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Follow the Numbers: Nate Silver Analyzes 2020 Presidential Election Leading statistician discusses data, trends, and election predictions at American University talk

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Nate Silver at lecturn in suit.
Jeff Watts

It’s what everyone’s dying to know: Who will win the 2020 election and become the next President of the United States?

An overflow audience packed into AU’s Katzen Arts Center last Thursday to hear statistician Nate Silver share his predictions on the Democratic Party presidential primaries and the 2020 presidential race.

Silver, who is famous for analyzing data to predict everything from baseball to elections, is the founder and editor-in-chief of the FiveThirtyEight website and the bestselling author of The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail—but Some Don't, described by the New York Times as "one of the more momentous books of the decade.”

College of Arts and Sciences Dean Peter Starr introduced Silver as “the leading public-facing statistician in the United States today.” Silver first gained national attention in 2008 when he correctly predicted the results of all state primaries and the presidential winner in 49 of 50 states. Since then he’s been named number one of the World’s Most Creative People by Fast Company and one of The World’s 100 Most Influential People by Time magazine. He’s also been listed in Crain’s 40 under 40, and Rolling Stones 100 Agents of Change, and much more.

Silver's visit was the opening lecture of this season's College of Arts and Sciences Bishop C.C. McCabe Lecture Series, and was co-sponsored by the School of Public Affairs.

Applying Data to the Real World

In a Fortune magazine profile, Kurt Wagner wrote, “Statistician Nate Silver isn’t famous because he’s a mathematical genius. (Although, he is.) Silver’s well-known because he knows how to apply his craft to the real world.”

At the lecture, Silver did exactly this, pulling together data points, facts, and trends to identify where the presidential candidates stand at this very moment — and to forecast what might happen in November 2020.

Silver started with the big picture — a snapshot of things at this very moment, which may be subject to change at any time. Joe Biden is in the lead, but only by a sliver, over Elizabeth Warren. It’s the largest field of candidates in history, which typically leads to chaos. But this race is fairly stable so far. The top three candidates have 70 percent of the vote. And there is no clear winner at this point.

Then Silver ran down the odds for Biden, Warren, the rest of the democratic pack, and Trump.

Joe Biden: The Odds

First, Silver ran through the strengths: Biden leads (very narrowly) in the national polls, leads in endorsements, and has the most diverse coalition in the party by far, says Silver. He has survived repeated predictions of his demise. And he still has an edge of his perceived electability and in polls as someone who can beat President Trump. He has the moderate lane mostly locked up for now. All of this looks good for Biden, especially because “democrats really care about beating Trump.”

Then Silver turned to the data challenging Biden. “Age is a liability,” he said, “especially with Bernie Sanders’ health problems bringing age into a sharper focus.” The gaffes in Biden’s debate performances have hurt him. Impeachment and the Ukraine headlines could be either a liability or an opportunity, but so far, certainly not an opportunity. Fundraising might by drying up, and cash-on-hand is poor. Biden’s supporters are less enthusiastic than Warren’s, and his negatives are higher. And lastly, his “electability halo” could burst if he has disappointing early state performances. In fact, Silver pointed out, this is what happened to Hillary Clinton in 2008 after she lost Iowa to Barack Obama.

Elizabeth Warren: The Odds

Silver started with the primaries. Warren is ahead in Iowa, “probably,” and New Hampshire, “possibly.” She does well with the most well-informed voters. She has the most momentum right now. She has the best favorability rates in the field, is the most broadly acceptable, and performs well at debates. She is well positioned on impeachment since she was out in front of the story “before it was cool to do so.” She could benefit from Sanders if he drops out of the race, and he might even endorse her.  In short, Silver said, “Warren has had a slow, steady, robust climb, the steadiest upward movement. It looks good on the charts — it’s a well-run campaign.”

Silver then turned to the negatives. Warren’s coalition is fairly narrow so far: white, college-educated, liberal democrats. She hasn’t entirely overcome electability concerns, including her gender. She is still well behind in endorsements. She exhibits some potential liability on issues like healthcare, after taking fire from both sides, and has had difficulty explaining some of her positions. And although she has enjoyed positive media coverage, she might fact more scrutiny now that she’s considered a frontrunner.

The Field of Sixteen

So, with Biden and Warren in the lead, is it possible that another candidate can still pull ahead? Silver says yes. Age is a factor for both Biden and (to a lesser degree) Warren, possibly opening the door to someone else. Many endorsers and party elites are still sitting on the sidelines. Sanders, Pete Buttigieg, and Andrew Yang have raised significant amounts of money, which gives them “the staying power to run long races.” Silver also noted that many Hispanic voters are still undecided, and African-American voters often decide later on a candidate.

The negatives, however, are significant. Historically, candidates polling at below five percent at this stage never win, with the notable exception of Jimmy Carter, who had just two percent at this point in 1976. Sanders might seem the most well positioned, but unless he can expand his base, he can’t win. The race so far has been “stable,” with Beto O’Rourke and Cory Booker in particular having great debates, but not surging afterwards in the polls. The impeachment inquiry will continue to poach media attention from non-leading candidates. And together, Biden and Warren do a good job of representing most of the democratic base.

Silver did add that there is hope for the pack. Two of these candidates might collectively have a reasonable chance of winning on a ticket together, even if the odds are low for them as individual candidates.

The Trump Factor

Silver started with the positives. Historically, Silver said, incumbent presidents are re-elected 70 percent of the time. In addition, the economy and stock market are doing well. The Electoral College may work in Trump’s favor again. The democrats could nominate a candidate that is considered too “old” or “too far to the left for swing voters.” Impeachment holds some potential risks to democrats that could trigger voter backlash.

However, Trump’s popularity is low, with a 53.9 percent disapproval rating. Economists are predicting a 25-30 percent chance of a recession. Democrats have a larger base, and indications point to a large voter turnout. Impeachment and Ukraine “are not going well,” for the president, said Silver. And there seems to be increasing chaos inside the White House, as well as republican anger over Trump’s recent decisions on Syria and Turkey. Lastly, Silver said, “Trump barely won last time, and candidates that win by narrow margins often struggle to be re-elected.”

Concluding Thoughts

So who will win? In short, it’s too early to tell, says Silver. Polls are off by an 11 percent average right now. Prediction is not a perfect science, as was proven in the 2016 elections. As the data continues to change, so will the predictions.