Election Hangover: A Few Thoughts


The first few days after an election are my favorite. Polls and predictions step aside to make way for analysis. We finally have results to work with. In light of those results, here are some thoughts:

1. Nate Silver is not a genius. (Via Daniel Engber for Slate)
Nate Silver didn't nail it; the pollsters did. The vaunted Silver "picks"—the ones that scored a perfect record on Election Day—were derived from averaged state-wide data. According to the final tallies from FiveThirtyEight, Obama led by 1.3 points in Virginia, 3.6 in Ohio, 3.6 in Nevada, and 1.9 in Colorado. He won all those states, just like he won every other state in which he'd led in averaged, state-wide polls. That doesn't mean that Silver's magic model works. It means that polling works, assuming that its methodology is sound, and that it's done repeatedly. 
. . . So picking winners state by state was the easy part. Anyone who glossed the numbers would have made the same projections. But Silver's model promised more than that: He offered assessments of his confidence in each state's results. The fact that Obama led in Ohio polls made it obvious that he should be the favorite, but what if those Ohio polls were wrong? How much risk was there in trusting state-wide averages? This was Silver's nifty contribution: He assigned that risk a probability, by looking at some other factors, such as polling trends and local demographics. Take the example of Virginia, where Obama led by 1.3 percentage points. Picking him to win the state was a no-brainer since he was leading in the polls, but Silver used his secret sauce to calculate the chances that those polls were wrong. According to his calculations, the risk was 21 percent, meaning that Obama's odds to win the state were roughly 4-to-1. 
What do the day's returns tell us about the accuracy of Silver's model? Nothing. The fact that Obama won Virginia looks good for averaged polling—indeed, his margin appears to be a couple points, not far off from what was predicted—but we'll never know about that other part. Did Obama really have a 79 percent chance of winning? To get a sense of that, we'd need to run yesterday's election like a lab experiment, doing it 10,000 times to see how often Obama wins. Since that can't happen, we're left to scratch our heads. 
Silver lovers aren't waiting for these comparisons. They're riding high on victory, and giving credit to the bearer of good news. In doing so, they’ve made the same mistake that Silver's critics made last week: They've confused his projected odds with hard-and-fast predictions, and underestimated the accuracy of polling. The fact that Obama won doesn't make Nate Silver right, any more than a Romney win would have made him wrong.
2. The electoral college is not the devil.

Funny how no Republicans were saying this in 2000. Via Tara Ross for the Heritage Foundation:
The Electoral College was considered to fit perfectly within this republican, federalist government that had been created. The system would allow majorities to rule, but only while they were reasonable, broad-based, and not tyrannical. The election process was seen as a clever solution to the seemingly unsolvable problem facing the Convention -- finding a fair method of selecting the Executive for a nation composed of both large and small states that have ceded some, but not all, of their sovereignty to a central government. "`[T]he genius of the present [Electoral College] system,'" a 1970 Senate report concluded, "`is the genius of a popular democracy organized on the federal principle.'"

3. This is why the GOP lost.

In light of last night's electoral outcome, allow me to briefly summarize parts of Mike Lofgren's The Party is Over.

1. Tactics: War Minus the Shooting
"The Republican Party has used objection, obstruction, and filibustering not only to block the necessary processes of government but also in order to make ordinary Americans deeply cynical about Washington. Republicans perpetually run against government and come out on top. But, in the process, they are undermining the foundations of self-rule in a representative democracy."
2. All Wrapped Up in the Constitution
"Like biblical literalists, Republicans assert that the Constitution is divinely inspired and inerrant. But also like biblical literalists, they are strangely selective about those portions of their favorite document that they care to heed , and they favor rewriting it when it stands in the way of their political agenda."
3. Taxes and the Rich
"The GOP cares, over and above every other item on its political agenda, about the rich contributors who keep them in office. This is why tax increases on the wealthy have become and absolute Republican taboo."
4. Worshipping at the Altar of Mars
"The GOP loves war more than it supposedly hates deficits." 
5. Media Complicity (related)
"Despite the widely believed myth of its liberalism, over the last thirty years the media landscape has become increasingly wired to favor Republicans. The press's current combination of fake objectivity and campaign fetishization has been carefully exploited by Republican strategists for political advantage."
6. Give Me That Old-Time Religion
"The religious right provides the foot soldiers for the GOP. This fact has profound implications for the rest of the Republicans' ideological agenda."
7. No Eggheads Wanted
"Consistent both with its strong base of support among fundamentalists and with its authoritarian belief structure, the GOP is increasingly anti-intellectual and anti-science.


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