With sterling call, Nate Silver defines new wave in polling
Wed Nov 7, 2012 8:36pm EST
By David K. Randall
NEW YORK (Reuters) - So much for gut feeling.
After correctly predicting the results in 49 of the 50 states that have been called in the U.S. election (Florida remains too close to call), Nate Silver, the statistician behind the popular FiveThirtyEight blog, woke on Wednesday to find himself the poster child of what is sure to be a new data-driven approach to politics.
While Obama was declared the winner of the election, Silver won the polling race. Television anchors from Rachel Maddow on the left-leaning MSNBC, to Bret Baier on the right-leaning Fox News, praised his accuracy. A comedian on Twitter called him "The Emperor of Math." Silver's publicist said he had been so inundated with requests she had been unable to reach him.
The victory lap of sorts was well-deserved for a man who received widespread criticism from conservatives for giving President Barack Obama a 90.9 percent chance of re-election in the weeks leading up to Election Day, said Clifford Young, managing director of polling at firm Ipsos, the polling partner of Reuters.
But beyond getting the results right overall, as other pollsters did in this election cycle, Silver's true genius is his ability to make statistical modeling accessible to a lay audience, Young said.
"Ultimately, what he's done is take a lot of the mysticism out of politics. This puts a check on the traditional pundits and the state of punditry in general. It makes me wonder if we have a changing of the guard," Young said.
It has been an impressive start for a man who does no polling himself. After graduating from the University of Chicago with a degree in economics in 2000, Silver worked as an economic consultant at an accounting firm before creating a model to predict baseball player's future performance. He sold it to stats firm Baseball Prospectus for an undisclosed amount and then turned to politics during the 2008 primaries with a model that emphasized demographics and past polling history.
Sales of his recent book, "The Signal and the Noise," jumped 500 percent on Wednesday to reach the No. 2 book on Amazon.com, just behind the latest in the children's "Diary of a Wimpy Kid" franchise.
A NERDY SCHTICK
Unlike traditional pollsters, who put questions to a field of voters, Silver incorporates the averages of several polls and weights them based on factors like the past accuracy of the polling firm, the number of likely voters on Election Day and the composition of each state's electorate. He then runs multiple simulations of the results, which results in his probability forecast.
The end result often mirrors other aggregate data that is available. Real Clear Politics and Pollster.com, for instance, also showed that Obama held an advantage in all of the swing states except North Carolina. Yet Silver's probability simulations as well as his status as, essentially, a one-man shop, has helped burnish his image and reputation, especially in light of the performance of traditional polling firms.
Rasmussen Reports, for instance, was wrong on six of the nine swing-state polls and showed Romney winning the popular vote by one percentage point. The NBC News/Wall Street Journal/Marist College poll incorrectly predicted that Obama would win North Carolina, while the CBS/Quinnipiac University poll incorrectly showed Obama losing Colorado.
Silver's track record in the 2008 election led Penguin Books to sign him to a two-book deal worth more than $700,000, according to a person with knowledge of the deal. The New York Times reached a license agreement with Silver to host his blog through at least the 2012 election.
At the Times, Silver has branched out from politics to include more day-to-day topics, including a post that investigated whether KFC's Double Down Sandwich was the unhealthiest sandwich ever. But it is his electoral predictions that have paid dividends: on the day before the election, 20 percent of all visitors to the Times website clicked on a 538 post, according to press reports.
Silver's status as the electoral sage has led him to be courted throughout the business and media worlds. "He's at a level about four times as high as I am," said Jack Bogle, founder of investment-management company the Vanguard Group.
The understated Silver is not especially social and definitely not schmoozy, says Colby Hall, the founding editor of Mediaite.com, which tracks media news. Like many Silver fans, Hall has been trying to cultivate a relationship with Silver with several years, with no luck.
"He relies on his track record," Hall says. The nerdy shtick works in Silver's favor. "If Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert are falling over themselves to talk to you, you are in the hippest/coolest/most-insidery group," Hall says.
Even so, Silver's methods have been criticized by political pundits, who detected a Democratic slant in his results, leading some to come up with so-called "unskewed polls" that showed Republicans winning handily.
Politico, a hub of news for D.C. wonks, skewered him as "over-rated" and wondered if a Romney win would turn Silver into a "one-term celebrity." The New York Times own public editor criticized Silver for betting MSNBC host Joe Scarborough that President Obama would be re-elected.
Silver did not respond to phone and email requests for comment for this story. He has made no public comments since tweeting at 2:33 a.m. ET Wednesday morning.
He took to his Twitter account around 10 p.m ET last night to give one of his last messages of the 2012 campaign: "On the Wall, the Writing," he wrote.
(Additional reporting by Lauren Young; Editing by Jennifer Merritt, Mary Milliken and David Brunnstrom)