November 13, 2022

The Midterm elections: America is Back

by Hal Gershowitz

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American Democracy, more than anything else, prevailed in the just-completed midterm elections.

We have a wide variety of opinions and a cacophony of competing voices at election time in America. There are winners and losers, whiners and braggarts, and always happy voters and those who are crestfallen. That’s the way it has always been, and that’s the way it has turned out this year. It was, in some respects, a typical American mid-term election. Nationally, the election shenanigans that many feared didn’t materialize. Neither right-wing nor left-wing mischief prevailed. Instead, America prevailed.

The election results reflect the nation—a patch quilt of voter preferences. The enormous red wave that many predicted and many feared produced barely a puddle, or as conservative columnist, Mona Charen put it, a small toxic spill. There was little-to-no trace of an America besotted by far-right authoritarianism.

The Party out of power always gains some congressional seats in off-year elections, and the Republicans are almost certain to eke out a few gains in this just-completed election. The Democratic Senate candidate from Nevada, Catherine Cortez Masto, having defeated Republican, Adam Laxalt, has secured Democratic control of the United States Senate. Should Raphael Warnock prevail against Herschel Walker in Georgia’s runoff election next month, the Democrats will have secured a 51-vote majority. Vice President Kamala Harris will cast deciding votes whenever there is a 50/50 deadlock should Walker prevail in the runoff election.

It has been a generation since the Party out of power has done as poorly as the Republicans have this year. Given the big red wave that so many anticipated, the normalcy of this election is to be celebrated.

There is no mystery as to why the Republicans so underperformed. Several weeks ago, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell alluded to the looming Republican problem. Candidate quality, he called it, or primaries that were unduly influenced by the bull in the Mar-a-Lago china closet. What was the price of a primary election endorsement from the former president? A candidate just had to hold their nose and say the magic words, “Trump won. The 2020 election was stolen.”  Those words would, indeed, produce a Trump endorsement, as well as an inordinate roster of decidedly poor-quality Republican candidates, many of whom went down in defeat.

As we go to press, the Democrats have held on to control of the US senate and have obliterated any thought of a massive Republican sweep of the House of Representatives. Republican control of the House may be in single digits compared to forecasts of a 60-vote advantage made by minority leader Kevin McCarthy barely a year ago.

What changed? Three things. Concern about the fragility of American Democracy, the Dobbs decision overturning Roe, and too much Republican pandering to former President Trump.

Impact of overturning Roe

Both liberal and conservative states have rebelled against the Supreme Court decision overturning a woman’s right to choose. Voters in Montana, Kentucky, Michigan, California, Vermont, and Kansas voted decisively to safeguard a woman’s right to choose. The Dobbs decision overturning Roe has been an albatross for Republicans. Restricted access to abortion may have significantly impacted Arizona’s Republican candidate Kari Lake’s election chances.

In Arizona, a substantial majority of voters say a candidate’s stance on abortion would affect their voting decision. According to Arizona Public Opinion Pulse, 9 in 10 Arizona voters feel abortion should be legal in at least some cases. 81% of Democrats say a candidate’s stance on abortion would impact their voting decision, as does 58% of Independents and 18% of Republicans. Newly elected to a full six-year term, Senator Mark Kelly, who won his race decisively against Republican Blake Masters, and who polls as the most personally liked of all state-wide candidates, supports a woman’s right to choose. Republican Gubernatorial Kari Lake does not, except in cases of rape and incest.

Misleading Polls Producing Misleading News

The polls predicting a red wave were a disaster. Not simply because they were so wrong but because news-hungry print and broadcast sources relied on rather worthless polls to print and broadcast rather worthless news. There is a fundamental problem with polling today, and until it can be cured, news outlets should avoid reporting polling results.

The problem with polls today.

An election poll must be based on a sample in which every prospective respondent has an equal chance of being selected. That’s the definition of a proper area probability sample. Any election poll that isn’t based on such a sample is, more or less, worthless. The integrity of the sample determines the accuracy of the poll. A huge sample not truly representative of the universe being studied is of little value compared to a modest sample that is appropriately designed to be truly representative. The cellphone revolution made sampling much more difficult compared to a decade or two ago when every household had a landline telephone and could be identified in crisscross directories that telephone companies published that listed every household by street address along with the household’s telephone number.

Many years ago, in an earlier life, I conducted political preference polls armed with nothing more than a semester of Statistics 101 and a gem of a 145-page book, “Sampling in a Nutshell.” I could design remarkably reliable polls by turning a telephone crisscross directory into a table of random numbers, in which every household in a congressional district had an equal probability of being selected for inclusion in my candidate-preference surveys.

In 1972, I was part of the small team managing the congressional campaign of the Republican candidate for Congress in Maryland’s fifth congressional district, Larry Hogan (the late father of Maryland’s Governor Hogan). The campaign team wanted to spend the remaining funds we had to purchase radio ads the weekend before the election. I was opposed to the idea because the most recent poll I had conducted that week indicated that Hogan would get 62.5% of the vote.

I argued that the proposed media buy would be a waste of money. The campaign team, somewhat reluctantly, agreed. Hogan won that election the following Tuesday with 62.9% of the vote. That’s just how revealing a poll based on a well-designed area probability sample can be.

Cell phones are exceedingly difficult, if not impossible, to identify for meaningful sample design purposes. Most people no longer rely on landlines, so crisscross directories would be useless. Furthermore, few respondents would tolerate being called on their cell phones to answer survey questions. Online questionnaires are of equally dubious value.

Some reporting services try to compensate for the reliability problem by averaging data from several polls. But if the averages reported from several polls result from unreliable samples, the result would be an average of junk—junk that newspapers and broadcast channels then eagerly report as breaking news. This is an immense disservice to voters who are in the process of deciding how they will vote.

Conversely, polling on issues tends to be much more reliable than election or candidate polling. A small sampling error in measuring candidate support can make the difference between accurately predicting the winner or loser of an election. However, minor errors in measuring concern about global warming or mask mandates would not significantly mitigate our understanding of how the country feels about those issues.

The ramifications of the extraordinarily weak outcome for Republicans in this week’s midterm election should be seen as a warning shot over the bow. If the GOP doesn’t extricate itself from the Trumpian knot in which it has tied itself, Trump will squeeze the life out of the Party.

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One response to “The Midterm elections: America is Back”

  1. Stan holland says:

    Great explanation-reality check time for GOP. It is never wise for any party to not encourage open honest debate. Test the Koll Aid before you drink it every time

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