The Art of Losing: A FiveThirtyEight Story, Part I
The rise, and fall, of a once-indispensable outlet
There were a lot of ways to get 2022 wrong.
The most common, and by far the most forgivable, came from simply not following the race closely. This is pretty common: people simply do not follow politics regularly, and of those who do, even fewer care about midterm elections. And for that subset who do care about midterm elections, they likely only know one thing about them: that the President’s party loses seats. And throughout the year, no President looked more primed to face a shellacking than Joe Biden. The economy was doing poorly, he was deeply unpopular, and Democrats did terribly in the 2021 elections. At a glance, a Republican sweep made total sense.
But, as we all know, the story was far more complicated. Backlash to the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade in the summer provided Democrats with a massive boost that resulted in a historic overperformance for an in-power party in a midterm. There were many strong indications that this would happen for months leading up to the election. These were indications that should have been easy to track and understand for anyone who regularly follows elections, whether it be professionally or just as a hobby. For months, they presented a clear picture: a Republican blowout was not in the cards, Democrats were clearly favored in the Senate, and the House was meaningfully competitive.
Of those who were unwilling and/or unable to heed these signs, the first were the obvious Republican partisans. Despite being perfectly capable of knowing better, they were so desperate to see their party win in a landslide that they refused to believe anything otherwise (or just had a monetary interest in lying). This group ranged from teenagers on Twitter to entire outlets like RealClearPolitics, which would cook their own data to paint as rosy a picture for Republicans as possible. It even extended to people outright involved in Republican politics. In the weeks leading up to the election, practically everyone who had ever worked for a right-leaning campaign was talking to some reporter about how Georgia and Pennsylvania were locks for their side and to watch for an upset in Washington.
But it would be a disservice to pretend that the only people to have a bad 2022 were accounts named BlakeMastersEnjoyer or polling firms named BlackpilledData. Marching to the same tune as those morons was practically every political news outlet in the country. It is this class that stands as by far the most egregious offenders. Every single one of those desks, websites, and ratings organizations were full of professionals who were perfectly capable of seeing the very real signs of a close year for what they were. But they would refuse to do so to a degree that would reach outright absurdity.
And no organization would be as consistently, arrogantly and disastrously wrong in 2022 as Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight.
While Silver and his allies heavily contest the assertion that they even got 2022 wrong (they did), one hard fact remains: they had Republicans favored to win the Senate and they lost it. That made it the first election since 2016 that they outright called incorrectly, which is striking in and of itself. But even that still understates the extent that they overestimated Republicans. For the House, which they would only barely call correctly, their actual model (the “classic” forecast) would be off by 10 seats compared to the final results—a record worse than competitors ranging from other statistical models to subjective ratings.
That is not at all what you would expect from the gold standard of political analysis. Instead of revealing the true signals of the election, FiveThirtyEight emitted a cacophony of noise. The end result was coverage that left its readers less informed the more they read it.
Now, it will no longer exist, at least not in the way we’ve known it for the past decade. Rumors about the site’s fate had been swirling around since the start of the year, and they were just recently confirmed: the site’s contract with ABC News will not be renewed when it expires this year. Half of the staff has already been laid off, and Silver himself has confirmed his eventual departure. Thanks to the yeoman’s work put in by his lawyers, he will still have access to his models, which will invariably be put into action somewhere for next year’s election. But it will be under a different brand, with a different staff, and perhaps most important of all, with a far different reputation.
No matter what form his work will take in 2024, Silver will never be seen as he once was, and is no longer capable of ever being seen in that way again. That, in itself, is a major development.
So, how did we get here? What happened over the past decade that caused Silver and his website to go from being revered as the cutting edge to utterly incapable of handling an election like 2022? To fully understand, you need to start at the very beginning.
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