Meet 18-year-old Niles Francis, the next generation of election forecaster

[Courtesy of Niles Francis]
ByDanielle Bernstein
Originally Published: 

If you’re one of Niles Francis’s more than 13,000 Twitter followers, you could be forgiven for assuming he’s a seasoned election forecaster with years of experience and an elite university degree under his belt. Francis creates election maps and contributes to premier election forecasting outlets like Decision Desk HQ and Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball; he has become a central figure of the corner of the Internet known to insiders as “Election Twitter.”

But unlike other election mappers, Francis is 18 years old. He only just graduated in May from South Cobb High School in Austell, Georgia.

“Some of it is self-taught, some of it is learning from others,” Francis, who has an almost encyclopedic knowledge of down-ballot races across the country, tells Mic. A benefit of the online community Francis has joined: “We’ve become real, actual friends over the course of the last few months and years. There’s a really big social aspect to it.”

For Francis, that’s a course correction for an otherwise isolated high school experience.

“At school I wasn’t really a social person,” he says, in a disarmingly deep register. Outside of honors classes, Francis didn’t join any high school clubs or teams. Raised by a single mom after his father died from a brain tumor when Francis was only 9 years old, Francis found community outside the schoolyard — within his family and with local volunteer groups.

Not many other teenagers read the Almanac of American Politics for fun.

Since at least the 2016 election, politics has been his main hobby. Back then, he mostly got involved by canvassing and volunteering for Democratic candidates in Georgia, driven in part by the enhanced political activism of the Trump era. (Francis was 15 when Donald Trump was elected.) Jon Ossoff’s run for Congress in Georgia’s 6th District in 2017 was particularly energizing. In 2018, Francis became active on Twitter and started breaking into map-making — and though he doesn’t remember what his first map was, once he gained a following, politics became all-consuming. Election junkies are in some ways a more natural social outlet for Francis than fellow high schoolers anyway; after all, not many other teenagers read the Almanac of American Politics for fun.

“Honestly it keeps me sharp, because there aren’t a lot of 18-year-olds who can carry on a conversation like that,” J. Miles Coleman, associate editor of the Crystal Ball and Francis’s sparring partner on Twitter, tells Mic. Francis and Coleman often stay up late into the night discussing polls or elections over Zoom; Coleman is helping Francis develop his collection of Almanacs, and gifted him the 2020 edition for his high school graduation.

For a teenager like Francis, who is Black and lives nowhere near the Beltway, making inroads in a field that has long been predominantly white and pedigree-oriented inherently sets him apart.

“The election forecasting and just the political world in general can be very hard to break into,” Coleman says.

“I do wish the field were more diverse, but it’s not really something I think about a lot,” Francis says. “At the end of the day we all share a common interest.” As soon as he and other election junkies start talking about politics, Francis says, “our backgrounds, they’re kind of on the backburner.”

Anyone looking for niche political commentary will be right at home on Francis’s Twitter page. Case in point: To celebrate reaching 10,000 Twitter followers earlier this summer, Francis shared a map that he crafted comparing Stacey Abrams’s percentage of the vote in Georgia counties in her 2018 gubernatorial race with how House Democratic candidates fared that same year.

Francis’s knowledge of Georgia in particular may gain him even more traction in the coming months, as pundits debate whether the historically red state is truly in play this November.

“Niles has risen to the top of that group of people on Twitter analyzing elections because he’s able to offer a lot to his followers in terms of really interesting and incisive and insightful analysis,” Gabe Fleisher, a fellow teenage wunderkind who has gained a national following with his “Wake Up To Politics” newsletter, tells Mic. “People look for authenticity, they look for passion — I think Niles has both of those.”

Having a platform like Twitter is a big part of Francis’s success. In a pre-Internet era, Francis may not have gained the traction he has now.

“That’s the beauty of the system we’re in now, that a brilliant 16-, 17-year-old can teach himself how to do this and by 18 become an influencer in Georgia politics,” Greg Bluestein, a political reporter for the Atlanta-Journal Constitution, tells Mic. “You don’t need a cartography degree from Yale or a master’s degree in political science to do this kind of thing anymore. You need an acumen to do it, you need the time and ability to do it, you need mentors.”

Francis’s first foray into election mapping in 2018 came at a time of great personal tragedy. In the fall of that year, when he was a junior in high school, he and his family lost all their possessions in a house fire. In the meantime, teachers, relatives and friends helped Francis and his younger sister get clothes and supplies. Then, a month later, his mother died unexpectedly of diabetes. Just days after his mother died, Francis was back in classes, despite his teachers urging him to take some time off.

Since then, Francis has been living with his grandparents, including throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, which upended the traditions he otherwise expected from his senior year of high school. Prom, in particular, was something Francis was looking forward to — if only to see if it lived up to the hype.

Though Francis’s national following came after his mother passed, she was alive to see his political activism locally in Georgia. After campaigning in the 2016 election, Francis became active with the Cobb County Democratic Committee and Democratic politics around the state.

“You have to learn to speak out whenever you see something that isn’t just or fair.”

“I had been trying to get her to come to some of the meetings with me but she was always working, which I admired her for,” Francis says. “I told her about everything I was doing and she was really proud of me.”

His mother — a teacher — was also alive to see Francis make his first inroads with policy. After the 2018 school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that prompted nationwide protests (which Francis took part in), he emailed his state senator asking her why Georgia schools didn’t do school lockdown drills more frequently. At the time, though schools (including Francis’s) did conduct lockdown drills, such drills were not mandated by the state.

Francis’s email eventually turned into state legislation mandating lockdown drills in public and private schools. Once the bill was drafted, Francis testified at the Georgia state capitol in support of it. The original bill ultimately stalled, but its language was added to a different bill that became law, which mandates that public schools conduct drills based on guidance from the Georgia Emergency Management and Homeland Security Agency.

Francis credits his political activism in part to his family. His grandfather grew up in Alabama, where he was active in the civil rights movement in the 1960s. Francis’s personal hero is the late Rep. John Lewis, whom he met twice, once at a hearing in Georgia on voting rights.

“You have to learn to speak out whenever you see something that isn’t just or fair, and he taught all of us that,” Francis says of Lewis.

That ethos is part of why Francis frequently offers his opinions to his followers, unlike some other election analysts who aim for nonpartisanship. He unabashedly threw his weight behind Abrams in the 2018 race for Georgia governor, as he does now for pretty much any statewide or congressional Democratic candidate in Georgia, and he’s been outspoken in his opposition to Georgia Sen. Kelly Loeffler, among others. He also encourages his followers to contribute to campaigns throughout Georgia and beyond, including in races as far down the ballot as sheriff. More recently, Francis served as a Georgia delegate to the Democratic National Convention this summer.

“He’s obviously made his mark on the [Democratic] Party,” says Bluestein, who considers Francis a “jack of all trades.” Bluestein also notes that rising stars and high-profile politicians in Georgia, including potential future statewide candidates like state Sen. Jen Jordan, closely follow Francis’s work.

“He has quite the fan club.”

Last month, however, Francis got somewhat of a wake-up call to the downsides of having so great a following, when Marjorie Taylor Greene, a QAnon conspiracy theorist and the newly-minted Republican congressional nominee for Georgia’s 14th District, maligned Francis publicly. When Francis shared on Twitter that Greene had kicked Bluestein out of her election night victory party, Greene quote-tweeted him, calling reporters and implicitly Francis “the enemy of the people.” The influx of hate from many of Greene’s tens of thousands of QAnon-supporting followers led Francis to take a break from Twitter.

Francis wouldn’t comment to Mic about the incident. But as has often been the case, Francis’s network of supporters was there for him.

“It can be overwhelming because I think someone like Niles, if you’re just trying to put out into the world interesting information, interesting analysis, and to be met with such hatred and such ugly comments, for anyone at any age that’s just dispiriting and overwhelming,” says Fleisher, Francis’s fellow teenaged star.

Coleman, the associate editor of Crystal Ball, says he fielded messages from prominent journalists and politicians all day after Francis left Twitter, all of whom wanted to send Francis well wishes. “He has quite the fan club,” Coleman says. And though Francis took a small break from social media, he was still hard at work on an article for Decision Desk HQ, which Bluestein tweeted out for him at his request.

And while Francis isn’t sure yet what path he’ll pursue — first he has to decide how best to attend college in a pandemic, and then what to major in — his particular brand of punditry may not only be the future of political analysis, but also of Georgia politics in particular, as Georgia’s demographics become more diverse and the state stands on the precipice of shifting blue.

“He’s really talented and he could go into all sorts of different directions,” Bluestein says. “Whatever field he chooses to be in, he’s going to be among the tip of the spear of a new generation of folks.”