The real losers last night — not that anyone is likely to take real notice — were the pollsters. This is not the case because we had a wave election, because a number of people were predicting that. The surprises all came in the margins.
Races that were not supposed to be close, like Warner and Gillespie in Virginia, were close. Races that were supposed to be close, like Kentucky, weren’t close at all. This kind of thing happened in state after state, in race after race. Now when this happens from time to time, as it does, the one-off surprise is chalked up to the electorate having wild mood swings. The twenty point spread between the poll results the week before the election and the actual election results is attributed to a whole bunch of people making up or changing their minds. But it is actually the result of the very nature of polling itself.
What happens in a poll is that 2,000 people are asked their views, the necessary “scientific” adjustments are made, and this is then assumed to be the mindset of three million people. The reasoning process is called induction, where you are going from the particular to the general. Whether or not that reasoning is strong or weak depends entirely on whether your sample size is representative. Of course, you don’t know whether it is representative or not until after the election, at which point you should calibrate your methods. But we have now gotten to the point where the poll results are treated as mini-elections, with settled results, and the elections are treated as big elections, also with settled results.
What ought to happen is that our pollsters should be on television this morning, acting like a local teevee weatherman who has had to deal with multiple irate callers who had to shovel three feet of partly cloudy off their driveways. “Folks, this is not an exact science . . .” At its best, polling is educated guessing. At its worst, it is wish fulfillment therapy. At its best, polling is having thousands of conversations with people in the run-up to an election. At its worst, it is little better than telling the king which way he should go because your guild is the best haruspicy firm in the business.
Only God knows the end from the beginning. Mortal men want to know the future and they cannot. Mortal men want to know the future so badly that they are willing to pay big money for any plausible account. And much of the time, it can all seem pretty plausible — because the voting public is following the polls also and many times a reinforcement theme is created. Polls can and do create real momentum, and really can affect the outcome. But of course, if a bald eagle happened to land on a general’s helmet right before the battle, that could affect the outcome as well.
In all this, we should remember Isaiah’s taunt. “Shew the things that are to come hereafter, That we may know that ye are gods. Yea, do good, or do evil, That we may be dismayed, and behold it together” (Is. 41:23). Whatever else we may say about the political results of this election — and I would want to say that the unraveling of Obama’s apotheosis is almost complete — we can also take comfort in the fact that many of our nation’s soothsayers had their pointy cone hat knocked off, the one with the stars and crescent moons on it.