The battle over Nate Silver continues today. Joe Scarborough, who attacked Silver during the election, is back with a semi-apology, acknowledging that Silver did get it right. Andrew Sullivan excoriates Scarborough as part of a discredited political commentariat that missed Obama’s structural advantage and has now been proven irrelevant.
Along these lines, I believe people are seriously misstating what Silver achieved. It isn’t that he predicted the election right where others botched it. It’s that he popularized a way of thinking about polling, a way to navigate through conflicting numbers and speculation, that would still have remained invaluable even if he’d predicted the outcome wrong.
Many liberals relied exclusively on Silver. But his model was only one of a number of polling trackers that were all worth consulting throughout — including Real Clear Politics, TPM, and HuffPollster — that were doing roughly the same thing: tracking averages of state polls.
The election results have triggered soul-searching among pollsters, particularly those who got it wrong. But the failure of some polls to get it right doesn’t tell us anything we didn’t know before the election. Silver’s approach — and that of other modelers — has always been based on the idea that individual polls will inevitably be wrong.
Silver’s accomplishment was to popularize tools enabling you to navigate the unavoidable reality that some individual polls will necessarily be off, thanks to methodology or chance. People keep saying Silver got it right because the polls did. But that’s not really true. The polling averages got it right.
Silver never said his model was a crystal ball — a perfect predictive tool — despite the depiction, positive and negative, of him as a “wizard.” Rather, his point was that averaging the polls — he averaged together state and national surveys — dramatically improves the odds that the public opinion research you’re consulting is accurately reflecting public sentiment. That’s why he still gave Romney a chance — a slim chance, but a chance nonetheless — of winning. The fact that averaging is our best hope would have remained just as true even if Romney had won.
Silver isn’t a magician. He’s a demystifier. He helped make accessible a way of thinking our way past the problem that measuring public sentiment is inevitably a flawed science. He refined a technique that minimizes our chances of being misled by polls. That’s not wizardry, but it’s a real accomplishment, and he deserves our thanks.