The 2012 presidential campaign will go down as a revolutionary moment in political journalism. What Bill James, Sandy Alderson and Billy Beane did to baseball, Nate Silver, Sam Wang, and others are doing to political punditry.
I realized this fact when I was listening to Cokie Roberts and Mara Liasson discussing the election on NPR this morning. They spent roughly 3-5 minutes in a round table discussion with the host and not a single fact arose.
Several articles of late have noted the epistemological--the knowledge--revolution that is now taking place. Roberts and Liasson get their "wisdom" from talking to each other, talking with their friends, and chatting up "old pros." They believe inside information will give them the "dope," the "real skinny."
In that, they're exactly like the old scouts in Moneyball. They thought they could look at a player, they could tell by feel, they could get a sense of the guy. Sure, a bit of that is involved; experience and expertise matters. But as first the Oakland As, and then every team in baseball demonstrated, the numbers don't lie. In the most famous example, walks and on-base percentage are good; sacrifices and steals are bad. They waste outs and outs are the most precious commodity out there. Look at what's happened to steals over the past 25 years.
Similarly, an old pro might believe she can tell where the momentum is or that the race is a toss-up. It's not. The numbers are clear; Obama is the favorite.
Does that mean he'll win? No. As Nate Silver said a few days ago, an NFL team that leads by 3 with 3 minutes left wins 79% of the time. Not every time, but it sure is smarter to make that bet. Similarly, those few days ago, a candidate who leads in the state polls by Obama's margin won 79% of the time.
But it's so close! goes the objection. Yes. Yes, it is and so is that NFL game. But we have a history. We have data. And to say that the race is tied or a toss-up is simply wrong.
I realized this morning that my regular reading of Silver, in particular, has educated me. And he uses only publicly available data. This isn't about inside scoop or relationships. It is about knowing the facts--and having a basic understanding of math. Cokie Roberts and her ilk are heading toward the same dustbin of history currently occupied by that scout (played by Clint Eastwood, interestingly enough, in a recent movie). Conversation will no longer count as research among serious people.
That will make David Gregory, Cokie Roberts, David Brooks and the rest very, very unhappy.