In Defense of Nate Silver-Updated
October 29th, 2012

Some people seem to be sharpening the knives to go after Nate Silver if Obama loses. I’d like to register an early dissent.

There are valid criticisms of black box statistical modeling. On the one hand, we’re asked to view the results credibly without knowing what the special sauce used to bake them is. You could mount that criticism of Silver as much as you could of any other modeler. Or pollster, for that matter. So at the end of the day you have to either make your peace with the black boxes, or write them off as value-less.

I happen to find some value in them. They aren’t predictive–but I’d argue they’re not really meant to be. They’re simply informative–just more data points from which we cobble together our understanding of a system (an election) which is so multi-variate that, as Scott Fitzgerald once wrote about Hollywood, is so complex that no more than a handful of men can keep the entire equation in their heads.

What’s more, Silver’s a very agile writer. Like Michael Lewis he has a gift for explaining complicated numerical concepts. (I would not agree with the charge that Silver often makes simple mathematical concepts sound grandiose and complex.) And finally, Silver hedges. Always and everywhere. Some people might take this to be weasely on his part, but it strikes me as just the opposite: It’s humility. Silver is in the numbers business, but he understands that the numbers don’t tell us everything. So you’ll never hear him say, “X has happened so Y must happen.” Just the opposite, actually. Silver understands the limits of his own models. He acknowledges those limits nearly every time he writes. I think this ought to be applauded.

If Romney wins should that discredit Silver’s models? Only so far as anybody ever used them as oracular constructs instead of analytical tools.

One final word: People seem to think that it would reflect badly on Silver if Romney were to win while Silver’s model shows only a 25 percent chance of victory. But isn’t 25 percent kind of a lot? If I told you there was a 1-in-4 chance of you getting hit by a bus tomorrow, would you think that 25 percent seemed like a big number or a little number? Or, to put it another way, a .250 hitter gets on base once a game, so you’d never look at him in any given at bat and think there was no chance he’d get a hit.

Ultimately I’d suggest that the real test for Nate Silver is the same as it is for any analyst, on any subject. Not “did he predict an outcome correctly” (or “did he predict the outcome I prefer”) but “does his work add value to our understanding of the subject.”

Speaking only for myself, the answer to that question is an unqualified yes.

Update: On Twitter, Jim Henley (@UOJim) pointed to a meditation he wrote on probability. It’s written from the perspective of a D&D nerd with cancer and it’s very much worth reading on its own, apart from its tangential bearing on our larger discussion here.

Also, Galley Friend A.W. offers the following dissent:

I like Silver quite a lot.  But I have one major quibble: His numerical specificity occludes the enormous subjectivity inherent in his weighing and discounting of various polls.  (See

He’s selling a false certainty.  It’s the Washington equivalent of Wall Street’s now-infamous “value at risk” (VaR) models at the center of recent Wall Street meltdowns.  (E.g.,

In end, my problem with Silver’s presentation is the same as Naked Capitalism’s indictment of VaR:

“But VaR is a particularly troubling example, more so because it is sufficiently, dangerously simple minded enough that regulators and managers a step or two removed from markets have become overly attached to its deceptive simplicity.”  (

Obviously, in scrutinizing and combining polls, such relative judgments are unavoidable.  But Silver ought to be more transparent and up-front in presenting how those subjective judgments affect his bottom-line numbers.


A Campaign Counterfactual–Updated
October 27th, 2012

Looking at both the polling data and the emanations from the Obama operation, I get the sense that we might be witnessing a campaign on the verge of collapse. Obama never articulated a vision for his next term in office, but when he was succeeding in the polls he was mounting a passable defense of his first term and making a sustained, targeted critique of Romney as an unfit challenger. For the last week or two, both of those prongs seem to have been abandoned in favor of any-club-at-hand. Big Bird. “Romnesia.” Bayonets. This has the smell of panic. It also reeks of amateur hour–a moment when the grownups on the campaign feel as though their quivers are empty and start letting the Jim Messina’s of the world dictate tactics.

A couple observations:

* As Haley Barbor likes to say, Bad gets worse. It was always a mystery why Obama was leading Romney for most of the last year, despite being the weakest incumbent since Carter. (Or Ford. Or Hoover. Take your pick.) Now that the polls have caught up with him, it’s unclear what he can do to stop the bleeding, because he should have bled out months ago.

* That said, there’s still the possibility that he could hold on for another week and a half. If the election were going to be held on December 6, you’d probably think that Romney’s chances would be better. As it is, you can envision a scenario in which Obama holds onto the ball just long enough to squeak out a win.

* A word of praise for Romney: His performance in the first debate was great and since then he’s done an admirable job of staying out of Obama’s way and letting him collapse. I’m sure there must have been an urge to try to pile on and hasten the fall. Resisting that urge was smart.

* Finally, a counterfactual question: My own sense of the first debate was that Obama was probably weaker than he should have been, but that he wasn’t disastrous. It wasn’t a question of the president being bad, it was a matter of Romney being that good.

So here’s my question: Imagine a world in which, during and after the debate, the left didn’t have a collective, public freak out. In other words, a world in which a still-functional Journolist-type of operation was able to corral lefty elites and get them into something like a coherent message instead of having them set themselves on fire over Twitter. Imagine if they had gotten some message discipline and taken a line more like Republican heads did after the second and third debate–Yes, our guy probably lost this on points, but this was a strong performance and blah-blah-blah.

Would it have made any difference? The debate would still be the debate, and the insta-polls would have been the same. But if Chris Matthews and Andrew Sullivan and their fellow travelers hadn’t micturated on the carpet in public panic, would the story out of the Denver debate been anything more than, Strong performance by Romney, Obama needs to up his game.

As our president likes to say, let me be clear about a couple of things: I’m not suggesting that people should self-consciously manipulate their public opinions to further political goals. You should call things like you see them. What I am suggesting is that this was the first real Twitter debate and the newness of the encounter may have exerted a real Heisenberg pull, stampeding people into opinions that, had they been publishing the next morning having only traded a couple emails with friends, they might not have actually had.

And that in the specific case of the Denver debate, that stampede might have had an effect. How much of one? I don’t know. But I don’t think it’s crazy to wonder if the simultaneous, public collapse of the president’s liberal supporters had as much of an effect on the race as the president’s actual debate performance.

Update: Santino gets to the nub more clearly than I did:

[I]t’s impossible to arrange talking points when the members of said list are one-upping each other in a public forum, panicking in the cleverest and most retweetable way possible.

That’s something worth dwelling on a little: Did the competitive nature of Twitter—the rush to be funniest and fastest and most visible—push the Democrats over the edge? “God, Obama is terrible.” “He’s SO terrible.” “He’s SO terrible that he’s like the Titanic!” “He’s SO terrible that he’s like the Titanic crashing into an iceberg made of black holes!” “And the black holes are like the wormhole in Event Horizon and he’s going to go through them and come back all evil and scary and AH AH AH PANIC.” Etc.

Anyway, the lesson here is that real time political analysis is a terrible idea. I sure am glad it’s the future!


I Hope Molly Ball Saved Her Notes
October 22nd, 2012

With respect to the Atlantic’s Molly Ball, whose work I generally like quite a bit, she missed the real story in her weekend piece about the Romney-Obama war for women.

Ball goes to Chantilly, Virginia, and does a bunch of mom-on-the-street interviews–and I’d guess that’s exactly what her editors told her to do. But man-on-the-street pieces aren’t particularly helpful. It’s a big country and you can find some normal person to say just about anything if you look hard enough–and often without having to look very hard at all.

But in the course of her reporting, Ball meets a woman named  Zebib. She’s a 46-year-old Ethiopian immigrant. She lives in Chantilly. She’s well enough to do that her kid(s) attend a private Christian school. She’s pro-life. And she nominally supported Ron Paul.

I’d bet just about anything that whatever journey led Zebib to where she is right now in life is a thousand times more interesting than a generic horse-race piece about the women’s vote. I wish Ball had just done a straight-up profile of her. It wouldn’t have told us anything about the 2012 race, but it might have told us something about America.

I hope Ball goes back to her for another story.


A Quick Word of Caution on NC, VA, and FL
October 18th, 2012

It’s excellent news for Mitt Romney that Obama seems to be writing off Virginia, North Carolina, and Florida.

But on the other hand, shouldn’t Virginia and North Carolina have been stone-cold locks for the GOP this time around? There is no universe in which VA and NC were true battleground states and the Republicans were in serious contention for the White House. Put another way: If the GOP was slugging it out in those two states, it meant they were getting creamed in the real battlegrounds.

Now, it could well be that we’re at the beginning of a long swing upwards for Romney (if Florida really comes off the board, that could be a sign). But to paraphrase Winston Wolf, let’s not all start giving each other high fives just yet.


Anti-Apple Samizdat
October 17th, 2012

I’m less interested in the iPad Mini than I am in the Nexus 7, which is going to be an integral part of my next woodworking project. (Mind=Blown?) But I wonder that’s part of something larger going on in the tech culture, because this ad is as devastating as anything since this:



Big Bird, Comment of the Week
October 15th, 2012

In case you’ve ever wondered how much Sesame Street makes from licensing Big Bird, Elmo, Cookie Monster, etc.

Then there’s our comment of the week from Galley Reader M.K.:

Brother, lay off the hyperbole.  You’re either listening to too much sports radio (“I’ll say it.  Dwight Howard’s performance last night was the G.O.A.T.”) or reading too many comic books (“Worst. Episode. Evar.”)

“Catastrophically bad”?  “[W]ould have been career-ending”?  You sound like Andrew Sullivan.  And considering the response from outside your isolation chamber, you missed the mark utterly.  There is no “Heisenberg effect” of Twitter.  Politics is not practiced alone.  It is meant to change upon contact with other people, and it is otherwise meaningless.

Paul Ryan is a practiced explainer — indeed, he is highly skilled in presenting the conservative case by making (deliberately) complicated issues digestible to low-information voters.  He was clearly waylaid by Biden, the veteran obfuscater of four decades’ experience.  Mitt Romney also underestimated his opponents some forty debates ago, and only two weeks ago did we see the improvement that attends experience.  Ryan naïvely assumed his explanatory gifts would carry the day, rather than being prepared to <i>force</i> the opportunity to explain over Biden’s rather surprising raspberries, interruptions, and fart noises.  He was not as prepared for a taping of <i>Crossfire with Martha Raddatz</i> as affable old Joe.

But the bottom line is, Ryan is introducing himself to the nation.  As a loyal number two, his job above all others is to promote the top of the ticket, which he did consistently (and in contrast to Biden, who mentioned Obama once).  His primary goal on Thursday was to not screw up and give the media material to chew on until Tuesday.  His next most important goal was to present himself as relaxed and confident in his ability to radiate competence.  In the few moments between Biden’s overbearing slapstick, Ryan showed a command of the arguments.  Even the most “catastrophically bad” performances by veep candidates amount to nothing (cf. Bentsen-Quayle; Gore-Quayle-Stockdale).  The goal is to demonstrate a baseline competence.  Hardcore DailyKosian critics on the left could not say Ryan betrayed a “catastrophic[]” incompetence.

No, the problem with your one-man echo-chamber — particularly with a politician for whom you personally have the very highest of expectations — is that you will tend to hyper-focus on not just weaknesses but the <i>perceived weaknesses</i> of your champion, imagining what your worst opponent might think of what you’re both watching.  “That won’t sound good to women in the 30-45 demo.” “Ohh, don’t say that! You’re playing right into the stereotype they have about theocons!”

This is meta-politics, the disease of our age.  Our opinions are not based on the substance of the disagreement but rather how we perceive those opinions will be received by other people.  “I agree with his pro-life policy, sure, but I’m not sure if it will poll well with the suburban housewives outside Philly.”  Everyone is a pundit now.  No one talks substance, they talk process. You have fallen into this trap.

The great James Bowman has been banging the drum about the emptiness of meta-politics for year, but it seems there isn’t much audience for media theory.  Too bad, because he is one of the few who gets it:

It is malpractice to pundificate without having read Bowman’s book, <i>Media Madness</i>.


First Blush VP Debate React
October 12th, 2012

I watched the debate last night in the isolation chamber in an attempt to avoid the inherent Heisenberg problems created by Twitter. I still haven’t read any other reactions to it (save one tweet by John Hinderaker) so the following are really just first blush impressions:

* As you can tell from the image to the right, I really, really like Paul Ryan. He’s impressive and admirable. He’d make a great vice president. Might even make a great president. Certainly, if I could choose from the four guys on the ballot this year, he’d be my first choice.

* That said, I thought he had a catastrophically bad night.

* He did a couple things well: He stayed calm and unflappable in the face of a constant, belligerent assault. He was much better on foreign policy than anyone might have expected. His closing statement was powerful and genial; the last five minutes of the debate were his best.

* On nearly every other score, my impression was that Ryan got crushed. He looked and sounded like a lightweight (which, to be clear, he’s not). His tone on offense was grating and tinny. His demeanor on defense weak. He looked out of his depth at every turn. He had no grasp of the political theater inherent in a debate.

Example: In talking about Syria, Biden backed Ryan into a corner where it made him appear as though he was advocating U.S. troop deployment (which he clearly wasn’t). Biden then made him look like an opportunist by asking, What would you do differently? And the only thing Ryan could do was talk retroactively about what words Romney would have used in talking about Assad. Pressed again by Biden, Okay, but going forward, what would you do differently? Ryan had absolutely nothing to say.

That pattern was replicated all night long. The net effect was, for me, the impression that here’s a nice young man who is in no way ready for the big leagues. (I’m not saying this is the objective truth, mind you–see above. But as Clint once said, “Deserve’s got nothing to do with it.”)

* Biden was an incredibly effective hatchet-man. Think for a moment about his strategic goals for the night: No one changes their votes based on a VP debate, so what Biden wanted to do was stop the momentum from the first debate cold by bludgeoning Ryan and Romney and preventing Ryan from getting any traction which might have allowed him to stand up as the forward-looking, serious partner to the project Romney presented last week.

To my eyes, he accomplished this goal. Biden’s performance doesn’t move the polls, but it stops the emerging narrative of Romney-Ryan being on an unstoppable rise and sets the table for Obama in next week’s debate. The analogy which leapt to mind was Biden as a middle-reliever: He came in with bases loaded and no outs and then retired the side. You couldn’t ask for much more from him.

* Was Biden dishonest and unpleasant? Absolutely. Just to pick one example, look at his outrageous answer on the HHS mandate. But part of Biden’s strength is his ability to spout nonsense with perfect conviction. Consider his answer on his Catholicism and abortion. Again, it was maddeningly dishonest. But as a piece of political theater–he slowed down, cast his eyes toward the desk somberly, dropped his voice a register–it was fantastically effective.

As for Biden’s decision to constantly laugh at, mock, and interrupt Ryan, it struck me that he turned the dial up too far. Did he come across like a jerk? To Republicans, sure. And maybe even to some swing voters. But he wasn’t there to make friends. If you’re on the fence about voting for Obama after the disaster of the last four years, 90 minutes of mean Joe Biden aren’t going to push you over the line. Biden was there to stop the current narrative about Romney’s debate win and return to the mission of disqualifying Romney. To my mind, mission accomplished.

* Frankly, Biden’s over-the-top aggro is the only thing that saved Ryan from what could have been a career-ending night.

* Martha Raddatz was an utter embarrassment. I can’t tell if she was more Tim Donaghy or Earl Hebner. She was both unfair (rescuing Biden whenever he came near to danger and hounding Ryan without remorse) and stupid (turning a policy question about abortion into a “personal story” question about faith). If she ever moderates a presidential-level debate again, it’ll be a scandal.

* All of that said, I’ll be interested to go and see what the CW is.


Inside Baseball
October 9th, 2012

A couple weeks ago when Politico ran their big story about infighting in the Romney campaign after the GOP convention, the lede was centered around the creation of Romney’s acceptance speech and a lot of people publicly mused that speechwriter Matt Scully was behind the leak.

That suspicion seemed, at the time, a really big reach. It didn’t fit Scully’s persona or modus operandi. And Scully had no clear motive for planting the story. The most likely source seemed to clearly be someone quite close to Romney, a true believer who had a beef with Stuart Stevens.

Today, Politico has another story out which publicly credits Tagg Romney for leading a pre-debate rebellion against Stevens. Both pieces were written by the same co-authors. This has the appearance of being the denouement of the first piece, where credit is finally given to the parties leading the internal fight against Stevens so that Romney could be Romney. I wouldn’t bet $10,000 that Tagg was behind the first story, too. But in light of today’s piece it seems to me that any suspicion of Scully as the leaker should probably be put to bed.

I realize that outside of a very small world, no one much cares about this. But Scully is one of the true good guys in politics. And gossip linking him to that Politico leak is the kind of thing which inflicts real damage on someone’s career. Which he doesn’t deserve.

The case for suspecting Scully was always weak. Now it’s inoperable.

Update: I probably should be more specific. It would be honorable for Dave Weigel to revisit this item he wrote about Scully. (And the subsequent Twitterendo.)

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Immediate Debate React-Updated
October 3rd, 2012

1) Watching the debate while monitoring Twitter is sub-optimal. The echo-chamber effect is deafening. I closed it down after the first 40 minutes and won’t have it on again during the debates.

2) Jim Lehrer had a terrible night. He got bullied around the stage, lost control of the format, and inserted himself in needless ways in the interest of forcing explicit contrasts–even when the contrast was everywhere.

3) Romney had a good night. Vigorous. Tough. Just the right balance of backward and forward looking. His strongest moment was his aggressive final answer before they went to closing statements. Instead of looking to the moderator for help, as he’s often done in the past, he basically pushed Lehrer around the stage all night and made him his bitch.

That said, I’ll never get used to his Default Face, though. At the end of every answer. Whether he’s thundering to a vehement close or finishing with a soft joke, he immediately sets his face to default with a pursed lip smile, a shoulder sag, and this weird raised-brow puppy dog expression. It’s not the face that’s strange–it’s the fact that he puts it on after every single answer. Almost like he’s a robot returning to rest-state. Aside from that, though, he was incredibly human and lifelike.

4) Obama was halting and not particularly smooth and nearly listless. He’ll need to figure out how to handle a Romney who beats the moderator into giving him every last word.

Yet at the same time, he came across as totally reasonable and serious. Look, this is a guy who’s trying to fundamentally change the citizenry’s compact with the machinery of government. And yet, if you dropped in from Mars tonight, I suspect you’d never, ever get that from his performance tonight.

Speaking of dog whistles, his line about Romney’s secrecy was basically “MORMON MORMON MORMON”, right?

5) Winner? Probably Romney. I suspect he helped himself more than Obama did. But it’s not clear to me whether it was serious enough to translate into a tactical or strategic advantage. We’ll see in three days when there’s some tracking poll.

6) In general, this election is disheartening. America is at an important crossroads, more important than normal. We face serious structural problems with the modern state. And yet we have before us two of the worst candidates in modern times–men who are smaller than the moment in every way. Yet tonight both candidates were substantive and smart and looked bigger than they really are. So that was nice.

Updated the morning after: Look, I agree that Romney had a much better debate than Obama. I’d go so far as to call it the best Romney debate perf I’ve seen in any cycle. But Obama it strikes me that when Andrew Sullivan is hyperventilating about Obama having lost the presidency and John Hinderaker is claiming that “it’s over” it strikes me that people may be running slightly ahead of themselves in their excitement.

Now maybe Rasmussen will show Romney +3 in his tracking poll six days from now, in which case we’ll know that the debate had real consequence. And maybe it’ll prove to be an inflection point in the race. But if you strip out the echo chamber of commentary and just watch the debate itself, I think you’d be much more cautiously optimistic about the eventual effects.


Stephen Schneck Update
October 2nd, 2012

I wrote about the head of Catholic University’s public policy think tank, Stephen Schneck, a couple weeks ago. It seems that at a panel at Catholic University last week, someone tried to question him on the subject during the Q&A. That didn’t go well:

During the event, Archer had asked Schneck to elaborate upon an argument he put forward at his speech at the Democratic National Convention that Romney/Ryan cuts to Medicaid would increase the abortion rate in the United States.

But the moderator, Sheilah Kast of NPR’s Baltimore affiliate, quickly cut him off, saying his question was too policy based for the discussion.


Piracy and Magic
September 24th, 2012

This truly awesome Esquire  piece on Teller and the theft of magic tricks (sorry, “illusions”) has Santino written all over it:

“Invention is all fuzzy, sloppy stuff,” Steinmeyer says. “I have patents, and I have had patents that have expired. Everything has a limited lifetime. But when a person can’t make a living by coming up with new material, that’s when you have to wonder about the system. I would say that over the last few years, the last ten years, it’s a net zero. I’m putting as much money into it as I’m getting out.”

Steinmeyer is surrounded by so many pirates, he’s almost given up fighting them off. Because some venerable tricks, like the Zig-Zag Girl, have become so commonplace — much to the likely despair of its late inventor, Robert Harbin — many magicians have convinced themselves that every trick is fair game so long as they’re able to crack its code. Pursuing the Origami thieves alone would be more than “a full-time job,” Steinmeyer says. While his patents have provided some theoretical protection, he has never actually sued one of his robbers, because he knows how consuming and costly that grim task could be. Court cases might also require the magician to reveal too much about his trick in public, making the very act of protecting magic one of the easiest ways to destroy it.

That’s the Santino stuff. But this passage struck me as particularly profound:

Among his many works, Steinmeyer wrote Hiding the Elephant, his best-selling history of magic. In it, he writes that the best tricks are a “collection of tiny lies, in words and deeds, that are stacked and arranged ingeniously.” Like jokes, tricks should have little plots with a twist at the end that’s both implausible and yet logical. You shouldn’t see the punchline coming, but when you do see it, it makes sense. The secret to a great trick isn’t really its method; the method behind most tricks is ugly and disappointing, something blunt and mechanical. (When Penn & Teller have famously exposed a trick, they’ve almost always invented a ridiculously poetic method and built the trick around it; by making their art seem more intricate than it is, they force the audience to assume that the rest of their tricks are equally complex. Penn & Teller’s exposures are really part of an elaborate con.)


Staggering Genius
September 24th, 2012

Courtesy of Galley Friend M.F.: Mitt Romney. Lucille Bluth.

It had to happen. And it is awesome.

But we need make this even better. I want a converse tumblr, with photos of Romney and Lucille Bluth quotes. Something to get you started:

“I will go when I am good and ready, Michael.”

“I do not know what that is, and I will not dignify it with a response.”

“You want your belt to buckle, not your chair.”

“No, I’m withholding it. Look at me, ‘getting off’.”

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