Why Liberals Cling To Nate Silver

Part of the model's appeal: "It's been saying Obama's going to win." Silver finds the attachment a bit unnerving.

BROOKLYN, N.Y. — The Northeast is taking shelter from today’s uncertainty and furor today beneath what has emerged as a key security blanket for this embattled region: Nate Silver’s blog.

As the presidential campaign lurches into its last hectic week, the self-made statistician and blogger, whose roots are in analyzing baseball prospects, has emerged as a key salve to liberal insecurity. Silver’s forecasts rose to prominence in 2008 and have, save a brief stretch after the 2008 Republican National Convention, always projected that Obama would win, first the primary and then the White House. He has, so far, always been right.

Now, he told BuzzFeed, he finds his own emergence as a liberal talisman “a little scary.”

In 2008, Silver’s core assertion — that the observable data, mostly polls, should be relied upon — calmed liberals worried to the end about a racist “Bradley Effect” that would push the election to John McCain. This year, as a blogger for the New York Times his forecasts are the answer to a welter of conflicting national poll results and a Republican insistence that Mitt Romney is, in fact, winning.

“Why are you flying on a plane when you should be at yr desk updating 538 EVERY FIVE MINUTES?” tweeted Katha Pollitt, a columnist for The Nation, to Silver this past weekend.

“I waste 2hours a day looking at polls I don't understand when all I have to do is read Nate silver 5 minutes every night to know everything,” tweeted the San Francisco Chronicle’s film critic Mick LaSalle last week.

Silver has become the most trusted source in polls, if you’re an Obama supporter.

Here in New York, Silver is very much on the tongue of the media and the left-leaning professional elite: Everyone from photographers to the managing partner of a major law firm cops to hitting refresh every hour to stay sane. And out in the Democratic hinterlands, the reaction is much the same.

“I was at a Halloween party last night and it was just kind of funny because we’re down here in South Carolina and none of these people are media people or DC kind of types,” said Teresa Kopec, a substitute teacher from Spartanburg, South Carolina. “And they were kind of whispering to each other, ‘But Nate Silver says…’”

“If people have heard of him down here in South Carolina that’s kind of amazing,” Kopec said.

She likes him because of her background in sociology and anthropology, which she says gave her a deeper appreciation for and interest in polls.

“I designed polls when I was in college and administered them at the school that I went to,” Kopec said. “I just think it’s kinda crazy that some of the conservative backlash has been that he’s deliberately skewing the data to paint this false picture.”

Silver is a declared liberal who privately reviewed Obama campaign polling in 2008, and some conservatives claim that his model is skewed to favor Democrats. Silver’s model relies, though, on public polling in early states; other averages, like his, reflect Obama’s lead in the key state of Ohio. And logic of pollsters and analysts being deliberately wrong is challenging, though Silver’s weighting of different polls does include an analysis of the past performance of previous posts. (Silver brushes off conservative criticism: “I don't think that a dozen hacks on Twitter ought to be taken as representative of an entire political movement,” he said, writing it off to “the traditional derangement that sets in during October of an election year.”

Some Democrats, meanwhile, concede that their affection for the wonky analyst is less the details of his model than the consistency of his message.

“It’s been saying that Obama’s going to win the whole cycle so that’s part of why Democrats like it,” said Paul Kahn, who runs a startup political consulting firm in New York called e-ThePeople, and who is reading Silver’s book The Signal and the Noise in order to better understand his model. (He thinks the book is a bit too “Gladwell-ified” but otherwise good).

Silver, who told BuzzFeed recently that he wouldn’t be surprised to see his model shift at some point to favor Romney, said he also worries that his forecasts could feed back into reality.

“One thing you'd rather not have happen when you're seeking to make a forecast is to influence the attitudes of the people whose behavior you are trying to predict,” Silver said in an email. “It's clearly a very close election and conservatives and liberals who are concerned about the outcome probably ought to channel their angst by making sure that they vote rather than either demonizing or deifying a blogger with a statistical model.”

Silver, who first began calculating political statistics as a Daily Kos blogger, says his blog has always had a “decent share of conservative readers” and that “most of them are fair and respectful.”

He acknowledges that his reputation, made as it was in the last election cycle when he correctly predicted 49 out of 50 states, could just as easily be tarnished this time.

“I'm sure that I have a lot riding on the outcome. I'm also sure I'll get too much credit if the prediction is right and too much blame if it is wrong,” he said.

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