Politics, Uncategorized

538 White Liberals

When political reporters and bloggers talk about a pending election, we can usually expect little more than a recitation of the latest poll. The great ones might throw in a margin of error.

Since 2008, Nate Silver brought a whole new brand of analysis using reason and actual statistical analysis. He didn’t make predictions; he calculated probabilities. In 2012, while many pundits were wildly wrong, Nate accurately predicted the outcome of all but one election, suggesting that his probability forecasts might have even been too conservative.

I’ve been disappointed by FiveThirtyEight’s 2016 coverage and change in vision for a number of reasons, but I’ll focus on one here. Many of their posts have argued that Bernie Sanders has a big (yoooge) demographic advantage in Iowa and New Hampshire, since those two states have some of the highest percentages of self-described “white liberals”. Though consistently trending up, Bernie Sanders is still trailing Hillary Clinton nationally and in states following Iowa and New Hampshire. FiveThirtyEight argues that demographics are to blame. They bring it up again, and again, and again, and again, and again, and again, and again, and again, and again… ok, you get the point. FiveThirtyEight can’t get enough of the “white liberals” argument. Here are 2016 polling aggregates from RCP in Iowa, New Hampshire, and nationally:

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Iowa, 2016

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New Hampshire, 2016

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National, 2016

The problem is that Bernie’s higher poll numbers in Iowa and New Hampshire could be due to demographics, or more likely, are simply due to Iowa and New Hampshire being first, more engaged, and therefore most likely to show interest in a truly insurgent campaign. The rest of the country is obviously going to be slower to take notice. Obama wasn’t nearly the insurgent that Sanders is, nor was he even anti-establishment, yet you saw a similar trend in their numbers in the early states. Keep in mind that in 2008, the Iowa Caucus was on January 3.

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Iowa, 2008

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New Hampshire, 2008

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National, 2008

Clinton led Obama by 20 points until Iowa and New Hampshire. He continued to trail her by 10 points nationally all the way until Super Tuesday, after which he edged out a narrow lead. Sanders is actually doing much better nationally than Barrack Obama did at this point in the race.

I think that it’s simply a matter of time rather than race and labels. The results in Iowa and New Hampshire move national opinion, which is why the candidates put so much time and effort into them. Later states are going to be naturally delayed in paying attention, and naturally hesitant to support an insurgent.

The “white liberals” argument really comes from the demographics of South Carolina where there is a significantly larger black vote, especially among democratic primary voters. Sanders has long trailed Clinton in South Carolina, especially among African Americans. It’s important to realize that very little polling has been done so far in South Carolina, including only two this month. Let’s look at the latest CBS poll in South Carolina, since it asks some interesting questions beyond your typical tracking poll.

Clinton is ahead of Sanders 60/38. Clinton leads Sanders 76/22 among African Americans and Sanders is winning among Whites 60/38.

In my opinion, the most important question from this poll was “How much attention have you paid to the 2016 election so far?”. 46% of likely Democratic voters have paid “some” or “not much” attention to the campaign, so there are plenty of minds to be changed, and that will definitely help Bernie. More important is who those open-minded people are. They are disproportionately young and African American. It’s well known that Bernie is huge (Yooooogge) among young people, and it explains the tepid support from African Americans. Those who haven’t paid attention to this campaign are much more likely to support the well-known, establishment candidate… at least for now.


Conclusion? There is none. That’s why FiveThirtyEight should stop acting like they’ve found the secret decoder ring that will keep Bernie Sanders from the nomination. Maybe African Americans will reject the candidate who marched with MLK, got arrested for protesting segregation, fights for $15/hr minimum wage in favor of the pro-death penalty candidate who pushed the crime bill, mandatory minimums, TPP, and the Iraq war. Maybe… but extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.


3 thoughts on “538 White Liberals

  1. I’m not enough of a statistics whiz to argue from knowledge, but Nate Silver was originally a sports outcome predictor who ported his models OVER into predicting the outcome likelihoods of political contests. Therefore, I think their reliability will be tied to that factor – comparisons between teams playing by similar, established rules. If a “team” starts inventing their own rules, disregarding established penalties, bringing in non-professional players etc. like the campaigns of both Trump and Sanders, the original models for prediction won’t work as well.

    However, if I were putting money on it, I wouldn’t bet against Silver. He’s smart enough to alter his algorithms once he figures out how to convert the previously unobserved behaviors into mathematical formulae.


  2. Jay Feldman says:

    Uh…this entirely ignores national polls that routinely support the idea that Clinton has a much higher level of support among non whites, which is the strongest argument. Many of the 538 articles you link talk about that.


    • Ignores? The entire article is about that. I use South Carolina as an example, but the logic is the same for all the later states. I focus on South Carolina because it has the best polling, a very percentage of black voters, and is likely the most politically engaged state after IA and NH.


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