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Nate Silver: 'Trump Has More of a Chance Than Bernie' of Winning a Nomination

Stats wiz talks presidential hopefuls and the demise of Grantland

Nate Silver prefers covering sports to politics. Photo: Sam Kelly


Specs
Current gig Editor in chief, FiveThirtyEight, a Disney/ESPN property
Previous gig EIC, FiveThirtyEight, a New York Times property
Twitter @NateSilver538
Age 37

Adweek: What are the biggest differences between partnering with The New York Times and being owned by Disney/ESPN since 2014?
Nate Silver: We have gone from having, really just me, to a staff that's roughly 25 people. That's a big difference. I spend half my time managing and editing instead of writing and building models, which I've actually come to enjoy more and more. But it does require real time. You can't half-ass your way through editing and management.

How does the culture differ?
The Times and ESPN are very different types of institutions. The way I sometimes analogize it is to think of the Times as being an Ivy League university where the quality of stuff is very good, there are lots of smart people, but it's also a little bit insular. At times it can be a little bit stodgy, whereas ESPN is more like a very good state school. University of Michigan, UCLA or North Carolina, maybe Texas, where you have gigantic scale. It's very successful for a company that has such big scale. They're not lacking in resources. It's all about scale, and, relative to ESPN, we are one of the million different things that they're doing. ESPN is more, in some ways, open-minded, diverse and thinks more toward the long term. It's not stuck in its history and past and pretty aggressive about trying new things.

If you had to choose between covering sports or politics, which would you go with?
I would go with sports before politics [laughing]. This is a fascinating election campaign, but I think on the whole people are not very good at interpreting data in the political sphere. Everyone is so focused on "I'm building a narrative" in politics, including the candidates, but also the media, where they want to tell a narrative about the campaign. If you stand on the side and say, "I'm not sure that's true," then there is a lot of friction thrown your way. It's anxiety inducing. We make a lot of forecasts and predictions [in sports], but people are actually more levelheaded.

Are you worried about the future of FiveThirtyEight after seeing how ESPN scrapped Grantland?
No. I think digital journalism is a challenging business, period. But we have a lot of things going for us. One is that we have a really nice growth trajectory as far as our graphic goes. It's grown up a lot and we've shown that there is some scale. I also think the quality of what we're doing is pretty good. There are definitely several stories per week now on the site that I am very proud of. Because ESPN is used to thinking about the long term, they told us very explicitly to "take a year and a half to kind of get your feet underneath you and focus on quality." We were really sad to see Grantland go. They were kind of our colleagues, but we think we're on a pretty good trajectory ourselves.

Did ESPN discuss it with you before they announced the closing of Grantland?
Sure, I got a little bit of a heads-up. Not a lot of heads-up but a little bit to prepare my staff. 

Outside of FiveThirtyEight, ESPN doesn't usually get too political. Has it ever tried to censor you? 
No, they knew what they were getting. It's not like I tend to spout off a lot of partisan opinions. They knew they were getting someone who is a little bit combative and a little bit of a brawler with respect to how the campaign is covered. Certainly they're aware that I am sometimes going to critique other news organizations if I think their campaign coverage is not as empirical as it could be. The short answer is no. I do realize now that being people's boss, that is often a thing in terms of self-checking. Do I want to create something that would create a headache for all 25 people that work for me? 

In the 2012 presidential election, you correctly predicted all 50 states. When will you feel confident predicting the 2016 results?
The general rule of thumb is that predictions are fairly useless until the nominees are chosen. Maybe if Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio sweeps through Iowa and New Hampshire, and that nomination is effectively decided by March, then maybe by April we'll be ready. If it turns out to take longer than that, which it very easily could, then we might wait longer before launching. The thing people don't realize is that the reason why I get to look smart is because we wait until we are pretty confident. Never mind getting 50 states right—we'd be happy with 47 or 48. Sooner or later it's inevitable that you come up on the wrong side of a 60/40 bet. We put probabilities around things for a reason.

You've made it clear that you don't believe Donald Trump has a legitimate chance to win the GOP nomination. He's leading the polls … why are you so confident in his demise?
I don't think his chances are zero. You have to be very careful about saying they're zero, but I think they're lower than 20 [percent] or 25 percent. Maybe they're 10 percent. Maybe they're 8 percent. I'm not sure, somewhere in that range. You've never had a candidate like Donald Trump win a nomination before, at least not in the modern era, which is 1972 or so, onward, which is when people started voting in primaries and caucuses. Usually the party is able to find ways to shuffle candidates who are openly running against the party to prevent them from winning their party's nomination. A second reason is that I think people are paying too much attention to the polls. Historically, polls, at this point, are not very predictive at all. 

Is there any chance Hillary isn't the Democratic nominee?
I think you would have to have some type of renewed scandal or health problem or something like that. I could see Bernie Sanders winning a few states. New Hampshire is still very close. But her chances have to be in the range of 90 [percent] to 95 percent. Trump has more of a chance than Bernie. 

A version of this story first appeared in the Jan. 4 issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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