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


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.

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.

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