Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Three Weeks Out - First Prediction of US Election

I have a horrible track record predicting presidential elections. For as long as I have been blogging, I have been wrong, both in 2008 (when I got the right outcome, but with numbers that were woefully off) and 2012 (when I thought Romney would win).
So let's try again...
I now have a simple rule: if fivethirtyeight.com gives a state a better than 70% chance of going for a particular candidate, I give it to that candidate. At 3 weeks out, the chances of tectonic shifts in a state's results are approaching nil.
So let's look at this morning's 70% electoral map:

So even if Trump wins in all the tossups (Arizona, Iowa, Ohio, and North Carolina - as well as the single votes in Maine and Nebraska), Clinton wins 307-231.

OK, let's make this even tougher, let's look at an 80% or better map:

Note that three states move into the tossup column: Alaska, Nevada, and Florida. Even if all these former and new tossup states went to Trump, Clinton is the winner, 272-266. A squeaker.

Now let's slide the yardstick to 90% or better:

Now we can add South Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Missouri, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Maine, and Georgia to the tossup column. This map represents the absolute floor for each candidate.

So here is my prediction: barring some cataclysmic late "October surprise" of tectonic proportions (the release of 33,000 emails, chock full of classified documents; a foreign disaster; a cataclysmic 9/11-level event; Clinton physically collapsing in the final debate; oh hell - maybe an alien "first contact") - Hillary Clinton has won this election.

Which means, which means...

Let us assume that Bannon, Conway et al, can read a map. Let us further assume that Trump can do the same. What this means is that tomorrow night's debate is his almost last chance. I say almost because I suspect there is one more ploy at his disposal - in the final 2-1/2 weeks Trump can purchase prime time chunks of network television as Ross Perot did in 1992. Maybe we'll have a foretaste of TrumpTV. Let's assume that all of these certain and potential upcoming performances are desperate, no-holds-barred, unconventional presentations. I don't think it will matter.

The concrete has set, the cake has been baked, and the train has left the station.

The only questions now are the size of the electoral vote victory, and the margin of the popular vote win. My guess: 305-233 (less than the 2012 margin of victory); 47-45% (about the same 2 point margin as in 2012).

Be certain that I got it wrong yet again.

Actually, I hope for a 1964-style blowout (486-52; +20 margin in the popular vote). Maybe a Clinton-Dole 1996 result (379-159; +9 margin) is more realistic? (h/t @soverytired) The only reason I won't go with a blowout scenario is the "Brexit" factor - I am convinced that a sizable number of poll respondents are not answering honestly. 

Friday, October 14, 2016

How did we get here?

If you had told me in 2014 that I would be writing an editorial for a local newspaper on behalf of Hillary Clinton for President, I would have offered to make a bet against you.

I, like many sentient adults who lived through the 1990s, suffer from Clinton fatigue. Make no mistake, I voted for Bill Clinton in 1992 and 1996. But the man was a sleazeball. There's no doubt about it.

In my mind, his policies were largely positive, despite the triangular centrism of his social policy. His stewardship of foreign and domestic policy was admirable.

But it was all the muck, the back story, and the scandals, that drove me to fatigue. The ugly persecution of Clinton and his ridiculous impeachment by Congress was exhausting. He didn't launch the impeachment, but his predatory behavior in the Oval Office started the avalanche of Republican hypocrisy which ensued.

Hilary had her back story also. I've always assumed most of it is true.

There certainly was a "vast right-wing conspiracy" out to get her and her husband, even now 20 years later. Some voters may be just now getting to know the Clintons. But for us baby boomers - we already know the story.

So I had enough of the Clintons. In 2014 I said that if the Republicans pick Bush and the Democrats picked Clinton, I would move to Canada.

The sclerotic Democratic party and President Obama together could come up with nothing better than Hillary Clinton, the second-most disliked person in American politics. But the Republicans were in for a surprise. Instead of "the smart Bush" with his endorsements and his $250 million war chest, the Republicans were "primaried" into anointing the most disliked person in the history of American politics as their candidate.

He strides the podium like his mustachioed predecessor, he speaks of dark global conspiracies, and he promises to jail his opponent. He's not Republican, he's not Democrat. He's simply a brand promoter, a man who needs to hear and see his name. That's what celebrities crave.

In the inchoate gobbledygook of his political stances - all of which can change on the dime of cynical convenience - there is nothing but fascism. Donald Trump might very well be the last President of the United States.

What about a protest vote instead? For me it is simple, particularly after the debacle of the Florida recall in 2000. Any vote that even remotely lessens the popular majority of Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump is a vote to ensure that the dolchstosslegende will survive after November 8. The future of our democracy remains locked up in the balance of powers between the Executive, the Legislative, and the Judicial branches, not in the ravings of a preening self-promoter. The only way a citizen can put a stake through the heart of American fascism is to vote for Hillary Clinton.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

The Season Finale of Survivor: Election 2016

In my last post, I argued that this is not a presidential election we are witnessing. Instead, I argued, we are watching an executive producer's wet dream - the perfect reality TV series.

What trips up the lead character of a semi-scripted reality show - whether it be a good Bachelorette or a deceitful, caddish Bachelor - is betrayal. It is the only dramatic "reveal" that can keep viewers watching until the end of the series, as we approach the season finale. Such a reveal has the ability to wrench the audience's pre-conceived notions and emotional bonds. It usually makes for a top-ten rated finale episode.

What political pundits call "the October surprise," TV executives call "the dramatic cliffhanger."

And so the central character of this season's reality extravaganza, the star of two prior reality show stints, is a cad that 40% of the audience is rooting for, and a deplorable man-boy that a bit more than 40% of the audience hates. Cameras have been trained on the central character for years. Secreted away in the treasure trove of outtakes (owned by the very network which propelled the central character into the deplorable cad persona we now all are addicted to) are the indelible moments of betrayal needed to generate a riveting season finale.

And lo and behold, the reveal arrives, and suddenly the last undecided members of the audience can witness in plain view the cad for what he is. The rooting audience is buffeted but blindly holds on to the discredited cad, the undecided audience is prompted to finally take a stand, and the smug detractors are affirmed for their perspicacity.

Producers of reality shows know there is one final ploy to release upon the audience - a dramatic invocation of the rules of the show - a kind of breaking of the fourth wall. Contestants get disqualified, the rules can suddenly be changed. Rumors abound that the call-in vote is somehow "fixed." Part of the drama lies in the capricious rules/no rules that can be invoked by the producers to apply one last shuffle of the deck. As long as the audience keeps watching.

As they say on American Idol, the voting lines are now open.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

The Star of the 2016 Election

Been over a year since I blogged, but there is an election upon us, the likes of which we have never seen. Since I've used this blog for a kind of therapy in years past, I thought I'd give it a go now.

Therapy begins...

I have watched reality TV shows, even a few episodes of The Apprentice, particularly the season of Celebrity Apprentice when poker pro Annie Duke and comedienne Joan Rivers were contestants.

The thing about reality shows is that they are relatively cheap to produce, and they give off the aura that they are a slice into the behavior of
  • pretty people under stress (The Bachelorette/Bachelor franchise, Real Housewives of... franchise, etc.); or
  • skilled and unskilled people under stress (Top Chef, Master Chef, Flip or Flop, Project Runway, Survivor, Amazing Race, Project Greenlight, Shark Tank); or
  • celebrities under stress (Dancing with the Stars, American Idol, The Voice, America's Got Talent)
The entire category of "reality television" is a derivative of another cheap-to-produce genre of "real life" entertainment - the venerable talent-contest format, which goes back to the dawn of the medium.

It is cheap entertainment, and a good bit of it is contrived. As we know from the "insiders" perspective provided by Lifetime's po-mo dramedy UnREAL, behind the scenes of these reality confections are writers and talent agents, associate producers and cameramen, dramatic themes and romantic complications, heroes and villains. For every audience, there is something to gawk at. For every character that horrifies one segment of the audience, there is another character (or the very same individual) who gladdens some other segment.

The most successful of these shows have a social media component. In a vertically integrated media market, any show that can generate Facebook likes and Twitter hashtags - what the industry calls "talk back" - is a show that is running on all media cylinders.

Let's not pretend any longer - Republican presidential nominee Donald J. Trump is the central character of a reality television series called Election 2016.

This is the first reality show/social media election in the history of the American republic. In terms of media novelty, it is as revolutionary as the 1960 campaign, the first to broadcast a nationally televised presidential election debate. One candidate - the one who went on to just barely win - was a master of the imagery of television; the other - the ultimate loser - was a sweating, nervous mess. The loser would never make the same mistake. When 20 year later a Hollywood actor-turned-politician ran for President, the die was cast for an easy media-induced victory.

Which brings us to 2016. The reality series we have been witness to these past 18 months is based on two prior series in which Trump also served as the central character.

The first tryout was The Apprentice. Lest you forget, in 2004 reality TV producer Mark Burnett (whose Survivor was the breakout summer hit of 2000, and has since given us Shark Tank, The Amazing Race, and many others) approached a skeptical Trump with an idea for a reality show, a kind of ultimate job interview. Ignoring his agent, Trump tried out the format, and within a half hour of taping he realized that even if the show was a flop, he could tap into a wider audience to promote his brand - in other words, free unfiltered advertising.

The Apprentice premiered in January 2004. It placed in the top-10 that first season. 28 million viewers watched the first season finale. GE was then finishing an acquisition offer from French-owned Universal, spinning off NBC to become NBCUniversal in May, 2004. Throughout The Apprentice's run, that conglomerate was about to be acquired by an even bigger media giant. Thus by 2013 NBCUniversal had become a wholly owned subsidiary of Comcast. (Remember all those snarky corporate jokes about GE and Kabletown in 30 Rock?)

The Apprentice ran for 4 seasons over 2-1/2  years on Thursday nights at 9 pm. It was moved to Monday, and then to Sunday. It never achieved the success of that first season, but it was cheap to make, had good ratings, and was profitable. Burnett even peddled a spin-off called The Apprentice: Martha Stewart to NBC for the 2005 season. Trump was one of its executive producers.

The Apprentice: Martha Stewart was not renewed.

By the sixth season, which ended in 2007, The Apprentice was in 75th place for the season, and only 10.6 million viewers watched the finale.

It was during the break between the last season of The Apprentice and the cynical re-tool known as Celebrity Apprentice that Trump had his second tryout for the character he is now playing. This was Trump's one and only miniseries.

Amongst the holdings of NBCUniversal are a number of cable outlets: Bravo, MSNBC, Syfy, E!, NBCSN, and USA Network - to name a few of the 30). On USA Network, Vince McMahon's weekly wrestling program was a profitable 2 hours of cheap scripted drama every Monday night from its inception in 1993.

Sometimes things work; sometimes they don't. GE and McMahon's WWF (now WWE) each lost $35 million on the failed one-season pro football league, the XFL. But NBC Universal and the WWE continued with a more lucrative connection - broadcast rights to Raw and its secondary series Smackdown. For a time McMahon moved his shows to a non-NBC Universal outlet, but by 2005 all of WWE's weekly offerings were on USA Network.

In pro wrestling, the big money is in pay per view. And nothing is bigger than the annual scripted drama known as Wrestlemania. As in any year, the lead-up to Wrestlemania XXIII, held in Ford Field in Detroit on April 1, 2007, was made up of dramatic narratives presented in episodic form on the USA Network. One of the narratives was entitled "Battle of the Billionaires" in which two wrestlers would settle a manly bet made in a moment of contrived drama between two billionaires on the USA Network weeks before.

McMahon's dramatic back-story as gargantuan owner of the WWE was perfect for the role of Billionaire A (a despised character, a scrapper, a braggart).Trump played the tough-guy outsider role of Billionaire B (an arrogant character; also a braggart; with cosmopolitan, New York airs). On April Fool's day 2007 the story came to its conclusion. I report this as a matter of fact: Trump clotheslined McMahon outside the ring. At the conclusion of the match, which "ended" inconclusively, Billionaire Trump shaved off the hair of Billionaire McMahon - that was the bet. Then, as a kind of "shocking" coda to the narrative, wrestler "Stone Cold" Steve Austin, playing the part of the common man rebelling against the preening Billionaires, delivered a patented finishing move (the "Stunner") on Billionaire Trump. The sequence ended with Trump prone in the middle of the ring. Cut to arena rock, time for the next drama.

Thus ended the one-season miniseries "Battle of the Billionaires." Celebrity Apprentice or The Apprentice would continue for another 7 seasons. As Trump has said repeatedly, NBC wanted him back after the 2014 season ended, offering a commitment for two further years. But by then Trump was preparing for another show.

Meanwhile, McMahon spent together with his wife Linda a reported $50 million on two failed bids to put Linda in the US Senate from the state of Connecticut, once in 2010 and again in 2012. The first two attempts at WWE-ing a political campaign failed. But what if Billionaire B were to give it a try?

I repeat, the central character of our collective reality series known as the 2016 elections is Donald J. Trump. He causes angst on the Upper West Side and amongst Buckleyan Republicans; he evokes cheers from suburbia and fly-over country. He's more the swaggering tough guy of "Battle of the Billionaires," but he's got the decisive demeanor of the boardroom. He's also got social media by the throat.

Ratings come and ratings go. Writers rarely have enough fresh ideas for more than a season or two. It is the melancholy nature of television that a hit show will eventually lose steam.

But until that day, all vertically integrated media is good media. It's free. It's cheap. You just have to be comfortable in front of the camera. Same advice for a TV contestant - Be yourself.

Love you or hate you, they'll blog about you or tweet about you, and your name - on licensed properties around the world - shall go down in history. Maybe you'll be President.

Trump, in other words, is killing it.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Eulogy for My Mother

I offered this eulogy (hesped) at my mother's funeral last week:  

My mother was a brave woman. She did things her way. She left home soon after she graduated from high school to take a look at the bigger world – which for her meant first Detroit, and then California. She was a single working mom before the term had been invented. She lived through a tumultuous time with two tumultuous children.
The book of Proverbs asks eyshet chayil mi yimtza, which we usually render into English as “a woman of valor, who can find.” Chayil is translated here as valour, but we know this word chayil is not unrelated to the modern Hebrew word for “soldier” or “force.”
My mother Marian Harriet Goldish Kiener, Shivya Masa bat Shayne Bayle ve-Shmuel, was not only an unconventional woman of valor in the old-time religion sense of the book of Proverbs; she was also a kind of soldier and she was certainly a force to be reckoned with.
Any child can say this of his or her loving mother – no one has known me longer, worried for my welfare so thoroughly, took my side more often, and delighted in my accomplishments like my mother. My brother and I were rebellious young sons in a singularly rebellious time period. We defied our parents, and our mother in particular, at every turn. To paraphrase the GEICO commercial – “that’s what kids do.” 
She didn’t understand everything we tried or attempted, to be honest, we didn’t understand what we were doing half the time - but the love never wore off. More than 30 years ago my brother defiantly went off to California for a while to find his fortune, but my mother, a single woman in a time long before it was fashionable or acceptable, had already pioneered that path a further 30 years earlier. She acted like she couldn’t understand our youthful defiance, but she was a defiant youth herself, going off to Detroit, then to Minneapolis, then to Los Angeles. She was such a force of nature, a bit of the rebel herself, that even though she played the part of the baffled matriarch shouldered with two rambunctious and error-prone boys, she always forgave, and always found a way for us to come back to her embrace.
She was a soldier. She championed through a long career at Musicland and then earned her well-deserved retirement. She then bravely took off to Arizona to live the retirement dream. And she loved it. But she soldiered through her well-deserved retirement and outlasted almost every one of her friends, and then returned to the land where her two sisters lived.
Finally, my mother was a force to be reckoned with throughout her life and in her last home at Knollwood Place. You could be the CEO of Bristol-Palmolive or the local grocer - expect a long hand-written letter of complaint in wonderfully clear cursive script if you sold her shoddy merchandise or tried to swindle her. She made her expectations known to all, and had a sharp word for those who failed to meet them. But people loved her – because my mother had a marvelous sense of humor. She loved to smile and laugh.
Like a tough, hard-living, fun-loving rebellious soldier, for entertainment she liked to gamble. She ran the BINGO game at Knollwood Place, and helped convene the monthly trip to Mystic Lake. I remember childhood trips to Sioux City where we would bet on the ponies and buy a cooler full of oleomargarine to bring back to Minnesota. In her latter decades, she drew great joy from playing adult penny slot video games at Mystic. To paraphrase the Geico commercial – “that’s what old women do.”
So my mother was a woman of valor, a strong woman, a discerning woman, and a force to be reckoned with. I would not be the man I am today without her love and support. My brother can attest to the same awesome debt we owe her.
Sister to two remarkable women, mother of two, grandmother to six, great-grandmother to one – it’s really a beautiful story, a kind of fairy tale. It all worked out. It was a life well-lived.
Eshet chayil mi yimtza “Who can find a heroic woman?” All of us who knew her knows we saw the real deal. Yehi zikhra barukh– Her Memory has certainly been a blessing to all of us.