Four years ago, I was in Asheville, North Carolina working for the Democratic party to get voters to the polls. It was an amazing evening, as my country elected a black man president – something I was certain would happen only after I died. I wrote it about it here – the memories are still fresh.
This year, 5000 miles from Asheville in the Isle of Man, I needed to feel connected to the most important thing the U.S. does every four years. So at about midnight GMT, I put on my “Life is Good” pajamas with guitars (for good luck) and settled into the home office for a long night. Ostensibly, the intent was to make some last-minute trades on Intrade (more about that in a minute). But the real reason was because I wasn’t going to sleep until I knew who had won; there was no point in lying down until the outcome was virtually certain.
I filled my 30″ monitor with browser windows watching the results, doing trades, and monitoring Twitter; Skype and MSN chat windows to talk to friends; iTunes to provide a soundtrack for the evening.
One of the constants throughout the night was my friend and colleague, Brad Willis, who had been live-blogging the election since about 7:00am his time (on the East Coast). Yet again, Brad’s narrative was funny and deeply insightful and it was ongoing source of joy as the night progressed. I had Skype chat open with my Intrade betting mentor (who shall remain nameless here). He was busy looking for good bargains and has been unfailingly generous in sharing them with me.
The early returns had everybody’s nerves on edge and reports abounded of emotional eating (“I just ate half a pizza”). I succumbed as well, including a banana that somehow went MIA and didn’t reappear until the election was called for Obama. But as the good news continued to arrive, the mood lightened. Twitter began to shift from nail-biting to humor and relaxed conversation (ultimately ending up at pure schadenfreude watching Fox News as dawn rose here).
On the Intrade front, I made a healthy last-day profit, closing some trades that had reached an asymptotic price (e.g. 96 or so) and plowing the money back into trades that hadn’t seen the light yet. By far the most delectable trade was pouncing on the Indiana Senate race early (thank you, SR), and betting on the Democratic candidate there to destroy that unspeakable rape-apologist Murdouck. I got that one at 63 and cashed it out around 96 to put the money to work elsewhere. At that time, Obama was still trading in the high 60′s (more about that in a minute).
Eventually, there were no more profitable trades to be done, so I just sat on the sideline, watched, and communed with my friends online, loving being part of the whole experience. Here’s what I learned during those six hours:
- Say what you want to about Obama, the man can turn a speech into a sermon. And furthermore, he was exactly on message in his victory speech. His speech reached out to all Americans in a way that Romney’s never could and never would have. And that is probably the most important thing we need now – to stop thinking about the guy who voted for not-your-guy as the “enemy”. Obama said:Whether you pounded the pavement or picked up the phone… whether you held an Obama sign or a Romney sign, you made your voice heard and you made a difference.
Can you imagine Mitt Romney saying that? No, neither can I. As I said, Obama is not the best president we’ve had in a long time, but I believe he has the right vision and that counts for a lot.
- The cultural norm is changing. Four states (MD, ME, MN, WA) passed same-sex marriage. Two states (CO, WA) legalized recreational marijuana, and voters in three pretty conservative states (MO, IN, VA) threw two rape apologists and a closet racist out on their sorry asses. We are not there yet, but the writing is on the wall.
- If you are a “movement conservative” as they’re called, Tea-Partier, whatever, you should be livid. Your leaders, your media (Fox, Limbaugh, etc) lied to you. They told you that Romney was going to win, perhaps by a landslide. Can they possibly be that ignorant? They just sat there in their studios and told themselves (and their poor listeners) that everything was going to be great. I could go on about this, but Conor Friedersdorf at Atlantic Wire said it much better than I could. Old guard conservatives such as Newt Gingrich and Lindsey Graham are saying mea culpa and that they’d better figure out what’s going wrong. I doubt they’ll be listened to, but the honest conservatives in this country should demand that they are.
- The “mainstream media” is really no better. Have a look at this Tweet that I sent out in the late morning GMT yesterday. How can we possibly expect to have an informed nation if the media is so egregiously clueless? Then again, the BBC said exactly the same thing when I was at the gym, causing me to pedal the bike at some ridiculous rate in frustration. I suppose I was stupid to expect better from them, but really – you’re the frigging BBC – I used to listen to you late night on NPR. Just those accents should make you more intelligent.
But the biggest outcome of the night? Two words: Nate Silver.
Nate Silver, keeper of the FiveThirtyEight blog, is a poll consolidator (for lack of a better word) and a genius statistician. In 2008, he correctly called the outcome of 49 of 50 states in the Presidential election. This year, he improved on that. Nate collects polls, reviews them, weights them based on his quality criteria, and melds them via some algorithms that must be an astonishment to see. And then he makes predictions. Throughout the run-up to the election, he published his predictions, “showing his work” in gory detail. The conservative media (of whom I spoken) derided him, accused him of bias, of dishonesty, and every other possible sin. He largely ignored them  and just kept putting his numbers up.
Peggy Noonan (in the Wall Street Journal), Sarah Palin, Rush Limbaugh and others said they knew what was going to happen – a Romney victory. Nate simply said “There’s a very good chance that Obama is going to be reelected, and this is how it will happen.”
And he was right, down to the last state. He blew the pundits out of the water, making them look like the fools they are. And we, the people who believe in numbers, in the immutable truth of statistics, simply bowed with appreciation and humility. A website has sprung up called isnatesilverawitch.com. And xkcd, an incredible cartoon that you should read simply because it’s awesome, summed up the situation perfectly.
This was, as a dear friend put it, the Revenge of the Nerds. It is what we have been saying all along: that the data, the evidence, the numbers pointed in one direction. By the way, the chances of getting all 50 states correct if you randomly guess: one in 2 to the power of 50, or about 1 in 1,000,000,000,000,000. It is the same thing we have been saying about evolution, climate change, etc. This is the data – there’s a chance we’re wrong, but the highest likelihood is that we’re right.
Nate Silver has taken the lamp of truth and shone light in places where the darkness of punditry has prevailed. That light has given hope and strength to millions of people and the pundits will ignore it at their peril. It goes without saying that election coverage as we know it will never be the same. Any media company that wants to be taken half seriously will be scouring the bushes to find the next Nate Silver.
And speaking of Intrade, those of us who believed Nate had what amounted to a crystal ball leading up to the election. We went in and mercilessly slaughtered those who bet on what their leaders told them. First it was the Ron Paul supporters who knew, because it had to be so, that he would be the Republican candidate. Then we turned on the believers who kept Obama’s price at 70, even as the European betting sites were paying off the Obama bets (48 hours before the election). Like good poker players everywhere (and yes, Nate is a poker player), we cashed in on the information gap. I made a return of about 50% on my money in the eight months leading up to the election, 10-15% of that in the last 48 hours.
Ignorance is costly.
If you haven’t heard the name Nate Silver yet, you will. In fact, it just occurred to me: put your money on Nate as Time’s Man of the Year.
Those of us who live and die by numbers saw Nate and his methods – the methods that all decent scientists use – vindicated. And in many ways, that was even more rewarding than seeing President Obama back in the White House for four more years.
In closing, I need to thank all my friends and colleagues who shared the nerves, the nail biting, and the gradual realization that it was going to be a very good night in America. Throughout, I felt connected, included, and part of the process. For those who slipped me Intrade hints, who responded to my Tweets, who pinged me on Skype to say “W00t – we just got Virginia”, thank you. It was an honor to be part of your community. I’ll be back with you, one way or another, in two years. It probably won’t go as well, which will make it all the more important that I’m hooked up to you all.
Finally, I offer this video of Brad’s eldest, who (like Nate Silver) gets to the heart of the matter immediately. This kid ever wants to run for office, I’m on his team.
 Until he finally lost his temper in the last few days prior to the election and unleashed a searing series of Tweets on his attackers. They were a joy to read.