Pollsters Need to ‘Learn To Code’

You might be surprised to learn that up until Election Day, Mercury was in retrograde. Mercury is the planet of “communication” according to believers in the “magic” of glimmering rocks.

Yes, this is an important thing. Mercury which, for the benefit of those not in the know, is a levitating lump of rock, turned “direct” on November 3.

Astrologers warned, to deaf ears it would appear, that Mercury’s change in transit would sow confusion and chaos. Well, perhaps they had a point.

According to an astrologer called Lisa Stardust, Mercury changing the direction in which it floats around a collection of fellow rocks portends uncertainty and disarray.

Of course, astrology is little more than monkey-minded hooey.

You would hope a civilization that landed a man on the moon would be advanced enough to disregard magical thinking and patent hokum. You would also hope the world’s foremost democracy could conduct an election without failed-state skullduggeries unfolding before our lying eyes.

These propositions evidently prove untrue. Throughout the election campaign, we were told with primitive certainty a few things, the most certain of which: Joe Biden leads President Trump by double-digits and is heading for a blue wave of historic proportions.

Well, even as the outcome remains unclear, that did not happen. And neither did the rather basic requirement of Democratic states counting the votes in line with democratic norms.

It would seem a good two-thirds of Americans believed the polls, even the Washington Post’s Henry Olsen.

What Landslide?

The Biden landslide was then discussed exclusively in terms of its potential size. Biden led in Texas. The number one issue was the pandemic. Republicans are deserting Donald Trump. Minorities would wash a blue wave over the “racist” president.

None of this proved remotely true.

In reality, Joe Biden did worse in Texas than any Democratic nominee of the last few decades. Donald Trump took more (93 percent) of the Republican vote than in 2016. The pandemic for most was a moot issue. Donald Trump won as a Republican the highest share of minorities since 1960. The Biden Landslide, subject to justified and considerate legal wrangling, is at best the narrowest of “wins”—and one to which history would affix an asterisk.

Consider, for perhaps the last time, Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight. Nate is “young” by Boomer reckoning, and has affectations of manicured slovenliness, like those other geniuses—Twitter’s Jack Dorsey and Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook. These “qualities” are the modern mark of the “genius” or, perhaps, sophist.

Silver’s election model gave Joe Biden a 90 percent chance of unseating President Trump. He might spend the next months qualifying that statement, yet for all its hedging, FiveThirtyEight forecast a Biden landslide, giddying its devoted followers into a kaleidoscope of falsehood.

Call something a “model” and adorn your speech with technocratic waffle, and gullible people craving certainty will believe your every word, and the Boomers running the alphabet media will, too. Such nonsense has prevailed since the first monkey glanced at the moon.

“We Did a Good Job!”

Remarkably, Nate Silver is having none of this talk suggesting reality doesn’t look like his record of reality. Rather than a Joe Biden blowout, a Democratic Senate seizure, and a veritable blue wave, the presidential election is too close to call and perhaps will remain that way until December as lawsuits wind their way through the courts.

On FiveThirtyEight’s podcast on Wednesday, Silver told critics: “If they’re coming after FiveThirtyEight, then the answer is fuck you, we did a good job!”

Silver predicted President Obama’s victories in both 2008 and 2012 before his elevation to that of a demigod. Of course, predicting Obama would beat John McCain after eight years of George Bush, amid a global financial meltdown and the Iraq war, doesn’t require any special gifts. Neither that of Obama winning re-election against the hapless Mitt Romney.

Silver then blamed the polls on which his soothsayer status is built.

“People have false impressions of how accurate polls are, and the fact that Biden had this big lead was why he was a pretty big favorite, not because polls are perfect,” he said.

Indeed, this is cultish thinking. Doomsday cultists perform the same mental gymnastics, and when Judgement Day fails to transpire, they reckon not with their quackery, but the date of reckoning.

Where Nonsense Reigned

Silver offers what astrologists, and palm readers offer—a semblance of certainty and orderliness for a world of confusion and disorder. Polling is little more than astrology for political fanatics.

They should have learned in 2016. A certain Hillary Clinton victory became an Electoral College landslide for a man whom the modelers and wonks gave a nine percent chance.

Instead, they blamed the public, claiming the popular vote polling was close, and at the state level is where the nonsense reigned.

That is partially defensible. But this time that defense is shot through.

Throughout the campaign, pundits shook off the specter of 2016: “This is not 2016,” they assured the rightly skeptical flock.

Biden was out-polling Hillary Clinton. Even if, they said, Donald Trump beat the 2016 polls, he would still have no real shot of re-election. Up until some rather strange shenanigans in Democrat-run states in which Democrats were bleeding to certain death, Trump was on course for a strong victory.

In every swing state (and perhaps Arizona) Trump outperformed the FiveThirtyEight average. And if Republicans win every House seat in which they currently lead, the Democratic House majority will fall to just three.

As it stands, not one serious person calls this election a blowout. Indeed, in both possible outcomes, one half of the country will not regard the eventual president as legitimate.

This is the great cognitive assault the polling industry and its professional fabulists have unleashed on the nation. If legal challenges lead to vote recounts and a legitimate victory for President Trump, half of Americans will feel aggrieved.

If Joe Biden manages to nick it, the Trump-voting half will never accept his legitimacy. Indeed, a lame-duck Biden without the Senate and a meager House majority would have about as strong a mandate inside the White House as he would outside.

Even liberals accept this. Politico said Democrats on Wednesday woke to pyrrhic victory (which is charitable if one voted for Trump only to see his sure leads in Wisconsin and Michigan, evaporate in the dead of morning). They bought into the Great Fiction, too.

Expect Nate Silver and his polling milieu to defend their nonsense with technocratic babble like “snapshot” and “forecast.” Indeed, Tarot reading is also a forecast. That kindly Roma lady who tickles your palm is also a forecaster. Both are about as useful as the election models of FiveThirtyEight, The Economist, and the New York Times’ “Upshot.”

Who Got it (Mostly) Right

One pollster in touch with reality is Frank Luntz. Before the election, he warned his industry would be over if they got it wrong like 2016. Well, they did. Three and a half times more wrong.

Luntz on Wednesday confirmed his industry is finished. After two calamitous general elections, that would appear judiciously so, along with swathes of the alphabet media.

Now, not all pollsters are quacks or hucksters, hence my reliance throughout the campaign on those with records of accuracy. And not all pollsters should learn to code.

Perhaps one of the few only to emerge from this with an enhanced reputation would be Robert Cahaly, Trafalgar’s chief pollster.

Silver and his coterie of liberal astrologists spent a great deal of their time mocking the apparent crudeness of the Trafalgar Group.

But Cahaly called it mostly right. Indeed, he did also predict a narrow-to-safe electoral college win for President Trump, and up until the mail-in chaos ensued, that was the case.

Adding to that short list is Matt Towery, chairman of InsiderAdvantage. Both he and Cahaly follow the George Orwell maxim to “see what is in front of one’s nose.” 

Indeed, all quackery relies on a semblance of truth. You know the last time Mercury changed its course on an election day? The year 2000.

That year, the Democratic nominee Al Gore looked the winner of that contentious race, and after weeks of back and forth, with both sides claiming victory, it ended up in the courts.

After a contentious recount, the Supreme Court settled the decision in favor of Al Gore’s opponent, the Republican George W. Bush. American politics hasn’t been the same since.

Perhaps, the quacks have a point. I know one thing for certain: the pollsters do not.

About Christopher Gage

Christopher Gage is a British political journalist.

Photo: Filo/Getty Images

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