Polling, Voting, and Political Signaling

Neil IrwinOver at The Upshot, Neil Irwin wrote an interesting but very annoying article, How Is the Economy Doing? It May Depend on Your Party, and $1. It’s about how people’s opinions about the state of the economy are highly dependent upon who is in the White House. Ask a Republican right now and they will say it is terrible. Ask a Democrat back in 2005 and they would have said that it was terrible. But this is just a matter of political signaling — nothing more. Let’s start with the the the more general issue and then get into the details.

How the economy doing is doing not a concrete thing. If you asked me how the economy was doing, I would say so-so. Yet the unemployment rate is 5%! The unemployment rate was 4% at the beginning of 2000 and I would have said it was great. What’s the difference? Well, the employment-to-population rate for people between the ages 25-54 was roughly 82% in 2000 and it is barely over 77% today. That represents roughly 5 million people. There are a huge number of people who have given up. Claiming that Republicans are just being partisan when they say the economy is not doing well is questionable.

Look at the unfortunate Eric Harwood… He’s involved in an act of political signaling that those liberals don’t care about people like him and that conservatives like Ted Cruz and Donald Trump do.

The crux of Irwin’s article has to do with recent studies that gave people cash when they got answers right. So whereas a Republican might normally say that unemployment is worse today than when Obama came into office, if you give him a buck for being right, he’ll correctly say that unemployment is lower. Now this is presented as good news for democracy and bad news for polling. This is nonsense.

What’s going on is that the partisans (Democrat or Republican) are signaling in the uncompensated case that they really don’t like the people in power. And why shouldn’t they?! We have the statistics on the unemployment rate. We don’t need to ask people what they they think it is; they can just surf over to the St Louis Fed and get whatever information they want. Do half of Republicans really think that Obama is a Kenyan Muslim terrorist? Not really. But they are signalling that they really really don’t like him. And that and not the state of the economy is what they are going to be voting based upon.

Similarly, we already know that polling is a highly questionable tool. Remember back in the 2012 presidential campaign? In the first debate, Obama didn’t shine. Romney came off pretty good. (I still thought he was an idiot, of course.) And his poll numbers surged. But as I wrote at the time, that wasn’t because Obama voters had switched over. It was because conservative voters who in the end were already going to vote for Romney suddenly felt confident enough to switch form “undecided” to “Romney.” If you look at the polls of the time, you will see that Romney’s numbers went up; Obama’s did not go down. What was going on was political signaling. Before, conservatives were signaling that they weren’t that keen on Romney.

Look at the unfortunate Eric Harwood. He’s totally wrong about the “billions and trillions of dollars” that we spend “illegal aliens” and refugees. But it wouldn’t matter if he knew the facts. For all I know, he does know the facts. But he’s just angry. He’s involved in an act of political signaling that those liberals don’t care about people like him and that conservatives like Ted Cruz and Donald Trump do. It’s not just politicians who engage in political theater.

So who cares that deep down most people know the facts. They don’t vote to save the world from global warming. They don’t vote to make sure that veterans get healthcare. Their votes are an act of political signaling that they are for the “right” kind of people. And in the case of working class conservatives, they’d better hope that they don’t get their way.

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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.

14 thoughts on “Polling, Voting, and Political Signaling

  1. This should make you go hmm-there is a screenshot going around Facebook that shows a man saying he would be at the standoff but for the Federal Government not sending him his SS check yet. I have no idea if it is real but it would not surprise me. And yes, someone did reply that he wants to fight the Feds while living off of the Feds.

      • I heard that too. Of course, maybe they wanted it sent my Fed Ex — which is itself a company that gets gobs of government largess.

    • Whether it is true or not, it is an example of something that is very true. Every hardcore conservative I know thinks that whatever welfare they get is deserved. Perhaps the most hardcore conservatives I know are on SSI for mental reasons. That doesn’t mean they are crazy. They just can’t deal with a normal work environment. And they are convinced that if the true conservatives got their way, they would get rid of all the welfare — except their own. The truth is rather the opposite: theirs would be some of the first to go.

      • And pointing this out to them doesn’t help because they never get that they are the ones that the uber rich hate as much as the rest of us.

        • They won’t accept it because they “know” that they are the noble ones. And the power elite hate them far more than they hate you or me. That’s what especially aggravating about it. They might not like our politics, but they see that we are necessary as worker bees. The people they listen to are social Darwinist; they would prefer that these mentally unstable people just die.

              • For the policies that will hurt them. I did read an interesting story in The Nation, they think they can put a reform of Prop. 13 on the ballot in a few years. And even the anti-taxers are kind of saying “maybe we need a little reform” after Michael Dell basically ripped the state off for a million.

                However they will fight tooth and nail with all the more money they have since it will mean that older, white owned businesses will have to start paying their fair share and who wants to do that?

                • We got a temporary sales tax increase passed. Permanent taxes are harder. And we recently tried to repeal the death penalty on financial grounds. But the people voted it down because there are a whole lot of people willing to pay a whole lot of money just to kill people. I can see reform of Prop 13. It would just have to be done carefully. Repeal is out of the question. We recalled a governor because of a car license fee increase. And got the biggest joke of a governor in decades.

                  • They seem to be very careful about how to frame it-one thing the planners are going to be doing is pointing out how unfair it is to the minority majority along with things that infuriate the regular Joe on the street.

                    As for the death penalty, it shouldn’t have been done that way, no one cares about how much it costs when “justice” is on the line (unless it means giving those awful people a decent defense *rolls eyes*) but in how easy it is for the state to screw up and kill an innocent person. Of course I may be wrong but people really don’t like some innocent person suffering.

                    • It was one of the main guys who got it enacted in the first place. Apparently, he did it because he wanted to save money. Imagine what kind of guy he is! I don’t think I’ll ever understand the death penalty supporters. We know we have killed innocent people. How can you possibly justify that? But most of the arguments I hear are theoretical ones like I hear from libertarians about other subjects. “Well don’t you think that a man who was caught on camera killing innocent children and police officers should be put to death?” No. Sharks kill people too, but I don’t think they should be put to death either. But that’s hardly the issue. The guy caught on video is not the typical person put to death. The typical person is someone whose case is fairly weak. And then the death penalty type will say, “Well, we shouldn’t do that!” But in the mean time, let’s just keep on killing people because that’s so much more important than trying to fix the system. People just like to kill others. It makes them feel good.

                    • That is why I disfavor the death penalty. Too easy to make mistakes, too easy to let passion rule the head and really too easy to just say “oh well” when someone is executed in error. Or in the case that we discussed a few months ago-unequal justice where the guy who actually did the killing is not going to be executed but the guy who didn’t will be.

                    • I agree with all that. There’s a lot more, of course. There is the issue of free will, for example. But the practical arguments should overwhelm people. And they don’t. Because, like I said, people just love to kill and feel like they are creating a just universe. There is no such thing.

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