Why Did Polls Prepare Us for a Red Wave? Experts Weigh In on the Surprising Midterm Election Results

Republican U.S. Senate candidate Mehmet Oz holds a rally in the Tunkhanock Triton Hose Co fire station in Tunkhanock, Pa., on Thursday, August 18, 2022.
Republican U.S. Senate candidate Mehmet Oz holds a rally in the Tunkhanock Triton Hose Co fire station in Tunkhanock, Pa., on Thursday, August 18, 2022.

Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty

The "red wave" that pollsters were predicting before the midterms turned out to be more of a red trickle. Expectations that Democrats could lose as many as 35 seats in the House of Representatives have been disproven, and if Republicans do clinch majorities in the House or Senate, it will be by a razor-thin margin.

Democrats did better than history would have predicted — the best a leading party has done in the midterms in 20 years. And that raises questions about political pollsters. Forecasts before Election Day indicated that undecided and independent voters were increasingly upset about inflation and crime — even more so than the state of democracy, voting rights and the decision to end federal protections for abortions — and that they planned to vote against the party currently in power.

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Some polls were way off. Michigan's Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer had a very comfortable lead against Republican challenger Tudor Dixon in the polls over the summer and into fall. Then a poll was released on Oct. 31, well into the state's early voting period, finding the race was a virtual tie, and that half of independent voters were supporting Dixon, while less than 30 percent planned to vote for Whitmer. It was conducted by Insider Advantage, a Republican firm that has earned praise in the past for its polling methods and decently high accuracy rating from FiveThirtyEight, a group that aggregates polls.

Dixon's campaign excitedly responded, "Dixon is surging, independents are breaking in her favor, and the momentum is on her side with one week left before Election Day." A composite of polls found that Whitmer had a five-point lead over Dixon then, but the Republican's campaign seemingly had proof to show otherwise.

On Tuesday night, Whitmer won the race by more than 10 percentage points, smashing the accuracy of the poll that hyped her opponent. "There's pretty strong evidence that at least that poll that came in right before the election was an effort to generate a political narrative," says Jonathan Hanson, a lecturer in public policy statistics at the University of Michigan. "I didn't need to wait for the race results to say 'no, I don't think this race is tied,'" he adds.

Other polls were also suspect. "I woke up (Wednesday) feeling like this was unusual. The Democrats probably will lose control of the House and might lose control of the Senate, but it clearly was not the red wave that a lot of people expected," Hanson says.

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chuck schumer
chuck schumer

Drew Angerer/Getty Images Chuck Schumer, leader of the Senate Democratic Caucus

It made sense to Hanson that the election season began by favoring Republicans, since the Democrats hold control of the White House, the Senate and the House. Historically, the party in power will lose a number of seats during the midterm elections.

But then, at the start of summer, the Supreme Court overturned the longstanding Roe v. Wade ruling, attacking women's reproductive rights. That stirred up anger and fierce motivation, and the Democrats seemed to have a tailwind. By fall, that abortion anger may have quelled, and news media said voters were much more concerned about economic issues, which favored right-leaning candidates. That's what the fall polls predicted.

"I honestly bought it. I was less convinced by the specific polls themselves, but by the general sense that the country's mood had shifted," Hanson says.

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But what voters were being fed by pollsters and the news media was skewed. One reason is that Republican-leaning firms that tend to favor their candidates took our temperature more often — and later in — this cycle than did the usual pollsters on which we rely. It skewed polling averages, according to Nate Cohn, The New York Times' chief political analyst.

Another phenomenon in this election was how close some incumbents' elections were. Rep. Lauren Boebert (CO-3) is neck-and-neck with her challenger and the race remains too close to call. Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin won reelection by a single percentage point in a race that couldn't be called until Tuesday afternoon. Georgia Sen. Raphael Warnock won by less than 1% — so close that the race will go to a December runoff.

"Our country's divided 50/50 — it's not exactly that, but it's pretty close," says John Geer, professor of political science at Vanderbilt University. "That means these elections are nip and tuck," and if you're off by a few points in a poll, it's within the margin of error, he says. In fact, most polls have a margin of error of 4%.

"If you're polling at 50%, you're really likely to be somewhere between 46 and 54%," he says. "Well, that's a big gap in a competitive election."

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Media and the public like polls anyway. They appear "very concrete and give you a sense of precision that's not really true," Geer says. For those seeking a better prediction, Geer suggests a broader approach. "You want to look at a bunch of polls, you don't want to just look at one, and you want to look at the trend in polls. But you also want to look at some underlying fundamentals — what is the state of the economy? Do the candidates have enough money?"

Furthermore, political polls are not gospel. "Elections are about turnout and that's not always who you are talking to in all of the polls," says Amy Dacey, executive director of the Sine Institute of Politics & Policy at American University. "Turnout is what matters. The only real true poll is what happens on Election Day."