“MRP is the Carmelo Anthony of election forecasting methods”? So we’re doing trash talking now??

What’s the deal with Nate Silver calling MRP “the Carmelo Anthony of forecasting methods”?

Someone sent this to me:

and I was like, wtf? I don’t say wtf very often—at least, not on the blog—but this just seemed weird.

For one thing, Nate and I did a project together once using MRP: this was our estimate of attitudes on heath care reform by age, income, and state:

Without MRP, we couldn’t’ve done anything like it.

So, what gives?

Here’s a partial list of things that MRP has done:

– Estimating public opinion in slices of the population

– Improved analysis using the voter file

– Polling using the Xbox that outperformed conventional poll aggregates

– Changing our understanding of the role of nonresponse in polling swings

– Post-election analysis that’s a lot more trustworthy than exit polls

OK, sure, MRP has solved lots of problems, it’s revolutionized polling, no matter what Team Buggy Whip says.

That said, it’s possible that MRP is overrated. “Overrated” is a difference between rated quality and actual quality. MRP, wonderful as it is, might well be rated too highly in some quarters. I wouldn’t call MRP a “forecasting method,” but that’s another story.

I guess the thing that bugged me about the Carmelo Anthony comparison is that my impression from reading the sports news is not just that Anthony is overrated but that he’s an actual liability for his teams. Whereas I see MRP, overrated as it may be (I’ve seen no evidence that MRP is overrated but I’ll accept this for the purpose of argument), as still a valuable contributor to polling.

Ten years ago . . .

The end of the aughts. It was a simpler time. Nate Silver was willing to publish an analysis that used MRP. We all thought embodied cognition was real. Donald Trump was a reality-TV star. Kevin Spacey was cool. Nobody outside of suburban Maryland had heard of Beach Week.

And . . . Carmelo Anthony got lots of respect from the number crunchers.

Check this out:

So here’s the story according to Nate: MRP is like Carmelo Anthony because they’re both overrated. But Carmelo Anthony isn’t overrated, he’s really underrated. So maybe Nate’s MRP jab was just a backhanded MRP compliment?

Simpler story, I guess, is that back around 2010 Nate liked MRP and he liked Carmelo. Back then, he thought the people who thought Carmelo was overrated, were wrong. In 2018, he isn’t so impressed with either of them. Nate’s impression of MRP and Carmelo Anthony go up and down together. That’s consistent, I guess.

In all seriousness . . .

Unlike Nate Silver, I claim no expertise on basketball. For all I know, Tim Tebow will be starting for the Knicks next year!

I do claim some expertise on MRP, though. Nate described MRP as “not quite ‘hard’ data.” I don’t really know what Nate meant by “hard” data—ultimately, these are all just survey responses—but, in any case, I replied:

I guess MRP can mean different things to different people. All the MRP analyses I’ve ever published are entirely based on hard data. If you want to see something that’s a complete mess and is definitely overrated, try looking into the guts of classical survey weighting (see for example this paper). Meanwhile, Yair used MRP to do these great post-election summaries. Exit polls are a disaster; see for example here.

Published poll toplines are not the data, warts and all; they’re processed data, sometimes not adjusted for enough factors as in the notorious state polls in 2016. I agree with you that raw data is the best. Once you have raw data, you can make inferences for the population. That’s what Yair was doing. For understandable commercial reasons, lots of pollsters will release toplines and crosstabs but not raw data. MRP (or, more generally, RRP) is just a way of going from the raw data to make inference about the general population. It’s the general population (or the population of voters) that we care about. The people in the sample are just a means to an end.

Anyway, if you do talk about MRP and how overrated it is, you might consider pointing people to some of those links to MRP successes. Hey, here’s another one: we used MRP to estimate public opinion on health care. MRP has quite a highlight reel, more like Lebron or Steph or KD than Carmelo, I’d say!

One thing I will say is that data and analysis go together:

– No modern survey is good enough to be able to just interpret the results without any adjustment. Nonresponse is just too big a deal. Every survey gets adjusted, but some don’t get adjusted well.

– No analysis method can do it on its own without good data. All the modeling in the world won’t help you if you have serious selection bias.

Yair added:

Maybe it’s just a particularly touchy week for Melo references.

Both Andy and I would agree that MRP isn’t a silver bullet. But nothing is a silver bullet. I’ve seen people run MRP with bad survey data, bad poststratification data, and/or bad covariates in a model that’s way too sparse, and then over-promise about the results. I certainly wouldn’t endorse that. On the other side, obviously I agree with Andy that careful uses of MRP have had many successes, and it can improve survey inferences, especially compared to traditional weighting.

I think maybe you’re talking specifically about election forecasting? I haven’t seen comparisons of your forecasts to YouGov or PredictWise or whatever else. My vague sense pre-election was that they were roughly similar, i.e., that the meaty part of the curves overlapped. Maybe I’m wrong and your forecasts were much better this time—but non-MRP forecasters have also done much worse than you, so is that an indictment of MRP, or are you just really good at forecasting?

More to my main point—in one of your recent podcasts, I remember you said something about how forecasts aren’t everything, and people should look at precinct results to try to get beyond the toplines. That’s roughly what we’ve been trying to do in our post-election project, which has just gotten started. We see MRP as a way to combine all the data—pre-election voter file data, early voting, precinct results, county results, polling—into a single framework. Our estimates aren’t going to be perfect, for sure, but hopefully an improvement over what’s been out there, especially at sub-national levels. I know we’d do better if we had a lot more polling data, for instance. FWIW I get questions from clients all the time about how demographic groups voted in different states. Without state-specific survey data, which is generally unavailable and often poorly collected/weighted, not sure what else you can do except some modeling like MRP.

Maybe you’d rather see the raw unprocessed data like the precinct results. Fair enough, sometimes I do too! My sense is the people who want that level of detail are in the minority of the minority. Still, we’re going to try to do things like show the post-processed MRP estimates, but also some of the raw data to give intuition. I wonder if you think this is the right approach, or if you think something else would be better.

And Ryan Enos writes:

To follow up on this—I think you’ll all be interested in seeing the back and forth between Nate and Lynn Vavreck who was interviewing him. It was more of a discussion of tradeoffs between different approaches, then a discussion of what is wrong with MRP. Nate’s MRP alternative was to do a poll in every district, which I think we can all agree would be nice – if not entirely realistic. Although, as Nate pointed out, some of the efforts from the NY Times this cycle made that seem more realistic. In my humble opinion, Lynn did a nice job pushing Nate on the point that, even with data like the NY Times polls, you are still moving beyond raw data by weighting and, as Andrew points out, we often don’t consider how complex this can be (I have a common frustration with academic research about how much out of the box survey weights are used and abused).

I don’t actually pay terribly close attention to forecasting – but in my mind, Nate and everybody else in the business is doing a fantastic job and the YouGov MRP forecasts have been a revelation. From my perspective, as somebody who cares more about what survey data can teach us about human behavior and important political phenomenon, I think MRP has been a revelation in that it has allowed us to infer opinion in places, such as metro areas, where it would otherwise be missing. This has been one of the most important advances in public opinion research in my lifetime. Where the “overrated” part becomes true is that just like every other scientific advance, people can get too excited about what it can do without thinking about what assumptions are going into the method and this can lead to believing it can do more than it can—but this is true of everything.

Yair, to your question about presentation—I am a big believer in raw data and I think combining the presentation of MRP with something like precinct results, despite the dangers of ecological error, can be really valuable because it can allow people to check MRP results with priors from raw data.

It’s fine to do a poll in every district but then you’d still want to do MRP in order to adjust for nonresponse, estimate subgroups of the population, study public opinion in between the districtwide polls, etc.