Washington’s Bookie


Nowadays, the key to popularity in the media is to make strong, incendiary statements which generate raving support from one side and are either dismissed or viciously countered by the other side.  This is most true on the internet, where opinions seem to change even faster than the news and are supported by any number of different sources.  By being carefully discerning, one can read political commentary the reinforces all their previously held beliefs without subjecting themselves to any differing opinions.

This is especially true in the blogosphere.  Sites like HuffingtonPost.com, FreeRepublic.com, and NewsBusters.org thrive on loads of selectively biased contributors and readers to increase their web traffic.  Everyone is surrounded by those who share the same opinions and neither side is interested in reading what the other side has written.  As a result, political discourse in this country is at its most intense and its most immature.

Enter RealClearPolitics.com and, my personal favorite, FiveThirtyEight.com.  RCP is the behemoth in indepedent politics.  Its primary focus is on poll aggregation, thus giving a quantitative assessment of the most current American opinions.  It also provides its own content and links to posts from a variety of different political blogs.

FiveThirtyEight.com (the name comes from the number of eleectoral votes in Washington) also focuses on aggregate polling, but it strips away all the fat.  The site was founded in March 2008 by Nate Silver, a sabermetrician-turned-political-analyst.  Silver uses his statistical expertise culled from his experience as a baseball statistician and applies it to the political sphere.  Based on current polling data, he runs thousands of simulations to determine the probabilities of various outcomes.  In the recent presidential election, for example, Silver posted figures for the likelihood of Obama being elected, the Democrats winning a super-majority in the Senate, Obama being able to win the election if he lost key swing states, etc.

Silver, along with his blog partner Sean Quinn, regularly contributes posts outlining his methodology and keeps the political commentary to a minimum.  This approach mirrors PECOTA, a statistical algorithm developed by Silver that assigns an aggregate value to baseball players based on their stats.  While others might describe a player as having a great arm, a good eye at the plate, and an intrinsic leadership ability, Silver just sees the numbers.  Likewise, while others may talk about a candidate’s charisma and pedigree, Silver talks numbers.  If you’re in any way interested in quantitative analysis, FiveThirtyEight.com is a must-read site.


2 Responses to “Washington’s Bookie”

  1. 1 Chester Cheetah
    January 8, 2009 at 3:49 am

    Yes, obviously polls vary over different samples and demographics. The purpose of a site such as FiveThirtyEight.com or RealClearPolitics.com is to minimize this variance by combining the results of many different polls. Particularly in the case of FiveThirtyEight.com, polls are weighted based on previous performance and how recent the poll was. I absolutely do not think that anyone should base their vote on polls of any sort. As you said, the only thing that matters is the politician’s behavior in office. That sort of mentality mirrors the “If all your friends jumped off a bridge…” idea that your mother warned you about.

    That being said, I think this sort of robust, scientific political analysis is immensely fascinating. Additionally, I can read about political news without any spin. My issue with the partisan nature of modern politics is that I feel that people are marginalized to extremes by the dominance of strongly opinionated blogs. In general, it seems to stifle real dialog. The reaction to this thinking can be seen in the support for independent political news for FiveThirtyEight.com and RealClearPolitics.com, as well as others. Both of those sites swelled to millions of unique visitors in the months before the presidential election. Clearly, there is a large contingency of the public that is also sick of our current incendiary politics.

    Also, my more general complaint with blogging is that I’m a sucker for traditional journalism. I’d much prefer to read a talented writer who cites verifiable sources than the disjunctive rantings of an extremist who equally sifts from and contributes to the rumor mill.

  2. 2 Carlotta Chintz
    January 8, 2009 at 12:54 am

    I just have a slight concern regarding the notorious inaccuracy of polls, and also their effect on voters’ actual final choices- How much importance should we, desiring to be politically informed citizens, assign to polls and number-crunching of this sort? It is difficult, when one is working with such a large variable as human responses to fit math equations to a person’s decision. I’m just thinking…

    On the other hand, what’s wrong with all the politically biased blogs? If they want to stand up on their soapboxes, let them. No one else is really obliged to listen. And you can always choose to respond with your own equally biased opinions (should your opinion happen to be biased; maybe it isn’t). This is what the internet has given us- the opportunity to sound as stupid as we want for the entire world to see. If they want to avail themselves of that opportunity, by all means, let them. And if you want to ignore them, feel free to do so. I think part of what makes the political race so much fun is the fact that you get to hear all of these vehement arguments in one direction or the other, citing questionable sources and making sweeping judgments. I get to sit back and have a good laugh. As Toni said, the best way to know what a candidate is about is to look at their individual policy proposals, and to check their voting records on other issues.

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