What Nate Silver Means for Politics, Life on Earth


November 12, 2012|Stephen Markley

I’m pissed that I did not write this column immediately after the election because now basically everyone on the internet has written it, but I’ll try to add my unique take (which just means more potty words).

I was never all that worried that Barack Obama would win re-election. Anyone who read Nate Silver’s 538 blog for the New York Times could look at the polling averages and see that barring an improbable amount of statewide poll bias, Mitt Romney stood very little chance of winning. One of the weirdest food fights to break out pre-November 6th, was the conservative media’s insistence that the election was a coin toss. I won’t rehash all the famous quotes here, but Joe Scarbough’s “anybody that thinks that this race is anything but a tossup right now is such an ideologue” rant is a good example. Peggy Noonan wrote this hilarious, soon-to-be-classic for the Wall Street Journal predicting a Romney victory based on lawn signs she saw in predominantly white, upper-class neighborhoods.

Even respected mainstream reporters from Ron Elving and Ken Rudin on NPR to John Dickerson et al at Slate missed the sound Obama win that was coming and kept talking of “Mittmentum” that lasted no longer than a week and never brought that candidate’s chances higher than 40%.

As Nate Silver has said, what he does is not exactly rocket science. He averages polls and weights them based on factors like historical performance and who they tend to sample demographically. I hate to break it to people who think Silver’s a wunderkind, but he’s not the only guy doing this. The Princeton Election Consortium, for instance, used similar methods came to similar conclusions: Obama’s got this, and it won’t be “close” (the Princeton Consortium had Obama at 98% to win). For all the hullabaloo about the debates, 47% comments, Benghazi, etc., the race basically played out exactly as it would have in June.

It’s why Moneyball will probably turn out to be the most important movie of the decade. Watching the flapping assholes that constitute the mainstream punditocracy whittle away the hours talking about how close this race was based on nothing more than the latest Gallup poll and their gut instinct was borderline insufferable. It was also eerily reminiscent of the scene where Billy Bean, played by Brad Pitt, is listening to his scouts explain why they shouldn’t sign a player who has an ugly girlfriend (because of his bad eyesight). Modern pundits are analogous to those scouts.

Unfortunately, what this says about modern politics is not particularly kind to the conservative movement. As every liberal commentator and columnist in the country does an endzone dance over Fox News’s election night meltdown, it’s important to look at why this meltdown occurred and what it means. The classic Stephen Colbert line, “Reality has a well-known liberal bias” has never been more darkly pertinent. So often I’ll find myself explaining my “liberal” position on an issue, which is really not so much a liberal stance as it is the fact that my sixth grade math teacher taught me how to read a graph.

As many have noted, the closed circuit of conservative thought came back to bite them in the ass this election. They ignored reality, called Nate Silver a liberal hack, surveyed all the white people they knew who were voting Romney, and then couldn’t hide their shock and disappointment when he won only one swing state—the one Silver predicted he would.

Yet you can look at how this line of magical thinking informs so much of conservatism. One of the primary fronts of the ideology has become a refusal to acknowledge empiricism. Yet empiricism, data, evidence, fact, logic—are very obviously the only way to look at things. You don’t have to be an expert in Bayesian statistical methods to understand the search for the best empirical data regardless of what it says about your preferred ideology, is crucial to one’s understanding of the forces shaping our world. You can kid yourself all you want about what you wish was true, but sooner or later the numbers will be run.

This is how we know the Recovery Act—the so-called “failed stimulus”—was a wildly successful piece of legislation that was almost single-handedly responsible for pulling the country out of its economic slide.

This is how we know Obamacare, for all its flaws, will work in covering roughly 35 million people.

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