Here at PEC, the calculations are built on the assumption that on average, polls provide an unbiased measure of eventual Election Day behavior. This assumption is our strength and our Achilles heel, and it is the topic of my new piece at The New Republic. The supporting calculations are here.
In the 2010 and 2012 elections, Democrats outperformed state-level polling medians by an average of 2.7 to 3.7 percentage points. That’s a substantial jump from previous years. To put this in perspective, the Senate Meta-Margin, defined as how far opinion would have to swing in close races to make Senate control a perfect toss-up, is currently R+1.3%. A polling error of 2.7-3.7% would reverse that margin. I have no idea if such a large error will happen this year. That would require knowing the reason(s) for polling errors, which could be multiple. However, the fact that it has happened in the last two election cycles does make a person pause. For this reason, the probability in the banner is a fairly soft number.
Usually there are 3-4 tight Senate races per year. At this point the playing field has expanded to seven: Colorado, Iowa, Georgia, North Carolina, Louisiana, Arkansas, and Kansas. These are critical for both sides. See the ActBlue and NRSC links at left.
Update: over at FiveThirtyEight, Nate Silver takes a long view, examining all Senate polls from 1990-2012. It’s a good piece of work. However, I think a more appropriate calculation for the current situation would be to focus only on races won by close margins, since polling errors are greater in blowouts, and biased toward the winning party. He and I get very different results for 2010, which makes me suspect that a deeper look at close races would be interesting. He posted his numbers; if anyone cares to delve into this more, I’d be interested in seeing (and sharing) the results.
Update 2, 5:00pm: Maybe Silver and I have both missed the true pattern: midterms vs. Presidential years. In his results, the median absolute error in Presidential years is 0.65 ± 0.6% (SEM). In midterm years, the absolute error is 2.9 ± 0.7%. These are different (p=0.03). The difference is even larger if one replaces his 2004-2012 numbers with my close-race data. Basically, midterm polls can very plausibly be off…but in which direction?
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