Journalists don’t like being wrong, or even wavering in the vicinity of not right. And in the run-up to Donald Trump’s 2016 victory, many of us were very wrong. Carefully designed visualizations fritzed out in the face of uncertainty.
So this year, for these complex midterms, media companies have adopted the posture of humble supplicants to the American voter, waiting on a greater percentage of votes to be cast in a greater percentage of races before making the call on the one big, plausibly contested thing that matters: Who will control the House?
The New York Times—whose skittering needle in 2016 was so anxiety-making it became a viral Halloween costume two years later—tweaked its strategy after “many, many” internal discussions. As a result, the paper refused to unleash a visualization until 9:45 p.m. ET. By 10:05, the needle showed that Democrats had a 95 percent chance of winning the House. Just minutes before, the page had displayed a diffident message. “We do not yet feel confident enough in our estimates to publish a live forecast,” it read. “If and when we do, we will publish it here.”
FiveThirtyEight, which prides itself on its data-centric view of politics, saw its own model moving too deeply rightward after early election results, and reset it to a more conservative (prediction-wise, not politically) approach. “After it was wobbling back and forth too aggressively early in the evening, we have the model tuned to a conservative setting, where it’s mostly just waiting for called races,” the site’s editor in chief, Nate Silver, wrote.
Only Fox News was quick out of the gates, as if calling positive electoral returns for Democrats is now only seen as nonpartisan if a conservative outlet does it.
FOX NEWS: 🚨DEMS TAKE HOUSE🚨— Will Oremus (@WillOremus) November 7, 2018
CNN: There will be no blue wave.
NYT: We are so confused we literally don't even have a needle
At some level, it’s hard to blame political journalists for holding back this year. Being late or slow might be embarrassing among your savvy peers, but getting it wrong means being subjected to years of unending trolling by whoever felt wronged by your statistical overdetermination of the results.
If there’s one thing the media learned in 2016—and honestly, sometimes it seems like it might be the only thing—it was that you should hold your predictive fire until you’re 95 percent sure you’re gonna hit the mark. Which … sort of makes the whole enterprise a little ridiculous. At that point, the soothsaying game has another, more familiar name: reporting.
Surely then, in 2018, reporters will demand a deep, interesting discussion of the issues from candidates and rely less on horse-race coverage, right?
We’re a country of optimists.