The New York Times election statistician Nate Silver perfectly predicted all 50 states last night for President Obama, while every single major pundit was wrong – some comically wrong. Despite being derided by TV talking heads as a liberal hack, Silver definitively proved that geeks with mathematical models were superior to the gut feelings and pseudo-statistics of so-called political experts. The big question is, will the overwhelming success of statistical models make pundit forecasting obsolete, or will producers stubbornly keep them on the air?
Silver’s analysis, and statistical models generally, factor in more data points than even the most knowledgeable political insider could possibly juggle in their working memory. His model incorporates the size, quality, and recency of all polls, and weights them based on the polling firm’s past predictive success (among other more advanced statistical procedures).
Pundits, especially those who were off by 100 electoral votes, begin their predictions with statements like “Voters have figured out that President Obama has no message, no agenda and not even much of an explanation for what he has done over the past four years,” wrote former Clinton advisor, Dick Morris, whose prediction had a gap between opinion and reality the size of the Grand Canyon (he predicted Romney would win 325 electoral votes, off by more than 100).
Silver’s methods present a dilemma for television networks. First, viewers would have to be math geeks to follow along in the debates. Even if networks replaced their pundits with competitor statisticians, the only way to compare forecasts would be to argue over nuanced statistical techniques. People may say they’re fans of Silver, but just wait until every political network is fighting over their own complex model and see how inaccessible election prediction becomes to most viewers.
Second, there’s no more rating-spiking shocking polls. Usually, the most surprising polls, which garner headlines, are the most inaccurate. Instead, in Silver’s universe, we’ll follow polling averages, with steadily (read: boringly) ebb and wane in relatively predictable directions.
But, perhaps the most devastating impact on traditional punditry: politics and campaigning has a relatively small impact on elections. According to Silver’s model, Obama had a strong likelihood of winning several months before the election. Elections favor incumbents and Romney was an uncharismatic opponent, who wasn’t all that well liked even within his own party. Other influential factors, such as the economy, are completely outside the control of campaigns. The economy picked up before the election. Any conservative challenger had an uphill battle.
So, all the bluster about Americans not connecting with Obama or his “radical” social agenda is just hot air. Most of the pundit commentary that fills up airtime in the 24 hour news cycle is, politically speaking, mostly inconsequential.
Thus, producers have a strong incentive to keep the kinds of partisan bickering and easily accessible analysis that keeps viewers turned in. Silver won the battle. But, he may not win the war.