The Morning Jolt

Politics & Policy

When It Comes to Polls, We Need Something Between Absolute Faith and Absolute Denial

Tomorrow, the morning after Election Day, will be the last Jim-written Morning Jolt until Monday, November 21.

When It Comes to Polls, We Need Something Between Absolute Faith and Absolute Denial

Republicans, conservatives, and all assorted political junkies need to have a discussion about polling after this election.

Yes, the polls in 2012 were off, with the average pollster underestimating Obama’s lead and largely unprepared for how effectively the Obama campaign’s get-out-the-vote effort would change the electorate. But most of the polls were off by one, two, or three percentage points.

Yes, the polls in 2014 were off, with the average pollster overestimating Senate Democratic candidates’ performance by 4 percentage points and overestimating gubernatorial Democratic candidates’ performance by 3 percentage points. But quite a few elections that year were outside that margin.

Yes, every once in a while, you get a race where the election day winner didn’t lead any poll – like Republican Larry Hogan’s victory in Maryland in 2014 and Matt Bevin’s victory in Kentucky in 2015.

Yes, sometimes you’ll get very contradictory results from different pollsters surveying the same state at the same time. In New Hampshire yesterday, Emerson released its final poll of the presidential race, finding Hillary Clinton ahead by a point. WMUR/UNH released their final poll, finding Clinton ahead by 11 points.

But by and large, polls give you a ballpark sense of how a candidate is doing and how a race is shaping up. If a candidate is down ten points going into Election Day, they’re not likely to pull off a miraculous comeback. If a candidate has a small lead in the final polls, the final result is probably going to be close.

They’re not all “rigged.” (Every once in a great while, you will find a pollster whose results are so implausible – and so impossible to duplicate through random sampling – that analysis suggests they didn’t actually do the work and fabricated or manipulated the numbers.)

We can question whether a poll’s sample is precisely what the electorate is going to look like on Election Day – how the demographics stack up in terms of age, gender, race, and yes, party affiliation. Every pollster has to make their best educated guess of what the total electorate is going to look like. But history tells us that most of the polls will be in the ballpark. And when multiple pollsters surveying at the same time find a similar lopsided result, the outcome is pretty likely. In Ohio, Rob Portman’s lead has been in double-digits in every poll since late September. That one’s pretty clear.

We cannot just hope that the pollster who’s telling us what we want to hear the most is the one who is right. When one tracking poll is consistently giving us good news and the rest are consistently giving us bad news, maybe that one tracking poll is right and everyone else is wrong… or maybe it’s just an outlier. It is irresponsible for a campaign and a party to take a leap of faith that the best-case scenario is about to occur.

Absorbing bad news and negative feedback and learning from it is how campaigns get better. Blind denial of evidence suggesting that what they’re offering isn’t appealing to the largest slice of the electorate is how they go careening off the cliff.

If You Think Republicans Had a Rough Year…

Here are Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson’s percentage points in the last 11 national polls: 4, 8, 5, 4, 3, 4, 3, 6, 6, 4, 5.

Here is Johnson’s total in the last three polls in New Mexico, his home state, all conducted in November: 11, 11, 6.

For contrast, here’s how independent conservative Evan McMullin is performing in the last five polls in his home state – and noting that Trump has led every poll: 21, 24, 24, 28, 28.

Can we just put away any talk of a “Libertarian Future” for a while? I’d love to live in it, but there’s no sign it’s coming, in either a capital-L Libertarian Party way or a small-L philosophical way. This was the year that the Democrats nominated a corrupt, longtime-insider, big-government, scandal-ridden statist, and the Republicans nominated a guy who wants government to get bigger – more infrastructure spending, mandated maternity leave, opposes entitlement reform, cheers eminent domain, and a new 35 percent tax on companies that fire workers. Trump’s focus was never freedom or liberty. It was about empowering government, run by him, to address grievances of working-class whites and return America to a golden past, un-doing decades of changes to the country and the world.

This year was the golden opportunity libertarians – capital L and little L – had dreamed of for decades… and they fumbled it away.

The gang at Reason is looking at the bright side:

As of 10 pm ET last night, the poll averages of both FiveThirtyEight and RealClearPolitics had Johnson at 4.8 percent of the vote, tantalizingly close to the mythical 5 percent level that would trigger federal classification as a “minor party,” thus making the L.P. eligible for an estimated $10 million in public matching funds in 2020. (Whether the party would accept that money is another story.) 

We’ll see if Johnson hits 5 percent. I remember a lot of buzz in 2000 that Ralph Nader was going to reach 5 percent and get the Green Party matching funds in the following election cycle; he won 2.74 percent.

Some of the shots Gary Johnson took this cycle were unfair. If you’re asked, out of the blue, “What are you going to do about Aleppo?” a lot of Americans would stumble, and perhaps think it was an unfamiliar acronym. His inability to name any world leader when asked for his favorite is harder to justify.

Some people will find his goofy sense of humor, like talking with his tongue out, charming; others will find it weird and un-presidential. Every once in a while, he would lose his temper with a reporter – he really, really, really doesn’t like calling an illegal immigrant an “illegal immigrant.”

Then again, Johnson chose William Weld as his running mate, and Weld will go down in history as the first running mate to basically switch sides in the campaign’s final weeks, going out of his way to defend Hillary Clinton over and over again.

Maybe Weld wants another President Clinton to name him to be Ambassador to Mexico. If so, the first season of True Detective was right all along:


It’s an Early Voting World; the Campaigns Need to Adjust to It.

Last night the total early vote of this year passed the total early vote of 2012: about 46.2 million last cycle; we’re at 46.4 million and that number will go up as completed absentee ballots arrive.

We can argue about whether early voting is a good idea; I find casting ballots in September ridiculous but a two-week window or so pretty reasonable. Casting a ballot early should be seen a calculated risk; if you choose to do so, you can’t take it back. If you’re preferred candidate is discovered to be running Satanic orgies in his basement, you’re stuck with that vote.

But whether a campaign likes early voting or not, they need to be ready to start mobilizing their voters as soon as they’re legally eligible. Evidence suggests the most diehard partisans are the easiest to mobilize:

In deep-red Oklahoma, more than 234,000 voted early, doubling the 2008 record of 114,300 votes. In Kansas, the sum of early votes topped the previous record by 20,000 votes on Friday. In West Virginia, the early-voting period ended Saturday with more than 179,000 ballots cast, breaking the previous record by 22,000 votes.

Some deep-blue corners of the map are seeing surges in early voting, too. In the District of Columbia, the most heavily Democratic jurisdiction in the country, early voting increased from 68,641 in 2012 to 101,077 this year. In Illinois, Chicagoans surpassed the record set in 2008 — when their favorite son, Barack Obama, was set to become the nation’s first African-American president — by 9 percent, with one more day of early voting remaining to be tabulated. In Maryland, 860,000 people have already cast ballots, doubling the sum total of early votes from 2012.

ADDENDA: I’ll be joining my friend Cam Edwards in studio at 2 p.m on NRA-TV. I’m also slated to phone in to his program tonight, sometime after midnight.

I talked about writing fiction and novels with Lisa De Pasquale:

I love data and charts, but nobody turns to their friends or significant other and says, ‘Hey, do you want to go out to the Multiplex and watch some data and charts?’ People crave stories. They’ve done so since the first people gathered around a campfire and told myths and legends and tales of their ancestors. A lot of our fictional stories are meant to offer a lesson, consciously or not, about what kind of person you’re supposed to be. You see a lot of stories celebrating courage, and not so many celebrating cowardice. Detective stories are about solving a crime and righting a wrong. Comedies aim to make us laugh but also spotlight the foibles and foolishness inherent in the human condition.

My pop culture podcast co-host Mickey is wondering when anything resembling “conservatism” required inquiries into the nationality of one’s grandparents. Doesn’t that relentless focus on bloodlines seem less American and more reminiscent of some not-so-forgotten regimes obsessed with genetic purity?

Finally, as usual, every weekday, Greg Corombus and I serve up the Three Martini Lunch podcast around midday.


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