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Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Failure of imagination

Posted by: Hammer / 2:49 PM

We're faced with two options. Either I'm suffering from an acute failure of imagination or Jim Lampley has gone off the deep end:
At 5:00 p.m. Eastern time on Election Day, I checked the sportsbook odds in Las Vegas and via the offshore bookmakers to see the odds as of that moment on the Presidential election. John Kerry was a two-to-one favorite. You can look it up.

People who have lived in the sports world as I have, bettors in particular, have a feel for what I am about to say about this: these people are extremely scientific in their assessments. These people understand which information to trust and which indicators to consult in determining where to place a dividing line to influence bets, and they are not in the business of being completely wrong. Oddsmakers consulted exit polling and knew what it meant and acknowledged in their oddsmaking at that moment that John Kerry was winning the election.

And he most certainly was, at least if the votes had been fairly and legally counted. What happened instead was the biggest crime in the history of the nation, and the collective media silence which has followed is the greatest fourth-estate failure ever on our soil.

...We know that professionally conceived samples simply do not yield results which vary six, eight, ten points from eventual data returns, that's why there are identifiable margins for error. We know that margins for error are valid, and that results have fallen within the error range for every Presidential election for the past fifty years prior to last fall. ...

Karl Rove isn't capable of conceiving and executing such a grandiose crime? Wake up. They did it....

If betting were a purely rational exercise, then 2:1 odds would mean that John Kerry had a 67% chance of winning the election while Bush had a 33% chance. A 1 in 3 chance is hardly a long shot.

A betting line like this one, of course, is not a purely rational exercise in statistical possibility. The house's goal is to balance the wagers. It has nothing at all to do with who the bookmaker thinks will win an event. If the house sets the odds at 2:1, then it expects to receive $2 on Kerry for every $1 on Bush. The losers pay the winners and the house makes it's money by facilitating the transaction.

A final note on the gambling angle. Betting lines are wrong all the time. The Packers were a 10 to 14 point favorite to beat Denver in the Super Bowl. Denver won the game outright. Yes, clearly, there was a grand conspiracy involved to strip the Packers of their shot at a dynasty in that case. What are the odds of that happening again?

Turning to the exactitude of "professional conceived samples", we find Lampley ignoring a critical part of the margin of error. Generally, the margin of error is expressed at a 95% confidence level. That is, there's always a 5% chance that the sample is so skewed that the margin of error is entirely irrelevant. If you poll 1,000 Americans on anything, every once in a while you're going to randomly get 1,000 ditto hands who believe the earth is flat, apes evolved from men, and that Bush is honest. That, dear friends, is as much statistical fact as anything Lampley presents.

A final point. Lampley provides no links and no source data, but I suspect he is confusing the early exit polling data with the final exit polls. The early polling data was released onto the Internet. Final vote tallies differed drastically from the early data, just as Lampley says. But the early exit polling data is not traditionally available to the public. I'm not aware of any studies showing that early exit polls have been perfectly accurate. If, as it seems to me, Lampley is comparing the early exit poll data from 2004 with the final exit poll data of the previous 50 years, his conclusion is wholly without merit.

Or, it's possible that I'm mentally logy today and lack the will to imagine a grand Rovian scheme to heinously distort democracy.


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