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November 01, 2012 12:35 PM Silver Threads and Golden Needles

By Ed Kilgore

I haven’t had much to say about the bizarre controversy surrounding Nate Silver’s methodology at FiveThirtyEight (a site to which I contributed before the New York Times bought it and banished me for excessive “partisan” associations, which my DLC-bashing lefty critics would probably find amusing), because it seemed so blindingly stupid. Yes, Nate got famous for his eery accuracy in 2008, and sure, he has a predictive model for elections that suggests probabilities of outcomes that displease whoever is on the short end of the stick. But Lord-a-mercy, the man is incredibly cautious and methodical; almost never makes flat predictions; and constantly bends over backwards to address contrary points of view. And besides, does anyone really think swing voters in Ohio dutifully pay their Times paywall subscriptions in order to make sure they cast a ballot for Nate’s 70%-probable-candidate as opposed to the 30%-probable-candidate?

But if you’re interested in the many threads of the Silver brouhaha, please read Brad DeLong’s comprehensive account today of the to and fro, which, incredibly, he renders via extended allusions to the Russian novel And Quiet Flows the Don. Brad ranges from the Mitt-Mentum Meme to the journalistic objection to non-insider campaign information to all sorts of nit-picking about Nate’s methods and wilful misunderstandnigs of his intentions. But here’s the golden needle with which Brad, quoting No More Mister Nice Blog, identifies the real and abiding issue:

I’m not aware of any moment when Obama or a surrogate told a crowd at a rally, “Vote for us — we’re winning.” But Romney has said that a lot. And Team Romney has worked very hard to persuade the press that he’s winning. Which means that if Obama wins, the right will insist that stories saying Romney was losing caused Romney to lose. There’ll be right-wing books with titles such as In the Tank: How the Mainstream Media Stole the 2012 Election for Barack Obama. Large portions of these books will be devoted to the notion that Nate Silver, above all others, ruined Romney’s chances with his evil math.

Not one doubt about it. It’s fascinating, you know: if Republicans lose this election, they aren’t about to waste a moment on one of those Struggles for the Soul of the Party that Democrats indulge in so compulsively. No, they’re already working on excuses for why they don’t need a moment of self-reflection.

UPDATE: Thanks to commenter Aimai for noting the attibution error on the final quote, which I’ve corrected. Sometimes the quotes-within-quotes thing can get confusing.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

Comments

  • T2 on November 01, 2012 12:53 PM:

    deLong "Romney has worked very hard to persuade the press that he’s winning."
    Really? how hard has it been? I don't think it's been hard at all....the horse race narrative
    has been embraced since the primaries, excepting one stretch of a week or two after the Dem Convention.

  • c u n d gulag on November 01, 2012 12:58 PM:

    There's not a self-reflective atom in their bodies.

    They'll blame Mitt for being insufficiently Conservative, and work on repolishing and resuscitating that WI turd, their long-term hero, Ryan.

    They will move even further to the right for '14 and '16.

    I don't know how they do that without putting supporters in brownshirts, and the leaders in long black leather coats and nifty hats with crosses of gold and "SC" on them - for "Severely Conservative" - and have them goose-stepping around town, saying "Heil Rand!"

    And maybe they'll pick some total ignoramous and loon like Rand Paul to run in '16.

  • Burr Deming on November 01, 2012 12:59 PM:

    Ed, I believe you are right as far as you go. But it is not some sort of collective decision on the part of conservatives at play.

    I think you are actually describing a sociological pattern that is caused by developing technology. And I believe it will result in the demise of the GOP as a national force.

  • catch phrase on November 01, 2012 1:01 PM:

    We told them what you were going to say and then you said something different. Therefore you are a liar.

  • Brock on November 01, 2012 1:03 PM:

    Small correction you might want to make: Five-thirty-eight is not behind the NYT paywall.

  • Ron Byers on November 01, 2012 1:04 PM:

    I read Nate Silver every morning. If I were a Romney supporter I would do the same thing. He is cautious and always hedges his bets but he is very, very accurate.

    His thesis is dead on. National polls aren't nearly as important as state polls. As we get closer to a big election the state polls become ever more accurate. Right now Obama's chances of winning are about the same as an NFL team with a fieldgoal lead with 3 minutes to go--about 80%. We all know that every once in a while a great quarterback can bring a losing team back from the abyss which is why we always watch the last two minutes of every close NFL game. In the election context we all need to get out and vote. We can't stop working until the election is over and if it is very close not even then.

  • Calvin Ross on November 01, 2012 1:08 PM:

    The Romney camp is probably not so different from many campaigns, except in the extent to which they let themselves lie. They famously said they wouldn't be slaves to fact-checkers, so it's not hard to imagine them sitting around dreaming up the next whooper. The question is why voters would fall for it. I think I know why.

  • BillFromPA on November 01, 2012 1:16 PM:

    There's been a lot of talk about the wingnuts flogging the idea that they're winning, the goal of which is to establish a 'We wuz robbed' response when they do, in fact, lose. I think they're merely denying reality to keep their slim chances alive, they actually believe Rove's 'Bandwagon Effect' BS, setting up a post-defeat narrative is an unintended benefit. In reality, the repugs who currently run the GOP will never graciously accept a Presidential defeat and they require no backstory to justify their whinny victimization wailing. I've learned to enjoy that tune, actually.

  • Gummo on November 01, 2012 1:21 PM:

    if Republicans lose this election, they aren’t about to waste a moment on one of those Struggles for the Soul of the Party that Democrats indulge in so compulsively. No, they’re already working on excuses for why they don’t need a moment of self-reflection.

    The difference between a political party and a cult.

  • aimai on November 01, 2012 1:28 PM:

    I believe that direct quote isn't from Brad but from Steve M. at No More Mr. Nice Blog, you should check http://nomoremister.blogspot.com/ and make the correct attribution. I know Brad reads Steve M. and the blogpost happens to be up at No More Mr. Nice Blog right now.

    aimai

  • TCinLA on November 01, 2012 1:29 PM:

    If the cockroaches couldn't play themselves as victims, they wouldn't be wingnuts. Victimhood is in their DNA.

  • Anonymous on November 01, 2012 1:47 PM:

    I’m not aware of any moment when Obama or a surrogate told a crowd at a rally, “Vote for us — we’re winning.” But Romney has said that a lot. And Team Romney has worked very hard to persuade the press that he’s winning. Which means that if Obama wins, the right will insist that stories saying Romney was losing caused Romney to lose.

    Breath into this paper bag Brad, and count to 10.

    We already know the FOX zombies will go into full freak if the white guy loses. That the reich wurlitzer is now waging war on Nate Silver just brings a great big beaming smile to my face.

  • POed Lib on November 01, 2012 1:50 PM:

    If I read another statement of the effect of "that survey had more dems than Repukeliscum, so is invalid", I am going to pull out Mr. S&W and do a little blogger editing of my own. There is NO guarantee that a poll will return a) equal dems and repukes b) the same proportion of D & R as another poll or c) the same proportion as that same poll did yesterday.

    It's chance, and polls ALWAYS get different results and different compositions.

  • SecularAnimist on November 01, 2012 1:58 PM:

    The Romney campaign needs the media to say they are winning, in order to make their theft of the election through fraud appear to be a legitimate victory.

  • Karen on November 01, 2012 2:07 PM:

    Read today's Cracked.com post on elections. The Presidetn has already won the vital Halloween mask and Weekly Reader contests. Romney's hopes hinge on the 1 - 6 Carolina Panthers defeating the 3 - 4 Washinton Redskins on Sunday. The only reason I would consider watching that game is because of the effect on the election.

  • Karen on November 01, 2012 2:10 PM:

    Cue the speculation that the NFL owners deliberately scheduled Washington against a sucky team for the first home game in November just to rig the election.

  • Peter C on November 01, 2012 2:21 PM:

    Forgive me for trotting out my hypothesis again, but I think there are important get-out-the-vote reasons for the Republicans to maintain that they are winning.

    The Republican GOTV machine is church-based and largely centered in the Evangelical churches. Unlike the Catholic Church, the Evangelical churches are minimally heirarchical; each is centered around a charismatic pastor. These pastors live or die based upon their personal populatiry with their congregation. If Romney is cruising to victory, it is easy for them to join the march and celebrate their glorious part in a glorious victory. However, if Romney is going down in flames, I don't think they will bet their reputations on a Mormon. Without their reputations, they have to go back to selling used cars.

    When Romney loses, I expect some of the blame to be placed on his Mormonism. Indeed, I predict that they will blame a Democratic whisper campaign that they invent from whole cloth.

  • Bokonon on November 01, 2012 3:34 PM:

    After a certain point, believing in "momentum" over numbers is the same thing as chosing faith over science.

    And we know that the GOP has already come down on that issue.

    If you believe in fairies, clap you hands. Clap harder!

  • Robert Waldmann on November 01, 2012 8:31 PM:

    " banished me for excessive “partisan” associations, which my DLC-bashing lefty critics would probably find amusing"

    I don't bother bashing the DLC (does it still exist ?) and I don't criticize you very often. But I have criticized you from the left (on welfare reform) and I don't find the NYTimes concerns amusing or puzzling at all.

    Your blog used to be called The Democratic Strategist. I like able Democratic strategists, but you aren't journalists. On welfare reform, you criticized deParle and Klein for making arguments which were harmful to the progessive cause, because they might make swing voters think that progressives oppose welfare reform.

    My extremely angry response was that they are journalists and should report the facts without considering whether reporting the facts helps the progressive cause. In other words I objected to your argument that reporting what was seen in Texas in 2012 was grinding old axes. I objected to your absolutely plainly false assertion that welfare reform (as everyone but you uses the phrase) included an expansion of the EITC as you asserted (you stopped making this assertion but never admitted that you had written a plainly false claim on a simple matter of fact). I objected both because the post was unreasonably far right (far enough right to include support of the 1996 welfare reform bill) and because it was motivated by palitical calculations (yet directed at journalists).

    The whole logic of the DLC is (or was if it no longer exists) that Democrats shouldn't say things because it is politically costly to say them. Oh and also maybe that they aren't true, not that this matters. That sort of strategy has no place at the New York Times.

    The fact that you think that your lefty critics haven't noticed that you are an ultra partisan Democrat shows that you are not capable of understanding us.

    Of course I am only your critic concerning that one post. Generally I think the world of you.