At first glance, political opinion polls seems like the nadir of modern liberal democracy. In their special alchemy they congeal a sensitivity to the will of the people and an emphasis on mathematical exactitude. The poll is the culmination of the peculiar modern marriage of science and popular sovereignty, the technocratic and the democratic. To borrow from Hamilton, and by borrow I mean disfigure, the poll is the ultimate success of our “grand experiment in self-governance.”
Of course, on another interpretation, they are completely useless.
As the estimable Jay Cost points out in the Weekly Standard, the polls this year simply don’t seem to add up, collectively defeated by the strident arithmetic that underwrites their purported value. Depending on what pollster you ask, Romney is poised for an explosive landslide of a victory, or about to win a historically close election, or is about to lose decisively, in a fit of humiliation. If you ask Paul Krugman, and I don’t advise that you should unless you’ve been inoculated against shrill, he will call you stupid for suggesting Romney has any chance at victory.
What all these positions have in common is an appeal to the unassailability of mathematics, that last frontier that resists our postmodern inclinations to promiscuously construct and deconstruct the truth like a pile of lego pieces.
What accounts for the persistent and often wide ranging divergence between polls? The most common answer is that there are fundamental variations in the pool of respondents sampled. For example, polls typically target a particular population: adults at large, registered voters, likely voters, actual voters, and all these categories can be infinitely subdivided and, in labyrinthine ways, overlap. Further muddying already turbid waters, each one of these populations tends to be more or less Republican or Democrat so every poll relies upon some algorithmic method to account for these variations and extrapolate results calibrated in light of them. These methods are themselves borne out of a multiplicity of veiled political assumptions driving the purportedly objective analysis in one direction or another, potentially tincturing the purity of mathematical data with ideological agenda. Math doesn’t lie but those who make decisions about what to count and how to count it surely do.
Another problem is that voter self-identification, a crucial ingredient in any poll, is both fluid and deceptive. Consider that while approximately 35% of all voters classify themselves as “independents”, only 10% of these actually have no party affiliation. In other words, in any given year, voters registered with a certain party might be inspired to vote independently or even switch sides without surrendering their party membership. These episodic fits of quasi-independence can create the illusion that there are grand tectonic shifts in the ideological makeup of the voting public. It’s worth noting that the vast majority of so-called independents pretty reliably vote with their party of registration.
The problem of self-identification is symptomatic of the larger difficulty that polling, for all its mathematical pretensions, depends on the human formulation of questions to be interpreted and then answered by other human beings. Just as the questions posed can be loaded with hidden premises and implicit political judgments, the responses solicited can be more or less honest, clear, and well-considered. It seems methodologically cheap to proudly claim scientific exactitude after counting the yeas and nays generated by the hidden complexity of these exchanges. Measuring what are basically anecdotal reports with number doesn’t magically transform a species of hearsay into irrefragable evidence any more than it would my mother’s homespun grapevine of gossip. The ambiguous contours of human language resist the charms of arithmetic.
The ultimate value of any polling is always a matter to be contextually determined, especially in light of our peculiar electoral college which isolates the impact of a voting population within its state. So the oft cited fact that 35% of voters consider themselves independent might seem like a count of great magnitude but most of those reside in states, like California and New York, whose distribution of its electoral college votes is a foregone conclusion. When true independent voters in actual swing states are specifically considered, then only 3-5% of the voting population is, in any meaningful sense, genuinely undecided. Despite their incessant production, it is far from clear how informative we can consider polls that generally track the popular vote since, in and of itself, the popular vote decides nothing.
So the mathematical scaffolding of polls all presume non-mathematical foundations, stated and unstated assumptions, partisan inclinations and non-partisan miscalculations. When the vertiginous maelstrom of numbers fails in its most fundamental task, alighting disorder with order, bringing sense to a wilderness of senselessness, then where can we turn for guidance? I can’t just wait for the results Tuesday night–the modern in my marrow craves not just certainty but prediction, absolute knowledge as prologue. There’s no technocratic frisson in finding anything out after the fact, without the prescience of science, which appeals just as much to our desire to be clever as it does to our craving for knowledge.
I will suggest what no political scientist in America is suggesting: set aside the numbing numbers and the conflicting claims to polling precision and follow me follow Aristotle. We must survey what is available to us in ordinary experience, what we can confirm as a matter of pre-scientific perception, the ancient realism that appealed not to computational models, but the evidence I can see with my own eyes.
What do I see with these eyes? A president running as a challenger, pretending he wasn’t in charge the last four years of blight and disappointment. I see a less than commanding Commander in Chief trying to slither past a gathering scandal that calls into suspicion his character and competence to protect his country. I see a wheezing economy, so infirm our president celebrated a palsied jobs report as evidence of our march to prosperity. I see transparent class warfare that insidiously assumes our embattled middle class resents the rich more than they resent their own shrinking economic opportunity and that women feel flattered and emboldened when condescendingly drawn into a magically conjured cultural war.
I see enthusiastic crowds form around the man they think will deliver them from four years of gruesome ineffectiveness and a defeated left, dispirited and weary, unlikely to convert but less likely to surge. I see ads about Big Bird and and a terror of confronting big issues and a president who seems as bored by his performance as we are. Obama does not look like a winner, not to these eyes.
So in an election year hyper-charged with ideological heat, and polling data potentially varnished by self-fulfilling prophecy and partisan wishful thinking, I tend to rely upon an old school conception of realism: what I can see and what I can modestly infer from what I see. Today, as I write this, I see a Romney victory, however narrowly achieved. This would also be a big victory for the common sense of ordinary political perception over the tortured numbers games that aim to capture it precisely, or to mold it presumptuously.