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Some Things Never Change: The Unbearable Ludicrousness Of Polling

October 18, 2001 [ Printer-friendly version ]

The world has changed forever. That's what everyone has been saying, and saying again, since Sept. 11. In many ways, it's obviously true: Who would have thought that opening your mail without a hazmat crew standing by would qualify as risky behavior?

But some things, apparently, remain impervious to hijackings, bioterrorism or even patriotism. Like the media's indestructible infatuation with meaningless opinion polls -- and, far more ominously, our political leaders' continued reliance on polls as their primary means of making policy decisions.

Take the latest numbers that show President Bush enjoying a 92 percent approval rating. Or, as Cokie Roberts gushed on "This Week": "He's at the highest approval rating of any president in history ... Franklin Roosevelt didn't hit this level."

But FDR shouldn't feel too bad. Even the pollsters admit that, as the fine print in this week's Washington Post/ABC News poll put it, "Results of overnight polls that attempt to measure opinions about fast-changing news events should be interpreted with extra caution." In other words, the results are meaningless.

Or worse. Take this week's startling -- and widely reported -- finding that 83 percent of Pakistanis side with the Taliban in the current conflict. It was, we were told by Newsweek, CNN and assorted pundits, the result of a Gallup poll. Trouble is, it was "Gallup Pakistan" -- a dubious organization with absolutely no ties to the U.S. polling company.

But even if media outlets had not been warned by the real Gallup about the poll's reliability, shouldn't they have been skeptical of such an outrageous number and, at least, asked how the pollsters had got to it? Had they stopped by an anti-U.S. demonstration? Or had they randomly called any Pakistani who had recently purchased an American flag and some lighter fluid?

This willingness to treat the numbers with a reverence ancient Romans reserved for chicken entrails is standard operating procedure for both pundits and politicians -- and it often has disastrous consequences.

Back in May 2000, for example, a Zogby International poll asked Americans to name the most important issue facing the next president of the United States. Terrorism didn't even crack the top 10; it placed 16th, listed as the top concern by 0.4 percent of the people. And so our always-eager-to-please politicians led by following -- and allowed the safety and protection of the American people to slide.

Real leadership -- one driven by vision, not polls -- would have seen the iceberg lurking beneath the placid surface of our prosperity and found a way to turn that 0.4 percent into a new consensus. After all, the job of a leader is not simply to reflect current opinion but to challenge it, move it forward and shape it. Otherwise, we could just get rid of the president and move Mr. Zogby into the Oval Office. Why pay $400,000, plus security costs, for a middleman?

But tell that to our "leaders" in Congress, where Bush's chart-topping approval rating has given him almost complete protection against any criticism of his domestic agenda. The Democratic leadership has been cowed into silence -- even as the president is attempting to Trojan-horse his highly partisan political agenda -- including drilling in the Arctic, building a missile shield, and even more corporate tax cuts -- through the gate of this tragedy. Nothing about Sept. 11 made any of these policies less misguided. But in an effort to stand up to countries without free and democratic debate, the first thing we did was get rid of free and democratic debate.

So the off-the-cuff reactions of a small sampling of randomly selected adults who didn't have the good sense to hang up when pollsters called have silenced a less-than-brave opposition. This despite the fact that history shows that even soaring approval ratings are, at best, highly ephemeral. All the president has to do is ask his father, whose then-record post-Gulf War 89 percent approval rating had an even shorter shelf life than the new Daniel Stern sitcom.

And what of the 92 percent? Even putting aside the fleeting nature of poll results, what does the near-unanimous support for the president really mean? Are people signaling their approval of the man or the office or the country? For the leader we have or the leader we need him to be? Is it a vote for Bush or a vote for optimism?

Tellingly, in polls taken just after Sept. 11, two-thirds of those polled said the government was ill-prepared for the terrorist attacks. But the latest surveys show that over two-thirds think that the government is now "doing everything to prevent terrorism." Has the government really done a total about-face in the last month? Or are we just crossing our fingers?

A poll in Wednesday's USA Today seems to indicate that we are. It showed that "67 percent of Americans were satisfied with the way things are going in the country." Can you imagine a more meaningless finding? Anthrax spores are shutting down the Senate, the CIA is 100 percent sure there will be future terrorist attacks, and seven out of 10 of us are "satisfied"? Will a nuclear assault leave these folks "ecstatic"?

As the Army begins shipping body bags to Afghanistan in anticipation of the coming American casualties, one can only wonder how many of those bags will have to come back full before Bush's 92 percent rating makes like the NASDAQ and nose-dives back to earth.

The terrorist attacks have laid bare, once again, the danger of having leaders who can't even get dressed in the morning without consulting the latest poll numbers. And while the tragic events have clearly provided our 92 percent president with an aura of heroic leadership, they have also cast in high relief the deficiencies inherent in the system from which he sprang.

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