1131: Math

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As of this writing, the only thing that's 'razor-thin' or 'too close to call' is the gap between the consensus poll forecast and the result.
Title text: As of this writing, the only thing that's 'razor-thin' or 'too close to call' is the gap between the consensus poll forecast and the result.


In another election-themed comic (this one posted the day after the 2012 U.S. presidential election November 7, 2012)—(see also 1122: Electoral Precedent, 500: Election, 1127: Congress, and 1130: Poll Watching)—this comic shows a bar graph representing expected (see note below) electoral college votes in the election, including a dotted line indicating the 270 electoral votes needed to win, a span of projections ("Forecast"), and the actual result.

The forecast range is to the right of the 270 line, showing that the blue candidate Obama (the Democratic candidate is the blue candidate and the Republican candidate is the red candidate according to a convention used since the 2000 election) was always projected to win by statisticians like Nate Silver and others. The only question among these people was by how much he was going to win. (The Electoral College votes are expectations until each state's voting results are announced early in November, and the electors actually vote in December and may change the situation somewhat.) Randall is attempting to use this particular election to imply that polling data accurately indicates the likely outcome of a presidential election. However, the close match between prediction and result in this one election could be a coincidence; the outcome of U.S. presidential elections frequently differs from projections. Notably, in 1948, the Chicago Tribune printed a headline which turned out to be false and in 2016, polling data indicated that Clinton would defeat Trump.

By contrast, most of the media was calling the election too close to call, with some news outlets actually projecting a Mitt Romney win. Essentially the large number of Republican pundits who helped increase the pressures of right wing self-referencing media denial, the tendency of media to give any issue at least two dramatically or fictionally equal voices (for supposed "fairness") regardless of the relative merits of the two sides, and the desire to present the election as a suspenseful "horse race" resulted in a lot of talking heads (i.e. pundits) disbelieving the polls. These factors shaped the "too close to call" narrative, leading to the punch line of this story:

You don't need to believe in science or statistics for it to effectively describe or predict reality. The progressively more radicalized elements of this era are known for disregarding scientific or statistical consensus which reflects reality but does not conform to their world view. However, many of them were correct in their belief (in defiance of statistical data to the contrary) that Donald Trump would be elected in 2016.

For those unfamiliar with the US Presidential electoral process: Unlike other political offices, the election for president is not a direct election. Instead, each state is apportioned a certain number of "Electoral College" votes based on the number of House of Representatives seats (which is based on population) and Senate seats. For the most part (and there is perennial discussion on whether this should be changed) the candidate that receives the most popular votes in a given state receives all the Electoral College votes for that state. With 538 electoral votes total, receiving 270 Electoral College votes ((half of 538) + 1) is sufficient to be declared president-elect. For this reason, sometimes one candidate actually receive more popular votes (more people voted for the candidate) but have fewer Electoral College votes. This happened three times in the nineteenth century with elections of John Quincy Adams in 1824, Rutherford B. Hayes in 1876 and Benjamin Harrison in 1888. Then it did not happen again until the election of George W. Bush in 2000 and Donald Trump in 2016.

The title text is a subversion of what everyone else was saying at that time: that the election was unpredictable. Pundits often declare events to be "too close to call" when poll results are remarkably close; Randall is saying that the only thing that is "too close to call" is the difference between the results and the predicted results, as the outcome is all but certain.


[A frame with a bar chart showing 58% blue and 42% red. A header shows a range between 53-63%]
[An arrow below the chart is pointing at the line between the blue and the red sections of the chart with a heading]
[Below the frame is a caption]
Breaking: To surprise of pundits, numbers continue to be best system for determining which of two things is larger.

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I really like the term "dramatically equal." - Kieran

Sorry, I don't know how to upload the correct image. - Artod

Picture downloaded from xkcd, uploaded to the wiki with the correct license and "xkcd" added to the filename as a prefix, then filename changed in page source to correct image. Hope this helps in the future! - Coombeseh (talk) 10:36, 7 November 2012 (UTC)
Can somebody please explain further? I guess the joke is about the forecast? thank you -- 14:17, 7 November 2012 (UTC)

Randall's on the nose again. This is why I just turned off all media yesterday, especially toward the end of the evening. Unless you're up for contrived suspense, it's really just tediousness lived through: barely five minutes of "news" per hour, the remaining "empty" time filled with the drone of talking heads waxing obnoxious about irrelevancies. This morning, the results are in, and I'm no worse for not having endured the conjectural drivel... -- IronyChef (talk) 15:25, 7 November 2012 (UTC)

As a note, the title text is referring to the consensus polls, including those at fivethirtyeight.com, which were referred to in the previous episode. Another interpretation of the "numbers" comment is that the predictions based on polling numbers and proper statistical analyses of those, rather than mere punditry and opinion, were always the best predictors of what was going to happen in this election. So not only could numbers retroactively tell us who won (based on actual votes) but numbers when used as individual data points with variance and sample sizes, and combined into an aggregate, were far more effective in telling us prospectively who was going to win. 18:11, 7 November 2012 (UTC)

Numbers continue to be best system for determining? -- (talk) (please sign your comments with ~~~~)

Yes and no. In news stories (see newspaper headlines for an example), this is a typical format. You didn't notice the "To surprise of pundits" part that came first? 00:57, 8 November 2012 (UTC)
I believe the previous entry was addressing the missing article "the" in the caption. mwburden 16:17, 4 December 2012 (UTC)
So was the answer. The caption, like many news headlines, omits the articles. "To [the] surprise of pundits, numbers continue to be [the] best system..." 15:45, 5 December 2012 (UTC)

For more critical relevance, he texted along these lines yesterday to one of the more prominent non-Nate Silver analysts, Prof. Sam Wang of the Princeton Election Consortium -- (talk) (please sign your comments with ~~~~)

I wish Randall had made the bar 538 pixels wide (it's only 400ish). - Frankie (talk) 11:52, 9 November 2012 (UTC)

"Explain the title text." What's there to explain? 22:18, 7 February 2018 (UTC)

I removed the tag, and expanded the title text explanation.

Polling data gave trump a 30% or so chance of winning. That is more than it gave Romney, and probably a better chance than a lot of democrats thought he had. Probably not Douglas Hofstadter (talk) 13:58, 23 September 2018 (UTC)

Statistical analysis of the polling data by FiveThirtyEight gave Trump a much better chance than it did Romney; but that was due to a number of factors not picked up by pundits, like the high number of undecideds in the run-up to the 2016 election, and that Nate Silver's models (correctly) showed the Electoral College as favoring Democrats in 2012 and Republicans in 2016 in case of a close popular vote. Raw nationwide polling numbers, without that statistical analysis, didn't look good for Trump. Pelosujamo (talk) 00:35, 5 August 2019 (UTC)
Nate Silver and most other analysts vastly underestimated the high levels of misogyny prevalent in the USA that caused Hilary to lose to Trump. -- The Cat Lady (talk) 20:43, 19 September 2021 (UTC)