Reversion to the mean, or: Polling is hard

In today’s edition of Pointlessly Provocative Headlines Based on Fundamental Misunderstandings of How Polling Works, we’ve got this: Support for Trump Plunges 12 Points: Did The Donald Finally Go Too Far?

Did he go too far? Well, sure. The guy is basically modeling (slightly) covert fascism these days. But the entire hook for this story is meaningless, because the supposed decline was just a drop from an outlier in the previous iteration of poll. Reuters/Ipsos had him at 43% a week ago, which was WAY ahead of his national polling average, and way ahead of where this poll has also pegged him recently. So he ‘plunged’ back down to 31%…which is higher than his average on RCP has ever gotten.

What’s more likely? That his support spiked and then collapsed within a few days, or that the previous poll overestimated his support and the newer one simply reverted to the mean?

Look, single polls are tiny data points. You can mostly ignore them. And especially ignore them if they are counterpoised against previous versions of that same poll to try and tell a story of wild swings.

Maybe Trump really is starting to crater. But writing a story like this based on the movement in a single poll is grasping for narrative and a disservice to your readers.


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50 songs for 50 states: Kentucky

harlan hills

You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive – Brad Paisley

Kentucky is a difficult one. For one thing, it’s one of the few cases where the official state song is in serious contention. “My Old Kentucky Home” is a beautiful song, maybe the finest written by Stephen Foster, one of the great American songwriters of the 19th century. And, something I didn’t realize until I researched it for this post, it was originally composed as an anti-slavery ballad (inspired by Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and endorsed by Frederick Douglass!).  There are many lovely versions of the song, but my favorite is this one, performed beautifully by John Prine.

But I’m not going with that one. And neither am I going with that other great John Prine song, “Paradise.”  I’m walking by Emmylou’s “Blue Kentucky Girl,” and I’m also passing on “Kentucky Rain,” one of my favorite late-career Elvis songs. And speaking of Elvis, I’m also not taking “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” one of his very first songs (also sung beautifully by Patsy Cline and, particularly, Ray Charles among others).

Rather than any of those, I’m instead going with “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive,” a haunting and beautiful song about the weight of generations, who founded a place for themselves in the hills of Harlan County, who have lived there for years untold, who have suffered under the weight of poverty, of industry that came and then departed again. A region of striking workers and bitter fights, of racial mixing and racial violence, of beautiful hills and black lungs.

I’m not the biggest Brad Paisley fan in the world, but holy hell does he do a good job with this one. And if it’s more your style, there’s also a great Patty Loveless version.

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Rubio is the frontrunner (ignore those polls)

Marco Rubio is the most likely current candidate to win the Republican nomination, and that’s true regardless of what the polls say. And it’s true regardless of what the polls say about Iowa and New Hampshire, too.

That’s a bit of a puzzle, particularly given this factoid, mentioned by the folks over at NBC’s First Read:

After his strong debate performances, after the endorsements he’s picked up and after Jeb Bush’s weakened position, Marco Rubio looks to be the Republican frontrunner — at least in the “establishment” bracket of the GOP race. And there’s the emerging perception that, if the early contests started tomorrow, Rubio would be the odds-on favorite to win the Republican nomination. But here’s what gives us a little pause: Is he built to win in either Iowa or New Hampshire? Remember, in this modern political era, every GOP nominee has won EITHER Iowa or New Hampshire. Right now, he’s standing in third place in public polling in both states – behind both Trump and Carson.

The problem with this argument is that the modern political era has also never seen a candidate win the nomination (or even come particularly close) without strong traditional political credentials. That is: they have served high political office, or they were a general, and strong support within the party establishment.

And that seems a far more ironclad basis for assessing the strength of a candidate than the fact that no Republican has won without taking one of the first two states.

I mean, look, Iowa and New Hampshire are important, of course. But their importance is more about them being bellwethers than anything else. Basically: folks who do poorly in those two states generally fade away because those failures are usually indications that the candidacy isn’t going anywhere, so people turn their attention elsewhere.  But that’s not even close to guaranteed to happen if Trump/Carson win them.  It’s quite possible that people will continue treat them as sideshows rather than genuine competitors, meaning that finishing ‘third’ will be interpreted by a lot of people as ‘finishing first among the real candidates.’

Obviously, winning those states would be way better than losing them. But I remain thoroughly unconvinced that Trump/Carson represent a genuinely new force in electoral politics. It seems far more likely that they’ll fade eventually, and that’s grounded in something a lot more tangible than the indicative power of Iowa/NH.


And, it’s worth noting, Iowa is still months away. Rubio hasn’t actually lost those states. He just hasn’t taken a polling lead. Meanwhile, Trump and Carson already are thoroughly non-traditional candidates.  Maybe that won’t end up mattering. But until I see more definitive evidence of that fact, I’ll continue discounting their odds quite a bit more than Rubio’s.

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50 songs for 50 states: Kansas

Holy cow, does Kansas have some slim pickings. If not for this song, I honestly have no clue what I even would have picked. And this song isn’t even really about Kansas. Jimmy Webb’s inspiration for the song were the the telephone lines of Washita County, Oklahoma, but in writing it he discovered that ‘Wichita’ sounded a lot better in the lyric, and that’s how it ended up.

That said, it’s hardly inappropriate to think about Kansas when it comes to songs drenched in loneliness and despair.

I’ve never actually been that in love with Glen Campbell, but he sings the hell out of this one. And “I hear you singing in the wire” is just one of the great lines in the history of songwriting.

This is also one of those songs that has spawned a million awesome covers. I’m most partial to the R.E.M. one myself, but there are plenty to enjoy.

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The kids are alright – three cheers for the students

We hear a lot of stories about students these days. Complaints about a culture of protest and shelter. About students who demand safe spaces, who shy away from engaging anything difficult, who treat the academic space as a therapy session, and who reject the time-tested principle of free speech and the marketplace of ideas. Who just want to complain and don’t want to learn.

I think these stories are exceptionally silly for the most part, and I want to talk about why. It’s not that there is no truth in them. But the truth is often deeply distorted, to the point where it’s almost unrecognizable.

Now, I don’t pretend that my experience is universal, of course, but all I can say is this:

Over the past seven years, I have taught thousands of students, at a fairly liberal institution. And in all that time, I honestly cannot recall a single one who I would characterize as wanting to be ‘coddled,’ or who demanded the right to hide away from difficult or troubling material. What I have seen are many students who see the academic space as important for developing and growing, for coming to understand different ideas and different ways of life. And for becoming more comfortable in their own skins.

Often their idealism is unsophisticated at best or blunt at worst. They often latch onto simple explanations for complex problems, and gnash their teeth at the stupidity of others who fail to see things in such clear terms. They often exaggerate the effect of relatively small events, and dismiss too quickly those who might still be open to persuasion.

And, of course, I occasionally lament the naivete this exposes.

But then I remember myself at the same age. And I remember so many other generations that have gone through the same process. And in thinking of those things, I don’t simply chuckle and say to myself ‘well, they’ll grow out of it.’ Instead, I take heart that complacency is not so easily instilled. The world is made better by people who care, by people who don’t accept what is. By people who don’t yet know better.

There are many reasons to be dismayed about the current state of academia. But the fact that it’s filled with students who are constantly looking to change the terms of their education, who are asking more of those that teach them, who are taking advantage of this space and making it something that speaks to them…well, that’s pretty low on my list.

I’m much more concerned with those seeking to maintain all the unspoken elements of privilege that have corroded these spaces over the many centuries, who use tools of mockery to belittle those who see violence in the habits that sustain such privilege, and who dismiss out of hand the premise that anyone challenging the status quo could ever be right.  Who assume that because something doesn’t bother them, it can’t possibly bother anyone else, either. Who see the educational experience they obtained as neutral and natural, and who therefore cannot even understand why that experience might not serve students who come to college via different routes, with different skin, different sexuality, different cultural backgrounds, different emotions, and different values.

There is a lot to complain about in contemporary academia. But if the primary focus of your complaints is the students, well…that says a lot more about you than it does about them.

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50 songs for 50 states: Iowa

iowa hills

Iowa (Traveling III) – Dar Williams

Dar Williams can capture a specific feeling better than just about anyone, and this song is one of her finest examples. The feeling of repression that you learn to cultivate, the things that are not discussed, or even acknowledged. The terror of setting yourself free, the fear that knots your heart, the possibility of an endless road in front of you.

And the way you can’t help but turn away from all of that, to look back and lament what you’ve lost.

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

One sidenote: it does feel a little bit ironic that the greatest ever song about Iowa is built around the idea that ‘the hills of Iowa’ make her think of the curves of a beautiful body. I mean, I know Iowa partisans will point out that it’s not quite as flat as you might think, but still…

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Let’s always be you and me


Always – Moving Panoramas

Gentle guitar lines that wash over you in waves. Warm melodies wrapped lightly around beautiful voices. Deceptively simple chord progressions that feel immediately intimate and familiar, but still fresh and exciting. It’s timeless, speaking truths that last beyond this moment.

It’s the sound of a dream that stays with you all day.

Moving Panoramas have produced a truly beautiful record, one that evokes Galaxie 500, the Cocteau Twins, Slowdive, and about a hundred other bands you probably love just as much. Basically, this is the best Labrador Records album I’ve heard in years, except they’re from Austin.

One came out this week, and I’ve already listened about a dozen times. Go get yourself a copy and do the same.


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50 songs for 50 states: Indiana

A musical celebration of the 50 states. One song each week over the course of the year.

Not too many great songs about Indiana. There are lots of Mellencamp songs about Indiana, but like I said…not too many great songs about Indiana. Anyways, I’m rescued from having to go with “Small Town” or something by the wonderful David Mead album about the state.

It’s one of those great works that manages to convey both what people love about a place and what outsiders hate about it simultaneously. Mead’s Indiana is the ‘middle of nowhere,’ which the singer has to trek through on an endless tour, to little acclaim. But it’s also portrayed as beautiful in its own quiet way. As you travel through, you only experience the loneliness, but you can sense that it really does count as home for all these people that you pass along the way. And in some ways, that makes it hurt just a little bit more.

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50 songs for 50 states: Illinois

chicago white city

Come On! Feel the Illinoise! (Part I: The World’s Columbian Exposition – Part II: Carl Sandburg Visits Me in a Dream – Sufjan Stevens

Plenty of great options for Illinois—including but not limited to: Wilco, Common, Sinatra, Sun Kil Moon, The Mountain Goats, and Kanye—but c’mon people, I was never going to not pick Sufjan here. Illinois is his masterpiece and produced a dozen or so tracks that I could have gone with.

But in the end, it’s this one. Not my favorite song on the album (though it’s close), but the one that most fully evokes the feeling of the place. The first half is an eruption of spirit: the majesty, the excitement, the bustle, the inspiration, and the sadness. Oh great white city! And then it eases into the glorious beautiful of the second half, when Carl Sandburg visits him and wonders ‘are you writing from the heart?’ God, it’s just so beautiful.

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A nation built on slavery

Today’s episode of ‘you can’t be serious’ is provided by Sean Wilentz in the Op-Ed pages of the New York Times. Willentz is arguing that Bernie Sanders is wrong to say that the United States was founded on racist principles. His evidence:


THE Civil War began over a simple question: Did the Constitution of the United States recognize slavery — property in humans — in national law? Southern slaveholders, inspired by Senator John C. Calhoun of South Carolina, charged that it did and that the Constitution was proslavery; Northern Republicans, led by Abraham Lincoln, and joined by abolitionists including Frederick Douglass, resolutely denied it. After Lincoln’s election to the presidency, 11 Southern states seceded to protect what the South Carolina secessionists called their constitutional “right of property in slaves.”

The war settled this central question on the side of Lincoln and Douglass. Yet the myth that the United States was founded on racial slavery persists, notably among scholars and activists on the left who are rightly angry at America’s racist past. The myth, ironically, has led advocates for social justice to reject Lincoln’s and Douglass’s view of the Constitution in favor of Calhoun’s. And now the myth threatens to poison the current presidential campaign. The United States, Bernie Sanders has charged, “in many ways was created, and I’m sorry to have to say this, from way back, on racist principles, that’s a fact.”

But as far as the nation’s founding is concerned, it is not a fact, as Lincoln and Douglass explained. It is one of the most destructive falsehoods in all of American history.

Yes, that’s really his argument.

Okay, so let’s set aside the fact that there is a whole of lot of room for ‘racist principles’ to wreck havoc on lives over the centuries that doesn’t even include the bare fact of slavery, and just focus on the simple question of slavery.

Willentz is arguing that the Constitution rejected the principle of racial human bondage, and rejected it so firmly that…a war had to be fought to enforce the question, and three new Amendments had to be written and jammed through in order to protect those rights.

Sometimes I just can’t even…

(By the way, if you want some good history on the relationship between slavery and the founding, I found Mark Graber’s Dred Scott and the Problem of Constitutional Evil to be pretty good.  Dred Scott was an evil decision, but it’s hard to show that it was ‘wrong’ according to the standards available at the time.

It’s a terrible and ironic truth about our nation’s founding that Calhoun–an evil man espousing an evil position–in many ways had the most clear-eyed perspective on what the Constitution demanded.)

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