The Unbiased Eye

A scientist's commentary on events and culture

Gambling on the Election

with 4 comments

No One Ever Wins at the Race Track

The presidential campaign has gone on too long. Candidates are all over the media. They’re on every happy-talk television show all day and night, and when they’re not, we have a slew of grim-faced news analysts pouring over poll results and the hypothetical mood of women shoppers, blue-collar workers, blacks, Asians, Hispanics, and on and on. The same goes for the print media.

The news media has gone off the deep end with their endless stream of sports and war metaphors in describing the race. They’ve gone so far that the New York Times even has its own Jimmy the Greek — the late odds-making guru in Las Vegas who made a famous bet in 1948 that Harry Truman would win the presidency.

We’ve come a long way. The Times’s incarnation of Jimmy the Greek is one Nate Silver, who said recently that Obama has a 73%, and rising, chance of winning — which, if I remember it right, says it’s a 2.4 to 1 bet against Romney, in which $1 bet on Romney will win you $2.40.

For my money, I wouldn’t play poker against Silver, who says that for a time he earned a living playing on-line poker, but what he’s doing is a distinct disservice to the nation’s future. The election is not a poker game.

If you want a metaphor, a horse race is traditional, and far more apt. The constant political polling is analogous to parimutuel betting — just like at the race track. The odds are constantly changing according to the mood of the sample of the population who choose to bet on any particular race — or the likely voters. The polls, the betting board, are an eloquent expression of what’s often called the wisdom of the crowd, or a magical version of statistics peddled by the small group of journalists who can add without calculators.

Instead of trying to read the future in today’s polls, which have their own very real statistical problems, I quaintly think reporters ought to be determining who the candidates are and what they think. Rather than assessing the effect of the next round of sound bites on the the polls, I would like reporters to work to separate the candidates from their political handlers. Leave the crystal balls and chicken guts to the fortune tellers.

I don’t care who’s got the momentum. This isn’t a game, and I’m not betting on it. I just have to suffer the consequences, no matter how dopey the crowd often turns out to be.

Ultimately, the responsibility belongs to us voters. It would be good if journalists worked to elucidate the politics and policies at stake instead of playing games. But regrettably, it’s only a long shot.


Written by theunbiasedeye

October 27, 2012 at 4:41 pm

4 Responses

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  1. I think Silver’s performing a teaching service. On his poll blog (within the NY Times), he and other highly-qualified contributors write constantly about context within statistical framework, something Gallup, Rassmussen, RCP, and PPP do much less often. Americans could benefit from understanding more about the mathematics used for predicting behavior. Everything from card games to diplomacy to retirement planning is based on it.

    You’re right that discussing the actual issues is more important than the rah-rah bowl game aspect of elections. BUT-they are still a contest, and people will always respond to them as a sporting event. Which I see you resigned yourself to accepting in the last sentence. There’s also the right brain/left brain difference in appeal. Discussing issues is left brain, language-based. Clickable maps and graphs are right brain, visual symbology.

    Silver has Obama up to 74.4% now. He asserts the Romney momentum stopped, and has reversed direction.

    Invisible Mikey

    October 27, 2012 at 5:14 pm

    • I admit, Silver’s optimistic prediction for Obama’s success cheers me up, and it’s certainly a much more interesting exercise than the often-weird descriptions of poll results in most of the news landscape.

      But by being better, I think he does more harm. In fact, I think the improvement in polling in general is harmful because the politicians themselves are better armed to conjure up poll-raising statements than to discuss policy. I think better polls help politicians lie better.

      The facility to better sell politicians also tends to intensify the role of money in campaigns. Is the better candidate the candidate who can hire more election statisticians? And the more the media focus on the handicapping, the more important the polls.


      October 27, 2012 at 6:59 pm

      • The better candidate who can hire more election statisticians? Perhaps so. Certainly a scientific question as the assumption is challengeable (as opposed to a magically Randian “self-evident” kind of assumptions I’m sick of hearing). But even in that department, the Obama campaign is way ahead of the Romney camp in employing propellor-heads utilizing supercomputers. But, to add one more mashup metaphor, the Obama campaign has local campaign workers in numbers that should make Romney flinch. I don’t care how many high-altitude bomb runs you make, sampling the terrain from your spy satellites, in war, it’s all still boots on the ground.

        John Kurman

        October 28, 2012 at 11:38 am

  2. You’re very right: the “news” media is largely responsible for casting the politics of our country as professional sports; but the professional sport that they’ve transformed our politics into isn’t just *any* professional sport. Not like baseball or football or even horse racing, all of which make a show of frowning on cheating and will on occasion punish those that are caught doing it. The “news” media has turned what is perhaps the most important thing that a regular, everyday person can actually have a SAY about — politics and the country’s destiny — into a sport that embraces cheating, that cheers fakery and bluster and idiotic flim-flammery: professional wrestling.

    I fear for our country.


    October 28, 2012 at 3:58 pm

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