Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Obama's Pre-Election Confidence Game

Hindsight is great.  Not only does it allow us to gain feedback on our actions and predictive skills, but it's also great fun to mock people once the cold hard facts prove how wrong they were. And on that note, I'll introduce my topic de jour: A pre-election conspiracy theory from a wingnut named Zombie entitled: The Left's Big Blunder.

And the gist of this is that Obama's campaign was making a tremendous blunder by exaggerating how much support Obama had, and rather than creating a bandwagon effect of making people want to support Obama, it would turn people off. Naturally, this is a batshit crazy theory, but I assure you, I feel confident that the guy who wrote it was not any more insane than the average person. Rather, it was merely the product of an authoritarian conformist who understood what Obama's popularity meant, but needed to create a self-delusion in order to avoid admitting the obvious truth he couldn't otherwise deny; ie, he's in the minority and nobody loves him anymore.

But the odd thing is, I have little doubt that Zombie is actually a fairly intelligent person. In fact, I actually learned a few things reading that essay. For example, he discussed the "Clever Hans Effect" which is when people give answers according to the  subliminal expectations of the person asking the question. He also discussed "Conformity and the Asch Experiments" which involved groups of people colluding to get others to conform with group expectations.  And while it's likely that I once learned these things all those years ago in college, I've definitely forgotten them in the meantime.

But for as much as he explained all this in great detail, he really failed to actually provide any evidence supporting his general thesis about why this is a mistake for Obama. If Obama was using these techniques, which is extremely debatable, the backlash aspect of it alluded any sort of evidence beyond Zombie's brief assertions. Yet, that was the crux of his entire argument.

The Invincible Loser

And there are two major themes of the post. The first is that Obama's strategy was to create an invincible aura of support, and thus make more people support his campaign. But of course, that was the entire basis of Bush's campaign in 2000, which showcased him as the fun-loving fratboy version of Al Gore and framing him with an all-star line-up of heavyweights which surely could never be defeated.  In fact, rather than this being some strategy invented by Obama or Democrats, this is an oft used strategy throughout history. 

Despite the suggestion by Zombie and his commenters that winning campaigns run on underdog themes, that's rarely the case. In fact, I suspect that it's generally reserved for underdogs, as a way of making their lagging poll numbers appear to be some sort of savvy strategy rather than a problem.  And Zombie goes ahead and makes himself look like a real idiot with his only example of this. 

Here are a few choice quotes from his dramatic re-telling of one such incident:
In 1968, Richard Nixon did the exact reverse of what the Democrats are now doing. Instead of announcing bombastically that he and the Republicans had complete domination of the media and the electorate, his key campaign slogan was "The Silent Majority." Nixon knew full well that the atmosphere of the times made the Republican prospects looks pretty bleak.... 
Everything seemed aligned to ensure a handy victory for Humphrey and the Democrats....

And, to everyone's astonishment, Richard Nixon, who was considered by many to be a laughingstock, the last holdout of a pathetic dying breed of old fogeys, managed to pull out a razor-thin victory in what seemed like the most hostile possible social environment.
Huzzah huzzah!  The underdog won!  You'd think someone would make a heartwarming movie about this kind of underdog story, though I'm sure the dreaded Hollywood liberals are the reason it'll never happen.  Here we see a tale pulled from reality itself to prove that Obama was wrong for bombastically announcing his popularity, rather than laying low like Tricky Dick.  Oddly, I seemed to have missed Obama's bombastic announcements of his dominance over the media and the electorate, though I'm sure they were in the plethora of emails he sent saying how important I was to his campaign and why he needed my support.

The Fantasy Majority

But of course, reality isn't as dramatic as Zombie would have us believe. The reality is that Nixon was the front-runner for most of the election, often leading Humphrey by double-digits. And Humphrey was the underdog who came from behind and almost pulled out the razor-thin victory. Rather than Nixon's win being astonishing, it was predicted. Here's a Gallup list showing their final prediction of a 1-point Nixon victory, slightly larger than his actual margin of 0.6%.

And does it need to be said that the riots and protests and whatnot were directed at Democrats at that time, which is why LBJ decided to not run for re-election? That, in fact, the Democratic National Convention had a sort of hugely famous protest that ended in police beating up hippy protesters?  Here's a quote from Time magazine at the time, mentioning how bleak the political landscape was for Democrats:
The old Democratic coalition was disintegrating, with untold numbers of blue-collar workers responding to Wallace's blandishments, Negroes threatening to sit out the election, liberals disaffected over the Viet Nam War, the South lost. The war chestwas almost empty, and the party's machinery, neglected by Lyndon Johnson, creaked in disrepair.
In fact, I'm not sure if Zombie got anything right in his retelling of Nixon's victory.  Because the main point of that story was that Nixon knew that there was a "Silent Majority" that would prove the polls wrong; which Zombie stated was a "key campaign slogan" of Nixon's.  Yet, Nixon didn't actually start using that phrase until November of the following year.  So Zombie's only example of the successful underdog strategy that Nixon used was really a cut-and-paste revision that had almost no real basis in reality.  Even the "old fogey" line is wrong, as Nixon was only fifty-five at the time; two years younger than Humphrey and five years younger than Johnson.

But then Zombie gets to his real point, saying "In 2008 there is no silent majority: there is the silenced majority. The unpolled majority."  And that's what all this essay is all about.  It's not about what strategy Obama should take, but rather it's about revising history to fit the current political situation.  McCain was the laughingstock old fogey that Zombie was referencing.  McCain was the one facing a hostile political landscape and bleak prospects.  And so Zombie revised history to put Nixon in the same situation, to show how a previous Republican overcame similar odds.  Poll after poll was showing that Republicans weren't popular, so what hope could they have other than to pray that a silent majority would spring up and save them too, just as they did with Nixon.

BTW, when a commenter points out the mistake on the "Silent Majority," Zombie acts as if he knew that was incorrect, but says that he just rushed that section and it was "unclear verbiage" that lead him to say things that were entirely untrue.  Right.

The Conspiracy

And that brings us to Zombie's real theme: The Conspiracy of Obama's popularity.

As a reminder, Zombie's primary point was that liberals were wrong for hyping Obama's popularity, as this would create some sort of backlash. But that was really only his secondary point, as he needed to give the whole thing a theme of this being a mistake liberals were making. As if history is replete with elections that were lost due to politicians being too popular. No, the real point was that all of this so-called popularity was a giant fraud. In Zombie's world, Obama wasn't really that popular at all. His rallies had as many people as McCain's and the only reason anyone thought differently is because the media and pollsters were manipulating things for Obama.

In fact, he has a very long section explaining why people are lying to pollsters, which concludes with (and no, I'm not making this up):
So, when the phone rings and the pollster calls -- and your Clever Hans social antennae tell you the pollster is young and liberal and likely an Obama supporter -- would you have the nerve to tell the pollster the truth that you wouldn't vote for Obama in a million years? I mean, they called you; they know your number. They know who you are. Can you be absolutely sure they aren't putting a check mark in the "Racist" box next to your name in some mysterious database?
That's right. In Zombie's world, thousands of likely voters believed that liberal thugs working for Gallup might be marking them down as racists, so they'd lie about wanting to vote for Obama. And this was happening in every poll for months. And I suppose these people were so obviously scared that they went ahead and voted for Obama on Election Day, just in case the young, liberal Obama supporters were watching them in the booth. And this is much more likely than the alternative: People really liked Obama.

Zombie's Paradox

And that's one of the weird things about Zombie's post: There is an implied statement that McCain was going to lose the election. In fact, one basic tenet of Zombie's theory is that Obama would do better in the election if he didn't appear to be popular. 

But...if that's the case, why not scrap the conspiracy theories and just admit that Obama is popular? It's just weird. Zombie has two mutually exclusive ideas resting in the premise of his thesis, yet has no problem with this. I mean, if Obama was committing a blunder by hyping his popularity, which was causing him to lose votes, that would most definitely mean that he was popular enough to win the election by not doing so. But if he was that popular, then there's no reason to believe he was intentionally doing it at all.

One funny part of Zombie's post is when he comes face-to-face with part of this paradox, writing:
The entire Democratic strategy in 2008 revolves around the unproven theory that polls do create reality. Otherwise, there would be no point in continuously striving to inflate Obama's perceived public support.
Wow, that's logic for you. Obama MUST be inflating his numbers, because otherwise, Obama wouldn't be inflating his numbers. Nowhere in here does he acknowledge the possibility that Obama's numbers aren't actually inflated and that the media isn't conspiring to inflate these numbers. 

And if Obama's numbers aren't being inflated, then he's not engaging in a strategy that will backfire. He's just reflecting the truth. And it's implicit in Zombie's point that Obama would do better without the strategy, which is to admit that Obama is popular. But again, that gets Zombie right back to his crazypoint of admitting that he's in the minority, and that's to be avoided at all costs.

The Mysterious Backlash

Nor does he ever get around to explaining where the backlash comes in. At best, he explains why people might lie to pollsters (though this is certainly debatable). And he explains why Obama would want to look popular. But he never explains why this is a blunder. And again, the "blunder" is supposedly the whole point of the essay.  It's even in the title of the essay.  Yet, all he's really doing is telling us why the polls are wrong and never really gets around to explaining why Obama is wrong for wanting this. If the polls were wrong and Obama wasn't popular, then appearing popular might help.

And I'll tell you why it was a GREAT strategy: Because Obama was different. Obama was black. Obama has a weird name. And most of all, Obama was an unknown. And so showing that other people accepted him was an important part of making more people accept him. It wan't a bandwagon effect, so much as it was a "The Kid's Alright" effect. It was about making an opening.  This wasn't an appeal to conformity.  These were endorsements.  Obama was a new product, and so it would only help to show how many other people endorsed him.  It gave him legitimacy.  And while it's always important for a politician to have strong support, this was all the more important for a new product like Obama.  And there's nothing unseemly or innovative about this.

But that's just not something that the wingnuts could deal with.  And so they not only had to make it seem as if Obama wasn't popular, all evidence to the contrary, but also that it was a mistake for Obama to even appear to be popular.  That's the sort of double-whammy ju-jitsu that conservatives just love.  Obama's popularity was changed from a crushing asset into a "catastrophic blunder" that might actually cost him the election.  There would be some sort of backlash against this kind of thing; they just knew it.

The Update

And of course, the best part of all comes once the results are in. Now, I'd like to stress that Zombie's entire thesis was laughable before the election and I sure wish I could have read it then, as I would have laughed at it. But now, with hindsight, we can PROVE that it's laughable.

And so, does Zombie concede that his theory was wrong and that his essay was for naught? Of course not. It's delusion to the end. I quote:
Because, exactly as I speculated, most of the major polls did in fact overstate Obama's lead in their final election-day predictions.
What this means is: The effects described in this essay very likely did happen as I postulated, but not to a large enough extent to overcome Obama's actual strength and McCain's actual weakness. In other words, approximately 3% of people responding to polls did lie and say they supported Obama when in fact they did not (a ~9.5% predicted victory on average vs. a 6.5% actual victory). It's just that McCain was not close enough in real support for the Hans/Asch/Bradley Effect to make the difference.
You read it folks, it's exactly as he speculated and it very likely happened as he postulated. But remember, his "postulation" wasn't that the polls were wrong. It was that Obama's strategy was "not only counter-productive, but could backfire disastrously." Yet in the update, he only references the Hans/Asch/Bradley effect as one big mesh, referring to people lying to pollsters. He goes on to suggest that this does apply to the 3% voters who switched votes from what they told pollsters, even though he really only means 1.5% of voters. Because if 3% moved from Obama to McCain, then that'd be a 6% net difference from the polls.

But of course, even his update is incorrect. First off, the final vote tally shows Obama with a 7.3% margin, meaning that only 1.1% of voters switched by his logic. And what's with this ~9.5% stuff? As usual, he doesn't actually link to real data when it comes to supporting his fantasies. But using the numbers at Real Clear Politics, which is an average of fifteen national polls, the pollster average the night before the election was actually 7.6%. And that means they were only off by 0.3%, not the 3% he went with.  And yes, 0.3% is so far within the margin of error that it is statistically irrelevant.  In other words, the polls nailed it.

Conservativism Has Never Failed

And that's what Zombie is staking his essay on. That Obama made a catastrophic blunder because he used a strategy which might possibly have made 0.15% of the population lie to pollsters. And for as much as he suggests that he didn't predict a McCain victory, that only undermines his point.  Because it's obvious that Obama really was as popular as he seemed to be.

And seeing as how Zombie's real point was to build confidence in his team by showing how Obama's popularity was fake, he was a failure. And the only real blunder here was Zombie's, for having put this piece of turd in writing. But honestly, I do salute him for keeping his essay online. If I wrote shit that crappy, I'm sure I would have deleted my blog years ago.

I'll end with this quote from Zombie:
Will the exaggerations become a self-fulfilling prophecy, as assumed, or are Obama supporters spinning further and further away from reality, constructing one unsupportable exaggeration on top of another -- only to be stunned on election day when the actual results, once again, don't match either their pre-vote opinion polling or their post-vote exit polling? 
I guess the difference between liberals and conservative is that when our predictions turn out to be incorrect, we act stunned.  Conservatives just keep on spinning and never acknowledge error.  For them, hindsight isn't a learning experience; it's a cruel joke to be ignored.  

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