The Great Unknown is Us

 

We’re three weeks out from the midterms and the one thing everyone seems to agree on is … nothing.

If you take the headlines, the Twitter snark, and the “conventional wisdom” and put them into a brown paper bag, shake it up, and pour it out on the kitchen table, it reads like a Dr. Seuss book:

Red Wave. Blue Wave.
Old Wave. New Wave.
Breaking News
and Faking News.
An Old Fashioned Screw You Wave.

Hashtag, Smashtag.
Old hag. Cruel brag.
Will you? Won’t you?
Would you? Could you?
Whose fortunes are going to sag?

There are a lot of reasons that polling and pundits are in a bit of a funk. It’s a combination of Teflon, tech, and Trump and how all of those things overlap.

Let’s work backward on that list. Donald Trump has broken the conventional wisdom. I will personally cop to five times I announced that his candidacy had imploded and that he was unelectable. Politics has turned into a spectator sport and everyone has become a play-by-play announcer. We’re eager to bloviate how every pitch and every play is going to be “the game changer.” But mostly it never is. If politics has any similarities to sports we should internalize our feelings for Joe Buck and just keep our mouths shut. The odds of us embarrassing ourselves always seems to be greater than the odds of any of us being correct about anything. Analyzing the game afterward instead of inside of it increases your odds of being correct.

Some time back I was reading about the difficulties concerning polling House races because area codes and Congressional Districts are not in sync. That got me thinking: how is this not a problem for all races now? My daughter is now in the third year of her teaching career in the Carolinas but she still has a cell number with an Ohio area code. Every one of us has people like her in our lives, perhaps dozens. And that is only going to become more commonplace as the years roll by. She can give you an opinion on the Ohio Senate race but she won’t be voting in it. Identifying the likely voters from someone who just has an opinion is voodoo anyway.

Finally, the Teflon, or maybe I should call it “Tribal Teflon.” (I hesitate because I’m not fond of using “tribal” to describe politics.) So many are convinced that the other side of the political aisle is downright evil that not much sticks these days. The mud and the feces may fly but it just rolls off into a massive puddle at our feet.

Splat! Nothing.

No matter what charges are leveled against a candidate these days the answer to everything seems to be, “Yes, our people are crazy but their guys are just evil!” It’s the binary hole we’ve dug for ourselves. If Barack Obama could take one thing back from his campaign days it might be this line: “We are five days away from fundamentally transforming the United States of America.” Traditionally, Americans like change but like it confined to tinkering around the edges. Fundamental transformation is radical and revolutionary. It has energized the fringes and imploded the middle.

This kind of leaves the independents and others who only casually follow politics to weigh their voting options between the lesser of two evils or the lesser of two crazies. That’s a helluva way to run a country, isn’t it?

Perhaps the uncertainty will be a motivator. Horserace political coverage is probably a greater vote suppression technique than anything the Democrats accuse the Republicans of doing. Why vote when you know it’s either in the bag or hopeless? The two biggest upsets in political history may be tied to predictive reporting. George Gallup was so certain of Tom Dewey’s landslide that he stopped polling three weeks before the 1948 November elections. And why go to the polls when Hillary has a 95 percent chance of being Madame President? If it wasn’t prior restraint and antithetical to the First Amendment, I’d propose outlawing opinion polls altogether.

Blue Wave. Red Wave.
This is what I Dread Wave.
I vote. You vote.
The “what are we gonna do vote?”
A “We Elected Who?” Wave?

There are 20 comments.

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  1. Bryan G. Stephens Thatcher
    Bryan G. Stephens
    @BryanGStephens

    Love it!

    • #1
  2. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    Polarization makes it look like it’s easier to get your political tribe to line up with each other. But in some ways it makes it harder to hold a coalition together, because the activists on both sides think they can afford to go to the max.

    There are, for example, some legitimate questions around Kaepernick’s kneeling, and in a less angry time I might look at them, but if you make the choice Football vs. the US Flag, football loses instantly, with me and everyone I know, even including the Democrats. But on the other hand, if you forced me to choose between Roy Moore and Neil Patrick Harris, NPH is going to win every time.

    A political coalition isn’t an army; people can and do quit if they don’t like changes.  How much purity do you want, and how much are you willing to trade off for victory? 

    • #2
  3. Stad Coolidge
    Stad
    @Stad

    EJHill: Traditionally Americans like change, but like it confined to tinkering around the edges. Fundamental transformation is radical and revolutionary.

    We like change for the better.  It’s just not all of us agree what is better.  What the left sees as better, we see as destructive to the things which made this country great.

    The fundamentals on which this nation was built are sound, but were weakened with the passage of the income tax and popular election of Senators amendments.  The radical and revolutionary change the left wants to implement the gutting of the Bill of Rights, the elimination of the Electoral College, and even the right to vote itself.  The latter is being done by allowing non-citizens and convicted felons to vote (restoration of this right is a separate subject).  Heck, they even want to give the vote to 16 year olds (I’d rather raise the voting age to 30 than lower it to 16).

    The Founding Fathers made fundamental change via Constitutional amendments deliberately hard because of the likely disruption to our orderly society.  What the left can’t do with activist judges (Trump is appointing more and more good judges), they are now trying to accomplish by violence in the streets – and restaurants . . .

    • #3
  4. EJHill Podcaster
    EJHill
    @EJHill

    Gary McVey: But on the other hand, if you forced me to choose between Roy Moore and Neil Patrick Harris, NPH is going to win every time.

    Pedophilia may be the last uniting taboo of our times. 

    • #4
  5. Jules PA Member
    Jules PA
    @JulesPA

    Great post. 

    Thank you!

    • #5
  6. Steve C. Member
    Steve C.
    @user_531302

    Nicely stated. I think I would have labored long and hard and not been able to generate even a semi Seussian set of stanzas.

    By the way, thanks for the reference to the Fred Allen books. I read both over the weekend. I appreciate him even more. 

    • #6
  7. Stad Coolidge
    Stad
    @Stad

    Gary McVey (View Comment):
    But on the other hand, if you forced me to choose between Roy Moore and Neil Patrick Harris, NPH is going to win every time.

    I’ll take Roy.

    I love that scene in Gone Girl where Amazing Amy takes it to Harris . . .

    • #7
  8. Duane Oyen Member
    Duane Oyen
    @DuaneOyen

    The one thing you can always count on with an EJ post- great graphics.  Thing Red and Thing Blue- the names even rhyme with the originals!

    • #8
  9. Songwriter Member
    Songwriter
    @user_19450

    EJHill: My daughter is now in the third year of her teaching career in the Carolinas but she still has a cell number with an Ohio area code. Every one of us has people like her in our lives, perhaps dozens. And that is only going to become more commonplace as the years roll by. She can give you an opinion on the Ohio Senate race but she won’t be voting in it. Identifying the likely voters from someone who just has an opinion is voodoo anyway.

    Interesting observation. We now live in Texas – with Tennessee area codes. My older son lived in NYC for seven years with a Tennessee area code. His wife has a New Orleans area code – but hasn’t lived there in ages. 

    • #9
  10. Leigh Member
    Leigh
    @Leigh

    EJHill: My daughter is now in the third year of her teaching career in the Carolinas but she still has a cell number with an Ohio area code. Every one of us has people like her in our lives, perhaps dozens. And that is only going to become more commonplace as the years roll by. She can give you an opinion on the Ohio Senate race but she won’t be voting in it. Identifying the likely voters from someone who just has an opinion is voodoo anyway.

    I would assume that “do you live in Ohio?” is one of the first screening questions asked, isn’t it?  Of course someone could lie (why I can’t imagine), but political polling is predicated on the assumption that the liars will mostly cancel each other out. 

    Not to say it isn’t a real point, because the other side is that people who carried their old phone with them aren’t being polled at all.  Again I suppose the question there is whether those voters also mostly cancel each other out, or if there’s a meaningful demographic trend among people who move out of state (or out of district) and don’t use a landline.

    I’d guess maybe that trends slightly younger and perhaps slightly more upwardly mobile than the general population, but not overwhelmingly so?  I’d also think it’s a bigger issue in House races, partly because anything that messes with the sample is going to have a bigger impact when you have a smaller base to draw from anyway, and partly because I presume there’s greater mobility within states than between them.

     

    • #10
  11. EJHill Podcaster
    EJHill
    @EJHill

    Leigh: I’d guess maybe that trends slightly younger and perhaps slightly more upwardly mobile than the general population, but not overwhelmingly so?

    In 2017 the percentage of cell-only households reached the majority (52%.) Pew reports that 10% of American adults have phone numbers with out-of-state area codes. And the problem gets worse in cities. Washington D.C., as you might expect, leads the nation at 55%.

    As you state it’s easy to weed out the out-of-towners by asking them where they live. What you cannot do is find them when you want them. It’s an underreporting problem. On average if you’re missing 40% of a population then it’s a problem for the pollsters.

    • #11
  12. Leigh Member
    Leigh
    @Leigh

    EJHill (View Comment):
    What you cannot do is find them when you want them. It’s an underreporting problem. On average if you’re missing 40% of a population then it’s a problem for the pollsters.

    That 40% aren’t missing.  Pollsters can call cell phones.  It’s more expensive and a pain to get lists of numbers, but some demographics are probably easier to reach by cell phone.  At least that’s what a little Googling reminds me.

    The problem is that 10% who have out-of-state codes.  Exactly, it’s not that your daughter (or those like her) are skewing Ohio polls, it’s that she’s missing from the Carolina ones. Though since some of them probably have landlines, it’s not a full 10%.  Say 7%.

    EDIT: and it will be a bigger problem within the state.  For one thing, if you used to live in Congressman Smith’s district and you move 20 miles away, you might not realize at first that you have a new congressman.

    • #12
  13. EJHill Podcaster
    EJHill
    @EJHill

    @leigh.  You just contradicted yourself. As I stated 40% of the nation’s residents in metro areas are missing from the pollsters potential pool.

    Here’s the article from Pew.

    • #13
  14. Jules PA Member
    Jules PA
    @JulesPA

    People who rely on polls to motivate their effort to report to the voting booth on election day deserve to lose elections. 

    You have to pull a lever on Nov 6 2018 to be heard.

     

    • #14
  15. Leigh Member
    Leigh
    @Leigh

    Posted by accident.

    • #15
  16. Leigh Member
    Leigh
    @Leigh

    EJHill (View Comment):

    @leigh. You just contradicted yourself. As I stated 40% of the nation’s residents in metro areas are missing from the pollsters potential pool.

    Here’s the article from Pew.

    If I may paraphrase Nikki Haley, with all due respect, I don’t contradict myself :) 

    It wasn’t clear where the 40% was coming from — shouldn’t have assumed I knew, though.  I thought you meant cell users only.  But after looking at the Pew data I still don’t think it quite supports your point, or not to that level.  40% of the population of metro areas have a cell phone from a different city from which they reside.  Only 10% have a number from out-of-state

    If you’re polling a congressional district, that 40% are a very big deal. But the big polls we’re seeing are statewide — senate, presidential, gubernatorial.  For those purposes, it doesn’t particularly matter if someone in Charlotte has a Raleigh cell phone number.  It might mess with weighting a little, but that’s why there’s a margin of error. 

    10% with an out-of-state number is a sizeable but not nearly so overwhelming number.  I thought the numbers in that article were interesting — it’s not 10% across the board but (of course) varies from state to state.  Might be relevant in Nevada and West Virginia, and a non-issue in Ohio and Michigan. 

    Also, this is only a problem if a pollster is relying on area codes rather than voter files: 

    Notably, pollsters who draw their samples from voter files rather than RDD frames do not have this problem. Polls built off voter files are based on the residential address on file for each person. Telephone numbers, including those of cellphones, are included in those files, but the sampling is based on the residential address reported by the adult when they registered to vote. While voter file samples are good option for pollsters looking to survey voters, it is not clear that they are a good option for organizations like Pew Research Center that study the attitudes and experiences of all U.S. adults, regardless of registration status.

    Personally, I’d be fine if political polling disappeared from the earth.  I’m not sure what good it has ever done, except maybe convincing Joe Manchin to vote for Kavanaugh.

    • #16
  17. Steve C. Member
    Steve C.
    @user_531302

    Leigh (View Comment):

    EJHill (View Comment):

    @leigh. You just contradicted yourself. As I stated 40% of the nation’s residents in metro areas are missing from the pollsters potential pool.

    Here’s the article from Pew.

    If I may paraphrase Nikki Haley, with all due respect, I don’t contradict myself :)

    It wasn’t clear where the 40% was coming from — shouldn’t have assumed I knew, though. I thought you meant cell users only. But after looking at the Pew data I still don’t think it quite supports your point, or not to that level. 40% of the population of metro areas have a cell phone from a different city from which they reside. Only 10% have a number from out-of-state.

    If you’re polling a congressional district, that 40% are a very big deal. But the big polls we’re seeing are statewide — senate, presidential, gubernatorial. For those purposes, it doesn’t particularly matter if someone in Charlotte has a Raleigh cell phone number. It might mess with weighting a little, but that’s why there’s a margin of error.

    10% with an out-of-state number is a sizeable but not nearly so overwhelming number. I thought the numbers in that article were interesting — it’s not 10% across the board but (of course) varies from state to state. Might be relevant in Nevada and West Virginia, and a non-issue in Ohio and Michigan.

    Also, this is only a problem if a pollster is relying on area codes rather than voter files:

    Notably, pollsters who draw their samples from voter files rather than RDD frames do not have this problem. Polls built off voter files are based on the residential address on file for each person. Telephone numbers, including those of cellphones, are included in those files, but the sampling is based on the residential address reported by the adult when they registered to vote. While voter file samples are good option for pollsters looking to survey voters, it is not clear that they are a good option for organizations like Pew Research Center that study the attitudes and experiences of all U.S. adults, regardless of registration status.

    Personally, I’d be fine if political polling disappeared from the earth. I’m not sure what good it has ever done, except maybe convincing Joe Manchin to vote for Kavanaugh.

    If there were no polls, what would the press talk about? 

    • #17
  18. Leigh Member
    Leigh
    @Leigh

    Steve C. (View Comment):

    Personally, I’d be fine if political polling disappeared from the earth. I’m not sure what good it has ever done, except maybe convincing Joe Manchin to vote for Kavanaugh.

    If there were no polls, what would the press talk about?

    Well, theoretically we could talk about the merits of the issues rather than trying to figure out what the majority wants?

    Honestly, though, we’d get the predictions anyway, they might not be much less accurate, and they’d probably be more fun. Politicians and pundits could generally figure out the mood of the public one way or another anyway.

    • #18
  19. Steve C. Member
    Steve C.
    @user_531302

    Leigh (View Comment):

    Steve C. (View Comment):

    Personally, I’d be fine if political polling disappeared from the earth. I’m not sure what good it has ever done, except maybe convincing Joe Manchin to vote for Kavanaugh.

    If there were no polls, what would the press talk about?

    Well, theoretically we could talk about the merits of the issues rather than trying to figure out what the majority wants?

    Honestly, though, we’d get the predictions anyway, they might not be much less accurate, and they’d probably be more fun. Politicians and pundits could generally figure out the mood of the public one way or another anyway.

    You mean like they did before polls.

    • #19
  20. Leigh Member
    Leigh
    @Leigh

    Steve C. (View Comment):

    Leigh (View Comment):

    Steve C. (View Comment):

    Personally, I’d be fine if political polling disappeared from the earth. I’m not sure what good it has ever done, except maybe convincing Joe Manchin to vote for Kavanaugh.

    If there were no polls, what would the press talk about?

    Well, theoretically we could talk about the merits of the issues rather than trying to figure out what the majority wants?

    Honestly, though, we’d get the predictions anyway, they might not be much less accurate, and they’d probably be more fun. Politicians and pundits could generally figure out the mood of the public one way or another anyway.

    You mean like they did before polls.

    Yes, exactly.  

    • #20

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