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Commissioned Polls: Is That Your Final Answer?

April 20, 2000 [ Printer-friendly version ]

It's bad enough that so much of our political discourse is shaped by the never-ending stream of media-generated polls -- Time/CNN, ABC News/Washington Post, Wall Street Journal/NBC News, etc., etc. -- but we now have the growing trend of polls commissioned by specific interest groups to prove that their agendas carry popular support. And thanks to the pollsters' manipulative mastery of their pseudo-science, favorable polling results are just 800 phone calls -- and a check -- away.

"When a group with an agenda releases a poll," says Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution, "you should not take it too seriously. There's ample opportunity in the design of questions to produce findings that are consistent with a group's general orientation." Simply by asking, for instance, "Given the choice, would you rather read this column or have a tooth drilled?" I could produce a result whereby 75 percent of you will "strongly or somewhat agree" that this is a great column.

Polls have in fact become an extension of public relations. Sometimes the target audience is the voting public, sometimes it's the chattering classes, and sometimes it's just one man -- the president of the United States.

That was the case when defense contractor Lockheed Martin commissioned Democratic pollster Mark Mellman to conduct a poll that concluded 56 percent of registered voters would support $2 billion being spent on "tracking planes to be flown in drug-producing areas." (I'm surprised the poll didn't also conclude that 82 percent of those 56 percent would be especially overjoyed if those planes were "Lockheed Martin P-3 tracking planes.") Lockheed's smart bomb was aimed directly at the White House, and it certainly hit its mark. Five months after this manufactured mandate was presented to the president, he proposed $1.3 billion in drug-war funding for Colombia. (Oh well, it wasn't the full $2 billion, but the Republicans sweetened the pot and a $1.7 billion package flew through the House last month.)

Another Mellman poll (he aims to please), this one released on April 3, was commissioned by Public Campaign. It showed that "two-thirds of the public favors comprehensive reform of the campaign finance system offering full public financing to candidates." Now I love Public Campaign and am delighted with these findings, but I give them no more credence than an NRA-commissioned poll "proving" that two-thirds of the public favor a gun under every pillow or a National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League poll "proving" that two-thirds of the public favor abortion on demand.

The bottom line is that when it comes to commissioned polls, whoever pays the piper calls the tune. Paging Mr. Mellman. "There are certain code words, red-button words that will generate certain results, even tiny little differences," says Matthew Robinson of the Claremont Institute.

"If you ask a tax question," continues Robinson, "and stress tax cuts vs. spending programs, people support tax cuts. If you focus on spending on education, the environment, Social Security and defense, you're going to get the opposite results. You go from 60 percent for tax cuts to 67 percent for spending programs." Hence my proof of your overwhelming support for this column. And for tax cuts. And for spending programs.

Another commissioned poll, released this week by Republican pollster Frank Luntz, was funded by YROCK.com, a Young Republican political Web site run by the district director for Rep. Bill Thomas (R-Calif.). YROCK's poll concluded that 42 percent of likely voters blamed youth violence on "the decline in quality time parents spend with their children," compared with 11 percent who singled out "access to guns." The poll's findings were touted under the headline "Americans Blame Parents, Not Guns, for Columbine and Other School Shootings." By "Americans" they are really referring to 800 Americans, polled by a Republican pollster paid by a Republican group clearly looking to back up Republican positions on gun control with a mandate from "The American People."

And when asked by YROCK to choose, an overwhelming 84 percent believe "greater involvement by parents in the lives of their children" would have a greater impact on reducing gun violence in schools, while only 14 percent believe "more gun control legislation" would have the greater impact. But why are we being asked to choose? Because the poll was conducted to make a point, not to mine the public's wisdom.

An "American Values" poll released by John Zogby last month turns out to have been half-underwritten by an anonymous donor. "I can't say who it is," Zogby told me, "but he publishes a newsletter in which he prints the poll's results." It's a safe bet that the newsletter would approve of the poll, according to which close to half of Americans chose "the breakdown of the family institution" as "the most important problem facing the nation in the next few years." That's a pretty impressive result until you look at the other choices respondents were offered: "Terrorism on U.S. soil," "Availability of guns" and "Possible Chinese aggression in Taiwan and the Panama Canal." Chinese aggression in the Panama Canal? Not exactly Topic A around the water cooler. They might as well have listed "bad TV reception" or "availability of quality guacamole" as options.

So next time you read a story trumpeting the latest stats on the will of the people, remember one more reason to discount the findings: who bought them. And it wouldn't be a bad idea if the media -- often fed PR polls as "exclusives" -- began to question the results instead of just lazily reprinting them.

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