Nate Silver and the Pitfalls of the Corporate Pundit Class

September 24, 2019

Political statistician and editor-in-chief of FiveThirtyEight Nate Silver found himself in hot water recently when he seemed to refer to the diverse supporters of Bernie Sanders’ campaign as “residue.” Jacqueline Luqman talks to Anoa Changa about why that language, and the bias of the corporate pundit class, is an issue.

Political statistician and editor-in-chief of FiveThirtyEight Nate Silver found himself in hot water recently when he seemed to refer to the diverse supporters of Bernie Sanders’ campaign as “residue.” Jacqueline Luqman talks to Anoa Changa about why that language, and the bias of the corporate pundit class, is an issue.


Nate Silver

Story Transcript

JACQUELINE LUQMAN: This is Jacqueline Luqman with The Real News Network.

Political statistician and Editor-in-Chief of FiveThirtyEight, Nate Silver, found himself in hot water recently when he seemed to refer to the diverse supporters of Bernie Sanders’s campaign as “residue.” He spent the past few days sort of walking back his comment, sort of being defensive, but never really acknowledging the problem with his words. Why is what Nate Silver said a problem? And is it a bigger problem that analysts like Silver are comfortable with delivering what is supposed to be data-driven analysis with a heavy side of personal bias?

Well, talking with me about this from Atlanta, Georgia is Anoa Changa. Anoa is an attorney, a progressive strategist, and she is also the host of the podcast The Way with Anoa. Thanks for joining me, Anoa.

ANOA CHANGA: Thanks for having me.

JACQUELINE LUQMAN:  Nate Silver’s tweet a few days ago saying that, “Not sure Bernie should get credit for having more diverse support than last time, given that he has far less support than last time. A lot of voters have left him, white liberals have been particularly likely to leave him for Warren, so the residue of what’s left is more diverse.” Now, this is in response to a tweet where someone says that “Sanders’s support is more diverse than it was in 2016, which is good, but that doesn’t help him in Iowa.”

Anoa, in your opinion, do you think this particular critique about Sanders’s support from Nate Silver was even necessary in the context of the original comment? I mean, the original comment was about Iowa, not Sanders’s overall campaign support, right?

ANOA CHANGA: I think you raised some really good points there, opening up and just asking, even is Nate’s critique even warranted in this? And actually, in many instances that he’s opining randomly, rather wildly about the Sanders campaign and how the Sanders campaign is and isn’t building. Now, my own personal critiques and objections aside, because that’s what real big people analysts can do. You put aside your personal issues to just really deal with the facts of the matter at hand. Oftentimes, Nate Silver, who is known as a statistician, who is known for data-driven analysis, really wades into these conversations in a way that is riddled with just personal opinion, hubris and bias that is not actually grounded in, what we would say, a real-world understanding of the data at hand.

And quite honestly, I appreciate the work of organizations like Re:Power and other people who look to deconstruct data and analysis because the bias we’re seeing in the way in which he talks about it, the way in which he’s engaging right now—I mean, post-2016, you would think Nate Silver would be so much more careful in the way he’s engaging in presidential analysis. And yet, here we are with this really atrocious quote, this tweet. It doesn’t matter what he meant to say, what he thought he was saying, what he was trying to say. I mean, none of that matters on Twitter. You have 280 characters, and what you say is what you say. You can always delete and try to clean it up [crosstalk]—

JACQUELINE LUQMAN: For better or for worse.

ANOA CHANGA: For better or for worse. And he doubled down for a bit. He’s tried to clean it up some, but it’s after the fact. And when you’re engaging in this type of analysis, which many of us have for several years now, you should have developed an acumen. But Nate Silver and his parent company, ABC News, has just been— or ABC Media, whatever it’s called— they’ve been way too content with the way in which he engages and builds and does work.

And it’s really disheartening that we don’t have consistent good data analysis and engagement around issues like the polling, about how the candidates are building, and what their constituencies look like. Like I said, there are a lot of issues and conversations about what does more diverse mean, how that’s being measured, etc. But to the point of the tweet from Silver, calling people “residue”— because you’re talking about people. It’s super egregious because you’re talking about black, Indigenous, POC folks. But it’d be particularly bad if you’re just talking about people generally. Whether he was specifically— But the implication that the only reason why there is diversity is because they’re the folks who are the residue, and “residue” has a negative connotation, right?

JACQUELINE LUQMAN: Right.

ANOA CHANGA: I mean, I get, I think, what he’s trying to say is that because Bernie’s support was so overwhelmingly white in 2015, the fact that the white people have left means that his support has become more diverse because it shrunk, allegedly, per Nate. However, whether or not that’s a valid analysis or anything to make is one thing, but the language used absolutely matters. As someone who uses language for a living, he should know better.

JACQUELINE LUQMAN: Yeah. Let me go back to what you said about the point he maybe was trying to make, that maybe Sanders’s white voters or white supporters have left him. Even if that argument was valid, let’s just take that on its face and ask the question, “Sorry, was Sanders’s support ever full of white liberals, as Silver says?” Because he specifically says white liberals have left Sanders. Was that ever really his base of support?

ANOA CHANGA: I mean, Nate’s entire body of discourse around the Sanders campaign—So I did catch myself. And I’m so thankful for Nate for messing up like this to bring us back to reality. Nate had actually a decent tweet, I felt, the other day about whether or not journalists should be looking to see if there is a story around Joe Biden’s son and dealings in the Ukraine. He had a tweet, he was like, “The issue with the emails wasn’t the fact that the emails existed or the server existed, it was the balance and the way coverage occurred.” And I agree with that. I was like, “Oh my God, I’m agreeing with something Nate Silver is saying. This must be upside down day.” And it was, because in true Nate Silver form, he turned right around and stuck his foot in his mouth, and here we are.

But what I think you’re talking about in terms of whether or not the base is white liberals, I mean, people who are more liberal in the liberal media use words like “liberal,” “progressive,” “left” interchangeably when it suits them, and they act like they’re completely different things when it suits them. And so I think that when you’re actually looking at the base of support that Bernie Sanders developed in the 2015-2016 cycle, a lot of different peoples, whether they were actually super left or not, did support Sanders because they saw him as a viable alternative for the nomination. Some of those people have chosen not to support him again. But you know, what’s the great thing we’re seeing across all the candidates, the major candidates, it seems like people are looking at how do they build and grow a winning coalition on values and issues that matter? And unfortunately, that seems to be a topic or a concept that Nate Silver doesn’t grasp very well.

JACQUELINE LUQMAN: Now, you mentioned that he doubled down on explaining his critique, and he did, and it actually got worse.

ANOA CHANGA: Yeah. Can you imagine it getting worse?

JACQUELINE LUQMAN: I actually could not imagine that he could have made it worse, but he actually did. His original argument was that voters of color were the residue, which is bad enough, because like you said, language matters. Excuse me. But then he went on to say that the reason Sanders’s POC, Indigenous, and black support is more than it was in 2016 was because white voters left, but he actually has less support than he originally had in 2016, so he was contradicting himself in trying to kind of not take accountability. Can you even make sense of any of that?

ANOA CHANGA: No, absolutely not. It’s just white mediocre man gibberish. No diss to white mediocre men who may be watching. I appreciate you. Please start a support club and get Nate Silver collected and together. I really do think that his attempts to make it sound better made it sound even worse. I also don’t like the way that a lot of pundits discuss black and Latino and other voters of color. Folks tend to talk about us as if we’re too stupid to know who to follow, when to follow, like we’re not strategic, that we don’t engage around our own best interests in elections. And we’re also about a relationship building. And the Senator and other folks connected to his campaign have built some relationships over the past few years.

He did show up in Mississippi for a Nissan workers’ strike. What was that, in like 2017, alongside of Danny Glover, in a moment that really mattered. And there have been these instances where through his network and through his connections that he has built these relationships, whether or not they are as strong as relationships—Like I said, I have a lot of critiques and considerations in terms of the Sanders campaign, whether or not they’re doing it right. However, it comes from a good faith and a good place and wanting to see people do their best. With Nate Silver, I absolutely do not believe that he or anyone of his ilk wants to see the Sanders campaign do well and do better. And I don’t think he’s pushing them to do well and do better. I think he’s crap posting for followers and for other folks.

People treat this like some type of game. And you know, the work of building and defending democracy is a really serious business that many organizations, just like the one I work for, the New Georgia Project, are taking very seriously— 365 days a year and 24/7. And we are building constantly with folks. We’re urging candidates through our work in terms of like our (c)(4) work, for organizations that do have (c)(4)s and PACs, and the sort. We’re encouraging candidates to do the work necessary to build with communities so that they have winning coalitions. So not just defeat Trump, but to shift the balance of power, as we are seeing across multiple issues in this country.

JACQUELINE LUQMAN: Let me interject for a minute because you’ve said something that’s really important— organizing and relationship building. Now, I want to be clear to our viewers that we’re not sitting here defending Bernie Sanders as a candidate. We’re talking about, we’re doing what analysts do. We’re putting our personal biases aside and we are talking about the facts that there is a disturbing discourse around some Sanders supporters that’s out there that’s being handled and confronted on social media and now in the wider media universe. Twitter and Facebook have been practically alight with responses to Silver as this hashtag, #ResidueForSanders, has trended. People are sharing photos of Sanders speaking to diverse audiences, people of color, Indigenous audiences. Sanders apparently had some speaking engagements over the weekend, I think, at HBCUs.

So the Sanders campaign seems to be doing the work and they seem to have taken to heart some of the criticism of Sanders and his campaign that came out of 2016. I think we can argue about the efficacy of those efforts, but people are making it clear that they are concerned with the way their involvement in these campaigns, whether it’s Sanders or anybody else, is characterized by the so-called pundit class. So what are your thoughts on Nate Silver’s further characterization on the pushback he’s gotten from this campaign? Because he went on to say in another tweet that, again, just made it even worse, that the annoyingness of some candidates’ supporters keeps reporters and analysts from criticizing those candidates, basically, to paraphrase what he said.

Again, all candidates need to be criticized, and you have had experience yourself with some of the heated pushback from some Sanders supporters of that criticism of him. So is there a kernel of truth in what Silver said in that last tweet about how annoying some candidates’ supporters can be? And then, even if there is a kernel of truth in it, does it really matter in the context of what he said?

ANOA CHANGA: Really great questions. One thing I will note is whether or not they have actually taken seriously the critique from folks on the outside, grassroots supporters, former black staff, which you don’t see many of them back in the campaign, no shade just facts, is yet to be seen, quite honestly. I mean, some of this is window dressing. People say, “Oh, you have events.” All the campaigns have events and reach out to people and have sit-downs. That doesn’t automatically mean that because people attended events, even that people seemed excited at events, that that is automatically those candidates’ coalition partners. I mean, Beto O’Rourke just had a sit-down in Oakland with marijuana organizers and activists and agitators, and it went well. Doesn’t mean that that roundtable of beautiful black folks from Oakland are now supporting Beto O’Rourke. You know what I’m saying?

So I think that we need to understand that it’s great when candidates do take the time to attend convocations and other events at HBCUs and other places. But that doesn’t automatically translate into now they have a diverse base. They are doing some of the work, but we’ll see what the backend organizing and actually engagement strategy actually looks like. I still don’t even know if their campaign even has an African American outreach Director or staff— like actual staff, not surrogates.

So having said that, I do think that Nate Silver is trying to obfuscate from his actual own behavior. This is what we see from people when they don’t want to take responsibility for what they do. Whether or not Bernie Sanders’s supporters are annoying and harass and engage—You have bad behavior on social media, Twitter in particular, in the political sphere. It’s something we’ve talked about in 2016, when you look back to what was happening during the “Obama boys” in 2008 on message boards. It’s just evolved now.

So I do think that there is a particular tone, I think, that is interpreted from Sanders supporters on social media because of the framing of being in like, it’s a battle. It’s us against them. I mean, even though the slogan’s “Not me. Us,” there is an attitude or approach that it’s us against the world. They’ve been listening to too much 2Pac or something, I guess, which can even result in attacking and engaging in what can be seen, what can be interpreted as attacks on social media to organizers, organizations and people who should be natural allies. But that actually happens in multiple different spaces, from other different supporters of different candidates from time to time.

It does get hyper-amplified, I think, because of what appears to be coordinated, in terms of the way some folks act. Now, whether or not that’s a real thing or not, like I said, is a-whole-nother conversation, but my thing tends to be that we need to look at the way in which we’re organized and engaging digitally in general, because we need to be organizing, building digitally the same way we build off the ground. I mean, that’s what I do, and I know I’m in it. I antagonize people sometimes because I call it straight like I see it, and folks don’t like it. And it is what it is, and we got to work it all out.

But to your other point about whether or not it matters, I don’t think it does. Even if Sanders supporters are like the most egregious, worse, abusive people in the world, I don’t think it matters in terms of what Nate is saying and doing. Nate Silver is an egregious person with a large platform who is wrong, unfortunately often, and was bigly wrong in the 2016 election cycle and clearly has not learned much, and has not stuck to what he’s actually good at. I mean, he should be covering horse races and NBA playoff games or something like that and not really wading into commentary on contemporary American politics, because he’s unfortunately, in many instances, off his bases outside of the numbers.

And even the way numbers are reported, numbers are skewed. Numbers are reported through the lens of the person reporting them. So that bias filters in even when we say someone should just stick to their data analysis, data statistician lane. It has that white male lens bias built in regardless. So we need to de-contextualize all this stuff.

JACQUELINE LUQMAN: Let me ask you this last question. How much more difficult is it, or is it more difficult, for people of color, Latinx, Indigenous, black voters to do exactly what you say needs to be done, which is organize on the ground digitally and in the lane of established politics? And outside of that, how much more difficult is it to do those things when you also have to combat these kind of narratives coming from, as you just said, people with large online platforms who are very influential in the political sphere, and maybe they shouldn’t be?

ANOA CHANGA: Even when you look at news coverage, and how organizations like mine have to fight to get covered properly for the work that they do and the struggles that are ongoing. Tomorrow – well, Tuesday, September 24th is National Voter Registration Day. And so you’ll have efforts all across the country, and it’s great people pay attention for one day, but voter registration, fighting voter suppression, building the resources, the power, the opportunity that we need to see to substantially change from the local level on up, is a year-round process, as I said. And it requires funding, it requires resources, and it requires support, and lifting up and understanding who the champions are in your community and lifting them up and letting them know that you’re there, that you see them and that you appreciate and value the work that they’re doing, because it’s underfunded, it’s undervalued oftentimes, and it’s under-resourced.

And we do have folks like Nate Silver out there who are crap posting, and they could actually be doing some good with their followings, with their large platforms. The same thing we see with some of the opinion writers from The New York Times and other outlets too. They spend a lot of time punching down and distorting what’s really happening and what’s really facing Americans across and folks who are not considered Americans but who are still most definitely here and a part of our communities, who need to have really good coverage, really good information so they can learn more about what’s going on. But it creates a larger lift for us who are doing this work, but we just got to figure out how to work smarter and tap into resources where we can to amplify and leverage our voices, our work with the tools and resources we have.

JACQUELINE LUQMAN: This will certainly not be the last conversation we have on this particular issue. Doesn’t even have to be Nate Silver, but as you said, the entire corporate media narrative about particular groups of voters in this country just makes organizing and being involved in the process so much difficult. But I want to thank you so much, Anoa, for joining me today to talk about this issue.

ANOA CHANGA: Absolutely.

JACQUELINE LUQMAN: And thank you for watching. This is Jacqueline Luqman with The Real News Network.