Election 2012: Quants vs. Pundits
It was a hard-fought battle between two groups with fundamentally different ways of seeing the world. At times it got quite heated. At times it got quite ugly. But in the end one group scored a decisive victory on Tuesday. No, I'm not talking about Democrats and Republicans. As far as I can tell, the result of the election was that one side retained control of the Presidency and the Senate, while the other side retained control of the House and the majority of state Governorships. Rather, I'm talking about the battle between the "Quants" and the "Pundits." The Quants are the numbers people who like to aggregate polls and crunch numbers to predict the outcome of elections. Their poster boy is Nate Silver of the 538 Blog. He's correctly called the outcome of the last two presidential elections. The Pundits are the narrative people who like to talk about momentum and which candidate is connecting with voters. They don't have a poster person because they were (until Tuesday) the mainstream and vast majority of election commentators. The two sides traded criticisms in the weeks leading up to the election. And in the end, the Quants got it right. And their projected (and actual) victor owes a lot of his victory to his own team of talented academic number crunchers, who understood how and where to find supporters and get them to vote.
The Rise of the Quants
It's not only in the field of politics that the numbers people are on the rise. They are everywhere. If I want to find something on the internet, I use a search engine with a complex algorithm that churns data including my location and past searches and finds what I am looking for even when I inevitably misspell it (they have an algorithm for this too). Netflix and Amazon know what I want to watch and buy before I do. And I can't remember the last university report I submitted that didn't demand to be "benchmarked" and "data driven."
I don't know who the candidates are going to be four years from now, much less who is going to win. But I do know that every media outlet will have its own poll aggregation system and secret sauce to crunch the data and predict the winner based on math and statistics. Heck, everybody will have his or her own system, from the 12-year-old who codes an app during her lunch break to correctly predict the next Student Council President to the retiree who sits at his kitchen table with a calculator, a legal pad, and the last remaining daily newspaper and predicts the next President based on how many times the candidates' names are mentioned in letters to the editor. I wonder if anybody will be left to actually conduct the polls to be aggregated? And by then Netflix will be able to do away with my queue and Amazon will get rid of my wish list and simply mail me what I want to see and buy at the appropriate time based on some complex set of calculations. My year-end university reviews will consist of just one number, calculated like a credit score.
I remain somewhat skeptical of the new statistical thinking. I don't think that its practitioners tend to acknowledge the limits of their models enough or reflect adequately on the degree of magical thinking that is often involved in their number crunching. They need to become much more ironic for me to embrace them. But I've largely made my peace with them and consider that they do indeed have something significant to offer to us as we attempt to make sense of our world. I look forward to understanding better how they do what they do. And I know that we are living in an age of statistical thinking. That's why I'm willing to call this one for the Quants.
Karl Rove & Megyn Kelly vs. the Fox Decision Desk
As I noted above, we should date the moment of victory of the Numbers People over the Narrative People to Tuesday, November, 6, 2012. I'm willing to be more precise: the victory occurred at 11:32pm EST on that evening. After Fox News officially called Ohio and therefore the presidency for Obama, Karl Rove--the man who had overseen two successful presidential campaigns by a candidate with whom he had provided a narrative backstory that had little do do with his actual biography--melted down on air. So Fox anchor Megyn Kelly descended from her desk in the studio and marched back to the Decision Desk where the data crunchers were tucked away in a small windowless room. Interrogated by Kelly--who comes straight out of Fox News central casting with her physical attractiveness and aggressive nature--the decision nerds seemed not-ready-for-primetime. Or even late-night election time. But Arnon Mishkin and Chris Stirewalt did not back down. They had their data and they knew that it was in order. Despite four years of people like Rove and Kelly and the rest of the Fox News crew spinning a wondrous and spellbinding story of a Muslim Socialist President with a counterfeit birth certificate and a last-minute burst of Mittmentum that would finally drive him out of office, the numbers won and the narrative lost. You can watch the drama unfold in the clips below.
This is of course a purely symbolic moment. The Quants did not arise out of nowhere to take over politics shortly before midnight on November 6, 2012. But with the operatic performance by Rove, the comic turn by Kelly, and the unlikely victors in the internal struggle at Fox, it makes for a great story. And even in the Age of Numbers we humans need our narratives. We always have. And (although I don't have the data to back this up) I'm quite confident that we always will. 99.5% confident? No, 100% confident.