2020年11月3日 星期二

The fierce urgency of nowcasting

Why election modelers may save America.
Michael Reynolds/EPA, via Shutterstock
Author Headshot

By Paul Krugman

Opinion Columnist

It’s Election Day. My plan is to spend the evening paying no attention to the news, reading Marcus Aurelius and listening to baroque music.

I’m lying, of course. Like everyone else I’ll be scouring Twitter and the election websites minute by minute, trying to pace my bourbon consumption to stay on that fine line between calm and comatose.

But one thing I’ll be doing in particular is following a variety of number crunchers — not least The Times’s Upshot, which is bringing back a version of its dreaded “needle” — trying to assess what early returns mean for the likely outcome. In normal circumstances, or at least what used to be normal circumstances, this would be a waste of time, since the votes will already have been cast and there’s nothing anyone can do about it. This time, however, modeling based on early returns could, just possibly, save the Republic.

Let me back up a minute. Among economists there is, alongside forecasting, a well-established practice of “nowcasting” — typically estimating the economy’s growth rate in the current quarter before the quarter is over, and weeks before the official estimate from the government’s Bureau of Economic Analysis. The New York Fed and several other Federal Reserve Banks, as well as various private firms, do nowcasting, and some people follow those estimates eagerly.

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Why not just wait for the official number? Ordinarily nowcasts help for planning purposes — they help businesses make production and investment decisions, they give local governments some advance warning about likely revenue, and so on. They may be worth something to investors. But they sometimes have political relevance too.

For example, GDP growth in the third quarter was a huge number. But everyone already expected a huge number thanks to nowcasting, so it had very little political impact — which was appropriate, because it was a backward look at the economy’s partial snapback earlier this year, not an indicator that things were going well looking forward.

So what we’ll be seeing tonight is a lot of political nowcasting. As everyone knows, many votes have been cast by mail, and it may take days or even weeks before all those votes are counted. We will, however, have fairly full information on some states, and some counties within states, relatively early.

These early results may provide important information. In particular, if they look a lot like what the polls are telling us to expect — especially if it appears that Joe Biden has won at least one major Sunbelt state — we may be reasonably confident that Biden has won the nation as a whole despite those outstanding mail-in ballots and, perhaps, despite caution on the part of news organizations unwilling to call the race based on incomplete results.

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And this may matter! This year Democrats, who take the coronavirus seriously, are much more likely than Republicans to have voted by mail. And in states where tabulation of mail-in votes didn’t start until today — most notably Pennsylvania, whose Republican legislature prevented early counting — this will mean a spurious Trump lead in early vote counts.

Trump has more or less telegraphed his intention to try to prevent those mail-in votes from ever being counted — to find some excuse, any excuse, for stopping the clock tonight. This would be crazy, a violation of every democratic principle — but with a 6-3 Supreme Court, it could happen.

Even this stuffed court might well balk, however, if number-crunching on early returns makes it clear that Biden won, so that this would amount to raw election theft.

So bring on the nowcasts. Following them isn’t just obsession, although it’s that too. They might, just might, be the salvation of America as we know it.

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Quick Hits

Charlie Cook, who has access to a lot of nonpublic polling data, effectively calls it for Biden.

But serious Twitter political junkies will wait for Dave Wasserman’s trademark “I’ve seen enough.”

Don’t forget about state legislatures, which will have a lot of influence on future district maps.

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Facing the Music

Destination NormandyYouTube

Not a day for indie music, I think. June 5, 1944 from Band of Brothers.

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