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How to Read the US Polls

While major issues like inflation, crime, and abortion have attracted the most attention so far in the US midterm campaign season, voters’ concerns about the fate of democracy perhaps should not be underestimated. Whatever the polls say, the outcome is far from predictable.

WASHINGTON, DC – Whenever I read polls about a forthcoming US election, the 1980 election in which Ronald Reagan and the Republicans swept the board and changed the country springs to mind. But that vote didn’t break the Republicans’ way until the final weekend before election day.

The late Senator John Culver of Iowa, who lost in that Reagan landslide to the still-in-office Senator Chuck Grassley, told me afterward that he and other Democrats who lost then didn’t pick up on the electorate’s negative feelings until the Saturday before the vote. Then-President Jimmy Carter and his entourage only realized the Saturday night before the Tuesday vote that he was going to be defeated.

This cautionary tale tells us important things to keep in mind as the midterm elections approach: the polls are not predictive. They reflect the political realities of a few days before, when pollsters ask their questions. As appears to have happened this year, they can become outdated by the time they appear in the press, or soon afterward.