‘Pollsters are holding their breath’ as Beltway journalists declare victory for Republicans

‘Pollsters are holding their breath’ as Beltway journalists declare victory for Republicans

Beltway journalists seem pretty convinced at this point that Republicans are resurgent in the closing weeks of the midterms while Democrats are in for a “shellacking.”

Much of that certainty seems to have been cemented by the New York Times/Siena college survey released early last week, which found Republicans leading Democrats by 3 points among likely voters in the generic ballot.

Other polls released just before and after that survey suggest a far less certain future. The Des Moines Register‘s Iowa survey conducted by polling legend Ann Selzer and released just two days before the Times poll showed 7-term incumbent GOP Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa was leading his Democratic rival Mike Franken by a mere 3 points. That’s not the stuff of a GOP sweep in a state Donald Trump won by 8 points.

The latest round of polling released over the last several days has also shown a much less predictable outcome.  A brief overview:

  • Siena Research (Ohio/Oct. 14-19): Gave Republicans a 7-point lead in the generic ballot, Trump won the state by 8 points. It had the Senate race dead even between Democratic Rep. Tim Ryan and Trump-endorsee J.D. Vance at 46%
  • NBC News/Hart/Public Opinion (National, Oct. 14-18): Generic ballot had D+1 among registered voters and R+1 among likely voters
  • Morning Consult (National, Oct. 18-20 & Oct. 21-23): Morning Consult released two polls of likely voters showing a D+2 advantage in the first and a D+3 advantage in the most recent

CNN released battleground polling Monday of likely voters that showed Democrats very competitive:

Pennsylvania Senate:
Fetterman (D): 51%
Oz: 45%

Pennsylvania governor:
Shapiro (D): 56%
Mastriano: 41%

Michigan governor:
Whitmer (D): 52%
Dixon: 46%

Wisconsin Senate:
Johnson: 50%
Barnes (D): 49%

Wisconsin governor:
Evers (D): 50%
Michels: 48%

CNN analyst Ron Brownstein summed up the current picture like this: “Close states are close & maybe bottom falls out at end for Ds w/late deciding voters (who may be more sensitive to economy) but narrative of big R surge seems…premature?”

Whatever conventional wisdom Beltway journalists have settled on, the picture seems much murkier. In fact, a New York Times opinion piece by Quoctrung Bui showed just how tenuous the pollsters themselves are about the uncertainty involved in their methodology these days.

“Pollsters are holding their breath,” reported Bui. Between rapidly changing phone habits, record-breaking turnout in the last two cycles, and Trump voters eschewing pollsters, uncertainty is skyrocketing in an industry where every sliver of a percentage point matters.

“What’s really troubling pollsters going into this election is that it’s unclear how much more error these problems will add during this cycle. In fact, many think it’s unknowable,” Bui writes.

Here’s a sampling of what pollsters told him:

Nobody knows who’s going to vote. In fact, right now, every poll could be wrong, because there are some people who think (both Democrats and Republicans) that we’re going to have higher turnout than 2018. No model is prepared for that. Most of the models are prepared for higher Republican turnout. Anna Greenberg, Democratic campaign pollster

There are very few actual persuadable voters out there and it’s all really an understanding of who’s actually going to show up to vote.

That’s where we get into the greater importance of likely voter models rather than the basic underpinnings of polling.

You create a sample of known people but then you create a model where you throw out some people to give you my best guess of which of these voters is going to show up. And that’s not polling. That is just statistical modeling. Patrick Murray, academic pollster

There isn’t a pollster who is telling the truth who doesn’t worry all the time about [falling response rates]. I like to quote Tennessee Williams, that we rely on the kindness of strangers. A stranger will pick up the phone, and after they hear who you are, they will continue to talk to you — for no payment! That’s not a business model that I see has an extensively long future.

[My approach] is — for now — working. Do I feel like there is a doomsday clock ticking? Yeah, I kind of do. Ann Selzer, Iowa-based private pollster

People are operating off of information that you’re unaware of. Pollsters don’t know what people are seeing, hearing and reading. And so you’re writing survey questions about politics when someone might be living in a completely different political world than the one you’re writing about. That has made it very complicated to measure what’s happening out there. -Anna Greenberg, Democratic campaign pollster

There’s plenty more where that came from in Bui’s piece—it’s a really interesting read. But suffice to say pollsters seem to be living on a knife’s edge—one cycle away from implosion at any given moment.

Times Chief Political Analyst Nate Cohn on Tuesday titled his subscriber newsletter The Tilt this way: “If These Poll Results Keep Up, Expect Anything on Election Night.”

Even Cohn seems pretty cautious about taking last week’s Times/Siena poll as gospel.

“If the national environment is a few points better for Republicans than these numbers, the prospect of a Republican landslide quickly starts looking plausible,” Cohn writes. “If the environment is better for Democrats, they will look surprisingly resilient for a midterm year, even if the outcome would be short of their summer hopes of defying gravity altogether.

“With just two weeks to go,” Cohn continues, “we’re running out of time for the polls to swing decisively either way. If so, we’re heading for a highly uncertain election night.”

We are likely headed for a surprisingly eventful election night (not to mention the days/weeks after) whether the polls start breaking one way or not. In fact, we may be past the point of surveys picking up some sort of late break one way or the other.

At this point, it’s all down to the voters: who turns out, who gets their friends and family to turn out, and which candidates capture sync with voters in the final push.

So much is on the line this election, and we need to make sure every eligible voter is able to cast their ballots. Sign up to volunteer for Election Protection to fight voter suppression and rampant disinformation. From field work to remote work you can do at home, there is something for every volunteer with Election Protection.

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How should we be reading the 2022 polls, in light of shifting margins and past misses? In this week’s episode of The Downballot Public Policy Polling’s Tom Jensen joins us to explain how his firm weights polls to reflect the likely electorate; why Democratic leads in most surveys this year should be treated as smaller than they appear because undecided voters lean heavily anti-Biden; and the surprisingly potent impact abortion has had on moving the needle with voters despite our deep polarization.

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