Democrats have a new message in the 2014 race for the Senate: Don’t trust the polls.
The party is stoking skepticism in the final stretch of the midterm campaign, providing a mirror image of conservative complaints in 2012 about “skewed” polls in the presidential race between President Obama and Republican Mitt Romney.
At the center of the storm, just as he was in 2012, is Nate Silver of fivethirtyeight.com.
Two years ago, Silver took heat from Republicans like MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough for writing that Obama had a 73.6 percent chance of winning the White House.
This year, Democrats have been upset with Silver’s predictions that Republicans are likely to retake the Senate. Sen. Heidi HeitkampHeidi HeitkampSenate Democrats brace for Trump era Senators introduce dueling miners bills A small business executive order: Justification for regulation MORE (D-N.D.) mocked Silver at a fundraising luncheon in Seattle that was also addressed by Vice President Biden, according to a White House pool report on Thursday.
More generally, Democratic strategist Brent Budowsky, a columnist for The Hill, recently wrote, “There are so many razor-thin Senate races that confident predictions of which party holds Senate control are, to paraphrase a line from Jack Nicholson in ‘Chinatown’, wind from a duck’s derriere.”
“Polling has become politicized like everything else in the current environment,” said Tobe Berkovitz, a Boston University professor who specializes in political communication. “The press has become more politicized, the reporting itself has become more politicized, and so, it is to be expected that polling is politicized.”
Even President Clinton has suggested that the pollsters are getting it wrong, both in terms of the likely results and the assumptions that their projections are based upon.
Speaking in his native Arkansas on Tuesday, Clinton noted that the polls were not encouraging for Democrats but added that those findings were based on projections that young people would not turn out in large numbers.
The politicization of the polls was well underway in 2012, when Silver was lauded on the left.
One popular Internet meme at the time showed an image of Silver in the style of Shepard Fairey’s famous 2008 “Hope” poster of President Obama, except adorned with the word “Math.”
Meanwhile, on the right, conservative activist Dean Chambers founded a website called “UnskewedPolls.com” which he claimed produced projections untainted by political bias.
Come Election Day, Silver was proven right. His model, then hosted at The New York Times, correctly projected the outcome of the presidential election in every state. The right-leaning skeptics were left with egg on their collective face.
Democrats will be hoping they don’t suffer the same fate this time around.
Their complaints have already elicited some mockery from the right. Earlier this week, Jim Geraghty of the conservative National Review sarcastically tweeted, “I really found Nate Silver’s analysis insightful and helpful, until the Koch brothers got to him.”
In fact, most liberals are not arguing that Silver or other analysts are ideologically biased. Some assert, instead, that the polling is simply not all that grim from a Democratic perspective.
“States that the Democrats have to win, like New Hampshire and Michigan, the most recent polls have shown real movement toward the Democrats,” said Democratic strategist Chris Lehane. “Iowa and Colorado are going to be fought for in the trenches. Then, you have North Carolina which, based on the public data, is in a pretty decent place.”
In his column for The Hill, Budowsky argued that too many polls surveyed only landline-users, under-counting young voters who are both Democratic-leaning and more likely to only have a cellphone.
Another Hill columnist, Democratic pollster Mark Mellman said that there was a rash of “over-interpretation” of the data.
“When HuffPost Pollster says Republicans have a 51 percent chance of taking control of the Senate after this election, or fivethirtyeight.com says it has a 59 percent probability, many people interpret that as meaning, ‘Republicans are going to take control of the Senate,’ ” Mellman wrote. “But that is not at all what these forecasts say.”
The Senate forecasts themselves range over a very wide spectrum, even though they all favor the GOP to a greater or lesser degree.
As of Friday, The Washington Post’s “Election Lab” gave Republicans a 95 percent chance of taking control of the Senate, while Princeton University’s “Princeton Election Consortium” gave Democrats a 49 percent chance of holding on. Between those two extremes, The New York Times blog “The Upshot” suggested the chances of a GOP takeover were at 66 percent.
Such projections are now given more attention than ever before.
“Pollsters and polling have sort of elbowed their way to the table in terms of coverage,” Berkovitz said. “Pollsters have become high profile: They are showing up on cable TV all the time.”
This phenomenon, in turn, has led to greatly increased media coverage of the differences between polling analyses. In recent days, a public spat played out between Silver and the Princeton Election Consortium’s Sam Wang, which in turn elicited headlines such as The Daily Beast’s “Why is Nate Silver so afraid of Sam Wang?”
Wang played down the dispute in an email to The Hill — and emphasized that this year’s Senate elections are inherently tough to predict.
“Small differences [between pollsters and polling analysts] get magnified when the question is so closely divided,” Wang wrote. “Senate control in 2014 is the closest electoral question to come up since poll aggregation got big. The last question to be so suspenseful was the 2004 presidential race, Kerry v. Bush.”
Behind all the partisan commentary is a much older issue: the capacity of polling to affect turnout.
Political professionals hope for poll results that energize their backers rather than producing either despair or complacency.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee sent out a fundraising email early Friday afternoon with the subject line, “New poll proven WRONG.” The poll in question, from Rasmussen Reports, showed Democrats up 2 percentage points in the race for Congress.
Lehane said that his ideal situation in any race would be one where his candidate had the lead — but not by too much.
“The perfect election is one in which your internals show you up 10 points, but the public polls have you up five,” adding with a laugh, “that’s the perfect election that I have yet to experience.”