Throwing darts at a board

by matttbastard

As the countdown to the clinch continues, the Village Idiots are growing ever more idiotic at the prospect of talking gibberish when Senator Barack Obama becomes the first black nominee for president of the USA. David Gergen, charter member of The Best Political Team on Television™, just gave a preview of what’s to come by noting that Obama’s now-inevitable nomination comes “exactly” 200 years after the end of the slave trade.

Got that, folks? We can now officially start talking about racism in the past tense.

With that–and, as this “historic” campaign goes to the next level, the promise of even more hoary, overinflated rhetoric from a punditocracy addicted to soundbite significance–in mind, this refreshingly grounded LRB essay from David Runciman couldn’t be more timely.

A sample:

Now that the primary season has nearly run its course, a different pattern can be seen. Followed day by day, the race for the Democratic nomination has been the most exciting election in living memory. But viewed in retrospect, it is clear that it has been quite predictable. All the twists and turns have been a function of the somewhat random sequencing of different state primaries, which taken individually have invariably conformed to type, with Obama winning where he was always likely to win (caucus states, among college-educated and black voters, in the cities), and Clinton winning where she was likely to win (big states with secret ballots, among less well-educated whites and Hispanics, in rural areas). Even the initial drama of that week in early January – when Obama’s victory in Iowa had seemed to give him a chance of finishing Clinton off, only to be confounded by her victory in New Hampshire, which defied the expectation of the pundits and had them all speculating about what had swung it (was it her welling up in a diner? was it hastily rekindled memories of Bill? was it hints of hubris from Obama?) – turns out to have been an illusion. Iowa was Obama country (younger, smaller, caucus meetings) and New Hampshire wasn’t (older, bigger, voting machines). The salient fact about this campaign is that demography trumps everything: people have been voting in fixed patterns set by age, race, gender, income and educational level, and the winner in the different contests has been determined by the way these different groups are divided up within and between state boundaries. Anyone who knows how to read the census data (and that includes some of the smart, tech-savvy types around Obama) has had a good idea of how this was going to play from the outset. All the rest is noise.

Yet if the voting patterns have been so predictable, why have the polls been so volatile? One of the amazing things about the business of American politics is that its polling industry is so primitive. Each primary has been preceded by a few wildly varying polls, some picking up big movement for Clinton, some for Obama, each able to feed the narrative of a contest that could swing decisively at any moment. All of these polls come with warnings about their margins of error (usually +/–4 per cent), but often they have been so far outside their own margins as to make the phrase ridiculous. A day before the California primary in February, the Zogby organisation had Obama ahead by 6 per cent – he ended up losing by 9 per cent. In Ohio, the same firm put Obama ahead by 2 per cent just before the actual vote – this time he lost by 10 per cent. The sampling of national opinion is even worse. Before the Indiana primary, two national polls released at the same time claimed to track the fallout from the appearance of Obama’s former pastor Jeremiah Wright on the political stage. One, for the New York Times, had Obama up by 14 per cent, and enabled the Times to run a story saying that the candidate had been undamaged. The other, for USA Today, had Clinton up by 7 per cent, leading the paper to conclude that Obama was paying a heavy price.

The reason for the differences is not hard to find. American polling organisations tend to rely on relatively small samples (certainly judged by British standards) for their results, often somewhere between 500 and 700 likely voters, compared to the more usual 1000-2000-plus for British national polls. The recent New York Times poll that gave Obama a 12 per cent lead was based on interviews with just 283 people. For a country the size of the United States, this is the equivalent to stopping a few people at random in the street, or throwing darts at a board. Given that American political life is generally so cut-throat, you might think there was room for a polling organisation that sought a competitive advantage by using the sort of sample sizes that produce relatively accurate results. Why on earth does anyone pay for this rubbish?

The answer is that in an election like this one, the polls aren’t there to tell the real story; they are there to support the various different stories that the commentators want to tell. The market is not for the hard truth, because the hard truth this time round is that most people are voting with the predictability of prodded animals. What the news organisations and blogs and roving pundits want are polls that suggest the voters are thinking hard about this election, arguing about it, making up their minds, talking it through, because that’s what all the commentators like to think they are doing themselves. This endless raft of educated opinion needs to be kept afloat on some data indicating that it matters what informed people say about politics, because it helps the voters to decide which way to jump. If you keep the polling sample sizes small enough, you can create the impression of a public willing to be moved by what other people are saying. That’s why the comment industry pays for this rubbish.

And just think: this has only been the warm up. The real contest starts tonight. CNN just announced that Obama has gone over the top.

Lord have mercy.

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