Sunday, November 13, 2016

USC/LA Times Poll: Lessons for Catholics

Polls and Human Behavior 

USC/LA Times “Daybreak” tracking poll got it right. For several months leading to the presidential election, they employed a method called “weighting” that proved to be more accurate than other polls. Instead of asking a black or white questions such as, “Who are you voting for?”, this method asked respondents to rank their support from 0 to 100 points. With this, the nuance of political leanings were more accurately measured.   

This poll also took into account demographics that are typically underrepresented in other major polls. One such sample was a 19 year old African-American male who supported Trump. He was thought to represent a small group of minorities that had an impact on the day-to-day polling results.  

What fascinated me was that the USC/LA Times team understood human behavior better than other pollsters. Scratching beneath the surface, they asked respondents who they think their neighbors voted for. Taking this factor into consideration was important because, just as with Brexit vote in the United Kingdom, people are reluctant to be honest with pollsters about who or what they are voting for; this, especially if the media is maligning one ballot pick over the other.  

Conformity is a powerful social phenomenon that should always be taking into consideration when measuring human behavior. But voting in secret throws off this human tendency because, after all, no one is looking when a ballot is cast. The USC/LA Times took these two factors into consideration. And it paid off! 

Another interesting observation was that the USC/LA Times  pollsters knew that their findings were at odds with most polling agencies. Yet, they stuck to their guns and did not waver. They trusted their polling methods even when their findings were derided by some political pundits. Keep in mind that the political narrative propagated by the media was that a Clinton victory was all but inevitable.  Refusing to travel down the path of least resistance, these pollsters trusted the numbers. Again, it paid off. 

Polls and Parishes: 

Now, you might be wondering why on earth a Catholic blogger would find this interesting.  There are two important lessons that can be gleaned from the USC/LA Times presidential polling for Catholics. 

For one, Catholic parishes are hemorrhaging members. And even though there are constants that cannot be changed at your average local parish e.g., liturgical norms and orthodoxy of doctrine, there are plenty of things that can. Hospitality, music and sermons are just a few of those things. 

With that said, from everything I know about Mass attendance decline and the precipitous drop sacramental participation nationwide, local parishes have every reason to make an effort to measure behavior as it relates to the three religious accommodations noted above. More often than not, people leave a parish, not because of what a parish offers, but how they offer it! The Mass is one good example. Are pastoral and parish leaders doing everything they can inspire a “wow” factor at their Eucharistic celebrations? Are they willing to try new music or solicit feedback about the sermons; especially from parishioners who know a thing or two about communication? 

Gauging people's political preferences is a legitimate science and a worthy endeavor. But getting feedback from people who once frequented a parish but no longer do so, is so much more important. Drawing from her vast philosophical and theological heritage, it can be argued that the Catholic Church understands human nature better than any other institution on earth.   Still,  she has been rather slow, at least at the local level, in using the insights from the human behavioral sciences (i.e. the ways in which USC/LA Times probed for honest answers from their polling respondents) to her advantage.  For instance, what methods can parishes use to gauge favorable or unfavorable responses to their hospitality, liturgical music and sermons? It is a question worth asking. 

The second lesson is for individual Catholics: The daily polling results from the USC/LA Times were at variance with other prominent polling agencies- including the conservative-friendly Fox News poll. Because of this, the USC/LA Times polling results were met with skepticism, if not, ridicule by their peers. Yet, they trusted their system and stuck to their convictions. In the end, they were right. 

Today, the Catholic Church is pressured by society to conform to a host of moral deviations. Same-sex marriage, transgender ideology, and, birth control accommodation are among the practices we are told we have to accept. With this, not a few Catholics have either publicly apologized for the moral teachings of the Church or have disavowed them altogether. There is no other way to say this except that this behavior is a kind of distancing from Jesus Christ himself. After all, it is he who revealed the truths about human nature as it is officially taught by the Catholic Church.. 

If the USC/LA Times poll can withstand the pressure by the media to conform to its narrative, then Catholics who passionately love and  follow Christ can do the same; this, knowing that they had been told the truth about these hot button issues by God himself. I know, without a shadow of a doubt, that when the dust settles, history will be on the side of Catholics who trust the teachings of their Savior; regardless what agenda the media and many of our public institutions push. 

St. Hilary, a Father of the Church who lived during a time when many Christians were denying the divinity of Christ, said this: "It is a prerogative of the Church that she conquers when she is persecuted, that she captures our intellects when her doctrines are questioned, that she conquers all at the very moment when she is abandoned by all." To be sure, this is a counter-intuitive statement that defies logic. But it happens to be the truth.  Even  Mark Twain remarked how often the world had turned out for the burial of Roman Catholicism, only to find it postponed yet again.”