The polls were right; the vibes were wrong. Democrats seem to have blocked the Republican wave by riding “Dobbs and democracy.” Trump lost, and extremism lost. DeSantis won, and Florida is a red state now. Also: Why is America so terrible at counting votes?
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Derek has five major takeaways from the midterm elections. One of them, which has been partially excerpted below, examines what the election results can teach us about polling.
Derek Thompson: Takeaway no. 2: The polls were right and the vibes were wrong. So in the last week, many pundits, including myself, became increasingly convinced the Democrats were facing a red wave—a total blowout, getting crushed in the House, getting crushed in the Senate. Conservative pundits were sure of it. Liberal pundits were dreading it. Meanwhile, the FiveThirtyEight weighted average of polls had this race at 50-50. Nobody believed it, but the FiveThirtyEight weighted average of polls had this race at 50-50. And right now, the most likely outcome is probably 50-50: 50 Republican senators and 50 Democratic senators, which by the way means a Democratic Senate because the vice president can cast a decisive 51st vote in the event of a tie.
This is confusing people because I think they are overfitting to 2016. Remember, the polls whiffed in 2016, and then they whiffed again even more in 2020. And both of those whiffs overstated the Democratic vote share. In other words, Donald Trump overperformed his polls in both elections. But coming off of that, I think a lot of people assumed that this is the nature of polls, polls are always going to be wrong for Republicans. But actually, this is now the second consecutive midterm election where the polls were, if anything, slightly wrong in the opposite direction. They understated Democrats’ strength. What does this mean going forward? No. 1, maybe just like downshift vibes. The polling industry is not utterly destroyed, it is not existentially screwed. It makes sense to look at the data, to average. It also means, as Nate Silver likes to say, that the direction of polling errors is pretty random.
It’s pretty hard to predict, because pollsters are reacting to past elections, right? It’s really embarrassing to overstate the Republican vote share by five points in every single election. It makes you look like an idiot. And as a result, pollsters change and the direction of the error keeps flipping between Democrats and Republicans. I think that’s an important thing to carry forward. This also means, by the way, that the wave of last-minute, right-leaning pollsters who came in at the end were way too optimistic about Republican chances, and we’re going to talk about what that means in a little bit more detail in a few minutes.
This excerpt was edited for clarity. Listen to the rest of the episode here and follow the Plain English feed on Spotify.
Host: Derek Thompson
Producer: Devon Manze