Keeping Hope (Barely) Alive: Two Last-Minute Causes for Democratic Optimism?

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The polls say it’s going to be a bad-to-very-bad night for Democrats. But until the actual polls -- the ones that voters actually vote at -- close, it is still possible for Democrats and likeminded independents to hope all those polls are wrong. They are probably not (early intel on turnout, though a highly imperfect indicator, is said to be freaking out party strategists), but while there’s still time to dream, a pair of rogue, conventional wisdom-bucking prognostications make for encouraging reading.

The first is by FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver, who lays out five reasons the Democrats could hold the House on his now New York Times-hosted blog. He goes into a lot of detail about why surveys might be misreading the electorate, and it’s those details, as with any good Silver post, that make the whole thing worth checking out before you grit your teeth and tune the TV to MSNBC. But here’s a key passage:

It seems like the evidence that Republicans will win the House is very rich, redundant and robust. Look at this generic ballot poll! Look at this other generic ballot poll! Look at how badly Democrats are doing among whites. Look at how they’re doing among independents!

But all of these indicators are, in fact, highly correlated with one another. They’re all rooted in the polling, and they’re all dependent on the polling basically being accurate. There’s not much diversity at all: it’s just different manifestations of the same thing.

Our Congressional forecasting models are based on an intensive study of six political cycles: 1998, 2000, 2002, 2004, 2006 and 2008. In five of those six years, the polls were quite good — they missed a few races, but were very strong overall.

In one year, however –1998 -- they were quite poor. Democrats overperformed their polls by about four points in a great number of races around the country. What was supposed to be an echo to the Republican boom year of 1994 basically flopped, eventually costing Newt Gingrich his job as speaker of the House.

Consensus expectations also considerably underestimated the Republican wave year of 1994, although a few indicators (like Gallup’s generic ballot poll) got it about right. If we wanted to be generous to Democrats (which is, of course, the purpose of this article), we could say that the consensus basically failed in two out of the last four midterm elections.

So why might the consensus fail again this year? Silver goes on:

The case that Democrats could do better than expected — not well, by any means, merely better than expected — rests a little more in the realm of what artists call negative space: not what there is, but in what there isn’t. There aren’t 50, or even more than about 25, districts in which Republican candidates are unambiguous favorites. There isn’t agreement among pollsters about how the enthusiasm gap is liable to manifest itself. There isn’t any one poll or one forecasting method that is clairvoyant, or that hasn’t made some pretty significant errors in the past.

Instead, the case for Democrats is basically: yes, the news is bad, it just isn’t exactly as bad as you think, or at least we can’t be sure that it is. This isn’t a sexy argument to make.

Nor, probably, will it turn out to be the correct one; more likely than not, Republicans will indeed win the House, and will do so by a significant margin. But just as Republicans could beat the consensus, Democrats could too, and nobody should be particularly shocked if they do.

The second piece of contrarian analysis comes courtesy of young academics Adam Bonica and Joshua A. Tucker, who share their theory in a post on Salon. Like the Silver post, it gets pretty technical -- and, like the Silver post, is worth reading in full. But basically, Bonica and Tucker have built a model that predicts race outcomes not based on opinion polling, but instead on donor activity. By poring over reams of FEC data, they identified donors with a track record of backing the right horse; by looking at who those donors have bet on this time around, they can project how many contests each party will prevail in. "All else equal, the more money a candidate raises from the type of donors who give to winners, the more likely he is to win,” they write. Their analysis also factors in the ideological cast of a candidate’s donor pool, flagging an extreme conservative or liberal tilt that could translate into impressive fundraising hauls, but losing shares of the vote.

Bonica and Tucker write that their model is “remarkably accurate” in identifying victorious candidates when donor data from past cycles is run through it. And for the 2010 midterms, it predicts Democratic losses of only 19 to 40 seats. That’s far less than leading pollsters projections, which show gains for Republicans in the 50s – and maybe short of the 39 seats the GOP needs to pick up in order to take the majority in the House.

We’ll know soon enough whether their unconventional model does better than traditional polling for today’s midterms. But in the – again, by our view unlikely – event that it does, they’re ready with an explanation:

More and more people say it will be a landslide because more and more people say it will be a landslide. One place this bubble could play out option is in expert prognosis; the more everyone comes to believe the election will be a landslide, the more prognosticators may be tempted to move individual races more in a Republican direction. Another way it could pop up could be in dealing with likely voters. The trick to getting polls to accurately predict elections -- and especially close elections -- is to get the relationship between registered voters and likely voters right. It’s certainly worth asking whether pollsters could be tweaking their likely voter models to get the results where the "bubble" mentality says it should be.

SOURCES

Nate Silver: 5 Reasons Democrats Could Beat the Polls and Hold the House

Adam Bonica and Joshua A. Tucker: Not so fast: Why Democrats could hold the House

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