So You Think You Can Explain The Election

The election is over. The results are (mostly) in. Time to decide what it all means.​ That’s a particularly popular activity in a year when Democrats pulled off something of an upset — their successes going against historical expectations and the popular narrative that suggested Republicans were set to sweep the House and Senate in the midterms.

How do we explain these results? Maybe it’s fallout from the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade this summer. Maybe it’s extreme (or extremely silly) Republican candidates who snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. Maybe Democrats lost the House because they didn’t embrace Republican-led narratives about crime and punishmentor maybe they lost races because they did, and thus ceded ground. Maybe President Biden is just that beloved

This article is not going to tell you which singular answer is correct. That’s because there is no singular answer. I’m not a politics reporter, but the search for election explanations has led me to think about which ones I — a science reporter with an anthropology degree who spends my work days observing the political natives — trust more than others, even as I give all of them a little side-eye.

Politics, I’ve noticed, loves a just-so story. A clear, coherent reason why the zebra got his stripes. But that’s a form of storytelling that isn’t as concerned with scientific accuracy as it is with passing down culturally specific ideas about how people should behave. So what’s a person to do when they care about both? Here are the tips I keep in mind: 

  • Don’t eat that hot take until dinner is done cooking 

In general, I’m going to be a lot more interested in the explanations that arise a month or two after Election Day than the ones that popped up the morning after. Trying to explain an outcome before anyone even fully knows what that outcome will be is kind of a dead giveaway that someone is post hoc ergo propter hawking a pet theory, rather than honestly searching for meaning. 

Granted, there are some factors that will make themselves clear before all the final counts are totally in. The Supreme Court’s decision, for example, likely did have an impact on this election. That’s a thing I’m willing to say just based on the fact that votes on abortion-related ballot measures in five different states all swung for the position endorsed by abortion-rights activists. That’s a fairly direct measure of how Americans are thinking and how that informs their votes — at least in those places. But that outcome wasn’t super obvious to all the pundits writing about the election before it happened. Leading up to the election, polls showed concern about abortion remaining relatively low compared to concern about the economy, and a lot of people’s narratives began to turn towards “maybe this just isn’t something Americans care about.” Getting an actual outcome certainly changed the perceived situation. And the more time goes on, the more data points will be collected that will help us understand how to answer questions about this issue and its place in American society — and what the right questions are, to begin with.

  • Remember our friend, Occam’s razor 

Hey, didn’t some redistricting happen this year? And didn’t that process leave the country with six more Democratic-leaning seats than had previously existed? Occam’s razor is a principle that urges you to consider the simplest explanations for a result before you start trying to prove a more arcane, tangly hypothesis. And in that spirit, I’m gonna go out on a limb here and suggest that maybe how state governments have chosen to divide up their population — especially when that process is centered around partisan battles that each party hopes to win precisely because they hope it will bring them more power and control of election outcomes — has something to do with how the election played out. 

There are, for example, a lot of ways you could explain the Democratic Party’s losses in Florida. But anyone trying to explain that should probably start with the fact that the state has a new voting map that favors Republicans in a way it previously did not. That’s not to say that other factors aren’t involved. But I’m suspicious of any explanation of election outcomes that doesn’t start with election inputs, or at least acknowledge them. 

  • The presence of data doesn’t necessarily mean the presence of truth 

Now, personally, I have no idea whether young voters are responsible for turning the mighty red wave into a pale pink splash. But I do think it’s interesting that people who believe the youth vote mattered in this election AND people who think it did not both have data to back up their assertions. Advocates can point to this being the second-highest youth midterm turnout in 30 years, with 63 percent of them voting Democratic. Detractors, on the other hand, have pointed out that the biggest predictor of whether a county’s voter turnout would decline this year was age — the younger the county, the less likely its residents were to go to the polls. 

Both those data points exist. How you interpret them probably depends on what you expected to happen and what you already believed about the American electorate. That’s a thing to watch out for. When I see dueling statistics, I know it’s time to take a pause. Just because someone can spout a statistic at you doesn’t mean they’re right. 

  • Reality is usually messier than a just-so story 

Again, I’m not an expert on politics. But I can tell you that there’s not going to be one single factor that ends up explaining the results of an election. That’s especially true this election year, when states were seeing wildly different outcomes — Michigan going very blue while Florida went very red, for example. Even within states, we saw more split-ticket voting than some poll watchers had predicted

Kansas is a good example of how more than one factor can shape an outcome. The state voted against an anti-abotion ballot measure back in the summer and reelected its Democratic governor, Laura Kelly, in the midterms. It could be easy to look at that and assume that this was a state that “Roe’d the vote.” But while the Dobbs decision almost certainly did play a role in some election outcomes, it’s hard to say how much that affected Kelly’s win. She didn’t campaign on abortion. In fact, her anti-abortion opponent kept trying to bring up her abortion rights record — attacks that Kelly mostly responded to by changing the subject to things like education and the economy. And the same state that gave her a second term also elected Kris Kobach — the anti-abortion Republican she beat in the 2018 governor’s race — to be her attorney general. Some of this stuff is just going to be messy. Which brings me to my final point … 

  • Our understanding of what Americans think is flawed, so our understanding of why they vote the way they do is complicated

The polls were pretty close to the actual election results this year, but we’re still dealing with human behavior here — something that the scientists who study human behavior are happy to admit is really, really complicated. Then you add to that all the legitimate criticisms and cautions that surround polling, not the least of which being extremely low response rates to traditional phone polls.

The big discussions around problems with polling are usually centered on how those problems affect polls of voter preference between one politician and another, or one party and another. But these ghosts haunt all opinion polls. What issues do voters care the most about? Do they favor one policy over another? How do they translate those concerns into votes? Those questions play a big role in how the media and punditry interpret the results of an election after the fact. But our answers to those questions are only as good as the polls and their biases.

In other words, any time you’re trying to explain what motivated votes after the fact, you have to assume there are details the polls got wrong and nuances they missed. As with vote choice, this reality doesn’t mean it’s time to ignore poll results entirely. But it does mean that one poll in isolation isn’t telling you as much as an aggregate. The biggest takeaway: Anyone who is certain they understand exactly why Americans make the choices they do is probably deluding themselves.