Confirmation Bias and Election Lessons

Ideas and Issues

New Orleans   An economist has won the Nobel Prize in no small part for identifying the problem of “confirmation bias.”  Simply put, we tend to find evidence that confirms our bias, and are often unable to sort out the facts from our predilections.  We all do it, and that may be part of the problem in predicting – or polling – how the electorate in likely to vote in an election.

I say this, admittedly, because I, idiosyncratically, picked certain tea leaves to examine in making my prediction that Joe Biden would win the race for president.  It’s still up in the air as I write and say this today, and it may still be uncertain as you hear this, but it is still clear that some of the leaves, I read wrong, and some of my earlier worries that I tried to dismiss, were frighteningly true.

I thought the pollsters had fixed some of the issues from 2016, and, at the worst, I thought even if the polls were as inaccurate as 2016, they supported my bias.  Well, they were at least as inaccurate as 2016, and perhaps more so, leaving us literally depending on tea leaves rather than the data before us.  As I say, it’s not over, so there may be something more to say about all of this, but there will no longer be confidence in saying anything definitively about polling.

My worst fear – and grudging admiration – was the strength of the Republican’s ground operation and their quarter billion expenditure there, despite the pandemic, rather than relying on social media and the air war.  I knew better, because we’ve lived and won on the field program for decades in countless elections and campaigns.  Hats off! The Republicans turned out their vote, and it turned the tables in close states and states thought to be close, like Florida and Iowa, that just weren’t.  The Republican chair in Florida before the election was crowing that they were going to kick ass in Florida, and he was right.

The election is now a hot mess.  Not as hot as many might have feared, but uncertain and hanging in the balance, or worse, headed for court, according to the president.  We’ll see what develops, but let me add this, and give the president his due, because he proved again something I have always argued, but tried to ignore in this election:  your base is everything.  He went hard on his supporters to motivate them to the polls, rather than putting energy into expanding his base.  His narcissism and character flaws are mammoth, but he embraces his weaknesses and presents them whole, keeping it real, and no matter what pundits and elites might say, his base laps it up.  His ability to suck the air out of the news is addictive to his base, and it works.

I’m still hoping not to have to endure four more years with Trump, but he stopped a blue wave, helped hold the Senate for his team, and may have magically managed in the midst of depression and the pandemic, as arguably one of the worst presidents in American history, to come close to reelection, if not winning, so credit is due.

Now, we have to understand what he did, and what terrible and important things it says about Americans today.  We may not “be better than this.”  We may be much worse that we have wanted to admit.