Nate Silver might quit if he thinks he’s influencing elections

An interesting comment by election guru Nate Silver during a talk recently.

Nate said that if he perceives that his election forecasts are actually influencing the elections themselves, he might stop making them all together.

He said that his statistics are not intended to affect results, which shouldn’t be an issue in most general elections. But he conceded that in races such as last year’s Republican presidential primary, analysis can make a difference.

“The polls can certainly affect elections at times,” Silver said. “I hope people don’t take the forecasts too seriously. You’d rather have an experiment where you record it off from the actual voters, in a sense, but we’ll see. If it gets really weird in 2014, in 2016, then maybe I’ll stop doing it. I don’t want to influence the democratic process in a negative way.”

“I’m [hoping to make] people more informed, I don’t want to affect their motive because they trust the forecasters,” he added.

I think Nate, and everything else in the world, certainly every bit of knowledge, but even the weather, influences election outcomes. There’s no way for it not to. That doesn’t, however, make it wrong.  The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, fortunately or not, applies to elections too.  By observing an election, you influence it if you have a large enough audience following your observations.

John Aravosis, Nate Silver, White House Christmas Party 2012

John Aravosis and Nate Silver, at the White House Christmas Party 2012

Nate’s predictions of Mitt Romney only have a 28% chance of winning the election back on October 9, 2012, definitely didn’t hurt Team Obama.  But does that make it wrong?  Nate was telling the truth.  Though his “truth” did buck up Obama voters who were awfully worried about how the President was faring in that final month before the election.  So, some might argue that Nate should quit, since he influenced the result.

But, had Nate chosen not tell us what the polls were really saying, he would have still been influencing the results.  Think about it.  Obama voters were fretting, we now know needlessly, that our guy was losing, and was going to lose.  Nate showed us that in fact our concerns that the President didn’t have enough votes to win were factually incorrect.  We were basing our sense of who was going to win, and our dispiritedness, on incorrect information.  Nate provided us with correct information instead.  So is the better alternative to leave voters with not just less information, but wrong information, on which to base perhaps not their votes, but certainly their enthusiasm, which can still affect the outcome?

I’m not entirely sure that’s a better solution.

And what’s worse is that even if Nate stops giving us the correct data, other folks are going to continue giving us the incorrect data.  So we’ll still be in the same boat, relying on polls to determine our enthusiasm, but we’ll simply be relying on the less-reliable rather than the more-reliable data.

In the end, Nate is influencing elections.  We all are.  (But he’s potentially doing it in a bigger way because he has more power individually than, say, I do.)  But every election observer, every reporter, influences the election, even though it’s their job not to.  Information is influence.  Period.  The question is whether any one piece of information unfairly influences the election, and that’s hard to say.  There is an argument to be made that Nate doesn’t just have the influence of any other lead actor, even a large actor, in the electoral debate – Nate is a super-actor, with inordinate, unique influence.  And he is.  But he also happens to be right.

I just have a hard time with anyone who would argue that voters are better off relying on less-accurate, rather than more-accurate, information.

CyberDisobedience on Substack | @aravosis | Facebook | Instagram | LinkedIn. John Aravosis is the Executive Editor of AMERICAblog, which he founded in 2004. He has a joint law degree (JD) and masters in Foreign Service from Georgetown; and has worked in the US Senate, World Bank, Children's Defense Fund, the United Nations Development Programme, and as a stringer for the Economist. He is a frequent TV pundit, having appeared on the O'Reilly Factor, Hardball, World News Tonight, Nightline, AM Joy & Reliable Sources, among others. John lives in Washington, DC. .

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13 Responses to “Nate Silver might quit if he thinks he’s influencing elections”

  1. caphillprof says:

    There is a not insignificant group whose only motivation is to vote for the winner. Nate cannot avoid them.

  2. He influenced me, and I suspect a lot of folks in Washington in the media and activist core, and both presidential campaigns. I wouldn’t undervalue the influence you can have when you get the attention of “the elite” as it were. It’s how we win a lot of our political battles, certainly in gay-land it is.

  3. And whether it’s consistently weighted towards one direction in any particular race, maybe they even out?

  4. theophrastvs says:

    all (published) polls influence all polls. it’s like some law of quantum polling observer effect. the question for Mr Silver is how significant and in which direction?

  5. RyansTake says:

    Nate… you’re great, but probably something like 99.9% of the country has probably never heard of you, and aren’t being influenced whatsoever by what you’re doing. Political polls are like water; you can’t stop them from happening. If you stop making your predictions, it’ll only mean other people will.

    So, keep on trucking and don’t worry about the whiny Republicans who would like to blame you or anyone else for their own failures.

  6. But I get the point. Choosing not to, is still choosing.

  7. hauksdottir says:

    Sartre said something like even if you choose not to move the stone, you’re still playing the game.

    (Sorry, but it was in French, and 40-odd years ago… and I just looked at a site with 300+ quotations and couldn’t find it.)

  8. nicho says:

    So, he would leave us to the tender mercies of the phony polls? And that wouldn’t influence elections? It would be like when the news media stopped telling us the truth.

  9. BeccaM says:

    And the bias.

  10. BeccaM says:

    I’d rather have the information than to pretend it doesn’t exist.

    Just because Nate Silver quits does not mean polls would stop, nor would candidates stop doing their own analyses. In fact, after having seen the dead-scary accuracy of Nate’s models — and what happened to a certain presidential campaign when they decided to go with unicorn fart and fairy dust polls — future, more professionally-run campaigns are much more likely to use them. Or, if not Nate’s exact methodology, at least the concept of weighting and moving averages.

    But then we, the voters, would not have access to this information. Instead, we’d have nothing but the individual flawed publicly available polls, plus the candidates’ spokesweasels constantly asserting that their candidate was simultaneously a come-from-behind underdog and a popular favorite destined to win by the angry Sky God himself.

    Let me put it this way: If a candidate or his people say something like, “We’re ahead in the polls, but we have a lot of work to do and shouldn’t take it for granted” or “We’re trailing, but we think we can bring this deal home with the voters” — and either of those is true, we’ve learned something about the candidate. He or she is willing to be honest with us, at least on this. On the other hand, a campaign constantly asserts they’re ahead when they’re not, or that they’ll sweep swing states when they’re trailing badly in most or all of them — well, that’s an indication we’re dealing with liars.

    This is useful information for a voter. I’d also add that it’s useful information for a supporter, regardless of affiliation, because it can help people decide where and when their campaign donations and volunteer support are needed.

    (Addendum, prompted by John’s remark below: The one time I don’t want to be hearing up-to-the-minute exit-poll results and prejected winners before voting closes is on election day.)

  11. patb2009 says:

    the polls are influencing elections too, it’s why Rasmussen exists.
    Nate just cuts through the noise.

  12. I didn’t get into it, but I think his concern would be akin to those who worry about exit polls on election day – suppressing the vote, and thus changing how and if people vote, and the election results.

  13. Drew2u says:

    Wait, wouldn’t that be like condemning Galileo for proposing a heliocentric model of the solar system? The observation is true; getting rid of the observer doesn’t make it less true.

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