Math wins huge upset over GOP – are Democrats paying attention?

Comforting stories that don’t add up lead Republicans to reject what the polls were telling them before election day.

Obama's camp has matriculated the same mantras about the economy and public opinion touted by Republicans [AFP]
Obama's camp has matriculated the same mantras about the economy and public opinion touted by Republicans [AFP]

Democrats had a good night on November 6. They re-elected a president with over 50 percent of the vote for the first time since FDR, and won the most Senate seats of any party in a single election since the 1960s. They even won a majority of the House vote – though widespread GOP gerrymandering after the 2010 elections kept control of the House in Republican hands. But you know who had an even better night? Math and pollsters, that’s who.

Not every pollster, to be sure. Certainly not Rasmussen, the right’s favorite pollster, who turned near the very bottom of the national poll accuracy list compiled by Costas Panagopoulos at Fordham University. But pollsters as a whole, all their polls averaged together, successfully predicted every single state-level outcome in the presidential race – with the exception of Florida, which was so close that model interpretations differed, and the race was not called until Saturday. And state-level averages are the heart and sole of various poll-aggregation and/or election modeling sites like 538, Real Clear Politics, Pollster.com, Princeton Election Consortium, and Votamatic.

While all these sites take somewhat different approaches – some relying on blends of demographics or economic indicators, for example – state-level polls become increasingly significant towards the end, when all were predicting an Obama victory, with Florida standing out as the only true coin toss in the race. 

Changing the narrative

Conservative true believers responded by rejecting the polls in two phases. Initially, before the first debate, they claimed that all the polls were wrong. Eventually they came up with a reason why: They showed too many self-identified Democrats. This complaint was based on the false assumption that partisan identification is a fixed characteristic that has to hit some target number in order for a poll to be accurate – as if party ID were an immutable factor like race, gender and date of birth. In fact, partisan ID is quite mutable, and the polls were showing an erosion of the GOP brand, an even deeper problem that conservatives were unwilling to face, but that showed up in spades on election day.

The same people who didn’t believe the polls don’t believe in global warming, either.”

Then, after the third debate – which Romney lost decisively, along with the second one – the Romney campaign and its supporters launched a baseless narrative about Romney having the momentum. It was a narrative that poll aggregators were ideally suited to evaluate, since individual polls tend to vary randomly and aggregators smooth out those random fluctuations. All of the aggregators showed the same thing – some, like Princeton Election Consortium, more sharply than others – that Romney’s momentum had already peaked before the second debate and Obama was not only holding onto an electoral college edge in the battleground states, but actually increasing that lead. In short, Obama was the one with the momentum.

While the conservative attacks focused on Nate Silver, because his 538 blog at the New York Times is particularly high profile, and some embarrassingly innumerate political pundits joined in as well, Silver’s predictions were not the most favourable to Obama, nor did even the conservative Real Clear Politics aggregate map favour Romney – though its “too close to call” state list left the outcome in doubt. In short, it was not Silver or any of the other aggregators whom conservatives were really angered by – it was the state-level polls themselves, which stubbornly persisted in accurately showing that Obama remained ahead in the state-level races he needed to win re-election.

After the election, a number of different people tweeted about a rather obvious connection – how the same people who didn’t believe the polls don’t believe global warming, either. There’s a further correlation here: On the polling side, the supposedly most liberally-biased pollsters actually came closest to hitting the mark, both in the Fordham analysis of national polls and a more sophisticated analysis of state polls by Emory political scientist Drew Linzer at his Votamatic website.

On the global warming side, a new study comparing climate models finds that those predicting the largest climate impacts by 2100 are the most accurate in modelling climate change that’s already occurred – specifically, humidity levels related to cloud formation. In short, the reality being denied in both cases is even worse than it first appears, so attempts to “compromise” or give conservatives “the benefit of the doubt” actually lead us further astray (since I first wrote this, David Roberts of Grist has written an excellent comparison of the twin delusions).

But there is more than just a correlation here. There is a common causal factor involved: Conservatives, trusting their guts, have created their own separate reality, with their own authorities, and their reasoning dominated by ideology, where certain sorts of facts simply cannot intrude. Election day was one of those rare moments in which the bubble they live inside collapsed.

Buying in to bad economics

 Counting the Cost – The economics of political change

But don’t think that President Obama and the Democratic establishment are immune to the same sort of reality-denying thought – they’re not, particularly when they’re trying to be as bipartisan as possible. Indeed, the only reason the 2012 presidential election was even close was precisely because Democratic elites bought into a melange of conservative fantasies that fly in the face of what the numbers tell us, and hence rejected out of hand the very sort of bold action that was needed to fix the economy quickly, and thus gain broad public support.

The fantasies fall into two broad camps, one about economics, the other about public opinion. The first phalanx of fantasies revolves around rejecting Keynsian economics (which explains how multiple different nations emerged from the Great Depression) and, indeed, the entire framework of macro-economic thought, which explains how whole economies are governed by a different logic than applies to their micro-level subparts (households, firms, etc). President Obama clearly showed how deeply he was in thrall to such fantasies when he said the following in his January 30, 2010 weekly radio address:

“[A]s we work to create jobs, it is critical that we rein in the budget deficits we’ve been accumulating for far too long – deficits that won’t just burden our children and grandchildren, but could damage our markets, drive up our interest rates, and jeopardise our recovery right now.

There are certain core principles our families and businesses follow when they sit down to do their own budgets. They accept that they can’t get everything they want and focus on what they really need. They make tough decisions and sacrifice for their kids. They don’t spend what they don’t have, and they make do with what they’ve got.

It’s time their government did the same.”

There is so much wrong-headed thinking in this brief passage, it could take an entire column to set straight. For one thing, basic interest rates were just 0.25 percent when Obama spoke then, just as they have been throughout his presidency. In some situations, high government debts may help drive up interest rates – but that’s not the world we face today.

More to the point at hand, however, is the way Obama foolishly compares government budgeting to family budgeting – an analogy that gets the basic macro-economic facts completely backwards. During an economic downturn, individual economic actors cut back their spending, precisely because they see the economy shrinking around them, with less and less chance for them to make ends meet at previous spending levels. But what may be rational for each one on their own terms is irrational for all: If everyone cuts back on spending, the economy only shrinks all the more. It’s called the paradox of thrift, and it’s why government has to step in, and do the opposite: Spend freely when everyone else is afraid to do so, until things turn around.

This can readily be seen from the basic expenditure equation describing GDP, the gross size of the economy. It is:  GDP (Y)= private consumption (C) + investment (I) + government spending (G) + net exports [exports (X)  − imports (M)].  During a recession, GDP shrinks because C decreases – and the more it decreases, the more individuals tend to tighten their belts, making it shrink even more. That’s why G has to be increased, in order to get the economy growing again, so that individuals will feel comfortable spending more again. Decreasing G while C is decreasing is pure madness, and decreasing G while C is still unsteady is an open invitation for madness to return.

Anyone who doesn’t understand this basic fact doesn’t understand the first thing about macro-economics, the economics of whole societies, as opposed to the micro-economics of individual households and firms. They are as ignorant as the GOP is ignorant of polls – or global warming. At some level, Obama certainly is not that ignorant; he understands this – as it’s built into the logic of his stimulus plan. But he doesn’t understand it very well, else he could never have said what he did in this radio address.

The mirage of public opinion

The second phalanx of fantasies revolves around the delusion that there’s broad, deep, centrist public support for deficit reduction as a top priority, and that making progress in deficit reduction will thereby mark a momentous accomplishment, with all sorts of miraculous results. But it’s entirely false that the public at large is more concerned about deficit-reduction than it is about jobs or about the government programmes that politicians are most focused on cutting. Decades of polling – dating back to 1973 in the General Social Survey, the most-cited polling data in the social sciences – shows that even conservatives favour more or stable spending on the major spending items in the budget.

The reason for the mistake is easy to understand: The 1 percent is heavily behind the idea, and politicians have far more contact with them they do with ordinary Americans. A rare survey of the 1 percent, which I cited last December, reported, according to a summary:

“More members of the one percent point to the federal budget deficit as the country’s most pressing problem than to any other problem facing the nation. A much smaller group mentions unemployment and jobs. In contrast, members of the general public (57 percent) think the economy and jobs are the nation’s most pressing problem and only five percent of the general public thinks it is the deficit.”

I also noted a late April 2011 post by Greg Sargent at the Washington Post‘s “Plum Line” blog drawing attention to what he called “the Beltway deficit feedback loop“. Specifically, he wrote:

“For the longest time, polls indicated that the deficit ranked low on the list of voter concerns, showing public opinion to be strikingly out of sync with official Washington’s prioritising of the deficit over job creation.

But this morning brings a new poll from the Washington Post and Pew Research that finds a whopping 81 percent now think the deficit is a major problem that should be dealt with now, rather than when the economy improves. Tellingly, that number has jumped even among Democrats.”

This was the propaganda background which prepared the way for the debt-ceiling showdown three months later. But tellingly, this public hysteria did not last. Nor does it seem to have ever been that large. A September 2011 New York Times/CBS poll which asked about problems in an open-ended manner found that 59 percent thought the nation’s “most important problem” was either jobs (32 percent) or the economy (27 percent), compared to just 8 percent saying budget deficits. What’s more, these numbers were little changed from the previous time they were asked about, in June of that year, roughly a month and a half after the poll that Sargent referred to.

 Inside Story US 2012 – Obama’s second take

In short, belief in these conservative fantasies is widespread among the 1 percent who largely fund both parties, as well as the broader infrastructures that generate, circulate and popularise ideas. But they do not correspond to reality. Those fantasies have been crucial in crippling the Democrats politically. Initially, they caused Obama to seek a stimulus roughly half the size of what was needed, and they have repeatedly tripped him up ever since – as shown, for example, by the radio address quoted from above. Now the question is whether Democrats will fall prey to them once again, going to war with math in the same foolish way that Republicans repeatedly have done – and, inevitably, with the same disastrous results.

‘The confidence fairy’

The signs of what’s to come do not look good. Elite Democrats, such as former party chair Ed Rendell, cannot wait to abandon their party’s base – as well as math – as he made clear on MSNBC’s The Cycle the day after the election (video here).

“The president now is free to lead,” Rendell said, “He doesn’t have to worry about offending the base and saying that he’s for significant entitlement reform. He can lead, he can come to the middle by saying to Mitch McConnell and John Boehner, ‘Look, I’m for significant entitlement reform but there has to be revenues with it, guys. Let’s go. Let’s get this done’.” 

As with the election polls, or global warming, the logic here “coming to the middle” actually leads farther away from the most accurate reading of reality. But it gets worse.

After the conversation broke for live coverage of Republican House Speaker John Boehner, essentially reiterating the rejected Romney formula of vague “base broadening” with no increase in tax rates, Rendell concluded the discussion saying, “The one thing they’re right about, if we solve the debt, reduce the debt to a manageable part of GDP, begin the process of eliminating the deficit, the economy will take off, there will be an explosion.”

In these statements, Rendell – an apt representative of widespread Democratic establishment thinking – was as far removed from reality as Republicans who denied the polls in the election and deny global warming still. Corporations are sitting on record profits. If there were sufficient consumer demand to reward them for it, they would already be investing those profits in expanding production, hiring workers and making the economy take off. Public debt levels have nothing more to do with it than the Great Pumpkin does. What Rendell is spouting is yet another example of the widespread elite belief in what Paul Krugman calls “the confidence fairy”. Last April, for example, Krugman wrote:

“For the past two years most policy makers in Europe and many politicians and pundits in America have been in thrall to a destructive economic doctrine. According to this doctrine, governments should respond to a severely depressed economy not the way the textbooks say they should – by spending more to offset falling private demand – but with fiscal austerity, slashing spending in an effort to balance their budgets… [T]he idea was that the confidence fairy would come in and reward policy makers for their fiscal virtue.”

By the way, the very first line of that column was “This was the month the confidence fairy died”, and Krugman went on to say:

“The good news is that many influential people are finally admitting that the confidence fairy was a myth. The bad news is that despite this admission there seems to be little prospect of a near-term course change either in Europe or here in America.”

What Ed Rendell is saying, then, is “The confidence fairy is dead. Long live the confidence fairy!”

If Barack Obama takes Rendell’s advice, math is going to beat the living daylights out of the Democrats in the months and years ahead, just like it did the Republicans on November 6.

Paul Rosenberg is the senior editor of Random Lengths News, a bi-weekly alternative community newspaper.

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