Nate Silver is the founder of FiveThirtyEight.com, which predicted the presidential election’s popular vote outcome to within tenths of a percentage point (it projected 52.3 percent for Obama, who received 52.7; and it projected 46.2 percent for McCain, who received 46.0). Silver’s unique combination of accuracy with numbers and accessibility with narrative made FiveThirtyEight, founded in March 2008, the first blog ever to be selected as a Notable Narrative by Harvard’s Nieman Foundation.
In its feature about Silver in yesterday’s paper, The New York Times called the thirty-year-old Chicagoan “perhaps the most unlikely media star to emerge” out of “an election season of unlikely outcomes.” Silver has been profiled in the Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, Science News, and New York magazine, and has appeared on CNN, MSNBC, HDNet, WNYC, and Air America, among others. Silver’s newfound celebrity has led Gawker to offer him tailored advice on how he can continue to “rule the world,” Facebook members to found a group entitled “There’s a 97.3 Percent Chance That Nate Silver Is Totally My Boyfriend,” and several media outlets to refer to him, without irony, as a “wunderkind.”
CJR’s Megan Garber spoke with Silver about campaign coverage, celebrity, and his plans for the future.
Megan Garber: How did the media attention evolve—or did it come all at once?
Nate Silver: It was a gradual buildup. We got a lot of attention after the Indiana and North Carolina primaries, where we had said basically that, hey, the polls are wrong here. Obama’s going to win North Carolina definitively—it’s not going be close—and Indiana’s going to be really close, and Obama’s going to win it. And that turned out to be correct in both states, where a lot of the people had anticipated Obama barely squeaking by in North Carolina and getting thumped in Indiana. So that got us a lot of notoriety, because we had kind of stuck our necks out a little bit.
And it all kind of feeds on itself. One thing about media in general, and new media in particular, is that it’s not very linear—by which I mean it’s not that you go from one thousand hits in a day to two thousand—it’s, you know, from one thousand to ten thousand. And, likewise, there’s a parallel track in terms of interview requests and everything else. It kind of went viral, for lack of a better term, and all of the sudden, you’re really busy.
MG: Are you enjoying it, though?
NS: Yeah, I think so—now that I’ve had the chance to relax a little bit. One thing that’s hard about the way we maintain the blog is that there wasn’t any time off. We had two or three posts going up every day, at a minimum, and some days six or seven or ten, if a lot was going on. And because it was just me and my co-author, Sean Quinn—we have a photographer, too, but he’s not doing writing for us—and a lot of times I was traveling, and whatever else, or just dead tired, or it felt like I’d been saying the same thing six days in a row—like, ‘Oh, it’s the convention bounce’—so there were times when it was a little bit of a chore. But for the most part, I’ve done a lot of fun things. I’ve, at various times, made a living writing about professional baseball, and made some income on the side playing poker. So I’ve done a lot of fun things. And this is definitely the most fun and fulfilling on balance.
MG: Did the TV appearances come naturally to you, or did you have to work at being an “on-air personality”?
NS: I wouldn’t say it came naturally. I think I went from being about a C on TV to being a B+ by the end. It’s definitely something where you need practice—it’s not completely natural in terms of your body language and other stuff. You want to look straight ahead, but you also don’t want to be so stiff. I think sometimes you learn lessons that are good starter rules, but kind of un-learn them eventually. ‘Don’t play with your hands a lot, because the frame’s going to capture your neckline and a little below, and you don’t want hands popping into and out of the frame.’ But if you gesture and gesticulate a lot—or a little bit, I should say—that can add some life and body, I think, to the appearance. So there are little things like that. I sometimes wear glasses on these appearances because my eyes tend to dart around a little bit, and you wouldn’t notice in person, but you’d certainly notice on television. So there are little tricks you learn.