Why Is This Election Close, Part 2

I’ve been wondering the same thing as John, and confronting the same grim hypothesis–that the calculus of the modern welfare state has passed a tipping point (I mean, just who do we think those 47 million people on food stamps are going to vote for)?  This is, of course, just a variation of the classical critique of democracy–that the poor majority would vote to take from the wealthy minority.  This always entails the death of democracy in the fullness of time.

I have before wondered, and still wonder, whether this election might be a replay of 1980, which was close until Reagan broke it open over the last weekend.  This is one plausible scenario for a Romney victory.  My pal Clark Judge offers similar thoughts on U.S. News and World Report, in a piece entitled “Why the Obama-Romney Race May Not Be the Dead Heat the Polls Describe“:

Pollsters will tell you that they cannot always count on voters to level with them about which candidates they favor. For example, Gov. Scott Walker’s victory in the Wisconsin recall election several months ago was predicted by the polls, but his margin was not. It was a larger margin than the surveys had forecast. Similarly in 2004, Sen. John Kerry went to bed on election night believing he would be the next president. He woke to a surprise, as did Democrats in 1994 and, to a lesser degree, in 1980. Note, in all these elections it was the Democratic who got the unwelcome surprise.

Meanwhile, one of my supremely numerate friends (a real Ph.D in science) writes in with some observations about polling:

The response rate has gotten so low that the reported differences in popularity have become meaningless. The main source of error is almost surely no longer due to random sampling error but rather to the unknown distribution of opinion in the unsampled part of the population that declines to respond. Let me know if you need a reference for that.

By comparison, it’s as if you’re getting all excited about annual temperature changes over the just the desert areas of the earth without being concerned with other land surfaces or the oceans.

There are ways to get high response rates in polls, but there seems to be a form of Gresham’s Law at work, keeping such methods from being applied, at least in the polls that are made public with their response rates.

We’ll see.  Pollsters supposedly have rigorous ways of countering the response rate (and cell phone) problem, but I’m skeptical.  For now I’m keeping my fingers crossed.

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