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CONTRIBUTORS

No one really has any clue about what’s going to happen in the midterms

Kurt Bardella
Los Angeles Times (TNS)

As we head into the final stretch of the midterm elections, the national political media have returned to their favorite pastime: fixating on polls.

For the better part of a year, voters have been inundated with a familiar media chorus: Republicans are poised to retake control of Congress. The rationale for bolstering the “red wave” narrative is a combination of historical precedence — the party in power almost always loses seats in the first term of a presidency — and reliance on polling. But given what we’ve seen in the last six years, conventional political wisdom, which didn’t predict an insurrection, is quite likely to be upended.

The same thing can be said for polling, which has been off the mark cycle after cycle. Donald Trump wasn’t supposed to win in 2016. Republicans weren’t supposed to gain seats in 2020. A Republican candidate for governor wasn’t supposed to win in Virginia, a state Biden won by 10 points. Alaska hasn’t elected a Democrat to Congress in 50 years, yet it did this year.

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Voters cast their ballots at the Venice Beach Lifeguard Operations polling location near the Venice Pier on Nov. 6, 2018. (Al Seib/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

Yet the media are still promoting narratives about the midterm elections that are based on past elections. At best, it’s lazy; at worst, it’s irresponsible.

By failing to acknowledge the shortcomings of polling, the media are giving the public a false or skewed representation of how competitive this election may be and running the risk of making those predictions a self-fulfilled prophecy. If voters take the prognosticating at face value, they would believe the election is already determined, which could hinder turnout. It’s the same reason people change the channel during a blowout game; who wants to stick around for that?

Now imagine election night 2022, if Democrats hold both the House and Senate. The collective media apparatus will express shock and surprise. They will herald the results as unprecedented and defying all expectations. But the truth will be that the media got it wrong — again. And yet the narrative embedded in so much of political coverage is unlikely to change. The same storyline will probably be trotted out in 2024. That’s the inherent danger of the herd D.C. Beltway mentality that dominates conventional wisdom group-think.

I expect that if this scenario comes to pass, we’ll see more stories with headlines such as this from Politico, “Pollsters: ‘Impossible’ to say why 2020 polls were wrong” or studies such as this one from Vanderbilt University, “Preelection polls in 2020 had the largest errors in 40 years.”

Those reports are from less than two years ago. And yet, here we are on the doorstep of another election and much of the coverage is still centering on every new poll, as if this pattern of inaccuracy didn’t exist.

Now let me be clear, I’m not saying the opposite can’t happen, that Republicans can’t find themselves the victors in these midterms. Of course, that’s entirely within the realm of possibility. But that’s not my point. My point is no one really has any clue about what’s going to happen, especially the pollsters who routinely get things wrong.

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And if political pundits and reporters are being honest, they would admit that they have no actual hard data to back up the thesis that a red wave is forming.

What’s worse is that many are completely ignoring the fact that this election is being conducted under circumstances unlike any other before it, with dozens of new voter suppression laws being enacted in Republican-led states in the last two years alone. This election isn’t even being conducted on the same playing field as the last one, yet prognostications so often completely ignore GOP actions designed to reduce voting and affect the election outcomes.

Imagine a segment about the Super Bowl where the analysts and handicappers make their predictions for the big game but omit the fact that one team was given a 10-point lead to start the game. That’s essentially what is happening now because of the voter intimidation and suppression we’re seeing in states such as Arizona and Florida.

Omitting or downplaying this context in polling stories and political coverage is a huge disservice to the nation. The conventional horse-race narrative for elections has never served the public well. But in these midterms, lack of context normalizes what Republicans have done to fair elections and will further help accelerate the decline of the American democratic process.

— Kurt Bardella is contributing writer to Opinion. He is Democratic strategist and a former senior adviser for Republicans on the House Oversight Committee.