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When Did Chris Cillizza Stop Beating His Wife?

I titled this post of mine yesterday, “I’m so, so tired of political journalists (including some who I think are generally excellent) misconstruing certain types of poll results.  And of pollsters not asking the obvious direct question they need to ask.”  The post dealt specifically with a blog entry by Greg Sargent yesterday morning in which he interpreted the answer to poll question asking what the issue the respondent considered most important (for next year’s national elections) as proof positive that the public doesn’t care about the effect of huge amounts of money by very wealthy donors in determining the policy proposals of the candidates and the actual policies instituted or supported by elected officeholders.

Almost no respondent listed huge amounts of money by tiny numbers of people funding campaigns as the issue that they were most concerned about, but as Sargent’s post itself indicated, answers to several other questions—questions that addressed that issue specifically—made very clear that a huge portion of the public considers it a critically important issue, because they do recognize the clear, direct impact of it on candidates’ stated policy views and on actual government policy.

I opened my post yesterday with a two-paragraph excerpt from Sargent’s post:

If ever there were a cycle that seemed poised for a serious argument over what to do — if anything — about the torrents of money sloshing through our politics, you’d think it would be this one. We’re seeing a parade of billionaire sugar daddies looking to sponsor individual GOP candidates. A profusion of clever tactics such as turning over campaign operations to a friendly Super PAC, and running a full-blown presidential campaign while pretending you haven’t declared. Outside groups on both sides pledging enormous expenditures. Relentless media attention to foreign donations to the Clinton Foundation. And so on.

Yet despite all this, the chances of turning campaign finance into a major or compelling issue appear remote: A new poll today finds that fewer than one percent of Americans see it as the most important issue facing the country.

I then asked whether this might be because most poll respondents think they’re being asked directly about the issues that they want politicians and officeholders to address, rather than, y’know, the reasons why politicians and officeholders aren’t dealing effectively—or at all—with those problems and often make policy that worsens those problems.  Although the question was rhetorical (okay, sarcastic), I answered it, saying that it turns out that the answer is yes, and referencing the answers to the poll questions that specifically addressed the issue.

In the comments thread this morning, reader Dale Coberly commented that “polls tell the p.r. firms how well they are doing” and that “you can’t win by ‘taking the money out of politics’ or rewriting the poll questions.”   I responded:

Dale, the very last thing I’m trying to suggest is that candidates or parties should try to win by rewriting poll questions.  The polls at issue were the general news media polls, taken by polling organizations not affiliated with a candidate or party.

What I’m suggesting—strongly and clearly, I thought—is that journalists should really, really stop conflating answers to one question with answers to question that wasn’t even asked. They’re playing a distorting semantics game, in this instance by treating the word “issue” as having a much broader meaning than, I’m sure, most people interpret that word to mean in a generic poll question about what they think is the most important issue.

If the poll asked a question specifically about how important the respondent thinks it is to try to significantly curb the ability of the very wealthy, whether individuals or corporations, to fund particular campaigns, or even if q question asked the respondent to list in order of importance several categories of issues, and provide the categories, and include among the categories the influence large donors in controlling what positions politicians take as candidates and as elected officials, then great!   But it’s ridiculous to read the question at issue in Sargent’s post and interpret the answers to it as anything but stated preferences about the things mist people actually thing the question is asking about.

After I posted that comment, I clicked on the Washington Post website and it’s The Fix blog and, skimming the post titles saw one from yesterday by Chris Cillizza titled “Can we please stop acting like campaign finance is a major voting issue?

I don’t know when Cillizza stopped beating his wife, but his post is ridiculous.  He begins:

There are two seemingly contradictory data points in a new New York Times-CBS national poll.

1. 84 percent of people — 80 percent of Republicans and 90 percent of Democrats — believe money has too much influence in American politics.

2. Less than 1 percent of people said money in politics or campaign fundraising was the most important issue facing the country.

Seemingly contradictory?  I dunno.  I mean … maybe.  If you think the public thinks of the profound perversion of this country’s democracy as just another issue.  Cillizza continues:

How can the public hold both notions in their heads simultaneously? It’s actually not that complicated — and helps to explain why we need to stop acting like campaign finance reform is a major issue in actual campaigns.

Okay, well, he’s right that it’s not that complicated, but that’s because, as I’ve said,  the two notions are not contradictory at all.  Unless, that is, you believe that the respondents thought the first question included consideration of the second rather than just being a question directly about such issues as the economy, immigration, college affordability, foreign policy, healthcare insurance.  Rather than also indirectly about, well, all of those issued scrambled together.

But he doesn’t, of course, and makes that really clear, writing:

What point No. 2 shows, however, is that the public’s broad dislike for the amount of money flowing through the political system is more a theoretical distaste than a practical one. As in, when prompted to offer judgment on how much money is in politics, people agree it’s too much.  But, left unprompted, they make quite clear that campaign finance reform is not even close to a top-of-the-mind issue.

Think of it like this: If someone asked you whether you should eat better, almost all of us would say yes.  Too many hamburgers, too much pizza, too many frappuccinos. (Or maybe that’s just me.) But, when you go out to lunch or find yourself at the grocery story, how many of us actually make good on our stated intent to eat better? If you’re anything like me, the answer is a whole heck of a lot fewer people than say that they should be eating better.

There’s a huge difference between prompted intent and unprompted action.

There is indeed a huge difference between prompted intent and unprompted action. There’s also a huge difference between journalists who don’t actually understand what that difference is, and what it actually means. Mainly, apparently, because these journalists don’t understand the semantics of being asked generically by a pollster about “issues.”

This is serious stuff, folks.  And I suggest that the Washington Post poll people about what they think pollsters are referring to when then ask generically about issues that concern them.  And then ask specifically a set of questions about this issue, which most people recognize as a blanket issue encompassing a slew of specific policy issues and problems.  Most people.  But not most political journalists, apparently, at least not the ones whose comments I’ve read.  Think of it like this.

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UPDATE: Reader Carol and I just had the following exchange in the comments thread to this post:

Carol

June 3, 2015 2:36 pm

There is more to it than that. The public correctly perceives the role of money in politics as a huge problem. The public also correctly perceives this as not the most important issue facing the public today. There is no cognitive dissonance here. The most important issue for most people is having a job, or enough money to not be frightened of the future. In the general psychology courses I took, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs would suggest survival trumps all other issues. Once you are fed and secure, you have the time and energy to break out the tumbrils.

 

Beverly Mann

June 3, 2015 3:17 pm

Wow, Carol. You really think that fewer than 1% of the respondents see the connections between issues directly related to having a job, or enough money to not be frightened of the future? Most of the respondents said they understood perfectly this connection.

Wage issues (including the minimum wage, and including the right of workers to organize and bargain collectively); banking regulations (including the ones could have prevented the collapse of the economy in 2009-10, had they been in force—the collapse of the economy that cost millions of people their jobs, their life savings, their homes); healthcare insurance; interest on college loans; etc., etc. etc, etc.? Only fewer than 1% of that poll’s respondents think those issues have no tie-in to, say, who’s funding whose election campaign and may or may not fund that elected official’s next one?

Really? Really???

You’re right, Carol, that there’s no cognitive dissonance regarding the respondents’ responses. Which is the point of this post–or is supposed to be. The problem is one of semantics and these political journalists’ failure to realize that most people would understand that poll question about the most important issue to be using the word “issue” in a specific, narrow sense that doesn’t include the relationship between public policy and who’s buying the policy.

I had thought this isn’t rocket science, but maybe I was wrong.  Apologies for the snideness, but ….

Updated 6/3 at 3:40 p.m. 

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I’m so, so tired of political journalists (including some who I think are generally excellent) misconstruing certain types of poll results. And of pollsters not asking the obvious direct question they need to ask. [Addendum added.]

If ever there were a cycle that seemed poised for a serious argument over what to do — if anything — about the torrents of money sloshing through our politics, you’d think it would be this one. We’re seeing a parade of billionaire sugar daddies looking to sponsor individual GOP candidates. A profusion of clever tactics such as turning over campaign operations to a friendly Super PAC, and running a full-blown presidential campaign while pretending you haven’t declared. Outside groups on both sides pledging enormous expenditures. Relentless media attention to foreign donations to the Clinton Foundation. And so on.

Yet despite all this, the chances of turning campaign finance into a major or compelling issue appear remote: A new poll today finds that fewer than one percent of Americans see it as the most important issue facing the country.

Morning Plum: Americans don’t care too much about big money in politics, Greg Sargent, this morning

Aaaaargh.  Might this be because most poll respondents think they’re being asked directly about the issues that they want politicians and officeholders to address, rather than, y’know, the reasons why politicians and officeholders aren’t dealing effectively—or at all—with those problems and often make policy that worsens those problems?

It turns out that the answer is, yes.  And in the paragraphs following the above-quoted ones, Sargent himself, by discussing the poll questions and results in more detail, makes that very, very clear. Sargent continues:

To be sure, the new New York Times/CBS News poll does find that Americans across party lines think money exerts too much influence over the political process. Eighty-four percent of Americans, including 80 percent of Republicans, believe this. Crucially, the poll shows that majorities of Americans believe this gives the rich more influence over the process, and that they believe public officials reward big donors:

“Two thirds think wealthy Americans have a better chance than others of influencing the election process, while just 31 percent say all Americans have an equal chance to do so….Americans see a frequent quid pro quo when it comes to contributing to an election campaign and receiving benefits once a candidate is in office. Fifty-five percent of Americans think politicians enact policies to benefit their financial contributors most of the time, while another 30 percent think this happens sometimes. Just 13 percent think this only happens rarely or never.”

And then:

And get this: 54 percent do not believe political donations should be protected as free speech, and 78 percent support limits on contributions to groups unaffiliated with a candidate. Yet here’s the bad news for campaign finance reformers:

“Very few Americans prioritize campaign finance over other domestic issues when asked to name the most important problem facing the country today. Americans’ top issue priority continues to be the economy and jobs; health care and immigration follow. Less than one percent volunteer campaign fundraising as the most important issue facing the country.”

And then as an afterthought, he adds:

In fairness, the poll reached this conclusion through an open-ended question that asked people to name the single top issue, so who knows how much this means. But even some reform-minded Democrats have lamented the difficulty of turning campaign finance it into a motivating issue.

I love Sargent’s blog and read it religiously most weekdays.  But he, like so many other political journalists, conflates what are two separate categories of issues and draw the wrong conclusion.  And it’s a vicious circle: With the single exception of Elizabeth Warren and now Bernie Sanders, politicians whom the news media pay attention to never, ever, ever directly tie in a particular public policy—mainly, legislation or the lack of it—to actual actions (huge campaign donations, superPac funding, lobbying, and the proverbial revolving door, with industry lobbyists or representatives of, say, the Koch brothers, writing legislation and blocking legislation.  Only Elizabeth Warren actually does that and gets some genuine, meaningful media attention for it.

Obviously, neither Warren nor Sanders is cowed by the results of the incessant polls that ask the right question regarding the usual-suspect issues that poll respondents think is what they’re being asked about—the economy; immigration; foreign policy; healthcare.  Neither Warren nor Sanders confuses the answer to that question with an answer to a question about whether the respondent thinks there is a tie-in between the things they think of as an “issue” as meant in a poll question, and whether the respondent thinks a key reason for the existing problem and the government’s failure to adequately address it, and instead exacerbates it, is that public policy is controlled by the very few, very wealthy people who pay for campaigns in this era.

Sargent links to the CBS online article about the poll, which also says that “[m]ost who think changes are needed are not optimistic that such changes will be forthcoming: 58 percent are pessimistic that changes will actually be made.”

Well … yes.  Exactly.  And Warren and, now, Sanders may well succeed in ending the tautology.  They understand that actual specific information showing direct tie-ins with specific policies or lack of policy would feed upon itself and show that, yes, in fact changes can be made.  But only with a truly new breed of elected officials.

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ADDENDUM: Politico’s top article today is titled “Did Elizabeth Warren go too far this time?” But it’s subtitled “The Massachusetts senator’s attack on Securities and Exchange Commission Chair Mary Jo White causes backlash on Wall Street.”  The article, which is lengthy, discusses a 13-page letter Warren sent this morning to SEC Chairwoman Mary Jo White, absolutely ripping White for … well, you should read the article, all the way to the end.

By the end of the article, you’ll wonder why somewhere in the middle of it, it says that Warren’s influence seems to be on the wane and that the letter probably will hasten the waning.  The article has two co-authors, and the headline would not have been written by either of them. So that might be why the article is part details and background, and part what Wall Street and the White House want as the media’s take on the letter’s contents and fallout. I did a double-take when I read this sentence: “The backlash against Warren was the latest indication that populist firebrand’s efforts to push for tougher financial regulation may be losing some momentum.

The backlash against Warren is from Wall Street, the SEC, Mary Jo White’s office, and the CEOs and lobbyists who want the TPP treaty ratified and are selling it as a trade agreement even though, mostly, it’s not.  Warren (and others) object not to the actual trade provisions but to parts of it that do not concern trade as such.  And the SEC rules under Dodd-Frank that Warren angrily says the SEC keeps delaying concern transparency of corporations concerning the CEO’s pay as compared to that of the company’s ordinary employees, and concern disclosure of the identities of the tax-exempt organizations that receive corporate donations, and the amounts of the donations.

The public backlash against this has begun, the Politico article says.  Just call JPMorgan’s corporate offices and lobbying firms.  They’ll tell ya!

As for Wall Street’s public relations offering on it, the part of it that the article discusses with specificity sounds to me ridiculous:

“I don’t understand Sen. Warren’s criticism of White for recusing herself where there is a conflict of interest,” said Wayne Abernathy, a top lobbyist for the American Bankers Association, referring to Warren’s criticism that White isn’t involved in SEC actions when her husband’s law firm represents the companies involved. “Is it that she would prefer that the chairman go forward and participate in enforcement cases despite the conflict of interest?”

No, actually, it’s that because her husband is a partner in one of the premier New York law firms that represent the biggest financial institutions against the SEC and Justice Department during investigations and in civil and criminal litigation. And that her recusal means that the SEC is routinely deadlocked about whether to bring charges in such cases because the remaining SEC commissioners are equally divided between Republicans and Democrats.  How convenient.

Relatedly, Roger Cohen has a terrific column today in the New York Times.  But you have to read to the end to get the relation.

Added 6/2 at 8:58 p.m.

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The Problem With O’Malley’s New-Generation Pitch: Elizabeth Warren is 65 and Bernie Sanders is 73

Former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley formally declared over the weekend that he will run for the Democratic presidential nomination. In his speech and a subsequent interview with ABC News, he floated several themes: He has executive experience; the presidency is not a “crown” to be passed back and forth among royal families (i.e., the Clintons and the Bushes); and unlike either Jeb or Hillary, he won’t be beholden to Wall Street.

And O’Malley, 52, is also offering a fourth argument, which seems implicitly designed to draw a contrast with the 67-year-old Clinton: It’s time for a new generation of leaders.

— Martin O’Malley tests a generational argument against Hillary Clinton, Greg Sargent, Washington Post, today

Marco Rubio is making the generational argument, too.  For Rubio, it’s patently ridiculous; his fiscal and regulatory policy proposals and soundbites are circa Reagan era.  O’Malley’s are decidedly 2015, which is great and is why he may (in my opinion) have an actual chance.  But Elizabeth Warren’s and Bernie Sanders’ are even more so.  And they’re 65 and 73, respectively.

It’s clearly not accurate that Warren is unpopular among young people and that Sanders likely will be.  I don’t think anyone—young, middle-aged, old—cares about Warren’s age or which generation she’s part of.  And though Sanders’ age is noted in virtually every news report or commentary about him, and he looks his age, is it really likely that young voters would support O’Mallley over Sanders because of their age difference?  I doubt it.

O’Malley obviously is trying to target Clinton, not Sanders and certainly not Warren (whose policy positions he has adopted), with the “new generation” tack.  But if it refers to age and demographic generation, it makes as much sense as Clinton’s I’m-a-woman-and-a-grandmother pitch.  Which is to say, none.  Clinton obviously is a woman, and everyone knows that she’s now a grandmother.  Just as everyone can see that O’Malley is relatively youthful.  He doesn’t need to tell anyone that. And youth is as much a policy statement as is being a woman and a grandmother.  Which is to say, it’s not.

If O’Malley has a chance, it’s as a stand-in for Warren.  And not because he’s younger than Warren, but because he’s running and she’s not. And Warren, 65, indeed is part of a new generation of leadership, because her ideas, her arguments, her responses to Republican rote, are part of a new generation of ideas.

My advice to O’Malley would be to kill the younger-generation-of-leaders thing and replace it with a new-generation-of-policy argument.  He made a good start on that several weeks ago.  Bernie Sanders is doing exactly that, but age does matter here in that he will be 75 at the time of the next election. If progressive Democrats think O’Malley would be a true stand-in for Warren and Sanders, despite his own earlier-generation New Democrat pedigree, he could pull out a victory through some combination of his own and ultimately Sanders’ delegates.

But a prerequisite, I think, is an understanding that Sanders is blazing the trail.  And that Sanders, and Warren, aren’t spring chickens.

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Edited slightly for clarity and typo-correction. 6/1 at 10:16 p.m.

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Real GDP Seasonal Factors

In recent weeks there has been much discussion about the seasonal adjustment factors for GDP understating growth. The evidence seems pretty strong and BEA says they are working on an adjustment.

But remember, the seasonal adjustment factor have to sum to one (1.00). If you change the seasonal adjustment factors to add two percentage points to first quarter growth you must also subtract two percentage points from the other quarters. Changing the seasonal adjustment factors will not change the annual value of GDP. If annual growth was reported to be 2.5% before the correction it will still be 2.5% after the seasonals are changed. This also means that the annual values for other economic data, like productivity will not change either.

Maybe the good thing that could come out of the issue is that people will give less weight to the volatile monthly and quarterly economic reports and more weight to the longer run growth rates.

Remember, the game of estimating monthly and quarterly data releases was originally started by the brokerage houses to increase volume — their profits are extremely sensitive to market volume.

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