NYT Needle Returns to the Spotlight. The Internet Notices.

New York Times editors explain how our election needle came to be and why we’re all fixated on it.

Comments: 63

  1. Yep. I was fixated on it for a couple of hours, shouting out updates to my husband even though he was asleep.

  2. Well the needle was fun but it reflects how impatient we’ve become and how news organization put resources into encouraging that impatience to keep us on their sites. After all, the votes had already been cast and it was only a matter of counting them. The idea that it’s a race or even a meaningful track of shifting probability is an illusion that merely reflects the order in which vote counts are reported. Is it really the best use of limited reporting resources? And is a follow up article in which the Times praises its own efforts a good use of its reporters time?

  3. "that merely reflects the order in which vote counts are reported" This is false, see the methodology of the site. The prediction model uses the location of the precinct votes against what it expects the partisan makeup to be. In other words, a bunch of red votes from a very red district won't move the needle much as opposed to red votes in a bluer district. The order they come in isn't relevant.

  4. In my opinion no election results or "needles" predicting election out comes should ever be use by the media- in fact should be illegal. These do nothing but create an artificial impression (typically wrong) about voting momentum and no doubt creates huge amounts of voter complacency, ie "why bother to vote, the news has all ready told me "who won" hours before the polls close. This isn't a game show folks, even though the news media would like to make it seem that way. Maybe that's one of the reasons why we have a reality TV show President running the country into the ground.

  5. I was among the many glued to the needle Tuesday evening, and even on FiveThirtyEight.com, many of the comments were about NYT’s model. I’m not sure just what you mean here when you say the needle accurately predicted the results of the Alabama and Virginia elections. It seems entirely possible for the needle, in functioning accurately, to point to one candidate for a period of time, as the current returns and other data indicate the odds to be greater for that candidate at that time, and then swing to the other candidate as more data becomes available. So by “accurately predicting,” do you mean that the needle pointed toward one candidate from the very beginning, and stayed consistently showing the odds to be in favor of that candidate all night long? If so, that would be an important standard for “accurate prediction”to clarify in this piece.

  6. I'm a huge fan of the needle. It had me on tenterhooks for hours as the results were coming in from Alabama.

  7. The response to the needle post-November 2016 was a sign of (at least) two things. One, objectors don't understand probability, which is defined as defining something being "less likely" than something else. It's illogical to claim a statistical estimate is wrong, when it was only estimating chance. Two, another problem is that Cohn and others are often right, and that's led to a false level of certainty in their work. Cohn and other writers sometimes seem to promote this. The needle is a good tool, but by showing likelihood as a thin line, it does miss reality. It should really be more of a bell curve, and could include a skew.

  8. While I admire Upshot's efforts to apply real-world data and creative graphics to the election-prediction business, and was as addicted to "the needle" in Alabama as I was in the 2016 election... I learned a lesson in Nov, 2016: these beautiful, creative graphics imply a lot more "precision" than is possible. I was much more skeptical of the Alabama needle than I was of the 2016 presidential version. Health skepticism, I think, until the votes are actually counted.

  9. I will forever remember watching the returns on television in November, 2016. Something is going wrong, I told my husband. For weeks, I'd watched The NY Times needle on my phone, assuring me that Clinton was a sure winner, 95% that she would triumph. But now, the evening of the election, too many states were being called for Trump. So I grabbed my phone, pulled up The NY Times app, and checked the needle. Sure enough, it indicated Hillary the winner by a 95% probability. Then I watched in horror and amazement as the needle slid to the left, suddenly signaling that Trump had a 99% chance of victory. Lesson: don't put your stock in their vaulted needle. Many Clinton voters watched that needle in the weeks before the election as I did and, based on the assurance of this newspaper, decided to stay home rather than vote that day, directly contributing to Trump's victory. Thanks, New York Times, for helping to get Trump elected.

  10. That you choose to rationalize lazily disenfranchising yourself by blaming the New York Times tells us more about *you* than about the NYT. Your ilk aren't going to escape blame for inflicting 45 on this world THAT easily!

  11. AB the fact that you admit to not voting is disturbing. You and people such as yourself elected trump. Thanks a lot. This is from a person who at 62 has voted in EVERY election regardless of where I lived. I always made sure I registered in every new town I moved to. The only time I missed a presidential election I was living in the US Virgin Islands and as you may know island residents are not allowed to vote for the president.

  12. Okay wait. I'm pretty smart. I have graduate degrees. I missed 800 on the math SAT by 20 points. I watched the needle all night Tuesday. I read the explanation at least a half dozen times. I still have little idea what I was watching. I have to admit it was fun and intriguing, so maybe it doesn't matter what it means. But I'd still like to know and still haven't a clue.

  13. Does this tell me how the NYT (a class act if ever I saw one) was so much faster than CNN? (I am very old and have a hard time finding the meat in a sandwich nowadays.)

  14. I will only remember the needle as predicting Hillary's victory by 95% for months then on election night flipping to Trump in a matter of minutes. Traumatizing. A dumb creation in my opinion but clearly it has a following not unlike many politicians and pundits.

  15. From a later CNN account of election night 2016: 7:15 p.m.: . . . The model showed Clinton with an 85% chance of winning. Perhaps one of Nate's ancestors was the navigator on the Titanic. Sometimes it's better to look at the iceberg instead of the needle.

  16. Tell us how the algorithm works.

  17. Get rid of it. I have PTSD from the use of it during the 2016 presidential election. People who read the New York Times are readers by definition. We don't need props. Graphs, etc. are entirely appropriate; however, the needle should be saved for rate-a-record. Sorry, NYT, I can't dance to it.

  18. Thought the country got needled in November 2016. Was glad to see Doug Jones sew this one up. Hope the Dems get the point.

  19. I love it, cannot wait for next election night.

  20. We loved your coverage of the Alabama Senate race. Your graphic displays provided an incredibly concise and comprehensive view of the ongoing status of the race. The combination of results by county, remaining vote locations and their likely party preference all on one page allowed us know exactly where we were all the time. And a thumbs up on the needle, too. In the case of this race it was dead on. Will go to The Times first in elections from now on. BTW “the failing NYT was the Roy Moore campaign’s primary source at their HQ.

  21. Needle was great. CNN was playing with their touchscreen map on TV but were not projecting anything either way. I assumed Roy Moore was going to win based on the way the vote was coming in early on. Then on r/politics on Reddit, they mentioned NYT was projecting a win for Jones, so I tracked down and found the NYT needle, and was really impressed to see Jones projected to be the winner early in the night well before he started taking the actual lead. Sure enough the vote came in very close to what NYT was projecting earlier.

  22. Steve Kornacki on the Big Board during live coverage cut-aways to the Alabama results on MSNBC showed the switch over at the moment the numbers first appeared to tilt to Jones' favor, and it happened about 10 p.m. Eastern time. At that moment, the commentator was practically jumping out of his pants, explaining that Jones was EXACTLY threading the needle of getting the necessary turnout and number of voters in his favor to actually win the election. He certainly appeared to be jumping out of my computer screen when I watched a brief video of it Wednesday morning. He later appeared on the show "The Last Word."

  23. Where was this legendary needle? I saw it in the 2016 election (and especially the way it plunged into the red to “>95%” in the span of the final evening). Didn’t see it at all in the Alabama coverage. Now I’m a sad cat :(

  24. I personally found the county-by- county graphics more interesting and informative, particularly that Jones won Huntsville and Moore had been abandoned by the better-educated. In this case, in a state where many citizens, white and black, live in ignorance and poverty, the color change around NASA’s northern Alabama engine development center was the best indication that even the deep red South was beginning to get the news that the GOP meant trouble for education, science and the “middle class”. Most news reports, including the Times graphics gave the non-statistician several areas for misinterpretation. Writers spoke of the deciding factor of the black vote - though blacks represent, by your figures, 30% of the total electorate. Jones came within a tenth of a percent of winning a full majority of the vote. He had to get a lot of the 70% white vote to do that! Other charts in the Times and Washington Post, showed bar graphs of exit poll results broken down by party/gender and skin color. The problem with bar graphs, I believe the Post’s, is they are all the same length, leading the casual observer to think each represents the same NUMBER of people. Graphing the length of the bar equals the number/% of total voters, then dividing the bar by percent of votes cast for Jones or Moore would have been a better indicator, as would have adding the names of cities in parentheses with lists of county names.

  25. You guys should use this needle more often. Maybe even on presidential approval ratings or how well a bill is moving through the house or senate and, of course, every election.

  26. At the Jones watch party the needle was our main source of up to date information, keeping our spirits lifted in spite of the raw vote count shown on television which was very unfavorable in the early going.

  27. Yes isn’t it wonderful that we’ve turned the democratic process into a sport.

  28. The needle is a cool-looking gimmick, but I think it could has the potential to persuade more apathetic voters to stay home in close races. How many people in swing states saw NYT’s landslide projection for Hillary and decided to stay home?

  29. The NYT's needle and all polls are still too painful for me to look at after the disaster of 2016. The Times was not alone in providing false confidence, but it was one of the high profile predictors. In the past weeks, every time I heard some discussion of polls or predictions on the Jones/Moore race my automatic mental response was that polls are worthless. I hope that predictors do improve, but I still have no confidence.

  30. In the 2016 election, the needle had shown a Trump and GOP senate victory as early as 9:30PM EST, well before most of us were able to comprehend such a result. It was impressive and terrifying at the same time.

  31. Can I be the lone, it seems, naysayer? I hate GIFs and despised the short 6 seconds Twitter Vine format. Fortunately a project that was killed by Twitter. I am amazed the Oscar people did not take it into account and created a new category. In my opinion its for people who cannot concentrate for more than the dearly departed 140 character Twitter limit. As a man who cannot absorb information beyond a single page with a lot of charts and graphs, Trump would have loved it. A simple animated graphic, with minimal content in a loop. He would have shot endless Vines of himself doing "important" things like signing "important documents" with a sharpie and saying even more important things.

  32. Unless I don't understand the definition, I don't believe the pointer on the dial is a needle. However, 'needle' is a wonderful metaphor for drawing blood.

  33. My concern about "the needle" immediately after the 2016 Election was that the weeks of news coverage reporting an 80 % (sometimes 90 %, if I remember correctly) chance of Clinton victory may have suppressed Dem vote as it tended to send a stronger signal that a Dem victory was likely than a 52%/48% poll, or whatever the exact equivalent in traditional polling data format is. Moving forward, hopefully more people now know that an 80 % chance of victory is still tenuous. The new "needle" graphic also helps get this point across better than in 2016. And the comparison with weather prediction is a good one--the polling data predicted results needle's similarity in appearance with a barometric pressure needle helps get that point across, too.

  34. Well, I could say something extremely rude about where that needle should go, but I will restrain myself (it would probably not get published anyway). Drop the gimmicks. Give us decent data - can you do THAT, NYT? Give us only the BEST polls, proven to be the best over time, election cycle after election cycle -- like the Marquette Law School Poll in Wisconsin for instance, and the Quinnipiac Poll. It's getting increasingly difficult to get accurate hard data from telephone calls to land lines (1) because land lines are disappearing rapidly (although this old lady loves her land line and refuses to get a cell phone, boo hiss boo to cell phones) and (2) people LIE, especially people who are going to vote for the unpopular candidate or an unpopular grifter who shall remain nameless. You need to tap into data crunching based on information garnered from state party data bases - whatever information is available. That, alone, can give us a treasure trove of information - as the Russian hackers via Cambridge Analytica proved, to the detriment of the American people. Come on NYT, drop the 1960s no longer works gimmicks and get with the 21st century. We're smart enough, we can handle it!

  35. Visualization has a lot of potential applications however the science and data behind this particular one is a bit suspect. I will never forget Rachel Maddow's expression after the first of the 2016 election results started arriving. To me, the recent NYT visualization of Trump's lies versus Obama lies was much more compelling. We need a liar liar pants on fire meter and is dynamic and kept up to date. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/12/14/opinion/sunday/trump-lies...

  36. The folks in the Comments area may be mistaking the medium for the message. Seems a popular bit of eye candy when Democrats win (Yeah, Doug Jones) - but, a gimmick to diminish voter turnout when early results made a Clinton victory seem preordained. We readers need both qualitative analysis of election issues - and, informative quantitative visualizations of real-time results. (Note: qualitative analysis assumes readers, not viewers.) Perhaps the Needle should be repurposed as a “Truthiness Meter,” a real-time graphic displayed in the lower corner of the screen as politicians give speeches. A form of Closed Captioning for the Informationally Disabled.

  37. I “cut the cord“ a few years ago and the only thing I thought I would miss on TV was watching election night coverage. I didn’t, and that’s 100% because of Nate Cohen and his “needle”. Kudos to you, Nate!

  38. There is an assertion that the "needle" is programmed to move whether or not its data source changes (thus reinforcing its Pavlovian effect.) https://onbeing.org/programs/anil-dash-techs-moral-reckoning-jan2017/ Does a graphic meter, changing on the basis of nothing, qualify as fake news? I wonder what NYT has to say about this.

  39. Bayesian, yes, Pavlovian, I think not

  40. The Times should bury the needle - the presidential election was such a fiasco - the stupid needle highlighted how out of touch The NY Times is with what was actually happening in this country.

  41. Can the Needle be mounted at Times Square?

  42. Kill it with fire

  43. A self-congratulatory puff piece that completely ignores all the criticisms of the needle - as reflected in the comments.

  44. I love the needle! Keep up the great work Nate & co.

  45. I like to think of it as the needle of doom, as I distinctly remember it putting me into panic mode as the needle switched from Clinton to Trump just last year. It'll take a lot more than one Democratic Senator's win to keep it from remaining a reminder of a mild trauma.

  46. I'm done with 538 and all the fake polls. From now on, it's just follow #NYTNeedle.

  47. "About 7:30 p.m. on the presidential election night in 2016, the needle put Hillary Clinton’s chances of winning at about 80 percent, a prediction that went unrealized." That's a fundamental misinterpretation of probability. A probability assignment is not a "prediction" that can "go unrealized". It's a statement about possibilities. An event that has been assigned a 0.8 chance of occurring is not guaranteed to occur. The 2016 election itself proved that.

  48. Thanks, but no thanks. I will wait for the final tally. This serves no meaningful purpose.

  49. For an encore, how about plugging the 4th Down Bot back in? Get the little guy warmed up for the NFL postseason.

  50. I love it when the Times does something horrible (like the needle) and then, after it fails, doubles down on it with a long winded explanation of why they’re actually right. Come on.

  51. "....., a prediction that went unrealized." Why is it so hard to say "wrong"?

  52. In fact, the prediction was made, realized, and spectacularly wrong. Fixed it...

  53. What we DON'T need is news of ANY votes cast before ALL the polls are closed. If we can't do it voluntarily it must be guaranteed by statute. And there is absolutely no doubt about its constitutionality.

  54. I said to my husband, after finding the needle, THIS is why I pay for the NYT. It was fabulous.

  55. NYT, don't pat yourself on the back too hard. I still think you have a lot of attonment yet to do for your botched 2016 presidental coverage, or the lack thereof.

  56. Mixed feelings about the needle. Yes it’s successful in reducing complex information into an infographic. But on other hand it seems to signify how NYTs is gamifying their own news product to make their app more addictive. It’s the latter approach to the news that I resent.

  57. This is called a Swingometer It has been used by the BBC and other networks for many years in UK elections Come on NYT, name the source and stop taking the credit!

  58. I like it. A lot. Showed probability of result with precincts left to be recorded. Hope u keep it.

  59. Thumbs down on "the Needle." The world's leading source of journalism should avoid the crystal ball business. I know several people who ditched the NYT because of its bad predictions in the 2016 election. The Needle and others like it are gimmickery at best. They don't belong in the NY Times.

  60. Time to quote Neil Young: “I’ve seen the needle and the damage done...”

  61. This article was disappointing. Tell us about how the model works. And BTW, in the 2016 presidential election, it did in an automated and comprehensive way what the TV news folks were trying to do manually and anecdotally. The Needle was one of the big winners of election night 2016.

  62. Though I would have liked to know as well, maybe the algorithms behind it are proprietary.

  63. I'm a shade "tree mechanic," and am used to monitoring gauges, so I absolutely loved the NYT's election gauges. It was clear, based on a careful "reading" of the gauges, that by 8:20 P.M. Trump had a good chance of an upset-win. While the folks on the tv stations were likely reading the NYT's web site, they had to feign not to know how the election would turn out. As a subscriber of the NYT, getting this tragic news early in the evening provided me with some additional time to process the tragic election results that were unfolding. Please keep up the good work with the gauges--- providing real time results from the "the engine room" is nothing short of brilliant.