An American flag tie holds the seat for a delegate before the start of the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., Sept. 6, 2012.
David Goldman/AP

Why Democrats are fighting with Nate Silver


Nate Silver and Democrats are having a tiff. But behind the conflict is a delicate balancing act that the party is increasingly trying to maintain as it looks to hold onto its majority in the Senate.

It all started Sunday morning, when Silver, the data whiz who correctly predicted the outcome of the 2012 contest between President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney in all 50 states, announced that he gives Republicans a 60% chance of taking the Senate this fall. That was pretty much in sync with other analysts’ recent predictions. But thanks to Silver’s unique status as a master prognosticator, the news reverberated around the political and media echo-chamber. And it prompted a furious riposte from Democrats.

Within minutes, Guy Cecil, the head of the party’s Senate campaign arm, tweeted that Silver has been wrong about Senate races before: In August 2012, Silver gave the GOP a 61% chance of winning the chamber, only to see Democrats win a 55-seat majority. Then Democratic National Committee spokesman Michael Czin piled on with his own tweet, reminding everyone that in November 2011, Silver had given Mitt Romney an 87% chance of winning the popular vote. Cecil then fleshed out the argument in a memo sent to reporters early Monday.

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But it wasn’t quite that simple. While Democrats were pooh-poohing Silver’s forecast to the press, they were simultaneously using it as a fundraising tool – as Silver himself noted. On Monday, the party sent out emails invoking Silver’s “shocking, scary” prediction, in an effort to use the prospect of a Republican Senate to frighten donors into contributing.

In an email to msnbc, David Axelrod, President Obama’s former top political adviser, took a similar tack.

“Anyone who needed Nate Silver to tell them that this year is perilous for Senate Democrats hasn’t been paying attention,” wrote Axelrod, an msnbc contributor. “The appropriate reaction for Democratic donors is to meet force with force, not to surrender the battlefield to the Koch Brothers and other Republican special interests.”

It’s not surprising that Democrats might be delivering two different messages right now, because they need to speak to two distinct audiences at once.

On one side are voters, and the media that shapes the coverage most voters are exposed to. If the Democratic base goes into the election feeling disheartened, they’re less likely to show up at the polls, making those predictions of doom into a reality. That concern is magnified by the recent tendency of core Democratic groups not to turn out in high numbers for midterm elections. Hence the need to downplay Silver’s prediction to reporters and voters at large.

But donors need to hear something else right now. Just last month, amid a barrage of Koch-funded attacks on vulnerable incumbents, top Democrats including Axelrod were urging complacent donors to wake up to the threat of a GOP Senate and start matching conservative spending before it’s too late. So Democrats are seizing on Silver’s prediction as a new way to create a sense of urgency.

To some extent, that sense of urgency among donors may already have taken hold, thanks to recent tightening in several key Senate races where Democrats once were favored.

“I think the national donor community has energized considerably since we last spoke,” said Ben Chao, a Democratic consultant who runs Super PACs that support several vulnerable Senate Democrats, and who last month expressed surprise that donors weren’t more engaged. “I think seeing [Arkansas, Louisiana and North Carolina] all become basically tied races has focused many national donors very quickly.”

Adding to the difficulty, of course, is the possibility that donors, like base voters, could react to worrying news by become demoralized, and deciding that with the Senate likely lost, it makes more sense to focus on other causes. Axelrod, for one, appears to see that as a possibility.

“If Democrats react by retreating,” he wrote, referring to donors, “Silver’s forecast – and that is all it is – will become a reality.”

Nate Silver and Senate

Why Democrats are fighting with Nate Silver