Sunday, March 13, 2016

Signals v Noises: How and Why the Pundits, Pollsters, Politicians, and Polticial Scientists are Confused About the 2016 Elections

Trump and Sanders perplex the professional politicians, pundits, pollsters, and even political scientists.  When I say Trump and Sanders I do not just mean them but instead they are proxies for the entire US 2016 presidential process thus far and probably until election day November 8.  No less than Nate Silver, Politics 538, and the pollsters blew it with the Michigan Democratic Primary last week.  The forecast was for a double digit Clinton victory, prompting Nate Silver to give Clinton a 98% chance winning that state’s primary.

So the question is why?  The core reason is laziness–assuming and following conventional wisdom is correct and failing to see the proper signals suggesting that something was unique about the 2016 election cycle.

Take us back to May 2015.  Back then the conventional wisdom among political insiders–and that includes politicians, political operatives, and pundits (journalists and commentators)–was that  Clinton and Bush would march to their party nominations and that the final general election would be a contest between these two predicted candidates.  Furthermore, even though Jeb Bush was going to win, the GOP had other strong candidates in Christie, Walker, and Jindal for example such that they would mount a powerful lineup against the inevitable Hillary Clinton.  Sanders campaign was dismissed as Quixote at best, with polls pointing to 60-70% leads by Clinton over him.  Trump too was dismissed as at best a vanity candidate would repeatedly implode, especially after each one of his insulting statements that all were sure would doom him.  But now of course nine months later and well into the primary season Trump is in a terrific position to win the nomination and Clinton, while leading Sanders in committed delegates, is not guaranteed and there are still reasonable scenarios for the Vermont Senator to win.  Even moving forward, assuming a Trump-Clinton contest the received wisdom is
that Clinton wins.

From my perspective all of this is wrong.  Last May I wrote about the chances of Trump and Sanders potentially winning, and I think that in a Trump-Clinton race Trump may win.  So why did do many get it so wrong?

Laziness is the issue.  Better yet, the answer is “Inside the Parkway” or “institutional disease.”  Specifically, those making the predictions are all politicians or pundits who are part of the establishment.  They are located with the narrow confines of Washington, D.C., viewing the world from that perspective.  They share the same world.  Look at CNN, MSNBC, FOX.  All the journalists know one another, their guests are from there.  They all share the same biases and perspectives and fail to see how the world looks from outside the parkway, outside of the formal institutions of power-Washington government on big  corporate for-profit
media–and they do not write from the perspective of how people view the world from the fly over regions of America.  Watch these dreary  shows, read all the on-line publications, and not just th partisan ones, and they reinforce one’s another’s biases.  They have a tight little club with the regular suspects of commentators or analysts  and none of them really look at the world from a different perspective beyond what they see from  their desks and studios in Washington.  They drool out conventional wisdom about how they view or think the world should operate, failing to recognize that just because they so it does not make it so.

What they missed of course then is the depth of anti-institutionalism pervading American society.  They confuse what has politically worked in the past with what is happening now or what will work in the future.  They simply think that the past is a certain predictor of the future without asking if there are any changed conditions that might suggest a new reality this year.  This is the laziness I speak of; and it is the source of confusing signals and noise.

What are some signals that should have been seen?  First, few appreciate the generational shift occurring in American politics.  Baby Boomers just don’t get this.  They are near clueless that  the power shifted from Boomers to Gen Xers with Obama and now it is shifting to Millennials.  They seem clueless to the different objective conditions driving Millennial politics.  This is a structural shift in politics and Clinton and her supporters largely fail to understand this.  Clinton represents old style politics–the type that brought us the Iraq War, massive student loan debt, a grim economic future, and global warming. The Boomers wanted a revolution to change the world and they not only failed but handed Millennials a crappy future.  The politicians and pundit class are Boomers.

But what is also missed is something else.  In a bipartisan fashion the policies of both the Democrats and Republicans over the last two generations have screwed over most people.  Republicans have explicitly become the party of plutocrats, losing track of the strategy Kevin Phillips endorsed in 1969 The Emerging Republican Majority which said that Nixon and the Republicans could capture the silent middle class majority by developing policies to help them. Reagan walked away from this strategy and the GOP has done little to address the economic problems of their base.  Similarly, the Democrats, especially Bill Clinton, became corporate Democrats, and they too have done little for middle class America. This is even true of Obama who worried more about restructuring Wall Street with tepid laws than in helping homeowners. He never supported reform to labor or union laws, never pushed on the minimum wage. Trump and Sanders  emerge as challengers to this anger.

The Republican and Democratic leadership has simply assumed they are the party and do what they want and often do not think that what others think matters.  Yes we have primaries and caucuses, but the GOP establishment has their silent primaries to pick who they want and the Democrats have their super delegates as the fail safe against  the people.  In both cases the leaders of the party are saying that the real people do not matter.  Create an insulated structure like this and it is no wonder the parties failed to see what is happening.

But the other signal missed this year is not understanding on the one hand that presidential politics is mostly television-driven, assuming what I have said is a politainment status that favors candidates who look and speak well on television.  Thus Trump.  But politics also goes to those who can best master new communication forms, and again Trump and Sanders have an advantage.  But at the same time one of the noises confusing so many is that too many come to believe all that is posted on the Internet or that simple spin is enough or that if one blurts out enough rage that will be  enough to change minds or win votes.  In effect, too many people are inferring too much from the social media in terms of what it tells us about the election.

Another noise has been the polls.  Polls have become rarefied and objectified into the belief they are firm predictors of the future. Remember, polls are snap sots of public opinion in time that  reflect knowledge and awareness at a point T in time.  People’s opinions change and they gather information and pay attention.  Pollsters have assumptions about who will participate or vote they are often flawed and even the best polls may not sample properly (this is especially the case with younger cell phone users).  Finally, statistically even the best polls run at least a 5% chance of being wrong, and this does not count sampling errors.

Overall, the point is that laziness, inside the beltway disease, group think, and a host of biases and failures to see signals versus noises is what is making it so hard for so many to make sense out of the 2016 elections.


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