Fascination with the future goes up the polls

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“In the end, the polls got the presidential win right but not the extent of it. And they will live to fight another day, and another, ad infinitum because we are obsessed with the future,” writes “The Gadfly” columnist ROBERT MACKLIN

OH, dear, we cry, the polls got it wrong again! So that, I guess, is the end of our fascination with the system of prognostication invented by the American journalist-cum-advertising man, Paul Gallop in 1935. Ah well, a lifetime of 85 years isn’t so bad.

Robert Macklin.

I jest. 

Truth is, as a species we are totally hooked on the idea that somehow we can see into the future and that’s never going to change. We should explore exactly why this is so. But first to the latest “failure” of the American pollsters to predict the results of the presidential election.

I was fortunate to be a Facebook friend of the former Canberra Senator, Labor minister and ALP national secretary, Bob McMullan.

Bob had been involved with polls ever since he ran Labor’s federal elections in the 1980s, so he knew their strengths and weaknesses. Each week, he would brief us on the latest polling with a cautionary reminder of their limitations. But the message was clear: Joe Biden would trounce Donald Trump with a nationwide lead of between five and eight per cent.

The so-called “battleground states” were also looking good. And though in the last couple of weeks as Trump rampaged through them with up to six rallies a day meant there was a “tightening” of the numbers, they were still indicating a comfortable Biden victory. Yet somehow, neither I nor several other “friends” were convinced. 

It wasn’t just the memory of Hillary Clinton’s defeat four years ago when they were not so favourable to the Democrat. Now Joe was in his basement; Trump had the momentum; and his supporters wouldn’t necessarily tell the pollsters the truth.

Nevertheless, when the early results arrived, we were appalled. As Trump himself said later, he was about to celebrate his victory with a lead of 700,000 in Pennsylvania alone. But there was something the commentators had not mentioned till then: the Biden voters got in early and their votes wouldn’t be counted till after those registered at polling places on the day. 

That made all the difference and the psychological shock hit Trump harder than anyone. That, I suspect, is the real reason he’s found it almost impossible to accept reality. It also explains part of the explosion of relief and joy among younger Democrats. 

In the end, the polls got the win right but not the extent of it. And they will live to fight another day, and another, ad infinitum because we are obsessed with the future. 

Our stock exchanges cater to the trillions of dollars bet each day on the future – from the tiniest currency variations in milliseconds to the fate of wheat crops months away in distant lands. Canberra’s august “CityNews”, even in desperate covid times when space is cut to the bone, still devotes an entire third of a page to a column predicting “Your week in the stars”.
Indeed, the great attraction of most religions is the “promise” that there is a future after death. And billions believe it without the slightest evidence to back their claims. Yet in America, Democrat lawyers are arguing Trump’s claims of election fraud should be thrown out because they have no basis in fact. 

Maybe this is what they mean by “alternative truths”.


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Robert Macklin
Journalist and author. Contact robert@robertmacklin.com

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