OK, let me just lay this out for you.
- Nate Silver is a political blogger - specialty; polls and polling - with both a devoted following and a sweet gig doing poll matters for the New York Times.
- Silver has both because he enjoys a reputation as having a keen insight into the polling process, and an enviable track record at predicting results.
- If you drill down on that, you quickly realize that Silver's predictive abilities are largely due to his performance in the 2008 election cycle; during the 2010 cycle his earliest predictions about Congress (and his insights about how Republicans were thinking about the issues) first turned out to be laughably bad, then became extremely low-key until it became clear to EVERYBODY that the Republicans were going to win big. Still, getting 2008 right is good, yes?
- Well. It turns out that the Obama campaign fed Silver huge amounts (H/T: AoSHQ) of their internal polling material during the 2008 cycle. Nate Silver did not disclose this, due to a confidentiality agreement.
- I would like to note at this moment that there is nothing illegal about the previous bullet point.
- Whether this was ethical, however, is a completely different story. Presidential internal polls are gold-standard; campaigns can afford the best data, expect the best data, and get the best data. If Nate Silver was able to cross-check outside polls with the stuff being fed him by Obama for America, he would be in a position to better detect polls and results whose flaws were hidden. In other words: insider access likely allowed Silver improve his ability to sort through the chaff for the wheat, and thus improve his reputation.
I hear people going "So what?" at this point. Well, there's two reasons why this is problematical. The first is that Nate Silver is playing the part of the independent blogger with a system. Putting aside for the moment where 'insider access' is a legitimate system, such a pose allowed Silver to write things like this attack on Scott Rasmussen's professional ethics because Rasmussen openly did some work for the Republican party during the 2004 election cycle. The impact of that particular post - which the Online Left has run with ever since - would have been much different if it had been disclosed that Nate Silver had had a formal special relationship with the Democratic party*.
Second, and more importantly? This is not 2008. This is 2012, and Nate Silver is working for the New York Times. Why is that important? Why, it's because of those pesky confidentiality agreements. If Obama for America is still feeding Silver information, I have a real problem with a news organization being given non-classified material on the proviso that they never, ever reveal that they got it... and so should you. But I don't think that it's that bad. I think that the NYT wouldn't sign off on that, which means that Silver isn't being fed information this go-round.
And if that's true, then that means that Nate Silver does not in fact have any special insight into how the 2012 election goes.
*Silver's butt-covering on this is a thing of beauty, in its way.
But I do believe in open disclosure, both as a branding and an ethical matter. That's why I tell you in the FAQ who I voted for (Barack Obama). I have never conducting polling or paid consulting on behalf of a political client, nor am I actively (or even passively, for the time being) soliciting such business. I have conducted consulting and polling on behalf non-political clients, and I have also advised political clients on an informal, unpaid basis. FiveThirtyEight is independently owned and operated.
Strictly speaking, the statement And oh, yeah, the Obama campaign gave me all sorts of proprietary political polling material that could easily be used to check my assumptions for me; only I didn't tell anybody about that before now does not contradict that paragraph. Strictly speaking. But that is only if you, to repeat a phrase, make "the most absurdly lawyerly reading" of said paragraph.