Too Much Noise

Sometimes it is best to just stand down. No one likes waiting but sometimes there’s no alternative. The presidential election is Tuesday and by Sunday evening everything that was going to be said by every candidate and by every party operative and by every pundit had been said – they were just repeating themselves now. They were just more emphatic than before, hoping to rally the folks already solidly on their side, to make sure they got out and actually voted. There are probably no undecided voters left anyway. No one was about to change their minds, so this was to be one of those base elections – whoever got more of their side to the polls would win. The election would be about turnout, not ideas – which made everything that was said about this policy or that, and about the role of government and whether we were all in this together or whether we should be free to do what we want and keep all our stuff if we chose, just noise. If you like loud noise it was a great day in American political life. Some people like loud trash-rock after all, or marching bands playing Sousa marches in confined spaces, badly, because it makes them feel all patriotic.

Of course no one knows who will win – by Sunday the polling was all over the place. The conventional wisdom was that meant that this would be a close election. On the other hand, Nate Silver, the most respected statistician in these matters, with far and away the best track record of predicting election results, doubted that. He looked at all of the available data from all sources. Obama’s chances of winning were well over eighty-five percent – because for Romney to win all state polls would have to be statistically biased. There would have to be a vast conspiracy where all the competing polling organizations found the time to get together and figure out a way to make Obama look good and Romney look like a loser. That seemed unlikely, and Sunday morning, Fox News’ Brit Hume tried to let the Fox Nation down gently – the arithmetic of it all was puzzling, but there it was. Obama was pulling ahead. Denial gave way to puzzlement. Score one for rationality.

Nate Silver discusses this sort of thing in his new book The Signal and the Noise – about why so many predictions fail, but then some don’t. It’s a matter of separating signal from the noise, as any shortwave radio geek knows. There’s always too much static, too much pesky white noise. You can’t hear the words being broadcast.

The odd thing is that Silver’s book isn’t really about politics. He mostly covers finance and weather and epidemiology – playing the stock market and predicting hurricanes and deciding when the next bird-flu epidemic will hit and which vaccine is necessary, and don’t even get him started on earthquake prediction. He also discusses the problem with the claims of people who don’t always have any incentive to be accurate. Those would be politicians. The appearance of accuracy often isn’t the real thing. There’s always too much noise. The job is to filter it out. It’s not easy.

Silver’s book is about method and theory – a discussion of new and systematic ways to make sense of life. Maybe he’s positing some sort of statistician-hero filtering out all the noise that besets us every day – but if so he has his work cut out for him. Perhaps he can find the clear signal in all the noise in the polls, but politics isn’t all polling. People say things, and on the Sunday before the election, Andrew Sullivan notes what the conservatives and Republicans and Tea Party folks were saying:

The narrative in the GOP blogosphere is of imminent triumph, even landslide. All the independents are surging toward Romney, the swing states are trending Romney, and the total failure of Obama’s four years is so obvious you have to be a liar to believe that deficits have slightly declined on his watch, despite a collapse in revenues caused by the Great Recession. And so state after state is falling to Romney even as I type. Hinderaker – who still believes that George W Bush was a great president – sees one outlier poll in Pennsylvania as something that will be “sending chills down David Axelrod’s spine”. It’s one poll – and the only one that doesn’t give Obama a clear edge. The poll of polls puts Pennsylvania as 50 percent Obama, 45 percent Romney, and it’s been very stable. Minnesota? That’s also got Hinderaker atwitter: he thinks both Minnesota and Pennsylvania could both “very possibly end up in the red column.” All the polling suggests otherwise – but I guess they’re all rigged.

Sullivan also cites Michael Barone’s idiosyncratic prediction of the Electoral College vote – Romney 315 and Obama 223 – and tries to figure out how the man got there from here, the Planet Earth. Sullivan can’t:

I suspect it will be very tight nationally, and I try not to give predictions. But if Romney gets a landslide in the Electoral College, many of us will have to reassess our entire understanding of America, politics and polls. And if Obama wins, Michael will presumably acknowledge where and how he was so, so wrong. There might even be a crack in the cognitive dissonance and epistemic closure across the right. I mean: the central issue in this campaign is Benghazi, remember?

The great thing about reality is that eventually you hit it. We are about to.

You remember Benghazi. Roger Simon clears that up:

Obama should have been destroyed by now. That was the plan. He was going to be “Swift Boated” in this election, just like John Kerry was in 2004.

It would be about Benghazi, where on Sept. 11 of this year, U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans were killed. This would be the spear point that would fatally wound the Obama campaign.

It would be a classic smear: The Obama administration had delivered a “stand down” order to potential rescuers, and so the four Americans had died.

Why would any agency or anybody in the administration do such a thing? It didn’t matter. Wingnuts can always find motives. There are still people who say Bill Clinton murdered Vince Foster. Whole books have been written about that one.

There was no stand-down order. No one can find one, and Simon covers all the talk about how there must have been one and all the records showing we were in there as fast as we could be. See David Ignatius, who had been enthusiastic in demanding more information about Benghazi and looked at all the evidence, finally admitting this – “While there were multiple errors that led to the final tragedy, there’s no evidence that the White House or CIA leadership deliberately delayed or impeded rescue efforts.”

The whole scandal was just noise. The weekend before the election Rudy Giuliani demanded that Obama resign immediately over this – and for screwing up his response to Hurricane Sandy too. No one knew what the hell Giuliani was talking about, but maybe Giuliani is used to that by now. That one was easy noise to filter out, but Fox News, and only Fox News, is still devoting several hours each day to Obama’s stand-down order. They’re sure it will show up eventually. They’ll find the signal in the noise, or something.

As for Giuliani comments on the hurricane, Bill Clinton, campaigning in Concord, New Hampshire, found the clear signal in that noise:

You know Obama proved it in the way he handled this terrible storm Sandy in the Northeast: getting off the campaign trail, putting aside politics, working with the Republican governor of New Jersey, the independent mayor of New York City, and the Democratic governors of New York and Connecticut. It was a stunning example of how “we’re all in this together” is a way better philosophy than you’re-on-your-own.

That’s clear, and Matthew Dowd, the Republican political strategist, sees only noise on his side now, and denial:

The first thing happens is, don’t believe – the public polls are wrong. That’s the first sign of a campaign that’s about to lose. The second thing, we’re going to change the nature of the electorate, and you’re not seeing it reflected in the polls. And the third thing is, the only poll that counts is Election Day. When you hear those things, you know you’re about to lose.

That’s why it’s a turnout election, where you want your folks, not yet filtering out the noise, to vote, before they do. And it follows that you want to make sure the other side doesn’t show up to vote. They’ve ignored the noise and they’re even enthusiastic, so keep them from voting.

The story in Pennsylvania is well known – a new photo-ID law that would make it extremely difficult for the poor and the blacks and the elderly to vote, as they’d have to jump through lots of hoops to get their special ID cards, which the state, oddly enough, didn’t have the time or resources to provide. The Republican legislature and the Republican governor were very clever about this, but that got shot down in the courts. They even took down the hundreds of billboards sited in minority neighborhoods saying it was a felony to vote without the approved identification card and you’d go to jail for years if you tried, although that took weeks after they lost in court. Their only hope now is that the poor and the blacks and the elderly, who tend to vote for Democrats, are still feeling uneasy. Maybe there was enough noise left in the air. Maybe they just won’t vote. No one wants to go to jail.

The same sort of thing happened in Ohio. The poor and the blacks and the elderly, who tend to vote for Democrats, tend to use early voting and always have – sometimes it’s the only way to vote, given their hardscrabble lives. In Ohio the Republican legislature abolished early voting, except for active military folks. That would deliver Ohio to Romney – but the Democrats sued, and they won in district court, so early voting had to be allowed once again, as always. The state’s Republican attorney general appealed the ruling, and the appellate court shot him down. He said he wouldn’t fully comply – there were ways around this – and they reprimanded him. He then took the matter to the Supreme Court – the folks who put George Bush in office – but they refused to hear the case. They wouldn’t get involved in these matters again, so the appellate court ruling stood, which left only one alternative, creating more noise:

Ohio GOP Secretary of State Jon Husted has become an infamous figure for aggressively limiting early voting hours and opportunities to cast and count a ballot in the Buckeye State.

Once again Husted is playing the voter suppression card, this time at the eleventh hour, in a controversial new directive concerning provisional ballots. In an order to election officials on Friday night, Husted shifted the burden of correctly filling out a provisional ballot from the poll worker to the voter, specifically pertaining to the recording of a voter’s form of ID, which was previously the poll worker’s responsibility. Any provisional ballot with incorrect information will not be counted, Husted maintains. This seemingly innocuous change has the potential to impact the counting of thousands of votes in Ohio and could swing the election in this closely contested battleground.

Andrew Cohen at the Atlantic Online has all the details about this – the suits and countersuits and all the implications. The noise will keep many from the polls, and no one will know the final count for a month after the election.

There’s a lot of this going around:

In Maryland’s Prince George County, where 10 percent of registered voters have voted early, lines were so long (often three or four hours long) that the state had to bring in extra voting machines. In Ohio, The Nation’s Ari Berman estimated the queue outside one early voting location at around 1,000 people, claiming that the state had already surpassed its 2008 early voting totals. Meanwhile, yesterday was the last day for early voting in Chicago (where lines at least moved mercifully fast) and in Florida (where they didn’t, thanks to a 5-page ballot.)

So many Floridians wanted to vote by last night’s 7 p.m. deadline that some waits took as long as eight or nine hours. The slowness was blamed on both the lengthy ballot – which included no fewer than 11 amendments to the state’s constitution – and the fact that at least seven Florida counties have more than 50,000 registered voters per location. (Several voting facilities in Miami-Dade reported 5-hour-plus and 6-hour-plus lines yesterday.) The last voters in line ultimately only got to cast their ballots at 1 a.m., six hours after the deadline.

At one point during the day, the city’s election headquarters had to be closed down temporarily due to an overwhelming number of voters wishing to submit early absentee ballots. “We want to vote! We want to vote!” people were heard screaming outside.

People screaming that they want to vote? That’s a noise no one ever expected to hear in America. All the state did was cut the available hours for early voting in half – by means of an executive order from the Republican governor, Rick Scott. This hit Democratic districts hard of course and people complained. So Rick Scott relented and  South Florida County Extends Early Voting but Only in One GOP Stronghold – otherwise Rick Scott is holding firm.

This is nasty stuff, but there certainly was a lot of other noise the weekend before the big election. Nate Silver may be able to detect the clear signal in all the noise in the polling, but this is another matter. Who should be allowed to vote, at least easily? That question seems to be what this is all about, which leads to this item from Politico:

If President Barack Obama wins, he will be the popular choice of Hispanics, African-Americans, single women and highly educated urban whites. That’s what the polling has consistently shown in the final days of the campaign. It looks more likely than not that he will lose independents, and it’s possible he will get a lower percentage of white voters than George W. Bush got of Hispanic voters in 2000.

A broad mandate this is not.

Josh Marshall is not impressed with this analysis:

Obama’s winning but not with the best votes. I mean really, if you can’t win with a broad cross-section of white people, can you really be said to represent the country? Really.

One of his readers fires back:

Josh, the fact that you are implying that some votes are better than others is disgusting – beyond cynical, actually quite racist, classist, oligarchist, shameless… I could go on, but why ask for pears from a peach tree?

It’s with complete disappointment that I type this missive, though I should have known… to be completely honest with myself, in a way I did, there was a certain je ne sais quoi that transpired through some of your brief pieces, that I was unable to circumrotate.

You should ponder why academia and those with higher education and women join the “mongrels” to defeat the rest of the country, whatever you choose to call them… but I’m sure you already know why, and the sooner we stop measuring differences by the changes in tone of skin color, since nobody’s skin is either truly black or white, not the darkest African nor the lightest albino, the faster the mixing will occur and forgiveness for the lynchings will hopefully follow, and maybe we will all be able to say to each other, “what’s up ni—er?”

Is race the signal in the noise? Tom Scocca has some thoughts on that:

Obama has a deficit of 23 percentage points, trailing Republican Mitt Romney 60 percent to 37 percent among whites, according to the latest Washington Post-ABC News national tracking poll. That presents a significant hurdle for the president – and suggests that he will need to achieve even larger margins of victory among women and minorities, two important parts of the Democratic base, to win reelection.

That’s not polarized. Polarization would mean that various races were mutually pulling apart, toward their favored candidates. “Minorities” is not a race (nor, you may have noticed, is “women”). Minorities and women are the people standing still, while white men run away from them.

Still, there really is a problem:

What is it with these white men? What are they seeing that ordinary people don’t see? What accounts for this … secession of theirs, from the rest of America? John Sununu, Romney’s campaign co-chair, responded to Colin Powell’s endorsement of Obama by saying, “I think that when you have somebody of your own race that you’re proud of being president of the United States – I applaud Colin for standing with him.”

Sununu was trying to be snide. But there he is, standing with Mitt Romney. Just like Donald Trump and Clint Eastwood and Buzz Bissinger and Meat Loaf – one aging white man after another. It’s a study in identity politics.

White people don’t like to believe that they practice identity politics. The defining part of being white in America is the assumption that, as a white person, you are a regular, individual human being. Other demographic groups set themselves apart, to pursue their distinctive identities and interests and agendas. Whiteness, to white people, is the American default.

That’s not so hard to see:

This has been the foundation of Republican presidential politics for more than four decades, since Richard Nixon courted and won the votes of Southerners who’d turned against the Democratic Party because of integration and civil rights. The Party of Lincoln became the party of Lincoln’s assassins, leveraging white anger into a regional advantage and eventually a regional monopoly. It’s all very basic and old news, but it’s still considered rude to say so, even as Republican strategists talk about winning the white voters and only the white voters.

Thus Scocca sees we have two elections going on:

In one, President Obama is running for re-election after a difficult but largely competent first term, in which the multiple economic and foreign-policy disasters of four years ago have at least settled down into being ongoing economic and foreign-policy problems. A national health care reform bill got passed, and two reasonable justices were appointed to the Supreme Court. Presidents have done worse in their first terms. In my lifetime – which began under the first term of an outright thug and war criminal – I’m not sure any presidents have done better…

In the other election, the election scripted for white voters – honestly, I’m not entirely sure what the story is. Republican campaigns have been using dog-whistle signals for so long that they seem to have forgotten how to make sounds in normal human hearing range. Mitt Romney appears to be running on the message that first of all, Obama hasn’t accomplished anything, and second of all, he’s going to repeal all the bad things that Obama has accomplished. And then Romney himself, as a practical businessman, is going to … something-something, small business, something, restore America, growth and jobs, tax cuts, something. It’s a negative campaign in the pictorial sense: a blank space where the objects would go. A white space, if you will.

That’s white noise actually, with no embedded signal – but Scocca may be onto something. Two days before the election everyone had said what they meant to say and now only says the same things, again and again and again. Maybe there’s a signal in there, about who should be allowed to vote or something else hidden more deeply – but it’s hard to tell now. People are screaming to be allowed to vote. Let them. Let’s get this over with.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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