Nov 10, 2022 - Politics & Policy

Analysis: How most late-cycle polls actually performed

Illustration of a donkey on a bar chart shaped like a fence

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Midterm polls conducted in the final five weeks of the race were, on average, off by less than three points — generally within the margin of error, according to an Axios analysis of nearly 250 statewide surveys in the RealClearPolitics database.

Why it matters: Frustrated Republicans and emboldened Democrats are ready for recriminations after the "red wave" failed to materialize. The polling industry is a perennial punching bag, but Axios' analysis shows election returns have thus far tracked fairly closely with late-cycle surveys in key races.

Zoom in: Axios examined nearly 250 polls conducted on or after Oct. 1 in 20 statewide midterm contests across 15 states.

  • Averaged polls in some races were more accurate than others. Republicans performed between seven and eight points better in Florida's gubernatorial and Senate races than the surveys predicted.
  • In Georgia, by contrast, the polls examined by Axios nailed both the equivalent races: on average, they were off by less than a point.
  • On the whole, pollsters' predictions aligned better with election results than punditry that foretold a Republican wave.

What they're saying: "This was one of the most accurate years for polling ever," declared FiveThirtyEight's Nate Silver on Twitter.

  • Kristen Soltis Anderson, a founding partner at Republican polling firm Echelon Insights, told Axios: "I completely reject the idea that this was a polling miss."
  • "If you were mostly following the 'blue-chip' pollsters, and — crucially — if you weren't mentally adding in a 'shy Trump' buffer to those results, you should have expected a lot of what we are seeing."

Between the lines: Pollsters fretted in the days leading up to the election that major misses would seriously dent the industry's credibility.

  • Its success in forecasting key races will likely put much of that criticism to rest — at least until 2024.

The intrigue: Instead, the industry may have to contend with a new trend — partisan surveys that, by chance or design, juice publicly available polling averages in favor of their clients or political allies.

  • "There is a ferocious ... GOP campaign right now to flood the zone with their polls, game the averages, declare the election is tipping to them," Democratic strategist Simon Rosenberg warned on Twitter days before the election.

Yes, but: The respected institutional players are getting it right in spite of significant challenges, Soltis Anderson says.

  • "I'd say that it is a miracle that in a world of exceptionally low response rates [and] evolving technology that makes it harder and harder to reach people that the polls come anywhere near close, but it isn't a miracle," she said in an email.
  • "It is a product of hard work by thoughtful people who have been trying earnestly to learn the lessons of past polling errors to prevent them from happening again."
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