Moon of Alabama Brecht quote
May 08, 2015

Using Head-To-Head Polls To Decide Elections

One trick in national electioneering is to portrait the likely though narrow incumbents as the underdog in the run up to election day. Those doing the pools and the media who favor the likely winner will then propagandize a head to head race in which the opposition is slightly in front.

This helps the incumbents in two regards. It mobilizes their own marginal voters who now fear a victory of the demonized opposition. FUD - fear, uncertainty, doubt is their election tool. It also lets opposition leaders feel somewhat secure and to let them soften their campaign promises and announced policies. This then turns off their marginal voters.

We have seen this scheme over and over again. The German election in 1965 was a prime example. The poll institutions in favor of the conservatives published numbers that showed a possible and even likely opposition win. The conservative press and the conservative voters were mobilized by this and the opposition was distracted from more radical and popular policies it should have promoted. The outcome was defying the false polls and a conservative win by a wide margin ensued.

The recent elections in Israel saw the use the same trick. The likely outcome, so was said, was a loss for Netanyahoo to the (slightly) more liberal opposition. This helped Netanyahoo to mobilize the more radical parts of his base by warning of the "great dangers" a opposition win would lead to. He won.

The Conservatives in Britain, their supporting pollsters and the conservative supporting press (most of British media) also used this tactic. Even the final polls showed Labour and Conservatives being head to head but the election was a wide win for the Conservatives. While party leaders will resign over the "unexpected" losses no pollster will be disqualified, even when they should be, and they will therefore use the same trick again in the next elections. Instead of going for a more social policy, as it should have done during the campaign, Labour will continue to move to the right. This will marginalize it further just like several such moves by the social-democratic SPD in Germany which are leading to its demise.

Next time you see a head to head prognosis by this or that pollster be aware that the real numbers may well differ and that the published polls are just one trick of the campaign trade.

2020 may see a not-so-great-anymore Britain without Scotland and outside of the EU. I can't think of anyone who would lose tears over that turn of history.

Posted by b on May 8, 2015 at 10:50 UTC | Permalink


Same thing happened to Mark Udall in his race for re-election in Colorado. The polls generally showed him .6 percent behind the Tea Party Cory Gardner, or slightly ahead by the same percent. "Done to the wire" said the Denver Post.

Gardner won by 6 percent.

Posted by: okie farmer | May 8 2015 12:39 utc | 1

It could just be the media trying to generate excitement. The SNP win in Scotland should make for some interesting politics. They've promised to get rid of Trident. It's their biggest bargaining chip.

Posted by: dh | May 8 2015 13:05 utc | 2

The only issue was Tony Blair. Conservative voters vote the way they vote. Worrying about this is like worrying about foxnews or whether the sun will rise in the east. More people voted against Cameron with plenty sitting out. The pollsters use projections based on previous models, and the real question is why didn't Milliband win those anti-Cameron votes and non-voters. The answer is people on the edge don't care about vague promises to deal with the national debt or social issues.

@1 As far as Udall goes, tepid support of abortion rights isn't enough to motivate potential non-voters. The polls predicted higher youth and minority turnout who are the biggest losers in the Obama economy. The polling is just polling. The Republican turnout in that race matched demographic trends. Polling didn't drive conservatives into voting in the election. Udall lost the election. Yes, it wasn't a presidential year, but Udall lost 400 thousand votes largely in urban areas. Gardner didn't win those votes.

Posted by: NotTimothyGeithner | May 8 2015 13:09 utc | 3

It sounds logical. Polls create fear and that would influence hesitant voters into changing their mind at the last minute.
In Turkey, the polling companies who are against Erdogan should use that trick by announcing an overwhelming victory for the AKP that may trigger hesitant voters to vote against.

Posted by: virgile | May 8 2015 13:21 utc | 4

It's raining here in Britain; the heavens are crying the day after the night before. 5 more damned years of the Conservatives.

Ed Miliband, leader of the Labour opposition, was instrumental in preventing the bombing run against Syria two years ago. He has always been despised by Murdoch's vehemently pro-Israeli media empire. It was assumed Miliband would also have gone on to recognise Palestine once Prime Minister. He's now defeated. I can't believe it.

The Middle East and North Africa had better look out as the British PM seeks to secure future multi-million dollar post-PM consultancy contracts from Gulf despots in return for foreign policy commitments.

5 more fucking years.

Posted by: Pat Bateman | May 8 2015 14:04 utc | 5

Miliband was milquetoast personified,but Cameron sucks.Jeez,go Scotland!

Posted by: dahoit | May 8 2015 14:06 utc | 6

Yes, go Scotland. Please, just go.

Posted by: Pat Bateman | May 8 2015 14:13 utc | 7

Yes, it's a tool of the trade used to generate viewer interest. I watched with amazement how the BBC made Erdogan's assured election appear to be a horse race. The moment it was over, the story disappeared. I don't think they even bothered to announce that Erdogan had won.

What's truly amazing is how lousy the polls are. It should give Hillary pause...

Posted by: JohnH | May 8 2015 14:15 utc | 8

@8 Bill is now claiming the '94 sentencing law he signed was written incorrectly. Bill can read if his cronies and Hillary can't. He recognizes the connection between the economy, the 2014 results, and the anger in Baltimore where Team Blue saw a major drop in the 2014 governor's race. Let's be honest, Hillary isn't as smart as Bill, and his cronies are guys like Begala and Carville. They can preach conventional wisdom but outside of befriending Bill they are by and large losers. Hillary managed to paint herself as trying to steal an election despite having more votes than Obama.

Posted by: NotTimothyGeithner | May 8 2015 14:52 utc | 9

well, the 'democratic' election is a kind of labored offshoot of three-card monte. it's a confidence game which, in fact, employs a similar psychology.

Posted by: john | May 8 2015 14:55 utc | 10

Speaking to the Jewish Chronicle recently Cameron [Posh Boy] said,“What I’ve seen is the attacks that take place on Israel and the indiscriminate nature of them. As PM, putting yourself in the shoes of the Israeli people, who want peace but have to put up with these indiscriminate attacks - that reinforces to me the importance of standing by Israel and Israel’s right to defend itself". That kind of observation from Cameron, a Gobshite of the first order, makes me want to take up arms myself.

Posted by: harry law | May 8 2015 15:33 utc | 11

Democrats should be able to read the handwriting very clearly now based on Labour's showing: Defeat is awaiting them come 2016 if they remain hitched to Hillary. The U.S. needs an equivalent of the SNP. But election law is so backward in the "greatest nation on earth" (an excellent book is Theresa Amato's Grand Illusion: The Myth of Voter Choice in a Two-Party Tyranny) there is zero chance of that happening.

Unless there is a "Dump Hillary" groundswell, look for the Dems to be routed in 2016 and the Republicans to control all branches of government. That's when things should get very lively.

Posted by: Mike Maloney | May 8 2015 15:53 utc | 12

Yeah, pundits were calling Udall, 'Mark Uterus'.

Posted by: okie farmer | May 8 2015 17:03 utc | 13

@Mike Maloney no. 12

I disagree. I think Hillary will beat any repub for the presidency. The fact that she is female will be enough to drag her across the finish line, primarily because it makes the dems look somehow more "progressive" than the repubs even though there is very little in terms of policy to distinguish the two parties.

Identity politics is what the dems do to market themselves as something different from the repubs. I think it will work again.

And sometimes socialist Sanders will make zero difference in a Hillary administration. She will drop the faux-populist sheen immediately.

Posted by: sleepy | May 8 2015 17:47 utc | 14

You might be right, Sleepy, but the Udall-Gardner race in Colorado that Okie Farmer and NTG reference at the top of the comments section is an argument against your position. Colorado is a swing state, increasingly Democratic. Udall ran almost exclusively a gender-based campaign in an attempt to spike turnout of women, and he got shellacked by the conservative Republican.

Gender is not enough. I work for a labor union, and have for many years. All I can tell you is what I hear almost every day, "I won't work for Hillary." Meaning -- I'm not going to doorbell or phone bank for another neoliberal New Democrat. Enough is enough.

Posted by: Mike Maloney | May 8 2015 18:03 utc | 15

@13 and 15,

On the eve of the election, the top team blue donor in Colorado chewed Udall out in public about an issueless campaign he was running during a speech to supporters.

Posted by: NotTimothyGeithner | May 8 2015 18:50 utc | 16

@14 I'm fairly confident the female issue helps nominal right wingers. During her race against Obama, she didn't win new female voters. Female voters already vote ed for the nominal left anyway.

Thatcher, Merkel, those Republican senators from Maine, and even le pen spring to mind. The female nominal left candidates win districts where a generic would win.

Posted by: NotTimothyGeithner | May 8 2015 19:04 utc | 17

#1 Gardner won by 2%, not 6.

Posted by: Inkan1969 | May 8 2015 20:10 utc | 18

Yeah, I'm not sure about Hillary. It's true progressives would see a woman as a positive for president, but There is such a heinous misogyny in the US, as well as a bloodlust from the general population about slaughtering foreigners, that they don't believe a woman can have enough thirst for innocencent blood overseas.

Posted by: tom | May 8 2015 20:22 utc | 19

I think b's analysis is an oversimplification.
I knew Cameron was going to win despite the polls because I had witnessed similar media tactics in NZ last year where there is proportional representation, where the ersatz left party also ironically named "The Labour Party" had a leader whose neoliberal credentials were considered questionable.
Which is to say he was a lawyer who had been through all the neolib training hoops. He spouted the neolib tosh about free markets etc, BUT he owed his party leadership to some rather crafty work by the ever shrinking left faction of the parliamentary party.
Before the campaign he had made some statements expressing his unwillingness to support the TPPA and when he was a minister in the last Labour government he made some calls as minister of telecommunications which favoured consumers ahead of investors.

Personally I had written him off as just another neolib, but that message hadn't gotten out to the elites running media who expended more effort in the electikon denigrating the bloke than they lauding his tory opponent (which they did as well of course). They also persuaded the more loudmouthed sellout is his own party to white ant him throughout the campaign.

The media and their pollsters claimed the race was going to be far tighter than it was there too.

Because it was a proportional representation election attacks on the really leftist parties (which Labour would need if it won and incredibly decided to run with humanist policies) were dirty tricks the like of which had never been seen in Aotearoa before then. I won't dwell on them (a) because it still stresses me even now 8 months later and (b) because it's not really germane to this discussion.

We can see that the last 15 years of politics in the west has pretty much been about making it as though the 20th century never happened. That the social conditions which promoted peace, equality, access for all to health and education, a roof over the head and freedom from capitalism's worst excesses, most of which had been implemented in the 20th century, are now going or already gone.

The next step is to prevent them from ever returning.
This is being done through treaties like the TPPA and TISA ( Trade In Service Agreement) , TTIP and CETA.

For those who may be unaware of TISA it is probably the most egregious of all the 'treaties'. All of these prevent governments from legislating in a way that may cause a corporation to make less income than they otherwise would have done. TPPA and TTIP are about trade and copyright law and oppressively preventing governments from providing free or cheap healthcare. The most well known example is preventing tobacco companies from doing as they want.

TISA goes further, it stops governments from regulating banks or insurance companies, plus any govt attempting cessation of the privatisation of education by regulating Charter schools or the like.

THe beauty of achieving these awful goals through treaties is that for much of these changes (all negotiated in secret the little we know is thanks to a few whistleblowers) is that in countries like NZ where executive control of foreign affairs resides with the government of the day, much of this stuff becomes law on signing of the treaty without the need for enabling legislation or messy and contentious debate.

In amerika where legislation will be necessary there's gonna be a 15 to 20 year 'implementation' holiday.

Any post sign-up discussion has to be in front of 'tribunals' most likely the recently renamed "National Arbitration Forum" now known as Forum Inc - I guess they didn't think Trans-National Arbitration Forum would run well for pols trying to keep the people calm and docile.

Back to the englander election.
It would be a mistake to call the media efforts to ensure people vote 'correctly' prior to the big treaty sign ups a conspiracy. The attacks against Cunliffe in NZ (I have little doubt he would have signed) indicate that there was no 'Mr X' running the show plotting every move.
Rather there appears to be a template (a bit like the Hasbara manual only much more wide ranging) agreed upon by the major media proprietors, setting out how to cover elections in the lead up to the people's complete loss of political power.

p.s. apologies for typos the old peepers struggle to render print.

Posted by: Debs is dead | May 9 2015 4:30 utc | 20

@20 debs is dead. thanks. nice post.. any ideas how it could unfold any different? that sounds very discouraging..

Posted by: james | May 9 2015 4:42 utc | 21

@james I wish I did. I can think of methods that may work but those all require support from sufficient people - not enough people care about this stuff - yet. Even if these treaties don't get fully implemented, I seriously doubt that the elites will find it necessary to push so hard on populations that sufficient people unite against them for at least another generation.
Sadly plenty of people are gonna cop it tough but at least initially many people who should know better will dismiss what is happening because it is happening to others. These 'others' are likely to be unwhite/migrants/ muslims etc.

Historically the sort of unthinking oppression which convinces sufficient people to resist and beat em rather than go along to get along, only comes once inherited wealth has passed thru one or two generations.
Once there simply isn't enough power and/or money for everyone who believes they were 'born into it' to grab a share large enough to satisfy themselves these wannabe elites begin taking foolish risks with the inherent good-naturedness of people so as to secure more for themselves.

Then people get the shits - really get the shits. It is bad enough being screwed by some asshole smart enough to think up a method of getting fettle deep into the trough, but having yourself and your family fucked over by someone who inherited everything they have and is stupid to boot, disturbs the most complacent of humans. So much so that they forget the people they are allying with are unwhite/gay/migrants or whatever.

Posted by: Debs is dead | May 9 2015 6:35 utc | 22

In the USA it seems the 'race' is billed as 'neck and neck' - especially when it isn't - to enable the electronics to throw the election to the one who is actually well-behind in the popular vote but well-in-the-hands of the people who run the electronics.

Had the polls shown the candidate actually preferred by the voters to be well-ahead prior to the election, throwing the switch and having the ringer win would look a lot worse.

Since 2000 though ... they can do anything they want in the US. Or in Canada - now a wholly-owned subsidiary.

We zombified cogs are unsurprised.

Posted by: jfl | May 9 2015 7:34 utc | 23

"2020 may see a not-so-great-anymore Britain without Scotland and outside of the EU. I can't think of anyone who would lose tears over that turn of history." - And such a well-deserved turn... Thanks B for this post and for years of providing a different lens on reality

Posted by: Rabino Kuerbovich | May 9 2015 10:45 utc | 24

Debs @ 20 said..

" the social conditions which promoted peace, equality, access for all to health and education, a roof over the head and freedom from capitalism's worst excesses, most of which had been implemented in the 20th century, are now going or already gone."

"The next step is to prevent them from ever returning."

Yep, more of the same, here in the US in 2016.

Any candidate that seeks to change these conditions will NEVER be heard by the people.
Don't forget, e-voting, the greatest hoax ever, will get the results to further these ends.

Thje corporate form, uber alles.

Posted by: ben | May 9 2015 14:19 utc | 25

Yes, the right wing media and establishment were all for a tory / LibCon coalition victory as usual and doubtless this plays a large role both in shaping a right-wing world view based on lies imbibed, and on the vote. In spite of this remember and know, please, Brits and all interested others: this government, with total power now to do what it likes, with no constitutional checks, gained this power legally with 36% of the vote, on a 62 (I think)% turnout. That's total power including over Scotland where they have NO MPs and most of England and Wales where they still have no majority, plus the 6 counties (N. Ireland) - none there either. 36% - so please don't use the word "elected" or "election" here. If this were Russia or Iran or another enemy du jour it would all be "disgusting... false 'victory'... rigged system to ensure one result."

But this would still be true of the "UK" (how I love that those "" now mean something!) system if Labour had "won". (How can you win when it's not a real election?). Labour "lost" for real reasons too - as b points out: they support asset stripping and legal robbery of the people (aka "austerity"), don't question stuff like Trident, support the WWIII narrative against Russia. In short nothing to inspire which is why they won bourgeois seats in London (where I live) but lost out a lot elsewhere - especially in their 'heartlands' (mostly the north) to big swings to UKIP - anti-immigration racist neo-libs but anti-EU too, so claiming (lying) to be anti-establishment. The SNP message is: a bit of real radicalism is popular, it works.

One more thing: the 'great' is a geographical term. A britain of separate nations would be a greater island because this would represent the weakenning of the slick, bloodthirsty establishment that have ruled for many hundreds of years, and the awakening of people and a potential normally only glimpsed between the cracks in the public official dominator culture.

Posted by: MadeNotBorn | May 9 2015 22:45 utc | 26

The conventional wisdom is that women will break for Hillary like minorities did for Obama. Women aren't that monolithic. Not every woman out there identifies as a feminist.

1. Hillary is too old to be the first elected female. She would be the second oldest Pres. after Reagan. How well did that work for McCAin in 08?

2. Young women don't vote. 25% turnout in 2014

3. Millennials are increasing seeing voting post Citizens United money orgy as exacerbating the corruption of the process. Not voting is fighting back against the oligarchy

4. Are blacks and Hispanics going to stand in the rain for nine hours to pull the Diebold slot machine for the Senator from Walmart?

5. As the scandals pile up on Hillary's Foundation/ServerGate 3 card monte, she will either refuse to engage the press or become shrill. Time is not her friend

6. Midwest is no longer blue

Posted by: Anunnaki | May 10 2015 3:05 utc | 27

@27 Women already vote Team Blue. They can only be lost. Geraldine Ferraro didn't exactly blunt the Reagan victory. Hillary, Bill, and Gore have all failed to attract marginal female voters. Generic Democrat did just as well as Hillary in her Senate race in 2000.

Posted by: NotTimothyGeithner | May 10 2015 15:32 utc | 28

Courtesy of today's links at Naked Capitalism, Raul Ilargi Meijer takes a look the UK's media and politics; A Functioning Democracy It’s Not.

He argues, in discussing the press, that the oligarchic owners of the British media gingered up fear of Milliband. First by falsely portraying him as some sort of radical. That Milliband and the corpse of the Labour party offered "austerity light" with less inequality than our regular austerity is well known. And then second, by misstating poll results. "They fear(ed) Milibland? I don’t believe that for a second. I think it’s much more likely that they’ve all intentionally exaggerated Milibland’s poll numbers to make it look like there was an actual race going on." This was drive up Conservative turn out.

I was not surprised to see Labour take the hit. I saw this over at the Jacobin, from 2012.

Is Your Hate Pure? Alexander Cockburn was in the habit of asking this of writers and staff; he had picked up the query from a former editor at Penthouse. "It was a good way of assaying interns. The feisty ones would respond excitedly, 'Yes, my hate is pure.'" I believe Milliband was at the Nation when Cockburn had his column there. Milliband's response, when asked, was to stammer "'I... I... don’t hate anyone, Alex.' It’s all you need to know."

Bill Black, in discussing election strategy and results at New Economic Perspectives notes Labour has "too many safe seats to commit complete political suicide...." But he adds, those safe seats in Scotland "political graveyards for many senior Labour leaders...." The progressive Scots "were disgusted by Labour’s leadership becoming 'Red Tories.' This was a continuation of Tony Blair and 'New Labour’s' embrace of the neoliberal economic dogmas that led to the corrupt culture of the City of London and economic disaster. Labour’s architect of its economically illiterate embrace of austerity was defeated in his MP contest."

Unlike the MSM spin, the rap vs. Labour is not the belated, limited "egalitarian" pose it struck. It's that it sold out its working-class base for the City of London's all-too-lucrative pottage.

Let me ask Christy Moore to explain how An Ordinary Man feels about the de-industrialization of England (and elsewhere) and the atomization of the working class. What has Labour, the Democrats, Parti Socialiste, etc. done about that?

Posted by: rufus magister | May 10 2015 16:28 utc | 29

Good old David Cameron, so loyal to Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation that even after the News of the World hacking scandal he was probably still in cahoots with its senior people to work out how to spin the opinion polls and talk up Labour's chances (and the fear of Tony Blair resurrected in Ed Mili-bland) in the elections so as to stampede people into voting Tory or SNP.

Posted by: Jen | May 10 2015 23:13 utc | 30

@Rufus #29

I read that too. What I took from it is that the left, Labor in this case, has gotten flabby and mushy in their messaging. They accommodate on austerity so have to separate on marginal social issues. Post 2008 most people are trying to make up for the social and economic devastation. Social issues aren't enough. They become an abstraction to those who lost everything in the collapse

The hostility of "social democrats" accommodation of trickle down enrages the Activist wing and is simply "meh" to independents and marginal voters

Considering the prevailing wisdom prior to the vote that Cameron was in trouble coupled with the result, should be a horrible shock to the Clintom campaign

That fate of irrelevance awaits Hillary. Start waiting to see stories on Hillary's "enthusiasm gap" problem. Getting people to show up to her rallies, going door to door or the worst for a money grabber like Hillary: not writing checks to her campaign

Posted by: Anunnaki | May 11 2015 1:14 utc | 31

Thanks for this analysis, b. It's possibly the most important subject you've turned your spotlight onto - generically speaking. Something has gone VERY wrong with Western "democracy" and it's quite disgusting to see how rapidly the dishonesty and irrelevantly "feisty" right-wing blather are accelerating.

Debs may be correct when he calls it an oversimplification, but there's no doubt in my mind that Joe Citizen's attention can only be grabbed by a resonant Short Version of the problem.

It strikes me that similar divide and conquer tactics are also being used to recruit "extremist" useful idiots for the West's destabilisation activities in the Muslim world.

In 2015 it's not just Muslims who are being outsmarted.

Posted by: Hoarsewhisperer | May 11 2015 17:16 utc | 32

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