Both parties treat the President as too powerful and important

One of my takeaways from the long 2016 election season: both political parties put too much effort into electing a President who only has limited powers. The President is certainly an important symbol and they have a bully pulpit – and both parties in recent decades seem to be interested in increased executive powers, even if they want to exercise those powers in different areas – but they are only one part of the government. Voting for the right President is not a do or die affair: it is great for the media (and while they may not have liked Trump, they liked the attention he drew and the controversy around him) and perhaps more interesting to the public but I’m skeptical that a single good or bad leader can make all the difference.

I’d rather we view the American government as a complex system. Certain actors, like the President, may be more visible or powerful than others but they can rarely act unilaterally.

NYT: Yes, don’t trust online polls

Although the purpose here may truly be to discredit Donald Trump, here is another argument in the New York Times against online polls:

“Those do a good job of engaging audiences online, and they do a good job of letting you know how other people who have come to the webpage feel about whatever issue,” said Mollyann Brodie, the executive director for public opinion and survey research at the Kaiser Family Foundation. “But they’re not necessarily good at telling you, in general, what people think, because we don’t know who’s come to that website and who’s taken it.”

Professional pollsters use scientific statistical methods to make sure that their small random samples are demographically appropriate to indicate how larger groups of people think. Online polls do nothing of the sort, and are not random, allowing anyone who finds the poll to vote. They are thus open to manipulation from those who would want to stuff the ballot box. Users on Reddit and 4chan directed masses of people to vote for Mr. Trump in the instant-analysis surveys, according to The Daily Dot. Similar efforts were observed on Twitter and other sites.

Even when there is no intentional manipulation, the results are largely a reflection of who is likely to come to a particular site and who would be motivated enough to participate. Intuitively, it’s no surprise that readers of sites like Breitbart News and the Drudge Report would see Mr. Trump as the winner, just as Mrs. Clinton would be more likely to find support on liberal sites…

“In our business, the key is generalizability,” he said, referring to the ability of a sample group to apply to a wider population. “That’s the core of what we do. Typically, it takes a lot of time, and a lot of effort, and a lot of money to do it.”

One helpful solution may be to have media outlets refuse to use any online polls. On one hand, journalists often remind the public that they don’t mean anything while they consistently offer them on their website or on the evening news broadcast. They may have some marketing purpose – perhaps participants feel more engaged or it can give outlets some indication of how many people are going further than just passively taking it in – but why confuse people.

What do those post-debate snap polls tell us?

Ed Driscoll comments on the results of some of the post-debate snap polls:

TRUMP WINS MOST IMMEDIATE POLLS: “The newspaper collected screen shots of 19 ‘snap’ polls conducted immediately after the debate, and in 17 of them, most respondents said Trump won the debate, often by a wide margin. It isn’t just Drudge and Breitbart; Trump also got more votes than Clinton in instant polls at Time, Slate, Variety and other liberal outlets. I can’t explain it, other than to say that perhaps it tells us more about how people view Hillary Clinton than about how Donald Trump actually performed.”

Well, certainly one explanation is a repeat of the “Ron Paul Revolution” days of early 2008 – but as with Paul’s quixotic presidential bid, having a large enough group of dedicated zealots to tilt Internet polls does not necessarily translate into sufficient votes at the ballot box where it counts.

It seems safe to say that Trump’s core followers are much more passionate than Hillary’s. We’ll know soon enough if there are a majority of them.

The large issue with these snap polls is that they are unrepresentative. We don’t know who answered them and in what numbers. As suggested here, perhaps Donald Trump has more active followers who take such polls.

At the same time, if there are consistent patterns in non-helpful polls like this, perhaps they can provide insights into concerted online efforts. They may not reveal much about the electorate at large but they could help us understand patterns of partisans. Why is it important to “win” such snap polls? Are there dedicated efforts to win and how are these efforts organized?

Ultimately, does this suggest that snap polls are even worse than being unrepresentative: they are regularly used by particular groups to push a message? Winning in any arena is simply too important to be left to real survey methods…

The power grid, Wall Street, and presidential elections as “critical infrastructure”

The Department of Homeland Security is considering oversight of the critical infrastructure of the presidential election:

“We should carefully consider whether our election system, our election process, is critical infrastructure like the financial sector, like the power grid,” Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said.

“There’s a vital national interest in our election process, so I do think we need to consider whether it should be considered by my department and others critical infrastructure,” he said at media conference earlier this month hosted by the Christian Science Monitor…

DHS describes it this way on their website: “There are 16 critical infrastructure sectors whose assets, systems, and networks, whether physical or virtual, are considered so vital to the United States that their incapacitation or destruction would have a debilitating effect on security, national economic security, national public health or safety, or any combination thereof.”…

Johnson also said that the big issue at hand is that there isn’t a central election system since the states run elections. “There’s no one federal election system. There are some 9,000 jurisdictions involved in the election process,” Johnson said.

The term infrastructure usually brings to mind public services like electricity, water, and transportation. This is a broader definition that hints at what the government think is essential to American society. Wall Street as infrastructure? If something crashed for a significant amount of time – whether through error or malfunction or nefarious intervention – the ripple effects could be huge. If the national election system couldn’t be trusted, it could have significant implications for a democracy.

See the full list of the 16 areas identified as critical infrastructure – including food and agriculture as well as critical manufacturing – at the DHS website. I wonder what other sectors could be added in coming years…

Neither presidential candidate says much about helping the poor

This has become common in recent election cycles: candidates focus on the middle class and ignore the poor.

The United States, the wealthiest nation on Earth, also abides the deepest poverty of any developed nation, but you would not know it by listening to Hillary Clinton or Donald J. Trump, the major parties’ presidential nominees.

Mrs. Clinton, speaking about her economic plans on Thursday near Detroit, underscored her credentials as an advocate for middle-class families whose fortunes have flagged. She said much less about helping the 47 millions Americans who yearn to reach the middle class.

Her Republican rival, Mr. Trump, spoke in Detroit on his economic proposals four days ago, and while their platforms are markedly different in details and emphasis, the candidates have this in common: Both promise to help Americans find jobs; neither has said much about helping people while they are not working.

So why don’t they address lower-class Americans? A few tentative guesses:

  1. More undecided voters are in the middle class.
  2. Candidates want a singular message and so they go with the largest group of Americans – a vast majority of Americans, even ones who are legitimately rich or poor, consider themselves middle class – as to not have to complicate their rhetoric.
  3. The efforts in the 1990s to limit welfare – changes to programs and public housing – were very effective in halting conversation about poverty on a national level.
  4. Candidates want to be associated with people who think they have made it on their own.
  5. Lower-class Americans don’t have as much money to give to campaigns.
  6. Even with growing inequality, Americans have settled on the idea that we are a middle-class country. Candidates want to go with what the country thinks.

Regardless of the reason, it does say a lot about the ability of Americans to even converse about being poor.

Kaine as VP could bring in needed suburban voters

VP nominee Tim Kaine is a former big city mayor who has successfully attracted voters in metropolitan areas:

As the former mayor of Richmond, Kaine is the first (relatively) big-city mayor on either party’s national ticket since Democrats nominated Hubert Humphrey, the mayor of Minneapolis in the 1940s, as their presidential candidate in 1968.

In that sense, Kaine’s selection symbolizes the Democrats’ growing reliance on—and dominance of—metropolitan America. Democrats now control the mayor’s office in 23 of the 26 largest cities. The party’s presidential coalition is rooted in the cities and most populous inner suburbs. In 2012, Obama won 86 of the nation’s 100 largest counties, amassing a total advantage over Mitt Romney in them of nearly 12 million votes, according to calculations by the Pew Research Center. That allowed Obama to win comfortably, even though Romney won more than three-fourths of all the nation’s counties; the 100 largest counties alone provided nearly half of the president’s total votes…

“By the time he ran for governor in 2005, Kaine had his model and it made sense for a Richmond mayor to run this way: He ran as a polished, well-educated suburban/urban candidate,” said Larry Sabato, the director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. Sabato moderated a televised debate between Kaine and Kilgore and remembers being “stunned” at the contrast in styles. “Kilgore was the favorite and he was supposed to win,” Sabato recalled. “But he came across as the southwest Virginian he had once been. He had the southwest Virginia twang; he was not particularly polished. Kaine was so dominant it was almost embarrassing at times; I felt as the moderator I almost had to stop [the fight].”…

Clinton and Kaine will be counting on this same pattern of strong metropolitan showings to offset what could be a stampede toward Trump in non-urban areas far beyond Virginia. The same equation is key to the Democrats’ hopes in other competitive Sunbelt states like Colorado, North Carolina, Nevada, and Florida, as well as familiar Rustbelt battlegrounds like Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Iowa. “The Virginia model,” says Sabato, “is now the national Democratic model.”

Recent presidential cycles have had Democrats solidly winning cities, Republicans solidly winning rural areas, and the two parties fighting over suburban voters (Republicans winning the exurbs, Democrats winning inner-ring suburbs). Both their efforts thus far – Trump on law and order and Clinton on making the country fairer for the working and middle class – could be viewed as efforts to appeal to these middle suburbanites. What exactly do suburbanites want these days from candidates? Good jobs and schools? Safety? Access to the American Dream? The outcome of this election may just hinge on who is best able to move beyond their reliable geographic bases and court suburbanites.

The results of primary voting in DuPage County

The Daily Herald has an analysis of primary voting for president by Chicago area county. Here are the results for DuPage County:

The heart of this traditional Republican stronghold is bright red, with the central areas of the county and south through much of Naperville full of precincts that turned out big for the GOP primary. The same goes for the southeastern part of the county, including Downers Grove,

Overall, more than 17,000 more Republicans than Democrats turned out in DuPage, bucking the statewide trend.

But there’s Democratic blue in the DuPage County part of Aurora, as well as in Addison Township. That kind of Democratic turnout could hint at why Obama was able to pull off wins in DuPage County in the last two presidential elections.

Two quick thoughts:

  1. Displaying the data in a map like this is very helpful as you can quickly see the different bases of support for the two political parties. Additionally, showing the size of the margin of victory for the leading party is much better than just showing who won.
  2. The voting patterns show some correlations with demographic patters: more Republican areas are whiter and wealthier while more Democratic areas are less wealthy and more diverse. Again, seeing this on a map helps make those connections – as long as you know a few things about the spatial dimensions of the county.

Can Americans elect a non-Christian president?

On President’s Day, Pew Research highlighted the religious faith of America’s presidents:

With the exception of Democrat Bernie Sanders (who is Jewish), all of the presidential hopefuls are Christians and most are Protestants.

In addition, all of the current presidential candidates have spoken openly about the importance of faith in their lives (again, with the exception of Sanders, who describes himself as “not particularly religious”). Our recent survey shows that many Americans care about their leaders’ faith. For instance, half of all American adults say that it’s important for a president to share their religious beliefs. And more people now say there is “too little” religious discussion by their political leaders (40%) than say there is “too much” (27%).

Historically, about a quarter of the presidents – including some of the nation’s most famous leaders, like George Washington, James Madison and Franklin Roosevelt – were members of the Episcopal Church, the American successor to the Church of England.

The next largest group of presidents were affiliated with the Presbyterian Church, which has roots in Scotland. Andrew Jackson, Woodrow Wilson and Ronald Reagan, all of whom had Scots-Irish ancestry, were among the commanders in chief who belonged to the denomination.

Protestants have dominated the office yet just two denominations – Episcopalians and Presbyterians – have supplied nearly half (19 out of 43) of the presidents. Arguably, Americans might not care exactly what denomination or particular doctrinal beliefs a president has as long as they identify as a Christian. This may be part of American civil religion where particularities are not encouraged but a general Christian faith is helpful.

In a continuing trend, a sizable number of Americans say they are unwilling to vote for atheists for president though more younger voters are open to it:

As the 2016 presidential election field takes shape, more than nine in 10 Americans say they would vote for a qualified presidential candidate who is Catholic, a woman, black, Hispanic or Jewish. Less than half of Americans would vote for a candidate who is a socialist…

Among religious identities, while the large majority of Americans would vote for a Catholic or Jewish presidential candidate, smaller majorities say they would vote for a candidate who is Mormon (81%), an evangelical Christian (73%), Muslim (60%) or an atheist (58%)…

At least two-thirds of adults younger than 30 say they are willing to vote for a candidate with any of the characteristics included in the survey.

How this influences the 2016 election remains to be seen.

Max Weber, Bernie Sanders, and a difficult revolution

Why not have more sociological theory applied to the 2016 election? Here is one application of Weber’s ideas to Bernie Sander’s chances for starting a revolution:

Max Weber, the great sociologist best remembered for coining the phrase “Protestant work ethic,” would have loved Sunday’s Democratic debate. Leaving aside the sad and quixotic figure of Martin O’Malley, the two main contenders Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders perfectly illustrated a distinction Weber made in his classic 1919 essay “Politics as a Vocation.” In that essay, Weber distinguished between two different ethical approaches to politics, an “ethics of moral conviction” and an “ethics of responsibility.”

Sanders is promoting an “ethics of moral conviction” by calling for a “political revolution” seeking to overthrow the deeply corrupting influence of big money on politics by bringing into the system a counterforce of those previously alienated, including the poor and the young. Clinton embodies the “ethics of responsibility” by arguing that her presidency won’t be about remaking the world but trying to preserve and build on the achievements of previous Democrats, including Obama.

The great difficulty Sanders faces is that given the reality of the American political system (with its divided government that has many veto points) and also the particular realities of the current era (with an intensification of political polarization making it difficult to pass ambitious legislation through a hostile Congress and Senate), it is very hard to see how a “political revolution” could work.

Read Weber’s piece here and a summary here. As I skim through the original piece, it is a reminder of Weber’s broad insights as well as his occasional interest in addressing current conditions (political unrest in Germany). Wouldn’t Weber suggest that either Sanders needs (1) a ridiculous amount of charisma (which he has to some degree to come this far in politics) and/or (2) unusually large-scale support from the public in order to counter the power of  existing government? Reaching either objective this time around may prove too difficult…

Cruz campaign using psychological data to reach potential voters

Campaigns not working with big data are behind: Ted Cruz’s campaign is working with unique psychological data as they try to secure the Republican nomination.

To build its data-gathering operation widely, the Cruz campaign hired Cambridge Analytica, a Massachusetts company reportedly owned in part by hedge fund executive Robert Mercer, who has given $11 million to a super PAC supporting Cruz. Cambridge, the U.S. affiliate of London-based behavioral research company SCL Group, has been paid more than $750,000 by the Cruz campaign, according to Federal Election Commission records.

To develop its psychographic models, Cambridge surveyed more than 150,000 households across the country and scored individuals using five basic traits: openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism. A top Cambridge official didn’t respond to a request for comment, but Cruz campaign officials said the company developed its correlations in part by using data from Facebook that included subscribers’ likes. That data helped make the Cambridge data particularly powerful, campaign officials said…

The Cruz campaign modified the Cambridge template, renaming some psychological categories and adding subcategories to the list, such as “stoic traditionalist” and “true believer.” The campaign then did its own field surveys in battleground states to develop a more precise predictive model based on issues preferences.

The Cruz algorithm was then applied to what the campaign calls an “enhanced voter file,” which can contain as many as 50,000 data points gathered from voting records, popular websites and consumer information such as magazine subscriptions, car ownership and preferences for food and clothing.

Building a big data operation behind a major political candidate seems pretty par for the course these days. The success of the Obama campaigns was often attributed to tech whizzes behind the scenes. Since this is fairly normal these days, perhaps we need to move on to other questions: what do voters think about such micro targeting and how do they experience it? Does this contribute to political fragmentation? What is the role of the mass media amid more specific approaches? How valid are the predictions for voters and their behavior (since they are based on certain social science data and theories)? How does this all significantly change political campaigns?

How far are we from just getting ridding of the candidates all together and putting together AI apps/machines/data programs that garner support…