By Hannah Hayes
Alumnus Nate Silver has been called a “wunderkind” by The New York Times and declared “seemingly infallible” by political pundits across the country.
In less than a year, Silver’s uncannily precise predictions of the ascent of Barack Obama have taken the slight and unassuming 30-year-old statistician from anonymous blogger to one of the year’s most respected political analysts. Now Obama is President, and Silver, with the organization and logic that made him famous, is considering his options.
Last March the 2000 Economics graduate, who once made a living playing online poker in his Wicker Park apartment, launched the website FiveThirtyEight.com. It quickly became the go-to resource for tracking presidential politics after his primary polling data proved stunningly accurate.
“We kind of stuck our necks out and said Obama was going to have a better night than anticipated in North Carolina, and that Indiana was too close to call,” Silver explains. Newsweek picked up on his success in June, and “after that, the buildup was pretty steady.”
The site shrugged off Republican Sarah Palin’s post-convention bump in the polls and confidently predicted unlikely Barack Obama wins in traditionally “red” states. Evening talk shows began calling, landing the statistician a spot on “The Colbert Report” and several appearances on CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC.
On Election Day, FiveThirtyEight.com logged four million hits, and Silver has since been fielding book offers and plotting his move—he’s got his eye on Congress and the future of Obama’s policy initiatives.
Idea quickly takes flight
According to Silver, he was stranded in a New Orleans airport when the idea of FiveThirtyEight.com came to him. “I was just frustrated with the analysis,” says Silver. “I saw a lot of discussion about strategy that was not all that sophisticated, especially when it came to quantitative things like polls and demographics.”
At the time, Silver was a managing partner at Baseball Prospectus, an independent think tank devoted to statistical analysis and research in baseball. Silver revolutionized the discussion when he developed the Player Empirical Comparison and Optimization Test Algorithm (PECOTA), a system that predicts the success of a player or team in any given season.
While talking baseball may seem a far cry from presidential politics, Silver didn’t see it that way. “It reminded me of baseball, when you see the same recycled clichés and conventional wisdoms over and over again, some of which isn’t very wise.”
A political junkie, Silver was blogging on the popular political site The Daily Kos under the pseudonym “Poblano,” a name he used while blogging on the best Mexican restaurants in Wicker Park. Two months after the launch of FiveThirtyEight.com, Silver delighted political junkies when he unveiled his true identity as baseball’s whiz kid.
“It’s kind of a small world when you’re talking about political bloggers,” says Silver. “There are about a dozen political blogs that drive things.”
While predicting baseball games is slightly different than predicting elections (more players and games give more data points), Silver “borrowed a few tricks” from sabremetrics, a term coined from the acronym for the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR). His method involved tracking the accuracy and past successes of major pollsters while looking for variables that might explain discrepancies.
“I get frustrated when I can’t find the variable to explain something,” he says.
It didn’t happen often. On Election Night, Silver predicted the popular vote within one percentage point and correctly predicted 49 of 50 states. Newsweek carried a live feed of “Nate Silver’s exclusive Election Night Guide”, on its website, which Silver updated between TV appearances.
Turning the page
Silver appears unfazed by his popularity. He nurtured FiveThirtyEight.com like any smart entrepreneur would treat a business. “I basically decided in 2008 I would be a media whore,” Silver says sheepishly. He doesn’t feel like a rock star and works to stay in readers’ morning coffee routines. “I’d like to take a vacation, but then you don’t want to lose momentum.”
Silver has traveled the country and fielded book offers from the top 10 publishing houses, but he is still dedicated to his website. Minnesota’s Congressional recount and the uncertainty of Senate seats in Illinois, New York, and Colorado gave him plenty of material.
Silver now plans on taking his numbers game to Congress, where FiveThirtyEight.com will continue to track Congressional votes and the Obama administration.
While perhaps not as compelling as the horse-race nature of electoral politics, Silver sees plenty of material to mine and decipher.
A database of Congressional votes, for example, could correlate with where elected officials get their money from or when and if they are vulnerable to reelection. “We’ll see what votes are unusual, and if someone has a reason to vote for a bill and they don’t, why they vote the way they do.”
Much of the media attention surrounding Silver focused on his sudden rise to fame, but perhaps in hindsight, his trajectory was as predictable as his methodology. He applies his mathematical mind to his passionate interest, finds the answers, and then moves on.
“I have a habit of getting into something for a certain period of time and then moving onto something else,” Silver concedes. “Sometimes I think that things seem really cool, but they can become routine—it becomes work, and that takes a little bit out of it.”
Silver talks in tangents about the future and what topics his book may explore, including hurricane prediction, movies, fashion trends, and breaches in national security. “It’s a big world,” he says smiling. From burritos to baseball, poker to politics—whatever Nate Silver’s next move, one can predict the world will continue to watch.