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Last Night’s Winner: NYT’s Nate Silver

This afternoon we offer a semi-apology to those who follow American politics closely, because you’re going to see a whole lot of headlines like this one today and in the weeks ahead.

There’s a reason for that, though, and it needs to be covered: Nate Silver of The New York Times scored this election’s biggest branding win. He made a large portion of the  media’s pundit/PR class look ridiculous, and he did it using the most basic public relations strategy: honesty, consistent messaging and confidence in his clearly defined brand.

The fact that his book, The Signal and the Noise, quickly climbed to number 2 on the Amazon sales list today is no coincidence.

Some very quick back-story: Silver was a sports statistician who blogged electoral politics as a hobby, and in 2008 people started noticing how accurate his predictions turned out to be. The New York Times hired him as a regular contributor and began to host his blog on its main site. His audience quickly grew; he provided approximately 20% of the NYT‘s traffic in the days leading up to the vote.

For the past three weeks, Silver predicted a small but decisive Obama win despite the pundit class’s insistence that the race was “a toss-up”. Quite a few media folk lashed out, calling him partisan and insisting that his numbers were meaningless–but he never wavered. The only time Silver came anywhere close to damaging his brand was a few weeks ago, when he responded to the taunts of talk show host and former congressman Joe Scarborough with the offer of a bet–if the president lost, Silver would donate $1000 to the Red Cross on Scarborough’s behalf. NYT  public editor Margaret Sullivan questioned whether this wager was appropriate, but Silver’s fans jumped in to defend him—and we don’t think we’ll see too many criticisms coming from the management team after last night.

This is a big story—and we have confidence that it will change the political PR game in this country.

“The media” bet against Mr. Silver and lost badly. Does this make him some kind of mathematical genius? Not really. It simply means that he sold a relatively simple product to a ready audience without resorting to thrills, stunts or half-truths. He presented himself as nothing more than a speculator–an expert number cruncher. And he played the part well.

Here’s a video of the guy himself calmly explaining what he did:

Seems so simple now, right?

It is our sincere hope that, in future elections, rational analysts like Silver will receive a greater degree of respect from the public when compared to a cable news industry intent on giving us a “horse race” and a series of talk show bloviators who love nothing more than the sound of their own voices. Will that happen? Probably not—but we can dream, can’t we?

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