Samuel Popkin is professor of political science at the University of California, San Diego and the author of The Candidate: What It Takes to Win—and Hold—the White House. An active participant in as well as academic analyst of presidential elections, he has consulted on polling, targeting, and strategy in the presidential campaigns of Al Gore, Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter, and George McGovern.
We’re heading into the last week of a tight presidential campaign, and polls are coming in too fast to count. Partisans everywhere are desperate for omens. But at moments like these, it’s people who care most intensely that the “right outcome” occur who run a high risk of getting it wrong—picking out positive polls for comfort, or panicking over an unusual and unexpected result they don’t like.
Fortunately, our most prominent number cruncher has been giving us the straight story instead of capitalizing on this anxiety. In 2008, Nate Silver correctly predicted the results of all 35 Senate races and the presidential results in 49 out of 50 states. Since then, his website, fivethirtyeight.com (now central to The New York Times’s political coverage), has become an essential source of rigorous, objective analysis of voter surveys to predict the Electoral College outcome of presidential campaigns.