In November, I visited Five Thirty Eight’s offices in New York on picture day. For journalists who style themselves as nerds, the formal photo shoot was a mild form of torture. Nate Silver, the site’s founder, donned a blazer, forced a smile for his headshot, then snuck away to get back to work on the site’s 2020 primary forecast. Though FiveThirtyEight now has a staff of about 35, covering sports, pop culture, and more, the site’s essential element is still the elaborate models Silver himself builds to predict elections.
Silver, a former management consultant and professional poker player, got into the political- forecasting business in 2007, after growing frustrated by coverage of the Democratic primary on cable news. He could scarcely believe how bad the analysis was—based on little more than hunches and hoary wisdom, and either ignoring opinion polls or misusing them to create false narratives of momentum.
Exasperated by the guesswork of pundits, Silver championed the more objective science of polling. He aggregated polls, grading and weighting them to predict the outcome of the election—an egalitarian project that sought to replace the opinionating of insiders with quantitative analysis of voter sentiment. Silver’s wonky assurance seemed of a piece with the professorial cool of Barack Obama, whose victory he predicted in 2008, and again in 2012, when FiveThirtyEight correctly forecast the results in every state.
Then came 2016. Like most journalists, Silver initially underestimated Donald Trump, dismissing his chances of winning the Republican nomination. It was a rare embarrassment, one that Silver attributed to losing sight of a fundamental principle: Trust the polls. Trump had consistently led in surveys of GOP voters, but Silver had succumbed to the conventional wisdom that the interloper couldn’t possibly prevail.
By the eve of the general election, Silver had come to believe that Trump had a path to victory. FiveThirtyEight predicted that he had a 29 percent chance of winning— significantly higher than the predictions of The New York Times’ The Upshot (15 percent) or the Princeton Election Consortium’s Sam Wang (7 percent). Ryan Grim of HuffPost accused Silver of inflating Trump’s chances. Citing HuffPost’s prediction that Hillary Clinton had a 98 percent chance of winning, Grim wrote that if you have faith in the numbers, “you can relax. She’s got this.”
She did not, in fact, have it. After Trump’s victory, pollsters and prognosticators became targets of derision. Critics alleged that rapid partisan realignment, unpredictable voter turnout, and the demise of the landline had rendered poll-based predictions obsolete. Though he had been savaged days earlier for overestimating Trump’s chances, Silver, as the leader of the data revolution, now absorbed criticism for its failure to foresee Trump’s victory. “The entire 2016 campaign season was … characterized by a series of spectacular Silver blunders,” read a typical critique, in Current Affairs. It ran under the headline “Why You Should Never, Ever Listen to Nate Silver.”
AS THE 2020 RACE begins in earnest, the question of whether to listen to Nate Silver returns to the fore, which is why I was visiting Five ThirtyEight. Silver believes he got 2016 right—it’s everyone else who got it wrong, and in ways that could lead the media to get 2020 wrong as well. “I think the 2016 campaign exposed whatever your bad habits were as a newsroom,” Silver told me. “But no one actually seems to have learned very many lessons in 2016.”
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