The Internet Is So Mad at Nate Silver and the Needle (Unless Maybe It’s Not?)

It was a rough night. Especially if your name was Nate.

November 4, 2020 3:36 pm
The Internet Is So Mad at Nate Silver and the Needle (Unless Maybe It’s Not?)
FiveThirtyEight / Getty Images

Last night, Americans anxiously watched one middle-aged white man or another — hello CNN’s John King — tap on a large red and blue electronic map for hours, hoping to gain some clarity regarding who will be our president for the next four years. Obviously, that didn’t happen — and it still hasn’t happened, as key ballots from Pennsylvania, Georgia, Michigan and other states are still being counted as we speak.

If you went to bed last night thinking Trump had all but secured reelection and you awoke to news that Biden had managed to snag a few key states to take the lead overnight, you’re definitely not alone. Of course, for weeks, experts have been warning that we could see red and blue “mirages” on election night due to the massive amount of mail-in ballots cast this year.

Still, when Democrats saw Trump win states like Florida and Ohio after Biden had jumped out to early leads, it undoubtedly brought back memories of the 2016 election. It also didn’t help that Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight election forecast had Biden slightly favored to win Florida on an election night that would also see him win the general election.

The polling blunders of elections past certainly still have people traumatized. We’re sure you recall major forecasters predicting a Hillary Clinton victory in 2016. In 2016, Silver actually projected a much higher probability of Donald Trump winning than other pollsters, but he still didn’t get it right.

At some point on election night, the pollster’s name began trending on Twiter, as many on the internet began turning their anxiety and frustrations into hilarious slam-dunks on Silver and, eventually, his very profession.

While Silver bore most of the brunt, other pollsters were taken to task as well — particularly another pollster named Nate. He of the notorious needle.

The New York Times’ needle, if you’re blissfully unaware, analyzes incomplete election results to show who’s on track to win. The needle is more infamously known, however, for giving Clinton an 85% probability of winning in 2016. The needle was brought back for 2020 to forecast the live estimates for Florida, North Carolina and Georgia. Despite less being asked of it, the needle’s chaotic back-and-forth was still very much present.

Others joked that election forecasting and prediction websites really aren’t all that different from pseudoscience or cult-favorite “clean living” lifestyle sites, noting that “Election forecasting really is astrology for nerds.”

Meanwhile some admitted their frustration with pollsters and Silver was circumstantial, because, of course, they’re going to be more forgiving if projections start going their way.

Despite the anxiety and frustration caused by paying too much attention to polls, this year’s projections, specifically from Silver, seem, for the moment, anyway, to be looking pretty accurate. Still, we know all too well how suddenly the needle can lurch the other direction.

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