100 Million Viewers

Network executives are predicting as many as 100 million people will watch tonight’s presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.  That kind of audience is normally reserved for something really important, like a Super Bowl or the last episode of MASH.  The previous record for a presidential debate was 80 million viewers of the Reagan-Carter debate in 1980.

I wish I could believe that so many people will be tuning in tonight because they are interested in a sober, careful discussion of the many issues America is confronting and how to address them.  Unfortunately, we all suspect that’s not the case.  For many people, the debate is must-watch TV because of the spectacle factor — they’re watching to see whether Trump says or does something outrageous, or Clinton faints, or some particularly choice insults are hurled back and forth.  It’s like rubberneckers slowing down to check out the car wreck by the side of the highway.

I’m hoping that whatever portion of those 100 million viewers who are tuning in for a gladiator contest are disappointed.  I’m hoping that the candidates hold off on the obviously canned wisecracks, that the moderator lets the debaters actually debate the issues, and that an actual policy-oriented discussion breaks out.

But I’m not holding my breath for that result.

In The Hill Country

Yesterday we went out to the Texas “hill country,” the home territory of President Lyndon Johnson.  We visited the LBJ Ranch and the western White House, where John twisted arms under live oak trees and has a phone in every room.

In Johnson’s childhood, the hill country was a place of great poverty, and one of his first legislative accomplishments was bringing electricity to the region.  Now the beautiful area is home to wineries, ranches, and bed and breakfasts.  A few traces of the region’s hardscrabble roots still remain, however.

Pinkies On The Firing Line

We toured the Alamo yesterday.  As we walked the grounds, we happened across three volunteers who demonstrated the multiple steps of loading, tamping down, and firing the arms used by the defenders of the Mission against the overwhelming forces of Santa Anna.  The process was cumbersome and posed a special risk for the humble pinky.  The leader of the trio explained that the men of that era were trained to use the pinky to tamp down the charge, so that if the firearm discharged prematurely only the pinky would be lost.

Remember the Alamo, but remember the pinky, too!  Its sacrifice helped secure the American West.

Little Church Of La Villita

I’m not a huge proponent of organized religion, but I’m a sucker for churches.

The Little Church at La Villita, in San Antonio, is a gem.  Built in 1879, its clean lines, stone walls, and modestly proportioned stained glass window create a setting of simple beauty.  It’s well suited for quiet contemplation after a stroll on the River Walk — and it’s cool inside, too.

Poll-Axed

So much of political reporting these days is poll-driven.  A new poll about “likely voters” comes out, and news broadcasts first report on the poll, then report on reaction to the poll, and finally feature a panel of talking heads to blather about “momentum” and “the dynamics of the race” based on the poll results.

But how accurate are those polls, anyway?  Should Hillary Clinton supporters be suicidal because a poll shows Donald Trump ahead in Ohio?  It seems like a new poll or two comes out every day, and the results are all over the map.

screen-shot-2012-10-30-at-11-36-17-pmThe New York Times blog The Upshot decided to conduct a clever experiment to test the role of pollster judgment in analyzing and reporting the results of polling.  The goal was to eliminate the effect of the “margin of error” that we always hear about, and instead focus on the behind-the-curtain decisions pollsters make.  So, The Upshot took the raw data from an actual poll of 867 Florida voters it conducted with pollsters at Siena College, gave that same raw data to four different respected pollsters. and asked them to report the results they drew from the data.

The results of the experiment showed a five percentage point swing in the results reached by the different pollsters, ranging from a four-point advantage for Hillary Clinton to a one-point advantage for Donald Trump, even though the pollsters were reviewing identical data.  Why?  Because the pollsters reached different conclusions about the demographics and characteristics of “likely voters,” and those decisions had dramatic effects on their announced results.  How do you determine who is a “likely voter,” anyway?  Rely on their oath that they’ll be casting their ballot this time?  Make your decision based on their voting history?  Tinker a bit with the breakdown of Democrats, Republicans, and independents, and change the mix of Hispanics, African-Americans, and whites in the “likely voter” population, and you’ve got substantially different results.

My own sense is that this may be the toughest election ever from a polling standpoint.  You’ve got a group of Clinton supporters who are loud and proud in their support for HRC, an apparent mass of ardent Trump advocates lurking below the radar, and then a huge group of disaffected people who really don’t like either candidate and are deciding what to do.  You’ve got lifelong Republicans who are saying, right now, that they won’t vote for Trump, and young people who just aren’t energized by Hillary.  Who among the mass of disillusioned people frustrated by an awful choice is going to vote come November — and for whom?  Based on my interaction with friends and colleagues, most of whom really don’t want to talk about the election, I just don’t see how pollsters can decide that key question with any degree of certainty.

Poll results are interesting, I suppose, but I wouldn’t take them as gospel — particularly in this historically anomalous election.