Here’s a fun Canadian story for you.
During the 1990s, when my home province of British Columbia was ruled by a particularly activist NDP administration, there was briefly a law on the books that made it illegal for newspapers to publish polling data during election season. Obviously such a rule was brazenly unconstitutional (and was predictably turfed by the courts in short order), but the fact that such legislation could even be passed in the first place highlights just how controversial polls can be in modern democracies. The law may be gone, but the mentality that inspired it certainly isn’t — and not only in B.C., either.
Now, at the time, the NDP argued that poll data had a corrupting influence on the democratic process, and claimed publishing it served no purpose other than to manipulate and restrain the mental freedom of voters. What does a newspaper poll do, after all, but bossily inform you of your two “most electable” partisan choices — ie; whatever two parties or candidates are polling highest — while simultaneously demanding you disregard all others.
If a guy is polling at 10% on day one, for instance, then what are you programmed to conclude? “He’s a useless fringe candidate that should be ignored for the duration of the race.” If another guy’s at 56% on that same day, however, then what? “Oh, he’s a shoo-in for sure!'” Such is the narrative structure polls impose. It’s about as self-fulfilling as prophecies come.
I bring all this up because I’ve noticed similar anti-poll arguments beginning to sprout in some conservative Republicans circles in the final days of the current presidential race. Specifically, there seems to be something of a growing conservative backlash against New York Times uber-pollmeister Nate Silver, and his staunchly defended assertion that Mitt Romney, as of now, has but a mere 27% chance of becoming president next week.
Mr. Silver’s blog has been described as the Moneyball of American politics for the sheer enormity of its number-crunching, and certainly few political sites are (or ever have been) anywhere near as aggressive in their ambition to provide the most openly self-confident electoral forecasts based on such a sweepingly comprehensive compilation of American polling data.
I won’t pretend to understand the precise science of how exactly Nate reaches his predictions (even after reading his 2,500 word summary), but in a broad sense they’re the result of aggregation, “weighing,” and simulation. Nate gathers as many credible polls as he can, ranks them based on various standards of reliability, and then uses their data to create computer models where all the various best and worst case scenarios for the candidates are allowed to unfold. The mean outcomes then become his “most likely” predictions — for example, at the moment it’s most likely Obama will win a second term.
In 2008, Nate’s site accurately predicted the presidential preferences of 49 of the 50 states and Nate became something of a celebrity in the aftermath, with long magazine profiles and book deals and all the rest of it. Many journalists and many more political junkies now regard him as nearly infallible, and this aura owes much to his uniquely compelling use of such intimidatingly high-science data to create such unapologetically clear predictions. He’s the ultimate public service geek.
Or at least that’s one way of looking at him. If you’re a conservative pundit, however, it’s increasingly likely that you regard his convoluted science as merely an opaque cover for some lazily biased core assumptions, and his blunt forecasts a cocky attempt to shape the future rather than predict it.
Nate straddles a “very thin line between forecasting and cheerleading,” wrote Josh Jordan in National Review last week, noting that the blogger had not only openly professed his support for Obama in the past, but seems to suspiciously weigh his polls in a way that consistently errs on the side of making the President’s re-election look inevitable. Joe Scarborough, meanwhile, was even less kind, branding Silver a “joke” and an “ideologue.”
“Nobody” in the Obama campaign thinks Obama has a 73% chance of victory, he said, so why should Nate? I don’t care how tight your computer modeling is, elections aren’t the kind of things you can just conclusively call weeks in advance!
And those are just two critics. As more righties continue to pile on with accusations of propaganda disguised as rigor, the whole thing has descended into a full-on public spat. In the cheeky words of the Media Matters people, it’s a classic case of “Data Vs. Gut.” Silver may have the figures but the conservatives have, well, skepticism.
But what if the gut people aren’t just thinking with their duodenums?
There’s a persistent bias in our culture that says the guy with the numbers is always right, and for all the obvious reasons, this is usually a fairly reasonable conclusion. But in the realm of electoral prediction, which is based around anticipating specific rates of mass public participation in a future event whose outcome will be determined by millions of constantly-evolving individual perceptions, well, it’s hard to think of a science less exact.
Humans crave firm answers even when none exist, though, and it’s this more than anything else that I think best describes the Nate Silver phenomena. In a tight presidential race defined by nervous ambiguity, he offers blazing clarity. To liberals increasingly fretful about Mittmentum, he offers unambiguous comfort. To voters in general, he offers closure that democratic governance is ultimately a safte, stable, sane science.
These salving traits don’t mean he’s necessarily going to be wrong about 2012, of course, and it certainly doesn’t mean his ability to mould the election narrative to a pre-determined conclusion is dangerous enough to deserve NDP-style suppression. But it does say something — an uneasy something — about his personal power, and the power of people like him in modern democracies.
And for that, a little criticism, no matter how grasping or partisan, can hardly be a bad thing.