Sunday, November 11, 2012

Nate Silver: Why I Started FiveThirtyEight

Nov 10, 2012 - The Daily Beast

The statistician and author of the new book The Signal and the Noise, who has now predicted two presidential elections with astounding accuracy, on the principles he abides by on his blog.

I had the idea for FiveThirtyEight (which refers to the number of votes in the Electoral College) while waiting out a delayed flight at Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport in February 2008. For some reason—possibly the Cajun martinis had stirred something up—it suddenly seemed obvious that someone needed to build a website that predicted how well Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, then still in heated contention for the Democratic nomination, would fare against John McCain.

My interest in electoral politics had begun slightly earlier, however—and had been mostly the result of frustration rather than any affection for the political process. I had carefully monitored the Congress’s attempt to ban Internet poker in 2006, which was then one of my main sources of income. I found political coverage wanting even as compared with something like sports, where the “Moneyball revolution” had significantly improved analysis.
Election-The Other Winner
Nate Silver sits on the stairs at Allegro hotel in downtown Chicago, Friday, Nov. 9, 2012. (Nam Y. Huh / AP Photo)

During the run-up to the primary I found myself watching more and more political TV, mostly MSNBC and CNN and Fox News. A lot of the coverage was vapid. Despite the election being many months away, commentary focused on the inevitability of Clinton’s nomination, ignoring the uncertainty intrinsic to such early polls. There seemed to be too much focus on Clinton’s gender and Obama’s race. There was an obsession with determining which candidate had “won the day” by making some clever quip at a press conference or getting some no-name senator to endorse them—things that 99 percent of voters did not care about.

Political news, and especially the important news that really affects the campaign, proceeds at an irregular pace. But news coverage is produced every day. Most of it is filler, packaged in the form of stories that are designed to obscure its unimportance. Not only does political coverage often lose the signal—it frequently accentuates the noise. If there are a number of polls in a state that show the Republican ahead, it won’t make news when another one says the same thing. But if a new poll comes out showing the Democrat with the lead, it will grab headlines—even though the poll is probably an outlier and won’t predict the outcome accurately.
Full piece at The Book Beast

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