While Obama departed Chicago for the misery of Washington’s partisan gridlock, Silver moved to Brooklyn and has spent the past four years enjoying his newfound celebrity, which is no longer just confined to the world of stats and politics. He has landed on the Details “Mavericks” list, Out’s “Out100,” and Time’s “Time 100.” Penguin paid him a reported $700,000 advance for two books, the first of which, The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail—But Some Don’t, hit shelves last week. Most important, in 2010, the New York Times signed Silver to an unusual three-year licensing agreement so that it might host his FiveThirtyEight blog. The onetime hobbyist now has the imprimatur of the nation’s preeminent news organization—and, though its reporters might think otherwise, essentially leads it politics coverage.
Although the “celebrity pollster” has existed ever since George Gallup correctly predicted Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s victory over Alf Landon in the 1936 presidential election, Silver has created for himself a new archetype: the celebrity polling analyst. It’s a field that’s all but certain to get more crowded. “I think there’s space in the market for a half-dozen kind of polling analysts,” Silver says. “All I know is that I have way more stuff that I want to write about than I possibly have time to.”
In one respect, our need for Nate Silver, and those like him, is obvious. With so many polls coming out each day—in 2008, there were 1,687 state-level polls of the matchup between Obama and John McCain—someone has to keep track, to study them the way a radiologist might an X-ray. But the rising demand for trustworthy polling analysis also reflects something disturbing about the data itself. The central problem is that prototypically modern science is being disrupted by new technologies, which have created a flood of new firms and new methods. “We’re in sort of what I would call polling’s dark age,” says Jay Leve, who runs the polling firm Survey USA. “We’re coming out of a period of time where everyone agreed about the right way to conduct research, and we’re entering into a time where no one can agree what the right way to conduct research is.”
One reason consensus was easier to achieve back then is because until about twenty years ago, almost all political polling was done by only a dozen or so firms. The state of the technology essentially dictated the limited number of players—it was a matter of money. Polling involved employing live operators to call potential respondents, ask them questions, and record their responses. This was incredibly expensive. But in 1990, Leve, a former newspaper reporter who’d gone to work for Citibank on improving its ATMs and home-banking operations, had a brainstorm: What if the same IVR technology banks used to let people manage their accounts from home was used to collect public opinion? Instead of punching No. 1 to make a withdrawal or punching No. 2 to make a deposit, the person would punch No. 1 to indicate a preference for Candidate A or punch No. 2 to indicate a preference for Candidate B. For one thing, it would mean you could conduct a political poll with IVR for about a tenth of what one with a live operator cost.
Leve founded Survey USA as the first robo-pollster, and in his wake have come many more. Some, like Survey USA, are generally well regarded. But IVR has made the barriers to entry in the polling business so low that pretty much any public-relations or political-consulting firm can get into the game, whether it has any polling expertise or not.
Still, at a time when political campaigns are the greatest American spectator sport, the hunger for horse-race numbers has never been greater. So any poll, no matter how slapdash, is almost certain to get attention. While many prominent national media outlets, including the New York Times, the Washington Post, ABC, and NBC, refuse to report the results of automated polls on general principle, robo-pollsters don’t need them. “The Internet means we don’t have to go through CNN or anybody else to present my data to the public,” says Scott Rasmussen, who runs the robo-polling giant Rasmussen Reports. What’s more, given the partisan nature and intense political focus of cable news these days, the robo-pollsters are able to broadcast their numbers wide. “NBC won’t talk about our polls,” says PPP’s Jensen, “but Rachel Maddow and Ed Schultz will talk about our polls all night long on MSNBC.” Similarly, Rasmussen’s polls are regularly featured on Fox News, where Rasmussen himself is a frequent guest. “I don’t really worry too much what Chuck Todd thinks,” Rasmussen says.