Did Nate Silver tip the 2012 election to Obama?

The New York Times stats whiz says he'll stop blogging if his poll analysis sways future contests

President Obama: A little help from your friend?
(Image credit: Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images)

Nate Silver was vilified by some Republicans and political journalists during the 2012 election, and embraced by Democrats looking for a fix of reassuring political news during rocky periods of President Obama's re-election bid. This week, the seemingly prophetic New York Times–employed political polling aggregator told an audience of students at Washington University in St. Louis that "the polls can certainly affect elections at times." They're not supposed to, Silver added, but some voters may "take the forecasts too seriously."

Then, says Michael Tabb at the Washington U. newspaper Student Life, Silver dropped this juicy little bit of news: "If it gets really weird in 2014, in 2016, then maybe I'll stop doing it. I don't want to influence the democratic process in a negative way.... I'm [hoping to make] people more informed. I don't want to affect their motive because they trust the forecasters."

Politico's Dylan Byers says he "reached out to Silver to ask how much of an effect he believed his data and analysis had on voters in 2012, if any," but got no reply — perhaps, Byers speculates, because Silver has "been a critic of this blog and of Politico in the past." (Byers then goes on to archly note that Silver "inaccurately predicted that the New England Patriots and Seattle Seahawks would meet in the Super Bowl, and then inaccurately predicted that the San Francisco 49ers would beat the Baltimore Ravens in the Super Bowl.")

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Well, "unlike Super Bowl predictions," says Matt Lewis at The Daily Caller, "political forecasts can have unintended consequences," and "I'm glad Silver sees this." By suggesting that he personally swayed the election, "some people will now accuse him of egotism and narcissism, but I actually agree with him." The idea that "the media's constant attention on static polling might have an impact on voters' political preferences" isn't far-fetched at all, says Doug Mataconis at Outside the Beltway. "With the media spending most of its time focusing on the 'horse race' aspect of the race it's logical to assume that at least some segment of voters might be influenced in to backing Candidate A not so much because they agree with him, but because it looks like he's the one who's going to win."

Well, so what? says John Aravois at AmericaBlog. "In the end, Nate is influencing elections." In fact, "every election observer, every reporter, influences the election, even though it's their job not to." It's an offshoot of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle: If you observe an election, and people read your observations, you influence it — "information is influence. Period." But what's the alternative?

Had Nate chosen not tell us what the polls were really saying, he would have still been influencing the results. Think about it. Obama voters were fretting, we now know needlessly, that our guy was losing, and was going to lose. Nate showed us that in fact our concerns that the president didn't have enough votes to win were factually incorrect. We were basing our sense of who was going to win, and our dispiritedness, on incorrect information. Nate provided us with correct information instead....

The question is whether any one piece of information unfairly influences the election, and that's hard to say. There is an argument to be made that Nate doesn't just have the influence of any other lead actor, even a large actor, in the electoral debate — Nate is a super-actor, with inordinate, unique influence. And he is. But he also happens to be right. I just have a hard time with anyone who would argue that voters are better off relying on less-accurate, rather than more-accurate, information. [AmericaBlog]

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Peter Weber

Peter Weber is a senior editor at TheWeek.com, and has handled the editorial night shift since the website launched in 2008. A graduate of Northwestern University, Peter has worked at Facts on File and The New York Times Magazine. He speaks Spanish and Italian and plays bass and rhythm cello in an Austin rock band. Follow him on Twitter.