Why was this year’s midterm election outcome such a surprise to so many—especially in the media? In the weeks before November 8, we were reading and hearing that the Democrats had surged during the summer because of the Supreme Court’s abortion decision, but that the ravages of inflation had brought voters back to renouncing the Democrats. That, supposedly, coupled with Joe Biden’s unpopularity meant bad news for the Dems. And don’t forget what was invoked as an ironclad rule—the party in the White House always loses a large number of seats in the off-year election. A Red Wave was coming.
Except it didn’t.
It’s fair to ask why did the media get it so wrong? But I want to pose an additional question, which I’ll get to a bit later.
First, a little history lesson. In November 1962, eight days after the effective end of the Cuban Missile Crisis, America voted in the midterm elections. Despite forecasts that the Democrats would lose many seats, perhaps even control of the House of Representatives, the party lost only five seats, keeping control of the House.
In the election’s aftermath, President Kennedy’s handling of the missile crisis was widely credited with holding down his party’s losses. Another explanation was offered, though, based on the theory that the party in power historically loses seats in the off-year election. In 1960, however, the Democrats lost seats in the presidential election and their majority went from 282 in the preceding Congress to 264 in the 1960 election. The explanation given at the time for the minimal loss in 1962 was that the Democrats—having failed to pick up seats in 1960—didn’t have an excess to lose in 1962.
Cut to 2020. The Democratic majority declined from 235 seats in Congress after the 2018 midterms to 220 after the 2020 election with three seats vacant. Defying expectations in the 2020 election, the Democrats lost seats, leaving them with no excess seats to lose.
You wouldn’t have known any of that from reading newspapers before this year’s election, or from watching television, or from any other news source. The mantra in the media was that the party in power loses a lot of seats in the midterm election. No qualifiers. No exceptions.
In fact, the party in power gained seats in the 2002 election. And the party in the White House, though in the minority in the House at the time, gained three seats in the 1998 midterm.
If the media had bothered to look back, they might have exercised a little humility. There was at least one other fact that might have been a caution besides the lack of excess Democratic seats. Heavy election turnouts usually favor the Democrats, and everyone could see that the turnout—although somewhat lower than in the record turnout of 2018—was high for an off-year election.
And, despite all the stories about how redistricting was going to benefit Republicans, the Democrats came away with a net gain of six districts that were either safe or leaning in their direction.
Reporters run in herds, repeating conventional wisdom once it’s been formulated, avoiding striking out on their own path. Years ago a distinguished network television reporter told me how he had gone to Alabama on an important story that was being overlooked by the rest of the media. When he called his desk on arrival, he told me, his editor questioned whether the story was correct, and if it was, whether it really was important. Why? Because the editor told his reporter, the Associated Press wasn’t making any mention of it.
A lot of reporters appeared to be relying heavily on polls, and the polls apparently were more or less correct in terms of predicting winners, but too many seats were close and within the celebrated “margin of error”. Polls are a useful tool for politicians running for office, but they’re no substitute for old-fashioned shoe leather reporting.
All of this leads me to my second point. Why is it so important for the media to predict the future? The future is always uncertain. Why can’t they—and we—wait to find out what’s going to happen until it actually happens?
If the media get it wrong, it further undermines their credibility, which is already suffering. Beyond that, the obsession with predicting the future casts election coverage into horserace mode, rather than examining candidates’ positions on issues. But what value is it to the average viewer or reader to know who is supposedly ahead? The future always reveals itself. All we need is to wait for it. The horserace is more exciting, no doubt, but the candidates’ positions are more important. What’s wrong with asking a candidate how he or she is going to handle a situation, and refusing to accept the dodge that he or she doesn’t answer hypotheticals? Candidates are always talking about what they plan to do if elected, but why let them set the agenda entirely?
One last thought—a prediction. With the Republicans in control of the House—with the divisions in their caucus already clear—with their self-indulgent desire to “investigate” rather than legislate, they will leave an embarrassing record that will cost them dearly in 2024.
Remember, you heard it here first.