Applause for the Numbers Machine

By RICHARD H. THALER, New York TImes, November 17, 2012

THE biggest winners on Election Day weren’t politicians; they were numbers folks.

Computer scientists, behavioral scientists, statisticians and everyone who works with data should be proud. They told us who was going to win, but they also helped to make many of those victories happen.

Three groups of geeks deserve the love they rarely receive: people who run political polls, those who analyze the polls and those who figure out how to help campaigns connect with voters.

Many people doubted the accuracy of political polling this year. Part of the skepticism was based on the wide range of predictions, with some showing President Obama in the lead, and others Mitt Romney. But there were additional, structural reasons to worry whether pollsters would be able to find representative samples of voters.

One problem is that people are harder to reach on the telephone these days. About a third of voters no longer have a land line, and many of those who have them don’t pick up calls from strangers. So modern polling companies have to work harder to find voters willing to answer questions, then have to guess which of these respondents will actually show up and vote.

So it may come as a surprise that, collectively, polling companies did quite well during this election season. Although there was a small tendency for the pollsters to overestimate Mr. Romney’s share of the vote, a simple average of the polls in swing states produced a very accurate prediction of the Electoral College outcome. Notably, the most accurate polls tended to be done via the Internet, many by companies new to this field. That’s geek victory No. 1.

This relatively accurate polling data provided the raw material for the second group of election pioneers: poll analysts like Nate Silver, who writes the FiveThirtyEight blog for The New York Times, as well as Simon Jackman at Stanford, Sam Wang at Princeton and Drew Linzer at Emory University.

What do poll analysts do? They are like the meteorologists who forecast hurricanes. Data for meteorologists comes from satellites and other tracking stations; data for the poll analysts comes from polling companies. The analysts’ job is to take the often conflicting data from the polls and explain what it all means.

Worry about the reliability of the polling data led to widespread skepticism, or even outright hostility, toward poll analysts. The phrase “garbage in, garbage out” was one of the more polite criticisms bouncing around the Internet in the days before the election.

Because the polls were not, in fact, garbage, the first job of a poll analyst was quite easy: to average the results of the various polls, weighing more reliable and recent polls more heavily and correcting for known biases. (Some polls consistently project higher voter shares for one party or the other.)

A harder but more valuable task is to help readers translate the polling data into forecasts of the probability of victory. In Florida, where the final polls showed essentially a tie, according to Mr. Silver’s weighting method, it’s easy to see why he said the chance of either candidate winning the state was 50 percent. Ultimately, President Obama would very narrowly carry the state.

But what about North Carolina, where Mr. Silver projected that Mitt Romney would get 50.6 percent of the vote and President Obama, 48.9 percent? Looking at that very small difference, what probability would you have assigned to a Romney victory in that state?

Most people would guess something very close to 50-50. But not a good numbers guy. By looking back at previous elections with polling data this close, Mr. Silver estimated that Mr. Romney’s chances of winning North Carolina were 74 percent, a number that may seem surprisingly high. (Mr. Romney won the state.)

The slightly larger but still seemingly tiny lead that the president held in Ohio, another swing state, led poll analysts to predict that the chance of an Obama victory in Ohio was around 90 percent. And because Mr. Romney would have to win several such states with small Obama leads in order to prevail in the Electoral College, the analysts ended up with similarly high degrees of confidence in an overall Obama victory. They ended up predicting the Electoral College outcome almost exactly right, especially if you consider the final outcome in Florida to be a virtual tie, as they had projected.

Pundits making forecasts, some of whom had mocked the poll analysts, didn’t fare as well, and many failed miserably. George F. Will predicted that Mr. Romney would win 321 electoral votes, which turned out to be very close to President Obama’s actual total of 332. Jim Cramer from CNBC was nearly as wrong in the opposite direction, projecting that the president would win 440 electoral votes.

There is a lesson here. When it comes to assessing the chances of some complicated combination of events, gut feelings are pretty much useless. Pundits are no better at forecasting election outcomes than they would be at predicting the final path of a hurricane. Smart pundits should consider either abandoning this activity, or consulting with the geeks before rendering their guesses.

The third set of folks who deserve recognition in this election cycle were a group of young people working in a windowless room at Obama headquarters, affectionately known as the cave. They were part of the effort by the numbers-oriented campaign manager, Jim Messina, to maximize turnout.

THERE are two basic parts of an election campaign. The first comes under the category of messaging — deciding what a candidate should say and what ads to run. Most of the commentary we read about elections focuses on this component.

The second part is turnout, and in some ways is even more important. Here is a simple bit of math that you don’t have to be a geek to understand: It doesn’t matter which candidate a person prefers unless that person shows up and votes.

Pundits will debate for eternity which campaign did a better job of communicating its message, but there is no doubt which campaign won the turnout contest. Young, black and Hispanic voters all turned out in higher numbers than expected, and they often supported President Obama.

Much was made of the big Obama advantage in field offices in swing states. But those field offices would have been little good to the campaign without modern tools to find potential voters, have them register and encourage them to vote. In the weeks leading up to the election, the Obama canvassers had accurate lists of potential voters and field-tested scripts for their contacts with voters. This explains in part why Democrats were such heavy users of early voting.

By contrast, Project Orca, a get-out-the-vote computer program for the Romney campaign that wasn’t designed to be used until Election Day, reportedly had some bugs.

There should be something reassuring about this Obama campaign efficiency to all Americans, even those who supported Mr. Romney based on his success in business. When it came to the business of running a campaign, it was the former professor and community organizer who had the more technologically savvy organization and made more effective use of its resources, including geek power.

Richard H. Thaler is a professor of economics and behavioral science at the Booth School of Business at the University of Chicago. He was an informal adviser to the Obama campaign.

Inside the Values Voter Summit

Religious Right, Allies Blast Church-State Separation,InviteFundamentalistChurchesTo Dive Into Partisan Politics

By Rob Boston, October 2012,

The Rev. Dan Fisher puts it right out there: Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and other Founding Fathers got it all wrong – there’s no such thing as separation of church and state.

“Friends, we’ve been lied to,” Fish­er, pastor ofTrinityBaptistChurchinYukon,Okla., said recently. “We’ve been sold a bill of goods of separation of church and state, which is nothing more than a lie, twisted out of a misused phrase out of a Thomas Jefferson letter in 1802. It’s all a lie!”

Fisher’s fact-challenged history lesson came during the Values Voter Summit, an annual gathering inWashington,D.C., sponsored by the Family Research Council (FRC) and other Religious Right groups. He was speaking at a breakout session titled “Debunking the Myth of Separation of Church and State: Why Pastors Must Engage in Politics.”

The session was organized by the Rev. Rick Scarborough, aTexaspastor who enjoyed a brief moment of notoriety in the 1990s as a protégé of Jerry Falwell.

Scarborough, who runs a small Religious Right outfit called VisionAm­erica, opened the session by scanning the room, looking for Americans Uni­ted Executive Director Barry W. Lynn.

“I keep waiting for my friend Barry Lynn of Americans United for Separation of Church and State to pop in,”Scarboroughjoshed. “He usually comments on what I have to say.”

Alas,Lynndidn’t attend this parti­cularSummitsession, so Scarborough and Fisher were unable to school the AU leader with their appeal for pastors to get involved in politics to leadAmericaout of its “crisis.”

For Fisher, political activity includes violating federal law by endorsing candidates from the pulpit. TheOklahomapastor has intervened in elections in the past and vowed to do it again.

Scarborougheven took some time to explain to attendees why it’s OK to vote for Mitt Romney, whose Mormon faith is considered a cult by many evangelical Christians.

“We’re not electing a pastor,” he remarked. “We’re electing someone to lead the nation.”

That statement was a bit curious coming as it did at this conference.Summitattendees clearly do expect Romney, if elected, to behave as a pastor and implement a series of laws based on fundamentalist Christianity.

TheSummitwas designed to outline the Religious Right’s political demands and rally the troops around Romney, which was done not by highlighting Romney’s accomplishments or goals but by heaping abuse on President Barack Obama. Obama – or rather the fundamentalist movement’s characterization of Obama – spent two days during theSummitas a Religious Right piñata.

For attendees, a highlight of the Sept. 14-15 confab was an address by Republican vice presidential candidate U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.). Also appearing were GOP governors Rob­ert McDonnell (Va.) and Jan Brew­er (Ariz.), House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), U.S. Senate candidate from Texas Ted Cruz, U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) and a bevy of GOP House members.

Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli whom the crowd loves for, among other things, his harassment of abortion clinics, was on hand too.

Ryan, who spoke Friday morning, was a huge hit. He stood before the adoring crowd and launched into a fiery assault on Obama.

The president, Ryan said, lacks “moral clarity and firmness of purpose,” especially in foreign policy. He accused Obama of leading the nation down an economic blind alley and opined that thanks to Obama’s policies, “We are at risk of becoming a poor country.”

Romney did not attend the event in person – he sent a short video message – but Ryan, a conservative Rom­an Catholic beloved by fundamentalists for his strong stands for a ban on all abortions and opposition to marriage equality for same-sex couples, was a more-than-adequate surrogate.

During the 25-minute address, Ryan blasted the president as a failed leader and a proponent of big government who is a captive to the extreme left.

Ryan tossed the crowd red meat, calling for laws to protect “the most defenseless and helpless of human beings – the child waiting to be born.” He also blasted “unelected judges,” praised the Romneys’ marriage and accused Obama of being hostile to Catholic Charities, an organization he said “does more to serve the health of women and their babies” than any other.

Concluded Ryan, “We know what we’re up against. We know how desperate our opponents are to cling to power, but we’re ready…. Let’s get this done and elect Mitt Romney as the next president ofAmerica.”

There was nothing unusual about the partisan content of Ryan’s speech. In fact, its themes appeared again and again in the remarks blasting forth from a parade of speakers at the podium.

At times it seemed as if speakers were all relying on a central script: Speaker after speaker ridiculed Obama and portrayed the Democrats as a party afraid to even mention God in its platform. Obama was vilified as a weak leader who constantly apologizes forAmericaoverseas and who is eager to throwIsraelunder the bus and cozy up to Islamic terrorists.

The president was also accused of presiding over a wide-ranging “war on religion” – but to this crowd, his worst crime was getting health care reform passed. (The measure was never called anything but “Obamacare.”)

Numerous speakers openly called for Romney’s election, and several opined that this election is the most important one ever.

The FRC is a tax-exempt body, but it runs theSummitthrough FRC Action, a 501(c)(4) affiliate. This sleight of hand gives the FRC a little more leeway to be partisan, since (c)(4) organizations are allowed to endorse candidates. Several other groups that co-sponsor the event also do it through (c)(4) units, such as American Family Association Action.

But other sponsors are tax-exempt, likeLibertyUniversity, Liberty Counsel, the Heritage Foundation and American Values. (In previous years, these groups have claimed that they are only co-sponsoring the non-political portions of the event, but that would be impossible. There were virtually no non-political portions; the whole thing was a two-day rally for the Republican ticket.)

Over the years, theSummithas also taken on the feel of the Heritage Foundation at prayer – which is perhaps not surprising since the broadly conservativeWashington,D.C., foundation is one of the event’s co-sponsors. There were regular calls for banning abortion and blocking same-sex marriage, but attendees were just as likely to hear denunciations of “Obamacare” alongside demands for tax cuts and reduced government regulation of industry.

These days, it seems, Jesus is a confirmed bootstrap capitalist.

Aside from the pols, a retinue of fading Religious Right figures also surfaced at theSummit. Chief among them was Oliver North, an ex-Marine who became a hero to the Religious Right during the Iran-Contra scandal in 1986 and has somehow managed to make a living on the far-right lecture/media circuit ever since.

Star Parker, an obscure African-American woman who makes her living shrieking anti-welfare screeds to audiences of white conservatives, also appeared. (Parker’s big applause line this year came when she attacked Sandra Fluke, aGeorgetownUniversitylaw student who has been advocating for women’s access birth control. Parker called Fluke “a national icon for sexual promiscuity” and added, “[We] should not be forced to cover her sex life.”)

Celebrity power this year was lacking, represented primarily by Kirk Cameron, a c-list actor who came to flog his new film “Monumental,” an alleged documentary that purports to explain the “Christian” roots ofAmerica’s founding.

In this election year, theSummitrhetoric quickly went over the top, and some of the allegations bore only a passing resemblance to the truth. Obama was constantly portrayed as an appeaser to “radical Islam” who traipses the globe, apologizing forAmericaand refusing to acknowledge “American exceptionalism.”

A generous dollop of Islam bashing was tossed into the mix. Controversial House member Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) called Obama a tool of the Organization for Islamic Cooperation. This shadowy organization, Bachmann warned darkly, seeks to impose Islamic law on all nations, even those without large Muslim populations. Part of its scheme is to instill “Islamic-enforced speech codes” inAmerica.

“They intend to force us to kiss our freedom of speech and religion goodbye,” Bachmann said. A moment later she added, “We’re quickly losing a sense of who we are as a nation.”

Blasting Obama as a proponent of “apology and appeasement,” Bachmann told the crowd, “It is my belief and my opinion that Barack Obama has been the most dangerous president we’ve ever had on foreign policy. We cannot sustain another four years of Jimmy Carter-like policies.”

Gary Bauer, president of American Values, called radical Islam “the cancer growing in the middle of that faith” and insisted that the “creator” referred to in the Declaration of Independence “is not just any god – that god is not the god of the Quran.”

Among the speakers was Kamal Saleem, a man who carries the unlikely job title of “former terrorist.” Saleem claims to have been tied to the Palestine Liberation Organization and to have worked alongside Libyan strongmanMoammar Qaddafi,Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and Islamic terrorists inAfghanistan.

In fact, Saleem, whose real name is Khodor Shami, is a former employee of TV preacher Pat Robertson who has been exposed by several journalists as a likely fraud.

A session on alleged “persecution” of religious groups featured a discussion of a lawsuit filed by Americans United inCastroville,Texas, to block school sponsorship of prayers during school events. FRC President Tony Perkins made a big deal out of the fact that a federal appeals court allowed a student to make religious remarks during graduation.

No one bothered to point out that the case was later settled out of court in a manner favorable to Americans United, including a court order barring school officials from initiating, soliciting or directing prayers.

The session quickly fell down the rabbit hole when Perkins asked William G. “Jerry” Boykin, an ex-Army general who now serves as FRC’s executive vice president, why he thinks liberals so often attack religion.

Boykin matter of factly replied, “I want to remind you all to remember that one of the terms they used for Adolf Hitler was ‘a progressive.’” After invoking the worst mass murderer in history, Boykin piled on with some Red baiting.

“They are following to the letter the philosophy of Marxism,” Boykin said. “They would not call themselves Marxists, so they do it under the label of ‘progressive’….What you’re seeing happening inAmericatoday is Marxism. They don’t call it that, but it’s Marxism.”

Boykin then asserted that the long-range plan of liberals is to get religion out of society so people have to depend on government.

A cult of victimization also pervaded theSummit. Conservative Chris­tians, attendees were told, are “persecuted” by nefarious forces to seek to silence them. This was coupled with a rampant disdain for the media and that ever-popular right-wing bogeyman know as “the elites.”

FormerU.S.senator and failed pres­idential candidate Rick Santorum sparked some unintentional amusement when he bemoaned, “We will never have the media on our side, ever, in this country. We will never have the elite, smart people on our side, because they believe they should have the power to tell you what to do.”

TheSummit’s relentless partisanship was reflected at the FRC Action PAC’s members-only reception. The event is an opportunity for candidates to seek campaign support and express their personal faith and their political views. According to FRC Action PAC President Connie Mackey, each had been “vetted” by the FRC.

Every politician who spoke was Republican, among them U.S. Reps. Steve King (R-Iowa) and Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), as well as aspiring officeholders such as Jim Bridenstine, who is running for a U.S. House seat in Oklahoma; Tim Fox, who is running for Montana attorney general; and Sher Valenzuela, candidate for Dela­ware lieutenant governor.

Prior to theSummit, AU’sLynnissued a media statement urging politicians to reject the Religious Right agenda.

Lynn, who has attended every Values Voter Summit (and many Christian Coalition “Road to Victory” Conferences before that), observed, “Candidates have knelt at the altar of the Religious Right much too often. The American people do not want religion brought into partisan politics or politics brought into the sanctuary. Poll after poll reaffirms that point.”

He concluded, “I’d like to hear candidates make a profession of faith in the Constitution and church-state separation.”