Polling place
Credit: Phil Roeder/Flickr

I wrote a brief piece over the weekend warning that indications that we’ll have unusually high turnout in the midterm elections do not necessarily portend a good night for the Democrats. And some of the commentary I received was instructive.

“Stop the Chicken Littling already. If early signs look bad obviously that’s bad. But now even when they look good it still must be bad. All of these posts predicting doom really do no good.”

“Do you ever see a post like this on a conservative site? Nope. They don’t help anyone.”

“Thanks. I was looking for something to turn this day into another day of dread. I needed to feel that sinking feeling on Sunday, just like every other day. Jesus, man.”

“This constant state of doom, gloom and despair is the thing that most exasperates me about Democrats. People don’t vote if they think their vote won’t make a difference. Convince them that nothing will ever get better and you’re convincing them to stay home. So snap out of it! There’s a reason Republicans spend so much time trying to purge voters from the rolls…High turnout is great news for Democrats, and this looks like a banner year.”

You’ll notice a couple of people simply rejected my analysis, insisting that high turnout is necessarily good for the Democrats. Analysts are familiar with this kind of non-responsive response, and that’s not what I think is interesting here.

What I want to focus on is how these responses work on the emotions of the analyst. This is criticism and it’s somewhat harsh. I’m not helping the cause. I’m making things worse. I represent a fatal flaw of the left. I’m discouraging people and creating apathy.

People generally want to be liked, and if not liked then at least respected. Writers and analysts generally want to be read and to give their audience something that pleases them and makes them want to come back. Hopefully, you can see how a simple reward/punishment calculus could lead me to be gun-shy about giving out any kind of warnings to my audience in the future.

This is how a group delusion gets created. When an audience demands good news, that audience gets more of what they want and less of what they don’t want.

It’s a cruel thing for analysts because they’ll hammer me today for telling them to temper their optimism and get to work, but they’ll blast all the rose-colored analysts later if Election Day doesn’t go as well as they predicted it would.

They tell themselves that they want to get good predictive value, but they then stray from that and ascribe to the analyst the power to actually influence that which they analyze. My job suddenly isn’t to tell them where things stand and where they might be headed, but to avoid sowing discouragement and apathy.

In this particular piece, I am at least sharing that latter conceit to the extent that I’m telling people it’s not too late to make a difference. Obviously, I am hoping that some people will be spurred to action and that this will improve the end result. I’m not selling resignation and am actively railing against those who spend elections as spectators and then put all their energy into being critics.

But I’m still wearing an analyst’s hat rather than the hat of a cheerleader.

What I did on Sunday is only what they could have read on Monday. I explained that high turnout typically favors the Democrats because they have a higher percentage of low-propensity voters, but that this year things might not work out that way for a couple of reasons. First, the president’s party typically does poorly in midterm elections because they’re less motivated to vote. Therefore, if things are going well for the opposition, we should expect a lot of the majority party’s voters to stay home. If they don’t, the typical enthusiasm advantage disappears.  Second, for a true wave to develop, we need this effect to be very pronounced in Trump-supporting states and districts, but if we’re getting something close to presidential turnout, then the red areas will be won by red candidates and the blue areas will be won by blue candidates. That should be enough to win the Democrats the House, but not by blowout margins. And it would probably doom some Democratic candidates for Senate running for reelection in states Trump carried by huge margins.

This is a warning that high turnout will not automatically translate to a good night for the left when the numbers come in, but it isn’t all doom and gloom.  It’s part dispassionate analysis and part argument against overconfidence and complacency. If that’s a fatal flaw on my part, so be it.

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Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at ProgressPond.com