It's been happening for years now. On the day after elections like last Tuesday's, media figures begin navel gazing to figure out how pre-election polls, created by dozens of independent pollsters using dozens of different methodologies, could all find the same thing but turn out to be so wrong once the election results are in.
The presumption is that the results are always right, and if they don't match the polls, its the polls that must be wrong, as opposed to the results.
On Wednesday morning, after Tuesday's mid-term election surprise in which Republicans reportedly won handily in race after race despite pre-election polls almost unanimously predicting much closer races or outright Democratic victories, FiveThirtyEight statistics guru Nate Silver declared "The Polls Were Skewed Toward Democrats".
His analysis of aggregated averages from dozens of different pollsters and polls this year found that the performance of Democrats was overestimated by approximately 4 percentage points in Senate races and 3.4 points in gubernatorial contests. Silver's assessment relies on a "simple average of all polls released in the final three weeks of the campaign," as compared to the (unofficial and almost entirely unverified) election results reported on Tuesday night. He doesn't suggest there was anything nefarious in the polling bias towards Dems this year, simply that the pollsters got it wrong for a number of speculative reasons.
Citing the fact that nearly all of the polls suggested Democrats would do much better than they ultimately did, when compared to the reported election results, Silver asserts it wasn't that the polls were more wrong that usual, per se, but that almost all of them were wrong in a way that appears to have overestimated Democratic performance on Election Day.
"This year's polls were not especially inaccurate," he explains. "Between gubernatorial and Senate races, the average poll missed the final result by an average of about 5 percentage points --- well in line with the recent average. The problem is that almost all of the misses were in the same direction."
Silver is much smarter than I when it comes to numbers; I'm happy to presume he has the basic math right. But he seems to have a blind spot in his presumption that the pre-election polls were wrong and the election results were right. That, despite the lack of verification of virtually any of the results from Tuesday night, despite myriad and widespread if almost completely ignored problems and failures at polls across the country that day, and despite systematic voter suppression and dirty tricks that almost certainly resulted in election results (verified or otherwise) that were skewed toward Republicans...
No doubt you're familiar by now with many of the surprising results Silver cites --- he describes them as "missed 'calls'" and "errors". For example, he notes, pollsters erred in the governor's races "including in Illinois and Kansas and especially in Maryland, where Republican Larry Hogan wound up winning by 9 percentage points despite trailing in every nonpartisan poll released all year."
In Senate contests, he wrote earlier on Wednesday, "Some of the worst misses came in states like Kentucky and Arkansas where the Republican won, but by a considerably larger margin than polls projected. There was also a near-disaster in Virginia. It looks like Democratic incumbent Mark Warner will pull out the race, but the polls had him up by 9 points rather than being headed for a photo finish."
There are many more examples you likely know by now. There were similar surprises in some ballot measures and down-ticket races as well. For example, in Kansas, controversial Republican Sec. of State Kris Kobach was reportedly "tied" with his Democratic challenger last week, according to KSN-TV's SurveyUSA poll. Yet, according to the results on Kobach's own KS Secretary of State site, he "won" the election by a remarkable 18 points. (That's a single poll, not an average of many, but you get the idea.)
Those results, as well as the ones cited by Silver, could, in fact, be correct. The trouble is a) we don't know, because nobody bothers to verify the computer-reported results (even in states which use paper ballots systems that could be verified, unlike states that use touch-screen systems) and b) they ignore all of the problems with voting systems and the ability of voters to even access them in the first place.
While many Americans may be familiar with the surprise of Tuesday's reported results, not nearly as many are aware of the problems that plagued voters across the country. So, here, for those who aren't regular BRAD BLOG readers, are just a few examples of those problems where not all, but most, seemed to skew the election and its results away from Democratic voters and towards the GOP:
" Polling place Photo ID and other voter ID voting restrictions have been shown, over and over again, in study after study and court case after court case, to adversely and disproportionately disadvantage Democratic-leaning voters. Wendy Weiser of NYU Law School's Brennan Center for Justice released a report on Wednesday, rounding up summaries of data in four states suggesting that "in several key races, the margin of victory came very close to the likely margin of disenfranchisement."
In the Kansas gubernatorial race, Weiser explains, Gov. Sam Brownback (R) beat challenger Paul Davis (D) by "less than 33,000 votes". That, despite a strict Photo ID law "put into effect right before the 2012 election, and a new documentary proof of citizenship requirement for voter registration," implemented by Sec. of State Kobach. "We know from the Kansas secretary of state that more than 24,000 Kansans tried to register this year but their registrations were held in 'suspense' because they failed to present the documentary proof of citizenship now required by state law."
Silver cites the pre-election polling average in the state that gave the Democrat Davis a 2.8 point advantage over Brownback in the days leading up to the election. Brownback reportedly won the race on Tuesday --- Silver calls it the "Actual Result" --- by 3.8 points, a 6.6 swing between pre-election polls and election results.