Shorter Nate Silver: ‘No one knows what’s going to happen on Election Day’

Is Joe Sestak doomed, like all Democrats, everywhere? Polls say yes ... unless they don't.

Two remarkable polls by FiveThirtyEight/New York Times numbers guru Nate Silver make the point I’ve been trying to make for months: pollsters and experts (a la Charlie Cook,) are surefire certain Republicans are going to run the table on November 2nd, except for the fact that they’re really not entirely sure that’s true.

Post number one, put up on Saturday, continues to forecast a 50-seat gain for Republicans in the House, except with this caveat:

However, there is considerable uncertainty in the forecast because of the unusually large number of House seats now in play. A gain of as large as 70-80 seats is not completely out of the question if everything broke right for Republicans. Conversely, if Democrats managed to see a material rebound in their national standing over the final two weeks of the campaign, they could lose as few as 20-30 seats, as relatively few individual districts are certain pickups for Republicans.

Did you catch that? Republicans could gain between 20 and 80 seats. That’s one hell of a predictive range, which has the wonderful benefit of making the forecaster almost certainly correct, no matter what happens. Silver also makes a couple of additional points which should really be paid attention to:

1) We’re seeing more polling in House districts, which typically isn’t the case.
2) More and more of these polls are partisan, which can skew the outcome. And…
3) Nearly all of the seats looked upon as takeover targets are currently in Democratic hands.

As a result, while Silver stands by his (and Charlie Cook et.al.’s Republican “tsunami” forecasts, he wants you to keep the following in mind:

This consensus, however, is somewhat misleading — because it does not adequately capture the fact that there is considerable uncertainty on either side of that 50 seat estimate, more so than in past elections. This is for two principal reasons.

First, as we mentioned, about twice as many seats are in play as in other recent elections. Thus, fairly subtle shifts in the political environment between now and Nov. 2 could have relatively profound implications for the seat count.

Second, there is considerable disagreement among pollsters on the magnitude of the enthusiasm gap. If Gallup’s likely voter model, which implies extremely lopsided turnout in favor Republicans, were to be correct, G.O.P. gains would be well in excess of 50 seats. Other turnout models, however, imply more like a 4- or 5-point enthusiasm gap, which would be more consistent with patterns in a typical midterm election. With an enthusiasm gap of that magnitude, Democrats would probably lose the House only narrowly and would have decent chances of holding onto it.

It is also important to remember that there are some factors, like the fact that many pollsters do not include cellphones in their sample, that could potentially result in the polls underestimating the position of Democrats. Our model assumes there is a chance that the overall “consensus” of polling could be off, which could affect the results in a great number of individual districts. This is one reason that it thinks such disparate outcomes as a 70-seat Republican gain or a mere 30-seat gain are not exceptionally unlikely. But such systematic bias in the polling could run in either direction.

Some trading markets imply that Republican chances of a House takeover are already in the neighborhood of 85 percent; in my view, this is too confident a position. But likewise, one should not dismiss the possibility of very large Republican gains.

In other words, “damned if I know.”

Silver’s second post, put up today, amplifies the points above, by pointing out that some races included in the GOP “possible takeover targets” include House races like Florida’s 8th District, where if you believe Corinne Brown is really going to lose her seat, I’ve got a sassy wig to sell you for $400; or Barney Frank’s seat, which, sorry GOP, is safe. (Or Debbie Wasserman But “internal” polls and partisan polls and lots of other polls no one has ever heard of before get tossed into the mix, and low and behold, they pull the averages ever more toward the GOP.

And not for nothing, but the media should consider that the year-long drumbeat of GOP takeover “certainty” could have something to do with the enthusiasm gap between Republicans, who have been told by Charlie Cook et.al. since February that they tea party is The Most Important Political Movement in American History and that they are poised to take back Congress, and Democrats, who are being told daily that all is lost. After this election, the media might want to step back, and think about the role they’ve played in this election…

There are some inexplicable things going on out there: like the utter failure of Democrats in Pennsylvania to communicate to voters — who mostly oppose outsourcing and many of whom are on Social Security — that there’s something odd about electing Pat Toomey, who favors accelerating the first and junking the second of those two. And in my opinion, unless there is a late-hour surge of pragmatic voting, the Florida Senate race is lost to Marco Rubio. But by and large, at the Senate level, Democrats appear to be in good shape. But even at the Congressional level, the polls vastly underestimate the difficulty of unseating a sitting Congressman or Senator. In most states, the re-elect rate for incumbents is unearthly high — in Massachusetts and Florida, it’s north of 90 percent. So the idea that what happens in Republican primaries translates into the broader, more moderate general electorate, just seems odd to me.

I’m not saying it can’t happen. I’m just saying I would be very, very surprised if the northern end of the Cook/Silver/Sabato Democratic Forecast of Doom came true. Democrats will lose seats this election. Historically, they’re supposed to lose seats in the first midterm after winning the presidency. But not every loss is a tsunami.

Bottom line, Democrats should take the possibility of losing the House seriously. Hell, they should take the possibility of losing Harry Reid’s seat to wacky Sharron Angle seriously. If Massachusetts taught us anything, it’s the danger of not campaigning like you’ve got a seat to lose. But if Democrats get their base out, and take advantage of their voter registration edge in places like Pennsylvania, or their rising voter rolls in Colorado, their union advantages on the ground in Nevada, etc., in other words, if they run competent elections, that, combined with most Americans’ discomfort with the wilder tea party offerings, should leave them in decent shape in November. It’s a matter of turnout and campaign tactics, not Charlie Cook, Nate Silver and the polls.

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