Living and Dying by the Polls

I’ve gone cold-turkey and have avoided any cable news for the past three weeks. During that time I’ve managed to get some writing done and to relax. It also has given me some time to think clearly. I remembered what happened to Karl Rove back when Obama beat Romney. Do you remember that Rove was on Fox news and refused to believe the results coming in. Why? He had his own set of polls that shows Romney winning. Romney was getting ready to give his acceptance speech.

Many people laughed at Rove. What an idiot! How could he have any credibility again? Then 2016 came along. Virtually every major poll had Clinton winning and we know what happened. Some recent data shows that Kellyann Conway was lying as usual when she attributed Trump’s victory to unpolled people who came out in droves to vote.

That didn’t really happen. What did happen was that the pollsters fell victim to what is a dirty little secret. Up until the end of September or so the polls all seem to agree. Suddenly they diverge widely. Why? The answer is the “secret sauce” that pollsters start brewing as the election grows closer. They take their raw data and begin adding their own secret algorithms to forecast how many of which particular voting segment will actually come out to the polls and vote.

The problem for pollsters is that most people say they will vote, but historically only a relatively small percentage do. I think the answer for the rest of us is pretty clear when it comes to our own forecasting. Remember the old adage that “It’s the economy, stupid”? People tend to be motivated by how they feel about the economy. They need a reason to vote.

In 2008 and even in 2012 people waited in lines for hours to vote for Barack Obama. They felt a strong attachment for him and they believed he represented change. Even more basic, he excited various “tribes”— the most elemental human building block. What I mean by that is that he attracted overwhelming excitement and loyalty from Afro-Americans (the first black President), young people (he’s young and hip like us), etc.

Some 2016 and we had the two most disliked candidates in history running. One was a con man who basically promised whatever people wanted — “clean” coal, steel jobs returning, riding the country of those nasty Mexicans who were taking their jobs, less wars, and lower taxes. The other candidate basically built her campaign around the message “I’m less scary than he is.” Does anyone remember anything Hillary promised? She pitched her speeches at the 12th grade level of English while Trump spoke in 4th grade English (Yes, people have analyzed their speeches).

So, when it comes to estimating what it takes to get people out to vote, what is the more compelling message —-vote for me and your life will be better or vote for me or that scary guy will blow up the world? If people already feel the world is in bad shape, they don’t worry as much about the possibility that it might blow up.

So, in the future, those of us who want to get a better handle on the election shouldn’t just read 538 and the NY Times. We should look at voter enthusiasm. Trump was right about that –he was able to generate huge crowds without the need to bring in celebrities. Hillary for all our strengths and experience lacked enough charisma to excite people.

We’re in a world now where people want bread and circuses. We’ve come a long way downhill from the time that Lincoln and Douglas would debate real issues and platforms. In the age of reality TV, people need a reason to switch on the program. From now on the Democrats will need to focus on pocketbook issues and run candidates who middle class and lower class people will conclude understand their daily lives. How a billionaire with no real experience or in-depth policies could pull that off shows us that the traditional approach to nominating candidates no longer works. I believe Bernie would have been a far better candidate but would not have won because he would have been killed in the rural areas over his “socialist” history as well as anti-Semitic slurs.

Polls can’t evaluate this country’s hearts. Unfortunately we are still a country where significant numbers of people hate anyone not like themselves. It’s a country where a significant percentage of “traditional” women will not vote for a woman with the audacity to run for President. We are far less evolved than the Europeans in some ways. While we don’t have the rigid class structure found in Europe, we have de-evolved into tribes that are distrustful of each other. If I asked you what you are, rather than saying you are an American, you are more likely to reply with your ethnic heritage, your religious affiliation, or even a list of the “others” you hate.

People will not reveal their petty hatreds in a poll nor will they reveal the likelihood they will vote. It’s hard to measure the intensity of their feelings toward a candidate, but it ultimately comes down to self-interest. Trump didn’t win because most people wanted to make “America great again.” He won because they hoped he would improve their individual lot. No matter how rational the argument that could be made to them that Trump wasn’t capable of doing that or really didn’t care about them, people clung to the hope that he would do what he promised. That’s why they came out and voted in droves. Those people who couldn’t stomach Trump but felt unmoved emotionally by Hillary decided not to stand in lines and inconvenience themselves on election day. Perhaps they stayed home and watched a reality show.