Polls and Media Narratives Mean Nothing

Hillary ClintonLast week, Jonathan Chait made a good observation, Hillary Clinton Is Reliving Al Gore’s Nightmare. But I think he is missing the true story here. He thinks that Hillary Clinton and Gore are suffering from residual guilt due to Bill Clinton. He dates Gore’s problems to the 1997 “fundraising for the White House” scandal as the beginning of Al Gore’s problems. But is that true? Was the knock against Gore that he wasn’t trustworthy? Not as I remember it. I remember the supposed problem being that he was “wooden” and had a tendency to exaggerate — not that his tenure in the White House would be scandal plagued.

After the 2000 election, there was lots of Washington journalist navel gazing. Had they given Bush a pass? Had they made stories out of literally nothing to tarnish Al Gore? Had they treated the campaign like it were an election for prom queen rather than president? The answer to all of these questions was yes. Remember Margaret Carlson’s statement, “Gore elicited in us the childish urge to poke a stick in the eye of the smarty-pants”? A lot of people made fun of her about that because they saw that this was exactly the mentality of reporters who were shaping what Americans thought of the two men competing to be president.

But certainly it doesn’t help to have all these fraternity and sorority rejects live out their fantasies of what it’s like to be part of the “in crowd” or the “mean girls.”

So I fully accept Chait’s contention that Hillary Clinton is in Al Gore’s position — just not that it has anything to do with Bill Clinton or anything else. The press has just decided on a narrative for Clinton and it just so happens to be the same narrative they decided for Gore: she’s not authentic. It’s a wonderful narrative for them because it is meaningless. In the context of a politician, what does it mean? I’m a big supporter of Bernie Sanders, but I haven’t missed the fact that his hair is always combed now. This is politics: it is about shaping perceptions of reality.

But let us not forget this: Gore won the election. Electoral College or no, he won. In a democracy, Al Gore would have been president. In fact, relative to my election model, he actually did slightly better than he should have. So I don’t especially worry that the Washington reporters are childish when they aren’t being totally useless. The American people are smarter than that. But certainly it doesn’t help to have all these fraternity and sorority rejects live out their fantasies of what it’s like to be part of the “in crowd” or the “mean girls.”

Clinton and every other Democrat is currently losing to the top Republican candidates in poll match-ups. Even Ben Carson is beating Clinton. But that’s because people know who Clinton is and they don’t know who Carson is. Thus, like young people in love, they assume anything they don’t know must just be perfect. Over time, when the actual election is under way, people will learn about the Republican candidate (who will absolutely, positively not be Ben Carson). And they will make the same decision they always make: the one based upon the economy.

So, does this mean that the political reporting about the presidential campaign is useless? Yes. There’s no need to beat around the bush. I so wish there were a law against political polling this early in the campaign. It provides literally no information. At this time in the 2000 campaign, Bush was beating Gore by 15 percentage points: 54% to 39%. Currently, Clinton is neck and neck with Jeb Bush. And that too means absolutely nothing — just like all the mainstream “reporting.”


See also: The “Clinton Malfeasance” Conspiracy Theory.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

27 thoughts on “Polls and Media Narratives Mean Nothing

  1. It is pointless to care about polls and for the five people in the states that matter, they should be paying attention to the presidential race since their vote actually counts at that level. The rest of us need to be paying attention to the local city council and state legislature races. Not only are they the ones who most impact our day to day lives, they also are the people who are in the pipeline to go higher.

    So the people who voted for Obama in his first state race had a greater impact then they realised because had he lost, he may have packed it up. Bill Clinton probably would never have run for Governor of Arkansas if not for his congressional loss. Of course I also think that Congress probably was the best place for someone I consider the greatest politician of his generation.

    As for the media-they have hated Secretary Clinton since the day they met her and she is too gracious to tell them all off. She just keeps charging ahead.

    • That’s a really interesting thought, Bill in the House. Or the Senate. He certainly would have ended up majority leader in either. He might have gotten more good things done there than he did as President (aka, not a lot.) Imagine if Bill ran the Senate when Bush was pressing his SC nominations. Those Dems would have put up a fight!

      JQA was a crappy President and wonderful congressman. Senator LBJ might not have supported the Vietnam war he hated but felt pressured into escalating as President. So many what-ifs.

      • I should write a story about the Clinton-Kennedy Health Care Bill of 1991 that finally created a single payer system in the US. George H.W. Bush was browbeated into signing it because Kennedy used the photos he was secretly given showing Bush was into S&M long before 50 Shades of Grey.

        President Whoever (I forget the other candidates from that race since I was a kid and still don’t care) then fought hard with Clinton over increasing the taxes on the rich to 50% with a side order of eliminating the two tiered system of capital gains and income. If I am going to write fantasy, I might as well make it really fantastical.

        • Sounds brilliant! Make it the right length, email it to Frank, and he will help you out with constructive criticism + post it here if it works out well.

          I keep meaning to do “Self-Reliant Island,” where conservative bootstrap types are in a “Hunger Games” competition. But Franken already did something like that in one of his books, about Vietnam-draft-dodging Republicans on a mission “deep in the shit.” However the image of an injured and bleeding Mitt Romney emerging from the woods to find Ayn Rand on the beach calmly gnawing Rush Limbaugh’s juicy femur always makes me smile . . .

          • A friend from across the pond posted a picture with Supply Side Jesus on Spacebook without knowing the history. I told him about Supply Side Jesus and he googled it. His reaction was really really funny.

            Maybe I will when I get up the gumption to do all of the looking up of the people in power at the time.

            • I know, it’s a lot of time for something that might turn out crap. It’s one of the things I admire here; the articles are so consistently good. It’s actually kinda freaky, and other bloggers have commented on it being strange. This Frank’s brain is wired a little differently than most of us. So is Thomas Frank’s, his work ethic is also insane. Maybe it’s just a cursed name. Like Todd. Anyone named Todd is either an annoying frat boy, a psycho Nazi meth-dealer on “Breaking Bad,” or a singing cannibal barber.

              Type a sentence here or there in your free time, see where it leads. Great thing about that idea is it’s not very time-sensitive, so there’s no rush to get it perfect. You’d want it done sometime before the primaries next year, but that’s it.

              • I agree that names have some kind of power. Most of the guys named John I have known are jerks. Guys I know who have Marshall somewhere in their name serve their countries in quiet but profound ways. Women named Elizabeth apparently spend forever on the throne.

        • That’s fantasy all right. Bill Clinton never supported single-payer healthcare. Hillary even less so. If healthcare reform hadn’t been such a hot issue in’92 and if Jerry Brown hadn’t been pushing single-payer, I doubt if Clinton would have even addressed it.

          • Interesting. I don’t know as much as I should about that race. I ought to go back and study it. Maybe Rick Perlstein will write a book about it…

            • Healthcare blew up as an issue in the ’92 election partly due to the long-shot success of Harris Wofford’s Senatorial campaign in which healthcare reform was a major talking point. Bill Clinton was a latecomer to the issue. During the campaign he attempted to counter Jerry Brown’s popularity among liberals and unions by talking about “Pay or Play”, wherein businesses would either provide employee insurance or pay a tax intended to fund insurance (not a “public option” as I recall, but details were hazy at the time).

              The actual Clintoncare proposal that eventually came out of Hillary’s secretive working group centered around “Managed Competition” and HMO’s. While slightly less Rube Goldberg and hard to explain than the Obamacare dog’s breakfast, it was similarly untested and intended to preserve privatised healthcare and insurance.

              My initial and continuing impression of Clinton was of a shallow snake-oil salesman. Like Obama, he was a social climber and thoroughly vetted by big money. I’ve never understood his popularity any more than I get Obama’s reputation as an orator.

              • Clinton’s life story inspired a lot of people. Every politician says they struggled against adversity (well, most do, or at least talk about how their grandparents did.) Clinton actually came from a broken home. So people believed his “feel your pain” lines.

                Obama’s rep as an orator I think comes from the fantasy many had that he would talk centrist but govern left, while his centrist speeches placated the right. I admit I shared the fantasy until I read his healthcare plan and who his economic advisers were.

                • It is pretty cool-having climbed out from poverty myself (even if I am sliding back in), it is not easy to go from literally nothing to the President of the United States. It takes a lot of effort and a great deal of selling out. Selling out that someone like FDR never needed to worry about doing because he was always “in” in a way that few people are.

                  • Yeah — there was an authenticity there. His policies helped make pain worse, particularly NAFTA and “welfare reform,” but he seemed sincere about caring because he was sincere. It’s like Reagan’s “morning in America” stuff — Reagan believed it (since Reagan believed whatever he was told), and that came across.

                    • Tip O’Neill once mentioned a meeting he had with Reagan after Reagan was demanding some social service cut and Speaker O’Neill said that Reagan had a very difficult time connecting broader social policies to someone individual being hurt. If some kid was (in this situation a little girl) was in need, he was happy to move mountains but once you moved into the abstract, Reagan lost interest. So he could and did care deeply about an individual but could not conceive that this little girl he wanted to help was the same as a lot of other little girls that his policies would hurt.

                      Clinton I don’t think ever had that problem. His big problem is he came up with a new way to win in politics that actually had very little to do with the politics and a lot more to do with his ability to charm even the biggest jerks. So he was willing to sign off on NAFTA because he thought that is what he had to do to keep winning. He knew it would hurt people but sometimes sacrifices must be made.
                      Plus, Miz Ivins did point out that he was a former governor of a state with a weak governor system and so he was very used to giving away the loaf to get a piece of bread.

              • I do remember the basics of “Hillary-care.” But the rest is new to me. I get why people like Clinton: the economy was strong under him. And he’s a charming guy. But I do think Obama is a good speaker. I remember the first time I saw him (at the 2004 convention, like most people), I was very impressed. It’s hard to get too excited by him now, of course.

                • The most salient characteristic of both Bill and Hillary has always seemed to be that they are both completely willing to ditch anything or anybody to ensure their personal success (the case of Jocelyn Elders, Clinton’s one time Surgeon General was very instructive). I always felt his sincerity was all on the surface and it’s hard to imagine either of them ever actually standing on principle. As for being able to “charm the jerks”, he didn’t. In spite of Clinton’s corporate-friendly politics, the right wing was just as intransigent and full of hatred back then as they have been under Obama (not all about race, folks). One thing Hillary was quite correct about was the “vast right wing conspiracy”.

                  • Yes, but up until 2012, Wall Street gave significantly more to the Democrats. I don’t especially disagree with anything you are saying. But I don’t really expect politicians to be authentic. The great thing about Sanders is that on the one issue I care about, he clearly does agree with me at the deepest level. But I’ve always felt that Hillary was more a true liberal than Bill. But neither of them are what I would choose. But I can accept them both — mostly because the Republicans are so horrible. Although, as I’ve argued for a long time here, it was the New Democrats and the push to the right that allowed the Republicans to run far to the right. Bill Clinton is, to an extent, responsible for today’s House Republicans.

                    • I’ve been thinking about how to say this.

                      The Bully Pulpit is a real thing and getting a politician to say the right things is mostly better than nothing. However if their actions too strongly belie their words it actually makes matters worse by creating public cynicism and apathy.

                      I don’t really know if FDR or LBJ were good men or that they actually believed in the same things I do. I can’t say I know for sure that Obama and the Clintons are not good people. What I can say is that FDR and LBJ were willing to DO good things, often against strong opposition while Obama and the Clintons seem to have devoted most of their efforts to doing harmful things (including the cuckoo’s egg of Obamacare which has effectively blocked any efforts towards a better solution). In the end, that’s all that really matters to me.

                    • Matt Taibbi just wrote an article that I may discuss later, Hillary Clinton’s Take on Banks Won’t Hold Up. His main point is that we already have enough power to regulate the banks. What we lack is the political will. And the fact that she makes all her statements about Wall Street so finessed does not indicate that she will be willing to take on the banks with the existing laws — much less new laws. It’s actually the best argument I’ve heard against Clinton.

                      I do think that Clinton is a real liberal — to her bones. But there are many ways that people get corrupted. And one of them is through limiting what one thinks is possible. Check out this quote, Hillary Clinton and Change We Can’t Believe In. It’s not that I don’t agree with her. But it is troubling that she so easily accepts conventional beltway wisdom.

                    • FDR was a racist serial adulterer and LBJ….oh lord the list is endless of the ways he was an asshole. Pardon my language Frank.

                      But yes, they took bold stances. In most circumstances because they were in a position where they could. FDR was a man of wealth and class and no matter what he did as President, he never would lose that position. So he did not care what he said or did. LBJ just enjoyed making people do his bidding.

                      Clinton and Obama were not trying to do harm-they did want to help. Where they went wrong was in thinking they had to go with what the media pundits and the soon to be or actually insane Republicans wanted. And they did not have the rock solid base to work from that FDR and LBJ did. So Secretary Clinton is probably going to be the same. But a lot more effective then either her husband or Obama because unlike those two, she doesn’t care about getting the approval of people who will always hate her.

                    • Maybe FDR was a racist. But there are photos and film of the crowds that turned out along the route of his funeral train. Take a look sometime and note the number of black faces. It can’t have been pleasant to have earned the hatred of so many of his peers, though, no matter how many strangers loved him. Already wealthy but not healthy, having achieved the presidency and significant economic improvements in his first term, FDR could have enjoyed a comfortable, honored retirement. Instead he basically worked himself to death trying to cope with two great national crises.

                      Lyndon Johnson, a farmer’s son and former high school teacher who married well, was indeed a notorious SOB. And widely hated for our involvement in Vietnam. He also used his evil powers to make significant strides against poverty and racism. His base was so “rock solid” that he found it necessary to retire without seeking a second term. When he announced this, he said he wanted to devote himself to ending the war during his remaining time in office rather than to campaigning. Personally, I think that part was the truth.

                      I’ve never met Clinton or Obama. Maybe they were really trying to help. They’ve definitely managed to help themselves. And it’s a little petty of me, but I’m getting really annoyed at whatever PR flack came up with “Secretary” Clinton. It’s really not proper to continue to use the title of a civil servant once they’ve left office, although it is done informally sometimes if the office was of long standing.

                    • I think you misunderstood how I meant “rock solid base.” Even thought FDR may not have liked being hated by the business community, he knew exactly who he was-a rich man who would always be a rich man. So why would he care about their support?

                      LBJ’s base was different-his was in his not caring who he made mad when it came to certain issues.

                      I call her Secretary Clinton because it makes it clear who I am talking about and as I have never met the woman, I try to avoid using her first name.

                    • Elizabeth —
                      You’re hardly the only one who uses “Secretary Clinton”. Still annoying. Of course you could use Rodham-Clinton as she did during and after Bill’s term in the White House. Or just Rodham as she did before Bill lost the governorship. But it would seem that Hillary doesn’t actually mind being on a first name basis:
                      H-> H-> H-> H->

  2. The American people are smarter than that.

    No offense to you, but pundits always feel compelled to say that. Regardless of Gore actually winning the election, how does one explain the election even being close. And subsequent elections up to the present day.

    My favorite counter-example to Americans not conforming to the bell curve was taken from a man-in-the-street interview after the (Republican) Congress failed to pass a term-limits bill (The Washington Post, March 31, 1995):

    [A term limit supporter], 44, of Garden Grove, Calif., a beer keg salesman, said that with the measure’s defeat, “Congress has got the idea that what they did will keep them in longer. When their constituents find out, to me, those guys will be out quicker than anything.”

    I.e., the salesman was blissfully unaware and aware at the same time that voters already have the capability to limit a congressman’s term.

    • Yeah, that’s pretty good, like “keep government hands off my Medicare!”

      The public is poorly-informed. In polls they routinely support liberal policies. They just mistakenly think Repubs will deliver them, which is mind-boggling. It’s where the culture war has had such an impact. If a guy seems like One Of You, he must support the things you do, right?

    • I explained why that is in the article: the economic fundamentals trump everything else. I’m not saying that the American people will make a smart decision, but they seem to be resistant to this kind of spin.

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