Polls are deployed only when they might prove useful — that is, helpful to the powers that be in their question to maintain their position and influence.
— Christopher Hitchens, Harper’s Magazine, 1992
The latest rod by which to beat the President of the United States is a Washington Post/ABC News poll showing Mr. Trump’s approval ratings languishing at 36 per cent.
Americans across the board appear, on first take, to be well out of love with the new President. But the “small print” on the polls reveals something quite disturbing about the methodology of the group responsible.
The poll was performed by AbtAssociates — a swamp dweller-staffed research and policy shop in Cambridge, MA.
AbtAssociates board members include former Bob Dole, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, Planned Parenthood, World Bank, and Deloitte staffers. In other words, it is a microcosm of the party of Davos.
But that in itself doesn’t rule AbtAssociates out from doing decent work. What might, however, is the underlying philosophy behind political polling, and the methodology they use to conduct it.
MADNESS IN THE METHOD
The latest headlines — which themselves have seeded hundreds of articles in the press about the matter — are about President Trump’s unpopularity, born out of a poll of just 1,001 people. That’s an average of 20 people per state in the U.S. they hold up as “representative”.
The representative element comes from projecting this data out using pollster voodoo. This is what you’re really paying for when you commission a poll. Anyone can survey 1,001 people, but these guys claim to know the “right” people, and then be able to project their views out onto the whole nation.
Then we go into the data tables. Since this time last year they have over-represented Democrat voters in their studies. For this latest one, 35 per cent of their respondents were Democrats, 23 per cent were Republicans, 35 per cent were Independents (who in turn lean towards voting Democrat), six per cent said ‘Other’, and two per cent had no opinion on the matter.
Interviews, they add, were conducted in English and Spanish, and demographic questions they asked are not included in the data. I asked the Washington Post why, but at the time of publication I had received no response.
Additionally, they didn’t even choose to whom they were speaking. They used a process called Random Digit Dialling, which I wrote about on the run up to the Brexit referendum(another one the pollsters got wrong):
One polling industry insider told Breitbart London that [pollster] ORB uses “random digit dialing” which effectively dials random numbers until it makes a connection with a human being who might answer questions. The methodology is used by Pew’s Research Center, but in tiny sample sizes can lead to a less representative sample that relies more on post-poll weighting.
This method has been under fire for years, but is still used with scant criticism.
Finally, the pollster declares in the data tables: “Interviewers called landlines and cellular phone numbers, first requesting to speak with the youngest adult male or female at home. The final sample included 350 interviews completed on landlines and 651 interviews completed via cellular phones, including 404 interviews with adults in cell phone-only households”.
Young cell phone users made up the dominant part of the poll, and cell phone-only households made up nearly half the interviews. It should not take a political scientist to work out how this, combined with the Dem/Ind bent (70 per cent) of the respondents, makes the poll unrepresentative.
Write ups of the poll include information about approval ratings, the Russia collusion story, healthcare, and the economy. But some of what they found is conveniently left out of the “news” copy or buried.
A greater stress is placed on those who disapprove than those who approve. No surprise given the poll’s weighting. But of those who disapprove, what was their core issue?
Domestic policy? Foreign affairs? Economic theory? No, it was the “Inappropriate way [Trump] talks and acts”.
This, surely, should at least prompt op-ed columns reflecting on how the centre/centre-left/left are obsessing over style rather than substance. Of those who approve, they compliment POTUS’s leadership foremost, the fact he is not politically correct second, and then foreign affairs, the economy, building the wall, and tackling ISIS.
Further bad news for the left in the poll is that just 37 per cent of respondents think the Democrat Party “stands for something” while 52 per cent say they simply stand against Trump. WaPo buried this in paragraph 12 of 19 while CNN didn’t mention it at all.
POLITICAL POLLING IS ‘JUNK’
It is now obvious to most of us, though some have been saying it for years.
Take what Christopher Hitchens said in my favourite book ever, Letters to a Young Contrarian:
The first thing to notice, surely, is that these voyages into the ocean of the public mind are chartered and commissioned by wealthy and powerful organisations, who do not waste their money satisfying mere curiosity. The tactics are the same as those of market research; the point is not to interpret the world but to change it. A tendency to favor one product over another is something not to be passively discovered and observed but to be nurtured, encouraged and exploited.
He didn’t stop there. In 1992 he said the “racket” of opinion polling has tried to become a substitute for democracy. In Harper’s magazine he wrote, taking explicit aim at the Washington Post and CNN (plus ça change):
Poll, poll, poll. Try reading a news story of watching one aired on TV without encountering the word. Readers of the Washington Post of 5 February, to take but one example, were offered seven stories on the front page, and of these, three — about the pessimism of Washington’s residents, the souring on capitalism, and it should go without saying, the Clinton campaign — were based on polls. Not content to wait a day or two for results, the Cable News Network (CNN) pioneers the viewer phone-in poll, inviting nightly news-watchers to glimpse a minute-long story, then dial an instant opinion.
Opinion polling was born out of a struggle not to discover the public mind but to master it. It was a weapon in the early wards to thwart organised labour in the battle against Populism, and it later became a rather favourite in the arsenal of ‘mass psychology’ parties of the European right…
…Polls are deployed only when they might prove useful — that is, helpful to the powers that be in their question to maintain their position and influence. Indeed, the polling industry is a powerful ally of depoliticization and its counterpart which is consensus.
Finally, it is worth hearing out the man on the same topic, in his own voice, opining on how the Los Angeles Times had become so bizarre in its fealty to public polling that they even asked their audience what the outcome would be of President Reagan’s polyp in his colon back in 1986:
The irrefutable moral of the story here is that political polling today is part of the fake news establishment’s way of promoting fake views, designed not to reflect the mood or temperature of a nation, but to shape it.
Raheem Kassam is the Editor in Chief of Breitbart London and tweets at @RaheemKassam
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