U.S.

The ‘Red Wave’ Washout: How Skewed Polls Fed a False Election Narrative

Senator Patty Murray, a Democrat, had consistently won re-election by healthy margins in her three decades representing Washington State. This year seemed no different: By midsummer, polls showed her cruising to victory over a Republican newcomer, Tiffany Smiley, by as much as 20 percentage points.

So when a survey in late September by the Republican-leaning Trafalgar Group showed Ms. Murray clinging to a lead of just two points, it seemed like an aberration. But in October, two more Republican-leaning polls put Ms. Murray barely ahead, and a third said the race was a dead heat.

As the red and blue trend lines of the closely watched RealClearPolitics average for the contest drew closer together, news organizations reported that Ms. Murray was suddenly in a fight for her political survival. Warning lights flashed in Democratic war rooms. If Ms. Murray was in trouble, no Democrat was safe.

Ms. Murray’s own polling showed her with a comfortable lead, and a nonprofit regional news site, using an established local pollster, had her up by 13. Unwilling to take chances, however, she went on the defensive, scuttling her practice of lavishing some of her war chest — she amassed $20 million — on more vulnerable Democratic candidates elsewhere. Instead, she reaped financial help from the party’s national Senate committee and supportive super PACs — resources that would, as a result, be unavailable to other Democrats.

A similar sequence of events played out in battlegrounds nationwide. Surveys showing strength for Republicans, often from the same partisan pollsters, set Democratic klaxons blaring in Pennsylvania, New Hampshire and Colorado. Coupled with the political factors already favoring Republicans — including inflation and President Biden’s unpopularity — the skewed polls helped feed what quickly became an inescapable political narrative: A Republican wave election was about to hit the country with hurricane force.

Democrats in each of those states went on to win their Senate races. Ms. Murray clobbered Ms. Smiley by nearly 15 points.

Not for the first time, a warped understanding of the contours of a national election had come to dominate the views of political operatives, donors, journalists and, in some cases, the candidates themselves.

The misleading polls of 2022 did not just needlessly spook some worried candidates into spending more money than they may have needed to on their own races. They also led some candidates — in both parties — who had a fighting chance of winning to lose out on money that could have made it possible for them to do so, as those controlling the purse strings believed polls that inaccurately indicated they had no chance at all.

In the election’s immediate aftermath, the polling failures appeared to be in keeping with misfires in 2016 and 2020, when the strength of Donald J. Trump’s support was widely underestimated, and with the continuing struggles of an industry that arose with the corded home telephone to adapt to the mass migration to cellphones and text messaging. Indeed, some of the same Republican-leaning pollsters who erred in 2022 had built credibility with their contrarian, but accurate, polling triumphs in recent elections.

But a New York Times review of the forces driving the narrative of a coming red wave, and of that narrative’s impact, found new factors at play.

Traditional nonpartisan pollsters, after years of trial and error and tweaking of their methodologies, produced polls that largely reflected reality. But they also conducted fewer polls than in the past.

That paucity allowed their accurate findings to be overwhelmed by an onrush of partisan polls in key states that more readily suited the needs of the sprawling and voracious political content machine — one sustained by ratings and clicks, and famished for fresh data and compelling narratives.

The skewed red-wave surveys polluted polling averages, which are relied upon by campaigns, donors, voters and the news media. It fed the home-team boosterism of an expanding array of right-wing media outlets — from Steve Bannon’s “War Room” podcast and “The Charlie Kirk Show” to Fox News and its top-rated prime-time lineup. And it spilled over into coverage by mainstream news organizations, including The Times, that amplified the alarms being sounded about potential Democratic doom.

In October, Republican-leaning polls put Senator Patty Murray, center, ahead by single digits or tied. She defeated her opponent, Tiffany Smiley, by nearly 15 points.Credit…Lindsey Wasson for The New York Times

The virtual “bazaar of polls,” as a top Republican strategist called it, was largely kept humming by right-leaning pollsters using opaque methodology, in some cases relying on financial support from hyperpartisan groups and benefiting from vociferous cheerleading by Mr. Trump.

Yet questionable polls were not only put out by Republicans. The executive director of one of the more prominent Democratic-leaning firms that promoted polls this cycle, Data for Progress, was boasting about placing bets on election outcomes, raising at least the appearance of a conflict of interest.

Other pollsters lacked experience, like two high-school juniors in Pennsylvania who started Patriot Polling and quickly found their surveys included on the statistical analysis website FiveThirtyEight — as did another high school concern based at Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass.

Shaping perceptions across the ideological spectrum, the steady flow of data predicting a red wave prompted real-world decision-making that members of both parties now say could have tilted the balance of power in Congress.

“These frothy polls had a substantial, distorting impact on how people spent money — on campaign strategy, and on people’s expectations going into the election,” said Steven J. Law, the chief executive of the Republicans’ Senate Leadership Fund, which poured $280 million into the midterms. Its own private polling showed no red wave at all.

‘It was as if somebody turned a switch on’

​​There were ample reasons to expect a strong 2022 for Republicans. A president’s party tends to lose congressional seats in midterms. Soaring inflation and Mr. Biden’s languishing approval ratings only added to G.O.P. hopes.

But the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade and the stolen-election fantasies of right-wing Republican candidates blew unexpected wind in Democrats’ sails.

Summertime polls indicated surprising Democratic strength. “Red Wave? Hard to see one now,” Simon Rosenberg, a former adviser to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, headlined a June 21 post on the blog of his liberal advocacy group, the New Democrat Network.

Later, when a cascade of Republican-skewing polls pointed to a major reversal, Mr. Rosenberg said in an interview, “it was as if somebody turned a switch on.”

Nationally, there was an uptick in support for Republicans in early autumn. It surfaced in surveys by firms across the industry, according to an analysis by Charles Franklin, the director of the Marquette Law School Poll — a fact he said had been overlooked in postelection criticism of red-wave polling. A New York Times/Siena College poll in mid-October showed Republicans with a three-point lead nationwide, up from a one-point Democratic advantage a month earlier.

Indeed, Republicans won the national popular vote by three points, measured by the postelection tally of votes in House races. And they made gains in unlikely states like New York, even as Democrats prevailed in many of the races that counted most.

But statewide polling in individual contests that would determine control of Congress had magnified effects, seeming to reinforce the idea of a red wave sweeping the country — which in turn reduced what proved to be a very complicated election to an oversimplified idea.

Mr. Rosenberg, for one, noticed that some of the pollsters who were identifying unanticipated G.O.P. strength in Washington State — Republican-aligned firms like Trafalgar and InsiderAdvantage — were more consistently showing bigger Republican gains than the traditional pollsters were in other states.

Republican-aligned polls had Don Bolduc tied with Senator Maggie Hassan in New Hampshire, while nonpartisan polls showed a large lead for Ms. Hassan.Credit…John Tully for The New York Times

In New Hampshire, nonpartisan polls by The Boston Globe and the University of Massachusetts, Lowell, showed Senator Maggie Hassan, a Democrat, holding a comfortable eight- or 10-point lead over her Republican opponent, Don Bolduc. But Trafalgar and InsiderAdvantage had them in a neck-and-neck race. (She won by nine points.)

In Pennsylvania, the same two firms gave Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, the Democratic Senate candidate, a smaller lead over Mehmet Oz, and eventually showed Mr. Fetterman trailing — a departure from nonpartisan polls like Marist and Fox News. (He won by nearly five points.)

Worried that the G.O.P.-inflected polls were wrong and were liable to persuade Democratic grass-roots activists to give up rather than go out and knock on doors, Mr. Rosenberg used his podcast and his Twitter account to tell Democrats that their chances were better than they realized.

His bullishness earned him ribbing and ridicule. In an August article calling him “the most optimistic Dem online,” Politico noted that at times it seemed Mr. Rosenberg was pushing his relentlessly rosy view at “profound reputational risk.”

By the fall, perceptions of a red wave were starting to affect strategies, pushing money toward mistakenly perceived trouble spots. Insiders in both parties, mindful of past errors, began to doubt their own internal polls.

“We were limited in how aggressive we could get, because there was a feeling we were about to get absolutely smoked,” said Tim Persico, the executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which oversees House races. “It comes down to what level of risk you are willing to take if your data is standing alone in a world where everyone else is telling you the opposite.”

A case in point was Wisconsin.

The state Democratic chairman, Ben Wikler, was seeing private internal polling that showed his party’s Senate candidate, Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, within a point or two of Senator Ron Johnson, a right-wing Republican and purveyor of misinformation.

But red-hued polling began to show Mr. Johnson pulling away. Data for Progress put the incumbent up by five; Patriot Polling, run by the Pennsylvania high school students, had his lead at eight. By early October, RealClearPolitics was projecting that Mr. Johnson could win by as much as seven points.

In Wisconsin, Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes lost his challenge to Senator Ron Johnson by just one percentage point, after some major Democratic donors concluded it was a lost cause.Credit…Jamie Kelter Davis for The New York Times

Some major Democratic donors concluded that Mr. Barnes’s race was a lost cause, Mr. Wikler said, and that they should redirect their money where it could still help. “I had donors calling me to say they weren’t giving to the Senate race,” he said.

Mr. Barnes lost by only one point. While Democrats in the state debate whether more money would have made the difference — Mr. Barnes out-raised Mr. Johnson — Mr. Wikler pointed to the walloping Mr. Barnes took from outside groups supporting Mr. Johnson, which outspent those supporting Mr. Barnes by $26.4 million.

“If you were going to allocate resources for maximum impact,” Mr. Wikler said ruefully, “you wouldn’t let MandelaBarnes be outspent by $26 million on independent expenditures and lose by 26,000 votes.”

Polls heralding G.O.P. victories hurt Republicans, too.

Mr. Law, of the Senate Leadership Fund, relied on private polls that suggested Republican candidates needed to fight for every vote, but he watched in distress as many took victory for granted.

“All of these effervescent polls and giddiness about a big red wave,” he said, “led some Republican candidates to believe all they had to do was play to late-night cable and the hard-core base, instead of reaching out to independent voters who decided the election.”

Republican donors believed Adam Laxalt would easily win the Nevada Senate race. He narrowly lost. Credit…Bridget Bennett for The New York Times

His biggest frustration came in the Southwest. His internal polling showed that the G.O.P.’s Senate candidate in Arizona, Blake Masters, faced long odds, and that the Republican hopeful in Nevada, Adam Laxalt, could win with enough financial support.

Mr. Law pulled money out of Arizona. Still, as he poured cash into Nevada, moneyed allies continued to prioritize Mr. Masters, apparently trusting public polls suggesting that Mr. Laxalt had a solid advantage. Mr. Masters was defeated by more than 125,000 votes; Mr. Laxalt lost by 8,000.

Polling that lifted ratings

Polls of political races weren’t just being used in 2022 to determine the state of play in those campaigns. Other agendas were also at work.

Surveys creating the misimpression of a red wave proved particularly useful to right-wing media outlets. Among their audience, evidence pointing to Republican victories and Democratic defeats was in high demand — particularly on Fox News.

The network’s own polling unit, respected throughout the news industry for its nonpartisanship and transparency, was not detecting a Republican wave. But in September, Sean Hannity’s prime-time show began showcasing the pollsters Robert Cahaly of Trafalgar and Matt Towery of InsiderAdvantage, who predicted that Republicans would take the contests in Pennsylvania, Arizona and Georgia, among other places.

Unmentioned was that the Fox News Poll, amply covered in the network’s straight-news programming, showed all those races leaning Democratic.

Trafalgar and InsiderAdvantage had long been viewed with suspicion in the polling industry for their opaque surveying methods.

The pollster Robert Cahaly of the Trafalgar Group began appearing regularly on Sean Hannity’s prime-time show.Credit…Nicole Craine for The New York Times

Mr. Cahaly and Mr. Towery have dismissed that suspicion as sour grapes. Both had gained notice in 2016 for seeing what mainstream pollsters did not: the true, and winning, strength of the Trump base.

In 2022, their firms offered what the Fox News Poll could not: far more midterm surveys, and data that assured viewers their team was winning.

Mr. Towery declined to be interviewed but issued a brief statement acknowledging that getting it wrong “happens in this business” and noting that RealClearPolitics ranked his firm as the second most accurate national pollster for the 2016, 2018 and 2020 cycles. Mr. Cahaly, ranked fifth in those cycles, asked to be sent written questions but did not respond to them. In a November interview with New York Magazine, he attributed his polling misses to weak Republican campaigns.

Mr. Hannity, on his program, noted that he had emphasized to his audience the tight margins in competitive races. Fox News did not comment on its hosts’ use of polling.

But history points to a likely explanation: ratings, which determine advertising revenue and have tended to rise and fall with Republicans’ prospects.

“The culture of programming does not take kindly to narratives of ‘we’re behind’ or ‘we’re losing,’” said Jason Damata, the founder and chief executive of Fabric Media, a media and advertising consultancy. “Fox has a profound understanding of what’s going to keep audiences coming back and being engaged.”

In 2012, Fox News ratings soared as its hosts predicted Mitt Romney would defeat President Barack Obama, then plummeted when he did not. In 2020, its ratings suffered briefly after it was the first news organization to declare Mr. Biden the winner in Arizona.

By then, the Fox News audience could go elsewhere, and some did, buoying much smaller rivals at Newsmax, OAN and an expanding array of right-wing websites, online shows and podcasts.

Like Fox, those internet-based outlets relied on pro-Republican content to build their audiences. Unlike Fox, they were not tethered to news operations that subscribe to traditional journalistic standards.

This year, many presented the “red wave” as an absolute certainty.

In fact, while Mr. Towery was making guest appearances on Fox News, many of his polls were sponsored by a conservative group called the Center for American Greatness — whose founder, Chris Buskirk, had also advised a super PAC supporting Mr. Masters in Arizona.

Perhaps no platform gave more oxygen to the notion of a once-in-a-generation red wave than Mr. Bannon’s show “War Room,” a six-day-a-week podcast and streaming web show popular on the right.

Often citing polling from Trafalgar and aggregations by RealClearPolitics, Mr. Bannon repeatedly predicted a pickup of between 50 and 100 House seats for Republicans in the midterms.

He also relied heavily on a pollster named Richard Baris, whose polling firm was given an “F” rating and banned by FiveThirtyEight. Mr. Baris consistently forecast a Republican landslide. “The levee’s about to break,” he said in mid-October.

Mr. Baris did not respond to requests for comment. In an interview, Mr. Bannon said that “all the outside pollsters were clearly off,” adding, “Clearly, you can’t depend on polling being a referendum anymore.”

It is unclear whether such optimism is useful in motivating audiences to vote. Operatives in both parties have long debated whether confident predictions of victory inspire people to want to join the winning bandwagon, or breed complacency under the assumption that victory is already in hand.

Perhaps no platform gave more oxygen to the notion of a once-in-a-generation red wave than Stephen K. Bannon’s show “War Room.”Credit…Rebecca Noble for The New York Times

But Mr. Bannon applied that bullishness to another purpose: In the final two weeks of the campaign, he had more than two dozen candidates for office on “War Room” and urged his listeners to donate to them.

Also exploiting red-wave polling to raise money was Mr. Trump, who cited it in dozens of appeals for his Save America PAC.

“The latest 2022 polls show that we are in a very good position to win big,” read one email, citing FiveThirtyEight and pointing to Senate races in five states — four of which Republicans ultimately lost.

Democrats, too, exploited the red-wave narrative to raise money.

“What if I told you that a new poll has me TIED with my opponent,” Senator Mark Kelly of Arizona, who would go on to win by nearly five points, wrote to supporters in late October.

Whatever such pleas accomplished in generating donations, they drummed the idea of a red wave directly into the email inboxes of millions of Americans, making it that much harder to escape.

The ‘red wave’ trickles ashore

By late October, the Republican wave had surged into a “red tsunami,” a phrase uttered nearly 4,000 times that month on radio, television, and podcasts, according to the media tracking firm Critical Mention — a more than tenfold increase from September. References to a red tsunami nearly doubled again in the first eight days of November.

The notion of a Republican rout fed a sense of Democratic bearishness that seeped into campaign war rooms, and even the offices of Mr. Biden’s lead 2020 pollster, John Anzalone.

In an interview, Mr. Anzalone attributed his concerns to the tight margins many Democrats faced. “Were we all a little pessimistic about how the undecided vote was going to break? Yeah,” he said, noting how undecided voters have historically broken against the president’s party during midterms. “That didn’t happen this time. Does that make us wrong? Not if we showed it was a tossup to begin with.”

An idea that had begun on the fringes of the right — and been given credence by some nonpartisan national polls — had now taken hold among Democrats, whose fears were amplified by mainstream news organizations. By mid-October, headlines blared a series of dire warnings about a “red tsunami” and how the “Democrats’ feared red October has arrived.”

“We thought for a little bit that we could defy gravity, but the reality is setting in,” Sean McElwee, the executive director of Data for Progress, told The Times.

The gloomy polling averages and red-wave headlines drove many Democratic officials into a defensive crouch.

“Our internal numbers were actually really accurate,” said Ali Lapp, the executive director of the House Majority PAC, which spent more than $180 million to help Democratic congressional candidates in 2022. “The problem was that nobody dared to believe them.”

She added, “Our insistence that we had a 50-50 shot of holding the majority wasn’t backed up by the media, and so many donors decided that they would put their late money toward Senate races instead.”

Watching it all unfold from his offices in Northwest Washington, Tom Bonier, the chief executive of TargetSmart, a Democratic data clearinghouse, worried about the damage being done by overly Republican-leaning polls.

He was certain Democrats were on track to have a surprisingly good year, as liberal and moderate voters alike protested the Supreme Court’s striking down of a federal right to abortion and rejected as too extreme many Republican candidates who continued to deny the results of the 2020 presidential race.

But Mr. Bonier feared “the extent to which perception drives reality,” he said in a postelection interview.

Perceptions of a looming red wave bred stories that sought to explain it, theorizing that voters cared more about crime and the price of gas than, say, abortion.

Mr. Bonier saw a devious logic. He said he suspected that G.O.P.-aligned firms were pumping out polls to help Republicans regain momentum that had shifted toward the Democrats.

“That was the point of this red-wave polling surge,” he said.

As Mr. Bonier and Mr. Rosenberg pleaded with Democrats not to let unreliable polls dissuade them from donating to campaigns or knocking on doors, they repeatedly ran into skepticism from people citing the averages on RealClearPolitics and FiveThirtyEight.

But the averages were being affected by a widening imbalance between a dwindling number of reliable, reputable nonpartisan polls, and a proliferation of questionable surveys.

FiveThirtyEight itself flagged the imbalance: “Compared with past cycles, polls in 2022 are more likely to be sponsored or associated with partisan sources,” an article on the site said in October. “This is a problem because partisan polls tend to be more inaccurate.”

The imbalance arose in part from an industrywide challenge. Traditional surveys using over-the-phone interviews, with human beings asking the questions, have grown astronomically more expensive as Americans become harder to reach and less willing to sit through time-consuming questionnaires with strangers.

Reputable pollsters like Gallup and Pew have phased out “horse-race” polling entirely; others have cut back. Quinnipiac University conducted just a few statewide surveys in the final stretch this year. “Frankly, cost is an issue,” Doug Schwartz, Quinnipiac’s polling director, explained.

At the same time, it has never been easier or cheaper to conduct lesser-quality polls using internet questionnaires or automated phone services.

One newcomer to the industry that illustrated the low barrier to entry was Patriot Polling, incorporated in September in suburban Philadelphia by two high school juniors.

The pair — Lucca Ruggieri, 17, who identifies as a Republican, and Arhan Kaul, 16, who is more interested in data science than politics — met at a program for future leaders, joked about how terrible polling had been in recent elections and decided to take a stab at it themselves. At worst, they figured, they would bolster their college applications.

Lucca Ruggieri, 17, said he was thrilled and surprised that a poll by high school students was included on FiveThirtyEight.Credit…Hannah Beier for The New York Times
Arhan Kaul, 16, said polling should be used to “enhance analysis,” not in place of it.Credit…Saul Martinez for The New York Times

A statistics teacher and local Republicans and Democrats gave them pointers. Mr. Ruggieri’s father agreed to pay for the automated phone calls, at about $2,500 a poll — compared with tens of thousands of dollars for polls relying on live interviews.

The first survey they published was among the first in the nation to give Dr. Oz a lead over Mr. Fetterman. It caught the attention of FiveThirtyEight, which, after inquiring about their methodology, began to publish their results.

Mr. Ruggieri was bowled over. “I wouldn’t think they would look at high schoolers,” he said.

When critics questioned FiveThirtyEight for taking the youngsters’ polls seriously, an election analyst at the site called the critique “ageist,” saying “students can do awesome work.” Indeed, Patriot’s poll for the New York governor’s race roughly reflected the outcome, and its survey in the Arizona Senate race came closer to the final result than those of Trafalgar and InsiderAdvantage.

To Mr. Rosenberg and Mr. Bonier, teenagers weren’t responsible for the false red-wave narrative — it was partisan pollsters, who flooded the market with outlier results and were abetted by the keepers of the polling averages.

“We can’t trust the data on RealClearPolitics or FiveThirtyEight any longer,” Mr. Rosenberg complained on MSNBC in late October, “because it’s essentially Republican propaganda.”

Nate Silver, FiveThirtyEight’s founder, dismissed Mr. Rosenberg’s criticism by suggesting he was smoking Democratic “hopium,” saying on the site’s politics podcast that FiveThirtyEight’s model was devised to account for pollsters’ partisanship.

Besides, he suggested, Democrats could always put their own credibility on the line by publishing their own equally partisan polls. Mr. Silver did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

To Mr. Rosenberg’s consternation, while Democratic-leaning pollsters generally kept their numbers to themselves, one liberal group that did release its polls, Data for Progress, was reporting some results that resembled those of G.O.P.-leaning firms, giving the red-wave narrative a bipartisan imprimatur.

After the election, detractors seized on earlier statements by the firm’s chief, Mr. McElwee, that he had been placing bets on the campaign in betting markets — at the very least, they believed, creating the appearance of a conflict. The firm and Mr. McElwee, who was forced out after the election, denied that his gambling affected its work product — he said he viewed it as a way to gauge accuracy — and blamed methods devised in previous election cycles to avoid undercounting Trump supporters.

For their part, Mr. Ruggieri and Mr. Kaul, the Pennsylvania high school juniors, imparted some lessons they had learned before heading off on winter vacation.

Mr. Kaul said polling should be used to “enhance analysis,” not in place of it. “It’s meant to give you a better look,” he said.

Mr. Ruggieri boiled it down even more: “I think people should pay less attention to the polls.”

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