Are the polls wrong again?

Final polls in the 2020 presidential election overestimated Joe Biden’s strength, especially in some states.

Polls showed Biden with a slight lead in North Carolina, but he lost the state to Donald Trump. Polls also showed Biden comfortably ahead in Wisconsin, but he won it by less than a percentage point. In Ohio, polls showed a tight race. Instead, Trump won it handily.

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In each of those states—and some others—pollsters failed to reach a representative sample of voters. One factor appears to be that Republican voters are more skeptical of mainstream institutions and less willing to respond to a survey. If that’s true, polls often underestimate Republican support until pollsters figure out how to fix the problem.

That possibility gives reason to wonder if Democrats are really doing as well in the midterms as conventional wisdom suggests. Recent polls show Democrats favored to narrowly retain control of the Senate, while losing control of the House, also narrowly.

But Democrats’ strength in the Senate campaign depends in part on their strength in some of the same states where polls overstated support for Democrats two years ago, including the three I mentioned above: North Carolina, Ohio and Wisconsin.

Nate Cohn, chief political analyst for The New York Times, calls it a “warning sign” — both for the Democratic Party and the polls.

Or is it different in 2022?

Cohn is also careful to acknowledge what he doesn’t know, stressing that polls may not be wrong this year in the same way they were wrong in 2020. It’s still possible pollsters are devaluation Support Democrats this year by looking very hard for Republican voters in an effort to avoid repeating recent mistakes.

The inescapable reality is that polling is both an art and a science, requiring rigorous judgments about what kinds of people are more or less likely to respond to a survey and more or less likely to vote in the fall. There are still some big mysteries about the recent tendency of polls to underestimate Republican support.

The pattern was not uniform across the country, for example. In some states — like Georgia, Nevada and Pennsylvania — the final polls have been pretty accurate lately. That inconsistency makes the problem harder to fix because pollsters can’t just boost the Republican share everywhere.

There’s also some uncertainty about whether the problem is as big when Trump isn’t on the ballot — and apparently isn’t running for office this year. Douglas Rivers, the chief scientist at polling firm YouGov, told me he believed that was the case and that there is something special about Trump that complicates the polls. Similarly, Nate noted that the polls in the 2018 midterm elections were pretty accurate.

Finally, as Cohn points out, the 2022 campaign has two dynamics that may make it different from a normal midterm and that may help Democrats. The Supreme Court, which is dominated by Republican appointees, issued an unpopular decision on abortion, and Trump, unlike most defeated presidents, still gets a lot of attention.

As a result, this year’s election may feel less like a referendum on the current president and more like a choice between two parties. Biden, for his part, makes this point explicitly. “Every election is a choice,” he said recently. “My dad used to say, ‘Don’t compare me to the Almighty, Joey. Compare me with the alternative’.

As Cohn told me:

Almost every election cycle, there’s an argument for why, this time, things might be different — different from expectations set by historical trends and key factors like the state of the economy or the president’s approval rating.

The arguments are often quite reasonable. After all, every cycle

is

different. There is almost always something new about a given election year. There is always a way to create a rationale for why the old rules won’t apply.

In the end, history usually prevails. That’s a good thing to remember right now, as Democrats are showing strength that seems in stark contrast to the president’s party’s long history of midterm struggles.

But this cycle, there really is something different — or at least, there’s something different about the “this cycle might be different” reasons.

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