The Huge Problem with Polls: My Letter to Frank Newport

This letter was sent on Sept. 24 -- via an intermediary who knows him well -- to Frank Newport of Gallup, the pollster adviser to the bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates. I've received no response. Ironically, Newport is author of Polling Matters: Why Leaders Must Listen to the Wisdom of the People. I think a close reading of the letter shows that Newport has hardly taken his own advice. 
-- Sam Husseini


Dear Frank Newport --

I believe I have found a significant blind spot in the exclusion criteria used by the CPD. When some suggested alternative criteria for inclusion in presidential debates, like if a majority wanted another candidate to be in the debates, the heads of the CPD rejected the effort. Then-CPD Director and former Republican Senator Alan Simpson said: “The issue is who do you want to be president. It’s not who do you want to do a dress rehearsal and see who can be the cutest at the debate.” Similarly, Paul Kirk, the then-co-chair of the CPD (now co-chairman emeritus) and former head of the Democratic National Committee, said: “It’s a matter of entertainment vs. the serious question of who would you prefer to be president of the United States.” (Citation in google books, "No Debate" by George Farah.) 

But none of the polls the CPD is relying on for its exclusion criteria actually ask the "serious question of who you would prefer to be president of the United State" -- nor do they ask "who do you want to be president."

They all ask some minor variation of "if the election were held today which of the following would you vote for". I hope that it's apparent to you that for many people who they "want" to be president among the choices given (Clinton, Trump, Johnson and Stein) is different than who they would vote for. Voting is a tactical choice based largely (especially in this election) on wanting to ensure the candidate you least like does not become president. Thus, millions intend to vote for Trump because they don't want Clinton and millions more will vote the opposite. But many of those people prefer or actually want Johnson or Stein. Those who "want" or "prefer" Johnson or Stein could even constitute a plurality and we'd never know it because the question that would gauge that is never asked. 

[This wording, "if the election were held today] -- which David Moore has described as starting as a "gimmick" may well ironically now be a serious impediment to understanding the affirmative preference of the public, since it has displaced other measurements of public opinion and preference in this critical regard. 

As the pollster adviser to the CPD, it's my view that it's incumbent upon you to ensure that the polls the CPD relies upon actually gauge the "serious" question the CPD officials publicly claim the CPD is concerned with: Who do you prefer/want to be president. 

I hope you will concur, but in either case, I would most welcome your thoughts on this important matter. As I've talked to pollsters since submitting a legal brief on this matter in June, it's become apparent that many pollsters are not free to ask the questions they want to ask, they are frequently at the mercy of the media outlets they work for. I hope that your intellectual honesty will compel you to address this potentially fatal blind spot immediately. (See "How Presidential 'Non-Opinion' Polls Drive Down Third Party Numbers and Facilitate Debate Exclusion")

Look forward to your positive and enlightened response.

best regards, 

Sam Husseini 

Trump vs Reality on Syria

The scam between Clinton and Trump is that (other than an occasional decent statement from Trump that I began noting last year), Trump portrays the problem with U.S. policy as pacifistic or naive, when it's actually Machiavellian. As Clinton noted in her emails: She has public and private positions. 

An example from last night's "debate": 

TRUMP: We should have — wait one second. They had a cease-fire three weeks ago. A cease-fire, the United States, Russia, and Syria. And during the cease-fire, Russia took over vast swatches of land, and then they said we don’t want the cease-fire anymore.

FACT: Reuters reported on Sept 18: “U.S.-led coalition air strikes reportedly killed dozens of Syrian soldiers on Saturday, endangering a U.S.-Russian brokered ceasefire and prompting an emergency UN Security Council meeting as tensions between Moscow and Washington escalated.” See: "U.S. Violation of Syrian Ceasefire Prompts Emergency UN Meeting."

Questioning Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on Israel and Saudi

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was at the Press Club yesterday (Oct. 17). A couple of questions I submitted got asked: 

MR. BURR: Another question from the audience. You apparently passed on going to Israel several years ago. Desmond Tutu has called Israeli’s treatment of Palestinians apartheid. Do you think the U. S. needs to stop arming Israel and do you support the boycott investment sanctions movement against Israel by the South African anti-apartheid? 

MR. ABDUL-JABBAR: I would just say that the occupation stinks. That's the only thing that stinks over there. The Israeli state is a model of democracy and transparency. But, I think the occupation stinks. It's got to end, I hope it ends soon. 

MR. BURR: Another question in foreign affairs. Do you condemn the Saudi bombing of Yemen? Should the U. S. cut off weapons going to Saudi Arabia? 

MR. ABDUL-JABBAR: I don't know enough about that to have an accurate opinion. So I'm not going to answer that question. 

Full PDF

A couple of others I submitted didn't get asked:

In your DNC address, you quote the words etched atop the Jefferson Memorial: "I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man". Doesn't Clinton's backing of wars in Iraq, Libya, Syria, and elsewhere, as well as NSA surveillance, and other policies, constitute a threat of such tyranny -- as Trump's bigotry and misogyny do?

Prof As'ad AbuKhalil (who runs the "Angry Arab" blog) has criticized U.S. Muslim groups like the Council on American Islamic Relations for, among other things, parroting Saudi sectarianism. Do you think Muslim American groups can do a better job of ensuring they are independent of influence from authoritarian regimes like Saudi Arabia? 

A VotePact Dialogue

Steve: Why Jason, will you be my votebuddy?

Jason: What ever are you proposing?

Steve: You've been a rightwinger for as long as I've known you. I dare say you've not ever voted Democratic?

Jason: I avoid doing things that would lead me upon reflection to blow my brains out.

Steve: Well, I should admit to you I've voted Democratic at times. Why just this election, I voted for Bernie Sanders.

Jason: Yet you seemed so reasonable.

Steve: Too kind. Now, it's fair to say we've agreed and disagreed on things, yes?

Jason: Well, you're kind of a pinko, aren't you?

Steve: Ayn Rand cultist! -- err -- Let's avoid the name calling, shall we?

Jason: Only in jest.

Steve: Excellent.

Jason: I'm looking at this website here, VotePact.org -- I think I see where you're going --

Steve: Yes, well, succinctly, I say neither of us vote either for Clinton or Trump.

Jason: You know, I do agree with some of the things Trump says, but he's so horribly unreliable, you don't know what he's going to do. 

The Biggest Lie Was from Lester Holt. It's Killing Our Democracy. Here's How to Solve It.

Before the faceoff between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, many were pleading that Lester Holt, the NBC anchor and moderator Monday night, be a "fact checker." 

Any delusions in that regard should have been dashed right away as he perpetrated a root falsehood at the very start of the event. 

Holt claimed that the event was "sponsored by the Commission on Presidential Debates, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization. The commission drafted tonight’s format, and the rules have been agreed to by the campaigns."

While the CPD certainly controls much of the event, it's not a "nonpartisan" organization at all. It's about as far from nonpartisan as you can get. It's totally bipartisan. It's a creation of the Democratic and Republican parties designed to solidify their dominance over the public. 

Its origins are in an agreement "Memorandum of Agreement on Presidential Candidate Joint Appearances" from 1985 signed by Frank J. Fahrenkopf Jr., then Chairman of the Republican National Committee, and Paul G. Kirk Jr., then Chairman of the Democratic National Committee. The two would go on to head the CPD. 

But that original agreement didn't even have the word "debates" in it. This Commission is the mechanism by which the Democratic and Republican parties came together to push aside the League of Women Voters, which had organized presidential debates before 1988. It was to make sure that the campaigns, not some independent entity, would decide on moderators, on formats -- and to critically exclude other participants unless both sides agreed. They simply wanted to ensure "televised joint appearances" -- which became emblematic of a pretense of democratic discourse.

Holt's fabrication -- he can't possibly be ignorant of this -- is really a root problem of our politics. All the lies and spin from Clinton and Trump largely manifest themselves because each side excuses them because "the other" is worse. That isthe very "bipartisan" structure of our elections is in large part responsible for the dynamics we're seeing. 

Normally decent people ignore all of Clinton's deceptions because they loathe Trump and normally decent people excuse Trump's fabrications because they detest Clinton. That's why candidates with incredibly high unfavorability ratings -- as Clinton and Trump famously have-- may still have millions voting for them, like two crumbling buildings help up by each other.

And the voters have "no where else to go" because they are in effect held prisoners by fear. Millions of people who might agree with other candidates -- Jill Stein of the Green Party or Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson or the Constitution party or socialist parties -- do not actually coalesce around those candidates because they fear helping Trump or Clinton. This mindset probably prevents stronger challengers to the duopoly from ever coming forward in the first place. 

There are two ways out of this that I see: 

"Memorandum of Agreement on Presidential Candidate Joint Appearances"

This is the text of the original "Memorandum of Agreement on Presidential Candidate Joint Appearances" -- from November 26, 1985. It would eventually lead to the creation of the so-called "Commission on Presidential Debates." 

Many are now wondering why moderators are not "fact checkers" at the "debates". It's partly because of this. These were never envisioned as "debates" -- they were "televised joint appearances" designed to take control of the debates away from the League of Women Voters or any somewhat independent entity. Notice the word "debate" does not appear in this document. The were designed especially to prevent inclusion of other candidates -- unless both sides wanted it. 
Frank J. Fahrenkopf Jr., Chairman of the Republican National Committee, and Paul G. Kirk Jr., Chairman of the Democratic National Committee, acknowledge and recognize that nationally televised joint appearances by the presidential nominees of both parties have often played an important and constructive role in recent presidential campaigns. We hope that they will play a similar role in future presidential campaigns, and we hereby commit ourselves toward achieving that goal. We recognize, of course, that the ultimate decision regarding participation in joint appearances will necessarily be made by the nominees themselves. Nonetheless, this memorandum of agreement is intended to express our strong belief that joint appearances deserve to be made a permanent and integral part of the presidential election process and our determination to bring this about.

It is our bipartisan view that a primary responsibility of each major political party is to educate and inform the American electorate o its fundamental philosophy and policies as well as its candidates’ positions on critical issues. One of the most effective means of fulfilling that responsibility is through nationally televised joint appearances conducted between the presidential and vice presidential nominees of the two major political parties during general election campaigns. Therefore, to better fulfill our parties’ responsibilities for education and informing the American public and to strengthen the role of political parties in the electoral process, it is our conclusion that future joint appearances should be principally and jointly sponsored and conducted by the Republican and Democratic National Committees.

We believe that the format and most other details of joint appearances for each general election campaign should be determined through negotiations between the chairmen and the nominees of the two political parties (or their designees) following the nominating conventions of each presidential election year.

We thank the League of Women Voters for having effectively laid the groundwork on which we are building today. We hope that the League will continue to offer it experience advice and resources to the joint appearance process.

[signed by Frank J. Fahrenkopf Jr., Chairman of the Republican National Committee, and Paul G. Kirk Jr., Chairman of the Democratic National Committee.]

For critical context and background, see "'Debates' -- or 'Televised Joint Appearances'?"

Document via George Farah, author of No Debate: How the Republican and Democratic Parties Secretly Control the Presidential Debates. For later Memorandum of Understanding between campaigns, see: opendebates.org/key-documents

Trump Going to Mexico is not the Real Irony. NAFTA Is.

Many are shocked that Donald Trump announced he is going to Mexico today. That misses the real ironies here: NAFTA -- and how this should be a boon to the Green Party. 

First the obvious stuff: Donald Trump is playing to xenophobic sentiments. His "solutions" are in large part twisted or beside the point, for example, U.S. government has largely already built the wall.  

One real irony is that Trump is appealing for votes based on trade issues. His criticism of NAFTA rightly resonates with many in the U.S. Lots of workers have lost out because of NAFTA and other so-called "trade deals." These deals are actually largely investment protection agreements that help the huge corporations and the wealthy in the U.S., Mexico and other countries. That's people like Trump and people and corporations like those who fund Hillary Clinton. Meanwhile, these secretive deals often rook regular folks wherever they live. 

But Trump -- and many other critics in the U.S. -- only talk about how NAFTA has hurt U.S. workers. Largely unacknowledged in the U.S. is how it has devastated Mexican family farms and small industry -- which leads to desperate migration from Mexico to the U.S. (along with the drug war). 

So, redoing NAFTA would actually help stem desperate migration that is the source of much of Trump's support. 

The Anti-Muslim Origins of "The Star-Spangled Banner"

As several writers have noted -- before and after the furor surrounding quarterback Colin Kaepernick's refusing to stand for “The Star-Spangled Banner" -- the national anthem is racist. Specifically, the third stanza: 

No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave,
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.


Even less well know, the song originates in slaveowner Francis Scott Key's "When the Warrior Returns" -- which was set to the same tune. 

As Alex Cockburn, the deceased and much missed co-editor of CounterPunch, noted following President Obama's much celebrated 2009 address in Cairo:

An early version of the “Star Spangled Banner” by Francis Scott Key, written in 1805 amid the routing of the Barbary states, offered a view of Islam markedly different from Obama’s uplifting sentiments in Cairo: