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With the midterm elections less than six weeks away, Democrats are starting to have reason to hope that an oft-predicted Republican landslide may not come to pass. In recent months, once-dire polling results have started to shift direction thanks in part to a handful of major legislative wins, falling gas prices and the emergence of abortion as a cornerstone issue for voters.
Forecasts now suggest that Democrats are favored to keep their majority in the Senate and have a puncher’s chance of holding onto the House. But party leaders could be forgiven for looking at this potential change in fortune with skepticism. In two of the last three election cycles, polls predicting big Democratic victories have been proven to be inaccurate once the votes were finally tallied.
In 2016, pollsters gave Hillary Clinton somewhere between a 70 and 99 percent chance of winning the presidency. Those forecasts, for a variety of reasons, grossly underestimated Donald Trump’s support in key swing states. That massive misfire led to an intense period of introspection within the polling industry. Many leading pollsters made significant changes to their methods to try to account for what they had missed previously. The 2018 midterms gave reason to believe those tweaks had worked — polls suggested Democrats were likely to retake the House, and they did.
Then in 2020, polls were even further off than they were four years earlier. Joe Biden won the presidency and Democrats reclaimed the Senate, but those victories had incredibly narrow margins when forecasts had indicated a “blue wave” was the most likely outcome.
Why there’s debate
Polls aren’t meant to be ironclad prophecies of what is going to happen — there’s always going to be an inherent amount of uncertainty. But a pair of high-profile misfires in just four years, both of them missing in the same direction, has led many to believe that the issues behind the 2016 and 2020 predictions remain, and polls may once again be overstating Democrats’ strength heading into the midterms.
Over the past few weeks, some of the most prominent polling experts in the U.S. have raised concerns that polls may get it wrong again. Nate Cohn of the New York Times wrote that the warning signs of past polling misses are “flashing again” — specifically noting that Democrats appear to be outperforming expectations in many of the same states that pollsters had misread in past elections. Experts say one of the biggest issues is that so-called MAGA Republicans — who often carry deep disdain for mainstream political structures — are much less likely to participate in polls than typical Democratic voters. That imbalance in the “non-response bias” can make it difficult, if not impossible, to gauge enthusiasm among the GOP base.
But others say there’s reason to believe that 2016 and 2020 were truly outliers that don’t actually represent a fundamental flaw in political polling. They argue that polls have gotten things mostly right in a long list of elections across the country in recent years and have even erred by overstating the GOP’s strength at times. Some also believe Trump himself may be the confounding factor that led to recent polling misses. He’s not on the ballot in November, which could mean polls are primed for a more accurate performance this time, they say.
One thing experts do agree on is that the battle to control Congress and win key governorships will be incredibly tight, even if polls are off by the same margin as in 2016 and 2020.
You can’t throw out the entire polling industry over two bad results
“People's concerns about the polls stem mostly from a sample of exactly two elections, 2020 and 2016. … True, in 2020 and 2016, polls were off the mark in a large number of races and states. But the whole notion of a systematic polling error is that it’s, well, systematic: It affects nearly all races, or at least the large majority of them. There just isn’t a meaningful sample size to work with here, or anything close to it.” — Nate Silver, FiveThirtyEight
Today’s polls look a lot like the ones that got it wrong in the previous elections
“Democratic Senate candidates are outrunning expectations in the same places where the polls overestimated Mr. Biden in 2020 and Mrs. Clinton in 2016.” — Nate Cohn, New York Times
Trump’s absence may make this year’s polls more reliable
“No one knows if that ‘nonresponse bias,’ as pollsters refer to it, is something that happens only when Trump is on the ballot … or whether it’s affecting polls this year, as well. And while pollsters have tried a variety of ways to improve their samples, there’s no way to know in advance if they made the right adjustments.” — David Lauter, Los Angeles Times
Political polling may just be fundamentally broken
A polling error of about 3 points on average is actually pretty normal. All polling is an inexact science attempting to model the opinion of a large population based on a sample of a small part of that population. … But if polls are consistently erring, over multiple cycles, in the same partisan direction, and often in the same states or regions, that may indicate a fundamental problem.” — Andrew Prokop, Vox
Even if polls are off, Democrats have reason to believe their fortunes are improving
“The wave of good news for Democrats also isn’t a mirage. The party is enjoying a mix of real political success and some genuine lucky breaks; the gains are real. … Most importantly, the Dobbs decision has turned abortion into one of the most pressing issues in the midterm elections. There’s no telling whether all of this will lead to big voter turnout among Democrats in November. But what is undeniable is that none of these conditions were present six months ago.” — Alex Shephard, The New Republic
Polls may be missing a rightward swing among Hispanic voters
“[Hispanic] voters, often hard to poll, were a reliable Democratic bloc for a decade through 2018, but less so in 2020. If they are shifting in a Republican direction this year, the polls may be understating the size of that effect on the electorate — which would be very bad news for Democrats in the crucial Senate races in Arizona, Nevada, and Colorado.” — Dan McLaughlin, National Review
Even though he’s not on the ballot, Trump makes it impossible to know whether to trust polls
“The doubts we have about polls reflect broader doubts about the ‘Trump effect’ in 2022. He’s not on the ballot, but he is very present in the political discourse, and even as a malevolent ghost, he may have permanently changed how his supporters think about voting, responding to polls, or (dis-)respecting election results.” — Ed Kilgore, New York
The polls will probably be wrong, but the we can’t know by how much or in which direction
“We don’t know if the polls will err this year. And if they do, we don’t know which party they might underestimate. Those who confidently predict polling error often end up famously wrong. But the possibility of Election Day polling error looms large — and that might keep political junkies feeling queasy, regardless of any other polling facts they know.” — David Byler, Washington Post
The public and media need to stop asking polls to be something they’re not
“Trying to determine whether the polls will be ‘right’ or not is the wrong approach. Instead, acknowledge the uncertainty that comes with politics and seek out polls that try to put this unique election in context. Simple metrics won’t cut it.” — Stephen Clermont, Politico
The real mistake is treating polls as predictions in the first place
“At their best, polls can empower the broader public to help influence crucial decisions. But it is important to recognize the limitations of surveys, in addition to the strengths. Recent national elections have reminded us how problematic it is when we think of polls as forecasts of the future rather than a glimpse at where people stand at a given moment in time.” — Laura Santhanam, PBS NewsHour
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