Interlude—Slowest children emeritus: Prediction is one of the silliest things our children of the corn do.
That said, TV producers love predictions—the more specific the better! So it was that a child emeritus invented his own private Minnesota on Sunday’s This Week program:
STEPHANOPOULOS (11/4/12): And we are back now with election predictions. I have to take a pass, because I'm anchoring on Tuesday night...George Will, you go first.The graphic showed that Will was predicting 321 electoral votes for Romney. That included a highly unlikely win in Minnesota. (To watch this whole segment, click this.)
WILL: I forgot my exact number. I guess you have a graphic here. I guess the wild card in what I've projected is I'm projecting Minnesota to go for Romney...It's the only state that's voted Democratic in nine consecutive elections, but this year, there's a marriage amendment on the ballot that will bring out the evangelicals and I think could make the difference.
Obama won Minnesota by eight points. Meantime, pundits spent about ten days mocking the efforts of Nate Silver, who actually reviewed the voluminous polling data and seems to have predicted all fifty states correctly.
(In his final prediction, Silver gave Obama a 99.7 percent chance of winning Minnesota.)
In the last two weeks, the children have been angry with Silver because he examined the data. That’s hard work, Chris Cillizza complained. It’s easier when we look at one poll, then commence to bloviating.
Dana Milbank authored a stranger pronouncement: “The truth is anybody who claims to know what is going to happen on Election Day is making it up.”
How odd! Milbank only made this pronouncement when people like Silver began examining actual data. Before, when pundits just dreamed their predictions, guild members rarely said boo.
For many years, the pundit corps has gamboled and played with utterly clueless predictions. Within the guild, few members complained.
Prediction only became offensive when people like Silver put in some real work. Prediction only became offensive when it was done with skill.
On Sunday’s This Week, other children emeritus struggled with their predictions. This is what Cokie Roberts said when Stephanopoulos turned to her next:
ROBERTS: I think I said 294 for Obama, and that was because I didn't give him Colorado, because he couldn't get them all. I mean, at some point, the law of averages kicks in. But I did give him Virginia, and I think that's—Did you catch the analytical technique? Cokie didn’t predict Colorado would go to Obama “because he couldn't get them all!” It was the law of averages!
STEPHANOPOULOS: So you're giving him Virginia, Ohio, Wisconsin, and Iowa, all the big states he's focused on?
ROBERTS: That's right. Well, Iowa I don't think we can call a big state.
STEPHANOPOULOS: It's a battleground.
Obama did win Colorado, just as Silver predicted. Cokie also didn’t give Florida to Obama, though Silver (very narrowly) did.
In fact, Stephanopoulos spoke with five leading guild members during this roundtable segment. With regard to Florida, none of the six showed any sign of knowing the state had come back into play.
At his much-maligned web site, Silver had made this point clear.
Donna Brazile was the last to predict on This Week. Her attempt to call the popular vote produced these Classic Guild Moments:
BRAZILE: On the popular vote, and it's hard to talk about, but I do believe that President Obama will eke it out, barely.Everybody seemed to agreed—the race for the popular vote was a tie! Oddly, the graphic showed Brazile’s actual prediction for the popular vote: 51.8 percent for Obama, 48.2 percent for Romney.
ROBERTS: It's a tie. It's a tie!
BRAZILE: It's a tie.
MATTHEW DOWD: Yeah.
STEPHANOPOULOS: It is going to be a tie race.
Presumably, that was the so-called “two-party vote,” though pundits don’t bother with such distinctions. But in this classic mini-moment, Brazile moved from a 3.6 point win for Obama to instant agreement with the group: The popular vote was a tie!
Just like that, consensus was reached. All six pundits signed on!
(Silver’s final prediction showed Obama winning the popular vote, 50.8 percent to 48.3 percent. As matters stand now, that seems to be fairly close to the actual outcome—and no, it’s not “a tie.” Presumably, it will be a few more weeks before all votes are tabulated.)
This is the kind of embarrassing twaddle to which we’re all accustomed. But uh-oh! When Silver and a few other analysts started conducting predictions with a great deal more care, the guild began getting angry.
Spear-checkers sallied forth to complain, including Cillizza and Milbank. They earned their place among the ranks of the press corps’ slowest children.
That said, we agree with the largest point Michael Gerson made in this column, which appeared in Monday’s Washington Post.
Gerson began in the mandated way, with silly complaints about Silver’s excessive precision. But once that twaddle was out of the way, Gerson made an accurate point about the recent focus on prediction:
GERSON (11/5/12): The main problem with this approach to politics is not that it is pseudo-scientific but that it is trivial. An election is not a mathematical equation; it is a nation making a decision. People are weighing the priorities of their society and the quality of their leaders. Those views, at any given moment, can be roughly measured. But spreadsheets don’t add up to a political community. In a democracy, the convictions of the public ultimately depend on persuasion, which resists quantification.That last highlighted point is correct. A person who clarifies large policy issues is almost surely providing a higher service that someone who analyzes a shitload of polls to make more accurate predictions.
Put another way: The most interesting and important thing about politics is not the measurement of opinion but the formation of opinion. Public opinion is the product—the outcome—of politics; it is not the substance of politics. If political punditry has any value in a democracy, it is in clarifying large policy issues and ethical debates, not in “scientific” assessments of public views.
As he finished his piece, Gerson offered this:
GERSON: And so, at the election’s close, we talk of Silver’s statistical model and the likely turnout in Cuyahoga County, Ohio, and relatively little about poverty, social mobility or unsustainable debt. The nearer this campaign has come to its end, the more devoid of substance it has become. This is not the advance of scientific rigor. It is a sad and sterile emptiness at the heart of a noble enterprise.Those highlighted statements are accurate too. This campaign has been devoid of substance. In fact, it has been a sick joke.
This alleged presidential campaign has been a very bad joke. But guess what? That isn’t Nate Silver’s fault! And since predictions will be made, Silver performed an obvious service by making predictions with rigor.
In our view, the focus on Silver was overdone, for the reasons Gerson expressed. But that isn’t Silver’s fault or doing, and Silver performed a rare public service during this campaign.
Incredibly, Silver let people see what it’s like to read a journalist who actually knows what he’s talking about—a journalist who is working with a lot of data and information in an intelligent way.
That sort of thing rarely occurs among Gerson’s high pundit class. Was this campaign devoid of substance? Below, you see Cokie and Sam and George Will long ago, mocking the need of American voters to hear about matters of substance.
This was a truly remarkable moment. If we had real historians in this country instead of the pseudos who piddle at Princeton, this incident would be widely remembered today as an iconic moment.
To his credit, Stephanopoulos kept trying to raise the key point. Laughing and clowning and playing their games, Sam and Cokie kept shooting him down.
Welcome to the world of This Week, twelve years ago last month. This transcript features the slowest children ever found in this world:
SAM DONALDSON (10/23/00): Well, you talk about the message. I mean, remember during the last debate, Gore kept talking about “the Dingell/Norwood bill, the Dingell/Norwood bill.” And we thought, as a public service, we'd just show you who Dingell and Norwood are. Let us tell you about them.That is an astonishing transcript. Professors at Princeton are too busy with piddle to know that this clowning occurred.
Representatives of Dingell and Norwood introduced the Patients' Bill of Rights favored by Gore and the House of Representatives. John Dingell, from Michigan, is the longest-serving Democrat in the House. His father, who was a House member before him, was a sponsor of Social Security in the '30s, and pioneered the idea of national health insurance back in 1943. Charlie Norwood from Georgia, a Republican, is a dentist. He served in Vietnam and was first elected to the House in 1994 as part of the Republican revolution. So that's who Dingell and Norwood are. Now I'll tell you—
STEPHANOPOULOS: But the important—
ROBERTS: Yeah, but—
DONALDSON: But there's a guy named Greg Ganske who's also on the bill. It's actually the Dingell-Norwood-Ganske bill!
STEPHANOPOULOS: But the important, the important point—
DONALDSON: But I don't have time to start telling you about him.
ROBERTS: He's from Iowa.
STEPHANOPOULOS: The important point there is that George Bush didn't answer the question about the Dingell/Norwood bill, which is a Patients' Bill of Rights that allows people to—the right to sue.
ROBERTS: Actually, I don't think that is the important point there.
STEPHANOPOULOS: Why not?
ROBERTS: Because that's not what comes across when you're watching the debate. What comes across when you're watching the debate is this guy from Washington doing Washington-speak.
STEPHANOPOULOS: But it's—
ROBERTS: And you know, it's having an effect not just at the presidential level, but at the congressional level as well. Because the Republicans did a very smart thing, which is that they voted for their version of a Patients' Bill of Rights, and they voted for their version of prescription drug coverage. So they get to go out and tout all these issues, and then the Democrats are left saying, “But you didn't do Dingell and Norwood.”
STEPHANOPOULOS: Well, then they—but what gets lost there— Wait a second, what gets lost there is that George Bush did oppose a Patients' Bill of Rights in the state of Texas. And he did—and he's not for the Dingell/Norwood bill.
ROBERTS: It was lost because Al Gore didn't say it.
STEPHANOPOULOS: Yeah, well, he did say it, actually, in the course of the debate.
DONALDSON: This is very cerebral. George Will, you are, but it doesn't be—helping Gore.
WILL: It's not helping Gore in part because people find him overbearing and off-putting and all the rest.
Gerson also forgets.
Twelve years ago, these children clowned. Twelve years later, Silver is wrong, because he studied a lot of actual data in a serious way!
Those people belong to a criminal class. So do tapioca-stained history profs who peddle transparently bogus poop to a disinformed world.
Tomorrow: Slowest children from Michigan
Friday: Slowest children from Stanford