Monday, May 25, 2015

Who Will Win the 2015 Scripps National Spelling Bee?

(Note: This piece is intended to be a lighthearted take on a fun event; those looking for serious bee analysis should look elsewhere.)

There isn't a sporting event I look forward to more every year than the Scripps National Spelling Bee. (Maybe the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament.) Lest you think I'm being sarcastic, try tuning in this year—it airs Wednesday and Thursday on various ESPN affiliates, with the finals in primetime at 8pm Thursday. It's nothing less than the purest form of human drama, as the best of us—our children—grapple with the worst: fear, crippling expectations, fainting (yes!), crushing defeats (no!), and, of course, the maddening phonetic rules of the English language. The tics, the techniques, the aha moments, the dulcet tones of Dr. Jacques Bailly—these are what help make the bee surprisingly spellbinding television.

Of course, for one* child a year, the pressure forges something special; the lights go up, their shoulders untense, and they are named national spelling bee champion. (*Except last year, when co-champions were controversially crowned for the first time in 52 years.) Two hundred and eighty five contestants will walk into the Gaylord National Convention Center this week, but so many are just there for window dressing. Close bee watchers know the prize will come down to one of the few favorites, many of whom are already well known in this universe; there's Vanya Shivashankar, whose sister won the 2009 bee; Gokul Venkatachalam, who finished third in 2014; Tejas Muthusamy, who turned heads with a phenomenal rookie performance last year; and a short list of others.

So who should you bet on this year? (Note: Please don't bet on how smart a kid is.) It's all about who has tended to win the bee in the past. Thanks to the spelling bee website's official speller roster, complete with bios and a statistics page, we can compare each participant's profile to those of past winners. Obviously, the bee is a competition for who is the best at spelling, not at who checks the most demographic boxes. But just for fun, we can paint a pretty good composite portrait of a bee winner, based on the following characteristics of the past 17 champions:
  • Race. We might as well start here, since everyone else does. I shouldn't have to tell everyone not to use racial stereotypes in predicting a bee winner, but the fact remains that Indian Americans dominate the bee. Thirteen of the past 17 champions, including the last eight in a row, have been of Indian descent; the remaining four were white. How you interpret that is up to you.
  • Gender. Eleven of the past 17 winners were male, while six were female. However, four of the last seven have been girls. (Fun with arbitrary endpoints!) Again, please be reminded that these are not causal relationships and that this whole exercise is tongue-in-cheek. For what it's worth, the list of 2015 bee finalists actually features more girls (146) than boys (139).
  • Age. As you might imagine, the older, the better. Fourteen of the last 17 champs were eighth-graders, the oldest you can be to qualify for the bee. (This is a much higher proportion than the share of eighth-grade participants, which this year is 41.5%.) The remaining three were seventh-graders, so it would be pretty shocking to see anyone in sixth grade or below take home the trophy.
  • Experience. Closely related to age is a contestant's prior experience on the national level. All but one of the past 17 winners had been a national bee finalist before, making it quite likely that we've seen 2015's champion on that stage already. The more times you've been to the national bee before, the more it helps, although second-timers do just fine, accounting for six of the 17. There are 57 returnees this year, including 17 on their third, fourth, or fifth try. (If you're looking for a shortlist of favorites, you could do a lot worse than those 17, who are all also in seventh grade or older.)
  • School type. Perhaps surprisingly, champs have been most likely to go to public school. Nine of the past 17 were enrolled in public school, six were enrolled in private school, and two were home-schooled. However, when you compare this to the overall list of contestants (at least this year's), that's actually an underrepresentation of public-school kids (who are two-thirds of the overall pool) and a dramatic oversampling of private- (23.9%) and home-schooled (4.6%) students.
  • Hometown. Finally, there is pretty good geographic diversity among the last 17 champs: three Californians, two New Yorkers, two Texans, two Hoosiers, a Floridian, a Missourian, a Kansan, a Coloradan, a Minnesotan, a New Jerseyan, a Pennsylvanian, and an Ohioan. Nothing really to go off here.
So, if you subscribe to past as prologue, you'd expect an Indian American eighth grader who has been to the bee before to emerge as the winner on Thursday night. Of course, when you watch the bee, it's worth remembering that all these kids are already winners, even if they're eventual losers at the bee: virtually guaranteed to go on to elite schools and careers, they're sure as heck smarter than all of us!

Monday, May 4, 2015

The Big, Bad, Colorful Chart That Explains State Constitutional Offices

Next election, spare a thought for the poor constitutional officers. The statewide elected officials not titled “governor” are little more than an afterthought for most election watchers, but, as I’ve argued before, they shouldn’t be: they make more policy than Congress these days, and they’re surrounded by every bit as much drama. (For an example, look no farther than the incredible fallout over Missouri Auditor Tom Schweich's suicide.) Oh yeah, and they often rise to become more than just constitutional officers.

Basically, we should keep better track of them—but, in fairness, that’s hard to do. Every state has different constitutional officers and different ways of choosing them, making the constitutional-office picture much messier than, say, the U.S. Senate. To solve that problem, I wanted a source that laid it all out visually—so I created this giant chart, also embedded at the bottom of this page. (A huge assist for this goes to Ballotpedia, where I researched all this data.)

The chart provides info on every constitutional office in the 50 states: which states have which offices (and what they’re called—a frequent local quirk); whether they are Democratic-held (blue), Republican-held (red), independent-held (yellow), vacant (gray), or nonpartisan (white); how they’re selected; and, if elected, when the next election will be. It lists the biggies—lieutenant governor, attorney general, secretary of state, and treasurer—but also the underappreciated of the underappreciated: labor commissioners, school superintendents, and mine inspectors (well, mine inspector, singular)—all the "individual dudes" in state government. (Corporation commissioners, public utility commissioners, railroad commissioners, and elected members of other statewide boards aren’t included.)

The chart illustrates some really important lessons that constitutional officers can teach us. First and foremost, it is proof positive of the Republican stranglehold on state government these days; the GOP has the edge in the partisan breakdown of every single constitutional office (viewable at the bottom of the Google doc). Democrats do OK in comptroller (5–4) and insurance commissioner (6–5) races for some reason, but they get clobbered when it comes to agriculture commissioners (11–1) and, strangely, labor commissioners (3–0–1). It’s also fascinating how all partisan superintendents and land commissioners elected in presidential years (four of 'em) are Democrats, yet all partisan superintendents and land commissioners elected in midterm years (10 of 'em) are Republicans. It really goes to show how constitutional offices can serve as weather vanes for which way the political winds are blowing.

I hope you'll play around and learn a little more about these forgotten offices, and keep your eyes peeled to this blog for more coverage of constitutional offices in this off year.