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A natural mirage can simply be explained as light traveling faster through heat than in cold, so rays will bend to take the path of least resistance. The psyche encourages phantom sightings at desert watering holes, as well as the pursuit of hotter air by light. Desert mirages are something of a lazy trope in cartoons, but the phenomenon happens plenty in politics, too, and some Democrats are worrying that they’re seeing oases where none may exist. What is the source of these illusions? All those polls suggesting President Joe Biden’s party may not be as screwed as they had thought.
According to historical precedents, Democrats are in serious trouble. Since World War II—with one exception, after 9/11—the party in power at the White House gets flayed in their first at bat with voters picking their members of the House. It doesn’t matter if it’s Ronald Reagan in 1982 or Bill Clinton in 1994; the first term of a President leaves the electorate ready to reject the latest experiment.
However, at the moment there is some evidence that optimism from the Democratic side might not be a figment of liberal imaginations. Although the money race seems competitive, and both sides feel that they have equal ground games, Republicans seem to be struggling toward the general election, especially with the Senate nominations.
Nowhere is the faith in the mirage more pronounced than in polling, a political junky’s favorite cheap buzz. Spend any time looking at the numbers these days and you’re likely seeing positive trends for Democratic candidates. Sens. Sens. Pennsylvania appears to be becoming more difficult for GOP nominee, Dr. Mehmet Oz, while Wisconsin looks like a real jump-ball contest between Republican incumbent Sen. Ron Johnson, and the Democrat Lieutenant Governor Mandela B. Barnes. Democratic Senators. Raphael Warnock, Catharine Cortez Massto and Catharine Cotez Masto lead their opponents in Nevada and Georgia by inches. The Democratic Senate candidates are still within striking distance in Ohio, Florida and North Carolina where Donald Trump won by eight points, three points and one point respectively.
So why aren’t Democrats giddy? Put simply: responsible Democrats know they have been here before—seeing the palm trees in the desert, ordering cocktails with matching umbrellas—and walked away big losers.
Conversations about the recent election have revealed that there are flaws with polling. Recent cycles have seen pollsters miss Trump supporters who refused to take part in surveys, or who lied about their real allegiances. Pew’s deep dive into the problem is a must-read for why nuance matters a ton in this space. Even though the polls were collectively off by about four points, according to an industry autopsy, they weren’t entirely afield; they just missed some of the shading. The hue is important when control over Washington and perhaps the future of democracy are in question.
(Also, don’t discount the political impact of COVID-19 during the 2020 cycle. It was. hugeA pocket of icy air created a variety of illusions and changed the votes according to government reports.
These concerns about an over-reliance on polling isn’t new. Some have suggested it’s time for all of us to quit being polling junkies hooked on the heroin of crosstabs. Some others believe the polls need to be completely overhauled or abandoned altogether.
Tempting, sure. Perhaps the solution is to make better use of numbers.
Armchair pundits have invested far too much confidence in surveys that—by their very definition—have a baked-in margin of error, and expectations that occasionally a garbage reading gets taken. In that, it’s on the consumer to understand the product; no one would blame Elon Musk for someone who drove their Tesla into the sea to find it didn’t float. Similarly, blaming pollsters for their output when it is misapplied isn’t fair.
However, polls may be wrong once more and even worse than 2020. This was the worst polling year since 1980. Even the most experienced pollsters acknowledge that they have missed some segments of the electorate in recent years. In the wake of the last midterm results that caught Democrats flat footed, their top field general told her colleagues that all of the numbers were wrong: “I also want to say the thing we’re all feeling: I’m furious. Something went wrong here across the entire political world,” Rep. Cheri Bustos said during a tense call.
It’s entirely possible we’re in the midst of a sequel, of course. It would make more sense for political junkies, however, to spread their time: add some early votes into the polling and mix in some new-registration numbers.
In this, it’s hard to ignore the lyrics that roared this weekend at the Kennedy Center, which capped its yearlong celebration of the performing arts hub’s 50th birthday with a performance of the work that opened it back in 1971. In Leonard Bernstein’s Mass, the chorus belts a lyric that seems as diagnostic today as it was in the wake of the turbulent 1960s, even if the drug of choice for Washington insiders these days is data: “Half of the people are stoned and the other half are waiting for the next election. Half of the people are drowned and the other half are swimming in the wrong direction.” For a lot of D.C. this election season, there’s a whole lot of overlap in those two groups.
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