Stop Reading The Polls And Think

I am tired of pollsters asking me what I think.

And I am tired of them asking you what you think.

We all need to stop thinking about what we are thinking. We need to just...


This week's post-Labor Day, now-is-the-real-start-of-the-campaign news is that Hillary and His Tweetness are starting to get pretty close in the polls. No matter that Clinton still has a 75% plus chance of winning when all the relevant data is analyzed. No matter that the Donald literally has to run the table on close to all of the eleven states in play to have any chance of winning. No matter that he is close to losing in Texas, which hasn't voted for a Democrat for President in forty years. No matter that Trump still refuses to disclose his tax returns... or his medical history... or, for that matter, any policies beyond those he can squeeze into 140 characters. Indeed, no matter that, regardless of what he says, anything coming out of Trump's mouth has the half life of a mayfly.

We are now told the race is close.

This is also the new conventional wisdom. Writ large, Trump's disaster of a Republican convention and Hillary's eight point bounce in the wake of her own has now supposedly evaporated into the hair-splitter that campaign professionals always predicted. Trump can do no wrong great enough to disqualify himself and Hillary can make no mistake small enough to be ignored. Neither is loved so both must be equally hated.

Hence the current cynical stalemate all the polls are selling us.

Are you buyin' it?

I -- decidedly -- am not.

Roughly 126.8 million Americans cast ballots in the 2012 Presidential election. In the 2008 election, that number was roughly 129.4 million and in the 2004 election it was 121 million. If any of those numbers accurately predict the 2016 turnout, more than 60 million people -- and a lot more if the 2008 or 2012 turnout numbers apply -- will have to vote for Trump for him to win. And a good chunk of those votes will have to come from non-white, Hispanic, female and college-educated white male voters, all of whom Trump is now losing by large margins, in places like Arizona, Nevada, Florida and Colorado, where in all places he is currently behind.

That is not going to happen.

So, what explains the current this-is-too-close-call narrative?

Here's my answer.

First, we have become so enamored of polls that we no longer understand they are just snapshots, and wildly divergent snapshots at that. The real data driven wonks who accurately predict these things (think Nate Silver) long ago told us not to be taken in by any single poll. They warned of outliers (polls consistently biased in one direction or the other), and constantly reminded us that the Presidential election is really fifty separate contests, making national polls pretty useless when it comes to predicting results (just ask Al Gore). Polls fluctuate. Turnout models can be wrong, as was the case with all the polls that predicted a Romney victory in 2012. And these fluctuations and underlying models matter.

If the notion that millions -- perhaps more than 10 million -- of your neighbors changed their minds between August and now, and not once but twice, strikes you as strange, that is nevertheless what the polls are telling us. These people went from liking Trump enough to get him close to Clinton, to hating him enough for her to be thinking landslide, to now liking him enough once again so as to once again make it close. If this is the case, this race will not be decided by whoever wins the undecideds. It will be decided by whoever wins the indecisive.

But I'm not convinced people are really that indecisive. Maybe they're just tired of being asked about it so much and are just playin' with the pollsters.

Second, the political reporting class really cannot analyze anything other than the horse race. Their collective expertise on issues of policy is embarrassingly shallow. They simple do not have the ability to talk about the relative worth of each candidate's actual policies.

Here's a good example. Trump's economic policy is to cut income taxes and corporate taxes (without touching Social Security or Medicare), as well as unspecified regulations in general, and repeal Dodd-Frank, all ostensibly in order to generate jobs. He would also impose high tariffs on imported goods from countries he thinks got the better of us on trade deals, and deport undocumented workers. Clinton's is to increase the minimum wage, cut middle-class taxes, fund an infrastructure bank, pre-school and national R&D (principally on scientific research), and strengthen unions. She would also retain Dodd-Frank and re-jigger the capital gains tax rate so that long term (but not short term) gains got preferential treatment. The latter policy is intended to help change Wall Street's time horizon and wean it off its addiction to short-term financial fixes designed to goose quarterly share prices.

To evaluate either set of policies, journalists would have to analyze whether those policies would generate the fiscal stimulus needed to put money in people's pockets and boost demand. This type of analysis is complicated and dry. It has none of the excitement of shifting polls, His Hairness' latest insult, Hillary's meandering accounts of her emails, or Bill's sex life.

In my opinion, any fair evaluation would make it a no contest. Trump's approach will either weaken or at the very least not strengthen demand because it will raise the deficit, kill the ability of the government to fund infrastructure spending, put money in the pockets of the rich (who won't spend it) and corporations (who will hoard it, as they do now, waiting for a rebound in consumer demand that won't happen). It will not put cash in the pockets of the middle and lower classes (who need it and will spend it). Hillary's approach, on the other hand, would increase short-term demand, albeit slowly depending on how fast the infrastructure bank and R & D is funded and the minimum wage hike comes on line; and it would increase long term demand assuming labor law reforms that actually boost the power and membership roles of unions. The proper criticism of her approach is that it is still weak tea (or not enough immediate tea); the proper criticism of Trump's is that it is no tea at all.

Third, and for the same reason they focus on the horse race, the media is in love with a "both of them are equally hated" narrative. Part of this love affair is due to the fact that it's true -- Hillary and Trump are the two most disliked candidates for President in polling history. The problem, however, is that one of them will be President. It would therefore be nice if the media were able to distinguish between the reasons each of them is disliked and provide something other than either the false equivalence that characterizes much reporting (as in the both of them are equally bad) or the grading-on-a-curve now being applied to Trump.

This last problem is critical. As Paul Krugman pointed out in his Sunday column in The New York Times, the media is doing to Clinton and Trump what it did to Al Gore and George W. Bush in 2000. Clinton's mistakes are being magnified beyond reason and Trump's ineptness is being forgiven with abandon.

This has to stop.

The Clinton Foundation was not some pay to play adjunct of the State Department while Hillary ran Foggy Bottom. To the contrary, it has a stellar record of providing much needed medical and other assistance to some of the most impoverished parts of the world and has been given high marks for transparency and efficiency by all the charity watch-dog groups. Moreover, if helping Bill Clinton cure AIDS or malaria in Africa was perceived as the requirement for a ticket to see Secretary Clinton, I'm not particularly clear on why that was such a bad thing. Similarly, Hillary's private email server was not remotely a crime, nor was it designed to allow her to avoid the need to archive her public records. The latter problem bedevils even today's government servers as we attempt to get our hands around the complex task of saving and archiving virtual data.

Similarly, Trump's demonstrated lack of knowledge about large swaths of policy and his penchant for lying and insult whenever he is challenged does not evaporate if he behaves for the next two months as his handlers (or, more likely, his kids) finally dog-house his inner beast. Put simply, Trump's demonstrated racism and sexism, along with his thin-skinned bullying that often appears to border on the psychotic and in any event simply shields enormous gaps in knowledge and attention to policy detail, has already disqualified him from getting anywhere near the nuclear codes. And silence for the next two months will not etch-a-sketch away that disqualifying past.

Where to from here?

That's simple.

Hang up when the pollsters call. Stop telling them whether you're still thinking, or what you're now thinking, or what you will be thinking about thinking in the two months ahead.

Just think.

It will have the desired outcome. Your eventual vote will not be the product of an ennui brought on by prognosticators telling you how bad the choices are. Or the product of an ignorance brought on by a drumbeat of false equivalence. Or even the product of a desperation borne of the desire that it just be over.

It won't be any of this.

Instead, it'll be...