Friday, October 31, 2014

The Second World Series, The Two Nates of Politics, and Madison Baumgarner

We were very lucky when Nate Silver, statistician and writer, moved over from sports to politics for a couple of years in a column for the New York Times. Throughout the 2012 political season he  correctly called the presidential race, based on the numbers that he carefully examined and explained.  He made this correct prediction when virtually nobody else did and he stayed loyal to it to the end when all the pundits were skeptical of Obama's chances and many pollsters were too.  In fact, Karl Rove's number crunchers so misled him that he was running around Fox studio on election night, trailed by Fox cameras, trying to persuade Fox not to give Ohio and the election to Obama.

Silver was not only right in his analysis and ultimate call; he also wrote very well. You can know everything but if you can't say it clearly, what's the point?  I stumble into incoherence sometimes just like everyone else but Nate Silver virtually never did.

But then he left us.  Back to sports and ESPN in 2013, with this year a sporadic nod at politics.  Obviously his heart isn't in it.

In his wake the New York Times hired Nate Cohn, whom I am sure is a delightful person.  But I'm not so sure about his ability to weigh the numbers and that's because he doesn't handle words all that well. He doesn't explain things.

That's where Madison Baumgarner comes in. His job is to present pitched balls to a batter. The batter then decides whether to swing or not. It's the core decision of the game of baseball. In the story of the two Nates, politics is the pitcher and they are the batters.  They each have had to decide which statistics to swing at.  Which numbers mean something?  And what do they mean?

Nate Cohn is too eager.  He swings at too much.  Further he doesn't go for the sweet spot; he seems to deliberately pop flies.

Right now he is confronting a batch of statistics that may or may not mean something.  They are the  early voting performance in several states, those states that can determine whether the Democrats hold a majority in the Senate. Potentially these numbers are very telling.

At first glance they show that a large number of Democratic voters who did not vote in 2010 have voted early in 2014.  This may indicate the Democrats are going to win in those key states.  But does it?

Eager to get an attention-grabbing opening for his story, right off the bat Cohn trumpets this as a very good sign for the Democrats. He makes it his headline and his opening paragraph.

But his real job is to figure out whether these numbers actually tell us something or only seem to. This initial judgment is comparable to deciding whether the ball speeding at you is worth swinging at.  You can't swing at every pitch and you can't embrace every number, at least not fruitfully. Do these early votes say what they seem to?  Are more Democrats going to be voting, not just early, but right up until the polls close?

Or is this a revolving door situation?  As the Democrats party workers drag these usually low performance voters to the polls are other Democrats that they dragged to the polls in 2010 going to take a time-out?

The only voter performance number that ultimately counts is the final tally. Nate Cohn takes way too long to mention this.

The danger of trying to peer through the fog ahead of time is that often you can't be sure what you are looking at.

Cohn knows this but he waits for paragraphs to tackle the issue of the revolving door or what he calls "cannibalism", and then he does so in a sort of backhand way, to mix sports metaphors.

The result is that I read the piece with dying joy.  It wasn't "good news for Democrats", as billed.  It was a bit of grandstanding.  It was a less-than-Babe-Ruth batter pointing to left field and then not delivering.

I know the Babe ain't coming back, but I sure wish Nate Silver was.  I want a guy who knows what to swing at.

Meantime all we can do is wait for Tuesday night and the final score in the last game of our own kind of series.  Election Day! Play ball!

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