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As I was scouting the returns on Tuesday evening — in preparation for and during the Ricochet podcast — I noticed that in a number of races the polls were way off. No poll that I know of predicted anything like the landslide Tom Cotton achieved in Arkansas; none suggested that the Senatorial race in Virginia would be a cliff-hanger; none gave Scott Walker anything like the margin of victory that he received in Wisconsin. I could go on.
There were, however, so many races taking place that I was unable at the time to discern whether this was a general trend, and by the time that I had a few moments free to look into the question (which is to say, this morning), Nate Silver had run all the numbers. Here is a taste of what he has to say:
For much of this election cycle, Democrats complained the polls were biased against them. They said the polls were failing to represent enough minority voters and applying overly restrictive likely-voter screens. They claimed early-voting data was proving the polls wrong. They cited the fact that polls were biased against Democrats in 2012.
The Democrats’ complaints may have been more sophisticated-seeming than the “skewed polls” arguments made by Republicans in 2012. But in the end, they were just as wrong. The polls did have a strong bias this year — but it was toward Democrats and not against them.
Based on results as reported through early Wednesday morning — I’ll detail our method for calculating this in a moment — the average Senate poll conducted in the final three weeks of this year’s campaign overestimated the Democrat’s performance by 4 percentage points. The average gubernatorial poll was nearly as bad, overestimating the Democrat’s performance by 3.4 points.
You should read the whole thing — because part of his point is that 2014 was the mirror image of 2012. Last time, the polls skewed towards the Republicans; this time they skewed towards the Democrats.
Polling is, as a colleague of mine remarked a day or two ago, a competitive business. Those who succeed in predicting with considerable accuracy the results in an election have an edge in getting work from private-sector operations interested in sampling opinion. Those that go awry lose business.
But it is also exceedingly hard to get things right. In the weeks leading up to this election, I frequently went to Real Clear Politics to see what the polls were predicting. In my gut, I thought that there ought to be a wave. Obama’s failures were legion. Thanks to Harry Reid’s handling of the Senate, there was no daylight between the incumbent senators and the president, and Obama kept doing the Republicans’ work for them by insisting that the election was a referendum on his policies.
But my gut instinct in 2012 was similar, as some of you will remember. At that time, I thought that the polls were skewed and that the handwriting was on the wall for Barack Obama. Given his performance, I said to myself, how can it be otherwise? And Romney had trounced him in the first debate in a way that I had never seen a presidential candidate trounced.
As it turned out, I underestimated the effectiveness of the Democrats’ turn-out operation. I underestimated the folly of young voters. And I underestimated the ineptitude of the Romney campaign.
But I had been right two years earlier, in 2010. In fact, I predicted a Republican landslide for that year in September, 2009. This had nothing to do with the polls at the time and everything to do with my judgment of the significance of the Tea Party insurgency. Obama intended a revolution, and the opposition had formed.
In 2012, I trusted my gut and I was wrong. This year, I held back from making predictions on the conviction that 2012 had demonstrated that I had not kept up, that the country had changed, that sluts really did vote, and that my understanding of the American character was overly optimistic. And so, this time, I was overly pessimistic. The generic voting polls suggested that the Republicans would win in a landslide; the polls for particular races suggested that the landslide might not affect the Senate and the gubernatorial races. I doubted whether I could make an accurate prediction — and this time I was wrong in not trusting my gut.
So what is the takeaway? First, the polls are often wrong. It is really hard to predict what will happen because it is really hard to predict who will turn out. This is true in midterm elections, and it is no less true in presidential elections. Second, my gut is not terribly reliable either.
We live in a time in which things are fluid. This year, the Republicans got a majority of the Asian vote. That is a real shift, and I know of no one who saw it coming. This year, the Republicans received 36% of the Hispanic vote. That is telling as well. This year, when Republicans had many more gubernatorial chairs to defend than the Democrats, they added dramatically to their strength in that regard. And with regard to the state houses and the state senates they did better than at any time since the 1920s.
Elections are a bit like the stock market. Past performance does not predict future returns.Published in