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John Dickerson replies

October 26th, 2012, 9:00pm by Sam Wang

I’ve been exchanging emails today with John Dickerson of Slate/CBS. As many of you know, he and I take different approaches to building a story about a campaign. Tonight he replied directly to my essay. I reproduce his comment below. As usual for PEC commenters, I know you’ll keep it civil. -SW

Hello everyone. I’m John Dickerson. Sorry to be late in joining the party. I was flying back from Ohio and have the chance to sit still for a second. I see that instead of characterizing the battle over momentum, I’m now a player in it.

The piece that is the focus of Dr. Wang’s analysis had pretty modest aims (just 6 paragraphs). I was trying to write a short scene piece about a day with Romney. That’s why I used a dateline, which I don’t normally do, and which we wouldn’t put on an analysis piece. Also I used a scene in the lead and kicker which wouldn’t be expected in a piece looking at the polls. So I was trying to explain what I saw that was new, which was that a candidate who was once a vessel for anti-Obama sentiment is receiving reactions that are different than before.

To the extent that the rallies are more intense and pro-Romney (rather than merely anti-Obama) I thought that was notable. This kind of scene reporting is really subjective and gives you a flavor for the race more than the direction in which it is heading. That’s why I tried three different times in the piece to say that everything that I was recording was possibly meaningless to the final outcome. I mentioned the example of the McCain Appleton, Wisconsin event in 2008. He lost the state by 14 points and lost all three counties Appleton touches.

The use of momentum in the headline was probably misleading in the context of the current debate and the goal of the piece. To the extent I was thinking about momentum at all, I was thinking of it in the way it works in clashing billiard balls. Two balls can have momentum at the same time, one more than another. So Romney can have Republicans coming on board and more intense than ever and since that’s an improvement relative to his previous position, he has momentum. Obama is banking lots of early votes, and they appear to be low propensity voters, so he’s got momentum too. It also seems possible to have a race in which no one seems to have momentum but one will be a clear winner. It’s also possible to have a period where Romney has momentum– say after the first debate– and Obama still had lots of advantages that would allow him to win which would mean no momentum but a clear lead in the race.

Thanks for taking an interest in my work. If you want, you can read it here.

Sometimes the headline and subhead can squash the piece a bit so it might be worth reading it all to see if there are other ways in which I erred. Have a good weekend everybody.

John Dickerson, Slate Politics

Tags: 2012 Election · President

95 Comments so far ↓

  • Peter D

    John! How exciting to see you here!

    1. I think your posting here is awesome. Kudos.
    2. I understand your points on subjectivity and color. I agree that what you’ve seen should be part of a narrative.
    3. I I think that a primary objection is with your use of the word momentum. I think there has to be a way to show the effect you noticed without implying that the race is actually moving towards Romney, which is quantitatively and verifiably false.
    4. I also think that your characterization of the Ohio polls as being ambiguous is something that the readers of this blog take issue with.

  • ML

    Good for you to come and answer the critics, even if I don’t totally agree. I think the headline was the killer though. Attention-grabbing, sure, but took away from otherwise would’ve been a fine “color” piece.

    It could’ve been worse, though. At least you weren’t Wolf Blitzer claiming a 4-pt lead in a poll is the same as a tie.

  • Chuck Sigars

    Thanks to John Dickerson for giving some insight on that piece, and having the grace to do it on a site where he was getting some heat. He’s not the first to be hoist by a headline writer, and I do think it was more of a snapshot than making a case for Mittmentum. And as a fan of the show, I’d also recommend the Slate Political Gabfest, where John sticks up for all of us poll junkies.

  • Brett

    Props to Mr. Dickerson for a classy response.

    And kudos, as always, to Dr. Wang for making a damn good case against the (demonstrably false) notion of polling “momentum” in favor of Romney.

  • L. Murray

    You are obviously a very generous person, Dr. Wang. But I have to say, as a long-time fan of Slate’s Political Gabfest, that John Dickerson’s piece really shook my faith in his political acuity.

    I am putting my trust in your analysis.

    • Sam Wang

      Well, I didn’t care for it either, as you know. The slug (the italicized text at the top of the article) didn’t help.

      In fairness to what he does, it is a hard task to build a coherent story out of a campaign. Reporters use polls to help establish a starting point, combined with their personal observations. Good statistical analysis can cut through the data noise – and set the stage for a proper narrative. Combining reportage with statistics -now that would be good.

    • wheelers cat

      Reporters and pundits are first culture intellectuals.
      Dr. Wang is a third culture intellectual.

    • 538 Refugee

      Well, as someone that rarely laughs out loud I appreciate it gave the opportunity for Dr. Wang to drop this classic: “Ah, yes. The Great Election of October 13, 2012. I remember it well.”. It will go right up there for me with, “This is math class, you don’t vote on the answers!” (Somehow that seems relevant here too.)

  • smartone1

    The troubling part of this narrative is that it is almost like the media is trying to achieve a self fulfilling prophecy.

  • Eric M.

    John D.’s one of the best in the biz. If his piece was flawed at all, I’m willing to cut him more than a little slack.

  • Frances Smith

    Dear Dr. Wang,
    As a poll junkie and a retired researcher and educator, I visit your site every day to see what you have to say about the state of the race. I love this site. Thank you for your analyses.

  • Olav Grinde

    Dr Wang, a class act for you to highlight John Dickerson’s response in its own thread. This site continues to impress me…in every way!

  • Rey Howard

    Dickerson’s response is disingenuous. He can equivocate as much as he likes, but the fact is that both of the points in the subhead of his article — there’s no telling whose momentum is greater; Romney is peaking at just the right moment — are demonstrably false (thank you, Sam Wang!).

  • Brian

    You should have seen the crowds for Presidents Dukakis and Mondale.

  • Shirley Scritchfield

    John, I appreciate your willingness to provide context to your narrative. That does offer a better sense of what you were about. Still, as one who sees the media as actively manipulating and being actively manipulated by data distortion, your piece played into my growing dismay and distrust. I frankly turn to this site and those working with other algorithms (such as 538) to get an honest sense of where we are. You are a good wordsmith and analyst–please, please choose your words more carefully so you do not add to the enormous distortions that color our political climate. And, Sam, thanks for both bring John into the conversation–AND for being such a straightforward analyst.

  • Brash Equilibrium

    So your use of momentum wasn’t because you thought Romney has momentum, but because it made a good headline? Typical.

  • Amitabh Lath

    Mr. Dickerson, I liked your piece, and I admire people who can write, especially since I find it difficult.

    Momentum has a specific meaning, and you and your colleagues are using it incorrectly. A semi truck inching along has more momentum
    (mass * velocity) than a blazing fastball. So if you wrote about a tens of thousands of registered Democrats quietly casting their early votes as an example of larger momentum than a stadium full of shouting Republicans (or visa versa) I might understand.

    But frankly, I do not see how a single fired up stadium equals momentum. Walter Mondale probably also had an intense rally or two.
    It’s just that time of the year.

    • Matt McIrvin

      Well, the word “momentum” existed in Latin before it became a technical term, so I suppose physics doesn’t have a monopoly on the word.

      I became more relaxed about colloquial uses of terms like “energy” and “force” once I realized that physics borrowed those words from elsewhere rather than the reverse.

    • Amitabh Lath

      I’m sure even in Latin momentum did not refer to a coliseum full of Romans cheering on their favorite gladiator.

      And since Sir Isaac, the word has had a specific meaning. Any analogy should at least make reference to the current proper meaning of the word.

    • Olav Grinde

      Amitabh, I must confess that I was confused by John Dickerson’s use of momentum, and even more confused by his explanation, which proffered a meaning of the word I had never before encountered.

      I do realize that the meanings of words change, but…

      Take decimate, for instance. Today it has come to mean destroy or almost eliminate. It used to specifically mean to kill or destroy one tenth.

    • jdb

      I recall an entire “Nightline” episode in October, 1984, devoted to the building enthusiasm of the Mondale campaign.

  • BillOhio

    Appreciate John clarifying his intent. I beleive the larger issue is reporters participating in groupthink, if not in intent, in words. Clearly the Romney momentum line Boston approved catchphrase of the week. When numerous reporters are using the same terms regardless what the data shows they do readers/viewers a disservice. They are substituting campaine implanted rhetoric for true observation and reporting.

    Different topic. CNN produced what they called a scientific poll after the 3rd debate that showed a 8 point Obama win then described it as a tie. They did a poll in Ohio which they reported on today, 4 point Obama lead, again a tie. Exactly how far ahead does a candidate need to be in a poll to not be a “tie”? Is that standard, whatever it is consistent?

    • Ross C

      If it’s Obama, there is probably no lead that will qualify as being any more than a tie. Apparently, so long as Romney is trailing by no more than 4, it’s a tie.

      The problem is that that thinking by the media falls exactly in line with the thinking of partisan Romney supporters. The comments on Nate Silver’s website are riddled with people denouncing his work because Rasmussen and Gallup LV show Romney ahead. The media reports on the whole seem like little more than that.

    • Richard Vance

      “Reporters engaging in groupthink”, yes thank you for helping me to understand CNN this election season. They have lost their originality and independence. It may be a budget thing, they don’t have the money to go investigate for themselves so sit around and group think.

    • Matt McIrvin

      Often people call any difference within the sampling MOE a “statistical tie”, which can give the misleading impression that such a difference conveys no information whatsoever. It bothers me especially when they still do this to aggregated poll numbers, and still call a difference in the aggregate a “statistical tie” if it’s within the MOE for the individual polls.

      (Of course, systematic error could be another matter entirely, but that’s not what stated MOE is about.)

    • Terry

      Difficult not to view CNNs ‘news’ (did u catch the one about ovarian voting cycling?) as a rather desperate business decision to tack right, as FOX tacks slightly left, and MSNBC does just fine with the left.

      Blitzer has always been a ……

    • Philip Diehl

      CNN cast its poll after the third debate as a modest win for Obama, not as a tie. But that misrepresentation pales compared to other aspects of how CNN presented the poll and how the MSM reported conflicting results from the CNN, CBS and PPP flash polls.

      The CNN poll drew from a sample of all voters who watched the debate. R’s watch debates at a higher rate than D’s, and for various reasons, partisans tend to rate their candidates as debate winners irrespective of their performance (there are some modest exceptions with especially weak performances). So, O had to swim against a strong current to achieve an 8 point margin in the CNN poll.

      But 95% of these respondents are irrelevant to assessing the state of the race. The voters who are relevant are the few remaining undecided and persuadable voters, and even more narrowly, those who reside in the swing states. They are the voters that the polls should be sampling.

      That’s precisely what the CBS and PPP polls did, and their results showed Obama winning the debate by margins 2 to 3 times that of the CNN poll.

      How did the MSM deal with this discrepancy? They didn’t. They just noted the wide range of results, viewed them as equally valid (or mystifying), and moved on. One might account for this behavior with the hypothesis of a broad conspiracy within the MSM. But I think there are two other explanations which, combined, are more persuasive.

      First, the innumeracy of the MSM is breathtaking. These “subtleties” are beyond them, especially when they’re reporting on deadline in the heat of a campaign to readers who won’t understand it anyway. Even if you’re capable of writing such a piece, try getting it past an editor.

      Second, the CBS and PPP results didn’t fit the dominant MSM narrative of Romney’s debate victory, a dramatic shift in momentum, and a tightening race, which just so happens to pump up the number of eyeballs watching reports based on the meaningless horserace drivel that fills their news cycles.

      But regarding the current narrative of the race there’s good news for O supporters: the first debate occurred early enough that there was time for the narrative to turn one last time. The new narrative is being crafted as we sleep tonight: O may have stopped R’s momentum, and while the race will certainly come down to the wire, O has a small lead, but only one point in the popular vote.

      That’ll freshen up the story and keep those eyeballs glued to the screen.

      Now, a few words about momentum. There seems to be two issues here. First, does Romney have it? Sam and Nate have definitively demonstrated that, now, he does not.

      Second, what do we mean by “momentum” and is there any such thing in the context of a political campaign? I’ve worked in campaigns and politics for more than 40 years and I can attest that there is a force in campaigns that is analogous to momentum.

      In the case of the Romney surge after the first debate, based on my experience, strong momentum developed among undecided debate watchers whose initial assessments where reinforced by media evaluations, opinions in their social circles, and new assessments of the state of the race. These effects developed over the course of the next several days to a week, and then began a regression to the mean.

      But most analysts fail to recognize another source of momentum manifested through secondary and tertiary effects: the impact on volunteers and contributors. A “game changing” event can energize volunteers to increase their commitment to the campaign and can induce contributors to give or give again since their candidate now has new life. These new resources then provide “momentum” by allowing the campaign to reach and persuade more undecided voters and recruit more volunteers.

      Moreover, the “game change” event, especially if it is viewed as self-inflicted, can demoralize volunteers and contributors to the other candidate, adding to the secondary effects contributing to the momentum of the newly energized candidate.

      In this way momentum is expressed as a series of events that are to a degree self-reinforcing. But self-reinforing only to a degree. Since the number of undecided voters is very small in this election, there is a low upper bound to how far the momentum will carry a candidate. We also know that, with time, there is a regression toward the mean that will limit the effect of momentum. (We might think of this as a manifestation of friction or a drive toward equilibrium.)

      And there’s another force at work–a countervailing force. If the race remains close, and if the campaign that has ceded momentum has sufficient time, and if they believe that a great deal is at stake, they may rally–double down– blunt the momentum and eventually begin to turn it.

      This is a complex formula beyond the grasp, or even the aspiration, of most reporters and analysts. But this is what is happening in the trenches of the campaign, out of the view of the camera at the rallies, the canned appearances, the interviews, and the public fundraisers.

    • KenW

      The margin of error, or 95% confidence interval, essentially says that if the instrument were repeated 100 times scores within that MOE would occur in 95 of those 100 repetitions.

      In the simplest terms, scores within the MOE of the results are equivalent, or “tied”.

      Wolfe Blitzer uses the term “Scientific Poll” like a Veg-a-matic pitchman on TV uses “New and Improved”. He has no idea what he’s talking about, but it sounds impressive.

  • Ross C

    I think John Dickerson coming on here and commenting is a good reminder that there are real people on the other end of articles and reporting — it’s easy to turn up the snark when we’re alone with our computers.

    And that’s coming from someone who is as disgusted as anyone with the seemingly mindless repetition of “Ro-mentum.”

    I’ll retire my online sarcasm forever when Wolf Blitzer comes on here and explains his, “Obama leads by 4 in Ohio — it’s all tied up!”

  • IJR

    Problem is when people use scientific terminology they do not really grasp to describe phenomena they think they understand. Nate Silver made the same mistake yesterday. When people talk about momentum, they usually mean inertia. Inertia is the tendency of a steady motion body (moving or still) to stay at a steady motion (moving or still). Momentum is the FORCE carried out by a moving body that is the product of acceleration and mass. In other words, any moving object has momentum. Accelerating bodies carry increased force (momentum) and vice versa. So yes, whoever is improving in the polls carry more momentum that the ones going lower in polls, but obviously both have momentum.

    • Matt McIrvin

      In physics, momentum and force are different things. Momentum, in Newtonian mechanics, is the product of mass and velocity. Force is the rate of change of momentum, which under the simplest Newtonian circumstances is the product of mass and acceleration. The law of inertia can all be expressed in terms of conservation of momentum.

      (It all gets more complicated in relativity, and in quantum mechanics, and in the presence of fields that can themselves carry energy and momentum. Physicists more generally define momentum as the conserved quantity in the conservation law associated, via Noether’s theorem, with invariance of the laws of physics under a change in position.)

      As I said elsewhere, I don’t have much trouble with people using these terms colloquially, as long as they realize that they are not actually doing physics and can’t expect physical laws to operate.

    • GG


      Technically the local invariance…

      But I’ll eat my hat if I’ve ever seen Noether brought up in a polling discussion before!!

    • MarkS

      Actually, in physics momentum is mass times velocity, while (net) force equals mass times acceleration, which is also the rate of change of the momentum.

    • MarkS

      Oops, sorry, didn’t notice that Matt McIrvin had already made these physics points …

    • grandpa john

      The use of momentum by the media then is rather absurb, since momentum implies continued acceleration. In other words if Romney truly had momentum, his poll numbers would still be improving instead of leveled offor even decreasing.. Our horse race media has no problem with conflating momentum with what would normally be called a” bounce”

    • grandpa john

      The use of momentum by the media then is rather absurd, since momentum implies continued acceleration. In other words if Romney truly had momentum, his poll numbers would still be improving instead of leveled offor even decreasing.. Our horse race media has no problem with conflating momentum with what would normally be called a” bounce”

    • HLK

      As I recall, force is the time rate of change of momentum; i.e., its derivative. If we are going to
      use physics analogies perhaps it would be best to say that Dickerson observed an increase in the energy of Romney’s campaign; as observed here by others, the word momentum as used in sports’ talk has the wrong connotation.

  • A New Jersey Farmer

    Thanks to Dr. Wang and Mr. Dickerson for doing something that is sorely lacking in our present political climate: fostering a dialogue where people can have honest disagreements on sound, rational bases with a result that highlights education and ideas, as opposed to rancor and discord.

  • Mike B.

    Thanks for too classy guys responding in a civil way.

    I admit to agree with Dr. Wang here. There is a “horse race” meme that is troubling.

    For example, a few weeks ago, John King on CNN published a poll of NV. It was Obama 49 – Romney 46. King then said, “This is as close as humanly possible right now in Nevada!!! It would be IMPOSSIBLE to be closer.” I almost threw my remote at the screen.

    I look at a number of electoral prediction sites using data, and NONE of them show Romney momentum going on. In fact, they show the opposite.

    • grandpa john

      King,Crowley and Blitzer are the 3 main reasons I absolutely refuse to watch CNN . Well add Eric son of Eric to that list.
      If I wanted to watch Fox light, I would watch the real thing

  • sjw

    One problem with the article is that this “short scene piece about a day with Romney” was transformed, by means of its framing title and subtitle, into a rah-rah piece for Romney and his supposed momentum. Connected to this is another problem, namely, the belief that the article manifests in the pseudo-phenomenon of “political momentum” (e.g., “peaking at the right time”). Take away the several questionable lines and package the article instead as a kind of “campaign postcard,” however, it then becomes a nice piece of work.

  • TycheSD

    John Dickerson is a class act. I actually follow him on Twitter because of his even-handed style and low-key demeanor. Plus, I think he’s pretty savvy. He made some comments the other night on Charlie Rose that I thought were especially astute. Of course I agreed with those particular remarks.

    I read his Slate piece about Romney’s momentum, and it scared me, because I know that Dickerson isn’t one to exaggerate or falsify. I’m glad he came here to explain his position.

    I think Dickerson is observing genuine enthusiasm for Romney, rather than the perfunctory demonstrations of support that Romney may have received during the primaries or even at the Republican convention. He had commented on Twitter that he was struck by the enthusiasm of the crowd at a Romney rally in Hamilton County, Ohio. So, I think his article today about the Defiance rally was him verbalizing these impressions of increased excitement (particularly in Ohio) in a longer piece.

    I personally have a hard time understanding people getting worked up and enthusiastic about Romney, but to each his own, I guess. I find Romney still awkward and about as exciting as white bread.

    I certainly don’t agree with our current president on everything, but I prefer his style, his humor and his overall outlook. I guess that’s why I’m voting for President Obama.

  • Nickthequick

    Ditto comments of New Jersey farmer. I only discovered Dr Wang’s amazing site a few weeks ago and am totally addicted. The rigor of both the underlying statistical analysis and the commentary is both impressive and heartening among such a deluge of dunderheadedness from cable pundits. It is especially entertaining for a non- numbers guy like me to get a glimpse into the minds of so many math fluent folks who share my love of politics. What will I do after nov 6 instead of checking the site six times a day and reading comments in between? Travel the world carrying a lantern?

  • kelly

    Sam can you comment on a recent article by Sam McLaughlin of Red State which seemed to break down the results and show Obama losing big because independents are breaking for Romney by 20 points. Is this BS or accurate in any way?

    • Sam Wang

      Generally, that has not been the case in the past. I have written about this repeatedly. Start with the Brooks essay from yesterday. Or search this site for “Charles Franklin.”

      There is always the possibility that he has uncovered interesting evidence. If you have specific evidence to point me toward, I can take a look at it.

    • Froggy

      Here’s the article I think kelly is referring to:, by Dan (not Sam) McLaughlin.

      The short version of his argument is this: 1) “Mitt Romney has a consistent, significant lead among independent voters, which increasingly looks like a double-digit lead;” and 2) “to overcome losing independents by more than a few points, Obama needs to have a decisive advantage in Democratic turnout, roughly on the order of – or in some places exceeding – the advantage he enjoyed in 2008,” yet Democratic turnout is behind where it was in 2008.

      I think the (biggest) problem with this is that party ID is malleable, and independents today are not the same as independents in the past. Historically it may be true (as McLaughlin states) that “independent voters tend to mirror the trend of the electorate as a whole.” However, since the rise of the Tea Party, a lot of people who previously were Republicans now consider themselves independents, even though they are very conservative and invariably vote for Republicans, especially in a presidential contest against a Muslim Socialist who wasn’t even born in this country. There is a tendency of people answering polls to report the same party ID as the candidate they just said that they would vote for, but my guess is that Tea Partiers (and conservative Republicans) would be less likely to do so, given that their candidate is not a true believer.

      Anyone have a different take?

    • Sam Wang

      That is interesting that more self-described independents state that they are Romney supporters than Obama supporters.

      My basic reaction to these statements is that they describe phenomena that contribute to polling samples. And the polls give a clear picture. So the details of this argument don’t matter.

  • Richard Vance

    I’m from Ohio, and Florida, and a few other states. Currently wasting my time in Alabama. One huge problem with Mr. Dickerson’s article (and it is inexcusable) is pointing out the context, failure of. Defiance may be in Ohio, but it’s really Kentucky country, solid Red every election. So the article gave the impression that Ohio was ripped for RR and that’s patently false! Mr. Dickerson’s article would have had much more credibility if he had narrowed the piece and came out of the closet , this is a writer liking Romney, in a red red rally place. And note it does not reflect Ohio.

  • Jewish Steel

    I dissent.

    Sam is charmingly dismissive of fools. I do hope he doesn’t catch the “my esteemed co-blogger at The Atlantic” disease. Logrolling is not what I come here for.

    • Sam Wang

      Mr. Dickerson went to the trouble of replying, which I appreciate. I do not think it is logrolling to let him reply to an essay that I wrote about his work. You will note that I have not said that I agree with his approach.

      Political reportage is built on storytelling. Our brains work naturally in terms of such stories. I am trying to show PEC readers – and perhaps Mr. Dickerson too – that statistical analysis of polls is sufficiently advanced that it can shape the story, or even provide a sound foundation.

    • skmind

      I’d suggest that you focus on Dickerson. Dr. Wang is doing the most open-minded thing: allow the opposing viewpoint to be aired, without agreeing with it (or dismissing it).

      IT is fair to criticize the post, it is a tad unfair to attribute motives to someone’s open-ness.

      Just a thought, you might consider me another fool that someone should be dismissive of, if you like

    • Jewish Steel

      No, Sam. I don’t think you’re logrolling. And I did notice you hardly hastened to agree with him. That says a lot without saying much. Bully!

      No, my beef was with a few commenters upthread and their, “Thank God we can have a civilized discourse like honorable gentlemen” palaver. It’s nauseating. The return of the rough and tumble of American politics is one of great boons of the internet age. We are finally free to have our national discourse unmediated by pious frauds like Bobo and Broder (rest his soul in heaven AND in hell. both sides!). Rancor and discord, but not murdering each other, was supposed to be the point of America in the first place, right? Or is this beanbag?

      That was my dissent. Mea culpa if that was unclear.

      You do good work, Sam. Your hands are clean and your boots uncleated.

      For now.

    • skmind

      @Jewish STeel, I understand what you said better now.

      Thank you for the explanation, I share your disgust for “agreeing out of politeness” that often is tantamount to deferential acceptance.

    • Jewish Steel

      @skmind: Word. My initial post was cryptic at best. Like I said, the culpa is mea.

    • Ms. Jay Sheckley

      Storytelling is for colorfully informing.
      This is not that.

  • Gerald Tuggle

    I heard Dr. Wang on Science Friday two weeks ago and started following. I was impressed with your absolute confidence in your method. It is fascinating to see how the application of science to a situation can reduce noise. Maybe we could find a way to apply this to Congress or even better maybe we could elect a few more scientist to Congress.

    • Ms. Jay Sheckley

      Gerald, I’ve seen some support for that here. A scientist running now is Foster [v. Biggert (IL-11)].

      Interestingly, Todd Akin [R MO] a famous non-scientist currently serving on the House Committee on Science, isn’t doing well this election.

      I’d like to at least see a panel of genuine scientists serving as advisors to this committee, or, failing that, to quickly disband the committee as a national embarrassment.

    • KenW

      I think the real strength of Dr. Wang’s approach is two-fold.

      First, at this point in the election cycle the real data is in the state polls. National polls are useful for candidate early on as they test issues and their positions on those issues. But close to the election it doesn’t matter whether one candidate or the other appears to be “ahead” in the popular vote since it is the Electoral vote that elects the President.

      Second, using Median-based analysis rather than Means-based analysis eliminates the outliers much more effectively than using simplistic rules to reduce their effect.

      Now a question for Dr. Wang. I have the sense that the effective overall MOE (as opposed to caliculated MOEs) is reduced when multiple polls trend in the same direction. Since I don’t have the mathematical skill to verify this, I wonder if you would agree, or not, and why.

  • Ron Pitts

    Romney went to one of the Reddest Counties and Mr Dickerson, wrote that they seemed to like Mr Romney…They Really Really liked him. Meanwhile in Nevada “Mr Romenenys” team had to photoshop a picture of a crowd to make it appear larger than it was. To utter the word “momentum when none exists, while the candidate is involved in chicanery to help feed the narrative, doesn’t say much for Mr Dickersons “view” of the campaign. However, I have always been a fan of his, and like him, I once attended a HUGE Dukakis rally in San Diego, where he was introduced by Darryl Hannah and the place was nuts. John Dickersons view of Romenenys momentum was most likely the same view I had of DukAkisis momentum.

  • skmind

    John, I have no idea why you posted the above.

    It neither acknowledges the simple fact that your take, which was subjective is counter-intuitive, nor explains a pretty contradictory headline.

    Now what I see is you trying to “make up” by saying Obama has momentum too.

    Which is the equivalent of telling two Olympic marathoners, one of whom in the lead some 40 yard ahead with 300 more to go, and one trailing that they both are gaining.

    Perhaps the word “momentum” does not mean what you think it does.

  • Pauls Toutonghi

    Good stuff, as always.

    I think that both Dr. Wang and Mr. Dickerson engaged in an interesting discussion, here. The problem is twofold, I think.

    1. The headline folks. As someone who writes for Salon, The American Reader, and that sort of place a fair amount, I have to say — I’m almost always baffled by my headlines. They seem to be crafted without regard for the article. I understand wanting web traffic — but when you spin something to get a response that isn’t warranted by the piece, itself — that’s another thing, entirely.

    I wrote a piece on Charles Dickens, on his 200th birthday, that somehow became: “Charles Dickens and The Facebook Generation,” which was nothing close to what I intended with the piece.

    2. Be more careful, journalists!

    Ten days before this incredibly critical election — for both our nation, and the world — anything written about the candidates will immediately become a partisan tennis ball. Sorry — bad metaphor.

    But — you know what I mean, right? “Mitt Romney Ate A Chicken Sandwich” becomes a statement about factory farming — and people wonder: Why Not a Roast Beef Sandwich? What does the cattle lobby think of that? Etc, etc, etc. Obviously this is a bad example, because I am tired, but it’s also not that bad of an example. The point is: Anything about Romney or Obama, at this stage of the game, is a political statement.


    Come on, election. I can’t wait for you to get here.

    • TAW

      Traditionally, in print media, headlines were ‘owned’ but the editors, not the reporters.

      With a traditional newspaper, it was a hugely non trivial task to physically fit the article, headlines, ads, &c on the page.

      Online, not so much …. but the editors (and I know he is correct as far as Salon) do the headlines, not the writers.

  • Pauls Toutonghi

    And — Dr. Wang — thanks for such an awesome site.

  • E L

    I think the “quants” are starting to make the “pros” a tad nervous, to use James Fallows’ terms. ‘Bout time. John Dickerson seems to be an aware and alert professional. David Brooks seems to be blissfully wrapped in a warm coating of mildly conservative mush.

  • ZSdust

    John Dickerson’s response is thoughtful and adds nuance to his original piece. Problem is that the original piece is still the main story on Slate’s front page, and it still has the same headline (‘Mittmentum Is Real’) which John Dickerson admits was “probably misleading.” Yes, um, probably.

    Has he requested that the headline be changed in light of this realization? Or has Slate found that this headline gets a lot of hits because the ‘Mittmentum’ story is tantalizing even if it is completely spurious?

    John Dickerson seems like a thoughtful chap but unfortunately his job depends on churning out pap to feed the 24-hour news cycle and the story that Obama is ahead as he has been for the entire campaign is just not that sexy.

    Keep up the good work, Dr Wang!

  • Ms. Jay Sheckley

    Nice response, to the extent that it is one.

    Mr. Dickerson, as a former newspaper editor, and the grandchild of another, I don’t understand your goals.

    As the co-owner of a bookstore specializing in fiction I see the appeal of the horserace story. Shaping is surprisingly important in biography, for example.

    But this is front page news. In state polls, electoral polls, Obama has been ahead the entire time. Your story says the opposite. Are you sure this is good for your career? For anything?.

    I don’t mean to be rude, sir, in that I genuinely, honestly, would appreciate hearing your answer. You may be too young to understand what journalism is, but as I read your explanation fo how it came to be, I see FAR too little about how your plan to correct the serious misapprehensions your work is still causing right now.

    Here’s what I mean: You write:
    “The use of momentum in the headline was probably misleading in the context of the current debate and the goal of the piece.”
    We’d all appreciate a correction with a view toward accuracy. Thank you very much.

  • Brian Dell

    I used to put a lot of faith in the polls until the election we had here in the Canadian province of Alberta this April.

    The Progressive Conservatives trailed the Wildrose Party by about 8 or 9 points in the polls during the week prior to election day, until about 48 hours before the election when they showed SOME last minute narrowing. The week prior to the PCs trailed by even more. The Wildrose party led every one of the some two dozen polls conducted during the election period. Yet the PCs ended up winning by a full ten percent!

  • Sean Reagan

    I feel for Dickerson et al.

    In early September I was tossing a football with a friend and our kids. He asked what political blogs I was reading and I started talking about this neuroscientist from Princeton with a mathy kind of site. My friend interrupts to say, “Sam Wang? Are you kidding? He’s my second cousin (or something like that).”

    And I thought: wow! What are the odds? It’s obviously a sign from the Heavens that I should keep reading PEC.

    A few weeks later I began to wonder why Dr. Wang observed one thing and most of the pundits/journalists (Dickerson included) I read and admired seemed to observe another altogether. How could otherwise smart people miss the math?

    Then I started to wonder how & why I was missing it.

    Anyway, the real gift of this site has been to place an almost unbearable strain on my innumeracy. I was marked for the humanities at an early age – excelled at it – and my education was almost entirely bereft of math and science. This apparently bothered nobody, least of all me.

    As an English professor now, and former reporter covering local MA politics and even back when I practiced law (not to mention as a political junkie and volunteer), I have more than once made mistakes like Dickerson’s. What really bothers me – and it is a result of this site and its excellent commentariat – is how ignorant I was regarding the consequences of those mistakes.

    I am now halfway through John Allen Passos’ excellent and instructive book. It certainly changes what one calls a sign and – importantly – how one responds to that sign.

    A political narrative with a sound numerative foundation is an attractive ideal. I am going to work on that.

    Thanks to Dr. Wang & the literate numerates who abound here.

  • Andrew

    Thanks for your response, Mr. Dickerson.

    I am concerned about your idea that both candidates can have “momentum” (in the political sense, not the physics sense). The problem is that a political race is a zero-sum game. The goal is not to reach 100,000 votes; it is to reach 1 more vote than the other guy. A gain for one candidate is a loss for the other. So, the vast majority of your readers will assume that “momentum” for Romney implies a lack of momentum for Obama.

    To borrow another physics term, what you observed would be better described with the word “energy”. While “momentum” implies movement relative to the other candidate, I’m sure your readers would not take a description of one candidate’s supporters having high energy to imply anything about the overall state of the race.

    So, what you observed was a Romney pep rally where the supporters were more energized and pro-Romney (and hence more likely to vote, to contribute money, etc.) than at previous Romney rallies. Simply describing it that way would not imply that Obama supporters are less energized, or less likely to vote, etc. It would simply be an interesting vignette about political Americana, without undue implications for the overall race.

    Implications which reporters should definitely strive to avoid, when writing based on anecdotal and (as you rightly note) subjective observations of (I would add) a highly artificial gathering of an unrepresentative slice of the American electorate.

    Hope you take this in the spirit of constructive criticism. Thanks again!

  • Olav Grinde

    I was impressed that John Dickerson came here to respond.
    I would be far more impressed if Mr Dickerson would change the headline he admits is misleading.

    • Amitabh Lath

      Olav, yes I agree with you. Even if you take the political meaning of the word “momentum”, Dickerson’s article did not indicate any such thing.

      If the rally he reported on had taken place in the parking lot of a GM plant in Lordstown OH or some other previously Obama-friendly place, then yes, that would indicate some motion, and momentum might be a good choice of words.

      But the article showed no such thing. Instead it showed that Romney sticking to a deeply republican locale for his speech, presumably to draw an enthusiastic crowd.

      Anyway, I just want to get out of this thread before someone brings up matrix notation and the Dirac equation.

    • Ms. Jay Sheckley

      Will he ever address that??

    • pechmerle

      On Saturday morning, Slate leads with Dickerson’s phone, er – faulty, “Mittmentum” piece at the top of its list of ‘the week’s most interesting Slate stories.’

      Compounding the error seems to me to pretty much undercut the humility of Dickerson appearing here to apologize for that misleading headline and subhead.

      They still prefer a phony narrative to a less sexy reality that Obama has consistently held a lead in Ohio.

  • wheelers cat

    Here’s the basic problem.
    “In 1959 C.P. Snow published a book titled The Two Cultures. On the one hand, there were the literary intellectuals (first culture); on the other, the scientists(second culture).”
    In the latter part of the 20th century a third culture arose.
    “In the past few years, the playing field of American intellectual life has shifted, and the traditional intellectual has become increasingly marginalized. A 1950s education in Freud, Marx, and modernism is not a sufficient qualification for a thinking person in the 1990s. Indeed, the traditional American intellectuals are, in a sense, increasingly reactionary, and quite often proudly (and perversely) ignorant of many of the truly significant intellectual accomplishments of our time. Their culture, which dismisses science, is often nonempirical…
    The third culture consists of those scientists and other thinkers in the empirical world who, through their work and expository writing, are taking the place of the traditional intellectual in rendering visible the deeper meanings of our lives, redefining who and what we are.”
    Mr. Dickerson, with all respect, is a first culture or literary intellectual. He privileges anecdote over data, and loses objectivity. He cites opinion of other first culture intellectuals as fact.
    Dr. Wang is a third culture intellectual. Other examples of third culture intellectuals are Drew Linzer and Nate Silver. Some of my other favorites are Sean Carroll, Jerry Coyne, Max Tegmark and Matt Strassler.
    As the dead tree media continues to fail entities like Slate (a dead tree transplant) will be forced to hire more third culture intellectuals. That is why Huffpo hired Blumenthal and the NYT hired Nate.
    Alternatively endangered first culture intellectuals can evolve, and base their “reporting” on empirical data instead of breathless horserace coverage.
    Think about how much better Mr. Dickerson’s piece would have been if he had contrasted the “color-story” of the exuberance of the local rally with Dr. Wang’s rigorous analysis.
    Instead he opened himself up to a righteous beatdown by the quants with this phrase….
    “It’s a fool’s game to guess whose momentum is greater. But Romney is peaking at just the right moment.”
    That isnt really *true*, is it Mr. Dickerson?

    • wheelers cat

      An excellent example of a first culture intellectual is David Brooks.
      Andrew Sullivan is another.

    • Ms. Jay Sheckley

      wheelers cat writes: “Think about how much better Mr. Dickerson’s piece would have been if he had contrasted the “color-story” of the exuberance of the local rally with Dr. Wang’s rigorous analysis.”

      Well, yes. And see here: traditions of reporting run deeper than punditry. Look at the New York Times and its magazine. Even Dickerson acknowledges that a dateline means he’s covering a specific event, not spouting opinion.

      His story of why he did what he did does make sense. I can’t entirely fault him for going to a rally and coming back with a prose poem. I’d love to read an account of a Hitler rally, though facts always enhance. Maybe the rally gave the distinct _feeling_ of the facts stated. The briefest re-write could be brilliant!

      But whatever culture he’s from, if he reads all this, doesn’t respond to our real question and changes not a word nor writes something new on what he’s learned, then he hasn’t learned, and doesn’t want to.

      In each culture are first, second and third-rate minds. Mr Dickerson, please wake up, dust off your ambition and find your place.

  • BillOhio


    Actually, I just went back and watched the DVR, Wolf Blitzer called it a tie immediately on release, while showing a graphic with a 8 point spread. Candidly I didn’t read the rest of your post after that factual error. Yes, later in the broadcast it was described as a modest win but not when it mattered, at the announcement of the results. This matters because I waited up to see the poll results not the analyst spin. I suspect others did the same. Much like this article, when you get the headline wrong, you create an inaccurate perception.

  • xian

    headline writing is a different department

    • Ms. Jay Sheckley

      xian- That’s true in old school journalism, but Today’s headliners aren’t the space-counting poets of yore. Dickerson must either have written it or control it, for here defends his wording, or thinks he does, by honoring us with what he was thinking. In print journalism that too would make more sense, because newspapers couldn’t be changed.

      But this isn’t, in that way, yesterdays news. Although the burden of deadlines are past, I sure get the feeling Dickerson intends it let it sit for days at least when he signs off with a blithe “Have a good weekend everybody.”

      What a terrible world where politicians AND those covering them respond to fact-checking as so much noise.

      My grandfather, a Chicago daily crime reporter until the St Valentine’s Day massacre scared him int becming a faraway editor, could get the facts and meet a hard deadline too.
      I now understand what he meant when he said,”Don’t call me a journalist. I’m a goddamn newspaper man!”

      I’m proud of him.

  • Paul Griner


    What book are you referring to (John Allen Passos)?

    As a fellow English prof and long-time reader (and fan) of this site, as it’s helped keep me sane with all these breatheless Ro-mentum headlines, I’m interested.

  • Ben

    If you take off your glasses and hold the screen far enough away to do a brief squinting analysis of the trend of either of your charts from May, (especially the M-M) you indeed see an overall trend that predicts Romney catching up in January and winning handily in February. Maybe this is what some commentators mean by Ro-mentum.

  • JohnJacobs

    I’m a little surprised by the self-righteous beatdown Dickerson is getting here. There are likely serious impediments (the Slate editorial board, readers, ego) to his changing the story, and I think it’s a somewhat unreasonable request.

    Quite frankly, his article was pretty tame (yes, I know relative arguments like these are weak) by the standards of a media given to ‘narrative fallacy’. The main stream media is entertainment, not “news”, and certainly not “analysis”.

    Come to PEC for your numerically valid analysis and leave the poor man alone

  • Bob h

    The MSM, including my once-beloved NPR and PBS, are now so invested in the need to believe in the neck-and-neck horserace to the finish that I have tuned them all out.

  • wheelers cat

    I’m very encouraged by the amount of pushback against the tidal wave of Ro-mentum stories.
    Perhaps the information tide is turning.

    Because of social media and the internet the free market in information is expanding. While Foxnews effect does create some degree of regulatory capture, on balance information is whole lot more free. Citizens that are hungry for real data can find sites like Dr. Wangs while first culture gate-keepers like Bobo are left twisting in the wind.

  • Xin Hua

    Mr. Dickerson was gracious to comment here. I hadn’t read “Mittmentum Is Real” because I lost confidence in his analytical abilities after reading his “When Candidates Attack” piece on October 17.

    In that earlier article, Mr. Dickerson derided Obama’s debate performance in response to Romney’s “act of terror” allegation. He wrote: “When Romney called him on it, the president wouldn’t answer. ‘Please proceed, governor,’ he said, as if he were the moderator and not the fellow who was being called out. It was the verbal equivalent of putting your hands over your eyes and pretending no one will see you.”

    That Mr. Dickerson didn’t recognize the shrewdness of Obama’s maneuver — setting a trap that Romney immediately and memorably stumbled into — indicates significant deficiencies in observation as well as explication.

    • PollyUSA

      “When Romney called him on it, the president wouldn’t answer. ”

      Mr Dickerson wasn’t very observant. The president DID answer he clearly said “Yes, I did” …Romney went on to attempt his “got ya” moment and then Obama said “Please proceed governor”.

  • Richard Vance

    Its very refreshing to mute the talking heads and ignore the “news” headlines (shockers) then refresh the Princeton site for a vigorous and well said discussion, no name calling or flaming, likes or unlikes.

    Thanks everybody.

  • matthew hall

    One point I didn’t notice in the comments that is relevant: Slate has infamously misleading headlines. Generally great reporting under generally terrible headlines.

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