The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Biggest loser of the midterm elections? The media.

Michigan Democrats at an after-party following Tuesday's midterm elections in Detroit. (Nick Hagen for The Washington Post)

We don’t yet know precisely who won the 2022 midterms, but we certainly know who lost.

I’m sorry to say that my colleagues in the political press blew it.

The headlines coming into Tuesday’s elections almost uniformly predicted a Democratic wipeout. Here’s just a small sampling:

The bottom is dropping out of the 2022 election for Democrats

Democrats, on Defense in Blue States, Brace for a Red Wave in the House

Red tsunami watch

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The Republican wave is building fast

Democrats fear midterm drubbing as party leaders rush to defend blue seats

Why the midterms are going to be great for Donald Trump

Breaking down the GOP’s midterm momentum

Democrats confront their nightmare scenario on election eve as economic concerns overshadow abortion and democracy worries

I pulled those from The Post, the New York Times, CNN, Axios and Politico — but the rest of the news media called it much the same.

I was baffled. What were they seeing that I and, more important, the Democratic operatives I spoke to weren’t seeing? Back in mid-August, I wrote a column titled “Why that red wave might end up a ripple.” I noted that Democrats had pulled even on the “generic ballot” — which party voters prefer for Congress — at a time in the cycle when the incumbent president’s party is almost always losing ground. Democrats’ standing receded slightly since then, but the contests remained extremely tight. The races were stable, both in public polling and in the private polling I had seen.

So what happened? Political journalists were suckered by a wave of Republican junk polls in the closing weeks of the campaign. They were also swayed by some reputable polling organizations that, burned by past failures to capture MAGA voters, overweighted their polls to account for that in ways that simply didn’t make sense. And reporters fell for Republican feints and misdirection, as Republican operatives successfully created an artificial sense of momentum by talking about how they were spending money in reliably blue areas.

An extraordinary profusion of bad partisan polling flooded the media late in the campaign, coming from GOP outfits such as Trafalgar (which had Blake Masters over Mark Kelly in the Arizona Senate race, Don Bolduc over Maggie Hassan in the New Hampshire Senate race, among others) and Rasmussen (which gave Republicans a five point edge in the generic ballot).

It was telling that Republican campaigns didn’t release their own polls to confirm the dubious results Trafalgar and Rasmussen were producing. Still, such polling helped skew handicapping websites. RealClearPolitics, for example, moved Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) into “toss-up” status in the closing days of his reelection bid. Bennet beat his Republican opponent by double digits.

A couple of reputable polls also came up with some suspicious conclusions. Three weeks ago, a New York Times-Siena College poll caused a news media sensation when it found Republicans with a four point advantage in the generic ballot. (A Monmouth University poll found a similar GOP advantage.) But the Siena poll showed that women were evenly split between Democrats and Republicans, at 47-47. Had the gender gap disappeared entirely for the first time in modern history? Or was there something screwy with the weighting?

Even though early voting figures were astronomical, Gallup asserted days before the election that “Americans are also markedly less enthusiastic about voting in this year’s elections than they were in 2018.” (The 2022 turnout was exceptionally high.) Gallup also predicted that the “political environment … should work to the benefit of the Republican Party.”

The news media took the faulty assumption that Republicans would enjoy a red wave and plugged in explanations for the imagined outcome. Democrats blew it because they spoke too much about abortion and democracy, and too little about the economy and crime. (In fact, crime and the economy figured prominently in many Democratic campaigns.)

“Did Democrats place a losing bet on abortion?” CNN asked.

Fox News trumpeted: “Biden ridiculed for ‘despicable’ speech on ‘threat’ to democracy: ‘What delusion looks like.’ ”

Many outlets asserted that “Democrats are losing Latino voters,” as NPR put it.

And some Democrats started a premature circular firing squad, providing the media with quotes to justify the false narratives. “I think we’re going to have a bad night,” Hilary Rosen said Sunday on CNN. “When voters tell you over and over again that they care mostly about the economy, listen to them. Stop talking about democracy being at stake.”

The day before the election, Bloomberg News went with this headline: “Inflation-Focused Voters Defy Biden’s Bid to Change the Subject.”

On Wednesday morning, that same writer tweeted a bit of a corrective: “Biden, despite his low approval rating and relative absence on the campaign trail, will likely be able to claim best midterm performance for an incumbent president’s party in 20 years.”

The 2022 Midterm Elections

Georgia runoff election: Sen. Raphael G. Warnock (D) won re-election in the Georgia Senate runoff, defeating Republican challenger Herschel Walker and giving Democrats a 51st seat in the Senate for the 118th Congress. Get live updates here and runoff results by county.

Divided government: Republicans narrowly won back control of the House, while Democrats will keep control of the Senate, creating a split Congress.

What the results mean for 2024: A Republican Party red wave seems to be a ripple after Republicans fell short in the Senate and narrowly won control in the House. Donald Trump announced his 2024 presidential campaign shortly after the midterms. Here are the top 10 2024 presidential candidates for the Republicans and Democrats.

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