The Nate Silver Election  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   August/September 2012

The Nate Silver Election   

The pollsters and the pundits got it right, and Dick Morris is still looking for that elusive Romney landslide. Weds., November 7, 2012

By Rem Rieder
Rem Rieder (rrieder@ajr.umd.edu) is AJR's editor and senior vice president.      


Call it the Nate Silver election.

The New York Times' acclaimed and assailed FiveThirtyEight blogger, who analyzes polls with his way-cool special algorithm, has been telling us for some time that President Barack Obama was going to win a second term.

This brought him all sorts of opprobrium from conservatives livid that he could be so blithely be predicting certain victory for the beleaguered incumbent when polls showed Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney were virtually tied in the popular vote.

But the critics were totally missing the point. Elections in this country are decided by the meshuganah electoral college. And those swing state polls were making it clear, although by the narrowest of margins, that Obama was going to once again be the One.

Silver, and much of the mainstream media, got it right. The polls were tight, but the analysis suggested correctly that Obama was going to win again. The much-maligned narrative wasn't "skewed" it was on target.

The obsessive focus on polls this time around was no doubt over the top. But given the tightness of the election, the intense passions surrounding it and insatiable thirst of so many to know who was going to win, I'm not sure it was a major war crime.

Certainly Silver, he of the 90 percent chance of Obama prevailing, along with many pollsters and political savants, had a great deal riding on the outcome. The rough consensus going into Election Day was pretty much that the popular vote would be close but the math suggested the president would be reelected. Imagine the anti-media outcry from conservatives if Romney had pulled it out.

Instead, the prognosticators who look silly are the wishful thinkers on the right, like Karl Rove, the noted architect of campaigns past, who foresaw Romney racking up 279 electoral votes. Or Dick Morris, the onetime Bill Clinton aide who switched sides, who wrote a column anticipating a GOP "landslide." Or onetime Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan, who wrote on her Wall Street Journal blog, "While everyone is looking at the polls and the storm, Romney's slipping into the presidency."

Maybe she should have looked at the polls.

One of the big winners of this election cycle was the fact-checking movement. Once the lonely province of outfits like factcheck.org and PolitiFact, fact-checking has worked its way into the journalistic mainstream. This year it seemed everyone got into the act, painstakingly parsing the pronouncements and the ads of the candidates. As I've written before it's really healthy to see news outlets comfortably calling out pols for their distortions and prevarications.

Of course, there was one problem. Often the candidates didn't pay any attention. In many cases, even when their claims were debunked, the campaigns kept on parroting them. One classic case was Romney's claim that Obama had a plan to "gut" welfare reform. And a top Romney aide asserted that the former Massachusetts governor's campaign wasn't going to be dictated to by fact-checkers.

That's unfortunate. But it hardly obviates that valuable work. Even if politicians think there's no price to be paid for ignoring the referees, it's important for journalists to check the facts and reach conclusions as a service to the citizens who care.

Less healthy was the penchant of the political media to tirelessly flog the gaffe or distraction du jour or du moment, a byproduct of the 24/7 news cycle and the obsession of political journalists with "winning the morning." There was no shortage of silliness this time around. But I suspect this kind of stuff, while no doubt of great interest to the Insider the Beltway political insiders, has little impact on the vast majority of voters.

(My nominee for the moment political journalism jumped the shark: Politico's story on Herman Cain's reaction to the death of disco diva Donna Summer).

Finally, a modest proposal. Next time around, forget all of that expensive, noisy campaigning. Just have the parties pick their candidates and let Nate Silver declare the winner.

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