Thursday, July 17, 2008

Behind the Polls

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There has been a lot of discussion about the disparity of the polling numbers for Obama and McCain in the aggregate, and what one sees on the crosstabs. If you’ve read Freakonomics you understand why these things don’t always add up.

The countrywide polling data has, for weeks now, had Obama and McCain either tied, close to tied, or Obama single digits ahead. (Newsweek a few weeks ago was an outlier.) On a state-by-state level, there are more disparate results, as DCW reports on a regular basis. The question that often gets asked is: how can it be so close? The answer is actually simple: most people have no idea who John McCain is, nor what he stands for. A recent ABC-Washington Post poll indicated the split, but also had some interesting crosstabs.

The one I want to concentrate on has to do with the “Commander in Chief” findings. 72% of the surveyed respondents felt that McCain would be a good Commander in Chief of the military, but only 48% thought Obama would be. This made me think of the recent interaction McCain had with a Vietnam Vet who questioned his record, and asked why McCain had NOT supported Veterans in his Senate votes.

Now, McCain has a long voting record, and it’s open to public scrutiny. Anyone who reads it knows that he supports torture at Gitmo, opposes increased benefits for Iraq/Afghanistan veterans, opposes birth control, etc. But most people DON’T read it, because most people get their news from the Main Stream Media. So they can think he’d be a good commander in chief of the military because no one has told them his history is not as clear as they might believe.

And so we come to the REAL question: given McCain’s long voting record, given how his Town Hall rhetoric diverges from his actual voting record and beliefs, why don’t most people know about it? Which is the question: why does the entire MSM (except that bastion of greatness Countdown with Keith Olbermann) ignore the facts? And the follow-up: what can we do about it?

I have considered this question, and I have read and listened to many people’s theories: but I found what I believe to be the real answer yesterday morning on Morning Joe. Joe and Mika and Willie were talking about a recent poll and Joe pointed out that only 5% of black people had a favourable opinion of McCain. Joe was appalled. Nothing anyone else said mattered to him; he was convinced that once someone spent 5 years in a POW camp, everyone should have a positive opinion of that person.

Back to Freakonomics, which spends a lot of time discussing whether we make decisions based on information or experience. In this case, Joe’s experience is that people who have served in war, and been POWs, are to be respected, admired, and thought favourably of. Secondary to him, and many other people, is the information related to what the soldier did AFTER the war.

If you think about “experience” and how it shapes your beliefs, you may find that your beliefs are based on other people’s experience. Simple question: How many people do you know who are afraid of snakes, but have never seen a snake except a harmless garter snake? How many things do you do the way your parents taught you to, even though technology or other advances have created more efficacious ways of undertaking tasks? “Experience” is not always our OWN experience, but a set of others’ experience inculcated into our belief structures.

So let’s get back to John McCain: the MSM doesn’t talk “voting record” or “political beliefs” because they are disinterested in “information” – they are sticking to “biography”. They have what they consider to be an experiential memory of John McCain, and they are unwilling to consider that there is newer information. It’s a lot like bringing your teen-age children to visit your elderly aunt, and she thinks your daughter must be you, and you must be your mother, because for her, time froze, she remembers you as 16, and the fact that you are 40 years old DOES NOT REGISTER.

Therefore, trying to get the MSM to change, while a good thing to do, will likely not bring about an actual fairness in coverage. There IS however, something that you can do. You can actually talk one on one to people and ask them to consider facts over “experience”. Not an “in your face” response, but a gentle one. Instead of telling people they are wrong, ask them how something can be. For example, ask them why McCain won’t support the military, and cite his voting record. Ask them how someone who WAS tortured could have voted FOR the torture of detainees at Gitmo. Tell them how much you respect the John McCain of 2000, and ask what the current incarnation has done with that guy.

Elections are won one voter at a time, and there is NO REASON that YOU cannot be the person to convince “that voter”.