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November 17, 2011 / Political Fluency

What. Is. Nate. Silver. Doing?

I like Nate Silver and I read him a lot.

But sometimes Silver makes me think he would want A-Rod up at bat the two times the Cardinals were down to their last strike in Game 6 of this past World Series.

Whether or not Silver believes in the preposterous notion that there is no such thing as clutch hitting in baseball is not the point.*

You have to be intuitive in politics even on a statistical site and Nate just sometimes doesn’t seem to be. The stat guys in all things sports, financial, and politics are awesome and I am often envious of their abilities. But there isn’t always a stat for everything.

And when there are stats, they need to be used correctly.

His article on Friday stating The Gingrich Surge Has Come  is an observation I agree with, but then I saw this:

This will be pretty simple. I’m going to present to you a series of graphs showing each Republican candidate’s polling over the past six weeks. The graphs include both national polls and state polls. Some candidates perform especially well in certain states, of course, but with a couple of exceptions — like Mitt Romney in New Hampshire — the differences aren’t large, and in my view the trade-off is worth it since it significantly increases the sample size. Besides, most of the state polls are from places like Iowa, New Hampshire and Florida, which — last I checked — are pretty important to the nomination process.

We’ll start with Mitt Romney’s numbers.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Whoa! This isn’t simple at all.

Four comments on the chart:

First, and the reason for this post, it makes no sense to average out national polls with state polls when the elections are held on different days. None.

Second, precisely because voting occurs in some states earlier than others, there is a lot of “strategery” to the primary campaign since states vote at different times and even in different ways in terms of caucusing versus going inside a voting booth. The ability to gain momentum with early victories is extremely important. Failure to do so can cause your campaign to fail quickly as voters in the later states see that not many people are voting for you, which is all that matters in political races. Money, endorsements, even the parties themselves are simply means of attracting votes.

Mitt Romney is leading in the first primary, New Hampshire, by 20 points with 40% of the vote. This creates outliers in Nate’s chart that bring Romney higher from about 10/3 to 10/25 and lower when there were no polls  from New Hampshire from 10/25 until the date the graph was published on 11/11 – that’s over two weeks later.** This alone would account for Romney’s “decline.”

It’s frankly misleading to show Romney’s poll numbers over the time of that chart in anything different than a straight line even if it tilts down slightly. That would correctly indicate how there has been almost no fluctuation in Romney’s support.  This chart makes it look like he rose from 23% to 27% and then declined 9 points to 18%.

And that’s the third point. Romney at about 18% is absurd. It’s hard to tell if the red line is an average or some other trend line. But the RCP average for Romney on the day of the article was 22.5% and the day before (when the article was likely written) Romney was at 23.3%. Whatever that red line indicates in terms of Romney’s support, 5% is a lot to be off by.

Fourth, the candidates’ poll numbers will fluctuate greatly once voting happens in Iowa and New Hampshire. The most important states after New Hampshire are South Carolina and Florida.

McCain essentially became the nominee once he won the New Hampshire primary on January 8, 2008. Look what happened in South Carolina and Florida after that victory. On that day his RCP average in South Carolina was 19.7% and was boosted 7 points to 26.9% on the day of the primary (January 19th) which he won with 33% of the actual vote. The South Carolina voters waited to see what happened in previous states and waited for the candidates to campaign exclusively in their state before they indicated their candidate preference to pollsters and at the ballot box.

The same thing happened for McCain in Florida. His RCP average in that state on January 8th was 14.3% with Romney, Huckabee and Giuliani all polling ahead of him! By the date of the South Carolina primary, McCain was up 9 more points to 23.2% and his victory there boosted him another 7 points to 30.7%. He won the state on January 29th with 36% of the vote and he wrapped up the nomination the next week with victories on Super Tuesday.

McCain campaigned for 11 months and then managed to double his support in the decisive state of Florida in only 3 weeks. That’s how powerful garnering actual voter support in early primaries is to the voters of later primaries.

This is classic Republican behavior that is happening again this year – a proclivity toward the previous runner-up and coalescing around a candidate early. This is the intuition and historical knowledge that’s required to put stats in context. Even though last go-around in 2008 is one data set being analyzed, Republicans settled on McCain despite having major gripes with him and this is feeling like another year that Republicans will settle. As the saying goes, “Democrats fall in love while Republicans fall in line.” There is no reason to think Romney’s popularity won’t increase in South Carolina and definitely Florida after a New Hampshire victory.

The problem Silver has is similar to most in the media: his job depends on there being some sexiness to the horse race aspect of the primaries – there is none. Republicans tend to be more distrustful and non-chalant about government which makes them much less likely to be excited about candidates the way Democrats were in 2008 by the possibility of the first black President or first woman President. Republicans’ reverence for Ronald Reagan was after he was out of office and contains a considerable amount of selective memory.

I admire anyone who puts themselves out there, Silver has to produce pages and my job is certainly way more worthless than his, but this is just an ink dump: http://fivethirtyeight.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/11/03/its-not-too-late-for-imprudent-speculation-about-other-republican-candidates/

And posts like that along with charts like the Mitt Romney one above have got to be confusing people. I’m definitely one of them.

____________________________________________________________

* I’m putting that link here again. http://www.sabernomics.com/sabernomics/index.php/2005/04/my-take-on-clutch-hitting/

“Why should I expect any player to exhibit any type of different behavior in [a clutch vs. regular situation]? I don’t think any player would approach these situations differently at all. Hitting, is not an endurance sport. Players stand up and do it 5 times a game. I think they put forth the exact same amount of effort no matter what the situation, and it seems silly to me that players would exhibit some level below the maximum at any time (which is what clutch hitting theory requires) . Every at-bat appears in the box score equally and is used to calculate stats that will determine the salary a player will receive. So, unless there is some reason for players to preserve some hitting effort until crucial times, and it does not seem that there is such a reason, I think batters put forth 100% effort 100% of the time. There is no incentive for a player to ever hold back, therefore there is no room for clutch ability to exist.

“But what about the nerves factor. The first situation has lower stakes than the second and maybe this can cause some players to be unclutch or chokers. In this sense, clutch ability is really un-unclutchness. I’ll grant that maybe there is some nerves factor, even aided by some physical characteristics such as adrenaline production, but I just can’t see major league ballplayers differing in this area. By the time even the worst major league hitter reaches the big show, he has endured so many nerve-racking situations that the lining of his stomach must be nearly gone. It’s a requirement to get into the show. I suspect young players may be slightly more bothered by it than veterans, but I don’t think among veterans there exist classes of clutch and unclutch players due to nerves. They’ve all been there. It’s their job.”

That is just awesome. It is so obvious this guy has never played sports in any meaningful situation. The adrenaline production line is fantastic. The guy can’t help but be robotic and methodical when talking about a rare and emotionally-heightened situation. This is the guy in college that tells you getting drunk on vodka, beer, wine, or tequila is all the same thing because the BAC ends up being the same. Even though every person who has gotten drunk and observed people drunk on different alcohols get drunk very differently depending on the alcohol. There’s no stat for it. It’s observation and intuition. Just like sports and politics.

But this line is just not true. “By the time even the worst major league hitter reaches the big show, he has endured so many nerve-racking situations that the lining of his stomach must be nearly gone.”

The big show may be a major league game, but the Big Show is the playoffs. Name all of the clutch playoff moments of a professional athlete’s life and you’ll come up with only a dozen or two. Guys like Michael Jordan and Derek Jeter that are in the playoffs every year are going to have more. Just because A-Rod has batted thousands of times does not mean that he can control his nerves when he is up at bat in the playoffs. How many free throws did Karl Malone shoot before he missed two in a row at the end of Game 1 of the 1997 Finals? Thousands. How many had he taken on the biggest stage in basketball with the game on the line? None. And since this is all mental (which is why stats may not be applicable), don’t forget that Scottie Pippen tried to get into his head by saying “Just remember, the mailman doesn’t deliver on Sundays, Karl.” How much did that affect him?

** Silver should have caveated this fact or he should have assumed another 40% for Romney around 11/7. But by saying either would be to admit how ridiculous this graph is.

***Although the internet is famous for ink dumps, the best worst ink dump ever is still in book form with this masturbatory fantasy:
http://www.amazon.com/Condi-vs-Hillary-Great-Presidential/dp/0060839139
(The first review is awesome and WHAT THE… it’s 336 pages!!! How the hell is that possible!!?!?)

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