Nate Silver – The man who turned polls into pop (Picture This#25)

This week Obama may have won the election but only one man has been left standing truly victorious –  Nate Silver. 

Mirror, mirror on the wall….(courtesy of fivethirtyeight)

Polling is not popular.  For those being polled – the people –  polls represent a crude distortion of an individual’s views. A door knock, handshake and a conversation replaced by a spreadsheet, script and headset. For those whom the polls are about – the politicians –  polls represent the barking ex-army drill inspector insisting that our leaders perform another stretch and adopt yet another untenable position. Apart from being vital, ubiquitous and influential, there is another characteristic about opinion polls which make them annoying –  they are often wrong.

Until this week that is. This week they have proved spectacularly right. Polling may never prove to be popular but for this news cycle at least, it could be argued that polls are now pop.

The 2012 US election has produced a concerted and intense critique of one pollster by one party. The party, Republican. The  pollster, Nate Silver. The outcome. Well, as Nate Silver would have himself predicted, a humiliating and galling defeat of a political movement by one slight, gay geek who is great with numbers.

The vindication has followed intense vilification. Week after week, Nate Silver’s fivethirtyeight website, armed with a new approach for interpreting emerging polling data into a definitive poll of polls,  were producing projections that were favourable to Obama. The projections dismissed Romney’s resurgence as a blip, asserted that no genuine momentum was ever truly accumulated after the first debate Obama no-show, and the likelihood of an Obama victory was overwhelming. 90.9% overwhelming according to Silver’s last assessment. If we were to believe Silver, the election result may be numerically close but statistically its outcome was fairly certain; an Obama win.

Republicans rounded on the statistician and his techniques. His model was flawed, there was a liberal bias to his weightings, and his 2008 49/50 had been a fluke. He apparently tinkered on the edge of cheer leading Obama not forecasting an election.

The map above shows his techniques were sound and his predictions correct. The humiliation for the accusers came at about 3 a.m. UK time on Fox News. Karl Rove, the Republican’s strategist in chief , a man for whom a hammer is always on hand for any passing walnut, lost it. Rove placed himself on a delusional spectrum occupied at its most easterly point by David Icke. He began at first by denying emerging patterns from Ohio, suggesting that early voter counts was producing an Obama bias. At this stage an exasperated anchor asked Rove.  ‘Are you sure these numbers you’re projecting aren’t just trying to make you feel better?’  He remained vehement.  Not long after, when Fox News among many other networks declared Ohio for Obama, Rove, no doubt, clinging longingly to memories of 2000 and hanging chads, said that Ohio had been called too early. He did not budge.

The truth veered further from Rove’s conclusions as the evening wore on and closer to Silver’s consistency and clarity.  Obama’s assertion in his victory speech that ‘there were no red states or blue states, only the United States’ was an irony too late for Rove. Fox News replaced a Republican victory parade in Boston with a live feed of a man unravelling a well-earned reputation.  Silver’s reputation meanwhile has soared. A steady stream of tweets and articles recognizing his rightness is now a flood to which Pop Lifer is enthusiastically adding volume.

All 50 states were successfully called by Silver. 99 out of 100 over the last two elections. 99%.  In an election characterised by low-grade attack ads and ever shifting policy positions, maybe the iconic pop image to emerge from 2012 is not a reboot of Shepard Fairey’s red and blue Obama but Nate Silver’s projected red and blue against America’s realised red and blue. Obama won the battle. Politics lost the war. The pollsters claimed the spoils and Silver was their General.


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