I think Nate Silver's advice to himself about how to handle fast-breaking polling news is correct. And his advise to the rest of us about how to deal with it is basically wrong.
I should explain. Silver has a post out today defending the way he's handling analysis of convention bounces again those
who correctly note that polling around the party conventions can be volatile. They suggest that we ought to wait for more data before concluding very much about the bounces that the conventions have produced.Silver contends:
Saying “wait for more data” sort of misses the point. What about the data that we have on hand already? Is it compelling enough to suggest that there has been some change in condition of the race? Or isn’t it?Well, here's the thing. Silver normally publishes daily updated projections. Would his site be more useful if he only updated once a week, or when some sort of critical mass of new information was out there? I don't think so. Would his site be more useful if it shut down (or at least the projections were shut down) while the convention bounces came and went? No, not really.
That’s really the central question that we seek to answer with our forecast models. On some days, the trend is a little more obvious than on others. But we make forecasts when it is easy to do so, and we make forecasts when it’s hard.
But I'll stick to what I said before the conventions: the best choice for us as consumers of this information is to be patient about it all. In another week or two we'll know a lot more than we did two weeks ago. What we learn in the meantime, however, is just not particularly reliable. We don't have enough experience with all of it to really know what it means as it's happening (and on top of that, we're really just dealing with the tracking polls; we haven't had very many other polls at all).
Now, I say that without having read Erickson and Wlezien's new book, which I'm certain is excellent and which I can highly recommend sight-unseen, but off the top of my head I can think of half a dozen reasons to be skeptical that the pattern of previous convention bounces will hold this time around. Let's see...the conventions are usually earlier; they usually are not back-to-back as they were this year; Paul Ryan was chosen unusually early; Labor Day may have messed with the polls...well, that's four quick ones, so add increased polarization and the rise of the partisan press (not brand new, of course) and that's six.
Look, we know a few things. We know that horse race head-to-head polling six months out and more is mostly useless. We know that horse race head-to-head polling in October is a very good predictor of election results. We know that traditionally, conventions do a fair amount of the work of moving from that first thing to that second thing. And we also know that traditionally, conventions can move some people temporarily in ways that fizzle out over the next week or two.
What we really don't know are a couple of things: this time, under current conditions, what do conventions do? And: this time, how much if any of that temporary bounce are we seeing?
Fortunately, most of us don't need to know. Unless we're making choices about scarce campaign resources, it just doesn't matter. If we get it wrong during this window in which the polls can't quite be understood, it really doesn't matter.
If we want to get it right, the best advice is to wait another ten days or so and then consult the polling averages out there.
But you know what? We political junkies are generally pretty desperately curious, too. And there's nothing exactly wrong with that. The trick is, if we don't want to misinform ourselves is to just keep in mind that there's an unusual amount of uncertainty right now. And there's nothing at all wrong with the various polling projection sites going ahead and giving us their best estimates right now, especially if they make it clear exactly what it is they're doing.
So: want to know what's going on in the presidential race? My advise is to wait another ten days. But since neither you nor I is going to do that, let's all just remember that the estimates we're seeing right now are quite a bit less reliable than usual, and that in a week or so we'll have estimates that are quite a bit more reliable than any polling-based estimates we've seen so far. Now, I can't expect Silver to tell everyone to wait until a couple of weeks after the convention and tell all of his readers that he doesn't have anything in the meantime, especially when they -- sorry, we -- have a particularly strong craving right now. So he's right to keep updating, and it's certainly more accurate than not updating, anyway. It's just that really what we all should be doing is waiting it out.