Predicting the Super Bowl and the Iowa Caucuses

Playing the odds

I predict that, this evening, the Kansas City Chiefs will beat the San Francisco 49ers in the Superbowl. Tomorrow, Bernie Sanders will win the Iowa Caucuses.

Before I go further, I haven’t studied either of these things closely. I watched exactly zero football games involving the Kansas City Chiefs this year. And I try to scrupulously avoid horse-race news stories about the presidential election.

I do know how to read a betting line, however. And the sportsbooks have Kansas City as pre-game favorites. And Bernie Sanders is the odds-on favorite. As a gut check, it looks like FiveThirtyEight has Sanders winning, too.

Why do I choose predict these outcomes based solely on the odds? In a sense, it’s because relying on expert judgment is the most effective way for me to reduce my own uncertainty about the future. I could spend a lot of time studying tape, or looking through the rosters, or calling friends in Iowa, or whatever. But that all would take a ton of energy and time, and I’d still probably do worse than the experts.

Do I have a lot of confidence in those predictions? Not even close. Because, in both cases, the outcomes are dependent on things that experts have difficulty forecasting with precision. Things like mental miscues or injuries, or voter turnout. Experts are often wrong. The good ones will warn you. Which is why I love this paragraph by Nate Silver:

So even though Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden are doing a bit better than other Democrats in Iowa polls, everyone would need a bit of luck to win the caucuses. Per our model, as of 8 p.m. Wednesday, Sanders had a 37 percent chance of winning the most votes — which is the best in the field. But it also means there’s a 63 percent chance he won’t win. Our model forecasts Biden to win 35 percent of the time, meanwhile, followed by Pete Buttigieg at 16 percent, Elizabeth Warren at 9 percent and Amy Klobuchar at 3 percent. Even Klobuchar isn’t that much of a long shot. Her chances are about the same as — let’s go with a football analogy since the Super Bowl is this weekend — Brett Favre’s chance of throwing an interception on any given pass attempt.

As the saying goes: “and that’s why they play the game.”