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Tipsheet

Democrats Are Worried That They're Leading in These Battleground States

AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, File

This Tuesday marks the official end of the 2022 midterm primary season with races across the country set for November's general election. But, even as Democrats spent a week or more spinning a "there's no red wave coming" message to try and tout their strength and popularity among voters, the party of President Biden is quietly fretting that their candidates are...in the lead?

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Those worries are, evidently, based on polls showing Democrat midterm candidates up over GOP opponents in place where polls showed Hillary Clinton leading against Trump in 2016 — and we all know how that turned out — as well as in places surveys incorrectly showed Biden running up leads in places he wasn't actually winning.

In something of an attempt to tamp down hopes among Democrats from The New York Times, Chief Political Analyst Nate Cohn admonishes that "the polling warning signs are flashing again." Cohn explains how he found "a consistent link between Democratic strength today and polling error two years ago."

Wisconsin is a good example. On paper, the Republican senator Ron Johnson ought to be favored to win re-election. The FiveThirtyEight fundamentals index, for instance, makes him a two-point favorite. Instead, the polls have exceeded the wildest expectations of Democrats. The state’s gold-standard Marquette Law School survey even showed the Democrat Mandela Barnes leading Mr. Johnson by seven percentage points.

But in this case, good for Wisconsin Democrats might be too good to be true. The state was ground zero for survey error in 2020, when pre-election polls proved to be too good to be true for Mr. Biden. In the end, the polls overestimated Mr. Biden by about eight percentage points. Eerily enough, Mr. Barnes is faring better than expected by a similar margin.

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The Wisconsin data is just one example of a broader pattern across the battlegrounds: The more the polls overestimated Mr. Biden last time, the better Democrats seem to be doing relative to expectations. And conversely, Democrats are posting less impressive numbers in some of the states where the polls were fairly accurate two years ago, like Georgia.

So Democrats are doing well in states where polling has proven woefully inaccurate in years past, and not doing well in states where polling has been more accurate — hence the handwringing from Dems thinking they might be looking down the barrel of more overconfidence leading to supposedly "stunning" defeats on election night. 

"If the polls are wrong yet again, it will not be hard to explain," Cohn continues. That's because "[m]ost pollsters haven’t made significant methodological changes since the last election." 

So, if Midterm 2022 polls are as off-base as they were in 2020, what do Senate battlegrounds really look like? According to Cohn, when accounting for the errors in the last presidential election cycle, "apparent Democratic edge in Senate races in Wisconsin, North Carolina and Ohio would evaporate." That means the GOP would only need to win two of the seats up for grabs in Pennsylvania, Georgia, Arizona, or Nevada in order to retake control of the Senate.

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