Greg Sheridan’s feverish cherry picking

What has Greg Sheridan of The Australian been smoking or taking, or is it just common or garden cherry picking?

He feverishly wrote (1 September 2020): “Donald Trump has roared back into polling contention after the Republican and Democratic conventions, according to a slew of polls and analytical work in the US. The RealClearPolitics betting odds now have the contest at almost level, whereas 10 days ago they strongly favoured the President’s Democratic challenger, Joe Biden.”

Sheridan was right that the RealClear politics betting odds were line ball and that Trump’s odds had tightened in the past couple of weeks. But what this means is another matter and, as bookies would tell you, there could be a number of possible explanations of the odds.

If you look at other indicators you would rather be in Biden’s position than Trump’s.

A Washington Post (3 September 2020) average of quality polls conducted immediately before the two conventions had Biden leading Trump 51 percent to 42 percent. With polls released this week after the Republican convention Biden still leads Trump 51 percent to 42 percent. Not quite roaring back.

And RealClearPolitics is not quite as clear as Sheridan believes. On September 1 the RealClearPolitics latest poll updates gave Biden a lead within the range of +4% to +11%. This is consistent with the latest FiveThirtyEight range of Biden +3% to +13%. What is more significant is that the FiveThirtyEight rolling average of polls had Biden leading by 7% around the time Sheridan wrote – down from a high of 7.9%. This has now bumped up to 7.4%.

Now a shift within one percent is statistically irrelevant in an individual poll but is more robust when derived from an aggregation of more 10,000 respondents from six different pollsters.

When you explore the FiveThirtyEight figures further there are some other standouts. Trump’s disapproval rate as measured by an average of aggregated polls is 52.4% and approval rate is 43.4%.

For historical ratings Trump’s approval rating at this stage of his term is lower than for every President since WWII other than Jimmy Carter and in this last case only very marginally. His disapproval rating is higher than that of every President since WWII.  There were polling methodological differences and failings over those 70 years – Truman defeated Dewey despite the polls’ prediction –  but polling is more sophisticated now than in 1948.

What is perhaps more significant than betting odds are probability estimates. The latest FiveThirtyEight probability is 71% Biden and 29% Trump in terms of winning the Electoral College. That’s the same as in 2016 which means something but has to be considered in the light of Clinton’s unpopularity among some Democrats and Sandernistas, plus inadequate Democrat efforts in the three states which delivered Trump victory.  Clinton’s campaign took those states for granted but the Biden campaign won’t.

Trump may well win. But if you were analysing Sheridan’s feverish September 1 comment you would have to wonder why he chose the only indicator among many which supported this belief. And he very obviously was totally wrong about a ‘slew of polls’ showing Trump ‘roaring back.’ If you do want to follow the money, however, you ought to take note that in the past month the Biden campaign achieved a month’s fundraising record of $US364.5 million.

Meanwhile, all the media reporting on the Portland Oregon violence is pretty weird too. Portland city prides itself on being weird and a mayoral candidate once campaigned on the slogan: “Keep Portland Weird”. On the other hand the Oregon boondocks are full of mad gun-wielding survivalists and others who are slightly less unhinged.

Clashes on the Portland fringes have been regular events for more than a decade. However, the divide in Portland is now being mirrored across the US and, remarkably enough, some Republican supporters are anticipating a new civil war.

In a Proceedings of the National Academies of Science paper, Ethnic antagonism erodes Republicans’ commitment to democracy, Larry M. Bartels of the Department of Political Science, Vanderbilt University, Nashville finds that:

“The frailty of public commitment to democratic norms in the contemporary United States is illustrated by the responses of 1,151 Republican identifiers and Republican-leaning Independents interviewed in January 2020 to survey items contemplating transgressions of a variety of essential democratic principles, including the rejection of violence in pursuit of political ends and respect for the rule of law and the outcomes of elections.

“A majority of respondents (50.7%) agreed that ‘The traditional American way of life is disappearing so fast that we may have to use force to save it.’ A substantial plurality (41.3%) agreed that ‘A time will come when patriotic Americans have to take the law into their own hands.’ A near-majority (47.3%) agreed that ’Strong leaders sometimes have to bend the rules in order to get things done.’

“Almost three-fourths (73.9%) agreed that ‘It is hard to trust the results of elections when so many people will vote for anyone who offers a handout.’

“In each case, most of those who did not agree said they were unsure.”

Now that’s something to get feverish about.

The blog’s friend John Spitzer alerted the blog to the PNAS paper.