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What we didn’t do was conclude that Tom Brady repealed the laws of probability.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But the laws of probability have not been repealed.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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