Political pollsters sitting out the holidays in Georgia

The Senate run-offs in Georgia are attracting a lot of attention but pollsters are largely not participating:

Photo by Nate Hovee on Pexels.com

After a disastrous November election for the polling industry, when the polls again underestimated President Donald Trump (who lost regardless) as well as GOP candidates down the ballot, pollsters are mostly sidelined in the run-up to the Jan. 5 Georgia elections, which most observers regard as toss-ups.

The public polls that drove so much of the news coverage ahead of November — and generated tremendous distrust afterward — have all but disappeared in Georgia, and they are set to stay that way:Some of the most prolific, best-regarded media and academic pollsters told POLITICO they have no plans to conduct pre-election surveys in Georgia…

Part of the reason public pollsters are staying away from Georgia is the awkward timing of the races. With the elections being held on Jan. 5, the final two weeks of the race are coinciding with the Christmas and New Year’s holidays — typically a time when pollsters refrain from calling Americans on the phone. The voters who would answer a telephone poll or participate in an internet survey over the holidays might be meaningfully different from those who wouldn’t, which would skew the results.

Most major public pollsters are choosing not to field surveys over that time period, but the four campaigns don’t have a choice in the matter. The closing stretch of the races represents their final chances to shift resources or make changes to the television and digital advertising — decisions that will be made using multiple data streams, including polling.

Trying to reach members of the public via telephone or text or web is already hard enough. Response rates have been dropping for years. New devices have new norms. Figuring out who will actually vote is not easy.

Imagine trying to get a good sample during the holidays. On one hand, more people are likely not working and at home. On the other hand, this is time for family, getting away from the daily grind, relaxing. How many people will want to respond to talk about politics? Add in the post-national election letdown, COVID-19 worries, and this could be an extra challenging task during December 2020.

I know answering the door is not in vogue, even before COVID-19, but I wonder how well a door-to-door strategy for polling in Georgia might work. Such an approach would require more work but the races are limited to Georgia. Given that people are likely to be at home, this could reach some people.

Not hearing the same 20 Christmas songs over and over in public spaces this year

Part of the collective effervescence of Christmas activities involving other people is the music. If people are out shopping, eating, looking at lights, watching festivals and tree lighting and other Christmas and winter activities, they are likely to hear Christmas music. The sounds are unmistakable and are a key part of the holiday season.

Photo by Negative Space on Pexels.com

At the same time, many of these locations play the same songs – and even the same versions – of Christmas songs over and over again! How many times have you been shopping and heard “Holly, Jolly Christmas,” “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” and “All I Want for Christmas is You”? Or heard the same songs on the radio? Or on TV or in movies?

Why this happens makes some sense. Many of these Christmas favorites come from an era, the 1930s to the 1950s, that induces nostalgia. Music helps bond people together. The familiar can be comforting. When people think of Christmas, the music is part of it. The ritualistic nature of the holiday where patterns repeat year after year is part of the appeal of Christmas and rituals.

As sociologists argue there is “civil religion” in the United States, perhaps these popular songs reflect what we might call “civil Christmas.” The songs are generally about good cheer, parties, happy characters like Santa and Rudolph, getting together. The songs played in more public settings tend not to refer to the religious nature of Christmas but rather elements of the holidays that could appeal to many. The songs are about a lengthy celebration…and who is opposed to at least a month of cheery music and festivities right around the darkest days of the year?

Perhaps the Christmas public music canon will expand in the future. New songs might be added here and there while others let go (see the debate over “Baby It’s Cold Outside” in recent years). There is no shortage of songs to choose from or artists and styles for familiar songs. (I say this after working for years at Wheaton College Radio where we featured over 2,000 songs in our 24-hours-a-day Christmas music rotation. Listen to a reconstituted live stream of WETN Soundtrack for Christmas.) Regardless of whether the music stays the same or we all retreat to our headphones for our personal Christmas playlists, the music will continue to matter as we prepare for and celebrate Christmas.

Even Lucy Van Pelt knows the value of getting into real estate

To close a scene of A Charlie Brown Christmas, Lucy Van Pelt explains what she really wants for Christmas:

A Charlie Brown Christmas

Lucy: Don’t worry. I’ll be there to help you. I’ll meet you at the auditorium. Incidentally, I know how you feel about all this Christmas business. Getting depressed in all that. It happens to me every year. I never get what I really want. I always get a lot of stupid toys and a bicycle or clothes or something like that.

Charlie Brown: So what is it you want?

Lucy: Real estate.

In addition to the words of Lucy, I recently heard a famous person describe their interest in real estate this way: “they aren’t making any more of it.” I have heard some variation of this numerous times in life. Since there are limits on how much real estate can be had, this can push prices up in places where there is high demand and limited property. (Of course, humans are pretty good at finding ways to create more real estate – think in-fill in many coastal cities – or finding financial opportunities out of what exists.)

If you have resources, real estate can be a good investment. Not only might you be able to use the property while you own it or gain money from its particular use, its resale value could be good. But you have to start with real estate or have the capital to get into real estate to reap the rewards down the road. Not all real estate is desirable – see a recent overview of some such properties in the Chicago area – even as many Americans assume that purchasing a home will pay off in the end.

And perhaps this hints at Lucy’s frustration. She keeps getting Christmas gifts for kids when she really wants to get ahead. Real estate would be a unique but wealth-building present. Forgot those ads with a car in a bow in the driveway: Lucy wants a property deed under the tree.

Missing the collective effervescence of Christmas shopping this year

Americans like shopping. And this year, even amid COVID-19, the shopping will go on. But, it will take a different form for many as the busy stores and shopping malls will be replaced by online shopping and shopping trips intended to avoid contact with people.

There are two components to shopping at Christmas time. First, Americans generally favor consumerism and can make commodities out of lots of things. Second, shopping can involve being around other people. In a large society where private lives are the norm, shopping near people in an excited holiday atmosphere feels like being part of something bigger. Even if you have no interactions with anyone else outside of your shopping group, simply being in the same time and place can be exciting.

Just as religious rituals can produce collective effervescence according to sociologist Emile Durkheim, so too can Christmas shopping. It may be based on consumerism, have no touch of the transcendent, and involve no direct social interaction with other people. Yet, shopping at Christmas is a different kind of experience than shopping for different kinds of items at different times of the year.

Shopping online produces no such collective effervescence. A person and a screen. The social energy is limited. Of course, one could head to social media to share their online shopping exploits. But, it is not the same as being physically near to other people in a space designed to push you toward Christmas cheer and more spending.

Millions of dollars flying out of the King of Prussia Mall

Recently walking through the King of Prussia Mall at Christmas time, I was struck by multiple sights: the variety of shoppers, the Christmas cheer and decoration, and the number of possible activities in and around the mall. Yet, none of these could compete with my biggest realization that day: just how much money was flowing in and out of the mall.

The King of Prussia Mall is one of the biggest in the United States , is in the top 10 of malls by sales, and it helps anchor an edge city roughly twenty miles northwest of Philadelphia. It is a site to behold, particularly after an addition a few years ago that connected the two halves of the mall and added a new row of upscale retailers.

But, the biggest goal of the mall is to generate sales and profit. And it looked like the mall was doing just fine on the day I visited. Many shoppers had bags on their arms or strollers. Multiple stores I went into, ranging from smaller retailers to large department stores, had people perusing the racks and shelves. The type of stores at the mall and the people aiming to go into them also hint at the money consumers were willing to spend. With each American estimated to spend a little over $900 on Christmas gifts, the King of Prussia is a good place to spread that cash around.

The commercial activity around Christmas at this mall also hints at the future of shopping malls in the United States. Some malls might last longer than people think, particularly those located in wealthier areas and with a concentration of wealthier stores and a variety of opportunities (retail ranging from Dick’s Sporting Goods to Nordstrom’s to Primark and including restaurants and entertainment). The King of Prussia Mall is a destination mall, likely drawing visitors from a wider region than most malls.

And with all that money flowing around the mall that day, most people looked happy to be spending and enjoying the sights. I suppose those with fewer resources or anti-capitalists might not go to such an upscale mall in the first place but the whole scene looked like an advertisement for capitalism: spend freely in an impressive mall at Christmas time. What could be more American than that?

Cities standing in for other cities in films and TV shows

A longer discussion of how holiday films treat big cities includes information on where these films are made:

The irony, of course, is that these movies that portray the cruel hustle of big cities and the virtues of small-town life are filmed in big cities that get high marks for livability. Christmas Town, like many products of the holiday rom-com industrial complex, was shot in the made-for-cable Christmas movie wonderland of Vancouver, British Columbia, which boasts an abundance of studios and proximity to a variety of urban and rural shooting locations. Vancouver is also a perennial high-scorer in urban happiness and well-being rankings, a place that Canadian journalist Charles Montgomery singles out for praise in his book Happy City. (As this first-hand report from the Christmas Town shoot reveals, conditions on set were somewhat less magical: Filmed on a suburban backlot during a heat wave, the movie used leftover ice from Vancouver’s fish markets as a stand-in for snow.)

Other films rely on Toronto, another Canadian metro with enviable livability scores, to play the urban heavy; while certain landmarks may stand out to local viewers, the mostly American Christmas-movie audience is none the wiser. They’re too busy inhaling the on-screen, small-town romance that Hallmark and its kin have carefully crafted to make us believe miracles happen—just not in the big city.

Many films are made in these locations given the cost of filming in Canada versus the United States as well as the ability of these Canadian cities to stand in for many American cities.

Instead of looking at just holiday films, how many American viewers notice anything amiss when they are actually looking at Vancouver and Toronto on the screen? Would they even notice? Between the use of different cities plus the use of backlots, a good number of television shows and films may include very few to no shots from the location depicted on-screen.

Does this matter in the long run for viewers? On one hand, not at all. Relatively few on-screen depictions of places actually involve much unique material from those places. Think of the average television show: the activity largely takes place within buildings – homes, offices, restaurants/coffee shops, and the like – and involves a limited set of characters. The show may be set in a prominent location yet it could take place in any large city (outside of some establishing shots or an occasional reference to local culture). On the other hand, seeing deplaced places – generic cities and neighborhoods – suggests every place is similar. Does it matter that Full House took place in San Francisco or How I Met Your Mother took place in New York City? Not really. An on-screen big city is largely like any other on-screen big city.

If holiday films need generic cities and neighborhoods, Vancouver and Toronto can work. If they truly wanted unique locations and let those locations help drive the plot – such that a story from Omaha would differ from one in Phoenix or Charleston – then the movies themselves would be richer and more complex.

Exterior Christmas decorations a symbol of class status?

I have considered how a well-kept lawn and a yard devoid of weeds and autumn leaves are symbols of social class. Are Christmas decorations similar markers?

I would say the majority of suburban single-family homes feature no exterior Christmas lights. By that measure, having lights is not the same as having a neat lawn. In many suburban neighborhoods, it is a necessity or requirement to keep one’s lawn cut to a reasonable height. Of course, people of certain means or tastes can take more care of their lawn and landscaping beyond just the basics of what is required. Similarly, many homeowners will take care of many of their leaves while those who desire to get rid of every leaf will take the extra steps.

Perhaps Christmas lights then are more like dealing with weeds. The homeowner who wants to keep up their property values and/or contribute to the appearance of the neighborhood will eliminate weeds before they even sprout (rather than addressing the issues as they arise). Christmas lights are a nice touch but not necessary in the same way as a green lawn.

Christmas lights may not function in the same way as these other exterior touches for several reasons:

  1. The Christmas season is relatively short. Some might get a head start on lights and decorations before Thanksgiving but the full seasons of lights is probably about six weeks long (Thanksgiving through New Year’s). In comparison, people have green lawns and growing plants for months.
  2. Not many homes are sold at this time of year, particularly in colder climates, compared to other months, particularly the early Spring to mid-Summer window. Thus, Christmas lights have a more limited impact on property values (and may not be remembered much at other times of the year except in egregious cases for distasteful decorations or displays that draw too much attention).
  3. Not everyone celebrates Christmas. (I suppose the flip side of this is that many homeowners celebrates lawns or nature or spring/summer or something like that. Or, maybe they are just bored.)
  4. There is not the same cultural importance on Christmas decorations for homes compared to the long-standing interest in having a green lawn from the beginning of suburbs to Levittown to today.

In sum, Christmas lights and decorations do not matter as much as lawns as markers of social class and property values. Those with more resources can put together larger displays and might veer toward more aesthetically pleasing displays than those without resources or different tastes. Given the commercialism of Christmas and the decreased emphasis on lawns, could there one day be more interest in Christmas decorations than a well-maintained lawn? This is a long shot…

“Why Parents Can’t Resist Buying…the Hottest Gifts”

A sociologist discusses the compulsion parents across social classes feel to purchase the season’s hottest gifts:

After observing and interviewing children and parents from a range of socioeconomic backgrounds, Pugh published “Longing and Belonging: Parents, Children, and Consumer Culture” in 2009, which explored commercial culture and how it relates to economic inequality and community. Since then, the spending trend hasn’t let up – even through the recession – and she typically fields media calls around this time of year on the topic.

Parents often have trouble deciding what to do in response to their children’s “I want’s,” Pugh found when she studied a range of families in Oakland, California. She found that both affluent and low-income parents disliked the pressure they felt to buy the most popular gifts for their kids; affluent parents were worried about giving in to materialism, while low-income parents knew that popular items cost money they would prefer to spend on household essentials…

Affluent parents often said they were uncomfortable about buying the latest popular items and they didn’t want their children to be so materialistic. Nevertheless, even if they decided to forego a certain product – which Pugh calls “symbolic deprivation” – they bought a lot of other things for their children that they thought added to what’s perceived as a good childhood.At the other end of the spectrum, lower-income parents were willing to forego some basic needs at times to buy products for their children, to show that they were capable of fully caring for their children – which Pugh called “symbolic indulgence.”

Wanting to belong – or on the flip side, not to be left out – is a powerful human motivator. And what American parent wants to be held responsible for their kid not fitting in? Arguably, this sort of logic drives much consumerism: as a number of scholars have shown, companies decades ago shifted advertising from emphasizing what products could do to what lifestyles were associated with having the product. Do you need the latest smartphone because it has such revolutionary technology or you do you want to be seen as part of a certain group? Do you need the clothing with the brand label to signal your status or to cover yourself?

It would be interesting to follow some of these same families to see how these choices about buying the hottest gifts influences children. Does it lead to more materialistic attitudes and behaviors? Do families who do not purchase such items encourage different kinds of behaviors?

Buy friends and families barrels of oil for Christmas

I’ve thought about this before…

Oil prices continued to fall today, with two different measures of the commodity’s price hitting five-year lows. Oil can currently be had for $64.10 a barrel in some circumstances.

A barrel of oil is 42 gallons.

Who do you know that could use 42 gallons of freshly drilled oil? Everyone! Oil is important for producing energy, which powers cars and flat-screen televisions through a scientific process known as “pushing the button on the remote control or turning the key in the ignition.”

And what season is it? Christmas season! The season for giving things to people. Do you see where I’m going with this? Oil is this year’s hottest and most affordable Christmas gift.

The practical issues are immense – how would an individual refine the oil? how many people could easily store the barrels? These barrels can’t exactly be bought and sold at Walmart – but it is hard to argue with giving people something they need. Why give superfluous gifts when every driver could use cheap oil?

What a sociologist learned about giving Christmas gifts from Middletown

Middletown (Muncie, Indiana) holds a special place in American sociology though the findings of two 1970s studies (ASR and AJS) about giving Christmas gifts based on the community are not as well known. Here are a few selections from the two articles:

“The 110 respondents in the sample gave 2,969 gifts and received 1,378 gifts, a mean of 27 given and 13 received. Participants in this gift system should give (individually or jointly) at least one Christmas gift every year to their mothers, fathers, sons, daughters; to the current spouses of these persons; and to their own spouses. By the operation of this rule, participants expect to receive at least one gift in return from each of these persons excepting infants…Gifts to grandparents and grandchildren seem to be equally obligatory if these live in the same community or nearby, but not at greater distances. Christmas gifts to siblings are not required.

Parents expect to give more valuable and more numerous gifts to their minor children and to their adult children living at home than they receive in return. This imbalance is central to the entire ritual. The iconography of Middletown’s secular Christmas emphasizes unreciprocated giving to children by the emblematic figure of Santa Claus, and the theme of unreciprocated giving provides one of the few connections between the secular and religious iconography of the festival-the Three Wise Men coming from a distant land to bring unreciprocated gifts to a child.”…

“Most of Middletown’s gift giving occurs between close kin…the pattern it displays shows up the two principal points of stress in the contemporary American family. The first point of stress is the insecurity of the spousal relationship. Viewed cross-culturally, the contemporary American family is unusual in exhibiting a very high level of interaction between spouses while permitting easy, almost penalty-free divorce at the initiative of either spouse at any point in the life cycle. Since divorce is always more than a remote possibility in a Middletown marriage, the relationship with affinal relatives [in-laws] is always a little uneasy.

The individual message [of a gift] says, “I value you according to the degree of our relationship” and anticipates the response, “I value you in the same way.” But the compound message that emerges from the unwrapping of gifts in the presence of the whole gathering allows more subtle meanings to be conveyed. It permits the husband to say to the wife, “I value you more than my parents” or the mother to say to the daughter-in-law, “I value you as much as my son so long as you are married to him” or the brother to say to the brother, “I value you more than our absent brothers, but less than our parents and much less than my children.” These statements, taken together, would define and sustain a social structure, if only because, by their gift messages, both parties to each dyadic relationship confirm that they have the same understanding of the relationship and the bystanders, who are interested parties, endorse that understanding by tacit approval.”

This is not the first time the media has discussed these studies but I do give credit for actually let the sociological studies speak for themselves. However, there should be a demerit for titling the web page “Christmas gift exchange: The anthropological rules beneath it.” This is based on sociological studies – these disciplines are not the same thing!

I suppose this could be a case where someone would read this and say this is all obvious. Isn’t sociology just common sense? Yet, even these small excerpts reveal some interesting findings. Physical distance matters, particularly when you get beyond the nuclear family. Additionally, Caplow notes that gift-giving between spouses is laden with meaning that can either support or undermine a marriage. While I suspect the kinds of gifts exchanged in the late 1970s might have shifted today, Caplow found money could generally be given one-way from older family members to younger family members, but not in reverse.

Considering all the hoopla surrounding Christmas in the United States and elsewhere around the world, it is a little surprising more sociologists don’t study Christmas behaviors and patterns…