Monthly Archives: March 2014

In Defense of Nate Silver (Sort Of)

Nate Silver’s new 538 website opened last week to generally lackluster reviews.  “It just isn’t working,” according to Tyler Cowens. Paul Krugman agrees: “I’m sorry to say that I had the same reaction. Here’s hoping that Nate Silver and company up their game, soon.” Ryan Cooper is more blunt: “To summarize: it’s terrible.”  What do all these critics find so objectionable?

One major criticism is that the problems and related questions that dominate the news, particularly in the political arena, are not always amenable to the type of unrelenting statistical analysis that Silver and his minions emphasize.  As the New Republic’s Leon Wieseltier puts it, “Many of the issues that we debate are not issues of fact but issues of value. There is no numerical answer to the question of whether men should be allowed to marry men, and the question of whether the government should help the weak, and the question of whether we should intervene against genocide.”

Related to this is a fear that Silver’s claim that he just does analysis, and not advocacy, masks the truth that his punditry is no more bias free than that of any other pundit.  As Cooper puts it, “In an attempt to focus solely on objective analysis, Silver is ignoring one of the hardest-won journalistic lessons of the last decade — there is no such thing as ideology-free journalism.”

I confess that I find both objections less than compelling.  To begin, no political scientist that I know would disagree with Wieseltier’s observation regarding the fact-value distinction.  Indeed, in his classic study of decisionmaking in organizations, the late, great Herbert Simon (he won a Nobel Prize for his study of decisionmaking) observed, “It is a fundamental premise of this study that ethical terms are not completely reducible to factual terms.”  But, Simon cautioned, to assert that there may be an ethical component to an administrator’s decisions is not to say that those decisions involve only ethical elements.  Put another way, political scientists may not be able to tell voters whether electing Barack Obama over Mitt Romney is a better (or worse) outcome for the nation, or the world.  But we can say something about what the determinants of the presidential vote are likely to be, and what election outcome it is likely to produce.  If I understand Silver correctly, that’s all he and his team are trying to do at this new website.  Should government help the weak?  I doubt Silver knows the answer.  But he might be able to tell us if government can help the weak.

Similarly, I doubt that Silver believes he views his analyses through a value-free ideological lens. Anyone who read his FiveThirtyEight column at the New York Times understands what Silver’s political views are. But rather than compensating for one’s implicit biases, political or otherwise, by – as Cooper advocates – “wear[ing] your ideology on your sleeve” I’d argue instead that there is merit in trying very hard to prevent those biases from contaminating one’s analysis.  One way to do so is to be explicit about the theoretical and methodological assumptions built into one’s analysis. This approach differs from, and is more useful, than analysis that is explicitly harnessed to the cause of advocacy. There is something to be said for disciplined thinking designed to discover underlying truths, no matter how inconvenient.  And that means not only clarifying the assumptions built into one’s analysis – it also means trying to specify how certain one is about one’s conclusions. How confident am I in my prediction that Obama will beat Romney?

It is on this last point, I think, that I come closest to agreeing with Silver’s critics like Krugman, who worry that without explicit theorizing, Silver’s data-driven research may tell us less than we think. As Krugman writes: “But you can’t be an effective fox just by letting the data speak for itself — because it never does. You use data to inform your analysis, you let it tell you that your pet hypothesis is wrong, but data are never a substitute for hard thinking. If you think the data are speaking for themselves, what you’re really doing is implicit theorizing, which is a really bad idea (because you can’t test your assumptions if you don’t even know what you’re assuming.)”

Krugman echoes a point I’ve made before about Silver’s work: that unlike political scientists, he is not fully transparent about what goes into his analyses, such as his presidential forecast models.  Without a glimpse at the moving parts, we can’t be sure what we are learning.  It is one thing to say that Obama will win the Electoral College vote, but we need a theory to understand why he won that vote.  In Silver’s defense, however, he is not pretending to be a political scientist – and why should he?  He has a wider audience and (presumably) earns more money, than any political scientist I know.  If he wants to hide the ingredients that go into his “special” forecast brew in order to make it appear more satisfying (and more original!), I say more power to him.  As a career move, it certainly has served him well to this point.

I confess that I believe some of the carping by pundits regarding Silver’s website is a reaction to his contrarian and what some perceive to be condescending attitude toward the work of mainstream journalists whose writings grace the major newspaper op-ed pages. In that vein, here Silver is describing how his new site differs from the work of the best known columnists: “Uhhhh, you know … the op-ed columnists at the New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal are probably the most hedgehog-like people. They don’t permit a lot of complexity in their thinking. They pull threads together from very weak evidence and draw grand conclusions based on them. They’re ironically very predictable from week to week. If you know the subject that Thomas Friedman or whatever is writing about, you don’t have to read the column. You can kind of auto-script it, basically.”

It is true that Silver has always presented his work with a certain “Look Ma, no hands!” flair that in some cases overstates the novelty, and effectiveness, of what he is doing.  (See, for instance, how his model stacks up to political scientists’ when it comes to forecasting the last midterm elections.)  He has made a living by accentuating – exaggerating? – the difference between his data-driven analyses and what he sees as the hedgehog-like tendencies of more conventional columnists.  I understand why columnists resent Silver’s tone. (I confess that my tone when criticizing pundits has sometimes crossed that line as well!) But I also think that he’s not entirely incorrect in his criticisms of conventional punditry.  Too often it does harness data – if it uses data at all – to the cause of advocacy.

The bottom line?  If you want a data-based take on the likely outcome of political events, like the upcoming midterm elections, Silver’s site is probably as good as any. (And here I would recommend the work of Harry Enten at Silver’s site). But if you want to understand why those outcomes occur, there are better places to start.

Of course, if you want your political analysis spiced up with a dose of the plucky, in-your-face speak-truth-to-power attitude exemplified by this young analyst, then you’ve come to the right place:

My son


What Does Tuesday’s Special Florida Election Tell Us About the Upcoming Midterms?

Many analysts viewed last Tuesday’s special House election in Florida’s 13th district to replace longtime Republican Congressman Bill Young as a bellwether for the upcoming 2014 midterm congressional elections, particularly because they expected Obamacare to be the central issue in the Florida campaign and in November’s elections.  Thus, the author of the New York Times’ election preview, which was headlined: “Florida Race for House Sets Stage for 2014”, described it as “a contest in the first race of the 2014 battle for control of Congress, with both parties hoping for a victory and watching carefully how President Obama’s health care law may affect the outcome.” The prevailing media perspective did not change in the aftermath of Republican David Jolly’s narrow 48.5% to 46.6% victory over his Democratic opponent Alex Sink.  In a not uncharacteristic post-election interpretation, the Economist wrote: “On March 11th David Jolly, a Florida Republican, won a special election to the House of Representatives by relentlessly bashing Obamacare. His party hopes to use the same tactic to hold the House and capture the Senate in November. ”  Similarly, a Washington Post article opined that “Jolly’s win in a Gulf Coast district just west of Tampa illustrated the political toxicity of the law known as Obamacare. Jolly favored repealing and replacing the law, which was a central focus of the campaign, while his Democratic opponent did not.”

But did Jolly really win the special election by “relentlessly bashing” Obamacare – and will that tactic make a difference in who controls Congress come November?   The answers are not as clear cut as many analysts would have us believe.  It is true that Jolly ran on a platform that included repealing Obamacare.  But Sink’s stated position, which was to fix Obamacare, rather than repeal it, actually had strong support among likely voters, at least in the limited polling data* I was able to review.  For example, in a poll of likely voters conducted by St. Leo University, 40% of respondents wanted to keep Obamacare but make changes to fix some of the problems, compared to 20% who wanted to repeal it and replace it with a different health care plan, and only 20% who wanted repeal and a return to the pre-Obamacare status quo.

Of course, one needs to be cautious in using polling data to infer voters’ motivations. One difficulty is that those responding to surveys can only express an opinion on issues about which they are polled.  If voters are only asked about Obamacare, it will seem to loom large in their decision calculus. Moreover, responses differ according to what options are available. For example, this St. Petersburg poll of likely voters only asked respondents about their views on two issues: Obamacare and illegal immigration.  And on Obamacare, 35% of those surveyed said they supported repeal, 34% leaving it alone, and 27% advocated repeal once a “better plan” is in place.  Without specifying the details of that “better plan”, however, it is hard to interpret the results.  Does that mean a plan that is Obamacare without the blemishes, which was Sink’s stated position?  Similarly, in the St. Leo poll, it is hard to know what the 20% who wanted to replace Obamacare “with a different plan” had in mind, and how closely that option aligned with Sinks’.  (I did not see any crosstabs in either poll by which to judge the candidates’ respective supporters’ views on Obamacare.) Note that many of the ads attacking Sink for her support of Obamacare, such as this one by the Chamber of Commerce, did not necessarily advocate for its repeal.  Instead, they targeted its impact on Medicare payments.

So it’s not clear that Jolly’s message to repeal Obamacare carried the day.

In taking stock of Jolly’s victory, it is also helpful to remember that the smaller voter turnout characteristic of a special election is not always a reliable indicator of who will vote during a normal midterm election cycle. Note that while Sink appeared to have a slight lead based on early voting heading into Tuesday’s election, Jolly evidently benefited from a better Election Day turnout.  However, the election drew only about 184,045 voters, and Jolly won victory over Sink by less than 4,000 votes. Pre-election polls indicated that Jolly’s support was stronger among the older white voting population that is more likely to turn out in a special election. By comparison, in 2012 the long-time incumbent Young won this district by a much larger margin, 16% over his Democratic opponent, than did Jolly on Tuesday even though President Obama narrowly carried the district by about 50% to 49% in the presidential race. Of course turnout in that presidential year was almost 330,000 voters – much higher than it is likely to be in the coming mid-term election. However, in the 2010 midterm, turnout in Florida’s 13th district, (which encompassed slightly different territory) was almost 267,000 – much higher than what we saw in last Tuesday’s special election. (According the Florida Secretary of State’s office, Republican voters constituted about 38% of voters in the district, Democrats about 35%, and Independents about 23%, but I don’t know the partisan breakdown of Tuesday’s voting pool.)  So Jolly may have benefited by the smaller size and composition of Tuesday’s electorate.

Nor was this election only about Obamacare – voters were inundated with ads targeting Sink’s handling of a pension fund, Jolly’s views on entitlement reform including Social Security, and climate-change related issues including flood control, in addition to immigration. All of this makes me much more skeptical than are media pundits regarding what the results of Tuesday’s election tell us about the likely impact of Obamacare come November. Keep in mind that Republican control of the House is probably not at stake in 2012, regardless of how large Obamacare looms in voters’ decision calculus. And in the Senate races in which Democrats are vulnerable, Obamacare is only one of a myriad of issues, including jobs and the state of the economy, that are likely to influence outcomes. Finally, I expect most Democratic candidates to run on a platform of “mending” Obamacare, which may prove more appealing to many moderate voters than calls to fully repeal it.

So, does Tuesday’s special election result in Florida’s 13th congressional district provide an accurate preview of election events to come? Probably not nearly as much as some media pundits will have you believe.

*Thanks to Kate Hamilton for research on the polling data I referenced here.

The Media and the 2012 Election: Taking the “Fun” Out of the Fundamentals?

Although the next presidential election is more than two years away, pundits are already trying to parse the meaning of polling data even though trial heats polls this far in advance of the election are practically worthless. The same goes for the recently concluded  Conservative Political Action Conference straw poll won by Rand Paul for the second year in a row – it likely tells us little about who the Republican nominee will be. No matter – the fact that these polls don’t tell us much won’t stop pundits from endlessly hyping them – after all, they have to write something! Before we wander too far down the garden path of media misinformation, however, it might do well to revisit some of the more glaring media misconceptions regarding the 2012 presidential election.  In a piece I have coming out in the American Political Science Association journal Perspectives on Politics I take aim at what I see as five enduring myths promulgated by many (but not all!) journalists in the aftermath of that contest.

1.  Obama won despite a poor economy that normally would have doomed the incumbent president.  In May, 2012, for example, the New York Times’ columnist David Brooks, echoing sentiment expressed by many pundits, wondered, “Why is Obama even close? If you look at the fundamentals, the president should be getting crushed right now.”  In fact, however, most of the political science forecast models whose projections are based in part on the economic fundamentals had Obama a slight favorite to win the popular vote. In the aggregate, those models suggested Obama would garner a shade more than 50% of the two-party vote – he actually won bit more than 51%.

2. Obama’s victory owed much to the fact that voters found him more likable than Romney. A common conceit among journalists is that when it comes to attracting votes, candidate likability matters.  In a characteristic media assessment, the Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza and Aaron Blake argued, “Presidential elections are rarely won and lost on policy. Voters instead tend to choose the person they most want to be president based on who they like… Call it the empathy factor. And it matters. A lot.”  Actually, it is not clear likability matters much at all. Research by Morris Fiorina finds that in the 13 presidential elections from 1952 to 2000, the candidate with the net advantage in personal ratings won only seven times.

3. Obama’s early advertising blitz in key swing states effectively defined Romney as a heartless capitalist out of touch with the concerns of the middle class. One oft-cited example was the “brutally effective” series of ads run by the Priorities USA Super Pac in Ohio that depicted Romney “as a cold-hearted plutocrat, ruthless in his pursuit of profits and unaffected by the human toll of Bain’s brand of buying and selling companies”.  The best evidence, however, suggests these ads had limited staying power and likely didn’t change many votes in the long run.

4. Romney’s numerous campaign gaffes doomed his election chances. The most conspicuous, perhaps, was the infamous secret recording showing Romney condemning the 47% of voters who are “dependent on government,” but critics also cite his remarks favoring self-deportation by illegal immigrants, his failure to release individual tax returns, and his ill-timed criticism of Obama as sympathetic to anti-American interests in the Middle East in the aftermath of the attack on the Benghazi diplomatic compound, to name the most prominent. As one postmortem summarized, “Obama, weighed down by a poor economy, also needed help—and he often got it from Romney”. National and state level polling, however show very little variation in Obama’s lead over Romney throughout the campaign, with the exception of a short-lived post-convention bounce in Obama’s favor. In this vein, the “devastating” secret “47%” video recording appears to have had minimal effect on Romney’s polling support.

5. Obama’s vaunted ground game easily outclassed Romney’s poorly run get-out-the-vote efforts. This proved to be a staple of the numerous media post-mortems. However, it is not clear that the marginal effect of Obama’s allegedly superior ground game was big enough to change the outcome of the race. Indeed, overall turnout in 2012 was down from 2008, by 3.4%, as was Obama’s share of the vote, which dropped in that same period by 1.9%. Moreover, in five of the eight key battleground states where his get-out-the-vote efforts was concentrated, the drop off in Obama’s vote was greater than the decline in his overall national vote. In short, while it is possible that Obama’s vote share would have declined even more without his advanced voter outreach effort, it is hard to prove that he won because his ground game outperformed Romney’s.

So why did Obama win reelection in 2012, if not because of the factors frequently cited by many journalists and pundits?  For the same fundamental reasons that have largely dictated the outcomes of most presidential elections in the modern era.  Simply put, it is very difficult to defeat a sitting president in a time of economic growth – even tepid economic growth – particularly when that president’s party has been in control of the Oval Office for only one term prior to the election.  With the exception perhaps of media pundits, who depend on these campaign myths to attract and hold viewers, most of us should find this debunking reassuring. Although the horse-race perspective adopted by most journalists that focuses on candidate personality, campaign strategy and gaffes fits well with their need to attract and maintain a daily audience, it is not a narrative that is particularly flattering in its portrayal of the electorate. Fortunately, while entertaining, this media perspective is not very accurate. The overwhelming evidence is that voters, while perhaps not deeply informed regarding candidates and issues, do cast their vote based on their understanding of fundamentals, such as the state of the economy, as viewed through their own partisan predispositions. Viewed collectively, then, voters are quite rational. That is good news for the future of political science forecast models—and, more importantly, for the future of the US political system, and it something worth remembering as the media gears up for what promises to be another round of entertaining, if misleading, presidential campaign coverage.