First of all, who is Nate Silver? He’s the brilliant statistician who predicted the outcome of the 2008 election, correctly calling the race in 49 states. The only state he missed was Indiana, which went for Barack Obama by 1%. He also correctly predicted the winner of all 35 Senate races that year. Silver’s FiveThirtyEight blog won a Webby Award as the “Best Political Blog” and was licensed for publication by The New York Times. Silver’s book The Signal and the Noise came out last month.
Second, why are the political pundits saying such terrible things about him? Joe Scarborough, host of MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” claims Silver is an ideologue and a “joke”:
“Nate Silver says this is a 73.6 percent chance that the president is going to win? Nobody in that campaign thinks they have a 73 percent chance — they think they have a 50.1 percent chance of winning. And you talk to the Romney people, it’s the same thing,” Scarborough said. “Both sides understand that it is close, and it could go either way. And 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, because they’re jokes.”
New York Times columnist David Brooks also complained recently that Silver is overrated.
“If you tell me you think you can quantify an event that is about to happen that you don`t expect, like the 47 percent comment or a debate performance, I think you think you are a wizard. That`s not possible. The pollsters tell us what`s happening now. When they start projecting, they`re getting into silly land.”
Simon Maloy (Media Matters) notes that Brooks himself might be a tad overrated:
Brooks famously observed in 2008 that Obama would have difficulty connecting with “less educated” and “downscale” voters because “he doesn’t seem like the kind of guy who could go into an Applebee’s salad bar, and people think he fits in naturally there.” This was a two-fer screw-up for Brooks: Obama won handily among voters making $50,000 or less and voters who didn’t attend college; and Applebee’s doesn’t have salad bars.
What’s got the media types upset isn’t Nate Silver, really — it’s the Electoral College. Because of the electoral vote system, the corporate media narrative of a razor-thin margin of victory is false. The talk of Romney “momentum” is false. All Silver has to do is add up the numbers, based on public polling and his own statistical model based on the outcome of past predictions. The increase of support for Romney has been concentrated in red states, where he was already winning. President Obama remains the favorite, 52 electoral votes ahead of Romney, with a 72.9% chance of re-election in today’s forecast.
What effect will Hurricane Sandy have on the election? President Obama’s personal campaigning is effectively over, as he directs disaster relief. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has praised the President’s leadership. The Romney campaign is trying to keep going, however the media are focused on the bigger story. Three of the eight national tracking polls — those from Gallup, Investors’ Business Daily and Public Policy Polling — have announced temporary suspensions in their polling, which means Silver now has less data for his model. The storm could increase the chance of an split between the Electoral College and the popular vote, because it might reduce turnout in the blue-leaning states of the Northeast. There is almost no chance Sandy will affect the electoral vote totals.
I’ll let Nate Silver have the last word:
“I’m sure that I have a lot riding on the outcome. I’m also sure I’ll get too much credit if the prediction is right and too much blame if it is wrong.”
What Silver does is actually fairly simple and many of the most prominent of his detractors seem disturbingly (and hilariously) incapable of figuring it out. One issue that people seem to refuse to believe is that if Nate Silver’s famous model — a model that mostly just averages and weighs publicly available polls — forecast a likely Romney win, Silver would be writing, every day, about why Romney looked likely to win. He is not working backwards from a conclusion, as pundits who write “why [...] will win” stories do. Before the election began, he made a series of assumptions, based on past elections, about how to weigh and interpret polls (and economic and historical data) and built a model that has been spitting out forecasts wholly without his interference ever since.
(Also a bunch of the dumber conservatives seem to think that Silver is himself conducting polls. Which he is not.)