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.

Just don’t call them stupid, please…

I haven’t posted in a while because I have no particular insights on the Coronavirus, which has been the virtually exclusive topic on most people’s minds. With a perception that the course of the virus and peoples’ attitudes toward policies to address it will remain volatile for some time, I simply have had little to say.

Also, the presidential election has been in stasis: Joe Biden will be the Democratic nominee and Bernie Sanders has embraced unreservedly the need to win. Biden faces some difficult challenges on messaging without appearing to be posturing for political gain, and the convention, campaigning, and the realities of voting are all challenging but I have no particular insights to offer on any of that at the moment.

Here’s what I do want to say now: The 2020 election will pivot more on turnout than prior elections because of the complexities of process. It is therefore imperative that Democrats mobilize our vote but also that we avoid helping Trump and his allies mobilize theirs. Whenever we act like the party of elites – individually as well as collectively – we are helping Trump.

I understand the temptation to castigate the people who protest because they are putting everyone – not just themselves – at greater risk by congregating. However, those who overreact – and call them stupid – are putting all of us at greater risk by helping Trump mobilize right-wing support and increasing sympathy for the protests.

For the record, the protestors are right that their freedom of assembly is abrogated by restrictions on the number of people who may congregate. They are also right that they are being asked to suffer economically as a result of actions of governments that many do not support.

There are several ways of disagreeing with what they are doing that do not feed it or make opposition to it an issue on its own. Wisconsin operatives are suggesting that the protests are a partisan effort and the Mayor of Madison is saying they are manufactured, as reported in Reid Epstein’s excellent New York Times article https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/23/us/politics/wisconsin-coronavirus-protests.html, which also shows that those organizing the protests recognize the danger in their looking like the political ones. There is also the option to say that while people certainly should have the right to protest, we hope they recognize that they may be putting their neighbors and coworkers at risk as well.

When those who oppose the protests call protestors stupid or crazy, as many have on social media, you are making it easier to mobilize against a party – the Democrats – that many believe harbors people who think others are stupid, crazy, or otherwise deplorable in comparison to themselves.

Social distancing helps contain the virus. When voluntary, it is also an economic privilege. The personal and financial costs of staying home are hardly the same for all of us. Many people are torn between the health necessity and very serious personal economic costs. Don’t help make the protestors point by raising the flag of your own privilege. And don’t help Trump make the point that anyone needs liberation by your displaying heavy-handed self-righteousness.

Trump’s presidency is a tragedy. It is costing tens of thousands of lives. It has wrenched the country and deepened cleavages of race, class, geography and gender. It has tarnished and perhaps destroyed our nation’s reputation in the world. Democratic voters have chosen a candidate who promises healing, calm, reliance on expertise in making policy decisions, and a re-birth of respect for people and their views. He may not have always been my first choice, but he is now. Let’s not make it harder for him.

My Vote on March 10 for…

I had always planned to wait until the March 10 Mississippi primary in which I will vote to decide for whom I would vote. But I have now decided – and have surprised myself (and will surprise many who know me). I considered many factors, superficial and otherwise, before deciding that I will vote for Joe Biden.

I considered relationships with campaign operatives and even with some candidates. After spending 35 plus years in Democratic politics, I unsurprisingly know people in almost every campaign. I am probably closer to more people in Senator Klobuchar’s campaign than any other because of shared history in Minnesota politics, and I know Senator Klobuchar slightly and like and respect her. But that is not enough.

I also know slightly and very much like and respect former Mayor Buttigieg, who (with some gaps) has run a remarkable campaign.  For a short while, the former Mayor of South Bend was the delegate leader and is still solidly in the top three in delegates.  He has tremendous talent and smarts, a message of meaning and substance, and we do, indeed, need to bring a new generation of leadership into the Democratic Party.  But that is not enough.

If I could wave a magic wand and make one of the candidates president, it would be Senator Elizabeth Warren.  Her politics are closest to my own, she cares about the things I care about (and she even did a town hall in Mississippi).  I love her energy and I do so very much want to see a woman President in my lifetime.  My 35 plus years in politics only makes that drive stronger as politics is not a field where women are near equal to men in how we are treated or heard.  That should be enough reason to support Senator Warren but this year it is not.

Because this isn’t about me.  It is about our country, our system of democracy, and about people whose very lives (unlike my own) depend on the outcome in November. 

I am not hostile to Bernie Sanders, whose political ideas may be closer to mine than Joe Biden’s are.  I don’t blame him for Hillary Clinton’s loss to Donald Trump, which was far more complicated than that.  I will support him with enthusiasm if he is the nominee.  And I believe there is a chance he might eek out a victory if by November Donald Trump is less popular than he is right now.  But there is also a significant risk that he would lose and that he take down good people running for the Senate and the House with him.  That is too big a risk.

Then there is Michael Bloomberg.  I believe he is trying to do good in this race and in large part because he saw a gap that, before South Carolina, worried me as well.  But I believe he has the wrong positioning and politics for the task at hand, which is to defeat Donald Trump.

I support my candidate, Joe Biden, because it is, I believe, the right thing to do and that he is the right candidate for this time. It is not personal.  I have never met Joe Biden – we don’t share the same political space.  It may not be what I want but it is what we need:  A good and decent man, who listens to others, who wants to unite the country around shared ideals of democracy. 

He has my vote on March 10.

Failures of Punditry (and Polls)

As the year began I wrote what I called my New Year’s “irresolutions” – a set of observations on the Democratic field that I cloaked in uncertainty. I promised to come back and identify those that were wrong. There are two standouts in that regard: (1) Joe Biden’s staying power is far less certain – and I take little comfort in having been right about that before I was wrong; and (2) I now suspect that a Michael Bloomberg nomination is as likely as several other possibilities on the table.

I was not alone in being wrong and there are two core reasons for why so many were. The first is that the polls were wrong – not a single poll showed a Sanders-Buttigieg tie in Iowa with Elizabeth Warren in third; nor did a single poll show the Sanders-Buttigieg photo finish in New Hampshire with Amy Klobuchar in a strong third. In addition to the usual problems with polls (see prior posts and tweets), in Iowa, polls overestimated turnout and apparently underestimated the power of organization and the movement of late deciders. They included too many non-voters and too few who moved late to Buttigieg. In New Hampshire, there was not time for quality polling between the debate and the primary given issues with callbacks and weekend samples so most polling missed the Klobuchar growth. Additionally, those “future former Republicans” of Buttigieg’s may have been a bigger piece of the electorate than some foresaw.

The second reason pundits were wrong is that this is not an election like any we have seen before. Voters are seriously shopping for a candidate who can defeat Donald Trump. Like the pundits’, voters’ hypotheses about that shift over time, and so too do their candidate preferences. Debate performances, candidate message, perceived toughness, all matter. Since so many were so wrong, the impact of punditry seems to matter less although I am continually concerned that wrong polls can impact elections and, in their own way, thwart the voter will they intend to reflect.

The factors that made punditry and polls wrong in these first two states are operative in those that are coming up. There will not be time for quality polls between debates and primaries or between South Carolina and Super Tuesday. Voters may also change their minds about who is the strongest candidate and about what they will tolerate from candidates about whom they have mixed feelings.

Yes, polls do not show Buttigieg and Klobuchar to have much support from voters of color but usually these are polls with small and often unbalanced samples of voters of color. Besides, African American and Hispanic voters have in the past overlooked far more egregious violations on race than these candidates are accused of. I suspect most voters of color have concluded a long time ago that white politicians are imperfect on these issues. Additionally, I suspect these candidates will do some more outreach than perhaps they have to date and maybe (or not) to positive effect.

This is not a prediction that their support will grow – I don’t know – but there is no reason to rule it out either. Sanders is better known in those communities, and has a civil rights movement history from the 1960s. That doesn’t mean he has a lock on anything – and neither does Biden. Further, we have not heard yet from any voters in the south or in the southwest and we don’t really know how they are judging these candidates, or will after two more debates in their very different home states. We will have to wait and see. And the results of the next two states may or may not tell us much about Super Tuesday, when a third of delegates are chosen.

One element of current punditry I question is whether voter decisions are ideological. There is a conventional analysis that groups moderate candidates and progressive candidates and presumes some trade-off among them. The analysis is supported by voters’ second choices – as Warren is the more frequent second choice of Sanders supporters and vice versa. But some of that may reflect changeable theories of who can win. Further, there are perhaps gender dynamics in play – worth wondering whether Warren’s weakness in New Hampshire was in part attributable to Klobuchar’s growth. I don’t know.

One more irresolution I want to comment on: whether there will or even can be a first ballot winner. Multiple candidates and the deferral of the votes of super-delegates do make it less likely, as basic arithmetic and every model shows. But candidates can release their delegates before the vote; they can team up on prospective tickets too; but more importantly, the primary process is not linear, many things can happen, and a clear winner has time and space to emerge. We will see. The only thing I do know is that we should not pre-judge results because the situation and voters’ behavior is unique to this year and to the need to defeat Donald Trump.