Jon Wiener | The Nation

Jon Wiener

Jon Wiener

Politics and pop, past and present.

Prediction: Franken Will Win by 27 Votes

Nate Silver, whose website FiveThirtyEight.com had the most accurate predictions for the Nov. 4 vote for president and senators, has a new prediction: Al Franken will win the Minnesota Senate recount -- by 27 votes.

Franken came in 215 votes behind incumbent Republican Norm Coleman on election day, in an election where 2.9 million votes were cast. Under Minnesota election law, a hand recount was mandatory and began last Wednesday.

Silver, a sports statistician who turned his formidable mathematical talents to evaluating political polls for the 2008 election, became a legend among political junkies when his final prediction for the Nov. 4 election accurately predicted the winner of 49 of the 50 states. He forecast that Obama would beat McCain by 6.1 percentage points; Obama won by 6.8 points. Silver also correctly predicted the winner of every Senate race (except for Minnesota, which has not yet been settled).

Silver's methodology relies on multivariate regression analysis, well-known to statisticians but difficult for non-specialists to grasp. In this case he is analyzing precinct-by-precinct returns available on the Secretary of State's website, and focusing on the number of challenges from each camp. He released his projection Sunday afternoon.

The law governing recounts in Minnesota is excellent. The state has a complete paper trail for all ballots and a uniform system of counting for all counties (unlike Florida in 2000). If any intent on the part of the voter can be discerned, the ballot must be counted.

Disputed ballots will be adjudicated by a five-person state panel consisting of the Secretary of State and four judges. The Secretary of State is a Democrat; two of the judges were appointed by a Republican governor, one by an independent, and one elected in a non-partisan election.

Minnesota's ballot requires that voters fill in a circle next to the candidate's name. Machines read the ballots but fail to count votes indicated by check marks, X's, circled names, or other marks. Experts had predicted that Franken would pick up more votes in the hand count because Democrats were more likely to mis-mark their ballots – because they were first-time voters or less educated.

Since the law requires that any discernible intent of the voter be counted, those experts predicted that Franken would win. But they lacked a firm statistical basis for their prediction.

When FiveThirtyEight.com got almost five million page views on Election Day, the New York Times called Silver "perhaps the most unlikely media star to emerge" in 2008. He was also featured in the Wall Street Journal, Newsweek and the New Republic, and he appeared on The Colbert Report and the Rachel Maddow Show.

The race has special significance for Democrats: it's for the seat of legendary liberal Paul Wellstone, who was killed in a plane crash a week before election day in 2002. If Franken goes to Washington, the Democrats will have 59 seats in the Senate – close enough to the 60-vote filibuster-proof majority they have been dreaming of.

As of Sunday night at 800pm, the official recount had Coleman ahead by a whopping 25,000 votes, with about two-thirds of the ballots recounted and each side challenging about 950 of the other's ballots. That seems like a significant lead for Coleman, but Silver is sticking by his prediction.


Hillary's Big Ethics Problem: Bill

What guidelines should govern Bill Clinton's future activities if Hillary becomes Secretary of State? Recent events suggest that at least two are necessary: no more favors for human rights violators in exchange for big contributions to the Clinton Foundation; and no more lying to the news media about such deals.

It's worth remembering the nearly-forgotten story we could call "Bill Clinton and the Kazakh uranium." As Jo Becker and Don Van Natta Jr. of the New York Times reported in January, 2008, Bill Clinton was part of a corrupt three-way deal in 2005 involving the president of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev, whose human rights record has been criticized by many, including the Bush White House -- and Senator Hillary Clinton.

Kazakhstan has uranium--one fifth of the world's reserves. The president of Kazakhstan wanted to be named head of an international election-monitoring organization--the same one that had ruled his election fraudulent. What to do?

Bill Clinton had the solution: it centered on a Canadian financier named Frank Giustra who wanted to get in on the Kazakh uranium projects. Clinton and Giustra flew to Kazakhstan in September 2005 on Giustra's private jet and met with President Nazarabayev. According to the New York Times, Bill "expressed enthusiastic support for the Kazakh leader's bid to head an international organization that monitors elections," despite official opposition from the US as well as from his own wife.

Two days later, Giustra got the uranium deal he wanted. And shortly after that, the Clinton Foundation got its single largest contribution -- from a foundation controlled by Giustra -- $31 million. The contribution was secret, of course.

Then Jo Becker and Don Van Natta Jr. of the New York Times got onto the story. And then the Clinton people started lying.

When the Times asked about Bill's trip to Kazakhstan with the Canadian financier, Clinton sent a written response declaring that the two took the trip together "to see first-hand the philanthropic work done by his foundation." The paper reported that "a spokesman for Mr. Clinton" said Bill "did nothing to help" Giustra get his deal.

That story fell apart when the president of the Kazakh uranium project told the Times that the Canadian did discuss the deal directly with the Kazakh president, and that, according to the paper, "his friendship with Mr. Clinton 'of course made an impression.'"

But what does any of this have to do with Hillary? Quite a bit, it turns out: key staff members of her campaign also played key roles in the Clinton Foundation. Hillary's campaign chairman and chief fund-raiser, Terry McAuliffe, according to the New York Times, also "led the foundation's fund-raising and sits on its board." Hillary's campaign general counsel, Cheryl Mills, also sits on the foundation board. Hillary's campaign press secretary, Jay Carson, previously held a communications position at the foundation.

Frank Giustra is the biggest contributor to the Clinton Foundation, and the one the New York Times investigated. But the foundation has 208,000 contributors. How many other Kazakh-type deals did Bill make with them? Clinton is keeping their names secret from the public (although he has turned them over to the Obama team vetting Hillary).

Here's one more guideline regarding Hillary as Secretary of State: no more secrecy for donors to the Clinton Foundation.

McCain's Favorite TV Show, '24,' Brings Torture Back Sunday

John McCain's favorite TV show, 24 -- the one that glorifies torture - is returning to Fox TV this Sunday night with a two-hour special.

McCain named 24 as his favorite show on his Facebook page. The show has done more to advance the Bush White House defense of torture than anything else in the American media. According to its "ticking time bomb" scenario, the only way to stop terrorists from exploding a nuclear weapon in the heart of an American city is to torture them into revealing their fiendish plot.

During the campaign McCain was asked by a reporter which celebrity he most identified with. "It's Jack Bauer," he replied -- the Kiefer Sutherland character who does most of the torturing. "We have a lot in common." And in 2007 he talked about 24 on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart: "I watch it all the time," he said. "I'm sort of a Jack Bauer kind of guy."

You might think McCain's own experience as the victim of torture would make it hard for him to name the head of torture on TV as the celebrity he most identifies with. Perhaps we have here a delayed case of the famous "Stockholm Syndrome," where victims come to identify with their captors.

Jack Bauer deals with terrorists every week on the show: they are chained to walls or chairs, and he suffocates them, electrocutes them, shoots them, and sometimes tortures their children in front of them. Of course it always works; America is always saved by torture.

McCain appeared in a cameo on the show in 2006. "I shoot one guy's kneecap off, only one," McCain told reporters afterward. "A red-hot poker is planted in someone's chest, but other than that, there is no torture." (In fact McCain appeared only for a few seconds, handing a folder to someone else.)

McCain's enthusiasm for torture on TV is all the more puzzling because of his leadership in the Senate's legislation outlawing torture. In 2005 he introduced a bill prohibiting torture of prisoners including those held at Guantanamo, and the Senate passed it, 90-9. In the first TV debate in September McCain proudly declared, "I have opposed the president . . . on torture of prisoners, on Guantanamo Bay."

But according to 24, it is suicidal folly to follow the rules McCain sponsored about the treatment of prisoners. The same argument has been made by Bush spokesmen including Dick Cheney, who immediately after 9-11 said it would be necessary for the US to go to what he called "the dark side" to defeat Islamic extremism.

Cheney didn't explain much about what he meant, but "On '24,' the dark side is on full view," says New Yorker writer Jane Mayer, author of the award-winning book The Dark Side.

Historians say the "ticking time bomb" scenario advanced by the show, and the Bush administration, is purely fictional -- it's never happened that terrorists with knowledge of an imminent attack were in custody.

During the year-long political campaign, only one reporter confronted McCain with the seeming contradiction between his opposition to torture in real life and his love of torture on TV: Tara McKelvey of Marie Claire, a women's monthly published by Hearst. When McCain told McKelvey that he identified with Jack Bauer, she had exactly the right follow-up: "Um, he's also a torturer."

According to the published transcript, McCain responded, "Yeah, that's right. That's where Jack and I disagree. He believes in torture, but I don't. He says, 'Tell me where the weapons are.' The person says, 'I won't.' Bam! 'OK, I'll tell.'"

Then they moved on to Borat.

Sunday's two-hour 24 show is set on the day a woman president takes office -- a slight miscalculation by the show's writers. Previews show Jack Bauer with a group of children in Africab -- but he's not torturing them, he's rescuing them. The regular one-hour episodes begin next January.

One final note: Obama also listed a favorite TV show on his own Facebook page: his was ESPN Sportscenter.

California Initiatives: Go Figure

In California's wild world of ballot initiatives, the chickens defeated the egg factory owners, and an anti-abortion parental notification proposition was defeated.

Prop. 8, the ban on gay marriage, is winning 52-48 with 95 per cent reporting: see our separate coverage today by Richard Kim.

California's anti-abortion/parental notification initiative is losing, 52-48, with 95 percent of precincts reporting. The campaign was deeply dishonest – proponents called their proposition "Sarah's Law," supposedly in honor of a 15-year-old girl who died from an abortion gone wrong 14 years ago, an abortion where the parents were not notified. As the LA Times pointed out in an editorial, "Much of that is false. The girl's name wasn't Sarah; she lived in Texas, not California; and though she was 15, she already had a child and was in a common-law marriage, which means she wouldn't have been covered by the law Californians are being asked to consider."

The ad campaign for the proposition described "older men" who "exploit young girls and use secret abortions to cover up their crimes." But as the Times pointed out, "The most recent known case of serious injury that might have been prevented by Proposition 4 occurred in the 1980s." It was basically an anti-abortion initiative, with more than half of its funding coming from a single source, according to San Diego CityBeat: James Holman, editor and publisher of the San Diego Reader, who contributed about $1.5 million of the $2.7 million spent by the proponents.

Prop. 2, sponsored by the Humane Society, combated inhumane treatment of animals being bred for food – primarily chickens, who under the proposition would have to be able to stand up, lie down, turn around and extend their limbs in their cages. Similar provisions govern the treatment of pigs and cows. Egg farmers would have six full years before the new rules took full effect.

You might think everyone in California would support it, except for egg factory owners – but the L.A. Times officially recommended a "No" vote, on the grounds that it would increase the cost of California eggs and encourage the importation of cheaper out-of-state eggs. The voters didn't go for that argument – the proposition passed, 63-37 per cent.

Reform of the treatment of low-level drug users was the subject of a proposition asking voters to reverse the trend toward more draconian criminal law. Prop. 5, the Nonviolent Offender Rehabilitation Act, funded in part by George Soros, would have been "the most ambitious sentencing and prison reform in U.S. history," according to the Drug Policy Alliance Network. The measure would have substituted treatment for incarceration of those who committed nonviolent crimes involving drugs. It also would have ended the practice of returning to prison many ex-convicts with low-level parole violations.

The initiative was opposed by Governor Schwarzenegger and four predecessors from both parties: former governors Gray Davis, Pete Wilson, George Deukmejian and Jerry Brown. The prison guards union spent $1.8 million to defeat the proposition. And it was defeated, 60-40.


Life After Election Day

No more Todd, no more Track, no more Bristol.

No more Jon Stewart.

No more Colbert Report.

No more Rachel Maddow.

No more Bill Maher.

No more Politico.

No more Pollster.

No more RealClearPolitics, no more Talking Points Memo.

No more Daily Kos.

No more Hotline.

No more Hardball.

No more Gallup, no more Zogby, no more Rasmussen.

No more Drudge.

No more undecideds.

No more Sarah Palin.

No more John McCain.

The Undecideds: What's Their Problem?

Undecided voters--"or, as I call them, morons," Bill Maher says--remained a stubborn five or six percent of the electorate as the polls reported final results yesterday. Obama and McCain each have spent tens of millions on TV ads to persuade them, and thousands of hours of door-to-door canvassing to talk to them face to face. 

What's their problem? The undecideds have been staring at the menu now for almost a year--why haven't they made up their minds?

In fact the "undecideds" include at least four different groups

-- 1. The cross-pressured: people with conflicting political interests--upper-class white women from Republican families who are pro-choice; older white union members who don't want a black president.

-- 2. The cynical and alienated: people who say "all politicians are alike; they're all liars; the system is rigged."

-- 3. The inattentive and the ignorant: people who don't pay attention to politics, who say they aren't interested.

-- 4. The deceivers: people who really have decided--but won't tell the pollsters.

Each of these groups is likely to follow a different trajectory today:

The cross-pressured are the principal target for both campaigns, but for at least some of them, economic pressures push them towards Obama.

The cynical and alienated are likely to vote for a third party, or not at all.

The inattentive and ignorant may be moved by the enthusiasm and passion of the Obama campaign and its focus on the economy and health care.

The deceivers seem to me to be more likely to be secretive McCain supporters than Obama people.

So today it's hard to see any decisive movement one way or the other from the undecideds, but we may see some movement towards Obama.

Nevertheless, their votes could be crucial in states where the leading candidate had less than 50 per cent in the final polls. In Florida, for instance: Pollster.com, which aggregates the poll numbers, ended up with Obama at 48.3 and McCain at 46.1. That means 5.6 of likely voters were undecided the weekend before Election Day. If 71 per cent of the Florida undecideds went for McCain, he'd win 51.1 per cent of the popular vote – and of course all of Florida's 27 electoral votes.

The situation is similar in the final polling for Ohio, Indiana, Missouri and North Carolina, where Obama is ahead but didn't reach the 50 per cent mark.

Still, there's nothing that requires the undecideds to make up their minds. Despite the tens of millions the campaigns have spent to win their votes, many will probably stay home today. If that happens, Obama probably wins most of the swing states, where he was ahead in the final polls.

White Voters and Obama

Why isn't Obama farther ahead in the polling? The objective factors that favor the Democrats this year are overwhelming: the worst economy since the Great Depression, the most unpopular incumbent president in the history of polling, and a money advantage in the campaign that is unprecedented for a Democrat. The polls all show that Obama will win – but the authoritative polling statistics website, FiveThirtyEight.com, predicts that Obama will end up with 52 per cent of the vote.

If Obama does get 52 per cent of the white vote today, that will be more than any Democrat in the last 40 years – more than Bill Clinton, who got 49.2 per cent in 1996 (when Ross Perot got 8.4 per cent) and more than Jimmy Carter, who got 50.1 per cent in 1976. But it's nowhere near LBJ's 60.1 per cent in 1964, or Ronald Reagan's 58.8 percent in 1984.

One reason why Obama isn't farther ahead may be race. The evidence here is of course problematic. When the New York Times-CBS poll in August asked white people whether they would vote for a black presidential candidate, only five per cent said "no"--impressive evidence that America has at last overcome its racist past.

But the pollsters asked a number of other questions to uncover racist attitudes: do you think an Obama administration would favor blacks over whites? 16 per cent of whites said "yes." Do you think America is ready for a black president? 24 per cent of whites said "no." And the question pollsters consider the most significant: do you agree or disagree with the statement, "Most of the people I know would not vote for a black presidential candidate"? 19 per cent of whites agreed.

All this suggests the number of white likely voters who will vote against Obama today because he is black is somewhere between 16 and 24 per cent. That's something like 25 or 30 million racist white votes against Obama – more than the total number of black voters.

On the other hand: Obama has more support from white voters than any Democratic candidate in the last 30 years. According to another New York Times-CBS poll, 44 per cent of whites support Obama. If he ends up tonight with that 44 per cent, that will be more than supported Kerry, who got 41 per cent; more than Gore, who got 43 per cent; and more than Clinton in 1996, who also got 43 percent. Only Jimmy Carter got more: 47 per cent, and of course he was a southern white man.

The reason why more whites support Obama than any Democrat in the last 30 years is not hard to find: "it's the economy, stupid" -- that, and Obama's steady and calm focus on economic issues.

But if it were up to whites, McCain would almost certainly be our next president. Obama can win only with the vote of nonwhites – a fact well known to Republicans, who have spent years working to reduce the number of black voters through new voter ID laws, purges of the voter rolls, felon disfranchisement, insufficient voting equipment in black precincts, and other well-known factors. The Obama campaign surely knows all about this, and is prepared to fight fiercely to protect the vote.

One other crucial factor: America is significantly less white today than it was a decade or two ago. As John Harwood of the New York Times pointed out on Monday, when Reagan won reelection in 1984, the electorate was 86 per cent white; by 2004, the white percentage had dropped to 77. That's one reason why an interracial coalition is likely to elect America's first black president today.

Six Ways McCain Could Still Win

Six ways McCain could still win:

6. Thirty million young, first-time voters oversleep, forget to go to polls on Nov. 4.

5. Sarah Palin reveals secret past as Rhodes Scholar; admits "hockey mom" thing was just a ruse -- to avoid being called an "elitist."

4. Economic collapse ends, Dow hits new high. Mortage lenders that foreclosed on new homeowners say "never mind."

3. Al Qaeda throws in the towel, Osama turns himself in at the gates of Gitmo -- Bush declares "Mission Accomplished."

2. Jesus appears in Washington, D.C., urges Americans to vote the McCain-Palin ticket.

. . . and the number one way McCain could still win:

Supreme Court in 5-4 ruling declares McCain president.

Rich Old White Men: Still the Problem

The latest New York Times-CBS News poll identifies the demographic group with the highest level of support for John McCain: rich old white men. Coincidentally, they are also the people who control Wall Street, Congress, and the White House.

The poll defined "old" as "45 or older." Many will take issue with that definition, but those old white men supported McCain over Obama 48-42 per cent. White men under 45, in contrast, supported Obama, 50-43. And white women supported Obama, 45-42, whatever their age.

The poll also shows that rich white people are even more likely to support McCain - no surprise. Here the poll defined "rich" as earning $50,000 or more. Most will take issue with that definition, but those rich white people supported McCain 49-42. (The poll did not provide separate figures for women and men among rich old white people- probably their sample was not big enough.)

White Protestants are even more likely to support McCain, according to the poll: they split 55-34 for McCain. White Catholics in contrast supported Obama, 53-46.

Extrapolating from these figures, we can conclude that rich old white Protestant men are the base of McCain's support -- and thus the number one problem in American politics today.

The poll did contain some signs of progress, even for old white men: fewer of them support McCain than supported George W. Bush four years ago. 62 per cent of old white men voted for Bush in 2004, according to the poll, while only 48 percent plan to vote for McCain this year - a switch of 14 per cent of old white men from the "problem" category to the "part of the solution" group.

The shift away from the Republicans among old white men was dwarfed by the figure for young white men. Their support for the Republican candidate fell from 62 percent in 2004 to 43 per cent today--a whopping 19 percent switch away from the "problem" category. Young white men today prefer Obama, 50-43.

Another recent poll shows Obama winning more white voters than any Democrat in three decades. The Gallup Poll shows 44 percent of non-Hispanic white voters supporting Obama. Politico's David Paul Kuhn calls that "the highest number for a Democrat since 47 percent of whites backed Jimmy Carter in 1976." It's more than Bill Clinton got in 1996, when he won the support of 43 per cent of whites and 38 per cent of white men. The peak support for a Democrat among white voters was for Lyndon Johnson in 1964, who won more than 50 per cent.

The New York Times-CBS News poll was released October 24 and showed that the split among all registered voters was 52 per cent for Obama, 37 for McCain.

The Suffering of Wall Street Wives

"Wall Street wives are finding that they must defer dreams and fancy things," the L.A. Times reported in a page one story on Saturday. One wife, who had been looking forward to her husband's retiring with "$10 to $12 million," told the Times she was "so angry" with the stock market meltdown, which was "not in her plan." The husband made $400,000 last year, "but there are no reports yet on what will happen to 2008 bonuses and options."

The same day a page one story in the New York Times reported on yard sales at foreclosed homes in working class neighborhoods in California: "three-year-old Marita Duarte's tricycle was sold by her mother, Beatriz, to a stranger for $3 - even as her daughter was riding it." The mother had lost her job as a floral designer two months ago, and now the house has been lost.

On Wall Street the average income is $365,000, according to the Times, "although top-flight managers typically make many millions more." Wall Street wives described to L.A. Times reporter Geraldine Baum "the pain of walking through malls and boutiques -how it hurts knowing they can't grab a few things for themselves that might catch their fancy."

Meanwhile in working class Manteca, California, south of Sacramento, another family was selling their kids' toys at another yard sale. Constantino Gonzalez's problem? He lost his construction job, Patricia Leigh Brown reported. "We need to eat," he told his kids about why their toys were being sold. "I can't cover the sun with my finger. So why lie?"

Back on Wall Street, one wife described "bitterly" the "lavish gifts" they had given to others - like the $5,000 diamond-and-platinum ring her husband had given his sister when she got married, along with a week at the Bellagio in Las Vegas. "I wish I had that money now," the wife told the Times.

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