Then the analysis and debate began, an ad hoc crowd-sourced inquiry into whether PPP’s new numbers were useful predictive scientific findings or political propaganda. This effort included both a quasi-literary evaluation of its questions (What did it mean that 15 percent of Ohio Republicans believed Romney deserved more credit than Obama for killing Osama bin Laden?) and close scrutiny of its methodology (Was it significant that Democrats made up 41 percent and Republicans only 37 percent of the poll?).
The acknowledged master and leader of this analytical effort is Nate Silver. On his FiveThirtyEight blog at the New York Times website, Silver tried to make sense of the PPP poll, and scores of other ones, as he converted their numbers into one of his own: his trademarked FiveThirtyEight forecast that puts a specific numerical value on Obama’s and Romney’s chances of victory in November. On the morning after PPP showed Obama leading by five points in Ohio, and several other state and national polls found similarly positive results for the president, Silver put the president’s chances of reelection at 80.7 percent: “[T]he polling movement that we have seen over the past three days represents the most substantial shift that we’ve seen in the race all year, with the polls moving toward Obama since his convention,” he wrote.
And yet, for all the data constantly streaming in from polling firms, and all the data analysis being spit right back out by people like Silver, the polling industry has never been less confident in its ability to reduce a series of interviews to a number that is an accurate reflection of the opinions and future behavior of the populace. Some days, the polls—which are conducted by scores of firms, from established multimillion-dollar corporations to Podunk PR shops with P.O. boxes—present such wildly varied numbers it’s as if they’re examining two different countries. Other days, the results do align, but with clarity come accusations of bias by whoever happens to be shown to be losing. Mostly, this fall, that has been Romney, causing many Republicans to heatedly call into question the entire polling enterprise.
PPP’s number was quickly buried under piles of new numbers, which displayed an alarming inconsistency. Silver’s crystal ball grew cloudier. He started to downgrade Obama’s chances—to 78.6 percent, then to 76.2, then to 72.9. Finally, on a Wednesday afternoon in late September—a day on which more than twenty national and state presidential polls were released—the normally sober Silver seemed to morph into Howard Beale as he tried to reconcile the results of two new polls, one from Marquette University showing Obama beating Romney 54 to 40 in Wisconsin and the other from Rasmussen showing Romney beating Obama 48 to 45 in New Hampshire. “There is no plausible universe in which Mr. Obama wins Wisconsin by fourteen points but loses New Hampshire by three,” Silver later wrote. “Following the polls on Wednesday reminded me of the aphorism: ‘If you don’t like the weather in Chicago, wait five minutes.’ ”
Hence Silver’s mad-as-hell tweet at 1:27 that afternoon: “The. Polls. Have. Stopped. Making. Any. Sense.”
After Obama, Silver may have been the biggest winner of the 2008 elections. A statistician who hadn’t yet turned 30 (and who, for his day job in Chicago, wrote and edited for Baseball Prospectus), Silver began the campaign as one of the hundreds of anonymous, unpaid “diarists” on the Daily Kos website. There, writing under the pseudonym “poblano,” he dissected the political polls in meticulous, downright obsessive detail—sorting the good ones from the bad ones and bringing a level of empirical rigor to his analysis that was heretofore unknown in the world of political punditry. Where most commentators were content to frame the Democratic primary as a contest between Obama’s call for change and Hillary Clinton’s appeal to experience—and made their predictions as to who would prevail based on which message they felt was more potent—Silver was offering up stuff like:
“The basic technique here is multiple regression analysis. I took a look at a whole number of independent variables, and tried to gauge their effect on one dependent variable: Obama’s two-way vote share. By ‘two-way vote share,’ I mean the proportion Obama got of the (Obama + Hillary) votes; essentially we’re throwing the Edwards, Richardson, Biden, etc. votes out. So in New Hampshire, Obama’s two-way vote share is 48.3 percent, and Hillary’s is 51.7 percent—much higher than their multi-way vote share.”
And using it to make uncannily accurate forecasts—projecting, for instance, that Obama would win 833 Super Tuesday delegates, which was just fourteen delegates off Obama’s actual haul that day. It was an approach that resonated with a new group of young, web-savvy political junkies who favored charts and graphs over platitudes and clichés (and many of whom, like Silver himself, favored Obama over Hillary). “Poblano” gained enough of a following that, in March 2008, he abandoned Daily Kos, and eventually his pseudonym, to start his own website, FiveThirtyEight.com (538 being the total number of votes in the Electoral College). He also came to the attention of the Obama campaign, which, as Sasha Issenberg reveals in his new book, The Victory Lab, shared its internal polling with Silver, who signed a confidentiality agreement with the campaign so that he could analyze the data. Before long, there was a Silver-worshipping Facebook group—There’s a 97.3 Percent Chance That Nate Silver Is Totally My Boyfriend—and TEAM NATE SILVER T-shirts. If Shepard Fairey’s HOPE posters spoke to the Obamanauts’ ids, Silver’s regression analyses tickled their superegos. His legend only grew when, on Election Night, he accurately predicted the results in 49 states and Obama’s popular vote within 1.1 percent.