Why Does FiveThirtyEight Get Bernie Sanders So Wrong?

Every now and then, there's a story that's just so wrong, it's beautiful.

Take the FiveThirtyEight blog's Tuesday piece, "The Bernie Sanders Surge Appears To Be Over." I won't bore you with the boring details (which are pretty boring speculations about why Sanders' surge was so over) except these: they cite a poll from July that shows Clinton at 45 percent in New Hampshire and Sanders at 35 percent; and go on to say that he'd picked up all the voters he would get from increased name recognition, former Warren supporters, etc. Funny thing, on the same day, a Boston Herald poll put Sanders ahead of Clinton 44 percent to 37 percent. Whoops! Now, it's just one poll; but it sure makes it pretty tough to make any kind of case for Sanders' surge being in any way over -- and by tough, I mean absurd.

Two Air is Humid

This isn't the first time FiveThirtyEight has run a story that didn't get it right about Sanders' poll numbers. Nate Silver himself on July 15 referred to a poll that he claimed showed that Sanders had stalled out; but in the story linked to support that claim, the only hint of where Sanders' numbers might be headed was a quote that said he'd "risen to 20 percent of the vote so far" (emphasis mine) in Iowa -- which leaves plenty of room for growth, and is a far cry from "stalled out." At the time I thought it might have been a mis-citation. Maybe it was, but then you have Tuesday's little gaffe, and you can't help wondering.

Try Some Bleach

So this poses the question: Why has the esteemed FiveThirtyEight blog gotten it so wrong about Sanders? Is it that they have the same blind-spot for him that other Washington insiders do? Or are they simply Clinton fans, and have lost the vaunted, numbers-don't-lie objectivity that helped Silver call so many races so accurately in 2012? One thing is sure: they were caught with a leaky pen and no pocket protector on Tuesday.

It's Hard to Think Outside The Box Plot

Here's the thing: Sanders is an anomaly -- which is to say -- he literally defies the rules. There are a lot of assumptions that go into making up those rules. Sanders has made a career out of challenging political norms and expectations. It's really no surprise that statistics wonks might have a hard time getting a grip on what he's doing, since he's doing things so differently from what they and everyone else are used to; and because so much of his appeal doesn't follow neatly quantifiable, previously predictable patterns.

Better check those paradigms, guys.