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Mistakes were made, but people forget

Right about now, people are forgetting that many pollsters, analysts and pundits gave us a very different picture of how the 2020 election in the US would play out. I haven’t forgotten, and you shouldn’t either.

I am referring of course to the so called “blue wave” that would overwhelm the red – all but sweeping Donald Trump and the Republicans out of government. Think of this post as a public service for those of you on my email list who rely on and often pay for insight. This is the first in several posts dealing with “how the sausage gets made” in the business of providing strategic advice and anticipating political outcomes.

The important thing to remember is that in this business many rely on the fact that users of insight will simply forget the forecast was wrong. And the ones who were wrong are rarely taken to task for it (or not for long, anyway). By this point some readers are already getting angry and may feel I’m being unfair. But, give me some rope here.

Often you do not have to be Nostradamus to accurately anticipate political outcomes – but it requires doing your homework, a lot of it. And doing it well is a full-time job, especially with dicey political calls like this election. In my line of work, political risk analysis, we focus on anticipating and flagging adverse outcomes. This involves among other things, identifying predetermined elements that can impact the immediate future (e.g. how many angry, radicalized teens live in a particular country), point out clearly uncertain elements (e.g. do we expect massive protests in the future?), properly identify actors and their intentions (e.g. is a particular political opposition too weak to challenge an incumbent?), and honestly assess your own personal biases (e.g. Do I love the left or am I a staunch conservative?). Not enough people do this work, or do it well.

With pollsters who deal with numbers, assumptions play a key role. For instance, do US Latinos really see themselves as a minority or do they see themselves as white? Is there a segment of the electorate that simply despises polls and chooses not to respond for this reason? We should get more details about how this played out in coming weeks.

These are some key takeaways about why forecasters in the political arena (mostly analysts and commentators; pollsters using numbers have other issues) sometimes get things wrong:

1) They “phone it in”: The first lesson is that – as with many other industries – there are a number of folks who, to be frank, don’t do the work (in fairness, they are the minority). This means they lack the understanding of all the players and their intentions, they don’t go deep enough into the political dynamics, or they lack the network of information sources, to provide a sound picture of where things are likely headed.

2) Monkey see, monkey do: I see this with my two kids. They mimic each other’s bad behavior and when I scold them they argue their brother / sister did it too. A common trick of the trade for the lazy or the less able is to keep your forecasts close enough to those of others so, if things don’t go your way, you can always say everyone else got it wrong too. This is also known as covering your behind, which happens often, even on Wall Street where many fund managers try to make sure that, whatever they do, they just don’t underperform the S&P 500 index.

3) Wishcasts: Being rigorous enough to separate one’s own desires from the work is not always easy. Political analysis often lends itself to animated discussions between colleagues who dream that their candidate or cause of choice will prevail, primarily because they wish it to be so. A number of folks are committed liberal democrats who believe it’s just a matter of time before liberal democracy rules the world. Analysts must be aware of their own biases and be able to discuss what steps they take to weed them out. For instance, I have a healthy conservative bent, and a knee-jerk distrust of what smells like populism. I believe populism, autocracy, and corruption will remain alive and well for a very long time. Oh, and I rarely get enthused by politicians (regardless of their ideological bent). A good rule of thumb for analysts is to explore dynamics that make people uncomfortable. And if your hard work yields a forecast that makes your stomach turn because you wish things were otherwise, you’re probably on to something.

4) Poor judgment: This often also means inexperience, or naiveté. It happens to those of us who are too green or have studied politics but have never seen how naked power can effectively be used for ill. If you have never seen a populist up close, the first time you come across one you become convinced that this person will never get elected. If you trust in institutions and democratic forms too much, you are convinced that a progressive politician will never abuse institutions to further his or her own career. Experience can make your mind more flexible, more pragmatic. In fact, pragmatists and generalists do better in this business than academic people who are experts at one narrow thing. For more on this, read the book Superforecasting (2015) by Philip E. Tetlock (who found that pragmatic and generalist “foxes” are more accurate forecasters than “hedgehogs”, or big idea people).

5) That’s life: There are of course those who do the rigorous work and still get it wrong. And, well, that’s also a little something called reality. But the important thing is that your favored analyst uses his or her mistakes to calibrate calls in the future. An analyst or commentator should be able to have reasonable things to say about what in his or her estimation went wrong, and what steps or lessons they hope to take from this setback.

So, how do we ensure we get sound advice and political forecasting? Here are three suggestions:

Take notes: Track the advice you’re getting from your adviser or analyst. In my years as a foreign correspondent, I kept an excel sheet of how pollsters or analysts did on their major calls so I could know who to rely on for insight. Believe me, you are doing all of us advisers a favor by keeping us honest. More important, you are already either relying on that insight or paying for the stuff.

Ask them to show their work: An analyst, a good one anyway, should be able to openly discuss methodology, how they judge political trends, how they understand major political actors and their intentions and why, or how they interpret the actions of leaders. What kind of sources do they rely on or have access to and why? Tip: people with mostly one-sided contacts may be caught in a bubble. You want them to cultivate out of the box type of people, and seek unusual, creative indicators.

Understand your adviser: If you can, regularly meet your adviser, or favored commentator. Study them and ask about their biases. In my opinion a good analyst has to be someone who has a healthy degree of jadedness (just a bit) and constant skepticism. Remember: what you want from these people is unvarnished truth. Whoever told you being jaded is bad hasn’t followed politics for long, or worse yet, doesn’t understand power. A healthy level of jadedness is also called wisdom.

What I’m (Re) Reading 

I recently read Utopia by Thomas More, and frankly it is fitting reading for these times. If you take anything away from this slim classic, originally published back in 1516 in Latin, is that Utopia means “no place”. That’s an important thing to remember for those who believe that if just the world were more liberal or conservative, more religious or secular, it would be, well, a utopia.

More’s masterpiece is widely considered a satire not only due to some of the names of places he makes up like “Nolandia”, “Muchnonsense”, and (my personal favorite) “Happiland”, but also that his description of this mythical place promotes easy divorce, euthanasia, and the marriage of priests, which ran counter to More’s deeply catholic convictions. Yet in Utopia premarital sex is punished with hard time and those who violate all kinds of laws are forced into slavery. Charming.

Plus, there are some parallels with long standing practices, and debates, like Utopia using mercenaries to fight their wars (sound familiar?), or the long held belief by some, even today (in the US Congress even), that if private property ceased to exist as we know it, things would work swimmingly. In Utopia, More says, people prioritize “kindness” over “contracts”.

More’s legacy is claimed by both the communists (he was commemorated by Lenin) and the Catholic Church (he was beatified by Pope Leo XIII). Many would shudder to think that any utopia could be built around the twin building blocks of communism and Catholicism. Others would beg to differ. The point is that no matter how right you happen to think your ideas are, be humble enough to realize that your version of utopia not only doesn’t exist, but likely never will.