Editor's note: In Oct. 2016, Dartmouth News followed up with Enten to talk about his work at FiveThirtyEight.
It’s fitting that Harry Enten ’11 opens a telephone interview by immediately diving in about the weather.
“It’s a bit cold today, a bit windy, but it’s supposed to warm up,” he says of the system over New York City.
After all, Enten is a forecaster at heart. A political forecaster, that is. And he’s recently landed a gig working for one of America’s most renowned political barometers, Nate Silver, and his popular blog, FiveThirtyEight.
“It’s sort of surreal right now,” Enten says of being hired at FiveThirtyEight, which refers to the total number of electoral votes in presidential elections. Silver gained widespread fame for accurately predicting how 49 of the 50 states would vote in the 2008 presidential election. In 2012, Silver predicted the results for all 50 states in President Barack Obama’s re-election victory.
A little more than two years ago, however, Enten was in the middle of a discouraging six-month job search. He had graduated from Dartmouth, and was living with his parents in New York. Sometimes he got rejections, for others he didn’t even get a response. “You start wondering, even though you have faith in your skills,” he says. “My mom told me to just keep writing.”
And that’s what he did. He wrote constantly for his blog, Margin of Error, analyzing political polling and statistics, and formulating arguments supported by data. His work began to get noticed by pundits, and was even cited by Silver. Eventually, The Guardian asked him to write a freelance piece. “I made sure it was the best thing I’d ever written,” he says. Soon thereafter, the government major was hired as a writer for The Guardian.
Enten’s last column for The Guardian was published November 15. He will begin his work in January as a senior writer for Silver’s blog, once the blog completes its transition fromThe New York Times to ESPN. Silver, whose background is in baseball statistics, announced the move last summer.
“Anything that Nate touches these days seems to turn to gold,” says Enten. And now that Silver’s tapped him, that would seemingly include Enten, too. But he’s had golden ideas well before this. He began blogging in 2009 while at Dartmouth, and his posts were cited by outlets like The Atlantic, The New Republic, and The Economist while he was still a student.
Statistics have long fascinated Enten. Rather than be an ideologue, he prefers to develop arguments supported by numbers. For example, just three days after the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in Newtown, Conn., Enten predicted that, despite a wave of public outcry for more gun control measures, Obama would have a very difficult time pushing meaningful action through Congress—even in the Democrat-controlled Senate.
“Twelve Democratic senators are from states that Romney won,” wrote Enten. In addition, “the Democratic base on which Obama rode to victory doesn’t completely line up with stronger gun control. Even after Newtown, support for stricter gun laws barely reaches 50 percent. Before the events at Newtown, opinion in favor of stricter gun control measures was at an all-time low.”
In April, Obama’s bill failed to pass the Senate.
The 25-year-old comes off as confident, but not arrogant—“You’re probably a better writer than me,” he says during a recent interview. “My young age keeps me humble, but I do think I know this stuff.” Enten knows the numbers well partly because his focus is narrow, he says.
One of his former professors, John Carey, chair of the Department of Government and the John Wentworth Professor in the Social Sciences, says Enten found a niche and made the most of it.
“Harry basically just started doing the job he wanted before anyone thought to pay him for it,” says Carey. While statistics are a field that’s growing, there are still few job opportunities for number crunchers, Enten says.
“What I do is so specific,” says Enten. “A reporter’s job is really not what I do. What I do is much more analytical, and there are very few jobs where I fit.”
But he found one where he certainly does. He’ll be one of 15 to 20 employees at FiveThirtyEight. The fact that he will be one of the blog’s lead writers hasn’t hit him yet, and he insists he won’t let a title change him. “I’m the same person who was on the Dartmouth campus just a few years ago,” says Enten.
That person was one who knew he wanted to go into statistics, and Enten appreciates the way Dartmouth enabled him to pursue his passion. “Dartmouth worked for me,” he says. “For me, the ability to go into what you really like right off the bat was huge. I don’t know if you get that at other institutions. All my courses gave me the skill set I needed to take with me after college.”
He’s taken those skills a long way already.
“A couple years out of Dartmouth, Harry’s standing on what is probably one of the most prominent platforms in American political journalism,” says Carey. “It’s pretty remarkable.”
The conversation winds down, and Enten has to get back to his writing. But before we hang up, I can’t resist asking him one last question: Who wins the 2016 election?
“I’ll say this: Hillary Clinton is in the strongest position to win the Democratic primary than any non-incumbent in history,” he says. “The polling is so ridiculously strong for her. She’s much stronger than in 2008.”
But the statistics, at least at this point, do have limits.
“I have no idea about the general election,” he says with a laugh. Stay tuned.