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A Modest Proposal

October 03, 1996 [ Printer-friendly version ]

I have a modest proposal. What if we stopped talking to pollsters?

Bear with me for a moment. What if all 270 million of us collectively decided to hang up the next time some stranger from a polling company interrupted our dinner with moronic questions like: "Do you describe yourself as very liberal/somewhat liberal/moderate/somewhat conservative/very conservative?"

Polls are polluting our political environment, and there is an urgent need to clean it up.

It is not pollsters themselves who are toxic. It's not even the way polls unduly influence election outcomes. Or the fact that they dominate the press coverage. No, the greatest threat to the body politic is that polls turn political leaders into slavish followers of the most shallow reading of the electorate's whims and wishes.

John F. Kennedy's administration was the first to be infected with the polling disease. "We were not unlike the people who checked their horoscope each day before venturing out," wrote Evelyn Lincoln, Kennedy's longtime secretary.

The 1976 election was the first time a presidential campaign was dominated by one pollster: Pat Caddell. "Jimmy Carter is going to be president because of Pat Caddell," said Hamilton Jordan, Carter's chief of staff. Caddell was also responsible for the greatest miscalculation of the Carter presidency -- his malaise speech of July 1979 -- but the world blamed Carter.

Bob Teeter was the first pollster to be named manager of a presidential campaign. The vacuity of the Bush campaign in 1992 owes a lot to Teeter's determination to poll every question before making a decision.

Likewise, the Dole campaign has no overarching vision but has instead "three top priorities" set and fine-tuned by extensive polling and focus-group testing: taxes, blaming Clinton for teen drug use and -- the most recent poll-driven addition -- attacking Clinton as a tax-and-spend liberal.

Clinton, with his scores of little plans, is pathologically addicted to polls and, unencumbered by principle, has no problem bending to their every dictate.

So the political landscape today is littered with politicians who never stop looking over their shoulders at the latest polls and whose motto seems to be "I'm their leader, I shall follow them."

But what we need are political leaders with the wisdom to see what does not show up in the polling data and the passion to work to create the consensus for it.

In the 1950s, Jacques Soustelle, a close aide to President DeGaulle, returned from Algiers, where he had taken an informal poll, and told the president that all his friends were bitterly opposed to his policies. "Changez vos amis (change your friends)," DeGaulle replied.

In that spirit and for the good of the American republic, we need to make answering pollsters' questions declasse. Since we cannot expect today's politicians to ever kick the habit on their own, we must focus on stopping the polls at their source. We the people are the source, and if enough of us stop talking to pollsters, we could force our leaders to think for themselves.

This task may be easier than it sounds because polls are already notoriously unreliable. Has anybody asked pollsters to explain how Dole moved in six weeks from 17 points behind to 2 a week later and then to 22 at the beginning of this month? These are swings of 20 million to 30 million voters!

And who exactly is talking to pollsters? Busy, productive people don't have time to answer silly questions for no money. It takes 7,000 calls to get a 1,000-person sample. How do pollsters allow for the fact that it may be only lonely people with too much time on their hands talking to them?

For those not ready to quit cold turkey, an intermediary stage could be making up answers. Of course, Americans have been doing that for years already.

Norman Podhoretz noted in 1981, for example, that Jews in New York could not bring themselves to admit to pollsters that they were for Ronald Reagan, and so they said they planned to vote for Carter, who failed to win a majority of Jewish votes.

Supporters of extreme candidates also lie. Who wants to admit they'll vote for David Duke? He in fact always draws more votes than his polling indicates.

And blacks are often loath to admit that they will not vote for a black candidate. When Doug Wilder was running for governor in Virginia in 1989, polls showed him with much higher support in the black community than his razor-thin victory implied.

Polling, you may say, is only a symptom of a deeper political crisis. Fair enough, but at least unlike the crisis of leadership, it is something that millions of us can do something about. Starting now. Starting tonight.

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