Five years ago, a friend of mine who started the blog DemConWatch, would constantly refer to a small blog by the name of FiveThirtyEight Blog, or FiveThirtyEight.com. In fact, he referred to the blog far more than he referred to the name of the man who wrote it: Nate Silver. (Photo by the Telegraph UK.)
Those were the heady days were a comparatively small number of blogs constantly wrote about anything related to politics, and particularly the Democratic Primary, where America was presented with the historic first time we could chose between the first African American or the first Woman to be the Democratic Nominee for President of The United States – then-Senator Barack Obama or then-Senator Hillary Clinton.
There were all kinds of blogs, but FiveThirtyEight Blog was the go-to-place to check how the other polls were doing – it was even then that many of us knew the Gallup Poll had an interesting right-wing bias that seemed to show up during Presidential elections. But even with that, Nate Silver was still largely an unknown quantity. But the a funny thing happened:
The 2008 Election.
After that election only one poll analyst who dared make a series of electoral college guesses got each and every one correct for each and every state, save for one and that was Indiana: Nate Silver at the tiny FiveThirtyEight Blog. On top of that, Mr. Silver nailed the correct guess of the winner for all 36 Senate races in 2008.
That’s what got him noticed.
But Silver didn’t really hit the pop culture Zeitgeist until he moved over, quietly it seems, to the New York Times. And even then, it wasn’t until the GOP advanced Mitt Romney to fore and the Election 2012 Season really took up steam that Silver’s light started to shine, bright.
To understand why Silver became the Gold Standard, one has to see the poll game that’s been played over the past five years alone. A few polling companies – Gallup, Opinion Research, Pew, and Rassmusen, to name the majority – have contracts with public relations companies and with news organizations like USA Today for Gallup and CNN for Opinion Research.
The game is a simple one: the firms come up with polls that seem to match what the advertisers and managers of those news organizations want to communicate, and the result is communicated to thousands and millions of people. And that information becomes the news of the day – the conventional wisdom. And it’s a conventional wisdom that just happens to favor a right-wing point of view.
It’s a point of view that says minorities are less likely to get out and vote, as well as women, and that the “likely voter” tends to be white and male – and republican. And the polls generally ran for CNN and USA Today in particular tended to reflect that. Nate Silver’s work and his 2008 validation was a simultaneous repudiation of those polls.
In 2012 it was Silver versus the right-wing again, and the battle came to a head when Gallup issued a crazy polls that had Governor Romney up six points over President Obama at a time when other polls showed the two tied, or Obama just a point ahead. It was a moment that caused this blogger to charge that Gallup had rigged its poll to favor Mitt Romney, and for Nate Silver to take his own special aim at Gallup, and say it was “Gallup v. The World.” Silver charged that
It was that blog post which placed Nate Silver directly in the crosshairs of right-wing pundits like Joe Scarborough, the head of MSNBC’s Morning Joe political show and wanna-be elected official who was once a congressman. Mr. Scarborough could not stop pushing the Gallup result, and then had to deal with the resounding counter-cry that Gallup had either screwed up their poll, or that it was rigged to favor Mitt Romney. Silver made Joe, Fox News, and others who used Gallup look bad when he wrote:
However, its results are deeply inconsistent with the results that other polling firms are showing in the presidential race, and the Gallup poll has a history of performing very poorly when that is the case…Because Gallup’s polls usually take large sample sizes, statistical variance alone probably cannot account these sorts of shifts. It seems to be an endemic issue with their methodology.
In other words, Nate Silver attacked Gallup’s very way of polling, indicating that it had problems, rather than cross the line and say that it was “rigged,” as I did. But Silver came very close to saying that in his blog post without saying it.
And thus, the war was on. Right Wing Pundits took up the sport of trying to discredit his work, without understanding his methodology. They all pointed to this year’s election and a Romney win – after all, Gallup forecast it.
A funny thing happened in 2012 – it was 2008 almost all over again.
Nate Silver, and a number of college-based statistical analysts, correctly predicted not just that President Obama would take the popular vote, but the electoral college numbers, too. The outcome cause Dr. Frank Newport, the long-time Gallup polling man, to comment “These polls are designed only to measure what is happening at the time of that poll in terms of the national popular vote – not designed to be predictive.”
The trouble is, Gallup has gotten away with the game of putting out these polling guesses with the assistance of news companies like USA Today and CNN and NBC at times, and knowing fully well that the information would be used by pundits, right wing ones, to make a prediction.
Now, with this dramatic 2012 Gallup loss, the bloom is off the Gallup rose, and it’s about time. It’s completely wrong what we’ve allowed to happen: people using false numbers to create a view that their candidate was going to win, when in point of fact their candidate, Romney, didn’t have a chance.
As much as right-wing pundits like to give the view that the media has a liberal bias, when it comes to elections, it has a conservative bias backed by money.
That coalition lost, and America’s better for it.