Robert Stein 1924-2014

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Monday, November 12, 2012

Lessons from FDR's Reelection to Obama's

Week One of soul-searching ends with Democrats happily stunned and Republicans still just stunned. Profundity about 2012 will have to wait, but intriguing questions arise not only about the future of American politics but culture.

Consider polling failures to predict the President’s victory compared to those that misread FDR’s reelection in 1936.

Back then, a previously accurate magazine straw poll foresaw Roosevelt’s defeat when he actually won every state but Maine and Vermont. A huge self-selected sample was based on its own privileged readers along with telephone listings and auto registrations, which excluded most poor families (including mine).

Enter Gallup with a smaller but demographically sound survey that nailed the result to establish itself as the brand name of polling.

Three-quarters of a century later, Gallup and other hot-shot pollsters are in trouble and for comparable negligence to take into account social changes.    

Parsing the thickets of Nate Silver, one explanation lies is their failure to plumb sufficiently the population of cell phone and Internet users, who skew toward the young, ethnic and poor. Too many slipped under their radar.

If part of the answer for last week’s surprise lies in not understanding what’s really going in America below the media noise, what else are we and so-called powers-that-be in Washington missing?

Are we overlooking any other manifestations of what the beloved Richard Nixon used to call a Silent Majority?

 Update: Now the Obama campaign is bragging about what it calls “the Optimizer,” a strategy leading to ad purchases on old-sitcom reruns to reach what it calls low-information voters who could be swayed.


Maybe, but it’s not encouraging to think about being able to manipulate the clueless in future elections.

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