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Michael Barone vs. Nate Silver: Don't count war-horse pundits out just yet

Posted by Dante Ramos  November 8, 2012 01:10 PM

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Don't count the nation's bloviating pundits out just yet.

The final weeks of the presidential campaign shaped up not just as a battle between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, but between such number-crunching election prognosticators as Nate Silver and old war horses like Peggy Noonan and Michael Barone.

And in any fair world, the latter, who make confident predictions based on their gut instincts and memories of past campaigns, would feel chastened by how wrong they were. "All the vibrations are right," explained Noonan, the famous speechwriter for Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, when she predicted a Romney victory this week. Barone, who as the longtime author of the Almanac of American Politics knows the nation's political geography better than almost anyone, foresaw a Romney landslide in the leanings of Northern Virginia Asians and in the dearth of Obama signs on Wisconsin college campuses. Meanwhile, a host of cable-TV commentators went to the other extreme of caution, insisting to the end that the race was simply too close to call.

Silver's mathematical model FiveThirtyEight, meanwhile, relied on a vast database of current and historic polling data. For weeks before the election, it predicted an Obama victory with ever greater confidence, and it called every state right in the end. Other models that simply took averages of numerous polls performed just about as well. The bottom line was that actual numbers from reputable polling firms provided real insight into who might win a race. Who knew?

The clear superiority of the statistical approach would, ideally, narrow the scope of political punditry. Reasonable people can argue about whether Romney's economic plan was better or worse than Obama's, or whether Republican Party should move to the right or the center after losing a seemingly winnable election. But when it comes to predicting who will win which states -- or saying the race is too close to make any prediction -- isn't it better just look at hard numbers?

Still, Silver's clairvoyance has triggered a mini-backlash. Beyond the pollsters who fret that Silver and other aggregators are free-riding on others' work, other statistics junkies are pointing out ways in which Silver's model was wide of the mark.

Yet it's not clear that all readers and TV viewers are really clamoring for more precision. Nuanced, nerdy, math-based conclusions often make for dull copy -- not to mention boring television on election night, when self-styled analysts and strategists spend hours vamping on camera while waiting for results to trickle in. And some news consumers -- especially those tuning into conservative media as Obama consolidated a narrow lead in recent weeks -- don't want to hear about the true state of the race; they want to be reassured that their guy is winning. In this world, Barone's real role is to avoid sounding mealy-mouthed and to spin out plausible reasons why Romney would prevail handily.

To expose the gap between that kind of commentary and informed prediction -- as the stats geeks clearly have -- isn't to render Barone's kind of punditry obsolete. So here's a prediction: No matter how wrong their forecasts were this year, Barone and Noonan will keep on making new ones in the future.

Twitter: @danteramos

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ABOUT THE ANGLE Online commentary and news analysis from the Boston Globe. The Angle is produced by Rob Anderson and Alan Wirzbicki. You can follow Rob on Twitter at @rcand.

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