Commentary Magazine


Posts For: October 31, 2012

Ignatius Asks Important Questions About Benghazi

David Ignatius, the liberal Washington Post columnist, has a good column on the Benghazi episode in which he recounts what we know–and, more to the point, what we don’t know–about the official response to the hours-long attack on our consulate and a CIA annex. Ignatius quotes a statement from the CIA making clear that no one at the agency told contractor Tyrone Woods or anyone else not to go to the aid of the embattled diplomats: “no one at any level in the CIA told anybody not to help those in need; claims to the contrary are simply inaccurate.” 

That still leaves open the question of whether anyone else in government told them not to do so, and also, more importantly, of how and why the decision was made not to send more military help to Benghazi beyond a force of eight security personnel from the CIA who were dispatched from Tripoli. Ignatius asks: “Why didn’t the United States send armed drones or other air assistance to Benghazi immediately? This one is harder to answer.” After all, he notes: “A Joint Special Operations Command team was moved that night to Sigonella air base in Sicily, for quick deployment to Benghazi or any of the other U.S. facilities in danger that night across North Africa. Armed drones could also have been sent.” Yet those assets were not deployed during the seven or so hours that the attack lasted.

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David Ignatius, the liberal Washington Post columnist, has a good column on the Benghazi episode in which he recounts what we know–and, more to the point, what we don’t know–about the official response to the hours-long attack on our consulate and a CIA annex. Ignatius quotes a statement from the CIA making clear that no one at the agency told contractor Tyrone Woods or anyone else not to go to the aid of the embattled diplomats: “no one at any level in the CIA told anybody not to help those in need; claims to the contrary are simply inaccurate.” 

That still leaves open the question of whether anyone else in government told them not to do so, and also, more importantly, of how and why the decision was made not to send more military help to Benghazi beyond a force of eight security personnel from the CIA who were dispatched from Tripoli. Ignatius asks: “Why didn’t the United States send armed drones or other air assistance to Benghazi immediately? This one is harder to answer.” After all, he notes: “A Joint Special Operations Command team was moved that night to Sigonella air base in Sicily, for quick deployment to Benghazi or any of the other U.S. facilities in danger that night across North Africa. Armed drones could also have been sent.” Yet those assets were not deployed during the seven or so hours that the attack lasted.

One wonders if the decision not to act was taken at Africa Command, the Pentagon, or at the White House. My bet is on the White House. It’s likely that National Security Adviser Tom Donilon, known for his attention to details, was the crisis manager in the White House, and if he didn’t inform his boss, the president, of what was going on at the time, he would have been guilty of dereliction of duty–which seems unlikely for such a conscientious bureaucrat. The decision not to act, taken in the heat of the moment and without full information available, was understandable; it might even have been the right decision in hindsight, although this seems less likely. But the White House isn’t really answering these questions. Instead, it seems to be trying to push the whole issue past the election–and the news media, which would have been putting this on page one every day if this had happened on President McCain’s watch, are happy to cooperate by burying this controversy. David Ignatius is an honorable and welcome exception to this trend.

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Latest Defense of Nate Silver: Even When He’s Wrong, He’s Right

At this point in the election, both the national tracking polls and, generally speaking, the battleground state polls show an extremely close race. This has inspired much criticism of stat-man Nate Silver. Liberals, as Jonathan wrote recently, may be looking for a scapegoat if Barack Obama loses, and will wonder why Silver insisted that statistically Obama was an overwhelming favorite to win re-election right up to the end. Conservatives say that statistics don’t factor in momentum, that any predictive model that ignores trends should be taken with a grain of salt, and that current trends don’t back up Silver’s predictions of Obama as the heavy favorite.

Additionally, as Josh Jordan has pointed out at National Review Online, there are problems with Silver’s statistical model, which gives more weight to pro-Obama polls—even older polls—than to those showing Mitt Romney’s recent gains. Silver’s defenders respond that Silver makes no guarantees, and that giving Obama a high chance of winning doesn’t preclude the opposite outcome. This defense—essentially that no outcome can disprove Silver’s model—treads a bit too close for comfort to Chuck Klosterman’s classic rant about statistics:

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At this point in the election, both the national tracking polls and, generally speaking, the battleground state polls show an extremely close race. This has inspired much criticism of stat-man Nate Silver. Liberals, as Jonathan wrote recently, may be looking for a scapegoat if Barack Obama loses, and will wonder why Silver insisted that statistically Obama was an overwhelming favorite to win re-election right up to the end. Conservatives say that statistics don’t factor in momentum, that any predictive model that ignores trends should be taken with a grain of salt, and that current trends don’t back up Silver’s predictions of Obama as the heavy favorite.

Additionally, as Josh Jordan has pointed out at National Review Online, there are problems with Silver’s statistical model, which gives more weight to pro-Obama polls—even older polls—than to those showing Mitt Romney’s recent gains. Silver’s defenders respond that Silver makes no guarantees, and that giving Obama a high chance of winning doesn’t preclude the opposite outcome. This defense—essentially that no outcome can disprove Silver’s model—treads a bit too close for comfort to Chuck Klosterman’s classic rant about statistics:

Life is chock-full of lies, but the biggest lie is math. That’s particularly clear in the discipline of probability, a field of study that’s completely and wholly fake. When push comes to shove–when you truly get down to the core essence of existence–there is only one mathematical possibility: Everything is 50-50. Either something will happen, or something will not.

When you flip a coin, what are the odds of it coming up heads? 50-50. Either it will be heads, or it will not. When you roll a six-sided die, what are the odds that you’ll roll a three? 50-50. You’ll either get a three, or you won’t. That’s reality. Don’t fall into the childish “it’s one-in-six” logic trap. That is precisely what all your adolescent authority figures want you to believe. That’s how they enslave you. That’s how they stole your conviction, and that’s why you will never be happy. Either you will roll a three, or you will not; there are no other alternatives. The future has no memory. Certain things can be impossible, and certain things can be guaranteed–but there is no sliding scale for maybe. Maybe something will happen, or maybe it won’t….

Quasi-intellectuals like to claim that math is spiritual. They are lying. Math is not religion. Math is the antireligion, because it splinters the gravity of life’s only imperative equation: Either something is true, or it isn’t. Do or do not; there is no try.

Klosterman was being sardonic (probably?) but much of this argument over Silver’s model feels that way too. Both sides warn against putting too much stock in Silver’s model because it’s only numbers. Here is Ezra Klein’s defense of Silver:

It’s important to be clear about this: If Silver’s model is hugely wrong — if all the models are hugely wrong, and the betting markets are hugely wrong — it’s because the polls are wrong. Silver’s model is, at this point, little more than a sophisticated form of poll aggregation.

But it’s just as important to be clear about this: If Mitt Romney wins on election day, it doesn’t mean Silver’s model was wrong. After all, the model has been fluctuating between giving Romney a 25 percent and 40 percent chance of winning the election. That’s a pretty good chance! If you told me I had a 35 percent chance of winning a million dollars tomorrow, I’d be excited. And if I won the money, I wouldn’t turn around and tell you your information was wrong. I’d still have no evidence I’d ever had anything more than a 35 percent chance.

That basically boils down to: Don’t blame Silver if he’s wrong, because he’s relying on other people’s work, and no matter what happens, Silver wasn’t wrong, because he said it could happen, and it did.

If Mitt Romney wins, does that discredit Nate Silver? Only if you defied Silver’s advice, and that of his defenders, not to rely on him in the first place.

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Blowing Smoke: Dem Turnout, Not Demography is Destiny

The Obama campaign’s top leadership was out in force today, pumping up the faithful as they reassured them that President Obama was certain to be re-elected. Senior advisor David Axelrod said he would shave his trademark mustache if the president lost. Meanwhile, Campaign manager Jim Messina vowed that Democrats would turn out in even larger numbers than they did in 2008 when Obama’s hope and change mania was at its peak. While some may dismiss this as pre-election braggadocio, that’s exactly what’s going to have to happen if the president is to save Axelrod’s facial hair.

That was made clear again today with the release of several polls that seemed certain to bolster Democratic optimism. As Alana noted, a Quinnipiac/CBS News/New York Times poll of Ohio, Virginia and Florida showed President Obama leading in all three of the three key battleground states. The Democratic-leaning Public Policy Polling firm also released a poll in Ohio showing the president ahead. But these surveys, and just about every other poll that favored Obama, all had samples that were heavily skewed toward Democrats. Quinnipiac’s sample had seven percent more Democrats than Republicans in Florida and eight percent more in both Ohio and Virginia. PPP had whopping nine percent more Democrats. By contrast, a Roanoke College poll in Virginia had a sample of only four percent more Democrats than Republicans. Not surprisingly, that yielded a result that gave Mitt Romney a five percent lead in the state.

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The Obama campaign’s top leadership was out in force today, pumping up the faithful as they reassured them that President Obama was certain to be re-elected. Senior advisor David Axelrod said he would shave his trademark mustache if the president lost. Meanwhile, Campaign manager Jim Messina vowed that Democrats would turn out in even larger numbers than they did in 2008 when Obama’s hope and change mania was at its peak. While some may dismiss this as pre-election braggadocio, that’s exactly what’s going to have to happen if the president is to save Axelrod’s facial hair.

That was made clear again today with the release of several polls that seemed certain to bolster Democratic optimism. As Alana noted, a Quinnipiac/CBS News/New York Times poll of Ohio, Virginia and Florida showed President Obama leading in all three of the three key battleground states. The Democratic-leaning Public Policy Polling firm also released a poll in Ohio showing the president ahead. But these surveys, and just about every other poll that favored Obama, all had samples that were heavily skewed toward Democrats. Quinnipiac’s sample had seven percent more Democrats than Republicans in Florida and eight percent more in both Ohio and Virginia. PPP had whopping nine percent more Democrats. By contrast, a Roanoke College poll in Virginia had a sample of only four percent more Democrats than Republicans. Not surprisingly, that yielded a result that gave Mitt Romney a five percent lead in the state.

It all boils down to this. Unless the president’s organization can conjure up turnout numbers on Tuesday that will match or even exceed the totals he achieved in 2008 when Democratic enthusiasm was highest and Republicans were decidedly unenthusiastic, he cannot win.

Those who defend the Democratic-leaning polls point out with justice that partisan identification is not set in stone and can change from one election cycle to another. But the gains Democrats are assuming go beyond the normal fluctuations that occur. They also contradict evidence about such affiliation over the past four years, which indicates that support for the Democrats has declined, rather than holding steady or increasing.

A better argument for the Democrats would be the slight increases in the percentage of the overall population that are minorities, a development that would tend to favor the president’s re-election. But for that to be a factor in the election, turnout of African-Americans and Hispanics (or at least those portions of the diverse Hispanic vote that favor the Democrats) would have to exceed the record numbers that took to the polls in 2008.

Once we dismiss these factors, we are faced with the plain fact that in order for the president to have the kind of advantage that Quinnipiac, PPP and other Obama-leaning polls give him, his party is going to have manufacture more Democrats than they did four years ago.

Is that possible? Yes it is. But it is also highly unlikely given the fact that 2008 was a cakewalk for Obama against a weaker Republican opponent at a time when the GOP was decidedly unenthusiastic about giving their party another four years in office.

It is far more reasonable to assume that turnout numbers will give the Democrats only a slight partisan advantage, if they get one at all. While anything can happen in an election so close, the only polls showing the president winning at either the state or national levels require a disproportionate percentage of affiliated Democrats among the likely voters surveyed. That means anything other than a repeat of Obama’s turnout wave in 2008 will ensure Mitt Romney’s election. Unless Messina and Axelrod have a ground game that can work that kind of miracle, all they are doing today is blowing smoke.

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Poll Shows Small Obama Lead in OH, FL, VA

The latest CBS News/Quinnipiac/NYT poll shows Obama leading by five points in Ohio and “effectively tied” with Romney in Virginia and Florida:

President Obama has maintained a five-point lead in the crucial swing state of Ohio, according to a new Quinnipiac University/CBS News/New York Times poll of likely voters. The survey found that Mitt Romney has gained ground in Florida and Virgini

a, where the race is now effectively tied.

Mr. Obama now leads Romney 50 percent to 45 percent among likely voters in Ohio – exactly where the race stood on Oct. 22. His lead in Florida, however, has shrunk from nine points in September to just one point in the new survey, which shows Mr. Obama with 48 percent support and Romney with 47 percent. The president’s lead in Virginia has shrunk from five points in early October to two points in the new survey, which shows him with a 49 percent to 47 percent advantage.

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The latest CBS News/Quinnipiac/NYT poll shows Obama leading by five points in Ohio and “effectively tied” with Romney in Virginia and Florida:

President Obama has maintained a five-point lead in the crucial swing state of Ohio, according to a new Quinnipiac University/CBS News/New York Times poll of likely voters. The survey found that Mitt Romney has gained ground in Florida and Virgini

a, where the race is now effectively tied.

Mr. Obama now leads Romney 50 percent to 45 percent among likely voters in Ohio – exactly where the race stood on Oct. 22. His lead in Florida, however, has shrunk from nine points in September to just one point in the new survey, which shows Mr. Obama with 48 percent support and Romney with 47 percent. The president’s lead in Virginia has shrunk from five points in early October to two points in the new survey, which shows him with a 49 percent to 47 percent advantage.

The poll shows the race tightening in Virginia and Florida. But keep in mind, the party identification breakdown in this poll is tilted heavily in Obama’s favor. Ed Morrissey compares the sample to the 2008 and 2010 exit polling (Democrat/Republican/Independent):

What do the samples look like? Here’s the breakdown for each state, with 2008 and 2010 exit polling in parentheses (2009 in VA’s case):

1. FL: 37/30/29 (37/34/29, 36/36/29)

1. OH: 37/29/30 (39/31/30, 36/37/28)

1. VA: 35/27/35 (39/33/27, 33/37/30)

In each of these three states, the CBS/NYT/Q-poll shows Republicans at a lower percentage level of turnout than in the 2008 election. If one makes that assumption, it’s not too difficult to be (sic) guess that Obama might be ahead. However, that’s exactly the opposite of what all other polls rating enthusiasm are telling us what the electorate will look like on Tuesday. In fact, it’s not even what this poll shows, with Republican enthusiasm +16 over Democrats in Florida, +14 in Ohio, and +7 in Virginia.

Not only is Republican enthusiasm significantly up over Democrats, an inverse of 2008, there are also early signs of turnout problems for Obama. Gallup’s poll of early voters yesterday showed Romney leading Obama 52 to 46 percent among those who have already voted (they were tied among those planning to vote before Election Day). At this point in 2008, Obama had a 10-point lead with early voters in the same poll, and a six-point lead with planned early voters.

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