Although Donald Trump and millions of Republicans still refuse to recognize Joe Biden and Kamala Harris as the legitimately elected President and Vice President of the United States, the GOP is nevertheless behaving and operating as the party out of power in our nation’s capital, because that is the current reality.
Having captured enough electoral votes to sweep Donald Trump and Mike Pence out of office, and having won two remarkable runoff elections for the United States Senate in Georgia, Democrats have a fragile trifecta (control of the presidency, House, and Senate) for the first time since 2009, when Barack Obama replaced George W. Bush as the country’s forty-fourth president.
Despite their fixation on the last election, Republicans know there’s always another election right around the corner, and they loudly claim every chance they get that they are destined to have control of Congress once the votes have been counted in the 2022 midterms and new representatives and senators seated.
The media has been amplifying such talk, playing up Republicans’ chances of victory and sometimes characterizing the midterms as a done deal, even though no votes have been cast yet. Republican operatives and reporters alike love to point out that the president’s party usually loses seats in a midterm cycle and that Democrats’ super slim majorities can’t absorb any net loss of seats.
Electoral history, however, cannot tell us what will happen this year, only what has transpired in the past. It is worth noting that twice in the last thirty years, a president’s party has actually gained seats in the midterms (in 1998 and 2002) and that is one of the possible outcomes of these midterms.
Whether it’s plausible or not is a matter of debate, but it is definitely possible — and Republicans know it. That’s why they are doing everything they possibly can to rig the midterms in their favor, including adopting voter suppression laws and gerrymandered maps in states where they have legislative majorities.
If Republicans are destined to win no matter what Democrats do this year, there would be no need to pass any voter suppression schemes or gerrymandered maps. Clearly, Republicans do not believe their own talk, or they would not be frantically attempting to manipulate the electoral landscape in their favor.
Here in Washington State, Republicans aren’t in a position to stack the deck, so they will have to actually compete for people’s votes to have any chance of dislodging the Legislature’s Democratic majorities or recapture the 8th Congressional District, which has been represented by Kim Schrier since 2018.
Republicans believe they’re off to a good start this year. As proof, they cite a poll conducted by Elway Research for Crosscut, which was released early this month and shows Patty Murray with only a three point lead over a generic Republican opponent, along with an identical spread in a generic legislative ballot question.
Pollster Stuart Elway added fuel to that narrative earlier this week with a column titled “Polling shows a Republican surge in Washington and beyond.”
“When the results came back for the most recent Crosscut/Elway Poll earlier this month, the party identification numbers caught my attention,” Elway remarked in his opening paragraph. “The percentage of respondents who identified as Republican had jumped ten points since last July to close the gap with Democrats, from eighteen percentage points to seven. In the thirty years I have been measuring party identification in the state, it has been rare to see so large a shift.”
We had a very different takeaway from Elway’s survey.
When our team at NPI examined the results, the first thing that jumped out at us was the U.S. Senate race question and the results to that question, which were:
[Question text] One final topic: As you probably know, there will be an election this year for US Senator. As things stand today are you more likely to vote to return Patty Murray to the US Senate or vote for a Republican to replace her?
- 42%: Patty Murray
- 39%: Republican
- 19%: Undecided
These numbers did not align with either our finding from just a few weeks prior or KING5/SurveyUSA’s finding from a poll that fielded a few days before ours.
Our poll, which included a sample of 909 likely midterm voters, had found Murray with a thirteen point lead over Tiffany Smiley (50% / 37% / 13%), while KING5/SurveyUSA, using a sample of 542 registered voters, had found Murray with an eighteen point lead over Smiley (49% / 31% / 20%).
Although Smiley was not named in Elway’s question, Murray was, and she performed worse in Elway’s poll than in either ours or SurveyUSA’s.
We started examining the profile of Elway’s sample to see if there was anything that might explain the divergence in the findings.
And almost immediately, several numbers jumped out at us.
First were the percentages of interviewed voters who identified as Democrats and Republicans — a finding that Elway himself took note of and wrote a column about, as mentioned above. And the other was the percentage of voters between the ages of eighteen and thirty-four, the youngest age bracket in the poll.
In each of our recent statewide polls and in SurveyUSA’s polls, the percentage of respondents identifying as Democrats is about 40%. In our November survey, it was 40% and SurveyUSA’s late October poll, it was 41%. But in Elway’s poll, the percentage of Democratic voters in the sample was just 35–36%. (The figure 35% is shown at the top of the results file and 36% appears underneath the question.)
When I asked Stuart Elway about this, characterizing Democratic voters as underrepresented, he replied: “Party ID is as much an attitude as a demographic in Washington. We ask how people would register if party registration were required, and we record what they say. The results bounce up and down. There is no way to definitely say that Democrats are underrepresented.”
While it is true that Washington doesn’t have partisan voter registration and that results vary between polls, we can look at the 2020 presidential vote plus compare Elway’s polling to ours and SurveyUSA’s. On that basis, we think the argument can be made that Democratic voters were underrepresented.
We think Republicans may have likewise been underrepresented in July of 2021, along with Democrats, when Elway’s last statewide poll fielded. In that poll, as Elway said, a mere 18% of respondents identified as Republican.
With 29% now identifying as Republican in Elway’s most recent survey, he is talking about a “surge.” But in our statewide polling, the percentage of voters identifying as Republican has been in the twenties this whole time:
- October 2020: 29% Republican
- May 2021: 28% Republican
- November 2021: 24% Republican
That’s an average of 27% identifying as Republican during and since the 2020 cycle. No double digit fluctuations. We know that the actual Republican electorate in Washington is several percentage points bigger than this average, because there are people who vote Republican despite professing to be an independent.
What about SurveyUSA’s polling? We see something similar:
- April-May 2021: Republican voters were 22% of the sample
- October 2021: Republican voters were 29% of the sample
Percentages in the twenties and a five-point seasonal swing; average of 25.5%.
It is important to note that when Elway asks about party ID, he doesn’t ask respondents are you a Democrat, Republican, or independent. Instead, he asks: If you had to register by party in order to vote, would you register as a…
Washington doesn’t have voter registration by party and there is no current prospect of that changing, so our team doesn’t see the point of wording a party ID question this way. It’s a recipe for confusion and voter annoyance.
Elway’s results file says that 8% of the December sample did not even answer the question, while 13% of the July 2021 sample gave no answer.
That’s really problematic.
If our critique is correct, then there actually hasn’t been a major increase in Republican identity at all, and Elway’s premise about a surge is simply wrong.
Let’s set aside party ID and move on to age.
We do happen to know for a fact the ages of Washington State’s 4,795,142 registered voters, and the Secretary of State very helpfully maintains a web page that says exactly how many voters belong to each age bracket.
The two youngest age brackets (18–24 and 25–34) collectively correspond to the youngest age bracket in Elway’s survey (18–35).
We can therefore easily compare the percentage of young voters in Elway’s survey to the percentage of young voters on the rolls.
If we add up the numbers of each group of young voters (last updated January 4th, 2022), we get 1,257,823. 1,257,823 out of 4,795,142 is 26.23%.
So, about a quarter or so of Elway’s respondents ought to be voters in the youngest age bracket (18–35). But guess what? Only 11% are.
That’s right. Just 11%.
Here’s the breakdown:
[Question text] I have just a few last questions for our statistical analysis. How old are you?
- 11%: 18–35
- 27%: 36–50
- 30%: 51–34
- 29%: 65+
- 2%: [No Answer]
Again, 11%. That is less than half of the actual percentage of young voters on the rolls. Since this was a survey of registered voters, not likely voters, the survey’s composition ought to look something like the actual electorate.
And with respect to age, Elway’s sample doesn’t.
SurveyUSA, on the other hand, managed to build a sample back in November that had a reasonable percentage of young voters in it.
Here’s how theirs breaks down:
Composition of registered voters
- Voters ages 18–34: 28% of the sample
- Voters ages 35–49: 25% of the sample
- Voters ages 50–64: 26% of the sample
- Voters ages 65+: 22% of the sample
In Elway’s sample, voters over fifty are 59% of the sample (nearly three-fifths!)
In SurveyUSA’s, voters over fifty are 48% of the sample (less than half.)
“The age findings were not significantly out of line with our historic findings,” Elway said when we corresponded. “The 18–35 bracket was at the low end of normal, but not the lowest we’ve seen. (I would rather underestimate young voters than over-estimate them – especially on a non-presidential year.)”
Elway’s surveys are usually of registered voters, though, and this one was no exception. So why is youth voter turnout a consideration? Those young voters are on the rolls. They could, in theory, turn out. All they’d have to do is return the ballot mailed to them. Why are young voters underrepresented in Elway’s polls?
Registered voters are those who in response to a standard poll question say they are “registered to vote in their precinct or election district.” This is the group whose data Gallup reports most often because they represent an estimate of Americans who in theory are eligible to vote and could vote if they want to.
Of course, Gallup knows that in the final analysis, not all of these registered voters will actually vote. So Gallup has over the years created systems to isolate likely voters — that group of individuals who the company can estimate are most likely to actually vote.
Our own polls are usually of likely voters, not registered voters, and our state-level pollster (Public Policy Polling) uses different age brackets than SurveyUSA or Elway. Still, it’s a fact that our last survey of likely voters had more young respondents in it than Elway’s survey of registered voters. 11% of our respondents were in their teens or twenties and 25% were ages 30–45.
As programmers like to say, bad inputs will yield bad outputs. If a poll’s sample is skewed, then the results are going to be skewed. That’s why building a representative sample is so important. And it’s why asking neutral questions is important (the answers you get will depend on the questions you ask).
Elway Research is a respected firm — as Stuart Elway has said, 86% of its autumn/election season polls between 1992 and 2010 correctly foreshadowed subsequent election results — but it has also put out clunkers.
In 2018, Elway polled in Washington’s 8th Congressional District for Crosscut and found Dino Rossi handily leading Kim Schrier shortly before voting began.
“The complexion of the race for Washington’s pivotal 8th Congressional District has changed dramatically in the last week, shading from purple toward red. Whatever razor-thin advantage Dr. Kim Schrier may have enjoyed from election prognosticators has evaporated in the wake of the contentious Supreme Court hearings, with Dino Rossi surging to a ten point lead,” David Kroman wrote for Crosscut on October 10th, 2018.
Elway’s finding was inconsistent with a poll conducted two weeks prior for The New York Times, which found a one point advantage for Schrier. Elway’s explanation for the inconsistency was to characterize the race as “volatile.”
Was the race really volatile, or was Elway’s poll an outlier?
The veracity of his WA-08 survey was discussed and debated for several weeks.
Then, at the end of October, as voting was wrapping up, the New York Times/Siena College polled WA-08 again and found a three point lead for Schrier.
On Election Night, it quickly became evident that Schrier had prevailed.
Schrier initially led Rossi by a six point spread, 52.94% to 47.06%, and mostly kept that edge as counting went on. The final results were 52.42% for Schrier and 47.58% for Rossi. Rossi received 148,968 votes and Schrier 164,089 votes.
The near-record 2018 general election turnout — which Elway had commented to Korman could benefit Rossi — was not an advantage for the Republican. The official returns and the New York Times/Siena College polling (which tracked with the subsequent results) demonstrated that Elway’s WA-08 poll had been off-base.
As I have explained above, there’s reason to believe that Elway’s most recent polls are underrepresenting Democratic and young voters, and that last summer’s poll also underrepresented Republican voters.
SurveyUSA and Public Policy Polling are both reputable pollsters currently graded “A” and “A-” by FiveThirtyEight, and their work for KING5 and NPI suggests a different 2022 electoral landscape than what Elway’s data suggests.
Elway and others point out that national polling averages point out that Republicans have an advantage over Democrats right now, and that’s true.
However, Washington is a mostly Democratic state. Regularly held elections continue to demonstrate this. Washington hasn’t voted for a Republican for governor, the U.S. Senate, or the presidency in decades.
Since Washington is not a microcosm of the country as a whole, we need state level data to understand what is happening in state politics.
The most recent data we have, including our polling and SurveyUSA’s, suggest that the 2022 midterms could look more than 2018 here than 2010 or 2014 — at least with respect to statewide races, such as the contest between Democratic Senator Patty Murray and Republican challenger Tiffany Smiley.
(Legislative and congressional district lines are changing due to redistricting, and district electoral dynamics are sometimes quite different than statewide ones.)
In 2010, multiple springtime polls found Rossi with a lead over Murray, including one conducted by SurveyUSA and one by the University of Washington (UW). (Two other UW polls conducted within the same month found Murray leads.)
Like Other Incumbent Democrats Coast-to-Coast, US Senator Patty Murray In Trouble in Washington State: In hypothetical general election matchups for United States Senator from Washington state today, 04/23/10, six months to the midterms, incumbent Democrat Patty Murray does not poll above 46% against any of 6 possible Republican opponents, according to SurveyUSA research conducted for KING-TV Seattle. In 5 of 6 matchups, Murray finishes nominally ahead of the Republican, but within the theoretical margin of sampling error. In 1 matchup — against 2004 and 2008 gubernatorial candidate Dino Rossi — Murray loses by 10 points, 52% to 42%.
Murray, of course, went on to beat Rossi and secure reelection, with President Obama and then-Vice President Biden making trips to the state to support her.
Twelve years later, Murray is preparing to face voters again. This time, she’s in a much better early position. Murray’s average lead over Smiley in our polling (we asked about the U.S. Senate race more than once last year) is not much different from Maria Cantwell’s May 2018 double digit lead over Susan Hutchison — a polling lead that was borne out in the actual election results that year.
Murray’s lead over Smiley is also nearly identical to Democrats’ lead in the generic congressional ballot question that PPP asked for us as part of our survey:
QUESTION: If the 2022 elections for the United States House of Representatives were being held today, would you vote for the Democratic or Republican candidate from your district?
- Would vote for the Democratic candidate: 49%
- Would vote for the Republican candidate: 37%
- Not sure: 15%
Our survey of 909 likely 2022 Washington State voters was in the field from Wednesday, November 10th through Thursday, November 11th, 2021.
It utilizes a blended methodology, with automated phone calls to landlines (50%) and text message answers from cell phone only respondents (50%).
The poll was conducted by Public Policy Polling for the Northwest Progressive Institute and has a margin of error of +/- 3.3% at the 95% confidence interval.
Whereas Republicans have an advantage nationally on the national generic ballot right now, Democrats have the advantage here in Washington State.
And it makes sense that they do. Our team sees no evidence that the minor political realignment in this state that was sparked by Donald Trump’s ugly, divisive campaign and subsequent disastrous presidency has melted away.
Democrats are governing and getting at least some things done in tough political circumstances, while Republicans are struggling to connect with voters because their party is more of a cult nowadays than a functioning political party.
Washington’s top legislative Republicans (J.T. Wilcox and John Braun) have tried to portray their caucuses as reasonable and solutions-oriented, hoping to make the Republican brand more appealing in the midterms, but even their ranks are brimming with Trump-worshiping extremists, from Jim Walsh and Robert Sutherland in the House (the latter of whom Wilcox is hoping to replace via an intraparty challenge) to Phil Fortunato and Mike Padden in the Senate.
Republicans regularly express displeasure with Governor Inslee and Democratic legislative leadership, and argue they could do better. But it’s one thing to critique those in power and another to actually govern. Republicans have not explained how, if they were in charge, they would effectively deal with COVID-19, or fix the state’s inequitable tax code, or improve access to housing, or address climate damage, or put a stop to police brutality and misconduct.
If you pay attention to what they say, as we do, you’ll mostly hear them talk about what they are against as opposed to what they are for. They simply haven’t offered Washingtonians a compelling reason to vote for them.
We know from decades of research that elections turn on identity and trust. That’s no less true in highly polarized times. People are ultimately going to fill in the oval for who they identify with. They won’t be voting on the basis of gas prices, or inflation concerns, or foreign policy, or some set of issue positions.
Current events and ideology do matter and do influence people’s thinking. They just aren’t the decisive factors that drive voting behavior. Identity and trust are.
Unless Republicans can convince more Washington voters to trust them, they are going to stay at a disadvantage statewide and in a lot of crucially important suburban and exurban legislative districts. And that would mean that they’re not going to have the kind of pickups they had in 2010 or 2014.
Because Democrats have mostly run out of suburban and exurban pickup opportunities, the party will primarily be on defense this year, though it will try to go on offense in the redrawn 26th, 10th, 17th, and 42nd Legislative Districts.
The stage seems set for a cycle with election results that will look more like the 2018 midterms than either 2010 or 2014 in Washington.
Now, with all that said, we are many months out from the August and November 2022 elections and there’s no guarantee that Washington will stay on the trajectory that the 2021 polling discussed here suggests we have been on.
And we may not even be on that trajectory anymore.
The polling data I cited above (ours and KING5/SurveyUSA’s) is now several months old. It’s a snapshot in time, taken last autumn.
It would be useful, especially in the wake of the release of Elway’s winter poll, to have fresh data to ascertain if the electoral landscape has changed.
That is why I’m glad we are currently preparing to return to the field.
This year, NPI intends to poll statewide in Washington at a higher frequency than we ever have before. We will check in on every single statewide race seasonally so we can get a better sense of the trends and dynamics in these midterms, and we will bring you our findings here on NPI’s Cascadia Advocate.
As I said above, there are many possible scenarios this year. We cannot know what is certain. Past performance is not a guarantee of future results.
We can try to guess what is plausible, but our guesses can be wrong. It’s beneficial and healthy for us to admit that, and to keep an open mind.
When I asked Stuart Elway if he anticipated a close race between Patty Murray and Tiffany Smiley this year, based on his poll’s finding, he offered this nuanced assessment: “Based on history, I would not expect a tight U.S. Senate race, but a lot of things have happened recently that I would not have expected. Party ID has a much stronger influence in state races than it used to, and that is obviously more so early on and versus a generic party candidate.”
That’s all true and well said.
Political analysis really benefits from humility, critical thinking, and discernment.
Republicans are hoping to win the 2022 midterms in part by creating a self-fulfilling prophecy… convincing everybody they’ve won beforehand so that the likelihood they actually do win will go up. They gladly welcome the media’s help in getting inside their opponents’ heads. Reporters and commentators need to recognize that this game is being played and discuss it in their coverage.