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Daily Howler: Charles Blow seemed to be impressed with a 19 percent speculation
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THE 19 PERCENT SPECULATION! Charles Blow seemed to be impressed with a 19 percent speculation: // link // print // previous // next //
FRIDAY, AUGUST 15, 2008

SOMEBODY SAID SOMETHING ACCURATE: By rule of law, it’s never done. And yet, this Tuesday, it actually happened! Hold on now–a major Democratic pol actually made an accurate statement about the insider press corps! Rep. Neal Abercrombie (D-Hawaii) was the offender. The silver-tongued solon made these remarks about a high-ranking doyenne:

ABERCROMBIE (8/12/08): She's a bit of a fool, that's the only thing you can say. Don't forget Cokie Roberts and the whole Washington crowd live in a kind of an incestuous relationship to one another. They talk to one another, they see one another. They know nothing about ordinary people.

Oh. Our. God. Hailing from so foreign a land, Abercrombie may not know the rules of insider Washington. Perhaps for this reason, the gentleman actually said something accurate about the insider press corps. (For the background to Abercrombie’s comments, you know what to do–just click here.)

Democrats never do that. Neither do the lads at your “liberal journals”–well-mannered fellows who stand in line, waiting their chance to go center-stage at our “mainstream” news orgs. As a result, American voters almost never hear the type of critique Abercrombie offered. They constantly hear conservative claims about the flaws of the mainstream press. But they virtually never hear about how this gang really functions.

They never hear how much they get paid. They don’t hear about the way they summer. They never hear about their ties to conservative king-pins like Jack Welch. Most remarkably, they never hear about their role in the fragging of Clinton/Gore/Clinton. Not to mention Kerry and Edwards.

They constantly hear that the insider press corps is driven by that vile liberal bias. They rarely hear real rebuttal.

Darlings, it simply isn’t done! Abercrombie broke every law in the book! Under prevailing rules of the game, nobody says something accurate.

FOR CORSI, THE FIRE THIS TIME: This time around, Jerome Corsi is getting a fairly rough ride from the press corps. Four years ago, the mainstream press corps ran and hid when Corsi joined John O’Neill in publishing Unfit for Command, the book which did so much damage to Kerry. Much of that book was straight from a fever swamp, and it self-contradicted quite liberally–but major news orgs seemed afraid to say so. The highly influential book was rarely reviewed. Such slender reviews as were commissioned trickled in remarkably late. (What are the standards for accusers, we repeatedly asked at the time.)

This time around, the press corps seems a bit more prepared to accept its responsibilities. In our view, this morning’s editorial in the Washington Post is the most important step yet. The Post heaps scorn on Corsi’s latest effort, an attempt to take out Barack Obama. In our view, this pretty much clinches it. Insider Washington has agreed: Jerome Corsi is largely a fraud. (As we’ve told you: The coverage of Obama won’t likely be a copy of coverage from the past.)

The Post arrives at this stance four years late. But then, a stream of major mainstream writers have been presenting amusements this week, applauding themselves for achieving vast insights many years after deadlines have passed:

Joe Klein semi-remembers: In this Swampland post, Joe Klein reviles McCain for tolerating the “sort of swill” currently being aimed at Obama. Quite correctly, he even says this. This represents major progress:

KLEIN (8/14/08): [T]here is no excuse for what the McCain campaign is doing on the “putting America first” front. There is no way to balance it, or explain it other than as evidence of a severe character defect on the part of the candidate who allows it to be used.

Ouch! Klein even criticizes himself, for weak reaction to this sort of thing in the past. (In fairness, Klein was one of the people who challenged the sillier sanctifications of McCain during Campaign 2000.) But we had to chuckle as we watched Klein semi-remember our recent history. In his post, Klein remembers that something bad happened to Kerry–and he remembers that something bad happened to McCain (in South Carolina). But for Klein, this history begins in South Carolina, in that Republican primary. He doesn’t mention the fact that another candidate was savaged, for twenty straight months, during the course of Campaign 2000. But then, this type of selective memory is, at present, quite common. Major journalists often remember the Swift Boat campaign, and the trashing of McCain. They still can’t remember what happened to Gore–and they skip the era of Clinton-trashing which led to that later war. By official agreement, John McCain was treated badly. Candidate Gore was not.

Robinson tackles the goons: In today’s Post, Gene Robinson also goes after Corsi–and he too recalls what happened to Kerry. How tough is Robinson in this column? “Here come the goons, right on schedule,” he says, right at the start of his piece. (And he’s right!) But it’s funny! We notice that, in Robinson’s column, history starts with the swift boat campaign; he too forgets the war against Gore which started five years earlier. Of course, that was the war in which he, Gene Robinson, actually served as one of the “goons.” It’s odd how the memory plays tricks.

Walter Shapiro’s epiphany: Here at THE HOWLER, the analysts love their Uncle Walter. But good God! In this unintentionally comical piece, Walter Shapiro has finally realized that journalists may not be great judges of character! For Shapiro, it took John Edwards’ affair–and his obvious lying about it–to drive this message home. But good grief! How many bungled judgments of character preceded this recent episode? In Campaign 2000, for example, the press corps judged that first Bill Bradley, then George Bush, had vastly more character than the deeply vile Gore. Despite those unbelievable bungles, Walter still didn’t know, until this past week, that judgments of character can be hugely wrong! We’re going to repeat what we said to the analysts: We’ve seen some “slow learners” in our day, but Walter has taken the cake!

By the way, readers: Now that you’ve seen Edwards lie about sex, can you perhaps go back in time and see that he was also lying during that October 30 debate? Incomparably, we showed restraint about this at the time; this site is about journalists, not pols. But in real time, many Democrats and liberals had a hard time seeing this, for a fairly obvious reason. You see, Edwards was lying about Hillary Clinton at that crucial October 30 debate–and the narratives of the past sixteen years made it hard for many “liberals” to see such conduct, even when such conduct occurred right in front of their eyes. (As we’ve told you, there was an occasional “Cordelia element” to this primary race, in which the people who were lying were hailed for their honesty and the person who was telling the truth was condemned. That’s where those sixteen-year narratives left us; many liberals bought all that crap about the vile Clintons too. It had wormed its way into their skulls. They couldn’t see that Edwards was lying, although it was perfectly plain.) The analysts cried when we pointed this out, but their Uncle Walter apparently missed that one too! It took a gentleman’s lies about sex before he stepped into the light.

Kuttner’s Dowdification: Meanwhile, we mordantly chuckled when we read this post by Robert Kuttner at Tapped. Years later, Kuttner is playing it nice about Gore (though we think the suggestion he makes is strange). But good God! Kuttner’s a legitimate liberal lion–and he’s a serious grown-up. But quite literally, he can’t type three paragraphs about Gore without mentioning–well, just click here and see what he wrote. Readers, Dowdification is powerful! Until we train ourselves to resist them, Dowdification’s fatuous narratives worm their way into everyone’s brains. Literally, Kuttner can no longer write three grafs without paying tribute to this fatuous culture. A nation can’t proceed in this way.

In summary: History started with the swift boats, and the Nobel Prize winner is fat! Fatuous narrative have driven your discourse over the course of the past sixteen years. Major journalists have been slow in seeing–or admitting–what happened. What continues today.

Special report: Race and the race!

WHY NOT READ EACH THRILLING INSTALLMENT: Could racial voting decide the election? Why not read each thrilling installment:

PART 1: When the Times considers race, it includes at least one bungled fact. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 8/12/08.

PART 2: Five percent of white voters confessed–no, they won’t vote for Obama. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 8/13/08.

In part 3, we spend some time with a 19 percent speculation:

PART 3–THE 19 PERCENT SPECULATION: In November, how many votes could Obama lose due to racial voting? In its most recent poll, the New York Times and CBS News took a stab at puzzling that out. Last Saturday, Charles Blow discussed some basic results in his New York Times column:

BLOW (8/9/08): According to a July New York Times/CBS News poll, when whites were asked whether they would be willing to vote for a black candidate, 5 percent confessed that they would not. That’s not so bad, right? But wait. The pollsters then rephrased the question to get a more accurate portrait of the sentiment. They asked the same whites if most of the people they knew would vote for a black candidate. Nineteen percent said that those they knew would not. Depending on how many people they know and how well they know them, this universe of voters could be substantial. That’s bad.

Welcome to the murky world of modern racism, where most of the open animus has been replaced by a shadowy bias that is difficult to measure.

“Difficult to measure” indeed! And, we’ll guess, a bit more difficult than Blow was inclined to suggest.

Let’s return to that “five percent confession,” in which five percent of white respondents said they wouldn’t vote for a black candidate. (Question 78, page 27. For full poll results, just click here.) This polling question seems fairly straightforward–and it’s hard to imagine why a voter would answer “no” if he or she didn’t mean it. But if we’re trying to figure out how many votes Obama might lose due to racial animus, we’d have to know how many of this five percent were already Republican voters. If these people would have voted for any Republican, then their votes won’t be “lost” to Obama, and November’s outcome won’t be affected. But alas! In this lengthy Times/CBS poll, that question apparently wasn’t asked–or if it was, results weren’t reported. In the posted data, there is no attempt to report these voters’ party affiliation. How many of the five percent are Republicans? Doggone it! The poll doesn’t say.

So much for the five percent confession. Meanwhile, consider what happens when Blow turns to that 19 percent speculation.

Common-sensically, pollsters tend to assume that some white voters might lie about such a sensitive topic; some white voters with a racial animus might not want to confess it. Hence, pollsters sometimes ask a second question–and here’s where the real murk can roll off the moors. Let’s look again at Blow’s explanation of why that second question was asked. In our view, Blow seems inclined to edge beyond our state of knowledge:

BLOW: The pollsters then rephrased the question to get a more accurate portrait of the sentiment. They asked the same whites if most of the people they knew would vote for a black candidate. Nineteen percent said that those they knew would not. Depending on how many people they know and how well they know them, this universe of voters could be substantial. That’s bad.

It’s hard to know why we’d simply assume that this second question would yield a “more accurate portrait.” But Blow’s assumption betrays an attitude that suffuses a great deal of reporting on this subject.

The first question asked was fairly straightforward: Would you vote for a black candidate? The second question takes us into the weeds; people are asked to estimate what “most people they know” would do (question 77, page 27). Blow winks a bit as he suggests that this second number–the 19 percent speculation–is more accurate than the five percent confession. For ourselves, we have no idea which number is better–or how many votes would get lost in the process. And Blow never gives us any reason to think that he knows these things, either.

Which of those numbers is closer to accurate? Based on what we’ve been told up to now, we don’t have the slightest idea.

It should be said that there are obvious problems with that second question. For one thing, the question is slightly complex; people are asked about “most people they know” and, as simple as that may sound, it almost surely introduces confusion into some ruminations. Beyond that, this question allows people to imagine themselves superior to other people they know; we’d guess that this is a risky proposition, though we’re not experts on this. At any rate, 19 percent of white respondents said that “most people they know” wouldn’t vote for a black candidate. That could be a whole boatload of people, Blow says. But then again, those 19 percent of respondents may not know their keisters from kumquats.

At any rate, we don’t know why that second figure should be assumed to be more accurate, and Blow never really gives reasons (more Monday). But another part of the polling data might show us how odd such speculative questioning can sometimes turn out to be. Uh-oh! When black voters were asked these same two questions, their answers were remarkably similar to those of the whites. Among black respondents, six percent said that they themselves wouldn’t vote for a black candidate. And 16 percent said “most people they know” wouldn’t vote for someone who’s black.

We can always imagine what those answers might mean; explanations can always be dreamed, as we all learn from reading the press corps. But we don’t really know what those answers might mean because, once again, frustratingly, the pollsters didn’t ask further questions. No one asked these black respondents why they themselves wouldn’t vote for a black candidate. And no one asked them why they thought that “most people they know” wouldn’t do so. Were they perhaps including white people they know when they answered that second question? Is it possible that some of these people were confused by the question–as some white respondents may also have been? Let’s be clear: By the time this question was asked, Barack Obama had racked up giant percentages among black voters in most Dem primaries; it’s perfectly clear that most black people will happily support a black candidate. Why did black voters give that second answer? It seems the pollsters didn’t ask–and therefore, it seems we can’t really know, though of course we can always imagine.

But so it goes when pollster ask questions which get a bit complex. And when pollsters fail to ask fairly obvious follow-up questions.

In our view, this result points to a frustrating problem with the way race has been reported in this year’s campaign. Has anyone really tried to report on the racial attitudes which might affect this election? Midway through the primary season, a somewhat surprising fact had become clear; it seemed a surprising number of voters were more than willing to talk to pollsters about their racial attitudes. In a string of late Democratic primaries, for example, small but significant numbers of voters told exit pollsters that the race of the candidate was “the single most important factor” in deciding their vote. Here were three late-state totals, for example:

Percentage of voters who said race was “the single most important factor” in deciding their vote/2008 Democratic primaries:
Pennsylvania: 5 percent
Indiana: 5 percent
North Carolina: 6 percent

But here again, the data are semi-maddening. In only one of those three states are those data broken down further in the official exit poll data which we found on-line. That state is North Carolina; of the six percent who said that race was “the single most important factor,” 35 percent voted for Clinton, 63 percent for Obama. The exit poll data don’t say if these voters were black or white. (More from these exit polls on Monday. By inference, it looks like the split in the other two states would be closer to 50-50.)

Remember: Those are voters in Democratic primaries. The New York Times/CBS poll considered all registered voters, looking ahead to the general election. How many votes might Obama lose in November’s general election? As we’ll continue to see in Part 4, Blow seemed to be pointing at numbers like that 19 percent. But the actual number is hard to determine–and, as far as we can tell, no one has done much reporting.

The American people are pretty sharp: The public isn’t always real sharp–with its facts, for instance. For unknown reasons, the New York Times/CBS asked a fairly odd question (question 80, page 27): “Just as your best guess, about what percentage of all Americans are black: less than 10 percent, between 10 and 20 percent, between 20 and 30 percent, between 30 and 50 percent, or more than 50 percent?”

In this poll, nine percent of all respondents said the country is more than half black. And remember: This was a poll of registered voters. The lunkheads weren’t allowed to respond.

The American people aren’t always real sharp. It’s probably good to keep that in mind when we imagine what responses to poll questions mean. If we want to know what responses might mean, we’ll guess that it’s better to ask.

MONDAY–PART 4: Racial preference