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The Globe and Mail

‘Algorithmic Overlord’ Nate Silver got it right, to the chagrin of many

President Barack Obama wasn't the only big election winner in the United States: Political polling geek Nate Silver finally got revenge over the pundits.

Throughout the campaign, Mr. Silver was the focus of often bitter attacks for his consistent high odds in favour of Mr. Obama's re-election. In the end, however, the statistician and blogger won a flood of plaudits for correctly predicting the presidential results in all 50 states, providing Florida holds for Mr. Obama.

"I, for one, welcome our new Algorithmic Overlord," tweeted political analyst Jeff Greenfield.

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Mr. Silver and big data are "the absolute, undoubted winner of this election," wrote Mashable's Chris Taylor.

Mr. Silver, who blogs for The New York Times, is the most prominent among a small group of polling analysts who have long forecast that Mr. Obama would prevail over Republican candidate Mitt Romney. They include Sam Wang, a neuroscientist who started the Princeton Election Consortium blog, and Drew Linzer, a political scientist who runs the Votamatic polling blog. The only state the three men differed in calling was razor's-edge Florida.

During the campaign, the analysts' predictions, which were grounded in their aggregation and analysis of polling data, often contrasted starkly against the prognostications of pundits.

"What does this victory mean?" Mr. Taylor wrote on Mashable Wednesday. "That mathematical models can no longer be derided by 'gut-feeling' pundits. That Silver's contention – TV pundits are generally no more accurate than a coin toss – must now be given wider credence."

On the wrong side of the analysis divide were a host of commentators including The Wall Street Journal's Peggy Noonan, who wrote on Monday that she believed Mr. Romney was "quietly rising" and that the polls were missing the Republicans' momentum.

Mr. Silver, who founded the website FiveThirtyEight, was directly criticized by MSNBC's Joe Scarborough, who labelled him "a joke" for calculating Mr. Obama's chances of winning last week at more than 70 per cent. (Before the polls closed Tuesday, Mr. Silver had revised that figure to north of 90 per cent.)

"Anybody that thinks that this race is anything but a tossup right now is such an ideologue [that] they should be kept away from typewriters, computers, laptops, and microphones for the next 10 days, because they're jokes," Mr. Scarborough said.

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A Politico article last week suggested Mr. Silver "could be a one-term celebrity" if Mr. Romney won.

Some of the attacks on Mr. Silver were personal. Dean Chambers, founder of Unskewed Polls, which has been widely attacked for unscientific methodology, wrote an op-ed calling Mr. Silver "a man of very small stature" and "a thin and effeminate man with a soft-sounding voice." He also accused him of routinely giving "his beloved Obama" disproportionate odds of winning. (Mr. Chambers' view? He predicted that Mr. Romney would become president with 275 electoral votes.)

Mr. Silver's record in predicting the 2012 election is a slight improvement over his 2008 forecast. Then, he predicted 49 out of 50 states correctly, faltering only on Indiana, which Mr. Obama won with a 1 per cent margin.

However, even Mr. Silver, who first gained public attention for his baseball forecasts, has noted that his poll analysis is not wizardry.

"People treat it like it's Galileo, something heretical," he said during an appearance Monday on The Colbert Report. "There are many things that are much more complicated than looking at the polls and taking an average and counting to 270, right?"

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