Saturday November 10, 2012

NEW YORK -- The other night, Nate Silver got a little taste of what things are going to be like for him, post-Election 2012.

The 34-year-old statistician, unabashed numbers geek, author and creator of the much-read FiveThirtyEight blog at The New York Times had gone out for a drink with friends on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. But he couldn’t stay incognito; immediately, he says, people sitting at the bar recognized him.

He was surprised, but probably shouldn’t have been. After all, for 24 hours, ever since his election forecasts had proved uncannily successful -- he correctly predicted the presidential winner in all 50 states, and almost all the Senate races -- he’d been hailed as the election’s "other winner," who’d silenced doubters and proved the value of a cool-headed, math-based approach.

That very night, he’d appeared on Jon Stewart’s "The Daily Show" for the second time in three weeks. "Don’t you want to stand up and say, ‘I am Nate Silver, bow down to me!!"’ Stewart roared, as the bespectacled Silver sat and chuckled. His name was trending on Twitter and he was the subject of a satirical Twitter hashtag, "Drunk Nate Silver." The Hollywood Reporter said he’d "made statistics sexy again."

And, oh, his new book had soared to No. 2 on Amazon, after he linked to it on Twitter an hour after the first network call for President Barack Obama.

Even so, Silver says he wasn’t quite prepared for that incident in the bar.

"It’s odd," he said Thursday in a telephone interview from his Brooklyn home. "Is this going to happen every day, as opposed to once a month? I still have to get accustomed to this."

Silver, who uses computer models that he runs on a beat-up laptop at home, is quick to acknowledge the accomplishments of others using similar methods. "It’s a little strange to become a kind of symbol of a whole type of analysis," he said. And he noted that similar work was being done with, for example, weather, all the time.

In politics, too, others have used similar computer models to predict races. What Silver has done, though, is not only arrive at a formula that uses aggregated polls and other weighted factors to achieve his predictions, but to write about them in an accessible and engaging way.

His father, political science professor Brian Silver, attributes his son’s success to a two-pronged drive: "He’s driven by a need to get the answers to a problem, but he also is very concerned with the narrative, with telling the story," said the elder Silver, who teaches at Michigan State University.

Needless to say he was a math whiz, but he also was a debating champion, winning competitions in high school. Nate then went off to the University of Chicago, where he earned a degree in economics.

A few years in consulting followed. It bored him, but it was during those years that Silver turned his love of baseball into a sophisticated forecasting system of player performance. That became his new career; he sold the system to Baseball Prospectus, and wrote a weekly column there on baseball research.

In 2007, Silver started writing about politics -- at first under a pseudonym, "Poblano." He quickly gained an audience for his forecasts during the presidential primaries. In March of 2008, he began his FiveThirtyEight blog, and a few months later revealed his name.

With his success in the 2008 race -- he got every state right except for Indiana -- Silver was already a big name. In 2009 he was named one of Time’s 100 Most Influential People. In 2010, he licensed his blog to The New York Times.

But the 2012 election brought a new level of pressure. While Democrats flocked to his blog and took daily solace in his consistent prediction that Obama would win, commentators on the right were critical, and he was accused of weighting his forecasts toward Democrats.

Much more disturbing, said Silver, were what he called the homophobic comments that some resorted to on the Web. "

But Silver says he always felt confident in his projections. "I didn’t see any particular reason for the polls to be off the mark," he said. Silver predicted 90.9 percent certainty that Obama would win, and forecast him getting 313 electoral college votes; he has 303 without Florida, which is still counting and could take him to 332.

What’s ahead for Silver? Turns out, forecasting his own future feels much more difficult than forecasting an election.

"It can be a fulltime job, figuring out what your job is going to be," he quipped.

For now, he has a second book to write, part of a two-book deal. And FiveThirtyEight is set to remain at the Times until mid-2013. After that, he doesn’t know yet.