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Six things we learned from election 2012

Elections teach valuable lessons.

This week we covered these topics:

1) In electoral politics, timing is everything.

2) In redistricting, the Golden Rule applies.

3) National news media (especially TV) are all about entertainment.

4) Don’t trust polls.

5) Especially partisan polls.

6) To really know what’s going on, people should broaden their sources of information.

Among other things.

ASKING VOTERS IN Dixon and Lee County to vote in November 2012 for an increase in the local sales tax ... well, the timing could not have been worse.

First, there was the lingering effect of a recession, during which people’s home values plummeted but their property tax bills did not.

Then there was that thing about the April arrest of a city official in Dixon over the misappropriation of $53 million of taxpayers’ money – a story that still hasn’t cooled down.

And, in the category of unforced errors, this tax referendum was trotted out in a presidential election – when lots of people would be voting.

If you want electoral approval of an unpopular idea such as a tax increase, you want your corps of committed and motivated voters to show up in an election with low turnout.

Your 6,135 votes don’t mean much when the question is answered by 15,000 voters.

But in a municipal election, you’ve got a good shot.

NEW DISTRICTS FOR Congress did no favors for Illinois Republicans.

Maybe that’s because they were designed by Democrats who control the Legislature. Thus, the Golden Rule: Those with the political gold make the redistricting rules.

The 2011 post-census maps helped to knock out five Republicans in the Illinois congressional delegation.

They included Don Manzullo, who got beat in the primary after being thrown into the new 16th District with another GOP incumbent, Adam Kinzinger.

And on Election Day, first-term Rep. Bobby Schilling lost in the reconfigured 17th District. Apparently, voters agreed with his support for term limits.

But if congressional redistricting hurt Republicans in Illinois, it saved the party on Tuesday from a political disaster on a national scale. That’s because in 2010, Republicans won control of legislatures elsewhere around the country (e.g., Pennsylvania, Wisconsin) that allowed them to draw district maps to their advantage.

Live by the sword, die by the sword.

HOW IS IT THAT the national media could not – or would not – foretell the Electoral College landslide that gave President Obama a second term?

Simple: A presidential landslide lacks the drama that attracts an audience.

The media – especially the entertainment medium of TV – love an interesting story, and a blowout is a bore.

So they overplay that one survey that suggests the race is neck-and-neck.

They emphasize polls that indicate a close race for the nationwide popular vote, without the context of explaining the outcome really involves electoral votes in only a handful of “swing states” – all of which Obama won.

They do stories on the “very real possibility” of an Electoral College tie, which would throw the race into the hands of a politically divided Congress.

Thrills! Chills! Suspense!

In short, they exaggerate the importance of their selective facts to create a compelling narrative about a close race.

And to keep you coming back for more.

HOW IS IT THAT professional pollsters could not foretell the Electoral College landslide that gave President Obama a second term?

Because a poll is basically bunk.

Different methods of gathering data, interpreting data, reporting data.

And every survey is outdated and irrelevant by the time all that gets done.

With a couple of exceptions.

On the day before the election, Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight poll gave Obama a nearly 90 percent chance of winning. That number had been high-70s, low-80s in the month before the election.

Another poll aggregator, the Princeton Election Consortium, gave the president probabilities of victory of more than 95 percent.

They were 100 percent correct. Silver correctly predicted the winner in all 50 states. His system of aggregated analytics considers several local, state and national polls to determine probabilities for victory.

Most individual polls, however, are worthless.

TWO MONTHS AGO, Congressman Schilling sent us a press release to boast that his poll showed him leading by 13 points over his Democratic challenger, Cheri Bustos.

Last week we received a statement from the Illinois Republican Party that reported its polling showed GOP congressional candidates were leading in several closely contested districts, including Schilling’s 17th.

They lost all of them but one.

Obviously, those polls were wrong – or wrongly reported.

Nothing happened in the past 60 days to turn a 13-point deficit into a 6-point victory for Rep.-elect Bustos.

Candidates use polls to project a confidence, an air of inevitability about their campaigns.

They fire up their friends and mess with the media with those phony baloney numbers.

Let the voter beware.

WE CANNOT BE sure where people get their political information.

But they ought to be skeptical of partisan sources – especially those that tell their audience what they want to hear.

A public figure in Dixon posted a comment on this newspaper’s website a few weeks ago to predict President Obama would lose the election by a “Jimmy Carter-like” landslide.

The day before the election, a poster reported (without attributing the source) that reliably blue Minnesota was “in play” for Romney in the presidential race. Obama won it by 8 points.

And on Election Day, another post boldly predicted Romney would win Illinois, Obama’s home state. He offered to bet “a cold one.”

On Thursday afternoon, a bottle of Sam Adams Octoberfest, wrapped in a note, showed up in the editor’s office.

“I hope you enjoy this taste of victory,” Jack’s note said. “... It tastes pretty good in defeat, too.”

People should be skeptical, even of news sources they trust. Remember, Reagan coined the phrase “Trust, but verify.”

People who watch MSNBC ought to change the channel occasionally to Fox News.

And Fox News viewers need to tune in to MSNBC from time to time.

Both groups will hear things they don’t believe – and don’t want to believe.

But they both will learn something.

We should all be able to drink to that.

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