Commentary Magazine


Topic: cell phones

Tea Leaves and the Taliban

In the New York Times report that NATO has escorted Taliban leaders to talks in Kabul, there is a slight but eye-catching overemphasis on the importance of withholding the names of the Taliban. The Times cites a request from U.S. and Afghan officials that the names be withheld for fear of retaliation against the Taliban delegates by Pakistani intelligence or other Taliban. But a moment’s reflection informs us that the Taliban leaders’ associates know exactly who they are — and there are plenty of cell phones in Afghanistan and Pakistan. It cannot be a secret for long who went to Kabul.

Strictly necessary or not, the security warning to the Times appears oddly pointed, fingering the Pakistani intelligence agency with an uncharacteristic lack of dissimulation about Pakistan’s quality as an antiterrorism ally. It is attributed to an Afghan official, but it comes across as representative of general concerns held also by the U.S. There seems to have been no attempt by Obama’s officials to leave a different impression. Intentionally or by default, the security warning serves as the rhetorical cutting of a tether: the end of a politically unifying narrative about the Afghan conflict and the beginning of something else. What that something else will be is not clear, but the central role of the Taliban in this strategic hinge point is informative.

The Times and others have picked up on the fact that the “discussions [in Kabul] appear to be unfolding without the approval of Pakistan’s leaders … The Afghan government seems to be trying to seek a reconciliation agreement that does not directly involve Pakistan.” If the U.S. is backing this play — and our concern about secrecy for the Taliban negotiators suggests we are – that’s a major development in our policy. Revealing such developments obliquely through oracles and signs is becoming a tiresome pattern with the Obama administration. It certainly doesn’t burnish our image of integrity as a global power. And as the Times points out, with masterly understatement, this particular policy shift “could backfire by provoking the Pakistanis.”

I agree with Max Boot that the military situation in Afghanistan is not such as to force the Taliban to negotiate. But the apparent import of the outreach to the Taliban is divorced from that consideration. This looks like evidence of an emerging policy initiative to exclude Pakistani influence from the reconciliation talks, independent of security conditions in Afghanistan.

If that is a misperception, it’s an awfully big and significant one to leave uncorrected. The U.S. headlines have been full of Pakistani perfidy for weeks now; my impression from the Obama administration’s effective silence has been that it has no interest in counteracting the animus that naturally arises in the American public in the face of such themes. In a rare editorial last week, Ryan Crocker, former ambassador to Pakistan and Iraq, was moved to defend the difficult situation of the Pakistani government, urging the U.S. administration not to turn its back on partnership with the struggling democracy. He appears to be swimming against the tide of headlines and administration policy.

Something that requires no divination to understand is the goal of the Taliban. Long War Journal’s Threat Matrix blog reports that the Taliban website, Voice of Jihad, has posted a demand that the U.S. guarantee in writing to withdraw its troops on a specified timeline (i.e., July 2011), as a good-faith gesture toward reconciliation talks. It’s hard to ignore the uncanny similarity of this demand to Hezbollah’s demand for the same guarantee from a prospective Maliki government in Iraq. Maliki’s Hezbollah-backed coalition with the radical Shia cleric al-Sadr is emerging as a fait accompli in Baghdad, in spite of U.S. opposition; the Taliban cannot be pessimistic about their own chances with reconciliation talks and a withdrawal timeline.

In the New York Times report that NATO has escorted Taliban leaders to talks in Kabul, there is a slight but eye-catching overemphasis on the importance of withholding the names of the Taliban. The Times cites a request from U.S. and Afghan officials that the names be withheld for fear of retaliation against the Taliban delegates by Pakistani intelligence or other Taliban. But a moment’s reflection informs us that the Taliban leaders’ associates know exactly who they are — and there are plenty of cell phones in Afghanistan and Pakistan. It cannot be a secret for long who went to Kabul.

Strictly necessary or not, the security warning to the Times appears oddly pointed, fingering the Pakistani intelligence agency with an uncharacteristic lack of dissimulation about Pakistan’s quality as an antiterrorism ally. It is attributed to an Afghan official, but it comes across as representative of general concerns held also by the U.S. There seems to have been no attempt by Obama’s officials to leave a different impression. Intentionally or by default, the security warning serves as the rhetorical cutting of a tether: the end of a politically unifying narrative about the Afghan conflict and the beginning of something else. What that something else will be is not clear, but the central role of the Taliban in this strategic hinge point is informative.

The Times and others have picked up on the fact that the “discussions [in Kabul] appear to be unfolding without the approval of Pakistan’s leaders … The Afghan government seems to be trying to seek a reconciliation agreement that does not directly involve Pakistan.” If the U.S. is backing this play — and our concern about secrecy for the Taliban negotiators suggests we are – that’s a major development in our policy. Revealing such developments obliquely through oracles and signs is becoming a tiresome pattern with the Obama administration. It certainly doesn’t burnish our image of integrity as a global power. And as the Times points out, with masterly understatement, this particular policy shift “could backfire by provoking the Pakistanis.”

I agree with Max Boot that the military situation in Afghanistan is not such as to force the Taliban to negotiate. But the apparent import of the outreach to the Taliban is divorced from that consideration. This looks like evidence of an emerging policy initiative to exclude Pakistani influence from the reconciliation talks, independent of security conditions in Afghanistan.

If that is a misperception, it’s an awfully big and significant one to leave uncorrected. The U.S. headlines have been full of Pakistani perfidy for weeks now; my impression from the Obama administration’s effective silence has been that it has no interest in counteracting the animus that naturally arises in the American public in the face of such themes. In a rare editorial last week, Ryan Crocker, former ambassador to Pakistan and Iraq, was moved to defend the difficult situation of the Pakistani government, urging the U.S. administration not to turn its back on partnership with the struggling democracy. He appears to be swimming against the tide of headlines and administration policy.

Something that requires no divination to understand is the goal of the Taliban. Long War Journal’s Threat Matrix blog reports that the Taliban website, Voice of Jihad, has posted a demand that the U.S. guarantee in writing to withdraw its troops on a specified timeline (i.e., July 2011), as a good-faith gesture toward reconciliation talks. It’s hard to ignore the uncanny similarity of this demand to Hezbollah’s demand for the same guarantee from a prospective Maliki government in Iraq. Maliki’s Hezbollah-backed coalition with the radical Shia cleric al-Sadr is emerging as a fait accompli in Baghdad, in spite of U.S. opposition; the Taliban cannot be pessimistic about their own chances with reconciliation talks and a withdrawal timeline.

Read Less

Ambush Journalism — the 19th-Century Version

The Hill is reporting that members of Congress are getting increasingly fed up with “ambush interviews” by “guerrilla-style reporters, bloggers, and campaign operatives who ambush them on video to provoke an aggressive or outraged response.” Rep. Bob Etheridge, D-N.C., is the latest to run afoul of this tactic and had to apologize after he lost his temper when journalists (or whoever they were) confronted him on the street in Washington but refused to identify themselves.

With most cell phones now capable of recording videos, and with actual video cameras getting smaller, cheaper, and more ubiquitous every year, politicians and other people in the public eye should probably operate on the assumption that there is always a video camera recording what they say and do.

But it didn’t take a technological revolution to bring ambush journalism into existence. Indeed, one of the most famous quotes of the 19th century was the result of an ambush.

William Henry Vanderbilt, who controlled the New York Central Railroad, was a vastly rich (“I would not cross the street to make another million.”) and vastly competent business executive. In 1882, he was traveling in his private railroad car on an inspection trip. He was in the middle of dinner when a young journalist named Clarence Dresser demanded an interview. According to the head of the Associated Press, Dresser “was one of the offensively aggressive types — one of those wrens who make prey where eagles dare not tread. Always importunate and usually impudent.”

There are several versions of what happened next (none likely to be wholly accurate), but according to Samuel Barton, who was Vanderbilt’s favorite nephew and who undoubtedly wanted to put his uncle in the best possible light, the conversation went as follows. “Why are you going to stop this fast mail-train?” Dresser asked.

“Because it doesn’t pay. I can’t run a train as far as this permanently at a loss.”

“But the public find it very convenient and useful. You ought to accommodate them.”

“The public? How do you know they find it useful? How do you know, or how can I know, that they want it? If they want it, why don’t they patronize it and make it pay? That’s the only test I have of whether a thing is wanted — does it pay? If it doesn’t pay, I suppose it isn’t wanted.”

“Mr. Vanderbilt, are you working for the public or for your stockholders?”

“The public be damned! I am working for my stockholders! If the public want the train, why don’t they support it?”

Vanderbilt, however impolitic his phrasing, was only telling an inescapable economic truth — one that the left didn’t grasp in 1882 and doesn’t in 2010 — about how capitalism works: the public good is served by the pursuit of private advantage.

But, of course, it was the impolitic phrasing that carried the day. “The public be damned!” was on the front page of every newspaper in the country within 24 hours. And William Henry Vanderbilt, who had not the slightest pretensions to literary talent, ended up in Bartlett’s.

The Hill is reporting that members of Congress are getting increasingly fed up with “ambush interviews” by “guerrilla-style reporters, bloggers, and campaign operatives who ambush them on video to provoke an aggressive or outraged response.” Rep. Bob Etheridge, D-N.C., is the latest to run afoul of this tactic and had to apologize after he lost his temper when journalists (or whoever they were) confronted him on the street in Washington but refused to identify themselves.

With most cell phones now capable of recording videos, and with actual video cameras getting smaller, cheaper, and more ubiquitous every year, politicians and other people in the public eye should probably operate on the assumption that there is always a video camera recording what they say and do.

But it didn’t take a technological revolution to bring ambush journalism into existence. Indeed, one of the most famous quotes of the 19th century was the result of an ambush.

William Henry Vanderbilt, who controlled the New York Central Railroad, was a vastly rich (“I would not cross the street to make another million.”) and vastly competent business executive. In 1882, he was traveling in his private railroad car on an inspection trip. He was in the middle of dinner when a young journalist named Clarence Dresser demanded an interview. According to the head of the Associated Press, Dresser “was one of the offensively aggressive types — one of those wrens who make prey where eagles dare not tread. Always importunate and usually impudent.”

There are several versions of what happened next (none likely to be wholly accurate), but according to Samuel Barton, who was Vanderbilt’s favorite nephew and who undoubtedly wanted to put his uncle in the best possible light, the conversation went as follows. “Why are you going to stop this fast mail-train?” Dresser asked.

“Because it doesn’t pay. I can’t run a train as far as this permanently at a loss.”

“But the public find it very convenient and useful. You ought to accommodate them.”

“The public? How do you know they find it useful? How do you know, or how can I know, that they want it? If they want it, why don’t they patronize it and make it pay? That’s the only test I have of whether a thing is wanted — does it pay? If it doesn’t pay, I suppose it isn’t wanted.”

“Mr. Vanderbilt, are you working for the public or for your stockholders?”

“The public be damned! I am working for my stockholders! If the public want the train, why don’t they support it?”

Vanderbilt, however impolitic his phrasing, was only telling an inescapable economic truth — one that the left didn’t grasp in 1882 and doesn’t in 2010 — about how capitalism works: the public good is served by the pursuit of private advantage.

But, of course, it was the impolitic phrasing that carried the day. “The public be damned!” was on the front page of every newspaper in the country within 24 hours. And William Henry Vanderbilt, who had not the slightest pretensions to literary talent, ended up in Bartlett’s.

Read Less

Hank Williams Wins Pulitzer Prize

That’s all I take away from this. Other than the fact that I lost out on the Music prize once again. I guess my Concerto in B-minor for Tissue Paper and Asthmatic Wheeze failed to wow ‘em. Again.

The New York Times won for National Reporting for its incisive reporting on the dangers of cell phones. What — no prize for the delightful Highlights and its decades’ long crusade against jaywalking?

And Kathleen Parker won for Commentary. You just can’t bash the oogedy-boogedy people enough. Especially when you’re striving for that “unpredictable conclusion.”

That’s all I take away from this. Other than the fact that I lost out on the Music prize once again. I guess my Concerto in B-minor for Tissue Paper and Asthmatic Wheeze failed to wow ‘em. Again.

The New York Times won for National Reporting for its incisive reporting on the dangers of cell phones. What — no prize for the delightful Highlights and its decades’ long crusade against jaywalking?

And Kathleen Parker won for Commentary. You just can’t bash the oogedy-boogedy people enough. Especially when you’re striving for that “unpredictable conclusion.”

Read Less

“People Wants to Be Like Gaydamak”

Certainly the most colorful figure on Israel’s political landscape is Arkady Gaydamak, the Russian billionaire, owner of the Beitar Jerusalem soccer team, who made headlines during the Lebanon war when, using his own funds, he built a tent city for residents the beleaguered north, and then later repeated it for residents of barraged Sderot.

Today he made headlines again by donating $8 million to renovate the homes of Holocaust survivors. Though he has joined no political party, and speaks little Hebrew, he has set up his own movement called “Social Justice,” and the country is rife with speculation about when, how, and with whom he will enter the political ring. In the meantime, he’s made a mint in political capital by showing that one rich man can do a lot where bureaucracy fails. This, combined with his con
stant search for creative ways to stay in the limelight, will carry him well with Israel’s attention-deficit electorate.

This year, Gaydamak starred in a TV commercial advertising cell phones, where he danced and sang (sorry, no subtitles, but you get the point anyway). When asked by Israel television why a potential political leader would reduce himself thus, he responded in his uncertain English, “It’s about identification. People wants to see Gaydamak. People wants to be like Gaydamak.”

Certainly the most colorful figure on Israel’s political landscape is Arkady Gaydamak, the Russian billionaire, owner of the Beitar Jerusalem soccer team, who made headlines during the Lebanon war when, using his own funds, he built a tent city for residents the beleaguered north, and then later repeated it for residents of barraged Sderot.

Today he made headlines again by donating $8 million to renovate the homes of Holocaust survivors. Though he has joined no political party, and speaks little Hebrew, he has set up his own movement called “Social Justice,” and the country is rife with speculation about when, how, and with whom he will enter the political ring. In the meantime, he’s made a mint in political capital by showing that one rich man can do a lot where bureaucracy fails. This, combined with his con
stant search for creative ways to stay in the limelight, will carry him well with Israel’s attention-deficit electorate.

This year, Gaydamak starred in a TV commercial advertising cell phones, where he danced and sang (sorry, no subtitles, but you get the point anyway). When asked by Israel television why a potential political leader would reduce himself thus, he responded in his uncertain English, “It’s about identification. People wants to see Gaydamak. People wants to be like Gaydamak.”

Read Less

Handshakes with the Enemy

Abe already blogged about this, but I wanted to follow up on Diana West’s fretting in the Washington Times about Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s recent trip to Iraq, where he was supposedly given a warm reception by the Baghdad government. “[O]ur Iraqi allies have welcomed our Iranian enemies right into it.” Not so fast. Iraq and Iran are two Shia-majority countries. They share a long border and a terrible history, as Abe pointed out. They should be expected to have relations of some kind, and the more civil the better considering the depth of hatred Iranian Persians and Iraqi Arabs have for each other. Another full-blown war between Iraq and Iran is in the interests of no one.

In any case, a meeting, a few agreements, and a photo op don’t make these two countries an axis. Iran supports insurgents that for years have been trying to destroy the Baghdad government using terrorism, guerilla warfare, assassination, and sabotage. Who can seriously believe after all this–not to mention the centuries of conflict that preceded it–that the two governments actually like each other? Baghdad may formally welcome Ahmadinejad, but certainly not his proxy armies.

But let’s put that aside for the sake or argument and assume Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki may be a quiet Iranian sympathizer. What about Iraq’s president?

“Mr. Ahmadinejad was greeted with multiple kisses from Iraqi President Jalal Talabani,” West notes before saying “Blech.” Talabani is not only Iraq’s president. He is also the political leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), the staunchly secular leftist political party with its home base in the Kurdish city of Suleimaniya. The PUK provides funds and materials to at least two exiled Kurdish Iranian political parties in Iraqi Kurdistan whose explicit goal is the destruction of the Islamic Republic regime in Tehran. Each of these parties has their own private army. One crossed into Iran recently and fought the regime in the streets during an uprising in the city of Mahabad. The idea that the secular, leftist, and Kurdish Jalal Talabani supports the theocratic, rightist, and Persian Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, while at the same time funding and supplying revolutionaries who cross the border, doesn’t make sense.

If you want to know the truth, pay close attention to what Middle Easterners do, not what they say. At least some elements in each of these governments hope to remove the other from power by force. Their making nice in front of the cameras is no more meaningful than Palestinian Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat shaking Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s hand on the White House lawn.

Middle Eastern leaders go through the motions of being nice to each other all the time when what they’d really like to do is pull out a dagger. Last May, Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora said the international tribunal to try the killers of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri is not directed at “sister Syria.” Of course he doesn’t believe that, but that’s diplomacy for you. Almost everyone in Lebanon knows the Syrian regime was complicit in Hariri’s murder, as well as the murders that have picked off Siniora’s allies in parliament and the media one by one ever since.

I rented an apartment just around the corner from Siniora’s residence in Beirut, and I couldn’t walk anywhere near his house while using my cell phone. The signals are jammed. Cell phones can detonate car bombs. Siniora knows very well that he might be next and doesn’t think of Syria as anything like a brother or sister–at least not while the murderous Assad regime is in power.

In From Beirut to Jerusalem, Thomas Friedman tells the story of Christian militia leader Camille Chamoun receiving flowers from his arch enemy Yasser Arafat while he was laid up in the hospital. During this time they both hoped to kill each other. “These two men,” Friedman wrote, “had sent so many young men to die in defense of their own personal power and status, and now they were sending bouquets. That was Beirut.”

It is not just Beirut. It is the whole Middle East where smoke, mirrors, and false friendships are normal.

Diana West correctly notes that some Middle Eastern leaders claim to be American allies while fomenting jihad. Well, yes. Of course. They do the same thing to each other.

Abe already blogged about this, but I wanted to follow up on Diana West’s fretting in the Washington Times about Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s recent trip to Iraq, where he was supposedly given a warm reception by the Baghdad government. “[O]ur Iraqi allies have welcomed our Iranian enemies right into it.” Not so fast. Iraq and Iran are two Shia-majority countries. They share a long border and a terrible history, as Abe pointed out. They should be expected to have relations of some kind, and the more civil the better considering the depth of hatred Iranian Persians and Iraqi Arabs have for each other. Another full-blown war between Iraq and Iran is in the interests of no one.

In any case, a meeting, a few agreements, and a photo op don’t make these two countries an axis. Iran supports insurgents that for years have been trying to destroy the Baghdad government using terrorism, guerilla warfare, assassination, and sabotage. Who can seriously believe after all this–not to mention the centuries of conflict that preceded it–that the two governments actually like each other? Baghdad may formally welcome Ahmadinejad, but certainly not his proxy armies.

But let’s put that aside for the sake or argument and assume Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki may be a quiet Iranian sympathizer. What about Iraq’s president?

“Mr. Ahmadinejad was greeted with multiple kisses from Iraqi President Jalal Talabani,” West notes before saying “Blech.” Talabani is not only Iraq’s president. He is also the political leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), the staunchly secular leftist political party with its home base in the Kurdish city of Suleimaniya. The PUK provides funds and materials to at least two exiled Kurdish Iranian political parties in Iraqi Kurdistan whose explicit goal is the destruction of the Islamic Republic regime in Tehran. Each of these parties has their own private army. One crossed into Iran recently and fought the regime in the streets during an uprising in the city of Mahabad. The idea that the secular, leftist, and Kurdish Jalal Talabani supports the theocratic, rightist, and Persian Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, while at the same time funding and supplying revolutionaries who cross the border, doesn’t make sense.

If you want to know the truth, pay close attention to what Middle Easterners do, not what they say. At least some elements in each of these governments hope to remove the other from power by force. Their making nice in front of the cameras is no more meaningful than Palestinian Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat shaking Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s hand on the White House lawn.

Middle Eastern leaders go through the motions of being nice to each other all the time when what they’d really like to do is pull out a dagger. Last May, Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora said the international tribunal to try the killers of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri is not directed at “sister Syria.” Of course he doesn’t believe that, but that’s diplomacy for you. Almost everyone in Lebanon knows the Syrian regime was complicit in Hariri’s murder, as well as the murders that have picked off Siniora’s allies in parliament and the media one by one ever since.

I rented an apartment just around the corner from Siniora’s residence in Beirut, and I couldn’t walk anywhere near his house while using my cell phone. The signals are jammed. Cell phones can detonate car bombs. Siniora knows very well that he might be next and doesn’t think of Syria as anything like a brother or sister–at least not while the murderous Assad regime is in power.

In From Beirut to Jerusalem, Thomas Friedman tells the story of Christian militia leader Camille Chamoun receiving flowers from his arch enemy Yasser Arafat while he was laid up in the hospital. During this time they both hoped to kill each other. “These two men,” Friedman wrote, “had sent so many young men to die in defense of their own personal power and status, and now they were sending bouquets. That was Beirut.”

It is not just Beirut. It is the whole Middle East where smoke, mirrors, and false friendships are normal.

Diana West correctly notes that some Middle Eastern leaders claim to be American allies while fomenting jihad. Well, yes. Of course. They do the same thing to each other.

Read Less

Polls, Polls, Polls

Another day, another set of polls. One says John McCain is now tied with Mitt Romney for the lead in New Hampshire. But that does not comport with the findings of other polls, which have Romney ahead by seven or ten or twelve points. Barack Obama has closed the gap with Hillary Clinton nationally and trails her by seven — or is twenty points back. And then there is Iowa, where Hillary is ahead, Obama is ahead, or Edwards is ahead. Huckabee might be ahead by fifteen or by two.

Results this varied are what has caused most people to begin to rely on an average of all polls being taken. The Poll of Polls most frequently cited is the one at realclearpolitics.com, which popularized it. Mark Blumenthal of pollster.com explains why a poll average works with an analogy to darts. Let’s say you’re playing darts and you don’t know where the bullseye is. You can figure it out by looking at the pattern of the holes created by other dart-throwers, which in an effort to reach the bullseye will actually create a picture of it in absentia.

The problem with that analogy is that there isn’t just one bullseye in a primary poll. There are five or six. Each candidate a pollster asks about is a bullseye. And with all these other possible bullseyes, the pattern of the holes around each one of them is not going to be anywhere near as distinct. It stands to reason that if you ask 500 people about a choice between A or B, you’re going to get a large number for A and a large number for B, and that one of the two will be larger than the other. If you ask 500 people about a choice between A, B, C, D, E, F or G, you’re not going to get big numbers for any one of them but relatively small numbers for all of them. And the pattern created by each choice — corresponding to a single dart — is more like an impression than a solid pattern.

Add to this uncertainty the fact that 14 percent of Americans now only use cellphones. Pollsters haven’t figured out how to factor in cellphones, so that’s 14 percent of the potential electorate missing from their sample to begin with. Add further the fact that many people — no one has a number, but it is significant — now hang up on people they don’t know or don’t answer the phone when their Caller ID offers an unknown phone number, and you have another segment of the population that is offline.

Now consider Iowa and New Hampshire. These are states whose residents are being bombarded daily by phone calls from campaign volunteers, campaign staffers, and recorded messages from candidates. As Richelieu, a campaign guru who posts on the Weekly Standard’s Campaign blog, puts it:

Polling right now in Iowa and New Hampshire is a technical nightmare. Every three minutes the average voter’s phone rings with somebody coaxing them to trudge out into the snow and attend an Edward’s meeting, go to a coffee with one of Romney’s sons, or sign up for a Huckabee prayer circle. Not to mention the endless pre-recorded “robo-call” phone messages from various crank interest groups grinding their axe on some issue. With your phone ringing two dozen times a day with a political call, it is not easy for the 35 different media and private pollsters each trying to get a sample done each night. Voters don’t answer the phone or refuse to play along when they do answer. Which means response rates go way down, samples tilt away from a statistically reliable random frame of the population, and results go bad.

And now for the most important part: Turnout in the Iowa caucuses is expected to be somewhere around…this is serious…five percent. That means five percent of the state’s universe of Republicans will attend a Republican caucus meeting, and five percent of the state’s Democrats will attend a Democratic caucus meeting. According to Blumenthal of pollster.com, “The historical high for turnout in the Iowa Caucuses was 5.5% of adults for the Democrats in 2004 and 5.3% of adults for the Republicans in 1988.”

Now here’s what this means. For a poll to achieve a measurable degree of scientific accuracy, a pollster “would need to screen out nine out of ten otherwise willing adults in order to interview a combined population of Democratic and Republican caucusgoers strictly comparable in size to past caucus turnouts.” Because no pollster can afford to do such a thing — to reach thousands of people and then discard the results from 90 percent of the phone calls — each polling firm has to come up with its own theory of how best to locate and identify likely voters in sufficient numbers. That’s why, Blumenthal says, the results of each poll vary so wildly.

So. People who are polled are offered six options. People use cell phones exclusively. They know they’re getting political calls and don’t answer the phone if they’re at home. And only five percent of voters in each party actually turn out in Iowa.

So. Still confident there’s a Huckabee “surge”? Or that Romney has ended the Huckabee surge? Or that Obama is gaining on Hillary? Or that Edwards can’t win? If you are, I would like to sell you this.

Another day, another set of polls. One says John McCain is now tied with Mitt Romney for the lead in New Hampshire. But that does not comport with the findings of other polls, which have Romney ahead by seven or ten or twelve points. Barack Obama has closed the gap with Hillary Clinton nationally and trails her by seven — or is twenty points back. And then there is Iowa, where Hillary is ahead, Obama is ahead, or Edwards is ahead. Huckabee might be ahead by fifteen or by two.

Results this varied are what has caused most people to begin to rely on an average of all polls being taken. The Poll of Polls most frequently cited is the one at realclearpolitics.com, which popularized it. Mark Blumenthal of pollster.com explains why a poll average works with an analogy to darts. Let’s say you’re playing darts and you don’t know where the bullseye is. You can figure it out by looking at the pattern of the holes created by other dart-throwers, which in an effort to reach the bullseye will actually create a picture of it in absentia.

The problem with that analogy is that there isn’t just one bullseye in a primary poll. There are five or six. Each candidate a pollster asks about is a bullseye. And with all these other possible bullseyes, the pattern of the holes around each one of them is not going to be anywhere near as distinct. It stands to reason that if you ask 500 people about a choice between A or B, you’re going to get a large number for A and a large number for B, and that one of the two will be larger than the other. If you ask 500 people about a choice between A, B, C, D, E, F or G, you’re not going to get big numbers for any one of them but relatively small numbers for all of them. And the pattern created by each choice — corresponding to a single dart — is more like an impression than a solid pattern.

Add to this uncertainty the fact that 14 percent of Americans now only use cellphones. Pollsters haven’t figured out how to factor in cellphones, so that’s 14 percent of the potential electorate missing from their sample to begin with. Add further the fact that many people — no one has a number, but it is significant — now hang up on people they don’t know or don’t answer the phone when their Caller ID offers an unknown phone number, and you have another segment of the population that is offline.

Now consider Iowa and New Hampshire. These are states whose residents are being bombarded daily by phone calls from campaign volunteers, campaign staffers, and recorded messages from candidates. As Richelieu, a campaign guru who posts on the Weekly Standard’s Campaign blog, puts it:

Polling right now in Iowa and New Hampshire is a technical nightmare. Every three minutes the average voter’s phone rings with somebody coaxing them to trudge out into the snow and attend an Edward’s meeting, go to a coffee with one of Romney’s sons, or sign up for a Huckabee prayer circle. Not to mention the endless pre-recorded “robo-call” phone messages from various crank interest groups grinding their axe on some issue. With your phone ringing two dozen times a day with a political call, it is not easy for the 35 different media and private pollsters each trying to get a sample done each night. Voters don’t answer the phone or refuse to play along when they do answer. Which means response rates go way down, samples tilt away from a statistically reliable random frame of the population, and results go bad.

And now for the most important part: Turnout in the Iowa caucuses is expected to be somewhere around…this is serious…five percent. That means five percent of the state’s universe of Republicans will attend a Republican caucus meeting, and five percent of the state’s Democrats will attend a Democratic caucus meeting. According to Blumenthal of pollster.com, “The historical high for turnout in the Iowa Caucuses was 5.5% of adults for the Democrats in 2004 and 5.3% of adults for the Republicans in 1988.”

Now here’s what this means. For a poll to achieve a measurable degree of scientific accuracy, a pollster “would need to screen out nine out of ten otherwise willing adults in order to interview a combined population of Democratic and Republican caucusgoers strictly comparable in size to past caucus turnouts.” Because no pollster can afford to do such a thing — to reach thousands of people and then discard the results from 90 percent of the phone calls — each polling firm has to come up with its own theory of how best to locate and identify likely voters in sufficient numbers. That’s why, Blumenthal says, the results of each poll vary so wildly.

So. People who are polled are offered six options. People use cell phones exclusively. They know they’re getting political calls and don’t answer the phone if they’re at home. And only five percent of voters in each party actually turn out in Iowa.

So. Still confident there’s a Huckabee “surge”? Or that Romney has ended the Huckabee surge? Or that Obama is gaining on Hillary? Or that Edwards can’t win? If you are, I would like to sell you this.

Read Less

New York City Under Attack

Walking out of COMMENTARY’s offices yesterday on my way home, I stepped into the street at exactly 6:00 PM. Minutes earlier, a powerful explosion had blown a huge hole in the street at 41st and Lexington Avenue. Reaching the corner of 56th and Lex., I became aware of the blast and could see a huge column of smoke rising into the sky, dwarfing even the skyscrapers surrounding it.

A great many pedestrians were staring straight south. Others were fleeing north. Traffic was at a standstill. Everyone seemed to be dialing cell phones, but with circuits overloaded it was difficult to get through. No one knew what had happened. A colleague I ran into was wondering whether to walk home to Riverdale seven miles to the north or find a hotel room. A policeman I asked told me that it was a manhole explosion, which weirdly turned out to be true, but was in no way commensurate with the power of the blast and the scale of the plume. It took quite a while before word came via the news that it was a ruptured steam pipe and not an al Qaeda summer spectacular, one exquisitely timed to accompany the CIA’s latest warning, issued earlier in the week, about continuing threats to the U.S. homeland.

To those of us who were in New York on September 11, 2001, yesterday’s episode brought back terrifying memories. But it also made many of us more acute observers of what we were experiencing, as if for a second time. My own thoughts were focused on the complete lack of information about what had just happened. To be sure, the authorities themselves were initially in the dark. But what struck me was that there was no single emergency channel on television, radio, the Internet, on PDA’s, etc., to which one could turn for reliable information.

What were we facing? Were the subways functioning? Where should one go? Even if the authorities themselves could not yet answer such questions, it would still have been useful at least to know that they too were in the dark and that we would eventually get from them a steady stream of established facts as they were received. Six years after 9/11, putting in place such an emergency information service is a good idea whose time is past due.

Walking out of COMMENTARY’s offices yesterday on my way home, I stepped into the street at exactly 6:00 PM. Minutes earlier, a powerful explosion had blown a huge hole in the street at 41st and Lexington Avenue. Reaching the corner of 56th and Lex., I became aware of the blast and could see a huge column of smoke rising into the sky, dwarfing even the skyscrapers surrounding it.

A great many pedestrians were staring straight south. Others were fleeing north. Traffic was at a standstill. Everyone seemed to be dialing cell phones, but with circuits overloaded it was difficult to get through. No one knew what had happened. A colleague I ran into was wondering whether to walk home to Riverdale seven miles to the north or find a hotel room. A policeman I asked told me that it was a manhole explosion, which weirdly turned out to be true, but was in no way commensurate with the power of the blast and the scale of the plume. It took quite a while before word came via the news that it was a ruptured steam pipe and not an al Qaeda summer spectacular, one exquisitely timed to accompany the CIA’s latest warning, issued earlier in the week, about continuing threats to the U.S. homeland.

To those of us who were in New York on September 11, 2001, yesterday’s episode brought back terrifying memories. But it also made many of us more acute observers of what we were experiencing, as if for a second time. My own thoughts were focused on the complete lack of information about what had just happened. To be sure, the authorities themselves were initially in the dark. But what struck me was that there was no single emergency channel on television, radio, the Internet, on PDA’s, etc., to which one could turn for reliable information.

What were we facing? Were the subways functioning? Where should one go? Even if the authorities themselves could not yet answer such questions, it would still have been useful at least to know that they too were in the dark and that we would eventually get from them a steady stream of established facts as they were received. Six years after 9/11, putting in place such an emergency information service is a good idea whose time is past due.

Read Less




Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
YOU HAVE READ 8 OF 8
FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
for full access to
CommentaryMagazine.com
INCLUDES FULL ACCESS TO:
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
CommentaryMagazine.com.
LOG IN WITH YOUR
COMMENTARY MAGAZINE ID
Don't have a CommentaryMagazine.com log in?
CREATE A COMMENTARY
LOG IN ID
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.