The Pollster Cometh: Just Say No

September 26, 1994|By DANIEL S. GREENBERG

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- As election day approaches, a reminder is in order about a virulent danger to healthy politics and even to democracy itself. The menace is opinion polling, a malady that regularly recurs like influenza. Fortunately, there's a universally available vaccine against polling that's as effective as medicine's best against disease.

The anti-polling potion is simply non-cooperation with the nosey intruders who seek to measure the preferences, fears and whims of the electorate. Political polling would perish if the targets of questioning declined to answer. And it would be seriously impaired if sizable numbers of voters gave answers that did not match their sentiments -- fibbed, in other words. Occasionally, enough voters balk or fudge their answers to leave the pollsters with egg on their faces the morning after, but this doesn't happen often enough.

Why shouldn't the citizenry cooperate with election polling, both the kind that sniffs out voter sensitivities about issues and the kind that predicts election outcomes?

One reason is that polling is the indispensable technique for the ersatz politics of our time, for finger-to-the-wind politicians whose persona and message are calculated and contrived on the basis what polls tell them will appeal to the voters. The traditional purpose of an election campaign is to expose the candidates to the voters, to reveal the values and goals of office seekers. But sophisticated polling techniques turn that process topsy-turvy by exposing the voters to the candidates.

Prior to the onset of polling as the radar of modern candidacy, messages were shaped and political cosmetics applied to maximize marketability. But with no reliable means of assessing the voters' feelings, candidates had to rely on a characteristic that's become scarce in the age of polling -- authenticity.

Polling has changed that. When Ronald Reagan ran for re-election in 1984, his pollsters found that his anti-abortion stance just wasn't playing well. So he muted it. Bill Clinton's addiction to navigating by the twists and turns of poll results has created justifiable puzzlement over what he truly believes in, apart from getting re-elected.

Along with creating synthetic candidates, polling also injures the political process by creating an aura of predestined outcomes to elections. A candidate with the money and backing to jump out fast in the early polls picks up the victorious look that can bring in even more campaign money and support. When the polls confidently predict the outcome of elections, as they regularly do, motivation for voting is diminished by a sense of inevitability. The mystery of declining voter participation is perhaps not so mysterious. When the results are foreordained, as polls seem to indicate, why bother to vote?

The public, in general, cooperates with the pollsters when they telephone to ask a few questions or show up at the door. Why is this so, when polling is no less intrusive than unwanted sales calls that draw a fast hang-up or a slammed door?

Probably because, for many people, the call of the pollster provides not only a sense of personal importance but also serves as a rare link to the political process: At last, someone wants to know what I think!

The reality of the matter, however, is that polling subverts rather than enhances the political process. It helps design candidates in the same way that soap is formulated -- by divining what the customers want. In fact, out of election season, many polling organizations thrive on commercial work, surveying consumers to determine what sells in the supermarket.

Little is required to undermine political polling -- just a respect for the sanctity of the electoral process and a determination to thwart those who are contaminating it.

Since polling is an expensive undertaking, pollsters strive to get by with as few calls as possible to reconcile economy and statistical accuracy. Each respondent is supposed to represent vast numbers of voters. In presidential elections, for example, 1,200 carefully selected adults around the country are statistical stand-ins for over 100 million voters.

The process is delicate and highly vulnerable to disruption. A refusal to answer mucks up calculations by raising the possibility of hidden intentions for voting day. Pollsters agonize over what the non-responders will do in the voting booth. Equally worrisome, a misleading answer can throw off the tally by a wide margin.

There's no reason for voters to cooperate with this plague on the electoral system. Fortunately, there are simple solutions.

Daniel S. Greenberg is a syndicated columnist specializing in the politics of science and health.

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