Driving with Data

As I was watching the election returns Tuesday night, early in the evening the monitors showed Romney with more electoral votes than Obama. The commentators on MSNBC paid not the slightest attention to this fact, even though it was prominently displayed. They spent the time discussing other matters. This situation persisted quite long into the evening. However, when the polls closed on the west coast, the results started to come in from there, and Obama’s tally rapidly mounted, as California, Oregon, Washington, and Nevada all came in for him. And then, suddenly Ohio was called for Obama, and it was clear that the President had won the election.

None of this surprised me. I knew that the President was going to win. Why? Because I had been reading the posts on Nate Silver’s blog on the New York Times website. Unlike Fox News, or MSNBC, which are openly biased media outlets for the right and the left respectively, Silver’s analysis is based on averaging of many polls, and thus is a very detailed and accurate representation of the intentions of the voters. Silver’s data have shown the President significantly ahead in the projected electoral vote for months. Even the rather startling perturbation caused by the results of the first debate between Romney and Obama did not reverse this. By the eve of the election, Silver was predicting that the President would win with 313 electoral votes.

Silver has been accurate since 2004 on every single national election.

I assumed that Romney and the Republicans also knew this. It turns out that I was giving them far too much credit. They were actually stunned by the fact of Obama’s victory. Romney had not even written a draft concession speech.

They actually thought they were going to win. Why? Because they have no respect for the principles of science. They discounted Silver’s analysis and chose to believe in only those polls that showed Romney in the lead, instead of taking into account all the available polling data, as Silver does.

I knew that the Republicans had contempt for science. They are a haven for creationists and climate change deniers. But it turns out that they also don’t believe in the science that is most sacred to Americans: statistics.

There is a far larger lesson in this than just the political calculus. The Republican Party is in denial about reality. They are trying to figure out why they lost, but they still don’t think that the main problem, their  disconnection from reality, has anything to do with their loss.

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