Polls and Debates and Unintended Consequences

[Continuing our series on deception in politics and public policy.]

The world of public policy is full of messes created by government.

During World War II, the federal government imposed wage-and-price controls, which forced businesses that needed to increase employee compensation to do so by providing benefits such as health insurance, which tied people’s healthcare coverage to their jobs, which created a big problem when large numbers of people began changing jobs every few years (creating gaps in their coverage and worsening the “pre-existing condition” problem) and when large companies found themselves liable for the skyrocketing costs of employee and retiree healthcare. Meanwhile, the government forced hospital emergency rooms to treat people who lacked insurance, which encouraged many people to use ERs as their primary source of care. Together, those policies created a supposed crisis that was exploited by advocates of healthcare rationing to bring about a bureaucratic takeover of the healthcare system, which will deny modern healthcare to generations of Americans unless that takeover is reversed.

The federal courts outlawed the use of general intelligence tests to make hiring decisions (claiming that they discriminated based on race), which forced companies to substitute college degrees for IQ tests as a measure of intelligence, which actually increased the disadvantage of disadvantaged groups (they would have done better with the IQ tests), which led to the increasing use of so-called “affirmative” racism in college admissions on the ground that it was the only way to ensure that certain groups got a fair chance at getting the college degrees that would lead to good jobs, with the result that many people now assume that, say, an African-American with a college degree is less smart than a “white” person with the same degree. (See the racist insults that the Left hurls at Justice Clarence Thomas.) Meanwhile, as college degrees became more valuable—as those degrees were being used increasingly as criteria for good jobs—politicians and bureaucrats expanded student loan programs, which removed the main restriction on the cost of a college education (that the cost of a college education couldn’t be so high as to be unaffordable to the typical student). When it came to college tuition and fees, the sky became the limit, so tuition and fees doubled and tripled, trapping young people with huge debts. And when those debts can’t be paid, taxpayers will make up the difference, at least up to the point that the debts for Social Security, Medicare, federal guarantees for corporation pensions, federal guarantees for government pensions, and all the other unfunded or underfunded liabilities come together to bring down the whole system. (See Greece.)

They call such results “unintended consequences,” although any intelligent person could foresee these courses of events. In other words, they shoulda seen it coming. (For the record, I did; I wrote a paper in 1978 predicting what would happen on healthcare and one in 1993 predicting what would happen with the cost of college.)

…which bring us to this week’s Republican presidential debate.

Fox News, sponsor of the first primetime debate of the 2016 campaign, announced months ago that it would limit the debate to the top ten candidates according to national polls. (Candidates who don’t make the cut will participate in a second-tier debate earlier in the day.) This use of polls is silly, of course. Polls at this point in a presidential contest have little value in predicting the most serious contenders. When there are 17 serious or semi-serious candidates, most of the candidates are in single digits, with, typically, seven or eight of them bunched within a range of six or seven points. The standing of a given candidate can swing wildly based on random news events and the random fudge factors that are inherent in polling. Worse, using polls to determine the members of the top tier opens the entire system to manipulation—for example, candidates timing their announcements or making outrageous statements or getting into fights solely for the purpose of getting a short-term bump into the first tier. 

Besides, polling is an art. Like any art, it has a scientific basis. But much of what pollsters do is based on educated guesses and on their beliefs, rooted both in objective data and in ideology, about the nature of the electorate. In 2012, some polls seemed to give Romney a good chance to beat President Obama, and other didn’t. For the most part, the difference between the two classes of polls had little to do with the skill or honesty of the people conducting the poll in the field or of the people tabulating the data or analyzing it. Rather, the difference was the result of different models of the electorate—different predictions of who was going to show up at the polls. If you thought that African-Americans would show up to vote for the President in numbers like those seen in 2008, you would generate poll results that gave Mr. Obama a big lead. If you thought that the makeup of the 2012 electorate would look like that of 2010, you would generate poll results that looked good for Romney.

Polling is not objective. The best pollsters recognize this, and understand the limitations of their techniques, and do the best jobs they can with the tools they are given.

Yet Fox News is using polls to pick the top-tier candidates. However, as James Taranto points out on the Wall Street Journal website at http://www.wsj.com/articles/an-imperfect-10-1438622252, it’s not the fault of the folks at Fox News. It’s the fault of the government.

[I]t’s the culmination of federal regulation of campaigns—specifically, Section 13 of Part 110 of Subchapter A of Chapter 1 of Title 11 of the Code of Federal Regulations, which mandates: “For all debates, staging organization(s) must use pre-established objective criteria to determine which candidates may participate in a debate.” Such organizations also may not “structure the debates to promote or advance one candidate over another.”

Those rules expressly apply to news organizations, as well as to 501(c)(3) and 501(c)(4) nonprofits that “do not endorse, support, or oppose political candidates or political parties”—the only other type of group that is permitted to stage a debate.”

Federal bureaucrats wrongly consider polls to be “objective criteria,” so Fox News is allowed to use them to pick the candidates. If Fox News took a different route to the selection of participants—say, if it asked its political analysts to pick the most articulate candidates or the best-informed or the ones they considered most likely to win—it would be illegal. Also, if the organization changed the criteria at this point, now that people are complaining about the criteria wouldn’t be “pre-established.”

Yes, I know that the idea of the government regulating debates is disgusting. I know that it violates the U.S. Constitution, which states: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”  I know that, because it violates the U.S. Constitution, the regulation itself is illegal. Unfortunately, unless you want to go to jail or otherwise suffer the wrath of the federal government, you must follow such regulations unless and until the federal courts throw them out. (Given the anti-Constitution proclivities of most federal judges, don’t hold your breath!) So I don’t blame Fox News for following that idiotic regulation, although I would have favored two debates with a draw from the hat to select the participants in each.

Every major election attracts candidates who don’t really have a reasonable chance of winning, and because the inclusion of lots of minor candidates makes debates unworkable (say, 90 minutes divided among 17 candidates), the regulation has the effect of making it harder to conduct informative debates. Thus, it denies Americans the information they need to make informed choices.

So, too, does the effort by the Republican Establishment, in the form of the Republican National Committee, to severely limit the number of debates, to 12. There were 27 Republican debates during the 2012 campaign. Having that many debates exposed the weaknesses of Establishment choice Mitt Romney and gave the Republican Party a chance to pick a candidate who could win, although, as often happens, party leaders picked Romney anyway, with predictable results. (No anti-establishment candidate—that is, no Reagan-type candidate—was nominated in the seven presidential elections since Reagan was reelected in 1984. The results: four defeats, and three wins that ultimately proved disastrous.)

The irony is that members of the Republican Establishment limited the number of debates to make it easier to impose their choice on Republican voters. They pretended that it was to save the eventual nominee from being savaged and damaged by the other candidates. They pretended that it was to limit the ability of left-wing news organizations like ABC and NBC/MSNBC to use the debates as a weapon against Republicans. But the real reason was to ram through the nomination of the Establishment’s Chosen One.

Now, given the rise of Donald Trump, members of the GOP elite may be wishing that there were more debates, so that a different, more politically viable choice could emerge from the Reagan wing of the party to challenge their guy. Once again, we see the unintended, yet entirely foreseeable, consequences of the stupidity of the folks in charge.



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