FEEL GOOD HIT OF THE SUMMER

Posted in Quick Hits on August 19th, 2008 by Ed

Holy shit. Monday nearly doubled this site's previous single-day high in hits. You beat that mark like it owed you money. I divide my thanks between C&L and the prison-industrial complex.

POLLS ARE STILL STUPID

Posted in Election 2008 on August 19th, 2008 by Ed

The media's collective insistence on running an Obama-McCain horse race poll every 45 minutes is enough to make me want to adopt a homeless dog and punch it. Or go whaling. One of the two, just out of spite.

I struggle to think of things that matter less than mid-summer general election polling. Voters fall into two categories at this point in the campaign season: either they have made up their minds (which a lot of us, frankly, did in 2001) or they have almost zero political information on account of paying no attention whatsoever to the race. The media's mythical fence-sitter, torn between two equally appealing candidates, is a rarity. The inability to express a preference speaks more clearly to ignorance than ideological ambiguity/ambivalence.

Let's take a Pew Research poll, conducted from July 31-August 10. It polled 2,414 adult likely voters nationwide and collapsed the leaners (MoE 2.5%):

McCain 43%
Obama 46%
Unsure/other 11%

Obama's ahead, but McCain's closing in! Right? Aside from the fact that the margin of error overlaps (McCain: 40.5% – 45.5%, Obama: 43.5% – 48.5%) how can anyone put the slightest bit of stock in a poll – of a two-way race – with 11% undecided? Enjoy the many levels on which a single poll can negate itself.

"I don't know" or "undecided" in a high-profile race with saturation media coverage means "I do not want to embarass myself by telling the survey guy that I have no fucking clue." Many such individuals will not vote ("likely voting" is another wildly inflated aspect of polling) but many will. They will do one of two things. They could remain clueless and literally vote at absolute random. Such voters would have no impact on the race because, as the Marquis de Condorcet discovered a few hundred years ago, true randomness cancels out. Second, they can start paying attention to the race at the last minute and make some sort of non-random decision. Some voters parcel out their tiny attention spans strategically. They ignore the race, giving "I'm clueless" answers to pollsters, until the last minute. So they have a real preference, they just don't realize it yet.

Imagine yourself on a playground, having evenly divided your votes between kickball and freeze tag, waiting for the "slow" kids to stop picking their noses and eating glue long enough to break the tie. Yes, the 11% of individuals who, for one reason or another, can't give an answer in polls such as this one will ultimately decide the outcome in a close two-way race. How's that for depressing? The people who pay attention have essentially come to a split decision. Now we wait for the lame, the halt, and the ugly to furrow their brows and cast their votes – votes which may be entirely random. That's all these polls tell us.