When Nate Silver is Attacked

by Pejman Yousefzadeh on December 3, 2012

I feel quite badly for Nate Silver. Just because he put out polling information that suggested that a certain presidential candidate was “toast,” said presidential candidate had his campaign hacks dump all over Silver.

Of course, I am referring to the actions of Barack Obama’s campaign over one year ago:

The Obama campaign doesn’t want you listening to Nate Silver. In an email sent out earlier this afternoon, campaign manager Jim Messina urged voters to disregard the statistical guru’s article in this past weekend’s New York Times Magazine, which gives President Obama slim chances of retaking the White House.

Mr. Messina claims that Silver’s article ignores “the obvious reality that there has been virtually no difference among the GOP candidates–or between them and the Republican congressional leaders who refuse to do anything to restore economic security for the middle class.”

“It says neither you nor Barack Obama has a role to play in this election, because the outcome is essentially predetermined. We disagree,” Mr. Messina wrote.

In the offending article, which is ever-so-subtly entitled “Is Obama Toast?,” Silver presents a formula of his own design that seeks to determine the probability of an Obama victory based on three factors: the President’s approval ratings, his economic performance, and the ideological positioning of the Republican candidate. Silver’s analysis results in a grim forecast for President Obama in a variety of scenarios. For example, Silver gives President Obama only a 17 percent chance of winning if pitted against Mitt Romney in a stagnant economy.

Now, of course, there are two lessons to draw from this little episode. The first is that Silver actually does seem to call ‘em like he sees ‘em, regardless of his ideological leanings (he has stated that he is pretty much an Obamaphile). That’s laudable, and in the future, conservatives ought to remember that Silver once believed that Obama might well be “toast” against Mitt Romney–hardly an indication that Silver is the kind of poll analyst who would skew data to show that his preferred candidate is doing well in a given race.

But the other lesson to draw from this little episode is that when Nate Silver puts out polling data that is unfavorable for liberals/Democrats, it causes liberals/Democrats to attack Silver in much the same way that conservatives/Republicans attacked him this fall when he was putting out polling data that was unfavorable for conservatives/Republicans. To be sure, we are not supposed to dwell on this second lesson. We are supposed to believe that disbelieving Nate Silver is an act of epistemic closure that only conservatives/Republicans are capable of committing. We are supposed to believe that only conservatives/Republicans would be willing to shut their eyes and ears to bad polling news. And we are supposed to believe that this is the modern day equivalent of denying that the Earth revolves around the Sun.

The truth is much more complicated. Liberals/Democrats can be as epistemically closed as conservatives/Republicans, and as willing to shoot the messenger when bad news is in the offing. And it ought to go without saying that liberal/Democratic pundits will never acknowledge and admit that very fact.

  • http://twitter.com/NARNfan Saturdays & Sundays

    re: the last paragraph. That issue is a very, very big deal. After interacting with so many of all stripes on twitter, it seems to me that which ever party can get over it sooner is going to have way more power sooner. We need to think through tactics and policies way more deeply or we are never going to win.

    For example, Dennis Prager and Rick Warren both think legal threats on social issues is unworkable and counterproductive. Tell me why they are wrong.

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