Data journalism didn't fail: Nate Silver pushes back after The New York Times blasts him for getting Donald Trump so wrong

The Times credits Breitbart with predicting the rise of Donald Trump better than its former polling guru

By Sophia Tesfaye

Senior Politics Editor

Published May 5, 2016 6:48PM (EDT)

Nate Silver                              (AP/Nam Y. Huh)
Nate Silver (AP/Nam Y. Huh)

"7 Times Nate Silver Was Hilariously Wrong About Donald Trump," a triumphant Daily Caller headline read the morning after Trump became the "presumptive" Republican nominee.

There was the time back in September 2015 when Silver implored people to "calm down" about the possibility of Trump winning the Republican nomination. Two months later he wrote, "stop freaking out about Donald Trump's polls," calling Trump's odds "higher than 0 but (considerably) less than 20 percent." The former New York Times polling guru who correctly predicted Barack Obama's map to victory during the 2008 Democratic primary and caused Republicans to spend the majority of the 2012 reelection campaign screaming about skewed polls, wrote of Trump as recently as last December, "the most difficult hurdles between Donald Trump and the Republican presidential nomination are still to come."

"The Republican Horse Race Is Over, and Journalism Lost," a more brutal takedown of Silver from The New York Times' Jim Rutenberg read on Thursday.

"Wrong, wrong, wrong — to the very end, we got it wrong," the media columnist opened, admonishing the entire collective to begin before singling out Silver in particular for his failed call on the Democratic side in Indiana only two sentences later.

"Predictions can have consequences," Rutenberg wrote, blasting what he called the "questionable news coverage" brought forth by Silver's style of data journalism:

[T]his season has been truly spectacular in its failings. It has been “Dewey Beats Truman” on a relentless, rolling basis. The mistakes piled up — the bad predictions, the overplaying of every slight development of the horse race to the point of whiplash, the lighthearted treatment of what turned out to be the most serious candidacy in the Republican field.


It was another thing to declare, as The Huffington Post did, that coverage of his campaign could be relegated to the entertainment section (and to add a disclaimer to articles about him) and still another to give Mr. Trump a “2 percent” chance at the nomination despite strong polls in his favor, as FiveThirtyEight did six months before the first votes were cast. Predictions that far out can be viewed as being all in good fun. But in Mr. Trump’s case, they also arguably sapped the journalistic will to scour his record as aggressively as those of his supposedly more serious rivals.

Rutenberg pointed to polling's failure to pick up on former House Republican majority leader Eric Cantor's defeat in a 2014 Republican primary to argue that on the ground reporting from "the staff at Breitbart News" more accurately predicted Trump's rise than journalists who relied on polling data like Silver:

Of course, the data journalism at FiveThirtyEight, The Upshot at The Times and others like them can guide readers by putting races in perspective and establishing valuable new ways to assess politics. But the lesson in Virginia, as the Washington Post reporter Paul Farhi wrote at the time, was that nothing exceeds the value of shoe-leather reporting, given that politics is an essentially human endeavor and therefore can defy prediction and reason.

But as Rutenberg would eventually acknowledge, Silver had already written his mea culpa on Trump. "Other than being early skeptics of Jeb Bush, we basically got the Republican race wrong," Silver wrote on his FiveThirtyEight blog Wednesday. Silver admitted that his early dismissal of Trump was predicated on the understanding that functioning parties eventually settle on an electable candidate within the acceptable bounds of the party platform:

To me, the most surprising part of Trump's nomination — which is to say, the part I think I got wrongest — is that Trump won the nomination despite having all types of deviations from conservative orthodoxy. He seemed wobbly on all parts of Reagan's three-legged stool: economic policy (he largely opposes free trade and once advocated for a wealth tax and single-payer health care), social policy (consider his constant flip-flopping over abortion), and foreign policy (he openly mocked the Bush administration's handling of the Iraq War, which is still fairly popular among Republicans)

So is the Republican Party too dysfunctional to poll? If so, Rutenberg argued: "That’s all the more reason in the coming months to be as sharply focused on the data we don’t have as we are on the data we do have (and maybe watching out for making any big predictions about the fall based on the polling of today)."

"Trump has rendered useless the traditional rule books of American politics," Rutenberg wrote to end his critique of Silver. "But a good place to start would be to get a good night’s sleep, and then talk to some voters."

On his Twitter account Thursday, Silver appeared to be alluding to Rutenberg's column when he defended the role of data journalism in electoral coverage:

By Sophia Tesfaye

Sophia Tesfaye is Salon's senior editor for news and politics, and resides in Washington, D.C. You can find her on Twitter at @SophiaTesfaye.

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