DeKalb County, GA, June 16, 2017 – Opinion by Tom Doolittle – Two data points from the recent Atlanta Journal Constitution (AJC) poll of Georgia 6th District runoff voters caught my eye last week. About half of 750 respondents said their vote hadn’t been or wouldn’t be affected by their view of President Trump.
Next, there were more respondents claiming to be independent voters (35%) than aligned with either of the major parties. The first point runs contrary to the mainstream media line that the runoff is a referendum on Trump and it would be the basis which an Ossoff win would signal further problems for Republicans in 2018. The latter would beg pollsters and media alike to get into the weeds of the electorate and find out if it is independents that are creating havoc with their predictions.
Based on recent polling fiascos anyone interested in managing elections would best not get married to unsubstantiated “story telling”. If they need a narrative to live by, then it ought to be foundational. Perhaps the post-Trump era elections are in fact referendums on the system(s) that support our elections, not Trump.
A recent conversation with a political scientist at an Atlanta university confirmed my concerns that polls can be more about “managing” the electorate than predicting election outcomes. The gentleman, a “go to guy” for national media, wanted to assure me that a lot of research has been done on the nature of independent voters. The literature is replete with different ways to say that people who claim to be independent voters “lean” either toward Democrats or Republicans.
The professor explained that polls tease these “leaners” out by establishing they have previously voted consistently for the same party. The effect of this in the aforementioned AJC 6th District poll was attribute 79% of the independents to the two parties (14% insisted on being characterized “honestly” as nonpartisans and 7% had no opinion and probably didn’t understand why the pollsters were pressing the issue).
My contention is this process leads to an undercount of the very people who attribute our political dysfunction to the two-party system! Independents aren’t just “party-switchers” who alternate between Democrat and Republican messages. Many THINK independently, meaning they have their own IDEAS about the way Republicans and Democrats should PERFORM. In an environment where independents are counted you might actually see our leaders doing something about the foreign substances in our food production process and our ever-expanding use of (addiction to) pharmaceuticals. With the current system, we’re served up a steady stream of Pablum or emotional triggers to distract us WHILE we get less and less healthy.
So how would identifying (and crediting) independent-minded voters work in the Georgia 6th? I’m inclined to think that the votes that will DETERMINE the election will be similar to those that won the swing states for Trump—people who voted along broader emotional lines as opposed to partisan hair triggers. These are people that aren’t with or against Trump—they are people who “reflect” Trump (and Bernie Sanders), that have had increasing concerns about the blind ARROGANCE OF INSTITUTIONAL POWER. For instance, this year and in 2018, nonpartisans might not trust a government with three “houses” run by the same political party. Obviously that counts toward Jon Ossoff today, but the point is that his win would not be due to Trump or Republic-care.
The other ENERGY that might be felt deals with locality. Again, who is measuring this? There is no attempt to “localize” polling. Congressional districts are quilts of local communities with measurable inter-community relations. Candidates are recognizable neighbors. Consider the recent painful history of the Republican Party “activism” in North DeKalb communities that 6th District reapportionment and cityhood efforts represent.
For many, those are examples of anti-community assertion of power that could easily turn someone who has tepidly voted for Republicans over the past 16 years into an opposing “vote for locality”. Ossoff grew up in Northlake, lives near Emory University and has reminded people about that purposely while emphasizing the economic potential of the public health and biotech realms centered there. Is local community more important than party affiliation for some people?
So when you notice that polling “method” credits the two parties with more voters than they actually have in the Georgia 6th, it’s no small thing. This election could be a huge miss by the polls and “story tellers” in the media. We don’t have the right tools to say why.