Wednesday has been Column Day for 11 years, and over 11 years some stuff will happen. My rule of thumb is that one should not re-read oneself unless one is willing to pay the emotional price, which usually involves groaning, but at least it’s some sort of record of what I was thinking, or not thinking. Some of these are collected in my books, but I’ve decided to ignore that for the time being and just find one from the past, every Wednesday, and post. If not for your edification, then mine. Groans are acceptable.
From September 22, 2004.
Thomas Dewey had a good summer in 1948.
Papers and news reels showed pictures of him, relaxing on a boat, looked tanned and confident. Sometimes the Republican nominee was referred to as “The next President of the United States.” No one seemed to have a problem with this. “Conventional wisdom” may be in the same oxymoron category as “common sense,’ but it can be a powerful force.
Harry Truman was an accidental president, after all, a quirk of history, a fluke. He was widely considered unqualified and incompetent, certainly in comparison to his predecessor, and he seemed ineffectual when faced when a Republican-controlled congress. Besides, the Democrats had held the Oval Office for 16 years, and the American people wanted change. Or so conventional wisdom went.
So Dewey took the summer off, more or less, while Truman took a train, whistle-stop to whistle-stop, talking to small crowds and railing against the “Do Nothing Congress.” Pathetic.
The pollsters backed all this up. Scientific polling was still fairly new on the American political scene, but the basics had been established. Identify your statistical sampling, make the phone call, ask the questions, and write it down. Dewey wins. Easy.
So it wasn’t just a headline writer in Chicago who got surprised on Election Day (or the day after, in that case). All sorts of watchers and commentators were shaking their collective conventional wisdom heads, wondering. How could this happen?
Turns out that the Man from Independence had the right idea. The straight-talking, fiery Missourian resonated with rural folk in particular, farmers and such, people who worked hard and had solid values. They turned out for Truman in droves, a phenomenon the pollsters had no way of predicting.
Because a lot of these people, in 1948, didn’t have phones.
I’ve been thinking about polls a lot lately. It’s a presidential election year, and I’m not immune to wondering how the whole thing is going to turn out. Historically speaking, when an incumbent runs it’s often not a close race, one way or the other, but this one smells tight.
How tight? Tight enough to imagine a scenario like 2000, when one candidate wins the popular vote and the other the electoral college. Tight enough, even, to imagine a literal tie in the electoral college, which, depending on other results, could theoretically end up with George Bush as President and John Edwards as veep. No kidding. It’s in the Constitution and everything.
Last spring, an enterprising guy with a passion for politics (and spreadsheets, apparently) set up a web site to look at polls. He started collecting data and plugging it in, averaging results and tracking state by state. This probably makes true statisticians shudder (no two polls, or pollsters, are alike; apples and oranges, in other words) but it paints an interesting picture, for what it is. I subscribed to his service on a whim (it was free, always a consideration), so every day I get an update.
July looked good for Kerry, although not much in the way of a convention bounce. August belonged to Bush, and he did get a bounce, although a temporary one. Now we seem neck and neck again, although the president holds an electoral college lead at the moment, if mostly in the margin of error neighborhood. So it still looks like a horse race.
There’ve been some anomalies, though. Several polls by big organizations have shown a double-digit lead for Bush, raising questions about methodology. It’s enough to make one suspicious about polls in the first place.
We’ve all heard somebody grumble, “Nobody ever polls me,” and statistically that probably makes sense, but still we wonder: Who are these people? In these days of Caller ID and answering machines, are there people who actually pick up the phone without having a good idea of who’s calling? Surely, but who are they?
Pollsters probably adjust for this, to be fair. Still I wonder. Makes me think about the old joke of a defendant in a trial having to entrust his future to people too dumb to get out of jury duty.
And, finally, there’s the mystery demographic, at least to me. Twenty-percent of the voting public this year is between 18 and 25. Young people, Generation Y. For many of them, this is their first presidential election. People like my daughter, who has an absentee ballot and an opinion. If a pollster wants to know what this 19-year-old college student thinks, all he has to do is ask her.
But he won’t. Because pollsters don’t call cell phones.
There are 170 million cell phones in this country. Love ‘em or hate ‘em, they’re out there, and from my research (i.e., going to the mall) they’re the primary form of communication for young people, many of whom see no need for an old-fashioned “land line” when they can be reached at any time. Just not by Mr. Pollster.
I have no idea how Gen Y would vote, or even if they will. But there’s a war now, and a majority of those fighting and dying are under 25. So maybe this will be a big turn-out year for young people.
But we won’t know about it until Election Day. Headline writers beware.