Thursday, November 6, 2008


I didn't spend a huge amount of time during the campaign looking at, the political site started by the now-ubiquitous Nate Silver. I love the idea of it, that mathematical modeling can bring clarity and insight to the world of polling, allowing more specificity than the spate of polls that roll past us through the months. Probably the only reason I didn't visit the site more often was that other sites picked up on 538's work and made their most interesting results available, so, paradoxically, their very success meant I didn't actually have to go there. (By the way, if Puerto Rico ever becomes a state, Silver had better hope that it is granted eight electoral votes, because the domain is open.)

538 did an amazing job predicting the final outcome of the election, and the site has as many numbers as anyone would ever want. It also has featured some fine on-the-ground reporting from Sean Quinn, who travelled about the country reporting on the political effort in various states (which exposed the strength of the Obama effort).

And Silver, who remained anonymous until a fair amount of the campaign had happened, has received a lot of attention, in no small part for "overcoming" his past. Andrew Sullivan:
Nate Silver owned this election on the polling front: one young guy with a background in baseball stats beat out the mainstream media in a couple of months. And he beat out the old web: I mean if you consider the total joke of Drudge's recent coverage and compare it with Silver's, you realize that the web is a brutal competitive medium where only the best survive - and they are only as good as their last few posts.
Now we might excuse Briton Andrew Sullivan for his somewhat dismissive and surprised reference to "baseball stats"; maybe he would have been more impressed if Silver had previously analyzed rounders or cricket. But to those of us who have followed the world of baseball statistical analysis (sabermetrics), we were already very familiar with Nate Silver. He developed the PECOTA system to predict the future value of players, and is a big part of the well-known analytical site and book, Baseball Prospectus.

Frankly, and I say this without the advantage of seeing the nuts and bolts of the work, I'm more impressed with Silver's sports work than what he has been doing politically. There are a lot of numbers in baseball, and since Bill James made the field popular, a lot of very smart people have used a lot of computer time to slice and dice the numbers of baseball. To accomplish something significant in sabermetrics is difficult now; it's just harder to find something instantly recognized as important (PECOTA and Voros McCracken's defense-independent pitching statistics [DIPS] are probably the two biggest in recent years).

So I don't find it amazing that Silver could translate an interest in baseball to the political world, I find it amazing that he was willing to turn his talents to elections. Even though the election is over, I'm sure he'll still have worthwhile stuff at 538, so go check it out.

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