Monday, 12 November 2012

Recommended Reading - Election edition

As always the US election provided it's share of thrills, spills and general entertainment. A consensus is generally emerging that the Republican Party has moved to a position where the majority of it 's social platform has drifted too far from the mainstream to be supportable. The political scientist vs pundit debate was also a key part of the election, with the pundit class aggressively going after polling analysts like Nate Silver. Unsurprisingly, science won the day, with analysts proving (unsurprisingly) that good modelling provides better results than the opinions of pundits.

So without further ado, my favourite articles of the last week:

Science Based Life - The Power of Math and the “Wizardry” of Nate Silver
In one of the most contested elections in American history, a curiously rational voice stood above the punditry. Nate Silver of the New York Times’ FiveThirtyEight blog (which was drawing 20% of the New York Times’ total traffic during election night) tracked national polls, state polls, and numerous other mathematical markers throughout the election. With the aid of mathematical modelling based on demographics, averages, and voting records, Silver put the chances for election firmly in Obama’s corner (at one time reaching 92%).

Silver’s predictions were chided by conservatives all the way to the White House. They doubted his methods, his models, his math. They questioned his data. They decried his “bias.” But Nate Silver was right. Dead right. In 50 state-by-state predictions, Silver accurately predicted 50 of them.
 Wired - Wrath of the Math
Everywhere you went, virtually or physically, the Obama and Romney campaigns followed you. Did you start noticing Romney ads popping up in your browser, even if you just went to his website briefly and had no intention of voting for him? That was because of browser tools the candidates used or built to harvest data. Campaigns and political strategy firms paid good money for your web usage data, filtered it through their predictions for associating your browser history with your political affiliation — NPR junkie? You lefty, you — filtered it again through publicly-available elections data and slipped in a candidate’s plea for $5. Time reports that Obama’s home brewed datamining dives — given sublimely geeky nicknames like Narwhal and Dreamcatcher — helped the campaign determine such minutiae as which celebrities made the most compelling pitchmasters to demographics as specific as deep-pocketed West Coast women aged 40 to 49. Ironically, Obama’s techniques drew on those George W. Bush used to win re-election in 2004, which themselves drew on the synthesis of piles of consumer data. Team Romney designed a vote-tracking data hunt called Project Orca to track “the hour-by-hour whims of the electorate,” according to the Washington Examiner, but it apparently crashed in the final hours of the race: “Somebody said Orca is lying on the beach with a harpoon in it,” an aide said.
Polling has always been a key part of elections, but they've usually been treated as a fixed point in time, unrepresentative of the final result. However, their use to create statistical models has until now been a back room activity, with the pundits maintaining control of what gets said in the media. Of course, this is a nonsense, as this XKCD comic neatly summarises:

Wall Street Journal - Big Bet Six Months Ago Paved Way for President 
The idea, explained to the president in a PowerPoint presentation in the Roosevelt Room, was to shape voters' impressions with a heavy expenditure before Mr. Romney had the money to do it for himself. The plan defied conventional wisdom, which said a campaign should start slowly with a positive message and save money for the stretch run. And it could leave the president exposed later.

"If it doesn't work, we're not going to have enough money to go have a second theory in the fall," Mr. Messina said, according to people in the meeting.

The president gave his approval. And within weeks the Obama campaign was blasting away in a late-spring offensive, forcing Mr. Romney to respond to charges about his business record and personal finances rather than making the president defend his record.
Although the article is slightly hyperbolic and fanboyish, the tactics it reveals are fascinating. Operating in a way which is outside the normal, at a level of aggression which couldn't be expected, all disrupt the opponent. The Romney campaign (outside of bad polling) was never able to pull ahead of the Obama campaign where it mattered, the key swing states.

Business Insider - Fox News is Killing the Republican Party
For students of modern US political history, this represented the closing of a circle. It was Rove’s successful effort to get Fox to reverse their call of Florida for Al Gore in 2000 that in many people’s eyes won George Bush the Presidency. Had the networks stuck with their original predictions, the recount saga would have been conducted against the backdrop of a narrow lead for Gore rather than for Bush, potentially with a very different outcome.

But watching Rove vainly raging against the dying of the light cemented for me a view that’s been forming throughout this campaign. Fox News, widely perceived to be one of the Republican party’s greatest assets, has actually become a liability to it.

To describe Fox as a polarising broadcaster would be to give understatement a manly bear-hug. For Democrats and the liberal Left it is effectively an extension of the GOP press office, prosecuting a vicious and biased campaign against their candidates and values. For Republicans and the Right it provides a vital balance against the liberal prejudices of the Main Stream Media. But whatever the perceptions, Fox – to my mind – proved to be an albatross around the neck of Mitt Romney throughout this campaign.

I first noticed it over the whole Benghazi saga. Day after day Fox would breathlessly unleash yet another leaked cable, or internal State Department memo, exposing failures in the protection of Ambassador Stevens, his staff and his embassy. And I ignored them; firstly because there were so many ”revelations”, secondly because they were clearly being pushed as part of a wider political agenda and thirdly, because they were from Fox. And Fox, in my eyes, is synonymous with poor and partial journalism.

Pro Publica - How Much Did Independent Groups Spend Per Vote?

Barack Obama:  $1.78 per vote - $1.39 spent attacking Romney
Mitt Romney:  $6.23 per vote - $5.49 spent attacking Obama

What does this reveal? One, money does not win you elections. Two, this was a crushingly negative election.

These numbers don't include the actual candidate spend, where Obama did outspend Romney, however even factoring this in, spend for Romney was far higher than for Obama overall.

Money does not win elections. If you've got enough to get on the table, you can win.

From Mexico To Moscow, The World Turns On To U.S. Marijuana Legalization
At the time, many pundits warned that legalization was a nonstarter. But on Tuesday, voters in Colorado and Washington state did exactly what Fox called for: they approved landmark amendments to legalize, regulate and tax marijuana.

As supporters in Colorado jumped up and down, shouting “64, 64” after the amendment’s ballot number, the seismic implications of the reforms began to be slowly digested by activists across the globe, especially in drug-war-torn Mexico. “It was very emotional,” says Jorge Hern├índez, president of the Collective for an Integral Drug Policy, which is pushing for legalization in Mexico. “Now we are not like madmen in the desert. This transforms the debate.” That’s because the U.S. referendums signal the first time voters have approved the full legalization of marijuana anywhere on the planet, giving advocates from Mexico to Moscow bona fide cases to cite and follow. Even the famous cannabis coffee shops of Amsterdam exist only through an ambiguous policy of toleration often referred to as decriminalization, something Portugal has pursued as well. A 2009 Mexican law also decriminalized possession of small amounts of cannabis and other drugs, but production and selling has been left in the hands of bloodthirsty traffickers.


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