By now most readers know about Nate Silver’s move from the New York Times to ESPN and ABC. ESPN purchased the FiveThirtyEight domain, suggesting a significant commitment by Silver. The move fits with Silver’s roots in sports, as well as his outsider status with regular journalists. ABC will provide excellent broadcast opportunities during election seasons. And I’m sure that money played a major role.
My take is very similar to that of Matt Yglesias at Slate, minus a little of the anti-pundit/journalist invective. Basically, poll aggregation is not that hard to a statistically-minded professional. In my view, prediction is not hard either, except for the step of identifying true predictive factors. Silver’s model includes components of low probable added value. For instance, the econometric components almost certainly give only a low-resolution echo of the polling measurement.
I note that in July/August, here at PEC we had Obama’s re-elect at 91%. This was based on a random drift model, which is clean and is known to lack redundancies. For those who want more complexity, Drew Linzer (Votamatic) has perhaps done the best job of combining opinion and econometric data. Josh Marshall values the FiveThirtyEight model, but I think he’s wrong for the reasons I have given. (He also neglected PEC’s rather good record in the 2012 campaign…but that’s life out here in the world of unpaid blogging). Last August I wrote generally on the value of political-science-type forecasting models.
In my view, Yglesias (and Ezra Klein too) put their finger on what Silver added: storytelling. From 2004 to 2010, I ran a simple site with very little daily essaywriting. My traffic was low. Adding the daily column drove traffic up tremendously. The fact is that readers like the narrative. This is Nate Silver’s contribution: finding a way to make the numbers into a compelling play-by-play. Again, it’s the sports guy in him.
What I find amazing is that journalists don’t use numerical facts in this way. In 2012, one of my favorite themes was singling out a political writer whose narrative was contradicted by known facts (Peggy Noonan, David Brooks, and John Dickerson come to mind). In future campaigns, I hope that kind of Politico-style b.s.-ing will be more constrained by quantifiable information, as Nate and I do.
Update: TIME’s James Poniewozik has an excellent analysis of this last point: the advent of using high-quality data analysis to make journalism better.