Election savant Nate Silver: Why punditocracy gets politics wrong

By Alison Frankel
June 27, 2013

If Nate Silver, the data-driven New York Times FiveThirtyEight blogger who nailed state-by-state results in the 2012 presidential election, had been a better baseball player or a more satisfied KPMG numbers cruncher, our current political discourse would be a lot less analytically savvy than it is today.

I had a chance to hear Silver answer questions from Katie Couric Wednesday night at the Aspen Ideas Festival, where political, business and art bigwigs (including lawyers such as Robert Bennett of Williams & Connolly and Robert Gruendel of DLA Piper) gather in this mountain-ringed and flower-bedecked city to talk about the big ideas of the day. I’ll be blogging and tweeting from the festival through Saturday.

The Silver session followed the opening reception and was mobbed. He and Couric justified the crowd. Silver said that he was drawn to statistics through his love of the Detroit Tigers (and his sad realization that he was not cut out for the pros), then realized he only cared about certain kinds of data analysis when he suffered through what he calls the worst job of his life at KPMG, resorting to baseball data analysis to keep himself amused. The result was his blog about baseball analytics, which eventually led to his brilliant political data analysis at FiveThirtyEight.

The big news from Silver’s conversation is that he gives the Republican Party a 35 percent to 40 percent chance of winning control of the U.S. Senate in the midterm election, which he called “a decent shot.” But right now, he considers Democrat Hillary Clinton the frontrunner in the 2016 presidential campaign, though he says she could be hurt if President Obama’s approval ratings sink beneath 40 percent or if the economy tanks. Silver also said Chris Christie, whom he considers the best politician among possible Republican presidential contenders, is unlikely to prevail in state primaries. He called Marco Rubio “the closest thing to a Republican frontrunner,” but suggested that Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, who hasn’t gotten much presidential chatter, could be a viable contender.

Silver seemed perfectly happy to prognosticate, which was a pleasant surprise considering his general disdain for the punditocracy. (Couric asked him about a quote in which he called former Reagan speech writer Peggy Noonan “very, very skilled at making bullshit look like some elegant soufflĂ©.” Silver said he stands by the quote.) The problem with Washington spinmeisters, he said, is that they consider events from an advocacy position rather than dispassionately. “You have to stand back,” Silver said. “Are you an analyst or an activist?”

Compared to data analysts, he said, “Pundits are basically useless…. They supply less and less information about what’s going on in the world. A lot of people in Washington, D.C., are in the business of trying to alter reality. I’m saying reality is not that complicated.”

The way Silver described his overwhelmingly successful model in the 2012 election certainly didn’t seem that complicated. Silver accounted for two sets of data: state polls and leading economic indicators, with algorithms assigning different weight for such factors as the historical predictive accuracy of various polls. (In the long run, Silver is concerned about how polls will account for the decline in voters with landline phones and the demographic split between them and voters with only cellphones; eventually, he believes Internet polling will correct for that split.) Interestingly, Silver said that political endorsements weigh much more heavily in primaries than in general elections, and negative advertising has a more significant impact in downstream congressional or state elections in which one party can significantly outspend the other. Similarly, special interest money, in Silver’s view, is more powerful in these elections than in presidential and high-profile Senate campaigns where SuperPAC spending by both sides tends to have a net neutral impact.

Silver’s been a bit dismayed by the spread of his brand of Big Data analysis to advertising and marketing, and, more perniciously, to national security. “It can be a bit creepy,” he said. “Without protections, if data is out there, it’s going to be analyzed.” FiveThirtyEight has lately been proving that truism, albeit in a benign way: Silver’s blog has been venturing far afield of politics, including forays into his first statistical love, professional sports.

But Silver told the audience in Aspen that he’s committed to covering the 2014 midterm elections and the 2016 presidential campaign, which he expects to be “pretty epic.” (He’s hoping for a true third-party candidate to mix things up.) In the meantime, though, he’s got plenty else to keep himself busy. He’s headed from Aspen to the World Series of Poker, where he’ll compete for the third time.

(Reporting by Alison Frankel)

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