I know that the election — all twelve months and several billion dollars of it — is finally over, because the quadrennial stress ulcer that seems to take over my body like a cancer has dissipated. It’s weirdly masochistic of us, that we’ve decided our electoral process needs to be as horrifyingly stressful as possible short of tanks in the streets and retaliatory assassinations, but, like building muscles, nothing worthwhile ever comes painlessly.
In retrospect, I shouldn’t have been all that worried. Nate Silver, the former baseball statistician who called 49 out of 50 states correctly in the last election, had Barack Obama winning the election approximately 90 percent of the time — and, as those of us who’ve played XCOM: Enemy Unknown lately know, a 90 percent chance feels an awful like absolute certainty. Silver had Obama as a neck-ruffled slugger playing slow-pitch softball, with Mitt Romney as a relief pitcher batting against Justin Verlander. Of course, 90 percent is not 100 percent, so I resorted to burying my head in Halo 4 to avoid the nauseating wave of agita that hit me at a similar point in 2008.
What’s strange to me post-election is just how unruffled the opposite side appeared in the weeks leading up to the actual election. I had been following Silver almost exclusively, so I knew that Romney’s chances were slim, but you wouldn’t know it by looking at nearly every right-wing pundit. The Romney campaign itself seemed totally thrown by the outcome:
…they believed the public/media polls were skewed – they thought those polls over-sampled Democrats and didn’t reflect Republican enthusiasm. They based their own internal polls on turnout levels more favorable to Romney. That was a grave miscalculation, as they would see on election night.
Those assumptions drove their campaign strategy: their internal polling showed them leading in key states, so they decided to make a play for a broad victory: go to places like Pennsylvania while also playing it safe in the last two weeks.
Those assessments were wrong.
Perhaps the strangest counter to Silver’s prediction came from a journalist named Dean Chambers of UnskewedPolls.com. Chambers believed polls were oversampling Democrats, so in many cases, he simply adjusted the Republican response rate upward to a number he felt was more accurate. Chambers was so confident in his model that he attributed Silver’s numbers to…Silver seeming kind of effeminate.
Anyone able to find a legitimate scientific basis for this critique is welcome to come forward. I hadn’t realized that your skill at math is directly related to, I don’t know, how butch you are.
This kind of magical thinking seems particularly prevalent with movements facing imminent defeat. It’s denial, but a strange type of denial that requires constant reinforcement by manufactured evidence and, essentially, wishes. It calls to mind the Boxer Rebellion against the British in China, where peasants underwent exercises they believed would make them immune to bullets. It reminds me of the Ghost Dance, a Native American religious ceremony which promised its participants a reunification with their ancestors, a resolution to the conflict with encroaching Americans, and yes, an immunity to bullets. You are invited to look up the fate of the Boxers and the Ghost Dancers, but it is not reassuring or pretty.
Science doesn’t care about your feelings. Math disregards your wishes. Nate Silver got every single state correct in the 2012 presidential election, and got the popular vote to within .3%. Dean Chambers did not.