Silver Threads and Golden Needles

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

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.