The Black Poll Wars: Bowling for Votes, Part II

The Black Poll Wars: The Coming Defeat of the Survey Polling Industry

In my previous post, I made the following rash assertion:

To be clear, here is my thesis statement for this post:  The polling data being collected and published today will in all likelihood be wrong in November when the election takes place.  Why?  The pollsters and the public believe the polls.  Right now, if you go to a website such as, you will find an up-to-date list of all the major political surveyors and pollsters, professional and academic, party-affiliated and independent.  The people who publish the results of their surveys, for the most part, are highly trained professionals and are working very hard to mine the opinions of the American public.  They use the accepted methodologies for their survey research, collection and analysis.

Survey polling has a huge flaw.  The “black poll war” is going to produce an across-the-board defeat of the field.  The flaw is that survey polling is based on separating the majority and minority, and reporting it as if it were real.  It is their philosophical “theory of everything.”  The issue, from their perspective, is settled.  Yes, methodologies can be refined and trend analysis can be made more robust by the addition of ever-more-precise demographics.  Increasingly sophisticated software run on supercomputers can crunch data at mind-boggling speeds.  All of those things however are no more than a paper mache’ disk painted to look like a man-hole cover.  You don’t want to step on it.

The flaw is this: Survey polling is still operating in the classical world of majority research.  It is by analogy the same difference between the classical world of Newtonian physics and the Planckian world of Quantum Mechanics.  Survey polling has no equivalent of the Uncertainty Principle, and that is going to make all the difference.

I pick up my argument from here…

Waiter, there’s a quark in my soup bowl.

Think of it this way.  Suppose I invite an experienced pollster to lunch for soup.  I place two identical bowls in front her.  One is filled with a steamy hot, delicious soup with a wonderful aroma.  The other contains water filled to the same level.  Then I ask her, as a pollster, to describe the characteristics of each bowl.  Playing along, hoping that she will get the bowl with soup and not the water, she adeptly describes the contents of each bowl.  Next, I ask her, “If each bowl represented a bloc of voters, which one will win?”  Since both bowls are filled to the identical level, she correctly says, “I can’t tell.  I can only make a decision which has the majority.”  I take away the bowl with the water and replace it with an empty bowl.  I repeat my question, and she quite accurately answers, “If the amount of soup is the equivalent to the number of votes cast, then the bowl with the soup wins.”  I ask my final question.  “The votes are based on the number of quarks (a subatomic particle that is part of every atom) in each bowl.  Which bowl has the most quarks?”

How would you answer?

The question is not theoretical.  Quarks are real subatomic particles. Every atom contains quarks and there just happen to be six kinds of quarks and each quark has “flavor” (appropriate to soup, as well) so to come up with an answer, that multiplicity has to be factored in.  My pollster, growing hungrier by the minute, now has to solve a multidimensional model, for which she presumably has no statistical formula to work (cross-tabs won’t work here because she does not know which of the six types of quarks represent a yes vote or no vote).

To avoid my researcher becoming peckish and storming out, I bring her a fresh bowl of the soup so she can eat and think about the two bowls in front of her.

Classical statistical reasoning would look at the two bowls, one filled and one empty and conclude that the one with the soup, since the soup is made up of atoms, would therefore have all the quarks, so the empty bowl could be eliminated and the researcher could concentrate on determining which of the six kind of soup quarks represent which kind of vote.  And that would be wrong.

Quantum statistical reasoning would look at both bowls being full.  One with soup and the other with air.  Gaseous atoms have quarks just like soup atoms do.  Now my survey researcher asks for a second bowl of soup because this will take a while to figure out.  In fact, she has a bigger problem than simply counting quarks.  Since the soup is a fluid (we’ll ignore the atoms being steamed off) the number of quarks will remain reasonably stable.  The air in the other bowl is in constant motion, however, so the number of quarks moving in and out of the bowl is in constant flux.  And since placing a lid or layer of plastic wrap over the bowl to trap the air creates an artificial constraint, she just has to come up with a way to solve the problem as it is.

Her conundrum is that she can’t.  She’s not a failure, rather, Classical Statistics in polling has no models or formulas to account for the quarks, or should I say the core basis for decision making by the American public.  Probability and regression theory in statistics is quite sophisticated, and there are numerous models that are attempting to, some with a fairly high degree of success, that can predict the basis of decision making in the voting booth (or envelope in the case of my state, Oregon) within a narrow margin of error.  But since these models continue to look for the majority, they are not measuring what I believe will be the cause of the Black Poll War.

It’s not that they are looking at the wrong data; it is they have failed to make the paradigm shift to be able to analyze the process out of which that data is born.  It does not exist as a majority factor.  It exists as a subpersonal factor.  In quantum statistical reasoning, the function of democratic processes is not one person, one vote.  Using the quark analysis analogy, the democratic process is one person, six isovotes (I know I’ve coined a new term here, but it has parallels in the quantum behavior of quarks that is called “isospin” which is a critical component keeping quarks in a state of symmetry).  Depending on the way each voter processes the information stream to make those decisions those isovotes may or may not be stable through even one election cycle.

The solution is to create a quantum statistical equivalent of the Uncertainty Principle.

Any number of you are saying, “Now wait just a cotton-pickin’ minute here, fella.  You promised no more formulas.”  Indeed, I did.  But I am trying to develop a concept that voting in America has undergone a shift of such a dramatic change, it has evolved into virtually a new species of behavior.  It is the equivalent of the transformation from circumnavigating the earth in 80 days into orbiting the planet in 80 minutes.  We made that scientific and technological shift in transportation, from surface vehicles to the International Space Station.  We are in the middle of its evolutionary transformation in our voting behavior.  That is the metamorphosis of our political behavior from voting to isovoting.

Bowling for Votes: Not Your Grandmother’s Bowling Pins

Isovoting, unlike voting, is dynamic and has a meaning assigned to it by the person.  Imagine that an isovote is like a bowling pin.  Since the beginning of the republic, we have assumed that the vote is the triangle shape of the 10 bowling pins.  We have also assumed that the vote triangles could be colored.  The colors used by the television networks of late have been blue for the Democrats, red for the Republicans, and various other preferences for those who were voting independent.  Any color combination of colors could be assigned (I’ve never heard the explanation of why the colors were chosen in that manner, but it might be an interesting footnote in the history of reporting votes.)  Each vote might have an additional attribute or two attached to it, but even if it were envisioned as a 3-dimensional triangular wedge, it was, almost exclusively, solid and predictable.  People voted for one party or another (many states allowed you to go into a voting machine booth and pull a lever therefore choosing in one action all the candidates of that political party).

That is no longer the case.  The solidity of any bloc of votes is now, well, not solid.  We’ll assume for the moment we still have ten pins but peeling back the outer surface of the nice, neat triangular wedge reveals that the ten pins are not standing neatly at attention, but are in a constant state of motion.  Suppose that each pin, as an isovote, has a set of variable characteristics, let’s say:

  1. Size: From a minimum of some volume to a maximum of volume not taken up by all the other isovote pins together
  2. Shape: From classic bowling pin to any other extrudable shape that will fit within the triangular vote box, or even to exceed that volume
  3. Color
  4. Temperature
  5. Motion: From stillness to rapid
  6. Connectivity: From pin to pin, to the surface of the triangular block, and to any other  receptor site outside the block
  7. Meaning: The isovote pin, like a living cell exists within a specific environment, and therefore being part of the human capacity to decide how to vote, has to be capable of receiving information transmitted from the person to the subperson

The characteristics I’ve described above are an analogy of what an isovote is, not a literal suggestion of an anatomical mechanism.  What is important, however, is that the analogy gives the reader a sense of the complexity of what really constitutes the dynamics of voting.  As long as pollsters rely on defining “majority” and “probability” and “margin of error” as their gold standard, no matter how refined their formulas become, they will still lose the Black Poll War.

The basis of voting I’m describing is much like that of the infamous “Schrödinger’s Cat” thought experiment by physicist Erwin Schrödinger in 1935.  Basically it says if you had one thousand cages with solid doors, 500 of which had a live cat and the other 500 had a dead cat, there would be no way to determine which state the cat was in until you opened the door, and the act of opening the door determined if the cat was dead or alive.  Observing what was in the box was what created the certainty of the cat’s state of being, not whether the cat was alive or dead before hand because you could never be certain without opening the door.  This is the basis of the Uncertainty Principle, and since I already presented the formula if the previous post, I can keep my promise not to repeat it here.  You however could not be certain with any degree of accuracy or probability that I would keep that promise.  It is this counterintuitive manner of thinking that makes quantum mechanics so darned frustrating to try and figure out.  But quantum physicists turn out to be right, or able to adjust their theories to simplify the complex wrong part into simpler right parts.

That leads to my concluding point.  The transformation of the vote into a compilation of isovotes is the key to understanding the American Electorate.  The pollsters from now on have to make the assumption that testing for probability and the majority will no longer provide accurate results.  The Uncertainty Principle shows that the isovotes cannot fit the Classical Statistical models for voter behavior.  Like quarks in atoms, isovotes behave in dynamic ways that cannot be predicted with certainty either before or after they are observed, and that the very behavior of the survey taker will have a direct affect on the nature of the isovotes, especially with regard to the person assigning meaning to them, creating a new future for that person’s set of isovotes that did not exist prior to being polled on his or her preferences.

November 2, 2010 will be a very interesting day in the history of the United States.  For one, I will find out if my theory of the Black Poll War is vindicated.  If it is, you can say you read it here first.  If it isn’t, you’ll know I’ll be working on the assumptions of my hypotheses to see if I can be as clever as a quantum physicist and adjust them so they fit the reality of the situation more closely.  Perhaps, I’ll just have to throw out the whole thing and start over.  That is the only way to do good science.

In the meantime, I’m very glad I don’t have to actually count the number of quarks in my bowl of soup.  They are very small and would take many human life times to total them, even if I physically could do it. That, I’ll leave to the quantum physicists and their amazing quark-counting machines.

Swimming through Boiled Okra: The American Political Stew, 2010

Swimming through Boiled Okra:

The American Political Stew, 2010

Some Background:

I lived in Texas for three years while attending seminary at Texas Christian University.  Being a native of the Northwest, I was exposed to a whole new cornucopia of foods: great Texas barbecue, Tex-Mex, and Southwest cuisine. I learned how to eat grits the right way (butter and salt and pepper, or cheese—none of this milk and sugar over Cream of Wheat stuff).  To this day I love grits.

My one culinary defeat was okra.  For those of you who haven’t experienced this little vegetable,

Okra--Secret Dispenser of Slime. Photo:

Okra--Secret Dispenser of Slime. Photo:

it certainly looks benign enough in its raw form.  It’s also as popular as broccoli in more northern climes and a staple vegetable in numerous countries around the world.  You can see from the photo, it can look quite appetizing.  Okra can be prepared in many ways.  It can be breaded and fried (of course, most anything in the South can be breaded and fried—and usually is).  It can be boiled with all sorts of other foods.  Many people love it pickled.  It’s a popular ingredient in a wide variety of soups and gumbos.  That’s all fine and good, except…

Boiled okra is slimy.  For those three years I tried my best to sample okra in its various gastronomic manifestations.  I discovered, despite all this experimentation, that the only way I could handle okra was fried.  Fried okra is not slimy.  It just doesn’t have much taste for my palette, other than an oily breaded mushy…well…veggie-something-or-other. Take a look at the crosscut round of okra.  It looks a lot like a crosscut jalapeño pepper.  Only the jalapeño has both flavor and zing.

Okra Seafood Gumbo. One of a thousand ways to create vegetative slime.

In fairness to the otherwise popular vegetable, I selected two of my friends (completely non-random, and no intent to be so), on separate occasions, and who don’t know each other, and asked if either liked okra?  Their responses were identical to mine: Okra in soup is slimy and I don’t really like it.  So, what’s the point?  There are at least two other males in the United States who, without prompting as to reason, agree that okra in soup is slimy.  And none of us like it because of that particular quality.  And that’s important because of what comes next.

A Test of Your Gag Reflex:

Back to slimy.  Not just slickish slimy, but stringy and slimy.  As for stringy: A hundred times

Ultimate Alien Slime, Aliens, 1979, Photo Courtesty MGM.

worse than my grandmother’s over-cooked rope-strength stringy asparagus.  And as for slimy: pure gaggy slimy: You start to chew the spoonful of boiled okra, which just seems to release this gelatinous goo, resembling the stuff that drips off of your typical movie monster’s tongue or, uh, snout. As you try to swallow the bite the goo elongates itself so that by the time the first half of your bite has traveled the length of your esophagus, reaches your cardiac sphincter, and dumps into your stomach the other half is still trying to get out of your mouth and down your throat.

Gag.  Retch.  Get me something to wash down this uck!  Now!

An Analogy of the Absurd—But the Bridge to the Topic at Hand:

Imagine stirring a pot of okra the size of an Olympic swimming pool with that potential for such slimy viscosity.  Imagine swimming through a pool filled with such.  Michael Phelps wouldn’t be pleased.  Michael, whatever his other imperfections, would have the good sense to avoid such an Olympic sized pool of mucousity.

Okra Stew--Imagine an Olympic Pool filled with this.

Now to the Main Dish:

On the other hand, that exact unpalatable characteristic makes for a good analogy of the current state of American politics.  The so-called melting pot of America has been emptied of its finest ingredients, civility, respect, loyalty, etc, and filled to the brim with okra soup.  The blogosphere is boiling over with okra slime, from both the right and the left, but all too often the temperature of rhetoric coming from the right is higher.  In this context, characters such as Limbaugh and Beck, Palin and the Miz Liz of Cheney are but spices in an otherwise noxious recipe of political okra gumbo.

Last summer, we were caught off guard by the sudden rise to the boiling point of the Town Hall Meetings held in August during the Congressional Summer Recess.  But this year, the pot is already bubbling resembling those gloppy mud pots in Yellowstone National Park, and it’s still over seven months until the November mid-term elections.  Itsa bubblin’, like they say.  I think.

This year there will be no surprises.  Members of Congress in both Houses and from both sides of the Aisle may find it best to attend their town hall meetings dressed in a heatproof full-body firefighter outfit.  The political okra soup pot likely will reach a rolling boil even before summer.  The slop-slinging will probably be fierce.

The question is can it be sustained?  My observation last year was that the Sturm und Drang of the Tea Party’s birth and its rapid rise to an ear-shattering keen burned out before the end of the month.  Part of that, in my opinion, was it was “newsed” into numbness.

Numb News—It’s the American Way:

The success of cable/satellite/internet news with its around the clock accessibility very quickly has habituated Americans (and most of the world, undoubtedly) to a very short news cycle.  Inside of two weeks last August, people at the Town Hall Meetings screaming the same rant over and over lost its punch if not its volume. Though the opponents of everything Obama were taking great delight in the attention and media coverage they were receiving, they missed an unintended consequence of that saturation.  They unwittingly became passé. Almost with the predictability of an autonomic response, the polls shifted subtly, but the shift was critical.  It was pro-reform.

Inside the shift was the data that kept Health Care Reform alive, passing the House in November and the Senate on December 24. Despite the loss of one senate seat in January messing up the Senate Democrats’ supermajority of 60 seats the rhetoric of the opposition from the elected officials, the right-wing pundits and the “angry” right-wing citizenry did not shift.  Their message, although loud, consistent, and vitriolic, became less and less influential as each day passed.

That message also offered nothing: the “Let’s start with a blank piece of paper gambit” failed, not because the Republicans were united but because they had nothing to counter with.  If at the great Health Care Summit, the Republicans had shown up with a bill that could have been plopped down beside the one that had already passed (since December 24th, remember) that was half the height of the Democratic bill, Americans’ attention would have been riveted to know what was in that piece of legislation.  Instead the Republicans brought a blank piece of paper and kvetched for seven hours about the size of the already passed bill.  The three best words for this colossal error are: stupid, stupid, and stupid.

The opponents did not recognize their strategic error. They thought they were being consistent and united.  The president and the Democratic leadership, on the other hand, correctly interpreted the message as dragging itself down: that the public sentiment in a shift of even one or two points in favor of reform was far more important than the actual percentage of support or opposition was being rolled out weekly by the multitude of pollsters.  TV, Internet, Radio, newspapers, magazines along with pundits of all stripes missed that nuanced reality, their focus locked on a depth of field most conducive to seeing their ratings and profits and not the meaning of the changes.

Health Care Reform passed, astonishing and infuriating the Republican leadership and all sorts of right-wing groups.

Elections 2010: Jump in, the Okra’s in Prime Slime!

What’s next?  More of the same: A big pot of slimy okra political soup we will be forced to swim around in between now and November.  The Republican formula of Stupid3 remains the strategy they are taking into the Fall under the illusion (or delusion) it will be different this time and they will snatch the majority status from the Democrats in a great uprising of voter rage, or a groundswell of secessionist sentiment threatening the fabric of the Republic, whichever comes first.

I almost hesitate to write this next section for fear of tipping off the Republicans and the Tea Party supporters to the actuality of the situation that the colossal error they made attempting to kill health care reform remains a colossal error as they plan for the mid-term elections.

Poster Advocating Revolution. But What Kind? Photo: Menifee Tax Day Tea Party

The emerging rhetoric calling the administration a “regime” accompanied by repeated less than veiled threats of revolution and civil war, marches with guns in plain sight are not the next phase they believe it to be; it is rather an escalation of the same message.  TV and the other media again will create the opposite intended consequence the Right Wing wants to convey.  Their agenda, antics, and demonstrations will be covered ad nauseum, giving them all the coverage they desire, but dulling the impact of their effort: Why?  Very simply, Americans want “new” news.  Every day.  That is what we have been habituated to expect from the media.  It’s not a matter of how it’s slanted or editorialized, or punditized.  It has to be new.

This is an essential lesson the Democrats must keep in the center of their political radar screen, locked on like the Space Shuttle launching toward the International Space Station.  They have to remain disciplined in their own rhetoric as the campaign heats up.  The key: New talking points must be rolled out every week or so of what Obama and the Dems have accomplished and what they plan to accomplish after the polls close.  They don’t even have to counter what the Republicans are saying.  The Republicans will continue to tighten the trap they set for themselves in the broken record scenario they initiated upon Obama’s election in 2008, and the contrast between a constantly renewing fresh message and the broken record message will quickly create a gulf between the two in the Democrats favor.

Guns and Bombs Belong in the Movies and TV, Not in Real Life:

Why?  People crave the status quo.  The vast majority of U.S. citizens do not want revolution or civil war or any other highly disruptive political or social action.  We’re not talking about changes to health care—we’re talking about being able to go shopping or out to eat or on vacation, Friday night football, going to worship, school plays, and a thousand other everyday things we routinely do.

Domestic tranquility is what Americans want.  The news video of the bloody revolt and possible regime-changing coup in Kyrgyzstan is exactly the opposite of what Americans believe political change should be.  The more violent that situation becomes and the more coverage it will get because of American military interests in the country, the more nervous the typical American will be about the language in the okra soup.  They see suicide bombers belonging in Baghdad and Kabul, not valiant freedom fighters, 21st Century Minutemen here in the U.S. claiming they are wresting their constitutional rights from an oppressive and socialist government.  Regardless of how dissatisfied they may be about their taxes, Americans do not want bombs and blood flowing down the streets of their community.  The reason is straightforward: Americans make political change through ballots, not through bombs and bullets.

Tea Party Protester Advocating the use of Guns. But to Shoot What or Whom? Photo:

Swimming in the Soup of the Statistically Illiterate:

We can be certain that the media will continue to misinterpret the polls because they do not understand how to correctly interpret them to begin with.  Most political groups will continue to misinterpret the polls because they are always looking for an advantage for their side and a disadvantage for their opponents.  “Spin” is a set of heuristic blinders. Here’s why: Raw percentages are a flawed indicator of support.

We quote percentages as if they mean something absolute.  They do not.  Percentages provide information, just not what we typically believe it is.  The fundamental error in interpreting poll percentages is equating a final percentage of a vote with a pre-vote percentage.  The two are not equal indicators of support.  The better pollsters understand this and couch their questions with very precise language and report their results with statistical caveats that, for the most part, the media and the public ignore, and then they are surprised when the results don’t match the polls.  They blame the polls (some justifiably) instead of having the insight to realize they didn’t correctly read the data in the polls. We will see a lot of this in the next seven months.

Central Limit Theorem: One reason calculating percentage trends is complex. "In probability theory, the central limit theorem (CLT) states conditions under which the mean of a sufficiently large number of independent random variables, each with finite mean and variance, will be approximately normally distributed (Rice 1995)." Source: Wikipedia

Should we not believe the polls?  No, but be cautious about reading into the number what you want it to mean, rather than looking at the gap and vector of the differences between the two percentages.  That is where the real information is.  And understand there are ways to use the percentages that sound valid but are really nothing more than concoction and spin.  Second, don’t make the mistake of treating a final vote result with a pre-vote survey.  Even if the final outcome numbers are identical, they are two quite different metrics, almost to the point of being two separate statistical species.

Understand the spin-meisters of all the political parties and their various PACs are not going to give you the slightest bit of help in understanding any of this.  They are paid to convince you the numbers are always favoring their party or candidate, even if the most accurate interpretation suggests disastrous defeat.  They want the political okra pot to be as slimy as possible to confound your ability to squeeze the slightest bit of truth from the numbers.  No, it’s not pretty, and never will be, apparently, until the pot is emptied and a new recipe of soup, sans okra, is placed on the stovetop.

Is it November yet?  I can’t stand okra.

Okra: Abelmoschus esculentus. Photo: digthedirt,com