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“This is a Really Strange Election”

November 1, 2010

It was the 2008 general election that really put Nate Silver on the map.  The stats geek had perfected the science of “sabermetric” analysis in the realm of major league baseball statistics — a field expansive and deep, yet clearly demarcated (like a literal baseball field).  Applying the sabermetric approach to what would seem to be a thornier and more sprawling subject, voter polling, Silver founded the blog FiveThirtyEight.  During an election year that captivated the nation and the world, Silver’s hardcore statistical analysis of polling data struck a chord.  The blog went viral.

Photo by Lindsey Bieda. Some rights reserved.

More impressively, Silver’s confident predictions of 35 Senate races and the 50 states’ presidential preferences turned out to be uncannily accurate: he was right in 84 of his 85 picks (incorrectly picking only a McCain victory in Indiana).

Now fast forward two years.  The electorate leans red, not blue. FiveThirtyEight, once an independent blog, has been reborn as a daily column for the New York Times.  And there is a perceptible change in tone. It isn’t that Silver’s analysis is any less rigorous or his commentary any less insightful. He’s the same guy, and the blog doesn’t generally feel any different.  It’s that the data is murkier this time around. The general trend toward Republican gains is clear enough, but what people came to expect from FiveThirtyEight was pinpoint precision. They relied on Silver to essentially tell them the results of the election before it happened. And they could take that to the bank.

By contrast, the headline of this morning’s piece by Silver, on the eve of the election, is that the “Size of RepublicanWave [is] Hard to Predict.” Writes Silver, “The fact is that there’s not really any way to say who’s right — not until Tuesday, at least. . . . Tuesday’s probably going to be a really good night for Republicans, but we really don’t have a very good idea of exactly how good — it’s probably time to embrace that conclusion. This is a really strange election, or at least one that pollsters are having an awfully difficult time getting a handle on.”

What a difference two years makes.

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