Saturday, December 31, 2011

Filibuster ≠ nullification

I've got to strongly disagree with Kevin Drum on this one. Drum says that minority obstruction powers in the U.S. Senate, allowing one senator to hold up legislative business, are the equivalent of nullification, the early-19th century theory that a state could negate a law imposed by the federal government. In the case that Drum cites, the outcomes are roughly similar. That is, a Republican senator is refusing to allow the appointment of an Obama administration nominee, essentially shutting down the oversight board to which the nominee was appointed. Yes, this has roughly the same effect as preventing the federal government from enforcing a duly passed law. But the means are very, very different, and that matters.

The filibuster, construed as any form of minority obstruction in the Senate, is legal, subject only to the rules of the Senate, which the Senate may determine for itself. Nullification runs flatly against the supremacy clause of the U.S. Constitution. Just because the outcomes may be the same doesn't make them equivalent. The assassination of federal officers would similarly obstruct the enforcement of federal laws, but that doesn't make it the same thing as filibustering appointees.

Yippee ki yay, Momofuku

I'm currently attempting to make the Corn Flake Chocolate Chip Marshmallow Cookies from the Momofuku Milk Bar's cookbook. I have to say, this is a somewhat frustrating cookbook. If you're unfamiliar with it, the Momofuku Milk Bar is a series of restaurants in New York City specializing in high-end desserts made from surprisingly pedestrian ingredients. These cookies, for example, contain Corn Flakes, powdered milk, mini-marshmallows... probably stuff you have in your pantry but never thought to put in cookies. Oh, and tons and tons of butter. But don't let the low-end ingredients fool you; the author, Christina Tosi, has a lot of fancy techniques she insists are essential (creaming butter and sugar for eight minutes, using a paddle and stand mixer rather than a hand mixer, forming the cookie dough on a tray and refrigerating it for hours, etc.). And the dishes are shockingly labor-intensive.

The book seems to assume that the reader has some familiarity with the dishes at the restaurant. There are not a lot of illustrations telling the reader, say, what the final product should look like. Anyway, I followed the cookie recipe precisely and came up with this:
That just can't be right. And it was pretty frustrating, since I started with what was easily the best cookie dough I'd ever tasted. I tried several times and couldn't help coming up with enormous, flat cookies. I found this variation of the recipe online and followed the suggestion of freezing the dough, thinking the fridge wasn't cool enough for the cookies to hold their shape. Nope. I'm not sure what shape they're supposed to be in, but I'm pretty sure it's not the one I've got.

After a little experimentation, I've lowered the temperature to 350F, cut each dough ball in half (the original recipe called for scooping them in a 1/3 cup measure), and reduced the cooking time from 18 to 11 minutes. I tried cooking them on a baking stone, but as you really need to have them cool before removing them from the tray, the Silpat seems to work a lot better. Here's what I've got now:
Again, given the thinness, they're still coming out more like lace cookies, but the flavor is quite good. I don't know why my cookies won't hold their shape (whatever that shape is supposed to be) -- whether I failed to whip the butter properly, whether it's an altitude thing, or what. But still, yummy.

I've also made the Crack Pie and will serve it to my guests tonight. More details later when I find out how it came out.

Update: The Crack Pie was a hit. Tastes like pecan pie without the pecans.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Six days from Iowa -- stuff to know

I'm teaching a class on party nominations that conveniently starts the same day as the Iowa Caucuses and ends the week of Super Tuesday. Anyone want to bet on whether the Republicans have a nominee before my class is done? Anyway, here are some important links I'll probably be using in class:
  • Josh Putnam explains the delegate allocation rules for all the Republican contests. The quick version: the GOP has made some slight nods toward proportionality, but the contests are still overwhelmingly winner-take-all.
  • Also from Putnam: the primary & caucus calendar. He's even put together a version you can download for iCal, Outlook, or Google Calendar. Total stud.
  • Matt Glassman thinks Romney is the near-certain nominee, but explains why everyone has an incentive to make the contest seem more uncertain than it really is.
  • Ron Paul seems to be cruising toward a win in Iowa, and Nate Silver thinks Paul will do better than the polls currently predict.
  • Jonathan Bernstein handicaps the current Iowa poll standings, noting the volatility and closeness of the contest. Basically, anyone other than Huntsman and Gingrich has a non-trivial chance of winning.
  • I predicted Newt's collapse a month ago, but whatever. Predicting Newt will lose is like predicting Rocky will win (episodes II through V only).

Monday, December 26, 2011

The party, deciding: Virginia edition

Rick Perry and Newt Gingrich have failed to qualify for Virginia's Republican presidential primary. Gingrich has responded typically with bombast and inappropriate historical metaphors. But rather than criticizing the campaigns as incompetent or Virginia's rules as bizarre, we might note what this means for our understanding of party nominations.

One of the things that party insiders provide for their preferred candidates, in addition to money and endorsements, is expertise. That covers a wide range of things, including people who know how to read polls and put together ads and basically run a campaign on a national scale. But it also includes people who understand the arcane rules of nomination contests in the 50 states. Those rules can get weird. For Virginia, a candidate needs 10,000 valid signatures, including 400 from each of the state's 11 congressional districts. Pennsylvania Democrats vote for delegates, rather than candidates, and Hillary Clinton had some problems there in 2008 when her campaign failed to find a full slate of loyal delegates prior to the primary. Caucuses bring their own level of weirdness that primaries lack. Texas has both a primary and a caucus.

The point is that someone with insider backing within the party doesn't usually make mistakes along these lines. They're provided with people who can avoid these snafus. That doesn't mean that outsider candidates can't achieve this level of expertise -- notably, Ron Paul made the Virginia ballot -- but it's a lot harder when you don't have the backing of party elites. This is one of the ways that party insiders pick winners.

Update: Important point from Josh Putnam: This is the first time that the Virginia GOP has bothered to validate signatures. They now do so as a result of an independent candidacy for the state legislature in 2011. Again, a well-backed presidential campaign would know these details, but this is an important wrinkle.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

F-ing polls -- how do they work?*

Roger Simon has written one of the most anti-intellectual columns of the week, asking whether polls are really "magic." Not only does he appear not to know how polls arrive at the answers they do, but he seems to have no interest in learning. He even falls back on the classic "they never call me" trope. Some highlights:
I have never been called by a political pollster and don’t know anybody who has, but I know some pollsters, who assure me they don’t make the numbers up, and I believe them.
Pollsters, or rather the phone-bankers who make call after call (or computers that make robo-call after robo-call) do get people to talk to them. Not vast numbers of people, but pollsters do not require vast numbers.
We are a nation of nearly 313 million people. So how many people did the pollsters actually speak to? If you have extremely good eyes, you can find the answer in tiny type at the bottom of a chart: The Post-ABC poll was conducted by phone “among a random sample of 1,005 adults.”
That represents 0.0003 percent of the nation at large. (The number of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents was an even smaller sample of 395 people.)
This poll has a very good reputation and I “believe” the results in that I believe they were calculated carefully and (unlike some partisan or campaign polls) without any agenda.
Does Obama really lead Gingrich by 8 percentage points in a (currently) imaginary matchup?
I dunno. Sounds right to me. But I am an even smaller sample than 0.0003 percent.
You really don't need to be a statistician to understand this stuff. Why can a survey of 1,100 people be accurate in telling us how the whole nation is thinking? The metaphor I always liked was a blood test. For a doctor to determine if there's a problem with your blood, she doesn't need to remove it all -- she can just extract a small vial. This vial of blood represents the rest of your blood well because it's constantly being mixed up, so that a few cc's of your blood in your arm looks like the blood anywhere else in your body.

It's the same thing in surveys. You can poll a fairly small number of people as long as you can be confident that you're getting a representative sample of American voters. (Talking to your friends and neighbors? Not representative. Calling people randomly across the country? Much better.) And some relatively simple math can tell you just how likely it is that your sample believes what the rest of the country believes. Picking 1,100 people for a survey means you have a margin of error of roughly 3%. That means there's a 95% chance that the actual population is within three percentage points of what your sample believes. Pollsters have settled on that as a pretty reliable margin. You could get it down to 2%, but only by interviewing lots more people, driving up the costs of the poll considerably without improving its accuracy by much.

The sad thing is that Simon has an audience who might really appreciate a better understanding of how polling works, but he decided to waste their time with some blather about how polls are magical and therefore beyond our understanding. They're not, and Simon's readers deserve better.

*Must credit Brendan Nyhan for the Insane Clown Posse reference.

Friday, December 16, 2011

A socialist blog post

Newt Gingrich, 1989:
The idea that a congressman would be tainted by accepting money from private industry or private sources is essentially a socialist argument.
I'm actually hard-pressed to think of an idea that Gingrich opposes that he has not summarily labeled "socialist." Perhaps, at other times, he has uttered these words:
I expect you to put my groceries in plastic bags. The idea that you'd use paper bags is essentially a socialist argument. 
I wanted half-and-half in my coffee. 2% milk is the path to socialism. 
I certainly hope that the band's absence represents a short intermission and that they will soon return to the stage to perform "Free Bird." If this is the end of the show, then the socialists have won. 
Bella should stick with the free-enterprising Edward. Everyone knows werewolves are socialists.
Feel free to add more.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Who's enforcing journalistic standards?

Marc Herman has some interesting stories about the relationship between publishers and journalists, helping to explain why he released his work on Libya as an Amazon Single. I found this passage particularly compelling:
In traditional publishing, particularly books, the impulse to enforce professional standards comes more and more from the reporter and less and less from the editor. This suits me, but it’s the reverse of how things usually go. Traditionally, the reporter pushes to include material. The editor evaluates the material’s appropriateness. The final balance of source and information happens in the editor’s office, not the reporter’s notepad. 
A dramatization of the system a lot of people know comes from the old movie version of the reporter’s classic All the President’s Men. Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman, as the reporters, want to run a damning story about the President. Jason Robards, as the editor, keeps telling them they haven’t got the story yet
Great in a 30 year-old movie. In my 20 years, I’ve never had an editor say that. I’ve said it to editors lots — that I don’t have it yet.

Jar Jar Links

Monday, December 12, 2011

The Hillary challenge: How is this story still alive?

I thought we were done with speculation that Hillary Clinton would challenge Barack Obama for the Democratic presidential nomination, but then a version of this Bogdan Kipling op/ed showed up in Sunday's Denver Post. His main argument for a Hillary challenge seems to be that Obama sucks:
Contrary to mainstream opinion, Obama is a mediocre politician.
Go on.
Were it not so, surely he would have known instinctively that people get wise to polished repetitive, but empty speeches — and know the difference between bread and butter now and pie in the sky later.
I'm guessing he knows that, but continue.
Joblessness and fear of watching retirement savings vanish weigh heavier on the nation’s collective mind than long-range climate change and health care reform. The president’s touted political instincts should have told him all that. But, as James Carville once noted so cogently, “It’s the economy, stupid!”
But while Obama talked jobs and initiated a jobs bill in Congress on his sixth day in office, almost all of his mind and determination remained focused on health care — his overriding priority.
Kipling is engaging in a number of classic pundit fallacies here:
  1. Mind-reading: Regardless of Obama's public speeches and actions, his "mind and determination remained focused on health care." 
  2. The Green Lantern theory: If Obama were sufficiently determined, the economy would be better by now and his reelection prospects would be stronger.
  3. The Executive Branch Has One Employee theory: It is impossible for an administration to be working on improving the economy while also working on health care reform.
It's all rather silly and ignores some basic truths: the state of the economy will largely determine Obama's reelection prospects (something Obama assuredly knows); we've recently experienced a collapse of the financial sector, which tends to freeze up lending and investment for many years; it's hard to see how Obama's actions could have made for a much stronger economy at this point (except for a larger stimulus, and you tell me how he gets that through Congress without resorting to the Green Lantern theory).

And then there's the other big point: the forces currently making Obama's path to inauguration day 2013 a difficult one would be doing the same thing to Hillary Clinton were she the nominee.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Will 2012 be the Tofu/Fried Twinkie election? Who cares?

Just when you thought it was safe to analyze elections, David Wasserman drags us back to the politico-cultural waters David Brooks sailed years ago. To wit:
In 2012, the campaign might be a contest between these alternate universes of culture and cuisine: Whole Foods Markets and Cracker Barrel Old Country Stores.

In 2008, candidate Barack Obama carried 81 percent of counties with a Whole Foods and just 36 percent of counties with a Cracker Barrel —a record 45-point gap.
And then the articles goes on to talk about the unique cultures of these two stores. Wasserman even attempts to pin the stores down on their political views:
Though Whole Foods refused to comment for this story, Cracker Barrel says there’s no connection. “Politics don’t play any role in our site selection process,” said Julie Davis, a spokeswoman for the company.
First of all, good for Whole Foods for not even playing this game. (And by the way, given that Whole Foods' CEO is an anti-union libertarian, that's kind of an odd institution to cast in the role of liberal cultural leader.) Second, yeah, Cracker Barrel's main objective in siting its stores is not the advancement of some political agenda; they're trying to make a buck, just like other stores. This really isn't news.

Now, it is somewhat interesting, if hardly novel, that food tastes and other cultural indicators correlate with political preferences, at least at the county level. But does it mean anything beyond that? Does it really mean anything to say that 2012 will be the Whole Foods/Cracker Barrel election? Does this tell us anything we didn't already know about the election?  

Oh, and what was this?
In the 2008 primary, Obama was able to overcome Hillary Rodham Clinton partly because the Democratic Party had become more Whole Foods than Cracker Barrel.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Newt's got no peeps

Ezra Klein offers a fantastic list of 21 reasons Newt Gingrich won't become the GOP nominee, ranging from his palling around with Democrats to his absurd defenses for his adulterous affairs to his confusion of sci-fi and reality. Please read it. But I'd assert that there's a bit of a leap from the final item on his list to the statement "And I don’t believe they will choose someone like that."

That is to say, Ezra shows us why Gingrich won't become the nominee, but not how he won't become the nominee. That's trickier. Remember, even though Gingrich is way behind in endorsements, he's currently polling way ahead of Romney et al. in the earlier primary and caucus states. So how do elite preferences get translated into votes?

The key thing here is that Gingrich has no backers. Romney can slip up -- make a silly statement or give a bad interview -- and there are legions of journalists and elected officials who can explain it away or provide context or still point to his other qualities as a candidate. When Gingrich messes up -- as he most assuredly will at some point in the next few weeks -- no one's got his back. He'll be on his own, forcing to either recant what he said (flip-flopper!) or double down (loony!). What will his next apostasy be? I don't know, but it's exciting to watch.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Undead FDR SMASH Denver Post

Today's NY Times:
Though unemployment levels dropped to 8.6 percent last month, they remain higher than the level at which any president has been re-elected since the Great Depression. [emphasis added]
The version that appeared in today's Denver Post:
Although the nation's unemployment rate dropped to 8.6 percent last month, no president has been re-elected with an unemployment rate so high.
For the record, here are the unemployment levels during FDR's three successful reelection bids:
1936: 16.9%
1940: 14.6%
1944: 1.2%
What, there wasn't space for the four words that would make the sentence true?

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

No one can make a cheeseburger

Last year I linked to Matt Ridley's wonderful TED lecture in which he argues that no one person knows how to build a computer mouse from scratch. Extracting petroleum from the ground, turning it into plastic, building a circuit board, refining the metal for it, etc.... these are highly specialized tasks. Ridley estimated that it takes perhaps a million people to actually build a mouse. He took this as a positive sign; we are all profoundly interconnected, allowing us to create things that none of us could create on our own.

Via Brad DeLong, Waldo Jaquith makes a similar argument about the cheeseburger, which he attempted to create from scratch:
Further reflection revealed that it’s quite impractical—nearly impossible—to make a cheeseburger from scratch. Tomatoes are in season in the late summer. Lettuce is in season in the fall. Mammals are slaughtered in early winter. The process of making such a burger would take nearly a year, and would inherently involve omitting some core cheeseburger ingredients. It would be wildly expensive—requiring a trio of cows—and demand many acres of land. There’s just no sense in it. 
A cheeseburger cannot exist outside of a highly developed, post-agrarian society. It requires a complex interaction between a handful of vendors—in all likelihood, a couple of dozen—and the ability to ship ingredients vast distances while keeping them fresh. The cheeseburger couldn’t have existed until nearly a century ago as, indeed, it did not…
This is something to celebrate. Perhaps with a cheeseburger.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Fairness and power in redistricting

The Colorado Supreme Court has ruled in favor of state Democrats' plan for Colorado's new congressional districts. It's been interesting to listen to the rhetorical arguments on both sides during this drawn-out process. Republicans have been arguing in favor of keeping districts as similar to the previous map as possible, citing the inviolability of county lines (Douglas County is split into two districts in the new map). Of course, hewing close to the current districts aids Republicans, who currently control 4 of the 7 CDs. 

Democrats, for their part, have been arguing in favor of greater competitiveness. Here's what attorney Scott Martinez had to say:
The Supreme Court supported the needs of Colorado families over election-day politics today by creating more modern, competitive districts.... Instead of contributing to the hyper-partisanship in Washington D.C, the court supported Colorado's opportunity to elect moderate candidates who see the needs of our state over the needs of one party or another. In these districts, problem-solvers will win while partisan politicians will struggle, and we are all better off for that.
District competitiveness is an odd goal for a party, as it can mean that more districts swing away from your party in a bad election year. So were the Democrats being foolish in their approach?

In the below graph, I compare the voter registration in the current districts (as measured by the Democratic share of major party active voters) with the figures in the new districts. The green diagonal line charts where the district would be if there were no change; if a district is above the line, its Democratic share of registered voters has just increased.
From this graph, it looks like the Democratic redistricters did the smart thing for their party. They drew some Democratic voters out of their safest districts -- the 1st (held by Diana DeGette) and the 2nd (held by Jared Polis) -- and drew Democratic voters into some Republican-leaning districts -- notably the 3rd (held by Scott Tipton) and the 6th (held by Mike Coffman). The 6th is really seeing the biggest shift. Just a few years ago, this was Tom Tancredo's district, and now it's a tossup.

So, yeah, you could see this as goo-goos moving the state toward greater competitiveness. But you could also see this as a pretty aggressive move by Democrats to break Republican hegemony on one of seven districts.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Once again, the 70s were awesome

Cover of the 1971 legislative handbook of the Minnesota chapter of Americans for Democratic Action:

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Can you dig it?

Wordle of Cyrus' speech from "Warriors." Happy Saturday.

Friday, December 2, 2011

The Activists

I want to bring some attention (and maybe a bit of money) to a film project called "The Activists: War, Peace, and Politics in the Streets." The film is a documentary of political activism in the United States over the past few years, focusing mainly on anti-war activism. Political scientist Michael Heaney, a co-author of mine, is one of the producers of the film, and he conducted some of the interviews while we were surveying protesters at the Democratic convention in 2008.
The film is in post-production now and they need a few thousand more dollars to get this thing out the door. If you'd like to help, please check it out.

A Newt win would be very surprising indeed

Okay, we are right in the middle of a massive Newtmentum surge, or the Newtening, or Electric Newtaloo or something. Gingrich is surging in the polls. Yes, Bachmann, Perry, and Cain all had surges, but maybe this time it's different?

Personally, I'm unconvinced. Here's why:
The above chart shows the percentages of endorsements from governors, U.S. Senators, U.S. Representatives, and former presidential candidates claimed by the current GOP candidates (courtesy of Nate Silver). As can be seen, Romney and Perry are splitting in terms of gubernatorial endorsements, but the former is walking away with all the other categories.

Remember, as The Party Decides reminds us, endorsements do a much better job predicting presidential nominations than polls do, and insider support is much more important than one bad TV interview. Now, is it possible that the universe described by The Party Decides no longer exists? Sure! Maybe Internet fundraising has changed everything, maybe the Tea Party has thrown off the equations, etc. It's hard to say in advance. But given the choice, I tend to fall in with the argument that what has governed elections in the past probably governs them today.

At any rate, this race is turning into a great test of Cohen et al.'s theory.