December 27, 2015

Paying Attention to Politics in 2016

English: Photo of Sen. Bernie Sanders overseei...
Photo of Sen. Bernie Sanders overseeing the signing of a labor agreement between the Coalition of Immokolee Workers and Burger King Holdings, parent of Burger King Restaurants (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Now that Christmas is behind us and the next war on Christmas probably won't start up until around July, we have the opportunity to refocus on more serious and relevant subjects. As we move into 2016, I suspect that one of these subjects will almost certainly be the upcoming U.S. presidential election. Although I have been paying attention, I have had a difficult time getting too worked up about it yet. Why? It seems unlikely to me that most voters have been paying much attention so far. This should begin to change soon, and that means that the polls will become a bit more meaningful. Time and time again, we have seen that early polling is rarely predictive of election outcomes. As we approach the primary season, polling data should start to mean something.

What I said above about most voters not paying much attention yet probably seems incongruent with what many of us have observed. When I visit Facebook using my blogging account, I see almost nothing but politically-oriented posts. This certainly makes it seem like people are paying attention. The same thing is true on Twitter, albeit to a lesser degree since I tend to unfollow those who do little more than retweet their preferred political candidates. How can I reconcile these observations with the suggestion that relatively few people are paying attention yet?

I have to remember that the people I am connecting with through these accounts are not representative of the voting public. They are far more likely to be liberals, atheists, humanists, and/or secular activists. And thus, it seems reasonable to expect that they are paying more attention to political issues that go hand-in-hand with these interests. I see much more political content from them year-round every year. In sharp contrast, I have seen very few politically-oriented posts on my personal Facebook and Twitter accounts this far ahead of the election.

But what about the rise of Donald Trump, the vast coverage he has been receiving from our news media, and his impressive position in the polls? Am I suggesting that relatively few people are paying attention to him? Yes and no. I suspect that much of the initial attention he received was due to a combination of the novelty of his campaign and the many absurd things that came out of his mouth. Those of us with an interest in politics certainly tuned in to see the spectacle. And with all the media attention Trump has received, many others who do not follow politics at least heard something about him.

And yet, I am convinced that those of us who are interested in politics and make an effort to follow political news this far ahead of an election make up a rather small proportion of the voting public. Most of my friends, family members, and co-workers have heard of Trump and are familiar with a handful of his most covered statements. Beyond that, they really haven't given him much thought. None are taking him seriously, and none expect him to be the Republican nominee.

Okay, okay! Surely there is one example where people are paying attention that shoots all this down quite easily: Bernie Sanders. Actually, I haven't found this to be the case. Unlike Trump, who has become someone with which almost everyone I know seems to have at least minimal familiarity, I know plenty of people who have little idea who Sanders is. If your experience on social media is anything like mine, you must find this hard to believe. I cannot go on Facebook even for a few seconds without seeing posts from so-called "Berniebots" (see note below) in my newsfeed. I have encountered only one person offline with this view of Sanders. Most of the Democrats I know offline will not vote in the primaries because they recognize the inevitability of Hillary Clinton and will support her in the general election.

I guess what I am getting at here is that my online world is not at all representative of the "real world" in the sense that the people I encounter online are nothing like those with whom I spend my time offline. Online, it is all about politics, atheism, and secular activism. Everybody is up to speed on which Republican candidate said something bigoted or scientifically backward this week. Everybody can tell you which candidate is leading in which poll. Offline, almost nobody seems to care. This may begin to change as we move closer to the primary elections, and that will be the point at which the polls start to take on some added meaning.

Note. One can be a Sanders supporter without being a Berniebot (or a Clinton supporter without being a Hillarybot). The point of the "bot" terminology is to indicate an irrational level of support and devotion that borders on fanaticism.