Bold blog challenges the political pundits

If Nate Silver's prediction of an Obama victory proves to be correct, the media's rule book will need to be rewritten.

By Jonathan Berr Nov 5, 2012 2:08PM
Who would have thought that the words "epistemological watershed" would be used to describe the 2012 presidential election? 

That's the phrase Nate Silver of The New York Times' 538 blog used to describe the contest between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, and it's on the money largely because of him.

By the way, Merriam-Webster defines "epistemology" as "the study or a theory of the nature and grounds of knowledge especially with reference to its limits and validity."  (Don't feel bad if you didn't know the word, because I had to look it up, too. )

What sets Silver apart from his rivals is that he has been predicting an Obama victory since June because of a complicated mathematical analysis of polling data. Silver's view has been consistent even after Obama's poor performance in the Denver debate.  The statistician's latest prediction estimates Obama's chances of winning re-election at 86%, near his highs for the year.

Silver started 538 -- named after the number of presidential electors -- because he despises the horse-race coverage of politics, arguing that it lacks intellectual rigor. During the presidential debates, reporters and pundits become theater critics, talking about how the candidates perform. During the campaign, there is plenty of talk of "momentum" and other vague scientific-sounding terms. It's largely nonsense.

"I think I get a lot of grief because I frustrate narratives that are told by pundits and journalists that don't have a lot of grounding in objective reality," Silver recently told Charlie Rose.
If Sllver is proved right, all that blather goes out the window, and if I were a political journalist or pundit, I would be scared to death. The chattering classes earn a nice living because people assume that they have keen insights on the political process based on their inside information. Silver is basing his conclusions on publicly available information.  In essence, he is telling the media elite that they aren't so special.

Of course, Silver has plenty of detractors. Political scientists at the University of Colorado are trumpeting an election forecasting model that they say points to a Romney victory.  They are as confident in their views as Silver is in his. Plenty of Republicans are coming on cable news confidently predicting that Obama will be a one-term president. MSNBC's Joe Scarborough even bet Silver that Romney will win. Sliver took the co-host of "Morning Joe" up on his offer.

But even if Silver's call is wrong, which I don't think it is, he has rewritten the rule book for political journalism. Voters will be better off because of it.

Follow Jonathan Berr on Twitter@jdberr.



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