Thursday, July 26, 2018

Polls and headlines provide exercises in skepticism

Judd Legum started a new email newsletter published M-R each week, called Popular Information. He started the first edition with some words of caution about placing too much reliance on polls (like the ones I cited yesterday in my blog, Blue Wave Update - good news but not for Trump’s Russiamerica party). Here are snippets from the web site (

Polls are not crystal balls

People are interested in polls because they are interested in the future. But polls tell you about the present.

In December 2007, a Fox News poll showed Hillary Clinton with a 29 point lead over Barack Obama; an NBC News poll and an Associated Press poll showed her with a 22 point lead. These polls were taken just days before the caucuses and primaries began.

Were these polls wrong? Perhaps a bit. Some other polls taken at that time showed a somewhat closer race. But Clinton was clearly in a strong position in December 2007.

Then people changed their minds. In politics, things change very quickly.

Three weeks before election day, Congressman Joe Crowley’s internal poll showed him with a 36-point lead over his challenger, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Crowley lost on election day by 15 points.

Was Crowley’s poll flawed or did a massive chunk of the electorate change their minds in the final days of the campaign? In the end, it doesn’t really matter.

It’s not that all polls are wrong. It’s that people are looking to them for answers the polls are not designed to or able to deliver.

To clarify, the polls he is citing are “horse race” polls: who is winning at this point in time. Those are most of what the media cover. There are other polls, focusing on issues, that are useful.

Much of the political coverage between now and November 3, 2020 will be about horse race polls. People who care about the future of the country can safely skip all of this information.

Talk to your neighbors about an issue that is important to you instead. Or take a walk outside.

What happened to the public outrage over family separation?

Legum follows on in his first edition with a critique of how the media lets themselves be used by Trump. Take the case of Trump’s reversal on mother-child separations at the border, what Legum calls Trump’s humanitarian tragedy and public relations triumph.

The images were stark and heart-breaking. Infants (infants!!!!) taken from their mothers. Legum reports the Google Trends for “family separation” in and around late June 2018. It peaked on June 20th. As the public outcry crescendoed, the pressure was on Trump to do something. He did. He signed an executive order supposedly reversing course. And then the hits on “family separation” died off to the minimal levels before the peak. That only took five days. What happened?

Trump didn’t reunite children but he accomplished his goal

Following Trump’s executive order nothing changed for the children who were ripped away from their parents. But Trump was successful in generating the headlines he wanted.

Headlines like this one in the Washington Post:

“Trump reverses course, signs order ending his policy of separating families at the border” -

Or this one in New York Magazine:

“Trump signs order ending his own family-separation policy”

So while the public went back to sleep …

Trump and his administration had effectively no plans to reunite the children separated from their parents as a result of the “zero tolerance” policy. But the ACLU sued the administration and, on June 26, a federal judge ordered all children to be reunited within 30 days. The final deadline is this Thursday.

You want to put money on whether this horribly incompetent and inhumane administration can come anywhere close?

There are 2551 children between 5 and 17 who were separated from their parents, according to court documents. Among this group, just 364 children were reunited with their families as of July 19, when the most recent status report was filed in federal court.

And Trump’s tragedy will continue.

h/t Patricia Prickett for the heads up on Popular Information

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