Nate Silver How a Nerd Changed Political Reporting Forever

The Statisticians on the Bus
youtube (2)

There was a lot at stake on Nov. 6. The shape of the economy. The contours of the tax code. The survival of Obamacare. And oh, yeah: the reputation of some nerd named Nate Silver, too.

One of the strangest things about the final days of the 2012 presidential campaign was that the battle between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney became something of a sideshow, at least in the greenrooms of Manhattan and Washington, D.C., and on the Acela trains that shuttled the crème de la press corps between them. The hot topic wasn’t the election itself. It was who would best predict the election’s results.

The fight was familiar to anyone who lived through baseball’s Moneyball revolution. In one corner were the “quants,” such as Silver, a sabermetrician turned New York Times blogger who used a proprietary statistical model to average and weigh public polls and produce probabilistic forecasts of which candidate was more likely to win on Election Day. In the other corner were the sort of pundits paid to pontificate about who they think will win on Election Day: the hosts, columnists, retired politicians, and former operatives who prefer to make predictions from the “gut.”

For months, Silver’s model had shown Obama as the odds-on favorite to recapture the White House. But then a funny thing happened: as Election Day approached and Obama’s swing-state advantage solidified, his chances of winning started to rise into the 70s, 80s, and even 90s—and the Gut Brigade began to get testy.

Suddenly, Joe Scarborough was bashing Silver on MSNBC. “Anybody [who] thinks that this race is anything but a toss-up right now is such an ideologue,” Scarborough scoffed. “They’re jokes.” Meanwhile, New York Times columnist David Brooks went so far as to characterize Silver and his cohort as delusional “wizard[s]” and citizens of “silly land.”

The fight was fun while it lasted. The future is unverifiable, at least at first, so everyone is free to predict whatever outcome they like. But the future always arrives eventually, as it did on Nov. 6, and someone is proven right. In this case, that someone was Silver. When the dust settled, his model had called 49 states correctly (Florida had yet to be officially declared at press time) and prophesied the popular vote to within a half a percentage point. Not one traditional pundit had come close.

And so the Moneyball Election was settled. The quants won. The question now is whether the rest of the punditocracy will learn anything from its loss—or just keep chattering away, oblivious.

Much of what currently passes for campaign coverage is deliberately unenlightening. On TV and at websites like Politico, commentators incessantly hype individual polls and bluster about their “sense” of “where things stand,” creating the illusion that the candidates are trading the lead and that the contest is a so-called toss-up. Sure, the Everything Is Breaking News All the Time business model keeps readers and viewers entertained. But it also makes them cranky, suspicious, and misinformed.

So perhaps it’s time to rethink how we cover these contests. After all, innumerate forecasting isn’t our only problem. Advertising revenue is scarce. Embedding on a campaign plane is expensive. Blanketing a national convention is even costlier. Neither endeavor is particularly rewarding, newswise; the candidates themselves have never been less accessible or spontaneous. And the media’s reputation isn’t getting any better.

Which is where the whole Silver skirmish comes in. My guess is that the journalists who will stand out in 2016 will be the ones who stick to a simple plan: if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. Most political hacks aren’t equipped to become quants. But the best of them will become more quantlike. Grapple with the data. Absorb the political science. Unravel the policy. And distrust the gut. “It’s head-in-the-sand-ism to say you can’t quantify anything,” argues Dartmouth political scientist Brendan Nyhan. “Silver is a threat to the pundit’s status as arbiter of who’s winning and losing. But we need more statistical literacy in journalism, not less. That should be part of the skill set.”

The first step is obvious: let Silver and his fellow quants handle the forecasting stuff. The sooner the political media stop devoting the vast majority of their cable-news segments and A1 articles to unquantifiable Who Will Win the Election?–style analysis—coverage that pretends “the latest gaffe is always a possible turning point [and] the momentum is always swinging wildly,” as The Washington Post’s Ezra Klein puts it—the more relevant they will be. But what, you ask, would journalists do instead? Easy. Focus on the two horse-race questions they are uniquely qualified to address: Who Should Win the Election? and How Is the Election Being Won?

To do the first question justice, media outlets should cultivate a new breed of commentator. The Quant Pundits wouldn’t be the generalists of elections past—mile-wide, inch-deep political reporters promoted to the op-ed pages because they have “a voice.” Instead they would more closely resemble The New York Times’s Paul Krugman (a Nobel Prize–winning economist), The New Yorker’s Atul Gawande (a practicing surgeon), and the National Review’s Jim Manzi (a successful software entrepreneur)—specialists who are immersed in the policy areas they cover yet skilled enough as writers to explain to voters why one candidate’s ideas will work better than another’s. Not all Quant Pundits would be outside experts. But they would all be predisposed toward empiricism—and reluctant to read minds. Less Peggy Noonan, more Reihan Salam; less Chris Matthews, more Ezra Klein.

Similarly, news organizations that train campaign reporters to answer the second question—How Is the Election Being Won?—will soon come to lead the pack. Right now, political correspondents spend far too much time and money dutifully observing the rote pageantry of the horse race—the speeches, the conventions, the travel, the endorsements—and far too little time and money plumbing the inner workings of the campaigns themselves. “All the focus on imagemaking and rhetoric ends up being a sad substitute for actually understanding the techniques of modern campaigning,” says Sasha Issenberg, author of The Victory Lab. “It’s not the rallies that matter. It’s these increasingly sophisticated, targeted interactions with voters.”

In recent years, social-science experiments and data-mining operations have quietly transformed the 21st-century campaign. But campaign reporting hasn’t kept up. The ideal Quant Reporter, then, would look a lot like Issenberg, who spent the entire 2012 cycle digging deep into this hidden new world. While much of the rest of the political press corps was transcribing David Axelrod’s quips and jockeying for face time with flacks on the trail, Issenberg was pinpointing sources inside universities, private research institutions, polling firms, and campaign analytics departments where cutting-edge, data-driven methods of identifying, convincing, and turning out voters were secretly being developed, tested, and implemented.

On Oct. 25, Issenberg predicted that these techniques would give Obama “a bigger advantage over the GOP” on Election Day “than either party has ever had in the modern campaign era.” Like Silver, he turned out to be right. For more than a year, Chicago’s crack analytics team scoured voter files, Facebook, and consumer databases to create a revolutionary data-mining and modeling system that allowed them to predict which voters were persuadable, increase the potency of their ads and emails, and run 66,000 election simulations every single night —efforts that may have ultimately put Obama over the top in key states. The lesson is clear: quants matter. “We have to start covering campaigns as institutions, not just as candidates,” Issenberg says. “Readers will demand that we do a better job of reporting on how and why each side is actually winning or losing.”

None of which is to say that our blow-dried anchors and bigfoot correspondents will disembark the plane, at least not anytime soon. And there will always be room for rich narratives and character studies. But maybe, by 2016, the smartest reporters and pundits will realize that Nate Silver & Co. have disrupted the Who Will Win? industry. Maybe they’ll start pursuing their comparative advantages instead. Maybe they’ll become more quantlike—more data-driven and policy-oriented—in the process. And maybe they’ll attract  more readers and viewers because of it.

I’d say the odds are pretty good.

Join the Discussion