September 27, 2012
DAVID GREGORY INTERVIEWS NATE SILVER
MEET THE PRESS “PRESS PASS” TRANSCRIPT AND VIDEO
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SEPTEMBER 27, 2012 – In this week’s “Meet the Press” PRESS Pass conversation, David Gregory sat down with Nate Silver, the man behind the New York Times’ political calculus blog, FiveThirtyEight, and author of the new book: “The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail - But Some Don’t.”
Silver, who puts the president’s chance of winning re-election at 80 percent, has gained a reputation for his political prognosticating. In 2008, he correctly picked 49 out of the 50 states in the presidential race, as well as the eventual winner in all 35 senate races.
Silver likens President Obama’s lead in recent polling to a one-touchdown lead in a football game, saying: “late in the fourth quarter, that can become pretty meaningful especially if you have kind of have possession of the football.”
A full transcript is below and embeddable video is online here: http://nbcnews.to/PaIq4s
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PRESS Pass: Nate Silver
Author, “The Signal and the Noise”
DAVID GREGORY: I’m David Gregory, and this is PRESS Pass, your all-access pass to an extra Meet the Press conversation. Next week, as you know, is a crucial one for both the President and Mitt Romney, and today we’ll cut through the noise and really break down where the race stands with Nate Silver. He’s the man behind the New York Times’ influential election blog FiveThirtyEight, and he’s out with a new book as well: “The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail - But Some Don’t.” Nate Silver, welcome.
NATE SILVER: Yeah, thank you David.
GREGORY: Great to have you here.
GREGORY: So what is the secret to predicting elections, because you seem to know it. You seem to have it.
SILVER: Well, we had a good year in 2008, and I hope we’ll replicate that success again. It’s always a mix of skill and luck, but, you know, there is so much information now about campaigns. Even just looking at polls, you might get, literally, on busy days, twenty or twenty-five polls every day, so, what do you do with all that data? Looking at the numbers on an ad-hoc basis doesn’t always do you very well -- where you might pay attention to one poll, even if it’s a good poll, won’t necessarily be where the consensus of the data really points to where the race is going. So, we have a program that we use that looks at every poll, and polls that use better methodology, have better track record, are weighted more. With that said, the shift we’ve seen in the race since the Convention is not something that should be all that hard to determine.
GREGORY: It’s advantage for the President.
SILVER: Yeah, so when you start to see polls showing Obama up by seven or eight or nine points in Ohio and Florida, that’s not a good position for a Republican to be in, or any candidate for that matter. And also the fact that we see Obama at close to 50 percent of the vote, both in national surveys and state surveys, which means even if all the undecided voters or almost all were to break for Mitt Romney, you’re now at the point now where either Obama voters would have to switch back to Romney, or not turn out, both of which are possible -- forty days or so left in the campaign isn’t nothing -- but we’re certainly at a point in the race now where we have a clear frontrunner.
GREGORY: The importance of 50 percent really does speak to whether there are undecided voters that are breaking. And if you get a candidate who gets up to 50 or over 50 percent it gives you a sense that there’s really some settling that’s gone on.
SILVER: Yeah, so we went back throughout history and looked at where the candidates stood at this point in the race in late September, first of October, and the highest any candidate had been, who went on to lose, was Thomas Dewey was at 47 percent against Harry Truman -- of course people thought even at the last minute that he would win that race, o we do have to keep in mind that there can be foul-ups even at the last minute. With that said, the further you’re ahead and the less time you have to go in the election, you know, literally, I use the metaphor of kind of a football game or something. Where, Obama may not have a large lead, maybe it’s a one-touchdown lead, but late in the fourth quarter, that can become pretty meaningful, especially if you kind of have possession of the football and -- maybe we’re stretching the analogy too much --but mean that you seem to have momentum in the race.
GREGORY: And there’s not something that intervenes that can change voter’s minds in a decisive way late -- an October surprise.
SILVER: And of course, you know, we are in a very newsy kind of world, right.
SILVER: You know, you see more concerns from investors now about what’s happening in Europe, and of course many different things in the Middle East; many different vectors could operate there. So there is still the chance of an October surprise. But, you know, the further of a cushion that Obama has, you could have things happen that were moderately bad for him, say a moderately bad jobs report next week, and it wouldn’t be enough to push him to the point where he’s actually behind Romney. Or he could not perform so well in the debates. We’ve seen the numbers, for example in 2000 Al Gore had a lead of about three points at this point in time and was perceived to have lost the debates to George W. Bush. And so that election wound up split between the Electoral College and the popular vote, but he basically lost his three-point lead. If the same thing happened to Romney, who might be down four or five now, then he’d still lose in a very close election.
GREGORY: Kind of a simple point, but a lot of these polls, if it’s 5 points, isn’t there a margin of error that we could still be operating within that tells you this is actually razor tight?
SILVER: There is, but: so it’s one thing if you have just one poll that shows a five-point race, that doesn’t really tell you all that much. But literally since the Convention we’ve had I think something like 250 polls released, between the state surveys and the national polls. And so that really reduces the margin of error to very, very little. Of course, there are other kinds of mistakes that pollsters can make; it’s hard to get people on the phone now and that makes things complicated. But the noise alone from just not simply enough people, that can go away or be reduced when you take more and more polls together.
GREGORY: What about the national polls; should the President have a bigger lead if you factor in some huge states, New York and California, where he’s got sizeable leads?
SILVER: Well that’s one reason why we don’t think there is that likely to be a split between the Electoral College and the popular vote this year, historically it hasn’t occurred very often. But yeah, we have seen polls with Obama running thirty points up in New York, right, and that doesn’t help him once he wins New York’s electoral votes -- there’s no bonus for winning by a larger margin -- or in California, he’s well ahead, even in Mitt Romney’s home state of course, Massachusetts.
GREGORY: What does that tell you if the national, the head-to-head polls, tend to be tighter than the states?
SILVER: I think the national polls, it looked like maybe there was some divergence there, but over the last week we’ve seen the Gallup national tracking poll move out to a six-point lead for Obama, a poll that Bloomberg did also had a six-point lead. So you know we can get pretty precise about this, but there is still going to be some movement to and fro. And also, the timing of the polls matters; where it had seemed, to me anyway, like Obama got a convention bounce and it seemed like his momentum was flagging a bit. And then, frankly since the 47 percent tape came out, now you’re seeing Obama with numbers as strong as they’ve been all year. So I’m not sure whether you had a kind of double-dip problem for Romney, or --
GREGORY: But the 47 percent has certainly had an impact, we’re seeing that in these battleground polls?
SILVER: I think the fact that you’re seeing, especially in these kind of working-class swing states like Ohio and Pennsylvania, Romney having a lot of trouble. To me, part of the issue is that if Romney had made those comments when he was ahead in the race, then okay maybe you can kind of stomach that. But he needs to, at this point, convince another 7 percent of Americans – he’s at 43 percent to Obama’s 49 on average – so he needs to get 7 percent of Americans to say ‘I want to go and vote for Mitt Romney in November.’ And some of that 7 percent of the 47 percent of people who would otherwise find those comments unwelcome.
GREGORY: And as a general matter, Mitt Romney needs about 7 percent. He’s got to make up 7 percent from somewhere. It’s a tough assignment to make up all of that ground in the debates. Something dramatic would have to happen.
SILVER: That’s right, I think you would have to -- I think there will be some people I think who will look at the economic numbers once more and decide in the voting booth to vote for Mitt Romney. There are people who will decide late, and maybe he’ll win a majority of them, but given how hard it’s been to move the numbers for any reason at all, really for the past four years, you know. When you had for example Osama bin Laden killed, Obama only got a small bounce in his approval rating when people thought, the theorists thought, ‘Oh we’re going to have this huge bounce and it will be 70 percent for a couple of weeks and then it will fade.’ And he got up to 52, which just means that everything now is perceived through such a partisan lens that it is hard to move the numbers more than a point or two at a time. And if you haven’t done it now, even after your convention, the fact that Romney may be polling to a tie briefly but not more than that -- that was a damaging sign. Reagan in ‘80 for instance, who did gain a lot of ground on Jimmy Carter late, he had also shown more upside potential, he had led Carter by 20 points after his convention, and so it was just a case of recapturing the voters, people who had already indicated some potential to vote for him.
GREGORY: And he had proven that he could achieve large swings up and down?
SILVER: Yeah, and you know, you had a third party candidate that year, in John Anderson. What happens when you have a third party candidate is people realize, ‘this guy is not going to win so I’m going to go with my second choice.’ You don’t really have that factor at all this year. Gary Johnson might get one or two percent of the vote, but not enough for Romney to count on that possibility either.
GREGORY: So why do most political pundits get it wrong when so often? Even though they’re out spinning certain results?
SILVER: Well, maybe spin is a part of it; I think you have people who are more interested in getting a narrative or a story out there then making a prediction. But it’s also the case that the good thing about elections and what I do is that you can go back later on and see, you know, was I right or not. Not just the presidency, but you can also look at Senate elections and we do gubernatorial forecasts and so forth, and so you can train yourself to get better. But what usually happens is people make a prediction, and then it’s right or it’s wrong, but either way it’s forgotten and you’re already on to the next news cycle later.
GREGORY: But the point of it, Nate, is that you’re able to look through various programs at what the potential is for bigger movement then we’re seeing thus far. Because if you’re Mitt Romney, you’re looking and you’re saying, ‘I not only need late deciders, I’ve gotta somehow close the sale, move a larger percentage, up to 7 percent, across to my side and I’ve got a shrunken map to do that in.’ I mean, if he’s starting to fall behind dramatically in Ohio, what’s his route?
SILVER: Well, the thing is he first has to start gaining some more support nationally right. He’s not quite close enough now. If you’re within a couple of points you can say, ‘Okay, I’ll go through Ohio and Florida, run a bunch of ads in Wisconsin. But the only way – and we run these simulations, or you can just look at history -- but you have to be within about two percentage points in the national popular vote, maybe two and a half, to even have a chance in the Electoral College. I mean, the reason why, for example, Ohio and Florida and Virginia are swing states is because they do look like the American population, in microcosm in a great many respects, and so that means if you’re having trouble winning voters in Ohio, you probably have a lot of big problems anyway -- or in Virginia -- because there are people like there are in Ohio and Virginia in almost every part of the country.
GREGORY: How’s baseball different than politics, when it comes to predictions? Because that’s really where you got a lot of your start here, and you write about it in the book.
SILVER: I used to cover baseball and I used to play poker; I made a living for a couple of years as a semi-professional gambler, and so I think it gives you more understanding of probability and uncertainty. You know if you watch baseball, that -- especially if you are a fan of the Cubs or the Red Sox, things are that are very unlikely will happen from time to time, right, if you watch enough games. If you a watch the NCAA tournament, you know now and then that Lehigh is going to beat Duke, a 15-seed beats a two-seed, and so you see it as all being not in shades of grey in a moral sense, but you know that look, ‘I want to try and lay odds and handicap this outcome.’ That’s kind of how I look at it in politics. People say, ‘well, what’s your prediction?’ And I say, ‘well I have a forecast, like a weather forecaster would, where the chance of an Obama win or a Romney win will go up and down as you get more information, and you get more accurate as you get closer to the actual event.’ But that’s how I look at it. I don’t want to make deterministic predictions because I know that elections are complicated things. There have been years when the polls have been wrong and there are a lot of things that could happen in the real news.
GREGORY: But bottom-lining it, you give the president what percentage chance of winning at this point?
SILVER: So about an 80 percent chance. And if you go back in history, by the way, and look at candidates before – So we have this, you know, fairly complicated method, but it’s always good when you have a more complicated method that checks out with a simple method. So you go back and look at who was ahead in the Gallup poll dating back to 1936 at this point in time, so that’s 20 elections. And 18 of the 20 won. The exceptions were Gore who lost the Electoral College, although he won the popular vote. And again, Dewey versus Truman. So for a while it was the Obama folks who wanted be well, ‘because Harry Truman won in 1948 with a very rocky economy,’ for a while they wanted to emulate Harry Truman. Now Romney would very much like to have a Harry Truman-sized polling error where the Drudge Report runs ‘Obama wins reelection’ and you have Romney win instead, when you count all the votes in Colorado and stuff.
GREGORY: We will see you, Nate Silver, thank you very much.
SILVER: Thank you, David.
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