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A Brutal Wonk Swap at FiveThirtyEight

Silver and Morris. Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photo: Getty Images/ABC

A major election-polling shakeup began three weeks ago, when, as part of Disney’s push to cut 7,000 jobs, ABC News decided not to renew the contract of FiveThirtyEight founder Nate Silver. Though Disney has been cutting costs across the board, this was still an unexpected move: Silver has his critics, but he’s generally considered one of the best minds in election forecasting.

On Friday, the plot thickened. ABC News announced that it had hired pollster G. Elliott Morris to be the editorial director of data analytics, which also oversees the operations of FiveThirtyEight. Morris, a pollster for The Economist, is the young hotshot to the Silver Establishment: While still an undergraduate at the University of Texas, his forecasting models accurately predicted the shape of the 2018 midterms — as did Silver’s. But in the run-up to the 2020 election, Silver and Morris were yelling at each other on Twitter over differences in polling approaches.

As Matthew Zeitlin reported for New York at the time, the argument boiled down to Silver’s belief that Morris had “been far too certain far too early in the race due to overconfidence in their ability to discern from past elections what was likely to happen in this one.” Silver went so far as to say that Morris’s overeagerness was representative of “why a lot of ‘data science’ curriculum sucks.” Morris told New York that he did not “have contempt for the guy. Game respect to game.” Still, Morris blocked Silver on Twitter. At the end of the day, their models came to the same general conclusions. While Morris offered much safer odds for Biden to win, both predicted a House and Senate majority for Democrats, and both understated Donald Trump’s chances in Florida.

The feud cooled off for the midterms last year, but one has to imagine that Morris taking over at the site Silver built must sit uncomfortably with him. Silver did not respond to requests for comment, but reports state that he’ll be taking most of his forecasting models with him when he exits FiveThirtyEight, so there will be lots of rebuilding for Morris to do in his new role — and pressure to get things right. Speaking with Deadline, Morris said that there will be a “restructuring of how data journalism and FiveThirtyEight and ABC News work together” when he starts on June 26 with about a third of the staff Silver had. “This is going to be a similar experience for readers, but on the back end, we have an exciting opportunity to sort of rebuild, rebuild everything,” Morris told Deadline. “That doesn’t come around once in a while.”

A Brutal Wonk Swap at FiveThirtyEight