People Who Can't Do Math Are So Mad At Nate Silver

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The New York Times' Nate Silver has created a model to predict the outcome of the presidential election that's watched by just about every pundit, and yet Silver's model refuses to perfectly reflect the conventional wisdom spouted by just about every pundit. The pundits do not like this! Silver's FiveThirtyEight model uses math to show that President Obama has a 74.6 percent chance of beating Mitt Romney, even though Romney has unmeasurable things like "momentum" as well as newspaper endorsements, plus a lead in several national polls. Obama's chances remain high, Silver explains, because he has a significant lead in enough swing states to win the needed 270 electoral college votes. The latest pundit outraged that Silver's model doesn't feel right is MSNBC's Joe Scarborough, who ranted Monday morning:

"Nate Silver says this is a 73.6 percent chance that the president's going to win. Nobody in that campaign thinks they have a 73.6 percent -- they think they have a 50.1 percent chance of winning.

.... Anybody that thinks that this race is anything but a tossup right now is such an ideologue [that] they should be kept away from typewriters, computers, laptops, and microphones for the next ten days, because they're jokes."

Scarborough is very committed to defending what feels true to him, even when it's not true. In June, he railed that The New York Times kept writing stories making fun of Romney for being rich, but it never made fun of John Kerry and his ice chalet in 2004. When confronted with the fact that he was completely wrong -- The Times covered that ice chalet plenty, it turns out -- Scarborough stuck with his analysis, saying "the general impressions of people like myself … does count in the perspective that active news consumers have."

Now Scarborough wants his general impression of the polls to count, too. He isn't the only Silver-basher who is unable to use numbers to explain why the forecaster is so wrong. The Daily Caller's Matt Lewis wrote a couple weeks ago that despite Silver's model showing a likely Obama victory, "my guess is that, right now, it’s probably a 50-50 proposition." The National Review's Josh Jordan's critique is more related to numbers than feelings, saying Silver's polling average is different than the Real Clear Politics average, because Silver weighs polls, while RCP averages them equally. But Silver does this because some pollsters have a better track record than others, and some have a clear partisan tilt, left or right. If his weighting is wrong, we'll know next week. Update: Politico contributes its own math-free critique: "For all the confidence Silver puts in his predictions, he often gives the impression of hedging."

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Perhaps the most telling critique of Silver's model comes from the people most deeply invested in it being wrong. Romney aides "laugh and roll their eyes when reporters tease them with mentions of the model," BuzzFeed's McKay Coppins reports. One adviser, though, offers an analysis more closely tied to real data, saying, in Coppins' paraphrase, "FiveThirtyEight could well give them a better chance of victory as the swing state polls tighten in the final days of the race." In other words, if the state polls change, so will Silver's model. Which is pretty much what Silver himself would say.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.