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The Election, The Polls, Biden Sinking, Why the Dems “Don’t Believe It,” or How to Make a Democracy Self-Destruct

The Election, The Polls, Biden Sinking, Why the Dems “Don’t Believe It,” or How to Make a Democracy Self-Destruct
Chris Delmas, AFP

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Hi! How’s everyone? I hope you’re all doing preposterously well. Welcome new readers, say hi in the comments should you feel like it, and many thanks to everyone who’s taken a seat aboard this little ship journey so far—our discussions are already awesome, whew.

So. There’s this..really…really strange thing happening. The polls about Biden are consistently poor, and getting worse, and meanwhile, for some reason, his team…”doesn’t believe them.” They’ll say that…out loud, sort of bizarrely enough, in a display of hubris? Overconfidence? Meanwhile, in poll after poll, Trump’s pulling ahead, gaining momentum, a sort of social mania building.

Who’s right, and who’s wrong? Are the polls wrong, and is team Biden right “not to believe them”? Allow me to humbly shed a little light on the matter. Having designed some of the world’s largest research projects, and literally sort of redesigned the way that much of the field thinks about research, let me help you understand this mess.

Before I do that, let’s just take a glance at how…oddly…furiously resistant to reality the Dems are becoming. The New Yorker did an interview with a guy called Simon Rosenberg, who’s helping run the Biden campaign, and it’s sort of…jaw-dropping, because, well, read for yourself:

The Times did something on the so-called zombie vote in Presidential primaries, and found that nineteen per cent of Republican primary voters were still voting against Trump. But that’s a smaller percentage than in any other Republican or Democratic primary in the past twenty-four years.

It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter. None of that matters.

None of it matters?


Maybe a little bit of my concern is that that suggests that you don’t need a new strategy, you don’t need to do anything else, if you think you’re ahead. And that’s sort of what I wanted to talk to you about.

No. No. But what I said, repeatedly, and what I write every day, and I even did a piece last week saying that the election is close, and neither candidate is ahead or behind.

On and on it goes. Rosenberg threatens to walk out of the interview when pressed. It’s just sort of the most vivid demonstration that there’s something going badly wrong here. He just sort of refuses to even consider what Isaac Chotiner from the New Yorker is trying to get him to think about. No. No. No. La-la-la I’m not listening.

Are the Polls Right? is Biden Losing?

The polls are probably right. If anything, they understate Biden’s poor performance. 

Why is that? Am I just being mean? Do I hate Biden? Nope, liberals hate folks like you and me, but that’s another story, which I’ll come back to, because it’s sort of…ignoring polls like this is a form of ignorance, and it’s going to end in disaster for Biden.

I say that with more or less utter confidence, because, hey, I didn’t just “design research,” I literally created the paradigm of research that transformed the industry and field. But never mind, that’s just in case you need some bona fides.

Look—here’s the deal, and it’s pretty simple. 

The reason the Biden team doesn’t “believe the polls” is that they blame polling systems and methods. This is a line that’s being echoed across the Democratic establishment now. The polls are run by phone! And nobody even answers the phone anymore! The sample sizes are small! And nobody answers the phone! On and on it goes.

Listen. This isn’t real criticism of a method. It’s true that reaching people by phone is hard…but so what? That doesn’t necessarily bias a result one way or another. And more to the point…

The polls are all showing exactly the same thing.

That’s what really clues us into the fact that these results are likely real. As in, a valid representation of how people are likely to vote or not. Let’s imagine that the criticism was, instead, what was valid. What would we see? A lot of noise in the signal. One poll might show this, having gotten some random number of people on the phone that day, and another poll that. We’d see mixed results, that’d paint a picture that wasn’t…

Internally consistent. How do we know if the results of our research are “real,” aka valid, when it comes to social science, anyways? Leaving aside the dreary sort of micro-issues of statistical testing, we look for consistency. If we know we’re doing something pretty inexact—like polling people about election preferences, which is always sort of riddled with error to begin with—then how we check for some level of accuracy and validity is through consistency.

That is, we run many tests, not just one, and see if they sort of point in the same direction. If they don’t, then we know we’ve got an issue of bias or error in some way—the sample size really is too small, all those pesky phones really are creating some sort of selection effect, and so on.

But if we run test after test, and the results begin converging on the same finding, then we know we’re onto something. Because we’ve attained a fair degree of internal consistency. What we’re doing is sort of correcting for the noise in the signal by repeating tests, and seeing if the noise gets repeated, too, and remember, noise is all over the place, not some kind of pattern.

Now. Let’s come to the issue of whether this thing of phones is some sort of deal-breaker. It’s probably true that surveying people on land-lines isn’t exactly cutting edge social science, and it’s certainly not how I’d design the poll. But again, if the results were invalid, they’d probably also be inconsistent. The idea that “only old people have land-lines, and they’re all Trumpists!” Is sort of wishful thinking. If anything, older people support Biden more heavily. His approval rating with them is among the highest of any group. So if that sort of theory were even naively true, it’d bias the polls for Biden, not against him.

And that only really takes a moment’s thought. Which is scary, because it tells us Dems haven’t even done that much, and just are sort of trotting out the line that “the polls can’t be believed!” Without thinking about it at all.

The Democrats Need Actual Grown-Up Professional Help

I often wonder: who’s advising these guys? Is anyone here thinking at all? Now I know, it’s guys like Rosenberg, who appear to have literally not the faintest idea what they’re doing. I’m not trying to be mean, but this is garden league stuff, and no real professional would ever make these mistakes. When I was running research at one of the world’s top marketing and communications groups, if any of my team made these elementary errors, they’d be swiftly…on the way out.

So. For all those reasons, the polls are probably right. Let’s go through them again.

  • The polls are all consistent. Even though they’re done by different groups and organizations, and even use different methods, they all point to the same result, which is that Biden’s beginning to lose momentum badly, and Trump’s gaining it.
  • None of the polls—none of them, to my knowledge—show the slightest bit of evidence to the contrary, which is pretty strong evidence that, no, it’s not noise in the signal, which’d presumably show up somewhere.
  • Worse, the theories that are used to justify “the polls are wrong!” would bias the polls for Biden, which immediately tells us they’re absurdly wrong, or if they’re right, Biden’s losing even more badly in reality than the polls suggest.

I could go on and on. 

Now. The criticism’s sort of fair. The polls should be done in a much more modern and sophisticated way. Me? I’d use some mixed-methods research, and make it fun. I’d run online polls, and sort of have them backed up with more formal surveys, and back that all up with qualitative research, which is where the real juice is in issues like this. I’d send teams onto the street and ask people—not focus groups, which are notoriously unreliable, and prone to self-selection errors and groupthink—just ask people on the street things like: “Do you feel like the Democrats like you or hate you?” 

Sure, that’s sort of a leading question, and that’s the point. It leads into the truth of human emotion, which is where we glean all the richest insights, which are the ones we really need to hear, chew over, understand, reflect on, and use, if we’re going to do something about it all

We can’t just sort of go on believing what we want to believe, which is what the Dems are doing right now.

That’s all sort of Level 1 thinking, How to Be a Not Terrible Social Researcher, if you like. Now let’s go to the next level.

The Secret Hate Vote, or, Why Democracy’s Death is Always a “Surprise”

What do we know about elections and polls from history, especially recent history? When we ask people, in any form, really, how they’re going to vote, they tend to fairly dramatically understate their support for the far right. And so we get effects like Brexit or Trumpism 1.0 happening, which take establishments by surprise, even when they believed in polls.

All of that I call the Secret Hate Vote. And what it means in practice is that we should probably adjust the results of social research. To account for that bias. By how much? Maybe up to 5% or so, which is hugely significant, when it comes to elections, because the Secret Hate Vote’s been that large, in recent history, and if anything, it shows signs of growing over time.

It’s not so hard to understand just why there’d be a Secret Hate Vote. When we do survey-based research, we sort of have to know in advance that people aren’t always going to tell us the truth. And we have to account for that. Sometimes, we might even be in situations where the “shrouding” effect—that’s what it’s called in economics, people sort of hiding their true intentions—is so large the research just can’t be done.

What’s happening here is that pollsters are doing some pretty weak social science. They’re not adjusting at all for the Secret Hate Vote, or, in more formal terms, for shrouded preferences and intentions. That can be done in many ways—probably the most naive way is to expand the "margin of error.” A better approach involves estimating risk, which is what we’re really trying to do. Pollsters, though, have sort of given up on this, and it…sucks. It’ makes the results less and less credible over time, which is how we get to…

“I don’t believe in the polls.” And it’s hardly just the Dems who are guilty of that. Trump does it too, whenever they go against him. So the criticisms are fair, this methodology is outdated and sort of obsolete, and pollsters should be a better job.

But that doesn’t mean “the polls are wrong!” In the same way that even a crappy camera can show you a blurry picture, so too can this level of methodology show us something. And in this case, we don’t necessarily need a super granular picture—just the outlines of one, because we’re talking about a set of binary outcomes.

When Organizations End Up Thinking Knowledge is Ignorance, Duck! The Growing Risk of a Trump Landslide

So what are the Dems really doing here?

They’re…being willfully ignorant. I don’t say that in the way of an insult, but in a technical way, almost. What we have here is knowledge. It’s not sort of Grand Knowledge, in the way the Theory of Relativity is. It’s just little-k knowledge. Biden is losing, and more and more badly, especially in swing states. That much appears to be eminently true.

What do we with knowledge? If we’re smart, we learn from it. If we’re dumb, we ignore it, and we become ignorant that way. Being ignorant results in a pretty predictable pattern. Reality bites you, usually right in the ass, when you don’t want it to most, and then you express shock, dismay, and disbelief.

Because, of course, you never learned anything, and gained knowledge, and now you have to catch up, suddenly, in a way that you don’t like, because ignorance usually doesn’t benefit you, only your adversaries and opponents.

So the Dems are being willfully ignorant, and it’s…sort of shocking? Dismaying? Idiotic? To behold.

Remember, I’m the guy that literally designed what research is in a huge chunk of the economy. And to me, this is like…I don’t know…watching someone shred their own brain, and then wonder why they can’t walk or talk anymore. It’s sort of crazy.

But you know, on a personal level? I don’t even know…if I should be astonished anymore. I was raised to value knowledge, not just for myself, but as a sort of public good. Knowledge Benefits Humanity, Young Obi-Wan, kind of thing. And to see the side that’s supposed to for democracy…slinking into willful ignorance…it’s just kind of…sorry, I have to say it…pathetic. In the true sense of the word: saddening, predictable, and grotesque, almost, in the way that it evokes a sense of pathos.

Being willfully ignorant isn’t going to help the Democrats. 

Right now? They should be learning. I wrote last time about a little field research I did, asking people how they thought the Dems felt about them. And I learned something. I was surprised to find out that everyone I asked thought the Dems basically hate them. And that made me think of how much liberals have hated me over the years.

“Anecdata”? No, my friend, it all points in the same direction. What qualitative and quantitative evidence we have, which is everything from polls to student protests to young people rolling their eyes to minorities feeling betrayed to women feeling abandoned to the long-lost working class, defecting in rage to Trump. All of the “data”—and that’s all data, or at least information, to a good scientist—points in exactly the same direction.

We are trying to glean truths, not just play statistical games. And when all the evidence tells us the same thing…what do you think the reality is?

Me? I say openly now that the chances of a Trump Landslide are growing by the day, and right about now, they’re pretty good. If the election were held today, after all, Trump would likely carry every swing state, save maybe—maybe—one or two. That’s a landslide.

This is where willful ignorance leads. To defeat on this scale. 

This is the fire the Dems are playing with. Unfortunately for the rest of us, we’re all trapped in the basement, which is the only place they’ll let us be.

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