By Kenzie Smith, Staff Writer
On Wednesday, the Eisenhower Institute hosted a virtual event titled “Midterm Elections: What’s Next for Congress, America, and Democracy.” The panel for this event included Executive Director of Eisenhower Institute Tracie Potts, Gettysburg College Professor of Political Science Bruce Larson, Executive Director of the Democracy Program at the Bipartisan Policy Center Mathew Weil, and NPR Senior Political Editor/Correspondent Domenico Montanaro.
Potts opened the event by stating that although one of the main focal points for the event would be the midterm election itself, the panel planned to address the meaning of the results, civil engagement and polarization.
When asked if he was surprised by the election results so far, Montanaro responded that people need to keep an open mind on what to expect.
“The narrative can get out ahead of the data and that can be potentially problematic,” Montanaro said.
Montanaro pointed out that although the data is real, it isn’t always going to predict exactly what will occur.
The underperformance of Republicans in the House race was not entirely shocking to Montanaro. He acknowledged that there were many good Democratic incumbents running that were prepared, had the money to campaign, and performed well in debates. Montanaro also mentioned former President Donald Trump’s reputation and abortion rights causing the race to not follow the normal power-shift trend.
Montanaro said he has multiple headlines to work with after the night of the election. Some of these topics include the undecided Senate, the Republican underperformance in the House, and Kevin McCarthy’s ability to be the speaker.
Larson joined the conversation by talking about the difficulties that arise in polling.
“Polls are challenging these days,” Larson said.
Not only is it difficult to get a sample for a poll, but there are also so many of them. Additionally, each poll is merely an estimate with a margin of error. Larson encourages his students to not just look at one poll but to look at the trends.
Larson agreed with Montanaro, saying it’s “important to keep an open mind and not fall into this narrative right away.” He also noted that history can constrain, but it is not deterministic.
Weil focuses more on the machinery of the elections. His initial takeaway is that the election process itself was pretty boring.
“And I’m okay with that,” Weil said.
Weil discussed how the 2020 elections were not boring in this sense; instead, he said they were terrifying. Weil expected similar occurrences as in the 2020 election during this midterm election, but they did not materialize aside from a few isolated problems.
Weil said that the voting systems were resilient and held during the election.
Weil also talked about the increase in access to voting, saying it’s important for states to acknowledge that voters want more convenient options. These convenient voting options cause delays in results and the counting process, so states need to improve both the counting process itself and voting accessibility. Additionally, Weil pointed out that due to the delay in results, misinformation is spread between election day and when official results are released.
Montanaro pointed to the issue of expectation setting, which occurs when races are projected before the elections even occur, causing people to want the results on the night of the election. For example, Montanaro wasn’t surprised that Pennsylvania went blue but was only surprised by how quickly it happened.
Potts said that part of a journalist’s role is to “build and rebuild trust in the system.” She also highlighted the media as being very important in spreading information.
Montanaro explained how outlets can call the race when the voting is not finished. Decision desks and statisticians look at historical data, trends, polls, and exit polls data, and they weigh the data to create the final results. These professionals look at specific counties, the vote share of the county, the historical occurrences, and the exit polls and are often able to accurately predict the results.
“The wider the margin, the faster you can call it,” Larson added.
Larson also said that estimates are wrong sometimes, but a lot of times they are right.
Montanaro said that networks don’t make a poll close call without being fairly sure of the results.
In response to Potts asking about digital democracy, Weil replied that most younger voters get their information from social media platforms. One of the projects Weil is working on is a digital democracy project in which they are trying to ensure voters are getting trusted information.
“Right now I don’t see Congress creating guardrails for what tech platforms are going to do,” Weil said.
Potts mentioned that news organizations have come very far in their use of social media compared to their initial interactions with it.
Montanaro said that people’s methods of information consumption changes throughout the years, and it is a journalist’s job to be present where the audience is.
“You have to be where people are,” Montanaro said.
Montanaro also mentioned that social media has its drawbacks, such as how he believes it allows disinformation to flourish.
Potts said that journalists have two roles: to share accurate information and to train and teach people how to find accurate information.
Larson said that although he knows students get their information from different places, he doesn’t know if they are better informed. Having these various platforms to get media from also allows for “more ways to opt out [of certain information].”
“Regardless of where you get your information from, you select yourself into it,” Larson said.
Montanaro agreed with Larson’s point, saying that America has become an “à la carte society” where people pick what they want.
Larson also mentioned how students tend to absorb information in shorter segments, such as podcasts and YouTube videos, and he feels teachers need to incorporate that into the classroom.
Weil addressed some of the issues that arise when trying to have a well-informed electorate. One of the issues, especially when it comes to election deniers, is that there isn’t much focus on the mechanics of elections outside of the months surrounding the voting period. Weil said that polling sights will do logic and accuracy testing that is open to the public, and no one comes.
“We have limitations on how much we inform ourselves,” Weil said. Weil also added that he thinks the media needs to cover more of the mechanics of voting.
Weil responded to the question of where people can find and build a better understanding of democracy. He said that democracy is coming together to talk about the difficult questions.
“If we’re going to be a vibrant democracy, we are going to have to do the harder conversations,” Weil said.
Potts mentioned data that showed the large gap between what Democrats and Republicans think the opposite party is about and what that party is actually about.
Weil said that this data Potts brought up also shows that “the more educated you are, the worse opinion you hold of people on the other side of the political aisle.”
Larson added that educated people are better rationalizers for their own side.
“People are seeking information that confirms what they already believe,” Potts said.
When asked how someone can get challenging information to people who aren’t looking for it, Montanaro said that being really well-sourced is one of the most important tasks for journalists to do because of how skeptical people are.
For instance, Montanaro mentioned how some articles had seventeen national security sources during Trump’s presidency, and people still called it fake news.
“There’s something really broken there when people can’t even trust something that is as well sourced as something like that,” Montanaro said.
Montanaro also said that it’s important for journalists to be as open and just as possible and hope that people see that.
Larson addressed one of the event attendees’ concerns about proving that all politicians aren’t corrupt. He said that scandals tend to get more news coverage than good politicians.
“I think the media is drawn to conflict,” Larson added.
Potts added that good campaigning also gets more attention than good governing.
“Skepticism of power is something that is deeply ingrained [in people],” Montanaro said.
Montanaro said that it’s very difficult to convince people to not be skeptical. He also highlighted that understanding and trusting the process is important but is something most people don’t do.
“Most people are getting into politics because they want to make a difference,” Montanaro said.