Gut Feelings as Probabilities

From Sabermetrics to Nate Silver, the past decade has become the decade of probabilities as headlines. Serious baseball fans don’t just study the box scores in the paper anymore – they turn to Fangraphs and other websites to see how their analysts have projected probabilities of everything from a team making the post-season to winning the World Series. Each baseball site has its own proprietary analytical formula, which gets tweaked after each season to try to adjust for whatever the difference turned out to be between their projections and the final actual results.

And of course, Nate Silver, who got his start doing probabilities and projections on sports stats, applied the concepts to political polls and created a model that provided probabilities projections for the ’08 and ’12 national elections. Silver’s model’s projections the night before both elections was stunningly close to the actual results.

I follow national politics more closely than does me good (I get super anxious and neurotic about things in a way that isn’t really helping anyone or anything). I am someone who tends to form strong gut feelings about political trends, but I don’t think I have an accurate sense of how often my gut turns out to be right. Regardless of whether I have a very intuitive gut or whether I’m just proven right some of the time and tend to remember those times but not the others, I am, in the end, stuck with my gut feelings.

But something I’ve never done before is express my gut feelings in terms of probabilities. Previously, I’ve just said, “I think so-and-so’s going to win,” and then say why. But I’ve never said, “I think right now so-and-so has a 75% likelihood of winning,” so I thought I’d take a shot at doing that now. I’ll quantify my gut feeling probabilities as UGPs – unscientific gut-feeling probability.

Here goes nothing!

As of today, I think Hillary Clinton has a UGP of winning the presidency of 67%. Why, given the press story line about her is that she has a growing credibility problem and that her brand is suffering and that the Repubs are catching up to her or even surpassing her in state polls?

Well, it’s a gut feeling, so (a) I have to think about it for a minute, and (b) I could be totally wrong!

Okay, I’m done thinking. Here’s what my gut is telling me:

First, let me say what I think are accurate assessments of HRC’s vulnerabilities as a candidate.

1) She doesn’t have the gift Obama has, or that Bill C had, of charisma and warmth as a communicator. She genuinely is more cold, more defensive, and more sarcastic, than the kind of candidate people fall in love with.

2) Point #1 is exacerbating the negative impact of the email server controversy. Let’s face it – the GOP was always going to furnish the press with “scandals” to try to disqualify her outright as a candidate in the early going, and this email thing fits that agenda. So there was going to be something that she was going to get asked about and confronted about of this nature no matter what. Her biggest failure as a candidate so far is how she’s responding to it all. If she were of a different personality, she’d be non-defensive with journalists, warm to the press, come across as natural and authentic, and possibly even have responded by coming across as genuinely sorry that she may have used poor judgment, and asking people to consider her whole record in public service against this mistake that, by the way, others before her at State also made. But that’s not who she is, and I personally can’t resent her for that. It’s just not who she is.

3) She’s sporadically inspiring, but more often a bit wooden or sounds like she’s giving a speech when she’s giving a speech. They say she’s more natural in small groups, but this game happens in front of cameras.

4) She didn’t exactly knock progressives’ socks off as a Senator, and she’s vulnerable to flip-flop accusations especially given her Iraq war vote.

5) Everyone wonders what the impact on her campaign will be if Bill gets caught red-handed in more philandering. Having that lurking out there as a wild card is a vulnerability. (This isn’t fair to her, but it is what it is.)

6) She’s got plenty of big time corporate friends at the same time that she espouses progressive values and policies. She and her husband are one of the world’s true power couples, and they have lots of political and business ties to all kinds of people, and the more all of that comes under scrutiny, the more opportunities her opponents will have to try to paint her as an overly-entitled, elitist hypocrite.

Now, here are the factors that I think are in her favor:

1) By all reports, she’s got a well-organized campaign that’s absorbed the lessons and ground-game organizing strategies of the Obama ’08 campaign, and she’s focusing a lot of energy on building that infrastructure up. That’s the kind of thing that I think 2012 taught us can win close elections, because you end up with higher than expected turnouts of minority voters, women, youth, and you win some swing states you might have lost. This change shows that she learns from past campaign mistakes and adapts where she can. I think she can’t change her somewhat acerbic personality, but she is changing the things she can change, and changing them decisively and energetically.

2) I realize her poll numbers aren’t what a solid Dem like me would wish for at this moment, but there are some areas in which her numbers are fantastic and the GOP is, thanks to Trump, screwing up its chances to reverse those trends. For example, MSM keeps harping on the decline in her favorable ratings, but among Latino voters she’s like +50 in favorability as of this week. Think about that. +50! And the GOP is in a Latino-American voter death spiral, which is rapidly increasing the likely size of the Latino turnout. She also has monster-good favorables with African-Americans, and again, the more Trump pied pipers the GOP  brand name into white supremacist territory, the more motivated African-Americans will be to turn out big. That by itself won Obama Ohio in 2012.

3) She’s using social media a lot like Obama’s campaign did, and on Facebook one frequently sees things like this:

Hillary FBTo be clear, I don’t speak Spanish, and I didn’t sign up for a special Spanish-language version of her FB official newsfeed. These posts from her campaign are just frequently in the mix with her English-language FB posts. This is really smart.

4) As worrying as her current struggles are – and they aren’t negligible weaknesses – I still  wouldn’t want to trade places with the problems the Republicans have on their hands. This is the part of the story that I think the MSM is missing. They’re comparing Hillary now to Hillary a year ago and saying “look – she’s doing worse,” when they should be comparing Hillary’s campaign vs the current state of the various Republican campaigns. Hillary’s weaknesses as a candidate are being exposed right now, no doubt, and they’re real. But seriously, the crazy shit-storm that Trump has brought to the GOP is probably a much bigger problem for them than Hillary’s “trustworthiness” problem is for us Dems.

I mean, look at it this way: for the Dems, the game plan was for Hillary to run a kick-ass campaign, and probably face weak Dem challengers along the way. Yes, Sanders has disrupted that, but not beyond the realm of what party leaders were expecting might happen, and in fact by all accounts his campaign is likely to benefit hers in the long run, especially when he endorses her at the end. So far she’s done a very good job of building the organizing foundations for a long-haul campaign, but she’s struggling with how the media reacts to her personality around controversies legitimate or otherwise. That’s not that bizarre a problem-set for a campaign to deal with, and it’s pretty transparent to Dem leadership what the problems are.

For the GOP leaders, in contrast, they had a game plan for the 2016 campaign that has been completely hijacked by Trump, and the rest of the pack look semi-impotent next to him. Unlike the Dems’ problem, the Repubs’ problems are harder to predict, and therefore harder to prepare for or manage. And so far the non-Trump candidates aren’t exactly wowing the general electorate. Also, they have to worry about potential scenarios that would outright hand the election to Hillary, like Trump running as an independent, or Trump (cough) getting the nomination, or the failure of the other GOP candidates to seriously stand up to his racism coming back to bite them in the general. And there’s the very serious problem of their entire brand name getting so tied to Trump’s racism that they seriously do even worse with minorities than the last 2 elections.

5) My gut says there’s a UGP of 75% that by the fall of 2016, the economy will be even better than it is now, and Hillary will benefit from that storyline. The unemployment rate is forecast to be under 5%, wages will be increasing some, the health uninsured rate will continue to drop steeply, gas will probably continue to be below $3 – all of this is probable, not certain, but that’s why I’m doing gut-check probabilities! Basically there’s a strong chance that the general feeling will be that over the course of Obama’s two terms the economy got slowly but surely better. Hillary has made the clear move of aligning herself with Obama’s presidency, defending the ACA and the Iran deal, and describing her campaign as building upon Obama’s successes. Even her marketing and branding images evoke the Obama campaigns. Historically, according to Nate Silver & others like him, the challenging party needs to build a very strong case in the minds of most of the general public that things are really really bad and likely to get worse unless we change horses. When things, in reality, have been getting steadily better for years and are, in Nov 2016, the best they’ve been since W left office, there’s an historical pattern of undecided voters leaning towards sticking with the status quo.

6) The media has accurately shown us Hillary’s personality flaws of late. But they’ve said little about some of her personality qualities that are likely to function as assets and strengths for her down the home stretch. Is she the most honest person in peoples’ minds – well, for the moment, apparently not. But when it comes down to her vs a Repub (or her vs a Repub vs Trump), it’s going to be open season on the other candidates’ pasts and lapses of honesty, transparency, etc. Her campaign has set as a major theme the idea of Hillary as a fighter. She’s fighting – for you, for the middle class, etc. The message is she knows how to fight, she’ll succeed at these fights, she’s tough and smart and knows how to win. I’m struck by how different this message is than Obama in ’08. His campaign put forward core images of Obama as someone who could transcend the vicious red/blue hate fest that American politics had become – Obama offered hope, and in his own bi-racial biography talked about wanting to be someone who could help draw Americans of different ideas and political parties into civil discourse and greater respect for each other. I believe he genuinely wanted to govern that way, but the GOP never gave him the chance. If Hillary tried to present herself in that same light, it’d be inauthentic to her. Instead, her team has “fight” and “fighter” all over their website and in her speeches, etc. I think in an election in which voters have to choose between a brilliant, affable, honest, and charismatic Republican vs a tarnished but tough Hillary, the GOP might win the day. But I don’t think the GOP has someone who really meets that profile in its field of candidates. If the election is between two people who both have less than pure personal and political histories, then that issue recedes and the more potent factors, like the trajectory of the economy and the organizing and ground game strategy, drive the election’s outcome.

7) Hillary has some f-ing awesome potential Veep picks. Cory Booker is my personal favorite. Julian Castro is another. She has the possibility of adding someone to the ticket who has a very interesting bio, who represents progress on continuing the breaking down of racial and ethnic barriers, and who will attract young voters. Looking over at the GOP, I don’t think they have the same kind of exciting potential set of people. I’m too tired to unpack it.

8) She’s not campaigning in a hesitant, cautious way (which I would find infuriating – I hate that shit). She’s loud and clear on a bunch of hot button issues, whether backing Obama on the Iran deal, or the need for more gun control laws, or women’s equality, or immigration. When Jeb said “anchor babies,” she pounced right away, tweeting out “they’re called babies.” And after Trump’s shocking ejection of Jorge Ramos from his presser, her campaign posted this on her FB page:

respetoI think this is brilliant. It’s in Spanish, and it captures exactly what many Latino-Americans and their friends are feeling. Trump (and the other GOP candidates who rarely condemn his antics in full voice) have thoroughly dissed them. By stating this message in this way – with just one word – she’s communicating that she gets it, and that she’s offended.

I’m going to stop now, and maybe add more later. This is some of why my UGP rating for Hillary to win it all stands at 67%. And maybe I’m colossally wrong! 🙂

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