Republicans Desperate to Spin Romney as the Front-Runner Are Becoming 'Nate Silver Truthers'
We are looking at a very tight race right now, with a virtual tie in national polling. But we don't elect presidents by popular vote, and Obama has enjoyed a lead in the race to get 270 votes in the Electoral College every single day of this campaign – Romney has never led in any of the Electoral College projections.
But in recent days, the Romney-Ryan campaign has claimed that it's moving ahead. As Jonathan Chait noted, “This is a bluff. Romney is carefully attempting to project an atmosphere of momentum, in the hopes of winning positive media coverage and, thus, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.” Despite zero evidence that Romney has made any gains since receiving a healthy bounce from the first debate, reporters appear to be buying it, with a raft of lazy stories about Mitt Romney's supposed “momentum.”
A significant problem for conservatives bent on spinning this alternate reality is New York Times' polling guru Nate Silver and his 538 forecast model, which called 49 out of 50 states accurately in 2008 and is considered the industry's gold standard (the model also pretty much nailed the 2010 mid-terms). As I write, Silver's model gives Barack Obama a 68 percent chance of winning reelection, with a projected 288 Electoral College votes.
As one might expect in such circumstances, Silver is now becoming a target of the Right. We've seen 'poll truthers' who think all the big pollsters are intentionally skewing their results in Obama's favor, and 'debate truthers” who insist that moderators are in the tank and the questions are rigged to make Romney look bad. Now we're seeing the emergence of 'Nate Silver truthers,' who attack the numbers-cruncher as if he's a pundit expressing a personal opinion rather than a statistics geek who developed a very robust computer model. And they're using the same tactics they deploy to deny climate change – launching ad hominem attacks on an expert -- calling him corrupt -- rather than offering a criticism of the methodology of his model, a criticism they don't have the technical knowledge to come up with.
Robert Stacey McCain, a notably dense right-wing blogger who nonetheless holds some influence in conservative circles, framed it like this: “Nate Silver continues to lead the Democrat Graveyard Whistling Choir, raising Obama to a 70.3% likelihood of victory based on . . . what? I dunno. I’m not an expert with a New York Times column or anything, much less a Magical Forecasting Model™ that can divine future events with the precise scientific exactitude of 1/10 of one percent.”
McCain only reveals his own impressive ignorance with this passage. Silver's quite transparent about his methodology. He built a computer model that uses state and national polls and a number of economic metrics to determine the likelihood of an outcome. It isn't magical, and it doesn't “divine” anything. Any statistical models will result in a number that can be rounded to however many digits one wants. A likelihood, by definition, is not a prediction.
At the National Review, Josh Jordan drew the short straw and got the sorry task of going after Silver. He shows quite clearly the fundamental error of the right's emerging narrative:
While there is nothing wrong with trying to make sense of the polls, it should be noted that Nate Silver is openly rooting for Obama, and it shows in the way he forecasts the election.
On September 30, leading into the debates, Silver gave Obama an 85 percent chance and predicted an Electoral College count of 320–218. Today, the margins have narrowed — but Silver still gives Obama a 67 percent chance and an Electoral College lead of 288–250, which has led many to wonder if he has observed the same movement to Romney over the past three weeks as everyone else has. Given the fact that an incumbent president is stuck at 47 percent nationwide, the odds might not be in Obama’s favor, and they certainly aren’t in his favor by a 67–33 margin.