Sorry, Margaret, You Need to Get Out More

November 1, 2012 3:20 p.m.

Times public editor Margaret Sullivan has a post up taking Nate Silver to task for daring Joe Scarborough to a bet over who would win the election. Basically, she says making a bet like this diminishes the Times and he shouldn’t have done it. That may be so. I don’t know and don’t really care.

But she concludes with this line …

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 own.

I say this as an admirer of Silver and the Times. But I think this is almost a demonstrably false assumption and a sign Sullivan doesn’t fully grasp the politics and new media environment Silver operates in.

I’ve been attacking those who’ve been attacking Silver lately and I know that probably makes me seem like I’m some Silver diehard or something. But the reason he’s getting attacked so ferociously on the right now is precisely because he’s viewed as being the standard for poll prognostication. And his ‘odds’, which make Obama an almost overwhelming favorite, are seen by Republicans as really really damaging.

Here’s what Sullivan doesn’t get. There are 7 or 8 different organizations running different flavors of systematic presidential poll analysis right now. They range from Silver to sites like TPM and RCP and Pollster to academic political scientists. And they all show pretty much the same numbers that Silver’s showing. But Silver’s the one who has the public rep as the brainiac polling-meister so he’s the one everybody’s focused on — both Dems who want to believe his numbers (and who tend to favor more science/evidence based analysis) and Republicans who desperately want him to be wrong. That is almost the definition of public credibility, which is what the Times purchased when they made their deal with him.

Again, everybody is showing basically the same thing. But he’s the lightning rod, pro and con.

Like a number of media personalities/experts (and I mean that in a positive sense), Silver is not really reliant on the Times at all. He’s his own brand. In the political realm he built it in the 2008 cycle (he obviously had a baseball sabermetrics rep before that).

I don’t think there’s any question the Times gained considerably more than he did in the bargain. That’s why I suspect they’re paying him quite a lot of money and he was able to negotiate a deal in which the entire 538 franchise is still his. He’s just leasing it to them.

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