I dreaded Nov. 8, 2022. It was the day of the U.S. midterm elections, and Democrats were due for a walloping. In spite of the Biden administration’s many legislative accomplishments, Republicans successfully pushed a narrative of historic inflation, crime-ridden streets and a border crisis to ride the “red tsunami” to the shores of American politics.
Or so I thought. In reality, the purported “red wave” was more like a pink puddle — democrats defied historical trends and delivered the best midterm performance from an in-party in decades. The Republican Party had a glorious meltdown as their midterm hopes were spectacularly crushed. And the pundits were wrong with their election predictions. Again.
But one group wasn’t wrong: Zoomers on Twitter. As I stayed up until 6 a.m. to feverishly track election results the night of the midterms, I saw a group of people who seemed to know what was going on better than anyone else, a beacon of light I came to know as “Election Twitter” (ET).
In a Zoom interview with The Michigan Daily, Galen Metzger, University of Denver student and prominent ET user, described ET as a community “where a whole bunch of nerdy 20-somethings routinely have the most accurate information and predictions about elections as a group.”
It’s difficult to dispute this. Twitter user @umichvoter (who, in a Zoom interview with The Michigan Daily, requested anonymity after being doxxed before) is a University of Michigan Class of 2021 graduate — yet in late August, they correctly predicted the makeup of the Senate and the margins in the House within a few seats, back when many outlets were handing control of Congress to the GOP.
Despite this, ET hasn’t been widely written about outside of its own sphere. The community has existed in some capacity since the early days of Twitter, but many active users seem to have gotten their start sometime between 2018 and 2020. Considering Gen Z’s increased voter engagement since 2018, this makes sense.
John Miles Coleman, the associate editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia, said in a Zoom interview with The Michigan Daily that Twitter was one of his main sources of election news.
“One of the best resources we have when it comes to making sense of these races,” Coleman said, “is people on (Election) Twitter … and these are oftentimes college kids.”
And most of the time? It’s just a side hobby for them.
What the hell happened?
But a crucial question remains unanswered: How did pundits get this election so wrong? Washington Post, CNN, RealClearPolitics, The New York Times and more sounded the alarm of “the red wave.” Even Democratic leaders were growing uneasy. Needless to say, reports of the party’s death were greatly exaggerated.
In a Zoom interview with The Michigan Daily, I asked U-M associate communication and media professor Josh Pasek why pundits were so convinced of a red wave.
“This year’s pundits were very, very funny,” he said. “The pundit class virtually ignored the survey data on where elections were this year because they were convinced there was going to be additional bias.”
These concerns weren’t without reason: historical precedents such as “the midterm effect” and Biden’s sagging approval ratings were cause for Democrat panic. But Pasek focused on the aftermath of disastrous polls in 2016 and 2020 as the cause for reports of a red wave.
After accusations of Democratic bias, the polling field was hesitant to draw too many conclusions from their polls, “given the uncertainties from the last few cycles and lingering questions about whether the corrections that the various firms put in place really did deal with the issue,” Pasek said.
However, “if you look at the underlying survey data,” (such as these statistics) Pasek continued, “it was pretty accurate this year.” The polls themselves were right, but according to Pasek, the hesitancy of pollsters to speak about their data led to an overreliance by journalists on how people were talking about the election, or what Pasek called “the vibes.”
“Absent the countervailing narrative of ‘Here’s what the data say,’” Pasek explained, “the journalists, who needed to write their election pieces anyway, said ‘Well, let’s look at the vibes.’”
And if the vibes of prominent journalists are all negative, Pasek said, “they tell you it’s negative … (which) led to sort of a broad pundit perception that I would argue wasn’t really based on the data.”
Pasek concluded by saying, “If there’s a lesson to be learned, polling is definitely imperfect, and there are lots of challenges … But it’s a heck of a lot better than going with Washington D.C. gut.”
Dumb luck … or clairvoyance?
How ET succeeded where major news organizations failed is up for debate, but consulting some of the community’s most prominent voices can offer insight. Lakshya Jain, 25, and “Thorongil” (who asked to be referred to by their Twitter handle without clarifying why), 23, are two such figures. Thorongil and Jain helped co-found election forecasting website Split Ticket (which also had an incredibly accurate Senate forecast this cycle), and their work has been featured on major news networks such as MSNBC and New Republic.
Jain is a part-time lecturer at the University of California, Berkeley, and has a background in machine learning engineering and data science. Thorongil recently graduated from an elite university with a Statistics and Data Science major.
In separate interviews with The Michigan Daily, both Thorongil and Jain praised ET’s ability to focus on local races that major networks have neither the time nor resources to invest in. “The biggest thing Election Twitter has to offer,” Jain remarked, “is that the people there are able to find extremely obscure data very, very quickly, and are able to draw shockingly insightful conclusions from it.”
Jain proposed that this may be because the relative inexperience of many on ET allows them to “approach data in a new way,” while Thorongil pointed to the fact that “a pollster and your average 17-year-old on Election Twitter look at two different things, and they have two different skill sets.”
But there are other factors at play. In an interview with The Michigan Daily, Ross School of Business junior Zach Solomon — who has his own ET account on which he frequently posts electoral maps, showing precinct-by-precinct breakdowns of how people voted in an election — noted many major pundits are concentrated in a handful of areas like New York, where there were significant Republican gains. Politics, he said, are pretty localized during midterm cycles, so “what (the pundits) missed was none of them live in the Midwest.” As a result, they weren’t keyed into the clear signs of a GOP underperformance that ET picked up on.
That’s where ET had the advantage. Because ET is composed of users spread across different states, there’s an abundance of “experts” in their respective states, doing on-the-ground reporting and election mapping. Coleman elaborated on this, citing the intensive mapping that accounts such as @umichvoter and @MappingFL do for their respective states. Oftentimes, such accounts are in close contact with local reporters and political operatives who understand local politics better than anyone.
None of what ET does is new. Pasek recounted times he spent in bars during the ’90s on election nights, mapping results and networking with other people. But social media has allowed people across the country to aggregate their resources and create a community that’s more than the sum of its parts.
Zoomers: Democracy’s future?
As glorious as correctly predicting races months in advance is, spend any amount of time on ET and you’ll be reminded that ultimately, it’s just a bunch of college kids having fun. Nothing illustrates this better than the hype surrounding the unexpectedly close House race in Colorado’s 3rd Congressional District.
As election results rolled in, Democrat Adam Frisch seemed poised for an upset victory over GOP incumbent Lauren Boebert, who FiveThirtyEight favored to win 97-to-3. After days of waiting, Frisch lost by a mere several hundred votes, but in the lead-up, ET was on fire as the community watched Boebert’s lead over Frisch grow and shrink. This gave rise to “the hype train,” fueled by countless memes about the potential upset. And the conductors of the train were none other than Metzger and Thorongil.
Using Twitter’s audio chat room feature, Twitter Spaces, the two analyzed recent ballot drops with their followers and called local election clerks to see how many ballots were left. Though these spaces became laid-back forums full of memes and casual debate, they also facilitated informative and nuanced discussions of electoral politics, some with over a thousand participants.
What Thorongil originally conceived as a sort of “ET office hours” with his followers evolved into what Metzger termed a “training ground for future political consultants and operatives.” Metzger noted how Frisch campaign members, local journalists and even a One America News reporter dropped in to discuss the midterm results and get ET’s input. Some sessions even turned into seminars on political messaging.
These spaces are emblematic of ET’s broader potential to raise a new generation of politically informed citizens. Look no further than @umichvoter’s account for a spectacular demonstration of the platform’s power. In August, @umichvoter tweeted a now-viral video of Pennsylvania Senate candidate Mehmet Oz referring to a platter of vegetables as “crudité.” Not only was Oz forced to address the gaffe, but then-Senate candidate John Fetterman reportedly raised $500,000 off the out-of-touch remark.
Viral tweets aside, @umichvoter remains focused on making politics accessible. @umichvoter said “the goal is to take complex politically savvy data and turn it into information that is easily digestible by the average person … basically making all the data and all the information kind of fun (and) easy for people.”
Like many others on ET, @umichvoter accomplishes this through a variety of methods, including making election maps, which show voting patterns and can inform future forecasting. Even though political operatives within campaigns and major news networks also make election maps, the open forum of Twitter helps the layperson understand the results too.
But @umichvoter has garnered attention for more than just his election coverage. Using his Twitter platform, @umichvoter states he raised over $160,000 for Democratic candidates across Michigan. As a result, “politicians reached out to me … to talk about poll numbers and how things are going,” he said. “They kind of just kept me in the loop because I was so involved in these races.”
Others on ET have caught the notice of lawmakers as well. For example, following his coverage of CO-03, Thorongil said “I’m just a 23-year-old who’s been to Colorado twice, but there are these (Colorado) state legislators tuning in (to our work) … We’re making a difference, evidently.”
Whatever that difference may be, the fact is there are new voices participating in democracy. Whether these young voices are running for Congress or voting in elections, the midterm results show that those voices are powerful.
Daily Arts Writer Tate LaFrenier can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Correction: John Miles Coleman’s name was corrected from “James” to “John” on Dec 8. 2022.