Off the Kuff Rotating Header Image

July 2nd, 2008:

It’s not a dead heat if someone is leading

I know the media loves a horse race and all, but this is pushing it.

With the dust having finally settled after the prolonged Democratic presidential primary, a new CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll shows Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama locked in a statistical dead heat in the race for the White House.

With just over four months remaining until voters weigh in at the polls, the new survey out Tuesday indicates Obama holds a narrow 5-point advantage among registered voters nationwide over the Arizona senator, 50 percent to 45 percent. That represents little change from a similar poll one month ago, when the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee held a 46-43 percent edge over McCain.

CNN Polling Director Keating Holland notes Tuesday’s survey confirms what a string of national polls released this month have shown: Obama holds a slight advantage over McCain, though not a big enough one to constitute a statistical lead.

“Every standard telephone poll taken in June has shown Obama ahead of McCain, with nearly all of them showing Obama’s margin somewhere between three and six points,” Holland said. “In most of them, that margin is not enough to give him a lead in a statistical sense, but it appears that June has been a good month for Obama.”


The poll, conducted June 26-29, surveyed 906 registered voters and carries a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.

Nate Silver points out one obvious problem. From the National Council on Public Polling‘s “20 Questions A Journalist Should Ask About Poll Results”:

12. Who’s on first?

Sampling error raises one of the thorniest problems in the presentation of poll results: For a horse-race poll, when is one candidate really ahead of the other?

Certainly, if the gap between the two candidates is less than the sampling error margin, you should not say that one candidate is ahead of the other. You can say the race is “close,” the race is “roughly even,” or there is “little difference between the candidates.” But it should not be called a “dead heat” unless the candidates are tied with the same percentages. And it certainly is not a “statistical tie” unless both candidates have the same exact percentages.

And just as certainly, when the gap between the two candidates is equal to or more than twice the error margin – 6 percentage points in our example – and if there are only two candidates and no undecided voters, you can say with confidence that the poll says Candidate A is clearly leading Candidate B.

When the gap between the two candidates is more than the error margin but less than twice the error margin, you should say that Candidate A “is ahead,” “has an advantage” or “holds an edge.” The story should mention that there is a small possibility that Candidate B is ahead of Candidate A.

Emphasis added. Certainly makes for a different story that way, does it not? We see this all the time, and in all kinds of races, but given that Obama has held a consistent lead over McCain for several months now – as in, not a single recent national poll has shown McCain with a lead – it’s particularly egregious to call this race a “dead heat”

One more point: Way back in 2004, Kevin Drum asked a couple of statisticians a question that really should be asked more frequently in all matters related to polling:

In fact, what we’re really interested in is the probability that the difference is greater than zero — in other words, that one candidate is genuinely ahead of the other. But this probability isn’t a cutoff, it’s a continuum: the bigger the lead, the more likely that someone is ahead and that the result isn’t just a polling fluke. So instead of lazily reporting any result within the MOE as a “tie,” which is statistically wrong anyway, it would be more informative to just go ahead and tell us how probable it is that a candidate is really ahead.

He goes on to provide an Excel spreadsheet that allows you to make that exact calculation. And guess what? Based on the CNN poll, the probability that Obama is actually ahead is almost 94%. Like I said, it sure looks different when reported that way, doesn’t it?

(I also discussed this at Kuff’s World.)

Why not just register as a lobbyist and be done with it?

Governor Perry makes like a vending machine: Money goes in, policy comes out.

Gov. Rick Perry’s request for a waiver of federal corn-based ethanol production mandates was prompted by a March meeting he had with East Texas poultry producer Lonnie “Bo” Pilgrim, who six days later gave $100,000 to the Republican Governors Association chaired by Perry.

In the three weeks following that donation, Perry’s staff began preparing to submit the renewable fuel standards waiver request to the federal Environmental Protection Agency, according to 596 pages of records obtained from the governor’s office by the Houston Chronicle under the Texas Public Information Act.

The donation, given March 31, also made it possible for Pilgrim to address nine Republican governors during a closed-door energy conference in Grapevine to explain his belief that ethanol production is driving up feed costs for poultry and livestock producers.

Perry aide Allison Castle said political donors get nothing but “good government” from Perry. She said he asked for the waiver because of ethanol’s potential negative impact on livestock and poultry producers. Castle said Perry is scheduled to meet with EPA Administrator Stephen L. Johnson this month.

You have to admire the initiative, I’ll say that much. If he were half as innovative in solving Texas’ problems, people might actually be excited at the prospect of four mofo years. He’ll make a great lobbyist some day, that’s all I know.

The state of electronic voting in Texas

Dan Wallach, who is an expert on electronic voting machines and their security, sums it up succinctly:

Texas’ [direct-recording electronic (DRE) voting machines] are simply vulnerable to and undefended against attacks.

That’s the last sentence of a long post about his recent testimony (PDF) to the House Elections Committee and the response from the electronic voting machine trade organization, which as you may imagine did not agree with him. Read it for yourself and see what you think.

The sock puppet in the news

It’s probably not a good idea to do stuff that makes your boss have to answer questions like these on camera.

I agree with Boadicea that Elise Hu asks a good question:

Is this kind of masquerade ethical when it comes to politics, if a paid staffer is anonymously writing about the very campaign for which he’s paid?

And I agree with the answer: No. That’s what this is about, the misrepresentation by David Beckwith of himself. How many times must people be outed as sock puppets before the message sinks in that this is both lame and stupid?

By the way, I love that the quote of Beckwith/Buck Smith shilling for a raise for himself has gotten prominent play in these stories. Politics aside, that captures the reason why this is a Bad Thing about as well as one can.

Court rules Dingus can be on the ballot

The last ballot access battle for 2008 that I am aware of has been resolved.

Texas House Speaker Tom Craddick, R-Midland, will have a Democratic opponent this fall.

State District Judge Margaret Cooper ruled [Monday] afternoon that Bill Dingus, a former Midland City Council member, can appear on the ballot.

Questions had been raised whether Dingus had resigned from the council in time to be on the ballot.

See here for some background. Evan Smith would like you to know that he had nothing whatsoever to do with this.

Walle, WALL-E

Now this is what I call an unexpected bonanza.

Thanks to WALL-E, the endearing little robot that could, the political name game may have gotten a little bit easier for Armando Walle, the state representative candidate in District 140.

For much of his life, Walle has patiently offered the correct spelling of his family name — pronounced Wally — and explained the backstory on how he got his nontraditional, yet still very Hispanic surname.

“When I would get nametags, they would always misspell my name,” said the 30-year-old North Houston Democrat, whose name was passed down from his Mexican-born father.

Before Disney came out with its computer-generated mass of metal, Walle used to hold up Mexican president Vincente Fox as an example.

“I’d tell people, ‘He doesn’t have a traditional Mexican name.’ ”

“Now,” he added, “all I have to say is, ‘It’s like the movie.’ ”


After the March 3 primary, in which Walle defeated incumbent state Rep. Kevin Bailey, a huge billboard boasting WALL-E the movie went up on U.S. 59 north, near the real-life Walle’s home.

Now, he said, people recognize the name all the time.

“Lately,” he said, “it’s been kinda crazy.”

But in the good way, obviously. It’s a nice thing to happen to a nice guy who will make a fine representative.

Virtual speed bumps

Um, okay.

Cathy Campbell did a double-take and tapped the brakes when she spotted what appeared to be a pointy-edged box lying in the road just ahead.

She got fooled.

It was a fake speed bump, a flat piece of blue, white and orange plastic that is designed to look like a 3-D pyramid from afar when applied to the pavement.

The optical illusion is one of the latest innovations being tested around the country to discourage speeding.

“It cautions you to slow down because you don’t know what you are facing,” Campbell said.

A smaller experiment two years ago in the Phoenix area found the faux speed bumps slowed traffic, at least temporarily. Now, in a much bigger test that began earlier this month, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration wants to find out if the markers can also reduce pedestrian accidents.

The fake bumps are being tested on a section of road in a business and residential area in Philadelphia’s northeastern corner. But soon they will also be popping up — or looking that way — on 60 to 90 more streets where speeding is a problem.

The 3-D markings are appealing because, at $60 to $80 each, they cost a fraction of real speed bumps (which can run $1,000 to $1,500) and require little maintenance, said Richard Simon, deputy regional administrator for the highway safety administration.

On one of three streets tested in the Phoenix trial, the percentage of drivers who obeyed the 25 mph speed limit nearly doubled. But the effect wore off after a few months.

“Initially they were great,” said the Phoenix Police traffic coordinator, Officer Terry Sills. “Until people found out what they were.”

Well, we know that red light cameras can alter drivers’ behavior for the better. The difference, of course, is that you know there’s really a camera there. Once you realize the speed bump is just an illusion, why would seeing them make a difference in how you drive?

Learning from the experience in Arizona, authorities are adding a publicity campaign in Philadelphia to let drivers know that the phony speed bumps will be followed by very real police officers, said Richard Blomberg, a contractor in charge of the study.

Even after motorists adjust, the fake bumps will act like flashing lights in a school zone, reminding drivers they are in an area where they should not be speeding, he said.

“After awhile the novelty wears off, but not the conspicuous effect,” Blomberg said.

You could probably get the same effect from just having the cops there, even only once in awhile. But whatever. If it’s cheap enough and it works, I guess I don’t see a problem.