Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category

Nate Silver, Polls and the RCP 2000 Fiasco

Monday, October 29th, 2012

I can’t recall an election cycle when so much attention was paid to polls. We do, of course, have more polling than ever. And the election is likely to be very close, so everyone is riveted on the polls. But it’s not just the attention to the polls: it’s the loud debate over them. I can’t recall seeing so many articles analyzing the polls, adjusting the polls, arguing the polls and selectively quoting polls. This has been especially strong from the Republican side, which has claimed that 1) the polls are skewed; 2) Nate Silver is a gay Obama supporter and can’t be trusted; 3) the polls are skewed; 4) Rasmussen is the only reliable pollster; 5) boy, are those polls skewed.

I don’t think this is a unique function of Republican hysteria or reality denial, incidentally. It is a result of a few models and analyses favoring Obama right now. If they favored Romney, I’m sure we’d be hearing conspiracy theories from the Left.

(The reporting on polls is enough to drive you mad. The bias and misunderstanding of how polls and statistics work would be stunning if I didn’t think it was deliberate. To illustrate how this goes, imagine that Romney and Obama are tied for the purple state of New Ubekibekistanstan. On one day, five polls come out that read like so:

Poll Palace: Tied
We R Polls: Tied
Polls R Us: Romney +1
Republican Poll Man: Romney +2
Liberal Poll Dudes: Obama +3

That’s a tie. But guess which ones the liberal blogs will talk about? Guess which ones the conservative ones will? This is how alternative realities are created.

Then there’s the issues of “margin of error”. If a poll comes out showing Romney is leading New GOPland by three points with a three point margin of error, the liberal blogs will say it is essentially tied. But it’s not. 3+-3 means that it’s about 70% likely that Romney leads and it’s as statistically likely that Romney leads by 6 as it is tied.

Then you compound the two. Imagine New GOPland has three polls released:

Polls R Us: Romney +2 +- 3
We R Polls: Romney +5 +- 2
Poll Palace: Romney +8 +- 3

Assuming there are no biases, Romney actually has a solid lead: five points, give or take two. But the news media will say it’s tied.)

I should note that a big reason for the attention to polls is the null difference between the two candidates. If they really had major policy differences, we’d be talking about those. Romney supporters would be talking about how awesome his economic plan is and Obama supporters would be talking about how awesome the economy is. But because they are essentially the same man, we’re talking about polls.

And if we’re talking polls, we’re really talking about Nate Silver. Silver is one of several people who understand statistics and tries to incorporate all of the available data into an electoral projection. As of right now, Silver’s model projects Obama as a likely winner, although it is very close. Close enough that one week could shift it either way.

This has prompted a massive response from Romney supporters. Some of the criticism is legitimate. A lot of it is bullshit.

But his critics being full of crap doesn’t make Silver right. Silver came to fame with a dead-on projection of 2008. But 2008 was not a close election. It was, all things considered, a landslide for Obama. Only three states — North Carolina, Missouri and Indiana — were within 1% and Silver missed on Indiana (to be fair, Silver gives probabilities not certainties and getting two out of three coin flips right is just fine). 2012 is going to much closer. And I dare say this will be the real test of Silver’s abilities. Is he going to be proven dead on again? Or will his model be spectacularly wrong?

This year is reminding me an awful lot of Election 2000. It’s not just because of the closeness and the likelihood of an electoral college-popular vote split; it’s because that was the first time an attempt to model the electoral outcome was done. And, as the Wayback machine reminds us, it failed spectacularly. Real Clear Politics predicted Bush would win by 10 points in the popular vote and with an electoral landslide of 446-92. That … didn’t happen.

I remember the events very clearly. My advisor tipped me to the RCP site as evidence that the media were ignoring Bush’s pending win. But I also remember being highly skeptical. because it seemed to me they were going overboard to try to make Bush win, constantly putting states in “definite Bush” but very few in “definite Gore”.

(Of course, that may have been my natural pessimism: I was a Bush supporter and RCP’s projection seemed too good to be true. If I were supporting Obama this year, I’m sure I would have convinced myself that Silver is wrong in his analysis.)

Here’s a breakdown of how RCP went wrong:

States Bush Would Win: Alaska, Utah, Idaho, Montana, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, South Dakota, North Dakota, Wyoming, Colorado, Indiana, Arizona, Virginia, South Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, Louisiana, Kentucky, Ohio, North Carolina. They also had Nevada as a probably win. Bush did win all of these and most of them were not close. Ohio, now a swing state, went to Bush by 170,000 votes. That was not really the problem. The problem was:

States Gore Would Win: DC, New York, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Rhode Island with Connecticut as a probable win. These were the only states they had as definite Gore. California, Maryland, Washington — these were not seen as definite Gore states. And it was this bias that I was subconsciously picking up: not that they overestimated Bush’ performance, but they under-estimated Gore’s, refusing to accept that people would vote for him. They seriously had Gore polling at 42% nationally. Given the popularity of Clinton and the state of the economy, that was absurd.

Leans Bush: They correctly called Missouri, New Hampshire, Florida, Arkansas, Tennessee and West Virginia. They also had New Mexico and Oregon, which went to Gore but were cose. But Washington? Michigan? Pennsylvania? Maine? Gore won them all by 5 or 6 points.

Leans Gore: Maryland and Vermont. Again, we see a reluctance to put things in Gore’s column. Gore won both by double digits. The idea that Maryland “leaned” was laughable.

Slight Bush: Delaware, Iowa, Minnesota, Illinois, California All were easy wins for Gore. Only Minnesota was within shouting distance.

Slight Gore: New Jersey Another huge win for Gore.

We can see that it wasn’t just that RCP was wrong; they were wrong everywhere, systematically and massively underestimating Gore’s support.

So what happened? And does this mean we should point and laugh at projections for this year?

Well, first of all, RCP way over-estimated Ralph Nader’s influence. This may sound strange to Democrats still bitter about 2000, but RCP estimated Nader at 5.7%, over twice as well as he actually performed. And almost all of his supposed voters went to Gore. This not only skewed the popular vote, it massively skewed the vote in blue states like California.

Second, Bush eventually underperformed the polls by three points. Ted Frank makes the case that this was because of the November Surprise of Bush’s drunk driving arrest. While that’s possible — I thought so at the time — I’m less convinced now. When you get into the last days of the election, most people have decided. I really doubt this shifted the national polls by three points in three days, which is a *very* large and *very* rapid shift so late in the game.

In the end, I think it was all of the above: they overestimated Nader’s support, the polls shifted late and RCP had a bit of a bias. But I also think RCP was simply ahead of its time. In 2000, we simply did not have the relentless national and state level polls we have now. And we did not have the kind of information that can tease out the subtle biases and nuances that Nate Silver can.

Ah, Nate Silver. We keep circling back to him. So what do I think? Is Silver going to be sitting pretty on November 7 or will he have egg on his face?

I don’t know.

I think he’s doing the best job he can, given the difficulty of the data. But when the election is this close, you’re straining the ability of even the most careful analyst to predict the future. I think it’s possible that he will miss. But it’s not because he’s biased or stupid. It’s simply because close elections are difficult to forecast. Even the smallest error — a 1% national offset in the popular vote — could have big implications for the final result. I simply find it hard to believe that any model can predict an election likely to be within the noise.

I will note that if Silver does miss badly, this does not make his critics right. We should never confused the process with the result. If Silver misses but some guy throwing darts an electoral college map gets it right, this does not mean dart-throwing is superior. It means that one guy got lucky and the other missed something.

My prediction? I don’t know. This feels like an electoral-popular split since Romney’s red-state support is stronger than Obama’s blue-state support. That may be my own bias playing up: I would love to watch the pundits argue 180 degrees from where they were in 2000 and I would love to see the President, whoever he is, weakened to the point where Congress takes the lead on solving our budget woes.

But right now, no result would surprise me. There’s nine days left. There’s a massive hurricane bearing down (natural disasters can hurt incumbents and I expect the GOP to say Obama’s response is incompetent no matter what). Job numbers have yet to come out. Some football teams have yet to play.

To be honest: I just want it to be over, one way or the other. I’m tired of it. I’m tired of one side or the other quoting whichever poll most favors them. I’m tired of the bullshit gotchyas. I’m tired of being bashed from one side as an Obama bootlicker and the other as a secret Romney supporter. I’m tired of everything having a political implication.

Hopefully, in a little over a week, we can start getting back to policy and ideas and things that really matter.

Wednesday Linkorama

Wednesday, October 17th, 2012
  • Distracted parenting is a problem, obviously. But, despite the horrible tragedies described, it’s not clear how big a problem it is. Mobile devices free parents up to do more things with kids and to supervise them more. I will let on, however, that they can occupy your attention. I was at a park when a kid broke his arm and didn’t notice immediately because of my phone. Don’t know if it would have been different with my kid.
  • I’m really looking forward to reading Nate Silver’s book.
  • Statues at the bottom of the sea. Amazing. And heart-breaking, when you think of what they represent.
  • I think this author has a good point that the Star Wars universe is likely illiterate. However, I think it’s less a conscious “where is modernism driving us” thing than a reflection of Star Wars being built on medieval narratives and cliches.
  • An interesting take on one of the more panned documentaries of the year. It does seem that people have a problem accepting that being anti-Big Education is not the same as being anti-education. Or even anti-teacher.
  • This story made my day. This is religion at its finest.
  • Whatever the political fallout of Benghazi, the story of the attack is an amazing one.
  • This is NOT the way to fight global warming. And they say all the greed and abuse is on the skeptic side.
  • Tuesday Linkorama

    Tuesday, October 2nd, 2012
  • Paul Ryan and the Republicans appear to be backing down on DADT. About time.
  • Apparently, there is a new blood test that could detect some types of cancer.
  • Yeah, I never thought much of the writing fever approach to teaching writing skills. You learn to play music by learning scales. You learn writing by learning vocabulary, grammar and sentence construction.
  • A fascinating profile of one of the CIA’s operatives. What’s telling is precisely why we provide aide to loathsome regimes.
  • Hmmm. Kids getting their grandparents’ Holocaust tattoos.
  • Mathematical Malpractice Watch: Guns

    Saturday, September 29th, 2012

    A few weeks ago, Mother Jones did a timeline of mass shootings in response to the spate of summer shootings. The defined their criteria, listed 61 incidents and pointed out, correctly, that most of them were committed with legal firearms.

    The highlight is a map of mass shootings over the last thirty years. The map has some resemblance to Radley Balko’s famous map of botched law enforcement raids. But the use of a map and dots is where the resemblance ends. Balko was very clear that his list of incidents was not, in any way, definitive. And he did not try to parse his incomplete data to draw sketchy conclusions.

    Mother Jones felt under no such compulsion.

    This week, they’ve published an “analysis” of their data and drawn the conclusion that our society has more guns than ever and, perhaps related, more mass shootings. Below, I’ll detail why I think their “analysis” — and yes, I will keep using quotation marks for this — is useless, uninformative and flat-out wrong.

    (more…)

    New Year Linkorama

    Monday, September 17th, 2012
  • I fear that Megan McArdle is right and that we are facing an awful bust in higher education. I recently that Emory is cutting whole departments. And we’ve been squeezed. At some point, the massive amounts of money poring into higher ed have to reach their asymptote, no? This is going to be ugly.
  • A fascinating article about why the atheist movement is so male-dominated. I won’t pretend I have an answer to this. I have to think about it quite a bit.
  • Was Obama elected by hordes of welfare recipients? Nope. This is, I think, a big reason many conservatives oppose efforts for mandatory voting. I oppose it myself, but for different reasons.
  • A great article on the state of science writing, the tendency of poor research to grab headlines (because poor research produces surprising bogus results) and the beauty of debunking. A must read.
  • A truly horrible story of isolation and psychological abuse being used to “discipline” kids. Honestly, we were better off with paddelings.
  • Can Conservatives Be Funny?

    Friday, September 7th, 2012

    That’s the question Andrew Sullivan is asking. Here’s my response to his contention that conservatives no longer have a sense of humor and liberals do:

    While I agree with your point, I think the psychoanalysis claiming that conservative can’t be funny is way off. It used to be the other way around. Ronald Reagan had a fine sense of humor. So did Bush 41. I remember going to Republicans events in the 90′s and finding people who were optimistic, upbeat and humorous. Conservatism has always had its humorists — O’Rourke, Mencken, even Twain* to some extent in his way (although they tended to be more of a libertarian bent). Hell, back in the 90′s, Rush Limbaugh was consistently hilarious. I swear.

    (*I’m sure a lot of people will balk at the idea of Twain as conservative. Certainly he was anti-religion and anti-bigotry. But he was deeply distrustful of people in positions of power. It is, after all, Twain who said that all kings is mostly rapscallions. I wonder what he’d say about our current leaders.)

    A big reason for this was that, until the 90′s, liberals were in power, so conservatives were outsiders. And liberals were just so silly and made for such easy targets. I remember, as I came of political age in the 80′s and 90′s, being surrounded by dim humorless liberals who would occasionally do a painfully unfunny roast for a retiring senator or something. They were all so deadly serious about everything, so *concerned*, so wracked with that aggravating mixture of moroseness and self-righteousness that surrounds true believers.

    I’m not sure when things changed, but I agree with your reader who cited Bill Hicks: it is the rise of fundamentalism that has drained the humor out of the Right. And when the talk shows hosts were invited into the halls of power, they lost their satirical bite. Moreover, the Left has moved away from the absurd sanctimony of the 80′s and 90′s. These days it is the GOP that spends all their time wailing and gnashing their teeth about things no sensible person would bat an eye over (e.g., gay marriage, the various notroversies surrounded the President). These days it is the Right who are so sanctimonious and self-righteous. Nowhere is this more visible than Limbaugh, who has become painfully unfunny, as the Sandra Fluke thing demonstrated. By contrast, the Left is … well, not sensible … uh … maybe a bit less silly … about certain things.

    Maybe a lot of conservatives don’t have a sense of humor now. But it was not always so.

    Mathematical Malpractice Watch: Rape Statistics

    Wednesday, August 22nd, 2012

    The Akin controversy has brought a lot of ugliness to light. I’ll push aside the broader political issues, which I’ve discussed on the other blog. Instead, I want to focus on a particular piece of nonsense from one of the more influential pro-Life figures, who has tried to argue that rape pregnancies are very rare.

    You would think this would be straight forward. You could, for example, find rape victims and ask them if they got pregnant. And indeed, a study estimated that about 5% of rapes end in pregnancy and 32,000 fetuses are conceived in rape every year. You could also ask women getting abortions if they were raped. And indeed, Guttmacher did this and produced a lower estimate of about 10,000 or so. There is no real incentive, at this point, for women to lie about how they got pregnant. Or there are just as many reasons for them lie either way since many women are tragically ashamed of having been raped. But there is no a priori reason to suspect that either number is greatly inflated.

    (The Guttmacher number seems a little better since the numbers in the former study would indicate about 640,000 rapes a year or three times what the FBI and NCVS conclude, even including the under-reporting factor. The difference is likely that Guttmacher is recent and Holmes was published in 1996, shortly after crime rates peaked. Rape rates have plunged in the last 16 years and are down about 85% over the last 30.)

    But plain facts aren’t enough for some people, so John Wilke, “M. D.” has come up with a bizarre rape equivalent of the Drake equation to try to figure out how many rape babies are conceived every year and come up with a vanishingly small number.

    It’s fairly easy to tear apart.

    (more…)

    Weekend Linkorama

    Sunday, August 5th, 2012

    I’m doing more long-form posting of links I care to comment on. But here’s a few I don’t have time for.

  • Man, do I love time lapse video
  • .

  • I haven’t found a good handle on the contention that Mitt Romney’s CEO background is actually a minus. I really think the CEO thing is irrelevant. What concerns me more is his lading up his staff with former Bush people.
  • I’m a little dubious of the contention that trash correlates with economic health. The graph smacks to me of a manipulated stat (it measure the derivative not the absolute). And our push on durability and recycling could confused it. Really, it looks, to me, more like you have one big correlated dip in both stats that’s driving the supposed correlation. The collapse of 2008 was unique. I’m not sure it’s a trend.
  • Tuesday Linkorama

    Tuesday, July 10th, 2012
  • Starry Night … in dominoes.
  • A great interview with the Skeptical Environmentalist.
  • The DEA can’t justify it’s own War on Drugs.
  • This post, on whether kids should hate their parents, deserves a feature-length post from me. Suffice it to say that I, uh, split he baby on this one. I’m my daughter’s friend when I can be but if she doesn’t hate me once a week, I’m not doing my job.
  • Lost Luggage Linkorama

    Sunday, June 24th, 2012
  • Sigh. Five centuries before interstellar travel?
  • Mathematical Malpractice Watch: the War on Cops.
  • Why I will never approve of George W. Bush.
  • The more we find out about ancient cultures, the more clever and well-travelled they turn out to be.
  • Tuesday Linkorama

    Tuesday, June 12th, 2012
  • All right, here’s the thing about the “study” that Congressional speaking patterns have gotten simpler. Notice that from ’96 to ’06, the speaking grade level was higher and especially high among Republicans. How come we didn’t read all these articles about what intelligent speakers the Republicas were? It did’t fit the narrative, that’s why.
  • I love me new web browsers, but calling it Axis? Is it being tested in Poland and China?
  • Looks like the mainstream media has discovered Chaga’s Disease. I remember my first visit to Campanas, when they tried to scare the new guy with stories about Venchukas.
  • How a story goes viral. Personally, I find the story amusing and cute.
  • A fascinating breakdown of where your airfare goes.
  • UK Linkorama

    Tuesday, May 22nd, 2012
  • The rise of resistant diseases is one of the biggest reasons I fear socialized medicine. Innovation is critical to the next century and I am afraid that price controls will kill it.
  • Amazing pictures of the Kowloon City.
  • This is why I read Joe Posnanski religiously. A post about nothing. And it’s beautiful.
  • I was going to write an article taking apart Buzz Blowhard Bissinger on the subject of college football. Now I don’t have to.
  • A study says women value sleep more than sex. This is unsurprising although the reasons are a bit different than what they think. It’s pure economics. For women, sex is available (mostly) when they want it so sleep takes priority. For men, you have to get it when you can, so everything else is secondary. I think Seinfeld did an episode on this, no?
  • Tuesday Linkorama

    Tuesday, May 1st, 2012
  • So my daughter has taken to watching My Little Ponies: Friendship is Magic lately. I’m fine with it, since the show is a lot more sophisticated than the stuff she’s liked before. It’s also far less abrasive and ugly than most of the animation that dominates morning TV. Still, I do not understand the brony phenomenon. Really?
  • The best magazine articles ever?
  • The amazing thing about environmental fear-mongers it that they are never discredited by being totally and completely wrong. Thankfully, a handful will own up to it.
  • This story, about potentially innocent men not being informed about flaws in the evidence against them, is appalling and should be bigger. Where the anti-big-government types when it comes to getting innocent people out of jail?
  • The thing that strikes me about this photo essay about the poorest place in America is how relative poverty is. I’m not saying they are not poor or are facing few prospects. I am saying that if you saw the same thing in much of the world, you’d think you were looking at the richest part of the country.
  • Monday Linkorama

    Sunday, April 15th, 2012
  • Did Fata Morgana sink the Titanic?
  • Nowadays, it takes ten years to build a sidewalk. Didn’t used to be that way.
  • You know how women were supposed to never get married if they were still on the shelf at 30? Yeah, that was bullshit.
  • Moore’s real law.
  • Mathematical malpractice watch: Mitt Romney.