Dingus of the Week: Polling Data
89 percent of Americans think polls suck
This is the weekly dingus. The newsletter that tells you what’s stupid and why in the week’s news. I also share links and a drink recipe for your long weekend. The weekly dingus is your dose of (sometimes) funny sanity. I say “sometimes” because I don’t want to over sell it. But we do have fun here. Become a subscriber and never miss a dingus.
As long as there have been things happening, there have been prognosticators. Some read tea leaves, some use political polling. Political polls in America date back to 1824 when informal polls were conducted in taverns, among militias, and in public meetings. This also was the beginning of America’s greatest tradition: men yelling their opinions at large gatherings.
Polls can be influenced by the way questions are asked. By who answers their phone when you call (it’s definitely not Gen Z). Polls seem like science, and they fill that gap in our hearts with hard numbers, which make us feel smarter. But we aren’t smart. We are just messy sausage casings filled with meat and a beating heart, and one day we are going to vote because we hate the prices of gas, and the next we are voting because, oh damn, our rights are gone, and no one will help induce a miscarriage and we are bleeding out on a hospital floor.
While polls are not inherently evil, their use in political coverage is often a substitute for thought, analysis, and issues-based coverage. Aswrote in his newsletter Popular Information, “Prediction-based coverage comes at a high cost because it crowds out the coverage that voters actually need. To make an informed decision, voters need to know the practical impact of voting for each candidate.… The political media has substituted polling analysis, which is something only people managing campaigns really need, for substantive analysis of the positions of the candidates, something that voters need.”
Polls can also influence voting behavior. Knowing who people might vote for and which politician is likely to win can influence who you might be willing to cast your vote on. Polls have also created a nation of self-proclaimed experts. It’s Dunning–Kruger repeated ad infinitum. Everyone’s read a poll, so everyone has a thought and an opinion and a voice that shouts: I am the expert! Until everyone is predicting and no one is listening. And maybe a nation of millions of David Brookses is bad.
But it also creates a nation of pearl-grabbers. When what you think will happen doesn’t happen, everyone likes to ask, “What happened?” As if the answers were right outside their door, readily available with the purchase of a Busch Light and a conversation.
Polls also influence candidates and their approach to politics. A candidate who polls well essentially looks like a tub of vanilla ice cream with a wig and a suit. Any semblance of personality is stripped away, leaving nothing but a gleaming “polls well” kind of robot. There is a sense of the uncanny valley about them. Sure, they seem to echo what you say and what you want to hear, but you are unnerved and get the sense they might just be stacks of polling beneath that well-botoxed mask and nothing more. They don’t believe in anything except finding a popular issue and winning on it.
Many words have been sacrificed in the service of explaining the phenomenon of Donald Trump. But I sometimes wonder if it wasn’t just that he wasn’t boring. (Also the racism.) But he wasn’t boring.
We are just messy sausage casings filled with meat and a beating heart, and one day we are going to vote because we hate the prices of gas, and the next we are voting because, oh damn, our rights are gone, and no one will help induce a miscarriage and we are bleeding out on a hospital floor.
This year, a lot of polling predicted a huge red wave. Data analyst Tom Bonier accurately predicted that they were wrong. He meticulously examined other data that the polls seemed to be missing. In August, I interviewed him for this newsletter. His predictions came true, and he got to do a victory lap of “I told you so,” which is great to watch but also raises the question of polls’ utility. It’s like using a butter knife to change out a screw. Sure, it might work, but why when there is a screwdriver right there?
Polls may work sometimes with conventional wisdom, but these are not conventional times. And pretending everything is conventional is to look away from the social and political upheaval happening in our country.
The worst things about polls are that they transform complex issues with real-life impact into a game of numbers and popularity. This happened with the pandemic. Where every death became a number, a tally, in a daily report. And much like stock numbers, people quit listening. What’s another tally mark in a long day? We forgot the story behind each number. We forget the impact behind each issue we poll and each person we talk to.
But polls as prognostication have always been flawed. Because humans are flawed. We don’t know what we want and we don’t know what we like and we, honestly, don’t know what we don’t know. And if humans are a mess, democracy is even messier. Nothing about our electoral process has ever been neat or orderly. It’s erratic and so is polling. Some caterpillars, monkeys, dogs, and sharks are better at predicting elections than 538.
Polls are just one hammer in a toolbox that analysis writers, reporters, and politicians can use to gauge the mood of a nation. But they aren’t the only tool. Touching grass is one. Talking to humans is another. Leaning in and accepting the chaos of our mortal existence is probably the best way.
And Now for Something Good:
Elon Musk took over Twitter and made a bunch of changes that made it hard to tell who is a real account and who is just a pretender. And it’s devolved the entire platform into chaos.
If you are not on Twitter, the result is kind of like if you just ran into a stranger’s family Thanksgiving and everyone was shouting about events you were there for, and it sounds like real words but also, what the hell? And why is everyone so loud?
And I think I owe Elon, former Dingus of the Year runner-up, an apology. I actually love this. Burn it down. Ruin everything. Set us free.
A VERY good thing happened this week for the Flyover Politics Discord. We were joined by the community of Garrett Bucks’ The White Pages. Back in the spring, I launched a Discord server dedicated to talking about middle America, its politics, and its gas station pizza. My goal was to get other newsletters to join us. The collaboration has already netted some amazing conversations about organizing and Sheetz v. Wawa.is a writer and the organizer of the Barnraisers project, which trains organizers all over the country. His newsletter focuses on the power struggle of race and how we learn to be communities of care and interdependence.
If you are intimidated or confused about Discord, well, me too. But essentially, you just log in and start talking. It’s very manageable. And it’s better than Twitter.
An invitation to Discord is a perk of the paid-subscriber level for both of our newsletters. So if you want in, switch to paid-level for him or for me.
What I Am Reading:
In this newsletter, I wrote about how Iowa has completely ceased to be a purple state.
- on sex positivity.
Chris Wilson with a post-mortem on how the media covers disability.
The glass cliff and the impossible expectations for Black women.
One of my favorite writers,launched her newsletter The Braid
What I Am Drinking:
This weekend, I will be immersing myself completely in painting my laundry room. I had some Money Pit moments last weekend when I learned that fixing my small basement leak is not the fault of the gutters as SO MANY contractors have told me. But it might actually require redoing part of the foundation. So I think my drink this week is the drink of the poors. Hamm’s and a Jack Daniel’s chaser. Pray for me.