By Alexander Bolton - 03/24/14 08:57 PM EDT
Two years ago he was described as soothsayer after repeatedly saying that President Obama would win a second term, accurately predicting the winner of each state in the 2012 contest.
The difference, of course, is that the Democrats’ political fortunes have taken a turn for the worse and Silver isn’t optimistic about their chances in November.
“We think the Republicans are now slight favorites to win at least six seats and capture the chamber,” Silver wrote, predicting Republicans could net as many as 11 seats. Silver, who pegs the chances of a GOP takeover at 60 percent, unveiled his crystal ball Sunday on ABC’s “This Week.”
Democrats quickly fired back.
Sen. Michael Bennet (Colo.), who heads the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC), told The Hill, “I think he’s got his numbers wrong, which is unusual for Nate. In this case, I look forward to talking to him after the election.”
Bennet added, “He ought to go back and check what he said about [Sen.] Claire McCaskill [(D-Mo.)] and some of the other races in the last cycle.”
In August of 2012, Silver said the race was “tilting” toward then-Rep. Todd Akin (R-Mo.), McCaskill’s opponent. McCaskill ended up winning, though this Silver analysis was written before Akin made a damaging comment about “legitimate rape,” which changed the race.
Pressed on Silver’s 2014 predictions, Sen. Mark Begich (Alaska), one of the Senate’s most vulnerable incumbents, said, “It’s very early.”
Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.), whom Silver gives only a 30 percent chance of winning reelection, said, “I don’t agree with that at all.”
“He’s good with numbers, but he even admits in his own analysis that right now he’s using a lot of flawed, inadequate numbers,” Pryor added.
Bennet broke into the conversation to add that Silver “had me at 34 percent” in the 2010 midterm election. He ended up with 48 percent of the vote, edging Republican Ken Buck.
Guy Cecil, the DSCC executive director, circulated a memo on Monday that criticized Silver.
Cecil argued that Silver and his staff at FiveThirtyEight.com based their analysis disproportionately on surveys by GOP polling firms. He claimed a similarly flawed sampling produced inaccurate predictions two years ago.
“This was one reason why FiveThirtyEight forecasts in North Dakota and Montana were so far off in 2012,” he wrote. “In fact, in August of 2012 Silver forecasted a 61-percent likelihood that Republicans would pick up enough seats to claim the majority. Three months later Democrats went on to win 55 seats.”
Cecil noted that Silver predicted in 2012 that Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) had only an 8 percent chance of winning election and Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) had merely a 34 percent likelihood of victory. They won by 1 and 4 percentage points, respectively.
Tester on Monday said, “I don’t agree with Nate’s assessment. He thought I was going to lose the day before the election.”
Paul Krugman, a liberal New York Times columnist who often sides with Democrats in policy debates, took a shot at Silver’s methodology in a blog post Sunday.
Krugman said Silver’s revamped blog, which recently spun off from the Times, so far “looks like something between a disaster and a disappointment.” Krugman, a professor at Princeton University, faulted Silver for not consulting experts to refine his analytical models.
“Data never tell a story on their own. They need to be viewed through the lens of some kind of model, and it’s very important to do your best to get a good model,” he wrote.
Silver jabbed back on Twitter.
“Pundit Paul created a strawman caricature of 538 and misrepresented the site,” he wrote Monday afternoon.
Silver did not comment for this article.
It’s unusual for the popular blogger to find himself in the cross hairs of Democrats and liberal pundits, who two years ago hailed him as a genius.
MSNBC host Rachel Maddow praised him, and the Huffington Post described Silver as “a near-god for nervous Democrats.”
Left-leaning comedian Jon Stewart invited Silver on “The Daily Show” and asked him, “Don’t you want to stand up and say, ‘I am Nate Silver, bow down to me!’ ”
Lauren Passalacqua, a campaign spokeswoman for Sen. John Walsh (D-Mont.), whom Silver gives a 20 percent chance of winning in November, said he relied on hasty polling.
“The national polls are premature and while their numbers will change, Congressman Daines’s failure to take responsibility for his selfish record won’t,” she said, quickly pivoting to Walsh’s opponent, Rep. Steve Daines (R-Mont.).
“His analysis was wrong then and misses the mark now because it focuses on the national political climate rather than the damaging record Congressman Daines has built in Washington,” she added.
Two years ago, Senate Democrats touted Silver’s analysis.
On Sept. 18, 2012, Matt Canter, the DSCC’s communications director, blast-emailed to reporters Silver’s analysis that “Democrats are now favored to retain control of the Senate” after breaking “a summer stalemate during which control of the chamber appeared about equally likely to go either way.”
On Oct. 15, 2012, Canter put Silver’s analysis that the GOP had a slim chance of winning the Senate and that Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s poll bounce hadn’t helped GOP candidates atop his list of “Quick Takes” for the national press.
On other occasions, Canter touted Silver’s analysis that former Akin’s controversial comments on “legitimate rape” could swing the Missouri Senate race to Democrats and that former Sen. Dick Lugar’s (R) primary loss could give his Indiana Senate seat to Democrats. Both predictions turned out to be on the money.
Justin Barasky, a spokesman for the DSCC, said on Monday that Cecil is not attacking Silver.
“Guy makes clear that he believes that FiveThirtyEight is doing groundbreaking work, but there are some challenges based on the scarcity of public polls and in some cases they have been incorrect, especially in Senate races,” he said.
Democrats are clearly worried about losing the Senate, which would give the GOP control of both chambers of Congress for Obama’s final two years in office.
MSNBC host Chris Matthews, a former Democratic staffer, has said he thinks the Senate will flip, claiming Democrats could lose as many as 10 seats in the upper chamber.