Wednesday, July 25, 2012


In the pre-presidential-balloting season of the Perpetual Campaign, the polls are at their maxima for variety and frequency. They differ in a number of ways, but are the same in a most important one: All of them proclaim some margin of error.

Unfortunately, most people fail to understand the margin of error, especially when the phrase is applied to a political poll.

First example: You have two children, Peter and Linda. They score, respectively, 101 and 98 on a Revised Stanford-Binet IQ test. The margin of error given for that test is 3 points. Thus, according to the common misconception, the scores indicate that Peter's IQ reliably falls somewhere between 104 and 98, while Linda's reliably falls somewhere between 101 and 95. This is not so: that 3 point figure proceeds from a statistical test called Chi-square, which speaks only of a 95% level of confidence that the scores are thus ranged. There remains a 5% probability, according to statistical methods, that they're outside the 3 point margin.

Second example: We are told that a missile has a CEP -- circular error probable -- of 250 meters. Most people take that to mean that the warhead will reliably fall within 250 meters of its nominal target point. This is not so. First, the CEP is calculated on a 50% confidence level: according to statistical methods, there's a 50% probability that the warhead will fall outside that circle, in which case it could fall anywhere. Moreover, even the 50% confidence level pertinent to the CEP depends on the confidence levels pertinent to other factors, such as atmospheric densities and the "gravity map" along the missile's trajectory.

Third example: We are told that, in a three-person race for some office, candidate Smith is polling at 43%, candidate Jones at 38%, and candidate Davis at 19%, with a margin of error of 3%. There are several ways to misinterpret this statement. For example, given that the ultimate vote totals must sum to 100% of the votes cast, we would expect that if Smith's support is really 40% rather than the 43% arrived at by the poll, that "missing" 3% must therefore have gone to the other two candidates in some proportion. It's not necessarily so, unless a voter who steps into the booth must vote for one of those three, which would exclude write-ins, really minor candidates, and the "null" vote cast by refusing to pull the lever for anyone.

Politically speaking, the margins are "where the action is." At any moment during a campaign, every candidate is doing his best to move the margins in his direction. That's why the "independent" and the "uncommitted" voter get so much attention.

In this era of no-holds-barred politics, the margins are also where the chicanery is.


Back in 2000, the margin of George W. Bush's presidential victory over Al Gore was so slender that the Democrats, scenting a strong possibility of winning by challenging the vote count, put enormous legal resources to the task of overturning it. Their efforts caused Uberpundit Mark Steyn to coin an immortal phrase: the "margin of lawyer." By this he meant a margin of victory sufficiently large to dash the losing side's hopes of prevailing through challenges to the vote count or the procedures used to reach it.

That, of course, was a post-balloting phenomenon. It's recurred several times since then. In each case, the Democrat has ultimately been awarded the contested office, sometimes with the help of "oops!" votes: ballots of uncertain provenance found in strange places. This has caused conservatives and Republican partisans to ask whether Boards of Election, which are predominantly staffed by Democrats, can be trusted to recount ballots honestly and impartially.

But there's a pre-election "margin of lawyer" as well, one it would behoove us to watch closely over the next hundred days: the ability of an incumbent to use his office to "purchase" votes from identifiable interest blocs. This isn't the same as announcing a shift in conviction, as for example President Obama did in "coming out" for same-sex marriage. It involves an abuse of power practically possible only to an executive-branch official: the announcement that he will refuse to enforce a duly passed law, or conversely, he will enforce a law that's never been passed.

Waivers from ObamaCare are a case in point. Fourteenth Amendment, anyone? If the Constitution's guarantee of equal protection is meaningful, a president lacks the power to exempt any person or organization from a duly passed law. Yet Obama has issued over 200 waivers to organizations the Democrats favor. It's one of the most blatant violations of the presidential oath of office I can remember. Its import is entirely political: to solidify the Democratic "base."

The proposed Arms Trade Treaty currently before the United Nations is another case. This treaty has absolutely no chance of being ratified by the Senate, before or after the November elections. Indeed, it couldn't get 51 votes, much less the 67 required for ratification. But all indications emanating from the White House and the State Department are that Obama will sign it, and will direct the BATFE to enforce it as if it had been ratified. Once again, the motivation can only be as a sop to the anti-gun component of the left-liberal "base," lest Obama lose some fraction of their votes on November 6.

Consider the Keystone XL pipeline proposal, possibly the most thoroughly studied project of its kind. The EPA, with the White House's backing, is stalling the permit process for that proposal on the grounds that it needs more study. The covert motivation, of course, is to keep the radical environmentalists, who are absolutely opposed to the development or use of any fossil fuel regardless of consequences, in the Democrat fold. There's a degree of tension here, as several unions, nominally Democrat constituencies, are heartily in favor of the pipeline. Some Democrat strategist must have assessed the environmentalist vote as more easily lost than that of the unions.

Obama and his mouthpieces claim this is all about justice and good policy. Draw your own conclusions.


The Justice Department's attempts to nullify various states' voter-identification requirements.
The Department of Homeland Security's resistance to Florida's requests for access to the federal citizenship database.
Obama's directive that ICE suspend deportations of certain categories of illegal aliens.
Executive-branch leaks of sensitive national-security-related data to make Obama look good.
There are others.

These are abuses of executive-branch power. Some are more egregious than others, but all are manifestations of corruption, in service to a party and a president to whom all that matters is electoral victory and the power it would bring. Lawyers are fighting over all of them as we speak. In some sense, who wins those contests is less important than the original gambits. The targeted voting blocs are receiving an unambiguous message: Look not to Romney and the Republicans. The Democrats are your friends. Whether they'll have the desired effect, we must wait to see.

Keep an eye on the margins.


Anonymous said...

Mary Steyn? Mark's sister perchance?

All the Best!

Francis W. Porretto said...

(chuckle) Corrected. That'll teach me to trust MS Word's Spellchecker!