Consider the Source: Polls Predicting a ‘Blue Wave’ Are Unreliable

By | 2018-10-14T20:14:06+00:00 October 15th, 2018|
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Understandably, Republicans are distraught when they hear the mainstream media endlessly repeat the mantra that the November midterms bode well for an historic “blue wave.” President Trump’s alleged incompetence and borderline-tyrannical misrule of the rightfully indignant American people will produce a suitable backlash, we are told: Democrats will surely take the House of Representatives, and possibly the Senate.

Will the Republican Party even survive this shellacking? The verdict is out.

This narrative is supported by polling conducted on behalf of major news organizations. CNN’s latest poll, conducted October 4-7, is a good case in point. It claims that, in the “generic ballot” question that asks whether likely voters are inclined to support the Democratic or Republican candidate for the House of Representatives in their local district, Democrats hold a massive 13-point edge, 54-41 percent.

Wow! Truly, the race is over  if this poll is to be believed, and Republicans are the losers par excellence. Or is it that simple?

When one delves into the particulars of the CNN survey, there are myriad reasons to doubt its accuracy. For one thing, it forecasts a “gender gap” of unprecedented proportions: it finds that 63 percent of female likely voters will back the Democrats, compared to only 45 percent of men. Although it is normal for women to be more supportive of Democratic candidates than men, the size of the discrepancy seldom exceeds 10 points. This is suspicious.

Even more damning to the reliability of the poll is its prediction that voters over 65 will favor Democrats by 18 points! This is in the realms of pure fantasy, given that older voters consistently have favored Republicans in recent years. In 2016, they voted for Republican House candidates over Democrats by a 53-45 percent margin. A “blue wave” might, in the most optimistic scenario, mean that Democrats would tie Republicans among older voters, but the notion that they could win this demographic in a landslide is an absurdity.

The CNN poll is equally dubious when it comes to race. In 2016, according to exit polls, white voters favored Republican House candidates by 22 points: 60-38 percent. But in 2018, CNN predicts Republican House candidates will win the white vote by only 1 point. Nonsense.

There are deeper reasons, however, to mistrust the CNN poll and others like it. Above all, we should consider the history of polling, and how frequently individual polls, and even the average of polls, can be wrong.

It’s no secret that in 2016 the polls predicted that Hillary Clinton would be our next president, and yet here she is in 2018—a private citizen, albeit a particularly outspoken one. More interesting for our purposes, is the fact that in 2016 many polling organizations were asking the usual “generic ballot” question of voters: in their district, would they prefer the Democratic or the Republican candidate for the House of Representatives? Based on the RealClearPolitics average of major polls, at no point in the 2016 election cycle (from May to November) did Republicans have a lead on this question, and yet Republicans won the national popular vote for the House by one point and maintained control of the chamber. Let that sink in. Polling averages generally favored the Democrats by 3 to 5 points, they never favored the Republicans, and yet the Democrats still lost. How could this be?

The answer, in part, is that included within these national polling averages  are bogus polls like CNN’s monstrosity predicting a 13-point win for Democrats. By no means is this the first time that CNN has overrated Democratic strength. In 2006, the last time there truly was a “blue wave,” Democrats won the national popular vote for the House by eight points. Nonetheless, the last CNN generic ballot poll showed Democrats winning by 20 points! That’s a large discrepancy, to say the least.

CNN polls are not always this wrong, of course. In 2016, the last CNN poll of the generic ballot question favored Democrats by three points, whereas Republicans won the national popular vote by one point. Thus, CNN was in the tank for Democrats only to the tune of four points. An improvement from 2006, therefore, but still a poor reflection on the accuracy (or lack thereof) of CNN’s polling operations.

The potential for CNN, and other major news organizations, to misconstrue or even deliberately misrepresent the leanings of the electorate is vast. One has to wonder: how many CNN reporters and pundits would be willing to bet their annual salary on the notion that Democrats will win the popular vote in House races this year by 13 points? Not many! One suspects that the 13-point number is, in fact, not designed to be predictive at all. It is instead designed to shift the narrative—to make news, rather than report it—and to encourage Democrats while discouraging Republicans.

CNN’s latest whopper continues a trend in recent polling, as polling averages routinely overrate Democratic strength. In 2014, for instance, the RealClearPolitics polling average for the generic ballot question ended up favoring Republicans over Democrats by two points, but Republicans won the national popular vote by six points. CNN was even less accurate than the national average, needless to say. In its last poll of that cycle, it favored the Democrats by one point.

What does all of this mean, in the final analysis? Polls are far from useless, but Americans should exercise caution and discretion in interpreting them. They should also keep in mind that recent polling by major news organizations evinces a consistent bias in favor of Democrats.

If, therefore, the current RealClearPolitics average for the generic ballot question puts Democrats up by seven points, then this result is likely skewed by garbage polls like CNN’s. History suggests that the Democrats’ edge is likely more modest: say, three or four points. That small advantage, which is certainly liable to additional shrinkage, may well be insufficient to put the House of Representatives in Nancy Pelosi’s gnarled hands.

It’s possible, moreover, that even that three- or four-point edge is illusory. Rasmussen Reports’ latest poll has Democrats and Republicans tied at 45 percent on the generic ballot question. And Rasmussen, lest we forget, was the most accurate polling organization in 2016, predicting only a narrow two-point victory for Hillary Clinton in the popular vote. If Rasmussen is right again, then in 2018 Republicans might do more than stave off disaster. They might actually win!

The takeaway? CNN wants Republicans to despair in the lead-up to the 2018 midterm elections, but the evidence says . . . not so fast!

As always, reports of the Republican Party’s death are greatly exaggerated.

Photo Credit: Scott Olson/Getty Images

About the Author:

Nicholas L. Waddy
Nicholas L. Waddy, an associate professor of history at SUNY Alfred, blogs at www.waddyisright.com.