My Fearless Prediction of the Republican Iowa Caucus Winner

One of the Republican presidential candidates is headed to a victory in the 2012 Iowa Caucuses that could be historic, and I don’t mean that in a nice way.

Since the Iowa caucuses became important in the 1970s, the lowest proportion of votes captured by the winning candidate in either major political party was 26%. That was Republican Bob Dole’s total in his ill-fated 1996 campaign. This year’s GOP “winner” has an excellent shot at breaking Dole’s unenviable record.

A feeble Iowa win hurts a political party in several ways. First, weaker candidates are less likely to drop out, meaning that time and money that might have been used to attack the other side are instead burned up in an internecine primary (Dole was being bloodied by Pat Buchanan and Steve Forbes into early March of 1996). Second, it raises doubts in the party about the front runner at a time when coalescence around an eventual nominee is the desired outcome.

Given the evident inability of any of the current candidates to generate enthusiasm in even one third of Iowa Republicans, and the fact that the caucus “winner” could well be someone that 3/4 of the voters rejected, I am comfortable predicting right now the winner of the GOP Iowa Caucuses: President Obama.

African-American Liberals Know How to Love Their President

Jonathan Chait’s much-discussed essay in New York magazine indicted the left for being perennially, loudly and unrealistically disappointed in Democratic Presidents. In Chait’s view, much of the left ignores the constraints on Presidential power (e.g., Congress, of which Drew Westen et al seem to be in ignorance) and doesn’t have the stomach or attention span for the slow, daily grind of governance. He also charges the left with crippling their own leaders with faithlessness and then blaming them when they are thereby forced to compromise with the other side. Chait sees these patterns as almost entirely independent of Obama, being instead a style, outlook and set of norms among liberals that goes back for decades. In short,

Liberals are dissatisfied with Obama because liberals, on the whole, are incapable of feeling satisfied with a Democratic president. They can be happy with the idea of a Democratic president — indeed, dancing-in-the-streets delirious –but not with the real thing.

Related themes were sounded by Nicholas Kristof, who attacked the “hold your nose as you vote” chic fashionable among some leftists (emphasis mine):

Many Democrats and journalists alike, feeling grouchy, were dismissive of Al Gore and magnified his shortcomings. We forgot the context, prided ourselves on our disdainful superiority, and won eight years of George W. Bush.

All of this is true of a certain type of liberal in the U.S., but I wish Chait and Kristof had taken the time to exempt from criticism the most stalwart segment of liberal America: African-Americans. Perpetually indignant white liberals could learn a lot from them.

The Power of Love

Opinions polls continue to show extremely high approval ratings for President Obama among Black Americans. But even the high proportion of Black people who tell pollsters they “approve” of the President doesn’t begin to capture the feelings that go beyond approval and extend to love and admiration (after all, if you think the President is, you guess, doing okay on balance, you say “approve” to a pollster). It’s not hard to see these intense emotions in many African-Americans if you know where to look. Continue reading “African-American Liberals Know How to Love Their President”

Herman Cain’s Meteoritic Campaign

The Daily Beast’s main page is trumpeting their coverage of Herman Cain’s “Meteoric rise and sudden fall”. We discussed the strange (though old) phrase “meteoric rise” here some time ago, which generated this priceless comment

Kent Fisher says:
July 28, 2011 at 12:36 pm

Pedant alert!

Meteors neither rise nor fall. They’re not rocks, they’re flashes of light in the sky that trace the passage of the rock as it passes through the atmosphere. If the rock hits the ground, it’s a meteorite.

Some rocks that eventually become meteorites here on Earth do indeed rise: they’re launched into space from the surface of the Moon or Mars by impacts.

“Meteoric” is apt for describing a brief, intense flash. Meteoritic” would mean something that fell to the ground.

I don’t think Noah Webster would approve, but I have been wanting to use this neologism ever since, and here is my chance: Herman Cain’s Meteoritic Campaign is now over.

The Obamas Should Campaign as a Couple

There is an old saw among political consultants that the perfect politician’s wife waves warmly to the crowd of potential voters…as her boat drifts away on a long trip down the Amazon that lasts until the election is over. This perspective is embodied in the common campaign strategy of sending political wives to lower stakes events while hubby covers the major venues solo. If the Obama re-election team is smart, they will completely reject this approach, for two reasons.

First, the Obamas have a magic about them as a couple to which most people respond positively. If you go to any event where the Obamas are standing next to each other, turn around and look at the crowd and you will see many people — especially women — smiling. Male political operatives often underestimate how much women like to see genuinely happy couples in politics. Political wives are invisible to many male voters, but women voters tend to observe them carefully, sussing out whether a political wife is going through the motions out of duty or ambition rather than love. And their perception of the wife’s emotions and role influences their judgment of the qualities of the candidate to whom she is married (which in my opinion, is perfectly rational).

When Dick Cheney was Gerald Ford’s Chief of Staff, he asked the President to get Betty Ford to shut up, because she went off message with strong support of women’s rights, among other issues. The President did say “shut up” — to Cheney — and contrary to what the men around President Ford expected, the uncensored First Lady became one of the most beloved people in the country. And many women liked the President more because he so visibly loved and stood by his strong and intelligent wife. When the Obamas are together, those same emotional forces work on voters in the President’s favor.

The other reason to keep the Obamas together during the campaign is captured in the wonderful photo on the left. When John Kerry was running for President in 2004, Mark Shields remarked that Kerry’s events with his Viet Nam veteran buddies were his best not because of how the veterans affected the audience, but because of how they affected Kerry. He was simply a more relaxed and appealing person when they were around.

Last week a friend and I were reminiscing about a White House holiday party that we both attended. My friend jumped up from his chair and asked “Did you notice how differently he stands when Michelle is next to him? He then mimicked the President perfectly, standing stiffly and intoning “Here I am the boring, aloof, professor alone at the lectern”. Then, shifting his feet as if he were mid-strut, throwing back his shoulders and smiling broadly he said “And here I am with this incredibly fabulous babe that I got to marry me — oh yeah!”.

That’s the truth of it. When the President is with his wife, his humanity comes out in a way that it often does not in other circumstances. The facade of the distant academic cracks open, revealing that skinny, accessible and idealistic young man who is still happily ensorcelled by his brilliant companion. And at that moment, many people in our cynical, brutal and heartless electoral process pause for a moment and remember that Barack Obama is a human being, and they like him.

Photos above courtesy of The White House.

No, African-Americans Will Not Vote for Herman Cain

Herman Cain thinks he can draw 1 in 3 African-American voters, which some media outlets are reporting as if it were a remotely sensible statement. The President’s prior experience running against a different never-before-elected outspoken Black Republican preacher and radio host is instructive (or at least ought to be): Black voters in Illinois went for Obama by a more than 11 to 1 margin over Alan Keyes in the 2004 U.S. Senate race.

African-Americans remain staunch Democratic voters, and though President Obama’s approval among Black Americans has slipped a bit this year, a whopping 86% have a generally favorable view of him. If only Blacks were allowed to vote and Cain were the Republican nominee, the President would completely crush him in every precinct in the country.

Misleading Predictions About Why Obama “Can’t Win” in 2012

In another edition of how misunderstanding statistics can lead to misleading political predictions, let’s talk about base rates, predictive power and presidential re-election. In psychiatry, there is a fun logical problem in which students are asked to generate an instrument that will accurately classify people with and without schizophrenia in a sample of the population. Students draw up elaborate series of questions and diagnostic procedures and sometimes do as well as being right 95% of the time. But those approaches are all inferior to a different diagnostic system, which classifies all people as non-schizophrenic without bothering to ask them anything. Because only 1% of people have schizophrenia, such a system is correct an impressive 99% of the time. When you are trying to predict something with a very low base rate, most of the time you make a positive prediction (e.g., this person has schizophrenia) you will be wrong, and most of the observations you make about the group for which you make a negative prediction (e.g., this person doesn’t have schizophrenia) will be true but have trivial predictive power because they are true of almost everyone.

Now consider a far more rare condition than schizophrenia: Being elected President of the United States. Only 43 of the hundreds of millions of people who have been U.S. citizens have been President, and an even more infinitesimal fraction of the U.S. population has been re-elected President. This incredibly low base rate opens the field for many predictions that seem on their face to show great historical understanding and political acumen but are in fact of dubious value.

For example, do you remember that George H.W. Bush was not going to get elected because no sitting Vice-President had been elected President since Martin Van Buren? At that point, 34 people in U.S. history had been elected President, of whom 3 were sitting Vice-Presidents. This success rate compares very favorably to the chance of the average American, or the average politician or even the average politician seeking the Presidency. It would have been more reasonable to say that as a sitting Vice-President George H.W. Bush was unusually well-positioned to be elected President.

The G.H.W. Bush prediction also illustrates another tactic of faux-sage prognosticators, namely shaping the frame of reference to make the statistic more extreme. The U.S. had elected and re-elected former Vice-President Richard Nixon in living memory, so the ominous G.H.W. Bush statistic was artfully limited to “sitting” vice-presidents. And the time frame was chopped off at Martin Van Buren to misrepresent the full picture of U.S. electoral behavior; two other sitting Vice-Presidents had been elected before MVB. It’s a bit like saying Rick Perry cannot win because for the first 223 years of our history no Governor of Texas ever became President.

Fast-forward to President Obama, whom you may have heard cannot win in 2012 because no President has been re-elected with high unemployment. After it was pointed out that FDR and Ronald Reagan were both re-elected with high unemployment, the shocking historico-statistical proof of Obama’s political demise was re-framed to “No President since World War II other than Ronald Reagan has been re-elected with high unemployment”. But so what? Only 5 people have been twice elected President since World War II, and an infinite number of things is true of all the people who haven’t.

No one who wasn’t from California, Texas or Arkansas has been re-elected President since World War II (Doom for Obama!). No one whose last name starts with an O has been re-elected President since World War II (Double doom!). No one who was African-American has been re-elected (Triple Doom! Hey wait a minute, how did he get elected the first time…he was African-American then wasn’t he?). At least President Obama can take comfort in the fact that every single left-handed President who ran for re-election since World War II has won, as long as you don’t count George H.W. Bush.

How Incompetent Government Bureaucrats Meddle in the Lives of America’s Children

When I began my training in pediatrics in the 1970s, most children diagnosed with cancer did not survive. Today, the vast majority of children diagnosed with cancer are cured.

I pulled out and juxtaposed for effect the above two sentences, which appear at different points within the introduction to the latest issue of Stanford Medicine Magazine. The author was our Dean of Medicine, Dr. Phil Pizzo.

This wasn’t the point of Phil’s article, but ask yourself: How did our country manage to move from the situation described in his first sentence to that described in the second? Who should we thank for taking us from a point where an oncologist could say to terrified parents “It’s cancer, but we can probably cure your child” versus “It’s cancer, your child is probably going to die”?

The U.S. federal government, that’s who.

You mean the free market didn’t transform pediatric oncology? No, it didn’t. There are many brilliant medical scientists in the private sector and I have always given them credit for their life-saving work. But plowing billions of research and development dollars into improving the care of uninsured patients is not good business.

“What are you talking about?”, a government critic might respond, “most children are covered by health insurance”. This is true: With government provided Medicaid, government provided SCHIP and a government provided tax break on employee’s family health insurance coverage, most children indeed have insurance. Without the large pool of potential purchasers created by those federal insurance programs and policies, private sector companies would never invest in finding cures for rare childhood diseases.

But even the government’s expansion of health insurance for children didn’t lead the private sector to fully fund research on cures for children’s cancer. But that was okay, because the National Cancer Institute was there to pour billions of dollars into cancer research until cures were found.

Don’t all those brilliant scientists and clinicians deserve credit? Of course they do, as do the federal loans and state government support that gave many of them the education to maximize their brilliance and built the labs and hospitals in which they did their work.

The audience members at the recent Republican candidates’ debate who applauded at the thought of uninsured people dying may well cheer on the idea of getting the meddling government out of the way so that children with cancer could be free to die early, excruciating deaths. But when the value of medical science is raised with government-bashing candidates for office, their usual response is something along the lines of “of course I wouldn’t cut cancer research.” One wonders therefore why they don’t make sure to always say so rather than demonizing “gubmint” whole cloth. And why don’t journalists, every single time, candidates trash the federal government as universally interfering and incompetent, ask them why they want to live in a society where more parents attend their son or daughter’s funeral instead of their high school graduation?

Evolution *is* a Theory, and That’s a Good Thing

Conservative candidates are now routinely asked to take a stand on whether they “Think evolution is just a theory” or whether they are among the fallen who “Believe in evolution”. These exchanges nearly bring up my breakfast on their own merits and have the added disadvantage of mis-educating the public about the nature of scientific inquiry and theory.

The dismissive remark “Evolution is just a theory” implicitly equates “theory” with the spontaneous speculations of the guy four bar stools down from you whom the bartender has at last cut off. In science, a great theory — evolutionary theory, for example — is a serious intellectual effort to explain the data we can observe and to generate hypotheses about the data we can’t. Calling a biology professor “a noted evolutionary theorist” is a compliment in the scientific community, not an implication that he is stupid, misguided or refuses to accept reality.

The alternative to conservative politicians deeming evolution “just a theory” is for them to intone “I believe in evolution” or “I accept evolution.” These sound to my ear inappropriately similar to statements of faith, e.g., “I believe in the transmigration of souls”, “I accept Jesus Christ as my personal savior”. If “evolution” in this faith statement refers to the theory of evolution, then this is the wrong terminology. Scientists don’t believe in theories per se, they believe that particular theories do a good job explaining what has been established not through faith but via empiricism. If new data disconfirm the theory, a scientist wouldn’t say “It doesn’t matter, I have accepted such and so theory and with God as my witness that’s an end of it”. Rather any scientist worth his or her salt says the theory must be wrong and therefore has to be discarded or changed.

If on the other hand the word “evolution” in the statement “I believe in/accept evolution” refers to the observable data on whether evolution ever happens, this is also a conflation of the workings of faith with those of science. You can take a colony of drosophilia and let them fly through a maze, putting sugar at the end of a right fork in the maze and nothing at the left. In a few days, the flies who tend to turn right and get the sugar will be outbreeding those who tend to turn left and pretty soon you will have a colony of right-turning flies. At that point, you don’t “believe” that natural selection can happen, you have directly observed it as a fact. You don’t have faith in this context any more than you have faith that water turns to steam if you heat it to 100 degrees Celsius.

Journalists (e.g., debate moderators) could do a service to the political process and the scientific education of the public by asking the basic question differently:

“People have long tried to explain where the creatures on this planet, including human beings, come from and why they have the characteristics they do. We have data from our observations of living beings today, from the fossil record, from laboratory studies, and from a range of other sources such as the breeding and domestication of animals, and we want some explanation to account for it all. Do you think that these data are better explained by evolutionary theory or by creationism?”.

Westen vs. Chait on Obama

Keith Humphreys’ thoughtful post called to mind some thoughts I wanted to jot down after re-reading Drew Westen’s NYT piece on Obama and Jonathan Chait’s blistering response to Westen in the New Republic. Westen is surely a primary target of Keith’s scorn, and I agree with both Chait and Keith that Westen grossly exaggerates what a leader in Obama’s position could have been expected to accomplish.

Yet it would be a mistake not to acknowledge that Westen is onto something. Obama might not have been able to have achieved substantively different outcomes in many of the recent battles. But he does have the rhetorical skill to have forced Republicans to pay a much stiffer political price for their obstructionism. And his supporters can hardly be faulted for being upset that he chose not to.

Last December’s struggle about the Bush tax cuts on high-income households is a case in point. Many on the left have been bitterly critical of the president for capitulating to Republican demands on that issue. But consider the details of the choice the president faced.  Continue reading “Westen vs. Chait on Obama”

Governor Perry Arrives: II. The Continuing Collapse of the Republican Establishment

One of my favorite political trivia questions runs as follows: “In the last half of the 20th century, how many Republican Party presidential tickets did not have a Nixon, Dole or Bush on them?”. That the correct answer is “One” (the 1964 ticket) speaks to the extraordinarily organized way that the Republican Establishment managed the party nomination process for decades after World War II.

I think it was Mark Shields who said during the 2000 election that Republicans pick nominees in a fashion similar to how family-owned banks in Ohio pick a new president: “OK everyone, thanks for coming to the meeting. Dad is retiring. Bill is his oldest son so he will be the president. Any objections? No? Great, see you on Monday.” Shields was commenting at the time on why even the best-run, most public imagination capturing insurgent campaign in the post WWII-history of the Republican Party (John McCain’s) would ultimately get crushed by the party establishment and the rank-and-file voters who take their marching orders therefrom.

But my have things changed. I view President G.W. Bush as a critical figure in the party’s transformation because while he couldn’t have been elected without the Republican Establishment he made clear his contempt of them the moment he got into office. More cracks showed in the 2008 nomination race, a multi-car train wreck that McCain somehow won. In 2010, the Tea Party candidates were running as much against the Republican Establishment as they were against Democrats. And today, after the sort of serious people the Establishment would have loved (Thune, Daniels) declined to run, Governor Perry joins Gingrich, Pawlenty, Paul, Bachmann, Romney, Santorum and Cain (and Palin?) in a circular-firing-squad-cum-rugby scrum. Never in my lifetime has the Republican Party nomination process involved so many divisive figures, second-rate figures and genuine loons, nor evoked such a lack of broadly shared enthusiasm for any one candidate. In short, the Republican Party today is reminiscent of the Democratic Party of the early 1970s, and that’s a huge edge for President Obama no matter which Republican nominee he faces in 2012.