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He called it, and now Silver’s a pop-culture star
With his success in the 2008 race _ he got every state right except for Indiana _ Silver was already a big name. In 2009 he was named one of Time’s 100 Most Influential People. In 2010, he licensed his blog to The New York Times.
But the 2012 election brought a new level of pressure. While Democrats flocked to his blog and took daily solace in his consistent prediction that Obama would win _ though not by a lot _ commentators on the right were critical, and he was accused of weighting his forecasts too heavily toward Democrats.
MSNBC host Joe Scarborough, a former Republican congressman, called him a “joke.” Silver responded by betting him that Obama would win, a bet that Scarborough didn’t take him up on and that was later criticized by the Times ombudsman. (That bet was the poker player in him, Silver says now; he spent a couple years playing serious online poker.)
Much more disturbing, said Silver, were what he called the homophobic comments that some resorted to on the Web. “That was a little shocking,” he said. Added his father: “It got very personal.”
But Silver says he always felt confident in his projections. “I didn’t see any particular reason for the polls to be off the mark,” he said. “Republicans said Democrats were oversampled, but without much justification. I felt pretty confident personally.” Silver predicted 90.9 percent certainty that Obama would win, and forecast him getting 313 electoral college votes; he has 303 without Florida, which is still counting and could take him to 332.
On Election Day itself, Silver felt nervous, but only because there was nothing left to do. Once the early results started coming in, he relaxed. And then, of course, came vindication. “You know who won the election tonight? Nate Silver,” said Rachel Maddow on MSNBC. Even Bret Baier on Fox gave credit on air to Silver. On “The Daily Show,” Stewart basically credited Silver with saving the reputation of arithmetic _ and more. “Like, gravity would have been up for grabs,” Stewart quipped, if Silver had been wrong.
There have been some gripes that Silver doesn’t reveal his actual formula. “He has very carefully explained how he does things,” his father answers. “But he’s not giving away his code. He shouldn’t be expected to do that.”
Nate Silver does say, however, that in the future, “Maybe we’ll have to be clearer.” He also voices concern that precise forecasting could have the frightening effect of influencing voter behavior _ something that obviously doesn’t happen in areas like weather. “You don’t want to influence the same system you are trying to forecast,” he said.
Silver also says he doesn’t necessarily expect the same results forever. “I know we’re going to have some misses sooner or later,” he said, adding that an incorrect forecast on the Senate race in North Dakota is “proof that we can be wrong _ and polls can be wrong.” Others have pointed out that Silver’s forecasting is, of course, only as good as the polls he is using, since he’s not a pollster himself.
For now, though, he’s trying to enjoy it all as much as he can.
“When you get into statistical analysis, you don’t really expect to achieve fame,” he observed wryly. “Or to become an Internet meme. Or be parodied by The Onion _ or be the subject of a cartoon in The New Yorker. I guess I’m kind of an outlier there.”
What’s ahead for Silver? Turns out, forecasting his own future feels much more difficult than forecasting an election.
“It can be a fulltime job, figuring out what your job is going to be,” he quipped.
For now, he has a second book to write, part of a two-book deal. And FiveThirtyEight is set to remain at the Times until mid-2013. After that, he doesn’t know yet, though he noted, with understatement: “I know I’ll have more opportunities now.” But he added: “I’m sure there will be a FiveThirtyEight forecast in 2016.”
For now, he prefers to look at life, and life choices, as a poker player, since he loves the game.
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