Presidential Polls: Why Is Everyone Picking On Nate Silver?
Nate Silver’s website, Five Thirty Eight, has been a go-to resource for those following politics for the past four years. Silver, with his background as a baseball sabermetrician, has been able to weigh data from both public polls and economic conditions to produce a highly accurate prediction of election results in the past two cycles. But Silver’s methods in the New York Times are under attack.
Silver has consistently given Barack Obama the edge over Romney and gives Obama a 72.9 percent chance of winning reelection. This has angered conservatives who see liberal bias in Silver’s methods. The backlash was spurred by a piece that appeared in the Examiner by Dean Chalmers, the conservative who “unskews polls” to produce the landslide win for Romney that the mainstream media isn’t reporting. Chalmers’s attack on Silver’s methods are not exactly well thought out:
Nate Silver is a man of very small stature, a thin and effeminate man with a soft-sounding voice that sounds almost exactly like the “Mr. New Castrati” voice used by Rush Limbaugh on his program. In fact, Silver could easily be the poster child for the New Castrati in both image and sound. Nate Silver, like most liberal and leftist celebrities and favorites, might be of average intelligence but is surely not the genius he’s made out to be. His political analyses are average at best and his projections, at least this year, are extremely biased in favor of the Democrats.
In fact, aside from a mention in passing of a single Rasmussen poll, Chalmers’s beef with Silver seems to be as much about Silver’s sexuality (Silver is gay, if you missed the reference to what “thin and effeminate” actually means) as his methodology. It would be easy to dismiss this criticism (after all, Chalmers sees Oregon as a Romney win and New Jersey as a razor-tight swing state), but it was followed shortly thereafter by a negative story by Dylan Byers in Politico that labels Silver “a one term celebrity.”
Byers’ piece on Silver is not terribly more sophisticated than Chalmers, alleging that applying confidence intervals is “hedging,” as he describes this statement from Silver:
Silver cautions against confusing prediction with prophecy. “If the Giants lead the Redskins 24-21 in the fourth quarter, it’s a close game that either team could win. But it’s also not a “toss-up”: The Giants are favored. It’s the same principle here: Obama is ahead in the polling averages in states like Ohio that would suffice for him to win the Electoral College. Hence, he’s the favorite,” Silver said.
Byers backs up his critique by citing noted statisticians David Brooks and Joe Scarborough, who have profound insights like Brooks’ statements that “if you tell me you think you can quantify an event that is about to happen that you don`t expect, like the 47 percent comment or a debate performance, I think you think you are a wizard.”
Byers’ main beef seems to be that Silver has become the darling of “ coffee-drinking NPR types of Seattle, San Francisco and Madison, Wis.” who rely on his forecast for reassurance that Obama is still in the lead. However, Byers neglects Silver’s forecasts in 2010 when he accurately predicted the huge GOP surge in the House of Representatives and was perhaps too optimistic about Republican chances to pick up seats in the Senate. It’s not likely those predictions endeared him to “NPR types,” regardless of how accurate they were.
Silver has no incentive to cook his polls for partisan reasons. (Not mention that, even if he did, it’s not terribly likely that many swing voters in the suburbs of Columbus, Ohio rely on Silver’s forecasts in casting their ballot). His job is to try to be accurate and to trust his model regardless. There may be issues with the polls he uses or how he curates them, but neither Byers nor Chalmers makes that case. Instead, he’s a “wizard” who is “effeminate.” Silver’s projections may not be as glamorous as getting exclusive cheerleading quotes from unnamed campaign sources–but until proven otherwise, they’ve proven to be a lot more accurate.
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