< Journalists Predicting the Political Future

Transcript

Friday, September 16, 2011

BOB GARFIELD:

From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. Brooke Gladstone is away this week. I'm Bob Garfield.

On Tuesday Republican Bob Turner defeated Democrat David Weprin to take control of New York's ninth congressional district, the seat vacated by Anthony Weiner after a spring scandal. This was widely reported in the press as a possible bellwether for 2012, a sign that voter frustration with President Obama had trickled down even into New York politics.

[CROWD CHEERS]

MALE CORRESPONDENT:

A stunning upset seen as a wake up call for the White House.

[CROWD CHEERING]

FEMALE CORRESPONDENT:

In a district where Republicans are outnumbered three to one, it’s a shocking outcome.

MALE CORRESPONDENT:

And it seems like -- you know, it seems like the whole world’s just tiltin’ on its head right now.

MALE CORRESPONDENT:

…what is seen as a stinging rejection of President Obama and his policies.

BOB GARFIELD:

But was this a bellwether or was it another phenomenon altogether, an example of the media taking a single data point and turning it into a narrative?

Political stat guru Nate Silver wrote about this for The New York Times. Nate, welcome back to OTM.

NATE SILVER:

Yeah, thank you.

BOB GARFIELD:

So one possibility is that the loss of this  hitherto fairly safe Democratic seat to a Republican does presage nationwide rebuke of the Democrats and of the Obama administration in the fall. Can we begin by exploring why that actually may be the case?

NATE SILVER:

There were actually two special elections on Tuesday night, one in New York and the other in Nevada. And the Democrats lost both. And the one in Nevada they probably weren’t favored to win, but they lost it by 22 points in a district that Barack Obama had come very close to winning in 2008.

So you can make one set of excuses in one case. I think the excuses might not be bad in New York, as far as it being a quirky district. But when you have two of these cases on one night, you certainly see evidence that we have, you know, maybe not a tsunami or something coming, but some problems, a little bit of flooding [LAUGHS] into an areas where Democrats had hoped to do better, which would forebode a rough night for them next November.

BOB GARFIELD:

Yeah, and in ninth grade geometry we learned that two points does determine a line. On the other hand, this isn’t geometry [LAUGHS] we’re talking about. Do these two results represent to you projectable data?

NATE SILVER:

Well, from my point of view it’d be great if we had two dozen congressional districts voting every month, you know, where you constantly rotated people. Then we’d have a really good, tangible sign of the movement of the country.

But two is not all that many, certainly, out of 435. And remember also, as recently as May,  Democrats won a seat from Republicans in upstate New York in a Republican-leaning district. I mean, at the time there was a lot of talk about that being a referendum on Medicare, and so forth.

BOB GARFIELD:

Okay, but give me the argument please for why this is, in fact, not projectable and may in absolutely no way presage anything.

NATE SILVER:

I think there are three basic points here, number one being that the political climate has been very volatile so far this year, as we see from what happened in the May special  election, which was way in favor of Democrats versus today.

And number two, particularly in the New York district, I'm not sure you can extrapolate the demographics there to others elsewhere in the country. And number three, you don't have any incumbents on the ballot in these cases. By definition, you have a special election when an incumbent leaves office. And one question here is, you know, there's gonna be a partisan shift one way or the other - we don't know which way yet.

There may be, on top of that, an anti-incumbent wave. We have record levels of dissatisfaction with the Congress in lots of polls. There are surveys now saying most people want to boot their own member of Congress out of office, not just the ones in other districts. That number’s never been seen before in polls.

So we don't know what happens when you have Democratic and Republican incumbents on the ballot next November. You could have a case where both parties lose quite a few seats.

BOB GARFIELD:

So, this gets back to where I started on this: does the press really have any business trying to use a single special election to represent something as broad as the results of a presidential election 14 months hence?

NATE SILVER:

With the right context, this is absolutely the story that, that should be covered, you know. On a zero to ten scale, you know, it’s about a six or seven as far as newsworthiness goes, compared to what happens on a typical day.

Without that context you're basically repeating spin, and the spin can get pretty desperate on both sides, especially the losing side, you know. And I think if you look at the data, it does support the idea that Democrats should be worried. But I think some of the headlines don't necessarily do  the topic justice.

BOB GARFIELD:

Well yeah, the lead-up to the election was the week of 9/11 commemoration, and the story got pushed out of the agenda by all things 9/11. And then by a Republican unseating a Democrat in this district it became a kind of man bites dog, right?

But the question is, is it man bites dog or is it an augury of things to come?

NATE SILVER:

But you’re getting this “drip drip drip” of information. I think this is a larger and more important drip than a new poll or something, but this is a very, very long kind of perpetual campaign. We are still 14 months removed from when people will be voting again in November.

And so, you know, it’s all a matter of proportionality, understanding that, in the long run, Democrats are gonna win some news cycles and Republicans will too, and Republicans certainly won this one.

BOB GARFIELD:

All right. Nate, thank you so much.

NATE SILVER:

Thank you for having me on.

BOB GARFIELD:

Nate Silver writes the 538 blog for The New York Times