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March 25, 2014 2:53 PM Is Nate Silver Biting the Hoof That Feeds?

By Ed Kilgore

After a rocky rollout of the new FiveThirtyEight site, producing considerable criticism of specific posts and of the general claims being made for “data journalism,” Nate Silver’s getting a new round of criticism, this time specifically from Democrats, after his initial 2014 Senate forecasts projected a probable GOP takeover of the chamber. I discussed the projections themselves yesterday, but it’s worth taking a look at Dave Weigel’s analysis of the blowback Nate’s getting from elements of the Donkey Party:

The Silver backlash was inevitable. Silver’s cachet on the left, which was high after 2008, became incomparable after 2012. That was the year FiveThirtyEight became a digital security blanket for liberals, a site they could refresh and refresh and refresh some more when their other news sources warned them that Mitt Romney might actually win.
In the days before the 2012 election, one-fifth of visitors to the New York Times’ website ended up at FiveThirtyEight. Conservatives and defenders of the horse race balked at this. A small conservative news site started publishing “Unskewed Polls,” correcting for media bias, and deriding Silver in personal terms. (The site is defunct, but its proprietor now says his “projection of the presidential race was closer than those of Michael Barone, Dick Morris and Karl Rove.” This is not wrong.) BuzzFeed profiled some of the liberals “clinging” to Silver’s numbers. Politico’s media columnist wondered whether Silver might become a “one-term celebrity” after the election proved more dynamic than his polls.

So while Nate’s doing what he’s always done, Democrats aren’t used to hearing bad news from him. Weigel quotes one of FiveThirtyEight’s old-school rivals, Charlie Cook, explaining the dynamic:

“A lot of people after 2012 started seeing what Nate was saying as tablets handed down from God,” said Cook, founder and editor of the Cook Political Report. “They started acting on it, in terms of donations. So I understand why the DSCC and DNC would bitch and moan about stuff we do, but go nuclear on Silver. The audience that Rothenberg and we have—it’s a Washington audience, mostly. It’s media, lobbyists, political action committees, political pros, grazing and taking things with a grain of salt. Nate has a very different audience and a sort of aura of infallibility.”

There’s another wrinkle that Dave discusses: bad news for Democrats can be good news for Democratic fundraisers, up to a point:

[O]fficial Democrats are performing a neat mental trick: They actually disagree with Silver—hence their vigorous attacks on his recent forecast—but also use his gloom to help their fundraising. An open question for Silver is whether he’ll retain his popularity on the left if the election offers nothing but bad news for Democrats. Do the liberals who checked in daily with FiveThirtyEight and got good news after the Romney-Obama debate in Denver really want to be reminded of how bad the Senate races look? It was one thing to see which way a swing state like Virginia might tip, but it’s something else to obsess over a Senate race in a deep-red state where the candidate asking for your donation is going to distance himself or herself from the president you still support.

Now it’s possible that the 2012 dynamic will reassert itself, and even if Silver (or Cook, or yours truly, for that matter) is giving Democrats bad news, the hype from Republicans about the impending vast sea-to-sea landslide underway will make Nate’s projections look sunny, if only by comparison. I don’t particularly like the whole phenomenon of people from either party treating public opinion research or political analysis as nothing more than grist for spin wars, or the associated belief that the party exhibiting the most confidence or “enthusiasm” is going to win. In the long run Nate Silver is better off without a fan base that only reads his stuff to be told what they want to hear.

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.

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