Polls versus Votes

Guns Ideas and Issues Polling

            New Orleans   I listened carefully to President Biden’s impassioned plea for Congress to finally act in some form or fashion to approve some gun control legislation protecting citizens in general from the horrors of our continued mass shootings.  Then I read very closely the disconnect analysis in the New York Times by Nate Cohen as he examined the huge gap between polling in 2016 on gun control issues in various states compared to how voters actually pulled the lever at the polls.   

This is a puzzling cautionary tale.

ACORN has a lot of experience with initiative and referenda petitions.  We sometimes lost, and more often won on elections over increases in the minimum wage, sales taxes on food and medicine, utility rates, single-member districts, and a host of other issues.  After our initial losses on citywide initiatives in Houston and Denver on raising the minimum wage in those cities, on statewide initiative we often polled voters to determine where the magic number might be to gain support for raising the minimum wage, having found that we shot too high in those early efforts in city elections.  We would settle not for what might have actually been in reality a “living wage”, as we called it, but the level where polling indicated mid-60% support for the number as reasonable, believing that even an opposition campaign would allow us to win.  Under that formula, we in fact never lost.

Cohen looked at votes in 2016 when there were other issues on the ballot, sometimes even minimum wage increases, where polling aligned with the results.  He also looked at the vote in the same states for Clinton versus Trump.  Additionally, he compared the vote for gun control measures that were on the ballot at the same time.  Often, they ran under the vote for Hillary Clinton in the actual election even though the polling had also found support for their passage.  The gap was so large between the favorable support for gun control in polling and the actual vote for the measure that it would be impossible to call it a polling error.

Here’s the rub.  He speculates on pretty strong grounds that those of us who continue to cite the support for gun control nationally are missing the reality.  He argues that it may be easy for a voter to say on a poll that means little that they generally support control, but when they go into the voting booth, they vote their worries about crime, their fears, and their need for security, and vote against controls.

These disconnects are just about guns either, as Cohen writes:

Gun control opponents are not the only ones who benefit from this phenomenon. Health care reform started out as popular, until the Affordable Care Act was actually proposed and debated. Carbon taxes earn broad national support, but carbon tax initiatives in environmentally friendly Washington State lost twice decisively. Liberals can benefit, too. Voter identification requirements and parental notification for abortion receive overwhelming support in the polls, but moderate and liberal voters who back abortion or voting rights can quickly be convinced that these modest initiatives pose a more fundamental threat to voting or abortion rights. These initiatives have underperformed at the ballot box by nearly as much as background checks.

There’s a message here that we all need to heed.  Polls are important and valuable, but there’s no substitute for getting on the doors and really talking and, more importantly, listening to people, if we’re going to take issues to the people and hope to win.