Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Monday, June 09, 2008

A Matter of Probabilities

One of the more enjoyably mind-bending elements of modern physics is the idea that in a number of cases, observing a given situation or reaction actually changes the result. This is the sort of thing that appeals very much to post-modern elements of our sensibilities.

And interesting corollary to this in mainstream culture is that, so I have read, opinion pollsters have found it increasingly difficult to get unstudied opinions out of people. As "marketing" and "positioning" become concepts that most people think about most of the time, people asked what they think of a TV pilot will give replies like, "Most of this I thought had very broad appeal, but I think that older women will be turned off by this plot point."

Political writer Jay Cost has an interesting article at the RealClearPolitics Horse Race blog, which examines the two parties' selection of their nominees in this light. He argues that the predictions of political science models in regards to this election (current president approval rating, economy, war, end of two term presidency, etc.) are to a great extent counter-acted by the fact that many voters in both parties consciously took such factors into account in their nomination choices this cycle.
... So, both parties manifested signs of sophisticated thinking in pursuit of a goal - even though the manifestations were quite different. In both cases, information made a crucial difference. Party actors had up-to-date knowledge of relevant variables, and acted in light of that knowledge. The Republicans were aware of their dire straits and, accordingly, made a risk-averse choice. The Democrats were aware of how favored they are and made a risk-accepting choice. An important precondition of all this is the information age. It is simply easier for people of all classes to acquire information nowadays, and thus easier for them to make sophisticated choices like this.

Interestingly, while they are pursuing different goals in different manners, both parties are putting the same kind of stress on the electoral system. Republicans looked at the macro structure and determined that McCain might turn a probable defeat into a possible victory. Democrats looked at the same structure and determined that while Obama could probably not pull off an enormous win, he could still win in a year like this. Both candidates were thus selected with an eye to having the final result closer than the macro models predict. Both are testing the tensile strength of the macro structure of electoral conflict. Republicans picked a guy they don't like but who might pull the upset. Democrats (with the final say) are trading a possible landslide for their first choice....
This rings fairly true to me. In an internet and media saturated age, enough people seem to be thinking along these lines to make it difficult to handicap election. Essentially, both parties are consciously steering towards getting as much of their way as possible while just barely winning the election.


Anonymous said...

The Blackadder Says:

I'm inclined to view the parties nominations as more or less accidental myself. McCain, for example, only managed to win the nomination because of a series of events (George Allen's macaca comment, Huckabee's win in Iowa, Thompson and Huckabee splitting the vote in South Carolina, the fact that independents were allowed to vote in a lot of the early states, and so forth) that couldn't have been predicted in advance.

Voters didn't pick McCain because of some savy calculation about electoral prospects in the fall. If you look at any poll of voters political knowledge, you'll find that their knowledge of politics is in fact quite minimal, often shockingly so. Or is it the case that the conservative and Republican leadership decided that McCain was the best bet and then guided voters to this choice. In fact, the great majority of such leaders backed someone else in the primaries.

John McCain's nomination may or may not be the result of some divine plan, but it certain wasn't the result of any human design. And while the case of Obama is less straightforward, I would say that the same is true of it as well.

Darwin said...

Valid points.

On the other hand, in addition to the "everyone's a commentator" phenominon (and I suspect that there are some generally not well informed primary voters who are nonetheless quite capable of repeating back analysis of why a certain kind of candidate is called for in a given year) it seems to me that it's not necessarily contradictory that such a decision-making process is going on without being fully conscious. (In something like the same manner that a market will drive towards a pricing equalibrium based on supply and demand without anyone actually knowing where that equalibrium is ahead of time.)

In that same sense, a lot of the analysis laid out in detail by the article might have gone on at the level of "I may not agree with McCain on everything, but he seems like the right kind of candidate for this election."

On the other hand, it's possible that I'm finding this analysis overly appealing because my initial reaction looking at the field was the McCain was the only Republican who stood much of a chance in winning in the general election.

DMinor said...


I tend to agree with Blackadder. Knowing what led up to the nominations in both parties is as crucial to the analysis as just looking at the results and working backward.

The Republicans were not only facing what appeared to be a bear market, but far-right conservatism as a philosophy was getting enough of a public black eye to sour some middle of the road party members. None of the Republican candidates had the Ronald Reagan-charisma that party members would have liked in a standard-bearer. The early favorite, Giuliani, was a moderate (and not prolife) who left a bad taste in the mouth of many a conservative. And, probably most importantly after Giuliani fizzled, conservative focus was divided between two candidates (Huckabee and Romney), while moderate Republicans could concentrate on one (McCain).

The Democratic nomination could be viewed as the end result of a continuing battle within the party between the older New Deal/Labor Union faction and the European Social Democrat/Socialist/Green faction. Howard Dean almost settled the question in 2004, except for a little over-exuberance. :-) In Barack Obama, the left has its man.
It remains to be seen if it has room for the woman representing the other half of the party.

LogEyed Roman said...

I'm unclear if I would call the nomination process "accidental", though I'm comfortable enough with it. The principals on both sides were floundering around in a situation where no person or united group controlled the process and where confusion and cross purposes were rife.

Regarding Hillary, I have to say I was surprised by the resolve of the Democratic backroom honchos. Apparently a delegation of them went to Hillary on Wednesday and told her she was fired and better cooperate or else. I still think my prediction, made in April, is the most likely outcome: McCain will be President. For the same reason I gave then: That one constant in the equation, which I believe IS predictable, is that Hillary is gone around the bend and will continue to get crazier and crazier, and trash not only her own chances but those of any other Democratic candidate as well.

I'll be looking something of a ninny if Obama wins, and like a total mountebank in motley if an Obama/Hillary ticket wins.

LogEyed Roman