It is ironic that a political pundit famed for innovative statistical rigour should be decried bitterly in some quarters as a partisan propagandist. Such, however, is the fate of Nate Silver, voguish election specialist and author of The New York Times blog ‘FiveThirtyEight’. As the two US presidential hopefuls turn into the electoral Tattenham corner ready for next week’s home straight, one might be forgiven for assuming the race is far from run; Obama might lead by a length, so the media consensus runs, but a late surge of momentum from Mitt Romney means that all bets are off.
Oh no, says Silver – who, to the consternation of Republican strategists, has been saying so for some time. His current headline projections, calculated using various algorithmic weighting techniques based on polling from swing states, gives the President an 80.9 percent chance of victory (up 7.8 percent since 25 October), compared to his challenger’s 19.1 percent (down 7.8 percent since 25 October). Such baldly emphatic figures purporting to forecast what is generally regarded as an innately fickle and unpredictable contest are, to some, thrillingly bold and unconventional; to others they are merely infuriating. Add to this the fact that he has expressed a personal preference for Obama in the past, has never given Romney anything higher than a 41 percent chance of winning (on 2 June), and one week before the election gives him a one-in-five chance, even as the polls show him almost neck-and-neck with the incumbent – well, it's enough to make any devotee of the GOP ask through gritted teeth just who this nerdy liberal upstart thinks he is.
To which Silver can, for one, point to his track record. He first came to prominence during the 2008 election, where he transferred skills learnt in the statistical analysis of Major League Baseball players to the Presidential race, correctly predicting the outcome of 49 out of 50 states. Nevertheless, his status for many is still that of the smart-alec college kid who got lucky; a lefty hack who hides his political prejudices behind the mask of dispassionate mathematics. At times, this must feels like persecution, and one can occasionally detect a note of self-defensive ‘Silver contra mundum’ in his public utterances. As he told Charlie Rose, ‘I think I get a lot of grief because I frustrate narratives that are told by pundits and journalists that don't have a lot of grounding in objective reality’.
This attitude is perhaps epitomized by the exchange yesterday on Twitter with MSNBC presenter Joe Scarborough, host of the network’s ‘Morning Joe’ program. The latter had been one of the more outspoken critics of the Silver method, stating pointedly that ‘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.’ Silver responded with the following tweet: ‘@JoeNBC: If you think it's a toss-up, let's bet. If Obama wins, you donate $1,000 to the American Red Cross. If Romney wins, I do. Deal?’
Now, depending on your outlook, this is either misplaced arrogance or a commendable case of putting your money where your mouth is. Margaret Sullivan, The New York Times’ public editor, made clear her misgivings about such a wager: in a blogpost, she noted that ‘when he came to work at the Times, Mr. Silver gained a lot more visibility and the credibility associated with a prominent institution. But he lost something, too: the right to act like a free agent with responsibilities to nobody’s standards but his own.’
In her criticism, however, Sullivan hits upon what seems to be the crux of the matter, the reason why Silver’s prominence has proved a controversial feature of the campaign: what Mark Coddington identifies as ‘an issue of epistemology’. Ultimately, Silver is absolutely ‘a free agent’, despite his association with the NYT: for his conclusions are drawn not on the basis of cliquey insider knowledge, but on numbers that are there for all to see. Coddington again: ‘where political journalists’ information is privileged, his is public, coming from poll results that all the rest of us see, too.’ In subverting traditional subjective journalistic methods that merely aspire to a condition of factual objectivity in favour of a nakedly empirical objectivity that claims to be the real thing, Silver has delivered a sharp wake-up call to the media establishment.