Nov
07
2012

Has Nate Silver Ruined Campaign Journalism?

The results are in: Nate Silver won the election.

538.com: State-by-State Probabilities

538's final state-by-state projections.

The New York Times' polling/stats wonk was projecting an Obama victory, and it looks like he basically nailed it. Of course, this outcome thrills Silver's many fans, and has shown pretty clearly that the people the corporate media rely on to make election predictions aren't really good at the thing they're supposed to be good at doing.

This is revealing, and should raise the usual questions about why some of these people continue to appear on television as election experts. But since it's very hard to lose your Pundit License, it's hard to imagine a dramatic shuffling of the ranks.

The bigger question to me is the relationship between what Silver does and what campaign journalism is supposed to do. There are political reporters who really don't like Silver's approach, or believe that his modeling pretends to have perfect knowledge of the future.  Whether this reflects a failure to understand probability or just professional jealousy is anyone's guess.

But here's the thing: I don't think many people who have criticized campaign journalism over the years have ever really said, "Boy I wish the horse race coverage more accurately predicted the outcome of the election." Journalism arguably doesn't need to spend too much time placing bets on the outcome of an election.

Nate Silver

Nate Silver (photo: JD Lasica)

If anything, Silver's presence in the campaign discussion (and, to be clear, he's not the only one doing what he does) should be seen as a relief to journalists. Now they don't need to spend so much time on forecasting and the horse race; the presence of reliable projections should free them to do the kind of issues-based reporting that could actually help voters comprehend the policies offered by the politicians trying to win their votes.

Of course, these are not things that most campaign reporters want to spend a lot of time doing. And that's the real problem. Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson (11/5/12) went after Silver right before the election, arguing that Silver's model is "not an innovation; it is trend taken to its absurd extreme." He added:

Michael Gerson at the Aspen Institute (photo: Terek Rizk)

Michael Gerson (photo: Terek Rizk)

The main problem with this approach to politics is not that it is pseudo-scientific but that it is trivial.

Gerson went on:

The problem with the current fashion for polls and statistics is that it changes what it purports to study. Instead of making political analysis more "objective," it has driven the entire political class–pundits, reporters, campaigns, the public–toward an obsessive emphasis on data and technique. Quantification has also resulted in miniaturization. In politics, unlike physics, you can only measure what matters least.

And so, at the election's close, we talk of Silver's statistical model and the likely turnout in Cuyahoga County, Ohio, and relatively little about poverty, social mobility or unsustainable debt.

Gerson has something of a point. It's not really true that campaign coverage didn't talk  about the debt, but he's right that there was little about poverty and class in the discussion.

Is this Nate Silver's fault? Of course not. Are horse race reporters really too focused on data? Perhaps. But often they're focused on the wrong numbers (like the national polls).

The real issue is that too many campaign pundits know the numbers–and think you can't just trust the numbers. Consider this exchange on CBS's Face the Nation (11/4/12) on the eve of the election:

PEGGY NOONAN: I have got to tell you, I feel like Romney is coming up. I feel like very quietly so many things in his campaign have come together. He has sort of come into his own. He's having these big rallies. I keep watching them on TV, they're very strong.

DAVID GERGEN: Those are signs, too.

Peggy Noonan

Peggy Noonan (photo: Kyle Bogucki)

NOONAN: His–yes, case has become–the case he makes is cogent. It's together. His commercials have gotten very good, even as we're all tired of commercials, they've suddenly gotten very good. There's stuff going on there.

GERGEN: Right. I think picking up from on where Peggy is, I don't think it's too close to call. I just think it's impossible to call. And if you look at the polls from afar, clearly, the president has the advantage. He's ahead in most of the battleground states. If he wins the states he's ahead in, he's going to easily get the Electoral College.

BOB SCHIEFFER: But they're in the margin of error.

David Gergen

David Gergen (photo: Steve Terrell)

GERGEN: But they're in the margin of error.

But the other thing is if you go on the ground–I was in Ohio this week, and you hear a different story than what you hear on the polls, you hear a lot of enthusiasm on the part of Republicans. They think they can take this. I think there's a–you can't look at this from 40,000 feet only.

NOONAN: Yes.

GERGEN: You've actually got to be there and get the fingertip feel for it.

NOONAN: There's a passion gap among the Republicans and the Democrats. I feel that a lot of Obama supporters I talk to are somewhat resigned. They mean it, but they're resigned. The Romney people in the past six weeks have gone from "I am anti-Obama–therefore, I'm for Romney"–to "I like Romney." They have become very pro-Romney.

JOHN DICKERSON: That's what the first debate did. And you look, you look at the national polls. It's tied. And the general rule of thumb is if you're a challenger and and incumbent are tied, you'd rather be the challenger. Plus, Romney has an advantage with independents and on the economy. Really big factors.

That's an illustrative take. No, they don't say, "Nate Silver is wrong," but there is a sense here that the "pros" know best: If you want to know how the election's going, go to a Romney rally and see for yourself. The numbers don't tell you enough about the momentum that cannot be quantified.

In this case, that approach gave reporters–and voters, and viewers–a false sense of what was happening in the race. So it was lousy at predicting the outcome, and equally lousy as journalism, since it only managed to misinform people.

So what if campaign reporters stopped trying to be good at reading the polls, and started doing journalism about those neglected issues? Nate Silver could run some numbers about the likelihood of this happening. I'm sure it's a long shot.  The real question, then, is why high-profile reporters don't do enough of that kind of campaign coverage. It has nothing to do with a polling whiz, and has plenty to do with what owners and corporate advertisers would think of that kind of journalism.

About Peter Hart

Activism Director and and Co-producer of CounterSpinPeter Hart is the activism director at FAIR. He writes for FAIR's magazine Extra! and is also a co-host and producer of FAIR's syndicated radio show CounterSpin. He is the author of The Oh Really? Factor: Unspinning Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly (Seven Stories Press, 2003). Hart has been interviewed by a number of media outlets, including NBC Nightly News, Fox News Channel's O'Reilly Factor, the Los Angeles Times, Newsday and the Associated Press. He has also appeared on Showtime and in the movie Outfoxed. Follow Peter on Twitter at @peterfhart.