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netflix-the-crown

The late lamentable exercise known as the 2016 Presidential election left a number of Americans wondering if there wasn’t a better way to run a country.  And right on cue, Netflix delivered “The Crown,” a new series that both depicts the life of Queen Elizabeth II and provides an alternative examination of governance from the Mother Country itself.

You might have noticed that as Great Britain’s nominal head of state, the Queen is a person of the female gender.  Back here in the U.S., confident that a similarly gendered person would become president, Netflix produced a four-page advertising supplement to serve as a wrap-around ad to the New York Times on the morning after the election.  “Her reign begins,” proclaimed the cover.  The inside copy made this more explicit: “We have a new leader. A woman.  Let us give her a celebration that is befitting of the wind of change she represents: modern and forward-looking.”

Well, that didn’t work out as well at Netflix planned, but the series does provide a post-election respite of escapism for those interested in a more genteel form of politics.

The first season of “The Crown” begins in 1947, during the waning years of the life of the queen’s father, King George VI, and ends in 1955 with the retirement of Winston Churchill, her 80-year-old prime minister.  You can tell we are in the past because people faint at the thought of divorce and everyone except the Queen herself smokes and drinks as if they’re on “Mad Men.”

The series is a very high-end family soap opera polished with the glossy patina of high-mindedness since everything that happens to that family is a matter of state. Thus, the discussion about whether a young wife should take her new husband’s last name is not something to be decided by the young couple, it’s an issue for the government to debate.  To soothe the wounded ego of her consort Prince Philip, Elizabeth declares that she will take his last name – Mountbatten – but the cabinet will not have it.

From there on we learn how little power the monarch actually has.  She can’t even select her own private secretary — and when her sister, Princess Margaret, wants to marry a divorced man, the queen is forced by the government and church to forbid it.

netflix-the-crown-claire-foy

“The Crown” does a pretty good job of making us care about these mundane matters by enmeshing them in the majesty and mystery of the throne, where the monarch is the literal nexus between God and the British people.  Every time Elizabeth tries to push back against some ridiculous tradition or requirement, there’s a prime minister, dowager queen, or prelate to lecture her on the divine right of kings.

From the perspective of 2016, where we know how diminished Great Britain itself has become and how scandal has eroded the Royal Family’s stature, all of this seems faintly absurd.  But it’s important to remember that the people of the early 1950s were closer in time to the reign of Queen Victoria than they are to us today.  Churchill himself had served that previous queen in 1899 in the Boer War and always remained under the spell of “Rule Britannia” and other vestiges of the empire. He and many other royalists believed that the monarchy was the nation’s most unifying force.

And watching “The Crown” in the immediate aftermath of the U.S. election makes you think they might have a point.  Over here, the president is both the head of state and the head of government.  He or she has to be both a grubby politician and the symbolic representation of the country’s ideals, dreams, and soul.  That’s a tall order for any one person, especially when the president is usually loathed by half the population even on a good day.

As the literal embodiment of the British people, Elizabeth grapples with how much mystery to surround herself with.  Too much mystery and she might become irrelevant to her subjects; too little mystery and she might become commonplace.  To that end, she puts Prince Philip in charge of her Westminster Abbey coronation and he makes the fateful decision to televise this ancient and sacred ceremony, which catapults her to a level of international celebrity that is usually only achieved by popes and pop stars.

But the massive popularity derived from the coronation also exposed her to the popular press, who came to feel that since she had opened the kimono a little bit, they had the right to pry into the rest of royal family’s personal business.  The dance between the Windsors and the press is sure to be a theme that will be developed in future seasons until it culminates in the twisted wreckage of Princess Diana’s car crash.

In the end “The Crown” is propaganda for a constitutional monarchy.  But it becomes clear that it only works when the monarch herself is willing to sacrifice everything — including her own happiness and the happiness of her husband and sister — to her people.  As portrayed by Claire Foy, Elizabeth is a near-saint, a crafty politician, and an articulate defender of her prerogatives.  I find it hard to believe that the real Elizabeth II, as sweet as she is, is as savvy, self-aware or intelligent as she appears in “The Crown.”

While the series idealizes Elizabeth, it pulls no punches for anyone else. Prince Philip is a jerk; Princess Margaret is boozy and flighty; the Queen Mother is snobby and manipulative; Churchill still has a few tricks up his sleeve as he clings to power in his dotage.

Finally, “The Crown” delivers what “Downton Abbey” promised: an intelligent soap opera set in the most glorious locations in the U.K.  And it leaves those of us in the U.S. yearning for a head of state who is dignified, sacrificial, and unifying. Is that too much to ask?

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george-harrison

(Note: The blog post was originally published on another platform on November 20, 2011)

I belong to that tiresome generation that never got over the Beatles.  You know us – always droning on about how there was never anything like them; always turning up the car radio (and singing along!) whenever they play “She Loves You”; always blaming Yoko.  And why not?  From the time I was in elementary school to high school, they were white hot popular, always controversial, perpetually in our face and tremendously creative.

So of course I was a sucker for Martin Scorcese’s recent documentary on George Harrison, “Living in the Material World,” which recently appeared on HBO.  What a great opportunity to wallow again in Beatlemania, revisit the stations of the cross, and contemplate the enigma that was “the quiet Beatle.”

The documentary reminds us again what an amazing story this is.  The boys who grew up to be Beatles were born in wartime Liverpool, a rough, industrialized port city in the far north of England.  They lived in working class or barely middle class families during a time of deprivation and diminished expectations (indeed, the most arresting interviews are with George’s older brothers, whose exotically arranged teeth demonstrate that no one could afford orthodonture.)

The creation myth of the Beatles is well-told.  A 15-year-old Paul sees John performing, immediately appreciates the talent and convinces him to join forces.  Later, when they need a good guitarist Paul recommends George, his 14-year old friend from school.  They play weddings and clubs.  At first they are not very good; George has to teach John the correct way to play a guitar, but not before informing him that a guitar should have more than four strings.  But through practice, energy and ambition, they improve enough to get a long-term gig in Hamburg, another rough industrial port city, where they play eight hours a day, live in a closet, chase girls and hone their talents.  (I was probably not the only parent who gasped upon hearing that George was only 17 years old when he went off to play in Hamburg.)

Soon they are accomplished and popular.  Poor Stu Sutcliffe dies of appendicitis in Hamburg and Ringo Starr becomes their drummer, replacing Pete Best, who becomes a Trivial Pursuit answer.  They meet George Martin, the EMI record producer, who tells them to let him know if there’s anything they don’t like about the recording session.  “Well, for starters we don’t like your tie,” George replies.

And then they are a worldwide sensation, producing hit after hit.  Girls are screaming and fainting.  They produce phenomenal ratings when they appear on the Ed Sullivan Show.  And they essentially kick off the Sixties.  How the heck did that happen?

In his book Outliers: The Secret of Success, Malcolm Gladwell promulgates the “10,000 hour rule” arguing against the concept of genius and prodigy; massive success, he says, is built on hard work, and the Beatles (and Bill Gates and others) did the time before they became superstars.

Well, yes, the Beatles were not technically an overnight success because they did put in an intense apprenticeship, especially in Hamburg, but I think even Gladwell must know that his theory is preposterous.  Plenty of other bands practiced more than 10,000 hours and never advanced past the VFW hall.

The Beatles worked hard and were in the right place at the right time, but in the end, this is a story of two musical geniuses who happened to meet each other in the godforsaken city of Liverpool and spurred each other to greater achievement.  Which means that, in the very beginning at least, George was primarily along for the ride.

George was undoubtedly a talented musician and his dry sense of humor contributed to the group’s reputation for cheekiness, but what made the Beatles sensational were the Lennon/McCartney songs.  If you go back to the earliest hits to make sure your memory isn’t playing tricks on you, you discover that even the earliest songs  (“I Saw Her Standing There”  or “I Want to Hold Your Hand” are still fantastic, fresh and fun.  But this is primarily due to Paul and John, not George.   So even though Scorcese’s documentary is ostensibly about George, it’s Lennon and McCartney who dominate the first half of the film.

It isn’t until the Mop Top Beatles begin to morph into Hippie Beatles that George begins to assert himself.  This was a key period for the Beatles; in fact, one of the most remarkable things about them was that they were able to make the transition from the most popular boy band of all time to the most relevant rock band in history.  It was as if Justin Bieber one day grew up to be Bob Dylan.

Our parents hated and feared the Beatles.  And with good reason. Their shaggy long hair and ability to incite teens to ecstasy threatened parental authority and the conformity of the early sixties.  Their hair, copied by millions of boys (and this is where they were so much more consequential than someone like Bieber, whose influence is limited to ‘tween girls) quickly became a symbol of the counterculture, which they influenced and reflected.

George played an important role in that transition.  Always quiet and introspective, he soon began wondering if there was more to life than being a massively popular, immensely rich pop star. He was the one who rejected LSD and other mind-enhancing drugs in favor of Zen mysticism and then convinced the other Beatles to spend several weeks meditating with the Maharishi Yogi in India.   At a time when all the Beatles were maturing and getting in touch with their inner lives (well, maybe not Ringo), George searched harder than the rest and added texture and depth to the group.  All of a sudden, the Beatles, who had once seemed indistinguishable as individuals, were bursting at the seams with diversity and new ideas.  And the output was astonishing.  In 1966 and 1967 alone they issued four classic albums – “Yesterday … and Today,” “ Revolver,” “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” and “Magical Mystery Tour.”

The Scorcese documentary makes it clear that George began to chafe at the continuing dominance of Lennon and McCartney in the mid-Sixties.  He resented being limited to one or two songs per album, and in retrospect, he probably had a point.  His song “Isn’t it a Pity” was rejected for Abbey Road in favor of such duds as “Octopus’s Garden” and “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer”.

In the end, George’s contributions to the Beatles was significant but not overwhelming.  He made them a more interesting band and contributed a few great songs (“While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” “Something” and “Here Comes the Sun”.  As a supply-sider I also appreciated “Tax Man”) but he never approached the output of John and Paul.

It is often said that George had the most successful post-Beatle career.  This reputation rests almost exclusively on one album – “All Things Must Pass”.  This is an album for which I have immense fondness.  I received it as a Christmas present from my high school girlfriend (to whom I had given “Jesus Christ Superstar,” thus getting the better part of the transaction) and played it throughout college.  Like many other LPs, it went into storage when I bought my CD player and I didn’t listen to it for at least fifteen years.  When I rediscovered it a few years ago, it was like a window back to the tenth grade, incense and patchouli oil, only now I had the life experiences and perspective to understand the deeply spiritual point that George was trying to make.  I felt like the album was speaking directly to me all over again.  What terrific songs – “What is Life,” “My Sweet Lord,” “Isn’t it a Pity,” Awaiting on You All.

As much as I loved “All Things Must Pass,” I was surprised to discover in the Scorcese documentary that George had written most of the songs while he was still a Beatle. What seemed to be this amazing outburst of creativity had actually occurred over several years when he was struggling to get his work onto the Beatles records.

This does not diminish the achievement of “All Things Must Pass,” but it does make me wonder if George’s songwriting efforts were really an attempt to match John and Paul and if he cared as much after the band broke up.  After “All Things Must Pass,” the output gets a little thin.  In 1973 he did issue the album “Living in the Material World,” which contained the hit “Give Me Love.” But after that the hits were few and far between until 1987’s “Cloud Nine,” which contained “This is Love,” “When we Was Fab,”  and “I Got my Mind Set on You.” After that, the output slackened again and then he died of cancer in 2001.

But if George wasn’t the most prolific hit-maker, he was surely the most interesting Beatle.  His life really was a voyage of discovery, but not in the sense of today’s celebrities, who jump from fad to fad.  George was always asking the deeper questions and trying to get to the essence of humanity.

At the same time he was searching for God, he was certainly living in the material world.  With the Concert for Bangladesh he basically invented the celebrity charity concert. He had a couple of wives, numerous girlfriends, one son who he doted upon, and he lived in a 120-room Victorian neo-Gothic mansion called Friar Park.

He also had a remarkable capacity for friendship.  Eric Clapton, Tom Petty, Billy Preston, Roy Orbison, Bob Dylan, and most of the Monty Python troop were close to him (he went so far as to fund “The Life of Brian”), as was Ravi Shankar and other Indian musicians.  It’s not easy for an adult male to cultivate and maintain so many friendships and it’s a credit to his personal openness that he was able to do so.  You only need to watch the tribute film “The Concert for George” (my favorite concert movie of all time, by far)  to appreciate how much love he generated during his life.

The Scorcese documentary makes clear that as a former Beatle, George was always top dog in any group of friends or musicians.  Eric Clapton says that the Beatles aura was so great that whenever George (or any of the Beatles, really) walked into a party of restaurant, everyone would turn and gape, thrilled to be in the presence of a living legend

To be even a lesser Beatle, then, is still a very great thing, which is what makes George such an interesting character.  He might not have been the greatest Beatle, but to have written “Something,” “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” and “Here Comes the Sun,” to have released “All Things Must Pass,” to have organized The Concert for Bangladesh – all these were immense accomplishments on their own.  Without John and Paul, George might never have been known outside of Liverpool, but he took his opportunity and made the most out of it.  We should all be so lucky.

Trump Clinton.jpgFour years ago I predicted that Romney would win the election because the polls were wrong, and when he lost I wrote another post in which I claimed that I was correct even though Obama won.  Those posts are no longer available online because the blogging platform I was using (Posterous.com) is out of business, thank you very much, but I have pasted them here and here.

Now that the pollsters have been shocked in 2016, I feel vindicated from four years ago.  The most important point I made then is that the aggregated RealClearPolitics polls had Obama winning by 0.7% but he won by 3.9%.  In other words, the 2012 polls were off by three percentage points but no one cared because they were off in the right direction.

This year the polls were also off by two to three percentage points but they were off in the “wrong” direction.  I think it’s clear that we should take pollsters seriously when they talk about a margin of error.  And maybe we should stop calling what they do “data science” and start calling it “data estimating.”

Polls that predict what people will do are notoriously squishy . When you think of how hard it is to get anyone on the phone these days, especially young, African American and Latino voters, it’s amazing they come as close as they do.  The problem is bad enough with national polls that have big sample sizes and frequent surveying, but the problems with state polls, which have smaller sample sizes and fewer surveys, is even worse.

In any event, it seemed to me there were three big problems with the way the polls were analyzed this year:

  1. The assumption that  African Americans would turn out for Hillary Clinton with the same enthusiasm they did for Barak Obama was crazy and should have been seen as crazy at the time.  Yet big African American turnout was baked into all the models.
  2. The idea that women would automatically vote for Hillary because of her gender was also self-delusional.  If political strategists expected women to abandon their political beliefs just because of the gender of the candidate, they should ask themselves whether women would have been as excited about the first female nominee if it had been Sarah Palin instead of Hillary Clinton.  Well, Hillary Clinton is about as popular among Republican women as Palin is among Democratic women. Why should Republican women vote for Clinton if Democratic women wouldn’t have voted for Palin?
  3. The polls consistently showed Clinton with a two-to-four percent lead nationally but also winning the battleground states, even though most of her national votes were coming in states like California and New York.  In other words, if she was winning by three million votes nationally but was winning CA and NY by six million votes, that meant she was behind in the rest of the country. That math never added up.

I’m not really here to beat up on the pollsters but I do think the people who people who are supposed to interpret them let us down this year.  Was there ever a greater failure of group-think than what happened in 2016?  The media fed the narrative that Trump was going to lose because that’s what they fervently desired; in turn Trump supporters (like the Brexit supporters before them) either lied to pollsters or avoided them altogether; and any poll that didn’t follow the group think was immediately derided by the their colleagues.  It became a vicious circle of pollsters and media deluding themselves into complacency and not really thinking hard about their assumptions.

Some other thoughts are the election.

— The best campaigner wins. This should be obvious but the presidential race is always a contest between two people. Political scientists (that misapplied word again: “scientist”) want to argue that demographic trends, ideology, economic fissures, etc. are what drive campaigns.  Maybe, but it’s also true that in every campaign since 1968 (when Humphrey was arguably a better campaigner than Nixon),  the most charismatic politician has won.  Think about it: Obama, Bush 43, Clinton, Reagan were all gifted politicians and much more appealing than their hapless rivals (Romney, McCain, Kerry, Gore, Dole, Bush 41, Mondale, Carter). The first George Bush and Jimmy Carter were not great politicians but they were lucky enough to face Michael Dukakis and Jerry Ford.  For all his faults, Trump is a powerful campaigner, although you’d never know it because the media only covered the craziest things he said at his rallies.  And of course Hillary Clinton is a stiff who didn’t have a common touch.   Lesson for the parties: get the candidate who can do the best job of rousing your base by articulating their hopes, dreams and fears.

— Hillary Fatigue.  Another clue that Clinton was going to have a tough time: No President has ever been elected who’s been in the public eye for more than 20 years.   The record belongs to Nixon, who came to prominence during the Alger Hiss case of 1948 and was elected president in 1968.  And Nixon was an outlier.  Reagan, for example, became President  14 years after being elected governor of California.  FDR was elected 12 years after being nominated for Vice President in 1920.  Eisenhower became president eight years after D-Day.  The truth is there’s a sell-by date for politicians, after which serious fatigue sets in.  Which was a problem for Clinton.  She first came to fame during the 60 Minutes interview in February 1992 when she famously said she wasn’t like Tammy Wynette standing by her man.  That was 24 years ago. There are people in their 30’s who have never known a world in which Hillary Clinton wasn’t a divisive public figure.

— The Supreme Court. In retrospect it’s clear that the worst blow to the Hillary campaign was Anthony Scalia’s death.  Conservatives always knew that the next president would be able to fill the next Supreme Court vacancy but everyone assumed that would be Ruth Bader Ginsberg, which would not change the balance on the court.  The idea that the next President would get two to three changes to swing the court to the left for a generation was too much to bear and millions of Republicans who couldn’t stand Trump voted for him anyway for this issue alone.  There’s a good case to make that the Supreme Court should not be sticking its nose into every aspect of American life but until that changes, each nomination will be a fight to he death.

— Racism and misogyny. The most appalling thing about contemporary public affairs is the casualness with which people on the left accuse their opponents of racist or misogynist tendencies.  Every single pushback against an Obama policy, from Obamacare to the Supreme Court, was blamed on racism.  And similarly, any objection to Hillary Clinton was depicted as male hatred and fear of a strong woman.  Well guess what?  I guess 53% of white women voted for Trump because they hated their own gender.  And then there were all those blue-collar voters who voted for Obama four years ago but were too racist to vote for his designated successor.  Sometimes people just don’t realize how deplorable and irredeemable they really are.

— Marco Rubio.  I had a prolonged argument all year with some of my conservative friends over whether supporting Trump would hand over the election to a very beatable Clinton.  Now that I’ve been proven wrong about that, I still make the case that a more conventional candidate like Marco Rubio would have beaten her by more.  For starters, Trump received fewer votes than Romney did four years ago.  Even Romney would have beaten Hillary!  What we can’t know is whether the white working class voters who voted for Obama in 2012, especially in the Rust Belt, would have flocked to Rubio the way they did to Trump.  Also hard to know is whether those new Trump voters made up for the votes that Trump drove away — the college-educated, the married women, the suburban voters.  It’s pretty certain that a younger Latino like Rubio would have done better than Trump did among Millennials and Latino voters.  This is an important thought experiment so the party doesn’t learn the wrong lessons from this election.

— Ted Cruz. Ted Cruz had a theory that if he could rouse the white disenchanted voters who hadn’t voted in 2012, the GOP would not need to cater to Latinos and other more moderate groups.  He turned out to be partly right, but was the wrong man at the right time.  Trump was the one who capitalized on that theory and became the champion of the disenchanted.  Where Cruz was wrong was in thinking he could attract those voters by being more-conservative-than-thou. To that end, he had forced a government shut-down over Obamacare funding, something that damaged the party before the 2014 elections.  But the Trump voters were not ideologically conservative; they didn’t like things like government shut-downs.  They’re not against the government, they just want the government on their side, not on the side of the the special interests. So like much of what Cruz tried, he was too cute by half.

— The Future of the Fillibuster.  With the Republicans in control of the White House and Congress, the one weapon the Democrats have left is the fillibuster in the Senate.  Unfortunately for them, Tim Kaine promised that if the Democrats won the Senate and White House they would ditch the fillibuster for Supreme Court nominations.  I’m pretty sure the GOP will do the same, thank you very much.  But what about other legislation?  It was never the intent of the Constitution that you needed 60% of the Senate votes to pass a bill.  Mitch McConnell, however, is a lover of Senate tradition and probably doesn’t want to change the current rule because he’s used it effectively when he was in the minority, but I don’t think Trump will stand for this for long.  The pressure on McConnell to change the fillibuster rules will be strong if some basic bills get hung because they don’t have 60 votes.

— Harry Reid. One of the untold stories of the Obama years has been the nastiness of the Harry Reid, the Democrats’ Senate leader.  A lot of the dysfunction in Washington lays at the feet of the extreme right-wing Republicans in the House, but over in the Senate, Reid himself has been a dysfunction machine.  The House is gerrymandered in a way that ensures extreme partisan divide but the Senate is not gerrymandered at all and should be more open to collegial log-rolling.  Reid’s hyper-partisanship, combined with Obama’s diffidence about politicking, contributed to a poisonous atmosphere. The new Senate Minority Leader, Chuck Schumer, is a more practical politician will probably be more willing to cut deals with his fellow New Yorker Donald Trump, than Reid was willing to do.

— Clinton Foundation.  As bad as the Clinton email scandal was, Clinton was lucky that it distracted attention away from a truly terrible scandal — the Clinton Foundation.  There is no question in my mind that foreign governments contributed to the Foundation in the hopes of getting preferential treatment at the state department and in an expected Clinton Administration. The WikiLeaks documents clearly showed a pay-for-play operation at work.  And if you don’t think so, let’s see whether foreign donations continue to arrive at the same rate next year, when the Clintons have no influence to peddle.

 

polls-2012

As all the world knows (“the world” in this case being people who read this blog) I recently questioned the accuracy of the pre-election polls and predicted that Romney would be our next president (see: https://bitly.com/SKtME4+)

Since then, I have been the subject of much derision, especially within my own household, where it has been suggested that I had been hubristic (not the word actually used) to question the great Nate Silver, the New York Times blogger, who had predicted with 91% certitude that Obama would win.

I don’t want it to sound like sour grapes, even though it is, but I think the pollsters caught a lucky break when Obama won because they weren’t as accurate as all the “I told you so’s” suggest.

On the day before the election, the RealClearPolitics site (http://tinyurl.com/3woqv5l) aggregated all the polls and came up with an average projection of 48.8% for Obama and 48.1% for Romney. In other words, they projected that Obama would win by 0.7%. But in the end, he won by 2.8% — a full two percentage points off. The polls predicted a remarkably close election but it wasn’t really that close at all. The pollsters were able to claim victory because they called the right victor, while glossing over the fact that it could just as easily have gone the other way.

The point of my pre-election blog post was that even though the polls predicted Obama would win, Romney still had a good chance; due to the challenges in polling, including the rise of cell phone-only homes and whatnot, the polls are not as precise as the media gives them credit for. It was luck that they were two percentage points off in favor of Romney; if they had been two points wrong the other way, Romney would have won and it would have been the biggest polling debacle since 1948 when Dewey was projected to beat Truman.

Anyone who has glanced at a television or read a news story since November 6 knows that the Obama won on the strength of high turnout by African America, Hispanic and young voters. In the lead-up to the election many Republicans criticized the pollsters for predicting that turnout among these groups would be as high in 2012 as it had been in 2008. So the pollsters were right about this and the GOP was wrong. Congratulations to the pollsters.

Except that the real reason Romney lost was that white voters stayed home. White turnout was down by six million from 2008. If whites had voted at the same levels they had four years ago, Romney might have won, especially considering that he lost the four big swing states by only 400,000 votes.

If the pollsters were so smart, why didn’t they foresee lower turnout in 2012? If they were so brilliant in projecting how many African Americans and Hispanics would vote, how come they were so wrong about how many whites would show up? This was supposed to be a year when the electorate was unusually engaged. I guess not.

Over the past ten days the Democrats have offered the Republicans lots of unsolicited advice about how the GOP can improve itself, most of which boils down to “act more like us.” On behalf of the Republican Party, I would like to say, thank you SO MUCH. We REALLY appreciate the pointers!

It’s funny that after months of blasting Romney for being such a buffoon, they don’t offer the obvious advice: get a better nominee. We were all seduced by Romney’s great first debate performance into thinking he was a plausible candidate. But somehow he let the Democrats successfully caricature him as a mixture of Richie Rich, Thurston Howell III, Charles Montgomery Burns and Lord Voldemort. Americans don’t necessarily dislike rich politicians (see for example, Kennedys and Roosevelts), but they are not going to accept a rich guy who seems uncomfortable with his wealth and can’t articulate why being rich is OK.

In the end, Romney was an awful lot like Bob Dole and John McCain – someone who was moderate at heart but had acted conservative to win the primaries. The Republicans who win general elections (Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush) don’t need to poll-test their rhetoric; they know what to say and are generally consistent throughout the whole process. So while the GOP does need to address demographic changes that are shaping the electorate they really need someone who has a better idea of why he, (or she, Condoleezza Rice) wants to be president.

Some other random thoughts:

  • Of all the poll-tested answers delivered during the campaign, surely the most ridiculous was Romney’s assertion that his favorite “Jersey Shore” character was Snooki. Certainly this was a lie. The idea of Mitt and Ann Romney sitting around the house watching the “Jersey Shore” and deciding that they liked the undisciplined, self-regarding falling-down-drunk, self-described “meatball” is just too absurd to contemplate.
  • Because of the aforementioned decline in white turnout, Romney actually ended up with fewer votes than McCain in 2008. Maybe this is the time to apologize the Sarah Palin. Say what you will about her understanding of geopolitics, she was able to bring in a lot more votes than Paul Ryan. And, because she has a much more positive position on immigration, she didn’t turn off Hispanics like Romney did.
  • According to the Philadelphia Inquirer (http://tinyurl.com/b4wwrdm) Romney received zero votes in 59 Philadelphia precincts. Apparently in those precincts Obama beat Romney 19,605 to 0. I am not a conspiracy theorist, so my only comment is: hmm, interesting. Even when there are elections in North Korea or Uzbekistan, there are a handful of votes for someone other than the Dear Leader.
  • There has been a lot of grumbling about how Obama’s relentless negative advertising drove down Romney’s favorability ratings. And yes, perhaps they went a bit overboard when they suggested that he was to blame for the cancer death of laid off worker’s wife, even though the worker had declined to buy health insurance that he could have afforded. But we also have to remember that the worst damage to Romney came during the GOP primaries, thanks to Newt Gingrich especially, but all those other jokers too. Thanks a lot guys.
  • And speaking of the primaries, it’s worth remembering that if it hadn’t been for some Petraeus-like shenanigans, Herman Cain might have ended up as the nominee. This should dispel the myth that GOP voters are racist. Crazy, maybe, but racist no. Like most voters, Republicans want to be inspired and that’s what Cain did and Romney never could. They want to see their hopes and dreams articulated and validated. I think it’s a pretty safe bet that the next GOP nominee will be a sane version of Herman Cain – a silver-tongued orator with no mistresses or sexual harassment allegations in the closet.
  • Finally, I’m from Massachusetts. I love my home state. But when are the major parties going to stop nominating Bay State candidates? Dukakis, Kerry and Romney were all dismal nominees who lost winnable races. And yet this lesson seems unlearned. Already people are talking about Elizabeth Warren for president. Go ahead. Make my day.

romney-obama

(This piece was originally posted on November 4, 2012)

Aside from the principals themselves, their families, campaign managers and consultants, their staffs, their hangers-on and factotums, there is probably no one else with more at stake in this election than Nate Silver, who writes the New York Times’ FiveThirtyEight blog on political polling.

Silver’s fame rests on 2008, when he correctly predicted 49 of the 50 states in that year’s Presidential election. He uses a model that aggregates the data from all the other pollsters to come up with a consensus number, the theory being that one poll might be statistically biased or have a large margin of error, but combining them together minimizes these flaws.

For the last month, Silver has been like valium to Obama supporters, calming their rising anxiety that the race was slipping away. From Day One he has predicted that Obama had a better than 60% chance to win, and he’s currently at an 86% probability rate for a Democratic victory.

His analysis is very persuasive, boiling down to two points: 1) Obama is ahead in Ohio and Romney won’t win without Ohio, and 2) his model shows that the only way Romney can win is if it turns out the consolidated polling is statistically biased against him (read the full analysis here: http://tinyurl.com/ctsjzw3).

So he’s way out on a limb and will be hailed as a genius if he’s right and denounced as an Obama lackey if he’s wrong. Of course if Romney wins, he can still point out that under his predictions Romney did have a 16% chance to win and that this was one of those 16 out of 100 rolls of the dice that came up for him, but no one will really take that seriously.

He’s persuaded me that if the polls are right, Obama is the overwhelming favorite. But what if the polls aren’t right?

There’s something that just doesn’t feel right about them. In 2008, Obama got 51.5% of the vote in Ohio, yet many of the state polls have him higher than that now. Even taking into account Ohio’s better than average unemployment rate and the benefits they received from the auto bailout it seems unlikely to me that Obama would increase his share of the Buckeye vote at a time when he is down nationally and in almost every other state. After all, unemployment is still 7% there, which would normally be considered abysmal. More to the point, GOP registration has improved in Ohio and the early voting results show much more Republican voting than in 2008.

I’m reminded of two occasions when the polls were famously wrong. In 1948 the polls showed a big victory for Dewey over Truman, because, as it later turned out, the projections had been based on telephone surveys at a time when Republicans had more phones than Democrats. Then in 2004, the exit polls showed Kerry beating Bush; all through that Election Day Washington insiders with access to the exit polls knew that Bush was out, only to find out later that the pollsters had made some bad assumptions with their weighting.

At some point soon, if not already, the way polling is conducted is going to need to be completely overhauled. For polling to work, the first thing you need to do is produce a representative sample of the population. But because of the rise of cell-phone-only homes and caller ID, it is increasingly hard to draw a representative sample. Forty percent of homes now don’t have landlines (up from 20% four years ago), which automatically knocks them out of the sample and another large percentage have called ID and refuse to pick up the line if they don’t recognize the caller. Even Nate Silver acknowledges that only ten percent of the people that pollsters try to reach actually participate in the poll.

So before you even get into the question of margin of error for a 1,200-person sample, you’ve got a problem with the sample itself not being representative. To make the sample work, you’ve got to assume that the ten percent willing to answer questions are the same as the 90% you can’t reach. One way to do this is by weighting – giving more weight to hard-to-reach groups (young, minority, low-income). Then you have to assume that cell-phone-only homes are the same as landline phones. In other words, that a 40-year-old white woman with a cell phone is likely to vote the same way as a 40-year-old white woman without a cell phone; I’m not sure you can make that assumption.

But even if you can make the sample representative, you still face the problem of predicting turnout. Will 49% of young voters vote , as they did in 2008, or will it fall back to 36% as in 2000? What about African Americans, Hispanics and Evangelicals? I am willing to posit that African-American turnout will be the same, which will obviously help Obama, but I am not so sure about young voters.

For one thing, if you were an African American in 2008 you are still an African American this year, but if you were young in 2008 you are not so young now. All those college students from 2008 have since graduated (one hopes) and are dealing with this lousy economy. Current college students were in high school four years ago and you can’t assume they caught the Obama magic as 14-year-olds and have kept the flame alive since then.

Another polling challenge is that the people least likely to answer pollsters are those most hostile to existing institutions and most suspicious of the news media. And this year that would be Tea Partiers and Evangelicals – i.e., Romney supporters. Presumably pollsters try to take this into account when they sift through the raw data, but it’s hard to know how much to weight people who refuse to be polled in the first place.

Finally, I note that in the last few days, the popular vote lead that Romney maintained in the country as a whole, not just the battleground states, has shrunk and that he and Obama are now tied. Romney had a steady 2-3 point lead in the national polls prior to Hurricane Sandy, even as he was losing in the Electoral College, which doesn’t really make sense. Yes, it’s possible to lose the popular vote and win the Electoral College, as happened with Bush in 2000, but that was only a 500,000 vote gap, not a two-and-a-half million vote gap, which is what two percentage points would be.

My guess is that Romney’s national vote percentage is down not because his momentum was stalled by the lip lock that Chris Christie planted on the President, or because Hurricane Sandy made Obama look Presidential. Instead, I think the polling itself is off because the power is out in 4-5 million homes. Everyone is assuming that because the three most damaged states – Connecticut, New York and New Jersey – are solid Blue states, that Obama voters are the ones off the grid. But in fact, most of the areas without power (excluding lower Manhattan) are GOP enclaves within Democratic states. This includes tree-strewn suburbs like Fairfield County in Connecticut, and the only GOP borough in New York City, Staten Island.

Unlike some on the Right, I don’t think the polling firms themselves are biased, since it does them no good to give out bad data, but I do think the polls are unusually challenged this year, by the rise in cell phone only homes and an inability to predict turnout.

The dirty secret of polling is that most of it is based on educated guesses, and usually these guesses are pretty close. I know they all use brilliant measurement science techniques and sophisticated modeling, but in a razor-thin race, the difference between winning and losing can be less than a percentage point. In 2008, which was a clear victory for Obama, no one cared if a poll was a point or two off. This year it’s a very big thing to be off by one percent.

So who are you going to believe – the cold hard facts or your lying eyes? Your eyes tell you that GOP registration and early voting is well ahead of 2008, but the polls overwhelmingly say Obama is on track to win. We’ll know soon enough, but I’m betting that Nate Silver will have a very long night on Tuesday.

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It’s been a looooong time coming, but Election Day is finally upon us, which means we can all settle down to watching the results roll in on television.

And I do mean “on television,” because for all the impact of the Internet, there is little doubt that the vast majority of voters will be following the returns via the TV networks.

That is not to say that the digital world won’t have its impact.  On previous election nights I have opened a news Web site or two on my laptop, and checked Twitter commentary on my smartphone.  But this second- and third-screen engagement only supplements what’s happening on TV.  Over the years I’ve found that none of the political sites have the results any faster than the networks, since everyone’s working off the same information feed.

This is not to say that I love watching TV on election night.  Far from it.  Political announcers are a lot like sports announcers: There’s a lot of unnecessary chatter, repetition, and self-regard.  And you always feel as if they’re biased against your favorite team.

I am also irked by the we-know-something-you-don’t-know vibe that transcends the early hours of election night.  All the networks have exit polls that pretty accurately predict which way most of the non-“battleground” states will land.  We know they have this information, and they know we know it, yet they continue to operate as if it’s a big secret.

Because the exit polls can’t be mentioned until a state’s voting has ended, there’s usually some dramatic teaser at the end of the hour as the closing time for a new batch of states draws near.  I’m surprised they don’t have a dru roll at the top of the hour as the anchors rush to call the deep-red and deep-blue states before there’s even one vote in.  And while I understand the rationale for not calling a state until the polls close, I could do without the anchors being so coy about it.

Every election night, I spend the evening flipping around for the least objectionable newscast.  I am constantly in search of a channel that is both neutral and interesting.  This means both Fox and MSNBC are non-starters, since they are advocates for their own political philosophies. Unfortunately, my tolerance for the breathlessness and pompousness of the broadcast networks is also limited.  Consequently, I usually end up watching CNN, whose reporters mostly stick to just-the-facts reporting.

I’m not sure about this year, however.  I maintain a major grudge against CNN for the amount of free publicity they gave Donald Trump during the primaries, only to turn on him when he got nominated. Having said that, I do really like John King’s deep dives into the results at the county level, so I will probably start there and flip around when I need a break from the earnestness of Anderson Cooper.

Another gripe I have against CNN and all the other networks is their use of political consultants, lobbyists, former campaign managers and other hacks to “analyze” the results.  Of course this year we will not be treated to Donna Brazile’s, opinions since she was fired for leaking debate questions to the Clinton campaign — twice!

To be honest, I’m surprised that CNN got on its high horse about the Brazile revelations because I had always assumed that these talking heads, who are, after all, political guns for hire, were all dishing dirt to their buddies back at campaign HQ.  The cynic in me suspects that Brazile was not ejected for passing along information, but for getting caught by WikiLeaks.

Meanwhile, I don’t see the point of these insider panels anyway.  Very little actual analysis is offered up during these sessions.  Instead what we get is a regurgitation of campaign talking points that put the most favorable spin on the results that have come in so far.

But really, why are they spinning once the polls close?  It’s not like they can influence the outcome once the voting is done. Can’t they just tell us what they really think?  It’s almost like they’re afraid to alienate the bases of their parties and jeopardize future campaign work.

The best example of pointless spinning was from the 2012, election when Fox analyst and former George W. Bush campaign manager Karl Rove pitched such a fit that the network was calling Ohio for Obama that Megyn Kelly had to march down to the office of the true nuts and bolts analysts and confirm that they had made the right call (see video below).  Great TV, but you had to wonder why Rove was the guy on TV — and not those geeks in the boiler room, who actually get paid to get it right.

So here’s an idea: Let’s get rid of the conflicts of interest and banish talking heads altogether.  Almost anything would be better than listening to Jeffrey Lord or Van Jones.  If we must have commentators, let’s have actual entertainers – comedians, in fact.  There are plenty of comics that know a lot about politics.  Get a couple of conservatives like Dennis Miller and Jon Lovitz and put them on a panel with a couple of liberals like Sarah Silverman and Louis CK and let them go at it.  That would stop me from switching over to C-SPAN.