I have some intense opinions about politics and generally, I’m happy to engage. But I don’t want to make this a blog about politics. If someone stumbles on this blog wanting to read about comics or mathematics or whatever they may not be interested in my opinions about candidate X or birthright citizenship or the current occupant of the Oval Office. And that should be fine. Some politics may sneak in from time to time but I’d like this to be a place that’s free from the most divisive arguments we’ve seen in my lifetime.
On the other hand, I’ve been fascinated with elections since I was 12. I’ve done some work in voting theory and I’ve tried my hand at prognostication. It’s been my intention to eventually write about elections on this site. But the problem, then, was what to write about? We know the broad strokes of the 2018 election. The democrats are doing remarkably well in the Generic Congressional Ballot and appear to be poised to retake the House. That’s pretty remarkable given how heavily gerrymandered a lot of states are. Some of that has to do with the intensity of emotion engendered by President Trump. It also helps that some of the most egregious gerrymandering we saw after the 2010 election has been overturned in the courts.
In the Senate, it’s a very different story. This is the class of senators that was elected in 2006, a Democratic wave that gave them the majority for the first time in four years. In 2012, despite defending more than 2/3 of the seats up for election, the Democrats actually increased their majority by two. So the Democrats are faced with what fivethirtyeight.com calls “the most unfavorable Senate map… that any party has ever faced in any election.” Of the 35 senate elections being held this year, only 9 are held by Republicans and only one of those is in a state that’s bluish, namely Nevada. Meanwhile a lot of the seats being defended by democrats are in deep red states like North Dakota and Missouri. Despite being ahead on the Generic Congressional Ballot, it’s entirely possible that the Democrats will lose seats in the Senate.
Aside from the National stage, the most important elections that are happening this year are, in my opinion, the races for State Legislature. We don’t see much national coverage on these elections, but they’re crucially important. This is our first opportunity to elect some of the people who will be drawing the political maps in the wake of the 2020 Census. The candidates we elect now could determine control of the House of Representatives and of State Legislatures for a decade or more.
But all of this is known and it hasn’t shifted much. I could have written the last three paragraphs a month ago. Or two. But the thing that motivates this post is that I stumbled across this.
A lot of folks pay attention to polls. The polls influence their tendency to vote.
Democrats in Texas or Republicans in New York might decry their need to go to the polls because the opposition is going to “win anyway.” But here’s the thing: according to this article (originally published in 2014) the average House poll has, since 1998, been off the final result by 6.2 percentage points. Polls in senate races and gubernatorial elections have fared somewhat better, missing the final result by 5.1% and 5.2% respectively. And polling is getting harder. Response rates are declining making polls more expensive. The decline in the prevalence of landlines along with laws about contacting people on cell phones are making it harder to get a representative sample. You might think your Senate candidate is behind by three points, but the race could be a dead heat.
I see this graphic on Twitter a lot in Nate Silver’s feed. The implication being made that Silver “predicted” that Clinton would win the White House and so, 538 “got it wrong.” That’s not what this says at all. This is a probability. What this says is that, if you could repeat the election a bunch of times, Clinton would only win about 71.4% of the time. In 28.6% of the “elections” Trump would be elected. A Trump election isn’t surprising.
Imagine tossing a coin twice. Would you be surprised if you got two tails? You shouldn’t be. The probability of that outcome is 25%. Sure, it’s more likely that one of the other three outcome will happen, but it isn’t surprising at all.
The Trump victory, according to this analysis, is slightly less surprising than throwing two tails. The difference is that most people are not emotionally invested in the coins toss.
So, what’s the point? Vote anyway.
Do you want the Democrats to win the senate? Current estimates say there’s only a 1 in 6 chance of that happening. Vote anyway.
Do you want the Republicans to retain control of the house? Fivethirtyeight says they’ll “need a systematic polling error” for that to happen. We’ve seen those before. Vote anyway.
Do you want Heitcamp to get reelected in North Dakota, but you’re afraid she’s fallen too far behind? Vote anyway.
Do you want DeSantis to win the Governorship in Florida but you think Gillum has pulled too far ahead? Vote anyway.
Not interested in the winner of the marquee race in your state? The down ballot races and the initiatives are at least as important. Vote anyway.
Can’t bring yourself to vote for either of the major party candidates? You don’t have to use your vote to help determine the winner. For example, here in New York the results of the Governor’s election determine which parties get dedicated ballot access. You could vote to help the Working Families Party or the Conservative Party or the Green Party or the “The Rent is Too Damn High” Party get on the ballot. Vote anyway.
Elections are important. We’d be a profoundly different country if everyone who could vote did vote. But to quote Arron Sorkin or Benjamin Franklin or any number of people, “Decisions are made by those who show up.” This one is really important. No matter what you think is likely to happen, vote anyway.