Ten Observations on Election 2016

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By Mike Cronin

Donald Trump’s victory certainly stirred up a lot of clamor and noise this week.  Let’s see if we can herd some of the cats:

  1. Democracy has failed. The people chose Hillary Clinton by 200,000 votes, but the electoral victory went to Trump. Our “democracy” cannot fail if we don’t have one, which is in fact the case. We were given a federalist republic under the rule of law. We use democratic processes for some decisions to give the people a voice, but we are not supposed to have a system of straight-up majority rule. As to the electoral vote: It remains to be seen whether any electors will “go rogue” and vote against their “pledge” on Dec 19th, but it has happened before (as recently as 2004).  Of course, it’s never been by enough margin to change the outcome of an election.  In this case, at least 38 would have to be “faithless electors” to get Clinton to 270.
  2. Trump hates immigrants. He hates Mexicans. He hates Muslims. He’s racist.  We’ll, he might. Only he knows for sure.  However, he is married to an immigrant and he has people from all walks of life working for him.  He certainly doesn’t think people should be here illegally, which is not the same thing as hating the people who are or the people who want to be.
  3. Trump is a misogynist sexual predator. His caught-on-camera crudities certainly lend themselves to this narrative. There’s little actual evidence and no credible accusers that demonstrate he hates all women or has assaulted any of them, but Trump’s verbal vulgarity in this area is one of the most troubling things about him. Still, while Trump has been caught speaking like a sexual predator might; Hillary Clinton continues to aid and abet one.
  4. Trump is going to destroy all of the progress progressives have made over the last eight years. Possibly, but presidents seldom accomplish their full agendas.  Yes, Trump will have a Republican-majority Congress, but it won’t be a super-majority, and the Republican establishment doesn’t like him.  Trump bills himself as a deal maker.  He’ll have to be to get his agenda anywhere.
  5. Trump is going to elevate nationalism over globalism. Both are euphemisms for collectivism; only the boundaries are different. Neither is as good for individuals as unfettered free market capitalism.  There might possibly be temporary beneficial effects for Americans in the shift, especially if our troops come home and small businesses can thrive again.
  6. Trump is an idiot/outsider/politically inexperienced. He certainly does not articulate himself with Obama’s grace, but he is no dummy. In fact, he’s likely quite adept at persuasion (see items five and six on this list). He is certainly gifted at getting free publicity (or at least notoriety) from the very mass-media that hates him. Also, his lack of political experience, i.e. his NOT being a career politician or D.C. insider, is one of the fundamentals that led him to get elected.
  7. What happened with the polls? They consistently gave Clinton the edge! Bottom line: garbage in/garbage out.  The pollsters drew their samples from the same body of “likely voters” they always used, and in some cases “oversampled” Democrats.  The former was neglectful and led to the Democrats believing in their own invulnerability; the latter was a nefarious attempt to convince would-be Trump voters to stay home on Election Day. Once exposed, the revelation likely caused the exact opposite effect. Either way, the pollsters failed to obtain accuracy because they could not, or would not, sample validly.  
  8. FBI Director Comey’s shenanigans (i.e. his announcements regarding the on-again/off-again investigation into Clinton’s email debacle vis-à-vis Huma Abedin’s laptop) comprised the quintessential October Surprise, and it hurt Clinton. It certainly didn’t help, but it’s much more likely that Clinton’s shenanigans hurt Clinton.
  9. Why were Clinton and Trump our candidates? What secret weapon did they employ that none of their competitors had? 30-plus years of universal name recognition.
  10. What does it mean that Republicans gained more seats in Congress, strengthening their majority? They didn’t get a super majority, so there are a few (rare) actions they would have to earn Democratic support for in order to act: Impeaching the president and overriding his vetoes are two such cases. 2. Republicans will get to shape the Supreme Court for the next generation. 3. Republicans now have an opportunity to reverse much of the Democrats’ work over the last eight years. Whether they will actually do so, or get complacent and/or get caught up with internal divisions remains to be seen.

Trolling by Polling

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By Mike Cronin

Now that the presidential campaign season is in full swing, we are being treated to the usual inundation of “demographic” polling results (i.e. how are “soccer moms,” Hispanics, gays, white men, etc. going to vote?)  Taken individually, as they are usually reported, the vast majority of these polls tell us nothing useful.  Piolls that tell us how a state will vote are getting closer to valuable.

Consider: This page at Real Clear Politics lists numerous polls with entries similar to this one:

Race/Topic: State X:         Poll : Qunipiac                Results  Trump 44, Clinton 38                            Spread: Trump +6

Trump is up by six points over Clinton in State X.  Sounds dire for Clinton, right?

You still might be getting “trolled.”

Regardless of how you’d like the race to go, we need to remember how presidents get elected: by winning the Electoral College vote.  The popular vote heavily influences the Electoral College, but the nature of that influence is determined by state laws. As we’ve seen as recently as 2000, it is possible to win the popular vote but lose the electoral vote and the election. In terms of polls: It means that generic surveys of this or that demographic, such as the one cited above, are almost useless by themselves for telling us how an election might go, especially in “solid” red or blue states. It makes no difference if a candidate’s poll numbers go up in a state that was already going to vote for them.  It makes a great deal of difference if a candidate’s numbers change in a battleground state with a lot of electoral votes, such as Florida or Ohio – such a shift could move electoral votes from one column to the other, perhaps enough to get to 270.

Thus, even taken in aggregate, “demographic” polls aren’t much of a barometer.  A much more instructive product would tell us how every state is currently trending, with caveats for the states (Nebraska and Maine) that are not “winner take all.”  Such a tool would give us a much better predictive assessment of the electoral college votes likely to go to each candidate.

Such a beast exists: http://www.270towin.com/. They have broken down the race several ways.  If we look at their map that “kluges” current polling data with expert forecasters’ opinions, Mrs. Clinton already has 272 votes in her camp, two more than are needed to win.  But  if we look at their chart that displays the accumulation of polling data only and omits “expert opinion,” then Clinton has about 200 electoral college votes in her camp (out of 270 needed to win), while Mr. Trump has 163.  Either situation sounds much more troublesome for him than “Trump up by six” sounds for Clinton, doesn’t it?

If “demographic” polls vice “electoral vote” polls do little to predict the outcome of the Electoral College race, why publish them? At least two possibilities come to mind:

  1. There’s nothing like stirring the pot in order to keep you tuned in and watching advertisements.
  2. To shape voters’ behavior in some way favorable to whomever commissioned the poll. Example one: Clinton’s current lead only translates to victory on Election Day if enough voters actually go to polling places and pull levers.  If you want Clinton to win, maybe you paint her as losing ground in the polls in order to generate a hint of doubt. Maybe that will motivate folks to go vote that might have stayed home if they felt comfortable she was going to win. Example two: If you want Trump to win, you might commission such a poll in order to generate enthusiasm by painting him as an underdog coming from behind and pulling ahead – a narrative that always does well in America.

Manifestly, Donald Trump still has an uphill battle.  In his best case scenario, he has to take 107 more votes and keep Clinton from gaining, while in his worst case he needs to take at least three of Clinton’s existing votes away!

Despite being much more instructive than run-of-the-mill poll reporting, even such tools as the “270towin” charts are not infallible, nor is the sentiment recorded today going to be the same on election day.  Clinton’s recent bout with “pneumonia,” clumsy messaging regarding her overall health, and “deplorable” commentary on Trump supporters certainly helped Trump’s polling tick up a bit, but did it affect the electoral vote trend?  Time will tell – and we still have to get through the “October Surprise.”

While such and event or revelation may yet upend the race, there is sure to be a battle over the next few weeks for the remaining available electoral votes. Poll results that don’t tell you how that aspect of the election is going are probably not worth your consideration.

Putting Polls in their Place

By Mike Cronin

Now that election season is in full swing, we are subject to a constant stream of polls and polling results in the news. Many of these polls are legitimate attempts to gauge public opinion.  But some polls, and/or the results of some polls, are put to use to shape our opinions rather than discover them.  One example I heard recently alleged to be reporting opinions on who had little or no chance of winning the presidency in November.  The polling methods might have been legitimate, but the client who ordered the poll might have had an ulterior motive.  Here’s a possible scenario:

Candidate A, or an organization in favor of Candidate A, orders a legitimate poll from a reputable firm such as Gallup or Quinipiac to find out who people think have the worst chances of getting elected. The poll is taken and the results come back that people don’t think Candidates X, Y, or Z have much chance of getting elected in the fall.  Candidate A’s organization then trumpets these results loudly and often. Had the results been inconclusive, Candidate A’s organization wouldn’t have publicized the poll at all.

Knowing that we are all influenced to some degree or another by peer pressure, the results of the poll could sow discouragement among the supporters of Candidates X, Y, and Z, and even affect the candidates themselves, potentially hastening their departure from the race and reducing the competition against Candidate A.

There are dirtier tricks in the pantheon of polling practices. One such is to use the so-called “push-poll.” A push-poll is not really a poll at all in that it doesn’t seek to find out your opinion, but to change it or reinforce it. You might have received a piece of political junk mail that seems like a poll, but the questions will be highly “loaded” or biased.  Questions from such an artifact might read something like these examples:

“Candidate B wants seniors to lose their Medicare benefits. Do you think we should allow him to get his way?”

“The ABC project will pollute the local wetlands with 10x the current level of toxic substances.  Candidate B receives campaign donations from the company behind the project.  Don’t you think we need campaign finance reform?”

In both examples, the reader is first led to be outraged. The outrage is inherently tied to a candidate, then the respondent is manipulated to respond a certain way. The client of the poll wasn’t trying to find out people’s feelings on Medicare or campaign finance; rather, he or she was trying to sully the competition. A legitimate opinion poll will word the questions in as neutral a way as possible.  For instance, the questions above might be legitimized by rewording them in the following way:

“How do you feel about Medicare?

It should be maintained         Uncertain            It should be abolished”

“What is your opinion on campaign finance?

It needs to be completely reformed       It could use some reforms           It does not need any reforms”

So how can you peek behind the curtain of the polling game? Whenever you are asked to participate in a poll, or you hear polling results, consider these questions and/or look for trouble signals:

Who took the poll?  Was it a reputable polling firm?

Who commissioned the poll? What do they stand to gain or lose from the results?

Was the sample (the group of people taking the poll) drawn at random?  (If not, the poll will results will be biased, and therefore suspect.) Something to consider: most internet or call-in polls may seem to be sampling at random, but they are not. They are surveys of people who are already interested in the topic at hand! Most often, valid polls are accomplished via random digit dialing.

Was the sample size large enough?  (If the total population is, say, “likely voters,” which might be 75 million people, a sampling of ten people is not sufficient to gauge the opinion of the whole, but a sampling of 1000 or 10,000 might be. This is what statisticians get paid the big bucks to figure out.)

Are the questions biased or neutral?

Who is touting the results of the poll? Have they focused on the results of only one question that serves their ends, while ignoring the results of other questions on the same poll?

When you understand how polls can be used and misused, you increase your immunity to being manipulated in ignorance.