The New York Times Election Needle Is Back: Here’s How It Works

Our forecasting tool can help you understand which candidate or party is on track for victory. Look for it around 7 p.m. Eastern time.

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By The New York Times

  • Nov. 8, 2022, 1:23 p.m. ET

The needle is an innovative forecasting tool that was created by The Times and debuted in 2016. It is intended to help you understand what the votes tallied so far suggest about possible winners in key contests, before the election is called.

Watching the votes come in on election night can be confusing and hard to follow. Results arrive piecemeal, district by district, county by county, state by state. Worse, those results are often deeply unrepresentative. Sometimes, only one kind of vote — like mail-in ballots or Election Day votes — has been counted. Unless you’re an expert, it can be really hard to figure out which candidate and party is really on track for victory.

That’s why we created the needle, a running forecast of the likely victor. (And when the needle doesn’t know, it will tell you that, too.) It projects the final result based on an analysis of the vote that’s been counted and an estimate of how many votes are still left to be counted.

The needle compares the election results to our pre-election expectations for each county or precinct. It estimates how the remaining votes will break, based on the patterns in the results counted so far.

Much like a weather forecast, the needle cannot be absolutely certain, but the running estimate shows a range of possibilities that add up to a probability of the winner. For example, if the needle shows that a candidate or a party has an 80 percent chance of succeeding, that really means 80 percent. When the National Weather Service says the chance of rain is 20 percent, you still might bring an umbrella with you when you leave the house.

It’s the smartest way to watch election returns and the best gauge of what could happen on election night.

We have focused on two needles for the midterm elections: one showing the likelihood that either party will gain control of the House and the other showing the probability that either party will control the Senate. Look for it around 7 p.m. Eastern time.

Our needle starts off with a baseline estimate of how every county or precinct will vote and how the votes will break, whether for the Republican, Democratic or other party candidate. These estimates are based on recent election results, historical trends, demographic data and the most recent polling. As soon as we get a decent number of votes, the assumptions based on those polls disappear quickly, and the needle looks at the votes coming in.

Our estimates of how many votes will be cast is based on how many people voted in the last few election cycles. We then adjust to account for other dynamics, like shifts in demographics.

Before election night, the needle starts with these assumptions, meaning there is already a probability for each race. But once the vote tallies start coming in, the needle goes into action, constantly shifting its estimates based on the new data. For example, if turnout is higher in one area than we had estimated, we will adjust our assumptions for total voters for a similar area. If results show a starker shift toward the Democratic candidate for a county than our forecast did, we will adjust the prediction of Democratic votes for a similar county. Eventually, as the night goes on, the new data provides a check against our baseline data to give an ever more accurate forecast of the winner.


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