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Posted on Sat. Nov. 10, 2012 - 12:01 am EDT

The improbable celebrity

Stats geek now a star after vote prediction

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NEW YORK — The other night, Nate Silver got a little taste of what things are going to be like for him, post-Election 2012.

The 34-year-old statistician, unabashed numbers geek, author and creator of the much-read FiveThirtyEight blog at the New York Times had gone out for a drink with friends on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. But he couldn’t stay incognito; immediately, he says, people sitting at the bar recognized him.

He was surprised, but probably shouldn’t have been. For 24 hours, ever since his election forecasts had proved uncannily successful – he correctly predicted the presidential winner in all 50 states and almost all the Senate races – he had been hailed as the election’s “other winner,” who had silenced doubters and proved the value of a cool-headed, math-based approach.

That night, he had appeared on Jon Stewart’s “The Daily Show” for the second time in three weeks. “Don’t you want to stand up and say, ‘I am Nate Silver, bow down to me!’ ” Stewart roared, as the bespectacled Silver sat and chuckled. The Hollywood Reporter said he had “made statistics sexy again.” Many called his story a real-life “Revenge of the Nerds” tale.

And oh, his new book had soared to No. 2 on Amazon, after he linked to it on Twitter an hour after the first network call for President Obama. (“This is probably a good time to link to my book,” he had tweeted at 12:13 a.m. – the closest he came to gloating.)

Even so, Silver says he wasn’t quite prepared for that incident in the bar.

“It’s odd,” he said in a telephone interview from his Brooklyn home. “Is this going to happen every day, as opposed to once a month? I still have to get accustomed to this.”

Silver, who uses computer models that he runs on a beat-up laptop at home, is quick to acknowledge the accomplishments of others using similar methods. “It’s a little strange to become a kind of symbol of a whole type of analysis,” he said. And he noted that similar work was being done with, for example, weather, all the time. “You have to give those forecasters way more credit,” he said. “Their forecasts have real life-and-death consequences.”

Others have used similar computer models to predict races. What Silver has done, though, is not only arrive at a formula that uses aggregated polls and other weighted factors to achieve his predictions, but also to write about them in an accessible and engaging way.

His father, political science professor Brian Silver, attributes his son’s success to a two-pronged drive: “He’s driven by a need to get the answers to a problem, but he also is very concerned with the narrative, with telling the story,” said the elder Silver, who teaches at Michigan State University.

After earning an economics degree at the University of Chicago, he went into consulting for a few years. In 2007, Silver started writing about politics – at first under a pseudonym, “Poblano.” He quickly gained an audience for his forecasts during the presidential primaries. In March 2008, he began his FiveThirtyEight blog, and a few months later revealed his name.

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.

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, commentators on the right were critical, and he was accused of weighting his forecasts too heavily toward Democrats.

MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough called him a “joke.” Silver responded by betting him Obama would win, a bet the host didn’t take him up on and was later criticized by the Times ombudsman.

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.”

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.

For now, 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.

What’s ahead for Silver? 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.

“You get steely nerves playing poker,” he said. “It’s part skill and part luck. You hope you win enough bets to make a living on, right?”


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