Ignore the polls and the pundits

Matt Taibbi warns us that campaign conventional wisdom is dead but that no matter how wrong the pundits have been in the past, they always come back with renewed confidence and certainty that this time they have got it right, though often they never even acknowledge that they were ever wrong. This is because their function is not to analyze dispassionately what the candidates’ polices are and compare them, which would be a genuinely useful service, but to promote the establishment candidates and disparage all the rest. They are particularly vicious towards any candidate that challenges the pro-war, pro-business agenda of the two main parties, immediately declaring them to be unelectable or too extreme.

Bloomberg’s Jonathan Bernstein just published a new piece called, “Is Bernie Finished?” Citing Iowa poll numbers that show poor Sanders “essentially in a three person race for second” (he actually is in second, but whatever), its premise is that Bernie now rests “at the fringes of plausibility.” Worse, he could “fail to reach the delegate threshold” in Iowa, Nevada and South Carolina.

This is absurd, and the absurdity isn’t confined to coverage of Bernie Sanders. It’s early, and stupid, to be making pronouncements about any candidate’s viability.

It was silly back in December when a spate of pundits suddenly decided to run “worries abound” stories about Elizabeth Warren whose campaign months later is doing, surprise surprise, just fine.

And it was ridiculous for the Washington Post to run four different stories in the span of a few winter days earlier this year about Sanders being a “one-hit wonder” whose moment had “come… and gone” and who was “no big deal the second time around.”

These stories are not based on anything. They’re space-filling guesses usually grounded in some grumbling personal complaint the outlet or pundit in question has about whatever politician they’re trashing.

It’s an annoying and condescending kind of campaign reportage. What makes it particularly ridiculous is that a lot of the people doing it were part of an epic face plant on the horse race front four years ago.

Bernstein should know. Four summers ago, when Trump was surging, he penned a piece under a headline, “No, Trump can’t win.” He meant the nomination, insisting (emphasis mine):

Everything we know about presidential nominations screams that Donald Trump has no chance of winning the Republicans’ nod.

Taibbi says that rather than sobering up after the last election debacle and re-thinking what was wrong with what they do, pundits dismissed their failure as due to a ‘black swan’ event, the label given an extremely unlikely event that is not expected to recur. He says that news consumers have wised up much more than the pundits.

Not only are news audiences sensitive to the fact that we suck even at our own degraded horse race form of guessing-game politics coverage, they see us as a conflicted part of the power structure whose opinions about candidate viability should probably be ignored on principle.

They realize we can make numbers say pretty much anything. They know if we wanted to, for instance, we could argue that centrist candidates are less electable, while the Bernies and Warrens of the world might be more so, as political economist Thomas Piketty recently did in a new study.

It is not that polls are not useful at all. But at best they provide a fuzzy snapshot at one point in time and we should be aware that there are many factors in the way the polls are conducted that introduce a great deal of variability. At this stage of the process, the most useful function of the press should be to tell us what the candidates’ polices and voting records and general stands on principles and issues are. But that takes too much, you know, work because you have to read and analyze their position papers, their speeches, and their history. It is so much easier to cherry pick some poll and then interpret it favorably towards your candidate or political stance and then pontificate away. That way you get invited on radio and TV and internet talk shows to ‘debate’ another pundit who uses the same technique to argue in favor of an opposing candidate or position. Then you rinse and repeat.


  1. Bruce says

    If Bloomberg’s headline were valid and the #2 candidate was finished, that would mean that all lower candidates were finished, which would mean that the nomination was now secured, 8 months before voting starts. Wouldn’t that mean that democracy is dead in the USA? Wouldn’t that be a bigger headline? Why are they burying the lede?
    Or, could it be, they’re just promoting a corporate narrative to suit their own interests?

  2. anat says

    Bruce, not necessarily. The question is how strongly attached people are to the candidate they support, whom else are they considering, how many people have yet to decide etc. If a candidate is currently placed 2nd but there are very few supporters of other candidates or undecided people who are considering said 2nd placed candidate then support of the 2nd placed candidate has very little chance to grow. OTOH if a lower-placed candidate also has many undecided people or supporters of other candidates that are willing to consider the candidate in question they have a chance that their support would grow by a lot. The claim is that Sanders has a ‘low ceiling’ because too many likely Democratic voters are not willing to consider him at all this time around.

  3. Dunc says

    At this stage of the process, the most useful function of the press should be to tell us what the candidates’ polices and voting records and general stands on principles and issues are.

    I often recall something Chomsky said about some South / Central American country on the sharp end of US foreign policy: “They had elections, but no politics“. (Paraphrasing from memory.) Well, those chickens have come home to roost… The whole point is to eliminate those substantive issues of policy from the discourse.

  4. anat says

    What I find exciting about this year’s Democratic pre-primaries is that many of the candidates are coming up with proposed policies in many different areas. Many can be found at Vox’s guide to where 2020 Democrats stand on policy. I’m hoping these ideas keep shaping public discourse regardless of who gets the nomination and who gets elected this time around.

  5. Holms says

    …a ‘black swan’ event, the label given an extremely unlikely event that is not expected to recur.

    Odd, there is an entire species of swan whose most obvious characteristic is that they are black.

  6. John Morales says

    PS Before I came to Australia, the trees I knew shed their leaves and kept their bark.

    Here, the opposite.

  7. Mano Singham says

    In my forthcoming book on the nature of science, I use the black swan example to point out that just because all the members of a class of objects that we happen to be aware of share a particular property, that does not justify believing that all the members of the class must do so. That all swans are white was something that was strongly believed until people discovered the existence of much rarer black swans in other parts of the world.

  8. Jenora Feuer says

    @John Morales:
    There’s a song written here in Canada that mentions that sort of thing:

    Crazy Arbutus keeps its leaves, and sheds its skin.
    Whoever heard of such a contrary tree?

    It’s a pretty common tree in the Pacific Northwest.

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