Entry from October 31, 2008

During the election campaign of 1972, the first in which I was able to vote, the coming Nixon landslide was pretty obvious to most people, as I remember, except for those in the media, who were almost as pro-McGovern then as they are pro-Obama today — if a little more reticent about showing it. I remember with particular clarity hearing a report on NPR in those last days before the election to the effect that there was evidence of some kind of a widespread disinclination among McGovern voters to tell the truth to pollsters — which, if true, would have accounted for the otherwise unaccountable fact, so far as the media were concerned, that so few of them were showing up in the opinion polls.

At the time, I was struck by this news item because I was old enough to remember the closing days of the campaign of 1964, when it was equally clear that Lyndon Johnson was going to win. Then a rumor had gone around among Goldwater voters, of whom I would have been one if I had been old enough to vote, that many of their ideological brethren were similarly disguising their true intentions when confronted with the psephologist’s clip-board and pretending to be for Johnson when they weren’t. That’s when I knew that Senator McGovern, like Senator Goldwater before him, was about to go down in flames. When bad things are coming, and are seen to be coming, people all tend to look around desperately for some reason to believe they are not coming.

So you can imagine my sickness at heart at hearing, out there on the web in numerous places, the old “lying to pollsters” argument from McCain supporters. In more respectable precincts, too, you can hear things like it. Arnon A. Mishkin of The Weekly Standard detects a tendency of the undecided vote to break disproportionately to McCain, as it did for Reagan in 1980 and Bob Dole in 1996. He calls it “the Social Effect,” which he explains as follows: “Where there is a perception that there is a ‘socially acceptable’ choice, respondents who do not articulate it, are likely not to agree with it.” In other words, if the undecideds were at all likely to vote for Obama, they wouldn’t be undecided in the first place, but would be happy to sign on to the socially acceptable choice — namely “That One” whom so many of their neighbors think is so wonderful.

The trouble is that he also notices from the primary campaign a countervailing, Enthusiasm Effect, “leading pollsters to underestimate the turnout of Obama supporters — e.g. African Americans, the young, and the more independent voters.” Not much comfort for the afflicted there, then, especially when you consider the unknown number of Obama enthusiasts invented by ACORN on top of the genuine ones. But what’s this? In The Washington Post, of all places, an article the other day by Michael Abramowitz asks, “Could the polls be wrong?” True, on the whole he thinks this very unlikely, but. . . but. . . “Still, there appears to be an undercurrent of worry among some polling professionals and academics. One reason is the wide variation in Obama leads: Just yesterday, an array of polls showed the Democrat leading by as little as two points and as much as 15 points.”

This sounds to me as much an act of self-deception on the part of the winning side as the lying-to-pollsters argument is on that of the losing side. They want to believe that the polls are right, but they also don’t want to commit the act of hubris involved in pronouncing too confidently that they are right and so possibly tempting the gods to punish them by sending their man down to defeat. There are other straws in the wind, too, according to Mr Abramowitz. Steven Schier, a professor at Carleton College in Minnesota, says that there are, in addition to all the evidence of the polls, certain “unknown unknowns” in this campaign. “For instance, is the sizable cohort of people who don’t respond to pollsters more Republican-leaning this year, perhaps because they don”t want to admit to a pollster that they are not supporting the ‘voguish’ Obama?”

Hey! I know I never respond to pollsters. If there are more people than usual behaving as I do, doesn’t that mean that more people than anyone expects will be voting for John McCain? But then Mr Abramowitz lets me down again, writing that “Other experts are less uncertain.” Curse you, other experts! Just when I had got my hopes up, you have to come along and dash them to the ground again. In the end the only thing I have to cling to, the only light in the gathering gloom, is that everything I know about the media — of which, I believe, the polls are an adjunct — indicates that they have a much higher capacity for self-deception than, say, hockey moms. If the media agree that the sun rises in the east, it doesn’t mean that it actually rises in the west; but if they ever wanted to believe that it was rising in the west, they would believe it with the same fervor and unanimity.

In other words, Barack Obama’s election would probably appear almost as inevitable as it does today, even if he were going to lose. That’s at least somewhat of comfort on this scary Hallowe’en night.

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