Pollsters be quiet

By Sam Patten | Nov 09, 2020

Scrolling through my feed on Facebook, I landed on the page of a respected progressive analyst who was trying at some length to explain how the Democrats got the Latino vote so wrong when one of his friends commented: “Pollster, now would be a good time for you to be quiet.”

I laughed out loud. Picking on pollsters right now seems like small-ball, though, because the rot in our political consulting class goes much deeper.

Long before Trump rode down the escalator in his New York tower, America’s campaign consultants were hiding from their own shadows. How risk averse could one candidate get?

It seemed like a cynical contest, and in the first quarter of 2016 the current president plowed through 16 of the best-qualified candidates the GOP could offer like a hot knife through butter. From Jeb to Marco to John to Rand, governors and senators seemed crouched in fetal positions — I’ll give Cruz an honorable mention for running an actual campaign. Back then, the embarrassment was largely coming from Republicans.

Now the worm has turned. Both then and now, the problem lies almost entirely in faulty assumptions, for instance:

1. A group of nominally disaffected Republicans calling themselves The Lincoln Project would depress Trump turnout, mainly through sneering and ridicule;

2. Everybody knows Trump is a racist, so non-whites will flock to the alternative if not from pandering on the basis of what someone said matters to them then from reminding them they have no other choice;

3. Mitch McConnell was so universally associated with Satan that a crop of cheerful-looking “Dump Mitch” protesters would swing the Senate blue;

4. Finally, Americans are angrier about Trump’s mishandling of the COVID-19 crisis than they are worried about whether the economy will recover.

Just as Trump’s Republican competitors four years ago assumed everyone would find the crass and seemingly ridiculous businessman as appalling as they did, the Democrat consulting class this year relied on voters having lower pain thresholds than we actually do. Never ask questions like “How much more are you willing to take?” unless you know the answer in advance.

Energy matters, too. The president’s voice Monday and Tuesday was hoarse and almost unrecognizable as he’d been crisscrossing the country with "super-spreader" rallies, barking his COVID-weary lungs out along the way. When many people see and hear that, they think "fighter." This contrasted sharply with over-managed and under-attended Biden events.

The idea that one can win elections through renunciation alone should probably be reconsidered, too.

The Democrat message was about getting rid of Trump, sprinkled with other transformative ideas, too: packing the court, defunding the police, rewriting the nation’s history, abolishing the electoral college and even setting up truth and reconciliation commissions after the election to root out and punish Trump supporters.

It was too much of the wrong thing, and the problem with such messaging is the other side hears it, too, and it becomes motivational in the exact opposite way from which its creators intended.

In hard-fought statewide and congressional races, the devil you know was often the safer bet. Local connectivity mattered more in many of these contests, whether here in Maine or in North and South Carolina, Kentucky, Iowa and Alaska, than did broad, fuzzy messaging from the national HQ. So much for a blue wave, the nation collectively observed Tuesday night. The persistent rumor that was coming was a wag the dog approach to momentum, and may ultimately have hurt Democrats.

It’s easy to beat up on pollsters, and this year many deserve it. So do the assumptions that underline polling methodology, such as what a sample should look like. But as I wondered aloud earlier this season, maybe there was something to the idea of a hidden vote. There are more ways of predicting behavior than the ballot test question, and social desirability bias may itself be a faulty assumption.

All of this said, Joe Biden will be the next president. It just never should have been this close. The great opportunity of this moment is an honest “after-action” report. We never got that in 2016; instead we got fairy tales about Russia.

There is so much to learn about what we all got wrong. Sorting that out matters more in a way than the ballot counting — and recounting — that will dominate the news for the next few weeks at least.

Sam Patten is a recovering political consultant who was raised in Knox County and worked for Maine’s last three Republican senators.

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