If you listen to Howard Kurtz or Tony Lee, the Democratic Party and Nate Silver are in a big fight. The famed statistician and Democratic officials have gone back and forth over his Senate forecast, released on Sunday night, projecting that Republicans will take control of the upper chamber in the midterm elections. In fact, there is no fight, but that hasn’t stopped the media from perpetuating the false storyline anyways.
As David Graham points out in The Atlantic, Democrats are offering mixed messages in response to Silver’s forecast. One, targeted at reporters, is that the Democrats aren’t panicking and there is a long time left before the midterms. The second, directed at donors, is that Silver’s forecasts are scary and warrant a big check to the Democratic Party. Those messages clearly contradict each other. Instead of pointing that out though, the media has focused on the fictional battle between the Democrats and Silver.
On Monday Guy Cecil, the executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, blasted out a memo to the press. In it, he pointed out two issues with Silver’s forecasts:
1. In 2012, Silver’s forecasts gave Democrats a low probability of winning Senate races they ultimately won.
2. Many of the polls in these initial forecasts were from Republican outfits.
Cecil is just pointing out standard issues with forecasting. They are only forecasts, not guaranteed outcomes, and forecasters can only work with the polls that they have. Silver is the first to admit this, as he did in a follow-up article on Tuesday morning. The media coverage since has not reflected this nuanced argument. The headline of one story in The Hill screamed, “Democrats Turn on Nate Silver.” At Fox News, it was “Democrats Slam Nate Silver.” At the National Journal, the headline read “Democrats to Nate Silver: You’re Wrong.” I could go on.
These stories have a nice poetry about them. After all, back in 2012, it was the GOP that was fighting against Nate Silver after his (ultimately vindicated) polls predicted that the Democrats would hold the White House. Pointing out that Democrats are just as whiny as Romney’s supporters allows major news organizations to cue up that favorite Washington-press-corps theme: Both sides do it!
The problem is that Silver and Cecil aren’t even arguing here. Cecil tweeted his response to Silver’s follow-up this morning:
.@FiveThirtyEight Agree with much of this. Being mostly right = being occasionally wrong. Your analysis is nuanced. Most coverage isnt 1/2— Guy Cecil (@guycecil) March 25, 2014
.@FiveThirtyEight But it isn't hypocritical to say your forecast highlights our challenges while acknowledging it could be wrong. (2/2)— Guy Cecil (@guycecil) March 25, 2014
Democrats didn’t “slam” or “turn on” Silver. Cecil has pointed out legitimate critiques in Silver’s forecasts. Of course, Democrats did not offer these critiques in 2012 because Silver's forecasts worked in their favor. Cecil is spinning the forecast, but his critiques are nevertheless accurate.
What’s more interesting is what Democrats haven’t done. No one has set up websites devoted to alternative “unskewed” polling. No one has accused Silver of using “voodoo statistics.” No one has launched attacks against Silver’s identity or the pitch of his voice. That's what happened in 2012. It’s what a real “slam” looks like.
If Republicans had offered a real critique in 2012, it would have looked very similar to what Cecil has argued. Instead, they refuted Silver with unscientific, ideological guesses. It’s tempting to suggest that’s what this year’s recipients of unfavorable poll predictions are doing. Unfortunately, that’s not how Democrats are reacting.
Danny Vinik is a staff writer at The New Republic.