Mad Poll Disease is making Democrats misread voter opinion

By Michael Podhorzer, the Guardian, December 1, 2023.

Horserace polling can’t tell us anything new about who will win the electoral college – but the existence of an anti-Maga majority is clear

Now that Thanksgiving has passed in America, and everyone’s Trumpy uncle is on his way back to his conservative state, we still have our catastrophizing Democratic cousins to contend with. Triggered by the drumbeat of horrific poll results, they are panicking that Joe Biden is too old and unpopular to prevent a second Trump administration from taking power.

These cousins, and perhaps you too, are suffering from the latest strain of what I call Mad Poll Disease. It’s a perpetual state of anxiety – spread by the media’s obsession with using polls to forecast the outcome of the next election, instead of empowering voters with all the information they need to decide what they want that outcome to be and act, or vote, accordingly.

To cure Mad Poll Disease, start by making this your mantra: Horserace polling can’t tell us anything we don’t already know before election day about who will win the electoral college. We know it will be close. We know it will be decided by six swing states (Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin). Importantly, these states were so close that even the best polls couldn’t call all of them the day before the 2016, 2020 or 2022 elections.

Trying to use horserace polls to project the winner in swing states is like trying to predict the weather nine months from now by taking the temperature outside today. Elections come down to turnout, and what that will look like on election day is truly anyone’s guess. Taking the temperature of how voters feel today doesn’t tell us how they’ll feel a year from now – much less whether they will act on those feelings by turning out to vote, or for whom they’ll vote if they do.

So why the scary numbers?

Pollsters want voters to tell them who they will vote for next November; voters want to tell pollsters how unsatisfied they are now with the direction of the country and their own lives. For most of this century, Americans have said the country was on the wrong track – and they have taken out those broader frustrations on whoever was president at the time. Low presidential approval ratings are now the norm in the United States (for old and young presidents alike), in a stark contrast to the last century.

But when it comes time to cast a ballot, voters understand the stakes. This is where we can really tell those cousins to take heart: ever since Trump’s shocking win in 2016, many Americans who thought elections didn’t matter realized that they very much do. Most Americans reject everything Trump and Maga stand for – taking away our freedoms, filling the government with incompetent lackeys, and ruling with hate and fear. An anti-Maga majority was born, and it has turned out to vote in record numbers again and again. This has been a predictable weather pattern since 2018, but most pollsters and pundits fail to account for it.

Remember how 2022 was supposed to be a Red Wave, but it never materialized? Actually, it did – in 35 states. But in the other 15 states, where a prominent Maga candidate was running, we saw numbers more like the 2018 Blue Wave. Where voters understood the anti-Maga stakes, they turned out. This allowed Democrats to keep the Senate. When Democrats lost the House, it was by a much narrower margin than pundits expected. And it could have gone the other way had anti-Maga voters in California, New Jersey and New York understood what similar voters in the states with key Senate races understood – that staying home was voting for Maga to control the chamber.

As a practical matter, only Biden can decide not to run, and he shouldn’t base that decision on fear of bad polls. Polls can mislead us into making unforced errors. We hear a lot about how risky it is to run an 81-year-old candidate with bad poll numbers. What about how risky it would be to replace someone who has beaten Trump before, and who has already been defined by both left and right, with someone who hasn’t? It would be an absurd gamble – like doubling down on your bet when you haven’t seen any of your own cards yet.

We know what those stakes are because we have lived through some of them. We know how much worse Trump and Maga are promising to do. Our duty, not as Democratic partisans but as small-d democratic partisans, is to put in the work to make sure every voter understands the choice ahead.

Michael Podhorzer, the former longtime political director of the AFL-CIO, is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, the chair of the Analyst Institute, the Research Collaborative and the Defend Democracy Project, and writes the Substack Weekend Reading

 Image Credits: Stephanie Scarbrough-AP