Democrats can outperform the polls like they did in Kansas — but there is one key factor


It’s handwringing season in the mainstream media as a daily barrage of gloomy stories carry warnings about how the economy is, as usual, the critical issue on the minds of voters.

Here’s a typical passage:

“While Democrats have suggested the overturning of Roe will bring voters out to the polls in the midterms, just 8 percent of likely swing state voters said abortion is a top issue for them going into the midterms, according to a new poll.

Meanwhile, 37 percent of respondents said high cost of living and inflation are their top concern, according to the poll.”

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There’s a catch to that familiar refrain, however: This was a state poll taken on June 26-27 to measure the attitudes of Kansas voters in the runup to that state’s historic August 2 ballot referendum on abortion. The poll had been commissioned by a Republican group, and it was cited by the conservative National Review a day before the election, along with a turnout prediction of 36 percent from Republican Secretary of State Scott Schwab.

It was all dead wrong.

Voters rejected Republicans’ effort to remove abortion rights from the Kansas state constitution in a historic 59-to-41 landslide thumping that not a single prognosticator saw coming. The most optimistic predictions for Democrats had been that the race would be closer than expected in a red state like Kansas.

Statewide turnout was 47 percent, dramatically higher than the secretary of state had predicted. A key factor was the vote from heavily pro-choice Johnson County – the state’s largest population center in the Kansas City area – where “turnout was especially impressive at 53.7%, a tally nearly unheard of in a primary election,” the Kansas City Star reported.

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With the midterm elections fewer than three weeks away, nervous Democrats would do well to stay focused upon the lessons of the Kansas vote: Turnout is critical; and it’s the major factor that can cause polls not to forecast outcomes accurately.

Polls can take a reasonably accurate snapshot of voter opinions at any given time, but they cannot be counted upon to predict turnout, Kenneth Warren, professor of political science at St. Louis University, told Raw Story.

“Nothing throws pollsters off more than unexpected high or low turnout, particularly among certain groups such as pro-Trumpers or pro-choicers, Warren says. “They got it wrong in Kansas because they were not able to measure the great efforts by pro-choice organizers to get out the vote. And I think that’s the main factor (as to why the pro-choice victory was so large there).”

It remains to be seen whether Democrats can replicate the Kansas turnout success. But early-voting totals have reportedly been high – at a comparable level to 2018, when Democrats netted a gain of 41 House seats in the midterms.

That can’t be expected to happen again, as the Democrats were the power out of power – and midterms historically go poorly for the party holding the presidency. In 2022, those roles are reversed, with most forecasters predicting Republicans will pick up the __ votes they need to regain control of the House.

But the “X” factor is how much extra turnout might be generated by outrage over the U.S. Supreme Court’s repeal of Roe v. Wade protection for reproductive freedom. There’s little doubt, as demonstrated in Kansas, that women and young voters can be expected to vote in higher numbers.

What’s unknown is how much that will matter. And Warren says the polls don’t hold the answer.

“Long ago pollsters just polled eligible voters, but problems developed because they paid no attention to whether they were registered. Then they decided that they better just poll registered voters, but problems developed because they did not ask whether these registered voters were going to vote,” Warren said. “This became a serious problem for the Gallup Poll in 1980 when they underestimated the vote for Reagan. Gallup predicted that Reagan would win but underestimated the extent of his victory margin.

“Since that time pollsters have been asking only likely voters, but this has presented a serious problem for pollsters because respondents lie about whether they are going to vote. They say they are "Certain to Vote" to vote or "Almost Certain to Vote" when they end up not voting.

“I noticed this in a recent (St. Louis) poll when about 97% of respondents said they are certain or about certain to vote. What a joke this is when only about 55-61% of registered voters end up voting in a presidential race and about 10 - 15% fewer on average in a congressional election year.

“I think pollsters are good at what they do, but it is asking too much for pollsters to know what groups are going to turn out in larger numbers than usual because of unique organizational efforts. They simply cannot measure this accurately.”

With the midterms looming, and the nation hopelessly divided in separate information silos, it’s doubtful many minds will be changed in the closing days, be it on abortion, the economy or any other issue. And Democrats needn’t waste time nor energy taking stock in what the polls are saying, in any direction.

It’s all about the turnout.