2012 Election

Defending Nate Silver and Math

As the November 6 election approached, a lot of commentators trained their fire at Nate Silver, a numbers guy who writes the FiveThirtyEight blog for The New York Times. Critics said Silver was crazy for projecting an 80 percent chance Barack Obama would win re-election.

Faux conservative commentator Stephen Colbert hosted Silver on his show and pooh-poohed his prediction that the election wasn't a "coin toss." Dylan Byers, media blogger at Politico, said Silver could become a "one-term celebrity."

Post-election, Paul Raeburn has blogged that critics who sniped at Silver seriously misunderstood what he does. Silver isn't a pollster. He is a statistician who uses polls and other data to model projected outcomes.

Raeburn says Silver's work should be compared to weather forecasters. They offer predictions based on probability, such as a 75 percent chance of rain. It's not the same as saying it will rain, just that there is a high likelihood it will rain.

For many people, from Karl Rove to New York Times columnist David Brooks to the New York Times public editor, it was illogical to predict such an overwhelming prospect of an Obama victory when most polls showed the popular vote as neck and neck.

However, Silver was modeling the probability of what would occur, not prophesying it. A Romney victory November 6 would not have gone against what he modeled; it merely would have demonstrated that Romney beat the odds.

$6 Billion Buys Status Quo

Despite $6 billion spent in federal election campaigns, the political landscape in Washington, D.C. remains virtually unchanged — basically the same cast, plot and fiscal cliff.

President Obama's decisive electoral college victory, a fortified Democratic majority in the Senate and a return GOP majority in the House set the stage for a dramatic few weeks before the January 2 deadline when tax cuts expire and drastic spending cuts go into effect. 

The drama may prove anti-climatic, as some observers predict the lame-duck Congress will punt the ball to itself by approving short-term extensions of tax cuts and current spending levels – the equivalent of driving to the cliff, but at a slower speed.

Meanwhile, the election produced some positive outcomes for the Northwest congressional delegation:

  • Senator Patty Murray, D-Wash, who wasn't even on the ballot, may have scored the biggest victory by keeping Senate Democrats in the majority, a prospect that seemed dim just six months ago. Murray will retain her chairmanship of the Senate Transportation and Housing Appropriations Subcommittee and assume the chairmanship of the Senate Budget Committee, both formidable perches to influence economic and job-stimulus policy.

  • Senator Ron Wyden, D-OR, is slated to become chairman of Senate Energy and Natural Resources, the first chair since 1987 from a non-oil producing state. He can be expected to cheerlead for domestic energy production and use, while continuing to oppose exporting liquefied natural gas. Wyden also sits on Senate Finance, which will be involved in federal tax reform, something he has championed.

Two Nerds, One Big Idea

Republican Paul Ryan (left) and Democrat Ron Wyden ignited a political firestorm in Democratic circles by jointly proposing a Medicare reform plan with private-sector involvement.Compromise and election-year messaging are often lightning bolts streaking in opposite directions. Congressional Republicans, intent on uprooting President Obama from the White House, have felt the tension. And so has Oregon Senator Ron Wyden, who teamed with House Budget Chair Paul Ryan on an improbable proposal to reform Medicare.

Congressional Republicans buckled to election pressures as they agreed to a compromise last week to extend a payroll tax cut, continue jobless benefits and block a Medicare fee cut to doctors.

But Wyden has no reason to buckle. A Democrat, he was re-elected comfortably in 2010 and remains one of Oregon's most popular political figures, in part because he is willing to work across the political aisle. Seeking bipartisan solutions on controversial issues is viewed today as the act of a political maverick in much the same way as Senators Wayne Morse and Mark Hatfield opposing the Vietnam War.

The Potomac Watch column in the Wall Street Journal ran a piece describing what it called the Democratic establishment's "War on Wyden” for his Medicare collaboration with Ryan. It noted New York Times columnist Paul Krugman called Wyden a "useful idiot" to Mitt Romney's presidential election bid. House Democrats, according to WSJ, "hissed the plan would end Medicare as we know it." And a former Senate staffer complained Wyden undercut a key argument for Democrats regaining control of Congress.

Wu's Woes Now Include Primary Challenger

Congressman David Wu (left) has a new political worry – a Democratic primary challenger, State Labor Commissioner Brad Avakian, who has electoral experience and a statewide platform.Oregon First District Congressman David Wu has had a year he would like to forget and now may be facing a year he wish he could avoid with a formidable Democratic challenger.

State Labor Commissioner Brad Avakian announced his candidacy today, more than a year before the May 2012 primary, giving him plenty of time to swing away at Wu, as well as tout his own credentials. He is a former state senator whose district straddled Washington and Multnomah counties, where a Democrat must score big to win the seat.

Avakian also has shown himself adept in his current post of attracting publicity, most of it positive. Wu has gotten a lot of ink, too, most of it not so positive. The Oregonian has been especially relentless on his case.

Avakian may not be the only fellow Democrat to challenge Wu. State Rep. Brad Witt, who has a background in organized labor, has expressed interest, as have a handful of others who sense Wu's political vulnerability.

According to campaign records, Wu anticipated another serious Republican challenger and has hit the trail early raising funds for his 2012 re-election bid. But records show he has a lingering debt from last year's campaign. The beleaguered congressman also has to replace his campaign staff, which quit after he was re-elected last November.

It is too early to tell whether Wu is actually in political hot water. He won election over a credible GOP challenger by a comfortable margin. But post-election coverage has been a nightmare for Wu. With Avakian and maybe others in the race, Wu's nightmare just keeps getting scarier.