Donald Trump’s poll numbers were terrible before today’s fiasco, and they’ll only get worse! That means voters in Colorado, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, Virginia- you don’t have to be another insurance vote, there’s space to vote Stein.
A new set of data is out predicting a Scottish National Party (SNP) sweep in the national elections, to be held throughout the United Kingdom in May. While the SNP holds a majority in the Scottish Parliament, they have never done well in general elections. There is a very real possibility that they will hold the balance of power after an election that seems set to produce no majority party.
Since the September independence referendum, Scottish politics has been perplexing. On the one hand, the three major parties united in support of a No vote, and won a convincing majority. On the other hand, all the growth in party membership has been in the SNP, along with the Greens and the Socialist Party- the three important parties to support independence.
So why is all the momentum for a party that recently lost a serious defeat? The Yes voters realized that they have work to do, and mobilization on a fuller scale is needed. This energy means more resources and manpower dedicated to supporting the SNP and its allies, to the detriment of the parties that backed No. Since there is a feeling that another referendum is going to happen in the next decade, making the national parties pay for their opposition is a great way to keep them out of any future independence campaigns. And to ensure a referendum, making the SNP a kingmaker is key.
In 2008, one of the best posts in the time around the November election was by Ed from Gin and Tacos, a whip smart blog that I link here from time to time. It’s about the idea of constructed explanations, or what is created by the public and the media from events where there is inadequate data for a more objective explanation.
In the context of elections it’s very apt. Think about it this way. Modern society is feedback-driven, whether it’s a form asking you how your hotel experience was, or a text box that opens up when you ask to unsubscribe from an email list. It’s easier than ever to tell a business what you thought about whatever it is that they do. Far beyond the era of hotlines, it’s something you have to avoid these days.
So it seems odd that a ballot, despite being part of an immensely important process, has nothing to provide context to what is marked. Why did this person vote for Proposition 23 but not 25? Wouldn’t they want both? Don’t know. They might as well be cryptic runes from a thousand years ago.
What emerges then, is a guessing game about a huge, complex event. There is a ton of potential data to collect, but very little is; it remains in the mind of each individual voter. Exit polls are notoriously inaccurate and don’t take a representative sample. In any recent United States presidential election, you would have a pretty decent idea of what Ohio or Florida voters did – including important data like their key issues and what influenced their vote.
The hundred million plus who live in safe states? Not likely to meet a data collector. If you’re trying to create a large-scale political narrative, the map looks like a crappy cellular network. Key places are covered, but most is a black hole. When it comes to voters in states like California or Oklahoma, media explanations fall on stereotypes more than anything.
In the 21st century the only other major post-vote data source are online polls, which measure the most politically engaged slice of the electorate. Voters who keep to themselves are a question mark. When the numbers come in, the contours of the results may lie with them and the subtle, small reasons many of them showed up to vote, and what they ultimately voted for.
With the EU elections going on, and the US midterms approaching in a few months, narratives will be constructed well in advance, then paired with polling. If they line up well with the results, they are accepted as gospel. This is problematic, because there are many reasons a party wins or doesn’t win. Is the narrative that X Party won, or is it that they only won by that amount? In a context like the EU elections, where are supporters moving among the various parties? Did turnout bolster certain parties, and should it be considered high, low, or normal given the circumstances?
2012. Mitt Romney wasn’t a good communicator. It was a bad year to be a Republican. The Tea Party dragged the ticket down. Obama’s campaign was run very well. Or maybe just better than Romney’s. Or maybe they cocked things up and got lucky with a weak candidate. These are all estimations because you’re looking at numbers and assigning agency and motives to them. But just like the Man in the Moon isn’t a real face, just something that resembles a face, sometimes numbers resemble a narrative.
The advantage for the media is that it’s hard to call bullshit. And as any detour into cable news can show you, the narrative factory – the myth-making, if you will, goes beyond being a part of the business.
It is the business, now.
This diagram depicts how people come to make a decision- YES means a utilitarian (greater good) response. Personal means the crisis affects you.
I’ve started watching the recorded lectures of Michael Sandel’s “Justice” course, a philosophy series (that feels like a rock concert), that is one of the most popular in modern Harvard history. The first episode focused on the nature of murder and how it can be ethical or unethical, depending on the situation and what emphasis you give the actions.
What I think is interesting is something that happens in philosophy but also in social science, my field of study. He begins with two scenarios, each with two forms. In the first one, most of the audience agree in the first forms that it’s morally right to sacrifice one to save five others. In the second form it’s the opposite- most people oppose the sacrifice.
The shift in focus changes how people defend their choice. The first forms have people thinking in terms of consequences, while the second creates an unpleasant twist that makes people think in terms of the action- to most of us, some things are just wrong to do.
This ties into how opinions are solicited on political and economic issues. The answer you get is influenced heavily by the language used to ask the question. Just like these moral questions of sacrifice, it’s pretty easy to make a question about same-sex marriage garner heavy approval and heavy disapproval. The above picture, one of those online “polls” that’s actually an ad, is shoving the viewer towards a “no” vote. The objective isn’t to gauge opinion, but rather tie the obvious answer to opposing the president.
It ultimately creates a bit of chaos, at least in my mind. How much of our political and moral opinions exist because we haven’t been asked enough challenging questions? Take an online political quiz- the results are frequently used as a shorthand for our worldview. The World’s Smallest Political Quiz wants to push participants into a libertarian mindset. Political Compass has a clear socialist and, most noticeably, anti-corporate flavor. Am I a socialist? The latter seems to think so. Am I a small-government libertarian? The former wants to make the case. In each context the result makes sense, but if I want to think of myself as a single person with a single morality, it’s not coming out so well.
In the kind of moral philosophy Sandel teaches, the single morality is something that is valued. To a pollster, morality can be pushed around to meet certain goals. In fact, one of the most exhausting endeavors in all of science (social or otherwise) is to make a survey that’s representative, comprehensive, and doesn’t have a certain goal besides getting “honest” information.
There’s no big conclusion to this piece (this is more thinking out loud). I was part of Sandel’s majority in his examples- in one case thought killing one person was clearly justified, in the other it was far more difficult. The mental feeling of that shift is…powerful. It’s strange to think how fragile our opinions could be.