GOP Wave or Cultural Groupthink?

I’m hoping the Democrats defy all odds and hold the House, though not primarily because of politics.   True, I like Obama and Pelosi, and would prefer the House in Democratic hands.  But given the economic condition of the country and the need for policy change, it’s probably a good thing for the Republicans to share policy responsibility.    Moreover, this is normal — when the economy gets bad, voters want change.

What I’d really like to see is the collective reactions of all the prognosticators if they got this election so wrong.   I’ve scoured the news for any optimism about Democratic possibilities and have found only one, a New York Daily News article about the possibility of high black and Latino turnout changing election dynamics.   Democratic insiders and Republicans alike are quoted as expecting loses of 50 to 70 seats.   Most think the Senate will remain in Democratic hands, but see the possibility it won’t.   There is remarkable consensus, and little if any Democratic wishful thinking.   People consider this a done deal.

Yet the polls are very close in most individual races, and at least 70 to 80 races still show leads so small that a slight mistake in methodology or miscalculation in turnout dynamics could give us a GOP gain of a range from 20 to 80 (or even 0 to 100, but that gets in very improbable territory).   We could be watching a case of cultural group think in place, and it would be wild and entertaining to watch an election night where that got thrown asunder.

But can the experts all be wrong?   If pollsters/analysts from Rothenberg to Cook to Rasmussen to Gallup all expect massive GOP gains, and Nate Silver hurls everything into his computer model and predicts 53 seats (though, to be fair,  he’s been consistent in warning about the uncertainty in this election), who can doubt that the Republicans will pick up massive numbers of seats?   After all, the pollsters were right about Obama in 2008.

Yet, there is some reason to doubt.   First, the Republicans (and the pollsters/analysts) are assuming a “wave.”  A wave happens when all the races break one way — the toss ups go almost completely Republican, and ones with small Democratic leads (2 to 4% in late polls) swing GOP as well.   Waves happen; in 1980 and 1994 the GOP enjoyed a classic wave election.   Yet most waves aren’t predicted in advance by so many people (in ’94, when the GOP picked up 52, most prognosticators thought they were set to win 20-25), and sometimes expected waves peter out (e.g., 1982).   So the breadth of the assumption that all these close races will go Republican may be off base.   In 2008 I published a state by state prediction of the Presidential race, predicting Obama would ride a wave.   He didn’t, and I over-estimated his margin of victory by about 40 electoral votes.

If there is no wave, the Democrats could still lose the House, but it would be close.  If there is a small wave, we get into the 45-55 seat loss margin (which is what the most cautious prognosticators seem to expect), and if there is a massive wave, GOP gains could be over 70 (which is what many Republicans expect, and Democrats fear).    Given the dynamics of the race, it looks like a wave year, so it’s rational to assume a wave probable.    But it’s not certain.

There are a couple reasons why the wave may be small or non-existent.  First, Republicans peaked early, and Democratic malaise was intense most of the election season.  Only recently do Democrats seem to be paying attention, and it’s hard to increase GOP enthusiasm from what it’s been for months.   Granted, independents are tending Republican and they are the “stuff” of the wave, but in very close races with previously popular incumbents, I don’t think you can assume a tsunami.

Second, groupthink can be contagious.  Look how many financial analysts predicted housing price increases back in 2007, declared fear of economic breakdown as misplaced in 2008, and told Americans that the economy was healthy and sound.  They believed it, and the consensus was so broad that naysayers were laughed at or ignored — or presented as a token opponent of the consensus (a ‘devil’s advocate’) — and the public was shocked by the depth of the crisis.

Cultural groupthink is different than standard decision making groupthink.  In the standard version, internal group cohesion makes unanimity a goal, and leads to self-censoring and a lack of realism.   Decision making in the Bush White House in 2002-03 on Iraq showed traditional Groupthink, even to the point that Vice President Cheney and UN Ambassador Bolton distrusted CIA information and sought their own, so certain they were that they were right.

Cultural groupthink involves the mass media and experts who for various reasons grab the same narrative.   Democratic leaning pollsters and analysts don’t want to be accused of wishful thinking so they embrace what seems to be a very clear electoral analysis.   Others see that too, and it gets echoed in media, blogs and the like.    On the right, blogs talk about the “wave” as inevitable, a force of nature as certain to hit as a category five hurricane bearing down on a city.   On the left there had been hope in early October that things would turn around, but now there is resignation, as if they’re attitude is ‘two years ago we had a great time with an awesome election, they say, now it’s the Republicans turn.  2012 will be different.’

Yet early voting does not show a wave (yet does not show a Democratic resurgence either).  It’s ambiguous.   Late polls are ambiguous.   So what do we know?   We know that there are up to 100 seats in play, and most of these are held by Democrats.  Its not rocket science to realize that makes the Democrats very vulnerable.    About 40 races look promising (or even certain) for the GOP, so if they win what they’re expected to win, they’ll have a good night.  If they win their fair share of the toss ups, they’re in 50 – 55 seat territory.  If they sweep the tossups, it’s a wave and Democrats then have to worry about the seats they’re expected to win.   If the GOP wins many of those, it’s the Republican tsunami.  The Democrats would have to run the table on the toss ups to keep the House, and pick off close races now leaning Republican.

I see no reason to expect the Democrats to keep the House — the consensus does exist for a reason, the signs point to a massive victory for the Republicans.   Hope that late enthusiasm or perhaps the “Restore Sanity” rally would provoke a late Democratic mini-wave seems implausible, but we really don’t know.  It would be entertaining to see what happens if the Democrats defied the pundits and held the House.   Everyone looked back and said, “what the hell did we get wrong?”  And, to be sure, it’s in the voters hands.  Enjoy the election!  (Here is my guide to the competitive election night races).

UPDATE: Another entertaining scenario is put forth by Nate Silver who sees the possibility that the Republicans may win in such a landslide that it confounds the Democrats and goes beyond conventional wisdom in the other direction.   Indeed, that “GOP Tsunami” theory is more likely than the Democrats keeping the House.  And that’s why, ultimately, this election is so much fun to observe.  The range of possibilities is immense.  After the fact it will seem like a sure thing (and those who predicted it will say “duh, it was obvious to me,” but in reality the realm of possibility going into tomorrow is greater than in most off year elections.

UPDATE 2: Silver gives a second scenario similar to what I describe above, focused on potential flaws in polls leading up to the election.   Now, let the voting begin!

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