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Seven Rules for Surviving the Media’s Election Mania

If that surprising poll seems too good to be true, it probably is.

Angela Weiss/AFP/Getty Images
A man reads a newspaper in New York City in 2020.

Once again, the Democrats are staring into the electoral abyss. The renewed optimism of early September now seems as ancient as the Punic Wars. Every new GOP-leaning poll and forecast brings back memories of the Democratic wipeout in Barack Obama’s first off-year election in 2010 and the horrors of election night 2016. At this rate, Prozac is fast becoming the official drug of the Democratic Party.

Now for the truth that you are unlikely to hear on cable TV: Nobody knows with certainty what’s going to happen, especially with a closely knotted Senate. As veteran political forecaster Charlie Cook wrote last week, “Why so many people offer such confident predictions about the Senate continues to baffle me.” In an interview, Democratic political consultant Tim Hogan colorfully described this current period of intense nervous speculation about the election as “hot-take Christmas.”

With two weeks until the election, here are seven sensible rules designed to help you preserve your mental health until November 8:

Resist Overreacting to a Single Poll, No Matter What It Says

Polling is in deep crisis for many reasons, including an alarmingly low level of responses, increased difficulties in modeling the electorate, and massive distrust of the media. As a result, all polls (even those with glittering brand names) should be regarded as closer to a blunderbuss than a sharpshooter’s rifle.

Curb your enthusiasm as well as your distress. That can refer to Iowa where blue-chip pollster Ann Selzer recently found 89-year-old GOP Senator Chuck Grassley in an unexpectedly tight race. But it also applies to all the Democrats still hiding under the bed after reading last week’s New York Times/Sienna College poll that showed a sudden, sharp move to the Republicans.

Remember That Polling May Be Broken in Ways That We Will Only Understand After the Election

Political mavens have grown increasingly sophisticated about how they consume polls. Over the past decade, we have witnessed the rise of survey averages such as the ones at RealClear Politics and intricate polling models such as the one pioneered by Nate Silver at FiveThirtyEight.

Polling averages and models remain a better snapshot than any one individual survey. But this could be a year when all these corrective efforts collapse under the weight of flaws in the underlying polling itself. As Jenn Ridder, who was swing-state director for Joe Biden’s 2020 campaign, said in an interview, “The data isn’t telling us enough anymore. It’s too scattered and too confusing.”

Refrain From Reading Much Into Early Voting Statistics

In North Carolina, a perennial swing state with a tight Senate race this year, 135,400 people cast early ballots last Thursday. Statistics like this, which are released by many states, would seem to offer early insights into turnout patterns. But, in truth, interpreting early voting is about as difficult as solving Fermat’s Last Theorem in your head while using half-remembered high school algebra.

The problem with the avalanche of data is that most states have repeatedly changed their rules on early voting—especially in the past two years after the onset of the pandemic—making year-to-year comparisons virtually impossible. Also, parties have either encouraged early voting (the Democrats in 2018 and 2020) or developed conspiracy theories around it (Donald Trump in 2020). Election analyst Sean Trende perceptively noted in 2020 a truth about early voting that still holds: “Because we don’t have a lengthy history of good research giving our brains guidance for how to interpret early returns, it’s very easy to see what you want to see.”

Recognize That It’s Too Late for the Democrats and the Republicans to Change Strategies

“At this point, every Democrat should put the title ‘strategist’ on their résumés,” said Tim Hogan, who was communications director for Amy Klobuchar’s 2020 presidential campaign. No matter where you turn, someone is brandishing a new theory about how the Democrats could still salvage the off-year elections if only they did “X.”

With early voting underway in many states and Joe Biden less than a portrait of charisma, it is difficult to envision how a new Democratic message (if it existed) could possibly break through the late-October ad clutter. There also isn’t time for the Republicans to come up with a new chapter of their fear campaign, so don’t worry about Biden suddenly being blamed for unleashing, say, “Killer Rutabagas.” As a result, you can save your strategic insights for the bitter postelection recriminations if the Democrats lose Congress.

Realize You’re Not the Target Audience for Most Political Ads

If you’re reading The New Republic, you probably are not a swing or under-motivated voter. But too many Democratic voters and contributors look at TV spots through the narrow prism of how they emotionally react to the ad. True, many Democratic campaign ads are cookie-cutter products with all the pizazz of an off-brand competitor to Pillsbury. But political science research suggests that the volume of campaign ads may matter more than their actual content. And forget about the so-called “killer ad.” In truth, you are more likely to encounter a great white whale on the campaign trail than find a single TV spot that will transform a campaign.

Regard Almost All Late Endorsements as Irrelevant

Last week, Tudor Dixon, the election-denying Republican running for Michigan governor, trumpeted that failed 2020 Democratic presidential candidate Tulsi Gabbard (9,757 votes in the New Hampshire primary) would campaign for her. If the appearance of the former Hawaii congresswoman with a soft spot for Vladimir Putin sways a single Michigan voter, it would be the most startling political development of October.

Even Donald Trump’s antics and antisemitic asides are not apt to change anything. As the House January 6 committee has learned to its frustration, Trump’s poll numbers—including his 54 percent disapproval rating—are etched in stone. About the only possible exception to the ignore-endorsements rule is Barack Obama’s upcoming campaign swing to Georgia, Michigan, and Wisconsin, since the star power of the former president’s return to electoral politics may increase Democratic turnout at the margins.

Rule Out Panicking Over Republican Super PAC Spending

CNN reported last week that the Senate Leadership Fund, Mitch McConnell’s super PAC, has spent $365 million in 10 Senate races since the beginning of September. “It’s hard to overstate the effects the super PAC has single-handedly made on advertising in the final two months of the elections” the article gushed.

The story reflected an all-too-common mistake: never mentioning that under the law candidates pay dramatically lower TV ad rates than super PACs and other outside groups. In a major media market in October, that could mean a stunning seven-to-one difference in ad rates. Shane Goldmacher reported in The New York Times that during the October 2 Las Vegas Raiders football game, embattled Democratic Nevada Senator Catherine Cortez Masto paid $21,000 for a 30-second TV spot. During the same Raiders game, an anti-Masto Republican super PAC paid $150,000 for 30 seconds of airtime. Remember: It’s the number of Gross Rating Points on television that Democrats and Republicans buy that matters—not the cash totals endlessly ballyhooed in the daily political news.

None of these recommendations will save you from bitter disappointment if 2022 turns out to be a wipeout year for the Democrats. But right now, there is no sure way of predicting the election, even if you have a direct pipeline into the Delphic Oracle. With historically slow counts in California, New York, and Pennsylvania, we don’t even know right now when we will know who won on November 8. Brace yourself, it’s going to be a long November.