From the Archives: Evaluating FiveThirtyEight

This is a repost of a simple analysis I did in 2012, evaluating the presidential predictions of FiveThirtyEight.  What a different time it was.  If readers are interested, I could try to repeat the analysis for 2020.

The news is saying that Nate Silver (who does election predictions at FiveThirtyEight) got fifty states out of fifty. It’s being reported as a victory of math nerds over pundits.

In my humble opinion, getting 50 out of 50 is somewhat meaningless. A lot of those states weren’t exactly swing states! And if he gets some of them wrong, that doesn’t mean his probabilistic predictions were wrong. Likewise, if he gets them right, that doesn’t mean he was right.

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A 2D voting sim

I made a Monte Carlo voting simulation. No particular reason, I just think it’s neat.

Okay, so I was thinking about the Median Voter Theorem, which says that the winning position in an election is the position of the median voter. Of course, this conclusion only holds under certain assumptions, and none of those assumptions are actually true. And yet the conclusion is approximately correct in many situations. That’s why we care disproportionately about the median congress members (like Susan Collins), the median Supreme Court Justices (like Roberts), and the median “swing” states (like Pennsylvania).

But it should be obvious that the median voter fails in a lot of ways. In particular, it doesn’t predict the political polarization that occurs in US politics. And there are plenty of possible explanations: voter turnout, third parties, primary elections, politician’s charisma factors, multidimensional political spectra, and so on. But I’m not sure which among those explanations are most important.

The voting simulation won’t answer any of these questions, I’m just setting the context. One of the assumptions of the Median Voter Theorem is that political preferences exist along only one dimension. I thought I’d try running simulations with two dimensions to see what would happen, and to make some pretty graphs.

Plot showing all the voters and candidates along a two dimensional spectrum.

Voters and candidates in a 2D space

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Vote, but not just today

Justice Amy Coney Barrett was confirmed to the Supreme Court of the United States yesterday. This makes the current Supreme court one of the most conservative in ages, with a 6 to 3 majority. Previously, some cases would be ruled in favor of the liberal judges, because one of the conservative judges would agree with the liberal judges (and often they would dictate the terms of the opinion). Now this is much more unlikely, as it requires two conservative judges to side with the liberals.

This will have wide-reaching consequences. One of the most immediate consequences is on the current case arguing against the constitutionality of Obamacare.

If you’re a US citizen, you’ve likely been told to vote a hundred times already. Even if you’re not a US citizen, you’ve seen it, and are probably sick of it. This is, of course, because Trump is an extraordinarily dangerous president. But I want to point out the obvious: this whole situation with the Supreme Court did not arise from Trump shenanigans, it arose from plain old Republican shenanigans. Amy Coney Barrett is a judge that any Republican president could have nominated, and any Republican senate could have confirmed.

So don’t just vote out Trump, vote them all out. Note, senators are only reelected every 6 years, so this requires sustained commitment–voting in every election, including midterms. This year, everyone is anxious about the election and feeling a bit powerless. Channel that anxiety into a commitment to exercise your voting power at every opportunity.

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2020 California election positions

As I have done in previous elections, I’m going through my ballot, doing a little research, and making endorsements. My primary goal is to normalize the practice of informed voting, not just on the well-known issues, but on the entire ballot.



People complain about having to vote for the lesser of two evils, but abstention is just the middle of three evils. Trump may very well lead to the collapse of the US, or the collapse of US democracy, or my personal death.

Researching an entire ballot is frankly a slog, and I’m in favor of spending less energy on obvious decisions, even if those are the ones I feel most strongly about. To express the intensity of my preference, I’ve committed to voting against all Republicans in all elections throughout the ballot for the next 10 years, which incidentally frees up more time to research other parts of the ballot. The Republican party has become the fascist party, and their candidates do not even deserve my research. I have also made the maximum donation to the Biden campaign.

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Legalistic fixation in atheism

Something I’ve observed among atheists, is a narrow legalistic stance informed by separation of church and state. For example, saying religion is 100% fine until you bring it into government policy. Or, religion is completely acceptable unless you’re forcing it upon other people. This stance does not seem at all consistent to me, and it was a perpetual annoyance back when I participated in the atheist movement.

And you know, who cares anymore, the atheist movement is dead.

Nonetheless, it’s a pet peeve of mine, especially when I see the same reasoning applied other realms. Say, statues memorializing racists. Can you imagine believing that racist statues are 100% fine unless they’re on public property?

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Trump’s Atrocious Trolley Trade-off

Recently, some Republicans have suggested that social distancing measures are not worth the damage they cause to the economy. This was explicitly suggested by Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, who wanted to sacrifice senior citizen’s lives. But it was also suggested by Trump who said,

We have two very, very powerful alternatives that we have to take into consideration. Life is fragile, and economies are fragile.

So they’re seeing it as a trolley problem: do you save the people on the tracks, or do you maintain the trolley schedule? Oh, won’t somebody please think of the trolley schedule!

I’d like to take this moral dilemma seriously, for the sake of argument. At the end, I will estimate, just how many Hitlers are we talking here?

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Election meta

cn: more board gaming than election politics, really

Usually around election time I write up a post about what I’m voting for on the ballot. Most things on the ballot are local, and not relevant to most of my readers, but I think it’s important to highlight and normalize the research process for smaller elections. The presidential election is important and all, but in all likelihood you’ve already made that decision so surely you can spare some time to research the smaller elections?

Unfortunately my last ballot didn’t really have any interesting local votes, so I guess we’re stuck talking presidents. Well shoot.

You know what, I want to talk about board games instead.

In games with three or more players, players are often presented with a choice to attack one of their opponents. This opens up a fair amount of strategic space, which board gamers sometimes sometimes refer to as “politics”. Common political strategies include:

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