‘Times’ Chides Nate Silver, Who Still Predicts An Obama Win

The most recent numbers from New York Times statistician Nate Silver still show President Obama trouncing Mitt Romney next week.

According to Silver's probability calculations, Obama will claim 303.4 electoral votes, far over the 270 needed to win; Romney, according to this calculation, only gets 234.6 such votes.

If Obama wins, it will be the second presidential election that Silver has correctly called, and it could also mean that Joe Scarborough gives $1,000 to charity. That is, if Scarborough took Silver's bet, a bet that has already earned the ire of the Times' public editor. An excerpt from Margaret Sullivans' excoriating criticism:

Whatever the motivation behind it, the
wager offer is a bad idea – giving ammunition to the critics who want
to paint Mr. Silver as a partisan who is trying to sway the outcome.
It’s also inappropriate for a Times journalist, which is how Mr. Silver
is seen by the public even though he’s not a regular staff member.

ranted, Mr. Silver isn’t covering the
presidential race as a political reporter would. But he is closely
associated with The Times and its journalism – in fact, he’s probably
(and please know that I use the p-word loosely) its most high-profile
writer at this particular moment. When he came to work at The Times, Mr.
Silver gained a lot more visibility and the credibility associated with
a prominent institution. But he lost something, too: the right to act
like a free agent with responsibilities to nobody’s standards but his


  1. BABH says

    “According to Silver’s probability calculations, Obama will claim 303.4 electoral votes”

    No. He actually gives Obama a 10% chance of getting 303 electoral votes. But Obama has an 80% chance of getting more than 270 votes (including a 20% chance of getting 330). The “303.4” figure is something of a meaningless average.

  2. BABH says

    OK not totally meaningless. It means he has a 50% chance of getting more than 303, and a 50% chance of getting less than 303.

  3. Isaac says

    She sounds very angry in this editorial. I think somebody has a secret crush on Silver. I don’t blame her, he is kind of cute.

  4. John says

    Oh give me a break. Silver made a bet (for charity, mind you) that his models were correct backed up by empirical data. The Times is just bending over to try not to appear biased.

  5. Steve B says

    ok, “trounce” is a bit of a hyperbole. he’s not winning 80% of the popular vote or of the electoral college, it’s just 80% chance of straight-up winning. womp womp @ the blogger.

    and LOL @ whoever said nate silver is cute. honestly, one of the least attractive people/talking head i’ve seen this whole election. bottom of the barrel.

  6. RJ says

    As others have said, he’s not predicting an Obama win. He’s highlighting that his system concludes that Obama has an 80% chance of winning the electoral college.

  7. Fahd says

    Right now and in the future, if he turns out to be correct in his forecasts, nyimes.com needs Nate Silver more than he needs them.

    I see Silver’s bet having to do more with his pride in his abilities as a statistician, rather than any bias towards or even support for Obama.

    Silver’s statistical analyses of the polls show Obama winning – if his analyses showed Romney winning (God forbid!), Silver would be equally defensive of that determination. Recall that Silver predicted the 2010 “shellacking” that the Democrats took in the Congressional races.

    I think that by 2016 governments might save money by not holding the actual elections, and just rely on Nate to tell them who should win (unless he says Sarah Palin) :)

    Nate Silver=another invaluable gay man

  8. Lucas H says

    Maybe the bet was somewhat childish (“I DOUBLE-dog-dare you!”), but the scolding from NYT is also completely unnecessary.

  9. Greg says

    I started following 538 in 2008 and I’ve been really impressed. Right now I’m worried that Nate’s model is showing news that is almost to good to be true.

    I actually didn’t know Nate was gay until today but I always thought he was kind of geek-a-licious.

  10. jamal49 says

    I have met Margaret Sullivan informally on a few occasions. She is one petty, mean individual who takes herself (and this bet of which all proceeds will be donated to charity) WAY too seriously. How the hell she became the public editor for the NY Times is beyond me. She is unsuitable for the job for many, many reasons, starting with her temperament, which is erratic and quite nasty.

  11. none says

    “giving ammunition to the critics who want to paint Mr. Silver as a partisan who is trying to sway the outcome”

    HAHAHA seriously? Nate Silver won’t sway anything. All he’s doing with this bet is proving his confidence in his product, and in Nate’s case, his product is his algorithm and his statistics based prediction. If i had HALF the data that Silver has to make a prediction I’d bet on my own product too. What’s Nate supposed to do?!? Bet against himself?!? No one would do that, NO ONE!

  12. jd says

    Nate Silver is biased toward Obama. The NY Times owns his 538. There is no way Obama or Romney is gonna trounce anybody next week. This is a tight race. I understand his models continue to show probabilities of Obama trouncing Romney..state by state…well has been that way for months…so what’s the fuss???

  13. Claudio says

    Well, a good friend a mine once explained betting to me.
    She said: “In any bet there is always only two kind of people involved: a fool, and a bastard” Please note: the bastard knows he is going to win, the fool only thinks it. Pundits, such as Mr Scarborough, live off making us believe they “know” what they only wish.
    Mr Silver has only tried to make a point. Since he is not a “professional pundit”, he offered to put his money where his mouth is. The fact that whatever he wins would go to the red cross, releases him from any harsh labels. I don’t know about Mr Scarborough; I guess he’s not betting.

  14. mybutt says

    Steve B gets to publicly decide who is and who is not attractive.

    My guess is that Steve B’s mother is ugly because she raised an ugly prick of a son

  15. MichaelJ says

    As much as I admire Nat Silver, I think the Times has a valid concern: Silver’s public wager does provide ammunition to those who believe he is trying sway the election for Obama. Polls that show a momentum one way the other right before an election can influence some undecided voters though a bandwagon effect, and while I don’t think Silver’s motivation is to increase any bandwagon effects, the bet does draw more attention to the results of his number-crunching. That said, the harshness of Sullivan’s public criticism seems unwarranted and perhaps, as others have suggested, are motivated by something other than concern for the Times’s reputation.

  16. Caliban says

    JD, Nate Silver personally supports Obama but but his PROFESSIONAL reputation rests on correctly predicting election results. He is not a pundit like Joe Scarborough, who questioned Silver’s conclusions only out of political partisanship.

    So Silver offered Scarborough a wager in defense of his professional skills, not his personal political beliefs, with the beneficiary being charity.

    Margaret Sullivan is WRONG. Silver called Scarborough’s bluff and invited him to put his money where his mouth is, nothing more and nothing less.

  17. bobbyjoe says

    “Mr. Silver gained a lot more visibility and the credibility associated with a prominent institution.”

    Oh, I get it– Margaret Sullivan is a comedian. The New York Times dug a mighty deep hole and buried its reputation and credibility during the Iraq War. Nate Silver, on the other hand, has been pretty consistently demonstrating his credibility over the past several years.

    So Sullivan is being funny by making the whacky assertion that Nate Silver needs the credibility of the New York Times, rather than the Times desperately needing the credibility of people like Silver.

    Good show, Ms. Sullivan! Your comedy stylings are right up there with the loopy surrealism of Victoria Jackson.

  18. Stareyes says

    JD, if I understand Silver’s displays right, he’s not predicting a ‘trounce’, but saying that it’s highly likely that Obama will have at least 270 electoral college votes. (In fact, he seems to predict the popular vote will be close, and I’d bet that most of the gain in Obama’s win probability in the past week or two in Silver’s models is more due to smaller uncertainties as the election approaches: the closer we get, the fewer people will change their mind between the poll and the ballot box.)

  19. RyanInWyo (formerly RyanInSacto) says

    I think JD doesn’t understand the difference between public opinion polls and probability of winning. If you look at Nate’s aggregated national election poll numbers, the race is quite close, just like every other non-aggregated poll shows. The 80% number in the “Chance of Winning” graph is not a prediction of the percentage of votes that Obama will win. It is instead the probability that Obama will win, whether with it be with a razor-thin margin or a more comfortable one. If you could run this election 100 times (omg, who could bear that??), Obama would win 80 times out of that 100 and Romney would win 20 times. That’s what 80% chance of winning means.

    Nate Silver is not predicting a “trouncing” in any sense of the word.

  20. ColinAK says

    Yikes, there are some real problems with reading comprehension reflected in these comments. Nate Silver is not at all predicting that Obama will “trounce” Romney. He is predicting that the popular vote will be very close but that, owing to the distribution of votes across the states, there is an 80% chance that Obama will win the election based on the Electoral College (as of yesterday).

    I think Silver’s bet was misguided but I can understand his frustration: Silver works hard to comprehensively analyze polling numbers from every possible angle in a rigorous and scientifically defensible way but his work has come under attack from pundits who would dispute his predictions based solely on anecdote or instinct and who themselves are partisan hacks. The results of both the 2008 and 2010 elections have proven the accuracy of Silver’s modeling and analysis.

    I encourage folks to read Silver’s blog. He updates it daily to reflect the latest poll numbers and the gritty details are really fascinating. Silver’s analysis has provided some welcome news for Democrats in recent days. That was not the case a few weeks earlier and it certainly was not the case during the 2010 election cycle. But that is exactly why I read the blog — for an unvarnished analysis of the polls.

  21. Don McLaughlin says

    Oh Well, I guess girls just don’t like betting. What in the world is wrong with a practitioner, when his work is challenged by a simple opinion, saying lets bet that my statistics are better than your opinions? Add to that …the proceeds go to charity and….
    This lady needs another line of work. Numbers are what they are and can be right, close or wrong. Confidence in one’s work is not a crime. Just what would the times be saying if the numbers and betting were for a Romney high percentage? Would they have the same “courage?”

  22. BZ says

    Were it not for gambling, there would BE NO probability and statistics. The whole field of probability and statistics was invented by professional gamblers.

  23. says

    I was very concerned when Nate’s 538 blog transitioned into a NY Times column. I didn’t see the move as giving him an elevated status or visibility. He had already earned it in 2008. Wish he had kept the blog-he probably would have made more money while maintaining independence.

  24. simon says

    It is a bit meaningless to call an election close. The popular votes in every election differ at most a few percentage points. Every time you can call it “close”. But if you look at electoral college, it is definitely not close in this election.

  25. simon says

    Nate-Silver has a recent article explaining:
    Nov. 1: The Simple Case for Saying Obama Is the Favorite
    The only reason those irrational evidence deniers can give is that all the polls are biased.

  26. Diogenes Arktos says

    “But if you look at electoral college, it is definitly not close in this election.”

    That was one of the reasons the electoral college was born: it is a way to portray the president-elect as having carried more of the country than the popular vote would show.

  27. Bill says

    Someone posting as BZ stated that “Were it not for gambling, there would BE NO probability and statistics. The whole field of probability and statistics was invented by professional gamblers,” and this is simply not true.

    While a mathematician, Gerolamo Cardano, who liked to gamble, came up with some of the basic concepts, that was in the 1500s. Other contributors included Fermat, LaPlace, Huygens, and Pascal. The modern formulation based on measure theory was developed by Kolmogorov.

    It’s uses go well beyond opinion polls and gambling.

  28. Bill says

    What Nate Silver is most likely doing is to use polling data from individual states to get the probability of Obama or Romney winning, the the randomness reflecting sampling error. He may also use linear regression to estimate the state-by-state vote given that how people would vote may be changing with time. Once you have those probabilities, you can run a monte-carlo simulation of the election and get a distribution of the electoral votes, or compute it analytically (but a monte-carlo simulation would likely be quicker to code if you have to write the software).

  29. Scott Larsen says

    As a freelance journalist who loves following presidential elections every four years, I think Nate Silver’s analysis is right on and a breathe of fresh air in the rather otherwise old world way of political punditry and covering elections.

    Wish Nate was around when I was a meeber of the Electoral College in the 1980’s.

    Keep up the good work, Nate!