How to read a poll

As readers of this blog know, I am not wild about public polls – they tend to focus people on the “horse race” at the expense of other areas of the campaign and way too often their read of the horse race or of changes in it are misleading. Nonetheless, they seem to proliferate so here is a short primer of what to look for to evaluate how real they are – or are not:

1. Do the demographics of the poll match those of the electorate? The distribution in the poll by age, gender, partisanship, race, education and geography should match that of the electorate. Now, these factors vary in the electorate depending on voter registration and turnout so the exact distribution for a future election is unknowable. Additionally, while we all have access to U.S. Census data, most of us do not have access to special modeled voter files that tell us this information for earlier elections. So some “guesstimating” is necessary for casual consumers of polls.

Still, the electorate isn’t radically different from the adult population, except perhaps by age as older people are more likely to vote than younger people. One thing to always watch out for is percent college educated because people with four-year college degrees are only a little more likely to vote but much more likely to complete polls. In Mississippi, 24 percent of adults over age 25 have four-year college degrees. The most recent MSToday poll of registered voters over age 18 had the figure at 21 percent. That is not unreasonable, although perhaps a tad low. On the other hand, I have seen polls that had the figure over 40 percent in Mississippi, which is not at all reasonable. It matters a lot because Governor Tate Reeves has more support among white voters without college experience than among white voters with four year college degrees. It also mattered a lot in producing the polling errors of 2016 as Hillary Clinton had a lot more support than Donald Trump among voters with four-year college degrees.

2. Is the partisanship correct? In states with party registration, like California or Florida, you can see whether the number of Democrats, Republicans and independents (or decline to state voters as they are known in California) is correct. With a special modeled file, statisticians have estimated the probability of each voters’ partisanship in every state and polls that use those files rely on that modeling. When neither of those is available, partisanship can rely on party self-identification or on prior vote. Both of those methods are somewhat problematic. Self-identification is an attitude and can fluctuate over time – someone may see themselves as a Republican today but start thinking next week they are more of an independent, particularly if they anticipate crossing party lines in the next election. Prior vote – for whom people voted in the last election – relies on their memory, and there is a tendency to recall voting for the winner. Still recalled Presidential vote, since people felt pretty strongly about that one, can be a useful measure and ground those who say they are independents as leaning one way or the other in reality. In the last two MSToday polls, party self-identification shifted quite a bit from 35 percent Democratic in January to 27 percent in April while the Republican percent went up two points from 38 to 40 percent and the independent percentage went down five points. It may be that voters are feeling less Democratic but it is likely that some of the change was the result of sample fluctuation. If the state’s underlying partisanship is the same, the partisanship of the two samples should have been more similar than it was.

3. Know the real sample sizes (or be cautious of them). Every poll these days has been weighted. That means that when the data collection is done, the pollster looks at the sample and up-weights or down-weights respondents in some groups to reflect their representation in the electorate. If they do not have enough young people, or people without college experience, or voters in the Delta, they count those they do have extra – as if they were 1.1 persons (or more) instead of 1 – and they down-weight people in groups that are over-represented. Small weights make the poll better but larger weights – or multiple weights – can make a very small group of people count for too much of the poll. I once did a poll that was low on both Republicans and African Americans and made the rookie mistake of up-weighting both those groups at the same time creating a sample that had a lot of Black Republicans, which made it appear (wrongly) that my candidate was slipping among Black people.

Weighting can be tricky and as response biases have gotten worse, it matters more. Very few public polls report their weights or the actual sample sizes they collected. Ask for them – or know that in telephone polls the pollster has probably up-weighted younger voters – especially younger men – African Americans and Hispanics. In on-line polls, they have almost certainly up-weighted voters without college experience, and seniors. In either case, the actual sample sizes of these groups are likely smaller than they appear.

4. Take it all with many grains of salt. Polls can be very useful in understanding how other people are thinking about the world or about an election. But they used to be more of an exact science than they are because people used to be easier to reach. If everyone in the population of interest (people who will vote in the next election) is equally likely to be in the poll, then all the laws of probability apply and you know their opinions within a mathematical margin of error. But as the response rate to polls has plummeted, and in ways that are not at all random, those laws no longer apply. The collection has biases that have been adjusted by the pollster in line with their assumptions. The best pollster making the most studied assumptions still misses the mark sometimes. And changes in a horse race for an election that won’t happen for months may – or may not – mean anything at all. I hope to see more news coverage of what candidates are doing and saying, and leave the internal processes and strategic judgments to their campaigns – although I am still something of a poll addict and will look, even while shaking my head and wishing for more coverage of who these people are, what makes them tick, and what they would do if they win the office that they seek.

Right now, like most Mississippians, I know a lot more about Tate Reeves and the kind of leader he is than I do about Brandon Presley. That will change as the candidates, their campaigns, and the press each tell us more. All we really know right now is that Mississippians aren’t satisfied with the status quo leaving room for the challenger, whom most of us don’t know very well yet.

Will Magnolia Tribune Use Fake Polls to Create Fake News?

I hope not. But watch for it. Because the Magnolia Tribune is polling its subscribers on issues on which it is taking a position. The questions are biased and the sample is hardly random. If the purpose is to probe subscriber views, that’s their own business. If the data are presented as more than that, it will be fake news.

I used to be a professional political pollster because I care about what people are thinking and feeling. It’s important in political campaigns and in understanding public dialog. I subscribe to the Magnolia Tribune because it tends to telegraph what I believe will be the right-wing messages in Mississippi this year and it is useful to know what those are. I have learned from the Magnolia Tribune that the right will attack Medicaid expansion as not helping the poor based on biased research from states that charged recipients of Medicaid coverage a premium, with the result in those states that lower income people dropped out. More recently, I have learned they will argue that more state help for schools will force up local property taxes, which is not necessarily true, especially as in lower income districts it will result in more Title 1 federal money. Finally, I have learned they will argue that if the state spends money on its Capital City, it should be able to overrule local leadership, although I suspect people in Tishomingo County want self government despite the money the state (and feds) spend there. Mississippi has a long history of strong local and county government.

Now the Magnolia Tribune is conducting a “poll” of subscribers on these and other issues. The questions follow a paragraph arguing one side and then providing a button so subscribers can express their opinions. Nothing wrong with that if the purpose is to see if active subscribers share the editorial opinions of the Magnolia Tribune. (I don’t share them but it wont surprise me to learn that most subscribers do.) If the results are presented as a poll of public attitudes, representing a broader population than those who answered it, it will be fake news.

Polls that mirror public or voter attitudes are much harder to conduct than in the past because response rates are low. Good pollsters reach out repeatedly to try to up the rate and try extra hard to reach those who are hardest to reach – young people, people of color, and people in the political middle. They then count those they do reach from harder to reach groups extra by “upweighting” their responses. There are problems with these procedures too as I have written about in this space but at least it is an honest effort to be representative. I believe the Mississippi Today poll early this year was an honest effort, although an imperfect one. Pretending self-selected subscribers are representative of anything else is not an honest effort at a professional poll. I hope the Magnolia Tribune does not present its results as more than they are.

I haven’t seen any in depth recent polls that address the issues at hand but I suspect the following is still true: Most voters are not policy wonks. They want good schools because it is good for kids and for the Mississippi economy to have them. If only they had political leaders who go about that effort honestly. If we are all lucky, they will get them. They are apparently pretty clear they don’t have such leaders now.

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 ( 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 (  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 ( 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:

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.