01 November 2008

Politics: Are we there, yet?

Today, I had occasion to say to a friend that it was a really good thing I don't have a nail-biting habit.

Otherwise, I'd be up to the elbow right now.

"But Mikey," I hear you say, "the polls all say that Obama's got it locked. Gallup's got Obama up 10  on McCain. If you go with Real Clear Politics's average, he's +6. Five Thirty Eight's got about a 7% spread in Obama's favour. He's going to win everything Gore or Kerry won and then a few that they didn't, and given how close those elections were, that puts him over the top! Stop worrying!"

I'd love to. Really. The problem can be summarized in three words:

"Dewey Defeats Truman".

There are some significant parallels, although the parties are reversed. Republican Dewey was ahead in the polls, and those same polls showed significant coat-tails that would drag a strong Republican majority into both houses of Congress. Truman was the incumbent, running for his own term after stepping into FDRs, and was deeply unpopular with certain segments of the population.

The big issue that year was that polling was in its infancy, and phone polls only work if people have telephones. In the late '40s, this was predominantly people with money, and they favoured the Republican Dewey, naturally. Pollsters had also failed to take into account the relative lack of momentum in popular opinion; that it can and will turn on a dime. So they stopped polling weeks before the election, sure that they had the answer already.

On Election Day, it became clear almost immediately that the polls had been dead wrong. Conservative media at the time insisted as the day wore on that "late returns" would show a surge for Dewey, and honestly seemed to believe it--hence, the Tribune's headline--but it was never a realistic hope. Truman not only won, he won by a handy electoral margin, and brought in a Democratic majority to both houses. Ultimately, the populace punished the Republicans for the "Do Nothing" 80th Congress, which, with a weak Republican majority, failed to get much past FDR's successor.

Polling has come along, long way since then, but it still has some dreadful flaws. The difference is that most people in the media now know those flaws. They still use polls, because it's a nice pithy way to summarize a story, but they know, and often admit to, the flaws. For example, nowadays, phone polling tends to still be focused on land-line phones, because of a reluctance to spam cellphones (thank heaven!). But now, the equation is opposite of what it was in the mid-40s. The people who still have landline phones tend to be poorer.

Then, there's the fact that, in this jaded age, many of us simply hang up on telephone solicitations of any kind, especially robocalls. Part of how the campaigns themselves gauge support is based on how many people they successfully talked to, but McCain's campaign has used a lot of robocallers, which are even more likely to get hung up on. Therefore, McCain's own numbers may well be wrong. He may have tremendous support from people who simply don't want to talk to his robots.

The race question also, sadly, screws up everything when it comes to believing the polls. It shouldn't, of course, but it does. This is the much bally-hooed (and somewhat debunked) "Bradley Effect", where people say to pollsters, "Sure, I'll vote for the {insert minority here}!" but they're lying because they don't want the stranger on the other end of the phone to think they're a bigotted pig. But on Election Day, when push comes to shove, they'll mark for the white guy.

Of course, as I just said, there's some material out there debunking the effect, so it may not really have ever happened, let alone be happening now. But human nature being what it is, it's not hard to imagine, really. And therefore, it's easy to worry about.

And so, yes, friends, I'm nervous about how this is going to turn out. In 2000 I was complacent, in part because Clinton had so trashed his own image and legacy that I was ready for even a stupid monkey. I didn't vote for the stupid monkey, mind you, but I was OK with him, because hey, how much harm could he do in four years, right?


Then in 2004 I was also complacent, in part because I was still personally angry about 9/11 and not thinking as clearly as I would like, and therefore still somewhat pro-war; but also because Kerry was such a damned zombie that it was impossible to take him seriously. Again, I didn't vote for the stupid monkey, but I still firmly believed that everything would be OK in the end.

Except...it wasn't. The wars have dragged on. In the case of at least one of the two wars, it's clear to all but the most die-hard, delusional neo-cons that it was the wrong war for the wrong reasons. Our standing in the world is shit. We lost their respect when we went into those wars, and we lost their fear when they started to realize our military was pretty tapped out. And now, our economy, the world's economy, is down the toilet.

No election is simply going to fix all this instantaneously by magic.  But the wrong result will make it worse. So it matters. And until it's over and decided, I'm going to be nervous about how it will turn out.


katerinfg said...

ides, do you want to tempt the wrath of the whatever from high atop the thing?

JC said...

I share some of your aprehension, and I know you were only using cell phones as one example of many potential polling issues, but while cell phones do belong to people with income, they also tend toward the younger demographic, who tend toward Obama, so I'm not sure the lack of cell phone polling means a boost for McCain.

Uncle Mikey said...

@JC -- the problem is that, historically, the youth vote is never as strong as it seems like it ought to be. Typically, no matter how energized the youth appear to be, when Election Day comes around, they don't turn out.

Now, there certainly are exceptions. The youth vote was part of what propelled Jesse Ventura to the governorship of Minnesota, for example. The late Paul Wellstone, also of Minnesota, had a way of energizing the younger vote, not least of which because he started his first campaign while still a professor at Carleton, and knew how to communicate with them.

In the end, that's really going to be the key. Not that all young people are liberal, but enough young people seem to be energized by Obama. If they turn out, I think he wins.

But that's a heck of an if...

Chesther said...

I've gotta disagree with your thesis that "folks with landlines are poorer". Perhaps "folks with only one phone are poorer", but I think the mobile/landline split is much more along age lines than anything. Younger folks are more likely to have no landline.

Combine that with the unpredictability of the youth vote, and you've just got one bigass wildcard.

Uncle Mikey said...

@chesther -- You're right, I did misspeak myself. The way you phrased it (that people with only landlines are poorer) was how I meant it.

I was also assuming that most people with cellphones are like I was, when I still had a landline--we kept the landline as a DSL line and an 911 line and never actually answered it if it rang--which is also not necessarily true.

Uncle Mikey said...

@chesther -- You're right, I did misspeak myself. The way you phrased it (that people with only landlines are poorer) was how I meant it.

I was also assuming that most people with cellphones are like I was, when I still had a landline--we kept the landline as a DSL line and an 911 line and never actually answered it if it rang--which is also not necessarily true.