Where Is the Needle? What Did FiveThirtyEight Just Say? What Is Happening?

A woman stares, horrified, at her computer.
Where is the needle?! Getty Images Plus

It’s 9:56 p.m. and the mood is panic. The 2016 presidential election was supposed to be an anomaly, a once-in-a-lifetime event that liberals sure as hell weren’t going to let happen again. We spent the past two years fighting and organizing and flipping and swinging left. So why have the first few hours of election returns felt like 2016 all over again?

Our panic has been goosed by Nates Silver and Cohn, of FiveThirtyEight and the New York Times’ the Upshot, our twin princes of online election prediction, who both appear to be sputtering. At the Times, the much-vaunted needle, that dark compass we all look to on election nights, hasn’t even gone up—Cohn has cited technical difficulties. The needle is a cruel master, we’ve always known, but we never expected our cruel master to not even show up this time.

Meanwhile at FiveThirtyEight, the site’s model is fluctuating wildly, going from giving the Democrats a decent shot at taking the House of Representatives down to a 39.3 percent chance and back up again. One of the site’s data crunchers wrote in a live chat, “You may have noticed that our real-time forecast has moved toward Republicans in the House. It’s being too aggressive, in my opinion.” Opinion?! Isn’t it supposed to be based … on numbers? We knew better than to trust humans and their paltry feelings, but numbers, numbers weren’t supposed to do this to us. And yet here we are, back to forecast-induced heart palpitations.

In the absence of any real answers, all we can do is panic and stress-bake and read too much into every small update we hear. The mood has shifted, and we have to begin to acknowledge—once again—that it might not shift back. Or maybe it will! Or not. Or maybe! Or

Update, 10:06 p.m.: The Needle is up!!!! 95 percent?!?!?! Ahsflasjdhfjhkl