The Polling Gets Better for Democrats

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The big new thing in polling is a New York Times Upshot collaboration with Siena College to poll individual House races. What’s new here is that they’re rolling out the results as they go so that it’s possible to click over and watch the calls get made and answered — or, mostly, not answered. 

It’s a great exercise in probability. They’re getting about 500 respondents per poll, and they caution everyone to ignore the results until at least 150 calls are completed (although the results are right there for anyone to see). It’s easy to see why. Take the polling in Minnesota’s 8th District, which wound up almost a tie; the Democrat had a slim 2-percentage-point lead. In the first 100 completed surveys, each candidate built temporary 10-percentage-point leads. But even later, big swings happened; the Democrat still had a substantial lead even after the halfway point of 250 calls. It’s easy to see how a poll could go wrong just by dead luck.

In fact, one of the likely outcomes here is that one or more poll is going to wind up way off even if the Upshot/Siena team is doing everything right. The more polls that we see, the more likely that one of them returns wacky results. In presidential elections, we can usually spot likely outlier polls because we have so many surveys that we can estimate what’s really happening out there and a single, very different poll stands out. But with rarely polled House contests, the Upshot/Siena poll might be the only one for weeks, and there’s really no way to know if it’s wrong (even after the election, since things might have changed between the poll and voting). 

Basically, there’s a real temptation to overreact to these House polls. And yet ... it’s really great that they’re doing it. House elections are hard to talk about since there are so many of them and many of the candidates are obscure. But the battle for the House majority is extremely important, so any attention to it is almost certainly good news.

As far as the results go: They’ve completed eight districts so far. Five are basically tied. Republicans lead two, and Democrats lead one. That may not sound great for the Democrats, but it is. Both of the Republican leads are in districts the Cook Political Report rates as “lean Republican.” The other six are “toss-ups.” Right now, however, Democrats must only win in all “lean Democrat” or better districts and split the toss-ups to reach a House majority. They don’t have to win any of the 27 lean-Republican seats, let alone the 27 “likely Republican” districts. If it really turns out that Democrats win one-sixth of the 30 Cook-rated toss-ups easily and split the remaining toss-ups, they’ll get beyond the 218 they need for a majority. 

Of course, one new poll in eight different districts really doesn’t tell us very much at all about the overall state of play in House elections. Still, it’s further confirmation of what we already know: By every possible measure, Democrats are favored to take a House majority, but not by so much that it would be a shocker if Republicans held on. 

1. Very smart item from Greg Koger at Mischiefs of Faction about the costs to a party of running without a legislative agenda. One caveat: While Democrats aren’t running with a consensus national agenda, or even a serious theme or slogan, there does seem to be quite a bit of agreement among many Democratic candidates on many issues. We’ll have to see how that plays out next year if they do win a House majority.

3. Lee Drutman and Kevin R. Kosar on the need for a stronger Congress.

4. Greg Sargent on the kind of tough oversight — not gotcha oversight — that Democrats should do if they get a majority in either chamber. 

5. Maggie Koerth-Baker at FiveThirtyEight on spending and elections.

6. Also at FiveThirtyEight: Perry Bacon Jr.’s items on identity and politics continue to be must-reads.

8. My Bloomberg Opinion colleague Michael R. Strain on Trump and the economy.

9. David Leonhardt wants to follow the money laundering.

10. And Meg K. Guliford on bigotry and bias within academia

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.

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