Beyond the Needle: Probability experts assess 2020 race

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FILE - In this Friday Nov. 9, 2012 file photo, Nate Silver, statistician, unabashed numbers geek, author and creator of the much-read FiveThirtyEight blog at The New York Times, sits on the stairs at Allegro hotel in downtown Chicago. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh, File)

NEW YORK – The one thing most likely to conjure nightmares of the 2016 election night for opponents of President Donald Trump is the Needle.

A graphic on The New York Times' website, the Needle measured in real time the probability of victory for Trump or Hillary Clinton as votes were counted. Its steady movement triggered anxiety for Clinton supporters, who repeatedly refreshed the page, and elation for Trump fans.

There’s no sign that the Needle will be making a reappearance on Nov. 3, which would be one change in the world of election probability gurus following the unexpected 2016 result. Nate Silver's influential FiveThirtyEight blog used a number, not a needle, for the same task four years ago but won't on election night 2020.

Silver said the change had more to do with uncertainties created by the high volume of early voting this year than any failures in 2016.

“I just think people need to be exceptionally careful,” he said.

Silver has been a pioneer in the specialized field of statistic experts who crunch the growing number of public opinion polls to put them in a broader context. Nate Cohn of the Times and his blog The Upshot, is also a leader.

They amplified the shock of 2016 by predicting a high probability of a Clinton victory. Samuel Wang of the Princeton Election Consortium said she had a 93% chance of victory — a call that later led him to eat a cricket live on CNN as penance.

Cohn went into election night saying Clinton had an 85% chance of winning, and that served as the Needle's baseline. The graphic was a meter, shaped like a half-clock, with outcomes that ranged from a “very likely” Clinton win to the same for Trump.