Statistician Nate Silver Scores Big On Election Night

We profile the year's "it" prognosticator, Nate Silver, the baseball guru turned electoral college whiz.

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Among those vindicated by last night's Democratic victories was someone whose name appeared on no ballot - Nate Silver, the New York Times polls guru who runs the "FiveThirtyEight" blog. In the run-up to the election, Silver took a lot of heat from conservatives for predicting a strong showing for President Obama. But yesterday - as NPR's media correspondent David Folkenflik reports - he stood tall while other prognosticators came up short.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: This is the kind of criticism Nate Silver faced - in this case, from MSNBC's Joe Scarborough, back on October 29th.

(SOUNDBITE OF MSNBC "MORNING JOE")

JOE SCARBOROUGH: Nate Silver says this is a 73.6 percent chance that the president is going to win. Nobody in that campaign thinks they have a 73 - they think they have a 50.1 percent chance of winning. And you talk to the Romney people, it's the same thing.

FOLKENFLIK: Scarborough, host of MSNBC's "Morning Joe," is a conservative and was a Republican congressman, but is not hostile to the press or a pure partisan, these days. He argued the swing state polls were mostly within the margin of error.

(SOUNDBITE OF MSNBC "MORNING JOE")

SCARBOROUGH: It could go either way. And anybody that thinks that this race is anything but a toss-up, right now, is such an ideologue. They should be kept away from typewriters...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (LAUGHTER)

SCARBOROUGH: ...computers, laptops and microphones, for the next 10 days - because they're jokes.

FOLKENFLIK: Yes, there were close margins favoring Democrats. But Silver's model is a mathematical aggregate of major national and state polls; and it consistently found that taken together, they made the case for a relatively easy re-election for Mr. Obama, even amid all the seeming momentum shifts of the campaign.

I interviewed Silver at 1:30 this morning, after most of the results were in.

NATE SILVER: You heard every kind of argument toward the end, really. You kind of even got the argument - you know, I thought I left it in my college, you know, seminar; where people were saying, oh, you know, you can't - a poll can't predict human behavior, right? It's just very - kind of reductionist stuff.

FOLKENFLIK: Only the percentage of an Obama victory wavered; from a low of 56 percent, to the lower 90s this week.

SILVER: People were looking for so many different ways to be in denial, I think, of what was right in front of them.

FOLKENFLIK: Silver is 34, and an anomaly among newspaper journalists. He openly favors President Obama, but blogs for the New York Times national desk. His penchant for numbers first came up in his love of poker, in which he has won a considerable amount of money; and his statistical modeling for baseball, which he ultimately sold to the stat-happy people at Baseball Prospectus. For all that, he did not sleep Monday night, anxious about whether former Gov. Mitt Romney might stump his model, with a win.

SILVER: It would have been very tough; there's no doubt. You know, I don't know that I was putting my career on the line. But I'll be frank. I think - I don't know if I would have been inclined to blog about politics for very much longer, if that had occurred.

FOLKENFLIK: But if Florida stays blue, Silver will have picked every state correctly, along with the president's margin of victory. Conservative columnist John Podhoretz - of the New York Post and Commentary magazine - had earlier argued pollsters were getting it wrong by ignoring the high turnout by Republicans in the 2010 elections, that swept the GOP into control of the U.S. House. The 2012 race would be the same, Podhoretz argued - quite mistakenly, as it turned out.

JOHN PODHORETZ: That view was strengthened, and amplified, by what I wanted to happen - which I freely confess. People don't ordinarily cast a skeptical eye on data, and information, that supports their opinions. They're happy to take it.

FOLKENFLIK: Democrats took support from Silver. But Romney backers were surprised by last night's outcome, in part because of clear-cut predictions by prominent Fox News commentators. And when the Fox News Decision Desk projected Romney would lose Ohio and the election last night, Karl Rove questioned his own network's conclusions.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOX NEWS BROADCAST)

KARL ROVE: They're very smart guys. I'm just saying in terms of public perception, it looks a little odd for us to be making a call with 991 votes separating...

MEGYN KELLY: But you know how the science works. They know...

FOLKENFLIK: That was Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly. She later turned to co-anchor Bret Baier.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOX NEWS BROADCAST)

KELLY: That's awkward.

BRET BAIER: OK. So here's what we're going to do. We're going to get someone from the Decision Desk, and we're going to bring them in here.

FOLKENFLIK: But the truth of an election is that it ultimately renders a verdict. Again, John Podhoretz on Nate Silver.

PODHORETZ: In the end, he got it right, and he's now, you know, arguably the most famous person in American journalism at the moment and deservedly so.

FOLKENFLIK: David Folkenflik, NPR News, New York.

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