RALEIGH — In many ways, Republicans and Democrats live in different worlds. I’ve made the point before that the Internet, while greatly beneficial in many ways, has allowed political factions to retreat into media cocoons where their preconceived notions are continuously reinforced and their manners atrophy.
While technology may have enabled this trend, the underlying impulses — called selection bias and confirmation bias by social scientists — come naturally to human beings. Like other traits and temptations embedded in human nature that don’t serve us well in the long run, these can and should be resisted. We should actively seek out alternative sources of information and expose ourselves to alternative points of view, at least for the benefits we can derive from exercising our brains and avoiding obvious errors.
Let me give you a North Carolina example of what I mean. Is Gov. Pat McCrory in big political trouble or is he in good shape for next year’s reelection campaign?
I’ll bet that when most of you read my question, an answer immediately sprang to mind. Left-of-center folks probably thought the question answered itself. Of course the governor is in trouble. His approval ratings are low and North Carolinians are seething with anger about the unpopular policies coming out of the Republican-led government in Raleigh.
If you’re a right-of-center North Carolinian, you probably had a different answer present itself. While perhaps disagreeing with McCrory on some issues, you are likely pleased in general with the public policies enacted in the state capital over the past two years. You like the regulatory changes, lower taxes, school choice, election reforms, and other legislation. While a few conservatives are so dissatisfied with the governor that they’d welcome a primary challenge to him next year, most don’t feel that way.
Moreover, if you are a Republican or right-leaning independent who follows politics closely, you’d be puzzled at the liberal assertion that McCrory is unpopular. According to whom? By my count, there have been four polls publicly released over the past two months that asked either personal favorability or job approval questions about the governor.
One of them, conducted in late May by the Democratic firm Public Policy Polling, had only 38 percent of registered voters approving of McCrory’s performance as governor, while 44 percent disapproved. The other three polls were conducted by Republican or conservative-leaning pollsters: National Research in early May (for the Civitas Institute), Tel Opinion in mid-May (for the pro-McCrory group Renew NC), and Harper Polling in early June (for a group, American Crossroads, founded by Karl Rove).
They showed something quite different. The National Research sample approved of McCrory’s job performance by 53 percent to 37 percent. The Tel Opinion sample approved of his performance by 57 percent to 32 percent. The Harper sample was asked a favorability question. By a 51 percent to 41 percent spread, most rated McCrory positively.
All four pollsters are reputable. On the FiveThirtyEight.com system of pollster rankings, PPP and National Research get B minuses. Tel Opinion and Harper get C pluses. So why the disparate results? A major reason may be that unlike the other three, PPP didn’t screen for likely voters. Their argument is that it’s too early. The others argue, however, that if you are trying to draw conclusions about 2016 based on polling in 2015, you have to make at least some effort to model the actual electorate.
My view is that rather than picking just the information that reinforces your preconceived notions, examine all of it. I see all four polls together as telling me that the political situation is fluid. If the electorate looks something like it did in 2012, when McCrory was first elected, he still enjoys enough support among his base, independents, and crossover Democrats to be favored over potential Democratic nominee Roy Cooper. But if the electorate proves to be significantly different in 2016, perhaps because of how the presidential race unfolds, McCrory could be vulnerable.
Think I’m wrong? By all means, come argue. But you’ll have to bust out of your cocoon to reach me.