Electoral College Math
With the two major U.S. political party conventions in the rearview mirror, Americans are now taking a close look at their quadrennial presidential election. Cable news networks, whose revenues rely on keeping audiences tuned in, have a vested interest in playing up the contest’s capriciousness and unpredictability.
But an increasing number of statistically literate poll-aggregation websites, such as FiveThirtyEight, RealClearPolitics and Electoral-Vote.com, reveal how the electorate’s choice is anything but. All three got the 2008 result right and predicted the final electoral tally to within 5 percent. And perhaps the most starkly analytical picture of the presidential race appeared on a Princeton neuroscientist’s website. A physicist by training who applies his statistical acumen to opinion poll results, Sam Wang’s forecast of the 2008 election was off by a single electoral vote. And his 2004 prediction was perfect.
Wang, an associate professor of neuroscience at Princeton, says an undergraduate-level knowledge of statistics and some basic coding skills are the chief prerequisites for being the most accurate presidential-race pundit on the planet. His Princeton Election Consortium, a collaboration with Princeton alum Andrew Ferguson, crunches the numbers collected by the Huffington Post –owned organization Pollster.com, which aggregates a number of poll results.
A story for IEEE Spectrum on Sept. 12, 2012. Photo by Merlijn Doomernik/Hollandse Hoog/Redux