We all know by now there were errors in the pre-election polls. While Joe Biden still scored a decisive win, there wasn’t the dramatic margin that many polls predicted. Part of the problem is that the task of sampling the population is getting harder and harder. A recent Washington Post article details how in just a few decades, the situation has gone from about one in five being willing to answer the phone and take a survey, to fewer than one in a hundred. Systematic public opinion researchers have responded by paying greater attention to demographics and stratification, on the assumption that a sample that matches the larger population’s demographics will still give you a good read on the population, even if the response rate is very low.
The problem is, that isn’t really true. The one person who answers the phone will likely differ from the ninety-nine who don’t in ways that aren’t neatly reflected in demographics. There is one group that seems to be posing a unique challenge in that regard: Those who are socially alienated. Daniel Cox, a researcher with the American Enterprise Institute, writes at FiveThirtyEight that this group arguably explains the error in 2020’s pre-election polls. Noting that the group is surprisingly large and growing, he states that they are also very hard to track, and much more likely to support Trump. Those who are socially alienated have very low levels of trust in institutions and are far less likely to participate in opinion polls. That means that researchers can create perfectly representative samples from a demographic standpoint and still not catch this group. In this post, I will share a bit about what we know of the socially alienated, and how their growing presence speaks to those who want to understand public opinion within a trial venue.
What’s Different About the Alienated?
Daniel Cox reports on research showing that nearly one in five Americans (17 percent) say that there is no one that they are close with. This amount has been increasing over the past decade. He writes, “What’s more, we found that these socially disconnected voters were far more likely to view Trump positively and support his reelection than those with more robust personal networks.”
These individuals are hard to reach in traditional sampling, but when they are found, their views end up being quite different from the rest of the population. Asking people to identify individuals with whom they had “discussed important personal matters or concerns” in the past six months, the researchers found that those reporting no such social ties at all skewed white and male and held substantially different views on a number of issues, including support of the outgoing President.
While the research will continue, there are good reasons to suspect that the differences go beyond presidential preference. “When Americans are more distanced from society, they become untethered to local and national institutions and are less invested in their continuing function.” Cox writes, “What’s more, they are more inclined to distrust political processes and believe they are serving illegitimate ends. And they may lose faith in the messy and plodding process of democratic change.” That suggests that they may lose faith in the messy and plodding jury process as well.
What Does It Do to Our Ability to Know the Public?
If you are trying to know your trial venue and make reasonable estimates of how they might see your case, this has some implications. Of the many ways to know your population — polling, community attitude surveys, focus groups, and mock trials — all depend to some extent on a representative sample. These tools then become more difficult to apply if the ability to obtain a representative sample is broken in a way that can’t be fixed through careful attention to demographics alone.
Cox notes that these results point to some trends that are worth paying attention to. He writes, “A lot of time will be spent over the next few years trying to explain the country’s growing social, economic and political problems, but we should not forget that political reforms and economic fixes are not going to address more fundamental problems of loneliness and social isolation in this country.” The emerging reality, which likely has been magnified by the isolation of our pandemic year, is that we may “increasingly have less insight into how a growing portion of the country feels.”
What Can Public Opinion Researchers Do About It?
It is possible that those who are isolated and cynical are also less likely to show up for jury duty, which would make their growing numbers more problematic for elections forecasting than for jury evaluation. But we probably cannot presume that. The answer is to try to know more about the growing population of socially isolated individuals. And there’s the rub, because what makes them different also makes them much harder to survey. Cox writes that many of the traditional tools for increasing survey response (like monetary incentives or longer interview windows) don’t clearly help in reaching the socially isolated. Public opinion researchers will continue to search for ways to account for this group. In the meantime, here are some practical suggestions for litigators wanting to know their venue:
Don’t Give Up on Public Opinion Research. As always, realize that you could have sampling error and take care in interpreting your results. But it is worth noting that the national polls did end up getting the election correct. Biden won; the polls were simply off on the degree of the win.
Ask About or Investigate Social Connections. As part of the overall psychological profile of a potential juror, it may make sense to ask about social connectedness (i.e. as part of a written survey) and to investigate it in social media research.
Think About the Ways Social Connections Could Influence Your Case. Is your case about trust or about a relationship? Those who have little experience with either are likely to think about it differently. The socially alienated may also be more prone to resisting instructions, assuming conspiracies, or magnifying the ‘personal responsibility’ burden. Thus, social isolation is one more factor to investigate in a mock trial.
Image credit: 123rf.com, edited by the author.