Are polls getting the midterms wrong?

Earlier this year, most political analysts expected Republicans to make big gains in the November midterm elections, as the party that doesn’t hold the White House usually does. But the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, clearing GOP-led states to impose abortion bans, motivated Democrats, especially women, to push for huge turnout in favor of Democrats willing to fight for abortion rights. Falling gas prices helped, too, as did hearings on the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol attack, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s examination of former President Donald Trump’s handling of classified documents. Suddenly, expectations of a “red wave” faded, and polls showed Democrats likely to hold onto the Senate, now split 50-50. Republicans still appeared likely to win the House, but by a narrower margin than previously expected.

Recently, that Democratic momentum has stalled. A Politico/Morning Consult poll released Wednesday showed Republicans chipping into Democrats’ edge in a weekly generic congressional ballot poll. The GOP trimmed the Democrats’ lead to 45 percent vs. 43 percent, compared to 46 percent vs. 41 percent a week earlier. FiveThirtyEight still gives Democrats a 70 percent chance to hold onto control of the Senate. RealClearPolitics, however, projects that Republicans will seize control of the Senate, after factoring in past underestimates of GOP support. It predicts the GOP will pick up Democratic seats in Arizona and Georgia, and hold onto Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, where some polls show Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wisc.) neck-and-neck with Democrat Mandela Barnes.

New York Times polling expert Nate Cohn notes that the GOP did better than expected in many key states in the last few cycles, and says: “That warning sign is flashing again: Democratic Senate candidates are outrunning expectations in the same places where the polls overestimated Mr. Biden in 2020 and Mrs. Clinton in 2016.” Could the prognosticators be mistaken, again?

Pollsters are making obvious mistakes

There is a clear reason to assume the polls are wrong again, says Jim Geraghty at the National Review. Many of the latest surveys are still looking at registered voters, but it’s “getting a little late in the cycle” for that. By now, they should be focusing on likely voters who will actually cast ballots in November. “Once you sort out the pollsters using registered voters from the pollsters using likely voters, a clear pattern emerges. CBS, Emerson, Rasmussen, ABC, and Trafalgar are using likely voters, and their results average out to Republicans leading by 2.8 percentage points.” That number is flipped in Democrats’ favor in polls of registered voters. Republicans don’t have “the near-ideal environment” they had in early summer “when gas prices were at record highs, and before the repeal of Roe v. Wade fired up the Democratic grassroots.” But it still looks like they’ll win a solid House majority, and “it is still fairly easy to envision a scenario that gets Republicans to 51 Senate seats.”

Some surveys simply miss many GOP voters

It’s no mystery why Republicans are getting undercounted in polls this year, says Michael Barone in the Washington Examiner. “‘Shy Trump’ voters have been refusing to be polled — an attitude possibly fortified” by President Biden’s recent denunciation of MAGA Republicans as extremists who threaten the republic’s foundations. “That chilling rhetoric, together with federal non-prosecution of leftist violence against pro-life pregnancy counseling centers and Supreme Court justices’ homes, might be making many Republicans unwilling to divulge their views to pollsters affiliated with media organizations or universities.”

The polls reflect a post-Roe shift

The Democratic surge after the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision striking down Roe was real, says Alexander Sammon in The American Prospect. The “fractious Democratic party” was “at loggerheads” from the start of Biden’s presidency until the Supreme Court struck down Roe. Now, the left has come together. Voter registration numbers are up with women, especially in red states.” Polls show abortion rights rising in popularity since March, with voters saying “the Court’s decision was the most likely reason for them to vote in November. Fewer than 1 in 10 Americans support total abortion bans.” Republicans know this has changed the electoral calculus, so they’re “scrubbing” the issue from their websites. Having abortion implicitly on the ballot has “driven turnout and delivered multiple percentage points of advantage to congressional Democrats in special elections.” It could do the same in November, although something as simple as a surge in gas prices or inflation could change the math. 

The polls are shifting along with the issues

“For most of the summer, President Biden and the Democrats had the political winds at their backs,” says Nate Cohn in The New York Times, but the national mood is changing. There have been some “subtle shifts” you can see in Google Search trends. “For the first time since the Dobbs ruling overturning Roe v. Wade, Google searches for the economy and immigration have overtaken searches about abortion. Searches for democracy or the Jan. 6 hearings have also fallen.” That has brought us back to “the figures from the spring, when Republicans held the edge before the Dobbs ruling and the Jan. 6 hearings, and before the FBI investigation” into former President Donald Trump’s handling of classified documents. It’s early to say how, or whether, this will change the race. But polls do “show Republicans enjoying a turnout advantage,” which is especially important in midterm elections since there’s no presidential race as the main event.