A Silver Lining for GOP Senate Hopes

Why the Left is no longer enamored with stat guru Nate Silver.

vote-hereStatistical wunderkind Nate Silver, who analyzes baseball and elections, has bad news for Democrats. Appearing Sunday on ABC's This Week, Silver told reporter Jonathan Karl that Republicans have a 60 percent chance to win the six seats they need to regain control of the Senate in November. "What's the projection, how many are they going pick up?" Karl asked. "Exactly six," Silver replied. 

Unsurprisingly, Democrats were not amused. Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) executive director Guy Cecil fired back in a memo released yesterday morning. "Nate Silver and the staff at FiveThirtyEight are doing groundbreaking work, but, as they have noted, they have to base their forecasts on a scarce supply of public polls," Cecil declared. "In some cases more than half of these polls come from GOP polling outfits. This was one reason why FiveThirtyEight forecasts in North Dakota and Montana were so far off in 2012. In fact, in August of 2012 Silver forecasted a 61% likelihood that Republicans would pick up enough seats to claim the majority. Three months later Democrats went on to win 55 seats."

Cecil's memo is deliberately selective. Silver, who is editor-in-chief of FiveThirtyEight, a website he recently relaunched in conjunction with ESPN, not only predicted Obama would win the 2012 election, he correctly predicted the electoral outcomes in 50-out-of-50 states. That followed him getting the call right in 49-out-of-50 states in 2008, missing only Indiana, where Obama won with a razor-thin margin of 0.1 percent. Silver’s triumph in 2012 was sweet retribution for the man who had endured ridicule from media pundits who doubted his prognostications. "I think I get a lot of grief because I frustrate narratives that are told by pundits and journalists that don't have a lot of grounding in objective reality," he told Charlie Rose shortly before the 2012 election.

Objective reality is the key. Silver is a registered Democrat, but maintains strict nonpartisanship when it comes to analyzing data. That data, which includes a number of factors such as the weight and accuracy given to each poll based on its historical accuracy, is fed into a computer, where an algorithm makes the ultimate calculations.

This year, those calculations have Democrats on edge, especially since Silver takes trending into consideration. As he noted on his FiveThirtyEight political blog, his last forecast in July "concluded the race for Senate control was a toss-up." His contention that Republican are now "slight favorites" is based on president's sinking approval ratings, which have fallen to 42 or 43 percent from a previous average of 45 percent, and the contention that "the GOP has done a better job of recruiting credible candidates, with some exceptions."

Even as ABC’s Karl laid out the parameters of the 2014 election, which includes races for 36 seats that are mostly non-competitive, he set the stage for Silver's prediction that Republicans would pick up "at least 3 seats": "West Virginia, South Dakota, Montana," Silver explained. After naming those three, Silver talked about the other states where he expected the GOP to do well. These included Arkansas, which Silver gives the GOP a 70 percent chance of wining, followed by Louisiana at 55 percent, and "purple" North Carolina at 50 percent. Other states Silver sees as possible pickups for the GOP include Alaska at 45 percent, and the blue states of Michigan, Colorado and Iowa at 45, 35 and 30 percent, respectively. 

Republican Scott Brown in New Hampshire? "We think the Republican opportunity is a little over-hyped," Silver concludes. "Scott Brown was extremely popular in a different state four years ago," he adds, rating Brown’s chances at only 25 percent.

Even as he predicted Republicans will likely gain 6 seats, Silver added a qualifier of "plus or minus 5," meaning that they have a chance to gain "a really big win" of as many as 11 seats. He puts the odds of them getting that many victories at 30 percent.

Even before Sunday's interview, Silver and his newfound status as an uber prognosticator was being exploited in a fear campaign conducted by Democrats. Over the last four months, Silver has been featured in at least 11 fundraising emails, all of which contained his name in the subject line, along with words such as "fear," "bad news" and "doomed." "There's a lot of testing, particularly for subject lines, to see what has the best open rates," said Taryn Rosenkranz, a Democratic digital fundraising consultant unaffiliated with the DSCC. "Using that name over and over suggests it's successful, and people are opening and giving."

Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN) echoed that sentiment. “This is a snapshot in time,” he noted on “This Week.” “I think this is going to motivate our base.” 

It may take more than motivation. In his blog, Silver points to a number of factors breaking in the GOP's favor. Despite a "rough tie" between the parties on the congressional generic ballot his organization considers the "single best measure of the national political environment," Silver explains that superior GOP turnout in mid-term elections is the equivalent of a 6 point edge. He further notes that Democrats' other problem is based on the "constitutional mathematics" of the Senate's six-year election cycle. The year 2008 was an "extraordinarily strong year for Democrats," and that a neutral scenario, or even one that slightly favored Democrats this time, would still produce a "drop-off relative to that base line."

These calculations, which Silver calls "The National Environment," is one of five factors that comprise his methodology. The other four include "Candidate quality" and its assessment's of an individual's fund-raising ability and ideology, "State partisanship," comparing an individual states' voting patterns against the national popular vote, "Incumbency," a huge advantage in most cases, and "Head-to-head polls" that have "some predictive power if evaluated carefully."

Cold numbers aside, some leftists are aghast at Silver's prediction. Aside from the rest of Cecil's memo, which quickly deteriorates into a familiar screed, claiming Democrats "are fighting for the middle class and Republicans are fighting for Washington special interests like the Koch Brothers, the Tea Party, and their reckless and irresponsible agenda that voters despise,” Silver was also excoriated by New York Times columnist Paul Krugman. In a piece entitled "Tarnished Silver," Krugman contends the prognosticator’s website "looks like something between a disappointment and a disaster.” 

Other leftists didn't need to hear Silver's latest pronouncement. He has apparently been the piñata-of-the-month for some time. Last Friday, Times columnist Tim Egan took Silver to task for relying too much on mathematics, and not enough on the "messiness" of creativity to make his predictions. Two days earlier, Think Progress's Kiley Kroh hammered Silver for hiring global warming skeptic Roger Pielke, Jr. to write for his website. On March 12, theguardian.com's Emily Bell whacked Silver and other journalism start-ups for having too many white males in their employment. 

Yet perhaps the most bizarre attack of all was penned March 19 by the New Republic's Leon Wieseltier who ludicrously chastised Silver for his nonpartisanship. "[Silver] dignifies only facts," Wieseltier writes. "He honors only investigative journalism, explanatory journalism, and data journalism. He does not take a side, except the side of no side….He is the hedgehog who knows only one big thing. And his thing may not be as big as he thinks it is."

Silver is the hedgehog who successfully predicted 99-of-of-100 state electoral outcomes over the course of two presidential elections. To casually, or caustically, dismiss his efforts says far more about those who do so than Silver himself. It is certainly a long way until the mid-term election, but the American left would have to be delusional to believe that ObamaCare, an economy that benefits Wall Street at Main Street's expense, a fantastically incoherent foreign policy, and the numerous scandals that afflict the Obama administration, don't accrue to the benefit of the GOP. Taking on Silver smacks of killing the messenger. Yet much like their similar efforts to demonize the Koch brothers, Democrats may have little else going for them.

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