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11 November 2020

Peter Wilby: Murdoch calls time on Trump, why the polls were wrong, and Wigan Warriors are back

Fox News called Arizona for Joe Biden before almost anyone else, told the president to accept defeat graciously, and cut away from a Trump campaign press conference.

By Peter Wilby

Opinion pollsters got it wrong in the 2012, 2016 and now the 2020 US presidential elections. In Britain, they got it wrong in the 2015 and 2017 general elections and the 2016 referendum, but right in 2010 and 2019. That’s a success rate of one in four. If you want a better forecast, toss a coin.

Right-wing pundits suggest that, in the “woke” climate of the 2010s, voters are reluctant to admit they vote Tory or Republican. But that doesn’t explain why the polls underestimated Barack Obama’s victory in 2012 – on the eve of which some forecast a narrow win for the Republicans’ Mitt Romney – and why only one poll in two years predicted Labour’s  40 per cent support in 2017.

The real problem is rarely admitted: pollsters find it increasingly difficult to persuade anyone to answer their questions. Response rates to most surveys are only 5 per cent and, for political opinion polls, as little as  1 per cent. Pollsters can adjust their results to make them representative in terms of age, class, ethnicity, etc. What they can’t easily do is take account of differences between the kinds of people who cooperate with surveys and those who don’t.

The alarming thought is that government departments and big companies base all sorts of decisions on expensive surveys of public opinion which are almost certainly wrong.

[see also: How did the New Statesman’s US election model perform?]

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Fox deserts Trump

Donald Trump hates losers. So does Rupert Murdoch, mainly because losers can be of no use to him. Having divined that Trump was about to become one, Murdoch’s main US media outlets – Fox News, the New York Post, the Wall Street Journalsimultaneously deserted him. Fox called Arizona for Joe Biden before almost anyone else, told the president to accept defeat graciously, and cut away from a Trump campaign press conference that alleged electoral fraud. Previously, it treated everything Trump said as infallibly true.

The episode recalls the American and British invasion of Iraq in 2003. Though even the Pentagon was bitterly divided over the war, the 179 papers Murdoch then owned worldwide unanimously supported it in what one journalist called “the editorial equivalent of synchronised swimming”.

Voting patterns

During the election campaign, commentators kept referring to “the American experiment” which, as I understand it, would have failed if Trump had won a second term. What kind of experiment is this exactly? In democracy? If so, why have Americans never tried one person, one vote for their president?

Success for Rashford

I know I should be celebrating Boris Johnson’s decision to accede to the footballer Marcus Rashford’s demand that children from poor homes should, at least during the pandemic, get free meals in school holidays. But what poor people are most short of is money. A big rise in Universal Credit along with a significant uplift in the minimum wage – and even a move towards a universal basic income – would be worth more to struggling families than a meals voucher. Not least because parents could spend money on the fresher, more nutritious food generally found in independent local shops rather than on the rubbish sold in supermarkets, where the vouchers must be used.

Political rugby

Because, among team sports, rugby union and rugby league involve the most bodily contact, they are seriously threatened by Covid-19. Though I am a union fan, I hope both codes survive. When I was a child, my father got free tickets from a business contact for the sport’s Challenge Cup final at Wembley. It usually involved Wigan, a club still among the elite, which topped the Super League table this month. Only later did I discover rugby league’s history as a working-class sport, closely associated in the 1930s with the French socialists. When its union rivals reminded the  Nazi-supporting Vichy regime of this, league was banned as a “corrupter” of youth and forced to surrender its assets to union for the duration of the war. I love rugby union, but rugby league has a better political history. And congratulations to Wigan. 

This article appears in the 11 Nov 2020 issue of the New Statesman, America after Trump