Friday, November 9, 2012

Reflections on the Election

First of all, in the words of Andrew Sullivan, meep, meep!

Next, I would be fine with either Obama making a narrow win in the popular vote and a decisive victory in the electoral college, or a narrow win in each.  What I dreaded (besides a Republican victory, of course) was either a split with Obama winning the electoral college but not the popular vote.  I expected the Republican reaction to such an outcome would be Donald Trumpian. And a prolonged stalemate while the votes in Ohio or (God forbid) Florida were endlessly recounted was more than I could bear.  Fortunately, we seem to have been spared either eventuality.

Third, I hope that Republicans emerge with the narrative that they were just about to win when Hurricane Sandy delivered the October surprise that swung the election to Obama.  It still won't seem fair, but claiming that Obama caused the hurricane sounds a little too crazy even for the Republican party faithful. I would much rather hear the party faithful blaming the unlucky timing of the hurricane for their defeat than accuse ACORN of rigging the election.*

If we are thinking about getting rid of the Electoral College, our voting system needs a lot of improvement.

It would be a mistake, I think, to read this election as a major realignment, rather than just another swing of the pendulum.   People read the 2008 election as a major realignment and proclaimed that the  end of the Republican Party was at hand.  Republicans regrouped and rode a wave of alarm over Obama's perceived excesses (as well as a still languishing economy) to victory in 2010.  Once again, people read the election as a major realignment and proclaimed that the end of the Democrats was at hand.  Instead, people reacted against the perceived excesses of the Republicans.  No doubt the pendulum will swing back again.

And finally, let's talk about Nate Silver, since everyone else is.  Certainly during the dark days following the first debate, Nate Silver was my main source of comfort.  And conservatives hated him because he told them what they did not want to hear.  To counter Silver and the other wonks, conservatives came up with Unskewed Polls, which was supposed to remove the liberal bias from mainstream polling.

Republicans, from Romney on down, appear to have fallen for their own propaganda.  At least, we are told, Romney had prepared a victory speech, but no concession speech.  He had a website ready for the transition.  And he was prepared to celebrate with a fireworks display. 

But when the rubber hit the road, it turned out that Unskewed Polls was to Nate Silver what Fox News is to real news, what the Washington Times is to the Washington Post, what the Conservapedia is to the Wikipedia, and perhaps even what Qubetv aspired to be to You Tube.  This has led some people to wonder whether the right wing will finally wake up to the realization that unpleasant realities don't go away just because you deny them; that when the math disagrees with your gut, it's because your gut is wrong.  But let's face it.  Human nature doesn't work that way.

The way I see it is this.  The more remote, the more complex, and the more abstract the matter under dispute, the easier it is to be persuasive in denying unwelcome facts.  Evolution, after all, took place over hundreds of millions of years and is not casually observable.**  Global warming is frightfully complex and beyond most people's powers of observation.  What most people know, after all, is their own local weather, which invariably has its ups and downs.  Everything else is too remote to seem real.  Claims that tax cuts reduce deficits may be disproven by the evidence, but the amount of the deficit is something abstract and unreal to most people, and so easy to disregard.  But elections leave no such ambiguities.  They happen in the near future, and the question of which candidate won is obvious enough to leave no room for debate.  So ultimately calling an election wrong is impossible to miss.  These others are easy to obfuscate, so Republicans will continue to do just that.

I will also make a comment on when Nate Silver gets it wrong.  In 2008 he predicted Obama would win by 6.1 percentage points.  He won by 7.2.  He predicted every state except Indiana, which he predicted would go for McCain, but which narrowly went for Obama.  In 2010, he predicted 34 of 36 Senate elections correctly.  He incorrectly predicted that the Republican would win in Colorado.  In fact, the Democrat won by a narrow margin.  And he incorrectly called the Nevada election for Republican Sharon Angle by 3 percentage points, when in fact Harry Reid won by 5.5.  Thus he predicted a 7 seat pickup for Republicans in the Senate, when it turned out to be only 6.  He correctly predicted 36 out of 37 gubernatorial elections.  The sole exception was in Illinois, where the Democrat  defied his predictions by winning by half a percentage point.  In the Senate, he called 31 out of 33 elections correctly.  The exceptions were North Dakota, where the Democrat defied expectations by winning by one percentage point, and Montana, where the Democratic incumbent also defied Silver's predictions and won.

Do you see a pattern here?  Silver's predictions are usually highly accurate.  (1) He usually only gets it wrong in very close elections.  (2) When he is wrong, it is usually in favor of the Republican.***  I can imagine three reasons why this might be.  One is that the polls are slightly skewed in favor of Republicans.  One is that his calculations slightly favor Republicans in close elections.  And the third is that, when it is too close to call, he goes for the Republican.  After all, so long as Silver incorrectly predicts Republicans will win close elections, the mistake can be dismissed as no one is perfect.  If he ever incorrectly calls a race for the Democrat, that will be seized upon as proof of liberal bias.

*Difficult theological question for Republicans:  If Obama's election was caused by an act of God, then who does that suggest God favored in this election?
**Except in the evolution of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, pesticide-resistant insects and so forth.
***An exception is in the House elections in 2010.  Silver predicted a Republican gain of 53 seats.  The actual figure was 63.

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