Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Nate Silver on Trump's Chances

This is a really good framing that he and his buddies have at FiveThirgtyEight. I recognize myself here:

"micah (Micah Cohen, politics editor): OK, we’re going to do some role-playing today. We’ve been very skeptical of Donald Trump’s chances of winning the Republican nomination here at FiveThirtyEight. To really stress-test that position, Nate Silver, our editor in chief, is going to be his normal self (a Trump skeptic); Harry Enten, our senior political writer, is going to pretend he’s a Democratic-leaning political scientist who thinks the Republican Party is in a such a mood that Trump could win (we’ll call him “PhDemocrat”), and I’m going to play the role of a die-hard Trump fan named “Trumpfan1959” (drawing inspiration from the many Tweets and Facebook comments his supporters have sent us)."

Yep, that's me, PhDemocrat. Great framing.

"PhDemocrat: Nate, you always talk about small sample sizes, and there is perhaps no better case of a small size than presidential nomination races. We have had only 12 open primaries in which the “Party Decides” hypothesis — that the party establishment, including elected officials and party operatives, has a lot of control over who wins the nomination — has supposedly held true. So tell me why we should be putting so many chips on a theory with so little data backing it up?"

"natesilver: Well, PhDemocrat, if you wanted to argue that Trump’s chances are higher than zero, I’d agree with you. But the conventional wisdom isn’t just saying that Trump has a chance. It’s increasingly seeing him as one of the MOST LIKELY nominees. Betting markets — as good a quantification of the conventional wisdom as you’ll find on short notice — have him at 22 percent. Higher than Cruz. About twice where they have Jeb Bush. Trump is four times more likely to be the nominee than Christie is, they’re saying. I think 22 percent is too high."

It’s also significant that not only have Trump-like candidates not won, but they haven’t come particularly close to winning."

Ok. So PhD just mentioned sample size. This is what I'd like to ask Nate.You say that Trump-like candidates have not won or come close but how many Trump-like candidates have they been?

I don't know that I see him as the most likely nominee. But do I think his chances are better than Jeb or Christie-yes. In my view, this National Journal piece is close to the mark.

This is going to be a three lane race, which will come down to Trump. Cruz, and Rubio. One of these three candidates is very likely to be the nominee.

"PhDemocrat: What is a Trump-like candidate? Part of the reason Trump-like candidates haven’t won is because they haven’t run. In most presidential primary campaigns, it’s only people who have held elected office who have run. The only examples of candidates like Trump running I can think of are Steve Forbes in 1996 and 2000, Herman Cain in 2012, and maybe Ben Fernandez in 1980. (Granted, Fernandez had experience in government.)"

"Trumpfan1959: Listen, if either of you ever left your East Coast liberal hangouts, you’d realize that there haven’t been any Trump-like candidates. This is someone who built a multi-billionaire dollar empire. He led a hugely successful reality show. He wins. We’ve never had a candidate like that, so the normal rules don’t apply."

I do have to sort of agree with Trumpfan-how many Trump like candidates have there really been? He has broken all the rules in terms of advertising as well as handling the media-basically giving the finger to the media.

"natesilver: By a Trump-like candidate, guys, I mean someone who openly defies his party and whose party is openly rooting against him. It’s one thing to say that the party chooses its nominee. That’s not always true. But can the party prevent someone from hijacking its nomination when the consequences for it would be disastrous? My guess is that it can."

By this there haven't been many candidates like Trump , either. I do agree with Nate that the GOP may well have a very good chance at derailing Trump though I don't know that this will happen before the damage is done-my guess is we're already way past that.

 Here would be my followup question to Nate. Can the GOP derail Trump without 'treating him unfairly' where he can plausibly say the establishment rigged the game against him and many of the base will feel the same?

I believe they may well be able to derail Trump-I mean the delegates could simply refuse to be called for who the voters choose. But that would in itself be a disastrous state of affairs. 
Indeed, if Trump still looks to have a real shot in the Spring, I'll expect the GOP to use any dirty trick in the world to stop him. But if they say keep him off the ballot in some states doesn't this lead to such a mutiny in the base that this finishes their 2016 chances anyway?
Can they stop Trump without totally losing the base? Today, Joe Scarborough in an anecdote you suspect is not the least atypical, revealed his brother is saying that 'It's Trump or nothing for me/
Maybe the party can stop him but at what price in blowback? Back to Nate:
"Also, we do have some empirical data on how non-politicians perform in campaigns. It’s not uncommon to see them in U.S. Senate races, for instance. And the answer is that they tend to perform poorly. They often fade down the stretch run — look at Meg Whitman in 2010, for example — because of a tendency to commit gaffes and a lack of organization on the ground-game side of things."
"Trumpfan1959: Trump has committed plenty of “gaffes” — at least, according to you people — and he still leads every poll."

"PhDemocrat: Yes, Nate, but they also win. David Perdue won in Georgia in 2014, for example, and he survived both a competitive primary and a general election campaign. And Perdue also committed some gaffes. What I hear from you is a lot of guessing."

"natesilver: You guys are arguing against a straw man. I’m not saying it’s impossible for Trump to win. But it’s unlikely — less likely than betting markets and the conventional wisdom hold."

"Also, there’s an important difference between a one-off election like a Senate or gubernatorial primary and a presidential nomination. In a presidential race, voters and the party establishment have time to read and react. You’ve had candidates like Newt Gingrich and Pat Buchanan win individual states before, but they haven’t been able to sustain their momentum."

Here Nate is having it both ways. He's citing Senate candidates as precedent then arguing they may not be representative of a Presidential primary. Ok, but then you're the one who cited it.

"Trumpfan1959: It seems to me that you have no idea what’s going to happen — maybe there’s zero empirical evidence that candidates like Trump can win, but there’s just as much evidence that candidates like Trump CAN’T win. Trump is dominating the race, media and polls. How is that not the best position to be in?"

"natesilver: Let me turn this around a bit. You both seem to be placing a lot of emphasis on Trump’s polls. I don’t think they mean very much."

"Trumpfan1959: If Marco Rubio were winning, you’d be citing the polls all the time. You just don’t like what they show."

"natesilver: Dude, this isn’t complicated. Go back and look at past polling frontrunners at this stage of the campaign. They have a poor track record. By contrast, go back and look at who was leading in general elections in late October. They have a very good track record."

"The point of being empirical isn’t that you love polls. It’s that you learn from experience, and our experience tells us that polls aren’t reliable predictors at this stage of the race."

Ok, the polls don't matter defense. First of all this isn't late October, it's early December. Actually the establishment is lucky there is an extra month till Iowa this year. Even so it's December. There isn't that much time.

What's more it's not just looking at a snapshot of who led at one point in time that matters. What's notable about Trump is not that he leads in the latest polls here on December 2, but that he has lead them across the board since July.

"PhDemocrat: 1980: Reagan led in polls and won. 1984: Mondale led in polls and won. 1988: Bush led in polls and won. 1996: Dole led in polls and won. 2000: Bush and Gore led in polls and both won. 2012: Romney was top of polls for most of primary and won. That’s seven out of 12 times the person who led in the polls at this point has won. That’s greater than 50 percent. And it’s far greater than the chance you give to Trump at this point."

"natesilver: Most of those candidates had far more of the vote in polls than Trump’s 25-30 percent."

But those races didn't have 14 candidates.

"PhDemocrat: Romney didn’t."

"natesilver: But Romney had more room to grow because he had establishment support and was not a divisive figure within his party. It’s those qualities — the voters and elites consolidating around a broadly acceptable nominee — that historically allow candidates to zoom up from 25 percent to 50 percent or whatever once they win a few states."

But with 14 candidates hanging on, 25 percent to 30 percent will be more than enough to win NH or Iowa. If Trump wins both or even wins NH but comes close in Iowa that changes things considerably going forward.

"But more importantly, voters aren’t paying a lot of attention. Only 20 percent or so of the voters in Iowa have come to a final decision. Half the voters in New Hampshire won’t decide until the final week of the campaign."

Aha, The not paying attention excuse. Well when are they going to start paying attention? Are we supposed to believe that no polls prior to the night before the Iowa Caucus reflect voters paying attention?

There isn't a lot of time to start. It''s two month till Iowa and NH. And when in the next few weeks are people paying attention? Seems to me that people are increasingly thinking about Christmas, New Years, the NFL playoffs, or anything but politics-assuming they aren't fanatical political junkies like myself.

"BTW, the same conventional wisdom that is increasingly keen on Trump’s chances also insisted for months that Hillary Clinton’s campaign was in disarray and that Joe Biden would enter the race."

Now I take issue with Nate Silver's framing here. The folks that were saying Hillary was in troule are far from one in the same with who say the GOP is in real trouble now and that Trump is a real threat.

By the way, I'm not predicting he wins. I think he chances are pretty decent. But I think it's more likely the establishment figures some way by hook or by crook to keep him off the ballot.

But if they do I suspect there will be considerable blowback. If the base feels robbed-which is a very good chance-then the damage will be almost as bad as if he were on the ballot.

I do think there''s a good chance that Rubio doesn't make it-ie, it's Trump or Cruz.

But if you've read me you know I called out the nonsense about Bernie all along. The media was so obviously cherrypicking polls there it was absurd. And they were including Biden to hold down her numbers even though it was likely he wasn't running.

Furthermore I certainly am not part of anything called the conventional wisdom! Or for those who know me the conventional anything else.

Nate, let's be honest here, You may be right about the party getting its way and a Panglossian ending for the establishment. But your view is the conventional wisdom.

"natesilver: It was interesting that we saw Trump’s numbers wobble a bit after the first couple of debates. Also interesting that he seems to be a bit lower in Iowa, where voters are paying more attention, than everywhere else."

"PhDemocrat, no pollster is perfect. Nor are we! But you and TrumpFan1959 are creating a moving target."


"I say: Polls don’t mean much at this stage and aren’t very predictive."

"So then you say: you can’t prove they’re NOT predictive. Which is a much different standard."

No, Nate, you are a nonresponsive target. You never show us examples of previous such Trumplike candidates, You mention a few random Senate races but then when you see that's not such a great comparison you say well they don't tell us much about Presidential elections anyway.

What is the precedent for how long Trump has dominated polls?

"PhDemocrat: Hold on a second. Hold on a second. No, what we’d say is that there is a strong correlation. Heck, there’s a strong correlation between polls from the first half of the year before the election and primary results. The polls aren’t perfect, but what we’d say is that more often than not the polling front-runner does win. And for you then to say, it’s only a 5 percent chance — that, I think, is wrong."

"natesilver: A polling front-runner wins more often than not when the front-runner is at 50 percent in the polls, like Hillary Clinton is now. But Trump’s at 25-30 percent nationally and a bit less than that in Iowa. Also, if you built a simple model with polls and endorsements, it would not have Trump doing all that well."

Again, Nate, there are 14 candidates in the race. Hillary is at 50 percent-or according to the latest 60 percent-it's true. But she has only two opponents not 13.

No matter how much Nate bobs and weaves, what it comes down to is this. He doesn't think Trump will win because there is no record of this happening before-though you cold argue something like it happened with Goldwater in 1964.

But there isn't that much precedent for Trumplike candidates, certainly not for a Trumplike candidate who is as Nate Silver says, so hated and feared by the establishment doing so well for so long.

"PhDemocrat: Exactly, none of the other candidates looks that good. None of them has raised a TON of money in non-super PAC cash. Trump has a ton of personal money if he needs to spend it. Let’s say you have Trump at 8 percent or whatever, and I have him at more than double that. You say there is uncertainty and so do I. But then you take that uncertainty and still peg Trump at only 8 percent to win. Here’s where I am: There’s a lot of uncertainty, so just because Trump leads now doesn’t mean he’ll win. But he has led in the polls, there is no clear money front-runner, there is no endorsement front-runner, Trump has money, GOP voters are upset, and the betting markets have Trump’s chance of winning north of 20 percent… So you know what? I’m going north of 20 percent too."

"natesilver: A completely uninformed model would give Trump a 1 in 14 chance, since there are 14 candidates left. Which is 7 percent. So I’m actually pretty close to that."

But if you want to think about this in a technical way: it’s not just that Trump has no support from his party. It’s that the party is actively looking to stop him because he’d be a catastrophe as their nominee.

"Endorsements are just a proxy for party support. Jim Gilmore doesn’t have any party support — or any endorsements to speak of — but he isn’t in the same category as Trump. If you were building a model, it’s as though you’d want to give Trump negative-100 endorsement points."

Yes, but again, I can see the GOP stopping Trump but not without terrible blowback. I do agree that Cruz could emerge as a compromise candidate.

Ok, so as you know I'm a Trump Democrat. This doesn't mean that I think he will ultimately win the nomination or even need him too. It's enough that he hangs around along time and possibly ends in a brokered convention.

In terms of optimal outcomes a Trump nomination would be my first choice but a Ted Cruz nomination would be my second choice.

But evne if the establishment basically is successful in rigging it for Marco Rubio this could lead to such blowback in the party that it could lead to a third party or a lot of the base sitting home.

Nate is arguing against an alleged assertion that Trump is the likely nominee, This is not my argument, though unlike him I think Trump has a better shot of winning than Jim Gilmore, John Kasich,. or Chris Christie,

So at least for me, Nate isn't really accurately framing the counterargument. Then again, I actually do agree that the GOP may well never allow a Trump nomination no matter what.

But if so, I find it unlikely that there won't be serious blowback


  1. Mike, there's an extra apostrophe in the title. Also, I think you meant

    "But if so, I find it unlikely that there won't be serious blowback."

    in your final sentence.

    Interesting post. I do think that what's most important to Nate is getting his forecast right. It's that attitude combined with the fact that he's had past successes and he does this by training and profession that makes me take him seriously. Both his motivation and his expertise are equally important. I don't think he'd willfully fool himself. Now he might be fooling himself all the same... so I do think it's helpful to hash it out like this with other people. If you can demonstrate where he might be fooling himself (like with your point about senate races), I'd trust that Nate's underlying motivation (to get it right) would cause him to absorb that criticism and make adjustments.

    Very entertaining!

  2. TK. LOL. I enjoyed putting it together-Nate did frame it well.

    It's not clear that he and I disagree with so much. I do think it's likely the Establishment finds some way to keep him off though there will be huge blowback.

    Nate has in the past admitted that there could be another narrative at play this time. Maybe the party really is in disarray which I think is the case.

    I did point to a few things in this post that he didn't cover. One is how typical is a Trump candidacy anyway. It's not like there are any real comparisons.

    I think Nate is making it a little too categorical. I for one don't think Trump is necessarily the number one favorite though I do think getting it away for him won't be easy. I do think there's a very good chance that the nominee is not Rubio.

    I think it's Rubio, Cruz, and Trump. One will get it and my hope it won't be Rubio.