Sunday, October 28, 2012

You can't kill an idea. You can't kill Mittmentum.

This Chait post is nearly five days old--ancient history!--but I just found it, and it echoes my feelings on the election so well that I couldn't not share:
In recent days, the vibe emanating from Mitt Romney’s campaign has grown downright giddy. Despite a lack of any evident positive momentum over the last week — indeed, in the face of a slight decline from its post-Denver high — the Romney camp is suddenly bursting with talk that it will not only win but win handily. (“We’re going to win,” said one of the former Massachusetts governor’s closest advisers. “Seriously, 305 electoral votes.”) 
This is a bluff. Romney is carefully attempting to project an atmosphere of momentum, in the hopes of winning positive media coverage and, thus, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy... 
...Obama enjoys a clear electoral college lead. He is ahead by at least a couple points in enough states to make him president. Adding to his base of uncontested states, Nevada, Ohio, and Wisconsin would give Obama 271 electoral votes. According to the current polling averages compiled at fivethirtyeight.com, Obama leads Nevada by 3.5 percent, Ohio by 2.9 percent, and Wisconsin by 4 percent. Should any of those fail, Virginia and Colorado are nearly dead even. (Obama leads by 0.7 percent and 1.0 percent, respectively.) If you don’t want to rely on Nate Silver — and you should rely on him! — the polling averages at realclearpolitics, the conservative-leaning site, don’t differ much, either... 
Obama’s lead is narrow — narrow enough that the polling might well be wrong and Romney could win. But he is leading, his lead is not declining, and the widespread perception that Romney is pulling ahead is Romney’s campaign suckering the press corps with a confidence game.  
 As we saw following the first debate, media chatter matters. The strangely persistent idea that the country is in the thrall of Mittmentum--an idea for which there is absolutely no empirical support at the moment--may not result in the landslide victory that Romney's camp is prognosticating, but sure might churn up an extra point or two for Romney in the final balance, which is plenty to sway the election. You'd think that reporters would take steps to limit their own impact on events, like psychological researchers instituting a double-blind to prevent the very act of observation from contaminating experimental results. You'd be wrong. The Fourth Estate's best solution has been to cover its eyes and pretend away the obvious feedback loop; this has the nifty side effect of preemptively absolving its mouthpieces from even the possibility of malpractice, because in the immortal not-quite words of Uncle Ben, with no power comes no responsibility. "If Romney says he's winning, who are we to second-guess him?" you can hear the editors of America saying. "He sounds pretty sure of himself, it's all news, and it's a wash in the end, so let's run with it."

Other, less determinedly self-deluded institutions are, by contrast, completely aware of the state of things, and as the Romney campaign has demonstrated, quite happy to take advantage of the media's strange blind spot.

The situation could of course be remedied by fostering a general respect for numbers and quantitative techniques in newsrooms, so that the drumbeat of optimistic expectations from the Romney camp would be drowned out by the drumbeat of polls confirming that the Romney camp is full of it. But people don't go to j-school because they're good at math, and statistics make for crappy copy anyway.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Snap polls do matter--just not as polls

It's late and my head isn't feeling so great, so this will be quick.  But there's something that's been bugging me since the end of the debate and I want to get it off my chest.

The irritating idea is pretty much summed up by this Greg Sargent tweet:


Sargent is especially determined to remind us that snap polls "tell us nothing"; he tweeted something to that effect no fewer than seven times.  But other pundits on the left are saying the same, and although I don't follow nearly as many right-pundits, I bet they're even more eager to remind us that snap polls don't matter, given how ugly the initial results were for Romney.

And to cautious media figures with an understanding of statistics, I'm sure nothing could seem more perfectly obvious.  Snap polls about "who won" aren't likely to be terribly accurate (results vary massively between polls, which should be evidence enough of their unreliability).  Even if you could determine which candidate America believed won the debate, there's simply no way of knowing if lots or a few or any voters will move to the winning side as a consequence. So that's that, right?  The only way to find out who won is to wait and see.  The polls tell you nothing.

But wait a second.  The polls tell you nothing about what?  They tell you nothing about what people  who watched the debate, but have heard no media coverage of the debate, think about the debate.  But the demographic of "people who watched the debate, but have heard no media coverage of the debate," is completely unimportant--primarily because it starts shrinking the moment the debate ends, and will shrink nearly to nonexistence by the time the election is held.

By contrast, that demographic's counterpart--people who have heard media coverage of the debate--will continue to grow until the day of the election.  It will eventually encompass the vast majority of voters.  So what's really important here is not predicting how the debate, standing alone, will impact the views of voters, but how the debate, and its aftermath, will impact the views of voters.

And towards that end, the snap polls are very important.  Not because they're necessarily scientifically accurate, but because their rough gauge of voter sentiment will give a cue to the media on how to report the debate.  Obama win, Romney win, draw, whatever.  And then that view will color all subsequent coverage of the debate.  And soon enough, lots of voters who didn't exactly "watch" the debate will be able to tell you what happened, because CNN will have told them, because the snap polls told CNN.  And even the people that did watch the debate will be reminded of the moments that reinforce the outcome that the snap polls have found to have occurred, and soon, those moments will be mostly what they remember too.  And pundits and reporters will start using shorthand to refer to the debate--"The first debate, which Romney won," or "The second debate, mostly remembered for BINDERS FULL OF WOMEN"--and the actual diverse range of responses and reactions reflected in the snap polls will be smoothed into a single media-approved take, which, I suspect, probably will not be "There were many diverging opinions about who came off more favorably, roughly forming a bell curve with its peak over +16 Obama."

So would Sargent be correct in decrying the conspiracy of silence by CNN and its cohort, in which everyone pretends that snap polls are a deeply meaningful glance into the collective American consciousness?  Absolutely he would.  But is he right to say the snap polls tell us nothing?  Absolutely not.  They tell us a tremendous amount about the range of possible reactions to this debate going forward.  In fact, I find Sargent's view a little disturbing, because it suggests a deeply distorted view of American politics and his own role in it.  It pretends that what really matters is the opinion of a fictional mass of undecided Americans, which he appears to conceive as a passive entity that sits down in front of a TV for 90 minutes, watches Mitt and Barack verbally punch it out, makes a decision, and is done with this whole "election" thing.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  I'm sure it's easier for the press to pretend it's watching the crowd watch the show... but in reality, the crowd is watching the press watch the crowd watch the press watch the crowd watch the show.  The press wishing otherwise won't make the situation any less complicated.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Chuck Todd told me the next 18 hours will be the most important in the election

Personally, I would have thought the most important 18 hours would come sometime November 6th, but who am I to argue with Chuck Todd?  I guess that means I better livetweet this.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Ryan's Big Debut Was a Damp Squib, Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Joe Biden

Unsurprisingly, I'm of the view that Biden won.

But what I found especially satisfying is how thoroughly Biden humiliated Ryan. Not in the sense of running circles around him argumentatively, but in the sense of actually humiliating him. The laughs, the constant interruptions, the muttered "Oh my god...," they all conveyed the same message: "This scrub congressman is not worth my time, or yours."

It resonates with informed liberals because most of us realize by now that this is the only correct response to the Paul Ryan Phenomenon. Ryan's a faux wonk: he's built his entire career by successfully communicating the sense that he's some sort of brilliant numbers man. The non-wonk media has been on occasion completely bamboozled by this charade. The last debate highlighted the problem rather well: nobody on TV is very interested in, much less capable of, checking the figures behind Ryan's (and now, Romney's) dubious claims, so simply countering his statistics with other, more accurate statistics won't work.

So Biden said the only thing that CAN be said in this situation: "You're lying." He said it over and over, with words and laughs and incredulous looks at the camera. Predictably, conservatives are freaking out, because Paul Ryan was their answer to progressives' utter dominance of the policy game. This was supposed to be a debate about The Numbers, which is to say it was supposed to be a debate in which Paul Ryan said some numbers, and conservatives, largely institutionally incapable of processing them on their own (because, remember, actual policy wonks are all on the other side of the aisle), get to reaffirm that this guy knows what he's talking about. How couldn't he? He sounds so smart! And of course that's what conservatives were hoping the rest of the country would see and think too, probably right down to Joe Biden himself.

But Biden, like every halfway intelligent progressive who knows a thing or two about policy (and I'm not saying Biden's some brilliant policy mind, but decades of congressional service are worth something in that department) knows that Paul Ryan's public image is borderline fraudulent. And for probably the first time in Ryan's career, he didn't hesitate to call him a fraud, to his face, on national TV. There was going to be no deference this time. If Ryan wanted to make his points, he was going to have to scrap for them, not just gussy them up in cargo cult policy talk.

To Ryan's credit, he fought back. Eventually. But Ryan's not much for scrapping. Down-in-the-dirt political brawling is toxic to his Libertarian Nerd persona, and really, the persona is all he's got, politics-wise. Biden threw mud on Ryan till Ryan dropped the Poindexter act and became Just Another Politician. In other words, till he became like Joe Biden himself, except without the experience or demeanor.

You could still be of the opinion that Ryan won, I guess. But I think it would be hard to watch the stammering kid at last night's debate, unable to find a statistic to counter Biden's drumbeat retort that the statistics are fake, and see the future of the Republican Party. Ryan was the GOP's secret weapon, and his superior intellect was supposed to run roughshod over Biden the clown. Nothing of the sort happened. Instead, he was met with open dismissiveness. That's got to sting, for Ryan and for the party that's decided he's their leading light.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

I might experimentally live-tweet this debate

Or I might not. But if I do, it'll be here: @417_AM.

Three(ish) thoughts about FiveThirtyEight

By far the most entertaining campaign news of the week was that UnskewedPolls.com--which has been increasingly serving as central command for the Republican self-delusion brigade--had broken the Romney zero bound, and was now showing Obama with a two-point lead.  Whoops.

Presumably, this will lead to the creation UnskewedUnskewedPolls.com.  (One also wonders if, should Obama's lead continue to grow, UnskewedUnskewedUnskewedPolls.com would follow, and so on, until, eventually, there existed a perfect 1-to-1 ratio between American Republicans and Republican-leaning alternative polling sites, with the number of adjectives in the URL corresponding to a perfect ordinal ranking of individual partisanship.  I digress.)

But the news also reminded me, yet again, of the greatness of FiveThirtyEight.com.  Okay, I know--this isn't exactly bleeding-edge material.  That doesn't mean it isn't worth stepping back, from time to time, and appreciating the ingeniousness of Nate Silver's operation.  Lots of people try to predict elections, after all.  But somehow, nobody does it quite as well as Silver.

Considering that it's not conducting any polling itself, or generating any new data, how can FiveThirtyEight's model possibly outperform rigorous, academic election results models? In a word: volume.  Instead of deliberating extensively over the soundness of every variable, Silver has simply tossed everything he can think of into his model (polls, economy, history, and, I believe, in a major statistical faux pas, the model's own output).  The result, it turns out, just works. Add enough, and the flaws introduced by any particularly sloppy variables tend to get smoothed over by the sheer number of other variables.  Those variables have flaws too, but since there's no real reason to expect them all to bias the model in the same direction, it all more-or-less evens out in the end. Could you make a case that he should exclude, say, the effect of the economy ?  Sure, but if you did that, you'd also have to make a case that he should exclude any number of other variables, and you'd end up with a statistically-unimpeachable-but-basically-useless model.  It would no doubt be described as "elegant" and it would no doubt predict the wrong outcome as often as not.

So bravo, Mr. Silver, for your function-over-form statistics.

Still, the site is not without problems.  The prediction model is as great as ever, but unfortunately, since moving to the Times, the site's actual blogging hasn't really reflected that greatness.  It's hard to pin down, exactly, but something about the Times' style guidelines seems to be suffocating Silver's writing a bit.  The inverted pyramid, wholly inappropriate for blogging, has slowly crept into his prose--more and more of the articles have been dedicated to rehashing previously-explained concepts.  (I swear he's explained the idea of a gradually-receding "convention bump" at least twenty times in the last month.  Just write it once and link to it, man!)

But more than anything, I wish the site took a little more time to explain the use (or in some cases, uselessness) of some of the numbers it presents.  For instance, the "Return on Investment Index," which the site describes as "the likelihood that an individual voter will determine the electoral college winner."  What it actually means by this, as far as I can tell, is "Assuming that an individual voter determines the electoral college winner, what is the likelihood that he or she hails from a particular state?"  (Right now, Nevada comes in first, at 11.4%.)

The problem here is that the measure's results are conditional on an event that is so infinitesimally improbable that it may as well be impossible.  It's like saying "What are the chances someone who is struck by lightning four times while playing in the Stanley Cup final will flip a coin and get heads?"  The correct answer is simultaneously "50%" and "It doesn't matter because that will never happen."

And then there's the now-cast.  The now-cast is simultaneously useful and opaque.  It purports to measure the probability of a particular election outcome, assuming the election occurred today.  "What's the point of that?" I asked at first.  "The election isn't being held today, no matter how much Mitt Romney might want it to be over already."  But the now-cast provides a little bit of extra information about the model's election day predictions, even if the site's own tracker doesn't make this explicit.  Because Silver is determining the probability of a future event, there are really two potential sources of error in his predictions.  First, there's the chance that current polling might be wrong.  And then there's the chance that events might change between now and the election.  The now-cast conveniently strips out the second source of error, and tells us exactly how sure the model is that Barack Obama currently leads the race (98% sure, as it turns out).  Nonetheless, FiveThirtyEight only grants Obama about an 85% chance of winning the election, which gives us a somewhat more sophisticated view of the state of the race than would be immediately obvious: Romney can still plausibly win almost a sixth of the time, but only because, almost a sixth of the time, some external event causes a shift in the polls.  Coasting and hoping for a lucky roll of the statistical dice won't do anymore.