Polling in the final week before the US election yesterday suggested that Joe Biden would win the popular vote by a landslide. The Real Clear Politics average of all polls suggested that Mr Biden possessed a lead of 7.2 points over Donald Trump. Poll results from YouGov, CNBC, Quinnipiac, CNN and NBC all suggested an even greater lead at 10 points or more. Yet, earlier today, with over 130 million votes having been counted, Mr Biden led Mr Trump by just 1.4 points.

Regardless of the final result that we won’t have until later tonight (South Africa time) or even tomorrow, the existing data is sufficient to show that America’s polling efforts were again very far off and in important cases further so than in 2016.

What best explains this is a report released by the Cato Institute earlier this year which found that 62% of Americans hold political views they are afraid to share. According to Cato’s data, 52% of Democrats but 77% of Republicans agreed that ‘the political climate these days prevents me from saying things I believe because others might find them offensive’.

Cato further found that ‘strong liberals [author’s note: ‘liberals’, here, refers to the American understanding of the term, to mean left-wing/socialist – in South Africa the term ‘liberal’ means centrist, pro-markets, and so on] stand out, however, as the only group who feel they can express themselves’ and that ‘nearly 6 in 10 staunch liberals feel they can say what they believe’.       

According to Cato, even centrist thinkers in America feel pressured not to express their views, with the proportion feeling afraid to speak freely increasing from 48% in 2017 to 52% in 2020.

Should lose their job

The Cato research also found that over half of ‘strong liberal’ Americans believe that a person should lose their job if it is discovered that they had personally donated to Mr Trump (as opposed to 36% of ‘strong conservatives’ who felt that the same should apply to Mr Biden’s donors). Almost half of younger Americans (44% of those under 30) supported firing executives who donated to Mr Trump.

In line with the above, roughly a third of Americans expressed the worry ‘that their political views could get them fired or harm their career’. Democrats at 28% were less worried than Republicans at 38% that such a fate could befall them. Among Hispanic and white Americans, levels of concern were roughly twice as great as among African Americans. When broken down by race, almost two thirds of Latino Americans and white Americans (65% and 64% respectively) held views they were afraid to share as opposed to 49% of African Americans.

What is likely happening, here, is that leftist mainstream media reporting bias in America – when matched with corporate opinion and read against the influence of social media – has intimidated American voters, and chiefly Republican voters, to an extent that polling efforts no longer accurately reflect the views of the American public. It is deemed unacceptable to hold centrist or conservative views, and the gatekeepers of corporate and media opinion have become so vicious in their intolerance of these views, while retaining such a degree of media dominance, that a largely misleading image of public opinion in America is broadcast to world.

Similar affliction

A similar affliction exists in South Africa as IRR research efforts have reflected over several years, where support for opinions that the mainstream South African media and corporate South Africa proclaim as representative of public beliefs are in fact at odds with the beliefs of the broader public.

Our research into hot button issues from support for radical land reform and EWC, to more stringent BEE codes, racial preferencing in hiring practices (or the selection of national sports teams), and even political support for the ANC reveals that the beliefs articulated and promoted by South Africa’s mainstream media and larger corporations are increasingly at odds with actual public opinion.

In my own work, this is a problem that is cropping up ever more often as corporations (I spend much of my time briefing firms) reveal more reluctance than I have ever encountered, if not downright hostility, to having us brief their clients and even their management teams, given that some of the information we present – despite its being taken as given that the information is sound – is at odds with what mainstream media and many corporations regard as acceptable opinion.

Astonishing

It is commonplace for an executive to remark privately that he or she finds it astonishing that we would say that Cyril Ramaphosa may well fail in reforming South Africa, that the ANC may be on the verge of an electoral defeat, and that a comfortable majority of South Africans have no interest in radical and populist land and race policies.

Hence, as was the experience for many Americans this morning, corporations and their clients together with consumers of mainstream media opinion, become ever more distant from the facts about the trajectory of their country or economy and thereby expose themselves to the consequences of surprising and unanticipated results. 

To reduce that risk, the antidote is to maintain great scepticism of anything you read while consulting – even covertly…if you fear for your job! – the diverse array of non-mainstream media outlets (such as the this one) and the myriad of related podcasts and YouTube channels that have grown so quickly in South Africa. Collectively they are coming to serve a very important purpose.

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Image by Steve Buissinne from Pixabay

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Frans Cronje was educated at St John’s College in Houghton and holds a PHD in scenario planning. He has been at the IRR for 15 years and established its Centre for Risk Analysis as a scenario focused research unit servicing the strategic intelligence needs of corporate and government clients. It uses deep-dive data analysis and first hand political and policy information to advise groups with interests in South Africa on the likely long term economic, social, and political evolution of the country. He has advised several hundred South African corporations, foreign investors, and policy shapers. He is the author of two books on South Africa’s future and scenarios from those books have been presented to an estimated 30 000 people. He writes a weekly column for Rapport and teaches scenario based strategy at the business school of the University of the Free State.