Why the Republicans Lost: Living in a Land of Make BelievePosted: November 17, 2012
“The eternal mystery of the world is its comprehensibility.”
There’s a really great piece in the NYT by economist Richard H. Thaler who explains that the really big winners were numbers geeks last week. I would also argue that the really big losers are the folks at FOX News, the Romneys of the world, and the religious and republican right who basically rely on old world views, religions, and reality denial. These are people who don’t rely on data. These are people that continually criticize intellectuals and folks that study the way things are. They are numbers deniers.
There is a limitation to forecasting things. You can’t predict the inevitable black swans, but you can identify trends, normality, and average. You can also–by systematically studying things–comprehend basic truths about the life, the universe, and eventually everything. Republicans have learned one small piece of this since they’ve decided on chasing the Hispanic vote. But, that’s a small take away compared to the big lesson. Most things are comprehensible if you drop the dogma, the sense of entitlement based on your frames, views based on ideology and your sense of intrinsic rightness. Those of us that work with data–not with wishful thinking and intransigent dogma–did win the day as Thaler suggests. A lot more Republicans would do well to learn the Law of Large numbers.
So it may come as a surprise that, collectively, polling companies did quite well during this election season. Although there was a small tendency for the pollsters to overestimate Mr. Romney’s share of the vote, a simple average of the polls in swing states produced a very accurate prediction of the Electoral College outcome. Notably, the most accurate polls tended to be done via the Internet, many by companies new to this field. That’s geek victory No. 1.
This relatively accurate polling data provided the raw material for the second group of election pioneers: poll analysts like Nate Silver, who writes the FiveThirtyEight blog for The New York Times, as well as Simon Jackman at Stanford, Sam Wang at Princeton and Drew Linzer at Emory University.
What do poll analysts do? They are like the meteorologists who forecast hurricanes. Data for meteorologists comes from satellites and other tracking stations; data for the poll analysts comes from polling companies. The analysts’ job is to take the often conflicting data from the polls and explain what it all means.
Worry about the reliability of the polling data led to widespread skepticism, or even outright hostility, toward poll analysts. The phrase “garbage in, garbage out” was one of the more polite criticisms bouncing around the Internet in the days before the election.
Because the polls were not, in fact, garbage, the first job of a poll analyst was quite easy: to average the results of the various polls, weighing more reliable and recent polls more heavily and correcting for known biases. (Some polls consistently project higher voter shares for one party or the other.)
Republicans live in a world of data denial. They cling to ‘trickle down” economics and the idea that taxing the “job creators” ruins economic growth even though decades of research show this to be untrue. Many deny the theory of evolution even though molecular biology and the ability to map genomes and identify the structure and particulars of DNA have pretty much made this theory as close to the iron clad truth as other science theories like gravity, magnetism, and Hawking Radiation. The same crowd denies climate change. The Republican base lives in a world of anti-intellectualism and continues to be left behind. It’s no wonder that they’re all freaked out about the election results. They embrace propaganda and superstition. They do not follow the data. They react like primitives who see fire or air planes for the first time.
Pundits making forecasts, some of whom had mocked the poll analysts, didn’t fare as well, and many failed miserably. George F. Will predicted that Mr. Romney would win 321 electoral votes, which turned out to be very close to President Obama’s actual total of 332. Jim Cramer from CNBC was nearly as wrong in the opposite direction, projecting that the president would win 440 electoral votes.
There is a lesson here. When it comes to assessing the chances of some complicated combination of events, gut feelings are pretty much useless. Pundits are no better at forecasting election outcomes than they would be at predicting the final path of a hurricane. Smart pundits should consider either abandoning this activity, or consulting with the geeks before rendering their guesses.
The deal is that that folks like Cramer and Will get face time on TV and print time in the press. This is too bad. Most numbers geeks live in a room with a database and a good stats program. They never get to meet the press or face the nation. Data mining and number krunchers helped the Obama team identified what was what on the way to the win.
The third set of folks who deserve recognition in this election cycle were a group of young people working in a windowless room at Obama headquarters, affectionately known as the cave. They were part of the effort by the numbers-oriented campaign manager, Jim Messina, to maximize turnout.
THERE are two basic parts of an election campaign. The first comes under the category of messaging — deciding what a candidate should say and what ads to run. Most of the commentary we read about elections focuses on this component.
The second part is turnout, and in some ways is even more important. Here is a simple bit of math that you don’t have to be a geek to understand: It doesn’t matter which candidate a person prefers unless that person shows up and votes.
Pundits will debate for eternity which campaign did a better job of communicating its message, but there is no doubt which campaign won the turnout contest. Young, black and Hispanic voters all turned out in higher numbers than expected, and they often supported President Obama.
Much was made of the big Obama advantage in field offices in swing states. But those field offices would have been little good to the campaign without modern tools to find potential voters, have them register and encourage them to vote. In the weeks leading up to the election, the Obama canvassers had accurate lists of potential voters and field-tested scripts for their contacts with voters. This explains in part why Democrats were such heavy users of early voting.
I’ve spent my life in a land of data and I can tell you that I’ve told quite a few clueless CEOs like Romney that their view of their business is wrong and unsupported by the numbers. I’ve been in two corporations where the senior management was making bad decisions on gut feelings and wishful thinking. I came in with data, showed them what was what, and that they were basically running the company into the ground and that their companies were going bankrupt. In both these cases, bankruptcy happened. They looked at reality too late for it to be of any use. I’ve also done research that’s been passed over–later to be proven true–simply because folks don’t want to believe that banks would be so stupid as to systematically give increasing numbers of bad loans. People deserve information. Republicans tend to spew propaganda and sermons.
Numbers denial runs strong with folks that would rather believe what they want to believe than look at patterns, trends, and information that would be right under their noses if they’d only allow it. What I’m hoping–more than anything else–is that this election shows how dangerous magical thinking can be. I’m not too hopeful because human history is littered with bad, destructive magical thinking.
The earth is flat. The earth is the center of the universe. The earth is 8000 years old.
People that embrace magical thinking should not be making decisions for the rest of us. That should really be the take away from this election. There are still people leading the Republican party that embrace the idea of Dinosaurs living in the Garden of Eden. These people are working on the way they deliver the message but they are not changing their actual beliefs.
A prime example of this is Gov Bobby Jindal whose 2016 campaign for the president is on full throttle. He’s already calling for immigration reform. He’s called for the Republican Party to stop being the “stupid party”. Yet, look at his record as Louisiana Governor. His education reform initiative includes teaching creationism and draining public funds for private schools that will have no education requirements or accountability. He pushed through some of the harshest measures restricting women’s access to reproductive health care. He has refused to implement necessary health care reforms and has turned down funds that would help the state’s many poor. He has been selling state assets--including hospitals and jails–to private corporations. He’s earned the name Dr. Destructo here. He’s also well known for his college writing on exorcism. He’s interfered in Iowa politics by supporting groups that want to take down a judge because of his findings on gay marriage. The man is a walking nut job with endless ambition and ruthlessness.
Jindal’s got the Republican mentality of reworking the message while still doing the crazy stuff down pat. The Republican party and Republican Leaders like Bobby Jindal believe that they really don’t have to drop the crazed, magical thinking for reality and data. Jindal just believes in delivering the right message and the opposite policy. Until the Republican party reforms its core values, voters will have to watch their actions. Again, that’s a form of data gathering isn’t it? You can’t deny there’s been a war on women if you look at the number of anti-women laws that have come up at the national or state level. You can’t deny there’s an anti-science bias in the party when you actually look at the number of things they fund and defund at both the national and state level. They all really need to just wake up and look at the data for a change. After all, that’s really why they lost the election.