The Polls vs. Your Lyin' Eyes

NC: Donald Trump Campaigns in Raleigh Ahead of Election Day

Soon, soon you’ll be able to breathe a sigh of relief: the election will be over and you won’t have me reminding you, over and over, what an odd election season it’s been or telling you that I think the oddities will continue. Will they come to an end tonight? Maybe. Or maybe, if the race is close enough, the show will move to the House of Representatives.


I don’t expect that to happen, but it might.

What do I expect? Having been ostentatiously wrong in 2008 and then again in 2012 (though I was right about Brexit: Hurrah!), I am going to forbear making a prediction. Why bother to make a prediction, anyway, when we have a zillion polls doing that for us?

Do you believe the polls? I am skeptical. That is, I am skeptical about the enterprise writ large.

Why? Because they generate such disparate results. And, well, Brexit.

Remember those polls: “52 to 48 Remain” is what the wise men said. What does it mean, to take just one example, that the Washington Post/ABC poll had Hillary up 12 points one week and just squeaking by, up one point, the next?

This shockeroo was right before the human yo-yo, James Comey, stunned the world by announcing that the FBI was going to reopen the investigation against Hillary based on the 650,000 emails discovered on a laptop shared by Anthony Weiner and Clinton’s top aide Huma Abedin. As I write, at sunrise on Election Day, that poll has Clinton up three points.

As readers or viewers of Yes, Prime Minister know, you can get any result that you want in a poll. You just have to be careful about what questions you ask, and — who says sophistry doesn’t progress? — you have to be sure you’ve “adjusted” your sample in accordance with your desired goal.


Still, the market is a powerful force. And pollsters, like other entrepreneurs, want to be asked back next time. But for that to happen, they will have to be able to show they didn’t bollocks up their last poll. Which helps to explain why polls tend to converge as we get closer to an election.

The pollsters have their eye on the next election in terms of the next job, so they want to get the current poll as accurate as possible.

So here we are on Election Day. The RealClearPolitics average has Clinton up 3.2 points. The L.A. Times, which has consistently given Trump good odds, has him up three points, but every other poll has him down three or four, and in a couple of cases, five or six.

Does this mean that Clinton is likely to win? That’s what most of the pundits say. It’s possible for Trump to pull it out, they intone, but it is likely that Clinton will win.

I am not sure how you determine how likely something was after it has happened. Doubtless, there are procedures for that. But right now, the morning of November 8, 2016, we do not have the consoling eventuality that we will (most likely) have by the wee hours November 9. Perhaps then, Nate Silver will once again emerge as the genius of the hour, having pinpointed with astonishing accuracy the psephological results of every town and hamlet.

Nevertheless, I would like to express a certain skepticism about the polls, or, rather about The Narrative into which the polls are spun.


For the last few weeks, I have tuned in to watch snippets, and sometimes more than snippets, of the candidates’ rallies. A greater disjunction is hard to imagine. All across the country, Donald Trump has attracted thousands and tens of thousands enthusiastic fans. Hillary, when she deigns to hold a rally, has to bribe supporters to show up by enlisting the support of celebrities or racist, misogynistic dispensers of subliterate pornographic cacophony like Jay Z.

Do the polls account for that enthusiasm gap? I have my doubts. Donald Trump may lose today. In which case the polls and the pundits can pat themselves on the back and tell knuckle-draggers like me “I told you so.”

But win or lose, Trump is right about one thing. He speaks not for a party but a movement.

Andrew Jackson lost in 1824 — well, actually, he won both the popular and the electoral vote among the four candidates. But since he had only a plurality, not a majority, the election went to the House, which gave the win to John Quincy Adams. Then came 1828: Jackson and his angry supporters won in a landslide.

I do not expect something analogous to happen, partly because, should Hillary win, I believe the United States will become in effect a one-party, big-government state. There will still be Republicans, but they will be neutered Republicans. David Brooks-type Republicans. What will happen to the 40 or 50 or 60 million people who voted for Donald Trump? They won’t just fade away, as Douglas MacArthur said old soldiers were supposed to do.


There have recently been a spat of books with titles like Charles Murray’s Coming Apart, books that look around at the apparently settled institutions of American life and see troubling cracks, tensions, and fissures.

One of most thoughtful contributions to this genre of disabusement is James Piereson’s Shattered Consensus: The Rise and Decline of America’s Postwar Political Order. (Unexpected order-in-the-universe alert: I see that the revised paperback edition of Piereson’s book is being published today, Election Day.) Piereson’s thesis is that throughout American history, the political and cultural settlement that organizes our national self-understanding lasts only so long as it speaks to the exigencies of our lived experience.

The original Federalist dispensation of Washington and Hamilton gave way to the Jefferson-Jackson regime ,which emphasized localism and democracy. In time, partly under the pressure exerted by the issue of slavery, that dispensation gave way to Lincoln’s very different regime that emphasized union, freedom, and laissez-faire capitalism. The advent of the Great Depression undercut that political settlement and ushered in FDR’s Keynesian vision that emphasized national regulation, public spending, and the welfare state at home and internationalism abroad.

Piereson suggests that just as the Great Depression had shattered the capitalist consensus forged by the experience of the Civil War, so now there are signs that the essentially Keynesian consensus that was forged in the 1930s and 1940s is under unsustainable pressure.


Ultimately, the Keynesian model requires robust economic growth to sustain itself, but sharply slowing growth, rising debt, and a metastasizing, entrenched culture of entitlement conspire to undermine the necessary presuppositions of America’s postwar political and economic consensus. Add to those pressures an increasing divisiveness at home and belligerence abroad, and the consensus we have been living with since the 1940s looks increasingly fragile.

Stepping back, as Piereson points out, the United States has rarely had a two-party system but rather a “one and one-half party system” consisting of a “regime party” and a competitor forced to adapt to its dominant position.

These competitors, he writes — the Whigs in the 1840s, the Democrats after the Civil War, and the Republicans in the post-war era — occasionally won national elections, but only after accepting the legitimacy of the basic political themes established by the regime party.

What happens next? I don’t know. But if Piereson is right, then a third Clinton administration is likely to usher in a tumultuous time, indeed.

A Trump administration? It would have the advantage of enthusiasm on one side and aghast panic on the other. Anyone who harbors a fondness for Schadenfreude — an uncharitable emotion, I know — would relish his victory for the spectacle of elite fletus et stridor dentium that would ensue.


I am not saying that I think Trump will win. I will mention, however, that a wise statistician I consulted yesterday told me he expects to wake up Wednesday to the news that Trump sailed to victory with a four-point margin. That’s beyond the margin of fraud, I am pretty sure, beyond even George Soros’s enormous, suppurating thumb on the scale. My friend might be wrong. Nate Silver says he will be. Let’s see.



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