Barack Obama was re-elected to the highest office in U.S. politics on Tuesday night. But lacking the sheer groundswell of support that he was able to command in his 2008 campaign against Republican Sen. John McCain, the blogosphere and punditocracy were eager to identify the substantial victors of the 2012 elections. And many sources, or at least the most web-friendly ones, point to one man as the undisputed victor of last night’s election: Nate Silver.
BuzzFeed announced less than an hour after news outlets began calling the election in favor of the incumbent with a quick blurb stating, “Nate Silver wins the election.” Wednesday morning, Mashable followed suit by trumpeting the “triumph of the nerds,” pointing out that Silver’s projections had accurately predicted the electoral outcome of all fifty states. His book “The Signal and the Noise,” which was already a best-selling, rose to the number two spot on Amazon, fellow New York Times blog editor Nick Bilton said on Twitter. “Nate Silver is the man of the hour,” GigaOM said Wednesday morning, “the NYT’s top brand and probably traffic driver yesterday.”
But interestingly enough, GigaOM’s story wasn’t about hailing Silver or the “big data” movement for which he has been taken to herald an unquestioned victory. It was about why the New York Times itself waffled for 49 minutes after all the other major “old media” outlets had called the race. Silver, after all, had all but become the interminable sage and icon of the 2012 election polling industry. So why now, at the most decisive moment in the field that he spurred on so vigorously, was he suddenly keeping so quiet?
Silver continued to keep quiet as the rest of the internet rose up to celebrate his victory. His last post on the New York Times Five Thirty Eight blog late Tuesday night was a crisp summary of the night’s events.
This was, no doubt, a victory that web-based journalism has been waiting to celebrate. Much in the same way that avid Twitter-users (read: journalists) were quick to note just how much the social network was simultaneously covering and shaping the election to its needs, the presence of things like “big data” and “math” was framed as a rival to the old guard of television pundits who relied on unreliable metrics (if they can be called that) of emotion and the instinctual sway of the electorate. The New York Times, by embracing both Silver’s wonkishness and his new media approach to delivering that same wonk-friendly data in blog form, seemed to straddle the border between new and old media and thereby offer the best of both worlds.
Did Silver and the New York Times succeed in this herculean task? Over at Slate (another web-based publication, it should be added), Daniel Engber argued that really “Nate Silver didn't nail it; the pollsters did.”
There is certainly an art and a science to the innovative sort of polling that Silver was able to capture and manipulate in the name of “big data.” But more curious than the impressive achievements that Silver was able to bring to polling data is the ease with which the Twitter users rushed to embrace grand and necessarily ambiguous concepts like “math” and “data.”
A big question before the election was whether Romney might win the popular vote but not the electoral one, a situation that might encourage Republicans to level the same criticisms against the electoral college that Democrats did when Al Gore lost to George W. Bush in 2000. No doubt pollsters and pundits alike will continue to debate the true extent to which Nate Silver truly won this latest presidential alike now.