News & Politics

Have Pollsters Learned Anything from 2016?

(Dennis Fujimoto /The Garden Island via AP)

There have been several poll analyses in recent days that purport to show a Democratic “blue wave” building. Most notably, Nate Silver’s Five Thirty Eight blog pegs Democratic chances of a House takeover at 75%.

All the biggies — Cook, Sabato, et al. — are giving the Democrats a big advantage going into November. But at least one organization is urging Democrats to take a deep breath and get a grip. The CBS Battleground Tracker factors in some lessons learned from the polling debacle of 2016 and arrives at a little different conclusion.

Studying the exit polls in 2016 for CBS News coverage of the presidential election, Salvanto saw what was happening – Hillary Clinton was losing ground, and voters who hadn’t cast ballots were not likely to vote for her.  Salvanto delivered his verdict to the networks anchors and producers: “This is a contested race.”

The late deciders gave Trump the victory, Salvanto claims. CBS’s final 2016 poll gave him a big lead among voters who decided at the last minute.

Salvanto told the New York Post that comparing elections to horse races is wrong.  “The horse-race analogy is compelling but it’s wrong. “In a campaign, everything can change tomorrow.”

Based on that perspective, Salvanto is relying on the lessons of 2016 to watch this year’s midterms.  The CBS Battleground Tracker is looking at districts that will make a difference  He told the Post: “Remember, in a midterm, you have to watch each congressional seat — don’t pay attention to national numbers.”

The CBS News Battleground Tracker has a panel of 5,700 registered voters, with the majority in the districts that are highly contested. That poll indicates that few House seats will change parties in November, with the GOP likely holding its majority in the House.

“Right now I think this election looks like a toss-up,” Salvanto said to the Post. “We see a Democrat pickup in the House of Representatives in the 20-odd seat range, but Republicans could certainly hold on to the House.”

Most analyses giving Democrats a big edge are assuming a larger than average turnout for Democratic core constituencies that include minorities, single women, and educated professionals. The “enthusiasm gap” has been well reported for months.

The big problem with that is history is likely to get in the way. Historically, the party of a first-term president loses about 23 seats in the first off-year election, so the CBS analysis tracks fairly well with those numbers.

Also historically speaking, those very same core constituencies that Democrats are relying on to sweep to victory have an annoying habit of not showing up to vote on election day. This is especially true for off-year elections. Of course, even a small increase in turnout of those groups could be decisive in several races. But what about a “blue wave”?

There are many definitions of a blue wave but a gain of between 35-60 seats by Democrats would meet most criteria. There are very few pollsters predicting those kinds of Democratic gains. With 40 Republican open seats, it is still a distinct possibility that Democrats will win the 24 seats necessary to take over the House. But the more you look at the numbers, the more you see GOP incumbents in better shape than they were just a few months ago. They are changing no one’s mind, but traditional GOP voters are coming home and if they can be persuaded to go to the polls on election day, Republicans should be in pretty good shape.

Democrats have recruited fairly decent candidates and are well funded. By all rights, they should win back the House. But as 2016 should have taught us, nothing is certain these days and, at the very least, Republicans have a fighting chance to prevail.