Democrats are feeling good about their chances in the Senate, but there’s a lingering worry: What if the polls are as wrong today as they were in 2016 and 2020?
Polling in some of the nation’s most competitive states, including Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin, Arizona and Georgia, show Democrats making critical gains and are fueling hopes that the 2022 midterms elections may not be as painful as once feared.
Publicly, Democratic candidates have touted the surveys as a sign of strength. But privately, party strategists warn against putting too much stock in the numbers. Democrats also saw their hopes raised by polls in 2016 and 2020 only to see them crushed — and in many of the same swing states they now see as crucial to keeping their Senate majority.
“Yeah, I’m nervous about the polling,” Jon Reinish, a Democratic strategist, said. “I think especially Democrats have a lot of PTSD from pinning their hopes on a lot of numbers and data two national election cycles in a row and having them be woefully far off.
“The double concern then becomes that the places where Democrats are seeing their fortunes go up are the exact same states where things were far off before.”
In Pennsylvania, for instance, a recent CBS News-YouGov poll found John Fetterman, the Democratic nominee for Senate, leading Republican hopeful Mehmet Oz by 5 percentage points. Compare that to 2020, when polls showed President Biden leading former President Trump by a similar margin.
Biden went on to beat Trump in the state by only about 1 point.
Likewise, in Wisconsin, an August poll from Marquette University Law School showed Democratic Senate nominee Mandela Barnes leading Sen. Ron Johnson (R) by 7 points — a lead similar to the one that Biden held in preelection polling two years ago.
Biden ultimately carried Wisconsin, but only by about 0.6 percentage points. And a poll released Wednesday by Marquette University saw Barnes’s fortunes flip, finding him 1 point behind Johnson, though within the survey’s margin of error.
With Democrats just one seat away from losing their Senate majority this year, those past polling errors have some in the party cautioning their candidates — and their voters — against getting too comfortable, fearing that complacency could undermine their chances in November.
“I’m not taking any of the polling too seriously right now,” one Democratic pollster said. “We’ve been burned before, so I’m telling everyone I can, you know, ‘Forget about the polls; run through the tape.’ ”
The battle for the House, meanwhile, still appears to favor Republicans.
While Democrats have recently regained an edge on the generic congressional ballot — a poll question asking which party voters would support — those surveys tend to favor Democrats. And though strategists and pollsters on both sides of the aisle acknowledge Democrats are in a better position than just a few months ago, the GOP only needs to net five seats to recapture a majority in the lower chamber.
Polling can be fickle, especially in a political environment as volatile as the one the country currently finds itself in, said Saul Anuzis, a Republican strategist and former Michigan GOP chair.
“A poll is a snapshot in time,” Anuzis said. “So the reality is in this political climate, they tend to change more drastically. I think that you have to be much more cognizant of the fact that the numbers tend to be far more volatile than you do generally.”
The Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, the landmark abortion rights case, turbocharged Democratic campaigns up and down the ballot and upended the GOP’s calculation that the midterms would be decided on issues like inflation, perceived rising crime and Biden’s low approval ratings.
At the same time, Trump has remained in the national spotlight, making it more difficult for Republicans to keep the focus solely on Biden.
Anuzis acknowledged that those combined forces — the fight over abortion rights and Trump’s continued dominance on the national stage — pose a challenge for his party this year.
“When Republicans are talking about the issues that are really resonating among independent and moderate voters, we win and we do better,” he said. “When Democrats are able to turn it into a referendum on Trump, on abortion rights, I think they do better.”
It’s also unclear whether polling in 2022 will suffer from the same errors that it has in the past.
“The problems that were there in 2016 were different than in 2020 and in 2021,” Patrick Murray, the director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute, said. “The lack of consistency over what the problems have been makes it difficult to figure out what the next problem is going to be.”
Murray said Monmouth’s Polling Institute has changed its approach to election polling since last year, when its surveys failed to accurately reflect the kind of voters who ultimately turned out in New Jersey’s gubernatorial election. Murray is now focusing more on asking voters about the strengths and weaknesses of rival candidates, rather than whom they would vote for in head-to-head match-ups.
That decision, he said, was due to the influence that polling can have on campaigns. Candidates and parties often use polls to juice their fundraising numbers or build a narrative around their campaigns that can ultimately affect the outcome of elections.
“I’ve changed the way we are doing our polling around elections specifically because of the role the polls play in creating a narrative around what’s going to happen. I cannot stop the media from treating me as if I’m an oddsmaker.”
There’s at least some reason to believe that 2022 may not see the same kind of polling failures that have materialized in recent election cycles. Public opinion surveys ahead of the last midterm elections, in 2018, offered a pretty clear picture of the final outcome; that year Democrats won control of the House, but fell short of winning a Senate majority.
Even in 2020, the polling in some states, like Georgia, was relatively accurate. This year, most recent polling out of Georgia has shown a tight race between Sen. Raphael Warnock (D) and his Republican challenger, Herschel Walker.
Reinish, the Democratic strategist, said that despite the boost his party has gotten in recent months, he hasn’t yet seen the signs of complacency among Democratic candidates that could pose a threat ahead of Election Day.
“What’s good is that the Democratic candidates in those states — whether they’re running for governor or the House or Senate — are all running aggressive campaigns as if they are 10 points behind,” he said. “No one is resting on their laurels.”