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Polls, performances, people

This YouGov post about their polling methods contains a very interesting point about polls: when things are going badly for a candidate, their supporters tend to stop participating in polls. That is, if there is some sort of tipping point for people who had been inclined to vote for Candidate X to now be less inclined, and of course that point will be different for different people, the tipping point for people to be unwilling to answer the phone to a pollster is a different point, and much more correlated with day-to-day news stories.

This makes a lot of sense to me. In particular, I think that many people, possibly most people who are willing to talk to pollsters in the first place, are engaging in a kind of performance, in which they tell the pollsters what they believe they are supposed to tell them. I have done this myself, back when I answered the phone. Or at least I answered strategically—I would push back against the premises, approve of unfunded mandates and massive deficits, and generally give the leftmost answer I could come up with. In Party politics, I always told pollsters I supported my Party unswervingly and that my Party’s officeholders were doing a great job. I might have complained on this blog or in my workplace or to my Best Reader, but not in a survey. Now, of course, I’m highly partisan, much more so than most people. But it makes a lot of sense that a fair number of people who are going to vote for Hillary Clinton (f’r’ex) or even have already voted for her will be less inclined to chat with a pollster when the main topics of discussion are depressing. They could give the performance, but they’re not in the mood.

And there’s a little more to it than that. People know what they are supposed to tell pollsters mostly because they hear it from elites. Sometimes, if there’s recent bad news, and particularly if the candidate and her surrogates aren’t quick with the talking points, people aren’t sure what they are supposed to say. I don’t mean that they are conscious of waiting for a script, or that they are thinking I can’t answer that survey until my masters speak, just that they are a little unsettled about the whole thing, haven’t quite come to grips with it. Maybe it’ll be a John Oliver line, or something Michelle Obama says, or a tweet from an opinion journalist, or maybe something in the news from their Senator, something will ease the discomfort, probably, and they’ll react just that tiny bit more openly to a call from a pollster.

I say they, but I mean we, really. If it’s less me than some, it’s not because I am more independent of thought but less; I assume that whatever I am thinking is already the Party Line, and indeed it mostly is. As I’ve said here, I have no great admiration for independent thinking on politics. Politics is about community action, and in large measure about community thinking as well. I like to contribute to that community thinking, in small ways, but am under no illusions that my insights are clearer than other folks’.

This is interesting not only because it’s a better model (I think) for how we respond to polls, but also because it’s a better model for our politics and ourselves. We tend to imagine, I think, that, our country is chock full of people making up their minds in the polling booths. It’s not. We put enormous prestige on our own independent thinking, giving ourselves an ideal of settling all our thinking in our own heads and then lining up behind the candidate that best matches that set of policy preferences. That's not the best way, and it's not what we do. Well, in the primary election it might be somewhat, although it would be more accurate to say that the country is chock full of people who don’t vote in primary elections. In general, and in general elections, we come to our policy positions through a murky, iterative feedback system of tribal identity, personal experience, temperament and rhetorical persuasion. That’s good! Or at any rate, perfectly fine. It would be better if more of us got involved in the Party stuff at any level beyond voting in the general election, but it’s our democracy and we get to choose, and one of those choices is letting other people do most of the work.

I’m less sanguine about confusing ourselves about the situation. If the race has tightened over the last week, it isn’t because some large chunk of the population was going to vote for Hillary Clinton on Wednesday and by Sunday has changed their minds and now plans to vote for Donald Trump. That didn’t happen, and it’s not terribly helpful for democracy to pretend it did.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

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