If you had told me a year ago that polls would showing Democrats and Republicans within the margin of error a few days before this midterm election, I would have said you were nuts. After a couple of off-year wins for Republicans that had the Beltway press corps giddy with excitement, conventional wisdom held that a "red wave" was building, and likely to become a "red tsunami." Even sober-minded analysts saw the political environment offering at least a comfortable win for Republicans in 2022.
All the fundamentals pointed toward a rout for the Democrats. The president was tremendously unpopular, gas prices were soaring and the relentless coverage of various failed Senate votes, thanks to a couple of Democratic Senate divas, had the administration's policy agenda circling the drain. Some prognosticators said the Republicans were on track to gain 35 seats or more in the House and very likely a solid majority in the Senate.
Then the Supreme Court dropped a stink bomb in the middle of the party, overturning Roe v. Wade and electrifying the sullen Democrats. Over the course of the summer the polls tightened and it looked as though the red wave might not materialize after all. Maybe the Democrats could defy all predictions and somehow hold onto their majority.
That's occurred on rare occasions in midterm elections over the past half-century or more, most recently in 2002 when the GOP won a slim majority even though a Republican president, George W. Bush, held the White House. Of course that election came shortly after the cataclysmic 9/11 terrorist attack, with the country in the grip of war fever and Bush's approval rating at its highest point. But for the most part, it's undeniably true that the party out of power wins midterm elections. It's just a matter of degree.
Facing an unpopular president plagued with investigations, Newt Gingrich predicted a gain of 30 to 40 seats in the 1998 midterms. Instead, they were his downfall. Could history repeat itself?
But the out-party can also sometimes overplay its hand. Consider the salient example of 1998, for instance. The Republicans decided to impeach Bill Clinton for lying under oath about a sexual affair and they thought it was a slam dunk they'd roll up huge wins in the midterm elections, which came right in the middle of the big, salacious House investigation. Speaker Newt Gingrich was so confident about gaining a huge number of seats that he released special prosecutor Ken Starr's bodice-ripping report on the internet, which even its drafters thought was a mistake. He predicted a gain of 30 to 40 seats, believing that the report would depress Democrats and galvanize the Christian right. It didn't turn out that way at all, and Democrats gained five seats instead.
Filmmaker Michael Pack was following Gingrich at the time and caught the denouement for what became his documentary "The Fall of Newt Gingrich." An AP report on the film's release in 2000 described the key events this way:
Even that night, Gingrich's senior political director, Joe Gaylord, expresses confidence — which ultimately will be exposed as overconfidence — that "we would gain seats, it was only a matter of how many we gain." As the night progresses, smiles disappear from Gingrich's "war room," and multiple shots capture the speaker, mouth widened in disbelief. Later, he tells Pack he was "genuinely confused."
It's true that Republicans kept control of the House but Gingrich's career was over and he was forced to resign shortly thereafter. Hubris had cost them dearly.
The question in 2022 is whether they're doing it again. In several major races, Republicans are clearly suffering because they've nominated a group of batshit-crazy Trumpers and are trying to turn back the clock to the 1600s on women's rights. That might not have have the frisson of the Starr Report but it's a potent motivation for Democrats — and also seems to be a potent motivation for Republicans.
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Polls show that the generic ballot (that is, whether people favor Democrats or Republicans overall) within the margin of error, while pollsters and strategists proclaim that Republican votes are being undercounted again, as they were in 2016 and 2020 (for reasons that remain unclear). But as FiveThirtyEight noted this week, you can't predict the direction of polling errors in advance:
Historically, polls have been equally likely to underestimate Republicans or Democrats. So it's also possible that pollsters have fixed the problems that plagued them in 2016 and 2020 — maybe even overcorrected for them — and that the current polls are too good for the GOP. In other words, a wide range of scenarios is possible in this election: everything from a Republican landslide to a world where Democrats hold the House and gain seats in the Senate.
This doesn't feel like a normal midterm election and there's plenty of evidence that it isn't. Early voting so far shows a massive turnout so far. Traditionally, that's an advantage for Democrats ,and Republican officials and candidates have been following Donald Trump's lead and telling their voters to wait until Election Day to vote. We have no way of knowing whether this big early vote means that many GOP voters defying those instructions or whether Election Day will witness long lines of angry white Republicans. We'll simply have to wait and see.
Unfortunately, the mainstream media has decided to frame the horse race as if Republicans already have it in the bag. They take the supposed under-polling of Republicans as written in stone and view races that are too close to call as a sign that the entire election is the GOP's to lose. And who knows — there's a decent chance they're right. But there's also a pretty fair chance they are wrong and their slanted coverage is setting up a monumental right-wing freakout if Democrats happen to pull off a win (or at least do better than expected).
We already know that Republicans are planning to contest any races they lose and are telling their voters that the only way Democrats can win is if they cheat. This is now an article of faith on the right. Current coverage has any number of GOP candidates measuring the drapes for their new offices, and it's pretty clear they won't accept defeat graciously. Even if Republicans lose, they win. The way it works now, elections is never over.
Honestly, the media should have learned its lessons, and should be much more careful about relying on wonky polling in a close race. After all, it was just six years ago that the "media elite" felt so sure that Hillary Clinton had the election wrapped up that they put her on notice that they were going to pursue her relentlessly before the election even happened. We all know how that turned out.
It's uncomfortable and frightening to think about what will happen if the Republicans win. But as I said, if anyone had claimed we'd be in this position a year ago I would have said they were crazy. By all relevant historical standards, Democrats were supposed to be buried right now, and they're not. For the next few days we'll all have to do something we just hate to do: Live in uncertainty.