The epic showdown of 2012: geeks vs. pundits

Bumped for the geeks. As of now (Sunday afternoon), Nate Silver has Romney's chances of winning below 15%; Sam Wang has them below 2%. - promoted by david

Yeah, yeah, Obama vs. Romney, Warren vs. Brown, all very big deals.  But one of the biggest battles that will be decided (for now, at least) in a couple of days is not on the ballot.

We talk a fair amount about polls here, as does just about everyone who follows elections closely.  But there are a few people who know a lot about statistics and who crunch poll numbers in a much more sophisticated way than most of us can.  Two of the best of them are Nate Silver, the proprietor of 538 at the NY Times website, and Sam Wang, who teaches at Princeton and runs the Princeton Election Consortium.  These guys have been saying for quite some time that, far from the presidential race being a “tossup” or “tight as a tick,” President Obama is the clear, maybe even prohibitive, favorite in this race.  As of right now, Silver (who considers both state and national polls as well as some economic and other external factors he thinks might impact the race) has Obama at an 83.7% likelihood of winning; Romney’s chances have faded to 16.3%.  Wang (who considers only state polls) is even more bullish on Obama: Wang says that, at best, Romney has only a 2% chance of winning.  Silver’s current electoral vote prediction is 305-233 for Obama; Wang’s is 323-215.

Silver, whose work is much better known than Wang’s because of its prominent place at the NY Times, has come under a lot of criticism in this cycle from Romney fans who don’t like what he has to say.  That’s not terribly surprising – “kill the messenger” has been in vogue for a long time.  What’s been more surprising is the intensity of the criticism of Silver from more centrist types who just really don’t like the geek approach to poll analysis.

Why has the criticism been so strident?  In a word, because geeks make pundits look stupid.

Being a pundit is an awesome job, because you get paid for shooting your mouth off, and you really don’t have to have much to back it up.  Here’s a fine example: on October 29, Cokie Roberts said on NPR that the “momentum behind Romney” in the race “is real.”  But in fact, if you look at the data, what you find is that the race’s movement toward Romney – which did indeed occur after Obama’s epic fail in the first debate – had ended several days before Roberts said what she said.  Silver crunched the numbers as of October 24 (five days earlier), and concluded that as of that day, Romney had stalled in the polls, was no longer gaining ground on Obama, and in fact had begun to cede ground back to him.  And one day earlier, on October 23, Wang concluded that at that moment the actual momentum in the race belonged to Obama, and that Romney’s claims of momentum were a bluff, designed to take in a gullible corps of pundits who don’t bother to look hard at the data.  And that is exactly what it did in the case of Roberts and many others, who for days after Romney started giving up ground in the polls still thought that he was closing the gap with Obama.

Here’s another excellent example from David Brooks, who regularly publishes at the NY Times and yaks on PBS.  It’s particularly spectacular because Brooks started off this column, dated October 22, by claiming that “I’m a pollaholic. For the past several months I have spent inordinate amounts of time poring over election polls.”  And then he offered up a couple of assertions about what the polls showed as of that date that were, to put it plainly, wrong.  Sam Wang eviscerated him in a truly glorious post a couple of days later.

It was fun to learn of David Brooks’s addiction to polling data.  He spends countless hours on them, looking at aggregators, examining individual polls, and sniffing poll internals.  From all of this, what has [Brooks] learned?

  1. Today, President Obama would be a bit more likely to win.
  2. There seems to be a whiff of momentum toward Mitt Romney.

(Emphasis mine.)

I am having a sad. All of that effort, and his two conclusions still have two major errors….

1. President Obama would be a bit more likely to win. This is false – he’s a lot more likely to win. Look at the Princeton Election Consortium’s EV histogram, which tabulates all 2.3 quadrillion possible combinations of states to give a clear snapshot of the race. [there follows some geeky analysis] …

2. There seems to be a whiff of momentum toward Mitt Romney. Ah, yes…Ro-mentum! Bobo has taken the bait…. As you can see, Ro-mentum ended around October 11th, the date of the VP Biden-Ryan debate and reversed around October 16th, Debate #2. Now the median EV expectation is at a plateau around Obama 293 EV, Romney 245 EV. [more geeky analysis ensues] … If anything, the race is starting to look a bit static.

Posts like that one, which make the target pundit look like an idiot, is why the pundits hate the geeks.  Because of course, the pundits cannot possibly answer the criticisms.  Instead, they trivialize what geeks do, as Brooks did when he said ”[t]he pollsters tell us what’s happening now. When they start projecting, they’re getting into silly land.”  (That’s true, but only in a trivial sense that misunderstands what people like Silver and Wang do when they assess probabilities – in fact, the geeks are quite careful about not “projecting” in the way that pundits like to do.  More on that point in this interesting post.)

In these closing days of the election cycle, even the pundits have started to realize that the state polling is consistently showing an Obama win, and they are starting to back off their “tossup” predictions a bit.  This quote from Mark Halperin at Time on Thursday is especially wonderful.

I’m going to take a risk here and peel back the curtain to tell you what insiders are thinking. This is not my opinion and this is not a projection of who’s going to win but insiders in both parties look at the last few days of swing state polls and say, “The President may have this.” … Right now, there’s a danger for Governor Romney that elites are starting to think, in the last 24 hours, that these leads are, as the Obama campaign has said for a long time, small but persistent and consistent. And, I think, it may not effect the coverage that much but there’s a bit of a tipping point here.

Amazing, right?  ”In the last 24 hours,” these mysterious “elite” “insiders” in both parties who apparently whisper to Halperin everything they are thinking have noticed what Silver and Wang have been saying for weeks: that Obama has consistently been ahead in enough swing states to win the election.  My goodness – if those “elite insiders” only noticed the state polling a few days ago, they should all be fired.  And yes, yes, polls are snapshots, so events can and do (e.g., the Democratic convention; the 47% video; the first debate) cause the polling to shift.  But the point is this: if you look at the polling in an intelligent way, this race is not and has never been a tossup.  It has always been at least “Lean Obama,” and even that assessment is probably too conservative by now.

My own beliefs are that (a) polling works quite well, especially when (as is the case now) there are a lot of polls being taken in important jurisdictions like Ohio by a lot of different organizations; and (b) people like Silver and Wang know what they are doing, whereas pundits often don’t.  Silver argues that, given the current state of the race and the amount of time left, “for Romney to win, state polls must be statistically biased.” And it’s not just a couple of them – it’s practically all of them. The whole enterprise of statewide polling in the swing states would have to be seriously off. And I doubt that’s the case.

I therefore think that, on Tuesday, America is going to reelect President Obama, probably by an electoral vote margin that is very close to what Silver and Wang are predicting – i.e., Obama gets a number in the low 300s.

If that happens, the geeks will have won this round.  But the battle will continue – don’t expect the pundits to give up their cushy gig quite that easily.


26 Comments . Leave a comment below.
  1. human nature?

    “geeks make pundits look stupid”

    And, there’s a distrust of science and analysis, in favor of “what i believe, because it’s what I believe.” You can see it throughout the media, with global warming, with creationism, with everything. “Earth round? Opinions differ!”

    All I know is, I’ll be really disappointed if Silver’s analysis is wrong.

    • Republicans would have a field day if Romney won,

      but that wouldn’t necessarily mean Silver’s been wrong. Silver’s always factored in a chance Romney would win; a lot of things would have to go Romney’s way, but Silver allows for the possibility that it could happen.

      That’s what the anti-intellectualism crowd (often including pundits) doesn’t get, though. If someone’s scientific prediction comes out wrong, even if in there model there was always a certain percentage chance of that happening, suddenly the anti-intellectualism crowd tries to declare everything about what the scientists and statistics gurus of the world do as all wrong or inaccurate, fake, propaganda, etc.

      RyansTake   @   Sat 3 Nov 7:56 PM
      • Well, yes and no.

        Silver’s model says that Romney has about a 16% chance of winning, and that’s non-trivial. So of course he can say that the model wasn’t “wrong” if Romney wins. However, if Romney does win, Silver’s electoral college projection will have been *way* off. So Silver will have been wrong about that – probably because the polls were wrong. But even so, if the polls can’t be relied on, it calls the geek approach into serious question since that’s pretty much what they’ve got to work with.

        • kbusch

          explained my basic position better than I did, and offered a helpful example of how to prove or disprove one’s ‘geek approach’ — by looking at the results of each purported geek stat guy or gal over time.

          RyansTake   @   Sun 4 Nov 9:48 PM
    • Prophesy and prediction

      Saying Obama has an 85% chance of winning is quite different from saying Obama will win. To use the classic probability metaphor: image an urn with 100 balls in it, of which 85 are blue and 15 are red. A statement about the composition of the urn is not disproved by pulling out a ball at random and discovering it is red.

      For the kind of thing Nate Silver is doing, one can only prove he is wrong by looking at his track record not by looking at one election outcome.

  2. It undermines their raison d'etre

    I don’t think the pundits fear looking stupid, they fear being made expendable. The whole raison d’etre of the highly connected cocktail-party invitation hound is to hear secret nothings, an interpret them and relay them to us commoners. Whether it’s insider access or savvy, the product they offer is knowledge nobody else has. Well, we all have knowledge of public polls. If that’s sufficient to understand the state of the race, then the punditocracy falls down.

    What we’ve had so far is the equivalent of an ESPN analyst leading off the pregame show with “Well, yesterday I talked to coach Belichick, and he said they really think they’re going to win today, so I’m picking the Patriots” followed by another analyst saying “Well, Rex Ryan said the playaction was looking good in practice all week, so I’m picking the Jets”.

    sabutai   @   Sat 3 Nov 7:28 PM
  3. Somerville Tom made a great point

    on my post a week or two back concerning the non-liberal Globe. He said the pundits and media outlets really, really want a close race to draw interest. Their sales and ratings depend on it.

    To me some things, like the importance of the electoral college and the President’s advantage in enough states to get to 270, are self-evident. To many they’re not and the pundits depend on that. My aunt, who’s a big liberal but doesn’t follow this as closely as I do, said she’s very worried about the Presidential election. Why? The national polls and the papers’ suggestion the race is “basically tied.”

    She’s never heard of Nate Silver, let alone Sam Wang. So the “pundits” with their “gut feelings” and desire for a close race, still have something of an audience. They’d love to silence the Nate Silvers of the world so they control the narrative as they always have.

  4. And what Sabutai said


  5. Voter suppression and counting irregularities are

    the major risks for geek analysis of polling data not accurately reflecting results IMO. This is what happened specifically with 2000 exit polls in Florida. Forget hanging chads; voter confusion over Palm Beach County’s butterfly ballots probably cost Al Gore the election.

    Exit polls accurately measured what Florida voters thought they had done in 2000. The problem was, some voters didn’t end up casting the votes they thought they had.

    Polls now may be accurately measuring what voters plan to do in three days. But will all these people be allowed to vote under new ID laws? Will some people give up after having to wait for 4 or more hours to vote? Will votes be accurately recorded and counted? These are the issues that Democrats need to worry about now — that and making sure the people “leaning” Democrat actually get out and vote.

    • In fairness

      The difference between what voters did and thought they did in Florida was functionally negligible. As with all human endeavors, there’s a certain margin of error in elections; in 2000 the margin happened to fall within in.

      Not to disagree with your larger point. If all voters voted, Democrats would romp. If all voters who want to vote do, Democrats will win. So the Republican play is obvious, and there’s precious little in the past 12 years to convince me that morality is any restraint on them. Right now, the only thing that keeps the upper echelons of Republicans from doing what they want is the basest self-interest that they may be caught which would make them look bad choose from less lucrative earnings options.

      sabutai   @   Sat 3 Nov 9:11 PM
      • Re Silver

        I had the great pleasure of attending a breakfast with this man back in 2009 at a UChicago alum event where he was the keynote. Need I remind you this was early 2009 during Obama’s honeymoon period where he regularly had over 60% approval ratings, and had a filibuster proof majority in the Senate and a house majority. Silver predicted that the GOP would NOT go in a death spiral like all the pundits at the time were spouting and MSM CW pegged Huntsman as the GOP savior who he accurately and consistently pegged as being a future loser not a front runner which morons like Brooks pegged him as.

        He also said they’d take back the House but not the Senate and Obama would have a close re-election but win slightly. The data then favored Republicans and now favors Democrats but has stayed the same along with his cool analysis. My Electoral Politics professor Jon Mark Hansen who is also a chair of the Association of Political Scientists is also bullish on Obama, we will see if empiricists lose, they did in 1948 and could be under reporting or over reporting a demographic or two. But if they are wrong it’s in spite of doing the hard legwork not by spiting the hard work and spouting nonsense like the pundits.

  6. With Obama's chances of re-election at between 84 and 98%,

    and this post’s characterization, based on Silver’s and Wang’s polling analysis, that he is the prohibitive favorite in the race, isn’t it time once again for the appearance here of …drumroll…the blimp?

    • No blimp...

      …until a Romney concession speech. We may be in the red zone, but we haven’t crossed the goal line yet.

      • True, but by the time of Romney's concession speech, the blimp will have already crashed.

        Hasn’t this site in the past gone with the blimp well before Romney has admitted that his campaign is in flames? At the same time, I understand your argument for not appearing to be over-confident.

        But if we accept Wang’s analysis, in particular, our confidence level in Obama’s re-election would be well over 95 percent, which is the standard set for virtual scientific certainty, at least in the social sciences. I guess my question is, do we accept the science behind these polls and the analysis of them, or are we still influenced to some small extent by the pundits’ claim that the race is still too close to call?

        Mind you, I’m not not saying the burning blimp would mean BMG thinks Romney is absolutely going to lose. I’m just saying it would mean BMG thinks things aren’t going well at all for him right now.

      • I say no blimp

        Nate Silver is great, but don’t crash the blimp yet.

        Obama seems like a great closer, but what if his PECOTA shows that he is similar to Calvin Schiraldi?

  7. For a similar, much longer take,

    see this very interesting piece in Deadspin that goes back to Silver’s roots as a baseball analyst. Here’s an excellent quote:

    we’ve reached the point in our screwed-up political media culture where the polling companies and forecasters—not the pundits, not the spokespeople, and certainly not the candidates—are the only people being evaluated rigorously on the substance of their arguments. If Nate Silver and Sam Wang screw up, their popularity will suffer as a result, and they’ll have to reconsider their models. Meanwhile, if [David] Brooks, [National Review's Josh] Jordan, [MSNBC's Joe] Scarborough, [WaPo's Jennifer] Rubin, or [Politico's Dylan] Byers make another poor argument, they’ll continue to collect their paychecks as if nothing had happened.

  8. Krugman weighs in here:

    November 3, 2012, 4:15 pm426 Comments

    Reporting That Makes You Stupid

    Today’s Financial Times bears a banner headline on p.1: “US election hangs on a knife edge”. Aside from everything else, surely this gets the cliche wrong: you rest on a knife edge, don’t you? If you try to hang on one, I think you just cut off your fingers.

    More important, though, this headline deeply misleads readers about the state of the race — and in so doing, it echoes a lot of political reporting right now. Quite simply, many of the “analysis” articles being published in these final days leave readers worse informed than they were before reading.

    As Nate Silver (who has lately attracted a remarkable amount of hate — welcome to my world, Nate!) clearly explains, state polling currently points overwhelmingly to an Obama victory. It’s possible that the polls are systematically biased — and this bias has to encompass almost all the polls, since even Rasmussen is now showing Ohio tied. So Romney might yet win. But a knife-edge this really isn’t, and any reporting suggesting that it is makes you stupider.

    Worse yet, some reporting tells readers things the reporters have to know aren’t true. How many stories have you seen declaring that “both sides think they’re winning”? No, they don’t: the Romney campaign is visibly flailing, trying desperately to find new fronts on which to attack Obama. They clearly know that it will take a miracle — sorry, a last-minute surge — to prevail on Tuesday. It’s OK, I guess, to report campaign spin; but surely it’s not OK to report campaign spin as the truth, which is what these stories are doing.

    Again, as Nate says, it’s definitely possible that the polls are systematically wrong. The obvious ways they could go wrong, cell phones and Latinos, favor Obama rather than Romney; but maybe pollsters are overcompensating for these factors, or maybe there’s a large Bradley effect distorting poll responses. Reporting about these possibilities would be interesting.

    But reporting that suggests that this is a too-close-to-call race doesn’t get at any of this; it’s just lazy, and a disservice to readers.

  9. great post david

    I would add a sad note….

    Equally skilled geeks have the Celtics slipping to 6th place this year.

    Biggest culprit? The pundits say Jeff Green is a great player (Charles Barkley et al). More troubling, the Celtics brass think Jeff Green is a great player.

    What the Nate Silver-like Geeks know: Jeff Green may be a remarkably nice guy who hustles and looks the part, but he is BELOW average in several respects, and harms the team each minute he plays. That doesn’t even count the fact that he is coming off heart surgery.

    Could have had Omer Asik for LESS.

  10. Looking at Silver's poll plot,

    it seems like Obama has recovered from Romney’s bump after the first debate, and has nearly resumed the same trend line he had leading up to the debates.

    • Yes, I think that's right.

      It’s almost as if the month of October never happened. Interesting, no?

      • Better ads too

        The Obama campaign was smart enough to realize it had successfully painted Romney as a job-killing ruthless CEO and I honestly feel the Bain boating ruined any chance he had of carrying Ohio. Where it failed was losing the positive narrative of Obama’s accomplishments and what is still left to be done, a narrative the DNC, Bill Clinton’s speech in particular, solidified. Appearing shoulder to shoulder with Romney and offering up tired and negative sounding talking points momentarily damaged the President’s standing with independents, especially since Romney tacked back to the center. But the Morgan Freeman ads which have been running all over out here in the Midwest remind me of the Morning in America ads while Romney’s sound negative, not just on Obama but on America itself, and remind me of the failed scare tactics of the Mondale campaign.

        Time will tell of course, Sandy definitely helped the President look more presidential and reminded us that Romney would destroy FEMA, and perhaps a lot of leaners are breaking for the incumbent now that they are paying attention. Who knows if the job numbers really persuade voters.

        But at the end of the day whoever has the better ground game will win. And from my experience with the 08 groundgame and with my friends in the 12 ground game, we have the Midwest battlegrounds covered not just by ads but with doorknockers which still work out here. Obama’s ground game might be the best in the business. We will see if it works in VA, FL, NV, and CO as well.

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