“Who is he?” Nate Silver

July 1, 2016

“Who is he?” Nate Silver is the person to whom the Facebook poster referred. I had commented on a Friend / Trump supporter’s post—I do have Trump supporter friends, really—and the poster’s friend responded. On another post someone asked about Nate Silver, I responded, and in the chain this comment appeared: “Every poll is different, and it’s way too early anyhow.”

Nate Silver is a statistician / writer. He runs FifeThirtyEight.com, and got famous when the blog resided at the New York Times. Mr. Silver also wrote The Signal and the Noise, which carries the subtitle: Why So Many Predictions Fail – But Some Don’t!

Mr. Silver called the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections. In 2008 he was right about 49 states and the District of Columbia; he was perfect in 2012. (In fact, the outcome is highly likely in most states, but calling all of the close races correctly is a big deal.)

Mt Silver’s methodology involves a review of many polls, lots of background information about those polls, and some black box work. It worked very well in both of the last two general elections. It has, however, worked less well during the 2016 primaries. For the details, read: How Nate Silver Missed Donald Trump by Leon Neyfakh for Slate back in January, and Why The Polls Missed Bernie Sanders’s Michigan Upset by Carl Bialik for FiveThirtyEight.com.

FiveThirtyEight.com posted its first general election analysis, Who Will Win the Presidency?, within the last couple of days. It says Hillary Clinton, has a 79.2% chance of winning. Unpacking this analysis matters. First, a 79.2% chance of winning does not mean Ms. Clinton will win 79.2% of the votes. Rather, it means an election, held 100 times, would see Ms. Clinton winning about 80 times.

Second, in the report there is a sub-header which reads: “It’s all about the 538 Electoral College votes.” Right-O, and 2000 provides a recent reminder, as Al Gore won 543,895 more votes than George W. Bush. The FiveThirtyEight.com report estimates an Electoral College blowout, with a popular vote spread of a comparatively close 6.8%.

Finally, the election is slightly more than four months away. Stuff happens, and that’s why in the “odds” chart FiveThirtyEight.com states: “We’ll be updating our forecasts every time new data is available, every day through Nov. 8.”

I started this piece by mentioning the comment about every poll being different, and about how early it is. Polls do differ, but that is Mr. Silver does his thing. His black box may use bad modeling—it doesn’t, but it could—but normalizing polls makes sense. (Mr. Silver’s work really represents tossing the low and high outliers, on steroids.) As for “too early,” I hear that plenty but it begs these two questions: “Have you made up your mind? Will anything you can imagine change your mind?”

I know only a very small number of people who have not made up their mind about this election. They are all Berners. Each of the dozen or so of them tell me they will not vote for Trump, and might vote for Clinton. I cannot imagine a Trump supporter—today—switching to Clinton. Vice versa? Even harder to imagine!

So, to “too early” I ask: Why? If minds are made up and won’t likely change, why isn’t analysis in late June meaningful. (By the way, having read The Signal and the Noise all the way through, and having read parts of it again, I cannot imagine Mr. Silver’s proprietary model not taking into account when the election will occur in relation to the analysis.) That all said, if you are truly undecided, or if there is something which might change your mind, please share your thoughts in a comment. Too private for that. Email me at mark@markrubinwrites.com and I’ll share your comment anonymously.

A few more quick thoughts. Stuff does happen. That said, Donald Trump keeps doubling down on a style that succeeded in the primaries and seems to be failing him now. So it’s hard to imagine how he grows his base.

Yes, the Justice Department might indict Ms. Clinton. Highly unlikely, and not because Bill Clinton said hello to the Attorney General the other day. Regardless, if anyone thinks the Democratic Party won’t figure out how to deal with an indicted candidate—George McGovern, a truly lovely man, dumped his running mate, Thomas Eagleton, because he’d had shock treatments for depression—they’re dreaming. An indicted Hillary Clinton will not be on the Democratic Party ticket on November 8, 2016.

In closing, Nate Silver takes polls and does math to come up with his numbers. On the other hand, counted ballots decide elections. So, if this election matters to you—it must, surely—you need to vote. Really!

P.S. Enjoy the holiday weekend.

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