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Peggy Noonan, Nate Silver & Punditry

There Are Always People Behind The Numbers

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Nate Silver kicked up a minor fuss last Friday with yet another NY Times column deriding the Wall Street Journal’s Peggy Noonan. There’s less than meets the eye to the specifics of this particular dustup, but what’s interesting is Silver’s ongoing critique of Noonan and what it says about both of them. For today, I’ll focus here mainly on Noonan.

Assume A Can Opener

Noonan’s Thursday column on the IRS scandal, relying in part on an earlier column by Kimberley Strassel, used anecdotal examples (those cited by Strassel are fairly hair-raising, as are those in this National Review piece by Jillian Kay Melchior) to suggest that the IRS’ admitted practice of targeting Tea Party and other conservative non-profits for audits was symptomatic of a larger dynamic in the use of the IRS (and possibly other regulatory agencies) to target President Obama’s identified enemies. Dramatic anecdotes are long a staple of illustrating and humanizing the impact of policy stories and scandals – they’re a big part of how political communications work, and sometimes you need to get the smoke in your nostrils to decide where to look for the fire.

Silver’s response, complete with a superfluous chart, is to note that there’s a large enough number of people audited every year that by chance alone, “it’s likely that hundreds of thousands of Mitt Romney voters were selected for an audit in 2012 …. [and] it’s also likely that hundreds of thousands of Mr. Obama’s supporters were audited.” Which might be a useful caution against drawing conclusions from small sample sizes, if a few anecdotes was all we had. But this requires that we ignore the facts that (among other things) (1) the IRS has admitted to targeting conservative non-profits; (2) IRS management and senior employees are heavily Democratic and very political, giving some 75% of their campaign donations to Democrats; and (3) the NTEU, the union representing IRS employees, is even more heavily Democratic (94% of donations) and militantly anti-Tea Party. And indeed, some of the examples cited by Strassel or others – when considered in that light, along with the fact that some of these folks were targeted by multiple agencies at once – suggest a broader problem that bears further detailed investigation. Silver concedes of his statistical analysis that “this calculation assumes that individuals’ risk of being audited is independent of their political views,” which of course is the very thing in dispute; it’s like the old joke about an economist stranded on a desert island with a stack of canned goods whose solution begins, “assume a can opener.” All things being equal, all things are equal.

Peggy Noonan’s Feelings

Sensing the weakness of his argument on this occasion, Silver goes back to surer ground for him:

[T]he principle is important: a handful of anecdotal data points are not worth very much in a country of more than 300 million people. Ms. Noonan, and many other commentators, made a similar mistake last year in their analysis of the presidential election, when they cited evidence like the number of Mitt Romney yard signs in certain neighborhoods as an indication that he was likely to win, while dismissing polls that collectively surveyed hundreds of thousands of voters in swing states and largely showed Mr. Obama ahead.

Now, I would agree that if you’re reading Peggy Noonan columns instead of polls in the closing weeks of an intensively-polled national election campaign to figure out who’s going to win, you’ve about lost your mind. My own analyses of the odds at that juncture were based almost entirely on quantifiable data. And I’ve had my own issues with Noonan in the past – we identified Noonan by name in a 2008 RedState editorial denouncing conservative and Republican commentators who failed to take seriously enough the threat of Obama. More broadly, the commentariat is infested with too many veteran pundits who have been writing on auto-pilot for years and lack subject-matter expertise, real-world experience or the work ethic to dive into the weeds of an issue. But all that said, I think Silver’s drumbeat of criticism aimed at Noonan and her type of punditry misses the value such pundits can bring to the table.

Noonan’s 1990 book What I Saw At The Revolution was a fantastic read, probably the best book written on the Reagan presidency until Steven Hayward’s history, but even then, Noonan’s was a book about words, feelings, and personalities – about political communication and how it works and reaches voters. She’s never been an interesting writer on policy, facts or data – she writes about hopes and fears and how candidates speak to them. She writes from her heart and her gut, not her brain, with empathy rather than logic. Like her less coherent left-wing counterpart and contemporary, Maureen Dowd, Noonan’s style is an exaggeratedly feminine approach to punditry (not all female politics writers are like this, by any means – Strassel’s not, for example).

The reason why Noonan’s writing in the past has been interesting, other than simply her talent as a stylist, is that she empathizes with the hopes and fears of a certain brand of voter sharing one or more of her own characteristics – white, female, adult, Catholic but not too Catholic, suburban and/or middle-class in background, not Southern (Noonan’s from New Jersey and lives in Manhattan). And, as befits a successful presidential speechwriter, she’s often had useful insights into why such voters act the way they do. Polls and other hard data can predict events in the very near future, but all the hard data in the world tracking the behavior of voters is no substitute for understanding why they come to flock behind some candidates, parties, and movements – and those are often the biggest questions confronting political parties and candidates over the long haul or even over the length of a single campaign.

The kind of voter Noonan empathizes with has long been the core swing voter in American politics, the voter who went for FDR, Truman, Eisenhower, JFK, LBJ, Nixon, Reagan, Clinton and the Bushes. Obama still did fairly well with them in 2008 – but not in 2012, as I have illustrated previously with this chart showing the share of the two-party vote among different groups won by the winning candidate in elections between 1972 and 2012:

swing.voters.winners.JPG

Those are the voters who were the center, the core of the old Nixon and Reagan coalitions, and for all his failings (including, conspicuously, getting such voters to turn out in sufficient numbers), Mitt Romney succeeded in winning them over, in keeping together the old coalition. When Noonan wrote that Romney was doing the things he needed to do to win the voters who would decide the election, she wasn’t wrong about her intuition: he did win those voters. Obama lost swing-voter group after swing-voter group, majorities of majorities – he lost independents, white women, white Catholics, suburbanites, voters age 30 and up, etc. He lost the center, but he ran up the score so much at the margins that the old center was no longer the center of the 2012 electorate. The 50-yard line had moved.

Not every bad idea was originally a bad idea, and not everyone who is wrong today was always wrong. Political communication matters – and pundits who understand it are still useful. The challenge for a pundit in Noonan’s position is staving off obsolescence as the center of the electorate shifts (including understanding where and why it will shift in the future). It is entirely possible, for example, that none of the things Noonan thinks of as factors that would lead to a loss of voter confidence in Obama and his Administration – incompetence, pettiness, abuse of power – are things that matter to the people who make up his political base. But writing off the entire project of empathizing with the psychology of voters runs the risk of failing to understand why all present trends in the data will not continue forever.

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