What Michigan voters (really) want

Maybe it’s the kid in me – but I think it’s just great whenever the political “experts” get their election predictions wrong. I was 10 years old on Election Night 1948 when the Chicago Tribune famously ran the headline blaring “Dewey Defeats Truman.”

Truman won, of course, and fairly easily at that. Shows how much even a great (if very partisan) newspaper knew.

There was nearly as big an upset two weeks ago when Tea Party-backed college economics professor David Brat stomped House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in a GOP primary election. Some 65,000 Virginia voters managed to confound the experts, force a remake of the House leadership, demonstrate unexpected Tea Party strength, probably killed immigration reform – and gave the House Republican majority a shove to the right.

This wasn’t just a minor upset. Pollsters had Cantor up by 34 points just 12 days before the election. He wound up losing by 11 percent. Shows, yet again, how much the political sharpies knew.

You have to wonder if the folks in Gov. Rick Snyder’s re-election campaign have taken notice. Most polls now show him with a six-to-10 point lead over Democrat Mark Schauer.

Ditto for Democratic U.S. Rep. Gary Peters, who started out the race for the U.S. Senate a slight underdog to former Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land, but now leads by as much as nine points.
All this got me musing about what’s happened to the art of prognostication these days, especially when all the talking heads on cable news seem interested in is, “Who’s gonna win?”

Turns out it’s a trifle more complicated than that.

As to polling, the famous Republican phrase-maker and strategist Frank Luntz nailed it earlier this month, in a piece in the New York Times: “Polls can’t predict elections. They are essential tools, windows into the minds of a particular audience – but they cannot and should not be used as infallible crystal balls.”

Luntz went on to suggest a pollster’s five-minute phone interview with a subject anxious to get off the phone to feed the dog is hardly the way to get a real understanding of people’s attitudes, hopes and fears. He drew a useful distinction between polls that measure quick responses to multiple choice questions and the much more time-intensive and sensitive task of truly understanding deeper feelings and motivations.

As for newspapers – and I’m a former publisher of a bunch of community newspapers – the net result of the last decade is the wholesale deterioration of what was once a thriving industry.

Alas, once people discovered they could read online for free what they used to pay for on paper – and advertisers realized they could pay Google a fee per eyeball scanning their ad – the revenue base for the industry largely went down the tubes.

Which meant, in turn, fewer journalists available to explain how things work. One big casualty has been in reporting and understanding the ebbs and flows of politics and government. When I got into the newspaper business half a century ago, there were a couple busloads of reporters covering politics in Lansing. Now you can count them on your fingers. The result is a vast and growing information chasm between our leaders and our people.

The Virginia primary is a good case in point. Apparently, the basic reason everybody was blindsided was that the proud political reporters inside the Washington beltway never got out of their cubicles, drove to suburban Virginia and covered the (gasp!) neighborhood chicken dinner or talk at the local Rotary Club. If they had been hitting the local streets the way they should, they would have figured out “wherever you went Cantor was incredibly unpopular … that people saw him as arrogant,” according to Jim McConnell, a staff reporter on the Chesterfield Observer, a local weekly newspaper.

When I was running the Observer & Eccentric weekly community newspaper group in Southeastern Michigan, I used to complain about the “vulture journalism” practiced by the big city (i.e. Detroit) newspapers, “who couldn’t be bothered to get out into the suburbs that were the hometowns of hundreds of thousands unless there was blood in the streets. They’d swoop in, write the bloody street story, and swoop out, never to be seen again.”

Sadly, polling seems to be filling the emerging vacuum in enterprise political reporting. And as a result, “polling” is getting too big for its britches. And newspapers, especially the small ones that catch the everyday divinity of local lives, are getting pounded.

Which brings me to something we’re trying to do at our nonprofit and nonpartisan Center for Michigan. As alert readers know, we published last month “Michigan Speaks,” a detailed report on nearly 5,500 Michiganders who participated in our recent public engagement campaign. In community conversation groups of 15-20, they sat for a couple hours in rooms all over our state, talking thoughtfully and respectfully about the policy issues of the day.

They used “clickers” to rank order their priorities, and scribes took down quotes and personal anecdotes. The exercise wasn’t really polling; perhaps it’s best described as “deliberative democracy.” And it offers a distinctive route to understand the attitudes and preferences of Michigan voters.

And we realized that for the 424 candidates for the state house and senate in the August 5 primary election, Michigan Speaks is a valuable roadmap to understanding the hopes and fears of the Michigan electorate. So we’re sending to each candidate every week until the election something we call the “Winning Edge,” which describes in detail Michigan voters’ views on a variety of subjects. We can’t, and don’t, take sides. (The Center is a 501(c)3 nonpartisan, nonprofit prohibited by our tax standing from partisan political activity). But we do want candidates to campaign with a full understanding of the feelings and attitudes of the voters.

Polls measure (or purport to measure) momentary attitudes of the electorate. They don’t pretend to offer a way to understand where those attitudes come from. Our community conversations do.
Sure, the outgoing House Majority Leader was from Virginia, not Michigan. However, he just might have done better if he had the chance to make use of something like our Winner’s Edge.

And I still mourn the demise of countless local newspapers that used to help us all understand our hometowns and the people in them.

Facts matter. Trust matters. Journalism matters.

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Tue, 06/24/2014 - 8:45am
If you have Gannett as your primary local paper you know you are not going to get anything substantial in political coverage, it is just a fact of life these days. Budget cuts have reduced local coverage to reporters listening to the police scanner for stories and little else of substance.
Pamela Nelson
Tue, 06/24/2014 - 8:48am
As more households give up their landline phones, they are less likely to be contacted by pollsters. My husband and I still have a landline phone. It rings several times a day, every day including Sunday, with political callers, robo-calls, and solicitations from non-profits. Our cell phones are immune to all of that. I wonder if the sample provided by the diminishing group of landline phone users is having an effect on the accuracy of the polls.
brenda Redding
Tue, 06/24/2014 - 11:09am
Keep asking us, we are interested and we will keep on talking....
Tue, 06/24/2014 - 2:33pm
I mourn them too Phil. It's so tough to get good information on local mayoral race for instance. We're headed tomorrow night to a forum that will have only the democratic nominees (Perhaps that's all there is in A2, don't really know, no matter how hard we try to stay abreast of all this). Same thing in relation to the seletion of new high school principals for two of our three high schools here in Ann Arbor. It's quite tragic, but your service fills in some gaps Barb
Wed, 06/25/2014 - 11:57am
I have a land line but never respond to calls except from known acquaintances. So my opinion is not counted. Maybe there should be a poll of those who respond and those who do not?!! How to do it? ??????. On a different note, I listened to part of the report of the Bipartisan Commission on Political Reform yesterday. Jennifer Granholm was a member. The ideas were thought provoking. I especially like the idea of keeping our representatives and senators in DC for three weeks to work on legislation and then give them a week to return home, instead of the present way of coming Tuesday and leaving Thursday every week. Thanks, Phil, for what you are trying to do to help Michigan become a state with citizens who know the issues, think about them and make decisions on the facts.
M Kondziolka
Sun, 06/29/2014 - 5:44am
It is heartening to hear someone who had an actual business interest in the past “for-profitability” of print journalism morn its loss, even though the business model no longer easily creates financial value for the owners. The true value in the delivery of journalistic rigor is NOT in its ability to line an owners pockets; it is in its ability to educate and inform a readership about the daily context – social, political, economic and cultural -- of the lives we lead. The fact that the old business model of journalism (print newspapers) can no longer turn a profit for publishers does not diminish this deeper, inherent value or the moral obligation to continue to find a way to deliver it. Frankly, it’s existential. I am not being nostalgic about newspapers (an accusation often leveled at me when I express this sentiment;) I am being nostalgic for meaningful, pertinent information and analysis to frame the local context of my daily life. And I am being nostalgic for a commonly agreed up local instrument for its delivery that we, by in large, all participate in. (I know, I am being a bit idealistic here.) Having devoted the majority of my life to not-for-profit cultural work, the never-ending stumping my organization undertakes to make the case for the inherent value of our mission, and the importance of its delivery, is at the heart of our being. For better or worse, this, I suppose, is the model for true journalism moving forward. Clearly, Bridge has figured that out. Thanks.