Plus, how do polls work?
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Today’s read: 11 minutes.
Breaking DACA news, John Bolton’s tell-all book, a question about how polls work and a pretty funny correction from yesterday.
John Bolton, the former national security advisor who is publishing a tell-all book about Trump. Photo: Gage Skidmore / Flickr
In another monumental ruling, the Supreme Court has rejected the Trump administration’s bid to end DACA, the Obama-era program that protects an estimated 649,000 undocumented immigrants who were brought here as children from deportation. The 5-4 ruling was written by Chief Justice John Roberts, the lone conservative justice to join the liberal justices.
The ruling is sure to further inflame conservative tensions and infighting in a week that already delivered a surprising victory for LGBTQ litigants that expanded the Civil Rights Act’s definition of “sex” to include sexual orientation and gender identity. Roberts, who once sided with liberal justices to uphold Obamacare, has become a villain amongst many judicial conservatives. This decision caps off the second time this week the Supreme Court, “bolstered with two of President Donald Trump's nominees -- has ruled against the Trump administration,” CNN reports.
I am about to write the most embarrassing correction of my journalism career: Yesterday, in the “Have a nice day” section, I gleefully informed you that Diego the tortoise single-handedly saved his species by giving birth to nearly 800 offspring.
As many of you enthusiastically noted to me, this would be pretty remarkable: both because Diego is a male tortoise and because tortoises don’t give birth, they lay eggs. I suppose this is what I get for trying to deliver feel-good news to the masses. My apologies to Diego, who fathered nearly 800 offspring and shipped off for retirement this week at an estimated 100 years old.
This is the fourth official Tangle correction in its 10-month existence. (I will keep a running tally of Tangle corrections, which are separate from the reader feedback I publish daily).
What D.C. is talking about.
John Bolton’s new book. The former national security advisor, who worked in President Trump’s cabinet for 17 months, published a book that’s been leaked to the press. The highly anticipated tell-all look at the Trump presidency depicts a leader solely concerned about his re-election and frames Trump as “stunningly uninformed,” committing “obstruction of justice as a way of life” and as having a penchant for giving “personal favors to dictators he liked.”
The 577-page book, called “The Room Where It Happened,” has sent shockwaves through D.C. Among its most notable claims are the following:
- Trump pleaded with China’s President Xi to help him win re-election, asking him to buy up agriculture products from states in the midwest. Bolton also says Trump gave Mr. Xi his blessing for the internment camps for Uighur Muslims in China. “Trump said that Xi should go ahead with building the camps, which Trump thought was exactly the right thing to do.” The camps are considered one of the greatest human rights crimes of the last decade.
- Trump’s defense of Saudi Arabia in 2018, after the country’s leader was accused of killing a Washington Post journalist, was designed to distract the media from news reports that the president’s daughter Ivanka Trump had used her private email server for government business. “This will divert from Ivanka,” Mr. Bolton quotes the president as saying.
- Trump’s advisers, outside the White House and including current Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, mock or criticize him constantly behind his back. Bolton recounts Pompeo passing him a note during the president’s meeting with Kim Jong-Un that read “he’s so full of shit.”
- Trump was shockingly ignorant about matters relevant to his job. Bolton says Trump was surprised to learn England was a nuclear power, once asserted Venezuela was “really part of the United States,” asked if Finland was part of Russia and repeatedly fell for conspiracy theories or propaganda.
- Bolton also laid into White House staff. He claimed Trump had a proposal to replace Vice President Pence for the 2020 ticket, described U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley as being motivated by a desire not to get hammered in the press, said Pompeo’s overarching philosophy was conflict avoidance, and described Jared Kushner and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin as being frequently involved in foreign policy decisions they knew nothing about.
The Justice Department has now sued Bolton in an attempt to stop the book’s publication, which Simon & Schuster said was a frivolous and pointless lawsuit. Trump and the Justice Department claim the book contains classified information. Trump also said Bolton was a “liar” and disgruntled former employee. Bolton repeatedly refers to excerpts he had to remove because they were “classified,” but the White House said Bolton has breached his contract and perhaps even committed a crime by threatening national security.
What the left is saying.
It depends which left you ask. Some are sharing the book gleefully, as it confirms basically everything they know and think of Trump: shockingly ignorant, singularly self-interested, and solely focused on re-election. This is what happens when you make a reality television star president.
Of course, many on the left are furious. Bolton was repeatedly sought out to testify during the impeachment hearings, when Trump was accused of asking Ukrainian leaders to investigate Joe Biden in exchange for financial aid from the U.S., and Bolton refused. In fact, he avoided it at all costs. Now, in his book, he says Democrats committed “impeachment malpractice” by not going beyond just Ukraine — an account of malfeasance he confirms— and looking at Trump’s corrupt actions elsewhere.
“By his own belated admission, Bolton directly witnessed not one but multiple acts that could have been cited in the impeachment of President Donald Trump,” Elie Honig wrote for CNN. “But Bolton did nothing about it while he held a powerful post in the Trump administration. And he stayed quiet and took cover when Congress and the nation pleaded with him to speak out during the impeachment process.”
Adam Schiff (D-CA), who led the impeachment hearings against Trump, echoed that claim on Twitter. “When Bolton was asked, he refused, and said he’d sue if subpoenaed. Instead, he saved it for a book,” Mr. Schiff said on Twitter. “Bolton may be an author, but he’s no patriot.”
What the right is saying.
It depends which right you ask. Most are skeptical of the Trump administration’s lawsuit to stop the book, which has been dismissed out of hand by the left and right. In that sense, they're in agreement with each other. Bolton served four Republican administrations, so there are still plenty of old guard, never-Trump Republicans who are out there assuring us that “John Bolton tells the truth” and the book is accurate.
In Hot Air, the anonymous conservative blogger Allahpundit argued that the “strange duality between words and deeds has been a recurring theme of his [Trump’s] presidency,” noting that what he says and what he does are often in conflict. For instance, whatever Trump thinks of China’s Uighur camps, his administration has already blacklisted Chinese companies as punishment. This conflict is a product of Trump being surrounded by conservatives who don’t share his worldview, but isn’t it more important what his administration does than what Trump says?
Trump’s most ardent supporters saw this coming from a mile away. Bolton was just the kind of establishment, hawkish Republican they wanted to keep out of the White House. Many were irate when Trump hired him. Some are now questioning the basic facts he lays out in the book, including Kaylee McGhee in the Washington Examiner.
“If Bolton's account is true, Trump has betrayed his platform and the people who elected him,” she said. “But that's a big ‘if.’ In regards to Bolton's accusation about the Uighur concentration camps: Why would Xi openly admit this to the U.S.? China has denied reports about the Xinjiang region for years, and it strikes me as odd that Xi would suddenly be so open about it. Moreover, we should ask why Bolton is speaking up now.”
It’s tough to overstate how cynical and gross John Bolton is. He’s giving the entire country the middle finger and we’re expected to thank him and praise his honesty. It’s infuriating, really, to consider the outline of this story. Bolton is claiming that he spent 17 months witnessing impeachable offense after impeachable offense by the most powerful man in the world and did nothing. The entire time he praised Trump publicly. Then, when an actual impeachment hearing comes along, he wouldn’t testify.
The impeachment attempt fails without Bolton’s testimony, then he publishes a book blasting the impeachment investigators for not uncovering evidence he was a witness to. Then he sells that evidence for $20 a pop inside a cover with his name on it.
Are the stories true? Yes! Of course they are. I can’t vouch for every single one, obviously, but the president wouldn't be suing Bolton for “leaking classified information” if that information was just gossip. The two are mutually exclusive — and the president, normally more adept at manipulating the media, has failed mightily by trying to stop the book’s publication, which has only garnered it more attention.
Also, the stories track exactly with what every other experienced, high-ranking cabinet official who has worked for Trump and spoken about him bluntly has said. Rex Tillerson (former Secretary of State), H.R. McMaster (former National Security Advisor), Jim Mattis (former Secretary of Defense), John Kelly (former Chief of Staff), all agree: he is shockingly ignorant, self-interested, cares about nothing but re-election, puts himself ahead of the country. These aren’t “liberal hacks.” They’re not Omarosa or Anthony Scaramucci or any of the other inexperienced, press-hungry, reality TV stars. They’re lifelong conservatives, generals, soldiers, strategists and government officials who swore to serve Trump faithfully and came willingly to his side to help. Then they saw who he was and they’ve told us over and over who he really is — we just don’t listen.
There has never been — and may never be — another book like this. The president’s national security advisor spent a year and a half taking hyper-detailed, real-time notes and then shared them with the world. The result is a stunning and overwhelming rebuke of the president’s competence and ability to lead. But you won’t catch me dead paying for or reading the book in full, as the author is just as cynical and self-serving as the man he depicts in the White House.
Media’s bad week.
In the last week or two, newsrooms across the U.S. have been rocked. Bon Appétit’s editor-in-chief resigned after a picture surfaced showing him wearing brownface. Refinery29’s co-founder stepped down as editor-in-chief after allegations of a toxic workplace. The New York Times editorial page editor James Bennet resigned after the revolt against publishing Tom Cotton’s op-ed. The Philadelphia Inquirer’s top editor stepped down after publishing an article headlined “Buildings Matter, Too.” The Intercept’s Lee Fang was called racist and pushed to apologize by coworkers for posting a video on Twitter of a black protester discussing black-on-black crime.
Then, over the weekend, Fox News was caught using a manipulated photograph of Seattle’s Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone (CHAZ) that included an armed man with a mask who had been cropped into the picture. Fox News apologized for the mistake, calling it an “editing error” (FWIW: my 14-year-old cousin in Seattle visited the CHAZ this weekend. She told me it was “super chill” and “more like a farmer’s market for black rights than a protest.” Teenagers, right?)
Then, this week, Google announced it was de-monetizing ads at the conspiracy news outlet ZeroHedge and had issued a warning to the right-wing Federalist after a British research agency called Center for Countering Digital Hate published a report claiming both publications were trafficking racism and misinformation.
Meanwhile, this newsletter published a story about a male turtle giving birth to 800 baby turtles. Cheers!
Your questions, answered.
Reminder: reader questions are one of my favorite parts of Tangle. If you have something you want to see in the newsletter, simply reply to this email and write in. I’ll try to get to it as soon as I can.
Q: How do polls work? My husband and I were talking about this the other day. We have both never been polled and were thinking the people getting polled may be people who are more involved with politics so they would be skewed a certain direction?
— Tara, Toledo, Ohio
Tangle: A lot of people are asking this question — especially after the 2016 election. The answer is fascinating.
Public opinion polling is a science. There are rules about sample size and weighing demographics to be representative, and most polls come with a margin of error (usually around 3%). Scientific polls in the U.S. are conducted almost entirely by phone. It essentially happens with a giant database of voters or phone numbers and lots of computing power, which randomizes the phone numbers the pollsters are calling.
Once someone answers the phone in a household, polling places also have to randomize who they are polling in the household. Since women and older people typically answer a landline, sometimes pollsters will ask to speak to the last person whose birthday it was in the house. This is a method to further randomize the sample size.
That first step — collecting a bunch of responses — is just part of the process. The other part is weighing the poll to be representative. If 50% of the country is female, and 45% of the respondents you randomly poll are female, then you need to weigh the poll in a direction to represent that difference. This is where the science and art of polling comes in.
Of course, as the world changes, polling is trying to adjust, too. The most obvious example is that millions of Americans don’t use or don’t even have a landline anymore. I haven’t had one since I left my parents’ home for college. So pollsters now call cell phones, too.
A less obvious example is the real world problem we’re dealing with now. In 2016, and today, there’s a good deal of concern in the scientific polling community that Trump supporters are underrepresented in polls. Trump says polls are “rigged” and “manipulated” to make him look bad. As he often does, the president is overplaying his hand a bit here.
The truth is there’s a massive shift happening in politics right now: white voters with college degrees are moving to the Democratic party and white voters without college degrees are moving toward Trump. The differences between who these voters used to support were not as big ten or twenty years ago, but now they’re some of the most defining characteristics of Trump supporters vs. non-Trump supporters. Polls have struggled to keep up.
Since white voters who don’t have college degrees are less likely to take a survey for a poll than white voters with a college degree, and because of the rapid shift of white voters without college degrees to the right and white voters with college degrees to the left, the weighing process missed the mark in many battleground states from 2016. As Politico reported this week, there are plenty of polling scientists who think they are still missing the mark in these battleground states.
But there’s one key caveat here. That was mostly an issue with state polling. National polling, as has been well-documented, was actually pretty accurate in 2016. It’s a misconception that “the polls were all wrong” and “missed Donald Trump.” Hillary Clinton was an obvious favorite and was favored over Trump nationally — which panned out. She won the popular vote by a fairly wide margin and Trump basically hit a royal flush across Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, where he won by a combined 77,000 votes and that handed him the electoral college. That margin of error swung the election and is also incredibly small.
There’s another common misconception about polling, too. Many people misunderstand “margin of sampling error” (MOSE) and what it means. It’s really just an equation that tells us the size of the sample. The larger the group, the smaller the MOSE. For instance, a sample of 100 people has a margin of error of 10%, which is extremely high. A sample of 1,000 people has a margin of error of 3%. A sample of 10,000 people has a margin of error of 1%.
Most polls you’ll see are polls of around 1,000 people — because that’s the fewest number of calls needed to get the MOSE within 3%, which is a commonly accepted margin of error. The “true” margin of error of polling, though, is basically impossible to measure. There are so many variables that MOSE is an impossible calculation — it can be estimated but not pinpointed.
For instance, if Biden is leading Trump by 53-47 margin and the margin of error is 3%, that doesn’t imply there’s an equal chance the race could be a 50-50 tie as there is that the race could be 53-47. What it means is that we can reasonably expect, if we conducted the poll 100 times and there was a 95% confidence rate in our margin of error, that Biden would receive between 50% and 56% support in each of those polls (within 3% of the margin of error in each direction) and that Trump would receive between 44% and 50% of support (within 3% of the margin of error in each direction).
If we wanted to calculate whether a candidate’s lead over another candidate was outside the margin of error, there’s an entirely different equation than the one that goes into calculating the margin of error for each individual candidate. Again: it’s a science. And it’s complicated (I don’t know these equations by heart or understand precisely how some of them are sussed out. I’m sure some polling experts are reading this, so feel free to correct me/explain this further if you want!).
That’s why some polls go off the charts. You might remember in August last year when a Monmouth poll came out showing a three-way tie between Biden, Warren and Sanders. It made waves. Everyone freaked out, thinking Biden had lost his lead. Then a few other polls from other polling outfits came out showing Biden’s lead was still double-digits and ahead of Warren and Sanders. The context of the other polls forced Monmouth to issue an update, labeling the poll an “outlier” — or something that produced a result that ran afoul of other scientific polls.
All this is to say: polling is complex and difficult to parse and can be hard to interpret. Individual polls can also be misleading. But taken together, the highly-rated pollsters across the U.S. can paint a pretty accurate picture of what’s happening, even if they make mistakes or are adapting on the fly. For instance, we can safely say right now that Trump’s support is dwindling and Biden is surging — because dozens of national and state polls are all consistently showing us that, even if the breadth of the movement varies.
As for why you haven’t been polled, that’s a much easier answer! As I said, most polls target about 1,000 to 1,500 people. There are 330 million U.S. adults. The simple odds of you being called for any single poll, dividing 1,500 by 330,000,000, are .00045%. Of course, hundreds of thousands of polls are taken every year, but that still doesn’t mean it’s likely you’ll get called. I’ve been called for a poll once in my life (you can imagine my excitement!) and it took about 15 minutes and was actually rather inconvenient.
So, are the polls accurate? It depends. Most polls you see written about in national newspapers have a scientific method behind them that is pretty accurate. Will they always be right? No. Are they perfectly representative? No. Can they give us a good idea of what’s going to happen in 2020? Yup!
A story that matters.
The steepest declines in spending across the U.S. have come from the country’s highest earners, a new report found. Many industries that depend on the spending and generosity of well-off Americans are suffering the most — and it looks like it’s because the wealthy who have kept their jobs through the pandemic are just spending less money. “Economists at the Harvard-based research group Opportunity Insights estimate that the highest-earning quarter of Americans has been responsible for about half of the decline in consumption during this recession,” The New York Times reports. “And that has wreaked havoc on the lower-wage service workers on the other end of many of their transactions.” The new research suggests that low-wage and wealthy Americans are far more interdependent than some economists expected. Click.
- 11. The number of charges filed against the Atlanta police officer who fatally shot Rayshard Brooks last weekend.
- 47%. The percentage of registered Republicans who say the country is headed in the right direction.
- 9%. The percentage of registered Democrats who say the country is headed in the right direction.
- 39%. The percentage of independent voters who say if the election was held today, they’d vote for Joe Biden.
- 21%. The percentage of independent voters who say if the election was held today, they’d vote for Donald Trump.
- 18%. The percentage of independent voters who say if the election was held today, they’d vote for a different candidate.
- 63%. The percentage of Americans who think that corporations making anti-racism statements are “mostly pandering.”
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Have a nice day.
With students learning online during the pandemic, researchers say they’re observing less “digital drama” and bullying that normally occurs with in-person classes. Small group learning with teachers always present online has reduced opportunities for bullying that happens in school. Kids are also showing more empathy for each other during the pandemic, Stacey Kite, an expert on bullying, says. It’s an unexpected upside to the lockdown, and something sociologists are keeping an eye on as students prepare to head back to school in the fall. Click.