How to Influence Polls and Win Elections

Those who are too smart to engage in politics are punished by being governed by those who are dumber.
~Plato

 Clinton is well ahead at the polls. Common opinion two weeks ago (August 9, 2016), was that convention bounces were still affecting the polls, meaning that we should wait for those numbers to even out before assuming they corresponded to anything in the long term. The polls haven’t changed much in that time so most believe there is a high chance that the Clinton advantage will prevail until November 8th (Election Day). The Trump team claims that the polls are being rigged by predominantly polling Democratic voters. They also claim that the only way Trump will lose the election is if it is rigged.

Before we proceed, it’s helpful to understand the poll takers’ methodology:

In a four-way race, Clinton has 45%, Trump 31%, Libertarian Gary Johnson 10%, and Green Party’s Jill Stein 6%.

NOTE: Poll conducted Aug. 1-3 of 983 registered voters, margin of error ±3.1 percentage points

Nature of the Sample: McClatchy-Marist Poll of 1,132 National Adults

This survey of 1,132 adults was conducted August 1st through August 3rd, 2016 by The Marist poll sponsored and funded in partnership with McClatchy News Service.

Adults 18 years of age and older residing in the contiguous United States were contacted on landline or mobile numbers and interviewed in English by telephone using live interviewers. Landline telephone numbers were randomly selected based upon a list of telephone exchanges from throughout the nation from ASDE Survey Sampler, Inc. The exchanges were selected to ensure that each region was represented in proportion to its population. Respondents in the household were randomly selected by first asking for the youngest male. This landline sample was combined with respondents reached through random dialing of cell phone numbers from Survey Sampling International. After the interviews were completed, the two samples were combined and balanced to reflect the 2013 American Community Survey 1-year estimates for age, gender, income, race, and region. Results are statistically significant within ±2.9 percentage points. There are 983 registered voters. The results for this subset are statistically significant within ±3.1 percentage points. The error margin was not adjusted for sample weights and increases for cross-tabulations.

Polls are now being done on a daily basis, a process that will continue until Election Day. As a rule, pollsters are professional organizations that live off their reputations and are constantly tested against both each other and the final results. They would not dare play games with their methodologies to achieve slanted results; they’d be caught in no time and be immediately discredited.

Early polls are important because they provide significant indicators of future polls and election results. One of the most vital pieces of feedback regards how many potential voters will be abstaining on Election Day (for this discussion, based on elements that I explored in the August 9th blog, any decision to vote for one of the minor candidates will be treated as equivalent to abstaining).

As described in the McClatchy-Marist methodology and as is true for all credible polls, polling is conducted only among registered voters. Given that it is only mid-August, we cannot assume that the current polls will play out similarly on November 8th. The campaigns can still make reassessments that will influence the final outcome.

Hillary Clinton addressed these two points:

“Don’t be complacent, my friends!” she told supporters on Tuesday inside a high school gym in West Philadelphia. “Even though we’re doing fine right now, I’m not taking anyone, anywhere, for granted.”

As Mrs. Clinton seizes polling advantages over Donald J. Trump in essentially every traditional swing state, her team is working to keep supporters energized and engaged, reminding them that winning public surveys in August is worth exactly zero electoral votes in November.

Often sounding as much like a field organizer as a major party nominee, Mrs. Clinton ticked off the particulars of what has become a signature venture of her bid: the registration of three million Americans before Election Day.

The article speaks to the fact that both polls and the election are determined exclusively by registered voters. Clinton’s main effort now is to increase that number by 3 million. Voter registration deadlines vary by state; most of them are somewhere in mid-October. An objective of 3 million new registered voters sounds impressive but one has to keep in mind that due to natural variability, 1.3 of the 3 million will likely be made up of people who will come of age and register on their own.

To put these numbers into perspective we need to go back to something I wrote in March (March 15, 2016). Based on 2012 data, 85% of registered voters in the US vote – but only 55% of eligible voters do so – leaving about 100 million eligible voters in the US that do not participate in this vital decision-making process. This is a huge reservoir to try to engage.

What about time? Does Trump have enough to shift his strategy and affect the polls and the election? Trump is trying. He has just changed his team, once again. The trouble is that almost universal opinion holds that the element that most needs to change is Trump himself, a feat that turns out to be much more difficult than simple firing and hiring. But doesn’t Trump have close to three months left to navigate his campaign? Apparently not. The reason for the rush is that early elections are becoming more and more popular in the US:

Voting actually starts in less than six weeks, on Sept. 23 in Minnesota and South Dakota, the first of some 35 states and the District of Columbia that allow people to cast ballots at polling sites or by mail before Nov. 8. Iowa is expected to have ballots ready by the end of September, as are Illinois and two other states.

The electoral battlegrounds of Arizona and Ohio are to begin voting on Oct. 12, nearly four weeks before Election Day. And North Carolina and Florida will be underway before Halloween.

Early voting has become a critical, even decisive factor in presidential elections: President Obama was sufficiently ahead in the early vote in Iowa and Nevada in 2012 that his campaign shifted resources from those states to others, according to former advisers, who also credited enthusiastic early voting in 2008 for his victory in North Carolina and elsewhere.

Nearly 32 percent of voters cast their ballots before Election Day in 2012, according to census data, compared with 29.7 percent in 2008 and 20 percent in 2004.

In other words, there’s actually not much time left.

Of course, the content of November’s ballots is not limited to Hilary Clinton and Donald Trump. The full 435 seats in the House of Representatives, 34 of the 100 seats in the US Senate, 12 state governorships, 2 territorial governorships, and an assortment of local positions are also at stake. Choosing someone for the top of the ticket obviously does not imply that a person will vote down the party line for all public offices. Split-ticket voting is a very real phenomenon but one party’s failed campaign can have a major bearing on all levels of government. We will all have to live with the consequences.

How can the campaigns affect the results? Speeches or debate performances might have some impact. Unsurprisingly, the majority of dedicated Democrats and Republicans will probably vote exclusively for their parties – although this year that dividing line might be shaken. Independent and newly registered voters end up being the key deciding factors in many races, so candidates must actively court their favor. The probability that these people will vote for a particular party or individual is determined by one word – groundwork. In today’s environment most of that work is done electronically.

The issue is not to convince the 100 million passive eligible voters nationwide to register on time and vote. Such a strategy would never work. Nor is the goal to try to convince people in states like mine (NY) to register and vote. Whether or not I vote will not make much difference nationally in terms of the electoral votes that my state will send – they will inevitably go to Clinton. On the other hand, such participation will be key in states such as Florida and Ohio where a few votes can flip the state’s outcome and be instrumental in deciding an election.

Hillary Clinton apparently relies on a combination of Google technology and the remains of the highly successful groundwork laid by President Obama during his 2008 and 2012 campaigns to help establish her footing. It is yet to be seen to what degree the overwhelming support that her Democratic competitor, Bernie Sanders, generated among previously untapped constituencies can be redirected for her benefit.

Nobody that I know talks about similar groundwork efforts by Donald Trump and he’s quickly running out of time to change that.

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About climatechangefork

Micha Tomkiewicz, Ph.D., is a professor of physics in the Department of Physics, Brooklyn College, the City University of New York. He is also a professor of physics and chemistry in the School for Graduate Studies of the City University of New York. In addition, he is the founding-director of the Environmental Studies Program at Brooklyn College as well as director of the Electrochemistry Institute at that same institution.

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