Friday, November 11, 2016

Was the election decided by noise?

The day before the election Scott Alexander made a post suggesting that the election may well be (may well have been, in retrospect) won by noise. He opens by pointing out that "Hillary seems to lead Trump by 3%" in the popular vote. Then:
Lots of things can happen tomorrow. Maybe it rains in Philadelphia, that city’s racially diverse and left-leaning voters stay home, and Pennsylvania goes for Trump, winning him the election. Maybe there’s a really good get-out-the-vote campaign among Hispanics, and Florida ends up being Trump 48 Hillary 52 instead of the projected Trump 52 Hillary 48. Maybe the Department of Agriculture announces that Hillary is under investigation for bringing exotic weevil species into the US, and the population turns against her en masse.

And someone is going to confuse this kind of stuff with deep insight into the state of the country.
But all that's just noise, in a technical sense of the word. Since Alexander wrote that before the actual vote, he's dealing with polling results. And that kind of difference between the two is within polling error. We're in "butterfly over China" territory. Why? Because, as far as we can tell, actual sentiment – and "sentiment" IS the word, as that's how these things are decided – is pretty evenly divided.

And so:
Instead, I suggest people precommit to their views on politics and society now. We live in a country and a world where Hillary can be at about 47% and Trump at about 45%. This is pretty much all you need to know. It suggests that a lot of people are willing to support a nationalist candidate, and a lot of other people really hate that candidate. It suggests that political fundamentals are totally compatible with a situation where either Trump or Hillary could win based on noise in the electoral process.

(unless the polls are totally wrong and one candidate somehow wins in a 20 percentage point landslide or something)
There was no landslide. As far as we can tell at this point, the popular vote was very close.

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