What Do We Learn from Presidential Debates?

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As a young teen in 1960, I watched history’s second televised presidential debate, pitting John F. Kennedy against Richard M. Nixon. I viewed it at the home of my first girlfriend’s parents.The dad was a local politician, a city councilman. Also attending was the dad’s closest friend, a political columnist for the local newspaper. Both men were staunch Republicans.

Sitting on the living room floor with the girlfriend, I understood that the dad had set this evening up as a teaching opportunity. He probably didn’t like having me around, but would grudgingly let me live if I would become a future Republican.

Most Democrat pundits had claimed that Kennedy had won the first debate. Most Republicans had called it a tie. As we watched the second debate, the give and take seemed to be much like the first one. But as the debate concluded, the two men in the room cheered with raised fists. Like the winning quarterback and receiver of an NFL game, they high-fived and congratulated each other on a job well done.

When approached, I joined in the celebration. I had no idea what I was celebrating, but I really liked the daughter and was happy to act without understanding the script. The next day I read about the debate in the New York Daily News, and in the local paper. The News (then a Republican paper),  called it “a good night for Mr. Nixon.” Though I was a relatively savvy kid I didn’t get it. What made Nixon the winner? The best information seemed to be that he didn’t sweat as much as he had during the first debate.

As odd as that 1960 memory might seem, opinions on this week’s debate appeared to be just as fatuous.

In a live focus group composed of about 30 Democrats facilitated by Frank Luntz, Bernie Sanders was the clear winner. Why? Various individuals in the group said that Sanders won because he had firm conviction for his beliefs. By that measure, nearly any absolutist would be a potential president.

Then Carl Rove, called “the architect” by President Bush, said, “it was a good night for Hillary Clinton.” Why? “She didn’t say anything to hurt herself.” That sounded like pretty thin evidence.

But that appears to be the way most people see presidential debates. People without strong feelings for any candidate or party are unlikely to watch them.

But voters with strong feelings about a candidate view the debates through the mental prism they bring with them. They applaud their candidate’s favorable lines and discount those of the opposition. Do they ever listen to the opponent and change candidates? Has any voter, a year before an election, suddenly become engaged in the election because of a snappy one-liner?

Though the TV networks would disagree, evidence indicates that the debates are anachronistic rituals that contribute very little to the voting public or the ultimate winner.

Unless, of course, we need to recognize people for sweating less.

My book “The Victory that Wasn’t” offers a fictional alternate history with a different kind of Military, and better outcomes for all Americans. It’s available on Amazon at http://amzn.to/1GUL8oX

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Can We Really Trust The Numbers from Pollsters?

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Public pollsters, especially those measuring presidential candidate preferences, approach their work with high integrity and professionalism. Polling expertise at Gallup, Quinnipiac, Pew Research, et al, is excellent. Reading their published methodologies, I can’t find anything to criticize.

And yet…

Most of the results are meaningless, especially when we are more than a year away from the 2016 presidential elections.

But let’s pretend for the sake of argument, that the polling results released to the media are 100 percent accurate. Even so, they are open to interpretation and commonly contribute to fictional narratives.

The current Republican candidate results, averaging all major polling by Real Clear Politics as of October 4, provides a textbook example of confusing polling data.

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(Note: Former Virginia Governor Jim Gilmore isn’t listed. Most results omit him since he polls less than one percent.)

The media and pundits declare Trump as the clear leader. That’s technically true, but 76.8 percent selected a candidate other than Trump. As time rolls on 13 candidates will gradually drop out. We need to ask ourselves who respondents will support after each unsuccessful candidate drops out. That may not seem to be a big deal when Pataki, Graham, Jindal or Santorum bows out.

But which candidate would benefit if Bush drops out? Would Bush supporters gravitate to Trump? That’s possible though unlikely. If Cruz drops out, would his supporters move to Trump? My educated guess would be yes. But if Fiorina drops out would her support move to Trump? That would be highly unlikely. Few Rubio supporters would move to Trump. Some Kasich supporters might go to Trump. But very few Carson supporters would move to Trump unless he was the last man standing.

Even if media and pundits reported evenhandedly, polling data might still be corrupted.

Here’s why:

High-level polling organizations do excellent work in processing the data that has been collected. Unfortunately, they primarily use telephone polling, especially robocalling. Looking at the ways people use phones today, polling by phone makes many results questionable.

Most phone users, cell phone or land line, can view a calling number and optionally decide not to answer. Many people refuse to answer any unrecognized number thereby avoiding telemarketers, donation requests, etc. Some pollsters may leave voice mail requesting a return call, but very few people will honor those messages.

Who are the people who actually answer calls from pollsters? How many calls must a pollster make before reaching someone who is willing to talk? Do they have more time on their hands than those who don’t answer?

And for that matter, who are the people who don’t respond? Are they too busy? Are they less engaged? Would the data be different if they participated?

Technology has also created a dichotomy of a different kind. Only 60 percent of the population now uses land lines. Many landline users also have a cell phone, though there’s no data that shows whether the cell phone is their primary connection or only for occasional use. This is relevant because virtually 100 percent of people younger than 40 use cell phones as their primary connection. And the vast majority of older people primarily use landlines. So if successful connections are skewed toward land line or cell phone users, they may be skewed by age. Polling companies may try to compensate for that question by asking interviewees for their age, but results would be questionable. Age is the one question that draws the most lies.

Perhaps the worst factor, however, is that many respondents know very little about the issues, and may not even know the candidates by name. Ironically many people will answer questions about candidates and issues they know nothing about and pretend rather than be embarrassed.

At best, “it’s complicated.” Media and Pundits want to get ahead of the story. They did that in 2012. There was no Trump-like candidate then, so they projected a different winning candidate every few weeks. At various times, they predicted people such as Tim Pawlenty, Herman Caine, Newt Gingrich, Michelle Bachmann, and Rick Santorum.

So what do the polls tell us? They may offer a current day snapshot of attitudes of people who know little and care less. They do make cable news more interesting. But do they predict the future? I’ve personally polled 19 people, and 15 say “No”. Let’s go with that for now.

My book “The Victory that Wasn’t” offers a fictional alternate history with a different kind of Military, and better outcomes for all Americans. It’s available on Amazon at http://amzn.to/1GUL8oX

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How Do Low-Information Voters Affect All of Us?

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Low-information voters can be very funny. Diverse TV personalities like late night TV comedy host Jimmy Kimmel, and Fox News pundit Bill O’Reilly, regularly send street interviewers to public places, to demonstrate public ignorance on things every American should know. Night after night we see random people who can’t name the US vice president, say that the US fought France in WWII, or that the Civil War was fought in 1920.

Most of us respond by saying, “It’s just entertainment. And it’s funny!” But these mini-interviews tell us something else. Though the quick-answer responses are probably selected for their entertainment value, they actually demonstrate a major problem that is turning elections into meaningless comedies.

Most of these TV field crews acquire 12-15 interviewees, from which the producers choose 3-4 as entertainment. Perhaps that indicates that 75 percent of people interviewed respond with correct answers. Our nationwide elections are normally decided by 2-3 percent. If the street interviews indicate that 25 percent of voters are clueless, how can we select candidates based on voter support for complex issues?

Before the age of social media, most voters read newspapers or watched TV news a few times a week. They may not have been fully informed, but they knew something about issues that they considered important. A majority of the nation’s newspapers have either folded from lack of subscribers, or are struggling to serve a shrinking readership. The network news shows, once the greatest influences, have now faded to irrelevancy.

Candidates for national offices previously ran campaigns around issues they considered important, and tried to win support from swing-voters. But for the past 10-15 years, candidates and their staffs have emerged with something termed “identity politics.”

Low-information voters hear little about actual issues, and select candidates who successfully attack opponents with negative portrayals of factoids about their pasts.

A few examples:

  • Senator John Kerry lost his race against incumbent President George Bush in 2004, largely on questionable information about his actions as a Swift Boat pilot in Vietnam in the late 1960s. Though memories of those events 40 years earlier by witnesses were split on what actually occurred, the negative story won out. Kerry was further portrayed as an effete intellectual, based somewhat on videos showing him windsurfing on vacation.
  • Former Governor Mitt Romney lost his presidential race in 2012, after being portrayed as a cold, uncaring multimillionaire. The opposition campaign drove a story that he had gone on vacation with the family dog’s kennel strapped to the roof of his car. Opposition also claimed that Romney coldly eliminated American jobs, or “shipped them to China.” This claim ignored the fact that his company’s business was in purchasing unprofitable companies and re-selling them after eliminating obsolete or non-competitive operations.
  • Though President Barack Obama won his presidential bid in 2008, he had to survive tales of his church membership led by a demonstrably anti-American pastor. He was further attacked as being a Muslim, based on his biographical account of living in Indonesia for a few years of his childhood. Neither of these attacks told anyone—friend or foe—anything about his presidential agenda.

Unfortunately, none of these races included clear positions on issues that were important to voters. Instead, each campaign staff concentrated on low-information voters and fed them personal attacks against their opposing candidates.

Elections like these don’t serve Americans. We can do better. If only a small portion of the billions of dollars wasted on election advertising could address methods of non-partisan voter education, voters would act much more intelligently. Perhaps leaders in this area can become creative enough to appeal to millennials. Maybe they can deliver education in an online game format. Or perhaps as a modern cartoon series. Maybe they need to give away a T-shirt to everyone who participates.

Educated voters might then see themselves as hiring managers, and see candidates as applicants who must clearly state their positions, then perform as promised during the election process.

My book “The Victory that Wasn’t” offers a fictional alternate history with a different kind of Military, and better outcomes for all Americans. It’s available on Amazon at http://amzn.to/1GUL8oX

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