Did you know President Obama was going to win last night? If you read Nate Silver, the New York Times political blogger and statistical geek, you did. If you don’t read Silver, though, you’re probably wondering who he is and why everyone is talking about him.
Who is Nate Silver?
Nate Silver is a writer and statistician who maintains a blog, FiveThirtyEight, currently licensed by The New York Times. The blog, started in 2008, was initially hosted on Daily Kos and written under a pseudonym (“Poblano”) until Silver revealed himself and devoted his efforts to the blog full time.
Why is everyone talking about Nate Silver?
Where most political pundits on TV and in the papers predicted a down-to-the-wire no-clear-favorite race between Obama and Romney, Silver gave Obama a 91 percent chance of winning on election day, and correctly forecast every state outcome as well. And not only did Silver pick Obama on November 6, he’d been calling the president the favorite for the entire election cycle.
But… how does he do it?
Using… math. Silver’s “secret” is a proprietary statistical model of presidential elections – basically, a numerical “election simulator” based in part on past elections. He runs the model thousands of times every day, using the latest numbers – polling figures and economic data, mostly – and watching who wins more often, and how frequently. The model’s results are converted into percentages: when Silver wrote that Obama had a 90.9 percent “chance of winning,” he means that Obama won 90.9 percent of the times that Silver ran the model with the most recent data. It’s not quite the same thing as a prediction – Silver’s model could be “correct,” and make the right assumptions, and Romney could still win – but it’s close enough.
So if he’s just using freely-available polling data, why didn’t anyone else make the same predictions?
To be fair, some pople did – political scientists like Drew Linzer and Sam Wang and smart poll watchers like the team at the Huffington Post have been using different models to predict an Obama victory, by more or less the same margin, in more or less the same states, with an even greater degree of certainty, for as long as Silver has.
But a lot of people didn’t. A lot of the loudest, most famous, and most visible people. Even now, after the arrival of Silver and this new cohort of blogging professors and numbers-focused writers, much of the mainstream election coverage relies on vague and unquantifiable concepts like “narrative” and “momentum”; it’s unable (or unwilling) to test claims or provide any kind of empirical confirmation. Compared with Silver and his nerd compatriots‘ empirical, data-based approach, the pundit class is making barely-educated guesses. And this election, that showed.
Silver being right probably doesn’t win him many pundit-class fans.
No. Some of the guys who show up on TV – guys like Joe Scarborough – and in your Sunday paper – like David Brooks – disagree not only with Silver’s conclusions, but apparently also with the idea that a statistical model could tell us anything at all about an election. In a weird POLITICO hit piece (“Nate Silver: One-term celebrity?“), published 10 days before the election, author Dylan Byers quoted Scarborough calling Silver a “joke” on Morning Joe: “anybody that thinks that this race is anything but a tossup right now is such an ideologue, they should be kept away from typewriters, computers, laptops and microphones for the next 10 days[.]” (Silver’s response: “All you have to do is take an average, and count to 270. It’s a pretty simple set of facts. I’m sorry that Joe is math-challenged.” He later challenged Scarborough to a $2,000 bet. Scarborough didn’t take it.)
I would’ve thought that he’d catch flack from conservatives who didn’t like his predictions, too.
Oh, yeah. Silver is an admitted Obama voter, and a lot of conservatives – both the vaguely numerically literate and the completely ignorant – emerged in outlets like National Review to dispute Silver’s results. The worst response, though, came from right-wing blogger Dean Chambers, creator of “UnSkewed Polls,” who derided Silver and compared him to a Rush Limbaugh character. For these reasons, Chambers argued, Silver couldn’t be trusted.
Yeah. After Byers’ and Chambers’ pieces, a fairly wide pro-Silver backlash emerged, consisting mostly of liberal bloggers and stats geeks who saw the criticism as not just anti-Silver but in some sense anti-math, and wanted to defend both his results and his methods. To these people, his perfect prediction record on election day is a vindication.
So Silver’s also got a lot of fans?
Yeah. On the day before the election, 20 percent of visitors to the Times website visited FiveThirtyEight. All year, Silver and FiveThirtyEight, which showed a high chance of an Obama victory throughout the campaign, acted as calming influences on normally excitable Democrats, using the hard data of the polls and a slowly-improving economy to show that Obama was the consistent favorite despite what many “narrative”-focused journalists wanted to sell.
Okay, clearly the guy is good with numbers, but all the praise seems kind of overboard.
Well, look, you can see his record for yourself: 50 for 50. But it’s true, Silver’s getting a lot of credit for calling Obama’s victory when basically any statistician or political scientist who’s been following the race made the exact same call – and in fact, some of those statisticians and political scientists have criticized Silver’s model for being opaque and overcomplicated.
And it’s very easy to miss the forest for the trees, and lionize Silver the individual writer instead of a broad push for data-driven analysis in political journalism. After Silver’s great showing on Tuesday, it’d be easy for political horserace journalists to co-opt him and treat him as a unique oracle, instead of understanding that it’s the statistical approach that made him – and Linzer, Wang, Simon Jackman, Mark Blumenthal and others – handicap the election so perfectly.
But on the other hand, Silver is by far the most visible of the new breed of “quant” political writers by virtue of his spot at the Times, and by a long shot the one who’s attracted the most, and widest array, of haters. (Hi.) If people overpraise him for making what was, based on the numbers, an easy call on Election Day, it’s only because he’s been over-criticized for it all year.
So will POLITICO shut down and Joe Scarborough quit now that Silver owned them so thoroughly?
No. But! Silver got his start as a statistician and blogger in the world of baseball, where he came up with another proprietary model – PECOTA – that used past data to predict given baseball players’ performances. Then, as now, he was a member of a new, nerdy cadre of writers in a field hostile to the kind of myth-busting data-driven work he was doing – and as several people have noted, Silver and the “sabermetricians” ended up winning over much of baseball media.