Data analysis the big winner

Kamloops Daily News
November 8, 2012 01:00 AM

The U.S. election was a great victory - for Nate Silver. Sure, Barack Obama was the winner at the polls, but anyone who paid attention to Silver knew ahead of time that would happen. As it turns out, this data-blogger for the New York Times called every state correctly. In 2008, he got 49 out of 50.

Silver sifted through hundreds of polls and related data every day and published the odds for who would win. There was nothing emotional about it. He dispassionately crunched the numbers and came up with 90-per-cent odds for Obama to win.

The pundits who had been going on for weeks about a "razor-thin" race were, predictably, outraged. They dismissed Silver and insisted on publishing articles about nightmare scenarios about how the U.S. would cope with a tie.

Of course, it's a lot more interesting to think of an election campaign as a horse race than a foregone conclusion. It's better for ratings and brings in more advertising. Also, people's emotions tend to get in the way of thinking straight when it comes to politics.

Through the cacophony that is American politics, Silver did not waver.

Afterward he was congratulated by magnate Mark Cuban, owner of the Dallas Mavericks, on Twitter:
"Congrats to @fivethirtyeight, Nate Silver. Way to stick to your guns and ignore the noise."

In fact, it could be argued that "ignoring the noise" was in some ways the greater accomplishment.

It should be pointed out that Silver was not the only one making Obama an odds-on favourite. Drew Linzer of votamatic.org and Sam Wang of Princeton University had come to similar conclusions. So it really comes down to a triumph of the nerds.

Now that "big data" methods have been vindicated, we can expect to see them adopted by others hoping to emulate Silver's success. What that could mean for future elections is less excitement about the outcome. After all, when a candidate hits 90-per-cent odds, the opponent becomes a long shot indeed.


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