The Dealergate Post That Will Make No One Happy
May 29, 2009
I noticed yesterday that a good number of people are getting worked up because it looks like a large number of the Chysler dealerships that are being closed are heavy Republican donors. (Michelle Malkin does her usual roundup here)
I’m taking the time to try to do something that still seems somewhat lacking… run an actual statistical analysis of the data. I’ll post more when I get some real data, but I did want to put up a couple thoughts early on.
Thought 1: Megan McArdle says that this is likely a red herring. She points out that “Democratic and Republican dealers are unlikely to be found in the same place, and the rural counties that tend to be red are probably less profitable. I would be less surprised to find out that the administration rescued specific donors from the hit list than to find that they deliberately closed Republican dealerships.”
If there was any behind the scenes work by the Obama administration, saving Obama dealerships seems more likely than spitefully killing Republican ones. And I think that we’ve got a pretty big “if” there to begin with.
Thought 2: All the skeptics to this story are pointing to Nate Silver’s “Car Dealerships are Republican (It’s Called a Control Group, People)“. Unfortunately for them, that post is a load of statistical garbage.
Nate is trying to establish a baseline of Republican-to-Democratic donations against which he can judge the validity of the data coming from the closed dealerships. This is a laudable goal, but I get really frustrated when people use statistical or mathematical terms and they don’t know what those terms mean. I’m starting to understand that people on both sides of the isle use “science-y” or “math-y” words because it makes it look like they’re using science and can therefore be trusted. That’s exactly what is going on here.
Nate’s investigation does not a control group make for the following reasons:
- There are really three categories here: Republican donor, Democratic donor, and not a donor. He doesn’t even recognize that the last category might exist.
- He don’t make any distinction between Chrysler dealerships and other dealerships. Maybe Honda dealerships skew Republican and thereby mess up his “control group”. This is like testing a drug aimed at teenage girls and building a “control group” that includes toddlers, WWII veterans and 40-year-old soccer moms. His data is hopelessly polluted.
- He assumes that everyone who owns a car dealership will list their occupation as car dealer (or some variant). Where I grew up, Hank Aaron owned a couple car dealerships, but I think it was unlikely he listed his occupation as “car dealer”. (If I got a business card from Hank Aaron, I would want it to say “Hank Aaron – Awesomest Person in the World… and Barry Bonds Can Die in a Ditch”)
Take your pick. I got more.
Thought 3: That fact that Nate Silver’s “analysis” is a load of crap doesn’t make the other analysis better… it just makes him something of an ass for pretending that he’s better than everyone else.
Example 1: Dan Collins says:
Statistics that are available suggest that Chrysler auto dealers donated 76% Republican and 24% Democratic.
Looks like someone else didn’t control for non-donating dealerships. (UPDATE: Dan Collins comments below that this statement was revised, although I still don’t see anyone taking into account non-donors.)
Example 2: Doug Ross has a post called “Dealergate: Stats demonstrate that Chrysler Dealers likely shuttered on a partisan basis“. Towards the bottom, he has a “What Are The Odds” section in which he notices that one company, RLJ-McLarty-Landers, has six Chrysler dealerships that were not closed and claims that:
The approximate odds of such an occurrence can be calculated
He then proceeds to “calculate” those odds based on the assumption that the dealerships were closed at random.
His odds are meaningless. What is RLJ-McLarty-Landers happens to have remarkable market share? Or excellent customer service?
To posit an imperfect analogy, it’s like me being surprised when all the K-Marts in my area go out of business. So I do a statistical sampling of all local supermarkets and say “Ah-ha! All the Wal-Marts in the area didn’t go out of business… what are the odds of that?” And then I calculate the odds out and claim that there are nefarious plans afoot. (I love that word… afoot. Afoot, afoot, afoot.)
Thought 4: This smells like a conspiracy theory. I hate conspiracy theories. I lean toward believing that people, Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals, are good people who are trying to do what they think is right.
On the other hand, if I had been editor at the Washington Post in the 70’s, I probably would have told Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein that they were acting like crazy people.
I confess to a heavy skepticism. So I’m running the data as carefully as I can and I’ll post what I find. It might take a couple days, though. I’m not quite ready to quit my job to chase this story full time.
If you’re looking for what seems to be the best work on this so far, it’s probably at the entertainingly named Chrysler Dealership Campaign Donation Information blog. Based off an extremely quick scan of the information, it looks like Joey Smith (the author) is trying to gather data in a meaningful way.