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The Trailer: DeSantis beats Trump, Democrats bet on MAGA, and more lessons from the latest fundraising quarter

In this edition: Sifting through the latest fundraising numbers, previewing Maryland's big primary day, and talking to Democrats about whether Joe Biden should run again.

Powered by Old Bay every day, even when there's no election in Maryland, this is The Trailer.

When candidates have terrific fundraising news, they announce it as soon as the quarter is over. When they don’t, they hold onto the info for as long as they can — which means we learned a lot more about the April to June donation period after Friday, when the FEC's reporting deadline passed.

There were few disasters in the just-concluded quarter, no races where highly-regarded candidates flopped. The end of Roe v. Wade, leaked in early May, helped motivate Democrats to give to statewide candidates; ex-Rep. Beto O’Rourke, raised more than any candidate for governor ever had in Texas. And Donald Trump’s support helped nominate some Republicans whose fundraising was lagging, a story told most vividly by J.D. Vance in Ohio.

What else happened? Here are the highlights.

In targeted House districts, Republicans outraised Democrats. That trend has been building all cycle — donors are growing confident that their money will put the GOP back in control of the House, and the party’s online fundraising operation has made it incredibly easy to help.

The GOP’s increasing confidence about victory helped them everywhere. Both parties have preferred super PACs that can raise money with few limits. The Congressional Leadership Fund, which elects Republicans, raised $43.5 million; the House Majority PAC, which elects Democrats, raised less than half that, around $19.7 million. The HMP blundered in a safe seat last quarter, too, investing in Oregon’s 6th Congressional District on behalf of a candidate backed by a crypto billionaire’s PAC. He lost, local Democrats were furious, and Republicans kept raising money. 

Race by race, nothing was that lopsided. The most vulnerable House Democrats, the ones on the DCCC’s “Frontliners” list, raised an average of $1 million, which is where incumbents want to be in a cycle where nothing else seems to go right. The next tier of Democrats, “red to blue” candidates (mostly) running to flip Republican seats, raised a bit less than $600,000, on average. (The DCCC also outraised the NRCC, though the gap closed to around $6 million this quarter.)

Republicans lagged, but they have fewer incumbents to defend and more candidates they want to put on the radar. Six Republicans were outraised by Democrats this quarter — most in districts that stayed or got more competitive in redistricting, including California’s 22nd and 41st districts, New Mexico’s 2nd district and Ohio’s 1st district. But Republicans got good news in some places where Democrats aren’t used to competing. In northwest Indiana, Rep. Frank J. Mrvan (D-Ind.) was significantly outraised by GOP veteran Jennifer Ruth-Green, who instantly became the strongest Republican fundraiser ever in a working-class district drawn to elect a Democrat.

Democrat Pat Ryan also hit his mark in the year’s last competitive special election, in Upstate New York; he raised $1.1 million, while Republican Marcus Molinaro raised around $471,000. Molinaro had a head start, launching his campaign before New York’s Supreme Court threw out friendly Democratic maps, and before ex-Rep. Antonio Delgado left to become lieutenant governor, which set up the August special election — and our last test of partisan strength before the midterms.

Speaking of future elections: Donald Trump’s fundraising declined over the last six months, and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) outraised him. (The Post’s Isaac Stanley-Becker and Isaac Arnsdorf were first with that story.) This is cold comfort for Democrats, who are watching an ex-president pile up more money than the incumbent president, and who don’t necessarily want to run against DeSantis. 

But what does it mean for Republicans? Trump’s political groups raised $36 million from the start of January through the end of June. In the six months before that, they raised $51 million; in the previous six months, even after the initial reaction to the Jan. 6 insurrection halted some fundraising, the groups raised $57 million.

The dip allowed DeSantis, who faces reelection in November, to surpass Trump; $45 million went into his 2022 fund from January through June, when he punished Disney for opposing an anti-LGBT education law, and personally intervened to increase the number of House seats Republicans can win. DeSantis hasn't asked an audience to imagine him in the White House, yet, though Nikki Haley did so on Monday.)

Money is pouring in for (most) Senate Democrats. Be honest, reader: How much you do read about Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.)? She’s not one of the Democrats debating the party’s future on Sunday talk shows. She hasn’t used Twitter to dunk on Republican opponents. There are Democrats whose ads or impromptu speeches get liberals talking, and Hassan isn’t one of them.

None of that mattered. Hassan put up $5.1 million for the quarter, more than any New Hampshire candidate of either party had raised in that time period. Every Democratic incumbent outraised his or opponents, some of them dramatically so; none of Hassan’s challengers raised even $1 million from donors, padding their totals with self-financing.

The three Democratic senators who raised more than Hassan were Sen. Raphael G. Warnock (D-Ga.), who raised $17.2 million; Sen. Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.), with $13.5 million; and Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.), with $7.5 million.

Warnock and Kelly won 2020 special elections and kept their fundraising operations humming, Masto chaired the DSCC that cycle, and all three come from states where every recent election has been close. Every Democrat in the party’s top swing state targets — Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and North Carolina — crushed his or her Republican challenger. 

But the country’s bigger than just those states, and Republicans did fine where they need to expand the map. In Washington, Republican Tiffany Smiley once again matched Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), a former DSCC chair and Senate Budget chair in a state with lots of wealthy Democrats who keeps putting up mediocre numbers — a bit more than $2.6 million, and just $24,000 more than Smiley. In Connecticut, Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) raised $1.1 million for what’s usually an easy race; Republican recruit Themis Klarides raised a bit less than half that.

Democrats spent nearly $44 million to help far-right Republicans win primaries. It’s a controversial strategy — boosting candidates aligned with Trump in places where the former president is unpopular, while telling donors that a Republican win could outright end democracy.

“It’s a very dangerous game,” said Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.) in a recent interview, objecting to Democratic spending on behalf of his state’s Republican gubernatorial nominee, Darren Bailey. “In a very strong Republican year, it’s feasible for a Republican to win the governor's race and they're promoting a democracy denier.”

Indeed they did — in Illinois, Colorado, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Arizona, and at great expense. (Dario McCarty of OpenSecrets first did the math.) Most of the spending was focused on Illinois, where Gov. J.B. Pritzker, a billionaire who has put his own wealth into every campaign, worked with national Democrats to elevate Bailey. 

It worked there, and in Pennsylvania; we’ll find out soon how it played in Maryland and Arizona, where the candidates supported by the Republican establishment have fewer vulnerabilities than the losers in the Midwest. At the same time, anti-Trump Republicans are still outraising their opponents — that’s among the reasons that people like Kinzinger are so annoyed by Democratic meddling. 

Billionaire Ken Griffin, who bet and lost on the Illinois Republican gubernatorial primary — his candidate, Richard Irvin, tanked after the negative ads started — is the single biggest donor to a PAC supporting Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska.). Murkowksi herself raised $1.7 million for the quarter, while Trump-endorsed challenger Kelly Tshibaka raised less than $600,000. 

All of the House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump last year lapped their challengers, too. Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), despite trailing in polls, raised $2.9 million; Harriet Hageman, the pro-Trump attorney who rallied with the ex-president in May, raised $1.8 million. Rep. Peter Meijer (R-Mich.) raised $579,000, nearly three times the haul for ex-Trump administration official John Gibbs. 

In Washington, where The Trailer took you earlier this month, both impeachment-supporting incumbents had fine quarters, with Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler (R-Wash.) raising nearly $600,000 and Rep. Dan Newhouse raising more than $350,000. Like we wrote, both are limiting their in-person exposure to voters while shoveling money into TV, digital, and mail advertising. Hageman has become a cause celebre for MAGA donors, but the other challengers haven't. Will that matter? It hasn’t in other races this year.

Reading list

“Maryland Republicans love Trump and Hogan. Whose candidate will win Tuesday?” by Erin Cox

A MAGA-skeptical Republican tries to pick his successor.

“Voters of color are backing the GOP at historic levels,” by Harry Enten

The uniform, working-class shift away from the Democratic Party.

“Edwards, Ivey face off Tuesday after tense home stretch in Maryland primaries,” by Meagan Flynn

How big money transformed a safe-seat race in the D.C. suburbs.

“Unpredictable Maryland governor’s race pits old guard vs. upstarts,” by Reid J. Epstein

Democrats in disarray, even with a former DNC chair on the ballot.

“Maryland primary results may be delayed as mail-in votes are counted,” by Steve Thompson

Do you hate instant gratification? Do you love conspiracy theories about delayed ballot counts? We have good news.

Israel policy doesn’t matter to most voters. It’s dominating Democratic primaries anyway,” by Kevin Robillard and Daniel Marans

The AIPAC strategy and how it's working, from state to state.

“Pence endorsement in Ariz. governor’s race puts him at odds with Trump,” by Yvonne Wingett Sanchez and Hannah Knowles

Duel in the sun, 2022 (and maybe 2024).

“Why Democrats are begging Trump to start 2024 right now,” by Christopher Cadelago

It's a bipartisan tradition: Hoping that Donald Trump will hurt your opponents without becoming a problem for you.

"As Biden eyes 2024, one person weighs heavily: Trump," by Matt Viser

The potential rematch that at least two-thirds of the country doesn't want.

Primary day

Maryland is voting Tuesday, but election officials won't count all the votes until sometime later. Mail-in voting, while off its pandemic-era highs, has surged since 2018, and Maryland doesn't process those ballots before Election Day. 

That's added a little more uncertainty to the most competitive statewide primaries in years, with every state office up for grabs and intense intra-Democratic fights in the D.C. suburbs. Here are the top five races to watch.

Governor: Democrats started out this cycle confident that any nominee for governor would beat any successor to Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican whose popularity hasn't trickled down the ballot. The result: A nine-way race with no clear favorite, and a ballot in the words of Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), longer  than a CVS receipt.”

Four-term state comptroller Peter Franchot, who worked well with Hogan, has been attacked for not fighting for more Democratic priorities, like a proposed Baltimore rail extension killed by the governor. Wes Moore, a veteran who turned his memoir of growing up in Baltimore into a charity and an Oprah Winfrey-produced TV series, outraised the competition for his first-ever campaign. Ex-DNC chairman Tom Perez snagged endorsements from the Baltimore Sun and The Washington Post, and ran as a pragmatic liberal with executive experience. Former state attorney general Doug Gansler and former secretary of education John B. King Jr. have polled in the single digits, barely ahead of some gadfly candidates like the socialist academic Jerome Segal, who ran for Senate as a Democrat four years ago and as a Bread and Roses Party candidate for president in 2020. 

What does it say that two members of Barack Obama's cabinet, Perez and King, are in a dogfight with a first-time candidate? That the Democratic Party isn't the GOP. Former president Donald Trump's support for state Del. Dan Cox, who like him says that the 2020 election was stolen, has set up the year's umpteenth proxy battle for control of the Republican Party; Hogan has been campaigning for Kelly Schulz, who served in his cabinets until quitting to run, and polls competitively with any Democrat. The Democratic Governors Association has spent money to help Cox, believing that the far-right candidate would be a pushover for whoever they nominate.

Attorney General: Rep. Anthony G. Brown (D-Md.) and former state judge Katie Curran O'Malley don't disagree much on policy in their Democratic primary. They've known each other since 2005, when O'Malley's husband, former governor Martin O'Malley, picked Brown as his running mate. Both Brown and Katie O'Malley have run as liberals who want to codify abortion rights and fight gun crime, the elevator pitch for most Democratic attorney general candidates this year. Brown's outraised O'Malley, whose chief attack is that the congressman doesn't have her courtroom experience: “He’s never tried a criminal case in Maryland.” 

Brown would be the state's first Black attorney general, and O'Malley would be the first woman. Democrats have won every race for this office since the Eisenhower administration, and Republicans aren't in a great position to change that. Jim Shalleck, a former federal prosecutor who's campaigning to refocus the office on crime, has barely raised any money, and entered the primary's final weeks with less than $3,500 cash on hand. That left him with less to spend than Michael Peroutka, a one-time right-wing presidential candidate who endorses a “biblical worldview” for government. 

4th Congressional District: Prince George's County, where this district is anchored, is mostly Black, overwhelmingly Democratic, and is getting very used to battles for the party's soul. Donna F. Edwards, who in 2008 won this seat by ousting a pro-Iraq War Democrat, is now the latest left-leaning candidate to get buried by ads from the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee's political network. United Democracy, the AIPAC super PAC, spent nearly $6 million to hurt Edwards and boost Glenn Ivey, a former state's attorney who lost a 2016 primary for this seat, which Edwards had left for a doomed U.S. Senate run. There are seven other Democrats on the ballot, but it's a race between Edwards and Ivey.

6th Congressional District: Democrats redrew Maryland's western panhandle district 11 years ago to add more D.C. suburbs and make it hard for a Republican to win. It worked, but after Hogan's anti-gerrymandering battle with the legislature, Republicans have more of a shot to oust multimillionaire Rep. David Trone (D-Md.). Del. Neil Parrott, who lost to Trone last time, is running again, but 25-year old conservative political operative and reporter Matthew Foldi has kept pace with money and endorsements. Foldi's connections with Republicans have helped him win high-profile endorsements over Parrott.

Montgomery County Executive: More people live in this stretch of D.C. suburbs than live in Alaska, which made the 2018 victory of Democrat Marc Elrich a triumph for the party's left. With the support of groups like Democratic Socialists of America, Elrich eked out a primary win, then won a three-way general election with a would-be centrist spoiler. Four years and one pandemic later, businessman David Blair is staging a rematch of the 2018 primary, backed this time by a PAC with the tautological handle of Progressives for Progress, which has portrayed Elrich as a blundering liberal who's let crime rise and schools degrade in the name of equity. 

Ad watch

Moran for Kansas, “Biden's Failures.” It wasn't that long ago — we're talking June of last year — when Republicans rarely attacked the president in TV ads, instead going after Democrats like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), who were more unpopular with swing voters. Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.), who has no significant opposition in the Aug. 2 primary, spends most of this 30-second spot blaming President Biden for inflation that's “wrecking families,” and offers three policies to reverse the damage: More drilling, less spending, and finishing a U.S.-Mexico border wall.

Lucas Kunce for Missouri, “Ready to Serve.” Kunce, a veteran and first-time Democratic candidate, has raised more money than anybody else seeking this U.S. Senate seat — a former governor, an attorney general and two members of Congress running as Republicans, and a beer heiress running as a Democrat. Half of this ad introduces Kunce and the beats of his life story, and the rest warns that the country is in danger. “Our democracy, Roe v. Wade — it's all on the line and I'm still ready to serve.” Look for more framing like that in other races, as Democrats portray themselves as back-to-normal candidates running against radicals.

United Democracy Project, Donna F. Edwards Didn't Get It Done.” This AIPAC spinoff group has targeted safe Democratic seats where one candidate has suggested putting limits on America's support for Israel. That's never been the focus of its ads. This one uses some reporting on Edwards's failed 2016 U.S. Senate bid to describe her as the one of the “least effective” members of Congress, based on how few bills she passed.

Jim Lamon for Senate, “No Answers.”  In his quest for the GOP U.S. Senate nomination in Arizona, Lamon tried and failed to stop Trump from endorsing his opponent, Blake Masters, by citing MAGA-skeptical quotes from Masters' past. Here, Lamon, who's spent $14 million self-funding his own campaign, repurposes a clip from a debate with Masters where he challenged the candidate over blog posts he wrote when he was 19 — he's 35 now — with libertarian takes like “illegal immigration is an ethical contradiction in terms, with regards to nation-states.” Masters said onstage that he wouldn't “dignify” the question, which Lamon portrays as a non-answer.

Blake Masters for Senate, “INVASION!”  Masters' closing ads warn not just against illegal immigration, but portray it as a truly existential threat. Some special effects that look better than most of those used in “Thor: Love and Thunder” dramatize a mass border crossing, then a new section of fence cutting off the migrants' path slices through the ground, as drones zip around overhead. “President Trump endorsed me because he knows I'm going to secure this border,” he says, adding, “we're not going to have a country” if the flow doesn't stop.

Gretchen Whitmer for Governor, “We're Tougher. There are policymakers who warn that the pandemic isn't over, and that it may be time to restore some precautions like masking. But they don't make Democratic campaign ads. Whitmer's first reelection ad, dropping before a primary where she has no competition, talks about hard times in the past tense and says she “made it a priority to get kids back in class,” with no other reference to pandemic restrictions. 

Kevin Rinke for Governor, “Can't Trust Tudor.” What does it take for a Michigan Republican to attack the DeVos family? The west Michigan political dynasty is supporting conservative activist Tudor Dixon for governor, but Betsy DeVos quit as Secretary of Education after the Jan 6. insurrection — which Rinke, a self-funder who made a fortune in auto dealerships, recasts as “never-Trumper” behavior. Dixon's campaign has filed a complaint to halt the ad, which expands the definition of “never-Trumper” to include a Republican who didn't actually fund anti-Trump causes in 2016. 

Poll watch

“What candidate would you vote for if the 2022 Republican primary election for Wyoming's U.S. House seat were held today?” (Mason-Dixon, July 7-11, 1100 likely Republican primary voters)

Harriet Hageman: 52%
Liz Cheney: 30%
Undecided: 11%
Anthony Bouchard: 5%

Five of the 10 Republicans who voted to impeach Donald Trump last year have already lost their primaries or abandoned their re-election bids. None of them had electorates as hostile as Cheney's, or family names that resonated as much, for as long, in their districts. This is just the latest Wyoming poll to find Hageman, an attorney who Trump endorsed and rallied for, easily defeating Cheney in every part of the state. Hageman is weakest in Cheyenne's Laramie County, where she leads by just 13 points. That's a good study in Cheney's problems – she is stronger, but not winning, even liberal parts of the state, because her support from independents (29 percent) and Democrats (53 percent) is too weak to overcome the locked-in GOP vote against her.

“Would you like to see Joe Biden run for president again in 2024, or not? Would you like to see Donald Trump run for president again in 2024, or not?” (Fox News, July 10-13, 1003 registered voters)

Joe Biden
Yes: 27% (-5 since February)
No: 71% (+7)

Donald Trump
Yes: 37% (-3 since February)
No: 60% (+4)

Last week's New York Times poll consumed the political conversation, and elevated questions about the president's age that some outlets had been too sensitive to ask. That fixed a disconnect between the media and the public, which has always been skeptical about Biden running again; in the 2020 exit poll, 49 percent of voters said that Biden didn't have the mental and physical health to be president. 

Just 51 percent majority of Democrats wants Biden to run again, historically low. And there is history here, because the same question was asked about Ronald Reagan running again in 1982 – halfway through his term, accused of losing a step in old age – and two-thirds of Republicans stuck with Reagan. That's how much support Trump has from Republicans here, because his base has stayed more loyal than Biden's, including some of the voters who had supported Trump in 2020 but not 2016. (Twenty-two percent of Black voters want Trump to run again.) Not since 1978, when pollsters asked voters about a potential match-up between Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter, has there been this much dread about the next presidential election.

"If the general election for U.S. senator were held today, for whom would you vote?" (Iowa Poll, July 10-13, 597 likely Iowa voters)

Chuck Grassley (R): 47%
Mike Franken (D): 39%

National Democrats went into this cycle with low expectations in Iowa, and a consensus candidate who'd just lost re-election, ex-Rep. Abby Finkenauer. Franken, a retired Navy admiral who'd run against the national party's pick in 2022, ran right over Finkenauer, reintroducing himself on TV as a patriotic outsider with no voting record and no debts to the establishment. With some voters worried about Grassley's age – 89 in September – Franken ties Grassley with nonpartisan voters, and gets more support from Democrats than the senator gets from Republicans. Another part of the same poll puts Gov. Kim Reynolds decisively in the lead over Democrat Deirdre DeJear, doubling her advantage since March. 

“If the election for governor were held today, who would you vote for?” (University of Houston, June 27-July 7, 1169 registered Texas voters)

Greg Abbott (R): 47% (-1 since January)
Beto O'Rourke (D): 42% (-1)
Mark Tippetts (L): 2% (+2)

What's happened in Texas since January? Plenty. Did it impact the race for governor? Not really, no. The last edition of this poll found Republicans with single-digit leads in this year's major statewide races, and this edition finds the same – though the most engaged voters lean Republican. O'Rourke and his party's nominees for lieutenant governor and attorney general are equally competitive, with nearly identical coalitions, winning around a third of the White vote and a majority of the Latino vote. That's more support than the president gets in Texas. It's also less than O'Rourke got in 2018, when he led the ticket and lost narrowly to Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), carrying 64 percent of the Latino vote. Texas Democrats are resilient in the suburbs where they gained the most in the last four years, and weakest among the non-White voters they've been losing.

Dems in disarray

The public and private speculation about President Biden retiring after one term got louder last week. By Friday, it was deafening. Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.V.) had walked away from the umpteenth round of talks around the party's reconciliation package, its one chance to pass some of its priorities into law without Republican support. 

There are months to go before the midterms, and a lame duck session after that. But liberal and left-wing writers recognized that most of the party's 2020 agenda, starting with its climate strategy, was dead, and that the president had been beaten by Manchin. Jonathan Chait, one of the early optimists about the Democrats' legislative strategy, saw a weak president with no real policy legacy — “not Roosevelt-size, not Obama-size, nor even Clinton-size.” Writers who had been more critical of Biden said it was time to move on.

“Time for Biden to recognize he’s a one-term president,” wrote the climate author and activist Bill McKibben, after Manchin's announcement. “He is obviously too tired to really fight for whatever he deeply believes — a series of fine one-off speeches are not all that useful.”

That's the conversation between liberals right now, echoed by polling — see above — that shows even Democrats are wary about another Biden run. And that's led to a cryptic public conversation, in which Democrats who believe the party should be approaching everything differently must say that Biden is the likely 2024 nominee.

“I'm very proud of President Biden. I'm deeply supportive of President Biden. This is not about President Biden,” said California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) to reporters last week, after accepting an education innovation award and using the forum to go after Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R). Pressed again on Biden, Newsom said he'd support the president in a “nanosecond.”

Newsom, who spent a few days in D.C., used his spotlight to encourage more fight from Democrats — to defend the pluralism, race consciousness, and classroom lessons and displays about LGBTQ issues, that was being rolled back. But Biden's collapse in polls happened at the same time that liberals were getting nervous about the pluralism agenda, and as Republicans grew confident that non-White working class voters would reject it. 

The American Federation of Teachers, which reelected Randi Weingarten as its president last weekend, was trying to work through that. Before its Boston convention started, the AFT released polling that found Republicans with a 1-point advantage on education, nearly unheard of in national polls. The union's take was that Democrats needed to fight back against conservative policymakers, portraying the opponents of “critical race theory” and “gender affirmation” as culture warriors who would make education worse.

But the polling didn't have great news for Biden's party. A few questions summarized DeSantis's education agenda to test how popular it was in swing states. By 33 points, voters were unhappy with how race was taught; by 35 points, they opposed how sexual orientation was taught. Asked if they would support candidates who wanted less teaching about race in schools, or who'd ban teaching gender identity to children in elementary school, a supermajority of voters said yes.

“There are so many people who think we're teaching about sex and sexual identity because Democrats haven't said no, that's not what schools are about,” Weingarten said in an interview. “These folks don't want to talk about how to stop gun violence, so they're going to try to talk about something that creates discomfort for people. It's an old time political tactic. That's why we call it the culture wars.”

In this climate, should Biden run again? Weingarten had a lengthy answer, starting with how “this country has faced so many problems over the past two years” and how Biden was “trying to do everything he can to help everyone thrive in America.” Democrats were losing arguments, she said, but that was not the president's fault.

“I don't think there's anyone right now who could have done a better job than Joe Biden in these circumstances,” said Weingarten. “And I hope he runs again.”

Hannah Knowles contributed reporting.


The last six years have been rough on pollsters. In 2008 and 2012, voters learned to track elections by tracking the polls, loading and reloading aggregators like FiveThirtyEight to inform — and, if they were Democrats, to calm — their restless minds. In 2016, the same voters confidently got the presidential election wrong. In 2020, they got it wrong again, and the rot spread down to private pollsters, the ones campaigns pay tens of thousands of dollars for, who overrated support for Democrats and underrated support for Republicans.

G. Elliott Morris, a data journalist at The Economist and founder of its own election forecast, wrote “Strength in Numbers” in the wake of those failures. The short, convincing read starts with the experiments the ancient Greeks made to capture public opinion, and studies the golden ages of polling (when people picked up their phones) as much as it studies the dark ages (where we are right now). This is an edited transcript of his conversation with The Trailer.

The Trailer: Can we start with The Washington Post? You write in here about our October 2020 poll of Wisconsin, which put Biden up by 17 points. Democrats at the time said that was wrong. It’s 2022 and I still meet Republicans who cite this as proof that the media can’t poll. So, what happened?

G. Elliott Morris: It was an outlier. The poll released right after didn't show a 17-point lead, and the poll released right before didn’t show a 17-point lead. It's encapsulates the big problem with polling now, compared to polling 20 years ago. There are more factors that push polls off-course now, primarily because response rates are lower. If you have fewer people responding to your poll then there's a higher chance for error, because those people are weirder.

The Trailer: I’d love for you to define “weirder.”

G. Elliott Morris: They are more engaged politically, which can prompt them to be more responsive to the news. Just by random chance, this Wisconsin poll, for example, could have some demographically weird or politically weird respondents that pushed it off course. And if response rates are very low, like 1 percent or 2 percent, that's a huge problem. If they're 10 percent, that’s still a problem, but there are statistical tools you can use to correct for that. If it's 1 percent then the type of people they're getting are exceptionally weird. 

So, people talk about that Wisconsin poll, but there was a New York Times poll from the same time that had Biden up by 10. Right. Clearly there's something going on here that's pushing all the polls off-course.

The Trailer: After the 2016 election, I talked to pollsters in states who’d blown it the gold standard pollsters who were never wrong. Their basic explanation of what happened is that Donald Trump breaks polling. I heard the same thing after 2020. Is that true? 

G. Elliot Morris: I think that's kind of a cop-out. I’d say there are two things going on. One is the societal and technological change that has made people less likely to answer the phone. Like, mechanically, we have call blockers on our phone now. We don't tend to answer people we don't recognize because we get lots of telemarketing.

The Trailer: I just got one asking if I wanted to sell my house, which was pretty presumptuous.

G. Elliot Morris: I get calls asking if I want to pay off my student loans, and I don’t have any. So that’s one reason. Another is that some of these polls are Internet surveys. They are inherently unrepresentative, and if not adjusted statistically, that increases the propensity for outlier polls. But low response rates are the real issue here. That increases the chance that Republicans or Democrats are systematically responding to polls. So polls in 2016 were much more biased than they’d been in 2008 or 2004. And if you look at polls in Republican states in 2018, they’d gotten worse.

The Trailer: Is that about partisan nonresponse rates, the idea that people who generally support one party might skip the poll when their party is doing poorly?

G. Elliott Morris: Pollsters call that differential partisan nonresponse. In 2020, 2018, and 2016, Democrats were more likely to answer a call from a pollster, especially Democrats who vote in primaries. Now, we have some evidence that Republicans are more likely to answer. In both cases, a pollster can adjust the sample to reflect the percentage of White or Black, or uneducated or educated, Americans in the census. But what about partisanship? Some pollsters adjust their data so that the share of Biden or Trump voters matches what we observed in the election. 

It's kind of like putting a Band-Aid on the problem, because if the sample of people you're getting is biased, it could be biased in ways that you're not thinking about. If our theories about the news driving nonresponse are true, sometimes Republicans are going to do better in the polling than in reality. That's what it seems like might be happening right now. But again, there's no real way to test this. It changes depending on how you conduct your poll. So if you conduct your poll over the phone, you might get one type of nonresponse. If you conduct it over the Internet, you might get a different type. What I argue for in the book is for people to view these not predictions, but as tools with more uncertainty than we might expect.

The Trailer: How does the media get this wrong? 

G. Elliott Morris: People write individual stories like — oh, the Democrats have gained one or two points on the average today. If everyone read my book, hopefully, they wouldn't do that, hopefully. But not everyone's going to read the book, so the gist is that this is wrong to do because you don’t really have enough data points in that average.

The Trailer: How can an ordinary person, or even a “weird” person, tell whether a poll is flawed?

G. Elliott Morris: You need to check it out. You want to be able to go to the website of that pollster and pull up a methodology statement. You need cross tabulations for the poll, and at least the top line of every single question — how the question is asked and what the results are. That is a bare minimum. If a pollster is not doing that, my starting point is not to trust it. 

The Trailer: Was there ever some golden age when polls were released, people trusted them, and the results were accurate?

G. Elliott Morris: No, I don't think so. There's always been push back to polling. Whether that push back is methodological or more substantive has changed somewhat over time. In 1936, when George Gallup is developing his first so-called scientific polls, the pushback is primarily substantive. Why do we care what the people think on these issues? Shouldn't the government be steered by expert opinion almost exclusively and only consulting the public in matters of, say, constitutional amendments, or something that these so-called uninformed masses know something about? 

There’s a 1948 book by a political scientist named Lindsey Rogers who refers to the people conducting polls as “pollsters.” He doesn't necessarily mean it in a nice way. He means it in the way that you would call someone who sells you things a “huckster.”  I think that history has proven Lindsay Rogers and the early substantive critics wrong, though. There is a demand for this information. Members of Congress want this information. And if you present them with this information, it influences their voting behavior in the direction that constituents want.

The Trailer: And when was polling the most accurate?

G. Elliott Morris: Back when response rates to telephone polls were 70 percent or 80 percent. The latter half of the 20th century; polls were pretty accurate then. After 1948, the Gallup Organization, which is then called the American Institute for Public Opinion, adopts a method developed by academics for the census to sample households randomly. George Gallup says: “Oh, you know what? We can also stratify this by political party to make sure we're getting a random selection that's also representative of the previous election results.” So if you have precinct results, you can get people randomly. You're sort of satisfying the statistical conditions for a poll and also trying to balance the sample bipartisanship. 

That works. In the 1980s, they innovate by relying more on statistical weighting to balance their samples. There are still some errors, because response rates are low, so pollsters invent online and robocalling polling to field more interviews cheaply and to reach respondents in a different way. For a while, that works — but you get into this new problem of partisan nonresponse. And it's not totally clear how to solve that problem. 


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