How did they do it? And why were so many independent analysts so wrong? I put those questions to Parker Poling, the executive director of the National Republican Congressional Committee, the party’s House campaign arm.
Cillizza: Every political handicapper predicted losses for House Republicans on Tuesday. That didn’t happen. Were you surprised? Why or why not?
Poling: We were surprised but not shocked. Basing your informed opinions on public polls or data that is selectively shared with you is a fundamentally flawed way to handicap, but we’ll see what accountability measures exist for that.
Clearly the Democrat conference is starting their own autopsy to try to figure out where their data operation went wrong. Our polling and modeled data of absentee and early vote returns said we realistically had a path to pick up seats. At our final staff meeting before the election, our consensus was that we would net +4 seats. Our data showed that we were within striking distance in nearly every competitive race, with most of them trending in our direction. The President closed strong in our battleground districts and our candidates had their own unique appeal that won late deciding voters.
Cillizza: Did you see a single message or issue break through with voters in swing districts? Was there an attack that particularly hurt Democrats?
Poling: If you put all of the messages into a single broad category, it would be the extreme leftward lurch of the Democrat Party.
That was messaged in different ways in different districts. In New York state, bail reform was extremely unpopular and meshed well with defund the police, so a public safety angle was the most effective. In some districts, it was “Medicare for All” and the loss of private health insurance. In a number of suburban districts, we talked about pocketbook issues like higher taxes under Biden. And in other districts, we focused on the extremism of the “Green New Deal.” And in south Florida especially, it was socialism more broadly. All of those messages fit within the rubric of extremism.
Cillizza: President Trump was a major anchor for House Republicans in the suburbs in the 2018 midterms. Why wasn’t he this time?
Poling: I disagree with the premise of your question.
Many of President Trump’s voters (8.5 million, to be more exact) stayed home in 2018. Those are by and large votes for House Republicans as well, which would have more than kept us in the majority. Yes, base Democrats in the midterms were motivated by animus toward the President to turn out, but Democrat candidates ran and won because they had no voting record that was tied to Joe Biden, Nancy Pelosi and the far left of their party. Their candidates got to portray themselves as whatever they wanted and that helped them win independent and persuadable voters.
When the President’s supporters didn’t match base Democrats turnout and they won independents, it was easy to see how they won in both Trump territory and districts Hillary Clinton carried in 2016. They showed up again in 2020 and independents broke to our candidates when these Democrats exposed their ties to the extreme of their party.
Cillizza: Polling was, again, way off — particularly at the House district level. Why? And how do you fix it?
Poling: Not all polling was wrong. There are polls either the NRCC, our candidates or allied groups like the Congressional Leadership Fund released publicly in every one of our pickup districts that showed where we would win.
I think there ought to be a real reckoning in the media and among the prognosticators about why they believed Democrat partisan polling more than Republican partisan polling. In general, most of our competitive races were within the margin of error. Democrats kept saying they were beating some of our incumbents, and our data was not showing that.
Cillizza: Finish this sentence: “The biggest lesson for House Republicans out of the 2020 election was ________.” Now, explain.
Poling: “The biggest lesson for House Republicans out of the 2020 election was this is a center-right country.”
The American people, and particularly swing voters, want to elect representatives who reflect the values this country was founded on. They will reject radical propositions like defunding the police and destroying the American economy. They want to safely reopen the country. Those are the values reflected by House Republicans and our candidates.