Reading The Tea Leaves, Statistically Speaking

November 6, 2012

By law (not really), the Idea Peepshow is not a place for political discourse. And I will not violate said law. But this is Election Day, after all, so I’m going dip a toe in the forbidden waters… sort of.

I’m a bit of a nerd when it comes to following politics, especially in an election year. And 2012 has been no exception. Typically, as voting day approaches, I find myself in a non-stop search for the best source for up-to-the-minute poll information. This year I’ve kept an eye on a few sites, but nobody has captured my attention like Nate Silver, political columnist for The New York Times and FiveThirtyEight.com blogger.

Let’s face it: Punditry in sports, politics or any other realm, by nature, forces prognosticators to go out on a limb and tell us what will happen and why. And it’s usually a low-risk proposition. After all, with the rare exception of a talking head saying something blatantly offensive and getting a pink slip, the “analysts” on CNN, FOX News, ESPN and across the radio dial are largely the same people who have been on the air for many years. Incorrect predictions rarely result in negative consequences.

But unlike many of those talking heads, Silver seems to have a lot more at stake — his reputation, certainly his credibility, and very possibly his career. He’s a statistician… not a partisan and not a traditional pundit. He’s been everywhere, including “The Daily Show” and other programs to pimp his book, “The Signal and the Noise.” He’s also generating a lot of attention online, both positive and negative. Because, of course, people always argue the validity of polls, and Silver doesn’t get a pass in that department.

I think what draws people in (at least me) is his ability to illustrate his methodology, and truly explain it, rather than spitting out simple percentages. Whether or not you agree with or like his final assessment, you have to respect the sheer volume of research and math he’s conducting to make his predictions. I say “predictions,” but in reality Silver’s M.O. is to give statistical likelihoods – just like the probability of winning a hand in blackjack is 43.3 percent, you can easily lose 10 hands in a row (you can trust me on that!).

This all leads to my big question: What if he’s wrong? Silver has never said anything in absolutes. In fact, he’s always contended that his analyses are simply a snapshot in time…allowing that anything can happen. But Silver, more than any “pundit” in the game, has a lot to gain or lose by the results of today’s election. So as the results come in, I’ll be interested in three outcomes:

1)   Who is our next president? (duh)

2)   Will Silver be proven accurate or otherwise?

3)   And what response will he get from those who believe his science…and from those who dispute him?

If you haven’t checked out www.FiveThirtyEight.com, consider it. Half the fun of this election just might be comparing his data against the actual results. I predict, at a minimum, it will be fun for nerds like me.