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Imagine a prizefight.  Imagine that it is -- unusually -- a five-rounder.

A minute into Round One, the fighter in the red trunks lays a crushing right cross into the face of the fighter with the blue trunks, knocking him to the canvas.  He takes a mandatory eight count, then gets up and fights with some hesitation and not much aggressiveness through the next two minutes while he regains his strength (and, perhaps, composure.)

The judges will later turn out to all agree that blue-trunked fighter has an edge, not decisive, but clearly there, in Round Two.

Round Three belongs to the blue-trunked fighter.  A clear advantage in punches, staggering, but not knocking down, the red-trunked fighter.

Near the end of Round Four, the blue-trunked fighter knocks down his opponent with a deft combination, culminating with a left hook that can be heard over the crowd noise even in the upper rafters.  Red-trunks comes up after his own eight-count.

The fighters have relatively little contact in the final round.  The red-trunked fighter is stepping around the edges of the rink, mugging for the crowd, as if he thinks that he must be ahead on points.  The blue-trunked fighter looks at him somewhat quizzically, because he knows that he has to be ahead on points, and wonders whether the red-trunked fighter has become somewhat addled or is just pretending to be celebrating an early victory so that he can somehow convince the judges that he must be ahead.  It doesn't really matter; if his opponent is going to run, the blue-trunked fighter has no obligation to chase him.  The red-trunked fighter, still dancing around, appears to want to climb outside of the ropes and motions the blue-trunked fighter to join him, in what would later be described by his trainer as an attempt to "expand the boxing ring."

With a minute left in the fight, the ref has to call for an area near the blue corner to be toweled off because of a spill on the canvass -- the blue-trunked boxer directs his corner men to help with that task while the red-trunked boxer shouts that he knows the right way to do it that they're doing it too slowly, because -- as he shakes the sweat off of his body -- some moisture remains on the canvas.  Soon the final bell sounds, the referee tallies up the scores of the other judges, and announces to the cheers of most of the crowd that the blue-trunked fighter is the winner.  The red-trunked fighter and his cornermen feign (or worse, honestly express) disdain for the decision; with the fighter's wife looking like she too had taken a serious of jabs to the breadbasket -- after an unwisely large meal.

I describe, as I'm sure you all realize, the February 10, 1962 victory of Cassius Clay (later Muhammed Ali), in his tenth professional fight over Sonny Banks.  Oh, all right -- I was just joking about that. (There were similarities, though.  Clay was knocked down in the first round but regained his footing and knocked Banks out in four.  Yes, of course I had to look that up!)

Actually, as I'm sure you all realize, it's a metaphor -- one that doesn't become completely unglued, I'd like to think, until after the jump.  Let's return to it for just a moment.

After the fight, [two of the most esteemed boxing commentators in the business offer similar takes on the fight.

Gregbert Sugardworkin writes that the fight proves that the early rounds don't matter, because after all blue-trunks got knocked down but then got up to finish the fight.

The great Dave Howard Cosweigsell offers "a word of praise for ologists of the sweet science, who said that the first rounds don't swing elections, got mocked by jerks like me, but were 100% right."

(A third commenter, Drunken Poblano, announces to the world that he himself was the Greatest of All Time, producing 40 separate charts and 17 new statistics to prove it, but that's not actually part of this story.)

Here's the thing (and I write as a former professor of Political Science who focused on public opinion): while political scientists do sometimes argue that debates are not important, they are full of cheese.  The truth is that debates are sometimes important and sometimes unimportant and most often somewhere in between.  That's because debates are events -- and the same moderate truism expressed above can apply to most events other than debates as well.

We usually don't know what events will end up deciding a Presidential election at the time they happen.  We do know this: because the effect of the debates will generally be reflected in things like "likeability" and "favorability" that may be offered as competing explanations, treating such variables as "exogenous" (that is, first and independent causes of an outcome) leads to something called "multicollinearlity" in regression analysis that will generate a substantial underestimate of individual events.  (Imagine arguing that attraction and compatability were not sound predictors of likelihood of a couple getting married because the reression equation clearly showed that the greatest predictor was whether one member of the couple had bought the other an engagement ring.  Yes, that's true -- but it misses the point of prediction!)

To decide what influence a discrete cause had upon an ultimate outcome, you have to do some fancy messing about with statistics that represent various causal models -- and, frankly, my sense when doing this sort of thing 25 years ago is that this is when the resilience of the mathematical model in question usually comes plummeting down around one's head and shoulders.

Saying that "debates don't matter" is as specious as saying that "early rounds don't matter" because Sonny Banks knocked down Cassius Clay early in their fight and he still went on to win.  Yeah -- Clay went on to win because he outboxed Banks in the subsequent rounds, ending the fight with a fourth-round knockout.  The first-round knockout didn't matter in that fight because later events supplanted it.  That is not how it had to have gone.  Sonny Banks could have knocked me down in the first round of that fight and, even if I had somehow gotten up, he still would have been favored to win the rest -- especially given that I'd no longer be quite at my best.

As this is still a metaphor, let me spell it out for you:

It is wrong to conclude that "debates don't matter" from the concluding three weeks of the 2012 Presidential campaign.  Yes, Romney's bump from the first debate had largely receded -- but if Biden had booted the VP debate and Obama had performed as sluggishly in the last two, I see no reason to believe that, structural advantages aside, Obama would have been favored to beat Romney five days ago.  Just as the damage from blows to the jaw in Rounds Two and Three can compound and intensify the damage in an initial right cross in Round One, so can the impression set in a first debate be buttressed and amplified in the later ones.  Obama wasn't knocked out due to the first debate -- but the odds of his losing had gone way up (as Nate Silver himself had calculated.)

So yes -- debates matter.  Even one bad first debate, if not later righted, could prove to be decisive.  Debates are not the be-all and end-all of electoral politics -- both money and ground game, for example, probably matter more -- but to conclude from this campaign season that they don't matter is to woefully misread the evidence.

The first debate didn't end up mattering here -- but that's largely because Biden, and then Obama twice, beat their opponents and stopped it from mattering.  Had our ticket not done so well, we might today still be discussing how Obama lost the election back on October 3 -- not because it had to turn out that way, but because it happened to turn out that way.

So while Greg Dworkin writes that:

Yes, Virginia, debates don't matter that much. We noted that beforehand, so it's not hindsight bias. No one's saying they didn't matter "at all", it's that they didn't matter "that much", and certainly not in the game changing way the pundits claimed.
I think that he's wrong.  The first debate -- arguably all three Presidential debates, and maybe Biden's as well -- mattered a great deal.  It's just that, in this election, the effect of the latter three countered the effects of the first one -- so in the aggregate the debates ending up not having mattered.  That was our good fortune -- because it easily could have turned out otherwise.
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Comment Preferences

  •  "Down goes Dworkin! Down goes Dworkin!" (6+ / 0-)

    I jest!  I just!  I like the rest of Dworkin's story and, in fact, the front page post-election analysis today is particularly strong overall.  I just don't want to see a new "conventional wisdom" emerging that those political scientists who argue that "debates don't matter" are right -- mostly because that conclusion, as a blanket rule, is probably wrong.  They don't necessarily matter -- but, again, we already knew that.

    Pro-Occupy Democratic Candidate for California State Senate, District 29 & Occupy OC Civic Liaison.

    "I love this goddamn country, and we're going to take it back." -- Saul Alinsky

    by Seneca Doane on Sun Nov 11, 2012 at 01:37:36 PM PST

  •  Clarification: Do debates matter or don't they? (0+ / 0-)

    Notice: This Comment © 2012 ROGNM

    by ROGNM on Sun Nov 11, 2012 at 01:40:27 PM PST

    •  They *can* matter -- enough that their importance (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      ROGNM, Naniboujou, Navy Vet Terp

      can neither be overlooked or dismissed.  A blowout first debate is like a blowout first quarter, half, inning, period, round, or set in sports.  Does that matter?  Well, it's not decisive.  Does it change the odds of who wins?  Sure.  If first innings don't seem to matter, it's because most times no one scores huge in them.

      Pro-Occupy Democratic Candidate for California State Senate, District 29 & Occupy OC Civic Liaison.

      "I love this goddamn country, and we're going to take it back." -- Saul Alinsky

      by Seneca Doane on Sun Nov 11, 2012 at 01:49:58 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  Even if Obama had had a better first debate (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        SLKRR

        Romney would have had a bump because he appeared reasonable and presidential, contrary to the image that had been so well presented by the Obama campaign that Romney was just a rich vulture capitalist.  But it wouldn't have been enough to change the Nov. 6 outcome.

        The spirit of liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right. -- Judge Learned Hand, May 21, 1944

        by ybruti on Sun Nov 11, 2012 at 05:24:08 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

  •  Rec'd (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Seneca Doane

    I was thinking about this in terms of medieval battle technology.  If your side has horse cavalry and lances, and the other side doesn't, this will matter a great deal and you'll likely trample them en masse.

    If you both have horse cavalry and your cavalries storm to some kind of draw, then the cavalry won't be decisive and "doesn't matter."  

    Debates are a little like that - if both sides take them very seriously, do lots of prep, have lots of experts to train the candidates on how to say things, what points to expect, and so forth - this means they're usually able to fight it out to a draw in debates.  Sometimes one side scores a clear win and then the debates matter a great deal (I believe Nixon vs JFK is understood as one such).  

    Kerry's wins over Bush certainly seemed to narrow the score a great deal.  Not enough to win, but denting Bush's "mandate" and possibly limiting his downticket coat tails.  Had Kerry not trounced Bush in debate, and lost 55-45 PV, maybe Bush's SS privatization plan would have passed.  Maybe the party would have shied away from nominating a black man in 2008.  Losing a close election has a different impact than being crushed.  

    So yeah, because something ended in a draw, doesn't mean it had to.  

  •  I don't see how we'll ever be able to say the 1st (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Seneca Doane

    debate didn't matter.  We'll never know what might have been if Obama hadn't let him up.

    •  if only one side campaigns they'll do better (0+ / 0-)

      usually that's not the case. That's the argument for campaigns not making that much of a difference. However some years they do. This is such a year because Romney misfired on assumptions.

      In the real world there were three debates and there can't be a discussion of 'what if' as if the other two did not occur.

      "Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it incorrectly and applying the wrong remedies." - Groucho Marx

      by Greg Dworkin on Sun Nov 11, 2012 at 03:21:53 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  To stretch your analogy/metaphor a bit… (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Seneca Doane
    Clay went on to win because he outboxed Banks in the subsequent rounds, ending the fight with a fourth-round knockout.
    The key in the fight is that the first round knockdown and the middle rounds of boxing didn't matter, because the fight ended in a knockout.

    Knockouts are decisive. The boxing (and judging) which precedes them doesn't matter. There is no judging a knockout (except a "technical knockout" but lets not muddy the metaphor). Your presentation might be more apt in my mind if debates one, two, three, and four were all the rounds. Knockdown in Round 1—agreed. Outboxing the opponent in Rounds 2 through 4—agreed.

    The 5th Round however, was on 6 November, and the blue trunked guy knocked the other one out. Decisively. No judging required. All the boxing in the previous rounds didn't matter.

    I thought the graph in Mr. Sugardworkin (loved the noms de parody) was very telling. There was virtually no correlation between the polls and the rounds, er, debates. I think the debates had an equal effect as Sandy.

    Now, that whole argument reinforces the first part of your premise—that the "debates didn't matter" and in theory, your second premise—"dbates do matter" doesn't necessarily follow.

    As Rachel would say, por ejemplo: Candidate A manages to get to the debates and appears wholly incapable of managing the simplest public tasks required of a candidate. Hmmm, that's vaguely reminiscent of the book on rMoney at the time. Suppose, however, a case where that candidate ends up acting out as unprepared and ill equipped as the book says. I would suspect this might be a case where debates would matter.

    But, and to me this is a really big but—is it a reasonable assumption that such an inept candidate could have made it that far in the process? Yeah, I know, absent rMoney, we might have had such a candidate, but we didn't. And rMoney, as much as I hate to admit it, turned out to be smarter than he'd shown to the point of Round 1.

    So I guess my argument is that, ceterus parabus debates don't matter. Unless there is a real outlier somewhere that somehow gets past the vetting process (running mates don't count in this part of the equation). I've been watching presidential contests since Eisenhower/Stevenson and I can't bring to mind a single candidate (mainstream republican or Democrat) who was clearly off the rails.

    Much as we like to cite dolts like Gohmert and Bachmann, one really doesn't get to the point of a serious presidential candidate without having some aptitudes in public service and campaigning.

    Sorry for the threadjacking—but my initial response was the analogy wasn't quite right. The election was the knockout, in my view.

    •  Not threadjacking at all, don't worry (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      exatc

      That fourth round ending in a knockout isn't an important detail.  Obviously, I couldn't find a boxing match that fit the analogy entirely because none (so far as I know) are scheduled for four or five rounds.

      I disagree with your argument that "ceteris paribus debates don't matter."  Indeed, if ceteris is truly paribus, debates are going to matter most -- because they aren't necessarily paribus!

      Pro-Occupy Democratic Candidate for California State Senate, District 29 & Occupy OC Civic Liaison.

      "I love this goddamn country, and we're going to take it back." -- Saul Alinsky

      by Seneca Doane on Sun Nov 11, 2012 at 05:00:02 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  I heartily and happily disagree (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    implicate order, Seneca Doane

    but let's be clear that "debates can't matter at all", which is what you are arguing is not what I said nor what John Sides said nor any of the political scientists that disagree with you said. If that's your argument, i accept it.

    Was Sarah Palin a game changer that won the election for McCain? No. Was it an event of political importance? Yes. If you understand that, you understand nuance.

    The argument I am making is also nuanced.

    1. the average change in the polls is about 2.5 points (Nate had it at 2.2), which about is what we saw this year. That's not a lot, and certainly not a lot by historical standards.

    2. conventions generally, as in this year, matter more, because it's a week of one sided uninterrupted good news.

    3. best debate? Lloyd Bentson. effect? Not much.

    4. the data this year is in line with the above.

    "Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it incorrectly and applying the wrong remedies." - Groucho Marx

    by Greg Dworkin on Sun Nov 11, 2012 at 03:19:59 PM PST

    •  I quote Sides's article at length (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Greg Dworkin

      back in your story and include my own cheery parody of his argument.  (I vaguely recall arguing with Jim Stimson about this topic 20 years ago also, but that could be a hallucination.  Teaching in Poli Sci will do that to you.)

      Let's cut to the chase: how is the assertion that "debates don't swing elections" (quoting Weigel here, because your "debates don't swing elections that much" is unfalsifiable as expressed) useful to knowledge or prediction?  By far most of the time, either nothing but the major factors (district partisan and/or ideological composition, comparative amounts of money) will swing an election, because by far most elections aren't that close.  Where are election is close -- and you've probably heard Al Franken's lament along the lines that everyone who says that he played a decisive role in his victory is probably right -- then a large number of factors including many minor ones likely "played a decisive role" (i.e., "swung an election"), because doing so is just not that hard.

      What we want to do is to say how much a factor such as debates changed the odds in an election, or how many percentage points or raw votes it changed.  The problem is that our tools are usually too coarse to measure such effects.  (One exception worth noting is California Secretary of State Debra Bowen's introduction of online registration of voters -- a simple act that probably swamped all of the voter registration work we put in in the field and, with some simple assumptions about how likely a newly registered voter is to vote for the party they chose, probably swung several elections in the state, including control of both legislative houses.)

      I'd enjoy arguing your second point above with you -- I tend to think that whether conventions or debates matter most is best measurable by which led to the likes of more subsequent conversations around the water cooler that later lead to information being received by voters undecided about their candidate or likelihood of showing up to vote -- but the first and third are more important.

      Your operational theory is that the effect of Event A at Time T will be measurable in an immediate (or lagged -- and the possible different ways available to fit the curve creates problems that I'm sure you appreciate) change in voter preference at Time T+n.  No change from T to T+n = no effect.  And this, I suggest to you, in just not how political persuasion works.  Effects are more subtle, delayed, and accretive rather than instant like a bonk on the head leading to a bruise and a lump.

      If one thinks that the choice of Sarah Palin as McCain's VP is best measurable by whether or not his figures went up or down within a certain level of time (allowing for expected decay over time in both bumps and troughs), I think that one has made the job far too easy on oneself.  (In general, I found while in the Poli Sci field that most voting and elections research was susceptible to that criticism.)

      The growing notion that having Palin in the oval office was simply an unacceptable risk is not something that necessarily would have appeared at a given moment; as I imply in a comment in your story, it's more like assessing whether a carcinogen led to a malignancy.  It changed the environment -- and environmental changes (whether external or internal, statistically abstract or biochemical) are usually accretative and have probabilistic effects.  We lack the proper tools to assess the impact of a given Event A -- most of the time.

      In the case of Bentsen, had the election been close and Dukakis won (neither of which happened), and if concern over Quayle's capacity to hold the position had truly been a dominant theme (as with Palin) rather than a peripheral one, then I think we'd have a good argument that it was decisive -- and that argument would apply whether or not in the wake of the debate support for Dukakis had increased by 1 point or 10.  (In a model where all bumps revert to the mean, by the way, that might have actually been theoretically impossible -- like the possibility of housing value losing money being excluded from the projections of the financials industry in or around 2006!)

      Pro-Occupy Democratic Candidate for California State Senate, District 29 & Occupy OC Civic Liaison.

      "I love this goddamn country, and we're going to take it back." -- Saul Alinsky

      by Seneca Doane on Sun Nov 11, 2012 at 04:55:42 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  all well and good (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Seneca Doane

        Arguing that the tools are too crude (perhaps they are), and [handwaving + T9*Y] added to [water cooler talk*X weeks]  misses the point. Until you can measure a change, it didn't happen.  Are you arguing that there was a change, we just can't see and appreciate it? If a change did happen, it was to small to measure and too small to matter.

        Romney arguably had a great debate, he didn't take the lead in national polls, Obama never lost his lead in the betting markets, it made no difference in swing states and Romney lost. Those are the tools we have.

        "Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it incorrectly and applying the wrong remedies." - Groucho Marx

        by Greg Dworkin on Sun Nov 11, 2012 at 05:08:47 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  Maybe I didn't make myself sufficiently clear (0+ / 0-)

          What do you think would have happened if the Republicans had taken the last three debates as well?  Would debates still then "not have mattered"?

          If your intuition matches mine that they would have likely broken through Obama's defenses -- even if (a la 1988) the Dem VP nominee would have done well -- then aren't you implicitly conceding that debates do matter in theory, but just this time they happened not to because Obama recovered?

          You know another argument I had with Poli Sci colleagues back in the '90s?  I said that it was likely that we'd eventually have an Electoral College split with the popular vote -- and they said it would never happen because, well, it hadn't thus far.

          The "debates don't matter" position sounds like that to me, but I presume that it's actually more sophisticated.  I hope so, at least.

          Pro-Occupy Democratic Candidate for California State Senate, District 29 & Occupy OC Civic Liaison.

          "I love this goddamn country, and we're going to take it back." -- Saul Alinsky

          by Seneca Doane on Sun Nov 11, 2012 at 09:32:26 PM PST

          [ Parent ]

          •  it's based on several things (0+ / 0-)

            Including that a one sided debate schedule result is rarely associated with a tied vote. If one guy is that much better, he/she'd likely be leading anyway.

            Including a comprehensive look at debates and how they affected polls and results (the tool we have)

            Including that hypotheticals vote as often as yard signs (which is to say, never).

            Remember, I agree with your post title, but you should have added Debates "Didn't Matter ≠ Debates Don't Matter  (but they usually don't)"

            "Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it incorrectly and applying the wrong remedies." - Groucho Marx

            by Greg Dworkin on Mon Nov 12, 2012 at 09:10:18 AM PST

            [ Parent ]

            •  I hate the "yard signs don't vote" aphorism too (0+ / 0-)

              TV ads, radio ads, print ads, slate mailers, other mailers, phone calls, t-shirts, robocalls, endorsements, and interviews also "don't vote."  They are all either forms of or content for advertising.  Specific GOTV, like driving people to the polls and calling those who haven't yet voted, do "vote" -- but they come after most of the advertising that helps to lay out the territory for the fight.

              (As you can tell, I am just filled with hatred.)

              Back on point: I can easily see how the sort of thing you suggest wouldn't likely happen could have happened this year.  Romney could have won the last two debates -- Obama just rose to the occasion.

              But OK, I will satisfy myself with our degree of agreement.

              Plaintiffs' Employment Law Attorney (harassment, discrimination, retaliation, whistleblowing, wage & hour, &c.) in North Orange County, CA.

              "I love this goddamn country, and we're going to take it back."
              -- Saul Alinsky

              by Seneca Doane on Mon Nov 12, 2012 at 12:00:27 PM PST

              [ Parent ]

  •  Nothing matters in isolation. (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Seneca Doane

    In conjunction with an increase in Romney spending just before the first debate, the first debate let Romney back into the game.

    There were competing memes that night. One, Romney's a joke. Two, Romney's a legitimate candidate.

    In conjunction with increased spending, a night which ought to have highlighted Romnesia and his difficulties with the truth, allowed, instead, for the second meme to triumph.

    Operating not in isolation, but in conjunction with a suddenly aggressive ad campaign, the first debate gave credence to the second narrative, when, by rights, it ought to have been lights out for the Romney campaign or close to it.

    In conjunction with the air war, it re-engaged Republicans and demoralised Dems. THAT cost us the House and likely 1-3 senate seats: NV, AZ, and NE.

    So, yes, debates matter IN CONTEXT. No, debates don't matter in isolation. And if it wasn't Biden's performance, returning the discussion to facts, which broke the GOP momentum, I'm hard pressed to see what did.

    •  To me, that's a more sophisticated analysis (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      oxon

      than I found prevalence in Poli Sci discussions.

      Very hard to measure, though, which is why people don't like it.  Poli Sci studies of voting behavior are way too much like economics and not enough like psychology.

      Pro-Occupy Democratic Candidate for California State Senate, District 29 & Occupy OC Civic Liaison.

      "I love this goddamn country, and we're going to take it back." -- Saul Alinsky

      by Seneca Doane on Sun Nov 11, 2012 at 05:02:07 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  Thanks! (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Seneca Doane

        With my background in philosophy and anthropology, context and interacting factors are everything. Single factor analysis rarely yields a vibrant image of reality.

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