Interview: FiveThirtyEight.com’s Nate Silver

April 26th, 2009 · No Comments

Nate Silver is a statistician originally known for creating the Player Empirical Comparison and Optimization Test Algorithm (PECOTA), a system of prediction for Major League Baseball players’ future achievements. More recently, he started the website FiveThirtyEight.com – a reference to the 538 electors in the electoral college – where he successfully predicted the winners of every 2008 Senate race as well as the results of the presidential election in every state except Indiana. His accurate system of prediction, which outperformed every traditional polling organization, won him acclaim in the United States and internationally. He continues to write political commentary and statistical analyses for the website.

On April 20, Silver visited Iowa State University’s Memorial Union to present the lecture “How Obama Really Won the Election.” Afterward, he shared his thoughts on a variety of topics with the Ames Progressive.

On Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley’s reelection prospects in 2010:

It’s all a question of whether he’s going to retire or not. It seemed to me for a time, when you had [Ohio Senator George] Voinovich retiring and [Missouri Senator] Kit Bond announcing his retirement, [Connecticut Senator] Judd Gregg [announcing he probably wouldn't run for reelection], all the Senators of that generation seemed to be bowing out.

From what I’ve heard, Grassley is going to run for reelection. If he runs, he’ll win. He’s an institutioner. His strongest challenger, [former Governor Tom] Vilsack, is in the cabinet anyway, so I think it’s one of the less exciting Senate races.

But the guy’s pretty old; he could have a change of heart. It’s not as fun to legislate from the minority party, so obviously if he retires then it’s a top-tier race, and probably a lean-Democrat race. But I think he’s going to give it one more shot. I guess [Bruce] Braley would probably have the best [chance of Iowa's House members against Grassley].

But you never know. If Grassley did retire, then [Governor] Chet Culver could run potentially. People don’t want to run a losing race. Good candidates in particular don’t want to run a race they’re going to lose. Lots of people will become interested if it’s an open seat. If it’s not you’ll have some token opposition most likely I think.

On Obama appointing other once-potential Senate candidates Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius and former Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano to his cabinet:

Those two women, if they ran [for Senate], Democrats had a shot, and no other Democrat is really in a strong position to succeed. Maybe in Arizona, a [Representative] Gabrielle Giffords could run and be competitive. But why would you want to run against John McCain when you have the other Senate seat coming up just two years later? McCain’s going to be the subject of some sentimentality having lost the presidency, I think. He’s a tough guy to beat. But Napolitano was term limited.

One thing people maybe don’t look at enough is maybe what are kind of the personal incentives for people to run for office. Number one, don’t lose, [don't] damage your brand when you’re not a favorite. But number two, if you get term limited, if you have other kinds of ambitions, then the rules might change. And in both those cases you had governors who were going to have nothing else to do in 2010 but run for Senate. Maybe they still could, but it seems like now that you have states like Connecticut, for example, that look like they might be competitive, or Illinois, states that you would think would ordinarily be safe for Democrats, they are I think running a risk.

Then again, Sebilius told Obama, I have no interest in running for Senate. I like being part of the executive branch. Being a senator would be the last thing I’d ever want to do. So we can’t presume it would have happened. But definitely in cases like that it’s an opportunity that they’re potentially giving up.

On perceptions of Barack Obama’s performance as president:

Obviously there are debates on the left about strategy…. My whole website is about how you win elections. So naturally I tend to think very pragmatically about, you know, how is Obama using his political capital? Is this a good use of that or a bad use of that? You’re not necessarily thinking so much about which things are things you shouldn’t trade off. Maybe you have to prosecute people for torture even if it does cost you political capital. Maybe you have to permit gays in the military. Maybe you have to do certain sorts of things.

It’s tough though. I think people also forget the kind of degree of difficulty that he’s operating under, and also that he was elected to represent a broad-based coalition. I think people on the left have to do more talking about what things are most important to them. And of course, because the left is a big tent and has a lot of constituencies, you’re going to have a lot of disagreements about that. But a lot of the debates which seem to be about tactics, like how should Obama handle this or that, are really about priorities. So if there’s some way to work toward having a priority list….

And for me it’s still health care and the environment. Those are the two big reasons why I voted for Obama still, I think. Those seem like the two things that if we don’t address them now they’re going to get a lot worse and harder to fix later on. But there’s a lot of other things going on right now. It would be fascinating to see the world where the economy hadn’t fallen apart last fall, where we would be. Would the first hundred days be all these accomplishments, or would there still be other problems he was encountering and so forth?

But I think he’s done relatively well given the circumstances, overall. I wouldn’t say he’s exceeded my expectations but my expectations were pretty high. I still think the key test will probably be health care. I think that will kind of be the litmus test on whether his first term is successful or not. The political litmus test. I’m sure the economy will have an impact on how people will perceive him, but can he muscle through 60 votes or use reconciliation where he needs 50 or whatever else on health care or not? If that goes down, though, he might be seen as a failure, potentially, and Republicans know that. So they have every incentive to not be helpful necessarily. But on the other hand it’s pretty popular with their constituents by and large. It’s becoming more popular with the business community itself. So it will be interesting to watch.

On the state of the Republican Party:

I think in general people worry a little bit about complacency among Democrats. I think if you looked in 2002, 2004, it seemed like there might be a permanent Republican majority. People were so frustrated in 2004 where, gosh, look at everything Bush did wrong and nevertheless he still beat John Kerry and did so with high turnout.

There are shifts. I think there’s a very slow shift socially toward more liberal policies that’s been going on for a long time. I think economically it’s less clear how people really feel about how wealth should be distributed.

I think the most interesting thing going on right now is this backlash against the rich, which in a certain way seems long overdue. It’s kind of amazing that taxes for the wealthy are so much lower than they once were. And I’m not saying there aren’t some economic arguments for it – I’m kind of a free marketer to an extent – but just the fact that you would think that the top two percent can’t possibly be that powerful to outweigh the rest of the people. If you had a tyranny of the majority you would have the rich taxed much higher than they probably should be economically.

So to see how that plays out and which party it benefits I think is going to be really fascinating. But there are so many things going on right now that I don’t know. I wouldn’t take for granted at all that 2012 won’t be competitive. I think we’ll learn more. I think the fact that Obama himself is very popular and smart will help, but I could see the Republicans getting a majority back in the House in 2010.

Not in the Senate. In the Senate they happen to have bad luck as far as all these retirements and just the seats that are up. You could have really weird things like where the Democrats have a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate and lose the House.

The Republicans right now aren’t setting themselves up to win the side of the bet where the economy recovers. Their opposition to the stimulus package I think was probably a smart thing politically to do, but if the economy improves Obama says, “We made it better. They didn’t help. They lose.” And I think they’re in a lot of trouble.

If the Republican Party keeps losing every election, eventually they will just say screw it, we’re going to moderate and we’re not going to have so many of the Sarah Palin kind of Republicans. And that’s really a question for this year, is can a Republican Party based on religious cultural conservatism still win the majority of the national vote at this stage? Because that was always sort of a Faustian bargain, really, where a lot of people weren’t having their economic interests represented by the Republican Party. With that kind of coalition falling apart, I think, and them slowly losing ground on gay marriage, which was such an important issue for them in 2000, 2002, 2004, [that question is raised].

They might have to come up with something new, and I think they might. It’s just what issues will emerge over time. Random things: if the economy stays bad, crime could become a problem again. That seems like a very old fasioned, kind of 1980s kind of issue, but Nixon’s whole victory in the ’70s was brought about by fears of crime and drug use and the whole counterculture and stuff like that. It’s hard to know how things will develop and can develop in relatively short periods of time, especially when there are so many interesting things going on in the world as there are now.

On drug policy and gay marriage:

Marijuana’s another issue like gay marriage to some extent, except we’re basically – a majority of every kind of generation from age about 55 on down, the majorities of them have at some point in their lives smoked marijuana. But then you see a big drop-off once you get past people that kind of came of age in the late ’60s, pretty much. By-and-large, people are okay with it when they’re younger.

That’s actually an example of an issue where if you had lived in 1972 you probably would have guessed, well, by 1990 they’ll have legalized marijuana. Then you had Nancy Reagan and Just Say No, and you had the crack epidemic, which was not the same kind of drug as marijuana but was a very serious problem and really ripped apart urban communities and so forth. And so for a long time support for legalization of marijuana was going down. And now finally with the crack epidemic being to them distant memories it’s kind of going back up again and kind of following that generational path.

But I think people are overly convinced about the inevitability of certain kinds of things. Gay marriage is the one where it’s so strongly [linked to] generational support that I think it’s a bit more predictable, but not entirely so. If the Supreme Court rules at some point on a national case on same-sex marriage then that could affect the next election. It will be a big argument, I think.

On what he reads to generate ideas for FiveThirtyEight.com:

Really, if you want to be lazy you just go to different aggregators. I go to memeorandum a lot. I go to Huffington Post, Drudge Report, Daily Kos. You can kind of see what’s driving traffic pretty quick, and that’s where you get a lot of your ideas, really. Sometimes it’s like your eighth link down on Drudge where an interesting story idea will come from. Or it’s often people e-mailing you about things. I read the Atlantic a lot; I still read The New Republic. I try to read the National Review. I read Open Left; even though I often wind up disagreeing with them they’re always kind of interesting and provocative and have an actual point of view that’s not just derivative of what other people are saying.

Usually there’s too much to write about, not too little. A lot of times I write half-baked drafts of different things, where there’s like a graph and I never find out how to tie it into something else. But it’s just trying to find an interesting angle on something.

On how he decides what to write on the website:

I do think it’s possible to be both partisan and fair at the same time. Maybe partisan’s the wrong term. But I think half the people on TV – well more than half, like 90 percent – you know full well who they’re voting for. So I think in the Internet world we can be a bit more open and biased about that stuff. But it’s also partly part of the time of year we’re in. Most of the people following politics this time of year, even though engagement’s much higher now than it might have been say four years ago, are people who are partisans, so that’s partly kind of the conversation we’re tending to have a little more. Whereas when the election comes around it’s really more of an even split what our traffic might look like, so maybe I’m a little more trepidatious, you know, looking at things that seem like they’re from a partisan angle.

But there are also things, like, we were the only liberal quote-on-quote blog trying to I think give some kind of fair attention to the Tea Party protest, which personally I obviously disagree with but I think deserved a bit more respect than they were treated with, and we did it by trying to count how many people went to them, for example.

And we occasionally take stances that are not with the liberal kind of conventional wisdom by any means as well. I mean, it’s really kind of my – I don’t want to say stream of consciousness because it’s more thought out than that – but it’s kind of what filters through my political brain on a given day or given week. In general I’m a Democratic voter so in general it’s the way I tend to think about things. I think of things very analytically and I kind of get tired of people who seem to have a lot of foregone conclusions about different kinds of issues and not really think them through necessarily….

For the most part we’re just trying to be interesting to people. I think we differ from a lot of blogs. We very rarely just say, okay, here is this that’s going on and here’s what Ezra Klein said and Ezra’s great, so you should read…. Instead, we actually – everything we do we try to actually have some original kind of substance there. We don’t just do a lot of linking around. In some ways, it’s not a very bloggy kind of blog.

But it makes it harder too. The minimum time it takes me to compose a post is like 40 minutes. If I have one thought I want to express I still want to have some kind of take on it. And some things kind of last, like this last thing on the Tea Party protest, which I thought was going to be a throw-away post [where I'd] just collect some accounts of turnout estimates, [turned into] like why am I taking like fucking 10 hours of time? Because it’s like okay, now we’re going to try and be comprehensive, and keep coming in and [using] every newspaper you never thought existed. It was kind of fascinating though, to read about those. And they weren’t, frankly, all that well organized. One time there was one protest, there’s another protest at the shopping mall down the street, and they joined together. So you see from reading that that it wasn’t necessarily some big organized thing.

But, I don’t know, we just kind of go off on tangents and it’s usually entertaining [laughs]. I usually manage to amuse myself.

On his upcoming project:

I have a book that’s supposed to come out in September 2010, but I can’t really talk about it because I haven’t really worked on it yet. I’m getting nervous even thinking about it. And that would kind of be looking at predictions in general. So we talk to weather forecasters and look at predictions markets and all that different kind of stuff. Like how do you predict which kind of tech companies are going to take off and which won’t? Fashion trends. Volcanoes. Anything you can forecast. It’s a very broad topic area right now. We’re going to try to distill it down.

But there haven’t been a lot of books on forecasting, per se, and what works, what doesn’t. Obviously with the economy in general people who thought they were doing a very good job of forecasting the market or macroeconomic factors were doing a terrible job in retrospect. So there’s that angle too, kind of the whole black swan-y kind of stuff.

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