So what exactly do these guys do? Basically, they take polls, aggregate the results, and make predictions. They each do it somewhat differently. Silver factors in state polls and national polls, along with other indicators, like monthly job numbers. Wang focuses on state polls exclusively. Linzer’s model looks at historical factors several months before the election but, as voting draws nearer, weights polls more heavily.
At the heart of all their models, though, are the state polls. That makes sense because, thanks to the Electoral College system, it’s the state outcomes that matter. It’s possible to win the national vote and still end up as the head of a cable-television channel rather than the leader of the free world. But also, as Wang explains, it’s easier for pollsters to find representative samples in a particular state. Figuring out which way Arizona or even Florida might go isn’t as tough as sizing up a country as big and diverse as the United States. ...
But the forecasters don’t just look at one state poll. While most news organizations trot out the latest, freshest poll and discuss it in isolation, these guys plug it into their models. One poll might be an outlier; a whole bunch of polls are likely to get closer to the truth. Or so the idea goes. Wang uses all the state polls, but gives more weight to those that survey likely voters, as opposed to those who are just registered to vote. Silver has his own special sauce that he doesn’t entirely divulge.
Both Wang and Linzer find it annoying that individual polls are hyped to make it seem as if the race is closer than it is, or to create the illusion that Romney and Obama are trading the lead from day to day. They’re not. According to the state polls, when taken together, the race has been fairly stable for weeks, and Obama has remained well ahead and, going into Election Day, is a strong favorite. ...
While it may not seem likely, poll aggregation is a threat to the supremacy of the punditocracy. In the past week, you could sense that some high-profile media types were being made slightly uncomfortable by the bespectacled quants, with their confusing mathematical models and zippy computer programs. The New York Times columnist David Brooks said pollsters who offered projections were citizens of “sillyland.”
Maybe, but the recent track record in sillyland is awfully solid. In the 2008 presidential election, Silver correctly predicted 49 of 50 states. Wang was off by only one electoral vote. Meanwhile, as Silver writes in his book, numerous pundits confidently predicted a John McCain victory based on little more than intestinal twinges.
Anything that makes David Brooks look silly and shuts up CNN, Fox and MSNBC is OK with me.
*And I didn't send it to my Facebook feed ... you're welcome!