Nate Silver‘s Web site, FiveThirtyEight.com, has been the talk of the recent election cycle. The 30-year-old baseball stat geek took the formulas he developed working at Baseball Prospectus and applied them to the Presidential election, predicting results of early Democratic primaries with remarkable accuracy. At first, Silver remained anonymous, but eventually he revealed himself and has since been subject of numerous articles, including one in this week’s New York.
We caught up with Silver by phone while he was at the airport, waiting for a flight. He talked with us about the surprising success of his “cheap” site, his status with Baseball Prospectus and his plans for the 2010 midterm elections and beyond. (For the record, we contacted him about the interview before the New York article.)
1) Tell me about what a normal day is like for you. Are you still involved with Baseball Prospectus?
Certainly for the past month or month and a half it’s been about 90 percent FiveThirtyEight.com. I don’t really have enough time to do all the stuff I need to do in the day anyway. The baseball stuff is on semi-hiatus for the time being.
2) I read that at first you remained anonymous in part because you wanted to figure out if your methodology and predictions could add anything to the discourse. Can you talk a little about that decision?
Sometimes these decisions are more accidental than they look. I wasn’t quite ready to “out” myself, but it wasn’t something I thought all that much about. Once people started to guess, wrongly, [I decided] to get the site’s brand name out there. But I do think [remaining anonymous at first] helped. I don’t like it when people say, “I’m an expert in X, therefore you all should know I’m an expert in Y.” I wanted to build up a little bit of credibility as well.
But [this explanation] is kind of circumstantial. Whether it’s a real rationalization [for "coming out"] or a post-rationalization, I’m not quite sure.
3. Does FiveThirtyEight.com continue after the election?
Yeah, it will continue. For the first four or six weeks, it will just be aftermath and analyzing the new president’s cabinet. Eventually we want to get to analyzing the business of the Congress. There are lots of different kinds of metrics you can look at. There’s a lot of what I call “pop economics” blogging where you take an issue with a clever little counter-intuitive thing and run with that. For example, the bailout bill. You could analyze which Senators voted for it and which Senators voted against it and why, based on their electoral districts, state lines and their political views. I think there’s a way to do that a bit more compellingly than has been done before.
Also, we have elections fairly often. Really, if you think about the midterms plus the fact that the [presidential] candidates are declaring 20, 24 months in advance of the election, you’re always going to have something to write about electionwise.
4) That sounds like a huge job. Does that come at the expense of the baseball stuff? Are there plans to bring on more people to FiveThirtyEight?
It’s so up in the air right now. All I know that the brand will have some presence in the off-years. When we started this, it was meant to be a four-year play. We thought we’d build up the traffic numbers as high as we could in 2008. [This year] was really meant to establish ourselves for 2012. Now we’re getting the kind of traffic numbers we were hoping to get in 2012. They are huge and they are ahead of our business plan.
Right now, the site is cheap. I don’t know if that’s the right word, but all it is is a Blogger.com template with a bunch of Flickr photos pasted on. I want to have a bit more depth. I’d like to add someone who comes from a center-right perspective because we’re center-left. Exactly what form it takes, I don’t know, but we want to be the most creative, election site there is for the midterms in 2010 and for the general election in 2012.