Don’t Sweat the Election Night Surprises

by Nathan L. Gonzales October 10, 2018 · 11:06 AM EDT

What will be the biggest surprise on election night?

It’s a common and valid question, but I’m always a little amused by it.

If I were able to identify a completely unexpected or astonishing event that would happen a month from now, then that event shouldn’t be considered completely unexpected or astonishing. I think the better exercise is to understand how and why surprises happen, particularly with saturating coverage of elections. Here are four reasons.

Lack of attention
Two of the biggest electoral surprises in recent history happened because of a lack of media coverage and party attention. Both took place in primaries in districts that weren’t regarded as competitive.

I get asked if I predicted primary victories by Republican Dave Brat in Virginia in 2014 or Democrat Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in New York this year. The short answer is no. (I was actually playing softball for Category-5 when House Majority Leader Eric Cantor lost to Brat.) But the longer answer is that I wasn’t really looking either.

I’m primarily focused on the general election races that will change party hands, or primaries in contests that will affect control of Congress. Mitt Romney won Virginia’s 7th District by 11 points in 2012, and Hillary Clinton carried New York’s 14th by 58 points in 2016. Following primary challenges against incumbents in partisan districts just isn’t a priority when for every Brat and Ocasio-Cortez, there are thousands of long-shots who lose.

Party strategists are similarly focused on districts and states that will help them maintain or regain the majority. They don’t have the resources to help incumbents through primaries in solidly partisan districts. So, if the parties aren’t polling or paying attention, there is a higher likelihood of a surprise.

Bad and missing data
In 2014, Cantor’s campaign released a May 27-28 poll that showed him leading Brat 62 percent to 28 percent, and a June 2 poll for The Daily Caller had Cantor up 52 percent to 40 percent. On June 10, Cantor lost by 11 points. It’s fair to say those polls were a bit off.

Had there been more polling of the race, by different pollsters, including surveys taken closer to primary day, it’s likely that Brat’s victory wouldn’t have been as big of a surprise. But the limited data fit with the narrative of the race: A well-funded incumbent was taking his race seriously because he was airing TV ads and leading in the polls.

We now know that Cantor’s TV ads might have been helping Brat by raising his profile. But ultimately, even though Cantor lost, an incumbent prevails under similar dynamics most of the time.

Sometimes, even when there are a significant number of surveys in a race, pollsters misread the expected turnout or the bottom falls out in the final days. But most candidates, committees and campaigns won’t poll in the final days because all strategic decisions have been made and can’t be adjusted.

Writing off the race
Sometimes surprises happen when conventional wisdom prevails and one or both parties write off the race.

In 2006, Carol Shea-Porter thumped the establishment favorite,  state House leader Jim Craig, 54 percent to 34 percent in the Democratic primary in New Hampshire’s 1st District. Because she ran an underfunded, grass-roots campaign, she wasn’t given a chance to win the general election. But she defeated GOP Rep. Jeb Bradley by about 3 points that November, buoyed by the national Democratic wave.

“Group-think sets in and you forget about the race,” one veteran of campaign committees said.

In 2004, Democrat Nancy Boyda ran a well-funded campaign with help from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee against GOP Rep. Jim Ryun in Kansas’ 2nd District. The congressman, who was a local celebrity as an Olympic medalist and the first high school athlete to run a mile in less than four minutes, won by 15 points.

Two years later, Boyda ran again and was dismissed because she eschewed campaign consultants and insisted on running a nontraditional campaign with her husband that had no connection to the DCCC. She won 51 percent to 47 percent.

Party strategists and reporters can be guilty of clinging too tightly to narratives of strong incumbents or unelectable challengers, but once again, the surprise winners who buck the narrative are often high-profile exceptions.

Unprepared incumbents
Potentially, the biggest driver of surprise elections is unprepared incumbents. But identifying those potential losers can be difficult.

“There are so many districts that it’s whack a mole,” said a Democratic strategist who experienced a wave against the party at a campaign committee.

For competitive races, there can be at least six entities paying for polling. When a candidate, campaign committee and outside group on each side of the aisle is compiling data, it increases the likelihood that someone will uncover a potential problem or opportunity.

But when arrogant incumbents believe they can’t lose re-election, they won’t bother to campaign, let alone pay for polling. And the party committees don’t have the resources to babysit more than 100 incumbents in normally solid districts by footing the bill for them.

“You can tell the members who are active, engaged, and managing their politics in the districts and those who aren’t,” a former GOP committee operative said in an email. “It can be very difficult to get the member (and/or his team) to flip the switch and get them to be more engaged.”

“Fear is a great motivator, but the problem comes when they wait too long to get scared,” the operative added.

So when it comes to surprises, it’s best to assume that there will be some, but it might not be worth spending all your time trying to identify where they’ll materialize on Nov. 6.