In part because of Trump’s already prodigious fundraising, the old temptation to overstate the importance of the campaign war chest—and the electioneering efforts it can buy—will once again be present in 2020. As will the press’s quadrennial weakness for the supposedly game-changing gaffe, another Silver bête noire. Obama’s “lipstick on a pig” flap, Clinton’s “deplorables” remark—such moments may reveal aspects of a candidate’s character, but Silver believes the media consistently exaggerate their effect on voter behavior.
On other fronts, Silver sees the press as overlearning the lessons of 2016. Journalists have obsessed over Russian interference in elections, and while foreign meddling is undoubtedly troubling, Silver sees no strong evidence that hacking or disinformation swung the 2016 result. “There’s a bias toward believing in explanations that involve secrecy or things happening that are hidden,” Silver said. The most important factors, he believes, are right there in the numbers.
Silver is now the elder statesman of a growing class of data-based journalists, including his frenemy Nate Cohn of The Upshot, with whom he likes to spar. Despite the beating forecasters took after 2016, quantitative analysis is better integrated into contemporary political coverage than it was before. FiveThirtyEight’s own primary-election model is wildly complex, evidence of Silver’s continued faith in the power of data. For all his success, however, Silver frets that his work is not well understood.
During my visit, the FiveThirtyEight staff was in the middle of a debate about how to present election forecasts so the general public can easily comprehend them. Four years ago, the site gave readers a percentage chance that each candidate would win. For the 2018 midterms, it switched to odds: Democrats had a 7-in-8 chance of taking the House; Republicans had a 4-in-5 chance of holding the Senate. Silver’s hunch is that readers find odds easier to understand than percentages, because they can imagine a series of coin flips or rolls of the dice.
Delivering forecasts in the clearest way possible is undoubtedly to the good; studies have demonstrated that the public doesn’t grasp probability well. But it’s hard to believe that FiveThirtyEight would have been spared opprobrium had it predicted Trump had a 3-in-10 chance of winning. And convincing readers to trust the model again is more than just a math problem.
Silver’s celebrity was never entirely a function of his accuracy. It helped that his predictions were congenial to Obama, and to liberals more generally. (Silver’s name became a staple of Obama-era Democratic fundraising emails, his predictions—sunny and dire alike—invoked to persuade donors to pony up.) His own political views, however, have always tended toward the libertarian and moderate, and as Democrats have moved to the left, Silver’s heresies have drawn new scrutiny. In October, he chastised “Libs” for not giving Trump credit for the death of the Islamic State’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. “Nate Silver has been morphing before our eyes into exactly the kind of bloviator he made his name mocking,” The New Republic announced.