Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Opinion Polls Don’t Vote

I have calculated that individual public opinion occupies a space of 334,540,800 cubic inches: 1 mile wide times I mile long times 1 inch deep. Our problem is that the over reporting of polling data is too much with us. The statistical size of the undecided vote suggests that there is no huge shift in public opinion. The much touted anger and rage being recited to us every minute, should we listen, is exaggerated on purpose and exacerbated by advertising based visual media. The reason is the contrary of what is being reported -- the midterm races are not that close. However, if they appear to be close, then the more beer, cars and pills to treat erectile dysfunction can be sold.

Money is flowing into media to go after the undecided vote to be sure. A flood of money will be spent on negative advertizing. But I question just how undecided voters really are. Depending upon which group of pundits one hears or which newspaper opinion page one reads, the rhetoric tends to fall along For-Obama or Against-Obama lines. Yet neither of those arguments convinces anybody of anything.

Washington Post columnist David Broder notes, “The history of midterm elections shows regular gains for the opposition party, and so far all the polls look upbeat for the GOP.” However, the flaw in the polling argument is that of voters not aligned to either political party. They are not undecided. They are nondecided. If they vote, it will probably be across a previous party affiliation they had, grudgingly or not. As a result the survey numbers are rendered ambiguous -- a best guess.

Furthermore, voter turnout is low in midterm elections. FairVote.org says, “Turnout in midterm elections is far lower, peaking at 48.7% in 1966 and falling as low as 39.0% in 1978,1986, and 1998 remaining below 50% in midterm elections.” What that suggests is that so long as the election rules are consistent, “the same electorate can result in 60% turnout in one election and 2% in another depending on what is on the ballot and whether the election has essentially already been decided.”

“It ain’t over until it’s over.” Yogi Berra also said, “Baseball is 90% mental -- the other half is physical." So it goes with polling. The non-closeness of the elections, I contend, accounts for the weakness of the Republican candidates from amateurs such as Rand Paul, Meg Whitman, and Carly Fiorina to political hacks like Jan Brewer and Sharron Angle.

In California for example, the Fiorina senate campaign is reported to be statistically close to that of 3-term incumbent Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer. If elected, Fiorina will have to work with incumbent Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein. If not elected, as a former CEO of Hewlett-Packard, she will still be a former CEO either looking for a new big-corporation gig or living off of her new celebrity, like Sarah Palin who endorsed her. If nothing else, Palin has proved that celebrity pays better than public service.

Once non-incumbents are elected, they become junior members of a governing elite and are obliged go to knife-and-fork school to be trained in their new positions. They have no influence. They do as instructed if they want to return. They are obliged to work for their constituency by making deals, especially with other legislators of their state and of other states.

Because of my Irish heritage, I am anti-incumbent by nature. I am for term limits on congress. However, I cannot support candidates who have never shown any interest or participation in public service. By the way, one never hears the tea party Republican candidates speak about public service. To them the very concept is foreign, probably even socialist.

Theodore Roosevelt said, “A typical vice of American politics is the avoidance of saying anything real on real issues.” The deficit is not a real issue for the mid-term elections, which are state elections. The deficit, part of the economy, is an issue of federal elections. Employment, two wars and immigration are “real issues,” as they were in TR’s time.

With an alarming dearth of policy, the present GOP is content with merely opposing everything and anything that the President does or supports. The argument goes like this: it took the GOP seven years to destroy the US economy and to create the deficit out of a surplus. The Democrats have not fixed it in the first 19 months of the Obama presidency. It is kind of like saying “We screwed it up. Only we can unscrew it.”

The War in Afghanistan has not ended. The War in Iraq is slow going. They are both products of the Bush Administration and each is astronomically costly in terms of the 3-Ms – the men, the material and the money. And somehow it is all Obama’s fault. He should have wrapped those two wars up by last Christmas. He is, after all, the Commander-in-Chief.

Immigration to a land of immigrants is the purview of the Federal government. It was a major Ku Klux Klan issue after WWI, although the Klan had little interest in Latinos except for their tendency to be Catholic -- like being a Communist or a homosexual or, say, a Muslim. Yet, somehow the Obama administration has failed to protect the Arizona border, as its tea party governor has said.

For the record, the court found Arizona Law SB 1070 to be unconstitutional [that pesky 14th Amendment, again]. Arizona legislators passed it four times when Janet Napolitano was governor and each time Napolitano vetoed it. She became the head of Homeland Security and the governorship went to Jan "headless corpses" Brewer who signed it. Unconstitutional is unconstitutional no matter what state or by who’s signature.

We tend to believe things that support our opinions and disbelieve the things that do not. With such human nature in mind, it is easy to understand the popularity of public opinion polls. The data that polls generate is enormous and critical to estimating what a well defined target audience is going to favor or reject. Survey data is the life blood of marketing and fund-raising.

It is important to remember that the public can change its mind on any issue and it does. Consider off-shore drilling. The Deepwater Horizon oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico seems to have changed the opinion of Californians by a 16% swing, from a small majority that favored it to 59% who oppose drilling off the California coast. We know this because it is what the survey said.

No one surveyed me. “Undecided” is not a choice I would make anyway. “Prefer not to say” maybe, but no one asked me. And well they should not have asked me. I do not poll well. Most likely the reason is because I did not go to a mall, or did not answer my phone, or did not click on an online pop-up box. Somehow, I eluded the surveyors. But you can bet I will vote.
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Article first published as "Opinion Polls Don't Vote" on Blogcritics.org.

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