Miscellaneous Post-Election Tidbits

Sorry about the abrupt end to the liveblogging last night; Firefox crashed, and CoverItLive wouldn’t let me log back in as the moderator.

Anyway, it’s a good day to be a liberal. As you all know by now, it was Obama in an absolute landslide. He won by a huge margin in the electoral vote, and by a good margin in the popular vote.

The Democrats also kicked Elizabeth Dole and John Sununu out of the senate, which is wonderful. But they didn’t take enough seats to get
past a filibuster in the Senate. This means that we can expect to see a really dramatic level of obstructionism from the remaining Republicans in the senate. And based on various comments that he made, I think we can count on Holy Joe Lieberman to join in with the right-wingers in blocking the Senate from getting anything done.

There are a few interesting things that I wanted to comment on.

First, Nate Silver at FiveThirtyEight did an
amazing job. Nate’s analysis were really dead-on. If you want
to see someone doing a really nice job of careful, thorough statistical
analysis, just go over to Nate’s site, and take a look at how he build
he models. I’d been expecting his predictions to be very good, based on
the great job that he did with the math, and now that we’ve got the
results, you can see how that paid off. Comparing his predicted
electoral map to the actual electoral map, he got every state
right. I’ve never seen such a dead-on prediction.

Second, the Bradley effect appears to be dead. If you’ve been hiding in a cave for the last month, the Bradley effect refers to a supposed tendency for people to deny their racism by telling pollsters that they’d vote for a black candidate when in the real privacy of the voting booth, they wouldn’t. All of the results from yesterday seem to point to the fact that there was no Bradley effect in this election: the results match the pre-election polls extremely closely, with no shift of white voters to McCain. That’s a very good thing. Contrary to the claims of some Conservative bloggers I’ve seen trying to find something positive in this election outcome, that doesn’t mean that there’s no more racism in America; but it does mean that racism isn’t
nearly as dominant as it once was. Not too long ago, it would have been
impossible for a black man to be elected President. Even a dozen years ago, it would have been shocking to see a state like Virginia vote for a black president – especially one with an Arabic first name!

Third, there’s a lot of talk about the turnout in the election. I don’t recall which channel I was watching, but as results were coming in from Ohio, one reporter was saying “Black turnout in Cleveland was only around 18%, which is only up 2% from four years ago”. That’s a rather classic bad-math error. A two percent increase over 16% is 16.32% – which is a trivial change. A change from 16% to 18% is actually a 12.5% increase – which is very significant. I heard similar things quoted with respect to youth voting. The easiest way to demonstrate
the meaning of that error is to ask “What would you say if the voting rate increased from 20% to 40%?” Most people would respond “The turnout doubled”, not “The turnout increased by 20%.” But as is all too typical, the people reporting the election results are mathematical illiterates. (In fact, some of them are pround mathematical illiterates; many reporters basically brag about how bad they are at math. The worst example of that that I recall is here, where Richard Cohen not only proudly brags about how he doesn’t know algebra, but also admits that he – a political reporter who covers elections – doesn’t understand percentages.)

0 thoughts on “Miscellaneous Post-Election Tidbits

  1. Mathias

    From Richard Cohen’s article:
    “The proof of this, Gabriela, is all the people in my high school who were whizzes at math but did not know a thing about history and could not write a readable English sentence. I can cite Shelly, whose last name will not be mentioned, who aced algebra but when called to the board in geography class, located the Sahara Desert right where the Gobi usually is. She was off by a whole continent.”
    Anyone with a bit of mathematical understanding recognizes that this is not a proof. Not nearly. It’s even bad for an already ill-fated proof by example.

  2. NonyNony

    Comparing his predicted electoral map to the actual electoral map, he got every state right.
    Not quite. Nate called Indiana as close-McCain when it ended up as close-Obama. Still – very impressive.

  3. Mikael Vejdemo Johansson

    Speaking of the Bradley effect, I’ve seen mention of it’s bastard offspring as an explanation for the fate of Proposition 8 in California: people don’t want to be seen as anti-gay, while still voting for the proposition, leading to divergence between exit polls and the results…
    I don’t know how credible this is, but I’ve seen it mentioned.

  4. Barry Leiba

    On the point of Joe and the Filibusters (sounds like a 50s doo-wop group, dunnit?), I see it differently:

    I think the checks and balances in our system are important, and I actually think it’s a good thing that the Dems are just short of a filibuster-proof majority. It means that if they want to get something truly edgy and controversial through, they have to get at least a few Repubs to sign onto it. That’s a useful check.
    Joe L was that guy who was standing behind John McC on campaign stages recently, perhaps you’ll have seen. I’m quite glad that his vote isn’t needed for anything special, and that the Dems can now tell him to go take a flying floss at a rolling doughnut. If it were otherwise, they might have to hold their noses and take his stinky corpse back.

  5. Chris

    I am guessing you meant “proud” instead of “pround” in your final parenthetical. I actually went to look up “pround” in the dictionary (it’s not there) without first realizing it was a typo.

  6. Avi Steiner

    I’m still really confused on why it’s incorrect to say “the turnout increased by 2%” for a change from 16% to 18%. Let’s say that there are a total of 10,000 people in total, with 1,600 people voting in 2004, and 1,800 people voting in 2008. The way I see it is that the reporter looks at this data and sees that 200 more people, out of 10,000, voted in 2008 which gives a value of 2%. He’s not interested (in this particular case) in knowing by what factor (i.e. multiplication) the number of voters increased.

  7. Blake Stacey

    If pround isn’t in the dictionary, it should be. It’s either a type of very heavy crustacean trapped off the coast of Maine or the motion of an overweight cat seizing a tiny cricket.

  8. Daithi

    I am a Libertarian that leans to the right (McCain is too liberal for me). Nevertheless, I really enjoy Mark’s blog even though some of his liberal leanings occassionally grate on my nerves.
    I just wanted to say congratulations to Pres. Obama, and that I hope he does well. If he manages to do well over the next eight years, I think he has the potential to go down as one of our nations finest Presidents. I truly do wish him all the best.
    As a side note, I believe the filibuster is unconstitutional.

  9. Dan Drake

    Regarding the percentage bits: for a percentage to make sense, you have to say what the “unit” is. In the 16-18 example, it is correct to say that turnout increased by 2% of the entire electorate; the confusion arises because when you compare the 16% and 18%, typically you want to use the people who were in that 16% as the new unit; going from 16% to 18% is then an increase of 12.5% of the 16%.
    So, both 2% and 12.5% are correct; the mistake is to fail to say what you are using for the unit.

  10. Becca

    Semantic quibble- coming from, perhaps, the mirror-image perspective of Daithi, I would have to say it is not a good day to be a liberal. It’s a good day to be a Democrat.
    Liberals will have to wait for someone other than Obama.

  11. Chris

    “I think the checks and balances in our system are important, and I actually think it’s a good thing that the Dems are just short of a filibuster-proof majority.”
    “Checks and balances” is between the branches of government. It’s what was sorely lacking from 2000-2006, and to a lesser extent 2006-2008.
    “Filibusters” were intended to be a way to prevent “the juggernaut of the majority”. E.g., if most people are republicans, then republicans could pass a law saying that no democrat may purchase gasoline. They have a majority so it’s legit, right? (This sounds silly, I know. The original concerns were on laws passed by a majority of protestants against Catholics and vice versa, etc. It was a very real problem in early colonial times.)
    That’s why I always snort at the people who equate “democracy” and “liberty”. They’re actually very antagonistic, and our constitution only makes sense once you realize that.
    In this role, they’re crucial. They protect the (sizeable) minority from the majority.
    But the republicans twisted it around and used it as a way to lock up the wheels of the government. The constitution clearly says that a bill passes the Senate on a majority vote. The republicans said, “no, it takes a SUPER-majority vote of 60 senators” (to break the filibuster). There were a lot of very important laws, laws that clearly reflect the intention of the voters, that were left on the floor because they could only get 57 or 58 ‘for’ votes. Who benefits from that?
    Worse, the Senate has a tradition of allowing a single senator to put a hold on a bill. Again, this makes sense when you think about the desire to keep the majority from trappling on a minority. Maybe that single senator is concerned about his muslim constiuents, or his gay ones, or this left-handed blue-eyed blond ones. It doesn’t matter, it’s intended to protect small minorities.
    Only problem is ONE senator put a hold on over 100 bills. Many of these bills were “mom and apple pie” bills that had 60+ sponsors. But he didn’t like them for some reason and he put a hold on them.
    Holds can be broken, but it is deliberately designed to be an extremely difficult and time-consuming process with the expectation that all parties involved will behave sensibly and try to find a compromise. This guy wasn’t interested in compromising. It was so bad that the leadership talked about (and introduced?) an omnibus bill that would break all of the holds simultaneously. This had never been done before. I don’t think it was even completed prior to the elections.
    So anyway, we want each branch of the government to behave reasonably well. We might not like specific decisions, but locking up the Senate (for example) means that it’s unable to do it’s constitutional duty in acting as a check on the executive branch and that’s a Very Bad Thing.

  12. RBH

    Chris wrote

    Only problem is ONE senator put a hold on over 100 bills. Many of these bills were “mom and apple pie” bills that had 60+ sponsors. But he didn’t like them for some reason and he put a hold on them.

    It’s worse than that. A single Senator — typically from the minority party — can (and some do on occasion) put a ‘hold’ on one bill to put pressure on the leadership to so something about another bill, get it out of committee, for example. Similarly, a single Senator can put a hold on a Presidential appointment that requires Senate concurrence, again to pressure the administration or legilative leadership to do something else.

  13. WiseWoman

    Come off your US-centric pedestel, Mark 🙂 We don’t live in caves in Europe, but I had no idea what the “Bradley effect” was supposed to be. It has only been for this presidential election that the newspapers in Germany seemed to be reporting on every single (mis-)step. I suppose it was to keep our minds off the financial crisis or blow a smoke-screen while the managers grab the money that is left in “bonuses” that they convert to gold before the entire economy crashes.
    Remember, it’s the *World* Wide Web!

  14. KeithB

    Re a 2% increase.
    I have the same problem as an RF Engineer, we report a metric called efficiency: The ratio of RF power out to DC power in. It is reported in percent. For a change from 18 % to 20 %, I would say that that is an increase of 2 *points* not 2 %.

  15. mike

    “I would have to say it is not a good day to be a liberal. It’s a good day to be a Democrat.”
    ^^quoted for truth
    American Democrats, especially Obama, are against free speech, against free trade, against secret ballots for union members and for Internet regulation.
    Democrats in control of the Congress and presidency are likely to reinstate something similar to the ‘fairness’ doctrine limiting political speech, tax the internet, get rid of secret ballots and set up trade barriers. Not to mention that a true liberal denounces the atrocities of communism.
    Obama as president is a win only for closed-minded partisans.
    Re: Racism
    Mark is looking for racism in all the wrong places. The Bradley effect supposedly describes the fear of people being labeled as racist, not racism.
    Real racism is found in the % of black people voting for Obama.

  16. Robert Thille

    On the other hand, if your eligible voter pool is a million and last time 1 person voted, and this time 3 people voted, your turnout tripled, but you still only got 2 more voters.
    Going from 10% to 20% is doubling, and a good thing, but going from 80% to 90% (an increase by the same number of voters) to me is more impressive, since I would argue that the marginal effort to get those most reluctant of voters is higher.
    I view it as similar to the MPG vs GP10KM argument. Sometimes it makes sense to talk about percentages and sometimes absolute quantities make more sense. If I halve the number of gallons I use to drive per year that’s great, but much better if if the absolute number of gallons I reduce is also large; going from 8MPG to 12MPG can make more sense than going from 30MPG to 60MPG.

  17. Tercel

    Thank you Mike, it is almost comforting to see that despite Obama’s victory, there are still people who can completely divorce themselves from reality.
    It’s not a good thing, of course, but it is at least familiar. Besides, if there were no buffoons, who would John Stewart have to make jokes about?

  18. SLC

    Even a dozen years ago, it would have been shocking to see a state like Virginia vote for a black president – especially one with an Arabic first name!
    Excuse me, it was more then a dozen years ago that the State of Virginia elected the first black governor in the nations’ history, Douglas Wilder.

  19. AJS

    We all know that most people, when asked a question without the guarantee of anonymity provided by the ballot box, will give the answer they think they should give as opposed to the answer they really think. In the UK, there used to be something called the “Shy Tory Factor” — people voting Conservative, but not admitting in opinion polls that they were going to.
    If this effect is at work re. proposition 8, it’s actually very slightly encouraging; since it means people are embarrassed to be thought of as queer-bashers. And that’s always the first step, is it not?

  20. Valter

    Nitpick: I believe that Obama’s first name (Barack) is not Arabic, but Swahili (roughly equivalent to Benedict); it is his middle name (Hussein) that is Arabic.

  21. Mark C. Chu-Carroll

    You’re right that his name comes from Swahili. But “Barak” also means “blessing” in Arabic; it’s the same in both languages, and very close to the Hebrew for the same word (Barukh). That linguistic overlap is what threw me.

  22. Eric Lund

    I believe that Obama’s first name (Barack) is not Arabic, but Swahili
    It’s actually both. Barack is one of many Swahili words borrowed from Arabic. Arabic traders have been trading along the eastern coast of Africa for centuries, and Swahili developed as a sort of hybrid of Arabic and East African languages to facilitate this trade.
    The resemblance to the Hebrew baruch is also not coincidental. Hebrew and Arabic are close linguistic relatives of one another, along the lines of English to German, or French to Spanish.

  23. SteveM

    I’m still really confused on why it’s incorrect to say “the turnout increased by 2%” for a change from 16% to 18%.
    I believe the convention is to say it increased by “2 percentage points”. That makes it clear that you are referring to percent of the total population, and not a percent of the previous percentage.

  24. Phaedrus

    I agree that Obama is a Dem first and a progressive second (if at all), his work on the FISA bill set protressives straight on that front.
    Also, the idea that holds (in the Senate) are a powerful tool only works if the leadership agrees – again, see how Reid respected Dodd’s hold on the FISA bill. They broke every tradition in the Senate to get the telecomms immunized, and Obama gave a squeak of protest before going right along with it.

  25. MPL

    I agree with some people above that the problem with “only up 2%” is one of ambiguity, not outright reversal. Clearly, they meant that voter turnout is up by two percent of the electorate, not two percent of the number of voters in the last election.
    Whether or not an increase from 16% of the electorate to 18% showing up to vote is important or not depends on what you think is important. It means 12.5% more voters standing in line than last year, which is obviously a big deal for planning purposes. As for what it says about the health of democracy in Cleveland? Not so much.

  26. Jason

    Great shout out to FiveThirtyEight, I’ve been following their analysis the whole election. I’m surprised to hear you call it a landslide, though – I’m not sure there’s a rigorous statistical definition for landslide but Obama didn’t win the way that Regan or Johnson in 1964. Still, it’s very impressive, he even won an electoral vote in Nebraska.

  27. Jonathan Vos Post

    Re #30: “Obama didn’t win the way that Re[a]gan or Johnson in 1964.”
    Well, Senator Obama IS the first Democratic Party presidential candidate to win an actual majority of the popular vote since LBJ.
    I have been arguing with a Republican physicist friend of mine before and after the USA election about the question of to what extent is there a Class System in the USA, and how it compares to the Class System in Great Britain.
    My friend was raised in a weird experiment, unintentionally performed by the Aerospace Industry, of a segment of Long Beach, California, where there were no obvious class markers in home size, clothing, automobile size. People were subtly conforming to not acting above or below their class in terms of such markers. So he is blind to these, from my New York City perspective. My friends from other major east Coast U.S.A. cities (brother in Philadelphia, who as was my father was educated in Boston, etc.) mostly agree with me.
    I thought that Class was more important than Race in the Obama victory. Yesterday’s Los Angeles Times ran an op ed by Norman Ornstein which says: “… Republicans have seen serious erosion in America’s suburbs. Suburban voters gave 61% of their votes to the GOP in 1984 and 57% in 1988, but dropped to 52% by 2004. This time they fell to 48% while Obama captured a majority. For the GOP, its base has been reduced to small town and rural voters, not exactly a growth strategy.” Sarah Palin exemplified this dwindling small town and rural constituency, crossed with racists, fundamentalist theocrats, Creationists, and American Exceptionalists.
    The New York times mostly agrees. The Thursday 6 Nov 2008 special section (dazzling graphics!) said [p.P11]: “Mr. Obama picked up large margins in urban areas, while Mr. McCain picked up smaller margins in large numbers of rural counties…. The electorate moved towards the Democratic Party across nearly every demographic category. Many shifts were a few percentage points, but several categories had much higher jumps. One exception to the trend: low-income white counties moved solidly to the Republican side.”
    So I see Class as important because of my upbringing, not because of Marxist analysis. And I saw the Obama victory as a big win for cities, suburbs, minorities, the more educated (a class marker), and the higher-income (meaning Middle-middle Class, upper Middle Class professionals, and a surprising fraction of the Lower Upper Class millionaires and Middle Upper Class at roughly 20 megabucks through Bill Gates). The Old Rich, i.e. Upper Upper Class, don’t show up much in the votes, but obviously have enormous clout behind the scenes.
    Hence I realistically expect Obama’s agenda to lean towards those who gave him his majority (the first Democratic Party presidential majority, as I say, since LBJ).
    And thus my question of how congruent that is to the Western World (Central and South America minus Venezuela and Cuba, Western Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, South Africa, and the like). This overlaps Churchill’s “English Speaking World” — with India and China each having more English speakers than USA, UK, and Canada combined, of course.

  28. trrll

    I agree that the reporter described it incorrectly, although in a sense he was responding to the more relevant measure. That is to say, the impact on the outcome of an election of an increase in turnout is easier to understand in terms of the increase in the number of percentage points, rather than the percentage change relative to the previous turnout.
    Indeed, one of my pet mathematical peeves with the media is reporting percentage change without clarifying the actual impact. So for example, the media may report that a particular medication “doubles” the risk of a type of cancer (making it sound like a huge hazard), without providing the net increase in individual risk, which might well be a change from 1 chance in 10,000 to 2 in 10,000.

  29. Anonymous

    Not to rain on your parade (yes I was a McCain supporter, no I was not hiding in a bomb shelter the night after the election (that was a great episode of South Park though)), but looking at the percentage increase in the percentage of eligible voters is a bit misleading. Fact was we did not see an overwhelming increase in voting patterns like what was expected by some pundits. Obama did not win because the youth came out in droves and radically shifted voting patterns, he won because he was able to make people think McCain was just a continuation of the vastly unpopular Bush administration. Your numbers sound a lot like a recent Dilbert cartoon where the marketing guy proudly declares sales increased by 100 percent. Dilbert then points out they just increased from 1 sale to 2, the percentage just sounds impressive because the numbers were so low to begin with. Yeah, maybe the newsguy should have said something like percentage points to be more accurate, but that’s more of an English error, not a math error.

  30. trrll

    Obama did not win because the youth came out in droves and radically shifted voting patterns, he won because he was able to make people think McCain was just a continuation of the vastly unpopular Bush administration.

    I think that McCain did far more than Obama to convince the public that his administration would continue the policies of the Bush Administration. In particular, the selection of Sarah Palin as VP (widely cited as a negative in exit polls) reminded voters of the Bush Administration practice of basing appointments more upon ideology than competence, and the fear-mongering, guilt-by-association negative campaign tactics were uncomfortably reminiscent of the tactics employed by the Bush campaign, and so inconsistent with McCain’s public image that it conveyed the impression that he was incapable of governing even his own campaign.


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