When I missed my moment in the sun

Going through an old piece I’d written for Mint, while conducting research for something I’m planning to write, I realise that I’d come rather close to staking claim as a great election forecaster. As it happened, I just didn’t have the balls to stick my neck out (yes, mixed metaphors and all that) and so I missed the chance to be a hero.

I was writing a piece on election forecasting, and the art of converting vote shares into seat shares, which is tricky business in a first past the post system such as India. I was trying to explain how the number of “corners of contests” can have an impact on what seat share a particular vote share can translate to, and I wrote about Uttar Pradesh.

Quoting from my article:

An opinion poll conducted by CNN-IBN and CSDS whose results were published last week predicted that in Uttar Pradesh, the Bharatiya Janata Party is likely to get 38% of the vote. The survey reported that this will translate to about 41-49 seats for the BJP. What does our model above say?

If you look at the graph for the four-cornered contest closely (figure 4), you will notice that 38% vote share literally falls off the chart. Only once before has a party secured over 30% of the vote in a four-cornered contest (Congress in relatively tiny Haryana in 2004, with 42%) and on that occasion went on to get 90% of the seats (nine out of 10).

Given that this number (38%) falls outside the range we have noticed historically for a four-cornered contest, it makes it unpredictable. What we can say, however, is that if a party can manage to get 38% of the votes in a four-cornered state such as Uttar Pradesh, it will go on to win a lot of seats.

As it turned out, the BJP did win nearly 90% of all seats in the state (71 out of 80 to be precise), stumping most election forecasters. As you can see, I had it all right there, except that I didn’t put it in that many words – I chickened out by saying “a lot of seats”. And so I’m still known as “the guy who writes on election data for Mint” rather than “that great election forecaster”.

Then again, you don’t want to be too visible with the predictions you make, and India’s second largest business newspaper is definitely not an “obscure place”. As I’d written a long time back regarding financial forecasts,

…take your outrageous prediction and outrageous reasons and publish a paper. It should ideally be in a mid-table journal – the top journals will never accept anything this outrageous, and you won’t want too much footage for it also.

In all probability your prediction won’t come true. Remember – it was outrageous. No harm with that. Just burn that journal in your safe (I mean take it out of the safe before you burn it). There is a small chance of your prediction coming true. In all likelihood it wont, but just in case it does, pull that journal out of that safe and call in your journalist friends. You will be the toast of the international press.

So maybe choosing to not take the risk with my forecast was a rational decision after all. Just that it doesn’t appear so in hindsight.

Time for bragging

So the Karnataka polls are done and dusted. The Congress will form the next government here and hopefully they won’t mess up. This post, however, is not about that. This is to stake claim on some personal bragging rights.

1. Back in March, after the results of the Urban Local Body polls came out, I had predicted a victory for the Congress in the assembly elections.

2. Then, a couple of weeks back, I used the logic that people like to vote for the winner, and this winner-chasing will result in a self-fulfilling prophecy that will lead to a comfortable Congress victory.

These two predictions were on the “Resident Quant” blog that I run for the Takshashila Institution. It was a classic prediction strategy – put out your predictions in a slightly obscure place, so that you can quickly bury it in case it doesn’t turn out to be right, but showcase it in case you are indeed correct! After that, however, things went slightly wrong (or right?). Looking at my election coverage Mint asked me to start writing for them.

As it happened I didn’t venture to make further predictions till the elections, apart from building a DIY model where people could input swings in favour of or against parties, and get a seat projection. Watching the exit polls on Sunday, however, compelled me to plug in the exit poll numbers into my DIY model, and come up with my own prediction. I quickly wrote up a short piece.

3. As it happened, Mint decided to publish my predictions on its front page, and now I had nowhere to hide. I had taken a more extreme position compared to most other pollsters. While they had taken care to include some numbers that didn’t mean an absolute majority in the range the predicted for the Congress (so as to shield themselves in that eventuality), I found my model compelling enough to predict an outright victory for the Congress. “A comfortable majority of at least 125 seats”, I wrote.

I had a fairly stressful day today, as the counting took place. Initial times were good, as the early leads went according to my predictions. Even when the BJP had more leads than the Congress, I knew those were in seats that I had anyway tipped them to win, so I felt smug. Things started going bad, however, when the wins of the independents started coming out. The model I had used was unable to take care of them, so I had completely left them out of my analysis. And now I was staring at the possibility that the Congress may not even hit the magic figure of 113 (for an absolute majority), let alone reach my prediction of 125. I prepared myself to eat the humble pie.

Things started turning then, however. It turned out that counting had begun late in the hyderabad karnataka seats – a region that the Congress virtually swept. As I left my seat to get myself some lunch, the Congress number tipped past 113. And soon it was at 119. And then five minutes again back at 113. And so it continued to see-saw for a while, as I sat at the edge of my office chair which I had transplanted to in front of my television.

And then it ticked up again, and stayed at 119 for a while. And soon it was ticking past 120. All results have now been declared, with the Congress clocking up 121 seats. It falls short of the majority I had predicted, but it is a comfortable majority nevertheless. I know I got the BJP number horribly wrong, but so did most other pollsters, for nobody expected them to get only 20% of the popular vote. I also admit to have missed the surge in Independents and “Others”.

Nevertheless, I think I’ve consistently got the results of the elections broadly right, and so I can stake claim to some bragging rights. Do you think I’m being unreasonable?