Sunday, December 25, 2016

Fake News: Grant Kills Bigfoot

There’s been a lot of hand-wringing about fake news lately, with lots of people advocating that social media sites and other information venues do something to protect stupid people from themselves, whether by banning fake news sites outright or instituting some kind of warning system to identify clickbait, satire, and hyper-partisan sources. Nearly all of the suggested solutions focus exclusively on evaluating the source of the information rather than the information itself. For sites that trade exclusively in fake news (like The Onion or The Daily Currant), this makes perfect sense. It also works (in a practical if not necessarily ideological sense) for sites like Addicting Info (which provides lefty clickbait articles paraphrased (often misleadingly) from other sources without citation) and Gateway Pundit (which provides unsourced (or outright made-up) wingnut speculation); both are toxic anti-news sites that have proven over and over again that they don’t deserve the benefit of the doubt.


When it comes to sites like Daily Kos or The Drudge Report that deal in actual news as well as partisan slant and opinion, accepting or rejecting a story based on the URL alone (especially if your acceptance or rejection is based on an unsourced meme or the assertions of an anonymous “think tank”) is a bad policy. The source can provide some insight into likely biases and misrepresentations, but you have to evaluate the claims being made on their own merit or you risk throwing the baby out with the bath water. Most of the people who suggest otherwise are doing so in order to advance their own agenda, but some have simply resigned themselves to the fact that most people are lazy, anti-intellectual, and allergic to nuance. It’s easier to say “Wikipedia isn’t a trustworthy source” or “Snopes has a liberal agenda” and ignore anything from those sites that doesn’t fit your personal tribal narrative than to engage with the actual information being presented.


For the record, the crowd-sourced nature of Wikipedia does makes it a terrible source for information about current events and to a lesser extent controversial subjects, but otherwise it’s generally an extremely good source for factual information. As for Snopes, their editorial commentary does sometimes lean to the left, but the actual debunking is based on straightforward analysis of the available evidence. In both cases, the problem is that most people have trouble separating actual information from spin, opinion, and unsupported claims and verifying the veracity of (apparent) corroborating evidence.


Since I don’t particularly like the idea of a handful of people in Silicon Valley and D.C. acting as the Ministry of Truth (or worse, social media policy that requires satire sites to explain the joke), I’m going to dissect a hypothetical agenda-driven news story to help illustrate how one might, as the Discordians say, “think for yourself, schmuck.”


General Grant Vs. Bigfoot
One story about Ulysses S. Grant that you won’t find in most history books or even biographies of the man concerns his belief that he once killed a sasquatch. I first found the claim in one of Grant’s letters to Mark Twain, but a story in the Cairo,Illinois City Gazette titled “Grant Saves Soldier From Man-Beast, But Not River” seems to support the claim. During his time in Cairo, it was Grant’s habit to wander away from camp after dinner to enjoy a cigar on the river bank. One cold night in winter of 1861, his ritual was disturbed by screams coming from further up the bank. Grant readied his weapon and started moving toward the screams to find a young private being pursued across the iced-over Ohio by “a great hairy beast with enormous feet that caused it to move with a most peculiar gait.” Grant shot the creature, but the weight of its fall caused a section of ice to break away and collapse, taking the young soldier to the bottom of the river along with the monster.


But was it really a monster that Grant shot, or just a simple ice fisherman? With both the soldier and the “creature” lost to the river, Grant had no way of confirming that his theory of a flesh-eating missing link chasing a young Billy Yank across the ice. The story takes place at night in the dead of winter some distance from the lights of camp, so we must at least consider the possibility of a less controversial explanation of Grant’s encounter, especially given the General’s reputation for heroic consumption of alcohol. Is it not more likely that Grant shot an innocent ice fisherman, bundled from head to toe in heavy furs to protect him from the winter cold, who was chasing the soldier for some real or perceived slight (stealing the fisher’s catch to supplement the meager army rations, perhaps?)? The “monster’s” apparent size could have been an optical illusion or misperception born out of fear and faulty memory, while the creature’s odd walk could have been caused by snowshoes or some old injury. The theory that Grant actually shot the poor victim of a fish thief seems considerably easier to swallow.


It’s exactly because of incidents like this that we need to make sure that our elected officials in Springfield vote yes on the Primitive Ice Fisherman Awareness Act. As my fellow primitive ice fishers are well aware, we’ve lost far too many members of our community to people who’ve misidentified an innocent, fur-clad fisherman as a bear or wolf or even, as in Grant’s case, a folkloric beast. It’s time for the killing to end.


Can This Be Ignored?
This story is obviously nonsense but basically harmless, so you can probably just ignore it and move on without any serious critical analysis, especially if it appears on a website with a reputation for peddling nonsense. But let’s pretend for a moment that this story somehow turns into The Thing The Internet Cares About Today. Suddenly there’s a #MindThePelt hashtag and a “Don’t Shoot! I’m Not Bigfoot” T-shirts and politicians making tearful speeches about the importance of protecting the proud tradition of primitive ice fishing. Most troubling, the Illinois legislature have amended the Ice Fishing Awareness Act to divert millions of dollars in funding earmarked to repair the state’s crumbling levee system to a primitive ice fishing awareness campaign (which will of course be carried out by a marketing firm owned by the Attorney General’s nephew). Now that the story has become A Thing, we have to pay attention to it.


What Are We Dealing With?
Our first step in judging the merit of the story is to figure out what kinds of information we’re dealing with here. Luckily, each paragraph mostly contains one brand of information (almost as if by design). The first paragraph purports to contain factual information: That Ulysses S. Grant believed he had an encounter with bigfoot that led to the death of both the monster and a Union soldier. Factual information is either true or false and can be verified independently through experimentation or analysis of evidence (in this case the historical record).


The second paragraph contains speculation: That Grant actually shot an innocent ice fisherman who was chasing a soldier who’d stolen his catch. Speculation with enough proof can sometimes become gain a consensus as the best available theory, but it generally can’t be definitively proven or disproven with the tools we have at our disposal. We can only judge the likelihood that the speculation is correct based on how well the proposal fits with our understanding of the world and the available evidence.


The third paragraph is primarily opinion: That the Grant/Bigfoot story somehow proves that we need the legislation that’s about to be voted on. Opinions are subjective. They can be informed, uninformed, or misinformed. Understanding how someone arrived at a particular opinion can help you judge whether or not that opinion is worth taking seriously, but opinions can’t be objectively proven to be true or false, right or wrong. You either agree with them or you don’t.  


Are the Factual Claims Bullshit?
Now that we know what kind of information we’re dealing with, let’s consider the author’s evidence. At a glance, the article seems to include both a primary source (Grant’s letter to Twain) and a secondary source (the newspaper article) supporting the claim that Grant believes he fought a bigfoot. If we can examine those sources, we can at least confirm that Grant wrote to Twain about his bigfoot encounter and that a newspaper reported on the event. Either source could potentially include more information that adds veracity to the story. For example, maybe the letter includes the unfortunate soldier’s name (which we may be able to check against army records to confirm that he was stationed in Cairo and died or went missing during the right timeframe) or the newspaper report contains corroboration from a witness that Grant didn’t know about or failed to mention in his recollection to Twain.


Unfortunately, the author doesn’t really make it easy for us to find these theoretically valuable sources. He doesn’t provide any reference information for the letter from Grant (is it in a private collection? The Library of Congress? Twain’s autobiography?) or any information about the newspaper aside from its name and the title of the story (was the story a news report of the encounter or as a fluff piece recounting a colorful local legend decades after the fact?). The vague timeframe of the alleged encounter (“winter of 1861”) gives us several months worth of newspapers to dig through if it’s a contemporary account, years or decades if the story was published later. While the lack of detail doesn’t necessarily prove the story false, it sends up a red flag that the author may be making things up or intentionally withholding exact details about the source material (perhaps because he knows that he’s intentionally misinterpreting it). At the very least, the author’s failure to provide more detailed citations suggests either carelessness or laziness.


Assuming we don’t have the time and resources to track down the alleged letter and newspaper story, we have to evaluate the story based on the information we can verify. Were Grant and Twain contemporaries, and did the two correspond with one another? Was Grant in Cairo during the winter of 1861? Was that winter cold enough for the river to freeze over enough to at least temporarily support the weight the running soldier and his pursuer? Was there ever a newspaper called the Cairo City Gazette, and if so when was in published? Do we have information form Grant’s memoirs or the accounts of other soldiers and camp staff to support the assertion that Grant regularly left camp in the dead of winter to enjoy a cigar at the river’s edge? For that matter, did Grant even smoke cigars? Was bigfoot a commonly accepted figure in American folklore during the Civil War era and, if so, is there any evidence that Grant believed such stories? While a single discrepancy probably won’t damn the whole story (after all, we’ve already established that the author is careless and lazy, so errors are bound to creep in), each “plot hole” gives us another reason to doubt the author’s credibility.


Is the Speculation Believable?
For the sake of argument, we’ll pretend that the author’s claim about Grant’s bigfoot story checks out. Short of time travel, there’s no way for us to find out what really happened, so the best we can do is decide whether the author’s speculation is more believable than the bigfoot hypothesis. The serious doubt about bigfoot’s existence, combined with the lack of prominent bigfoot legends in southern Illinois, seems to suggest that Grant didn’t really shoot a bigfoot. The likely falsehood of the bigfoot hypothesis doesn’t necessarily make the ice fishing hypothesis true, however. The author provides a lot of explanation as to how an ice fisherman could have been mistaken for a bigfoot, but ultimately he just appeals to Occam’s Razor without providing any evidence to support his theory. If he’d offered evidence about the tradition of ice fishing in 19th Century Cairo, historical data that the Ohio near Cairo was at least partially frozen in the winter of 1861, contemporary photos or drawings of Civil War era ice fisherman looking especially sasquatchy in their animal-skin suits and awkward snowshoes, or basically anything to suggest that fur-clad ice fisherman roamed the mighty Ohio in the 1860s, he could easily make his own hypothesis seem more believable than the “Grant shot bigfoot” theory. As it stands, he basically posits that a guy in fur is a more likely culprit than bigfoot and then turns that person into an ice fisherman because it provides a convenient launchpad for his political agenda.


Are the Opinions Expressed Worth Taking Seriously?
So yeah, the author is likely full of shit, but we’re not going to hold that against him in deciding whether we agree with his opinion that something MUST BE DONE about all the ice fisherman who are being shot and killed by people who think they’re assorted hairy beasts. Our author vaguely suggests that this happens a lot, but again offers no hard facts to support his claim. Maybe there have only been three fur-wearing primitive ice fishermen shot after being mistaken for wild animals in modern times and the author just happened to know all three of them, so to him it seems like an epidemic. Maybe he’s heard a lot of stories about this happening and believes them unconditionally because they were debunked by Snopes, a well known outlet for socialist propaganda. Or maybe he just really fucking hates levees and is spreading lies so the river can rise up and destroy the infidels.

Since the author doesn’t give us any insight into how he arrived at his opinion and we’ve already determined that he isn’t very credible, we need to consult more reliable sources before forming an opinion. If it’s only happened once (not counting Grant), the proposed bill is a huge waste of taxpayer money that could be spent on something that provides a greater benefit to the citizens of Illinois. If a multiple reputable sources can provide evidence that hundreds of thousands of Illinois ice fisherman are killed each year by people who mistake them for bigfoot, the state may save more lives by passing the legislation than by fixing the levees. If the truth (as it often does) lies somewhere between the two extremes, the problem may be worth addressing, but not at the expense of the levee system.  If we can avoid breaking off into pro- and anti-ice fishing tribes that are fanatically dedicated to mutually exclusive extreme positions, it might be possible to promote both safe ice-fishing and flood protection.

Support me on Patreon and I'll tell you about the time Teddy Roosevelt rassled a chupacbra. 

Monday, November 7, 2016

I Can't Wait

A few days ago I started a series of posts to Facebook about how excited I was about the upcoming election because it's extremely important (maybe THE MOST IMPORTANT ELECTION EVER '16) because of the stark policy differences between the two major parties. Somebody suggested I collect them all in one place, so here they are (in reverse order). Since you've probably already got the song "I Can't Wait" by Nu Shooz stuck in your head, I'll put the video at the end of this post. I bet you've forgotten how goddamn weird that video is.

I can’t wait until tomorrow to see if we ignore Israel’s war crimes because we need a place for Jesus to come back to for Armageddon or because criticizing Israel’s policies is somehow anti-Semitism.

I can’t wait until tomorrow to find out if right-wing militia groups are noble patriots who are above the law or dangerous radicals who are above the law.

I can’t wait until tomorrow to find out whether a living wage is morally indefensible or politically unworkable.

I can’t wait until tomorrow to find out if we send children back to war zones we helped create because they’re disease-ridden criminals or because they didn’t follow the rules.

I can't wait until Tuesday to find out whether we give corporations a tax holiday on repatriated earnings because we're pretending they earned the money outside the U.S. or because we're pretending they'll use it to create jobs.

I can't wait until Tuesday to find whether we’ll spy on Muslims using undercover surveillance or community outreach.

I can't wait until Tuesday to see if we get an administration that denies climate change or one that just mostly ignores it.

I can't wait until Tuesday to find out whether tax cuts for the rich are a policy initiative or a concession to win support on the other side of the aisle.

I can't wait until Tuesday to find out whether the Supreme Court vacancy gets filled with a business-friendly right-winger or a business-friendly centrist.

I can't wait until Tuesday night to find out whether the filibuster is obstruction or a pragmatic use of Congressional rules.

I can't wait until Tuesday to find out whether criticizing the President is Constitutionally protected speech or an act of treason.

I can't wait until Tuesday night to find out whether massive government surveillance remains a necessary precaution or goes back to being a violation of Constitutional rights like it was 8 years ago.

I can't wait until Tuesday night to find out whether we keep Gitmo open for national security or because closing it would be kind of a hassle.

I can't wait until Tuesday to find out whether we don't prosecute Wall Street criminals because they didn't do anything wrong or because it could hurt the economy.

I can't wait until Tuesday night to find out whether key offices in the new administration are filled exclusively by wealthy white men or by a diverse collection of people who are in complete ideological agreement with wealthy white men.

I can't wait until Tuesday night to find out whether privatization and deregulation are to end government overreach or to encourage innovation.

I can't wait until Tuesday night to find out whether the next round of cuts to education and social services are a shared sacrifice or class warfare.

I can't wait until Tuesday night to find out whether next year's war in Syria is military profiteering or the only reasonable response to humanitarian crisis.




Sunday, November 6, 2016

My Vote Counts Part 6: States Where It Might

I kind of dropped the ball on this series because life, so since the election is just a couple of days away, I'm going to skip the details on the last 20 or so states. If you want to check the historical trends for your state, 270towin.com provides it in an easy-to-understand format. Fivethirtyeight.com is a god place to go for poll numbers and projections.

Light Red & Light Blue States

These states usually go to one party or the other, but only by a margin of 5-10%, so there's an outside chance of them flipping. Since Gary Johnson is polling much higher than Jill Stein, the light red states are the most likely to flip, but there are no doubt some Bernie supporters whose knowledge of Johnson ends at "he smokes weed," so there's at least some chance of him spoiling a light blue state for Clinton.

Light Red States: Louisiana, Georgia, Arkansas, Arizona, North Carolina
Light Blue States: Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Oregon

Real Swing States 

West Virginia, New Hampshire New Mexico, and Ohio are evenly split over the last 10 elections, with each party winning the state 5 times. 

Iowa and Michigan have gone to the Democrats in 6 of the past 10 elections. 

Nevada and Florida have gone to the Republicans in 6 of the last 10 elections. 

Missouri, Virginia, and Colorado have gone to the GOP in 7 or more of the past 10 elections, but the margin of victory is usually small enough that it would take a much smaller shift in voter patterns for the Democrats to win than most other states would require. 

If you live in a state that has a real chance of flipping and honestly believe that one of the two major parties is the lesser evil, by all means vote for the lesser evil. If you live in one of the states that's almost guaranteed to go to one party or the other, voting for the minority party is wasting your vote in my opinion, but it's your vote so do what you want with it. If you think there's a lesser evil but it's still more evil than you want to vote for, or if you'd prefer your vote to go toward helping a third party meet the finance threshold, you might consider looking into something like www.votepact.org, where you and someone who's reluctantly voting for the other lesser evil each agree to not reluctantly vote for the lesser evil. Since both evils "lose" one of the votes they think they're entitled to, your refusal to vote for the lesser evil doesn't help the greater evil.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Debate Bingo Cheater Card

Today Vox posted some Bingo cards to use with tonight's debate, but their cards are reasonably fair, so I modified one of their cards that you can give to your opponent to rig the game in your favor just like the two major parties have done.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

My Vote Counts Part 5: Solid States

The states from the last two installments are beyond solid. Most of them have historically gone to the same party except in unusual circumstances like the party realignments during the Civil Rights Era, the Reagan Revolution, or the elections where there was a third-party candidate who actually got enough votes to play the spoiler. This time around, we'll look at the states that are solidly but not suicidally loyal to one party or the other. These states have won by an average margin of 10-15% in the last five elections, so if both of the third party candidates with some name recognition get votes consistent with their poll numbers and most of the votes going to both Stein and Johnson are siphoned off from a single party, there's a chance the state can flip. We'll start with the solid blue states, since there are fewer of them.

Solid Democratic States

New Jersey
Favored Party: Democrats
Electoral Votes: 14
Average Margin: 14.76%
Current Prediction: Clinton by 13.7%
Flips: New Jersey was mostly a Republican state from the 1948 to 1988 (except for 1960 and 1964, when the state went blue). Since 1992, it's gone to the Democrats in every election. 

Maine
Favored Party: Democrats
Electoral Votes: 4
Average Margin: 13.5%
Current Prediction: Clinton by 11.8%
Flips: From before the Civil War until 1988, Maine was a reliably red state, only going to the Democrats in 1912, 1964, and 1968. Since 1992, the Democrats have taken the state in every Presidential election. 

Washington
Favored Party: Democrats
Electoral Votes: 12
Average Margin: 11.48%
Current Prediction: Clinton was up by 15% when I made my spreadsheet. 
Flips: Washington's history is similar to New Jersey and Maine: Red from 1952 to 1984 with only two exceptions (1964 and 1968), blue from 1988 on. 

Solid Republican States

South Dakota
Favored Party: Republicans
Electoral Votes: 3
Average Margin: 14.84%
Current Prediction: Trump by 7.6% 
Flips:  Since 1892, South Dakota has gone to the GOP in all but 5 elections. Teddy Roosevelt took the state as a Progressive candidate in 1912, the Democrats won it in 1896, 1932, 1936, and 1964. 

Kentucky
Favored Party: Republicans
Electoral Votes: 8
Average Margin: 14.58%
Current Prediction: Trump by 10.2%
Flips: Kentucky is another of the old "Southern Democrat" states, but it flipped to the GOP a little earlier than most. Since 1956, it's gone to the Republicans in all but 4 elections: 1964, 1976, 1992, and 1996. Unless Ross Perot decides to run, it's unlikely Hillary will repeat her husband's wins here.  

Mississippi
Favored Party: Republicans
Electoral Votes: 6 
Average Margin: 13.28%
Current Prediction: Trump by 4.7%
Flips:  Like most southern states, Mississippi loved the Democrats until LBJ came along. Since 1964, Carter is the only Democrat to win the state's Electoral Votes (though George Wallace did win the state in 1968 as an Independent candidate). 

Montana
Favored Party: Republicans
Electoral Votes: 3
Average Margin: 12.86%
Current Prediction: Trump by 6.8%, though this is one of the states where Johnson is polling above average (13.8% when I looked all these numbers up). 
Flips:  Montana kind of waffled back and forth for its first 60 years, but since 1952 the Democrats have only won it twice: 1964 and 1992. 

South Carolina
Favored Party: Republicans
Electoral Votes: 9 
Average Margin: 11.66%
Current Prediction: As of about a month ago, the polls only showed Trump up by 1.9%, so there's a decent chance that Trump's unpopularity may outweigh historical trends here. 
Flips: It's the south, so with the exception of 1976 South Carolina has gone to the GOP in every election from 1964 on. 

Tennessee
Favored Party: Republicans
Electoral Votes: 11
Average Margin: 10.24%
Current Prediction: Trump by 10%
Flips: Like Kentucky, Tennessee turned it's back on the Democrats earlier than most southern states, going the Republicans in the 1952 election. Since then, the Democrats have taken the state 4 times: 1964, 1976, 1992, and 1996. Clinton's success in the state didn't carry over to his VP, who lost Tennessee in 2000 despite it being his home state. 

Indiana
Favored Party: Republicans
Electoral Votes: 11
Average Margin: 10.2%
Current Prediction: Trump by 5.9%
Flips:  The Democrats have only taken Indiana 14 in the state's history, and only 5 times since 1900: 1912, 1932, 1936, 1964, and 2008. The Republicans have won Indiana in every other election since 1860. 

Support me on Patreon!

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Suicide Squad Review

Just posted my Suicide Squad review on the kingyak site. You should read it and save yourself $8.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

My Vote Counts, Part 4: Really Red States



A couple weeks ago, I went through the states that are extremely unlikely to go Red this year without some kind of major Democratic Party defection. I was planning to go through the states that are almost certainly going to the GOP last week, but didn't get around to it because I was working on my new book of movie reviews (which you can buy here!), so I'm doing it now. Below I'll go through the states that have gone red by an average margin of 15% or more in the last 5 elections.

Once again, here's the format:
State 
Favored Party: This is the party the state is expected to go to. 
Electoral Votes: How many electoral votes the state has. 
Average Margin: This is the average margin of victory for the last five elections (including negative margins for losses, if applicable). I went with 5 elections because it's the number that www.270towin.com lists on each state's history page and I'm not getting paid enough to dig deeper than that. It gives us a metric for seeing how the state has voted over the last 20 years, so it should at least give us some idea of the current trends.
Current Prediction: This is the current margin of victory according to www.fivethirtyeight.com's predictions (as of August 11)
Flips: Notes on when the state has flipped. Since the parties traded sides on civil rights and some other issues in the 1960s, I'll mostly focus on flips from the 70s on unless there's anything particulary interesting about the state's earlier voting history is especially interesting or easy to summarize.

Utah
Favored Party: Republicans
Electoral Votes: 6
Average Margin: 36.82%
Current Prediction: Trump's not polling well in Mormonland. He's only polling 7% higher than Clinton (45.8 to 38.8). Gary Johnson polling at 13.5%
Flips: Utah's gone Blue 8 times since became a state in 1896: 1896, 1916, 1932, 1936, 1940, 1944, 1948, and 1964. Since 1968, it's gone to the GOP every election.

Wyoming
Favored Party: Republicans
Electoral Votes: 3
Average Margin: 33.2%
Current Prediction: Trump's up 24.7%
Flips: Wyoming's been a state since 1890, and like Utah it's only gone to the Democrats 8 times: 1896, 1912, 1916, 1932, 1936, 1940, 1948, and 1964. 

Idaho
Favored Party: Republicans
Electoral Votes: 4
Average Margin: 33.22%
Current Prediction: Republicans by 18.4%
Flips: Idaho went to the People's Party in its first election as a state (1892), and went to the Democrats in the next two elections. After that, it followed a pattern similar to Utah and Wyoming, going blue in 1912, 1916, every election from 1932-1948, and 1964. 

Oklahoma
Favored Party: Republicans
Electoral Votes: 7
Average Margin: 25.16%
Current Prediction: Trump by 21.3%
Flips: Oklahoma mostly voted for the Democrats up until 1948. Since then, it's gone to the GOP every election except for 1964. 

Nebraska 
Favored Party: Republicans
Electoral Votes: 5
Average Margin: 23.52%
Current Prediction: Trump 12.4%
Flips: Nebraska became a state in 1867 and has gone to the Republicans in all but 7 elections: 1896, 1908, 1912, 1916, 1932, 1936, and the ever-popular 1964. Since 1992, Nebraska has had the possibility of a  split Electoral Vote: the overall winner gets 2 votes and 1 vote goes to the winner of each of the state's 3 Congressional Districts. The only time the vote has actually split was in 2008, when Obama won one district and got one Electoral Vote (McCain got the other 4). 

Alaska
Favored Party: Republicans
Electoral Votes: 3
Average Margin: 21.9%
Current Prediction: Trump by 8.1%
Flips: Alaska's first election as a state was 1960, and it's only gone to the Democrats once (in 1964, if you couldn't guess from the previous states). 

Kansas
Favored Party: Republicans
Electoral Votes: 6
Average Margin: 20.2%
Current Prediction: Trump by 8.1%
Flips: Kansas has gone to the Republicans in all but 7 elections since it started voting in 1864. It went to the People's Party in 1892 and the Democrats in 1896, 1912, 1916, 1932, 1936, and 1964. 

Alabama
Favored Party: Republicans
Electoral Votes: 9
Average Margin: 18.26%
Current Prediction: Trump by 17.9%
Flips: Alabama was a solid Democratic state back when the Democrats were racist as hell, but they turned red in 1964 when the Democrats started supporting Civil Rights. Except for 1968 (when Alabama went to George Wallace) and Carter in 1976, Alabama has been reliably red ever since. 

North Dakota
Favored Party: Republicans
Electoral Votes: 3
Average Margin: 18.02%
Current Prediction: Trump by 8.8%
Flips: North Dakota's history follows the same pattern as many of the other reliably red state. The state's first election was 1892, when North Dakotans voted for the People's Party's James B. Weaver. After that, they've gone to the Republicans in most elections, with Democrats only winning the state in 1912, 1916, 1932, 1936, and of course 1964. 

Texas
Favored Party: Republicans
Electoral Votes: 38
Average Margin: 15.36%
Current Prediction: GOP by 4.5%
Flips: With only 5 exceptions (1964 and 1968, when Texas didn't vote; and 1928, 1952, and 1956, when Texas went red), Texas went to the Democrats in every election from 1848 to 1968. Being LBJ's home state kept them from turning red in 1964 with most of the other southern states, but they voted for Nixon in 1972 and the Lone Star state has gone to the Republicans in every election since then with the exception of 1976.  

Thursday, August 11, 2016

My Vote Counts, Part 3: True Blue States

Third parties probably won't play a big role in the election this year. Gary Johnson only took 1% of the vote in 2012 and is polling at an average of 9%. Jill Stein only took 0.36% of the vote in 2012 and isn't on the ballot in all 50 states and therefore isn't even included in most polls. Even if you give her the same increase from 2012 voting to current polls that Johnson is showing, she's in the 3-4% range. Even if all the third party voters "steal" votes from a given state's favored candidate and the third parties do better than they're currently polling, they're unlikely to take more than 15% of the vote in a given state. In 10 states and the District of Columbia, the Democrats have won by an average margin of 15% or more in the last 5 elections, so unless Johnson or Stein turns into a 1992 Ross Perot kind of candidate in the next few months, these 149 Electoral Votes are Hillary's.

Here's the format for each state.

State 
Favored Party: This is the party the state is expected to go to. 
Electoral Votes: How many electoral votes the state has. 
Average Margin: This is the average margin of victory for the last five elections (including negative margins for losses, if applicable). I went with 5 elections because it's the number that www.270towin.com lists on each state's history page and I'm not getting paid enough to dig deeper than that. It gives us a metric for seeing how the state has voted over the last 20 years, so it should at least give us some idea of the current trends.
Current Prediction: This is the current margin of victory according to www.fivethirtyeight.com's predictions.  
Flips: Notes on when the state has flipped. Since the parties traded sides on civil rights and some other issues in the 1960s, I'll mostly focus on flips from the 70s on unless there's anything particulary interesting about the state's earlier voting history is especially interesting or easy to summarize. 

Solid Blue States

District of Columbia 
Favored Party: Democrats
Electoral Votes: 3
Average Margin: 80.3%
Current Prediction: Clinton by 73.3%
Flips: None. D.C. has gone to the Democrats every year since its first inclusion in the Electoral College in 1964. 

Hawaii
Favored Party: Democrats
Electoral Votes: 4
Average Margin: 28.1%
Current Prediction: Clinton by 38.1%
Flips: Hawaii's first election as a state 1960, and only 2 Republicans have ever won the state: Nixon in 1972 and Reagan in 1984. 

Rhode Island
Favored Party: Democrats
Electoral Votes: 4
Average Margin: 27.6%
Current Prediction: Clinton by 22.2%
Flips: Rhode Island has been a reliably blue state since 1928, only flipping 4 times: 1952, 1956, 1972, and 1984. 

Massachusetts
Favored Party: Democrats
Electoral Votes: 11
Average Margin: 27%
Current Prediction: Clinton by 24.9%
Flips: Like Rhode Island, Massachusetts became a reliably Democratic state in 1928 but liked Ike in 1952 and 1956. Reagan took the state in 1980 and 1984.  

New York
Favored Party: Democrats
Electoral Votes: 29
Average Margin: 25.6%
Current Prediction: 21.7%
Flips: New York didn't become a reliably blue state until 1932, flipped back to red in 1948, 1952, and 1956, went to Nixon in 1972, and was part of the Reagan Revolution in 1980 and 1984. 

Vermont
Favored Party: Democrats
Electoral Votes: 3
Average Margin: 25%
Current Prediction: Clinton by 25.2%
Flips: With the exception of 1964, Vermont was a solid red state from 1856 to 1988. Since 1992, it's gone to the Democrats every time. 

Maryland
Favored Party: Democrats
Electoral Votes: 10
Average Margin: 19.4%
Current Prediction: Clinton by 31.3%
Flips: Maryland has historically gone mostly to the Democrats with 2-3 election GOP runs breaking up the monotony. In the last 40ish years, it went to Nixon in 1972, Reagan in 1984, and Papa Bush in 1988. 

Connecticut
Favored Party: Democrats
Electoral Votes: 7
Average Margin: 17.1%
Current Prediction: Clinton by 12.9%
Flips: Historically, Connecticut seems to change its collective mind about which party it likes every 20 years or so. From 1972 to 1988, it was a Republican state. Since 1992, it's gone to the Democrats.  
Illinois
Favored Party: Democrats
Electoral Votes: 20
Average Margin: 16.4%
Current Prediction: Clinton by 17.8%
Flips: From 1968 to 1988, Illinois was a Republican state. Since 1992, it's gone to the Democrats every time. 

California 
Favored Party: Democrats
Electoral Votes: 55
Average Margin: 16.3%
Current Prediction: Clinton by 22%
Flips: Like Illinois, California was a red state from 1968 to 1988 and has gone to the Democrats since 1992. 

Delaware
Favored Party: Democrats
Electoral Votes: 3
Average Margin: 15.9%
Current Prediction: Clinton by 15.3%
Flips: Delaware has flipped back and forth a lot over the years. It went to Nixon both times he ran, went to Carter in 1976, voted for Reagan both times and George H.W. Bush in 1988, and has been blue since 92. 

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

My Vote Counts, Part 2: Spoilers

I was going to save discussion of spoilers until later, but I probably need to get into it before we get into state-by-state voting patterns so we can come up with some sample scenarios for gauging how likely it is third party spoiler is going to flip a state and bring about the end of life on this planet that will inevitably result from the election of the Greater Evil (whichever one of them that is). All facts and figures come from either 270towin.com or Wikipedia unless noted otherwise. If you're one of those people that rejects Wikipedia as a valid source of information because it sometimes contains erroneous or incorrect information, go learn how to evaluate sources and then come back.

As I mentioned a couple posts ago, the last time a third party candidate won a state was in 1968 when George Wallace took 46 electoral votes. Twenty years before that, Strom Thurmond got 39 electoral votes. In 1912, Robert M. LaFollette of the Progressive party took Wisconsin's 13 electoral votes. The fourth and final time a third party candidate has won electoral votes in the 20th Century was 1912, when Teddy Roosevelt took 88 votes. Unless I'm missing a small state on one of the maps I'm looking at, third parties have only taken states 10 times throughout American history. Given the relative obscurity of both Jill Stein and Gary Johnson, I think it's a safe to say that won't happen this year. Let's stick to more recent spoiler candidates who may have taken just enough votes to flip a state and see if the election would have turned out any differently without them.

Our first spoiler is John Anderson in 1980. If we assume that Anderson stole votes exclusively from Jimmy Carter, his candidacy cost Carter 14 states: Arkansas, Delaware, Kentucky, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Mississippi, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Vermont, and Wisconsin, These states had a total of 177 electoral votes, so if we take them from Reagan's 489 votes and add them to Carter's 49, Reagan still wins 312 to 226. So we can't blame Anderson for the Reagan Revolution.

The next spoiler is Ross Perot in 1992. If we add his votes to George H.W. Bush's in all the states that Bill Clinton won, Bill only wins 2 states (his home state of Arkansas and New York) and the District of Columbia. If you believe the conventional wisdom about spoilers, Clinton would have done even worse than Jimmy Carter in 1980 (with 42 votes to Carter's 49) if it hadn't been for Ross Perot.

If the idea of Bush I beating Bill Clinton in a Reagan-style landslide sounds a little fishy, you're probably right, and the reason is that most "lesser evil" arguments rest on the false assumption that a third party spoiler's votes come entirely from a single major party. In reality, that's rarely the case. It's likely that many or even most Perot voters were disaffected Republicans, but there were also disaffected Democrats, third party voters, and people who don't normally vote casting ballots for Ross Perot in 1992. Without Perot in the picture, Clinton probably wouldn't have taken so many southern states that usually go to the Republicans, but he likely would have won more than 2 states and D.C. because not all of the people who voted for Perot would have voted for Bush. Some would have voted for Clinton, some would have voted for another third party candidate, and some would have stayed home. Given his positions, I assume that Perot took more votes from Bush than Clinton and suspect he tilted the race to Clinton, but there's no way to know for sure without some indication of what Perot voters would have done if there was no Perot.

Perot ran less successfully in 1996, but let's skip that and move on to He Who Must Not Be Named himself, Ralph Nader in 2000. Before we can even get around to claiming that Nader played the spoiler, there are some unpleasant facts about Al Gore that we have to be willing to ignore:
  • Al Gore lost 7 states that Bill Clinton won in both elections and Jimmy Carter won in 1980, all by more votes than Ralph Nader got in those states: Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Missouri, Ohio, Tennessee, and West Virginia.  
  • Al Gore also lost 2 states that Bill Clinton won in both elections: Nevada and New Hampshire. He lost Nevada by more votes than Nader got. We'll get to New Hampshire in a minute. 
If Gore would have taken any of these states that the last 3 Democratic winners before him won, he would have won the election. Even if we remove the three swing states (Nevada, New Hampshire, and Ohio) that's still 6 states that Clinton and Carter took but Gore couldn't including Gore's home state of Tennessee. Even Walter Fucking Mondale won his home state (if nothing else). Since I've got my heart set on making Nader a spoiler and those 6 remaining states are in the South, I'm going to give Ross Perot credit for Bill Clinton's wins there. That doesn't explain why Carter won them in 1976, though, so let's write that of to GOP voters still being too disillusioned by Watergate to come to the polls. Nixon's always handy for stuff like that. Now let's look at the two states that Bush won where Nader's numbers were higher than the margin of victory: Florida and New Hampshire.

At least according to this study, Nader was a spoiler in Florida, but there's a caveat: "While Nader voters in 2000 were somewhat pro-Democrat and Buchanan voters correspondingly pro-Republican, both types of voters were surprisingly close to being partisan centrists. Indeed, we show that at least 40% of Nader voters in the key state of Florida would have voted for Bush, as opposed to Gore, had they turned out in a Nader-less election. The other 60% did indeed spoil the 2000 presidential election for Gore but only because of highly idiosyncratic circumstances, namely, Florida’s extreme
closeness." In addition to ignoring the "highly idiosyncratic circumstances," you also have to ignore the possibility that more Florida Democrats voted for Bush than Nader, whether intentionally or due to confusing ballots. Since I can't seem to find any sourced data on those numbers, we'll give Florida Democrats who voted for Bush a pass. Since I'm holding the Democrats blameless, I'm going to show the same courtesy to the GOP and discount claims of purged voter registrations an other vote tampering in favor of Bush. If you ignore everything but Nader, it's obvious that Nader was the reason Bush won Florida. 

Even with a Bush win in Florida (damn you Ralph Nader!), Gore still could have won the electoral vote if he'd taken New Hampshire. If we go with the conventional wisdom that would send Bill Clinton back to Arkansas with under 50 electoral votes in 1992, then Nader was clearly the spoiler there, too. If, however, we accept that not all Nader voters would have voted for Gore otherwise, it's not quite as clear. If we use the 60/40 split from Florida, Bush still wins New Hampshire in a race without Nader. Even if you assume that 70% of Nader's voters would have voted for Gore, Al only wins by about 1600 votes, and that's if you keep the right-leaning Libertarian and Reform parties in the race to spoil it for Bush. Of course, if you're going to start assuming that the breakdown of Nader voter loyalties varies that much from state to state, you probably also need to consider the possibility that Gore would have lost one or more of the six states (Iowa, Maine, Minnesota, New Mexico, Oregon, and Wisconsin) where he won by fewer votes than Ralph Nader got. 

Spoilers definitely exist, but it's not quite as simple as assuming that any vote for a third party will spoil the race for the lesser evil. For purposes of deciding whether a third party vote is an acceptable risk in a given state, I'm going to go through a few different scenarios for each state:

Worst Case Scenario (Third Party takes 25% of vote from a single party)
For all the Nader hate out there, Ross Perot was actually the most effective spoiler since at least 1980. In 1992, Perot took 18.91% of the popular vote (Nader only took 2.74% in 2000). His best state percentage-wise was Maine, where he took 30.44% of the vote. In 28 states, he took over 20% of the vote, with 20 of those states in the 20-25% range, 7 in the 25-30% range, and Maine at just over 30. I'm going to use the middle of that range as my worst case 3rd party bogeyman.

Average (Third Party Takes 10% of vote from a single party)
If you average the percentage of the popular vote for Anderson, both Perot runs, and Nader, you get a 9% and some change, so I'm going to round it up to 10. Given that all of those candidates had a lot more going for them than the 3rd party candidates running in 2016, this is probably the more realistic worse case.

Polls
Most polls I've seen put Gary Johnson at 5-10% and Jill Stein at 5% or less, so that's probably the highest percentage each candidate will actually get in most states barring a major game changer between now and the election. 

Now we're ready to look at the states (I hope).

Here's this thing. 


Monday, August 1, 2016

My Vote Counts, Part 1: Game Changers

As I said last time, voting for the lesser evil can actually make sense in an election decided by the popular vote or even the U.S. Presidential election if you live in a state that could go either way. To understand why it's unlikely that solid states are going to suddenly go to the other candidate, imagine you live in a state where 100 people normally vote. We'll call it Centuria. Unless it splits its electoral votes like Nebraska and Maine do, Centuria's electoral votes are going to go to the party that gets the most votes. 51 of Centuria's voters always vote Republican, 40 of them always vote Democrat, and the remaining 9 are Independents who could go either way and sometimes vote for a third party. Even if every single Independent sides with the Democrats, the Republicans still win Centuria's electoral votes. There are only three things that can change this: Republicans voting for the Democratic candidate or third party, Republicans not showing up to vote, or an influx of new Democratic voters to the polls.

In the 2016 election, there's a chance of defection on both sides, since both parties have nominated incredibly unpopular candidates. Most of these defectors, however, will likely go to third parties rather than the other mainstream party. Democrats aren't going to vote for a nutjob like Trump and Republicans have been told for 25 years that Hillary Clinton is Satan incarnate. If anything, the Republicans probably have a psychological edge when it comes to retaining the votes of possible defectors now that most of the GOP establishment has (however reluctantly) backed Trump. Authoritarian-leaning voters aren't going to defy Daddy, no matter how wrong he is.

A lot of voters will also likely stay home, but that once again gives the GOP the edge. The Democrats are almost guaranteed a win if there's good voter turnout, but a lot of Democrats just can't be bothered to vote unless they're excited or inspired or otherwise made to feel special, which is why the Republicans inevitably take control of Congress in those boring old midterm elections when there aren't enough people posting about politics on Facebook for it to seem worth doing. After all, what's the point of wasting your time in the voting booth if you can't be smug about it later? The GOP base, on the other hand, votes in every election, probably because they're so old and white and economically stable that even a slight variation on their daily routine is exciting. Or maybe it's the little flag sticker. Right-wingers love the shit out of some flags.

I don't think either party can expect a lot of new voters this year, either. The Democrats probably have a slight advantage in this area thanks to Bernie Sanders, but not a very big one. Many of his supporters were third-party voters who would have made an exception for him and will now go back to "throwing away their vote" now that Clinton has the nomination. Clinton might have had a shot at getting some votes from the first-time voters Sanders mobilized, but between the conspiracy theories about voter fraud, the actual collusion between the Clinton campaign and the DNC revealed by the Wikileaks emails, and the open contempt Clinton showed for Sanders supporters by giving Wasserman-Shultz a campaign position before she was out of the DNC parking lot, I don't expect a statistically significant number of those people to show up to the polls for her.

So yeah, the chances of a game-changer that makes states flip are low, so it's a safe bet that voting will follow typical patterns in November. Solid states are probably going to stay solid, but some states are more solid than others, so knowing how your state's electoral history can help you determine exactly how meaningless your vote will be in November and whether your vote for the lesser evil will actually help keep the greater evil out of office. If it doesn't, voting for the lesser evil just makes it seem like people like evil. Next time, I'll look at the states where your vote is almost completely meaningless.

I'm less evil than either of this year's candidates, so vote for me (with cash) on Patreon!




Thursday, July 28, 2016

My Vote Counts, Lesser Evils, and Other Magical Thinking

Every election cycle, a lot of people try to convince me to vote for the lesser of two evils. In most cases, they greatly exaggerate the "lesser" aspect of the candidate they're stumping for and the "evil" aspect of the other side. Even if I completely believed that one of the two neo-liberal warhawks we've been forced to choose between for as long as I've been old enough to vote was truly the lesser evil, I probably wouldn't vote for them. Part of the reason I don't buy lesser evilism is because it actively makes things worse. If candidates know that their base will capitulate and vote for them no matter how bad they are as long as they can convince people that the other choice is worse, they have no incentive to even pretend to represent their constituents. This leads to the situation we have today, where two centrists parties who lean slightly one way or the other on social issues have each convinced their base that the other party is full of radicals.

By inflating the perceived power of the Presidency with hyperbole that greatly overstates what the other candidate can feasibly do if elected, lesser evilism also draws attention away from the legislative, state, and local races that usually have more effect on peoples' day-to-day lives. Neither party has any real plans to "solve" any of their culture war issues on a national level (The GOP will not overturn Roe vs. Wade, for example), but they will in many cases try to enforce their agenda on the local and state level (for instance, the restrictive regulations for abortion clinics in Texas that were recently overturned by the Supreme Court and many other local and state laws that make abortions practically unobtainable for everyone but the wealthy). Since people think the President holds all the power, they don't worry about those races and pay attention to politics in the same way some people pay attention to men's gymnastics or curling: they're really passionate about it once every four years and don't think about it the rest of the time.

Lesser evilism also sets up a binary choice that completely discounts the option of voting for a third party, which helps ensure that our choice will always be between the two evils nominated by the parties that Wall Street and the defense industry want controlling things. A third party has very little chance of winning an election (the last 3rd party candidate to even take a state was George Wallace in 1968), but a third party that garners 5% of the popular vote becomes eligible for campaign funding, which can potentially give them the resources to elect more downticket candidates and eventually build a large enough voting base to have a shot at the White House. Since doing this would take years to pull off, it isn't as sexy as the usual third party scheme of trying to elect President Superman and then getting disillusioned when it doesn't work out, but it's the only chance we've got of ever having a real choice under the current system.

The main reason I don't accept lesser evilism, however, is that my vote doesn't matter. Lesser evilism is at least theoretically valid in an election decided by the popular vote, but when it comes to the Oval Office, we've got the Electoral College to keep the rabble in check. During the 2012 election, I did the math to find out the likelihood of my state of Kentucky's 8 electoral votes changing the outcome of the election. I only found one combination where that would happen without a massive shift in voting patterns or a huge influx of new voters (both of which would likely make Kentucky's electoral votes irrelevant in a different way).

The small chance of most states changing the outcome of an election is only half the story, though. As someone (I don't remember who, and am not digging through my feed to find out since you probably don't know them anyway) succinctly put it in a Facebook thread earlier this week, most voters get ignored twice before the Presidential election is decided. Even if you live in a state with enough electoral votes to swing the election, your state still has to vote for the candidate you support. In most states, one party has a large enough voting base to guarantee who it will vote for in most elections. A "solid" state only flips when people who normally vote for that party switch sides or when a huge number of people who don't normally vote suddenly show up. Unless you're a consistent voter for one party who's part of a mass defection or a new voter who's part of a huge movement, your vote in most states has almost no chance of changing what color your state turns on election night.

Since Don Quixote is a personal hero, I'm going to be making some posts over the coming weeks where I look at the voting histories of all 50 states plus the District of Columbia. I'm hoping that will help illustrate how little individual votes matter in most states so maybe a few people will vote for a candidate they actually agree with rather than against someone they've been convinced is a monster.

I'm going to practice my only magical thinking by pretending someone will support me on Patreon