The Press, the poll, and the Governor

So, for those who aren’t from Mississippi, here is the state of play: The state is about to overtake Louisiana, if it hasn’t already, as the number one COVID hotspot. Our Republican Governor, Tate Reeves, has been very clear that he will not issue a statewide mask mandate including in schools, although he does (kinda) encourage vaccinations and allow local mandates. Then there is Dr. Dobbs, our telegenic and media savvy State Health Officer who encourages mask-wearing, sporting one at press conferences while standing right next to the naked-faced Governor.

Some of the state press are going ballistic on Reeves. I appreciate our more progressive press – they make it a lot easier to know what’s going on. They clearly care about the crisis we are in – and, perhaps, care more than the Governor does. I fear, however, that they are giving him the upper hand. Some elements of that:

1. Readers of this blog know I get frustrated by bad polling. That is no less true when it is making a point I agree with. Trumpeting an opt-in poll, with a non-representative sample https://www.sunherald.com/news/coronavirus/article253462859.html really doesn’t help your credibility.

2. Reeves impresses me as very smart. He seems generally well informed but is making ideological decisions I disagree with. He is unwilling to take federal money if it requires even a small state expenditure; he doesn’t believe the state should mandate individual behavior; and he sees his job as running the mechanics of the government rather than leading people toward better behavior. He basically articulated all of those policy-laden precepts in his last press conference but because he also said one of you was “virtue-signaling” you gave him a free pass on the rest. Perhaps you took his bait?

3. Y’all seem to love Dr. Dobbs, and he does speak for the science and is far better than the Governor at demonstrating empathy. But it also appears to me like a well-orchestrated dance. He is a state employee – appointed by the Board of Health, although most of its members were appointed or re-appointed by Reeves. Dr. Dobbs took a good long while to address the equity issues in vaccine distribution, and his dance with the Governor serves to limit political opposition to Reeves. Looking at them as some kind of yin and yang, fails to lift up other political voices that may be critical of Reeves. Rely on Dobbs for the science, by all means, but maybe give a few column inches to political opposition as well – like the Mayors, supervisors, and school board Presidents who might just tell you Reeves is making their jobs harder.

The bottom line for me as a reader is that there is a lot I would like to know that I am not hearing about. Reeves is not the worst Republican Governor – a toss up between his colleagues in Florida and Texas in my view. But he is also using the polarization of the moment to avoid discussion of some basic issues of governance. While there is a squabble about virtue signaling, he is failing to use resources available to him, and defining state government responsibilities as narrowly as he can. If he believes in local decision-making, how do local leaders respond to those policies? At least one enquiring mind would like to know…

Republican Governors’ Conundrum

Most of the states with low vaccination rates have Republican Governors. That is because they have majority Republican constituencies who don’t like government telling them what to do.


There are a lot of reasons people are not getting vaccinated. There are still some access issues and not everyone knows the vaccines are free. But a main reason is resistance to government, which wants you to get the vaccine, and resistance to elites saying it is stupid not to.


The latter problem should just stop. I get the frustration but it is counterproductive and feeds an “Us v. Them” polarization that is part of the problem. Getting a vaccine is a choice. And, in the end, so is wearing a mask in most circumstances because it is often true that “no one can make me.”


Now, some Republican Governors in states with low vaccination rates just care about being demagogues and playing to their base, and so loudly oppose mandates of any kind by anybody. If as Governor you really believe that mandates are the main problem and that low vaccination rates are fine, well, bless your (cold) heart and God love ya. I have nothing more to say.


But if you would like to encourage vaccination and mask wearing, here are some thoughts. These likely go well beyond what your own message consultants suggest. While your consultants care about your political future (it is theirs too), there is no reason to think they care about your constituents. Then I come from the old school in which consultants are supposed to help you accomplish your goals, not just keep you out of trouble. And, of course, I am a Democrat, and all for vaccinations and mask wearing.


First, I was really impressed with Senator Bill Cassidy on the subject who was so careful to say he was speaking as a Doctor, not as a government authority, and as a doctor, he favored vaccination and mask-wearing. Most Republican office holders are not doctors, although they can quote them – I wouldn’t recommend quoting Dr. Fauci, or anyone in Washington, but I bet you have local family doctors you can quote. For example, “I’m not a doctor and I don’t believe everything I hear, but I have talked to a lot of doctors here in _, and they all seem to have confidence in these shots. I had one six months ago, and my wife (most Republican Governors have one) and I brought our kids to get shots as soon as we could. We thought that was safest for them.


Second, you have a significant role in tamping down disinformation. I am sure you have heard that you can’t get COVID if you have Type O blood, that you can’t transmit it unless you are showing symptoms, that young women who get vaccines can’t have children, etc. I have heard all of that and I am not out and about that much. Try: “I know people here don’t believe everything they hear. (You can even insert and example here that would offend me but exhibits your conservative credentials.) And people shouldn’t believe everything they read on the Internet either. That thing that you can’t get COVID if you have Type O blood has long been disproven. Seems like everyone can get it, and a lot of people don’t ever get past it.”


Third, recognize that people are only successfully persuaded when they have some sense of conflict. People don’t generally flip, but if they are nervous about the vaccines, and don’t trust government, but nervous about COVID too, then you have some opportunity. Try: “I was a little nervous about this vaccine myself. I don’t like shots and I didn’t trust all the initials in Washington like the C-D-C and the F-D-A and what have you. But I was more concerned about getting this virus and maybe giving it to my family so I got the shot. It’s been six months now, and I believe I am safer.”


Finally, there is the truth about your own conflicts: “I am a conservative. To me that means keeping government out of people’s personal decisions. It is your choice whether you get a vaccine. I believe it will make you and your family safer. Now, I have thought long and hard about requiring masks (or vaccines for state employees, or masks in schools). It is counter to my nature to put requirements on people unless it is absolutely necessary. (Insert an example of when you have stood up to unnecessary regulation.). But we are in a crisis here – hospital beds are full and kids are going back to school where they can infect other kids. So for 60 days, I am requiring people to wear masks indoors in public settings or large groups. It is going to make some people mad at me, and I understand that, but sometimes we all have to do things we don’t want to do.”


Note, none of these rely on federal government advice, nor do they intentionally disrespect anybody. They are about your personal thought process in the hope that others will share it or at least respect it.


Good luck.

Looking at the wrong problem

So, I just got off the phone with an old friend who is on the communications side of political consulting. My friend is apparently giving my former polling colleagues a rough time and apparently so are others – “suggestions” that are not feasible, organizations that are assigning them letter grades as they would to school children, clients dismissing the need for research at all.

Now, I have been pretty clear in these pages that I think polling as a methodology no longer works the way people think. It is a rougher measure and can leave important groups out of the equation. It has value but it also has serious limits: It is far less useful than it used to be for prognosticating close elections. Low response rates allows greater risk of response bias and, as a result, sampling is more complex.

Polling risks leaving out constituencies that may be critical to winning – voters who are anti-establishment (or anti elite) and see it as an elite or establishment tool, and those who just don’t relate to the political frame as employed. Except perhaps for this last one, none of this is the fault of pollsters, and imposing the extant political frame on swing and low propensity voters who aren’t interested in it is hardly an error unique to pollsters. The Washington political frames to which many voters do not relate is a shared Washington responsibility.

Here’s what I think are actually the remedies to better political research by campaigns:

1. More upfront strategic thinking about how to win. There is a plethora of information available for any district or state, including prior election results, demographics and analytics, and two (or more) real candidates with unique strengths and weaknesses. After studying all that, what are the hypothetical ways to win that you need to test? (Chances are there are better methods than polling for choosing which is most likely.)

2. Better analytics and better integration of them strategically. Political analytics got better and better from 2006 through 2012. Then its practitioners started competing on cost and cutting corners on what they did statistically. At the same time, people seemed to think it was a good idea to separate analytics from the process of campaigning so it was an independent look and not integrated into the campaign process. Both of these developments were unfortunate in my view. Cutting corners made analytics less valuable as a predictor and the separation from campaigns meant than campaigns did not have the capacity to ask for a sophisticated statistical look at the challenges that were on the table strategically. It’s time to go back to the future on analytics – an invaluable tool that should be guided strategically.

3. Tailored research that answers the strategic questions on the table. In close elections, winning is often on the margins. Hypothetically, maybe your candidate can win if you can move 6 percent more of Latino voters, or lose a particular suburban community by a little less, or find a way to blame the incumbent for the serious infrastructure problems in a community that usually votes for that person’s party. Strategic analysis and analytics can help you develop these options. There are experiments you can conduct to say which one(s) might help put your candidate over the top. And a poll of voters in the aggregate wont tell you which one will work anyway.

4. Integration of field data into research. Almost any good campaign has a field program in which people go talk to individual voters, including those who are swing voters and lower propensity voters. I don’t want to mess up the open ended nature of these conversations, which is part of what makes them valuable, but there are ways of capturing quantitative information from them – and that is about the only way you really will hear from genuinely non-partisan and non-political voters, and those who vote irregularly. You have to start the field program earlier, but that is generally a valuable thing to do for other reasons.

So, yes, there are new challenges in political research. The biggest problem in polling is that you can no longer talk to people at random because they don’t respond at random. Careful polling makes that less of a problem and sloppy polling makes it worse but it is not feasible to eliminate the problem. The problem is the result of caller ID, telemarketing, political polarization, and changing modes of communication. The pollsters did not create the problem.

Generally, pollsters are analytic and political thinkers with a penchant for numbers. Those skills sets are important in the mix of campaign skills. Conversation about methodology is useful. Creativity on how to answer strategic questions is essential. Increasingly, the presence of advanced statistical skills on the team is important. Beating up on the pollsters won’t help to find new and better ways to conduct research.

Polling is Leaving Out Poor People

Those who follow such matters already know that pollsters under-sampled white, non-college voters in 2016. Then, in 2020, Trump voters exhibited greater than average response bias as they were less likely than others in their demographic to respond to polls.

The problems with polling are not only about Trump voters, or about election projection for that matter. The core problem is that some people are less likely to respond to polls. Pollsters “correct” for this by up-weighting those who do respond – counting their responses extra and assuming the respondents represent their demographic. Some groups who are not Trump voters but consistently require up-weighting are low income people, people in minority communities, lower propensity voters, and young people.

Low income people and lower propensity voters (groups that overlap significantly) have always been harder to poll. Some of the difference is behavioral. Low income people are often less available – more likely to work nights, to move frequently, or to use a burner phone without any listing. They may also associate polls with the government, or the media, or other elites – the establishment if you will – and have little interest in unnecessary interaction with those (which is likely part of the problem with Trump voters).

Question wording is also often a problem. If people are asked to choose among response alternatives that do not reflect their views or concerns, they are more likely to terminate the interview. Many polls on COVID vaccination do not include cost as a barrier, assuming that people know the vaccine is free although free health care is outside the experience of most people, particularly those who are lower income.

Pollsters’ increasing use of online panels may be making the problem of getting a representative sample of low income people worse. Such panels are recruited in advance and demographically “balanced” to represent the population.

The first problem is that rather than eliminating response biases they are simply injecting bias earlier in the process as the panel consists of people who have agreed in advance to be polled.

Second, online panels eliminate some low income people from polling samples entirely. In 2019, 86.6 percent of households had some form of internet access, including 72 percent with smart phones. But the percent varies by state, ethnicity, and income, according to the ACS https://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d17/tables/dt17_702.60.asp which has been clear about the problems in needing to weight census data in 2020 given the low response rates of low income people https://www.census.gov/newsroom/blogs/research-matters/2020/09/pandemic-affect-survey-response.html.

Finally, if panel recruitment is by phone or mail, it may be skipping those who are more transient or who do not respond to such calls for all the reasons described above. And even with pre-recruitment, most panels are up-weighting low income people because they are not responding at the same rate as other panelists even when the recruitment is more balanced.

Does the exclusion of low income people from polls matter? Superficially it may not matter very much to political campaign strategists because they are interested in likely voters and willingness to be polled and vote propensity are related (per Pew Research studies). However, the relative absence of low income voters may misinform the campaign about what is on people’s minds, especially in lower income states and districts. If the campaign is considering investment in organizing low income communities, the exclusion reduces the potential for that strategy.

Not-for-profit organizations that wish to provide services to low income people should be very careful about relying on polls. Research has shown large response biases in health care research (https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11606-020-05677-6), for example. Collecting data on site or in person may be far more valuable, and personal interviews are becoming feasible once again.

Most of the publicly released polls on issues like COVID vaccination are reporting data by income. In some cases, the income categories are cruder than they should be (e.g. below $40K as the lowest). In virtually all public surveys, the data are weighted but information on the degree of weighting applied is unavailable. If, as in Mississippi, nearly 20 percent of the population of interest is below the poverty line, how many were interviewed in a sample of 500 before weighting? If there were only 50, that wasn’t a meaningful sample from which to weight.

Every consumer of polls should know what the unweighted data looks like. And every consumer of polls should be a little skeptical of results in groups that required significant weighting or were unbalanced demographically without it. If your interest is in a group that is up-weighted, like lower income people, you may have learned less than you think.

None of this should suggest that such polls are without value. But they shouldn’t be seen as all encompassing. There is no substitute for conversation, and articles like these https://www.nytimes.com/2021/04/30/health/covid-vaccine-hesitancy-white-republican.html may be more useful and informative than some of the published online panel data in understanding what lower income communities are thinking and feeling on issues of concern.

There are other groups who are under – or over- represented in polls. Under sampling low income people seems both egregious and important at this time. But, as I have written before, the core problems on sampling call for new research methodologies as well as for greater care by pollsters and greater caution from those who consume data.

Thoughts on “Revisiting Polling”

This week five major polling firms released a statement on “Revisiting Polling for 2021 and Beyond,” which you can find here. Friends, former clients, and readers of this blog have asked me what I thought of it. This post answers that question without going behind anyone’s back, especially since I applaud most of it. The group of five pollsters are all former colleagues, some are also friends, and they include some of the researchers I respect the most. (These are overlapping; not mutually exclusive categories.)

First, I thought it was thoughtful, analytic, reflective and productive. I found it useful and interesting that the impact of unexpected Republican turnout contributed to the problem but did not account for it. I totally agree that presenting results with a range of scenarios – different turnout levels for example – would be productive. I acknowledge that I tried to do that a few years back and found that clients adopted the optimistic scenario as the “real” one. Further, both clients and the powers-that-be appreciate expressions of certainty, even when none exists. A group effort to present results as a range may be more productive than an individual one.

Second, I welcomed the discussion of weighting procedures and the use of analytic modeling in polling. In the old days, polling used random samples. The margin of error tells the statistical probability that a random sample is wrong but that is not how virtually any pollsters are sampling these days. Instead, pollsters are weighting the data to presumptions of the electorate – often well-researched and well-grounded presumptions but presumptions nonetheless. Apparently many of these were too optimistic on the Democratic side. I would also hope for greater transparency in identifying those presumptions in the future.

Third, the use of modeling to ground the sample in base attitudes and partisanship as well as demographics is important. If analytics says 40 percent of the electorate in question tilts Republican, then the sample should too. The more sophisticated and accurate the modeling is, the better grounded the polling will be, and the better able to show change and relate other attitudes to those grounded in modeling. Using the modeling properly requires certain sampling and calling protocols, however, that were not covered in the memo. Proper alignment with modeling would, for example, have made partisan bias due to COVID behavior extremely unlikely. Modeling, however, includes a “mushy middle” of people about whom there is uncertainty. They are in a modeling middle not a middle in reality and even when polling and modeling match, that can be a source of error. Modeling, too, needs to be more transparent about its own level of error, and more politically astute about what is modeled and how.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I appreciated the opening up of the discussion to analytics practitioners and others outside of polling. In fact, I believe the resolution of “the polling problem” is outside of polling. The change in sample frame from random to weighted “representative” samples – forced by response rates – means polling will continue to rely on presumptions and will not again provide accuracy within the margin of error, except when the presumptions are correct.

The resolution, in my view, is in a great deal more clarity in what the research questions are and a lot more creativity in how to answer them. I agree with my former colleagues that polling remains an important element of political campaigns. It should not, in my view be the only or perhaps even the dominant methodology employed. There are an emerging array of methodologies and unlimited potential for experimental design. Some are advances in projecting results and others help get at underlying attitudes and message development. Perhaps there needs to be some separation of research that fulfills those goals.

There should also be a new attitude of listening to voters rather than approaching them exclusively with an ivory tower sense of distance. People will usually tell you what they think if they think you really want to know. Analytics can do a lot more to help win elections, but analytics practitioners need to understand their own limitations too. And pollsters often ask questions in ways that are obtuse, at best, beyond the Beltway (a phrase that is meaningless to many). New ways of listening and new qualitative techniques are as important in understanding the electorate as are fixes in projections.

Consumers of polls need to understand both their value and their limitations. Elected officials certainly express more skepticism about the “horse race” number these days, but that should continue when their pollsters tell them they have 52 percent of the vote with their opponent at 48 percent. That doesn’t mean you will win, and the why of it all – what voters are thinking and feeling about their own lives is critical too.

I wish the media would stop treating polls as a central story about voters and the election. Dueling polls are much less interesting than dueling candidates, or ideas, or constituencies. And if you must cover polls, do so please in a way that is more discerning about polling quality, and far more transparent about how the poll was conducted and weighted, and how that offers potential bias. It always does.

Stealing, cheating, and suppressing the vote

If the United States is governed by the people, as we have claimed at least since Abraham Lincoln was president, it is the job of our government to make participation as easy and seamless as possible. Political campaigns may choose to mobilize their supporters and ignore the other candidate’s supporters, but a government by the people has the mandate to make it as easy as possible for everyone to vote. Voting should not require time off work, private transportation, poll taxes or unnecessary costs, contagion to disease, or the inconvenience – or cost – of long lines. And if you want to go to the polls with those you worship with on Sunday – or golf with on Saturday – whatever works for you is fine.

We should all be able to vote in a manner that is easy, safe, convenient, and efficient. I have not heard a solid justification for any other goals in our voting laws. Yeah, there shouldn’t be people voting more than once or people who are not eligible voting at all but those are rare events and require subservient policies. Our transportation system is not designed to prevent carjacking. (Analogies are not logic, but designing the very foundation of our system of government around the prevention of rare fraud isn’t logical either. )

So why aren’t we all together on this? Why isn’t the policy to remove restrictions, barriers – and inconveniences – to make it all easier? Why is anyone adding restrictions to the process?

On a couple of grounds, the right has done a better job messaging the matter than have the Democrats.

First, if you are paying only slight attention, which of these two things sounds like more of a problem: politicians stealing elections or politicians suppressing the vote? Stealing is worse than suppressing. So let me rephrase voter suppression: the Republicans are trying to cheat because they are sore losers. Anything that makes it harder for people to vote is political cheating. It just means you are scared of people voting. Because you are losers.

It’s just better sometimes to use fighting words rather than abstract ones. Cheating is always bad. Suppression – assuming everyone knows what it means – is arguably sometimes valuable. The whole language of voter suppression is way too abstract.

Then there is racializing the issue. To be clear, I have no doubt at all that the Republicans who are trying to cheat are trying to make it harder for lower income people to vote and many of their efforts to cheat (like distribution of polling places) are specifically aimed at black people. Their efforts are only a little subtler than the old Mississippi poll tax of days of yore so anyone who cares about that can see it for themselves.

Calling them on racism has four negative consequences from a message perspective. First, it makes the argument about who is a racist when neither party has a perfect record there. Second, it is always hard to argue someone else’s motivations because they can simply say its not true. Third, it loses the point that governance of elections should always be about making it easier to vote, a point that can unite people. Finally, it loses the point that it is all an effort to cheat – to pick and choose who votes because they are sore losers. Their behavior is a cheat. Organizing the black community on the racial aspect makes sense because black people understand they are the target. But it is all a bit too abstract for many white people.

Actually, the Republican behavior seems to me quite rational, though not justifiable. For the next few elections, the electorate will be aging as the baby boomers do and since older people are more likely to vote, aging white baby boomers will be a force. Then the electorate will start to get younger, voters of color will be better represented, and, unless the Republicans change, or make our system of government change, they are likely to lose big in the long haul (assuming we get through the next decade as a country). They are trying to restrict voting – excuse me, they are trying to cheat – so they wont keep losing.

It makes more sense to me to protect the principle – in a democracy the job of government is to make participation easier – than to racialize the argument or narrow it. It is all rather central to whether we survive as a democracy – a 21st century one not a reversion to the 19th.

That brings me to the corporate support for the Republicans cheating. I get the rational point: you believe their policies are better for you than Democratic policies so you are helping them cheat. But you have done very well in a capitalist democracy so I don’t think you should want to get rid of it. And if you look to the longer haul from a strategic planning perspective, why side with the big losers? There will likely be some payback for helping them cheat if you continue to do so and you are, after all, doing ok with the government we have.

Two States of Mississippi

Earlier this month I offered some reflections on Mississippi and why I am here. There are many things about the state and about living here that I love – the music, story telling, hospitality, and food – several of which derive from the cultural heritage of African Americans. The statewide politics and leadership sadden me all the more as a result of what I love about living here.

Just this week the Jesuit Social Research Institute of Loyola University published a new report on Mississippi (http://www.loyno.edu/jsri/sites/loyno.edu.jsri/files/StateOfWorkingMS2020.pdf). Here the most common job title is “cashier” and the median household income is one third lower than the national median – and less than half the median income in Massachusetts. Mississippi has the highest poverty rate in the nation, more than 10 percent of its people have no health insurance whatsoever. The state is 50th in education attainment, in part because so many young people with college degrees leave the state.

Just about the same time this report was released, Governor Tate Reeves gave his State of the State address.  Since he couldn’t point to much success, he praised the state’s resilience. The few straws of improvement at which the Governor did grasp, do not stand up well to a fact check (https://mississippitoday.org/2021/01/26/fact-check-gov-tate-reeves-2021-state-of-the-state-address/).  The Governor’s main policy initiative was to call for ending the state’s income tax, which would effectively reduce Mississippi’s already low investment in its people.

How did we get here? To some degree, the problems of Mississippi reflect the problems of the south, but more so. The south was left with a decimated economy after the Civil War. The federal government truncated Reconstruction after the election of 1876 (the same election Senator Ted Cruz referenced in the lead-up to violence at the Capitol). The end of Reconstruction meant the military no longer monitored Mississippi elections. The white minority then led violent efforts to suppress the black majority and deprive them of the right to determine the future of the state. White violence against black people was worse in Mississippi than elsewhere because it had a black majority, which was more threatening than the black minority in other states.

The south did not benefit from the Gilded Age of the second industrial revolution as it still had a primarily agricultural economy and lacked the natural resources to make steel or the infrastructure for manufacturing. And the federal government and big business allowed the economy to languish and invested instead in the west.

Some southern states thrived in the latter half of the 20th Century and since then through state and local investment – the Research Triangle in North Carolina, the Atlanta airport, Historic Charleston, in South Carolina, as examples. In contrast, Mississippi had slow growth throughout the 20th century (https://www.macrotrends.net/states/mississippi/population). Its population did not quite double while the national population quadrupled. Mississippi’s GNP growth rate is barely half the national average as it turns out that population growth is good for the economy and vice versa.

Voter suppression efforts continue as Mississippi was the only state where there was no option for no-contact voting during the pandemic and, just today, the House Apportionment and Elections Committee voted for a purge of the voter rolls. Mississippi is almost 40 percent black, but no African American has represented the State of Mississippi since Blanche K. Bruce left the U.S. Senate in 1881. If there is voter fraud, it’s pretty clearly not from black people.

I don’t believe the state’s leadership wants economic growth. New people would change the politics so current leadership has a stake in the status quo. Taxes are low here now, with no real upper bracket, which voters virtually everywhere support. There is no tax on retirement income regardless of the amount. The only high tax is the tax on groceries, which at 7 percent is the highest in the country. If low taxes and lack of investment were a successful growth strategy, Mississippi would be booming.

The second paragraph of the JSRI report reads: “Mississippi is among the states with the highest unemployment, poverty, and uninsured rates and the lowest wages, education spending, and educational attainment. Such statistics are a recipe for poor statewide economic development and long-term hardship for workers and families even before the health and economic onslaught of COVID-19.” The report ends with a series of recommendations that have the potential to transform the state and grow its economy through investment in its people and its infrastructure.

After 150 years of the same policies, it might be worth exploring a little change – perhaps investing in the people who make the state so special. Otherwise, while the state may remain a good place to retire, Mississippians shouldn’t expect their kids to stay where there is little opportunity for growth.

P.S. Earlier this week, my friend Debbie Weil interviewed me for her podcast. She asked great questions about polling, politics, and living in Mississippi. Do check it out: https://gapyearforgrownups.simplecast.com/episodes/diane-feldman

Georgia, the mob, and Mississippi

The picture of the horrific mob that attacked the United States Capitol – encouraged by the President of the United States – will be the indelible after image of his presidency. There is irony in mob violence the same week in which the Democrats won the Senate and Georgia elected its first black Senator, the scholarly minister of Dr. Martin Luther King’s church. Among the underpinnings of the Trump presidency is a late growl of white supremacy as the demographics of the country change. The old still clings to power over the new but it gave way to change in Georgia.

Senators-elect Warnock and Ossoff won because Georgia grew and changed, and with the leadership of Stacey Abrams’ New Georgia Project and the African American community. The Georgia win also traces back to Mayor Maynard Jackson. Atlanta’s first African American Mayor, Jackson helped build Atlanta as a mecca for the black middle class by spurring minority contracting. He invested in the airport, creating tremendous growth for the whole region. ATL wasn’t always the biggest airport in the world. Maynard Jackson did that. And Atlanta grew and prospered and Georgia with it. That would happen in other southern states if they elected more people like Maynard Jackson.

The peaceful transition of power in Georgia this week is such a stark contrast to what happened in Washington.

Which brings me to Mississippi. Mississippi was majority black until the 1940s and now has a larger percent black population than any other state. It has also historically had the most concentrated racial violence in the country and even now seems to have the fewest progressive white people (although there are lots of progressive white people here, and strong and dedicated African American leaders).

If you are unclear how to reconcile those things, ask the mob. Like the Trump mob, there are too many white people in Mississippi who feel threatened by the notion that it might become a black state. So one of our two Senators and three out of our four members of the House voted not to certify a 7-million vote win by President-elect Biden. That same crowd, while crowing about voter fraud, approves of the state’s ongoing voter suppression techniques. Mississippi was the only state in the country that had no option for no-contact voting during the pandemic. We have among the worst schools and health care following a myth that investing in those things would somehow help the black minority more than the white majority.

So if I feel this way, why am I here? I love the state – the peace and quiet, the rural nature, the warm winters, and large parts of the culture, which is arguably rooted more in West Africa than Western Europe.

People here love southern food, including grits which have their origins in Native American hominy and West African fufu. Fried chicken has some claim to Scottish ancestry because the Scottish fried their chicken in fat but batter dipped fried chicken is West African. So are greens. Mississippi had “Birthplace of America’s Music” on its license plates for years, and it is: the rich traditions of gospel and blues music, often with West African syncopation; then combined with Appalachian hill country music (accompanied by banjos – a West African instrument) gave birth to rock and roll.

There are more extraordinary writers from Mississippi than most anywhere else – from Richard Wright, to William Faulkner; Eudora Welty to Jessmyn Ward. One reason is that the state gives them so much to write about but also the rich storytelling tradition of the South flourishes and it, too, has its roots in West Africa.

Mississippi is already black. But instead of Maynard Jackson, we have elected leaders who vote with the mob.

Demographics are on the side of progressive change in America – and in Mississippi. But demographics are not destiny. We have not seen the last of reactionary governance. Not all the people who voted for Trump are part of the white supremacist backlash – economic stagnation and the elitism of Democrats also contributed – but it could all happen again. Georgia is the hopeful sign. With a little help, other southern states will follow. And, like the poet said, America can be America again.

Left v. Center? Bottom-Up!

The media has been vaunting the divide between the Democrats’ left and center and how the cleavage threatens Democrats’ tenuous majority. Here, a thousand miles outside the Beltway, a lot of the conversation seems pretty obscure: Like who the “squad,” a crew of House members with a talent for press relations and a vocal national constituency, do and do not like among Biden insiders; and how activist slogans designed to attract attention can put Democratic candidates in an uncomfortable vise.

Once we are past the immediacy of the pandemic, Democrats face an overriding challenge that I believe will determine whether we expand or contract our narrow majority: whether Americans are convinced Democrats have an agenda that will bring sustained economic growth that benefits most of us, and particularly lower and middle income Americans. That is what voters want of their leadership and so a successful economic agenda is necessary to Democratic success.

There are three reasons for the utter centrality of economic issues.

Urgency. We almost lost our democracy in no small measure because incomes for lower and middle income Americans have been falling behind since at least the early 1980s. They know it. They are angry about it. They think the Republicans have more to say about it than the Democrats do.

For a refresher on income trends see https://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2020/01/09/trends-in-income-and-wealth-inequality/. It shows that wealth for lower and middle income households has been declining since 1983. It also shows that people recognize that income inequality is growing. “Income inequality” is not the framing that engages them – they are more concerned about their family than the abstraction. Polling did not ask whether they favor or oppose making more money for the same amount of work, because it doesn’t have to ask that obvious question. Polling does show that the economy rated more highly than other issues, except for the immediacy of health care and the pandemic in some polling. (See Q9 in https://www.washingtonpost.com/context/oct-6-9-2020-washington-post-abc-news-national-poll/e4e13300-1a85-4b08-ac26-5975d0de0d51/.)

President-Elect Biden won despite Trump having an advantage on the economy because of Trump’s perceived character, craziness, and his failures to address the coronavirus pandemic. Democrats cannot expect to keep winning without a coherent economic narrative. They should expect continued deep divisions on climate change, racial justice, and immigration if lower and middle income white voters (and the issues are not exclusively with whites) continue to feel a Republican narrative of tax cuts combined with hostility to liberals, black people, and immigrants is closer to their interests than whatever building back better ultimately means in economic terms.

A coherent and cohesive economic narrative leaves room for internal disagreement in its particulars. The shape of the program and its emerging narrative must, most of all, be practical. It needs to work. Ideology is secondary to that overarching goal.

Confidence in Leadership. Voters confidence in their government and their political system is at a low point and their confidence in the electoral process has dropped. https://www.pewresearch.org/politics/2019/07/22/trust-and-distrust-in-america/.

People need to feel their government can respond to them and their needs. A coronavirus vaccine will doubtless help, as will real and consistent information before then on how to stay safe. But if they continue to believe the rich get richer while the poor and the middle class get left behind, as they have felt for a generation, then our democracy will continue to be under threat because too many will feel it does not works for them. Voters’ anger at being, in their view, ignored produced a Trump in the first place. Trump will not be the last demagogue.

Room for a Broader Agenda. Racial justice, climate change, and immigration are each critical issues – and there are more. But realities on these in particular have been masked by growing anger at stagnant incomes and reduced wealth. I am certainly not suggesting waiting on any of these issues. I am asserting that voters must see the economic agenda as central and as inclusive.

Black people and immigrants are disproportionately represented among those whose incomes have stagnated. Increasing their wealth is part of the economic agenda although the central thrust must be lifting incomes for the many who need it. If the outcome and its narrative are successful, there is more room to build support for reality-based approaches to America’s history and to our current crises.

From my perspective, we all owe a debt to Black Lives Matters protesters and to grassroots organizing for racial and economic justice throughout our history. Change generally comes from the bottom and not from the top. Responsible governance listens to grassroots voices. Those crying out for wage growth – even though they are sometimes doing so in resentful and unappealing ways – also need to be heard if we are to restore our democratic equilibrium moving forward.

Problems with polling: Redux

I haven’t posted since April since I had little to contribute to what I saw as the two overarching goals of the last six months: electing Joe Biden and developing a COVID vaccine. I did my civic duty toward the first and had nothing to contribute to the second, and so it seemed a time to pause. Now, I feel my free speech is restored and for a moment at least there is some attention to one of my favorite topics – how we need to do research for campaigns differently. I have covered much of that previously but here is a redux on the problems with polling with some updating for 2020.

1. Samples are not random. If you ever took an intro stats course, it grounded most statistics in the need for a random sample. That means that everyone in the population of interest (e.g. people who voted November 3) has an equal probability of being included in the sample.

The margin of error presumes a random sample. The number of people required to give you an accurate picture of the array of views in a population depends on size of the sample, the breadth of the views in the population, and the randomness of the sample.

The intuitive example: Imagine a bowl of minestrone soup. If you take a small spoonful, you may miss the kidney beans. The larger the spoonful (or sample) the more likely you are to taste all the ingredients. The size of the spoon is important but not the size of the bowl. But if you are tasting cream of tomato soup, you know how it tastes with a smaller spoon. America is definitely more like minestrone than cream of tomato.

The problem with polling has little to do with the margin of error, which remains unchanged. The problem is that pollsters have not used random samples for a generation. The advent of caller ID and people’s annoying proclivity to decline to answer calls from unknown numbers (a proclivity I share), plus some changes in phone technology with fiber optics – including a proliferation of numbers that are not geographically grounded, and an explosion of polls and surveys (How was your last stay at a Hilton?), makes the act of sharing your opinion pretty unspecial.

Not to worry, we pollsters said. Samples can still be representative.

2. The problem with “representative” samples. A representative sample is one constructed to meet the demographics and partisanship of the population of interest (e.g. voters in a state) in order to measure the attitudes of that representative sample.

The researcher “corrects” the data through a variety of techniques, principally stratified samples and weighting. A stratified sample separates out particular groups and samples them separately. Examples include cluster samples, which stratify by geography, and age stratified samples, which use a separate sample for young people, who are hard to reach.

Professional pollsters usually sample from “modeled” files that tell how many likely voters are in each group and their likely partisanship. They upweight – or count the people they are short of extra. They may up-weight the conservative voters without college experience, for example, to keep both demographics and partisanship in line with the model for that state or population. Virtually every poll you see has weighted the data to presumptions of demographics and partisanship.

Back to the minestrone soup example: Samples are drawn and weighted according to the recipe developed before the poll is conducted. We presume the soup has a set quantity of kidney beans because that’s what the recipe says. But voters don’t follow the recipe – they add all kinds of spices on their own. Pollsters also get in a rut on who will vote – failing to stir the soup before tasting it.

Most of the time, though, the assumptions are right. The likely voters vote and the unlikely voters do not, and partisanship reflects the modeling done the year before. But disruptive events happen. In 1998 in Minnesota, most polls (including my own) were wrong because unlikely voters participated and turnout was unexpectedly high particularly in Anoka County, home of Jesse Ventura, who became Governor that year. That phenomenon is parallel to the Trump factor in 2016 and even more so in 2020. Unexpected people voted in unexpected numbers. If the polls are right in 2022, as they generally were in 2018, it is not because the problem is fixed but because conventional wisdom is right again, which would be a relief to more than pollsters, I expect.

3. What’s next. I hope part of what’s next is a different approach to research. If campaigns and their allies break down the core questions they want to answer, they will discover that there is a far bigger and more varied toolbox of research techniques available to them. The press could also find more interesting things to write about that help elucidate attitudes rather than predict behavior.

Analytics has a great deal more to offer. That is especially so if analytics practitioners became more interested in possibilities rather than merely assigning probabilities. Analytics has become too much like polling in resting on assumptions. Practitioners have shrunk their samples and traded in classical statistics for solely Bayesian models.

Please bear with me for another few sentences on that: classical statistics make fewer assumptions; Bayesian statistics measure against assumptions. When I was in grad school (back when Jimmy Carter was President – a Democrat from Georgia!), people made fun of Bayesian models saying it was like looking for a horse, finding a donkey, and concluding it was a mule. We will never collect or analyze data the way we did in the 1970s and 80s, but some things do come around again.

It would also be helpful if institutional players were less wedded to spread sheets that lined up races by the simple probability of winning and instead helped look for the unexpected threats and opportunities. In those years when everything is as expected, there are fewer of those. But upset wins are always constructed by what is different, special, unusual, and unexpected in the context of candidates and moment. Frankly, finding those is what always interested me most because that’s where change comes from.

More on all of this in the weeks and months ahead, and more on all the less wonky things I plan to think about Democrats, the south, shifting party alignments, economic messaging, and my new home state of Mississippi. I am glad to be writing again, now that I feel more matters in this world than just Joe Biden and vaccines.