Ahead of 2022, House Democrats Aim to Fix Their Polling Problem

Democrats control both houses of Congress — but just barely.

Cast your mind back to October 2020, and you might remember expecting things to turn out a bit different. Polls suggested that Democratic House candidates were on track to nearly match their historic margins in the 2018 midterms. But that didn’t happen.

For the second presidential cycle in a row, Democrats were stunned by the number of voters who came out in support of Donald J. Trump and his Republican allies down the ballot.

This week, the House Democrats’ campaign arm, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, presented the results of an inquiry into the 2020 election, aimed at understanding what had gone askew for the party — and why, after the corrections that pollsters made in the wake of 2016, surveys were still missing the mark.

The report came to two interrelated conclusions, Representative Sean Patrick Maloney, the campaign committee chairman, said in a phone interview today. One is that Trump voters are disproportionately likely to refuse to take a poll, a conclusion echoed in other post-mortem reports that have recently been released by private Democratic pollsters. The other is that Mr. Trump’s presence on the ballot appears to have driven up turnout among the Republican base.

“In 2020, what we realized is that the polling error really equaled Trump turnout,” Mr. Maloney said. “So in polling, you’ve got this mistake in the assumption about what the electorate will look like.”

Because support for Mr. Trump lines up with a relative unwillingness to be polled, survey researchers may think they’ve reached the right share of, say, rural-dwelling, white men without college degrees. But in fact what they’ve reached is often a Democratic-skewing segment of that demographic.

In 2018, when polls were relatively accurate, this didn’t factor in as much, presumably because the most anti-institutional and anti-polling voters were also those who were likely to turn out only if Mr. Trump himself was on the ballot.

In 2020, Mr. Trump’s popularity with a typically low-turnout base meant that an upsurge in turnout actually helped Republicans more than Democrats — a rare occurrence. “Because low-propensity voters turned out for Trump in much higher numbers than our low-propensity voters turned out for us, it ripples through the data and has a big effect,” Mr. Maloney said.

He has been through this process before: In 2017, after Mr. Trump’s upset win over Hillary Clinton, the congressman, then in his third term, led an inquiry into what had gone wrong for the Democrats. That work helped put him in position for his current role as the head of the party’s House campaign arm.

This time around, he put together a team including campaign consultants, academics and other Democratic members of Congress, and they assembled what he called “a first-of-its-kind national polling database,” drawing from over 600 polls of House races, as well as voter-file and other local-level data.

Last year, because Democrats underestimated the extent to which Mr. Trump’s presence on the ballot would drive up Republican turnout, their strategists mistakenly thought that a number of seats that had flipped blue in the 2018 midterms would remain safe in 2020. Six Democrats who had won for the first time in 2018 lost their 2020 races by less than two percentage points.

Mr. Maloney said he was only half-swayed by arguments that ascribed a lot of impact to Republican attacks on the “defund the police” movement and “democratic socialism.” He said that the messenger had been far more important than the message.

“What you realize is that it is true that the lies and distortions about socialism and ‘defund’ carried a punch — no argument from me,” Mr. Maloney said.

“But I think the power of those lies has been exaggerated when you understand that Trump,” he added, was responsible for turning out “a bunch of people who were going into the voting booth.”

In next year’s midterms, he said that Republicans would be running a risk if they were counting on Trump-level engagement from base voters, given that his name wouldn’t be on the ballot.

“It leads you to ask: Will this post-Trump toxicity of QAnon and conspiracy theories and Matt Gaetz and Marjorie Taylor Greene and the attack on the Capitol — will that message work without Trump’s turnout?” Mr. Maloney said. “The research suggests that they have taken too much comfort in the power of messages that were effective, yes, but that were enormously helped by Trump’s power to turn out voters.”

Still, he cautioned against taking comfort in the results of the report, which at the end of the day serves as a reminder of just how out-of-reach an entire swath of the population remains — for mainstream pollsters and Democratic candidates alike.

On the tactics front, the report concluded that in the context of the coronavirus pandemic, Democratic spending had been heavily tilted away from grass-roots campaigning and toward TV ads, which mostly ran late in the campaign and ended up doing little to tip things in their favor.

Going forward, Mr. Maloney said, he plans to keep the 600-poll database in use. The D.C.C.C. has already been using it in special elections this year to analyze messages for effectiveness.

“We think there’s a lot to learn, we’re going to learn as we go, and you’re always building the ship as you’re sailing it,” he said. “In this case it’s important that we apply what we’ve learned to as many contexts as we can.”

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