How Democrats Are Handling a Nate Silver-Inspired Freakout

By David A. Graham

It's shaping up to be the Fortnight of Fear for Democrats, as midterm jitters blossom into something closer to real panic. It's been months since anyone seriously predicted that Democrats would gain ground (to say nothing of take over) the House, but now the party seems to be coming to grips with the fact that it may lose the Senate, too. If six Senate seats flip, Republicans will control both houses, likely setting up two years of even-worse gridlock between President Obama and a hostile Congress.

This is an interesting study in how panic travels from insiders to the general public. The two biggest material changes in the last month are that two formidable Republicans have entered races against Democratic incumbents—Representative Cory Gardner against Mark Udall in Colorado, and former Senator Scott Brown against Jeanne Shaheen in New Hampshire. But what really set Democrats off is Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight, who on Sunday released a new forecast predicting the GOP would win the Senate. 

Of course, the Cook and Rothenberg Political Reports have said much the same as FiveThirtyEight recently. But the august geezers who run those organizations don't have Silver's same star power. It's enough to make one wonder whether there's a bit of a cynicism involved. National Journal's Scott Bland reported earlier this month on how the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee uses doomsday predictions from Silver in solicitations far more than, say, they mention liberal bogeymen the Koch Brothers. Democratic fundraisers told Bland that looked like a calculated strategy. (The chair of the DSCC is Senator Michael Bennet, brother of Atlantic editor-in-chief James Bennet.)

So what's the DSCC's response to Silver? It's two-pronged. First, Executive Director Guy Cecil blasted out a memo to reporters playing down Silver's calculations.

Nate Silver and the staff at FiveThirtyEight are doing groundbreaking work, but, as they have noted, they have to base their forecasts on a scarce supply of public polls. In some cases more than half of these polls come from GOP polling outfits. This was one reason why FiveThirtyEight forecasts in North Dakota and Montana were so far off in 2012. In fact, in August of 2012 Silver forecasted a 61% likelihood that Republicans would pick up enough seats to claim the majority. Three months later Democrats went on to win 55 seats.

In 2012, Democratic senate candidates won in nearly half of the states where Mitt Romney beat President Obama (five of 12: North Dakota, Montana, Missouri, Indiana, & West Virginia), proving that senate races are not merely a referendum on the President or on any single issue but a choice between the two candidates on the ballot. Nate Silver predicted that Heidi Heitkamp had only an 8% chance of victory and Jon Tester had just a 34% chance. In 2010, he predicted that Majority Leader Reid had just a 16% chance and Michael Bennet had only a 34% chance in Colorado. 

Move along, reporters—nothing to see here, just a premature, statistically squishy prediction. But reporter Rebecca Berg spotted this email alert to the DSCC's list:

Yesterday, Nate Silver issued shocking, scary new Senate forecasts:

After the Koch's $30 million attack barrage, Silver's model projects that "Republicans will finish with 51 seats, a net gain of six from Democrats, and exactly as many as they need to win control of the chamber."

Bottom line: if we don't answer these Koch attacks, they could take over the Senate by just a single seat.

That's a somewhat different story.

There's nothing nefarious about this. It makes sense that Democratic strategists would try to spin their situation for reporters while doing everything they can to get donors worried and spending. (And to be fair, Cecil's memo also declared, "We don't minimize the challenges ahead. Rather, we view the latest projection as a reminder that we have a challenging map and important work still to do in order to preserve our majority.")

In a similar vein, President Obama last week complained that Democrats get "clobbered" in midterms. And where did he say it? At a fundraiser, of course—and he quickly turned his lament into a reason why donors' help is so important (emphasis added): 

But in midterms, we get clobbered, either because we don’t think it’s important or because we get so discouraged about what’s happening in Washington that we think it’s not worth our while. And the reason today is so important, and the reason that I’m so appreciative for all of you being here is because we’re going to have to get over that. This is a top priority.”

The audience for these dire predictions matters. It's not that top Democrats aren't worried—they have good reason to be, and they've known that for some time. This Fortnight of Fear looks like an attempt to get the base and fundraisers riled up, too. 

It's interesting to compare this moment to a similar one in 2010, just a few months before Democrats were struck by a massive Republican wave. The commonly accepted reason for that wave is backlash to the Affordable Care Act, channeled through the Tea Party. That law passed exactly four years ago Sunday. And here's a Newsweek piece from March 29, 2010:

For all the talk this year of the enthusiasm gap between Democrats and Republicans, the gulf appears to have evaporated. Midterms are nearly always a referendum on the incumbent party, so that's huge news for Democrats.

Health reform, it turns out, was not the political Armageddon Republicans made it out to be. According to the poll, Pelosi and Reid have emerged from the fight without significant bruising. In fact, it seems to have even buoyed Pelosi's favorability ratings with liberals ....

Democrats will surely lose seats this fall. But Pelosi can afford to lose a few. In fact she can lose 30 and still keep her gavel.

That's obviously not quite how it turned out. 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.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2014/03/how-democrats-are-handling-a-nate-silver-inspired-freakout/284606/