Midterm election night was really just the beginning. At the end of the night’s nonstop news coverage, the picture was incomplete, with millions of votes still to be counted.
Now, one month later, the picture has been filled in, and the results are more positive for Democrats than initially believed. And that’s prompting some conversations in newsrooms about how to cover election nights differently in the future.
Perhaps journalists need to be “more transparent” on election nights “and admit where we don’t necessarily know where everything’s going to end up,” Harry Enten said on this week’s “Reliable Sources” podcast.
Enten, who runs The Forecast for CNN, did see it coming. On election night, his model-based forecast showed the Democrats with a net gain of 35, well ahead of the 23 seats the party needed to regain control of the House of Representatives.
Based on his forecast’s margin of error, he said on CNN that the Democrats could see a “net gain of over 40 seats.”
On Thursday, exactly one month after the November 6 midterms, the Democrats hit 40, when Republican David Valadao conceded to Democrat TJ Cox in California’s 21st Congressional District.
The GOP, of course, held the Senate and gained two seats there. But the Democrats chalked up big gains in the House and in gubernatorial races. The complete picture is a deeper shade of blue than it seemed on election night.
That’s because voting patterns “have changed tremendously over the past dozen years,” Enten said.
Listen to the whole podcast here:
CNN was inspired to produce a special night of followup coverage, called “Election Night in America Continued,” one week after November 6, to reassess the nationwide map of red and blue results.
In states like Arizona and California, there were huge numbers of mail-in ballots and absentee votes, “and it takes a long time for those votes to be counted,” Enten said. And “those later votes that came in, especially this year, were more Democratic leaning. So the story that you got told on election night was perhaps — although not favorable towards the Republicans — was perhaps a little less negative for them.”
President Trump attempted to declare victory the day after the election, touting the Senate gains and downplaying the House losses.
In the month since then, the Democrats’ net gain has widened from 28 seats to 40 seats.
The results of one race, in North Carolina’s ninth congressional district, are still up in the air. On Thursday Democrat Dan McCready withdrew his concession while investigators probe allegations of election fraud.
Enten said there’s a “slew of evidence” pointing to fraud in that particular race. He predicted that there will be another election in the congressional district.
Ever since election night, there’s been a debate about whether the Democrats’ gains constituted a “blue wave.”
Enten votes yes. “Democrats are gonna end up with 235 seats,” he said. “That’s a larger number than they had after the 2006 wave, right. That was definitely called a wave.”
Predictions of a “red wave” advanced by some right-wing commentators were bogus — although, Enten said, “they were trying to hype up folks. They were trying to sell them something that they wanted to hear.”
He also pointed out that overall voter turnout was way higher than what was expected.
“There were four to five million more votes out there to be counted than we actually thought,” Enten said, many of them in California, where it took a long time to count.
“California has a ton of vote by mail, and they have to open up these packages individually. They then have to scan these ballots in one by one. It takes a long time,” Enten said.
Perhaps the votes would be counted more quickly if the state decided to invest more money in elections, Enten said. But he emphasized the importance of accurately counting votes over the need to quickly get answers.
We live in a society, he said, where “we want the here and now — you know, we need that fast food now. We want that delivery now. We want that phone to deliver that message now. We need that broadband that is faster and faster and faster.” But administrating elections takes time.
“If you go back and you watch the election night coverage from say 1968 or ‘60 or whenever, you would see it took a long time to count those votes,” he said.
State polls and sophisticated models like Enten’s performed well in the midterms, according to multiple assessments in the past month.
In a recent column for CNN.com, Enten said that public polling passed the 2018 test “with flying colors.”
But not all polls are created equally. Enten said “the pollster who should be noted for being off the mark is Rasmussen Reports.”
Rasmussen has a reputation for being rightward leaning. “You look at that final generic House poll and they had the Republicans, I believe, leading by a percentage point,” Enten said. “The national House vote ended up being Democrats winning by between eight and nine percentage points.”
Nevertheless, Rasmussen is one of Trump’s favorite polling sources. Trump tweeted approvingly about a Rasmussen approval poll on Wednesday night.
Rasmussen polling does not meet CNN’s reporting standards.
Looking ahead to the 2020 election, Enten said pollsters will continue to learn from their successes and weaknesses in 2018, and adjust accordingly.