By Tim Donner
With the harrowing vision of their disastrous performance in 2016 still fresh in their heads, pollsters far and wide have to be feeling mighty skittish as midterm elections beckon just hours from now.
There was seemingly little introspection among the polling class as to how things could have gone so terribly wrong in their near-unanimous proclamation that Hillary Clinton was a shoo-in in the most recent national election. But whether they acknowledge it or not, their outdated and myopic view of national politics is now threatened as never before.
Only Rasmussen and the much-maligned LA Times tracking poll detected the Trump wave and nailed the outcome. All the others were dead wrong, as Trump won a decisive victory in the only count that matters, the electoral college, by a margin of 14% (304-227).
Swing and a Miss
Nevertheless, the wizened experts in forecasting political outcomes carry on as if their swing-and-miss two years ago was nothing but an aberration. They unveiled early and often the phrase which, one way or another, will come to define historical accounts of the 2018 campaign: “blue wave.”
This phrase implies not mildly choppy seas or gentle ripples lapping ashore, but a force that hits land with such impact as to alter the political landscape.
Thus, the question is, what constitutes a “wave” election? A reasonable definition would include a net pickup of some ten percent of seats in the House and Senate. That would be roughly 40 seats in the House and five in the Senate. And in a presidential election year, it would obviously include a new president from the party which had not held the office for the last four or eight years.
Keep on Chanting
While early iterations of the blue wave mantra were forecasting a ground-shaking pickup by the Democrats of over 50 seats in the House and a reasonable shot at taking the Senate, pollsters have been pulling backs the reins in light of Kavanaugh and the Caravan – the twin political nightmares for the left.
With most reasonable forecasts now predicting that Republicans will continue to control the Senate, what kind of net gain would the Democrats have to achieve in the House for this to rightly be considered a genuine wave election?
Well, you don’t have to go back far in recent history to understand wave elections. In fact, four of the last six national elections could rightly be considered as such.
In 2006, the fast-fading popularity of President George W. Bush and ill-timed scandals in the GOP led to Democrats picking up 31 seats in the House and six in the Senate, and seizing control of both chambers.
In 2008, we witnessed a rare second consecutive wave election. In that year of Barack Obama’s hope and change, and the great economic meltdown, the Dems built upon their big wins two years earlier by adding the presidency, 21 more seats in the House and six in the Senate, reaching their high-water mark of the 21st century. But little did they realize at the time that it would be downhill from there.
The pollsters are no longer worth the fortune they are paid.
In 2010, the year of the tea party movement, an unprecedented third consecutive wave election went in the opposite direction. Republicans fueled by widespread rage about Obamacare, picked up a whopping 63 seats in the lower chamber and four in the upper, regaining control of both houses of Congress.
And well do we remember 2016 when switching out Obama for Donald Trump by itself constituted the ultimate wave election.
Does 2018 have the same feel as those four wave elections over the last dozen years?
A Reason to Worry?
One of the sharpest and most sober political analysts, Sean Trende of Real Clear Politics, makes a strong case that the pollsters are prone to overanalyzing early voting – more than 30 million votes have already been cast across the nation – and have reason to worry.
Interpretations of [early voting] are susceptible to bias confirmation, where we tend to accept suggestions that reinforce our previously held vision of what will happen. In 2016, many analysts convinced themselves that the early vote was good news for Democrats, when they probably should have been paying attention to the drop-off in African-American early voting participation and the fact that the Republican presidential nominee was actively encouraging his voters to avoid early voting.
Early voting returns have not been particularly favorable to Democrats so far, and look older, whiter and more Republican than we might expect in a Democratic wave scenario. Analysis of early returns in Nevada – one of the only places I think analysis of early returns is sensible, since such a large portion of the electorate votes early – suggest a much closer Senate race than we should probably expect in a big Democratic year. From this, it is easy to conclude, as some have done, that the wave is not building.
This possibility alone should keep analysts awake at night, because it is a straight-faced suggestion that the conventional wisdom is badly off, as it was in 2016.
So, what happens if the pollsters are wrong again? Will their entire profession be put on double secret probation, or permanently discredited?
President Trump continues on the stump around the clock, evoking memories of his legendary last two weeks of the 2016 campaign. He has put his reputation on the line in state after state. Thus, if Republicans defy history, keep the House and maintain or add to their narrow majority in the Senate, we can draw at least two conclusions: the pollsters are no longer worth the fortune they are paid, and this president has entirely changed how politics is done – for the foreseeable future at least, and perhaps forever.