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How to think about the polls as the mid-terms approach
Steer clear of media narratives. Focus in on what's happening in the real world.
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With Senate races razor close and control of the House relying on over 400 individual elections, no one knows exactly what’s going to happen in this election. Even many pundits, prognosticators and reporters in the corporate media have, in moments of candidness, called it a “weird” or “odd” election in which they really don’t have a clue who will win because it appeared to defy tradition. There is, after all, a violent threat to democracy and an ongoing coup, not to mention the Supreme Court stripping bodily autonomy.
Nonetheless, many in the corporate media do still have an impulse to push a narrative, a drive to promote a horserace, a terrible fear of being wrong, and a fierce determination to be right — all impacted by clicks, eyeballs and access.
And, in my opinion, they have a greater fear of being wrong if they miscalculate a Republican win, because MAGA world will never let them live it down, tormenting them mercilessly and targeting them as the “liberal media” (as they’ve done in the past) while GOP politicians will deny them access, accusing them of “bias” — something that is already happening in key races, like Wisconsin’s governor’s race, where New York Times reporters were turned away from Republican Tim Michels’ event.
So, just to recap a few things: Earlier in the year we saw a narrative in the corporate media driven by conventional wisdom: The party out of power always wins seats in the first mid-term after a presidential election.
(Funny though, I don’t recall that narrative being pushed in 2017, while Trump was in office and Democrats hoped to take back the House. I remember prognosticators saying it would be awfully hard for Democrats to take back the House — until later in 2018, as they followed polls showing where the momentum was going, even as they still underestimated a 40-plus seat blue wave.)
After the leaked draft of the Dobbs decision, and after the ruling itself overturning Roe v. Wade, many in the media dismissed the political impact, saying it wouldn’t have much of an effect. It appeared to just mess with their narrative too much, in my opinion, so they downplayed it.
But then came the referendum on abortion in Kansas and a lopsided win for abortion rights that defied the polls. Then came special elections, including Alaska’s one congressional seat and New York’s rural 19th district, in which Republicans were supposed to win but where Democrats surged running on the issue of abortion. Democrats over-performed in every special election since the Dobbs decision.
That forced the media to take it seriously and the narrative shifted to Democrats having momentum.
Now, however, based on polls in key races and the generic ballot for the House, the media is saying the momentum has shifted back to the Republicans. The one poll they’ve mostly focused on — even as other generic ballot polls show numbers not as favorable to the GOP — is The New York Times Siena College poll which claimed that independent women had shifted 32 points — from favoring Democrats by 14 points in September to favoring Republicans by 18 points in October. All of this was based on a sample of just 95 independent women, which had a lot of people skeptical.
But, whatever. Perhaps things did really shift like this, as odd (and scary) as it seems. Who knows? What is true is that right now you can find polls to back up either narrative regarding momentum.
The Senate race in ruby red Utah is a virtual tie, for example, with Republican Senator Mike Lee, a Trumpist who helped Trump plot the fake electors scheme, in trouble, as independent Evan McMullin is only 4 points behind him, within the margin of error. In Iowa, Democrat Mike Franken could take down powerful Republican Senator Chuck Grassley, with an A-rated poll by the highly respected J. Ann Selzer showing Franken three points behind Grassley — within the margin of error. In Oklahoma, the Democratic candidate for governor, Joy Hofmeister, has surged, leading 49-42 against GOP Trumpist Governor Kevin Stitt.
And there are many House races — including in Montana’s first district, where Monica Tranel has a chance to beat Trump’s former interior secretary Ryan Zinke — that are tied even though Republicans should have locked them down.
The point I’m making is that when so many polls are so close, while others show wide disparity, there’s enough there to stitch together different narratives.
Even as I feel good about the momentum I’ve seen among Democrats for months, I honestly don’t know what will happen, and I won’t tell you not to look at polls — because I do look at them every day. And I know you will.
But what I will say is, look at all the polls, soak up everything that’s out there, look at averages too. And I’d add this: Stay away from media narratives and look at what we see in actual votes vs. polls.
Not only have we seen Democrats have surprising wins in real elections this past summer, but we’re seeing massive early vote turnout among Democrats, even topping 2018, while the early vote turnout among Republicans is roughly the same as 2018. In key states, there’s strong turnout among women — and we know registration among women surged after the Dobbs decision — and people of color.
There are many variables regarding early vote data to take into account before you can make any predictions — so I’d caution against that — including the fact that there is more access to early voting than a few years ago, that different age groups are voting at different times than they did in the past, and that Republicans traditionally turn out more on Election Day.
But all of that being said, it’s great seeing this kind of turnout and it’s a lot better than if we didn’t see it. Everyone should hold their breath a bit, stay focused, steer clear of anxiety-provoking, click-baiting media, and get the vote out.