Dork genius Nate Silver is one of the 2008 campaign’s breakout stars. Throughout the election he applied the statistical prowess he uses at his day job (he’s an analyst at Baseball Prospectus) to the presidential race. The Internet ate up his mathematical approach to punditry and his website, FiveThirtyEight, was swamped with 5 million visits on Election Day.
When the dust settled, Silver had called the electoral map almost perfectly, with only Obama flipping Indiana and Nebraska splitting its electoral votes coming as a surprise.
In the wake of California’s Proposition 8, which outlaws same-sex marriage, passing, people turned to exit polls and voting records to determine whodunit, with some blaming the African-American vote as the tipping point. Silver decided to use his site to break the numbers down and debunk some Prop. 8 myths, especially regarding whether African-American support for Obama tipped the scales in the measure’s favor.
Queerty talked with Silver about the black vote and Prop. 8, his own personal feeling on same-sex marriage and what he thinks about his *ahem* “big gay following”:
QUEERTY: Last weekend, at the Las Vegas protest against Prop 8., comedian Wanda Sykes came out and mentioned you during her speech– saying that you had disproved the “70% of black people voted against Prop. 8″ meme. Is that what you said?
Nate Silver: That’s not exactly what I said. But there’s a related meme, which the notion that Prop 8 passed because of all the new supporters that Barack Obama turned out, and it’s just not true. People who were voting for the first time — almost all of whom supported Barack Obama — voted against Prop 8 by a 62:38 margin. Had Barack Obama not energized new types of voters and gotten them to the polls, Prop 8 would have passed by a wider margin.
Now, there are going to be people who want to slice and dice those numbers more finely, such as by looking at African-American voters, who voted for Prop 8 in the aggregate. But there are a couple of problems with that. Firstly, there is no evidence that new African-American voters — the ones who turned out for the first time because of Obama — voted to pass Prop 8. And secondly, this whole notion of trying to lump voters together into monolithic categories is silly. Black voters do not all behave alike; nor do white voters nor Latino voters. If there’s the need to assign blame, let’s assign blame to the individuals who chose to support the measure — and there were plenty of them in EVERY racial group.
How reliable are the exit polls and statistics about Prop. 8? How seriously should we take them?
Exit polls are somewhat less reliable than telephone-based polls of the same sample size. This is because of a technique called “cluster sampling” — exit polls are only conducted at certain precincts — which introduces another source of error that isn’t present in normal polls.
Also, remember that whenever we’re looking at the voting patterns of just one subgroup — such as African-Americans — the margins for error are much larger than when we’re looking at the entire sample. In consideration of these two things, the margins of error an in fact be quite high. There’s probably about a 10-point margin of error in looking at how African-Americans decided on Prop 8, for instance.
Why do you think Prop. 8 passed?
Well, every year the gay marriage bans have a more and more difficult time passing; this is principally a generational issue, and you have younger, generally more tolerant voters replacing older, generally less tolerant ones. If you sort of plotted those numbers out, and then adjusted for the fact that California is more progressive than other states that had passed gay marriage bans, you could see that Prop 8 was going to turn out to be very, very close — within a few points in one direction or the other. When an election is close, the side running the better campaign is usually going to win. In this case, for better or for worse, the ‘Yes’ side had a big head start in fundraising in messaging, and the ‘No’ side couldn’t catch up in time.
There continues to be new polls showing a shift on America’s changing attitudes towards marriage equality. Should we take them seriously? Is there any evidence that people are making up their minds one way or another on the issue?
People are making up their minds for marriage equality — it’s just happening very, very slowly. Eight years ago, I don’t think there are any states in the country that would have voted to uphold gay marriage — maybe Vermont and Hawaii. This year, you might have had a dozen states that would have voted against a Prop 8 type of measure — pretty much everything in New England, for instance, with California winding up just on the other side of the dividing line. Eight years from now, probably half the country will be ready for gay marriage.
What I don’t know is whether the passage of Prop 8 will clarify the issue for certain people and tend to accelerate the process. It very well might.
Personally, what do you think about Prop 8. and marriage equality? There’s a similar move to outlaw gay marriage in Illinois, where you’re from.
Well, I think the country needs to grow up a little bit and realize that gay marriage does no harm to anyone. I don’t even think the issue is particularly philosophically complex as compared with something like abortion.
On another note, you’ve become something of a gay icon, or at least object of affection. Have you noticed it at all? What do you think of it?
I’ve started to notice it a little bit, although so far it seems like I’m more a subject of geek affection than gay affection. Weird things happen once you appear on TV a couple times; I got a (straight) marriage proposal in my inbox the other day (which for any number of reasons, I turned down). But in general, the whole thing is a terrific confidence-booster. I’m just focused now on trying to build out the 538 brand and making sure I keep getting to do this stuff for a long time.