A few final (?) thoughts on Nate Silver’s role in the election

Mitt Romney has a chance to win today — not a great chance, not even a good chance, but a chance. That’s at the heart of Nate Silver’s final probability model at FiveThirtyEight. Romney has about a 1/8 chance of winning the popular vote, but a third of the time he wins the popular vote, he would probably lose the electoral count because of Obama’s edge in some key swing states.

From Michael Gerson today at The Washington Post, The trouble with Obama’s Silver lining:

Silver’s prediction is not an innovation; it is trend taken to its absurd extreme. He is doing little more than weighting and aggregating state polls and combining them with various historical assumptions to project a future outcome with exaggerated, attention-grabbing exactitude. His work is better summarized as an 86.3 percent confidence that the state polls are correct.

The main problem with this approach to politics is not that it is pseudo-scientific but that it is trivial. An election is not a mathematical equation; it is a nation making a decision. People are weighing the priorities of their society and the quality of their leaders. Those views, at any given moment, can be roughly measured. But spreadsheets don’t add up to a political community. In a democracy, the convictions of the public ultimately depend on persuasion, which resists quantification.

Put another way: The most interesting and important thing about politics is not the measurement of opinion but the formation of opinion. Public opinion is the product — the outcome — of politics; it is not the substance of politics. If political punditry has any value in a democracy, it is in clarifying large policy issues and ethical debates, not in “scientific” assessments of public views.

So, yet again, we have someone — in this case Gerson — with a national platform who seemingly does not grasp the simple importance of Silver’s work.

Who doesn’t want news outlets to give us more coverage of large policy issues? Who doesn’t think the media should spend more time talking about the priorities of our society and the best ways to get there?

I think the vast majority of Americans would agree with Gerson’s broader point.

But what is the content that actually consumes much of the broadcast time and print space? Lame punditry about “tossup” races and “sprints to the finish.” Glib predictions about candidates’ likely surges here or there — ideas that bear only passing relationship to probable outcomes.

Nate Silver and others who are trying to aggregate polling data in a truly meaningful way are pointing out the sheer inanity of those discussions and predictions. They’re injecting data into the public discussion, and in the process they are showing much of our news coverage for what it is: entertainment.

To paraphrase one of Silver’s comments from last week: anyone who would cover the presidential race as a “tossup” after looking at the results of the last 25 national polls — 17 for Obama, 6 ties, 2 for Romney — is not in the business of delivering serious news.

Silver’s work isn’t “trivial”, as Gerson argues. Silver and others have told the usual media suspects that the American public doesn’t need their horse race punditry when we can look at the data ourselves about who’s most likely to win and by how much. We don’t need reporters to tell us that anymore.

Those reporters and columnists now need to work a little harder and ask more important questions — they need to spend less time haggling about the politics and more time covering policies.

Rather than complaining about Silver’s work, folks like Gerson should embrace the freedom they have been given by it. They don’t have to waste their own time or their readers’ with ill-informed predictions. They can focus on more substantive things.

I like Michael Gerson’s columns. The one today is exceptionally disappointing.