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A lesson from the US election: we’ll never understand voters just by looking at polls | Opinion polls


As well as the celebrations triggered by Joe Biden’s eventual victory, one quieter sound can be heard in the US: that of opinion polling once again being read the last rites. Pollsters and analysts may have got the winning candidate right. But, perhaps because many Republican supporters preferred to keep their political preference quiet, the reduction of politics to maths did not predict the knife-edge results that materialised in so many US swing states, Democratic losses in Congress, and the fact that untold millions were in no mood to reject Donald Trump and what he stands for.

From some quarters, there are now suggestions that polling’s disgrace means something almost sacred may have died. “The real catastrophe,” said David Graham of the Atlantic magazine, “is that the failure of the polls leaves Americans with no reliable way to understand what we as a people think outside of elections – which in turn threatens our ability to make choices, or to cohere as a nation.”

If a country has so lost the ability to comprehend itself that its best minds have to depend on mere surveys, it clearly has a problem. And, in that sense, the endless attention paid to polling clearly highlights issues now fundamental to the future of the US, Britain, and many other democracies. People and places are now estranged from each other to the point of a mutual bafflement that teeters into fury. Among big chunks of different electorates there is a sense that orthodox politicians and the media are one and the same, and know far too little about people’s lives. What better proof could there be than the spectacle of men in suits turning voters into numbers, which then turn out to be wrong? This is why, as his presidency was slipping away on Thursday evening, Trump’s grim re-staging of the last act of Macbeth meandered into passages about “phoney polls”, and “suppression polls”, that he claimed were “election interference by powerful special interests”.

Though the modern political survey was born in the 1930s, the current ubiquity of polling is a legacy of the age in which political thinkers started to believe that voters were predictable and manipulable, and that winning was down to a set of carefully formulated messages. All senior politicians had in-house pollsters, and they were held to be sages.

In the 21st century, computing power supposedly allowed models to become ever more nuanced and sophisticated. This notion was embodied by the renowned US statistician and analyst Nate Silver – with data-based political journalism being based on forensically aggregating and weighing polls, combined with a mass of other information, so as to arrive at supposedly meticulous projections. Despite many oversights and mistakes – on the Clinton v Trump contest of 2016, on Brexit, the British general election of 2017, and now this – such techniques remained central to the way politics is covered. They fed people false certainty, relieved elites of the job of actually talking to people, and gave 24-hour news channels and social media platforms something to endlessly feast on.

In 2016, I did some reporting in Baltimore, on the race for the Democratic nomination between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton. It was the first time I had met a certain kind of American political journalist, awaiting the results of the state’s primary not so much to understand where the country might be heading, as to find out which of the maestros of polling had “called” it right. They reminded me slightly of the old blokes at whom I used to marvel in my hometown’s bookies, manipulating numbers with stubby biros and intently studying the odds, as if they could defy brute luck.

When I fell into conversation with one such journalist and explained I had been out most of the day talking to voters, he looked askance at me, as if he had a method that was altogether superior. Shades here, perhaps, of Silver’s view of old-fashioned human reporting: “The impulse maybe isn’t bad. But, you know, polls are also a way of talking to voters.”

They are not. If you want to understand the poverty of polling, look at YouGov’s recent MRP survey (it stands for “Multilevel regression with poststratification”) – the US version of the supposed watershed polls that now mark big moments in UK election campaigns. It showed Biden winning Florida by 4.3 points, and both Pennsylvania and Wisconsin by 6.8 (races he respectively lost, and won by the narrowest of margins). In Texas, Trump was shown leading by a mere 0.3%, when he won by a clear six points. Besides, even if these numbers had been halfway right, what could they have really told you about some of this election’s key stories: the fact that counties are becoming more and more “ultra-partisan”; the Latino voters who backed Trump; the social and political changes rippling through Arizona and Georgia?

Understanding these things – and indeed, even starting to realise Biden’s wish that polarised Americans should finally “give each other a chance” – has to start with an almost philosophical change in how politics and elections are understood. There are complex, sometimes contradictory factors that actually decide how people vote: the way they see themselves and their lives; family, place and work; both rationality and prejudice; the candidate in which they most see themselves. The dominance of pollsters has played some role in obscuring all this, and leading us to a place where we know less about each other than ever: in the US and beyond, a new era will have to start with less maths, and much more humanity.



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