What is it with Nate Silver? Given the increasing amount of attention the New York Times blogger is getting in the waning days of the election and concomitant animus from the right, one almost expects him to start showing up in, if not a Romney campaign ad, then perhaps a Crossroads GPS ad. ("Liberal stat nerd Nate Silver says Pennsylvania is 94.2 percent likely to vote for President Barack Obama's foreign agenda—show Silver he's wrong by voting for Mitt Romney.")
In part it's a function of attacking the messenger because you don't like the numbers, and Silver has become the most prominent—but not the only by any means—purveyor of those numbers.
Silver, if you're not more than a casual political observer, is a sports stat-geek turned politics stat-geek; his website fivethirtyeight.com was so successful at predicting the 2008 electoral outcome that the Times retained his services. He has crunched available national and state level public polls to estimate what portion of the popular and electoral votes President Obama and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney will get on November 6. His calculations have given the incumbent a durable advantage in terms of total electoral votes (his estimate as of this writing is 294.6), popular votes (currently 50.3 percent), and percentage chance of winning (72.9 percent chance). His reasoning boils down to the fact that Obama has maintained leads in enough swing states to get more than the 270 electoral votes necessary to win the White House.
Not surprisingly, conservatives, especially ones who believe in the myth of Mitt-mentum, are not big fans of Silver. So he's come under increasing fire from the right as merely a partisan hack. The most astounding and bizarre such attack came from one Dean Chambers, who criticizes Silver for assigning different weights to different polls, an astounding critique given that Chambers started a whole Web site devoted rewriting poll results to fit his partisan proclivities. (His attack was bizarre because he seemed to suggest that Silver's analytical skill is marred by what Chambers sees as his effeminate qualities.)
But let's be clear on something: Conservatives might dislike and disagree with the numbers Silver is pushing, he is not alone in pushing them. There are in fact several Web sites and/or scholars who push statistical models aimed at making similar estimates about who will be the next president, and they all give an edge to President Obama. The Princeton Election Consortium, run by Professor Sam Wang, projects Obama pulling in 303 electoral votes, for example; Votamatic, which is run by Drew Linzer, a professor at Emory and Stanford, predicts 332 electoral votes for Obama; Real Clear Politics's "No Toss Up States" map gives Obama 281 electoral votes. (Huffington Post's Pollster.com gives Obama a base of 253 electoral votes and leads in five of toss-up states as compared with 206 electoral votes and a single toss-up state lead for Romney.) And the major online betting markets all give Obama pretty good odds of re-election (Intrade puts it at 63.3 percent chance, and Betfair says 68 percent).
Rather than the figure conservatives portray—a lonely voice inveighing against the oncoming Romney juggernaut, giving liberals a last beacon of hope before the inevitable change—Silver and his percentages are comfortably in line with a host of other prognosticators ranging from political science nerds to straight pollcrowd-sourcing markets.
So why is Silver getting the attention from conservatives and others? That's simple: He writes for the Times and so is the highest profile of the number crunchers. If the newspaper had hired Wang two years ago we'd likely be reading "Sam Wang: One-term celebrity?" in Politico instead of the recent Silver-focused piece.
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