Monday, November 2, 2020
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It's Monday, November 2nd, 2020. I'm Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
The Age of the Numbers: Deeper Thoughts About the Numbers (and Ideologies) Behind Polling and Politics
An American general election appears like a dot on the far horizon, and appears there immediately after the previous general election. As you look back to 2016, as soon as the election was over, the entire political constellation adjust to the new reality and then pivots towards the next election. Now, for reasons we're going to understand today, that is particularly, acute this year, for one reason, that hasn't been noted by many, but nonetheless, let's just consider the fact that by now in this cycle, most Americans are deadly tired of having to deal with the entire issue, because once you get within about 18 months of a general election, it begins to eat up virtually all of the oxygen. And most of the media attention, all the political attention, the prognostication, the cultural conversation, it all begins to turn to the election. First to the primary process, who will be the nominees, and then to the general election. By now, sheer exhaustion has set in.
And as we know, in every election, given what is at stake, it's not just exhaustion, it is also a not inconsiderable amount of animosity. We're tired of hearing other people talk about the election and we're tired of having to think about it. But for intelligent Christians trying to think carefully about this, we've got, well, a few more days of having to think about it. But we don't have to think about it just the way that the rest of the world is thinking about it. We have to think about some deeper issues. Now, of course, what will be the focus of all the prognostication today, it's going to be, what's going to happen tomorrow? And that's understandable. But we also come to understand that this year, what happens tomorrow might not be known tomorrow. And that's because we are redefining in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, what it means to have an election or to hold an election.
By the way, when we talk of going to the polls, the Wall Street Journal reminds us that, that language comes from the business of raising cattle in the United States. Over a century ago, the polls became the way of counting the heads of the cattle. And that's pretty much what it comes down to when counting the votes. It is a matter of math, but it's not a matter of just counting the heads of cattle. It's also a matter of keeping track with millions and millions of Americans trying to vote in what amounts to a myriad of ways. We're looking at the reality unprecedented in American history. Let's understand that as of today, over 90 million Americans have voted already. So when we're talking about election day for about a third of the American population almost, that's in the past, not in the future, but still we don't know the results even of those votes.
And in some states, that's another issue, we won't know for a matter of days. In the case of at least a couple of states, even if the entire machinery and process works as is now indicated, it's going take a matter of days over a week. In the state of North Carolina, the ballots can be counted so long as they're postmarked on election day, up until 12 days after the election day, tomorrow. So here's one issue for Christians to understand, and especially Christians who live through the contested election of 2000, it is not healthy for our republic, that we do not have some kind of conclusion on election day. Now, President Trump has spoken of that with some frustration, Joe Biden is speaking of that with a bit of hope, because as you look at the votes that are likely to come in late, they tend to come in blue, which is to say, Democratic.
A greater percentage of Republicans are likely to vote in person. A greater percent of Democrats are likely to vote by some alternative means. And that means that, even as you're looking at the timing, the timing might itself be partisan. So at least one possibility that Christians need to consider in the 2020, American general election is that, indeed, are likely not to know anything light final results by election night. But that doesn't mean we won't know anything. As we're looking at the possibilities, the possibilities are actually not quite endless. That's because when we're looking at the patterns in American general elections, several things often apply. They pertain. It comes down to this, when you're looking at the patterns of American general elections, even though they vary, they generally do not vary widely. As you're looking over the course of, let's say, the last 10 American presidential elections, you do see a pattern that though it is not without exceptions, does often simply hold.
And that means that, as you're looking at certain states, they are predictably red or predictably blue. And with them as assigned a number and the electoral college, which amounts to the total of their seats in the House of Representatives, plus their two Senate seats, you put all that together and you understand, we know pretty much, at least by the time we see the vote in those States, where those electors are going to go. We also have extensive polling. And the polling's not irrelevant, but as we well know, the polling is not perfect. Furthermore, the polling's political. Now, at this point, let's talk about that for a few moments, because we haven't addressed it thus far on The Briefing in this cycle. How has polling done and why is polling itself political? How is it that if you're talking about numbers, you have Republican-influenced polls and Democratic-influenced polls?
Why do the two campaigns have polls that often appear at least the way they're reported to be, rather widely divergent? You have the major media polls, you have university-based polls. All of them by the way, are trying to get one thing. And that is, attention. There's no point in having a poll if nobody cares about it. And so, as you're looking at the array of polling and pollsters, one of the things you have to recognize is that, these are themselves effects of what we might call, the numbers age. But just as an exercise of the imagination, let's go back in history to, King Henry VIII, the Britain. Let's ask him if he cares about his poll numbers. If he cares about the various levels of support or lack of support. What's the favor ability rating experienced by Henry VIII. He doesn't know, and he doesn't care.
And for that matter, no one can tell. There might be a general impression, and that general impression might become concrete and a rebellion here, or a rebellion there, or a show of massive support, but no King in the time of Henry VIII, or frankly, thereafter, is going to trust that kind of evidence in order to secure the throne. No it's power that secures the throne. But two interesting context changed all that. The first was electoral democracy and the second was the rise of a consumer economy. Now they came not exactly at the same time, but driven by the same cultural opportunity. So you have the rise of the electoral process. And that means that, those who have the right to vote, have the right to have their vote registered. And all of a sudden, they count. The story in the United States is about the continual expansion.
After about a century of not expanding the vote, it did expand such that, by the time you get to the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act of the 1960s, you have all Americans, men and women, the women could vote effective exactly 100 years ago. And as you're looking at men and women, who are citizens of the United States, who regardless of race or ethnicity or creed, regardless of the fact that they do or do not own real estate, they can vote. So now we have a universal franchise for citizens in the United States. But going back to the very beginning of the American experience in voting and elections, there had to be some way of having some anticipation of how the votes might turn out. Now, also remember that before modern communications, you did not know how it was likely to turn out, even in the election of 1860, when Abraham Lincoln was elected President of the United States.
Once the polls were in and it was known that Lincoln had been elected, the words still had to get to the West Coast, and for at least some of those miles, it still required the pony express. But those two developments changed everything. The rise of an electoral democracy. You want to know how to count the votes even before the votes happen. And then secondly, the rise of a consumer economy, people are now buying things. We're not only citizens, we are also consumers and we're buying things and people are trying to sell us both candidates and products. But then there were two other huge developments that many Christians might not think about. One was, when I mentioned the age of the numbers, it's not that numbers didn't exist before, is that no one knew exactly how to get them or what to do with them. But you have the modern science of statistics and all the kinds of accumulating numbers and offerings statistical surveys and statistical reports, that came even before the end of the 19th century.
Then what was the second development? The computer. The ability to use computation machines in order to crunch those numbers and devise meanings to those numbers, recognize patterns, all of that was another development and that changed everything. So the polls that have been taking place in recent months and weeks are only possible because of the age of numbers, the age of computation and computers, and the age of the citizen and to the consumer, because the very same mechanisms that are used to try to get your vote, are the mechanisms that are used to try to get you to buy this product rather than that product. Everybody's selling something, and the numbers in the computers help them.
Seen but Not Seen: Big Issues Lie Under the Surface in a General Election
But then there's another issue that Christians ought to think about here. It gets back to that war of competing polls. Why does it matter? It's because numbers actually drive numbers.
Here's a weird thing. Americans tend to want to end up in the majority of almost any poll. Over time, they tend to gravitate towards what they are told is the majority position. To put it another way, people like to vote for the winner, or at least to be able to say they had voted for the winner. So as they have an impression of who is likely to win, at least to some margin of Americans, move towards where they think the momentum is pointing to the winter. Thus, you have both candidates in the presidential election, who are claiming polls indicating that he is ahead. And that's for again, two reasons. We have the number two today, coming up again, and again. One is internal and one is external. The internal reason is, your own supporters are less likely to actually get out and vote, if they think you're not going to win. They're more likely to go to the energy to make certain, they get out and vote and that their vote is counted, if they think that vote might matter towards a win for their chosen candidate.
If the candidate or the party admits, we're not quite sure we're going to win, that depresses the turnout. The second reason is not internal it's external. And that is, there is in the United States, even now, at least some margin of people who aren't clearly Democrat. They're not clearly Republican. It's actually, we should note a fairly small margin. We'll talk about that tomorrow. But nonetheless, that margin wants to end up on the right side of the election. Now, just in case we're looking for some evidence of that, just take the Super Bowl. Numerous studies have indicated that, as you look at the Super Bowl, you have two teams, yet you have millions and millions of people watching the game, and many of them aren't particularly attached to either one of the two teams.
And so as you look at the two teams, now they have their own fan base and we assume their fan base is rooting for them. But what about the other tens of millions of Americans watching the Super Bowl, who don't really care about those two teams? Here's the thing, it turns out that more people after the game, claim to have pulled for the team that won than was indicated before the game. So that tells you something about human nature. We want to be seen as having been on the winning side. Now that doesn't drive everything, but of course, when you're looking at politics, you're not trying to drive everything, you're just trying to drive enough to make up victory for yourself on your party on election day. Whether or not the polls turn out to be accurate or not, well, your big concern is, you can't admit that they're not looking positive until the election is completely concluded.
But then of course, you look at 2016 and the big shock then in the age of advanced algorithms and quantum computing is the fact that, the pollsters turned out to have been wrong, overwhelmingly wrong. And that led to not only the fact that the pollsters were embarrassed, but it also led to the fact that conservatives in the United States and in particular, President Trump and his supporters accused the polls of manipulating the data in order to try to defeat President Trump in the 2016 election. Was that true or not? Well, you can simply look at the polls themselves and know that the vast majority of them are actually funded by, sponsored by, and usually even named for, parts of the entire society that tend to lean left. So how's it all going to add up on Tuesday? We'll, we'll find out that we might not find out Tuesday.
We all want to find out as soon as possible because we understand what is at stake. We also care about the integrity of the electoral process and getting the numbers sooner rather than later, and more clearly, rather than more confusing. All of that helps to build trust in the democratic process. But the tension in the race of 2020 has been significantly heightened by the fact that, in the last few days, even those polls and the polls that are undertaken on behalf of the democratic party in the Biden campaign, are demonstrating a closing of the gap, a narrowing of the race. Particularly, in a state like Florida that had been reported as leaning Biden, sometimes by as much as 10%, it is now considered a toss-up. And the Democrats appear to be admitting that it is so.
Yesterday, the Washington Post, that is the most influential newspaper in the nation's capital, kind of ground zero, you might say, for electoral interest, they had multiple articles on the election, of course. But at least one of them indicated that, it could be reassuring to Democrats that Biden is still ahead in the state of Pennsylvania.
Again like Florida, crucial to both candidates, but particularly, crucial to President Trump as the race unfolds. But another article published yesterday at the Washington Post, indicates that there is now a narrowing in Pennsylvania, such that Democrats are afraid that their margin has effectively disappeared. But at the same time, it also appears that at least some polls are indicating that the state of Georgia and the state of Texas. Traditionally, very red states, that is to say, Republican, also are in a situation, in which the polling is indicating that there could be a shift. Is it enough to switch the state? Probably not, but probably is a word that at this point to both campaigns is extremely dangerous.
The Incumbent vs. the Challenger, Continuity vs. Change — An Old Electoral Reality in a New Era
But next we need to shift to a different question that's also on the ballot. And that has to do with the difference between an incumbent and a challenger.
Now, this is a unique race. We're going to talk about a couple of ways in which it is unique. One of the dimensions of uniqueness in the 2020 race is that, you have the incumbent President, Donald Trump, running against someone who's been in politics as President Trump likes to point out, for about 47 years. Joe Biden, one of the most establishment of all establishment politicians in the United States. And the Senate for a matter of decades, chairman of the Senate judiciary committee, vice-president of the United States for two terms. And this is by most counselees, his third race for the White House.
But the point I'm seeking to make here is actually made in two different editorials published in recent days in the Wall Street Journal. The Wall Street Journal is one of the establishment newspapers in the United States, but its opinion page leans considerably more conservative, or you might say, less liberal, than the other papers in the mainstream media, such as the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, you could go on and on and include of course the Washington Post.
But there are two different editorials. They ran two days apart in the Wall Street Journal. One of them was entitled, "The Trump Referendum." And this particular editorial is a statement by the editorial board that the essence of the 2020 presidential election is whether or not, voters will re-elect, Donald Trump, to a second term. Now that again, is something helpful for Christians to think about. When we are presented with a choice, in which the choice is continuation or change, it really gets set up that way, regardless of who is associated with the continuation and who is associated with the change. Now that doesn't mean that Americans always go for change. They sometimes don't like the candidate identified with change. They would prefer to stay with the candidate of continuity. Just consider the massive landslides, won by candidates such as Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon, as they were running for re-election to the United States, a massive pattern of landslide.
But consider the fact that, in recent decades, there have also been presidents such as Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama, who have had far closer races. In their cases, successful races for re-election. In the case of Barack Obama, the interesting thing is, that he actually had a lower vote for reelection than he did for election in the year 2008. So as you're looking at a presidential election, when you have an incumbent president running for re-election, there are massive assets to that incumbent president. You get to fly on Air Force One, you're introduced as president of the United States. You dominate the headlines. For good or for ill, you take up most of the oxygen, but that's the point of the Wall Street Journal editorial. Having taken up most of the oxygen and received mostly attention, flying on Air Force One, you are considered by voters, largely responsible for the state of affairs. And if voters like the state of affairs, they may well like you. If they don't like the state of affairs, they might not like you.
And so there's the combination of the person, that is the candidate and the particular moment, which is the context. And it always comes down in this context, to whether or not a majority of Americans want to keep the president they have. And this can be enormously fickle. It can change quickly in ways no one could predict. If you were to rewind American political history a year, virtually, everyone in the leadership of both parties, assume that, Donald Trump, would not have a very difficult time gaining a second term. What changed? What changed was COVID-19 and all that came with it. Now there's more to it than that, but there's not less to it than that. The political context has changed. The economy has changed, especially in the experience of some people who read the economy through their individual experience, and that's understandable too. The reality is that it comes down to a sense of feeling or intuition on the parts of many Americans who don't after all think very deeply about their vote. They vote the way they feel.
Now, the biggest danger to, President Trump, in this regard is that, at no point in the nearly four years of his presidency has his approval rating exceeded 50%. But on the other hand, his base is the most energetic base in the history of any recent American politics. Perhaps in American politics for the better part of the last several decades, if not centuries. The fervor of President Trump's base has been acknowledged on both sides of the political equation. There is no doubt that the Republican base for, President Trump, has considerably more energetic and excited than the Democratic base, which after all and their own view had to settle for, Joe Biden. The Democratic base is leaning considerably to the left, and that means the left of Joe Biden. They've settled for Joe Biden, because he was able to gain the nomination, but they are not going to settle for Joe Biden in terms of the issues on which he ran, especially, early in the primary process.
The Joe Biden, who was emerged as the 2020 Democratic candidate, is not the Joe Biden, we knew in the Senate, it's not the Joe Biden, who was the vice-president to Barack Obama. It's not the Joe Biden who entered the Democratic primaries, even in this cycle. This is a Joe Biden, who has moved considerably to the left.
So the first of the editorials I mentioned in the Wall Street Journal, was entitled "The Trump Referendum." The second is entitled, "The Biden contradiction." Now, what would be the contradiction? It'd come down to this, Joe Biden, is running as a moderate, but the positions on which he is running are not moderate at all. They represent the ascendent left in the Democratic party. That's the contradiction that the editors are pointing to. The subhead of the editorial, "He's running on COVID and character, but his party wants much more." The Wall Street Journal editorial concerning, President Trump, pointed out that, in a recent Gallup poll, 56% of Americans said they are better off by their own impression than they were four years ago.
That's 56%. Now, remember, Ronald Reagan, won a massive landslide effort at re-election in 1984, but at that point, only 44% of Americans said they were better off than four years ago. President Trump is running 10% higher than Ronald Reagan by that category, but he's not running like Ronald Reagan, when it comes to approval ratings concerning himself.
And that's his great challenge. The challenge on the other side is that, Joe Biden. Largely with the complicity, I would say, the mainstream media has effectively run a campaign, which is negative towards President Trump, but not very disclosive. And I would say, intentionally camouflaging the positions and policies by which he would actually govern, if he is elected president of the United States. You hear some commentators talking about the fact that, Joe Biden, has successfully run a campaign by trying to avoid the so-called wedge issues. Well, that's almost entirely due to the fact that, the mainstream media are not forcing him to answer the questions that they know will polarize some in the electorate and cost him votes.
But that brings us to the final issue in the Wall Street Journal editors address it directly, when it comes to Joe Biden. They speak about his physical and mental condition. The editors, and remember, this is the Editorial Board of the Wall Street Journal, writing officially in its own voice, "He looks increasingly like an old 77, his campaign strategy of letting them out only once or twice a day and his refusal to take nearly all media questions, isn't reassuring. The truth is," said the editors, "that Americans don't know if Joe Biden's clear deterioration from even four years ago, his routine aging or something more serious." But that brings us to a final factor that I hear almost no one mentioning when it comes to the 2020 race. It is likely to determine who will be president regardless of the outcome for four years, because it's impossible constitutionally for, Donald Trump, to run for a third term, if he wins a second term. But it is also extremely unlikely that, Joe Biden, would run for a second term, if he wins a first term in the 2020 election.
And the former vice-president has basically signaled that, speaking of himself as a transitional figure in his own party. And so dear listeners to The Briefing, trying to think through these issues intelligently, here's a bit of ominous news for you. Regardless of what happens tomorrow in the polls, the race for the 2024 Presidential Election will start at some point after midnight, on Tuesday night. And that brings us to one last, if dark observation. One thing that's often not mentioned with that as the factor, that is that the 2024 race is going to begin the day after the 2020 election is over, there are people who see themselves as potential candidates for 2024 in both parties, both Republicans and Democrats. Who have probably come to the conclusion that their own personal political futures might be more promising, if the nominee of their own party loses rather than wins.
Yes, I'll conclude with this, it takes a very strong doctrine of original sin to understand politics, anywhere, anytime in a fallen world.
Thanks for listening to The Briefing.
For more information, go to my website at albertmohler.com. You can follow me on Twitter by going to twitter.com/albertmohler. For information on The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to sbts.edu. For information on Boyce College, just go to boycecollege.com.
I'll be speaking at a conference at the Cove of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association the next three days. So I'll be speaking to you from Asheville, North Carolina.
And I'll meet you again tomorrow, for The Briefing.