Handicapping the Polls
Polls, polls, polls! In our hearts, we know they’re probably bogus, but we still pay attention to them. News media and pundits transform polls into news stories. Then campaign spokespeople cherry-pick numbers that are supposed to portend positive futures for their candidates. But what do the polls tell us?
Polls typically focus on numbers indicating the widest margins. For example, polls show both Clinton and Trump distrusted by more than fifty percent of voter respondents. That data appears to offer hope to both sides since one candidate will win despite the negative numbers. For those of us with emotional investment for or against a candidate, we hope that they forecast the future, but only if they lean our way.
The best way for any of us to truly understand polls is to clear our minds of everything we hear, and forecast results based on history and common sense.
Start with history.
- Bill Clinton, seen by many as the most popular President since Ronald Reagan, never won 50 percent of the vote. In 1996, his most successful Presidential election, Clinton won 49.23 percent of the vote, indicating that 50.77 percent of the voters voted for someone else.
- Barrack Obama an incumbent President in 2012, won only 51.06 percent of the vote.
- Because 2008 was an historic election, with enthusiasm for the first African American president, voting patterns were slightly different but began returning to their historical patterns in 2012. In 2008, Obama won 95 percent of black voters, with black voter participation rate at it’s highest ever. That resounding victory, however, gave the President a plurality of only 53 percent of the vote. Though black participation was a bit lower in 2012, 95 percent of black voters still voted for Obama. Without them, Obama would have lost.
The lesson from history, therefore, is that candidates win elections on very small margins, despite polls predicting “landslide” pluralities.
What else do we know with reliable accuracy?
Despite both campaigns claiming that they are winning, most states that vote strongly for either party will vote for the same party again and again. That fact gives us the well-known model of red (Republican) states and blue (Democrat) states. Though campaigns must maintain a presence in all states, each party cedes states other than their traditional “color” and works on those states in their traditional base. That fact can take 45—48 states out of consideration, leaving three to five so-called swing or battleground states that elect the winner.
Note: As in every election cycle, experts disagree on whether some states are the Swing States. This map, therefore, shows more purple states than the probable number.
Pollsters and news media typically report results based on the entire US-wide voting public. Pundits can then select statistical nuggets that supposedly favor their candidates. For example, Democrats will say, “Trump has a problem with young female voters.” Maybe he does, but the poll proves very little. Presumably, young women in California strongly reject Trump. But the California population is so large that it statistically overshadows the other states. Do young women compose a nationwide bloc so homogeneous that voters in swing states like Michigan and Ohio are in lockstep with their California counterparts?
Of the 50 states, there are usually four or five that become swing states, AKA battleground states, because people who are most likely to vote seem to be equally split between the two major parties. Though some states will no longer be swing states in the current cycle, other states will be “up for grabs.” Swing states usually include Ohio and Florida, though some pundits claim that Florida may no longer be evenly split. Other swing states for this cycle seem to be Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Colorado. The candidate who wins three or four of these will probably win the election.
Polling in the swing states may be meaningful, but most people in these states have already chosen their candidates. Nationwide, 28 percent of likely voters are registered Republicans, 31 percent are Democrats, and 39 percent are Independents. Though Independents are the largest group, many aren’t truly Independent. They are people who don’t like either party but repeatedly vote for one party’s candidates. Others pay little attention to politics and vote according to advice from friends or family. A few vote whimsically, according to irrelevant issues such as gender, ethnicity, race, good-looks, or “the kind of guy or women I’d like to have a beer with.” Few of these voters care about any election issues.
Filtering through these factors, it becomes obvious that each race will depend on a very small group of voters in swing states, many of whom know little about issues or candidates. Broad polls can’t measure this group.
How important are the conventions to winning swing voters? About 25-million people watched the first night of the Democratic National Convention, a very high audience size. Most, however, were committed Democrats. Many others watched hoping for extensive clashes between the Sanders and Clinton camps. Relatively few watched to learn about Hillary Clinton. Like the Republican convention, the DNC offered very little new information about the issues, strengths, and weaknesses of the candidates. For TV watchers in the battleground states, please accept our condolences. You are about to suffer through a blizzard of political commercials: as many as campaigns can purchase for $2-Billion.
Bottom line: The polls we see are as dependable as a roll of the dice.
Hillary Trains Tim Kaine
Fresh from his nomination for vice president, Senator Tim Kaine met with his new boss, Hillary Clinton. Hillary wanted to ensure that Kaine understood his new role. And the VP nominee learned that the campaign trail could be rockier than he had anticipated. Here’s a peek at their post-convention conversation.
Hillary: “Tim, do you now why I chose you as my running mate?”
Kaine: “Of course. We’re compatible on the issues, and I’m capable of being President if you were unable to serve.”
Hillary: “That’s not exactly accurate. I chose you because you were the only viable candidate who is too dull to overshadow me. Lizzie is much more lively and articulate. And her only bad mark is imagining that she was born in a teepee. Compared to someone with my baggage she’s as clean as Mother Theresa. So she was out.”
“My other possible choices included two cool minority guys—one Latino, the other African American. Both make me look as white and old as yesterday’s cottage cheese. Then there was Tom Vilsack. Somehow his name sounds like a Slovakian porn star. So you were the last man standing. And you bring with you the greatest gift of all. You’re as bland and forgettable as Al Gore was to Bill. Congratulations, on being my best choice!”
Kaine: “Thank you, Hillary. As always, I live to grovel.”
Hillary: “Now let’s talk about ensuring that we always agree on the issues.”
Kaine: “Great. Does the campaign staff have documents listing your positions on all issues?”
Hillary: “Of course not! Don’t be ridiculous! I sometimes have as many as five positions, depending on which audience I address. You’ll have to adapt your remarks to mine.”
Kaine: “How do I do that?”
Hillary: “Follow my rules. First, use a lot of extra words to confuse listeners on what you said. Second, never be too specific. Third, begin every position with a bland statement that everyone can accept: something like ‘Secretary Clinton has always fought for middle-class Americans.’”
Kaine: “What if I disagree with something you say?”
Hillary: “Here’s a gift for you, Tim. Put this gold chain on.”
Kaine: “Thanks, Hillary. How thoughtful! I love it!”
Kaine: “YEOWWW!!! ARGHH!” (moan) “What just happened?!! Was I tasered?”
Hillary: “That’s what will happen if you try to remove it before November 8. And I can activate it from my smartphone if you ever disagree with me. Shall I demonstrate it again?”
Kaine: “No! No! Please! I’ll never disagree!”
Hillary: “Great! By the way, Bill has worn a similar taser-chain since 1998, but not around his neck. Hah! I LOVE technology.”
Pense Gets Trumped
While Tim Kaine met with Hillary Clinton, Mike Pense, Republican Vice Presidential Candidate, was in Trump Towers to meet with Donald Trump.
Trump: “Congratulations, Number 10!”
Pence: “Number 10? As in Number 10 Downing Street in London?”
Trump: “No. Number 10 as in your being the first to accept my offer of VP running-mate after nine others said ‘No Thanks.’ No worries, though. They were all losers. Of course, you might be in a tough spot if we lose. You could be persona non grata at any future GOP events. Your political career could be in ashes. But I’ll take care of you. Maybe you could run one of my golf courses in Dubai.”
Pence: “I’d rather not think about that. Right now, let’s concentrate on winning the election. Does the campaign have a complete list of the important things you’ve been saying?”
Trump: “There might be a list, but you won’t need it. Besides, some of the things I’ve said were months ago, and don’t count anymore.”
Pense: “How do we decide what to say?”
Trump: That’s easy! Just say anything that comes to mind. Even if it seems crazy. No
matter what it is, a lot of people on social media will repeat it, enhance it, and believe it. When the press challenges it, you explain it as though they’re five-year-olds, and they won’t know how to handle it. Then you restate it ambiguously, and it will become a major news story that attracts new voters. Go ahead, Mike. You try it.”
Pense: “OK. Uh, Hillary is a liar!”
Trump: “That’s not good enough, Mike. It’s too simple. Besides, a lot of people already believe it, so there’s no news story. Try again, more outrageous this time.”
Pense: “OK. How’s this? Bill Clinton had an affair with Gorbachev’s wife Raisa in 1995 and nearly restarted the Cold War. Then, when the press questions me, I can say this: I read about it in a story translated from Pravda. It was left on the Congressional trolley by Harry Reid. And I can call for a Senate hearing on Harry Reid’s ties to Russia.”
Trump: “Not bad, Mike. I might even use that.
“But for your next lesson, work with the phrase, ‘No, no, no! What Mr. Trump meant was—, and fill in a confusing version of the latest negative story. Practice that with my ban on Muslims.”
“One more thing: How do you spell Pravda?”