Within a few hours (hopefully), we will know who won Ohio, and this election season will mercifully come to a close. All of the sophisticated forecasters agree: Obama is going to win Ohio and therefore the White House. (See Nate Silver and Drew Linzer.)
However, there is one unsophisticated forecaster who is convinced everyone has it wrong. His name is Unskewed Polls Guy. He is convinced that Romney is going to win. Why? Well, Unskewed Polls Guy’s methodology is that we should take all the state polls and arbitrarily add 5% or so to Romney’s total. Or something. Why? Well…uhh…the polls are skewed toward Obama. Or something. Hence, Unskewed Poll Guy unskews the polls by throwing votes Romney’s way. Or something.
As the last paragraph illustrated, I have absolutely no respect for Unskewed Polls Guy’s methodology. To say he is pulling numbers out of his…ahem…would be gentle. Hell, up until today, he had Oregon as a state Romney could potentially win. Oregon. Oregon? OREGON.
But my post title is not sarcastic: Unskewed Polls Guy is a true genius. Here’s why. First, regardless of the election results tonight, Unskewed Polls Guy is already a winner. His website gets a ton of traffic, half from crazy conservatives who believe math is a false paradigm and think he truly is unskewing polls and half from sane people (both liberal and conservative) who find his lunacy to be highly entertaining. The inaccuracy of his forecasting has brought him a substantial bounty–precisely due to how horrible his forecasting is. Brilliant!
But that’s not the real genius of Unskwewed Polls Guy’s ignorant plot. Suppose the other forecasting models do get it “wrong”–that is, the outcome of the election is far away from the mean prediction. This is well-within the realm of possibility. Silver’s model gives Romney a 9% chance to win. That is substantial, and you generally need 95% confidence to get published in social science. Put differently, social scientists would a Romney victory odd but not altogether shocking.
Of course, if this election cycle has taught us anything, it is that the media has absolutely no clue how the forecasting models work. 24/7 cable news has been embarrassing for a while now, but this has gone to a whole new level. If Romney wins, they will treat Unskewed Polls Guy as a prophetic god. He will be the hottest media commodity for the next two weeks. He will get a book deal. He will make a large sum of money. And why? Because he is a complete idiot, has no clue what he is doing or why he is doing it, and just happened to accidentally hit a miracle. If it has happened with an octopus, the frenzy will certainly happen with a human.
And that’s the real genius. If Obama wins, Unskewed Polls Guy takes home a lot of advertising revenue from the past few weeks, and we all forget about him. If Romney wins, Unskewed Polls Guy hits the jackpot. Consequently, if Unskewed Polls Guy is trolling us all, my hat is off to him. If I had thought about this a year ago, I might have been Unskewed Polls Guy.
Going forward, forecasters have awkward incentives. Fivethirtyeight has pretty much cornered the market. You would think that a forecaster should just maximize his chances of being right. But that pretty much means copying Nate Silver. So, to become famous, you really ought to make ridiculously crazy predictions, hope nature randomly makes you right, and reap the short-term rewards. Long-term, you are screwed. But who cares if you’ve already received your book advance?