Polls are dead, long live markets

NFCROWD

The polling fiasco in the 2015 UK general election is just the latest in a string of high-profile failures over the last few months. This contrasts with the good performance of prediction markets, and Hypermind in particular.

Let’s start with the referendum on Scottish independence in september 2014. In the final weeks before the referendum, the polls consistently announced a cliffhanger with Yes and No tied within the margin of error. Yet the actual results gave “No” a large majority of 55%, 10 points ahead of “Yes” (45%).

The betting markets on the other hand clearly favored the “No” vote throughout. Witness for instance how the “Yes” vote on Hypermind always stayed below the 50% likelihood threshold, and was given a low probability just before the referendum took place on September 18th.

SCOTLAND

Then came the midterm congressional elections in the U.S., in november 2014. The big question then was whether the Republicans would recapture control of the Senate, which they did. The polls mostly saw this coming, but were much more timid in their forecasts than the betting markets.

In fact, as discussed earlier in this blog, Hypermind out-predicted all the poll-aggregation models operated by the biggest U.S. media, as well as Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight. (Only the Washington Post model ended-up out-predicting Hypermind at the very end, but its prediction was all over the place beforehand, as can be seen in the chart below.)

midterms2014Senate

The Israeli elections in March 2015 again stumped the polls and the pundits. The closer we got to election day, the more Benyamin Netanyahu was given up for dead, politically. The latest polls even predicted his Likud party would be 4 seats behind his leftist rival, and considered how difficult it would be for him to assemble a 61 seat majority coalition in the Knesset. Instead, Likud scored 6 more seats than its closest rival, and Bibi was able to remain prime minister for a 4th term.

What about the betting markets ? On the day before the election, while noting that the election was a rare instance of an “actual tossup“, the New York Times also noted that Hypermind was giving Netanyahu 55% chances of staying prime minister. In fact, Hypermind had clearly kept Netanyahu in the favorite seat all through the campaign.

BIBISTAY

Which now brings us to the UK general election 2015. It concluded yesterday with a big win for David Cameron’s Conservative Party, a hair-breadth away from an absolute majority in parliament. This was in contrast to all the polling data which had Labour tied with the Conservatives, both very far from a majority. Based on the poll projections of a hung parliament, the pundits could not see how Cameron could gather a governing coalition, even when adding up Ukip and the LibDems. Everyone gave Labour’s Miliband a much better chance of forming a government, with tacit support from the Scottish Nationalist Party. In fact, the polls gave the Labour+SNP a clear majority in the House…

The story was different in the betting markets. At worst, Cameron’s chances of forming the next government remained close to 50%, tied with Labour’s Miliband’s, a far cry from the large Labour advantage everyone assumed from the parliamentary arithmetic based on poll projections. On Hypermind, a Cameron rebound even occurred just before election day.

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It will take some time to understand why election polls, which had served the media so well for so long, seem to be suddenly experiencing a global meltdown. Perhaps the simple, powerful idea of the “representative panel” just no longer works well when individualism is pushed to the extreme in modern societies…

What is encouraging, though, is that betting markets – an approach that preexisted polls by decades – are proving more reliable, especially when the going gets tough. This is probably related to the idea, explored earlier in this blog, that predicting human affairs is in general best left to human brains than to algorithms and statistics.