The Intersection

Neil deGrasse Tyson is among the best science communicators of our time. I expect he wouldn’t remember, but years ago when I was an undergrad fellow at the American Museum of Natural History, he encouraged me to pursue astrobiology. Eight years later, I cannot visit the Rose Center without wondering what I’d be up to today had I gone in that direction…

Needless to say, when Neil pens a NYTimes Op-Ed, I take notice. Now regardless of whether you agree with the methodology, he poses some thought-provoking questions:

If the general election were held today, Mr. Obama would win 252 electoral votes as the Democratic nominee, while Mrs. Clinton would win 295. In other words, Barack Obama is losing to John McCain, and Hillary Clinton is beating him.

This analysis does not predict what will happen in November. But it describes the present better than any other known method does.

Poll results can shift, as Mrs. Clinton learned over the past year. The conventions held by both parties usually give candidates a bounce in the polls. Heavy campaigning in close states can swing the sentiments of undecided people. And political gaffes can turn voters away from one candidate and toward another. But these effects would show up monthly in the polls and be duly tracked by this method. The important point is that right now, Mrs. Clinton is ahead of Mr. McCain, and Mr. Obama is behind him.

Two questions arise in the face of this result. Whom should the Republican candidate prefer to run against to maximize his party’s chances of retaining the White House? And what does it say of the Democratic delegate selection system when its winner would lose the presidency if an election were held today, yet its loser would win it?

The median method has gotten us this far. The political analysts need to take it from here.


  1. #1 Dark Tent
    June 9, 2008

    The problems associated with such predictions are too numerous to list here.

    But here’s just a couple (killers, as far as I can see):

    First, predictions based on polls can (and often are) wrong!

    Second, predictions taken this far in advance should REALLY be taken with a grain (or block) of salt.

    As we saw in 2004 even polls taken on the day of the election (exit polls) can get things wrong.

    The prediction was made based on polls taken when Obama was not even yet the nominee, for goodness sake.

    Third, I’m not sure if they tested this method on any elections other than 2004, but running it on just one election is HARDLY proof of anything. It might be that the method only works with an election like that of 2004.

    Fourth: predictions based on polls can (and often are) wrong!

    I’m sorry, but this reminds me more than a little of the phenomenon whereby a psychic who got a single prediction correct (out of a long line of predictions that no one ever noticed before) and as a result, is singled out for Oracle status.

    Show me that the method can postdict the results of the last 10 elections and that it has correctly predicted 3 or 4 election results in a row and I will start to take note. Until then, it’s just statistical voodoo.

  2. #2 Linda
    June 9, 2008

    I think that there is too much insidious media, too many meaningless polls, all the time, everyday, in our lives. If you watch or listen, you can be indoctrinated into believing what you might or should do, what your reality or even duty should be.
    Yes, be involved, listen to speeches or read them in the papers or on line. BUT, let your intellect, and not the medias decide for you.
    At the time that Dr. deGrasse Tyson wrote about this, he had a set of numbers for that time. But numbers change constantly, and they are different today. And they will be different by November. The most important thing is to get involved, take the interest, and weigh what each candidate has to offer.
    As we should have learned during the past almost eight years, that outcome will have a profound effect on all of our futures.

  3. #3 CLM
    June 9, 2008

    I don’t know what to make of Neil’s op-ed. Is he saying it’s a mistake for Hillary to drop out? What is he implying? If I take it at face value, then I say that Obama has his work cut out for him.

    I voted for Obama in the primary because I thought he was the best candidate not because I thought he’d win. I don’t base my vote on a candidates electability. If Obama wins, I think he’ll be a far better friend to science than Hillary would have.

    I used to be an avid gamer. I played mostly military style board games. If I look at this election cycle as a game, the best player is Obama on a tactical and strategic level. Now that he is the presumptive nominee, the game has changed. I think that Obama can play fair and win even if the other side cheats.

  4. #4 PhysioProf
    June 9, 2008

    That Op-Ed is totally wackaloon absurd.

    (1) The Dems have been battling each other, not McCain yet. McCain has so far been campaigning essentially unopposed.

    (2) The economy is going to continue to tank big time, and will be attributed to the Repubs. People are still living in a fantasy world in which it might not get too bad.

    The NY Times is a pathetic joke.

  5. #5 John
    June 9, 2008

    Neil should stick to physics, which he knows a lot about and is good at communicating. In this instance, he is neither; he fails on the latter b/c he doesn’t give enough context about how polls work this far out from the election. He fails on the former because McCain is actually behind Obama in many (maybe even most) current electoral college predictions. Check out the neutral, where Obama is winning 287-227 (with 27 tied), or (which was pro-Hillary, and sometimes angrily anti-Obama, during the primary) which has Obama winning 311-227.

  6. #6 Dark Tent
    June 10, 2008

    “he fails on the latter b/c he doesn’t give enough context about how polls work this far out from the election.”


    Like for example, that polls don’t work (to predict election outcome) this far out?

    It seems to me that this stuff has far more to do with voodoo (or perhaps doodoo) than astrophysics.

  7. #7 susan
    June 10, 2008

    The real issue is not how well Obama or McCain might do in the closely divided battleground states, but that we shouldn’t have battleground states and spectator states in the first place. Every vote in every state should be politically relevant in a presidential election. And, every vote should be equal. We should have a national popular vote for President in which the White House goes to the candidate who gets the most popular votes in all 50 states.

    The National Popular Vote bill would guarantee the Presidency to the candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states (and DC). The bill would take effect only when enacted, in identical form, by states possessing a majority of the electoral votes–that is, enough electoral votes to elect a President (270 of 538). When the bill comes into effect, all the electoral votes from those states would be awarded to the presidential candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states (and DC).

    The major shortcoming of the current system of electing the President is that presidential candidates have no reason to poll, visit, advertise, organize, campaign, or worry about the voter concerns in states where they are safely ahead or hopelessly behind. The reason for this is the winner-take-all rule which awards all of a state’s electoral votes to the candidate who gets the most votes in each separate state. Because of this rule, candidates concentrate their attention on a handful of closely divided “battleground” states. Two-thirds of the visits and money are focused in just six states; 88% on 9 states, and 99% of the money goes to just 16 states. Two-thirds of the states and people are merely spectators to the presidential election.

    Another shortcoming of the current system is that a candidate can win the Presidency without winning the most popular votes nationwide.

    The National Popular Vote bill has been approved by 18 legislative chambers (one house in Colorado, Arkansas, Maine, North Carolina, Rhode Island, and Washington, and two houses in Maryland, Illinois, Hawaii, California, and Vermont). It has been enacted into law in Hawaii, Illinois, New Jersey, and Maryland. These states have 50 (19%) of the 270 electoral votes needed to bring this legislation into effect.


New comments have been temporarily disabled. Please check back soon.