Little Pitchers have Big Ears

I’ll tell you a little story while we wait for the polls to close and election returns to come in.

If you’ve started following this blog recently, you might not know that I have an elementary-aged grandson who I spend copious amounts of time with. He’s truly precocious when it comes to analyzing things. That’s because he’s one of those mechanically-inclined little dudes who prefers math to language arts. And because I’ve been teaching him to pull complex ideas apart and look at their constituent pieces as a way of finding their meaning since before he could speak in grammatically-correct sentences.

Photo by Gene'O, 2015.

Photo by Gene’O, 2015.

The little fella is aware there’s an election on. We’ve done our best not to talk about it in too much detail with him. My approach has been to not bring it up, but when he does, to give him honest, age-appropriate answers. So he knows I’m voting for the Dem in November, but we’ve not talked in any detail about  the various candidates.

The sort of political talk you’ve been seeing here and on my Facebook timeline these last few weeks is not the sort of stuff you’ll hear in my house if the kid is awake. And we do our best to minimize his exposure to the news, because most nights, it’s full of horrors. I don’t think I’m doing him a disservice by waiting until he’s 9 to let him watch the full news every night.

The reason we do things this way is because while we want him to grow up to be a tolerant, engaged citizen who understands his rights and sees the inequalities all around him, we don’t want to just put our politics in his head until he’s old enough to think about politics critically. I’ll be happy if he grows up to agree with my politics 100%. But I don’t want that to happen because I told him to, or because we have such a strong emotional bond. I want him to form his own political views rationally and to know why he takes the positions he eventually takes.

He knows I write and publish things on the internet for anyone in the world to see if I can grab their attention, and he’s fascinated by the whole thing. If I allow him, he’ll stand and read over my shoulder as I write. (I’ve had to explain to him recently that writers find this annoying.) So, yesterday he saw me editing a post I’m working on which includes this image:

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He decided, since I was obviously writing about the election, to give me his opinion on Donald Trump. So of course I had to shut my editing session down and interrogate him about where he got his information and how he formed his opinion. What follows is a lightly-edited transcript of our conversation.

Kid: I HATE Trump.

Me: You know we don’t hate people. Not even people we dislike. Because there’s a little good in even the worst people, and hating folks makes us want to fight instead of talking and listening.

Kid: Well, I really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, REALLY dislike him. I dislike him all the way to Pluto and back. (He seriously uses this many “reallys” to express strong emotion. If anything, I’m understating. I sometimes have to interrupt the “reallys” and tell him I understand to get him to continue with his thought.)

Me: Okay. Tell me why you feel that way.

Kid: Trump wants to be one of them president-kings and he will command us all to use the n-word.

Me: *Shocked and alarmed, but proud of the racial sensitivity there* Where are you getting this? Are you talking to other grownups about this that I don’t know about?

Kid: No. That’s just what I think.

Me: Talking about it with your friends at school?

Kid: *Shakes head unconvincingly and stands up from his chair so he can march around the room while he delivers this next bit.* He will make us all sing “Trump! Trump! Trump! He is the greatest! Trump! Trump! Trump! He is the greatest!”

Me: You MUST tell me why you think these things. If you’re getting them from someone else, that’s a thing your Paw needs to know about.

Kid: I can just see it in his eyes.

I interrogated him a bit more, but he insisted these opinions are his own, formed from overhearing snippets of network news and seeing the occasional photo of Trump while eaves-watching my blogging and Facebooking.fblike

I believe he came up with this on his own, or else got it from other kids just based on the language he used. He has good recall when it comes to remembering exactly what others say, and I can generally tell when he’s repeating something he’s gotten from adults.

Just for example, when he asked me who I was voting for several weeks ago. I told him either Clinton or Sanders. His response: “I like Bernie Sanders. He is an intelligent man.” And when I asked him how he felt about Hillary Clinton he said “She is untrustworthy.” I knew, based on the language, not only that he was repeating something he’d heard a grownup say. I even knew which grownup.

This Trump thing is different. It’s either an honest, original assessment from a very perceptive little boy, or a pastiche of things he’s heard on the playground. I have extremely mixed feelings about this. I’m proud of the overall awareness the little dude’s showing here and pleased he’s come to the same conclusion as me without my direct intervention.

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I’m also sad that a second-grader is looking at the Presidential election and this is what he’s seeing. My first real political awakening was at about his age, during the Carter-Reagan race in 1980 (I wanted Carter to win). So on balance, I can’t say whether all this is a good thing, or a bad thing. But it sure is interesting.

An hour after we were done with our conversation, it came to my attention that the owner of Humans of New York has published a withering critique of Donald Trump and vowed to work against him. Aside from the part where Humans of N.Y. is warning us not to let Trump off the hook when he inevitably tacks to the center, the statement pretty much says what the kid said, only in the language of a sophisticated East Coast journalist. I was struck by it.

And today I found this. If you need further confirmation that yes, what’s going on at these Trump rallies is not only corrosive, but dangerous, here’s your sign. It’s about a guy who went undercover to a Trump rally to try and figure out why his followers are acting the way they are and better see them as humans, so as not to just demonize them because he disagrees with what they’re doing. A long read and it will make you a little sick to your stomach. But worthy of your time.

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I’ll have stuff to say on Facebook once the polls close tonight, and a post here about it tomorrow or the day after. Everything I’m posting about this election on Facebook is public. You can find me here if you just want to follow along. And I have a fairly open policy for accepting friend requests.

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On Polling and Primaries

My friend Luther wrote a post “On Michigan” at InfiniteFreeTime last week. I agree with all of it, and it set me thinking. Luther and I have compared notes on this election a bit.

I’ve learned some things from him, and he’s proven himself smarter than me about several of the electoral dynamics. If I’ve been making sense to you with these political posts, you should be reading Infinite Free Time. Luther dosen’t always write about politics but when he does, he makes sense, and he’s far more entertaining than me. I’m gonna try and elaborate today on some of what he said about Michigan.

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On the Polling

(If you aren’t interested in polling, just scroll down to the next subhead. I’ll tell you how I think this Democratic primary season ends.)

Bernie Sanders’ win in Michigan was an upset. No one, including the candidates, saw it coming. Here’s a post and a discussion at fivethirtyeight.com that might shed some light. Tl;dr version of Carl Bialik’s explanation, which is the first comment on the thread: Polling organizations stopped contacting Michigan voters on Sunday, and that’s too early to stop polling in an election this fluid, so the polls missed too many late deciders.

Michigan could be a fluke. Or it could mean Sanders will be competitive in Ohio, Missouri, and (maybe) Illinois tomorrow. The reason I put IL in the “maybe” column is because Clinton has deep connections and a strong organization in that state. She was as much as 37 points ahead of Sanders there in some polls last time I looked, but given that the polling has been inaccurate in two Midwestern states now, I’m willing to consider there might be something off with the way these surveys are being conducted.

All this caused me to do some digging, because I want to know how trustworthy the polling is going forward. After doing my reading, I’ve come to the conclusion that the predictive survey data in this election might be less reliable than it’s been in 30 or 40 years. Here’s Rutgers professor Cliff Zukin explaining a few of the problems which might apply in the New York Times. I’ve also seen articles from Nate Silver at 538 and a former provost of Georgetown University which concur. I’ll break it down for you.

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  1. For a survey to have any value for predicting the behavior of voters, you need a fairly large sample, and you need it to be representative of the general population.
  2. Historically, the way this has been done is by taking huge lists of land line telephone numbers and building random samples for telephone polls. The participation rate is so low for these surveys, it’s necessary to make tens of thousands of phone calls to find even 1,000 qualified participants. Sometimes numbers have been disconnected, sometimes people just hang up, and sometimes kids answer the phone.
  3. We’ve reached the point where so many people have dumped their land lines in favor of cellphones, it’s no longer possible to use probability sampling to build a representative sample without adding more data, so the way to do it these days is to also build a sample of cellphone numbers, survey those separately, and then aggregate the landline and cellphone data.
  4. The FCC restricts the use of autodialers for cellphone surveys, so interviewers have to actually dial the numbers themselves and in some instances, polling organizations need to compensate respondents for their wireless usage. Which doesn’t seem like a big deal until you think of it from the perspective of the paid-hourly interviewer with a list of 2500 numbers they have to dial manually, or the cost of paying $5K for every individual cellphone sample of 500 likely voters for an entire election cycle.
  5. Since only the biggest and best-funded organizations can afford big, reliable phone samples that actually represent the population at this point, and the internet is so well-developed, a lot of small organizations and newcomers are using internet polls. But the demographics of internet use are skewed. So skewed, in fact, the professionals have yet to figure out how to build a representative sample using only internet data.

The result: Lots more noise in the polls than we’re accustomed to and less reliable predictions. I’ve read so much about this in the last week, I just don’t trust the polls in this election any more. So I’ll tell you where I think this Democratic primary season is going based solely on my understanding of the demographics of various states and the trends so far.

On The Primary

Clinton has a 200-delgate lead among pledged delegates, which are won based on primary outcomes. She has overwhelming support from the superdelegates who have publicly weighed in. Superdelegates can change their minds, but they’ll only do that if Sanders closes the gap and convinces them he’s the choice of the people.

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Even then, he won’t get all, or even most of them. Superdelegates are hardcore party loyalists — mostly former long-serving elected officials who REALLY understand how these politics work — and they have questions about Bernie’s viability on account of he’s an unapologetic socialist (not a bad thing, in my mind, but a huge vulnerability for a general election contender) and is also untested in a national election (kind of a big deal to me, given the stakes this time around).

There is no such thing as a winner-take-all Democratic primary in the U.S. Pledged delegates are apportioned based on popular vote percentages. If you want to win all or most of the delegates in a state, you need a landslide victory. A 51/49 win results in an almost even delegate split.

This is one of the few things we’re doing right with our elections. If we weren’t staring down the barrel of a long series of winner-take-all Republican primaries in which GOP voters have to choose between a racist con man and a certifiably insane Tea Party guy, Trump wouldn’t be as strong a candidate as he is.

The Democratic Party’s primary system would be perfect if they’d dump the superdelegate idea and go to an all-primary system. (Caucuses make the process too opaque and introduce an unacceptable level of moral hazard into the nomination process, IMHO.)

So here’s what I see happening next. Tomorrow, five big, significant states will vote: Ohio, Florida, Illinois, North Carolina, and Missouri.

These states have a lot of delegates. Bernie’s performance in Michigan makes me think he might compete in the Midwest states and at least win half the delegates in Ohio. But I expect North Carolina to go big for Clinton and I expect her to at least break even in Illinois. Missouri is an unknown quantity to me, especially given the problems we’ve seen with polling in the Midwest.

I was loathe to even talk about Florida when I started this. Having lived close to Florida and been there many, many times in my life, I’ll tell you this about it. Once you get below the panhandle, it’s different from either the Deep South or the Mid-Atlantic. Central and South Florida are a region unto themselves. I think Clinton was the favorite in Florida before last week’s debate even started, and I think Bernie’s answers on the socialism questions, as much as I appreciated his effort, probably sunk him there.

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After North Carolina and Florida vote tomorrow, the South is done until November. Clinton’s advantage among black southerners has accomplished all it can accomplish, but she’s blown Bernie out down here because he did not compete. I understand that decision — I called the southern primaries for Clinton, and decisively, months ago. But now he has to not only beat her, but beat her by wide margins in big states, to have a chance of catching up.

We’re running out of pledged delegates, and the best he’s done so far in big, diverse states is beat her by a percentage point in Michigan. Even if Michigan means something and he competes in the other states, his margin of victory there makes me think he’s just about finished.

That said, he’s done our country an important service. He’s forced Hillary to the left on a few issues, he’s energized a lot of young people, and he’s taken the first baby steps toward making it cool to be a real lefty again. So god bless him. I hope the Democratic Party has the political sense to keep him campaigning and offer him an executive branch job once Hillary clinches the nomination.

I had some things to add here about protest voting and why we shouldn’t do it this time around, but I can’t believe anyone wants to read 3,000 words from me all at one go, so I’ll save that part for another day.