Mean politics

Contributed by
Jun 6, 2008
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Astronomer Neil Tyson wrote an op-ed in the New York Times today applying statistical methods common in astrophysics to the Presidential campaign. The method, recently published by other astrophysicists and which uses median results from polls, indicates something surprising: were the election held today, McCain would beat Obama, but Clinton would beat McCain.

This goes to show you something: polls can be meaningless.

Seriously, this is interesting, but I don't think it has much real-world application at this point in time. For one thing, polls need to be examined carefully, as they can be misleading in their questions and techniques. In this case, it may have been as simple as asking "Which candidate would you vote for were the elections held today?" However even that is somewhat meaningless. If, in late October, gas prices jump, or there is a a big jump in deaths in Iraq, or the media actually report truthfully about McCain's ties to lobbyists, then the results could swing dramatically. Poll results depend on the latest media-frenzy, which have a finite decay time. But once they have died off, the next one comes up, influencing polls once again.

So Neil's analysis is interesting and tells us quite a bit about what we're thinking now, but I don't think it applies just yet to the upcoming election; it's too far off in terms of media cycles. As Neil himself says in the article,

This analysis does not predict what will happen in November. But it describes the present better than any other known method does.

That's where its power lies, I suspect. But even then, I think that, like other statistical indicators, it can only be used after the fact to see how things were going in the past, but as a useful indicator of the present -- giving specifics on policy, for example -- it may still come up short. I don't see how it can be used to influence people's opinions based on any particular campaign issues (though I may have missed something, of course).

But then, there is a meta-issue: the technique itself can be used as a stumping point. Ms. Clinton has used everything except for reality to stay in this race, and it wouldn't surprise me to hear that she will use this as a reason to continue to stay relevant in the minds of the voters -- whatever her reasons might be for that at this point, long past when she has any reasonable shot at achieving the nod.

Rumor has it that even as I write this she is preparing to concede, but given the past few weeks of her campaign it's hard to imagine her completely bowing out. I wonder if this opinion piece will be mentioned by her campaign?