A History Of Prognosticating

Given the overwhelmingly negative press about Biden’s approval ratings, I was impressed (and persuaded) by a recent essay in the American Prospect titled You Are Entering The Infernal Triangle: Authoritarian Republicans, ineffectual Democrats, and a clueless media,”

The essay began by considering how often pollsters blow their most confident—and consequential—calls.

Ronald Reagan’s landslide was preceded by a near-universal consensus that the election was tied. The pollster who called it correctly, Lou Harris, was the only one who thought to factor into his models a variable that hadn’t been accounted for in previous elections, because it did not yet really exist: the Christian right.

Polling is systematically biased in just that way: toward variables that were evident in the last election, which may or may not be salient for this election.

Former punditry was worse.

I have probably read thousands of newspaper opinion column prognostications going back to the 1950s. Their track record is too embarrassing for me to take the exercise seriously, let alone practice it myself. Like bad polls, pundits’ predictions are most useful when they are wrong. They provide an invaluable record of the unspoken collective assumptions of America’s journalistic elite, one of the most hierarchical, conformist groups of people you’ll ever run across. Unfortunately, they help shape our world nearly as much, and sometimes more, than the politicians they comment about. So their collective mistakes land hard.

Examples? In 1964: When Lyndon Johnson, defeated Barry Goldwater, one of the most distinguished liberal newspaper editors in the South pronounced that all future American elections would be decided “on issues other than civil rights” and affirmed what was then conventional wisdom– in the future, whichever party took the Black vote would be “no more predictable than who would win “freckle-faced redheads and one-armed shortstops.”

In 1976, when Jimmy Carter beat Gerald Ford, pundits overwhelmingly proclaimed that the GOP was “in a weaker position than any major party of the U.S. since the Civil War.” That was right before 1978, when “New Right Republicans and conservative Democrats upset many of the longest-serving and beloved liberals in Washington.”

There were several other examples, culminating with the following;

And in 2012, when Michael Lind wrote of Barack Obama’s re-election victory, “No doubt some Reaganite conservatives will continue to fight the old battles, like the Japanese soldiers who hid on Pacific islands for decades, fighting a war that had long before been lost … Any competitive Republican Party in the future will be to the left of today’s Republican Party, on both social and economic issues.”

The author uses these examples to point out that the “conceptual tools, metaphors, habits, and technologies that we understand as political journalism” are thoroughly inadequate to understanding what politics now is.

According to polls (which, yes, have their uses, in moderation), something around half of likely voters would like to see as our next president a man who thinks of the law as an extension of his superior will, who talks about race like a Nazi, wants to put journalistic organizations whose coverage he doesn’t like in the dock for “treason,” and who promises that anyone violating standards of good order as he defines them—shoplifters, for instance—will be summarily shot dead by officers of the state who serve only at his pleasure. A fascist, in other words. We find ourselves on the brink of an astonishing watershed, in this 2024 presidential year: a live possibility that government of the people, by the people, and for the people could conceivably perish from these United States, and ordinary people—you, me—may have to make the kind of moral choices about resistance that mid-20th-century existentialist philosophers once wrote about. That’s the case if Trump wins. But it’s just as likely, or even more likely, if he loses, then claims he wins. That’s one prediction I feel comfortable with.

Journalistically, this crisis could not strike more deeply. The tools we have for making sense of how politicians seek to accumulate power focus on the whys and wherefores of attracting votes. But the Republican Party and its associated institutions of movement conservatism, at least since George and Jeb Bush stole the 2000 election in Florida, has been ratcheting remorselessly toward an understanding of the accumulation of political power, to which they believe themselves ineluctably entitled as the only truly legitimate Americans, as a question of will—up to and including the projection of will by the force of arms.

Ain’t no poll predicting who soccer moms will vote for in November that can make much headway in understanding that.

The article proceeded to consider the way mainstream American political journalism has built in a structural bias toward Republicans. I will share some of those insights tomorrow, but you really should click through and read the entire essay.

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There Are Polls…And The Polls

I get just as worried as anyone else over those polls that our media outlets obsess over–the ones that find more Americans voting for Mr. Mental Case than for President Biden. But I know I shouldn’t.

Over the past several years, in election cycle after election cycle, even opinion polls produced by highly credible sources have proved to be wrong, and not by just a little. There are a lot of reasons for the misses–ever since cell phones replaced land lines, efforts by those conducting the surveys to compensate, to adjust in order to ensure they are surveying representative groups of voters, have proven inadequate.

A recent post to Daily Kos reminded me why we should take all polls–with the exception of actual voting at the election polls–with a heaping measure of salt.

The post began by reminding readers of Congress’ abysmal polling–and the fact that, despite overwhelming disapproval, incumbent representatives get re-elected more than 90% of the time. (We used to refer to this as the “I hate Congress but love my own Congressperson” problem.)

It is difficult to square these high reelection rates with Americans’ overall low opinion of Congress. Gallup tracking polls of Americans’ opinions of Congress over the past twenty years reveal that rarely do more than 25 percent of Americans approve of Congress and frequently their approval is down in the 14-20 percent range. In one recent Gallup survey, as few as 9 percent of people approved of the way Congress was handling its job.

The post– written by someone who is himself a political pollster–went on to explain:

There is a lot of bad data out there, mostly because of the fact that it is almost impossible to collect it.  So when I tell you there is a lot of bad polling, almost all of it, it does not mean I think the polling is intentionally bad, or done with a purpose of propaganda.  It just means that Republicans are much, much easier to reach than Democrats.  I have spoken about this before.  It is one of the biggest reasons I saw the 2022 election going differently than most.

What the pollsters did not figure out, however, is that this is not a problem that can be fixed with weighting.  As I have said, a young person that talks on the phone, is more conservative than one that likes to text.  Generally, this cuts across all demographics.  Republicans are more likely to participate…

As Michael Podhorzer has demonstrated, pollsters influence outcomes by letting their own biases and intuitions tilt poll results by deciding who to include in the sample. A month before its late-October 2022 poll showing a four-point deficit, the Times/Siena showed Dems up by two points. In the October story, the Times/Siena showed Biden losing ground among independents and women. But as Podhorzer writes, “What the paper didn’t disclose was this: Independent voters hadn’t changed their minds; the New York Times changed its mind about which Independents would vote.”

Perhaps the most significant insight in this particular post is this: support doesn’t change. Turnout does. Political preferences tend to be stable; in today’s highly polarized political environment, self-identified Republicans and Democrats are highly unlikely to go to the polls and cast a vote for a candidate of the other party.

The motivation to go to the polls–the motivation to cast that vote–is another matter.

The number one thing to remember about polling, is that after about 2000, for the most part, bases solidified and voters do not often change their minds.  Partisanship has hardened.  All elections are about turnout.  While independents may be in a sour mood, they are also displaying nihilistic tendencies, and my research suggests the most likely scenario is one that makes 2024 a base election.

Permit me to repeat the most important insight in that paragraph: All elections are about turnout. 

Democrats did extremely well this November, because they turned out. Thanks to the Dobbs decision and the unremitting MAGA attacks on democracy and the rule of law, Democrats have been motivated to turn out in much higher numbers than usual. That motivation is likely to persist into 2024.

If there is a moral to this story, it’s this: don’t try to “get through” to your bigoted uncle at Thanksgiving. Don’t try to explain to your co-worker why his vote for the GOP is really a vote for cutting Social Security. Instead, make sure your college-age children, your live-and-let-live bowling buddy, and your pro-choice aunt are registered and that they have rides to the polls.

You know–those polls that (contrary to the Big Lie) are actually accurate and meaningful.

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Facing Reality

At this moment, it looks as if Joe Biden will win. But no matter who is President when the smoke clears and the votes are all counted–if they are– we learned some things on Tuesday. And the lessons weren’t pleasant.

The most obvious–and ultimately least consequential–is that polling is not nearly as “scientific” as the pollsters think. The effort to figure out what went so wrong will undoubtedly occupy pundits and nerds for a long time.

The far more painful lesson concerns the nature of our fellow-Americans.

I read about the thuggery leading up to the election–the “good old boys” in pickups ramming Biden’s bus, the desecration of a Jewish graveyard in Michigan with “MAGA” and “Trump” spray paint, the consistent, nation-wide efforts to suppress urban and minority voters–but until election night, I’d convinced myself that those responsible represented a very small segment of the population.

I think what I am feeling now is what Germany’s Jews must have felt when they realized the extent of Hitler’s support.

I am not engaging in hyperbole: the research in the wake of 2016 is unambiguous. Trump supporters are overwhelmingly motivated by racial and religious animus and grievance. White nationalist fervor has swept both the U.S. and Europe over the past few years, but it has taken firmer hold here. The QAnon conspiracy has clear roots in the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and America’s racism–our original sin–has provided fertile ground for the alt-right sympathizers who defend tearing brown children from their parents, treating both immigrants and citizens of color as disposable, and keeping women in “our place.”

Trump didn’t invent these people, but he has activated them. Indeed, he is one of them.

I thought it was tragic when Trump’s approval ratings forced me to recognize that more than a third of America fell into that category. I find it inconceivable–but inarguable and infinitely depressing–that the actual number is close to half.

Evidently, the America I thought I inhabited never really existed. I’m in mourning for the country I believed was mine.

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Omens…

Our ancestors looked for omens in animal entrails. My nerves–already stressed to the breaking point as we approach Tuesday’s election–sent me on a somewhat more modern search, which may or may not be more accurate.

The polls, of course, are comforting–except when they aren’t. I compulsively visit FiveThirtyEight.com. daily, where the odds, at least, strongly favor Biden. But then I remember how strongly they favored Hillary…

I look at the unprecedented number of Republican defectors: not just the Lincoln Project and Republicans for Biden, and the other groups out there doing television ads, but the 20  Republican  former U.S. Attorneys who warned last week that Trump endangers the rule of law, the 600 prominent Republicans (including numerous former office-holders) who’ve endorsed Biden, the 700+ Intelligence and national security officers who signed the letter I posted last week, warning that Trump is a threat to America’s security and place in the world…and numerous others.

Then there are those “never before” newspaper endorsements.

The conventional wisdom is that newspaper endorsements have little to no effect on voters in big national races, but Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden has racked up a string of first-ever endorsements from a wide array of publications, including Nature, Scientific American, The New England Journal of Medicine, the Puerto Rican daily El Nuevo Día, and Surfer. On Tuesday, Biden got another one, from USA Today, one of the largest U.S. newspapers by circulation.

USA Today (or “McPaper” as we detractors call it) has an ideologically diverse editorial board, but the board has unanimously endorsed Biden.

“If this were a choice between two capable major party nominees who happened to have opposing ideas, we wouldn’t choose sides,” USA Today’s editorial board said. “But this is not a normal election, and these are not normal times. This year, character, competence, and credibility are on the ballot. Given Trump’s refusal to guarantee a peaceful transfer of power if he loses, so, too, is the future of America’s democracy.”

As of last week, at least 119 daily and weekly newspaper editorial boards had formally backed Biden. Probably the most surprising was The New Hampshire Union Leader, which hadn’t backed a Democrat in over a century.

Culture change is harder to quantify, but public opinion seems to favor progressive positions. Seventy percent of Americans now support same-sex marriage while only 28 percent oppose it, according to a poll conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute. That’s the highest level of support the institute has ever recorded for same-sex marriage. The percentage of Americans who support a woman’s right to control her own reproduction is up, too (Pew says it’s 61%), as is the percentage supporting Black Lives Matter.

The fact that nearly 80 million people have already cast a ballot is an even harder sign to decipher–yet I look at the long lines, many if not all clearly representative of American diversity, and the unprecedented number of young voters, and I have trouble believing that they demonstrate an outpouring of support for Trump. I look, too, at the  GOP’s rush to confirm a rigidly ideological judge before the election as evidence of their desperation and their own clear belief that they’re losing…..

All of this should comfort me. It doesn’t. 

For one thing, there are columns like this one.

And even if Biden wins, who knows what this lunatic and his corrupt and thuggish enablers will do if the results aren’t overwhelmingly clear on Tuesday? What additional harm can he do between the election and January 21st, even if he accepts a loss? We’ve seen the brutishness, brazen criminality and irrational behavior of his supporters, egged on and encouraged by this embodiment of their rage and grievance. Will they take to the streets?

The only thing I’m sure of is that I am too old and way too tired for this. Maybe I should look for some animal entrails…

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Encouraging Signs

As we count down to Election Day, I am looking for signs of sanity. One of those signs is the number of Republicans coming out publicly against Trump.

It isn’t just  the Lincoln Group or Vote Vets or Republicans Against Trump. It goes way beyond Cindy McCain, or the letter signed by 500+ former national security officials whose number included numerous Republicans.

Political science research tells us that some people affiliate with a political party because  they agree with the party’s basic approach to the issues, but others join because they identify with the people in that party. To an extent, that’s understandable; humans are hard-wired to be tribal, to prefer to associate with those they see as their “own kind” rather than those who register as “other.”

When you think about it, America’s entire history–our struggle for civic equality– might be characterized as an effort to develop a more inclusive understanding of who we are talking about when we use the word “we”–an effort to enlarge our definition of who qualifies as a member of the “tribe” we call American.

Admittedly, we have a long way to go.

Our current political tribalism, abetted by media bubbles and geographic sorting, is extreme. Political scientist Lilliana Mason argues that “A single vote can now indicate a person’s partisan preferences as well as his or her religion, race, ethnicity, gender, neighborhood and favorite grocery store.” Democrat and Republican have become our new mega-identities.

Because American tribalism is so pronounced, this election presents the remaining thoughtful members of the Republican “tribe” with a wrenching dilemma: do they ignore the multiple dangers posed by a lawless and corrupt President of their own party, and elevate partisan loyalty over all else, or do they place the good of the country above partisan advantage?

In last week’s Indianapolis Business Journal (behind a paywall) two notable local Republicans–John Mutz and Scott Newman—opted for country over party, endorsing Joe Biden and arguing that Trump should be defeated.

Mutz and Newman joined an unprecedented number of “defectors” nationally–including Indiana’s Dan Coats, who served as Director of National Intelligence and has been quoted as saying he believes Putin “has something” on Trump. (Wikipedia has an impressively long entry titled List of Republicans Who Oppose Trump). For people who have been lifetime Republicans—who have campaigned as Republicans, held office as Republicans, and embraced what used to be Republican ideals—people whose friends and families remain devoted to the Republican “tribe,” a decision to publicly endorse Joe Biden has to be incredibly difficult.

The behaviors that have prompted all of these defections are too numerous to list. I have previously characterized the Trump administration as a combination of the Mafia and the Keystone Kops—the degree of self-dealing and shamelessly criminal behavior has been matched only by the daily displays of incompetence. (One of my favorite FB memes is “I’ve seen better cabinets at IKEA”)

Most of the Republicans who have publicly “defected” are pundits or previous office-holders whose partisan allegiance was rooted in political ideology: preference for free markets, fiscal restraint, limited but effective governance. That today’s GOP no longer embraces any of those principles became too obvious to ignore this year, when the party didn’t even bother to produce a platform.

The Republican Party I belonged to for 35 years no longer exists, and a chilling White Nationalism too obvious to ignore characterizes what remains.

If the survey research and polling are correct, a majority of Americans agree with Mutz and Newman and strongly disapprove of Trump. Assuming a free and fair election—something we cannot, unfortunately, take for granted—the task for Republican defectors will be to rebuild their party into an adult, sane, non-racist GOP. America desperately needs two responsible, thoughtful parties with contending, evidence-based ideas about what constitutes workable public policy.

What we don’t need are tribes fighting for the dominance of male “Christian” Americans with white skin.

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