Saturday, November 7, 2020

Look at Article II of the Constitution before Censoring Trump

Article II, Section 1 of the U.S. Constitution says [emphasis added], 

Each state shall appoint, in such manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a number of electors, equal to the whole number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress....
I am not a lawyer, let alone Constitutional scholar.  I welcome such scholars to engage and clarify what follows (suspecting that most of these scholars are currently retained by either Rs or Ds and therefore will not comment outside of legal proceedings).

My point in what follows is about free expression of reasonable ideas, which is a set of ideas that includes elements that may be ultimately rejected by the U.S. Supreme Court as valid legal arguments.  I am not using the term "reasonable" as a legal opinion because, to repeat, that is not my profession.

A reasonable assertion is that officials in the executive branch of the states, such as a Secretary of State certifying elections, are not part of "the Legislature."  On this premise, a reasonable person could refer to any meaningful election procedure established by the executive branch without the approval of the state legislature as "illegal."  Again, because passions are high, I must repeat that this is not a legal conclusion but a statement of what a reasonable person could say.

This reasonable statement could have been, and I suspect was, uttered before election day.  Furthermore, this reasonable person could have publicly directed Trump supporters not to participate in those procedures and instead participate in procedures that HAD been established by state legislatures, such as in-person voting and absentee voting (i.e., ballots specifically requested by voters, as distinct from "mail-in" ballots).

Now that Election Day has passed, we have enough evidence to reasonably assert, if not prove, that Trump got more in-person and absentee votes than Biden did in the swing states.  At the same time, it looks like Trump lost most of the swing states in terms of in-person + absentee + mailin.

Now let's look at four recent events in chronological order:

(1) Two days after the election, Trump claimed in a press conference that he won on "legal" votes.

(2) Trump said that the Supreme Court would likely be considering his argument.

(3)  Trump's legal-votes claim was immediately described by "impartial media" as "a lie without evidence" and reeking of fascism that must be condemned by all.  These impartial media further asserted that Trump had no path to the Supreme Court.

(4) Discussion or interpretation of Trump's legal theory was censored from Facebook, Twitter, etc., if it had any sympathy for Trump's argument.

I am disturbed by (3) and (4).  All people should be allowed to make their case.  Not everyone can be correct, which is why we have a court system.  The Supreme Court may reject Trump's legal theory, but until then (at least) he should be allowed to articulate it in public.

By no means is it acceptable for members of the American Economic Association, who are not legal experts, to require me or anybody else without legal expertise to "condemn" Trump's assertion of what is "legal" even before it has its day in court.  (Yes they are doing so; all, even nonexperts, who do not condemn are purportedly "accomplices.").

I understand that the President is not a random person and respect (not the same as agree with) the opinion that there "should" be tighter bounds on his speech than "free expression."  But (1) looks like a reasonable (not the same as correct) assertion, although it might have been better communication for him to explain what I have explained here rather than packing so much into the single word "legal."  (political communications are also not my profession).

Let me quote from some legal experts writing on this last month,

Kavanaugh endorsed in a footnote Chief Justice William Rehnquist’s view in Bush v. Gore that state courts are limited in their ability to “rewrite state election laws for federal elections” because Article II states that rules in presidential elections are to be established by state legislatures.

Might state executive branch officials also be so limited?  This is a reasonable question and it is premature to condemn Trump or anyone else for asking it.  Ironically, Democrats are asking exactly the same question about the U.S. Post Office.

[Although it is hardly relevant to the free-expression question, let me add that, like many of Trump's politically incorrect predictions, (2) will prove to be correct.  His argument (1) will be compelling to many nonexperts and therefore it is desirable for the Supreme Court to weigh in].

[I also support the free expression of "unreasonable" ideas, but that is not relevant here].

Wednesday, November 4, 2020

Canaries in the Coal Mine

Although we still do not know the winner of the electoral college, it is clear that the polls were systematically wrong in the swing states and several others.  Here is a recap, with links, of what we knew in advance but few dared discuss openly.


Election forecasting became an economics-free zone


I wrote about this last week:


(1) Better information-aggregation methods were showing less Biden lead and sometimes a Trump lead.


(2) The incentives for individuals to truthfully participate in polls were skewed relative to a neutral situation, and relative to 2016.  Incentives matter!


(3) The costs to individuals of participating in the election are different during a pandemic.  During this pandemic, perceptions of the new costs were correlated with party affiliation.


The forecasters were dismissing these economic insights.  That they used foul language and straw men rather than real argument and measurement was a telltale sign to somebody (me) who is an expert on economics but not on election forecasting.  There were exceptions such as Trafalgar – they cited some of the effects above and made better forecasts – but of course they were maligned for being different from the crowd.



Forecast errors were correlated over time, questioning their rationality


The June 2016 Brexit vote was an early notable case where educated people in big cities had no clue what their fellow citizens were thinking and made little effort to learn about it.  The British polls had been closed for hours before currency markets absorbed what happened.


The Obama Administration and most other Democrats were very slow to understand what happened around Brexit.   I tell the story in my book of “a conversation between a Laotian woman and Ben Rhodes (Obama’s speechwriter). Citing the British populist victory, the woman expects that candidate Trump will win. Mr. Rhodes confidently assures her that Mrs. Clinton will be the new president.”  People living on the other side of the planet knew better what was happening in the 2016 election than the “30 people setting the direction for the entire U.S. government.”


Back to British populism, polls indicated that there was no way that their leader Boris Johnson could form a majority coalition in the December 2019 election.  In reality, Mr. Johnson was getting most of the votes from areas of Britain that had long been solidly with his opponents.  No electoral victory in Britain since Thatcher had been as overwhelming.


Still in 2020 the conventional wisdom was that the populists would not surprise us again.  Any surprises would be purely random.



Companies with enough data to know acted like small things mattered


Twitter and Facebook have products that have overwhelmingly passed the market test, and they are free of charge!  Except that we pay with our personal data.  They know a lot about us as individuals and, especially, as a group.


In the weeks leading up to the election, these two companies tried to suppress the viewpoints of those on the side of our populist president, ranging from a Stanford professor to one of the biggest newspapers.  Why would Twitter particularly drive millions of consumers to its competitor?  Likely the company thought that the election was close enough that even small news stories might matter.



The Rallies


Trump was holding up to five massive rallies per day.  Biden rarely came out of the house and then to tiny crowds.  This difference was a signal from both sides of the market.  On the voter side, this was a more stark difference than in 2016.  On the campaign side, given that with 20-years-ago technology the Bush campaign knew that Florida was close and to have their candidate there at the end, we can assume that the Trump campaign knew that it was close in the places where Trump visited at the end (AZ, FL, MI, MN, NC, PA, WI).



Saturday, October 31, 2020

Do Election Forecasts Suffer from a Lack of Economics?

Forecasts of this election are certainly missing economics.  However, lacking knowledge and skills of the other tools and methods for election forecasting, I cannot say how much the absence of economics matters.  My only purpose here is to cite the missing economics and attempt to assess the direction of the forecast bias as it pertains to the Presidential election.  The missing economics fit into three categories: information aggregation, voter incentives to tell the truth, and voter incentives to participate in the general election.


At the time of writing (Oct 30), the RealClearPolitics Poll Average is Biden +7.9 (51.4-43.5) nationally and +3.1 (48.9-45.9) in the top battleground states.[1]  Based on a very similar dataset, FiveThirtyEight puts Biden’s chance of winning at 90 percent while The Economist puts it at 96 percent.  FiveThirtyEight (Economist) forecasts that Biden will win by 156 (162) electoral votes, respectively.


The polls used for these averages and forecasts (hereafter, “the forecasters”) contact potential voters by landline, cell phone, and internet and ask them “Who do you think you will vote for in the election for President?” (emphasis added).  Other questions are asked about the election, but it does not appear that the answers to these questions are part of the aforementioned averages or forecasts.



Information Aggregation


The information aggregation methods used by forecasters seem inferior to alternatives that have been well-studied, readily available, and better reflect results on the economics of information.  The methods used by forecasters are often more than ten percentage points more favorable to Biden than the alternatives.  I have not seen any explanation from the forecasters why the alternatives are not part of their forecasts.


U.S. voters are heterogeneous and scattered over millions of square miles.  One of the challenges for an election forecaster is to assemble or reweight a polling sample that is representative of those who actually vote.  For this purpose, the polls used in the averages and forecasts do some reweighting of their samples by demographics.  Most famously, less-educated voters are often (but not always) upweighted given that their relative propensity to vote in recent years has exceeded their relative propensity to participate in polls.  Other demographic variables sometimes used for these purposes are voter registration and voting history.


As recently as a few years ago, it was well known that another poll question has a much better track record at predicting election outcomes: “Who do you think will be elected President in November?”  This “expectation” question is included in some of the polls used by the forecasters but, as far as I can tell, are not any part of the forecast.[2]


David Rothschild and Justin Wolfers found in 2012 that the optimal forecasting weight on the expectations question is about nine times the weight on the own vote question.  Furthermore, the optimal weight on voter expectations is, they said, even greater when: (1) “voters are embedded in heterogeneous ... social networks,” (2) “they don’t rely too much on common information,” and (3) “small samples are involved.”  Two of the three of these criteria describe 2020 voters even better than they described voters in the past.


A couple of pollsters express interest in voter expectations and find them to deviate significantly from the own vote intentions that are the foundation of election forecasts.  The USC Dornsife poll (7-day window ending October 29) finds Biden leading by 11.6 in own vote intentions but only 2.1 points in election expectations!  When respondents are asked about how they expect their social contacts to vote, Biden leads by 5.3 points.[3]  The Fox News Poll found Biden winning by 10 points on the own-vote question but losing by 9 points on “do you think more of your neighbors are voting for Joe Biden or Donald Trump?”


In other words, the own-vote question that is the foundation for the forecasts differs from the other questions by 6 to 19 percentage points, which is several multiples of the RCP battleground average Biden-Trump gap of 3 percentage points.


Gallup, which does not even ask the own vote intention question, finds that 56 percent of Americans expect Trump to win.  Betting markets put Trump’s chances at about 34 percent.  Both of these are far different from the election forecasts built on own-vote polls.


Betting markets are rich enough to allow bets on the electoral margin of victory.  The most expensive contracts are Biden 150-209 and Trump 60-99.  One of these coincides with the election forecasts but the other is wildly different.  In other words, betting markets seem to put significant probability on the event that the polls used by the forecasters are way off in Biden’s favor.[4]



Voter Incentives 1: Social Desirability


The incentives to truthfully participate in polls are different from those to participate in the general election and these differences are correlated with political affiliation.


One of the potential incentives is “social desirability.”  A Cato poll found that 62 percent of Americans “say the political climate these days prevents them from saying things they believe because others might find them offensive.”  Another study found that 11.7 percent of Republicans said they were reluctant to tell the truth on telephone polls (about the Presidential race), as compared to 5.4 percent of Democrats and 10.5 percent of Republicans.


Trump is the Bad Orange Man to many.  Biden is the overwhelming choice among the rich and famous, many of whom blamed Trump’s 2016 victory on his allegedly deplorable racist supporters.  More recently, property destruction (looting) has become more common and may be related to anti-racism in the minds of some voters.  This suggests that some fraction of Trump supporters would not acknowledge their support for him – the “shy Trump voter” – especially those in Democratic communities.


The quantitative question of course is the magnitude of the effect of shy-Trump and shy-Biden voters on poll results relative to election results.  I have been amazed how little effort the forecasters put into assessing this magnitude and applying a correction.  Today Nate Silver dismissed the shy Trump voter theory by transforming it into a straw man that a huge red wave is coming, which he says is contradicted by early voting data.  In the past he did nothing more than take the difference between the results of phone polls and internet polls (note that today Biden’s edge is two percentage points more in phone surveys, which is not negligible and is in the expected direction).[5]


Social desirability bias is one of the reasons why pollsters have fielded the voter-expectation and voter-neighbors questions.  Mr. Silver says this approach is “stupid” because it deviates from “the shy-Trump voter narrative.”


Another step, taken by the Democracy Institute, Trafalgar and others, is to repeatedly assure respondents that their responses are fully confidential.  They assert that the assurances affect the poll results, although I have not seen estimates of the magnitude.



Voter Incentives 2: Turnout


Voting in person or by mail is different than picking up the phone or opening an email to begin an online survey.  The difference is particularly stark during a pandemic.  I do not see that forecasters are accounting for any relationship between the difference and political affiliation.


Republicans are doing much less to withdraw from normal activities in an effort to protect themselves from COVID-19.  Gallup found that more than 77 percent of Democrats worried about getting the coronavirus whereas less than 29 percent of Republicans worried about that.  More than 70 percent of Democrats were avoiding going to public places as compared to less than 38 percent of Republicans.[6]  Meanwhile, confirmed cases are surging in the Midwest.  A widely televised expert even went so far as to say that Midwesterners would not be adequately protected by a cloth mask and that going out in public required a N-95 mask instead.


In short, COVID-19 surges create a perceived cost of in-person voting that is likely greater for Democrats than Republicans.  Some will switch to voting by mail but perhaps others will not vote at all.  I do not have an estimate of the magnitude of this effect.


Overall, economics by itself suggests that the widely cited polls are exaggerating the electoral advantage, if any, that Biden will have on election day.  I am no polling expert and therefore cannot assess the magnitude of these polling biases.  Betting markets and other methods of information aggregation do not show as much optimism for Biden as do the election forecasters.  These markets appear to put significant probability mass on the event that Biden’s election results are far worse than his polling results. 



[1] FL, PA, MI, WI, NC, AZ.

[2] E.g., provides the data used for its forecasting model and “expectation” questions are not listed therein.

[3] My purpose of citing USC is not to assert that it is more accurate than others, but merely because it fields the various questions of interest in the same samples so that sample procedures can be held constant.

[4] Josh Barro provides some reasons why the betting markets might be skewed.  I have myself seen election betting markets depart wildly from objective reality (traders apparently unaware of what exactly they were trading).  With that said, a profit maximizing bookmaker might subsidize or discount election betting in order to draw in customers who would continue betting with their winnings after the conclusion of the election.  If Trump voters are especially elastic to the discounts, bookmakers may price Trump contracts low (perhaps a couple of percentage points).

[5] Mr. Silver has seen a lot of data related to elections, which may have revealed to him that shy Trump voters are negligible for reasons that he cannot (or will not) articulate in public.

[6] The study was August 2 through September 27.