Home > Media, Politics > Nate Silver’s Probabilities vs Peggy Noonan’s Feelings

Nate Silver’s Probabilities vs Peggy Noonan’s Feelings

Nate SIlver and Peggy Noonan


As part of the introspection that conservative partisans like Peggy Noonan are engaged in after the resounding reelection victory for President Obama Tuesday, surely one of the aspects of this exercise will be coming to the acceptance of the primacy of facts and research over emotion.

As conservatives started aiming their ire at New York Times numbers-cruncher, Nate Silver, in the closing weeks of the campaign, it is now apparent that all the froth was about what Silver was saying not the way he went about coming to his conclusions.  They were shooting the messenger.  And with every broadside, it seemed Silver would just keep upping Obama’s victory probabilities until by the final day, they had crested above 90%.   And for the second Presidential election in a row, he was spot on, accurately predicting 50 out of 50 states (presuming Florida finishes where it is now).

Over at the Wall Street Journal, former Ronald Reagan speechwriter, Peggy Noonan, seemed to be mocking Silver’s nerdy numbers approach by predicting a Mitt Romney victory based on, among other things,  the size of the Republican candidate’s closing crowds, their decibel levels, even her perception of how Romney lawn signs were outnumbering Obama’s.

There is no denying the Republicans have the passion now, the enthusiasm. The Democrats do not. Independents are breaking for Romney. And there’s the thing about the yard signs. In Florida a few weeks ago I saw Romney signs, not Obama ones. From Ohio I hear the same. From tony Northwest Washington, D.C., I hear the same.

She even magically entered the heads of the candidates at the annual Al Smith dinner in New York where she interpreted what she saw as an uncomfortable and distracted Barack Obama as someone who looked like they had just read disturbing data.

But sitting there listening to the jokes and speeches, the archbishop of New York sitting between them, Obama looked like a young challenger—flinty, not so comfortable. He was distracted, and his smiles seemed forced. He looked like a man who’d just seen some bad internal polling. Romney? Expansive, hilarious, self-spoofing, with a few jokes of finely calibrated meanness that were just perfect for the crowd. He looked like a president. He looked like someone who’d just seen good internals.

The remarkable thing about Noonan’s approach to political prognosticating, is that you’d think she’d know better by now.  She’s had her hand in the political game for nearly half a century.  Not that she’s alone in couching her hopes on imaginary factors she thinks she sees, like massive, noisy, huge campaign crowds at Republican rallies, advantages in political lawn signs, or someone’s demeanor sitting at a dais.   It’s natural- it’s human  to hope against hope.

Granted I was all of 16 at the time, but I remember feeling such hope for George McGovern in 1972.  Surely, polls can be wrong.  I mean, wow, 20 thousand people came out for him at one event or another.  How could a decorated World War II Air Force veteran with such strength of character be losing to Richard Nixon, for Christ’s sake.

Not too dissimilar, I suppose, from a conservative partisan thinking how such a good, religious, responsible family guy like Romney could possibly be losing to the likes of Barack Hussein Obama, for Christ’s sake.

Well, McGovern, of course, would go on to win  only Massachusetts and Washington, D.C. and Mitt Romney would go on to lose every single swing state in the election except for North Carolina (and again, we await Florida).

The lessons here are obvious.  Not that it really matters, of course, if pundits get their predictions right or horribly wrong- they are paid to bloviate no matter what.  But if one wants to be accurate and be taken seriously again someday- it would be wise to keep emotions out of it.

It would be essential, I think, to not let your observations be colored by your tribal leanings.  It might make sense to understand that 21st century polling, for example, is actually a science and that the study of statistical probability actually has an anchor in reality.

The trick for those who want to be in the business of predicting things, is learning to accept that the facts you see may not be what you wish they were.  It’s human, even endearing to think that wishing can make things happen.  But it’s not very professional.

 

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