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The Spreadsheet Psychic

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I caught up with Silver on the phone recently, on a day when he’d just arrived back in Chicago from New York, having appeared the night before on The Colbert Report. We talked about Obama’s widening lead over McCain, and the remaining undecideds—a group, he says, that’s “mostly older rather than younger, more religious than not, and a lot of Independents, which is typical”—and how a lot of formerly solid red states now look like good bets to turn blue. “My pet theory is that these states along the Atlantic coast, like Virginia and North Carolina, are growing so fast that you have a lot of newly registered Democrats. That universe now contains people that it didn’t a month ago. Literally, the composition of the North Carolina electorate is different than it was six months ago. They update their registration figures on a weekly basis, and last week the Democrats registered about 16,000 new voters—which would represent one percent of their turnout from 2004.” And this year, at least, for all the surprises and Sturm und Drang, the electorate appears to be acting rationally. “The conventional punditry underestimates voters. The voters are pretty smart. They picked two very strong candidates. Even if McCain’s in trouble now, if it had been Fred Thompson, he might have conceded already.”

Even as he updates his projections and runs his 10,000 simulations a day, Silver wonders if maybe we don’t yet know what the narrative of this election will be. In September, he wrote a post on Obama’s extensive “ground game”—his efforts to set up outposts and register new voters, which have far outstripped McCain’s—and suggested, “Suppose that, because of their ground efforts, the Obama campaign is 5 percent more efficient at turning out its vote than the McCain campaign on Election Day … The implications of this would be enormous—a net of two to three points in each and every swing state—but we know zip, zilch, nada at this stage about their ultimate effect.”

This is the paradoxical spirit of the stat-heads: They can be arrogant, sure, and even bullying as they charge forward, brandishing their spreadsheets. But they are just as happy to prove themselves wrong as they are to debunk anyone else. This, I think, is at the heart of Silver’s appeal. (From a recent random Facebook status update: “I am an empiricist and I trust Nate Silver. Read it and chill.”) “Nate’s medium-term goal is to accomplish what we’ve accomplished at Prospectus—to change the conversation,” says Sheehan. “And Nate’s growth curve has been much sharper than ours ever was. He’s crammed about five years’ of BP’s growth into five months. And if you get good enough arguments out there, if you do your work well enough, then other people have to do their work better. Nate’s watched that at Prospectus. But FiveThirtyEight can do things for America that Baseball Prospectus never could.”

FiveThirtyEight is the product of a movement, but also of a moment. The political media is polarized. Cable anchors choke on their own spin. The red states and blue states act like the Jets versus the Sharks—they don’t trust us and we don’t trust them. So we all rail against the enemy in the echo chambers of comment boards, retreating to the bomb-shelter safety of partisan blogs.

It’s not that Silver is objective or impartial—he’s not. He’s still that young guy who almost yelled “Fired up!” across a crowded Mexican restaurant. But his ultimate goal is simple and nonpartisan: to build a better expert. Sure, he’ll be disappointed if Obama loses. But he also says, “If Obama does lose, I think it’s healthy to try and understand why, rather than just kicking and throwing things.” If he ever decides to run for office, that wouldn’t make for a bad slogan. Nate Silver: More understanding. Less kicking and throwing things.


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