As Americans wake up to a divided Congress, pollsters breathe a sigh of relief

The morning after the midterms, journalists are working through the complicated picture that emerged from yesterday’s elections. With Democrats gaining in some states and Republicans in others, the results defied easy generalization. As Cook Political Report National Editor and sometime WNYC host Amy Walter tweeted, the midterms have turned out to be a “choose your own narrative” election.

Pollsters, by contrast, are breathing a big sigh of relief that they aren’t the story this morning. As forecast, Democrats took the House and Republicans held the Senate, with no overall, 2016-style election-night surprise. Nor did any single high-profile race go in a wildly unexpected direction. It was, CNN data whizz Harry Enten said, “a very good night for polling.”

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While voters expect polls to do their job (and only tend to notice when they don’t), polling is, by nature, an inexact and devilishly complicated science—bogged down in margins of error, sampling issues, and other statistical knots that few fully understand and no one has quite mastered. Predicting a presidential race is hard enough. On midterm election nights, with public focus spread more evenly across the ballot, it involves weighing hundreds of races in different parts of the country, each shaped by their own issues, demographics, and trends.

The idea that polling “broke” in 2016 is a misconception: Last night, FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver re-upped an article he wrote in May explaining that presidential polls were about as accurate that year as at any time since 1972. The much bigger issue was how the media communicated routine uncertainty to the public. Equivocal numbers were misleadingly cast as percentage probabilities that made Hillary Clinton look all but certain to win the White House. Since then, many news outlets have made admirable efforts to improve how they contextualize and caveat their predictions. The New York Times published live polls in collaboration with Siena College in the run-up to the midterms, and was more cautious with its infamous election-night needle. Despite some technical glitches on the night, the Times’s Nate Cohn tweeted that it had been “a great night for our polls.”

As Enten told his CNN colleague Brian Stelter on Sunday, “The way that the public generally views whether or not polling is accurate is whether or not it gets the results of the election right.” As should be expected, a few important calls did prove off yesterday. In Florida, notably, Democratic gubernatorial hope Andrew Gillum lost to Republican Ron DeSantis despite late polls showing he would eke out a win (polls also predicted a victory for Florida’s Democratic Senator Bill Nelson, who, as of this morning, is a hair’s breadth behind challenger Rick Scott).

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Most mistakes, however, were well within the margin of error. As Silver tweeted, polls called the large majority of the 506 House, Senate, and governors’ races, and all-but-nailed the overall direction of Congress. By that measure, at least, polling got a big credibility boost last night—even if that boost merely means no one is cursing them this morning.

Below, more on the midterms:

  • A mixed day at Fox: At 9:33pm yesterday, with uncertainty still swirling in most newsrooms, Fox News became the first outlet to call the House for the Democrats. The early call was a win for the network after (another) day of controversy dogged star host Sean Hannity, this time over his totally, definitely “NOT planned” stump speech for the president on Monday night. Fox called Hannity’s appearance an “unfortunate distraction” and several staffers were left furious, CNN’s Oliver Darcy reports. Interestingly, Hannity did not feature in Fox’s midterms coverage last night.
  • Hurd mentality: The AP called Texas’s 23rd Congressional District for Republican Will Hurd (who had himself declared victory), then dramatically uncalled it as Democratic challenger Gina Ortiz Jones unexpectedly gained ground. Ortiz Jones briefly nudged ahead of Hurd, though it looks now like Hurd ultimately won the race.
  • Two more years…: Hard-right Iowa Congressman Steve King’s campaign banned the Des Moines Register from its election-night event yesterday, calling the paper “leftist propaganda.” HuffPost’s Christopher Mathias, who has called King a “white supremacist,” later tweeted that he’d been kicked out of the event, too, and reported that the Storm Lake Times, a tiny local paper which won a Pulitzer in 2017, had also been barred. King won his race.
  • An expanded franchise: A potentially seismic story emerged from the horse-race coverage last night as Floridians approved a ballot measure to return voting rights to many former felons, enfranchising roughly 1.5 million new voters, about a third of whom are black. The move could have seismic consequences in the swing state.
  • Electionland: CJR’s Alexandria Neason checked in yesterday with ProPublica’s Electionland project, which monitored potential voter disenfranchisement nationwide and fed tips to local reporters.
  • “The road not taken”: In an interesting Twitter thread, NYU journalism Professor Jay Rosen laid out how the press might have covered the midterms campaign differently by focusing on what voters wanted their candidates to talk about.
  • Presidential presser: Donald Trump will hold a post-election press conference at 11:30 Eastern.


Other notable stories:

  • In a report published Monday, Facebook admitted that it did too little to stop the spread of hate in Myanmar. The platform has been blamed for exacerbating bloodshed in the country, particularly against the persecuted Rohingya minority.
  • The Times’s David Streitfeld summarizes reaction to Amazon’s reported plans to split its new headquarters between New York and Arlington, Virginia, following a much-hyped nationwide selection process. Critics called the move a bait and switch, but Amazon probably won’t care, Streitfeld writes. “Amid the guessing game, the company got information from dozens of cities about how much they would pay for a strong Amazon presence, valuable data that it will no doubt use to expand.”
  • Also in the Times, Carlotta Gall contrasts Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s advocacy for Jamal Khashoggi—the Saudi dissident journalist murdered at his country’s consulate in Istanbul last month—with his brutal crackdown on dissent domestically. The Khashoggi case has presented “a special quandary” for reporters in Turkey, Gall writes. “None of the journalists’ unions issued statements of support when Mr. Khashoggi disappeared, and they are notably absent from the vigils held outside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul.”
  • “On its own, the meaning of the word objectivity is fairly straightforward, demonstrating a lack of bias or prejudice. But when paired with journalism, it becomes a matter of priority: the selection of what’s worthy of coverage and whose stories are valuable. Setting priorities requires gatekeepers, and in the field of journalism, gatekeepers were—and still are—disproportionately white men,” writes Rebecca Carroll for CJR’s new print issue on race and journalism.
  • And if you want to see Russell Crowe on set as Roger Ailes, click here.

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist. He writes CJR's newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.