12/22/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Polling Guru Silver Reflects On Right-Winger Curse Out

Over at FiveThirtyEight.com, Nate Silver digs down a little deeper into his recent awkward interview with John Ziegler, who had Zogby put a poll out in the field in an attempt to prove that Obama voters were, by nature, uninformed about politics. That interview ended with Ziegler givin' Silver the Cheney!

SILVER: Thank you, have a good day.

ZIEGLER: Go fuck yourself.

Woo! Banter! Anyhoo, today, Silver did his best to get some sort of appreciation of Ziegler's response to his interview, and the thought process behind the poll. "I didn't quite get how someone like Ziegler, who is usually fairly poised, who solicited me to interview him, who has years of experience in the media, could so completely lose his cool," Silver confessed. He found insight, as many do, in the writings of the late David Foster Wallace, who profiled Ziegler in 2005, when he was the man behind the microphone on an L.A. talk radio program:

Hosting talk radio is an exotic, high-pressure gig that not many people are fit for, and being truly good at it requires skills so specialized that many of them don't have names.

To appreciate these skills and some of the difficulties involved, you might wish to do an experiment. Try sitting alone in a room with a clock, turning on a tape recorder, and starting to speak into it. Speak about anything you want--with the proviso that your topic, and your opinions on it, must be of interest to some group of strangers who you imagine will be listening to the tape. Naturally, in order to be even minimally interesting, your remarks should be intelligible and their reasoning sequential--a listener will have to be able to follow the logic of what you're saying--which means that you will have to know enough about your topic to organize your statements in a coherent way. (But you cannot do much of this organizing beforehand; it has to occur at the same time you're speaking.) Plus, ideally, what you're saying should be not just comprehensible and interesting but compelling, stimulating, which means that your remarks have to provoke and sustain some kind of emotional reaction in the listeners...

[Aside: DFW continues at length about those talk radio skills, and it's well worth checking out. His shortcomings aside, it gives the reader a good appreciation for the extraordinary skills Ziegler does possess.]

From there, Silver teases out a little macro-analysis:

Moreover, almost uniquely to radio, most of the audience is not even paying attention to you, because most people listen to radio when they're in the process of doing something else. (If they weren't doing something else, they'd be watching TV). They are driving, mowing the lawn, washing the dishes -- and you have to work really hard to sustain their attention. Hence what Wallace refers to as the importance of "stimulating" the listener, an art that Ziegler has mastered. Invariably, the times when Ziegler became really, really angry with me during the interview was when I was not permitting him to be stimulating, but instead asking him specific, banal questions that required specific, banal answers. Those questions would have made for terrible radio! And Ziegler had no idea how to answer them.

Stimulation, however, is somewhat the opposite of persuasion. You're not going to persuade someone of something when you're (literally, in Ziegler's case) yelling in their ear.

The McCain campaign was all about stimulation. The Britney Spears ads weren't persuasive, but they sure were stimulating! "Drill, baby, drill" wasn't persuasive, but it sure was stimulating! Sarah Palin wasn't persuasive, but she sure was...stimulating!

Let me shorthand the entire election for you. Stimulation will win you news cycles, all of them. But it's persuasion that wins elections.

Zogby's Misleading Poll of Obama Voters [Wall Street Journal]

The title of Silver's post is "Did Talk Radio Kill Conservatism." With that in mind, please recall the final paragraph of this post.