Why the Media Cried (Red) Wolf

Journalists are puzzled as to why a predicted “red wave” (a Republican resurgence) did not materialize in the 2022 midterm elections. The signals that the red wave would fail to form were clear. The failure of journalists to foresee the success of Democratic candidates was caused by their inability to discern the good polls from the bad.

Established, media- and college-branded polls performed historically well in this cycle. They provided all the data necessary to foresee that a red wave would not emerge.

So why was there such a widespread view that the Republicans would have a big night?

The answer is that journalists have become indiscriminate in their polling coverage. Conservative-leaning pollsters released a flood of poor-quality polls in the last two weeks before the election. These polls pointed to a brewing red tsunami, and the media covered them with little, if any, due diligence.

I have had conversations with long-time pollsters who, through rolled eyes, tell me they think some of these pollsters are simply making up their numbers. In this cycle, pollsters obtained cross-tabulations from a Trafalgar poll that indicated that almost two-thirds of Gen Z Voters would vote for a MAGA candidate in Georgia (when one-third would have represented a historic swing). Yet, respected journalists widely reported the results of this very same poll.

Trafalgar’s 2022 polls were demonstrably inaccurate. Trafalgar released 19 statewide polls in the week preceding the election. These polls chose the correct winner in just 11 of these polls. Just seven were within their margin of error, and Trafalgar’s mean polling error is likely to end up being more than double the mean polling error of “name-brand” pollsters.

It is understandable that right-leaning media are interested in these polls, as they provide a hopeful, confirmatory message their audience wants to hear. Since reputable polls have erred in a liberal direction in the past few cycles, there is a sense that we cannot trust them anymore.

Journalists ignored that polls have always fluctuated between missing in a liberal or conservative direction. Because polls have been off in a liberal direction in the past two presidential elections, journalists have assumed a liberal bias is here to stay. In 2022, this proved to be incorrect.

It isn’t just the media that provide oxygen to these polls. Poll aggregators (particularly RealClearPolitics) had a horrible cycle because they were indiscriminate in which polls were included in their averages. Predictive modelers (such as FiveThirtyEight) had a solid night that could have been tremendous if they could get out of a mentality that every poll has something of value to contribute to their models.

Reporting on polls with suspect methods is simply bad journalism. Trusted journalists would never release a story without considerable fact-checking of their sources. Yet, they continue to cover polls that are not transparent, have poor track records, have no defensible methodology, and are shunned by the polling establishment.  

This is journalistic malpractice, and the result can be dire. When the election results do not match expectations set by the polls, an environment is fostered where election denialism thrives. January 6th happened partly because the partisan polls the protesters focused on had Donald Trump winning the election, and good journalists fueled this mentality by reporting on these polls. They provided these polls with a legitimacy they did not deserve.

Statistical laws imply that we cannot know in advance which polls will be correct in any given election. But we know which ones meet industry standards for methodology and disclosure and that, in the long term, have been proven to get it right far more often than they get it wrong.

It is no secret that pollsters face technological headwinds, but their occasional misses are not for lack of trying. After each election, pollsters convene, share findings, and discuss how to improve polls for the next election. In this sense, polling is one of the most honest professions.

Do you know who is missing from these conversations and not contributing to this honesty? The conservative-leaning pollsters.

My advice to journalists is this: stick to credible polls and stop giving every poll a voice. Rely more on the pollsters themselves for editorial decisions on what goes in the polls and the interpretations of their results. Stop creating the news by being too involved in the content of polls and return to doing what you do best: report on poll findings and provide context.

Above all, fact-check the polls like you would any other source.

0 Responses to “Why the Media Cried (Red) Wolf”



  1. Leave a Comment

Have a thought on this? Leave a reply!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.




Visit the Crux Research Website www.cruxresearch.com

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.


%d bloggers like this: