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Brett C. Di Resta

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Tarnished Silver

Posted: 12/18/2012 6:08 pm

It's pretty good to be Nate Silver right now. During the presidential campaign, he became a media sensation by taking on Joe Scarborough and the right-wing noise machine. He then correctly predicted every state in the presidential race. He was just named Out Magazine's person of the year. Oh, he also has a best-selling book.

Success can be intoxicating, and in this case, it looks like Nate sipped a little too much of his own Kool-Aid. It's not enough that his predictions were right, now he wants to embarrass his enemies. For example, at a D.C. conference, Silver haughtily said, "punditry is fundamentally useless."

Silver's dislike of D.C. talking heads is understandable; many attacked him during the campaign for his methods. And it is certainly true that many commentators seem to have skipped high school math, which made their attempts to debate Silver's statistical model hilarious. But suggesting that a few mathematically impaired apples have spoiled the bunch is foolish.

There are many insightful pundits, folks like Jonathan Chait, David Frum, Andrew Sullivan, Ramesh Ponnuru, that provide intelligent insight into the political world. Many defended Silver's work and praised his modeling. I imagine they would be surprised to here their efforts were "useless."

Look, Silver's work has incredible value. By aggregating polling numbers, he has helped bring clarity to the horserace coverage of campaigns. His numbers help cut through the spin put up by all sides. But it is still just horse race coverage, measuring the outcomes of a campaign, while pundits can examine and explain the cause.

Take the Missouri Senate race. Silver correctly predicted that Claire McCaskill would win, though he was off on the margin (he predicted six, but the final margin was over 15 points). This tells us nothing about the race, though. It doesn't point out that most thought McCaskill was a dead woman walking at the beginning of the cycle. It doesn't explore how her opponent, Todd Akin, imploded. And it doesn't discuss the politically salient points of McCaskill picking her opponent with a clever primary ad, or how the politics of abortion have turned on Republicans. Silver's number's indicate what has happened, but not why it has happened. And the pundits that write about that provide an important service to their readers.

Pundits can also provide the benefits of their experience. Silver rightfully made Joe Scarborough look silly for attacking his methods. On the other hand, Scarborough ran for office, campaigned and won a Congressional seat. Nate's numbers can tell us how much the "47 percent" remark by Romney hurt his campaign, but Scarborough can tell people what its like to be at those fundraisers, or how easy it is for candidates to get overconfident when they are with supports and make mistakes. Giving folks insight into how campaigns and candidates operate is an important role, and one that Silver does not fulfill.

In campaigns, numbers and words work together. Pollsters help craft the message, but the media people write the words that help move voters. They are a two-part harmony. It is the same on the outside: Nate Silver's numbers tell us where the campaign is at a given moment. And good punditry can tell us how the campaign got there. Even though the statistics maven is riding high now, Nate Silver needs to realize he is only half of the equation.

 

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