Thursday, 9 Apr 2020

What Is the Needle?

What is the needle?

The needle is one way of following election results.

When will it go live?

We expect to turn it on after votes have been counted in some early-reporting races, probably in Kentucky, Indiana and Virginia. We may have enough votes to begin around 7:30 or 8 p.m. Eastern time.

What does the needle show?

One needle will show our confidence that Democrats or Republicans will control the House of Representatives. Another will show the range of seats that each party could plausibly hold, while a third will show our estimate of the final national popular vote. We’ll also have needles showing our confidence that Democrats or Republicans will control the Senate and the likeliest numbers of seats for each party in that chamber. Details on the races behind the overall numbers will also be available.

Where are you getting these numbers?

Our forecasts use past results, initial returns and, to a small degree, results for candidates in similar places where votes have been reported. We’ve written in more detail here about how earlier election night needles worked, and how they can be “wrong.”

When the needle says 90%, that means 100%, right?

No. Ninety percent means nine out of 10.

Does >95% mean you’re projecting a winner?

No. The needle does not project winners.

What makes it hard?

In some parts of the country, early voters and Election Day voters are very different. When a county reports all of its early votes in one large batch, the results may not mean what you think they do. Additionally, rural areas and urban ones often report at different times. And “100 percent of precincts reporting” is no guarantee that anything like 100 percent of votes have been counted. In many places — including those with lots of mail voting, but also others — a significant number of votes will be counted after that point. Data is messy.

Does the needle cause anything to happen?

No. The needle merely reflects our understanding of something that has already happened. The probability needles are measures of uncertainty. We will be highly uncertain in close races until some votes have been counted, well after polls close in those races.

Can’t I just wait until it’s over?

Sure. (Or you could never look.) But if you’re going to follow live election results, we think you might as well do so with the benefit of context.

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