DSCC, Nate Silver can both be right

Editor-in-Chief of ESPN's FiveThirtyEight blog Nate Silver during the 2014 SXSW Music, Film + Interactive Festival at Austin Convention Center on March 8, 2014 in Austin, Texas.
Editor-in-Chief of ESPN's FiveThirtyEight blog Nate Silver during the 2014 SXSW Music, Film + Interactive Festival at Austin Convention Center on March 8, 2014 in Austin, Texas.
Nate Silver published his latest U.S. Senate forecast at the new FiveThirtyEight yesterday and it seems to have caused quite a stir. And whatever your political persuasion might be, it's easy to see why: Silver's projections show that by next year, Republicans are favored to control the Senate for the first time since losing it in 2006.

...We think the Republicans are now slight favorites to win at least six seats and capture the chamber. The Democrats' position has deteriorated somewhat since last summer, with President Obama's approval ratings down to 42 or 43 percent from an average of about 45 percent before. Furthermore, as compared with 2010 or 2012, the GOP has done a better job of recruiting credible candidates, with some exceptions.

It wasn't long before Democrats started pushing back, calling Silver's analysis into question.

In a new memo, Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) Executive Director Guy Cecil raised questions about an analysis out this weekend from statistician Nate Silver and insists Democrats are "up for the challenge" this fall. "We don't minimize the challenges ahead. Rather, we view the latest projection as a reminder that we have a challenging map and important work still to do in order to preserve our majority," Cecil writes.

This has led to a fair amount of chatter today about who's "right" about 2014: Silver or the DSCC. I think this is the wrong way to look at the dispute. With 225 days to go before Election Day, it's reasonable to say they're both right.
The DSCC's pushback notes that Silver's projections, made well ahead of an election, sometimes turn out to be wrong. A year ahead of the 2012 presidential election, Silver's forecast showed Romney a slight favorite over Obama, but we now know, of course, that the president was re-elected by a relatively comfortable margin.
Similarly, in August 2012 -- roughly three months before the election -- Silver's model showed Republicans with a slight edge in taking the Senate majority, though when the votes were tallied, Democrats actually expanded their majority.
But to see this as evidence of Silver being "wrong" is to misunderstand what his forecasts intend to do. These FiveThirtyEight projections are not supposed to tell us what will happen in the 2014 midterms, rather, they're offering a snapshot about what's probable based on current conditions.
Conditions change, as do the projections.
At this point, Silver's forecast shows the potential for a Democratic electoral bloodbath. The projection shows Republicans very well positioned to flip three blue seats (West Virginia, South Dakota, and Montana), likely to win the two competitive red seats (Kentucky and Georgia), favored to flip two blue seats (Arkansas and Louisiana), and have even odds to flip another blue seat (North Carolina).
On top of this, there are three more blue seats (Alaska, Michigan, and Colorado) where the Democratic incumbent is favored, but not by much.
Republicans need a net gain of six seats in the midterms to have a majority in the next Congress, and given the landscape as it currently exists, that's quite realistic. From Nate's piece:

There are 10 races that each party has at least a 25 percent chance of winning, according to our ratings. If Republicans were to win all of them, they would gain a net of 11 seats from Democrats, which would give them a 56-44 majority in the new Senate. If Democrats were to sweep, they would lose a net of just one seat and hold a 54-46 majority. So our forecast might be thought of as a Republican gain of six seats -- plus or minus five. The balance has shifted slightly toward the GOP. But it wouldn't take much for it to revert to the Democrats, nor for this year to develop into a Republican rout along the lines of 2010.

All of the cliches are unsatisfying but true: seven months is a long time. A lot can happen. In some of these big races, the primary elections haven't even happened yet -- and as we know, predicting with confidence the outcome of important statewide races before knowing the candidates is folly.
If the FiveThirtyEight forecast provides the NRSC with a morale boost, great. If the Beltway likes it when the DSCC is at odds with Nate Silver, fine. If Democratic donors see the chatter itself as a wake-up call, c'est la vie.
But the entire landscape remains entirely influx. Nate's forecast is a snapshot -- one of many -- and the political world probably needs to calm down a bit about what might happen in 225 days.
Postscript: I should probably mention that I went to high school -- and junior high school, come to think of it -- with Guy Cecil, though we haven't talked about 2014.