In 2012, when Mitt Romney seemed close to defeating President Obama, Democrats took to tweeting the slogan “Keep Calm and Trust in Nate Silver.”
The New York Times prognosticator called all 50 states correctly, and leveraged his fame as the nation’s predictor-in-chief into a new role at ESPN, where he founded the site FiveThirtyEight.
But after Thursday’s win for Donald Trump, the days of trusting in Nate Silver may be over. Most pollsters and data journalists were wrong, too. But none have his reputation to live up to.
“Nate was arrogant. His numbers were all over the place. The title of ‘guru’ is now gone,” The Hill media reporter Joe Concha told TheWrap. He said Silver’s career will survive, but “never again will he be held in any revered regard.”
On Monday, Silver predicted that Trump had a 1-in-3 chance of defeating Hillary Clinton. Some other pundits thought Silver was being too generous: Huffington Post Washington bureau chief Ryan Grim accused him of “putting his thumb on the scales” to give Trump a better chance of wining.
(Grim tweeted an apology to Silver on Election Night, saying there was “far more uncertainty than we were accounting for.”)
By Tuesday morning, Silver’s site reported that Clinton had a 71.4 percent chance of winning the election.
That was a huge improvement over his numbers earlier in the year: Back in January, Silver couldn’t make up his mind on where Trump stood.
“I don’t think his chances are zero. You have to be very careful about saying they’re zero, but I think they’re lower than 20 [percent] or 25 percent. Maybe they’re 10 percent. Maybe they’re 8 percent. I’m not sure, somewhere in that range,” Silver told Adweek.
The credibility questions arrive at an odd time for FiveThirtyEight.
ESPN shut down Grantland, its sports and pop culture website, abruptly in 2015 after the company had a nasty split with its founder, Bill Simmons. Grantland had a niche fan base and a staff of extremely talented writers — just like FiveThirtyEight.
But Grantland was relevant every day, while nobody will care about presidential polling for at least three years. FiveThirtyEight has branched out in other ways, covering sports data and even ranking burritos, so it clearly won’t limit itself to politics.
Silver is the face of the data reporting, which had been seen as one of the only growth sectors in journalism. After this election, the threat to it may go well beyond one site.
“I’ve believed in data for 30 years in politics and data died tonight,” GOP strategist Mike Murphy tweeted. “I could not have been more wrong about this election.”
More than 16.5 million unique users, an all-time record, visited FiveThirtyEight on Election Night.