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Margin Of Error

Garbage In, Garbage Out

19th October 1964: A robot designed by Claus Scholz of Vienna answers the phone, unfortunately he can't speak.
Keystone Features/Getty Images

Welcome to Margin of Error, a politics column from Tom Scocca, editor of the Indignity newsletter, examining the apocalyptic politics and coverage of Campaign 2024.

A robot from the Rasmussen Reports polling company called me. The landline has been ringing a lot lately—New York is closing in on this local primary like I've never seen it before, canvassers getting past the buzzer to knock on doors in the walkup, literature every day in the mailbox, and all the phone calls. I tell them I'm going to figure it out soon but at the moment I honestly have no opinion, can't pretend to, won't waste your time. Plus of course calls from the overseas boiler rooms trying to sell me pain pills or to scam me into a fake pain-pill shipping deal, whichever. 

The Rasmussen robot wanted to talk national politics, not local, and the scam was only the usual Rasmussen Reports scam of trying to advance Republican interests through ostensibly neutral opinion polling. I had fielded one of these before, out of curiosity about what they were trying to put across—that time, they'd asked me if the country was in a recession, a distinctly non-opinion question, so I pressed the button for "no"—and apparently that made me a live prospect, a genuinely reachable individual in the unreachable mass of the public, a representative American for the sample. 

The robot wanted to know if, in my opinion, I thought the country was going in the right direction, or if it was on the wrong track. Well. Right away, in my opinion, the question was a little too complicated. Joe Biden is having one of his worse years, and a country where Donald Trump is leading the battleground-state polls is definitely going in the wrong direction. But the country's not yet on the Trump track. This was like a backwards trolley problem: pull the lever to change tracks—"tracks," for election-year polling purposes, meaning "presidents"—and it will kill a bunch more people. I hit the button for "right direction" and moved on. 

Now the same question, made specific: How did I feel about the job Joe Biden is doing as president? The key to getting through this question, and getting through each day's news, is "as president." If we stipulate that Joe Biden is a president, like all other known presidents, then that sort of limits the possibilities, doesn't it? Is he making cheap, pandering moves at home and overseeing slaughter abroad? He is, after all, the president, as the saying goes. Gaza might have slid my finger over from "strongly approve" to "somewhat approve"; thinking about the other actually available presidential options might have slid it back. 

Mostly I wanted to get to the meat of the poll, to find out what the public was supposed to be having opinions about. The lead topic, a new one since the last time the Rasmussen robot called, was the Hunter Biden trial. This was over the weekend, before the deliberations and the verdict. Had I been following the trial closely? Compared to something I really care about, like the Trump trial or congestion pricing, or compared to how much I would think a normal person follows the news? I knew what he was charged with and I'd seen headlines about the various witnesses; I'm sure that put me in the 95th percentile of the general public. 

"Is Hunter Biden guilty of violating federal gun laws?" the robot asked. Again, the trial hadn't gone to the jury yet, so factually, no; it did seem like he'd bought a gun while addicted to crack, so substantively, it seems like that broke the law; what I'd seen of the prosecution's case was that they were proving his crack addiction by bringing one person up after another to say what a sweet, damaged man he was, in the grip of a disease he couldn't control, so who knew how a jury would feel about it. Not my job to say! Literally the job of the jury. My attempt at civic engagement was leading to bad places, civics-wise. I hit the button for "don't know," and wished the robot could understand how much I meant it. 

Now the robot asked if I thought the election outcome would be affected by cheating. Here was the box that right-minded defenders of democracy had been building for themselves since 2020: because Donald Trump lied about that election being stolen, the idea that elections could be stolen at all became a right-wing one—even as Trump loyalists set out to meddle in the 2024 election, hoping it might work this time. They're purging voter rolls! But their effort to cheat in the election through fake attempts to crack down on cheating depends on the public perception that cheating is a problem, as ascertained by Rasmussen Reports landline polling. I falsely told the robot I was not worried about cheating in the election. 

Then, in case I was afraid I'd been overthinking it, the robot asked me if I agreed or disagreed with the statement that there was no way Joe Biden got 81 million votes in 2020. Not even if I agreed that Joe Biden got 81 million votes—if I agreed there was "no way" he got the officially recorded popular vote tally. 

Then it asked me if electronic voting machines are connected to the internet. Again: not an opinion question! I assume they're airgapped, so, like, not while you're voting, they're not connected, but also I don't even support electronic voting machines! Responding to the punch-ballot disasters of 2000 by switching over to machines where the glitches would be invisible and unverifiable was one of the stupidest decisions that the country made in my entire life. I want paper ballots! But the opinion-polling machine was trying to turn me again against the vote-polling machines, so I had to support the integrity of the machines I hated. 

From there, it was culture-war time: did I support legislation barring hormone replacement therapy for minors? Did I support legislation making it illegal to "perform sex-change surgery" on minors? Saying I did not support the legislation making gender treatment illegal felt like a dangerous number of negatives to be stacking up with people's lives on the line. 

How did I feel, the robot asked, about the statement "If gender dysphoria is a problem, why on earth are we going out of the way to produce more of it?" "Disagree" didn't begin to capture it. The pollbot was so poisoned by culture-war scripts that I, as a typical member of the responding public, couldn't even figure out what it wanted me to agree with. What was the premise here about how "we" are producing more gender dysphoria? Was the robot granting that gender dysphoria is real? Was I being concern-trolled by a robot?

Did I consider Father's Day one of our most important holidays or one of our least important holidays? Did I—what? Father's Day? Like, important relative to Christmas and Thanksgiving and the Fourth of July? I am a father and I don't even remember when Father's Day is. They couldn't possibly be trying to make people mad about Father's Day, could they? Did I think being a father was the most important role in a man's life? That would depend on the man, wouldn't it? Are the Republicans going to be running a Make Dad Important Again campaign? Why wasn't there a button to press for "LOL"?

Then and only then did we get to the economy. Is the United States currently in a recession? No. Is it likely to enter a recession in the next six months? No. If I had money to invest, would I put it in real estate, stocks, bonds, or bank savings? Was my company hiring or laying people off? I had already told the robot I was self-employed, but it didn't seem to have listened to me. It was as if my opinions didn't matter. 

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