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Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Poll Trutherism's Dumber Sibling

FiveThirtyEight's Nate Silver
I suppose it's a predictable offshoot of poll trutherism -- the popular rightwing conspiracy theory that has every pollster skewing numbers to make Mitt Romney look bad when the numbers are down. And when those polls show Romney up, then they're fine. The idea is that pollsters are trying convince Republicans that the cause is lost, so they'll stay home on election day. The new one isn't any saner. We'll call this one Silver trutherism -- the idea that Nate Silver, the statistician behind the New York Times' FiveThirtyEight blog, is likewise trying to use his predictions to throw the election for Obama.

The reason Silver trutherism is happening is pretty obvious. The right has joined with the Romney campaign in trying to create an illusion of Romney momentum. It's not true of course. At this point, no one has any momentum; opinions are pretty well fixed and there are like five undecided voters in the entire country. There's no reason to think that where we are now isn't pretty much where we'll be on election day. There's some movement among individual polls, but unless you're cherrypicking, they all even out. But you can cherrypick polls, blare triumphant headlines about them on your wingnut blogs, and hope someone in the media notices and runs with the story. This is what the right has been trying to pull off for Romney.

But Nate Silver is a problem because he's respected. He and others like him are the clear-eyed pragmatists who put the brakes on "runaway Mittmentum!" stories in the press. The wingnut blogosphere could easily game a press eager to be gamed if it weren't for those meddling statisticians with their science and their math. Something must be done.

So something was. Led by that hoary publication of downward-spiraling reputation, The National Review, the attack on Nate Silver began. Even sillier bloggers followed suit. But the problem with this line of attack is that Nate Silver isn't the only guy with a statistical model out there -- he's just the most famous. And a quick trip through a few of them shows that, far from skewing everything in Obama's favor, Nate Silver is actually lowballing Obama's chances in comparisons with other models.


Today, Silver predicts an electoral vote of 288.3 Obama to 249.7 Romney. Sam Wang of the Princeton Election Consortium has it 294 Obama to 244 Romney. Drew Linzer's Votamatic has it 332 Obama to 206 Romney. is more pessimistic about Obama's chances, with 281 Obama to 244 Romney.

Notice anything similar in all these models? Yeah, Romney loses. In every one. If Nate Silver's jiggering his model to give Obama an advantage and hide Romney's supposed "momentum," then everyone is. Even Charlie Cook writes that "the road to 270 electoral votes is considerably more difficult for Romney" and that "the campaign has stabilized and the map still favors Obama."

"[I]t’s a bit odd to see commentary out there suggesting that Romney should be favored, or that quantitative, poll-based analyses showing Obama ahead are somehow flawed, or biased, or not to be believed," writes Votamatic's Drew Linzer. "It’s especially amusing to see the target of this criticism be the New York Times’ Nate Silver, whose FiveThirtyEight blog has been, if anything, unusually generous to Romney’s chances all along. Right now, his model gives Romney as much as a 30% probability of winning, even if the election were held today. Nevertheless, The Daily Caller, Commentary Magazine, and especially the National Review Online have all run articles lately accusing Silver of being in the tank for the president. Of all the possible objections to Silver’s modeling approach, this certainly isn’t one that comes to my mind. I can only hope those guys don’t stumble across my little corner of the Internet."

So again, if Silver's model errs it errs on the side of caution -- and, at the moment, that favors Romney, not Obama.

But, as is so often the case, science and math -- because of their inability to be budged by baseless opinion and spin -- is the enemy of conservatism. The numbers refuse to adjust themselves to fit in the Romney narrative of momentum, so the man tabulating the numbers must be attacked. Math is truth. Republicans aren't big fans of that.

But the numbers are what they are. And anyone hoping that the numbers are wrong on election day -- be they from predictive models or from state level polling -- isn't very likely watch the balloons drop on their candidate. That's not to say that that candidate won't be Mitt Romney, just that -- from where we stand now -- it doesn't seem very likely.

Those are the facts -- and the facts won't change for you just because you don't like them. Killing the messenger doesn't change the message in any way.


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