Nate Silver Is Not A Dark Wizard, and We Don't Yet Know that Donald Trump is Going to Win

New polling data show Donald Trump ahead, but really, that's just the convention bounce talking.
Publish date:
July 26, 2016
politics, polls, 2016 Election, Donald Trump

RNC postgame has commenced, and the word on everyone's lips is 'TRUMPOCALPYSE!' As expected, the GOP candidate's convention speech was more terrifying than being in the path of a herd of rampaging wildebeests, and a funny thing happened on the way out of Cleveland: Trump's polls went up.

Real Clear Politics, which pulls polls from around the country, has Secretary Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump running neck and neck, with a very slim lead for Trump. The Los Angeles Times even has him up plus four, which is more than a little terrifying. It's also a far cry from not that long ago, when Secretary Clinton had a comfortable double digit lead over her opponent.

As if that wasn't bad enough, the High Priest of polling has spoken. "Nate Silver: Trump would likely win if election held today." "FiveThirtyEight election forecast shows Trump ahead." "Nate Silver: Donald Trump would most likely win the election if it were held today." Nate Silver hath forecasteth, and we are all doomed.

Or are we?

FiveThirtyEight rose to prominence in 2008 with its excellent polling analysis and thoughtful perspective on the numbers behind the polls. Now, it's turned into an infallible forecasting powerhouse that covers not just electoral polls, but also sports, economics, and pretty much anything you can possibly imagine polling about. Except that it's not infallible, which is something Silver himself has talked about on multiple occasions.

And it's also subject to a problem that's not under Silver's control: Misinterpretation or exaggerated reporting of the facts. If you hit up FiveThirtyEight's election forecast, you have three options: The now-cast (if we held the election today, what would happen?), the polls-only forecast, and the polls-plus forecast, which includes polling weighted with historical data.

Those headlines above only tell part of the story. Yes, the now-cast currently has Trump ahead, 54.5 percent to 45 percent. But that's the only place where Trump is leading. It's also not at all surprising, as Silver explained in his accompanying in-depth analysis of the numbers, which is worth reading before you start panicking about the sky's rapid terrestrial descent.

What's happening here is the convention bounce. Donald Trump is in the news. People are talking about his convention speech (whether they view it as inspiring or horrific). The Republicans are building on their public profile courtesy of the convention to flirt with potential donors, and voters. This is what happens when a candidate plays a big role in the news cycle — and it's part of the reason why he's consistently done as well as he has, because the media (guilty as charged) are obsessed with Donald Trump.

He's also being boosted by the DNC leaks, which came at the ideal moment, just in time to overshadow the Democratic convention, feeding fear, anger, and conspiracy theories. Those happen to be things that Trump voters thrive on, and it's not at all surprising to see his numbers bouncing — the DNC's timing is rather unfortunate, coming hard on the heels of the RNC. Organizers may have thought it would make a good punch back, swallowing up the Republican news cycle with their own convention, but instead their own news cycle is being swallowed up with the leaks and Debbie Wasserman Schultz' resignation.

It would be surprising if Trump hadn't taken the lead after the RNC, and it will be equally surprising if Secretary Clinton doesn't after the DNC — though in this electoral climate, and with Clinton hate running as deep as it does, who knows what might happen. (This is the obligatory moment where I point across the Atlantic to note that the citizens of another country just engaged in a mass petulant protest vote and now they're stuck with Brexit and Theresa May. So, you know, just... think about that in November, all you ideological purists.)

Silver noted, for example, that McCain/Palin briefly polled ahead of Obama/Biden in 2008, and he also pointed out that Clinton's polls in July have been pretty soft. It wasn't a great month for her, and the convention made it worse, though whether that's because of the convention or other factors remains to be seen. What will be more revealing is what happens in the coming month, as the blips in the polls from the conventions even out, the candidates go on the road, advertising blitzes get serious, and the parties throw their unified (or mostly unified) weight behind the candidates.

"So if the race is still tied two or three weeks from now — or Trump is ahead — then it will really be time for Democrats to panic and for Trump fans to rejoice," says Silver.

It's important to discuss the uses and abuses of polls, because they can be used to great effect, but they can also be abused, sometimes in very sinister ways. We went from mocking Donald Trump to saying he couldn't become the candidate to claiming there'd be a brokered convention but everything would turn out okay to listening to a 75 minute speech right out of Triumph of the Will in less than a year. Yet, the sustained "Donald Trump will win the election" panic can be fatiguing, and it sets the tone that we might as well just give up now, because this thing is a foregone conclusion.

Only it's not. Donald Trump wins the election if Democrats hand him the election. There are a lot of forces lined up against Trump, and they should be worried about the dead heat going on right now, but it's not time to hit the panic button. These forces should be focused on organizing: To get out the vote, to reach out to voters who are disinterested in Secretary Clinton, to get swing states locked down.

We shouldn't ignore the convention bump, but we should save the existential panic for late August, when polls will be a lot more reflective of reality. Those polls are also going to give us more data about where we should be concentrating resources.

Fatalism is how people win elections, and believe me, the Trump campaign is loving these poll results. I promise you.

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