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.

NEW YORK, NY - MAY 21: Nate Silver attends the 16th Annual Webby Awards at Hammerstein Ballroom on May 21, 2012 in New York City.
National Journal
Alex Roarty
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Alex Roarty
March 24, 2014, midnight

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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