What percent just don't care?
We’ve been in the midst of a presidential campaign for months now, though I suspect that for much of the populace there has been more intense interest in the Kardashian wedding.* But as with other reality series, its fan base, though a minority, is loyal, and nothing stimulates it more than the weekly auguries, the opinion polls.
Over at HeadsUp: The Blog you will find cautionary admonitions about those auguries, which often have no more substance than the flights of birds by which the Romans attempted to divine the future. You should read it, but I m going to summarize a few points by way of protecting you from the breathless, and often brainless, energy that journalists tend to bring to the subject of opinion polling.
Item: Note who was surveyed. General population? Republicans? Likely Republican voters?
Item: Check the margin of error and the confidence level of the sampling. If the difference between two candidates lies within the margin of error, it’s misleading to say that one leads.
Item: Note who did the polling, and for whom. Reputable independent service? For a newspaper? For a candidate? It’s a pity that you don’t get to see the questions, because that would help you understand whether the wording skewed the responses.
Item: Ignore any report that “averages” polling results. You cannot reliably average the results of different questions put to different sampling groups at different times.
Item: Opinion fluctuates—and has been particularly volatile among the people following the Republican candidates. You should be skeptical about conclusions from polls about “trends,” because, as you have seen, those trends may well have reversed in another week or so. And no actual votes have yet been cast.
Item: Every election season the Sober Ponderers bemoan that the coverage has been that of a horse race rather than a discussion of the Issues. That, too, you can safely ignore, because once the bell rings and “They’re off,” so are the journalists who follow them. And the public too, at least those who follow the race, because the Issues articles are the ones nobody reads. The public prefers the narrative, because it likes reality shows.
The presidential race is in fact America’s original reality show. It would be difficult to find anything in the current cycle—and I include all the fatuities that Der Spiegel catalogues—more superficial and idiotic than William Henry Harrison’s successful “Log Cabin and Hard Cider” campaign in 1840. When we tire at last of the Kardashians, we will always have the Republicans and the Democrats.
Additional item: Your word of the week is desultory.
*Der Spiegel suggests that the current Republican contest for the nomination more nearly resembles a reality series than anything else, describing the candidates as a “club of liars, cheaters, adulterers, exaggerators, hypocrites and ignoramuses.” But what do foreigners understand about the United States anyway?