Celebrity statistician Nate Silver has cast a Yoda-like spell over the media since achieving for election predictions what Billy Beane did for baseball: He crunched numbers to successfully out-wit the competition, making national headlines and inspiring a disrupt-y, data-geek revolution.
But when the native Midwesterner's FiveThirtyEight blog predicted that Democratic Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn would defeat Republican opponent Bruce Rauner in Tuesday's election, local outlets from the Chicago Sun-Times to Chicagoist seized upon the stat only to sprinkle water on it.
In its Monday forecast on the most competitive governor races, FiveThirtyEight handed Quinn a 66 percent chance of winning. Prophesies Silver staffer Harry Enten:
My polling-based analysis in early summer had him with a 25 percent chance to beat Republican Bruce Rauner. At the time, however, I warned that Quinn probably had a better shot than early polls suggested. Quinn is a Democratic governor in a Democratic state. He won in 2010 despite an approval rating of 40 percent (at best) and with only about 15 percent of voters saying the state was heading in the right direction.
This year, Quinn’s approval rating is again between 35 percent and 40 percent. And again, he looks like he may win. His campaign has somewhat successfully painted Rauner as an out-of-touch millionaire. According to a recent Chicago Tribune poll, voters are more likely to say Quinn is in touch with people like them. They also view him as more honest than Rauner, even if they think Rauner can better handle the economy. The fight between an incumbent people don’t approve of and a challenger with his own flaws has resulted in a close race, but one in which Quinn is a favorite.
It's true that Quinn is a masterful campaigner who once again defied expectations to catch up with a formidable challenger (this year, it's Rauner; four years ago, it was Bill Brady). But this toss-up contest is much more contentious and high-profile than the last: Rauner, a shiny, new counterpoint to Quinn, has emerged a GOP star with tremendous pull in the suburban collar counties and Downstate and perhaps enough in Chicago to tip the balance of the election. He's racked up major media endorsements and energized Republicans without offering much of a plan for how he would improve the state. He has campaigned upon a single premise: I'm not Pat Quinn. Exploiting voters' Quinn fatigue, he's been able to obscure the fact that his personal philosophy is A HORROR SHOW. (See: Mark Anderson's recent column, "Why Wealth–And Wine–Matter in Governor's Race.")
Throwing subtle shade on FiveThirtyEight's golden reputation for accuracy, the Sun-Times' Natasha Korecki writes, "Recall that in 2010, Silver made a bold prediction about the Illinois governor's race that turned out to be false. Then, he said state Sen. Bill Brady had an 86 percent chance of defeating Quinn. Quinn won—barely—by 32,000 votes."
Fast-forward to 2014, sub in Quinn for Brady and Operation Silver could have another faulty prognosis on its rap sheet.