December 3, 2008
How Nate Silver Brought Sanity To Polling
I say 538 wasn’t great in this election season (just) because Silver’s formula worked; it was great because it so consistently tempered the insanity of polling fluctuations (including at Pollster.com) by identifying erratic data, bad sampling, house effects, and other quantitative noise. In other words, Silver’s formula (and his explanatory rationale for it), instead of just being an aggregate output, actually helped its readers to make sense of the broader universe of polling, from process to results.
As a result, the blog wound up being one of the best political reporting sites on the web. It helped take political junkies from obsessing about “the polls” as an undifferentiated black box out of which numbers spewed into something they could understand and criticize. I also can’t say enough about its calming effects — every time a friend would call me freaking out about some new polling “shift” (usually as a result of one poll’s numbers following another’s, or Drudge beating a cherry-picked drum), I was able to talk them down, using Silver and 538 as my authority.
When virtually every political blog is devoted to channeling outrage, it’s salutary to have one that, even when challenging the CW, reassures.