a meaning assigned to it by the person.  Imagine that an isovote is like a bowling pin.  Since the beginning of the republic, we have assumed that the vote is the triangle shape of the 10 bowling pins.  We have also assumed that the vote triangles could be colored.  The colors used by the television networks of late have been blue for the Democrats, red for the Republicans, and various other preferences for those who were voting independent.  Any color combination of colors could be assigned (I’ve never heard the explanation of why the colors were chosen in that manner, but it might be an interesting footnote in the history of reporting votes.)  Each vote might have an additional attribute or two attached to it, but even if it were envisioned as a 3-dimensional triangular wedge, it was, almost exclusively, solid and predictable.  People voted for one party or another (many states allowed you to go into a voting machine booth and pull a lever therefore choosing in one action all the candidates of that political party).

That is no longer the case.  The solidity of any bloc of votes is now, well, not solid.  We’ll assume for the moment we still have ten pins but peeling back the outer surface of the nice, neat triangular wedge reveals that the ten pins are not standing neatly at attention, but are in a constant state of motion.  Suppose that each pin, as an isovote, has a set of variable characteristics, let’s say:

  1. Size: From a minimum of some volume to a maximum of volume not taken up by all the other isovote pins together
  2. Shape: From classic bowling pin to any other extrudable shape that will fit within the triangular vote box, or even to exceed that volume
  3. Color
  4. Temperature
  5. Motion: From stillness to rapid
  6. Connectivity: From pin to pin, to the surface of the triangular block, and to any other  receptor site outside the block
  7. Meaning: The isovote pin, like a living cell exists within a specific environment, and therefore being part of the human capacity to decide how to vote, has to be capable of receiving information transmitted from the person to the subperson

The characteristics I’ve described above are an analogy of what an isovote is, not a literal suggestion of an anatomical mechanism.  What is important, however, is that the analogy gives the reader a sense of the complexity of what really constitutes the dynamics of voting.  As long as pollsters rely on defining “majority” and “probability” and “margin of error” as their gold standard, no matter how refined their formulas become, they will still lose the Black Poll War.

The basis of voting I’m describing is much like that of the infamous “Schrödinger’s Cat” thought experiment by physicist Erwin Schrödinger in 1935.  Basically it says if you had one thousand cages with solid doors, 500 of which had a live cat and the other 500 had a dead cat, there would be no way to determine which state the cat was in until you opened the door, and the act of opening the door determined if the cat was dead or alive.  Observing what was in the box was what created the certainty of the cat’s state of being, not whether the cat was alive or dead before hand because you could never be certain without opening the door.  This is the basis of the Uncertainty Principle, and since I already presented the formula if the previous post, I can keep my promise not to repeat it here.  You however could not be certain with any degree of accuracy or probability that I would keep that promise.  It is this counterintuitive manner of thinking that makes quantum mechanics so darned frustrating to try and figure out.  But quantum physicists turn out to be right, or able to adjust their theories to simplify the complex wrong part into simpler right parts.

That leads to my concluding point.  The transformation of the vote into a compilation of isovotes is the key to understanding the American Electorate.  The pollsters from now on have to make the assumption that testing for probability and the majority will no longer provide accurate results.  The Uncertainty Principle shows that the isovotes cannot fit the Classical Statistical models for voter behavior.  Like quarks in atoms, isovotes behave in dynamic ways that cannot be predicted with certainty either before or after they are observed, and that the very behavior of the survey taker will have a direct affect on the nature of the isovotes, especially with regard to the person assigning meaning to them, creating a new future for that person’s set of isovotes that did not exist prior to being polled on his or her preferences.

November 2, 2010 will be a very interesting day in the history of the United States.  For one, I will find out if my theory of the Black Poll War is vindicated.  If it is, you can say you read it here first.  If it isn’t, you’ll know I’ll be working on the assumptions of my hypotheses to see if I can be as clever as a quantum physicist and adjust them so they fit the reality of the situation more closely.  Perhaps, I’ll just have to throw out the whole thing and start over.  That is the only way to do good science.

In the meantime, I’m very glad I don’t have to actually count the number of quarks in my bowl of soup.  They are very small and would take many human life times to total them, even if I physically could do it. That, I’ll leave to the quantum physicists and their amazing quark-counting machines.


Swimming through Boiled Okra: The American Political Stew, 2010

Swimming through Boiled Okra:

The American Political Stew, 2010

Some Background:

I lived in Texas for three years while attending seminary at Texas Christian University.  Being a native of the Northwest, I was exposed to a whole new cornucopia of foods: great Texas barbecue, Tex-Mex, and Southwest cuisine. I learned how to eat grits the right way (butter and salt and pepper, or cheese—none of this milk and sugar over Cream of Wheat stuff).  To this day I love grits.

My one culinary defeat was okra.  For those of you who haven’t experienced this little vegetable,

Okra--Secret Dispenser of Slime. Photo: FowlerNurseries.com

Okra--Secret Dispenser of Slime. Photo: FowlerNurseries.com

it certainly looks benign enough in its raw form.  It’s also as popular as broccoli in more northern climes and a staple vegetable in numerous countries around the world.  You can see from the photo, it can look quite appetizing.  Okra can be prepared in many ways.  It can be breaded and fried (of course, most anything in the South can be breaded and fried—and usually is).  It can be boiled with all sorts of other foods.  Many people love it pickled.  It’s a popular ingredient in a wide variety of soups and gumbos.  That’s all fine and good, except…

Boiled okra is slimy.  For those three years I tried my best to sample okra in its various gastronomic manifestations.  I discovered, despite all this experimentation, that the only way I could handle okra was fried.  Fried okra is not slimy.  It just doesn’t have much taste for my palette, other than an oily breaded mushy…well…veggie-something-or-other. Take a look at the crosscut round of okra.  It looks a lot like a crosscut jalapeño pepper.  Only the jalapeño has both flavor and zing.

Okra Seafood Gumbo. One of a thousand ways to create vegetative slime.

In fairness to the otherwise popular vegetable, I selected two of my friends (completely non-random, and no intent to be so), on separate occasions, and who don’t know each other, and asked if either liked okra?  Their responses were identical to mine: Okra in soup is slimy and I don’t really like it.  So, what’s the point?  There are at least two other males in the United States who, without prompting as to reason, agree that okra in soup is slimy.  And none of us like it because of that particular quality.  And that’s important because of what comes next.

A Test of Your Gag Reflex:

Back to slimy.  Not just slickish slimy, but stringy and slimy.  As for stringy: A hundred times

Ultimate Alien Slime, Aliens, 1979, Photo Courtesty MGM.

worse than my grandmother’s over-cooked rope-strength stringy asparagus.  And as for slimy: pure gaggy slimy: You start to chew the spoonful of boiled okra, which just seems to release this gelatinous goo, resembling the stuff that drips off of your typical movie monster’s tongue or, uh, snout. As you try to swallow the bite the goo elongates itself so that by the time the first half of your bite has traveled the length of your esophagus, reaches your cardiac sphincter, and dumps into your stomach the other half is still trying to get out of your mouth and down your throat.

Gag.  Retch.  Get me something to wash down this uck!  Now!

An Analogy of the Absurd—But the Bridge to the Topic at Hand:

Imagine stirring a pot of okra the size of an Olympic swimming pool with that potential for such slimy viscosity.  Imagine swimming through a pool filled with such.  Michael Phelps wouldn’t be pleased.  Michael, whatever his other imperfections, would have the good sense to avoid such an Olympic sized pool of mucousity.

Okra Stew--Imagine an Olympic Pool filled with this.

Now to the Main Dish:

On the other hand, that exact unpalatable characteristic makes for a good analogy of the current state of American politics.  The so-called melting pot of America has been emptied of its finest ingredients, civility, respect, loyalty, etc, and filled to the brim with okra soup.  The blogosphere is boiling over with okra slime, from both the right and the left, but all too often the temperature of rhetoric coming from the right is higher.  In this context, characters such as Limbaugh and Beck, Palin and the Miz Liz of Cheney are but spices in an otherwise noxious recipe of political okra gumbo.

Last summer, we were caught off guard by the sudden rise to the boiling point of the Town Hall Meetings held in August during the Congressional Summer Recess.  But this year, the pot is already bubbling resembling those gloppy mud pots in Yellowstone National Park, and it’s still over seven months until the November mid-term elections.  Itsa bubblin’, like they say.  I think.

This year there will be no surprises.  Members of Congress in both Houses and from both sides of the Aisle may find it best to attend their town hall meetings dressed in a heatproof full-body firefighter outfit.  The political okra soup pot likely will reach a rolling boil even before summer.  The slop-slinging will probably be fierce.

The question is can it be sustained?  My observation last year was that the Sturm und Drang of the Tea Party’s birth and its rapid rise to an ear-shattering keen burned out before the end of the month.  Part of that, in my opinion, was it was “newsed” into numbness.

Numb News—It’s the American Way:

The success of cable/satellite/internet news with its around the clock accessibility very quickly has habituated Americans (and most of the world, undoubtedly) to a very short news cycle.  Inside of two weeks last August, people at the Town Hall Meetings screaming the same rant over and over lost its punch if not its volume. Though the opponents of everything Obama were taking great delight in the attention and media coverage they were receiving, they missed an unintended consequence of that saturation.  They unwittingly became passé. Almost with the predictability of an autonomic response, the polls shifted subtly, but the shift was critical.  It was pro-reform.

Inside the shift was the data that kept Health Care Reform alive, passing the House in November and the Senate on December 24. Despite the loss of one senate seat in January messing up the Senate Democrats’ supermajority of 60 seats the rhetoric of the opposition from the elected officials, the right-wing pundits and the “angry” right-wing citizenry did not shift.  Their message, although loud, consistent, and vitriolic, became less and less influential as each day passed.

That message also offered nothing: the “Let’s start with a blank piece of paper gambit” failed, not because the Republicans were united but because they had nothing to counter with.  If at the great Health Care Summit, the Republicans had shown up with a bill that could have been plopped down beside the one that had already passed (since December 24th, remember) that was half the height of the Democratic bill, Americans’ attention would have been riveted to know what was in that piece of legislation.  Instead the Republicans brought a blank piece of paper and kvetched for seven hours about the size of the already passed bill.  The three best words for this colossal error are: stupid, stupid, and stupid.

The opponents did not recognize their strategic error. They thought they were being consistent and united.  The president and the Democratic leadership, on the other hand, correctly interpreted the message as dragging itself down: that the public sentiment in a shift of even one or two points in favor of reform was far more important than the actual percentage of support or opposition was being rolled out weekly by the multitude of pollsters.  TV, Internet, Radio, newspapers, magazines along with pundits of all stripes missed that nuanced reality, their focus locked on a depth of field most conducive to seeing their ratings and profits and not the meaning of the changes.

Health Care Reform passed, astonishing and infuriating the Republican leadership and all sorts of right-wing groups.

Elections 2010: Jump in, the Okra’s in Prime Slime!

What’s next?  More of the same: A big pot of slimy okra political soup we will be forced to swim around in between now and November.  The Republican formula of Stupid3 remains the strategy they are taking into the Fall under the illusion (or delusion) it will be different this time and they will snatch the majority status from the Democrats in a great uprising of voter rage, or a groundswell of secessionist sentiment threatening the fabric of the Republic, whichever comes first.

I almost hesitate to write this next section for fear of tipping off the Republicans and the Tea Party supporters to the actuality of the situation that the colossal error they made attempting to kill health care reform remains a colossal error as they plan for the mid-term elections.

Poster Advocating Revolution. But What Kind? Photo: Menifee Tax Day Tea Party

The emerging rhetoric calling the administration a “regime” accompanied by repeated less than veiled threats of revolution and civil war, marches with guns in plain sight are not the next phase they believe it to be; it is rather an escalation of the same message.  TV and the other media again will create the opposite intended consequence the Right Wing wants to convey.  Their agenda, antics, and demonstrations will be covered ad nauseum, giving them all the coverage they desire, but dulling the impact of their effort: Why?  Very simply, Americans want “new” news.  Every day.  That is what we have been habituated to expect from the media.  It’s not a matter of how it’s slanted or editorialized, or punditized.  It has to be new.

This is an essential lesson the Democrats must keep in the center of their political radar screen, locked on like the Space Shuttle launching toward the International Space Station.  They have to remain disciplined in their own rhetoric as the campaign heats up.  The key: New talking points must be rolled out every week or so of what Obama and the Dems have accomplished and what they plan to accomplish after the polls close.  They don’t even have to counter what the Republicans are saying.  The Republicans will continue to tighten the trap they set for themselves in the broken record scenario they initiated upon Obama’s election in 2008, and the contrast between a constantly renewing fresh message and the broken record message will quickly create a gulf between the two in the Democrats favor.

Guns and Bombs Belong in the Movies and TV, Not in Real Life:

Why?  People crave the status quo.  The vast majority of U.S. citizens do not want revolution or civil war or any other highly disruptive political or social action.  We’re not talking about changes to health care—we’re talking about being able to go shopping or out to eat or on vacation, Friday night football, going to worship, school plays, and a thousand other everyday things we routinely do.

Domestic tranquility is what Americans want.  The news video of the bloody revolt and possible regime-changing coup in Kyrgyzstan is exactly the opposite of what Americans believe political change should be.  The more violent that situation becomes and the more coverage it will get because of American military interests in the country, the more nervous the typical American will be about the language in the okra soup.  They see suicide bombers belonging in Baghdad and Kabul, not valiant freedom fighters, 21st Century Minutemen here in the U.S. claiming they are wresting their constitutional rights from an oppressive and socialist government.  Regardless of how dissatisfied they may be about their taxes, Americans do not want bombs and blood flowing down the streets of their community.  The reason is straightforward: Americans make political change through ballots, not through bombs and bullets.

Tea Party Protester Advocating the use of Guns. But to Shoot What or Whom? Photo: TalkingPointsMemo.com

Swimming in the Soup of the Statistically Illiterate:

We can be certain that the media will continue to misinterpret the polls because they do not understand how to correctly interpret them to begin with.  Most political groups will continue to misinterpret the polls because they are always looking for an advantage for their side and a disadvantage for their opponents.  “Spin” is a set of heuristic blinders. Here’s why: Raw percentages are a flawed indicator of support.

We quote percentages as if they mean something absolute.  They do not.  Percentages provide information, just not what we typically believe it is.  The fundamental error in interpreting poll percentages is equating a final percentage of a vote with a pre-vote percentage.  The two are not equal indicators of support.  The better pollsters understand this and couch their questions with very precise language and report their results with statistical caveats that, for the most part, the media and the public ignore, and then they are surprised when the results don’t match the polls.  They blame the polls (some justifiably) instead of having the insight to realize they didn’t correctly read the data in the polls. We will see a lot of this in the next seven months.

Central Limit Theorem: One reason calculating percentage trends is complex. "In probability theory, the central limit theorem (CLT) states conditions under which the mean of a sufficiently large number of independent random variables, each with finite mean and variance, will be approximately normally distributed (Rice 1995)." Source: Wikipedia

Should we not believe the polls?  No, but be cautious about reading into the number what you want it to mean, rather than looking at the gap and vector of the differences between the two percentages.  That is where the real information is.  And understand there are ways to use the percentages that sound valid but are really nothing more than concoction and spin.  Second, don’t make the mistake of treating a final vote result with a pre-vote survey.  Even if the final outcome numbers are identical, they are two quite different metrics, almost to the point of being two separate statistical species.

Understand the spin-meisters of all the political parties and their various PACs are not going to give you the slightest bit of help in understanding any of this.  They are paid to convince you the numbers are always favoring their party or candidate, even if the most accurate interpretation suggests disastrous defeat.  They want the political okra pot to be as slimy as possible to confound your ability to squeeze the slightest bit of truth from the numbers.  No, it’s not pretty, and never will be, apparently, until the pot is emptied and a new recipe of soup, sans okra, is placed on the stovetop.

Is it November yet?  I can’t stand okra.

Okra: Abelmoschus esculentus. Photo: digthedirt,com