Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump, Jeb Bush (Credit: AP/Reuters/Cliff Owen/Evan Vucci/Richard Drew/David Goldman)
While pundits regurgitate the same bad information, we’re missing the earth-shattering stories under our noses
In January, I began writing a weekly column for Salon. Hillary Clinton was still in pre-campaign mode but already losing ground — churning out formulaic answers to stock questions, delivering pricey speeches to the privileged, hobnobbing with Wall Street players while we peasants, now a working majority of the body politic, stocked up on torches and pitchforks. I wrote that her political model — neoliberal economics wed, as it must be, to pay-to-play politics — felt spent. In March, her emails surfaced. She waited a whole week to stage a brief, dodgy, purposefully chaotic press conference. I thought it a serious problem, especially when viewed in the context of her political history and persona, so I wrote that too.
On both points I got hurricane-force blowback from Clinton backers. As is the custom now, a lot of it was personal (why do you hate the Clintons, we hate you, you’re stupid.) or warmed over consultant speak ( the election’s so far off everyone will forget, the issue’s so abstract no one will care). What my critics shared, apart from their devotion to Hillary and contempt for me, was polling data. In surveys taken after the story broke, Clinton held on to her huge lead. (Had I not seen them? How could Salon hire a political columnist who didn’t even read polls?)
Last week, I wrote of another politician in trouble (at least if you regard Donald Trump as a politician). I said his debate performance ended any chance he had of being seen as a serious person, let alone a serious presidential candidate. It was a cringe-inducing spectacle, best understood in psychological rather than political terms, a portrait of a man unhinged by narcissistic rage. In the history of presidential debates, it had no equal and anyone not unhinged by rage or ideology should have seen it.
I got the same sort of feedback about Trump, albeit from different folks; personal attacks and political clichés wrapped in polling data. For three days after the debate, there was no data, so reporters hedged their bets. Of the few who took a flier most got it wrong, many writing admiringly of Trump’s feistiness and flair. On Sunday, NBC released a poll showing him at 23 percent; up a point among GOP primary voters.
Armed with data, everybody got it wrong, again. Trump was proclaimed “Teflon Don,” spokesmodel of the month for an America that’s even madder than you thought.
I tell Clintonites upset by my columns that rather than try to get me to stop writing them they should get her to start reading them. One reason they don’t may be the hypnotic power of polls to keep us from seeing what’s in front of our noses. Like Chico Marx asking, “Who you gonna believe, me or you own eyes?” polls make us question what we see. If you didn’t see that Clinton was digging herself a deeper hole every day, or that Trump came across in Cleveland as arrogant, vindictive, uninformed and out of control, you probably read too many polls and think too much about politics.
Read all together and in their entirety, polls can tell a bit more of the truth. That NBC poll also put Trump ahead on the question of who did worst in debate: 29 percent picked him; 14 percent picked Rand Paul; 11 percent said Jeb Bush. No one else was in double digits. In a Suffolk Univ. poll, 55 percent of Iowa Republicans said the debate left them less inclined to vote for Trump.
In the same way, Hillary’s horse race numbers held steady for a while after the email eruption, but other numbers went south fast, including those in which a majority of voters tell any pollster who asks that she isn’t honest or trustworthy.
Sooner or later polls may catch up to where the truth is, or at least was. In the latest ones Clinton trails Walker, Huckabee, Rubio and Carson in Iowa; Walker, Bush and Paul in New Hampshire, and Sanders in New Hampshire. I’ve no faith in their predictive power, but they do affirm a deepening disaffection. I once said by the time Clinton fell behind in polls it would be too late to save her. That overstates the case but this much is clear: She must change and polls alone can’t tell her how. She has to see it for herself, and then believe what she sees. I’m not sure she can.
Polls do worse things than get races wrong. Their most insidious effect is on the quality and direction of public debate. They blind us to glaring truths about issues as well as people. A key issue in this race is the integrity, accountability and efficiency of government. Republicans talk more and more about it, Democrats hardly at all. In case you didn’t notice, the fallen state of politics and government is what Trump talks about most; that he does so vividly and bluntly is a big part of what some must consider his charm.
Credit Trump this far: When he says he didn’t arrive at his message via a poll, he’s probably telling the truth. He looked at government, stopped talking long enough to listen to a few people, and saw it was an issue voters really care about. Hillary Clinton on the other hand, relying on polls to plot her every step, never talks about it, except to repeat the Democrats’ mantric vow to overturn Citizens United and say a few words in a single speech about getting agencies better computers and improving management. It’s what happens when we let polls obscure core values and gut instincts. Here, even Trump’s gut instinct works better than Clinton’s polls.