I recently heard a pollster remark, “When you give conservatives bad polling data, they want to kill you. When you give liberals bad polling data, they want to kill themselves.”
That attitude has been well on display recently in the right-wing freak out over Nate Silver’s website. Silver currently gives Obama a 72.9 percent chance of winning the electoral college on election day. There is nothing mysterious in how he arrives at that conclusion. He’s simply noticed that Obama has a lead in enough states to put him over 270. It’s not complicated.
But that’s too complicated for right-wingers like MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough. On a recent edition of his morning show he said:
On MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” today, Joe Scarborough took a more direct shot, effectively calling Silver an ideologue and “a joke.”
“Nate Silver says this is a 73.6 percent chance that the president is going to win? Nobody in that campaign thinks they have a 73 percent chance — they think they have a 50.1 percent chance of winning. And you talk to the Romney people, it’s the same thing,” Scarborough said. “Both sides understand that it is close, and it could go either way. And anybody that thinks that this race is anything but a tossup right now is such an ideologue, they should be kept away from typewriters, computers, laptops and microphones for the next 10 days, because they’re jokes.”
I’ve been staring at this for a few minutes trying to figure out what to say, but nothing comes to mind. It’s so shockingly, willfully stupid that I am unable to come up with any clever commentary. Does Scarborough really not understand how statistics work? Does he not understand that the national popular vote is irrelevant, and that only the state results matter?
But he is not the only one pretending to be confused. Here’s David Brooks, quoted in the same article:
“If you tell me you think you can quantify an event that is about to happen that you don`t expect, like the 47 percent comment or a debate performance, I think you think you are a wizard. That`s not possible,” Times columnist David Brooks, a moderate conservative, said on PBS earlier this month. “The pollsters tell us what`s happening now. When they start projecting, they`re getting into silly land.”
Brooks doubled down on this charge in a column last week: “I should treat polls as a fuzzy snapshot of a moment in time. I should not read them, and think I understand the future,” he wrote. “If there’s one thing we know, it’s that even experts with fancy computer models are terrible at predicting human behavior.”
Again, the mind reels. I think it will come as news to both Presidential campaigns that they can’t use polls as devices for projecting what will happen. And I’m pretty sure everyone has figured out that unexpected events can cause sudden changes in the polls.
The problem with Brooks’ argument is that the more reputable political polling firms actually have a good track record of getting things right. Silver’s reputation is based largely on the fact that he nailed the elections in 2008 and 2010. He was writing about the looming Republican landslide in 2010 long before it became obvious to everyone, but I don’t recall Brooks or Scarborough thinking he was a hack then.
Silver himself has the appropriate reply to this sort of pseduointellectual nonsense:
Silver cautions against confusing prediction with prophecy. “If the Giants lead the Redskins 24-21 in the fourth quarter, it’s a close game that either team could win. But it’s also not a “toss-up”: The Giants are favored. It’s the same principle here: Obama is ahead in the polling averages in states like Ohio that would suffice for him to win the Electoral College. Hence, he’s the favorite,” Silver said.
“We can debate how much of a favorite Obama is; Romney, clearly, could still win. But this is not wizardry or rocket science,” Silver told POLITICO. “All you have to do is take an average, and count to 270. It’s a pretty simple set of facts. I’m sorry that Joe is math-challenged.”
Indeed. Brooks and Scarborough are not crazed tea partiers, but basic statistics is apparently too complicated for them. Truly there is nothing left of an intellectually serious political right in this country.
Update: Things move quickly in the blogosphere! Upon posting this, I went to the published version to make sure that the links went where they were supposed to go. It turns out that in the brief time it took me to write this post, Nate Silver updated his projection from a 72.9 percent chance of an Obama win in the electoral college, to a 77.4 percent chance. Wow! Browsing his little map of state-by-state predictions, I notice that Obama’s chances in Colorado and Virginia are now over 60 percent, while Romney’s chances in Florida are now under 60 percent. So I can only conclude that Silver got hold of some new state polls. I just hope the polls are right!
Also, I just came across Ezra Klein’s characteristically clear-headed approach to this question.