Polls and Narratives

In an earlier article, I observed that there are three basic types of political polls – polls meant to find out who is winning, polls meant to develop strategy by learning voter priorities and demands, and push polls. The push polls are important because they drive political narrative, which are the themes in each political campaign. Every candidate understands that he or she needs to build a foundation of voters who will stand by the candidate throughout the campaign, and new voters are to be attracted by selling the candidate as an effective leader and problem solver. The campaign uses political stories, narratives, to sell the candidate to the voters, almost as a product.

An effective narrative can be a great help to a candidate. Barack Obama effectively sold his candidacy as a “post-racial” leader, just as Ronald Reagan sold himself as an experienced and wise alternative to President Carter. On the other hand, Hillary Clinton completely failed to present an attractive image to 2016 voters, just as John McCain could not present a compelling image to voters in 2008. Narratives have been a vital part of political campaigns from their beginning. Polls are used to sell party positions not only on candidates but also issues, such as abortion, gun rights, religion, taxes, and foreign policy.

The funny thing I see, is that both parties in 2020 seem to have doubled down on their 2016 narratives, even though things have changed since 2016 for Republicans but there is no evidence the public is interested in the failed efforts from the Democrats’ 2016 campaign. It’s worth looking at the poll questions and focus to see the narrative efforts at work.

First, let’s go to that much-hyped FOX News poll showing Biden leading by 8 points.
The poll was actually conducted by Braun Research Inc. (BRI) of Princeton, New Jersey. The poll contacted self-identified registered voters, by the way, not ‘likely voters’, meaning BRI did not ask if the poll respondents were planning to vote this fall. After the initial set of basic questions, questions 12-16 focus on the ‘key’ issues of ‘the economy’, ‘Relations with China’, ‘Coronavirus’, ‘Health care’, and ‘Women’s rights’.

This is the first tell of a push poll, since BRI did not allow respondents to volunteer their preferred issues of importance, and the choice, sequence, and wording are all left-leaning. A right-leaning push poll might have focused on re-opening the economy, China’s responsibility for hiding the facts, or the overreach of governors and mayors in certain states. The choice of words, the selection of focus, are tells that this poll was meant to sell a story, not find out opinion.

The BRI poll presented by FOX was also biased in favor of voting by mail, fear of catching the virus, and whether the government was right to drop charges against General Flynn.
Another example of this kind of narrative use to create a push poll is the newest poll presented by Quinnipiac University.

Quinnipiac runs its own polls under the supervision of Dr. Douglas Schwartz, which may sound impressive, but university polling groups have their own bias issues, which I will address in a later article. For here I want to note the topic choice and question wording – respondents were asked how they feel about various issues, rather than asking about experience or considered thought. As to topics, the Quinnipiac poll asked about ‘honesty’ and ‘leadership’ and ‘caring’, rather than effectiveness or concrete conditions. This may seem minor, but when applied throughout a poll it misleads respondents to follow emotion rather than fact. Not also that Quinnipiac revealed nothing of their internal demographics, such as urban/rural breakdown, age of respondents, and so on. Kind of a big deal if you want to claim you are following academic rigor.

Before moving on, one critical flaw in university polling is that the people conducting the poll are students and therefore generally under 25 years of age. Also, while Quinnipiac has been doing poll work for a long time, students graduate and are replaced by new, inexperienced students, so while they will received basic training in poll procedure, the students are unlikely to notice bias in their procedures. This kind of bias, for example, showed up in the early exit polls on Election Day in 2016. Exit pollers were generally young people, and they were more interested in asking other young people how they voted well out of proportion to actual demographic results.

It’s an honest mistake, but since it has happened so often in the past it should be considered reasonably likely that it would happen again under similar conditions.

So we have seen that polls can slant the outcome to favor a candidate, either intentionally or by accident. The problem for a candidate is that the narrative only works if enough voters buy the story.

In October 2016, just weeks before the election, NPR presented a poll which claimed that voters were focused on six key issues: The Economy, Terrorism, Foreign Policy, Health of the candidates, Gun policy, and Immigration.

NPR completely missed the barn on three of the issues, and got important details wrong in the other three issues. For example, the section on the Economy dwelt on whether it was time to increase taxes on ‘the wealthy’, to increase the minimum wage, supporting labor unions, and addressing gender pay gaps. None of those were actually major factors in the voters’ economic decisions. The ‘Health’ section worried about protecting Obamacare, marijuana, Planned Parenthood and government handouts for child care, none of which – again – was a major influence in voter decisions. The ‘Gun policy’ section promoted gun bans and limiting rights, neither of which was a big desire for voters.

Small wonder NPR was surprised by the election results, with polls like that!
The polls which supported Clinton in their choice of issue focus, question wording and demographic weighting may have helped lead Clinton to a false sense of security, as evidenced by Clinton’s relaxed itinerary during the last week in battleground states.

Which brings me to Election 2020. It’s only a formality away to have the Democrats officially nominate former Vice-President Joe Biden as their party’s candidate for the White House, to run against incumbent President Donald Trump. The party nominations have pretty much been a done deal since March, so we certainly should be able to see what narratives each candidate is running for the general election.

President Trump is touting his record, of course. The Wuhan Virus crisis has done a lot of damage to Trump’s economy, so it will be interesting to see if voters hold that against him or respect the results Trump accomplished before the crisis. It will also be interesting to see if Trump modifies his style or the summer campaign, or continues to aggressively attack Biden the way he did Clinton in 2016 up to October. In late 2019 and early 2020, Trump seemed to be trying for a more dignified image, but he abandoned that tack when Democrats started blaming him for the virus response.

Now Joe Biden has an interesting situation. On the one hand, he has been handed a great opportunity to defeat an incumbent President. All he has to do is convince the voters he has what the job needs, and will do a better job with the economy and in protecting American interests. Ironically, Joe Biden is probably the worst choice the Democrats could have made this year to make such claims. Biden has zero accomplishments as a Senator or Vice-President to support a claim that he would be an effective captain of industry, and his inability to form two consecutive cogent sentences makes it impossible for Biden to sell himself

So far the media has been trying to carry Biden’s narratives for him. But they have resorted to repeating the failed lies of 2016. Trump is a racist, despite record low unemployment for minorities. Trump was working with Russia, despite the mountain of evidence proving it was Hillary who benefited from Russian interference. Of course, the media has thrown in a few new fibs. Trump didn’t care about the Virus, even though he was the first US leader to take action to protect against the spread. Trump was too slow to respond to the effects of the crisis, even though he has consistently addressed vital concerns ahead of Congress, whether it was the need for accurate medical information or getting the economy moving again. The new lies are not faring much better than the old ones, but somehow this fact has escaped the attention of CNN and the other DNC lackeys.

I guess they will learn in November, just as they did in 2016.

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