Every election has its holdouts who predict polling and conventional wisdom leading up to the big vote is way off. This year, the optimism caucus has to work overtime for Democrats.
With less than a week to go until Election Day, most Democrats are bracing for potentially huge defeats — including losing one or both chambers of Congress — but some in the party aren’t willing to concede anything just yet.
“I don’t believe the GOP is headed for any kind of a wave,” said Angelo Cocchiaro, a Democratic Party activist based in Virginia. “The polls show tight races nationwide. I’m expecting Dems [to] pick up a few seats in the Senate, and in the House,” he added. “A historically close result.”
What if, some Democrats are whispering, liberals are right about abortion rights being vastly underrepresented as a motivating factor for voters? What if the drop in gas prices goes a long way in swing states? What if there’s record-setting turnout? What if Democrats’ warnings about the fragility of democracy work in their favor?
And what if, as President Biden preached from the Democratic National Committee last week, the polls he described as “all over the place” offer a surprise ending: “one more shift: Democrats ahead.”
These are the variables that keep some liberals hopeful with days to go.
Early voting is one of Democrats’ strongest indications that things could go their way in some places. The party’s turnout model was based for years, including in 2018, on convincing voters to show up on Tuesday each cycle. But that’s notably changed.
This year, campaigns and party operatives have invested heavily into persuading people to vote before Nov. 8 — a tactical shift that some Democratic strategists say has already worked in their favor.
“We rebuilt our politics this cycle. We were never an early-vote party. We were an Election Day party,” said Simon Rosenberg, a veteran Democratic consultant. “And now, this cycle, we have massive early-vote field operations all over the country. We’ve never done that before.”
The shift in approach has prompted some Democrats and election forecasters to caution against the so-called “red wave” narrative that has caught on in the last stretch of the midterms.
“When you get a big early vote, you get more turnout for your voters,” Rosenberg said. “The Republicans’ decision to not promote early vote was a mistake. Our embrace of the early vote gives us an advantage.”
A voting tracker on Thursday said that more than 32 million ballots have already been cast across the country.
Some also point to Democrats’ fundraising advantages in certain races. In New Hampshire, for example, Sen. Maggie Hassan (D) has massively outraised her GOP rival, retired Gen. Don Bolduc, according to the latest filings with the Federal Election Commission, allowing her to keep flooding the airwaves in the small but consequential state. Bolduc, meanwhile, has received renewed financial support from aligned Republican groups.
“Putting money into campaigns is better than relying on outside groups,” Rosenberg said. “You have stronger campaigns, stronger Election Day turnout.”
At this point, however, bullish Democrats are definitely going against the grain.
Biden’s job approval has been consistently low, hovering in the mid-40s, prompting nervous candidates to keep their distance from him on the campaign trail.
Americans are keenly focused on the economy and feeling the pinch from inflation, forcing candidates to answer about their party’s part in it.
And many voters simply say the country is headed on the wrong track.
History is also not on the party’s side. Many Democrats have been depressed about what they expect to be poor prospects in the House, warning about defeats in redrawn districts and battlegrounds where they see Republicans gaining ground on issues such as crime and immigration, and in areas where voters prefer the GOP’s handling of the economy.
“We’re going to beat expectations,” said Joe Caiazzo, a Democratic campaign strategist. “Hold [the] Senate, do well in governor races,” he said.
The House, however, is “a different story,” he conceded.
The Senate map has also started to concern the party in power. In several swing states, liberals who once cheered as waves of bad press washed over their opponents have become more cautious and muted in their enthusiasm.
In Wisconsin, progressives saw their nominee, Mandela Barnes, running close against Sen. Ron Johnson (R) for months, only to have him lag after being hit repeatedly on crime.
In Georgia, Democrats were hopeful Sen. Raphael Warnock (D) would benefit from the bombshell reports that his opponent, anti-abortion football legend Herschel Walker, had previously encouraged and paid for abortions. But with many voters still undecided, it’s unclear what impact it will have on the race.
And in Arizona, Republicans got a pleasant surprise when a marginal libertarian candidate dropped out and endorsed Blake Masters, the GOP nominee, over Sen. Mark Kelly (D).
Of course, if the polls are wrong, they could just as easily be wrong in the opposite direction, actually underestimating the size of an eventual red wave.
GOP election experts have pointed to former President Trump’s surprise victory in 2016 and President Biden’s narrow win in 2020 as evidence that Trump supporters and GOP voters can be underestimated in surveys.
With so many unknowns, some Democrats are asking voters to ignore polls that can be wrong or subject to a multitude of errors, and instead just to simply show up at the ballot box.
“Stop worrying about polls,” tweeted Christina Reynolds, the vice president of communications at EMILY’s List. “They are all based on guesses of turnout. So go get people to turn out. That’s how we win.”
Reynolds told The Hill it’s important to give voters perspective about the nature of polls and the narratives around them.
“I’m just reminding people that polls are all based on pollsters making assumptions,” she said. “So we can challenge the assumptions by turning out more of our people.”
Other Democrats have pointed to a rush of Republican-funded surveys this year, which can disproportionately skew aggregate averages when used alongside traditional independent polling outfits.
Both Democratic and Republican firms pour money into polling to provide voter data on key issues and constituencies. Individual candidates and campaigns also have their own pollsters to sample the public.
But Democrats have been warning that Republicans’ strategy to “flood the zone” with their own funded polls has created confusion about who’s winning, particularly in key Senate races that are hard to decipher.
“You can’t look at the polling averages anymore,” said Rosenberg, the Democratic consultant. “I believe this is a close election and that no one knows what’s going to happen. And I would still rather be us than them.”