The Election Gods Bow to Math


Election Day was great for baseball. And baseball was great for Election Day.

After the Mets collapsed yet again, I took all the emotional/spiritual/perspirational energy I poured into their hopeless cause and channeled it into following the presidential election. I also focused some of that chi into rooting against the Phillies, which didn’t work out nearly as well.

Like any other good lefty, I read Daily Kos, watched Keith Olbermann, and tsked at Fox News ass-hattery. But it’s easy to overdose on Smug when you live in a liberal bastion like New York and only consume media with which you agree. It’s easy to fool yourself into thinking you know what your fellow Americans feel and want.

I fooled myself in 2004. I never deluded myself into thinking that John Kerry was a magnificent charismatic agent of change because, duh. But considering the state of the country at the time, and the obvious (to me) evil represented by Bush, I concluded that Kerry would prevail. I told myself there was no way Kerry could lose because…well, he couldn’t, could he?

And then I found myself up at 2 in the morning, watching Ohio go to Bush, sucking down beer and wishing I was drunk enough to pass out and forget any of it had ever happened.

I was furious–not at America, or Bush, but myself for believing that Lurch could have escaped the thorny tentacles of the Rove Monster.

This year, I was just as convinced of a Democratic victory as I had been four years prior. Except this year I had much more solid ground to stand on: Nate Silver’s

Prior to this election season, Nate was best known as a founding member of Baseball Prospectus, a sabermetric think tank that publishes a must-read annual. Following the lead of Bill James, they developed their own statistics to measure players’ true worth in
more comprehensive ways than traditional metrics like batting average and ERA. They even created a system called PECOTA that projects a player’s future performance with a scary amount of accuracy.

And they do it all with a thoroughly entertaining James-ian mix of dry humor, righteous indignation, and intense number crunching. In just over a decade since its debut, BP has become an indispensable resource not just for stat nerds, but for nearly every GM in the game.

In a game full of curses and myths and other mystical bullshit, BP pulls the curtain away from the wizard. Of course, there are plenty of people in baseball who’d prefer the wizard to stay hidden. It’s a game that believes it holds great spiritual meaning, and–despite the fact that baseball has always been obsessed with statistics–many people think numbers interfere with that meaning. As if knowing the science of the earth’s orbit could make a sunset less beautiful.

Some of these folks are crusty veterans of the game who are resistant to change. But most of them are blowhard newspaper columnists and radio yakkers who make their living force-feeding their opinions to everyday slobs who (they hope) won’t think too hard about where they’re getting their info from, or what agenda they might be pushing. They have a lot of money and ego invested in promoting conventional wisdom, and they do everything they can to ignore any other way of looking at the game.

I do not trust the traditional sports media and its myriad of talking heads. But I trust BP. Why? Because they’re nerds.

The thing about nerds is that they have only one agenda: proving that they’re smarter than everyone else. Nothing makes a nerd happier than being right. When they make mistakes, they admit it–or have it noisily pointed out by other nerds. And you can be almost certain that mistakes are just that–not agenda-driven pushing of a certain viewpoint, but errors that they will work hard to correct in the future.

When BP picked the Tampa Bay Rays to win 90 games in 2008, they didn’t do that because Joe Maddon “knows how to win”, or they think B.J. Upton is “clutch” or they felt like throwing a bone to the team because they co-own a race horse with the GM.

They said the Rays would win 90 games because, after doing all the math, they believed the Rays would win 90 games. As it turned out, they underestimated Tampa’s awesomeness by 7 games. But their prediction was still 20-30 games better than those of most so-called experts.

So when I found out that a guy from BP had a web site that studied presidential polls, I immediately decided that was a site I could trust. Because even though Nate Silver is an admitted Obama supporter, he is first and foremost a nerd. As a fellow nerd, I have impeccable nerd-dar.

Thus, when showed that the race was not truly tightening down the stretch, I believed it because the site’s math was so comprehensive. If you only watched news networks, you would’ve thought the race was tightening. This was a narrative they tried to sell, not because they had any real evidence to support it, but because they were desperately afraid that predictions of a landslide would depress ratings on Election Night. Or they were afraid that predicting good things to Obama would leave them open to charges of liberal bias.

When Nate showed that McCain’s routes to victory were razor thin–despite what the aforementioned news networks insisted–I believed him because his assessment of all the state polls in aggregate led to this conclusion. McCain had to win seven toss-up states, and flip a few states that polled with solid Obama support, like Iowa or New Mexico. Chance of doing so: un-bloody-likely.

And when The Drudge Report revealed a mysterious Zogby poll on Halloween that showed OMG! MCCAIN LEADS BY ONE POINT!, Nate showed exactly why this poll–clearly leaked to freak out Democrats–was less than worthless. It was a half-day poll taken on a holiday with a ridiculously high percentage of Republicans. If I’d saw the poll without reading Nate’s site first, I might have chewed all my fingernails off.

All these reassurances didn’t make me any less nervous on election night. I adopted the same nervous habits I get during big baseball games: I pace all over my living room/kitchen, watching the TV at an angle. As if not looking directly at the screen will make bad news hit less hard. When the first state was called for McCain instead of Obama, I was actually terrified. Even though that state was Kentucky, which was about as competitive as the Cubs in the playoffs (sorry, Nate).

But when Indiana remained too close to call, I knew that it would be a good night for Obama. Because Nate had reassured me that regardless of outcome, if Indiana was close–a state that’s been red since Lincoln–it was a signal of an enormous Democratic turnout.

And when Pennsylvania was immediately called for Obama right after it closed, I raised my arms in the air, my fists clenched. I usually only do this for big home runs or strike outs. Nate had assured me that McCain’s route to victory rested entirely on Pennsylvania. Without it, he could not win. At that point, McCain could take Ohio and Florida, and he would still lose.

So even though the folks on MSNBC wondered why Virginia could not be called for Obama yet, and OMG MAYBE THE YOUTH VOTE DIDN’T TURN OUT!, and Rachel Maddow has this look on her face like she was worried that she left the iron on at home, I was not worried.

Side note: I like Rachel Maddow, but she’s like a fan that thinks her choice of socks effects her favorite team’s ability to win. Unlike Keith Olbermann, she never could bring herself to admit that things looked good for Obama. She constantly brought up scenarios–increasingly unrealistic–by which McCain could still win. At some point, I’m pretty sure she mentioned alien invasions.

Most importantly, though, Nate allowed this: My baby daughter fell asleep on my couch shortly after 8, when few states beyond Pennsylvania had been called yet. But I could still carry her into her room, lay her down in her crib, and whisper to her that when she woke up, she would would wake up in a better nation.

And I had no fear of jinxing it because all jinxes bow to math.

So thank you, Nate Silver, for guiding me througah this election with my sanity intact. And for helping me make a promise to my daughter that I could keep.


Also, thank you to Barack Obama for being fucking amazing, and ending this 8-year nightmare, and for hopefully driving Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity, et al. completely over the cliff. Eat it, boys, eat it.