When perception is reality, as it is in politics, campaigns try to blunt even the appearance of an opponent’s strength. In the past few days, a number of Mitt Romney’s supporters have taken to attacking the integrity of Nate Silver, a statistician who writes a blog for the New York Times that has been consistently predicting a win for Barack Obama.
Mr. Silver, a math prodigy who originally caught people’s attention with a system he developed that helped rotisserie baseball players analyze the likely performances of their fantasy teams, became a must-read among U.S. political junkies and Obama fans in 2008 when he applied his statistical smarts to aggregated poll data. His website, FiveThirtyEight.com, correctly forecasted the national election results in 49 of 50 states.
Two years ago, he and the Times paired up and, as his star rose, Penguin Press signed him up to write The Signal and the Noise , a book about predictions which was published last month.
This election season, Mr. Silver’s predictions have been more cautious about Mr. Obama’s chances: in June, when he began tracking polls between the two eventual candidates, he suggested the President stood only a 59.5 per cent chance of winning. Those odds soared through the summer to more than 86 per cent, then dropped sharply after the first presidential debate. But in the past week, as Mr. Romney’s momentum began to stall, the FiveThirtyEight model turned again toward Mr. Obama. Mr. Silver is now suggesting that the President’s odds of re-election are 74.6 per cent.
Which may be why the attacks on Mr. Silver have heated up. The National Review, noting that Mr. Silver said in 2008 that he supported Mr. Obama, ran a piece suggesting he was a mere cheerleader this time around. Tim Stanley, a British-born historian and biographer of Pat Buchanan, wrote a blog post today for The Telegraph mocking the way Mr. Silver’s model applies different weights to the various polls it aggregates, and also for being as interested in business and sports as he is in politics. “Nate’s success shows that Democrats are panicking. Losing the war of ideas, they’re resorting to bad maths,” he charges.
At the margins, Mr. Silver is even being attacked because of his sexual orientation. (He is gay.) Last week, a conservative commentator wrote that, “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.” Over the weekend, Mr. Silver responded on Twitter, saying the attack was “pretty awesome,” because its argument boiled down to this: “Nate Silver seems kinda gay + ??? = Romney landslide!”
Mr. Silver himself acknowledges that predictions are imperfect. But history has shown that non-statisticians should be wary when they are tempted to school the experts on how numbers work. When Mr. Stanley in the Telegraph asks rhetorically, “Does Nate know something that the rest of the world doesn’t?” oftentimes the answer is: Yes.