In the weeks before the November 2020 election, my internet browser started suggesting “fivethirtyeight.com" instead of “facebook.com" when I typed an F in the search bar. FiveThirtyEight is a political news site that features polling averages and forecasts for each major U.S. election. I refreshed the site constantly, searching its graphs and charts for both signs of hope and omens of disaster.
And if my Twitter feed was any indication, I wasn’t alone.
This wasn’t the healthiest way to deal with election stress: it fed my anxiety without making me a more empathetic or understanding citizen. Ironically, though, one resource that has helped me consume political news more carefully comes from the same site: the FiveThirtyEight Politics Podcast.
The podcast has plenty of poll analysis, to be sure. But it also shows how polling misses much of the story. The contributors explain sources of uncertainty, debunk common misinterpretations of polling data, and even dive into messy issues like political polarization and voting law.
In an episode released shortly after the 2020 election, for example, host Galen Druke interviews J. Ann Selzer, who runs Iowa polls for the Des Moines Register. According to Selzer, the prevalence of cellphones and a growing distrust of media have made it more difficult to capture voter behavior in recent years, leading to less reliable poll results. This doesn’t mean polls are useless, but it does mean that they need to be qualified and contextualized—exactly the kind of work that the podcast’s hosts do all the time.
Other podcast guests have included political scientists and local reporters from newsworthy states like Georgia. In a separate series called Model Talk, Druke and editor-in-chief Nate Silver discuss the statistical nuts and bolts of polling and election forecasting.
But most episodes are wide-ranging, informal conversations between several regular contributors: Druke and Silver as well as managing editor Micah Cohen and senior writers Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux and Perry Bacon Jr. They’re all well-informed, thoughtful, and engaging, but they’re also not afraid to be either silly or somber when the subject requires it.
In fact, one reason I appreciate the podcast is that the contributors are willing to speculate about what some of the uglier aspects of our current politics might mean for the future. When Donald Trump was trying to overturn his electoral loss, for example, they discussed how the precedent he was setting could do further harm to democratic norms in future elections.
More recently, they’ve discussed whether Joe Biden’s optimistic call for “unity” is unlikely to result in any actual bipartisan policy achievements. It was an illuminating look at Washington’s unpolished, transactional side, from the limited motivations for senators to cross party lines to the arcane ways Democrats could work around the filibuster without eliminating it.
Like FiveThirtyEight’s election forecasts, the podcast doesn’t aim to explain what’s happening in politics as much as what might happen and why. This, on top of spotty coverage of crucial topics like race and religion, make it an incomplete source of political news. And the podcast’s biggest weakness might be Nate Silver himself, who spends a little too much time explaining why he’s right and other political commentators are wrong.
FiveThirtyEight is bound to drop out of the public conversation for the next year or so as the polls fall quiet. But if you want to feel more prepared to wade through the hot takes and spicy punditry of the next election cycle, the podcast is worth a listen.
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