Ignore the polls

Welcome to the first edition of Popular Information, a political newsletter for people who give a damn — written by me, Judd Legum. Send your feedback to judd@popular.info or tweet your thoughts using #popularinfo.


Ignore the polls

In the lead up to the 2016 elections, polling was an obsession. Liberals, unnerved by the possibility of a Trump presidency, flocked to polling aggregators like 538 and RealClearPolitics, less for information than for relief. As Trump demonized immigrants, belittled women and stoked racial resentments it was comforting to learn that, in all likelihood, this would all be over soon.

It was only just beginning.

The focus on polls, which reinforced the belief that Hillary Clinton would win in a walk, may have decreased turnout among Clinton supporters. "The idea that Donald Trump couldn't win may have reduced voters sense of urgency about making sure that he wouldn't," Geoff Garin, a pollster and the president of Hart Research, told me.

(Garin noted that this was not simply a function of polling. Many people could simply not wrap their heads around the idea that someone like Donald Trump could be president.)

For most everyone, spending time reading, analyzing and debating these kind of polls is a waste of time. Unless you are directing resources for a campaign or other major political operation, there isn’t much productive to do with this kind of polling information.

In a networked society, everyone can play an important role as a node of information. If you can persuasively articulate the stakes of an election, you can inspire someone to vote. You might not be in touch directly with unlikely or non-voters but you can still reach them indirectly through your friends, family and colleagues.

This informal human network is the most powerful and least understood force in modern politics.

There are 834 days until Election Day 2020. My humble suggestion: Ignore the polls. Spend your time learning and talking to people about issues that are important to you. Then vote.

Important caveat: When I say “ignore the polls” I’m referring to the polls that dominate the media coverage -- the ones about who is winning. (These are known as “horse race” polls.) Other kinds of polls can be quite useful. More on that later.

Polls are a snapshot, not a crystal ball

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.

Some polls try to gauge voters’ certainty about their own preferences. But people are poor prognosticators of their own future behavior. Some people wake up and say they will go to the gym after work. If you asked them in the morning they would tell you that they will definitely be sweating in the afternoon. Will they actually go? It’s anyone’s guess.

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.

Media coverage of polling makes things worse

There is valuable information buried in public polls, but it is mostly ignored by the media.

Most media coverage of polls lacks sophistication, Jim Gerstein, a pollster at GBA Strategies, told me. Gerstein says the “media generally doesn't have a good sense of how polling works and how public opinion works. Their coverage isn't necessarily of what's important to people. It's what important to those that are covering it.” That almost always means the horse race.

Garin says he finds public polls by the media useful, but only because “I am reading them for myself and not because I am relying on the stories that are written about them which usually just focus on just one piece of headline data.”

Polling on actual issues, which are included in some media polls, can be worthwhile. Trump seems to think his tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy, passed late last year, is a political winner. Recent polls, however, show that the policy has the support of just 35% of the American public. The more people learn about the Trump tax cuts, the less they like them. That’s useful information.

More generally, polls can help you understand the political views of people who disagree with you. “It’s about understanding where other people are coming from and how to connect with them,” Garin said.

Polling aggregators make things worse

Aggregating polls has appeal. An average of polls is more accurate because it reduces the impact of errors or anomalies in any single poll. But to aggregate the polls, you need all the polls to ask the same question. What is the one question that nearly every media polls cover: the horse race.

The trend in emphasizing polling aggregation over individual polls has only intensified the focus of the horse race over substantive issues.  

A better way

We are confronted by a blizzard of information every day. The key to being an intelligent consumer of the news is knowing what to skip.

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.


Family separation: Trump’s humanitarian tragedy and public relations triumph

This is a chart from Google Trends of interest in the topic “family separation” from June 1 to the present.

What happened?

About a month ago, public outrage about thousands children separated from their families as a result of Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy was intense. The issue reached its zenith following the publication of two disturbing stories.

The first, published by ProPublica on June 18, included audio of 10 sobbing children being held in a detention facility after being separated from their parents.

The desperate sobbing of 10 Central American children, separated from their parents one day last week by immigration authorities at the border, makes for excruciating listening. Many of them sound like they’re crying so hard, they can barely breathe. They scream “Mami” and “Papá” over and over again, as if those are the only words they know.

The second, published by the Associated press on June 19, revealed the existence of “tender age shelters,” which detained children under the age of 5, including babies less than a year old.

The youngest children, he said, are shell-shocked — crying themselves to sleep.

“Then they wake up from their naps and again they’re crying for their mom, asking: ‘Where’s my dad?’ ” [Chris Palusky, CEO of Bethany Christian Services] said. “They absolutely need their parents right now.”

On June 20, Donald Trump made his move. In the Oval Office, he signed an executive order that he claimed ended the controversy. “We’re signing an executive order I consider to be a very important executive order.  It’s about keeping families together while at the same time making sure that we have a very powerful, very strong border...So we’re keeping families together, and this will solve that problem,” Trump said.

None of this was true.

Trump’s order did nothing to reunite the thousands of children. The order’s “solution” moving forward, detaining families together indefinitely, had already been deemed illegal by a federal judge.

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:

Or this one in New York Magazine:

Very quickly public outrage and interest in the issue dissipated. According to Google Trends, search interest in “family separation,” which peaked on June 20, is now roughly the same as before the controversy even began.

Nevertheless, thousands of children remain separated from their parents.

The ongoing humanitarian disaster, by the numbers

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.  

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.

The government has deemed 908 of these children “ineligible” for reunification. The government has no specific reason why most of these children are ineligible, only saying that the parents of 679 children need “further evaluation.”

Hundreds of parents were released from custody without being reunited with their kids. The government has provided no information about their whereabouts.

For children under 5, the court-imposed deadline was July 10. There were about 100 kids under 5 that were separated from their parents. As of July 12, the government reunited 57 children with their families. 46 children were deemed “ineligible” reunification. (The government says the parents of these children are either in jail or pose a danger to the child.)

Things could change quickly as the government scrambles to meet the court-imposed deadline. But what the numbers do reveal is that the crisis did not end June 20. It is ongoing — and it will continue after July 26 — even as public attention has faded.


The great purge

There is a massive, coordinated effort to make voting more difficult in America. One of the key tactics: voters purges. A new study by the Brennan Center for Justice finds “that between 2014 and 2016, states removed almost 16 million voters from the rolls, and every state in the country can and should do more to protect voters from improper purges.”

The study found that the purges were concentrated in areas that previously had to preclear changes to voting laws with the Justice Department due to a history of racial discrimination. The requirement ended in 2013 with a Supreme Court decision, Shelby County v. Holder.

According to the Brennan Center, “2 million fewer voters would have been purged” between 2012 and 2016 “if jurisdictions previously subject to federal preclearance” had purged voters at the same rate as the rest of the country.


Watch: Is the president a sex pest?

An explosive new BBC documentary alleges "Trump hosted and attended a series of wild bacchanals featuring booze, coke, and young women—often teenagers—who 'were there as consumables.'"


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