How this local pundit got the election wrong

by Ron Mock
Politics Among Friends
George Fox University Professors blog

I am a political science professor.  I am 56 years old, so this was my 15th presidential election, although I was born in the lull before the party conventions in 1956 and don’t really remember anything substantive about any of the elections before 1968.  I have now run at least 5 prognostication contests related to presidential elections, that I can remember.

This fall I ran another one.  It was gorgeous, perfectly calibrated to be fun even if the election got lopsided.  It was fun.  We had 25 participants.

I came in 22nd.

There were a dozen students in the contest, kids about 20 years old.  All but one of them beat me.   There were eight other faculty or staff in the contest. All but one of them beat me.     There were four others (alums, etc.) in the contest.  All but one of them beat me.

I stank, especially for someone who is supposed to have some expertise in the subject of politics. Why?

I didn’t stink because I lacked information. I had access to the best political web sites and columnists, and read widely in them, all along the political spectrum (except the extremes on either end).  I read the quantitative sites and the more seat-of-the-pants gut-feeling sites.  I knew who Nate Silver was when he was still an obscure baseball stats guru.

I didn’t stink because I’m stupid.  I am stupid, maybe, about a lot of things, but I have some evidence that I am smarter than a lot of other people. Exhibit A: I’m married to Melanie, and no one else is, even though they all had the first 28 years of her life to lock her up before I came into her picture. Exhibit B: I have been given 28 straight one-year contracts to teach at George Fox, each year a separate decision by a series of deans and provosts that “Yes, we want to keep this guy.”  Exhibit C:  Except for one year as an expansion team, I have never had a losing record in a fantasy baseball league in twenty seasons of competition mostly against people with PhDs.  Exhibit D:  There has only been one day in my entire life that I have lost at a game of Boggle. If that doesn’t give me enough not-stupid credentials, I can come up with some more.

But I stank this time around in the prognostication contest. And Sam Miller – a guy about whom someday I will say I knew who he was when he was still an obscure baseball columnist – explains why in his column for today.

Miller did a little study of predictions made in the offseason by collections of anonymous baseball executives and scouts, generally certifiably smart people.  He discovered that their ability to see the future was almost imperceptibly better than picking predictions at random.  Instead of getting coin-flip prediction right 50% of the time, they them right 52% of the time.  On multiple choice questions on which they had an average of a 26% chance of getting the predictions right, these experts got 30% right.  Most of the time – 96 – 98% of the time – they didn’t know anything that made a difference in their predictions!

Miller explained how this could be so:

I think there are two possible ways of explaining this low success rate. One is based on the work of Philip Tetlock, who spent 20 years studying thousands and thousands of pundit predictions. He concluded that expert pundits are barely more predictive than random chance.

First, as the skeptics warned, when hordes of pundits are jostling for the limelight, many are tempted to claim that they know more than they do. Boom and doom pundits are the most reliable over-claimers.

…(B)ecause they self-identify as experts, they naturally view and present themselves as more certain than they should. It might also be the case that it is more satisfying to have an interesting opinion … than a conservative but accurate opinion.  (Emphasis added.)

What good would it have been for me to just parrot Nate Silver and predict a 303-235 Obama win in the Electoral College?  I wanted to have insight, something I made on my own, not just picked up off the floor while wandering the internet.  So I worked harder, found an item here, a fact there, a flaw in Silver’s analysis of 2010. I collected explanations for discrepancies between state polls and national ones – Silver’s own explanations, of course, but many others.

I put my pieces together, and saw a surge for Romney just beneath the surface of the numbers. I picked Romney to win 283-255.

Instead he lost.  And so did I, to a bunch of people, mostly students, who are happy to win even without a special dollop of contrarian brilliance.  And, as Miller points out, that’s the way to succeed in a market environment, where there are a lot of people who have an interest in supplying good information competing for the attention of other people who have an interest in getting good information.  The best information “is publicly available and gets priced into our expectations.”

Once that happens, it is very hard for one person to add value. I have to remember this in the future: it is very hard, or even impossible, to do better analysis than is done by a marketplace, including a marketplace of ideas.  As Miller says,

a team that puts too much faith in its own predictions might be falling into a trap. So don’t feel bad if you’re bad at it. It’s not your fault. It’s baseball’s fault.

Or, more accurately, it’s the fault of Whoever set things up so that markets arise to process widely distributed information.

That makes me feel a lot better.

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