'Times' Blogger Offers Calculations On Midterms

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Guest host Robert Smith talks with Nate Silver of The New York Times' blog FiveThirtyEight about his forecasts for the 2010 midterm elections.

ROBERT SMITH, host:

This week's surprising primary results have both Republicans and Democrats pulling out their pads of paper, their pencils, and attempting to recalculate their chances in the midterm elections. When we talk about mathematics and politics, there's only one man to turn to - statistician Nate Silver - laughing there. He is the founder of the blog 538, now hosted by the New York Times. Welcome to the program, Nate.

Mr. NATE SILVER (Blogger): Yeah, thank you.

SMITH: So I suppose we have to start in Delaware. Tea Party-backed candidate Christine O'Donnell came from - what do we say, out of right field to win the Republican nomination for Senate? And people have been saying, you know, since election night that it's a gift for Democrats who can now hold the seat. Now, you've done some calculations about what this means for the overall big picture in the nation.

Mr. SILVER: Well, we had the Republicans last week at about a 25 percent chance to retake the Senate, where they have enough kind of seats in play. And in fact, they kind of had - they had basically a spare where there were some contests where you have Democratic incumbents in states like Washington, Wisconsin, California, not first tier opportunities, but the polling in those states shows it close.

They only had to win two out of three races on that frontier. But with Delaware being a seat which they almost for sure were going to win and now a seat which they're very probably going to lose, I mean, they really went from having about a 95 percent chance of winning Delaware by our math to only about a 5 percent chance. It's very rare to see that kind of stark a split but it's what the numbers say in this case.

SMITH: I suppose the Tea Party people would say where in your sophisticated calculations, Nate, are the factors for excitement.

Mr. SILVER: Well, you know, these polls do look at likely voters, people who say they want to go and turn out. I mean, look, I think you can make a case, chances better than five percent. You can also make a case that the chance is one or two percent, right, or zero percent. I mean, there are 37, 35, 37 elections for the Senate every cycle, right, where we look back at the last six cycles.

So you have hundreds of data points to know how often polls move as much as they would need to move here to allow O'Donnell to really have a chance of winning.

SMITH: So assuming the polls are correct, Republicans need a new road to take to get to 51 votes and control the Senate. How do they do it?

Mr. SILVER: Well, you know, once they - if they do sweep all the swing states, all the tossup states right now, they would still get to 51 exactly. They still have that path. But if something falls through, if Washington falls off the map or California or something, they could look toward West Virginia maybe, where you have the governor, Joe Manchin, kind of filling Robert Byrd's old seat. He's very, very popular, actually, but Barack Obama is very, very unpopular in West Virginia. How those two things kind of play out is interesting.

And it looks like Manchin's ahead, but there's been very little reliable polling there. That's a state we have to keep an eye out for.

SMITH: So as we come up to the election, is there a particular race that you think is a bellwether that you're watching to tell us which way the way the wave's going?

Mr. SILVER: You know, I think the Senate race in Wisconsin is fairly interesting, where you have Russ Feingold as an idiosyncratic Democrat running against a guy who has the support of the Tea Party but is not quite where Christine O'Donnell is, for example. You know, Wisconsin's typically a state, it's a very educated state, it pays a lot of attention to politics, it can be unconventional.

And Feingold, even though his approval ratings aren't bad, he's managed to avoid, he didn't vote for TARP, he avoided some - a lot of other votes that Democratic candidates are unhappy about having had to take. You know, he's running basically even in the polls right there. You know, and that state for me was just, if Feingold's going to lose in Wisconsin, if the wave kind of reaches that far, then I'd think you'd say they're going to have a really bad November 2nd.

SMITH: So what I'm understanding here is that Republicans should be safe buying some bottles of champagne - we just don't know how many.

Mr. SILVER: I think that's true, right? They're going to gain seats certainly in the House and almost certainly in the Senate and almost certainly gain governorships. You know, but still, politics is partly a game played relative to expectations. And the expectations are so high now, right, where people think you could have a 1994-style wave election were Democrats lost 53 or 54 seats. That could very easily happen. But you could also have a case where they kind of barely held on.

There's a lot of uncertainty here. It would be premature for Republicans to celebrate too much, but at the same time we're clearly not going down the kind of path that Democrats envisioned when Barack Obama was elected in 2008.

SMITH: Statistician Nate Silver, he writes the blog 538, and he joined us from our New York bureau. Thanks so much for coming in.

Mr. SILVER: Thank you.

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