Nate Silver predicts a ‘messy’ 2020 Democratic primary—and picks a favorite

At Institute of Politics event, alum discusses how UChicago drove data-driven approach

Predicting the upcoming Democratic primary, Nate Silver said, feels a bit like filling out a March Madness bracket: There’s a favorite, but that favorite may only have about a one-in-five chance of winning.

“This is one of the messy elections,” said Silver, AB’00, the FiveThirtyEight founder whose data-driven political prognostication turned him into a household name. “There’s no way that someone’s going to just totally coast to victory. You’re going to have trench warfare, I think.”

The 2020 election was one of the topics that Silver discussed with Prof. Austan Goolsbee during a Feb. 7 talk hosted by the University of Chicago’s Institute of Politics—the first event held inside the Harris School of Public Policy’s new Keller Center forum. Welcoming Silver was fitting, Dean Katherine Baicker said, given Harris’ “evidence-based, analytically rigorous” approach.


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In a conversation with Goolsbee, the Robert P. Gwinn Professor of Economics at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, Silver outlined his path from professional poker player to political analyst, responded to criticism of his 2016 predictions and broke down what he thought might happen in next year’s election.

For starters, his slight favorite in the Democratic field is Kamala Harris. The California senator holds “1A” status, Silver argued, thanks in part to her experienced staff, her fundraising start and her movement in the polls since announcing her run. Next is former Vice President Joe Biden, a “1B” option who polls well and could appeal to moderates.

Silver said a number of potential candidates crowd the following tier, including Sens. Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Amy Klobuchar and Cory Booker, and former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke. They may not be frontrunners, but all have foreseeable paths to the nomination.

As for President Donald Trump? Silver put his reelection chances at “even money.” Some may already be raising their eyebrows; after all, didn’t FiveThirtyEight predict a Hillary Clinton victory in 2016? Shouldn’t the Trump presidency prompt a radical revamping of their analytical model?

“Not only do I think that adjustments are unnecessary, I think it’s the wrong thing to do,” Silver said.

That’s because he and FiveThirtyEight “were on the right side of the market.” They had given Trump a nearly 30 percent chance of winning—roughly double what betting markets and other news outlets had predicted.

Silver has looked back at 2016 before, writing about how his team correctly identified some of Clinton’s weaknesses even before she lost the election. That something with a one-in-three chance of happening actually happened, he argued last week, isn’t reason to overreact—especially given that past presidential elections offer a relatively small sample size.

Earlier in the night, Goolsbee—who joined Booth in 1995 before serving as chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers in the Obama White House—asked Silver if there was a distinct “U. of C. vibe” to his sort of political analysis. Silver responded by pointing out UChicago’s interdisciplinary emphasis.

“At FiveThirtyEight, it’s not enough just to be good at using statistics,” he said. “You have to know how to write. You have to know how to build data visualizations.”

He reiterated the point when a student asked if data analysis had rendered more narrative-based political journalism obsolete.

“At this early stage of the primary campaign, the non-data tools are probably more powerful,” Silver said. “Talking to the campaigns, going out and seeing how they are received if they do a rally. You should be empirical about whether you use data or whether you don’t.”