Sunday, November 04, 2012

Polling Matters

For the past 18 months or so, pundits have issued predictions and proclamations about the presidential election. On Tuesday we should have some answers. Since we want to look critically at all media, though, remember that media outlets are businesses. They crave audience share and need to make sure people stay tuned in. That's one reason why there have been so many stories about recounts, statistical anomalies, and Constitutional tie-breakers -- long before the election has even occurred. Contrary to these narratives, the probability of a winner being declared by Tuesday night is very high. A clear-cut winner might be good for the country, but it is not good for (the media) business

And presidential politics are big business. According to Business Insider, the cost of this year's presidential election is an incredible $6 billion. Let me give you a chance to catch your breath. That's right: billion! The cost is staggering to be sure, but now consider the opportunity costs: what we as a nation might have spent that money on (schools, hospitals, people on the East coast struggling to recover from Hurricane Sandy). 

From Nate Silver's blog, "538"
And these election costs don't even begin to count the amount of money required to cover the election. Think of all that news -- and "news" coverage -- devoted to the presidential race, and the important issues that get ignored in light of the on going narrative.

After all that money -- or perhaps because of all that money -- many media sources have declared that the race is a toss up. Pundit Joe Scarborough is quoted on WNYC's podcast On the Media as saying that "anybody who thinks that this race is anything but a toss up... is a joke."But he makes a living rendering daily opinions on the race. According to the New York Times blogger Nate Silver, this is just a story that newspapers and TV shows like to advance: "People want to pretend that someone wins the day and there are all these ups and downs and momentum and the roller coaster and games change are basically BS." Instead of celebrity posturing, Silver contends, we should put our trust in math. His view is that the statistical models are clear (and that Obama will win). We'll find out on Tuesday.

A different take on all this polling and posturing was offered on NPR's Weekend Edition. There, a University of Michigan economist named Justin Wolfers says "the pollsters are asking the wrong question." Rather than asking people whom they intend to vote for, we should be asking, "Whom do you think will win?" This question, Wolfers' data show, is much more likely to yield the correct answer. Perhaps this is why so much time, money, and effort is spent on presidential campaigns: it's all a battle to control the perceptions of who will win since that may most clearly determine the winner. In that spirit, please vote in the poll on our homepage (on the right) and comment below on any of the issues I raised in this post.

16 comments:

Lily Stein said...

Two main thoughts came to mind while reading this blog post. First, $6 billion dollars is a whole lot of money to spend on an election when there are so many people struggling to make ends meet. It seems like there should at least be a cap on the amount of money allowed to be spent. Even if one media company could take the money spent on just one campaign ad and give it to a community in need, it could make a real difference. I'm surprised that this issue is not brought up more often.
The other thought I had was about how the media is just trying to make money by making the election seem neck-and-neck. It reminded me of a blog post I wrote about college ranking lists. These lists seem pointless to me because companies (like US News and World Report) are focused on selling copies, not helping students. Similarly, polls come out to keep people interested in the election and to keep media companies in business.

Jeremy Noskin said...

I think many interesting points are raised here. First, I agree that the question, "Who do you think will win?" is a much better question to ask. Although somebody may believe in the ideals of one candidate, they may think the other candidate will win, giving a more accurate demonstration of which candidate will win. I also believe that those borderline voters that agree with each candidates viewpoints equally will vote for whoever they think will win. Most people like to vote for the "right" president. It's a pride thing.

In regards to the news outlets, it's mainly about money for them. The suspense created by saying it's a close race increase the ratings and consequently the money for news stations. Even if a station believes one candidate will win convincingly, they will not express this opinion. This brings up the question, how much should we trust these news sources on controversial issues? I think we can go to them for facts, but opinions and analysis are up to the viewer. This election should, no matter what the result, show how reliable news sources are when covering the election.

Andrew Gjertsen said...

Jeremy- I feel that you have incredible rationale in saying that people like voting for the "right" president. People -and Americans in general- HATE losing. This being said, I feel that the election can't all be about who wins. I just made a blog post about this topic (http://andrewgjertsen.blogspot.com/2012/11/celebrate-election.html) saying that the elections should be a celebration of free expression and opinion instead of all about the winner. Many countries worldwide don't have this same basic right Americans have, which is why it should never be taken for granted amidst who wins.

Heidi Blumenthal said...

I agree with Jeremy's point that the question, "Who do you think will win?" brings up controversy and tension among Americans. Jeremy said that some people may agree and vote for one candidate, yet still think the other candidate is going to win. This is a very interesting concept that has gotten many Obama supporters worried. For example, if someone would normally go out and vote for Obama, and they think he is going to win, they might be less inclined and motivated to vote. They may think, "why does my vote matter?" in this election. In contrast to someone who supports Romney, and thinks that Obama is going to win, might be more inclined to vote because they believe that there vote might actually make a difference and turn this money campaign system around. This is similar to the American view of always supporting the underdog. This might seem like a crazy concept, however there are people in the US who will vote for the "underdog" in order to try and get their voice heard next to all of these "businesses". This concept of us being controlled by "businesses" is interesting because shouldn't these "businesses" be more concerned with helping the community than competing against each other? And why have presidential politics only become known as big "businesses"?

Lily Schroeder said...

Mr. O'Connor, you bring up a great point about the media, ad campaigns, and costs of the presidential election. Like Lily, I could not even imagine spending $6 billion to compete for a powerful job. In fact, I recently blogged about campaign ads and their costs. Of this $6 billion, according to the information I researched, about $1 billion per campaign goes to media and ad campaigns! Of these ads, a whopping 87% are negative and degrading to the opposing candidate. Both candidates have had their ups and downs, but there is only an estimated 800,000 persuadable voters. So why is all that money necessary for the campaign when it could, in fact, be used for what seems like so many other more useful causes? As for Illinois, we can assume that its vote will go to Obama being that it has had a history of being a liberal state, but I still think it is interesting that houses on my street and many streets throughout the New Trier Township are lined with Romney signs. Since we, as students, can not vote all we can do is wait to see who will win.

Hannah Waldman said...

I agree with Heidi's point about the effects of the "Who do you think will win?" poll. But, if your hypotheses about how voters would react to the results of this poll are true, wouldn't that make the opposite of the results, the correct ones?

Meaning that IF the results of this poll said Obama would win, and Obama supporters didn't vote out of laziness, and more Romney supporters voted for him because they root for the underdog, then wouldn't the results of this election be the opposite of the poll?

David Eagen said...

Mr. O'Connor, I was particularly taken aback by the 6 billion dollars that it costs to run this presidential election. In disbelief, I clicked the link to Business Insider's website to see for myself. The graphics that the site provides are an excellent way to see not only how much is being spent, but where the money is coming from. Under the "top contributers" section, I found it interesting that each of the top five Republican spenders are financial companies like Goldman Sachs and Bank of America. What does this reveal about a possible Romney administration? On the other side, the top Democratic spenders are Universities and technology companies like the University of California and Microsoft. I think that we can see a significant clue as to the political ambitions of the GOP and Dems through this information. As one could imagine, the financial companies are donating more to the Republicans than the top Democratic contributers are donating. However, I think that the organizations donating to the Democrats send a more powerful message as they represent education for the future in a technological age.

alex wolkoff said...

As many have mentioned previously, $6 billion on an election campaign is completely shocking! I knew that running for president cost a lot of money, but I never realized exactly how much money it was. Why does a presidential campaign need such a large budget? I understand that in order to get votes, you need your name to be heard, and to do so you need to basically advertise yourself through commercials, posters, rallies, and ect... which obviously cost a lot to produce. However, David made an interesting point above about how financial companies are donating more to the Republicans, than to the Democrats. I find this interesting because I wonder how much of a difference the amount of money a candidate has for their campaign makes? I mean I know it does make somewhat of a difference, but considering that the Republicans had a larger campaign budget than the Democrats, shouldn't they be ranked higher in the poll than? Since they aren't, I think it would be fine, maybe even wiser, if some of the money put toward the presidential campaign could be put toward, as Mr. O'Connor mentioned, schools, hospitals, or people along the East coast.

Nicole Popowski said...

Hannah and Heidi both bring up an interesting issue. If people think that Obama is going to win and their votes do not matter, they may not be as eager to vote as those who are supporting Romney. However, if what Mr. O'Connor explained about Nate Silver's beliefs in statistical models turns out to be true, this race is basically already decided. Because math is a solid way to predict outcomes, there is already a high chance that one candidate will win over the over. Personally, I also agree that the math has made it clear that Obama will win. Although we wont find out for sure until Tuesday, this election will show that the race is not as close as some may think.

Jerome Janczy said...

A very interesting proposition to say the least. This further elaborates on the idea that Mr. Bolos mentioned in class thursday.
Although news sources do clearly benefit from an election that seems "too close to call", this instance I would argue that more forces are at play. In this election, Independents seem divided (a stark contrast to 2008) and many are quite dissatisfied with President Obama's handling of many major issues.
Many Americans believe "America could do better than Barack Obama; sadly, Mitt Romney does not fit the bill" as explained by the conservative leaning magazine "The Economist". Even being a progressive and an Obama supporter, I can say the president is in a vulnerable position.
This election compared to 2008 is relatively close, but the odds of these fantasy scenarios taking place is miniscule.
On another note, if you look further into the $6 billion dollars being spent during this election, it's staggering the portion that is being spent by these "Super PACS". In a blog post I further investigated these "PACS" and found that over 1/4 of their funding came from just 10 individuals!
All of these new money sources can exacerbate the polarization in this election, that was not present before. I also entirely agree with Hannah's point that if polling were conducted in the "what if" it could end with opposite results of the poll.

Zach Peltz said...
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Maddie said...

It's inarguable that the media makes a lot of business from their coverage of elections. When people see "news," we tend to take it as fact, but we forget that the media is making money when we view their statistics. Therefore, why predict a clear winner when you can call the race a "toss up?" People are more likely to pay attention to the news in a "toss up" situation, because they want to be informed of any possible change in the race. Also, I question how these polls are conducted. Exactly who is being polled, and how many people? Are they of various backgrounds, or similar ones? It seems that pundits have a result in mind when creating polls, and fit their data to the result they want.

Alexis B said...

Heidi, you say that people who support Obama and think he will win don't feel the need to vote for him because he's got the election in the bag. You also say that people who are in favor of Romney would be more inclined to vote for him to try to get their voices heard. I don't think that's the case.

If people think that the candidate they support will not win their state, in this case Romney, why would they bother voting for that person, or even voting at all? They would be very outnumbered and their vote wouldn't make a difference. (see my blog post, “Does Your Vote Really Count?” ). If the state were a “battleground state”, one person’s vote would make more of a difference. But as there aren’t many of those contested states, I don’t think many people will vote for the candidate they support if they live in a state where that candidate is expected to lose.

OC said...

Terrific ideas here: The degree to which Americans feels empowered by voting, the degree to which election predictions become self-fulfilling, the role of money, the desire to win, the degree to which we are a celebrity culture in which media make the news rather than report it. Are these American values we see outside the world of politics? IN sports, education, the environment?

Remember: it's not to late to vote on our blog!

Sarah Henzlik said...

I agree with Mr O'Connor's point about elections sometimes seeming to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. It seems that Americans want to vote for a winner because then maybe they will feel like a winner too. In sports, when a person supports a team when they are playing well but doesn't when they are playing poorly, is called a 'fair weather fan'. I think that people may do this subconsciously in politics as well. If a particular party is doing well and may have the potential to gain control of the House and Senate for a change, a voter may be more inclined to vote for them. I wonder if this can be classified as a self-fulfilling prophecy or just the power of suggestion. Whatever it is, this trend of thinking is definitely here to stay in American politics. I also wonder if these factors have more impact than the actual issues and platform a candidate is running on.

justin baynton said...
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