Australian politics, society & culture


Waiting on Nate's Numbers

If there's one person, besides Obama and Romney, who will always be associated with the 2012 US presidential elections, one person whose professional reputation is just as dependent on the result, one person whose numbers will be equally scrutinised, it's Nate Silver.

Nate Silver is the statistician and polling analyst behind the fivethirtyeight blog at the New York Times. The blog runs a series of poll predictors - meta-polls, really - based on Silver's aggregation and weighting of every major political poll conducted in the US. (In 2008, before he was quite so famous, and before his blog was picked up by the NY Times, his model correctly predicted 49 out of 50 states in the presidential election.)

In 2012 his projections have won an army of fans among Democrats and Obama-philes around the world not just for their rigour and breadth, but (more likely) because they've pointed to an Obama win throughout the year. Other pollsters have swung wildly.


"Nate Silver@fivethirtyeight Lots of polls but little change in tonight's 538 forecast. Obama 84% to win Electoral College."


On the other hand, the blog has become public enemy no.1 among Republicans. They ridicule Silver's trust in projections and modelling, and counter his analyses and polls with their own. Democrats point to this being another example of conservatives' inability to accept the maths or acknowledge inconvenient truths - in this case, about Obama's broad, solid support.

The debate about Silver and his methods is like the climate change debate, only relocated to politics. It's science vs faith.

Among US politics watchers, the arguments over whether Silver's projections are rational or liberally biased have captured the imagination like no other political issue this year. This has been called American politics' Moneyball moment, when statisticians and polling geeks potentially overtake old-school commentators as the most reliable readers of politics.

But is it also a sign that polling has become the only important measure of politics? Will Silver's numbers prove correct, or is he just a hyped-up one-term-wonder? If his numbers stack up, will Republicans accept that he was right all along?

We won't be holding our breath for that, but we are hanging out to find out whether Nate Silver really is a new kind of political genius.

(UPDATE: He is.)

About the author Nick Feik

Nick Feik is the editor of the Monthly.