Nate Silver got you down? Why his forecast is more nuanced than you think

To halt their coming doom, Democrats have a very specific -- and politically helpful -- provision they should tout

By Simon Maloy
March 25, 2014 7:48PM (UTC)
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Nate Silver (ABC)

Nate Silver, the world’s only celebrity statistician, finally issued a 2014 forecast. According to Silver’s number crunching, the GOP is the “slight favorite” in November’s fight for control of the Senate, with a 60 percent likelihood of taking down the Democrats. As usually happens in the wake of a Silver prediction, everyone lost their damn minds.

Liberals and Democrats, who huddled around the warm light of Silver’s projections during the long darkness of October 2012, quickly lost faith in his methodology. Republicans and conservatives, who spent the latter stages of 2012 denouncing Silver as a hack propagandist, reported his latest projection with straight-faced earnestness. What once was “skewed” is now simply “math.”

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What Silver has done is put a number to a widely acknowledged political reality: The GOP is well-positioned to make gains in 2014. The Atlantic’s David Graham points out that Democrats faced a similar reality in 2010, but refused to see it. “Party officials are more publicly upfront about the dangers the Democrats face this time around than they were in 2010, but knowing that peril is ahead is different from knowing how to stop it.” That rings true, and you know what does nothing to stop, slow or deflect an oncoming political wave? Complaining about skewed polls.

So what can be done? Last week I wrote about how Democrats would be smart to go on a carefully calibrated pro-Obamacare offensive – it won’t turn Obamacare into a winning issue, though it could help mollify the large swaths of voters who are frustrated by (but not ready to give up on) the health law. A good place to focus would be Obamacare’s expansion of Medicaid, the politics of which are increasingly favorable to the Democrats.

State-level polling shows that expanding Medicaid is a fairly popular idea, even in states with significant conservative populations like Virginia. Terry McAuliffe, the newly ensconced governor of Virginia, campaigned and won on expanding Medicaid. Yesterday he offered a politically audacious plan as part of his state budget proposal: a two-year expansion “trial run,” paid for entirely with federal dollars, that the state could terminate with no penalty.

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McAuliffe’s proposal was rejected by state Republicans, who don’t want expansion to be part of the budgeting process, but it crystallized the fight over the policy. The urgency is self-evident: health coverage for the underprivileged. The benefit is also self-evident: It’s paid for largely by the feds (100 percent through 2016, 90 percent after 2020). It’s a great deal for the states. McAuliffe’s proposal emphasized how much good can be done at so little cost, which exposed the cowardice and moral bankruptcy of the Republican opposition.

That opposition, while holding fast in Virginia, is busily crumbling elsewhere. Republicans in states that initially rejected the Medicaid expansion are buckling to pressure and working out ways to accept the funding. Gov. John Kasich, Republican of Ohio, went on Fox News this past Sunday to talk up his decision to expand Medicaid in his state. “I have a chance to bring back $14 billion in Ohio dollars back to Ohio to do what? To strengthen our local communities as they treat the most significant problem of drug addiction and the problem of mental illness,” Kasich told Chris Wallace. “I think it's entirely consistent with conservative and Republican philosophy.”

Playing the Republicans against one another would also help blunt the flood of anti-“big government” coming from conservative political groups. Americans for Prosperity plans to spend hundreds of millions of dollars flogging Obamacare as part of its ideological crusade to convince the country that “big government is bad government.” Medicaid expansion – with its general popularity, demonstrated efficacy and bipartisan support – offers a potent response to that argument.

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Nate Silver’s projections will become focal points of the 2014 campaign coverage, and it’s easy to view them as confirmation of the hardening conventional wisdom that Obamacare is an unqualified political disaster for Democrats and a surefire winner for the GOP. The fight over expanding Medicaid shows just how muddled the politics of Obamacare actually are.


Simon Maloy

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