I have lost count of the number of people, both hard leftists and President Donald Trump supporters, who try to tell me that Vice President Joe Biden is doomed this November because they have not seen many Biden/Harris signs or bumper stickers or positive comments about the ticket on social media.
While I’m sure that is a perfect confirmation of both of those groups' personal biases against Biden and Senator Kamala Harris, it’s a good idea to remember that signs are not polls (or votes) no matter how much it seems they should be.
The fact of the matter is that average people gauging the world around them are not qualified to make any sort of statistical analysis. Our Facebook pages are specifically generated by algorithms based on our actions to produce a curated feed of things we agree with, not a scientifically randomized cross section of the voting public.
Our neighborhoods are increasingly designed by gerrymandering to safely give one side of the political spectrum supremacy. Our everyday existences are purposefully manufactured and cannot be relied on to give us the truth, even when we’re not actively deceiving ourselves or ignoring contradictory data.
That’s where professional (not us adding up likes on a Facebook post) polls and votes come in. They give us the most objective truth that we can rely on because good pollsters make great efforts to poll across wide demographics. One of the reasons FiveThirtyEight remains so highly praised is because they also keep very good track of what makes a pollster good. This includes the simple but monumentally important factor of how right they’ve been in the past.
The polls have consistently shown Biden to be ahead, far ahead of where Secretary Hillary Clinton was at this point in 2016. They also showed last year that he was the odds-on favorite to win the Democratic Primary, which he easily did. It’s a favorite American pastime these days to say the polls in 2016 were wrong, but they weren’t. They fell perfectly in the margin of error. It’s tempting to think that Trump only having a 29 out of 100 chance of winning meant Clinton was a shoo-in, but that’s better than a standard dice roll. Even today, Trump has a 1 in 4 chance of winning. If there was a 25 percent chance of rain and it rained, most of us would not say meteorology was fake. Biden’s victory is in no way certain but claiming no one likes him is just ludicrous when faced with numbers like these.
It’s worth remaining on the subject of the primaries for a moment because there have been many hurt feelings this year. Opposition to Joe Biden was fierce in many corners, including his own vice presidential nominee pick. It’s understandable that in the aftermath a lot of people on the left sit in their echo chambers wondering how things got here and spinning conspiracy theories of rigged elections. Unfortunately, those require ignoring the better source of information: votes.
Biden ran against a field of more than 20 which included everything from the most socialist mainstream politicians in America to younger versions of his own perceived neoliberalism to whatever the hell you call Marianne Williamson’s point of view. The people who voted in the primary had all kinds of options, including the most women and people of color who have ever run. They chose Biden anyway, and by a lot. It’s impossible to claim that Biden is not at least somewhat popular when millions of people voted for him to be the nominee, including a lot of them who had to brave the COVID outbreak to do so.
But, if Biden is so popular, why haven’t we maybe seen more stuff about that? Well, there are a couple of reasons beyond the curated existence mentioned above.
The first is the sad fact that we ignore good news. Video game journalist Jim Sterling did a fantastic video essay on the subject explaining that while people routinely complain he doesn’t produce enough positive content like complimentary video game reviews, the number on his views show that when he does do those things they consistently underperform compared to negative content. No matter how much people say they hate all the negativity online, viewing habits are things we can quantify. They show we are drawn to anger, not praise.
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The second is that we are in a very contentious election and some people are afraid to display too much public preference. Signs being stolen and burned is a thing that happens, as are actual physical attacks on people for wearing political paraphernalia. A Texas teacher was put on leave after parents complained about the Black Lives Matter poster in her virtual classroom.
I’ve had at least one person in a truck zoom past me honking, flipping me off, and screaming “Trump!” presumably over my Beto O’Rourke sticker, and as someone who typically has nothing but contempt for Trump in public writings my email weekly contains everything from homophobic slurs to death threats. It’s not hard to see why people might not want to wear their support on their sleeves. Public support has consequences.
Signs and stickers and T-shirts are generally just an indicator of the enthusiasm of hardcore supporters, not widespread support. Rallies are the same way. Both Trump and Senator Bernie Sanders fans have a bad habit of showing pictures from rallies and using them as proof of massive majorities. The problem is that those crowds are both subject to extreme reporting bias as well as a tiny fraction of any given community. It’s cool to get 10,000 people in a room cheering your name, but that doesn’t necessarily translate to votes despite the excitement. It’s another carefully curated illusion.
The safest thing for us to do is limit our information to what can be measured and trusted. That unfortunately does not include what we think we see with our own eyes a lot of time. If more of us questioned our perceptions on a regular basis, we’d be in a much better position as a country.