Nate Silver is having a bad election: Why he should tell us if he thinks he's made a mistake

The consummate wonk has made journalism better. But he's at risk of turning into the kind of pundit he hates

By Elias Isquith
Published February 11, 2016 10:59PM (EST)
Nate Silver (Nam Y. Huh)
Nate Silver (Nam Y. Huh)

I come to praise Nate Silver, not to bury him.

He is a seminal figure in the history of American political journalism. His influence has been undeniable, immediate, and far-reaching. With shocking speed, he almost singlehandedly elevated the standards for an entire industry — and one that, at least in theory, has a real effect on American democracy.

The Upshot, Vox, Wonkblog; each one of these outlets publishes great stuff every single day, and it is exceedingly difficult to imagine any of them existing without Silver paving the way for them. And they’re far from the only ones. If you’re relieved to no longer live in a media world in which people take the latest unsubstantiated proclamations from self-promoting blowhards seriously, you owe Silver your thanks.

But without denying any of that, it’s time to acknowledge that the ultimate elections wonk is indeed also human. He is fallible, just like you or me. And though he has plenty of time to get things in order before Nov. 8, it’s hard to deny a simple reality: His analysis of the 2016 election, which has often consisted of him dismissing Donald Trump’s chances, has not been among his best.

I’m not the first or only person to lob this critique in Silver’s direction. And it goes without saying that few among us expected Trump’s campaign to become the phenomenon that it has. Making predictions — especially about the future — isn’t easy. But when it’s your job to do so, and you tell people something could never happen, and then that something keeps happening, that usually means your analysis isn’t working.

And as Silver has made a career out of knowing, few things are more aggravating than a pundit who will not admit it when they’ve made a mistake.

Which brings me to Silver’s Wednesday post about Donald Trump’s chances, and whether Republicans should regard him as their party’s new frontrunner. After a whole lot of build-up and numerically rich hemming and hawing, his answer, in a word, is yes:

It would be easy enough to overreact to Tuesday’s results. With only two states having voted so far, we don’t really have enough data to know why Trump finished with 24 percent of the vote in one of them but 35 percent in the other, or which result represents the better baseline going forward … Prediction markets regard Trump as more likely than any other candidate to win the Republican nomination but nevertheless slightly worse than even money against the field, an assessment that strikes me as pretty reasonable.

But for anti-Trump Republicans, there’s a danger to underreaction, too. One reason that candidates like Trump have rarely won nominations in the past is because parties take a lot of steps to fight them. If the Republican Party’s defense mechanisms are broken, or if it assumes Trump will go away without intervention, the rest of the party may be competing for second place.

I agree with all of this. What I don’t agree with, however, is Silver’s omitting why Republicans might be prone to “underreact” in the first place.

It’s not because they’re clueless and stupid (though I wouldn’t rule out either as contributing factors). It’s because — at least in part — that is what Silver’s been telling them! And if he now believes that he was wrong, perhaps due to the party’s “defense mechanisms” no longer working, he should say so explicitly. Not just because that’s the right thing to do, but also because that theory, if it’s correct, has major implications.

If the GOP, as an institution, is incapable of picking its own leader, that matters. It could dramatically change how we understand contemporary American politics. It would suggest that many of the assumptions that make up our conventional wisdom need serious reworking — or may be entirely obsolete. And since those assumptions influence the tendency among elites to dismiss Trump’s chances, they matter, too.

So if Silver now believes that may indeed be happening, he should tell us. And he should let us know if — and how — it’s causing him to revise his overall assessment of the campaign. As Vox’s Ezra Klein recently argued, a real-life Presidential Nominee Donald Trump would be no laughing matter. It would be a real tragedy if the mobilization to stop him began later than it should have because Silver was (understandably) reluctant to admit he can be wrong, just like everybody else.

Elias Isquith

Elias Isquith is a former Salon staff writer.

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538 Donald Trump Election 2016 Ezra Klein Fivethirtyeight Gop 2016 Nate Silver Wonkblog