Political polling is one of the dark arts, “cloaked in a kind of scientific mysticism that sometimes feels deliberately opaque.” Everybody from Donald Trump to legitimate political journalists are known to take the result of one or two polls and then use the information to make a sweeping prediction about any given race. The problem with that, is that is any honest pollster will tell you, that polls are not predictive. They are educated guesses. They are good for discerning trends, but when it comes down to the margins of statistical error, that crucial six points or so that can make or break an election, they are useless. Nobody states this fact more vociferously than the pollsters themselves. Yet despite that, pundits keep grabbing the latest polls and making a definitive stand. Vanity Fair:
Journalists, at least on their Twitter accounts, have started to write off certain Senate races. Tennessee is one, North Dakota another. Joe Donnelly was left for dead last week, until a new NBC/Marist poll came out this week, showing him ahead by 2 points. In Nevada, a recent Emerson poll showed incumbent Republican Dean Heller ahead of challenger Jacky Rosen by 7 points, prompting a chorus of worried groans from Democrats. People who know better urged caution.
“Consistently, the public polling here is garbage,” Nevada political journalist Jon Ralston told me. He pointed out that public polling in Nevada underestimated Democratic performance in every one of the last six competitive statewide elections. In 2010, Harry Reid was losing to Republican Sharron Angle by 3 points heading into election day. He won by 5.7. “Polls here under-represent Democratic turnout in general. They under-represent Hispanics,” Ralston said. “I don’t know why no one has learned.” Funny stuff happens when people who don’t mainline CNN for a living actually vote.
Nobody learns despite the same lesson being taught over and over again. The lessons of 2008 and 2012, when the Iowa caucuses said one thing and the result for Obama was another, and when Mitt Romney was downright befuddled because his internal tracking told him one thing and the electorate quite another, are significant lessons, and only a few of the examples which could be cited. Yet, even though polling errors are legion, and the Election Day 2016 poll of 71% probability of Hillary Clinton becoming president is positively heartbreaking, people still attach themselves to the polls for one simple reason: that’s all we have and we need to know. Something is better than nothing.
So, once and again the runes of political polling are thrown, as we desperately look to achieve prophecy, or at the very least, consensus. What every pollster knows is that when it comes right down to it, there is one magic formula: know the composition of the electorate. The only problem with this mandate? It’s damn near impossible, and never more so than this midterm election in the Era of Trump.
You know who knows the precise composition of this year’s electorate? No one. Electorates mutate every two years. They get older, they get younger, they get browner, they get whiter, they get smaller, they get bigger. They respond to new candidates and shifting issue sets. Using past turnout patterns can be useful when modeling a universe of voters, but the polls cannot tell us with certainty what will happen on Election Day anymore. In a volatile environment where Trump has saturated every inch of our cultural fabric with politics, who the hell knows what’s going to happen? Maybe Democrats might actually win the Senate. Maybe Republicans will keep the House. Maybe Trump’s nativist final push will actually yield big returns just where he needs them. Or maybe not! Just let people vote. The only currency to cling to in the post-Trump era is that all bets are off.
A shifting electorate every two years is the norm, but this time “new voters are storming the gates in the Trump era and throwing turnout models out the window.” In Virginia alone, 30 percent of the people who voted in 2017 had not voted in either the 2009 or 2013 governor’s races, according to this article. The turnout for early voting has been explosive, and
University of Florida professor Michael McDonald, who studies voting patterns, estimated recently that almost 50 percent of eligible voters could cast ballots this year, a turnout level not seen in a midterm election in 50 years.
This is the most significant midterm election in our lifetimes, if not in American history. There are enough toss up seats within the margin of statistical error, to where either the conventional wisdom of Democrats taking the House and Republicans keeping the Senate will prevail, or Dems could take both chambers or Repubs could keep both.
We’ve been waiting for this day since November 9, 2016, and nobody knows anything. And that’s the truth. All we can do at this point is everything humanly possible to get people out to the only poll that matters, the ballot box. That, and hang onto your hats, because either way it goes down, the only guarantee is that tomorrow night a sharp turn in the road will be taken, one way or the other. From the results of tomorrow’s election, things are going to get really interesting. That’s the only thing you can be sure of at this point. Anybody who says anything different is blowing smoke.
To receive articles of mine not published elsewhere become a patron on Patreon.
Please follow me on Twitter @ursulafaw56