NYTimes Poll Analyst Nate Silver Offers to Bet $2,000 on Obama Win, Chided by Public Editor

November 2nd, 2012 2:14 PM

New York Times star poll analyst Nate Silver continues giving hope to Democrats, and he's getting more confident in an Obama victory as the election draws closer, pegging Obama's odds of victory at around 75%. After a heated debate on MSNBC's Morning Joe, the normally mild-mannered Silver offered via Twitter on Thursday to bet host Joe Scarborough $2,000 that Obama would win, which drew some criticism from the paper's outspoken new Public Editor, Margaret Sullivan. Meanwhile, columnist Paul krugman termed conservative criticism of Silver's methodology "scary."

Silver, a former poster at the left-wing Daily Kos, who usually mans the Five-Thirty-Eight blog at nytimes.com, again made the paper on Thursday with "When State Polls Differ From National Polls," which asserted that Barack Obama will probably win both the Electoral College and popular vote:

We are approaching the point where Mr. Romney may need the state polls to be systematically biased against him in order to win the Electoral College. That certainly could turn out to be the case: If Mr. Romney wins the popular vote by more than about two percentage points, for example, he will be very likely to cobble together a winning electoral map.

But the historical evidence slightly favors the state polls, in my view, when they seem to contradict the national ones. If the state polls are right, then Mr. Obama is not just the favorite in the Electoral College but probably also in the popular vote.

Hopefully we'll know soon enough.

Public Editor Sullivan criticized Silver for the bet on Thursday in "Under Attack, Nate Silver Picks the Wrong Defense."

But whatever the motivation behind it, the wager offer is a bad idea – giving ammunition to the critics who want to paint Mr. Silver as a partisan who is trying to sway the outcome.


Granted, Mr. Silver isn’t covering the presidential race as a political reporter would.

But he is closely associated with The Times and its journalism – in fact, he’s probably (and please know that I use the p-word loosely) its most high-profile writer at this particular moment.

When he came to work at The Times, Mr. Silver gained a lot more visibility and the credibility associated with a prominent institution. But he lost something, too: the right to act like a free agent with responsibilities to nobody’s standards but his own.

Earlier in the week, excitable columnist Paul Krugman rode to Silver's defense after a rather measured attack from National Review in a Sunday post he entitled "The War on Objectivity." Krugman went hysterical, calling NR's criticism "scary."

For those new to this, Nate is a sports statistician turned political statistician, who has been maintaining a model that takes lots and lots of polling data --most of it at the state level, which is where the presidency gets decided -- and converts it into election odds. Like others doing similar exercises -- Drew Linzer, Sam Wang, and Pollster -- Nate’s model continued to show an Obama edge even after Denver, and has shown that edge widening over the past couple of weeks.

This could be wrong, obviously. And we’ll find out on Election Day. But the methodology has been very clear, and all the election modelers have been faithful to their models, letting the numbers fall where they may.

Yet the right -- and we’re not talking about the fringe here, we’re talking about mainstream commentators and publications -- has been screaming “bias”! They know, just know, that Nate must be cooking the books. How do they know this? Well, his results look good for Obama, so it must be a cheat. Never mind the fact that Nate tells us all exactly how he does it, and that he hasn’t changed the formula at all.

This is, of course, reminiscent of the attack on the Bureau of Labor Statistics -- not to mention the attacks on climate science and much more. On the right, apparently, there is no such thing as an objective calculation. Everything must have a political motive.

This is really scary. It means that if these people triumph, science -- or any kind of scholarship -- will become impossible. Everything must pass a political test; if it isn’t what the right wants to hear, the messenger is subjected to a smear campaign.