Republicans Desperate to Spin Romney as the Front-Runner Are Becoming 'Nate Silver Truthers'

Election '16

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.

The main reason that Silver feels Obama is still an overwhelming favorite is that while Romney has surged in the polls to tie (or lead) Obama nationally, the challenger is still, in Silver’s opinion, a long shot to pull together enough battleground states to get to 270 electoral votes. This is the real problem with Silver’s model in the eyes of many Romney backers — the “weighting” he puts into state polls gives an edge to Obama, and the distribution of that weighting is highly subjective.

Jordan is confused about how Silver's model works. He believes that Silver is tinkering with his projection along the way, no doubt because he's “rooting for Obama.” He says Silver "gave Obama” an 85 percent chance of winning, he asks if Silver “observed” movements in the polls, he cites “Silver's opinion” and talks about what “Silver feels.” He calls Silver's weighting of state polls “subjective.”

But here's the thing: Silver isn't a pundit. He doesn't adjust his model once a campaign gets underway -- even if he sees a way to refine it -- because he believes a model should be consistent in its methodology throughout a campaign. It's the model that weights certain polls more heavily than others – based on pollsters' past track records – it's the model that weights the state polls, and it's the model that gives decreasing weight to the economic data as the election grows nearer. No model is perfect -- as Nate Silver would be the first to admit -- but his 538 model is the result of years of statistical numbers-crunching. Having created it long before this election got underway, Silver simply inputs the data from every poll published – not selecting which confirm his view of the race – and the economic data, and runs thousands of simulations per day using those numbers. 

He only very occasionally makes a judgment call, and in those cases he's very transparent and his rationale is quite easy to understand. For example, he chose to exclude a poll that was released this week because it was actually conducted in September. He made note of the omission, and he's right not to add September data into the mix in late October.

He does offer analysis of what his model is telling him, but the projections are done by a computer that doesn't have a horse in this or any race. Its microchips and software are neither Democratic nor Republican. It's all based on cold, dispassionate computing of statistical probabilities.

So while desperate Republicans who have convinced themselves that Obama is universally loathed try to stave off cognitive dissonance by insisting that Romney's the clear front-runner, remember that while no model is 100 percent accurate, Silver's has one of the best track records in the game. And that means that while things could change -- and Romney certainly has a good chance of winning (according to Silver, a 32 percent chance as I'm writing) -- Obama's leading where it counts right now.

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