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Predicting and polling in a dissonant age: Look to history as a guide, Amy Walter says

by Jon Davis ~ August 2018 ~ Stateline Midwest »
How hard is it to get accurate polling and predictions for the pending November elections in the face of polarized attitudes and tribal politics?
“It is sort of hard to put into words what doing my job is like now,” journalist and political analyst Amy Walter told attendees in July during a plenary session at the 73rd Annual Meeting of the Midwestern Legislative Conference.
“We’re more inundated and insulated in our little media bubbles than ever before,” thanks partly to the proliferation of social media, and the vitriol and emotions attached to politics are “like I’ve never seen.”
And when voters don’t know what’s true or who and which news outlets to trust, it’s easier to stay self-contained than to engage with possibly opposing views, Walter said.
Those social factors have made predicting election outcomes more difficult, but when looking to November’s elections, she said it’s best to rely on known data points. For example, Walter said the party in the White House almost always loses congressional, gubernatorial and state legislative seats in mid-term elections.
“Historically the odds are, if you’re in the White House, you’re going to lose seats. The only question is, how many?” she said, before reframing it in Starbucks lingo: Will the loss be tall (small), venti (average) or grande (a wipeout)?
Walter said another historically known point is a strong correlation between the number of seats lost and the president’s popularity; when the president is below 50 percent, the average loss for the president’s party is 40 U.S. House and five U.S. Senate seats.
President Trump’s approval rating has been consistently hovering between 42 and 43 percent, and “that is a pretty foreboding sign for Republicans,” she said.
Another potential sign of trouble, Walter said, is that since the beginning of his presidency, more people strongly disapprove of President Trump than strongly approve of him (a 15- to 16-point gap).
“Angry people vote more than complacent or happy people do,” she said.
Moreover, the generic congressional ballot question — “Do you prefer the Democrat or the Republican for [insert state/district here]?” — gives Democrats an edge. And in both Virginia’s state elections and in special elections held so far, Democrats turned out at higher-than-usual levels and were more engaged.
“We’ve been seeing, in poll after poll after poll, that Democrats are more interested [in the election] at this point than Republicans,” Walter said.
At this point, she predicts that Democrats take control of the U.S. House, the U.S. Senate stays either at at 51-49 in favor of Republicans or is tied; and Democrats pick up between four and eight governorships.
Here are some of the other factors that Walter said to watch:
• Democrats are running lots of first-time candidates, while Republican incumbents have never had to run in a bad year. How will they perform?
• “Young and African American voters dislike Trump the most, but do they like the Democrats enough [to vote in large enough numbers]?”
• Democrats have to defend 26 U.S. Senate seats, many in “rural, deeply red” states,” while Republicans must defend just nine.
• For both parties, the road to a majority in the U.S. House will go through suburban, “purple” districts.
• Among governorships, where Republicans are defending 26 and Democrats nine, six of the 12 most competitive races are in the Midwest: Illinois, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio and Wisconsin.