Nate Cohn, one of the creators of the Times needle, points out that it isn’t anything new. The TV networks that call elections use similar models to project who will win a state before all of the votes have been collected. Like the needle, the networks’ models understand that just looking at the raw counts of votes early in the night can be deceiving—they may come from a particularly Democratic or Republican part of the state. Cohn argues that the needle just makes the kind of analysis that TV networks do more transparent.

The needle’s finer points

This year, the Times will use the needle a little differently. The newspaper announced yesterday that it  won’t have a needle predicting the outcome of the election, but will have needles specifically for the outcomes of Florida, Georgia, and North Carolina. The Times said it wouldn’t offer a national guess due to uncertainty over the impact of mail-in voting, but feels comfortable projecting Florida, Georgia, and North Carolina because those states report the vast majority of their votes quickly, including mail-in ballots. If Biden wins any one of these states, Times modelers think he is likely to win the election.

One reasonable question about the needle is whether or not the starting probability should be based on polls; had the needle not started at 85% in 2016, perhaps it wouldn’t have given so many people a false certainty. This year, the Washington Post will also have an election-night model that estimates each state’s winner, but its baseline assumption is that all counties will vote as they did in 2016. That means Trump will start out as the favorite in WaPo’s model, with Biden gaining if results look different than they did four years ago. Unlike the Times, WaPo also won’t update its results until full counties report, whereas the Times makes updates when a full precinct reports.

Of course, there are those who say all election night modeling is a waste of energy. Why can’t we just wait a day or two for the official results? That’s not an unreasonable point. But for the millions of people who are paying close attention, the needle and similar election night forecasts represent a more informed way to understand the likelihood that Biden or Trump will win than watching pundits on TV.

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