Monday, November 2, 2020

Schrödinger's election

This isn’t really the best of analogies, but bear with me I am working under the clock here.

While everyone is aware of the basic facts, I get the feeling that most analysts have not yet really internalized the new cadence of the election and its implications. They are still tending to  think of this as something that will basically happen next Tuesday instead of something that is 2/3 over. At this point, like Schrodinger‘s hypothetical cat, the election is largely locked in a box, its fate decided but unknown (though unlike with the cat, we do have some idea what’s going on in the box – like I said, this is not a great analogy).

(This, of course, does assume that we actually count all of the ballots that have been cast in person or received and certified by mail. Those not yet received may be in a kind of limbo.)

The first and most obvious aspect is that anything that happens, any political event, any news story will have no impact on the votes that have already been cast and certified. They are a fixed but unknown quantity.

The second point is a bit more subtle.

We are talking about a mixture of things that have happened and things that may happen. Since it appears that the early voting was heavily Democratic and it is assumed that the in-person voting will be mainly or at least disproportionately Republican, this basically puts a floor under Democratic support and a ceiling on Republican.

When you put these two ideas together it leads to some interesting conclusions.

Events and breaking news that can radically change results on election day are almost always on the downside. It is very difficult to imagine something breaking at the last minute that would double the turn out in a certain district. By comparison, it is not difficult at all to imagine events that would greatly suppress it. Given the extremely chaotic times we are living in, it would be foolish to rule out the possibility of some otherwise unimaginable black swan event, but it seems unlikely we see one that will cause a huge surge in voter turn out on November 3.


  1. Mark:

    Sure, but when it comes to vote preferences, you could say the election was 2/3 over by January. Or January of last year. The vast majority of people vote their party.

    1. Yes, but that doesn't mean that the vast majority of people vote.

      For around 2/3 of the population the likelihood of voting is 100%. I'm arguing that the way we think about this fixed but unknown quality is different than the way we think about an event yet to happen.

      (We are dangerously close to this degenerating into a discussion of the Monty Hall paradox and no one wants that)

      I don't know how complex the relationship between likely voter models and party affiliation and tendency to vote party is -- I'm just a casual observer here -- but if there is a relationship it means we need to approach these two groups differently.