Knowing history is incredibly important to understand ourselves and to see what we need to fix and what has worked and what has failed. Too often there is a segment of our society that doesn’t want to discuss our history whether it be racism, how we treated Native Americans, women, disenfranchised people, immigrants, and the failures we have had to live up to the oft-repeated aspiration of “all people are created equal”. But history is not determinative. Just because something has always happened before, does not mean it is going to happen again, especially in disruptive times.
Too many of the “expert” political analysts, forecasters, modelers, and pundits became locked into the idea that a history of midterm results was determinative. And by getting stuck in this historical determinism, they looked at data in a way that became confirmation bias. These “experts” found data (some of it from very corrupted polls) that confirmed a bias that the incumbent president’s party would lose badly, and that, in the instance of 2022, a big red wave was coming. They saw President Biden’s low approval rating and made assumptions based on history that it would be very bad for Democrats.
But an objective look at all the data weeks and, in fact, months ahead of the general election showed a very different story. In April and May of this year I began noticing a telling sign in the data, and wrote a column for MSNBC on May 11 stating “we need to free our analysis from old mantras that are no longer applicable” and “a divergence is developing between Biden’s net approval and the generic ballot for congressional races.”
I saw in objective polls for at least six months that unlike previous midterm elections, the party in power’s candidates were winning among voters who somewhat disapproved of President Biden. In an early May Politico Morning Consult poll, Democrats were ahead on generic ballot by six points among somewhat disapprovers. This was very different than all first midterms in the last fifty years. In 2018, with President Trump having a similar approval rating as Biden, Republicans lost among somewhat disapprovers by 30 points. In 2010, with President Obama at a similar approval low as Biden and Trump, Democrats lost among somewhat disapprovers by 40 points.
I also noted in polls early on and throughout the summer that even with Biden at low approval numbers, Democrats were exceedingly competitive among independent voters. This is a group that in previous first midterms with a President at a low job approval has gone against the party in power by double digits. In that same early May Politico Morning Consult poll, Democrats were up by one among Independent voters, and in an October Morning Consult poll Democrats were up by 4 among Independents.
Throughout the summer and fall I tried to shout a clarion call for us all to pay attention to the objective data and not get stuck in history, and few listened. The vast majority of folks was predicting a huge red wave, while I kept saying there would be no red or blue waves and that the results would be exceedingly close and that Democrats would do much better than most expected. In fact days before the election I said on Deadline Whitehouse I thought too many folks were making the same mistake but in reverse of what happened in 2016. This time they were overestimating Republican support and underestimating Democratic voting.
So what were the results among these two groups on 2022 election day: Democrats finished ahead of Republicans among somewhat disapprovers by four points; and among Independent voters Democrats beat Republicans by two points. This finished very much in line with the expectation I noticed in May of this year.
Many have spoken to why this year was so different from other midterms. To me it was a combination of many significant factors: voters seeing the threat to democracy as a real issue, the continued presence and unpopularity of former President Trump, the Dobbs decision taking away a fundamental right for women as evidence our democracy was at stake, and the GOP nominating a whole series of candidates who aligned themselves with Trump and denying election results.
Why did too many of the experts miss on their red wave predictions? They put way too much emphasis on historic election results and not enough on the objective data right in front of them. And because of this assumption they became locked into, they looked for data confirming it and ignored the plethora of objective information pointing in an opposite direction.
For all of us this is a wonderful lesson, history is important but it does not determine the future. In disruptive moments, each of us has the power to make new history. And each election we in the news media must look at ourselves, and examine where we did well, but more importantly where we went wrong and where we can do better. In every political campaign I have been involved with, I have done this kind of self-examining post-election analysis. It made my eyes clearer in future efforts to see the truth. And we in the news could benefit from a bit more humility, and a lot more self-reflection.