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This Michigan pollster goes beneath the surface of politics

Jun 30, 2016

This has been a surprising political year, to put it mildly, and there are still more than four months to go before the actual election. Whatever happens, it is safe to say that nobody a year ago really thought Donald Trump would be the Republican Presidential nominee.

Hillary Clinton was expected to be the Democratic choice – but nobody imagined that a grumpy old socialist named Bernie Sanders would do as well as he did. In fact, the biggest upset on the Democratic side this spring was Sanders’ stunning victory in the Michigan primary.

Conventional polls showed Clinton ahead by as much as a whopping 37 points. But one poll was very different.

Matt Grossman, the new director of Michigan State University’s Institute for Public Policy and Social Research showed the result was within the margin of error.

... other polls were relying too much on older models of who was most likely to vote, and hadn't taken into account how the electorate is changing.

When I asked him about why he was the only one who came close to getting it right, Grossman told me that the other polls were relying too much on older models of who was most likely to vote, and hadn’t taken into account how the electorate is changing.

There are reasons to think this wasn’t a fluke. The 37-year-old Grossman has a fast-growing national reputation as an expert on American political parties, the electorate, and on how policy is made and how interest groups impact the process.

So I went to see him yesterday to discuss how he sees the broader contours of this election and what’s happening in America.

Based on his research, there is good news and bad for both sides.

Grossman puts Trump’s chance of winning the election as no greater than about 25%, which is actually a little higher than the legendary Nate Silver gives him.

But Grossman doesn’t expect it to be a historic landslide, or for the familiar map of red and blue states to significantly change.

He also now gives Democrats slightly less than an even chance at taking back the U.S. Senate - and no more than a 10 to 15% chance of retaking the U.S. House of Representatives.

He also now gives Democrats slightly less than an even chance at taking back the U.S. Senate – and no more than a 10 to 15% chance of retaking the U.S. House of Representatives.

America, he told me, is a country that now has rough parity between the parties – though they have become very different.

Republicans indeed have become a primarily ideological party, while Democrats are, perhaps more than ever, a collection of interest groups.

Grossman has a new book that will be published in August called Asymmetric Politics, which shows not only how the parties are different, but how they work in practice.

That doesn’t mean we are necessarily doomed to dysfunction. Instead, his research indicates as a nation we are “philosophically conservative and operationally liberal.”

Americans like to denounce government, in other words, but see no contradiction in demanding their particular special benefits, he noted wryly.

But when liberals do manage to start new programs these days, they tend to use the tools of the free market to do it. For example, the Affordable Care Act, which relies on private insurers, not a single payer government system.

Grossman knows there may well be unforeseen developments in the next few months that may dramatically affect this race. He and his researchers are preparing to take two major polls in Michigan this fall. After his success this spring, I intend to pay close attention.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.