Media

Is 538.com Good for Political Science?

Jun 4 '10

A colleague told me that he met someone recently and, in the course of pleasantries, she asked what he did. He told her that he taught political science at GW. Her reaction to the topic of political science was something like, “Oh, what’s that guy, you, now, at 127.com or something like that?” “You mean 538.com,” he said. “Yeah, that’s it!” she said.

So what should political scientists think about 538? Here are my thoughts. First, let’s just acknowledge who’s on the masthead (inter alia). Andy, who is at least a part-time political scientist. Tom Schaller, who is a political scientist. And Nate Silver, the son of a political scientist. That much is good.

What about its content? Silver made his name doing election forecasting. On one level, I’m happy to have election forecasters out there. It’s better to have their statistical models than the ruminative burps of some cable news pundit. On another level, I don’t really anticipate any huge advances in election forecasting. Political scientists have been doing this for years — see, e.g., this 1983 book by Steven Rosenstone or this 1992 book by Michael Lewis-Beck and Tom Rice. All of the various models are pretty well-developed and they typically all point to the same winner, as far as presidential elections are concerned. I can’t tell that 538 adds a lot in this regard. Their 2008 Electoral College forecast was actually less accurate than Sam Wang’s, electoral-vote.com’s, or mine for that matter. (I rounded up some predictions here. All of the above were more accurate than Karl Rove, however!) 538’s model didn’t do as well as some others in the British election either. I’m not picking on 538 at all. The simple fact is that there will always be things that forecasting models do not and cannot account for. So whichever model “wins” will always be due partly to luck. I tend to look at a variety of such models, rather than assuming that any one has the goods.

This gets to a broader point: election forecasting is not, obviously, political science. And too much focus on election forecasting per se impoverishes our understanding of politics, because it simply draws people’s attention again and again to the horse race. More generally, we don’t need to predict the future to say something useful. Explaining the past is equally important.

In other ways, I think 538’s content is very useful and, to be fair, it involves much more than election forecasting. They have posts on elections abroad, public policy, the economy, and other current events. I also appreciate Silver’s bird-dogging pollsters (e.g., here). Mark Blumenthal of pollster.com had already begun doing this before 538 came along, and I think both of them are doing a tremendous public service. With the glut of polls on the market, and the insatiable appetite for them, someone has to be minding the store.

Ultimately, I think 538 helps political science by showing people, and especially journalists, that you can use quantitative evidence to understand politics. That’s one reason I’m glad for its new relationship with the New York Times. I don’t always agree with all of Nate Silver’s analyses — see, e.g., here or here — but they are quite an improvement over the views of people who think that a conversation with three Iowans absolves them of paying attention to systematic evidence or academic research.

The way I look at 538 is that it’s pushing analysis of politics closer to Moneyball, and further away from a world in which pundits simply make stuff up. The more that happens, the more doors will be opened to what political science can offer.