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Why Conservatives and Pundits Are Petrified of Math Wiz Nate Silver

Pundits appear especially threatened by the New York Times math wiz this election cycle. Why are they so scared?


In terms of issues dividing the nation as we approach the long-overdue end of this endless campaign season, the raging War on Nate Silver is not as big a deal as, say, the war on poor people and minorities having their votes counted, or the fact that thousands of people on the eastern seaboard have no power or, in far too many places, food. But it is one of the more entertaining diversions of the feverish week before Election Day. In short: Conservatives are outraged at Silver for “predicting” an Obama victory, and nonpartisan (but fiercely ideological) political press elites are all chuckling at his curious notion that fancy math can be used to determine what is most likely to happen in an election.

Nate Silver does not actually need his army of defenders. He is a wildly successful author and New York Times contributor with a huge audience, and he is  smart and witty enough to fight his own battles. I also realize that any defense of Silver plays into the savvy politico notion that liberals are irrationally “clinging” to his projections because they are terrified of uncertainty and Mitt Romney’s ineffable momentum.

But in a war between Politico and a funny baseball nerd who is good at math, I choose the baseball nerd.

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.)

Joe Scarborough is the king of the ignorant brigade,  having declared on his television program, “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.”

What’s especially amusing, though, is that Silver’s conclusion — that Obama is more likely than not to win, based in large part on the polls — is also Joe Scarborough’s position, Joe Scarborough just doesn’t seem to know it.  This is Scarborough’s latest Politico blog post. He looks at recent polls and interprets them (with his GUT) thusly:

With President Obama maintaining his five-point lead in Ohio in today’s poll, Romney must run the table on the six remaining swing states or expand the electoral map. Considering how rough the internals look in this morning’s Ohio survey, Boston must know that winning the White House now depends on their candidate stealing Michigan, Minnesota or Pennsylvania out of the Obama column next Tuesday. Their play in those three Midwest states now appears to be more out of weakness than strength, though a new survey does put Romney within 3 points in Michigan.

So. Obama is likely to win Ohio, making him more likely than not to win the presidency. Romney still has a chance but his odds are worse than Obama’s odds. Does that sound like “tossup” or does that sound like Nate Silver’s conclusion?

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