Polls are one of the most fickle political indicators there ever could be with large margins for error and the ever-present possibility of bias. But when they swing against one party or the other, there is an inevitable feeling of depression that hits the party along with all the speculation that the end is near. The latest poll shows that the Democratic party has reached a 30 year low in its approval ratings and that President Obama’s ratings are only 40 percent, his lowest ever. With the midterm elections only a short time away, this seems like a prophecy of doom for Democratic hopefuls. But despite all the gloom, the Democrats are not done for quite yet.
Consummate pollster Nate Silver took time out to explain just how treacherous polls really are. As befits his expertise, the explanation was long and somewhat hard to follow for those not fluent in political mathematics, but the essence of the message is clear. Nothing is as it seems. Silver started out talking about how close the upcoming elections really were and how slim the margin could be for either a Democratic or Republican victory. In the area of poll bias, all outcomes seem to be skewed, even those that claim to “unskew” the results. The complaining about poll bias that Democrats currently have done is as meaningless as the polls themselves. Real outcomes are difficult to predict because real people are not as consistent as numbers are. People can change their minds in an instant.
Silver is correct in saying that poll bias changes, often flipping from one side to the other in subsequent elections. But that kind of thing cannot be measured until after all the results are in. Solving for bias is much like the math problem 39 + X = 87. The outcome of the poll (92) is known and the outcome of the election (87) is known, but without those two pieces of information X cannot be found. For the mathematically inclined, right now the equation looks like this: 39 + X = Y. Without that key Y factor, no one can really say how biased the current polls are.
The 39 number, however, is important. Right now, only 39 percent of people like the Democratic party. That is the lowest number in 30 years, meaning since 1984. Back then, Reagan was still a popular president and the political climate was far different than it is now. The two are very hard to compare. It is easier, however, to focus on the uncertain future where anything can happen and it is one of the only things preventing people from saying that the Democrats are done for.
That notion of uncertainty is what is keeping some Democrats positive. The Atlantic ran a story trying to dispel the gloom by showing how close the margin is between Democrats and losing control of the Senate. Despite changes in who gets funded and what races receive the most attention, the story attributed that to realism rather than pessimism. In that view, everything happening now has happened before. In fact, the Democrats and President Obama are in about the same position that Bush was in back in 2006 when he, too, had been in office for six years. That is not great news, especially since the Republicans received a shellacking in 2006. But despite the precedents and the difficulties Democrats face, things are still close and that is good news.
While The Atlantic’s “it could be worse” message is hardly any real comfort, some are declaring that Democrats are actually seeing their best era yet. Bloomberg ran an article telling people not to feel sorry for the Democratic Party despite the grim outlook. Democrats have been instrumental in providing better healthcare and changing how white privilege works. In fact, this time period will probably become known as the “Obama Era.” Somehow, getting an era of history named after oneself is supposed to make everyone feel better about losing.
Despite the fact that history does not care who wins or loses this election, other people do, especially those who are running for office. There are not a lot of Democrats who feel good about how things stand at the moment. A 39 percent approval rating may not be the death knell for the Democratic party, but it is a depressing fact. Still, the election does not look to be a complete wipe-out right now. Many races are being hotly contested and hardfought. That is because there is hope left and while there is some hope, the Democrats are not done for yet in this election.
Opinion By Lydia Bradbury