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Weekly Column

Bob Don't Know Diddy: Post-Election Reflections on Polls and Other Stuff

Status: [CLOSED]
By Robert X. Cringely
bob@cringely.com

Two weeks ago, I predicted that advances in communication technology were making Presidential polling less accurate, and that an underreported youth vote for Kerry would surprise us all. Well, it didn't. Since I'm a believer in prognostic accountability and also not a wimp, it is only fair for me to first acknowledge that I was wrong and then to explain why, in retrospect, I believe things worked out the way they did. The short version comes down to the unreliability of youth.

There is little doubt that the communication changes I cited are real and that sample error IS a problem in most types of public opinion polling today as that industry attempts to adjust to cell phones, Caller ID, and instant messaging. "We are WAY undercounting those under 30 in phone surveys," a marketing researcher wrote to me. "I've started doing Internet sampling for under 30 markets. I get huge differences between phone results and web results in those studies where my clients allow me to use the net to supplement my phone results."

But it turns out there is a world of difference between buying blue jeans, which is essential to life as we know it, versus actually following-through and voting. While more young people voted in this week's election than ever before, about the same percentage of young registered voters actually made it into the polling booth in this election as in 2000. Diddy was a dud.

"Youth don't vote," explained my friend the Republican pollster. "They did vote for Kerry, but they typically don't turn out in any election year and this year was no exception. This has been very frustrating for politicians who have historically leaned on the young -- mostly Democrats going back to the McGovern and Gene McCarthy campaigns. Young adults are super at being energetic and passionate but terrible at being disciplined. This is as true of their behavior in voting as in doing school work (I also teach e-business and see this in my day versus evening classes). Voting is an act of exceptional discipline. Especially in Ohio where it rained all day long. Voting in those conditions requires discipline and young adults simply don't have it (yet)."

"As for the exit polls," my friend continued, "historically they have always underreported Republican voters. Part of it is how exit poll sample frames are designed. Most exit polling organizations select 'bellweather' precincts instead of a true random sample of precincts based on ballot weight. I've always found exit polls to be unreliable. I ran a campaign in Arizona 14 years ago where the phone polls were running 50/50 +/- 2% (state legislative race that was going to determine who controlled the legislature going into reapportionment). Our exit polls showed us getting clobbered about 55% to 45%. We lost by just 200 votes, or less than 1% of the over 20,000 votes cast. It also seems that their reliability is getting worse."

Now I want to turn your attention to the picture that I am praying accompanies this column. It is a screen shot that I took with my electronic camera of Russian MTV playing on my computer. Last week's column was about Ken Schaffer's TV2ME video roaming product, and a number of readers were skeptical, so I took this picture to give some idea what it looks like. This is Russian cable TV encoded and sent over the Internet from some apartment in Moscow right into my third floor office in Charleston. It is running 25 frames-per-second (this is SECAM, remember, not NTSC), full screen at 416 kilobits-per-second including stereo sound. And while a single screen shot is hardly proof of anything, if you took a picture of your own TV screen, I guarantee you it wouldn't look a lot better.

But what I like best about this picture is the cyrillic caption that clearly mentions Snoop Doggy Dogg. Now THAT's a sign of America's international influence. The prelude to true world peace, I predict, will be when Pimp My Ride makes it to Burmese TV.

Back to the election. If the experts are correct, the 2004 election results mean we now live in a country where morality is apparently the major concern of people. Am I wrong, or is the same thing not true in Iran? And if our morality is in fundamental conflict with their morality, which side will be willing to sacrifice more to obtain what they view as their just end? I can tell you it ain't us.

Back in 1986 I talked Penthouse magazine into giving me an assignment to write the story: "How to Get a Date in Revolutionary Iran." The premise was that hormones are hormones, and those wacky kids in Tehran, most of whom could still remember the Shah, had to be finding some way to meet members of the opposite sex. So I headed off to Iran to find out the truth. If you are interested in such stuff, the only time a single man and woman not from the same family could be together in private back then was in a taxi (he being the driver), so all the teenage boys who had or could borrow cars turned them into taxis. This, of course, put all the power in the hands of the woman since she could see him but he had to take pot luck.

I eventually finished the piece and decided to go see the war since I had been in Beirut and Angola, but had never seen trench warfare, which is what I was told they had going in Iran. So I took a taxi to the front, introduced myself to the local commander, who had gone, as I recall, to Iowa State, and spent a couple days waiting for the impending human wave attack. That attack was to be conducted primarily with 11-and 12-year-old boys as troops, nearly all of them unarmed. There were several thousand kids and their job was to rise out of the trench, praising Allah, run across No Man's Land, be killed by the Iraqi machine gunners, then go directly to Paradise, do not pass GO, do not collect 200 dinars. And that's exactly what happened in a battle lasting less than 10 minutes. None of the kids fired a shot or made it all the way to the other side. And when I asked the purpose of this exercise, I was told it was to demoralize the cowardly Iraqi soldiers.

It was the most horrific event I have ever seen, and I once covered a cholera epidemic in Bangladesh that killed 40,000 people.

Waiting those two nights for the attack was surreal. Some kids acted as though nothing was wrong while others cried and puked. But when the time came to praise Allah and enter Paradise, not a single boy tried to stay behind.

Now put this in a current context. What effective limit is there to the number of Islamic kids willing to blow themselves to bits? There is no limit, which means that a Bush Doctrine can't really stand in that part of the world. But of course President Bush, who may think he pulled the switch on a couple hundred Death Row inmates in Texas, has probably never seen a combat death. He doesn't get it and he'll proudly NEVER get it.

Welcome to the New Morality.

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