March 4, 2024 | Reading Time: 4 minutes

On polls and panicking

Who has the better read on the electorate?

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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The Times came out with a new, controversial poll over the weekend. I’m not going to recount for you what it found. You can read about it here. I’m more interested in the reaction to it from the point of view of decent people who care about democracy and the common good. It was panic. 

I don’t want to say they should. It’s still early. There are months to go. I continue to believe that most people still can’t quite bring themselves to believe that Donald Trump is going to be the GOP’s nominee. I continue to believe that once that’s clear, people will start to see Joe Biden in context, rather than in isolation, and that the choice will be between him and Trump. I continue to believe that the polls will eventually flip in Biden’s favor. We’ll know more after Super Tuesday.

But I don’t want to say they shouldn’t panic either. Polls are what they are, snapshots in political time. If some of the more reputable surveys find that Trump has a slight lead over Biden, especially in swing states, then we probably should face that possibility. In general, it’s probably best to hope for the best, expect the worst, and raise a lot of hell in between. As it is, however, the primary temptation among caring people who were panicked by the latest Times poll was to criticize it.

I’m not saying Joe Biden right. I’m saying he’s done this before.

Not that there isn’t good reason to criticize. I have said we are going through a political transition in this country, from a long period (of about 40 years or so) in which most people most of the time sided with the Republicans on most things into another long period (another 40 years, perhaps) in which most people most of the time will side with the Democrats on most things. If polling seems weird now (and that’s what some are saying about the Times poll), it’s probably due to that in part.

There are also basic failures of journalism. Here’s Issac J. Bailey: “I’m not the originator of this point, but it’s an important one concerning ‘objectivity’ in journalism. [The Times] recently released a poll saying most Biden voters think he’s too old. Why didn’t they ask Trump voters if being held liable for rape by a court makes Trump unfit?” He added:

“When a journalist tells you he ‘must’ do his job a particular way because he’s ‘just following the facts,’ tell him to stop lying. Each of us in this industry makes a series of choices about what we will focus on, ask, print and prioritize, depending on what we believe is best.

“If the Times believed being a rapist is a more important issue than age, it would focus more on that rape finding. Oftentimes, journalists get stuck in narratives, refuse to reconsider and simply go along with the flow and pretend we are ‘just following the facts.’”

Put another way, journalists are not just reporters of the news. They often shape its contours by way of reporting it. They are not passive agents. They are active participants, whether they admit it or not. They are humans who make human choices, no matter how much they, or their employers, would prefer to be seen as the voice of God. Elevating Biden’s age over Trump’s rape decree is a choice, and it’s a choice, as Issac said, that reflects what newspeople think is important. “Just following the facts” is just another way of denying their humanity.

This common complaint – about the press corps doing a poor job of informing and educating the electorate – can be interpreted to mean “dismissing” inconvenient polls. Here’s former Obama advisor Dan Pfeiffer: “Instead of dismissing the polls, we should embrace the idea that Donald Trump can win this election. And then use that frightening notion to re-energize the anti-MAGA majority that delivered victories in 2018, 2019, 2022, 2022 and 2023. Telling people what they want to hear may be satisfying in the short term, but it rarely works out.”

I’m sure there are people out there who would rather stick their heads in the sand or accuse pollsters of having secret, nefarious motives. But I also think there are lots of people who are genuinely concerned about, or even outraged by, a press corps that – as an institution – is treating this election as if it were between men standing at opposite, though equally legitimate, ends of the spectrum. One of them stands for democracy and the common good. The other stands for vengeance. 

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Most of us, perhaps all of us, have been taught in one way or another to believe that American institutions – including the press, the courts of law and the US Constitution – are the bulwarks against despotism. Yet we keep seeing these same institutions falling down, whether it’s reporters bothsidesing democracy or billionaires turning social media into burn pits or the US Supreme Court saying, as it did today, that the 14th amendment doesn’t permit states to disqualify insurrectionists.

Most of us understand what we can do about corrupt politicians. Virtually none of us knows what we can do about corrupt institutions. Reporters can’t be voted out. Justices have lifetime jobs. Money and power seem entrenched. They increasingly lean against liberty. Is it any wonder that the first reaction to the latest Times poll among people who care about democracy and the common good was panic?

Finally, there’s an interpretation of the polling complaint that says the Democrats, especially the president, are in denial. Biden is “losing,” according to this view, and there’s only so much time left to adjust. This interpretation was given greater credence when The New Yorker’s Evan Osnos said the president feels “a lot of the numbers and a lot of the commentary is wrong. … He doesn’t really believe he’s trailing in the polls as much as they suggest, and they say that, because ‘we think polls have been pretty bad the last ten years.’” This kind of arrogance, some are saying, is what led the country to disaster in 2016.

Biden is going to adjust to changing circumstance. Indeed, we have already seen him adjust, for instance, on border policy. That’s not the question. The question is, or should be, who has the better read on the electorate – the candidate who’s running for reelection, and who has his own army of internal pollsters working for him, or the people who think he’s in denial about what the polls are saying. I’m not saying he’s right. I have no idea. I’m saying he’s done this before. If nothing else, I hope that brings some comfort to decent people who are panicking.

John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.

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