Until the last few weeks it appeared the Democratic Party might hold onto the U.S. Senate. This was the case even taking the midterm election jinx for the President's party into account. Democratic Party identifiers outnumbered their GOP counterparts, the stock market was surging, and a brightening economy favored the president's party with improving employment metrics, low inflation, falling gasoline prices, a strengthening U.S. dollar and low interest rates. It looked like a Goldilocks economy and an attractive electoral environment for the president's party.
Other developments favored Democrats as well, including the demographics of emerging voters, strong fundraising prospects, increasing numbers of liberal celebrity candidates and a strong ground campaign for Democrats. Across the nation Obama bloggers were having fun making loquacious Republican candidates pay for campaign trail gaffes. Meanwhile, President Obama was raking in credit among young Democratic activists for lending his credibility to help make gay marriage a crown jewel of "change you can believe in." In the midst of such momentum and hubris, what crimped the president's popularity among Independents? What went wrong for President Obama's prediction of a Democratic Party victory in the Senate?
The answer may be as simple as Democrats becoming too complacent with polling methods that failed to unearth voters' rising frustrations. Other interpretations are possible as well, some fairly compelling. As related to me by a former member of Congress, a lot can happen in the last few days of an Internet-era campaign.
One plausible explanation for poll failings is the spiral of silence theory as articulated by the German social scientist, Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann in 1974. This well-researched theory (explained by the polling scholar, Herbert Asher) may shed light on what went wrong for the Democrats. In an election where the winning margins of many Republican congressional and gubernatorial candidates far-exceeded poll projections, it may be that many voters unhappy with the increasingly radical voice of the Democratic Party made themselves unavailable to pollsters or shielded their real views when asked.
Polls: What Works, What Doesn't
The run-ups to U.S. congressional elections have not always been met with quality polls. Setting aside the era of straw polling in presidential elections -- brought to a close in 1936 by the Literary Digest's flawed prediction of FDR's defeat by Republican Alf Landon -- the improving accuracy of scientific polling has been rather impressive. A few election cycles aside, the margin of error (typically plus or minus three percent) in conjunction with a confidence level (typically .95 or 19/20) has resulted in credible electoral projections. Of course, there are complications.
Elections are moving targets, and developments such major breaking news stories can nudge election results away from poll projections. Nonetheless, absent dramatic irregularities in the election context, polls focused on high visibility races are usually robust predictive tools, especially in two-person general election races. Obviously, this was not the case in this year's midterm elections.
The November Election Results Defy the Polls
It is educative to compare poll projections at the Internet site Real Clear Politics on November 4 with the November 5 election results. In Republican Senate races, Dan Sullivan in Alaska and Cory Gardner in Colorado were projected to win by 2.4 percentage points and 2.5 points respectively (based on the RCP average). Their margins came in instead at 3.7 and 4.8 points. While both of these results were within the projected margin of error, the expansion of the winning margin becomes consequential when viewed as part of a national pattern.
In Arkansas, the Republican challenger Tom Cotton was projected to unseat the Democratic incumbent Mark Pryor by seven percentage points; instead, Cotton won by 17 points -- the polling data blown to smithereens. Something similar happened in Kentucky, where Mitch McConnell bested Alison Lundergan Grimes by over 15 percentage points after being projected to win by half that margin (7.2 points).
In Kansas, Greg Orman, an alleged Democrat surrogate, was projected to narrowly topple the struggling incumbent Pat Roberts in what looked like a toss-up race. Instead, Roberts returns to the Senate bolstered by a jaw-dropping 10.7 point margin. In similar fashion, Senator Kay Hagan of North Carolina was supposed to tip over Republican challenger Thom Tillis by less than a point. Instead, it was the Democrat Hagan who was tipped out of office by 1.7 points, the result reflecting a 2.4 point surprise by the Republican side.
Eye-opening results don't stop here. Iowa's fresh face and Senatorial aspirant, Joni Ernst, was projected to best her Democrat counterpart, Bruce Braley, by 2.3 points. Instead, Ernst's victory margin came in at 8.5 percentage points. Another female candidate, this one in Georgia, was not so lucky. Democrat Michelle Nunn, daughter of widely regarded former Senator Sam Nunn, saw her "toss-up race" turn into a 7.9 percentage point lesson taught by Republican David Perdue. Interestingly, these Senate losses for high quality Democrats came in an environment where nearly 60 percent of voters expect to be disappointed with Republicans within two years.
In races for state governorships, Republican candidates such as Maine's Paul LePage, Michigan's Rick Snyder, and Wisconsin's Scott Walker surprised the nation. In four other noteworthy cases Republican gubernatorial candidates who were projected to lose instead won considerable victories. Rick Scott topped Charlie Crist in Florida, Bruce Rauner turned the tables on Pat Quinn in Illinois, Sam Brownback stuffed Paul Davis in Kansas, and Larry Hogan shocked Anthony Brown with an elephantine victory in unlikely Maryland. The particulars are sobering! What can explain such outcomes while sustaining the credibility of scientific polling?
Noelle-Neumann's Spiral of Silence
The missing piece to the puzzle is the growing "spiral of silence" among traditional Americans who are tired of being labeled bigots for simply wanting some community space left for the values they choose. For these people, traditional marriage has been the right way of family life on American soil from earliest times until recently. They see no reason to be run off their rights now. In their understanding of individual rights as realized through community environments, one has as much right to raise one's children in a "freedom from" environment (as it regards gay marriage) as in a "freedom to" environment. If there must be both, the states can decide on the basis of state democratic processes, as recently decided by a federal appeals court in Ohio.
The traditional American theory of individual rights realized through the apparatus of the community or state is not hard to understand. Metaphorically, a trumpet player may have a blast doing his own thing, solo-wise. Dependent upon his interests, however, he may find greater self-realization by playing in a marching band. If that's the case, he realizes his liberty by submitting his range of choices to the overarching vision of the community formed by the band. To deny him the chance to realize happiness by expressing his individualism through communitarinism would be to deny him the equal protection of the laws. Viewed from this perspective, gay advocates are not asking courts for the equal protection of the laws for all Americans but merely for gays and "gay sympathizers." With this type of conflict there is no constitutionally legitimate resolution save the one offered recently by the federal appeals court in Ohio.
Released in the privacy of voting booths from the pressure of public opinion fads, the response of many thousands of Americans has been a surprise Republican vote to defend their living space from disruptive incursions. Indeed, throughout American history there have been retreats to the comforts of "normalcy." Today, even a progressive agnostic might not want to see his or her culturally traditional relatives or friends attacked unjustly as bigots by a chutzpah-on-steroids movement that prides itself in its selective tolerance while seeking ideological lobotomies for detractors.
Few leaders within the Democratic Party have been willing to warn ideologically strident special interests within the party to tone down, and leave room for other value systems -- like the diversity afforded when traditionalism bumps up against multiculturalism. Instead, what many Americans hear is that liberal activists will not consider their victory complete until all vestiges of conservative value systems are vanquished -- argued by gays who believe their sexual preference is a choice, not a gene. This extremism in the service of divisive preferences ignores powerful arguments against universalizing same-sex marriage. It feels heavy-handed and more like communism than pluralism. After all, it was the communist movement in the USSR that sought every person's equal protection before the law by leveling property rights without regard to tradition, pluralism or federalism. The road back from that failed experiment cost Russians dearly -- and has resulted in one of the most plutocratic economies on earth. Interesting, ideas about "equal protection" in Russia back then were as subjective as are many social policy arguments in America today.
Using the theory of the spiral of silence one can understand why there is so much anger in the electorate. The problem is that special interests in both parties are driving party leaders to push for policy outcomes far more sweeping and invasive than justified in a federal constitutional republic. At the same time both sides want to concentrate economic and political benefits to their side while offloading the costs and drawbacks of their initiatives upon the other side. As a result we live in the midst of internecine political warfare -- a conflict that is causing our democracy to turn into a demo-plutocracy, where money-power applied in media settings becomes the most important determinant of political outcomes -- a point argued lucidly by Columbia University professor Jeffrey Sachs.
Academic defenders of the American two-party system argue that it helps limit extremism. But this is no longer true. The two major parties have become tools for their most strident elements, with moderate and temperate political outlooks suffering extensive collateral damage. Indeed, it can be argued that the new power of Republican Senators to make bone-headed and economic inequality-fostering decisions over the next two years is attributable, in part, to the social policy extremism of Democratic activists who inadvertently helped pave the way for the Republican midterm victory.
In Abraham Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address he pointed out that neither side expected the magnitude or duration that the Civil War had already attained. He said that each side looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Nowadays, Americans have developed considerably different understandings of how civil liberty is rightfully experienced. Hopefully, both sides will have the goodwill to defend non-comprehensive environments for the other before it becomes the destiny of this generation to learn lessons as astounding as they are fundamental.
Correction: A previous version of this post incorrectly stated that Mark Pryor won in Arkansas. Tom Cotton won.