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Author: Briggs

January 6, 2008 | No comments

Mr. Word’s definition of the day: to change

“To alter; to make different; to cause to pass from one state to another; as, to change the position, character, or appearance of a thing; to change the countenance.” — Webster, 1913.

Barack Obama is the official candidate of change. In last night’s debates in New Hampshire, Hillary Clinton boasted that she was a bigger candidate of change than Obama, and further, she had been changing for thirty-five years! Mitt Romney, the next day, agreed with his Democrat cousins, when at a rally he said, “What is needed is change.” All of the other candidates, both Democrat and Republican, agree, more or less stridently, that change is a requirement for the new president.

By the way, an informal statistical count I conducted in last night’s debate shows Fred Thompson using this word the least. Obama, of course, used it the most.

Change is such a strong word, so often found in political rhetoric, because it is infinitely malleable. What makes it so powerful is that you define, to yourself, what change means. You then project this definition onto your candidate of choice and assume his definition is the same as yours. So when the candidate speaks of change, it is as if he is speaking directly to you.

That is, as long as the candidate does not go too far and make a statement that actually contradicts what your definition is. So the more the candidate vapidly speaks in generalities about change and concurrently avoids specifics, the better it is for that candidate, in the sense that use of change has the power to convince the largest number of people that the candidate believes as they do.

Change is also a weak, nearly meaningless, word because anything that happens in the future will be a change from what happened until now. It is hardly necessary to say that George Bush will not be president next year. His exit will be a change that whomever wins the election will bring. World events will certainly change by 2009, and the new president will certainly have to do things differently in the future to meet these exigencies. The membership of Congress will certainly be different in 2009, and this new Congress will put forward new bills which the new president will have to sign or not. So again, the new president will have produced change.

Change, then, is certain. No matter who is elected, that person must bring change, and so every candidate is therefore a candidate of change. It is impossible that they not be so. Therefore, to seek out the candidate of change is a useless activity.

Though perhaps you were thinking, what you really meant by change was, for example, when Obama said, “We need a change in foreign policy.” You assumed he meant by this an “abandonment of the Bush ‘Doctrine’.” And you might be right, but this was only a guess on your part. It is proof, however, that it was you who were defining what change meant. You cannot be sure it is what Obama also thinks unless he explicitly says what a change in foreign policy actually is.

As a note, it is also empty for a candidate to say, “We need a change from the Bush ‘Doctrine'” unless that candidate is also prepared to explicitly define what the “Bush Doctrine” is.

January 5, 2008 | 1 Comment

How much does winning Iowa and New Hampshire help?

On the earlier poll thread, a reader asked “What’s your opinion about the statistical summary of past results of Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primaries?” pointing out data from The Neatorama blogger had tables like these below, but made separate tables for Iowa and New Hampshire and included information about who won the general election. I thought it would tell a better story by combining the primaries and by eliminating the general election data because the main question is who will be nominated.

The tables list who won each of the primaries and who was eventually nominated. So, does winning the first two primaries help? Certainly.


Year Won Iowa Won NH Nominated
1976 “Uncommitted” Jimmy Carter Jimmy Carter
1980 Jimmy Carter Jimmy Carter Jimmy Carter
1984 Walter Mondale Gary Hart Walter Mondale
1988 Dick Gephart Michael Dukakis Michael Dukakis
1992 Tom Harkin Paul Tsongas Bill Clinton
1996 Bill Clinton* Bill Clinton* Bill Clinton*
2000 Al Gore Al Gore Al Gore
2004 John Kerry John Kerry John Kerry
2008 Barack Obama ? ?
*Ran Unopposed


Year Won Iowa Won NH Nominated
1976 Gerald Ford Gerald Ford Gerald Ford
1980 George H.W. Bush Ronald Reagan Ronald Reagan
1984 Ronald Reagan* Ronald Reagan* Ronald Reagan*
1988 Bob Dole George H.W. Bush George H.W. Bush
1992 George H.W. Bush* George H.W. Bush* George H.W. Bush*
1996 Bob Dole Pat Buchanan Bob Dole
2000 George W. Bush John McCain George W. Bush
2004 George W. Bush* George W. Bush* George W. Bush*
2008 Mike Huckabee ? ?
*Ran Unopposed

Combining data from both parties, there were 4 candidates who won both Iowa and NH, and in each of those 4 cases those candidates went on to receive the nomination. Of course, it is not guaranteed that winning both will secure the nomination, but it does make it very likely. This ignores those candidates who ran unopposed, as, obviously, their elections were never in doubt.

Candidates who won at least one of Iowa or NH won 11 out of 12 times, or 92% of the time. Only one time did a candidate not win at least one primary but still went on to win the nomination; that was Bill Clinton in 1992.

This implies the obvious: that by this coming Tuesday, we’ll be nearly sure who the top two candidates are for each party, and if either Obama or Huckabee wins New Hampshire, it’ll be a safe bet that they’ll also win the nomination.

You could separate out the data for each party, but there is no great reason to do so statistically.? The results also are conditional on the past “political situation”, which is largely unquantifiable.? If we assume that today’s politics are not different than those from 1976 until present, then the results are useful.? But if they have somehow changed—e.g. Guliani’s strategy of ignoring Iowa and NH—then these results are far less helpful.

January 4, 2008 | 1 Comment

Mr. Word’s definition of the day: to gush

“To make a sentimental or untimely exhibition of affection; to display enthusiasm in a silly, demonstrative manner.” — Webster, 1913.

For example, this snippet from today’s New York Times editorial.

Americans are going to feel good about [his] victory, which is a story of youth, possibility and unity through diversity ? the primordial themes of the American experience….[He] has achieved something remarkable. At first blush, his speeches are abstract, secular sermons of personal uplift ? filled with disquisitions on the nature of hope and the contours of change.

Can you guess of whom the writer wrote?


73.2% of Likely Voters Believe Poll Results

Pollster: Who will you vote for? Civilian: Oh, I don’t know; that guy, the tall one. Pollster: I’ll put you down for Obama.

The elections in Iowa are over and the results known. It’s the season of the polls! More time is spent analyzing, worrying over, and speculating about polls in the media than is spent on any other subject, such as what the candidates think about the Iraqi war. In one sense, this is understandable, because polls offer hard, quantitative data which can be “crunched” and “drilled down” into, and so on. A candidate’s opinion on the war (and on every other subject) is harder to think about, mainly because the candidates themselves tend to be as vague as they can get away with to avoid in-depth analysis.

Since so much time and effort is spent on polls, we would hope that they offer some value. So how good are these polls? Let’s look.

There are dozens of these polls done by different organizations. The leading polls, in the sense that they are quoted the most and have the biggest organizations behind them, are the Zogby and the Des Moines Register (in Iowa only, of course), so we will examine just these two, though the results are not too different for the other polls.

Here is a table of the polls by the actual results for the Iowa 2008 caucuses. I used the latest polls, taken in the day or days right before the election, not the entrance polls. These are the numbers, then, that you would use to make a guess which candidate will win, place, and show. Only the top three candidates from each party are shown. All poll data was gathered from The error is the Zogby poll minus the Actual result.

Candidate Zogby Register Actual Error
Obama 31 32 37.6 -6.6
Edwards 27 24 29.7 -2.7
Clinton 24 25 29.5 -5.5
Others 12 10 3.2 +8.8
Undecided 6 9 0 +6
Huckabee 31 32 34.4 -3.4
Romney 25 26 25.3 -0.3
Thompson 11 9 13.4 -2.4
Others 26 27 26.9 -0.9
Undecided 7 6 0 +7

The most striking thing is, regardless of party, the polls for the top three candidates under-predict the actual results. The “Others” candidates are sums of the results over all the other candidates. There are only “Undecideds” at the time of the polls and none at the time of the election when, of course, people have to actually select an actual candidate. The error is a combination of the uncertainty of what the “Undecideds” will eventually do plus error inherent in the poll itself (through biased sampling and so on).

The much larger error for “Others” candidates for Democrats is in part due to the different way the Democrat caucus is run. If, in an initial vote at a particular polling location, a candidate does not reach a minimum threshold (about 15%), then the votes for that candidate are taken away and reallocated to other candidates. So a person might have told the pollster that he was for Biden, and gone in and voted for Biden, only to have that vote taken away and given to, say, Clinton (of course, it may be he who then chooses Clinton as his second).

One thing we can tell from the Democrat caucus is that not all of the votes for the “Others” (and “Undecideds”) were re-distributed to the other candidates evenly. At the time of the vote, 12 – 3.2 = 8.8% of the “Others” were redistributed. So, too, were the 6% of the “Undecideds”. That makes 8.8 + 6 = 14.8% of the votes that were redistributed (this figure also includes the native poll error). Obama got 6.6, Edwards 2.7, and Clinton 5.5 (these are the errors). Or, stating it another way, Obama got 45% of the eligible redistributed votes, Edwards 18%, and Clinton 37%, numbers which give hints about how future elections might go once the field of candidates narrows: many more people eventually opted for Obama than the other candidates.

49% of the “Undecideds” opted for Huckabee, 4% for Romney, 34% for Thompson, and 13% went to “Others”. This again might show that there is much stronger support for Huckabee and Thompson than is generally believed. Right now, the latest Zogby New Hampshire polls have Huckabee at 10%, with Undecideds at 8%; these numbers were taken before the Iowa results. McCain and Romney are a little over 30% each. So my guess is that by the time the votes are in from New Hampshire, it’ll be fairly even between McCain, Romney, and Huckabee, the results being in that order.
Of course, some of the error is due to the polls themselves, and, using error results from polls in previous presidential elections, I predict that we will see this error actually increase as the number of candidates shrinks. New Hampshire is less than a week away, so we’ll soon see, as two of the Democrat candidates have already dropped from the race.