Upsets Happen. No, Really.

Before we get too far away from the SuperBowl, let’s revisit ESPN’s win probability chart:

We all laughed. We all made jokes comparing the Biggest SuperBowl Comeback to the 2016 election.

What we didn’t do was conclude that Tom Brady repealed the laws of probability.  People who have watched pro football over the course of their lives didn’t need a chart to tell them that when a team is ahead by 28-3 (as the Falcons were at one point), the odds of the opponent winning are slim indeed.  We also didn’t need a chart to remember that sometimes big comebacks do happen.

Yet there are a lot of people who seem to believe that the 2016 election proved that polls are worthless and polling models doubly so.  Before the election, Nate Silver wrote about why FiveThirtyEight’s model gave Trump better odds than others and why Hillary Clinton was in a weaker position than Barack Obama had been.  But people just wanted to treat the topline numbers as Gospel.

Nate Cohn, despite the NYT giving Trump worse odds, wrote just before Election Day that he was within striking distance of winning because of his huge lead with white voters without a college degree.  The NYT concluded that Clinton’s chance of losing was about the same as the probability that an NFL kicker misses a 37-yard field goal.

You don’t have to have been a longtime NFL fan to at least vaguely recall that the Vikings’ Blair Walsh missed a 37-yard FG attempt in 2016.  Or that the Bears’ Connor Barth missed a 31-yarder.  Or that the Bucs’ Roberto Aguayo missed a 32-yard attempt in 2015.

Of course, if a kicker is consistently bad, he’ll get cut; just ask the Mighty Bengals.  Then again, if you never campaign in Wisconsin, maybe you’ll lose to Donald Trump.

When we see unlikely things happen in football, we seem to have more rational reactions than when we see them happen in politics.  After all, if you’re not a fan of data journalism (and to be fair, it’s far from perfect), it’s an easy slam.  And if you’re invested in pushing a narrative of Trump as the Colossus who remakes the GOP and American politics generally, it’s a useful slam and a way to dismiss unfavorable data as “fake news.”

But the laws of probability have not been repealed.  And while the polling industry faces big challenges, it’s not dead.  People will ignore data at their peril.

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Had This Been President Clinton… (Likely a Continuing Series)

The WaPo’s Josh Rogin reported that during the tumultuous rollout of Pres. Trump’s EO on immigration for the Middle East, Homeland Security Secretary John F. Kelly planned to issue a waiver for lawful permanent residents, and refused a counter-instruction from White House chief strategist Stephen Bannon.

Rogin, however, failed to seek comment from the White House.  According to an appended “Editor’s Note,” WH spox Sean Spicer stated that “Stephen Bannon did not travel to see Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly on the evening of Jan. 28.”

Plenty of folks on the right then swarmed onto social media to claim that the story was false, just like Rogin’s earlier piece overhyping resignations at the State Dept. — a story that even Vox’s Zach Beauchamp called “very misleading.” Ouch.

However, the problem with comparing the two stories should be obvious to anyone who remembers the Clinton Administration.  Spicer’s response is precisely the sort of lawyerly quasi-denial the Clinton White House would issue whenever controversy arose.

Indeed, had a Clinton White House issued a response like Spicer’s, folks on the right would be noting that he did not deny the key facts in the story: (a) Kelly planned to issue the waiver; (b) Bannon instructed him to not issue the waiver; (c) Kelly rebuffed Bannon and issued the waiver; and (d) Bannon and White House senior policy adviser Stephen Miller lost the ensuing debate about excluding key Cabinet officials from the EO process.

Had this been the Clinton White House, righties would have noted that an Administration waging #WAR on the media certainly would have denied those reported facts if they thought they could get away with it.

Had this been the Clinton White House, righties also would have observed that the denial extended only to the question of whether Bannon traveled to see Kelly, as opposed to telephoning, for example.  And they would have joked — in their best voice impressions of Bubba himself — that “it depends on what the meaning of ‘evening‘ is.”

As HotAir’s Allahpundit observed: “American politics increasingly feels like a novel whose events are retold by two unreliable narrators, Trump being one and the media being the other. ”  Those who focus on the media’s manifest failures (and they are myriad) while accepting Clintonian verbiage from the Trump White House may be setting themselves up for a fall later.

Update: On Feb. 7, Politico reported that Kelly called the WaPo piece “a fantasy story”; The L.A. Times quotes him as claiming “Every paragraph, every sentence … was wrong.”  He also told Rep Kathleen Rice, “I work for one man.  His name is Donald Trump, obviously.”  A skeptic might take that as a dig at Bannon.  And in context, Kelly is clearly playing a good soldier falling on his sword.  He’s a man taking the blame for something in which he played no part.

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