If you remember much about the months before the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections, it doesn’t take much paying attention to this one to work up a pretty strong sense of déjà vu. In both of those, we also saw polling from September into early October claiming that the race had “tightened” to very close, or even tied, before in the end President Obama pulled away to win by about the margins he’d had right after the Democratic conventions.
Various explanations have been mooted for this phenomenon. Here’s a certainly viable one that I saw last week:
One way to describe that problem is “non-response bias;” in other words, the responses of those who choose to respond would be different than those you choose not to respond. It’s a phenomenon that we’ve been aware of for a long time … it may have been the primary culprit in the notoriously disastrous Literary Digest poll that predicted a landslide victory for Alf Landon in the 1936 presidential race … but one that pollsters are just now starting to grapple with.
A more recent case was the polling spike that Mitt Romney received after a poor performance by Barack Obama in the first debate in 2012. Research after the fact, however, suggested that Romney didn’t suddenly get an influx of new backers, as much as Obama’s backers were demoralized and temporarily less willing to talk to pollsters, and Romney was temporarily winning by subtraction, which explained why that debate bump quickly wore off. Pollsters using more advanced techniques … especially Obama’s internal pollsters, who were relying on multiple levels of voter file information to sort voters, instead of just using random-digit dialing and talking to whoever answered … found that there really wasn’t much of a debate effect at all, and the race stayed in pretty much the same narrow band from April on.
And pollsters who are willing to dig a little below the surface (and not interested in feeding a horse race narrative in the media) are finding similar things this year.
(David Jarman/Daily Kos)
Be that as it may, there’s another hypothesis that doesn’t seem to be being given much voice, though for me it fairly springs from the data, past and present, like a jaguar. Consider:
– Much corporate media is facing further downsizing, if not outright extinction in its current embodiments, any time. (Note, for example, the age distribution among those who still inexplicably get their “news” from the plutocratic/war pig propaganda that is the network TV broadcasts. I don‘t know about their websites and radio, but I doubt that the situation is much different.) They’re desperate for a neck-and-neck race, to hopefully keep people “glued.” We’ve seen how the coverage has been, with the relentless invention of Hillary Clinton “scandals” whenever she so much as blinks her eyelids, compared to the coddling of the most vile and repulsive, and unqualified and dangerous, presidential candidate, in historical context, in U.S. history.
I don’t believe that most of the Republicans or corporate Democrats who own and operate corporate media really want Donald Trump in the White House. But they figure that the chances of that are small, and they’re probably right. Probably. (More here and here.) But they are, in addition to ratings and web traffic and so forth, hoping to help mute any Democratic downballot wave. Plus, they’re a**holes. Of a truly fetid, repellent sort.
– We’ve known from Day One that Clinton has huge advantages among minorities, women…really, everyone except white people with no post-secondary education. I personally know Republicans who are refusing to vote for Trump, and I suspect that you do, too. Moreover, Clinton’s ground game is state-of-the-art, while it’s doubtful that Trump even knows what “microtargeting” is. It just does not add up that this is tied or anywhere near it.
Given the above, to claim that polling commissioned by, or otherwise intended for use by, corporate media and other public entities looking for attention – that is, most of what’s out there – is all on the up-and-up seems to me to be pretty naïve. I do indeed hypothesize (and I’m far from the first to do so) that in all likelihood much of it is being deliberately skewed, in order to make this thing appear closer than it is.
Certainly there’s an argument in favor of this in a recent CNN poll, showing Trump+2 nationally, that was so obviously cooked that even other corporate media mocked it. (I’m not going to link everything in this post. Busy. If you think I’m dealing in BS, you presumably have access to the same search engines I do and can look for yourself.) I believe it was MSNBC that ran the CNN data through a 20102 model, and got Clinton+4. And there’s every reason to believe that Democratic turnout will be stronger than in 2012. Partly because of continued demographic movement blue-ward, but even more because of the presence of a (entirely justifiably) loathed and despised candidate at the top of the GOP ticket. Hatred and contempt do drive turnout.
CNN and others, it should be noted, have added impetus. They believe that they can grab viewers who are leaving Fox because of the scandal there. That doesn’t seem to be happening. Fox viewers are there because they need their motivated reasoning constantly reinforced, and they’re not about to be driven away by something so trivial as the place having been revealed as a hellhole of sexually predatory behavior. (Where are the criminal charges, with all of that, anyway? But I digress.)
Many pollsters are switching from a “Registered Voter” to a “Likely Voter” model. This allows them to easily pimp a Trump/GOP “surge” by overpolling the aforementioned high-school-graduate-or-less whites (which includes a big majority among the elderly). If we see the same pattern as before, they’ll spend the last two or three weeks before the election bringing things into line with what’s really likely to happen, and then subsequently make specious claims that their polling was really just the absolute rock-solid best, all along.
I have to note that another group that is loving the recent polling “trends” is Democratic fundraisers. Just check out your email inbox, assuming that it looks at all like mine. In political fundraising, scare tactics apparently work. The same goes for aggregating/predictive sites that are under pressure to generate traffic. (More on 538 here and here.)
Again, I’m presenting a hypothesis here, subject to proof or disproof, because that’s how rational, scientific thinkers do things. Nothing is intended as some bald statement of complete and final truth. Nor am I suggesting that this is the whole explanation for all of this bizarre polling; the only major pollster whose integrity I’ve never questioned, PPP, has shown closer numbers as well. I also must humbly note that I’ve been proved wrong about this election, so far.
Finally, in the interests of full disclosure I note that I worry about this election quite often. I shouldn’t, it doesn’t do any good, but I do so anyway.
The image has the banner added to an original from the Los Angeles Times.