In the last week and a half a wide range of pro-Democratic commentators have pointed out the absurd extent to which the media has hyped generic “Republican vs. Democrat” ballot poll results that were unfavorable to the Dems and then ignored subsequent results that contradicted them.
In some cases the mainstream media commentators are simply stuck on a “Dems are in trouble” narrative and are simply too lazy to deal with results that don’t fit their preferred storyline. The conservative media commentators, on the other hand, are perfectly happy to gleefully cherry-pick the data with the same scrupulous regard for empirical accuracy that their grass-roots audience displays in choosing the content for their hand-lettered rally signs.
But the real horse-race situation revealed by the generic ballot data is even closer than you think. Yesterday Nate Silver noted that one poll which asked the same group of respondents both the standard generic “Republican vs. Democrat” question and also about a choice between named candidates found the following:
Republicans did better on the first set of questions, which asked voters whether in general they would prefer to see a Democrat or a Republican elected in the district. On average, over the 31 districts, Republicans led on this question by 6 points: 39 to 33.
When the candidates were named, however, the Democrats’ gap was lessened. They trailed by an average margin of 2 points, 43 to 45. That might imply that the generic ballot overestimates Republicans’ standing by about 4 points, at least in swing districts.
Equally, in TPM yesterday, Josh Marshall noted that the generic ballot itself has been visibly tightening in recent days. Here’s his chart from TPM polltracker:
Now if this isn’t enough to make any Democrat realize that they shouldn’t allow the generic ballot data to demoralize them and deter them from getting out there and working their damn butts off, looking even more closely at the latest data – this time from pollster.com — is really an eye-opener.
Remember, this isn’t based on one poll but rather the average of a dozen polls, making the trend much harder to dismiss as the result of sampling error.
Still don’t feel the adrenaline starting to flow and the desire growing to get out there and fight? Well consider one more fact: Rasmussen polls play an outsized role in this chart. When they are excluded, the Democrats actually pull ahead of the Republicans, 45.0% to 44.1%
So, there it is. Sure there’s a ton of polling data available that can be cited as a basis for pessimism, if that’s what you’re looking for, but the generic ballot data, by itself, is simply not enough to reach a pessimistic conclusion. What the data actually shows is an election that is so close that dedication, effort and hard work by Democrats can still make all the difference in the world in literally dozens of individual races.
So, damn it Democrats, stop obsessing about the generic ballot data and get out there and get to work to change the data.
Let others whose job is forecasting try to predict the future — our job as Democrats is not to predict the future but to create it.
(A note to poll wonks: the last chart is produced with Pollster.com’s “more sensitive” setting for trend smoothing. For most purposes Pollster.com’s default setting is the best compromise, but as the FAQ’s on the pollster.com website notes “at times it (the default setting) may appear to be too conservative or too sensitive. In particular, this somewhat conservative estimator may be slow to chase trends early on, which means it can be slow to accept that public opinion is actually changing”)