Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Data in the chatter: life in the Nate Silver era

The Democrats' loss of the House in 1994, like most high-stakes contests, was treated like a morality play, and widely ascribed to the ignominious dissolution of the party's healthcare reform efforts.

This year, determined not to repeat the past, Democrats screwed their courage to the sticking post and passed a comprehensive HCR bill.

What if this brave and purposeful action is followed by, say, an 80-seat loss, as Sean Trende (that's a stage name, right?) provisionally forecasts and Jonathan Chait acknowledges as a not-unlikely scenario?

Personally, I'm fine with it. I think a Republican takeover of either chamber would be bad for the country.  But the 111th Congress has done what it set out to do, and what it had to do to save the country's short-term (via the stimulus) and long-term (via HCR) economic prospects. My hat is off, and my wallet is open.  If the party loses big-time in November, I will chalk it up to a) natural tidal movement following large gains in the past two elections, b) being caught holding the bag following the financial meltdown, and c) the power of relentless Republican demagoguery, feeding on the anger of a country enduring near-10% unemployment, and amplified in ever-new ways by Fox, Limbaugh etc.

Chait, citing and glossing Trende, highlights structural factors (stemming from our undemocratic Constitution) that may magnify the losses:
The problem for the Democrats is that these voters are packed into a relatively few states and Congressional districts nationwide, diluting their vote share. This is why the median Congressional district is an R+2 district. Thus, the President could have a relatively healthy overall approval rating, but still be fairly unpopular in swing states and districts. The increased enthusiasm that Obama generated among minorities, the young and the liberal is useful, but only if it is realized in conjunction with Democratic approval in a few other categories.
The House is less tilted toward Republicans than the Senate, but it is tilted. Democrats "waste" a lot more votes and voters in non-competitive urban districts. This is one reason why Republicans have in the past been able to control the House despite a majority of polls showing them losing the generic ballot. If the generic ballot is tied among likely voters, Republicans will probably gain a House majority.
Thus armed, I'm struck by the extent of the information advantage available to nonprofessionals like me today compared to 1994.  In the Nate Silver era, so many factors are priced in early -- so much data, crunched by so many, and retailed by so many more.  It will take an earthquake to surprise me, and I won't be inclined to ascribe the outcome to single short-term factors.

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