Thursday, May 20, 2010

TPM: still clueless in CA

Talking Points Memo has been doing a superb job covering the races in Kentucky and Pennsylvania. Josh Marshall's posts on Rand Paul have been particularly insightful. You really ought to take a look.

That has nothing to do with the main point of this post but I feel guilty hammering away at TPM and I'm afraid it's time to pick up the old nine-pounder again and start swinging at this:
Whitman's support has fallen in large part due to Democratic attacks over her connections to Goldman Sachs -- the Dems would prefer to face Poizner in the fall. There may also have been a backlash against her big personal spending on the race, which has reached $68 million so far, and a tightly controlled media operation in which she has avoided directly answering questions from reporters about the issues -- a fact that is frequently noted in media reports.
As statisticians, we are constantly being asked why something happened. We don't like the question (the subject of causality makes us nervous) but it's not something we can avoid so we approach it as rationally as we can. We look at correlations, of course, but we also look at timing, magnitudes, precedents. We consider the implications of the different hypotheses (for example, if bad weather caused a shift in behavior, that shift should be limited to certain regions). We seek out the opinions of informed sources while taking pains not to get sucked into conventional wisdom. We survey the situation on the ground and use that most important of statistical tools, common sense.

I'd like to say that the final step is testing the hypothesis, but that's not usually the way it works. When it comes to questions of causality, the final answer is usually just an educated guess. Fortunately, most of us have gotten to be pretty good guessers.

How does the Goldman Sachs hypothesis stand up to this (admittedly unscientific) approach?

For starters, the timing is all wrong.

(I'm assuming these are mostly likely-voter polls)

The Goldman Sachs-Whitman connection came out in February. The Abacus scandal hit big in mid-April. Poizner's Vulture ad was released at the end of April. Which of these would you associate with an inflection point in Whitman's support?

By comparison, the news for much of April had been dominated by Arizona's immigration law (which passed their house on April 13th) and since March, Poizner had been running ads attacking Whitman as being soft on immigration.

How about magnitude and precedent? Whitman took a fifty point lead down into the single digits. Immigration and RINOism are huge issues for the California GOP. Either could easily kill a campaign. The Goldman Sachs story, on the other hand, is abstract, relatively minor, and only tangentially related to the issues California conservatives care about.

And has anyone EVER burned off forty-plus points of lead because of this kind of business deal?

And finally, do any of the major players, the ones with access to internal polling, actually believe this hypothesis? Poizner clearly doesn't or he'd be making more than passing references to Goldman Sachs. Meg clearly doesn't or she wouldn't be spending her time insisting that she supports neither amnesty nor Senator Boxer. Hell, even the CDP doesn't or they wouldn't pick Peter Coyote to pitch their case. (I'm not saying that the CDP ads are ineffective; I'm saying they are targeted at the general election.)

To make this even less scientific, here's my good ol' boy take on what happened. It's the old story of an out-of-towner walking into a bar, hearing a couple of locals bragging and believing every word. ("You mean you really took down a $70 million dollar campaign?" "Yep, and we did it with just one little website.")

I suppose there's no harm in a little boasting (and it's not something that Democratic operatives get to do that often in California). I just hope that the people at TPM are a bit more worldly the next time the situation comes around.

And to close out the subject of nine pound hammers (and get our minds on something more pleasant than politics), here's a mental health break from a friend of mine:

Update: Ed Kilgore has a good analysis of the race here. I think he gives too much weight to the Goldman Sachs story but I may still just be stuck in argument mode as a reaction to TPM.

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