A World Without Polls

How often have you heard someone ask what life was like before cell phones, or TVs, or the Internet? Here’s another one: what were politics like before public opinion polls?

Polling is ubiquitous these days, especially in political campaigns. It’s hard to imagine the news media and the chatterclass functioning without polls. And they give those of us who follow politics like a spectator sport with near instantaneous information on who’s up or down, in or out, and which issues have “traction,” and which won’t last a single news cycle.

Is that a good thing?

Well-designed polls from reliable organizations can present a reasonable snapshot of public opinion towards candidates and issues. Polls conducted by or for news media organizations also provide additional content for each day’s news cycle, as this example shows.  The New York Times’ political coverage is supplemented virtually every day with polling data from researcher Nate Silver.  His reports serve as a kind of daily racing form enabling political junkies to handicap election contests. Polls also clearly the power of immediacy. They can, for example, provide virtually feedback on a candidate’s debate performance; Gerald Ford’s startling assertion in 1976 that Poland was not under the thumb of the Soviet Union generated an immediate negative reaction in polling, and helped sink his candidacy. Newt Gingrich apparently won this year’s South Carolina GOP primary for challenging a CNN moderator about charges of marital strife, polls immediately showed. On the other hand, polls can be wrong, or misleading or — worse — manipulative. Much depends on the size of the polling sample as well as its demographic variety. This presents challenges to pollsters, especially those who rely on telephone sampling. Lots of people these days no longer have landline phone service, and mobile phone numbers are difficult to obtain. Ethnic and racial diverse audiences are typically under-represented, while seniors are over-represented. Independent research also has demonstrated that poll respondents often repeat inaccurate information they’ve read or heard and then cling to their misconceptions even when the correct information becomes available. “People recall facts that support their beliefs, and don’t recall facts that contradict beliefs,” says Leo Simonetta, a social psychologist and director of analytics for the Art & Science Group, a Baltimore-based education consultancy.

Polling, no matter how well it’s done, replaces the visceral nature of campaigns with detached “ojectivity.” It gathers and collates the opinions of people — thousands of them — and yet most polls seem strangely impersonal, with thoughtfulness, emotion, hesitation and insight scrubbed out of the data. It’s much harder as a result to find detailed candidate profiles, of the kind that Joe McGinniss or Tom Wicker used to write “from the back of the (campaign) bus.” When I covered politics many years ago, my editors insisted that I spend time driving and flying around with the candidates, and write about what I saw, heard and felt. It wasn’t important to predict who would win.  Rather, my job was to give readers an insight into the candidates, and help them answer the question: would you have this guy over for dinner?

In any event, public opinion polling here to stay. It does makes you wonder, though, what it must have been like back in the days when, without polling to foreshadow the outcome, people didn’t have a clue who was going to win on election day. Not knowing was a lot more fun.  Which is not a bad thing at all.

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