Predicting Bad Data

Politics

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I rarely write a blog post in direct response to another article. But I just couldn’t help myself with a post from a The Week story about Neil Newhouse’s predictions for the 2014 congressional elections.

When the 2012 election approached, I became quite obsessed with the polling data trying to get a clue about who would win. And I mean obsessed. I would hover around 538, Huffington Post, Real Clear Politics and any aggregate pollster site I could find. I had a Gallup app on my phone which I checked hourly. I read stories about polling and how some were more accurate than others. I also paid for a pricey copy of The Signal and the Noise by Nate Silver.

Not surprising, most of the pollsters called it right in the days leading up to the election. The one state that gave people fits was Florida, which was fitting given that Obama won it by a hair and the total vote wasn’t even complete until days after the election.

Contrary to what people think about polling, they are very accurate when it comes to elections. I think this is largely because pollsters are dealing with definitive data. Voters have to choose one or the other or none. Election polling isn’t the same as judging presidential approval, consumer confidence or even television ratings, which are more subjective and fall on a scale.

But pollsters hired by politicians try quite hard to develop some inside data, information that common, news polls won’t have. They look for this nebulous information hoping it will give them some inside track on the outcome.

Newhouse worked for Romney during the campaign and had Mittens believing he would win the election up until the polls closed. When the numbers rolled in and it was obvious Romney had lost, his campaign was dumbfounded. I honestly don’t know why. Had they been reading the aggregate polls, which are available to everyone, they would have known that in the end, Romney never had a chance.

There were all sorts of finger pointing post-election. They blamed higher than expected minority turnout. They blamed the impact of Sandy. They blamed Romney’s campaign strategy.

While those are valid faults in the campaign loss, it still doesn’t explain how they were so caught off guard through their polling. Again, they were wildly off the mark compared to everyone else, save only Gallup. Surely someone who’d spent a little time on political websites had to be standing next to Romney telling him that Newhouse was off his rocker. But apparently there wasn’t.

One of the things Newhouse implemented to gain his inside track on the polling was voter enthusiasm. He developed some formula in his polling to gauge how motivated Romney’s voters were about voting for him versus Obama’s people. He rated voters’ motivation on a 1 to 10 scale. More often than not, he found Mitt’s people to be more dedicated.

Newhouse and other Romney backers kept pointing to this enthusiasm advantage as some sort of proof for momentum and a bellwether for turnout. Some were skeptical, including Nate Silver, who repeatedly said there was no momentum for Romney leading up to Election Day. (Nate, by the way, called all 50 states correctly based on his aggregate poll).

Newhouse is now using a version of his same formula to predict the 2014 elections.

While I love data, I also admit fully that I don’t completely understand the complex mining thereof. I do however, grasp basic logic. While enthusiasm might provide insight about voter motivation, at the end of the day it comes down to whether a voter shows up or not. Despite the disparity in motivation, a voter who rates their motivation at a 7 or 8 may be just as likely to show up as one who rates their motivation at a 9 or a 10. And guess what? Their votes count the same.

That’s really the nature of election polling. It’s this or that. No amount of data massaging will get you a magically accurate, contrary opinion that no one else has. It’s not like processing information on stock pricing.

Now, Newhouse isn’t really going out on a limb here by saying that 2014 doesn’t look good for Democrats. Sixth-year elections for a president’s party have never gone well. Ever. His predictions about the November elections likely will pan out barring some unforeseen disaster like a massive Aikenism or Hurricane Sandy or credit default.

We shouldn’t be surprised if he’s right. But we shouldn’t buy the motivation scale either. It just doesn’t add up.

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Six Year War

Politics

You hear an unending torrent of complaints about Congress these days. Most of it is centered around inaction, obstinance and an unwillingness to go against a faction of radicals. This has exacerbated in the past two weeks thanks to the government shutdown and the looming debt ceiling battle.

It’s the voters’ fault though. Despite the fact that Congress has a 19-percent approval rating, 90 percent of incumbents were reelected in 2012.

As of now, polls are constantly showing that the public primarily blames Congressional Republicans for the shutdown. There’s a chance to change things in the 2014 election. Voters can send out the incumbents by either choosing the other party or finding another candidate in the primary. If you take a look back though, that’s not going to happen.

When it comes to Congress, that mid-term election in the sixth year of a president’s reign doesn’t go well for the White House. President Obama faces that problem in 2014. As we can tell so far, it doesn’t look good that he’ll win the House or even keep the Senate.

No president has ever gained control of the House of Representatives during a mid-term election in that respective president’s second term.
None of them, that includes George Washington, whose Federalist Party lost seats in the House in the 1794 election. Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Frankling D. Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan—none of them have been popular enough for their party gain seats or wrest control of the Congress halfway through their second term.

The vast majority of presidents lost seats in those elections. No incumbent president’s party, save only Bill Clinton, has gained seats since FDR.

James Madison and James Monroe did win additional House seats in the 1814 and 1822 elections respectively. Both of them though, faced a dwindling Federalist Party and both of them already had control of Congress.

Teddy Roosevelt and the Republicans managed to gain three senators in 1906. Clinton famously beat the odds in 1998 when, despite a looming impeachment, Democrats gained seats in the House.

As far as shifting power, only Andrew Jackson and the Democrats won control of the Senate from National Republicans in his sixth-year Congressional election in 1834. Democrats already had power in the House at that time.

No president has gained control of the House from the opposing party.

Every election is unique and there are a lot of factors that play into them including the economy, wars, redistricting, scandals and presidential approval ratings.

Congress is immune to approval ratings and history is stacked heavily against Obama. Democrats have to win 17 additional seats. No party has come close to doing that in the sixth year election.

But Obama is the country’s first black president. He was also reelected with an unemployment rate at 8 percent.

Anything’s possible.

But it’s still not likely.