That might sound like Nate Silver’s ultimate fantasy; he says he lives by the maxim the more data the better. But the truth is Silver is already growing a little tired of political polling. Part of the problem is he’s worn out by the nastiness. “Before I did politics I did sports, and there weren’t nearly so many assholes in sports coverage,” he says, sounding much older than 34. “You weren’t getting in huge personal fights like, ‘Oh, you’re a White Sox fan, so you’re biased in how you’re interpreting the data.’ ” After taking heat over the recent revelation that the Obama campaign shared its internal polling data with him in 2008, Silver says he wouldn’t agree to such an arrangement in 2012. “I have thought more carefully about my role in all of this, and I think it’s fine to have political opinions, but you should be careful about the line between being an analyst and being a participant.” Like a true Times man, he didn’t vote in the 2010 elections, and he doubts he will this year.
More than anything, Silver seems to find the world of political polling too small. “I feel a little bit less like I want to play the polling police this time,” he says. Granted, there are moments when he simply can’t help himself. Witness his occasional forensic debunkings of polls that don’t sit right with him. (“Michigan Isn’t a Tossup,” read the headline on one August FiveThirtyEight post, which spent 1,650 words explaining why two polls that had the temerity to suggest it was a toss-up were improperly underweighting African-American and young voters.) But for the most part Silver has stayed out of the weeds. “I view my role now as providing more of a macro-level skepticism, rather than saying this poll is good or this poll is evil,” he says. And in four, he might be even more macro, as he turns his forecasting talents to other fields. “I’m 97 percent sure that the FiveThirtyEight model will exist in 2016,” he says, “but it could be someone else who’s running it or licensing it.”
But fear not, poll junkies! As one Nate prepares to exit, another rises to take his place. This past January, Nate Cohn, then a 23-year-old, was toiling away in a lowly foreign-policy-think-tank job in Washington, D.C., analyzing India-Pakistan relations and the U.S. defense budget for the Stimson Center. That’s when, partially inspired by Silver, he started a personal blog, Electionate, that was devoted to political-polling analysis. “I’m not a statistician or a pollster or a Ph.D. in demography,” Cohn concedes, “but it’s remarkably easy to become incredibly educated on polling issues when you have Nate Silver dissecting them.” Most of Electionate’s initial web traffic came from Cohn’s Facebook friends, but by March, as Romney was still struggling to sew up the GOP nomination, Cohn was getting about 10,000 page views a month. And in June, The New Republic bought the Electionate blog and hired Cohn as its full-time polling analyst.
“The original Nate Silver isn’t too different from what I do,” Cohn says. That’s a sentiment Silver himself concurs with: “I think [Cohn’s] good, although sometimes it almost reads like he’s doing the more 2008-style FiveThirtyEight.” Lately, the two have increasingly come to resemble competitors. Just as the networks battle on Election Night to be the first to call the race, the polling gurus now appear to be vying to be the first to call the election two months out—with each one inching closer and closer to declaring Romney toast. Last week, Silver was reporting that his forecast had put Obama’s chances at an all-time high of 81.9 percent, while Cohn was writing that “a Romney victory just doesn’t seem like it’s in the cards.”
In the meantime, Cohn is living in the moment. While the old Nate sounds burned out, complaining about his twenty-hour workdays, the new Nate, who says he’s getting about five or six hours of sleep a night, can’t believe his good fortune. “At heart, I’m a dork who’s just genuinely interested in this stuff and would be doing it anyway,” he says. The fact that someone is now paying him to wallow in the data, to load numbers into an Excel spreadsheet and search for patterns, to assemble from the noise a portrait of the future—well, it can be a little difficult for a self-described “empirically minded, data-driven” person to believe. “Maybe after the election I’ll have a better sense of the big picture,” he continues. “I do think I’ll probably try to learn statistics.”