Friday, December 17, 2010

Early Signs for Obama '12 Are (Mildly) Positive

It was a rough cycle in 2010, but the odds seem favorable for Obama in 2012, based on some early polling -- including some figures that frankly surprised me.

One the perils of being a liberal is that we always seem to think we're isolated from the American people. It's not a crisis of principle -- we think we're right, of course -- we just tend to think of ourselves as members of a small, enlightened minority. It's a theme hammered in relentlessly by the media ("Liberal coastal latte-sipping elites can't connect with real Americans!"), and trap I fall into myself, sometimes.

So while I like President Obama quite a bit, after months of coverage wherein Obama was persistently referred to as an out-of-touch, distant, elitist, socialist, Marxist, fascist, pick-your-favorite-ist, enemy of America -- I figured that most Americans didn't really like Obama much anymore, personally or professionally.

But that's only half true. Obama's job approvals have been hovering in the mid-40s for months. But his personal approvals are still sky-high -- 72%. Of course, Republicans still loathe him, and being personally-liked doesn't secure re-election by any means (folks could think he's a decent-enough guy who's in over his head). But it's a far more resilient number than I would have expected.

And it seems to be bearing out when you do some early head-to-heads. Put Obama against Mitt Romney -- a generic "known" Republican, and he's up 47-40. Not fabulous to be under 50%, but still a decent spread. Obama versus a generic unknown Republican -- played helpfully by Sen. John Thune (R-SD) -- and you get Obama ahead by 47-27.

So the baseline right now seems to be that at least 47% of the country would vote for Obama right now against your typical Republican. But what about against the Ice Queen herself, Sarah Palin? Once again, my fear of being out-of-touch rears its head -- sure, I detest the former half-term Governor, but is that just me?

Looks like it's not. Obama trounces Palin, 55-33. That's a rather massive leap. Republicans may be enamored with their last VP nominee, but the country can't stand her. And she manages to give Obama an 8 point bump above his baseline score.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

We Wouldn't

In late 2007, I declared that the upcoming presidential election "is about torture". I was wrong. It wasn't. Despite my assertion that torture should stay in the public eye until we come to terms with it and, ultimately, eradicate it, our preference towards inertia won out:
We, as a people, desperately want to ignore this issue. We want to pretend it doesn't happen. And unless there is a constant media blitz forcing Americans to come to terms with our torture policy, we'll continue to ignore it.

The soldier accused of leaking material to WikiLeaks is currently being held in solitary. He hasn't been convicted of anything, and he wasn't on suicide watch (though now apparently we have to pump him full of anti-depressants to keep his brain intact). There is a solid case to be made, one this made in chilling detail in The New Yorker, that long-term solitary confinement rises to the level of torture.

But, as Ta-Nehisi Coates points out, the New Yorker's question -- is solitary confinement torture? -- is no longer the most salient one. Years after Abu Gharib and waterboarding, years after a Bush administration that explicitly sanctioned torture and years into an Obama administration that has done its utmost to insure there is never any accountability for it, a more harrowing question emerges: Even if it is torture, would we even care?

I think the answer is clear. No. We would not. Much as we have with prison rape, we, as a society, have come to terms with permitting torture of those we detain -- convicts, military detainees, even the accused. It is now part of who we are as a nation. And it will take a great, soul-wrenching shift to turn us away from it.

Block by Block

This NYT tool which lets you examine American Community Survey data for every neighborhood is, as Matt Yglesias says, pretty awesome.

It turns out that Hyde Park, for example, is relatively White close to the Midway (the proportion of White residents crashes south of 60th street), then gets progressively more and more integrated as you move north, until the White population basically disappears north of 47th Street.

Meanwhile, the census tract I live in now is nearly 70% White -- but borders a tract which apparently has 0 White residents.


Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Busy Busy Bee

Just finished finals. Going home on Saturday. Going to Puerto Rico on Monday. Still have stuff to do between now and Monday. Busy busy bee.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Labels versus Teams

Matt Yglesias argues in favor of political labels:
If you go to a store you’ll find that a huge quantity of the goods on sale are labeled to indicate which brand makes them. There’s a good reason for this. Normally, how much you’re willing to pay for a good or service depends on the quality of the good or service in question. But there’s no way to sample the quality of a can of soda without buying it first. So how am I to know whether or not I want to buy that can of Diet Coke? Well it’s simple. I may not have had that can of Diet Coke before, but I have had many other cans of Diet Coke. And I can infer that the Coca-Cola corporation, having invested a great deal of time and money in building the Diet Coke band is going to make a good-faith effort to turn out a consistent product. That doesn’t necessarily mean everyone will like the taste of Diet Coke. But it does mean everyone knows more-or-less what Diet Coke tastes like, and then they can make their soda-consumption choices in a coherent way.

Politics, he argues, should be the same way. Political labels provide a coherent and efficient method of sorting candidates, making it easy for the electorate to identify which politicians match their policy preferences.

There's something to this, but I think it may assume a considerably more informed and engaged electorate than we have. The better analogy might not be to labels, but to one's favorite sports team. Most people come by their favorite teams fairly arbitrarily (most commonly, the location where they're born). And while theoretically the labeling of different teams could enable easy sorting for a fan to optimize her rooting pleasure ("The Devils specialize in tight, neutral-zone trap defense backed by stellar goaltending. That's my kind of hockey!"), nobody really does that.

Political participation, by and large, seems to operate the same way. The best predictor of what party a given American supports is what party their parents support. People support their political "team" because it's fun to root for a side (indeed, this is one of the ways to overcome widespread rational political ignorance), not because they've sampled the various brands and come to a rational voting decision.

Indeed, when one tries to break down the analogy, a host of problems crop up. All one needs to know about Diet Coke to know if one will like it or not is to buy one can and taste it. There's no easy parallel in politics. Political campaigns are highly suffused in rhetoric designed to appeal to all voters (everybody hates crime, everybody likes education, everybody wants more jobs), so there isn't really effective branding along a host of politically salient axes. The real impact of a given politician on any specific aspect of any particular citizen's life is going to be, at best, highly attenuated, making it difficult to say whether John Doe's advocacy of X policy really is something one likes or dislikes beyond mere gut instinct.

Of course, if one has extremely well-developed policy preferences and pays close attention to the political arena, then it is possible to rationally sort good politicians from bad ones. But if one is that engaged, then one likely doesn't need labels to serve as a proxy. Put another way, the level of participation one needs to have in the soda market in order to rationally order preferences is very low, while the level of participation one needs to have in the political system in order to rationally order preferences is extremely high. Political labels don't really overcome this information deficit so much as they give people a reason to participate in politics notwithstanding their general lack of information.