2016 Election, Politics, Polling, Sanders, Trump

Trolling the Polls

     “Trump has received about the most disproportionate media coverage ever for a primary candidate. The risk to Trump and candidates like him is that polling built on a foundation of media coverage can be subject to a correction when the news environment changes.” – Data gura Nate Silver on the polls and Trump


Never in the course of American politics have so many paid so much attention to so many polls with so little relevance to what is really going on. Polls drive media coverage. Polls determine who gets to debate in prime time. Polls have become the oxygen of American politics. If you are up in the polls you are “surging.” Drop a few points – calling Ben Carson!  – and you are “slumping.”

cartoonEvery day of the week brings a new poll. Left Overshoe Junior College has released a new poll! Trump leads among six white guys who responded online! Post the story!

We are obsessed with polls, or at least political editors, reporters, campaign operatives and politicians are obsessed with polls. OK, let’s admit it, we are all obsessed with polls. I have been drafting survey questions and trying to analyze results for most of my adult life. I love the “cross tabs” and the idea of insight into the population, but we need to admit the business of polling is an art and not a science. Surveying a nation as big and diverse as ours often means channeling Monet and creating an impression rather than proclaiming a survey as scientific fact. Additionally, the rapid attention to all of the polling holds the real potential to skew the democratic process itself.

Time for a Deep Breath…

It’s human nature to want to know, as Donald J. Trump might say, “just what the hell is going on.” But political polls have become a little like really good Belgian chocolate. A little taste of really quality chocolate is satisfying and may even be good for you, but indiscriminately gobble too much and you’ll get a sugar high and put on a few pounds.

As The New Yorker’s Jill Lepore noted in a widely discussed piece last month: “From the late nineteen-nineties to 2012, twelve hundred polling organizations conducted nearly thirty-seven thousand polls by making more than three billion phone calls. Most Americans refused to speak to them. This skewed results. Mitt Romney’s pollsters believed, even on the morning of the election, that Romney would win. A 2013 study—a poll—found that three out of four Americans suspect polls of bias. Presumably, there was far greater distrust among the people who refused to take the survey.”

The Pew Center, which conducts widely respected surveys, estimates that the participation rate for its surveys is now just eight percent. Twenty years ago pollsters considered an 80 percent participation rate acceptable. With lower and lower participation rates, not to mention the challenge of reaching potential voters on a cell phone, some polling outfits have turned to “online” surveys, but the online methodology and sample quality have not kept pace with the frantic nature of polling.

Rutgers University professor Cliff Zukin, a past president of the American Association of Public Opinion Research, wrote a while back in the New York Times that “Internet use correlates inversely with age and voting habits, making this a more severe problem in predicting elections. While all but 3 percent of those ages 18 to 29 use the Internet, they made up just 13 percent of the 2014 electorate, according to the exit poll conducted by Edison Research. Some 40 percent of those 65 and older do not use the Internet, but they made up 22 percent of voters.”

With polls and chocolate it is a case of all things in moderation. So, while you nibble on a little pre-Christmas chocolate consider at least two principal things that are wrong with the overriding obsession with polling in our political process.

Two Big Problems with Too Many Polls…

First, too many polls these days are the political equivalent of a sleazy used car salesman who washes and polishes the old clunker in order to peddle it to some unsuspecting rube who doesn’t take time to look under the hood. Methodology matters, as does the professionalism and integrity of the polling organization. When assessing the latest polls its essential to “look under the hood” and understand how the survey was conducted and for whom it was conducted.

The data-crunching guru Nate Silver, he’s the guy who has nailed the prediction in the last two presidential elections, has a nifty analysis of the vast assortment of polls that make their way into the national news machine. Silver has ranked the polls according to their accuracy and methodology over time. It’s become standard practice for me – a certifiable “news junkie” – to check Silver’s ranking against the latest poll that assumes to convey heaven sent wisdom.

Second, it’s an old cliché in the polling business, but its still true: a political survey is a snap shot of a moment in time, specifically the time when the survey was conducted, as well as the slice of the electorate surveyed. At a given moment in time a well-constructed, well-researched survey utilizing a well-conceived sample can provide real insight into broad themes and valuable information about how voters might make specific choices among well-articulated alternatives. What polls are not particularly good at doing, at least at the current stage of the presidential campaign – remember not a single vote has been cast yet – is to serve as a predictor.

A skilled Republican pollster told me recently that one of the hardest things to master in the survey business is the “quality of the sample” – what portion of the electorate is actually going to make the effort to get to the polls and vote. “You need to be very careful,” this pollster said, “to pull a sample that accurately reflects age, party, geography, race and gender. That takes time and again costs more money.”

For example, when many Republicans, including his own campaign strategists, thought Mitt Romney would pull out a win over President Obama in 2012, they had misread the electorate that actually bothered to vote. A good deal of the polling miscalculated, for instance, the level of voting by Hispanic Americans. In his last election George W. Bush captured 40+ percent of the Hispanic vote. In 2012 Romney got only 25 percent. That difference in the makeup of the electorate helps explain Obama’s second term. At the same time, it would be a mistake to automatically assume that any Democrat in the future will always gain that level of the vote by a specific demographic group. Every election is different. Understanding the shape of the electorate is critical to good survey work.

The data-crunching site FiveThirtyEight has teamed with the NPR program On the Media to create a new consumer’s handbook for deconstructing the polls. You might want to copy the dozen points and tape it to your television.Polling Handbook

But What of Trump…

I’ve become convinced that the Donald J. Trump phenomenon is, at least in some significant measure, a function of Trump’s own narcissistic pre-occupation with his standing in the polls. Trump regularly touts his “YUGE!” lead in the latest poll. He Tweets his standing from early in the morning until late at night. In the circular logic that drives news coverage of political campaigns Trump is, in many ways, a creation of the polls he loves to cite.

It is probably not a surprise then that Trump comments almost exclusively on polls that show him doing well. As the website FiveThirtyEightPolitics noted recently: “Trump also likes to tweet or retweet about the same poll a lot. He tweeted 29 poll results that he approved of more than once. He also tweeted one poll (a September CNN national survey) favorably, before turning on it more than once to highlight a better poll result for him from NBC and SurveyMonkey.”

A Trump Tweet Saturday on a post-debate poll
A Trump Tweet Saturday on a post-debate poll

As Trump tweets to his 5.3 million Twitter followers a poll that he likes, perhaps more than once, he is simply building the buzz about how successful his candidacy seems to be. It’s little different, from a marketing standpoint, than what Disney is doing by branding everything it can touch with a Star Wars logo. Marketing works to create impressions, drive coverage and, temporarily at least, move polls. It also help encourage people to buy Star Wars themed merchandize.

Trump may be an idiot about policy, but he understands the psychology of perception and he is constantly using polling data, some of it decidedly specious, to continually reinforce his leadership of the Republican field.

It is also no surprise that Trump dismisses as fatally flawed any poll that shows him slipping. When the very well regarded Des Moines Register poll recently showed Trump trailing Texas Senator Ted Cruz in Iowa, the place where the first voting takes place right after the first of the year, Trump dismissed the poll as the biased work of a newspaper that has been critical of his candidacy. Should I remind him that he touted his lead in the same poll earlier in the year?

The other factor that has driven Trump’s poll numbers (in addition to him constantly talking about his poll numbers) is the unprecedented media coverage his campaign has generated. He has been making wild claims about Syrian refugees, Mexican immigrants, banning Muslims, even his “bromance” with Vladimir Putin, but it has served to give him a hugely disproportionate share of media coverage.

All Trump all the time. Trump being "interviewed" by Jimmy Fallon playing Trump.
All Trump all the time. Trump being “interviewed” by Jimmy Fallon playing Trump.

Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, based only on his two million individual campaign contributors (not to mention the polls), arguably has a larger following than The Bloviator-in-Chief, but by one measure Trump has received 23 precent more coverage than Sanders.

As Nate Silver says: “Trump probably realizes, the media’s obsession with polls can become a self-perpetuating cycle: Trump’s being in the media spotlight tends to help him in the polls, which in turn keeps him in the spotlight, which in turn helps in the polls, and so forth.”

It’s worth pointing out once again that no one has voted yet and there is considerable historical evidence that voters in early state contests like Iowa and New Hampshire decide very late in the process as to who they will support. Trump’s national polling lead may yet translate into real votes in the Iowa caucus – remember that in the best poll conducted at the state level talking to people who have actually participated in previous caucus voting he is behind – but there is also an argument to be made that his lead is to a large degree a function of prospective (or possible) voters seeing and hearing him constantly. Name ID matters, particularly when voters are still weighing choices.

As Jill Lepore noted in her New Yorker piece: “Donald Trump is a creature of the polls. He is his numbers.” But there could well be a bigger and longer-term problem for our democracy than one self-obsessed, poll-centric billionaire.

Reporting incessantly on polls and allowing this week’s polling results to determine the shape of political coverage, Lepore and others argue, is more than just a sign of the times, it is a signal of the increasing disintegration of American political culture.

“Turning the press into pollsters has made American political culture Trumpian,” Lepore writes, “frantic, volatile, shortsighted, sales-driven, and anti-democratic.”

No political junkie – I’m certainly guilty – would encourage a complete disregard for political polling, but there is a very strong case to be made for backing it off a full turn. Let’s have a little real voting and then we can see who is really winning.

2012 Election, American Presidents, Andrus, Baseball, FDR, Hoover, Minnick, Obama, Politics, Polling

Where’s George?

The Delicate Dance of a Former President

For 20 of the last 31 years a Republican president has occupied the Oval Office. Two of those presidents – the first and second George Bush – served for a combined 12 years, yet in the current political environment they seem as distant from the partisan hubbub as, well, Republicans of an earlier day wished Herbert Hoover would have been in 1936. More on that in a moment.

George H.W. Bush – Bush 41 – has offered an “unofficial” endorsement, whatever that means, to Mitt Romney, but Bush 43 is virtually invisible in Republican politics or public life. While Romney and Newt Gingrich fight to inherit the mantle of Ronald Reagan, no candidate makes the trek to the Texas ranch to seek George W.’s advice or endorsement. It’s almost as though his presidency, at least for GOP candidates, has been erased from the blackboard of the current campaign. It will be interesting to see if Bush the Younger has any role at this summer’s GOP convention.

Meanwhile, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush has refused to endorse a candidate in today’s Florida primary and that decision has been the subject of much tea leaf reading. By most accounts a few words from the third Bush would have been very helpful to any candidate, but beyond jabbing the candidates for their anti-immigration rhetoric, the next Bush in line has stayed above the fray.

Writing for the Weekly Standard, Fred Barnes suggests that Jeb Bush may be playing his cards so close because he can foresee a role for himself as a compromise and unifying GOP candidate in the unlikely event the Republican nominating process becomes deadlocked. Or, Barnes says, Bush could be a unifying choice as vice president on a Romney or Gingrich ticket. I say don’t count on it.

With no Kennedy now in significant public office, the Bush family is the closest thing we have to a dynasty in American politics. Still the elder Bush, now 87, is clearly in declining health and George W. is so politically radioactive after two controversial terms that no current candidate wants to be close to him. Many Republicans long for a Jeb Bush candidacy, but he demurs. He recently provided a glimpse into his thinking when he told an interviewer that 2012, given his age and the state of the country, was probably his year, but for whatever reason he has taken a pass, which takes us back to W.

If many Democrats see Bush 43 as the modern day equivalent of the Great Depression scarred Herbert Hoover, he is certainly behaving much differently than the discredited Hoover did four years after his defeat at the hands of Franklin Roosevelt.

Perhaps the difference can be explained by the fact that Hoover still hungered for another term in the White House. George W. had his eight years. In any event, the two men – tremendously unpopular when they left the White House – played their post-presidential years very differently.

In February 1936, just as FDR’s re-election campaign was beginning to take shape, Hoover gave a Lincoln Day speech in Portland, Oregon. By many accounts the former president, who had lost in a landslide to Roosevelt in 1932, saw himself as the best possible candidate for the Republicans in 1936. Hoover used the occasion of his Portland speech to rip into Roosevelt’s program and he sounded like a man eager for a rematch.

“The issue [facing the nation in 1936],” Hoover said, “is the attempt to fasten upon the American people some sort of a system of personal government for a government of laws; a system of centralization under a political bureaucracy; a system of debt; a system of inflation; a system which would stifle the freedom and liberty of men.  And it can be examined in the cold light of three years’ experience.”

Hoover was referring, of course, to the first three years of FDR’s term during which the Great Depression continued to create extremely high unemployment, a high rate of home and farm foreclosures and a general lack of confidence in the economy. At the same time, Roosevelt was assembling an unprecedented amount of personal power in the Executive Branch, or at least Republicans said he was.

In his Oregon speech 76 years ago, Hoover used some language that might have been ripped from today’s headlines. Critiquing FDR’s State of the Union speech, Hoover lambasted FDR’s references to “dishonest speculators” and “entrenched greed.” He said Roosevelt was issuing a call to “class war” and, of course, he criticized Roosevelt for deficit spending.

Despite his interest and availability, Hoover was never again considered a serious presidential contender after losing so badly in 1932. Tainted by the stock market crash of 1929 and what has widely be seen, then as now, as his less than effective response to the economic crisis of the early 1930’s, Hoover nevertheless continued to speak out on public issues. He was invited to the 1936 GOP convention and he gave the New Deal and FDR hell in a speech that featured language strikingly similar to what we hear from GOP candidates today.

Hoover lamented that the “New Deal is a definite attempt to replace the American system of freedom with some sort of European planned existence.” Sound familiar? Romney has repeated said that Barack Obama wants to create “a European style welfare state.”

“Billions have been spent to prime the economic pump,” Hoover said to the 1936 GOP convention.  “It did employ a horde of paid officials upon the pump handle.  We have seen the frantic attempts to find new taxes on the rich…Freedom to work for himself is changed into a slavery of work for the follies of government.”

Two things are worth noting about Hoover’s aggressive long ago critique of the man who beat him. The former president certainly didn’t help Republicans in 1936 and many Republicans simply wished the former president would have just pulled a George W. and disappeared.

Secondly there are really very few new attack lines in American politics. Republicans have long been accusing Democrats of “socialism” and Democrats have forever labeled the GOP the party of Wall Street.

In 1936, Roosevelt used tough language and a great deal of humor to carefully weave the Hoover legacy, if not the former president’s name, into his stump speeches. He was most effective with his mocking references to what the Republicans and their candidate Kansas Gov. Alfred Landon would do to his New Deal.

Obama has been regularly criticized for invoking Bush’s record and as of last fall he had stopped making references to “Bush’s failed economic policies” or “Bush style foreign policy.”

If history is any guide to what to expect in politics, and it often is with Hoover’s 1936 speeches being a good example, then expect the references to George W. to creep back into Democratic campaign rhetoric as we get closer to November. If Obama is as skillful as the Democratic president all Democrats love to invoke – Franklin Roosevelt – he’ll use a mixture of tough talk and dismissive humor to connect the eventual Republican nominee to the silent, but hardly forgotten George W. Bush.


Education, Egan, Guest Post, Idaho Politics, Kramer, Polling

Education Reform?

Idahoans Aren’t Convinced

New statewide opinion research finds Idahoans distinctly unsure that the educational reform efforts that dominated the state legislative session this year will help Idaho students be better prepared for learning beyond high school and to enter the workforce.

My public affairs firm teamed up with respected pollster Greg Strimple and the Idaho Business Review to conduct a 400 sample survey in late April that was aimed at understanding more about where the Idaho economy may be headed and the priorities voters attach to various issues. The poll has a +/- of 4.9%.

(Strimple served as Sen. John McCain’s pollster in the last presidential election and works nationally for major clients like AT&T, the National Football League and GE. He lives in Boise.)

In a previous post, I noted the wide demographic splits that characterize attitudes about the economy in Idaho. In a nutshell, many older, less well-off, and less educated Idahoans are pretty content with the Idaho they have long known, including an economy dominated by agriculture and the state’s natural resources. A younger, better educated group thinks about the future economy quite differently. They believe innovation, education and technology hold the keys to the future.

We asked a series of questions in our survey about education, including a basic question about education reform: “In your opinion, will the recent education reforms passed by the state legislature make students better prepared to enter college and the workforce, less prepared, or make no difference?”

Idahoans in our survey were almost equally split: 24.5% said the Luna efforts would make students better prepared, 27.3% said less prepared, 28% said the reforms would have no difference. The rest didn’t know or declined to answer.

Looking more deeply into the internal numbers reveals that the level of division about the effectiveness of the reforms in terms of student preparedness cuts across virtually every demographic and ideological boundary. Even the most conservative folks we surveyed are split on whether the reforms will better prepare kids for more school and future work.

In fact in no demographic group – males, females, very conservative people, younger folks or older, etc. – does the reform package command a 50% majority who are convinced it will make students better prepared.

Perhaps this has something to do with the tone of the legislative debate around school reform. As the debate unfolded from January to April it was, by and large, a back-and-forth about teachers and money. That debate continues on an almost daily basis with Luna recently warning educators to be careful about mixing politics and school business and teachers accusing the superintendent of violating ethics rules. The entire conversation around education reform has been much less about student outcomes, including particularly what Idahoans might reasonably expect following such a long and difficult debate around a subject they obviously care a great deal about, and more about ending tenure and using more computers in classrooms.

And there is more: Idahoans who say they prefer a future economy focused on exporting goods and services, encourging innovation and fostering an entreperneurial culture are the most skeptical of Superintendent Luna’s reform package. This group thinks, by a 2 to 1 margin, that the reforms will result in students less well prepared for further education and future work.

We also asked our survey group to identify the initiatives “most important to helping Idaho’s economy grow and create new jobs?”

Providing better K-12 education and increasing the number of students that pursue higher education was the top choice of 43% of respondents. A favorable tax and regulatory policy was second with 21%.

We also asked what “government policies” are most important “to helping Idaho’s economy grow and create new jobs?”

Perhaps not surprisingly, nearly 32% of respondents said attracting new businesses and promoting job creation through incentives was the top policy priority. Developing a more highly trained workforce was second at 29%.

Our survey shows that Idahoans believe education policy is important to economic growth and job creation. Many may also think reforms will save money, curb the influence of the teachers union and emphasize technology in classroom, but they aren’t convinced – at least not yet – that students are going to benefit as they prepare for post-secondary education and a life-time of work.

Meanwhile, the long-shot effort to recall the state superintendent continues, as does the substantially easier job of obtaining the signatures that could force a referendum vote on the education package in the fall of 2012.


Egan, Guest Post, Idaho Politics, Polling

The Great Divide

Idaho’s Three Political Parties

According to a new statewide survey of Idaho voters, the state now effectively has three political factions – very economically and socially conservative folks, economically conservative but less socially doctrinaire voters and a shrinking group of Democrats.

The three factions – think of them as almost three different political parties – has served to fracture the Idaho political landscape in a way that may make it even more difficult in the foreseeable future for so called moderates, and especially Democrats, to win major political office.

Right now 38% of Idahoans self-identify as Republican, another 32.5% call themselves Independents, who are affiliated with no party, and just over 24% say they are Democrats.

The new research was undertaken by my firm, Gallatin Public Affairs, in cooperation with respected national pollster Greg Strimple and the Idaho Business Review. The Business Review will have a nice package on what the research says about public attitudes regarding the Idaho economy in its next edition and I’ll be devoting some space here over the next few days to a deeper dive into the numbers on a variety of issues.

We are fortunate to have been able to deploy the talents and insights of Greg Strimple on this project. As we say, Greg is kind of a big deal; an outstanding researcher and strategist and a relatively new resident of Idaho. Before relocating his family to Boise a year ago, Greg lived and worked on the east coast and provided first-rate public opinion research for major national clients and major Republican political campaigns. Greg did polling and strategy work for John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign and more recently helped elect a Republican governor in New Jersey and a U.S. Senator in Illinois. Greg’s polling firm – GS Strategy Group – is one of Idaho’s newest small businesses.

Greg and his family, like so many others, chose to live in Idaho because of our enviable lifestyle and fortunately the tools of the modern workplace allow him to live where he wants and still serve his national and regional clients.

Strimple’s research on the Idaho political divide finds, not surprisingly, that a strong plurality of Idahoans – 47.5% – consider themselves very or somewhat conservative. Another 29% describe themselves as moderates, while about 16% call themselves liberal.

Republicans meanwhile, who during the recent legislative session took action to limit their nominating primaries to real, card-carrying members of the party, are likely to continue to battle in a narrow range between the very conservative Republicans, deeply invested in social issues, and those Republicans who may be less consistently doctrinaire and line-up more consistently with what the Pew Center’s new survey calls “Main Street Republicans.” These voters tend to be low tax advocates and suspecious of government, but also concerned about education and the future of the economy.

(The new Pew research makes at least one point that I think tracks directly with our recent Idaho research. The far ends of the political spectrum – the far right and far left – are more extreme than ever, but the Independents are hardly a bunch of moderate, middle-of-the-roaders. Independents in Idaho and nationally amount to a swirling mass of diversity. The Independents are all over the political map – libertarian, social moderates and many disaffected – maybe even disillusioned – by both established parties.)

Idaho’s Republican fault lines, and we saw some of this in the recent legislative session, will likely focus on the clear divide between very socially conservative Republicans who are content, even happy, to limit the party to those who see the world as they do and what I’ll call “the bigger tent” GOP. To date, the first group is winning most of the important battles and clearly this is the fundamental base of the Idaho GOP.

Democrats meanwhile are, there is no nice way to say it, marginalized. They have little traction now outside of a handful of state legislative districts and their prospects in the immediate future, barring a Republican meltdown and a spectacularly attractive candidate, seem genuinely bleak.

Strimple’s Idaho analysis also shows a deep and potentially paralyzing divide that breaks down along demographic more than partisan lines. Generally speaking older, more rural, less well educated, less wealthy Idahoans have a very different view of the state’s economic future than do younger, more educated, better off voters.

The first group tends to look forward and see the Idaho that we have historically known with traditional jobs in construction, manufacturing and natural resources. This group thinks agriculture will be the dominate industry over the next decade. The second group looks ahead and sees an Idaho economy built on more technology, more innovation and more trade.

Our research project also included a survey of Idaho Business Review subscribers, a cross section of small and large business leaders. These business leaders tend to be somewhat divided, as well, concerning the future of the Idaho economy, but they are also more likely to think that industries dependent on technology, like energy and health care, will play an ever more important role in our future.

The political significance of this research, seems to me, turns on the question of who in the next generation of Idaho political leadership finds a way to connect with voters as a responsible fiscal conservative who also has a vision for the future of the Idaho economy.

Idaho voters are pretty pessimistic right now about any real improvement in the economy in the near term. A candidate who can give voters a sense of optimism about the state’s economic future, while not offending their generally small government, low tax notions, will probably have a bright future.


Baseball, Giffords, Guest Post, Humanities, Politics, Polling

Survey Says

Don’t Know Much About…Us

I’ve been fortunate to have the opportunity to travel a fair amount – Europe several times, South America, Canada – and after every trip I’ve returned thinking its good to be home, but man we sure don’t know much about the rest of the world.

I remember a trip to Canada a few years ago and engaging in serious conversation with friendly Canadians who seemed to be up on everything happening in the USA from our politics to popular culture. By contrast, most Americans couldn’t find Saskatoon with a GPS device let alone name the Canadian Prime Minister – Stephen Harper – or that the national capitol is Ottawa, not Montreal or Toronto.

Now it turns out we don’t know much about ourselves, either. Newsweek has surveyed 1,000 Americans on the most basic details of our history, government and politics. We flunked. Badly.

The questions aren’t exactly PhD level, either, but are questions that are asked in the official U.S. citizenship test. Questions like: What happened at the Constitutional Convention? How could 65% of those surveyed not know that the Founders wrote the U.S. Constitution at the Constitutional Convention?

Or, how about this. Fully 88% in the survey couldn’t name one person who authored the Federalist Papers. Hint: his wife’s name was Dolley, as in Madison. Maybe those 65% know her donuts and cakes better. And, don’t ask what the Federalist Papers were.

I’ve railed in this space in the past about America’s historical ignorance, but 29% not being able to name the current vice president or 73% not know why we “fought” the Cold War. This isn’t funny. It is worrying.

Newsweek blames several factors for American ignorance, including a generally complex political system that unlike Europe tends to spread control among local, state and federal governments. I guess this is confusing and there is much to keep track of, but that hardly seems an excuse for the fundamental lack of knowledge exposed in the survey.

The decentralized education system gets some blame. What we teach in Idaho they might not teach in Maryland. Some of the blame should go, I think, to those who have de-emphasized history, social studies and the humanities in favor of science and math. Kids need it all, in big doses.

And there is the income and media reality. A growing percentage of Americans are poor, not of the middle class. Poorer Americans have less access to information and knowledge. In Europe, where a larger share of the population lives in the middle, people are generally better educated and much more knowledgeable about their politics and government.

The mass media is both part of the problem and could offer a slice of the solution, but we mostly have a pure market driven media that features much more American Idol than Meet the Press. It is, after all, difficult to take politics seriously when so much of it is trivialized over the air and on the web.

The Newsweek analysis concludes, and maybe this is the good news, “the problem is ignorance, not stupidity.“ One expert who has studied this American ignorance says, “we suffer from a lack of information rather than a lack of ability.”

The real problem here isn’t knowing James Madison authored many of the Federalist Papers, it is not knowing enough – as the current budget debate in Washington, D.C. makes so clear – about our federal government and our political system. It’s impossible to assess, for example, what must be done to fix the budget if we have no idea how the government spends and taxes.

Survey after survey says Americans want Congress to cut the budget by reducing foreign aid and by stamping out that old standby waste, fraud and abuse. At the same time they say whatever you do don’t touch Social Security or Medicare where the real money gets spent. Too many politicians pander this ignorance and we get the endless debates we now witness in Congress.

Simple fact: Americans need information and real knowledge to make sense of their government and then they must care enough to act on the knowledge. Ignorance isn’t a strategy for a great country.

Basques, Guest Post, Internet., IRS, Media, Polling

Now…the News

chartPew Survey: Internet Grows As News Source

The new Pew Research Center report dealing with where Americans turn for their daily news fix shows, not surprisingly, that the Internet’s impact is growing and newspapers are declining. Television is also in decline, while radio is essentially flat.

Again, no big surprise, young people, in vast numbers, are surfing the net for news, while – as a former TV reporter I love this headline – TV news still dominates among what Pew calls “the less educated.” People in the West are more likely than any other part of the country to turn to the Internet for news, but I’m guessing those numbers are skewed by “the left coast” effect of California, Oregon and Washington. Still the trends in where we seek out news are dramatic and show no signs of changing.

Interesting to me, cable news and the traditional broadcast networks are both in steady decline as news sources, while local television news seems to be holding its own as a source of information. Older folks, again no big surprise, turn to television and much less to the Internet.

What the survey doesn’t answer is where on the Internet Americans are turning for information. Are they using the major newspaper and broadcast websites? Or are Internet news consumers turning to specialized sites that cover politics, business, energy or the environment? Or are they looking to sites like the Drudge Report and The Huffington Post, websites that aggregate news with a decided slant on what is featured and how the information is packaged? Or, as I suspect, based on the trend of increasing partisanship and a “point of view” approach on cable television, are Internet consumers seeking out information that already reinforces their political or social views?

This much is beyond debate it seems to me: there is no longer any comprehensive place where Americans can turn for a shared sense of what is happening in American politics and culture. Walter Cronkite and David Brinkley once could gather us around the national hearth and we could share a national experience – men landing on the moon – or a national tragedy – the Kennedy assassination. No more.

Pew also offers some regular analysis of what type of information Internet consumers seek. In the week between Christmas and the New Year – a pretty quiet news cycle – the top story was the seriously bad weather on the east coast.

I’ve long subscribed to the “more is better” theory about news and information. More sources, more points of view and more delivery systems should make us smarter, more informed and better and more engaged citizens. I hope that instinct is true, but doubt it is. To make it true we must have not just consumers of news and information, but discerning, skeptical and critically thinking consumers.

Other recent Pew research suggests that Americans have a 30,000 foot view of the issues and challenges facing the country. We know a few basic facts, but very few details. Americans aren’t big on nuance. We know, for example, that the GOP made big gains in Congress, but not what those new members really intend to do, or even that the Republicans won control of the House. We know that BP ran the oil well that exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, but no idea about who serves as the British Prime Minister. We know the budget deficit is a big problem, but have no idea where all that money is being spent. And, John Boehner. Whose he?

There is clearly a tremendous amount of information out there on the Internet, cable and broadcast television, even in shrinking newspapers, but the jury is out as to whether all that information, in an increasingly complicated and interconnected world, is making us any smarter or better able to understand and engage the world. That, in a modern democracy, seems to me to be a real problem.

American Presidents, Baseball, Guest Post, Obama, Politics, Polling

Obama’s Comeback

Obama smilesNever So High, Nor So Low

It was as predictable as a Christmas sale. Make way for the Obama Comeback stories.

Immediately after the mid-term “shellacking” of Barack Obama and his party, New York Times White House correspondent Peter Baker breathlessly and instantly analyzed the election under the headline – “In Republican Victories, Tide Turns, Starkly.” The President, Baker analyzed, “must find a way to recalibrate with nothing less than his presidency on the line.”

Wow. What a difference seven weeks makes.

A lead story at the Politico website carries the headline: “Obama Rebounding.” Reporter Jennifer Epstein expands a tiny uptick in Obama’s poll standings – his approval/disapproval now stands evenly split at 48-48 in the latest CNN survey – into the insight that more Americans support the President’s policies than any time since mid-2009.

Say what? What happened to the guy who couldn’t find his groove? What became of the fatally wounded re-election bid? In that November 3 Times piece, former House Republican leader Dick Armey, a voice of the Tea Party, flatly predicted that Obama has “already lost his re-election.”

What’s going on here is that politics sometimes resembles another game – baseball. Every day is a new game and, while every team looks unbeatable through a winning streak and impossible in a slump, seldom are the players ever as good or bad as they appear. The ups get exaggerated and so do the downs.

The other phenomenon in plain view is the absolute fascination of the national media with the “comeback narrative.” The so called “media elite” from the Times to Time, from Fox News to Politico can’t operate without a simple, concise narrative. Every storyline needs, well, a story and there is no better political story than “the comeback.” Need more proof? USA Today supplies it with a headline: “Obama Sets Up As Comeback Kid.”

Seven weeks is a lifetime in politics, particularly in a political environment as volatile as ours; an environment influenced heavily, it must be noted, by relentless and often misleading coverage of the latest poll numbers. Here’s a thought. Rather than sitting around the Beltway cracker barrel, how about some political reporters go out into the country and talk to voters? They just might learn something.

A few things are obvious, even if they don’t fit neatly into the political narrative of the moment. The President has had a good lame duck session, he did recalibrate his stand on extending the Bush tax cuts and, as yet, the country sees no serious challenger to him in 2012. Meanwhile, by some accounts, Obama is quietly remaking his White House staff for the run up to his re-election and positioning himself as a reasonable, mid-ground alternative to the current faces of the GOP – Mitch McConnell and John Boehner. Also obvious, Obama is a good politician who displays the ability to grow in office. By the same token, he is not as good at the political game as his 2008 election made him look, but he is also not as bad as the recent mid-terms made him look.

For Obama, like all politicians, the highs are always lower than they seem and the lows are always higher.

In truth, as Michael Cooper astutely pointed out in the Times in the wake of the mid-terms, a good deal of political “analysis” is not just spin, it is mythology.

But, political time and myth will march on and the national media will soon need to invent new narratives. In a few weeks, Newt and Mitt, Sarah and Haley will be showing up in places like Manchester and Waterloo and we can read and contemplate the unfolding of the endless presidential campaign. It will, no doubt, be the most important election in our lifetimes. You heard it here first.

All this reminds me – and reminded Michael Cooper after the mid-terms – of the late Polish philosopher and political thinker, Leszek Kolakowski. Once a hard-headed Stalinist, Kolakowski came to see the Communism of his youth as a fraud and he eventually became a leading intellectual of the Solidarity movement in his native land. He won a MacArthur genius award and his work was celebrated by, among others, the Library of Congress.

Kolakowski promulgated what he called the “Law of Infinite Cornucopia,” which holds that for any doctrine one chooses to embrace there is never a shortage of arguments to support that view.

So, welcome to the remarkable Obama comeback or, if you prefer, wait for “proof” that it never happened.

Guest Post, Polling

Whad’Ya Know

762-frontNot Much Apparently

The Pew Research Center is out with a new quiz probing just what we know about current issues and politics. Most folks who have taken the quiz – the questions range who the Senate Majority Leader is to which country holds most of the debt that the United States has piled up – could answer less than half of the questions correctly.

Take the quick, 12 question quiz and see how you stack up.

Frankly, if you read a daily newspaper, listen to NPR, watch CNN, FOX of MSNBC, or check a major newspaper blog once in a while you should ace the quiz. However, based upon Pew’s findings, most folks are living in an basic information black hole.

Fewer than half knew that U.S. troops have sustained more causalities in Afghanistan over the last year than in Iraq. Only 26% knew that it takes 60 votes in the Senate to end a filibuster. Interestingly, the question most frequently answered correctly – 59% of the time – was the nation that holds the most U.S. debt. (Hint – it’s not Belgium.)

I’ve long been on my soapbox with concern that education in basic history and what we used to call civics – how the government works, that we have three branches, that Senators operate under different rules that Congressman, etc. – has nearly gone the way of the dodo.

This Pew quiz does not prompt me to revise that opinion. With more and more sources of news and information, Americans seem less and less informed about the “facts” underlying what they tell pollsters are their clear concerns about the direction of the country.

Thomas Jefferson wrote to a friend in 1789: “Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government.”

By contrast, when the people don’t even know the basics about how their government operates and who makes the decisions, a strong, enduring democracy is, well, not necessarily strong or enduring.

Egan, Guest Post, Idaho Politics, Polling

Fussing Over Polls

idahoWhat to Make Of Early Polls

A new Rasmussen poll out last week, not surprisingly, shows Idaho Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter with a commanding lead over his Democratic challenger and first-time candidate Keith Allred.

Typically, the two camps had different takes on the new numbers and in a curious way, I think, both are probably right. The governor’s camp takes heart that he is ahead, perhaps quite comfortably. The poll has the race at 60-28. Allred’s campaign has a point that a horse race poll at this stage, particularly in light of all the media attention Otter has received over the last two weeks, may tell us a good deal less than meets the eye.

[Rasmussen’s results and methodology have its detractors – most from the liberal side – and I’ll look at that and offer other thoughts on polling tomorrow.]

Still, last week’s Rasmussen poll does help cement the developing storyline that Otter is the prohibitive favorite. There is a lot of time until November, but that perception is starting to set. The poll, among other things, should be a wake up call to the Democratic campaign. In would appear that the buzz Allred created with his announcement in December was temporary and this race now has many of the makings of settling into the same kind of contest Idaho Democrats have lost every four years since 1994. For example, if the Rasmussen numbers are taken at face value, Allred – a one-time independent turned Democrat – has barely begun to solidify the puny Idaho Democratic base that I think can reasonably be calculated at plus or minus 30%.

The State of the Race

In any poll right now Otter, a long-time fixture in Idaho politics with a very high name ID, will score well. He’s been in the news constantly for the last few weeks, shutting down the legislature and suing the feds over health insurance reform. In an Idaho that we instinctively know is very wary of the recently passed reform legislation, anyone pushing back against that legislation is bound to look pretty good. Legislative Republicans and the governor certainly understand that dynamic and have attempted to ride the wave. Even as many commentators predict failure for the lawsuit strategy, unless Republicans overplay their hand, even in defeat, the lawsuit may prove to be good politics in Idaho.

Additionally, the high profile critique of what has been happening in Washington has helped Otter shore up his own standing within the fractious Idaho Republican Party. The governor will dominate statewide news again this week with an announcement tour that is certain to garner much local media attention.

The Rasmussen poll also highlights the huge challenge facing Allred. He not only needs to introduce himself to hundreds of thousands of Idahoans, he needs to present a compelling story for why he, in a year strongly tending in the direction of Republicans, deserves their votes. Allred may live to regret not maintaining a higher profile during the contentious legislative session just ended. He might have been able to begin to more fully sketch out the rationale for his candidacy in the midst of all the attention the public and media were lavishing on budget cuts, particularly to education, and bashing the feds. This, after all, is the legislature that found plenty of time to debate meaningless memorials to Congress, but couldn’t get around to banning texting while driving. The governor concluded the session by praising the lawmakers. There is the making of a message in there somewhere.

So, taken all together the Rasmussen poll – without too much focus on the specific numbers – is probably a reasonable snap shot of where the race stands today. Otter – well known with a big lead and riding a popular wave. Allred – yet to define himself or his issues and likely having squandered a defining place on the stage during the recent legislative session.

Tomorrow…Reading the Polls