Forty-eight hours after an election that all sides almost universally agree was a Republican "tsunami wave," pundits and pols are still wondering how the pollsters could get it so wrong.
Noting that many surveys showed Senate races eventually won by Republicans to be tighter than they finally turned out, more than a few observers have charged that ostensibly "unbiased" polling is in fact skewed toward Democrats.
Nate Silver, famed two years ago as the prognosticator who predicted President Barack Obama’s re-election over Mitt Romney most accurately, said as much. Writing on FiveThirtyEight on November 4, Silver concluded
that "[t]he pre-election polling averages (not the FiveThirtyEight factors which account for other factors) in the ten most competitive Senate races had a six-percentage-point Democratic bias as compared to the votes counted in each state so far."
Silver noted, for example, that in Iowa’s Senate race, the weighted polling average was "plus two" percentage points for eventual GOP winner Joni Ernst. But, at 11:47 PM, Ernst was leading Democrat Bruce Braley by a healthier margin of "plus six" points, meaning there was a Democrat bias of "plus four."
In Kansas, where the national press for weeks had ballyhooed the candidacy of wealthy independent Keith Orman, Silver pointed out that the weighted polling average favored Orman by one percentage point. But as of 11:47 PM, incumbent Republican Sen. Pat Roberts was leading by a comfortable eight percentage points. This spelled a Democratic bias of nine percentage points, according to Silver (who benefited from the Democratic nominee getting his name off the ballot).
The near-victorious candidacy of Republican Ed Gillespie against Democratic Sen. Mark Warner in Virginia is the case-in-point cited most frequently. With the CBS/New York Times/You Gov poll showing Virginians re-electing Warner by a margin of 49-39 percent and most other polls of likely statewide voters showing Warner winning by margins of roughly 10 percentage points, former Republican National Chairman Gillespie came within less than one percent of the vote of unseating the Democratic incumbent.
"All the polls missed the Republican surge," veteran elections analyst Jay O’Callaghan of Northern Virginia told Newsmax, "and in Virginia, the polls were skewed to Democrats by more than seven percentage points—at the very least."
O’Callaghan reminded us that the same pollsters missed the last-minute surge for Republican Ken Cuccinelli in the race for governor of Virginia last year and most had Democrat Terry McAuliffe winning by 5 to 7 percentage points.
"Only one poll had it close to McAuliffe winning by the three points he actually did win by," he said.
University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato went a step further in addressing the errant polls.
"I want an investigation of the polls in Virginia," Sabato said on Fox News' "Fox and Friends."
"They were completely wrong, just as they were in Georgia. They were also way off in Illinois. And I could go on and on."
Sabato was referring to the Georgia U.S. Senate race, in which Republican David Perdue’s landslide margin over Democrat Michelle Nunn was light years removed from all the polls that showed a tight contest, and Illinois’s race for governor, in which Republican Bruce Rauner handily dispatched Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn despite final polls showing the two in a dead heat."
As Sabato told "Fox and Friends," "Boy, is that an industry that needs some housecleaning. Virginia is a good example. I don’t know whether it was a combination of overconfidence by the Warner people."
There are, of course, second opinions. Virginia’s former Republican Gov. Jim Gilmore told Newsmax he felt "the polls are not biased but often wrong, as they clearly were in Virginia. They never picked up how so many people at the end decided to move away from the Barack Obama and the Democratic leadership in Washington and felt Ed Gillespie represented change."
"The tide washed up on Ed’s beach," said Gilmore, Warner’s Republican opponent in ’08, who this year formed his own "GrowthPAC" that ran TV spots on behalf of Gillespie and Republican Senate candidates in New Hampshire and Iowa.
Whether the pollsters were skewing their figures for Democrats or just plain wrong, it is clear that their performance in 2012 is something that will be debated for sometime.
John Gizzi is chief political columnist and White House correspondent for Newsmax.
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