Like Morning Joe host Joe Scarborough, Nate Silver loves horse race political coverage. But Silver loves it because it’s where he gets to apply his now-famous statistical brain, crunching polls into probabilities so accurate that he accurately predicted which way all 50 states would vote in the presidential election.
And though the pair has debated those numbers in the past, the two came together to talk about why some polls gave Romney a lead and what makes a good poll on Tuesday’s show.
“High-quality polling really differentiates itself, because if you take an automated poll, you miss the people who have cell phones—which is about a third of the population now and they’re mostly younger, urban demographics, mostly Democrats, so you’ll under sample Democrats,” Silver explained. “Low and behold those polls had a Republican bias.”
Republican pollsters were confident, Scarborough noted. Why? How?
“Look, sometimes campaigns put on a certain spin for the press, of course. When I talked to the campaign, I thought they had a realistic view of where they stood,” Silver said. “I think the pollsters there, those guys are pretty smart guys who took a B-/C+ candidate and ran a tough campaign… It’s tough to beat an incumbent.”
Silver argued that translating polls into probability gives substance to horse race reporting.
Silver’s work on his New York Times blog FiveThirtyEight has had his fair share of admirers—and critics, including Scarborough, who criticized Silver on his show two weeks before the election:
Nate Silver says this is a 73.6% chance the president is going to win? Nobody in that campaign thinks they have a 73% chance—they think they have a 50.1% chance of winning. And you talk to the Romney people, it’s the same thing. […] Both sides understand that this is close and it could go either way. And anybody that thinks that this race is anything but a tossup right now is such an ideologue, they should be kept away from typewriters, computers, laptops, and microphones for the next 10 days, because they’re jokes.
Silver later responded on Charlie Rose: “I think I get a lot of grief because I frustrate narratives that are told by pundits and journalists that don’t have a lot of grounding in objective reality.”
But on Morning Joe, Scarborough countered the numbers with political history: “A week and a half out you put it at a 74% chance Obama was going to win. But the politician in me was saying that you never know what’s going to happen. Just like with baseball, the numbers might look good, but certain players might eating fried chicken and drinking beer in the locker-room, and anything can happen.”
Silver agreed that surprises do happen.
“We missed a Senate race in North Dakota, where we had the Democrat with only an 8% chance of winning and she won,” Silver said. “Thankfully it’s a low-profile race, so I don’t get scrutinized too much, but that was the same chance we had Romney with a 10% chance of winning.”
Silver, who started applying his statistics genius to baseball (“Sports is good, sports relaxes me”), and Scarborough finished off the segment talking sports. What is the probability of an Alabama Crimson Tide win over Notre Dame? Scarborough asked.
“Pretty high,” Silver said.
“I think we can go into the 90s,” Scarborough agreed.
“Probably not the 90s, Joe,” the statistician corrected.
“Aww, you guys were doing so well,” co-host Mika Brzezinski laughed.
“I’m sorry, Nate!” Scarborough said.