Politics

Meet the Pollster Who Convinced Republicans There Would Be a Red Wave

Turns out he was super-duper wrong. About almost everything. Whoops!

A picture of Tralfagar founder Robert Cahaly.
Robert Cahaly in the midst of saying something that probably turned out to be wrong. Screengrab from Fox News

Let’s review some polls issued by the Atlanta-based Trafalgar Group in the weeks before Election Day, then compare them to actual results. (All percentages are as of publication time.)

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Actual result: Fetterman won by 4 points. Whoops!

Actual result: Shapiro won by 14 points. Ha-ha, whoops!

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Actual result: Patty Murray won by almost 14 points (albeit with only two-thirds of votes counted). Not much of a nail-biter unless you have a considerable nail biting problem. Whoops!

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Actual result: Tony Evers (@Tony4WI) won by 3 points. [Slaps forehead] Whoops!

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Actual result: Bennet won by 11 points. LOL! Whoops!

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Actual result: Whitmer won by 11 points. That’s a big razor! Whoops!

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Actual result: Razor-thin again, eh? Hochul won by 5 points. Whoops!

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Actual result: Warnock finished 1 point ahead in a race that will go to a runoff on Dec. 6. Whoops!

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Actual result: It’s not called yet, but Cortez Masto trails by only 2 points with mail-in ballots still being counted—and is widely considered the favorite to eventually pull ahead and win. A provisional Whoops! to that one.

What’s going on here? Well, Trafalgar founder Robert Cahaly is a longtime Republican operative (one who, as you can see from the TV screenshot above, lends himself an air of intellectual authority by wearing a bow tie). Many Republicans believe that independent polling operations are among the mainstream institutions biased against conservatives. During the 2012 presidential election, that feeling gave rise to a concept called “unskewing the polls,” which were said to be understating support for Mitt Romney.

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They weren’t—Romney lost, and most polls actually overestimated his support—but during the next presidential cycle, Cahaly’s operation began putting out its first polls, which consistently suggested Donald Trump had a very good chance of defeating Hillary Clinton. Most other polls did not say this, and when Trump won, Cahaly became a polling celebrity.

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In 2020, Trafalgar’s polls said the same thing—that Trump was going to win. Of course, Trump did not win, but Tralfagar retained much of its influence, including among mainstream reporters. This was partly because Nate Silver’s site FiveThirtyEight continued to give the group an A-minus rating for its overall accuracy despite some concerns about its transparency. (Many other polls in 2020 were off in the other direction, i.e., overestimating support for Joe Biden.) Cahaly’s outlier optimism about Republican chances continued unabated this cycle, and was arguably instrumental in creating the narrative of a rising red wave that never materialized. (Presumably, that A-minus is about to drop).

A 2020 New York Times article about the company—published before Biden’s victory, even—noted that “Trafalgar does not disclose its methods, and is considered far too shadowy by other pollsters to be taken seriously.” But it does release crosstabs, i.e., breakdowns of polling responses by subgroup, which allow observers to see under the hood at least a little bit to find out how it gets its overall numbers.

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This process raises more questions than it answers. In this year’s Georgia race, for example, Trafalgar asserted that Herschel Walker led Raphael Warnock by a literally unbelievable 62–37 margin among voters 18 to 24 years old. Other polls had that margin completely reversed, and according to AP VoteCast, Warnock won the 18–29 group by a margin of 64–36 in his 2020 runoff against Kelly Loeffler. The company also said that Republican Don Bolduc was winning Hispanic voters in New Hampshire 70–17; while 2020 exit poll data doesn’t include Hispanic voters in New Hampshire because that’s such a small subgroup, Biden beat Trump among “Latino” voters in nearby New York state by a margin of 72–27.

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One can only speculate as to where Trafalgar found a set of Gen Z voters—89 of them, according to the other data it provided—that broke 2-to-1 for the MAGA candidate in a swing state like Georgia. But there are rewards available in the attention economy for doing so, which provides free advertising for Trafalgar’s paid, private work. (As Silver noted, it has also sometimes released paid partisan polls without disclosing their funding.) As shown in the photo above, Cahaly is a frequent guest on Fox News; according to Nexis, he appeared on Fox networks at least nine times during October and November, where he provided analysis like this, from a Nov. 6 exchange with Maria Bartiromo:

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BARTIROMO: We’re going to be speaking with Herschel Walker shortly. He’s my guest coming up. How does he look in Georgia? And what can you tell us about that race?

CAHALY: Well, ever since the debate, Herschel Walker has really been a juggernaut.

I mean, all the reliable polling has shown Herschel continuing to get stronger and stronger. And I think what’s more important is, Herschel’s probably flirting with not just winning, but winning without that run-off that everybody has predicted for so long.

He is just literally hitting on all cylinders. 

Very scientific stuff! Unfortunately, none of the Fox discussions covered the Senate race in Vermont, where, as Semafor’s Dave Weigel pointed out Thursday, Trafalgar’s projection of Democrat Peter Welch’s margin of victory ended up being off by a robust 34 points. As for Cahaly’s reaction to the red wave that wasn’t, well, he hasn’t been on TV or posted on Twitter since just before results started rolling in on Tuesday night.

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