The Democrats’ surprisingly strong showing in the midterm elections has raised a familiar question: Did the pollsters get it wrong again?
Heading into Nov. 8, polls from across the industry gave Republicans the clear edge in battleground races, as well as on the generic ballot. The data bolstered the belief among pundits that a red wave was on the rise.
But when that didn’t happen, and Tuesday’s red wave turned out to be a red ripple at best, it led to new scrutiny over an industry that has already faced criticism after big misses in 2016 and 2020.
“All those polls, God love them,” President Biden quipped at a Democratic National Committee event on Thursday. “You know, ‘historic losses are on the way. A giant red wave.’”
Still, many pollsters are defending their profession, saying the surveys released in the months and weeks ahead of Election Day were more accurate than not.
“Overall, it was definitely a good night for pollsters and I would, in particular, say traditional pollsters,” said Ashley Koning, director of the Eagleton Center for Public Interest Polling at Rutgers University.
“In those final weeks, a lot of polls from those credible, reputable, traditional pollsters were met with skepticism and/or disbelief when they were showing better numbers for Democrats,” she added.
In fact, a number of polls released in the final weeks of the election cycle seemed to accurately capture the dynamic on the ground, depicting races that were neck and neck. A FiveThirtyEight polling average in the final week showed Arizona Senate candidate Mark Kelly (D) ahead of his Republican rival Blake Masters by 1 point, for example, reflecting the closeness of the race but one that ultimately gave the Democrat an edge.
Nevada polls in the closing week tended to be more bullish for Republican Senate candidate Adam Laxalt, giving him a lead of 2 to 8 points depending on the survey. As of this writing, his race against Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D) remains too close to call; though he holds a narrow lead over her, many Democrats are optimistic Cortez Masto will ultimately prevail.
The general accuracy of the traditional pollsters came in comparison to a number of right-leaning polls, most notably from the Trafalgar Group, showing Republican candidates with the momentum. The outlet gained attention for being one of the only pollsters to show Trump’s edge over then-Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton in 2016. But its recent round of surveys have come under scrutiny.
In a Trafalgar survey of Pennsylvania’s Senate race released on Nov. 4, former GOP Senate candidate Mehmet Oz led now Sen.-elect John Fetterman (D) by roughly 2 points. Fetterman ended up winning the race by roughly 4 points. In a late October poll of Washington State’s Senate race, the pollster had Republican Tiffany Smiley trailing incumbent Sen. Patty Murray (D) by a little more than 1 point. Murray ended up defeating Smiley by roughly 12 points.
Pollsters argue that outliers happen and caution that polls are meant to be a snapshot in time, not a prediction.
“They are not meant to predict or be crystal balls,” Koning said. “They are meant to much more so explain the how and why of voters and their feelings and their attitudes and behaviors.”
Skepticism in polls reached a fever pitch in 2016 when Trump’s victory pulled the rug out from those in the media.
“It’s okay to have an outlier. Everyone’s going to have one,” Spencer Kimball, the director of Emerson College Polling, told HillTV’s “What America’s Thinking.”
“What we don’t want is a systematic experience and that’s what we saw in 2016,” he continued. “The bias was systematic toward Hillary Clinton. Every poll that was wrong was wrong in her favor, and so that’s a problem of the industry.”
Democratic pollster Celinda Lake argued that the “flooding of the zone” with Republican-leaning polls in 2022 was part of a broader strategy to boost GOP morale, money and turnout in the final weeks and days of the cycle.
“I think that the media is going to have to have new standards for covering new polls and not allow that to happen,” she told The Hill.
Lake said the strategy has impacted aggregators, which often average a number of polls conducted by different organizations.
“We never anticipated a deliberate flooding of the zone with polls that would show you in the lead,” Lake said. “They’re going to have to balance aggregation with ‘okay we’re going to use this many Republican-leaning polls and this many Democratic-leaning polls’ or something.”
Lake also noted that the news media and political pundits could have paid more attention to early vote turnout, which often plays in Democrats’ favor.
“In this case, we were seeing some surge in the early vote but the pundits were really discounting it and they shouldn’t have been,” she said.
One Republican pollster said that some pollsters did not pick up on factors like the Democratic fundraising advantage, abortion’s strength as an issue and Trump’s impact on voters.
“What I don’t think we captured as well as an industry was some of the movement in the close,” the GOP pollster said. “I think the night looked a lot more like what we expected it to in August than we expected it to in October.”
The pollster said the two toss-up groups they were focused on throughout the cycle were college-educated men and women without college degrees.
“Those three things combined in a way that left those two groups more swingy, whereas I think in September the stock market movement was pushing college-educated men toward Republicans,” the GOP pollster said. “Women without college degrees cared very much about abortion rights and about the economy because they were being very directly impacted.”
Ultimately though, most pollsters and experts say the majority of polls leading up to the midterms did not completely miss the mark.