Tuesday, October 30, 2012

By The Numbers

As the pundits attack, the whole climate becomes more and more funny.
If you tell me you think you can quantify an event that is about to happen that you don't expect, like the 47 percent comment or a debate performance, I think you think you are a wizard. That's not possible.
That's New York Times columnist David Brooks,  who earned the nickname "Bobo" for his book of faux-sociology about some group he called "bourgeois bohemians".  Now, Bobo has a reputation among pundits for being smart, for being moderate, and for occasionally calling the crazy in Rightland by its real name.  Now, he has done this last, although all his smarts haven't allowed him to say, "Wow, all this crazy over here must mean something!"  By and large, Brooks is a middling intellect, displaying the kind of ridiculous analysis one should expect from someone who is the butt of jokes because he doesn't know Applebee's doesn't have a salad bar.

Joe Scarborough, like Brooks, trades on his reputation.  What lies at the beating heart of his reputation?  His viscera.
But my gut tells me there are two likely scenarios: (1) President Obama will squeak out a narrow Electoral College victory or (2) Mitt Romney will carry Ohio and be swept into office by a comfortable margin.
After practicing politics for 20 years, I suppose I would rather be in Mitt Romney's shoes than Barack Obama's. Incumbents who are under 50 percent two weeks out usually go down to defeat.
But who knows? Maybe Barack Obama will bend history once again.
While I realize it's difficult to parse, in fact, Scarborough isn't saying anything much different that Silver.  The difference between them is simple - guts versus numbers.

Silver isn't "predicting" anything.  He's only a "wizard" if you don't understand probability.  And Scarborough's competing scenarios, hedged by his, "But who knows?", really are little different from Silver's statistical model that gives Pres. Obama a 74.6% chance of winning in one week.  That isn't a prediction, but a probably outcome based upon analysis of a variety of polling data on a state-by-state basis.

Which is one advantage Silver has over the punditry.  Remembering the Presidency isn't a popularity contest, but determined by Electors from the several states (in the language of the Constitution so many people revere without actually reading, let alone understanding), Silver keeps his eye trained on the polling in the states.

What's really remarkable about Silver's blog at the Times is the way he tracks his analysis.  You don't like what he's saying?  Well, fine, take a look and see where he gets his data, how the different polls in each state vary, how they're weighed, then check them over time.

One of the things Silver's analysis reminds me of is this: Despite the big bounce Romney received from his first debate performance (and Obama's lousy performance in that same debate), the fundamentals of the race remained the same after as before.  Obama's slow and steady recovery after that first beating continue, particularly in the swing states (again, something the polls indicate, and Silver makes clear).

Again, to be clear: Silver's model isn't a prediction.  It is a probability model based upon a wide variety of data, controlled for inherent biases and limitations, and rooted in the reality that the Presidency is decided not by popular opinion but by the Electoral College.

I should note that Silver takes on the whole idea of "momentum" in a piece written last Thursday:
The way the term “momentum” is applied in practice by the news media, however, it usually refers only to the first part of the clause — meaning simply that a candidate has been gaining ground in the polls, whether or not he might continue to do so. (I’ve used this phrasing plenty of times myself, so I have no real basis to complain about it.)
But there are other times when the notion of momentum is behind the curve — as it probably now is if applied to Mitt Romney’s polling.
Mr. Romney clearly gained ground in the polls in the week or two after the Denver debate, putting himself in a much stronger overall position in the race. However, it seems that he is no longer doing so.
Take Wednesday’s national tracking polls, for instance. (There are now eight of them published each day.) Mr. Romney gained ground in just one of the polls, an online poll conducted for Reuters by the polling organization Ipsos. He lost ground in five others, with President Obama improving his standing instead in those surveys. On average, Mr. Obama gained about one point between the eight polls.
 What isn’t very likely, however, is for one candidate to lose ground in five of six polls if the race is still moving toward him. In other words, we can debate whether Mr. Obama has a pinch of momentum or whether the race is instead flat, but it’s improbable that Mr. Romney would have a day like this if he still had momentum.
Saying, "My gut tells me," and insisting one or another candidate has "momentum" without any reference to what's actually happening is about as relevant as looking at chicken entrails.  If a candidate isn't actually gaining ground against an opponent, a bunch of people standing around talking about how that candidate has "momentum" is just as accurate as looking out at the clear blue sky and complaining about the rain.

None of this is to say Silver is "calling" the election, or "predicting" an Obama win.  Again, this is about probability; Romney has about a one in four chance of winning, which really aren't shabby odds when you think about it.  It should certainly be more than enough to keep both men campaigning right up until the very last moment.

I'm far more fascinated by all the attention Silver's been getting from people who, by their words, demonstrate they have no idea what Silver's doing, or how he's doing it.  Of course, as with all internet phenomenon, the comment section, especially on the Media Matters piece, is comedy gold.

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