by Richard Cameron
The Mass Media Narrative On The Midterms Is Misleading
So here we are going into election day on Tuesday and you have been reading and hearing the summation of what is most likely to be the outcome Tuesday evening as the results from around the country come in. The wide majority of what I have seen, is this storyline about the inevitability of Republicans regaining control of the House of Representatives and being in a position to reclaim the Senate as well.
This fall, I wrote a column about the consensus that there was going to be a “Red Wave” – a colloquialism that describes a large number of seats changing hands in Congress. I sounded a cautionary note about that assertion and outlined some counter-arguments.
I’m not going to cover all that ground again here. I’ll say that I remain skeptical of the Red Wave scenario, with some caveats. But I want to state something that is getting lost in all of the punditry about the forecasts on these midterms. Polls are not elections and elections are not polls.
If polls were elections, there would be no point in voting. Simply have a non-partisan polling organization conduct a likely voter survey and avoid all the drama of counting votes. That is not our system.
But the question is – is this a poll driven election, in terms of what the vote tallies will show or is it a turn out election? I would argue that it is strictly a question of actual turn out – who shows up and to what extent.
The mass media reporting presents this midterm as something that can be plotted out on a graph, with the data coming in from opinion surveys. Let’s talk about the polling just a little. CNN is the only news network (other than the fledging News Nation) that comes through the no subscription pipe here at my house. So when I relate what I am observing there, I don’t think I am assuming too much to generalize that reporting on the election is mostly the same on the other networks.
There is a certain zeitgeist with the mass media – televised, print or online. So, in the example of CNN, they are using aggregation polling as their benchmark for what they estimate is going to happen on Tuesday and to an extent, what has already happened in early balloting. Never is it explained to the viewer, what the internal characteristics of this polling consists of.
What do I mean by that? CNN takes two polling sources which they sometimes refer to as a “poll of polls”. This would not be something that they themselves have compiled, but has been assembled primarily by either Real Clear Politics or FiveThirtyEight – and they may be using both. There are some issues with those, having to do with the individual polls that are combined to produce averages.
Real Clear Politics is known to those who have tracked their methodology, to have a decided tendency to select polling sources that oversample Republican voters. The same is true in large measure with FiveThirtyEight, if not perhaps quite to the extent.
Nate Cohn, the New York Times‘ chief analyst, in a newsletter titled, “Polling Averages Can Be Useful, but What’s Underneath Has Changed”, noted:
“There has been a wave of polls by firms like the Trafalgar Group, Rasmussen Reports, Insider Advantage and others that have tended to produce much more Republican-friendly results than the traditional pollsters. None adhere to industry standards for transparency or data collection. In some states, nearly all of the recent polls were conducted by Republican-leaning firms.”
When news consumers think of an election poll, they imagine a polling firm simply making somewhere between 900 to 1,100 random calls, identifying the person’s political affiliation, R or D or Independent and asking which candidate they intend to vote for, straight up. That is not how it works for the reason that, particularly in the past 6 years, a specific segment of potential voters are reluctant or outright refuse to discuss their intentions with poll takers.
These would be Trump voters that I dub, “Trumpublicans”. So the polling firms are not able to get a straight up headcount. Because Republicans, more often than not, are not equally represented in the surveying tallies, pollsters must resort to a data manipulation process known as “weighting”. This is where an arbitrary conclusion is arrived at, essentially by ‘educated guesswork’ as to how much the GOP voter was under represented or under counted in the polling.
Polling firms that use this process, employ it more as a means to produce a self fulfilling prophecy effect – that is, juice up their estimates of how many votes the GOP candidate is likely to receive.
There are a few more factors as to why the aggregated polling skews Red and why news outlets prefer to use them as bellweathers.
One is that, as illustrated in the article posted above about the polling errors that revealed themselves following the last national election – pollsters got bitten in the ass by weighting the polls insufficiently to reflect the level of participation of Republicans and Democrats.
In the case of 2020, Trump’s support appeared in polling results to be less than what the election actually produced. But given that in the marquee election, the numbers involving the presidency turned out so dramatically wrong in that pollsters did not see Biden blowing the doors off Trump by 8 million votes with a correspondingly large margin in the electoral college results, you wouldn’t think the way to correct that would be overcompensating Republican polling numbers.
Another reason that election coverage tends to frame the expectations along the lines of a GOP advantage, is that when it comes to election predictions, most mass media has an unstated agenda. Voters, especially motivated voters, experience a high level of stress and anxiety. Anxiety about the balance of power, drives viewer and reader engagement. So, CNN, the alphabet channels and PBS accentuate doomsday scenarios for Democrats.
Contrastingly, although I cannot confirm it, Fox News probably downplays the “Red Wave” scenarios, in order to keep Trumpublicans on the edge of their seat. Networks and everyone else that report on elections, need to keep eyeballs and ears riveted and the anxiety level on high boil.
Somebody asked me if I thought that this sort of approach to reporting about what might happen on election day has anything to do with the media attempting to goad, for example, Democrat voters into action. I told them that I doubt it. Broadcasting is first and foremost, a for profit industry and ratings drive ad revenue and that is really the only calculus.
It is each campaign’s job to light a fire under their voters. That’s a lot of what was going on, for example in Pennsylvania and Georgia and some other battleground states this last week and this weekend.
So, how do I sum up what we might expect to see Tuesday night and the days following? Well, one of the greatest unknowns in terms of the predictions the mass media seems to favor, is Millennial and Gen Y voting. This group also tends to not be accessible for polling surveys and can be a wildcard and an unexpected one at that.
If those two cohorts show up as they did in 2018, the pundits are going to have egg on their face. They don’t care, though. No one is going to bring them back on and grill them on how and why their predictions were so colossally stinky.
Millennials and Gen Y’ers are the demographic that stand to be most affected by the loss of reproductive rights. It seems unlikely that they will sleepwalk through this election, but it remains to be seen either way.
The other factor, that now is being downplayed as essentially meaningless, is the “Suburban Women / Suburban Soccer Mom” contingent that figured so substantially in Biden’s win in 2020.
The storyline on them now, is that they have shifted to Republicans because they believe the GOP is going to wave the magic wand on the economy. Sorry, but I don’t entirely buy that. The major issue with them, was abortion rights. Have they all just tossed in the towel on that issue, or are they not being properly represented in the polling?
Then finally, do I think the GOP will actually take back the House? First – it’s possible. It would be silly of me to dismiss it as something that couldn’t happen. Is it likely? Probably more likely than not and I only say that because unlike the political hacks that show up on those discussion panels, I frankly admit that the polls are next to worthless and that everyone, including myself is flying in the dark.
I’m not alone in that. Jacob Perry, the co-founder of Center Street PAC and a former Republican campaign manager for six U.S. House races told the Daily Beast that, “People like to treat polls like an accurate snapshot of a race. But you have no fucking idea what’s going to happen.”
So, accepting the possibility, but not certainty that the GOP gets the House, what is that going to look like? Number one, I maintain there will be no ‘wave’ for Republicans. I’ll put my marker down on that. If they do flip it, it’s not going to be the sort of thing where it’s 25 or 30 seats or more. It would probably be something in the neighborhood of 8, maybe 12, in that range. That would not look like a mandate.
Additionally, there is a “good news, bad news” story to be told about a GOP takeover. Bad news first. Republicans will attempt to loosen the lug nuts on the wheels of democracy, if not remove them entirely. The only thing standing in their way, would be a Democrat majority in the Senate and failing that, President Joe Biden, with his veto pen.
The good news is that Republicans, particularly in the House, will not be focused on anything that was important to swing voters, like inflation, the economy or crime. Instead, they will be obsessed with entertaining the Trump voting base. That will consist largely, in launching all manner of ludicrous ‘investigations’ aimed at Democrats.
There will also be a lot of internecine warfare and circular firing squads. Kevin McCarthy, who won’t be a shoe in for Speaker, but will instead have to run a gauntlet first, will not be able to control any of this. It will look much like a combination of Animal House and a class full of the worst kids in school, tying up the teacher, throwing her into the janitor’s closet and taking turns at teaching subjects they don’t have the beginning of a clue about.
What will be the result? It will be that independents and swing voters will witness all of this and wonder what the hell they were thinking electing them and after 2 years of insanity that seemed like a lifetime, unceremoniously throw them out and that will commence the onset of the obsolescence of the Republican party.
Some relatively sober voices in the GOP are warning the incoming class not to succumb to the instinct to attempt to impeach President Biden. Perhaps they are looking at what happened when they did so to Bill Clinton. Democrats gained seats in Congress, instead of losing them as expected.
On the Senate side of things, I expect Democrats will hold the Senate with the same margin they have now – 50 + V.P. Harris as the tie-breaker, or pick up between 1 and 2 seats. Arizona stays in Democrat hands as does Georgia and the pick up looks to be Lt. Gov. John Fetterman in Pennsylvania over Dr. Oz. The wildcards are Nevada, Maine, North Carolina, Ohio and Wisconsin and perhaps Michigan.
Important to remember, this election has nothing whatsoever to do with polling. It has everything to do with turnout. Some of you reading this, might be upset about prices at the gas pump or supermarket. We all are. Some of you might be inclined ordinarily to lean Republican.
The thought I would like to leave you with, is that inflationary cycles are recurrent. At some point inflation will moderate. Republicans cannot shorten the cycle and they have no plan to do so. Democrats do not cause inflation and if you punish them for it, you may find out you have spited not them, but yourself. Because once your rights are curtailed or taken away altogether, it is an uphill climb to get them back.
Our system of democracy is also at extreme risk. For this reason, I implore you, that even if Blue is not your favorite political color, choose it this time, just as an insurance policy. Hope you have already voted, but if not, please do so. This one is too important to sit out.