Nobody knows what the future holds. That's what makes it so interesting — and often terrifying. But it's become increasingly clear that the person who knows the least about the future is the one that everybody has been turning to for answers about the future of American politics: Nate Silver, the founder of FiveThirtyEight.
Donald Trump at a rally in Florida (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images) and Carl Diggler impersonator Nate Silver (Photo by Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images for AWXII)
Nate Silver emerged as Our National Oracle™ after successfully predicting many of the results in the 2008 US election. But as Silver's satirical counterpart, Carl Diggler, has proven time and again, you may as well just be going with gut instinct based on Silver's terrible track record since 2008.
Nobody knows if Donald Trump will win. But one thing that has become clear is that prediction models about elections are virtually worthless. Silver's current hedging about who will win on Tuesday sounds like word salad.
"[E]verything depends on one's assumptions, but I think that our assumptions — a Clinton lead, sure, but high uncertainty — has repeatedly been validated by the evidence we've seen over the course of the past several months," Silver told Politico in a story published today. "The idea that she's a prohibitive, 95 per cent-plus favourite is hard to square with polling that has frequently shown 5- or 6-point swings within the span of a couple weeks, given that she only leads by 3 points or so now."
The long and the short of it? Silver has no fucking idea. Looking at past visions of the future — especially failed predictions — is kind of our jam here at Paleofuture. So I've collected a few of the highlights from FiveThirtyEight, written by Silver and others, below. Emphasis mine.
June 16, 2015
Taking into account name recognition, Trump's net favorability rating (favourable minus unfavorable) of -32 percentage points stands out for its pure terribleness at this point in the campaign. Like his unfavorable rating, it is by far the worst of the 106 presidential candidates since 1980 who are in our database.
For this reason alone, Trump has a better chance of cameoing in another "Home Alone" movie with Macaulay Culkin — or playing in the NBA Finals — than winning the Republican nomination.
July 20, 2015
Trump has taken trolling to the next level by being willing to offend members of his own party. Ordinarily, this would be a counterproductive strategy. In a 16-candidate field, however, you can be in first place with 15 or 20 per cent of the vote — even if the other 80 or 85 per cent of voters hate your guts.
In the long run — as our experience with past trolls shows — Trump's support will probably fade. Or at least, given his high unfavorable ratings, it will plateau, and other candidates will surpass him as the rest of the field consolidates.
Nate Silver predicted that Donald Trump had a 2 per cent chance of winning the nomination. Katherine Miller of Buzzfeed put it at 0 per cent. And FiveThirtyEight's Harry Enten? Negative 10 per cent.
Predictions from August 5, 2015 about Donald Trump's chances of winning the Republican nomination for president (FiveThirtyEight)
August 11, 2015
At FiveThirtyEight, however, we're fairly agnostic about what will happen to Trump's polling in the near term. It's possible that he's already peaked — or that he'll hold his support all the way through Iowa and New Hampshire, possibly even winning one or two early states, as similar candidates like Pat Buchanan and Newt Gingrich have in the past. Our emphatic prediction is simply that Trump will not win the nomination. It's not even clear that he's trying to do so.
September 24, 2015
Donald Trump: The polls clearly show Trump losing ground after his showdown with Fiorina. Even though a number of Republicans thought he won the debate, a larger percentage of Republicans said he did the worst job in it. Zogby was the only poll that had Trump gaining ground after the debate, and Zogby's Internet polls earned an "F" in the FiveThirtyEight pollster ratings. One cautionary note, though: Polls after the first debate also found Trump falling, but that drop didn't last.
October 2, 2015
None of this means that Trump can't or won't win votes. Pat Buchanan won a bunch of votes during the 1996 Republican primary despite being unpopular with a large segment of the Republican base. And the fact that Trump's support has dipped doesn't mean it will drop to zero, or even that it will keep falling.
But Trump looks more and more like, at best, a factional candidate — he may have a core of supporters, but he lacks the appeal to build a coalition broad enough to win the nomination.
November 23, 2015
So, could Trump win? We confront two stubborn facts: first, that nobody remotely like Trump has won a major-party nomination in the modern era. And second, as is always a problem in analysis of presidential campaigns, we don't have all that many data points, so unprecedented events can occur with some regularity. For my money, that adds up to Trump's chances being higher than 0 but (considerably) less than 20 per cent. Your mileage may vary. But you probably shouldn't rely solely on the polls to make your case; it's still too soon for that.
December 15, 2015
My guess is that most of these eventualities represent more downside than upside for Trump, simply because his dominance of the news cycle is so complete right now that other candidates almost can't help but catch up. One of the usual rewards for winning Iowa or New Hampshire is a massive increase in media coverage, but Trump already has plenty of it. If Cruz or Rubio were to win one of those states, conversely, the newly won attention could help them convert their broad acceptability across the Republican electorate into first place in the polls and in future states.
So far, however, Trump has exploited every opportunity to keep his momentum going. And even if his candidacy is a bubble, there's a chance that it won't burst until after he's started racking up delegates and primary wins.