His approach to politics is similar—he’s an engaged fan. He unapologetically roots for Obama. One of his early posts as a contributor to Daily Kos, titled “I Got Dinner With Barack Obama,” recounts with gee-whiz wonder a chance sighting of Obama during Silver’s birthday outing at a Mexican restaurant. (“At first I was pissed off with my friend for not doing more to alert me,” he wrote, “but if I’d had more advance warning, I’d probably have done something stupid like scream ‘Fired up!,’ which would have been embarrassing in retrospect.”) But he doesn’t try to pummel you with numbers to prove his argument, like a typical hot-blooded partisan. Instead, on his site, he exhibits the cool confidence of someone who’s simply used to knowing his stuff better than anyone else in the room.
Not that he can’t pick, and win, a good fight. In a post on Daily Kos last December titled “Is a Bad Poll Better Than No Poll at All?” Silver singled out a few pollsters, particularly American Research Group, to show that their consistently off-base numbers will skew polling averages so severely that they harm one’s results. Of ARG he wrote, “They have a track record of rolling out some polls that are completely different from anybody else in the race, and when they do, they are almost always wrong.”
Dick Bennett, the pollster for ARG, responded by posting items on his Website such as “Nate Silver is Wrong Again,” and mocking FiveThirtyEight’s slogan (“Electoral Projections Done Right”) in a tone that echoed current political attack ads. (“So much for electoral projections done right.”) Then, in June, Silver posted an open letter to Bennett, which read, “It has been a long and hard-fought primary campaign. We’ve both had our share of successes, and made our share of mistakes. Granted, you made a few more than I did”—and in that last sentence, every word but “Granted” was a separate link to an ARG polling misfire. Then Silver challenged Bennett to a contest, in which each site would call the elections results, state-by-state, with a $1,000 bounty per state. Bennett never took him up on it, and this is what he has to say about Silver now: “What he does is different than what I do. There’s a market for that. There’s also a lady down the street who will read your palm.”
As a high-schooler, Silver was a state-champion debater, though he claims to be only a so-so public speaker. I asked if he ever thought of becoming a baseball G.M., like the 34-year-old boy wonder (and sabermetrics proponent) Theo Epstein, who took the Red Sox to two championships (and counting). Silver said, “The people who do that are very talented. They’re very smart, very polished. And I’m not much of a schmoozer. With Baseball Prospectus, you still have a voice and it’s influential. I prefer shaping public opinion, I suppose.”
After earning a degree in economics from the University of Chicago, Silver took a corporate job at a consulting firm but found it boring. He seems endlessly distractable; for example, in 2007, he started a Website, The Burrito Bracket, that rated Mexican restaurants in Wicker Park. (“Each week, I will be visiting two restaurants and having the same item of food [carne asada burritos, for example] at each one. The restaurant that provides the superior experience advances to the next round of the bracket.”) For a while, he was supplementing his income playing online poker, and even earned six figures one year, but eventually he quit. “For a while, there was a lot of money to be made, but you kind of eliminate one sucker at a time,” he says, “until finally you’re the sucker.” After he developed PECOTA and joined Baseball Prospectus, he turned his eye to political analyses, thus finding another field in which to identify suckers and eliminate them one at a time.
In concocting FiveThirtyEight, Silver decided the best way to read the polls was to put them all together, with the idea that averaging ten polls would give you a better result than trying to pick out the best one. Again, he wasn’t the first person to do this—other sites like RealClearPolitics and Pollster offer the same service. But, as Silver told me, “Sometimes the answer is in looking at other alternatives that exist in the market and saying, ‘They have the right idea, but they’re not doing it quite the right way.’ ”
Silver wanted to average the polls, but he wanted the polls that were more accurate to count for more, while the bad polls would be discounted. Other sites, like RealClearPolitics, treat every poll as equal. Silver knows that some polls are simply better than others. Yet it’s hard to know how accurate a general-election poll is before the actual election.