Harry Enten '11 reflects on election predictions

by Vignesh Chockalingam | 2/7/17 2:05am

On Friday in Filene Auditorium, senior political writer for FiveThirtyEight Harry Enten ’11 returned to campus to discuss the successes and downfalls of polling and prediction. The talk, titled “Aftermath: What the 2016 Election Taught Us About Polls, Predictions and American Politics,” and subsequent question and answer session were led by government professor Dean Lacy. Over 200 people, including students and professors, attended.

At the talk, Enten discussed his career path and work at FiveThirtyEight, a data journalism website, focusing mainly on his statistical prediction of the 2016 presidential election. Enten then fielded various questions about his experiences at Dartmouth, political trends and the many causes of flawed polling and prediction in the recent election.

The event was sponsored by the government department, The Dartmouth Institute for Health Policy and Clinical Practice, the program in Quantitative Social Science, the Politics and Law program and the Rockefeller Center for Public Policy.

The talk was followed by a dinner in which Enten discussed topics ranging from a viral song about his love life to his experiences at FiveThirtyEight. Over thirty students were in attendance.

Reflecting on the talk, Sam Ching ’19 said it “helped [him] better understand the process behind the whole art of polling and science of forecasting.”

Paolo Takagi-Atilano ’19, a reader of FiveThirtyEight since the 2012 senatorial elections, also said he found Enten’s experiences illuminating.

“I think the [political] right has adopted a kind of ‘reject the experts’ mentality recently, and FiveThirtyEight has been lumped in with those pundits and experts, and I thought it was really interesting how [Enten] said he tries to combat that,” Takagi-Atilano said.

Enten said he was first approached about visiting Dartmouth by TDI professor Steve Woloshin, who invited him to speak in one of his classes on survey research. Lacy said that he and Rockefeller program officer Joanne Needham then invited Enten to take part in a public talk on Friday.

Prior to the event, Lacy, who taught Enten in several classes and independent studies, said he had two hopes for what students might get out of the event. The first, he said, was a look into Enten’s unique career path, as he in essence created his own job.

“I think it’s an inspirational story for people,” Lacy said. “You know what you want to do. You just do it. You don’t take a job that somebody else defines for you. You define your own job. I think that’s what [Enten] did. That’s a lesson for a lot of students,”

Second, Lacy said he hoped that students would gain “an understanding of contemporary American politics through the eyes of, in [his] opinion, the premier political analyst of his generation.”

Lacy said he could tell that Enten would be a prominent political mind after Enten visited Dartmouth during his senior year of high school and asked to meet with Lacy. Hearing Enten discuss politics and elections, Lacy said he could already see Enten’s passion.

During his time at Dartmouth, Enten said he served as treasurer of the Dartmouth National Assocation for the Advancement of Colored People and coordinated the general campus-wide student elections through the Election Planning and Advisory Committee. He also wrote popular weekly emails to campus that included his forecast of the weather and personal thoughts. In 2011, Enten graduated with a bachelor of arts in government. For six months after, Enten encountered an unreceptive job market.

“I didn’t do anything. I was on my parents’ couch,” Enten said.

Nevertheless, Enten continued to write for his independent blog, “Margin of Error,” as he had done throughout his time at Dartmouth. Eventually, his blog caught the eye of the U.S. branch of The Guardian, a British newspaper, whose editors asked him to write a guest piece on the start of the 2012 presidential primary season. He found success at The Guardian and became a part-time, and then full-time, employee for two years. In 2013, editor-in-chief of FiveThirtyEight Nate Silver reached out to him via email, and thus began Enten’s career at FiveThirtyEight, where he still works.

At his current job, Enten said he “is essentially a numbers guy.”

“What I tend to work with is data sets and trying to relay that data in a way that people will understand it,” he said.

During the presidential election, Enten played a large role in FiveThirtyEight’s statistical predictions. Needham said that Enten’s role in the relatively successful predictions of FiveThirtyEight was part of the reason for the Rockefeller Center’s interest in arranging Enten’s talk.

“The polls were wrong in a lot of cases, and this campaign was unlike any other. FiveThirtyEight wasn’t as off as most of the other analysts,” she said.

Correction Appended (February 7, 2017):

A previous version of the headline for the article misspelled Enten's first name. The article has been updated to reflect this correction.