How Democrats Use Polling as a Fear Hammer To Manufacture Consent

Anthony Lanzilote/Bloomberg News

Centrists are overplaying the prospect of Trump’s reelection to scare Democrats away from progressive candidates.

The Nation - November 6, 2019

"... the New York Times and Siena College poll tells a more complicated story than just that the electorate wants moderates. After all, it shows Sanders, a self-proclaimed socialist, doing better than Elizabeth Warren, who claims to be a capitalist to her very bones. Further, the poll shows Sanders winning over Trump in three states (Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin), which, if combined with secure Democratic states, would give Sanders the presidency. In Michigan, Sanders actually does 2 percent better than Biden, again complicating the narrative that moderation is the only path to victory."

... According to the Times, of the major Democratic candidates, only Joe Biden enjoyed an advantage, albeit a very small one, over Trump. “Across the six closest states that went Republican in 2016, he trails Joe Biden by an average of two points among registered voters but stays within the margin of error,” the newspaper reported. “Mr. Trump leads Elizabeth Warren by two points among registered voters, the same margin as his win over Hillary Clinton in these states three years ago. The poll showed Bernie Sanders deadlocked with the president among registered voters, but trailing among likely voters.”

The poll sent shock waves through the Democratic Party. While Biden remains the front-runner in the presidential primaries, his position has been weakening, and there’s a high likelihood that Warren or Sanders could be the standard-bearer. Writing in The Daily Beast, Elinor Clift argued that “if Democrat’s aren’t panicking, they aren’t paying attention.”

Jonathan Chait of New York magazine was quick to draw the lesson from the poll that the Democrats in the primaries had moved too far to the left. “Biden’s paper-thin lead over Trump in the swing states is largely attributable to the perception that he is more moderate than Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders,” Chait argued. “Three-quarters of those who would vote for Biden over Trump, but Trump over Warren, say they would prefer a more moderate Democratic nominee to a more liberal one, and a candidate who would find common ground with Republicans over one who would fight for a progressive agenda.” Chait concluded that “the party should look at its position a year before the election with real fear. The party’s presidential field has lost the plot.”

It’s hard not to be cynical about this argument, since it so closely aligns with Chait’s already held political preferences. Chait is in effect using the poll as a cudgel to frighten Democrats from voting for anyone too far to the left.

Even on its own terms, the New York Times and Siena College poll tells a more complicated story than just that the electorate wants moderates. After all, it shows Sanders, a self-proclaimed socialist, doing better than Elizabeth Warren, who claims to be a capitalist to her very bones. Further, the poll shows Sanders winning over Trump in three states (Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin), which, if combined with secure Democratic states, would give Sanders the presidency. In Michigan, Sanders actually does 2 percent better than Biden, again complicating the narrative that moderation is the only path to victory.

The New York Times and Siena College poll is of high quality, so it shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand. But it is also only one data point. When it comes to polling, the best practice is to aggregate a number of polls. As polling maven Nate Silver cautions, “To do it right, you’d need to look at polls from many different polling orgs (and account for how they vary from one another) in all competitive states + national polls. There’s not enough data to do that yet, and even if there were, polling ~1 year out is not very accurate.” ...
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