Nate Silver does a victory lap

Now that we’re done with evaluating the media’s fascination with polls and the horse race of presidential campaigns, which seem to prevent many substantive stories about candidates from rising above the noise, let’s talk about another important election day component that is obsessed with politics as sport: You.

Nate Silver was on The Daily Show last night, taking something of a victory lap because he wasn’t as wrong as the other statistical wizards when it came to predicting the race for president.

But make no mistake, Silver was wrong. He was wrong the entire race. He was wrong the day before the election. He was wrong when Florida went for Trump.

Now the statistical experts will tell you he wasn’t wrong because he gave Trump a chance of winning and that’s the way numbers work. And that’s true. Silver wasn’t wrong because he never said Donald Trump couldn’t win.

But that’s not the way people use numbers and that’s where those obsessed with numbers — people who have turned politics into a fantasy football game — come in.

“I am confused by why people in America are so obsessed with the polls,” Trevor Noah commented.

Here’s the full clip, which you should watch while you consider this question: Why do you find Silver’s predictions valuable in your role in the democratic process? Other than entertainment, what does it contribute to the need for an informed electorate?


Silver tried to claim that his service to America cautions it not to take anything for granted.

But, if you believe some analysts — and why would you? — many people didn’t turn out to vote because they looked at Silver’s work and figured Clinton could win without their help. If true, how is that not a form of voter suppression?

Silver similarly predicted the Chicago Cubs would win the World Series but if the Cleveland Indians had won, he wouldn’t have been wrong, the theory goes. Tell that to the bookies, son.

What he should have said is politics isn’t a game, don’t pay attention to him, don’t pay any attention to the polls, and don’t spend your time factoring into your evaluation of the candidates how anyone else intends to vote.

  • wjc

    I don’t think what Silver did suppressed votes. Trump supporters could have said “he’s not going to win. Why bother?,” but they didn’t. Clinton voters just didn’t come out in crucial states. That’s not on Nate Silver.

    • Now answer the question that was posed.

      • wjc

        There are several questions. I answered “If true, how is that not a form of voter suppression?”

        On the question of Silver’s work: I think it is more grist for the mill. I don’t do something because of Silver’s predictions and I doubt that many people do. This was a very atypical election cycle and it’s not too surprising that the polling was off. I think his data shows trends, but that ‘s about it.

        • wjc

          And by the way, the trend caused by Comey’s intervention was unmistakable.

  • MrE85

    If you didn’t come out to vote because of a poll, then that’s on you, not on the pollster.
    There is only one party to blame/thank for the election results, and that is us.

    Regardless of who you voted for, or didn’t vote for, we all live in Donald Trump’s America now.

    We will have to live with that for awhile. Our next chance to have our voices heard is in two years. Or, you can go into the streets with a sign and chant some slogans. Or, you can offer the new president your support.

    Whatever, America.

    • // If you didn’t come out to vote because of a poll, then that’s on you, not on the pollster.

      Well, ok, let’s look at that on the question of voter suppression. In Wisconsin in early October, it was found that people were being given bad information at the DMV and were told they couldn’t get a voter ID without a birth certificate — which is untrue. If they accepted that at face value and give up, is their failure to vote on them? Or does the DMV bear some responsibility?

      • MrE85

        In the case of what happened in WI, I think you have to consider intent. I think the intent of the authors of voter ID laws is pretty clear (although they always deny it). What is less clear at the DMV is if the misinformation was an honest mistake or miscommunication, or an intentional effort to confuse and disenfranchise voters. I don’t think we’ll ever know the answer — unless some emails get leaked.

        • Veronica

          No need for leaks. File a FOIA request. Done.

          • MrE85

            I would agree with Veronica that the DMV had the responsibility of knowing what the law/court said, since they are one of the only sources of IDs a Wisconsin voter can use. Let this serve as another example of why we don’t need this in MN, and never will.

      • Veronica

        The DMV bears the whole weight of the responsibility. Efforts like this completely undermined any claims we’ve ever made to having a free and fair election.

  • Gary F

    The political establishment in the media took it on the chin pretty hard this election. You really wonder how many people are going to take the pollsters seriously, or the cable news networks seriously, or the debate moderators seriously, or the editors/editorial boards of newspapers seriously, or the ranting celebrities seriously in the next election cycle. It will be fun to watch.

    • You just commented about every institution that were specifically left out of the post, while failing to answer the one question that was asked. You see how rote people are about politics? I don’t think people realize the Pavlovian nature of political allegiance.

      • Well, it IS Gary after all.


        • MrE85

          In the months leading up to the election, while Gary was confident of victory, I invited him to check back in here after the votes were cast. I’m glad he did, just so he can watch me eat a big plate of crow.

          • Rob

            By all means, let’s give kudos to Gary for backing the winner. Next you’ll be congratulating Obama for kissing T.Rumps’ feet during yesterday’s press conference.

      • Gary F

        The role people play? Well, if you call and think of them “the deplorables” , you probably aren’t going to win.

        • Veronica

          That’s not the point of this post, Gary.

        • The question had the word YOU in it, Gary, not anyone else. YOU. It invites introspection, not another day of boring comments about what’s wrong with everyone else.

        • rallysocks

          To be fair, she said only half of his supporters were deplorable. I have been mystified ever since about why Trump supporters gleefully latched on to the ‘deplorable’ label. Especially since some of my friends who supported him are actually not deplorable people. What is up with that?

        • Rob

          I believe Bob C. called you out for your Pavlovian response. Now, let’s see if you can give a non-Pavlovian response. We’re waiting.

  • Dude (Not Sweet)

    “If true, how is that not a form of voter suppression?”

    It is not de facto voter suppression. However, it is possible for someone to look at the polls and think their vote does not matter and not go out to vote.

    Now, how often that actually happens might require another poll.

    • wjc

      But people can always use that excuse. It raining and my vote doesn’t really matter. My candidate is losing, so my vote doesn’t matter.

      Apparently, voters in key states weren’t motivated to vote for Clinton. The Democratic party has to work on that.

      • Dude (Not Sweet)

        I think the bigger impact of the polls is the surprise, shock, and letdown when you find out they were wrong. 🙁

        (Edited: The less likely outcome was the one which occurred. That is not technically wrong.)

        • rallysocks

          //I think the bigger impact of the polls is the surprise, shock, and letdown when you find out they were wrong. :-(//

          We watched PBS coverage on election night. I thought David Brooks was going to gnaw his fingernails right up to the wrist.

  • >>Other than entertainment, what does it contribute to the need for an informed electorate?<<

    Polls contribute nothing other than entertainment, one must dig a bit to become informed.

  • MikeB

    An informed electorate. How do you do that in this day and age? People gravitate towards the sources that validate how they are feeling. These clicks and page views drive more of the same, these have nothing to do with being truly informed. Even an objective figures are in dispute. There are people who though the unemployment rate was 45%, facts are irrelevant if you want to believe something else.

    There is no sanction for passing false information. Instead you get more viewers, readers, clicks. You can make big $ selling paranoia and fear. The profit motive exceeds any sense of civic engagement.

    • MrE85

      I don’t know, I felt pretty well-informed. Again, not the media’s fault, or the pollsters. We have a lot of well informed people in the nation. Maybe not quite enough, though.

      • Veronica

        Of course you felt well-informed. You read NewsCut and provide thoughtful comments. The comments sections elsewhere on the internet, though….

        • Dude (Not Sweet)

          Never read the comments elsewhere!

          • wjc

            It’s ugly out there.

      • MikeB

        Yes, it is the media’s fault. It is mostly entertainment, not news. Corey Lewandowski is a propagandist, not a newsman.

        They, the for profit media, are a business. Their allegiance is to stockholders, not the electorate.

        • Veronica

          Or, even worse: venture capitalists.

        • MrE85

          I know a number of good, honest political reporters who get paychecks from the for-profit media. I trust their reporting. Even though I don’t have cable news, I know who Corey Lewandowski is (and was), and why you question his journalism cred.
          How do I know this? From the for-profit media I can get. The system may be in trouble, but it not broke yet.

          • MikeB

            In replying quickly I did use the overgeneralized term “media”, though tried to qualify it.

            I do differentiate between beat reporters, local sites, and the entertainment media – cable news, network and cable pundits. Their jobs are very different. So is their work product. There was some very good political reporting this cycle from national outlets. But it had to compete with questionable news judgement and carnival barkers.

          • MrE85

            I find some of the outlets painful to watch/read myself, but I do, sometimes, just to get a taste of their views I am happy that we still have some better options. I’m sounding like a pledge week pitch here, aren’t I?

        • Lewandowski, like Brazile, was not portrayed as a journalist but as an analyst. Analysts these days are party insiders.

          • MikeB

            The use of pundits who are paid to fill a role is self defeating. it won’t stop but I’ve stopped watching. Life is too short.

  • Veronica

    Is it voter suppression? Maybe. Probably.

    As other commenters have said, moving forward will be hard when the facts are irrelevant.

  • Gary F

    And the election had nothing to do with Hillary Clinton being a terrible candidate? Is the Democratic elite expecting the masses to blindly vote for whoever the DNC backs?

    • MikeB

      It worked for the Republicans

    • wjc

      I think it boiled down to many in the party thinking that it was her turn, which was a mistake. There was also the mistake of assuming people wouldn’t vote for a vulgar, sexist, xenophobe like Trump. Obviously, many mistakes and miscalculations led to where we are today.

      Perhaps, the Democratic Party can use this to come back with a clearer message in the future.

      • Bob Sinclair

        Check out the Howard Dean interview on NPR this morning.

        • wjc

          Interesting interview. Talking to everyone (50-state strategy) is a good idea, but I didn’t hear why Howard Dean would be better than Keith Ellison, other than that he doesn’t have another job. I think he would be seen by a number of Democratic voters as more of the same old, same old.

          I think it is time for a truly progressive alternative: pro-worker, universal single-payer health care, shrink the military, protect women’s choice, protect immigrants, protect LGBT rights, etc.

          • Bob Sinclair

            I was thinking about the part where Dean mentioned that the party was only listening to those on both coasts. I suppose if one really wants to represent most people in the nation (or state or district), one should listen to (not just “hear”) those who live there.

          • wjc

            I don’t entirely agree with the “coasts” point, but I do agree that the party needs to engage with everyone from coast-to-coast.

          • Rob

            Yes! Dean is the epitome of the old guard. I believe he should step aside and make way for Keith or another progressive alternative candidate.

          • crystals

            YES. (I also can’t get behind a white male DNC leader who didn’t talk once in that interview about the role of race and racism in this election and what it means for the party moving forward.)

    • Rob

      I think we have a pretty clear idea of what happens when the masses blindly vote for a terrible candidate. It’s called the T. Rump administration.

      • sean

        We can say that people blindly supported candidates on both sides. We can also say that well informed and we’ll meaning people voted for candidates on both sides. It’s that arrogant attitude by the left that people on the right are blindly supporting candidates that helped Trump win the election. By the way, I voted for Trump and listen to progressive talk radio everyday on the way to and from work.

    • wjc

      One other thing. THE GOP better be pretty careful about all of the “mandate” talk. Trump won by narrow margins in a few states. Hardly what I call a mandate. The Democratic Party has some soul-searching and message building to do, but the GOP does too. Things can go very badly for the GOP in the midterms and in 4 years if they make the mistake of basking in some mythical “mandate”,

  • Ben

    I don’t think polls provide a very valuable service for me as a voter or any other voter. I equate them to the stock market ticker. You can’t sit and watch your 401K numbers everyday. You need to do your homework and come up with a plan that works for you and follow it. Voters need to do much the same, do your homework on the candidates and form your own opinion and the final step in your plan has to be to get out and vote.

    Polls are one of the tools politicians use to evaluate their own campaign, but really are misplaced when they are served up to the voting public as some essential piece of information.

    Your last statement pretty much sums it up, “don’t spend your time factoring into your evaluation of the candidates how anyone else intends to vote.”

  • MrE85

    While I don’t blame polls for the outcome, I must admit I will be less likely to believe them in the future. That may turn out to be a good thing.

    • Rob

      Pro tip: ignore them in the future. You’ll suffer no adverse effects by so doing.

      • BJ

        For a voter maybe. For a candidate it is important to know what to focus message on, most polls have more than the headline that gets in the news, that is the real value.

        • Rob

          Ain’t talkin’ about candidates, who should be doing their own legwork to determine messaging anyway. My point is that polls are of virtually no value to voters, hence there’s no point in paying attention to them.

    • People always say that, though, Bob. This isn’t the first time polls were wrong. This is the first year I can remember thought that people so willingly followed the horse race to the intentional exclusion of most everything else.

      • MrE85

        I think this is the first time since Truman beat Dewey they have been this wrong on a national scale. Yes, the pollsters missed Ventura and Brexit, but they had not screwed up the big call in a long time…until now.
        I may forget the lessons of the past, but I’ll try to take Bob H. advice and ignore the polls until they get it right again.

        • There are some Minnesota races that were solidly blown by polls. MPR no longer uses them.

      • Rob

        Don’t care whether polls are right or wrong. They are of little or no utility to voters, IMHO, so I give them the regard they deserve.

  • Rob

    I voted, and always will. I did not, do not, and never will give a rat’s heinie about election polls or predictions – nor for the celebrity pollsters and pundits who peddle their Prez contest pap.

  • jon

    The most insightful comment from a pundit that I’ve read:
    Hillary clinton lost because she failed to get as many electoral votes as Trump.

    The biggest reason for this of course is that in key states with a large number of electors more people voted for Trump than for Clinton.

    Thus the analysis is complete!

  • Rob

    If someone looks at polls that are highly favorable to their candidate, and decides not to exercise their civic duty because they conclude there’s no need to exercise their civic duty, that’s on them. Being an indolent putz isn’t the same as being a victim of voter suppression.

  • jon

    So he is doing a victory lap as a number compiler… because he compiled the numbers differently than everyone else…

    Mathematics being an exact science when you come up with a different answer than everyone else, starting with the same data, it certainly doesn’t mean you are doing better than they are… regardless of the actual outcome…. the data was bad, the polls were wrong, and taking wrong data and coming up with the right answer isn’t exactly something we should encourage… it’s the kind of thing that would have gotten me accused of cheating when I was a kid in math classes.

  • Anna

    Throughout the presidential race I was watching the live online MSN poll, which I believe was the only mainstream online poll you could actually submit a vote.

    With the exception of a few times when online participants were primarily women, Donald Trump was ahead in EVERY poll when the question was asked who will you vote for in the presidential election.

    The one demographic missing in this poll was race. Age and gender were included. The majority of respondents were male and aged greater than 45.

    I knew it was going to be a close race and the Brexit result put doubts in my mind of a Clinton win very early on because the issues of xenophobia, lack of income recovery after the Great Recession and the loss of blue collar jobs was the same.

    I was disappointed when he won but I was not terribly surprised.

    • I would never refer to an online survey as a poll. There has to be science to it. there’s no science to self selected surveys.

      • Anna

        MSN is the only place I can get opinion pages without having to actually subscribe to the NYT, Time, WP, WSJ, etc. I can get all the Republican leaning opinion pages as well.

        There is also a disclaimer on every opinion article that the subject matter is solely the opinion of the author and does not reflect the opinion of Microsoft

        During the campaign, MSN did show a map of the US and its scientific methods for arriving at the poll numbers.

        You can go on MSN right now and click on “Election 2016” and in bold capital letters it clearly states “POLL”.

        It uses a classic Likert scale for some of its poll questions.

        A poll is a form of surveying. The semantics are not important.

        I will say as one of the posters on this topic has said, if you have the wrong information, as it seems many of the pollsters and pundits did, the survey/poll will be incorrect.

        As my friend, a retired statistician for the U.S. Army Testing and Evaluation Center at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland said, “Statistics are the easiest thing in the world to manipulate.”

        • BJ

          There is a great book on “statistics”

          • Anna

            I think there are some political “analysts” and poll designers who need to read that book!

            Thanks, BJ!

          • BJ

            Oh, they have….

          • It’s the predictive nature that bothers me more than the statistical.

            It’s safe to say that on the morning after the election, Hillary Clinton stood a ZERO chance of winning. I think it’s safe to say that on the morning of the election, people mostly having made up their mind on how they’d vote, she stood a ZERO chance of winning. We just didn’t know it, because we hadn’t counted the votes yet.

            That was around the same time Silver was reporting she had a 78% chance of winning.

            Those who conduct polls will tell you that they are a snapshot in time.

            Somewhere they were used to predict the future. I don’t see how statisticians can have it both ways.

          • jon

            despite what it says on all the investing documents, prior performance is an indication of future performance.

            Particularly when most voters (I think 88% this year according to exit polls) made up their mind months ago…

            OF course when the election is only 1% difference and 12% are making up their mind in the last week…. things get sketchy.

            I don’t have a state by state break down of when people made up their minds… exit polls probably exist, but I don’t have them… very possible that State by State you’ll see the biggest upsets from polling data in places where people made up their mind in the last few days…

          • Bob Sinclair

            Which raises an interesting point about human nature. We tend to want to know the future. The future is a scary place and creates anxiety. We desire as much certainty about the future as we have about the past. I believe that the rise in the use of polls to “predict the future” has more to do with that than anything else. I also believe that this is the reason for so much weeping and gnashing of teeth from those who voted for “their” candidate (and I mean this for local and state elections as well). “The future that was predicted for me which gave me comfort has been upended. What the hell do I do now?”

  • Will

    After this election I hope people take a moment and realize that perhaps confirmation bias is the cause of the media and the polls being so very wrong this year, lack of diversity of thought. My favored solution to the problem with the media & pollsters is transparency…we should know the “diversity of thought” in each media outlet…they should tell their consumers what the political make up of their organization is so we can see the level of bias and/or unbalance they have. Once we have that information the consumers can decide if demanding a more balanced newsroom is necessary based on the product produced, here’s more about the idea of diversity of thought:

    • Will, you’re getting to be Johnny One Note. Could you be specific bout which diversity of thought in the newsroom affected which polls, which are not — by the way — conducted by newsroom but by pollsters.

      There are obviously some polling firms that tend to lean right and left. Those are documented by Silver and factored into his analysis.

      So, on the whole, your comment has absolutely NOTHING to do with the point of the post.

      Consider answering the question that was posed.

    • Rob

      I don’t think most media consumers are under any delusions as to what the political orientation of Fox News, CNN, or the New York Times is.

  • Mike

    I for one would much rather have journalists focus on issues than polls, but that hasn’t been done in decades, and long predates Nate Silver. “Horse race” reporting has been the emphasis for the entire time I’ve been voting (since the 1980s). So it’s incredibly weak to blame the Clinton loss on him or pollsters in general.

    Here’s a question I’d pose: why are the Democratic Party and its affiliates blaming Clinton’s loss on everyone but themselves? It’s the fundamental responsibility of a political party to convince voters to come and out and support it on election day. If Democrats and their admirers keep lecturing and scolding everyone about the lack of support for their undesirable candidate (as opposed to persuading), they’ll continue to lose elections. It’s quite pathetic, actually.

  • BJ

    Nate doesn’t (or didn’t I haven’t read his blog in years) conduct polls. He simply aggregates them in a useful way.

    I haven’t seen numbers yet but most of my pollster friends have been discussing the number of people they left out of their calls because they don’t traditionally vote, they believe voted in huge numbers – nationally around 6-7 million more people.

  • Dan

    Relevant reading. It was originally posted on election day, titled “Why Nate Silver and Sam Wang Are Wrong”

    TL:DR quote, emphasis mine: “True accuracy would require a complex model that incorporated many more features than current models do, ***using data from hundreds of presidential elections***, and we don’t have that luxury”

  • Joe

    Nate Silver aggregates polls. He (accurately) said there was vastly more uncertainty in the polls than most others were letting on (the NYTimes had Clinton as 89% favorites, the WashPost had her as 94%). His value was in informing us about this uncertainty. The polls pointed towards Clinton, but because of the nature of the polls this year, there was a lot of uncertainty.

    Going into election day, Clinton had a larger lead in the polls than Obama had over Romney 4 years ago. Yet Silver had Obama as a 95% favorite, and Clinton as a 70% favorite. Why? Uncertainty.

    You have established that you are deeply distrustful of people who work with numbers, so I see why you might not find value in it. But I did.

  • Josh

    The NYTimes said all signs were pointing to a Clinton win and predicted her victory. NPR said all signs were pointing to a Clinton win and predicted her victory. Nate Silver said most signs were pointing to a Clinton win and predicted her victory, but said there was a much greater chance that she loses than people were acknowledging.

    That is the service he provides. Is there value in it? I’ll let you decide.

    • The original question asked what value YOU perceive in it.

      • Josh

        You asked “Why do you find Silver’s predictions valuable in your role in the democratic process?” and that is why I did. I knew this was coming, largely because of reading 538. I have friends who hate Nate Silver, and because all the other poll aggregators had Clinton with much more favorable odds, they assumed both that she would win and that he was wrong. They got complacent. I worked my butt off trying to get people out to the voting booth. I didn’t do enough, but if not for him I would have done even less.

        But I don’t think there is universal value in it, so I can’t speak to it for others.

  • rallysocks

    I’ve never been influenced by polls, but I think there are a lot of people out there who are. It’s easier to think, “Oh, my candidate is winning/losing. Welp, people smarter than me must know why my candidate is up/down. Plus those click bait headlines confirmed all my biases, even though I didn’t necessarily read the actual ‘article’.”

    You would think that with all the ways people can access information, that we would be better informed as a whole. Sadly, too many people substitute the opinions of those who make their living studying politics rather than putting in the time needed to make a reasoned decision.

  • kennedy

    To me the polls are not at all valuable to me in selecting which candidate to support. Polls do tell a story about my fellow Americans. They give me an indication of whether other people generally like or dislike a candidate’s message. It’s like movie reviews/ratings from the public. They give me an indication of whether a movie has popular appeal but have little bearing on whether I would like it.

  • Mike Worcester

    It appears I am seriously late to this party, but I’ll try — Probably twenty-five years ago or so, ABC correspondent Jeff Greenfield (a great journalist by any measure) said, and I’ll paraphrase a bit, “stop taking so many polls, stop reading so many polls, stop putting stock in polls, they do nothing to advance the dialogue we should be having”. Or something like that.

    When polls drive the news cycle instead of reflecting them, if that is even possible, we are not helping ourselves in any way.

  • frightwig

    In the week before the election, Silver really pushed the idea that Hillary’s +3 national lead was within the polling margin of error, and her “blue wall” in the electoral college was more like a rusty fence. He even wrote about the possibility of Clinton losing Pennsylvania. A lot of Democrats on Twitter were really annoyed with him. I must admit that even I felt like he was overstating the danger for click-bait.

    Of course he had himself covered for anything less than a Clinton landslide, but he does deserve credit for being the only forecaster who gave serious consideration to the possibility of a Trump win–and the way that he did win, particularly. If Democrats felt complacent, it was because they were looking at Daily Kos and other forecasters who had Hillary’s chances in the 90% range, not Nate Silver.

    • I suppose. But I would expect of any statistician to recognize the possibility of something happening. But I’ll stipulate to the claim that Silver wasn’t as bad as a lot of the wizards were.

      Nonetheless, I still seek some idea of the value of polls and wizards to a nation that at least CLAIMS — and I know they’re lying — to want less of the horse race and more of the issues.

      • Rob

        Don’t call me a liar. Thanks.

  • MellyMel100

    A monkey in India picked Trump. A fish in Asia picked Trump. When you’re a person who prognosticates for a living and you can’t do better than a monkey or a fish maybe it’s time to look for a new line of work.

  • NotMarkT

    This just in, no matter how much historic data we have, the future is uncertain. All poll results have a margin of error associated with sampling. But that is backward looking, and the uncertainty (margin of error) gets smaller the larger the sample. On the other hand, any prediction has irreducible uncertainty, because the future may not be like the past. As Silver pointed out — before the election — there was lots of uncertainty about the electoral college outcome. If you don’t like dealing with uncertainty, that is your issue, not the messenger’s.