Going Rove?

Democrats Aren't Deniers on Polls

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
Read More.
a | A

No, Democrats aren't venturing into the kind of polling denialism that turned "unskewed" Republicans into a joke two years ago. That, you remember, led Karl Rove and other party strategists to dismiss unfavorable opinion surveys as politically biased against them.

The Hill's Niall Stanage tried to make the case this morning that 2014 Democrats are in danger of heading off the same cliff that Rove did when he famously refused to accept the forecasts on Election Night 2012 -- results reported by the Fox News desk, no less. I don't think Stanage has the goods, though.

It's one thing for politicians who are losing to urge their supporters to ignore the polls; after all, we can't expect them to just give up. And there's no "unskewing" in saying, as Stanage reports Bill Clinton as saying, that polls showing Democrats losing could be wrong if more young people vote than pollsters expect. There's a difference, that is, between claiming that pollsters are wrong about the composition of the likely electorate, on the one hand, and urging voters and activists to change that electorate, on the other. The former is usually wishful thinking; the latter is a call to action -- which is always reasonable, whether or not it turns out to be effective.

That said, there is nothing wrong with thinking about the reasons that polling might be off. Just remember that it might be off in either direction.

It's important to understand what the polls (and Election Night forecasters) are actually saying. As of today, five of the six forecast models give the Republicans a 57 percent to 66 percent chance of winning at least 51 seats in the Senate. If those are correct, only the Washington Post model (at 94 percent) has strong confidence about the outcome. If Nate Silver's model (with a 58 percent chance) is correct, then Democratic chances of retaining 50 seats and, with Joe Biden's tie-breaker vote, hanging on to the Senate are quite good.

Why is that? Think about a penny weighted so that it should come up heads 60 percent of the time. Over millions of throws, that's what will happen. But if you only flip it 10 times, it won't be a big surprise if, say, six of those tosses are tails or if eight are heads. We only get one toss - there's only one election - so unless the odds are closer to that Monkey Cage 94 percent, then neither side has a reason to consider Republicans anywhere close to a lock. So emphasizing uncertainty in the polls isn't denialism at all; it's exactly what Nate Silver and most other forecasters are saying.

Mainly, however, the goal of any party down in the polls should be to win voters, not to win arguments over the polls. I don't think Democrats are focused on the latter, but if they go down that path, they will find very little reward there, as the Republicans learned in 2012.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net