However you may feel about the outcome of Tuesday's Presidential election, one thing is clear:

Big Data triumphed over Gut Instincts.

This is not a post about policy disagreements or who had the best vision for America's future. This is a post about the ongoing rise of Big Data and the People who embrace it.

It's also a post about the difficulty of objective analysis when the information you're analyzing is contrary to your beliefs and desires.

The lead-up to the election brought prognosticators out of the woodwork. Countless pundits and "experts" weighed on on what they believed would happen. For the most part, they fit into two camps:

  1. Talking Heads
  2. Stat Heads

Talking Heads could be found on any number of cable news shows. They based their electoral predictions on their gut instincts. On flighty ideas like "momentum," and their opinion on "the mood of the country." One well-respected pundit claimed that the "vibrations were right" for a Romney win, whatever that even means. They might throw a few numbers out there, like unemployment figures or the debt, but they'd rarely look to opinion polls. Unless of course they could cherry pick polls in their favor.

Stat Heads could mainly be found on the internet. They based their electoral predictions not on gut feelings or nebulous concepts, but on unbiased analysis of hard data. They didn't ignore the polls, they studied them and ran them through models. Their analysis delivered probabilities that matched up extraordinarily well with the election's actual results.

What was clear to a clear-minded outsider was that the Talking Heads almost exclusively made predictions that matched their desired outcome. They weren't conducting well-thought out analyses so much as they were trying desperately to convince the world that what they wanted to believe was actually the truth.

To be clear, this happened on both sides of the aisle. While folks like Dick Morris were the worst of the Talking Heads, this sort of thing happened with the left wing pundits of the world after polls starting coming out post-Debate #1.

Watching all of this reminded me of my post on the baseball MVP race, which pits Triple Crown winner Miguel Cabrera against once-in-a-lifetime rookie Mike Trout. As I see it, the talking heads who were ranting and raving about nebulous gut feelings and "momentum" while ignoring key data are no different than the dinosaurs of baseball who judge a player on his RBI total while scoffing at advanced statistics like WAR and OPS.

What I wonder is, will this sort of non-sense continue in future elections? Now, I obviously don't think Talking Heads are going to just fall off the face of the Earth. The voting public at large is much less informed about election issues than a big time baseball fan is about his sport. But, could we perhaps see a hybrid of sorts going forward?

In Nate Silver's book, The Signal and the Noise, he dives into the post-Moneyball era of baseball and points out something incredibly interesting. While stats and deep data analysis is paramount to a modern club's success, it has yet to kill off scouting. In fact, at teams like the Oakland A's, scouting is more important than ever. Only through a hybrid of soft and hard analysis can teams consistently and reliably forecast players' expected abilities and contributions. And only through that combination can teams consistently build out a winning ball club.

My question for WSO is, will we see this sort of hybrid approach play a bigger role in political coverage going forward? Or are we permanently doomed to overblown horse-race reporting that ignores the data and fails to report on the issues?

Comments (11)


Of course it will continue, what do you think the talking heads are paid to do? Be objective? fuck no. they are there to draw viewers to driver ratings which then drives the affiliate fees and ad revenues for the company. Extreme political views draws viewers like Fox News.


I want the Fox News chicks to analyze my poll.

In reply to ladubs111

Of course it will continue, what do you think the talking heads are paid to do? Be objective? fuck no. they are there to draw viewers to driver ratings which then drives the affiliate fees and ad revenues for the company. Extreme political views draws viewers like Fox News.

I don't think it'll ever fully go away. My point is more that these guys really looked bad and like they've got egg on their face because the data was right up front of them and they simply chose to ignore it. At some point, their credibility goes to zero with the average voter (I'm discounting the tribal voters, here.)

At least from the perspective of campaigns themselves, I imagine candidates on both sides of the aisle would benefit from analyzing the data objectively and adjusting their operations accordingly.

Anyway. In my view, the best analysis uses hard data and draws conclusions. The soft stuff can play a part, and it's really great when a narrative is built around data, as opposed to trying to cherry pick data to build a narrative (which is what many talking heads have made a living doing.)


you will always have more republicans respond to these polls over democrats (a million different reasons why), and that my friend is why Romney was leading in most of the polls. Plus viewer ratings over political correctness for the tv stations a least.


That's all great, but there was a rational argument as to why the "talking heads" thought that way. Voter turnout was truly a guessing game and many thought that oversampling of democrats occurred, which it did.

In reply to johnwayne7

That's all great, but there was a rational argument as to why the "talking heads" thought that way. Voter turnout was truly a guessing game and many thought that oversampling of democrats occurred, which it did.

Based on what, exactly? Cherry picking data to fit a worldview is not rational, it's wishful thinking.


What about no. 3?

3. People who run campaigns and know how the system actually works*, as opposed to no. 1 who are primarily propagandists or self promoters.

Nearly everyone they had on the Stanford University's excellent series of talks (election 2012, on itunesU) predicted Obama winning, or rather that the republicans would lose, well ahead of the debates. People with real expertise and historical appreciation like Mark McKinnon, the guy who put Bush in office twice, and others of varying political stripes were among those** who called it well in advance.

I think a combination of 2 & 3 would be most effective. Big data analytics with an understanding of how the system really works. Unfortunately I can more easily, perhaps cynically, see this used for more manipulative campaigning rather than to inform voters, i.e. more sophisticated types of talking heads.

P.S. I'm a Moneyball fan too.
P.P.S. Parallels with finance / investing? Buffet, Renaissance Technologies or maybe even LTCM?

* I can't think of a snazzy name that ends with heads.
** They did have a polling expert / researcher, can't remember his name, give his data driven views as well. He was even more emphatic about an Obama win, or rather a republican loss.


The idea that Democratic turnout would be somewhere between 2004 and 2008 levels while Republican turnout would be greater than 2008 levels was very reasonable. Gallup and Rass both posted more pro-GOP identification skew and virtually all polls prior to the election had GOP enthusiasm as greater. There really was no reason to expect a virtually identical +D split as in 2008, during which the GOP hated their candidate and were demoralized by 8 years of Bush disappointment while the Democrats were very very energized by an incredibly optimistic Obama campaign.

There are a ton of assumptions built into polls as they try to correct for various things. It wasn't all that unreasonable to balk at the heavy Dem split assumptions in some of the polls. Intrade gave romney a roughly 1/3rd chance prior to the election.

They weren't using gut instincts, they were using internal polls with different assumptions that were plausible but turned out to be wrong.


Stats are fine, but when you are dealing with the human element it is best to not put all your weight on the numbers. Democrats relied on low propensity voters. If it rained, snowed or a bunch of other things you could have a lot of people stay home.

Obama got 8MM less votes than in 2008. Turn out was lower. It was a closer race. The demographics switched with Obama losing the white vote and maintaining the minority vote.

I am sorry, but while the stats are nice and more objective than Fox and MSNBC, stats cannot predict that Romney gets over 1MM less total votes than McCain, especially considering the way the economy is and Obama fatigue.

Republicans just didn't do a good job getting people to the polls and the Obama racial component helped him rule the day. Either way turn out sucks which really is surprising considering the situation we are in. Americans are just lazy fucks.


At least we will get Obama care.

In reply to ladubs111

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