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Democrats to Nate Silver: You're Wrong

Guy Cecil says the famed statistician was wrong in 2012 and will be wrong again in 2014 with his prediction of a GOP Senate takeover.

Nate Silver(Paul Zimmerman/Getty Images)

photo of Alex  Roarty
March 24, 2014

Democrats aren't taking Nate Silver's latest Senate prediction lying down.

In an unusual step, the executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee on Monday issued a rebuttal the famed statistician's prediction—made a day earlier—that Republicans were a "slight favorite" to retake the Senate. Silver was wrong in 2012, the political committee's Guy Cecil wrote in a memo, and he'll be wrong again in 2014.

"In fact, in August of 2012 Silver forecast a 61 percent likelihood that Republicans would pick up enough seats to claim the majority," Cecil said. "Three months later, Democrats went on to win 55 seats."


The DSCC memo took pains to compliment Silver, saying his work at newly launched FiveThirtyEight was "groundbreaking." And the group's main critique—that Silver's model relies on a smattering of haphazard early polling in battleground states—is one that he himself acknowledges is a limitation.

But the comprehensive pushback from Cecil, the powerful committee's key staffer, is a testament both to the influence Silver wields and the sensitivity of Senate Democrats to the perception they're losing their grip on the upper chamber. Other outlets have suggested similar odds on the Senate, but none have earned this kind of rebuttal.

Silver earned fame and fortune after he correctly predicted the outcome of the last presidential election despite the skepticism of many pundits, a result that also earned him a great deal of credibility with many voters. (In fundraising pitches this cycle, Democrats regularly invoke his earlier prediction that the battle for Senate control was a "toss-up.")

But in the memo, Cecil argues that Silver's track record is less than stellar. It cites four races in which Democrats won despite Silver once predicting otherwise: Heidi Heitkamp in North Dakota and John Tester in Montana in 2012, and Harry Reid in Nevada and Michael Bennet in Colorado in 2010.

"All four are senators today because they were superior candidates running superior campaign organizations who made their elections a choice between the two candidates on the ballot," said the executive director. "Only three Democratic incumbent senators have lost reelection in the last 10 years, and our incumbents are once again prepared and ready."

The nearly 1,000-word missive goes on to cite the effectiveness of the party's attacks against conservative third-party spending, its $60 million field and voter-contact program known as the "Bannock Street Project," and the opportunity Democrats have in GOP-held seats in Kentucky and Georgia. "We don't minimize the challenges ahead," he said. "Rather, we view the latest projection as a reminder that we have a challenging map and important work still to do in order to preserve our majority."

In truth, Silver's suggestions that Republicans are favorites to win the Senate matched the assessment of most analysts in Washington. A map that has Democrats defending seven red states (Republicans would need to win six to reclaim the majority), President Obama's sliding approval ratings, and the multimillions of dollars spent by outside groups led by the Koch brothers-backed Americans for Prosperity have combined to give the GOP a clear opportunity at the majority. Even before Obamacare's politically disastrous rollout, Democratic strategists privately acknowledged that control of the Senate was far from guaranteed in 2015.

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