Nate Silver: ‘Groupthink and perverse incentives’ doomed Romney’s polling efforts

David Martosko Executive Editor
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During an “Ask Me Anything” event on the social media website Reddit, New York Times “538” statistics blogger Nate Silver blamed “groupthink and perverse incentives” for the failure of Mitt Romney’s campaign to see his poll numbers tanking during the weeks of the November 2012 presidential election.

“To the extent their polling or analysis was bad,” Silver wrote, “it flowed from that.”

Ask Me Anything interviews are crowdsourced events in which celebrities and people with unusual life experiences offer to answer questions from members of the public. Silver took questions Tuesday afternoon.

His analysis of Romney’s failure echoed a column he wrote for the Times on Dec. 1. He wrote then that many candidates’ internal polls “implied considerably more optimistic outcomes for them than actually occurred” and tend to “exaggerate” candidates’ likelihood of success.

Silver’s line about “perverse incentives” refers to the idea that pollsters who work for political campaigns may have an incentive to overstate failing candidates’ likelihood of success, instead of providing accurate assessments that campaign managers may not want to hear.

The Times blogger attracted scorn during the weeks leading up to the November election from conservatives who contended that many published presidential polls “oversampled” Democrats, effectively overstating the turnout from supporters of President Barack Obama. Silver took the position that those polls were likely to be accurate.

Ultimately, he correctly predicted the Electoral College outcome of all 50 states.

During the Reddit event, Silver also answered a question about whether a statistical model could determine whether new gun-control laws would deter gun violence.

“It’s a tricky problem, statistically,” Silver conceded.

“The issue is that while gun ownership rates could plausibly be a cause of fatal crimes and accidents, it can also be a reaction to it, i.e. people purchase guns because they feel unsafe.”

The New York Times has consistently editorialized in favor of gun control laws, especially in the wake of the Dec. 14 school shooting in Newtown, Conn.

One questioner asked Silver whether a third-party candidate could take advantage of America’s polarized political climate and claim the White House in 2016.

“Was [Ross] Perot a once in a lifetime phenomenon,” the reader asked, “or is there a possibility of something outside the 2 party system?”

Silver replied that while a third-party candidate might have better chances while Americans are disenchanted with both major parties, “that still might mean there’s 3 or 5 percent chance of an independent candidate winning the 2016 election as opposed to a 1 or 2 percent chance.”

“You might need a perfect storm,” he explained, “where (i) Obama is perceived as really having screwed up and (ii) the Republicans nominate someone terrible and (iii) someone VERY talented runs and takes his campaign very seriously and (iv) then gets a few breaks in the Electoral College, etc. None of those individual steps are impossible, but the odds against the parlay are pretty long.”

Silver’s appearance attracted more than 150 questions, most of which he side-stepped. Those included inquiries about the Sept. 11 “truther” movement, the college football BCS ranking system, election fraud, professional poker, and whom he voted for in November.

He did, however, take a moment to answer a question about the Burrito Bracket Project, a March Madness-like blog he started — and abandoned — in 2007. The project’s goal, he wrote then, was “to determine the best food and overall experience from among 19 cheap Mexican restaurants in Chicago’s Wicker Park and surrounding neighborhoods.”

Asked if he would ever complete the project and choose a winner, Silver repied, “Perhaps I can convince Penguin that my next book should be a 256-taqueria burrito bracket with entries from all across the country.”

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