Nate Silver is good… Princeton’s Sam Wang is better

Meet the One Numbers-Cruncher Who Foresees Democrats Holding the Senate

He’s not as well-known as Nate Silver, but Princeton’s Sam Wang has a method, too, and he sees Democrats holding (barely) the upper chamber.

The list of pundits, political analysts, and numbers-crunchers who are predicting Republicans will win control of the Senate in November is long, including Nate Silver of Five Thirty Eight. The folks at The New York Times’ The Upshot are saying it could be a tie. But Sam Wang of Princeton stands almost alone in forecasting that the Democrats will just barely hold their Senate majority.

Wang says he thinks the Democrats have a 70 percent chance of holding control of the Senate. As of Monday afternoon, Nate Silver thinks the Republicans have a 58 percent chance of winning, and The Upshot gives Republicans a 52 percent chance now calling it a tossup.

Wang is a 47-year-old professor of neuroscience and molecular biology at Princeton who uses advanced statistical methods to study how brain circuits work. He is the author of two books on the brain and his recent work focuses on autism. Politics, he says, is just kind of a hobby. “It’s a relatively easy problem compared with the other things I do,” he told me.

He started dabbling in politics in 2004 when he devised a computer program to aggregate and analyze polling data on the presidential race and in 2008 he founded the Princeton Election Consortium, a webpage featuring his modeling and blogs.

In 2012, his statistical analysis correctly predicted the presidential vote in 49 of 50 states and all 10 competitive Senate races including Montana and North Dakota—which, he likes to point out, Nate Silver got wrong.

A bit of a rivalry has developed between the two men. Wang refers to Silver as “the king of the nerds,” and while it may take one to know one, Silver seems a little irritated by Wang encroaching on his turf. He has dissed Wang’s Senate call and in a recent appearance on WNYC said Wang uses “arbitrary assumptions,” which Wang calls “an out-and-out falsehood.”

Silver also said he “would like to place a large wager against that guy,” not even bothering to mention Wang by name—reminiscent of the “I did not have sex with that woman” sort of dismissal.

Wang’s response: he was more accurate than Silver in 2012 and wants to “let the math do the talking.” If Silver turns out to be wrong about this election Wang told me Silver “can eat a bug.”

As Brian Lehrer of WNYC said on his show Friday—“Math Fight!!!”

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