Monthly Archives: September 2008

The use and misuse of the Internet: Banning books or banning blogging?

The Use and Misuse of the Internet to Vet Political Candidates

Earlier I warned that Sarah Palin had yet to be fully vetted by the press or by the bloggers who have increasingly taken on this vetting role. Since my warning, I have been inundated by emails from many of you who have forwarded the list of books that Sarah Palin supposedly sought to ban from the Wasilia Public Library while she was that town’s mayor.  Because there is no accountability, denizens of the blogosphere are free to hurl charges at anyone, under the pretext that the “main stream media” (MSM) is simply too timid to address the issue. Once in a great while they happen to hit pay dirt, as when they exposed holes in the sourcing for a CBS News story regarding George W. Bush’s service in the National Guard.  But for every story they break, there are countless others that are completely or partially fabricated.  For example, soon after Palin was announced as McCain’s VP choice, I received several posts, based on bloggers’ accounts, indicating that Palin’s youngest child was in fact not hers, but was her daughter’s.  This appears to be a completely fabricated story. Some of you may recall just prior to the 2004 presidential election that a rumor regarding reinstituting the military draft suddenly made the internet rounds.  That also proved to be false.

This brings us to the latest rumor now burning through the internet: the list of books that Palin supposedly wanted banned.  A quick perusal of this list should set off alarm bells in anyone’s head – Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary?  The Living Bible?   Now, I have no doubt that in her capacity as mayor, Palin might have inquired as to who had the authority in Wasilia to remove books from the public library. She might even have done so in response to an inquiry from a concerned citizen.  But did she actually seek to remove every book on this list from the public library?   I suspect not. Instead, my guess is that an enterprising blogger took an existing list of banned books and simply appended it to the story regarding Palin’s inquiry regarding book removal.   In this vein, it may interest you to compare the list circulating in this email with the list of books that at some point in American history someone tried to remove from a public library somewhere.  See:

Notice any similarities?  They are, in fact, identical.

As for the alleged book-removing incident, the NY Times reports it this way:

Shortly after becoming mayor, former city officials and Wasilla residents said, Ms. Palin approached the town librarian about the possibility of banning some books, though she never followed through and it was unclear which books or passages were in question.

Ann Kilkenny, a Democrat who said she attended every City Council meeting in Ms. Palin’s first year in office, said Ms. Palin brought up the idea of banning some books at one meeting. “They were somehow morally or socially objectionable to her,” Ms. Kilkenny said.

The librarian, Mary Ellen Emmons, pledged to “resist all efforts at censorship,” Ms. Kilkenny recalled. Ms. Palin fired Ms. Emmons shortly after taking office but changed course after residents made a strong show of support. Ms. Emmons, who left her job and Wasilla a couple of years later, declined to comment for this article.

Note that Palin took office as Mayor in 1996.  So the alleged-book removal incident took place within her first two years in office – not later than 1998.  Now look at the publication dates on books on the list circulating by email that she supposedly sought to remove.  I love Harry Potter, particularly the 4rth book in the series: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.  But it was published in 2000 – at least two years AFTER the alleged book removal incident.  Yet it is included on the list of books she supposedly sought to remove!

We see, then, that this internet story is clearly false in some respects – something a good journalist with a little sleuthing would easily discover.  But denizens of the blogosphere are usually more interested in pushing a point of view than in uncovering facts.  They are partisans, working for a cause, and often willing to fabricate stories to achieve that end.

This latest rumor simply reinforces my point that the blogosphere has changed political discourse in this country, and not always for the better.

The Palin Effect: McCain rolled the dice and it paid off (so far)

Longtime readers will note that what (I hope) sets these posts apart from most of the election-year coverage you may have been reading is that a) my posts are designed to be non-partisan; I favor neither candidate and, in fact, will not vote in the election (Do as I say – VOTE! – not as I do); and b) whenever I make an assertion I try, as much as possible, to back it up with data.

With that in mind, let me return to a somewhat controversial assertion I made regarding the Palin pick – from the start, and contrary to most media coverage, I claimed that this would be a very effective pick for McCain because it would energize his Republican base, signal that he, too, is a candidate for change and potentially might swing some wavering centrist, disaffected Clinton voters into the McCain column. I cautioned that her candidacy still needed to be vetted, citing in particular the charge of influence peddling in the case regarding her brother-in-law. But with that caveat I believed this was a high risk but potentially very high payoff choice. (Note that I never believed the pregnancy of her unwed daughter would hurt her, and indeed thought it would help Palin among the Republican right particularly after the media began hinting it would force her off the ticket – that simply solidified her support among conservatives and, not incidentally, among many women.

I made these assertions based on my read of the voting coalitions as they developed during my primary coverage, but at the time we could not know if I my claim was correct. Now, several days after Palin’s unveiling, what does the data say? In fact – so far – it largely validates my initial claim: Palin has been a big winner for McCain. Here’s the evidence, based on several surveys:

To begin, I look at the results of a nationwide survey of potential voters by Zogby (admittedly not the most reliable of survey outfits during the nominating phases, so interpret with caution). Note that this survey is before the Palin speech. As I suggested, the Palin choice was initially viewed as potentially a high risk but high payoff choice, while Biden’s selection was viewed as less risky, but generally positive:

Does the selection of Sarah Palin help or hurt John McCain’s chances of winning the presidential election in November?


Zogby Poll One Week Ago: Does Biden Help or Hurt Obama?

Will help him



Will hurt him



Will make no difference



Not sure



After Palin’s speech, surveys indicate that McCain’s strategy had paid off, particularly among moderates and independents. Thus, a SurveyUSA poll found that just before Palin’s speech, independent voters nationwide were split (43-44) on whether she was an asset or a liability to McCain’s campaign. After the speech, by a 2:1 (56-27) margin, independents now viewed her as an asset, with the percentage describing Palin as an asset to the campaign climbing 13 points while the percentage calling her a liability fell 17 points.

The same thing happened among self-described moderates. Before the speech, they viewed Palin as a liability by an 11 point margin, 49-38. After the speech she was seen as an asset by an 18 point margin, 48-30. (All survey results with a 6% margin of error).

Similar results come out of a survey conducted by MediaCurves, another independent polling company. After viewing Palin’s speech, the number of respondents who believed that selecting her for vice president will help John McCain’s campaign went up among Republicans, Independents and Democrats too.  Perhaps most significantly, among independents who anticipate voting in the Presidential election and who viewed Palin’s speech, there was a 9% increase among those saying they will probably or definitely vote for the McCain/Palin ticket, from 28% to 37%, while the percent who said they definitely or probably wouldn’t vote for the Republican ticket stayed essentially unchanged at 40%, although the number of those independents who say they are definitely not voting for the Republican ticket went up 7% after her speech. So, we see that her speech helped removed some doubts about her candidacy, with those leaning against her before the speech firming up their opposition, while those in favor solidified their support for her. The big movement was among the undecided independents, however, who moved toward Palin as a result of her speech. Interestingly, support for Palin increased about equally among men and women (about 10%).

But what about undecided Democrats – the Clinton voters – that aren’t sure whether to support Obama? At first glance, it appears that Palin’s speech may have helped among these voters as well, with those Democrats saying they will definitely or probably vote Republican going up from 11 to 15% as a result of her speech.  But because this change falls within the poll’s margin of error, we can’t say for certain that there was any real movement at all among Democrats.

Now, a word of caution is in order here. These are initial survey results, taken in the immediate aftermath of the Palin speech. Over time, I expect the impact of that speech to lessen, as potential voters begin to see her in other campaign appearances. But as first impressions go, McCain’s choice, as I suggested, was a clear winner.

My bounce is bigger than yours – or is it? And does it matter?

Earlier I posted a brief look at the slightly smaller than average bounce, historically speaking, that Obama received from the Democratic convention. Today I want to look at the Republican bounce: just how much did McCain gain from the Republican convention? How does that compare to previous Republican conventions? Again, if we use the same measures that I did for Obama (the change in the RealClearPolitics average of polls), then McCain received almost an identical bounce from the Republican convention as did Obama from the Democratic convention – about 5.6%. This is slightly less than 1% point greater than Obama’s bounce of of about 4.8%, which – given the noise in these polls – is essentially a draw. Historically, it is also slightly smaller than the average Republican bounce, dating back to the 1960 convention, which is about 6.4%. (Again, historical comparisons are dicey, because I’m using a slightly different measure to calculate today’s bounce from the measures used to calculate previous convention bounces.) Note that the size of the bounce will obviously vary depending on what polls one consults. Using the RealClear politics poll averages, McCain has used that bounce to pull ahead of Obama in the national surveys, 46.7 to 45.7%. Again, as I’ve pointed out many times, RealClearPolitics averages good polls with not so good polls. Also, their average is a rolling average, so that it mixes slightly older polls with newer polls. Thus, today’s USAToday/Gallup poll has McCain up 10%, and the daily Gallup tracking poll has McCain up 3%. This might be construed by some as a better measure of the convention bounce than is an average of polls some of which are three days old. But to be consistent with my earlier post, I will stick to the RealClear average of the polls as the measure of convention bounce. And it seems to indicate that, as we begin the general election campaign, this race is a dead heat.

Several of you have commented on the smaller than typical Obama “bounce” and wondered how much had to do with the fact that the Republican convention began almost as soon as the Democratic convention ended. As Chris Abbot put it, perhaps Obama’s “bounce” hit the Republican convention “ceiling”. In response, I’ve checked the dates of every Democratic and Republican convention dating back to 1960, and this year’s were held closer in time than any previous conventions during the last 48 years. So it is certainly possible that Obama’s bounce was truncated because of the Republican counter bounce. At the same time, McCain’s bounce may have been diminished by the continuing reverberations from the Obama campaign. In short, they may have cancelled each other out to a greater degree in this election cycle than in previous years.

The more important thing to remember, however, is that the impact of the convention will tend to fade in the next few weeks as the more fundamental influences that normally shape the vote begin to reassert themselves in the polling measures. In the next week, I will take you through a brief discussion of these fundamental forces as a lead up to making my quadrennial prediction of the popular vote totals in the presidential election. As I’ve told many of you, although political scientists aren’t very good at predicting the nominating race outcome (too many candidates, too many separate contests) we are somewhat more successful at predicting the general election outcome soon after the two conventions have ended and the tickets are established. So, what do the forecasts models say? We will turn to that topic next.

P.S. Several of you who prefer to view these posts at the Presidential Power website have complained about the bleedover in the text. I am aware of it and have asked Middlebury’s tech support to take a look.  With luck it will be corrected very soon.

Live blogging McCain’s speech

Ok, he’s on, after the video tribute.

At the start, the most impressive part of the speech was watching how quickly his 96-year old mother Roberta stood up to acknowledge the applause.

Nice touch in acknowledging Obama.

Nice line re: the protesters.

Better line about change – this is clearly the new tact McCain has adopted.  It’s clear the “experience” approach hasn’t worked as well as they’d like, because it gets trumped by Obama’s change motif, which is the winning theme in this election.  So McCain is trying to present himself as the maverick who brings his own type of change .  That’s why the Palin choice has proved so effective.

He’s taking a page out of the Reagan playbook with the reference to “real” Americans.  Reagan used this technique very effectively to humanize his speech.   Notice the states that these people are from – all swing states: Michigan, New Hampshire …. .

Ok, here’s the expected effort to differentiate himself from Bush-Cheney and the Republicans, but without mentioning them by name.   All part of the change theme – notice how many times he’s used that word?

OK, now on to immigration. A sensitive subject with mainstream Republicans, so he can’t address it directly.  He has to be careful here, because he can’t afford to alienate the Latino vote.

And now the obligatory reference to promoting a culture of life and to appointing judges who apply the law without legislating from the bench.  Red meat for the Right.  Ditto for health care and the health care bureaucracy.

On the global economy – another tricky topic. Remember, he needs Pennsylvania and Ohio, so he can’t push free trade openly.  Note the focus on job retraining.

School choice – more red meat.

The drilling chant begins  – this is a winning issue for Republicans, and McCain works it well.   Notice that here he references Obama by name, rather than saying “my opponent” as he did with other issues.  It’s a sign that his internal polls show this is a winner.

Finishing with terrorism and foreign policy. If he wins election it will be because of this issue.

Nice touch starting with the Georgia conflict as the first issue in the section of the speech – it gives his foreign policy experience an immediacy.

The “I hate war” is a direct takeoff from Franklin Roosevelt.

This is the strongest part of the speech so far – foreign policy and his background is clearly a winning issue for McCain.

Here’s the change theme again, presented in the context of rising above partisanship.  Clearly he’s responding to Obama’s very effective claim to be the one to put partisanship aside.

Ok, there’s nothing to say here.  It’s rare that McCain ever talks about his service.  Best to just listen….

“I fell in love with my country when I was in someone else’s” – great line.

If McCain wins this election, it will be because of this part of his biography. Powerful stuff.

And now the fight refrain….. .

A very effective speech.  McCain is not noted for his speechmaking, but this was first rate.  It is clear that he will not cede the “change” mantra to Obama – he is going to campaign on a theme that melds his maverick reputation with the change theme.  The goal here is separate himself from Obama’s efforts to portray him as an extension of the Bush-Cheney presidency.

But he is clearly not comfortable yet with Palin – they need to work on their stage presence.  Expect them to separate on the campaign trail almost immediately.

(BTW, who chooses the music at these things?  Is that Heart singing  Barracuda? Does John McCain even know who they are?)

Ok, what did you think?  I’m eager to hear your responses…

A final thought – the key for McCain was not to appeal to his base Republicans, but to reach out to moderates, centrists and the undecideds.  Did he do that?  He was short on policy specifics, but will that matter?  Was he successful in portraying himself as an agent of change?  Or was this simply biography, without any evidence that he is different from “Bush-Cheney”? What do you think?

Assessing Obama’s convention bounce

Inevitably after a convention the media will try to assess how much “bounce” in approval rating the nominee received due to the extended media coverage. This is an ideal time to assess Obama’s bounce, since his approval ratings have not yet been overshadowed by the Republican coverage.  To make it easy, I’ll  use RealClear Politics average of the polling ratings for both McCain and Obama beginning August 23, the start of the Democratic Convention, through Sept. 4. (Faithful readers will recall that I think there are problems with how RealClearPolitics calculates the polling average, but for now we can set those concerns aside).  I’ll define the “bounce” as the change in the difference in ratings between the two candidates due to the convention coverage.

On August 23, the start of the Democratic convention, Obama led McCain by a scant 1.6 percentage points.   By the end of the convention that had almost doubled to 3.9% (August 29).   On August 31, it dropped down to 3.4%, and on September 1 it was back up to 4.5%  It peaked at 6.4% on Sept. 2 and has since dropped a bit: today it is at 5.8%.

Clearly, then, Obama benefited in the short term, as reflected in polling averages, from the Democratic Convention. However, since RealClearPolitics uses a rolling average to calculate its polling average, it’s hard to define a precise cutoff point to measure the bounce.  But at the most we can say he gained a bit less than 5% in the polls (combination of his bump up and McCain’s drop) as a result of the convention.

Should he be pleased?  Interestingly, (or perhaps not),  political scientist have actually studied the size of the typical convention bump in the modern era.  James Campbell finds that  in the post World War II era (he was writing in 1992), the typical bounce is between 5-7%.  Larry Sabato, looking at the period from 1960-2004, finds a slightly larger average bounce for Democrats – about 7.3%.  But his figures are inflated by including 1992, where Democratic candidate Bill Clinton received a whopping 28% bump. Clinton’s bounce was inflated by the simultaneous announcement by Ross Perot that he was dropping out of the race (he subsequently reentered).  In 2004, in contrast, Kerry received almost no bounce coming out of the convention.  In both 1996 and 2000 the Democratic candidate received about an 8% bounce.

So, historically speaking, Obama’s “bounce” is smaller than average, although not exceedingly so.   Should he be worried?  Not based on the smaller than average bounce.  Convention bumps are almost always transitory, fading over time as the underlying fundamentals driving the electoral race reassert themselves.  I expect that to happen here as well, particularly after the Republicans get their own bounce coming off Palin’s speech followed by McCain’s tonight.

I’ll be on later tonight blogging McCain’s speech. If I get a chance, I’ll also respond ton some your comments re: Palin, Biden and Obama, which continue to come into my inbox.

Finally, I need to apologize to some of you who are getting these messages with a substantial delay built in – Microsoft apparently interprets this email as spam (a judgment that may be shared by you!), and delays sending it on.  I’ll work on correcting that glitch.