The other exception? Election season.
Every two years — and especially every four, when we’re electing a president — individual Americans disappear, and we become subsumed into some larger group. Go to your favorite political blog, cable news channel or daily paper, and you’ll learn that candidates need to do better with African Americans or Catholics or (my favorite) women. Yes, women! They’re half of the population, but obviously they all share common beliefs and values.
So we learn that Mitt Romney is trying to “appeal to women” and improve his support “among evangelicals.” Rick Santorum is going after “working-class voters” and is not doing especially well with the “Catholic vote.” President Obama needs the “black vote” and “the youth vote,” but of course he, too, is “wooing women.” And everyone wants do better with Latinos. (I only hope these constituencies never find out about all this two-timing.)
In politics, it’s entirely acceptable to wonder aloud what black people want, how Hispanics think, or whether a new policy proposal would play well with women or people who go to church on Sundays. We feel comfortable reducing people in this way because such conclusions aren’t solely stereotypes, we tell ourselves — they are backed up by polling data.
There are bad pollsters in politics, hucksters who sound off on things they don’t know much about, but there are also some very good ones. I know some of them and trust their work implicitly. The best have spent years honing their craft, and the industry as a whole has gotten very good at what it does since its early days in the 1960s and 1970s. In that primitive time, you might have learned as much by doing hours of man-on-the-street interviews.
But as polling has become more sophisticated, we have come to invest it with powers it often doesn’t have. Those demographic segments morph into cartoon characters that we write and talk about when we want to explain the electorate.
So we have numbers telling us that Santorum is struggling among Catholics; he’s lost the Catholic vote in 10 of 12 states where Edison Research has done exit polls, despite the fact that he is Catholic.
And Latinos, it turns out, don’t like anyone in the Republican field. They favor Obama over Romney by 70 percent to 14 percent, according to a Fox News poll, though roughly a third say they would be more likely to vote for Romney if he chose a Latino running mate.