Problem With Polls
been wanting to weigh in for a while now on the negative—indeed,
the downright dangerous—impact that public-opinion polls are
having on our democracy, but have held off until the numbers
turned in John Kerry’s favor lest I be accused of following
in the footsteps of my Greek ancestors by killing the messenger.
But now that the post-debate figures have swung Kerry’s way,
let me jump on the chance to say: It’s time to pull the plug
on the media’s obsession with treating polling results as
if Moses had just brought them down from the mountaintop.
Over the last month, media coverage of the presidential race
has been driven by wildly vacillating poll numbers. For example,
Newsweek has Kerry going from 11 points down in its
Sept. 4 poll to 2 points up in this week’s poll, while Gallup
went from Kerry trailing by 14 points on Sept. 16 to dead
even on Oct. 4.
Of course, at the same time that Gallup had Bush 14 points
ahead, the Pew Center poll had the race all tied up; and now
that Gallup has Kerry pulling even with Bush, Pew has the
president holding a 7-point advantage.
But no one in the media says, “Hey, wait a minute. What’s
going on here? Both of you can’t be right!” They just dutifully
report the latest numbers and set out to explain what they
“mean”—without any attempt to account for the huge disparities.
After all, for the big swings in the Newsweek and Gallup
polls to be true, close to 16 million voters would have had
to change their minds. In four weeks’ time. Not even J. Lo
is that fickle.
Sure, Kerry was strong in the first debate and Bush was shaky—but
for that many voters to switch sides that fast, Kerry would
have had to deliver Osama Been Forgotten’s head on a silver
platter during his closing statement.
And, unless I really spaced out, that didn’t happen.
The dirty little secret of the polling industry is that, all
too often, its findings are based on flawed methodology and
Take that mid-September Gallup poll that found Kerry had plummeted
14 points behind Bush. It sure made it seem as if Kerry were
as good as done for, right? And that’s the way it was widely
reported by everybody, especially Gallup’s media partners,
USA Today and CNN. The problem is, the poll was absurdly
weighted in favor of GOP voters, assuming that on Election
Day 40 percent of those casting a ballot will be Republicans
and only 33 percent will be Democrats—a turnout breakdown
that will only happen in Karl Rove’s dreams.
Democrats have accounted for 39 percent of those voting in
the last two presidential elections, while Republicans accounted
for no more than 35 percent in either 1996 or 2000.
It’s like they say about computers: garbage in, garbage out.
With polls, it’s faulty data in, faulty findings out.
Yet polls are now firmly entrenched as the lingua franca of
political analysis. Dissecting the latest numbers is so much
easier than actually, y’know, digging for the truth. Cable
shows love turning the campaign into a horse race. And it’s
so much easier if you can parade fatuous numbers as hardcore
facts to prove Who’s Hot and Who’s Not.
Trouble is, these “snapshots of the electorate” quickly harden
into portraits, and, in the blink of an eye, guesstimates
become the conventional wisdom.
And in politics, as in sports, everybody loves a winner. Thus,
as soon as the pollsters delivered Bush his hyper-inflated
post-convention bounce, many of the Democratic faithful started
seeing the ghosts of Mike Dukakis and Fritz Mondale lurking
around every corner. By the same light, now that Bush has
supposedly hit the polling skids, the shadow of his Dad’s
one-and-done presidency has begun to darken the GOP base’s
These kinds of poll-induced mood swings can have a profound
impact on a campaign. The sense that a candidate is tanking—or
on a roll—can make the difference between a potential donor
making a contribution or keeping his checkbook in his pocket.
It can also tip the scales for a would-be volunteer deciding
whether to give up more free time to go door-to-door registering
voters or work the phones to get out the vote.
I saw firsthand the effect that manufactured momentum has
as I traveled around the country speaking. Again and again
last month, I was told by Kerry supporters that the gloomy
poll numbers hanging over their man’s campaign had made them
less likely to donate their time and money.
This is how polls morph from meaningless farce into potential
tragedy: self-fulfilling prophesies that end up making more
likely whatever results they predict while, at the same time,
undermining the democratic process.
But despite mounting evidence that poll results can’t be trusted,
pundits and politicians continue to treat them with a reverence
ancient Romans reserved for chicken entrails, ignoring the
fact that pollsters are finding it increasingly difficult
to get people to talk to them. Thanks to answering machines,
caller ID and telemarketers, polling response rates have plunged
to 30 percent—and lower. It’s pretty hard getting a good read
on the public’s opinion when people keep hanging up on you.
Plus, pollsters never call cell phones—of which there are
now close to 170 million. And even though most cell phone
users also have a hard line, a growing number don’t—especially
young people, an underpolled and hard-to-gauge demographic
who could easily turn out to be the margin of difference in
this year’s race.
Most important, no pollsters, no matter how polished their
crystal balls, really know who are going to be the likely
voters this November and how many of the unlikely ones are
going to turn out at the polls.
Our media mavens obviously know all this, but choose to ignore
it. Coming clean about polls would mean taking them off the
front pages and sticking them where they belong—back among
the horoscopes and comic strips.
And then what would the chattering class chatter about?
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