Why the Election Needle Got It Right but Felt So Wrong
It’s just a tool, they said. But really, the needle is a metaphor.
I wrote yesterday in defense of the New York Times’ election needle, the maligned data visualization that anxiety-ridden election-watchers can’t stop refreshing, no matter how hard they try. (You can find it here, probably still quivering away, should you so dare.) As penance for confessing my deeply unpopular opinion — which only grew more unpopular on the left as election night wore on and the needles pointed stubbornly toward Trump — I have been assigned to perform a brief postmortem on its performance in the cold light of the morning after.
How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Needle
The New York Times’ reviled interactive is back for 2020 — sort of
With the caveat that votes are still being counted and key races hang in the balance, the needle appears to have largely accomplished the task the Times set out for it and probably better than most other information sources tasked with the same job. That job, as the Times defined it, was to give an up-to-the-minute picture of who appeared more likely to win in three specific state-level races: Florida, Georgia, and North Carolina. It is, however, worth asking whether the Times’ understanding of the needle’s role lines up with the role it actually plays for the public.
Early in the evening, the needles leaned Trump’s way on all three, prompting flashbacks to 2016, when its dramatic swing starting around 9 p.m. on that fateful night served as a leading indicator of Trump’s stunning victory. They did so even as the earliest vote counts appeared encouraging for Democrats, especially in North Carolina. There was a period from about 8:30 to 10 p.m. in particular when CNN and MSNBC were showing Biden ahead in North Carolina — and their analysts were making encouraging murmurs about his chances there — while the needle showed the opposite, giving Trump close to a 90% chance of victory there. Those chances were later slightly reduced to account for an error in the data, but the subsequent returns have largely substantiated the needle’s pessimism about Biden’s early lead there…