A Message for Midterm Poll Jumpers

It’s not that political handicapping is worthless, but a little humility will go a long way

April 18, 2018

Cross-posted from Roll Call.

The conventional wisdom creeps in on little cat feet.

Over the last few months, the political community has come to assume that the Democrats will take back the House in November. And with the impatience that defines our era, the smart money is already speculating on when the newly assertive House majority will try to impeach Donald Trump.

Despite GOP gerrymandering and the clustering of Democrats in urban areas, the barometric signs pointing to a Democratic sweep are strong.

Special elections, Republican retirements, the generic ballot, Trump’s historic unpopularity and historical trends in off years all suggest that the Republicans are in for an election night of heavy drinking and gloom.

And yet in our fast-forward era, many residents of TV green rooms forget that Nov. 6 is still more than six months away. And most Americans are not engaged on a daily basis with any aspect of politics other than Trump’s tantrums and antics.

There is a reason the most closely watched polling gauge for predicting House elections is the generic ballot, which asks about party preference rather than choice of actual candidates. And the reason is this: In most congressional districts, voters have far too shaky a grasp of the candidates on the 2018 ballot to provide valid polling results.

Since most voters (other than party activists) have yet to tune in to the 2018 elections, a little humility from the pundits and the prognosticators might be in order.

As some may recall, many plugged-in Americans like James Comey spectacularly failed to predict the victor of the 2016 presidential race on the eve of the election.

Humble pie

Please, don’t misunderstand my point about humility.

This is not an argument that Trump has acquired mystical powers to cloud voters’ minds or that millions will sign their mail-in ballots with a kiss of gratitude for the Republican tax cuts.

Rather, it is a public service reminder that no matter how many certainties are peddled daily on cable TV, some things (like detailed election returns) are unknowable more than a half-year in advance.

To illustrate the limitations of the soothsaying trade, I went back to examine what political forecasters were saying during the month of April in advance of the last three elections that led to dramatic turnovers in control of the House.

In the cliché-ridden parlance of today’s politics, we are talking about the tidal waves from tsunami elections under hurricane conditions as violent winds swept through the political firmament with volcanic force. Or, to be precise, these three elections:

1994: Newt Gingrich led the Republicans to a more than 54-seat pickup and control of the House for the first time in four decades.

2006: The Democrats came roaring back (winning over 30 seats) to hand Nancy Pelosi the speaker’s gavel.

2010: Barack Obama led the Democrats to an epic disaster as they lost more than 60 seats and control of the House.

Signs and portents

Reading old news clips offers a crash course in the folly of premature certainty. It is not that political handicapping is worthless, but rather that there is a natural human tendency to hedge all bets. Such a stance may be a prudent one in normal life, but it leads to a failure to anticipate dramatic turnabouts.

The political news in April 1994 was dominated by the death of Richard Nixon at 81 — which should have been a sign that the old verities were fading. But even though the advance coverage of the midterm elections foretold a bleak landscape for the Democrats, there were few hints that the Republicans could possibly win back the House.

A New York Times news article described as “extremely bad news for the Democratic Party and President Clinton” the heavy wave of congressional retirements and the delayed effects of post-1990 redistricting.

Vic Fazio, who headed the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee that year, even told the Times that his party could lose as many as 25 House seats. But, in a memorable aside, the Times news story sniffed that Fazio had probably inflated the 25-seat estimate “in the hoary political game of fostering low expectations.”

Instead, the Republicans won more than double Fazio’s figure.

Jump forward 12 years to April 2006, a month when the dominant political story (another harbinger of the future) was the surprise retirement of scandal-scarred Tom DeLay, who had recently been forced to step down as House GOP majority leader.

In denying that his connections to disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff had any role in his sudden career decision, DeLay aides instead explained that the GOP enforcer feared that he might lose his suburban Houston district in November.

But even then, many political handicappers failed to anticipate the extent of the coming Democratic comeback. A front-page Washington Post article was headlined, “Democrats Face Uphill Battle to Retake House.” The key factor, in this pessimistic analysis, was the Democrats’ failure to win a California special election to fill the seat of prison-bound Republican Randy “Duke” Cunningham.

Even as the signs and portents suggested that the Democrats would be in trouble in 2010, the news in April also contained a host of contrary indicators. Fundraising for Democratic Party committees outpaced their GOP counterparts. And it was difficult to find a message in a bottle from the House special elections.

Ambiguous factors like these led to cautious guesses in April 2010 that Democratic losses might only be 25-30 seats. Instead, the Republicans gained a stunning 63 seats — and Obama’s legislative majority became a fading memory.

The clip-and-save moral: Voters are a contrary bunch who don’t always know their own intentions in April, despite the impatience of pollsters and pundits.

The views expressed are the author's own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.

(Photo: Thinkstock)