The Wisdom of Senate Election Models

United States SenateI’m a little embarrassed to be so fascinated by the argument between Nate Silver and Sam Wang. It was only three days ago that I wrote, The Ballad of Sam and Nate. But it just keeps on going. The most recent round took place on Political Wire, Nate Silver Rebuts Sam Wang. And then this morning, Sam Wang Factchecks Nate Silver. If I weren’t so interested in it, I would tell them both they ought to find a nice quiet boxing ring somewhere.

Today, over at The Daily Beast, Daniel Altman came to much the same conclusion I did over the weekend, Why Is Nate Silver So Afraid of Sam Wang? For most of this, I think you are better off just reading my article. One thing I noted was, “The truth is, at times, The Monkey Cage model has been a big outlier.” But Altman went one step further. He pointed out that at the time he was writing, Silver’s model (FiveThirtyEight) actually disagreed more with The Monkey Cage than it did with Wang’s model (PEC).

Nate SilverAt that time, the FiveThirtyEight model predicted a 58% chance of the Republicans taking control of the Senate. The Monkey Cage predicted 77% and PEC predicted 42%. Thus FiveThirtyEight predicted 19 percentage points lower than The Monkey Cage and 16 percentage points higher than PEC. Today, it is even worse. FiveThirtyEight still predicts 58%, but the others have moved toward the extremes: 84% and 36%. Thus, FiveThirtyEight is 26 percentage points lower than The Monkey Cage and 22 percentage points higher than PEC.

I stick with what I said over the weekend: I like the inertia in the FiveThirtyEight model. And I tend to think that Silver has things right. And if we include the Daily Kos and Huffington Post models to provide the five primary Senate models, we end up with a median that is the FiveThirtyEight model (58%) and a mean that is closer to the FiveThirtyEight model than any other: 60%. Even if we throw out The Monkey Cage and the PEC models as outliers, we get almost the exact same conclusions. The median, of course, is still the FiveThirtyEight model (58%) and the mean is 59%.

Sam WangSo by using the wisdom of the crowd approach that Sam Wang uses with polls, but instead use it with the Senate models, the FiveThirtyEight model is the winner. Of course, that just makes Sam Wang look better. If he were not one of the “big five” models with his most basic — statistics only — model, then what the modeling community as a whole would be telling us would be way off. The median would be 63% and the mean would be 66%. That would be closest to the Daily Kos model, which currently gives the Republicans a 67% chance of taking the Senate. (I wonder about the Daily Kos model, however; it has been stuck at 67% for a very long time, during which time there have been major changes in the polls.)

Daniel Altman’s main point is the same as mine: if the Democrats manage to hold the Senate, it will make Nate Silver look bad, even though it doesn’t mean what people will think it means. And the fact that Wang is doing it with the most boneheaded model imaginable won’t speak well for wonderboy. It will say to many that there is a very simple way to separate the signal and the noise. But maybe this whole election cycle is teaching us something more important. Maybe it’s teaching us that Nate Silver has a really big and obnoxious ego. Just kidding; we already knew that!

What we may be learning is that the best way to model elections is for a lot of smart people to create models the best way they can think of. And based upon this, we not only get a good idea of how the election will turn out, we get a better idea of what matters and what doesn’t. And if Nate Silver gets his fee-fees hurt, so be it. The world is generally improved by large groups of people doing things; it is rarely improved because one Romantic hero steps up and shows us the way. And even if Nate Silver’s model is the best, it just shows that he’s picked the best of The Monkey Cage approach (fundamentals only) and the PEC approach (polls only). That’s the signal. The rest is noise.


I screwed up and forgot to include The Upshot model, which currently gives the Republicans a 61% chance of taking the Senate. It is very similar to the FiveThirtyEight model. Adding it to the analysis changes the numbers very little. However, it does tip things toward The Upshot so that the mean of all the models is closer to it. If PEC is removed, the median is exactly The Upshot and the mean is still the Daily Kos. I think the reason I forgot The Upshot model is that I don’t think it is really any different from the FiveThirtyEight model.

What Everyone Knows About the Economy That Just Ain’t So

Chuck ToddMy business partner Will is more courageous than I am: he actually watches the Sunday morning political shows. And he mentioned to me that yesterday on Meet the Press, there was some Republican ranting about how slow the recovery was. (It was most likely Reince Priebus.) This immediately got me hyperventilating. This is the reason I don’t watch these shows. Claims like this are made and then Chuck Todd (or whoever happens to be manning the spot) just lets it go by. If a Republican says the economy is doing poorly and it is the Democrats’ fault, who is Todd to follow it up with a question that took into account, you know, the facts?

For example, Todd could have said, “It’s true that the economy is improving very slowly. But isn’t this mostly because the government has actually cut spending, while Republicans have always greatly increased spending after recessions?” It really annoys me that such things are never said. Politicians can come on these nationally televised shows and spout whatever nonsense they want without the slightest concern that they will be countered.

Here is the perfect graph from a great article last year by Kevin Drum, It’s the Austerity, Stupid: How We Were Sold an Economy-Killing Lie:

Government Spending After Recessions

Does this surprise you? Regular readers will not be surprised, but doubtless the vast majority of Americans would be. And so would Chuck Todd. Because it is just “common sense” that Obama has exploded the federal budget. The truth is that the federal government’s spending has gone up a bit, but this has been more than offset by the great decrease in state and local government spending. But here’s the point: Republicans have always known that the federal government has to really increase spending after a recession. So their focus on cutting spending from 2009 onward shows that their intent has been to kill the economy so they could take political advantage to it. This is why it makes me really mad to hear Republicans talk about the poor recovery from this recession.

Paul Krugman dealt with part of this issue today at his blog, Presidents and Jobs. It shows that private sector job growth under Obama has actually been better than it was under Bush. And this is with a huge assist that Bush got in terms of a Congress that spent a whole lot more money to stimulate the economy.

And also today, Ezra Klein wrote, This Chart Proves the Economy Is Actually, Really, Finally Getting Better. And this is the chart:

Job Growth by Year

Of course, let’s not start dancing in the streets. As Dean Baker would point out if he were writing this article, adding 250,000 per month is good but it isn’t great. And given how many jobs were lost after the financial crisis of 2008, we really do need to be doing better. But the fact remains that the speed of job growth continues to increase. So things are getting better. And the same Republicans who are complaining that job growth of 250,000 per month is too low were the the same ones who were trumpeting 150,000 jobs per month as a great thing in 2004 under Bush. Even Bush’s best year was substantially below this year. But here are the facts:

  1. The economy is creating jobs a decent rate.
  2. The reason we haven’t seen better job creation is because of Republican obstruction.

It’s bad enough that Republicans would do everything they can to harm the economy in order to get political advantage. But it is beyond comprehension why the mainstream media would allow them to get away with it and blame it on the Democratic president. In this way NBC is not much different from Fox News.

Republicans’ Final Bet Against Democracy

Democracy Will Bring OppressionBrian Beutler wrote a really good article over at New Republic yesterday, Republicans Are Playing Dirty Tricks to Worsen Democrats’ Midterm-Voter Problem. He contrasted the efforts of Mark Begich to get voters out to the polls in Alaska with the efforts of the conservative Americans for Prosperity to restrict voting by sending out incorrect information to people “and at least one cat.”

There is an obvious difference here. What the Democrats are doing is good old fashioned retail politics. What the Republicans are doing is simply illegal. Of course, they always claim that such stunts are nothing but mistakes. And it isn’t completely ridiculous to believe that. After all, for something in excess of thirty years, the Republicans have show themselves to be incompetent regarding pretty much anything other than winning elections. Still, the “win any way you can” philosophy is as fundamental to the conservative movement as anything — even going back to the Nixon administration and what they called “rat fucking.”

But let’s just think about the Bush the Younger years. Karl Rove’s great political insight was that the focus of politics should be getting out your voters. Don’t worry about the middle — the undecided voters. Of course, that strategy only works so long as your ideology has a reasonable level of popularity. In the last decade, the Republican Party has lost much of its social conservative appeal. It is more clear than ever that what the party believes in is the rich and their well being. Remember how lots of old people voted for Bush in 2004 because he was going to stick it to the fags, but once he got elected, Bush decided to use his political capital to privatize Social Security? That doesn’t endear a political party to a group of voters.

Not to worry! Now the Republicans have Karl Rove Double Plus Good: don’t worry about your own voters, just stop Democrats from voting. There are many ways that they are going about this. Sadly, most of them are legal. Or at least legal enough such that they are ending up in the courts, where conservative judges are often finding that there is no level of voting restriction that is illegal. This is because, regardless of where you find them in the government, conservatives do not believe in democracy.

That’s what was behind Karl Rove’s idea that the government should be able to do whatever it wanted with 50% of the vote plus one vote. I wrote about this is some detail, The “50 Percent of the Votes, Plus One” Doctrine. This is a typical tactic of a radical group, as I discussed earlier today. When Hugo Chávez tried to get the Venezuelan constitution changed, it lost by a very small amount. When people asked him if he was going to request a recount, he said no. He said he only wanted to change the constitution if the people clearly wanted it. Chávez had his problems, but he was a bigger believer in democracy than the leaders of the Republican Party.

So the current state of politics is not surprising. It is clear that what the Republicans are doing in terms of voting is what they are doing in every area of politics. They are trying to maintain competitiveness in the short term without making any changes to the Party. And it may work this time around. But note that it isn’t working well. Just looking at the Senate: the Republicans are looking at a best case scenario where they will do as well as we would expect given the fundamentals. The fact that the Democrats might hang onto the Senate is just laughable.

It will be interesting to see what happens to the Republicans in 2016 and beyond. Their short-term fixes have run their course. If they don’t make some real changes, they will turn into a regional party. What it’s going to take for them to avoid that is a little courage. I’m not at all sure they have it in them. I think that’s what’s behind all the chest pounding. They have to pretend to be tough because they are cowards. This year, that may be enough. But I wouldn’t want to be in the Republicans’ position. And regardless, I’d rather be in the party I’m in — the one that is betting on democracy, not against it.

Will Republicans Destroy the CBO?

Paul KrugmanPaul Krugman has seen the future and he has named it, Voodoo Economics, the Next Generation. It follows upon the news that indicates that the Republicans have a very good chance of taking control of the Senate. (See The Ballad and Sam and Nate for more details.) There isn’t a great deal of damage that the full Republican control of the Congress can do because Obama can veto most anything that comes out of what will quickly be dubbed the Crazy Congress. But there is one thing that the more nerdy of the political observers are very concerned about: the Congressional Budget Office (CBO).

The CBO was created in 1974 by the Nixon administration to do economic and budgetary analysis for Congress. It has always done a shockingly good job. It often annoys this or that politician, but no one ever complains too loudly, because it is strictly nonpartisan. That doesn’t mean it is always right. In fact, it is very often wrong about its projections. But that’s the world of economic analysis. What’s important is that it provides the standard economics of any given set of circumstances.

A good example of this is that it doesn’t do “dynamic scoring.” It doesn’t make the assumption that cutting taxes will actually increase tax revenues because the cuts will cause the economy to grow so much. This is what Bush the Elder called “voodoo economics” when running against Ronald Reagan in 1980. And he was right. It has simply never been the case that cutting taxes caused more tax revenue. But oh don’t people like Paul Ryan want it to be true! This is because they want to claim to be for balancing the federal budget at the same time that they cut taxes on the rich. This was, you may remember, both the Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan budget plans. They were going to balance the budget, and the first step was to cut taxes.

Krugman made an interesting historical note. As nutty as the Bush the Younger administration was with four years of complete control of Congress, no move was ever made to turn the CBO into a partisan whipping boy. But now, it looks like the Republicans will do just that if they get complete control of the Senate next year. Krugman ended his article:

Would they actually do it? It would destroy the credibility of a very important institution, one that has served the country well. But have you seen any evidence that the modern conservative movement cares about such things?

Back in 2003, Krugman published, The Great Unraveling: Losing Our Way in the New Century. In the introduction, he talked about Henry Kissinger’s doctoral dissertation where he discussed how revolutionary groups disregard norms. They do whatever is in the interest of their cause, and thus do anything and everything that is technically legal.

So no, I haven’t seen any evidence that the modern conservative movement cares about things like maintaining the reputation of the CBO. Or anything else for that matter. The only thing that might hold them back is that the Republicans already think in a postmodern way. Sure the CBO is highly respected by normal commentators. But the Republicans can always get a couple of hacks at the Heritage Foundation to say that your tax cuts will lead to 2.8% unemployment. As they say with global warming, “They have their experts and we have our experts.”

But the Republican thinking on the CBO might be different than that. There is still that, “Reality has a well known liberal bias.” The CBO can be depended to side more with Democratic plans, because they are based on the real world. Ruining the CBO, even if it were later fixed, would take some of the gloss off it. And people outside the Republican Party might think of it as “just another partisan source.” What’s more, destroying the reputation of the CBO could lead to its elimination. The Republicans would love that.

Regardless of what happens to the CBO, one thing is certain: if the Republicans gain complete control of Congress next year, they will do as much harm as they possibly can. That’s what revolutionary groups always do.

George Westinghouse Elephant Lover

George WestinghouseI’m back from my trip. I spent almost all day yesterday sleeping. But today, we are back to the usual schedule, except, of course, that I didn’t get the birthday post up at midnight. What are you gonna do? I wasn’t going to crawl myself out of bed in the middle of night. And it was probably for the best, because today is not a great day for birthdays. I mean, I think Carole Lombard is cute as a really, really cute button, and also very funny. But I did her last year anyway.

On this day in 1846, the great inventor George Westinghouse was born. Of course, that was a time when it was pretty easy to be an inventor. There was a lot of stuff going on. That’s why the government has allowed the patent system to get so out of hand now. If you have enough money, you can get a patent on walking, and the rest of us would have to pay royalties to walk into the kitchen.

When it comes to inventors, people tend to think of Thomas Edison. They shouldn’t. To begin with, Edison was kind of a jerk. But more than that, he worked tirelessly to saddle our country with a terrible electrical system. You see, he had all the patents related to direct current (DC) electricity. Westinghouse had the patents related to alternating current (AC) electricity. DC is a perfectly good system for running small devices, but it is terrible for delivering electricity over large distances. There is too much line loss. Ultimately, Westinghouse won out and we got AC.

Part of Edison’s campaign against AC was to tie it to its use in the electric chair. This is quite interesting, because Edison was a very smart and knowledgeable man. He knew that for the purpose of large scale electricity distribution, AC was the way to go. But his own personal profits (Edison was already ridiculously wealthy) trumped the common good. And that brings us to the story of Topsy.

Topsy was a circus elephant in the New York area. She bounced around between owners, eventually ending up at Luna Park under the care of William Alf. Alf was caught abusing Topsy with a pitchfork, causing him to release her to roam free in the streets. This (and not the pitchfork), got Alf arrested. Later Alf tried to ride Topsy into the police station. Alf was apparently a drunk. Anyway, Luna Park fired Alf, but then they didn’t know what to do with Topsy, so they decided to kill her. They were going to hang her, but the ASPCA said that would be cruel. So they decided to electrocute her.

When Edison found out, he was thrilled. He sent a bunch of people out to help in the murder and to shoot the film, Electrocuting an Elephant. Obviously, the murder of Topsy did not win Edison the contract to create an electrical grid. But the truth is that Edison would have electrocuted half of the American people to get more money. Of course, none of this is to say that Westinghouse was a wonderful guy. But it would be hard to come close to Edison on the “evil greedy bastard” scale.

Happy birthday George Westinghouse!