Republican Wave Drowns Pollsters

Despite all of their supposed science, improved methodologies, and sophisticated turnout models, the nation's pollsters have just suffered through their worst midterm elections drubbing in 20 years. The last time they were off this badly was when they woefully underestimated Republican gains in the Newt Gingrich "Contract with America" midterms of 1994.

In this year's U.S. Senate races, preelection "tossup" predictions really meant "comfortable Republican wins" in three instances — Georgia, Iowa and Kansas, where Republican victory margins were eight, nine, and 11 points, respectively. Four of the others — Alaska, Colorado, Louisiana, and North Carolina — went the GOP's way, or appear destined to. The Democrats sole tossup triumph was in New Hampshire. Additionally, soon-to-be Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's race in Kentucky and the Arkansas Senate contest were both supposed to be fairly close. Instead, they were 16-point and 17-point blowouts, respectively.

Additionally, an expected easy ten-point Democrat win in the Virginia Senate race turned into a one-point nailbiter. I think it's entirely possible that a comprehensive audit of the Old Dominion State's results throwing out the ballots of foreign nationals and all others who illegally voted would have turned Ed Gillespie's 17,000-vote loss into a win. Even if going through the exercise didn't make up the margin, it would have been an ideal opportuinty to make an important point about election integrity. Unfortunately, Republicans all too often concede prematurely.

The polling fails in governors' races were in some respects even worse, especially since two ordinarily solid blue states went red. Republicans' five-point win in Maryland came after almost every post-Labor Day poll showed Larry Hogan's Democratic opponent with a double-digit lead. The Democratic incumbent's situation in Illinois was tougher, but he still was expected to beat back a challenge from Republican Bruce Rauner. Instead, Rauner won by five points. Finally, despite all-out attacks by Paul Krugman and others at the New York Times, the GOP's Sam Brownback outperformed the polls by six points in defeating his Democratic challenger in Kansas. A Times preelection editorial claimed that Brownback's tax cuts we "on trial." Well, they won with the voters.

This time, pollsters' usual excuses won't cut it. Their models overestimated black and Hispanic turnout, even though, based on history, everyone should have expected significant apathy going in. And sure, there were last-minute Democrat gaffes which the polls had no way to pick up. Michelle Obama's flat-out lie about job growth in Illinois and Joe Biden's tagging of incumbent Republican Senator Pat Roberts' opponent in Kansas as a de facto Dem on Election Day certainly helped Republicans, but they don't fully explain the unpredicted shellacking Democrats took in those two states.

There are two far more fundamental problems pollsters face. I don't see how they can overcome either.