The Other Winner in the 2012 Election
There were many noteworthy things about this past election cycle, ranging from the seemingly unfettered invective leveled by both campaigns, to the President’s first debate collapse, to the 47 things Mitt Romney wishes he could take back, and to what Karl Rove actually did try to take back, as the results came in on election night. Amongst all these fairly negative political happenings, something new and exciting emerged, something unheralded: America got its first real numbers prophet, Nate Silver.
Now, what do we mean by a numbers prophet? Did God come to him in a dream, and reveal precinct by precinct how the voting would stack? Did Seraphs whisper the polling biases of Quinnipiac in his ears? I doubt it, though some on the Republican pundit side would say yes, but would also add that it was more likely Satan, rather than Godly forces. All kidding aside, what it actually means is that Silver, a statistician out of the University of Chicago and the London School of Economics, has found a statistical method to call elections based on polling data, with breathtakingly sharp prediction results in the last few years. First off though, who is Nate Silver?
Nate Silver came to the world of political prediction from a much less heated though equally number-crunching velt, baseball. He was the co-editor of the Baseball Prospectus, a mind numbingly thorough accounting of every major league baseball player’s statistics, rendered in the particular mathematics of Sabremetrics. Sabremetrics was invented by Bill James, who developed as a way to finally answer such barroom and bleacher discussions like who hits lefties better using available statistical data, allowing observers the perch of objective answers to qualitative and quantitative questions. Silver simply took this wonderfully simple idea of accuracy and applied it to politics. He started a blog, Fivethirtyeight.com, that ran these quantitative methods on political races, and instantly became one of the most celebrated blogs on the web. He was picked up by The New York Times in time for the 2010 elections.
Returning to the 2012 elections, what qualifies as “breathtakingly sharp” elections predictions? Well, in the 2012 Presidential election, Silver called exactly 50 out of 50 states correctly in the Electoral College voting, as well as accurately predicting 31 out of 33 U.S. senate races. At that point, Nate Silver seemed less like a statistician turned pundit, but a clairvoyant, someone who just knew. So we are left with the million, or considering the amount of races he was so precise on, trillion-dollar question: How?
Silver hasn’t published his exact mathematical model, a move for which he has received some criticism, but he has in various interviews and in his 2012 book, The Signal and the Noise: Why Most Predictions Fail (but Some Don’t), made reference to some basic tools, such as simple math, historical context from polling companies and the areas polled, and even the smaller quirks of polls, such as polls that do include cellphones (leaned heavily for Obama) versus those that didn’t (toss up). Silver and his team took these relatively simple ideas, ran them through their model, and made seemingly common-sense utilization of available data reflect on them like wizardry.
The whole phenomenon of Nate Silver is a revelation at a moment when election cycles seemed to get caught up in a never-ending stew of acrimony and attrition between the pundits and forces of evil over at Fox and MSNBC. Here comes a high-profile blogger, who traded in numbers and mathematically informed prediction, coming as he did from the baseball world, and simply applied method to data, leaving the ideology at home. He suffered much right wing ire for calling the election for Obama early on, despite stating on Charlie Rose that he wouldn’t vote in this cycle, and that even if he did, he would lean more toward Gary Johnson than anyone else. In any case, the noise died down, and only the facts remained, just as Nate Silver said they would.