Pilots know that in a storm or in any instruments-only flying situation you watch your instruments rather than your perceptions or your gut. Your perceptions are frequently wrong and following them can lead to catastrophe. In elections, our instruments are the data, a mixture of polls, early voting, fundraising. These can’t predict the future. But they are the best evidence we have.
This has been rattling through my mind as I read and listen to the news this morning. To listen to it the election has taken a dramatic turn in the Republicans’ direction. The AP writes: “In the closing stretch of the 2018 campaign, the question is no longer the size of the Democratic wave. It’s whether there will be a wave at all.” A few moments ago I heard one of morning TV’s top political talk hosts press a Democratic talking head over a new poll showing that with just two weeks to go it’s a dead heat in the most competitive battleground districts.
As I explained earlier this week, I’m watching every headline, poll number and shred of information I can find about this election because the stakes are so damn high. I don’t need to argue or make a case about why it’s the most important midterm or election of our lifetimes. It is. No hyperbole. This is it. And I would be lying to you if I told you I didn’t feel angst and apprehension as I read this stuff. It does all feel different. The climate feels different. And yet I go back to the numbers. And this shift does not seem born out by any data I’m actually seeing. And I’m seeing close to all of it.
Let’s start with that poll of battleground states from The Washington Post. It’s almost the mirror opposite of how it’s been presented. The poll is of the most-contested districts, the battleground districts. It almost goes without saying that those races are close. That’s what makes them battleground races. The pollster took 69 districts which The Cook Political Report rated as competitive in August and polled just in those districts for an aggregate national poll. Here’s the key piece of information. 63 of those 69 seats are currently held by Republicans. This is actually pretty bad news for the GOP. And it’s close to the same as it was in September. Yet I’ve heard this flagged in numerous outlets as another sign the Democrats are slipping.
I’m not here to unskew the polls for you. The Senate map has shifted significantly against the Democrats over the last month. There are also worrisome nuggets of information. President Trump’s personal numbers have popped up. The latest NBC poll showed Republicans closing the enthusiasm gap with Democrats. Each of these give me pause and make me wonder whether they’re leading indicators of some shift. But when I look at all the numbers combined, there’s just no evidence for this shift which is dominating the media narrative.
The best baseline I think in terms of is the generic ballot poll. That’s been highly consist, between 8 and 9 points for the last two months.
If you think a Democratic takeover of the House is critical to the country’s future, I’m not here to tell you, don’t worry, everything’s going to be fine. That’s not how I feel. But I will say that almost all the evidence that we have is that we’re looking at a high probability of a Democratic takeover of the House and that things look pretty similar to what they’ve looked like for the last six months. The numbers don’t bear this media narrative.
Maybe things will change. Maybe we’ll get new information that says otherwise. Maybe in a week the situation will look more ominous. Right now, this just isn’t the case.
I will say that part of the current moment reminds me of the Virginia Governor’s race a year ago. Now-Governor Ralph Northam was the favorite in that now-fairly-blue state. But in the closing weeks and days the uber-establishment GOP Ed Gillespie went full Trump with a series of hard, racist ads about MS-13 and feral “illegals” looking to overrun the state. There were some polls showing a tightening of the race. Democrats, or at least people chattering in the media and on twitter, started getting demoralized and grousing that Northam was blowing it, that Democrats had blown it by not nominating the more progressive Tom Perriello. Most chilling, it seemed like going full Trump racial incitement might be working.
In the event, Northam won and won big, by a larger margin than the polls suggested.
I’m not predicting this. But I am keeping it in mind.
I’m apprehensive and I want this to be over because the stakes for the country are so high. But this media narrative, at least in terms of the House, just doesn’t have much to support it.