Ezra Klein on the Nate Silver backlash:
It seems to happen every few weeks. The race tightens or widens or simply continues on exactly as it’s been and some pundit or reporter declares it a staggering humiliation for the burgeoning world of election quants. Neill Ferguson took his turn at bat in early September…. After the first debate, David Frum stepped up to the plate…. Which brings me to the backlash against Nate Silver.
Before we get too deep in the weeds here, it’s worth being clear about exactly what Silver’s model — and that’s all it is, a model — is showing. As of this writing, Silver thinks Obama has a 75 percent chance of winning the election. That might seem a bit high, but note that the BetFair markets give him a 67.8 percent chance, the InTrade markets give him a 61.7 percent chance, and the Iowa Electronic Markets give him a 61.8 percent chance. And we know from past research that political betting markets are biased toward believing elections are more volatile in their final weeks than they actually are. So Silver’s estimate doesn’t sound so off.
Moreover, Silver’s model is currently estimating that Obama will win 295 electoral votes. That’s eight fewer than predicted by Sam Wang’s state polling meta-analysis and 37 fewer than Drew Linzer’s Votamatic…. Every major political betting market and every major forecasting tool is predicting an Obama victory right now, and for the same reason: Obama remains ahead in enough states that, unless the polls are systematically wrong, or they undergo a change unlike any we’ve yet seen in the race, Obama will win the election…. Real Clear Politics, which leans right, shows… Obama up in Ohio, New Hampshire, Iowa, Nevada, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan…. Pollster.com… shows Obama leading by a point in Colorado and Virginia and the race tied in Florida.
It’s important to be clear about this: If Silver’s model is hugely wrong — if all the models are hugely wrong, and the betting markets are hugely wrong — it’s because the polls are wrong. Silver’s model is, at this point, little more than a sophisticated form of poll aggregation. But it’s just as important to be clear about this: If Mitt Romney wins on election day, it doesn’t mean Silver’s model was wrong. After all, the model has been fluctuating between giving Romney a 25 percent and 40 percent chance of winning the election. That’s a pretty good chance!…
Another criticism is that Silver’s model is so based on polls by the end that it barely actually counts as a model, and Silver is simply doing a savvy job repackaging and commercializing polling data that is out there already. This criticism, of course, says nothing about his accuracy. Then there’s the argument that Silver adds unnecessary factors, though note that models without those factors, like Wang’s, are showing an even more lopsided win for the president.
But the good arguments over Silver’s model are being overwhelmed by very bad ones.
First, there are the conservatives who don’t like Silver’s model because, well, they don’t like it…. If Silver’s model is systematically biased, there’s a market opportunity…. The math behind what Silver is doing isn’t that complicated and the polls are easily available. But so far, the most popular conservative take on the polls was UnskewedPolls.com, to which… LOL….
Then there’s the backlash from more traditional media figures…. [W]eird… Politico’s Josh Gerstein wrote, “Isn’t the basic problem with the Nate Silver prediction in question, and the critique, that it puts a percentage on a one-off event?”… Politico’s Jonathan Martin wrote, “Avert your gaze, liberals: Nate Silver admits he’s simply averaging public polls and there is no secret sauce.”… Politico’s Dylan Byers wrote, “So should Mitt Romney win on Nov. 6, it’s difficult to see how people can continue to put faith in the predictions of someone who has never given that candidate anything higher than a 41 percent chance of winning.” Come to think of it, a lot of the odder critiques of Silvers have been coming out of Politico. But that makes a kind of sense. Silver’s work poses a threat to more traditional — and, in particular, to more excitable — forms of political punditry and horserace journalism….
“[W]ho will win the election?”… is the question at the base of most careers in punditry, almost all cable news appearances, and most A1 news articles…. Now Silver — and Silvers’ imitators and political scientists — are taking that question away from us. It would be shocking if the profession didn’t try and defend itself. More recently, we in the media — and particularly we in the media at Politico — have tried to grab an edge in the race for web traffic by hyping our election stories far beyond their actual importance. The latest gaffe is always a possible turning point, the momentum is always swinging wildly, the race is endlessly up in the air. It thus presents a bit of a problem for us if our readers then turn to sites like Silvers and find that… the data shows a fairly stable race over long periods of time.
My guess is Silver and his successors will win this one… forecasters have better incentives than homepage editors…. [A]ll these attacks on Silver take, as their starting point, Silver’s continuously updated prediction[s]… popular vote and electoral college… Senate races. Those predictions let readers check Silver’s track record and they force Silver… to make his model as accurate as he can. That’s a good incentive structure — certainly a better one than much of the rest of the media has — and my guess is his results, over time, will prove it.
What, I wonder, is Politico's incentive structure?
Why oh why can't we have a better press corps?