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Polling Literalism

For the record, I'm not spending my Friday night being lame -- should be off to the Fiery Furnaces show pretty soon. That said, let's blog some. The main thing that troubled me about Ezra's "fuck the center" post from this morning wasn't really my quasi-accurate invocation of the median voter theorem. Rather, I worry that trouble's brewing when I see political strategy based on this sort of data:

Because, surprise surprise, the nation doesn't quite rest in the magic center either. They like class warfare, soaking the rich, government-run health care, preserving the environment, and participating in all manner of international treaties.
Call it "polling literalism" and call it a huge mistake. Polls show all kinds of stuff, and the main thing you can learn from studying polling about voters' stances on the issues is that the average person doesn't really understand what he's talking about.

I've seen polls showing, pretty consistently, that people favor a flat tax. Polls also consistently show that people think the rich should pay more taxes. And that spending should be increased in virtually every area. And that spending on the whole is too high. Back in 1984, 19 percent of the electorate, a plurality, said that the budget deficit was the most important issue. 64 percent of those people voted for Ronald Reagan, the man who'd created the deficits, over Walter Mondale the man who (accurately) predicted that either candidate would wind up raising taxes to close the deficit but that Reagan would lie about it and pretend that he wouldn't.

Back during the 2004 campaign, John Kerry stepped right into the gaping polling literalism void by going on and on about how important it was to be "respected in the world" because he had polls showing this was popular. Well, it was popular. But not granting "permission slips" was popular, too. And so was not flip-flopping. It was hard to say "respected in the world" without sounding like you meant "permission slip" or else falling into a French-sounding, flip-floppy nuanced explanation of what you meant. The dynamics of a campaign aren't like the dynamics of a single poll question. More recently, the White House has stepped right in it on Social Security, apparently emboldened by a huge amount of polling indicating that "people should be allowed to put a portion of their payroll taxes in private investment accounts" (or something like that) was popular. The polls were real. Not popular, though, are cuts in guaranteed benefits or large amounts of new borrowing. If you call it "borrowing from China and Japan" the borrowing gets a lot less popular. The administration didn't consider that. Nor did they consider that the main focus of public support for privatization was among a demographic (young people) who already deeply distrusted the President and could be easily (and, as it happens, accurately, but the accuracy is largely incidental) that Bush was lying about Social Security. Nor did they consider that while few Republicans want to lose their seats over privatization, most liberals are perfectly happy to make this the hill we die on.

One could go on. The death of Social Security privatization may make for an interesting book someday, just as the death of Bill Clinton's superficially-popular health care plan has already made for a lot of fascinating post hoc reading. The point, however, is that you've got to be careful with these polls. They're snapshots into the confused, confused mind of the American electorate and need to be handled with a great deal of care.

April 8, 2005 | Permalink

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» Anybody Got Something to Read? from The Left Coaster
I’m currently without a book and I’m hoping that readers can give me some recommendations in the comments. I continue to be dazzled by the intellects in the screens and I’m creased I didn’t think of this before—of course liberal... [Read More]

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» Anybody Got Something to Read? from The Left Coaster
I’m currently without a book and I’m hoping that readers can give me some recommendations in the comments. I continue to be dazzled by the intellects in the screens and I’m creased I didn’t think of this before—of course liberal... [Read More]

Tracked on Apr 9, 2005 12:36:39 PM

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Tracked on Apr 10, 2005 10:42:12 AM

Comments

Perhaps the best example of just how confused the electorate is is the polls that show virtually every issue of the day is a loser for Bush - people oppose nearly every thing he is for. But, a plurality say he is doing a good job. Who ever first said you just can't underestimate American voters was a genius.

Posted by: Vaughn Hopkins | Apr 8, 2005 10:46:24 PM

I feel odd standing between Matt and Ezra, since I've been a left-liberal (or worse) forever. I think that the main thing the Democrats need to do is develop a stronger every-year campaign in addition to a stronger election-year campaign. This requires developing new national media of the anti-Fox type. I figure it would cost half a trillion or so.

For a long time I though Democrats should be more left. Then I thought that they should just campaign more aggressively and effectively. Now I think that with national TV-Cable-newspapers-radio as unbalanced and intimidate as they are, the Democrats can only win if they develop a whole new media structure.

With a half-level media playing field, campaigning more aggressively and moving to the left might both be possible.

Posted by: John Emerson | Apr 8, 2005 11:25:07 PM

The next Democratic presidential nominee must have a campaign and a media structure that utterly destroys the Republican nominee and doesn't flinch once when doing it. Find our swifties, and sic 'em on whoever it may be. One of the problems with the left-wing 527 ads this cycle wasn't that they weren't mean or bitter enough, because they were, but that they still seemed to be asking permission from the audience to validate their claims.

Well this Democrat says nuts to that. Let's institute a "don't ask, tell" policy.

And let's find the toughest SOB who can pass the Beltway primary or none of the left-right or up-down debates will matter. It's destroy or be destroyed. Them or us. If you're not making Rove second guess himself, it's a losing fight. And I don't know who on our bench gets that. Maybe Clark. Because they did it to Kerry, and they did it to Gore, and they ultimately did it to Clinton too, and the sad sacks before him even more so.

And I'm goddamned tired of it.

Posted by: SamAm | Apr 8, 2005 11:52:12 PM

exactly!

Posted by: praktike | Apr 8, 2005 11:55:36 PM

I'll take this in a different way. I'm a left-liberal as well, pretty much, but for different reasons. Mainly, I see serious changes needing to be made from an economic stance and they need to be made soon, anyway I digress.

The problem is that people of all sorts. Especially in the middle. (I'm looking at YOU Al Frum) get the idea that the idea to win elections is to be in the middle. It's not. In fact, that gets you relativly nothing.

No, the goal is to be percieved as being IN THE MAINSTREAM. And that's where Democrats, and even more so, those of us on the left have been shmacked around over the last 30 years or so. Why? Those on the liberal-left, who should be presenting their views as mainstream, go out of their way to REMAIN on the fringes. Get it? And that's been the case for the longest time.

Get over it.

It really WAS so-called "special interest" groups that were mostly behind the Democratic party. It's true. And in that way, it allowed the Democratic party to be labeled as being outside the mainstream. I'm looking at YOU Ralph.

A pox on both your fucking houses.

Instead, what you have is a temperate progressive community going on here. Which is doing what SHOULD have been going on all this time, and why we got pasted.

John, what the Democrats need to do, and more media exposure is part of it, is start to build a true progressive-liberal community, unsegmented so there's a wide variety of ideas and speakers, and make it interactive, so everybody can feel part of the community if they want to.

What? You're kidding. You mean we're actually starting to build that ALREADY? You mean we have the new personalities and leaders out of everyday people to push things into the 21st century?!?!?!

And to change the whole concept of mainstream.


Posted by: Karmakin | Apr 8, 2005 11:59:20 PM

The problem is, most Americans don't walk around with a defined position on most issues. So when they get polled they mostly just grab whatever cues happens to be around, whether it's whatever's on the news or an implicit bias in the way the question is phased.

Prime example: Bush's approval rating was way low right before 9/11. But the poll taken right after that shows his popularity soaring. Did the fact that the world trade centers were distroyed on his watch suddenly make him a better president?

Posted by: battlepanda | Apr 9, 2005 12:12:47 AM

It’s clearly a confused electorate but such an oddity is not all that mysterious. If we’re talking about Presidential politics, the issues don’t matter – they never have. Americans are infatuated with personalities and not substance. Bush had a slight edge over Kerry in this department and from a relative measure that didn’t require much effort. We’re so fricken shallow in this country that a moron has more appeal than a dullard. It also helps to ratchet up lingering fears and anger from 9-11.

Opinion polls reveal social expectations and very little in terms real behavior, potential or otherwise. They have a certain abstract value as perhaps indicators of a general cultural mood, but if you want to know, e.g., what people had for dinner the night before last, you don’t go door to door asking them for such an account. You dig around in their trash cans and then find that what they reported to the pollster as veal parmesan was really Hamburger Helper.

Posted by: Buridan | Apr 9, 2005 12:31:02 AM

I don't think policy or program will be enough. You have to move heaven and earth to make sure that Judge Roy Moore runs for president.
Donate to his cause. Invite him to speak here, there and everywhere. Make him think he has support and organization all over the country. Do whatever you need to do but make sure there is a religious fundamentalist running against Jeb Bush in 2008.

Posted by: CathiefromCanada | Apr 9, 2005 3:15:36 AM

Yes, Americans are infatuated with personalities and not with substance. Much like the rest of humanity. I absolutely love it when people sling around "Americans this" and "America that" without the slightest thought that the alleged characteristics might be common to humanity as a whole?

I mean, would the poster care to offer any evidence at all that Americans are more attached to personality other peoples are? Sheesh. What tripe.

That said, a well-put post, Matt.

Posted by: DeadHorseBeater | Apr 9, 2005 4:23:08 AM

Half a trillion? 1/4 the size of the whole Federal budget? I certainly hope we don't need THAT much to build a powerful Democratic Party infrastructure. If we do, each of the 72 million registered Democrats will have to pony up $7,000. Of course, the rich ones can do more, and the poor ones can't do that much, but still, that's a LOT.

I think Matt's right that most people who aren't into politics don't really know what they want politically. I don't see why that invalidates what Ezra was saying, though. The fact that people don't know whether they want universal health care, and the taxes to pay for it, doesn't mean that we SHOULDN'T go for it. Nor does it mean we SHOULD. If polls are meaningless, their meaning is that polls are meaningless. I'm not quite sure what Matt's going for here.

Speaking of polling literalism, I'm not really responding to anyone in particular, but a really annoying view seems to have cropped up recently that, since culture seems to be winning Republican issues, and domestic policy seems to be a winning Democratic issue, the coalition of the future lies in the hands of "populists" -- what that little libertarian daimond test thingy would call "authoritarians" -- and the minority party will be some kind of libertarians. I think this theory is based on the fallacy of polling literalism, as Matt calls it. What most people want, according to this, are really populists, and our current party structure is ill-suited to providing people with what they really want. This doesn't take into account that the majority that's for liberal economic policies isn't the same as the majority that's for conservative social policies. There's overlap, of course, and a "populist" party would probably do better in the polls than a "libertarian" party, but generally, Democrats are suited to Democratic voters and Republicans to Republican voters pretty well. Populists might win some people, like, say, Russel Arben Fox, but if they won, it would be because most people, while they REALLY wanted either Republicans or Democrats, would settle for Populists rather than Libertarians since our current parties aren't a choice.

Posted by: Julian Elson | Apr 9, 2005 6:31:07 AM

Polls show all kinds of stuff, and the main thing you can learn from studying polling about voters' stances on the issues is that the average person doesn't really understand what he's talking about.

Bullshit. Typical elitist bullshit. The average person understands exactly what he is talking about, all you need to do is ask questions that make sense.

Yes, people do get swayed by rhetoric all the time, but that's a different issue.

Here's an example: "but not granting "permission slips" was popular, too."

Not granting "permission slips" is not 'stances on the issues', it's rhetoric. Don't study polling on rhetoric, study polling on issues, real issues. "Flat tax", huh. Why don't you ask about the "death tax"? Or "godless communist healthcare system"?

Worst post ever. Uncharacteristically stupid.

As far as Bush's poll numbers: he has 44% approve and 54% disapprove in the latest AP poll: http://www.pollingreport.com/BushJob.htm.

Posted by: abb1 | Apr 9, 2005 6:41:03 AM

"Bullshit. Typical elitist bullshit. The average person understands exactly what he is talking about, all you need to do is ask questions that make sense."

The average person (usually) understands exactly what they are talking about in relation to concrete issues they deal with in their own lives. Get farther afield - where cloaking issues in rhetoric becomes much easier - and you get a lot more noise and confusion.

"Typical elitist bullshit. "
Did you hear Brooks in the Times today sneering about "highly educated and secular university-town elites?" (albeit in a column - almost wrote post - about how Re's go tripped up by Americans' innate conservatism, which is an interesting but flawed assertion, and one probably intimately linked to my point above . . . .

Posted by: Dan S. | Apr 9, 2005 9:24:55 AM

Polling is all about phraseology, or so I've always suspected. You can make almost anything sound reasonable, and you can easily transmit (to the poll-ee) what is the "respectable" answer he/she ought to give.

Posted by: P. B. Almeida | Apr 9, 2005 9:26:00 AM

"This requires developing new national media of the anti-Fox type. I figure it would cost half a trillion or so."
Just donate it to public education, poverty amelioration, food banks, etc. Not only will people see why liberals are nifty-cool, they'll have the critical thinking skills to avoid falling for the more manipulative parts of the GOP message . . .

Posted by: Dan S. | Apr 9, 2005 9:30:34 AM

Bullshit. Typical elitist bullshit. The average person understands exactly what he is talking about, all you need to do is ask questions that make sense.

I think you are being a little bit elitist here because you obviously don't talk to the average person much. I think one of the contradictions of the American psyche is the average American really does think he can get all these government services and not have to pay for them. Ever had a talk with a hardcore libertarian? Start pointing out all the good things Government has done (roads, rural electrification, etc.) and the response will be private industry would have done it better and cheaper. Even Newt Gingrich, who railed against the evils of government, arrived in Washington having never held a private sector job. And look at the "rugged individualists" in the west, they are dependent on subsidized water, mining rights, grazing on public land, cheap timber from national forests, yet pretend that the Federal Government is preventing them from succeeding.

Posted by: Freder Frederson | Apr 9, 2005 9:32:07 AM

I think most people know what they want economically, and that is a free lunch.

By nature most people are self centered and they will vote for policies that they think will benefit themselves in the short term that they don‘t perceive that they will have to pay for. That is why both Republicans and Democrats will be forced to increase spending (Republicans only slightly more reluctantly then Democrats) and try to hide the cost since it is difficult to explain on a bumper sticker why the lunch isn’t really free. Republicans use deficit spending (and now they are talking about a VAT) to hide cost. Democrats promise to “soak the rich” and “make corporations pay their fair share” to hide cost.

Democrats should be able to win at the free lunch game since I think most of them have no concern for the effect of a much larger federal budget on the long term health of the economy, while many Republicans at least pay lip service to this concern. Democrats are also more that happy to impose high marginal tax rates which has the dual advantage of hiding costs from the vast majority of people and feeding the natural desire to punish those who have more than us.

Of course “moral” values and foreign policy counteract the Democrat advantage in the free lunch game.

Posted by: Robert Brown | Apr 9, 2005 9:59:32 AM

I think one of the contradictions of the American psyche is the average American really does think he can get all these government services and not have to pay for them.

And good for them, because it's exactly true, I don't see any contradiction whatsoever. The top 1% holds more wealth than the bottom 95%. One guy - Bill Gates has more wealth than 100 million US citizens. New technologies are being developed every day by the public sector and handed over to private companies for their CEOs to host $2 million birthday parties in Sardinia.

Of course they can (and should) have government services and not pay for them.

Even those libertarians - ask them a reasonable question and you'll get a reasonable answer. They may be superficially brainwashed, but obviously most of them aren't any more stupid than their counterparts in France, Germany or Sweden.

Posted by: abb1 | Apr 9, 2005 10:35:56 AM

"It really WAS so-called "special interest" groups that were mostly behind the Democratic party. It's true. And in that way, it allowed the Democratic party to be labeled as being outside the mainstream. I'm looking at YOU Ralph."

Karmakin, that's just nonsense. It doesn't tell us how the Republican special-interest pimps get declared to be mainstream. And it sounds like you've adopted the Republican definition of "special-interest" -- remember the time that an oil industry exec worried publicly about the threat of "special-interest" labor unions. If the Democrats had listened to Ralph 10-15 years ago on issues like access to voting, corporate governance, consumer issues, and media consolidation, they'd be much better off now.

Julian Elson, I meant to write half a billion, but the numbers are really unknown to me. Whatever it costs to start a new TV network, etc.

The major media are effectively part of the Republican machine. Democratic candidates will not be able to get their message out with the media we have, and they'll suffer the death of a thousand cuts with swarms petty, meaningless, false smears. Just as Kerry and Gore did, and as pioneered by the Clinton impeachment. (The half a trillion wouldn't be all in one year, and it would be an investment in an infrastructure rather than just money gone -- which is what political campaign money is.)

It's no accident or mystery that the media did not reject the Swift Boat lies. They have a track record now. That's what they do, and it has to come from the high levels and not from the individuals you see on TV. So we need a new national newspaper, and national radio, TV, and cable networks which are Democratic the way Fox is Republican. Not cheap.

Why do about 30% of the American people still believe that Saddam had WMD and was conneted to 9/11? Becayuse Fox told them so, and because the other media were not willing to stick their necks out.

Dan S "Just donate it to public education, poverty amelioration, food banks, etc." No, no. no. That's what liberals are already doing -- dividing their money between a mix of mostly non-political causes. If that would ever work, and it probably wouldn't, it would take decades.

I forgot to mention that message control and message repetition are who works for the Republicans. You just set goals, get slogans and repeat them -- "death tax", etc.


Posted by: John Emerson | Apr 9, 2005 11:04:21 AM

****”It's no accident or mystery that the media did not reject the Swift Boat lies“***

.Wow! I certainly don’t remember it that way. I think the big media studiously ignored the swiftvets for nearly a month until Kerry himself was forced to acknowledge them, then they ran elaborate stories exploring the connections between them and the Bush campaign.

I think your party does itself a disservice by trying to blame the media for your failures, rather than explore your message. You did nor hear the hard left message that you wanted to hear because your candidate decided to run on his Vietnam record and be Republican lite on the issues. If you had nominated Kosinich I am sure the media would have reported his far left positions.

Posted by: Robert Brown | Apr 9, 2005 12:51:25 PM

Robert Brown, you're full of shit. Your party should stop giving helpful advice to our party.

The Democrats are not hard leftists, and you are a moron for suggesting that they are, though stupider morons will agree with you, which is why you say it. I have hard-left friends, and they're not Democrats.

The Swiftboat liars could easily have been shot out of the water. Almost all of them were talking about hearsay they didn't know about directly, and some were lying. That's not something to "studiously ignore". It's something to refute, and the media didn't do it. A lot of contrary testimony from people with first-hand knowledge emerged which did not get publicity equal to the lies.

Bob Somerby just did something on the media's failure to do their job on the Swiftboat allegations. Go read it.

And if there's anything else I can do to help, just get in touch, OK?

Asshole.

Posted by: John Emerson | Apr 9, 2005 2:04:01 PM

Aaaooh, it's not nice to insult our misguided brothers...

Posted by: abb1 | Apr 9, 2005 2:31:19 PM

I'm sure everyone knows this, but let's spell it out. There is no such thing as an "average" person in the general sense. There are people of average intelligence, income, height, willingness to pay attention to current events, etc. I suppose there are a few people who are near the 'average' on all these and more, but those people are a very small group. This is a useless abstraction. None of you know what average people really think, or talk to avarage people, or whatever, because they don't really exist.

Posted by: djw | Apr 9, 2005 2:49:58 PM

John emerson

Wow! I apparently hit a nerve!

You obviously have an anger management problem that will damage your efforts in the future.

Feel free to email me when you are ready to confront your problem and I will put you in touch with some professionals who will offer you treatment (on a sliding scale if you can’t afford treatment). Do not be afraid…you can be helped.

Posted by: Robert Brown | Apr 9, 2005 2:50:08 PM

abb1, I know it's not nice, but Brown really is a wanker for saying that the GOP cares more about balancing the budget.

Posted by: expatjourno | Apr 9, 2005 2:52:50 PM

Damn right you hit a nerve, idiot. Some people tolerate fools and liars, but I don't. Not all liberals are the kind of weenie you like to pester.

Should you care to respond to my substantive criticisms of your inane statement with anything other than psycho-babble, I remain at your service.

In the future, I'd suggest that you limit your advice-giving activities to the hapless fools who are willing to accept it.

Posted by: John Emerson | Apr 9, 2005 2:56:08 PM

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