Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Never Tell Me the Odds: Understanding the Election Numbers

I really like 538's coverage of elections, but their focus on the probability of who wins drives me a bit crazy:

Currently, the odds of HRC beating Trump are roughly 2 to 1.  That is mighty scary--that Trump has that much of a chance.  Yes, poker has taught me that a 1% chance of something happening (like my opponent catching the exact card s/he needs both on the turn and on the river--the last two cards dealt in Texas Hold 'Em) means something can indeed happen.  That unlikelihoods can happen, as demonstrated in the climax of Dodgeball

I saw someone on my facebook feed make a reference to Russian roulette, and this is where I have a problem.  On election day, it is not like people will spin a wheel to see who they vote for.  The election is not a game of chance.  The probabilities relate to the certainty/uncertainty of the predictions based on past performance, the number of polls, what impact the third and fourth party candidates will have and so on, and not that the election is a coin toss or dice roll or card flip at the end, 

So, yes, I would prefer if HRC was ahead by much more (Trump is truly awful on so many dimensions), but she is ahead.  The uncertainties we can really point to are: the possibility that events may happen that shift voters' attention, that alter turnout patterns, that the polls are not hitting the folks who will actually vote, and so on.  But what is certain?  What can we focus on so that we don't get swept up by whatever the latest poll suggests (and I am guilty of confirmation bias, focusing on those polls that put HRC ahead and dismissing those that Trump even or ahead)?

I prefer to focus on the fundamentals of this campaign.  This usually means the state of the economy and whether the country is at war.  That stuff matters and mostly favors HRC (low unemployment, low inflation, markets have weathered Brexit well thus far, small wars with few American casualties don't count as much as larger wars with many body bags coming home).  But what I am referring to are the fundamentals of the campaign itself:
  • African-Americans will simply not vote for Trump, and there is little Trump can or will do to change that.  Indeed, he has had speakers that have tripled down on racism--Steve King's no "sub-group" has contributed to civilization crap.
  • Latino-Americans are going to vote overwhelmingly for HRC and are very likely to turn out (large voter registration drives) as Trump has thoroughly alienated this group.
  • Women are going to vote far more for HRC than Trump since the misogyny in his campaign is deep and is likely to worsen as the confrontation between the two candidates goes on and gets face to face in debates. Trump will have to do far better than Romney among white males to compensate for his failures to get minority votes and the votes of women.
  • The gap between the Clinton campaign and Trump's campaign is about as wide as it has ever been in terms of organization, professionalism, depth, breadth, resources, etc.  The hiring of Manafort was seen as a good move to improve the campaign.  This convention has demonstrated that he has either not made much of a difference or he is wildly overrated.  Either way, this campaign is not getting better at the basic stuff.
  • The convention demonstrates again the wide disparity in the two parties at this stage.  The GOP is divided--people are forgetting about Monday? Not the delegates from Colorado.  Not the governor of Ohio.  Who is Trump trotting out in prime time at this convention?  Who are his surrogates?  His family, Chris Christie (who would have thought that the bridge scandal would be so overwhelmed by the sycophancy and desperation that has destroyed his reputation?), Ben Carson, and Newt Gingrich.  Who will speak for HRC?  A popular President Obama, Elizabeth Warren who will strengthen HRC's weak flank, Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden, and on and on. 
  • Trump lacks discipline.  That could be my biggest understatement in seven years of blogging.  To message well means sticking to scripts and schedules, but Trump called into Fox during one of the more moving speeches at the convention.  He simply has no ability to focus and stay the course.  Indeed, Trump's personality is a fundamental part of the his campaign--it works for him in some ways (when the audiences are narrow) and not so much in other ways.
  • HRC is the anti-Trump.  She listens (as Ezra Klein illustrated quite well) and, most importantly, learns.  She learned from her defeat in 2008 and from Obama's successes in 2008 and 2012.  She is disciplined, mostly.  She is used to dealing with crazy attacks from the far right.  She should be able to do well in the debates next fall.
So, yes, there is uncertainty in the forecasts, as there should be.  And this thing is about as close as it is going to get, in the aftermath of the FBI report and during the RNC convention.  My brother constantly urges me not to get complacent, but I think Brexit has helped solve that one.  That and Trump's utter awfulness.  Only white privileged folks will think of voting for Stein or Johnson, as the outcome here matters a great deal.  But it comes back to the fundamentals that will be constant throughout the summer and fall: Trump is awful, he is awful for larger groups of voters, the demographics favor the Democrats and Hillary Clinton has figured out how to campaign. None of that is changing.  Focus on the uncertainties if you must, but I am going to keep on focusing on what I know and what will not change.

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