Saturday, October 15, 2016

Nate Silver, the electoral college, and you

Yup, I'm still doing this.

Let's get some basic facts about the electoral college out of the way.  Here's how it works, in very brief form.  For each state, the parties create a slate of electors, numbered according to the total number of House members and Senators allocated to the state.  If a candidate gets a plurality of the vote in the state, that candidate's electors get to be members of the electoral college.  After the election, the electoral college votes, and whoever gets a majority of the electoral college wins.   Yes, there's more, but that's the executive summary.

It's a very screwy system, and it has the potential to give a majority of the electoral college to someone who didn't have a plurality in the popular vote.  How often does that happen?  Not often.  It happened in 2000.  Sort of.  It happened in 2000 because of the official tally in Florida. Here are the officially certified results, according to the FEC.  Of course, the butterfly ballot had a lot to do with that.  (Truth in advertising: Henry Brady was one of my grad school professors).  Regardless, look at how close those numbers were in 2000.  The popular vote-electoral college split doesn't happen without the candidates being nearly tied at the national level.

What happens when they aren't that close?  Well, take a look at the current RealClearPolitics map, when you just go with the current polls.  That puts the electoral college vote at 340-198 Clinton, even though her polling lead is only 6.7 points in the two-way contests and 5.3 points in the four-way contests.  What's the deal?

Here's the deal.  While the electoral college can create a split in a tied race, the normal effect is to exaggerate an advantage.  Clinton has a lead, and the electoral college is exaggerating it, making a 6.7 point lead, or possibly a 5.3 point lead look like an electoral college blowout.  Why?  Because winning Florida, even if it is only by 2 points, translates into all 29 electoral votes.  Winner-take-all systems magnify small advantages.

Clinton is leading, and the electoral college magnifies that lead.

Now, what does any of this have to do with Nate Silver?  He is looking at the electoral college to the exclusion of all else.  Forest, trees, or something.  Why?  Well, he's a sports statistics guy.  Me?  I hate sports.  All sports.  Every last one of 'em.  Election night is fun.  I love watching the returns come in, and they do so by state.  So, hey, let's run simulations by state!  Silver turns it into a combinatorics problem.  Combinatorics is the branch of mathematics associated with counting methods because there are multiple methods to count to 270 (538 electoral votes total, and 270 is a majority), so he runs simulations of ways for each candidate to get to 270.  This ain't fantasy sports, though.  In statistical terms, all of the data are hierarchical.  That means everything is subject to some combination of local and national forces, and separating them, along with separating the over-time effects is brutally difficult, making the simulation approach unwieldy at best.  But, when the national effects are overwhelmingly large, there is no need.

Remember, the electoral college magnifies national leads.  To ignore that effect and focus on state-level simulations is to miss the forest, or, in statistical terms, miss the hierarchical effect that causes winner-take-all systems to magnify national leads.  A popular vote-electoral college split can happen.  But not when one candidate is as far ahead as Clinton is now.  It happened (sort of) in 2000, but that was when Bush and Gore were separated by about half a percentage point in the popular vote at the national level.  That's just not the case now.

Yes, this year is crazy, but really, there is a forest here, not just some pretty trees.

Can Trump win?  Yes, but something needs to change at the national level, unless all the polls are wrong, in which case Silver's combinatorics game is misguided anyway because no statistical approach can work with data that far off.

12 comments:

  1. The popular vote-electoral college split Could happen without the candidates being nearly tied at the national level.

    With the current state-by-state winner-take-all system of awarding electoral votes (not mentioned in the U.S. Constitution, but later enacted by 48 states), it could only take winning a bare plurality of popular votes in only the 11 most populous states, containing 56% of the population of the United States, for a candidate to win the Presidency with less than 22% of the nation's votes!

    A presidential candidate could lose while winning 78%+ of the popular vote and 39 states.

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    1. While that is a mathematical possibility, it has never happened before, there is no polling evidence to suggest that it is happening now, and it is extremely unlikely to happen in the future. If you are concerned with the possibility, then that explains your desire for reform, but it still doesn't absolve Silver of his mathematical errors because that is not how he arrives at his calculations.

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    2. I only noted that because of the system, it is possible.

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  2. Because of the state-by-state winner-take-all electoral votes laws (i.e., awarding all of a state’s electoral votes to the candidate who receives the most popular votes in each state) and (not mentioned in the U.S. Constitution, but later enacted by 48 states),in 48 states, a candidate can win the Presidency without winning the most popular votes nationwide. This has occurred in 4 of the nation's 57 (1 in 14 = 7%) presidential elections. The precariousness of the current state-by-state winner-take-all system of awarding electoral votes is highlighted by the fact that a difference of a few thousand voters in one or two states would have elected the second-place candidate in 4 of the 15 presidential elections since World War II. Near misses are now frequently common. There have been 7 consecutive non-landslide presidential elections (1988, 1992, 1996, 2000, 2004, 2008, and 2012).
    537 popular votes won Florida and the White House for Bush in 2000 despite Gore's lead of 537,179 (1,000 times more) popular votes nationwide.
    A difference of 60,000 voters in Ohio in 2004 would have defeated President Bush despite his nationwide lead of over 3 million votes.
    In 2012, a shift of 214,733 popular votes in four states would have elected Mitt Romney, despite President Obama’s nationwide lead of 4,966,945 votes.

    After the 2012 election, Nate Silver calculated that "Mitt Romney may have had to win the national popular vote by three percentage points on Tuesday to be assured of winning the Electoral College."

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    1. You'll notice that I'm not a big fan of Silver's calculation methods...

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  3. By 2020, the National Popular Vote bill could guarantee the majority of electoral votes and the presidency to the candidate who receives the most popular votes in the country.

    Every vote, everywhere, for every candidate, would be politically relevant and equal in every presidential election.
    No more distorting and divisive red and blue state maps of predictable outcomes.
    No more handful of 'battleground' states (where the two major political parties happen to have similar levels of support among voters) where voters and policies are more important than those of the voters in 38+ predictable states that have just been 'spectators' and ignored after the conventions.

    The bill would take effect when enacted by states with a majority of the electoral votes—270 of 538.
    All of the presidential electors from the enacting states will be supporters of the presidential candidate receiving the most popular votes in all 50 states (and DC)—thereby guaranteeing that candidate with an Electoral College majority.

    The bill was approved this year by a unanimous bipartisan House committee vote in both Georgia (16 electoral votes) and Missouri (10).
    The bill has passed 34 state legislative chambers in 23 rural, small, medium, large, red, blue, and purple states with 261 electoral votes.
    The bill has been enacted by 11 small, medium, and large jurisdictions with 165 electoral votes – 61% of the 270 necessary to go into effect.

    NationalPopularVote

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    1. The trick with these things is that very few people have real preferences over procedural matters. Consider 2000. Democrats hated the electoral college, and Republicans... not so much. Why? Because people like institutions that benefit them. Same thing with federalism. When the federal government is in your hands, screw states' rights. When the federal government is in the other party's hands, states' rights are great. (Yes, "states' rights" are often code..., but that's not my point). It is hard to separate true procedural preferences from temporary interests, which is why reform is so hard.

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    2. Because of state-by-state winner-take-all laws, not mentioned, much less endorsed, in the Constitution. . .

      In the 2012 presidential election, 1.3 million votes decided the winner in the ten states with the closest margins of victory.

      One analyst is predicting two million voters in seven counties are going to determine who wins the presidency in 2016.


      With the end of the primaries, without the National Popular Vote bill in effect, the political relevance of three-quarters of all Americans is now finished for the presidential election.


      In the 2016 general election campaign
      As of Sept 23, half (77 of 153) of the presidential and vice-presidential campaign events between the nominating conventions and the first debate were in just 4 states (Pennsylvania, Florida, North Carolina, and Ohio).

      88% of the events (135 of the 153) were in the 11 states identified as closely divided "battleground" states by Politico and The Hill. 29 states have been totally ignored.

      In the 2012 general election campaign

      38 states (including 24 of the 27 smallest states) had no campaign events, and minuscule or no spending for TV ads.

      More than 99% of presidential campaign attention (ad spending and visits) was invested on voters in just the only ten competitive states..

      Two-thirds (176 of 253) of the general-election campaign events, and a similar fraction of campaign expenditures, were in just four states (Ohio, Florida, Virginia, and Iowa).

      Issues of importance to non-battleground states are of so little interest to presidential candidates that they don’t even bother to poll them individually.

      Charlie Cook reported in 2004:
      “Senior Bush campaign strategist Matthew Dowd pointed out yesterday that the Bush campaign hadn’t taken a national poll in almost two years; instead, it has been polling [the then] 18 battleground states.”

      Bush White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer acknowledging the reality that [then] more than 2/3rds of Americans were ignored in the 2008 presidential campaign, said in the Washington Post on June 21, 2009:
      “If people don’t like it, they can move from a safe state to a swing state.”

      Over 87% of both Romney and Obama campaign offices were in just the then 12 swing states. The few campaign offices in the 38 remaining states were for fund-raising, volunteer phone calls, and arranging travel to battleground states.

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    3. Policies important to the citizens of non-battleground states are not as highly prioritized as policies important to ‘battleground’ states when it comes to governing.

      “Battleground” states receive 7% more presidentially controlled grants than “spectator” states, twice as many presidential disaster declarations, more Superfund enforcement exemptions, and more No Child Left Behind law exemptions.

      Compare the response to hurricane Katrina (in Louisiana, a "safe" state) to the federal response to hurricanes in Florida (a "swing" state) under Presidents of both parties. President Obama took more interest in the BP oil spill, once it reached Florida's shores, after it had first reached Louisiana. Some pandering policy examples include ethanol subsidies, steel tariffs, and Medicare Part D. Policies not given priority, include those most important to non-battleground states - like water issues in the west.

      The interests of battleground states shape innumerable government policies, including, for example, steel quotas imposed by the free-trade president, George W. Bush, from the free-trade party.

      Parochial local considerations of battleground states preoccupy presidential candidates as well as sitting Presidents (contemplating their own reelection or the ascension of their preferred successor).

      Even travel by sitting Presidents and Cabinet members in non-election years is skewed to battleground states

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    4. In Gallup polls since 1944, only about 20% of the public has supported the current system of awarding all of a state's electoral votes to the presidential candidate who receives the most votes in each separate state (not mentioned in the U.S. Constitution, but later enacted by 48 states) (with about 70% opposed and about 10% undecided).

      Support for a national popular vote is strong among Republicans, Democrats, and Independent voters, as well as every demographic group in every state surveyed recently. In the 41 red, blue, and purple states surveyed, overall support has been in the 67-81% range - in rural states, in small states, in Southern and border states, in big states, and in other states polled.

      Most Americans don't ultimately care whether their presidential candidate wins or loses in their state or district . . . they care whether he/she wins the White House. Voters want to know, that no matter where they live, even if they were on the losing side, their vote actually was equally counted and mattered to their candidate. Most Americans think it is wrong that the candidate with the most popular votes can lose. We don't allow this in any other election in our representative republic.

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    5. I'll make three brief points: first, no one voter, regardless of state or county, ever determines outcomes. Second, the research on policy effects is far messier, and influenced by factors like the legislative positions of House and Senate delegations. Finally, when you ask about the electoral college in the abstract, you get very different answers from when you ask at times like in 2000. In the abstract, there is widespread support, but the support is not very intense. In a year like 2000, the support was intense, but only among Democrats, and Republicans... not so much.

      Your key line: "Most Americans don't ultimately care whether their presidential candidate wins or loses in their state or district ... they care whether he/she wins the White House." Exactly right. And whatever process gets them that, legitimate or not, they like. People are funny that way.

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    6. Voters, continuously since at least 1944, want to know, that no matter where they live, even if they were on the losing side, their vote actually was equally counted and mattered to their candidate. Most Americans think it is wrong that the candidate with the most popular votes can lose. We don't allow this in any other election in our representative republic.

      Support for a national popular vote is strong among Republicans, Democrats, and Independent voters, as well as every demographic group in every state surveyed.

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