Nate Silver

A Peek at Midterm Election, World Series Probabilities

News headlines follow waves while Nate Silver hunts for probabilities in elections – and sports. Silver likes the chances of Democrats recapturing the US House, Kate Brown remaining as governor of Oregon and the Boston Red Sox taking home another World Series trophy.

News headlines follow waves while Nate Silver hunts for probabilities in elections – and sports. Silver likes the chances of Democrats recapturing the US House, Kate Brown remaining as governor of Oregon and the Boston Red Sox taking home another World Series trophy.

If you want a sneak peek at how the 2018 midterm election will turn out, Nate Silver has a white board full of numbers, percentages and probabilities. Notably absent are any predictions.

Silver, founder of fivethirtyeight.com, is famous for looking at the bigger picture and blending a bunch of polls to reach a probability. His website is chocked full of probability. For example, he says, “Odds are, your next governor will be a Democrat” and “Democrats’ prospects worsen in Nevada and Arizona.”

His probabilities are more than hunches with percentages. He has closely followed the US Senate race in Texas in which incumbent Republican Ted Cruz is trying to fend off a determined challenge by Democrat Beto O’Rourke. Earlier, Silver forecast O’Rourke had a 35 percent chance of upsetting Cruz. Now he has reduced that forecast to around 25 percent. By this time in an election cycle, probabilities start baking into reality. 

Cutting to the chase, Silver says there is an 83.9 percent chance Democrats will regain control of the US House, while Republicans have an 80 percent probability of retaining control of the US Senate.

On governor’s races, Silver says a Democratic victory is likely in Oregon where incumbent Kate Brown is facing Republican Knute Buehler. He gives Brown nearly an 85 percent chance of winning with just slightly more than 50 percent of the vote.

Some political pundits believe midterm elections foreshadow who will run for president in the next election. Silver and his team show there is no clear evidence midterm elections presage anything in a subsequent presidential election year. Nothing exactly predicted Donald Trump would run in 2016 and few, including Trump, believed he would actually win. Few imagined Barack Obama would outshine Hillary Clinton to win the Democratic nomination and the 2008 election. His keynote address in the 2004 Democratic National Convention was more telling than the outcome of the 2006 midterms.

For those weary of politics, fivethirtyeight.com also offers probabilities in sports. Boston has the best chance to win the World Series and Clemson and Alabama have a 65 percent chance to win a ticket to the NCAA National Football Championship.

Defending Nate Silver and Math

As the November 6 election approached, a lot of commentators trained their fire at Nate Silver, a numbers guy who writes the FiveThirtyEight blog for The New York Times. Critics said Silver was crazy for projecting an 80 percent chance Barack Obama would win re-election.

Faux conservative commentator Stephen Colbert hosted Silver on his show and pooh-poohed his prediction that the election wasn't a "coin toss." Dylan Byers, media blogger at Politico, said Silver could become a "one-term celebrity."

Post-election, Paul Raeburn has blogged that critics who sniped at Silver seriously misunderstood what he does. Silver isn't a pollster. He is a statistician who uses polls and other data to model projected outcomes.

Raeburn says Silver's work should be compared to weather forecasters. They offer predictions based on probability, such as a 75 percent chance of rain. It's not the same as saying it will rain, just that there is a high likelihood it will rain.

For many people, from Karl Rove to New York Times columnist David Brooks to the New York Times public editor, it was illogical to predict such an overwhelming prospect of an Obama victory when most polls showed the popular vote as neck and neck.

However, Silver was modeling the probability of what would occur, not prophesying it. A Romney victory November 6 would not have gone against what he modeled; it merely would have demonstrated that Romney beat the odds.

New Political Alignment or National Elections

Changes in the U.S. House don't represent a new political alignment, but a confirmation of existing political alignments.The huge gains this election by Republicans in the U.S. House don't represent a new political alignment, but rather reflect a move toward national elections for Congress based on shifting political coalitions. That's the view of Nate Silver, writing in his blog "FiveThirtyEight."

"The 1980 election," Silver said, "arguably marked the beginning of a long-term shift toward Republicans in America's suburbs, with Jimmy Carter's share of the suburban vote dropping from 53 percent in 1976 to 37 percent in 1980."

"Likewise, in 1994," Silver continued, "the shift against Democrats was particularly sharp in the South: 19 of the 52 representatives which they lost having come from that part of the country."