Nate Cohn, Nate Silver describe how they misread Donald Trump

nate silver nate cohnI’ve said that true analysts find bigger truths when they’re wrong. Smart people predicted Donald Trump would never win the Republican nomination. It’s pretty revealing what they learned from their mistakes.

Let’s look in particular at the mea culpa pieces by Nate Cohn of the New York Times’ feature “The Upshot” and Nate Silver of fivethirtyeight.com.

First, admit your mistake

True analysts are frank in admitting their mistakes. Nate Cohn actually titled his article “What I Got Wrong About Donald Trump.” Here’s what he said:

I do think we — and specifically, I — underestimated Mr. Trump. There were bad assumptions, misinterpretations of the data, and missed connections all along the way. . . . But perhaps above all else . . . We were just overconfident.

Nate Silver didn’t put “wrong” in the title but was equally frank:

If you’d told me a year ago that Trump would be the nominee, I’d have thought you were nuts. Don’t just take my word for it: Read what I wrote about Trump in July or August or even in November. Those pieces variously treated Trump’s nomination as being somewhere between improbable and extremely unlikely. You can also read pieces from October, December orJanuary that were less skeptical of Trump’s chances and show how our opinion of him evolved over time. Still, other than being early skeptics of Jeb Bush, we basically got the Republican race wrong.

Here is where I admit my own mistakes. I took Trump’s failure to win as a given and predicted what would happen insteadtwice. Since I don’t have my own electoral models, my mistake was much simpler: I trusted Nate Silver’s and everybody else’s predictions.

Then, describe what changed

A weak analyst justifies their errors. A true analyst examines what they predicted, where it diverged from reality, and what that divergence means. In other words, what has changed, and which elements of the prediction model still held true. That’s where the insight lies.

Here’s what Nate Cohn says he learned (these excerpts are from throughout his piece).

[The sheer number of candidates] created a huge collective action problem, in which none of the Republican candidates had a clear incentive to attack Mr. Trump — just their rivals for their niche of the Republican Party. . . . And at just about every stage, there were too many candidates to mount a truly effective anti-Trump effort. . . .

In the end, Mr. Kasich was strong enough only to block a viable mainstream candidate, leaving Mr. Cruz as the sole remaining candidate to defeat Mr. Trump. . . . The failure of a broadly appealing candidate to break out left Mr. Trump with one rival: Mr. Cruz. I think we got a lot wrong about Mr. Trump, but I think we nailed Mr. Cruz. He was strongly opposed by party elites and had so little appeal to voters who didn’t consider themselves “very conservative” that he couldn’t win the nomination. It was a lucky break for Mr. Trump.

In the end, Mr. Trump didn’t face many of the challenges that outsiders usually do. . . . His limited resources were irrelevant — he had unlimited free media. . . . An even bigger surprise was the complete failure of Republican elites to firmly and consistently denounce Mr. Trump. . . . The Republican elite treated Mr. Trump as it would have treated a fairly ordinary candidate, even as he said extraordinary things. That’s a big part of why he won.

If the Republicans had delegate rules like those of the Democrats, Mr. Trump would not yet be the nominee. He would be counting on superdelegates.

Nate Silver further explains the significance of what has now changed:

Any time a demagogic candidate wins a nomination, it suggests a potential failure of political institutions, including (but not limited to) the media.

Trump’s main differentiator was doubling down on cultural grievance: grievances against immigrants, against Muslims, against political correctness, against the media, and sometimes against black people and women. And the strategy worked. It’s a point in favor of those who see politics as being governed by cultural identity — a matter of seeking out one’s “tribe” and fitting in with it — as opposed to carefully calibrating one’s position on a left-right spectrum.

Politicians have second acts — so do analysts

Politicians left for dead have risen up to win, building on the knowledge from their failures. That’s what happened with Republican presidential nominees John McCain and Mitt Romney, with this year’s Democratic presumptive nominee Hillary Clinton, and with Ronald Reagan, who lost the Republican nomination years before he won the presidency. And of course there’s Richard “You won’t have Nixon to kick around any more” Nixon, who lost to John F. Kennedy in 1960 and then won the presidency eight years later.

Similarly, a true analyst is fearless and bold in making predictions. You’re going to be wrong. But slinking away in shame is a waste of resources. True analysts go into the rubble of their predictions and find out what went wrong and why.

Nate Silver was smart when he accurately predicted Obama’s reelection in 2012, state by state. But he wasn’t infallible then, even if he appeared to be. Now that he has emphatically and unequivocally mispredicted the Republican primaries, he’s not stupid. Every failure makes him smarter. Can you say the same?

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


  1. I so enjoyed reading this digest of Silver’s and Cohn’s pieces about what they got wrong in their predictions. I will definitely be sharing this.

  2. Thanks for the thought-provoking post. I actually find these explanations less than compelling, besides the initial mea culpa for each analyst. In particular, it seems the following factors should also be addressed:

    1) Methodology: Let’s be frank- Silver is bound by a certain methodology. He did well using a weighted average of surveys to predict in 2012, but he has not done well since. This is true when he did poorly in the UK, where that methodology doesn’t work under the first-pass-the-post-system, or in the Republican primary race. He is limited by his methods.

    2) Structural versus emotive arguments: I am surprised a lot of the reflection relies on squishy emotive arguments: Trump was a ‘demagogue’ who ‘doubled down’ on cultural greivances. These are interesting arguments but I am not sure they explain a lot.

    A better argument might have been: Trump actually did better in large races where non-registered party voters could vote in the Republican primary- showing his ability to draw across ideological lines. Cruz, on the other hand, had a strong game for closed (party-registered) Republican primaries where his planning on the ground gave him an edge.

    Overall, I applaud the two analysts for looking at how they got it wrong. However, one of the main takehomes from this election cycle is that the political faultlines for the two party system is being redrawn- insights into why this is happening would have been more appreciated.