November 18, 2004

Paulos on the Election

John Allen Paulos, the Temple University professor and author ofA Mathematician Reads the Newspaper, has written a Guardian column about the 2004 election results. His conclusion? "In any case, my meta-conclusion is that there are no very compelling conclusions to be drawn about the electorate. Bush received more votes than Kerry. Period. I don't think this simple fact means the country supports the Bush agenda."

I was underwhelmed with the article in some ways: I think that Paulos may be attaching too much significance to Ray Fair's statistical regression model of U.S. presidential elections, and it's possible to draw useful conclusions about the electorate from exit polling if you don't try too hard to come up with some grand theory. (Paulos himself presumably wouldn't disagree with the second of these comments.) But consider Paulos's conclusion:

Excuse my mathematicianís obsession with coin flips, but consider this. There is a large bloc of people who will vote for the Republican candidate no matter what, and a similarly reliable Democratic bloc of roughly the same size. There is also a smaller group of voters who either do not have fixed opinions or are otherwise open to changing their vote.

To an extent, these latter peopleís votes (and thus elections themselves) are determined by chance (external events, campaign gaffes, etc).

So what conclusion would we draw about a coin that landed heads two or three times out of four flips (or about a sequence of two or three Democratic victories in the last four elections)? The answer, of course, is that we would draw no conclusions at all.

Again, this seems slightly simplistic to me, but there's something to it. First the criticism: you can make a strong case that the electorate isn't shifting as far right as analysts sometimes assume, but the country's politics certainly are. That's really significant. (The Senate, for instance, is becoming far more conservative, in part because it has an institutional bias toward conservative states, and Jonathan Rauch has made a fairly convincing case that the Republican party turned farther right than the electorate did in 2004. A backlash may well be coming, though it could arrive too late.) Even so, combine Paulos's argument above with another observation--that a competent but uninspired challenger won 48% of the vote against a war-time president presiding over an economy that wasn't in recession--and the country's electoral future looks more hopeful.

The country's short- and medium-term policy future, of course, still looks horrible. But if the Democrats' electoral fortunes improve, the long-term future might not be as bad as I often fear.

Caveat: Don't read this post as a statement that all is really well in the world (or will be in the long run), or as a call to complacency. Soon after reading Paulos's article, I read one of Mark Schmitt's latest Decembrist entries, which ended with the following paragraph:

Democrats lose elections and comfort ourselves that our views represent a majority and we just have to convey them better. Republicans win elections and comfort themselves that they are still an embattled minority and need to keep fighting like hell -- ends justify the means and all that -- against the entrenched liberal power. We're both a little crazy.

I'm also quite amused by Michelle Cottle's suggestion that, "if the success of George W. Bush has taught us anything, it is that self-reflection is for losers." Looking at exit poll results can help the party figure out how best to connect with voters in the future, but if we're going to be depressed about politics today, it's more sensible to be depressed by what's now happening in Washington than about what happened on November 2.

Tangent: Paulos's website kind of amuses me when it refers to him as "an extensively kudized author". "Kudized" is the sort of word that (the last I checked) doesn't actually exist, but that definitely deserves to.

Update: Actually, it seems that Paulos isn't the only person who uses the word "kudize." You can find it in the Merriam-Webster online thesaurus, it's listed in a glossary of the National Puzzler's League, and the OED claims that it was used as far back as 1799. Even so, a majority of the 34 google hits for "kudized" refer to Paulos, which seems tol confirm my sense that "kudized" isn't a real word. At least not yet! (Then again, "kudized" may be the sort of word that I'd find quite irritating if it actually came into common usage: it may be most charming as a semi-illiterate but amusing bit of wordplay, and not as an actual word.)

Posted by Ed at November 18, 2004 11:26 AM
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