Nate, Karl, and Orca

In the weeks since the election, three separate but related stories have emerged. Unless you work hard to keep your life politics-free, you’ve seen at least one version of each.


The first story is that the polls were basically right, and that predictions based on perceived momentum, gut feelings, and the horse sense of old pros were basically wrong. Nate Silver’s work at the New York Times got the most publicity, but similar analyses by Sam Wang at Princeton and Andrew Tannenbaum (yes, the Minix guy) were also quite accurate. And why wouldn’t they be?

Well, as Silver said in a post shortly before the election, the poll-based predictions could be off if the polls had some sort of systematic bias in them. Because, apart from a bit of poll weighting and regional correlation, the fundamental assumption of all of the Silver-like analyses is that the poll results come from a random, unbiased sample of voters. They treat the polls like those textbook problems in which someone draws a blind sample from a well-mixed urn of blue and red marbles. Had their numbers been way off, it would’ve meant that the urn wasn’t mixed well or that the draws weren’t blind.

Actually, I thought the results were too close to the predictions. Obama’s 332 electoral votes was Silver’s most probable outcome, but he assigned a probability of only 20% to that result. Had number been 303, which was the next most likely Obama total in Silver’s analysis, would that have been considered a failure? It shouldn’t have been.

In fact, Democratic crowing about Silver’s accuracy after the election (“math works!”) was just as misguided—well, OK not quite as misguided—as Republican dismissal of his work before the election. Silver wasn’t really saying “this is who will win,” he was saying “these are the likelihoods of various outcomes.” It just so happened that the most likely outcomes were all in Obama’s favor. That said, when Florida finally went Obama’s way and pushed his electoral count to 332, it must have done wonders for the sales of Silver’s book.

Now, you have to believe that there are Republican-leaning analysts who can read the polls as well as Silver, Wang, and Tannenbaum. Where were they, and why did the Republicans who did make predictions end up looking so stupid? That leads us into the second post-election story.


I happened1 to be watching Fox News when it called Ohio for Obama, and Karl Rove brought the network to a stop by claiming it was premature. He was, he said, in contact with Romney’s people and they had numbers that suggested that Ohio was still in play.

Let’s put aside the fact that Rove’s Crossroads Super PACs are supposed to be independent of the campaigns themselves. Only five members of the Supreme Court even pretend to believe that tissue of lies. Instead, let’s focus on why Rove thought it worthwhile to keep hope alive.

This wasn’t like 2006, when, on the verge of his party getting pummeled in the midterms, Rove famously put on a confident look in the face of terrible polls and said he had “the real numbers.” In that case, the election was still upcoming, and he had to keep up appearances; no one expected him to say the Republicans were in for a shellacking. This time the voting was over. There wasn’t even a theoretical downside to accepting the truth.

Which raises a topic I’ve always wondered about: How much of what educated Republicans say is what they really believe and how much is just sop for “the base”? In some cases, it’s clearly sop. George H.W. Bush didn’t believe in supply-side economics, but he knew that pretending to believe it got votes. And just this past week, we saw Marco Rubio deathly afraid to admit that the Earth is more than several thousand years old.

But those are obvious cases. Two decades after Bush I, Republicans who know the difference between real economics and campaign strategies may well be extinct. And as the GOP center of gravity moves ever closer to the center of the Bible Belt, it becomes more reasonable to believe that the party’s rejection of biology and geology is sincere.

Still, denying certain facts of economics and science is one thing, denying fundamental political realities like polls and demographics is something else. One makes you bad at government, which can be seen as a feature rather than a bug; the other makes you bad at winning elections, which is suicidal. This leads to the third story of the election: the Romney campaign’s apparent belief that they were going to win and that their Orca computer/network/GOTV system was going to overwhelm the Obama campaign.


The failure of Orca and the success of Narwhal have become the established truth of the past few weeks. The tech press, in particular, has been tripping over itself to heap praise on Obama’s cadre of nerdy recruits from internet startups and scorn on the buttoned-down consultants retained by Romney from companies owned by his campaign staff.

It does appear that a lot of both the praise and the scorn are deserved. The extensive pre-election testing by Obama’s team kept Narwhal rolling, while Orca—somehow never put through a dry run before Election Day—ground to a halt. But I’m skeptical of the stark black-and-white differences in how the teams have been portrayed. It serves the popular narrative, but it’s unlikely to be the full truth.

And the full truth is important, at least to the 2016 campaigns. Among the interesting questions raised by Orca and Narwhal are: Can Obama’s success be transferred to the next Democratic candidate? Will Republicans accept that their system was flawed and make the necessary changes? Will the electorate feel as comfortable being data-mined by candidates as it is by grocery stores and Amazon? After all, presidents don’t offer 50¢ off your next purchase.

That’ll be in 2020.

  1. “Happened” hell. I was in full-on schadenfreude mode, hoping to see them crushed and hear the lamentations of their women.