Yep, I got it wrong
19 November 2022
The thing about hostages to fortune is that sometimes, when one tempts fate and takes a risk on predicting the future, the Goddesses of Destiny make you look stupid. As with all those many prognosticators who predicted a Republican wave in last week’s US midterm elections. Bozos like me, say. Mea culpa readers.
So with the benefits of hindsight, from where everyone gets it right, what went wrong? Start with the polls. From before 2012 until last week virtually every major poll in the US consistently undersold how Republicans would do in the actual election. Hence when all the polls started showing big to giant Republican gains were coming in last week’s mid-terms the temptation was to think that the actual outcome would be at least that, and probably better than that, for the Republicans. Or if you just looked at the very small handful of polling companies that had had a pretty good track record of being right over the last decade, say the Trafalgar Polls, they too were showing a big day for the Republicans. Trafalgar ended up over-estimating the Republican vote by nearly seven per cent across thirteen states. Another indicator that sometimes had been outperforming the pollsters of late was the betting market, where people have to put their money where their mouth is. These markets were showing an even bigger night for the Republicans than most pollsters, a tsunami not a wave. Wrong! Wrong! Wrong!
One thing we might conclude from this is that the polls and the betting markets are completely worthless. Or to put the point in more measured terms, in sharply divided countries like the US, where voting is voluntary and one of the most important things political parties need to do is to get out the vote, pollsters have not yet figured out how properly to sample voters not just for how they’ll vote but for whether they’ll bother. Who will turn out? Which groups are prepared to answer their cell phones and which are not? Who is worried about Big Tech and simply lies to pollsters? And as for the betting markets, well, everyone has long known that the biggest factor in how people bet is those polls. Maybe there’s also a bit of insider knowledge (parties’ own secret polls and the like) driving the betting markets and making them a tad more accurate than the public polls. But not in last week’s mid-terms. At any rate, it was a mistake to assume the pollsters would continue to err on the side of the Democrats, as they had for over a decade.
So that’s my Uriah Heep-like self-abasement done. Because it turns out the actual picture was a good deal more nuanced than you’re reading in the left-leaning legacy media. To start, the Republicans won the popular vote last week by over five points. Go back to the 2020 election and you’ll see the Republicans lost the popular vote by five points. That’s a ten-point turn-around. For some people that sort of result might warrant being called ‘a Republican wave’, one that might even have been suppressed because some Republican voters saw the aforementioned polls, figured the result was in the bag, and reckoned it wasn’t worth bothering to vote. But one question this raises is why a five-point-plus win in the popular vote didn’t translate into much at all. Now some House of Representatives seats are still being counted in California, Oregon, Arizona and Nevada (basically making some US states look like a third world country in how they run their elections – accepting postal votes after close of polls on election day, ballot ‘curing’ by sometimes partisan officials, drop-off postal boxes, ballot harvesting, no required voter ID, and the like – though that’s unfair to India, say, which despite 3-4 times as many votes, completes its election counts for the whole country in one day and ignores states like Florida with 22 million people that counted its votes within hours while Arizona’s 7 million are taking more than a week). And it looks right now as though the Republicans will squeak out a House majority. But that’s a very poor return on a +5 point popular vote win. The Senate needs a near miracle to get to 51, including needing to win the early December Georgia run-off election.
One factor is money. Four or five decades ago all of us just more or less assumed (certainly in the US) that the party of the Right outspent the one on the Left. And by a fair bit. That is not true anymore as left-wing parties around the Anglosphere are now the home of the very poor, the very wealthy (Hillary took the hundred wealthiest US counties in 2016) and single women. Those very wealthy give huge amounts to the Dems, especially in key marginal battlegrounds. In the key Senate seat of Arizona the Democrat Mark Kelly raised US $79.4 million while the Republican Blake Masters raised US $12 million. That’s a lot of extra TV ads.
And that leads to my last point. I’m very sceptical of all the usual suspects who think this result will finish off Donald Trump. First off, the blame for not translating this into a big Republican wave extends way beyond Mr Trump. The Republican establishment led by Senate leader Mitch McConnell pulled money from key Senate races such as Arizona to send it to Alaska where it was two Republicans (yes, you read that correctly) fighting it out for the win. One was a Trump-backed candidate who’d been endorsed by the Alaska State Republican party. McConnell spent big on the other, Lisa Murkowski, who’d voted to impeach Trump and been censured by her own party. In fact, McConnell and what you might think of as the Simon Birmingham wing of the Republican party have been at war with the populist Trump faction now since before 2016. That doesn’t help.
Personally, I’m sceptical that Florida’s Ron DeSantis can bridge this chasm though I love what he did not locking down or mandating during the pandemic. I also think Trump is vulnerable on the issue of lockdowns. But be clear. Trump remains very popular with the base of the party, most of whom couldn’t care less what the mainstream media thinks or says. They won’t turn out for a squishy, wet candidate. And it’s not clear how many of them would vote for DeSantis after a bruising nomination battle with Trump. Your regular Never Trumper columnists just seem to assume all those Trump voters who hadn’t much voted before 2016 (when McCain then Romney lost badly) will turn out for their alternative candidate. Maybe, just maybe, DeSantis can pull this off. But no one else in my view. Frankly, the Republicans are in a diabolical position given that the populists (three-quarters of the base?) hate the establishment wing, and vice versa. And yet both sides need the other. A sustained attack by the establishment on Trump would be a disaster. The Republican party split in 1912. It’s not impossible to think that could happen again, formally or de facto.
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