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The Sports-Politics Connection



BEFORE THE May 6 Democratic primaries most polls predicted Sen. Barack Obama would win North Carolina by eight points and Sen. Hillary Clinton would take Indiana by almost as much. But Obama won Carolina by 14, and Clinton won Indiana by less than two. The pollster who came closest to a perfect call was the blogger behind (named for the 538 votes in the electoral college) who had Obama by 17 and Clinton by two. At the time Charles Franklin, a codeveloper of the rival, noted that the analysis on the other site "reminds me of Bill James."

Close. The blogger wasn't the father of sabermetrics, but Nate Silver (above), a managing partner at Baseball Prospectus (an SI contributor) who invented PECOTA, a system for making statistical predictions of player performance. Silver, 30, an honors graduate in economics from the University of Chicago, started FiveThirtyEight as a hobby in March, but the site, which uses PECOTA-like methods for predicting political contests, has boomed. Last Friday, the day after the vice presidential debate, it drew a half million visitors, and Silver has appeared on MSNBC and CNN as a political analyst.

Silver combines data from scores of polls weighted for historical accuracy and timeliness. He says "people tend to cherry-pick the polls they look at," focusing on misleading "outlier numbers." Wonky? A bit. But Silver's presentation—and accuracy—have made FiveThirtyEight a must-read for the inside-the-Beltway set. "Nate blends the best of sports statistics analysis with the political side," says Franklin.

So what's coming in '08? As of Monday Silver had the Dodgers over the Rays in the World Series—and gave Obama an 87.4% chance of winning the presidency. "I wouldn't say it's fourth-and-long yet for McCain," he said. "But it's third-and-long."