Sure, President Obama barely showed up at the first presidential debate earlier this month. But if he felt complacent, there might have been a reason: On Oct. 3, the day of that fateful debate, statistics whiz Nate Silver was predicting that Obama had an 86.1 percent chance of winning the race. Silver’s assessment helped fuel Democrats’ giddiness about Obama’s seemingly inevitable victory.
Silver, 34, is a baseball statistician who made his name in politics four years ago, when his poll-aggregation blog, FiveThirtyEight, showed that a lot of traditional political handicapping was basically worthless. He noted that, for instance, some polling firms have a better record of predicting outcomes than others, and that a presidential candidate generally doesn’t surge in one state without doing the same in others with similar demographics. He built these and other factors into his proprietary computer model, which went on to call 49 states correctly in the 2008 general election.