It was not on any ballot, but one of the biggest election contests this week pitted pundits against pollsters. It was a pitched battle between two self-assured rivals: those who relied on an unscientific mixture of experience, anecdotal details and “Spidey sense,” and those who stuck to cold, hard numbers.
When the results were tabulated, it became clear that data had bested divination.
The election results that delivered a second term to President Obama on Tuesday left some well-known pundits, many of whom have a partisan bent, eating crow on Wednesday morning — including analysts like Karl Rove, Dick Morris and Michael Barone, all of whom had confidently predicted a victory by Mitt Romney.
The results were much kinder to pollsters and the data devotees who aggregate and average polls, or who use mathematical models to make projections.
The triumph of polling over punditry was staggering in its scale. Nate Silver, author of 538 and The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail — But Some Don't, ruled supreme. The following comparison of Silver's "538" model and actual vote tallies shows how the "king of the quants" nailed 50 states out of 50:
Those interested in winning future presidential elections — I'll even give the benefit of the doubt to a Republican Party that otherwise seems determined to commit demographic political suicide — might consider treating the Electoral College as a strategic game demanding simple combinatoric theory with detailed political data:
If this election settles just one thing, it should be the end of Karl Rove's political credibility. Alas, like the mirage of grand transformation in the Grand Old Party, not all that glitters in this quantitative age of Silver … is gold.