If you were a progressive on the morning of Nov. 9, 2016, chances are you were apoplectic about the polls — and viscerally angry at every single nerd who analyzed them.
Nate Silver failed us, so the Tweetstorm went. So did The Upshot, Cook Political Report, The Huffington Post, MSNBC, RealClearPolitics — basically anyone and everyone responsible for interpreting our political future.
Later analyses found that the 2016 polls were actually more accurate than 2012’s — just 2.2 percentage points off the actual vote margin, compared to 2012’s 2.9. For many, this statistical nuance was irrelevant. Data journalism was dead. Long live Bill Mitchell.
Fast-forward to March 14, 2018, however, when you might have watched Steve Kornacki, the uber-caffeinated 38-year-old national political correspondent for NBC and MSNBC, deliver special election results to a dedicated team of viewers until three in the morning, making MSNBC number one among total viewers as well as those in the coveted 25-54 demographic.
Maybe the data nerds weren’t so bad after all.
Part of this has to do with Kornacki’s on-screen performative zeal. Forget data journalism. How could someone be *this excited* about anything, much less the midnight absentee ballot returns from MiddleOfNowheresVille, Pennsylvania?
Take watching him talk about the returns from special election PA-18. At least three people texted me out of concern that Korancki would pass out from enthusiasm.
“I’m not really like that off-air,” Kornacki tells Mashable. “The energy that you see — I guess it comes naturally. People were showing me afterwards. I don’t remember most of it. I think I ate a pen. I would never do that off air. That’s unsanitary!”
Kornacki, known to my father as the “data guy,” certainly isn’t new to the political scene, having hosted MSNBC’s The Cycle in 2012 and Up in 2013. But he’s part of the network’s current renaissance: MSNBC experienced a 30-percent increase in viewers during the first quarter of 2018. (Compare that to Fox, which lost 16 percent of their viewers in that same time period, and CNN, which lost 13 percent).
Kornacki is aware that while many viewers are understandably skeptical of data-crunching journalists, some of that may be partisan. And people’s hesitance may abate, especially as their party’s political fortunes improve.
“I sense [this skepticism] that goes in cycles and waves,” Kornacki says. “Folks on the right were pretty skeptical in the run-up to 2012. This was reversed in 2016, when Democrats were very bullish. It depends which side you’re on and which side is winning. The thing I try not to do is to make predictions — it’s much more about possibilities.”
It’s a heavy responsibility, especially when you have 218,000 followers on Twitter who are all ready to drag at the hint of a misstep.
This year’s midterms are particularly consequential, especially if the Democrats successfully take back the House and — as predicted by some — maybe even impeach the president.
“If you’re a Democrat right now and you don’t take the House, you’re going to be very disappointed,” Kornacki says. “The ingredients that you like to see on the table are on the table … Trump’s approval rating had a high of 46 percent. And it’s never broken that.”
There are other variables working in the Democrats’ favor. Midterms are typically the minority party’s to lose. Democrats are leading on the generic ballot by eight points (though that occasionally shifts). By February of this year, Democrats had performed 13 percentage points better in 14 different special elections. Still, Kornacki thinks the president’s approval rating is the best predictor of midterm performance.
Kornacki thinks the president’s approval rating is the best predictor of midterm performance.
Only twice in history has the president’s party gained seats in midterms, Kornacki cautions, and they were both during times of crisis. In 1934, at the height of the Great Depression, Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s party picked up nine House seats and ten Senate seats. In 2002, one year after the September 11th attacks, President Bush’s party gained eight House seats and two Senate seats.
You could argue that 2018 is another kind of historical crisis.
With so much demographic data to pull from, Kornacki is zeroing in on two groups of voters for 2018: those from traditionally red suburban districts with a “strong aversion” to Trump’s style who went or almost went for Clinton in 2018, and those who were part of the “Trump surge,” or largely rural countries that experienced a spike in turnout in 2016.
“That’s a huge swath of white, rural, and exurban working class voters” Kornacki says of the latter group. “Will that stick beyond 2016?”
Despite a trend of soaringly optimistic headlines, Kornacki is a “little more skeptical” that the March for Our Lives crowd will be able to cause a spike in youth turnout in 2018 — at least one strong enough to cause a seismic political shift. Kornacki points to demographic data collected after the march that showed that the majority of protestors were not Generation Z but instead older, overwhelmingly female and college-educated. That pattern is reflective of resistance movements overall.
Maybe what we have is a “handful of very prominent 16- and 17-year-olds,” Kornacki says, “who are firing up a middle-aged base.”
He also doesn’t believe the party’s agenda matters quite as much in the midterms as Democratic diehards might imagine it does. Like it or not, midterms are a referendum on the president’s performance and, uh, here’s a sampling of what our current commander-in-chief has to show for the past year and a half:
There are plenty of reasons for Democrats to feel hopeful about 2018, Kornacki argues. They just need to where to look. Though conventional Twitter wisdom says Democrats don’t have a chance in the Senate, Kornacki is a little more curious. Traditionally purplish Arizona and Nevada are both up for grabs. A March poll found that, were the election to be held today, Tennessee voters would elect former governor and Democrat Phil Bredesen over Republican Marsha Blackburn for one of their historically conservative Senate seats.
It’s all very exciting, and until the midterm itself happens, a mystery. Data guys like Kornacki aren’t election prophets, just cautious observers with a strong grasp of election history and, by extension, of the future. Kornacki tries to make this arcana accessible to viewers who are easily turned off by convoluted prognostications and language.
“I think I’m statistically literate and numbers-oriented. But I’m nowhere near as sophisticated as a lot of other folks I see. Maybe that helps me not get too jargony and communicate this stuff in a way that’s somewhat accessible. There are people out there who think it’s a waste of time.”
Kornacki sure doesn’t. Neither do the thousands of viewers who, despite their anxiety, will be riveted by him come November.
When it comes to midterms, “there’s only so much we can plan,” Kornacki says, and it’s a truism for any election. “We just have be ready for the whole story — because we don’t know what the story is going to be.”