It’s been a rough election cycle for forecasting guru Nate Silver and his website FiveThirtyEight. Silver became a household name after he almost perfectly predicted the results of the 2008 and 2012 general elections, and his esteem was such that to some people he had removed almost all the suspense from elections.
Then Trump happened.
Nate Silver and his colleagues at FiveThirtyEight were extremely dismissive of Trump’s chances even after he rose to the top of the polls in the summer of 2015, and they repeatedly said as much. But ultimately, Trump proved to be a “black swan” event that was devastating to the retrospective models Silver relies upon to make predictions. Silver himself has been forthright about his failure, issuing a mea culpa early Wednesday morning.
Here’s seven times when Silver’s website made forecasts about Trump that proved totally wrong.
1. June 16, 2015: Why Donald Trump Isn’t A Real Candidate, In One Chart
The first anti-Trump volley at FiveThirtyEight was fired by Harry Enten, the website’s election specialist. Enten’s “one chart” that showed Trump wasn’t a real candidate was one showing the net favorability of 106 presidential candidates since 1980. Trump’s high name recognition combined with a staggering -32 favorability made him the least-liked presidential candidate of all time, Enten said.
“For this reason alone, Trump has a better chance of cameoing in another “Home Alone” movie with Macaulay Culkin — or playing in the NBA Finals — than winning the Republican nomination.,” Enten said.
2. July 16, 2015: Two Good Reasons Not To Take The Donald Trump ‘Surge’ Seriously
Another Enten article, this piece assures readers that while Trump is rising in the polls (he was second behind Jeb Bush at the time), that’s no reason to regard him as a new Republican frontrunner.
“In reality, the broad, shallow nature of Trump’s support suggests it’s due mostly to near-universal name recognition, thanks in part to being in the news more often than the news anchors,” he said.
3. July 20, 2015: Donald Trump Is The World’s Greatest Troll
Silver finally weighed in with this article, where he described Trump as a “troll” candidate, who was thriving simply by virtue of the tremendous attention he could receive by insulting everybody and not playing by the rules. Trolling, he suggested, had its political limits and would almost certainly deny Trump the nomination.
“Trump has taken trolling to the next level by being willing to offend members of his own party. Ordinarily, this would be a counterproductive strategy. In a 16-candidate field, however, you can be in first place with 15 or 20 percent of the vote — even if the other 80 or 85 percent of voters hate your guts.
“In the long run — as our experience with past trolls shows — Trump’s support will probably fade. Or at least, given his high unfavorable ratings, it will plateau, and other candidates will surpass him as the rest of the field consolidates.”
4. Aug. 6, 2015: Donald Trump’s Six Stages of Doom
This article likened Trump’s candidacy to a variety of other insurgent Republican campaigns in the past 20 years, from Pat Buchanan in 1996 to Herman Cain in 2012.
“The lesson … is that Trump’s campaign will fail by one means or another. Like Cain, Bachmann and Gingrich, Buchanan, Huckabee and Forbes came nowhere close to winning the Republican nomination,” Silver wrote. He pegged Trump’s odds of winning the nomination at 2 percent, and laid out the so-called “six stages of doom” for his campaign.
Trump would eventually be undone, Silver said, by the many roadblocks in his way. He could disappoint in Iowa or New Hampshire, hit a ceiling as the field shrank, botch delegate accumulation in caucus states, or encounter a concerted GOP effort to sabotage him at the convention. Ultimately, all of these factors influenced the race… and none of them were enough to halt the Trump train.
5. Aug. 11, 2015: Donald Trump Is Winning The Polls, And Losing The Nomination
With Trump’s poll support apparently only increasing with time, Silver sought to explain how Trump’s surge in the polls was actually coming at the expense of any chance he had of actually winning the nomination.
In Silver’s telling, Trump’s abrasive, attention-getting rhetoric was serving to make the primary a “referendum” on Trump, a referendum where 75 percent of Republicans were voting against him. Other GOP candidates had less support, but were at least viewed positively by the party. Once the field shrank, Silver said, one of them would almost certainly be able to crush Trump head to head.
“Our emphatic prediction is simply that Trump will not win the nomination,” Silver said. “It’s not even clear that he’s trying to do so.”
6. Nov. 23, 2015: Dear Media, Stop Freaking Out About Donald Trump’s Polls
Three months later, Trump was still stubbornly refusing to fade away. So, Silver waded back into the fray to tell the news media to stop panicking, and to declare that betting market odds placing Trump’s chances of victory at 20 percent were “substantially too high.”
The key problems with believing in Trump, Silver said, were his persistently-high unfavorability even among Republicans, along with the fact that the vast majority of voters would only decide whom to support at the last minute. Those last-minute deciders, Silver suggested, could break against Trump in a big way.
“[C]ould Trump win?,” he asked. “We confront two stubborn facts: first, that nobody remotely like Trump has won a major-party nomination in the modern era. And second, as is always a problem in analysis of presidential campaigns, we don’t have all that many data points, so unprecedented events can occur with some regularity. For my money, that adds up to Trump’s chances being higher than 0 but (considerably) less than 20 percent. Your mileage may vary.”
7. Donald Trump Comes Out Of Iowa Looking Like Pat Buchanan
Silver was quick to pounce after Trump finished second to Ted Cruz in the Iowa caucuses.“Trump underperformed his polls, which had him winning Iowa with 29 percent of the vote, while Cruz and Rubio outperformed theirs,” he wrote. “It’s not uncommon for the polls to be off in Iowa and other early-voting states, but the manner in which Trump underachieved is revealing. It turns out that few late-deciding voters went for him … Iowa voters made Trump appear to be much more of a factional candidate along the lines of [Pat] Buchanan, who received 23 percent of Iowa’s vote in 1996, than the juggernaut he’s been billed as.”
Still, Trump’s sustained polling success was finally cracking even Silver’s resolve. Instead of being openly dismissive of Trump, he simply noted that Trump’s real strength would be revealed by how New Hampshire voted. We all know how that went. On Feb. 10, Silver finally anointed Trump as the GOP frontrunner.
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