Follow by Email

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Did Clinton (And Her Supporters) Become Complacent?

"Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future"
-- Niels Bohr

In the aftermath of the election, Hillary Clinton and her supporters have sought to identify the reason(s) for her stunning defeat in the electoral college. FBI Director, James Comey, has received his share of the blame, both from the Clinton campaign ("Hillary Clinton blames one Comey letter for stopping momentum and the other for turning out Trump voters") and the Trump campaign ("Corey Lewandowski Credits FBI Director James Comey With Helping Donald Trump Win").

They could be right, but what I found interesting was how angry Clinton supporters (and perhaps Clinton herself) were at pollsters and modelers for predicting a Clinton win. As absurd as that anger was (as if it really was their fault), there could be a bit of (indirect) truth in it. It is possible that the Clinton campaign grew a bit complacent in the days leading up to the election. Even the least optimistic of the models, FiveThirtyEight's, only gave Trump a 30 percent chance of winning, and this may have provided the Clinton team a false sense of security, which led them to campaign less vigorously than they should have.

As I pointed out in my previous post ("Don't Blame Nate Silver"), a 30 percent chance of winning is actually higher than most people probably realize. If over three consecutive days, weather forecasters predict that there is a 30 percent chance that it will rain, it is very likely that it will rain on at least one of those days. My sense, however, is that Clinton and her supporters interpreted a 70 percent chance of winning as a 100 percent chance of winning, and it may have cost them the election.

All this points to the importance of teaching subjects such as history and statistics. A quick review of presidential election history would show that, on average, polls have been off by about 2 percent, which is pretty close to the spread between the national polls and this year's popular vote. Thus, the Clinton campaign should have known that if the polls were 2 percentage points too high, she could be in deep trouble. And, of course, those with a basic grasp of statistics would know that the models developed by sites such as FiveThirtyEight are probabilistic models. They can tell you the likelihood of future events, but they can't guarantee them. As the Danish physicist, Niels Bohr, once remarked, "prediction is very difficult, especially about the future." Perhaps, that is a lesson all of us can take from this election.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Don't Blame Nate Silver

After the Cubs dropped the 4th game of the World Series to the Cleveland Indians and fell behind 3 games to 1, Nate Silver's FiveThirtyEight published an article entitled, "The Cubs Have A Smaller Chance Of Winning Than Trump Does." At the time the Cubs had just a 15% chance of winning the World Series, which was less than Donald Trump's chance of winning the presidential race. Of course, the Cubs did come back to win the World Series, and Trump did win the race for the Presidency.

The victories by the Cubs and Trump highlight the nature of probabilistic models. When a model finds that such-and-such event has a 30% chance of happening (which was the probability FiveThirtyEight gave Donald Trump of winning on the morning of the election), there is a 1 in 3 chance that the event will happen. That is actually pretty high, a lot higher than most folks probably realize. To illustrate (as one of my colleagues put it), if you take a six-shooter, place bullets in two of the six chambers, and then spin it, how many of you would be willing to place the gun to your head and pull the trigger? Unless you have a death wish, I'm guessing not too many.

That is why people need to actually read Nate Silver and not just look at his models. It is in the discussion of the models that one can learn what probabilistic modeling is and isn't and how it can help us understand and make reasonable (but not perfect) predictions about future events. In fact, in the run up to the election Silver repeatedly cautioned about overconfidence, noting that Hillary Clinton's leads in the battleground states were slim and within the range of polling sampling error, which meant that if the polls were just slightly overestimating Clinton's support, the election could break in Trump's favor.

And that, of course, is what happened, and over the last few days much handwringing has been done about how the polls got the election "so" wrong. However, the polls weren't too far off. The average predicted margin of a Clinton popular vote victory was a little over 3.0%, and it looks like she will win the popular vote by a little over 1.0%. A 2.0% miss is not uncommon in presidential elections and is within the sampling error of most polls. It is also better than the polls did in 2012. It is just that in most years, the popular vote isn't as close as it was this year, so misses of 2.0% don't usually matter. However, to the dismay of some and the joy of others, this year the miss did matter ("What A Difference 2 Percentage Points Makes").

So, who's to blame? Well, you could blame the electoral college system or the Clinton campaign for making the race closer than it needed to be or the Democratic Party for nominating a highly unpopular candidate. But don't blame Nate Silver. It was't his fault.

Monday, November 7, 2016

My Problem With Trump

Why should people not vote for Donald Trump? Just his lack of experience and volatile temperament should be enough to disqualify him. (After all, who gets up at 3 in the morning to tweet their frustration about the previous night's debate?) As the most recent edition of The Economist writes ("America's Best Hope"):
His experience, temperament and character make him horribly unsuited to being the head of state of the nation that the rest of the democratic world looks to for leadership, the commander-in-chief of the world’s most powerful armed forces and the person who controls America’s nuclear deterrent. That alone would stop us from casting a vote, if we had one, for Mr Trump.
Evidently, that isn't enough for some Americans; over 40% of Americans plan to cast their vote for him tomorrow (if they haven't already). So, here are a few reasons why one shouldn't (in alphabetical order):

1. Dishonest. Much ink has been spilled concerning Hillary's lack of transparency and trustworthiness, but comparatively very little has highlighted Trump's penchant for lying. In fact, compared to Trump Hillary is almost an angel ("Crooked Hillary? Compared to Whom?"). For example, the fact-checking website Politifact has documented that of Trump's statements during the current campaign, 15% were true or mostly true, another 15% were half true, and 70% were mostly or completely false. Compare that to Hillary Clinton's statements, of which 50% were found to be true or mostly true, 24% were half true, and 26% were mostly or completely false. One could try to explain these facts away by blaming the media, but the evidence is overwhelming.

Then, of course, there is Trump's claims that President Obama founded ISIS although ISIS can be traced back as far as 1999 ("A (Very) Brief History of ISIS"), that he saw thousands and thousands of people cheering when the World Trade Center collapsed (something that his devoted follower Chris Christie has denied), that Ted Cruz's father was with Lee Harvey Oswald shortly before he assassinated President Kennedy (seriously?), and that he always opposed the Iraq War although there if audio proof to the contrary ("Trump Repeats The Lie That He Was Opposed To The Iraq War “From The Beginning”). And just a few days ago when President Obama defended the right for a Trump supporter to voice his displeasure at a pro-Clinton rally, Trump characterized Obama's response as disgraceful when in fact it was not ("Trump vs. the Tape on Obama and the Protester"). However, Trump assumed (undoubtedly correctly) that his followers wouldn't bother to check if he was telling the truth.

2. Foreign Policy/National Security. I would think that the number of Republican foreign policy experts who oppose a Trump presidency would at least cause voters to "pause" and think about what effect Trump might have ("Former GOP national security officials: Trump would be ‘most reckless’ American president in history"). And just today former Republican Senator from New Hampshire announced that he was voting for Clinton because Trump was temperamental, belligerent, and unhinged ("Former GOP senator announces Clinton vote: ‘Trump could get us into a nuclear war’"):
Trump could get us into a nuclear war. That danger has not gone away, and it would mushroom with Trump’s finger on the nuclear trigger. For the sake of our families’ safety, let’s stand together against Donald Trump by voting for Hillary Clinton. It’s the responsible thing to do.
I am not a foreign policy expert, of course. My focus is counterterrorism ("Disrupting Dark Networks" "Understanding Dark Networks"), and Trump's tough talk on terrorism is both naive and simplistic. It implicitly assumes that terrorists are stupid or uneducated, an assumption that numerous studies have demonstrated is incorrect ("Terrorists Aren't Stupid (Nor Are They Ignorant)"). For example, Trump has argued that if attendees at the Orlando nightclub had been better armed, they could've defended themselves. Great idea, except for the fact that if would-be terrorists planning to attack a venue believe that people will be carrying concealed weapons, they won't bring semi-automatic rifles to the fight. Instead, they'll show up with suicide vests that they'll trigger before anyone can "unconceal" one of their weapons. Trump has also proposed banning Muslims from entering the U.S. as a temporary solution for fighting terrorism, but as the conservative commentator Charles Krauthammer has noted, this is an absurd proposal:
If you think that bloodthirsty terrorists — 'people that believe only in Jihad, and have no sense of reason or respect for human life,' as Trump describes them — will feel honor-bound to tell the truth to an infidel customs officer. They kill wantonly but, like George Washington, cannot tell a lie.
Combatting terrorism is a complex undertaking and to pretend otherwise is naive ("On the Complex Nature of Countering Terrorism"). Unfortunately, such naivety is what describes Donald Trump's approach to combatting terrorism. Heaven help us if he has a chance to carry some of his proposed policies out.

3. Misogynist: Trump's misogynistic tendencies may be what keeps him out of the White House. Claims of misogyny date back for years, but it was the release of the video of him and Billy Bush in which he boasted of forcibly kissing and assaulting women that brought it home for many Americans ("Trump on Hot Mic: 'When You're a Star... You Can Do Anything' to Women"):
  • “I moved on her like a b---h, but I couldn’t get there. And she was married.”
  • “I did try and f--- her. She was married.”
  • “Just kiss. I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything.”
  • “Grab them by the p---y. You can do anything.”
Trump, of course, denied all of this, claiming that this was just "locker room talk," but a few days later when a dozen women came forward claiming that Trump did exactly what he boasted about, I think very Americans actually believed he did what he claimed he did. What is stunning, however, is how many are still willing to vote for him. I bet they wouldn't be willing to do so if it was their spouse or daughter Trump tried to grope.

4. Race Baiting. Somewhat early in the general campaign, a friend posted a "meme" on Facebook which claimed that no one ever said that Trump was a racist until he ran for President. Such a claim is patently untrue. In the early 1970s Trump was accused of discriminatory practices with regard to the renting of apartments in Brooklyn and Queens. A 1973 lawsuit brought the Justice Department (Nixon was President) argued that his management company systematically excluded blacks from renting apartments. A former Trump superintendent testified that multiple Trump Management employees had told him to attach a piece of paper with a letter “c” on it — “c” for “colored” — to rental applications by African-Americans. Trump eventually signed a consent decree in which he agreed to change practices to ensure that Trump properties would desegregate but without admitting wrongdoing. Then, in 1992, the New Jersey Casino Control Commission fined a Trump Atlantic City property for removing African-American card dealers at the request of a high-rolling white gambler. And a former employee claimed that when Trump and Ivana entered the casino, the bosses would order all the African Americans off the floor. So, to argue that Trump has never been called racists simply doesn't hold water. That said, I always hesitate to label anyone a racist, primarily because many folks who exhibit racist attitudes don't personally (and genuinely) think they're racist.

Be that as it may, during the campaign Trump has certainly tapped into racist resentment in order to build support. One could argue that he began doing so back in 2011 with his championing of the "birther" movement, which held that President Obama was born in Kenya and thus not constitutionally qualified to be President. His followers, of course, don't see this as race baiting, but rather as simply the efforts of well-meaning American trying to protect the integrity of the constitution. I disagree, but this isn't the only piece of evidence. Trump's race baiting is also reflected in his characterization of Mexicans as "rapists and criminals," his proposal to ban Muslims from entering the United States, and his frequent use of Alt-Right symbols that reflect racist attitudes ("Pepe and the Stormtroopers"), not to mention his hiring of Stephen Bannon, former head of Breitbart News, which has been described as a platform for the Alt-Right. So perhaps one can argue that Trump isn't a racist, but it is hard to ignore how he has attempted leverage racial resentment in support of his campaign.

5. Self-Interest. Trump is known for his has that proclaims he wants to make America great again, but it appears from many of his business dealings (e.g., attempting to do business in Cuba against U.S. laws) and his personal tax returns (or at least his 1995 tax return), is that Trump is only interested in furthering his own interests. Other cases in point are Trump University and Trump Foundation. With regards to the former, Trump promised that his hand-picked instructors would teach students his real estate investing secrets. In reality, however, the university failed to deliver on its promise, which is why numerous enrollees are suing after paying from $20,000 to $60,000 and New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman has called Trump University a fraud. With regards to the latter, the Trump hasn't made a donation to the Foundation since 2009 and instead has relied on donations from business associates and other charities. Moreover, the donations made by the foundation have been highly questionable. The Foundation has paid
  • $10,000 for a painted portrait of Trump at a charity auction at Mar-a-Lago, his Florida resort and residence
  • $20,000 for Melania Trump to purchase a 6-foot Donald portrait
  • $12,000 to buy a Tim Tebow helmet at a charity auction
  • $258,000 to settle legal disputes and unpaid fines involving Trump’s businesses
  • $25,000 to an organization supporting Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, after Bondi announced she was considering whether to join New York Attorney General Schneiderman’s investigation of fraud at Trump University
Simply put, the person who has benefitted most from Trump University and the Trump Foundation is Donald Trump himself.

6. Vladimir Putin. Trump once remarked that he had spoken “indirectly and directly” with Putin and “got to know him very well,” and that Putin had even sent him a present. However, back in July he stated that, “I have no relationship with Putin. I don’t think I’ve ever met him.” Aside from the lie (not sure if it's the original or subsequent statement, but unless you don't understand logic, it's clear that at least one of those statements is a lie), what is it that Trump sees in Putin? Is it Putin's authoritarianism? Is it Putin's penchant for silencing (sometimes permanently) his political opponents? Is it Putin's opposition to free speech? Who knows? All I know is that it isn't a good sign that Trump thinks Putin hangs the moon. As NY Times columnist Thomas Friedman recently wrote ("Donald Trump's Putin Crush"):
Putin is a leader who is always looking for dignity in all the wrong places — by investing in bullying wars, not in his own people; by jailing and likely poisoning his opponents; and by being so insecure that he just shut Russia’s last independent polling firm after it indicated that many Russians may not vote in the coming parliamentary elections because, among other things, they think they’re “rigged.” This is the man Donald Trump admires more than our own president.
Just as interesting (or perhaps frightening) is that Putin wants Trump to win the election. Does anyone really believe it's because Trump will "make America great again?" No. I think a more likely explanation is that Putin believes that Trump will help make Russia great again, perhaps because Trump would pull out of NATO and let Putin have his way in Eastern Europe. Or maybe he thinks Trump would drive the U.S. economy into the ground. Who knows. I think it was the journalist Matt Bai who argued that Putin believes that Trump is a buffoon and someone who can be easily manipulated through flattery. I fear that Bai may be right.

Conclusion: These are not the only reasons one shouldn't vote for Trump, of course. There are others. In fact, today world stock market prices surged on the news that Clinton had been cleared by the FBI (again) and was more likely to win the election ("World stock markets surge amid confidence Clinton will win US election"), signaling that they believe that a Clinton presidency would be better for the world economy than would a Trump presidency. Thus, if you haven't voted yet. Vote for Clinton. She isn't perfect, but compared to Trump, she's a peach.

Saturday, November 5, 2016

2016 Election Prediction Update

A couple of months ago I posted my quadrennial presidential election prediction ("2016 Presidential Election Prediction"). There, I argued that
barring a major scandal (e.g., unforeseen email problems) or world event (e.g., another 9/11) Hillary Clinton should become the next President of the United States (as long as the electoral college follows the popular vote). She should win the popular vote by 3-5%, but if Trump reverts to shooting himself in the foot, she could win by more. That said, if Trump continues to reign his impulsiveness in, he may make it a lot closer. He could even win by a whisker.
Hillary has had additional email problems, but she may have weathered that storm. After a week of tightening, the polls appear to have stabilized ("Election Update: National Polls Show Clinton’s Lead Stabilizing — State Polls, Not So Much"), and it looks like she's managing to hold on to a 3% lead. Moreover, the prediction markets have also appeared to have stabilized. In fact, they have ticked up a few points over the last few days ("2016 President - Winner"). Thus, I'll stick with my original prediction that Hillary will win the popular vote by a margin of 3-5%. In fact, it wouldn't surprise me if she wins by more than 3%. During the primaries Trump repeatedly underperformed his polling numbers; most of the time he won as predicted but not by as much as the polls indicated that he would. Whether the same pattern holds true in the general election is to be seen, but it wouldn't surprise me if it did.

I am, however, less confident about the electoral college. Hillary's lead in several of the battleground states is marginal at best, so it is possible that she could win the popular vote but lose the electoral college. FiveThirtyEight currently puts the possibility of that happening at approximately 12%. That isn't a high probability, but it isn't insignificant one either. We will see what we will see.