Last week, a national poll showing Donald Trump a few points ahead of Joe Biden sent shockwaves through the political punditry. Because the news media loves to report on the horse race, they all came out of the woodwork to explain why and how and where.
I don’t buy any of it, and not just because I think Biden is doing a hell of a job in the White House and hope to see him re-elected. Even if you put aside his success at turning the economy around or passing big legislation that will repair crumbling infrastructure or putting millions of people back to work, the problem remains that this poll was conducted a year before the actual election. A year! That’s way too early.
First of all, no one knows what events will occur between now and next November that will impact voters’ decisions. Three months ago, no one predicted Hamas would attack Israel, igniting a war that could boil over into the entire Middle East. No one can say with any certainty what the outcome will be of the various court cases involving Trump and whether his presence in courtrooms will detract from his ability to keep up his string of lies on the campaign trail. No one knows whether age and health issues of both men will affect them.
You’ll notice I used the phrase “both men” in the previous sentence. That’s because the media continues pounding points about Biden’s physical and mental acuity while rarely focusing on Trump’s problems in those areas. Doing so promulgates the image that the current president is a doddering old fool, when in fact everyone who has been in a room with him reports that while his gait may have slowed, his mind is still hitting on all cylinders. Meanwhile, Trump regularly misspeaking or getting facts wrong, along with his increasingly fascist pronouncements, don’t get nearly as much scrutiny. That creates a grand misperception.
But here’s the biggest question I have about this — and all — polls: who is answering these queries in the first place? I think the vast majority of Americans treat incoming calls the way I do. By ignoring them. We’ve all become so wary of telemarketers and scam artists we only accept calls from people we know who are identified by our devices. Then, even if we do pick up, who’s sitting through a litany of questions about politics?
Certainly not those in younger demographics. Many of them barely use the phone for voice communication at all, preferring to text, often exchanging messages with multiple contacts simultaneously for extended periods. To them, an actual phone call — even from a friend — is an unwanted intrusion. If that’s the case, how can anyone create an accurate assessment of their preferences regarding anything other than TikTok videos? And in an era when phone books are no longer a thing, which database can polling organizations use that includes the under-35 population?
I used to work with an entrepreneur whose company made the devices you’ve seen in public places asking “how was your experience in our bathroom?” Underneath the query are green, yellow, and red buttons you’re supposed to push to indicate your level of satisfaction. I’ve never seen anyone touch them, and I don’t, either. Considering the number of humans we’ve all witnessed not washing their hands after using the toilet, why would I ever handle anything other people have come in contact with in there?
If the sensible among us aren’t giving feedback, how valuable can the overall results be?
The worst part of a poll like this is that it breeds a piling-on of negative takes about Joe Biden and encourages other people — none of whom have a chance of winning the presidency (I’m taking about you, Jill Stein and Cornel West and Dean Phillips) — to announce their own candidacies. Then there’s the RFK Jr. problem I wrote about last month, plus the speculation about Joe Manchin’s plans. All they do is attract media attention they don’t deserve and distract from the importance of reminding the American populace of the extremist doomsday scenario that would be created by re-electing Trump.
Every day, I get emails from different companies I recently did some business with, entreating me to tell them how well they performed in our interaction. I delete every one of them immediately. It’s not that I have anything against those companies, it’s just that I feel no obligation to feed them more data once our transaction is complete. If I liked whatever service or product they provided, I’ll probably give them repeat business. If not, I won’t. Regardless, I’m not taking even one minute to fill out a customer satisfaction survey.
If I won’t do that for the bagel place I frequent or my dentist’s office, why would I give a pollster a moment of my time?
When I started in the radio business, Arbitron (now Nielsen) asked people to fill out diaries by hand and return them by snail mail to determine an estimate of the listenership of stations and shows. It was a system full of flaws, based on what seemed like a far-too-small sample. The method was outdated, but because there wasn’t a better one, the industry pretended the results were meaningful enough to affect programming and marketing decisions. The key word: “pretended.”
I’m not the only one who hasn’t bought into the “Biden Is Toast” headlines. Here’s what Jim Messina, who ran Barack Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign, wrote in an essay for Politico:
As you walk into my office, the first thing you see is a framed magazine cover. It’s not from the days of triumph — like in November 2012 when President Barack Obama won four more years, the campaign I ran. No, it’s from a dark day during that reelection campaign, back in 2011, when Nate Silver declared our campaign and President Obama “toast.”
A lot of Democrats romanticize the 2012 Obama campaign. But if you were there, you know it was a knock-down, drag-out battle — not just with Republicans, but with bad media narratives. One such narrative hit us on Nov. 3, 2011, when the New York Times Magazine published an analysis giving Obama a 17 percent chance to win reelection. When that magazine hit my desk, I knew it was trouble. Not because I believed it, but because of the anxiety it would stir up. Immediately, we had donors, elected officials, and my Mom absolutely freaking out. We couldn’t get supporters to rallies. People were calling for me to be fired….
Yes, we are officially in the Democratic bedwetting era for the 2024 presidential election. But here’s some advice from someone who’s been here before: Don’t panic….
Silver’s 2011 analysis did not age well: A year later, Obama wiped the floor with Mitt Romney. But Silver wasn’t alone. In this publication, polling done a year out had Obama tied with Romney in 10 battleground states; we ended up winning 9 of them. In December 2011, a Gallup poll had Obama losing to Romney by 5 percent across 12 battleground states; we won 11. Bill Clinton trailed about this same time in his reelection cycle. A year before a presidential election, it is just too early to get an accurate read on how the people will actually vote.
Let’s not pretend otherwise.