As I write this the outcome of the presidential election remains uncertain, although the trends seem to be heading steadily in Biden’s favor and it seems very unlikely he will lose, but the hanging on of this is beginning to get to many of us. Most other races have been decided, although some of those are still up in the air. In any case, although it is near certain Biden will win, it will be by a substantially lower margin that forecast by the main polls, with him not taking several states he was forecast to take. This is also mirrored in Congressional (and some state legislative) races, with it unlikely, although not completely out of the realm of possibility, that Dems will control the Senate as had been forecast as a 2 to 1 likely outcome by 538, and instead of gaining seats, the Dems lost some in the House while retaining control, with the exact number of losses also still a bit uncertain. In short, Trump and the Republicans did much better than generally forecast, and this has lots of people upset and lashing out at each other, including, reportedly, Dem members of the House.
No, I am not going to join the mob howling at the pollsters, nor am I going to join the mob howling at Schumer and Pelosi. I shall look at how I think the pollsters got it wrong, although I think they have been doing their best and trying to avoid certain errors they made in 2016, when they also underpredicted how well Trump would do. Nor am I going to join those dumping on Schumer and Pelosi. I think the Congressional outcomes have a big fat zero to do with anything either of them have done or said or not done or not said. It was all about the down-ballot GOPs gaining from the underpredicted surge of Trump supporters coming out to vote for him, the phenomenon that needs to be understood.
Who I am going to pick on, although not too much really, are some reporters and commentators I shall simply label as pundits, “whining pundits” to be precise. To name three who all appeared in the Style section of the Washington Post, not the editorial page, I note Monica Hesse, Hank Stuever, and Margaret Sullivan, roughly in order of how annoying and hypocritical I find their whining.
I note of these I have long respected Margaret Sullivan a lot, and she was mostly fairly factual, covering, in fact, the difficult problem of the pollsters messing up (“Who who won, but it wasn’t the pollsters”). In fact while accurately noting details of how off the pollsters were, she, who regularly covers the media, extended the critique to the broader media beyond the pollsters. She accurately noted the sparcity of coverage of the degree to which Trump was appealing to Latino males, especially those in South Florida. But she may have overdone it when she appeared to blame the media for relentlessly covering Trump’s mishandling of the pandemic, which she suggested allowed Trump to appeal to his followers by pointing to a hostile mainstream media. What she did not do when she came up with that was to note that she herself has much of the time in recent years dumped on the media for not being relentless enough in exposing the various flaws of Trump.
From his byline of “Critics Notebook,” Hank Stuever (“Difficult to tune out, but even harder to watch”) focused on the election night TV coverage. Much of this is reasonable, but he too turned to whining, not about the polls or even the coverage, but the naive optimism of sucker liberals among the public. He did this by quoting TV reporters who made sneery such remarks as the results began to turn unexpectedly so much for Trump. So we get “Long before the post-midnight madness, CNN anchor Jake Tapper reminded viewers that there has been a lot of magical thinking lately on the part of Democrats and liberal pundits, who spent too much time entertaining pie-in-the-sky dreams of tipping Texas and Georgia [which now appears likely to in fact end up gong for Biden] to blue states, imagining a landslide victory for Biden. “As they say, ‘You can’t get high on your own supply,'” Tapper zinged.” OK, but I am unaware of either Tapper or Stuever expressing such views prior to the election. Ooops!
Somehow Monica Hesse (“Crushed by a landslide that never happened”) makes these other two look completely reasonable with her sneering whining, also lacking any previous reporting on how wildly over-optimistic all these people were. She accurately notes that election officials had warned of “an election week,” but then we had “in some liberal circles there was a jacked-up fantasy that nobody would have to wait for Pennsylvania’s tortured ballot count because by 10 p.m. Joe Biden would turn Florida and North Carolina blue [this latter remains a possibility, although not too likely] – and maybe Texas, why not?” As an added dig she adds that “for the past years, the demographics in my inbox who most fervently believed in a 2020 blue landslide were White liberal men and occasionally White liberal women. Surely, they insisted, what had happened in 2016 was a blip.” This may be right, and she does then argue that Black women and others did not have such illusions.
OK, for all the hypocritical whining and sneering by these folks who did not issue these warnings previously, the problem seems to boil down to observers taking polls seriously. 538 had a national gap of 8% nationally for Biden while Real Clear Politics had it at 7%. A likely outcome will have Biden at 4-5% ahead. This is a larger gap than in 2016, when the final 538 predicted national advantage for Clinton was 3%, with her getting a 2.1% lead. How then did things go so wrong in 2016? Ah, the errors varied across states, with some having the polls on the money, but they messed up badly in the crucial three states of Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, especially the first, and they were what provided the surprising outcome of a Trump electoral college victory.
The national gap this time looks to be somewhat larger, but the variation across states also seems to have reappeared. Some have been on the money, such as the respected Selzer poll in Iowa that nailed the Trump lead almost on the head. But then we have Wisconsin again, where one poll in the last few weeks actually had Biden ahead by 17%, with the overall averages having Biden ahead by 5-6%, but in the end having less than 1 percent lead (again, thank you Prairie du Chien!).
For myself on Facebook in comments I speculated that due to a likely higher turnout with such intensity on both sides, there was a larger variance to the likely outcome, with the 538 projections of the expected for Biden too optimistic, but with indeed there being also a non-trivial chance of him getting a landslide. And we should note that if 538’s main forecast had happened, 8% lead, this would have been viewed as a landslide, with indeed both Florida and North Carolina for Biden by 2% and with Texas a tossup, despite the whiny sneering by Monica Hesse. It was not just obviously pie-in-the-sky fantasy to take such an outcome seriously, although arguing it as an inevitability clearly was so.
As it was, even though I thought the pollsters had made some appropriate changes since 2016, with one for a bias about educational levels widely reported, I worried about “silent Trump supporters,” and I think those in the end were out there, especially among the better educated, despite the awfully loud and proud shouting by many Trump supporters. So I generally lopped 2% off the forecasted projections, but that was still not enough by a percent or two, although it does actually lead to pretty close to accurate the outcomes of which states would go which way.
I shall note that besides election officials one group that was also cautious about this and preparing for a high turnout by Trump’s supporters has been those in the Biden campaign. Many criticized him for not going to Texas and some other out-there possible states (although he made a few such trips). Of course, he laid low a lot in his basement, possibly too much. But when he was out he very heavily concentrated on the core three states that unexpectedly flipped in 2016, and it looks like this was a good decision, with Wisconsin and Michigan flipped back, and hopefully and likely Pennsylvania as well.