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.

Blanket Guilt or Precision-Guided Accountability?

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By Mike Cronin

Q. What do all of the following have in common?

A. You might be tempted to answer racism or bigotry, but that doesn’t cover the last item. The correct answer is that in all of the above examples, an entire group is being held accountable for the supposed sin of an individual or individuals. It is a hallmark of collectivism.

Consider: The sniper who killed the Dallas police officers on Thursday was seeking revenge for the deaths of some black men who had been shot by some white police officers in other states.  In other words, in his mind, since some white police officers in other locations had killed black men, all white officers were racists. The sniper committed the very same crime he believed the white officers had committed:  he held a group responsible for the actions of a few, or of one.  He tried, convicted, sentenced, and shot the Dallas police officers for crimes they didn’t commit, or for the non-crime of being white.

Mr. Trump’s proposal to ban Muslims is less combative, but it still stems from a collectivist mentality: If some Muslims are coming here to do us harm, then we can reduce the potential for such acts by banning ALL Muslims from entering the country. There is certain soundness to the logic here: If no Muslims can enter, it must follow that the jihadist sub-set of Muslims can’t enter.  Nonetheless, setting aside the difficulties in enforcing such a policy, the idea goes against the principles of individual liberty: it applies a sanction to an entire group for potential crimes yet to be committed by some members of that group.

Consider:  If you take the Bible literally, then you believe God created Adam, the first human.  Adam was tempted by Eve (who was herself tempted by the serpent) to eat the forbidden fruit from the tree of knowledge.  Human souls have been tarnished by this “original sin” ever since. Put another way: Humanity is being held to account for a supposed sin we could do nothing about, because it happened thousands of years before any of our births. In essence, we have been born convicted of a crime we didn’t commit and commanded to atone for it or suffer eternal damnation.

The problem is that collectivism belongs to our infancy. Our country was founded on the principles of individual liberty and personal responsibility, but they conflict with the collectivist principles at the root of most religious doctrines, so there has been a constant duality in American culture.  For example: During World War Two, The US Government rounded up US citizens of Japanese ethnicity and “interned” them in concentration camps for the sin of merely having common ancestry with an enemy; yet after the war, our government largely did not hold the Japanese people accountable for the brutality of their vanquished rulers.  Instead, General MacArthur’s occupation forces went after the actual individuals who led the Empire.

It is all too human to project our fear, or anger, or hatred, or resentment over the sins or crimes committed by an individual onto a group, yet there is no justification for doing so. Humans have been doing this since we were stone-age primitives trying to protect our “turf” from rival clans. It takes some enlightenment to dial down our naked aggression and apply accountability with precision.  It is a thing we must learn if we are to advance as a species.

Issues, Symptoms, and Oreos

By Mike Cronin

Most of the issues in the presidential debates are not issues at all but symptoms. How so? Let’s take an example: illegal immigration.

The real problem isn’t that the United States is racist and doesn’t want so many people coming into our country. It’s that the flood of people coming into this country illegally is a signal that other things are broken.  The mass of immigrants perceive the United States to be a better place to live and work than wherever they are from. In other words, their incentives to come here are greater than their incentives to stay home. That has always been the case with immigration to the United States. What has changed is the nature of the incentives.

Through much of the 19th and 20th centuries, the incentive to immigrate to United States was the opportunity to be free to work hard, own property, and succeed.  From the latter part of the 20th century to the present, that incentive has been morphing. There is still an incentive to come here to be free and succeed, but another incentive has been steadily taking the place of that original one.

The new incentive is to come to the United States and take part in the bounty of government benefits and handouts that we bestow on a significant portion of our population. Free K-12 education. Subsidized housing.  Free or subsidized medical care. Relatively high paying jobs (even jobs that pay immigrants less than minimum wage under the table may be paying them more than they could get in their own country.) Low risk of being deported.   Even the possibility of voting. Why stay at home and live in absolute poverty, when you can come to America and upgrade to relative poverty and dependence on Uncle Sam?

A related symptom is corporate off-shoring and outsourcing. Even as immigrants are poring in to find a better life here, companies that send jobs or work outside the United States are vilified as unpatriotic. But why do they send these jobs outside the United States? Does it have anything to do with patriotism?

Could it instead be because government interference and manipulation have incentivized them to outsource, just as it has incentivized illegal immigration?

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Consider the Oreo case.  Donald Trump vowed last year not to eat Oreos ever again because of reports that Nabisco’s parent company moved 600 jobs from Chicago to Mexico in order to lower labor costs.  What the reports left out of the equation is that the marginal tax rate and a key product ingredient (sugar) are also cheaper in Mexico than in the US.  Think about that.  A company moved 600 jobs to Mexico because operating conditions are more conducive to profitability there than they are here, the original business-friendly nation!

So what is the disease?  Government interference in the market, namely via ham-handed manipulation of incentives.

Government tells companies who to hire (Affirmative Action), how much to pay them (minimum wage), charges payroll taxes, Social Security taxes, and corporate income taxes. Government requires businesses, and many professionals, to have licenses, and it regulates everything. It makes raw materials, parts, and other materials more expensive by applying the same kinds of interference to suppliers and other business partners.  The costs of all of this are either absorbed out of company profits, or passed on to the consumer, and it drives companies to go elsewhere to do business, which kills jobs here.

In effect, our own politicians  drive unskilled and low-skilled jobs out even as they lure unskilled  and low-skilled laborers in! This drives companies to move entire production lines out, or to hire illegal immigrants and pay them under the table.  It puts drag on the entire economy with excessive regulation, excessive taxes, and excessive interference – then the politicians call the companies unpatriotic for wanting to escape.

Might the politicians be a few cookies short of an Oreo?