In the weeks before Election Day, both Republicans and Democrats were nervous about their poll numbers. Both sides of the aisle have smart pollsters, they reasoned, so how could the numbers that Democrats were seeing diverge so sharply from the numbers the Republicans were seeing? Deep down, I wrote at the time, both parties secretly worried that their side was missing the boat.
Now we know which side needed its polls unskewed. Before Election Day, Republicans confidently predicted they would pick up seats in both chambers of Congress, and that Mitt Romney would win the White House. The results shattered those predictions, and with them any sense of security in the numbers coming out of some of the best-regarded polling firms on the right.
"Everyone thought the election was going to be close. How did [Republicans] not know we were going to get our ass kicked?" lamented Rob Jesmer, head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. "I don't understand how we didn't know. That's the part that's most puzzling and frustrating and embarrassing."
The underlying causes of the errant numbers are the assumptions that the pollsters made about the nature of the electorate. Most pollsters believed the electorate would look something like the voters who turned out in 2008, just with slightly lower numbers of African-Americans, younger people, and Hispanics heading to the polls.
But exit polls actually showed a much more diverse electorate than the one forecast. Black turnout stayed consistent with 2008, Hispanic turnout was up, and younger voters made up a higher percentage of the electorate than they had four years ago. White voters made up 72 percent of the electorate, according to the exits, down 2 points from 2008 and a continuation of the two-decade long decline in their share of the electorate.
That meant that even though Mitt Romney scored 59 percent of the white vote -- a higher percentage than George W. Bush won in 2000 and 2004, higher than Ronald Reagan in 1980 and matching George H.W. Bush's 1988 score, when he won 426 electoral votes in 40 states -- it wasn't enough to overcome the 80 percent support that Obama scored among nonwhite voters.
The makeup of the electorate had a dramatic impact on races up and down the ballot. Republicans believed they would hold House seats in California's Inland Empire, where Hispanics have been a rising force. Instead, higher Hispanic turnout cost GOP Rep. Mary Bono Mack her seat; Republican Rep. Dan Lungren trails Democrat Ami Bera by nearly 2,000 votes, although tens of thousands of votes have yet to be counted. Senate Republicans were stung by surprise losses in states such as Wisconsin and North Dakota, injuries compounded by flawed candidates who lost Indiana and Missouri.
The polling industry as a whole has had a difficult time nailing results in recent years. Pollsters have had to contend with three straight wave elections -- 2006 and 2008, which favored Democrats, and 2010, which swept Republicans into office. But in the one year that resembled something close to a normal election, Republicans found their polling furthest from the mark.
Now, GOP pollsters will enter a period of introspection. Party strategists will demand accountability, and concrete assurances that the number-crunchers can get it right.
Some answers are easy to implement: Pollsters should fix voter screens, used to weed out of their samples irregular voters who aren't likely to vote. Including only likely voters often leads to a more Republican-heavy sample. But in an era of fine-tuned turnout machines and get-out-the-vote drives, even those irregular voters are likely to show up. Polling all registered voters, rather than those most likely to make it to the polls, would at least give Republicans an idea of the worst-case scenario.
Pollsters should also control more for age, gender, and race than for party identification. One prominent party pollster pointed to a late survey conducted for Indiana Republican Richard Mourdock that showed him leading Democrat Joe Donnelly by 2 points. That survey, conducted by McLaughlin & Associates, showed that 56 percent of Indiana's electorate would be over age 55. Exit polls revealed that number to be vastly overstated; only 43 percent of the electorate was over 50.
The party-identification question gets to the heart of another misperception that pollsters make. Tell almost anyone that Romney would have won self-identified independent voters by 5 points and logic would dictate that Romney would win a clear victory. But Democratic pollsters say that metric is flawed, and that many Republicans remain so disaffected by their own party that they refuse to identify with it. Instead, some say that pollsters should look at self-described ideology, rather than party identification. Indeed, Obama beat Romney among the 41 percent of voters who call themselves moderate by 15 points.
Pollsters also recognize that Americans' daily routines are changing, something that has an impact on their surveys. About one-third of all households do not have a landline, according to the National Health Interview Survey, meaning that a significant swath of the electorate is available to pollsters only by cell phone. The percentage of younger Americans who don't have a landline is almost double that. Pollsters who don't include a sufficient number of cell-phone respondents in their surveys risk missing out on younger voters -- voters most likely to back Democrats, thus skewing polls to the right.
One top Republican pollster said he would immediately begin relying on cell-phone respondents to make up at least 30 percent of his samples, and that by 2016 that number could reach 50 percent or more. Then again, campaigns that have paid a set rate for polling in recent years might balk at the higher cost of a poll with significant numbers of cell-phone respondents.
No matter what the answer is, the GOP knows it must come up with a more reliable method of measuring the electorate. It hurts to lose; it hurts more when a party doesn't see it coming. And this year, Republicans were completely blindsided.
Democrats "must be looking at us like we're the biggest f----- morons in the world," one frustrated Republican said. "That's what I'd be doing."