Election 2020

Will Democrats Retake the House? Nate Silver Admits He Doesn't Know What's Going to Happen

A rare bit of candor from a top-line pollster, Nate Silver of Five Thirty Eight, who says “both outcomes” — Democratic takeover or Republican hold — are “extremely possible.”

The Hill:

“So in the House we have Democrats with about a 4 in 5 chance of winning,” Silver told ABC’s “This Week.”

However, he noted that “polls aren’t always right.”

“The range of outcomes in the House is really wide,” he explained. “Our range, which covers 80 percent of outcomes goes from, on the low end, about 15 Democratic pickups, all the way to low to mid 50s, 52 or 53.”

“Most of those are under 23, which is how many seats they would need to win to take the House,” he said.”

“But no one should be surprised if they only win 19 seats and no one should be surprised if they win 51 seats,” Silver added. “Those are both extremely possible, based on how accurate polls are in the real world.”

Silver sounds uneasy. That’s not good for a pollster. But as we enter the final hours of campaigning, we can say a few things with relative certainty.

1. There will be no “Blue Wave”

It was never that likely to begin with, but polling in recent weeks has shown consistent signs that Republicans are doing better than was previously believed, despite many disadvantages. Early voting numbers in key states have shown Republicans more than holding their own. And the Democrats’ hoped-for turnout — while higher than history would suggest — is not approaching numbers that would allow them to flip a lot of safe Republican seats.

The Senate is out of reach, with Republicans poised to gain at least 1-2 seats.

 2. The Democrats have mostly failed in making Trump the issue

While the president remains unpopular, the Democrats’ efforts to nationalize the election by making Trump the issue are not working in most of the 25 Clinton-supporting red state districts they need to retake the House. It may be a different story in GOP districts in blue states. These are mostly suburban districts that have historically been Republican strongholds but are now slipping away thanks to demographic changes. Control of the House may come down to a handful of these suburban contests in Pennsylvania and Ohio.

3. Forget the predictions from pollsters

For a pollster like Nate Silver to say “polls aren’t always right” is to admit to the turmoil that is roiling the polling industry. Pollsters have always had differences in figuring out things like turnout and the definition of “likely voters.” But the industry’s problems today are based on the simple idea that few people want to talk to them:

In the wake of so many blunders, much attention has been focused on the increasing unreliability of traditional polling techniques. Pollsters have been hurt in particular by the near-ubiquity of cellphones — which by law may not be called using automatic dialers — and Americans’ growing unwillingness to answer poll questions. According to the Pew Research Center, 36 percent of people would answer telephone surveys in 1997; today, just 9 percent will.

But as Karlyn Bowman, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, points out in a penetrating new essay for National Affairs, the problems with modern polling aren’t caused solely by these external pressures. “Other, more subtle changes reveal a chasm between pollsters and the public they observe, posing a threat to the credibility and usefulness of polls,” she writes.

Pollsters are supposed to be able to ferret out a respondent’s “true feelings” when answering a question. There are a variety of tried and true techniques that are supposed to filter out voters’ responses based on what they think the pollster wants to hear.

Do they work anymore? I’m not so sure. Recent results would suggest they don’t. The point is, when a candidate showed a 10-point lead at this point in an election a decade ago, we could be fairly certain that candidate would win. I think pollsters today are a lot less confident in predicting the outcome of an election when a candidate holds that kind of lead.

So buckle up and hold on, children, because Kansas may be going bye-bye.