Tuesday, October 23, 2018
Are you ready to rumble?
Politics is a strange beast. You have scientists who study it in detail, examining poll numbers, sorting through the underlying trends, and to one degree or another predicting outcomes, much the way Nate Silver does on 538. He's come up with a complicated set of algorithms to determine good polls, weed out bad polls and with a relatively high degree of certainty predict the outcome of an election. Of course, he was famously wrong with Trump, having given Clinton a 71.4% probability of winning, but his forecast was decidedly less optimistic than other polls that gave her as much as a 99.9% chance of winning, and to his credit he had the crucial states of Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin light blue.
For every scientist there are a hundred or more pundits that go on gut feeling, so you can never expect anything more from them than an opinion. When they are right, they shout it to the world. When they are wrong, they crawl back into their holes. We have an awful lot of opinions these days, including mine, which you can pretty much take with a grain of salt, as they are based on anecdotal references that may or may not carry any meaning. But, persons tend to like opinions, especially if they reflect their own. What scientists call cognitive bias.
So, we get conservative pundits predicting a red wave this November and liberal pundits predicting a blue wave and never the twain shall meet. It's kind of like Rock-em Sock-em Robots, the political edition. This is why I turn to RCP and 538 to see what the latest polls say.
There's quite a range in the polls, so RCP averages them out and comes out with a composite number, whether the poll is good or bad. Case in point, CNN has Gillum up 12 points in his race against DeSantis for Florida Governor, whereas the St. Pete Polls has Gillum up only one point. Taken with the three other polls conducted since 9/17, RCP gives Gillum an average of +4.4 per cent.
If we look at 538, Silver gives a much wider range of fresh polls and grades them based on qualitative analysis, and lets you decide which one you want to accept. He's no longer offering probabilities after the 2016 fiasco. Only one poll, OnMessage Inc, has DeSantis ahead. Silver very generously gives it a C+, given it has only recently began taking public polls after having served a number of Republican candidates throughout the South, notably current Florida Gov. Rick Scott. It is very likely to have a conservative bias. Of course, if OnMessage is right, it will be sure to make everyone know.
So, why do we go through all this? Why don't we just let the elections play out as they will and accept the results?
To a large degree, we have become a gaming culture. Polls become a form of handicap, with many persons literally betting on the outcomes, as they would a boxing or UFC match. The attitude has affected the society as a whole, with conservatives and liberals (in the broad sense) staking their mental well-being on whether the Republicans or Democrats win the most seats in November. As such the cheering becomes as frenetic as any epic fight when your side gains an edge in the polls, hence the shouts of "red wave" and "blue wave."
American politics has only two rivals: the Democrats and Republicans. Every once in awhile you have a spoiler Independent candidate that voters immediately blame if their Blue or Red candidate loses. It's kind of like allowing a third fighter into the ring and turning the match into a free-for-all.
Independent candidate and current Alaska governor Bill Walker decided he didn't want to be the spoiler and dropped out three weeks before the election. He threw his support behind Mark Begich, much to Democrats' delight, but that hasn't put Begich ahead of Republican Dunleavy in either the RCP or 538 polls. Not all of Walker's supporters chose to get behind the Democrat, some support Dunleavy, allowing the Republican to maintain a sizeable edge over his Democratic opponent.
This is a good object lesson for Democrats who felt Jill Stein pulled voters away from Hillary Clinton in the Midwest. Persons who vote for Independent candidates are not necessarily going to support your favored candidate. Many of Jill Stein's supporters probably wouldn't have voted at all if their choice had simply been Trump v. Clinton. Having a third or fourth or even fifth candidate, as was the case with Evan McMullin in Utah, allows persons to have another option given they don't like the main choices. But, die-hard Clinton supporters are still blaming Jill Stein and even Bernie Sanders for drawing support away from their favorite.
Many persons put such an emotional stake in the outcome of an election that they refuse to accept the results, hence #nevermypresident. It's understandable when so much appears to be riding on the line in the way of health care, social security and other vested interests. We desperately want our interests represented in Washington and in state capitals around the country. If our candidates fail to win, we take the loss harshly. This results in an entrenchment of beliefs that is pretty hard to overcome, especially when you have political pundits, not to mention a smarmy president, feeding these anxieties 24/7.
For what it's worth, Democrats continue to promote unity of vision. Beto O'Rourke chose not to take Trump's bait at a political rally in Houston in support of his opponent, Ted Cruz. Andrew Gillum chose to maintain a dignified confidence in his debate with the irascible Ron DeSantis. These young Democrats seem to have taken Michelle Obama's now famous motto, "When they go low, we go high," to heart, hoping that reason, or at least calmer emotions, will prevail in November.
However, this uplifting message is a thin veneer for a growing anxiety in this country. Democrats look at the polls that show Americans favor some form of gun control, more comprehensive health care, better education, and a free and open society, and wonder why this doesn't translate into victories at the ballot box? How do Republicans continue to win running in opposition to what seems to be mainstream views in the country?
Political scientists and journalists offer a wide range of views on the subject, but what stands out is the gerrymandering and voter ID laws that have occurred in many states which Republicans took control of after the 2010 Tea Party movement. A traditionally Democratic state like Wisconsin became an impregnable Republican state with the narrow victory of Scott Walker in 2010. There was an effort to recall him the following year, but votes fell short and since then Walker has used voter IDs and gerrymandering to make the state legislature overwhelming conservative.
Republican state legislatures have gone out of their way to disenfranchise voters, particularly those who traditionally would vote Democratic. In a state like Virginia where Democrats won well over 50% of the vote in state assembly elections, they fell one seat short of a majority. Even if your vote counts, it doesn't count enough to gain control of a state legislature.
This is also true on a national level where an electoral vote in Wyoming is worth 3 times more than one from California. This is how Hillary Clinton can win the popular vote but lose the electoral college in a "landslide."
Well, I've kind of meandered a bit here, but it all goes to show how difficult American politics is to define, let alone analyze to a degree where we can make informed decisions. There is a lack of perspective that has emerged, most noticeably on the Right, where Trump is able to turn a caravan of 5000 unarmed, hungry, barely clothed refugees into an "invasion" that needs to be met with military force. You also see it to some degree on the Left, where Paul Krugman actively wonders if the current Congress will nullify the midterm elections if the Democrats win the House?
Both sides play to our fears and anxieties, blocking our receptors that would allow us to make a reasonable, informed choice. This is why it is so refreshing to see candidates like Beto O'Rourke and Andrew Gillum refusing to play into those emotions. Is it enough to overcome the hysteria we are witnessing as these midterm elections approach?