Riverdale Country School

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Upper School News & Stories

Politics And Statistics
Posted 03/11/2015 03:40PM

What do you do if you like politics, statistics, and weather predictions?

If you are Harry Enten '07, you sign on with Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight.

Enten came to Riverdale on Wednesday as the featured speaker in American Elections, a student-led miniclass, to talk about political polling.

The senior political writer and analyst for FiveThirtyEight, Enten told the students that he wasn’t a good writer when he was at Riverdale, but he was good at history and statistics. “Anywhere I could use statistics, I did.”

That led him to a position at The Guardian and then to FiveThirtyEight, a news website that uses statistics to analyze and predict news. Now Enten spends much of his time watching the field of candidates for the 2016 presidential election, and writing comes a lot easier.

Enten explained to the students that 60 years ago, polling firms used quota sampling to predict election outcomes. That methodology was deeply flawed – leading to Truman’s surprise victory over Dewey in 1948.

As presidential elections became more closely contested, polling shifted to probability sampling, and pollsters became more sophisticated about determining the margin of error. Nate Silver refined the science of predicting election outcomes even further with a sophisticated statistical methodology that involves aggregated poll results and other data.

As presidential campaigns gear up for 2016, Enten said polling strategies will continue to change. “People don’t have landlines anymore,” he said. “The response rates are way down.”

So polling companies are looking at other mechanisms – such as online surveys, focus groups, and even the U.S. mail – and assessing the relative costs and reliability of the data.

“I am a huge fan of mail polls,” he said. “If you send someone a letter, they will probably read it.”

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