Washington Post Crashed, Burned, and Smoking Watch: Charles Krauthammer
Initial Take on Lecture Topics: Econ 115: Twentieth Century Economic History: Fall 2009: U.C. Berkeley

William Galston Needs a Consulting Statistician Badly

On May 18, 2009, the Gallup Poll--aggregating all of its 2009 data--wrote about the collapse of Republicanism in the United States:

Jeffrey Jones: GOP Losses Span Nearly All Demographic Groups: The decline in Republican Party affiliation among Americans in recent years is well documented, but a Gallup analysis now shows that this movement away from the GOP has occurred among nearly every major demographic subgroup. Since the first year of George W. Bush's presidency in 2001, the Republican Party has maintained its support only among frequent churchgoers, with conservatives and senior citizens showing minimal decline. So far in 2009, aggregated Gallup Poll data show the divide on leaned party identification is 53% Democratic and 39% Republican -- a marked change from 2001, when the parties were evenly matched, according to an average of all of that year's Gallup Polls. That represents a loss of five points for the Republicans and a gain of eight points for the Democrats. The parties were also evenly matched on basic party identification in 2001...

On May 15, 2009, the Gallup Poll released its early May poll which appears to have been unlucky: to by pure chance have drawn an unrepresentative sample of Americans:

Charles Franklin: Pollster.com: New Gallup has PID Tied. Yep, It's an Outlier.: The latest Gallup (5/7-10/09) poll has party identification tied at 32-32 and caused an immediate howl of "outlier!" in the comments at Pollster.com.  In this case, the howl is justified. Compared to all recent Gallup polls (so we compare apples to apples) this latest stands out quite a bit from the rest.... This latest poll is circled for easy reference.... The difference of the two [parties] is therefore... zero compared to a trend estimate of -9.3. The Dem value is just inside the 95% confidence interval while the Rep value is outside the CI, as is the difference.

Path Finder

Despite the high probability that the poll drew an bad sample, Gallup nevertheless committed statistical malpractice by trumpeting and flogging the answers to the poll's abortion question:

The Shifting Cultural Mainstream: The abortion story is even more dramatic. The headline of a Gallup survey out May 15 read "More Americans ‘Pro-Life' than ‘Pro-Choice' for First Time." Those considering themselves pro-choice fell from 50 percent last year to 42 percent today, while the pro-life contingent increased its share from 44 to 51 percent. As recently as two years ago, twice as many Americans thought that abortion should be legal under all circumstances as believed that it should be banned altogether. Today, these groups are tied. Changes this large and sudden would be hard to believe were they not supported by two other high-quality surveys. According to Pew, Americans who believe that abortion should be legal under all or most circumstances has fallen from 54 percent last August to only 46 percent today...

And William Galston jumps the shark:

Here again, as for gun rights, the breadth of the gains for the pro-life position is striking--all income and education groups, independents more the Republicans, mainline Protestants more than evangelicals. While liberal identifiers have remained rock-solid in their pro-choice stance, pro-life support has grown by ten percentage points among conservatives during the past two years, and by 15 points among moderates. The age breakdown yields the greatest surprise: Only 47 percent of 18 to 29 year-olds think that abortion should be legal under all or most circumstances versus 48 percent who take the opposite position. Indeed, they are no more likely to support abortion rights than are their boomer parents, and less likely than Gen-Xers ages 30 to 49.  The same young people who are blazing the trail of cultural change on gay issues seem to be flashing a "go slow" signal on abortion.

It's impossible to say for sure what has sparked these shifts. But the only really big change since last year is the election of Barack Obama in tandem with expanded Democratic majorities in both the House and Senate. When the Republicans were riding high, the electorate punished them for losing their balance and going too far. It's not unreasonable to conjecture that voters are sending a similar message today: We elected you to fix the economy and restore our standing abroad--not to disrupt the status quo on social issues.

Despite the country's focus on the economic crisis, these developments on the social issues front are fraught with political significance. For one, they suggest that the recent string of legislative victories for gun rights groups reflects more than inside-the-Beltway lobbying prowess. For another, they explain President Obama's abrupt about face on the Freedom of Choice Act, which would restrict the states' ability to restrict abortions. During the campaign, he told Planned Parenthood activists that the first thing he'd do as president would be to sign the Freedom of Choice Act. In his most recent press conference, by contrast, he indicated that it was not a high priority. 

No one expects Obama's Supreme Court nominee to be pro-life. And I don't mean to suggest that the social issues are the only--or even the most important--consideration the president must weigh as he makes his selection. But if he wishes to  take the edge off what could be a shrill confirmation debate and honor his pledge to bring a divided country back together, he will think twice before nominating someone with a long record of support for positions far outside the current cultural mainstream, which is less a consensus than a hard-won balance of opposing views.