When did polls become part of the tabloid gossip? Forget Paul McCartney’s divorce woes, we have numbers to debate! Every other day there are published results of scientifically dubious polls capturing the attention of even those only marginally interested in politics. I can make this assessment because of their prevalence on the local news, which nobody really watches for the political updates. That’s right, KATU, Fox, KGW and KOIN, I’m calling you out and saying that I really think your coverage of this election was and is hapless and pitiable, save the mention of a few polls brought out to increase the sexiness factor of campaign controversy.
Presidential speech writer Robert Orben once asked the important question, “Do you ever get the feeling that the only reason we have elections is to find out if the polls were right?” I would answer Mr. Orben by saying that the only reason we have polls is to undermine participation in elections. What functions are we ascribing to the polls in our decisions and rationalizations? Are they beneficial to the public at large, giving us major insight into how our neighbors think about the issues at stake? It is true that the answers to these questions are complicated and worthy of debate. For me, the simple answer is no.
Americans love to follow the breakdown of a good poll. We do not like answering the phone and actually taking the time to answer the questions of the monotonous voice on the other line, but we like a breakdown of the views of those around us so that we know where we fall on the spectrum. I do not think that polls leaning in either direction on a policy issue serve to change the ideas or decisions made by any individual voter. I do think, however, that by providing compiled information, pollsters do each candidate and issue a disservice.
The election cycle is as sadistic as it is incendiary, inflaming passions ignited by either thoughtful participation or anger at the television break from regularly scheduled programming. The democratic process mandates citizen participation by casting votes on issues and persons. Does this participation include answering the phone to participate in polls conducted by special interests/candidates/advocacy groups/public service polling institutions? I don’t think so.
Political scientists outline four major ways that governments attain legitimacy. These include the citizenry accepting governmental authority because of the government’s ability to produce results. The problem with this reality is that when the tables are turned and governments look to validate the wishes of the public, they assume that public opinion polls are the quintessential way of attaining a collective yes or no on questions of policy.
What purpose do pre-election day numbers serve in predicting victory or loss? Is it in the best interests of the losing party to release polls, resigning themselves to the potential for loss? Of course it is. If supporters of Ron Saxton were to, hypothetically, cry wolf and report that he may lose, Democrats might see this as an opportunity to not brave the rain and either recycle or file their ballot, feeling safe in their non-participation. This is where polling does its dirty deed by decreasing the virtue of massed-based voting. Polls make us forget that just as important as results are the statistics for voter turnout. This is nowhere more true than for students.
The National Council on Public Polls has laid out 20 questions that journalists should ask about polls before being comfortable enough to report on them. My personal favorite is the question, “what kind of factors can skew poll results?” Besides all the technical factors, such as sample size, margins of error, and question wording, there is also the problem of context. Questions posed at the height of a campaign season can be put into context many different ways, but it may be most valuable for participants to create their own context. What are the values and beliefs you want to see advanced in government? I know this may lead to the absence of big-picture considerations and this is why our democracy is merely representative and not direct.
Is the anticipation of Election Day getting to be too much for us? I know that my internal roller coaster learns a new triple flip and sends my emotions topsy-turvy every time the pendulum swings either way on Measure 43. Election results are not supposed to have margins of error, but political junkies live and breathe for the chance that their causes will be won.
These are the last days, folks. Depending on when this article is published, you may or may not know the election results, and are either partying like it’s 1999 or comatose in your living room, channeling the end of the world because a little too late do we find out that these neo-con Republicans really do hate freedom. Either way, if you have voted, pat yourself on the back. Oh, and don’t forget to listen for the phone. Somebody, somewhere, wants to poll your reaction to Election Day revelations.