Don’t get swept away in the tide of numbers


Far & Near column in the Hindustan Times (published 20 September, 2016)

No statistical predictions are followed more in American politics than those of Nate Silver, a pollster who in recent election cycles has become the pontiff of the percentage point and line graph. American journalists watch the updates of his website (a reference to the number of total electoral college votes) the way Catholics look at Vatican chimneys during a papal election, waiting for revelatory smoke. According to his site, Donald Trump’s likelihood of being elected president has risen from a low of 10.8% in the middle of August to around 40% now.

This upward trend for Trump (a reality TV star so good at his craft that he has managed to make reality a farce) coincides with apparent setbacks to Hillary Clinton in the shape of a “gaffe” (she referred to his supporters as “deplorable” racists) and the news of her recent bout of pneumonia. Rumours have spread of panic among the ranks of Clinton confidantes and talk of a secret search for a backup Democratic candidate. Heading into the first debate on September 26, Clinton remains the favourite, but the “momentum” is supposed to be with Trump.

One of the side effects of the interminable length of US presidential campaigns, which stretch nearly two years, is this dogged, almost rabid obsession with data.

It is easy to get swept away in this tide of moving numbers. The presidential race is less a contest of ideas (though there are significant differences between Clinton and Trump) than a media-managed battle of impressions. Candidates vie simply to seem stronger than the other, to be depicted in a given news cycle with the wind at their backs rather than with the wind blowing hard against them. Poll numbers, constantly refreshed and bandied about, provide a running commentary on the relative position of each candidate, becoming news stories in-and-of themselves. The discourse of the election campaign turns into a fixation with perception, at the expense of a discussion of substance.

A bewildering array of surveys coughs up talking points every day. Polls not only provide the commentariat with daily fodder, but they give observers something to hold on to, a kind of anchor in the great churning maelstrom of election coverage. Every piece of news analysis, every blog post, and every op-ed column (often including this one) floats on a ballast of choice numbers. When Clinton made the tactical mistake two weeks ago of calling half of Trump’s supporters “deplorable” racists, her defenders in sections of the media were able to make the case, selectively citing polling data, that actually more than half of the Republican candidate’s backers were just as she described. Their accounts conveniently refrained from mentioning how the same polls reveal that significant numbers (admittedly, many fewer than Trump voters) of Clinton supporters also hold racist views.

I have found statistics illuminating in explaining the most mysterious phenomenon of the US election: The groundswell of support for Trump. Sitting in New York City (a citadel of coastal cosmopolitanism far removed from the provinces of Trumplandia), I was utterly perplexed by the forces that drove his popularity. Polling data has helped in vindicating my suspicions. First, surveys show that Trump supporters are relatively well off compared to their peers, undermining his populist claim to represent the downtrodden and dispossessed, and second, they are significantly motivated by racial and anti-immigrant concerns. One doesn’t need statistics to comprehend that authoritarian, white nationalism is powering Trump’s campaign, but I suppose the numbers are there.

And yet the reliance on all manner of polls makes me hunger for, dare I say it, “qualitative” work. For instance, I’d urge those curious about the Trump phenomenon to read a strong essay in the New Yorker by the American writer George Saunders. With humour and warmth and not a statistic in sight, he wades into the ugliness of Trump’s world, emerging shaken. “I’ve never before imagined America as fragile, as an experiment that could, within my very lifetime, fail,” he writes. “But I imagine it that way now.”

We live in a technological age shaped by the accumulation and deployment of data. In all arenas of human life, from romantic matchmaking to sports, numbers are taking over. In politics, however, polling data becomes a crutch, an increasingly thin screen behind which journalists can hide their uncertainty and confusion, and avoid the messy task of judgement.

One cannot help but sense the growing nervousness that this may be the year that the polls lied. Nobody expected the Brexit vote to triumph in the United Kingdom, but it did, upsetting the predictions of the polling industry and flummoxing the betting and financial markets. A Donald Trump victory in November would also buck expectations and topple the edifice of mathematical improbability that has been built against his campaign. It may not be just the liberal status quo that is under threat, but political numerology.


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