A Prediction about Presidential Predictions

Tomorrow is Election Day, so get out there and vote. Barring any major polling malfunctions, by the end of the day we’ll finally have an answer to the question of who will reside in The White House for the next four years. Almost as interestingly, tomorrow could also mark a definitive change in the way we look at Presidential campaigns, potentially for decades. In particular: if Nate Silver’s ongoing, deeply statistical analysis of the race at Fivethirtyeight turns out to be an accurate predictor of the final outcome, it may alter political punditry for a long, long time.

If you’re not familiar with Silver’s work, it’s probably a reasonable if gross characterization to say that he is a kind of ‘meta-pollster.’ Each day, he surveys the most recent state and national polls, aggregating their results using a sophisticated — but proprietary — statistical model that accounts for such factors as polling methodology, past accuracy and tendency to favor one party or another. The result is what some believe to be an exceedingly accurate picture of who is ‘winning’ at any given stage of the campaign — and, of course, a prediction of who will actually win at the close of Election Day.

Silver began doing this work in the lead-up to November 2008, and produced eye-popping results. His model correctly predicted the winner of forty-nine of the fifty states in the presidential election, and all thirty-five of the senate races held that year.

Whether that was pure luck or not is the question that will be answered when the results of tomorrow’s election are in. If his predictions are largely accurate, it will go a long way towards validating Silver’s approach. It’s my feeling too that if that happens there’s no going back; in at least the next few election cycles, you can expect to see much more attention paid to this sort of statistical evaluation of a campaign’s progress.


Punditry Disruption

You might also expect to experience a lot of what I’ve felt as I followed along with Fivethirtyeight throughout this year: a growing dissatisfaction with the largely unquantified nature of traditional punditry. Silver’s blog makes for gripping reading, day in and day out, both because he is a good writer and because his evaluations of current polling events are so grounded in numbers, so well-argued, so rich with detail, that they seem far more rewarding than what normally passes for political analysis. Take for example his recent explanations of what it will take for Mitt Romney to outperform his polling and why he felt confident in saying that Barack Obama is the favorite. Both are thoughtful, compelling defenses of his thinking, but they’re really remarkable in that they exist at all. What other political commentators can be bothered to regularly lay out their thought processes so extensively?

After months of reading Fivethirtyeight on a daily basis, traditional political commentary is looking more and more outdated, even analog, to me. Most of it seems more like bloviation or superstition, and not true explication. My tolerance for it has been markedly reduced, whether it’s of the blue chip opinion columnist variety, or the more free-wheeling blog sort. My sense — or, to be fair, my hope — is that Fivethirtyeight is effectively disrupting the punditry industry, that in the coming years commentators will be expected to be much more quantitative than they are today.

On the other hand, Silver could turn out to be disastrously wrong tomorrow, in which case never mind.

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20 Comments

  1. If he’s wrong, it doesn’t change the fact that he provided insightful analysis based on actual data, educating people on how informed predictions (that may or may not come true) are made.

    If he’s wrong, it doesn’t mean the blowhards win; just that the model needs to be improved.

  2. Well said. Let the data have a voice. I don’t know why the news outlets give outlets to pundits who’s only job is spin. It’s not news any more, if it ever was.

  3. If US political reporting is anything like the “horse race” reporting we get in Australia then lets all hope Silver’s predictions are spot on.

    The sooner the political pundits are forced to abandon talking about polls and predictions because a statistician repeatedly reveals them to be fools, the sooner they might get replaced with journalists who can discuss *policy* instead.

  4. All of the poll aggregators are in rough agreement with Nate Silver, so if they’re all wrong, there’s a fundamental problem with how polling was conducted for the past year or two. That could be the case, but the problem would be much more significant than Nate Silver not understanding how to aggregate polls.

  5. I love Nate Silver and his approach is thoughtful and refreshing, especially in a field of journalism that often has sacrificed real analysis for inside baseball clich

  6. I guess I’d like like to see 538 doing it’s own polling in the next election as well, and see how it does against the likes of Pew, Rasmussen (ahem), Zogby et alia.

    I will say the data visualizations around the election and serious data/quant analysis by the @nytimes team has been awesome. Please keep up the good work in other vastly more important areas like the environment, sustainable agriculture, climate change, etc.

  7. My concern over polls is that some people will believe, and thus start to rely on, such polling, and therefore see their candidate as either a “sure thing” and not bother voting, while the.other side could see the prediction as a challenge and turn out in higher numbers than thy might have… In this case, though, I suppose a sort of “magic hand” effect could then prove the prediction wrong, then returning people to their normal behavior… Bah!!

  8. More precisely, he is taking away the pundits’ ability to spin recent events by cherry-picking polls that support their point-of-view. However, it’s clear that in the process, Silver is also rattling the NYTimes political reporters as well as the pundits. Some have already made unsubstantiated comments that he works from home and doesn’t interact with the staff. It would not surprise me if he is snatched away by AOL or Daily Beast before the next round of federal elections.

  9. Khoi, I agree. One could fear the franchise is losing sight of what makes Bond fun in the first place with its ‘realistic’ take. I did really enjoy Skyfall..but Bond is supposed to be irresponsible. The characters M and Q exist to tsk-tsk him with a measure of reality. The Shanghai stuff was indeed beautiful and successful. The Macau sequence was also good because, classic Bond, in addition to action we want the Bond in an exciting, luxurious foreign locale.

  10. The reason why Bond feels the need to justify itself to the viewer is because there will constantly be people who can’t help but deconstruct each movie. You pore over it because it acknowledges its changing circumstances, but at the same time it would get picked apart if it acted like times weren’t different. It cannot win. I like the current tact, where it acknowledges that things have changed, but still continues on the same general path. Skyfall is probably the best Bond movie ever, which means it will invite even more dissection.

  11. Never use the word “relateable” if you want what you say to be taken seriously by anyone over the age of 29. That’s a word college kids in the “learning-as-a-service-industry” age invented to explain why they won’t study a book that offends their sensibilities.

  12. I could be mistaken, but it sounds like your version of a new Bond film is one I would probably not even waste rental money on. There’s a reason that many old action movies are terrible to watch these days and don’t hold up – and I’m not talking about special effects.

  13. Yah, the Bond movies start to suffer when they try to justify themselves or get w/the trends of modern times. Bond is a super hero, essentially, and it would be wise for the film makers not to over think this stuff. Your going to be influenced by your contemporaries, but it is a problem when things get derivative.

    The Brosnan films really play like 90s action films at their core and are just too influenced by that stuff. Though Michelle Yeoh (sp?) was brilliant in her film and Die Another Day was pretty enjoyable.

    Daniel Craig is breathing new life into the series w/his abilities, looking forward to seeing Skyfall.

  14. You nailed it! I love Bond’s world, and when I go to the see a Bond film I want to live in his world for two hours.

    Can’t wait to see Skyfall and escape!

  15. Fair points, but I think there’s something to be said for viewing the second half of the movie in a different light. (As with this entire page, spoilers coming up, naturally.)

    Casino Royale was a new take on Bond and Quantum of Solace dialed the grittiness up a few notches further (to its great discredit). While Quantum of Solace went for a relatively blemish-free villain to accentuate personal darkness, Skyfall returned the bombastic, classic Bond bad guy. Skyfall just about turns the car around, but not enough to fall into the trap of introducing John Cleese as R. (Terrific performances, but as good an indicator as anything of the plot slowly turning to self-aware parody.)

    The part of Skyfall that’s not about reclaiming the Bond legacy is about the place of Bond’s MI6 in a modern world. M makes a gallant case, but you’ll also note that it doesn’t keep her from being killed off. All the focus on the new M, the new Moneypenny and the new Q establish them as departures from what has come before, but as carrying the torch forward.

    For lack of a cheesier term, Skyfall shows us a Bond team embracing the duality of a modern Bond. A Bond that shows us what we loved before, but which makes no attempt to stay put in its box when, say, the Macau fighting scene is within reach and contributes just as much as the opening chase and the attack on the manor.

    Skyfall demonstrates that Bond can continue. There are blemishes, but you don’t have to look hard to also notice the inexorable mark of progress. The stage is set for Bond 24 to start Bond all over again; not by a reboot, not by simple remakes of the earlier movies but by Craig’s Bond in basically the same position as the start of the series and a modern cast of characters.

  16. Personally I liked Skyfall as a film. I liked the modern day scenario approach. As for relatable – considering 7/7 and 9/11 and more recently, the Breivik massacre, its not a matter of if these people exist – its a matter of who will stop them. Sure, Skyfall places the mantle of saving the day on the shoulders of a flawed man and goes to dramatise it more. After all it is a work of fiction thats evolving to work with today.

  17. I appear to be the only person in the world who enjoyed Quantum of Solace more than Skyfall. All three of the latest films were quite good, but I felt each was not as good as the previous.

    My major beef with this one was the lack of development with Severine. When she was part of the plot, she did quite a bit for the story… but she ended up being such a tiny part of the movie. Died too quickly.