Friday, May 20, 2016

Nate Silver sees Snowden's thigh, misses his armpit

Nate Silver is tormented by Trump's success. He's offered multiple kinda-sorta explanations and excuses as to why he so wildly and spectacularly missed the mark on Trump before, but a couple of days ago he let loose with a massive post that is still, well, a kinda-sorta explanation on why he was so wrong. Here's a taste:
With some time to reflect on the problem, I also wonder if there’s been too much #datajournalist self-flagellation. Trump is one of the most astonishing stories in American political history. If you really expected the Republican front-runner to be bragging about the size of his anatomy in a debate, or to be spending his first week as the presumptive nominee feuding with the Republican speaker of the House and embroiled in a controversy over a tweet about a taco salad, then more power to you.
The post is entitled "How I Acted Like A Pundit And Screwed Up On Donald Trump". That's a cop-out. He explains it thus:
Unlike virtually every other forecast we publish at FiveThirtyEight — including the primary and caucus projections I just mentioned — our early estimates of Trump’s chances weren’t based on a statistical model. Instead, they were what we “subjective odds” — which is to say, educated guesses. In other words, we were basically acting like pundits, but attaching numbers to our estimates.
The numbers he attached were things like the quantity of political endorsements received; comparing Trump's poll numbers with those of other exciting early leaders who subsequently flamed out like Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, and Rudy Giuliani; favorability ratings (Trump's were low while primary success putatively required them to be high), etc. In other words, quantitative stuff.

He says this wasn't formulated into any specific model like his polling predictions--which only differs from what Real Clear Politics does by assigning different weights to different polls instead of RCP's binary yes/no on whether or not to include a poll--the results of Silver's forecasts and RCP's are, not surprisingly, virtually identical. That's likely technically true, but based on the fact that all of these quantitative indicators suggested Trump wouldn't get the nomination, amalgamating them into a formula would have clearly yielded the following prediction: Trump will not win the Republican nomination.

Trump is going to win that nomination, of course. Silver didn't get it wrong because he wasn't meticulous enough with the way he balanced his numbers, he was wrong because he was looking at the wrong numbers, at least this time. Political forecasting is more marketing research than it is Science!--the need to adjust inputs and calibrate assumptions accordingly is a prerequisite to having a shot at getting it right every time rather than only getting it right when everything plays out exactly like it did the time before.

Because I bought in early on Trump, maintained Sanders never had a shot in hell because blacks weren't going to vote for a carpetbagging wonkish Jew from lily white Vermont, and wear a pseudonym that requires it, some modest suggestions for what Silver should have looked at:

- Immigration. Polls appear to show wide variation in public sentiment on the issue according to how the questions are presented, but the most objectively-worded polls have shown for decades now that immigration restriction and deportation are majority positions at the national level, and are overwhelmingly so among Republicans.

Trump made this his signature issue. With the exception of Tom Tancredo, who was at the time an unknown congressman from Colorado who lacked charisma, stature, and salience, no other presidential candidate since Pat Buchanan has paid it any heed.

Humorously, way back in September of last year, Silver contrasted Sanders' putative substance to Trump's alleged lack of it:
Sanders is campaigning on substantive policy positions, and Trump is largely campaigning on the force of his personality. I'm not sure this assertion requires a lot of proof, but if you need some, check out the candidates' websites. Sanders's lists dozens of specific policy proposals across a wide range of issues; Trump's details his position on just one, immigration.

- Relatedly, I'll echo Steve Sailer and note that the success of "far right" European political parties, for which Trump is a closer American representative of than any of the other GOP presidential candidates are, should've tipped Silver off to the fact that immigration (and related issues like internationalism) was going to be a driving factor this time around.

- Nowhere in Silver's 5,000+ word post did he mention social media. Trump dominated the rest of the field, Republican and Democrat, when it came to generating interest on social media. Back in December, I quantified it graphically:

Months before any actual voting had taken place, Trump and Clinton had garnered the most followers. Several months of voting having now occurred, it is clear that Trump and Clinton are going to win their parties' respective nominations.

To emphasize how crucial this has become, consider that Trump is instantaneously able to communicate directly to more people than the audiences at any given time of Fox News, CNN, and MSNBC combined. I hear about every news item Trump's involved in from Trump before I hear about it anywhere else. By leveraging social media, he is able to assert more control over the narrative than the major media do.

- Nor did Silver mention rally/speech turnouts. When one guy is struggling to fill a high school gymnasium and the other guy is packing sports stadiums, it's probably time to reconsider favoring the former over the latter. If, on two-day notice, they'll skip work to travel a couple hours across state to wait a few more hours in line for a shot* at seeing a candidate speak, there's a reasonable chance they're going to drive a couple blocks to the local church or middle school on primary day and spend a couple of minutes voting for that candidate.

* Many people who've shown up for Trump rallies have been turned away because the massive venues were full; my wife and I got to the rally in KC a couple of hours before it started and would not have been able to get in had a friend not arrived two hours before us and saved us a spot in line.


Mil-Tech Bard said...

Audacious Epigone,

Nate Silver also completely missed & ignored Paris-San Bernadino-Brussel's effect.

When Trump openly talked about deporting Illegal Immigrants and building a wall to stop Muslim Terrorists, he was saying exactly what was in everyone's hearts and minds, but were left as unformed words in most people's mouths because...Political Correctness.

Trump has break danced on that particular PC third rail so often that he doesn't even have to use those words when he tweeted about stopping the "hate" and "being tough and vigilant" immediately after MS804 went down. Everyone knew he was talking about Muslim terrorists and closed borders.

San Bernadino made the 2016 Presidential election a national security election, with Trump as the only national security candidate.

Republicans win in land slides when they have a national security candidate in a national security election.

Audacious Epigone said...

Mil-Tech Bard,

True, he doesn't talk about that, either.

At least in the case of terrorism/national security, it's not something unique among presidential candidates. To the extent that immigration has come up at all in the context of presidential elections it has been riding along with national security. Security is the hardest-edged aspect of immigration but it's not the most consequential. The US can recover from a 9/11. It can't recover from the Southwest becoming Mexico Norte.

Mil-Tech Bard said...

Audacious Epigone,

>>True, he doesn't talk about that, either.

How a GOP candidate talking the real affects of illegal immigration on white male voters in 2016 shifts the "Rust Belt", and what national security wave elections mean for historically for Democratic cadidates at all levels, is plain 'splodey head territory for the NY TIMES.

NY TIMES editors and readers would rather shoot the messange first...even if their heads explode on the second Wednesday in November anyway.

The bottom line is Nate Silver being wrong inside the NY TIMES group think cocoon is more lucrative for him than being right outside it.

This is the classic agent problem.

The Z Blog said...

The last part about social media is what has sphincters snapping shut all over big media. One guy with a smart phone was able to unhorse multi-million dollar media teams hired by the professional candidates. They still don't understand how it happened, which is what has many of them losing sleep.

I take some pride in predicting Silver's downfall. I'm old enough to have seen a few of these guys come and go. They land on some trend or observation that lets them get in front of the other pollsters. As a result they are geniuses until the trends shift or some new elements makes their observation irrelevant.

The ironic part of Silver's pollster career is it is following the same arc of his poker career.

Audacious Epigone said...


Exactly. Trump's utilization of the dinosaur media was impressive so far as that goes but the real story in terms of narrative control was in the realm of social media. His smartphone becomes an instantaneous press secretary who has an open line of communication with tens of millions of people who want to hear what he has to say. Traditional media would kill for that kind of access, at that speed, and for that price. It simply can't compete.

chris said...

Hopefully everyone working at the NYTimes commits suicide upon Trump's election to the Presidency.

pithom said...


Audacious Epigone said...

It's a reference from from the book Catch-22.

Mil-Tech Bard said...

Regards this --

>>The last part about social media is what has sphincters snapping
>>shut all over big media. One guy with a smart phone was able to
>>unhorse multi-million dollar media teams hired by the
>>professional candidates.

and this --

>>His smartphone becomes an instantaneous press secretary who has
>>an open line of communication with tens of millions of people
>>who want to hear what he has to say. Traditional media would
>>kill for that kind of access, at that speed, and for that price.
>>It simply can't compete.

The issue is money. The political consultant class media fund raising and ad spending model is built on a pay-for-play and percentage basis.

Fund raisers go to "whale" contributors with a message they want funded.

The Whale comments on the message and it goes back to the candidate campaign.

The ad is them modified for the whale's and the fund raiser's benefit and not the candidate's.

The consultant who places the ad with the media -- who may or may not be the fund raiser for the ad -- gets a percentage of the ad spending as a commission.

This makes legacy media campaign ads slow and off message for any particular candidate.

When both sides of a political campaign are using the same model, the candidate with legacy media support or the swifter decision cycle generally wins.

The Obama campaigns had both in 2008 and 2012.

The Bill Clinton campaigns in 1992 and 1996 had both advantages.

The Bush campaigns in 2000 and 2004 had the swifter decision cycles with huge legacy media support for the Democrats.

Trump using social media is so inside the decision loop of "Peak Political Consultant" campaigns -- and so infuriating to the whale contributors -- that all such political ads funded in the old model simply massage the egos of the Whales to no real benefit to the candidates opposing Trump.

See Jeb Bush.

Hillary -- with 730 people on her campaign vice 70 for Trump -- faces the Jeb Bush campaign consultant problem, cubed.