It has been a while since I posted anything here, but I can’t resist this one.
Let me just give three numbers. The first two are:
- 314, the number of seats predicted for the largest party (Conservatives) in the UK House of Commons, at 10pm in Thursday (i.e., before even a single vote had been counted) from the exit poll commissioned jointly by broadcasters BBC, ITV and Sky.
- 318, the actual number of seats that were won by the Conservatives, now that all the votes have been counted.
That highly accurate prediction changed the whole story on election night: most of the pre-election voting intention polls had predicted a substantial Conservative majority. (And certainly that’s what Theresa May had expected to achieve when she made the mistake of calling a snap election, 3 years early.) But the exit poll prediction made it pretty clear that the Conservatives would either not achieve a majority (for which 326 seats would be needed), or at best would be returned with a very small majority such as the one they held before the election. Media commentary turned quickly to how a government might be formed in the seemingly likely event of a hung Parliament, and what the future might be for Mrs May. The financial markets moved quite substantially, too, in the moments after 10pm.
For more details on the exit poll, its history, and the methods used to achieve that kind of predictive accuracy, see Exit Polling Explained.
The third number I want to mention here is
That’s the version of R that I had at the time of the 2005 General Election, when I completed the development of a fairly extensive set of R functions to use in connection with the exit poll (which at that time was done for BBC and ITV jointly). Amazingly (to me!) the code that I wrote back in 2001–2005 still works fine. My friend and former colleague Jouni Kuha, who stepped in as election-day statistician for the BBC when I gave it up after 2005, told me today that (with some tweaks, I presume!) it all works brilliantly still, as the basis for an extremely high-pressure data analysis on election day/night. Very pleasing indeed; and strong testimony to the heroic efforts of the R Core Development Team, to keep everything stable with a view to the long term.
As suggested by that kind tweet reproduced above from the RSS President, David Spiegelhalter: Thursday’s performance was quite a triumph for the practical art and science of Statistics. [And I think I am allowed to say this, since on this occasion I was not even there! The credit for Thursday’s work goes to Jouni Kuha, along with John Curtice, Steve Fisher and the rest of the academic team of analysts who worked in the secret exit-poll “bunker” on 8 June.]