Don’t Blame Polls for Bad Predictions

The polls were right. Pundits were wrong.

United States Capitol Washington
United States Capitol in Washington DC (Shutterstock/Brandon Bourdages)

The red wave wasn’t, and American journalists blame the polls.

Before the midterm elections on Tuesday, many media predicted a “red wave” of Republican victories that would repudiate Democratic president Joe Biden.

37 House and three Senate elections remain to be decided, but it’s clear the red wave didn’t materialize. Some two dozen out of 435 seats in the House of Representatives changed hands, switching the majority from Democratic to Republican. Control of the Senate is still in the balance. At best, Republicans would net two seats. Even that would make this the most lackluster Republican midterm-election victory since 1962.

Reporters blame the polls for giving them the wrong impression, but they didn’t cite the polls in their stories. They predicted a “red wave” or even a “red tsunami” based on everything from “abortion peaking too soon as a motivating issue” (Axios) to Joe Biden’s absence from the campaign (National Review) to Donald Trump’s analysis (The Wall Street Journal) to Pennsylvania Democrat John Fetterman’s poor debate performance (The Hill) to a moral panic about non-existent fentanyl-flavored Halloween candy (Fox News) to “fundamentals” (CNN) and “momentum” (Washington Examiner) and “growing signs” (The New York Times) to increased Democratic campaign spending in blue districts (NBC).

They should have trusted the polls.

The polls were right

FiveThirtyEight, which aggregates national as well as state polls, gave Republicans an eight-in-ten chance of winning control of the House of Representatives with between 220 and 230 seats.

Republicans are winning control of the House of Representatives with between 220 and 230 seats.

The website gave both parties an even chance of winning the Senate in the weeks leading up to the election. The forecast narrowed to a six-to-four advantage for Republicans in the final days and identified Arizona, Nevada, Georgia and Pennsylvania as the swing states.

Democrats (including two independents) are at 48 seats, Republicans at 49. Arizona and Nevada are still counting their votes. The Democratic candidate is ahead in the first, the Republican in the second. The Georgia Senate election is going to a runoff since neither major party candidate won a majority of 50 percent plus one.

Pennsylvania was the only polling miss. Most surveys had the Republican, Mehmet Oz, up by 1 to 3 points. Democrat John Fetterman won by 4 points.