On Polls and Perceptions

As anyone who reads these pages is aware, I have been – along with President Trump and apparently the rest of America’s political junkies – taken with polls.  At the time this is typed, FiveThirtyEight.com (538) shows former Vice President Joe Biden with a lead in every swing state I’ve obsessed upon during the last year, with a lead above 5 points in all three of the Upper Midwest states in which Mr. Trump eked out his 2016 victory.  I will be fascinated to see how closely 538’s findings on the morning of Election Day square with the battleground states’ final results.  I expect that Mr. Biden’s final 538 swing state margins over Mr. Trump will differ from the candidates’ final swing state vote totals, for two reasons: 

First, the Democrats’ substantive and political approach to the Coronavirus has necessarily required them to rely heavily on what in some states have heretofore been “non-traditional” voting methods – mail in, early drop-off, etc. – which seems likely to result in a proportionately greater number of Democratic than Republican votes being rejected for legitimate (and in some cases, illegitimate) reasons.

The second is more fundamental:  the reluctance by some poll respondents to admit that they support the President.  In a past note, I discounted that factor; now, I’ve tentatively concluded that there is indeed an “undervote” that will lift Mr. Trump (to what extent remains to be seen).  I’ve changed my mind because by all objective measures, the President should be trailing by much more than he is.  When pundits bore down into polling results, they note that while Mr. Trump is usually found to lead Mr. Biden narrowly in “the Economy,” he loses to Mr. Biden by notable margins in areas such as, “He cares about people like me,” “Handling the Coronavirus,” “Healthcare,” “Protecting Social Security and Medicare,” “Maintaining America’s Place in the World,” “Addressing Climate Change,” “Environmental Policy,” even – surprisingly – “Maintaining Law and Order.”

I fear that the dichotomy lies in what Mr. Trump has proven to us:  Emotion trumps [if you will ;)] reason.  Rationalists (which, at least in this context, apparently include me) fail to appreciate this. I would venture that if approached in a way that eliminates partisan overlay, many of the President’s supporters would prefer Mr. Biden’s substantive policies to Mr. Trump’s.  I suggest that the polls don’t accurately reflect the deep affinity that a large share of Americans have for Mr. Trump because pollsters don’t ask the right questions (and to which they wouldn’t get a full share of accurate answers even if the respondents are willing to admit it to themselves):

Yes or No:  Are you angry that your life hasn’t turned out as well as you expected?

Yes or No:  Do you believe that America should be white, Christian, and straight?

Yes or No:  Do you just want things to be … the way they always were?

For some, all three questions conjure images of a golden homogeneous carefree past, where everything made sense … that actually never was.  Put aside that we shouldn’t go back; we can’t. Former President Bill Clinton, whom I consider the most gifted politician of my lifetime, famously said, “Elections are about the future.”  I would submit that the outcome of this one will indicate whether we are ready to meet the opportunities and challenges of our future — one of the qualities that actually made America great — or are determined to drown in misshapen memories of our past.

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