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Monday, August 16, 2004

An Interesting Look at How New York Times Reporters View Polls

This article came to my attention by way of the Rush Limbaugh radio program. Esoteric * Diatribe tries to avoid covering stories that have already been picked up by the big fish, preferring instead to *try* to stay ahead of the curve, which we have, on occasion, been able to do; but this story is too remarkable not to cover.

A New York Times reporter, in an interview with a Yale Economics Professor, provided a fascinating insight into what reporters are really interested in... and it may or might not surprise you to know that the truth is not their primary concern. Let's take a look at some of the article:
Bush Landslide (in Theory)!
Interview by Deborah Solomon, Questions for Ray C. Fair
August 15, 2004

Q. As a professor of economics at Yale, you are known for creating an econometric equation that has predicted presidential elections with relative accuracy.

A. My latest prediction shows that Bush will receive 57.5 percent of the two-party votes.

Q. The polls are suggesting a much closer race.
Is this a question?
A. Polls are notoriously flaky this far ahead of the election, and there is a limit to how much you want to trust polls.

Q. Why should we trust your equation, which seems unusually reductive?
Why shouldn't we trust the equation? Just because it puts President Bush ahead? How exactly is it unusually reductive, unless of course we are only focused on how this might affect Kerry...
A. It has done well historically. The average mistake of the equation is about 2.5 percentage points.
Not the answer the reporter wanted, time to change the subject...
Q. In your book ''Predicting Presidential Elections and Other Things,'' you claim that economic growth and inflation are the only variables that matter in a presidential race. Are you saying that the war in Iraq will have no influence on the election?
*Note* Not the war on Terror, not 9/11 or the war in Afghanistan... this reporter only thinks the War in Iraq is important to emphasize.
A. Historically, issues like war haven't swamped the economics. If the equation is correctly specified, then the chances that Bush loses are very small.
Again, you can just tell by the way the questions are being asked the reporter does not like the answer. Look at the follow up question:
Q. But the country hasn't been this polarized since the 60's, and voters seem genuinely engaged by social issues like gay marriage and the overall question of a more just society.
Give me a break! Why is it that these libs just can't let the 60's go? And to compare the political strife of the 1960's, which saw the rise and fall of two Kennedy's, the civil rights movement -run by MLK, who like the Kennedy's was also assassinated - the feminist movement and sexual revolution, the arms race, the cold war, not to mention a war - Vietnam - that cannot in any fair way be compared to the war in Iraq... how can we say the country today in any way resembles the 1960s? Maybe this really IS just like the 1960s, except for the drugs, counter cultures, civil rights crusades, drafts, riots, and political mobilization of the youth. Let's face it, the only people protesting the war in Iraq are the same crowd that protested the war in Vietnam (and sometimes their kids). There are not hordes of young Americans shouting out to be heard, mostly just their parents showing up in hordes to relive the good ole days. In fact, the young adults in America today are actually protesting the protestors... and the media completely misses this fact because they are reliving the good old days themselves... but I digress.
A. We throw all those into what we call the error term. In the past, all that stuff that you think should count averages about 2.5 percent, and that is pretty small.
Well said.
A. It saddens me that you teach this to students at Yale, who could be thinking about society in complex and meaningful ways.
It saddens me that this reporter thinks this is a question. It saddens me that this reporter thinks this is unbiased reporting. This reporter is basically saying that teaching anything that libs don't want to hear somehow detracts from a student's ability to think about society in complex and meaningful ways... Well howabout we just teach students the truth? Is that ok with the NYT's? How about we tell it like it is and leave the fairytales for the NYT's to report.
A. I will be teaching econometrics next year to undergraduates. Econometrics is a huge deal, because it is applied to all kinds of things.

Q. Yes, I know one of your studies used the econometric method to predict who is most likely to have an extramarital affair.
Another thought provoking question... oh wait, there haven't been many questions at all, mostly just comments about how the reporter feels about the complex and meaningful intricacies of society.
A.In that case, the key economic question was whether high-wage people are more or less likely to engage in an affair. They are slightly more likely to have an affair. But the economic theory is ambiguous because if your wage is really high, that tends to make you work more, and that would cut down on how much time you want to spend in an affair.
Finally, the reporter cannot take it anymore. Angered and saddened by this Yale professor's research, the NYT's reporter finally breaks down and asks:
Q. Are you a Republican?
I can just imagine the revulsion in the reporter's voice while she said the dreaded R-word.
A. I can't credibly answer that question. Using game theory in economics, you are not going to believe me when I tell you my political affiliation because I know that you know that I could be behaving strategically. If I tell you I am a Kerry supporter, how do you know that I am not lying or behaving strategically to try to put more weight on the predictions and help the Republicans?
Careful now, she is only a reporter for the NYT's. You might confuse her.
A. I don't want to do game theory. I just want to know if you are a Kerry supporter.
Woah! I thought you wanted to know if he was a - ghasp - Republican! Now she, rather impatiently it seems, just wants to know if he supports Kerry. And so he answers:
A. Backing away from game theory, which is kind of cute, I am a Kerry supporter.
That is unfortunate, as Kerry is a waffler, a liar, and a fraud, but I would have been far more surprised to learn there was a Bush supporter teaching at Yale... I think they have some sort of litmus test for their professors (not that I would have any first hand knowledge).

Here comes the most shocking piece of the entire article:
Q. I believe you entirely, although I'm a little surprised, because your predictions implicitly lend support to Bush.

A. I am not attempting to be an advocate for one party or another. I am attempting to be a social scientist trying to explain voting behavior.

Q. But in the process you are shaping opinion. Predictions can be self-confirming, because wishy-washy voters might go with the candidate who is perceived to be more successful.

A. It could work the other way. If Kerry supporters see that I have made this big prediction for Bush, more of them could turn out just to prove an economist wrong.

Q. Perhaps you could create an equation that would calculate how important the forecasts of economists are.
Absolutely amazing! AMAZING! A - M - A - Z - I - N - G! A New York Times Reporter is surprised that a fellow Kerry supporter would make a prediction that might hurt their candidate. She, perhaps unwittingly, let's us in on how polling predictions can "be self-confirming, because wishy-washy voters might go with the candidate who is perceived to be more successful." She is telling us how the NYT's and its reporters use polling data as a political instrument, and she is genuinely surprised that a Kerry supporter wouldn't try to use this tool in order to make their candidate appear to be more successful. Un-be-lievable! Is this how the NYT's operates? Are newspapers reporting that Kerry is doing better than he actually is in order to try to give their candidate an edge? Is the NYTs actively attempting to shape public opinion instead of educate the public so that they can make their own opinion? Are we looking at another possible Mondale or McGovern?

1984 Flashback: Convention bounce puts Mondale even with Reagan Another Mondale?

Another McGovern? "I don't know how Richard Nixon could have won. I don't know anybody who voted for him" - Quote from Pauline Kael after Nixon's landslide victory over McGovern.

Are polling institutions working in an effort to try to sway wishy-washy voters? You decide:
Zogby Poll Gives Kerry Minimum Four-Point Lead

British Group Says Kerry Has Most Royal Blood, Predicts Election Victory

Kerry's lead over Bush widens to 7 points: Newsweek

The Election Is Kerry's To Lose

Post-convention poll shows younger voters favor Kerry

75% of US Jews favor Kerry over Bush

Kerry's lead widens with Hispanic voters

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