Dec 16, 2022

The man who was right about the 2022 midterms

Simon Rosenberg appearing on MSNBC to discuss the 2022 election. Image: YouTube / Screenshot
Simon Rosenberg appearing on MSNBC to discuss the 2022 election. Image: YouTube / Screenshot

In a sea of forecasters, one man stood out.

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, nonpartisan, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.”

First time reading? Sign up here. Would you rather listen? You can find our podcast here.

The man who got it right

Heading into Election Day this year, there was a clear consensus: Democrats were in trouble. A red wave was likely, and we should all brace for a major shift in legislative power.

Amidst the sea of commentary that said just that — with some Democratic post-mortems already pre-written — one man stood out to me: Simon Rosenberg. He is an unabashed partisan, a Democratic strategist, and one of the forecasters behind the progressive think tank NDN.

But in his final election preview, he was also right.

Rosenberg wrote a piece titled "I'd rather be us than them," which proved to be prescient. He emphasized data we had from early voting, heralded Democrats' ground game, pointed to the most recent polls, and concluded that the Senate was "leaning" toward Democrats and the House would be very close and competitive. Rosenberg's view was so singular that I didn't even cite it in what the left or right were saying in our newsletter from election day, but I did say this in "my take":

One of the few voices I've seen bucking the trend of a big night for Republicans is Simon Rosenberg, who I think at least deserves a shout out here for the sake of diversity of opinion... His theory rests mostly on the data we have: Democrats are outpacing early vote numbers from 2020, many late polls have looked good for them, and Hispanic and youth polling are all trending nicely for Democrats. If Democrats manage to hold the Senate or mitigate losses in the House, his analysis will prove prescient and unique.

So, after Democrats picked up a Senate seat and did historically well for a party in the White House during the midterms, I set out to talk with Rosenberg. As you might expect, he was in high demand, so it took a few weeks to pin him down for a chat. But on Monday, we finally sat down to talk.

Below, you'll find a lightly edited transcript of our conversation, which has been shortened and adjusted in places for clarity's sake. As I mentioned, Rosenberg is a Democratic strategist, and not someone who is particularly shy about his partisan affiliations and biases. You'll see that reflected in our interview and many of his answers. Nevertheless, I found his analysis — and the inside look at the Democratic party’s operations — both fascinating and educational.

Isaac Saul: Obviously there is a lot of stuff I want to suss out with you, but before we jump into 2022, I'm just curious if you could tell us a little bit about your background. How did you become a Democratic strategist?

Simon Rosenberg: I started my career as a TV news producer and writer. I worked for ABC News and some independent production companies, but then I also worked in two presidential campaigns: Dukakis and [Bill] Clinton. I was lucky to have joined both of those early before we knew they were going to win the nomination. So I went through a whole primary cycle and then the general for two different winning campaigns. One lost the presidency, the other one won.

I was part of the Clinton team that came in 1992 and in 1996. I started the organization that I still run, which is called NDN. It was a PAC, it's now a 501(c)(4) think tank. We've always said that there were three big changes happening in the world: globalization, changing media, changing demography. And we try to equip our political leaders with greater understanding in all three, and strategies to be successful to navigate these big changes. I've been a little bit of a forecaster or futurist, if you want to put it that way, for a long time. And I've been writing the kind of stuff that you saw for the last two decades. Sometimes it was more accurate and right than others, and I think this cycle we got it pretty right.

Isaac Saul: So obviously, there's been a ton of reflection on the election. I wrote in some of our newsletters, and we talked about it on this podcast, that I think in retrospect, a lot of the polling actually wasn't that bad. Some of it, frankly, was right on the money or within one or two points of the margin of error. But the narrative that was happening right before the election, from both the left and the right, was very clearly on this one side: There was this red wave coming. I'm just curious to start there. What were you seeing? Why do you think your outlook was so different from a lot of other people’s?

Simon Rosenberg: The quick history of this whole thing is that a year ago, in late October of 2021, I noticed that Joe Biden's approval rating had come way down. But what's called a congressional generic — which is this quick, basic question of "Are you voting Republican or Democrat for Congress?" — had not changed. And that's unusual, because the theory was that the most important number in a midterm election was the Biden approval rating, and if that was true, then the Congressional generic should have come down a little bit with it. There should have been a similar movement, and there wasn't.

I posited then that the reason we may be seeing what we were seeing is something I call the "MAGA hangover." That the Republicans have made a really big strategic error in the election early on, which is they ran towards the politics of MAGA, which had just been rejected overwhelmingly by the country twice. And usually, when a party fails in two consecutive elections, they tend to run away from what they did, not towards it. So by running towards MAGA, I felt that they were creating a low ceiling.

What I posited in that memo was that it could mean that we're going to see an atypical midterm, that it could be a close, competitive midterm. Because it was going to be very easy for someone to be disappointed in Joe Biden and still have no interest in voting Republican, because if you didn't like MAGA before, they were even more MAGA this time.

So I was open to the idea from the beginning that this was not going to be a typical midterm. Then the Dobbs leak happened on May 2nd, and I think the election really started to congeal in May and June. We did a series of Hispanic polls in Arizona and Nevada and Pennsylvania in mid-May. That data came back very positive for Democrats, where we saw Democrats over-performing 2020 and Republicans underperforming 2020.

I then looked at FiveThirtyEight, and we saw similar things in a lot of polls all across the country: North Carolina, Ohio, Wisconsin. We were doing better than we would have assumed. And so I wrote a piece in mid-June saying there's no red wave. This looks like a close competitive election, just based on the data that we had. There wasn't polling in a lot of the battleground states because of the late Republican primaries. I think if there had been, the media would have seen these trends earlier.

But then we know what happened next. Uvalde happened. There was another mass shooting, the January 6 committee hearings began, and then Dobbs happened on June 24th, and then we had five House specials where Democrats outperformed their 2020 numbers by seven points. If it was going to be a red wave year, we shouldn't have been outperforming 2020 at all, we should have been below 2020 in our results.

Then we saw our fundraising was far better than Republicans. Their fundraising for their candidates was anemic. Ours was robust. Then I started collaborating with Tom Bonier, who became my partner in a lot of this analysis, because he started doing all this analysis showing that voter registration numbers had really dramatically changed. And that in virtually every state in the country, after June 24th, there was a huge shift towards more Democrats registering, more women registering, young women in particular. Not a surprise: childbearing years, more affected by the ending of Roe.

So we went into the final few weeks of the election saying, "Look, based on the data that we have, all the indicators for Democratic intensity were positive for us, all the indicators for Republican intensity were not positive for them.” And asking, “Would that trend then actually show up in the election itself?"

We just didn't know. And then it started showing up in the early vote.

We had better tools to look at the early vote than we've had before because Tom's company TargetSmart produced this site called TargetEarly, which gave us an unprecedented window into the early vote. I did the analysis on the early vote every day. And what I was seeing across the country was very similar to what we had seen earlier: Democratic overperformance, Republican struggle.

Then there was that memo you referenced, the one I wrote the day before the election, saying we've seen these basic trends over the last six months, will they actually show up on election day? They are likely to. The idea that you'd see one trend for six months and then all of a sudden on election day some other completely different thing happening just wasn't likely, right? It could happen. But it just wasn't likely.

And that's why we argued up until the end that this was going to be a close, competitive election and that Democrats might outperform expectations. And that's what happened.

I will say one thing about the polling, and it's important because you mentioned it. In 2020, the polling was off. In 2022, the polling was not off, the independent media polls were actually pretty accurate. We saw even the final polls done in Georgia this past week were also very very accurate.

What happened was there was an organized effort by some Republican organizations to game the polling averages. Nothing like this has ever happened before in all the years I've done this. There were more than 40 polls dropped in seven states by 10 different pollsters that were clearly designed to push the averages down to make the election look more red-wavy than it really was.

So the media and the pundit class basically got bamboozled by this Republican campaign to game the polling averages. Which is why, to your point, everyone kind of ended up back with “red wave” at the end. Chris Cillizza even said the bottom's falling out for the Democratic party in that last week. Meanwhile, what we were seeing in the early vote was that every day of the early vote, it was getting younger and more Democratic. In fact, the opposite was happening in the early vote.

So we stuck to our guns. The data all pointed in the same direction and we fought the concept of the red wave. The big story of this election is how many people that we respect and admire who interpret elections for us really blew it. To your point, it wasn't bad data, it was bad analysis. And that's in some ways scarier for us, because the press needs to be telling us the truth. It's critical for our democracy, for the media, to be truthful, and the truth is that a lot of the media misled the public about what happened in the final few weeks because there was no red wave. There was never a red wave. There wasn't a blip of a wave. There was nothing. And it was a fake out by the Republicans which too many people fell for.

Isaac Saul: I talked about this a good bit in our post-election analysis, which was just comparing certain polling outfits to the actual results of the election, and some of these more conservative polling outfits — and I don't mean that in a pejorative way, they just were — were 10, 12, 15 points off in some these elections. From their perspective, from the people who are funding those kinds of polls, what do they think the benefit of that is? Is that a good way to juice and encourage voters? Why do that?

Simon Rosenberg: I don't know that we're ever going to really know unless people who are involved in it come out and talk about what happened. I know there are major news outlets that have assigned reporters to look into it. My own view, where I've come down as the most plausible explanation... is that if you were involved in stacking the Supreme Court the way it's been stacked, where there's now a 6-3 — I'm going to use my own language here — extremist majority that is doing things like the ending of Roe, there's a whole movement behind that that's worked very hard for a very long time. And I am sure that for those people who finally had this happen, the Dobbs decision happen, to see a popular uprising come about because of the extremism of the decision, and also the extremist abortion trigger laws that went into effect shortly after, that it just became something they couldn't stomach.

The idea that the energy in the election was because of a rejection of an extremist Supreme Court also meant that that Court could end up being more circumscribed, and less able to follow the extremist course that they've been on because there had been this popular uprising. The Republicans were underperforming the election because of their embrace of this extremism.

I think there's a very large chunk of the Republican party with a lot of money that would want a different story of the election to be told. That it wasn't the ending of Roe that drove this popular uprising and gave Democrats energy and, frankly, sucked energy out of the Republican party. That in fact, there was a red wave, and that everything was going to be okay.

Because remember: The red wave was the opposite of what happened. It wasn't a miss. The energy intensity and overperformance was on our side, not on their side. Rick Scott, the head of the [National Republican Senatorial Committee] even said famously that we had a real turnout problem just a couple days after the election.

So, I think that for some, the idea that there was this very strenuous rejection of the Republicans because of the ending of Roe was just too much to bear. And so they would have a vested interest in trying to create a different narrative and story of the election. But we don't know. Maybe we'll find out.

Are there more mundane explanations? Like to suppress Democratic enthusiasm and cause us not to work as hard and all that? Yeah. I think all of those are part of it too. But I think there was so much effort made at the end to change the storyline away from what was happening with abortion that it just seems to me to be the most plausible explanation.

Isaac Saul: That's a great segue to my next question. In my own analysis after the election, I looked at the five or six big arguments about why things happened the way they did and made the argument that this election in the battleground states was really about abortion. I kind of adopted the "thermostatic voter" idea that's been put forward by people like David Shor and others, who just said voters were reacting to major change. I'm curious what you think about that analysis? Do Democrats do as well as they did, without Roe v. Wade falling?