February 1, 2012

586 words 3 mins read

Don’t Bet On Election Outcomes

“Anybody will beat Obama.”

I get some comments and see a lot of tweets about the inevitability that any Republican will win in November.

That’s frightening.

The prospect of a Republican beating Obama isn’t frightening, of course—any of the four remaining candidates would be night and day better for our future.  What’s frightening is that so many people bet on the unknowable.

Except in rare cases—one candidate is caught stealing from a church weeks before the election—political elections carry too many variables for anyone to predict their results a month in advance, much less three-quarters of a year ahead.

News agencies and pollsters make their prognostications with an enormous caveat: “if the election were held today.” They’ve learned that a lot can happen between today and November.

The pundits seem to not know this. Or they prefer to ignore the reality of randomness, hoping their guess is correct, in which case, they’ll look like geniuses.

I’ve talked about the influence of memories on elections, and on the role of emotions.  But we can’t ignore the problem of, what Donald Rumsfeld called, “the unknown unknowns.” And these unknowns are why you shouldn’t bet on elections.

**Herman Cain had a lot of unknown unknowns, didn’t he? ** Before the train of women problems emerged, I might have been tempted to say “Herman’s gonna do it.” My mind may have even thought that Herman was going to win.  Had I predicted Cain the winner and Cain had won, would I have been right?

Depends on what you mean by “right.”  On the one hand, the truth condition (Cain won) would match my prediction (Cain will win).  On the other hand, no matter how smart I might think I am, I could not have known Cain would win.  My chances of being right were no better than chance. Or, as Daniel Kahneman might say, my chances of being right are about he same as chimpanzee throwing darts.

If I believe my own predictions, if I build great defenses of my predictions, I might be quite convincing. Still,** I’d be falling for what Nassim Taleb calls the _narrative fallacy_. **

Again, from Daniel Kahneman:

Narrative fallacies arise inevitably from our continuous attempt to make sense of the world. The explanatory stories that people find compelling are simple; are concrete rather than abstract; assign a larger role to talent, stupidity, and intentions than to luck; and focus on a few striking events that happened rather than on the countless events that failed to happen. Any recent salient event is a candidate to become the kernel of a causal narrative. Taleb suggests that we humans constantly fool ourselves by constructing flimsy accounts of the past and believing they are true.

Kahneman, Daniel (2011-10-25). Thinking, Fast and Slow (p. 199). Macmillan. Kindle Edition.

The past in politics often includes opinion polls, past elections, and conversations with the butcher.  (If there still are conversations with butchers.)

When you hear someone say, “it doesn’t matter who wins the nomination, because most people will vote for anyone who isn’t Obama,” don’t fall for it.  Remind them that millions of Democrats believed the same about George W. Bush in 2004.

Who wins the Republican nomination matters, or will matter, in November.  But regardless of the nominee, the final outcome of the race is anybody’s guess.

**If you want to exert more influence on the outcome of this year’s elections, attend the 3rd Anniversary Tea Party.  We’re dedicating Saturday to making us all more effective campaigners and advocates. **