Why I think Democrats will undershoot their polling and what it means
I've come to believe that in the post 2016 world we are watching less a contest of who is trying to win, but who is trying harder to lose. The funny thing is there probably is a pretty hard to displace Democratic majority out there. It's just that it's composed mostly of people who think everyone should have social security when they get old, healthcare should be affordable (however we get there), needy children should have free lunch at school, and that sort of boring stuff. They're live and let live and support the social changes of the 60s and 70s but are not animated at all by the identitarian and other more out there theories coming out of universities and grad schools, that are... well self evidently stupid.
These people are of course available to the GOP as well, which is doing its own disservice by putting itself in thrall to a megolomaniac who wherever possible gets crazy, clearly incompetent people nominated. However as long as the GOP's core commitment as a party is to gutting the welfare state I think it would be harder to sustain.
What's baffling to me is that no one seems ready to pivot despite how obvious this is.
It baffles me that progressives aren’t being more cautious given the US’ status as a democracy is literally under threat (and in states like Wisconsin is already significantly eroded). There’s a massive risk impatience over social progress irrecoverably sets us back. By contrast a more incremental approach seems to have been working pretty well in recent decades.
Wanted to drop in a comment applauding pre-registered takes and odds. Good to see you keeping it honest and getting out there in advance. It's a way more honest approach to political commentary, and it's they type of thing that is why I subscribed to this column.
> Dobbs, meanwhile, delivered a big jolt to Democrats and continues to be a millstone around the GOP’s neck. But individual Democratic Party candidates keep squandering it by staking out a very odd “no restrictions on abortion under any circumstances”
As a Georgian, I was quite dismayed when Abrams brought up abortion as a solution when asked about inflation. 
> Stacey Abrams, the Democratic nominee for governor in Georgia, floated abortion as a solution to voters’ concerns about inflation on Wednesday, explaining to Morning Joe viewers that “having children is why you’re worried about your price for gas, it’s why you’re concerned about how much food costs.”
> “But let’s not pretend that women — half the population — especially of childbearing age, they understand that having a child is absolutely an economic issue. It’s only politicians that see it as just another cultural conversation,” she added.
Georgia is still a very conservative state and I think this is a counterproductive way to discuss abortion. Here’s an example of how Republicans are weaponizing this to their advantage. 
> @BrianKempGA’s plan to fight inflation: suspend gas tax, another $1B tax refund, property tax rebate, and more.
>@staceyabrams’ plan to fight inflation: abortion without limits. #gapol
It is legitimately extraordinarily difficult to square the circle between “hold the center” and “don’t lose the base,” when a significant fraction of the base holds sentiments like the three you’ve quoted.
Frankly, looking at the way things are playing out, I don’t think any amount of Ryan-esque triangulation (which is, I agree, the best we can do) would suffice to really do the trick. It works marginally better in House races than in Senate because generally candidates are running in smaller areas where they can choose to either court the middle or not. For a typical Senate race… I don’t have data but my gut says that for every swing voter Fetterman could pick up by acting more like Ryan, he’d lose close to one base voter.
The reality is that regardless of what the politicians say or do come election time, we are all working against a backdrop whereby the top twenty comments on every Washington Post article all boil down to “these hicks don’t know what’s good for them” or some similarly demeaning, pejorative sentiment about the other side. And half of the non-pejorative views are the ones you quote in Tweets, which simply have no broad appeal.
As long as it’s clear to the vast majority of voters living outside cities that the main motivating factors for *many* reliable Democratic voters are not the national interest and compassion, but disdain and tribalism, this problem is going to be damned difficult to solve.
And in an era of universal access to social media and mass media amplification of the worst views thereon, I am unsure how to stop making that crystal clear on a daily basis.
This is very much on the money.
But I think it misses the salience of the crime issue for the GOP.
Yes, the GOP is not really offering solutions.
However, I was at a Democratic meeting and the candidates only take on crime was that it "Republican Fearmongering" or "Race-baiting."
That would have flown in 2014 for example, when crime was at all time low. It is not flying now. People are legitimately concerned about crime, and the "vibe" given off is Democrats are unaware of this.
The best predictor of seat loss in a midterm is the size of the incumbent party’s majority. In 2010, Democrats lost 63 seats. The biggest reason is they started with 256 seats and had to defend a lot of Republican leaning districts. Still, Democrats lost the House popular vote by almost seven points, so they can’t really complain that they only held 44% of the seats after the 2010 election.
One factual quibble with Matt: Georgia polling has also been pretty solid and it shows a Warnock win.
I think the likeliest Senate result is no net change, with Democrats swapping Pennsylvania for Nevada and no other seats changing party hands. I want to think Wisconsin is too wholesome to re-elect an insurrection aligned candidate, but that’s just an idle wish.
There is much less House polling than in 2018, so uncertainty is high. 538 actually predicts Republicans will overperform the generic Congressional ballot by three points (net) so Matt’s concerns are reflected in the 538 forecast and 227 Republican seats is a fine expected value.
I really hate being “this person” but you have a major cognitive dissonance between assigning probabilities for many different outcomes and then saying that if any one of those outcomes happen you would be proven right or wrong. Totally fair points about thinking 538 is miscalibrated due to skewed polling inputs but the proof of that is not whether Democrats keep the Senate or not.
It bugs me that you say "we'll see who's right." We won't, not really. If I say a coin toss has a 50% chance of coming up heads and you say it's an 80% chance, and we flip it and get heads, that doesn't prove you right. Getting tails wouldn't prove me right either.
Great post. The divergence between what progressives claim the stakes are (existential threat to democracy) and their behavior (insistence on unpopular positions) is nuts. When I bring the fact that it kills us with moderates/swings, they rationalize that there ARE NONE, because anyone who would vote for Trump is a fascist and not gettable. If this mentality prevails, we deserve to lose elections.
I have a theory. It is a completely unfounded, unscientific theory based not on polling data but on "anecdata" from a handful of people I know.
My theory is that Donald J Trump, piece of shit that he is, is a voter turnout machine. People love him or hate him; and they enthusiastically come out in droves to vote for him or against him. He broke polling, thusly.
My theory also is that without Trump at the top of the ballot; modern techniques of polling and data analytics will be restored to the place they were prior to 2016 which is to say they were pretty solid.
So I think the polling this time will hold up a lot better.
Actions speak louder than words, and they conclusively show that the Democratic Party sees this election just like any other and does not in the slightest believe anything existential is afoot. The recklessness in actively supporting GOP extremists has been talked about at length, and MY correctly adds the reluctance to field moderates in key districts, but let me add a third data point : retirements.
Everyone knows that incumbency is an advantage. Yet it normal times congresspeople tend to retire in higher number when predicted to face a harsher contest. This of course makes their party’s overall outcome likely to be *worse*. If Dems really thought democracy itself was at stake, we would have seen a “all hands on deck” mentality, including significant pressure to minimize retirements to zero and max the incumbency advantage. After all running a tough re-election capmpaign should be considered a small sacrifice to make for the sake of literal freedom and democracy. The fact that, to my knowledge , there hasn’t even been the *thought* of pressuring incumbents to stay in the race, nor the slightest whiff of criticism towards the dozens abandoning ship tells you all you need to know.
I think the democracy-destroying consequences of losing the House (and relevant state-level postions) are being undercalled because people saw that, when it came down to it in 2020, a number of key GOP officials were more faithful to democracy than Trump (e.g. Raffensperger in Georgia). People are ignoring the basic rule (of which Matt I think has been a proponent) that you should pay attention to what politicians say they'll do. Raffensperger and others had not actually committed to subvert democracy, and when it came to it, they didn't. The new batch *are* for the most part committing to subvert democracy, and should be taken at their word. (it's worth noting that large numbers of the 2020 GOP Congressional delegation were willing to subvert democracy *without* even promising to do so beforehand, so the likelihood that the new batch will keep their word seems very high.)
Polling is like making sports predictions. Both invite ridicule after the fact if your prediction ended up being wrong. "You said [shit team] only had a 10% chance of winning against [good team] - but they won! What an idiot!" Nate Silver gets abuse to this day on Twitter for saying Clinton was probably going to win in 2016, even though he was probably much more conservative than just about any informed commentator in that election.
Regarding bad polls, remember before the 2020 election when it looked like Texas might turn blue? And in hindsight, that looked absolutely absurd. Everybody should second guess clearly stupid polling. Listen to common sense when common sense is telling you something you don't want to hear.
The Democrats did nothing to change their messaging. Their polling went up when Dobbs was released, and up again as gas prices fell, and down again as gas prices have risen. That's it; those are the priors. To extrapolate that, therefore, Dems should moderate their ideology to win back swing voters is... unsupported.
Voters do not care about ideas. Every swing, low-info, and medium-info voter in this country thinks the economy and business do better under the GOP than the Dems. You can show them all the charts you want. You can change Democratic messaging as much as you want. It won't change what voters think. The brand is set. A candidate can only win by breaking the brand; by having a personality and persona that override the electorate's expectations of party branding. In every plausible universe where Lamb beat Fetterman in the primaries, Lamb is having his ass handed to him by Dr. Oz. Doesn't mean I think Fetterman will win, but Lamb would have no chance. And he was the moderate, cookie cutter candidate who tempered Party ideology.
This is, in my view, Matt's biggest blind-spot. He watched Trump fill convention halls with infrequent, low-info voters who would scream and cry and listen to him ramble about nothing but his hate and his penis for three hours, and then win an election. And Matt's takeaway has been "It must have been that moderating offhand comment about Social Security Trump made that won him the election." Ideology matters in policy and governance. But it is virtually irrelevant in getting elected.
I'm only slightly less pessimistic than MY, but my solution would be completely different than Matt's. I think nuanced policy moderation by candidates in purple districts would have approximately zero impact on results.
I think the better path would have been this:
1) Shut up about inflation and talk up the best unemployment in history. When pinned down, blame inflation on war in Europe and continuing Chinese lockdowns. Then go back to talking about how awesomely low unemployment is. If reporters keep coming back to it, accuse them of taking their questions from straight from [name out-of-favor conservative]. This is exactly what conservatives would be doing if they were in the WH. This seems painfully obvious to me.
2) Run ads associating the nuttiest R candidates with the national R brand. So make conservative Cubans in FL think they are choosing between Val and Walker. Make PA voters feel like they are voting against both Oz and Vance.
3) Run ruthless abortion ads like the one showing cops coming to a family's home and arresting mom. Make every suburban mom and college student see ads like that multiple times throughout October.