NYT Headline: The "Red Wave" Washout
Screenshot from nytimes.com showing the lede of a story published on December 31st, 2022

With 2022 draw­ing swift­ly to a close, The New York Times today pub­lished an arti­cle with not one, not two, but three reporters’ bylines that exam­ines the impact that garbage data from untrust­wor­thy polls had on the 2022 midterms, includ­ing Wash­ing­ton State’s U.S. Sen­ate race.

Titled “The ‘red wave’ washout: How skewed polls fed a false elec­tion nar­ra­tive,” the sto­ry main­ly focus­es on Repub­li­can-aligned firms’ bad polls and how they land­ed, but makes an impor­tant admis­sion in pass­ing: news­pa­pers like the New York Times bought whole­sale into an elec­toral nar­ra­tive that was­n’t real.

“Not for the first time, a warped under­stand­ing of the con­tours of a nation­al elec­tion had come to dom­i­nate the views of polit­i­cal oper­a­tives, donors, jour­nal­ists and, in some cas­es, the can­di­dates them­selves,” the sto­ry penned by the trio of Jim Ruten­berg, Ken Bensinger, and Steve Eder notes after sev­er­al intro­duc­to­ry para­graphs dis­sect­ing the Repub­li­cans’ bad Ever­green State data.

A few para­graphs lat­er came a more explic­it admis­sion — still in pass­ing, but an impor­tant and nec­es­sary admis­sion nonethe­less — acknowl­edg­ing that The New York Times’ own cov­er­age was wrong­ly wed­ded to a “red wave” narrative:

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 [main­stream mean­ing big] news orga­ni­za­tions, includ­ing The Times, that ampli­fied the alarms being sound­ed about poten­tial Demo­c­ra­t­ic doom.

High­light­ing is mine.

For an exam­ple, the trio and their edi­tors picked a pre­ten­tious col­umn by Blake Houn­shell, pub­lished Octo­ber 19th. Titled “Democ­rats’ Feared Red Octo­ber Has Arrived,” it began with this dec­la­ra­tion: “Here’s the thing about elec­tions: When they break, they usu­al­ly break in one direc­tion. And right now, all the indi­ca­tors on my polit­i­cal dash­board are blink­ing red — as in, toward Republicans.”

Houn­shel­l’s col­umn was a well-cho­sen exam­ple. But it was actu­al­ly just one of a great many pieces that the paper pub­lished over the course of weeks and months favor­ing Repub­li­cans and play­ing up their chances. We doc­u­ment­ed how The Times was fail­ing its read­ers with its slant­ed, nar­ra­tive-dri­ven cov­er­age right here on the Cas­ca­dia Advo­cate. (If you haven’t read that piece, it’s worth your time.)

On Elec­tion Night (Tues­day, Novem­ber 8th), it was evi­dent that while Repub­li­cans might be on their way to a House major­i­ty, there was no “red wave.” Democ­rats were doing far bet­ter than many pun­dits and reporters had expect­ed. The New York Times prompt­ly piv­ot­ed away from the nar­ra­tive it had helped to pro­mote at near­ly every oppor­tu­ni­ty as its edi­tors and reporters processed the data.

If you browse the NYT’s archives, you can see that Elec­tion Night was a huge demar­ca­tion point. Until Novem­ber 8th, the paper’s midterms cov­er­age was nar­ra­tive-dri­ven; after Novem­ber 8th, the paper’s midterms cov­er­age became data and real­i­ty-dri­ven thanks to the avail­abil­i­ty of the ini­tial returns.

Here on the Cas­ca­dia Advo­cate, we tried to ele­vate in our pre­elec­tion cov­er­age the voic­es of those who were look­ing care­ful­ly at the data and warn­ing of the fol­ly of draw­ing con­clu­sions based on nar­ra­tives, such as the New Demo­c­rat Net­work’s Simon Rosen­berg and Tar­getS­mart’s Tom Bonier.

Appro­pri­ate­ly, both Rosen­berg and Bonier are men­tioned in this NYT story.

Rosen­berg’s tus­sle with FiveThir­tyEight founder Nate Sil­ver on Twit­ter over the garbage Repub­li­can polling indexed by FiveThir­tyEight is also mentioned.

“Mr. Sil­ver did not respond to repeat­ed requests for com­ment,” the sto­ry says.

Sil­ver, him­self employed for a stretch by The New York Times, is the author of a book called The Sig­nal and the Noise: Why So Many Pre­dic­tions Fail — But Some Don’t. On one of FiveThir­tyEight’s pod­casts, Sil­ver had ridicu­lous­ly respond­ed to Rosen­berg’s crit­i­cisms by char­ac­ter­iz­ing Rosen­berg as smok­ing “hopi­um.” Of course, as events showed, Rosen­berg’s con­cerns were well-found­ed, and he was entire­ly jus­ti­fied in declar­ing that FiveThir­tyEight’s data had become polluted.

As Octo­ber drew to a close, our team at NPI were like­wise shak­ing our heads at the appear­ance of more and more garbage polls in Wash­ing­ton’s U.S. Sen­ate race. There were so many bad polls that the FiveThir­tyEight index was no longer show­ing any cred­i­ble ones above the fold on its con­test-spe­cif­ic list:

Screenshot from FiveThirtyEight's website
All of the polls shown above-the-fold on FiveThir­tyEight as of the end of the vot­ing peri­od were from firms aligned with Repub­li­cans that erro­neous­ly showed a close race. To see any cred­i­ble polls, it was nec­es­sary to click or tap “Show more polls.” (Screen­shot)

Our own polling had con­sis­tent­ly shown over the course of eigh­teen months that Pat­ty Mur­ray was on track to be com­fort­ably reelect­ed, yet the con­test between Mur­ray and her Repub­li­can chal­lenger Tiffany Smi­ley was increas­ing­ly and incor­rect­ly being described as “tight”, “close”, and “volatile.”

In a sto­ry that aired the week before the elec­tion, KIRO7’s Gra­ham John­son looked at the body of polling, bad and good lumped togeth­er, and talked to three peo­ple about what it could mean: con­sul­tant Crys­tal Finch­er, Repub­li­can oper­a­tive Alex Hays, and myself. Dur­ing my inter­view with Gra­ham, I explained that not all polling is cre­at­ed equal, and it’s essen­tial to sep­a­rate the wheat from the chaff.

Cred­i­ble polling, I explained, had Mur­ray up and well ahead of Smi­ley, where­as the garbage polling that incor­rect­ly and improp­er­ly sug­gest­ed Smi­ley was close to Mur­ray was being fund­ed and pro­duced by Republicans.

Only a snip­pet of my com­ments made it into the final sto­ry that ran on-air.

But, as you can see, Gra­ham and the KIRO team chose well:

“I think we’re see­ing volatil­i­ty and I think we’re see­ing some tight­en­ing, and that’s not unusu­al com­ing down close to the wire,” said Demo­c­ra­t­ic strate­gist Crys­tal Fincher.

“I think we’re at 50–50, which is very sur­pris­ing to me. I had no expec­ta­tion of feel­ing that way even two weeks ago,” said Repub­li­can strate­gist Alex Hays.

Recent polls show­ing the race with­in a cou­ple of points come from right-lean­ing polling firms.

“It’s not that close. The race is cur­rent­ly nine to 12 points, give or take,” said Andrew Vil­leneuve of the North­west Pro­gres­sive Insti­tute. The insti­tute com­mis­sioned a poll last month that showed Mur­ray up 10 points.

He ques­tions the method­ol­o­gy of the most recent polls, and says they’re timed to moti­vate Repub­li­cans to feel they’re on the cusp of victory.

“That is the strat­e­gy, it’s a self-ful­fill­ing prophe­cy. It’s all a psy­cho­log­i­cal game,” said Villeneuve.

The Repub­li­cans’ des­per­ate polling gam­bit was a fail­ure, and in no state are firms like Trafal­gar more of a laugh­ing­stock than here in Washington.

Mur­ray’s vic­to­ry ulti­mate­ly exceed­ed nine to twelve points, which came as no sur­prise to our team. We knew that those unde­cid­ed vot­ers had to go some­where, and we fig­ured there was a good chance they’d end up with Murray.

For today’s ret­ro­spec­tive, the NYT pub­lished a chart plot­ting what it dubbed “non­par­ti­san” polling on one line and Repub­li­can-fund­ed polling on anoth­er, show­ing that there was a sig­nif­i­cant diver­gence between the two.

I pre­sume that the New York Times chose to exclude NPI and our statewide poll­ster’s research because it is con­sid­ered “par­ti­san” by FiveThirtyEight.

How­ev­er, our work was just as cred­i­ble and accu­rate as the “non­par­ti­san” polls. Only the Repub­li­can-fund­ed polls were wild­ly off.

It’s a huge mis­take to judge the cred­i­bil­i­ty of a poll mere­ly by the ide­ol­o­gy (or lack there­of) of its spon­sor. Sup­pos­ed­ly “non­par­ti­san” poll­sters can get it wrong, while sub­jec­tive orga­ni­za­tions are per­fect­ly capa­ble of pro­duc­ing objec­tive research. It is essen­tial to under­stand that the Repub­li­can-fund­ed polls were not bad mere­ly because they were pro­duced by Repub­li­cans; they were bad because the firms that were putting them out weren’t fol­low­ing the sci­en­tif­ic method.

It can be very dif­fi­cult to dis­cern which polls are cred­i­ble and which are not, which is pre­cise­ly why peo­ple turn to aggre­ga­tors like FiveThirtyEight.

And, to be fair, FiveThir­tyEight does grade poll­sters based on their per­for­mance. It just has­n’t devel­oped a good mech­a­nism for screen­ing garbage data out of its index, par­tic­u­lar­ly from out­fits like Trafal­gar that have pre­vi­ous­ly obtained “A” grades, but have no loy­al­ty to the sci­en­tif­ic method. FiveThir­tyEight’s fail­ure to respond in real time to Repub­li­cans’ data pol­lu­tion prac­tices is grave­ly concerning.

For the 2024 cycle, FiveThir­tyEight and oth­ers need a bet­ter sys­tem in place for vet­ting polls and decid­ing what mer­its inclu­sion. Per­haps out­liers and prob­lem­at­ic polls can be hid­den from the default view, but avail­able in an expand­ed view. Such a prac­tice could help elim­i­nate right wing firms’ temp­ta­tion to cheat, which would be good for every­body, but espe­cial­ly help­ful to poll-attuned reporters.

About the author

Andrew Villeneuve is the founder and executive director of the Northwest Progressive Institute, as well as the founder of NPI's sibling, the Northwest Progressive Foundation. He has worked to advance progressive causes for over two decades as a strategist, speaker, author, and organizer. Andrew is also a cybersecurity expert, a veteran facilitator, a delegate to the Washington State Democratic Central Committee, and a member of the Climate Reality Leadership Corps.

Adjacent posts